Survey of The Sacred (Girardian)

There are a lot of ideas about what the profoundly meaning-filled word ‘sacred’ signifies.

In the time-honoured way of all researchers, I googled “sacred to me” and came up with this compilation:

  • “The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as Emile Durkheim pointed out, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged” – written by an atheist
  • “I learned a paradigm of the world and where I fit into it.  This paradigm can be summarized with two seemingly benign words – ‘Be good.’   Being good was a sacred act!” – a Non-Violent Communication advocate
  • “a new definition of sacredness: Connecting with my heart and its feelings and needs in each moment; Connecting deeply with others knowing that both pain and growth will result; Honoring my free will, not the false demands of the world; Valuing honesty and openness in asking for what I need, when I need it ; Seeing the world through a lens of discovery and fascination, not good and bad; And letting go at all costs” (ibid)
  • “Sacred things (and love) require you be sacrificed for them (literally or not).  Start believing in God and then get ready to pay any price for Him. Sacrifice your will, your comfort, etc, etc to His will as given in the Bible.” — Anonymous answer on Yahoo! Answers
  • No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my own constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “my testimony, the scriptures, and the covenants I make with God“; my body, family, the search for truth; “Every thing is sacred as everything is a reflection of sacred self”;  Love; God; “Life. Because God is there and everywhere. Reverence to all that exists is most sacred.” — Yahoo! Answers India

In other words, based on this random and tiny survey, sacredness is found mainly in two places: in the transcendent, in that which is seen as bigger than the self and not wholly within the control of the self, such as God, relationships, community, family, creation and nature; and in the true, in what is seen as good, right, pure, authentic.

I’ve written about this topic before, quoting extensively from James Alison. This entry is an attempt to do a somewhat more thorough survey of what ‘sacred’ means in a Girardian context, which most matches my experience of it.

From a Girardian perspective, Solzhenitsyn seems to have it down cold:

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good… Ideology — that is what gives devil-doing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes.” — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

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Here are some excepts concerning ‘the sacred’ from various Girardians. (The second section is me paraphrasing.)

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>> Violence is attributed to God, hence sacred

“Girard helps us to see that conceptions of the sacred are based on violence  turned on scapegoats, then attributed to God. This is sacred violence.  For him, the revelation of the true God involves exposing the  falsehood of sacred violence. … Sacred violence is not from God, but simply ‘human beings attacking one another.'” (Ted Grismund, in “Scapegoating No More” in Violence Renounced, ed. Willard Swartley.)

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>> “At the heart of the surrogate victim mechanism [i.e scapegoating] is the sacred.”

We experience a sense of sacredness just as we are about to scapegoat, i.e., to  sacrifice another for a perceived common good: we know we are justified in whatever we do because it will bring peace to the community, and peace is an unimpeachable good; not only does the community experience peace but so do the individual scapegoaters, comforted in our own souls by the very process of scapegoating — which is seen by us as conflict resolution and peace-making — knowing we are doing good, bringing about a better world, warding off devastating violence and destruction.

Scapegoating is also felt as sacred after the act, when we look on the one who has been scapegoated, who is after all, in their (literal or figurative) death, the “bearer of peace, a sacred figure, even a god.The dead victim has power that is bigger and more mysterious than the community’s power, because it was only through that death that the community could be united.

Sacrifice is seen as a non-violent, or less violent, or justifiably violent, way to keep the community from worse violence. We make a solid distinction between sacred violence and profane violence, though they are really one and the same — they’re equally violence; but we perceive them to be completely different from each other and in fact we are very attached to the distinction we make between these violences.

“Human beings know very well that they cannot master mimetic rivalries by their own powers. That is why they attribute this mastery to their victims, whom they take for gods.” — I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), René Girard

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>> Violence is the secret soul of the sacred.

In Violence and the Sacred (1977),  Girard says that

“The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man’s effort to master them.”

Far outranking tempests and other natural disasters, and less obviously, “stands human violence —  violence seen as something exterior to man and henceforth as a part of all the other outside forces that threaten mankind. Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred.”

In other words, I think, we see violence as sacred, because we can’t as a culture (or as individuals) control it.

We also see violence as external to us, not inherent to us, just as we see those scary and wonderful storms of nature that we are powerless to stop.

This perception sets us up to view the scapegoat as sacred, too, because the scapegoat can stop the violence that we are powerless over. Similarly, religion is sacred, because it keeps a check on all-against-all violence using myth, ritual and prohibition.

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>> Violence forms the basis of the sacred:

“Like other cultural theorists, Girard sees violence as an irreducible force in human affairs, but goes further, claiming for it a protean role in the formation of ritual, myth and prohibition, the triad that defines the dynamics of the sacred.” (p. 5, Reverberations of Guilt and Violence, Resonances of Peace, 2002, by Mitchell B. Merback)

Where there is ritual, myth or story, and prohibitions or taboos, there you will find the sacred. Perhaps not in a traditionally religious way, but in the sense of that which is seen as transcendent, as meaning-giving, as a way to elevate the self and justify one’s actions in the service of good.

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>> Sacred mechanisms fortify us against truth

James Alison talks about The Time of Abel:

“The time in which the innocent victim is made present to us as forgiveness, and thus, little by little, allows us to let go of all the sacred mechanisms of which we lay hold so as to fortify ourselves against our own truth. Of course, this process of letting go is violent, because we don’t let go easily, or at once. The problem is that, at every step of our removing the sacred, the desacralized element gets resacralized, but under a different form, opposed to the previous sacralization, and we think that, at last, we have managed to set ourselves free from the sacred.”

Throughout history, like a pendulum swinging, “when the empire is desacralized, the Church is sacralized in its stead, when the Church is desacralized, the conscience is sacralized, and so on.”

(Alison optimistically says that Jews  are no longer seen as a threat, but that’s probably not true. See part ii here.)

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>> The sacred is violence.

Preaching Peace talks about a process that Girard calls the sacralization of the victim.

Quoting from Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Girard):

“To understand human culture it is necessary to concede that only the damming of mimetic forces by means of the prohibition and the diversion of these forces in the direction of ritual are capable of spreading and perpetuating the reconciliatory effect of the surrogate victim.

“Religion is nothing other than this immense effort to keep the peace. The sacred is violence, but if religious man worships violence it is only insofar as the worship of violence is supposed to bring peace; religion is entirely concerned with peace, but the means it has of bringing it about are never free of sacrificial violence.”

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>> The Sacred and Sacrifice

Eric Gans explains the relationships between sacrifice and ‘making sacred’:

“The word sacrifice contains within itself the paradox of culture. Etymologically [and also in common usage] to make sacred (sacer + facio), it means both to renounce and to kill. Culture is about renouncing and making sacred, but it is also about killing in the service of these ends.

“In the originary scene, the central object of mimetic desire is renounced-as-sacred through being named-as-sacred by the sign that is the name-of-God; only once this mediating structure has been established can it be torn apart and eaten in the sparagmos.

In Latin, sacer has a number of meanings and connotations, including:
dedicated, consecrated, devoted, sacred; regarded with reverence, holy, awful, venerable; forfeited, accursed, given over; execrable, detestable, horrible, and infamous !

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>> The sacred center as satanic

For me, James’ Alison’s essay after 9/11 is the clearest explanation of ‘the sacred center’ and its violent destruction that I have read. Some of it:

Speaking of the events of 9/11/2001:

“Some brothers of ours committed simple acts of suicide with significant collateral murder, meaning nothing at all. There is no meaning to the act of destruction caused by hijacking planes full of people and crashing them into buildings. It is not an act creative of anything at all, any more than any other suicide is a creative act.

“But immediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. … An already mimetic center [the places chosen to destroy were iconic places symbolic of power and wealth] on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.”  …

“And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. … It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. The de facto President fumbling at first, a moment of genuinely humble, banal, humanity, then getting his High Priestly act together by preaching revenge at an Episcopal Eucharist. The Queen “getting right” what she “got wrong” last time there was a similar outbreak of sacred contagion around an iconic cadaver, by having the American National Anthem played at Buckingham Palace.

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like “to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.” …

“And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.

“… We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic. When we are baptized, we, or our Godparents on our behalf, renounce Satan and all his vain pomps and empty works. And here we were, sorely tempted at least to find ourselves being sucked up into believing in just such an empty work and pomp. A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.”

This is what the sacred, in a Girardian sense, does: it leaves us prey to revenge and violence, our judgment clouded by our own sense of righteousness.

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>> The sacred and apocalyptic violence

Paul Nuechterlein has a whole essay on sacralising violence to help understand a Girardian explanation of apocalyptic violence.

Some of it:

“Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence.
A sacrificial crisis, in the Girardian parley, occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence also loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimate sacred violence.

“But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (In the above quote from Girard, he suggests that the humanists think they invented desacralization on their own, but, from a Girardian perspective, it is actually due to the continuing work of the Paraclete in history.) … Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of Sacred violence.


“Enlightenment humanism [has a] tendency to desacralize and then take the credit for it. When we desacralize our perspectives, according to this view, it is simply because we are finally a more enlightened humanity. We’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence?

“Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization (which they typically claim as their own truth). But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. They are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods. But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative? … The divine solution recognizes that sacred violence cannot be overthrown by more sacred violence. Rather, God’s answer is the power of forgiveness and sanctification in the face of the powers and principalities of violence.

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>> Role of Christian church: De-sacralise

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled (1995), talking about how the role of the Christian church is to de-sacralise:

“Perhaps the anthropological role of the Christian church in human history might be oversimplified as follows: To undermine the structures of sacred violence by making it impossible to forget how Jesus died and to show the world how to live without such structures by making it impossible to forget how Jesus lived. In both life and death, Jesus was opposed by the most respected institutions of his world. “

Interestingly, even as culture becomes desacralised, it manages to make sacred a new batch of victims whose perpetrators can then be demonised and scapegoated for being victimisers.

As Girard says in The Girard Reader (p.140, 142, quoted in Chris Fleming’s Rene Girard: Violence and Mimesis):

“Never before in history have people spent so much time throwing victims at one another’s heads as a substitute for weapons … We go on persecuting, but in our world everybody persecutes in the name of being against  persecution.”

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In sum, for Girardians the word sacred implies both an appeal to violence and a mechanism for enhancing one’s own being that is unimpeachable and justifiable by virtue of its association with a transcendent, ultra-powerful and authoritative  entity or idea.

One wonders if another word (such as holy) might be used to evoke God and the things of God (as it has been for centuries) without becoming a guise for justifiable violence — But of course it’s not the word itself that causes the sacrificial victimage mechanism but rather the underlying rivalry, conflict, and habit of making ‘peace’ through sacrifice that drives us to violence and to the need to mystify and veil it.

There’s much more to say about this — how cool and sacred are related, what might be going on in a culture where nothing is held as sacred (and what that really means — does sacred in some contexts simply mean valuable?),  irony vs. deconstruction relevant to sacrifice and the sacred, and so on — but now it’s time to move on to thoughts about Scandal and Taking Offense ! And the sun is coming out!

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