David L. Weddle believes sacrifice is “the most common theme in religion” (ix), and defines sacrifice as “a costly act of self-giving, in denial of natural inclinations, that is offered in suspense, under conditions that threaten failure, for the purpose of establishing a relation with transcendent reality” (22). Framing his inquiry as a quest for understanding sacrificial motivation across traditions, this ambitious book combines theoretical explanations with historical surveys, finally concluding with moral judgments about the proper role of sacrifice in the contemporary world. In the introduction, Weddle follows in part the hypothesis that religions develop social capital to the degree that they exact a price from their followers in the pursuit of salvation. Those familiar with the rational choice theory of religion promoted by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge will here recognize a variant of their compensatory understanding of religious action, in which religions induce loyalty among adherents by establishing a high cost to be paid in return for an eventual payoff in the currency of transcendent goods. Weddle parts ways with the rational choice theorists, however, by claiming that religious sacrifice is based on the premise that there is no guarantee that giving up tangible goods for transcendent ones will ever pay off. In fact, sacrifice is defined by the very lack of such a guarantee (6) and so proceeds from belief and deliberate opposition to nature, rather than from utilitarian calculation. Chapter 1 details common features of sacrifice. Weddle employs a sharp contrast between concrete goods and abstract hopes to explain the difference between advocates and critics of religious sacrifice. Representatives of the latter group, like Nietzsche, refuse to trade earthly pleasure for spiritual liberation. Weddle criticizes Marcel Mauss’s view of sacrifice as a form of gift exchange, because such a position domesticates transcendence in a manner incompatible with Abrahamic theisms. In contrast to Mauss, Weddle tells us that Pascal and Kierkegaard appreciated the inevitable suspense accompanying sacrifice, the uncertainty that the religious gift one abandons will be returned or reciprocated. The Tanakh witnesses to the laments accompanying failed sacrifices, while the real-life complexities involving the exchange of the tangible for the intangible invite moral danger into the sacrificial arena. Weddle’s second chapter surveys theories of sacrifice propounded by pioneering figures in the sociology of religion—Durkheim, Mauss, and William Robertson Smith. Durkheim’s interpretation of sacrifice as an enactment of social stability founders on the historical example of reformers who often seek to transform social order rather than uphold it through their sacrifices. Mark Taylor and René Girard highlight the manner in which violent sacrifice overlaps with communal structures. Weddle then cites Nancy Jay to challenge Girard’s view that society requires sacrifice, preparing the groundwork for his conclusions at the end of the book. Identifying violence as the basis of society is not a value-free observation, says Weddle, but the promulgation of Girard’s pessimistic ideology. Both Jay and Grace Jantzen challenge the view that sacrifice promotes social order, at least in forms other than patriarchal and oppressive regimes. Georges Bataille understood sacrifice as liberating victims from commodification and exchange-value; instead of commending traditional sacrificial practices, however, Bataille called for a sacrifice of sacrifice itself, in the hope that the death of God would bring about human fulfillment. Weddle’s chapter on sacrifice in Judaism revolves around the loss of the Second Temple and Judaism’s subsequent interiorization of sacrifice. Deconstructing traditional pious interpretations of the Akedah as a parable about Abraham’s test of faith, Weddle prefers Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s explanation that Abraham’s own desire to prove his loyalty to God is the true motivator for the Akedah, rather than God’s command to offer up Isaac. Derrida too rejects an ethical interpretation of this episode and judges that sacrifice is beyond the confines of ethical critique, but Weddle is not willing to abandon moral scrutiny of sacrificial practice so easily. The screaming protest of Sarah, described in a midrash from the Va-yikra Rabbah, is a protest in which horror at religious sacrifice’s negation of morality and kinship ties is expressed. The sacrificial turn inward after 70 CE means that against the backdrop of exile “the end of animal sacrifice marks the beginning of self-sacrifice” (70), and so Abraham Heschel can describe prayer itself as a sacrifice to the transcendent God. From the kabbalist tradition, Isaac Luria’s alternative rendering of sacrifice is directed at “restoring the lost unity of divine being” (78). Weddle notes that even interiorized sacrifices contain elements of violence: “What is human disappears in sacred fire, not as a gift to be exchanged for heavenly reward, but as total annihilation in which giver and gift are destroyed together along with any future interest” (82–83). The chapter “Sacrifice in Christian Tradition” begins with Paul’s “interpretation of the death of Christ as sacrificial offering to be replicated by self-offering” (102), which becomes normative for subsequent Christianity. In the New Testament gospels, the institution of the Eucharist becomes the ritual enabling participation in Christ’s sacrifice. This proto-canonical theology of sacrifice overcame gnostic opposition in the early common era, and textual narratives of martyrs such as Polycarp and Perpetua provided paradigms to imitate Christ’s passion. Subsequent theologians attempt to reconcile the universal salvific scope of Christ’s redemption with its “historical specificity” (128). Weddle could have employed more recent sources to characterize theologies of sacrifice in the medieval and early modern periods, as both Gustaf Aulén’s Christus Victor and the 1907 to 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia have been superseded by later scholarship, exemplified in the writings of David Power and Robert Daly. Liberal Protestants like Horace Bushnell move away from the earlier propitiatory theologies of sacrifice in the Reformation period and redefine religious sacrifice as moral influence, a trajectory that culminates in the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. The subsequent chapter on sacrifice in Islam provides another overview of interiorized sacrifice. According to the Qur’an, Allāh does not command Ibrahim to sacrifice his son. Ibrahim sees the sacrificial act in a dream, and the question “whether his act deserves moral approval does not arise for most Muslims” (160). Deaths of both Muslim warriors and their opponents in Islam’s earliest centuries are described as sacrifices. Communal context for religious sacrifice in the practices of alms and fasting is based on the conviction that “a sacrifice to Allāh becomes a gift for the house of Islam” (169). Husayn’s death becomes a redemptive sacrificial paradigm for Shiite Muslims, recalled to this day in flagellation and fire-walking rituals during ‘Ashūrā festivals. In the Sufi tradition, Rūmī’s poetry employs erotic language to describe religious sacrifice as an ecstatic annihilation of self, while contemporary jihādists employ the language of self-sacrifice for very different purposes. In the conclusion to the book, Weddle returns to his claim that what defines sacrifice is giving up concrete goods for transcendent goods. Finishing with a demystification of sacrifice on ethical grounds, he claims “sacrifice in defense of abstractions is as dangerous as sacrifice in service of concrete other creatures is admirable” (208). He appreciates the manner in which some in the Abrahamic traditions have shifted the justifications for sacrifice from religious “utopian visions for humanity” (209) towards moral idealism based on common good. Weddle’s survey is helpful in its historical scope, and he writes with sensitivity to ongoing changes in theological and ideological justifications for sacrificial practices. His coverage of the decline of the sacrificial cult in the early rabbinic period and early Christianity is particularly elucidating. His concluding moral position, however, is dependent on his opening contrast between immanence and transcendence, one that has affinities with Georg Simmel’s definition of sacrifice as transcendent exchange. That contrast remains questionable. In short, Weddle holds that religious sacrificers fail to demonstrate that their wager of faith delivers its transcendent promises, and he hopes the impetus for sacrifice can be channeled instead in a communitarian and socially responsible direction. But do religious sacrificers in these three traditions understand their ritual logic in terms of utopian transcendence? In the book of Genesis, Abraham is promised tangible benefits in terms of land and descendants. Christians’ traditional belief in the resurrection of the body not only opposes Weddle’s assertion that “there can be no immortality in embodied form” (196), but also complicates the transcendent-immanent dichotomy on which the author’s conclusion is based. It remains unclear how the Palestinian intifada and Boko Haram jihādists Weddle profiles are killing others “for the sake of an abstract ideal” (200). Like Abraham in Genesis, possession of territory is offered as justification for their actions, and in the modern era this struggle takes place against the backdrop of colonialism and its aftermath. While it is tempting to hope that a new axial age will induce a continued interiorizing trend in sacrificial logic and praxis, adherents of these different monotheisms will need further convincing to “reimagine the ideal of sacrifice as offered in the service of our fellow creatures rather than to defend and sanction abstract visions of divine will and transcendent perfection” (210). As the oftentimes violent legacy of monotheism shows, in the minds of religiously inspired sacrificers, the divine will can be terribly concrete. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 13, 2018
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