Theology shapes society. The habits of a family in Kilarney depend on what is written about God in Duke University. The work of theology has social consequences; and not only liberation theology or practical theology, but the kind of theology that at first blush seems utterly unrelated to the real world.
Perhaps in our secular society we think theology has lost this kind of power, but as James Beckford points out, "the deregulation of religion is one of the hidden ironies of secularization". By releasing religion from state control and removing it to the margins of society, secularization has put the Christian church in the place from which it originally turned the world upside-down. Theology has as much power as ever to effect not only societal change, but the emergence of communities that are genuine alternatives to the dominant reality.
Though it forms an aside in an incredibly bulky chapter, Charles Taylor puts forward an argument that the theology of the Reformation -- specifically, its theology of the atonement -- gave rise to the "humanist hostility to mystery", and played "an important role in the later rise of unbelief". If the irony of secularization is that it empowers counter-narratives, or re-formations in society, the irony of the Reformation is that it empowered the secularization of society. If nobody learns from history, then perhaps this is a sort of back-and-forth that will play out till kingdom come.
And what was it about this particular theology of atonement that caused it to have such dramatic social effects? It led to "horrifying conclusions" such as the doctrine of the damnation of most humans, or the doctrine of double predestination.
What is the name of this horrifying theology of the atonement?
The juridical-penal model, or the penal-substitutionary model.
If Charles Taylor's brief assessment is close to the truth, then the hegemony that this model still enjoys signifies a failure of theology in its task of speaking correctly of God. The ones who speak of God to congregations in cities and towns and villages must learn to articulate the mystery of human sin and God's grace using language that would not be out of place in the story of the prodigal son.
Perhaps the de-throning of the juridical-penal model of atonement is necessary if Christian communities are ever to be truly alternative in a world that knows well the value of channelling violence onto some for the sake of the protection of the many. Or to put it another way, perhaps we can never have nonviolent communities without a nonviolent atonement.