on karma and grace and atonement

what is an agnostic atheist to do?

forgive me if this meanders a tad — i am not writing an essay here, i am just blogging some thoughts.

many people i know believe in the concept of “karma” (whether they know it or not) which is, at it’s most absurdly simple: you get what’s coming to you.

less simply, the sum of your deeds in the past, right now, and in the future determine what kind of person you are — and the universe (being a place that seems to prefer balance over imbalance) has a way of evening out your rough patches.

it is not fate that you had a car accident; it is actually caused by the complex interactions between you and the rest of the universe.

you have a choice to be kind, honest, truthful, and when you choose otherwise it will come back to bite you in the ass at some point.

almost everyone believes this, to varying degrees.

i grew up an evangelical christian, and though my understanding of faith and theology changed over time, there was never a time where i wasn’t “a christian” in the way the BBC means it when they say it: i grew up in a christian home, i was indoctrinated with christian faith from birth and i didn’t come to realize that there was even a chance christianity might not be true until my mid twenties.

i was a very committed christian until a couple years ago, and i can remember clearly how i felt about karma back then, and i think i have an understanding of what most christians think about the concept. that is: they don’t.

evangelicals believe in karma in some sense, but they have a “grace exception” in that it is possible not to get what is coming to you because the son of god was offered up as a blood sacrifice to the god who demands balance in the system.

evangelicals tend not to think about karma because they think in terms of getting away with doing evil.

of course, christians use different terms: atonement, judgement, grace, instead of balance, karma, exception, but what they mean is:

the god of the universe is so holy that he can not tolerate evil.

when we humans do wrong, we are unable to be in god’s presence, and so something must be done in order for us to be allowed into his kingdom.

that “something is atonement.

the wrongs we do must be “paid for” somehow.

the standard christian line is that jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins, and if we would only accept and believe in him then our sins are forgiven and we are “saved”.

the thing we are saved from is the consequences of our evil actions and attitudes.

we are saved from hell because jesus took the punishment for us.

a bit more abstractly, it goes like this:

the creator of the universe set the universe up in a way that balance must be maintained, not only in physical things, but also in spiritual things.

this balance is called, in christian terms, “god’s justice”.

god demands justice, and — curiously — the only way justice can be served is by death.

a blood sacrifice.

it sounds so ridiculous to me now that i am amazed it took me 31 years to realize it, but there it is.

the god of the universe, who can do anything, can’t forgive even the unintentional wrongs of his most cherished creations unless someone is killed for it.

the tiniest infraction of god’s law demands the death of a human being.

christianity was a sect of judaism in its infancy.

it comes from a religion born when humanity believed in many gods who meaded out justice in the here-and-now or soon thereafter.

if you were a bad person (or “sinful”) it would be evidenced by the fact that your wife is unable to bear children.

the christian bible’s old testament is full of such “justice”, where the cosmic (though not governmental) consequences of the sins of one person can effect his children, and their children “even to the tenth generation

(all links open in new window)

jesus’ theology was a radical departure from this:

John 9:1—3

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.

jesus’ disciples would have been surprised at this view. “this man isn’t blind because his parents sinned?? whaaa…?”

the idea that doing bad will have short-term consequences in this life was eventually weeded out of christian theology, with ananias and sapphira being the one of the last big hurrahs of god punishing sin right away in the scripture, and the enlightenment bringing reason to our lives.

but most people i know still kinda believe that, some how, some way, if you are “bad”, “bad” will happen to you.


i no longer believe in grace.

i don’t believe jesus was god’s son (if he even existed), let alone died for our sins.

i don’t believe that the creator of a universe would require the death of those which he claims to love most in order to forgive them for doing that which comes naturally.

and i don’t believe in karma.

i believe physics favors symmetry over over asymmetry and, so, the statistics make it seem to each of us as individuals that things even out, when they likely do not.

(some babies die. some parents bury their children. some children bury their parents before they know what death is. and some old men who smoke and drink and cheated on all five of their wives die in their sleep happy.)

and the skeptical rationalistic person in me looks at all of this and wonders at the specialness of it all, even though i don’t think there’s any force, at all, making sure it will all be okay.

it might not be okay.

but i damn sure will continue to do my best to be the very best person i can be, because life is special.

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