One of the small, and somewhat perverse, pleasures in my life is reading propaganda. There is something about the the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to for self-deception that genuinely fascinates me. In a way, this the only true source of human originality. One source of such material that never disappoints are those tracts put out by the vehemently anti-Catholic Jack Chick. Whether Mr. Chick actually exists or not is apparently something of an open question, and while some see value in his tracts (including, apparently, Frederica Mathewes-Green) I find him to represent that segment of evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism that is vile, amusing, pitiable and contemptible in almost equal measure. As I see it, the best response to the Chick tracts is a website that parodies his work by replacing Chick’s language with…well, let’s just say, the other end of the spectrum.
In one such parody, Dead to Rights, Chick’s cartoon avatar confronts God in the afterlife and is given a dressing down on Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement/penal substitution:
I must confess, for more than a few years I absolutely relished this line. What could possibly be more insane than a belief that God sacrificed Himself to Himself, all so He could change a rule that He made Himself? To call such a belief stark raving mad would be an understatement. In case it isn’t apparent, the concept of substitutionary atonement has been a longtime problem area for me-along with the scandal of particularity and the magisterium it was one of the most difficult pills for me to swallow in my embrace of Catholicism.
And, ironically, I still agree with the Chick parody: The belief that the doctrine of the Atonement is the aforementioned idea that God sacrifices Himself to Himself out of an apparent pathological commitment to self-consistency is a very daft idea. Indeed, it is believed by many Christians today, in various forms. However, the actual teaching of classical Christianity on the atonement is far more complex, and far less crazy, than the Chickian summary. In this rather long essay I intend to take a somewhat unusual angle on the atonement, primarily by emphasizing that the Christian concept effectively turns the Chickian view-the stereotypical view of penal substitution-completely on its head. The Cross is the inversion of what we normally think of as sacrifice. Once we see this the radicalism of the Gospel becomes ever more apparent.
Let us begin.
I. THE TRUTH ABOUT SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT
First, I am going to offer a few, somewhat unrelated, quotes on the atonement so as to dispel the uglier aspects of the Chickian view. First, I will let Frederica redeem herself from her earlier defense of Chick (that was about 95% a joke):
Christ is also a sacrificial offering to the Father. The author of Hebrews tells how Christ’s sacrifice completed and replaced the temple sacrifices of bulls and goats. The earlier covenant, between God and his people under Moses, was “ratified” by an offering of blood. Moses sprinkled the tent, the worship implements, and the people with “the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (Heb. 9: 20). The author of Hebrews goes on, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9: 22).
But, he continues, this was not effective, and never could be: “It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10: 4). Then he ascribes to Christ the words in Psalm 39/ 40: 6– 8:
Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
But a body you have prepared for me;
In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” (NRSV)*
When Christ enters the body his Father prepared for him, the futile, repetitive shedding of animal blood is brought to an end. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10: 10).
Christ’s death on the cross was an offering to the Father— but it wasn’t a payment. This is a distinction we don’t usually catch, because we don’t make sacrifices anymore. But it was never the case that the Father needed animal blood before he could forgive his people. Rather, the people needed to offer it.
Sinners needed to make a costly gift as evidence to themselves and everyone that they were sincere; they really were sorry for their sin, and truly desired to renounce it. The offered blood “ratified” the covenant; it demonstrated the human partners’ commitment to that covenant. It was a gift, the kind given to heal a relationship.
Walter Kasper, in his book Mercy, adds:
Here what matters most of all is to understand correctly the idea of proxy and substitutionary atonement. That is not easy, especially for us today. For the idea of a proxy appears to contradict a person’s responsibility for his or her own actions. How, it is asked, is another supposed to be able to act a proxy for us, unless we have explicitly commissioned him for this purpose? It appears completely incomprehensible-in fact, it amounts to a serious offense-that, according to this view, God wanted to sacrifice his own son for the redemption of the world. What kind of God is that, it is further asked, who walks over a corpse, over the corpse of his own son? For many people today these questions count as a moral reproach and a fundamental argument against Christianity.
For this reason, liberal theology attempted to interpret the idea of substitutionary atonement in terms of the idea of Jesus’ solidarity with humanity, especially his partisanship on behalf of the oppressed and disadvantaged; and it sought to replace the former idea with the latter. Some representatives of more recent Catholic theology have also taken this path. This “soft” interpretation, however, does not do justice to the profundity and force of the biblical statements. The potency and intensity of the biblical testimony is revealed only when one considers the full depth and gravity of not only the social, but also the metaphysical misery-and, concomitantly, the total alienation and complete loss of well-being-into which we humans have fallen through sin.
According to the biblical understanding, sinners have forfeited their life and deserve death by virtue of their sin. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). According to the Bible’s communal or “corporate” understanding of the human race, this wretchedness affects not only individuals, but also the people or all of humankind…the idea of substitutionary atonement can be understood only in the context of this corporate understanding. On the basis of this common entanglement in sin and common subjection to death, no individual can brag about being able to pull him or herself out of the morass with his or her own power. We can only be freed from sin and death when God, who is Lord over life and death, wills, in his mercy, not death, but rather life, when he again gives life a chance and makes life possible anew. No human being, but God alone, can deliver us from our deepest adversity, the affliction of death.
With the idea of substitutionary atonement, it is not-as a prevalent misunderstanding suggests-a matter of a vengeful God needing a victim so that his wrath can be assuaged. On the contrary, by willing the death of his son on account of his mercy, God takes back his wrath and provides space for his mercy and thereby also for life. By taking our place through his son, he takes the life-destroying effects of sin upon himself in order to bestow upon us life anew.
Keep the general themes of Cardinal Kasper’s words in mind. We will return to theme. Next, I offer a few words from James Alison:
Here I want to make a little aside: normally, in the theory understanding of substitutionary atonement, we understand the substitution to work as follows: God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!”
The interesting thing is that it worked in an entirely different way: what Jesus was doing was substitute himself for a series of substitutions. The human sacrificial system typically works in the following way: the most primitive forms of sacrifice are human sacrifices. After people begin to become aware of what they are doing this gets transferred to animal sacrifices. After all it’s easier to sacrifice animals because they don’t fight back so much; whereas if you have to run a sacrificial system that requires you to keep getting victims, usually you have to run a war machine in order to provide enough victims to keep the system going; or you have to keep the pet “pharmakons” around the place – convenient people to sacrifice, who live in splendour, and have a thoroughly good time, until a time of crisis when you need people to sacrifice, and then you sacrifice them. But this is an ugly thing, and people are, after all, human; and so animals began to be sacrificed instead. And in some cultures from animals you get to more symbolic forms of sacrifice, like bread and wine. You can find any variation on the theme of sacrificial substitution.
The interesting thing is that Jesus takes exactly the inverse route; and he explains to us that he is going in the inverse route. “The night before he was betrayed…” what did he do? He said, “Instead of the bread and the wine, this is the lamb, and the lamb is a human being.” In other words he substituted a human being back into the centre of the sacrificial system as the priest, thus showing what the sacrificial system was really about, and so bringing it to an end.
Next, Fleming Rutledge:
This is the background of the Incarnation and mission of Jesus, the Lamb of God. He comes into a world full of religion, full of sacrifice, full of ritual as old as the race itself. In all these sacrifices, even including the ones that were instituted by the Holy One of Israel himself, there was a built-in problem.
In the sacrifices of the old covenant, precisely because they are offered over and over again, there is a daily reminder that sin continues. All over the world, throughout the history of humankind, sacrifices of all conceivable kinds have been offered to the gods -everything from flowers thrown into the sea to the blood of animals to human flesh. All over the world, throughout the history of mankind, there has been a sense that something was not right, something was missing, somebody wanted more, further compensation or propiation or expiation had to be attempted. And then it would have to be attempted again the week after, and the week after that…What sort of sacrifice would be efficacious once and for all?
Finally, I offer the following thoughts from the Pope Emeritus (Introduction to Christianity):
Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the Cross imagines a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, and one turns away in horror from a righteousness whose sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.
This is as false as it is widespread. In the Bible the Cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the Cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love that gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others. To anyone who looks more closely, the scriptural theology of the Cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralized and its whole scope seldom recognized. In other world religions, expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men. Almost all religions center around the problem of expiation: they arise out of man’s knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God. The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the Divinity and to put him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.
In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy. His righteousness is grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him correct. Here we stand before the twist that Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since, after all, it is they who have failed, not God. It says, on the contrary, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). This is truly something new, something unheard of-the starting point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the Cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the Incarnation, of the Cross.
What all of these quotes demonstrate is that there is something quite different-quite radical-about the Cross. Christianity is not a typical story of a sacrifice being made to the gods. On the contrary: In Christianity the initiative, the sacrifice, is made by God, in a demonstration of love (self-sacrifice, we learn, is the very essence of love). The Cross was intended to end blood sacrifice once and for all, though perhaps not sacrifice altogether (more of that anon). Most provocatively of all, classical Christianity makes clear that the sacrifice of the Cross is not for God’s benefit, much less is it necessary to meet some “need” on the Divine side. Sacrifice is a human need, in fact a defining anthropological feature. In fact, as we will see, sacrifice goes even deeper than anthropology. Suffice it to say, in Christianity God’s initiative, for our salvation, exploits our religio-sacrificial systems and blows them apart from the inside. This is far deeper, far more profound, than most of us realize.
II. THE CONTEXT OF SACRIFICE
Next, I’d like to reflect a bit on what our concept of sacrifice is. To make this point, I will turn to a rather surprising source: The (atheist) philosopher John Gray. Gray is one of relatively few contemporary atheists who understands that the concept of “progress” is as mythical as any religion, and without some sense of transcendence we can only understand human beings as a species of animal for which barbarism is inevitable. In his latest book, The Soul of the Marionette, Gray muses on human freedom and barbarism. He writes:
In order to feel a lack of freedom you must be a self-conscious being. But a puppet is a thing of wood and cloth, a human artifact without feeling or consciousness. A puppet has no soul. As a result, it cannot know it is unfree.
Humans cannot endure the grace of being such an animal. Neither the beast, nor the puppet, is cursed with self-reflective thought.
How could a puppet-a mechanical device without any trace of conscious awareness-be freer than a human being? Is it not this very awareness that marks us off from the rest of the world and enables us to choose our own path in life? …the automatism of the puppet is far from being a condition of slavery. Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom.
For the Aztecs the gods were forces of havoc in the world. Forever at risk of disruption, order was a thin veil stretched over chaos. No increase of knowledge or understanding could deliver human life from primordial disorder.
A belief in underlying chaos underpinned order through Aztec society. The violence of the state mirrored that of the cosmos and the gods. The Aztecs felt no shame in making a spectacle of killing. The population rejoiced ‘in the lines of the victims dragged or driven up the wide steps of the pyramids to meet the waiting priests…feted through the streets, to dance and die before the deities they represented…The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living.’
Such practices cannot help evoking horror. A way of life based on human slaughter can only be a type of barbarism. But barbarians may have something to teach those who think themselves civilized, and in this case they show how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers based their hopes of peace. Even the greatest realists among these thinkers base their account of order in society an account of human motivation that is far removed from reality.
Gray lucidly points out two things about humanity that are important for understanding our religio-sacrifical systems: Our consciousness is cursed with a burdensome self-reflectiveness that has alienated us from the ebb and flow of nature, and some of the most barbaric practices of sacrifice (the human sacrifices of the Aztecs) were in fact closer to nature (both human and otherwise) than us moderns are comfortable admitting (though, of course, the prophets of modernity are no less willing to make sacrifices of their own). Gray’s observation is hardly unique-intellectual lightweights like John Shelby Spong have made the same observation (I can think of no more charitable way to put it-Spong’s weak “theology” essentially amounts to saying that religion was a mechanism we invented to deal with our realization of impending death and no more).
David Bentley Hart draws out in further detail what Gray is describing. In his book The Doors of the Sea he acknowledges the beauty of the world, but adds
But at the same time, all the splendid loveliness of the natural world is everywhere attended-and indeed preserved-by death. All life feeds on life, each creature must yield its place in time to another, and at the heart of nature is a perpetual struggle to survive and increase at the expense of other beings. It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impressive majesty. Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life.
However one chooses to interpret it, the cosmos as we know it is obviously a closed economy of life and death.
To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality. As rational beings, we are conscious of a certain spiritual dignity or freedom or abnormality in our nature that has estranged us from this unbroken cosmic circle, that has made us historical beings, that has burdened us with an awareness of past and future, so with apprehension and grief; often sacrificial ceremonies and myths merely soothe the anguish of that estrangement by seeming to unite us again to the perennial order of all things.
In the Beauty of the Infinite he adds:
Totality is, of necessity, an economy, a circulation of substance, credit, power, and debt, a closed cycle of violence, a perpetual oscillation between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy. The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst an infinite ocean of violent energy…belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence with the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic-repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian energies, and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order-and economic-recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves.
The notion that the natural world has a “sacrificial” or “violent” character to it, while not something that we often reflect on today, is in fact quite obvious once we look a bit deeper. In his book Virus X Dr. Frank Ryan notes that the very essence of nature is “violent”:
The universe is surely not benign. The night sky, so seemingly peaceful, is permeated by unimaginable scenes of violence, where stars explode into supernovas and galaxies collide. We cannot forsake our future to chance, for the roulette wheel is the red tooth and claw of evolution.
Setting aside Dr. Ryan’s characteristically modern optimism about being able to beat the “roulette wheel” of evolution (I expect Gray would reply by saying that the game is rigged and the house will win), we must contend with the fact that there is a certain dreadful barbarism in nature. On at least some level, we recoil in horror. Annie Dillard makes this point humorously in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
This [natural] world running on chance and death, careening blindly from nowhere to nowhere, somehow produced wonderful us. I came from the world, I crawled out of a set of amino acids, and now I must whirl around and shake my fist at that sea and cry Shame!…Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I am a freak…There is not a person in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right or wrong in nature; right or wrong is a human concept! Precisely! We are moral creatures in an amoral world…Or consider the alternative…It is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss…All right then-it is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave…lobotomized, go back to the creek, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.
Of course, what this picture leaves out is that human nature is hardly a glowing beacon of moral light in an amoral tempest, there is as much chaos and violence within us as outside of us. In Hart’s words:
…humanity is no less a part of the natural order than earthquakes and floods, and the human propensity for malice should be no less a scandal to the conscience of the metaphysical optimist than the most violent convulsions of the physical world. What else human evil is, it is-considered apart from any religious doctrine-a cosmic constant, ceaselessly pouring forth from hidden springs of brute impulse and aimless will, driven by some deep prompting of nature as we know it, and so it raises all the same questions concerning the world and its maker that are raised by natural disasters.
What a curse, indeed, it is to be human. What a curse to be burdened with a level of consciousness that makes acutely aware of the violence of nature, of the violence latent within ourselves. What a curse to be burdened with the awareness of death. It is on this foundation, Hart insists, that we must understand religio-sacrificial thinking. The essence of sacrifice, in no small part, is nothing more than an observation of how nature works and an effort to anesthetize the curse of our consciousness so that we can again re-enter the rhythms of the world.
It is no surprise, therefore, that so much of ancient religion was barbaric, for the simple reason that nature is barbaric. Gray, more than most atheists of our day, understands the futility of a modernism that denies, minimizes or insists we can transcend of our own volition, the barbarism of nature. The ancients understood, far better than the prophets of post-Enlightenment thinking, the problems that accompany being human in this world. There is, of course, a third way between the resigned barbarism of the ancients and the willful blindness of us moderns, when it comes to this problem. That way is the Way of the Cross.
III. THE CROSS AS THEOLOGICAL SOLUTION
Christianity, at its roots, asserts two things about reality that are somewhat paradoxical (well, we assert much there than two). The two assertions here, however, are these. First, there is a sacrificial character to reality that is a good thing. And second, we live in a fallen world-both our consciousness, and the nature that surrounds us, are in, for all intents and purposes broken. I have previously mentioned that C.S. Lewis had spoken of a principle that he called “vicariousness.” Quoting from Miracles, I will let Lewis elaborate on what we calls
…a principle very deep-rooted in Christianity: what may be called the principle of Vicariousness. The Sinless Man suffers for the sinful, and, in their degree, all good men for all bad men. And this Vicariousness—no less than Death and Rebirth or Selectiveness—is also a characteristic of Nature. Self-sufficiency, living on one’s own resources, is a thing impossible in her realm. Everything is indebted to everything else, sacrificed to everything else, dependent on everything else. And here too we must recognize that the principle is in itself neither good nor bad. The cat lives on the mouse in a way I think bad: the bees and the flowers live on one another in a more pleasing manner. The parasite lives on its ‘host’: but so also the unborn child on its mother. In social life without Vicariousness there would be no exploitation or oppression; but also no kindness or gratitude. It is a fountain both of love and hatred, both of misery and happiness. When we have understood this we shall no longer think that the depraved examples of Vicariousness in Nature forbid us to suppose that the principle itself is of divine origin.
Throughout this doctrine it is, of course, implied that Nature is infested with evil. Those great key-principles which exist as modes of goodness in the Divine Life, take on, in her operations, not merely a less perfect form (that we should, on any view, expect) but forms which I have been driven to describe as morbid or depraved. And this depravity could not be totally removed without the drastic remaking of Nature. Complete human virtue could indeed banish from human life all the evils that now arise in it from Vicariousness and Selectiveness and retain only the good: but the wastefulness and painfulness of nonhuman Nature would remain—and would, of course, continue to infect human life in the form of disease. And the destiny which Christianity promises to man clearly involves a ‘redemption’ or ‘remaking’ of Nature which could not stop at Man, or even at this planet. We are told that ‘the whole creation’ is in travail, and that Man’s rebirth will be the signal for hers. This gives rise to several problems, the discussion of which puts the whole doctrine of the Incarnation in a clearer light.
In the first place, we ask how the Nature created by a good God comes to be in this condition? By which question we may mean either how she comes to be imperfect—to leave ‘room for improvement’ as the schoolmasters say in their reports—or else, how she comes to be positively depraved. If we ask the question in the first sense, the Christian answer (I think) is that God, from the first, created her such as to reach her perfection by a process in time. He made an Earth at first ‘without form and void’ and brought it by degrees to its perfection. In this, as elsewhere, we see the familiar pattern—descent from God to the formless Earth and reascent from the formless to the finished. In that sense a certain degree of ‘evolutionism’ or ‘developmentalism’ is inherent in Christianity. So much for Nature’s imperfection; her positive depravity calls for a very different explanation. According to the Christians this is all due to sin: the sin both of men and of powerful, non-human beings, super-natural but created. The unpopularity of this doctrine arises from the widespread Naturalism of our age—the belief that nothing but Nature exists and that if anything else did she is protected from it by a Maginot Line—and will disappear as this error is corrected. To be sure, the morbid inquisitiveness about such beings which led our ancestors to a pseudo-science of Demonology, is to be sternly discouraged: our attitude should be that of the sensible citizen in wartime who believes that there are enemy spies in our midst but disbelieves nearly every particular spy story. We must limit ourselves to the general statement that beings in a different, and higher ‘Nature’ which is partially interlocked with ours have, like men, fallen and have tampered with things inside our frontier. The doctrine, besides proving itself fruitful of good in each man’s spiritual life, helps to protect us from shallowly optimistic or pessimistic views of Nature. To call her either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is boys’ philosophy. We find ourselves in a world of transporting pleasures, ravishing beauties, and tantalising possibilities, but all constantly being destroyed, all coming to nothing. Nature has all the air of a good thing spoiled.
I included the quotations at the end about demonic influence on the universe, because I myself actually believe that the universe has been under the influence of dark, unseen powers (something that would utterly shock many people who know me). That, however, is not the point here (by the way what Lewis describes as “developmentalism” is perfectly compatible with paragraph # 310 of the Catechism). Whether one likes the language of demonology or not, Lewis has explained well the classical Christian assessment of nature: It is a good thing gone bad. The sense that our consciousness is out of place in this world, according to classical Christianity, is 100% correct.
With this understanding we must see the idea of sacrifice, and with it the Cross, in a new light. As I so often do, I yield the floor to the Pope Emeritus (Introduction to Christianity):
Being a Christian means essentially changing over from being for oneself to being for one another.
John expressed the whole thing in an image borrowed from nature…the horizon widens out beyond anthropology and salvation to include the cosmic: what is here called the basic structure of Christian life already represents, at bottom, the stamp of the creation itself. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Even on the cosmic plane the law holds good that life comes only through death, through loss of self. What is thus hinted at in the creation is fulfilled in man and finally in the man par excellence, Jesus Christ: by embracing the fate of the grain of wheat, by going through the process of being sacrificed, by letting himself be broken down and by losing himself, he opens up access to true life. The findings of the history of religion, which precisely at this point approach very close to the testimony of the Bible, would also justify one in saying that the world lives on sacrifice. Those great myths that assert that the cosmos was built up out of an original sacrifice and that the cosmos only goes on existing through self-sacrifice, that it is dependent on sacrifice, are her confirmed as true and valid.
What Ratzinger is describing here is what Catholics refer to as “grace perfecting nature.” Put another way, on one level the Cross works with the grain of the universe, embracing the principle of vicariousness (note how close Ratzinger and Lewis are in their verbiage). Ratzinger channels Lewis in speaking of the “good dreams” of those ancient religions-those religions burdened with barbaric understandings of sacrifice nonetheless had an understanding of the nature of reality that was foreshadowing the Cross.
But the Cross is not merely an affirmation of the nature we know. Far from it. Even in embracing the way of sacrifice, Christ was also taking on a fallen and depraved nature at its very roots. Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, explains:
The cross of Christ is not, after all, simply an eternal validation of pain and death, but their overthrow. If all the tribulations of this world were to be written off as calculably necessary contributions to redemption – part of the great “balance” of things – then Christ’s sacrifice would not be a unique saving act so much as the metaphysical ground for a universe of “sacrifice;’ wherein suffering and death are part of the sublime and inevitable fabric of finitude; and divine providence would be indistinguishable from fate.
…how radically we must understand the sacrifice of Christ on the cross not as an act of divine impotence but of divine power. The cross most definitely is not an instance of God submitting himself to an irresistible force so as to define himself in his struggle with nothingness or so as to be “rescued” from his impassibility by becoming our fellow sufferer; but neither is it a vehicle whereby God reconciles either himself or us to death. Rather, he subverts death, and makes a way through it to a new life. The cross is thus a triumph of divine apatheia, limitless and immutable love sweeping us up into itself, taking all suffering and death upon itself without being changed, modified, or defined by it, and so destroying its power and making us, by participation in Christ, “more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37). God does not simply submit himself to the cycle of natural necessity or to the dialectic of historical necessity but shatters the power of both, and thereby overthrows the ancient principalities, the immemorial empire of death. Easter utterly confounds the “rulers of this age” (i Cor. 2:8), and in fact reverses the verdict they have pronounced upon Christ, thereby revealing ing that the cosmic, sacred, political, and civic powers of all who condemn Christ have become tyranny, falsehood, and injustice. Easter is an act of “rebellion” against all false necessity and all illegitimate or misused authority, all cruelty and heartless chance. It liberates us from servitude to and terror before the “elements:” It emancipates us from fate. It overcomes the “world:’ Easter should make rebels of us all.
The Cross, in other words, subverts and destroys the barbaric economy of sacrifice that simply “goes along with” the fallen world. Our understanding of sacrifice is blown to bits from the inside. God has used the fallen nature of the world, and our own flawed systems of sacrifice, to open the way of salvation. Indeed, it should make rebels of us all. Ratzinger and Hart, in other words, are each speaking to the opposite poles of the paradox that Lewis describes.
IV. FINAL THOUGHTS
What is it like, then, to live the Christian Way, where the Cross is seen as using and subverting our notions of religio-sacrifice to point the way beyond the vagaries of this fallen world? Well, it changes religion for one (blood sacrifices come to an end). For another, to use the words of James Alison, we are faced with
…a real anthropological event, something which has had definitive effects in the sphere of being human, one which has not left everything the same.
I offer, in summation, two thoughts on what this new way of being of human entails. First, it is a path guided by what the Bible calls Wisdom. Rowan Williams offers us some valuable insight:
One of the paradoxes of what is called the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is that it returns constantly to the idea of wisdom’s inaccessibility. It can’t be bought; it can’t be discovered lying around; it can’t even be unearthed by effort and skill. The book of Job presents the most ironic conclusion of all— the wisdom of God is seen only in the full range of the world’s variety, including its arbitrariness, its senselessness. The wise Creator savagely boasts to Job of the lack of moral order in things, when Job has demanded evidence of justice. The very literature that celebrates the perception of harmony in things ends up subverting its own language. The more you train yourself to look for the order of things, the more the arbitrariness of the world strikes painfully. When you have been disciplined to look for order, the savagery of the world, the empty pointlessness of phenomena, however regular and describable, come into more merciless focus.
Is “wisdom” then precisely this double perception— not merely the identifying of an order in things but the clear awareness of an absence, a question, an unsettlement about the moral import of what we see? Perhaps the point of studying the world to find its harmonies is to discover where harmony is an inappropriate and useless category, as if, when you set side by side the structure of the DNA molecule and the death of a child from famine, you will at least understand that explanation is not the way to respond to the latter. When a death has been explained— by the analysis of the biology of starvation or disease, by economics, by history— it remains, or should remain, unassimilable, a bruise, a challenge. The more we see what is involved in the material rationality of the world, the more we see it is that kind of rationality that is lacking in the moral world, the world where we ask about making sense of the fate of persons, subjects like ourselves.
The order of things that wisdom presses toward is not a static pattern that can be safely contemplated from a distance, but a continual bringing forth of life: it is not possible to look for explanation in the moral world, but it may be possible to hope for a future. If, as we look at a morally disordered world, we ask not “What is its explanation? How do we make a pattern of this?” but “What is its future? What is to be made of this?”, we begin to address a challenge to ourselves. Wisdom leads toward that question poised between the theoretical and the practical. “What may we hope for?” a question which inevitably turns into the question of how I as a person make contact with the generative resource, the grace of reality. It becomes a question about my own transformation— my conversion, if you will. “To depart from evil is understanding.”
This is the Wisdom by which the “rebels of Easter” live their lives. Second, Miroslav Volf gives us a fine summary of how we rebels embrace the world around us:
There is a profound wisdom about the nature of our world in the simple credo of the early church “that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15: 3). At the core of Christian faith lies the claim that God entered history and died on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ for an unjust and deceitful world. In taking upon himself the sin of the world, God told the truth about the deceitful world and enthroned justice in an unjust world. When God was made sin in Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 21), the world of deceit and injustice was set aright. Sins were atoned for. The cry of the innocent blood was attended to. Since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Corinthians 5: 17) it is possible to live the new world in the midst of the old in an act of gratuitous forgiveness without giving up the struggle for truth and justice. One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement. In the wake of Girard’s theory of scapegoating, James G. Williams has argued in The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred that in the biblical texts” sacrificial language is used, necessarily, in order to break out of a sacrificial view of the world” (Williams 1991, 224); I believe, instead, that the biblical texts narrate how God has necessarily used the sacrificial mechanism to remake the world into a place in which the need to sacrifice others could be eschewed-a new world of self-giving grace, a world of embrace.
We are a million miles away from the loathsome parody of atonement, vigorously affirmed by the Jack Chicks of the world, in which God sacrifices Himself to Himself, a view that remains trapped in simple and barbaric views of sacrifice. The classical Christian view inverts everything we know about sacrifice. One can never possibly overstate its radicality.
- I am not denying that the Atonement was necessary because we are sinners, much less trying to avoid the idea that we are responsible for our actions or the depths of the sacrifice that occurred at Calvary (God forbid). What I am stressing is that the picture is far bigger and more complex than the Chickian picture. Admittedly here I am placing my emphasis on some unusual spots, but again, none of this denies the centrality of sin.
- David Bentley Hart expounds on his comments in The Doors of the Sea more extensively in this video.
- I had wanted to address Rene Girard’s concept of the scapegoating mechanism and the “Forgiving Victim” (a concept beautifully expounded on by James Alison) but could not find a way to work it in here (plus the essay would be even longer than the monstrosity it is). Volf makes a slight dig at Girard in the end and Hart was rather sharply critical of Girard in Beauty of the Infinite. For my part, I believe that Girard’s take is an invaluable contribution to both anthropology and theology, and is an essential component of understanding the Christ-Event. I would daresay it is reconcilable with, and complementary to, everything I have suggested here. I would posit there is only a problem if Girard is taken to be a “fifth evangelist” or an indispensable lens for the Gospel. His contribution, valuable as it is, does not exhaust the Gospel. (I also had wanted to quote Moltmann’s The Crucified God here as well, but space did not permit).
- In case it is not obvious, I consider John Gray’s views to be both an accurate assessment of the world and a far more logically consistent assessment of the human condition that most atheists are willing to give. Among other things, Gray also understands that the human obsession with meaning cannot be written off as easily as many of the New Atheists would like (in his words “Alone among the animals, human seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams”). His views, accurate as they may be, are relativized by Christianity. As Williams stated above, only the Resurrection can ultimately give true grounds for Hope.
- For those worried that I am bordering on the heretical, I offer in final-final summation Fr. Barron’s thoughts on the nature of sacrifice in the Eucharist:
A fundamental biblical principle is that in a world gone wrong there is no communion without sacrifice. This is true because sin has twisted us out of shape, and therefore intimacy with God will involve a twisting back into shape, a painful realignment, a sacrifice. And this is why, on a biblical reading, covenant is almost invariably associated with sacrifice. God chooses Abraham and establishes a covenant with him—and then he asks him to offer animals as a holocaust; he chooses Moses and through him sets up the Sinai covenant—and then he asks him to slaughter oxen and splash their blood on the altar and on the people; he cuts (the typical biblical word) a covenant with David and then sets up the Jerusalem Temple where hundreds of thousands of animals were, for many centuries, offered up. Mind you, God has no need of these sacrifices; he’s no pagan deity somehow mollified by our liturgical rites. As we have seen in chapter three, the true God has no need of anything at all. The point is that we need sacrifice in order to reorder us and thereby restore communion with God. God is said to be pleased with our sacrifice precisely to the extent that it makes us more fully alive. In an animal sacrifice, a person took one small aspect of God’s creation and returned it to its source in order to signal his gratitude for the gift of his own existence and indeed the existence of the world. This acknowledgment of God’s primacy is not easy for a sinner, and therefore it is entirely appropriate that sacrifice involves blood and death. The one who performs the sacrifice sees acted out in the suffering of the animal his own suffering; he is vicariously being twisted back into right relation with the source of his existence. All of this corresponds to what John Paul II termed “the law of the gift,” the spiritual principle that one’s being increases in the measure that one gives it away. What is given back to God, sacrificed to him, breaks against the rock of the divine self-sufficiency and returns for the benefit of the one who has made the offering. Sacrifice produces communion. This is the distinctive logic that undergirds the Liturgy of the Eucharist.