What Price Atonement?

It seems that I for some reason skipped the second essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy”, entitled “What Price Atonement?” by Taneli Kukkonen. Either I didn’t think it was interesting on my first read or just completely missed it and skipped over it. I’m thinking it was the latter, because on reading it the essay does have some very interesting things to say, and in particular raises an interesting theological point that I’d like to talk a bit about. So, what will happen is that I’ll do that one here, then do the regular X-Men and Philosophy essay, and then do the third Spider-man essay.

First, on to this one. The interesting theological point made is about Anselm’s view of infinite debt, which addresses our relation to Original Sin, sin, and ultimately the crucifixion. The idea is generally this: through Original Sin or through sin, we’ve accrued a debt to God that we need to repay. But repaying that debt implies that we give more to the person than we are required to in order to balance the debt we owe them. However, when it comes to God there isn’t anything that we can do that is over and above what we are required to do simply as our normal due to God. Therefore, we can never repay this debt through actions, because all we can do is give God what He is due; we cannot give Him more than His due. Thus, we have an infinite, undischargeable debt to God that we can never repay.

To use the Spider-man example, one of the main reasons Peter Parker becomes a superhero is to repay his debt to Uncle Ben. So he sets out to stop criminals to make up for not stopping the criminal who killed his uncle. But as his uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility. Since Peter Parker has great power, and the power to stop these criminals, he also has the responsibility to stop these criminals. So when he stops these criminals, he is just doing what he is already obligated to do, regardless of any debt he might owe to Uncle Ben. Thus, doing that can’t in any way free him from his debt to Uncle Ben, because he’s only doing what he is obligated to do, and to repay Uncle Ben he has to go beyond his obligations. Thus, stopping criminals will never free him from his debt to Uncle Ben.

Anselm uses this to argue for the necessity of the crucifixion. The only being who could give God more than God is due is, well, God Himself. Thus, God becomes Man in Jesus, and then sacrifices Himself to repay our debt. However, Kukkonen points out that all this does is drive us deeper in debt, because now we not only have to pay the debt of sin or Original Sin, but also our debt to Jesus for the sacrifice he made. If forgiveness is predicated on repayment, we can never repay our debt … and so can never be forgiven.

Which, I think, highlights a problem with the “restitutional” idea of forgiveness. Kukkonen notes that Kierkegaard said that doing something above and beyond the call of duty for someone and saying that you have thereby paid off your debt seems cold, like a strict balance sheet calculation. People who are properly loving shouldn’t see the world that way. When it comes to forgiveness, it also doesn’t make sense to forgive someone for or only after they manage to repay some sort of accrued debt, like someone paying off a bank loan. Forgiveness should be granted on the basis of a genuine desire to be forgiven, and a genuine understanding that they need forgiveness for what they did. If that is present, then what need for repayment is there? Someone who is genuinely loving and genuinely good and genuinely sees that what they did was wrong should just naturally want to try to make up for the harm they caused if they can. If they can’t, then that shouldn’t mean that they can’t be forgiven. If someone accidentally breaks something of mine that’s irreplaceable and had massive value to me — like my copy of Persona 3 FES — if I’m convinced that they didn’t mean it and know that what they did was wrong and genuinely want forgiveness, why shouldn’t I forgive them? It just seems petty and cruel to refuse to forgive them under those conditions just because they can’t “make it up to me”.

I think this idea carries on to Kukkonen’s discussion of obligations, and the choices that Peter Parker has to make. When he chooses to help someone, or stop a crime, he often ends up having to break certain obligations to other people, from things as simple to seeing their play to as big as not stopping them from getting beat up. Since he can’t do all of those things at once, he ends up having to choose which obligations to keep and which to break. Under the debt model of forgiveness, this means that no matter what he does in those situations, he ends up accruing a debt to someone. Thus, no matter what he does, his debt goes up and up; he always owes somebody something, and the only benefit that he gets from the choice he makes is that he accrues the lesser debt by breaking the debt than by letting someone die. But under the model I propose, this isn’t the case. Peter Parker is obligated to fulfill the responsibilities that he can fulfill, and to fulfill the greatest responsibility he has at that moment. Doing that, he doesn’t accrue any debt to anyone else. He might make people mad at him, and so have to work to get back into their good graces, or to convince them that he can be responsible, but while he may have to apologize, he doesn’t really have to repay them. If they could understand the choice that he had to make, and that his choice was in line with what was his greatest responsibility then there would be nothing to forgive. As it is, if he can convince them that he is sorry that he had to leave them in the lurch they should forgive him even if he can’t make it right.

For me, the kind of forgiveness that God gives us is not the restitutional kind of forgiveness, dependent on us doing an appropriate penance or repayment that we can make to him, but is instead a forgiveness based on how genuinely we desire it and how we understand that we do need forgiveness for what we’ve done. Any penance or act of restitution made to others is just a natural demonstration of that; if we were unwilling to do those things, then we don’t really see that what we did was wrong and thus don’t really want to be forgiven for it. Thus, when people comment about how unfair it is that some serial killer could adopt religion and be forgiven for that and thus get into heaven without doing extra penance, they misunderstand forgiveness. The whole point of penance and/or punishment is to get people to see that what they did was wrong, and neither are actually very good at doing that. If a serial killer really did come to see that what they did was wrong and genuinely wanted to make up for it, even though they couldn’t, it would be cold, cruel and heartless of God to deny them forgiveness or to punish them anyway. Sure, they can’t make up for their crimes … but as Anselm points out, neither can we. A model of forgiveness where we are forgiven not based on repaying our debts but based on us actually learning our lesson is a better model all around, I think.

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