The word “Redeemer” in the Book of Job could be more accurately translated as “Vindicator.” When Job cries out “I know that my Vindicator liveth” he is defending himself from the accusations of his friends who think he is guilty of sins which have led to his sufferings. It is a poetic way of saying “One day God will vindicate me of these insulting charges and convince you knuckleheads that I am righteous!”
The translation of “redeemer” as “vindicator” gives us new ways to think about the concept of redemption. We commonly understand redemption as something Christ does for us to help us out of the messes we’ve made for ourselves. Mormons are constantly reminded that we are all sinners in need of repentance. Job’s dogged insistence on his personal righteousness is at odds with modern LDS conceptions of sin. If Job were a Mormon, he would be asking himself whether or not he was sinning by not “enduring well” instead of constantly talking about how righteous he is. But what if Job understood something about the nature of redemption which we are missing? What if redemption also means “vindication?”
When Christ was on the cross, He said these beautiful words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Here Christ is acting as Vindicator, demanding that God drop the charges of murder against His killers because they were not actually conscious that what they were doing was wrong. Earlier He had told His disciples, “They who kill you will think they are doing God a service.” If these murderers honestly thought they were doing God a service, how can they be guilty of sin? For me, that is one of the great hidden messages of the atonement: God weighs our hearts, minds, and weaknesses in the balance and finds us “not guilty by virtue of diminished capacity.”
The Injustice of Self-Criticism
We live in a culture that is reflexively self-critical. We are extremely hard on ourselves and each other, continuously imputing sins even when they are the inevitable consequences of built-in weaknesses which God has given to us (Ether 12:27). In his book Unforbidden Pleasures, Adam Phillips discusses the problematic nature of self-criticism and its roots in what Freud called our “super-ego.” Phillips claims we suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with our boorish, accusatory super-ego.
How has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, as unimaginative as it usually is? And why is it akin to a judgement without a jury?…We are continually, if unconsciously, mutilating and deforming our own character. Indeed, so unrelenting is this internal violence that we have no idea what we are like without it. We know virtually nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves (as though in panic).The judged self can only be judged but not known. 
Our super-ego pronounces guilt upon us and others long before all the facts have been taken into account. We routinely “under-interpret” our sins. Instead, according to Adam Phillips, we should “over-interpret” them.
You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by over-interpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Over-interpretation here means not settling for one interpretation, however apparently compelling it is. Indeed, the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative, the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be.
I think this is what the Atonement is all about. By coming down to live as one of us on earth, Jesus takes all the facts of our existence account, all the dimensions of a lived, painful, messy, human experience. His final verdict is: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Limits of Over-Interpretation
In a Radiolab episode called Blame, there is a fascinating story about a severely epileptic man who underwent brain surgery. To get rid of the epilepsy, doctors removed a golf-ball sized piece of brain tissue from his skull. After the surgery, the epilepsy went away, but a few months later, the FBI came knocking at his door and arrested him for possession of child pornography. The epileptic man never had a problem with pornography before the surgery. At his trial, a neurologist testified that during the surgery, portions of the brain associated with moderation and discipline had been removed. As a result, the judge gave the man a reduced sentence due to his diminished capacity.
After reviewing the case, one of the Radiolab moderators asked the question: “What if one day, our neuroscience becomes so advanced, that we are able to find roots for all criminal behaviour in the biological structure of our brains? Does this mean criminals will no longer be found guilty? How much free will actually exists when you get down to the neurological nitty gritty?” Fundamentally, these questions test the limits of what Adam Phillips is calling “over-interpretation.” Can we over-interpret crime so much that culpability disappears altogether? In the end, the Radiolab moderators agreed that when there are crimes, there must be punishments. Biology is no excuse.
The Infinite Over-Interpretation: Christ’s Mercy and Forgiveness
I agree with Radiolab. Sins are sins and they have consequences. That is the law. But the atonement is about transcending the law through mercy. Mercy is not forgiveness for forgiveness’s sake. Forgiveness is given because “they know not what they do.” Christ could only forgive us after He understood where we were coming from, after He had experienced things from our perspective. Mercy is about coming to an understanding.
Anyone who has struggled to forgive someone else knows that one of the most effective ways to learn forgiveness is to come to a better understanding of who those who have wronged us and why they wronged us. Once we understand all the pressures and pains going on inside the perpetrator’s mind, our feelings of ill-will and resentment begin to fall away.
What About Free-Will?
At the end of the day, our opinions on this question will come down to how much free-will we think we actually have. I personally believe in limited free-will. I lean towards Calvinism in that respect. Our autonomous spirit (our super-ego) is only one dimension of our identity, an identity we share with other unchangeable biological, cultural, and collective dimensions which are out of our conscious control. We are both “creatures to act AND creatures to be acted upon.” I believe the atonement is the process of sorting out how much we are actually culpable of. The generosity of the atonement comes from the fact that in the end, we will be culpable for very little (and conversely worthy of very little), because we were acting according to forces beyond our control.
“I Do Not The Wrongs I Am Charged With Doing”
I love Joseph Smith’s phrase, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I am charged with doing.” Joseph was referring to the accusations of sexual impropriety which had dogged him since his Kirtland days. He honestly believed in his heart that he was innocent of wrongdoing with regards to polygamy. Whether or not polygamy was objectively good or bad, whether or not God objectively approved or disapproved of polygamy, we must understand that from Joseph’s perspective, he was doing God’s will. And ultimately, Joseph’s perspective is the only thing that matters to God and to him. That is where God meets Joseph and judges him. That is where He meets all of us. He doesn’t judge us by arbitrary or universal standards of moral correctness. He judges us according to our own understandings, according to the state of our heart. If Joseph honestly believed God commanded him to practice polygamy, then he is innocent of any objective moral standard we might use to judge him. Even if polygamy is somehow objectively in error, Joseph is as innocent as Christ’s killers, for he, like them “knew not what he had done.”
- What do you think of the idea of “redemption as vindication?”
- Do you agree that we under-interpret our sins, routinely imputing too much guilt to ourselves and others, when we or others were actually under the power of forces beyond our control?
- Do you agree that forgiveness comes when we begin truly understanding the sinner, rather than simply “loving the sinner, hating the sin?”
- How much free-will do we actually have? And how culpable are we of mistakes that we have made?
- Do you agree that Joseph is innocent of sin with regard to polygamy if he honestly believed God had commanded him to practice it, even if polygamy itself was objectively in error?
 I highly recommend reading more from Phillips about the delusion of self-criticism here. Particularly enlightening is his analysis of how self-criticism is intimately connected with self-love and his insights on Shakespeare’s phrase “conscience doth make cowards of us all.”
I was mostly with you but sometimes you lost me…overall, I like the idea except the part that we are forces to be acted upon.
“What do you think of the idea of “redemption as vindication?””
Interesting idea I hadn’t considered before.
“Do you agree that we under-interpret our sins, routinely imputing too much guilt to ourselves and others, when we or others were actually under the power of forces beyond our control?”
I don’t know. Some sins perhaps. Sometimes we seem very ready to excuse ourselves for all manner of reasons, or least I think I am…
“How much free-will do we actually have? And how culpable are we of mistakes that we have made?”
I’m not sure that it is possible for us to know.
“Do you agree that Joseph is innocent of sin with regard to polygamy if he honestly believed God had commanded him to practice it, even if polygamy itself was objectively in error?”
I don’t know. (Did you mean Kirtland?)
“Do you agree that forgiveness comes when we begin truly understanding the sinner, rather than simply “loving the sinner, hating the sin?””
Absolutely. It’s when we take time to truly understand that we begin to feel love for that person in my experience.
I don’t think you have it right at all. In Uchtdorf April conference talk he says “as we love, and have grace to help us we come to a point where we no longer desire to sin.
I don’t believe we are all sinfull. when members say that I say speak for yourself, which
I’m sure does not come across well, but is how I feel.
I am retired so have no children in my home, When I look back on most days I can’t see any sinfull behaviour. I just think this is a cultural thing and nothing to do with the Gospel.
I think this iidea is shown in Oaks conference talk but not in Uchtdorf, so conservative culture being taught as Gospel, like racism was, and homophobia, and sexism are now.
Hedgehog, it is true that we make excuses for our sins as often as we flagellate ourselves for them. (Thanks for the Kirkland catch!)
I hope I’m not suggesting that we make excuses for our sins. An excuse implies an evasion, an evasion of responsibility, and an evasion of true understanding. What I suggest is that we come to a true and complete understanding of our errors, their root causes, their consequences, and what can be done to correct or hack the particular problem that afflicts us. Guilt is not productive in this regard. It misrepresents our responsibilities, misunderstands the causes of our sins, it over-amplifies their consequences, and does little to find effective solutions to hack the problem. So BOTH excess guilt and self-excuses are ways of evading real, practical understandings and finding effective solutions.
Geoff, are you saying that LDS culture is changing from being less guilt-oriented? I could agree with that. However, Uchtdorf also gave a title called “Lord, Is It I?” where he lionised the humility of Jesus’ disciples when they were all asking themselves if they were the one who was going to betray Jesus. Uchtdorf said:
“In these simple words, “Lord, is it I?” lies the beginning of wisdom and the pathway to personal conversion and lasting change.”
Job was not a “Lord-is-it-I” kind of guy. Like you, if someone claimed he was sinful, he would have said, “speak for yourself.” I remember a conversation I had with a retired Congregationalist minister who was an absolute Saint, having spent his entire life serving the poor and drug addicted in the inner city. When I tried to explain to him LDS conceptions of sin and atonement, he was totally lost. He couldn’t think of any sins he had ever committed. He said, “well maybe when I was a young man…”
I was blown away by this attitude at the time. “What about that time you got angry at your daughter on the phone?” I wanted to say.
But the more I think about it, I think he was on to something. He lived a saintly life, but obviously was imperfect on some level. But he was totally and absolutely free from guilt. I think he felt so close and comfortable with God, that the idea that God was holding his little mistakes over his head, and dumping them on Jesus was abhorrent to him. That was not the kind of loving God he worshipped.
So I think you are also onto something. We don’t need to flagellate ourselves to progress in the gospel.
This is really useful and something I have been thinking about as not being useful in my relationship with Deity. I do have an absolute conviction that Deity understand my soul and my suffering, and therefore my sin, but I still have a running internal narrative re my unworthiness/unpleasantness/impatience/stupidity. I’ve always hero- worshiped Job. I’m glad to understand in part that tomorrow I can ‘fail better’ as Samuel Becket describes the creative process.
I’d rather see my useful constructive parts as part of my ego structure, rather than allying them with a punitive super-ego. Not a lot to be said for that shaming , cruel, persecutory part of myself that i am working, with your added help today, to put behind me as I try to embrace a more new testament attitude to growth and peace.
I love the concept of vindication, but you lost me in the last paragraph with “He doesn’t judge us by arbitrary or universal standards of moral correctness.”
There are absolute universal standards of moral correctness, and while Elder Holland (and others) teach emphatically that we get credit for trying, I’m not willing to say truth or righteousness is an arbitrary standard that varies person to person.
Clark, I think there ARE universal standards or laws of various kinds, and we are automatically judged by them by virtue of existence. For example, if you jump off a cliff you are subject to the laws of gravity, or if you commit adultery you are subject to the emotional chaos which will ensue from breaking collective moral understandings.
But God doesn’t need to pour salt on our wounds by judging and punishing us BEYOND what nature already inflicts upon us when we disobey universal laws. God’s role is that of healer and atoner, of judging us not only by universal standards, but by the subjective standards of our difficult human experience. That is what the atonement means to me.
“Clark, I think there ARE universal standards or laws of various kinds, and we are automatically judged by them by virtue of existence.”
Don’t think we can say there are any universal standards with some sort of automatic judgement mechanism. Ideas about right and wrong or good and evil vary according to historical context, culture, and circumstance. Many people commenting here, for example, might be able to recite a list of absolute universal moral standards, but in the larger perspective these are neither absolute, universal, moral, nor even standards.
I disagree that defying “the list” is automatically a bad thing. Taking your examples, plenty of people jump off cliffs to escape danger or as recreation (high diving, parasailing) and find the laws of gravity to be a source of respite or joy. Plenty of people commit adultry, find it a great relief and source of happiness, and eventually even start a new and healthier relationship. Any such “list” and the supposed consequences of violating the “list” are just stories we are told and stories we invent to reinforce our personal beliefs.
Kat: I think Joseph Smith would agree with you.
He once wrote, “That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ At another time he said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances.”
This quote is taken from a letter in which he was trying to convince 19-year-old Nancy Rigdon–daughter of 1st Counselor Sidney Rigdon–to marry him behind his wife’s back. I’m still unconvinced that moral relativism is correct.
I will, however, endorse the principle found in D&C 82:3 (“For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.”) This is entirely different than calling black white.
I will, however, endorse the principle found in D&C 82:3 (“For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.”)
Why would anybody consider this a principle, much less endorse it? It’s certainly not any sort of universal truth, and not particularly beneficial.
Kat, I think you have some good points. I don’t like using morals in absolute terms either. What I meant is that there ARE some things someone could do that could be described as objectively wrong or evil in a certain circumstances. Adultery might be positive in one particular case, but in another, it could be a terrible idea.
However, I do think that underlying the basic commandments, there are some even more fundamental laws of nature of which the commandment is an expression. So with adultery, it might work fine in some cases, and in the scriptures there are all kinds of creative sexual arrangements like polygamy, concubines, etc. But underneath all of the particular rules and exceptions, I think there is a fundamental reality, which is that human sexuality is paradoxical, problematic, and potentially extremely painful emotionally. It cannot simply be indulged in without consequence. Sexuality MUST be subject to some kind of control. That I think would be a fundamental universal principle. Even an adulterer could be acting according to this principle, by fleeing from a sexually unhealthy relationship without proper boundaries, into a more sexually healthy one WITH proper boundaries. But if an adulterer is simply throwing caution to the wind and doing whatever he or she wants without regard to the powers and consequences of sexual acts, he or she will suffer from it.
As far as “commandments” go, I don’t see them as based on any fundamental laws of nature. Even if they were, that has no bearing on the way people wield these “commandments”. I see people interpreting whatever their arbitrary set of “commandments” happens to be as absolute determinants of worthiness.
“Sexuality MUST be subject to some kind of control.”
We differ fundamentally here. There are well-functioning societies and cultures without any “control of sexuality” (whatever that even means). You, presumably, grew up in Western culture with ideas about sexuality heavily influenced by Christianity. That’s a tiny slice in the context of world history and culture.
Nate, “we must understand that from Joseph’s perspective, he was doing God’s will. And ultimately, Joseph’s perspective is the only thing that matters to God and to him.” I disagree strongly with this statement. Think of the guy who abducted Elizabeth Smart and repeatedly raped her. He claims he was following God’s will. Is that the only thing that matters? Part of repentance is acknowledging and understanding the pain you have caused others. You cannot solely judge your own actions by your own personal experience. You used the example of adultery – you hurt your spouse, you hurt your kids, you potentially put your career, and perhaps the livelihood of others in jeopardy (if it’s an office romance). You put friends in horrible positions where they are wondering whether they should warn the spouse of the betrayal. That action has far-reaching consequences. You are suggesting that the consequences the adulterer faces should be based on their own experience. The fact is, your actions often negatively impact the life experiences of others. You *must* ultimately answer for that.
Mary Ann, you have a good point. I agree that even the well-meaning actions of others sometimes have a negative impact on other people. Let’s take a less nefarious example. Suppose a well-intentioned mother ends up screwing up her child psychologically because she is over-protective or controlling. If she really had no clue that what she is doing is wrong, and on the contrary, was trying extremely hard to raise her child in the right way, should she feel guilty if the child turns out to be psychologically screwed up? In my opinion, no. God created a world where we will step on each others toes. When I accidentally step on my cat’s tail, I wince and feel bad, but I don’t feel guilty.
But it is important for the mother to come to an understanding that her well-intentioned actions caused harm. Not that she will be punished for them by God, but that she can learn, grow, connect, and work to repair the relationship with her child.
The real test is in the mind of the child. Typically the child blames the mother for all sorts of things she did naively. He needs to learn to forgive, and that forgiveness comes through understanding that his mother wasn’t really acting maliciously, but had her own demons she was dealing with.
Likewise, with Elizabeth Smart’s rapist, he is probably mentally ill with a big hole in his brain where common sense and morality are concerned. So its likely he is completely honest in his view that God told him to rape Elizabeth, just like various animal species who use violent rape to procreate according to “the measure of their creation.”
If he were to be healed of his mental illness, he could look back and see that what he did caused a lot of suffering. And he would naturally feel bad. But should he feel guilty? He might feel so guilty that it became debilitating. That is where the atonement comes in. Christ would remind him that he really “knew not what he had done.”
Again, the real test is for Elizabeth Smart and the rest of us. Are we willing to forgive? Are we willing to face the reality that mental illness DOES give someone the perspective that what they are doing is completely right? Or are we going to continue to judge people by our own perspective, and hold it over their heads, continually viewing them as Satanic monsters? I think if Jesus came over to Elizabeth Smart’s rapist, he might lay his hands on his head that “the demon might come out of him” and “give him a new heart.” And just like the wicked Lamanites who went to the prison to kill Nephi and Lehi, and got visited by the angels, he would go away praising God.
God may forgive (and forget), and others may forgive (and forget), but you will never forget, even if you forgive yourself. I think that is a *good* thing, part of our learning experience in mortality. Think of the Anti-Nephi-Lehi people. They had fully repented, but they remembered the murders they had committed, they understood how easy it was to lapse back into it, which compelled them to make a covenant disavowing all violence. They did not require the same covenant from their kids, because their kids were not as susceptible. Remember, they were willing to serve as slaves to the Nephites because they recognized the damages they caused. Just because the Nephites passed up on it doesn’t mean it magically made their guilt disappear.
I’m fully aware of the effects of mental illness over family generations. Just because your parents may have messed you up (because their parents messed *them* up) does *not* absolve you of the responsibility to do something to break the cycle. You will still be responsible for how you handle the rising generation. One of the things that convinced me to get help for my mental illness was finding out that if a parent seeks treatment and models healthy coping mechanisms, their kids have a much better chance at overcoming the same problem if they are genetically susceptible. Just because I have a genetic susceptibility does not absolve or let me forget how that impacted my ability to parent my kids, even though I am fully aware my kids, my husband, myself, and anyone else who understood the problem would fully agree the deficiencies were/are understandable.
Mary Ann, I agree that we are not absolved of responsibility to try and correct our various errors or susceptibilities, but ONLY once we have recognised that there is a problem. Because, as you say “I’m fully aware of the effects of mental illness over family generations,” that awareness gives you the responsibility to do what you can to mitigate its effects.
What I’m talking about is our culpability BEFORE we have come to this awareness. I don’t think there is culpability. But as soon as we come to awareness, the very moment we do, our responsibilities change. Not that we blame our past selves, but we are obligated to fight to try and change for the future.