Thursday, January 22, 2009

Invocations: Declaring the Secular "Sacred"

My friend Carrie from High School commented the other day on Rick Warren's invocation:

"I wonder why there is any religious invocation at all, really, since we are theoretically a secular nation."

It's a good question.

I want to save the discussion of the purpose and practice of separation of church and state for another day, but need to point out that its primary purpose is to keep religion out of the making, enforcing, or interpreting the laws of the land, or influencing these areas. Posting the ten commandments on the courthouse law is a great example of a violation of church and state. Requiring a president to say "So help me God" would be a violation (which is why it is supposed to be left for the president to say if he/she so chooses...another Justice Roberts blunder from Tuesday). The flip side is to keep the state from outlawing religious beliefs and practices unless they violate the civil rights of others.

It is certain that an invocation can be used in a way that seems to force a religious experience. I suggested in the earlier blog entries that Warren's invocation crossed the line into a forced religious experience when he prayed "the Lord's Prayer."

So Carrie's question remains: why have an invocation at a secular event?

I think the idea behind an invocation is to place the moment in greater context: to invoke a connection between those present and those who worked and sacrificed to make the moment possible, all while pointing to the hopes and dreams for a better future. It is an attempt to connect those gathered to the specialness of the bind us to each other in a way that declares the moment sacred.

I reject the idea that something is either sacred or secular. There are plenty of moments in "secular" settings that are sacred or holy. "Sacred" is not the private property of any religious group or setting. Furthermore, I would also suggest that the separation of church and state was never intended to prohibit declaring sacredness within the secular realm.

"God" is the one usually addressed in an invocation. The word "God" in English, and its counterparts in other languages, is our most common way to talk about the sacred or holy. It is the best language we have (along with, perhaps, "Spirit") to collectively give voice to the incredible variety of understanding concerning the mysteries of life and our connection to each other: past, present & future.

Many assume any mention of God refers to the singular supernatural deity of traditional Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Certainly that is the understanding of God for many people. Even within these faiths, however, many people find this understanding of God lacking or incomplete.

There are almost as many images of God (or the divine) as there are people. Some people see God as a non-theistic presence...some see the divine in nature...some in the mathematics of science...or some even see God in the vast potential of human beings.

(My conversations lead me to believe that many "non-believers" would be open to one or more of these descriptions to describe God or the divine, and that their protests to "having God shoved onto them" refers to the "supernatural, all-powerful, controls everything and judges everyone God.")

In an invocation for the country, one's definition of God is not a question to be debated. "God" in secular invocations represents the presence of the sacred moment...however we individually understand the source...and calls on all those present to come together in the spirit of our common humanity. God is invoked primarily to declare the moment holy.

A final note: I'm not completely naive... :) I do understand that the easiest way to talk of God is to personify...and even the most inclusive of religious leaders cannot help but do so. We simply are limited by our language when we describe the sacred. Watch or read Bishop Robinson's invocation for the "We are One" inaugural event.


Language like "ask God's blessing" and "please, God, keep him safe" certainly points most of us towards God as a "being." The problem is that we simply lack the language to say this any other way. The intent in this case clearly is a declaration of holiness, a charge for us to be up to the task, and an expression of our great hope that our president journeys safely through the unbelievably difficult road that lies ahead. I think Bishop Robinson's invocation powerfully declares the sacredness of the moment without subjecting those listening to a particular religious way.

Whew! That was really hard to put into words! Perhaps someone else can put this more simply (or gently tell me that I've way off base...).


Anonymous said...

Ooh. That was good. I'm going to have to go ponder for a while with all that deep thinking.

Trank72 said...

It reminded me of the prayers before every "official" military event I have ever attended. As a Christian (and every event I've attended has been presided over by a Christian chaplain) it does not bother me to take a moment to thank the Lord for his goodness, as an ardent supporter of the separation of Church and State, it gives me pause. Ostensibly for events like a change of command it is up to the "honoree" to decide for themselves whether or not they want a prayer. But it is very difficult, especially in the conformist culture of the armed services to be the one that doesn't reqest a prayer.

Lisa said...

Thank you so much. I am working on the graduation invocation for a secular private school where I work, and while I am Christian and pray for these wonderful kids daily, I've been searching for some guidance on how to handle this very special moment. Thank you.

Kurt said...

You're welcome Lisa. Hope your invocation went well!