“Sacred” and “the Sacred”: False Cognates

by Craig Martin

“Sacred” is an adjective; “the Sacred” is a noun.  In The Ideology of Religious Studies, Tim Fitzgerald discusses the adjectival use:

If by ‘sacred’ we mean those things, ideas, places, people, stories, procedures and principles that empirical groups of people value, deem to be constitutive of their collective identity, or will defend to the death, then it seems likely that we have a relatively meaningful crosscultural concept. (19)

By contrast, the noun apparently refers to a non-empirical thing, perhaps an “ontologically distinct transcendental entity or supernatural realm” (19), whose existence must be intuited by its appearances or manifestations. Careful scholarly use of the adjectival form of the term points not to “the Sacred,” nor primarily to sacred things, but rather to humans who hold things to be sacred; the noun use of the term points to something that can’t be seen.

It is advisable not to confuse them, and I take it as self-evident that one of these has more analytic usefulness than the other.

Craig Martin is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College and Executive Secretary of the North American Association for the Study of Religion. His books include Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere (Equinox 2010) A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox 2012).

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3 Responses to “Sacred” and “the Sacred”: False Cognates

  1. Russell McCutcheon says:

    If interested, see Bill Paden’s “Before ‘the Sacred’ Became Theological: Rereading the Durkheimian Legacy” in MTSR 3/1


  2. zjb says:

    In biblical Hebrew, there’s just one word for sacred or holy: “kadosh.” It generally appears in the Bible as an adjective. But In rabbinic argot, God is referred to as “The Holy One Blessed be He.”

  3. Adam Ware says:

    An always excellent reminder. Bruno Latour makes similar remarks regarding “the social,” admonishing against confusing an object of study with the interpretive scaffolding assembled for its evaluation. Societies aren’t The Social any more than sacred things are The Sacred.

    The concept of “pointing to The Sacred” always makes me think of that big pointing hand in the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Wham! Hierophany.

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