What possible meaning could the sacrifices of lent, or the notion that God came to earth to suffer among men, have for non-Christians? In this entry I will attempt to show that these questions are not so difficult. While it is true that the language of Christianity alienates non-Christians from the meaning of the narratives, a mythical analysis which translates the stories into a more secular, maybe even “existentialist” language, can reveal the genuine power of these stories. The purpose of the following analysis is to show that the Christian experience of Lent and Easter is not merely mythical word-play, but a genuine appropriation of the Christian world-experience.
As a non-Christian, I speak from a precarious position which lacks any moral-authority to speak on-behalf of Christian texts or Christian “word-experience” – if I have anything like Christian world-experience, I have it purely as an existentialist, or as an eschatological Heideggerian. However, as I reject identity politics, my writing attempts to speak not from a particular position but “as anybody” – which is to say, from a particular position, but as a particular position which anyone could take up. In other words, there is nothing inherently valid or invalid about my position – if my analysis reveals anything to anyone, this would be wonderful, but I have desire to declare that my analysis ought be comprehensible to any particular group. That said, I do dedicate the following piece of writing to resolute atheists, of which I consider myself one.
What is Lent? Lent is a period of sacrifice. Christians who participate in lent give up something which they desire in order to free themselves from that desire. The giving up happens in community with other Christians, has dates, and concludes with a celebration (more on that later). In modern consumerist society, the “me” society of ipads, ipods and personal computers (who anymore shares a computer?), any restriction on desire appears as a destruction of your personhood. Worse, any restriction imposed by an arbitrary external power, i.e. the Church, appears as a controlling ideology – a dangerous imposition on human freedom, a stifling of creativity and exploration. Who then today could see value in lent, other than Christians who refuse to acknowledge that God no longer stirs the hearts of men – those passive nihilists who cling to ideals, refusing to acknowledge their devaluation by the rise of man as the ultimate measure on earth?
All this is certainly true. However, at the same time, does not everyone recognize the importance of sacrifice to succeed in our dog-eat-dog society? For instance, what sacrifices do people make to go to university? To have Children? To save money to travel? To quit smoking? In many areas of life, we recognize sacrifice as essential to success. More primordially, all work is sacrifice – the putting off of immediate enjoyment to attempt to secure future well being. Sacrifice, understood as the essence of labour, is what differentiates us from animals. Actually, that is a human-centric bias, in reality many if not all animals work, and exhibit exactly the same behaviour of sacrificing immediate pleasure for the sake of attempting to secure a better chance at survival and flourishing.
Furthermore, doesn’t the exact structure of sacrifice in Lent appear as a supplement to control the excess of immediate gratification in post-industrial society? Don’t we all have addictions today which hold us back – addictions to the internet, to cell phones, to certain kinds of food or drink. One primary way we have of dealing with addictions is to essentialize the addiction, call it an essential property of your human being, and define a human’s being in terms of that addiction no matter how long they have refrained from it. This is not a practice of the church – but alcoholics anonymous. Lent, on the other hand, attempts to establish a better relationship to the addictive element by gaining a distance from it (40 days of committed sobriety). The purpose is not to exorcize the object, but to enable the production of self legislation and control. Heidegger might call this “Freedom”, not the everyday consumer freedom of having a thousand choices, but the freedom of transparency which is gained at the moment when the human is freed from the desires which entrap it.
What might a secularized version of lent look like? The difficulties of secularizing the lent practice reveal the continued strength of religious communities in a world where there is a “question” of God’s existence, and where that existence can be secured only by an epistemic dualism which declares one class of beliefs evaluable on a different standard than all other beliefs (for example, the way Dawkin’s example of a belief in the great spaghetti monster reveals the absurdity of the unsubstantiated “belief” in God). The decision to make sacrifices for the period of lent is a personal decision, made out of conscience, and yet the experience of lent is not a personal experience. Individualistic ipod society might be able to re-value the personal choice of sacrifice in something like Lent, but not the communal being-together in that personal sacrifice. Furthermore, Lent is a period leading up to a community celebration – Easter. While Easter has been secularized along the same lines as Christmas, this secularization has not succeeded in carrying over any of the essential positive moments of the festival as experienced by the religious community over to the capitalist community. Whereas Christmas is about family, easter is only about eating too much chocolate. However, the eating-too-much-chocolate of easter can’t fulfill its essential function for the a-religious community because no one was eating any less chocolate than usual during lent. Therefore, unless Lent were secularized along with Easter, there seems no obvious way that the positive role for personal sacrifice in establishing distance from our everyday addictions could occur outside religious communities.
The elephant in the room in any discussion of Lent and Easter and their possible meaning for secular society is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What could this possibly mean for non-believers? I admit, this will be more of a stretch than what I’ve said so far – but I do believe I can make some sense of this story without appealing to belief in an intelligent higher power. First one must ask, “What is the Death of Christ?” – the theological consensus on this issue is that it is not merely Jesus who dies on the cross, but God himself (this is, I’ve been told, not controversial – most Christians believe Jesus is God). This is important – if what died on the cross was not God, then Jesus would be only a deem-God, and the origin of Christianity would be nothing other than Judaism becoming pagan. What does this mean that God dies on the cross? This is not so complex – the standard story says something like God dies on the cross because genuine love for man can not be established but out of an intimacy which can only come to be through becoming one of them, and experiencing all the vulnerabilities of humans. But what does this mean? First, remember that the monotheistic God is usually thought to be omnipotent. What it mean to be omnipotent is that every object of your will becomes reality without resistance. In other words, an omnipotent being does not first think of a world, then labour and bring it into existence (i.e. the way man sacrifices in labour to bring about the fruit of his ideas) – God thinks being into existence. But, in this case, we have an example where God can not simply think being into existence. In order to establish the desired intimacy with his people, God had to experience the vulnerability of being a being who must labour and sacrifice, and worse – have this sacrifice end in a failure: crucification for crimes not committed. From the perspective of man, the sacrifice of Jesus appears at best exemplary, and at worse irrelevant – after all, humans sacrifice themselves for each other all the time, and everyday good people who laboured all their life are put to death for wrongs they did not do. What is essential, then, about Jesus’ sacrifice is that Jesus is not a man but is God. In other words, using the two different terms is the source of the confusion surrounding the meaning of Easter – God is Jesus – and what is essential about Jesus/God dying coming to earth and dying on the cross is the notion that an infinite, omnipotent being would need to experience the finitude of man in order to love his people. This is, I think, far more radical than most Christians admit – it means that God is not, in fact, omnipotent. If God were omnipotent then he could merely think this new relationship with his people into existence. What the resurrection story shows up, therefore, is that omnipotence is not as powerful as it thought – omnipotence lacks the ability to feel the frailty of labour and finitude, and omnipotence can not, as itself, come into empathy with finitude.
The life and death of the Christ figure, therefore, is an ontological statement about the nature of reality of Christian experience. Just as the human condition is finitude and chaos (you labour because the world resists you, and this labour offers no guarantees of success), the ground of being itself (God), even in its omnipotency, experiences a lack in the face of the demand to empathize with non-ominipotent creatures. Omnipotency is not all it was cracked up to be – it cannot think love other than as pure Law, which cannot differentiate between care and concern and fire and brimstone – this is why the God of the Torah / Old Testament is genocidal, i.e. the story of the Battle of Jericho. For God to love man in a way appropriate to man, empathy is not optional, and this empathy can not be thought into existence in originally intuition. Rather, this empathy can only be acquired by God through going-under, walking among us, experiencing labour, frailty, and the failure of good works and truth to result in worldly success. God surely could have known these truths of human existence cognitively, but this was inadequate for Love. This inadequacy shows that the condition of Being itself (i.e. God) is finite, even thought as infinitude. Infinitude produces its own lack – an inability to empathize with tragedy – and because Being (God) desires empathy with all of creation this lack is significant and must be overcome.
What does this have to do with Lent? A Christian friend of mine tells me that the sacrifice of lent, leading up to Easter weekend, is felt/thought as a walking beside Christ – what could this mean? Following my analysis, it is quite clear that it might mean that the failures we experience in our own life, the difficulties we have at making the sacrifices which we believe we ought (and might be wrong about), mirror the suffering of God in his attempt to become adequate to the demands which universal love and empathy place upon him. Just as we suffer from our finitude, God suffers finitude in order to complete his infinitude. Thus, the walking alongside Jesus in Lent is a fidelity to the essence of Being as suffering.
But what is Being for the secular, atheist society? Being is not infinity, or the mystery, or an empathy between finitude and the absolute – rather being is thought as cognizability, rationality, computability. In other words, Being is the mechanizable by man, the organizable and securable to be put on reserve for further ordering. But is being really any of this? Certainly – but not only this. Being is also suffering, chaos, our inability to approach existence which constructs which stably secure our success. Being, in other words, is tragedy, and is failure. The standard notion of Christian Being as redemption and love is wrong (and politically wrong – counter revolutionary and immoral) if it serves to justify the suffering in the world, and put out the dreams of a fair society. However, the Christian notion which I have attempted to express here, that Being is suffering – both of God and of Man, is adequate to the human condition in a way technological being is not.
However, it is not enough to say Being is suffering (or, as Krell says, “God is trauma” or “the suffering of the absolute”) – and not only because of the political worry that the ontological declaration of suffering might be used to justify real political suffering. It is not enough to say “Being is suffering”, or “Being is redemption” or “Being is securability” because being is only any of these things grasped out of the essential thought of the will. The will projects possibilities in advance of itself, and sacrifices in its uncertain attempts to bring them about. Easter demonstrates that God, as Man, is a wilful being. But Being is not only thinkable or livable out of the thought of the will – will individualizes (even in its creation of communities), and will prioritizes abstract thinking (even in its recognition of the importance of emotions like empathy and love). Will is one of the ways man can be towards the world – and the “towards” itself is part of the willful orientation. To think Being other than by way of the Will might be the demand placed upon us by our current historical-ecological position. I have attempted nothing towards this demand in the preceding essay – and even the manner in which I express this other, as a “demand”, reveals that nothing of this thinking has yet occurred.