The concept of the sacred is something that is seemingly irrelevant in the modern secular age. I think however that an account of the sacred is still important, because even if modern secular society won’t admit it, it is still haunted by the concept of the sacred. I read recently a paper by conservative (in the old school Tory sense) philosopher Roger Scruton touching on the Sacred, it’s a good article; however I think there is a conceptual problem in it. The problem I notice is the notion of the sacred as something pointing towards the transcendental. The definition sounds like a natural fit, however a clear example of why it may be problematic is that of sex and sexuality.
Sex in my opinion is one of the most obvious modern day ideological battlegrounds involving the concept of the sacred. On one hand, modern Liberal secular society has done its best to naturalize sex. It strips sex of any sense of sacred reverence, decouples it from any sense of duty, attempts to treat it as no more than a simple human pleasure, akin to eating. In a sense, the Liberal Secularist says, “If you enjoy it, go for it, be safe and have fun, this is the end all and be all of sex.” On the other hand, Liberal secular society has also, in a sense, sanctified sex. Sexual assault is considered an evil beyond all other evils, almost worse than taking a life, sexual harassment is forbidden, sexual crimes against children are beyond all other evils, purchasing and selling sex remain taboo, all rightly so. The concept of consent has become so intertwined with sexuality that some have even suggested sexual contracts. How can this be the case if sex is not part of the sacred? Why is sexual assault worse than regular assault? Why is sexual harassment forbidden while it seems intimidation, using power to get one’s way, exploiting differences in authority and so on are all accepted aspects of modern life. Why is it the case that using one’s position as a boss in order to push a person to work overtime, or to go to a party, or to do any number of things is perfectly fine, yet using that position to push someone into sex is wrong?
The answer is, I believe, that our Secular society has not (yet) shaken of the sense that sex is sacred. However, (going back to Rover Scruton’s use of the term “sacred”) in what way is sex pointing towards the transcendental? Sex is a carnal act, between two people, “God” may be invoked in a cry of ecstasy, but other than that God or the appeal to God (or anything like God) is absent from the act, at least in our experience. The pleasure is physical and even primal, the devout Orthodox Monk and the New Atheist polemicist both experience and enjoy sex more or less the same way. Therefore, if sex doesn’t point towards the transcendental then what is it about sex make’s it sacred?
To answer that question I think we need to isolate the Christian concept of the sacred as opposed to others. I say that because I really believe that Christianity is unique among the religions, along with Judaism and Islam to a degree. In Christianity the idea of the sacred, of something set aside as holy, or to be “for God,” has something to do with the idea that God is infinite, that God cannot be Quantified, that no temple can hold him. So just as God cannot be quantified, that which is sacred can neither, it is separate from the profane, or from the mundane in that it is, in a sense, of non-quantifiable value.
This would explain why in Christianity things like the selling of indulgences or Simony are so repugnant, whereas in ancient Greco-Roman Paganism there would be nothing wrong with it, in fact that kind of thing was ordinary. Going back to the question of sex, it would also explain the repulsion that even sexually liberated secular liberals have toward the sex trade, whereas in more conservative cultures, but non-Christian cultures, the sex trade is seen as more normalized. To put sex into the market place is to put a price on something which cannot be priced; it is to attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, to profane the sacred. Not because sex points to the transcendental, but rather because sex is among the things which is of infinite and thus unmeasurable value and to attempt to price such things is to profane it.
That being said I don’t believe that the transcendental and the sacred are not related, they are. The relation is that the sacred is given value by the transcendental; the existence of the infinite is what guarantees the infinite value of the sacred. The secular liberal cannot but help recognize the sacred for what it is, yet because he denies the transcendental, he has no ground on which to order his view of the sacred. The secular liberal understands things like human life and sex as somehow sacred, but he doesn’t know why, and ultimately all secular attempts at grounding the sacredness of these things will fail. If there is no infinite source of value, then all value is necessarily finite and arbitrary. If sex is nothing more than a pleasurable experience, to be enjoyed within the constraints of negative freedom, then the selling of sex is a natural commodification, and the taking of sex is a mere property crime.
If there is no infinite value, then man in himself has no value, he values himself, and others may value him, but why he should not be able to become the property of someone else is beyond a naturalistic explanation. Man is nothing more than an advanced ape, and an ape is nothing more than an interesting collection of molecules performing a kind of dance. If one advanced ape thinks that he can attain a certain amount of value from subjugating and commodifying another advanced ape why shouldn’t he? The answer “because he wouldn’t like it if it happened to him” is only convincing if the advanced ape sees his doing it as increasing the risk of it happening to him, and very often, it doesn’t.
At this point, I’d like to quote a very interesting tradition preserved for us in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, where he writes about the story of Cain and Abel and specifically what became of Cain after he committed the first murder and was punished by God. It is found in Book 1 Chapter 2:
And when Cain had traveled over many countries, he, with his wife, built a city, named Nod, which is a place so called, and there he settled his abode; where also he had children. However, he did not accept of his punishment in order to amendment, but to increase his wickedness; for he only aimed to procure every thing that was for his own bodily pleasure, though it obliged him to be injurious to his neighbors. He augmented his household substance with much wealth, by rapine and violence; he excited his acquaintance to procure pleasures and spoils by robbery, and became a great leader of men into wicked courses. He also introduced a change in that way of simplicity wherein men lived before; and was the author of measures and weights. And whereas they lived innocently and generously while they knew nothing of such arts, he changed the world into cunning craftiness. He first of all set boundaries about lands: he built a city, and fortified it with walls, and he compelled his family to come together to it; and called that city Enoch, after the name of his eldest son Enoch.
This story has a fundamental truth within it, the loss of innocence, the introduction of sin and violence into the world coincide with the creation of weights and measures, the setting of boundaries and greed. Anthropologist David Graeber has, more recently, pointed out something similar to this in his (absolutely must read) Book Debt, The first 5000 years, he points out how primitive currencies (means of quantifying goods) were originally used:
“primitive currencies” of this sort is only rarely used to buy and sell things, and even when they are, never primarily to buy and sell everyday items such as chickens or eggs or shoes or potatoes. Rather than being employed to acquire things, they are mainly used to rearrange relations between people. Above all, to arrange marriages and to settle disputes, particularly those arising from murders or personal injury.
There is every reason to believe that our own money started the same way-even the English word “to pay” is originally derived from a word for “to pacify, appease”-as in, to give someone something precious, for instance, to express just how badly you feel about having just killed his brother in a drunken brawl, and how much you would really like to avoid this becoming the basis for an ongoing blood-feud .
Then he provides an example:
If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been . On the other hand, if Joshua’s pig just destroyed Henry’s garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry’s family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly-this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their rightful due.
Why is this the case? Well, unlike other forms of relationships, such as sharing, lending, and so on, exact exchange cancels out any further need for relationship, it eliminates the need for trust and human relationships and it basically goes hand in hand with the result of violence, as David Graeber points out:
In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. Therefore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away. This in turn implies autonomy.
What marks commercial exchange is that it’s “impersonal ” : who it is that is selling something to us, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant. We are simply comparing the value or two objects. Later on, we see how this would apply to a situation of violence: Only a lunatic would mug his next-door neighbor. A band of marauding soldiers or nomadic horsemen falling on a peasant hamlet to rape and pillage also obviously have no intention of forming any ongoing relations with the survivors.
I wrote previously about these concepts (in different contexts) in these posts (here and here). What does all this have to do with the concept of the sacred however? Well, if the sacred is, as I believe it is, the recognition that certain things are unquantifiable, and if it is true, as I think it is, that commodification begins with the potentiality of violence. Then it is not that much of a stretch to say that the advance and expansion of Capitalism, the Market, and commodification in every aspect of our life, (and thus the profaning of more and more of the sacred) coincides with the growth of Secularism. The growth of secularism in turn reduces human society to more and more a management of the potentiality of violence, i.e. a protection of negative liberty (which itself is dependent on some notion of the sacredness of human freedom which stands on shaky ground for the secularist).
Let’s return for the sake of a modern day example, to the modern day confusion over sex. To quote Roger Scruton in his aforementioned paper:
The new perception of the human body is manifest in other ways, and especially in the transformation of sexual desire. When the sexual act is disenchanted it becomes a commodity, and love ceases to be the route to it. The retreat of the sacred leaves marriage unprotected – no longer an eternal vow but a fragile contract, which can be broken and amended with only commercial costs. The entire realm of the erotic is subjected to a systematic disorganisation, the results of which are too familiar to us to merit that I dwell on them.
When you take sex out of the realm of the sacred and into the realm of the quantifiable, it simply becomes contractual. True Eros demands a losing oneself in an unmeasurable passion. The Erotic remains if one says, “I would give anything for you,” it dies if one says “I would give X amount of dollars for you.” Once someone is negotiating a sexual contract, the relationship is more or less one of mediating violence. Person A looks to Person B as a source of pleasure, person A could just take it, violently, but there is a structure preventing that, to avoid it they must negotiate a price at which they can both receive what it is they want and then part their separate ways. Person A has no obligation to Person B, other than what is contracted, no duty whatsoever.
Even though modern Liberal secular society still sanctifies sex and life to a degree, the logic of secularism and its twin, Capitalism, are bound to profane it.
This logic is not confined to the sexual and erotic. It strikes us as obscene to put a price on human life, as though it could be quantified, but why? Well it’s because we still see it as sacred (we have not yet escaped the moral clutch of the imago dei, even though society has banished the Dei). Religious experience, if it is to be taken seriously, is generally considered genuine if it is beyond finite comprehension, beyond finite measurement. The love of a child is the same, the idea of having an exact measure of it strikes us as obscene. When you look around you with this idea of the sacred in mind, you’ll see pockets of it in the modern psyche lurking around all sorts of corners. But you’ll also see how the modern ideology opposes it.
Secularism I would define as the idea that God and religion should be banished from public life. As I argued previously when you banish God, i.e. the transcendental realm, you banish the ground of the sacred, when you banish the ground of the sacred; you have opened up the way for Capitalism. Capitalism is the system of commodification, privatization, markets and private profit. You can only commodify and put to market that which can be quantified, is something is among the sacred, the unquantifiable, it cannot be bought or sold, it can only be shared. Capitalism demands constant growth, as markets are made optimized for maximizing private profit, as the commons are privatized, more markets must be found, and more sources of profit must be exploited. It is inevitable that Capitalism would seek to move into the realm of the sacred.
The evidence of this is all around, pornography, the sex industry, spirituality for sale, prosperity gospels, careerism, even the commodification of genetics. Capitalism has taught us to quantify, privatize and commodify everything; secularism has attempted to hide the infinite and transcendental in order to mute man’s natural sense of the sacred. Secularism it’s hand maiden, Capitalism, has a logical outcome of reducing man to a mere commodity among commodities, reducing relationships to contracts, reducing society to a mere regulation of violence and in the end it attempts to destroy the image of God within man, the image of God which is infinite, unquantifiable and sacred. The enemies of the sacred seem to be winning with no reversal in sight, thankfully however, we are promised a way out.