Sacred Hunger: Exponential Growth and the Bible (1999) No 267

(Paper read to the Guild of Pastoral Psychology, May 1994)


Christian interpretation of the Bible speaks of three theologies: the theology of creation, the theology of incarnation, and the theology of redemption: how God made the world, how He became incarnate in the world, and how He saved the world. I believe these three theologies are at work in modern science and technology and in the economic system which we call capitalism. Our modern world is kept going by what the philosopher Whitehead called (in 1925) “the invention of the method of invention”. The power of this method, its resourcefulness, its ruthlessness, and its hold on us, come from the three christian theologies. But it works beyond their control. A power has been released into the world by Christianity which Christianity cannot contain.

That is the belief or story which I have tried to tell on various occasions over the last twenty years. I return to it this morning through the word hunger. I want to look at this power which has escaped from christian control as an accelerating hunger, a hunger that is not only in time, but also for and of time. It is consuming us and it is running away with us. The consuming and the running away belong together. The running away is consuming, and the consuming is running away. An accelerating hunger.

That is what my talk is about. But now a word also about the feeling tone of what I am going to be saying. It is pessimistic. If I am to be heard saying what I have to say, that pessimism has to be admitted. I think this accelerating hunger has taken such hold of our world and of us that we have to expect catastrophe. The twentieth century has had and continues to have its catastrophes. They will continue, and they will get worse.

But people will survive, and some sort of world order will survive. Even though it is now in a sense too late, it is nevertheless worth trying to understand what we are caught in. Because we will be able to respond to catastrophe. The response is indeed already in the making. There is still a world to play for. Our response to catastrophe can be more or less effective, more or less humane, more or less cruel. Present understanding will make a difference to future catastrophe.

So my feeling tone has to try and combine a deep pessimism, a convinced pessimism, with a sureness that it is still worth trying.

Sacred Hunger and Exponential Growth

Sacred Hunger is the title of Barry Unsworth’s recent novel about the slave trade out of Liverpool in the eighteenth century. People were beginning to realise that the economy of their world was being driven by a new force. The profit motive was establishing itself in the market place, in warfare, and in the minds of men, as the driving motor of what we later came to call capitalism. They called it, or some of them did, Sacred Hunger.

A more recent example of such hunger is given in this book Beyond the Limits: Global Collapse or a Sustainable Future. Some of you may remember the previous book from the same authors, commissioned in 1972 by what was called the Club of Rome. It was called The Limits to Growth, and argued then that if growth trends in population, consumption, use of resources and generation of waste, continued unchanged, the limits to physical growth on the planet would be reached within a hundred years. In their new book, written twenty years later, they produce their evidence to show that the world has already overshot some of its limits and that, if present trends continue, we face the virtually certain prospect of a global collapse, perhaps within the lifetimes of children alive today.

Here is one example of Sacred Hunger from their book.

Ecologist Paul Ehrlich once expressed surprise to a Japanese journalist that the Japanese whaling industry would exterminate the very source of its wealth. The journalist replied, ‘You are thinking of the whaling industry as an organisation that is interested in maintaining whales; actually it is better viewed as a huge quantity of [financial] capital attempting to earn the highest possible return. If it can exterminate whales in ten years and make a 15% profit, but it could only make a 10% profit with a sustainable harvest, then it will exterminate them in ten years. After that the money will be moved to exterminate some other resource’.

It is the hunger of that capital I want us to think about.

Exponential Growth is the progression 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 etc. To emphasise the acceleration involved, the authors of Beyond the Limits illustrate it like this:

Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. You’ve just doubled its thickness. Fold it in half again to make it 4 times its original thickness. Assuming you could go on folding the paper like that for a total of 40 times, how thick do you think it would get to be? Less than a foot? Between a foot and 10 feet? Between 10 feet and a mile? In fact you could not fold a paper 40 times, but if somehow its thickness could be doubled 40 times over, it would make a pile of paper high enough to reach from the earth to the moon.

Two pages later they have another illustration which relates acceleration to a sense of time running out, to a sense of it being already too late.

A French riddle for children illustrates another aspect of exponential growth – the apparent suddenness with which an exponentially growing quantity approaches a fixed limit. Suppose you own a pond on which a water lily is growing. The lily plant doubles in size each day. If the plant were allowed to grow unchecked, it would completely cover the pond in 30 days, choking off the other forms of life in the water. For a long time the lily plant seems small, so you decide not to worry about it until it covers half the pond. On what day will that be? On the twenty ninth day. You have just one day to act to save your pond.

That is the kind of growth which both feeds and generates an accelerating hunger. That is the kind of growth which we do not worry about until it is too late.

Now I want to give an example of how technology contributes to this kind of growth. This is a commonplace in the financial markets of the world, and in the boardrooms of our great companies. Here it is spelled out for us crisply in the letter columns of The Independent on the 6th of January this year. The writer is Gus Fischer, chief executive of News International.

Your leading article (5 January) implies that Rupert Murdoch and News International have been inhibiting factors on the development of the New Media Age. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The deregulation now being considered by Government has been advocated by Rupert Murdoch and News International for many years, for all the reasons outlined in your leading article. The difference is that he and News International did not hang around waiting for the deregulatory sunrise. Contrary to your leading article, though, we did not exploit a ‘loophole in the law’. We simply realised that technology had moved ahead faster than regulation; that it had become possible, using medium-powered satellites, to cover the same ground as that covered by the officially endorsed high powered satellites…. The tentative window of opportunity offered by the Broadcasting Act was not an accident. The Government wanted to see if non-domestic satellite would work. Rupert Murdoch was the only person with guts enough to make it happen.

“We simply realised that technology had moved ahead faster…”

“Rupert Murdoch was the only person with guts enough to make it happen…” – the power of technology to move ahead faster, and the power lodged in the guts of men like Mr Murdoch, the self-winding up of science and the appetite of capital: what is it that links the two? Is it too far fetched to look for the answer in theologies of creation, incarnation, and redemption?

The Eucharist – an overdetermined historical event

In my twenties and early thirties I dreamt often of the eating of flesh. Sometimes the flesh was human, mine and others. Sometimes it was animal. Sometimes it was good to eat. Sometimes it was horrible, so disgusting as to wake me in nightmare. The eaters of the flesh were human, animal, vegetable, viral. The eating was sometimes sexual. And the dreams involved mathematics, politics, history, machines, money, so that flesh and its eating extended beyond the personal body into the constitution of the world in which our bodies make their living.

These dreams were influential in moving me towards christian baptism and confirmation. I wanted to do something public about them. I could not keep them to myself. I needed to share them with others. Looking around me I began wondering whether the christian Eucharist might prove to be such a sharing. Whether I believed christian teaching about the Eucharist did not seem to matter. My godfather was very concerned about that, I remember. But for me what mattered was to find some way of waking up to, of sharing with others, of making public, experience that was frightening, powerful, exhausting, charged with excitement both personal and historical.

Over thirty years of sharing in the Eucharist has led to no enlightenment as to the meaning of those dreams. Thickening is a better word to describe what has happened. The symbolism, the affect, carried by the eating and drinking has thickened, become more dense, heavy, charged. To use a psychoanalytic word, the Eucharist for me is overdetermined. It carries more than it says. There are times when the words used to tell what we are doing seem to fit. But more often they say nothing about my experience and occasionally actually empty it of meaning. But the doing remains. The doing is effective even if I do not understand of what. The doing is communion, communion with a power that is outside as well as inside the church.

In 1983 I tried to say something about my overdetermined experience of the Eucharist in my talk on Riddley Walker and Greenham Common, and later in 1988 in a paper on Alchemy and Psychosis: Curiosity and the Metaphysics of Time. Since then that sense of being overdetermined has given way to a new kind of movement of thought and feeling. The movement is about hunger and effective suffering.

So I shall talk now about three recent books which have helped me feel and think more comprehensively about the hunger of cannibalism and its significance for us today.

Three books

The three books I have here followed on from each other. One referred on to the next. The first was Peter Brown’s The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Many of you will know it. The publishers describe it as examining the practice of permanent sexual renunciation that developed among the early Christians, and as an evocation of an era and a contribution to our understanding of sexuality and the family in the ancient world. But there is as much about hunger as about sexual renunciation in the book, and the passage which led me onto to my second book came on p.218.

Peter Brown is describing Egypt in the fourth century after Christ:

Whatever his social status, no Egyptian of the fourth century could have had any doubt that his was a land whose population lived under a pall of perpetual fear of starvation. It was not for nothing that ‘poverty’ and ‘famine’, ‘the poor’ and ‘the starving’ shared the same root in Coptic. While the Nile valley was a zone of food, braced against the threat of famine, the desert was thought of as the zone deprived of human food: it was a zone of the nonhuman. For this reason, the most bitter struggle of the desert ascetic was presented not so much as a struggle with his sexuality as with his belly. It was his triumph in the struggle with hunger that released, in the popular imagination, the most majestic and the most haunting images of a new humanity. Nothing less than the hope of Paradise regained flickered, spasmodically but recognisably, around the figures who had dared to create a human ‘city’ in a landscape void of human food.

The passage is powerful in its own right, but it was the footnote that sent me on from the hunger of the belly to the hunger of the Eucharist. “The reader is strongly advised to consult Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. This is an account of the meaning of fasting and of self-mortification that is conducted on a level of empathy and sophistication unusual in Early Church or mediaeval history”.

So I came to my second book. I have read this through twice. It is having an effect on me that is religious, psychoanalytic, historical, and it doesn’t seem to be coming to an end. It goes on working on me. What I am going to say now can only be a provisional account of it.

First, it associates polymorphous and perverse bodily experience with metaphysics and history. The dreams which moved me to participation in the eucharist included bodies which are like mine and yet crucially different to mine: women’s bodies. How does a male body make sense of its experience when that experience is of a female body? Caroline Bynum’s study of women in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries describes in extraordinary detail how women assimilated the body and blood of the man Jesus to their own flesh. The detail is perverse, polymorphous, obscene, glorious. The work of assimilation is social and metaphysical, the personal body broken open into the body of society and into the body of the maker and redeemer of the universe.

This breaking open has a history. For the women of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries participation in Christ’s risen flesh was not the same as in the centuries covered by Peter Brown’s book. What hunger meant had changed. “In early Christian hymns, hunger seems to mean human vulnerability (either inflicted by nature’s rhythm of scarcity and plenty or espoused deliberately in fasting); the implication is, therefore, that the hungry will be satisfied. In the spirituality of eleventh and twelfth century Europe, however, hunger began to mean a craving that can never be filled” (p.66).

Bynum’s description of this historical change in the nature of christian hunger affects me powerfully. It makes me more willing to follow on from dreams that speak quite simply of flesh as implicated in both metaphysics and history, in a metaphysics that is not timeless but timeful. Once that risk is taken it becomes more possible to air certain possibilities. These give me my second and third stages in opening up my overdetermined experience of the Eucharist.

The second is to draw out the implications of Eucharistic hunger as reciprocal: human hunger for God, God’s hunger for humanity. Bynum quotes the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, summing up the christian belief of centuries, as follows:

There is one universal church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved. In this church, Jesus Christ himself is both priest and sacrifice, and his body and blood are really contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God, so that to carry out the mystery of unity we ourselves receive from him the body he himself receives from us [accipiamus ipsi de suo, quod accepit ipse de nostro] (p.50).

The experiences of the women whose lives she presents to us invests such words with a vivid immediacy. Feeding is both transitive and intransitive. Women fed others. They also fed on God. They also made their bodies available for God’s feeding. To experience the body as food in this way included sexuality. As both transitive and intransitive, feeding shared with sexuality the experience of body as subject and object of hunger. To eat and to be eaten express an interpenetration and mutual engulfing (p.156) of human beings with one another and of humanity with God.

But can such feeding satisfy a craving that can never be filled? If the Eucharistic hunger is reciprocal, how is the feeding of those thousand thousand mouths reciprocated in God? God as food, God as hunger. How do they come together?

In the equation of hunger with effective suffering.

This is a pivotal idea of my talk, and brings me to my third stage in applying Bynum’s book to my over determined experience of the Eucharist: women’s feeding as participation in Christ’s effective suffering.

Not only did medieval women deny themselves food, they also became food – in their own eyes and in the eyes of male admirers. And when they ate God, they were not merely focusing their hunger sensations (otherwise unrecognised) on the eucharist. They were also reversing their ordinary cultural role as food preparers and food abstainers. They were ‘eating’ God whose edible body – a nursing body – was in some sense seen as female and therefore as food. Moreover, women manipulated far more than their own bodies through fasting. They manipulated their families, their religious superiors, and God himself. Fasting was not merely a substitution of pathological and self-defeating control of self for unattainable control of circumstance. It was part of suffering; and suffering was considered an effective activity, which redeemed both individual and cosmos (pp206-7).

And later, in summarising her whole argument, Bynum writes:

… medieval asceticism should not be understood as rooted in dualism, in a radical sense of spirit opposed to or entrapped by body. The extravagant penitential practices of the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, the cultivation of pain and patience, the literalism of imitatio crucis are, I have argued, not primarily an attempt to escape from body. They are not the products of an epistemology or psychology or theology that sees soul struggling against its opposite, matter. Therefore they are not – as historians have often suggested – a world denying, self hating, decadent response of a society wracked by plague, famine, heresy, war and ecclesiastical corruption. Rather, late medieval asceticism was an effort to plumb and to realise all the possibilities of the flesh. It was a profound expression of the doctrine of the Incarnation: the doctrine that Christ, by becoming human, saves all that the human being is. It arose in a religious world whose central ritual was the coming of God into food as macerated flesh, and it was compatible with, not contradictory to, new philosophical notions that located the nature of things not in their abstract definitions but in their individuating matter or particularity (pp.294-5),

on which she comments in a footnote

If I am correct in this admittedly controversial interpretation, the insight should help us see how Christianity is different from other world religions – none of which has quite this emphasis on the glory and salvific potential of suffering flesh (both our’s and God’s). My interpretation calls attention to the characteristically Christian idea that the bodily suffering of one person can be substituted for the suffering of another through prayer, purgatory, vicarious communion, and suggests that this idea should not be taken for granted as an implication of the Crucifixion. Rather, it should be explored as one of the most puzzling, characteristic, glorious, and horrifying features of Christianity (p.418).

Quotations like that out of a book you have not read yourself are not easy to digest. But I give them to you at length like that because they do give a sense of what this book is about, and why it has spoken to my experience of the Eucharist as heavy with meaning that we have not yet realised.

Let me now try and digest them for you, into my argument this afternoon. What I find here is confirmation of a link between hunger and invention, and between hunger and exponential growth. The equation of hunger with effective suffering gives us the link between hunger, invention, and exponential growth.

The link with invention is made in the conversion of effective suffering into experiment. Bynum sees the religious significance of food to medieval women as developing in three steps. Food means flesh. Flesh means suffering. Suffering means redemption, redemption in the body of the Creator. I compare these three steps with the unfolding of scientific curiosity through experiment into invention. So that

food means flesh = curiosity
flesh means suffering = experiment
suffering means redemption = invention.

At the end of the sixteenth century Francis Bacon was to explain the new scientific method as ‘putting nature to the torture’. Caroline Bynum describes the Eucharist experience of women three centuries earlier as a putting of both human nature and of God to torture, to suffering of a kind which can be assumed to be profitable.

“Suffering of a kind which can be assumed to be profitable”. For a hundred years and more historians have been familiar with the idea that the rise of capitalism was associated with the Reformation and with Protestant forms of religious experience. I think we need to widen the field of association between economic and religious history to include women’s and men’s experience of the Eucharist.

For the link between hunger and exponential growth we have to go back to the other theme of Bynum’s book, the change in the nature of hunger from something to be satisfied into something which knows itself to be unsatisfiable.

To digest this theme we need to remember Biblical and christian emphasis on time. Eucharistic hunger for flesh that is both suffering and redemptive is not something that can be satisfied in time. It is also hunger for time and hunger of time. In the Eucharist our human hunger for time is met by time’s hunger for its own fulfilment. It is effective in the end.

As this is probably the most difficult idea of my talk I want to dwell on it for a moment, amplifying it in terms of corn and promise.

One of the oldest images for the distinction and connection between linear and circular time is seed corn: the corn taken from the year’s harvest which is on no account to be eaten. It has to be kept for next year, so that next year’s harvest will come. Without it there is no next year’s food. Eucharistic hunger is like a hunger that can only be satisfied by seed corn. We are no longer satisfied by ordinary food. Our hunger is such that only the food which ensures tomorrow can satisfy us. That is what I mean by hunger for time.

But the gearing between food and time in the Eucharist is even stronger than that. We must remember what Bynum says about the reciprocity of human and divine hunger. The body being eaten is the body of the Saviour, the body which in saving time from its passing hungers for its own consumption. This is what I mean by time’s hunger for its own fulfilment. The seed corn hungers for its own consumption.

Think now of promise. One of the central themes of both Old and New Testament is promise. But, as I have argued in many places, promise works by virtue of its own negation. For a promise to be kept it has to be breakable. Our ability to keep a promise is proved in our ability to break it. Which the Bible knows well.

Promise and its breaking are integral to the Eucharist. Promise needs time to pass so that it may be kept. But promise also abolishes the passing of time. It says that the passing of time can make no difference. Promise guarantees the present as proof of both past and future. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Keeping the promise is like keeping the seed corn. We wait for its time to come. But if we have to wait too long something happens to our hunger. It begins to feed off the delay. The fact that the promise has not been kept itself becomes our food.

It seems to me that in the Eucharist both are said. The promise proclaims itself broken, and then says Feed on me. So what happens when the seed corn hungers for its own consumption? Hunger becomes charged with the regeneration of time. Acceleration is built in. The guarantee of the future is to be eaten now. I think this is the beginning of ‘the invention of the method of invention’. If the seed corn is to feed on itself then only invention will satisfy. Hunger is caught in the need constantly to reinvent the future.

But this is not much more than my intuition. Historians of science won’t pay attention to ideas like this unless they are supported by a lot more coherent intellectual argument. Much work has been done on the development of the experimental method in the sciences of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To link this with my thesis that women (and presumably men too) had already begun to explore experiment in the Eucharist centuries earlier we need an intellectual frame of reference which we do not at present have.We have to be able to move more easily, with more confidence, with more shared research, between (1) cannibalism, (2) the idea of effective suffering, and (3) what has been called ‘the politics of experiment’. And we have to do so with both feeling and thinking. We need an intellectual frame of reference which is embodied, incarnate. The dependence of human flesh on human flesh and of human blood on human blood has to be comprehensively related to making the world in which we make our living. My third book helps towards such an embodied understanding.

In Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System Peggy Reeves Sanday draws on psychoanalytic theories from Jung and Neumann and Freud. There is no reference to Klein, though her quotations from Neumann often read like Klein on hunger for and of the breast. She also draws on Paul Ricoeur’s work on the theology of defilement, sin and guilt, which gives a Biblical ‘edge’ to her use of psychoanalytic theory. But primarily Sanday’s book is to be read as symbolic anthropology.

She argues that ritual cannibalism constructs our understanding of the origin and continuity of life and society. It ensures that both life and society go on from one generation to another. Life and society aren’t the same thing atall. They are different kinds of reality. And yet they belong together. We can’t have one without the other. Cannibalism keeps them both going, together. Cannibalism controls, and therefore understands, the vital forces necessary for the reproduction of life and society in relation to each other. It is important to note that the control comes first, the doing before the understanding.

The overall system of control and understanding of which cannibalism is an essential part Sanday calls an ‘ethno-ontology’. By this she means the effective metaphysics by which different societies ensure the continuity of themselves and of their world. This is a crucial idea for my talk.

To understand it we have to think of belief, and of world. How do they interact? Ethno-ontology is how a society’s beliefs constitute their world simultaneously with that world evoking those beliefs. This reciprocity or conjugation of belief and world is made effective in ritual, in kinship, in feeding, in work, in sacrifice. It is effective in two directions: the world acts on us, and we act on the world. The action is simultaneous. Neither comes ‘before’ the other.

(To raise the question of ethno-ontology in our own lives try asking yourself: what guarantees the continuity of history? Am I involved in that guarantee? If so, how? Is it an active or passive involvement? For instance, what makes me feel responsible for the future? How far ahead does my sense of responsibility reach? How does that future ‘reach’ connect with what is past?)

What interests Sanday in her approach to cannibalism is how this ethno-ontology of belief and world ensures the continuity of society. I have now read her book three times, making pages of notes. For me, it opens christian reflection on the Eucharist into worlds that are alien, abominable, and hideously effective. It also confirms me in my belief that locked within the Eucharist is an understanding which controls our exponential growth.

Our starting point has to be the link between hunger and effective suffering. Sanday talks of “the demonically hegemonic power of hunger” (p.103), and of “the destructive force of primal voraciousness” (p.117). She gives example after example of the reciprocity between eater and eaten. This reciprocity is a moral law that permeates mythology and ritual. He who wants to get food must become food. By humans entering into this reciprocity the hegemonic power of hunger is put to work in reproducing society and life together. Cannibalism celebrates the conjunction, making it both effective and convivial.

But the ways in which it does so are many and varied. To compare cannibalism as a cultural system with christian teaching on the Eucharist is to realise how many other ways there might be to understand the breaking and chewing of flesh that is both human and divine, the drinking of blood which is different when given by a woman or a man. Summarising at the end of her book, Sanday recognises four main kinds of cannibalistic experience:

1. as a response to famine

2. as a symbol of chaos, it is equated with all that must be dominated, controlled or repressed in the establishment of social order

3. as a symbol of order, cannibalism regenerates society by transmitting vital essence between the dead and the living, the human and the divine, the human and the animal

4. as a system of symbols and oppositions that channel energy from the realm of the diffuse, chaotic and unconscious in subjective awareness to the realm of the interpersonal and social. The transmission of energy within society and between the generations is itself culturally constructed, and the ways in which we make ourselves into food in order to have food are an essential part of both transmission and construction.

It is the variety I want to emphasise. It speaks to my experience of the Eucharist in ways that christian teaching does not. To pick (or is to unpick?) the lock that guards the hugely overdetermined power of the christian Eucharist, we need to be able to draw on many different kinds of experience of hunger and the suffering associated with hunger. One source of such experience is our dreaming. But dreaming can be so chaotic, so idiosyncratic, so perverse, that we despair of bringing it to bear on the christian Eucharist, its past, its present, its future. The comparative material collected together in a book like Sanday’s has given me fresh courage to keep trying.

Like this. The vision I have already tried to articulate in various papers is grounded in christian trinitarian theology. But it is not the Christianity of the Church. It speaks of the killing of the Third Person of that Trinity, and of the eating and drinking of its blood, so that its power is taken into the human food chain as well as into the reflections of mind and of desire. The Third Person of the christian Trinity has suffered division. It has got into our ecology as well as into our technology. I believe that the Third Person of the christian Trinity is at work in the financial markets of the world and in our manufactures, in the research and development laboratories which create new appetites and jobs as well as the goods with which to feed these appetites and justify these jobs. It is also lodged in our food chain, in the whole order of interdependencies of which hunger makes us part.

What is it like to carry that division in our blood and in our history? Here is an example how another culture recognises and controls divisions of the spirit.

Chapter 4 of Sanday’s book is about a people called the Bimin-Kuskusmin who live in Papua New Guinea. There are about one thousand of them. They have known about Europeans since 1912 but did not experience direct contact until 1957. When studied by an anthropologist from 1971 to 1973 such contact was still quite limited. Most of the population had not seen a European, and the influx of Western technology was not in evidence beyond the use of steel tools.

The chapter is titled ‘the androgynous first being’, and Sanday’s study of their cannibalism is about how they construct rituals, which in their turn construct their world, so as to ensure that both male and female blood pass from generation to generation and in doing so create social order. Agnatic blood, the blood that passes down the male line through semen, is different from menstrual blood. Menstrual blood is a dualistic substance. It carries the capacity for witchcraft and mystical malevolence. And its power in relation to female fertility causes men to seek ritual control of it, as a means for controlling agnatic fertility. But agnatic blood is also dualistic. The spirit, kusem, transmitted by semen has two aspects. I do not know how to pronounce their names as given: finiik, and khaapkhabuurien.

The finiik aspect of spirit is strengthened by agnatic blood, semen, and male foods and ritual. It represents the social and moral dimensions of personhood. It stores collective knowledge and experience, and is like conscience and intellect. Khaapkhabuurien, on the other hand, gains vigour from female substance, especially menstrual blood. It represents the unpredictable and idiosyncratic aspects of personality that differentiate individuals from one another. In this sense it contrasts with the moral and jural dimension of finiik (p.89).

This distinction is made within experience associated with agnatic blood. There is also a similarly dualistic experience associated with menstrual blood. The double distinction structures and energises the ontology and sociology of these people. Their cannibalism expresses and controls the psychological and social influences that can destroy society, and those that create cooperation and solidarity (p.93).

This is a very specialised example of the symbolic anthropology which Sanday makes available for us in this book. But for those of us who know Jung’s psychology of alchemy it does not stand alone. For Sanday goes on to compare this almost contemporary Papuan cannibalism with the alchemical process, as described in Dr. von Franz’s study of Gerhard Dorn in her book Alchemical Active Imagination.

The bodies of the Bimin-Kuskusmin victim and of those who consume the victim represent vessels in which the goal of purification and transformation is biological and social reproduction. The victim’s body is purified through torture and sacrifice. The rite identifies the evil in the victim by inserting arrows and bone slivers into those parts of the body identified with major enemies and witches. The torture and pain inflicted on the victim are essential to the reduction and transformation of the major enemy and witchcraft status of the victim. The victim must show that he or she is made of strong material by withstanding the torture. The torturers help in this process by prolonging the victim’s agony while ensuring that he or she does not die prematurely…

Throughout the Great Pandanus Rite there is considerable evidence of a concern with reducing and transforming destructive energy in the interest of the intergenerational continuity of natural substances encoding ritual and procreative strength (the analogue of the alchemist’s gold). There is also evidence of the process of coniunctio in each act of reduction and transformation. After the victim is dead, for example, the head (considered a male substance) is severed and tied to one of the pandanus trees to rot. The other pandanus tree received the victim’s female bodily parts. This separation of the victim’s body into male and female parts, which are then linked to the two trees of the opposite sex of the victim, represents the separation of the masculine and feminine from the totality constellated at the beginning of the rite and then joined to the opposite sex in nature in the interest of fertility. In almost every ritual act both the antithesis and the union of male and female are reiterated.

Putting Sanday’s symbolic anthropology together with Jung’s psychology of alchemy in this way makes for strange thinking and uncomfortable, if not obscene, bodily reactions. Historians of science may find it unacceptable. But they are going to have to learn to take part. As a correspondent has written: “if cannibalism and theophagy correspond to something universal, then we have to account for the enantiodromia by which they are both, to many, repulsive or plain perverse”. The history of science has to take that enantiodromia into its ruminations. Without its perversity and repulsion we cannot incorporate our own ethno-ontology. Without it flesh and blood will be taken over (transubstantiated) by the inventive, exploitative and consuming hunger of our science.

Our own ethno-ontology

In previous talks on this theme I have referred to A.N.Whitehead’s book Science and the Modern World. First published in 1926 it is still widely read, and I recently saw it included in a catalogue from a ‘Green’ bookshop. It is one of our century’s major attempts to look at the ethno-ontology of our culture.

Whitehead draws attention to an absolute contradiction at the heart of our use and enjoyment of science. The sentences which I quoted in my Riddley Walker paper still seem to me to stand, unanswered, in their challenge to a huge intellectual complacency.

The enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved.

Another way of putting this is that we don’t know why science works, but are happy to take the fact that it does work as good enough reason for not worrying about our ignorance. For many people the fact that science works makes any kind of ontology redundant. But that attitude is more dubious today than when Whitehead wrote. The fact that science works is now widely felt as a threat as well as a comfort. Because we have come to realise that its working is geared to consumption of a peculiar kind, consumption that does not want to be satisfied.

For instance, in a review in the TLS on January 14, 1994, Professor Roy Porter discussed various books on the present state of medicine, under the heading “How medicine became the prisoner of its own success”. In his review Roy Porter had this sentence. “Medical consumerism – like all sorts of consumerism, only more menacingly – is designed to be unsatisfying”.

Consumerism that is designed to be unsatisfying. Hunger as a craving that we do not want filled. Suffering which can be assumed to be profitable. The link I am trying to make is between Sacred Hunger and the effectiveness of both science and suffering. Is science, both pure and applied, related to suffering of a kind which we have either forgotten, or not yet realised: suffering which connects our inventive, exploitative and consuming science with whatever is locked into the torture and cannibalism of the christian Eucharist?

It is imaginable. Feminism is asking questions about the history of science which Whitehead would have had difficulty in finding words for. Jung’s psychology of alchemy is questioning our metaphysical inheritance in ways which open up new and possibly terrifying horizons for the incarnation of thought. Energy of this kind is prepared to dwell on the absolute contradiction to which Whitehead referred us. Let us apply this energy to the history of the christian Eucharist.

In the ethno-ontology from New Guinea which I have mentioned spirit is differentiated according to whether it belongs with menstrual or agnatic blood. Spirit is further differentiated within each category, so that both kinds invite doubt. The continuity and ecology of society are dependent on how the hunger for, and the hunger of, such blood are regulated. There is a complexity, a polyvalence, to such an analysis of cannibalism which fits my overdetermined, impacted experience of the Eucharist in a way that christian teaching does not.

The point about Sanday’s book as compared to Bynum’s is that she brings many and various ethno-ontologies to bear on the study of cannibalism. This opens up a field of study and reflection within which questions can arise which might otherwise not be allowed. For instance, connections between blood, semen, and milk. We allow for these in psychoanalysis. Should we allow for them in our study of the Eucharist?

Bynum’s book says such connections are certainly there, but she is not reaching out to make anything of them beyond personal experience. Sanday’s book argues that there is a social dimension as well. By demonstrating how different ethno-ontologies regulate hunger which is both for food and for life, human flesh and blood being both, she places the Eucharist in a context of social choice. Hunger is all consuming if we do not make the right sacrifice. So sacrifice has to be made. But there is choice as to what kind of sacrifice.

There is no one explanatory insight in these books which is going to reveal connections between Eucharistic suffering and scientific experiment, between Eucharistic hunger and the fear and greed which drive capital in its exhaustion of natural resources, between Eucharistic hope and the acceleration of hunger. What there is is evidence of diversity, and we need such diversity if choice as to the kind of sacrifice that has to be made is to become an acceptable part of our way of life, if the kind of very radical adjustments being demanded by environmentalists are to be compatible with a relatively free society.

Cannibalism discriminates. It allows for taste. It knows that there are things we can stomach, and things which we cannot stomach. It is cruel, but its cruelty is adapted to circumstance. The Eucharist has condensed that diversity into a once and for all all or nothing. To own its responsibility for the inventiveness, exploitation, and enjoyment of modern science, christianity will have to open that condensation to choice. Eucharistic experience of Sacred Hunger will be compared with psychoanalytic exploration of infancy, the effectiveness of suffering and the effectiveness of experiment will be tested against each other outside as well as inside the Church, and the difference between agnatic and menstrual blood will make itself felt in the stock markets of the world.

Hunger at the beginning of the Bible

I want now to go to the beginning of the Bible and see what it has to say about hunger: the stories of Cain and Abel, of Jacob and Esau. Do those stories tell us anything about the acceleration of hunger?

Before I had ever read Melanie Klein on good and bad breasts, I read about Cain and Abel in Ian Suttie’s Origins of Love and Hate. First published in 1935, Suttie’s book attempted to reorganise Freudian theory round hunger rather than sex, and to find in hunger and its satisfaction an alternative basis for psychoanalysis. What I remember from my reading of it sometime in the 1950’s is his discussion of what he calls Cain jealousy, “the control of which is the ethical leitmotif of the Mother cults”. He reads the Cain Abel story in the light of early anthropological accounts of Australian aboriginal peoples living on the edge of subsistence, with ferocious hunger as an everyday reality. Among such people, he says, the mother eats every second child, sharing it with the older baby, and comments: “Not only can the child go on ‘eating the mother’, but she even lets it eat the younger baby”.

Is there such a memory behind the Cain Abel story? I suppose one reason why Suttie’s theory made such an impact on me was that it touched memories of my childhood response to the Jacob Esau story. For me, this has always had a far more powerful resonance than the story of Oedipus. Since reading Suttie I have on two occasions gone into the Jacob Esau story in detail and at slow length, in enactment. Each time I have been reminded of how closely it touched me when it was first read to me, probably when I was six or seven. How the mother helped one son substitute himself for the other, preparing food and also changing the feel of his own skin by dressing it in the skin of the meat he was taking into his father, so that he was as it were the raw, uncooked, version of the cooked flesh his father was to eat. Remembering also that this father, Isaac, had himself as child been saved from his father’s butchering knife by the substitution of other meat. The story remains, like the Eucharist, congested with more meaning than I can make sense of.

What Suttie’s book did for me was to flood that childhood story with a new, adult, sense of likelihood. It wasn’t just an old story. The world could indeed be just like that. Whole peoples could live in the presence of a primal voraciousness that never lets up, and mothers as well as fathers could turn children into food so that other children could be blessed. Subsequent reading in anthropology confirmed me in the belief that for many peoples the world is indeed so organised.

Was some such memory behind those early stories of Genesis?

But there is not only hunger. There’s sex too. We have the Adam and Eve story as well as Cain and Abel. Making sense of the first chapters of Genesis is more obviously about sex than it is about hunger. But if there is a primal voracity behind the sexual story, or if the two are intertwined in some unmentionable way, does it help to explain the extraordinary narrative power that imposed the stories of Genesis on the world?

Questions of that kind have been festering about in my mind for twenty, thirty, years. What brought them to a head, and led indirectly to my proposing this subject for my talk today, was another book, Chris Knight’s Blood Relations: menstruation and the origin of culture. If you take away nothing else from this talk of mine, I hope some of you will leave determined to get hold of and read this book.

I heard of it first in a review in the TLS of 7 February, 1992, by Peter Redgrove, who hailed it as a companion to his The Wise Wound, which he had co-authored with Penelope Shuttle in 1978. Redgrove described Blood Relations as “a magnificent work of materialistic science constructed from anthropological field work and tribal myth”, as compared to The Wise Wound, in which “we derived our ideas mostly from contemporary studies and dreams, and spoke as poets exploring aspects of the inner world of the menstrual cycle, its shared subjectivity”. And he went on: “Despite their different methods, neither book contradicts the other; indeed they seem to meet … in Knight’s triumphantly humanistic axiom: Magic for everybody, but no gods”.

There was much more in Redgrove’s review to excite my interest. When I got hold of a copy of Knight’s book I found that it was all the review had promised. I want to give you a brief summary of its argument, and to then say something about how it affected me.

Chris Knight is reconstructing a human revolution that occurred 70 to 50 thousand years ago. He argues that evolving ice age women learned to synchronise their menstrual cycle so as to exercise control over men both as hunters, food providers, and as sexual partners. Hunting, killing and sexuality were jointly regulated by women synchronising their menstruation. This was the beginning of human culture as we know it.

In his book we are standing as it were on a threshold between evolution and history. The synchronising of menstruation explains the appearance of new human characteristics. Not only the distinctive features of human female reproductive physiology but other features of both sexes, such as large brain size, reduced sexual dimorphism, and increased gracility, were all a result. A mating system based on female synchrony minimised the selective value of violence, maximised that of more co-operative social and communicative skills. This shift in selection pressures was the most important factor underlying the transition to anatomical modernity.

Mating systems of this kind involved the formation of unusually strong and enduring coalitions. Such systems were complex and intellectually demanding, particularly with regard to time awareness. This linkage of big game hunting timed by generalised ovarian/menstrual synchrony spread from African shoreline settings into ice age hinterland conditions during the Upper Palaeolithic revolution. The new logic then reached take-off point, and began to spread irresistibly across the globe, probably around 45,000 years ago.

Selection pressures in favour of heavier menstrual bleeding resulted in part from women’s need for visible signals to help keep track of their own and one another’s cycles. The use of blood in this context also meshed in with a focus on blood spilled periodically by men in the hunt, an idea which ties in with the view of classical scholars that the first true ‘contracts’ had always to be ‘signed’ in blood. (And here Knight refers to René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.) The result was a blood-centred symbolic system which linked game animals and the female body into a tightly integrated web of meanings in Early Upper Palaeolithic art. These included periodic notation systems, the use of ochre as a blood substitute, the recurrent association of vulva engravings with those of animals, figurines which emphasise the female reproductive organs, and more generally, the art’s suggestively lunar/menstrual as well as seasonal or ‘time-factored’ internal logic.

So to understand the ‘leap’ to symbolic culture in which history has its beginning we have to think of menstrual synchronisation as bringing domesticity, extended and formalised kinship, fire, the division of labour, sexual taboos, hunting and meat cooking, into one time conscious sexual-symbolic system.

That is Knight’s argument, as he summarises it half way through the book, at the beginning of Chapter 9. Whether it is true or not I am not qualified to judge. But what I want to convey here is not so much the argument of this magnificent book as the excitement it caused me. So let me read to you the opening of a long letter, full of questions and differences, which I wrote to the author shortly after my first reading:

I feel you have presented me with an opportunity to speak person to person about things which have been bugging me all my life. As what I have to say is a lot about differences, let me begin by recording the quite extraordinary sense of homecoming and comradeship which the book has for me. I have on occasion felt almost sick with excitement, but also relief, such relief: a release of tension as if I am at last in the presence of an understanding which allows something hard and knotted and perverse and intrinsically unshareable, to unfold, stretch, breath. In talking about difference I want to give expression to that feeling. To which end it is important to note that the excitement, both hormonal and cortical, has been such that I do not expect to be able to ‘fix’ it. It may well be that there is something at stake here which will have to wait until after I am gone.

What was it that so excited me?

It was the link between sex and time. For thirty years or more I’ve been haunted by the conviction that there is some quite simple link between sex and time which we are struggling to remember, or perhaps to discover ‘for the first time’. In my paper Alchemy and Psychosis: Curiosity and the Metaphysics of Time I spoke of the overlap of three different ‘time scales’ or ‘timings’: the time of my personal life, the time of history, and the time of evolution. Knight’s reconstruction of the threshold between evolution and history excites me because it assumes such an overlap. It assumes it by incorporating hunger into a more comprehensive ethno-ontology. First, there is sexual rhythm. Then there is the use of that rhythm to enforce and control hunting and killing for food. Then there is the thought of culture, history, time itself in so far as history is time, as originating in that enforcement. Together they speak into something congested and overdetermined in my experience which I have never been able to unpack. The release of tension as I read page after page of the detailed, passionate and ironic argument was extraordinary, and something for which I still feel great waves of gratitude.

But now, with reference to our Bible: does the memory of some such original event lie behind the stories collected together in the early chapters of Genesis? How is my reading of the Jacob Esau story affected if I allow myself the excitement released by Chris Knight’s book? And not only the Jacob and Esau story: Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, and perhaps most pregnant of all with the Eucharist in mind, the blessing of Abraham and his seed when he has shown himself willing to feed his only son to God:

By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and all nations on earth shall pray to be blessed as your descendants are blessed, and this because you have obeyed me.

How is that blessing of agnatic blood related to the supply of food? Where are the breasts that can satisfy the seed which is to be like the sand upon the seashore? There has to be some balance, some reciprocity, between food and sex. The question who, or what, controls that balance is crucial to any ethno-ontology. Where in the ethno-ontology of Genesis is that control located?

I think the stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Adam and Eve, are telling us something about the acceleration of hunger. But, as people have been saying for two hundred years and more, they have to be read against earlier traditions. Genesis locates control of the balance between sex and food with God. If Chris Knight’s argument is to be believed there was a much earlier time when that control was not only located with women but actually dreamed up ¬by women. Genesis says that God’s control of the balance between sex and food underwrites the purpose of history. Knight’s argument is that history began when women dreamed up a specifically human way of balancing food and sex against each other. That’s quite a difference. We need to explore that difference if we are to understand the Bible’s contribution to the acceleration of hunger.


Now let me draw together the various themes of this talk.

I have tried to enlarge our concept of hunger to include our appetite for new things. There is hunger as it has always been, the hunger of starvation, of the homeless, of the unemployed. And there is a hunger that breeds, a hunger which, feeding on invention, is then reinvested in further invention. Our appetite for new things, appetite that links the inventive genius of the scientist to employment and the consuming public whose high street spending is watched so anxiously by economists: this is the appetite which is associated with the power of capital, a power that some have called a Sacred Hunger, others a greedy Moloch.

I have also argued that this hunger is accelerating, that it has somehow become not only hunger for goods but also hunger for time. As such it is not only not sustainable. It doesn’t want to be satisfied. It finds its fulfilment in the exhaustion of the resources on which it feeds.

This accelerating hunger derives from the Biblical experience of time. The Old Testament idea of covenant converted the passing of time into the fulfilment of promise. Sexuality and time were conjugated together in promise. The sexual multiplication of humanity was given a privileged place in the ordering of the world.

The advent of christianity marked a decisive change in understanding of this covenant. But I don’t believe that Christ saved us from the effect of conjugating sexuality and time with each other. What I believe happened is that this conjugation was broken open into an experimental hunger. The three decisive events of christianity are: first, that virginity was given a new ontological status. The receptive is responsive not only to, but with, the power of the maker. Second, that in betrayal and crucifixion the promise of the covenant was broken into an experiment with suffering. Suffering becomes inventive. And thirdly, that in the Eucharist hunger is given new purchase on history. Expectation of the end of time enters the food cycle as the seed corn offers Itself again and again yet once and for all to be eaten at Its own altar.

What followed on is the history of what I was brought up to call the Holy Ghost. It is a history of hunger, hunger for the making good of a promise that has not been kept, hunger for the answers that come when the maker is put to the test. It is a history with many branches, one of which is the development of the science and debt driven capitalism which have converted the world more completely than any other religion has ever got near to doing.

I believe that the Christ event, by which I mean the life of Jesus of Nazareth and what was made of it in the years after his judicial murder, began a new age: a new age in human history and in the history of our planet. The balance between the non-human and human worlds was altered, fundamentally and irreversibly. Christianity is right to insist that the importance of that event cannot be exaggerated and that it affects the whole world, whether the world call itself christian or not. It is wrong in understanding that event as a redemption, a saving, of the world. On the contrary, christianity has made it possible for humanity drastically to accelerate the destruction of the world. To understand this potential for accelerated destruction we have to take christian theology with the utmost seriousness, while allowing it to be wrong.

The Christ event is carried forward in history by the workings of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Christian Trinity. But the Holy Spirit does not only work in and through the Christian Church. It has got out of the Church into the world. The Holy Spirit has got out into the world in the workings of modern science and technology, and in the fear and greed of our financial markets. Scientific invention and its applications, as we have come to know and practise and enjoy them in the last four hundred years, continue the Christ event. They are both redemptive and destructive. The politics of scientific experiment, the invention of the method of invention, and the play of that method on human fear and greed, are all the work of the Third Person of the Christian Trinity. But it is the Third Person escaped from the understanding of the Church. The original connection with the other two Persons of the Christian Trinity is broken. To respond to our potential for accelerated destruction, we have to understand that break.

To do so non-christians are going to have to take christianity very seriously indeed in order to find out how the science and technology which have conquered the world came into being. And christians are going to have to admit that we need the help of non-christians in researching how we have misunderstood our own history.

So, as we move towards global collapse, have we any grounds for hope? Is there an older understanding which will allow us time in which to cost the history of the Holy Ghost? I don’t know. But I do have it in me to believe that it is ready to be remembered.

With reference to the Bible, our theme today, I look to the beginning, and then to the end, to the after word.

At the beginning I look to those two questions asked by God: when Yahweh said to the woman “What is this that thou hast done?”, and to the man “What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth to me from the ground”, and I ask myself: What is it that we have to tell which God does not know?

And at the end I look into the Eucharistic cup and I ask myself: what kind of blood is this? The order of service says that it is agnatic blood. Where then is the other blood? What has become of the hunger, the Sacred Hunger, in which menstrual and agnatic blood feed on each other? Has it got trapped in the seed corn that hungers for its own consumption?

In more worldly terms I have two suggestions.

If we are to convert global collapse into a series of more manageable catastrophes we are going to have to break the accelerating circuit of hunger and invention. This must entail interrupting the procession by which capital and technology feed on each other. That procession (I use the christian theological term deliberately) cannot be allowed to go on automatically. There is an accelerating cycle of invention, exploitation, consumption, invention and so on, that has to be broken. And the breaking involves timing. The acceleration of hunger cannot be just slowed down. It has to break into a beat, the beat of a time which we can keep.

Watch our economy for evidence of such a break. It could come as a catastrophic break down if we are not expecting it. But if we do, it could come as the first beat in a new rhythm, a rhythm for which our blood is hungering, to which we already know how to respond though we can not yet put that response into words. The language of economists is full of words that try and combine linear and cyclic experience of time. Is there evidence that they are already beginning to recognise something more like a beat between the two?

Try this, for instance, from last Monday’s Independent, remembering as I read that inflation is the breaking of a promise to repay debt.

The forward markets throughout Europe are now indicating that short rates are at or near their trough, with a sizable increase in rates now being expected during 1995. This is very bad news for the authorities, since it means that the markets are autonomously tightening monetary conditions despite the fact that the central banks genuinely believe this to be entirely inappropriate. It is hard to explain why the markets are so jumpy about inflation at present. One factor, though, is that the unhappy experiences of the 1970s continue to cast a long shadow. Then, the markets refused to believe that the monetary authorities would lose control over inflation as comprehensively as they did, so they accepted yields on government debt that failed to compensate them for rising prices for many years in succession. This period of daylight robbery has left the legacy that markets now require a high and permanent risk premium just in case inflation takes off again. With global activity now beginning to rise quite strongly … markets appear paranoid about inflation.

The time being kept by the markets and the time being kept by the central banks are not the same.

My second suggestion is about reproduction, our power to reproduce ourselves. Control over this power is now a political issue. As women and men argue and fight over it we sense that more is at stake than we realise. Something is happening that affects us everywhere. There are shock waves and disturbances of feeling and belief which reach into every corner of our lives. The ethno-ontology of our world is changing. To get at that change the political argument needs theologising.

I suggest that there is linkage between control of our reproductive powers and the automatism by which capital feeds off scientific invention. This is not a new idea. For many years graffiti at Oxford Bus Station proclaimed to the world: ‘Women in Labour keep Capital in Power’. But what makes the linkage? My argument this afternoon is that it is christianity, the christianity that has escaped from the Church into machines and laboratories and financial markets. That’s where the energy and insight are locked up which we need if we are to respond more effectively to the linkage between human reproduction and the hunger of capital.

We are the key to that lock. It is for us to enter into, inhabit and operate the linkage between reproduction and capital. But to do so we will have to risk making connections between gender, theology, and hunger which are not allowed for in the Bible.