Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Atonement - there isn't any

Surprise surprise. I have had nothing to say about atonement theory and have not debated the matter to any purpose. I have not debated subordinationism either (they are related), where some trinitarians think it essential that the Trinity and not Arian heresy asserts equality - funny then that the heteretical denomination in Britain, the Unitarians, along with Quakers, has consistently been the most equalitarian. The stress on unity for longer has had a longer impact, I suggest, whether this is divine unity or human unity.

I don't care how Steve Chalke changes his mind (I do care that he's involved in British school education). I read a blog entry like Rachel's, done in the form of an academic essay, arguing about penal substitution as atonement theory, and it fails to address never mind answer the simple question: just how does all this work?

I live in a world view that demonstrates evolution. Evolution is what by accident turned big reptiles into birds and gave space for mammals to become humans; evolution is always and everywhere local and specific. It's  based on comparative advantage and death in the particular. I also have a world view that explains scientific causality in general, and it's very complex, with technical materials now ever more incredible as a direct result of understanding the very small and the transformative. I understand mass research in figures and deep research in words (meanings). The world is mathematical, it is also chaotic in generation but systemic in relation (as is evolution). History is important, and has many schools of historiography, but identify primary sources as necessary and special whatever the craft of the story telling, just as the craft of writing is necessary to summarise a thick research of the anthropologist.

And thus I have not a clue how atonement works. I do know about exchange and gift theory, but that works around ritual between people as we have them and binds them together stronger as a group. Exchange theory is part of economics, part of social contract, sex, art, part of religion. A relatively worthless token can be exchanged where material loss brings spiritual benefit, where the binding together comes. So a eucharistic ritual is like that, and the Roman Catholics strengthen it by claiming real presence, and by its ahistorical ritualistic participation in the crucifixion of the deity. If you believe its ridiculous pseudo-science, or you can have a faith-view that requires ever more mental effort, it necvertheless still requires a ritual to happen and to bind the group giving it identity and purpose - in this case, Christians.

But the gift-exchange of Christ for sin is nothing but mental effort. There is no objective basis for it at all, no method by which there is any transmission.

We need to be historical to look for what happened, and need to be scientific for mechanisms that do actual work. The history is that the Romans extended their empire around the Mediterranean. The edge of empire was a cruel place and irritants received short shrift. One of the end-time preachers (and healers) went to Jerusalem to preach the end of the world as we know it and preparation for a new reality, using the biblical sources like the suffering servant, nudging his God by self-importance to bring in the expected end, and was (like many) put to cruel death. A small group expected him to return from heaven as the actual messiah, a process of escalation of titles that didn't stop, and this group was fortunate to have an associate of talent from outside who created a salvation faith of Gentile appeal through what the Jews had as a messiah. First he favoured law, then he favoured messiah. But all these ideas are culturally relative and no longer explain how the world works. Jesus was wrong, they were wrong, but they thought as they did at the time. For a historian, the biblical sources are all secondary: they are primary only in regard to the beliefs of early Churches or communities. My history is reconstructive, it's all that is available, and is open to challenge but not more certainty.

What we have now are ethics, and we think Jesus was a good ethical type of person, but it is historically impossible to say he was supremely ethical simply because we don't have the information about him or others. As for him being sinless, it's only theological because as a human being he presumably had to grow up and learn. And any human is as fully human as any other. The notion of atonement is that either a God has to die or a purely sinless full human (or both - indeed the sinless human is as God). But it is simply a belief, a mental act, and one without historical back-up. Nor is there any applicable history or science to him being as the opening of the resurrection (the first) where bodies rise up. Death involves rapid brain damage, and there is no continuation of consciousness, and resurrection that follows death ought to be subject to the 'energise' test in Star Trek where all who energise must utterly perish, the people who then reconstruct are but carbon copies with memories. If you perish, the rest is copying.

Some might accuse me here of literalism or stupidity, but I am accusing the Christian of overt objectivity and more than can be claimed. There is no such thing as atonement, except as a kind of subjective mental act, a kind of delusion.

Furthermore, the notion that we are saved and changed, or the world is being restored, might have truth in it in places but is far more likely that people are more rational, more sympathetic, because of course at the same time we remain having hideous conflicts and wars and tribalisms. The saddest sight of recent times is the Buddhist monks of Burma showing nationalist and violent tendencies and wishing to ban marriages of Buddhist women to Muslim men. The viciousness of the war in Syria goes without saying.

Christian theology, like whether it is substitution or penal substitution just talks to itself. Recently I read some material about the younger James Martineau and others in Liverpool and the introduction of the Unitarian domestic mission there for people who hadn't the clothes to wear to go to church. The cultural assumptions about the necessity to hear Christianity show that they lived in a completely different worldview to our own, even from the 1830s onward. Martineau was later to revise his ideas, though he never enacted the implications of them away from Christianity as he retained a more conservative liturgical output. But it's as if the whole explanation of reality has simply collapsed: Christianity is now a mythology and nothing different from any other mythology. Argue this way or that way, but it does not connect with the ways we explain things today, ways that produce results and repeat the results.

Religion has now to be different: to be reflective, to be an overview, a pause, yes with rituals to bind, but not an alternative universe unless, of course, one fancies fantasy.

Simon Schama presents The Story of the Jews - not, we note, an ongoing history of the restoration of the world in transit. It is a story of ethnic identity with rituals. The Reformed in England even wear top hats during their ritual. He points out that there is no evidence for Moses (and none for Abraham, of course) and that the biblical writing was more recent. Archaeologists find the Bible a distraction, he points out. Quite, because archaeology has its method too, and one that has causal impact. Time Team on Channel 4 used to explain things and made corrections. And that's the difference. Story is important to shaping lives, and the Christian story can shape Christian lives, but please don't be self-fooled by arguments that have no anchorage in anything other than story.


MadPriest said...

So what?

In your godless universe you appear to have appointed yourself as God insomuch that you decide what has value and what hasn't. You assume fact is "better" than fiction but that is an arbitrary assumption. You have nothing by which to measure the value of one thing against another.

By killing God the atheist makes the worship of God as logical as any and every other act.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Where in this did I refer to anything being 'Godless' - I certainly deny an interventionist God and that Jesus was of the deity. I have changed my mind in so far as I am less 'postmodern' than I once was and tried to be.

MadPriest said...

A non-interventionist god is, for all intents and purposes, a god that doesn't exist. So my point still stands.

Anonymous said...

Beware people who think that truth can outweigh facts. "Truth" is a story we tell; lately we've learned to check the story against what actually happens.

"God" seems another name for existence "I Am," we are. The rest is interpretation of experience. Humankind is driven to perceive meaning, patterns -- we must connect the dots of our myriad experiences as we do the dots in the sky (no actual pictures there, when you think of it).

We've come far enough that earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, hurricanes, are no longer interpreted as messages from God. The current take is that, through the Incarnation, God shares human suffering. Meaning and love are human constructs. The universe is indifferent.

We are all the centres of our universes and all our opinions (beliefs, assumptions) are learned responses to experience. Mad Priest in his choice to accept tradition's version of value does so as much as an individual as Adrian does in choosing a more objective view. We are individuals swimming in a swamp of language and culture. Irreducibly alone, but buffeted on all sides by social forces.

Since Mad Priest has been rude to Adrian, I will say that his postings have seemed to me blighted by ego for sometime, which is why I stopped reading his blog.

--Murdoch Matthew

MadPriest said...

Nowhere in this thread have I said what I believe except that I believe that if there is no god or god is non-interventionist then we can believe what we want to believe because nothing has more value than anything else. If it could be proved to me that there is no god then I would choose to believe in the same god I believe in now because I would be free to and it would be more fun than not believing in god.

I may have been rude to Adrian but that was only because he was being all "superior to thou" in his post. It's his style and I replied in mine. I think we both know ourselves well enough not to get uptight about each other. And at least neither of us use other people's threads to insult people we don't know and try to turn people against each other. That would be both bad mannered and extremely childish.

Murdoch said...

I was about to apologize for the tone of my last paragraph. I thought of observing that Mad Priest has a bit of a god complex of his own, in operating a prominent blog critical of the religious establishment while evidently hoping to be recognized by the establishment at some point.

Funny about facts -- they come across as superior to unprovable opinions. This doesn't make all values the same -- some are more productive than others -- but it does make them all subjective.

All us commenters are out to set the world aright. It's fun, but not so influential as power and privilege.

Go in peace.

MadPriest said...

I cannot for the life of me see why a fact is more valuable than an opinion in a universe without a god who decrees value to everything. In a godless universe value is arbitrary. I am serious about this. I have thought long and hard about it. I used to believe that atheists could not behave morally. I know believe that a rule of life based on the minimisation of pain and, out of self interest, the minimisation of pain in others, could, for all intents and purposes, be regarded as a morality even without a god. But, following such a rule of life would necessitate the sterilisation of everybody and the end of the human race as being born is never worth the dying if you are non-sentient before you are born.

Murdoch said...

Things are as they are, whatever we think of them. We live in the world as it is, whatever stories we weave. If the universe is, in fact, godless, then it is, despite the human compulsion to discern patterns.

Humankind are social creatures, developed to care for one another. We find love, meaning, and comfort in our lives and social groups, whatever the cosmic significance. I don't see why recognizing such would lead to species suicide. Better, if we were to recognize that God isn't directing us toward some beneficial goal, but that our species has exploited the planet's resources to the point of over-population and poisoning the environment. Are religionists ignoring morality as they crowd others of God's creatures off the planet and destroy the atmosphere?

Sentience seems a mixed blessing. Would that "values" led us to make better use of it.

MadPriest said...

I'm not saying that the universe is not godless. It may well be. But if it is there is no "better" than another thing. It really wouldn't matter if we destroyed our own species and took the rest of the planet with us. Therefore, if we desire to save the human race it would seem sensible to invent something that insists that we behave in a certain eco-friendly way and then believe in it. Any attempt to undermine such beliefs with facts would make the destruction of the human race more likely. At the moment atheists are still clinging on to the shirttails of an inherited Christian morality. But when they stop deluding themselves and accept the meaningless of meaningless universe then we will be forced to choose between an honest nihilism or dishonest arbitrary moralities.

Murdoch said...

We definitely need a new mythology. Problem -- belief without evidence goes off into all sorts of directions, climate-change denial, rapture delusions, natural law fantasies. How to hone a mythology that will honor the facts and point to constructive action? Good luck.

MadPriest said...

I can't think of anything in the synoptic gospels that would be counterproductive of such aspirations as long as you always apply Ockham's Razor. IAnd there are far more people in the world believing stuff without facts than people who insist on seeing evidence before believing (and that's without even bringing religion into the equation). Take evolution and capitalism for example. I don't think getting people to believe it would be a problem. Getting rid of the non-believers who run the Christian religion at all levels would be the major problem because they are prone to corrupt the core tenets to fit their own less universally beneficial agendas.

My comment proposes a Christian solution but that is only because, with the exception of Islam, which I studied at university, I know little of the other world religions. However, I can see no reason why there shouldn't be more than one myth (true or otherwise) at a time. With the exception of the fundamentalists we seem to cope with such syncretism quite well.

Inventing a delusion for those who delude themselves into believing that they are not deluded may be tricky. The thing is those primarily responsible for destroying the environment tend to fall within this category.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

There is the long cherished sense of need for 're-enchantment' (as Weber put it) and of course stories allow the expressions of values. I'm being more pragmatic than that, that we have an empathy with the other, and we do being tribal beings.

My argument though is about what is understood and what works, what we live by. I'm saying the old ideas have packed up, and yet worked even until relatively recently. 'Atonement' - my focus - has lost its meaning, lost its anchor. It has been multi-angled and applied variously, but I'm suggesting that none of the Christian ideas about it work any more. The principle of 'doing work' is important, and ideas that become unhooked cease to do work.

Jim Stearn said...

The great Spike Milligan once came up with the cure that had no known disease. The substitutionary atonement seems to fill this bill. As a Unitarian I believe hat every baby is born with the inner flame of the spirit, the innate gift of God's purpose. Jesus agreed. Christians are expected to believe that every child is born with some ancestral curse of "original sin" which is cancelled by total belief in Jesus's death by torture. Any doctor will tell you that a cure that has no visible way of working but is effective if beleived in is a "placebo". Anyway, Christians also believe that Jesus was the bosses son who knew he couldn't die anyway.