Profanum

roman-temple-of-garniI have been fascinated by word origins and their original meanings for a long time. Not because such knowledge is a useful tidbit at a social function (it isn’t) and not because such knowledge will impress others (it often backfires and just makes me look vain). Those unfortunate side effects, however, fail to dissuade me from looking at those origins. I have found them very helpful in how to think and how to act when it comes to contemporary discussions and problem solving.

Take “profanity” for example. It’s a word everyone knows since their early teenage years, when we all began to explore what language can do. Who hasn’t used a select word or two to startle our parents, make us look “grownup” (doesn’t do that either), or make a point to the extreme?

Joseph Pieper, in his fine first chapter of “In Search of the Sacred” reminds us that the original meaning of “profane”

“does not contain any hint of impropriety, for it indicated nothing else than the area in front of the temple (fanum, in Latin), in front of its gates, ‘outside.’”

In other words, the sacred place and object was inside the temple, everything else that was outside was literally “in front of the temple” (pro-fanus): profane, common, ordinary. Which is why profane language is often called “vulgar” which has a host of definitions nowadays, some of which are “common, popular, coarse, unrefined.” Vulgar comes from the word meaning the general public. This is not to suggest that the general public is indecent, but rather to point to a distinction made between what is sacred and what is profane, or what is vulgar, or—better for my point—what is ordinary.

Christians use this term to describe what belongs to God in order to distinguish it from the stuff of ordinary life. Now it is true that there is also a sense in which God is present in everything (He is omnipresent after all). Does that mean ”everything is sacred”? Many writers have noted that if that is true, if everything is sacred, then, in actuality, nothing is. Why? Because there is no distinction made in that declaration. How can something be truly sacred if there are no distinctions at all?

In his book, Pieper notes that all of us intuitively know that there are distinctions in life. Those demarcations may be that we do not wear old shorts, torn T-shirts and flip-flops when we have a personal meeting with the President. Or that we do not build a pipeline over a burial ground. Or that we do not play basketball in a place of worship.

Some may object, as Pieper notes, that these behaviors are mere social rules of conduct, of deference to others, or of expectations for our particular society. But actually, most of us can agree that they are signs of respect.

But now the obvious question: Respect for what?