Sunday, March 26, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 2)

Dear D,

I commented on the first three chapters of your book, Magnificent Obsession in my previous post. I've now got to Chapter 4: Murdered, which raises a few issues worthy of discussion.

In my previous post I noted how you slipped out of the role of apologist in Chapter 3, and into the role of preacher. You do that again in Chapter 4. Rather than try to defend the notion of a spiritual reality and a devil, you ask the reader to "grant the existence of the devil for a moment" and from here on in attempt to show that the Christian message is internally consistent (you seem to assume that the 'moment' extends for the duration of the chapter). Actually, I'm not sure that the Christian message is completely internally consistent, but leaving that aside for now, you do nothing here to convince the reader that the Christian worldview (there is a God, there is a devil, Jesus's death has saving and atoning power) is consistent with reality, you simply ask the reader to grant you that worldview and then proceed as if it is reality.

I suppose that one possible reason there are so many "false teachings" going around in the many flavours of Christianity is that the devil has stuck his oar in and messed it all up, but another reason could be that there is no "true teaching" and the many different flavours are all just human attempts to interpret a selection of confusing and occasionally conflicting scriptures in the light of different varieties of human experience. If you want to convince me toward one rather than the other, there needs to be some evidence to back this up. (For what its worth, I think the Christian conception of the devil is an evolved hybrid concept combining aspects of the OT serpent, the OT Satan, the Canaanite chaos monster (who appears in the bible as Leviathan), the Zoroastrian Ahriman and the Philistine "lord of the flies" Baal-zeebub... but that's going waaaay of topic, so I'll leave that discussion for another time.)

Anyway, you express your opinion that God "would express himself through his Word", that this Word is "supposed to be the message of Christ" but do acknowledge that there are "issues where more than one interpretation is equally valid". Hmmm. So God expresses himself in ambiguous ways? But you then assert your opinion that the Bible is beyond scrutiny - it is true and who are we to query it?

If you want your readers to accept the Bible as ultimate truth, I think there needs to be some justification of this. You seem to be slipping into presuppositional apologetics. That never gets anywhere, in my experience.

But anyway, we now get to the death of Jesus and what its all about. Or rather, you start with "the atonement" and assume that Jesus death has atoning power. Again, I think you've jumped ahead of yourself here. Not all the gospels claim Jesus death has atoning power. The concept is absent in Luke-Acts as I have blogged about in the past.

When we get to the question of "Why did He die?" I agree with you that Hitchens created a straw man caricature of the Christian concept of the atonement, but I think there are issues with the very notion of the atonement that other 'new' atheists are right to question. You say that "He was suffering in our place" as if that somehow solves the problem. Why do we deserve suffering and death? (Not merely one or the other, but both, apparently.) What is it about sin that requires suffering to repay the debt? And how can an innocent party take the penalty for the guilty in a just court?

Suppose someone 'sins' against you by crashing into your car and writing it off. In order to fix that situation, all that is needed is that you get a replacement car, and perhaps a bit of financial compensation to cover the inconvenience. While you probably do want the guilty party to suffer in some way for this, you'll probably be reasonably satisfied when someone else (the insurance company) pays the bills. Here it is entirely justified to have a substitute pay the price.

But suppose someone 'sins' against you by murdering your children. There actually is no way to repay that debt. Nobody can replace the lost child, not even if someone were somehow able to give you more children, this wouldn't repair the damage. Here, if the guilty party goes free and a substitute takes the penalty, there is no justice. It doesn't matter how much pain or even death is imposed on the substitute, nothing can repair the damage. Indeed, inflicting pain and death on an innocent party only serves to make the injustice greater, not less.

Atonement theology confuses these two different types of substitution. It is claimed that we have sinned against God in the latter manner, hurting him in a way equivalent to murder. Yet the payment follows the former manner, assuming that justice can be served by letting the innocent pay. The justice of the cross is no justice at all.

You ask, "After all, who would want to live in a universe where there was no justice?" This is just begging the question. We don't have a range of universes to pick from. We only have this one. Whether we want it to be just or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is just. From observation, it would seem that there actually is no justice. Innocent people are born, live their lives in misery and famine and then die. Meanwhile others are born into privilege, become mean and selfish, exploit others, make money, live a long life of luxury and die, peacefully in their sleep, at an old age. You can invent a postmortem judgement, heaven and hell to try and restore justice to the grand picture, but without evidence, that really is just wishful thinking. Any finite problem can be solved by an imaginary, infinite and unseen counterweight, but without any evidence for the counterweight, it is 'just a theory' (and not in the scientific sense of the word!).

Anyway, on the subject of sin, we now get to your 'simple experiment': "see if you can go one whole week without saying, doing, or thinking anything bad." You then ask "Why do we find that impossible?" I'll tell you why we find it impossible, because the society that we live in (which derives its morality in large part from 'Christian values') defines many normal and natural aspects of human nature as 'sin' or 'bad'. By nature we are made to try to satisfy our desires, whether for food, sex, or position in society. It is not wrong to desire any of these things, but the bible has branded the desires themselves as sinful, even if they are never acted upon. Part of growing up to function in a group society is learning when not to act on those desires. One of the terrible things the church has done countless times in history is to convince people who have literally done nothing wrong, that their very thoughts are sinful, the ones they haven't acted upon. Indeed, that their very human nature is sinful. Some people haven't been able to live with the pressure of that guilt and there have been many casualties along the way.

You now move on to hell. As I said above, hell is just an unseen, theoretical counterweight. Without evidence, of which you offer none, the argument is worthless. "Jesus suffered hell so that we don't have to." Really? I don't think that's even in the bible!

The message that Christ died in my place is powerful and can be liberating, unless you think about it too much. As soon as you ask the 'Why?' and 'How?' questions it all becomes a bit less certain, and loses its power. I'm more of the opinion that belief that Jesus has paid for the burden of your sins, can effectively reduce the psychological burden of guilt (a guilt that is probably there because of the church's teaching in the first place). There doesn't need to be any reality to it. That is why faith is so important. Not because its true, but because faith itself works, on a psychological level at least. Which is why it works in all religions, maybe not for everybody, but for some.

So grant the non existence of the devil for a moment... and no hell, no sin and no damnation... and no God, no atonement, and no saviour... take away the imaginary, infinite and unseen counterweights... then look at the world. Doesn't it look just like the sort of jumbled chaos you'd expect if there weren't supernatural beings in control of everything?

You end with Mark 10:45, one of the verses that Luke could have used when he was working up Mark into his longer gospel, but chose not to use. Have you ever wondered why? Its worth thinking about.

Until next time,


No comments: