Saturday, June 05, 2010

The sacrifice of God

Once one sacrificed human beings to one's god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most; the sacrifices of the firstborn in all primitive religions belong here...

Then, during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one's god one's own strongest instincts, one's "nature": this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, the "anti-natural" enthusiast.

Finally - what remained to be sacrificed? At long last, did one not have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn't one have to sacrifice God himself and, from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing - this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up: all of us already know something of this-

Thus Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil, section 55.

I wonder to what extent this clarifies the death of God. It is not, in fact, a mere murder, but a cultic murder. God has not been merely killed, but sacrificed, in a final self-consuming act of religion. Again, it is to Nietzsche's credit that he recognises that this is a sacrifice. Of course, he thinks it will set humanity free in some sense, but it is nevertheless a suffering, a cruelty inflicted upon oneself which in some way forms the logical highpoint of asceticism (which Nietzsche considers to be the heart of religion).

The sacrifice of God plays out in different ways in the Christian tradition. The most basic statement that can be made about it is that God sacrifices himself - again, this is an event in the history of God, not merely a human event. Therefore the BCP can say of Christ's death that he "made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world". Perhaps the question to ask Nietzsche here is whether his own concept of the sacrifice of God is not merely an insufficient echo of the gospel.

More directly relevant, though, to Nietzsche's theme is the requirement that the gospel puts on Christians to be continually sacrificing God.

Now, before you think I've gone all Roman, I should say that I have in mind a mental process, and that strictly speaking I do not have in mind God. What I mean is this: the revelation of God in the gospel - in the face of Jesus Christ - teaches us that all of our ideas of God are wrong. Jesus Christ continually crashes through every symbol, doctrine, thought, image, or idea of God that I am able to devise. So I find myself in this position: I must have these symbols, doctrines, and ideas - without them I cannot think of God at all; but I am continually reminded that my symbols, doctrines, and ideas are inadequate - in fact, they are not truly representative of God.

So I am always sacrificing my image of God, always laying it on the altar - no matter how comforting or inspiring an image it is to me. I sacrifice it, to receive afresh the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ. And as soon as that knowledge has passed into memory and symbol, I am called to sacrifice it.

Is there, then, nothing steady - nothing lasting - in the knowledge of God? Yes - but the steady, lasting thing is Jesus Christ himself, from whose grace my inadequate (and in itself idolatrous) knowledge of God can live.


  1. hey Dan.

    I can't help feeling & liking the connection too, but want to resist the rhetorical import of "the theology of the cross" here.

    I think saying "we sacrifice the no-god, the god of reason, over and over again in order to have the true God..." sounds more like a dialectical theology, more familiar to Milbank/Zizek than (prima facie) the Bible, where the true God is crucified; our maker hung upon that tree. Now the daylight flees, now the ground beneath, quakes as its maker bows his head.

    I'm well out of my depth here, but some people I trust who go into these waters are:
    Henri Blocher, Evil & the Cross
    Kevin Vanhoozer, 'The Atonement in Postmodernity' in The Glory of the Atonement (especially good on "the economy of gift"
    Kevin Vanhoozer, 'On Angling in the Rubicon and the "Identity" of God' in The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age

    I think you'll find them twice as rich as I did.

  2. Yeah, take the point - the primary, and in one sense the only, sacrifice of God in Christianity is the sacrifice of the true God at the cross. This is how I see that feeding in to what I'm saying. Essentially, my reason doesn't think God would ever sacrifice himself in this way - this is the basic Islamic complaint (God wouldn't do that). If I am to see God on the cross, I need to completely jettison my ideas about god. So the sacrifice of God (objective) on the cross requires the sacrifice of god (subjective) in my mind. The repetitive element comes in because of my frequent mental slippage.

  3. fair enough. perhaps that's where i'd agree to differ: you say 'If I am to see God on the cross, I need to completely jettison my ideas about god'

    - not so. It's precisely the fact that we have some ideas about God (eg Jews before Christ) that makes the cross a scandal.
    - what we need to do is completely jettison our boasting in anything else.

    I think you grant too much the reasonableness of Islam. The Mutazilis (Aristotelian rationalists) were after all expelled as heretics after a while.

    yes the heart is a factory of idols, and yes the mind, even the christian mind, needs to take every thought captive to christ, but idols aren't to be totally jettisoned, as it were, but reappropriated; seen to be made, and brought into proper subservience to us through christ rather than let to be masters over us instead of christ.

    Merold Westphal distinguishes 1st & 3rd commandment idolatry - the difference being that the 1st commandment idolaters know they worship another god, whereas 3rd commandment idolaters deceive themselves about this fact - they say Father, Son, Spirit, but they "invoke him as a another than he is" (Augustine).

    But just as we might say a (1st comm) idol is a good thing turned into an ultimate thing, and remedy idolatry by showing that it is a good thing, created by and pointing to and resolved by some(one) far better; I would say that the message of the cross continually checks our boasting (this is after all how Paul goes on to apply 1 cor 1-2 in the rest of the letter). After all, the message of the cross is foolishness not because people can't understand what's being said, but precisely they can - it's humiliating. It makes a mockery of the Jewish "wisdom" eg Jeremiah 9:23-24.

  4. I'm not sure I've got the heart of what you're saying, so if you're able to elucidate I'd appreciate it - not least because I feel that I often don't understand what certain Christians (esp. those for whom apologetics is a primary discipline) because they sound like rationalists to me. (Not putting you in that class, just feeling that this issue is one I need to grapple with).


    Of course I have ideas about God when I approach the cross, and those ideas are (part of) what makes it a scandal (my ideas about myself also contribute). But is it not true that my ideas are contradicted by the cross? Must I not therefore ditch my ideas? How can I reappropriate them if they have been shown to be utterly false? Or do you think they have not been shown to be utterly false?

    I am not sure that I understand the point about boasting, either. How does the cross destroy our boasting (in the intellectual sphere rather than the moral - the Corinthian problem rather than the Galatian)? Is it not by showing us how wrong we are - by contradicting our ideas and therefore denying our claim to be able to reason about God?

    Interested to hear your further thoughts if you have time...

  5. wow, there's a whole load of categories there. we may well be communicating at cross purposes.

    1st, I don't think Galatians is moral, whereas Corinthians intellectual, at all.
    2nd, I fear we may mean something different by "ideas". What do you mean by "ideas"? Do you mean "expectations"? "doctrines"? "perceptions"? "conceptions"? "reasons"? "ideals"? "intuitions"?

    Perhaps this leads to miscommunication. Apologies last comment was confusing. Here's my concern: rhetoric can overextend the application of ideas: that's what I'm mainly concerned about.

    Precisely because the theology of the cross is so powerful, it can't but be rhetorically rich...but precisely because it's so powerful, can you imagine it being misapplied?

    Preaching is not about rhetoric - the force, the power, is not in the words used, but in the events communicated. (This is partly is going on in 1 Cor 1: the foolishness of what was preached, not the foolishness of the preaching.

    3 places I hear rhetoric going beyond reason:
    1. the implicit identification of Islam with Reason, not least because of the case in point, the Mutazilia school.
    2. the implicit identification of Aristotle as the problem, as if Luther & Nietzsche were saying the same thing about God crucified. Why not also buy Barthes' death of the Author, or Nietzsche's wholesale death of grammar & truth?
    3. words like "utterly false" - is there such a thing? Is anything utterly false? or "contradicted" - God speaks against us, but not in a Nietzschean destruction of meaning. When Paul calls the Lystrans to turn from these worthless & vain things, to a living God who made the earth and the sea and everything...who has not left himself without witness, giving rains & seasons...etc, he's appealing to something native to their experience. I take it as basic that the doctrine of creation means that I'm introducing people to a God who's already involved in their lives, a God they already know, in some sense, but someone they resist, hate, suppress and ignore - yes for "reasons of the heart that reason knows nothing of"

    Miriam Jones says it brilliantly,
    I always had a heart for you
    and a mind for more of me
    You gave me all the world to use and I found the one forbidden tree
    Oh the naked day I ran away to take care of myself
    To all my life be ruled by my escape, to faint under some spell
    You always had a heart for me that I mistrusted from my birth
    And you trying to get close to me has marked the history of earth

  6. Yep, we just disagree! I'm not too worried about the classification of Galatians/Corinthians, the Islam thing, or the Aristotle thing - I'm aware Islam is hardly rationalistic, and Aristotle is, after all, just one manifestation of reason at work.

    But on your point 3, which I take to be your substantive point, I have to say no. I do think that in the message of the cross *everything* I ever thought about God (and therefore, in fact, everything I ever thought) is utterly contradicted. Even the points at which my previous ideas appear to have been grammatically correct in the light of the gospel, they are in fact falsified, not in part, but absolutely and wholly. It is true that God has not left himself without witness, and that at some level all of us are involved with God whether we like it or not; but I deny as strenuously as it is possible for me to deny anything that I can introduce non-Christians "to a God they already know" - in any sense, except perhaps the negative sense that their very 'not-knowing' is a sign and witness against them.

    So we disagree there. It would be interesting to work through the exegetical points behind the disagreement, but this may not be the place to do it.

  7. Fair enough, we disagree here. I do think the exegesis for this (rhetorically powerful) view is extremely shaky, but you're right this isn't the place. I imagine you agree at least that it's the God they should know, at least? (I assume that's what you mean by their "very 'not-knowing' being a sign and witness against them"). Ironically it sounds like you'd be taking Acts 17 "the unknown God" as paradigmatic for evangelism, whereas most people I hear talk up 1 cor 1-2 like this say Paul's such sermons in Acts were a mistake. After all, he doesn't "know nothing but Christ crucified" in Lystra or Athens. I know that's not a necessary position (indeed, if I'm right about knowing Christ crucified being about boasting, then I actually believe he did know nothing but Christ and him crucified in every missionary endeavour & defence in Acts), but it's worth noting.

    Here's a counterexample for you to mull over: in the resurrection, it seems to me God not only renews but renames his world. But he doesn't rename himself. In Christ he has acted for the sake of his name, he shows that he is the LORD. He has acted for the sake of his name. That name (Ex 34) is fulfilled at the cross. I really recommend you read Kevin Vanhoozer's essay on the Identity of God - Goes into Robert Jenson's 'God from the beginning' and 'God faithful to the end' on naming God. I wonder if you think we should differentiate between introducing God to Jews & to Gentiles - You had God-fearing Greeks, but in a very real sense, the Gentiles didnt know his name.

    Even if we disagree, do you agree with me at least that you could misapply the rhetoric of "theology of the cross" to say that all meaning, all ideas (which presuppositionalists would say are all ultimately theological) are destroyed by the revelation of God crucified? You could take it to deny things like the law of non-contradiction, or grammar, or the meaning of words, for example. But let it be known that I agree the gospel always demands a rethink (repentance); and in that sense God disagrees, yes you can even call it "contradicts" us (Keller's phrase) but when we realise we have a choice between two contradictory views, then it is the place of persuasion. In the words of Alasdair MacIntyre,

    "when an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is resolved by the construction of a new narrative, which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them. The narrative in terms of which he or she at first understood and ordered experiences is itself made into the subject of an enlarged narrative."

    I find that transformative. The gospel is precisely that kind of story. That's the problem with rationalist apologetics - they tend not to tell a story, they offer an atemporal foundationalist account. Paul always retells the local story. This is Newbigin's insight.

    thanks for the chance to discuss this properly. Often dialogues like this get distracted. I very much appreciate your perspective!

  8. ps when I say he doesn't rename himself, I don't mean that the most full and wonderful thing we can say about him has not changed.

    Obviously the most fundamental relation we have to him is no longer "the LORD who brought [Israel] out of Egypt" (Ex 19), nor "the LORD, the LORD, the gracious and compassionate God..." (Ex 34:6f), nor or even "the LORD lives who brought his people home from the north" (Jer 16:14f), but "the word became flesh and dwelt among us, we have seen his glory, full of grace-and-truth" - now he can only be properly known as the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Such that if you don't name him that, then you're rejecting him - in such a way that would not have been true before Jesus. But I'd say that's more but not different to the OT LORD
    - eg "the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" in Mt 28 (which incidentally runs up the end of exile)
    - "given the name above every name" in Php 2, the reappropriated shema in 1 Cor 8, or "to the praise of his glory" in Eph 1)

  9. Ha ha, I'm such an extremist. I would actually be fairly happy to say "that all meaning, all ideas (which presuppositionalists would say are all ultimately theological) are destroyed by the revelation of God crucified". The reason is that I think there is more to truth than propositional accuracy. People can make propositionally accurate claims about God which I would nevertheless say were false, because of the spirit in which they are made, or their connections to other false ideas, or the basis from which they are derived. So, yes, I would follow my logic so far as to say that the message of Christ crucified stands as a sign contra mundum, contradicting humanity in its existence at (almost) the root, and therefore human knowledge at (almost) the root.

    I don't think that has the effect that many presups suppose it should have on evangelism, though. For example, I think Athens is a great example of knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified. Paul starts off saying things which the Greeks themselves would nod along to, but by the end it is clear that he didn't mean what they thought he meant and their worldview is subverted to the point where they must either disown their poets and their altars (even those poets and altars which Paul has been using for his evangelism - i.e. the poets who made accurate propositional statements about God, the altar which was a real sign of a seeking after God) or reject Paul's message.

  10. "I think Athens is a great example of knowing nothing but Christ and him crucified"
    - Amen!

    "People can make propositionally accurate claims about God which I would nevertheless say were false, because of the spirit in which they are made, or their connections to other false ideas, or the basis from which they are derived."
    - Amen! You're (rightly) using a much more personal view of being a true person v being a false person - truth as honesty/faithfulness vs lying/unfaithfulness. But here's the equivocation over 'knowledge' that leads to unhelpful rhetoric: what you mean by "being utterly false" clearly does NOT mean people cannot know true propositions about God. But these "propositionally accurate claims about God" that people make are precisely what good apologetics are trying to build upon, to subvert idolatrous, false stories/religion. You might even be forgiven for calling them "points of contact"

    "these points of contact are meant to be there, and are meant to be points of departure" (McGrath, Bridge Building)
    - It's fair to say some poeple emphasise points of contact to the detriment of tension; others emphasise points of tension to the downplaying of contact. Surely we need both. We must seek for these places - the altars, the poetry, the logic (whose very presence subverts the others - eg in Acts 17 the one altar that stands in witness against the other altars; or the fact that there's something in bothEpicureanism and Stoicism, incompatible systems) - not as points to find & stand and shake upon, but epicentres of tremors, as it were - points which introduce dynamic personal tensions, tensions which point to our need for the God who resolves them in the gospel.

    I'd encourage you to find Benno Van den Toren's essay, ‘A New Direction in Christian Apologetics: An Exploration with Reference to Postmodernism’, in European Journal of Theology (1993) 2:1, p.49-64