Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sacrifice: Appeasing Zeus vs. a Loving, Merciful God

Someone I know emailed me about a poetry professor who gave a presentation in class and mentioned that he has an "issue with sacrifice." From the email: "particularly Christ's death on the cross. [The professor] seemed to equate Jesus' sacrifice to the Father with sacrificing an animal to Zeus, trying to appease an angry and jealous god instead of one who can [sic] loving and merciful." My friend wanted to know what I had to say about that, how I'd respond and explain the difference, etc. I thought I might as well include my response here.


The professor's "issue" with sacrifice is probably less theological-philosophical than it is psychological, i.e. there is an "issue" from the past that makes the idea of sacrifice difficult for him. Did he have an "angry and jealous" parent who acted like a Zeus, demanding sacrifice of some kind? Perhaps it was the "Father"? Without further information, who knows? So that's the first thing.

The second matter is the difference between God and Zeus. Zeus is a fiction of the mind, and even if Zeus existed (hard to prove since there aren't many people getting zapped or raped by huge swans, etc.), he would be only a creature, albeit a powerful one. And actually the Greeks believed that their "gods" were physical, so he wouldn't even been that far up in the hierarchy of beings because angels (and hence demons) are above physical beings and far more powerful. God, on the other hand, is the pure, self-sustaining act of existence itself. Big difference, in fact, an infinite difference.

A sacrifice to Zeus is meaningless because Zeus can't do squat, even if he existed. All he could do would be to threaten us, in which case, sacrifice means appeasing him like an abusive parent who has power over a helpless child.

God on the other hand is pure mercy and pure justice. The idea of mercy is meaningless without the idea of justice after all. Just try to define what exactly mercy is without referring in some way to justice. Mercy, after all, is pardoning someone who doesn't DESERVE to be pardoned; that is, it overrides justice.

Here's where it gets interesting. Sin is an offense against God and hence an offense not only against pure justice but also against pure mercy. The degree of evil is determined by the act, the person committing the evil, and the victim of the evil. In this case, God is the "victim" (although God doesn't actually suffer in any way, God deserves honor and respect instead of rejection by the nature of his being). Sin is a rejection of love. So a sin, no matter how small it seems to us, is an infinite offense because it attempts to violate infinite mercy and justice. Hence Cardinal Newman said quite strikingly,
"The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."
A farthing was one of the smallest units of currency, by the way, like our penny.

And who would deny that pure justice and mercy should be respected, even if those are merely ideals in our heads?

But remember this key: mercy is impossible to conceive without some notion of justice. Hence, without justice, there is no such thing as mercy. Mercy becomes valuable only insofar as the degree of justice to be administered increases. The more that justice demands, the more merciful the pardon.

Now a sin is an infinite offense. Therefore, any pardon of an infinite offense is an infinite act of mercy. And that is the sacrifice that Christ made. An animal couldn't make it because an animal would just be a victim, literally a scapegoat, where we get the idea of scapegoat today. A sin is a personal act, an act of free will. Hence a human has to make reparation who can freely choose God again. But the one offended is God, so that act of reparation must be infinite. But only God can make an act that is infinite. So the human making reparation to God has to in some way be infinite. Hence in Christ the humanity and divinity were united in one person so that justice could be satisfied. And here's the twist: the same act of satisfying the justice of God was the way that God showed us infinite mercy in pardoning us for every past, present, and future sin. In the Crucifixion is infinite justice and mercy at the same time. It satisfies justice, and in so doing, it bestows mercy.

Because, after all, if we commit sin, we're in the pickle of being unable to do anything to satisfy justice. And we certainly don't deserve forgiveness.

But, could God have simply forgiven us without going through the Crucifixion? Yes. But it was more fitting that God become like us, suffer like us, die like us, to show us an example. In our fallen state, when we are so prone to selfishness and revenge rather than justice, hardness of heart rather than mercy, we need a model of what true humanity looks like, how tall it can stand when it is virtuous and noble.

Because—here's the second interesting thing—St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that to call sin an offense against God is true but incomplete. Sin is wrong not only because it offends God but because it hurts us, it destroys us, it is contrary to what it means to be fully human. A plant needs water, nutrition, air, and sunlight to grow well. A human has specific physical and spiritual needs. On the spiritual level, the human needs virtue. Virtue alone will make us truly human.

Hence God's act of satisfying justice and bestowing mercy was a double act of mercy. If God simply said, "I forgive you," we would still be left in our same darkness, with no guide as to how to live our lives. But God Himself showed us how we are to find our proper fulfillment, and it is through sacrifice.

Victimization, which is suffering without desiring it, is not sacrifice. Sacrifice is accepting all suffering that comes necessarily from doing the right thing, the thing that will make the individual and those around him more human. Hence, sacrifice is the core of love, and sacrificial love is the core of the family. The family is the core of society. Without sacrifice, love is simply attraction rather than mutual consideration. Without love, the family is simply a game of manipulation. Without family, the society is bored, aimless, and selfish. Without society, there can be no civilization, no leisure, and hence no freedom. Christ freely embraced the suffering that would come.

The Gospel is the most powerful story because it is the story of what happens when infinite Love enters our world. We crucify and reject it because in fact we don't want love. We like Frank Sinatra's song "I Did It My Way." That's why the Gospel is the most poignant story and why every good story is good insofar as it resembles the Gospel. Even B-movie entertainment is good because it resembles the Gospel—we like to see people kicking butt and taking names. Christ did that to Satan. We see huge power, tremendous struggles, high stakes. All of that is in the Gospel. At the heart of it is the notion of sacrifice, which is simply—I'm not a rock. I'm not an island. The only way for me to be happy as a human is to be selfless, to help others, to give consideration to others, to "do unto others what I would have them do unto me." That's love.

In fact, mercy is a sacrifice. I sacrifice the demands of justice and my personal satisfaction at seeing justice administered in order to show mercy. A poetry professor who doesn't understand that must be pretty bad at poetry...

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