Reading the Sacred in Christianity

The word sacred is a commonplace in Christianity. It infuses both language and worship itself. In Catholic Christianity, a cult of worship of the Sacred Heart of Jesus developed which had its origins in mediaeval German mysticism and which was fiercely attacked by the Jansenists.255 In words which, from the comparative perspective though not of course in terms of content, seem to echo the mediaeval Islamic debates about the nature and union of the attributes of God - were they an identical, intrinsic and essential aspect of the Deity or separate in some respect?256

- Pope Pius VI (reg. 1775-99) responded to the Jansenists: he underlined the utter sacredness of the Heart of Jesus, declaring that it was 'not separated or dissolved from the Godhead' (cum separatione vel praecisione a divinitate) but rather adored as 'the heart of the Person of the Word, with which it is inseparably united' (cor personae Verbi, cui inseparabiliter unitum est).257

A casual glance at one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Gravis-simum Educationis (The Declaration on Christian Education), makes reference to 'the sacred ecumenical Council',258 links 'the sacred sciences' and 'sacred learning' and 'sacred revelation' in one passage259 and concludes with reference to 'the sacred Synod'.260 Elsewhere, it is a commonplace to refer to 'Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture'.261 It is clear from all this that the word 'sacred' is susceptible of a great variety of applications.

A simple dictionary definition of 'sacred' has the following: 'Consecrated or held especially acceptable to a deity, dedicated or reserved or appropriated to some person or purpose; made holy by religious association, hallowed'.262

Examining the phenomena of world religions, Ninian Smart, in his magisterial volume Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs (1996), identifies a total of nine such dimensions: (1) the ritual or practical; (2) the doctrinal or philosophical; (3) the mythic or narrative; (4) the experiential or emotional; (5) the ethical or legal; (6) the organisational or social; (7) the material or artistic; (8) the political; and (9) the economic.263 These categories, or dimensions as Smart preferred to call them, have as their natural focus and 'object' of worship (formal or informal, private or public) 'a holy, numinous Being' who is perceived to be the sole fount of holiness and, thus, salvation itself.264 The role of formal worship is inextricably bound up with the Sacred; indeed, changes to long-standing modes of formal worship in one Christian tradition or another have evoked in recent times a widespread fear of losing that which is perceived to be Sacred/sacred, either in the worship or in the Divine 'Object' of worship Itself.265

Ninian Smart concludes his 'taxonomy of the sacred'266 by noting that, while some aspects of the sacred continue to flourish, others (for example, the ritual aspect) are fading away, having lost their old powers to attract or compel. But Smart's is essentially a message of hope: those fading sacred dimensions are being replaced by other, stronger ones, among which he notes the experiential.267

Ninian Smart's work both complements that of Mircea Eliade and illustrates the great diversity of emphases among scholars in the general field of Religious Studies. Eliade's own preferred leitmotivs which we noted earlier were threefold: the idea of the sacred, the idea of death and resurrection, and the way in which man has degenerated spiritually over the course of history. For Eliade, the sacred was that which was not profane, although it manifested itself in a profane world. However, he perceived that there was a very real danger of degradation of the sacred.

It is not difficult to apply these concepts to some of the selected details which we viewed earlier of the phenomenon which is Christianity. This claims to be a divinely founded institution268 yet it has proved down the centuries to be only too capable of corruption and degradation. Under the iron rod of fallibility, the sacred may be transmuted into the profane, whether epitomised in a licentious Borgia pope,269 a politically weak Pope,270 a modern paedophile scandal271 or a mediaeval romance such as that of Heloise and Abelard.272 The world of late antiquity, inhabited by an Arius or an Augustine, was no more naturally inclined to moral or other perfection as a whole than is the secular world inhabited by contemporary Christianity. Certainly, then as now, it had its sacred spaces and places.273 Then as now, it had its voids and moral vacuums. John O'Meara neatly notes that 'the practical problem with which Augustine had to deal was the problem of a spiritual Church in a secular world: the city of God in the city of this world'.274 Earlier, he observed:

And yet, when Augustine was writing the City of God, his confident reading of the future cannot have seemed so justified to many of his contemporaries as it is to us now. The prospects of Christianity in the first quarter of the fifth century may have seemed bright, but we tend to forget that until that time the Church's history had been one, for the most part, of bare toleration and frequent persecution. Within Augustine's own lifetime there had been the pagan reaction under Julian the Apostate (361-363 A.D.). Even in the fifth century pagans had not lost all countenance. Again, the decline of the powerful and closely integrated Empire of Rome, evident to all and admitted by Augustine, must have struck its citizens with a chill as great as that which affects in our day the loosely and vaguely associated West.275

This Eliadean motif, where the Profane is the opposite or downside (or even logical successor, in terms of degradation or degeneration) of the Sacred will strike a powerful comparative chord in any student of the great North African historian and proto-sociologist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), with his cyclical theory of history according to which, 'simplistically and crudely [stated], a nomad tribe struggles to achieve urban power, becomes corrupt and luxurious after a few generations having achieved that power, and is in turn overthrown by a rising and less effete tribe'.276 Sacred authority, or authority which should be held as sacred, becomes degraded, corrupt and profane, and a worthier, purer, more 'sacred' power rises to prominence. As Ibn Khaldun himself put it:

The (passing) days get the upper hand over the original group (in power). Their prowess disappears as the result of senility. (The duties of) the dynasty make them soft. Time feasts on them, as their energy is exhausted by well-being and their vigour drained by the nature of luxury ... At that moment, the group feeling ['asabiyya] of other people (within the same nation) is strong . Their superiority is recognized, and, therefore, no one disputes (their claim to royal authority). They seize power.277

Other exemplars of this sort of paradigm are to be discovered in Western Christian Church history: the sack of Rome by imperial troops on 6 May 1527 and the subsequent flight of Pope Clement VII (reg. 1523-34) to the Castel Sant'Angelo and then Orvieto, placed the papacy at the feet of the Emperor Charles V: 'As for the city, the sack was rightly seen at the time as the end of a great age. The Rome of the Renaissance was no more.'278 Thus did a sacred city yield to a profane invasion; and a series of sometimes weak and sometimes licentious papal despots,279 representatives par excellence of the Sacred on earth - albeit armed and endowed with much land and wealth - capitulate in the face of secular armed might. The arena of the Sacred became that of the Profane.

Of course, one should not paint too stark or total a contrast between these two categories in an effort to fit an elemental Eliadean paradigm. The Sacred and the Profane mingled freely in the papal courts long before the 1527 Sack of Rome, in terms of licence, wealth, lands, armies and power.280 What the Sack of Rome can do, however, is provide the historian with useful, albeit flawed, evidence of an epistemic break, to use a phrase beloved of Michel Foucault.

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