View from
The Center

The Secular Age Fails to Escape Its Roots

(Jacques Arago)

“These transformations in understandings of sacrifice culminate in what today we think of as our ‘liberation’ from centuries of naïveté and superstition.”

Ritual sacrifice? What could possibly be more irrelevant to modern society than the study of ancient and arcane books of ritual sacrifice? What do burnt offerings, human and animal sacrifice have to do with us? What could be farther from our modern profane world than the long past sacred world?

Such question have preoccupied author Roberto Calasso for several decades now; the peculiar question of ritual sacrifice rhythmically appears and reappears in his provocative and extremely erudite body of works. Perhaps, as Calasso suggests, we can better understand who we are by gazing into an inverted mirror image of who we are not.

Other than the modern world, all civilizations have recognized powers beyond themselves. Many civilizations subscribed to the idea of a plurality of gods, with gods being names for the conflicting forces displayed in nature. Such societies generate “myths” which describe the relationships of these forces to each other, as well as our human relationship to this greater dynamic. In such “pagan” societies the ritual of sacrifice involves an affirmation of and an identification with these forces. All sacrificial rituals across societies, according to Calasso, embody these two elemental features: Something is destroyed and invisible forces are acknowledged.

The word “sacrifice” is from the Latin words “sacer” and “facere,”—literally “to make sacred.” The sacrificial victim and in effect the whole society is made sacred by accepting and affirming a relationship to the ways of nature, and nature itself embodies a divine order. In sacrificial civilizations the social order is not therefore in defiance of the divine order but in conformity to the divine order: the Greek Logos, Chinese Tao, Hindu Rta etc. The civil order is an analog of the divine order.

We humans are capable of participating in and affirming a divine order; this is not a dualistic understanding but a unified understanding of reality. Sacrificial ritual embodies a fundamental acknowledgement that all things are interrelated. There can be no life without death, no growth without decay, no light without darkness, no good without evil, the unknown is always part of the known . . .  The Sanskrit word bandhu, which suggests “correspondences” or “relationships” or “nexuses,” evokes a world of mysterious and invisible connections which must be acknowledged.

What Calasso calls, “the sacrificial stance” inspires not only an understanding of nature quite different than the Judeo-Christian and modern secular conceptions but also a different understanding of society and history.  The emergence of the modern secular rejection of the necessity of sacrifice appears to originate in Judeo-Christian conceptions of God and its nascent tendency to see ourselves as separate from nature.

Both the modern Judeo-Christian conception of sacrifice (Rene Girard is the great expositor of this view) and modern secular conceptions see sacrifice as historically possessing, at best, what Calasso calls a “homeostatic” function. One of the great founders of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, famously pronounced that, “the religious is the social.” The “deliria” of religion, sacrificial rituals, myths, dogmas, hierarchies and such, are not literally “true,” but they help to maintain social order and cohesiveness. Neither the modern Judeo-Christian nor the modern secular takes ritual pagan sacrifice seriously as having anything relevant to say about the nature of reality let alone the nature of our modern condition.

Certainly all religions tend to devolve toward dogma and superstition, and this is certainly true of historic rituals of sacrifice. But what if, as Calasso suggests, we look at sacrifice the way it was looked at by those people who practiced sacrifice? From a perspective which assumes the reality and persistence of the unified sacrificial order, how could we interpret the peculiar and quite fantastic rise of modern secular civilization? And how can the great cultural and psychological transformations from pagan to Christian to modern be understood in terms of changing conceptions of sacrifice?

Again something is offered up, but this time it is our very animal natures. Here begins an inversion of the very conception of sacrifice; sacrifice is no longer an affirmation but a kind of letting go or denial or rejection of connectedness.

Calasso is a great reader of Friedrich Nietzsche, so it’s not a coincidence to find that Nietzsche himself addresses the nature of ritual sacrifice. In a passage from Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche specifically describes changing conceptions of sacrifice as, “a great ladder of religious cruelty, with many rungs; but three of these are the most important.”

He describes the first rung:

“Once one sacrificed human beings to one’s god, perhaps precisely those whom one loved most: the sacrifices of all prehistoric religions belong here . . .”

This is clearly the pagan affirmative conception of sacrifice: someone or something is killed so that others might live. An offering is made which establishes a relationship, which is to say, killing has meaning. This “rung” on the ladder is followed by another:

“Then during the moral epoch of mankind, one sacrificed to one’s god one’s own strongest instincts, one’s ‘nature’: this festive joy lights up the cruel eyes of the ascetic, the ‘anti-natural’ enthusiast.”

Again something is offered up, but this time it is our very animal natures. Here begins an inversion of the very conception of sacrifice; sacrifice is no longer an affirmation but a kind of letting go or denial or rejection of connectedness. This rung represents a movement away from pagan conceptions of sacrifice and is apparently a reference to the Christian rejection of nature and particularly the Christian tendency to deny nature as manifest in the human body. Here begins a “faith” in another, less corrupt, more pure world, not here, not now; the seeds of modern nihilism have been sown. Meaning is to be found, not in unity with nature, but in relationship to some reality beyond nature. This rejection of nature is itself a kind of sacrifice which inevitably leads to the final rung which is the final sacrifice.

“Finally – What remained to be sacrificed?  At long last, did one not have to sacrifice for once whatever is comforting, holy, healing; all hope, all faith in hidden harmony, in future blisses and justices? Didn’t one have to sacrifice God himself and from cruelty against oneself, worship the stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, the nothing? To sacrifice God for the nothing—this paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty was reserved for the generation that is now coming up; all of us already know something of this.”

The original rejection of connectedness to nature leads to this “final cruelty”: the rejection of everything, which is, in effect, the affirmation of nothing. Having been conditioned for two millennia to look for meaning outside of nature, modern man’s rejection of the Christian God (modern man “kills” God according to Nietzsche) ends in the rejection of all possibility of greater meaning: nothing has meaning. The Christian sacrifice/rejection of nature culminates with the modern sacrifice/rejection of meaning. Once killing is conceived as having no meaning, meaning itself will ultimately be killed.

These transformations in understandings of sacrifice culminate in what today we think of as our “liberation” from centuries of naïveté and superstition. Our modern rejection of sacrifice involves a kind of transformation of consciousness. We are suspicious of any reference to “invisible” powers or unmeasurable assertions of order or transcendence; whatever order we do see are accidents of nature and history—or, merely, self-serving expressions of power. At the same time we are hyper-sensitized to the pieces of reality (which are called variously “data,” “information,”and “facts”), and we imagine we can fabricate a world out of the pieces.

The emergent secular order, as Calasso points out, is not so much a belief system as it is a vast net of systems and procedures which envelop us and to which we conform. It’s as if all of modern reality is being transformed into a vast airport. Believe whatever you want, but don’t forget to take your shoes off when passing through the metal detector.

Nature, once the locus of the gods, has receded as a living power. It is perceived as the “diversity” of its manifestations to be used, studied or saved as we see fit. Nature is not perceived as mysterious and frightening Dionysian forces of which we are a part and which demand recognition. What this implies is that our fundamental human concern is not the articulation of a relationship to nature or any powers outside of ourselves, but the articulation of a relationship between one human and another. Our secular society is a kind of free standing entity, a perpetual motion machine, concerned solely with its own internal order and cohesiveness. This is what Calasso calls the Religion of Society.

In Ardor, Roberto Calasso’s book on the Satapatha Brahmana, one of the most ancient books of Vedic sacrifice, he writes,

“. . . the sacrificial stance contains an implication that goes very far: it is quite possible to ignore the very thought of sacrifice, but the world will continue just the same—whatever happens—to be a huge sacrificial laboratory.”

Why should this be true, “Why should the whole world be a sacrificial laboratory?” Calasso answers:

“Simply because it is based—every part of it—on an exchange of energies: from outside in and from inside out. This is what happens with every breath. And likewise with eating and excreting. Interpreting physiological exchange is the critical step, on which all else depends. And it is a step that, reduced to its most elementary form, implies only that between everything internal and everything external there is a relationship, a communication that can have a meaning…”

Secular society appears to operate under the assumption that there is no necessary connection between inhaling and exhaling, between eating and excreting. Wendell Berry once observed of modern society that whole generations are born learning how to add but never learning how to subtract. In our secular religion of society, there is no necessary connectedness; the bandhus are weak or nonexistent.

Yet existence itself, and human existence in particular, is a perpetual state of transformation, a perpetual state of creation and destruction, of inhaling and exhaling, a perpetual “sacrificial laboratory”; we can either recognize this or not.  Calasso sums up millennia of human history:

“…for a long time men killed other beings and dedicated them to an invisible power, but …after a certain point they killed without dedicating the victims to anyone. Did they forget? Did they consider that act of homage futile? Did they condemn it as repugnant?”

Secular society, no longer recognizing a need to acknowledge any connectedness to powers beyond itself, becomes what Calasso calls, “the experimental society.” How we structure society becomes one experiment after another: the plunder of nature, the great totalitarian regimes, the proliferation of new technologies, the globalization of markets, the expansion of human rights . They are all experiments  which we conduct upon ourselves. We continually adjust and tweak one element after another in a laboratory now as large as the planet itself. And today we are conducting the most ambitious experiment of all: the transformation of a continuous and unified reality into discrete bits of information to be manipulated as we see fit.

Certainly these experiments have produced all kinds of material and social benefits. But is it not possible to understand that the holocaust, the gulag, environmental degradation, cultural disruption, climate change, sectarian terror may all also be necessary outcomes of these great experiments? We seem not to realize that what we call “fallout” or “side effects” or “unintended consequences” of our experiments may simply be manifestations of an elemental connectedness, which our fragmented minds are incapable of recognizing.

Wholly enveloped by the reality of secularization we are oblivious to its nature much as fish are oblivious to water. The religion of society is nothing less, says Calasso, than the superstition of society. We think of ourselves as educated, as skeptical, as beyond superstition, yet we manifest as much delirium and delusion as those peoples who tossed rocks in the air to insure an abundance of lizards.

Chris Augusta is an artist living in Maine.

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