Friday, August 03, 2007

Beginnings: Providing the Theoretical Framework

The title of this blog may be more than a little misleading. More on what I mean when I say "between the sacred and the holy" in a moment, but I should talk about what I mean when I say that these postings will be "thoughts on war." I am not referring to the Iraq War, nor any other war, current or historical. I am not even referring to a more abstract definition of war, which would be something like "armed fighting between groups." When I say war I mean the struggle we are all in to understand the world around us. We are in a constant engagement to comprehend, clarify, and define mysterious phenomena we encounter every day. This is a war to the extent that it is a struggle, a fight, a confrontation, a crusade to infuse meaning into the world in which we live. We usually use familiar categories (to employ Immanuel Kant's philosophy) to engage in this struggle. For example, in order to understand politics we commonly utilize the political party with which we are affiliated as a type of lens or filter through which we break down complicated political issues to an understandable level. Or, we'll use instiutionalized religion, like a church or denomination, or a particular religious philosophy in order to understand sacred symbols and the place of the divine. These are useful tools to aid our understanding, and in fact are completely unaviodable and indispensable; we cannot seem to think or reflect on anything without some sort of category through which we can filter and simplify an extremely complex and chaotic world. But even these categories do not totally allow us to escape the violence associated with understanding. Part of what it means to understand is to struggle and wrestle and sweat over an an issue or event, and this is partly what I mean by the violence of understanding. But the other part involves the "everlastingness" of this struggle, the realization that we can never come to the end of it for we can never contain a world that is constantly becoming something else in each moment. This is also a violence with which we have to engage. Paradoxically, at the same time there is a kind of supreme joy associated with this never-ending struggle, because the epistemologically unterminable nature of reality means that we are always engaged in the adventure of new understanding and insight. In an important way, the mere fact that we can struggle for understanding emphasizes the exhiliration of an existence that is never static and immobile. The tension between these two extremes and our efforts to reconcile them is what I call war.

This brings us to my notions of the sacred and holy. Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas engage in a debate about the sacred and the holy and the difference between the two, but my definition here is not nearly so complex (or profound). I'll begin with the sacred.

What is sacredness? Sacredness is that which is dedicated (or something toward which one is dedicated) and that which is considered worship-worthy. Most people immediately think of a religious institution or practice but I am thinking of the word in a slightly different way. That which is sacred is that which addresses us (anyone familiar with Martin Buber's philosophy will see similarities). That which addresses us is that toward which we place our attention or that toward which we position ourselves. What is it that addresses us? Everything within my world addresses me, inanimate objects, abstract concepts, but especially people. I am being addressed by these things whether these things are consciously doing so or not. I know this because I attitudinally address these things in return, I respond to them. Even ignoring them is a response, a form of address. Now the question is, do I worship these things? After all, I am being addressed by everything in my world and anything that addresses me is sacred. And anythng that is sacred is worship-worthy and dedicated by me. To ask this question is to misunderstand the concept. I don't perform ritual venerations (like prayer or lighting candles, or kneeling in awe) toward that which addresses me, toward the sacred, but I do attitudinally position and devote myself in relation to that which addresses me. My devotion may be quite small, possibly even almost non-existent, but each time I address that which addresses me (and again, this could even be consciously ignoring) I am devoting myself to the addressee. The more respect and attention I pay to the addressee, the greater my worship toward the addressee. But in some sense, to respond to that which addresses me, the sacred, is to engage in a kind of worship, though obviously in a different way than the ritual veneration of a deity.
What is the holy? The Holy is derivative of and co-extensive with the sacred but not identical with it. While everything in my world is sacred (I am addressed by everything and I address everything in return) not everything is holy. I will define that which is holy as that which I consecrate, that which I consciously declare as special and set apart from other sacred things. That with which my entire being is engaged is holy. My worship involving the holy is all-consuming, my act of addressing, total. This is my personal conquest of the sacred, that which becomes mine, and that for which I will sacrifice, suffer and even die. Thus, the holy is "the most sacred" of the sacred world that addresses me.
Now, how do we put this all together? To be as concise as possible in summary I want to say that the world addresses me and I respond in turn. My attitudinal position toward the world makes the world, all that addresses me, sacred, all objects, people, concepts, everything to which I am capable of response. This is because it is worship-worthy, and it is worship-worthy because I address it, and in that sense, I am engaged in worship. Once I am aware of the sacredness of reality (including my own sacredness) I tend to respect and revere (address) that which addresses me. But some things I do more than address. Some things I adore in such a way that they become consecrated (I want to say that this mostly happens with people in the form of relationships with them). Consecrated addressees are holy, my attitudinal response toward them is at its greatest capacity, my worship of them is total. In that moment of consecration that thing becomes mine, in such a way that I will suffer and die for it if necessary so total is my devotion. What this can prompt us to understand is that everything in our world is sacred, even that which is evil. Now, just so I can be clear about this, this doesn't speak to putting that which is evil on the same qualitative existential level as that which is good (Serial killers as the equal of children, for example). What it is speaking to is my capacity to be addressed and to address in return, my cognitive awareness of both serial killers and children. Serial killers are not sacred per se. Serial killers are a component of the sacred world that can address me (Conversely, if I dispatch of a serial killer I am not killing something that is sacred qua sacred). The goal here is to position oneself in such a way that the conscious awareness of the sacredness of our worlds (our personal worlds) invites us to respond to that which calls (addresses us) in a more serious, reflective way, and consecrate our struggle to understand it. In consecrating something we devote ourselves entirely to it and our worship of it is complete, though our understanding is not. This struggle to consecrate and make our world holy is war.
Now, two things, first on worship then on holiness. I hope it is clear (though it is probably not) that what I have written about worship is vastly different from conventional notions of worship. Worship in the case of the sacred world is not grovelling, obeisance, or anything of the sort. I am not saying that we are venerating the world and giving undue reverence to trees over whatever God we believe in. Worshipping is simply addressing the sacred as sacred. However, worship begins to approach conventional definitions when it approaches the holy. That is because we can consecrate nearly anything. If I have an expensive boat for example and I wash it and paint it and use it and spend more time with it than anything else than I am devoting myself to it and it becomes more than an addressor from the sacred world, it becomes my sole object of devotion, that for which I will bleed and die. We can consecrate things that should not be consecrated. Conversely, I can consecrate my wife and position myself in total devotion to her so that she, though sacred, becomes holy to me.
On this blog, I will comment on many subjects. My goal is to treat them as sacred and approach them in such a way that they can be consecrated as holy. Once again, I don't mean sacred or holy in the conventional sense, I mean that they are subjects that address me and I am attempting to respond in turn. I hope others will treat them likewise. The awareness of the sacred nature of the world we live in prompts us to position ourselves in such a way that we can begin to understand complex and important concepts. The struggle to consecrate them as holy, the battle to wade through the violence of misunderstanding, is war.

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