Sociology and the Sacred
Uncoupling God and the Sacred
* Geertz: (1985). Religion as a cultural system. Anthropological approaches to the study of
religion. M. Banton. London, Tavistock: XLIII, 176.
_"We maybe live in secular age but we certainly do not live in a desacralized age. Sacred meanings circulate through social life in a way that still has tremendous power and impact, even in societies that we think of as modern."
Perhaps Gordon Lynch is right. Perhaps, even in a secular age, the sacred is circulating through our lives.
It surfaces in our infatuations with technologies and the hopes we invest in them; in our desire to affirm the natural world as a sacred web of connections; in an elevation of democracy and reason as ideals to which all should strive; in the moral disgust we feel when we learn about child abuse or the torture of innocents, thus sensing that something sacred has been profaned. We carry with us feelings of ultimacy even if we do not believe in anything ultimate.
Lynch and his colleague, Jeffrey Alexander, develop the idea that modern society, from politics to the media, from sports to rock concerts, is saturated with a sense of the sacred. They come with distinguished credentials. Alexander is Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, Center for Cultural Sociology (CCS) at Yale University. Lynch is Professor in the Sociology of Religion in the Faculty of Lifelong Learning at Birkbeck College.
The sociology of religion is by no means reducible to considerations of the sacred. It consists of applying sociological analysis to a wide range of topics: community, ethics, politics, ritual, identity, migration, globalization, food, music, storytelling, and daily life.
There is much more to religion can is contained in considerations of the sacred. And there is much more to the sacred than is contained in considerations of religion. What follows is one way of thinking about the sacred as influenced by sociology.
What is the sacred?
Let's follow Lynch on this. It is what people together take to be timeless realities that exert an unquestionable claim over the conduct of social lives.
How many sacred realities are there?
Lots of them. Whenever people find themselves governed by allegiance to something more than themselves, which they take to be timelessly important, there is an experience of the sacred. There are many realities to which people give allegiance.
What are some common sacred realities?
Nations, capitalism, democracy, reason, science, sports teams, celebrities, and laptop computers. Sometimes they are layered.
If you have a new laptop computer, it can feel sacred in its way, but it is layered within a wider sacred reality called technology, which is layered within wider sacred reality called unlimited progress.
Are all sacred realities really sacred?
This is a good question, but not a sociological question. I'll say more about it at the end, but for now let's stick with sociology.
Sociologists are not concerned with what is really sacred, but rather with what feels sacred. These feelings of the sacred are both conscious and unconscious, and they transcend belief.
What are defining features of feelings of the sacred?
The German theologian, Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) proposed that these feelings involve a combination of fascination and awe. For our purposes this seems about right. When we behold the wings of a dragonfly, or gaze into the starry heavens above, we experiences these emotions. Sometimes we feel them when we are in the presence of very tall buildings and very powerful people. In these moments we have tastes of the sacred.
Could you put the matter a bit more philosophically?
Glad you asked. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead developed a view of the universe in which all events are connected to all other events through prehensions or feelings. I am influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) in this reflection, and I am thinking of a feeling of the sacred as a prehension of other objects -- material or spiritual, past or present -- through subjective forms of fascination and awe. Whitehead was a philosopher and mathematician who was deeply interested in science and religion.
Can people find something sacred through science?
Yes, consider the author of the book to the left, Ursula Goodenough. She is a geneticist who does not believe in a supernatural God but who has found what she calls "the sacred depths of nature" through the beauty of the natural world as discovered through science.
The more she knows about the natural world through science, the more amazed and awestruck she becomes. Her life is an example of how feelings of the sacred and the the scientific life can go hand in hand.
She speaks of herself as a non-theist, but we should note that atheists can have feelings of the sacred, too.
Can people people shift from one sacred reality to another?
Yes. Many people are contextual polytheists or to say the same thing, serial polysacralists. When they watch a sporting event their team is their god; when they vote in elections their political party is their god; and when they go to church "God" is god.
Are feelings of the sacred socially constructed?
Yes. This does not mean that they are consciously invented by human beings in the way, say, that an architect might construct a blueprint or an engineer might construct a dam. But it does mean (1) that they emerge out of social networks or relationships, as a result of many different agents interacting with one another. Feelings of the sacred emerge out of social relationships. And it means (2) that they are historically contingent and variegated. Feelings of the sacred are like all other feelings; they come and go relative to context.
Who constructs them?
Sociologists focus on human agents. When they speak of the social construction of reality they typically have in mind groups of human beings -- cultures and sub-cultures -- who construct meanings.
But increasingly sociologists -- at least those influenced by Whiteheadian thinking -- are recognizing that human cultures and even meanings emerge out of felt relationships with the natural world: with plants and animals, landscapes and waterways. Human communities are nested within biotic communities. Other living beings are agents, too, whether intentional or non-intentional. They evoke (and in this way help construct) feelings of the sacred.
But aren't nature and culture different?
No, the dichotomy between nature and culture is a social construction, but not a very good one. It wrongly suggests: (1) that humans and only humans have cultures when it is fairly obvious that other animals have cultures, too, and (2) human cultures are somehow cut off from psychological, social, and physical connections with the rest of natural world.
Do other animals have feelings of the sacred, too?
Probably so. It is highly unlikely that human feelings of the sacred emerge in a vacuum, unrelated to evolutionary biology. It is more likely that human feelings of the sacred have their analogues in other creatures, who can likewise feel that some things, if not timeless, are at least very, very important.
Is there a sacred gene?
Probably not, but still it's a good question. Neuroscience is helping us recognize that all forms of human awareness -- including feelings of the sacred -- emerge out of the activities of the brain. As we speak of the social construction of feelings of the sacred, we best recognize that the societies from which feelings of the sacred emerge include molecular societies within the brain.
Does this mean that the sacred is merely the product of brain chemistry?
Not really. When we eat a piece of apple pie, the pie has objective reality apart from our brain chemistry. Analogously, when we feel the presence of something sacred, the something can have objective reality even apart from our brain chemistry. The fact that feelings of the sacred are registered in our brains speaks neither for, nor against, the objective reality of the things we feel or the sense that they carry sacred significance.
So what really causes feelings of the sacred?
The question can suggest that there is a single and ultimate cause of a feeling of the sacred. This is not true. It is an illusion to think that any given subjective sensation -- whether a feeling of the sacred or a taste of apple pie -- has a single cause. We need to think in terms of networks of causation.
Do institutional religions have a monopoly on feelings of the sacred?
Not at all. Go to an NBA basketball game, or a celebration of the Fourth of July, or the convention of a political party. Or take a walk in the woods. Feelings of the sacred transcend what we ordinary call religion.
What is religion, anyway?
Scholars are not able to offer an exact definition. It, too, is a social construct. It seems to be a way of living, partly animated by feelings of the sacred, but also by many other social needs, including needs for community, pleasure, mystery, and survival.
Really now, what is religion?
The sociologist Clifford Geertz defines it like this: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. *
Does anyone avoid the sacred?
Not really. Some atheists may deny that anything at all is sacred, but then take their atheism as a timeless truth. Some relativists may deny that anything is timeless, but they take their relativism as a timeless truth. It's hard to avoid the sacred.
Is violence sacred?
Sometimes. The experience of inflicting violence on others intense and amazing, momentarily giving people a sense of participating in something greater than themselves. Sometimes the violence is in service to what they take to be an even higher sacred reality: their nation, ideals of freedom, the promise of oil, or a consumer-driven lifestyle.
But is violence really sacred?
I don't think so. I think it is necessary to distinguish between the healthy sacred and the unhealthy sacred.
I know that I am leaving sociology behind in saying this, but I can't help it. Blame it on Jesus and the Buddha. Blame it on Whitehead or Confucius. I believe the universe carries norms for distinguishing the healthy sacred from the unhealthy sacred.
So what is the healthy sacred?
The healthy sacred is any reality which is felt as having sacred significance and which simultaneously leads a person to live with compassion and sensitivity to seamless web of inter-existence.
Does this mean that dogs and rivers can be sacred?
Does this mean that friendships and noble ideals can be sacred?
How about warfare and violent video games?
How about sports teams?
Not really, but we all sin.
Why all this emphasis on love?
I think it's because I believe in God.
Is God sacred?
Not necessarily. In some circumstances a preoccupation with the sacred can actually hinder openness to God, because so often this preoccupation creates false dichotomies between the sacred and the profane, between the extraordinary and the ordinary,. between ultimate reality and daily life.
And often God is experienced in ways that do not involve fascination and awe. There are secular ways of experiencing God. God is present when parents take care of their children, no matter what emotion they are feeling; God is present when the janitor sweeps the floor in a careful and mindful way, unaware of anything sacred; God is present when, in the name of truth, the skeptic questions God's own existence.
Sometimes a feeling of the sacred provides an occasion for experiencing God and sometimes not. It depends on the circumstance.
So what is God?
I'll speak as a process theologian. I hope you'll read other essays for support, such as those by Rabbi Bradley Artson (GO), Bruce Epperly (GO), and John Cobb (GO). For me and other process thinkers, God has two sides:
God is a lure within us by which we are beckoned to seek wisdom, compassion, and freedom in daily life. This reality is also within the entire universe as a counter-entropic lure by which, despite entropy, new forms of order emerge: atoms, molecules, living cells, human societies.
God is also womb-like compassion -- a universal companion -- who share in all the sufferings of the universe like a Buddhist Bodhisattva. Whenever people inflict violence on one another in the name of God, God is not in the violence, but in the suffering.
Is your idea of God a social construction, too?
Yes, but I think it might be a good one. Here I am again speaking sociologically. All ideas are social constructions: scientific, sociological, theological, anthropological, philosophical. Ideas are not valuable because they drop from heaven. They are valuable because they are based on evidence and help people live better lives. I think there's evidence that, despite the violence, there is lure toward wisdom and compassion in human life. The lure is not all-powerful but it is all loving. It is the lure toward wisdom and compassion that guides the sociologist to seek truth and share it with others, including the truth that ideas are social constructions.
Is everything a social construction?
Yes. But I think that the society that constructs reality includes our own agency and God's agency. God is the Society in whose life all societies unfold. Nothing exists all by itself, not even God. All things are what they are as creative outcomes of relations with other things, whether healthy or unhealthy. That's Buddhism. That's also sociology.
Jeffrey Alexander's Website: http://www.yale.edu/sociology/faculty/pages/alexander/
Gordon Lynch's Website: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/crcs/people/director
Wikipedia for John "Laurie" Taylor: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurie_Taylor_(sociologist)
Royal Society for the Arts Website: http://www.thersa.org/