In the religions that are familiar to us, the idea of grace is of fundamental importance. The term (Latin gratia) translates a variety of words in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Sanskrit, but all our sacred texts seem to point in the same direction, affirming that God's relation to the world as a whole, and to each of us in particular, is one of giving. The beseeching of God's grace is the central feature of the Anglican liturgy. The great prayer of the Catholic Church, based on a poem in the New Testament, greets the Virgin Mary with the words 'Hail Mary, full of Grace, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus'. The Koran opens with the verse that forms a refrain in the life of all Muslims: bism illah il-raHman il-raHim, in the name of God, full of grace, full of graciousness, as Mohamed Asad translates it, and the root rHm is shared with Hebrew, used often in the Old Testament to denote God's concern for us, his recognition of our weakness, and his abundance of gifts. The idea that the world is sustained by gift is second nature to religious people, who believe that they should be givers in their turn, if they are to receive the gift on which they depend for their salvation.
As I argued in Chapter Four, agape does not raise us to God, but comes down to us from God. It is received as a gift, and then distributed by each of us to our neighbours, as another gift. Hence C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, called it 'gift-love'. It fills the world with the spirit of gift — but not a personal, exclusive or jealous gift, like erotic love. It is a gift that makes no demands; agape pursues the interest of the other and not that of the self. Mephistopheles describes himself to Faust as der Geist der stets verneint, the spirit that always negates. Just so is agape the opposite — the spirit that always affirms, by following the path of gift and sacrifice. Through agape we overcome the guilt of our own existence; we recognize that contingency brings suffering, and that suffering is a call to sacrifice. This spiritual transformation, whereby we come to accept both suffering and sacrifice, and find in them the moral order that makes sense of our lives, is rightly described as a
There is surely a great difference, which we all understand, between seeing something as just there (there for the taking) and seeing it as a gift. Only what is owned can be given, and gifts therefore come wrapped in the perspective of the giver, who has claimed them as 'mine', and also relinquished that claim for another's sake. And the one who receives something as a gift receives it as a mark of the other's concern for him; gratitude is not just normal — it is the recognition that the thing has really been given, and is not the first step in a bargain. Gifts involve conscious reflection on self and other, on rights and duties, on ownership and its transcendence. Hence they can only be offered I to I, and gifts are acts of acknowledgement between persons, in which each recognizes the freedom of the other. What looks like gift in other species is something else: for example, an instinctive withdrawal in favour of a kin-related member of the herd. And as I argued earlier, those evolutionary psychologists who describe the genetically motivated 'altruism' of animals in the language of human self-sacrifice overlook what is most distinctive of the human case, which is the decision to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another. I earlier remarked that it is as nonsensical to speak of the self as an object as it is to speak in the same way of a sake. Perhaps it is worth adding that only a self can understand a sake, and that to make sacrifices for others' sake is to walk with God.
The Christian God is agape, and even in a world
that has launched itself on the path of desecration, he can show himself
in the sacrificial acts of individual people, when they set aside the
call of self-interest and act for others' sake.
The religious frame of mind involves two 'moments' — as Hegel might put it. There is the moment of communion, and the moment of gift. The religious person is the one who experiences the deep need to give thanks; and he experiences this need as a communal impulse, something that he shares and which brings him together with a community, even if only a would-be community, a 'communion of saints' whose 'Holy City' has yet to be realized on earth. His need to give thanks is not circumstantial but metaphysical. It is rooted in the experience of being itself, in his way of understanding what it is to be. Being, for the religious person, is a gift, not a fact. It is through understanding this that we overcome our metaphysical loneliness, and understanding may require privation and suffering, through which we discard the dross of our own distractions. Hence the world, and the objects contained in it, come before the religious consciousness as the signs of another perspective — the perspective that has 'given these things to me'. That perspective, which the Hindus call Brahman, is hidden from us in the way every other 'I' is hidden. But like those other 'I's it can appear in our world as a real presence. The gathering together of the community in the moment of thanks prepares the way for this.
The most important occasions for communal thanks are the ceremonies in which social membership is renewed. For the participants the rite of passage is an enhanced experience of being, in which the aspect of gift is emphasized and solemnized. Birth is a gift of new life; the rite of initiation is a gift of the world and its knowledge to the youth and of the youth to the tribe; marriage is a gift of two people to each other, in which others participate with gifts; the funeral is a service of thanks for a life, and a ritual mourning for someone whose life is thereby replayed in retrospect as a giving, its previous character as a 'taking' entirely expunged.
Gift lies at the heart of sacrificial religion too. The offering at the altar is a gift to the god, who himself returns it as a gift to his worshippers. There is a mysterious feeling of unity that is experienced by the worshippers at this moment — the moment of the sacrament, when what is given is also received, but received in another form. All sacred moments are moments of gift — of gift revealed as the way things are. The distinctiveness of the Christian Eucharist is that it makes this wholly specific. The Eucharist commemorates God's supreme gift, which is the gift of himself — his own descent into the world of suffering and guilt, in order to show through his example that there is a way out of conflict and resentment — a way to restore through grace the givenness of the world.
For me the Christian view of the matter is the one that gives the greatest insight into our situation. The Christian God is agape, and even in a world that has launched itself on the path of desecration, he can show himself in the sacrificial acts of individual people, when they set aside the call of self-interest and act for others' sake. Acts of self-sacrifice appear in the world of objects and causes as revelations: the I that gives itself opens a window in the scheme of things through which we glimpse the light beyond — the I AM that spoke to Moses.
God revealed himself on that occasion as we do — by coming to the threshold of himself. He came before Moses as a point of view, a first person perspective, the transcendental 'I am' that cannot be known as an object but only as a subject. This perspective can become a real presence among us only if it can be revealed in the world of objects, as the human subject is revealed in the human face. But how can this be?
Christianity has an answer to that question and that answer is the incarnation. God, in the person of Christ, is present among us. It is from the life of Christ that we can understand the true nature of God's goodness. Christians believe that, in undergoing crucifixion, Christ took the sufferings of the world on himself — in other words, he lifted suffering out of the negativity in which we tend to view it, and showed it as an attribute of God, something which is not, therefore, alien to the world of creation but an integral part of it. Through suffering Christ showed us that our own suffering is worthwhile, and the occasion through which to grow morally by imitating him. By making himself available for suffering, so to speak, God could make a gift of himself in Christ, a sacrifice which points us towards salvation, by showing that sacrifice is what life on earth is all about.
The power of this idea is evident. It makes the real presence of God easy to understand, because it becomes merely a special case of the real presence of the human subject (an experience that independently dominates the lives of human beings). But it leaves us with a residual concept — that of the Incarnation — every bit as puzzling and mysterious as the one that it set out to explain: a concept that once again lies inexplicably suspended between causation and revelation. So is this as far as we can get? Perhaps it is, from the metaphysical point of view. But from the moral point of view there are a few thoughts to be added, which are thoughts that are as relevant for an atheist as they are for a believer. Indeed it was a non-believer who gave them their deepest expression.
When Wagner set out to write The Ring of the Nibelung he was not a Christian, but an agnostic, heavily influenced by Feuerbach's projectionist account of religion in general and Christianity in particular. But he asked himself an interesting question that Feuerbach had ignored, which is this. Suppose the gods are our invention, made in our own image, infused with our own passions like the gods in Homer, but with the additional attribute of ensuring the maintenance of law and order here below. What would those gods need in order to be truly objects of love? Wagner depicts the attempt of Wotan, king of the gods and lord of the world, to achieve the kind of serenity that comes from absolute control of the universe — a universe that preceded his own rise to power, and which obeys its own inscrutable and primeval laws. He shows that Wotan cannot do this without defying the moral law, and that his status as guardian of law and order is a sham. He is not evil, but he lacks something that is necessary to achieve true virtue. Meanwhile, in his attempt to retain the power that he has unjustly acquired, he creates a race of earthly beings who will have the freedom that he himself no longer possesses and who, guided but not compelled by him, will undo the mischief that he had set in motion by wanting to be the supreme ruler of the world.
The human world that he has created is portrayed in Die Walkure, as a world of struggle and resentment. But it contains two precious attributes that Wotan himself does not possess, though he has a kind of polished veneer that substitutes for them — the attributes of freedom and love. The freedom of the human being, as Siegmund and Sieglinde exemplify it, is the freedom to defy laws, fate, death itself, for the sake of another — the freedom to make a gift of oneself. And this freedom is possible only where there is also suffering, otherwise the gift is costless, and not a genuine sacrifice. Self and sake become one in the moment of sacrifice.
When someone enters the moment of sacrifice,
throwing away what is most precious, even life itself, for the sake of
another, then we encounter the supreme moment of gift.
In the second act of Walkure we encounter this process of sacrificial gift played out in the character of Siegmund, and in the great stichomythic dialogue between Siegmund and Brunnhilde we see a free mortal, accepting death and suffering out of love for another, confronting a cold-hearted immortal, and awakening in her the sense of what she lacks. Siegmund's questions are framed thus. Siegmund's need enters the soul of Brunnhilde and her facade of divine implacability cracks. He forces her to account for herself and in doing so she confronts him I to I, and so falls into the human world of love and suffering. As her divine facade crumbles, a face appears, and it is a face ready for love and destined for sacrifice. In the third act Brunnhilde prepares herself for the trials of mortality. She throws in her lot with the world of human love. But she will suffer as humans suffer, being used and discarded by the person to whom she has made a gift of her entire self.
The third act of Walkure is a profound philosophical reflection on the idea of incarnation, suggesting that the things that we truly value, and which are for us the avenue to meaning, are intimately connected with suffering, and the ability — definitive of our humanity — to accept suffering for the sake of love. Wagner's later works — notably Tristan and Parsifal — take this theme further. But the denouement of the Ring already depends on the idea that the gods achieve redemption only through accepting the condition of mortality, since only this renders them capable of sacrifice and the love of which sacrifice is the proof. In accepting this they too learn suffering. And through this suffering a god acquires the ability to make a gift of himself, by renouncing life (and therefore immortality).
The Ring can be understood as an attempt to show, through artistic rather than intellectual means, the deep connection between freedom and suffering. It is in terms of this connection that we understand the highest form of love — the love in which giving is total. If God is to enjoy that love, and the redemption that is innate within it, the implication is, then he too must be incarnate in mortal form. Love belongs to the human condition, and God becomes a complete object of love by accepting that condition as his own.
Although, as I remarked, Wagner's plot was conceived against the background of Feuerbach's projectionist account of religious belief, it contains an important moral for believers too. It attempts to show at the deepest emotional level, that all that we truly esteem, love included, depends in the end on suffering, and on our freedom to accept suffering for another's sake. This idea is contained in the motive that occurs twice, once in Sieglinde's thanks for Brunnhilde's barely guessed-at sacrifice, and once at the end of the whole cycle, as the waters of the Rhine settle over the wreckage and nature is restored. Suffering is made available to God himself by the act of incarnation, and it is the way — perhaps the sole way — in which he can show that he loves us with a humanly intelligible love, by suffering for our sakes. How to incorporate that thought into a cogent theology of creation is of course a difficult matter — but in itself it is a perfectly cogent thought, and fundamental to the Christian understanding of our relation to God.
So what and where is the face of God for the one who believes in his real presence among us? The answer is that we encounter this presence everywhere, in all that suffers and renounces for another's sake. Things with a face are illuminated by the subjectivity that shines in them, and which spreads around them a halo of prohibitions. When someone enters the moment of sacrifice, throwing away what is most precious, even life itself, for the sake of another, then we encounter the supreme moment of gift. This is an act in which the I appears completely. It is also a revelation. In sacrifice and renunciation the I makes of its own being a gift, and thereby shows us that being is a gift. In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God, who is present too in those places where sorrow has left its mark or 'prayer has been valid'.
We should not be surprised, therefore, if God is so rarely encountered now. The consumer culture is one without sacrifices; easy entertainment distracts us from our metaphysical loneliness. The rearranging of the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as a gift. The defacing of eros and the loss of rites of passage eliminate the old conception of human life as an adventure within the community and an offering to others. It is inevitable, therefore, that moments of sacred awe should be rare among us. And it is surely this, rather than the arguments of the atheists, that has led to the decline of religion. Our world contained many openings onto the transcendental; but they have been blocked by waste. You may think that this does not matter — that mankind has had enough of sacred mysteries and their well-known dangers. But I think we are none of us at ease with the result. Our disenchanted life is, to use the Socratic idiom, 'not a life for a human being'. By remaking human beings and their habitat as objects to consume rather than subjects to revere we invite the degradation of both. Postmodern people will deny that their disquiet at these things has a religious meaning. But I hope that my argument has gone some way to showing that they are wrong.
- See the illuminating account by Max Scheler, 'The Meaning of Suffering', in Max Scheler, On Feeling, Knowing and Valuing, trans. Harold J. Bershady, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- The Feuerbachian allegory that inspired Wagner's original poem and which provides one layer of meaning in a many-layered palimpsest has been authoritatively set out by Paul Heise. See his magisterial analysis of The Ring at Wagnerheim.com.