Spider-Man and Philosophy: What Price Atonement?

The fundamental premise of the first bit of this essay is an exploration of the concept of “infinite debt” in Christian ethics, i.e. the idea that because God created everything, everyone who exists owes everything they have to God, which means every transgression against God cannot ever be repaid because everything was owed to God in the first place. This whole line of argument begs an important question: Why should gifts indebt someone to someone else? And also: Why is the arguer so eager to provide justification for any amount of heinous acts committed in the name of a nominally benevolent God? Someone with a relentlessly transactional approach to morality could reasonably come to the whole “infinite debt” conclusion without propping up authoritarianism in the name of God, but in practice most Christians end up in one of two categories (three, if we count the “I only go on Easter and Christmas” types whose beliefs impact their actions so little that they’re basically atheists anyway): The “what would Jesus do” types who use God as an example to live up to, and the ones who imagine God as their personal attack dog, allowing them to get the last word in every argument by subjecting everyone who makes them angry to a thousand years of torment. If someone starts expounding upon how you are infinitely in God’s debt, it’s pretty good odds you’re talking to the second type.

A related concept is the idea that only God, who did not owe anything to himself, could incarnate and build up goodwill with which to pay the debt on behalf of humanity. This is dumb. If God can repay the debt to himself on behalf of other people, he can also just forgive the debt.

Kierkegaard makes this point, the next section of the essay explains, that it seems weird to ascribe ethics based entirely on accounting to an allegedly omnibenevolent God, that it is utterly bizarre that the Christian God, of all people, should be so stringently opposed to the concept of forgiving debts.

The essay then wanders through a few more ethical frameworks for Christianity: Being a good Christian means helping other people, love one another and all that. But then aren’t we all destined to fail, even if we have the preternatural ability to always choose correctly? Sooner or later we’re gonna have to pick between helping one person and helping another, and then we’ve failed to help someone no matter what we do. Maybe being a good Christian is fulfilling Christian morals, but apparently true selflessness requires suffering and being generous simply because you like helping people doesn’t count for some reason.

But mostly there’s a lot of gobbledygook that’s trying way too hard to be profound. Like this:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) called the kind of infinity we are dealing with here a bad infinity (schlechte Unendlichkeit), one that is characterized by everlasting lack, rather like the line that can be extended indefinitely, yet never finds completion anywhere. Against this bad infinite, Hegel set the true infinite, which signifies a fullness of being, of which God as described by Anselm forms the exemplar.11 Such a superior kind of infinity is like the circle, ever complete in itself, and it is toward this sort of fulfillment that we should strive.

Now, in context, this paragraph makes sense. But in context, this paragraph is also irrelevant and can be cut from the essay completely with no consequences. As far as I can tell, Taneli Kukkonen just wanted to talk about lines and circles for a bit. The essay relies a lot on use of metaphor in place of argument, saying X is like Y, and then founding the next two pages of discussion on the assumption that this is true without ever bothering to justify the metaphor. In the end, this essay is terribly concerned with sounding profound and not so concerned with communicating ideas, and the further into its length it goes, the more it disappears up its own ass and comes unmoored from the more salient points being made by the philosophers its quoting. Anselm’s “infinite debt” might be a bad idea, but at least it is an idea, clearly stated.

3 thoughts on “Spider-Man and Philosophy: What Price Atonement?”

  1. > A related concept is the idea that only God, who did not owe anything to himself, could incarnate and build up goodwill with which to pay the debt on behalf of humanity. This is dumb. If God can repay the debt to himself on behalf of other people, he can also just forgive the debt.

    There is *slightly* more to Christianity than that.
    The sacrifice of Jesus is, at its core, an extrapolation of the idea of Passover. Jews sacrifice an unblemished lamb before Passover to honor God and remember how he spared the Jews when bringing the ruin upon the Egyptians.
    Now, the logic goes that if you can sacrifice an unblemished lamb to wash away the yearly sins, then to wash away all sins forever you need a way bigger sacrifice. So big that the sacrifice cannot even be human. So in his infinite mercy, God sent Jesus so that he can be sacrificed as the greatest unblemished lamb ever. The idea’s not that God repays the debt to himself, but that he enables humans to do it. Which, in Christian thought, makes a difference.

    Of course, at the end of the day, it’s basically just a big blood magic ritual to hide the Christian souls from the destructive aspect of YHVH (as Christians metaphorically mark their hearts with the blood of Jesus the way Jews marked their doors, and that makes them invisible to YHVH the Destroyer).

    Christian philosophy’s pretty dumb, but there’s some sweet fantasy shit baked into it.

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    1. Christianity is a nominal alliance between sects and philosophies that in practice have absolutely nothing in common with each other. The quoted paragraph was intended as a criticism of Anselm, not as a criticism of Christianity because nothing can ever be a criticism of Christianity because Christianity doesn’t mean anything. Even very basic tenets like forgiveness and charity are not agreed upon.

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      1. Admittedly, most of my knowledge is of very early Christianity. It wasn’t criticism of you – just trying to explain the internal logic behind the ritual.

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