Saturday, December 14, 2013

Writing Sacrifice into Postmodern Culture

In a recent video presentation on The Eucharist as Sacrifice, Fr. Robert Barron contextualizes 'sacrifice' within the culture of 1st century Palestine. He underscores how the biblical language of sacrifice is received in the religious communities of early Christianity. He also laments the results of his survey of Catholics who largely interpret the Lamb of God as a metaphor for Jesus' gentleness and meekness. He therefore puts in the strong corrective, that, for Jesus's contemporaries, the image of the Lamb could only mean the immolation of Jesus as a sacrifice unto the remission of sins through the agency of His own priesthood.

In colloquial English, 'sacrifice' has many meanings and usages: we can observe a sacrifice fly in baseball, the sacrifice of lab rats that prepares them  for study, the sacrifices some make to achieve their goals, the sacrifices parents might make to benefit their (usually ungrateful) children, the Lenten sacrifices of stuff that's probably not good for us anyway, the sacrifice of soldiers serving abroad during the holidays, and the ultimate sacrifice they might someday make. Sacrality eludes some of these metaphorical usages of 'sacrifice," others are perhaps more in step with it. Few Americans, upon hearing the term, think of the sacrifice on Calvary some 2000 years ago, and what that might have meant then or what that might mean today.

The postmodern turn often dislodges meaning from signs, and signifers from signifieds. This slippage is fundamental to the tenuousness of meaning in contemporary culture (I mean this in a purely descriptive way, and not at all prescriptively). Meanings are lost, found, altered, renewed, rebuilt. Meaning is as unreliable as the culture that creates it. But this postmodern fluidity is more akin to premodern sensibility than to modernism, which always pretends to certainty. It is fascinating that the earliest iconographic sign system of Jesus is not of his crucifixion, but that of a shepherd. In these images, Jesus is the first Christopher, as he bears his symbolic self on his own shoulders, the burden of his sacrificial destiny. It is perhaps ultimately the Johannine Jesus depicted here, the 'good shepherd' of Jn. 10. He is shepherd and lamb, God and man (cf. Ps. 23). I find it hopeful that the hypostatic union cannot be deconstructed, as the sign is uncannily irreducible, its signifier unfloatable.

The Divine Liturgy and Sacrifice of the Mass certainly is, as Scott Hahn has noted, the supper of the lamb. It is the sacred meal of the lamb, for the lamb, of the shepherd, for his flock. All the meanings of 'sacrifice' perichoretically mingle, without confusion, as those at the banquet sacrifice their embrace of all the petty evils that distance them from God, placing them on the shoulders of the lamb, who takes them away. The liturgical and sacramental re-presentation of the event at Calvary has many effects, but one of its more profound effects is the transhistorical sweeping of those participating to the foot of the Cross. The victim is the same, as is the event, as is its finality: one sacrifice, once and for all.  It is a violent effect, perhaps nearly lethal: this very disruption of history unravels the modern insistence on the possibility of history itself, and modernism's own metanarrative. This deconstruction of history and its metanarrative parses the postmodern world, which asymptotically approaches its premodern antecedents,  reinventing the sacred, and sacrifice.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Matter of Irksome Emphasis

Fr. Barron’s wonderfully titled screed on Pope Francis’s becoming Time magazine’s Person of the Year, “Time’s Kantian Wedge” in Real Clear Religion (Dec. 12, 2013), focuses attention on the phenomenon of emphasis. As is his rhetorical wont, Fr. Barron gives his assent to many of the general observations of the current papacy; but then, characteristically (and I might add, effectively) slams on the brakes in hope of awakening a lulled public. Something about the media’s presentation of the pope has irked him.

 He decries the “tendency to distinguish radically between this lovely Franciscan emphasis on mercy and love for the poor and the apparently far less than lovely emphasis on doctrine so characteristic of the Papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. There is actually a good deal of dangerous silliness in this way of characterizing things.” While I am uncertain of just what a radical distinction is, or what is precisely undergoing this kind of distinguishing, certainly it has to do with the manner in which the secular press tries to embrace something about the pope’s message, while not embracing other aspects of the message---the religious stuff, the fundamentally Christian stuff. But what can the secular press embrace but the timeless humanism given a new face by the pope? The pope is evangelizing, not proselytizing: certainly Fr. Barron cannot have any real expectations of the secular press gettin’ religion. So, the secular press sticks to the secular; I don’t see that as an especially bad thing.

 Fr. Barron is also irked by the Kantian turn---the reduction of religion to ethics, especially as such a reduction sometimes reduces further to indifferentism: “ it doesn't really matter what you believe, as long as you are a good person.” It is perhaps a bit unfair to trace all that is lukewarm in contemporary culture to Kant, but I concur with the general point that people of good will need not collapse all they hold true into a false irenicism. Authentic religion certainly matters, and differences are to be respected and understood in authentic dialogue, not dissolved by political expediency into distinctions without differences. Fr. Barron will be glad to know that contemporary philosophers have critically engaged the Kantian turn, in their various versions of object oriented ontology and speculative realism, especially in their dressing down of correlationism.

Kant never meant to be ignorant of history, and his philosphy is the antithesis of indifferentism, yet culture tends to have its way with its giants. And history is always more complicated than the episteme that generates it. Truth be told it sometimes irks me when my co-religionists see Vatican II as erasing Trent, only to be shocked that the Church still celebrates the Communion of Saints, or when my fellow Christians view this pope as espousing fundamentals of Catholic doctrine somehow different from his predecessors, yet are dumbfounded by ‘liberal’ pronouncements on the idolatry of money  that have been in  the magisterium for a hundred years. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s just a matter of emphasis.