Thinking about the sacred

It is not uncommon at this time of the year to find reflections on the sacred.  By chance, just after reading Hans Joas’ The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights, I read David Goldman’s essay in Standpoint , on what he calls New Nationalism.  Both deploy a concept of the sacred to drive their argument.[1]  This comparison is a methodological one, more than anything, between two accounts which have much in common but arrive at almost diametrically opposed conclusions.

The two essays have different contexts.  Joas’ book is a rigorous argument which emerged from previous work on values, and won him Le Prix Paul Ricoeur in 2017.[2]  Goldman’s short essay is for a magazine.  One is a piece of dense philosophy and the other journalism, albeit at the higher end.  One makes an argument about the individual and the other for the nation.  Their array of sources are not dissimilar – Augustine, the American Protestant colonists and the founding fathers, Weber, Heidegger.  Why are they then so far apart?

The sacred may be found in many places, or if one prefers, the sacred may trip us up when we least expect.  The sacred involves a concentration of feeling; Joas (p173) describes its characteristics as ‘subjective certainty, the sense of self-evidence and affective intensity’; Goldman as ‘that which endures beyond our lifetime and that of our children, the enduring characteristics which make us unique and distinguish us from the other peoples of the world, and which cannot be violated without destroying a sense of who we are’ (p. 28).  The difference between these two accounts is that Joas’ account is phenomenological – finding the nature of the sacred in our emotional reactions – whereas Goldman implies an ontological existence of the sacred.  This reverts back to a long argument and leads to starkly contrasting outcomes.

1511545785Joas’ question is about the genealogy of human rights.  How did we come to a global ethic which is not specific to any faith, and which has the capacity to transcend specific national borders?  And how did we come to apply this to cases where a human involved is not a reasoning person in any straightforward way, newborn children for instance or a dementia sufferer?  Much of the book counters previous narratives – anyone who has read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison will need to read Joas’ response, in which he argues that punishment precisely derives from a process of giving dignity to all humans through a process of inclusion, and led to increasing attempts to calibrate punishment to crime.

At heart of the argument is a reversal of an idea we find in Habermas, the linguistification of the sacred, by which Habermas intended the conversion of the concept of the sacred into a notion of rational discourse.[3]  Joas instead wants to speak, as did Durkheim, of the sacralisation of the person, the processes by which, over time, and without ever arriving at a final point, there has been a process of increasingly regarding the rights of the individual as attracting that sense of a concentration of feeling.  A test case is the movement towards the anti-slavery movement.  Joas argues that three elements led towards the success of this movement: the moral decentring which encouraged people to see the world from the perspective of others; the expansion of viewpoint which emerged from the breadth of trading relations, so that it became increasingly possible to see how one’s actions impacted on a wider world; and the capacity to see this in transnational terms so that advocacy was multiplied.  Whatever rational motivation may have also been at work, Joas urges us to recognise strong emotional or affective drivers, and the conditions under which they can be effectively universalized.

Joas is much concerned with writers who come from within the Christian tradition, but his is not an argument from Christianity.  His concern is to understand the kinds of arguments which writers such as Troeltsch or William James deployed, which are part of the emergence of this new conception.  Strikingly, he argues (p.140)  that ‘traditions … generate nothing.  What matters is how they are appropriated by contemporary actors in their specific circumstances and amid the field of tension in which they find themselves, made up of practices, values and institutions.’  The genealogy which brings about a recognition of human rights arises from an equal recognition of our history of violence, and is rooted in a recognition of the importance of the individual and an acknowledgement that we must always look to go further. ‘That which has binding force as a result of our history of violence must not symbolize a cultural triumphalism that makes human rights appear like a firmly established possession, one that demonstrates the superiority of one’s own culture’ (p.94).  In the face of the threat which Joas identifies (p.190) as ‘a new process of social self-sacralization through national, cultural or religious triumphalism’ Joas argues for a deep sensitivity to others, a mechanism of argumentation which can lead to mutual modification of value systems, and an institutional defence of access to this shared value system for all.

Now Joas would I think share Goldman’s concern that an entirely self-centred definition of identity is problematic, as well as a general sense of the significance of values, and Goldman refers to a remarkably similar set of American expressions of national identity, going back into early American colonial history.  They also both recognise the significant contribution of Hebrew thought, either for a strong concept of creation or for the significance of memory.  But they arrive at a completely different point.  Goldman claims that ‘democracy without an overarching sense of the sacred would be a nightmare’ (p.28); he states that without a continuity with the past we can have no vision of a future; DPp3R0cW0AU1Rf-he avers that the notion of the sacred in Britain rests in the monarchy and constitution, in America in a Protestant narrative of individual redemption.  Goldman’s claim is that what he describes as New Nationalism, whilst distinct and at times unclear, responds to a crisis of confidence over the definition of the sacred.  The sacred is what is needed to animate a national identity and overarching social contract, and will best be found in the Hebrew Bible.

It is in a sense unfair to compare an occasional piece of journalism in 2000 words with a prize-winning monograph by one of the world’s greatest thinkers, but it is also salutary to see specifically how Goldman’s argument has diverged.  There seem to me to be at least three key claims in Goldman’s argument:

  1. That tradition, in its most essential nature, is an active proponent of our future vision of ourselves;
  2. That the notion of the sacred is independently ascertainable and uniquely to be found through reference to the Bible;
  3. That the combination of building on tradition and respecting the sacred will lead us to a renewed national discourse.

In contrast, Joas seems to me to make three different claims

  1. That tradition is an important aspect of the field of tension in which we operate;
  2. That the sacred is identifiable through sacralisation and most effectively visible and incarnated in the practices of everyday life;
  3. That the combination of building on traditions and respecting that which has, by process of mutual agreement on values become sacralised, will lead us to a renewed universal discourse.

Neither Joas nor Goldman is above criticism; amongst other things both are somewhat weak and partial historians.  I do not find Joas entirely convincing on the abolitionist movement, the French revolution or the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and I find Goldman to be perverse in his analysis of the British constitution, the Catalan situation, and the rise of AfD in Germany.

Yet they offer a stark choice of critical relevance.  Stripped down, there is an evident attraction in the Goldman argument – it doesn’t require complicated equivocations, or even the optimism required to believe we can find shared ground for the generalization of values, let alone any moral imperative so to do.

But it also simplifies what is complex, reifies what is abstract, and defines our common life in an extraordinarily narrow manner.  Beneath this lies the danger of an abnegation of a wider responsibility, a turning away from a broader conversation, a refusal to risk a larger ambition, knowing that failure and compromise are probable and that we are culpable, in favour of setting the bar in a place where failure can always be laid at the feet of others, and symbols instead of realities constitute victories.  When Goldman criticises a definition of culture as a vague array of alleged national characteristics, he states that ‘we must isolate what is sacred in our culture from the merely contingent.’[4]  But what he ends up with is worse than contingent; it is a reduction of the directions for our way to the future to Biblical fundamentalism and the insufficiently historicised myth of the salvific nation-state.  This is a straightforward consequence of a methodologically weak argument.  It is a kind of argument which leads to the problematic nationalist arguments Goldman identifies; where we differ is that I think it will always lead to a flawed outcome.

Joas, by contrast, despite the apparently complicated argument and the huge unanswered questions, offers a roadmap which is far less reliant on unquestioned assumptions and weak distinctions.  In terms of method, it is by no means a final word, but it is the harder path, intellectually and historically.  Yet the goal is something which brings us together in the recognition of the sacralization of the individual, regardless of tradition, gender, race, or orthopraxy, and requires of us the attempt to be better than we were or are, whilst acknowledging the impossibility of our complete success.  There is of course a deeply Christian way of telling this story, but it is not the only way.  It is precisely because of the recognition that the way to the future must be multiple, aware of history but not shackled by it, and sharply attentive to and questioning of the choices we make, that Joas’ reading of the challenges we face is so much more hopeful, realistic and methodologically sound.

[1] H. Joas, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights, Washington 2013.  The German original was published in 2011.  For some reviews see Wolfsteller, Dorfman, Chernilo.  D. Goldman, ‘The West must restore a sense of the sacred,’ Standpoint Dec 2017/Jan 2018: 26-31,


[3] J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol 2, Boston 1987: 77-112.

[4] p.28, quoting from T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, ‘[The term culture] includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list. And then we have to face the strange idea that what is part of our culture is also a part of our lived religion.  We must not think of our culture as completely unified – my list above was designed to avoid that suggestion.’ On this, K. Asher, T. S. Eliot and Ideology, Cambridge, 1998: 93-4 is a more persuasive reading of a difficult passage.  Goldman truncates the quote, missing Eliot’s step towards a hierarchical notion of definitions of culture.

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