Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday from an ex-Catholic Perspective

What does Good Friday mean to me who do not believe that Jesus was God?

I think it is useful to place Jesus' atonement within the context of his time. The Jewish requirements of atonement include repentance, confession, restitution, punishment (by God or others or else undertaken voluntarily), and absolution (Yom Kippur for venal sins, death for mortal sins).

Note that to Jews, absolution was given by God, not man. And forgiveness is not in the list: if you gave adequate restitution to your neighbor, you were done: you did not need his forgiveness. Encouraging the forgiveness of sins was a Christian departure from Jewish tradition. And forgiveness by proxy is simply not possible for Jews.

Catholics (modern ones, at least) make much of Jesus having provided restitution, tribulation, and death, allowing us to close the deal merely with repentance, confession, and penance. Absolution can be granted (through a priest) by Jesus. In fact, we up the ante: mere repentance (forward-looking: go and sin no more) should be accompanied by sincere contrition (backward-looking: I wish I hadn't done it). Without regret, repentance is insincere.

The justification of these "more than strictly necessary" measures is that they are for the benefit of the sinner's psychology, not her soul. In practice (if not in theology), unless we attempt to actually try (and fail) to walk the walk of Jesus, and not just ride free on His shoulders, we will slip back into sin and become hypocrits. That's just how humans are wired (call this Original Sin if you are inclined to view the latter as mere metaphor). Catholics are raised to believe that suffering is good for the soul.

Evangelicals are so much more fortunate to have the psychological strength not to need to personally atone for their transgressions: “forgive me Lord”, and poof! Sins are erased like writing on a whiteboard. They treat sin like a soiled shirt: just Shout It Out™!

And indeed, to the believer, both Catholic and Evangelical positions are quite close in theory (if not in practice).

But to the unbeliever (like me), there is a vast difference between the discipline of the former and the lip service of the latter. I retain my Catholic moral structure more or less intact. Actions speak louder than words, and (pace St. Paul) Jesus' example of atonement offers great meaning even to me who do not believe that Jesus was God, and even more meaning to me when I came to not believe in a god at all.

Had I been raised Evangelical, I might well have fallen very far from grace. The strength of Catholic shame does not let go so easily, and for that I am blessed.

This is my testimony: through contrition, confession, restitution, and graceful acceptance of appropriate punishment, I too receive absolution in the form of self-forgiveness and psychological cleansing. Though Jesus may not have saved my soul for all eternity, his teachings and example have helped me to save my own soul in this life. Until such time as further revelation come to me, that will have to do.

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