Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Easter and all that..

I had an interesting conversation with a Christian friend at the weekend, it started because I had a piece of simnel cake at a family gathering (the kind with 11 marzipan apostles on the top) and I love marzipan! After breaking the philosophical ice with a comment by me about bringing an atheist cake (i.e. a non-existent one!) we got onto the subject of religious symbols and ultimately what Easter is really supposed to be about. Like most people who did RE and attended church for years at school, I’m familiar with the traditional Christian story of sacrifice, torture, absolution, sin, conquering death etc. but I had never really deconstructed it. It was interesting to do that in the company of someone who believes the story to be true and who was quite happy to throw the ideas around.

Like all persistent and powerful stories it struck me that the Easter story appeals to our natural cognitive biases, specifically the idea of self sacrifice. Imagine a soldier who throws his body onto a hand grenade to protect his comrades in the shell hole; we look at this person as a hero. Such thoughts stir up strong and conflicting emotions in social animals like us; we wonder if we would be brave enough to do the same, we marvel at how supreme and selfless such a sacrifice would be. This was the aspect of the story that my Christian friend wanted to emphasise the most, the crux of the story for her, but what she was much less clear about was the true nature of the sacrifice i.e. in the case of the Jesus story where was the grenade?

It’s easy to understand the fascination with the horrific elements of the tale, the thorns, the suffering, the blood the nails etc. you only need to look at the popularity of that awful Mel Gibson film to see that phenomenon but when I consider the actual context of the sacrifice I am left with a narrative that doesn’t really add up. Of course the Christian claim is that Jesus was “saving” us from our original sin, our flawed and inherently wicked nature, and that sin was initiated by the first human beings. But we know now that those beings could not and did not exist and even if in some metaphorical sense they do exist in our minds then their sin was simply being wilful, curious and credulous. By most people’s standards today this so called “sin” would be considered a virtue, committed by mythical beings against a myth. Is this a "sin" really worth dying for?

The next problem is that nothing seems to have changed, there was “sin” before and there is “sin” now and everywhere in between; the sacrificial act passed most humans on our planet by completely not affecting them in the slightest. The stock response is of course that the severity of the sacrifice suggests the importance of the message; but again one of our pervasive cognitive short cuts is being hijacked, we assume that because the doctor died to give us the pill then the prescription must be all the more effective. This is simply a fallacy; people die for utterly stupid reasons every single day, the only test that really matters is whether or not the medicine actually works. Even if this fallacy wasn't then why would torturing the doctor to death make us any better?

If this isn’t enough to make more people question true nature of the sacrifice in this story we have another more elementary problem, Jesus cheats. We are told that he dies in order to save us from an ancestral sin infection but he doesn’t die, he comes back to life and zooms up to live forever in his father’s pad in the sky, what has been sacrificed? I suppose he is supposed to have experienced pain and torture, great suffering and sadness etc. but this doesn’t really help. Imagine our theoretical infantry man throwing himself on that grenade, even if the grenade was a dud the guy would still be a hero, but Jesus was supposed to be omniscient, he knew his own nature, the heroism must surely be fraudulent?

Finally there is a slice of the story that simply doesn’t compute with modern audiences (educated ones at least) that is the idea of the propitiatory sacrifice. This is probably where the idea of springtime bloodletting draws its mojo, i.e. if you have a problem with your God then take your king, or best goat, or virgin daughter, or loyalty and offer it up to that God. Then you will be rewarded with a better harvest or fortune in war or whatever remedy you desire. We know these days that this doesn’t work, even my Christian friend knew this and it was the part of the story that she least resonated with i.e. the idea that God supposedly gave his son in a blood sacrifice to propitiate himself and grant forgiveness for our species having disobeyed him once in 4000BC it doesn’t really work emotionally or logically. We wouldn’t regard the sapper who pushed his mate’s body onto the grenade as any kind of hero, especially if he pulled the pin out in the first place.

None of these thoughts are new or original but I’d never flushed them through like this before so I enjoyed our conversation around them. No doubt there are plenty of wizened theologians out there who would pick holes in these thoughts, run semantic circles around them and pepper them with pedantry, all the while alluding to some “greater mystery and meaning” that can’t possibly be understood using mere reason, but if that’s true then doesn’t the whole thing fail a simple taste test and doesn't there have to be much simpler explanation?


Gerrarrdus said...

Thanks for you thoughts, Steve.
Your friend seems to have explained one view of the atonement. There are dozens of others. And the Bible varies between them as well - God vindicating Jesus, Jesus as sacrifice, which requires a whole realm of explanation from the OT, Jesus as Passover lamb. And we've since then elaborated loads more. The essential truth in there is that on the Cross, and through the empty tomb, Jesus (and God through him and the Spirit) has done *something* momentous - something that changes the world and us. And all the theories of atonement in the world are just models of what it might mean.

Steve Borthwick said...

Hi G, Many thanks for your perspective.

I hadn't realised it was such a "plastic" set of ideas for some, I suppose even this plasticity is itself not universally accepted either. All far too nebulous for my geeky brain to comprehend or accept, you know I really do wonder if some of us are hard-wired this way and some not, like a propensity for being musical or something like that.

Gerrarrdus said...

Do you know, I think that's true. I suppose for a simple distinction we could call the "righteous" and the "unrighteous" ;) Some might associate this with the so-called "Religion Gene".

I was reading the rather excellent book (on historical theology) "Early Christian Doctrines" at the time I read your post first time. Got to the point where Kelly says that the early church simply hadn't worked out which model to use. There's a habit, particularly with fundamentalism, to believe that whatever they believe today, the Early Church did as well. And it's not true. For example, even as early as the 3rd century theologians such as Origen could challenge a literal view of the 6-day creation. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/gen1st.htm