Value and the Sacred: Built into our Nature — II. The Meaning of “the Sacred”

Is Nothing Sacred? The Sacred as Value to the Nth Degree

I declared the previous entry that “To say that value is not real, because it’s based in experience, makes as much sense as to say that pain is not real.” Value, like pain, is something that inherently must be in the realm of experience. The issue is much the same with the question of whether anything is “sacred.” What can “sacred” mean other than “of particularly special, exalted kind of value”—and of that kind of value to someone for whom things matter?

Just as people experience pain, and experience the betterness and worseness of different scenarios, so also do people experience the sacredness of things in which they see profound value. The experience of things as partaking of a dimension that feels “sacred” is simply a fact of human life—not necessarily in every human life, but in many, and of vital importance in the history of perhaps every human culture.

To say that there is no such thing as the sacred makes as much sense as to say that there is no such thing as excruciating pain. (A billion years ago, I suspect, there was no such thing as excruciating pain—at least on this planet. But such pain, like value, has emerged.)

Yet, in much of Liberal America, some of the same intellectual currents that have undermined the notions of value – and thus of good and evil – have squeezed out of the worldview of many people any space for the notion that anything is sacred.

Many believe that adopting a worldview based on evidence and reason implies the impossibility that anything can meaningful be said to be “sacred.” If we reject the assumption that there is a Deity that rules the cosmos, they believe, is to rule out the possibility of anything being of “sacred” value to us.

I think both those conclusions are mistaken. And indeed, with respect to the second, I would argue it is a complete non sequitur that the notion of “sacred value” must depend on the authority of God. Not only is the existence of God not inherently necessary to establish a meaningful dimension of sacredness, but the existence of God does nothing, by itself, to establish what we should or would regard as sacred.
Let’s begin the exposure of that logical fallacy by looking in this light at the more general question of “value,” i.e. at the question of what makes something good or bad, right or wrong, good or evil.

Many people, as I know from my years of conducting talk radio discussions in a conservative area of Virginia, believe that without God, there can be no morality, no basis for knowing right and wrong, good and evil. But not only is God not necessary for such judgments, He is actually — in logical terms — irrelevant.

For those who say, “What’s good is good because God said it’s good,” there’s the question: What if the Creator were monstrous? There is no reason that could not be so, and indeed it’s a possibility that’s been envisioned by many of the world’s peoples (and indeed the God of the Bible – who commands His people to commit what would now be regarded as crimes against humanity – is problematic in just such ways).

Would the commandments of such a Deity define what we would regard as right, even if he commanded cruelty and injustice?

Believers often reply, “But our God is good.” That reply is that it demonstrates that is not God who defines what is good, since the judgment that God is good implies a criterion independent of God’s authority.

The existence of a Creator of the Universe handing down moral commandments from on high, therefore, does nothing to solve the problem of value, of what makes something better or worse, more right or more wrong.

Similarly with the matter of the “sacred.” What would it mean to regard something as “sacred” simply because some ultimate authority has so decreed it? If something being called “sacred” denotes something meaningful about our own attitude toward it, just what is that attitude?

When, in the Bible, Uzzah is struck dead because he touched the Ark of the Covenant – albeit not out of disrespect, but in order to save it from falling – that shows that one might out of mere self-interest heed the dictates of the Almighty, just as one might obey the commandments of even a monster-God to avoid punishment.

But monstrous commands remain monstrous, and faced with such commands backed up by irresistible power, we might be serving our own “good” in seeking to avoid punishment, but that would not make the commandments good. And similarly, a Supreme Authority’s designation of something as sacred would not necessarily make something sacred to us— not if sacredness means, as I will be using it here to mean, that we ourselves attach extraordinary value to it, and have feelings toward it — reverence, love, devotion, deep appreciation — corresponding to that value.

What is sacred is something that meets a kind of gold standard –or beyond that, a platinum standard – of value, the apprehension of which elevates our consciousness in such a way that we feel as if, through contacting the sacred, we are entering what feels in some ways like a different — more illuminated — realm than one’s usual.

If the “sacred” is defined in that way, we can hold things sacred either within or without a view of the cosmic order that includes a Deity/Creator/Almighty.

Words can mean, of course, whatever we agree for them to mean. But this is not an arbitrary definition. It is not arbitrary because it gives a name to something that is clearly both real and of utmost importance.

What is real is that people have experiences that are so luminous, that feel so powerful and rich, that these experiences seem like a vision into a deeper dimension of reality. People have experiences that imbue elements of their lives with a level of meaning and value that transcend the ability of mere words to convey.

(To deny the reality of the experience of the sacred would be like denying the reality of excruciating pain.)

And the feelings and perceptions that go with this dimension of reality lead people to talk in terms of the sacred.

We can know that this dimension of experience is of utmost importance because of the role that these experiences play in the lives both of individuals and of entire cultures. In both, these experiences of “the sacred” seem to bring an imperative power with them that moves people to make those experiences the major points of orientation. Individuals will guide their lives by such moments (that has certainly been true for me). And entire cultures – having enshrined such moments in sacred texts — will structure themselves around them.

People vary, it seems, in whether and how much they are susceptible to such a deepening of the experience of meaning and value in their lives. But it does seem to be empirically true that such a special dimension of experience has been pretty universal cross-culturally and throughout history.*

– – – – – – – –

Every human culture has language. From which we can infer that the propensity to develop and learn language is a part of our humanity.

Every human culture has music. From which we can infer that the propensity to create and respond to music is a part of human nature.

Every human culture — so far as I know — has organized itself around a vision of the sacred. From which we can infer that experiencing the sacred dimension is a core part of our humanity. And from the power that people and cultures give the experience of a sacred dimension, we can infer that contacting that dimension connects us with the human core and the wellspring of meaning and feeling that comes from that core.

That is why it can be concluded that any worldview that fails to provide that connection — fails to provide access to an awareness of the sacred — is one that forfeits an important form of human power.

*[NOTE: As with issues of “value” more broadly, the fact that different people and cultures can conceive of the sacred differently is interesting and important, but it does not undercut the reality of the sacred as a general truth in human life. Again, individuals and different cultures will inevitably differ in their priorities, and in how they structure their lives. That can lead to different ways of mapping the sacred. Yet, despite such variations, the overlap in the experience of the sacred will tend to be massive—starting with sacredness of life, of the main nexus of human relationships, of place and home, of the natural cycles that sustain life, of justice and beauty and love, etc.]

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  1. This is what appears to be an authoritative article about America and its Gods. I offer it for its usefulness as evidence in preference to anyone’s happenstance experiences with people in limited sets of locales. I would say that one or another of these Gods seems to be discounted in your discussion, Dr. Schmookler, thus building a picture that may be at least somewhat of a fantasy.

    “How America sees God: Analysts cast our views in four ways”
    , by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

    “…about 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics…”

    “The national conversation about God, Bader says, is ‘much richer than showdowns between screaming evangelicals and screaming atheists. This is the way we tell the stories of the world around us.'”

    The notion that we can understand a lot about people by understanding which God they believe in merits contemplation.

    I do not see a date on the article. I happened upon it and sent it to some family and some friends October 7, 2010.


  2. Joseph D. Rudmin

    This article on the sacred has some very good parts. I would excise everything about whether God is relevant, because it does not support the thesis, and because the straw-man arguments make the rest of the article look weak. In a brief defense of the relevance of God, God is relevant because God, by definition, is the creator of all things, including that which is held sacred, and the capability of humans to hold things sacred. That human understanding of God and His creation is flawed does not affect the relevance of God.

  3. Elephants, in their capacity to recognize the sacred, if this is possible for them, carry the bones of their dead in their trunks to signify … ?

    Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead. William Blake, c. 1790

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