An Accidental Post: Responding to my Secular Students on Profanity

I teach Freshman English. These kids are, what? 18 – 19 years-old? I love them. Until I have to grade their work. Then my soul bleeds with every, “In today’s society,” “Everyone knows,” “According to Miriam-Webster,”  “All over the world,” and “Since the beginning of time.” But I love them, nonetheless.

After reading Diana Mack’s article, “It isn’t Pretty . . . But is it Art?” in my freshman Research Writing (Theme: Cultural Diversity) class, I gave an assignment for the students to respond to “Profanity” in cultural terms. I got what I expected. A load of “God said not to cuss” – to which I had to respond, “that’s not really what ‘swear’ means” and “taking the Tetragrammaton in vain is a much bigger deal than telling someone to bite your ass” (not really, but I wanted to). And I got a load of  “there’s more profanity today than there was in the 1970s” (oh, the good old days). To this I had to give a brief film history lesson and give a little narrative concerning the network broadcast of The Vietnam “Conflict.” Too many times I had to ask, “Is profanity limited to language?”

I hoped for more, but I really only got one fleeting mention of homo-eroticism and another of Lady GaGa’s transgressive nature. Two shining supernovas that burned brightly and imploded before the sentence end.

I found myself judging their responses based on the accidental, offhandedly anti-Pagan commentary they have made in class:

STUDENT: I mean, I don’t mind if [the artist we were studying] isn’t Christian, that doesn’t offend me one bit; but . . . .

DR. BAD WITCH: He is Christian; he’s Nigerian, but he’s Christian. And I’m glad you can be so magnanimous; I mean, *I* don’t mind if *you are* Christian, that doesn’t offend me one bit.

This shit confuses the hell out of them. And that’s not a fair grading practice. So I had to blow off some steam. I was so brain-numb by the end of my grading stint that I had to ramble. Here’s my ramble:

The profane. Identified as the semantic opposite of the sacred, in English usage, profane has been most often used to describe unholy persons, things, or behaviors including “heathen” and “pagan.” It can also be used in a nonjudgmental sense to mean “secular”; however, this meaning implies “biblical” or “ecclesiastical” as a counterpoint.

 There seems to be a “Christian imperative” in this definition. By this definition, Heathens and Pagans are, by default, profane. Really? Anyone who does not share the religious identification is, necessarily, profane. What then could a Pagan possibly (semantically) hold sacred?

Surely, the earth and all of its bounty, both flora and fauna, is sacred. Surely, childbirth is sacred; and surely, by extension, female breasts, which provide nourishment, are sacred. Surely, monogamous union is sacred. Surely, respect for all humans (“Every man and every woman is a star”) and careful mutual love and respect (“Love is the law, love under will” and “Harm None”) are sacred. Right? To a Pagan, these things are most sacred.

To a Pagan, war is profane. To a Pagan, the objectification of women, the clearing of rainforests, and inequality are all profane. To subjugate someone to the oppression of a majority-rule is profane. To refuse food or medicine to someone in need is repulsively profane. To make a judgment about someone else’s body, their “sacred temple”, in Pagan terms, is grotesquely profane.

To about half of Americans, these things are just fine – as long as no one shows their tits or drops the f-bomb or practices the right to choose what to do with one’s (female) body.

But, on the other hand, “profane” can also refer to those not initiated into religious rites or sacred mysteries (a.k.a. “laity”). So, does this mean that a Christian congregation is “profane”? By its own definition, those who study the occult (those who, under the first definition would be inevitably profane) would *not* be profane. These are sacred initiates. So make up your mind, definition. Does “profanity” rest on “ecclesiastical Christianity”?

If so, what of Gnostic Christians; do they count? And what of Jews and Muslims; do they get some sort of Abrahamic “rider”? What of Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and Shintoists? Are these religious sects acceptable because they tend to correlate to a national identity? Shinto is Japanese, Hindu is Indian, Buddhism is Chinese; is it all OK unless you are surrounded by a national majority of Christians?

Isn’t that downright profane? It is, at least, in my profane-Pagan opinion, obscene.

Further, “profane” means to degrade something “exclusive” by making it accessible to ordinary people.

So, is the Bible profane? In being the most widely published work, something that was once considered the sole dominion of initiated priests, the English Bible became available to everyone checking into a Motel 6.

Let me get this straight. A Pagan is profane because she is not ecclesiastical. But a pagan is *not* profane because/if she is initiated into a religious mystery. But, perhaps the first definition prevails. A Pagan, even if initiated, is profane by default to the first definition.

However, a Christian is, then, also, profane if she is not initiated. Only the ecclesiastical priesthood is non-profane. Further, anything made generally available to the broader congregation (as opposed to being kept a priestly secret) is also profane. Sounds pretty exclusivist to me. It also sounds pretty blasphemous.

Is the separation of the sacred and the profane about a politico-religious power-play? If so, in the end I can only ask : “If Paganism is automatically profane, is anything sacred?”

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