I saw a photo of the Easter Fire in my sister's church, and my memory was drawn to a remote fibro building on crumbling earth foundations, the way we felt our path down between the pews in the darkness, and to a cauldron suddenly flaming up in the cold and dark. (The photo is of Father Andrew and Father Herbert at BrightonStMary's, Kemptown, UK.)
How the holy and sacred bring us into the presence of the profound beyond ourselves! Yet they are also involved in the worst of our humanity. What is the sacred? Why does it wrap so closely around the best and worst of our being? And what might it have to with discerning resurrection?
What I wish to do here is show that the 'religious' connotations of the 'sacred' are, in fact, a subset of its wider existence. I will then suggest how religion rescues, or is corrupted by, the sacred.
In its most general sense, the sacred can be described as something which all people seek. The sacred is a sense of life, a world view; that is, an understanding of the world, which seems "really real." That is, the sacred lets us believe in ourselves and our life. It is a way of looking at the world, a construction, which lets us feel we have some meaning and significance despite all the absurdity, despite all the indications that we are insignificant, and despite all our fears that our being is a nothing. Our sacred is the understanding of life which allows us to persevere through its absurdity and its terrors.
A group of people, whether a tribe or a nation, will tend to have a 'shared sacred.' A group's solidarity is based in a shared sense of those things which are important for meaning and survival. In this most general sense, sacred is not an essentially religious term.
The function of the sacred which I have described explains why people can get so upset about changes to things they regard as, well… 'sacred,' but which have no discernible connection to anything 'religious.' Changes which trigger great emotion and hostility do so because they threaten a person's understanding of the world. A threat to understanding is the beginning of a threat to a person's existence. It is why people who are not at all religious in any conventional sense can get so upset about apparently small things, and behave about quite mundane objects or conventions as though they were 'sacred.' Perhaps our conclusion that such an upset is about shallow self-interest, or some kind of small-mindedness, is too quick. Perhaps, at base, and often unconsciously, our triggers reflect a fear for our survival. That is; we intuit quite clearly the existential implications of what might seem, to others, to be a small and irrelevant change in our world, even if we don't clearly see those implications at the time.
The word holy is significant in my religious tradition. It is sometimes a synonym for sacred, but it is more correctly a richly aspirational word. To be holy, is to seek to live well in relation to the sacred. In Christian terms, holiness is about living in the way God desires for us, living the kind of life which allows us to become more fully human; almost a living in-synch with the way we are 'designed.'
But again, in the more general sense, we can see that any group, and each individual, has a sense of 'holiness.' Holiness, in this sense, is about living appropriately with respect to our sacred. Someone who, for example, defaces a war memorial is not a holy person; they are not living appropriately with respect to what many others in the nation regard as sacred.
We can see this in very recent history. Ball tampering by the South African captain was a mere faffing around which attracted little attention. But the same activity involving the Australian captain was a breach of the sacred of the nation, and a loss of holiness. Smith seems, by his contrition, to have avoided becoming the final scapegoat in this breach of the sacred, although we not yet have settled upon what, or whose, sacrifice will restore holiness to the nation.
Many mourn the fact that we are upset over the cricket, but ignore, as a nation, the evil we do to refugees. How many of us see that the refugees on Nauru, and elsewhere, are one of the scapegoats which allow us to maintain the illusion of the sacred game, and the holiness of sporting honour, and so keep our sense of the world intact?
When we look at ordinary life with such a lens, we see how artificial the notion of a religious / non-religious divide actually is. Each culture has its sacred, has its holiness, and chooses its scapegoats who preserve and restore that sacred when 'lack of holiness', also known as rivalry and violence or, cheating at cricket, begins to fracture the common sacred.
If we step aside from our religious antipathies or loyalties, we might wonder if all of us have a 'god' of sorts, for there is an ultimacy to which all of us relate, and upon whose truth, or reality, we depend in order to keep life liveable. And if we understand how much we are enmeshed in our common group sacred, we can make some sense of the statement that our "perception of God is tied to [our] social world." Both a specifically 'religious God' and a secular 'god of sorts,' are perceived and mediated by the symbols given to us by our society. The sacred is provisional and socially mediated.
This long introduction is preparation to examine a short statement by James Alison. He is speaking about the Jewish exile in Babylon, and the massive religious renewal which this seems to have sparked.
It was the exile, and because of it the loss of real power over the social order which Yahweh had seemed to have while he was linked to a monarchy and a temple, which lead to the new perception: the perception that if we are talking about god, affirming that God is not among the gods, then there must be a radical separation between God and the order and establishment of this world. That is to say, one part of an anti-idolatrous movement is that it is, and has to be, a self-critical movement concerning the way in which the perception of God is tied to the social world. Now, it is very easy to say that. But I know very well from my own experience that going through the experience of losing the bond between God and the customary order without losing the notion of God and falling into just one more reaction is an immensely slow, painful and unpredictable experience. (on being liked pp53, my emphasis.)
Can you see that the 'customary order' of society is another way of saying 'the sacred?' So Alison is implying that religious renewal involves separating God from the sacred. He is saying of course, that God is not 'a god of sorts' but 'really God,' and that God is not bound to our understanding of what is sacred. The sacred is our invention. And indeed, elsewhere, he refers to the kind of renewal experienced in Babylon, and in the presence of Jesus, as desacralisation.
What is it to fall into "just one more reaction?" As we sought to unpack this in bible study, I reminded people of the older kids at school who had made my life a misery as a very small child, and then outlined how I had survived. Essentially, accidentally discovering I was quite smart, and that I was able to relate well to adults, I had constructed the persona of the bright, accommodating, always well behaved student who provides bright moments in any teacher's life. Central to this persona was my development and nurturing of a clear sense that I was better than… (insert names here.) And I startled myself by how easily, in the telling of this story to the bible study, I could list off the names, 55 years later, of those I had decided were the 'bad' and 'less worthy' children of my primary school. "In my reaction to those who made my life a misery," I said, "I had embarked on the same destructive scapegoating process that had been used against me." I was about to say something about "just one more reaction," when one of the women in the study stunned me by saying, "You could say that you created your own resurrection."
Humans maintain their sacred and its holiness by scapegoating others. And when we seek to escape from this, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the sense of the Divine, for our god is mediated to us by a culture built upon scapegoating. God is not separate from the "customary order." If we deny the validity of the customary order, it is incredibly hard not to think God has disappeared. So, to 'keep God,' we tweak our sacred and our holiness (our living with respect to that sacred) and therefore do not manage to escape the fundamental human cultural dependence upon scapegoating, which is the use of violence in one form or another to maintain our safety. And God remains a god of violence—I am still sometimes surprised at how fiercely people defend the idea that God punishes us!
And if we give up on the idea that there is a God, we are still products of, and immersed within, a culture which lives upon the scapegoat: witness the cricket, or the carefully curated outrage of any daily tabloid.
In John's gospel the "King of the Jews" returns in the stories of John 20 and 21. In John 20, he three times says "Peace be with you," and then commands his disciples to forgive: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." (20:21) In chapter 21, he three times reminds Peter of the betrayal of his denials, but extracts no revenge: "Do you love me? … Feed my sheep ... Follow me!" (21:17, 22) He breaks out of the cycle of violence. His resurrection is not achieved by attacking others in the way he was attacked, but comes from somewhere else.
Given that psychology experiments have taught us that perhaps what separates us from the animals is, above all, our capacity for self-deception— I joke only in part— how can we ever hope to break out of "just one more reaction," and discern if there really is a God "radically separate[d from] … the order and establishment of this world?" Let alone live a holiness appropriate to that!?
In my experience, what works is to risk the "immensely slow, painful and unpredictable experience" of letting go of the sacred! This is another way of saying that we embark on developing a world view which explores rather than defends, which is indeed unpredictable and painful. We seek, above all to make sense of things, instead of making the world safe for ourselves.
Fathers Andrew and Herbert's fire at St Mary's can celebrate the amazement we have at God's love for us, or it can be a static, immovable, sacred which is trying to preserve and justify our social order. If it is the latter, then even though it claims to celebrate the risen Lord, it is as much an idolatry as the idolatry which objects to guitars in church.
What is de-idolatrising is to discover the world as it is, and to seek to discover the world as it is. And that means to seek the reality of the world in places which do not privilege us, so that we begin to escape our self-deception.
Where we are most free from privilege is when we are with, and aligned with, the poor and powerless. Because there we must live with ourselves, and with the consequence of what we are and where we are; there is no buying our way out. In that powerlessness we are able to see more clearly, for we have nothing left to protect. There is no pressure to deceive ourselves when we have no beach house to lose. In time, we find that we have burned our bridges a little, and entered a kind of 'voluntary Babylon,' a place of renewal: the more we live out Christian ideals the less we are able to fit in with, and partake of, middle class affluence— or return to it.
Indeed, we are brought up short against the base things of our nature, for we discover in ourselves hatred and fear of those who have the power we have given up, and who can, if they choose, destroy us. Newly poor in this neoliberal world, without private health insurance, we are suddenly a little like our great-grandparents, forced to ponder and live life as a human at the mercy of the world and its powers, rather than living in the conceit that we have control and potency to make a place for ourselves where we can keep the rabble at bay. In this new place, we can cannot pretend to have made our own resurrection; we can only accept what is given. As much as I rejoice at the richness of the life I am discovering, I also discover that this new fire is beyond painful; it is sometimes terrifying.
Andrew Prior (Easter 2018)
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