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Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The Meat of the Gospel: Salvation by Carnivory
The Meat of the Gospel: Salvation by Carnivory
by: Retired Prof
On the face of it, the doctrine that a god/man had to die to spare us from horrible punishment for our sins is absurd. Let us accept the idea that a creator designed and constructed an unimaginably vast universe. Say he stocked one tiny speck of it with a breeding pair of sentient, rational beings and vowed to kill them if they displeased him. So far so good. But does it make sense that he would then have designed them vulnerable to temptation and set before them an irresistible temptation? He had to know they were bound to give in, yet when they did he declined to acknowledge his own mistake (or sadistic ploy?) but placed all the blame on them.
In an attempt to mitigate the absurdity, those who devised the doctrine compounded it. They say the creator will save his creatures from his own wrath by siring a son who will never displease him and then having that son sacrificed in their stead. Sure, they will still die, but that is okay, since killing his sinless son will melt his heart enough to make him relent and let them enjoy a pain-free existence after death--as long as they meet certain terms and conditions. Otherwise he will condemn them to horrible suffering.
How can anyone claim, much less actually believe, that taking the life of an innocent person could restore the lives of guilty ones? Why would the kind of loving creator Christians believe in devise such a convoluted, irrational “plan of salvation”? An omniscient being should manage to keep things from getting out of hand in the first place. If he were as kind and loving as they say, he would not have made creatures so faulty that they had to be kicked out of Eden. He would not have poured upon their descendants a massive flood that drowned not only the sinners who provoked his wrath, but their innocent babies, their livestock—in fact all the sinless bystander-creatures that shared their world, except barely enough for seed stock to repopulate the place. He would not sadistically plan to resurrect the sinners and destroy their lives all over again by throwing them into a pool seething with fire. Furthermore, he should never need to resort to a makeshift fix once he decided that some of his human creatures could be salvaged. Surely he could think of some way to let sin-contaminated descendants of Adam and Eve off the hook without having to torture and kill one additional person—this one entirely free of sin, and his own son besides.
However bizarre this doctrine seems from a rational point of view, it does make psychological sense if we examine how two powerful human influences have intertwined: our conflicted reactions to eating animals and our tendency to believe in the supernatural.
All cultures recognize that we share with other animals the same nutritional reality. For us to live, something else must die. Most of us are untroubled if the thing that dies is an insensate turnip or a mushroom, but animals are a different matter. I once fattened a lamb for slaughter. Every day when I brought feed and water to the pen where he lived alone, he would put his front hooves up on the bottom board, peer over the fence, and greet me with a hearty “baa.” I was the only friend that lamb had. The cold November day when I knocked him in the head and cut his throat, I felt like a total traitor. Even a wild animal or bird I do not have a personal relationship with—when I shoot one my exultation at having solved a suite of difficult problems and thereby gained a quantity of edible flesh is tempered by the image of a vital creature suddenly converted to an inert mass of meat.
Members of our species manage turmoil with rituals, and the rituals many cultures observe in connection with slaughter suggest my kind of turmoil is pervasive. Some American Indians pray for forgiveness to the spirits of the animals they have killed. Hmong immigrants who share some of the hunting areas where I go cover the eyes of deer they are carrying to their vehicle, out of respect for the animal’s spirit. Observant Jews and Muslims eat meat only from animals that were ritually slaughtered. Even secular societies may require rituals. After I shoot a deer or turkey or goose, I must report to the Department of Natural Resources (a kind of secular priesthood) that I performed the slaughter by a prescribed method in the prescribed hunting zone. Meat from domestic animals must be inspected and certified under the secular authority of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Humans perform such acts whenever something both awful and awesome takes place. Slaughter is awful because we pity the animal and because its death reminds us we too will die. It is awesome because it delivers satisfying, life-sustaining food. We feel a need to expiate our guilt, celebrate our triumph, and dissipate our mortal gloom. Ever since our species came into being, most of us have felt a need to turn at such times to gods of one sort or another, who we think must be scrutinizing what we do. We design our rituals with those gods in mind.
Members of cultures that believe all animals have a spirit may condone slaughter by claiming the victims were complicit. Friends who attended a Sun Dance in South Dakota reported that several young men set out on the reservation to acquire a buffalo for the feast associated with the ceremony. They found a lone bull and shot him. As animals often do when shot through the heart/lungs, this one dashed away. The men said it ran toward the road and conveniently died where they could pull up to it and load the meat in the back of their truck. They were convinced that the bull’s spirit had donated his body to the ceremony.
In cultures that worship a creator who is separate from creation, people may excuse killing other creatures by saying their god demands the slaughter. Cain, for example, couldn’t get by with trying to foist off vegetables as a sacrifice. Only meat would do—meat from the finest unblemished specimens. Someone once expressed the opinion that priests wrote Genesis that way because they bore the solemn duty to eat the sacrifice on behalf of YHWH, and they would rather be obliged to eat lamb chops or T-bone steaks than arugula or Brussels sprouts. Still, it seems unlikely that priests could persuade herdsmen to donate their most prized animals unless the herdsmen felt burdened with turmoil and found they could relieve it by placating their god with a sacrifice.
Most cultures have believed in gods who were similarly pleased by top-of-the-line sacrifices. The more prized the sacrifice, the greater joy it gave to the gods, and the more leniently they would treat the person who made it. Some cultures carried this trend beyond animal to human sacrifice. It made sense. What is even more valuable than the finest bullock? A captured slave. What is more valuable than a slave? Someone who represents the future of one’s own tribe. Incas seized on females entering prime breeding age. Aztecs upped the ante by sacrificing gods. Though these gods came in the physical form of human beings, they were identified symbolically as divine avatars. Christians also ritually sacrifice such a god/man, inflicting symbolic, not actual death. The slaughter of Jesus, the linchpin of salvation, is re-enacted yearly in passion plays. Believers then symbolically eat the sacrificial flesh and drink the sacrificial blood in the Catholic/Anglican Eucharist, the Protestant Lord’s Supper, or the Armstrongist Passover. The symbolism is a powerful way to affirm the believer’s closeness to Jesus. No relationship can be more intimate than the assimilation of one being into another.
So this part about sacrificing Jesus so that others may live makes perfect emotional sense. The Lamb of God is performing the same role as a literal lamb, except symbolically, on a spiritual level. Just as they know material meat will help keep them alive during this life, Christians believe spiritual flesh and blood will keep them alive forever.
However significant and moving the ceremony may be for others, I can’t see my way clear to turn loose of my preference for the literal over the symbolic, reason over emotion, flesh over spirit. It is impossible for me to believe sincerely that anything, not even a consecrated wafer and a sip of magic wine that represent the nutritive substance of a guy who died two thousand years ago, could keep me alive forever. And I refuse topretend to believe it could. The absurdity of other tenets associated with the Christian plan of salvation gives me confidence that my skepticism is justified.
Maybe you are different. You may be a person who glories in convoluted logic. You may feel it opens up mystical possibilities, which you find deeply satisfying in a way you can’t quite explain. If so you should carry on, for the sake of the emotional depth. You are under no obligation to follow the mundane example of secular folk like me.