Sunday, August 25, 2013

P90X and the Atonement

I saw a TV ad the other day similar to the below:

Like many TV ads, the marketing message tried to convince the viewer that s/he is inadequate as they are, and that the product being advertised will make them whole. "You are flabby and unpleasant to look at. For just $XX.99 a month and some sweat, you can be made muscly and confident like us." Of course, almost every sales pitch follows this basic pattern: you're lacking somehow, and you need our beer, our insurance, our sports car, etc. to bridge the gap.

Sounds to me like the Atonement.

A few weekends ago, I floated the American River in Sacramento. I served my mission in Sacramento, and used the opportunity to reflect on the core of the gospel message I shared: (1) because you sin, you're unclean; (2) only clean people can live with God in heaven; (3) only Jesus can reconcile the cosmic balance and make you clean again. The explicit metaphor President Packer and others use is of a spiritual debt that only Jesus can pay:

Spiritual debt. I reviewed my law school debt this morning, so debt is fresh on my mind. Not the most pleasant thing, admittedly: I would and do pay a high price to hack away at debt. Similarly, I invited folks on my mission to pay a high price: commit to attend church every week, get baptized, read your scriptures, pledge allegiance to the prophets, pay 10% of your income, etc. And what did I promise them in return? That the spiritual debt incurred due to their sins will be written off, paid by Jesus because you followed His exclusive formula.  Your inadequacies will be washed away if you buy our... beer/P90X/car/insurance/_______.

I don't buy it anymore. I don't believe I'm fundamentally flawed and indebted, and I don't want to teach that psychologically harmful and confidence-sapping self concept to others any more. It's dehumanizing! I  have felt personally and seen in many of my LDS peers (my brother and a dear mission companion of mine, for instance) the severe damage caused by the guilt and God-is-taking-notes consciousness the Atonement paradigm can induce. The basic premise is that God has a perfect knowledge of your every act, and any performance level less that perfection puts heaven out of your reach. Romans 3:

23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

Unfortunately, we simply have no reliable way to know whether God has forgiven us. The closest proxy, guilt, is neither proportionate nor universal: it punishes the sensitive soul a thousand lashes for a nickel of offense, and afflicts a thieving and murdering sociopath no more than a passing mosquito.

Yet there is no better substitute for checking your cosmic balance, and as a practical matter many Mormons rely upon it. Thus, we live in constant fear of failing heaven, and an awakened self-consciousness of our inadequacy becomes a draining misery imposed on us by the recipe of the Atonement doctrine mixed with the reality of the fickle, capricious physical emotion we call guilt.

Sure, conceptually it's useful to think of a cosmic account that we debit through harming others and credit through benefiting them. This concept can aid in administering justice, for instance. However, the conceptual utility does not create the reality of a cosmic account subject to manipulation by deities, and no other evidence suggests the existence of such an account. Acknowledging that fact would cause a morally sensitive community to carefully safeguard freedom, vigorously detect and disincentivize oppression, and adopt the twin ethics of non-malevolence and benevolence (avoid harming and seek to benefit others) as moral guides. Such an acknowledgment might prioritize preventing autocracy and corruption, for instance. Instead, many invest their energy into exercising faith in Christ via religious activity, the mental effort involved in prayer, and proselyting. I can't help but think those energies would be more profitably invested in solving the governance and economic problems which are primary drivers of the net avoidable suffering extant in the world today.

In any case, the standard of perfection is irrationally high. Yes, I can reduce my moral errors: but if I don't eliminate them, I'm not in spiritual debt that only Jesus can pay. I'm a limited human being, for Buddha's sake. I don't have the intelligence, insight, energy, or wherewithal to analyze every moral decision (and all decisions are moral in my view, since all decisions have consequences). I lack the discipline, as does every other human on the planet, to execute the best moral alternative at each of those decision points.

I have a new ethic now. When I witness suffering caused by the immoral actions of others (e.g. suffering of Syrians affected by the current conflict), I am more interested in establishing institutions and practices that stop that suffering and prevent similar suffering in the future, and less interested in whether Jesus may or may not rectify the balance of justice in some distant future. I'm more interested in holding people accountable for their immoral behavior, and less interested in whether they have faith in Christ. I am more interested in making increasingly moral personal decisions now because it's the right thing to do, and less interested in reducing my spiritual debt or lessening Jesus's suffering in the garden or paying the price of God's forgiveness.

Lacking strong evidence for the existence (to say nothing of the details) of God's judgment, I am interested in the equation of human suffering and happiness that precedes death. There is no shortage of work to be done in that space, and it is there I choose to thrust in my sickle with all my might, and no longer spend my limited energy on the post-death equation my LDS peers claim to know so intimately. To the Atonement doctrine, I now say the same thing I say to the P90X and beer and sports car pitches on TV:


  1. Hey Brad,

    P90X actually works pretty well. As with any program, you have to put in the work and especially watch your diet (that's the main issue/problem). That being said, I've only done p30X twice, so I can't speak for the whole 90 day program. But I actually really like Tony Horton's catchphrase: Do your best and forget the rest.

  2. I think interpretation of Atonement as participatory reconciliation is far more constructive and better reflective of the Biblical text.

  3. Leland:

    Fair point. I have no personal experience with P90X, and I haven't researched it's efficacy, so I will defer to your testimony. (Fortunately my use of the example is not dependent on whether or not P90X delivers on its promises.) Thanks for the comment.

    It's funny you commented: I actually thought about what you would think of the post when I wrote it, given your affinity for the Atonement. Like your predilection for and conception of God, I think your conception of the Atonement is far more thoughtful, and significantly different, than that held and practiced by the LDS mainstream.
    In any case, I agree with you that interpreting the Atonement as participatory reconciliation is far more constructive (and even aesthetic) than the interpretation I reflect above.

  4. "...I am more interested in establishing institutions and practices that stop that suffering and prevent similar suffering in the future..."

    That's me too! I worry that humanity won't get there though. I often think of this thought experiment: suppose a world came into existence where, by random chance, some people had a lot of resources and some people had few resources, but the people are identical in needs, wants, and skills. How can the resource rich people be convinced to give up their resources to the resource poor people? I don't know if there will ever be a way.

  5. Sorry that this comment is off subject. I did not know where else to write you. I recently purchased a copy of your book, online for Kindle. I have been reading it and I just wanted to thank you for ALL of the work you have gone to to write this book. I am just finishing the first four chapters now. The statements you included from church leaders was very eye-opening. And, very scary. I like the stance you take, agreeing with Elder Oaks' comment that the church does not know about homosexuality and that it is a scientific question.

    I was really interested in what you had to say about the atonement and homosexuality. I have had people tell me that the atonement would cover my being a gay woman. When I asked them what that meant, they could not really give me a good answer. I REALLY liked how clear you set forth your "atonement" argument, that the atonement is meant to heal us spiritually and not change, necessarily, the physicality of an "issue". Your statements made so much sense. I really appreciated this- thank you!

    Your writing seems to be very complete- I say "seems" because I will never be as smart as you. :) I do my best to keep up with you but you are very very bright, and I am just a little smart. :) Mostly, I wanted to just thank you for your stellar work in my behalf, and in the behalf of countless others who are gay and in or out of the church. Thank you! Love, Duck


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