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 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.