Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In Defense of Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson, the televangelist, is getting a lot of grief for claiming that the sufferings of the Haitians was a consequence of a deal they struck with the devil to win their independence in Napoleon’s time. A little research revealed that Robertson was referring to an old, not very credible legend about a revolutionary general who supposedly sacrificed a pig to a Voodoo spirit. Now I’m humorless enough to complain about the dubiousness of this tale—in the throes of early Alzheimer’s Pat has come to think that every implausible story he wants to believe is true, even the ones that aren’t two thousand years old—but I have to disagree with those who attack Robertson’s remark because they don’t think it’s fair that a whole nation should suffer because of something one or even many of their ancestors supposedly did long ago. One can complain, as I have, about the man’s astonishing credulity; but his theology is impeccable from a formal perspective. The plot pattern of communal guilt and its consequences is utterly central to his religion: to reject the structure of the tale is to reject Christianity itself.

People usually speak about religious faith as if it is a matter of believing in some amazing fact such as the resurrection of Christ, but the more essential element is belief in the admissibility of the theory that lies behind the fact. You not only have to believe that Jesus died to save your soul; you have to believe that it makes sense that the suffering and death of an innocent man can somehow change the spiritual state of another. It’s not just that the idea of vicarious atonement is harder to swallow than the idea of a particular instance of vicarious atonement and logically prior to it. It’s also more important. The world is full of people who don’t believe in the resurrection but remain enthralled by the Christian story because they go on hanging on its armature as witness the continuing allure and power of Christ substitutes in politics and literature. But here’s the thing. Vicarious atonement is simply the obverse of communal guilt, which is why the old theology regarded Adam as a type of Christ. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” just as Christ died for our sins. Reject the negative instance of moral action at a distance involved in the doctrine of original sin and you put in question the positive instance of salvation by the self-sacrifice of a divine figure. No wonder so many barrels of ink were spilt trying to make sense of the transmission of guilt from Adam to the whole human race. Better to raise this problematic issue some distance away from Jesus, especially since two thousand years of desperate ingenuity have already been squandered trying to explain these things.

Now it seems to me that it is a moral error to blame or punish the children for the sins of their parents; but I’m aware that Christians, at least those who cleave to the traditional faith, are pretty much stuck with accepting that God works in this fashion because the whole pathos of the cross is wrapped up in this belief and makes no sense without it. That’s why I’m inclined to forgive Robertson a little, not only in view of his obvious senility but because it’s hard not to be corrupted by an essentially immoral religion. Listening to him, though, I find myself thanking heaven that most Christians are better than their God, the God of Port au Prince.