By Margaret Somerville, Globe and Mail, May 17, 2012
Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.
My idea of the secular sacred has met with opposition from both sides. Those who are religious have accused me of profaning the sacred, indeed destroying it, because the concept doesn’t require a belief in the supernatural or adherence to a religion, which they see as essential attributes of the sacred. But I’m not, in any way, meaning to diminish the importance of the religious sacred to those who hold such beliefs.
Those who are not religious have attacked the concept on the basis that it’s quasi-religious and its acceptance amounts to imposing religion on them. As one of my students said, “You might be onto something important when both sides disagree with you.”
Treating something as sacred means it deserves deep respect. The natural and nature, and life, are among the things we regard as sacred, as our concern about the environment shows. We don’t exchange sacred elements for money; they are priceless, and so we don’t sell human organs, for example.
Those whose source of ethics is God or God-Nature (God and His creation, including humans) have a concept of the religious-spiritual sacred and accept that certain moral and ethical principles flow from that as to how they should act toward God and God’s creation – other humans, other animals, all forms of life, the natural world.
Those whose source of ethics is innate human morality have a concept of the secular sacred, and certain moral and ethical principles that should be respected and should govern our conduct flow from that. For instance, they will accept that certain aspects of life are sacrosanct and that not everything that can be done to life, in particular, human life, may ethically be done to it.
Where we can find more consensus on values and ethics than we presently have is where the religious sacred and the secular sacred overlap.
For both groups, the authentically sacred might often be experienced, and as a result identified, in a sense of wonder and awe. What we regard as sacred is often associated with that which elicits feelings of awe and wonder, that “primordial sense of amazement.”
Finally, we should all ponder the question novelist Carol Shields puts into the mouth of one of her famous characters, Larry, a middle-aged Canadian: “What will happen to a world that’s lost its connection with the sacred? We long for ecstasy, to stand outside of the self in order to transcend that self, but how do we get there?”
My answer to Larry’s question is that we run a very serious risk of ending up with a world in which no reasonable person would want to live. Perhaps the reason young people – and The Globe – are resurrecting the sacred is that they have sensed that. Hope springs eternal.
Everywhere, people are seeking and designing, and perhaps even finding, hybrids, merging one component with another, to discover a new "breed"....Ms Somerville, in a legitimate approach for a professional ethicist,
is advocating for the "secular sacred" or put another way, the "sacred secular".
And as she points out, those in the non-religious world complain about her imposing religion, while those in the relgious community, complain about the insertion of the profane into the sacred.
Is she onto something, as one of her students proposes?
Somewhere in the mists of time, Aristotle tried to name plants and phyla, for the purpose of distinction, one from another. Subsequently, that approach has been used to differentiate one kind of "thing" from another.
The U.S. makes much of its history of the separation of "church and state". And even the Bible exhorts, us to "give to Caesar the things that are his, and to God the things that are His."
Religion has, both to its credit, and to its infamy, worked asiduously to protect the "sacred" domain from invasion of the more trite and even evil, as they saw it, secular. A good example, in contemporary political discourse, in America, is the declaration that human life is sacred, precluding the spending of public dollars on abortions.
Secular humanists, for example, is another group targetted by the religious, for their abandonment of God and religion.
Philosophical arguments, based on such shared human experiences as "nature, and the natural world", for most of us, have to contain a grain of "awe" and mystery both of which seem to attend what many call the sacred. When a baby is born, the experience evokes tears, deep and profound humility, and awe in the presence of this new life, however, it came to us. When a person dies, and one experiences the autopsy, one cannot help but be dumbfounded and in awe at the complexity and the mystery of this human being, who, only few hours before, we alive, conversing, eating, working and thinking, and possibly even praying.
Are both of these experiences, our human capacity to witness the sacred in our midst? Conceivably. And certainly, those in the religious community would and do argue that case.
Similiarly, while walking in a thick forest, with or without the sounds of birds singing, creeks babbling or moose honking, one cannot but be captivated by the majesty of the experience, linked to a dome of blue sky, clouds and the rustling wind. Is this another glimpse of the glory and majesty of the sacred? For many, yes!
When one loses oneself in a creation, or a composition, whether as composer or as listener, is one broaching the sacred mysteries of the imagination.
Many of us work very hard to bridge the gaps between the sacred and the secular and those efforts, while worthy, cannot to the impossible. For example, a belief, held with tenacity and reverence, is unlikely to be bent, re-shaped or amended by the experience of its opposite. A belief, held since birth, and possibly for generations, is also unlikely to be assailable, in the light of new evidence to the contrary.
Hence, there will always be some clinging to the need for separation of the sacred from the secular, and no ethicist, and no system of ethics, and likely no religion can or will bring the two into one...although we know that Bah'ai's have tried valiantly. Unitarians have also brought many perceptions of God under one theological and spiritual roof, for the purpose of worship, in what many consider the most liberal of faith communities.
Judaism is one faith that proclaims humans cannot and will not know the mind of God. Consequently, they are least likely to attempt to colonize, to prosletyze, to evangelize and to convert others to their faith.
That approach is at least respectful of the human separation from God, and maintains the humble assumption that, while we work to interpret that mind, we will never completly unlock it mysteries.
Like the Darwinian aproach to Origin of Species, which has never attempted to deny or to reject God or something called creation, and is not incompatible with Genesis, the eventual surmounting of the manichean duality of "good" (sacred) from "evil" (secular) can only bring about a more full appreciation of the ambiguity and the mystery and the mixing of these elements into a human perspective that brings the divine to earth and joins it with the secular things....and when one contemplates bringing the sacred onto Wall Street, for example, one smiles at the potential for limiting greed, as one does when one brings the sacred perception of life to the battlefield, where in the name of something much less than sacred, we kill others to impose our human, secural wills.
To be continued....