The Sacred

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.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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11 Responses to The Sacred

  1. Morphidae says:

    So, I’m curious. How is saying “the “unbigoted” liberal who has some pretty vicious stereotypes of conservatives” different than “that liberals are deficit in their understanding and appreciation for the sacred in life. While I think he is on to something…” Aren’t both stereotyping?

    • tmrichmond3 says:

      First, let me say that I am a liberal. Second, in my experience working in legislatures, with politicians, and with politicos, there IS a deficit. And I was working with the most conservative of liberals. I have had this conversation with many of my co-workers who felt (and said) that my faith was the one thing about me they could not understand.

      That said, Conservative piety is more a sentimental affair.

      Stereotyped? Somewhat, but a stereotype that is based on years of experience working with both groups.

  2. Morphidae says:

    I guess it depends on your location or community. The liberals here in Minnesota are rather different. Also many of the liberals I know personally are Pagan who find the sacred in most everything, as do I, including places of other faiths.

    • tmrichmond3 says:

      For some reason I cannot approve this comment. It’s not that I don’t want to. I am new to this and it is not working like it did before!!!

      Sent from my iPhone

    • tmrichmond3 says:

      I am not saying that being a liberal who is willing to base moral decisions on the sacred is impossible, or oxymoronic. But for the most part, it is a very privatized part of one’s life, and not one that tends to influence liberal politics.

      I know some conservatives who vote Democratic, and some liberals who vote Republican. I know some conservatives who are almost greenies, and some liberals who are gun nuts. It is a broad canvas.

      But on the whole, most liberals do not say, “I support this policy because it jibes with my understanding of the sacred.”

  3. Morphidae says:

    I don’t equate sacred with religion or rather, not everything religious is sacred nor is everything sacred, religious. But then, I don’t believe religion belongs in politics. Politics and the law are supposed to be for ALL people and people are not all of the same religion.

    P.S. I hope you can figure out the comment thing! Maybe this one will work.

    • tmrichmond3 says:

      I do not equate them, but neither do I separate them. For some, the sacred is what they find in their religion. For others, religion is the last place they find anything sacred. If we ban religion from politics, then we should be just as strict with the sacred in all its forms.

  4. Morphidae says:

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the last sentence. I’m talking about things like banning gay marriage because it’s against the rules in the Christian Bible. But not everyone in the US is Christian (or rather of a Christian denomination that doesn’t believe in gay marriage). Laws shouldn’t be based on one religion’s rules. It’s not fair.

    • tmrichmond3 says:

      YOU may be talking about banning same sex marriage , but I am not. No personal commitment to the sacred, religious or otherwise, trumps the constitution.

      For me, my commitment to the sacred leads me to a form of environmentalism, a commitment to social justice, and to the betterment of all people’s, economically, physically, socially and spiritually.

      As long as people only see LGBT issues when the topic of politics and religion comes up, it will always be an artificial, non-constructive and limited argument. If we can move beyond that we can have a fruitful discussion.

      • Morphidae says:

        I was using it as an example only. It was the first one that came to mind. I can come up with others – abortion, capital punishment, school prayer, prayer before government meetings, various medical things. Many religious politicians think that their religion trumps the constitution or law or only see it through the lens of their religion.

        I’m not saying that you do. I know you don’t. I like how you describe how your sacred affects your politics.

        I guess my issue is the feeling that somehow liberals are somehow “lesser than” because they aren’t vocal about or don’t base their politics on their religion. I don’t think you need to have a religious basis to have a commitment to “environmentalism, a commitment to social justice, and to the betterment of all people’s, economically, physically, socially and spiritually.” I know I have that commitment and have no religious affiliation. Rather it’s based on compassion for others.

  5. Morphidae says:

    Please know that I NEVER discuss politics with anyone but my husband. I don’t like debating or arguing about it. It’s just that I trust you to be kind, so I’m putting myself out there.

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