Monday, December 19, 2011

The Evolution of Atonement

Back in Old Testament times, a follower of God who had sinned had a fairly organized rubric for what he needed to do in order to get 'back right with God'.  Basically he had to sacrifice an assortment of animals through approved clergy and make restitution to whoever besides God that he had injured through his actions.  Since there hasn't been a properly consecrated temple for a very very long time (AD 70ish), if you're still observing that covenant there exists a massive sin backlog.

If you're a Christian, you believe that God replaced that covenant with a new and improved version, where Jesus served as the sufficient and perfect sacrifice for all sins that were, are, or are yet to come.  God still commanded, though, that Christians were to make restitution to those besides Him that they had injured, and to confess their sins to one another and thereby take the social status hits associated with such confession.  A very very dim view of gossip was taken though, so in a functional Christian community this wouldn't have been quite as scary as it might sound to modern ears.  The Catholic church later formalized this into the sacrament of confession, appealing to Jesus' grant of power to forgive or retain sins to Peter, upon whom he would build His Church.  There, instead of confessing your sins in what might amount to a neighborhood prayer meeting, you instead confess to a priest who has lots of experience maintaining confidentiality and who has probably heard far worse than the tawdry sins you're confessing.  I find this far less intimidating, as do most people, which is probably why the practice caught on so strongly.

Sometime later on, some brilliant theologian got the idea that the Saints had built up SO much 'good works capital' that lots of it could be sold in the form of indulgences (the Catholic church still grants indulgences, they just don't sell them anymore).  Here, people with unresolved guilt could purchase indulgences, which would be used to fund the magnificent architectural and cultural contributions of the Church at the height of its temporal power.  Of course this didn't last, it lead fairly predictably to the Reformation, and few Protestants today have anything remotely like either the free for all confession of the Early Church or the organized confession sacrament of the Catholics.

Interestingly enough, few Catholics these days go to confession either---the matter is considered scandalous.  So there's all kinds of unresolved guilt that people have in modern America.  And how do they resolve it?
Well, there's a new step in the evolution of indulgences.  Instead of doing penance for one's sins, or paying for an indulgence for the same, we now, in our upper middle class SWPL segments, outsource the penance and payment for the indulgences instead to other groups that we don't like or who compete with us for status.
So, instead of giving to the poor, we lobby for income redistribution away from other groups.  Instead of living simply so others could simply live, we lobby to force other people to live more simply.  To expiate the perceived sins of racism, we lobby for Section 8 housing in OTHER people's neighborhoods, and for the discrimination in terms of allocation of society's goodies against OTHER people's children.

Frankly I think I prefer the medieval version---oh, how did it go?  When the coin in the bottom of the coffer rings, the soul, from Purgatory springs?  At least the sinners in question usually paid with their own money.

7 comments:

CorkyAgain said...

I admit, I've never quite understood the logic behind sacrificing an innocent animal (or the Christ!) as a scapegoat for our own sins. Why is that acceptable to God?

But yes, it's the same thing when we "atone" for our own miserliness by lobbying to redistribute someone else's wealth, or for our racism by forcing other people to live near those we ourselves avoid. Those others are the innocent scapegoats, sacrificed on our behalf, and I *still* don't understand why or how it's an acceptable way to pay for our sins. On the contrary, it seems to me to be yet another sin -- and an enormous one too.

Jehu said...

Corky,
The surface logic of animal sacrifice is that only blood atones for blood. The deeper logic is a capital-M Mystery. Many Christians believe that the sacrifice of animals was just symbolic---building the spiritual grammar that would allow the sacrifice of Jesus to be used in a sentence, as it were (with the false-start sacrifice of Abraham's son as an obvious foreshadowing for those with a literary bent). But that's not truly a point of Christian doctrine, more a pious speculation. The simplest answer that is actually supportable is that animal sacrifices, including the literal scapegoat you mention, were specifically commanded by God and hence acceptable to Him. Why God choose that particular spiritual grammar and rules is another capital-M mystery. Nobody ever got an answer to that out of him more satisfying than the answer Job got from God in the whirlwind.

Of course, I agree with you that the modern version of atonement is an abomination, to both God AND Man.

wnthinktank said...

So why don't people want to go to confession anymore? It seems as if sin is rather in fasion today. It would humanize one to confess to some great temptation.

CorkyAgain said...

Thanks Jehu.

Of course, Christ's was a voluntary sacrifice and we should be grateful that He took upon Himself the punishment that rightfully should be ours. So I can see why that particular sacrifice would be honored and accepted as redemption.

But the other cases all seem to involve an involuntary sacrifice, and I remain perplexed as to why they should be deemed effective.

Jehu said...

WNThinktank,
I'm not entirely sure why most Catholics don't do confession anymore. Perhaps it's the discomfort with admitting one's deeds and thoughts are sinful? My guess is the traditionalist/Tridentine Mass crowd does confession a lot more often. I believe some of the flavors of Lutheran have confession also, but their participation rate is even worse than the Catholics. If you're contemplating a Catholic girl for marriage, I'd wager that an answer to how often she goes to confession will have an extremely strong correlation as to how serious of a Catholic she is.

Corky,
The whole Atonement thing in Christianity and the sacrifice of animals in OT Jewish religion is a definite Mystery. Why God ordained it to be that way is a question you'll have to inquire of Him. I don't know is a perfectly acceptable answer to many of the difficult questions (the easiest being Why Evil Exists, the Problem of Pain being a harder question, and the hardest in my opinion being why God decided to create in the manner that He obviously did in the first place). There are lots of speculative answers and apologetics around these, but God has never given us definitive answers. Perhaps He considers it a on a 'Need to Know' basis.

Reality Check said...

Why do you take it as a given that Section 8 housing is about race?

Jehu said...

Reality Check,
Because, in practice, Section 8 housing IS about race. Look at the various pictures of when new section 8 vouchers were available of who is standing in line. Look also at the crime clusters around Section 8 houses. Yes, I'm aware that some modest fraction of Section 8 isn't allocated to NAMs, but enough of it is to create the reasonable perception that Section 8 will destroy your neighborhood.