Sacred Conversations
Sacred Conversations

Sacred Conversations

How might we speak fruitfully about our most precious principles?

September 17 th 2020
Appears in Summer 2020

Every Thursday evening at eight, I go out onto a suburban cul-de-sac with my parents, bang a saucepan, and cry. My parents, with whom my family is staying for the duration of lockdown, are a retired NHS doctor and retired NHS nurse who have volunteered to be redeployed to serve in the COVID-19 epidemic. Their neighbours are mainly white-haired, missing their grandchildren, and carefully distant. They look tired and afraid behind the exuberant applause. This expression of thanks for our health workers is an especially awkward three minutes of public display for older British people. I can’t be the only one who approaches it semi-reluctantly, internally rolling my eyes, and am then surprised by my tears.

Émile Durkheim said that the things we hold sacred are what communities and societies gather around, and where you find shared sacred values you will also find ritual. His lovely phrase is “collective effervescence,” and that is what those Thursday nights feel like. A fizzing up or bubbling over of feelings we don’t know where else to put. Not quite transcendent, not yet bedded in and automatic, and yet unexpectedly, almost irrationally moving. These rituals reaffirm our unity as a moral community, who—unusually, it feels—want to circle around the same thing.

The History of The Sacred and the Sacred

The #clapforcarers event has been particularly interesting to me because I host a podcast called The Sacred, on which I interview public figures about their deepest, most sacred values. I am not a sociologist or anthropologist of the sacred, and came to it sideways through leading the Christian think tank Theos. We attempt to navigate and illuminate the liminal space between those who are religious and those who are not, and the concept of sacred values has proved a useful tool in that attempt.

Durkheim was a French sociologist writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was an ardent secularist who, having studied suicide, divisions of labour, and criminology came toward the end of his career to believe that sacred values best explained how societies work. However, while taken up in anthropological study of “primitive religion,” Durkheim’s thesis all but disappeared in sociology until fairly recently. Sociologist Gordon Lynch, one of the most prominent contemporary scholars of the sacred, puts this down to the discipline’s “pretensions to being a science” and associated allergy to moral reflection. Jonathan Haidt has been part of re-popularizing the concept in recent years, related as it is to his theory of distinctive “moral taste buds” that divide political tribes. Secular humanist philosophers have also become interested in the idea, including Richard Norman and Ben Rogers, whose collection of essays Is Nothing Sacred? sought to liberate the concept from its associations with organized religion.

When we seek to understand an opponent’s sacred values, rather than trying to argue or even bribe them out of them, we are more likely to be able to resolve conflict.

Interesting, then, as a framing, but so far difficult to understand the sacred’s practical usefulness. As you can imagine, seeking to speak about religion to a primarily non-religious audience means I am no stranger to conflict. I started the podcast in 2017, partly out of despair about the fractious, divided, and inhumane state of our public debates. Britain did not feel like a moral community, circling around the same values, but like an unlovely collection of squabbling factions. Matthew Taylor, former Tony Blair aide, head of the “21st Century Enlightenment” organization the RSA, and committed atheist, had drawn my attention to the concept of sacred values as a way religious and non-religious people might be able to frame, and speak more fruitfully of, their deepest, most precious principles.

He drew it not directly from Durkheim but from the work of Scott Attran, an anthropologist of conflict who argued that traditional mediation techniques based on rational self-interest were failing because they ignored the things people hold sacred. His definition distinguishes sacred values from material or instrumental values “in that they incorporate moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success.” He argues that when we seek to understand an opponent’s sacred values, rather than trying to argue or even bribe them out of them, we are more likely to be able to resolve conflict. The example that stuck with me was drawn from the Israel-Palestine conflict, where for both sides the land has taken on a sacred status. In these cases, offering money or material benefits like aid or infrastructure in exchange for land further entrenches, rather than resolves, conflict. It is received as sacrilegious, profane, insulting. Attran’s studies concluded that “making symbolic concessions of no apparent material benefit [essentially, acknowledging what another holds sacred] might open the way to resolving seemingly irresolvable conflicts.” The instances of police officers who “took a knee” when asked to by Black Lives Matter protesters, diffusing local tensions, seems to be to be an example of this. No black lives were directly saved, the police were not defunded, but in the moment the symbolic act of acknowledgement had a powerful effect.

The Sacred podcast is, at heart, an opportunity to model peaceful, empathetic engagement with people who believe a wide range of things. I like the heft of the word “sacred” as a starting point. It has yet to be fully co-opted by the wellness-industrial complex in the way so much of our transcendent vocabulary has been. It signals there will be no small talk, no book-promotion fluff, no banter. Guests often comment on the way the opening question, “What do you hold sacred?” stops them in their tracks and makes them think about their lives in a new way. Asking the question prompts a kind of reflection we don’t often get in public, and seems to me useful for getting public figures to acknowledge that they do hold deep values, that they are formed by stories and communities, and that these kinds of values are not simply the preserve of the religious.

I ask the question because it is a fruitful one, but don’t expect a coherent let alone an accurate answer (whatever that might mean). Durkheim talked about the sacred as “naturally refractory to analysis,” and Gordon Lynch agrees that there is a sense in which “as light bends away from an object through refraction, so critical thinking bends away from directly engaging things that we take to be sacred.” We can’t objectively and disinterestedly analyze what we hold sacred, any more than we can look directly at the sun. When I interviewed sociologist of non-religion Lois Lee she said that it is common to not know what you hold sacred until it is transgressed, until you feel that emotional-disgust reaction. Lynch says, “We experience the sacred as exerting an unquestionable claim over the conduct of social life, the breach of which elicits a powerful response.”

We can’t objectively and disinterestedly analyze what we hold sacred, any more than we can look directly at the sun.

For most of us the “cares of the world,” the mundane or overwhelming business of living, keep the sacred at the edges of our minds, until moments of moral profundity like birth, death, defeat, or collective threat cause sacred meanings to erupt into our consciousness. Partly because of these limitations, whenever I am speaking to someone about what they hold sacred, I am reminded of the story of Moses asking to see God’s face, and being treated instead to a back-view. But back-views, shadows, and refractions still tell us something. And right now, the whole world is experiencing a moment of moral profundity.

What Is Sacred Now?

Our Thursday-night ritual of noise-making reveals something sacred erupting under pressure in the UK: The National Health Service. In normal times we’re fond of it and moan about it in equal measure, but I would not have predicted this outpouring of emotion at the threat of harm coming to it. Before the pandemic had fully taken hold here, images of overwhelmed Italian hospitals and stories of health workers dying had a huge impact—the threat of a breach forced a sacred value to the surface. Durkheim’s understanding of the social sacred was the thing we circle around, the thing we cooperate for, the glue that holds us together. The government’s first-phase lockdown motto was “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” Future historians and sociologists will feast on the different ways nations induced their citizens to cooperate against the virus, and in the UK they are sure to remark on the ordering of that slogan.

Of course, we protect the NHS (and stay home) in order to save lives, but the creaky collection of people and buildings still comes first in the slogan. The three-quarters of a million citizens who volunteered to give their time to support the health service wanted to build a human shield around it. As my colleague Nick Spencer has pointed out, it seems the concrete, sprawling, bureaucratic but beloved old National Health Service is “an easier sell than merely saving lives.” The NHS has faces: masked, scrubbed, weary-eyed. It even has a logo. And it is all of ours. In the UK, even if you have private health insurance (estimated at under 15 percent) you will still need to use the NHS for urgent care. Anyone can end up in in the emergency department.

The sociologist Edward Shils writes about what he calls “the central values” system of a society, which are best reflected in its most influential public institutions. The sacred values of a society, he thought, were best understood by looking at which institutions citizens most deeply identified with. In different eras this might have been the empire, or the church, or the monarchy. Today, in the UK, it is the NHS.

Soberingly, it seems the NHS now occupies the space once held by the church. As Linda Woodhead has pointed out, “Many of the architects of the welfare state were Christian, including prime minister Harold MacMillan, Archbishop William Temple, William Beveridge and Richard Tawney. Bishop JWC Ward called it ‘an expression at the national level of the humanitarian work of the church.’” In many ways this globally unique institution is a legacy to be proud of, a beautiful expression of what it might mean to seek justice and mercy in our social relations, although Woodhead would also argue that in ceding such ground the church has allowed itself to be supplanted.

The fact that the UK is currently gathering around the NHS won’t come as a surprise to those who study the sacred. The two things sociologists most often identify as sacred in Durkheim’s sense are “the nation” and “humanity”—the second expressed in a range of ways from human rights to humanitarian care.

It is easy to see, not least as new nationalist parties win electoral victories around the world, how the nation can become sacred. It is perhaps the easiest thing to create rituals and symbols around, to motivate people to sacrifice for. Noticeably nationalist rhetoric has been subdued in this crisis in the UK, perhaps a recognition of the global nature of the challenge, or the limitations of our response. The closest we have come was on the evening of Boris Johnson’s admission to hospital, which seemed to provoke a collective intake of breath across the political spectrum. News readers looked visibly shaken. The symbolic power of a national leader brought to his knees was palpable, but passed quickly.

Humanity and human rights are equally familiar as sacred values, and also one where the heritage of Christianity is felt. Most historians of the development of human rights acknowledge the legacy the concept of the imago Dei has left on concepts that many today would see as non-religious.

Tellingly Durkheim, also non-religious, was provoked into his initial scholarship of the sacred because of a clash between these two deeply embedded sacred values. He wrote in response to the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish Frenchman was wrongly accused of espionage and imprisoned. The scandal involved a national tussle between the centrality of the nation, with all the ritual and symbol of flag and anthem, and “humanity,” invoked by those who like Durkheim campaigned for Dreyfus’s release. He wrote about the affair,

The human person, whose definition serves as the touchstone according to which good must be distinguished from evil, is considered as sacred, in what one might call the ritual sense of the word. It has something of that transcendental majesty which the churches of all times have given to their Gods. It is conceived as being invested with that mysterious property which creates an empty space around holy objects, which keeps them away from profane contacts. . . . Whoever makes an attempt on a man’s life . . . inspires us with a feeling of horror in every way analogous to that which the believer experiences when he sees his idol profaned.

The rights, freedom, or dignity of individual human life and the good of the nation have been two of the most enduring “sacreds” around which societies have gathered, but they have often been values that seems opposed. One way of understanding the power of the idea of the NHS is that it brings those things together. It is a deep part of our national identity, as British as the Queen, the BBC, and red telephone boxes, and it has the care of the human at its heart. No wonder it is such a powerful sacred for this moment.

What Does This Mean for Christians?

For Christians, being aware of the way sacred values play out is one way we, like the sons of Issachar, can understand our times. What rituals unite our churches, our cities, our societies? Where are our deep sacreds clashing, in conflicts that might look like they are about “argument” and “evidence” but in fact aren’t?

Listening, without seeking to argue or correct, is a gift we can give, a way of loving our neighbour.

Through The Sacred, I have found that listening to people’s deepest values has been a powerful tool in building relationships with those who might be hostile or suspicious about the role Christianity can play in public life. It is inherently peace-building. Listening, without seeking to argue or correct, is a gift we can give, a way of loving our neighbour. As Simone Weil said, attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It shouldn’t be the only way we engage across our deep differences (there are times and places for more confrontational encounters), but it is one we could do more of.

It is also very helpful in movement-building, and although not normally expressed in terms of the sacred, very akin to community-organizing methodology. I was struck by Barack Obama talking about how he was formed by that tradition:

I learned in that process that if you listen hard enough, everybody’s got a sacred story . . . an organizing story, of who they are and what their place in the world is. And they’re willing to share it with you if they feel as if you actually care about it. And that ends up being the glue around which relationships are formed, and trust is formed, and communities are formed. And ultimately—my theory was, at least—that’s the glue around which democracies work.

So thinking in terms of the sacred can be immensely helpful, but it also comes with risks. One of the reasons the study of the sacred has often been dismissed is the assumption that the holding of anything sacred is backward, anti-rational, and inherently harmful. Just as the wars of the religion in part triggered the Enlightenment search for seemingly more stable, more rational ground on which to build the human project, 9/11 triggered the New Atheist howl of horror at the power of sacred things to lead to harm. There is power in this objection. After all, as Scott Attran says, “Terrorists, for the most part are not nihilists but extreme moralists—altruists fastened to a hope gone haywire.”

But can we escape the sacred? Gordon Lynch expresses exasperation at the assumption that we can escape the sacred into a detached, disinterested, and analytical way of being in the world: “The liberal faith . . . pathologises aspects of social life that are necessary and inevitable, and in doing so fails to understand the true nature of collective forms of morality. . . . Such sacred forms are not infantile preoccupations that can be abandoned in the maturity of Enlightenment.”

Christian anthropology tells us that humans are worshipping creatures. We should agree with Lynch that we cannot escape our desire to make sacred and to gather around those sacreds we share, but pay attention instead to exactly what we hold sacred.

Moral psychology and theology have, at the very least, similar intuitions about the dangers of ascribing sacred value to the wrong things. Christianity says there are bad things to hold sacred. We call them idols. We know in our own lives and in Scripture how easy it is to follow “a hope gone haywire.” The Hebrew Bible can be read as a tragicomic attempt by God to show his people how poorly their sacred values are serving them. For Christians, we should exercise self-skepticism, seeking to ask what we ourselves as individuals and communities are holding sacred, and if we may have fallen into idolatry.

When I pray “hallowed be your name” the words too often roll past me, too archaic to connect, now forever linked with the Harry Potter franchise. The root of “hallow,” though, is to make holy, to make sacred. When I pray “hallowed be your name,” I want to mean “sacred be your name,” though it may take a lifetime to work out what that really means.

Elizabeth Oldfield
Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield is the director of Theos Think Tank. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times. She is a regular conference speaker and chair. Before joining Theos in August 2011, Elizabeth worked for BBC TV and radio. She has an MA in theology from King’s College London. 


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