In a previous post a commenter named Query asks a question. Is it possible, Query wonders, for there to be a phenomenon of the sacred in the modern world? After all, the notion of the sacred with which we are most familiar involves a universal commitment to a single, unique characterization of the good. Even if this universal commitment was never actually achieved, the claim to it nevertheless stood as a motivating norm in the culture. The monotheistic notion of the sacred that was evident in the pre-modern age stands as our model for the phenomenon. But in today’s more liberal world a universal claim to the single right way of living a life seems more like fanaticism than anything else. So what notion of the sacred is available today?
The answer, naturally, must depend upon what one means by the “sacred”. The definition I prefer is related to one that Nietzsche proposes. Nietzsche says that the sacred is whatever it is in a culture at which one cannot laugh. It seems to me obvious that there is no single practice or set of practices in our culture – and in general no single way of living a life – at which the majority of the culture agrees one cannot laugh. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to me there is the demand in the culture that there should be such a single right way to live. Quite the opposite. The demand in the culture instead, it seems to me, is the demand to recognize that even those who do not share your way of life might nevertheless be living lives worthy of your admiration. This is a dramatic departure from, say, life in the Middle Ages, and this is at least one sense in which God is dead. (It is related to what Charles Taylor identifies as the kernel commitment of our Secular Age.) In short, there is no universal agreement about – or even demand for universal agreement about – what the basic social practices are on the basis of which one can live a life.
That said, it doesn’t mean that we can’t, at times, have the experience of the meanings in a situation being – at least for a time – completely genuine and real. And this experience need not be an illusion; it might get the situation absolutely right. There are, after all, moments in a life when it is completely and absolutely clear how one must go on. One finds this kind of certainty often, for example, among masters working within their domain of mastery. The pianist who forges ahead with confidence in his performance of the piece, and who is convincing in his interpretation in part because of this confidence, is not always bluffing. The skilled carpenter or writer or philosopher or surgeon may recognize genuine distinctions of worth in a situation. And just because those without his skill cannot recognize these distinctions doesn’t mean that he hasn’t revealed something really there. This kind of mastery is hard won, of course. And it is in no way universal. There may well be a whole panoply of genuinely good ways to go on in a domain. But that doesn’t mean that each of them is not genuinely good. The sacred is multiple when we achieve it in this fashion.
There are other ways to experience a kind of certainty as well. When experiencing the greatness of another – a great athlete or performer or speaker – one sometimes finds oneself rising as one with the crowd in spontaneous celebration of the greatness of the act. In moments like this it is absolutely certain how to go on as well. This is not always a good thing. Presumably the participants in a 1930s-style fascist rally had this sense of certainty, and we are right in recognizing the need to reject their commitment. But just because it is not always a good thing doesn’t mean it is always a bad thing. If the crowds gathered around Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Mall in Washington D.C. had not been taken over by the power of his rhetoric, the world we be a poorer place today. So we need a skill for recognizing the distinction between those situations in which it is appropriate to allow oneself to be swept up by the perceived greatness of an event, and those situations in which it is not. And what counts as genuinely great will always be tied to the particularities of the social situation at the time. But again, the fact that we can be deceived about this kind of greatness, and the fact that it is only local and situational instead of universal and atemporal, in no way dilutes the kind of certainty that it generates in those situations when it’s the genuine thing.
So yes, there is a phenomenon of the sacred available now. It is hard-won through the development of genuine skills in a domain, or it is easy to come by (but dangerous) in the social recognition of those skills in another. But in either case it is situational and temporary and multiple – a polytheistic notion of the sacred of the sort that both Homer and Melville called us to. But for all of that it is no less real. And for all that it is something worth aspiring to.