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May 17, 2004


Nature has been sacred since the dawn of human consciousness — that moment in evolutionary time when people first became aware of their own existence, when women and men began to wonder about their place on Earth and in the larger cosmos. To know that one is ignorant is the beginning of wisdom, and if we could pinpoint the instant when our ancestors began to think beyond themselves, we would know exactly when are species started to become wise, to become, not just Homo, but Homo sapiens. The mysteries of the natural world were certainly the initial impetus for humans to create (or, if you prefer, discover) the sacred. The nation of the sacred has since been endlessly elaborated in human cultures, producing not just the religious variety have today, but a broadening range of spirituality, often interfused with the secular, that cannot be easily categorized as ‘faith’. So we see that the sacred has long been, and continues to be, a bridge between nature and culture.

            If sacredness is essentially an acknowledgement of mystery, then there is no question that biological diversity — the variety of genes, species, and ecosystem on Earth — offers plenty of scope to be considered sacred. It is replete with enigmas: nobody knows all the details how ecosystems functions, or how genes work, or even how many species there are. This should not surprise us, actually. Fascination with nature may stretch back to time immemorial, but biodiversity as a rigorous concept gained currency only in the 1980s. Reflecting on the global environment data that had never before been available, scientists realized that a mass extinction of species, the first ever caused by people, had probably begun. The critical point for our discussion is that despite biodiversity’s scientific credentials, the continuing fervor of interest in it is squarely a moral response to a moral question: Why should we care about natural variety? Surprisingly, the answers that are being offered by scientist often make recourse not explicitly (see Takacs 1996: pp. 254-70).

            The emerging dialogue in biodiversity and the sacred offers some valuable insights for museum and heritage practitioners whose work traditionally has focused on the more ‘conventional’  forms of sacred expression, i.e. objects, buildings, and sites that are consciously designed with religious or spiritual intent. A brief article such as this can do no more than touch upon a few of the connections, which are highlighted below.

            The loss of the sacred is profoundly, yet productively, disturbing. It has been suggested that the prospect of widespread extinctions and ecosystem destruction is deeply upsetting to many people, that the depth of their reactions cannot be explained solely on materialistic or intellectual grounds, and that ‘such disturbing responses in the human psyche’ are, in truth, ‘signs of hope: an awakening of our forgotten, but instinctual interconnections with nature. . .'(Golliher, 1999: p.439). Here is something at work that is very much akin to spiritual conviction, to a belief in a kind of sacred ultimacy whose object cannot be compromised. Under parallel conditions, a similar profound reaction can take hold within the museum and heritage professional community, as when the Taliban ignored pleas from around the world and destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, or when the Iraq national museum in Baghdad was looted. These acts were quite properly branded as unconscionable desecrations and crimes against all humanity. The fact that so many reacted so intensely, with  mixture of horror, disgust, and anger, should also be taken as a sign of hope: numerous people regard outstanding examples of cultural heritage as sacred (or at least surpassingly valuable) and will take action to see them protected or restored.

            More and more, the sacred is being expressed in a secular context. The boundaries between sacred and profane have never been as sharp as is often supposed (see, e.g., Eliade, 1969: p. 126), but today one finds the two increasingly mixed. Protected natural areas, which are the cornerstone of any strategy to protect global biodiversity, provide examples that are relevant to cultural heritage. ‘In the modern world; the ethicist J. Ronald Engel notes, ‘the most powerful sacred space are often “secular” places that implicitly function in ways comparable to the explicitly religious places of the past.  . . .Today, for many people the world over, national parks are sacred spaces’ (Engel, 1985: p. 55). This attitude deepens, in a subtle but important was, that which was expressed three-quarters of a century ago by John C. Merriam, a prominent American scientist, when he said that national parks ‘represent opportunities for worship in which one comes to understand more fully certain of the attribute of nature and its Creator. They are not objects to be worshipped, but they are altars over which we may worship’ (Merriam, 1926: p. 478). Parks as ‘cathedrals’ where we encounter the scared are becoming scared in themselves: we may care as much about Yellowstone, the abstract entity marked by lines on a map, as we do about the biodiversity of Yellowstone and the living ecosystem encompassed by those boundaries. The plethora of non-material values that people encounter in, or assign to, protected areas (see Harmon and Putney 2003) attest to the complexity of our desire to engage nature’s moral import.

            In a similar way, many of the institutions that protect cultural heritage have become fused, in the public mind, with the objects of heritage themselves. The world’s great public museums and most prominent cultural monuments and sites have been ‘lifted up’ (so to speak) out of their immediate context and simultaneously placed with larger context of global heritage. That status, which add layers of meaning to the site, its objects, and the way they are administered, is itself quasi-sacred in the same sense described above for parks and biodiversity. This is, in fact, the internal logic that holds the World Heritage Convention together, and is reflected in its three categories of natural, cultural, and mixed sites — many of which are also sacred in their own right, of course.

            The sacred is impermanent and dynamic. Even in a purely religious context, the sacred is never fixed in time. Not only does the doctrinal understanding of the sacred evolve, sacred objects and sites can be completely desacralized and, sometimes, resacralized. We have already noted an extreme form of desacralization with reference to the Taliban, but this phenomenon has, unfortunately, been around for thousands of years. For instance, the sacred groves of the old Roman Empire were systematically destroyed by imperial edict following Christianization in the fourth century A.D. (Hughes, 1998: pp. 119-20); no trace of the old worship could be allowed to remain and compete with the new. Today, there is new impetus to identity such sacred natural sites and given them official protected status (Putney, 2003), effectively resacralizing them. The recent anointing of biodiversity as one of the supreme ‘goods’ of existence is essentially an act of sacralization.

            So new forms of the sacred are constantly emerging, often being fashioned out of secular experience. Now consider the following question, which illustrates a situation many cultural heritage practitioners will be familiar with: Is the cell at the Robben Island Prison (now museum) where Nelson Mandela was held for the bulk of his imprisonment by the apartheid regime a sacred place? For those who revere courage and the ideals of democracy, it must be something close to that. The symbolism is already taking hold: Mandela himself helped light a votive candle in that cell to mark the turning of the millennium in 2000. It is a difficult question to answer, for the psychospiritual footing is very shaky here. On the one hand, Mandela is very much alive and therefore not yet eligible for secular colonization (if we may put it that way). On the other, there is a strong potential that he will posthumously attain such stature, much as Lincoln and Gandhi have. Adding to the complication, such iconization can be reversed, even after many years, as has happened with Lenin in Russia. New forms of the sacred are constantly being carved out of the secular, but what has been sacralized can be desacralized and then sacralized all over again. The sacred aspires to permanency, but in a culturally dynamic world, never truly attains it.