Theological Chess: getting out of damnation

16 02 2009

You’re sitting there with your cup of coffee, enjoying a game of chess.  It’s well into the endgame, and your opponent moves his bishop and puts your king into check.  What do you do?  There are three essential questions to ask yourself in this situation.

  1. Can you destroy the threat?
  2. Can you evade the threat?
  3. Can you block the threat?

Let’s say you choose number one.  You slide your rook across the board and knock out the bishop.  The threat is destroyed, and you’re out of check.

If you choose number two, you move your king to a neighboring square out of the line of fire.  You’ve evaded the threat, and you’re out of check.

Choosing number three is a little more involved.  The threat can be blocked in one of two ways.  Either you can attempt to block the threat with one of your own pieces, or you can hide behind your opponent’s piece, say, directly in front of a pawn.  Blocking with your own piece could easily mean having that piece taken in the next move.  However, blocking with your opponent’s piece solves that problem.  The problem with using your opponent’s own piece as a defense, however, leaves the risk of having your opponent move that piece, and you’re back in the same situation.  This technique works best if your opponent can’t or won’t move that piece.  If you find yourself severely lacking in pieces, perhaps being left with nothing but a king (assuming the opponent isn’t also in the same situation), then your only hope is to reach a stalemate, which most often results from hiding behind the opponent’s pawn.

Really, all threat management comes down to the same thing.  Chess is not just an analogy, but an example of a greater principle.  When a man holds a gun to your head, you might destroy the threat by killing the man or destroying/taking his weapon.  You might evade the threat by dodging the bullet.  You might block the threat with a brick wall or a hostage.

Sometimes, not all three options are available.  You could be a pedestrian at a crosswalk.  You see an oncoming car, headed straight for you.  You can’t destroy the threat, because you have no means to destroy the car or its driver.  You might evade the threat by running perpendicular to the car’s path.  You might run behind a car that’s already at a stop, waiting at the light, especially if you think that the threat is deliberate.

All of humanity finds itself under the threat of damnation.  Everyone sins, and everyone stands looking at God like the condemned before a judge.  Everyone, Jew, gentile, Mormon, Muslim, atheist and  Christian has a contingency plan, even if they say they don’t believe in Hell or sin.  It’s almost a testament to the fact that we are in such dire trouble.

Well, what about the atheist, who says that there is no sin?  The atheist’s strategy for threat management is option number one: destroy the threat.  If there is no God, then there is no judgment.  Slide a rook across the board and knock the offending bishop into the afterlife.  For the atheist, religion is not just false, but an arch enemy.  I can not emphasize it enough.  If the claims of atheism were undeniably true, then there would be no knee jerk reaction against religion.  There would be no movement to remove God from public life.  A nonexistent God is not a threat.  However, if that threat is real, then killing it, in the atheist’s strategy, is all-important.  “Methinks he doth protest too much,” is a famous Shakespearean line to that effect.  If one intends to be an atheist, then ignoring God is not an option.  One must kill God.  Therein lies the motivation.  The atheist does not reject the existence of God on objective grounds so much as on subjective ones.  Truth be told, no atheist likes God, even assuming that God did actually exist.

The second strategy, of evading the threat, is one taken most often, by philosophies and religions everywhere.  Their strategy is to simply be good, thinking that it will get them out of Hell.  Anyone who has played much chess has probably had a game that turned into cat-and-mouse, chasing the opponent’s king all over the board.  You put him in check; he moves; you put him in check again; he moves again, and so on.  Actually, in chess, as in world religion, the evasion strategy is also the most employed.  Yesterday, I made fun of someone.  Today I make it up to them by coming up with something nice to say.  Unfortunately, evading judgment is about as effective as outrunning a bullet.  Trying to get into Heaven always seems to leave one wondering what is good enough.  The problem of saving oneself through works is that it often leads to extremism.  Nothing is ever good enough, so the faithful go to greater and greater lengths to assure themselves of salvation, even if it means wearing an explosive belt and igniting it in a cafe.

The third strategy is to block the threat.  For the Jews, that threat was blocked through animal sacrifice.  It was the method used by ancient pagans, as well.  It would be akin to blocking with one’s own piece.  This method is essentially the hostage-taking strategy.  A man grabs the nearest bystander and holds the victim between him and the police.  The Christians use a similar strategy, except that they block with the opponent’s own piece, which is Jesus.  Reformed Jews, however, do not employ option three anymore, but have reverted to option two.

If we examine the effectiveness of the strategies, we see that the first option is off the table right away.  You can’t really kill God.  You can make yourself feel better by killing religion, but you can’t kill God.  Evasion is just putting off the inevitable.  You never really know how good is good enough, and you always suspect that whatever the cutoff line is, you probably didn’t make muster.  Some people actually do feel good about themselves in this respect, though.  I’m not certain how they conclude that they’ve made it.  It strikes me as an unwarranted assumption.  The third option, using animal sacrifice, is not used much anymore.  Besides, offering one’s own sacrifice is like blocking with one’s own piece: once it’s taken, you might need to find another piece to block with.  Blocking with the opponent’s piece works if the opponent can’t or won’t move that piece.  In this sense, if Jesus was a willing victim, then he’s a safe barrier.  Certain rules must apply for this strategy to work:

  1. Jesus must be a willing victim, or else not have a choice (the blocking piece must not be moved).
  2. He must be deity (it must be the opponent’s piece).
  3. He must be available (the piece must be near enough to be used, and it must be situated properly).

All of this is fine for light discussion over a cup of coffee in a relaxed setting.  Application is another matter.  The issue of whether Jesus is like stopping a bullet with a brick wall or stopping a bullet with a feather pillow isn’t really one that can be solved along this line of thought.  The example of the chess game is mainly an analysis of how we set out to protect ourselves from harm, in this case the threat of damnation.  Ultimately everyone deals with threats in one of the three essential ways, through retaliation, evasion or obstruction.  It is also important to observe that everyone reacts to the threat of damnation, even if they ostensibly don’t believe in it.

There is an alternative, which I have not mentioned.  It’s the agnostic approach, which amounts to surrender.  You can lay down your king and take whatever comes.  It’s not a solution, and it’s not an attempt at a solution.  It’s simply a decision to not even try.