Sacrée et Profane

The blog apologizes for having been gone for two months. 

I like classical music. Music of all types has long been part of life, even before taking up my first instrument at age ten. It’s part of my heritage from both sides of my family, really; practically everyone with whom I share blood has musical talent or a deep appreciation for it. I grew up in a household where one could hear practically every genre in existence: George Strait would give way to Dvorak, who in turn would take a seat as Meco, the Gaither Vocal Band, Helen Reddy, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Alabama, Queen, or one of a hundred others got their chance at being heard. It’s no real surprise, then, that I love almost any kind of music you can play. With that said, art music still has a special place in my heart, and it’s my go-to genre of choice. Claude Debussy, a French composer in the nineteenth (and early twentieth) century, composed a set of pieces known simply as Danses Sacrée et Profane — Dances Sacred and Profane. They live up to their names, on the whole, but it’s the distinction between the two in the rest of the world I’d like to address.

To be perfectly honest, this isn’t something which gets a lot of “air time” anymore. Most liberal theologians and probably a similar majority of postmoderns theologians and otherwise) see the sacred-secular divide as a false dichotomy. Nowhere in Scripture or in proper readings of the great works of the Church, they claim, is any distinction made between what is holy and what is worldly. In Christ, all things have been redeemed, and any attempt to split the two is a reversal to an Old Testament sort of legalism — or so the argument goes. Others, ignoring the concepts of original sin, the fall, and total depravity, read the creation narrative in Genesis 1, note that God has called all things good, and declares that if God called it good, who are we to disagree? Surely all things are holy. At best, trying to say otherwise is simply a poor attempt to juxtapose a sort of Platonic/Aristotelian dualism onto a Christian view of reality.

Well . . . no.

Concepts of holy and unholy, sacred and profane pervade both Testaments of Scripture. The entire book of Leviticus is dedicated towards creating a priesthood and a community of faith which is holy. Even though a portion of Leviticus, namely chapters seventeen to twenty-six (or twenty-seven depending on your perspective) is called the Holiness Code, personal holiness is truly the theme of the entire book, from the opening chapters on sacrifices onward. But the concept of holiness doesn’t start so late in the game as the third book of the Bible; it begins in the second chapter. Genesis 2:3 says, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” The seventh day is holy: it is different, special, “other” than the first six days. It is a day which is blessed and pleasing to God. Of course, immediately following chapter two is the account of the fall, the first sin of our first parents. From Genesis 3 onward, the Bible becomes the record of a holy God seeking relationship with a sinful people and through that relationship make them holy as He is holy.

In fact, that’s an explicit command of the Holiness Code: “‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2).

Several times throughout the rest of the Bible, God states His holiness. It is given as the reason for specific calls to action, and it’s given as a model for us to emulate. Skipping ahead to the New Testament, Jesus in Matthew 5:48 calls us to holiness again: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 1 Peter 1:13-25 is all about calling Christians to live a holy life, and v. 16 is even a direct quotation of Lev. 19:2. We are to be a holy people if we are to truly be Christians. So what does the holy look like?

Defined positively, it is to bear the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (bonus points if you just sang the song in your head; I know I did). Striving to be Christ-like is another way to look at it. Both of these are possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer (I mean, come on: “Holy” is literally in his name!). To be holy is to demonstrate the qualities which makes God holy.

Defined negatively, holiness is the absence of sin, the forgoing of what is considered unholy/profane/desecrating/secular. Paul loves his lists, so just as he listed the fruit of the Spirit in his epistle to the church in Galatia, he also gives a list of things which are inherently sinful: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21a). The list here isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but paradigmatic; things like these would also be considered sinful and unholy. Paul’s point is that human behavior can generally be classified into one of two categories: that of the flesh (or world or devil) and that of the Holy Spirit.

Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul also discusses the relationship between the Christian and sin. The short version is that Christians shouldn’t have a relationship with sin other than “Yes, I used to do these things, but now I am free from their power and dominion.” Romans 6:1-14 is a key passage in this discussion, but I want to quote only a single verse directly: “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness” (v. 13). After the great virtues of faith, hope, and love, I would say personal holiness is paramount in keeping a proper relationship with God — and I believe such holiness will flow out of faith and love (and probably hope, too). Christians can no longer act the way they did before salvation; they cannot act the same as the rest of the world. We must act in ways which are holy, ways which allow people to see the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

Okay. That part is simple enough, you may be thinking. But what about the rest of the noun categories? Can places and things be holy? Can they be profane? In short, is my toaster (which requires a whole burnt offering every time I try to use it) truly evil? (You weren’t thinking that? Just me? Oh.)

I believe Scripture also teaches about the distinction between sacred and secular space. The Temple is holy; the tabernacle is holy; the heavens and inbreaking kingdom of God on earth are holy. The question becomes whether they are holy because of the presence of God is localized in them or if everything is now holy since God resides in us. And to answer that, let me relate a story of my own experiences last summer when job hunting. One of my first in-person interviews was at a church in rural central/east-central Kentucky. As soon as my foot touched the tile floor of the narthex, I knew something was horribly wrong. Churches were supposed to feel holy; the years spent in worship and dedication to God hallowed them, made them sacred spaces wherein one can commune with Deity. None of that was true at this church. The presence of evil, of the profane, was overwhelming; I almost ran straight back out the door (and I did hop straight in the shower after returning home in an attempt to feel clean again). That space was unholy. Other places which have been explicitly used for evil — pagan temples, places of ritual sacrifice, etc. — those are unholy. And anywhere someone routinely uses for something other than the glorification of God Almighty might just be profane, too. Again, I think this is biblical. I think the whole of Scripture gives us a dichotomy between what is holy and what is not, and it is revealed to extend beyond people and behaviors to spaces, too.

Things can also be sacred or secular, I’d wager. Something tells me an issue of Playboy or the vast majority of  websites on the Internet could never be counted as something pleasing to God, never be something He would call blessed and holy. I believe things can be properly termed holy when they are consecrated to the worship of God, whether explicitly in a ritual or whether by repeated usage. I’m not going to say every pastor has a Holy Recliner dedicated to Sacred Nap-Time, but I still think things can be holy by dedication to the service of God (much like the tools and implements of the Tabernacle/Temple in the Old Testament or the communionware used by churches today).

When we fail to see the difference holiness makes, we fail to acknowledge the grander spiritual reality undergirding the very fabric of existence. To refuse to see a division between the sacred and profane is to make everything one or the other — and when everything is holy, nothing is (at least on this side of the end of the age). We worship a holy God, one who by nature can only be holy, who hates sin, and who loves His children with a holy love. May we be holy people who do holy things in holy places; may we be holy people who make places and objects holy in the name of the holy God; and may our holy lives point others to the One who is holy.

Location, Location, Location

The blog has been silent for exactly one month, primarily because I’ve been involved in gearing up for a new ministry position. My call has taken me to Kansas, and so this is my first blog posted outside of Kentucky! (Blogs, like swallows, may or may not be migratory.) In any event, much of my time over the last month has been spent in the various stages of moving: deciding what to pack, wondering why on earth I ever bought that, asking if I ever wore that horrible shirt, deciding what to donate, deciding what not to pack, labeling boxes, piling boxes onto a Uhaul in the snow and ice, taking said Uhaul to Kansas, and unloading it in the relative warmth of a late February in the Plains.

Clearly I didn’t take everything I owned with me on the move. Some things were left behind in my parents’ house, mainly because of their extreme sentimental value — I feared for their safety if they were forced to come with me. But I did pack up a lot of things directly related to my former place of residence: an old license plate, a newspaper, recognition of merit from state lawmakers, pictures of the mountains, and that sort of thing. Inasmuch as I still have those things, Kentucky is still with me.

All of this has me thinking about the theology of place. Do specific locations have theological significance? What makes a certain shrine or field or part of a temple holy? If the Holy Spirit dwells within us and makes our very bodies the temples of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), has God abandoned the idea of “dwelling” on his holy hill, as the psalmist says of Mount Zion? We may call Israel the Holy Land, but . . . is it? And if it is, what do we do with such a sacred space?

I think any talk of theology of place has to begin in the Old Testament’s portrayal of the Promised Land. (We could start in Eden, or even in the creation narrative itself, but I think this is a better spot.) When God calls Abram in Genesis 12, the first thing he commands the man to do is move. Leave. Pack up your belongings, your servants, your livestock, and your family and go. But go where? Go “to the land which I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Later on, of course, this land is revealed to be the land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey (and overflowing with Canaanites; slightly problematic). It’s interesting to note, though, that God had a very specific place in mind to begin his relationship with his chosen people and to establish a real community of faith. God can do whatever he wants, of course, and so he could have easily started a covenant with an Inuit or aboriginal Australian, but he didn’t. He chose a specific time in history and with it a specific place: the Ancient Near East. Mesopotamia. The Levant. Canaan. Israel.

Why?

Haven’t the foggiest. As the community of faith grows and Judaism expands, however, a possible reason emerges. Through the Torah, God establishes a set of practices designed specifically to keep the Israelites distinct from their surrounding people groups (Leviticus 18:3 and Deuteronomy 18:9, for example). It’s theoretically possible God claims space as sacred for the same reason: as long as the people maintain residence in a set geographic region, they remain separate from the peoples around them. That would make it easier for people to point to the hills to the west, for example, and go, “Over there? That’s where those people of Yahweh live. They live differently than we do.” (It’s significant to note also the specific provisions to care for the land contained in the Torah [but, like so many other things, that’s another topic for another day, and it’s an entire field of theology in its own right: creation care].) The land was different because of who was in it: people with a relationship with God.

This relationship was centered around the tabernacle, a movable tent which was carried through the wilderness into the promised land. I love the fact the tabernacle had specific instructions about how to be torn down, moved, and set up again. In a time where almost every god on the market was tied to a specific place, the tabernacle told a different story: this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, was mobile. He went with you wherever you were. No required pilgrimages to some holy site; no specific residence where God set up shop (like Mount Olympus). No, Yahweh was a God who moved. So when they finally reached what would become Israel, God went with them, every step of the way.

From there, the rest of the Old Testament tells the same story: the specific land of Israel was sacred to God. His people lived in a space promised to them, and they knew it to be holy. This is one reason the exiles into Assyria, Babylon, and Persia were so devastating: God couldn’t be worshiped anywhere but his own land. The holy land. They had forgotten the lesson of the tabernacle. God was fixed in space, and they didn’t know how to worship him outside of that space. The result was devastating.

But all of that changed again. In a way that underscored the idea of mobility, God gave himself two fully-human feet and walked the earth beside his people. And when Jesus died, resurrected, ascended, and sent the Holy Spirit to us, everything changed. No longer was the mandate to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. The mandate was to go to all nations, to the very ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). God was mobile again, and being in a specific place wasn’t necessary. Anyone, everyone, everywhere, could worship this God.

With that said, I still believe in a demarcation between spaces, if you will. God can be (and should be) worshiped everywhere, but there are certain locations that are simply more conducive to worship. My generation (i.e., the postmoderns) have adopted the notion that everything is sacred; there is no longer a sacred/secular or holy/profane distinction or dichotomy. Well, frankly, I disagree. Strongly. To borrow from The Incredibles, if everything is sacred, nothing is. Will everything be redeemed and made holy at the end as God claims his own? Yes. But that time is not now. Right now, you can enter certain locations and feel the profanity. Evil spirits and the like are still very much a reality, and the demonic has much of creation in its grip. Should we engage in some sort of territorial (also called strategic level) spiritual warfare? I’m not so sure. Should we go into the dark places of the earth and be light? Oh yes. But at the end of the day, there are still some places which are simply evil (porn studios come to mind, as do places where people are bought and sold into slavery), just as there are some places which are also good and holy (churches should be in this category — sadly, not all of them are).

Are those places sacred simply because they happen to be in Kansas? Kentucky? Jerusalem? Doubtful. I’d say they are sacred because they’re where the people of God seek his face and his peace showers down upon them. They’re holy because the Holy One is at work there in special ways. So even though I may be in Kansas now, I’m still somewhere God is at work, and I’m still somewhere I can be at work for God. When all is said and done, that just might be the only theology of location that matters.