Meditation on the sacred

May we think about the sacred without informing ourselves as thoroughly as possible about our species’ rich religious traditions? Isn’t our meditation predestined to be a desecration, a profanity, no matter what we might arrive at? Philosophical contemplation of the sacred seems to be implicitly critical of the religious authority that decrees what is sacred and what not (or: whatnot). We take a breath and smile.

We confront authority if we must. But first we remember the concept of homo sacer, taken from Roman Law and brought to our attention by Giorgio Agamben’s 1998 eponymous book. The political category of the sacred or the ‘bare life’ means those we can be killed without punishment, but cannot be sacrificed in a religious ritual. His idea was that this is becoming paradigmatic in our era. The definition of the sovereign is that which produces the bare life. Think about refugees. We breathe again, somewhat heavily.

The sacred is not simply the supernatural. It is that which not belongs in our narrative, that which would stain our rituals, so it is to be ignored at all cost. This idea of endangering the narrative we can generalize. Perhaps we should explore how the sacred emerged in human tribes, when they were in the verge of mastering language as ‘that which cannot be mentioned without negating it’. This is a vague description of an alleged human instinct that co-evolved with the language instinct. Can we think of some examples? Tacit agreements based on mutual respect and goodwill cannot be spelled out without negating their voluntary and friendly character. A gentleman’s agreement is a promise, not a formal contract. Keeping a promise can be experienced as a sacred obligation.

I wildly claim that the instinct that allows us to make arrangements for sex on a second date without ever mentioning the word, lies at the heart of the religious experience as well. When more literate peoples emerged in the greater Levant area, this had to be made explicit. God began his evolution as ‘He who cannot be named’. We imagine sex and God as experiences that go beyond language, and hence beyond the community (while still in the service of community). The dimension of the sacred is the imagination of the unspeakable. We want to think about this more, but for now we take a few breaths and consider them sacred.

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