I have been reading (in translation) the original text of the I Ching, a 3000-year-old Chinese compilation of wisdom and divination. I am struck by how often the text calls for xiang 享 , a word that is translated “sacrifice”.

What did sacrifice mean to the Chinese at the time of the first Dynasty? What parts of it resonate with our Western humanistic tradition in the 21st Century? And what parts feel all wrong?

The Biblical idea is to kill an animal and burn it instead of eating it. The food is said to be given to God (or gods) to placate their* anger. Did this tradition exist in China as well?

Helmuth Wilhelm was the first modern translator of the I Ching. He says

“To the authors of the Book of Changes the meaning of sacrifice was not to bring about human happiness or to ward off misfortunes To them, the purpose of sacrifice was to keep open communication with the divine and with the spirits whih inhabit the unconscious world. Sacrifice is an act in which the ommunication is consummated; its ritual leads to the experience of basic unity with the forces beyond the threshold and reasserts man’s participation in this unity, but it is kept clean of specific aims and purposes.”

Helmuth Wilhelm

To the modern scientific sensibility, the Biblical notion feels like cruelty founded in superstition, and Wilhelm’s version is not much better. One thing I appreciate about Wilhelm’s interpretation is that prayer should never seek a particular path to what we wish for, but only the ultimate end itself. The Universe works in unexpected ways.

The modern version of sacrifice? Today, billionaires and robber-barons give some fraction of their windfall profits to vast, world-changing projects. It can be an attempt to broaden their values or it can be a cynical investment in public image.

I am not a billionaire, but I appreciate the priviliged position into which I was born. Living in a spirit of generosity and letting go of money is a part of who I am, and it is a part I struggle with regularly. I gamble with investments and lose. I feel guilty spending money on my own comfort in ways that other people take for granted.

But here’s a part of my practice that works for me. Periodically, I feel worried and fear that I won’t have enough. When I feel that way, I give away money irresponsibly, borrowing to make donations, or running up my credit card. I pick people whose work I admire and organizations that I believe to be important wellsprings of change in the world.

Money comes and disappears in unexpected ways. I don’t do financial planning. Instead, I nurture faith that the Universe cares about me, and that my needs will be provided in unexpected ways. Today, I’m 73 and I still have enough to eat.


* Is God a “He”? Is Elohiym a “they”?

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