Location and Conviction

Location and Conviction
Lent 38

I was recently asked how I came up with the topics I write about and if there was a guide somewhere I used. The truth is that I get inspiration from everyday things and well, just plain every day. Sometimes I hear something and then google it. Yesterday I overheard someone talking about how mundane they thought religion had become and I goggled “sacred mundane”, thinking I would find nothing. I was wrong. There were many hits for what I thought was going to be nothing. It posed an interesting question: Why is there any “mundane” in our “sacred”?

Sacred is defined as that which is precious or has great meaning. Mundane is that which is dull, meaningless, bland. Why do we allow anything to be mundane in that which is supposed to be precious? Why do we not consider the two terms to be contradictory? What are we doing wrong that results in our spiritual and/or religious beliefs to become mundane?

French sociologist Emile Durkheim wondered how society would carry on given the changing world he knew. Born at the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, Durkheim knew the social rules that mankind had lived by previously were changing. He himself sought a secular path although he was born into a family of French Jews who were very diligent in practicing their faith. The world had lived according to the rules of each individual culture and the beliefs attached to each. By the beginning of the 1800’s, mankind was moving around the globe; goods were both imported and exported. Ideas were being exchanged and cultures merging.

Durkheim saw problems with these changes. “For if society lacks the unity that derives from the fact that the relationships between its parts are exactly regulated, that unity resulting from the harmonious articulation of its various functions assured by effective discipline and if, in addition, society lacks the unity based upon the commitment of men’s wills to a common objective, then it is no more than a pile of sand that the least jolt or the slightest puff will suffice to scatter”.

Durkheim proposed what he called the “sacred-profane dichotomy”, an idea he felt to be at the core of religion. “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” Durkheim believed that “sacred” symbolized those symbols or totems which represented the tenets of one’s religion. The “profane” involved mundane things, the everyday things that occupy humans’ minds and cause us to do the things we do, valuing material items. His sacred/profane dichotomy was not simply good versus evil, though. To Durkheim both the sacred and the profane could be either good or evil. It was how they were used and lived that determined twhat was good and waht was evil.

William James was a late nineteenth century educator and philosopher. The son of a theologian, William James was a prolific writer who wrote in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: “Religion… shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” James believed that “true beliefs” were those beliefs that proved useful to the believer.

“The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations. Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for ‘to be true’ means only to perform this marriage-function,” James wrote.

One of William James more well-known discussions concerned a man encountering a bear. Believing that man possessed more instincts than most animals, James pondered about human emotion. He believed emotion was a sequence of events that began with a stimulus and ended with a feeling. Of particular interest were the steps between the stimulus and the feeling. James asked the question: “Do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run?” James proposed that the act of running created our fear. Our response to our actions defined our emotions.

If we believe William James theory that our actions determine our emotions, then perhaps it makes sense that the sacred can become mundane. When we cease to live according to our beliefs, then we lose our stimulus which then creates our feelings. Lax attendance in our religious or spiritual beliefs results in a lack of purpose or feeling for those beliefs.

Where we place ourselves in life determines our convictions and our actions. The person who doesn’t steal because of a belief that honesty is the best policy is living their conviction. The person who does not follow the crowd into following wild trends seldom loses sight of their beliefs. Where we place ourselves says a great deal about what we believe. It will not make you the most popular kid on the block but living with conviction will reap great rewards.

Do we believe because we worship or do we worship because we believe? The fact is that we live as we believe and we believe as we live. We must find and identify the sacred in order to give our lives meaning. Otherwise, our existence is simply a mundane process and we have little purpose. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “A ‘No” uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

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