Humans have the ability to self-generate “the sacred.” While the Platonist philosopher wishes to universalize human behavior, the human being chained to his or her own existential reality gets through life by making those relations “sacred” that are immediately most close to him or her; in essence, the existential human is concerned with the particular. Humans are finite creatures limited to time and place. We cannot possibly love everyone and make every moment sacred. Hence, we embrace those closest to us—set them apart—and, in effect, make our relations sacred. We are, by all means, an exclusive-making species. We exclude everyone else in the process. We include those we chose, and amongst those chosen, we further make sacred some relations. In this essay, I will argue that exclusivity is essential to the human life, since it is inherent to our finite natures. Moreover, I will argue that we self-generate “the sacred” by (a) a process of exclusion, which is an inherent by-product of our finite nature; and (b) a process of selecting from those included a select few individuals who share a particular act, a particular thing, with us in common. It is this particularity that makes something “sacred.” It is this particularity that makes up what we call “special moments.” The thing that we choose to willfully set-apart becomes holy (“sacred”) unto us.
In this essay, I will deal with the example of sacred sex, something common to many religions. Because sex has taken on this sort of “sacred element,” I have decided that it serves as a clear example of how humans go about excluding others and endowing life with the sacred by a process of particularization. I will first begin by dealing with human limitations. I will then proceed to show how this is inextricably related to our finite natures. After that, I will demonstrate that humans qua humans could only be exclusive-making creatures. Finally, I will argue that sex serves as a perfect example of self-generated “sacredness.” Moreover, I will argue that endowing life with “the sacred” is something all humans could, theoretically, do. In fact, I will argue for all of us to embrace particularity as it alone allows us to value one another as unique individuals.
Humans have limitations. We cannot think omnisciently, for one. And we cannot think for an infinite period of time; instead, we must limit ourselves to time-constrained actions. Let’s briefly deal with the first issue, namely, omniscience.
Let’s suppose that Anna and Mike go on a date. Anna tells Mike that she is a very honest person. Mike values honesty, and does not think that he would be able to love Anna (or any other woman for that matter) who could not make honesty a prioritized virtue. Let us suppose that Anna consciously thinks she is honest indeed. So she tells Mike on their tenth date that she values and embodies the virtue of honesty. Mike, being very keen on finding himself an honest person to date, takes Anna at her word and proceeds with the relationship.
But Mike is not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t know that even while Anna was speaking honestly—that is, in her subjective opinion she was being “honest” about her “honesty”—Anna was actually not the most honest of human beings. In fact, relative to the rest of the human population, Anna’s “honesty ranking” was somewhere in the fiftieth percentile, making her mundanely stereotypical and average. But Mike isn’t omniscient, so he cannot possibly know that. He doesn’t have access to her thoughts—both conscious and subconscious. He doesn’t have access to her history, to her contextualized-to-self language-games. He doesn’t have access to her worldviews, be they tacit or explicit. He doesn’t have that sort of monopoly on truth. As we all know, none of us do. Given such facts, Mike, by continuing to date her, actually commits a sort of sin against himself: he acts in a way that is not consistent with what he believes.
As boring as this example may sound, humans do this all the time. That’s simply how we approach the world. We listen to people; we give them the benefit of the doubt; we trust their choice of words; we accept their version of themselves; we trust that the words spoken reflect who they actually are, etc., etc.
There is this certain strand of “basic trust” that runs throughout our engagement with other human beings. But, once exposed to critical scrutiny, much of what we believe about one another is misconstrued, misinterpreted, misplaced, misdiagnosed, etc., etc. And it’s not something to be upset about. Why should we be? When a million years is what one needs for perfection, a hundred years could only grant us faint slivers of it. Every decade or so we make a perfect move, a perfect decision; every month or two, we say something that sounds absolutely perfect to someone else. But these are rare glimpses of eternity. These are those special moments in which we strangely find ourselves doing things in a manner almost unnatural to us. We dance in a way that seems to have been written in the stars—for one night only. Again, this isn’t inherent to our natures. This is a misfire. Perfection could never be something we get served on a daily basis. For how could it be otherwise? In a world of omniscient-less beings, we can only expect acts that betray a certain lack of intelligence and thought. This brings us to the second issue: finitude.
For omniscience to be useful, it must also be found conjoined to infinity. Only an infinite existence, coupled with omniscience, could possibly create dates, scenes, vacations, etc., where things turned out perfectly planned. But we are finite creatures, bound to the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum. We spend decades growing up, only to discover that growing-up also involves the inevitability of growing-old. And growing-old also included dessert after the main dish: death. We live a life spending the majority of our youth—years wasted—on simply figuring ourselves out. And while we’re busy doing that, we realize that our twenties don’t last forever—they too shall pass. We hit our thirties and realize that (a) we are much more wiser now; and (b) we are certainly not as visually appealing. And the entire time we are pressured to be something, to do something. We get lost in the hypnotic mazes of our careers. We spend a decade trying to resurface. In the sea of dizzying freedom, we are then forced, by our very sexually driven natures, to find ourselves a companion who would take that road with us.
But our thoughts are lost. Shattered. Heads spinning. Out there in the twilight zone our minds are left wondering. We fall back to earth only to land in a vast blue sea of broken dreams, shitty errands, traffic, and all-things irritating; we get suffocated by the waters of our own lives. Underwater we learn to survive. Then—in the twinkling of an eye—we come up for air. Ah. That shit feels good. Every once in a while we catch glimpses of eternity. We transcend our skin and bones to realize that there’s got to be more to this stuff called “life.” It is in moments like these that we begin to value what little time we have been given.
A thought occurs to us. Call it a sacred thought. “Hmm,” we say to ourselves. “Maybe wasting my precious time on a sea of useless faces isn’t the best way to go about living life. Isn’t it possible to know and be known?” And in such moments we find the existentially appealing idea of particularization, of setting apart, of exclusive-making to be something worth pursuing.
And out of a dizzying array of faces, names, nicotine-stained smiles, tattoos and piercings, I have chosen you.
Here—in the midst of what was once an eternal hole the size of Texas, swirling in galactic black hole space-ness—I have called out, striking chords on imperative notes: you.
Here, falling to the ground like a leaf in dead winter, lonely and single, I have made an impression on someone. It’s a truly singular event. It’s an event where you discover that something sacred is going on. This you that I have called becomes set-apart from all other such yous.
I don’t how many of you feel anything right now, but I’m kind of giddy-all-over typing this, pausing and reflecting on my use of verbs, adjectives, and participles. Just writing this is making this sentence, this paragraph, feel special.
And we find our thoughts continuously percolating around this particular individual, this you. Out of an infinite sea of innumerable I-Thou relationships, we find ourselves particularizing. Limiting. Setting apart. Making plans for an exclusive Other. We recognize that our finitude, our creatureliness, our very bad habit of familiarity, drives us into the wastelands of particularity. Moving from the universal, moving from the ideals we have created for ourselves, we zoom in on a specific individual. Moving from all of the contextualized history we have created about ourselves, for ourselves, we become cognizant of a very acute fact. The ideal world is ideal for a very specific reason: it has no boundaries, no realized finitude, no palatable reality to it. We imagine a perfect Other. We concoct for ourselves a dream life. (But allow me to emphasize the word “dream” in the sentence.) All of our ambitions, our dreams, our perfection-driven tendencies, find themselves useless due to one single fact: none of it is real.
Perhaps there is a reason why we do this, perhaps not. What is important to note, however, is that we all do this. These universal ideals, these unadulterated thoughts, only become embodied in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, forced to make decisions in poorly timed conditions.
Our ideals remain distant to us. They share brain-space with us, but that is all. Most of us, at some point, shed ideals like snakes shed their skins. We let go of our childhood fantasies and move on to conquer the day with Godspeed. Our need for reality, for embodiment, for Incarnation is written in our religious texts, our coffee shop meet-ups, our handshakes, and our face-to-face encounters with the objective Other. We cannot taste without touch. In this perpetual motion, this never-ending desire for a palatable reality, we become aware of just how tangible we want things to be. Our visions take on their own realities, growing hands and fingers as we speak them into life.
This all brings us to the very pressing issue of the process of particularization. We like doing things that are particular. Maybe because it is only in the particular that we find comfort. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is. A universal idea of a perfect spouse isn’t as comforting as the particular reality of an imperfect spouse holding your fragile body while your atoms decay with each collapse of the wave function.
When we particularize our lives, we begin to engage people on a more intimate level. Spending one minute on each individual out of a group of ten thousand persons isn’t as satisfying as spending ten thousand minutes with one person. The quality of our relationships is proportionally related to the amount of time we invest in them.
And so it is in moments like these that we perform what I have called “exclusive-making” actions. We start excluding all other relations in favor of one. Given the fact that we value our time, and given the fact that we have very little of it, the person whom we most value is blessed with the majority of what little time we have. We narrow down our choices. We select people on whom to spend our skin on. Life is short, so we don’t waste time excluding others.
Allow me to remind my readers that I am by no means arguing that this is bad. This is not only good; this is a brute fact of life. It is the only way a finite creature could and (probably) should live.
Finally, this brings us to the issue of sexual relations. If what you value is depth of knowledge, intimacy, and quality in your human relations, I suppose, by implication, you probably are careful with whom you share the sexual experience. (Now, this is not a universal claim that I am making. Some people, I am told, are perfectly fine with loose sexual mores, and say they are genuinely satisfied with them. I am not speaking on behalf of such people. In fact, I cannot possibly relate to them.) The process of particularization brings us to the issue of whom we choose to have sex with. Now, it is evident that relationships are not always sacred. Moreover, it should also be made clear that not everyone cares about the sacred. Some people just don’t give a fuck—and I won’t interrupt their orgy. Having said that, for those of us who do care about the sacred, who do care about investing every second of our time in someone we deeply care about, the rest is dedicated to us…
If the quality of our relationships is directly related to time spent on them, then, quite possibly, the quality of sexual intimacy is directly related to time invested in the person we’re having sex with. We go on dates, walk on foreign shores, and share sunsets—all for the sake of the possibility of loving and being loved. And sexual expression is one way of “doing love.” Generally speaking, we don’t get stark naked for those who do not know us. The act of clothing ourselves symbolizes our act of hiding ourselves from others. We don’t want to be known and seen by those we don’t care to be known and seen by. Most people cannot and do not know us. And so we remain forever “hidden” from their sights.
And then something happens.
We choose someone. Out of the plurality of voices beckoning to us, we respond to only one. Only they see us as we want to be seen; only they experience the nudity we have left impenetrable to others. In essence, then, we—as volitional human beings—self-generate our own notions of the sacred. If sex is sacred to you, you will set it apart. What I am stating here is that sacred sex is not something that religion has a monopoly on. In fact, the atheist could lead a life in which certain acts (such as the sexual act), certain traditions, or certain gestures are made sacred: they are set apart for special people and special occasions. One could, in theory, make sacred the phrase “I love you” and whisper it only to three people in the entire world. It doesn’t take a god to make life sacred. It takes a human being who wants to make it so.
Personally, I already lead a sacred life. I value my time, and try not to waste it on people I don’t care about. And, there, I said it: most people I don’t give a damn about. I don’t think there’s anything special about my not giving a damn. I just see it as something that must be. I can’t have it both ways. To give a damn, I have to spend time with you. But I won’t. For I have already chosen to do that with someone else. And that someone else has had my time graciously bestowed upon them. In the minutes that are leading up to midnight, I have chosen to set myself apart for someone else. Not because I don’t value people; no, it is precisely because of the fact that I do.
I relish every moment spent with a person who is both broken and familiar. I value our shared history, whatever it may include. I do this because I want to, nothing more and nothing less. I have chosen to endow my life with the sacred because I believe that this particular way of leading it is, for me, most existentially satisfying. I also encourage others to think about their lives. I encourage you to revaluate your priorities. What do you spend your finite time on? With whom have you chosen to share the sacred, if anyone? It is only in the particular that we are able to find a human being worth loving. And figuring out who that particular person is takes time. But in taking that finite time and spending it on a particular individual makes for some very good times. It allows us to know the Other on an intimate level. In knowing him or her on such a level, we are allowing them the chance to share their unique individuality with us. Only in experiencing the Other as they really are gives us the opportunity to love them in an appropriate manner. But all of that takes time, which brings us back to the issue of exclusive-making activities, the sacred, and…
Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev
I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language.