The uses of the term ‘sacred’ and their normative content

So what does it mean when some-one says ‘this land is sacred’? Following Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use, some theologians are now exploring the concept of the sacred in terms of its usage, giving up on the attempt at a definition. As we will show, adopting this approach this does not necessarily mean giving up Durkheim’s analysis, but it does recognise the heterogeneity of moral sentiments, and give a fuller account of the ethical force of the use of the term.

For instance, Frederick Ferre and James Ross suggest that religious language serves a number of related functions:

However, if, as has been assumed, the invocation of the term sacred always includes a normative force or taboo, then it always contains some kind of pragmatic force about the modulation of behaviour. Moreover, analysing the invocation of the term sacred is more specific than analysing ‘religious language’ in general. Hence, for this to address our question, what is the normative force of the use of the term ‘sacred’, we will need to adapt the analysis. We intend to categorise the use of the term sacred into three uses, giving up pragmatic as a separate category: these uses are expressive, aspirational, and juridical.

The expressive use of the term sacred involves people’s feelings and intuitions. This might include what has been called by Antoine Vergote[34] the pre-religious experience; for example, experiences that focus our existence in the world and its meaning. This would include ‘nature mysticism’, the world and its existence (as in some physicists’ response to the universe), the love we have for another, or the ethical quest. Vergote argues that these experiences all have in common the sense that they are ‘supported and penetrated by a transcendent’ but are not ‘religious experiences’, which he defines as the immediate presence or given-ness of the divine. We will also include in this category experiences of altered states that might be termed ‘spiritual’ or altered states of consciousness in general, such as out of body experiences, or a general sense of a divine presence. The expressive, for example, excludes us from commentary. It is protected from criticism by being too personal, a disclosure that does not allow a point of criticism or jest without offence. The taboo is a taboo based on the respect for persons and their feelings. Consider, for example, roadside memorials to the dead, the symbol and expression of love and remembrance. For Durkheim, such memorials could not be considered sacred—they are individual, sentimental, and do not involve a collective representation. Yet at the same time, they are left untouched by vandals. The taboos surrounding the desecration of memorials need not be, as Durkheim suggests, merely due to the representations as representations of the state or civic duties.

Aspirational uses include, on this account, in addition to a sense of presence of the divine, or a transcendent good, a commitment to a way of life. This might be akin to mystical experiences, and conversion. We are borrowing here not only from the idea of what Ferres calls a cognitive use of religious language, but from William James, who discusses conversion in terms of how a person is changed through experience: he argues that in addition to an experience of some kind, a person who undergoes spiritual conversion attains a new set of values, a way of life in the world. Similarly, the mystical experience is associated with a direct experience of the divine, and a commitment to a way of life. The important point here is not that it is an intuition of the immediacy of the divine, but that it translates itself into a way of acting in the world, hence the choice of the term aspirational—by which we mean acting on the basis of a ‘truth’. The mystical appears to involve a virtue ethics, an attempt to lead a way of life, and a driven-ness to achieve it.

The third category, the juridical, includes the Durkheimian concept of the sacred as set apart, and involves the recognition of rule-based sanctions, as well as the recognition of what we have been discussing as the anti-sacred. The juridical concept is deontological, and based on a respect for authority and tradition.

In her abstract for the Locations of Spirituality conference, Diana James wrote:

One early morning I was driving west along a familiar dirt road through sand dune and desert oak country. The sky ahead changed gradually from dark blue to pale as light seeped in. When the first spears of the sun shot the spinifex with gold, I stopped and jumped out of the car. My face turned to greet the sun, the eternal fire burning on the rim of the world between earth and sky. Then I knew the sun was the Son, the light of the world. Born of the union of mother earth and father sky. The young desert oaks stood still in reverence as new initiates, while their elders intoned a hymn played by the wind of dawn…The realm of the sacred must be entered and understood in it's own [sic] terms. The tools of rationality are clumsy and inappropriate in this non-material dimension of reality. Sacred space is alive with paradoxes, mystery and magic. Whether it be a cathedral well or a rockhole in the desert, it contains the water of life.[35]

James’s comments are not deontological, and do not recognise the distinction between a cathedral as a sacred space, consecrated through the church, and a rock hole. She draws on religion, but recognises none. Nor is her experience related to some kind of virtue ethic about the relationship between land and humans and the land. Rejecting rationality, and not invoking a virtue ethics that might imply ‘failure’ of some kind, it also rejects criticism.

Contrast this with Michael Williams’s abstract, for his paper at the same conference, ‘Journeying with Respect’:

This presentation will be a ranging commentary on my life’s journey—reflecting on how I came to this point. It will be my attempt to make sense of things as I see them and how they have come to be in my life. It will draw on my families [sic] stories and the way that the several generations of my family have been touched by an insistence on/of the efficacy of our old ways, our law and how respect for all these things have influenced my own life and the affairs of other things—how things, people, places and broader have been affected by a ‘taking of care’ approach to responsibilities.[36]

Williams, an Aboriginal man from South East Queensland, makes reference to a juridical concept of the sacred; what is sacred is sacred by law, the law gives obligations and duties. What he says can be entered into, debated and discussed as an interpretation of law.

These people are saying different things, and the word sacred should not be interpreted as meaning the same things in these cases. It is based on a different conceptual understanding of the world, or metaphysics, and has different implications for action. One question it does raise is the issue of intolerance. Where spiritualism sees itself as being free from the constraints and dogmatism of organised religion, one claim (that based on religious law) is debatable, while the other (based on personal sensibility) is not. In conclusion, we do need to extend the term sacred to the personal, but at the same time, we need to recognise that different metaphysical conceptions of the world, and different experiences, will produce different normative implications. To understand the sacred, we need to pay closer attention to these metaphysical frameworks, and to allow a broader understanding of its normative force.