On Religion

In this paper I will briefly describe Nietzsche’s critique of religion. I will argue that Nietzsche’s critique is warranted, but that resources to answer it are already present both in the Judeo-Christian tradition and, to an even greater extent, in Mormonism. Nietzsche’s critique should impel us to recover those resources and resonances within our traditions, not to abandon our traditions.

Nietzsche is well-known for his scorching critique of religion, particularly of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eminently quotable jeremiads against religion abound in his writings. He accuses the Judeo-Christian tradition of being life-denying, of promoting blind faith and mindless acceptance of conformity, of stamping out diversity and pluralism and forcing all of humanity into a stultifying moral straitjacket. Christianity denigrates human embodiment and the passions associated with that embodiment. It defers happiness and hope to an afterlife in a static, disembodied heaven, rather than affirming life and flourishing in the present. And it is obsessed with human depravity and brokenness. As Nietzsche puts it, “Sin, as it is now experienced wherever Christianity holds sway or has held sway, is a Jewish feeling and a Jewish invention….The Christian presupposes a powerful, overpowering being who enjoys revenge. His power is so great that nobody could possibly harm him, except for his honor. Every sin is a slight to his honor, a crimen laesae majestitatis divinae–and no more” (187). Furthermore, “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad” (Nietzsche 185).

Interestingly, Nietzsche has favorable words for the religion of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek religion avoided some of the errors of the Judeo-Christian tradition. For instance, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, ostensibly the “unmoved mover,” an ineffable being beyond space, time, and flux, the Greek gods were subject to passions and attachments. As Nietzsche explains in section 139, “People like St. Paul have an evil eye for the passions: all they know of the passions is what is dirty, disfiguring, and heartbreaking; hence their idealistic tendency aims at the annihilation of the passions, and they find perfect purity in the divine. Very differently from St. Paul and the Jews, the Greeks directed their idealistic tendency precisely toward the passions and loved, elevated, gilded, and deified them. Evidently, passion made them feel not only happier but also purer and more divine” (189-190).  The multitudinous preoccupations and proclivities within the Greek pantheon confer a stamp of approval on human diversity that Christianity, with its unitary Deity and inflexible vision for humanity could never countenance.

The upshot is that Christianity has inflicted a dessicated, hollow form of life on humanity. The dichotomies of Christianity–temporal and spiritual, human and divine, mind and body, saved and sinner–are to blame. Moving to a different vantage point will bring into focus magnificent new vistas veiled to Christian eyes. Therefore, the death of God is reason for celebration:“Indeed we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone on us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea. Our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea.’–”

Nietzsche’s critique of religion is surely not without merit. His foils are present among the pious at every turn both on the pages of religion history and within the walls of our churches. But is the Christianity Nietzsche has in his crosshairs the only possible interpretation of Christianity? After all, Christians worship a God who did not hesitate to call his material creation good. Biblical man is a material being who nonetheless bears the divine image, the mammalian child of a God who entered the mud and blood of history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian hope, properly understood, is not to escape the world but to be co-workers with God in the work of redeeming it, not to put off sinful flesh and gain entry to some disembodied heaven but to rise again in a physical body continuous with one’s present body, yet transformed and perfected. The Christian can be no friend of the comfortable status quo, for she has received the Holy Spirit that like the wind blows wherever it pleases and taken up her cross to follow that foe of unjust principalities and powers, Jesus of Nazareth, in her own inimitable way.

If anything, Mormonism contains theological ideas and inclinations even more amenable to Nietzsche’s thought. Mormonism undercuts some of the more intolerable frameworks of traditional Christian theology and collapses many of its unhelpful dichotomies. Viewed from a certain angle, Joseph Smith was a perfectly Nietzschean prophet, proclaiming that there is no such thing as immaterial matter, that man is that he might have joy, that mortal life is an ascent, not a fall, a hero’s journey in which both the iron rod and the liahona have a part to play. Moreover, that same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there, only coupled with eternal glory. The Zion to come, the resurrected body to come, the sanctified community to come, the godly activity to come, are already present in us, in our pursuits, and in our relationships with one another, if only in embryo and if only glimpsed through a glass darkly. Most arresting of all, we are under the tutelage of an embodied God, an exalted man, a passible being of parts and passions who weeps over his children and whose mode of existence consists of creative compassion, of eternal becoming, of unceasing increase in light and knowledge–a mode of existence into which he invites us.

It follows that Christianity and, especially, Mormon Christianity, needn’t be the opiate of the masses. On the contrary, at its best it is precisely the red pill we stand in need of, the urim and thummim that gives us eyes to see that the boundaries between heaven and earth, the divine and the human are blurrier than we have been led to believe. We must live in anticipation of the Kingdom, but live as if we were already in it, for in some sense we are. If justice will rush down like waters and there will be no poor among them in that good Kingdom, then there can be no truce between us and the injustice and poverty present in our world. And if the divine life is one of unending experience, growth, and creation, then we ought to prize the experiences, opportunities, and creative activities that present themselves to us in the here and now. Ironically, it may be that recognizing the force of Nietzsche’s critique should push us to be more religious rather than less, to return to the scriptures with new eyes rather than consign them to the flames, to renew our commitments to our religious communities rather than remove ourselves from them.


More Thoughts on “The Gay Science”

In section 83 Nietzsche takes up the theme of “translations,” particularly translations of ancient texts. Intriguingly, he believes that the translator sometimes has more in common with the poet than the historian. The translator is more concerned with making the document she translates intelligible in the categories and conventions of her culture than with reproducing an isomorphic, historically precise rendering of that document. As Nietzsche puts it, “They seem to ask us: ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it? Should we not have the right to breathe our own soul into this dead body?’” He points to French translations of documents from Roman antiquity and Roman translations of documents from Greek antiquity as examples.

It is not entirely clear to me whether Nietzsche looks upon this approach to translation favorably or unfavorably, but either way, I found his musings provocative. To what extent when one translates an ancient text–particularly a sacred text–should one seek to accurately capture the historical forms in which the text’s message is couched? To what extent should one simply try to distill the essence of the text, its message or core, in a way intelligible to a reader of a very different culture and set of assumptions than the original author? This conundrum reminds me of Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, which explains that revelation is given “unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” Is accurate history integral to a sacred text that presents itself to us as an ancient record, or is it a decidedly secondary consideration? Is translation concerned as much with what the ancient author would say to us if he or she were present as with what he or she in fact said at some point in the distant past, shrouded in the mists of time? Does the translator have more in common with the poet or the seer than the scholar?

The Problems of Penal Substitution

The Problems of Penal Substitution

For Christians, the atonement of Jesus Christ is indisputably the central event of salvation history. However, there is no clear consensus as to its precise nature or rationale. Over the centuries a number of atonement theories have been formulated, with a theory known as penal substitution predominating. In this paper, I will explore the penal substitution theory. My task will be primarily negative–I will argue that penal substitution is an enormously problematic theory of the atonement.

Penal Substitution has antecedents in the 12th century satisfaction theory of St. Anselm, but did not crystallize until the Reformation. According to the satisfaction theory, God’s honor is vitiated by human sin and can only be restored by some form of remuneration. Penal substitution substitutes justice for honor. There is an eternal law of justice that God cannot abrogate, either because justice is an essential part of God’s nature or, in some Mormon adaptations of the theory, because there is a metaphysical principle of justice in the universe which God is duty-bound to uphold. God cannot simply forgive us when we sin, for justice demands punishment. However, because God is also loving and merciful, He accepts Christ as a substitute for sinful humanity. Repentant human beings are empowered to escape punishment for their sins because Christ receives the punishment in their place, thereby satisfying the demands of justice.

An implicit penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, likely unconsciously imbibed from mainstream Christianity, is common among Mormons. This is perhaps unsurprising given the relative youth of our religious tradition and the evocative power of some of the surface features of a penal substitutionary framework. Viewed from a certain angle, the penal substitutionary narrative can be profoundly moving, even transformative; the idea of a morally perfect individual willingly submitting to excruciating pain on our behalf is unquestionably awe inspiring. Even so, I believe penal substitution to be a deeply flawed theory. God is no doubt more concerned with the condition of our hearts than the acuity of our theology–far be it from me to decree that God can only speak to those in possession of a sufficiently analytical atonement theory. But this needn’t entail that reason has no part to play in our wrestle with God. In my view, careful analysis shows the penal substitution theory to be both morally and logically deficient.

My primary objection to penal substitution is the injustice objection. This objection is grounded in the self-evident principle that it is wrong to punish the innocent. Following Dennis Potter, I will call this the innocence principle (73). The very foundations of our judicial system rest on such a principle. It is manifested in our visceral reaction whenever we learn of persons who have been wrongly convicted of crimes–we feel in our bones that there is something seriously wrong with punishing the innocent in the place of the guilty. The problem for penal substitution should be obvious: penal substitution runs afoul of the innocence principle. On the penal substitutionary view, we who deserve to be punished escape punishment while the only person in the history of the world who emphatically does not deserve punishment is punished in our place. The deep irony at the heart of penal substitution is that a theory that begins by valorizing God’s justice ends up subverting it.

One might respond that it is not unjust to punish Christ in our place because he willingly takes our punishment upon himself. However, if we examine our intuitions I believe that we will see that the fact that the innocent third party’s consent has been secured does not alter the essential injustice of punishing the innocent in place of the guilty. Consider the OJ Simpson murder trial. Imagine a counterfactual in which the jury recognizes that the evidence against OJ is overwhelming and finds him guilty of murder. He is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. OJ’s devoted fans are devastated by this outcome. The president of OJ’s fan club tells Judge Ito that she would like to be sentenced in OJ’s place. Judge Ito reasons that, so long as some punitive response to OJ’s actions is inflicted, it doesn’t really matter whether it falls on OJ himself or a consenting third party. So Judge Ito allows the president of OJ’s fan club to take his place. What would we think of this? It seems to me that stipulating that the penal substitute is a volunteer does nothing to dislodge the innocence principle.

Indeed, one could argue that inflicting punishment on the innocent is not merely unjust, but conceptually incoherent. What is punishment? Primarily, a particular act whereby one inflicts some harm or deprivation on an offender in response to her offense. Following Brent G. Kyle, we can imagine a father who comes home from a bad day at work and vents his anger and frustration on his child by spanking her, even though she has done nothing wrong (208). Clearly, the father inflicts a form of punishment that harms his child, but it seems wrong to say that he has punished her. It seems reasonable to think that for an act to count as an instance of punishment, the punisher must believe that the recipient is responsible for an offense of some kind. But God, being omniscient, could not have erroneously believed that Christ was responsible for human sin. So the notion that God punished the innocent Christ in the place of sinners may not even be logically coherent.

Some have tried to forestall the injustice objection by arguing that Christ took upon himself not merely our punishment but our guilt as well. The innocence principle was not violated because an innocent person was not in fact punished. However, this maneuver has bizarre implications. Accepting it commits us to the position that it is possible for a person to be guilty without actually having done anything wrong. Yet a guilty person, by definition, is someone who did something wrong. If Judge Ito had told the fan club president that it would be unjust for him to punish an innocent person in OJ’s place, but he could get around this constraint by transferring OJ’s guilt to her prior to imprisoning her, he would have simply compounded the absurdity of the situation.  

It should be easy for Mormons to detect the sleight of hand at work here. Mormons rightly reject the traditional Christian understanding of original sin because it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of guilt (cf. Article of Faith #3). The same kind of semantic distortion is inherent in any attempt to impute our guilt to Christ. Moral guilt just isn’t the kind of thing that can be passed from one person to another, like currency or colorblindness. Ergo, this claim is conceptually muddled, false by the very meaning of the terms employed.

Moreover, according to the penal substitution theory, Christ’s innocence was a necessary condition for his being eligible to perform the atonement. It follows that Christ’s becoming guilty so that He could be justly punished for our sins would have rendered him incapable of carrying out an atonement. Thus, even if it were logically possible for someone who has done nothing wrong to somehow acquire the guilt of others, Christ could not have availed himself of this loophole without losing his capacity to atone.

Perhaps the atonement should be understood as analogous to a third party’s stepping in to pay a fine on one’s behalf. There is clearly an injustice done if OJ murders two people and we send his fan club president to prison in his place; however, no injustice is done if OJ, having squandered his fortune, incurs an exorbitant parking ticket and his fan club raises money to pay the fine on his behalf. I believe that we can make sense of our differing intuitions with respect to these two scenarios if we draw a distinction between actions that are legally prohibited but not morally wrong and those that are legally prohibited at least in part because they are morally wrong (Ostler 271-272). When an action is contrary to a statute, the state may affix a penalty to such acts both to deter them and as a means of raising money. But crimes like fraud, abuse, rape, and murder are not merely illegal, but morally wrong as well. We respond to them by imposing punishment.

There is an element of censure and reprobation built into the concept of punishment, an expressive function, that is not present in the concept of a penalty (Feinberg 400). Punishment consists of some form of hard treatment or deprivation understood as, among other things, the instantiation of the community’s moral disapprobation of the criminal’s act. Punishment is thus, by its very nature, not the sort of thing that admits of substitution. If we think of sins as moral wrongs analogous to crimes–and what is a sin if not a moral wrong?–we should reject a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement.

Now, there may be cases in which a fine is intended not only to penalize but to punish. Nonetheless, if the offender in one of these cases is fortunate enough to have an affluent benefactor willing to come to his assistance, the state would typically not step in to prevent this third-party from paying the fine. Might the innocence principle be less absolute than it first appeared? I don’t think so. It seems to me that the fact that we permit punitive fines to be paid by third parties is less a function of what we think is just than it is a function of expediency. It would be overly burdensome and intrusive for the state to try to prevent third-party intervention in such cases. Consequently, we allow considerations of expediency to take precedence over considerations of justice.

Invoking this aspect of our criminal justice system is of little help to the penal substitution theory for two reasons. The first is that our tolerance for these deviations from justice is strictly circumscribed–if our hypothetical offender, emboldened by his ability to avoid the financial consequences of his actions, comes to believe that he can commit a serious crime and escape punishment by sending his indulgent patron to prison in his place, he is in for a rude awakening. The second is that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the penal substitution theory is its inflexible conception of justice. The penal substitutionist believes that justice must receive its due, so it should be immaterial to him that our criminal justice system is willing to forego justice in the interest of expediency in certain limited circumstances.

The injustice objection is sufficient by itself to discredit penal substitution, but it is not the only objection that can be raised. I believe that the assumption that a punitive response to wrongdoing is mandatory, that the universe will be out of joint unless every offense is counterbalanced by the requisite quantity of pain, is misplaced. Contra the penal substitutionist, I submit that there is no reason to think that it is impossible to forgive without punishment. It is wrong to punish the innocent; it is not necessarily wrong to refrain from punishing the guilty. I call this the forgiveness objection.

The forgiveness objection is informed by the observation that humans are capable of forgiving others without requiring that punishment first occur. Suppose my son becomes angry with me and attacks me, causing me severe pain and injury. I have the right to bring an action for assault and battery against him. But what if he comes to me and sincerely apologizes and asks for my forgiveness? It doesn’t seem like it would be morally wrong for me to forgive without pressing charges. In fact, assuming that my son’s repentance is genuine, choosing to forgive may be the more loving course of action. I certainly don’t commit some offense against justice if I choose to forgive without requiring punishment first. That said, I clearly would offend justice if I were to tell my son that I am willing to forgive him, but only if he can find someone else to be punished in his place. To make my forgiveness contingent on such a demand would be neither just nor forgiving.   

We institute systems of punishment in our societies in the service of certain extrinsic ends–deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and the previously mentioned expressive reasons. The presumption of guilt on the part of the offender is an important constraint on our punishing practices–only the guilty are proper candidates for punishment. But if no purpose apart from sheer retribution would be served by a particular instance of punishment, if we somehow came to possess certain knowledge that an offender’s character has been transformed, that she is fully repentant for her wrongful action, and that pardoning her would not undermine the deterrence of other wrongdoers or the moral ecology of the community, then it seems implausible to say that we would be committing an offense against justice by choosing to forego punishment. Such a fortuitous set of conditions may rarely, if ever, obtain this side of the eschaton, and it might be objected that, in any event, we could never know for certain either that the offender is truly penitent or that pardoning her would have no deleterious effect on the social fabric. Yet surely God, who knows our hearts and whose kingdom rests on firmer foundations than ours, is able to make assessments of this kind.

As Jacob Morgan points out (69), we often quote Alma’s teaching that mercy cannot rob justice (Alma 42:25), but we have largely ignored Amulek’s teaching that mercy can “overpower” justice: “And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15). This scripture states that mercy can overpower justice on condition of repentance, which seems to imply that punishment is not required where there has been true repentance. It hardly makes sense to say that mercy has overpowered justice if justice had to be placated via punishment before forgiveness could take place. There is no need for suffering (vicarious or otherwise) once we have mended our sinful ways.

At this point, I wish to reiterate that it is not my intent to cast aspersions on those who understand the atonement through the lens of penal substitution. But for those who become aware of its problems, a penal substitutionary understanding of atonement can become more of a stumbling block than a springboard. Fortunately, the process of putting aside our paradigms and revising our assumptions is constructive, not merely destructive. There is a rich history of Christian reflection on the atonement that eschews the broken categories of penal substitution. In particular, the moral influence theory presents a framework for thinking about the atonement that, while certainly not answering every query one might have, provides a fruitful and spiritually nourishing alternative to penal substitution. Regrettably, an exposition of the moral influence theory is beyond the scope of this paper.  

In conclusion, the penal substitution theory, for all its persistence and pathos, cannot withstand logical analysis. It clashes with the innocence principle and undercuts God’s capacity to forgive. Paradox and mystery are the inevitable companions of anyone who wrestles with the divine, but they should not be conflated with outright contradiction and confusion. Accordingly, the penal substitution theory must be abandoned.


Works Cited

Feinberg, Joel. “The Expressive Function of Punishment.” The Monist, vol. 49, no. 3 (July

1965): 397-423. Print.

Kyle, Brent G. “Punishing and Atoning: A New Critique of Penal Substitution.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. 74, no. 2 (2013): 201-217. Print.

Morgan, Jacob. “The Divine Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 39, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 57-81. Print.

Ostler, Blake. “The Compassion Theory of Atonement.” Exploring Mormon Thought: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, Greg Kofford Books, 2006, 235-281. Print.

Potter, Dennis. “Did Christ Pay for Our Sins?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 32, no.4 (Winter 1999): 73-86. Print.

The Crowning Savagery of War

Many beliefs and practices of early Mormonism such as polygamy, theodemocracy, the Order of Enoch, and the hope for Zion were profoundly counter-cultural and critical of aspects of the American order.  However, the painful reconciliation with monogamy and mammon that followed on the heels of Utah statehood and the Second Manifesto dramatically transformed the Mormon ethos.  From former Church President Ezra Taft Benson’s vociferous denunciations of socialism, to the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s, to its more recent orchestration of California’s Proposition 8, the rhetoric and public positions of the 20th and 21st century Mormon hierarchy seem to adhere to conservative orthodoxy.  Nevertheless, there have been some exceptions to this rule.  The Church’s April 2014 General Conference having recently adjourned, a look back at a long forgotten General Conference message of the past seems apropos.

At the October 1946 General Conference J. Reuben Clark, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, stepped up to the pulpit and vigorously condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan the previous year.   Lds.org does not provide access to General Conference talks antedating the 1970s, but the full text of the address can be found here http://scriptures.byu.edu/gettalk.php?ID=262&era=yes.  The following is an excerpt from his remarks:

….Then as the crowning savagery of the war, we Americans wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilian population with the atom bomb in Japan, few if any of the ordinary civilians being any more responsible for the war than were we, and perhaps most of them no more aiding Japan in the war than we were aiding America.

Military men are now saying that the atom bomb was a mistake. It was more than that: it was a world tragedy. Thus we have lost all that we gained during the years from Grotius (1625) to 1912. And the worst of this atomic bomb tragedy is not that not only did the people of the United States not rise up in protest against this savagery, not only did it not shock us to read of this wholesale destruction of men, women, and children, and cripples, but that it actually drew from the nation at large a general approval of this fiendish butchery.

[W]e in America are now deliberately searching out and developing the most savage, murderous means of exterminating peoples that Satan can plant in our minds. We do it not only shamelessly, but with a boast. God will not forgive us for this.

If we are to avoid extermination, if the world is not to be wiped out, we must find some way to curb the fiendish ingenuity of men who have apparently no fear of God, man, or the devil, and who are willing to plot and plan and invent instrumentalities that will wipe out all the flesh of the earth. And, as one American citizen of one hundred thirty millions, as one in one billion population of the world, I protest with all of the energy I possess against this fiendish activity, and as an American citizen, I call upon our government and its agencies to see that these unholy experimentations are stopped, and that somehow we get into the minds of our war-minded general staff and its satellites, and into the general staffs of all the world, a proper respect for human life.” (J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Report, October 1946, pp. 84-89)

Clark was a respected attorney, public servant, and religious leader who graduated from Columbia Law School, served as Under Secretary of State during the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and was a member of the Church’s First Presidency for 28 years.  Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School bears his name.  But notwithstanding his stature both within and without the Church, his was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.  Like many Americans then and now, Mormons believed their nation’s participation in the war to have been honorable and found the utilitarian justifications for what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki acceptable.  His views did not find wide acceptance among the Saints.

Nearly 70 years removed from the events that he was addressing, what are we to make of Clark’s jeremiad?  Mormonism has never been a clearly pacifist movement, but passages in the Mormon scriptures condemn preemptive war and present pacifism as an admirable, though not prescriptive expression of Christian discipleship (see Alma 24:16, Mormon 3:9-17, Mormon 4:4-5, D&C 98:16).  The Old and New Testaments and the revelations of Joseph Smith are frequently enigmatic, paradoxical, pregnant with meaning.  In their pages, ideologues of all stripes, conservative and progressive, authoritarian and egalitarian, patriot and pacifist, are liable to encounter hard sayings, stumbling blocks, and rocks of offense.  They push and prod us to reexamine our presuppositions and reconsider our prejudices, for their message subsumes each of our ideologies and transcends them all.  It follows that one needn’t fully subscribe to Clark’s brand of pacifism nor his characterization of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to find value in his words. The stark assessment of America’s conduct in World War II is debatable, but the underlying premise that we ought not conflate the gospel of American exceptionalism with the gospel of Jesus is as incisive today as it was then.