An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
The notion of the sacred is ancient in human culture. It is an important dimension of all religions. It is usually associated with the Divine as conceived in a tradition and with everything associated with it: writings, rituals, prayers, observances, etc. The key idea is that there are aspects of our experienced world that are to be regarded with reverence. These have an innate and sublime purity that is to be respected. The ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero expressed it succinctly: Res sacros non modo manibus attingi, sed ne cogitatione quidem violari fas fuit: Sacred things are not only to be untouched by hands, but must not be violated in thought. In other words, just as a múrti in a Hindu temple and the Torah Scroll in a synagogue are sacred and must not be touched irreverentially, this must be so equally with matters more abstract, such as the names of God (Al-Qoddous) in the Holy Qur’an and the divinity of Christ in Catholicism. The institution of marriage is regarded as sacred in all religious traditions, and in some cases, places of burial too. What is regarded as sacred in a culture is always approached with reverence and respect, even with humility.
The notion of the sacred has inevitably entered in the secular-humanist realm also. When skepticism and suspicions arose as to the historicity of many fundamental aspects of religions, humanists, atheists, and the rest of the enlightenment set found it still necessary to attribute sacredness to some aspects of life and the world. So we have come to regard like some ancient peoples lakes and mountains, lands and oceans as sacred in the sense that we should treat them all with respect and should never violate them. In the ancient world it arose from a sense of mystery. In our own times, in this new paradigm whatever is visibly essential for our survival is to be regarded as sacred, along with human life. We also consider some civilizing principles as sacred, such as freedom and human rights. The sacred is something that is to be held on a pedestal in the hierarchy of values, separate from our daily chores and concerns. The Hebrew word kedusah (that which is kept apart) describes it very well. The Sanskrit term pavitr (purity) also refers to an intrinsic purity that is not to be sullied by callous human contact or attitude.
Walt Whitman famously wrote, “if anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” Every one of us regards certain things as sacred. In the following we can read the perspectives of some IRAsians on what to them is sacred.
I thank all those who graciously responded to my invitation to submit their thoughts on this topic.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
My perspective on the Sacred
Many years ago, a friend and colleague mentioned in passing to me that he doubted that there was any place on earth that could be considered sacred or holy. I disagreed. I told him that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was such a place. A few years later, after he returned from his own visit to Jerusalem, he told me that I was right. It is such a place. No wonder that almost all of Western Civilization regards the Temple Mount as sacred ground. The first time I saw it I was walking along the top of the Old City wall, traveling from the South to the East. I walked around a building and saw the magnificent, golden-domed, Dome of the Rock, built where, tradition holds, Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, where Solomon’s Temple - and subsequent temples - were built, and where Mohammed ascended into heaven. Sacred, indeed.
Sacred implies value, perhaps the highest value. I have a set of porcelain dishes. They are antique, gorgeous, and extremely valuable, so valuable that they never leave the china cabinet. However, even though my dishes are that valuable, they are not sacred. Something having a high, usually artificial, value, by itself, does not make it sacred.
Sacred implies awe and wonder. I am continually awed by many encounters, chiefly seeing the ocean, flying in an airplane, seeing distant mountains. The ability to evoke awe, by itself, though, does not make anything sacred.
Sacred implies history and tradition. I love history, reading history, visiting historical places, arguing points-of-view about past events. History is important, but simply having a known history does not make the historical events, by themselves, sacred.
Recognizing something as sacred implies all of these. There must be an experience of awe, enough to cause one to be filled with such wonder and reverence that everything else happening in that person’s life at that time will cease being important, at least for awhile. This experience of awe and wonder humbles us, dropping us to our knees, frequently literally. We become, to use Charles Wesley’s phrase, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” There must be history, history in the sense of past events, to be sure, but also in the sense of being confirmed by other people across time, a shared experience, a replicated experience. There must be value, perhaps the highest value, which comes after and because of the experience of the sacredness of something.
There is one more prerequisite for sacredness: transcendence. The experience of the sacred must originate from beyond ourselves. Recognizing something as sacred must be something evoked, not created or merely designated. For something to be sacred it must also direct our consciousness and lives to that which is beyond ourselves; God or anything that exists beyond ourselves, anything that transcends ourselves. When that happens to us, our lives are changed in very profound ways. In a very real way, we transcend our old lives. As Paul related his experience in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come.”
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is a sacred place. It has the highest value, at least for Western Civilization. It does evoke awe and wonder. It has a history. It does point us to the transcendent. It is, to be sure, not the onlysacred place. Look on it as a paradigm for sacred places as well as for anything else that people recognize as sacred, as holy, as set apart.
My Perspective on the sacred
Joe Ted Miller
I regard all of reality as sacred first of all. Why? Because I learned long ago that in Jewish culture the "sacred" was considered what was "cut off" or "set off" or "separated from" this world and therefore either God or what was set aside for God. Then I learned that in Christian culture the sacred and the this worldly are brought together in the Incarnation of God in Jesus and so all is sacred or Godly. Later through life experience in observing, listening, studying and musing I realized that it does not have to be either/or or both/and. I tend to realize now at 70 that what I experience can be sacred since it can lead me to wonder not only at what I see or feel but what I intuit to be beyond it.
Many ancient people viewed all the world as their God's world. Later people separated apart that world as some sacred and some not. It's true that it is hard to consider "the bad" as sacred but even it can lead us humans to wonder at what should be, the good, rather than what is, the bad in any one instance.
To ask me to write what I regard as sacred is to ask me to write about my philosophy of reality, as hopefully is apparent in the above paragraph. As I see it, all of reality can show me the Beyond within me, and the Beyond outside of me. I know not where the Source is that draws my attention to these. Am I believer in God? Yes, but I prefer to not use words to define that God. The sacred is an indirect way of talking about the God. Is nature sacred? Yes, if it leads me to think of not only what it seems to be but what more it might be if only I can grasp it more fully.
Is Nature all the sacred that is? Only if it includes the apparently "in born" wonder that leads me outward from my inward musing. My very language gives me means of not only thinking and talking toward "the more within and possibly beyond" but also is one of my doors to wonder.
I move to the "other" of all that is and realize that yes, it is sacred, it is a landscape and a horizon that reminds me that there is not only something I am "cut off" from but also that I am "joined with", transcendent and immanent, never only here or there but always speaking to my "being" "on the way" as well as in it.
What I regard as sacred
Anindita N. Balslev
The delicate nature of this query prompts a personal response in the form of this ‘open’ letter. After all, is it not the case that no matter what actually causes the experience of the sacred, the experience itself is not only of deep personal significance for the experiencer but also has a dimension to it that calls for it to be shared, thus going beyond the domain of privacy to an arena that is public? Had this not been the case, why would the ‘enlightened ones’ seek to spread to others the intimate message which is communicated/revealed especially to them and share their own sense of the sacred with such extraordinary zeal?
The experience of sacredness – whether interpreted in religious or in secular terms - is something that is not meant exclusively for private consumption. It is as though one is transported to a higher sphere of existence of which one is generally oblivious. However, in an inter-subjective context, it is possible to interpret this phenomenon as that which can be resonated with or can be seen as a report of an episode available for further examination.
To me, the sense of sacredness has more a character of something to be felt and recognized than to be precisely defined or categorized, at least not without some sort of metaphysical commitment. Those (they are by no means few in number) upon whom such an awareness dawns - I am inclined to believe – can never deny its occurrence even though it is difficult to express it in a transparent manner. Moreover, in hindsight and especially in a sceptical mood or while assuming a sophisticated analytical posture, they may begin to seriously ponder over whether that specific experience has been a case of immediate perception or whether it merely was a projection of their own imagination, whether something was actually ‘given’ or was it simply an unconscious ‘construal’ to meet some deep human need, a case of wishful thinking, generated by some form of indoctrination whose sources are forgotten? That being confronted with the sacred is something to which you cannot but pay homage is nevertheless undeniable.
If one has felt it, one is struck by its presence. It is evident that what evokes this sense of the sacred may be overtly associated with a wide range of phenomena. It may centre on an object that reminds one of unconditional love (as do the pair of glasses that belonged to my beloved late father) just as an idol evokes in a worshipper the feeling of, say, forgiveness or fearlessness. Sometimes I have sensed it intensely in the atmosphere of a specific edifice (where for generations people have assembled to pray such as the Notre-Dame, Paris), sometimes in a place (an awe-inspiring scenic landscape where the inanimate appears sacred, or while visiting a century-old site of pilgrimage emanating sacred vibes). To me, however, it has mostly been evident while in the company of a few rare persons (whose greatness borders on holiness). Also, I have sensed it while simply gazing at impersonal nature - a mountain range (like the Himalayas in Nepal), a river (like the Ganges in Varanasi), a tree (like the Bodhitree in Bodhgaya), where the symbols and the symbolised coincide in an inexplicable manner.
I have occasionally encountered an ambience of sacredness while reading dialogues that have messages for anyone who cares to listen attentively (as when the sage Yajnyavalkya speaks to his wife Maitreyi in the Upanisads or while reading the ‘Sermon of the Mount’ in the Bible). I have felt it while looking at certain sculptures (in Elephanta) and paintings (in Rome). I have felt it when listening to prayer songs (like the one I heard - without understanding a word of it - while accidentally strolling near a mosque in Hurghada). I have registered, quite unexpectedly, the sacred vibrations while visiting Assisi, Daksineswara and Fatehpur Sikri. I have shared the amazing sacred fervour as Pandits engaged in recapitulation of the core insights of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, or when listening to the amazing stories of life-experiences of a Jaina Tirthankara and of a Jewish mystic.
I am pretty much convinced that there is a longing, a striving in all human beings to go beyond the state in which we are at present. This yearning to transcend the stage which has already been achieved makes the human situation one of perpetual struggle. To me, this is a ‘sacred’ propensity, a call to transform ourselves on an individual as well as collective plane. This is why even when a leader persuades a people to resolve a conflict-situation through the principle of non-violence, the movement acquires a sacred facet. In brief, to sense the sacred is to listen to the call to transform, no matter in which context.
To me, then, sacredness is associated with cognitive, conative and affective dimensions of human experience. Ineffable yet undeniable, this sense of the sacred – be it on an individual or on a collective front – seems to be present universally though not uniformly.
There is more to it, but for me even to divulge this much about ‘what I regard as sacred’, should be attributed to my acquaintance – since 1988 – with people who assemble at the IRAS.
What is sacred?
Edward (Chip) Ordman
Modern society has lost any common notion of the sacred. When the notion of the sacred is invoked "in public" it seems it is most often for the purpose of creating a scandal. The controversies over flag-burning in the United States in the 1960's come to mind. The 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano entitled "Piss Christ" (depicting a crucifix in a beaker of urine) and the resulting controversy when it was shown in government-supported art exhibits (both in the US and in Europe) did get dramatic publicity for the artist and lead to discussion of the role of art. The controversy that arose in 2005 after the Jutland Post published a series of cartoons unfavorably depicting Muhammad was in many ways similar but at a time when society was more inclined to violence. In spoken language in the West, blasphemy is so routine as to now be meaningless, but the above examples suggest that some actions that will be taken as blasphemy remain possible.
Within limited contexts, certain objects and ideas have a limited sacral value attached, and one ordinarily chooses to treat them appropriately. I would not maltreat a crucifix within a church, or a Torah within a synagogue, and given the political climate I myself would not choose to treat Muhammad in a way that others might consider improper. I have Roman Catholic friends who treat the Mass as sacred in a very traditional sense (perhaps consistent with Graham Greene's book, "The Power and the Glory", with masses held in secret in the face of persecution.) While I do regularly go to "Torah Study" classes at my synagogue, I don't feel the way my Roman Catholic friends do.
When asked "What do you hold sacred?", I think I'm being asked for something deeper than that, something more central to my view of myself, God, and the universe. For the reasons suggested in the first paragraph, I don't think I can take my notion of the sacred from the society in which I live.
One of my solutions when faced with many questions which I think modern society cannot answer, or does not have a sensible answer to, is to go further back in religious tradition, to the Hebrew Bible (a/k/a the Old Testament) or the Talmud. I see two classes of answers there. First, the sacerdotal. Religious paraphernalia and ceremony were central to Judaism before the year 70 of the common era, and are much less so today. While their modern cousins merit respect, this is of a limited type. Would I lay down my life to protect a Torah scroll? No. I might try to conceal a Torah or Talmud under some forms of persecution. Would I deny the particulars of my faith to save my life? After what the world saw in the 1930's and 1940's, I have to say: probably, yes. Not directly faced with the question, I'm not sure how far that would go. I could quite comfortably live as a Muslim, slightly less comfortably as a Christian, might have serious discomfort being Hindu or (publicly, as in the Soviet Union) an atheist.
But there is a second meaning of sacred, suggested to me by religious tradition: the things one would actually risk one's life or health or happiness to preserve. Paul Tillich spoke of God as "ultimate concern." What things bear on ultimate concern? My religious tradition is pretty clear on that: human life. So that is what I have to try to think about, to tease out "the sacred". Let's take the two words, to start: "Life" and "Human".
Life: Judaism is not the only tradition, I'm sure, which says "he who saves one life, it as if he has saved a whole world." There is a respect for other forms of life as well - vis the kosher and hallal slaughter rules, and the prohibitions against cruelty to animals, in Judaism and Islam - but it is human life that is the main issue. What does it take to make life "Human"? I do spend time wrestling with that, and I realize that the boundaries are, for me, very traditional ones. I'd allow a bonobo to be sacrificed in medical experimentation to save humans, although I'm convinced that their mental life is much like ours (they know that humans have internal mental states, and that those can be wrong.) I have more trouble with fetuses: my reading of the Talmud does not offer them much protection, but I do recognize that historically whenever the definition of human has been expanded (to include women, to include Blacks) that expansion has led to improvement in the human condition. These are problems to wrestle with, and I regard wrestling with such problems as a sacred task.
But what does it take to make the life of a person fully "Human"? I've already suggested that slavery denies the humanity of the slave. Allowing someone full humanity means allowing a certain amount of liberty. Freedom of conscience, freedom to wrestle with life's problems. Trying to keep people from living in such numbing poverty that they are, in effect, slaves to the need to find food each day. Some of these things I can only help with in a very small way. But there are some problems of this type that are very much in the political arena, and very much unresolved. What are the rights of minorities? I am very sympathetic to the provision in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own..." but is that right effective if there is no other accessible country willing to take him in? I cite these only as examples of the important questions facing human society today. Wrestling with these questions, and trying in a small way to move us in the right direction, is a task I hold sacred.
Isn't it odd that I seem to have said so little about "God" above? Of course God is "sacred" but I don't have an image of God against which people could easily blaspheme; it's not something I have to defend or preach to those not already interested. I pray often; I try to ascertain what God wants of me. The tasks I have described above, the things I need to understand and the issues on which I hope to influence society, are things that I think God has called me to do and where I am trying to do what I think God wants. But I don't think that saying that publicly would help much with the tasks at hand.
what I regard as sacred
It is a joy to think, speak, and write about the sacred. The Sacred is the core, the essence, the depth, the meaning of reality. It is out of the ultimately sacred that reality emerges, and reflections and intimations of the Sacred abound in our experience, as in love and friendship, our experience of Nature’s beauty – the Blue Sky, trees, birds, lakes, mountains, rivers, Earth, starry night sky - and the beauty of the expression of feelings in art, music, and poetry. The feelings which we have of all these things, and more, are indirect touches of the Infinite, Infinite Love, the Great Whole, the Coherent Whole, or God (choose your own words). It is somewhat disappointing, and surprising, that neuroscience seems still unable to grasp that our qualitative conscious experience is direct or indirect experience of the Whole, which is why it is amorphous, ineffable, qualitative. After all, we know that all of our constituent particles must have an intimate relation to the Whole, or else there could be no laws of nature. And, since our conscious minds are the holistic aspect of our constituent particles, it certainly should not be surprising that we are able to touch the Whole experientially (Galileo did a boo-boo when he relegated the “secondary properties” to the interior status of the merely subjective).
I think that everything is fundamentally sacred because I live within a story of the universe in which it emerged, by free choice, out of Infinite Kenotic Love (the giving or emptying of God’s self in Christian theology, and related to the Jewish Kabbalah). I regard Physics and much of the rest of science as just too abstract, consisting only of integrated description and not ultimate explanation, and therefore much in need of intuitive interpretation, and this can be done in terms of the theological categories of Love and Freedom (which is given by Love). The Physics story has been abstracted out of a world which is made entirely of Love and Freedom, and the free choices by all identities between “ego” and “soul”, or “self” and “other”. Higher order identity emerges whenever both identities in an encounter choose to defer to the other, and this led to successive emergent levels of the hierarchy of physical identity, as well as to all life forms. Thus the higher order identity obtains its coherence and its consequent freedom from the freedom which has been given up by its constituents, so that we can say that it is the holistic aspect of the latter. Laws emerged in the early universe when identities chose to routinely defer to other, so that they always behave in accordance with the anticipations of others. Thus determinism is sourced in free moral choice.
And so with the above story we can see the Sacred everywhere, in all Truth, Beauty, Morality, and Creativity, as direct reflections of Love. Truth is something that can be felt in any conversation involving mutual deference or respect. In my metaphysical story, all encounters (events) between identities may be regarded as communications in a generalized sense, and then all Truth, including physics, derives from mutual deference. Truth, the laws, and higher order identity co-emerge, all due to mutual deference in the generalized conversation which constitutes the universe. Beauty is the original Infinite Love shining through the many expressions of Freedom, Infinite Freedom having been given in the kenotic creation by Infinite Love. Perfect intelligent design is no design at all, but rather the gift of total freedom within a context of Infinite Love. Morality is just honoring the other above oneself, which mimics the Love which made both the self and other possible, by honoring all above itself. By the way, with all due respect to evolutionary psychology and brain chemistry, the reason that moral acts feel good is because they are kenotic acts and one is in some degree merging one’s identity with Infinite Love/Infinite Kenosis.
Truth is sacred because it is sourced in Infinite Love. Ultimate Truth *is* Infinite Love. Normal everyday truth is a reflection of Infinite Love in the many finite identities of everyday reality. But one of the keys to accessing this Truth is mutual deference in conversation. When we communicate, what actually happens? Communication begins with a feeling, which is then expressed in words. When the listener hears the words, they elicit a feeling within him. Feelings are holistic states of the person(s), and to the extent that the feelings are identical in the two individuals, they are then in the same holistic state, and communication has occurred. Indeed, we can say that they then share their identity, or that their identities have merged (at least partially). I believe that communication occurs to the extent of mutual deference/kenosis, for this is what creates the space of shared feeling. And because it is a space of mutual kenosis, it is also where Infinite Love/Truth can be expected to reside. It is suggested that this process occurs incessantly among all of the myriads of identities in the universe, all of which are conscious beings. All events/interactions in the universe may be described in these terms, as the merging and separating out of conscious identities in accordance with their moral choices for self or other, and nothing else whatsoever happens.
I believe that everything contained herein was known to ancient theologians (And I am not a theologian, but a retired astronomer).
Darkness into light: what is sacred to me
John A. Teske
I do find what liberal theologians, from Karl Rahner and Paul Tillich to Gordon Kaufman and Karen Armstrong, have to say about God provides a useful entrée to what I find sacred. Put simply, what I find sacred may be epistemic rather than ontological: the sacred is what is at the horizon of human subjectivity, in our reaching out of the darkness in ourselves toward some greater light, and we know not what, but in doing so we transcend ourselves, we make ourselves more than we were. But by transcend, I do not refer to any otherworldly or supernatural realm, only to orienting toward what is beyond our epistemic limitations and into a flourishing future.
Whether there is an a priori transcendental condition for the possibility of human subjectivity I do not know; but I do not think that “without the self-revelation of the infinite horizon of knowing and being… all things would be ultimately meaningless.” There is certainly an important other that lurks beyond our ken, but whether that is our own deeper interior or simply the epistemics of what we do not know, that effects what we think, feel, and do, I do not and maybe cannot know. I’m also a believer in epistemic free will, the inevitability of experiencing our will as free as long as we do not, and cannot, know all that determines it (though some of it is certainly us, for good or ill).
I agree, that the interdependence and interconnectedness of the world, and our being regularly confronted with a diversity of religious views, suggests that we have a real problem when we start claiming any kind of exclusivity. I do think that religion is about what we do when we come up against the very limits of our language and our minds, and that we recognize, therefore, that we best not reify the symbols we use. I do believe that we will find no meaning and fulfillment in some extra-human reality when our science teaches us that meaning, purpose, and will are products of our biological evolution, and therefore cannot be presumed to prefigure it.
Whether there is some Gödel-like limit to our ability to plumb our own mysteries, what we do know about ourselves can be deeply frightening. What is sacred to me is what brings us out of this darkness into the light. That in the darkest night of the soul, the roots of prayer reside in the moment when we must recognize our limits, when we feel alone, defeated, broken, and we cry out “God help me, I can’t do it on my own anymore.” The dark eros of creativity, that cusp of the unconscious, is in that anxious edge of chaos from which renewal comes. The heart of creativity, of change, of the emergence of novelty is in the moments of grace, when we know we do not deserve what comes to us, but it does anyway, when we realize we are never alone, even if what finally is otheris even within, overwhelmed with gratitude to a universe in which we do have a place, even mortality something the gods might envy, “the poignancy of the transient – that sweet sadness of grasping for something we know we cannot hold…” or even reaching for what we cannot grasp. Yes, we can and do fail, the other side of risk and challenge without which there would be no life at all, even death, finally, a gift which makes consciousness possible, without which we could not live, or love passionately.
What is sacred is not what denies that death is real, but what makes it lose its sting, in those moments when eternity breaks into time, those gracious gifts of pride in a father’s eye, of feeling his confidence in my step, of dancing with my newborn daughter in my arms in the recovery room, in the magic in of a young girl’s heart, on hearing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto live for the first time: “If I live to be a thousand years, I will never forget this moment.” What is sacred is in those creative moments where one loses oneself in the project, or those moments of love or commitment when one’s life is poured into a larger vessel, giving oneself in love to others, to a future one may never see, to surrender even one’s life, finally, to that for which it is worth dying, not to obtain some other end but out of gratitude that we already have it. Or in those moments when we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, already there before us but for our blindness, our ignorance, or our selfishness. We touch the sacred when we listen to the better angels of our nature even when we know it will hurt, or give of ourselves in even those little gifts of presence which can so heal another’s troubled soul; we do this not because it will bring some reward, but because doing it is the reward.
I also think incarnation is sacred. Not The Incarnation, as if there were only one avatar, but our incarnation. Not only is it miraculous, as Richard Dawkins points out in Unweaving the Rainbow, that we are even alive, given the vast majority of people that could be thrown up by the lottery of DNA who were never born, but that each moment of that life, given all the myriad complexities and uniquenesses of its determinants, is even less likely. We may be constituted by what we imagine ourselves to be, but we are the bodies doing the imagining. It is this body that makes everything else that I ever do possible, its sine qua non. It is also what connects me with others, what makes it possible for me to get out of the house, and with vision and touch, and sexuality, I can connect with another in the most intimate and fulfilling of ways, and without which I could not.
In the realm of conation, even more than that of cognition and emotion, sometimes the absence of evidence, of love, of moral decision, of real human support (which really does require presence) is the evidence of absence. Disembodied love is not love at all, as so much of our communication is nonverbal, so much of our moral action and fellow feeling requires empathic and bodily connection. Mutual empathy may even be constitutive of self-identity out of a primary intersubjectivity from which it is differentiated. How are you ever withsomeone without being there for them, as often as not, quite literally? Loneliness and redemption, alienation and reunion, absence and presence, as I have argued elsewhere, are relational, and they require bodily presence, even to loving wastefully, our overflowing cups filled again and again.
I find the sacred in the unplumbed mystery of human life, in creativity, and its roots in our dark side, and its motivation to step beyond ourselves. I find the sacred in those moments in which eternity breaks into time, and moments of our lives are marked forever. I find the sacred in our incarnation, our empathic and embodied presence for each other. I even find it in personalizations, in imaginative projections, and in prayer. I also find the sacred in the poetries, the rituals, the music and dance that move us more than, but not exclusive of our knowledge, our curiosity, our awe and our exploration of mystery. I find it in other places where time and human practices lend historical significance, or simple quietude to a place. I find the sacred in wooded places on the Appalachian Trail, on ocean beaches. in front of the art of Goya, or Picasso, at a concert of Mozart’s Requiem,even watching a summer thunderstorm, or my everyday stargazing out of my attic El Cielo, or sharing a tête-a-tête with a friend on my magic rose-bowered deck, any of a number of times or places, or of course, with people, for which there is no other instrumental purpose than to be there, or with them. The small signs of moral progress, or of hope for our shared life on this planet.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I try to remember what Peter Berger said in his preface to The Heretical Imperative, that “in that Raison du Coeur in which all religious affirmations are finally based, the intellectual is not more privileged by even an iota than any other human being.” I do get lost in the heady word of ideas, hedged in by the intellectual’s “possibilities and impossibilities.” I am a man of words, of stories written and spoken, and I do believe in the value of stories and the myths that, as Solon said, are not stories about something that never happened, but stories about things that happen over and over, stories that inspire us, and stories in which we cast ourselves to find, or create, meaning in our lives. But finally, I think, what I find the most sacred, and the most meaningful, are those things that render me speechless, whether with awe or love.“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
[This is a shortened version of an essay twice this long which you can get by writing to John Teske or to email@example.com.].
what i regard as sacred
Lyman A. Page
To be sacred requires being meaningful. Steven Weinberg famously pronounced the cosmos he described as meaningless, but he was not including biology. Life occurred early, robustly, and presumably naturally on our young planet, setting off an extraordinary course of evolution, robust through many calamities and involving at almost all levels interactions ecologic, ethologic, symbiotic, parasitic, social, etc. Eventually, basic biological mechanisms produced increasingly subtle nervous systems and the remarkable human brain, theory of mind, and the ability to try to make sense out of everything. This brain, pieces of which we share with virtually all multicellular organisms, using organic chemicals we share with all life, has created art, lore, mythology, literature, religion, history, mathematics, and science in efforts to achieve this aim, expanding the range of human thought over a range of reality of vastly greater scope than imagined until the last few centuries and giving, in my opinion, meaning to the cosmos – in the form of our knowledge. Products of natural processes, intimately embedded in them, and critically dependent on them, human beings have become unique in their ability to comprehend their environment.
I take as sacred all life and its interactions, all products of human intellect and creativity, and consciousness. Ursula Goodenough has beautifully described in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, the beauty that naturalism offers, including even epiphanic rapture. Human creativity forms constructs, such as religion and science, that stimulate other human beings to create derivative beauty that shapes our lives .
Religion’s role as a basis for deep faith is important to many, but I take it as a given that a deep knowledge of the natural world through science and conscientious attention to what we learn from it are a surer foundation for making right decisions than are teachings based on human constructs in the supernatural. That, for me, makes the natural world sacred and gives a clear mandate that we’d better take care of it.
what i regard as sacred
Stacy E. Ake
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor. – The US Declaration of Independence
The English language does a tricky thing with notions of sanctity. It divides them. If we look at the common usage of sacred we find that it implies things set apart by man that have to do with the divine—for instance, a sacred grove; however, when we come to the term holy, we realize that there lies within that word a feeling ofthings set apart by god that have to do with the divine. Thus, the title of this little essay: what I regard as sacred.
I haven’t set many things aside for god. One feels in matters of this kind, one might as well paraphrase Einstein. There are only two ways to live your life: one as if nothing is sacred; the other as though everything is sacred. Of course this paraphrased view undermines the very meaning of the word sacred—as something we set apart.
There is, however, another connotation to sacred, and this connotation is found at the end of the USDeclaration of Independence, where the signers of the Declaration pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Here sacred does not reference the divine; it references the inviolable. Their honor is sacred because they will be honorable men. They will not break their word to one another. Their honor, their word, is inviolable. It is sacred.
I would say few things, perhaps nothing, in this world is inviolable. But some things are inevitable. Failure is one of those things. We are bound to fail. We are not, however, bound to recover. This is a sad thing. But those who try again—those who pull themselves up out of the dirt, shake themselves off, and start running again—they have shown themselves to be inviolable. They are never to be broken; bent a bit perhaps but not broken. This aspect of the human spirit, this inviolability—whether we call it perseverance or stubbornness—of itself sets humans apart.
Of the few things on earth that are exceptional, this quality of the human spirit is the only thing I would call sacred. It is the capacity for resurrection, and this makes it also divine.
I suggest that God – conceived as the creative process – is like a dance. By participating in the creative process we are dancing with the sacred.
Dancing with the sacred, or living daily life with a living God, is important for me in finding meaning and purpose in life. It also is important for living harmoniously with the rest of life on our ever-changing planet. As a result of the rise of Western democracies, free-market economies, and modern science and technology in the last few centuries, many of us have come to enjoy increased material prosperity. At the same time we are beginning to recognize that our modern life-style is harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of eco-systems, and altering our global climate patterns, We worry that what we are doing to our planet will adversely affect the lives of our children and grandchildren. So the question arises: how can we relate to the sacred creative powers in ways that will motivate us to live for the good of our entire planet and not just for ourselves?
While I think of God as a sacred dance that continuously gives rise to new possibilities for existence and selects some of those to continue, I realize that loss and suffering are also a result of this process. People get sick and die. What might it happen to live with hope and no work toward the greater well-being of ourselves and the planet in the midst of suffering, loss and perishing?
… I try to see how the sacred can be understood as the creative activity of nature, human history, and individual life. … I explore how we might understand ourselves in a way that motivates us to live more in harmony with the rest of life on planet Earth. … I try to see how we might live meaningfully in a world in which suffering and death are creatively intertwined with life.
(From Dancing with the Sacred.)
a journey with some sacred detours: a life in religion and science
Jonah doesn’t want to visit Nineveh which is home to people he doesn’t believe are worthy of receiving a message from God. You know the rest, right?
Just to refresh your Old Testament memory… There is this giant fish that swallows Jonah and instead of digesting Jonah this fish spews him out on dry land after three days. And where is Jonah? Right where he doesn’t want to be – back on his way to Nineveh! The prophet Jonah then delivers his message and Nineveh repents, which oddly is just what angers Jonah since he was telling the citizens of Nineveh to prepare to be “overthrown”. Bible stories share with us sacred truths that seem obscured in their tall- ale features. Giant fish, world-wide floods and parting of seas, the search for truth is a sacred endeavor where losing truth only to find it again in another place is part of a pathway one takes in acknowledging the truths of both faith and science.
The Bible conveys different sacred truths such as even in the dark of a belly of a fish there is hope and even one man’s sacrifice can make a world of difference. These stories are typically outlined in simpler ways in Church Sunday Schools. Even the Genesis creation story shows us our unique place in the cosmos and the responsibility in the Garden that even then we could not fully comprehend.
Jonah maybe is a story about a huge whale that luckily didn’t like the taste of a Hebrew prophet or we can see it as a tale of knowing that we are never alone -- even in our darkest hour, and that outside of that great fish there was a world that still turned, while Jonah had his radical “time out”.
Time outs are good place to start as we begin the journey, but eventually we need to move forward with more curiosity. Perhaps poetry comes closest to describing this true reality within ourselves and the world around us.
So what does science make of these musings? Not much really. Reason alone tells us that poetry, parables and myths are effective, ancient tools to show us greater truths about who we are and whose we are.
Science on top of all of this gives us an appreciation of the immensity of that existence; whether be in the scale of our universe, the age of our planet or the complexity of life in our ecosystem. Science and technology improve our daily lives enabling us to communicate faster, live longer and solve vast problems that are sometimes of our own doing.
There is a quiet grace in both religion and science. It says, yes, today is a new day full of possibility. Will you get it right today? Maybe. Will there be another chance to learn from your mistakes? Possibly. Can you really know every last detail about how the world came to be and how humans evolved? Probably not, but it is fun to wonder and form hypotheses all the same.
It is not universe’s mysteries that should upset humanity, but it should be the unknowable that spurs us on to create and tell our own stories and to make our own discoveries. These discoveries can only be made with an open mind and heart and this is ultimately where religion and science intersect.
This intersection is sacred although it is often confusing, confounding and full of more questions than it seeks to answer. The word sacred is often defined as a relationship with what is religious and divine, but it is also used to describe something that is referred to in reverence. So perhaps there is not a better word to describe the findings of religion and science that offer a fuller picture of what we call life.
This sacred bifurcated corner of the universe is where scholars surmise how we can improve the life we live and the life of our fellow man. It is where our nature doesn’t replace the urge to nurture the world around us. For the everyday person, the sacred journey of understanding what faith has to teach and what science has come to uncover as fact is the most fascinating journey of all that shows us where we have been and where we are going.
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science