On Catholic Colleges and the atonement: a conversation with Chris Dodsworth

by Robert Gressis

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Chris Dodsworth (Professor, Spring Hill College) and I talk about what it’s like to teach at a Catholic college (spoiler: it’s good!) and the doctrine of the Atonement. We focus in particular on why Christians care about the Atonement, why the doctrine is baffling, how to make it less baffling, and why attempts to make it less baffling might not work.

0:00:00​ Introductions 0:01:25​ Small Talk 0:04:07​ What it’s like to teach at a Jesuit college 0:11:53​ How Catholic is Spring Hill College? 0:16:32​ The atheists at Spring Hill are mostly friendly (in the technical sense) 0:23:10​ Chris’s research project: the Atonement, how does it work?? 0:31:31​Why is the Atonement the central Christian doctrine? 0:38:45​ Why the Atonement is so weird 0:44:00​ Atonement: At-One-Ment or paying off debts? 0:50:00​ William Lane Craig’s penal substitution view of the Atonement 1:03:40​ Chris attacks Craig’s view while Rob tries to (sort of) defend Craig 1:12:45​ Why retain the doctrine of the Atonement?

26 comments

  1. Everyday philosophy is a great idea. As regards the very interesting question of ‘the smallest thing of which we can think’, although Leibnitz’ monad may be unextended in space, it surely has to be extended in time, like a Cartesian thought . This reminds me of the 17th century biologist who claimed actually to have observed a monad under his microscope, thus displaying a similar failure to grasp the difference between science and philosophy as many of todays’ neuroscientists.

    1. I must then recommend (again) Jane McDonnell’s The Pythagorean World: “My basic idea is that [the consistent histories quantum theory of Griffiths, Gell-Mann, Hartle, and Omnès] brings the formalism of quantum mechanics into the logical realm of possible actuals where it can be interpreted in an updated version of monadology. “

  2. This was a really great conversation! It did a lot to help me wrap my head around the concept of Atonement – or at least feel less bad that I can’t wrap my head around it. Atonement is definitely a very bonkers idea! But I think there’s something within it worth understanding even for non-Christians like myself.

    I agree with Chris that William Lane Craig’s concept of the Atonement doesn’t make much sense. And at the end there, especially with what seems to be an embracing of the mystery of Atonement (hope I’m not wrong in assuming that), I couldn’t help thinking of the idea that Christianity’s origins have more in common with a Hellenistic mystery cult than Jewish tradition.

    It really does seem possible that the original understanding of the Atonement is lost to time. Maybe I’m weird but that actually makes the concept even more interesting to think about.

    Thanks again! Hope to see Chris on here again at some point!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I’ll pass it along to Chris.

      Re: the Atonement, now I’m interested *when* people started to find the doctrine bonkers. Perhaps it was immediately. That would be telling. But perhaps it started to happen at a particular time. That would be quite revealing as well.

        1. Do you have literature in mind that supports that reading? I would think that contemporaneous Jews would have found the doctrine of the Atonement ridiculous, but I would guess it would mainly because of the Incarnation, not the legal reasoning. Was it also the legal reasoning? And was it *everyone* who first encountered the Atonement who thought the legal reasoning incomprehensible, or just the ancient Israelites?

          1. I don’t understand the question. You asked *when* we began to find the doctrine to be bonkers. My answer was “always.”

            No Jew today finds the Atonement anything but bonkers. Ditto for Islam. Christianity is an outlier, among Abrahamic religions in this regard.

            Judaism has a very straightforward view on this. The Law is given for the purpose of telling us how we ought to live. When we disobey it — we we live and behave wrongly — we must repent. We do so by asking for forgiveness and endeavoring to do better.

            In short, it essentially is the normal, ordinary, common sense view of how virtually everyone thinks of these things in daily life.

          2. Given that the bulk of Christian theology is derived from a misreading of Genesis, I would think that the entire Tanakh constitutes the literature that supports my reading. That and, of course, the Rabbinical literature.

            It is the Jewish view that one has to make up for one’s own mistakes. The idea that someone else makes up for your mistakes for you is not only abhorrent, it is incoherent, unless you take on board a whole bunch of nonsense having to do with “fallenness” and the like, which brings us back to the point of misreading Genesis.

            The late, great Chief Rabbi of Britain, J.H. Hertz, in his Introduction to the Pentateuch and Haftorahs has an excellent analysis of the “strange and morbid doctrines” that Christians have built out of Genesis.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Hertz

            https://www.alljudaica.com/Pentateuch-Haftorahs-The-Hertz-Chumash-p/3394.htm

          3. I’ve found the lectures of Dr. Henry Abramson very helpful in learning about Jewish history. He has a number of videos discussing the relationship between early Christians and Jews that are well worth the time. Here’s a link to one of them. The last part (~16:30) deals with divergence from traditional Jewish teachings and the Jewish reaction to that. (Apologies if I’m linking to too many videos. Please tell me to stop if it’s too much.)

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ng7D4beNmeA&ab_channel=HenryAbramson

            Thanks for the book link, Dan! I know where the first $40 of my stimulus check is going!

    2. Well let’s be honest. All of Dr. Craig’s philosophical and theological work is designed for one purpose, to justify an experience he had as a teenager as an encounter with the supernatural. Penal Substitution’s main strength in his type of Christianity is it upholds Christian, and maybe even Evangelical Protestantism’s, exclusivism in regards to salvation. It is a tenet of that type of Christianity that Jesus Christ is the sole way to God and faith in him is all that is required for salvation.In it’s most uncharitable description it’s been called a “get out of hell free card”.

      1. Frankly, I’m surprised that any serious academics spend any time whatsoever on William Lane Craig. Especially when he has admitted, explicitly, in writing, that his arguments are entirely superfluous; that they are purely for apologetic purposes and that faith and personal experience are the only genuine grounds for Christian faith.

        Arif Ahmed, the Cambridge philosopher who has been more successful than anyone in dismantling apologists in debates, observed this fundamentally dishonest core of Craig’s “thought” in this debate (skip to 23:45, where he quotes Craig to this effect).

        1. I’ve always felt the same way about Craig. I never understood why the Kalam gets so much attention from philosophers when, even though I think it is a valid argument, as Craig readily admits is not the reason he believes, and if completely debunked would not effect his belief at all.

          While his true argument for belief, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, has deep logical problems in regards to how Craig knows that he can trust his experience and others cannot trust theirs.

          1. It doesn’t really matter to me very much WHY he forwards his arguments. I mean, I think this problem of Craig’s–that he believes in his religion for reasons different from the ones he advances–infects many philosophers, to varying degrees. E.g., I think Rawls believed in the goodness of a pluralistic, democratic, liberal order before he came up with ToJ. Perhaps, though, his conceptions of things changed as he worked out the details. But that’s true of Craig, as well — he came to have different views of God’s relation to abstract objects as a result of his research on divine aseity. And take philosophers who research radical skepticism — I suspect many of them reject radical skepticism for reasons different from the arguments they give, and they would continue to reject radical skepticism even if you pointed out that their arguments didn’t work.

            Obviously, some philosophers are more bad faith than others, but if I find an argument interesting, then even if I know it’s given in bad faith, I find that to be only one strike against it. It may have other merits that justify my investigating it.

          2. I find this a very strange attitude. I don’t waste my time with people who I know are arguing in bad faith. Especially, people whom I know are saying one thing to their followers and something else to everyone else. [Yasser Arafat used to be a master at this.]

            The analogy with Rawls is bizarre and the point inapt. No one sensible suggests that our beliefs are the result *solely* of arguments. But that is a far cry from engaging in deliberately, explicitly deceptive and fraudulent scholarship.

      2. “It is a tenet of that type of Christianity that Jesus Christ is the sole way to God and faith in him is all that is required for salvation.”
        Yes, and yet not.
        The apologetics for Evangelical Fundamentalism are intended to hide the theological assumptions in which it is grounded: namely that God has already per-determined the vast majority of souls, including believers, to either oblivion or hell. Alive, they are simply performing in a melodrama in which the (per-determined) Saved are the only real actors. If Evangelical-fundamentalist preachers were honest, what they would really offer would be something like “Serve the saved, follow the moral precepts of your pastors, you’ll live a decent life and when you die – oblivion. Otherwise, as you are already born in sin you will Burn In Hell!!!!”

        Actually, we can hear something like this, not from the slick televangelists, nor from the pseudo-academics, but from the street-corner ranters with sandwich signs and megaphones. “We are all damned, but come to Jesus, and you might be saved” (that is, discovered to have already been chosen saved).

        Of course most of the followers and converts to the sect either believe they are already among the chosen, or hope that they are. That’s what sells the used car – it;s been polished and looks shiny, vaguely reminiscent of the car you would really buy if you had the money. And you hope it runs well.

        But it’s a basically dishonest religion. And many practitioners understand that – that’s why they tolerate incredibly unethical behavior from the leaders of their congregations, and even from their political ‘saviors.’ They know it’s a con-job; they just hope that they will be allowed in on the con, that they can share just a little bit in ‘salvation’ – win a thousand bucks in the lottery, have their psoriasis disappear magically, buy a used car that really runs well. And of course go to heaven, which probably looks like the grand mansion every really big lottery winner buys

        This is pathological To understand a number of public ills currently plaguing America, one has to grasp this, since America is where this perverse thinking has really taken root and spread its poisonous branches. Hard to say how we’ll ever be rid of it.

      3. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to call such a tenet a free pass. One, after all, has to be sincere in one’s belief and truly be repentant for those actions and trespasses that would otherwise be contrary to such a belief in Jesus. If one accepts Jesus and repents for one’s sins on the deathbed, what more could you ask of a person. If the old favorite, Hitler, actually realized he was wrong and recognized his depravity, what more could be gained by roasting him in Hell. It seems once the BBQ starts and say in a thousand years you finally realize the errors of your former ways…Too late? All nonsense.

        1. No I am am not saying most of these people aren’t sincere, but once you get to the nitty-gritty, in Christianity like in everything else, the devil is in the details, and those details are usually up to individual interpretation. What does it mean to repent for ones sins? Is it like going to Catholic confession? Praying to God? Is atonement directly to a wronged individual absolutely necessary? Do I need to repent for each sin, or is all-purpose repentance good enough? Also the mere fact that that a non-believer can repent, atone, make amends, and improve his behavior, but if those aren’t joined to a belief in Jesus none of them apparently matter to God. In practice I find it often really does just work out to “turning your life over to Jesus=Your sins are forgiven” and much thought is often not given to what follows. Penal Substitution kind of has this thinking built into its philosophy by saying that literally someone else is paying for your sins.

          Plus one question we can ask is “what are your sins?” Christians as much as anyone else seem to have different definitions of what constitutes sin. Best example of this in recent times is Westboro Baptist? They were extremely sincere in their beliefs, but would they agree with most outsiders assessments of what their sins were? So were they actually atoning for their real sins when they were atoning?

          This may seem nit-picky, but when as the saying goes the wages of sin is death it is kind of important to get these things exact.

  3. I think the concept of the Atonement has a problem from the get-go in that it really doesn’t make sense outside of a literal interpretation of Genesis. Unless you can point to some fall which corrupted humanity’s nature the alternative would be that we require a savior to save us from a nature that God gave us and then invented the rules for how to free us from it. Like often the case with Christian apologetics attempts to provide answers brings up more questions.

    1. Christians misinterpret Genesis. Jews — i.e. the people who wrote and compiled the Tanakh — do not interpret Genesis this way. I’ve always found it interesting that Christians are so confident in a doctrine, when the people who actually wrote the literature on which the doctrine depends are not. But then again, so much of Christianity is based on misreadings — often explicit and deliberate — of the Tanakh.

      Regardless, the problem of the Atonement strikes me as beginning one step earlier. Why accept any of the framework at all? In other words, aside from a kind of inside-baseball talk among Christians, why should anyone else be interested in it? Aside perhaps from a kind of anthropological interest in the strange things that even modern, highly educated people living in advanced nations find themselves able to believe.

  4. Given my last comment, I should add that I very much enjoyed this and find Chris very likable, not to mention clear and articulate. But listening to it is like listening to people talk about the intricate details of the MCU or the Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. Given that I do this myself with regard to the fantasies that I find compelling — I can go on forever about the internal lore and logic of my favorite video games, tv franchises, etc. — I certainly understand the inclination. Its the thinking that it’s actually true that I can’t wrap my mind around.

    1. A few years ago, I had a similar experience. I was waiting in a church library prior to meeting with a prospective client, and had visited a bookstore over lunch. As I reviewed the titles on the church library shelf, I had the unnerving sense that I had been somewhere similar when I was in the bookstore glancing over the interminable Star Wars novelizations, and Star Wars theorizing, and Star Wars companion encyclopedias, and realized people could invent whole theologies out of a science fiction franchise, What seriously divided these from actual theologies, other than people really believe in these? The human capacity for magical thinking is incredible, and the production of discourse in support of this is just staggering.

      Enlightenment? What Enlightenment?

      1. The video below might be of some interest. The parallels between religion and fan-fiction/ head-cannon are striking. Clearly the need for this sort of creative exercise has always been a solid part of human life and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

        https://youtu.be/rTTRIA_YWIA

  5. “Why is the Atonement the central Christian doctrine?”

    I think Protestantism has really blown this doctrine out of proportion. I think when you read about Jesus in the Gospels we see this is not the center. In Paul’s letters we do see some passages that mention this idea but many others take a more common sense view of things. Paul authored our earliest writings but he is just addressing various issues as opposed to necessarily addressing the central aspects of Christianity. Even in Romans Paul is writing to people who are already Christian. The gospels are more of an introduction to Christianity.

    Christ brought in a new covenant – to love one another. That Christ was raised showed that God accepted this new covenant. That is the good news.

    How it is that Christ had to die to bring this about is not at all clear or central. It is like saying understanding how the big bang could happen is central science. We don’t really know how it happened it just did and we understand other things flowed from it. But what is central to science is what we observe now.

    The one person keeps thinking we need forgiveness from people as opposed to God. If parents want you to kill their child it does not make it ok. So the fact that they may forgive you is not entirely relevant.

    Christians can be moral realists. Things are not made ok just because other people say so. Some Christians say it is ok if God says so. And certainly contracts/covenants are sort of that way. People can be morally bound to contracts so when we talk of covenants that is part of it. But some agreements/contracts can be immoral and God deemed the new covenant was moral and signified that by raising Jesus.

    Why did it happen this way (or could it have happened another way) is not central to Christianity. That there is a new command (to love each other) and that this was accepted by God is central.

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