Saturday, November 28, 2009

We have never been modern

We take comfort in stories that are now thousands of years old without caring to think about them or reflect on their meaning. The celebration of Abraham/Ibrahim deciding to sacrifice a ram instead of his son Isaac is a classic example.

For many, I'm sure, celebrating this story is nothing more than the opportunity to eat lots of meat. But what exactly is the real meaning? Is it that animals are always secondary to humans (hence the substitution at the heart of the story)? In which case, it is simply a renactment of the ancient theological hierarchy: animals next to humans, humans next to God - a prejudice without any ground apart from pages in a book. If so, then sacrificing an animal is not the ultimate sacrifice. Why then would God require a lesser act?

Some say that human sacrifice was at the time rife among semitic people (the antecedents of modern day muslims and jews); others argue that the sacrifice required was only ever symbolic - the murder of human or non-human animal was never in question. Whatever interpretation we take, why is it that we cling to ancient stories and assume they have relevance for our lives now? Should time confer significance of necessity and if so, why? If we read in the paper today that a man tried to kill his son because he thought God told him to, we would think him insane (schizophrenic), and agree that he should be sectioned, drugged or prosecuted. Why then would we think differently about a man doing the same three thousand years ago? Should our lives be governed by the idea that blind obeisance is the highest value (to be forever encoded within religious rites)?

Should we accept that our lives have to symbolically repeat (each year) the drama of sacrifice, re-installing an originary violence at the core of our interpretation of life? While we hang on to stories like these (stories of the barbarians from an unrecognisably immemorial past), we cannot say that we have ever been modern..


Homie GFunk 11:02 pm  

Hi Jeremy,
I like your inquisitiveness... But have you actually ready any of the Books to understand why the sacrifice? And I don't mean reading something out of context, I mean reading the entirety of it. I'm not advocating the sacrifice of animals of peope but more important is the significance of sacrifice itself. Whether of animals, people, trees or material things.

Obi 7:31 am  

I think humans have an uncanny ability to compartmentalize their beliefs. Their religious beliefs remain in a separate region in their subconscious protected from the ravages of their own logic and reasoning.
How else can you explain why perfectly sane/rational people believe that a man survived for days in the belly of a fish (Christianity), or that man is continuously reincarnated in a vain attempt to achieve nirvana (Buddhism) etc.
Religion can almost be seen as Darwinian in nature. It has to continuously evolve to remain relevant and not be relegated to obscurity like thousands of other religions in human history. Therefore, religions usually have tenets which evolved to perpetuate this compartmentalization and protect it from rationality. Most religions label any rationality which questions their tenets as blasphemy and actively discourage their followers from removing their compartments.

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