Is Sam Harris Unaware of “No-Self” in Jesus’ Sacrifice?

In the second night of the debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in Vancouver on June 24, 2018, Harris said this in regards to the concept of human sacrifice.

In the second night of the debate between Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson in Vancouver on June 24, 2018, Harris said this in regards to the concept of human sacrifice:

Christianity is actually a cult of human sacrifice. Christianity is not a religion that repudiates human sacrifice. Christianity is a religion that says, actually, no, human sacrifice is necessary and there was only one that in fact was necessary and effective, and that was the sacrifice of Jesus. And I think that is, when you dig into the details, not only a morally uninteresting vision of our circumstance and how we can be redeemed, it’s morally abhorrent.

I find it curious that Harris seems to be unaware of the strong connections and similarities between the mythology of Christ’s sacrifice and the Eastern Buddhist concept of no-self, non-self, or anatta/anatman. Harris has himself discussed at length the idea of the illusion of self, and that the central endeavor of many mystics throughout history has been to lose the sense of “self,” including Jesus. Harris has noted this:

So this is classically described as self-transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical, new-age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious people are afraid to throw out. If you want to take seriously the project of being like Jesus or Buddha or whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying is that it’s a real experience, it’s clearly an experience that people can have… it does tell you something about the nature of human consciousness…

And it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary self, if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness, your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts.

Harris concedes and even values that the core of the phenomenology of the mystics like Jesus and Buddha is likely self-transcendence or ego transcendence. You lose your sense of a unitary self and you feel at-one with all experience, identical with the All or Absolute. You are no longer separate from the objects of experience, but are at-one with all things. All things are perceived in nonduality or oneness. There is no separate self, or subject, that perceives objects “out there,” but everything is realized as one with one’s own consciousness. Consciousness becomes inseparable from the entire cosmos.

I’ve discussed this at more length in a previous post. As I said there:

In Christianity, I think this experience is the core of the at-one-ing sacrifice, even the sacrifice of one’s egoic self, the submission of one’s personal psychological will, the surrender of an independent sense of self and identity, so as to perceive a greater truth about being and existence. What is that truth?… In short, it is that one’s greater truer Self is, in fact, Christ. It is to know that one’s incarnation in this material body is a perfect expression of the source of all creation, the “Father” of the world, even the universe itself. It is to know that all things incarnate or materialized are a perfect expression of this universe. When the perception of one’s localized skin-bounded “self” falls away, one’s consciousness expands to become at-one or in union with all things in the perceivable universe. There are no boundaries anymore to self, to consciousness, and it becomes infinite and inclusive of all things.

It seems that Harris is likely aware that this self-transcendence, sometimes called “ego death,” can be a painful process, and can, in fact, actually feel like a “death” of one’s self, one’s identity. It can feel like one is sacrificing one’s very self on the altar, or on a cross. The Apostle Paul seemed to feel this way when he realized Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

The “I” that no longer lived seems to have been Paul’s sense of ego, his small “self,” which he transcended to realize that it was Christ that lived in him (note that Paul was clearly not yet physically dead when he wrote this). What was this “Christ” that Paul realized? It seems he knew it to be a Love that included all beings, all creations as parts of the Whole that is the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 and Ephesians 4:1-16). Or in other words, Paul realized that all beings are part of Christ, and that he was a part of this Whole as well.

That sounds very much like the Buddhist ideas of no-self, realizing the Buddha-nature, or even the Hindu ideas of Atman is Brahman, or the true Self being One with all things in the highest Ultimate Reality. Many others seem to agree that these ideas are all quite similar, even among the Buddhist and Hindu ideas, which sometimes seem at odds. For example, Aldous Huxley wrote:

…when he insisted that human beings are by nature ‘non-Atman,’ the Buddha was evidently speaking about the personal self and not the universal Self. The Brahman controversialists, who appear in certain of the Pali scriptures, never so much as mention the Vedanta doctrine of the identity of Atman and Godhead and the non-identity of ego and Atman. What they maintain and Gautama denies is the substantial nature and eternal persistence of the individual psyche…  About the existence of the Atman that is Brahman, as about most other metaphysical matters, the Buddha declines to speak… (The Perennial Philosophy, 15)

When Gautama realized no-self and became enlightened as the Buddha, he also used the word Tathagata to refer to himself, which happens to mean something like “one who has thus gone.” And the nirvana he attained was a “blowing out,” an “extinguishment,” an “extinction.” The one who had gone, who was extinguished, seems to have been Gautama’s egoic “self.” That “self” was sacrificed.

The idea of the human sacrifice of Christ as it has been embedded within the mythology of Christianity seems to be pointing to a very similar idea which Harris values in meditation, contemplation, and classical mysticism. Not only is a “human sacrifice” necessary for one to come to the highest spiritual realizations, perhaps even enlightenment or salvation, but we must all pass through that “human sacrifice” of the egoic separate “self” to realize Christ, Atman, Buddha-nature, the no-self, the true Self. I’ve written about this in the Judeo-Christian traditions more at length previously.

When we really “dig into the details,” I think this is what we really find in Christianity, particularly in the more mystical schools, which Harris should be familiar with. So it should not be the idea of “human” sacrifice, or what seems to really be “self” sacrifice, that is “morally abhorrent” to Harris, but the idea that a human being or any human being must be put to a bloody and bodily execution in order to redeem other human beings from their sins (or what is perhaps the penal substitution theory of atonement). It is this literal interpretation of the Christian narrative that it seems Harris finds “morally abhorrent,” and in many ways I agree with him, as I think many other progressive and mystically-oriented Christians would as well.

I’m not sure if Jordan Peterson knows about these mystical interpretations of Christ’s sacrifice, which have been embedded within the Christian narrative and mythology, but it seems like it could have made more progress in the discussion with Harris than the psychological interpretation of sacrifice as “delayed gratification” which Peterson offered.

I would also note that such ideas of “self” sacrifice also appear in the mythologies and mystical traditions of Islam too, which is another one of Harris’s favorite religions to criticize for its literal interpretations (as well as many other religions). Why Harris does not want to explore the mystical traditions of the Western religions, and how these have interpreted the stories and doctrines and books, is uncertain. He seems much more comfortable talking about mysticism from Eastern points of view, but declines to investigate it in the West.

Overcoming the literalism and fundamentalist dogmatism that Sam Harris finds so problematic and “abhorrent” in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic West seems like it may only come through appealing to its deeper mystical and contemplative insights, finding the “important psychological truths in the rubble of the religious institutions,” as Harris has previously said, not throwing out the religions altogether. There is a baby in this bathwater! Why doesn’t Harris seem at all interested in the baby in the West’s bathwater? Is he unaware of the baby, or does he think the West’s religions are too far gone to ever consider the baby in them?

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One thought on “Is Sam Harris Unaware of “No-Self” in Jesus’ Sacrifice?

  1. Really appreciate your thoughts here, Bryce. Especially found interesting Sam Harris’s quote about the cult perspective. Though, I would challenge the notion that a bodily sacrifice is morally abhorrent. Both logical analysis and Orthodox Christianity (which holds a “literal interpretation” on this subject) affirm the inherent attachment between the physical and spiritual:

    When we suffer, there is both a “mystical” component and a physical component. If a child is hurt physically, his mother kisses his wounds and desires to physically restore him. This costs her physical materials and physical energy. It is not enough to simply tell the child sweet nothings to emotionally take care of him. How can we truly love someone sacrificially while taking no physical action?
    When we flourish, there is again both a “mystical” component and a physical component. When we’re excited, our hearts race. When we’re with someone we love, there is a physical fluttering in our stomach. When we’re at peace, our cortisol levels and other stress hormones are lower. How can we experience the full spectrum of human emotions without any physical change in our bodies?
    Jesus had a body. He was not an ethereal spirit floating around, temporarily becoming physical when he touched and healed the blind. He was physically baptized in water. He physically multiplied bread and fish to feed people. When he appeared to his disciples after his death, he had physical holes in his hands and let his disciples touch them (John 20:27). We cannot pick and choose what the Bible says on his spiritual teachings, while ignoring the fact that aspects of his physical nature are all over the Gospels.

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