awakening conscience

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I've been reading "Atonement in Literature and Life" by Alan Dinsmore which is a fascinating book written in 1906 that looks at how great literature has reflected the human struggles of conflict, revenge, guilt and reconciliation, looking at authors like Homer, Shakespeare and Milton.

One of the things Dinsmore says is that conscience is not awakened either by fear of punishment nor by the show of great love. It is awakened by empathy, compassion, by a person seeing the consequences of their sin. I thought this was rather profound, and it bears out with what psychologists say about the criminal mind - that it has no sense of empathy, of the harm that they are doing to others.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the book "Emotional Intelligence" in a recent radio interview said that he thought that this is what we should be focusing on with youth offenders whose personality (including the moral awareness of empathy) is still developing until they are around 20. He advocated "reform schools" that would teach them to develop empathy. Similarly, one aspect of Restorative Justice programs is to have criminals meet their victims so that they can learn who the person is that they have hurt and likewise make the connection of empathy.

Goleman defines emotional intelligence in terms of self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy and the ability to love and be loved, and believes it can be taught. This makes sense since these are the kinds of things that are instilled in a healthy child by their parents. So in this sense it is in fact (parental) love that instills in a person in their formative years the sense of self that creates empathetic loving adults. So if that is true it would seem that Dinsmore got it half right: conscience is awakened in a person by helping them develop a sense of the consequences of their sins, by empathy, and empathy in instilled in a person by them being loved so they can move from being self-oriented towards bring a relational being.

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Subjective and Objective Atonement - Abelard,Girard

Monday, October 16, 2006

I've noticed that proponents of Penal Substitution seem to divide the world in to two camps: those who see the Atonement as objective (themselves) and those who see it as subjective (everyone else). By "objective" and "subjective" they mean whether the Atonement deals with an objective problem outside of ourselves such as God's wrath against sin, vs. the Atonement dealing with a subjective problem within ourselves such as our being estranged from God because we have a false image of him. The classic example of a subjective understanding of the Atonement is Abelard who saw the purpose of the cross as wooing us to God by a display of sacrificial love displayed on the cross.

Most proponents of Penal Substitution would acknowledge that there is indeed a subjective element to the cross since the love shown there does compel and speak to the heart of the lost just as Jesus does. However they would argue (I think rightly) that if our problem was only a subjective one that it would be rather unjust for the innocent Jesus to die just to appease us.

This idea of Jesus dying to appease our own wrongful need for retribution is, as far as I can tell, essentially what Girardian theory says, and for this reason Girardian theory strikes me as wrong. Again: if our problem was only a subjective one it would be unjust for the innocent Jesus to die just to appease us.

Similarly I would agree that an understanding of the cross based only on Abelard's view is equally lacking. To make an analogy: if a fire fighter runs into a burning building and dies in the flames trying to save people from an objective danger (the fire) this a noble thing. However if that same person would set themselves on fire to show us their love, this would be very disturbing to say the least. Likewise, Jesus dying only to show us God's love and not for a real objective reason would be equally disturbing. So there must be a objective reason for the cross (that can also speak to us and compel subjectively).

Where I think proponents of Penal Substitution get it wrong is in thinking that any view of the Atonement besides their own is automatically subjective. As we have seen Abelard's view is subjective, likewise (and if I any proponents of Girard would like to contradict me on this I would be happy to be corrected) Girard's view is subjective. Indeed the majority of liberal Christianity has presented understandings of the cross that are subjective. That is why I stress that I am not coming at this from a liberal perspective but from neo-evangelical one (some might also say neo-orthodox but since I have not read enough Barth I cant really say). My understanding of the cross is objective, but it sees another objective problem that goes deeper that appeasing wrath.

Penal substitution's objective necessity for the Atonement is that our sin has evoked God's just wrath and that this wrath must be quenched through punishment. That punishment is taken by Jesus who takes our place and thus appeases God's wrath. The problem with this theory is that it does not actually solve the objective problem of sin. God is not angry without reason, he is angry because of our sin. As with any anger, you get angry about something because you care about it. If you care about your kid and see them doing things that are hurting them it makes you angry because you care about them. This is the picture of God's wrath that we see all through the prophets: God is angry with Israel because of her sin and longs to see her turn back. He is angry because he loves. So in order to really deal with the objective reason for the anger what needs to happen is not simply that God can unleash his rage on someone, but that the problem that made him rightly mad in the first place is fixed. The objective problem is not God's wrath, but our sin which has incurred God's wrath. God's wrath is "propitiated" (made favorable) when our sin is healed. The primary work of the cross is not to appease wrath, but to solve the source of wrath by healing our sin.

Penal Substitution would claim that God only expiates our sin after he has been propitiated (that is: he will forgive us only after his wrath has been satisfied through punishment). This makes very little sense to say that someone will only forgive after they have gotten payback. Conversely I would say that God is propitiated ("made favorable") because our sin is expiated (removed). Remove the sin, and there is no reason to be mad. To quote JI Packer:

"The idea of propitiation includes that of expiation as its means"
(The Logic of Penal Substitution)

There are in fact many objective theories of the Atonement. Penal Substitution is one. Then there is the view I have been outlining above where the objective problem is our need for moral healing (I like to call it "Incarnational Atonement" which is a combination of Vicarious Sacrifice and Recapitulation), and of course there is Christus Victor where the objective problem is our bondage to the devil.

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Sign of the Times

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

My basic theory of media is that it reflects back and reinforces what it finds in society. This isn't really about art or free expression, it has way more to do with commerce. We like seeing what we are feeling. At it's best it can speak to us where we are at prophetically and get us to see and think more deeply about who we are. At its worst it reinforces the lowest of common denominators because sex and violence sells. It's a question of whether media is driven by art or by money, and in America it is usually the later.

So we can say that media mirrors back to us the zeitgeist of our times. Right now in our post 9/11 world that is one of judgment. Flip on your TV and you will find talkshows like Maury that focus on determining through DNA tests who was unfaithful. It's science combined with out of control emotionalism as the guests run screaming off the stage when they hear the results. Or take the plethora of other judge shows: Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Judge Mathis, Judge Maria Lopez, Judge Hatchett... all having little to do with law and a lot to do with a person making the judgmental condemnations of people that we wish we could make. Then there are the flood of crime shows that unlike previous crime dramas are focused on extremely violent murders that are solved not in court but through science so there is no question of guilt and no need for a trial. Flip though the channels on your remote during primetime and they are virtually inescapable: CSI, CSI: NY, CSI: Miami, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, ad nauseum. Then there are the news shows like "To Catch a Predator" and all of its spin-offs. The list goes on and on.

The vindictiveness and self-righteousness reflected in these shows is palpable, and it is essentially a mirror pointed at us. All of these shows reflect a need for something that in the real world of post 9/11 we don't have: A feeling of safety where the bad guys get put away, where guilt and innocence are clear and most of all for a need to judge and condemn. This is not the guilt that is rooted in humility, self-reflection, and responsibility - a guilt that looks inward. It is an ugly fearful finger-pointing judgmentalism that seeks to find a monster, and predator, a terrorist out there to blame. These shows help us rehearse seeing ourselves as victims who need to have those in authority go outside of law and even use torture (I'm thinking of the show 24) in order to protect us from the "evil-doers" out there.

They are shows that are extremely moralistic, but also profoundly unchristian. We need to recognize that these shows are reflecting us, reflecting our own ugliness and darkness masquerading as (self) righteousness. Evil is real, and we are perhaps waking up to that for the first time in the sheltered world of suburban America. But it is not just "out there" it is also "in here". If we follow the world's way of dealing with evil, we will find the finger of condemnation pointed at us too. What we need to learn and rehearse are stories about redemption, about overcoming evil with good, about love of enemies. That's the message that our world needs to hear right now. The signs of our times shows us that we are hungry for a way to deal with evil, for a way to navigate the ugliness and brokenness and injustice of our world. We need shows that instead of feeding off of our anger and fear and dragging us down with it, instead help us to work through them and to help to heal ourselves and our broken world.

Until then, I think I'll just turn off my TV.

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Amish Forgiveness

Monday, October 09, 2006

The cross is about how God forgave His enemies, and a big reason that it is so hard to understand is not that we are not smart enough, but simply that we are not good enough. We have not plunged the depths of what love can endure by loving in the face of evil; we have not experienced what it means to forgive a terrible wrong done to one who is our "beloved" as God the Father did on the cross when he lost his Son. Jesus once said of a prostitute "she loved much because she was forgiven much". The inverse is also true: to understand the forgiveness of the cross we need to learn to forgive. Until we can begin to do this in our own lives, we will have no idea what God has done for us, and what the cross cost God. The person who has forgiven a grievous wrong done to them understands what the cross means better than a thousand theologians.

So many worried over how the Amish, without our modern grief counselors or emergency services would survive when the ugliness of the modern world invaded their little parish. But it turns out that those "backwards" Amish have something that we in our post 9/11 post columbine world desperately need. The following story is from PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" by Anne Taylor Fleming

"The modern media world descended en masse into this rural enclave, as if dropped back through time, poking and prodding the grief of the families and the community as a whole. And what they found and what we heard from that community was not revenge or anger, but a gentle, heart-stricken insistence on forgiveness; forgiveness, that is, of the shooter himself. The widow of the shooter was actually invited to one of the funerals, and it was said she would be welcome to stay in the community.

In a world gone mad with revenge killings and sectarian violence, chunks of the globe, self-immolating with hatred, this was something to behold, this insistence on forgiveness. It was so strange, so elemental, so otherworldly.

This, the Amish said, showing us the tender face of religion at a time and in a world where we are so often seeing the rageful face. This was Jesus' way, and they had Jesus in them, not for a day, an hour, not just in good times, but even in the very worst.

The freedom contained in Jesus' teaching of forgiveness, wrote the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, is the freedom from vengeance, which includes both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

We have seldom seen this in action. So many tribes and sects in a froth of revenge, from Darfur to Baghdad. And, here in this country, so many victims and victims' families crying out in our courthouses for revenge.

To this, the Amish have offered a stunning example of the freedom that comes with forgiveness, a reminder that religion need not turn lethal or combative. I, for one, as this week ends, stand in awe of their almost unfathomable grace in grief".


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Rethinking Religion and Politics - Sam Harris on NPR

Thursday, October 05, 2006

NPR's Talk of the Nation aired a program called Rethinking Religion and Politics a couple days ago (October 3, 2006) with two pastors, one liberal and the other conservative, both responding to Sam Harris' new book "Letter to a Christian Nation". You can hear the program by clicking on the link above. From there you can also surf your way to interviews with Harris and other info.

Overall I found Harris' arguments to be strawmen which in their inflammatory nature distracted from the few good points he was making. But rather than concentrate on that and get sidetracked into a "my belief is better than yours" debate, I thought I would address the one good point that Sam Harris was (rather badly) making: Since religion is in world and national politics so corrosive, we should keep it out of public discourse altogether.

The program on NPR ended up focusing on whether this means that people should leave their values and morals out of public life, which is of course absurd as the two pastors argued. I would like to raise a more subtle proposition: In a public discourse where there is diversity and disagreement an argument cannot be based on unquestioned authority (like "the Bible says so") because we do not all agree on those authority sources. Instead each proposition needs to be argued on its own merit in a public setting. This would mean not that religion does not play a role in public life, but that it is communicated in a way that is accessible to all people.

What I think Harris does not comprehend is that even Atheists have a set of values and assumptions of what is valued that they bring with them. For instance they may value human rights, or value human freedom. These are core values that they share with most of the Western world. Even if we would strip away the religious garb of all faiths and simply converse in the universal language of these values, we would still find that there are fundamental disagreements about these core values. For example the West would focus on human rights and freedom, while a fundamentalist Moslem may argue that the core value is neither of these but instead purity which is why women should be covered and thieves' hands chopped off. On a core level what we think is "self evident" about what is most important in life is in fundamental disagreement.

Removing the religious garb from this and presenting it in a "secularized" language may enable a more transparent discussion, but it will not remove the fundamental and profound disagreement that leads to wars and violence. So while I agree that it is valuable to learn to "translate" our values and beliefs into a language that is accessible to people who come from a different background, I think the "imagine there's no Heaven" approach to solving the world's problems is terribly naive because it fails to see the values of who we are and what life is about that lie at the heart of faith and instead focuses only on the superficial trappings. Abolishing religion would not solve anything because we would still have differing core beliefs and values about who we are, and about what matters in life that are at the root of all faiths (including Atheism and Secular beliefs systems). A world where no one has any values at all, would be peaceful, but it would also mean that everyone was lobotomized.

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