Loyola University Chicago

Department of Theology

The Sacred: Emergence and Effects (SEE)



The Core Issue
At a popular level significant social value is added to an entity when it is associated with “the sacred.” Likewise, public behaviors that enact this added value are typically evident. At a scholarly level, the concept of the sacred has been deeply criticized because of its theological overtones, its complicity within failed secularization theories, and the over-extended claims made about the social force of the sacred in sociological theories. Despite the warranted criticism, and because of widespread invocation of the sacred in events of global impact, renewed humanistic and social scientific scholarship must address today the emergence and the effects of the sacred.


What is “the sacred”?
According to our working definition, “the sacred” is (1) a quality of relationship with an entity, such as a place, thing, person, animal, plant, event, text, or practice, (2) made evident by a socially recognized response, (3) which differentiates this relational object from others of its kind within the social economy, (4) because of the special association with the holy/divine/transcending good accorded to this relational object by a social group. The primary feature of this definition is its focus on the sacred as a relationship rather than on the object related to. The relational object could be anything—food, books, people, places, gods, or even oneself. While the object may play a role in understanding “the sacred,” it is the establishment and maintenance of relationships with it that is our concern. The formal characteristics of the such relationships are posited as differentiation and demonstrably heightened social value through association with the holy/divine/transcending good.


The Research Plan
An International Research Team has designed a multi-phase project to address the topic of the sacred in the past and the present. The project focuses on the sacred within Abrahamic religious traditions and the societies and regions where they have been dominant. The project has three phases, each designed to address a specific research task and produce a particular type of scholarly outcome.

Phase 1 brought together scholars from the United States and Europe for a three-day, closed working conference in Naples, Italy (6/15-17/2015). The conference built on our working definition to draft a road map for the project’s continued development. We recognized that the sacred, as a multi-dimensional phenomenon, must be investigated from a number of different perspectives. We considered relevant projects that can build on and develop the definition. And we sought ways of fostering meaningful collaboration among researchers. Finally, we determined that the research should be conducted through “research affinity groups” which bring together scholars with similar interests to investigate a particular aspect of the sacred. We established five such groups:

1. The Genealogy of “the Sacred” group studies the modern scholarly category of the sacred.
2. The Sacralization group studies how objects, places and people are designated or recognized as sacred.
3. The Sacralizing Change and Changing Sacralization group studies how the sacred endures or is altered in place and time.
4. The Sacred Identities group studies how the invocation of the sacred is a facet both of individual and group identity formation and of the formation of “otherness.”
5. The Conflicting and Cooperating Sacreds group studies instances where more than one claim to the sacred arises in a single area.

The affinity groups are currently establishing communication practices and shared bibliographical resources.

Phase 2 develops the work of the research affinity groups through a series of intermediate group meetings and will conclude with presentations at an international, open conference to be held in Rome. These presentations will be published in edited volumes as the research results from the affinity groups.

Phase 3 develops the work of Phase 2. Planning is currently underway, in conjunction with Loyola’s Centers for Digital Humanities and Ignatian Pedagogy, to design, produce and disseminate the scholarship. This requires investigation of the best future delivery modes of scholarly material to both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences, the required technologies to do so, and the means to support this kind of effort. The envisioned products of this phase will include materials such as course modules, interactive electronic maps, publicly accessible bibliographies, and publically available podcasts.