Confession, Atonement & Redemption

As the stars in order going,
All-harmonious, He doth move;
Heavenly calm and comfort showing,
Comes the healing word of love.
Who the word of wisdom heareth
Feels the Father Love within,
Where as dawn the shadow cleareth,
Love outshines the night of sin.

– Hymn 263

I’m part way through Small Creatures Such As We, Finding Wonder and Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan (longer post on that coming eventually), and I was struck by Chapter Five: Confession & Atonement. Sagan, who was raised in a secular Jewish tradition, talks about visiting church with her Catholic nanny, and confession. After a bit of reflection, Sagan writes:

Recognizing we have made a mistake, acknowledging it, attempting to make amends, or at least not trying not to do it again, is the pathway to growth, whether ritualized or not.

This is something I am working on: acknowledging that I messed up, taking steps to either fix or not repeat same the mistake again. I’m not great at it, and there is vast room for improvement.

It is one thing to apply this to a relationship, where I may have said something that hurt the other person’s feelings, or a situation where I may have overstepped a boundary, like using a neighbor’s yard waste bin for extra leaves without asking. Acknowledging the mistake, and taking steps to rectify it (atoning) works with these situations. These are clear, concrete steps I can take.

In the context of the misappropriated yard waste bins, the concepts of confession and atonement makes sense (even in a secular context). I confess to using the yard waste bins without asking, I apologize, and I try to do better in the future. It neatly lines up with Merriam Webster Dictionary’s first definition of Atonement 1: reparation for an offense or injury : satisfaction a story of sin and atonement, He wanted to find a way to make atonement for his sins.

I won’t speak to the second definition listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, 2 : the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, as that is not my chosen path, but I will address the third, as I was raised in Christian Science: 3 Christian Science: the exemplifying of human oneness with God.

Through the wormhole of crazy we go.

Christian Science is known for re-purposing words and changing up concepts (this is also a textbook trait of a cult ). Eddy has an entire glossary devoted, to the reinterpretation of concepts and explains on p. 579 that:

In Christian Science we learn that the substitution of the spiritual for the material definition of a Scriptural word often elucidates the meaning of the inspired writer. On this account this chapter is added. It contains the metaphysical interpretation of Bible terms, giving their spiritual sense, which is also their original meaning.

p. 579

I’m not sure how the “substitution of the spiritual for the material definition” or “exemplifying of human oneness with God” will make my neighbor feel better about their over-full yard waste bin, but Eddy spends 37 pages of Science and Health on Chapter Two, Atonement and Eucharist. I had to look up what Eucharist was, as it appears a whopping twice1 in all of Science & Health, despite sharing the 37 pages with Atonement.

Eddy writes “Atonement is the exemplification of man’s unity with God, whereby man reflects divine Truth, Life, and Love.” (p. 18) Divine Truth, Life, and Love being synonyms for God. Eddy is slightly more practical a page later, where she states:

but if the sinner continues to pray and repent, sin and be sorry, he has little part in the atonement, — in the at-one-ment with God, — for he lacks the practical repentance, which reforms the heart and enables man to do the will of wisdom.

p. 19 20-24

Yes, if I misuse the yard waste bins, apologize and keep using them without asking, I am clearly not repentant. Not sure why God needs to be involved in this process.

The rest of the chapter has what mainstream Christians might term “questionable” theology, and Eddy uses terms like baptism, and spiritual communion, and other terms and concepts that are never really introduced in in Sunday School. Why would they be? Jesus “established no ritualistic worship” as Eddy points out:

To the ritualistic priest and hypocritical Pharisee Jesus said, “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” Jesus’ history made anew calendar, which we call the Christian era; but he established no ritualistic worship. He knew that men can be baptized, partake of the Eucharist, support the clergy, observe the Sabbath, make long prayers, and yet be sensual and sinful.

p. 20 6-13

Christian Science has no baptism rituals or communion. Eddy does not write highly of ritual, and I’m sure the new converts of her time had some larger religious context for them. For people born into Christian Science, with no broader knowledge of other religious practices (and who are actively discouraged from learning about other religious practices), rituals are lumped in with hypocrisy, and sensual sinfulness, which sounds like a lot more fun than reading the Bible Lesson every week, but Christian Science isn’t about fun.

None of the chapter on Atonement and Eucharist is even remotely helpful to the aforementioned situation with the neighbor and yard waste bins. Vague “errors” are mentioned (Christian Science error covers such a wide range as to not be useful), the need to align one’s self with God plays a role, pages are filled with the idea of Jesus’ sacrifice (not a path I’ve gone down, so I won’t speak to it), but taking concrete steps to right wrongs toward fellow human beings doesn’t get a mention, it is more about making yourself “right” with God. I can’t speak to mainstream Christian views on this, but the focus on “right with God” and not at least trying to make it better with your fellow humans doesn’t sit well with me. Interestingly, confess (including confession) appears a total of five times in Science and Health. None of those appearances are in Atonement and Eucharist.

I did a search for Confession and Christian Science and came across “Confession—uncovering sin to destroy it, Does confession still have a role in Christian Science? Issues of interest to both Christian Scientists and new readers.” by Mark Ruble From the March 9, 1987 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel. Eddy’s works barely get a mention, but the Bible is quoted at length. Ruble concludes:

We find, then, that confession, rightly viewed as the uncovering of sin to destroy it, is an important first step in healing. It represents a declaration of independence, a recognition and rejection of error and an admission that something can and must be done to correct it. The spiritual awakening that the uncovering of sin involves reveals our perfect selfhood in Christ, which neither fears sin nor indulges it. Sin is not and never has been the genuine condition of our being. That is why seeing sin for what it is and forsaking it have an indispensable healing role to play.

Sin, like error, is vague, and again it is more about perfect selfhood in an abstract concept of “Christ” than redemption with fellow humankind. I’m unclear on what sort of healing should come through confession. Confession to the “erroneous” (sinful?) idea of a runny nose or broken leg will not help, nor will any amount of atonement in the Christian Science sense of the word.

Confession of the misuse of the neighbors yard waste bin has little to do with “spiritual awakening,” although that could be another way of phrasing “pathway to growth” which could “heal” your relationship with the disgruntled neighbor? “Healing” in Christian Science is vague enough that it might apply, people have shared testimonies over lost car keys and healed kittens of blindness, so why not “heal” a misunderstanding over a yard waste bin?

Atonement does not get a mention in Ruble’s piece, so are we to conclude that healing and spiritual growth is sufficient? In Science and Health, the Eddy’s concept of atonement is framed around Jesus’ suffering, and human misunderstanding of the concept. I am clearly one of those misunderstanding humans.

To double-check that I hadn’t missed anything daydreaming and counting ceiling tiles in Sunday School from the ages of four to twenty, I asked some of my fellow former-CS friends, and the answers came back pretty consistently: we, as CS, had the “Spiritually Correct” views. Atonement was remembered as “at-one-ment” with God; baptism was a personal spiritual practice; communion was similarly personal, with the exception of Communion Sundays (far and few between) when people tried to kneel in a church that was very much not designed for kneeling. None of us remembered any solid details, these were all vaguely “spiritual” concepts. It was validating.

Christian Science takes what could, and should, be a solid concept, and makes it needlessly complicated. My approach to things is (or aspires to be) more in line with Sagan’s explanation than Eddy’s. Taking a secular approach which encourages personal growth, devoid of the vague promise of “healing,” which is so often wrapped up in physical connotations, and is a very loaded term in Christian Science, is more approachable. Own up to the problem, do what you can to correct it, and try and do better going forward.

End Notes
1) For the curious, Eucharist appears twice: p. 32 8-11 “But the Eucharist does not commemorate a Roman soldier’s oath, nor was the wine, used on convivial occasions and in Jewish rites, the cup of our Lord.” and p. 35 25-26 “Our Eucharist is spiritual communion with the one God.”

Additional reading


2 thoughts on “Confession, Atonement & Redemption

  1. spindrifterr says:

    There are various versions of the Atonement and power conveyed by communion within Christianity. I sure didn’t mean to insult a gal I know. But I did insult her, when I said that transubstantiation is too much for me. I interpret the reminder afforded by communion as a Christian’s symbol of remembrance of the Last Super as a recommitment to Christ, Jesus. She said, “Oh, no. The bread and the wine actually becomes human flesh and blood when you partake of the Eucharist. It’s not a symbol. It’s a reality.” So there are lots of ideas out there in Christianity about these acts of remembrance.

    • kat says:

      Transubstantiation is complicated, and was one of the dividing points in the Reformation. From my studies, it is something Luther struggled with, I think most Protestant denominations take the blood/wine it as symbolic. I’m still not totally clear on the Catholic Church’s stance.

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