It’s Christmas. Time to ask, what the hell Christianity is about, if anything? If Christianity isn’t the celebration of a murder/suicide pact between God the Father and God the Son, then what is it?
The Crucifixion seems to be something like the story of Abraham and Isaac when God tested Abram by asking him to kill his son. Then God said STOP!
If evangelicals like Billy Graham are to be believed, when it came to his own son God said, “Kill him!”
Does that make sense on any level? And we’re supposed to believe in this retributive theology of “atonement” or the God who murdered his son will burn us forever.
Then again, maybe not.
Here’s an excerpt from my book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace that offers an alternative to the insane retributive “god” believed in by many evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
My wife Genie once said to me, “It’s hard to believe in something that seems too good to be true.” Then she thought about it for a moment and added, “But sometimes good things are true, even things that are too good to believe.”
In an essay titled, “When the Other Appears on the Scene,” philosopher, literary critic and novelist Umberto Eco muses on what I think of as Genie’s theme of hopeful uncertainty. He writes:
To accept even if only for a moment the idea that there is no God; that man appeared in the world out of a blunder on the part of maladroit fate, delivered not only unto his mortal condition but also condemned to be aware of this, and for this reason the most imperfect of all creatures … in order to find the courage to await death, we would necessarily become a religious animal, and would aspire to the construction of narratives capable of providing us with an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And among the many stories we imagine—some dazzling, some awe-inspiring, some pathetically comforting—in the fullness of time we have at a certain point the religious, moral, and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness for enemies, of a life sacrificed that others may be saved. If I were a traveler from a distant galaxy and I found myself confronted with a species capable of proposing this model, I would be filled with admiration… I would judge this wretched and vile species, which has committed so many horrors, redeemed were it only for the fact that it has managed to wish and to believe that all this is the truth… [T]he fact that this story could have been imagined and desired by humans, creatures who know only that they do not know, would be just as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the son of a real God being made flesh. This natural and worldly mystery would not cease to move and ennoble the hearts of those who do not believe.
I glimpse the beauty, the love and the peace that is—as Genie puts it so wonderfully—too good to be true during an annual service we treasure, the Service of Forgiveness. This is a service only a liturgical community could provide. After prayers the service ends with each person in our local church walking to the front of the sanctuary, kissing the icon of Jesus and then bowing in front of our priest. “Forgive me,” we say. “I forgive you,” answers our priest. We embrace and then we say, “God forgives us both.” Each person then takes his or her place next to the priest in a line that eventually stretches around the interior of our church.
Each person repeats the action and moves down the line repeating the “Forgive me” ritual with everyone until we’ve each asked one another for forgiveness and have all been forgiven. We bow before children and old people, middle-aged parishioners and giggling toddlers. We ask forgiveness from people we love and from people we don’t love and even from some we dislike. The priest and the youngest infant in arms are equals in this ritual.
When I get to Genie, I whisper “Forgive me.” We hug as we’ve hugged others, but in Genie’s embrace I tumble into a healing moment of sweet reconciliation. My wife says, “I forgive you,” with deep warmth and sincerity. And she really knows me! Yet, I am forgiven! I realize that life is not a step to a better place: life IS the better place, right here and now. It’s too good to be true—and it’s real….
The philosopher René Girard would have understood what Genie was driving at. The bitter theology of retribution and atonement (in which God is said to have insisted someone should pay for all our sins) is something he rejects.
Girard points to a non-retributive, non-theological understanding of Christ. He attempts to explain how religions, including certain branches of Christianity, have become so fixated on retributive sacrifice. He argues that human primates imitate one another, as all primates do, giving rise to violence. Because we imitate others, we imitate their desires. Through this “mimetic desire” (think miming), we begin to want what others want until we’ll kill to get it. Such violence threatens survival of the tribe.
Girard argues that the problem of human violence was once solved with a “lesser” violence when people united against a communal scapegoat, allowing them to blame one person for whatever harm was befalling them. Former enemies united in hating the person they killed. Ritualized scapegoating became the foundation of religion. Girard argues that our mythologies describe what’s always happening, not what happened once upon a time. So the Bible brought a transition from the scapegoat norm to something better.
Where pre-biblical myths were part of the dynamic of the scapegoat/vengeful/religion/sacrifice mechanism, the Bible contains some stories recounting the ethical evolution story from the perspective of the victims. Rather than always sanctioning the death of the scapegoat, even the Old Testament God is sometimes on the side of the victim. Girard implies that the theological idea of so-called atonement—a euphemism for the appeasement of an angry God—is wrong.
The idea of atonement—Jesus “dying for our sins” as if to satisfy God—is the opposite of evolutionary truth. Evolution doesn’t demand justice; it demands life. In evolution the result of suffering, killing, extinctions, death and chaos is the learning curve undertaken by genes that pass on knowledge in an effort to survive. No one from the first primitive microorganism to Jesus has died to “satisfy” an angry God.
If there is a Creator by whatever name, then our very existence puts that Creator on the side of life. The evolutionary method is not about changes in life forms bent on dying. Why would the Creator be the enemy of his, her, or its own creation and anything or anyone in it, including a divine son? Nature may be many things but it is not petty, vindictive and stupid. So why should we think God is?
Can you imagine me consigning my six year old granddaughter Lucy to oblivion because she had wrong ideas about me? Can you imagine me burning her forever because she didn’t believe in me, forgot my name, called me the wrong name, thought I had six arms, believed she had three or six or ten grandfathers, or brought me fruit when I’d asked for lamb? And even if a grandchild killed me and I could judge her or him from the grave, do you imagine that I’d demand they burn for eternity? I am not a good man and yet can you imagine anything that would cut Amanda, Ben, Lucy and Jack off from my love?Following Girard’s argument, death—including Jesus’ death—occurs so that all may live, learn and eventually reach an end point of perfection when the entire cycle of creation from the beginning to end will be vindicated, perhaps even understood. A great milestone has already been passed on our evolutionary journey: consciousness has achieved empathy. Paradoxically, human society may be on an ethical journey but evolution as defined by science is only focused on survival, mirroring another paradox: although the Bible (supposedly) opposes persecution, Christianity has been complicit in the coercion of heretics, the killing of Jews, the persecution of gay men and women and the perpetuation of wars.
Girard argues that while the gospel is God’s revelation, we understand its meaning only gradually. Girard credits the best non-retributive Christian and Jewish thinking for the humanism that is usually credited exclusively to secular thought. In the West, he notes, the move away from scapegoating is not the product of the Enlightenment but rather the result of the enlightened teaching of Jesus, (affirming my view that the Enlightenment was a Christian heresy). The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise, was a byproduct of the action of the gospel as Girard says in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. He writes “I hold the truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth.” For Girard this truth is manifested in Jesus… (To continue reading please click here and buy the book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace)
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Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace