"Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior- yet in such a way, be it observed, that it is the particular individual who, after he has been subordinated as the particular to the universal, now through the universal becomes the individual who as the particular is superior to the universal, for the fact that the individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. The position cannot be mediated for all mediation comes about precisely by virtue of the universal; it is and remains to all eternity a paradox, inacessible to thought. And yet faith is this paradox, inacessible to thought. And yet faith is this paradox- or else (these are the logical deductions which I would beg the reader to have in mente at every point, though it would be too prolix for me to reiterate them on every occasion) - or else there never has been faith...precisely because it always has been. In other words, Abraham is lost."
-Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problem 1, (p. 66).
I found this passage very resonant but I am afraid it will be more difficult for others taken out of its context. What I understand him to be saying is along these lines: the universal, which includes apprehension of morals- universal ethics- is apprehendable to the non-Christian, is approachable through high-minded application of one's heart and soul to the universal. It is the realm of for instance Aristotle's ethics ( such as that a person should not be held responsible for something which is beyond their power to effect) and Kant's logical reformulation of the golden rule to "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."
Kierkegaard perceives that faith is something beyond adherence to these universal rules. It seems to me he is hitting upon something utterly essential. The individual becomes elevated above the universal law in the faith of Abraham. The personal relationship of the particular to God subordinates the universal to the particular. From the logical apprehension of laws, which it may be said I think somewhat accurately that the Greeks to some extent explored and elaborated to a much greater extent than the Hebrews, there is a transition to something far greater in the Hebrews, in Abraham and his progeny.
But it is only by way of the universal laws. On the one side there is inarticulation of the natural laws, the blindness and opposition to what may be known from what is made. But there is also the apprehension of the natural laws that is possible, the nobility and human kindness and justice which are possible. It is our ability to apprehend these laws which makes us all culpable, I think. But these laws are not dependent on hearing what the Bible says regarding them. They are accessible to everyone. Aristotle sought to systematize these as have many others. The Golden Rule is found in many disparate religious texts of the world and in wise-men such as Confucius. As C.S. Lewis aptly says:
“Did Christian Ethics really enter the world as a novelty, a new peculiar set of commands, to which man could be in the strict sense converted ?... The convert accepted forgiveness of sins. But of sins against what Law? Some new law promulgated by the Christians? But that is nonsensical. It would be the mockery of a tyrant to forgive a man for doing what had never been forbidden until the very moment at which the forgiveness was announced. The idea (at least in its grossest and most popular form) that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error...It is far from my intention to deny that we find in Christian ethics a deepening, an internalization, a few changes of emphasis, in the moral code. But only a serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that it is a radically new thing. Essentially, Christianity is not the promulgation of a moral discovery. It is addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law... A Christian who understands his own religion laughs when unbelievers expect to trouble him by the assertion that Jesus uttered no command which had not been anticipated by the Rabbis- few, indeed, which cannot be paralleled in classical, ancient Egyptian, Ninevite, Babylonian, or Chinese texts. We have long recognized that truth with rejoicing. Our faith is not pinned on a crank.”
But Abrahamic faith leaps beyond these universal laws into something greater which does not oppose these God made laws (but may oppose man made systems of apprehending these laws which are bound to be mere sketches and bound to be inaccurate) but is superior because it is personal, particular, scandalous. It is scandalous that Abraham goes to sacrifice his son at the bequest of God. It seems a subversion of these universal ethics. Political figures cannot resort to such a principle to mediate arguments and controversies because as Kierkegaard remarks mediation is only carried out through appeal to these universals. But in Abrahamic faith, God comes near.
This seems to me to apply to our discussion of religionless Christianity and the atonement. I think a lot of the way one goes on these topics hinges on what we make of good and evil and the universal ability to apprehend these. If it is true that all men have resort to the universal we should act as if they do and consider that Nietzsche and others who subvert the universal moral law are only clouds on that universal moral law which every man and woman in some way or another has apprehended enough that they knowif they reflect on themselves that they are guilty though in a much more genral sense, in one perhaps devoid of a Christian theology and context. Guilt and shame in this sense should not be understood as referring to something which does not exist outside of a religious context. Men know they're guilty.
Regarding atonement, it relates to the mysteries of mankind's heart. It illumines the grave of their hearts, piercing the psychology and explicating to them their relation to the world which God made and their warped-ness in relation too and the resolution to this disfigurement in the love of God.