Friday, January 17, 2003

Now with more yack room!

I felt I was a little harsh with Everett Vandagriff, especially after I got a very courteous response from him that he apparently stayed up till four in the morning writing. I think I'm getting a bit emotional about this! So I'll take a breather and answer tomorrow, because it's a long and detailed matter.

In the meantime, after much computer mucking accompanied by a great deal of very un-Christian swearing, I have added comment capability to the site. I think I've attracted enough interest now that this might be fruitful. Of course, a three-day weekend is upon us so I don't expect everybody to be at home debating theology, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

And a couple more things...

I'm running out of steam, but Disputations has part one of his atonement explanation. I think I'll wait till it's completed before responding, but I will add that the comments to that post are worth reading.

Also Eve Tushnet has a response to the Julian Sanchez essay I mentioned earlier.
Dying for sins: love one another

Peter Nixon posted his long-promised essay on what the Atonement achieved for him. When he emailed me to tell me it was up -- no doubt reacting to how I've tended to rip to shreds everything else that's come my way -- he wrote, "Be gentle."

Well, I'm not going to rip it to shreds, and not just because I like Peter. You should read the whole thing, but here's what I think are the "nut grafs":
Like many people, I have a fear about forgiveness. I fear that it’s cheap. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry.” My kids say it all the time. Most the time they even mean it. Most of the time I mean it. But it’s still cheap.

Just what does it mean for a murderer to say “I’m sorry” to the victim’s family? For concentration camp guards to recant on their deathbeds? For President Clinton and Kofi Anon to apologize for their lack of response to the Rwandan genocide? For rapists to apologize to their victims? For the descendants of slave-owners to apologize to the descendants of slaves? Does it bring back the dead? Does it really heal suffering?

Is not forgiveness, in fact, morally monstrous? Does it not break faith with the dead and those who have suffered? There are many places in the world where people believe this. In the wake of September 11th, there are a large number of people in the United States who believe this. They believe that to forgive is to betray, to commit a terrible evil against those whom one loves. Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice...

So what am I to do? How can I follow Jesus? How can I betray myself, my family, my clan, my race, my country? How can I forgive when there is no justice? If my life is to mean anything, then good must be rewarded and evil must be punished. There must be eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, blood for blood.

Jesus responds, “You want blood? Here, take mine.”

...On the cross, Jesus fulfills my demand for justice while seeking to lead me beyond it. After the cross, I have no more excuses. The Resurrection makes clear that Jesus was right and I am wrong, that His vision of human life is the authentic one, the one willed by God.

In other words, the issue is less about God forgiving us than us forgiving each other. God may not be bloodthirsty, but we are. The blood of Jesus, theoretically, slaked our desire for revenge and compels us to forgive.

This is quite different from any other account of the Crucifixion I've heard. And you know, it makes more sense, intellectually and morally, than just about anything else anyone has come up with. Thank you, Peter. It still doesn't resolve all the objections, but I'm going to chew on this for a good while.

Dying for sins: the well of souls

Josiah Neeley also wrote me again, and tried to answer my objections from this post:
I compared the atonement to being stuck at
the bottom of a well and being thrown a rope. You
asked, sensibly enough, what the rope is supposed to
represent. Not faith, I would say. Faith is more like
climbing the rope or, if we want to be really precise,
like trusting that, if you climb rope you will reach
the top alive. Grace, I think, is a better term for
what the rope represents. Through the atonement new
graces are opened to us, which allow for our

True, people still sin, even saints. They are in this
way like someone who begins to climb up the rope, but
then let's go, or who can't bring himself to climb any
more and just hangs there (I suspect that we are
approaching the limits of this metaphor's usefulness).
It's only after death that a person makes it out of
the well, and thus it's only after death that a
person's salvation is complete. Even so, it's not true
that the rope makes no difference. A person can be
closer or further away from the top of the well, and
it's because of the rope that he can be able to climb
at all.

Does that mean that it's a mistake to say, as
believers often do, that they are already saved? Yes
and no. Personally, I prefer to say that I am being
saved, because this reminds me that sanctification is
a process, and not a one-time event. But there is a
sense in which it's perfectly sensible to say that
Christians are already saved. If you were stranded on
a desert island it would be perfectly natural to
exclaim "I'm saved" as soon as you've been sighted by
a rescue boat, even though your rescue won't be
completed for some time.

OK, that makes more sense. Sort of like being a "recovering" alcoholic. I'm still not quite sure how this relates to "your sins are forgiven," though. Every sin still harms your progress upward. Is the implication of forgiveness just that God doesn't yank up the rope the first time you slip?

Josiah also adds:
None of this means that the atonement couldn't result
in the salvation of those in the Old Testament. As you
point out, God isn't a linear fellow, and I see no
reason why He couldn't apply those graces gained
through the atonement to people living before the
birth of Christ.

Yes, I did say that, but this still strikes me as a bit of a dodge. It's not so much the question of time as of causation. Theoretically, only those who follow the Way that Jesus laid out can achieve salvation. How could they have known enough to follow it if they didn't know of Jesus?
Dying for sins: they call me free

I got a long email from an Everett Vandagriff explicating what is basically the standard version of the meaning of the Atonement. It was a bit frustrating to read because I feel like I've already described my objections to the standard theory, and I don't want to repeat myself. But there is one section I want to focus on:
Another reason for His death upon the Cross is that if He were to simply set all things to the way they were by divine decree, it would violate both justice and mercy. It would violate justice in that we need to make restitution for our sins. The death of Christ did not change that. It only lifted the ultimate price of spiritual death for those who accept His mercy, and it is in this acceptance of mercy that we find the source of the violation of mercy in a divine decree.

God wants a people who will follow Him out of free will, who will submit to them by their own choice. To simply declare the relationship restored is to place people in submission Him irrespective of whether or not they wish to be. This elimination of free will violates the basic dignity which God bestowed upon man.

This brings me to the second point. Any sort of divine decree or any other act of power that would restore the relationship between God and man would necessarily destroy man's free will. If God makes a decree, man has no say in the matter. If He moves in a worldwide act of power, He leaves no room for choice, for faced with the glory of God, man cannot but accept God as Lord. If He simply reveals His desire to restore the relationship to a few individuals, it both lacks credibility and fails to remove the old order.

I have heard this theory before, and words can hardly express how much it annoys me. I have deep and serious problems with the whole Christian conception of free will, which I will not go into now because it will sidetrack the discussion and because it gives me a migraine. Though by happy coincidence, Julian Sanchez has a post on the subject today that spells out some of the issues. (It does not quite go to the question raised here, but it does show how it's a lot more complicated than people who glibly invoke it seem to assume.)

But getting to the specific instance: why do all of you Christians out there believe in the Atonement? Because you believe it's God's will, no? So how is it that you have free will? By Everett's logic, once you believe that you have no choice but to submit. By the same token, it's not like the non-Christians out there saw the whole situation laid out before them and said, "Oh, I think I won't accept God's mercy, and burn in hell forever." It's because they did not perceive that they had that choice to make.

The thing is, you don't choose what you believe. And that's exactly what bothers me about this formulation: belief replaces morality as the criterion for how God treats you. If I understand this line of thinking correctly, Jesus' death atoned for our sins, but there's one last hurdle: you have to believe it. This seems to turn into the only thing that separates the saved from the damned.

Indeed, in an article Peter Nixon linked to the other day, one religious scholar says just that: "Jesus died for all. No man goes to hell for his sin -- people go to hell for unbelief ... they have not believed in Jesus Christ."

Rather than establishing a golden mean between justice and mercy, this seems to annihilate justice altogether, and not be very merciful either. In a recent email to me, Peter made a good point:
I sense that you have a great deal of intellectual integrity and that you feel it would be dishonest to say that you believe something unless you fully understand it. I think that's admirable, but I also think it can be a bit paralyzing. I'm not sure I can explain to you, in rational terms, why I love my wife and kids, or why I think racism is so wrong, or why torture is inhumane. You can make some arguments, but in the end, you have to make some baseline assumptions about right and wrong that may not, in the end, be rationally defensible.

Well, this appeals to me neither rationally nor morally. So I can only hope it's not God's way of doing things.


Sounds like it was a good idea for me to blog under a pseudonym. I hope Iain finds a better employer soon!
Notes from all over

The new blog Not For Sheep mentions me as one of the "people of St. Blog's" whose sites she enjoys. Thank you. It's funny, though, how I've become one of the "people of St. Blog's" given that I'm a nonbeliever who attends a Pentecostal church. The Internet is all about breaking boundaries, I suppose...

And as if to prove the point, I also find myself on an Argentinian blog. My Spanish is rusty, but I think what he says is this:
Between Camassia (another nice Yankee blog) and Disputations is the beginning of an interesting exchange on "what it means concretely that Jesus died for us (for love of us/for our sins/for our salvation)". Nice because John of Disputations, as always, argues (Dominican to the end) with the calmness of a philosophy that only wants to elucidate the truth, and because Camassia questions and objects to absolutely everything, without looking for false agreements [consistencies?] in formulas that cannot be understood (in these things, to have understood the question is an almost sure sign that one is looking for certainties, not the truth).

Muchas gracias, Hernan. I must admit to being lost in the next sentence -- something about a Cardinal Ratzinger article about Jesus' suffering and death under Pontius Pilate, but I can't tell more.

The parenthetical note that follows is interesting. Apparently a reader complained about Hernan putting a picture of the Crucifixion on his site somewhere. If Jesus is to be depicted, the reader says, "depict him where he is: at the right hand of GOD the Father." Hernan says this is a typical Protestant objection to Catholic veneration of Crucifixion images. Curious, because I've never heard a Protestant up in this neck of the woods complain about that. But I suppose Protestants in a massively Catholic country like Argentina would be a different breed...
Dying for sins: who cares, let's eat

Ken Layne has his priorities:
When Jeebus died for whatever, he said: "At least you will have a Double-Double, fries and a drink for less than $5. So let it be written, so let it be done."

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

The spirit is willing, but...

The Great Atonement Debate will have to go on hold until I get over this stomach ailment I seem to have come down with. Everyone who's written to me, thank you, I'll get back to you soon.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The good, the bad and the gas-guzzling

Gregg Easterbrook has a truly depressing article about SUVs. But Jonathan Rauch offers hope for fuel-cell cars, while the Wall Street Journal says SUVs' popularity may have peaked.

I think the appeal of SUVs was probably best summed up on a billboard near my apartment: "Become a parent without becoming your parents." It became, I think, the emblem of baby boomers who are still hanging on to the belief that they're cooler than the previous generation even as their lives become essentially the same. But now that suburban parents are driving them, of course, whatever claim they had to cool has been lost.
Dying for sins: rolling on

Disputations responds to my last post directed his way. I think this time I'll take a cue from his opening sentence: "Camassia gamely continues to try to make sense of my attempts to set the stage to begin to sketch a way to try to begin to attempt to answer her perfectly sensible questions." Sounds like the man wants to move on to the first act, so I'll stop nitpicking and let him do it.
Dying for sins: Corpus Christi

Peter Nixon wrote a reflection on why everybody seems to be having such a hard time with the "dying for sins" issue. In an email, he remarked, "I suspect you will think (it) is an evasion."

I don't think it's an evasion, but it does make me feel like I'm going in circles. Peter writes eloquently about the limits of theological explanation, and the importance of community:
When a Christian is faced with someone who raises questions about the truths of our faith, the temptation is to explain, to use the faculty of reason, to argue and refute. I certainly do this myself (I’m doing it now!). But our more fundamental response should be to say “Come, live among us and see who we are and how we live. What we believe has made us who we are. While we can give reasons for what we believe, the only ‘proof’ we can offer is what these truths have made of our lives.”

Is this just intellectual evasion? A fancy way of avoiding the fact that our arguments do not seem intellectually compelling? Perhaps. But, speaking only for myself, I know that if my faith depended solely on my ability to articulate a convincing justification for each and every article of the Creed, I would be lost.

Well, I am hanging around Christians. I've been going to Christian Assembly since the middle of October, I've been blogging and emailing and talking to people. But as Peter himself admitted in his discussion with Dappled Things, there is more to it than simply attaching yourself to people you like. You don't believe everything the herd believes just because you like, even love, the herd.

This reminds me of a story my mother told me not long ago. She'd caught up with an old friend, a man now in his sixties, who had been going to the same church for decades. He liked the community, the activities, the services; his children had been married there. But he went up to the minister one day and admitted that he didn't really believe in God. He just liked the church. What was wrong with him?

After he talked about it for a while with the minister, he remarked with some amusement, "I think he felt the same way!"

They're not alone. It's perfectly possible, and indeed common, to feel deeply attached to a church community without embracing or even understanding its underlying creeds. If Christianity were all about works, this wouldn't matter. But it's also about faith, and more importantly, a narrative. If it were just a question of believing in the One God and that he wants you to behave a certain way, Christians would be Jewish. But Christianity is centered around a story, a series of events that supposedly saved humanity and for which we should all be eternally grateful, and if you don't "get" that, you're not really there.

Peter seems to acknowledge this toward the end:
I trust because I find something compelling in the life and death of Jesus. In Him and in those who bear His name I recognize and can give a name to something powerful within me, something that I both resist and want to surrender to. Jesus speaks to something in my heart and confronts me with an invitation, a moment of decision. I have no proof, no mathematical certainty. But I still leap, trusting that I will be caught.

It's that "something compelling" that I'm trying to figure out here. There is something powerful within Peter, and within Telford and Eve and other Christians I've known. Is it right to call it Jesus? I don't know. The Jesus I read about in the Bible is remote and largely incomprehensible to me. The story about dying for sins, obviously, does not especially move me. If I don't have this intuitive emotional grasp of it that Peter has, then what is left for me?
Dying for sins: oh hell

My faithful correspondent Josiah Neeley responded to my questions about his earlier letter (from the "In loco parentis" section of this post):
Your latest question was about
how Jesus could die for sins you had yet to commit. At
the risk of starting down the slippery slope to huge
posts of cut and paste quotations from the Church
Doctors, I offer this small passage from Aquinas who,
ironically enough, dealt with your objection hundreds
of years before you made it:

Objection 3. Further, one cannot be purged from a sin
not yet committed, but which shall be committed
hereafter. Since, then, many sins have been committed
since Christ's death, and are being committed daily,
it seems that we were not delivered from sin by
Christ's death.

Reply to Objection 3. Christ by His Passion delivered
us from our sins causally--that is, by setting up the
cause of our deliverance, from which cause all sins
whatsoever, past, present, or to come, could be
forgiven: just as if a doctor were to prepare a
medicine by which all sicknesses can be cured even in

Summa Theologica, Part Three, Question 49, Article 1

That's interesting, but that isn't quite what I asked. I assume an omnipotent deity wouldn't worry about a trifling thing like linear time. The reason I said your analogic story only made sense as a one-off was if it was an exception to the judge's general behavior. If I were the son in question, I'd take that move as a kind of warning shot: you've gotten away with everything before, but now you are a man, my son, and your actions have consequences. What if the son knew the father was going to pay every single time he screwed up, ad infinitum?

Josiah also wrote:
Also, you asked what, if anything, has changed since
the atonement, since people still sin, there is still
death and hell, etc. It seems to me that this question
looks at the atonement from the wrong angle. Suppose
your stuck at the bottom of a well and I throw you a
rope. Now, after I've thrown you the rope, you're
still at the bottom of a well, it's still dark and
damp and cramped. Should we say, then, that throwing
you the rope didn't change anything? Hardly. The rope
has given you the opportunity to escape. You still
won't get out of the well without a lot of effort, and
there's still a chance you won't make it at all, and
it may well be that, while climbing out of the well
your condition might not seem any better than before.
But there is still a difference, and the difference is
fundamentally important.

All right, let's try to connect this metaphor to the real world. What's the rope? Josiah doesn't say, but I assume it's faith in Jesus and following the Way he prescribed. Does this mean before Jesus no one even had an opportunity to escape hell? If so, what was God up to in the Old Testament?

Also, I note that no one in the known history of Christianity has managed to follow the Way all the way out of sin and death during his/her lifetime. Does this mean that the actual difference is only in the afterlife?

Finally, I can't help feeling there's some doublespeak going on here. We are told "you are saved," "your sins are forgiven," "you are reconciled with God," as if it's all accomplished and done. Telford Work once startled me by saying that "the battle against sin is over," which sounded pretty preposterous given that sin is all around us and within us. Telford will have to speak for himself, if and when he enters this discussion (Peter Nixon and I have both been lobbying!), but there is this general tendency in Christians' language to act like the business is over and done. And yet there are these conditions printed in agate type: you are reconciled with God if you pass this one more series of tests, if you follow the Way and sin no more, which you stand a good chance of failing. This makes the salvation and mercy sound rather less overarching than the big banner lines would lead you to think. Like I said, finding favor with God by acting the way he wants you to was pretty much the deal in the Old Testament. What's different now?

Dying for sins: Disputing on and on

John, or Tom, or whatever he calls himself, from Disputations sent an email responding to what I said in the post before this one. Since this is coming to involve quotes within quotes, I'm just going to label every passage.

Me, in earlier post: And indeed, if it were simply a matter of preaching a message to humans, you'd think God doing it as Omnipotent God would be more effective than turning himself into an anonymous human and letting himself get killed.

Disputations: Yes, I would think that, and if God had asked me for advice I probably would have recommended skipping straight to the Second Coming.

Me, now: Look, I'm not saying God should have done things this way or that way. I'm just trying to deduce what he was up to from his methodology. He did not simply deliver the message from on high, like Allah to Muhammad (or Yahweh to Moses, for that matter), he incarnated himself, so one assumes this extra step had a purpose unto itself. That's all I was saying.

Me, in earlier post: But quotes like Peter's make it sound like this self-weakening to the point of death showed how much he loved us, which I don't get.

Disputations: Hm. Well, you become what you love. (Which is why it's important to love God; humans aren't intended to become money.)

Me, now: Well, I wouldn't take that quite so literally!

Disputations: Does that explain why God became man? Not fully, but maybe partly.

Let's pretend God is a Trinity, and that the Second Person of the Trinity became the man Jesus of Nazareth. How would Jesus of Nazareth show the love of the Second
Person of the Trinity for the First Person? The way a man shows his love for the First Person, of course.

But the way a man shows his love for God (can I get away without showing how to move from "First Person" to "God" here?) is by loving other humans. God both commands this and judges us by how well we loved others. (Protestants prefer to say He judges us by our faith in Him, but it amounts to the same thing, since our faith in Him includes the fact that He's told us He will judge us by how well we loved others.)

So anyway, Jesus shows His love for the Father by loving the people He meets. Now, there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend (again, returning
to what I wrote before, assuming the opportunity is there; you're not supposed to kill yourself at your wedding), so by dying for us -- and I realize I haven't explained the
"for" yet, which was your original question a few weeks back -- Jesus shows His (no-greater) love for us, which is a manifestation in this fallen world of the (really
seriously no-greater) love the Second Person of the Trinity has for the First Person.

Me: OK, but you seem to be affirming my original complaint when you say, "there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend." I mean, I understand why you say that, because dying for someone is a statement that you value the other person at least as much as you value yourself. But dying isn't the only way to say that, and the only reason dying for another even happens is that we humans are weak and mortal, and there arise situations where somebody has to die. How it was a loving thing for God to make himself weak and mortal, and therefore in a position to die, is what I'm not following.

Also, I have always wondered how God's sacrifice could be considered as great as a human dying for another human, given that he knew he was going to get up again. Depending on which version of the Gospel you read, Jesus seemed to have some anxiety about this, but I expect his father did not, and he and his father are theoretically the same being. Man, this trinity stuff makes my head spin...

Monday, January 13, 2003

Dying for sins: clarification

Disputations sent me an email taking issue with my complaint that some Christians equate love with pain:
I think you're putting the effect before the cause. Love doesn't equal pain; that would make God pain, and I don't think many Christians believe that. But love leads to pain. Why? Because people sin. When you take love and put it into this fallen world, a Christian might say, the result is suffering. It's like the distortion of an image cast upon a crumpled- up piece of photographic paper; the result may not look much like the original, but that's not due to the original. The Son loves the Father, and when the Son became man and manifested His love for the Father as a man, it so infuriated others that they killed Him.

Let me clarify: I don't have trouble with the concept that Jesus died because of human sin. That he got killed because he was telling people what they didn't want to hear, even if they needed to, is clear enough. What I was asking about is the idea that Jesus died for our sins: that his death was not merely an unfortunate side effect of his preaching, but had an active, premeditated role in some sort of atonement. And it seems like it had to, really: if it were simply a matter of getting a message accross, doing it as an Omnipotent Being would seem to be more effective than turning yourself into an anonymous human and letting yourself get killed. The comments that Peter was quoting seemed to say that this self-weakening to the point of death was itself an act of love, which I don't get.

Meanwhile, Peter quotes another reader who urges looking at Jesus holistically. Going back to the original comment, though, I came across a line that stopped me cold: "One can reasonably ask the question, in what I hope is a post-apocolyptic age, what would have happened to Jesus if he'd died in his bed at the age of 98. Methinks the same rising would have occurred, which is what is promised to us."

That makes it sound like his death really was incidental. Unless I'm totally misreading it, which is always possible.
The face I had before the world was made

The Gutless Pacifist has an interesting excerpt today from a new book about U2. I remember reading earlier that in the early days the band was effectively booted out of their Christian group because they chose to stay in the rock business, and the book suggests this was a good thing:
If U2 had been in fellowship (church) in the United States or even just sixty miles north of Dublin, in Northern Ireland, it would have been easy to get sucked into a Christian subculture. Many bands in similar situations are discouraged from playing in secular venues like bars or clubs because Christians shouldn't be in these places. The theory is that you shouldn't take Jesus into what are often called "dens of iniquity." The only acceptable reason for attending these places would be to evangelize the lost who go there.

I must say, from my admittedly sketchy knowledge of Christian rock, I have a hard time imagining U2 fitting into it. They're too theologically eccentric, too liberal and way too dark. They've done some celebratory pieces, but their real talent is for expressing religious frustration and doubt. One song that's been rattling around my head a lot in the past few months is Mofo, a ragged electronica experiment that's sort of the bastard stepchild of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. "White dopes on punk staring into the flash/Looking for baby Jesus under the trash." Don't know what the hell it means, but I like it.
Who goes there

Telford Work has been reading a book about Christianity in the modern age. I don't have squat useful to say about it, but I can't help being amused at the idea of a theologian named Rusty Reno. Is it just me, or does that sound more like the name of a porn star?

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Sending a message

I've been regretting a bit the tone of my response to Peter Nixon's two recent postings on dying for sins. (See under the "Love hurts" section of the previous post.) I think I was being obtuse, and I was also responding not so much to the actual quotes as to a strain in pop Christianity I've seen elsewhere that fetishizes Christ's suffering to an unseemly degree. But I think what Peter is getting at is more complicated.

There seems to be an insinuation in both posts that the life and death of Jesus was some attempt by God to come down and speak to us in our language, and the Crucifixion was part of that communication. I take this from the Pope's line about God wanting to "justify himself to man," and the other writer's saying how the event "pointed out a way for us to follow." I guess most Christians feel they "get" the message somehow, even if they can't quite articulate it, and I don't. Like I said, I don't especially respond to a suffering God, or a God who weakens himself to walk among us. But obviously I respond to something, or I wouldn't even be bothering with this discussion.