The Sacred, the Relative, and the Absolute

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have an interest, or perhaps even an obsession with relativism and absolute moral truth. I was ruminating the other day about the nature of the Sacred and how it relates to both the Relative and the Absolute. And I had an insight.

It revolves around the notion of the “greatest.” Or, in this case, the “highest” moral truth. Basically, if we say the Sacred designates that which is the highest moral truth, we seem to be compelled to claim that all is relative. Why? The sacred refers to holy things: holy days, holy objects, holy land, or holy places. Objectively, which holiday is more sacred: Christmas? Or Hannukah? I’m inclined to think that in such an example, that question is meaningless because when it comes to holy days, relativism applies. Christmas is sacred to Christians. Hannukah is sacred to Jews. Christmas is only sacred to Jews to the extent that it is polite to not “disrespect” it, whatever that entails. And the same for Hannukah and Christians.

Similarly, what is holier: the Dome of the Rock, The Holy Sepulcher, or the Wailing Wall? Again, it seems to be a meaningless question that can only really be addressed relativistically. So, if the Wailing Wall and Hannukah constitute the highest moral concerns in Judaism, then aren’t we ultimately compelled to relativism? Maybe.

But aren’t rituals also in the realm of the Sacred? What then, of the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice versus the Catholic ritual of Confession? In the former of these, as far as we can tell, an innocent person is slain. In the latter, as far as we can tell, a conversation occurs between a priest and a sinner. The latter is at worst, harmless; the former, not so much. If there is an example of two sacred rituals which are NOT morally commensurate, this is it. What is the difference?

How one treats other human beings. In one, the human is used as an expendable resource to appease some higher power. In the other, the human is treated with compassion to repair the relationship between that human and the higher power.

In light of this (and largely from having a Christian upbringing), I am inclined to say that how one treats other humans trumps sacred concerns. Well, it’s a little complicated. God is more important than other humans, but He is honored by respectful treatment of other humans not Sacred extremism where the lives of people are sacrificed for a “holy concern.” So, as a Catholic, I would be insulted if someone broke into a church, dumped all the hosts on the ground, and then urinated on them, but I wouldn’t condone their execution for said “crime.” Others of other faiths should respect the host and other Catholic sacred concerns, just as the Catholics should respect theirs. That said, no one’s sacred concerns are immune from intellectual criticism if for no other reason than that some people used sacred concerns to ritually sacrifice others in the past. You might not like it, and you can ignore it if you wish, but your sacred concerns and beliefs are open to criticism, although generally not forced abandonment—except in the rarest of cases.

Anyway, that was my insight: how the notion of the “highest morality” relates to “sacred concerns” and the relativism/absolutism issue. Basically, if “sacred” denotes the “highest,” then all is relative. Otherwise, if treating humans well is more important, then absolutism wins the day. At least, those are my thoughts today. They may change tomorrow.


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