A rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth taught that you should “love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Charles Hartshorne, philosopher of relationship and a twentieth century advocate of the “two great commandments,” added that it should be understood that this means that God wants you to love yourself too.
I quote Hartshorne’s midrash on the great teaching often because, sadly, too many women—and some men too–have been taught to love their neighbors at the expense of themselves, to care for others, but not to care as much for themselves. Indeed theological traditions have often parsed “Christian love” as “self-giving or self-sacrificing love,” comparing it to the self-giving love of God who sacrificed his son that others might live. I think we need to question the notion of self-sacrificing love and to replace it with an understanding of the reciprocal nature of love for self and love for others.
Even when it comes to God, I think we must reject the notion of self-sacrificing love. In the case of the theological trope about a God who loved the world so much that he sacrificed his son, I think we need to think again about what is being said. This theological understanding is rooted in traditions of animal sacrifice in which it is assumed that God demands that people kill animals in religious rituals in order to demonstrate their devotion to God. Did God in fact ever require any such thing? How could God ask one of the individuals God loves to sacrifice another individual God loves in order to prove something to God? I suppose God is clever enough never to have made such a stupid request of anyone.
Christian tradition revised the terms of the sacrificial tradition in which the individual sacrifices an animal or–as we have recently been discussing here–a child to God in order to prove something to God. Christian tradition claimed that God is not the one to whom the sacrifice is made; rather, God is the both the sacrificer and the sacrificial victim. Great pathos can be evoked by the idea that God sacrifices his child or himself for the world. However, I would allege that this is a kind of theological pathos we would do well to be done with.
If we take a step back, we can recognize that the concept of blood sacrifice is related to earlier traditions of “giving back” a portion of the harvest “to God” because She was the one who originally “gave life” and with it the agricultural cycles to people. In such rituals, much of what is offered “to God” is then shared in communal feasts, thus completing a cycle of reciprocity: from You I receive, to You I give, together we share, from this we live. To acknowledge the circle of reciprocity is not to “give up” or “sacrifice” what is “you” or “yours.” Rather it is based in a prior understanding of the interdependence of life.
When the interdependence of life is assumed as a beginning point, then we can redefine the love of God as an always generous and giving love, without any need to resort to the notions of sacrifice, self-sacrifice, or sacrificial love. The love of God for the world is better understood through concepts of feeling-with and in-spiring than through concepts of sacrifice or self-sacrifice. God does not have to “sacrifice” anything in order to love the world, for the very nature of God is to love the world. When God loves the world, She feels the feelings of every individual in the world intimately, compassionately, and with concern for the good of every individual in the world. This quite simply is the nature of God. It does God no honor and repays God no respect to assert that God sacrifices herself or any of her children for the good of the world. Indeed such an assertion dishonors God because it assumes that it is not in the “nature of God” to love the world. If the very nature of God is to be loving, then it can requires no sacrifice of God’s “self” for God to love the world.
I hope this short version of the history of ritual and theology sheds some light on the “twisted” (by which I mean sadistic, masochistic, and misguided) nature of some of the central concepts of Christian theology.
To return now to the two great commandments with which I began this essay. There is no need to read concepts of sacrifice or self-sacrifice into the commandments to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Nor are any such concepts implicit in them. What is implied is a simple declarative statement on which the two commandments rest: God loves the world. The syllogism is: God loves the world, therefore, we should love God with all our hearts; God loves the world, therefore, we should love our neighbor and ourselves as God loves us.
This is the great teaching. It did not originate with Jesus. He only transmitted it. The origin of this teaching is the intuition of that life is a gift given to all in an interdependent world. This intuition is found “in the beginning” of all traditions.
For women raised on concepts of self-sacrificial love, this is a healing balm. The commandment for women of our time is that we should love ourselves as much as we love others, that we should give to ourselves as much as we give to others, and that we should care for ourselves as much as we care for others. This truly is a great commandment.
Carol P. Christ created a newly released new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute. It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014. Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.