Monday, April 17, 2006

Easter Musings

I see that PZ Meyers' got his drink on regarding Easter. Easy, man, yer gunna burst a vessel. Anyway, I'll quibble with PZ's post and then I'll move on to the meat of things. Calling Easter a "vile little holiday" might be a bit much. Remember that Easter as it is currently celebrated is a hijacking of a relatively benign celebration of Spring. There's absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing the arrival of Spring; I certainly appreciate it more since I moved to a region of the country that has 5 months of nasty winter. PZ makes these same arguments, but he makes it sounds like everyone is fixated a-la Gibson on the horror of the Passion. Granted, there's no need to dress a celebration of Spring up in religious garb, but we'll let that pass on the grounds that mindful practice of these sorts of rites isn't a bad thing. I'll argue that a lot of people currently celebrate the spring sense of Easter. My wife and I aren't practicing Christians (or anything else, for that matter), but we still like to throw Easter brunch. End quibble. PZ is just wrong in his interpretation of the Crucifixion story; it wasn't a matter of "being unable to pull out a few nails"1. The canonical teaching of the Catholic church (and most other Christian churches as far as I know) is that it was a deliberate choice. But the meat of his argument, about the theological justification/necessity/validity of the Christian got me thinking. I mean, I was raised Catholic, and I don't recall anyone ever explaining why it was theologically necessary for Jesus to die. So I went and looked up the official catechism on the subject. Now I know why they didn't delve deeper in CCD. Talk about subtle reasoning... Here's a meta-critique of the whole affair. I'm a college educated ex-catholic with a greater than average interest in doctrine, and I'm having trouble putting all of the threads of the argument together. How the fuck is the average churchgoer supposed to make heads or tails of it? Bear in mind that this is the official catechism, not some academic addendum. The "In Brief" is easier to follow, but doesn't really answer the question. Anyway, back to the question itself. There appear to be two threads of argument supporting the contention that the Crucifixion was necessary:
  • Fulfillment of scripture/prophecy
  • "Ransoming" of mankind from the "futile ways inherited from [their] fathers".
The whole scripture thing doesn't hold up under even casual scrutiny. The revelations of scripture were inspired by God, in which case the argument reduces to "Jesus had to die because God said so". Which demonstrates why is happened, but not why it was theologically necessary. Also, it doesn't really jibe with the New Testament presentation of an infinitely loving god, which is why I suspect that the official catechism calls the entire affair "part of the mystery of God's plan". Punt... The second thread, the "ransoming", seems to be most clearly expressed in item 602. The wages of sin are death and all that jazz. It doesn't address the actual mechanism of ransoming (presumably God could snap his fingers and say "You're ransomed"), but says that its necessary because of original sin and all the sin that followed. Which is just fantastic. Original sin is a doctrine rife with logical inconsistencies. To start with, consider the act itself. You cannot sin if you do not know what you do is wrong (hence the whole "age of discretion" doctrine). Adam and Eve didn't know right from wrong until they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; that they gained this knowledge after eating the fruit is demonstrated by their shame at their nakedness after, but not before. There's probably some casuistic argument to be made to get around the above boot-strapping issue, but there's still the problem of transmission of original sin. The sins of the father being visited upon the son is a very old school, vengeful deity sort of thing, again difficult to reconcile with an infinitely loving god. Again, the catechism punts, saying that "the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand" (statement 404) . So, in a nutshell, it doesn't look like there's a satisfactory explanation for why the Crucifixion was necessary from a theological standpoint.
1 But he's on the money regarding the whole "omnipotent and human" thing. Many of Christianity's most famous heresies revolve around the exact relationship between Jesus and God. It seems that Christians as a whole have forever been divided on the subject.


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