As I have tried to unpack my concept of education and the sacred, I realized that I must define what I mean by the sacred. This is something I am still in the process of thinking through, so the following is certainly no more than a working definition, but it is the best I’ve got at the present. Please feel free to comment and let me know where it needs clarification.
First, let me say that the concept I am defining as ‘sacred’ comes from my readings of many people from many different fields: theology, sociology, education, public sphere theory, curriculum theory, philosophy, the philosophy of moral education, etc. As it is a work in progress (and given the fact that I am reading more and more in this vein all the time), you will forgive me if it sounds like it is either too shallow or too convoluted. It more than likely is.
I am using the term “sacred” to describe the sense of a culture, nation, and/or people group’s overarching, meta-narrative; that is, to use the work of Neil Postman, the grand Story a culture is telling about itself through ways that would be apparent to an outside observer (my ubiquitous “Martian” watching us from the perspective of the unnattached cultural anthropologist . This narrative is revealed in many ways: how its adherents spend their time, money, and resources; how and to what end they employ language and rhetoric; what are its dominant ideologies and structures of power, etc.; in short, to borrow from Walter Wink, what is the “interiority” behind the visible facade of things. This narrative of the sacred is revealed by many things: its architecture, rituals, public gathering spaces, uses of smaller narratives to support the larger, meta-narrative, and so on.
Let me give a few examples that may help to clarify: for the ancient Athenians, the polis (or city) was the center of their sacred narrative. According to Alasdair MacIntyre (in his great book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition) the Athenian polis as Aristotle conceived it, was a community in which men in company pursue the human good, rather than the private good of the individual. This shared sense of virtue (arete) lived out in practice with each other was the common narrative that bound together each strand of Athenian life, from the marketplace to the theater, from Plato’s Academia, to its vision of democracy for all people (excluding women and slaves, of course). This narrative was vastly different from what Sparta held as sacred (military power, war ethos), that defined its theory of education, social system, culture, architecture, etc. Nazi Germany, with its vision of a glorified resurgence of the “Fatherland” as testified to by its rhetoric, use of public spaces, education into the Hitler Youth, war machine, propaganda etc., is another bold example of a nation’s clearly defined sense of the “sacred.”
As you can see, I am not using the term sacred to denote solely a religious belief. Rather, I am folding religion into what a nation/people group hold as sacred. Certainly religion plays a role, but it is not the only one. The sacred as I use it, to return to Walter Wink, is the inner essence of a grand narrative shaped around a collective sense of purpose, meaning, value, etc. made manifest through such things as economics, politics, religion, education, family, norms, mores, rhetoric, power structures, etc. Indeed, the list may be endless. The key, then, is that a people group as a collective adhere to its practices, regardless of their own personally held beliefs. There may be Baptists, Muslims, Democrats, and homosexuals living within the narrative, but, no matter how different their individual narratives may be, those smaller narratives are ultimately shaped by the larger narrative at play. This is why I use the Martian metaphor; it is often difficult for fish to know the water in which they swim.
For my work, I will continue to tinker, tighten, and explore this definition of the sacred. The bigger question I am concerned with is, once we identify what our shared sense of the sacred is, what next? If we come to find out that what we hold as “sacred” is not really sacred (that is, worthy of respect, devotion, and awe) what then? The answer lies in the role of the lonely prophet, the one who stands within the sacred, critiquing it on its own merits, in order to ultimately redeem it back to its true and rightful purpose.