Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In Which the Author Argues that the Cross is More Like Nobel-Prize-Winning Bacteriology and Less Like Child Abuse

(Let's just see how long we can make these post headings, shall we?)

One of the most oft-repeated "rationalist" critiques of Christianity centers around the concept of the Atonement. If Jesus is God's Son, the argument goes, and if Jesus is the sacrifice that atones for our sins to appease God's wrath, then didn't God force his own son to die? Isn't that the very definition of child abuse? (The last term has been used specifically by that old bete noire, Richard Dawkins.)

No, I don't think so. I think it's more like what happened in an Australia lab in 1982, an event that was anointed into the scientific canon with the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Let me explain. When I was growing up I learned that stomach ulcers are caused by stress. This was the common, unargued orthodoxy. But in Australia two researchers, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, noticed that ulcers showed several physical signs of infection and immune response in the area. Marshall was able to collect and grow unique bacteria from ulcers called H. pylori.

To prove that this bacerium caused ulcers, Marshall took an unusual step. He drank a vial of the bacterium, infecting himself with the bacteria and causing an ulcer. Then he drank an antibiotic that killed the bacterium -- and the ulcer went away.

My point is that Marshall was able to infect himself because he made the choice, and it's OK to perform an experiment on yourself. It's most definitely not OK to try the same experiment on your neighbor or colleague without her knowledge, and even if she says it's OK you have to sign a lot of forms proving that she knows exactly what she's getting into (a related problem with informed consent caused all sorts of legal trouble for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the turn of the century). Marshall didn't have to sign any forms for infecting, and then curing himself.

Dawkins' critique of the cross as a case of an angry father God demanding an innocent sacrifice for appeasement falls short on several levels. The only reason he's able to make this argument at all is that we are so far removed from the age of animal sacrifice that we only have a caricature of what it meant to the people who did it (oh, and people still do it, it just takes a different form, much like modern idolatry). But one fundamental element missing from his argument is the theology of the Trinity: God and his son are one, of one essence. The death of God's son on the cross is the death of God on the cross, the creator entering creation and meeting the worst of it, then defeating it on Easter Sunday. Jesus chose the cross (from provoking it with his demonstrations in the Temple to actively saying Your will be done in Gethsemane), and as fully God as well as fully man, he took the sickness upon himself of his own accord, like Marshall chose to drink the vial. There's no issue of consent or force for voluntarily sacrificing yourself, just like there's no problem with experimenting on your own stomach with ulcerating bacteria. What's really astonishing is that this self-sacrifice can be spread to all of us, because he is creator of the universe, and therefore self-sacrifice runs "with the grain of the universe" (Stanley Hauerwas). The cross shows us the way to the cure, and becomes the cure itself, justified on Easter morning with the ultimate justice of God.

Saying the cross is like child abuse is like saying that turning the other cheek is a passive shrinking back. It's not -- it's standing up, chest out, hands down, and putting your other cheek out there to be hit again. That takes courage.

I agree that the cross and sacrifice is an alien concept to my modern urban mentality, although I think if I lived on a farm, more in touch with nature, it may make more sense to me. But I definitely think it's important to distinguish what you inflict on yourself from what you inflict on others. The cross is one of the former.

There are two real stories in the world: those of aggression and those of sacrifice. I'm reading the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to Sam right now, and for all its shortcomings I'm glad to read it because it is a story of sacrifice.

Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy and the Golden Compass movie have moved up on my viewing/reading list because he sets himself up as an existential, humanistic alternative to Narnia (don't think this is anything new -- L. Frank Baum's Oz books are just as humanistic and suspicious as any Pullman can come up with, I'm sure!). I do know in the movie there's not much of Pullman's philosophy (yet), but there is a big polar bear fight (and long ago I promised myself I'd see any movie that had a polar bear fight), where the strongest bear wins the battle. That's survival of the fittest, and yeah, it happens, but it's not the story I choose to build my life around.

Some may have wondered why I'm such a defender of Harry Potter books when the author goes around trying to change the books after the fact and all ... the reason is book 7 shows that the ultimate story of Harry Potter is one of sacrifice, and so I believe it is a True Story (with some unfortunate side notes thrown in). It is True because it reflects Good Friday and Easter Sunday, through a glass darkly, but unmistakably.

So which story is yours? Choose you this day ... you'll have to choose again tomorrow.

No comments: