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Sacrificial Thinking – August 2013


Question: In what ways does process thought support or challenge sacrificial thinking?

Publication Month: August 2013

Sacrifice is so pervasive, so central to human life, that in very important ways, if process thought fails to support sacrificial thinking, it is seriously inadequate. If parents failed to sacrifice anything for the sake of their children, their children would be unlikely to survive. Maternal sacrifice is characteristic of most species of animals.

Among fortunate human beings, maternal sacrifice is more than compensated by the joys of parenthood. Quite selfishly, most mothers would not exchange their lives as parents for another that required less sacrifice. Even the consciousness of sacrificing for the sake of the child is positively rewarding. But the sacrifice of many mothers goes far beyond this desirable situation. It involves suffering that is not compensated. Nevertheless, it is voluntarily accepted. Some would limit talk of sacrifice to this uncompensated suffering.

To some extent a mother’s readiness to sacrifice in this way for her children is probably genetically programmed. This genetic programming through hundreds of thousands of years also encourages similar sacrifices for the sake of the wider family, the tribe, and the nation. Males are probably programmed more than women to sacrifice themselves for this larger group when there is a clear threat to its wellbeing.

The idea that in fact people are by nature interested only in their personal wellbeing is a relatively recent one. It grows more out of an individualistic metaphysics than out of observation of behavior or the study of motivation. Of course, individual self-interest is very real and very strong, and its challenge to the reality of sacrifice sometimes appears to be simply peeling away pretense in order to reveal the reality underneath. But making this the whole story is one more instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Seeing the world through “process eyes” I judge that virtually everything I do is motivated partly by self-concern and partly by other-concern.

The willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the larger good or for the sake of particular others is a healthy part of our being. In healthy contexts, that concern for others in part modifies what we would do simply for ourselves is hardly felt as sacrifice at all. We are doing what we want to do because our concern extends to others.

Christianity is one of those movements that works to strengthen the concern for others and to widen the sphere of the included. Success in this regard heightens the tension between the wider good about which one cares and the self-regarding motives that continue. We are genetically programmed for self-giving to a small group of others. Jesus call for love of enemies cuts directly against what is, in this sense, natural. The changes for which it calls are felt more clearly as “sacrifices.” The recognition that we frequently do not act in terms of such love creates a realistic feeling of guilt. We “sin” or “miss the mark,” often intentionally. We are willing to sacrifice for our own group, but not for its enemies, even though at some level we understand that we should.

Paul understood Jesus submitting himself to crucifixion in this way. This was an extreme example of self-sacrifice, and it was enacted for the sake of everyone, enemies as well as friends. Without this enactment, the full meaning of his teaching would not be understood. Or it would be regarded as simply absurd.

But the great importance of willingness to sacrifice, ultimately even for the sake of one’s enemies, has been distorted in such ways that what is sometimes called sacrificial theology must be opposed both in the name of the Bible and of Whiteheadian thought. The sacrifice of Jesus is sometimes understood to be demanded by God in order that he can forgive the rest of us. This stands in an ancient tradition of appeasing a god or currying a god’s favor. Something of this sort can be found almost everywhere.  Its assumption, spoken or unspoken, is that the unseen powers that rule the world are very much like us, easily offended and demanding of special favors.

Jewish monotheism was not exempt. As late as the time of Jesus, the economy of the temple was benefited by the sacrifice of animals. In this context it made some sense to think that Jesus’ self-sacrifice ended the need for this kind of thing. (The author of Hebrews argued in this way.) But what really ended animal sacrifices was Jesus’ understanding that God, in fundamental respects, was not like human rulers. Jesus stood in tradition of prophets who often tried to persuade people that God did not want their sacrifices. God wanted them to live justly and generously.

Even more clearly than most of the other prophets, Jesus taught that God is love. God wants our love in return, and that love is expressed in loving relations to the creatures God loves. Paul understood. He could use “sacrifice” language to express it. “Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service, and pleasing to him.” (Romans 12:1, Good News Bible)

One of the greatest disasters in the history of Christianity came with Anselm’s theory of the atonement. Anselm takes as central God’s honor, and the offense against that honor that characterizes so much of human behavior. God’s love enters in within this context as God’s desire to forgive us. But to forgive us without punishing our sin would not uphold God’s honor. Hence the need for the God/man to sacrifice himself.

If this is what is meant by sacrificial thinking, then my answer, the process answer, and, I believe, the New Testament answer is opposed.

There is another use of “sacrifice thinking” that also calls for rejection. It is the thinking on the part of some that others should make sacrifices that benefit the thinkers. Masters called on slaves to accept their lives of service as Christian sacrificial living. Men called on women in the same way. The prophets blasted such thinking. Being sacrificed by hierarchical structure in the interest of the more powerful has nothing in common with voluntarily sacrificing oneself for the greater good.