What is Sacred

What is Sacred?

In order to adopt a very general approach, we are going to consider a cluster of terms as if they were synonymous: sacred, holy, divine, and transcendent are the main items in this list, others might be included as well. And we ought to note at the outset that there is a methodological problem in assuming that we can deal with these terms meaningfully. That is to say, we are simply going to assume that these terms refer to something, the nature of which we will attempt to examine and describe. We cannot prove that this is indeed the case, and those who are initially skeptical will find no justification for altering their opinions in this matter.

For example, when a Christian reports an experience of God, a Muslim encounters Allah, a Buddhist finds nirvana, kensho, or emptiness, we use the general terms listed above to imply that somehow all these experiences are fundamentally the same. We use words like mystical experience, cosmic consciousness, and so forth. The more general term altered states of consciousness gets at the fact that there can be a great deal of variety when it comes to such changes in attitude. Mystics themselves use the language and terminology that is available to them, as a result of their upbringing and conditioning, so that their descriptions of these significant events will make sense to their contemporaries. Some early Muslim mystics were not merely persecuted but actually executed for describing what had happened to them in ways that their community considered to be blasphemous, and some Christian mystics have had similar difficulties. In the unlikely event that a Christian mystic were to enter Buddhist nirvana, or a Buddhist meditator were to encounter the Christian God, it is not clear how they would react, but they would not be able to recognize the experience in any familiar terms. (This leaves aside the case of people such as Ramakrishna, who claimed to have serially encountered the ultimate reality of several different religious traditions, on the basis of which he further claimed that they were in fact all the same.) For us to claim that these experiences are similar enough for them to be discussed under more general terms displays both an unfamiliarity or ignorance of such states themselves, as well as an arrogance or willful blindness to their distinctions.

Nevertheless, this is what we are proposing to do. We acknowledge that there is no way that we know of to prove scientifically that such exalted states share much of anything other than that they are removed from ordinary consciousness. We lump them all together for our convenience, and pretend that we can engage in a meaningful discussion about their common features.

The best single source for a sustained examination of these unusual experiences remains a work published in 1917 by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Otto starts out his book by saying something along the lines of the following: If you have had an experience of the holy, then you will already know what I am talking about, so I don’t need to tell you. If you have not had such an experience, then I will not be able to describe it for you. Following this straightforward admission, the rest of the book lays out what Otto considers to be the basic features of the holy or sacred. Otto compares it to aesthetic experience, as something which transforms the subject in the encounter. However, the sacred or holy is paradoxical: Otto coins the term numinous to describe it. He also uses the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans to indicate that the holy combines seemingly contradictory aspects. On the one hand, the holy is extremely powerful, to the point of being overwhelming, and thus threatening to anyone who comes in contact with it. There is a story in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 6) about the Ark of the Covenant, well known these days to fans of Indiana Jones, that while David was fighting the Philistines, the Ark needed to be moved. The oxen carrying the Ark stumbled, and a fellow named Uzzah reached out to steady it, and prevent it from falling to the ground.

We have no indication that Uzzah had anything but the best intentions for acting in this way, yet the Lord struck him down and killed him, because he had touched the sacred Ark without being properly purified. Otto is also able to make use of non-Christian examples, such as the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The Gita consists of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, during the course of which Krishna reveals to Arjuna that he, Krishna, is in fact the Lord of the Universe, the embodiment of sacred power and majesty. Arjuna is mightily impressed by this news, and asks Krishna to reveal his cosmic form. Krishna does so, and Arjuna is terrified. Now Arjuna, being a veteran warrior, is not easily scared, and thus the fact that Krishna’s display unnerves him so completely contributes to the dramatic force of this episode. It also illustrates Otto’s point, that sacred power is scary and threatening, and must be approached carefully and respectfully. If this was the primary or sole aspect of sacred power, things would be a lot simpler, people would just learn to stay as far away from it as possible in the interests of self preservation. Yet sacred power is also strangely compelling, people and communities depend on it for their security and survival, so that ignoring it is not an option. That which is sacred cannot be controlled by any ordinary means. It is powerful, unpredictable, and extremely dangerous, yet people need to have regular access to it for their lives to be meaningful.

The main way that people are able to contact the sacred in relative safety is through ritual. Ritual provides a structure within which participants can encounter sacred power on a regular basis, or as needed. Since not all rituals are effective, sometimes the sacred, being unpredictable, doesn’t show up, but if a ritual is not at least occasionally effective, there is little point in preserving it. Because people contact the sacred at their own risk, rituals tend to be very conservative. Once you have found a way to accomplish a dangerous but necessary task, you will naturally be reluctant to modify it, since changing it can lead to destruction on the one hand, or negate its effectiveness on the other. Rituals, of course, do change as people and societies change and develop, but whether or not the underlying sacred or holy itself changes is a moot point.

Otto points out that the seemingly contradictory or paradoxical nature of the sacred is also recognized in theological terms, where opposite terms are used to indicate that which is supposedly unified in its essence, implying that it is both mysterious and unique. One such pair is immanence and transcendence. On the one hand, God (or the sacred, divine, holy, or whatever) is understood to be readily available to us at any time and in any place, requiring only our openness to this fact for our lives to be transformed. On the other hand, God is transcendent, not limited in the usual way by boundaries of time and space, or the conceptual boundaries of what is logical or conceivable. Another pair of attributes that would not fit any ordinary object links the wrath or judgment of God and the mercy or grace of God. Particularly in the Old Testament, God displays a taste for blood that is unsettling to a modern mindset. Many examples could be given, but we are dealing here with general concepts, so we will simply note that the picture of God given in the Old Testament is so at odds with God as portrayed in the New Testament that some early Gnostics felt sure that they were two different beings entirely.

In the Old Testament, God gives us his laws, most famously in the Ten Commandments (presented in two versions), and elaborated by later rabbinical commentators to encompass more than 600 separate rules to serve as an ideal pattern for all aspects of human behavior. Yet ideal standards remain ideal because they are, to one degree or another, impractical. Humans make mistakes, and one of the key insights of the early Protestants like Martin Luther was that it was impossible to observe God’s Law perfectly. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect. This makes for a worthy goal, but tends to become discouraging after a while. Therefore we are all in need of some sort of divine assistance, insofar as we all fail to achieve the requisite perfection. Being imperfect, we are sinners, and a God whose primary concern was justice would have ample cause to condemn us for our imperfection. We may obtain grace and forgiveness, but not because we deserve it. Yet a God who is unjust, forgiving some sinners and not others, is a God who cannot be trusted.

Thus the holy is paradoxical, combining attributes that don’t seem to fit into a specific and unique experience, wherein ordinary boundaries are dissolved, and logic breaks down. Individuals and communities define themselves by that which they hold in common, that on which they agree, which makes up their particular world view, a reflection of their shared values. Periodic encounters with the sacred, mediated by communal rituals and sanctified by ancestral tradition, temporarily obliterate the usual social distinctions and concerns and thus also reinvigorate the participants, affirming that they are all part of some larger whole, which in turn serves to create or reveal meaning in their lives. We may not be able to understand the details of God’s plan, but if we are sure that it exists, and that we are part of it, then this will give us greater resilience in dealing with the inevitable vicissitudes of ordinary life. Religious practice, or regular encounters with the sacred, provide us with resources not easily available elsewhere, which serve as a kind of moral bank account, on which we can draw as necessary. People who lack such resources are more easily upset when things go wrong, when events spin out of control, and disaster strikes. Religion and the sacred help us to deal with problems more effectively, maintaining a positive attitude in the face of difficulties, because our faith gives us strength.