Bad Friday?

Today is Good Friday in the Christian calendar: the day when Christians celebrate their belief that a historical man Jesus died for their personal salvation. A holiday symbolizing the belief that suffering, persecution, and death are redemptive events for humankind, and divinely ordained.

Here I want to share three thought-provoking reflections upon the significance of the Jesus sacrifice.

The first comes from an excellent recent book about the rediscovery of Lucretius’ great poem De Rerum Natura during the European Renaissance:

Religions are invariably cruel. They always promise hope and love, but their deep, underlying structure is cruelty. This is why they are drawn to fantasies of retribution and why they inevitably stir up anxiety among their adherents. The quintessential emblem of religion–and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core–is the sacrifice of a child by its parent.

Almost all religious faiths incorporate the myth of such a sacrifice, and some have actually made it real. Lucretius had in mind the sacrifice of Iphegenia by her father Agamemnon, but he may also have been aware of the Jewish story of Abraham and Isaac and other comparable Near Eastern stories for which the Romans of his time had a growing taste. Writing around 50 BCE he could not, of course, have anticipated the great sacrifice myth that would come to dominate the Western world, but he would not have been surprised by it or by the endlessly reiterated, prominently displayed images of the bloody, murdered son.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (W.W. Norton, 2011), p. 194.

The second is from Jung’s bracing essay on the meaning of evil and suffering with respect to the god of the Bible:

Redemption or deliverance has several different aspects, the most important o which is the expiation wrought by Christ’s sacrificial death for the misdemeanors of mankind. His blood cleanses us from the evil consequences of sin. He reconciles God with man and delivers him from the divine wrath, which hangs over him like doom, and from eternal damnation. It is obvious that such ideas still picture God the father as the dangerous Yahweh who has to be propitiated. The agonizing death of his son is supposed to give him satisfaction for an affront he has suffered, and for this “moral injury” he would be inclined to take a terrible vengeance. Once more we are appalled by the incongruous attitude of the world creator towards his creatures, who to his chagrin never behave according to his expectations. It is as if someone started a bacterial culture which turned out to be a failure. He might curse his luck, but he would never seek the reason for the failure in the bacilli and want to punish them morally for it. …Yahweh’s behavior towards his creatures contradicts all the requirements of so-called “divine” reason whose possession is supposed to distinguish men from animals.

Carl Jung, Answer to Job (Princeton, 1958), p. 53.

Both of these passages are severely critical of Christianity.

Finally, from a more detached and historical point of view, I found this reflection on the historical impact of Paul’s “theology of the cross” by a French scholar of early Christianity and so-called Gnosticism:

Pauline theology, a theology of the cross, breaks with the Old Testament’s vision of the world. Faith in the cross makes the optimism that usually reigns in the Old Testament writings seem naive, where for the most part the good are rewarded and the evil are punished in this life; furthermore, these writings hardly know of another life. The cross is the most striking sign that judgment. by what happens in the world is not the true judgment, that glory and power do not justify, that misfortune does not condemn, that it is not history that judges. The theology of the cross implies the “anticosmism” that is found in Paul…For Paul, faith in the cross in a sense brought about from now on the collapse of the powers of the world, insofar as this power worked upon the soul. Paul preserved the apocalyptic idea of the imminent end of the world; but he thought that, as from the present, the world had lost is sway over the souls of those who had faith in the cross. These people were already as if dead to the world and resurrected to another life. …Henceforth, there is something truly other and higher than the world for humanity.

Simone Petrement, A Separate God: the Origins and Teachings of Gnosticism (HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 36-37

This last quotation is particularly suggestive. One of my themes in writing this blog is the historical impact of Christian ideas, regardless of whether or to what extent they are consciously adopted or made the object of personal faith. The discourses of modern apologetics and of modern atheism have a tendency to reduce every meaningful aspect of the biblical heritage to a binary scheme: true or false, believable or not believable. Which is reductive and a cause of serious distortion and ignorance.

The Pauline “anticosmism,” or, this distance opened up from the valuations that control history and culture, has neither a simply good nor a simply bad significance. There is some deep relationship here with liberalism and pluralism and the freedom to live according to one’s own individuality or best judgment. (I consider all this a good thing.) On the other hand, anticosmism has a well known tendency to undermine, for example, collective political attention to major problems such as the ecological crisis, even when catastrophic climate change poses an existential threat to modern civilization. Or, on a different topic, one could associate a certain type of fantasy politics, that which characterizes the myth of the lost cause of the Confederacy in the past century and a half in American history, with a Christian aloofness from the real verdict of history and of social change. I am of course drawing with a broad brush, but such questions and many others linger just above the surface of modern life when we reflect upon the consequences–good, bad, or neutral–of the christian story of the crucified son of god.