Kim's Blog

Sacred or profane?

At the Reformation, Martin Luther emphasised the church as a group of individuals who hear and respond to the voice of Christ, rejecting Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the corporate body summarised in the Nicene Creed as “one, holy and catholic”. This emphasis on the individual and their personal response to God has remained the identifying feature of post Reformation Protestant ecclesiology, locating holiness as personal and in the response of the individual believer.

 This has led to an increased emphasis on the life and morality of the believer which could appear to emphasise works rather than grace as the means of salvation in some churches; in a society where many people have no understanding of the faith, they may be seen as ‘profane’ and to be kept separate from because they are ontologically different from ‘the saved’.

As a starting point for mission, this could communicate a moral superiority and lay heavy emphasis on certain behaviours being necessary before welcome and belonging will be offered. A negative view of culture and society may pervade which expects separation from the mainstream of society. Social and cultural life is expected to be lived around the activities of the church. This has led to a gap which has ever widened as society and church have less points of contact, familiarity, shared references and conversation, ultimately reducing recognition and understanding. The church may have a self-understanding of the need for purity related to separateness and may feel misunderstood, rejected or even victimised by society. I grew up in a church like this and was not allowed to attend my friends’ birthday parties or sleepovers etc.

The categorisation into sacred and profane (saved/unsaved; clean/unclean; holy/unholy; church/world etc) is a dualist mentality that the life of Jesus doesn’t evidence, and in fact is reminiscent of the ideology of the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus gave such a hard time. However such is the human desire to categorise and box people in, other disciplines have supported and contributed to this divide.

In the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim’s 1912 study The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life[i] divided everything up into opposing and distinctive categories of sacred and profane. He described the profane as “the everyday and the utilitarian…it is commonplace, boring and familiar”, whereas the “church or temple is sacred, people initiated into cultic rituals are sacred. Workers, children, women and strangers are typically profane.”

As we see much of the Old Testament law dedicated to the care of worker’s rights and provision for the stranger, and the life of Jesus as intertwined with women and children, we can see that prevailing culture and not Biblical texts influenced prejudice against women, the working classes and minorities that have pervaded some strains of Protestant evangelicalism. (Prejudice against women as unholy, based on the idea that sin entered the world through Eve, continues strongly in many churches that operate this dualist mindset.) This is at times matched by prejudice against people who are poor and uneducated who are often treated as to blame for their own misfortunes – yet the fact that others may have had stable family lives, enough to eat, stability, health, housing and education is seen as evidence of God’s favour rather than immense blessing and good fortune to be thankful for and shared around.   

Journeying with people who are the recipients of this kind of labelling and prejudice has taught us they are just as likely to meet with God and to receive and mediate his wisdom, to live communally and care for one another, to share love and what little they may have generously, and to open up their circles to strangers and welcome them in. People who have nothing to recommend them in the world’s terms – no family connections, status, qualifications or professions, no church background or networking advantages, no great feats of achievement, have mediated grace in extraordinary ways.  

They will have all their tears wiped away, be welcomed at the table, be first in line for a change – because the heart of God is always to show unmerited grace. It’s a blessing to be reminded that we aren’t allowed in because we are ‘somebody,’ or because we raised the most money from our wealthy friends for overseas mission, or because we have only Christian friends, know all the words to our Matt Redman CD’s or whatever. We are all, only ever welcomed in because God made us to be in relationship with us, and by his grace he loves us, despite all our dualist unpleasantness and moral superiority. There is no sacred or profane. Only grace.

[i] Cited in C McDannell Material Christianity (Yale University Press) 1996, p5

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