Complexity of the Concept of the Sacred
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Published: Thu, 07 Sep 2017
Understanding the concept of the Sacred is a complex phenomenon. Assess keeping in mind over 4000 years of the sacred.
Since the beginning of Humanity, Man has been trying to make sense of the world around itself, trying to fill in the pieces to questions it does not know the answer to. The human journey can be seen as a quest a search for knowledge, comfort and ultimately for understanding. Perhaps the greatest of humanities question have involved faith and the notion of a divine god/being. Beliefs about god have traveled a long road to today’s understanding of the notion of God, the divine and sacred. God as a work in progress began first with the many gods of the polytheistic faith systems, with each god having limited domain of power and responsibility. For early human beings, such gods felt familiar and relatable. They didn’t see a big gulf between the divine and the real, this is what made it so approachable, understandable and ultimately follow able. The concept of sacred was simply something that was beyond “normal” (Armstrong, 1993).
According to Stormonth & Phelp (1896) the word Sacred is derived from the Latin origin word “Sacer”, which means dedicated or consecrated to the higher beings i.e. gods or anything divine. The word is often used interchangeably with Holy; however there are minor differences with the concept of holiness in that it is primarily used in relation to relationships and persons, while ‘sacred’ is used in relation to happenings, places or objects (McCann, 2008).
This need for completion has led to various mythos to have formed over the years, culminating in the concepts of the Sacred/Profane dichotomy aptly explained by French Sociologist Emile Durkheim.
The sacred is the boundless spirit of the religious and divine experience. Religions throughout their history have included very mixed beliefs and manifestations of those beliefs, but they all have something quite universal and explicit, regardless of their nature, through which the religious experience is differentiated from all others and that is that the sacred is something above and beyond the believers. Therefore, the sacred is highly subjective in its nature and Bastide concisely put it: “if I were to give a definition of the sacred, it would cross my subjectivity, my own experience of the sacred and not a general definition” (Desroche & Bastide, 1974).
To begin understanding the concept of the Sacred, it is best to understand what is considered Sacred and what is considered Profane. In Durkheim’s theory of Religion, both these concepts are the central tenant. The ‘Sacred’, according to Durkheim is an ideal, something that transcends everyday existence and is both awe-inspiring as well as fear inducing, and something potentially dangerous as well as extra-ordinary. Sacred in his view refers to things that have been set apart by man as requiring special religious treatment and veneration. One key point to note is that ‘Sacred’ can be anything, from the earth to the moon, a bird, an animal, a rock, a tree to a god. The sacredness comes from a community marking them as such and once they have been established as a sacred, they are embodied in religious practices, sentiments and beliefs. The profane, on the other hand is anything that is simply ordinary, it embraces practices, persons and ideas that are in the end seen with everyday mundane attitudes of familiarity, utility and commonness. Both the sacred and profane are highly interrelated due to the extreme levels of emotions they invoke in the people that believe in them and according the Durkheim, the concept of Sacred and the profane varies amongst society to society (Durkheim, 1974).
Durkheim expanded upon his notions and expressed religion as a management of the sacred, the means by which a system is generated to warrant the execution of the sacred in the community. Various sociological theories suggest that at the centre of any religion is the sacred and religion is nothing but a ‘social phenomenon in its origin, content and purpose’ (Desroche & Bastide, 1974).
Sosis & Alcorta (2003) are major proponents of the ‘adaptive value’ theory of religion, having somewhat similar views as Durkheim, stating that religion evolved to enhance cohesion and cooperation between groups. Membership in a group setting allowed for a greater chance of survival and reproduction as well as advancement as a group. They also suggested that the costly-signaling theory suggested why rituals were such a major part of religious practice, stating that it was to ward of those trying to cheat the system i.e. be part of the group without offering anything of value.
The reason why understanding the Sacred is such a complex phenomenon, is that the Sacred is highly subjective in its nature, malleable to suit the purpose of its time and context. Whenever a natural disaster occurred, such as an earthquake, flood, drought, the older civilizations took it to god/s being angry and their primitive understanding of nature took to slaughter being a worthy sacrifice to please the deities, resulting in the ending of their suffering. As our technologies advance, so does our understanding of nature and with it a steady decline in the extreme acts humans once used to do. However, humans, being the product of an evolutionary engine, are still quite prone to carrying out irrational behavior so as long as they believe and have faith in the sacred (Shermer, 1997).
Armstrong (1993) was also quite clear in her works, stating that after having looked at over 4000 years of recorded human history that the notion of god was never unchanging, with what people considered god, going from polytheistic to monotheistic to atheistic, depended upon a multitude of factors. Today there are 12 classical world religions, those included in most religious definitions namely; Baha’I, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrinism, however if one was to delve further in, they would note that these twelve within themselves include numerous sects and factions with their adherents considering different things as sacred i.e. what might be sacred for a Shia Muslim, might not be for a Sunni Muslim etc.
In today’s information age of the 21st century where knowledge is expanding at an explosive rate, the words used to define ones understanding of the sacred is ever expanding, with countless expansion in our understanding of human consciousness and with religions ever changing due to the changing socio-political landscape, there is very little doubt that the notion of what is sacred is and always will remain a complex phenomenon.
Desroche, H. (1975). Religion (Sociologie de la). La grande encyclopedie, 16th vol.. Paris: Libr. Larousse.
Durkheim, E. (1974). Regulile metodei sociologice. BucureÅŸti: Ed. ÅžtiinÅ£ificÄƒ.
Armstrong, K. (1993). A History of God. Ballatine Books
Stormonth, J & Phelp, P.H (1895). A Dictionary of the English Language, Blackwood & sons. Retrieved March 19th, 2017 from “https://books.google.com.pk/books/about/A_Dictionary_of_the_English_Language.html?id=NmogAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y”
McCann, C. (2008). New Paths Toward the Sacred Thus, Paulist Press
Shermer, M. (1997). Why people believe weird things: Pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Sosis, R.; Alcorta, C. (2003). “Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior”. Evolutionary Anthropology
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