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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

John Milbank / Sacrifice

I'm still thinking about atonement (it's all your fault, Talmida :-) and that led me to thinking about self-sacrifice. I'm not comfortable with the idea of self-sacrifice. My cynical self would say that there are not true sacrifices because people do what they do for self-serving reasons, whether or not those reasons are apparent to others, or even to themselves When religion enters the picture, self-sacrifice seems even more illusory - does belief in an afterlife and eternal reward negate the "gift-ness" of giving up one's life?

These thoughts led me to a 1999 article in First Things by radical orthodoxy theologian John Milbank ... The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice. Milbank opposes the belief that self-sacrifice is only a gift if it's given without hope of return - he thinks true sacrificial giving actually depends on a kind of reciprocity based on the resurrection. I can't say I understood all of the article or that I agreed with what I did understand, but it was interesting. The article was long and involved, so forgive me if my hatchet job on it below doesn't actually make any sense :-) As always, it's best to read the whole thing.

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If I were to say that the highest imaginable exemplification of the good consists in dying sacrificially on behalf of an other or others, I imagine that many people, religious or otherwise, would concur .... the highest ethical gesture is a sacrificial self–offering which expects no benefit in return ...

Anyone who thinks of this pure self–sacrifice more closely must answer four questions: How is giving to be understood? What is the reality of death? What is the appropriate concept of the self? What are the background ontological circumstances against which the sacrificial gesture would be situated?

Recent ethical thinkers have certain characteristic answers to these questions. The only real gift, they claim, is one that expects no counter–gift in return. Unless a gift is in this fashion sacrificial—the giving up of something—it is argued, a gift reduces to a hidden contractual agreement, governed by a principle of self–interest; and actions out of self–interest, as Kant pointed out, are not pure gifts.

Secondly, they hold that death, far from being complicit with evil as religious traditions have often taken it to be, is the very circumstance that makes it possible to act ethically at all ...

Thirdly, in the trend of ethical thinking we are investigating, it is characteristically assumed that what makes us aware of the self in the first place is just this double intrusion of death: the cry of the vulnerable other eliciting our preparedness to negate our own life ...

Finally, in the fourth place there is the question of ontology ... if we are all terminally fragile, then our temporary lives assume an ultimate value, since we can offer our own lives for the sake of others. A death without return ensures that the choice of the good exceeds any self–interest ... Death in its unmitigated reality permits the ethical, while the notion of resurrection contaminates it with self–interest.

So is it true that death undergirds ethics? I want to argue against this, instead proposing the opposite position that only with faith in the resurrection is an ethical life possible. However, I believe that recent thinkers are rigorously consistent when they argue that self–sacrifice is supremely good only if death is final and unrewarded. So in exalting resurrection, I will have also to deny that self–sacrifice is most paradigmatic of the good. And this is what I shall now proceed to do, arguing that this idea is incoherent, actually unethical, and not at all a translation of the essence of monotheistic tradition as some tend to claim. To make this argument, I will examine in turn the four components of this ostensibly pure sacrifice: 1) gift without return or "unilateral" gift; 2) death as grounding the ethical; 3) a subjectivity as constituted through sacrifice and the demand of a God beyond being; and 4) ontology without resurrection or eschatological overcoming of death ...

(big snip)

The one thing about ourselves we know with certainty is that we are to die. When we accept this death, or prepare ourselves, if necessary, actively to appropriate it, we fulfill most rigorously the Greek demand to value only that which cannot be taken away from us.. ... one might suggest that pure self–sacrifice strangely turns out to be the securest self–possession ...

German Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann ... giving food to those in need, he observes, can occur as a one–way gift from those who have to those who have not, or it can occur in a feast, where all eat together. In the feast egotism is mitigated, since here one eats only if one eats along with others; and yet at the same time one does eat, and so selfhood is not eradicated. This image of the feast suggests for Spaemann that what is supremely good is the ecstatic—not in the sense of departing from life, but in the sense of living life as departing from oneself while in this very departing receiving oneself back again ...

The third component of the notion of pure sacrifice is the idea that subjectivity itself is constituted through the "persecution" of my consciousness by the demands of the vulnerable other. Here again, I have already enunciated my main response: this tends to render the personal impersonal ...

This leads naturally to the fourth and final component of the idea of pure sacrifice: the ontological vision which sees Being without immortality of the soul or resurrection of the body ... What the modern presentation of this ontology tends to overlook, however, is its profound link both to the antique pagan polis and to the modern secular state ... the exaltation of pure self–sacrifice for the other is secretly the sacrifice of all individuals to the impersonality of the formal procedural law of state and marketplace. Like the antique polis, this alone abides, this alone is eternal ...

Within the ethical thinking regarding pure sacrifice that I am opposing, one’s decision to be responsible for this person rather than that appears to be entirely arbitrary. As Derrida puts it, Why look after this cat rather than all the other stray cats? ...

But it is at this point that faith in resurrection doubly sustains the project of a charitable society, founded on the widest extension of reciprocity. First of all, because of this faith, one can have hope for the victims of the failures of others; and secondly, in the case of necessary self–sacrifice, one need not surrender oneself to the consuming totality. In either case, one need not embrace the logic of ultimately necessary self–sacrifice without return, either of others or of oneself. If this is true, then only the vision of the eschatological banquet could be an image of the good, whereas the image of dying for the other—though it is the advent of the good in fallen time—cannot itself be the final good, without once more subordinating the person to an impersonal totality, in this case an abstract moral principle ...

And so we must finally conclude that resurrection, not death, is the ground of the ethical ... for the Christian, to give is itself to enter into reciprocity and the hope for infinite reciprocity. And to offer oneself, if necessary, unto sacrificial death is already to receive back one’s body from beyond the grave. To give, to be good, is already to be resurrected.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Talmida said...

Wow! I don't think I understand 1/10th of this! But I do remember taking an ethics class where the issue was, is an act moral if you benefit from it. I never did figure out the answer! ;)

Good luck with this.

6:53 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Talmida :-)

1:20 PM  

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