An exercise in a kind of speculative theological anthropology, what follows is not intended to represent any established doctrine of the Church but rather only the development of my own thought on issues raised in comments to an earlier post. That said, I do not believe [and I certainly do not intend] that any ideas presented here contradict or confuse settled teachings. On the contrary, my aim is merely illumination and not addition. Therefore, while I write this with all due seriousness and conviction, I remain open to doctrinal correction should it be offered by competent authority.
Dominus custodiat me in veritate.
The basic question being addressed in some of its more common forms:
Why did Jesus need to be sacrificed?
Why did Christ have to die for our sins, rather than God just simply forgiving us?
Did God sacrifice Himself to Himself in order to save us from Himself?
As noted in the preamble, the answer I offer here is not a theological or Christological treatise; the need for and mystery of the Passion in relation to the divine economy of the Trinity has been explored by much greater minds than my own. If that’s what you’re looking for, I recommend starting with the Catechism, following up on the relevant footnoted sources, and then moving into deeper research from there.
Although my position requires briefly reviewing some of the foundational concepts of those works, mine is a speculative, psycho-/socio-logical, and ultimately human, all to human excursion into the question. In part, I take this angle because I too have wrestled with this question from positions of unbelief and of belief. I have some appreciation, therefore, for the unsatisfying quality of the traditional approaches.
All that out of the way, let’s begin with some necessary theological groundwork:
God does not need but God loves.
Need implies deficiency and, as a perfect being, God is only deficient with regard to deficiency so, God has no needs. God does, nonetheless, love but He does not love out of need or desire. Rather, God’s love is an overflowing abundance that is given without the possibility of reciprocation of any sort whatsoever, which makes it a true and pure love that does not suffer from any admixture of self-interest. [This is a point to which we’ll return.]
Now when we speak of God, we do use the language of need/want/desire and this can be cause for confusion. Relief may be found, however, in recognizing that all such language is an inaccurate but necessary anthropomorphism. That is, because of the epistemic and linguistic limitations of human discourse (caused by our finitude, our passions, our social conditions, etc…), we lack even the possibility of language that might speak with precision about God and so resort to using transformationally effective if, strictly speaking, wrong anthropomorphic analogies.
Our language regarding what God wants or requires, therefore, is a sign not of God’s need but of human need. In addition, although we do have the capacity to be more precise in our theological language than that towards which Scripture or popular piety or casual conversation tends, the structural intricacies and extensive vocabulary required of theological precision make such texts unapproachable for the vast majority of potential listeners. The simplified language about God, then, reflects both our inability to speak accurately about God and a pastoral/evangelical/pedagogical concern for accessibility.
What keeps an omnipotent deity from simply giving us the capacity to speak accurately, or understand easily, or even, skipping the whole process, just implanting undeniable knowledge about itself?
Scripture and Tradition are univocal in proclaiming the unique nature of humanity, in grounding that proclamation in our having been created in the “image and likeness” of God, and in marking us with the “knowledge of good and evil.” A long standing and well developed teaching of Tradition explores and elaborates the specific qualities of this uniqueness to conclude, in sum, that what defines and differentiates humanity is our fundamental moral capacity; that is, that we can reason in a way that allows us to choose to act against the interests dictated by our animal passions and drives.
It does not necessarily follow, we should note, that the reasoned action is always morally better than that determined by our drives. On the contrary, this same human capacity may be put in service of ends that would violate even the most basic drives of all life (e.g., to live, to expand, and to propagate). All that is secured by the position sketched here is that choice, made possible and informed by reason, is the basic marker of human distinctiveness.
We are defined, then, by a condition of existential freedom and, as Dostoevsky described with style and insight, it is Christ who insists that His salvific message should in no way impinge upon the opportunities for choice entailed by that condition. Such is the nature of humanity – cast in a form generally agreeable to existential atheists (cf. J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness) as well as Catholic Doctrine. Not to have a choice is not to be human and, as a result, a ‘human-without-choice’ is an internally-contradictory construction of the ‘three-sided-square’ or ‘married bachelor’ variety.
A condition of possibility for choice is imperfect knowledge or, more bluntly, ignorance.
As Plato suggests in the Protagoras, “all who do base and evil things do them unwillingly” just because they lack certain knowledge with regard to judgment about and the consequences of “base and evil things.” Roughly sketched, the point is that a life of base and evil activity will necessarily come to a base and evil end. Since no one would choose that end, then it can only be one who was ignorant of the qualitative difference between a good life and an evil life who would choose an evil life (by mistaking it for a good). Even one who would seek to “prove a villain” does not choose the end of villainy but rather chooses only to pursue the seeming good of power by villainous means. All decadence is a kind of stupidity insofar as it mistakes that which is destructive [“evil” in even a naturalist moral sense, certainly] for a good and thereby indulges it.
If we accept this idea that “evil” is only possible as a choice when one is ignorant of its nature as evil, then at some sufficient state of knowledge the idea of choice would be rendered trivial. The British comedian Eddie Izzard offers a usefully clear illustration of the absurdity of such a “choice” [it’s from his Dressed to Kill performance and, if you’re at all into this sort of humor (i.e., British and Monty Pythonesque), I highly recommend it]:
“…you can’t do that in Church of England, you can’t say, ‘You must have tea and cake with the Vicar, or you die!’ You can’t have extreme points of view, you know. The Spanish Inquisition wouldn’t have worked with Church of England.
‘Cause that’s what it would be. ‘Tea and cake or death? Tea and cake or death? Tea and cake or death!’
‘Cause, ‘Cake or death?’ That’s a pretty easy question. Anyone could answer that.
‘Cake or death?’
‘Eh, cake please.’
‘Very well! Give him cake!’
‘Oh, thanks very much. It’s very nice.’
‘You! Cake or death?’
‘Uh, cake for me, too, please.’
‘Very well! Give him cake, too! We’re gonna run out of cake at this rate.’…”
Though we may be ignorant with regard to the nature of death and – more importantly – the quality of the cake, even our limited experience gives enough certainty to reasonably presume that this will not be the cake we would literally rather die than eat. As a result, a “choice” of this sort is too trivial to deserve the term (let alone serve as existential support for humanity as such).
Why couldn’t God have given us choice and perfect ignorance?
If a surfeit of knowledge effaces choice, then we might wonder what would become of choice in an extremity of ignorance. Could you be said to have a choice (in a non-trivial sense) if you have the capacity to choose but are not aware of the options between which you might choose?
Imagine a bowl of strawberry ice cream before you, available for your consumption. There is also an equal quantity of chocolate ice cream in the freezer for which you are free to exchange the bowl before you but you are perfectly ignorant with regard to its presence. In this case, do you have a choice between strawberry and chocolate ice cream?
Following the account of Genesis (as read through the interpretive lens of Tradition), then it would seem to be that this form is at least choice enough to ground human distinctiveness, since it appears to be the condition in which humanity was created. We need not linger too long over the idea of this created condition of humanity, however, since that is not the condition in which we currently live.
The account of the Fall describes the acquisition of knowledge about the options open to the power of choice and, in conjunction therewith, the first decadent exercise thereof. The original sin with which we are all tainted [and for which, lest we forget, the blood sacrifice is read as having forgiven] is that of having chosen to prefer the human will over the divine (cf. CCC 396-398). Insofar as our animal drives and passions (including, but not limited to, sexual licentiousness) can short circuit and/or be rationalized by our reason [rationalization being an abuse of that capacity], we enter into the state of both imperfect ignorance (by having knowledge of the choice) and imperfect knowledge that makes possible the continual conscious choice between good and evil – with enough awareness to desire the good (“the natural moral law,” cf. CCC 1956) but enough ignorance to mistake, and even be inclined towards, the evil (“concupiscence,” cf. CCC 405).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”
Here at last we come to the crux of the issue.
Insofar as this sacrifice is to be understood as a loving act, however, it still remains to examine the nature of love – both in its divine perfection and its human experience. By this exploration, we may begin to understand the necessity of the Passion and Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The Love of God includes our freedom; to love God requires it.
There is an ambiguity in the phrase “the love of God” in that it can refer either to the love that God has for us or to the love we have for God. On either side, love is of the same kind but it differs in quality and degree. The love God directs towards us is of course perfect and that which we offer—to God and to each other—is, as we are, imperfect. Unlike other perfections, however, God’s perfection in love can be thought with relative ease by simply thinking through love itself.
Love is not conditioned by reciprocity.
An action done in love does not seek repayment. Love is an end in itself. If you do or give to another in order to receive in exchange, then you have not loved so much as bought or sold. Love is an action, not a transaction. Where an acquisitive self-interest is served, the only love that might remain unmarked by it is self-love; but where that is the case we see that the transaction entered into with any other is only in service of a self-directed action of love and is not truly the loving act.
In the human condition, we may only rarely (if ever) be certain that what we call or intend to be “acts of love” are indeed actions and not transactions. It is this unclear admixture of motivations that makes human expressions of love uncertain and imperfect. Evidence that we are aware of this permeates our popular culture. How many times, for example, will we tell the story of the person who hides his or her economic or political or aesthetic strength in order to ensure that a suitor, “really loves me for me”?
The divine condition, however, does not suffer from any such admixture or uncertainty. The love of God may serve no acquisitive self-interest precisely because there is nothing His self might acquire. Deficient only in need and desire, His action towards us as His ‘other’ cannot be a transaction. God’s love can only love as and for love and, in this, it is perfect.
Love seeks the fulfillment of the beloved.
Here again I take recourse in pointing out the lived truths that generate clichés and tropes. I should be quite surprised if you are reading this and yet have not frequently come across (or been party to) instances where one lover says to another, “Your happiness lay in a place I cannot go but, because I love you, I want you to go,” or something to that effect. [I’m flashing on the ending to, of all things, Harry and the Hendersons, which is a very silly example but one which works nonetheless.] We regularly call on ourselves to “set free” that which we love just because that’s what love is.
It is not, however, to mere hedonism or to some passing, material happiness that we “free” our beloved. The “happiness” our love wants for the beloved is fulfillment. For it is in the fullest possible actualization of the beloved’s nature that love finds its greatest expression. The egoism of the lover wants also to be that which accomplishes this actualization and, hence, our tendency to cling to the beloved.
Nevertheless, insofar as we love them, what we want for our loved ones is that they be fully what we love.
The same applies equally to divine love and, as a result, God’s love seeks the fulfillment of our essential humanity, and that of course entails our freedom. What differentiates God’s love on this level is that, unlike the lover who may not be able to fulfill the beloved, it is always the case that our fulfillment is directly proportional to our love of God. In this way, God’s love calls us to love God—not because God needs our worship but only because our fullest actualization comes only in loving God. For those reasons noted in the previous sections, we do not know that this is the path to our actualization and, as it turns out, there is yet another reason for God not to just come right out and tell us.
Love cannot be compelled.
While it would seem to be the case that we cannot reason our way into choosing to love, by the same token neither can that response be forced by an outside agent. Obedience and certain behaviors that mimic the behaviors of love can be coerced but such mimicry is never acknowledged as being love itself. Such acts are only love in the same way that, in the portrayal of love on stage, two actors playing the roles of Romeo and Juliet “love” each other. A love under compulsion is only ever reduced to a transaction [I’ll “love” you so that you won’t hurt me]. Insofar as the love of God is the proper response to God’s love (cf. Mt. 22:37-38), to force that response would be to negate it.
We can only love God on the condition that we have the capacity not to love God.
As noted above, imparting the knowledge directly would efface the possibility of this very choice that defines human nature. It is necessary for love, then, that we be maintained in a state of imperfect ignorance with regard to God. However paradoxically—and here we tread on common ground with regard to faith—God’s love is manifest in His having given to us the responsibility for our fulfillment by leaving us free to choose against it. Oddly enough, the existential atheism of Sartre comes to what is essentially the same conclusion, saying, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (Being and Nothingness).
That there is a Commandment to love God does not change this because it is a “commandment” only insofar as all natural laws might be said to be ”commanded.” Hunger is alleviated by eating, let me then “command” you to eat if you are hungry; Exhaustion is alleviated by sleep, you must therefore follow the “law” to sleep if you are tired. In the same way, you are commanded to love God if you would be fulfilled. The First Commandment is not given as a threat but as an instruction, which it must be if only because love cannot be offered under the compulsion of a threat.
And let’s take a moment to make clear that the fear of damnation is not the love of God. Anything done to avoid an object of fear is done as a transaction and, thus, not an action of love.
Love gives all to and for the good of the beloved.
The love of God is in His offering, without admixture of self-interest, the means and opportunity for our fulfillment and perpetuation without condition. This is the offering of love because it is “the good of the beloved” according to love. What is given in love, then, is love itself and, in being both the means and the end, it gives itself over even to rejection by the beloved. When we say that God forgives us because He loves us, we mean that He gives us the choice again (and again and again and seventy times seven times again cf. Mt. 18:21-22) to accept or reject His love. He continues to offer us the salvation of being fulfilled in His love despite our continued rejections, despite our distrust and unbelief, despite our repeated insistence that we are most free when enslaved by our passions for their indulgence. This much He gives and, still more, He loves us in our radical freedom enough that he would not efface it even when He knows how many will persist in rejecting Him.
Thus we arrive at an answer to the complaint,
Why couldn’t God just forgive without sacrifice?
According to the line of thought developed here, He certainly could (and for that matter, maybe even did) but then how could He inform us in a way that would not destroy the very humanity He saved? Inspire another prophet? Who could accept it? [Besides, it would seem He tried that with John the Baptist and, well, we know how that turned out for John.] Consider this, that even with the horror and scandal of the Incarnation and Passion, there are many who reject this loving forgiveness. How many more would reject it had it been merely ‘announced’ without a most spectacular spectacle?
[All of which is to say nothing of the theological issues surrounding the economy of salvation, which I’ve shelved in pursuit of a very human understanding. I would like to note, nonetheless, that what I’m telling is not the whole but just a part.]
Why was blood sacrifice necessary?
At least in part, because that was the only manner of spectacle we might find compelling and acceptable enough to move our hearts towards love while satisfying our minds that “justice” had been fulfilled. Where God is understood as both the source and fulfillment of life, a sin against God is a a sin against life and, we insist, that life must be answered with life; that sin against life demands life in payment. The Pedagogy of God relieves our ignorance slowly and in stages, that we may grow into the realization of its truth while maintaining our choice. Our history of making blood sacrifice in expiation of sin led us to an expectation, and even to demand, that blood be offered transactionally in exchange for forgiveness because we did not yet understand the perfections of God’s love.
It was not that God needed blood in order to forgive but that we needed blood in order to have the chance to accept forgiveness.
A leader without followers is just a person going for a walk; that we might follow, He bled.
In working through these ideas I opened some new avenues for understanding the Eucharist. As long as this post is, however, I think I’ll save that for another time.