Posted on September 28th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Interfaith, Philosophy, Social Issues, Theology, Uncategorized
Tagged with blasphemy, ethics, holiness, Holy, innocence of muslims, Islam, profane, Protests, Sabbath, Scriptural Reasoning, the stone
I do not pretend to understand how an asinine video like "The Innocence of Muslims" can drive crowds to violent and even murderous anger. Many commentators insist that the ultimate cause is not religion, but, perhaps, local politics, Western imperialism, or other political grievances. Without denying the truth in these claims, my own suspicion is that the religious sense of profanation is an irreducible element of these conflicts. If many Muslims say they are angry because this video was blasphemous, a grave offense against the holiness of the prophet, then let puzzled Westerners reflect on the meaning of the holy, a concept that, for many Westerners, has largely fallen out of use.
I was therefore delighted to read Andrew March's recent blog post in the Stone that directly considers (from an explicitly secular perspective) the question: "What reasons do we have to censor ourselves (something we do all the time, and often for very good reasons) in how we speak about things other people hold sacred?"
March considers first the argument of the religious person, who insists that, "Blasphemy transgresses a boundary and violates the sacred." March, however, thinks it obvious that the purported sacredness of an object gives the person who does not consider it sacred "no reason at all" not to violate its sacredness. Instead, an obligation to respect someone else's sacred things has to arise in a roundabout way through some other liberal value. March considers a number of possibilities, most of which he concludes are ethically significant, but none of which necessarily trump an individual's interest in free expression: e.g. that we should respect the views of others, whatever they are; that blasphemy causes harm to others or to society; etc. What is holy to others is, as such, ethically irrelevant.
As a careful philosopher, March is quite explicit about the premises upon which this conclusion depends. In particular, he assumes that, "The 'sacred' is an object of human construction and thus the fact that something is called 'sacred' is insufficient itself to explain why all humans ought to respect it."
By asserting that it is (only) an "object of human construction," March evokes the radical Enlightenment's critique of religion: the sacred has been unmasked as a contingent human construction. By contrast, March's discussion of the religious person's argument implies that the religious person treats the category of "sacred" as a kind of real property inhering in religious objects, persons, and places.
In short, the religious person understands her judgment that x is sacred as objective, asserting a real property of a thing, while the secular person understands that it is merely subjective, relative to a particular person or tradition.
The actual phenomenon of the holy complicates this picture, at least as reported in the Bible (which I confess is more familiar to me than the Koran). On the one hand, the Bible often seems to treat holiness as a real property, just as March assumes. God is holy (and thus his name is not to be blasphemed). God's presence communicates holiness: because God dwells in the burning bush, Moses must take off his shoes; because God dwells in the temple, the whole host of ritual and purity obligations come into play. By the same token, to make sense of the temple's destruction (thus its profanation), the prophet Ezekiel pictures God's presence almost physically leaving the temple. Again, God makes the seventh day holy, and this holiness grounds the requirement to observe the Sabbath. These texts and many more testify to the objectivity of holiness.
But there is another paradigm happily coexisting with this one. Holiness depends on human actions to be holiness. It is not only God who sanctifies things: the Bible implies that human activity also makes things holy. Moses failed to "sanctify" God when he struck the rock at Meribah (Dt. 32:51). Moses can make objects holy (Lv 8:10 et al). The Ten Commandments require Israel to observe/remember the Sabbath "in order to sanctify it" or "to keep it holy," just as Ezekiel calls Sabbath observance "sanctifying" the day (Ez 20:20). Similarly, Israel is told to sanctify the Jubilee Year by observing its laws (Lv 25:10).
These are not just portrayed as responses to holiness; human action really constitutes holiness as holiness, such that human inaction genuinely threatens it. It is precisely because holiness depends on human action to be holiness that profanation is such a grave issue.
This duality between the objectivity and the subjectivity of holiness makes good sense of my own experience. A cathedral buzzing with tourists remains a grand and beautiful building; but when the building requires silence of those who enter, it becomes a holy space. Its holiness depends on our activity, but is not reducible to it. Similarly, a day of rest is refreshing and good; but when Friday is spent preparing, when the table is set and prayers said, when every Saturday one rests with one's household, it becomes a holy day. Again, oddly, while this holiness depends on our activity, it is not easily reducible to it. So it is no surprise to me that the Biblical tradition uses both the language of objectivity and the language of constructive activity to express the character of holiness.
This also helps make sense of another surprising fact: holiness can sometimes be communicated across religious traditions. We know, of course, that religious buildings have constantly been taken over and repurposed by different traditions. More striking is the fact that holy shrines and sanctuaries are sometimes shared by practitioners of the three Abrahamic faiths (and have been for centuries).
To speak from my own experience: when I visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, I took my shoes off and stayed silent. Without confessing the ultimate truth of Islam, my actions actually contributed to its holiness, not only for others but also for myself. Similarly, in the interfaith practice of Scriptural Reasoning, Jews, Christians, and Muslims read one another's Scriptures with the respect and attention with which they read their own. One of the curious effects is often that, without affirming that another's Scriptures are divine, participants still sometimes experience a bit of their holiness.
It may be that none of this must change the basic ethical posture of Westerners like March. But it does at least complicate his assumption that the sacred is a human construction from which no duty of respect may derive. For first, the Abrahamic traditions have always represented the holy as a social construction, but they have also insisted that these very social constructions point beyond themselves in such a way that prohibitions against profanation rightly emerge. Second, many people act as if what is holy to others may communicate some of this holiness without requiring commitment to the religious doctrines that seem to ground this holiness for others. And since in both these ways, the phenomenon of holiness is not as subjective as March believes, it remains possible that one could have some kind of responsibility not to profane what is holy to others.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.