Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Being Judgmental after the death of God, part II

I’ve recently been working on carving out a secular rhetorical space in which to use the word “sacred.” For many people this word cannot be rid of the taint of religion/supernaturalism/absolutism, but I am trying to save it anyhow, mostly for the moral-emotional meaning it carries. To me, “sacred” is a label for whatever is of utmost value, what must be treated with attentive care and respect (i.e. it deserves our time, energy, and money). While I’m attempting to avoid the absolutist quality of the word, I do think it carries an elitist connotation—we should only call “sacred” that which is worthy of our utmost care and respect, as opposed to more profane things which require a more relative amount of care and respect. “Sacred” also has a connotation of universality, at least insofar as when I consider something to be sacred, I will also want others to do so also (or at least, they should expect me to be very offended if they violate the thing I’m calling sacred).

So what is worthy of being called sacred? In a recent post, I criticized Sean Kelly and Hubert Dreyfus’ All Things Shining for posing aesthetic, ethically-neutral answers (sports, talent, craftsmanship, mathematics, social wine-drinking) to this question. I believe that the seriousness of the label “sacred” demands that thinkers consider what is “really” important in life as opposed to matters of passing importance. It is true, as Kelly says in his Colbert interview, that in watching football, what is good and valuable is clear and motivating—that is how we are able to “rise as one” in the excitement of a great play (if it’s our team); but it feels profane to call something like the immaculate reception sacred. While fantastic football surely deserves excitement, I hope we can agree that there are just more important things in life, and that a person who calls a game “sacred” has their priorities crooked. I know human suffering is not as mobilizing, but shouldn’t it be?

I think the existential and the ethical are more appropriate realms in which to encounter the sacred than the aesthetic. I use “existential” broadly to refer to the human individual and social processes of self-discovery, and “ethical” to refer to the human individual and social pursuit of the good. And I acknowledge that the aesthetic is often bound up with these other categories. Perhaps there’s just something about pop culture that I find profane.

But I hate to be this judgmental. I want to claim that the ethical is what truly matters in life, what gives life meaning. But I know that my day-to-day happiness seems to thrive partially on entertainment and other aesthetic pleasures, specifically: comedy, jam bands, food and beverages. My world seems grayer without them. I wouldn’t call them sacred. But I know how much of my time, energy, and money goes into them, and so I wonder about my own priorities.


  1. I really enjoyed your last three blog posts, especially the last two-thanks for writing! I like how you identify both the privileges and the "faults" that "shape and undercut" your argument-it encourages me to think about those privileges and inconsistencies that I bring to discussions like these. My main reaction to the judgment/search for the sacred part right now is that I feel like in practice, it's not hard to identify values, even sacred values, without grounding them in the authority of God/religion. I think a good number of religious people (myself at various times included) derive values from nonreligious sources, from living in the world, and then go back to religious sources for reinforcement, rather than the other way around. Of course, maybe it's unfair for me to say that, since our world has been so shaped by religion that maybe the values people are learning from supposedly nonreligious sources are actually religious in origin. but I think coming to an understanding that certain values are sacred and working for those is a natural thing to do-although how we should judge or not judge other people is a tougher question.

    The problem is, I don't know how philosophically to ground what so many of us do in practice-learning values from living. Maybe this is what you are going to explore.

  2. Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad to hear that you don't find deriving sacred values without God that difficult. I especially appreciate your comment about how many religious people actually receive their values elsewhere and then find them in scripture. As I emerge from my religious identity into secularism, and look back at my upbringing, I begin to recognize how my values may be somewhat rooted in my parents' Judaism, but are even more firmly grounded in my parents' liberalism (and the radicalism of the 60s, which I have romanticized to no end).

    As for the problem you raise at the end, yes I hope I'll get into that. I'm currently very inspired by the Humanist Manifesto's claim about how ethics are derived from human need-- that and Donald Swearer's speech at convocation a few years ago on "The Ecology of Human Flourishing," motivate me to look for a wisdom-pragmatic model of recognizing and pursuing what is good in/about/for life. Thanks.