So, what am I looking for, and is it fair to blame the author for failing to flesh out my vague preconceptions? Well, to begin at the beginning, I have no problem with most everything about Christianity except for its central claim, which is this idea of vicarious atonement via human sacrifice.
I'll admit it: I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of someone else dying for my sins. That's too much like liberalism: as Thomas Sowell says, what's my "fair share" of your possessions?
Which leads to another issue. Yes, I am a sinner. But a little perspective please. I don't walk around thinking that these sins condemn me to hell, and that only the most radical divine intervention conceivable can save me from myself.
I'm trying to think back to my first awareness of a different way of looking at the question, and I think it might have been this book, appropriately titled A Different Christianity: Early Christian Esotericism and Modern Thought. The book provided a definitive link from where I was at the time to where I am now, which is to say, from a more eastern/yoga influenced path to a Christian one. Or, it provided a version of Christianity which didn't offend my sensibilities and trigger the Jesus willies.
I can't say that I blame any intelligent person if they reject what amounts to a silly version of Christianity. For it is written (by Don Colacho): Every Christian has been directly responsible for the hardening of some unbeliever's heart. For that matter, Christianity does not solve "problems"; it merely obliges us to live them at a higher level.
On one end we have the fundamentalists. On the other, liberal Christianity -- or the progressive clergy in whose hands the gospel degenerates into a compilation of trivial ethical teachings (ibid.).
So, where is the Raccoon to lay his head? Is there a place for us at the Lord's table? I mean, without distorting Christianity beyond recognition? Or is it possible that certain traditions are responsible for the distortion?
Gonzalez doesn't suggest this, but he does maintain that what we are calling the Raccoon tradition, far from being some postmodern deviation, is actually prior to the others. He describes three main types of theology -- A, B, and C -- but type C (for Coon) was chronologically first, even if the other two became the mainstream.
To save time, I'll borrow from one of the amazon reviewers, who summarizes the situation well:
"As an evangelical, I have been rather frustrated with [the] view of salvation as simply a door into heaven. It has left me despairing of relevancy considering the fact that I'm not in heaven yet but still living in the here and now."
In other words,
"This book explains how much of traditional Christian theology (including evangelicalism but also Catholicism and liberal Protestantism) is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and theology originally based on Tertullian's legalistic theology (what the author calls type A theology: the Bible is a set of laws to be obeyed). This theology has been mixed with Augustine's Neo-Platonism (type B theology) resulting in the theology dominant in the West: theology that interprets Scripture as a set of fixed, universal truths that need to be followed. God is the Judge that will punish any deviation therefrom.
"But the author shows that there was an early theology, originally from Syria and probably closest to the tradition of the New Testament. The author calls it type C theology and considers Irenaeus its main exponent. This type of theology has disappeared due to social and political circumstances. But it's a theology that considers the Christian faith not as a set of rules to be obeyed, but God's active participation in the history of mankind. In this theology history is the stage where His purposes will unfold, where His kingdom of justice will be established. This Christianity is not just relevant for the individual Christian who wants to 'change his bad behavior' but for the whole Christian community fighting evil in all its forms and manifestations (including societies)."
I did get a whiff of social justice -- a hint of liberation theology -- in Gonzalez' analysis, and that troubled me. But other aspects are intriguing.
Remember, Jesus is here and then he's gone. He leaves no written words, so it is up to his disciples to interpret What That Was All About. They have to remember highlights from what must have been a nonstop, three-year flow of conversation. What was important? What was peripheral? How does it all relate to his death? And resurrection? And more importantly, to us?
Note in this regard that the gospels are already theology. Each gospel was produced out of this or that faith community. And remember, many gospels were excluded from the canon -- not necessarily because they were completely wrong, but because some element may have been under- or overemphasized. Indeed, there was a fight to get John -- the most explosive bomb of them all -- loaded into the canon.
Gonzalez goes into an analysis of the different ways in which the three theological types approach God, creation, original sin, salvation, and other questions. The first -- type A -- is the most legalistic and sin-conscious, whereas the second -- type B -- is at the other extreme, almost neoplatonic in its embrace of immutable abstractions to the exclusion of the material world. If type A is understood in terms of the Law, then type B is concerned with Truth, only of a highly abstract, impersonal, and timeless nature.
What about type C? First of all, it is much more grounded in the gospel of John; whether it came out of John or vice versa is unclear to me, but in any event, there is definitely a different emphasis. For it, faith doesn't so much involve immutable truths... how to put it? Orthoparadoxical, don't you know. I would say that, as Word becomes flesh, it is as if the Immutable becomes the mutable. As a consequence, there is much more focus on history, since it is now leavened with and conditioned by truth. Thus,
"all that takes place within time is guided toward God's future. At creation, God has certain goals which were to be fulfilled through the process of history" (ibid.).
God enters "into the world in the work of creation and in the leading of history." And as history is a "fundamental category," creation "is the very beginning of history, which is not then the result of sin. Even had there been no sin, there would have been history."
In other words, the implication in particular of type A theology is that history only occurs because of our primordial boo boo. Absent that, then we could have presumably remained in paradise forever. But for Iranaeus -- the progenitor of type C -- it is not so much that Adam and Eve sinned per se, but that the sin consisted of a premature grasping after something for which they were not spiritually ready.
God had a plan, but they jumped the gun: "being made 'after the image of God' means that humankind has been created with Jesus Christ as the model." In other words, it is not as if man sinned, therefore God had to come up with the idea of the Incarnation. Rather, the Incarnation was in the cards all along, not just as a remedy for our total depravity:
"God did not make human beings and then decide to take human form in the incarnation, but rather, from the very beginning, God meant to become incarnate, and therefore used the incarnate Word as a model for Adam and Eve."
Again, there is history, and something that develops within it, Man. History is a dialogue or dialectic between man and God, such that human beings have "the capacity to grow to further resemble [the] Word..."
And the Law takes on a different connotation, since it is not so much about sin and punishment as to "serve the human creature in its own process of growth and development toward closer communion with God." The law has a positive and teleological function, not just a repressive one. It doesn't mean that sin doesn't exist, but that sin blocks intimacy with God and puts up a roadblock to our own spiritual evolution.
Finally, instead of vicarious atonement (although here is still that), we have in Jesus the one who successfully overcomes the world and shows us the way. He liberates us from sin, in that he defeats "the tyrant who holds us under subjection, to allow us to become once again the creatures God intended...
Gotta wrap this up, but "the main work of Christ" is "victory against the powers that [hold] us in subjection" and "opening for us, his followers, the gap through which we too can escape from bondage."