Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's Lent and Time for Another Blog Series: Theories of Atonement I


It is doubtful that the Hungarian-born chemist turned-economist-and-philosopher Michael Polanyi ever met James P. Carse, former Director of New York University’s Religious Studies Program. And, as far as I know, neither individual had any knowledge of the other’s work (although it is certainly possible that Carse could have read Polanyi without mentioning him). Yet, both thinkers reached similar and, to many, surprising ideas about religion.

Polanyi’s focus in much of his writing was on the process of scientific investigation and discovery. In his book, The Tacit Dimension (1967), he claims that, although the scientist often works within certain models and theories seeking to refute or validate them, imbedded in his scientific outlook is “the conviction that there is something there to be discovered.” That is, there is something outside his known reality “which he is seeking to apprehend.” The identification of a problem in current scientific understanding is itself a realization that there is “something else” that we don’t know: “To see a problem is to see something that is hidden.  It is to have an intimation of the coherence of hitherto not comprehended particulars.” And so, while much of science is devoted to examining current understandings, there is always within the scientist the impulse to break out of this structure and bring to light undiscovered aspects of reality.

The scientist’s recognition of problems – his dissatisfaction with the current scientific framework – and his intimations of discovery drive him to study the issues that stir his unease. Such anticipations sustain the researcher in the demanding work typically involved in making a breakthrough.  Indeed, Polanyi calls what lies behind the drive for scientific exploration as “intellectual passions.” And, sometimes those passions are rewarded. Polanyi in his book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958), speaks of the “overwhelming elation felt by scientists at the moment of discovery, an elation of a kind which only a scientist can feel and which science alone can evoke in him.” Indeed, “[t]he affirmation of a great scientific theory is in part an expression of delight. The theory has an inarticulate component acclaiming its beauty, and this is essential to the belief that the theory is true.” Polanyi quotes Johannes Kepler’s exclamation at his discovery of his Third Law: "nothing holds me; I will indulge my sacred fury."

Polanyi contends that the same impassioned impulse to search beyond the known that drives the scientist also propels the religious believer. Again, in Personal Knowledge, Polanyi says that, like the scientist, the believer is “guided by the intimations of discoveries still beyond our [human] horizon” as he “strives to break though the accepted frameworks of thought.” Indeed, Polanyi calls religious worship “a framework of clues which are apt to induce a passionate search for God.”

But, according to Polanyi, unlike the scientist, the unfortunate believer can never experience the joy of discovery and resolution of the problem because religious issues cannot be finally solved. In Personal Knowledge, he calls religion “a continued attempt at breaking out, at casting off the condition of man, even while humbly acknowledging its inescapability.” As Polanyi later says in his book, Meanings (1976), written with philosopher Harry Prosch, “we may not feel better, or be ‘better off,’ if we embrace religion. We may instead reap suffering, struggle, and sacrifice.”

So, religion, and Christianity in particular, cannot be enjoyed the way science can. Instead, the believer lives in a continual sense of tension and anguish as reinforced by the ritual of worship. Says Polanyi, “[Religious] worship sustains as it were, an eternal, never to be consummated hunch: a heuristic vision which is accepted for the sake of its unresolvable tension.” Indeed, “[i]t is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluble, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: 'look at the unknown!' ”

In his book, The Religious Case Against Belief, James Carse ends up saying much the same thing about religion but from a different perspective. As an initial matter, Carse is fascinated with the longevity of religions. He says that no institution or human association of any kind – empires, governments, ideologies or cultures – has lasted as long as the great religions. Hinduism has lasted over four millennia; Judaism for almost three millennia. Buddhism has lasted 25 centuries, Christianity over 20 centuries and Islam 14 centuries.

Carse says that the other thing that distinguishes religions from other schools of thought is the inability of their followers to come to agreement on what they believe. Carse says, “the religions themselves have never succeeded in coming to a final agreement on the quest.” Rather, “[y]ou begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.”

Religions have an identity, says Carse, but they have little and only temporary consensus on their beliefs. He sees religion as an ongoing dialogue rather than a set of dogmas: “what religions do have is a pressing desire for talk.” He adds, “these conversations can become exceedingly rich and complicated, requiring long preparation for entering into them….” It is the lack of any final answers, says Carse, that has kept religions alive for so long – the faithful feel that they must continue the discussion. He compares religious texts to Oedipus Rex by Sophocles: “If we could agree on what Oedipus Rex is about we could focus on the agreement and ignore the play.” As with Sophocles’ play, as long as the debates continue, we cannot ignore the religious tradition itself.

As an example, Carse takes the person of Jesus himself and spends some 20 pages discussing the various – sometimes compatible and sometimes incompatible – pictures and ideas about Jesus that have arisen throughout the history of Christianity. I share with you a very abbreviated summary of Carse’s complicated history. He begins with the New Testament itself and shows how the four Gospels present differing views of Jesus that also differ from what St. Paul had to say about him. Carse calls the New Testament a “glorious confusion.”

Carse then moves on to Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who described Jesus’ life as a recapitulation of Adam’s life in which Jesus reversed all the effects of Adam’s mistakes. Next is St. Augustine of Hippo, who established the notion of the incarnation – that Jesus was of two natures, fully divine and human. Carse discusses St. Anselm, who presents a Jesus unrecognizable to either Irenaeus or Augustine. St. Anselm argued that by logic alone it is clear that the incarnation was necessary.

Then, Carse turns to St. Thomas Aquinas and his development of the theology of the sacraments: that the key to understanding Jesus was that he established the Church and the Sacraments. But, then a few centuries later, Martin Luther and John Calvin come along and say that, not only is the Church and sacraments not the path to salvation, but that the Church is an impediment to Salvation.

Carse then describes the enlightenment take on Jesus. The German thinker Gotthold Ephraim Lessing asked this basic question: given the unreliability of historical evidence, how can we cross “the broad, ugly ditch of history” to prove the eternal fact that Jesus was God. Kant described Jesus as an example of perfect morality. Our own Thomas Jefferson follows up this idea by re-writing the gospels without any hint of Jesus’ divinity: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. For Hegel, Jesus was part of a vast scheme in which God alienated itself from itself so that it could reconcile itself as a perfect unity. Kierkegaard said that Jesus was the “absolute paradox” that could not be understood intellectually, a view at odds with both the logic of Anselm and Hegel.

Carse concludes with a two-page laundry list of more contemporary views of Jesus. Again, I give just a sample: “a pure-blooded and exemplary Aryan, first member of the Master Race” (Nazism), “a messiah who magically transports himself to the Americas after his resurrection in Jerusalem” (Book of Mormon), “a paragon of efficient business discipline, a master advertiser” and founder of the modern corporation (The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton); a “Jewish peasant Cynic” (John Dominic Crossan), a revolutionary who confronts repressive capitalist culture (Liberation Theology). Other descriptions include Roman spy, Pharisee, extraordinary athlete, member of the Essene cult, and avatar of Krishna. Again, I only touch upon Carse’s more extensive list.

This is all by way of illustrating that religion is a passionate pursuit of questions for which it is unable to find final answers. For all the discussion about Jesus, Christianity still debates who he was and what was his significance. As Carse says, “[t]here is something about the man that is yet to be known, something unresolved, but something that must be resolved.” Carse points out the similar centuries-long debates that persist in Islam and Buddhism. This ongoing conversation, says Carse, is the source of religion’s vitality and longevity. The debate itself fuels the passion for religion. Here, we hear echoes of Polanyi: Religion “is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluble, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: ‘look at the unknown!’”

The question of the nature of Jesus was not the only debate over the long history of Christianity. There is another puzzle at the very heart of Christianity that was never satisfactorily explained to me in the 12 years of weekly Sunday school I attended or in the theology courses I took at a Catholic university. Here is the puzzle. We were all taught that Jesus died for our sins, and that all humankind was saved by his death and resurrection. As Tertullian says, “it was for this purpose that he came – to die for sinners." But, what exactly was the salvation that Jesus brought – what were we saved from, and how did His death and resurrection achieve this?

The various attempts by thinkers and church leaders to answer these questions are referred to as the theories of atonement. As with the identity of Jesus, numerous theories of atonement have been proposed and discussed over the history of Christianity, and the debate continues. After 2 thousand years, we have been as yet unable to resolve the meaning of this basic Christian tenet.

God willing and the creek don’t rise, this post will be the first of a series that will discuss a select number of theories of atonement that have been offered by various Christian writers.

As Jim once offered the top ten definitions of God, I will offer the top five theories of atonement. 

Stay tuned.

Michael Polanyi

James Carse

Next Post: Theories of Atonement II (Classical or Patristic Theory – Part 1)


James R said...

The idea that Jesus died for our sins and thus we are saved by his death always seemed like gibberish to me. I don't know what year the Church came up with that notion, but it never fit with Jesus' life and teachings, as far as I could make out. At first glance it seemed like a good way to get converts, but otherwise nonsensical.

Now the way you are presenting this makes some sense, at least how I interpret what you are saying: In what ways can the life and/or teachings of Jesus help us live in this very confusing world? Said a different way, How can the life and/or teachings of Jesus help us overcome original sin? Since original is simply the Church's word for fact that there is no act I can perform which does not have at least some bad consequences. Or stated a third way, how can the life and/or teachings of Jesus help us obtain some measure of atonement in the real world?

If this somewhat covers what you will be presenting, I gratefully look forward to the five theories.

Big Myk said...

I hate to disappoint, but your anticipation od the direction of this series is not correct. While obviously much more can be said, I've already laid out in this blog many of my thoughts about Jesus' preaching: Jesus the Existentialist; Jesus and Dualistic Thinking. We can throw this one in, too. Unreading the Gospels.

I agree with you that the idea that Jesus died for our sins and saved us from death seems like gibberish. This blog series is about how various thinkers throughout history have tried to make sense of the gibberish, and their varying degrees of success. In fact, I'm tempted to respond to your comment by echoing Basil's line in Zorba the Greek: this series is about the agony of men who can't answer questions like yours.

The fact is: at least in the synoptic tradition, Jesus does not proclaim himself to be God's act of salvation. He proclaims the coming reign of God, but never equates that with himself (the church did so later). And certainly, he had little to say about his own death and resurrection, since it hadn't happened yet. So, Jesus is not going to help us answer the salvation question.

Paul, however, whose letters pre-date the synoptic Gospels, says early on (50 CE) that "Christ died for our sins." So this message is there with the earliest Christian communities, and I'm not cynical enough to beleive that this was just some kind of recruitment scheme that someone dreamt up.

So, either this central tenet of Christianity is nonsense -- or not. This series is going to try to figure that out.

James R said...

That seems fair. I look forward to the figuring out.

Mike said...

Me too.

Then we're moving on to Karl Polanyi.