A few years ago I was asked to write about something sacred as a writing exercise. I immediately knew I would be writing about the Magnolia Tree in Reynolda Gardens where I used to hang out when I was a teen. I would climb high in the branches of the tree, and spy on people, or read, or just sit. Later, after my conversion to Christianity, I spent many hours with God while sitting on the thick branches of that tree. I would read my Bible and pray, all the while sitting high above the gardens. The leafy branches hid me from other people, and it was one place where I felt I could meet God in total privacy.
Even though I have not climbed the tree in decades (there is now a barrier at the trunk so no one can climb it) it is still one of the most sacred places in the world to me.
I was thinking about sacred things because The Redhead and I have been listening to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind on our trip. He makes the case that liberals are deficit in their understanding and appreciation for the sacred in life. While I think he is on to something, I don’t think he has a full appreciation for what can be sacred. I remember having a discussion with someone about drilling in ANWR (the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, for those who are not up on Alaska politics.) I am neither for or against it, but the person I was talking to was definitely against it. The problem I had with the discussion was that he knew almost nothing about it. “Did you know that ANWR was 19 million acres?” He did not. “Do you know how big 19 million acres is? It is the size of the state of South Carolina.” He did not know that. “Did you know that the footprint of the drilling facility will be roughy the equivalent of a postage stamp on a football field?” He did not know that either.
He agreed that one could feasibly drill there without doing a lot of damage to the tundra and its flora and fauna, but he was still opposed. “It would desecrate the land,” he finally said, his only argument. To him the pristine tundra was sacred, a holy place, and putting an oil drilling facility there would be like putting a toilet on the alter of a church.
As a pastor, I am in the business of the sacred. But what is considered sacred, even in the context of the Church, is not always clear, nor is it always obvious. I have seen parlors, lecterns, paintings, trees, buildings, people and countless traditions all serve as sacred objects during my time in the parish. A more hardline Christian than myself might say these were all idols, but if I spent ten minutes with that hardline Christian, I am pretty sure I could identify some strange sacred objects in his life.
I can understand the liberal backlash against the sacred. An egalitarian faith has little room for sacred objects. What makes this building any more sacred than that, this liturgy and more sacred than that, this tradition any more sacred than that? What makes any one thing any more sacred than any other thing?
There are two problems with this. First, most people are really not able to hold all things or all people equal in their own heads, and when they clam to do so, they are deluding themselves. The man who argued for the sanctity of ANWR would never admit that a piece of land was sacred, and yet to him, it was. That’s when we get the “unbigoted” liberal who has some pretty vicious stereotypes of conservatives, and who refused to admit they are stereotypes.
Second, not everything IS equal. Some things are sacred. Some of those things that are sacred are intensely personal, like MY magnolia tree. I don’t know, or care whether anyone else sees that as a sacred tree. I do, that that is what counts in this case. But there are corporate, sacred places, “thin places,” where the divine leaks into the ordinary. There are sacred times, when the eternal leaks into the temporary. These are semi-personal places. I can recognize that the Dome of the Rock is a sacred place, even though it has little to do with my framework of the holy, but not everyone will. I can feel the sanctity of an Orthodox altar, even though I am not Orthodox. In these semi-personal spaces, there are a host of people who see the sanctity, but that is not a universal sentiment.
Maybe the ability to see the sacred is something we develop over time, or maybe it is a sense that some have, but others do not. I know many Christians who have little appreciation for the sacred, so it is not limited to people who identify as religious. Sometimes I wonder if it is some sort of divine handicap, kind of like Jacob’s limp after wrestling with God. There are times when I feel like I am the only person who can smell the funny odor in the room, and everyone else is wondering why it was bothering me.