‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions
If I were a cynic, which I am not, I would say that the body of the contemporary study of religions is suffering from a rash called ‘the sacred’, a rash that gives me a sort of itch and it is an itch that I cannot refrain from scratching. In a time when many people are wont to lament the state of the world they inhabit, especially their little part of it, and the cry frequently goes up, ‘Nothing is sacred any more’, I wish to say ‘Wrong, everything is ‘‘sacred’’ these days’. There is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than to read works in the
study of religions of the nineteenth century. I am constantly amazed at the knowledge that was available to our predecessors and freely published in such works as The Penny Cyclopaedia (1833 onwards) under the auspices of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. While preparing this paper I wondered at my delight in the nineteenth century, compared with much that I read of contemporary studies, and came to the conclusion that one of the things that contributes to that delight is the virtual total absence of the term ‘sacred’ let alone the neologism ‘the sacred’. I have to wonder if the term ‘sacred’ and especially the term ‘the sacred’ can be applied to the wide range of phenomena that are addressed in the contemporary study of religions. We have been made aware of the deﬁnition of religion given by Emile
Durkheim, which involves the distinction between the sacred and the profane in deﬁning what religion is. However, there are strong arguments against such a simpliﬁed deﬁnition irrespective of whether the term ‘sacred’ can be applied universally in the way suggested by Durkheim. Some sociologists have veered in the direction of ascribing the description ‘religion’ to virtually every aspect of human behaviour, so much so that Peter Berger, in criticising Thomas Luckmann for this approach, asks what does it gain the human to describe everything as religious, if the human then has to demonstrate what the difference is between, shall we say, celebrating the Christian Eucharist and
conducting a scientiﬁc experiment. The same strictures can be advanced against the prodigal use of the term ‘sacred’ when it is applied to everything from what went on in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem to the daily rituals of the London Stock Exchange. In saying that, we should remind ourselves that what went on in the Holy of Holies was not in itself sacred, only that the actions were directed to the Almighty God who alone was (and in this context still is) sacred, or to use the more usual English term ‘holy’, a term which effectively acts as a synonym for sacred. It is necessary to remind ourselves that the term ‘sacred’ for most of its
history, by which I mean before Rudolf Otto got to work on it, has stood for that which the Hebrew considered to belong to God alone and by extension to things that belonged to God or were imbued with sacred power because of their direct association with God. Whenever I teach students about the notion of what is sacred, I have used the example of the fate that befell Abinadab’s son Uzzah. The story goes like this:
It hardly needs anyone to interpret this story. One commentator says: ‘In the popular mind [Uzzah’s] death was attributed to his violation of the sacrosanct character of the ark.’ (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4, p. 741.) The Westminster Study Bible rather surprisingly to my mind says: ‘How Uzzah died is not said, but his death is attributed to the almost magical powers of the Ark.’ Whatever be the cause of death the occasion is clear: Uzzah touched something imbued with sacred power, that is the power of God, and it proved fatal. We do not have to believe that the Ark actually had power to kill. All we have to realise is the power the Ark had in the minds and imagination of those who were close to it.