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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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By “the holy” and “the sacred” we in the twentieth
century denote what partakes of qualities ascribed to
the divine. In some current contexts the two terms
appear virtually interchangeable, especially if they set
God or religion over against the profane or secular.
In other contexts, the meanings differ. This article
attempts a description of the relationship of the words
“holy” and “sacred” in common adjectival usage, fol-
lowed by a discussion of their role as key terms in the
organization of explicit discourse about an idea.

The Terms as Words. Perusal of the wealth of dated
entries under “holy” and “sacred” in the Oxford
English Dictionary
will demonstrate that in the lan-
guage the Anglo-Saxon term “holy” is older than the
Latin “sacred,” and at one time covered all that was
divinely hallowed or was associated with such by men.
Following the appearance of the word “sacred,” a
partial separation of functions between the two took
place. This separation, it may be argued, amounts to
a difference in the degree to which the user of these
words is willing to imply participation in the religious
tradition under discussion.

To refer to something as holy implies, in the over-
whelming majority of the cases cited, a commitment
to the proposition that the thing in question is in fact
holy, that it has been hallowed by God. To call some-
thing sacred, on the other hand, may or may not imply
a commitment to its sacredness on the part of the


speaker, for the term is descriptive of the veneration
accorded by men; in fact, though the verbal force of
the word is no longer felt, it has in the past meant
“consecrated.” The general contrast between the
semantic fields of the two words is obvious if one pairs
the Holy Bible with the Sacred Books of the East; in
the first case, one's own tradition affirms the writings'
holiness, while in the latter the title is descriptive of
others' reverence for them. Thus music, man's creation,
may be sacred but is not called holy; man's affections,
such as one's honor or the memory of one's beloved,
are spoken of as sacred; and a “sacred cow” is some-
thing in others' veneration of which the speaker mani-
festly does not share.

To test this general evaluation one looks about for
instances which do not fit. The Christian speaks of the
saint, the man whose conduct or experience he under-
stands to conform to holiness, and yet whose counter-
part in another community he will call a “holy man”
rather than a “sacred man.” Such an example, however,
alerts one to the fact that in English “holy” covers
a range of morality or discipline which “sacred” does
not: to distinguish holiness and goodness would be a
complex ethical point, but to distinguish sacredness and
goodness seems less so.

The semantic contrast between holy and sacred may
be discerned to a certain extent in European languages
derived from Latin, where medieval usage held
sanctum in higher esteem than sacrum (though the two
have a common etymological origin, and a rich and
subtle set of contexts in pre-Christian classical usage):
French saint/sacré, Italian santo/sacro, etc. The dis-
tinction is, however, largely absent from German: as
verbs, heiligen/weihen correspond to “sanctify”/
“consecrate,” but “sacred” and “holy” fall together
as heilig. The implications of this are fascinating. In
the Middle Ages, the domain of authority claimed
in Latin by the sacrum imperium Romanum became
semantically extended when rendered through German
as the Holy Roman Empire. And in twentieth-century
study of religion, our topic was shaped by Rudolf Otto,
who wrote in German and for whom therefore heilig
was, as we shall see, usefully ambiguous.

Holiness as a Religious Goal. Through much of the
history of religion in the West, the word holy has been
not so much a key term for independent reflection as
it has been an attribute of the divine. A history of the
adjectival force of the term thus approximates a history
of those qualities of inaccessibility, power, authority,
and goodness which have attended the idea of God.

In a sense Western tradition have not classically
regarded the idea of God's holiness to have developed
but have seen it as present in the earliest revelations.
God's holiness was his presence, as when Moses trem
bled in awe before its radiance, or when Isaiah ex-
claimed, “Holy, holy, holy is [the Lord] of hosts.”
Various precincts were the localization of that pres-
ence: the land of promise, but within that the holy
hill of Zion and especially the inmost courts of the
Temple; or the nation as God's people but within that
the priesthood; the institutions of Hebrew society and
warfare but especially the cultus, with particular spe-
cial acts and moments. In all of this the holy was God's
domain, in contrast to the profane, which was only
more ambiguously so.

An increase in the specifically moral implications of
holiness in ancient Israel developed in the course of
time, in part through the teachings of some of the
eighth- through sixth-century (B.C.) prophets and in
part as a result of the destruction of some of the more
tangible Israelite political and cultic institutions by
foreign conquest in the prophets' day and again in the
first and second centuries A.D. Nonetheless Jewish tra-
dition has clung to its emphasis on purity of life and
thought as a people holy to God through very specific
cultic and communal acts, and holiness in Talmudic
usage has been interpreted largely in such terms. It
has been in modern times beginning with the Enlight-
enment that there has been within Judaism significant
questioning of the sacredness of traditional ritual or
locality and a discussion of the extent to which being
a holy people entails separateness from the surrounding

On the subject of God's essential holiness Christen-
dom likewise has from the start held it to be majesty
and power, with the area of contention what institu-
tions or forms of conduct reflect it. Under persecution,
holiness implied steadfastness for the early ecclesia, the
community called apart from the world; but from
Constantine onwards, that community came to have
more of the world, including emperors, within it. The
collapse of the Roman Empire in the West gave the
church much secular as well as sacred authority, and
while in principle a distinction existed between the
church's spiritual holiness and the sacredness it con-
ferred on kings and princes, in practice even the idea
of holiness was intimately linked with the struggle for
authority in the high Middle Ages.

With the secularization of the European social order,
the selfless moral purity and devotional perfection of
the saint remained as the principal content of holiness.
In the Catholic tradition the saint, besides being the
model for the individual, has been seen as interceding
on his behalf with God. Protestantism has stressed the
element of law and judgment in God's holiness, with
wrath awaiting the wicked, but it too asserted that his
redeeming grace can sanctify the lives and wills of
men; of this grace the pietists and “holiness churches”


especially claim a vivid awareness. Holiness, in the
internal theological writings of Western Christendom,
remains in part the domain of the transcendent God,
in part an ethical and devotional aspiration.

The Sacred as a Comparative Observation. Just as
“holy” can be seen principally as an aspect of the idea
of God, so “sacred” has been through most of Western
intellectual history a description of the objects of reli-
rather than an integrating idea in its own right.
While, in one's own piety, to hold something sacred
is to affirm that holiness is mediated through it, the
interplay of civilizations and traditions has repeatedly
brought men into contact with the sacred things of
others, reverence for which they did not share, and
posed the opportunity to describe religiousness from
without. We must leave aside here the details of how
Hesiod, Herodotus, Philo, and many others dealt with
situations where gods were many but truth presumed
to be one, but must observe at least that an awareness
of religious diversity is as old as Western culture itself.

For centuries in Christian Europe, the principal
religious horizons included the Muslims as an alien
world without, the Jews as an alien world within, and
classical pagans as an alien world in the past; while
the piety of these was seen as religion and its objects
as sacred, comparisons of them with Christian “truth”
remained odious. Interest in the religiousness of others
gained momentum gradually during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, with the secularization and
humanism of the Renaissance, the fragmenting of
ecclesiastical authority in the Reformation, and
Europe's voyages of discovery and trade. Now a genre
of literature describing the religious customs of the
world would appear, and the word “religion” would
be used for the first time in the plural as denoting
various communities of piety rather than piety itself.
A Christian attempt to baptize Chinese customs as
appropriate to the church in seventeenth-century
China was made there by Jesuits, but evoked strong
opposition from the Franciscans and Rome in the
so-called Rites Controversy.

In the eighteenth century there were those outside
the church who held it to be benighted along with
the rest. David Hume and Immanuel Kant argued that
one could not have valid knowledge of such a thing
as the sacred. Friedrich Schleiermacher, working from
Kantian premisses, was at least able to ground religion
in the feelings. The romantics argued from the uni-
versality of myths to their appropriateness in human
emotion and feeling. But from the sixteenth through
the early nineteenth century such arguments were
logical rather than chronological: at bottom, they were
philosophical rather than historical speculations on the
nature of religion.

Modern use of “the holy” and “the sacred” as key
terms for analysis we owe, however, to the emergence
of the comparative study of religion which began in
the mid-nineteenth century. Increased historical and
archaeological discovery, coupled with the intellectual
excitement generated by Charles Darwin's idea of
biological evolution, turned many minds toward the
construction of developmental theories of human cul-
tural institutions and, among them, religion. The period
from Darwin to the First World War saw a wealth
of major theories of the origin (and, thereby, the nature)
of religion. Noteworthy among them, to mention only
three, were the attempts to see religion as belief in
animate spirits (Edward Tylor), or as stemming from
interpersonal conflict (Sigmund Freud), or as sym-
bolizing communal solidarity (Émile Durkheim). Most
of the theories held that the prehistoric origin and
present essence of religion could be tested by observa-
tion of contemporary primitive cultures. In addition,
these theories can be described as reductionistic, in that
they explained religion as an adaptation to psychologi-
cal or other human needs. Such functions of religion
have remained the content of behavioral-scientific
study of religion to the present.

Two terms in particular came into wide use in
European languages in the description of primitive
religion: mana and tabu (“taboo”). Mana, a Melanesian
word, refers to an aura of potency and mystery, and
came into use as a generic term for the primitive
“holy.” Taboo, also a term from the Pacific islands,
denoted, like “sacred,” that which is set apart from
common use or contact.

Thus it was that Nathan Söderblom, writing the
general article on “Holiness” in the Encyclopaedia of
Religion and Ethics
in 1912, would find it appropriate
to introduce the subject through a recapitulation of
primitive equivalents of mana and taboo, bringing the
Western sense of the divine into explicit parallel with
ethnographic data. Thus it was, also, that W. Robertson
Smith would in 1889 treat the early traditions of the
Old Testament as of a piece with primitive Semitic
religion. It became common especially in liberal
Protestant scholarship to portray as primitive sacerdo-
talism the background from which the prophets and
Jesus rescued the faith of Israel through an ethical
conception of holiness.

On the eve of World War I, the net effect of these
themes was to present Christianity as one of the fruits
of religious evolution, and religion as the function of
man's social or psychic needs. While for Protestants
Karl Barth was to reassert the incomparability of
Christianity, another Protestant theologian was to
reassert the irreducibility of religion.

Religious Theories of Religion. A synthesis between


participation in the Western traditional valuation of
holiness and behavioral description of it was the most
notable accomplishment of Rudolf Otto, a German
Protestant theologian who had, among other things,
traveled in Asia. His book The Idea of the Holy, pub-
lished in German in 1917, was widely influential. In-
debted to Schleiermacher's analysis of religion as feel-
ing, Otto termed the object of such feeling “the holy.”
The word implied, as all Christendom knew, goodness;
but there was more to holiness than goodness, in the
realm of power so recently explored as mana, taboo,
and the like. For this realm Otto coined the word “the
numinous,” describing this aspect of the holy as an
overwhelming yet fascinating mystery. Otto's effort
was to show that the central object of all religion was
sui generis, reducible neither to philosophical nor
psychological nor any other components. With Otto
“the holy” as a noun became at last a prime term for
analysis, combining what we have reviewed as the
participant's perception of God with the observer's
perception of religion, in that language where the holy
and the sacred are one.

While Christian theologians after Barth were eager
to argue that the Christian revelation is sui generis as
against religions, certain comparativists after Otto were
to state, notably in what was termed the phenomen-
ology of religion, a similar claim for religion in general
as over against other aspects of culture, at times draw-
ing on Otto for support. Holding that each religious
experience must be understood on its own terms, the
school has sought to chart the variety of man's re-
ligiousness in general patterns as a response to the
sacred, according the sacred the status which Otto gave
the holy. Whereas Otto had argued the ultimacy of
the holy largely in terms familiar within European
religion and philosophy, Gerardus van der Leeuw and
other phenomenologists of religion were arguing its
ultimacy from non-Western practices, myths, and texts
as well.

Thus although many behavioral scientists have re-
garded such endorsement of the sacred as highly sus-
pect, there has emerged an explicitly comparative
sense of “the holy” or “the sacred” in theological and
literary circles. Such usage is fraught with ambiguity
as to the objective status of a power such as “the holy”
correlated with man's religious concern. Like Paul
Tillich, a theologian reminiscent of and indebted to
Otto, many who employ “the holy” or “the sacred”
as nouns to denote a transcendent power argue from
man's religiousness as the best accessible evidence.

A use of “the holy” where once one might have used
“God” has developed as a result of the information
and the attitudes of recent cultural and religious plu-
ralism. Christendom's long-standing tradition of the
holy and Western culture's long history of description
of diverse sacreds have interacted and to some extent
fused in modern times. The tendency to include other
cultures' sacred as well as one's own is not likely soon
to be reversed.


Encyclopedia articles: Encyclopaedia of Religion and
lexikon für Theologie und Kirche; Die Religion in
Geschichte und Gegenwart;
Theological Dictionary of the
New Testament.

On biblical and Christian usage: William Robertson
Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (Edinburgh,
1889; also reprint); Johannes Pedersen, Israel (Copenhagen,
1940), Vols. III, IV; Helmer Ringgren, The Prophetical Con-
ception of Holiness
(Uppsala, 1948); Eduard Williger, Hagios
(Giessen, 1922); André M. J. Festugière, la sainteté (Paris,
1952); John M. Mecklin, The Passing of the Saint (Chicago,
1941); Alexander M. Harváth, heiligkeit und Sünde im
Lichten der thomistischen Theologie
(Freiburg in Switzer-
land, 1943); J. Baines Atkinson, The Beauty of Holiness
(London, 1953); Owen R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness
(London, 1961).

On comparative theories: Henry Pinard de la Boullaye,
L'étude critique des religions, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1929-31); Jan
de Vries, Godsdienstgeschiedenis in vogelvlucht (Utrecht,
1961), trans. Kees W. Bolle as The Study of Religion (New
York, 1967; also reprint); Wilfred C. Smith, The Meaning
and End of Religion
(New York, 1963; also reprint); William
A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion,
2nd ed. (New York, 1965); Hutton Webster, Taboo (Stanford,
1942); Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (New
York, 1966), Ch. 6.

The Holy and the Sacred: Wilhelm Windelband, “Das
Heilige,” in his Präludien, 2nd ed. (Tübingen, 1903); Rudolf
Otto, Das Heilige (Breslau, 1917), trans. John W. Harvey
as The Idea of the Holy (London, 1923; also reprint);
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Phänomenologie der Religion
(Tübingen, 1933), trans. John E. Turner as Religion in Es-
sence and Manifestation
(London, 1938; also reprint); W.
Brede Kristensen, The Meaning of Religion, trans. John B.
Carman (The Hague, 1960); Mircea Eliade, Traité d'histoire
des religions
(Paris, 1949), trans. Rosemary Sheed as Patterns
in Comparative Religion
(London, 1958; also reprint); Mir-
cea Eliade, Das Heilige und das Profane (Hamburg, 1957),
trans. Willard R. Trask as The Sacred and the Profane (New
York, 1959; also reprint).

Topical applications: Roger Caillois, L'homme et le sacré
(Paris, 1939), trans. Meyer Barash as Man and the Sacred
(Glencoe, Illinois, 1959); Bernhard Häring, Das Heilige und
das Gute
(Krailling, 1950); Jacques Grand'maison, le monde
et le sacré,
2 vols. (Paris, 1966, 1968); Gerardus van der
Leeuw, Wegen en granzen (Amsterdam, 1932), trans. David
E. Green as Sacred and Profane Beauty (New York, 1963;
also reprint); Vincent Buckley, Poetry and the Sacred
(London, 1968).


[See also Church as Institution; Evolutionism; God; Myth;
Primitivism; Sin and Salvation; Theodicy.]