“A Subversive Theory of Sacrifice”
David Weddle
David L. Weddle is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Colorado College (Colorado Springs, CO)
His book Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religion is available from Amazon.

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Sometimes it can be a useful exercise to stand a thing on its head. What was on top sinks to the bottom—and what was nearly invisible dominates the field of vision. Something like that happens when the surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille (1897–1962) reflects on “theory of religion.”

In his brief work of that title, written in the aftermath of World War II, he argues that the sacred is not above us in transcendent isolation but beneath us in the intimate order of nature.

If religion is often imagined as beginning with the glance upward, Bataille directs our gaze downward. Or to exchange the spatial metaphor for a temporal one, he invites us to think about what was before: before our awareness of individuality and thus before alienation from, and conflict with, any others. Where there is no consciousness of self, there can be no perception of someone else, and thus no desire to possess or use that other.

From the original moment of primal unity, however, each of us “falls” into a history driven by self-consciousness. Once aware of ourselves as subjects, we necessarily come to regard others as objects, means for the fulfillment of our desires. Bataille locates the origin of the process in our discovery that what is “not-self” can be made into a useful object, a tool.

Consider the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes discover that the bones of the prey they are consuming can be grasped as implements to extract marrow from other bones. At that point, the monolith that represents advances in human evolution throughout the film appears; and a bone, twirling in the air, transmogrifies into a spaceship, condensing the history of technology into a single frame and introducing an era of vastly expanded and totally unified consciousness.

When we think about our source or genesis, then, we should not think of what is remotely beyond all of us but what immediately precedes any of us: undifferentiated awareness, provoked into a sense of self by the sudden intrusion of the other. Bataille speculates that it is a blank state of mind akin to that of animals, “like water in water”—or in human experience, the mindless, effortless float in amniotic fluid.

St. Augustine thought the expulsion from Eden came with discovery of sexual difference, but Bataille suggests it came much earlier, with ejection from the womb. Humans are, by birth, separated from our source and we are haunted by the call from it. That call animates the religious quest for “return to lost intimacy.”

Religious education, moral training, and political control soon remove us so far from the “intimate order” that we can only approximate a return to it through subversive actions. Bataille argues that only two rituals are sufficiently deviant to accomplish—and then only for a fleeting moment—the religious goal of return to original immanence: festival and sacrifice.

Festivals in their orgiastic excess cancel the usual limits of moral order and sacrifice negates the value of goods and life assigned by economic measures. These rituals serve the subversive end of disrupting structures that maintain divisions and oppositions in human community between “haves” and “have-nots,” “good” and “bad,” “us and them.”

By transgressing boundaries set by economy, morality, and nationality, these rituals dissolve differences created by conventional religions and dispel the illusion that such divisions are divinely ordained. As Bataille saw it, conventional religion treats humans as disposable goods in the service of a cosmic capitalist, imagined as an agent with interests in the outcome of human labor; in short, a god.

Bataille is not alone in pointing out that calling “God” by name reduces the sacred to another object in human discourse. But he may be distinctive in noting that sacrifice to “God” is pointless when the sacred is thus viewed as a distinct being with ambitions and desires. Others argue that ultimate reality could not require anything from humans, including sacrifice; but few are so bold as to argue that sacrifice is liberates us from the economic assessment of our value assigned by “God” in a religious market of redemption.

He imagines a priest addressing the animal under his knife, saying, “I withdraw you, victim, from the world in which you were and could only be reduced to the condition of a thing, having a meaning that was foreign to your intimate nature. I call you back to the intimacy of the divine world, of the profound immanence of all that is.” The victim is released from its status as a useful object by squandering its value in destruction; the one offering the sacrifice enacts freedom from the desire to possess its wealth.

For Bataille, sacrifice is the primal gesture of the sovereign self, declaring itself free from all systems that determine individual worth in terms of productive value. He writes, “Sacrifice is the antithesis of production, which is accomplished with a view to the future; it is consumption that is concerned only with the moment. This is the sense in which it is gift and relinquishment … in sacrifice the offering is rescued from all utility.

This is so clearly the precise meaning of sacrifice, that one sacrifices what is useful; one does not sacrifice luxurious objects.” Bataille’s theory of sacrifice is that we give up what is useful to demonstrate our freedom from systems of value that determine individual worth by productivity in markets of human labor or in service of the kingdom of God.

In this light, sacrifices for the sake of religious or ethnic or national identities are self-defeating. If the “intimate order” is prior to any system of human devising, then no act of exchange—no gift or sacrifice—could reconcile human beings with it. To the extent that sacrifice signifies rejection of systems of utilitarian value, it cannot be offered with the hope of securing some benefit in this world or beyond. In that sense, sacrifice on behalf of one’s nation or faith cannot be sacred; it is only another token in a commercial transaction. As Bataille writes with unsparing clarity, “The warrior’s nobility is like a prostitute’s smile, the truth of which is self-interest.”

Sacrifice can finally only be achieved through vulnerability that opens every individual to the violence of intimacy, the breaking down of personal and national barriers that block our return to the state of original unity. The only sacrifice that “makes sacred,” as the etymology of the Latin root indicates, is the utter abandonment of interest in the outcome of the offering.

And that is precisely why sacrifice cannot be made in the service of economic, political, ethnic, or religious gains. Sacrifice marks the altar of the sacred only where it consumes every human ambition. No one who understands Bataille’s “theory” could ever be deluded into destroying human lives or goods for an imagined utopia or in obedience to a fantasized deity. Only when sacrifice turns religion on its head, can we return to lost intimacy with one another. Then we can leave heaven, as Freud once quoted the poet Heine, to the angels and the sparrows.