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Stories of Sacrifice John Milbank Peterhouse, Cambridge 1. The quest for sacrifice The last few years have witnessed several attempts—especially those of René Girard, Walter Burkert, Maurice Bloch, Nancy Jay, Luce Irigaray, JeanJoseph Goux, and earlier, Georges Bataille—to account for religion in terms of the logic of sacrifice (or of other forms of ritual violence), and on this basis to erect a general theory of society. However, since most of these theorists associate religion (at least in nearly all of its historical forms), either with the instigation or else with the perpetuation ofviolence, one might wonder whether what one is confronted with here is but the last gasp of enlightenment, were it not for the fact that often these thinkers no longer suppose that religion can easily, if at all, be thought away. All the same it is striking that, despite these various new attempts to make sacrifice central, and to seek an all-encompassing sociological 'explanation' ofreligion in terms of its links with violence, a number of ethnographers and historians ofreligion, especially those writing within a structuralist tradition, have been pointing in a completely different direction. Just as many writers now argue that there is no such thing as 'religion', univocally definable in such a fashion as clearly to distinguish it from culture in general, so the historian of Greek religion Marcel Détienne has claimed that there is no such thing as 'sacrifice', a concept which he considers belongs in the rubbish-dump of such other nineteenth-century western projections as 'totem', 'taboo', 'mana', and 'the sacred' (1-20). However, the African ethnographer, Luc de Heusch, whilst accepting Detienne's genealogy of the anthropological category of sacrifice nonetheless avers that, if we confine ourselves to the minimum cognitive demand for an element of "gift to supernatural beings" on the one hand, and some form of "violent division" on the other, we have a definition that will pick out a cultural feature nearly always present, and sufficiently distinctive to be recognizable (23). Such a 76John Milbank modest definition is, perhaps, acceptable, but only with this proviso; from another perspective it may be equally valid to view 'sacrifice' as but a species ofthe genus 'offering' which need not necessarily be violent or divisive. And if the species 'sacrifice' transgresses the bounds of the genus 'offering' in terms of a thematic of sundering, it is equally true that offering, as a subcategory of sacrifice, can transgress it in the direction of a private donation, not linked to any public altar, a center whose function is often to rale through divisions. If one accepts, in this fashion, that sacrifice is not a pure, intact genus, then de Heusch's definition may stand. However, as he insists, it does not at all follow that a universal feature must possess a universal identity, and then a universal meaning and explanation. On the contrary, a violent (or rather, apparently violent) offering, may play an utterly different role as well as many diverse ones, within different ritual economies. For example, it may or may not be expiatory, it may or may not be substitutionary, it may or may not imply se/f-sacrifice. Moreover, one should note how, on this minimum definition, sacrifice is fractured between the sphere of gift (implying no necessary division ofeither the giver or what is given) on the one hand, and violence on the other. This fracturing at least holds open the possibility that sacrifice, in many or all instances, does not stem from the single root of either imposition or limitation of violence. The 'gift' aspect may ensure that violence and sacrifice are not, after all, coterminous. And if neither can be simply rooted in the other, then the quest for an origin (which cannot, to be an origin, be other than single) for either, may be destined to be forever thwarted. An unanswered question of gift has the capacity permanently to suspend the quest for sacrifice: that is to say, the apparent context for offering, that there exist gods or ancestors to whom one sends things via the operation of death, may remain the most sense that can be made of sacrifice, despite the contorted attempts of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1930-1200
Print ISSN
1075-7201
Pages
pp. 75-102
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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