Christ’s sacrifice

Why did Christ have to die to redeem our sins? This is one of those questions that cuts to the core of Christianity, is super difficult to answer, and represents one of the mysteries of the faith. An all-powerful Creator could, hypothetically, simply forgive sins. So why send his incarnate son to suffer crucifixion? Here’s some context from the Gospel last Monday that reminded me of this recently:

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. —John 3:13-17

I talked this question through with Ben Novak a few years ago, and his explanation is incredibly sane and playful. It’s just one Christian attorney’s personal approach to answering a mystery of the faith, so take it in that light. But I wanted to share it, at minimum, because it’s helped me think about God in a less distant way. I transcribed the following from a casual conversation, so errors/poor grammatical formations are mine.

A Theory of Christ’s Sacrifice

There’s nothing in Scripture that tells us why God had to send his son to earth to become a man to die for us. In other words, there’s no answer. There are a bunch of theories; the early Fathers of the Church had theories, one of which was the “fishhook theory” involving the Garden of Eden, where mankind fell under the dominion of Satan. However when Christ was tempted in the desert, Satan overstepped his bounds and God re-asserted dominion over man. But that still doesn’t explain why he had to die on the cross. St. Anselm’s “Satisfaction Theory,” and Peter Abelard’s theory, and we probably 15 other theories as to why the Son of God had to become a man and die. I thought about this, and this is a theory I came up with.

Let’s assume that the story of Genesis about Original Sin is true. We sinned in the Garden and God expelled mankind. He says, “Alright, they’ve put themselves outside the Garden. They’re no longer my companions. They’re cut off from me.” If this was all there was to it, that would’ve been the end of our relationship with God.

But fortunately God had a son. And like any teenager, he walked around the universe, stopping in at different places, visiting and observing them. When he came to Earth, he saw these human beings. Of course, he knew their story from his father—that they were created in the Garden, rebelled and were tossed out. Their connection was lost. Nevertheless, the son noticed something about them that impressed him. He saw that they were damned, and cut off from God. Yet they were still willing to do things (particularly willing to give their lives) without any possibility of a reward. He saw that they gave their lives for their children, their country, their friends, their gods.

The son was so impressed by this that he went back to his father God, saying “Hey father, you know, I’ve been looking at these humans that you created and noticed something really special about them—that they do this thing, they give their lives without any thought of reward.” And the father responded, “Hey, that was a failed experiment. I threw them out, and they’re lost. I don’t want to hear about it any more.”

And so the son goes back out, and like any good kid goes back to earth and studies man some more before coming back to his father. “You know,” he said to father God, “I’ve been watching them some more, and they’re doing something that isn’t even done in Heaven. In Heaven you reward the good and punish the bad. On Earth, women give their lives caring for their children and dying for their children. Men give their lives for their families. All without any possibility of collecting a reward. They’re cut off from you. They have no eternal life. Yet they do these things anyway. And that doesn’t even happen in Heaven.”

“I told you before,” God scolded his son. “It was a failed experiment, and I don’t want you to have anything to do with them. You keep away from them.”

And so like any kid he goes right back to erase any doubt, before returning to his father. “You know, father,” he says, “they have created something—a virtue, if you will—that is greater than anything we’ve done here. This willingness to act without the reward of eternal life.”

Father fumes: “Enough.” But the son presses further: “I think that to be a man could be even greater than to be God, because to act without promise or reward of eternal life would be even higher than what we have in Heaven.”

“Oh!,” says father God. “If you think it’s so great, why don’t you go down there and be one of them.  Don’t be born in a palace.  Don’t have power or servants. No—you go be born at the bottom and you go through the worst of it, and you come back here and tell me that it’s better to be a man than to be God.”

And so the son goes to the Angel Gabriel and gets himself born, and lives his whole life exactly as we know it. He’s finally in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now he’s sweating blood, because now he knows he has to go through the final part of it. He has to die as a man, under the worst possible circumstances, with all that pain and suffering. But he also has to die without any thought of reward or eternal life. Sweating blood, he calls out to his father, “Please, take this cup away. Don’t make me do this.” And the father says, “Hey, you don’t have to do it. I’ll bring you right back to Heaven; you can get out of it any way you want. But, of course then you lose the bet. You lose what you said was so great about these people.”

So the son decides to go through with it, thinking, “I said it, and I meant it.” He goes through the whole thing, and on the cross it’s finally achieved when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s at that point where he can die like a man, with almost despair in his heart. He’s proved his point to his father, though he won’t collect on it, because he’s dying like a man without any thought of the future.

He dies and descends into Hell, which is oblivion, and finally on the third day he rises. The father calls him back and says, “OK son. Is it better to be man than to be God?” And the son says, “Yes, father, it is.” Father God says, “Well son, you went and did it. You lived it. If you say it’s better to be a man than to be God, then I have to accept your statement: to die in the human condition, and give yourself without any thought of reward is truly great. Therefore every human being who gives up his life and dedicates his life without any thought of reward is also a son of mine.” And that’s how we were saved.

National character

Sean Wilentz writes one of the best New York Times opinion pieces I’ve read, addressing an issue often referred to as America’s “Original Sin:”

…the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.

When I read this, it brought me back a few years to something I wrote at The Huffington Post: “I’m a red blooded American proud of every part of our nation’s rise and from this love more than willing to speak candidly about its past and present failures. Not sins, but failures. Only people, not nations, can sin. I think we need to love before we can claim the clout to start hurling bromides.”

Anyway, if you’re of the Sanders mentality, read Wilentz’s entire piece in order to really get the complete lay of the land.

Computer science for all

Bill DeBlasio unveiled what will be a transformative initiative for the New York City public school system that will see computer science become a standard part of the curriculum for all students within a decade.

I’m using the word “transformative” very intentionally here, largely because I’ve been following Fred Wilson’s work on this as a private citizen and donor for years. Typically when I hear “public/private partnerships” as the solution for achieving grand projects, I’ll file whatever I hear next as “pipe dream.” I don’t think this will be.

I don’t know how to code, beyond being a little dangerous with HTML and CSS. Ruby, JavaScript, Swift, etc. are as mysterious to me as Chinese or French. But that’s part of the point of this initiative—if traditional languages help ground us in the humanities, the languages of code help prepare us for a world where technology shapes human culture and experience as much as the traditional languages do. That’s really the takeaway here: that computer science isn’t merely a technical discipline, but another language. In that light, this initiative makes incredible sense as a priority for the city.

Another aspect of this is that I suspect (again, largely due to the involvement of people like Fred Wilson) that the success of this initiative will energize donors for many years to come. Energizing private gifts to enhance the public system is a model that I think should be adopted whenever possible.

Annual Meeting

Yesterday I shared some of John Lilly’s life advice, which included the idea of “finding your tribe.” That’s what I did tonight in Montgomery County for a bit. The Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia held its Annual Meeting at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Maple Glen, welcoming nearly 100 pro-life Catholic representatives and volunteers from across the region.

As a board, we decided to start conducting our Annual Meeting as a public event in the spirit of transparency and coalition building. Those who made it out tonight are the people on the ground in communities around the city that work and witness to a Culture of Life on a day-to-day basis. They’re the force multipliers for the Pro-Life Union’s staff, and the eyes and ears who can help us understand where we’re making an impact, and when something we’re doing isn’t making an impact.

So we pair our Annual Meeting with an Appreciation Dinner for these Christian representatives, and purposely look toward the year ahead to ensure we’re fulfilling our mission to “foster a cohesive vision and strategy for a Culture of Life across Greater Philadelphia.”

Life advice

John Lilly, a partner at Greylock Partners, did an AMA on Product Hunt recently. I didn’t catch the AMA (which is here), but I did see one of his answers excerpted on Twitter. It’s great perspective that I want to share:

Q: What life advice would you give yourself at 25 if you were 25 in 2015?

A: It’s advice I got from folks when I was actually 25, and it’s been consistent: (1) Find your tribe—the people you want to build your life and career with—and treat them *incredibly* well. (2) Do things that make your soul sing—find the things that give you real joy because that will push you through the harder times. (3) Make more things—making is a very very special gift & privilege. Do it as long as you can.

Resurrection

I mentioned Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism recently. It’s a great book, but it’s also a beautiful book—a beautiful physical object. The construction of the hardcover from St. Augustine’s Press is superb, and the cover graphic—Sir Stanley Spencer’sResurrection“—is literally a work of art. Painted between 1924-27, it hangs in the Tate Museum:

Spencer believed that the divine rested in all creation. He saw his home town of Cookham as a paradise in which everything is invested with mystical significance. The local churchyard here becomes the setting for the resurrection of the dead. Christ is enthroned in the church porch, cradling three babies, with God the Father standing behind. Spencer himself appears near the centre, naked, leaning against a grave stone; his fiancée Hilda lies sleeping in a bed of ivy. At the top left, risen souls are transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed the Thames.

A chief criticism of our time articulated by people like C.S. Lewis is that our obsession with scientism has wiped out our ability to invest reality with mystical significance. Even science (though certainly not scientism) cannot explain the ultimate “why” of reality (of something rather than nothing) even if it can eventually apprehend every “how.

It’s in this light that I’m totally comfortable with “mystical significance” infusing the day-to-day. When I look at Spencer’s Resurrection, I imagine my family in Armstrong County, more than eight generations buried together that might meet one day.

Without “musical significance,” what are cemeteries anyway? Stones and sentiment.

Prince Screws

When Michael Jackson’s Xscape came out last summer I listened to it on repeat for a few days. Of all the tracks, Do You Know Where Your Children Are is one of my favorites; feels closest to vintage of any of the tracks.

Listening to the album also led to me reading some reviews and coming across Back in the Day, GQ’s piece on a fascinating aspect of Michael Jackson’s story:

How do you talk about Michael Jackson unless you begin with Prince Screws? Prince Screws was an Alabama cotton-plantation slave who became a tenant farmer after the Civil War, likely on his old master’s land. His son, Prince Screws Jr., bought a small farm. And that man’s son, Prince Screws III, left home for Indiana, where he found work as a Pullman porter, part of the exodus of southern blacks to the northern industrial cities.

There came a disruption in the line. This last Prince Screws, the one who went north, would have no sons. He had two daughters, Kattie and Hattie. Kattie gave birth to ten children, the eighth a boy, Michael—who would name his sons Prince, to honor his mother, whom he adored, and to signal a restoration. So the ridiculous moniker given by a white man to his black slave, the way you might name a dog, was bestowed by a black king upon his pale-skinned sons and heirs.

We took the name for an affectation and mocked it.

Not to imply that it was above mockery, but of all the things that make Michael unknowable, thinking we knew him is maybe the most deceptive.

Nightmares

I’ve been having nightmares lately. I think I dream fairly regularly. They’re often pleasant, occasionally great, and sometimes nightmares. 

As far as we know, dreams aren’t real in any way. They don’t speak to anything in reality, and they’re probably not connected to anything beyond our ego. So the thing all dreams have in common is that they’re counterfeit. They’re an experience of nothingness, of illusions.

It’s in this sense that I think all dreams, pleasant or otherwise, are a sort of glimpse of hell. Christians consider hell to be not so much a place as a lack of place. A void, an absence of the good, an unending series of experiences that never resolve, that lack meaning and narrative and coherence. A separation from the good, driven by the vicissitudes of our own ego. 

Rather dramatic, sure. But this also describes many dreams, both good and bad. Experiences of pleasant or melancholic or nightmarish incoherence. Experiences of nonreality that nonetheless can deeply affect our waking selves. Experiences driven by ego, when we’re separated from the good, which is the waking world, full of the light of day and the life of our friends and companions.

In any event, I’ve never much cared for dreams. I expect this might change if I reach a time or age where my physical mobility is limited, and the feeling of mental mobility becomes more attractive. But given the choice, I’d rather wake refreshed without thought of the illusory world of the night.

Family

I’ve been rereading Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism lately, and want to share a small bit of that today. (I’ll also be sharing two more bits next week.) I’ve written about Scruton before. He wrote this book in the late 1970s, and while much of his perspective draws on British life, it’s very much a book about authentic conservatism of spirit rather than the cheap conservatism of merely politics.

This bit on family life really calls out for appreciation:

The family is the origin of self-respect, being the first institution through which the social world is perceived. It is also autonomous: a form of life which has no aim besides itself. What is achieved through family union could not be achieved in some other way. The family is therefore instilled with concrete values, providing each of its participants with an unending source of rational objectives, which cannot be specified in advance but which arise from the realities of family life. …

I have previously taken the family as the clearest example of an institution based in a transcendent bond. It is a clear example because it is an extreme one. Almost nothing about the family union rests in contract or consent, and none of the values which spring from it can be understood except in terms of the peculiar lastingness with which it is endowed. While a football team has an identity which can outlast the contributions of particular members, it is not for its lastingness that is is valued. (Although it would be of less worth were it to be constantly formed and re-formed without some trappings of continuity.) In the case of the family, however, the experience of continuity is immediate and dominant. Parents play with their children and so re-enact childhood. They also educate them, preoccupied by the future character and happiness of their offspring. This motive reaches forward beyond death, and also backward, to a sense of former dependency and a remembrance of the parents who protected it. In the commerce between parent and child, past and future are made present, and therein lies the immediate and perceivable reality of the transcendent bond which unites them.

September 11th

I was a freshman at Archbishop Wood in Bucks County, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and like so many I remember the day vividly. Not just particular flashes. Most of the day lingers in my mind. It was a startling thing, as provocation of that magnitude in the face of so many unknowns is bound to be.

Mary Rezac at Catholic News Agency commemorated this September 11th with a look at Pope John Paul the Great’s reaction and remarks in the wake of the attack, which he described as “a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity.” I can’t remember ever hearing of his remarks and prayers, and I’m excerpting some of those prayers and intentions here, which he delivered on September 12th in St. Peter’s Square:

For the Churches of the East and the West, and in particular for the Church in the United States of America so that, though humbled by loss and mourning, yet inspired by the Mother of the Lord, strong woman beside the cross of her Son, they may foster the will for reconciliation, peace, and the building of the civilization of love.

For all those who bear the name of Christian, so that, in the midst of many persons who are tempted to hatred and doubt, they will be witnesses to the presence of God in history and the victory of Christ over death.

For the leaders of nations, so that they will not allow themselves to be guided by hatred and the spirit of retaliation, but may do everything possible to prevent new hatred and death, by bringing forth works of peace.

For those who are weeping in sorrow over the loss of relatives and friends, that in this hour of suffering they will not be overcome by sadness, despair and vengeance, but continue to have faith in the victory of good over evil, of life over death.

For those suffering and wounded by the terrorist acts, that they may return to stability and health and, appreciating the gift of life, may generously foster the will to contribute to the well being of every human being.

For our brothers and sisters who met death in the folly of violence, that they find sure joy and life everlasting in the peace of the Lord, that their death may not be in vain but become a leaven bringing forth a season of brotherhood and collaboration among peoples.