Engendering Atonement: Kierkegaard on the Cross
Traditional theories of Christian atonement have long been critiqued for implying that God is wrathful, cruel, and violent towards humanity and for encouraging violence and excessive self-sacrifice in human beings. While Søren Kierkegaard ardently maintains that the atonement is necessary for Christian salvation and alludes to these traditional theories, he also makes positive movements away from emphasizing violence and cruelty, depicting the full range of human modes of relating in reconciliation with God. Drawing on female figures and maternal imagery, Kierkegaard offers more compassionate and peaceful ways to conceive of the process of reuniting the human person with the divine in loving relationship after divisions have occurred through human frailty, imperfection, and sin. In this essay, I clarify Kierkegaard’s perspective on Christ’s atonement, including its crucial place within Christianity. I further analyse his use of the stories of the woman who was a sinner in the New Testament Book of Luke and Sarah in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Showing both sides of what atonement is meant to forgive and heal, namely wilful rebellion against God for which human beings are culpable and unintended failings for which they are not, Kierkegaard illuminates truths about atonement in a softer light. Further, he incisively demonstrates that part of the rigorous task of Christian life goes beyond arduous forms of self-flagellation and martyrdom to the less obvious difficulty of receiving the atonement of Christ and the grace it effects even when one feels unworthy of it. Moreover, this atonement works not only to reconcile God with human beings but also allows reconciliation and even joyful love to endure and amplify between human individuals.