Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The "Sacred" . . .

In an earlier post, here, I made reference to Philip Rieff's use of the word "sacred," pointing out that it was not exactly what René Girard usually means by that word. Not exactly, but there are interconnections. Here is further elucidation.

Rieff performs a massive interpretive exploration of the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. He sometimes makes the reader work to keep up with his extraordinary insights, but it is worth the effort. The passage below contains references to ideas central to Rieff's larger project. I will not try to contextualize them here; I think -- and hope -- that the overall sense comes through despite the complexity. His reference to the university bears the hallmarks of the student unrest of the latter quarter of the 20th century during which Rieff was a university professor, making his remarks slightly -- only slightly -- anachronistic.  I have other minor quibbles with the quotation below, in general it is so bold and brilliant that I don't feel the need to let them interfere at this point.

Some will be put off by Rieff's apocalyptic tone, as some have been by René Girard's. By quoting it, I may be tarred with that brush. I take refuge in Girard's insistence that "The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope." That, at least, is my reason for calling your attention to Rieff's jeremiad.

Rieff's point of departure in what follows is Weber's brilliant definition of the sacred, one which illustrates its cultural significance, namely that: "The sacred is the uniquely unalterable." Returning to his analysis of the indispensability of cultural norms, Rieff elaborates on the Weber's lapidary formula:
Here is the crux of the anti-political meaning of charisma: the interdicts must be uniquely unalterable -- i.e. sacred. Political charisma is patently anti-interdictory, a form of desacralization -- in short, transgressive, which is so utterly opposed to the "uniquely unalterable" that transgressives treat their acts, rightly, as the ultimate alternative to the sacred. In a culture without sacramental action, indeed, transgressive motifs have displaced interdictory as the most demanding. We scarcely remember what the sacred is -- and are horrified by what we have forgotten. Anything that is uniquely unalterable horrifies us even to imagine, because we are living, acting transgressions. We are the horror. To us, nothing is sacred . . .
Rieff would later say: "Anyone knowledgeable enough about himself as an organization man knows that evil angels have all but seized control of the world; everything is explained by my deeply felt theory of transgressions except the way out."

There is, I think, no doubt about the explanatory power of Rieff's theory of transgressions -- though it is really a theory of historical desacralization which will bear its greatest fruit when integrated with Girard's work on that subject -- there is a hint at least of "the way out" it seems to me. It is found in his fascinating and brilliant observation Rieff makes that the culture he sees succumbing to the transgressive imperatives once kept in check by sacred interdictions is "a culture without sacramental action."

Therein lies the hidden -- carefully hidden -- hope for those with eyes to see. The alternative -- ultimately the only alternative -- to the sacred is the sacramental. The only thing that can replace the implacable unalterability of the old sacred system that was dismantled on Golgotha is the covenantal unalterability of the sacramental, as in, "I will be with you until the end of the age," inasmuch as you "do this in remembrance of me."

"The world will pass away, but my words will not pass away."


Gordon said...


The only alternative the sacred is the sacramental! Didn't see that coming. Extraordinary.

Would you suggest a place to start in Rieff? I looked for an introduction to his work at Amazon and found one book by a Dutch gentleman. I don't recommend it; the author apparently speaks little English, the editor none.

Rick said...

What Gordon said.

"There is, I think, no doubt about the explanatory power of Rieff's theory of transgressions -- though it is really a theory of historical desacralization which will bear its greatest fruit when integrated with Girard's work on that subject -- there is a hint at least of "the way out" it seems to me."

And I know just the man who could do it. I mean, please write that book for us, Gil :-)

Doughlas Remy said...


Thanks for this definition of the “sacred,” which I’ve been wishing for recently in discussions about your earlier Rieff-inspired post.

I’ve said a few times in the earlier thread that the sacred was a void, that there was really nothing behind the veil. Or, as a friend remarked, it is “scared” scrambled. We can say a number of things about ways in which people are taught to regard the sacred—as something that cannot be approached, or directly referred to, or gazed upon, etc. But when we do dare to transgress the interdictions protecting it and we peek under the veil, all we see is empty space.

Philip Rieff seems to confirm that view when he defines the sacred as that which is “uniquely unalterable.” He needn’t have added the qualifier “uniquely,” because there isn’t even one single thing that is unalterable. Heraclitus was right: permanence is an illusion. Everything in the universe is changing.

Does Rieff recognize this fact? He doesn’t take a clear position yet.

Rieff complains, “we scarcely remember what the sacred is.” Well, do we need to? Following Rieff’s definition, why should we want to return to the illusion of permanence?

But wait. In the final paragraph, Rieff declares there to be an alternative to the sacred (though it’s not clear why we need one). That alternative is “the sacramental,” which is characterized by “covenantal unalterability.” Hold on! Let’s back up a minute! I thought the sacred was “uniquely unalterable.” (Could he please make up his mind?)

Very confusing. There is the “implacable unalterability” of the old sacred, and there is the “covenantal unalterability” of the sacramental, and so we now have two unalterabilities, and neither is unique, and therefore neither is sacred, because the sacred is defined as that which is uniquely unalterable.

Gil, I have never read anything so illogical.

So what does he mean by covenantal unalterability? Answer: He is referring to a promise made by a God thought to be incarnated in Jesus Christ. (“I will be with you...”) This is, presumably, the same God who, in Genesis, promised his people he would always protect them and then forgot his promise and wiped them all out in a deluge.

“The world will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” So there we have it. God’s word is the “uniquely unalterable,” and the “sacred” may therefore be defined as “God’s word.”

OK, that’s a little different from my own definition of the sacred as a void. ...But maybe.. it’s.. not. Maybe the “word” itself is a void. Many Jews who experienced the Holocaust certainly thought so. Promises, indeed!

Is there anything there? Well, yes, if we have faith. And no, if we don’t. It all comes down to something very simple, and it’s all basically what I learned in Sunday School as a child.

Doughlas Remy said...

To follow up on that last thought—about Rieff’s cultural critique being a tarted-up Sunday School lesson, my impression from photos I’ve seen of Rieff is that he writes in very much the same way as he dresses.

Not long ago, when I should have had pencil and notebook in hand, I heard someone say something to the effect that religion, if it is to prosper or even survive in the modern world, must be engaged in a process of discovery. Scientific thought has put religion in the shade because science is continually opening our eyes to new truths. Theology has nearly stopped doing that. Instead, we get dreary repackagings of ideas that have outlived both their usefulness and their persuasiveness. If religion is to find its voice once again, it will, in my opinion, need to speak plainly and clearly, for starters. Modern readers are impatient with theological mumbo-jumbo and tend to see it for what it is. If there is something “there” behind the veil, let’s bring it out and look at it in the light of truth.

Jonathan Larson said...

While this is somewhat late in the coming, oh how I do love responding to your posts Doughlas.

First off, as a philosopher, While Heraclitus said that all was in flux, he still has a conception of a Logos (Universal reason, order, etc.) and so while we see that nothing is the same we also have some way to classify it. though we cannot step in the same river twice, there is still something that we can call a river both times. His other primary metaphor was that of fire, which was consuming, but never consumed and always different but always the same. He can hardly be used to say that everything is always progressing, (for that you must turn to Fichte or the classical reading of Hegel (This I think is who you would be more apt to quote))

Secondarily I find it extraordinarily funny that you quote him at all because if things like religion/theology need to progress in order to stay alive. you then reference someone who has been dead for a very long time, and whose ideas have been around also for a very long time, virtually unchanged. As to Science, there is little new in science, the ideas have been there for a good long while (see DaVinci, Democritus, etc.) it is just that we are now finding more that they seem to work out in fact. Science often just has better PR, or the common people have never really thought they understood science (would you mind telling me what "new" truths science has offered us lately?), while everyone thinks they understand religion. (Science seems an out there discipline, and religion seems to only be in me. When in fact both are tinged with inner and outer aspects)

As to your critique of theology, I think you are correct in much of your critique, it needs ever anew a voice that can speak it clearly (For that reason I enjoy CS Lewis and George Macdonald). CS Lewis saws that if theologies truth cannot be put into simple language the author does not really understand it. (We need to have those who can give us the Master's Metaphor, rather than just a student's metaphor, trying to explain something he doesn't really understand.) This is why I as a protestant, often read catholic theology, they are less often trying to reinvent the wheel. And also why we must read people who are more difficult than we can understand, (i.e. Rieff, Girard, Balthasar) eventually the metaphor will hopefully be built upon, but we must always go back to the original authors, because they were precisely struggling with the difficulties that will keep theology ever ancient ever new. Once we settle down into platitudes, we forget them, and do not attempt to find new metaphor for our present age.

That is all I have to say,

Doughlas, I would recomend CS Lewis' book Till We Have Faces. It looks at the sacred in relation to both the ancient and the Christian conception. I think you have a part of the mystery when you say that the sacred is defined as "void", but you do not have the whole of it. Or read all of Heraclitus' Fragments, and I think you would come to the same conclusion as Lewis.

Fare Forward,