"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On Misunderstanding Sacrifice

I have just finished reading and being edified by Terry Eagleton's newest book, Radical Sacrifice (Yale UP, 2018), 204pp.

Eagleton, for those who don't know him, is a wide-ranging and prolific theorist, literary scholar, and cultural critic who comes out of that always-fascinating world of the post-war British left. But unlike others whom one might mention here--the late Christopher Hitchens, say, or the tiresome pamphleteer Richard Dawkins--Eagleton has a Catholic background which shows up in some of his many books, including this one, where his grasp of both Scripture and theology is impressive and far outstrips many other academics who try to write about these matters.

In this regard, he is part of the world shaped by the late Herbert McCabe, and still populated by the great Alasdair MacIntyre. All three of these men, in ways that seem depressingly rare, understand the radical nature of the gospels and the fact that, properly understood and lived, Christianity is revolutionary in overturning so much of the neoliberal capitalism and violence of our world today. All three have sought to show (as, discussing McCabe and MacIntyre, I also did a bit here and here; and as Dorothy Day also did--for more on her see the book that Lance Richey and I edited for the splendidly named Solidarity Hall Press) that the relationship between Christianity and Marxism is far less antagonistic than has often been portrayed.

Christianity, as Eagleton, McCabe, MacIntyre, and Day have helped us to see, is also far more critical of the capitalistic world than most Christians realize. Every Christian, instead of making placards with John 3:16 on them to wave at sports events, should instead write this to chasten and harrow players (and their corporate sponsors) making millions for whacking balls and pucks around: "Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them." If they have especially big placards, they can put the whole quote from MacIntyre:
Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.
Getting back to Eagleton's new book, I would note that among its several virtues, it makes some necessary and, it seems to me, overdue criticisms of parts of Girard's theories about sacrifice, mimesis, and the scapegoat. Eagleton, greatly respecting Girard's insights and achievements, nonetheless rightly says that, inter alia, Girard often greatly exaggerates, provides too few concrete historical examples, and ignores questions of class.

Eagleton begins by noting that the notion of sacrifice is too little understood today and too often derided based on narrow, incomplete, or outright faulty notions. So the first part of the book is an exercise in clearing the ground to help us move beyond the idea that sacrifice means nothing more than "the voluntary relinquishing of what one finds valuable. But renunciation is only one feature of sacrifice, and not always the most prominent" (3). As he goes on to say, "sacrifice cannot be reduced to self-denial" (4). It is, rather, a "polythetic term, encompassing a range of activities that have no single feature in common." If this is true in general, a fortiori it is so in Christianity where it "spans a number of activities (praise, thanksgiving, prayer, witness, peacemaking, dedication to God and the like)" (6).

What makes Christian notions and practices of sacrifice even more unique, as Eagleton notes later in the book, is their lavish, superabundant, extravagant, and promiscuous nature: turning the other cheek, returning good for evil, blessing those who curse us, forgiving seventy times seven, etc. In doing all these things, Christians are engaged in "eschatological forms of excess--absurdist, avant-gardist, over-the-top gestures foreshadowing a future in which exchange-value will have been surpassed for what Paul Ricoeur terms 'an economy of superabundance'" (104).

Incidentally, this theme of superabundance puts me in mind of Hans Urs von Balthasar's winsome sermon for Trinity Sunday that I have often read to my students over the years where he says:
God is not a sealed fortress, to be attacked and seized by our engines of war (ascetic practices, meditative techniques, and the like) but a house full of open doors, through which we are invited to walk. In the Castle of the Three-in-One, the plan has always been that we, those who are entirely "other," shall participate in the superabundant communion of life. 
With an eye on anthropological work, especially that of another fascinating British Catholic and highly regarded scholar, Mary Douglas (whose book, Natural Symbols, should be required reading for liturgists, inter alia), Eagleton looks at sacrifice in a number of cultures, ancient and modern, and finds there common themes of power and the exchange of powers, especially with a divine figure or figures. There is, here and elsewhere, a paradox at work: to sacrifice something is in some instances to be able to go on to possess it more deeply later and in different ways. So what looks like a loss initially is often but the gateway to a much deeper and more powerful grasp of it, or by it, later on.

With a second eye on the Old Testament in particular, Eagleton notes that it generally takes a dim if not hostile view of sacrifice at least insofar as it is thought to be a means of averting God's gaze from injustice or a cheap trinket thought to appease divine wrath in the face of unchanged and unjust behavior. (See, e.g., much of Jeremiah or Micah.) This leads Eagleton on, in the next chapter, to argue that sacrifice-as-suffering cannot be blithely endorsed for others to endure, let alone forced to volunteer for: "Jesus never once counsels the diseased and disabled who flock around him to reconcile themselves to their misfortune" (38).

This is an especially important thing for Catholics to hear who may be inclined, as the Church often is, towards a passive siding with reactionary regimes whose injustices are downplayed while people are told to "offer up" various sacrifices of poverty, human rights, and injustice. In doing so, Christianity, whether inadvertently or not, presses its ascetical tradition into the service of profit and the violence that so often attends profiteers and capitalists: "Asceticism, Marx considers, is an integral part of a profit-driven social order" (180, referring to the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). (For more on this, see my notion of an "ascetical politics" which I discussed in three parts here by drawing on the fascinating and valuable work of Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis.)

But that is not to say that voluntary acceptance of injustice and suffering is without merit. Indeed, in the example of Christ Himself voluntarily accepting the horrors of arrest, torture, and crucifixion, we come once again to the notion of sacrifice as an exchange of powers enabling one to go far deeper and far beyond what one otherwise could have done. Here Mary Douglas is pressed into service, when she notes (in Purity and Danger) that "when someone freely embraces the symbols of death, or death itself,...a great release of power for good should be expected to follow." Nowhere is that more true than in the case of Christ.

In addition to his work on Marx, Eagleton has also read Freud (and Lacan, inter alia) very perceptively, which most people today seem incapable of doing. This allows him to say--without, alas, developing it to the extent I wished--that the silence of the Father faced with His Son on the Cross "may be compared to the silence of the psychoanalyst who refuses the role of Big Other or transcendental guarantor" (41). (One thing it took me a long time on the couch to realize was that such silence was not neglect or lack of interest on the part of the remarkable woman who was my analyst. It was, rather, the very condition of freedom, and a very necessary reminder that the responsibility for the authorship of our lives must not mindlessly be handed over to others, tempting though that often is for many of us--cf. both Fromm and Winnicott on this point--as well as Adam Phillips.)

Here as elsewhere, Eagleton, discussing notions of sin, puts these Christian theological claims into dialogue with Freud and his notion of the death drive. Picking up a theme--that of desire--that one finds increasingly today in a good deal of work in philosophy, theology, and psychology, Eagleton notes that "desire itself can become ritualized and automated, assuming all the coercive, anonymous force of a law. If Freud names this condition neurosis, Paul gives it the title of sin, which he regards as a matter of the unconscious. When I sin, he writes in Romans, 'I do not understand my own actions'" (47). In this light, sin is a fake floor or false consciousness that prevents us from having access to and "being aware of our true desire" (48).

Eagleton, however, later turns the death drive around in a way that perhaps only a Christian could to argue that "there is a sense in which the death drive, striving to defeat the flow of temporality with its compulsive repetitions, represents a way of being undead, and so lies on the side of the living" (95).

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