Please Note: The following term is defined in the context of A Course in Miracles.
What Is Atonement?
Question: Would you be able to do a lesson on the Atonement? I know it means an undoing. Is it an undoing of the separation? Would you know what steps we can take to achieve it? Is Atonement pronounced as usual, in the sense of making reparation for sins, or At-one-ment, like Unity?
Answer: Atonement is such a central topic in the Course, yet I think most students have difficulty relating to it, perhaps because it has such burdensome traditional meanings associated with it. The Course gives it a new meaning, however, and our task is first to realize what that new meaning is, and then to try to connect with it on a more personal level.
The idea of Atonement rests on the notion that there has been a rupture between us and God. We see the evidence of this all around us. We live in the world of the rupture, where every creature walks alone, feeling split off from the Whole, cut off from holiness and goodness, severed from the Source of life and power. Every creature has to scratch out a living with tooth and claw and brain, rather than merely rest in the boundless lap of its Creator. We may not know when this rupture happened, but our entire experience of life tells us that we are living in its aftereffects; we are riding its shock waves. Where is God? How do we reunite with Him? Every religion, spiritual path, healing modality, and self-help system is trying to answer this question in one form or another. Even every product hawked on TV is trying to answer it. Don't they all promise us that we will feel whole and loved, and that we will belong? In other words, don't they all promise us "Atonement"?
Atonement, then, is about the healing of our primordial split with God. Is there any bigger issue? The reason the word "Atonement" is used for this healing is quite natural. Atonement originally referred to reconciliation. Two people had split apart, but now they are reconciled; they have become "at one" again. This is usually made possible by the wrong that caused the split being wiped away or undone. Jesus referred to this very meaning of the word in a comment to Helen Schucman. He first asked her to look up Atonement in the dictionary. She then wrote the following—I am guessing that the first sentence is what she found in the dictionary, while the second is Jesus' elaboration on that:
Atonement—obsolete—short for "set at one" and "reconcile," "to agree." Obviously, before reconciliation or agreement is possible, the discordant or out of accord must be undone. (Absence from Felicity, p. 238)
In traditional Christian usage, of course, Atonement refers to reconciliation not between two people, but between humanity and God, but the same dynamics apply. One party (humanity) wronged the other (God), thus causing a rift in the relationship. In order for the rift to be healed, this wrong has to be removed, undone. How is this accomplished? Well, in human relationships, the guilty party has to somehow pay for the sin, through apologizing, making up for it, or simply accepting his or her punishment. Only then the two can be one again. We see this play out in relationships every day, especially close ones like marriages ("I'm so sorry, honey. Here, I bought you some flowers"). In Christian teaching, however, the divine-human relationship was a little different, in that humanity could not hope to adequately pay for its sin. A completely pure sacrifice had to be made, and that was Jesus. Yet the principle—that the sin that caused the rift must be paid for—is basically the same. Indeed, many rifts in human relationships are repaired by punishing a scapegoat instead of the one who caused the rift.
We may no longer believe, or may have never believed, that Jesus died for our sins. But we probably still retain, at least unconsciously, the underlying belief that reconciling with God means paying for our sinfulness. This hidden belief causes us to view the spiritual life as a series of sacrifices through which we try to make it up to God. In this light, all of our spiritual study, our practice periods with the Workbook, our lengthy meditations, our daily good thoughts and good deeds, add up to a single, massive attempt to atone. Through it all, something deep within us is trying to say to God, "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me." On an even deeper level, this is why we dream into our lives disasters, disease, aging, and death. We hope that if we punish ourselves enough, God will take us back.
This is why the Course's definition of Atonement should be such a profound relief. The Course says, yes, there did seem to be some kind of rift between you and God. And yes, the cause of that rift needs to be wiped away in order for reconciliation to occur. But—and here is the relief—the wiping away occurs through realizing that your split with God was never real in the first place. Nothing ever happened to your relationship with God. The only split that occurred was between your image of yourself and your image of God. This means that the split occurred only in your mind, not in God's. The real you and the real God have remained completely at peace and at one since the very beginning. What amazing news! The rupture never occurred. The world of the rupture is no more than a bad dream. There is nothing to pay for, no need for sacrifice. And therefore, all of your study, practice, meditation, prayer, good thoughts, and good deeds can be aimed, not at making it up to God, but at undoing your deep-seated delusion that there is something to make up for.
This is why the words "undoing" and "correction" are so often associated with Atonement in the Course. The whole Course is about undoing our belief in the reality of the rupture. It is all about correcting our belief that we ever left God's loving Arms. In the words of the Course, "The full awareness of the Atonement, then, is the recognition that the separation never occurred" (T-6.II.10:7).
What steps, then, do we take to achieve Atonement? We do the Course. We study the Text, practice the Workbook, and extend to others as teachers of God. Should Atonement be pronounced "At-one-ment"? No, it does not refer to the state of at-one-ment, but to the regaining of at-one-ment. It is not about union, but about reunion. The beautiful thing, however, is that this reunion is achieved not by paying for a real split, but by waking up from a split that happened only in our imagination.
This material is copyrighted by the Circle of Atonement, P.O. Box 4238, W. Sedona, AZ 86340. All rights reserved. The opinions expressed are the personal interpretation and understanding of the author(s).
Robert Perry is one of the most respected interpreters of A Course in Miracles. He has been teaching since 1986, is the author of nineteen books and booklets on the Course, and is the founder of the Circle of Atonement, a teaching center in Arizona dedicated to serving students of the Course. Visit the Circle of Atonement's website at www.circleofa.org, or contact the Circle at P.O. Box 4238, Sedona, AZ 86340. Email: email@example.com, or phone: 888-357-7520.
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