To Be or Not To Be

As I’ve made very clear on this blog, I think about Christ’s Atonement quite a bit. I always have. I think part of the reason is that the ingredients that make up the Atonement within Mormonism never quite “cooked” right to me – the parts don’t seem to quite fit. There are many theories of the Atonement within Christianity, all based on Tradition, logic, and Scripture, but Mormonism has a few extra ingredients that have to be taken into account: specifically, the event in Gethsemane described in D&C 19, in which Christ experienced some kind of additional, excruciatingly painful event that made up what seems to be the lynch-pin of the Atonement. The Book of Mormon mentions Jesus “bleeding from every pore.” It’s really just that piece that I never quite felt right about.

I tried to make my objection to this bit of Mormon doctrine in the comments on this post, but I feared that it was a thread-jack and I think that without a full understanding of the classical picture of existence, it probably didn’t make much sense.

That’s because I really think the Atonement is about existence and non-existence.

This might seem odd to many of you, especially who were raised in the Mormon tradition. I’ll try to explain.

In the classical Christian picture of the world, all things can be seen in a unipolar scheme of existence. On one hand, we have Reality/Goodness/Existence. At the other “end” of this pole, we have… nothing. It can’t really be seen as a “pole” of existence, because it’s not a thing at all.

Humans get a tiny taste of this reality when we create things. Let us say that a human creates a chair out of wood. What is a chair? A chair is typically a kind of a platform with four legs that is meant for people to sit on. Its existence as a chair is measured by its ability to do what its creator intended for it to do. A chair that fulfills this function is a “good” chair.

Now let’s say that, in a fit of rage, the chair’s creator grabs a chainsaw and cuts off one of the legs of the chair. Is it still a chair? If the chair can still stay up and allow a person to sit on it, then we can say that it’s still a chair – albeit not a great chair. A three-legged chair is usually less stable than a four-legged chair.

Now, the chair’s creator saws off the other three legs. Now she saws the seat in two. Now she saws off the back. Then, she lights the remaining pieces on fire and stomps on them, reducing the chair to a pile of ash.

Where is the chair now? It’s gone. The chair is no more. It went from “good chair” to “bad chair” to not a chair at all. Thus, the chair has passed from Real (or Good, or Existent) to Bad to nothingness.

On the classical Christian scheme of reality, God brought all things into being from nothingness. This includes you and me. As such, every part of our being and every object and environment we encounter in our lives can be defined only in reference to that Being who brought it into existence. And our measure of whether we are “good” or “bad” is only in reference to that purpose (the Greeks called it a telos) for which we are made.

On this scheme of things, to be good is to be more human.

(note: some philosophers would take great issue that I’m comparing humans to an artifact created by humans, but let’s try to skip that and continue)

On the Mormon scheme of things, existence is not really framed in this way. According to a common interpretation of Mormon scripture, the “spark” that makes humans what they are is called an intelligence, and intelligences are not made. It is simply the nature of an intelligence to exist, and intelligence existed with God in the beginning. Joseph Smith said (quoted from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith):

God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them.

On this scheme of things, non-existence is not really an option for us. We have always existed in some form or another, and thus we weren’t brought into existence for any purpose. Thus, there really is no built-in purpose or reason for our existence: we just are. Whatever purpose exists for us is one that we design for ourselves. God, being greater than the other spirits in existence, instituted laws to help us all get to where He is – but it is our choice to follow that path.

Mormon does leave room for a purpose for humans – “men are that they might have joy.” However, it is not clear whether this purpose is imposed on us from the outside (in which case, what gives another being the right to do this to us?) or if it is something that we are by our nature (in which case, how did we get our natures?) or if it is something that we choose (in which case, can we freely choose a different purpose?).

Thus, on the Mormon scheme of things, existence can be seen as bi-polar. On one end we have progression, learning, and joy, and on the other hand we have damnation, stagnation, and suffering.

The Atonement

What does all this have to do with the Atonement? Remember that on the classical Christian conception of the world, our greatest enemy is non-existence (chaos, meaninglessness, absurdity). The philosophers Camus, Nietzsche, and William Lane Craig have painted a cold picture of man’s role in the Universe without God (Camus and Nietzsche obviously rejecting the existence of God – Craig merely using that picture as a rhetorical tool); on this view, any meaning created by man is simply a puny act of rebellion against a Universe that couldn’t care less.

It was this vivid nothingness that almost had its victory on the Cross.

What can we say about the picture of God Himself, the Creator, suffering and dying a humiliating, torturous death at the hands of soldiers, other than it is completely absurd? The apostles believed that Jesus was on the cusp of a great triumph that would defeat Israel’s enemies, and slowly they watched the life slip from Jesus’ eyes. And then He was gone. What could the apostles be thinking other than this:

“What the hell just happened?

“Did Jesus really die?

“Could this all have been one big joke? Have we all been deceived? Is it possible that life actually didn’t have the meaning we thought it did – or any meaning at all?”

We have all been confronted with this absurdity at times in our lives. Perhaps when a loved one passes away, one doesn’t get the job that would reverse one’s fortunes, a school full of children is shelled in a war. At these times the absurdity of life hits us squarely in the face, and leaves us wondering whether anything means anything at all. Is there any purpose at all in this world?

These are the times when Satan laughs – and thinks he has the victory. Movement toward chaos, absurdity, unreality… nothingness. Thus, on this view, the Problem of Evil is really the Problem of Nothingness.

Jesus being raised from the dead reverses this tragedy into the Greatest Victory in history. This, ultimately, is the triumph over sin, because sin is death and death is chaotic, purposeless nothing.

Mormon Atonement

In Mormonism, the enemy is not non-existence, because this is really not an option for us. Instead, the enemy is suffering and damnation. Rather than confronting nothingness, Jesus instead must confront suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus literally takes upon himself the suffering of humanity, and in doing so he gains the capacity to succor us – since he knows the suffering we’ve felt.

This is the thing that always rubbed me the wrong way, but I was never able to contextualize that feeling until tonight when I reflected on that BCC discussion. The Mormon view of Atonement, which hinges on an extremely excruciating event (whether Jesus was suffering the penalty of our sins or simply experience the suffering of humanity, I’ll let Mormon theologians figure out), puts suffering at the core of the human existence. Jesus can’t truly succor us unless he has suffered. We can’t be forgiven unless Jesus suffers. We will suffer if we don’t repent.

But I see this as missing the mark.

Imagine living the most difficult life anyone on the planet has lived, full of pain and suffering. The thought is so unbearable that I think our minds kind of buffer us from being able to cognitively grasp the idea completely, but give it a shot.

But what if we had a reason for suffering so much? What if you were told that your life of suffering actually prevented many people from suffering even worse than you did? Well, then a brave soul might actually be willing to take that trade out of love.

So it seems that suffering on its own is not the main problem: the problem is meaninglessness. If our suffering has no meaning, then it is truly a punishment beyond measure. But if we have a purpose or meaning behind our suffering, the suffering becomes bearable – even heroic. Take the following story from a truly heroic psychiatrist, Victor Frankl (in Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 113):

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.


Thus, it seems that meaning is a more fundamental human craving than simply the avoidance of suffering. If the center of the Atonement is Christ’s suffering (and the Mormon canon leaves us little room to escape the reality or centrality of that suffering), then it seems to miss the mark. Suffering is not the problem. The black, empty void is the problem.

The way it seems to me, in Mormonism, Christ suffers in the Garden because of sin. On the Mormon scheme of the world, sin is an object unto itself – one pole of existence. It is synonymous with suffering and damnation, because it hinders us from progressing toward greater light, joy, and intelligence. Sin is also viewed in terms of a transgression of the laws that God instates to help us progress. Thus, sin is a contractual or legal problem. Because legal terminology is used to contextualize sin, God’s only just response to sin is punishment or restitution. This punishment or restitution seems to be suffering.

But on the classical Christian view, sin is not an object, and ultimately, it’s not Real. Sinful acts are really just a symptom of an underlying sickness or weakness in humans – we often fail to fulfill that purpose for which we are created. Instead of treating the symptoms (sins), the Atonement cures the sickness (death).

Thus, any additional punishment or suffering heaped on Jesus to make restitution for sins would seem utterly superfluous. It just doesn’t make any sense and isn’t necessary at all.

I think I always sensed this but was never able to express it. Why would Jesus need to suffer pains in Gethsemane as a result of our sins? That just doesn’t seem to be the point. Outside of Mormonism one can completely explain the Atonement in terms of Jesus’ victory over death on the Cross, and in the Tomb. But in Mormonism, you’re always faced with D&C 19, and a Cosmology that simply doesn’t take into account the real possibility of nothingness.

Is the Mormon view of Atonement “Atheological?”

gethsemaneI had a few thoughts in response to a recent article at Times and Seasons called The Atheological Atonement.  Dave Banack describes two “mildly surprising conclusions” that I think many Mormon thinkers would likely agree with.

1. The LDS Church affirms a doctrine of the atonement, but not any particular theory of the atonement.

I totally agree with this, though I also agree with his observation that many Mormons do accept Penal Substitution or a form if it (“How many drops of blood were shed for me?”) as their primary mental model.  I would argue that D&C 19 makes Penal Substitution much, much harder to escape – the fact of the matter is, according to the D&C, Jesus did have to suffer a physical punishment which we would suffer if we don’t repent.  But some very smart Mormon thinkers have attempted to view this scripture in light of other theories.  Fine.

But why doesn’t Mormonism have a strong theological model of the Atonement?  I can think of two general kinds of reasons.  Possible Reason 1 is that the Atonement really is a complete mystery.  And I mean mystery in the modern sense (since anciently the word “mystery” meant something that is revealed).  As such, as many comments on the Times and Seasons post seemed to indicate, any model of the Atonement is going to be a shadowy idol compared to the real thing.  I’ve heard some Orthodox make this argument too, but more on that in a minute.  On this view, there is simply no way we could ever understand the Atonement and so we’re free to simply guess and wonder, but we’re better off just using the Atonement rather than try to figure it out.  As a result of this mystery, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because the truth is a transcendent sort of triangulation of all those models.

Possible Reason 2 is that Joseph Smith inherited a vague, undisciplined mish-mash of Atonement theories because that was the state of American Protestantism at the time.  As a result, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are going to shift inexplicably across many different models, analogies, theologies, and prophetic opinions because Joseph never really considered the depths of implications each theory has about the nature of reality and God’s relationship to humans.

The problem here – if you haven’t already noticed – is that it seems very difficult to judge which Possible Reason is right, since they both result in the same data.  On to Banack’s second conclusion:

2. Maybe it is just as well that the Church avoids formulating a more detailed theory of the atonement.

Banack’s reasoning is that sometimes when the LDS church tries to officially foray into establishing theology, it produces “questionable results.”  As such, if the church leaves questions open to interpretation, it allows us to study the issue and come up with new, interesting, and deep explanations that can be quite edifying.  He cites James Faulconer’s reasons for why the church generally stays out of theology:

He gives five reasons we have, in the past, avoided theology: the Church is still young; fideism has become popular among LDS leaders; continuing revelation makes rational theology more challenging; the view that scripture contains a catalogue of implicit propositional truths; and our view that religion is primarily a matter of practice rather than propositional belief. I find encouraging Faulconer’s view that newer and broader approaches to theology (hermeneutic theology, narrative theology, theology in the style of Wittegenstein or Badiou) offer more promise for deepening LDS thought than rational or systematic theology.

This is the part that I don’t understand, because it seems to make a few assumptions about theology that I probably don’t agree with.  Why should we be afraid of true theology?  If the LDS Prophet revealed some concrete theological truth, shouldn’t we be excited and happy that he did so?  Or would we be disappointed that we can’t BS by the campfire about it anymore?  One assumption Banack makes seems to be that theological answers (at least, systematic theology as represented by the Christian tradition) are just not very good answers to begin with.  If they were, then wouldn’t he be happy to pursue systematic theological answers?  I’m also interested in why he thinks that Continental-style theology is somehow better than this – he says it’s “broader.”  Personally I find it too vague, constructivist, and subjective to be helpful in day-to-day life.  Very few people have the patience and personality to appreciate that type of theology, and thus it seems to operate on the assumption that theology isn’t all that useful to people in their daily lives (except for the elites).  But straightforward systematic theology can be grasped by far more people and has real implications on their behavior.  So yeah, if you don’t think theology is “real” (or if it’s just an elaborate “Rube Goldberg Machine”) then yeah, let’s bury it in an amorphous cloud of Continental sophistry because it’s not all that useful anyway.  That probably isn’t a charitable interpretation, but it’s what pops into my mind.

(I’m not big on Continental philosophy if you can’t tell – especially Wittgenstein)

On the other hand I would suspect that both the Orthodox and the Mormons would suggest that theology is experiential rather than discursive, though they’d say it in their own ways.  I think this is one area of wide agreement between the two sides.  Though on the other hand I do think Orthodoxy has an emphasis on “right belief,” and would probably say that a correct discursive understanding is the start of theosis.  I’m not even sure the Mormon would claim this (though Joseph Smith did, explicitly, in the Lectures on Faith).

On Borrowing Doctrine and Football

Knowing that I am interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, one of my best friends sent me a link to James Faulconer’s blog, where he has done a post on Atonement theories and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I really like what I’ve read of Faulconer’s writings and find him to be a warm and interesting thinker, though I haven’t bought one of his books or read too much of his blog.

However, this blog post was interesting because he talks about the different Atonement theories and how he likes Eastern Orthodoxy’s best.  Now Faulconer is a very intelligent man so I do not doubt that he is well-versed on the subject, but it highlighted to me a very common thing in Mormonism.  In a strong tradition starting with Joseph Smith himself, Mormons like to take what is true from other religions, and there is a high degree of latitude on the part of individual members to construct a personal philosophy as long as they don’t teach it as official doctrine of the LDS church.  As such, when a Mormon comes across an interpretation or a snippet of doctrine they like from another church, sometimes they’ll incorporate it into their own view.

The problem as I see it is that the Eastern Orthodox view of the Atonement is not a “theory” that is offered as a possible “resolution” to the “problem” of Jesus’ suffering, and it’s not something that can just be extracted from the Orthodox world-view and incorporated into somebody else’s religion.  This is because the Orthodox view of the Atonement is directly related to their view of Ancestral Sin, Jesus’ purpose and nature, the nature of the Church, the nature of the Sacraments, the nature of human beings, God’s purpose for humans, the Fall of Adam, and the definition of sin.  It’s a complex web of interconnected ideas – and it would be very hard, if not impossible, to just extract one piece of it that you like and have it coherently make sense out of its place in the web.  It would be like taking a fish out of water.

I explained quite a bit about the Orthodox view of the Atonement to my friend and he really liked it – he said that it resolved a lot of the concerns he has with the “justice and mercy” doctrine of Mormonism.  But his major sticking point was D&C 19.  In that section, Jesus Christ himself says that he experienced a violent Atoning experience in Gethsemane where blood came out of his pores, and that we will suffer likewise if we don’t repent.  So it would seem that Mormonism requires a sort of post-Anselmian view of Atonement where Jesus was violently punished for our sins.  I told my friend that such an event would be pretty unnecessary, even alien, to the Orthodox view.

And so it is.  Imagine a hypothetical person who wants to invent their own sport.  He likes soccer, so he starts with a soccer field.  But he likes American football, too, so he uses an American football instead of a soccer ball.  He also likes tennis so instead of kicking the ball, he makes the players use a tennis racket.  But he’s also a hockey fan so he wants players to wear ice skates.  Obviously you can see where I’m going with this.  Each of those components fit perfectly in their respective sports because they are functionally designed for those sports.  An American football is meant to be punted and thrown long distances.  A tennis racket is made to hit a soft, bouncy ball shorter distances.  Trying to take the various pieces and put them all together is going to mean a big, complex mess with parts that don’t fit together.

Unfortunately, that’s how I see Mormonism.  I applaud any systematic theologians, or just members, in Mormonism who try to make all the pieces fit together – but just taking an issue like Atonement theory and reading the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants reveals a (seemingly, to me) confused mess of conflicting Atonement theories and views of God that don’t quite fit together.  Sometimes very foundational doctrines, like polygamy, are expanded into big complex theologies only to have the doctrine yanked out from under it, leaving a mess of tiny little pieces with no home.

Perhaps this isn’t quite fair.  Certainly every religion has varieties of opinions and people who don’t believe in the mainstream – and Eastern Orthodoxy has its share of doctrinal conflicts!  It has been called “the most disorganized organized religion in the world.”  All religions diffuse, merge, shift, and change with other cultures and religions.  But still, Eastern Orthodoxy has a complete, interlocking theology of core doctrines that have remained unchanged for a long time.  I don’t know what the doctrinal “core” of Mormonism is.  To me it still looks like a sport invented by cobbling together pieces of other sports.