August 16, 2018


The crucified Christ isn't a tragic hero: In a comic reversal, says Terry Eagleton, the death of God incarnate reveals a fragile social order : a review of Radical Sacrifice By Terry Eagleton (George Dennis O'Brien August 16, 2018, Christian Century)

The book's final chapter, "Kings and Beggars," offers a particularly clear account of how the Real undermines the surety of symbols that structure our common world. What final reality attaches to king or beggar? In death they are but common dust. Eagleton points to the cultural practice of carnival as a symbolic recognition of the fragility of the social order. For a day, servants become masters and beggars don royal robes. Eagleton understands Christian Holy Week within the order of carnival. "An obscure layman, blown in from provincial Galilee" is hailed with palms only to be crucified days later under the mocking title "King of the Jews."

The crucifixion has been regarded since New Testament times as a sacrifice. But what is a sacrifice? Eagleton ticks off 18 definitions of sacrifice, from gift to adoration to discharge of a debt. In which sense, then, is the death of Jesus a sacrifice? Is it a radical sacrifice? In a chapter titled "Tragedy and Cruci­fixion," Eagleton suggests that "Jesus may be a tragic protagonist, but . . . he is not a heroic one." The hero dies for a cause, for the sake of some symbolic system that outlives death. The permanent transcendence of the cause is affirmed by courageous death. In contrast, Jesus at dark cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" What does that imply about his cause?

To understand the crucifixion, one has to go beyond the story of heroes and causes. Eagleton rejects a "Big Other" God who sustains the cause for which the hero dies. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross defeats and destroys the reigning symbolic orders of Temple sacrifice and Roman law. Neither is underwritten by a Big Other. In truth, God has no cause except himself. A derelict and deserted Jesus has no cause beyond faith in the Father. "The Father . . . is an abyss of love rather than a copper-bottomed metaphysical guarantee. It is the Father himself who lies at the source of Jesus' faith, as the object-cause of his desire, and in that sense, he has not been forsaken."

For Eagleton, the crucifixion is not tragic. It is a "comic" reversal in which the highest becomes the lowest, God becomes the most abject. In carnival, the crucified is God incarnate. It is the triumph of what Eagleton calls God's "brutal love." Jesus' cause is faith in the Father, the bond to the one he calls Abba.

Christianity emerges, therefore, not as a cause but as personal attachment to the one who says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the light." The radical reversal of the cross leads us beyond our human failure to capture life fully lived, and even beyond death's defeat. The Christian world is finally haunted not by "the Real" but by the unspeakable God.

Is it even possible to imagine a more comic/tragic/heroic story than that of the Christ?  God determined to live as a Man, to show us the perfect example of what He had intended for Creation.  But when push came to shove even He despaired of Himself, making possible--actually necessary--His reconciliation with His flawed creations.  It is aesthetically perfect.

Posted by at August 16, 2018 1:41 PM