Another Week Ends

1. Giles Fraser at The Guardian is at it again, making a bit of stretch – though an […]

Will McDavid / 4.10.15

1. Giles Fraser at The Guardian is at it again, making a bit of stretch – though an interesting one – on the role of Anselm’s atonement theory on the Greek debt crisis:

According to Anselm, and the Reformation thinkers that followed him, the story of Easter is basically God’s response to a debt crisis. The argument is this: human beings have sinned against God, thus incurring a debt that has to be paid. (If you think this shift from sin to debt is odd – and it is – remember we still speak of criminals as “paying back” their debt to society.) On this model, the scales of justice have to be balanced. Crimes must be paid for, with the level of punishment being proportionate to the level of offence. But the theological problem is that human debt is way too high – us being miserable sinners and all that – which means that we are totally incapable of paying back the required amount.

St Anselm in Rome

Anselm’s satisfaction theory focused primarily on a debt to God’s slighted honor (as insulted people in the past would sometimes demand “satisfaction” by dueling), so it’s more feudal than financial. Still, the insights hold. Continuing,

This is why, says Anselm, Jesus comes to receive the punishment that is due to us and is crucified, thus repaying the debt on our behalf and levelling our account [/God’s honor]. Redemption, remember, is an economic metaphor. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,” as many western Christians are singing this Eastertide. For evangelicals especially, this is the very essence of salvation. Sin is repaid. Hallelujah.

But this is absolutely not the eastern story of Easter. Indeed, no Greek Orthodox congregation will be singing about Jesus paying the price of sin during their Easter services. For one thing, they are not so obsessed with sin. And they don’t think that Jesus’s suffering (or anyone else’s) is the way it gets repaid. Indeed, it doesn’t get repaid. Which is why Greek Christian art, unlike western Christian art, doesn’t obsess with the bleeding crucified Jesus. For eastern theologians, Jesus’s mission is to break human beings free from their imprisonment to death. All the important action happens at the resurrection, not the crucifixion. For, if salvation is merely payback and this happens on the cross, there is no saving work left for the resurrection to do. No, they say, salvation is not some bloody cosmic accountancy. It’s a prison break. The emphasis is on Christ leaping from the grave not hanging on a cross. It is about life triumphant over death.

For many atheists, of course, all of this is a distraction from everyday anxiety, of the sort Percy was talking about. To locate the reason for our anxiety in a debt to God, and then to pinpoint its solution in Jesus, could be read as a defense-mechanism, as could the metaphor of prisoners being freed. But in the Greek crisis, these go beyond doctrine and, if Fraser’s right, into worldview. The stern, austere Germans (Angela Merkel’s father was a Lutheran minister!) see themselves as the slighted, having subsidized the Greek economy for years; the Greeks view themselves as victims, prisoners of lots of conditional (!) bailouts. Certainly the issue is important, and any opportunity for Anselmian theology to be commented on in a mainstream paper is pretty cool. Still, one of the negative effects of these continual crises is distraction. As Walker Percy memorably wrote in “The Man on the Train,”

The contingency ‘what if the bomb should fall?’ is not only not a cause of anxiety in the alienated man but is one of his few remaining refuges from it. When everything else fails, we may always turn to our good friend jut back from Washington or Moscow, who obliges us with his sober second thoughts – ‘I can tell you this much, I am profoundly disturbed…’ – and each of us has what he came for, the old authentic thrill of the Bomb and the Coming of the Last Days… The real anxiety question, the question no one asks because no one wants to, is the reverse: What if the Bomb should not fall? What then?

The theater of the aggrieved and the aggreviers, with everyone placing themselves in the former camp, never quite stops. And one has to assume that at some level, it’s an escape. What should happen if the Greeks don’t leave?

(Additional note: David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister running for reelection, told conservative voters that “the message of Easter involves ‘hard work and responsibility’”. If that’s not conflating God and Mammon, I don’t know what is.)

2. On a more everyday note, the NYT struck gold this week with “Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids.” Hint to the “Why”: lots and lots of law at work:

Standing on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game I chatted with the younger sibling of one of his teammates. “I don’t really have a passion like my brother yet,” he explained, glancing over at the field. “But my parents are helping me look for one.” I waited for the note of irony that never came…

We have come to believe that only those who have passion find fulfillment and success professionally. It’s as if passion is life’s magic pixie dust. We want success for our children and believe that only passion can lead them there. We hold on to this myth despite considerable evidence that millions of people have lived long, happy, useful lives filled with joy and contentment and devoid of a defining passion.

And if passion is what makes our children look as special to colleges as they are to us, it’s also what lets us off the pushy parent hook. If a child has a “passion,” we’re not overdoing it in our zeal, or pursuing our own agenda. We’re just making their dream possible. Really, it has nothing to do with us.

There was a time when children would be reprimanded by parents for being “underfoot” and told to scamper off. And it’s an interesting question what particular kind of cultural bankruptcy is making parents fill the void with obsessive college prep and a (barely) vicarious performancism. There are the life-goals of finding someone to settle down with, then often to buy a house, then to have children… then, presumably, people start living ‘normally’. Instead, we now view children as an opportunity to press the ‘restart’ button on our recently-completed life-trajectories and go through the whole drama of personal development again – sports, grades, passions, college admissions, and so on. Thank goodness that grandparents, at least, tend to be free from all this (for now). Guess it takes longer than it used to to learn how to chill out a little (disclaimer: I’m an unmarried twenty something, and will probably one day be an obsessive parent, so don’t want to sound too hard). Anyway, this stuff can be seriously counterproductive, as the law often is:

When children can’t find their elusive passions, yet feel compelled to proclaim one, they grab onto an interest, label it a passion and buy the requisite instrument or equipment. This is not a harmless charade, because fake passions crowd out real ones. When you are busy playing on the lacrosse field six days a week because in seventh grade you liked going to practices with your friends and your coach once mentioned you might have some talent, you may never discover that computer graphic design is your calling. When you take every opportunity to play piano daily in a band, orchestra and private lessons, you could easily miss the once-in-a-lifetime joy of being a member of a field hockey team. Pseudo passions can eat up our days and lay waste to any chance of finding a real ones…

For most children, childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.

There are also the stories of burnouts to consider, children who commit to a pseudo-passion for years and then, once they finally find they’re not that into it, lose hope of finding meaningful hobbies elsewhere. And there are also those with real passions who eventually find them so bound up in pressure and law that they become suffocating – just watch Whiplash or read Andre Agassi’s memoir. That’s a big problem with these theaters of the individual drama of accomplishment: they narrow someone’s range of experience, they distract from the deeper questions, which are all funneled into performance anxiety, and they risk sabotaging the joy of what hobbies do develop. And they make feeling those of us without major ‘passions’ feel like we’re somehow missing the boat.

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3. We’ve spent a good deal of time looking into the culture of pure eating, and ILScience this week had some great things to say about orthorexia, a not-quite-clinically-recognized eating disorder, ht AL:

 Raw food followers might meet regularly to ‘align their bodies, minds and souls’ by feasting on ‘cleansing and immune-boosting’ raw foods. Such foods are never heated above 44˚C, so “all the living enzymes in the food remain intact”. No gluten, dairy or ‘sugar’ is allowed.

Clean eaters may follow similar regimes, removing gluten, dairy and even meat from their diets. You might overhear a discussion about ‘superfood green smoothie’ recipes after a yoga class that also happened to ‘cleanse your gall bladder’.

Many of these ideas have roughly the empirical validity of Nepali Shamanism, though far, far less well-developed / rooted in centuries of thought. Continuing,

They may be ‘plunged into gloom’ by eating a piece of bread, become anxious about when their next kale, chia or quinoa hit is coming, or eat only at home where ‘superfood’ intake can be tightly controlled.

Such behaviours can have a significant impact on relationships with family members and friends, let alone on their mental health.

It’s heartening to think that the food movement is so new, and so it’ll likely become milder in the future. Again going back to the Percy quote, orthorexia, along with other fetishizations of good things, is appealing in part because it can channel one’s general angst, including the issues of guilt, feelings of emptiness, and search for community, into something extremely narrow and manageable. But because the real problem is existential estrangement (to use Tillich’s phrase for original sin), any narrowed solution forces us to overplay our hands. It’s not like moderate orthorexia will come close to allying the anxiety of the human condition; it’s using too trivial a discipline as an antidote to too profound a problem. So naturally, people try to make up the balance in intensity and scale. As with every addiction, when something doesn’t counter the underlying emotional problem, more seems to be the answer.

4. Rounding up a couple of Holy Week articles, first comments on our culture’s discomfort with Christ’s descent into hell:

As far as credal confessions of Christianity go, the harrowing of Hell may be the least remarked upon in the contemporary world. Some Protestants, citing a lack of scriptural backup, have abandoned it; others have softened the edges around the word “hell.”

I’d argue that this relative silence reflects a discomfort with some of the frankly weird aspects of Christianity. As a faith Christianity has always been defined by its paradoxes: God can become a man, God can die, God can be one and three at the same time, the King of Heaven can spend a day in Hell. If anything the heresies of the patristic era—Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism and so on—are attempts to make Christianity more rational. It’s a fascinating aspect of Christianity that often the heretics are the more sober and rational ones while orthodoxy embraces enigma. Broadly speaking, the Eastern Orthodoxy has been more comfortable with paradox and the irrational, but in the Latin West Catholics and their Protestant inheritors have attempted to tame the scandal of Christianity with the rational equations of systematic theology…

In this way the positivist and the fundamentalist are strangely unified in their opposition to Tertullian’s infamous aphorism: credo quia absurdum (“I believe it because it is absurd”). The fundamentalist with his embarrassment over paradox denies the weirdness of his faith. The positivist can do no such thing and like Mr. Jefferson takes his razor to the Bible to excise the strangeness.

But central to the Christian vision is a profound and undeniable weirdness, and one of its strangest accounts is passed over in many a Holy Week homily. The passion story is filled with puzzles and uncertainty, from the harrowing to Christ’s cry of “My God, why have you forsaken me?” when, as GK Chesterton noted, God Himself seemed to be an atheist.* It’s these moments that constitute what the Slavoj Zizek names “the perverse core of Christianity,” the anti-Gospel as Gospel—a tradition that is too often silent during Holy Week.

Second, Brandon Ambrosino at The Daily Beast published on article on why he believes in the resurrection. It’s a tremendously accessible and responsible defense of the doctrine, cutting through many of the annoying reasons why people deny its possibility and getting close to the core issues of its apologetic.

5. While we’re on the subject of responsible, historically-grounded orthodoxy, “Kanye West” replaces every mention of God in a new Bible version (?) called the Book of Yeezus:

The creators explained, ‘What if the Bible, the most singularly significant publication in the ancient canon of Western tradition, were updated to reflect our modern society? What would it look like? What we came up with was an interventionist art, coffee-table novelty, that will appeal to both Kanye fans everywhere and those made curious by this enormous cultural phenomenon.’

Which enormous cultural phenomenon? Curious how? Which translation was used? Also in culture, The Atlantic meditates on Better Call Saul morality, The A.V. Club distinguishes between resurrection and resuscitation (in a Mad Men piece), The Incredibles 2 is coming up, Evangelicals are doing lots of good in the cause of sex trafficking, the new True Detective teaser looks awesome, our friends Lowland Hum are featured on NPR‘s First Listen right now, ruminates on Marvel’s Daredevil and Catholicism, and The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, mercifully, exists:


n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.

Motion to put all of these words in the real dictionary.

Also, three announcements:

1. Our site will be a little spare next week as we prepare for our NYC Conference.

2. Online pre-registration closes on Tuesday.

3. Nadia Bolz-Weber, our keynote speaker, will be talking on “Accidental Saints and Purpose-Driven Sinners”. And our menu looks very, very good.

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One response to “Another Week Ends: Anselmian Austerity, Finding Your Passions, Gallbladder Cleanses, Descents Into Hell and a Few Conference Updates”

  1. Alison White says:

    What is the given word for the eerie tension of a looming thunderstorm because one is coming and I don’t know what to call it…? Sigh. This is an Obscure Sorrow. It lives right next door to the sorrow of only being in one place at a time, instead of being omnipresent. Live in SC and attend the NY conference like I lived in NY.
    Thank you for this Friday post. Will miss you guys next week.
    God’s peace~

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