How do we understand the sacred? What, therefore, should we do?
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
Over a hundred years ago Black Elk, a spiritual leader of the Oglala Sioux, 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 Native Americans struggling now to preserve their sacred spaces and rituals are the seventh generation.
Within the discipline of history, 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. As we work with the past, the sacred—religious, cultural, and civil—provides essential elements for historical interpretation, since, whatever else you may say about it, what a person or a people consider sacred frequently evokes strong reactions. 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 Europeans and Euro-Americans. Although the U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom, Native Americans were not granted this essential right until 1994. In other words, citizens of the United States of America, who have traditionally held religious freedom as one of their most cherished liberties, understood “sacred” in such a way as to allow the nation to deny religious freedom to Native Americans until the end of the 20th century. Indeed, for much of the nation’s history, Native Americans were forced to hide their sacred practices for fear of persecution or death. How, then, did they and we understand the concept of sacred, how do we and they understand it today, and how do we understand our relationship to our own sacred and the sacred of others?
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
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