Unit G

  • How do we understand the sacred? What, therefore, should we do?

    Common Syllabus

    Dr. Baumer - Fine Arts

    How individuals and societies treat differing notions of the sacred has been a fundamental problem in human existence, one that animates many of today’s conflicts. Addressing this problem may well begin with understanding different religious traditions, and music is a significant window into this realm. In virtually all societies, religious music intensifies the experience of the sacred, grounding metaphysical concepts in physical and emotional sensation. Unfamiliar musical expressions of the sacred are often difficult to accept; the non-believer can hardly be expected to feel as the believer does. In light of this, we will examine how music facilitates contact with the sacred in Mozart’s Requiem, African American Sanctified worship, the Sufi tradition of Islam, and Tibetan Buddhist chant. We will also consider recent arguments that sacred experience is a “natural” and ingrained part of human life.

    Just as the notion of the sacred extends beyond religion to such concepts as patriotism, honor, family, love, or even fandom, music’s associations with the sacred spill over into its “secular” forms as well.  From opera to rap, musical works derive meaning from sacred concepts, reflect the views of an artist or society, and propose influential new views of the sacred, leading to controversy. Beginning with Richard Strauss’s opera based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome, we will move on to several popular songs of the 1960s-1990s and some musical reactions to 9/11. The primary texts will be recordings and videos; close attention to these examples is required, but specific musical knowledge (i.e. score reading) is not. A selection of journal articles will provide further context.


    Dr. Marsden - Literature

    For general course requirements and goals, please consult your HNCR 201 General Syllabus.
    In this unit, we will examine some of the ways in which literature has addressed the question of “sacredness” in the last two hundred years; we’ll explore the concept of the sacred both from a religious and a secular perspective. We live in what is, in constitutionally—in terms of politics—and in many other respects, a secular society; at the same time, our lives are profoundly influenced by conceptions of what is sacred that are based on religious faith. Our discussions in this course will be shaped by these twin recognitions.

    A number of key assumptions underpin this section of Unit G (and they will themselves be subject, obviously, to our scrutiny): first, that conceptions of the sacred are not limited to religious faith; second, that conceptions of the sacred may be understood by understanding conceptions of the profane; and third, that which is “sacred” is distinct from, and in many ways very different from, consensual social and cultural values that we identify as “important.”

    In addition to the Core reading requirements, we will consult a number of literary resources largely drawn from the 19th and 20th centuries. During the course of our discussions, we will satisfy the larger goals of Honors Core as established in the general syllabus: developing writing, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.


    Dr. Ricketts - History


    From the 1927 Grand Council of American Indians

    "The white people, who are trying to make us over into their image, they want us to be what they call "assimilated," bringing the Indians into the mainstream and destroying our own way of life and our own cultural patterns. They believe we should be contented like those whose concept of happiness is materialistic and greedy, which is very different from our way. 

    We want freedom from the white man rather than to be integrated. We don't want any part of the establishment, we want to be free to raise our children in our religion, in our ways, to be able to hunt and fish and live in peace. We don't want power, we don't want to be congressmen, or bankers....we want to be ourselves. We want to have our heritage, because we are the owners of this land and because we belong here.

    The white man says, there is freedom and justice for all. We have had "freedom and justice," and that is why we have been almost exterminated. We shall not forget this."

    You have noticed that everything an Indian does in a circle,
    and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles,
    and everything tries to be round.

    In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop
    of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people
    flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop,
    and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace
    and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north
    with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This
    knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.

    Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.
    The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball
    and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
    Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
    The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon
    does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great
    circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

    The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is
    in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the
    nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation's hoop,
    a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.

    Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux 1863-1950

    Over a hundred years ago Black Elk had a vision of the time when Indian people would heal from the devastating effects of European migration. In his vision the Sacred Hoop which had been broken, would be mended in seven generations. Those struggling now are the seventh generation.

    The term “sacred” is a somewhat slippery concept, having been used in varied and shifting contexts across time and place, and raising numerous questions about its nature and even its worth. As historians work with the past, the sacred—religious, cultural, and civil—provides essential elements for historical interpretation, since, whatever else you may say about it, the sacred frequently evokes strong reactions from people. As we strive to create a workable global community, it behooves us to consider the nature of how the religious, civil, and individual sacred have shaped the past and present, and will influence the future. In this unit we are going to look closer to home—to the sacred as it relates to the initial contact, developing and on-going relationships between Native American nations and European and Euro-Americans. 

    We study history in order to understand the present and plan for the future. In this case, we will use history to understand the contemporary struggle that Native Americans are waging to retain or regain what is sacred to them—land, artifacts, food, naming, and genetics, to name a few of their current struggles.  Ultimately, we must each answer the question, “What, therefore, should we do?”


    Dr. Williamson - Literature


    Course Description:

    In this unit we will explore the ideas that language is itself “sacred” and that literature, especially mystical literature, is an important vehicle for representing, apprehending, and conveying experiences with sacred meanings.  We will begin by studying Rabbi Nachman of Bratlsav’s Tales, a collection of stories published in Europe at the same time as the Grimm Brothers published their famous Household Tales.  Unlike the Grimm Brothers’ tales of starvation, mutilation, and enchantments tinged with fear, Rabbi Nachman’s Tales represent a world that is full to bursting with sacred meaning.  The sources of sacred meaning are, however, unusual.  They include laughter, jokes, riddles, and poems.  The reader is invited to participate in rituals of reading that are not religious rituals, but which carry with them a form of engagement with the sacred.   We will then read Chaim Bialk’s collection of essays on the relationship between language and the sacred.  These essays were written during the Hebrew revival at the turn of the twentieth century and consider the issues involved in resurrecting a sacred language for use in ordinary social, political, and economic contexts.  Next, we will consider how James Joyce approaches similar concerns about language, the sacred, and nationalism during the period leading up to and after Irish independence.  Finally, we will conclude with a collection of poems by the Soviet Jewish poet Peretz Markish, the “bad boy” of Yiddish poetry.  These poems were composed during the Holocaust, and they consider how sacred meanings might be represented in times of unprecedented disaster.

    Required Readings: You must purchase your own copy of each book, and you must have your own copy of each book BEFORE we begin our course readings.

    Bialik, Chaim Nachman Revealment and Concealment in Language, and Other Essays
    Joyce, James Dubliners
    Peretz Markish Yerushe (Inheritance)
    Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav Tales