Reading A Course in Miracles: Atonement Without Sacrifice

Sacrifice is so central to traditional Christian understandings of atonement that the possibility of atonement without sacrifice can seem incoherent or sacrilegious. Most of us – despite our apparent learning, cultural sophistication and good intentions – remain invested in the value of sacrifice. It’s the right way – indeed, the only way – to gain God’s favor.

In terms of A Course in Miracles, sacrifice is an extension of the so-called “scarcity principle,” which argues that separate bodies must compete with one another in a zero sum conflict for finite resources, the better to push back the inevitable “final” sacrifice, which is death. What I have, you do not have, and vice-versa. And thought we might establish temporary alliances, they always have as their foundation our personal gain.

It is true that objects like apple pie and diapers and houses are finite and can be thought of in terms of “scarcity.” But truth is always abundant (T-1.IV.3:4). It cannot be lost or gained; it merely is. Like love, the more you give away, the more you have.

It is to this principle – the abundance of love and truth, which are the fundaments of joy and inner peace and love – to which the course aims to direct our attention.

In this sense, atonement is a healed perception of what is valuable and what is not, and a recognition that what is valuable can not be lost or sacrificed in any way.

On a traditional Christian view, sacrifice works something like this: God sacrificed his only son, Jesus, to atone for your sins. Jesus went along with this painful sacrifice willingly. Thus, Jesus becomes the savior you can either accept or reject, and your acceptance opens the gates of Heaven and your rejection opens the gates of Hell. A whole host of martyrs and saints have sacrificed their lives and well-being since.

In this way, sacrifice is yoked to punishment for personal wrong-doing (sin), and so giving something up – the more precious the better (like your life, say) – becomes a hallmark of Christian forgiveness and theology. Thus, perhaps you don’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Perhaps you tithe. Perhaps you feel guilty when you don’t do those things. Perhaps you feel guilty just for being alive.

As A Course in Miracles points this inversion of love – which hinges on focusing on the crucifixion, rather than the resurrection (T-3.I.1:2) – is “painful on its minor applications and genuinely tragic on a wider scale” (T-3.I.2:3).

Persecution frequently results in an attempt to “justify” the terrible misperception that God Himself persecuted His Own Son on behalf of salvation. The very words are meaningless . . . The wholly benign less the Atonement teaches is lost if it is tainted with this kind of distortion in any form (T-3.I.2:4-5, 11).

So one aspect of understanding atonement without sacrifice, is to realize that punishment is foreign to God. We are not asked – and thus are not required – to suffer in order to prove our virtue. Our virtue in the eyes of God is a given. We are not called to suffer but to be merciful.

Sacrifice is a notion totally unknown to God . . . Sacrificing in any way is a violation of my injunction that you should be merciful even as your Father in Heaven is merciful (T-3.I.4:1, 3).

Critically, this extension of mercy includes to our own self. We can be quite skilled at giving to others, but still neglect our own well-being. We might call that sort of self-sacrifice as reflecting a crucifixion-based understanding of atonement. Jesus gave himself for us; we, too, must give ourselves up for others (albeit not on a cross).

That is a form of unhelpful thinking that distorts the atonement, because of its implicit believe that we give away we no longer have (hence, others benefit from our sacrifice). It assumes – incorrectly – that love is a finite resource.

Instead, the course invites us to think of atonement as being a reflection of a purity that is wholly innocent and so naturally knows only truth. To be innocent is to know that we have everything; on that view, concepts of getting or taking or hoarding have no meaning. Seeing our brother and sister as wholly equal – because they, like us, are extensions of God’s love – means that all we can do is honor them because “honor is the natural greeting of the truly loved to others who are like them” (T-3.I.6:3).

In this way, the text is reaching a level of being that transcends (without denying) bodily needs and wants. In this section, Jesus-as-narrator is not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent or willingly entering lion dens or signing up for – or refusing to sign up for – yoga classes.

Rather, he is suggesting that our fundamental understanding of who and what we are is deeply, even tragically broken. We think that we are separate from a paternal God who is not above torturing and murdering his children and calling it “love.”

By falling for that lie, we naturally conflate atonement with sacrifice, rather than with love. But there is another way, one premised on remembering our shared innocence.

The innocence of God is the true nature of the mind of His Son. In this state your mind knows God, for God is not symbolic; He is Fact. Knowing His Son as he is, you realize that the Atonement, not sacrifice, is the only appropriate gift for God’s altar, where nothing except perfection belongs (T-3.I.8:1-3).

So we have to look at our fear of sacrifice and be willing to consider that it’s inaccurate and does not reflect the true nature of our being. It doesn’t matter how high the odds against this clear seeing appear.

Sooner or later, all students reach a point where the external world – for all its glitter and gore, all its allure and attraction – no longer matters the way it did. It does not satisfy us; it only brings us pain. In that moment, we see that our ideas about atonement are wrong. And truly, even just holding that thought in mind can feel dangerous, as if an invisible wave of fear were poised to pound us into dust, erase us from the Book of Life, and make it so we aren’t even a memory in the mind of God.

In that moment – as this section of A Course in Miracles teaches – Jesus literally begs us to go with him beside us. God is not symbolic! No more are his children.

And yet.

In the end, the real sacrifice is the ongoing sacrifice of peace and joy – the deliberate decision to go on imagining that the ego is real, the separation happened, and we have no choice in suffering its effects.

Gently but insistently, A Course in Miracles teaches us that true atonement is love, and that love is one, and that is all. Suffering is not mandatory. Salvation is a shared process, a trail we walk together, in order that walking it might not seem so onerous. In time we remember that what we think we’re giving up is nothing and what we “gain” is what we’ve always had, which is the infinite abundance of love.

And that is not a sacrifice, but a blessing.

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