“Despite the contemporary belief that ‘the normal sacrificial cult is a cult without revelation or epiphany,’” writes Kimberley Patton in her Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity, “primary evidence suggests that the Greeks believed that the gods both attended and responded to sacrifice. In Book 12 of the Odyssey, the island Phaiakians are described as being so blessed that when they sacrificed they could actually see the gods’ huge, luminous forms superintending.”
That interests Patton, but what interests her more are depictions of the gods not only attending sacrifice but participating in it. She describes several Greek vase paintings that depict gods sacrificing. Perhaps they are sacrificing to Zeus, the highest god, some might say. Patton disagrees: It is not uncommon for pictures to portray Zeus himself offering a libation. What is said in the Rgveda is evident, she thinks, not only in Greece but in ancient religions generally, including Judaism: “the gods sacrificed to sacrifice with the sacrifice.”
Patton does not think that the standard theories of sacrifice can explain this.
Most assume that the gods are objects of worship and run aground when faced with evidence of gods as subjects of worship. She doesn’t think Durkheimian/Maussian sociological theories can make sense of the evidence. Feuerbachian projection theories don’t work either. Rather, these religious manifest what she calls “divine reflexivity”:
“the gods were seen in ancient Greece as the source of cult, rather than exclusively as its object. Not only the instruments of cult but also cultic actions – in other words, religious behaviors – were attributed to the gods.” From this she defines “divine reflexivity” as “the ritual performance by a deity of an action known as belonging to the sphere of that deity’s human cultic worship” (p. 13).
Patton finds evidence of this sort of idea in the Babylonian Talmud, where five times Yahweh is depicted as a practicing Jew: “He observes mizvot, wears ritual garments, and absorbs himself in Scripture. . . . According to Berkhot 6a, the incorporeal Hebrew God wears scroll-bearing phylacteries. He wraps himself in the tallit, worn by the Ba’al Tefillah, the leader of prayer at the synagogue – the prayer shawl symbolizing submission to God’s will – in order to instruct Moses in a penitential service in Rosh Hashanah 17b” (14). He is, as one of Patton’s chapter titles has it, “The Observant God of the Talmud.”
Toward the end of the book, she appeals to Mircea Eliade’s theories to explain that the gods “ordain or perhaps even perform a ritual once in aboriginal time, as a cosmogonic or foundational act for the religious tradition.” Worshipers perform the same act in union with the gods because “the time in question is other than illud tempus. It is the hyper-present time of enacted ritual” (311).
Patton recognizes a form of this parallel divine and human cult in the Christian liturgy (241-7), and that seems entirely correct. On the one hand, we can think of the angelic figures of Revelation 4-5, the enthroned “old ones,” the heavenly angelic “gods” who worship the One on the throne and the Lamb. More fundamentally, Jesus is God sacrificing to God, not only on the cross but in the continuing liturgy of the church, over which Jesus presides as heavenly High Priest and chief Singer. Divine reflexivity can be classified theologically as a vestigium trinitatis.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, September 3, 2012 at 11:15 am
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