Wednesday, September 17, 2008

what is the sacred?

Yesterday I went to the first session of my Religion & Society class. It meets only once a week for 3 hours. It seems like it will be pretty good. We're reading Durkheim, Freud and Weber, plus a more contemporary guy named Maurice Bloch. I haven't read much of this kind of stuff since my psychology major in college, so it's kind of fun to jump back into that part of my interests and combine it with the theology part.

The professor started off the class by asking us, "What is the sacred?" He told us a story about an experience he had where he knew he was in contact with "the sacred," and he created a space where I felt like we were all pretty centered and aware of the presence of "the sacred" there with us. I almost started crying, to be honest, because I haven't really had that experience in a seminary class yet. There have been times when I've felt God's presence in class, or fleeting moments where I felt like the class had some sort of corporate experience of the Divine, but for a professor to intentionally start out a class creating that space was exciting and brought me joy.

Then he had us write for 5 minutes or so our answer to the question, "What is the sacred?" He asked us, "On a Saturday morning, how do you find the sacred?" Then we took turns introducing ourselves, a little about us, and sharing our answers to the questions in whatever ways we felt like doing. So that was interesting and good--it was cool hearing different people's responses to that set of questions, and the creativity that those questions opened up in us boring academics.

I'll share my response below, but one other thing struck me about the class, and that wasn't so positive. About a third of the way through the class, one woman shared her answer. She read what she'd written, and it was basically an experiential piece, putting herself in the place of Isaiah when he found himself before God, with the cherubim and seraphim singing, "Holy, holy, holy," and God said, "Who shall we send?" and Isaiah said, "Send me!" But then in her piece, she said something like, "And then the phone rings and the baby cries, but the WHOLE EARTH is filled with God's glory!" and repeated stuff like that, and it was a fairly powerful little essay. When she was done everyone was just quiet, and I appreciated that--I felt it needed the silence, that it brought us to a space where we were all aware of God's presence in the whole Earth, and in that moment and that place.

But then the professor said something like, "Well, I'm not really sure how to respond to that. I felt like the silence was important, but sometimes it's hard to respond to something that's not in academic language with academic questions." I'm not sure if this should be taken as, "I don't want to ruin the moment by making it academic," or if it was more like, "Well, that's all very nice, but what do you have to say about the sacred that we can talk about here in this academic context?" It seemed like the latter, unfortunately.

Another woman kind of called him on it, but he didn't understand the question. Basically what she was trying to say (I talked to her later), and what I was thinking, was that that felt like he was shutting down the conversation, not allowing her voice to be part of the academic conversation because she wasn't speaking the right language. So do we only get to have a say if we can speak that language? What if the sacred can't be spoken of in academic language? What if we speak best of the sacred in our native tongue, in our most intimate address, and academic language, with its intentional objectivity--or distance from the object of discussion--can never really speak of the sacred? We can talk about God, we can talk about theology, we can talk about issues of history, human nature, texts--but can we truly speak of the sacred in the language of the academy? If we must speak that language, will our understanding of the sacred shrink to fit that which we can objectify and grasp? I could already see those to women who spoke up shrinking, feeling their language was somehow inadequate, was not a welcome part of the conversation.

I don't understand how this happened, since the professor opened up such an amazing sacred space, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, slammed a door, shutting out those whom he does not deem dialogue partners. Hopefully they/we will not allow this door-shutting, and we will continue speaking our native tongue, speaking of the sacred in terms that bridge barriers, helping the whole Earth to be aware of the fact that it is filled with the glory of God, so everything has the potential to be sacred.

Here's what I wrote:

The sacred is life, intimacy, the good. Perhaps the search for the sacred is the meaning of life, or perhaps searching for the sacred obscures what is right in front of us--life, everyday moments, beauty, joy--and when we search for the sacred we forget to stop and experience it.

Is there such a thing, then, as "the profane"? Is destruction of life profane, if life is sacred? If so we all participate in the profane every day as we walk, breathe, digest...but these, too, are part of life.

Perhaps the sacred is that which gives all that we know of as life--the Ground of All Being. It isn't life itself that is sacred but that which makes life possible, in all its messiness and destruction and love and sensory-ness.

But the sacred is intimacy, too--it isn't just some ethereal "Ground of All Being" about which we can philosophize and hold at arms length. It's also that which moves us, that which connects us to one another, that which knows us and wishes to be known--that mystery and otherness that we find within ourselves, that is totally foreign to us, but we are completely at home.


Anonymous said...

Cherice, I empathized with your comments about your class, with its bit of silence that suddenly defaulted. Sometime in the next few months you will have a conversation with your prof, and you will learn more of his perspective, and you will teach yours, with the Friends foundation that accompanies it. I love you and admire you.

Enjoy German class, too!

Sprechen ME Deutsch? Nicht zehr gut!

Gr. Ralph

brooke said...

academia really isn't the place for the whoo whoo stuff, at least that's been my experience. i can't imagine going to seminary - somehow having to walk that line of academia and faith. was it you or my pastor that i was talking about going to seminary with - either your end or paul's end was that God isn't necessarily present in seminary classes, at least not in the way that someone on the outside would expect.

i need to put some things in the mail to you. sorry i've not - i've been ill, my apologies.

Leslie said...

Cherice - see, that is exactly what petrifies me about grad school - I am totally that woman! And, because I can't share my heart in the right language, I fear my thoughts/experiences are somehow invalid. My hope is that she felt validated by the woman who questioned the professor. And, truly, we don't have to be validated by others in our spiritual experiences with Jesus. But, it does help to get a better grade?! Thanks for blogging -

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Cherice,

While I'm sympathetic to you and to the other students whose frustration you described so well, I think that your professor and class have, ultimately, set yourselves an almost impossible task. One cannot genuinely experience the divine, without removing oneself from the space where academic discussion about sacredness takes place; nor can one engage in such discussion without removing oneself from the experience. It's not merely that the experience is beyond words, it's truly that these are different, mutually exclusive modes of being.

Had it been a Quaker meeting rather than a classroom, perhaps someone in the circle would have asked for silence at that point, while everyone felt for a constructive way to marry the experience with academic language. But it wasn't a Quaker meeting; and in a classroom, as Brooke points out, the Power and Principality that is Academia tends to control all who respect it, making it very hard to switch gears.

I don't know if it is what the professor was struggling with, when he said, "Sometimes it's hard to respond to something that's not in academic language with academic questions," but if it was, then I'd be inclined to cut him some slack. He was clumsy of speech at that moment because he was simultaneously overwhelmed by the experience of the divine and tangled in the coils of the snake Academia. Could you or I do any better in such a condition?

So I'm feeling compassion for the professor, who seems out of his depth in this class, and I'm hoping the class will help him find his way through, rather than fighting him when he messes up. (Maybe this is what Gr. Ralph was saying, too?) I think, if it helps him, everyone will benefit.

All the best,

Ben, Hannah, and Asher said...

I agree that it is hard to share our experience of the Sacred without using our native language. Maybe this class experience was important for that reason alone, to show how valuable it is to understand another's language in order to understand how God is working in them. Marshall has a nice point as well, I suppose the professor's life lessons aren't completely learned yet and maybe he will learn to see the value of a non-academic language before your class ends. =)
Thanks for sharing!