I put up a few of my thoughts on Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ yesterday. An other review that has been making the rounds of the LDS internet community is Orson Scott Card's review. Card's review mentions the difference between Protestant and especially Mormon conceptions of the atonement versus those of Catholicism. In Catholicism the emphasis is on the suffering and torture of Jesus as that was what he suffered for our sins. As Card puts it, for Mormons "Christ's real suffering was the anguish he felt as he bore the horror of complete spiritual separation from God." I'm not sure that is completely correct, but certainly Mormons, unlike most other Christians, put the climax of the atonement in the garden prior to Jesus' arrest. As James Talmage put it, "in some manner, actual and terribly real though to man incomprehensible, the Savior took upon himself the burden of the sins of mankind from Adam to the end of the world. ... From that terrible conflict in Gethsemane, Christ emerged a victor. ... The further tragedy of the night, and the cruel inflictions that awaited him on the morrow, to culiminate in the frightful tortures of the cross, could not exceed the bitter anguish through which he had successfully passed." (Talmage, Jesus the Christ) For those not familiar with LDS notions of the Atonement, the FAIR list of articles is probably helpful.
Now while Mormons do emphasize events in Gethsemane far more than the cross, that does not mean that we don't see the crucifixition as important. Two of our most important ordinances, the sacrament and the endowment directly relate to those events. Likewise the cross becomes a common symbol in the Book of Mormon even prior to the coming of Jesus to the Nephites. Take for example Alma 39:9 where we have the evolution of this to "cross yourself in all these things." (Presumably in mesoamerica, crucifixion wasn't common and the exact imagery became somewhat removed to them and became more symbolic) The cross becomes a kind of symbol for denial and turning to God.
One of the many interesting issues I've discussed the last week in connection to Gibson's The Passion is just this issue of the role of Christ's actions in the garden versus those actions during his torture and crucifixion. Put as simply as possible, did events on the cross have a symbolic function or was it essential to the atonement.
I think there are several possible interpretations possible. One, ascribing non-symbolic significance to the cross, sees it important for Jesus to be tortured so that he experienced every class of experiences. That provided him real life experience that allowed him to comprehend and succor all those here on earth. It doesn't mean that he was tortured worse than any other person. (I'm sure that the KGB and various central American secret police in the 1980's were far more adept at than then the Roman centurians) It does mean though that there is a kind of common ground with the victims of torture of violence that he obtained that he wouldn't have had were he to have died peacefully.
An other common view, fairly closely related to Catholic views and substitutionary views is the idea that the torture and crucifixiion of Jesus had to happen to cause an unjust rupture in notions of divine justice. In this case Jesus, who was fully God and the most innocent being ever living, suffered what could only be called the most unjust action ever - the death of God. This inequity then enabled Jesus to apply its weight to our sins and the justice of our punishment. I admit I have grave difficulties with this view and related ones. I'll not get into them. I touched on a few of the issues briefly a few weeks ago. A good analysis of this basic approach can be found in Dennis Potter's paper "Did Christ Pay for Our Sins?" I should point out that many Mormons would disagree with Dennis on his view of the Atonement.
My own thoughts on the atonement see the crucial event taking place in the garden when Christ became in and through all things. To me the key scripture about the atonement is D&C 88:6 "He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth." I personally believe that this cluminated in the garden, when he literally suffered all things by becoming one with us. Literally it was an at-one-ment. Well beyond propositions about our actions Christ experienced them in a truly direct way. That includes experiencing the full withdrawal of the spirit and God. ( D&C 19:20)
Why then, in this view, the crucifixion? Because events in the garden are too abstract, too difficult for our minds to really grasp hold of. Yet the torture and death of Christ are very real, as Mel Gibson has shown us. We can understand that. And even if the suffering on the cross was the smallest part of his suffering, it was a suffering we can understand and be shamed by. It is a symbol to lead us to understand just what Christ did for us. More importantly it is a symbol that causes us to turn to him. As Jesus said to the Nephites, "my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me." ( 3 Ne 27:14)
Some might see this as reducing the significance of the crucifixion to "mere symbol." However I'd disagree that any symbol is a "mere" symbol. Rather symbols are how we come to know the world around us, how we come to our desires, our understanding, and our feelings. So I think that this aspect of the atonement is still very important. Indeed I think its place in the symbolism of our rituals demonstrates this. But I personally don't see many good reasons to think it as having a non-symbolic role.
Now we've been discussing this topic on LDS-Phil the past few days. I've only touched on a few of the arguments we've gone through there on this topic. Hopefully I can discuss this issue a little more in depth over the upcoming days here. I should point out that there is one event in the crucifixion that argues against my position - the cry of Jesus of "my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" ( Matt 27:46) Some see in this the withdrawal of God from Jesus causing him to experience total alienation - the ultimate punishment for sin. Others see this as a necessary, but perhaps symbolic fulfillment of Psalms 22. As I said, hopefully I can discuss this further over the next few days and touch more particularly upon the philosophical rather than exegesical issues involved in the topic.
Someone asked me why I bring up philosophers and philosophy movements like neoPlatonism, postmodernism, pragmatism or so forth. It isn't really to try and label people or theologies. Rather it is to provide a link to general positions and arguments. It is a way of expanding the conception and not limiting it. I bring this up since I think some may have misunderstood all these references. Bringing out points of similarity should never obscure differences nor what is unique in some person's philosophy. But it does give us a framework for understanding that thought. So long as we don't limit ourselves to any one particular framework, I think this can be very helpful.
Nate Oman sent me a brief note this morning regrading an earlier post about "neuroeconomics." He mentioned how disappointed he was in the paper I linked to. Now let me preface my comments by saying that I'm not an economist. I confess at being interested the past few weeks, mainly because of some comments from Brayden King's blog which often discusses economics. But clearly I'm not versed enough in the field to be able to fairly evaluate economic claims beyond application of common sense. But knowing how often common sense is wrong in my own discipline of physics, I'm loath to trust common sense in technical matters. As I said in that original post, I often wonder how much we really ought to trust economics. It seems like it is still very much at the foundational stage as a science. Quite often models they use seem to fail. Further, there are not theoretical "entities" below the model which seem firm enough to trust. In a sense economics is very dependent upon psychology for its foundations - much like chemistry is dependent upon physics for its foundations. The difference is that even in its early days it seems like chemistry had much more predictive power and "objective" claims that economics does today. The fact that there are so many significant disagreements in economics suggests that we do not have a good economic foundation for economics.
Now I don't want to get into the discussion about when a science is a science. I especially don't want to get into the Popper versus Kuhn discussion. I actually had a post on that them earlier in the week but decided not to post it as it was so unrelated to any Mormon theme. What I do wish to get into though is the issue of neuroeconomics.
I don't think anything I read about neuroeconomics suggested that it was really a formal successful sub-discipline. Rather what excited me was the fact that some in economics were moving away from a more "behavioralist" or "instrumentalist" approach to their discipline into something more involving realism. What do I mean by that? Instrumentalism basically is the idea that we have a mathematical model but don't particularly care if it corresponds to reality. We only care if it makes successful predictions in the area we are interested in. Milton Friedman was one of the more famous instrumentalists in economics. Behavioralism was once very popular in psychology and said that we don't care about why something happens. We only care about stimulus and response. What happens "behind the scenes" doesn't really matter. Realism sees the issue as not just behavior but what is going on underneath. For instance in physics it is the view that we don't just care about measurements on our dials and formulas describing them. We wish to know about whether there really are things like electrons, quarks, charge and so forth. The realist sees science as trying to find these constituents, describe them and explain them as best as is possible.
This is why I think neuroeconomics is so exciting. Clearly psychology has become more fruitful as it focuses in on the brain and how the brain works and its structure. Since economics rests upon the psychology of people then the more we can understand the relationship between the brain and economics the better. For instance how does the way the brain remembers information relate to our economic behavior? How do evolutionary structures such as our fight or flight reflex relate to economics?
As I said, I'm not that well read on economics. But I'm very excited that people are at least asking these sorts of questions.
Related to some of the issues above, I found the site of Lawrence Boland who appears to have numerous discussions of economic methadology. I've not read all the papers yet so I can't speak to their quality. But it looks quite interesting and those I've read relate a lot to the above.
As I've said here before, I'm not really well versed in ethical theory. My views tend to thus be fairly vague and end being that I think there some real good or goods for any situation. But I doubt anyone can say why something is good. Yet I have this vague sense that whatever the good is, it is good because of its consequences. I say that despite being rather anti-utilitarian in my views.
Having said all that, understanding the atonement, as I've been trying the past while, require some discussion of consequentialism. I don't claim to have arrived at any answers, beyond a recognition that the problem rests upon our conceptions of individuality. However a frequent concept that seems to appear in Mormon discussions is the notion of "blameless wrongdoing." This is basically the idea that one does wrong, but is blameless for the wrong. Consider a mother who could give their child some benefit or could give a stranger a far greater benefit. Yet, because of her love for her child, she serves the child. Now is the mother to be blamed for this? This isn't an uncommon occurance since clearly most families here in the west do. We spend a fair bit of money on fairly insignificant toys for our children. Yet the money we spend on such matters could have a significant benefit to many people in the third world.
Now clearly in most forms of consequentialism the mother is acting wrong. Yet it is also hard to blame the mother. After all she acted out of love and to have acted otherwise would have required a different "disposition" towards her child. (We'll ignore the possibility that she could simply have chosen contrary to her disposition since that complicates things somewhat. We'll say for simplicity that the disposition entails the behavior.) This is actually fairly closely related to a discussion I had over the law of consecration at Times and Seasons a month or so ago. The consequentialist seems to require such demanding approaches that it is often hard to take many forms of it seriously.
The paper Blameless Wrongdoing and Agglomeration relates to these issues. (My above example comes from it) The paper doesn't really resolve my conflicted views towards consequentialism. However it does offer some interesting insights into these issues. I think that they relate directly to Mormons notions of atonement as well as our views on consecration. It definitely places limits on our ethical behavior. For instance the mother in the above might have two behaviors she ought do. She ought to have a certain disposition to her child and she ought benefit some stranger. But we err if we assume that doing both oughts is itself an ought.
Perhaps not everyone will find this as interesting as I did. But it seems to me that what makes the Atonement so interesting is that we logically can't do right in every circumstance. That's why I tend to view the atonement in terms of consequentialism - making everything work out right in the end.
Very interesting paper over at the American Mathematical Society on the evolution of our concepts of space and time. It's fairly technical and I suspect Sklar's seminal work Space, Time, and Spacetime is better for philosophers. But it is a very interesting paper for those able to wade past the more technical parts. The big debate is over what "points of space" are. The main difference is between Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz thought the ultimate constituents of matter were monads. Space emerges out of the relationship of matter. (Although technically monads aren't material) Mach and Einstein are the two most famous figures in this general approach. Newton on the other hand felt that positions are something real and exist to be inhabited by what we might call the accidents of matter. Put more simply Newton felt there was a place independent of stuff whereas Leibniz didn't.
The paper goes through a lot of abstract algebra but comes up with the following:
If all points are intrinsically indistinguishable from one another, they can differ only in position. In other words, there exists an archetypal point, of which the other points are representations.
Despite this seeming platonic language, the work is very mathematical and rigorous. The paper goes on to argue that "not all points are alike - there are several species of monads." (15)
I'll not bore the non-physicists with too much here. And, to be honest, I'm still working through a lot of it to understand it myself. Those interested might enjoy the discussion on Galois theory by John Baez over at This Week in Mathematical Physics. A lot of the math in the article on space relates. It's all very interesting and suprisingly quite relevant to our investigation of Orson Pratt's philosophy. (Assuming we ever find the time to dedicate to writing up our initial thoughts)