Not All Sacrifice Saves

Sacrifice in the popular mindset entails a “giving up” or a “destruction” of something one loves. The word can also involve a calculative risk, wherein one surrenders what one values to get something of greater value in return. Robert Daley rightfully indicates that these prevailing notions of sacrifice represent pastoral and theological challenges.[1] Negative conceptions can be harmful because they sever us from our loves. Scheming notions can turn us into fratricidal envious individuals who maneuver against each other to get a bigger piece of the pie. Nothing heroic or saintly exists in such ideas of sacrifice. There can be, however, a heroic form of sacrifice that is detrimental to the human spirit, specifically when it takes the form of mastery over and against others. This hypertrophy of sacrifice with its language of heroism and conflict can seduce persons into a cult of hardness or virile fundamentalism, living in a self-absorbed dualistic “us” vs. “them” universe.

Recent history has been marked by those yearning for self-mastery in the face of death and denying modernity’s tendency to reduce the individual to the lockstep of need and gratification. In the prologue to Nazism, for example, Ernst Jünger—a core figure of the Conservative Revolutionary Movement—adopted a Nietzsche-inspired response to the societal crises of the Weimar Republic, a response rooted in the belief that self-sacrificial militant heroism could resolve discontent with modernity. However, what of those few who rejected these desires to exert supremacy over all? Such opponents offered a contrasting re-humanization amidst the feelings of loss, disorientation, and estrangement, often at significant cost. This essay examines a Christian rejection of the perversion of self-sacrificial heroism. The witness of Alfred Delp, a martyred Jesuit priest, illustrates a theology of Christian sacrifice articulated against a sacrifice grounded in the struggle for self-mastery and domination. In his witness, Delp reveals a more authentic and no less demanding existence that comes not from acquiring self-mastery but rather from an emptying out of the self (an indiferencia) through a radical dependence upon God.

Ernst Jünger: The Hypertrophy of Sacrifice

Ernst Jünger, one of Germany’s most controversial 20th century writers, served as an intellectual shock trooper for the radical Right in Germany, especially after the Great War. A decorated soldier of the First World War, an activist of the interwar period, and a military officer during the Second World War, Jünger was an outspoken critic of the Weimar Republic’s ideals of liberty, ease, and comfort. He saw the nihilism of European civilization as a whole in the bourgeois individual’s sensitivity to pain, inward acts of cowardice, signs of mediocrity, and decay.[2] Rejecting liberal democracy, he advocated in its place an authoritarian nationalism, affirming the centrality of conflict in the human condition.

Due to his prominent war veteran status and his writings against the Weimar Republic that appeared in right-wing military journals, Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels tried to recruit Ernst Jünger into their ranks. Though there was some reciprocation, he grew to reject the Nazis because of their racism. Nonetheless, Jünger became a canonical writer for the Third Reich. His writings on the First World War became indispensable reading for officers in the Wehrmacht. At the conclusion of Storm of Steel, his biographical account of trench warfare, he writes, “Today we can no longer understand the martyrs who threw themselves into the arena. They were superior to all humanity, all phases of pain and fear. Their faith today, however, no longer exercises a living force.”[3] Here Jünger also criticizes early 20th century Christianity as a spent faith. If a faith community no longer moves persons to sacrifice themselves then it will wither away and die, becoming irrelevant in the world. The contemporary decline of Christianity, according to Jünger, serves as a warning for any society wishing to preserve and grow its greatness: it must nurture in persons the desire to sacrifice their lives. As such, democratic and bourgeois ideals of equality and comfort, in Jünger’s view, would hinder Germany’s capacity to “breed the type of men” who desire to be “martyrs.”

Notwithstanding, Jünger’s understanding of sacrifice goes beyond an act that calls to preserve a tradition or witness a universal truth. His excoriation of modernity during the interwar period is better described as “revolutionary conservative,” because it consists of a desire to “chart a new, post-humanistic vision of man.”[4] He saw in technology the fountainhead of a new type of human, one who—in an expression of the twentieth century's will to power—would master the fear of pain. United with the machine, the new, post-human being would be impervious to killing, suffering, and dying.

In On Pain, written a year after the election of Hitler to the German chancellorship, Jünger depicts Germany’s metamorphosis from a decadent democratic society into a totalitarian one, announcing a new metaphysics of pain. The central concept of this work is not only “pain” but “suffering” of every kind. Suffering, in this broader sense, is seen as integral to the human condition, and the manner in which it is endured and conquered can make one fully human. Thus, he heralds the rise of a new type of human being, who can reject the comfort and mediocrity of modernity and inflict and embrace suffering in a detached manner. In a passage that comments on Japan’s development of manned torpedoes, Jünger praises this new being, who should be the new measure of human flourishing:

This new weapon has an astounding feature. It is no longer guided mechanically but by a human device—to be precise, by a human being at the helm, who is locked into a tiny compartment and regarded as a technical component of the torpedo as well as its actual intelligence. The idea behind this peculiar organic construction drives the logic of the technical world a small step forward by transforming man in an unprecedented way into one of its component parts.[5]

This dystopian celebration of violence establishes killing one another, even oneself, as part of life’s goal. One’s embeddedness in the machinery of war becomes an expression of one’s manliness and superiority over others, and most significantly, one’s mastery over the fear of pain. He continues:

To link another thought to the idea of the human projectile, it is obvious that with such a stance man is superior to every imaginable multitude of individuals. His superiority, of course, is still given even when not armed with explosives, for we are not dealing here with superiority over the space in which the law of pain rules. This superiority is the highest; it bears within itself all other forms of superiority.[6]

All of this reads like a nightmarish vision of sacrifice, but for Jünger, the conquest of the fear of pain, out of an uncanny marriage between military technology and the human, gives birth to the heroic person. In Jünger’s eyes, the suicide torpedo bomber is the contemporary martyr who strives for greatness against the mediocrity of the age. His desire to rehabilitate chaos and violence emerges is a reaction against a perceived radical immanence that reduces society into bourgeois comfort and lifestyle. The manned torpedo bomber not only dominates others, but also creates himself in the process of overcoming others, and in overcoming the fear of suffering and death. The suicide bomber is more active and alive than the conformist middle-class German because the former is willing to accept individual suffering and death as a sacrifice to create a newer and stronger world, which includes the creation of a more heroic type of individual.


Jünger considers the union between the human and the military-industrial complex “a mark of superior achievement when life gains distance from itself or when it can sacrifice itself.”[7] Leveraging modernity’s technological achievements can bring forth a new human characterized in terms of military conquest: “a more hardened and more invulnerable type.”[8] Technology had become the medium of the will to power, and it was the German radical right’s response to the degradation and reduction of life in modernity. Their reaction to the leveling of society was defined by a disciplined will to violence established by this new breed of persons, who are willing to sacrifice others, and even themselves, in the search for the great, heroic life.

To critique Jünger’s hypertrophy of sacrifice from a Christian perspective, one needs a person who testifies to his God against both the immanence of modernity and its militant discontent. He illustrates to the “tired” modern that there is a “more” to existence. To the active nihilist, the religious person manifests that he is not seeking mastery over reality by means of his talents or power. He is also not trying to please a fearsome God with his asceticism. Instead, the Christian testifies that sacrifice is at heart a profoundly relational reality, rooted in the self-giving love of God, and he invites men and women to enter into this dynamism.

Alfred Delp: Kenotic Sacrifice

In light of Jünger’s cult of heroism and hardness, Delp did not contest the distortion of sacrifice with an appeal to modesty and tolerance. Instead, he insisted on a demanding and exacting life. His confrontation with his society’s worship of power can be gleaned from a retreat talk. In July 1941, at the height of Germany’s military success in the initial years of the Second World War, Alfred Delp offered a Triduum to his brother Jesuits in Munich. During the three-day retreat, titled “The Image of the Human Person in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus,” he reflected on what it means to be a “great” or “heroic” person, especially as it pertains to the vocation of a Jesuit. The hermeneutical key for the heroic life, as Delp begins, is St. Ignatius of Loyola’s vision that behind everything stands the logic of kenotic love, God’s self-abandonment. Later in the retreat, he speaks of God’s self-abandonment in light of self-sacrificial love.

Divine love possesses the power to transform persons and inspires them towards greatness. This power provides, as Delp puts it, an “abundance of life” that brings one to an awareness that there is something for which one is ready to give oneself over. In Delp’s view, “an abundance of life” involves living through the Holy Spirit, who impels a person to seek not one’s glory but the glory of the divine. If the hypertrophied ego seeks a heroic life through an unrestrained enthusiasm for chaos and destruction, then the en-Spirited “ego” lives a life of radical indifference and for God. The concept of indifference regards the disposition to choose and do God’s will, wherein one is freed from inordinate attachments and passions to love the divine first and foremost.[9] According to Hugo Rahner, “all created things are loved in so far as they are related to Christ Jesus, the creator.”[10] Anyone who acknowledges the distance between God and creatures realizes that God alone can be loved with an ultimate love.

From the standpoint of Ignatian indifference, Delp states that three interrelated seductions threaten modern humanity. The first seduction is a pathos marked by the rejection of divine love. The second is a savage hubris leading people toward the edge of the abyss, in connection with which, Delp mentions Ernst Jünger. The third, in association with Jünger’s dystopic praise of violence, is a spirit of militarization wherein men throw themselves into reckless, warring adventures to become “true men.”

In response, Delp states that believers must confront the degeneration of humanity caught within the hypertrophy of human existence with a Christic-form of existence, which involves a sharing in Christ’s self-sacrificial love, wherein one encounters authentic freedom. Self-sacrifice is the heart of a life lived in a radical indifference. For Delp, self-sacrifice has five steps.[11] The first is there is “a loss.” The second follows closely from the first; the loss is not a mere passive event, rather it is “an act of renunciation.” Thirdly, the act of renunciation enables “a total devotion” of the self to God. Fourthly, if the self-sacrifice is genuine, it ought to reveal “a religious reality—the ultimate supremacy of God.” Fifthly, self-sacrifice is a calling; it is “a life of prayer in flesh and blood.” Delp goes on to say that the principles of self-sacrifice find their embodiment in Jesus Christ, “who has taken up our perversion of existence as an act of his love.” In other words, “The Cross is the place of ultimate reality,” revealing Christ to be the center and form of existence.[12] Here Delp does not deny the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the Cross. That said, as history goes on, the Spirit will continue to impress the grace of the Cross onto the lives of believers. Our discipleship, having the shape of the Cross, arises from God’s self-sacrificial love in his Son for the world. The cruciform life is at its heart other-centered. Overall, authentic Christian sacrifice is the living out of the Christian life in the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit that was in Jesus for the sake of renewing and building relationships.

As if he was anticipating his own death, Delp goes on to say that a disciple who witnesses self-sacrificial love in the Spirit of Christ must be prepared to be rejected by the world. The logic of Christian sacrifice demands from the believer the courage and indifference to testify to God’s cause in a fallen world. Consequently, the cruciform life means that not even one’s death belongs to oneself. God can use one’s death to draw others back to a genuine living. The calling bequeathed a believer can cost him riches, honor, or life, and, thus, requires corresponding courage and obedience. Nevertheless, Delp says that courage and obedience are ultimately rooted in divine love, which he regards as the great power of history. True love is self-sacrificial and can transform the world:

Only self-sacrificial love ignites. An idea is alive because one is ready to die for it. Only a heart can call another heart. How do we represent our faith? Merely as a system or as a fire? Love is the only world-shattering power because the world ultimately comes from love—the Trinity.[13]

For Delp, the self-sacrifice encountered on the Cross is not the first act divine act of love. There are three divine acts of self-sacrificial love. The first act is the creation of the world in the Trinity, and the second act is the Incarnation and redemption of the world in Christ. Now, the third act is the forming of persons into witnesses of Christ through the Spirit for the sake of inspiring others to participate in God’s plan to redeem the world. There is a pattern in these three divine acts of love: self-sacrifice is a divine initiative, remains a continuing process, and creates and renews relationships. Christians, in the Spirit’s power, enter by their life of love in this ongoing divine work to reconcile people to God and one another.

To this end, in light of the challenge of Jünger’s nihilism, Delp is espousing a nascent theology of the saints, based on witnessing divine love in history through a flesh and blood existence under the guidance of the Spirit. In his retreat talk, he refers to such a person as “the lover.” Persons, imbued with and “impelled by the Spirit, engage the world, “representing” and “bearing divine love” in order to “return the world to God.”[14] By their life, “lovers” reveal the Trinitarian love that creates and redeems the world and “become open vessels through which the love of God flows into the world.”[15] Delp goes on to contrast persons who are filled with the Spirit to the “tired” bourgeois and the “predacious” nihilist. The former is one who is no better than a “connoisseur” of comfort and materialism. The latter inhabits the world seeing other beings as “rivals” or “commodities” to be dominated. Lovers, however, see creation as “masterpieces” of the divine artist and other persons as a potential “friends” in God. Notably, Delp argues that one’s neighbor’s rejection of the gift of love does not alter one’s mission. He writes, “Even if we are beaten, our neighbor has a right to divine love. We owe the world to let people know that God loves them. We must keep on trusting in the mission assigned to us, even if the world is cold [to us].”[16] Above all, Christian sacrifice has nothing to do with solipsistic practices to earn salvation or with the destruction of things; rather it is embodied in disciples who in their living and dying reconcile creation to God and one another.

In conclusion, the way out of the grandiosity of the hypertrophy of sacrifice is through the sacrifice of the Cross, where, as Delp argued, the most profound reality is to be encountered. The shape of the Cross manifests two interlocking paths that must be traveled, one vertical and the other horizontal, intersecting in the heart of Christ. The vertical path represents the life lived in obedience to the Father; the horizontal path represents a life lived under the guidance of the Spirit on behalf of the world. As Delp believed, only a heart on fire can revive a dead heart. And only a heart on fire can purify a heart set on the destruction of creaturely relationships.

[1] Robert J. Daly, Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice (New York: T & T Clark, 2009).

[2] David C. Durst, “Translator’s Introduction,” in On Pain (New York: Telos Press Pub, 2008), xxxv.

[3] Ernst Jünger, In Stahlgewittern: Aus Dem Tagebuch Eines Stoßtruppführers (Berlin: Mittler & Sohn, 1926), 282.

[4] Durst, “Translator’s Introduction,” xlv.

[5] Ernst Jünger, On Pain, (New York: Telos Press, 2008), 18.

[6] Jünger, 19.

[7] Jünger, 31.

[8] Jünger, 35.

[9] Hugo Rahner, Ignatius: The Theologian (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 24.

[10] Rahner, 24.

[11] Alfred Delp, “Das Menschenbild Der Konstitutionen Der Gesellschaft Jesu,” in Alfred Delp: Gesammelte Schriften 5: Brief - Texte - Rezensionen, (Frankfurt am Main: Knecht, 1988), 212.

[12] Delp, 212.

[13] Delp, 216.

[14] Delp, 216.

[15] Delp, 216.

[16] Delp, 218.

Featured Image: Luca Giordano, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1695; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Peter Nguyen, SJ

Peter Nguyen, SJ, is a research fellow with the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College and an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto where he trained in the areas of systematic theology and spirituality. Nguyen’s research interest is in the area of the spirituality of Christian martyrdom.

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