Christian dying, animist dying.

The other day I heard a Christian song with a line something to the effect of, show me that I’m worth dying for. This struck me as sort of odd, so I thought I’d talk about it. I should add, these are totally my own reflections, it’s not my intent to pick on anybody’s theology. I’m not saying it’s wrong, in the sense that I think I’ve proven it wrong for everybody everywhere. Clearly I disagree with it, but that’s a different issue. That having been said, here we go.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Native American stuff. So that struck me as an immediate contrast. Let’s unpack this statement, show me I’m somebody worth dying for. In order to believe this, you have to accept this whole superstructure of beliefs. You need to believe there’s a reason for somebody to die for you in the first place, that this has some sort of ability to affect things. OK, what’s the reason? Sin, obviously.

I’ve heard there are other theories of Christian atonement, though I’ve yet to see any, but the one we’re dealing with here is St. Ancelm’s substitutionary atonement. This and other theories of atonement are described here.

Substitutionary atonement, as usually understood, basically works like this. We’ve done something really really bad to God. There’s no way we can pay it back. Jesus’ sacrifice is the only thing to pay it back. This is usually connected to original sin, i.e. we’re born with a tendency to sin or rebel against God’s moral law. Compare this with the moral theory of atonement or Eastern Orthodox atonement, in both cases we’re meant to be transformed, it’s not so much Jesus’ dying that does the work.

OK, so what’s this got to do with Native American stories? I’m getting there, I needed to set up the common understanding of why Jesus died first, and why we need to be worthy of it. So Jesus died because we sin against God and so on. The Native American story I’m thinking of particularly is the origin of corn. Of course, there are lots of tribes, and they all have their own stories, so let’s get some specifics. In this Creek story, the death is implied.

In this Natchez myth of the origin of corn, the death is explicit.

So here we have something much more direct, death produces food. But what’s particularly interesting to me is that we don’t have an involved set of things we need to accept first. In fact, we don’t even need to accept the story, because as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, we kill to eat. Animals die for us, plants die for us, every single day. They give their lives so that we can live. I don’t have to accept some complex theological reasoning to understand that, I don’t need to consider myself flawed or broken, I just have to look around me and think about the world a bit. I don’t even have to accept any particular mythology or theology to grasp this simple point.

So this is one of my major philosophical disagreements with Christianity, I don’t think we’re fundamentally broken creatures. So I don’t really accept the need for atonement in general. I’m not saying we don’t do things that are wrong, certainly we do, and that we shouldn’t fix them. I’m just disagreeing with the idea that our basic nature is somehow broken and needs to be fixed. Thus, the idea that Jesus died for me, and that’s awesome is sort of a bizarre one for me. Actually, the whole idea that Jesus’ death was somehow necessary is really weird too, but this is long enough already.

But if we’re going to focus on death, and whether we’re worth it or not, why construct an elaborate philosophical and theological edifice around it? Beings die for us all the time, and in a much more directly apprehensible manner. Today for lunch I had rice (a seed), beef, ginger (root), beans (seed), and chocolate for dessert, more seeds at the very least. That’s at least five different species that have either died or had their lives cut off, just for my lunch alone.

I am in no way suggesting we feel guilt over this. This is just how life works. I’m not even necessarily suggesting that we ask the question, “am I worthy of all of that dying?”, though I think in the context of making sure we use resources well and aren’t wasteful, it’s an incredibly useful question to ask. What I am suggesting is that, again for me personally, if we’re going to say, as some Christians would like us to, “how awesome that you died for us”, and “are we really worthy of you dying for us”, it makes far more sense to me to direct those sentiments at the beings who die for us on a daily basis, both in terms of immediacy and ease of belief.

I also do agree with Christians, we should get joy out of that death. Not in a morbid way mind you. But if these beings are going to die so that we can eat, I’d think the very least we could do is enjoy our food as much as humanly possible. But I just thought the contrast between Christian dying and animist dying, both my own thoughts on the matter and the Native American stories posted above, was an interesting one, and for me it started with, why should I believe this in the first place? Obviously, I think one makes a lot more sense than the other, but that’s just me.

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