Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter and Christianity's bad debt

Toasted fruity buns, buttered and steaming with... er... a crucifix on the top?

My regular ABC column is up today, coinciding with Good Friday: 'Infinite debt of a Christian faith'.

I'm looking into the psychology of the crucifixion. In particular, the unpayable debt felt by many Christians. A sample:
"Man owes God all that he is able to give him," wrote Aquinas, "over and above which he can offer something by way of satisfaction." 
To be human, in this, is like being a criminal who can never be properly rehabilitated - not until Judgement Day, at least. 
If god were real, and was as the Christian theologians described, this might just be endurable - although the Judeo-Christian god's ethical record is dubious at best. But as far as we can tell, there is no god - no debt, no trial, no judgement. Christians are in spiritual arrears, without there being a creditor to pay off. 
Some say that the debt to parents can never be repaid, but we can at least listen to their worries, cook them meals, clean their houses or wash their ailing bodies - or pay others to, if we cannot because of distance, illness or parental commitments. We can say 'thank you' in an immediate way. Put simply, human debts - literal and metaphorical - can be paid, if not paid off absolutely. 
By contrast, the debt to god is abstract and infinite, and can require a life of continual guilt, submission and restitution. For all the talk of forgiveness in Christian scriptures and sermons, there is no familiar voice to forgive. This is another dimension to the life of waiting I have noted previously: the anxiety of metaphysical stain, and constant longing for purification.
(Photo: P. Downey)

8 comments:

Matthias said...

Christianity "It robs them of confidence in their own humanity, making them emotionally dependent on an invisible spirit, and the authorities who often interpret 'his' word. " Really loss of confidence in our own humanity .Get out of uuor ivory tower. Look at what William booth wrote in his excellent " I"ll fight " sermon.Emotionally dependant -crap . Morally and spiritually reinforced more likely-the emotions is for the unscrupulous in the faith -not all
Interpretation by another- no conscience rules -where were you when the history teacher taught about the Reformation and Luther's comment "Here I stand bound by my conscience I can do no other" Oh by the name of Damon it seems you were not taught that part of history . Also look up Lord Bragg-another atheist- who has a far more mature view perhaps you could learn something son. Or or that the writings of Christian existentialists with whom i identify -not just the gloomy Dane

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Matthias.

Luther didn't just have his 'conscience'. He also had fictional divine authority: scriptures, and an invisible spirit to back up his morality. When he spoke of 'conscience', he was rejecting papal authority, not this fiction.

And it is this fictional authority, and its human, all too human interpreters, that keep many of the faithful 'emotionally dependent' - "servants of God," as your William Booth put it.

As for the 'ivory tower', I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. This insult usually implies being out of touch with reality. With all due respect, your faith in an invisible, infallible, omniscient and omnipotent god puts you in the penthouse of the world's highest ivory tower.

Philosophy and Life said...

Damon - Don't know quite how to say this, but when you turn all atheistic, what you write feels cheap. It's a bit like someone responding to your work on martial arts by saying this writer nurtures a love of pain, the kind of violence that seeks to kill, and all the worst instincts of humankind.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Mark. That'd be a legitimate criticism of some martial arts schools. Another'd be that the more 'supernatural' styles often combine poor craft with poor thinking - even amongst philosophers.

I wouldn't call that 'cheap', particularly if it were responding to genuine concerns. In fact, a couple of the essays in Beating and Nothingness do exactly this.

But responding to your criticism of me, I can only reply that my atheist writings are usually careful not to tar all the faithful with the same brush, but sincerely interested in revealing the pathologies of supernaturalism. They might be incorrect - that's a matter for debate. They don't feel cheap to me.

Jill from the hill said...

Damon, brilliant piece. The responses here and on ABC News online reveal another influence of Christianity on Christians, one with which I am all too painfully familiar as the daughter of a cleric, and that is the absolute terror of being wrong. My father hung to life with a desperation previously unseen by his physicians: terminally ill for years, he never got to the stage of acceptance, never stopped being frightened of death. I am certain that this was because of the fear so often beforehand expressed as anger, as shown in feedback to you here and elsewhere. Conversely, we have my mother, living evidence of the way in which Christians live their days planning for death: 'if the Lord hasn't taken me by Christmas...'or 'if I'm not with my Lord Jesus by then', or (worse) 'when the Lord takes me, I'll be cremated and placed at your father's feet, where I sat in life, according to God's will.' We've been hearing this for the 20 years since dad died. These statements get 1 of her 6 offspring into tears each time: the rest of us (non-Christians, as it happens) just sigh. I'll hear all of this again tonight, because it's Easter, along with a tearful plea for me to accept Jesus now before he takes her, so that she can die in peace. So many contradictions. So much wasted Christian angst.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Jill. I'm sorry your parents' faith is so painful for you and your siblings - it does, I'm afraid, exemplify some of the pathologies I've described. And, yes, it does seem a terrible waste. I sincerely hope your mum can accept your atheism, rather than waiting vainly for you to deny it.

Philosophy and Life said...

Clearly, as Jill on the hill testifies, Christianity gets horribly mixed up in people's neuroses, sadness and fear. No doubt the ideas with which Christians toy exacerbates things in many, many cases too.

But, honestly, that is hardly exclusive to Christianity. Human beings in distress will reach for the means to communicate it. Isn't the sadness in cases like that of Jill that there are no able pastors or therapy to help her mother's hurt, no spiritual direction by which to understand her father's fear?

Surely the useful response is to try to understand the painful details of such situations. Does blaming it on Christianity help? And can blame truly lie with a tradition that has brought so much life too?

(And I guess this is what I reacted against in your piece Damon - citing a single line from a thinker as rich as Aquinas. It read to me not unlike the evangelical who cites a single line from the Bible, practices that, I might add, I have myself have felt the blunt end of.)

Surely, what Jill's story tells is of the difficulty of the human condition. Christianity is a contingent detail in that, and it might be Buddhism or Islam or existential nihilism in a different culture or family.

Damon Young said...

Thanks again, Mark.

Many of my columns note that the problems are not unique to religion in general, or Christianity in particular. They also note that the problems discussed do not necessarily apply to all religions, or all members of a given religion.

What I'm interested in is how religions make the problems worse, or stop folks from overcoming them. Metaphysical sleight of hand, for example, takes ordinary biases or preoccupations and smuggles them into a supernatural world. Not unique to Christianity, but certainly a very big part of it, which is difficult with a more naturalistic outlook.

As for Aquinas, I wasn't simply citing one line. I was drawing on his account of redemption to demonstrate the importance of debt, and quoting what I saw as the most apposite line. If you can show me how other passages from Aquinas contradict this demonstration, I'd be grateful - I know your expertise in this area far outstrips mine. Otherwise, I don't see the problem.

As for Christianity as a contingent detail, I agree. What interests me is how it allows (or does not allow) folks to live well - by overcoming or recognising the difficulty of the human condition. To me, notions of immortality and divine grace, for example, make it it less likely to help with the human condition, since they simply do not apply to it.