The annual non-sequitur of Easter (Or is God’s “gift” based on a warped version of the moral accounting metaphor?).

| March 23, 2008 | 9 Replies

Imagine that a neighbor walks up today and tells you that he really cares about you.   In fact, he loves you like a daughter/son and he wants to show his love.  You might be delighted to hear such an expression of affection. 

Then imagine that he tells you that he wants to prove to you that he cares for you.  He wants to prove it in a way that you will never doubt the depth of his caring.  

You would probably be thinking that he’s going to do something nice.  Maybe he will give a big donation to charity in your name.  Or maybe he will go buy you something nice, or take you to dinner at a good restaurant.  But then he surprises you.

He reminds you that he has an adult son named Bill (which you knew, because you know Bill).  He then tells you that he is going to let a mob of goons torture and murder Bill in a bloody spectacle, for you!

You are aghast, but he continues on.

He tells you that he is going to let that mob drive large nails through Bill’s hands and feet, for you, to prove that he cares about you.   For a grand finale, he is going to allow this sadistic crowd to jab a spear through Bill’s side, to make sure that every drop of blood has been drained from Bill’s body.

It would be patently obvious to you that decent people don’t “show their love” by allowing their loved ones to be murdered.   At this point you are thinking that your neighbor is nuts and probably highly dangerous, because your neighbor’s logic points to an eternal regress.  If he lets Bill (his beloved son) get killed to show his love for you, then someday he might allow you to be killed to “show his love” to someone else. Where might this ever stop? 

The much bigger problem, of course, is that being complicit in murder is not a healthy way to show love to anyone.   Decent human cultures prohibit gratuitous murder.  We deplore those who allow mergers to happen when they could intervene and stop them.  Facilitating murder is a warped and disturbing attempt to demonstrate love.  

Similarly, the claim that God sacrificed his Son to show his love for us appears to be a blatant non sequitur.  It shouldn’t make sense for anyone, anywhere.  Except that it does make sense to Christians. Christians make a jarring and nonsensical exception for God, who is supposedly the most intelligent and loving Being in the universe. 

What could God have done to show his love to us rather than allow his son to be murdered?  Maybe he could have sent Jesus down to Earth to show people how to be better carpenters.  Maybe he could have focused on healing the sick or showing kindness to those who are ostracized by society at large.   Maybe God could have sent us a clearly written Good Book that carefully shows us how to live sustainable lifestyles and not ruin the environment.   But no.   On Easter, Christians everywhere herald the bloody sacrifice (in which God acquiesced) as the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us.

This claim that the bloody sacrifice of Jesus is a demonstration of God’s love never made any sense to me.   Today, though, it occurred to me that there is arguably a thread of logic behind the claim.  Maybe it isn’t as clearly the non-sequitur that I have previously thought.  My new understanding stems from the moral accounting metaphor sketched out by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in many other works, including Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).

The moral accounting metaphor

According to Lakoff and Johnson, humans can only understand higher order concepts only indirectly, through such devices as conceptual metaphor:

[A]s soon as we develop [moral] claims into a full-fledged human morality, we find that virtually all of our abstract moral concepts–justice, rights, empathy, nurturance, strength, uprightness, and so forth-are defined by metaphors.  That is why there is no ethical system that is not metaphorical.  We understand our experience via these conceptual metaphors, we reason according to their metaphorical logic, and we make judgments on the basis of the metaphors. (325)

We all conceptualize well-being as well.  We understand an increase in well-being as again and to decrease of well-being as a loss or a cost.  We speak of profiting from an experience, of having a rich life, of investing in happiness, and of wasting our lives.  … well-being as well… is a component of one of the most important moral concepts we have.  (292)

The basic idea behind moral accounting is simple: increasing others’ well-being is metaphorically increasing their wealth.  Decreasing others’ well-being is metaphorically decreasing their wealth.  In other words, doing something good for someone that is metaphorically giving that person something of value, for example, money.  Doing something bad to someone is metaphorically taking something of value away from that person.  Increasing others’ well-being gives you a moral credit; doing them harm creates a moral debt to them; that is, you owe them an increase in their well– being-as wealth.

Justice is when the moral books are balanced.  Just as literal bookkeeping is vital to economic functioning, so moral bookkeeping is vital to social functioning.  Just as it is important that the financial books be balanced, so it is important that the moral books be balanced. … the general metaphor of moral accounting is realized in a small number of basic moral schemes: reciprocation, retribution, revenge, restitution, all truism and so on…. this explains why financial words like oh, debt, and repay are used to speak of morality and why the logic of gain and loss, debt and repayment, is used to think about morality.  (293)

As Lakoff and Johnson explain, pursuant to the moral accounting metaphor, an action that is “moral” involves giving something of positive value and an immoral action results when one gives something of negative value. 

Retribution and revenge can result in curious applications of the moral accounting metaphor.  If I hurt you, I can repay you by allowing you to hurt me. That is how one way a criminal who has murdered your sister can “repay” you for that crime: he can by hurt himself (by spending time in prison).  In short, there are two ways for me to act morally toward you according to the deeply embedded moral accounting metaphor: I can A) give you something of value or I can B) deprive myself of something of value.

The latter option can be twisted into a morality based upon a warped sense of morality, however.  After all, do you really “pay” me back for a harm you did to me by harming yourself?  This is the logic sometimes used by children on a playground.  When one child complains that a second child hit her, the second child sometimes offers to remedy the situation by allowing the first child to hit her.  Although this is a bizarre and distorted form of moral remedy (it results in two people being injured rather than one), it somehow “works,” at least for many people.  In the extreme it could make a “moral” situation out of all-out nuclear war; it’s ok as long as we’re eventually even.

Now, let’s apply this same principle (I give value to you by harming myself) to the case where two people start out even-Steven.  Neither person feels as though they owe the other person anything.  Let’s assume that the first person wants to raise money for a worthy cause.  She could simply walk up to the second person and ask for money, but that would put her in a second person’s debt (to the extent of the second person gave money).  This might, indeed, raise money, but it would upset the scales of moral accounting.  The first person would go into moral debt to the second person to the extent that the second person gave money (even though the first person turns that money over to charity).  A nice “solution” to this unbalancing problem is for the first person to inflict pain and suffering upon herself in the name of the second person in order to “earn” the second person’s contribution to the charity. Does this sound bizarre?  It’s done all the time through marathons and walkathon’s.  The first person agrees to do something physically arduous for the “benefit” of the second person in return for the second person’s contribution.  At the end of the day, (after the marathon has been run and after the money has been paid), the first person received something (a contribution for which she takes credit), the second person got something (the self detriment the first person inflicted upon herself) and the charity ultimately got a contribution, leading a somewhat attenuated moral debt the charity now owes to the first person and second person.  Then again, the charity “gave” the first person the opportunity to feel good about giving to the charity.  Things get so incredibly convoluted in this moral accounting multi–scheme!

Now let’s assume that the first person is actually God.  How can God give a great gift to humans?  One way would be for God to simply to give a great gift directly to humans.  Perhaps He could endow the earth with valuable natural resources, or he could give humans good weather or good health.  These would be straightforward ways of providing benefits.  According to the moral accounting metaphor, however, God could also “give” something of great value to humans by inflicting great harm upon himself in the name of humanity. 

I believe this self-infliction-benefit-toward-others way of thinking is the logic by which many Christians believe that God has done something valuable for humans by allowing His son Jesus to be massacred in our name. For many Christians, this logic “works.”  

It’s a curious system, of course, because God could have given us a much greater “gift” in a more direct way (e.g., by letting us all back into the Garden of Eden!).  Or, he could have given us a much more valuable gift by simply committing outright suicide in our name (without first creating a son named Jesus). It would be like falling on a hand-grenade for us (even though there was no hand-grenade or threat of any kind).

It also seems a bit of a twist of logic for God to say that he’s going to give us something great by allowing the death of someone else (or is Jesus someone distinct from God??)!   The theory of Christianity allows God to have his cake and eat it too.  According to Christians, God created another personification of himself, Jesus, then allowed that second version of Himself to be sacrificed, leaving Himself intact (in another amazing demonstration of magic, he then allowed His “dead” son to resurrect). 

Human principles don’t apply the gods, of course.  Because I am a human being, the “value” of my willingness to sacrifice something that I own for your benefit is commensurate with its value to me.  Its value to me depends on how difficult it would be to replace the thing I’m “sacrificing.”  In this God-sacrificed-his-only-begotten-son-to-save-us story, one critical variable is never discussed (or least I’ve never seen it discussed). 

That variable is this: “How difficult is it for God-the-Father to create a son?  If it is incredibly difficult, then His willingness to let his son be massacred in a bloody crucifixion would be relatively meaningful.  On the other hand, if God is able to spawn millions of Redeemer Sons with the snap of His cosmic finger, then the sacrifice of any one of these Redeemer Sons is not much of a gesture at all.

Because God allegedly allowed his Son to be resurrected from the dead, in the end, this makes God’s great Easter gift especially suspect.  It’s as though I promised to sacrifice my pet goldfish in your name (as a benefit to you) and then you found out that, after I intentionally inflicting an injury on my goldfish, I rushed him to the vet and he was healed.  Given that God is allegedly omnipotent and that he allowed his dead son to rise from the dead in the end, it would seem that God’s gift of “sacrificing” his son is not quite the great gift it is so often drummed up to be.

Or, perhaps I am missing the point of the Easter celebration.  Perhaps God’s extravagant waste of his son was impressive only for the sorts of reasons that humans try to impress other humans by extravagantly wasting precious resources.  I’ve discussed this application of evolutionary theory in other posts.  This extravagance theory is most often represented by reference to the peacock, who grows and carries an extravagant tail in order to impress at peahens.

peacock.jpg

In the end, whatever logic you use to justify the celebration of Easter, it would appear that God’s behavior and motivations appear human-all-too-human.  The reasons expressed in this post are thus reasons to conclude that the God of Christianity does not exist, but that “He” was actually created in Man’s image and likeness.

For another post outlining the Lakoff/Johnson explanation of conceptual metaphor, I would highly recommend their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980).   I’ve sketched out the Lakoff/Johnson approach to conceptual metaphor here.

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Category: Evolution, Good and Evil, Language, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (9)

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  1. DRF says:

    In order to understand the atonement of Jesus Christ one must look at the "big picture". His death was only one small aspect of the atonement and in all reality not the most important part either. But you must go back even further than that to understand the necessity of the Atonement to the Christian faith.

    The need for the atonement begins with Adam and Eve. When they were in the Garden of Eden they were in a state of innocence. At that time they were given a commandment to not partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The penalty of which was death. Of course they did partake of the fruit which resulted in the "fall". By this death entered the world. Now it is important to understand that there are two types of "death": physical death or the end of our lives when our spirit separated from our bodies and spiritual death, meaning an eternal separation from God.

    This is the state that we live in right now. We cannot overcome the obstacles of physical and spiritual death by our own power because we are imperfect. This is why a Savior and an Atonement for our sins is necessary.

    Jesus is unique in that he is the "only begotten of the Father in the flesh". He possesses the attributes of both God and Man. His purpose in coming to earth was to live a perfect life, impart His teachings, and at the end take upon Him our sins and frailties and ultimately offer Himself as a willing sacrifice for all mankind. The culmination of His Atonement is his resurrection. By the act of the atonement as described above Christ overcame both types of death. Spiritual death by taking upon him our sins and giving us the opportunity to meet His conditions for forgiveness through repentance and patterning our lives after His teachings. Physical death was overcome by the resurrection; the act of Jesus taking up His own life again. Through Christ willingly fulfilling His mission we can be reconciled to God. It is not the manner in which He died that is important. It is that Jesus Christ of His own free will, not that of the Father, gave himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin and subsequently conquered death.

    I hope this helps you understand a little better that we don't celebrate the death of Jesus Christ at Easter, but His life and His Atonement.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    DRF:

    Sorry, but I simply don’t take as literal truth most of the things on which you are basing your argument. I don’t believe A) that there was a real life Adam or Eve, B) that they lived in paradise, or C) that they were expelled from that Garden by a God for disobeying Him.

    Even if I did believe in the literal truth of those things you discuss in your comment, I would still be confused by anyone’s “need” to redeem me or you for something NOT done by us, but done by Adam or Eve. The only reason that we would need to be “redeemed” is that we were unfairly blamed for acts of our ancestors (and the punishment allegedly administered to Adam and Eve was outrageously excessive). Regarding those of us who allegedly need redemption, how could we be to blame for something that occurred when we were not even born yet?

    The sort of God who punishes people under those circumstances displays a warped sense of fairness. It would be the same strange warped sense of fairness that such a God allegedly exhibited when He let a mob murder His Son to “save” people whose sin was simply being born into “original sin.” And such a strange thing to saddle a baby with, original sin, especially for an omnipotent God who could, by definition, have deleted that sin with a wave of his cosmic Hand, guided by His “omniscience.”

    To me, all of these bible stories seem concocted and un-genuine. They are fables, not history. They were obviously not written by a God. http://www.dangerousintersection.org/?p=668 Such logic and such stories (as I wrote in the above post) are clearly human-all-too-human.

  3. DRF says:

    First of all, I never asked you to believe anything. I was merely trying to help you understand that it is not the death of Christ that Easter commemorates, but the Atonement and resurrection. I was trying to lay a little ground. It was by no means a complete account.

    As to your other comments: Adam would require redemption for his own sins as would eve. Redemption for sin is individual and personal. The concept of "original sin" is false. We do not inherit anyone else's sin. We inherit the ability to die from Adam and Eve, but the resurrection is a free gift to all men. All will overcome physical death.

    We are not punished for being here on Earth. We are here as part of a plan laid out to help us in our progression through the eternities. As part of that plan the Father knew we would make mistakes. The problem is there are two eternal principles that are at work here, justice and mercy.

    First, God must be perfectly just. His laws are absolute. We as imperfect beings cannot, in our current state, be in His presence. We do not merit it and we cannot earn it on our own. This is just.

    On the other side is mercy. God loves his children. He wants us to be able to reach our potential. As part of His plan for us Jesus Christ volunteered to provide a way to bridge the gap and allow us to overcome those things that keep us separated from God. It is because of this plan that God in His infinite justice, wisdom and mercy does not wave His "cosmic hand" and delete our sins. We must learn from our own experience to choose to follow His plan. This is a gift He will never take away from us: our ability and opportunity to choose.

    Through His willing sacrifice Jesus Christ satisfies both the demands of justice and mercy. Justice demands that a price be paid. In His mercy and love Jesus of His own free will descended below us all to pay every last bit of the demands of justice. This puts us in debt to Christ rather than to justice. He asks that we meet certain conditions in order to make his Atonement of effect in our lives.

    Now, whether the Bible seems concocted to you or not is really irrelevant. One's opinion of something does not make it more or less true. By the same token someone could say the "big bang" Theory seems concocted. There is not definite proof that it is real. All we have is the interpretation of data collected by people who cannot say with certainty that that interpretation is accurate. That is why it is referred to as a theory and not a law. But by stating the Bible stories "are fables" the burden falls on you to prove that.

    The subject of who wrote the bible and what has happened to it over the ages is a completely separate discussion that would take too much time to get into here. Suffice to say that I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; therefore I believe that other scripture is necessary to help complete the picture.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    My quibble with DRF is the "only begotten son" angle. Many prophets and demigods were half breeds of virgins and God(s). Most of them suffered to save humanity.

    Either he succeeded in washing away original sin, in which case why would we need to do more? Or he failed, so why would we worship him?

    Spring, the Vernal Equinox, Passover, Easter have been celebrations of rebirth long before Christianity absorbed the pagan traditions that we celebrate today, even before the time of Jesus, and even before Moses.

  5. DRF and Erich,

    Regarding the so-called "Fall", it is good to remember what St. Augustine called it—O Happy Sin. Meaning that without it, there would be no life—no life as in no poetry, no art, no physical joy, that with immortality and an endless time spent in a Paradise without end there is simply no reason to indulge in Living. Adam & Eve lived in a bubble which allowed for no change, no discovery, no growth, no passion, pleasure, or purpose. Without pain, how can we know what life is worth? Without death, how do we value the one thing that makes it all worthwhile?

    I choose to see the expulsion from paradise fable as ironic—of course the "discovery" of good and evil made us aware. But instead of a fall, it was a liberation. We now have choices. I'll take that before playing a lyre in heaven for eternity any day, any hour, any second.

    As for Jesus' life and death—surely, DRF, you are aware that Jesus wasn't the only mortal begot by a god on a human? All of the previous ones—Perseus, Heracles, et al—were Heroes. Jesus' whole story is meant as an endcap to the Heroic Age, the demigod of the last god. The last teddy bear before humankind left the nursery and assumed the mantle of its own responsibility. His instruction? The dragon needing slaying is not Out There, but inside ourselves. Kill it and stop walking around feeling shame for something that no longer holds sway. After all, by his death the sins of the world were (supposedly) taken away.

    Time now, I think, to find a new story.

  6. DRF said—First, God must be perfectly just. His laws are absolute. We as imperfect beings cannot, in our current state, be in His presence. We do not merit it and we cannot earn it on our own. This is just.—

    Why?

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: I suspect it's because his preacher scared him into believing such things.

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