I looked into Madeleine L’Engle years ago after hearing some things she said at a nearby church that I found disturbing. I was also dismayed by her association with and defense of the very New Age oriented Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY City, where she had worked as librarian and writer-in-residence. I read A Wrinkle in Time and found disturbing New Age elements in it as well as universalism. Over a period of time, I read through a few dozen interviews with L’Engle as well as articles about her.
What L’Engle said in some of the interviews I came across was startling. The original link to this article no longer works and I have been unable to find it; however, I had saved it in my files. These are L’Engle’s words:
I don’t know where we got this idea of a punitive God, a God who required death, Jesus’ death, as a substitute for ours. When I hear some believers plead with God, “Oh, please forgive them,” I think: “This is dreadful. God doesn’t need to be taught to forgive.”
According to my etymological dictionary, atonement means “at-one-ment.” That word has nothing of sacrifice or substitution. It means Jesus was at one with God, and we are at one with God also.
Instead of thanking Jesus for dying for me, I want to rejoice that Jesus was born for us, to
thank Jesus for showing us how to live.
L’Engle here minimizes and almost dismisses the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross, which was the mission of Jesus. It is because of that sacrifice that man can be forgiven of sins and have eternal life through faith in Christ and his work on the cross. Her misuse of “atonement” is a classic twisting of the meaning of the word, which derives from “atone,” not “at one.”
In her non-fiction book, A Stone for a Pillow, L’Engle makes quite an issue of two words: “atonement” and “disaster.” Throughout this book, she misinterprets these words using faulty etymology and offers meanings they do not possess.
Atonement or At-one-ment?
L’Engle writes the same thing in this book that she said in the interview: that “atonement” means “at-one-ment” and she bases this on an etymological dictionary. One would think that a writer of L’Engle’s stature and reputation who is represented as a Christian author would at least do more investigation than this.
Based on this erroneous source, L’Engle declares that the idea that Jesus had to die to atone for sins is all wrong (23). But it is L’Engle who is in error. The Hebrew word translated as “atonement” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cover” and “to propitiate.”
The Old Testament, in the Old Testament atonement, and related phrases, such as sacrifice of atonement, most often translates the Hebrew piel verb kipur and two related nouns, one, kippurim, found always in the plural and signifying the noun equivalent of kipur, and the other, kapporeth, meaning the so-called mercy-seat or the place where the sacrifice of atonement happens. These occur with meanings related to atonement around 140 times, almost always in the context of the cults, as a sacrifice for sins and to provide reconciliation to God. From Bible Study Tools
The English word atonement is used to describe the New Testament concept of Christ presented as our reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), as a propitiation (1 John 4:10), in giving his life as “a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28), having poured out his blood “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). From Theopedia
I heard the re-interpretation of “atonement” as “at-one-ment” in the New Age because they favor the idea that Jesus was making everyone realize we are all one and we are all at one with God. As is evident, L’Engle’s assertive and repetitive claim that “atonement” means “at-one-ment” is totally unfounded.
How can one ignore the fact that the Old Testament sacrificial system was set up by God to foreshadow the sacrifice of the coming Lamb?
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. Leviticus 17:11
…since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus. Hebrews 10:19b
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. Romans 5:9
Disaster, Separation from the Stars?
As she does with “atonement,” so L’Engle does with “disaster.” Creating a straw man argument (just one of many in this book), L’Engle writes that we are not to “call on Jesus to come save us from an angry, vengeful Father” (see also 81, 82, 122, 169, 182), but rather we are to revel in the delightful things God has given us versus experiencing “dis-aster” (26), which is being separated from the stars, according to L’Engle. This is the title of her first chapter, “Separation from the Stars,” and is referred to again on page 105 and elsewhere.
In truth, the word “disaster” originates from the astrological belief of being ill-fated according to the position of the stars (from “aster,” which is Greek for “star”). So the meaning is ill-fated by the stars, not separated from the stars, which is a thoroughly different, and even almost opposite, concept.
Having set up these two words completely inaccurately, she weaves these invalid perspectives throughout the book, writing that “we are like trees, drawing spiritual water through our rootedness in creation” and that this is what incarnation is all about (79). Continuing, she asserts that “Jacob was indeed rooted in cosmos. At that moment he knew at-one-ment.”
No one can draw “spiritual water” from creation, but only from Christ.
“….but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” John 4:14
Summing up her apparent universalism, the author ends the book with these words: “In this harmony, we will no longer be separated from the stars, and we will be at-one, too” (240). She thus repeats these spurious notions as though they are the message of the story of Jacob and God; and yet, astonishingly, she is claiming something that is totally untrue.
Faulty Views of Christ
The most serious concerns, aside from what I would consider a heretical view of the atonement, are about Jesus Himself. Jesus ‘spoke’ to L’Engle through the “culture of the pharaohs,” a statue of a Buddhist saint, and even through a white china statue of Buddha on her desk (168). L’Engle did not mean literally speaking but that she perceived Jesus and his message through the religious meaning of these cultures or representations.
Jesus “could not be tamed” and was ill-treated as a rebel because he was a “threat to our local governments” (174), and Jesus was not sinless (“If he was sinless he wasn’t exactly like us,” she forcefully asserts on page 176).
The view of Jesus as an unruly rebel who threatens the status quo is beloved by many secularists, New Agers, and progressive Christians. This actually minimizes who Jesus is. Jesus did not come as a rebel or to challenge civil governments. He came to rebuke the Jewish leaders who had abandoned God’s teachings; to reveal to Israel that he was the prophesied Messiah; and, most importantly, he came to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sins (Matthew 16:21; Luke 24:7; Romans 3:25, 8:3; Galatians 3:13 ), the very atonement that L’Engle denounces with strong whiffs of condescension (209).
To say Jesus was not sinless contradicts passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 7:26, 9:14; and reference to Jesus as the lamb who was “unblemished and spotless” (1 Peter 1:19).
Gravest of all is this:
Jesus of Nazareth lived for a brief life span, but Christ always was, is, and will be! (201)
The statement indicates a distinction between Jesus and Christ. Jesus is Christ; Jesus was bodily raised and is at the right hand of God, interceding for the saints in his resurrected body (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25).
There is no reason to try to separate Jesus and Christ since Christ is the Greek for “Messiah” and Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Son of God did not add humanity to his nature until the incarnation and he was called Jesus; however, it is not the case that some man named Jesus became the Christ or that Christ somehow supersedes Jesus or is any way different from who Jesus was/is.
L”Engle’s views on the atonement and Christ are very similar to Richard Rohr, but I do not know if they knew each other or if L’Engle knew of Rohr’s teachings. It is possible that L’Engle was exposed to Perennial Wisdom, the belief system of Rohr, or that she adopted these ideas from the New Age, which also separates Jesus from “the Christ” and talks about atonement as “at-one-ment.”
L’Engle expressed similar thoughts in other works:
I believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus the Christ…not the literal resurrection of this tired body. From The Irrational Season (108-109)
Jesus was also Jesus the Christ as an infant. His resurrected body had nothing to do with becoming the Christ, since He already was (Jesus is called Christ in Luke chapter 2).
Faulty View of Man
L’Engle declares that we should not think of ourselves as more important in God’s eyes than “stars or butterflies or baboons” because we are all part of “the whole” (202-203). We should not think of ourselves as the “pinnacle of creation” (203).
Yet God tells us this:
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas. Psalm 8:4-8
This refers to Genesis where God makes man in his image and gives him dominion over the animal world (Genesis 1:26-28).
No other creature, including angels, are made in God’s image. Yet the author seems more preoccupied with a restoration of fallen angels (addressed below) than the truth about man as given in Scriptures.
L’Engle indicates apparent sympathy for and/or admiration for many beliefs or people who stand against the biblical Christ and the Christian faith, such as New Ager Jean Houston; the statue of a Buddhist saint in which L’Engle finds comfort; the pagan goddesses, because “our forefathers were afraid of the feminine” (107); her belief that Gandhi is in heaven; Egyptian spirituality; the Egyptian god Aton; the moon goddesses, as opposed to the “masculine, patriarchal God,” 182); Fritjof Capra and various promoters of Eastern and New Age spiritual worldviews; by asserting that “Christianity is an Eastern religion” (192); and homage to that mystical monastic guide of esoteric spirituality, The Cloud of Unknowing (which I have read, hence my description – Marcia).
Her esteem for these icons of pagan and New Age spirituality, especially when she favorably contrasts them with a straw man version of the biblical God, speaks volumes as to her lack of knowledge of Scripture and even of who God is.
In numerous passages, L’Engle implies or states that Satan and the fallen angels (whom she calls the echthroi, a Greek word for ‘the enemy’), will be restored to their original status with God through some kind of purging (225). The redemption of the fallen angels and Satan seems paramount to the author’s universalism and she argues at length for this view (211, 222-225, 239). We can, she urges, “bless” the fallen angels by “holding them out to the love of God” (225).
L’Engle apparently misunderstands or is unaware of this passage in Hebrews:
For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. Hebrews 2:16, 17
Hebrews clearly teaches that Jesus incarnated to atone for the sins of men, not angels. The fallen angels have no redemption, having made a choice in God’s very presence to rebel with Satan against God. The blood of Christ is not efficacious for angels. Jesus himself affirms the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
Demonstrating a penchant for the mystical, L’Engle claims, without offering evidence, that since Christianity is an “Eastern religion,” and that we in the West have sadly “Westernized” it, we need to go back to its “contradictory, paradoxical” roots (192). In this section, and throughout the book, L’Engle is bent on demonizing what she calls “forensic” as opposed to the more mysterious, loving, and contradictory truths of God, as she sees it. She equates contradictory with paradoxical, but the two are not the same thing. A paradox appears contradictory, but is in actuality not so.
Faulty View of God
In another section, L’Engle takes her pen to what she considers the Bible’s various types of God(s), writing that these contradict each other. L’Engle lists God as Creator, a tribal God, Maker of stars, warrior God, a jealous God who commanded killing which “seems forensically bloody,” and calls God “an anthropomorphic God” envisioned by “primitive people” (122).
The impression I came away with is that L’Engle did not even believe in the God of the Old Testament as He is portrayed, or else she had no insight at all on what Scripture teaches. It seems she perceived the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as a god only subjectively experienced by the “primitive” population of the times, not as the true God objectively revealed in God’s word. (This view, which came from the Higher Critics, has become more popular among Progressive Christians like Peter Enns and others, who teach that the Scriptures show how people experienced God, not his infallible revelation of who he is).
Moreover, L’Engle does not seem to grasp the attributes of God nor what this means in terms of who God is. She was unable to reconcile through basic theology and understanding of the Bible that God loves but also has wrath on sin, and that God judges. Wrath and judgment are big missing blocks in the wobbly architecture of L’Engle’s theological house, and her reaction to any instance of these is harsh resistance. She failed to see that God’s attributes are all in balance and operate together. Love with no judgment on sin means acceptance of evil as well as injustice, traits that counter the righteous nature of God.
Nor is the forensic concept applicable to what God teaches. From the context, it seems as though L’Engle means legalistic by the term “forensic,” and she applies the label “forensic” to anyone who believes as literal those parts of the Bible that she takes as mythical, as well as to those embracing the atonement as the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross (among other orthodox views that she disparages).
The repetitive negative references to “forensic” are a result of L’Engle writing this book while serving on a jury during a criminal trial of two men. Her view of judgment shows up initially when she states that these men are “God’s children” and if guilty, it would only cause God grief, not anger (20). This belief is an early clue to her unwillingness to ascribe any wrath on sin or judgment to God.
One becomes a child of God by being adopted as a son or daughter of God through faith in Christ (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). But considering L’Engle’s universalism, it is not surprising she ignores this biblical truth.
A Faulty Foundation
Any accuracies expressed by L’Engle in this book seem almost accidental. The foundation of her beliefs is so laden with error when measured by God’s word that no part can stand. Because I only heard praise and recommendations from Christians about L’Engle, I was troubled and confused when I first came across some of her interviews revealing not only universalism, but, more crucially, a disdain for the biblical doctrine that blood had to be shed on the cross for forgiveness of sins, not to mention her distinction between Jesus and the Christ.
A secular source, The New Yorker, has this to say:
L’Engle, who for years was the librarian and writer in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, on the Upper West Side, dotted her text with Biblical quotations, and foregrounded her belief in ecumenism–a particularly controversial passage in “A Wrinkle in Time” placed Jesus alongside Gandhi, the Buddha, and Einstein in the fight against evil. To be reductive, L’Engle’s life philosophy is the kind of happy religious pluralism in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together in peace. Needless to say, conservative Christians were not thrilled about the easy conflation. (“We Will Wrinkle Again,” by Lucy Tang, The New Yorker, March 23, 2010).
I think the term “ecumenism” in the above is too weak, however. No matter how good a writer L’Engle may be, her theology was not only seriously flawed but she applauded stances and concepts antagonistic to the Christian faith.