Apr 30, 2011

What does "sacred" mean?

This is the second in a series of three posts sketching my preliminary understanding of democratic, sacred, and profane culture.

. Normally I see the term/concept "sacred" used by religious individuals, for example, Biblical writers writing about the prescribed construction of the sacred Ark of the Covenant, at Exodus 25, and the penalty of death for touching the sacred ark, at 1 Chronicles 13:9-10.[1] Religionists typically apply the term/idea of "sacred" to elements of their own religion, which is a worldview based on mysticism. Sometimes advocates of conservatism -- the ideology defined by the four essential values of God, Tradition, Nation, and Family -- use the term "sacred" to describe personal characteristics such as honor. Even then, the religionists often tie this use of the term back to their religion through such supernaturalist notions as "God-given rights."

OBJECTIVE MEANING. Does "sacred" have meaning outside a religious context? Philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) explains the historical background for such a concept:

But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man's life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before man graduated or developed enough to have a philosophy.[2]

Within that frame of reference, Ayn Rand points at

a special category of abstractions, the most exalted one, which, for centuries, as been the near monopoly of religion: ethics ... with the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur, which pertain to the realm of man's values, but which religion has arrogated to itself . . . .[3]

In a religious and therefore supernaturalist context, she explains, such concepts as "sacred" have no earthly referent. In a secular context, however, such concepts do have objective meaning. Ayn Rand continues:

What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man's dedication to a moral ideal. ... It is this highest level of man's emotion that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man.[4] ...

[Consider] the look on a child's face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph .... If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that if there is such a concept as 'sacred' -- meaning: the best, the highest possible to man-- this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone.[5] (Bold added)

A PERSONAL DEFINITION. What is the sacred in man? I use the term sacred to refer to those personal attributes -- and their artifacts -- that an individual requires to survive and flourish. Examples are his pride (moral ambition), his dignity, his capacity for exaltation, his central purpose in life, his faculty of reason, and his self-esteem.[6]

I think that an objective man psychologically has a "sense of the sacred." It is an expression of his awareness -- at all times, even if only in the background of his mind -- that his life is his fundamental value and that maintaining that value requires -- as inviolable -- certain other supporting values to be sacred.

A man who has a sense of the sacred does not laugh at himself; nor does he sanction diminution by others. A man who has a sense of the sacred is dignified and he is respectful to others -- as were the moral characters of Ayn Rand's novels and as was the novelist herself.[7] A man who has a sense of the sacred is a man who strives to be the best he can be in all ways -- from the quality of his work, at whatever level it may be, to his manner of dress and style of speaking. In contrast, a profane man not only accepts low standards, he flaunts them.

Next post: What is profane culture?

Burgess Laughlin, author, The Power and the Glory:The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at http://www.reasonversusmysticism.com

[1] For a Christian's discussion of sacred and profane in a religious context, with Biblical quotations: Kent Brandenburg, "The Culture War: Sacred, Common, and Profane Culture," Feb. 21, 2008, on the weblog Jack Hammer, at: http://jackhammer.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/sacred-common-and-profane-culture/. Brandenburg rejects multiculturalism, egalitarianism, skepticism, and other modern ideas that undermine the idea of the sacred in Christianity. He is a clear and entertaining writer -- and a worthy opponent in the war between reason and mysticism. [2] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Playboy's Interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, p. 10, cited in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, under "Religion," p. 411. [3] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Playboy's Interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, p. 10, cited in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, under "Religion," p. 414. [4] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Introduction to The Fountainhead", 25th Anniversary Edition, reproduced in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 415, excerpted from The Objectivist, March 1968, p. 4. [5] For the quoted passage: Ayn Rand, "Sacred," in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, quoting from "Requiem for Man," Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 303. [6] For the meaning of "exaltation," see Andy Clarkson's inspiring and informative collection of comments, at his weblog, Exalted Moments, http://exaltedmoments.blogspot.com. The antidote for encountering elements of profane culture is the experience of one's own exalted moments or even merely the observation of others' exalted moments. [7] In Ayn Rand's novels, examples of moral characters, at various levels of achievement, having a "sense of the sacred" are Howard Roark (The Fountainhead), Austin Heller (The Fountainhead), John Galt (Atlas Shrugged), and Dagny Taggart (Atlas Shrugged). (For the latter, I am thinking in particular of the scene in which Dagny Taggart kills the guard outside the torture chamber.) For glimpses of Ayn Rand's own sense of the sacred, study Scott Connell, 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand, available at the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

1 comment:

Piz said...

A man who has a sense of the sacred does not laugh at himself...

Could you expand on this? I ask because I "laugh at myself" all the time. Not at what's good in me, but at simple foibles or ridiculous situations. For example, the other night I was out with friends singing karaoke, and I tried a song that turned out to be far out of my range. I sounded terrible, even though I normally have a professional-quality voice, and I couldn't help but laugh. Is that the sort of thing you're talking about, or is it something else?

Michael Pizolato