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Monday, August 30, 2010

That which is sacred

Even those without supernatural beliefs
benefit from a sense of the sacred.
(cc) Nick Merzetti,
This weekend, I was invited to speak at Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Church in Stafford, Texas. The topic was Stuart Kauffman's book, Reinventing the Sacred, which I've written on briefly before. Our discussion covered much broader areas, including everything from Humanism to the role of ritual. One topic was on the use of the word Sacred.

Though many secularists, naturalists, and nontheists are uncomfortable with it, Sacred is a word Kauffman uses, and which I use as well. I explained that the Latin word sacer touched on the concept of setting apart. That which is sacred is that which we set apart from the mundane and the ordinary (or profane, though that word too requires a naturalistic context). While many have used the concept of the sacred to refer to supernatural things this, I submit, is merely happenstance because the things they find sacred (the things they set apart for reverence), for them, include the supernatural.

However, even for the naturalist, it is essential to have a sense of setting some things apart from the ordinary as being worthy of reverence, awe, and special respect. What things might those be? Ultimately, they tend to be those things which are essential to our flourishing as human beings. This begins at the most rudimentary level, with a respect for reason and the rational order by which the universe operates. Were it not for that Natural Law, then no life could arise, nothing could be understood and no progress could be made. Up the scale a bit, the sacred includes the creative faculty of the universe - that aspect of Natural Law that serves as a counterpart to entropy and results in the formation of complex systems. Among these, life itself, would be included in the sacred. Moving up further, an appreciation for our place as a species in the web of life is a way of setting it apart as special.

Getting to human affairs, our natural proclivities that tend toward peaceful and prosperous coexistence are sacred. These include our sense of empathy and compassion. Also sacred are the virtues, ethical principles, and practices which allow for human beings to interact with one another in manners that help us flourish, both outwardly and inwardly.

This stream of phenomena ranging from the most rudimentary up the emergent scale to our families, friends, communities, and all of life, are those things worthy to be set apart for special reverence, respect, and attention. For that reason, I call them sacred and I think it is to our benefit to do so. Conversely, I think we would do ourselves harm by rejecting the notion of the sacred out of some misguided fear that we are using a word others have used, simply because they find additional things sacred which are not a part of our worldview.

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