An excellent brief on how postmodernity intersects with how we understand atonement can be found in Michael Alsford’s essay, “The Atonement and the Post-Modern Deconstruction of the Self,” in J. Goldingay, Atonement Today (pp. 203-221). Essentially, Alsford contends that postmodernity forces the question of the dethronement of the self which modernity enthroned.
It is not all that simple, but that is the hub of the wheel. Modernity, from Descartes through Kant and into Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault, raised the specter of the self to the throne and then began with these later thinkers to dethrone it. Heidegger’s famous Dasein, being in the world and situated in the world, is the opposite of Descartes, who charted a path of the enthronement of the Self over all other Objects.
In passing, Alsford speaks to an issue that rises for those of us who see the Church’s future tied into (in part) the emerging conversation. “It would,” Alsford says, “be a great pity if the terms post-modern, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist joined other pejorative labels such as liberal, fundamentalist, and relativist, which function as shorthand for ‘anything I disagree with’ ” (213).
Alsford proposes, as I do in Embracing Grace, a relational theory of human nature and, therefore, for what the atonement is all about. He calls this “coadunacy” — a term I’ve not seen. The Trinity establishes a theory of relational reciprocity rather than of absorption, and this grounds our view of the self in relational reciprocity rather than domination (modernity at times) and this means atonement is all about restoring reciprocity.
And here Alsford gets very good: relational reciprocity is defined by the self-giving and otherness of Jesus’ own life. Sin, Alsford contends, is both relational breakdown and violence of one self against another. Prioritizing of the self is what it is all about — and this is exactly what was established with Descartes and Spinoza and which is chopped down in postmodernity.