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What is sacred? Respecting the spiritual beliefs and commitments of others

Published: Friday, Dec. 2 2011 12:29 p.m. MST

Former US Ambassador John Price (L) and Rabbi Benny Zippel lights the Menorah as Chanukah 2010 is celebrated at the Governor's Mansion in Salt Lake City, Utah, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When 15-year-old Angela and her family first moved to Utah three years ago, she understood that she would be living among many people who had different religious beliefs than her own.

"It will be an adventure," her father told her.

And it was — a very pleasant one, for the most part. She quickly found friends with whom she had a great deal in common — religious differences notwithstanding — and she quickly began to fit in with a large and active social circle.

When Angela turned 16 her parents gave her a beautiful, simple cross on a delicate gold chain as a symbol of her faith in Jesus Christ and her commitment to Christian living. She proudly wore it to school the next day and was anxious to show it to her new-found friends.

Their reaction wasn't exactly what she was expecting.

"Oh … that's … nice," her closest friend stammered, then turned quickly away.

"In my church we don't believe in wearing crosses," another friend said flatly.

"If your big brother was shot and killed, would you wear the bullet around your neck?" another girl asked.

By the end of the day, Angela felt embarrassed and alienated.

"I understand that different people believe different things," she said to her parents that night. "But nobody asked me about what I believe, or why the necklace means so much to me. It was like I was supposed to feel bad for wearing something that reminds me of my faith."

Angela isn't alone in that feeling of interfaith frustration. Although contemporary society generally embraces the notion of religious freedom and tolerance, there is an undercurrent of mistrust and even animosity that seems to emerge whenever significant differences in religious belief, tradition, policy or style present themselves. And if you try to explain those differences using words like "sacred" or "holy," prepare to be challenged, questioned, joked about and teased.

"The world today is shifting more and more and more to a selfish and godless belief system," said Rabbi Benny Zippel, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Utah, an organization for orthodox Jews. "And so the notion of something being sacred is challenging in a world that has shifted more to seeking godless pursuits."

Colleen E. Gudreau, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, agreed that "we live in a society that values the material: that which can be measured, analyzed, dissected and reassembled."

As a result, she continued, "those who have experienced 'hierophany' (the manifestation of God to us) may not recognize it for what it is. Or, lacking adequate language to talk about it, they may compartmentalize the experience as 'spiritual,' but not contemplate its deeper reality or meaning."

But consideration for that which is sacred or holy in our own lives and in the lives of others is important, Rabbi Zippel said.

"The concept of 'sacred' was not created by man," he said. "We are commanded by God to be a sacred people and to integrate sacredness in our lives.

"That which is sacred needs reverence — it demands it," he said. "Whether or not it is sacred to us personally, it demands our respect in behalf of others."

But what exactly is sacred? How do we recognize it? And how do we appropriately show respect for something that is sacred to others, but not to us?

The definition of what is sacred is broad, and varies from faith group to faith group. Within the various branches of Christianity, for example, "there is a wide spectrum of approaches on that," according to Ross Anderson, pastor of the Alpine Church, a non-denominational Christian church with four campuses in northern Utah.

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