Analytic Theology

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Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi

November 6th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: Dogmatic Christian theology instructs us that by giving his life, and suffering on the cross, Jesus expiated all of the world’s sin and guilt. But there is something very unusual about his sacrifice. Which is: (a) nobody in the New Testament requested it! You will search the New Testament in vain for someone who comes forth and says: “Jesus, I am a forlorn sinner, and I request [ask, beseech, exhort, imprecate] that you give up your life, in order for my sins to be exonerated [relieved, exonerated, forgiven].” Another interesting fact about Jesus’ death is that (b) it does not seem to have been particularly efficacious. There still is a vast repository of sin and guilt in the world, not to mention evil – from a macro perspective, arguably orders of magnitude vaster, than anything known in Jesus’ time.

Not to pile on, but there is a third problem, too, which is: even if we work through (a) and (b), (c) how could one person’s suffering, as true, and genuine, and even holy as it might be, possibly expiate all of the sin and guilt in the world? I mean, not from a religious standpoint, because that’s the contention. But, rather, from something more approaching an epistemological standpoint.

This in turn implicates sub-issues, such as: (i) let’s assume each individual person has a certain quantum of sin. Was this somehow combined, or aggregated, into a single unit, or bundle; (ii) how was the hand-off accomplished? The New Testament says nothing about each individual person’s sin, or even the bundle comprising everybody’s sin, being given or transferred over to Jesus; (iii) Perhaps Jesus just took it – that is, surgically removed each individual person’s sin, or grabbed the bundle of everybody’s sin, when he ascended into the cosmos to sit at God’s right hand.

Existentialist thinkers – and existentialism only can be understood as a reaction to Christianity – would contend that only through suffering might an individual know redemption. You aren’t responsible for all of the suffering in the world, you’re only responsible for suffering in your world, that is, the zone of interaction between yourself and other individuals. And, to understand that suffering, you must experience it, yourself. You can’t delegate it, as if by proxy, to someone like Jesus, who thereupon will do it for you, vicariously. Like Patti Smith sang in a version of “Gloria” that leads off her terrific debut album, Horses: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine … my sins [are] my own, they belong to me.”

Jesus himself is problematic, because he’s depicted as being, or he’s supposed to be, so innocent, and pure. He’s not like the rest of us, all of whom become sinful to some extent, however large or small that might be. How would Jesus therefore know what it is to suffer, to begin with – not only for himself, on his own behalf, but also for the sins of the entire world (which is a rather huge jump).

Of course he endured pain and agony as he died on the cross, but that isn’t what’s meant by “suffering” in this context. Rather, suffering is a process you go through. It starts with an event in the world, which in turn metamorphosizes into sin, which in turn festers, and congeals, and coagulates, until the sinner achieves a certain level of cognition, which in turn creates an understanding, of what it’s all about. So, if he didn’t “suffer,” in this sense, how could Jesus possibly get rid of all of the sin? The most you possibly could attribute to him is that he is an exemplar, or a paradigm, of a certain type of suffering, which might not even be the most important kind, to begin with.

In a way, this is the Grand Inquisitor’s point to Jesus, in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “we can’t tolerate you here, because you’re too perfect. If we were to let you loose, you would wreak havoc and chaos, because no one could possibly live up to your example.” In other words, Jesus asks of all of us, what only a few can do, that is, aspire to perfection. The Church therefore must “correct” Jesus’ mistake, because he doesn’t understand humans, or what it is to be human. In this respect, Jesus is a lot like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. He’s so perfect, and understanding, and altruistic, that he screws everything up. Simply by being forthright and candid, about people, and events, and situations, he destroys everything.

Dostoyevsky probably would say that someone like Father Zossima (in The Brothers Karamazov) is closer to getting it right. Zossima, as you will recall, was in the army, before he entered the monastery. There, he brutally assaulted his orderly. And, Bishop Tikhon, in The Possessed, is an alcoholic. Although holy men, both thus are flawed; they show that suffering, and evil, are necessary for human redemption.