Taking care and constructing the sacred

A few days ago, in a summary of his excellent article on Mormon Environmental Theology, Jason Brown asked ‘Must nature be a separate domain for its sacredness to be apparent?’ Steve Evans responded that ‘Sacredness is a human concept, attributed by humans (through God, one assumes).’ For sacredness to become ‘apparent’ it must already be present prior to becoming recognisable. Jason responds that he wants to think about how ‘to take a concept like sacredness which does imply a sort of separation (think temple) and expand it to the forest as a space where people can both pray and work.’

I agree with Steve that the sacred is not inherent to things and I also believe God has called us to expand our concept of the sacred. In this regard I have found Bushman’s reference to Jonathan Z. Smith’s notion that ‘“taking care” is one sign of sacred space’ to be useful.[1]

This approach is fruitful because the sacred is defined through a relational form of praxis; it is grounded in an approach to social action that is aware of and sensitive to the varied associations that are implied in every interaction. Bushman uses a series of examples of how this ‘taking care’ is manifest in the way we speak about, the way we speak in and the way we maintain the temple. Our cognisance of the temple as sacred is evident in the way we interact with that space.

This approach can also apply to scripture. These texts are sacred not because they inherently contain divine power, but because of the way we as a community engage them and respond to them. We are asked to study, pray and ponder over them. We mark, re-read and question them daily. Our scripture study should reflect this ‘care’.

Service too reflects this type of practice. Taking care of another person is more than merely looking after them, it is a heightened sense of awareness of them; of their needs, wants and desires. In short, taking care is more than kind actions rather it is a deeply felt realisation of the potential influence that our life can have upon theirs.

Here, too, we return to the forest as a (potentially) sacred space. If the trees are sacred to us our lives we will reflect that care; that awareness of reciprocity.

‘“Taking care” is one sign of sacred space’.


1. Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and Creation of the Sacred in Joseph Smith, Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, edited by Reid L. Neilson & Terryl L. Givens, Oxford: OUP, pp. 93-106.


  1. Joseph found the forest to be a place to pray and work. Man ignores or abuses nature because he is half asleep, he is unaware, his consciousness level is low. The concept of sacred is necessary because of this as he awakens it becomes self evident.

  2. Howard, although I agree that greater care needs to be taken in our actions toward nature I cannot agree with the assumption you seem to making regarding the inherently sacred character of nature.

  3. Whether it be in nature or anywhere service is being performed, the sacredness can be there, but as you said, not necessarily all the time or within every individual. The individual, through the heart, connects us to sacredness through the centering of self on Christ and God. The opposite would also be true — the lack of that center would leave even the most seemingly sacred place or experience void.

  4. Aaron I didn’t mean to imply that nature itself is inherently sacred rather it’s our relationship to nature and to others that we come to see as divine through enlightenment. The divine within me bows to the divine within you.

  5. This notion of ‘taking care’ reminds me of the Wendell Berry I’ve been rereading recently. He gives the example of some well-meaning conservationists who buy a tract of land to preserve it, and so do nothing with it. Soon of course the land is taken over with various invasive species and the brush becomes so thick that you can’t even walk on it. Their benign neglect hasn’t benefited the land they sought to preserve. Kindly use—or ‘taking care’—would have shown greater reverence for the land.

    On the other hand, Berry also writes, “If we are to be properly humble in our use of the world, we need places that we do not use at all. We need the experience of leaving something alone. We need places that we forbear to change, or influence by our presence, or impose on even by our understanding . . . places that we must enter in a kind of cultural nakedness, without comforts or tools, to submit rather than to conquer. We need what other ages would have called sacred groves.

    I’m not sure I know how to reconcile the two yet.

  6. Sorry, forgot to remove the bold tag. That gave the last sentence a little more weight than I meant . . .

  7. #5, Angela,
    “invasive species”__Humans, are the worst kind.
    Man is not outside of Nature. He is a part of Nature. His cutting down a tree is no different than a beaver cutting down a tree. But Man’s learned Culture has him see it as different.

  8. “These texts are sacred not because they inherently contain divine power, but because of the way we as a community engage them and respond to them.”

    I only engage them because I believe in their inherent divine power, so this feels circular. If the words of God aren’t inherently sacred–if nothing is inherently sacred, as Steve argued–what’s the value in attributing sacredness to things? It actually strikes me as dangerous to deem as sacred that which God does not also deem sacred.

    Or are you saying the actual, physical books aren’t sacred?

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Kyle, I think what Aaron means can be understood by considering the process of canonization.

    When section 138 was added to the Doctrine and Covenants, the words of Joseph F. Smith’s revelation underwent a change in the way we engage them. The day before canonization, hardly anyone even knew about those words. The day after, LDS people considered them sacred. The words themselves didn’t change, but the way we think of them did.

  10. But Mark, did the church canonize 138 because we recognized its inherent sacredness, or did it become sacred because we canonized it? Because we could also see canonization as a way of aligning our view of the text with the way the text is intended to be viewed.

    Sorry if I’m being thick…Steve’s original comment didn’t sit well with me; with you and Aaron on his side, I suspect I’m mis-grokking something

  11. Kyle, it is circular. But no less real for it. The sacred is something we enact and participate in and co-construct. And in the process of making and remaking, enforcing and reinforcing the boundaries and inner content of the Holy, we also experience it as something whose sacred power transcends our involvement, originates someplace beyond us and our acts. It’s almost a kind of magic, an exercise in conjuring, a play. But it’s also quite real because we really experience it as such. Turns out, the play’s the thing.

  12. That helps Brad, but are the boundaries of the Holy ours to make or reinforce? Our collective recognition of something as holy just seems superfluous. And the flip side is idolatry–when we ascribe sacredness to that which is not sacred (implying that sacredness isn’t ours to give, in the end).

    And with that I’ll hush up

  13. Mark Brown says:

    did the church canonize 138 because we recognized its inherent sacredness, or did it become sacred because we canonized it?

    Good question, and now I understand what you are asking. Hmmm. My inclination is to go with door # 2, mostly because I think there is some measure of arbitrary caprice involved in the selection of what makes it into the canon, especially the bible.

  14. I don’t think idolatry is the making sacred of something which is not sacred. Sacredness is not an intrinsic property of anything. It’s inherently processual, something that is made and remade, enacted and reenacted. I think idolatry is when such processes are self directed, when the enactment and acknowledgment and veneration of the sacred is transformed into an exercise of self worship. Even truly, undeniably sacred things, like the temple, can become sites and mediums and expressions of idolatry when properly perverted into modes of self adulation.

  15. In other words, truly sacred places or times or objects are not the antithesis of objects of idolatry but rather one and the same sites for, the necessary preconditions of, idolatry. There has to be a sacred to be a profanation, and there has to be worship to be self worship. The categories are co-dependent and co-constitutive.

  16. I think sacred is the sublimation of man to man’s idea of deity.

  17. Kyle, thank you for your thoughtful comments and Brad & Mark your responses were excellent.

    Howard, one issue with this kind-of ‘namaste’ approach to the sacred is that it seems to ignore the necessary desacralisation that follows sacralisation that Brad noted. I’m not sure the category of sacred retains important qualities in this view. By extension, in Mormon theology the desecrated ‘sons of perdition’ serve an important purpose for establishing the sacrad ‘sons of ahman’. It seems that JS’s inclination toward universalism needed to find a limit to be meaningful. That (presumably) tiny group of individuals are neceesary in order to establish other grades of the redeemed.

    Angela, on a practical level your question is quite provocative. If ‘care’ implies this deeply felt realisation then neither overuse nor neglect will be appropriate. Additionally, Mark Brown’s post at ‘Our Mothers Keeper’ from a few weeks ago captures this awareness in practical terms cogently.

  18. Britt Daniel says:

    I love the concept you’re exploring here, especially with regards to the scriptures. What an interesting chicken and egg question about the sacredness of the scriptures. LDS theology does seem to have an undercurrent of absolving people for ignorance or actions committed in ignorance, which supports the idea that a text becomes sacred as we engage with it. The old falling tree in the forest question, I guess. Or, to update, the old falling tree in a sacred grove question …

  19. Aaron please explain how recognizing through enlightenment the presence of the divine within one excludes the possibility of recognizing the divine is missing from another or recognizing the presence of the adversary within a third .

  20. Aaron R, I’m hoping you can clear something up for me.

    You say in the OP, “For sacredness to become ‘apparent’ it must already be present prior to becoming recognisable.” and then say “the sacred is not inherent to things.”

    So where do you locate the sacred if it exists a priori but is not inherent to anything? It seems like a contradiction if you are saying that the sacred exists regardless of human perception, but is also not located in anything outside of human perception.

    Then, after you set this frame in place that I need some help understanding, you go on to focus on “taking care” as a quality of sacredness, which means that the sacred is made so by humans “taking care” of that which therefore becomessacred through the way humans interact with the space.

    I think your statement that “the sacred is not inherent to things” is correct and demonstrated by the rest of the post, but do not see how you are relating those ideas to an a priori sacredness. Maybe that first statement was meant to be attributed to Brown or Evans, but I’m just a little confused at this point.

  21. hi

  22. Kendrick K says:

    I think an important part of revealing the sacred in our lives is the rituals we undertake, when we engage in certain praxis on a regular basis the sacred nature of the event is revealed, all things created by God are inherently sacred and our treatment of it reveals that, I love my wife and tell her often, but there is not a more sacred moment for us than when we are together in prayer, or a blessing or holding hands during the sacrement prayer. Many of the words and expressions are the same on any given day but the true sacredness of our relationship is revealed in those moments.

  23. Glass Ceiling says:

    Sacredness is subjective in the heart of the beholder, as long as it is congruent with God’s principal. It also exists in all places and things the Lord deems so. It is that simple.

  24. Glass Ceiling says:


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