Is it possible for a Protestant to be opposed to liberal order? Can Protestantism resist the lure of liberalism or stand up against its bullying? Does it have the resources to mount a fundamental challenge? Terry Eagleton doesn’t set out to answer this question in his recent Radical Sacrifice, but it’s the question the book posed to me.
As his title suggests, Eagleton defines liberalism by a rejection of sacrifice. Liberal wisdom views self-fulfillment and sacrificial self-dispossession as opposites. For Hobbes and latter-day Hobbesians like Ronald Dworkin, self-preservation is our ultimate duty. According to Dworkin, we’re obligated to expend ourselves for others, but only if the cost is tolerable.
Liberalism’s concept of progress is deeply anti-sacrificial. Given what Eagleton calls its “remarkably indulgent view of humankind,” liberalism tries to tinker its way to utopia, adjusting a valve here and pulling a lever there. Political renewal can happen without “that fundamental breaking and refashioning of which sacrifice has been one traditional sign.” Liberal culture rigorously separates life and death, and so misses the sacrificial mystery that “life springs from death.” Sacrifice shatters the consoling myth that “fulfillment can be achieved without a fundamental rupture and rebirth.” Liberalism promises the heavenly city without the appalling mess of apocalypse. It offers resurrection without the cross.
Postmodern anti-liberalism doesn’t recapture the wisdom of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a process of subversion and re-establishment. Eagleton argues that both social order and its dissolution arise from sacrifice. Civilizations are founded by conquest and blood and are subverted by martyrs. Postmodernism celebrates subversion but is hostile to order. If liberalism guards itself from the mutilation sacrifice demands, postmodernism renounces the possibility of a new formation on the far side of sacrifice. Postmodernism preaches an anti-gospel of perpetual dismemberment.
In its animus to sacrifice, as in so many ways, liberal wisdom is what results when Christian critique is turned against Christianity itself. Theological and political liberalism is a Christian heresy that presents itself as hyper-Christian.
Christianity entered the world, after all, announcing the end of sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews contrasts the multiple, yet impotent, offerings of the Levitical system with the once-for-all offering on the cross, which has power to save forever. Deviating from both Judaism and paganism, most Christians gave up animal sacrifice entirely and introduced a nearly unthinkable religion without temples and altars, without blood, fire, and vapor of smoke. When Constantine began to Christianize the Roman world, his refusal to offer sacrifice to Jupiter and his outlawing of sacrifice (alleged by Eusebius) were among his notable achievements.
Yet Christianity retained sacrificial elements—in its atonement theology, its practice and theology of the Eucharist, its vocation of celibacy and theology of alms. That barbaric residue of sacrifice, especially the notion of the cross as a sacrifice, was an offense to Enlightenment reason. During the nineteenth century, theological liberals set out to modernize Christianity by expunging the last remnants of sacrifice and all its trimmings—sin, punishment, law, divine wrath.
Centuries before, the Reformers had already turned Christianity’s anti-sacrificial logic against medieval Christianity. Because Jesus’s death was once-for-all, the Mass cannot be a re-sacrifice of Jesus. Celibacy and alms cannot be pleasing sacrifices to God, because that would turn them into meritorious works. Yet the Reformers weren’t liberals; they didn’t jettison sacrifice. They affirmed the sacrificial atonement theology of the New Testament, taught that the Eucharist involves a sacrifice of praise, and saw union with Christ in self-denial and cross-bearing as the center of the Christian life.
That brings me back to my original question. Protestants can offer a fundamental challenge to liberal order only insofar as we retain, and enhance, the sacrificial dimension of classical Protestantism. We need to confess that Christ’s work is a sacrificial passage through death to life, and recognize that he went to Calvary not to relieve us of the cross but so that we might share in it. We should acknowledge that charity isn’t simply relief for the poor, but, like the alms of Cornelius, a memorial before God (Acts 10:4). The Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise, but more: When we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood we’re conformed to his sacrifice, so that the whole Christian life becomes “reasonable service,” a liturgy of self-offering in which we, like Jesus, are priests of our own self-sacrifice. We should insist that the church’s history isn’t one of smooth progress or piecemeal reform, but of continuous dying and rising.
In short, the only Protestantism that can resist the seductions and intimidations of liberalism is one committed to radical sacrifice.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.