The Rejected Sublime — Reading Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice

I’ve had the pleasure of reading Terry Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice, wherein Eagleton attempts to reorient his readers to the concept of sacrifice itself.

First carefully discarding the bastardized concept of sacrifice used to keep abused individuals in toxic situations (an abusive relationship, for instance), he points out that modern individuals have largely lost their conceptual sense of sacrifice altogether. The fact that, upon hearing sacrifice, our minds often conjure an abused partner warped by the notion that true sacrifice, even love, is to remain in an abusive situation, tells Eagleton that we have lost our definitions. Perhaps more interestingly, we have broken stride with the ancient meaning of sacrifice, for which Eagleton himself seems to have mixed feelings.

Focusing largely on the Judeo-Christian tradition as handed down by the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and largely Western commentators, Eagleton thus undertakes the task of exploring sacrifice in the context of tragedy and heroism. Though he focuses on Jesus in particular, one should not mistake Eagleton for another provincial writer. A Marxist critic through and through, rather than raise one cultural hero above all others, Eagleton is instead concerned with discerning what Jesus may symbolize of our universal human condition, including our struggles.

Were I to review Radical Sacrifice, I would recommend it unequivocally. Though Eagleton and I may not see eye to eye in all things (and I would have it no other way; how else would I learn?), this latest addition to his bibliography is well worth the time of any reader interested in revolutionary politics, ideology, or even the Christian narrative. Rather than evaluate the merits of Eagleton’s work, I’ve instead experienced it for myself; and in lieu of a review, I have opted to share a stream of insights I gained from reading Radical Sacrifice.

What follows is far from a sermon, though it may in part read that way. Yet it will not read much like a rational argument either. Instead what follows is a semi-organized flow of ideas, each nested in and growing out of Eagleton’s Radical Sacrifice. I share the following in the same spirit (though with little if any of the charm) of Alan Watts, who once described the ideas of one of his lectures like this:

“I’m not trying to sell you on this idea in the sense of converting you to it; I want you to play with it. I want you to think of its possibilities. I’m not trying to prove it, I’m just putting it forward as a possibility of life to think about.”

With that, this is what I got from playing with Radical Sacrifice.

Homo Sacer, Or the Rejection of Rejection

There are a lot of different images of Jesus in the world — but few of them, I’d imagine, the Romans would consider worth crucifying.

Jesus was considered a rabble-rouser by the state. He was crucified as lestai, a Greek word often rendered “thief” or even “bandit,” but which is more accurately “insurgent” or “insurrectionist.” He was crucified with other insurrectionists, of whom there were many then.

Many imagine an intensely loving Jesus, but one who ultimately says and does nothing that would raise the dander of the Romans. Others, for some time, have toyed with the idea that Jesus may have been a militant, leading a band of armed insurrectionists against Roman occupation. Yet neither the Jesus who demands nothing but squeamish capitulation nor the Jesus who demands bloody revolution are sufficient to capture the historical Jesus. The former would have never found himself on a cross; the latter’s disciples would have been made to join him on crosses of their own. Jesus was one who believed down to the marrow of his bones in what we might call “at-one-ment,” over against the “sacrificial logic” by which we most naturally live our lives and build our societies.

So much of our identities, and of our quotidian experiences, are predicated on negation, that which we exclude. Slavoj Zizek often tells a joke of a man who enters a cafe and orders “coffee without milk”; the waiter tells him, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of milk. We have cream — would you like coffee without cream?” There’s obviously no difference between coffee without milk and coffee without cream, but in ideology, identity, or even something as normal as this very moment, there is very much a difference: we strive to be, and construct our lives upon, what we are as much as what we claim we are not.

I am this, because I am not that.

I enjoy this moment because this is so, and because that is not.

We are safe because of this, and not because of that.

We are good because we are us, and because we are not evil them.

Society is stable because we are dominant, and they are subservient.

This is good because that is bad. We are good because they are bad. I am good because you are bad.

Things work because we are first and the last are not.

We build everything from ourselves, our present moment, our cultures, and our societies on this negation — debating the merits of coffee-without-milk over coffee-without-cream. Jesus, by contrast, is the one who knows how to just enjoy a cup of coffee. Jesus goes to those whom his society considers the necessarily outcast: lepers, who must be sacrificed for our health; tax-collectors, who must be sacrificed for our independence; sex workers, who must be sacrificed for our chastity; Samaritans, who must be sacrificed for our faith; Romans, who must be sacrificed for our freedom and integrity. Jesus refuses this sacrificial logic, this negation we dress in from head to toe, and instead embraces those elements which society has turned into strangers, whether through contempt or seeming necessity.

Jesus teaches to not only salute your “brethren” who already salute you or to love those who already love you, but to also bless even those that curse you and to love even your enemies. He says the Son of Man will judge the wheat from the tares by whether they visited those elements which it is most easy to neglect or even reject — the strange, old, needy, even criminal.

There’s a logic I often encounter, those who say, “Well, Jesus spent time with prostitutes and tax-collectors, sure, but he never condoned their actions!” in order to justify their own private judgments and negations. But it would seem we have more than two options here: 1) Sanctimoniously shaking our heads at those elements whom we’ve cut off and sacrificed for “the greater good”; 2) emulating them, thus only inverting the problem of negation; or 3) following Jesus’ method, and embracing others as they are, without either rejecting that otherness or cannibalizing it.

Jesus’ response seems to be neatly summed up as love through vulnerability. As Paul Tillich summarized, love is not something you do “because of” anything (that’s liking someone), but “despite” everything — love, like mercy or grace, is by definition unconditional, unearned, but given. And such love requires vulnerability because it can be quite painful, given that it requires one to accept another not for who they “ought” to be, but for who they are; to embrace circumstances not for what they “should/could” be, but for what they are. There is nothing else but that reality which we are so often attempting to dissect, divide, and delineate, from which we cause more pain trying to escape than embrace. In the spirit of Jean-Luc Marion, Jesus spent less time hand-wringing over what was given to him, and instead embraced the givenness of it all.

This vulnerability must not be confused with “over sharing,” or, worse yet, with capitulating to oppressors or abusers. As Brené Brown puts it, “over-sharing” can be a way of refusing to be vulnerable: “I’ll tell you the most ‘controversial’ things about me, so you have nothing with which to judge me!” In a similar vein, accepting an abusive relationship or oppressive situation more often means deception by the abuser or oppressor than genuine love for the abused or oppressed; it may also require the abused or oppressed to repress their own suffering, in order to sustain the image of a stable relationship or society.

The love Jesus teaches is a love that sees clearly, and refuses to “take a side” if that means rejecting one person over another, for the simple fact that such sacrificial logic was how we entered this mess in the first place — telling ourselves life would be so much better were this or that element, or this or that person, or this or that demographic were to just disappear.

Jesus identifies with the stranger, the rejected, the ones whom any of us wish would just disappear. He’s the stone the builders rejected, retaking his place at the center; the one made last finding his way to being the first. As Eagleton puts it, to the world in which he lives, “Jesus is ungeheuerhomo sacer, an outcast animal or contaminated creature with no ordained place in the cosmic or symbolic order.” From this place of exile, Jesus confronts the worst in us with the best in us. He fights oppression with acceptance, deceit with truth, hatred with love, resentment with forgiveness, nihilism with inspiration, isolation with communion, shame with embrace, delusion with reality — and death with absolute presence. Rejecting the oppressive tools and methods of the militant and imperial, says Eagleton, “The Father does indeed respond … by raising [Jesus] from the dead in contemptuous defiance of the powers of this world. As such, God is revealed … as a form of transcendence in solidarity with failure and infirmity, and thus in revolt against the death-dealing Law that has brought his son to this pass.” Overcoming evil and death with their complements, rather than overcoming agents who may utilize these things by military force, God demonstrates that “the oppressive patriarch in this scenario is not God but the imperial Roman state and its satraps.”

Philip Barlow describes it like this:

“ God’s response to … is actually a mediating one between those who, like Unitarians, disparage the abyss and clutch of sin, and those who, like Luther, have looked so deeply at it that they have despaired of human dignity. Christ transcends both views. The potential evil of a human is of such a depth that the Son of God died in the flesh to confront it. The potential good of a human is of such a height that the Son of God lived in the flesh to reveal it.”

Jesus died to show us the depth of our own capacity for sin, to show us just what we do to each other, what we do to an element we reject when it attempts to reassert itself; and he lived to show us the virtue we’re capable of, that grace is, though a deviation from our norms, not an intrusion, but our most natural mode of being. Or, to use Eagleton’s description:

“Jesus himself is the bit of trash or excremental remainder that the symbolic order proves unable to accommodate and thus expels as so much garbage, but which in its very abjection exposes that order’s lacunae and limitations. In doing so, it also discloses the possibility of a new dispensation, as the revolutionary Passover from the old to the new transforms the coordinates of the existing symbolic order. … What escapes the symbolic order is what is too trivial to be represented there, but also too sublime. Only by being reduced to negativity can Jesus become an authentic sign of the godhead. Only by being flayed and mutilated can he fully assume the role of Son of God.”

Eagleton adds elsewhere:

“What is revolutionary about the death of Jesus is … that it lays bare the barbarism of the ruling powers. The purity of the victim is no longer that of doves or calves, … but is that of the blameless just, on whose heads a virulent political aggression is unleashed. …

“[The Letter to the] Hebrews sees Jesus as having entered into the forbidden precinct of the Temple, a place reserved for the priestly caste, and in doing so dismantling from within that hallowed enclave the very distinction between sacred and secular, thus consigning the protocols of this venerable site to the ashcan of history. A bloody political murder now occupies the place of the Holy of Holies. ”

Further, what is described in the New Testament, and in Eagleton’s own work, is not an event to be neatly relegated to the past, entirely accomplished and thus negligible. “Sacred times and places are now at an end, since martyrdom can happen anywhere,” Eagleton asserts, “and all those who can recognise themselves in this bloody business are potential martyrs, baptised into Jesus’s death.” Similarly, the rejected Gospel of Philip describes Christians who believed that though others say Jesus died then was resurrected, that they instead know that he was first resurrected, then died. And in my own native Mormonism, the Book of Mormon’s Jarom describes pre-Christian people experiencing the Messiah “as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11). Jesus offers not a metaphysical “not-yet,” nor a historical “back-then” we can easily disregard. He instead reveals an atonement which is always already now. Eagleton thus concludes that the one who considers Jesus “must make this abject failure their own. Only through such mimesis can they achieve authenticity.”

Ritual to Righteousness: Internalizing the Signifier

In the opening chapter, “Radical Sacrifice,” Eagleton walks the reader through the ethically-directed transition Israelite culture underwent from external ritual to internalization, culminating in a kind of ambiguity between the two. Animal sacrifice begins as an act experienced as uniquely effective in itself: we might call it a pre-critical approach to ritual. But a transition occurs, wherein the animal on the altar begins to take on the characteristics of a symbol or signifier, gesturing to something other than itself, and thus ceases to be an operation effective in itself.

For prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, Yahweh insists vehemently that he has no interest in the Israelites’ ritual sacrifices, whether their animals or incense, but demands they act with mercy and justice, humility and love, born of a broken heart and contrite spirit. Thus the sacrificial animal shifts once more, from a signifier signifying nothing readily identifiable to being replaced altogether — the animal to be sacrificed is the internal instincts of the individual which would deter them from the call to inner transformation. The animal is our own moral failure, sacrificed upon the altars of our own hearts.

Israelite religion experiences a kind arc of internalization, then, beginning in outward ritual mechanics, leading to internal transformation through contemplation of formerly external symbols. Much of this was facilitated by tragedy, losing the temple in the Babylonian exile or the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, for example. But it’s an interesting developmental trajectory, no less meaningful for possible happenstance.

Even so, there’s some ambiguity over this, even among the Israelite writers. The Psalmist occasionally depicts Yahweh in the spirit of the prophets, denying burnt offerings and incense while demanding mercy and justice; and yet within the same text speaking positively of ritual, with no apparent sense of contradiction. Further, Jesus of Nazareth is notably silent on much of the Israelite concept of ritual as such, though unambiguously critical of the priestly elite’s “halving” the world in “sacrificial” logic (something he himself will reveal and call into question through his own martyr’s death). This leads further into St. Paul’s approach of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law (Romans 2–3), describing rituals (“letter”) as signifiers of internal transformation (“spirit”), the former being helpful to but ultimately non-critical, even unnecessary, in relation to the latter.

Though ritual symbol moves from outward mechanics to ethical internalization, it would seem the Israelites remain unsure about doing away with their signifiers altogether. I can empathize with that. Though I believe one can live the spirit of a law without a letter thereof, religions seem to thrive on sustainable structure. In Mormonism’s case, priesthoods and ordinances have given Mormondom with (reasonably widespread) social cohesion and (a mostly consistent) cosmic narrative into which they (or most) may place their individual lives. But it would be wise for highly-structured religions, while not abandoning their rituals, to remain mindful of them as symbols and signifiers pointing away from themselves — reminding oneself of the work of inner transformation open to and incumbent upon all individuals, within or without this or that particular religious identity. Rituals then cease to be rote mechanics, the awkward folk magic of pre-critical minds, or another “badge of honor” with which to distinguish ourselves from others; and instead become open invitations to contemplate what it means to (in Christianity’s and thus Mormonism’s case) die to the old self and be made a new self altogether — to awaken the nascent Christ buried in the subterranean depths of the human being. Heaven is, then, not a social club we get into through passwords and secret handshakes, but that mode of being experienced through intimate reunion with that Whole of which everything is a part — that to which we can only ever point to, never directly affect.

Pauline Faith Against the Poison Dart

I believe we can apply Eagleton’s paradigm to another common trope within religion: the struggle between “faith” and “doubt.”

In many religious circles, and even in the decidedly secular ideological world, one often encounters a kind of demonization of “doubt,” or anything which may cause one to question the in-group’s present understanding of what they are up to. Doubt is seen as the great destabilizer, calling into question that which one’s native tribe may consider constitutive of their very identity and purpose. However, the truth is that we need doubt. The opposite of faith, like love (1 John 4:18), is not doubt, but fear (Mark 4:40-41). Doubt helps us to shed older, less mature understandings; faith is a willingness to let those old views go, and to entrust ourselves to whatever the truth may be. To exercise great faith, one must exercise great doubt, in order to express great love for whatever may be.

Additionally, St. Paul’s phrase “faith in Christ” can also be translated “faith of Christ,” which I find more compelling. The former is often travestied into “I propose something about the historical Jesus, and you agree,” which isn’t faith but history (and usually poor history, at that). But this isn’t Paul’s word. The word he used, often translated “faith,” was the Greek pistis, which you can still find on the outside of some banks in Greece; it means “fidelity,” “faithfulness,” “trust,” similar to the Hebrew emanah, also often translated “faith,” meaning a commitment and devotion to the people around you, to the community. Paul isn’t writing about believers agreeing with certain propositions or truth claims about the historical Jesus, but about the fidelity of Christ.

In this sense, Pauline faith may not be dissimilar to what the Buddha described in sutra: imagine yourself running through the woods, when quite suddenly you’re struck by a poisoned arrow. What then follows? What’s most important? The Buddha suggests that, rather than inquire about the arrow’s provenance and makeup, who fired it and what kind of person they are, or any other ancillary detail; one must first and foremost focus on removing the arrow and treating the poison. Far from an abandonment of intellectualism, or even an encouragement of disastrously blind faith, the Buddha instead has in mind a realistic hierarchy of immediate needs and pirouettes: that which matters most is that which is most insistent.

In a similar vein, rather than a preacher of a systematized theology, Christ practices this Pauline faith: he entrusts himself fully to every situation he enters into. Giorgio Agamben, in his Pilate and Jesus, points this out: in the Gospel of John, the people are juxtaposed to Jesus as judgment is juxtaposed to salvation; they search for finality, closure, and give anything for the illusion of it, while Jesus entrusts himself to the inherent, irreducible open-endedness of life. Judas hands over Jesus to the priests for judgment, and they cannot judge him; the priests hand him over to Pilate for judgment, and he cannot judge him; Pilate hands him over to Herod for judgment, and Herod cannot judge him; and so Pilate hands over Jesus to the executioners, without a sentencing, ultimately unable to judge him. And Jesus hands himself over, judging nothing. He bears his death anxiety, accepts his suffering, enters into an inevitable death, handing himself over without judgment.

In the Gospel of John, according to Agamben, Jesus calls people to salvation rather than the judgment they are already experiencing; away from the need for certainty and closure into the living, breathing world with its ambiguity and inexplicability. Pilate wants a final judgment and sentencing for Jesus, an unchanging decree he can get through with; this is the “faith” many encourage each other to have in Jesus, but they won’t get it any more than Pilate. Paul calls his readers not to this travestied “faith in Christ” but the faith of Christ, a trust which allowed Jesus to entrust himself to life — people, circumstances, any moment, all its contents, including anxiety, suffering, death — holding nothing of himself back.

As Eagleton describes the crucifixion of Jesus:

“It is now God himself who is the flayed, bloodied victim, and one, moreover, who identifies with his executioners by forgiving them, not least on account of their false consciousness. The event is at once an act of murder and an act of pardon, for this and all other crimes. The sheer terror of Yahweh is not effaced but reinterpreted. Yahweh is indeed terrible to look upon, but what is now revealed as sublime about him is his brutally unconditional love, symbolised in the annihilating black lightning of William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin.”

This particular kind of faith is what Paul enlists in his work, the life of holiness. To be “holy” sounds archaic, but is far from what we assume. Nowadays “holiness” denotes separation, a sanctimonious looking-down-the-nose at the rest of the world. That’s easy enough; we do that already. In Aramaic and Hebrew, however, “to be holy” simply means to make space for something. The faux holiness of self-righteousness is thus to take the Lord’s name in vain. The Hebrew sense of holiness is to stop dividing the contents of our lives into “yes” and “no,” desire and aversion, and instead become a space in which to hold them all, including that part of life from which you are trying to escape, or from which you are withholding some part of yourself.

It is in this sense that the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible and the Christ of the New Testament call the people to be holy, even as they themselves are holy. In this vein, Pauline faith isn’t exclusively Jewish or Christian, but existential. We all need it. It’s this capacious faith and holiness, which reject only rejection and sacrifice only sacrifice, that I believe Eagleton sees in Jesus’ martyrdom — and in true sacrifice as such.

Needless Denouement

“Eternal life belongs to those who live in the present,” declared Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.4311). Therein is wisdom I’ve found within numerous Eastern and Western traditions, nearly so universally that I’m tempted to think it may be a truism transcending its particular expressions. At the very least, I believe Eagleton would agree that the solution to our present predicaments — and the solution adopted by Jesus of Nazareth to respond to his own era’s ills — will require our absolute presence and clarity. Beyond that, in Radical Sacrifice Eagleton seeks to clarify precisely what we see in that presence and clarity, and to discover the solution to the problems it unveils.

Suffice it to say, from the moment I opened Radical Sacrifice, I was unquestionably hooked, to the point of highlighting vehemently throughout, rather than losing myself in the text. Radical Sacrifice has me thinking, not just listening; though I hope I’m also hearing Eagleton, not just myself.

I can safely say that Eagleton has not only changed my mind on the topic of sacrifice itself, but that his book is easily one of the best explications of what Jesus attempted to accomplish in his death, and thus what his resurrection symbolizes. No amount of notes or reviews will do the text justice, however, all that can do that is a concerted, honest read of Radical Sacrifice itself.


Image: Cover image of Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (Yale University Press, 2018); borrowed with gratitude from Yale Books.