Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Earth Is Not Sacred

There. I've said it right up front so that it's clear where I'm going. I'm responding to the resurgence of nature worship so prevalent in our society. The idea that the Earth is sacred, implicit for so many for so long, is coming out explicitly in many areas, so much so that Ellen and I saw that very phrase ("The Earth is sacred") made repeatedly in a brochure published by a diocesan organization and distributed in a parish.

Of course, I'm not objecting to clean air and water, or good stewardship of nature. I'm objecting to the hijacking of the term "sacred".

In modern usage, "sacred" has come to be a kind of superlative expression of value. If something is valuable, we might say it is "special". Something of extra value might be "precious". But to describe something of extreme value, we reach for the word "sacred".

But that's not what the word means. Sacred technically means set apart for special use. It isn't necessarily tied to value of any type (economic, sentimental, etc.), but describes nature of usage. The opposite of "sacred" is not "worthless", but "common".

For instance, let's say a family had an heirloom knife which had been used to cut wedding cakes. Perhaps it had first been used by a great-grandfather at his wedding, and he had set it aside to bring out at his children's weddings. The only purpose of this ceremonial knife was to cut wedding cakes, and stories were told about the various weddings at which it had been used. Perhaps the knife itself was of simple make, with a wooden handle and a cheap steel blade. As a knife, it might be nothing so nice as the well-balanced surgical steel Wusthofs in the block on the counter. But it would be "sacred" - that is, reserved for special use in a certain context. That's what "sacred" means.

Naturally, "sacred" is usually a term associated with religious observance, but it doesn't have to be. As long as man has been conscious of something greater than himself - even if it's only something passed down from a great-grandfather - he has set things aside for special use. Carrots may need to be cut, but do not use that knife. Sheep may need to be pastured, but not in that grove. When God commanded the construction of the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple, in the Old Testament, He stipulated that there were spaces and implements that were set aside for special use in worship and other ceremonies. All the other spaces and implements could be used for ordinary things.

By this definition, the Earth, in the sense of the world and environment, is not sacred - it is common. In fact, there is nothing more common than the Earth. This is not to say that the Earth is not valuable. It is arguably the most valuable thing we have - but it is meant for ordinary use. We till, and mine, and build upon, and travel over the Earth, conducting our ordinary business. The Earth is valuable, and should be well cared for, but is not sacred.

The pivotal concept is greatness. It is when dealing with things greater than ourselves that the sacred comes into play. That's when we start making distinctions between what is used when dealing with the Greater Thing and what is used when dealing with ordinary things. When anyone invokes the term "sacred", they're making an ontological statement - they're saying something about the nature of things. The heirloom knife may be constructed of ordinary wood and cheap steel, but its usage connects the family members to something greater than themselves - their heritage. The ciborium may look like a bowl, but one would not eat Fruit Loops out of one - and if one did so consciously, it would an ontological statement.

This is where the environmentalists - even the well meaning diocesan ones - are wrong. By referring to the Earth as "sacred", they state implicitly that the Earth is by its nature greater than the men who walk on it. This is not true. The Earth may be as good as men, but it is not greater. Divine revelation tells us that if there's something sacred on the face of the planet, it is mankind. The Earth is entrusted to man's care as something precious and valuable, but if anything is set aside for special use, it is man himself, steward and lord of Creation on God's behalf. Granted, that same revelation tells us that we've fallen from our position, and thus abuse and maltreat that which we were supposed to treasure and cherish, but that did not undo our original nature, and neither did it exult the creation above us. Those who contend that the Earth is by nature greater than mankind are elevating the Earth to a position to be venerated or worshiped - even if they're only doing it unconsciously.

In the long run, this strategy may backfire badly on the nature worshipers. If history tells us anything, it is that men are iconoclasts. They don't want to hear about things greater than they are (just ask God). They tend to eventually tear down temples and defile sacred groves and use holy artifacts to mix wine at orgies. Talk too long and too loud about the sacredness of Earth, and you may end up triggering a response that you don't intend. It might be better to keep Earth in her proper place: as a good thing to be valued for what it is, not elevated to what it is not. Just because something is common doesn't mean it isn't valuable and appreciated (like the Wusthofs). Calling something "sacred" when you intend to say "precious" serves nobody.

Keep the term "sacred" for what it should be used for. Then everything will fall into proper order.

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