Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins, and that by his passion and death we have been liberated into a new life. Let’s look at this belief.
A classic interpretation of Jesus on the Cross is that the world was held captive by Satan, and Jesus had to pay the highest price to redeem humankind and return us to God: Christ would therefore atone for our sins, and bring about At-One-Ment with God. God, at a great distance, had set up the system in which everything had to be paid for! This idea of vicarious substitution was scorned by the liberalizing Victorians, who were also learning that crime was an illness, and discovering various other things such as are satirized in Samuel Butler’s Erehwon.
An English thinker, Charles Williams, was a lay theologian, friend of C.S.Lewis and member of the Inklings (Tolkien, etc.), novelist, a writer and a very attractive personality . Williams, while he presents a substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement, does so without the legalistic rationalism which had existed before. The world he presents to us is mightily and sweetly ordered by God, and the mystery of our redemption accords with a universal Way of Exchange which God has built into the universe: the Atonement is as much a part of God’s original plan as the Creation.
Substitution, or exchange, is part of the law of the universe because all created things are interdependent: they have existence inasmuch as they give existence to each other. Williams is not very explicit at the physics or chemistry level - he died in 1945, before the full flurry of public excitement over quantum physics and molecular biology. But at the ordinary biological level he makes his point:
“There is one great natural fact - a fact at the very root of all human facts - which involves a way of exchange; it is the fact of childbirth. Before any child can be born, the masculine seed has to be received by the feminine vessel. The man is quite helpless to produce a child unless he surrenders the means to someone else; the woman is helpless unless she receives the means from someone else….By the substitution of the woman for the man the seed fructifies. New life (literally) exists. It exists by the common operation of the woman and the man and that operation involves something of the nature of substitution.
“The substitution produces the new life. That new life exists literally within its mother; it inheres in its mother. The value of the sexual act itself is a kind of co-inherence…With conception comes the physical inherence of the child. And this is renewed through all the generations; each generation has inhered in that before it; in that sense without any doubt at all, we carry, if not another’s burdens, at least the burden of others.” (Charles Williams, Forgiveness, page 150)
So there is clearly a scientific analogy which can be used when we think of Jesus dying on the cross, bearing our burdens. But the stumbling block for many of us is that we do not want to bear someone else’ burden. Indeed, in the very passage in which St Paul says we must bear one another’s burden, within a sentence or two he says we must each bear our own. So contradiction is part of the human situation. Oh! “Mary, Gary, quite contrary!”
The result of extreme contrariness in the history of faith is to believe in two great powers: Good and Bad, God and the Devil. And that, believe it or not, is not true Christian teaching. It is the way of belief called Manicheeism.
A very good argument can be made that the very existence of the Devil is a pagan intrusion into the Bible and into Christian faith, in spite of C.S.Lewis and “The Screwtape Letters.” Jesus comes to release us from our own self-strangulation, and in that sense bears our burden of sin.
EXTRA! EXTRA! We interrupt this letter-cast to announce that EAGER and CURIOUS have retired to see more of their families, and to print what follows in the interest of scientific and moral truth! GC
More Extra!CONSUMPTION ECONOMICS
Early on February 10th 2011, I overheard the BBC Business rebroadcast over CBC. An economist named Chandra “Something” from Singapore (will radio broadcasters ever learn to say surnames slowly and repeatedly?) forcefully made a very good point, introducing his book Consumption Economics. The whole world, he said, the East imitating the West, thinks that the objective of applied economics - production, distribution, financing and all is to bring everyone up to the level of the Good Life as lived in the West (not by the poor millions in the West who are part of the cost of our Good Life).
Chandra (he may be Premo-Chandra Athukorala, I would like to know) says that the demographic facts, expecially of China and India, but throw in Indonesia, I suspect - these facts are such that there will never be enough natural resources to produce a facsimile of the Good Life we westerners love. Can you imagine a billion motor cars in China, and maybe as many in India, and where would the oil come from? or the electricity? The big markets for all the Good Life Goodies are a pipedream of our market-besotted thinkers. Our economic leaders are parodied, I suspect, by the radio journalist O’Leary who keeps saying on CBC TV “Greed is Good, Money is Good, and I love it!”
Chandra needs our attention. But he begins his analysis with saying “This has nothing to do with “morality.” What on earth does he mean by “morality”? - because he goes on to say we must change our goals, we must do this and that, and I say that “we must” is the breeding ground of morality. Not hidden very far down is his thinking of the distinction between Science - the Numbers, the Bottom Line which is as near the top of morality as some of our culture can get - and morality. The trouble with morality is it reminds people of faith, love and other unmentionable things.
Besides, there may be a scientific content in economics, such as the Beautiful Mind was given the Nobel Prize for, but does Market dictatorship mind the fate of the poor?