From time to time I find myself needing to revisit certain core ideas in A Course in Miracles. Such is the case with Atonement – which is simply the Holy Spirit’s plan end the illusion of separation. In what way is the course breaking with traditional Christianity and establishing some new theological ground? How should we understand – and bring into application – this essential concept?
First things first. Atonement is based on the verb “to atone,” which in English was most likely modeled on the Latin verb “adunare,” which means “to unite.” In the Latin, it is a combination of “ad” (which means “to” or “at”) and “unum” (which means one). To atone is to make reparations for a prior wrongdoing and as a result to be restored to an original state of union.
In a great deal of Christian theology, atonement was (and is, in many cases) presented as the reconciliation of God with all human beings as a result of the sacrificial death of Jesus. As Saint Paul noted, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3).
In other words, human beings – having grievously sinned by separating from God (and compounding that sin daily) – were obliged to make amends with God if they ever hoped to see the shinier sides of the Gates of Heaven. Jesus, through his suffering and death at Golgotha, covered this for all humanity.
This narrative of redemption through blood sacrifice has its antecedents in the Old Testament. The gospel writers were not ignorant of tradition! In Leviticus, for example, God orders Israel to set aside one day a year to be “the day of atonement” (Leviticus 23:27-28). On that day, people were to sacrifice an innocent animal in order to atone for their sins. The shedding of the animal’s blood “was brought in to make atonement” (Leviticus 16:27).
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11).
Centuries later, Jesus would become the symbol of the lamb – sacrificed so that through the spilling of his blood we might all atone and return to our original state of union with God.
Interestingly, it was Mary Baker Eddy who popularized a somewhat different take on atonement – shades of which can clearly be seen in A Course in Miracles. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Eddy wrote that the principle of atonement was the principle of oneness with God.
ATONEMENT is the exemplification of man’s unity with God, whereby man reflects divine Truth, Life, and Love. Jesus of Nazareth taught and demonstrated man’s oneness with the Father, and for this we owe him endless homage (18).
In A Course in Miracles, Atonement is the Holy Spirit’s corrective plan that undoes the ego. The Plan of Atonement came into existence after the belief in separation emerged. Its guiding principle is that the separation never happened and we remember this – and share it with others – through forgiveness (T-1.III.3:1). It explicitly rejects sacrifice of any kind (T-3.I.1:2).
This is the real insight of ACIM and in the text, Jesus insists that we not overlook it. We are asked to forever break the ties between suffering and atonement. The former is a symptom of the belief in separation; the latter is simply joyful. The crucifixion, by which our salvation was seemingly wrought, is merely an “extreme teaching example,” that serves to remind us what we are in truth is not bound by form and cannot be killed.
Fear is what keeps atonement at bay – not our unwillingness to repent, not the magnitude of our alleged sins, not the egregiousness of our errors. Just fear. We are scared of love, scared of God, scared of each other and scared of being scared. Crucifixion – that horrifying blend of torture and execution – long served as the symbol of our deep-rooted fear. In A Course in Miracles, we are urged to let that go.
God does not believe in retribution. His Mind does not create that way. He does not hold your “evil” deeds against you. Is it likely he would hold them against me (T-3.I.2:4-7).
Sacrifice – the idea that we must giving something up in order to get something else – is altogether foreign to God who neither thinks nor creates that way (T-3.I.4:1). When we begin to see this – and to accept it – the fear associated with torture and death (reflecting, of course, the “sacrifice” that Jesus allegedly made on our behalf) begins to dissipate. We begin to see that salvation, properly understood, is actually enlightening – that is, we are literally lightening our load by releasing unnecessary blocks and baggage and simultaneously allowing light into the interior landscape darkened by fear.
That releasing and allowing for light is really a metaphor for forgiveness, which in terms of A Course in Miracles simply means looking at our specialness – at what facilitates our seeming separation from God – with Jesus or the Holy Spirit. It is the willingness to gently allow for the possibility that our habitual modes of thinking and understanding are not functional and that another way is both possible and necessary.
When we invite the Holy Spirit (if you prefer your spiritual companions to be abstract) or Jesus (if you prefer them to be quite specific) we are trying to see beyond what separates us – bodies, jobs, attitudes, income tax brackets, houses, cultures. We are trying to go beyond finding fault in the externals and instead accepting its origins as internal.
Thus, when we “atone” in A Course in Miracles we are not really forgiving people for being troublesome or mean or selfish or violent. We are really forgiving ourselves for the belief that we are separated from God. The external wrongdoings are projections that reflect our own interior horror show. Forgiveness is the means by which we see the illusion for what it is, and thus let it go, and perceive instead the Love that lies beyond it.
Forgiveness lets the veil be lifted up that hides the face of Christ from those who look with unforgiving eyes upon the world. It lets you recognize the Son of God, and clears your memory of all dead thoughts so that remembrance of your Father can arise across the threshold of your mind (W-pI.122.3:1-2).
Forgiveness is personal. Though our demons and devils arises from the same error (the belief that it is possible to separate from God and that we did separate from God), they assume forms and modes that are unique to us. They show up in the world of separation, which is the world of variability and change. This is why I often say A Course in Miracles meets us where we are: it doesn’t matter what your problems are or how you prefer to talk about them or how you conceive of solutions.
Atonement is not contingent on form – it will assume whatever form is most helpful at a given time and place. In truth, the atonement is perfect love (T-2.VI.7:8) which always adapts itself to circumstance, forever taking the language and structure that is most suited to the shared experience of those extending and receiving it (T-2.IV.5:1-3).
We undertake Atonement in here in the world because it is “the natural profession of the children of God” (T-1.III.1:10). And Jesus assures us that once we accept the gig, we aren’t going to hurt for material.
You have a role in the Atonement which I will dictate to you. Ask me which miracles you should perform (T-1.III.4:2-3).
I was a lucky kid growing up in the Catholic church because a lot of my teachers – priests, parents, catechism leaders and later professors and monks and nuns – tended to dwell on how much God loved me. Even Jesus’ death on the cross was presented as a loving gesture. He would suffer and die for me – who else was willing to do that?
Yet that message of love was often in conflict with the imagery and language that was presented in other settings. I would sit in the pews and look at the crucifix – this poor broken and bloody body and think, man, I would never have asked him to do that for me. Nobody should have to suffer like that. What kind of God are we talking about here?
It is not really possible to talk about a God of Love – or say God is Love – while simultaneously preaching that only the shedding of blood through torture and execution can lead one to that God. In the end, it is a message torn between perfect love and perfect horror.
A Course in Miracles neatly resolves that. It is not everybody’s spiritual path, nor should it be, but it is a pretty consistent and elegant one. Atonement is natural and effortless. We ask Jesus and the Holy Spirit to help us practice forgiveness. No more than that is required. Our willingness to practice – and our faith that our learning is in better hands than ours – is what finally allows us to see the folly of self-reliance.
You always choose between your weakness and the strength of Christ in you . . . In every difficulty, all distress, and each perplexity Christ calls to you and gently says, ‘My brother, choose again.’ He would not leave one source of pain unhealed, nor any image left to veil the truth. He would remove all misery from you whom god created altar unto joy (T-31.VIII.2:3, 3:2-5).
In every moment Christ calls and urges us to choose again: to choose with Christ rather than against Christ. Will we do it? Atonement is nothing more than our quiet answer “yes.”
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