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The Third Biennial Telos in Europe Conference
Humboldt University-Berlin
Theologische Fakultät
Berlin, Germany
June 16–17, 2016

Biological and Theological Investigations for Economic and Military/Political Praxis—Conceptualizations, Categories, Applications, and Abuses

Conference Organizer:

Prof. Marcia Pally
New York University; Guest Prof. Humboldt University; Advisory Board Telos Institute

View the conference program (PDF)

Scholarly Framework and Goals:

The concept of sacrifice has played a foundational, organizing role in nearly all human cultures. Central to theology, the political/military imaginary, economic systems, and personal identity/responsibility, it has inspired, disturbed, and abused. No less is this true for the modern era, as Julia Meszaros and Johannes Zachhuber write in Sacrifice and Modern Thought: "Sacrifice without a doubt has been an obsession of modernity. There is no other period in Western history, with the possible exception of late antiquity, that has seen a comparably sustained, critical engagement with this religious ritual, its theoretical underpinnings, and the problem of its theological, ethical, and social justification."[1]

Indeed, current research envisions sacrifice as, at one end of the spectrum, the benighted bane of civilization that tricks people into abusive situations and which modern democracies should shed and at the other, as civilization's linchpin, necessary for the flourishing of the common good, which we need foster in our educational and societal institutions.

In the Abrahamic theologies, both reciprocal and unidirectional moments of sacrifice are conceptualized not as compelled or abusive but as gift in a covenantal relationship and so positively valenced. The relationships are between God and humanity and among persons, who are created "in God's image" to be capable of covenantal sacrifice and gift. The praxis of this sort of sacrifice is fostered by societal norms and institutions such as harvest/animal sacrifice, prayer and other rituals of honoring/giving back to God, and the mandate to give of one's own resources to help the poor, stranger, and enemy, etc.

From this theological beginning, one may investigate how these traditions have informed (or fail to inform) present political and socio-economic praxes. As the French School of Spirituality has asked, is the "immolation" of the item of sacrifice (animals, Jesus) necessary to the act of sacrifice? If so, is this immolation positively valenced, transformative, and thus ethical and worthy of societal implementation as Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt held? Or is it pernicious, as René Girard maintains?

This "working" conference, bringing together a small inter-disciplinary, international group of scholars, aims at prodding new turns in research in the evolutionary, theological, politico-military, economic, and social facets (gender, for instance) of sacrifice for the purpose of advancing theories of sacrifice and more fully developing implication/suggestions about its role or application in public policy.

Areas of investigation will include:

  • Definitions of sacrifice, distinguishing between:
    • voluntary (gift) and compelled
    • reciprocal and unidirectional
    • sacrificing oneself and someone/something else
    • sacrificing life and something less totalizing
    • sacrifice and victim
  • Types of sacrifice: evolutionary/survival, theological/symbolic, military, economic, etc.
  • Valence: the conditions under which an act of sacrifice is considered laudable, the glue of the social bond, an obstacle to freedom and autonomy, the preservation of honor, a tragic waste, abusive, folly etc.
  • Motive/Goal: the range of motives—what goals do the sacrificers seek?—and the valences accorded each motive depending on culture (UK or Japan, for instance), era (Wilhelmine Germany or postwar Germany), identity of the sacrificer and sacrificee (by status, job, gender, race, etc.)
  • Ethics: the conditions under which any given act of sacrifice is seen as ethical and as something we should teach others (notably children) to do. Which sacrifices, by whom, for what goals?
  • Implementation/policy: for sacrifices deemed laudable or productive, how do cultures, sub-cultures, and nations foster (or fail to foster) them?

The conference is supported by the Thyssen Foundation, Theology Faculty of Humboldt University, and the Telos–Paul Piccone Institute.

1. Julia Meszaros and Johannes Zachhuber, eds., Sacrifice and Modern Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

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