God spaketh, but why? Part 16: Sacrifice

This series of posts began with a look at differing values, using as examples the sacrifices made to the gods by the indigenous Muisca and the ancient Greeks. The Muisca, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact, consigned highly-wrought gold figurines to Lake Guatavita forever, while the Greeks’ gifts for the goddess Athena, dating from around 400BC, could be borrowed back—the goddess doubling up as a ‘lender of last resort’. The Muisca sought to appease their gods and restore balance by “surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”; on the other hand, the ‘civilised’ Greeks created an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. While both practises can be identified as being sacrificial, we can see that the values of these two cultures differ considerably.

The word ‘sacrifice’ has several meanings and can be open to misinterpretation. Fortunately, BBC Radio 4 came to the rescue last week with an episode of Thinking Allowed, which explored the various meanings of the term. According to Terry Eagleton, Professor of Literature at the University of Lancaster, sacrifice literally means ‘to make sacred’ but the word ‘sacred’ in Latin is deeply ambiguous, meaning either blessed or cursed. Prof. Eagleton continues, “We’re dealing with powers that are either deeply destructive or creative”, like nature itself, methinks. As they clung on to life during glaciations and volcanic winters, the first self-aware humans must have wrestled with the duality of nature as life-giving and life-destroying, and our religions and beliefs reflect that to this day. We attempt to control nature to our advantage when it is there for all, we take more than we need yet we don’t share it fairly amongst our own, and while destroying ecosystems we strive to cheat death ourselves; we have moved from a circular cycle of life to a linear path with who knows what at the end.

What I liked about the Muisca story is that they “forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty”. This is a ‘sacrifice’ both to their gods and in the secular sense of ‘giving up something of value for the sake of other considerations’. Making holy relics for all to wonder at, artefacts celebrating kings and priests as much as gods, doesn’t cut it for me. As for slaughtering others, that probably had more to do with conquest and keeping order than any attempt to appease the gods. Prof. Eagleton’s latest book is called Radical sacrifice, and “tries to make some modern and humane sense of the concept of sacrifice”, arguing that sacrifice is not about self-denial or self-dispossession as an end in itself, it is about “a kind of giving which results in a fuller, richer life”. Sounds familiar!

The more I read about human history and politics, the more I appreciate books like The hidden life of trees, by forester Peter Wohlleben. In a chapter called ‘A question of character’, the author talks about the choices a tree can make as its environment changes. For example, if a tree falls down, a gap is created in the canopy allowing light to flood down to the forest floor. Some trees ‘decide’ to capture this new light by branching lower down the trunk than is usual. This strategy works fine for as long as there is sufficient light, but eventually the gap will close once more and our ambitious tree is left with leaves in darkness. A tree cannot just shed an unwanted branch, it can only let it die and wait for fungi to do the removal work. The wound left when a small branch (up to an inch in diameter) rots and falls off takes just a few years to heal. If the branch is large when it finally succumbs, the resulting wound can remain open and susceptible to deep infection for decades. Even trees gamble! All species assess their environment and do what they do—sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. But we’re supposed to be smart, so why can’t we see that how we live has to change?

If this series is going to draw one conclusion about our new narrative, then it’s that we have to make the ultimate 21st century sacrifice and consume less. The very thing we are programmed by the ad men to do, we must resist. We have to forgo those things we now consider essential: holidays, eating out, fancy gadgets—all those things our grandparents never dreamed of. This modern society we live in has been created by a few people, using wealth from the exploitation of natural resources from around the world with little heed to those who already lived there. I’m not saying give it all up at once; that would wreak economic havoc even if it was possible. But have a think and pick off some low-hanging fruit. If descent meat is too pricy, or you’re not that keen on meat anyway, go veggie. Love meat? Go veggie for one or two meals a week. This isn’t some faddy diet, it’s a lifestyle choice. Just think about what you consume and what you waste and reduce it, gradually over time. Set targets, if that helps. Try doing without something you really don’t want to (like a day without TV?) and you might find it isn’t as bad as you thought. What will your sacrifice be?

Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, Spring 2018 issue just out! And one more post before end March to complete my 5-month challenge…

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About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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