What is holy?

Lots of Christians talk about holiness or are obsessed with how holy God is (and, by extension, do so when they discuss how awful and rotten we humans are.) But that’s not talking about holiness; in such an instance, we are equivocating ‘holiness’ with what a specific set of Christians would consider ‘goodness’.

Dictionary definitions seldom do us any real favors, so it should come to no surprise to us that when we look up the word ‘holy’, we see ‘godly’. Same for a synonym, ‘sacred’. The etymology, too, is less-than-helpful, working in the same death cycle of circular reasoning.

So what does it mean to be holy? I would suggest that it doesn’t mean much of anything at all, not at least in the way we standard bearing and heterodox and unorthodox evangelicals consider it.

By staking claim to something as ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’, we tend to imply that it is an extension of God-ness into the world, like the Holy Bible. Holy ground. The Holy Land gets us into all sorts of trouble. Then again, so does the Bible, what with all the editorializing and clear human vantage points of the text. So many buildings have had so much pollution or corruption in them that to grant them the adjective ‘holy’ is to engage in well-intentioned blasphemy. The Holy Land is, itself, the manifestation of all that is wrong in the world. The Wesleys gave the world a new, more dangerous Pelagianism when they introduced Method-ism, which in turn helped spawn American fundamentalism. It seems that we do nothing but get into trouble—and get God into trouble—when we sanctify.

For, in reality, God has little to do with what is holy: when we talk of religious non-negotiables,what we tend to defend is not truth, but merely our preferences. And when we decry the state of affairs outside of our ethical worldview and invoke a holy god or holy scripture, we are engaging in proof-text of both the scripture and god. Jesus becomes Art Linkletter, Ed McMahon or Billy Mays, a compensated endorsement for the way we look at the world. Unfortunately, we’re not pimping out Jesus to hawk Contour chairs or Oxy Clean. We’re pimping yhwh for ourselves.

Indeed, God is worthy. Worthy of our presence, and our doctrinal commitments.

What if we dared to actually pin a definition on ‘holy’ that didn’t result in circularity? What if, for the sake of argument, we used a synonym? Let’s try ‘different’, and for once, I think Kant may actually be helpful with notions of transcendence.

Those of us who are theists widely can agree that God consists of fundamentally different stuff than us: pure spirit, being-without-justification, whatever. (This is often a forgotten given when we do Christological interaction, but vitally important. So vital, it seems, we fail to consider it at all.) When we do this, we necessarily have to abdicate our right to declare something good or evil. The Bible becomes a poetic, sometimes historical, sometimes gonzo, literary anthology of pre-Judeo/Judeo/paleo-Christian humanity’s interaction with God and not a book that can be wrongfully cherry-picked to crush others.

When we do this, we ought to be careful not to abdicate our morality, but to hold with reverence that which is different and to humbly recognize the paradoxical biblical call to be different, for God is different. What this does, is forces us to see what scripture says about interacting with the world around us and convicts us of the crappy job we do of being God’s envoy, the extension of Christ into a fraying world.

That which is not us is different and to be respected, perhaps this would give us reflective pause when we are commanded to go into all the world and proclaim the logic of God as found in Christ. The ones who were judged were the ones who were chosen, not the ones who were not. There is no license, particularly in this mindset, to be a prick about sins, much less to, for instance, cynically broadcast gospel messages in myriad foreign tongues to reach a divine eschatological quota. Frankly, there may be no more dispassionate, antipathetic doctrinal abortion than the Rapture.

So, let’s dispense with our claims to holiness and rightness and explore what it means be godly without insisting on everyone else being morally defective and us being morally right. Vive le difference.


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