THE SENSE OF THE SACRED IN PHILOSOPHY

Sacred-field

Philosophical Contemplation is not just an intellectual exercise. When we contemplate a text or an idea, we must be able to appreciate what is precious, even sacred.

The word “sacred” might create resistance and objections. Sacredness is often associated with religion, and we certainly don’t want to turn philosophy into religious dogmas and rituals, holy books and powerful institutions. Philosophy, by its very nature, must be a free exploration.

But religion has no monopoly over sacredness. The sense of sacredness does not have to be connected with a father in heaven, with the afterlife, with prayers, with priests and doctrines. Historic religions have hijacked the sacred, but we have the right to reclaim it and talk about it without necessarily talking about God in heaven. (Whether or not you believe in God, that’s a different question). It is time to liberate the sense of sacredness from the monopoly of religion. Many of us have experienced sacredness outside any faith or dogma – in nature for example, or when listening to a profound piece of music, in intense silence, or in moments of fullness and exaltation.

What is a sense of sacredness, then, if it is not necessarily connected to religion? Like many human experiences (beauty, inspiration, love), it cannot be defined precisely. If you ever had the experience of sacredness, you know what it is. But as a rough approximation, we may follow thinkers like Rudolf Otto, William James, Julian Huxley, and many others, who suggested partial, incomplete characterizations of sacredness. We may say, for example, that the sense of sacredness awakens in us wonder and awe; that it is an awareness of a hidden dimension of reality that is precious, powerful, and most important; or that it makes us realize our smallness and nothingness. Or, we may say, following some of these thinkers, that sacredness appears as a mysterious reality that is beyond precise descriptions; that it touches our entire being and unifies us; that it expands us beyond our usual thought-patterns and psychological boundaries; that it makes us feel that we are enveloped by a greater reality, and are part of a higher world-order.

Of course, these historical attempts to characterize the sense of sacredness are limited. They are vague, picturesque, and incomplete. But they can point us in the right direction if we really want to hear (and not just to argue). They make it clear that the sense of the sacred does not necessarily involve a belief in God or spirits or religious institutions. It may – but it does not have to. Sacredness is religion-neutral; not anti-religious, but not pro-religious either.

Are we saying that sacredness is something supernatural? A metaphysical reality? No, we are not doing metaphysics here. We are not talking about sacred reality, but about the EXPERIENCE OF sacred reality, or the SENSE OF sacredness. Such experiences certainly exist, whether they come from God, or are products of our psychology, or result from some chemical substance in the brain. Whatever those experiences are, wherever they come from, they inspire us deeply, give us a sense wonder and awe, awaken forgotten dimensions of understanding, silence our little busy self, and open us to a reality that is bigger than ourselves.

The sense of sacredness is the summit of philosophical contemplation. It is the summit because it allows me to transcend my ordinary self and relate to basic life-issue from my inner depth, not as an external observer but as a participant. It is the summit because it gives my philosophical understandings the power to transform me, even if temporarily. Indeed, self-transformation has been an important goal of almost every major philosophy in the history of Western philosophy. And it is the summit because this expansion and self-transformation takes me beyond the boundaries of my usual self, beyond my self-centered perspective, and allows my understanding to expand towards others, towards life, towards reality as a whole – which is part of what we call wisdom, love, truthfulness, freedom. In short, the sense of the sacred nurtures – and is also nurtured by – a greater understanding of my reality; not necessarily a more logical or precise or detailed understanding, but a fuller, broader, deeper understanding of the horizons of human reality.

 

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Saturday, 19 August 2017

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Ran Lahav
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