February 24, 2008 — 10:19

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 13

In Revelation, we learn that the angels are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty!” We speak of “holy men” and there might be a “holy moment”. We strive for “personal holiness”.
I’ve always had difficulty getting a grasp of this concept. Sometimes, it seems that “holiness” is used synonymously with “moral purity” or “sinlessness”. I’ve also heard “being holy” equated with “being wholly other or set apart or different”, but what’s that supposed to mean?
As a first approximation, x is holy iff x is really, really morally good. But this feels like its lacking. Any ideas?

  • MelancholyDane

    I’ve had similar thoughts recently regarding the notion of “glory.” What does, e.g., God’s glory amount to?
    Some things that are not agents (i.e., objects, places, etc.) can be holy, so the definition would have to be modified to account for that fact I think. This is captured in the usual notion of something’s being “set apart.”
    How about this:
    x is holy iff x is morally perfect or x is set apart for the purposes of a morally perfect being

    February 25, 2008 — 15:00
  • MelancholyDane,
    Hmm, I think that nonpersons can be morally good (like states of affairs), but your point is taken that places can be holy, but it seems odd to say that a place is morally good.
    I take role of the first disjunct to ensure that God has holiness, right? (Since, I suppose, God is the only morally perfect being?) And are you saying that it is in virtue of being morally perfect that God has holiness?
    On the second disjunct, I wonder what you mean by “set apart”. God is using Satan according to his purposes, I think, but I suppose you wouldn’t want to say that God has set apart Satan. So I wonder what you mean by that?

    February 26, 2008 — 0:25
  • Andrew, the seminal work on the idea of the holy as ‘totally other’ or ‘set apart’ is Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, published in 1917. Mircea Eliade was amongst those influenced by Otto’s work (I mention him in particular because I’ve just picked one of his books on the subject off my shelf). If we follow their lead in defining the holy as totally other, then I don’t think it makes sense to make moral goodness part of the concept of holiness.
    Otto’s idea is that the holy is frightening, fascinating and mysterious, something that inspires awe. For Eliade, the sacred also plays a particular social role: when a place or time is perceived as sacred, this means that in virtue of its special ontological status, it is one of the points around which the rest of reality is ordered.
    I’m perhaps not making this very clear, but then it’s hard to summarise this kind of writing in a few words. The point is that Otto and Eliade both define the sacred in terms of the response that it provokes, and, in Eliade’s case, with an emphasis on the social role that it can play in virtue of provoking such a response. Their approach can be described as phenomenological, in that they hope to draw the reader’s attention to the holy by bringing to mind situations in which the reader encountered something that provoked this response. That is what language such as ‘set aside’ is meant to convey ‘set aside from ordinary, (profane) reality, because it is so uncanny…’
    The response that is so provoked is not one of moral admiration.
    This means that when describing a religion, it is perfectly sensible to say that some spirit is regarded as holy, and yet is not seen as a moral example. Alternatively, a human being might be seen as a perfect moral example, and yet not be seen as holy – just a normal person, who happens to be a perfect role model.
    It may be objected that, from a Christian perspective, the only morally perfect role model is also holy, and the source of all holiness is also the source of all morality. Depending on one’s view of Divine Simplicity, one might add that God’s holiness is his goodness, his goodness is his wisdom, his wisdom is his justice and his justice is his mercy. So, from a divine perspective, holiness requires moral goodness.
    But of course, we would have to add that from our perspective, justice and mercy and power and knowledge are not equivalent. When defining knowledge, we do not include the quality of mercy, and so on. If I encounter someone who believes in a deity that is all-knowing, but lacks mercy, I would disagree, but could not diagnose the error simply by appealing to definitions of knowledge and mercy.
    The link between holiness and moral perfection, in other words, is better presented as a substantial truth than true by definition.
    If one accepts the Otto/Eliade approach to holiness, it is part of our response to something holy that it should not be mixed with what is profane. You take your shoes off on holy ground because it cannot be treated like normal ground – the difference must be acknowledged somehow. The holy should not be treated casually, and so shouldn’t be mixed with everyday profane objects. (In No Country For Old Men, a character is advised not to put his lucky quarter into his pocket, since then it would become indistinguishable from his other coins). This should be intuitively obvious, once we grasp what holiness is.
    Once we learn that what is Holy is also unique in its moral perfection, we think of sin as something that should not profane it – just as shoes should not touch holy ground, sin should not touch whatever is holy, hence (goes the argument), Jesus cannot be harboured in a womb unless that womb is sacred, and sacred means sinless.

    February 26, 2008 — 9:30
  • Actually, I read Otto somewhat differently, though I’ve only read the first portions. Otto starts by distinguishing the holy from the superlatively morally good. The idea seems to be that the holy is the superlatively good plus something more. He then terms the something more “numinous”, and analyzes it in terms of the responses it provokes–being mystified, awed and attracted.
    I would want to tweak this a little. First, the plus can’t just be a conjunction: the concept of the holy has more unity than that. Second, the question isn’t what responses it provokes, but what responses it should provoke.
    If this is right, then the holy is that which is superlatively morally good in such a way as to be an appropriate object of mystification, awe and attraction.

    February 26, 2008 — 13:58
  • Alexander, let me quote Otto directly:
    “The fact is we have come to use the
    words ‘holy’, ‘sacred’ (heilig) in an entirely derivative sense,
    quite different from that which they originally bore. We
    generally take ‘holy’ as meaning ‘completely good’; it is the
    absolute moral attribute, denoting the consummation of moral
    goodness. … But this common usage of the term is inaccurate. It is
    true that all this moral significance is contained in the word
    ‘holy’, but it includes in addition–as even we cannot but
    feel–a clear overplus of meaning, and this it is now our task
    to isolate. Nor is this merely a later or acquired meaning;
    rather, ‘holy’, or at least the equivalent words in Latin and
    Greek, in Semitic and other ancient languages, denoted first
    and foremost only this overplus: if the ethical element was
    present at all, at any rate it was not original and never con­
    stituted the whole meaning of the word.”
    So he admits that morality is part of the current meaning of Holy, but argues that it is not part of the primordial meaning he wishes to recover. The word ‘numinous’ then express the primordial meaning of ‘holy’ now included in our current concept of ‘holiness’. My previous post was indeed at fault for not distinguishing a current and primordial sense of ‘Holy’.
    On a more important note, I also agree with you about the distinction between what does provoke a certain response and what ought to provoke that response, and I’d add, of course, that the only thing that ought to provoke such a response is that which is morally perfect.
    In terms of explaining to someone what ‘the holy’ is, it is perhaps best to start with something that did in fact provoke the required response in the learner, then exploring further whether the response was appropriate, and considering what kind of thing would render such a response appropriate.
    Andrew – I hope this gives you some idea of what is meant by ‘wholly other/set apart/different’ in this context. The main point I wanted to make is that such phrases are used to summarise Otto’s idea, but taken out of context, with no further explanation, they don’t really serve to convey it.

    February 26, 2008 — 15:02
  • Heath White

    I think you have to come at this from the standpoint of a historical development of concepts. The original idea of “holy” is “set apart” and it applies to the physical apparatus of a religion. Thus, temple ground is not used for any profane purpose; ritual vessels are not used for profane purposes, etc. The basic idea is “taboo.” There are a corresponding set of basically ceremonial do’s and don’t’s surrounding religious practice; following these instructions preserves or brings about ritual purity.
    By extension, the deity or spirit invoked is “holy”—not like us, not to be treated in the ordinary fashion.
    The development of Judeo-Christian religion (and other religion) gradually moves from a more ceremonial notion of do’s and don’t’s to the idea that what the deity really cares about is moral character. It gradually comes to be believed that what makes you “ritually pure”—acceptable to the deity—is just moral purity. Consequently, holiness gets assimilated to the idea of superlative moral goodness.

    February 26, 2008 — 15:19
  • Andrew Moon

    Thanks everybody for the helpful comments. My original motivation for this post was to try to figure out what I was singing (or stating) at church (or in personal devotional times) when I ascribed holiness to God. Now, I think I’m more interested in what the angels mean in Revelations when they are singing that God is holy. Or I’m wondering what characters in the Bible mean when they use the word. That’s more of what I care about.
    From Alexander Pruss, I get:
    x is holy iff x is “superlatively morally good in such a way as to be an appropriate object of mystification, awe and attraction”
    This makes sense to me, and it even jives with my ordinary usage of the word. I wish it could be more informative, but it may be the best we can do.
    Ben, I’m still struggling with the “set apart” notion. It makes sense initially, but then I think about it and begin to wonder: “set apart from what?” Answer? “set apart from everything which is not holy!” And then we hit a circularity. Maybe I’m not appreciating Otto/Eliade fully?

    February 26, 2008 — 20:31
  • I once attended a lecture at college describing that when the word holy is referred to it is always equated with God’s Justice. Thus to be holy is to be just. Instead of thinking of holiness as a sort of formula for what it means to be sin, I’ve equate a holy purity with crying out against injustice.
    I think it also has alot to do with the way a person views sin. Is sin–SIN, or sins. If you answer sins, then you have a strict set of mores, but if you view it as Sin, then you only have to deal with this sort of antithetical idea.

    February 26, 2008 — 23:06
  • Dear Andrew, as Heath says, ‘set apart’ starts with the physical fact that certain items or places are separated from others.
    I return to the example of the coin in No Country For Old Men. The storekeeper is advised to set apart a special coin so that it does not get mixed up with other coins. A holy day is set apart from other days, and so on. Of course, once we set aside one coin as special, we are saying something about the other coins, they are normal. Once we set aside one day as special, other days are just normal, non-special days.
    Then, we come to see that the objects set aside are not just set aside from other objects of the same type, but set apart from all normal objects – the holy coin is unlike a normal coin, but also unlike a normal belt, or a normal chair, because they are just normal. So, by setting aside a few things as sacred, we come to think of everything else as non-sacred, or profane. We can start to think of some things as merely this-worldly, because of the contrast with the set-aside things.
    What this omits, of course, is any explanation of why some things were set aside in the first place. If I set aside a quarter because I’m doing my laundry later, and I need a quarter for the machine, that doesn’t make the quarter sacred. There might be a different story in each case. A place where I have a dream that marks a new direction in my life might be sacred – thus Jacob marks a spot with a pillar. The anniversary of a significant event can be sacred, and so on. But having been set aside, it plays a particular social role.
    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. That makes sense if we think there could also be a cigar that isn’t just a cigar, not by combining being a cigar with being some other non-cigar thing (e.g. a cigar with a built-in lighter), but by being a cigar that makes other cigars seem mere cigars by comparison.
    I quite see the point of your circularity objection. I don’t think ‘wholly other’ was meant to introduce a necessary and sufficient condition for being ‘holy’ that could be understood prior to an understanding of ‘holy’. Rather Otto and Eliade want to draw on your experiences to evoke something you already are familiar with (they hope) from your own experience and to give that thing a name. Having done so, some phrases become useful reminders.
    I might add that I often find this phenomenological method leaves me cold. I’ve never quite understood what Rahner’s ‘transcendental experience’ is, for example. I am aware of (some of) the history behind that term, the use he makes of it, and so on, but I couldn’t really tell you, for example, whether an experience of Otto’s holy is ipso facto a transcendental experience, nor could I say for sure at what point in my life, if any, I had a transcendental experience. Still, I think I can point to an experience of the holy in Otto’s sense.
    When I was in my teens, I was on a retreat where unleavened bread was used during the mass. One boy found this hard to chew and put it in his pocket. Later, we were having fun in the dormitory, playing some innocent game, when he took it from his pocket and asked what he should do with it.
    The room fell silent as we stared at what he had in his hand and realised it was not just a piece of bread, and that all the time we had been larking about, we had been in the presence of the blessed sacrament. One of the retreat leaders genuflected, and took the host from the boy, left the room, and we gradually recovered.

    February 26, 2008 — 23:06
  • A problem with the “set apart” definition is that it would seem conceivable that everything be holy. In fact, that is one way to understand the rending of the sanctuary veil at Christ’s crucifixion–the whole world is now the Temple, and has the kind of holiness that the Temple did. Also, when Jesus says that we shouldn’t swear by the earth because it’s God’s footstool, that does suggest that the earth is holy.
    Of course, there is holy and there is Holy. 🙂 There are things that are derivatively holy, and there is God who is originarily Holy. What I said in my earlier comment applies to the Holy. (Holy water isn’t morally good, for instance.)
    A final thought. The best way to understand the Holy or holy is not by giving definitions, but by participating in various physical aspects of worship: kneeling, prostration, covering of face, using a sacred language, being separated by the iconostasis, etc.

    February 28, 2008 — 12:28
  • Alex,
    I sympathize with the point that to understand holiness better, it is best to just experience God’s holiness. (I think that was your last point.) To be clear, I’m not looking for a full definition or even a complete set of nec. and suff. conditions; but I do think that finding nec. and suff. conditions help.
    To illustrate, I agree that the best way to understand God better is probably by engaging in personal relationship with him, but I also understood the concept of God better when I understand that being omniscient, omnipotent, etc. are necessary conditions for being God, and being Jesus or being the Holy Spirit is a sufficient condition for being God. More recently, learning that being necessarily existent is necessary for being God was also helpful in my understanding of the concept of God.
    But I don’t understand why you think that there are two concepts: Holy and holy. I also wasn’t sure what you meant by holiness being derivative of Holiness. Could you explain more?

    March 1, 2008 — 17:09
  • Ben,
    Thanks for the personal story. Your examples of “being wholly other” all involved examples where something is picked out for some purpose. But are you saying that this is the sense in which God is wholly other? Who would God (the Father) be picked out by?
    I’m beginning to think that God’s being wholly other supervenes on God’s being omniscient, omnipotent, complete purity, etc., and it is in virtue of these other properties that God is wholly other (or set apart or…) because he is wholly other than us sinful, fallible humans. I’ve heard this sort of idea at church before too. What do you think?

    March 1, 2008 — 17:15
  • When we are seeking the definition of a term (or the understanding of a concept) we have to know in what context it is employed.
    If you were asking about ‘causality,’ whether you were asking about physical, logical, historical, juridical, etc, would make all the difference.
    You seem to be inquiring about ‘holiness’ in a Hebrew/Jewish and-or Christian Scriptural, confessional, theological context. So, you’ve got to go to that particular faith tradition and examine the relevant sources for their definition. Modern Orthodox Jews, and Roman Catholics, and Wesleyans, and Calvinists, and Pentacostals (for instance) all differ in their conceptions of holiness.

    March 4, 2008 — 13:04