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What is sacred? Respecting the spiritual beliefs and commitments of others

When 15-year-old Angela and her family first moved to Utah three years ago, she understood that she would be living among many people who had different religious beliefs than her own.

"It will be an adventure," her father told her.

And it was — a very pleasant one, for the most part. She quickly found friends with whom she had a great deal in common — religious differences notwithstanding — and she quickly began to fit in with a large and active social circle.

When Angela turned 16 her parents gave her a beautiful, simple cross on a delicate gold chain as a symbol of her faith in Jesus Christ and her commitment to Christian living. She proudly wore it to school the next day and was anxious to show it to her new-found friends.

Their reaction wasn't exactly what she was expecting.

"Oh … that's … nice," her closest friend stammered, then turned quickly away.

"In my church we don't believe in wearing crosses," another friend said flatly.

"If your big brother was shot and killed, would you wear the bullet around your neck?" another girl asked.

By the end of the day, Angela felt embarrassed and alienated.

"I understand that different people believe different things," she said to her parents that night. "But nobody asked me about what I believe, or why the necklace means so much to me. It was like I was supposed to feel bad for wearing something that reminds me of my faith."

Angela isn't alone in that feeling of interfaith frustration. Although contemporary society generally embraces the notion of religious freedom and tolerance, there is an undercurrent of mistrust and even animosity that seems to emerge whenever significant differences in religious belief, tradition, policy or style present themselves. And if you try to explain those differences using words like "sacred" or "holy," prepare to be challenged, questioned, joked about and teased.

"The world today is shifting more and more and more to a selfish and godless belief system," said Rabbi Benny Zippel, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Utah, an organization for orthodox Jews. "And so the notion of something being sacred is challenging in a world that has shifted more to seeking godless pursuits."

Colleen E. Gudreau, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, agreed that "we live in a society that values the material: that which can be measured, analyzed, dissected and reassembled."

As a result, she continued, "those who have experienced 'hierophany' (the manifestation of God to us) may not recognize it for what it is. Or, lacking adequate language to talk about it, they may compartmentalize the experience as 'spiritual,' but not contemplate its deeper reality or meaning."

But consideration for that which is sacred or holy in our own lives and in the lives of others is important, Rabbi Zippel said.

"The concept of 'sacred' was not created by man," he said. "We are commanded by God to be a sacred people and to integrate sacredness in our lives.

"That which is sacred needs reverence — it demands it," he said. "Whether or not it is sacred to us personally, it demands our respect in behalf of others."

But what exactly is sacred? How do we recognize it? And how do we appropriately show respect for something that is sacred to others, but not to us?

The definition of what is sacred is broad, and varies from faith group to faith group. Within the various branches of Christianity, for example, "there is a wide spectrum of approaches on that," according to Ross Anderson, pastor of the Alpine Church, a non-denominational Christian church with four campuses in northern Utah.

"Some Christian groups put a lot of emphasis on ritual, with sacred places, clothing and symbols," Anderson said. "In our church, we put less emphasis on material Christianity and more emphasis on where you are in relationship to God. We see something sacred in everything we do, everywhere we are."

"We also have sacred experiences," added David Nelson, pastor at K-2: The Church on 2100 South in Salt Lake City. "For many of us there is that sacred sense that we've encountered God in an extraordinary way, in our individual times alone with God. So in that sense, the sacred is more experiential than it is physical. It is our relationship with God and with each other — that is what is sacred.

"That is why we can worship in a warehouse," Nelson continued, referring to the refurbished facilities that house the K-2 congregations. "There is nothing intrinsic in this space that is holy. It becomes holy when it is inhabited by the people of God. … A tin warehouse doesn't feel really sacred. But what happens in here is holy. Every Sunday I pray to God and ask him to make it a holy place so that he can meet with us and interact with us."

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "hold beliefs regarding the Savior's Atonement to be sacred," said LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter. "For church members, the holy scriptures, which teach of Christ; gospel ordinances, which help members follow Christ; and sacraments, which help members remember Christ, are all considered sacred."

Trotter also indicated that LDS temples are considered sacred. "Inside temples, members learn of their relationship to Christ in God's eternal plan of salvation and make covenants to live Christ-like lives," he said. "Naturally, temple garments, which serve as a reminder of these covenants, are also considered sacred."

LDS temple garments, which are specially designed undergarments worn by Latter-day Saints who have qualified to enter and worship in LDS temples, are often used as a derisive example of unusual LDS beliefs and practices. The term "magic underwear" is applied by those with an anti-Mormon agenda as well as by poorly informed journalists, in reference to folklore about members who were protected from harm when they were wearing temple garments.

"The term 'magic underwear' is offensive and misrepresents the significance of temple garments to church members," Trotter said. "Religious clothing is common to many faiths, both as a symbol of private devotion and as indicators of priestly office. Members of our faith wear religious garments beneath their street clothes as a private reminder of promises made to God to lead good, honorable, Christ-like lives."

Which, according to Rabbi Zippel, is what makes LDS temple garments and the "tzitzit" he wears under his shirt sacred.

"It is a private thing, representative of personal beliefs and commitments," he said. "To speak of it lightly, to make jokes about something so deeply intimate and personal, is inappropriate. Even if it isn't sacred to you, it is sacred to someone and demands your respect."

The tzitzit worn by Rabbi Zippel and other Jews has four corners, with eight fringes from each corner. "We wear it as a reminder to act upon our mandate to be sacred — to sanctify the material by the way we choose to live our lives," he said. "For me, it is empowering to put it on each day. It reminds me of the very reasons that I was created."

There are other sacred things to orthodox Jews like Rabbi Zippel, including the scriptures and the "holy ark" that houses the scriptures. But the most sacred thing of all, he said, is the human soul itself.

"The Jewish definition of life is that it is the fusion and interaction of two different entities: the body and the soul," the rabbi said. "The body is our physical self, and the soul is the godly spark that dwells in us. The soul is an ongoing source of inspiration. It is what brings sacredness to the body."

Similarly, Roman Catholics find sacredness in humanity.

"Through creation, God has revealed that everything in the universe is 'good,' but especially human beings, who, created in God's image, have a God-given dignity and worth," Gudreau said. This view of the sacred, she continued, "can form the way Catholics interact with others through actions such as 'welcoming the stranger in their midst' or 'choosing life.'"

Gudreau said that Catholics also experience the sacred in their lives through sacraments and sacramentals, symbols or signs, and in creation itself.

"For me," said the Rev. Patrick O'Neill, minister of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, N.Y., "the relationship of all living things, each to the other and to the world which sustains us, is sacred. Whatever violates that relation violates the sacred. Whatever nourishes that relation increases it. Whatever calls us to an appreciation of that relation, calls us to holiness, invites us to the sacred."

And that invitation requires respect, regardless of whether or not you embrace the holiness being offered.

"There should be a great respect for other people and what they believe," Nelson said. "That's what I want for myself. I want people who don't believe what I believe to respect what I believe even if they don't agree with it."

Added Trotter: "We can and should demonstrate respect toward the faith and religious symbols of others, particularly those elements deemed sacred."

And what should be the response of believers to those who ridicule their beliefs, and demean that which they hold to be sacred?

"By and large, such disrespect is a manifestation of ignorance," Rabbi Zippel said. "Respect is a by-product of education. And so our appropriate response to those who speak from their ignorance is to love them, embrace them and lead them to desire a greater pursuit of knowledge of the sacred."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews