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Chapter Two


The Sacred and the Holy

             It can be argued that the root of religious experience is the sacred or the holy.  Remember our definition from the first lecture: Religion is a system of beliefs and practices directed toward that which is perceived to be sacred. What makes something sacred?

 The Concept of Sacred Power

            An object, person or place is considered to be sacred by virtue of a power it generates.  This power is perceived to be exceptional to the point of being different from everything that is familiar and commonly experienced by most humans.  Moreover, this power is not something that is easily controlled.  It is this power that creates for the sacred a special place and value of its own.

The Ambivalence of Sacred Power

            Perhaps because sacred power is not easily controlled, it creates a feeling of avoidance as well as attraction.  On the one hand, the power is so wonderful and awesome that one feels drawn to it.  Even though it is OTHER beyond what we are and know, we feel attracted to it with a sense of wonder, adoration, enthusiasm and amazement.  On the other hand, the power is so great and so different, that it instills a certain amount of fear within us. There is danger in this power:  Since it cannot be controlled or easily manipulated, there is a danger that we will be overwhelmed and consumed by it.

Part of the ambivalence of sacred power may be rooted in understandings of purity and defilement.  In contrast to the sacred which is powerful and pure, we are weak, unworthy and impure. In almost all religions there is a sense that the sacred represents a kind of purity that is distinct from the ordinary world. The sacred must therefore not be defiled by the ordinary and the ordinary cannot (at least without special precautions) contact the purity of the sacred.  Thus, in many traditions there are rituals that insure that one does not defile the sacred.

  •  In Islam,  it is required that one wash before entering the mosque for prayers.

  • Judaism forbids the speaking of the name of God.

  • Shinto requires a ritual washing before entering the sacred area of a shrine.

  • Ancient Israelite religion forbade people from entering the temple if they were ritually "unclean." 

All of these traditions are meant to prevent defilement not just of the sacred, but also to prevent purity from overwhelming and destroying the ordinary.