Sacredness, Religion, and Secularization

What role do terms related to sacredness have in a world in which the concepts of humankind, space, the body, and the material world are changing rapidly?


The focus of this theme is a new investigation of the concept of sacredness. Our aim is to create an opportunity for a new exploration of the role of various kinds of sacredness—multiple sacrednesses—in contemporary culture, with all the broad cultural ramifications that derive from this exploration.



In the past 150 years, the concept of the sacred has been at the heart of many investigations: Philosophers have studied the theoretical question of whether a person can be sacred or whether only the transcendent god is sacred. Sociologists have studied sacredness as a concept that creates a society and binds it together. Religious studies scholars have looked at sacredness comparatively, that is, investigating what different religions choose to sanctify. They have also conducted a phenomenological investigation; that is, they have considered the nature of different experiences of sacredness. Anthropologists, too, have studied sacredness comparatively, looking at the practices of sacredness in religious and pre-religious societies, and have sought to propose a ranking of progress in the conception of sacredness. Psychologists have examined it as a model and as a key to understanding behaviors of individuals and groups. In politics, sacredness has been constructed as an object to be appropriated, like something owned or under the wing of a group. These investigations have been conducted from the perspective of modernity and secularization, on the assumption of the existence of “religions” in which models of sacredness have functioned, or have ceased to function, or have been translated to a secularized world. We aim to study the concepts of sacredness from post-secular perspectives that do not presuppose models of sacredness and a religion–secularization dichotomy. These approaches do not presuppose secular modernity, nor are they in thrall to political theology approaches.


How are sacrednesses shaped in diverse spaces, what are the mechanisms of sacredness, and how do they function? How can we invoke concepts of sacredness to imagine post-secular spaces? What cultural, political, and economic arrangements arise in these spaces, and what place do the “secular” subject and the “religious” subject have in those spaces? The sacrednesses that will be studied include types that differ from each other but have mutual relations between them. These types include the following:


A.    Transcendent sacrednesses: Sacrednesses within the monotheistic religions; sacredness translated from the religion or invented as part of ideological views or modern meta-stories, such as nationalism, liberalism, or secularism


B.    Sacredness deriving from categories of tradition and from approaches and customs belonging to the pre-secular world that continue to function in various ways in a world that is perceived as secularized (for example, circumcision in Judaism and Islam, holy graves

of saints, words and passages, amulets and sacred language)

C.    Sacredness that cannot be ascribed to monotheistic traditions or associated with an ideological array of national, social, or individual purification or distinction (such as, for example, sacredness in contexts of paganism; sanctification of the body, nature, and the

environment; sacredness and dedication in the context of intimacy and therapeutic discourse)


Our analysis of sacrednesses will be carried out through study of their various manifestations—in space, texts, time, the body, and rituals—and will not be bound to any particular theory or division between religious sacredness and secular sacredness. In addition, theanalysis will not focus only on how religious sanctities are translated into secularized worlds. Consequently, the analysis will be able to help in understanding the various elements that characterize the thought, politics, and culture of our times.

By means of a variety of concepts related to sacredness (such as defilement, purification, sacrifice, and devotion), how they are constructed, and the practices that accompany them, we aim to clarify what happened when multiple modernities encountered the multiple sacrednesses created within cultural contexts that are not necessarily Christian or monotheistic. What is the end result? How do the secularized sacrednesses, such as “the sacredness of humankind,” “the sacredness of life,” and “human rights,” function? How does intimacy function as sacredness?



In addition, we aim to clarify how concepts of sacredness operate in the absence of an instigator of sacredness—sacredness without metaphysics: Is it possible to propose a reconstruction of concepts that we have thought of as “secular and religious” by means of phenomenologies that use concepts of sacredness that derive from traditions? The starting point will be the unique Jewish and Israeli theological context and its dual meaning as both the individual case and the paradigmatic case through which it is possible to attain a new understanding of secularization in general. We will examine how the use of concepts related to sacredness that derive from the various traditions—not necessarily against a background of secularization—can shed light on blind spots in relation to culture. One of the ways we will do this will be by examining concepts such as awe and Kabbalah, considering the tension between secularization and profanation, and analyzing the political and psychological dimensions of sacredness and openness that the profanation movement allows.


Thus, for example, secularization restores and copies the separateness and the power and sanctifies them, whereas profanation, as Agamben argues, dismantles and makes movement possible: “Profane is the term for something that was once sacred or religious and is returned to the use and property of men” (Profanations, p. 73).





These are some of the topics that we will deal with:


1.     Sacredness and belonging: When something becomes sacred, it no longer belongs to a person (or a group?) but becomes a criterion: For its sake, one may/must/should live and die, sacrifice and become defiled. (To whom, for example, do the IDF’s fallen “belong”?)

2.     Sacredness, power, and political violence: Sovereignty and its dialectical relations with the sacred; the therapeutic power of the sanctified sovereign; sacredness and exile without sovereignty vs. the sacredness of the Hebrew Bible and the state; sanctification of the community through legislation

3.     Sacredness, thought, and meaning: How do sacrednesses operate in the creation of hierarchies of meaning?

4.     The temptation of sacredness, desire, and danger: The dialectic of the temptation of sacredness and the danger in it, as well as the danger that if we attain it, its passion will disappear and with it the sacredness. How is the desire for sacredness realized? Does this dialectic exist also in contexts of traditional sacrednesses?