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Absolutes and ambiguities

21 May 2012

Philip Mellor reflects on unseen influences of the sacred today

Wren’s Gothic: the tower is all that survives of St Alban’s, Wood Street, dwarfed by modern buildings in the City of London. From an up-to-date illustrated guide, Wren’s City of London Churches, by John Christopher (Amberley Publishing, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-4456-0250-9)

Wren’s Gothic: the tower is all that survives of St Alban’s, Wood Street, dwarfed by modern buildings in the City of London. From an up-to-date illust...

DEBATES about the forms, degrees, and consequences of secularisation were central to the sociology of religion throughout the 20th cen­tury, and continue to have an impact on the field, albeit one increasingly localised within Western Europe. As important as these debates are, however, their key positions are so well established and adumbrated that it is rare to encounter a fresh and illuminating contribution to them.

Gordon Lynch’s book offers this, however, not by adding to existing frameworks, but by reorient­ating them: rather than contribute to the sociology of religion, the aim of this book is to illuminate the need for a sociology of the sacred, to map out its key features, and to demon­strate its utility theoretically and empirically.

Here, while contemporary social life may indeed appear increasingly “secular” and subject to patterns of de-Christianisation, the importance of the “sacred” is, if anything, resurgent. Defining the sacred in terms of “absolute, normative claims on the conduct of social life”, and developing a form of cultural sociology which seeks to identify the historically contingent contexts from which these emerge, Lynch seeks to illuminate the ambiguous consequences of sacred commit­ments today, particularly with re­gard to the dangers of violence, inter-group conflict, and infringe­ments of individuals’ rights, identities, and well-being.

Lynch draws on a number of key intellectual sources for his account of the sacred, most obviously the US sociologist Jeffrey Alexander’s reinterpretation of Émile Durk­heim’s work, but utilises these to bring new perspectives to a range of contentious issues. The terrorist atrocities of 9/11 and 7/7, which are included here as examples of “sacred” rather than “religious” violence in a narrow sense, are obvious points of reference, but Lynch’s more substantial empirical studies explore less familiar terrain. These include the scandal of the abuse of children in Roman Cath­olic schools in Ireland, where his account of the ebbing of the sacra­lisation of the Irish nation and the emergent sacralisation of childhood throws fresh light on the cultural legitimation and de-legitimation of abusive behaviour; and the ambiguities and consequences of the mediation and mediatisation of the sacred, evident in the BBC’s “humanitarian” coverage of Israel’s military intervention in Gaza in 2008-09. In the latter case, the sacralisation of childhood is again a key theme, evident in the emotive use of images of children’s suffering to provoke moral outrage and feelings of solidarity.

These two examples might be taken as representations of “bad” and “good” polarities within the ambiguity of the sacred, but it is to Lynch’s credit that he largely avoids implicitly valorising one form of sacralisation over another, con­cen-trating instead on illuminating the mechanisms through which forms of the sacred are constructed, en­acted, and reinforced in a multi­plicity of ways.

In this regard, readers will find this to be a valuable and thought-provoking book that makes visible the hidden and complex ways in which the sacred has a continuing impact on contemporary life, de­s-pite its ostensible secularity.

Professor Philip Mellor is head of department in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Univer­sity of Leeds.

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