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Sacrifice, Transcendence and ‘Making Sacred’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 June 2011

Douglas Hedley
Clare College, Cambridge


Despisers of religion throughout the centuries have poured scorn upon the idea of sacrifice, which they have targeted as an index of the irrational and wicked in religious practice. Lucretius saw the sacrifice of Iphigenia as an instance of the evils perpetrated by religion. But even religious reformers like Xenophanes or Empedocles rail against ‘bloody sacrifice’. What kind of God can demand sacrifice? Yet the language of sacrifice persists in a secular world. Nor does its secularised form seem much more appealing. One need only think of the appalling and grotesque cult of sacrifice in numerous totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. The perversion of the Jihad in radical Islam in contemporary Europe would provide another sombre instance. Throughout Europe in the last few years we have seen the revival of a classical Enlightenment atheism, a movement that, far removed from Nietzsche's pathos for the Death of God, pursues a vigorous and relentless policy of Écrasez l'infâme! Indeed, contemporary polemicists like Dawkins and Hitchens wish to emphasise precisely this dimension of Christianity: not just false but nasty! The modern cultured despisers of religion are the self confessed descendants of Hume and Voltaire. Religion is the product of the period of ignorance in the superstitious and terrified fearful infancy of humanity, and is the crude attempt to face the natural human longing for knowledge, consolation and emotional support. How can one strive to defend the concept of sacrifice against such cultured despisers? I think we need to start by reflecting upon why the slaughter of an animal, say, makes holy – sacra facere? The root meaning of ‘sacrifice’ has a basis in ritual practice, as its Latin etymology suggests. Though in common parlance it communicates a giving up or rejection, the word as we are going to understand it signifies the substitution, or more perhaps sublimation, of an item or interest for a higher value or principle. St Augustine speaks of the outward symbol of the true sacrifice of spiritual offering that God requires in the altar of the heart – a sacrifice of humility and praise. The metaphor works because his audience was familiar with the literal sense of the term.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2011

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1 Chrysakopoulou, Sylvana, Théologie versus physique dans la poésie présocratique de Xénophane à Empedocle (Thesis at the Sorbonne, Paris IV, 2003), 318328Google Scholar.

2 Augustine, City of God, X, 5.

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9 Though Girard has become very interested in the evolutionary dimension of mimesis. See Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and de Castro Rocha, J.C.

10 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 117.

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12 See the useful discussion, Burton Mack: ‘Introduction: Religion and Ritual’, in Hamerton-Kelly (ed.), Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, (Stanford, 1987), 1–70.

13 See Rudd, A., Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical, (Clarendon: Oxford, 1993)Google Scholar.

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20 Critique of Practical Reason (ed.) Gregor, Mary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

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