Saturday, June 18, 2016

Functions and Forms of the Sacred

In the history of Olympia, three of the most important religions have been Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet there has always been what we may consider to be a fourth religion: Olympianity. To test whether we are right in doing so, we will reflect on an analysis of the functions and forms of the sacred by Jacques Ellul in The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975).

As distinct religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each existed once as a distinct sacred world for its participants.
This is ironic since, at least in the cases of Judaism and Christianity, the only true god of freedom never intended a sacred world to be created.
Today, for the first time in history, all societies and cultures on earth participate in one sacred world: that of Olympianity. They all participate in a world in which certain identical phenomena are regarded as sacred while, in relation to them, everything else is seen as profane.
Although the phenomena regarded as sacred does change over time, only at our Christian best can we humans live in a world where nothing is sacred. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit are we freed from an experiential need, far beyond our ability to understand or overcome, to live in a sacred world.
Sacred functions: One function of any sacred world is to provide meaning. A sacred world successfully integrates a society, its culture, and all the personalities living in it into one meaningful whole. This is vital. It provides every personality living in it with a shared sense of the meaning of their own life as well as how that meaning relates to the meaning of society as a whole. It provides each person with an understanding of how to make meaningful every aspect of their daily way of living.
As ultimately important as a sacred world is to everyone sharing it, those same people cannot describe it well. Its most basic truths form the worldview through which they analyze and interpret reality. To discern, analyze, and interpret their own worldview, they would need to see it from the point of view of someone either from a different sacred world or someone with no sacred worldview at all.
Today’s ecumenism between Christians of different denominations, and between some Christians, Jews, and Muslims, is not, regrettably, based on greater love. Rather, it witnesses to the fact that the distinct identities of different denominations and religions have been drained of meaning. That, in turn, reflects the fact that we are all participating in a sacred world which cannot be confused with Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Instead, it is as participants in the distinct sacred world of Olympianity that allows us to discern, dissect, and dismiss those other traditional religions.
We human beings, whether separately as individuals or together as societies, cannot construct a sacred world for ourselves, whether emotionally, rationally, politically, or otherwise. We can only develop different ways of witnessing to the sacred. But that which is sacred, and forms the foundation of our sacred world, is something which imposes itself upon us and we can only react to.
We humans regard as sacred that which most unavoidably threatens us, most strongly revitalizes us, but also most clearly communicates with us the surest means by which we may avoid its threats and gain its vitality.
Another function of the sacred is to order space, time, and action. This sacred which imposes itself on us nevertheless creates a world with a vital order; that is, it orders space and prescribes the actions appropriate to each type of space. It establishes those places in which we may act in required, encouraged, or accepted ways and those in which we are forbidden to enter.
It orders space, time, and action by establishing limits. These limits are always very clear and concrete. It maps out the whole world, including its spiritual as well as its material realities.
It is our affirmation of and conformity to this structured world that gives our personalities meaning.
The sacred also gives us times of legitimate disorder. These are times when we may indulge the dark side of the universe and ourselves. The traditional celebration of Mardi Gras, coming just before the penitential season of Lent, was once such a time. We can’t get rid of this dark side but we can domesticate it in this way.
Devotion to the same god(s) also integrates the individual into the group. The sacred world is just that: a world. It is the world inhabited not only by every individual but by all of society and culture. It integrates society, culture, and all individuals into one coherently meaningful whole. This integration, however, is not a conscious rational goal of the people or even leaders participating in it. The sacred imposes itself on a society even though individuals and leaders participate in the shaping of their society in response. This integration is the foundation of societal solidarity. When the sacred foundation of a society is questioned, and every so often it is, this solidarity weakens.
The gods who form the foundation of our sacred world provide us with the ethics in terms of which our society, culture, and personalities are structured. From the viewpoint of another sacred world, these ethical demands might seem scandalous. But the gods provide justification for even the most destructive behavior. Rationality, or morality, are very poor substitutes for justification provided by the gods.
By the time society and culture have fallen back on conformity to a moral code, we know their sacred world is passing away.
One may sin in a sacred world without challenging it. The sacred worldview understands and integrates sin into itself. The problem is when someone challenges the sacred worldview. That’s understood as an attack on the whole world order established by the sacred as well as on the sacred itself. Blasphemy! When faced with such an attack, participants in that sacred world don’t ask for repentance. Joined by gods and nature, they murder or exile the attacker.
Sacred Forms: God or gods form the basis of every sacred world. The sacred consists of the god or gods which seem to pose the greatest threat to our existence and promise us the greatest vitality. As such, the gods constitute the foundation of a sacred world that provides society, culture, and personalities with the order, meaning, and justification they need to endure.
On this foundation, societies, cultures, and personalities develop the “absolute value, rites of commitment, and embodiment in a person” (p. 55) that give form to the sacred.
One, we have absolute value attributed by society, culture, and personalities to that which all hold sacred because of its tight connection to the gods. In our sacred Olympian world, we may take technology as an example. It can’t be questioned. If one persists in doing so, one meets either stony silence or rage. Even close friendships do not survive the challenge.
Two, we have rites of commitment or initiation. To participate meaningfully in a sacred world, one must first be trained.
In Judaism, this process of initiation traditionally led to the bar mitzvah of thirteen-year-old males who then became responsible adult participants in the sacred world of Judaism as well as their own synagogue.
Similarly, in many Christian denominations, males and females need to undergo training and then receive the sacrament of confirmation.
In today’s Olympian world, one needs education and then certification of it either from universities or technical schools. There is no meaningful participation in our Olympian world, dominated by Vulcan (god of technology), without certification of technical expertise.
Three, the absolute values of a sacred world must be embodied by a person who has been properly trained to participate in it and has been exemplary in doing so. This personal example of virtue then serves the sacred world as an instructive example and source of inspiration.
For the people of the sacred world of medieval Latin Christendom, saints were the embodiment of its virtues.
For us in today’s Olympian world, virtue is embodied by illustrious presidents, star athletes, chief executives of giant technological corporations (such as Steve Jobs), beautiful celebrities, and billionaires.
The sacred organizes itself around opposite poles. One is of control; the other, of chaos.
Olympianity conforms to this understanding. Jupiter, god of politics, drives us to control everyone and everything else. Mars, god of war, has us blow everything up.
Vulcan, god of technology, has us subordinate all living societies, cultures, personalities, and creatures to the demands of the Global Technological System for maximum efficiency. We mistakenly think we rebel by embracing the frenzied activities offered to us by Venus (goddess of sex). Interestingly enough, in classical mythology, Venus was the wife of Vulcan but the lover of Mars.
Pluto, god of money, would have us do everything necessary to make a dollar or save a penny. Bacchus, god of consumption, would have us blow it all on one big party.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.