The New Fascination of Sacrifice

An Interdisciplinary and Interreligious Research Project (NOSTER thematic research group)

The problem
While being a central characteristic of most religious traditions, the phenomenon of sacrifice is also a category difficult to fathom in the context of modernity. In recent years scholars in cultural anthropology, theology, religious studies, and philosophy have put sacrifice again on the agenda, pointing out the complex and emotionally charged relations between sacrifice and violence, self-sacrifice and autonomy, and religious martyrdom and terrorism. In research and debate, the attempt to get to the heart of the current fascination with sacrifice. This fascination seems to coincide with an increasing dissemination of the term ‘sacrifice’ outside the strictly religious domain, applied to various phenomena within the public and private spheres that relate sacrifice, on the one hand, to self-destruction and merciless terror, but on the other hand to devotion, submission, and self-effacement for the benefit of other people. A sacrifice can also be the expression of gratitude, praise, community spirit, and commitment to the poor. Why is it that sacrifice takes on the appearance of an opaque, ‘old-fashioned religious’ phenomenon, pervaded with strangeness, while it apparently excites a great topical fascination at the same time?

In this research project, we will examine this new fascination of sacrifice both in the light of its classic religious origins and meanings and through the study of present-day appropriations of sacrifice and their interpretation. Our aim is to directly interrelate these two fields of study in an academic discussion. It is important to stress that this will be an interdisciplinary and interreligious academic cooperation involving scholars from different backgrounds and disciplines, with participant from the Netherlands and Flanders.

In this project, on the one side we will follow the actual forms and reflective tracks left by sacrifice as conceptualized and practiced in various religious traditions. In the course of history, sacrifice has undergone considerable transformations within these traditions. Religious developments have changed the idea and practices of sacrifice, while in turn the extraordinary power and impact of sacrifice have made specific contributions to the development of religious practice and reflection. For instance, not only classical antiquity but also Judaism and Christianity have experienced a decisive turn towards ‘the discovery of the inner self during the first centuries of our era (cf J. Assmann). In the history of thought on sacrifice, we can simultaneously notice a transition from literal sacrificing of animals, crops, and libations to more abstract and spiritualized sacrifices in the form of religious study, prayer, charity, and ascetic practices (et G. Stroumsma). Furthermore, the discovery of the inner self has produced new views on corporality and guilt while it has also changed the function and meaning of ritual as such, and these changes have transformed and ‘reinvented’ sacrifice. Buddhism, too, knows a spiritual reinterpretation of sacrifice in Hinduism. Still, Vedic sacrifice is seen as the oldest sacrificial practice in human history (et F. Staal), and to this day sacrifice constitutes the heart of Hindu religion. Sacrifice as conceptualized and practiced in various religious traditions not only has experienced major changes, it has also constantly propelled opposition, legitimization, debate, and reflection. Therefore sacrifice is not only the heart of religious practice but also of formative religious narrative, imagery and dispute. Famous stories from the Torah, the Qu’ran and the Bible, such as Genesis 22, ‘Abraham’s sacrifice’ and the passion of Christ, mirror sacrificial practices and comment on them simultaneously. Theological discussions from the history of religion show the ongoing urge to restate the meaning of sacrifice, evoked by the engraved place the phenomenon occupies in scripture en liturgy. In patristic texts on the biblical figure of Samson, for example, we can find a fierce battle about the question of whether Samson, by destroying the temple, his enemies and himself in one final gesture, was a martyr or a suicide. And the issue of whether Christ’s death on the cross should be seen as a unique and single sacrifice or that, as its consequence, a sacrificial attitude is expected and required from the believer, divides Roman Catholics and Protestants. Is sacrifice either an achievement and a means to influence the deity, or does it actually imply ultimate submission to the source of life? (cf Ivan Strensky, Theology and the First Meaning of Sacrifice, 2003) On the other side, we intend to bring together various present-day approaches to sacr ifice: philosophical perspectives (from the work of, among others, Agamben, Girard, Kristeva, levinas, Nancy, and Zizek); multidisciplinary debates on autonomy and heteronomy; gender-related questions (to what extent is the willingness to make sacrifices traditionally attributed to women, while only men are qualified to the sacrifice’s ritual execution? See, among others, Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations For Ever (1992)); ethnological studies; political issues (terrorism, fundamentalism); and theological disputes.

All together these approaches constitute an exciting challenge for interdisciplinary and socially relevant academic research, as is the aim of this project. We recognize that the term sacrifice refers to a profusion of views and practices, ranging from the actual sacrificing and killing of animals, people or oneself on behalf of a higher good (a deity, an ideal) to the substitute and symbolic sacrificing of crops and gifts. Although it is probably impossible to trace one essential characteristic that is shared by all views on sacrifice and by all sacrificial practices, there are networks of similarities, such as the ritual character of some sacrificial practices, the symbolic meanings of others, the way in which the loss implied in sacrifice is legitimized and assessed, or the gift-like character (in either a generous or economical sense) of sacrifice. In Beyond Sacred Violence: A Comparative Study of Violence (200B), Kathryn McCIymond has distinguished at least six approaches of (views on) sacrifice: as a dramatized myth, as an exchange or trade, as something people eat (a meal or cuisine), as a ritual without function, goal, or (symbolic) meaning (structuralism), as a gender-related issue, and as violence. McClymond, comparative scholar of religion, will be invited in the first phase of the project to elaborate on this approach and to elucidate its value for interdisciplinary and comparative religious research.

Approach / method

In this research project, we will approach the phenomenon of sacrifice from three foci, which enable us to deal with the questions concerning sacrifice in the context of modernity. And, conversely, these foci will provide room to discuss the issues raised by sacrifice and its specific religious connotations to and within modernity. Thematically selected, the three foci will each be addressed by a cluster of

authors who will tackle a particular theme jointly. Central to each cluster is a key narrative about a sacrifice from one of the great religious traditions. The authors are invited to react to this key narrative and to connect it, if possible, to a concrete case from either their own or a different religious tradition (depending on their own choice). There will be a number of meetings (at least two per cluster) in which the authors will discuss and comment on the individual contributions.

1. Sacrifice and Community
How do sacrifice and community relate to each other, (how) do they install each other? To what extent do sacrifices have either a community-forming and consolidating effect, or are they subverting community? To what extent does the sacrifice as cuisine have special meaning here? As a key narrative, or paradigmatic story, we will use (the description of) a sacrificial or reconciliation meal taken from one of the native African religions. Examples of cases that might be juxtaposed to this narrative are the liturgical practice of the Eucharist, and lars von Trier’s movie Breaking the Waves. We will ask the authors of the individual contributions to relate to the paradigmatic story of this cluster, or at least to formulate a response.

2. Sacrifice and Ritual
This perspective deals with the ritual, non-advantegous, and non-functional aspects of the sacrifice. We will pay special attention to the transformation of the Offertory in and through sacrifice. The key narrative, or paradigmatic story, will be a Hindu story about or a description of a sacrifice. Examples of a case that might be juxtaposed to this narrative is the Southern European bullfight, or a sacrificial ritual that raises the matter of dissipation, superfluity, or futility in the sacrifice. We will ask the authors of the individual contributions to relate to the paradigmatic story of this cluster, or at least to formulate a reaction.

3. Sacrifice and Identity
What is the meaning of sacrifice or self-sacrifice for the (de)construction of identity (obtaining an identity by losing it or letting go of it)? Special attention will be paid to gender identity and family ties. As a key narrative we will take the sacrifice of Abraham from the Qur’an. We will ask the authors   of the contributions to relate to the paradigmatic story of this cluster, or at least to formulate a reaction.