What does holiness mean?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: 

What is the meaning of holiness? 

Recently, I have been studying John Searle's philosophy of institutional facts. I find that his philosophy answers many interesting questions in a clear and precise way and relates to many different fields of study including religion and theology.

Searle's philosophy shows how new facts can be created by collectively recognizing the assignment of functions to objects that cannot perform those functions by themselves alone. A useful mnemonic device for logically analyzing these social facts is the formula: X counts as Y in context C as in the example "This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C). I introduce these concepts in more detail here. I find this philosophy very useful in understanding the concept of "Holiness".

The word holy is synonymous with the word sacred. Holy is an english word that has Germanic roots. Sacred is an english word that has Latin roots. In the scriptures there are several different things that are described as "holy" such as the following:

  • Spoken Words and Texts such as scriptures
  • Rituals and Ordinances such as the activities performed in the temple.
  • Objects such as the Menorah or the Arc of the Covenant
  • Art and Architecture such as temples
  • Time such as the sabbath day
  • People such as priests
  • Institutions or communities such as Zion or the Church
Generally speaking, Holy means that which belongs to God or associated with God. Using the language of Searle's philosophy of institutional facts, something is holy if God recognizes it to have a certain status and by virtue of that status, the object can perform a specific function. Here are a few applications of this concept:

Prophets
 
A person counts as a prophet when they are recognized by God as being a prophet. The person alone is not sufficient to constitute being a prophet. You need the person plus God's recognition. Someone claiming to be a prophet that is not recognized by God is a false prophet. The status of "prophet" gives certain authorizations and obligations to the rightful bearer of that title. Such authorizations include the right to act in God's name and receive revelation on behalf of other people. Since they are recognized by God, prophets are holy. The Holy Prophets are still prophets even if no one but God recognizes their status.

Emblems of the Sacrament
 
The Sacrament is blessed (is made holy) if God recognizes it as being blessed. The bread and water count as a symbols of Christ and the act of eating those symbols and remembering Christ count as performing a covenant with God. The bread and water alone are not sufficient to be symbols of Christ by themselves. You need the bread and water plus God's recognition and the recognition of those engaging in the sacrament ritual. The covenants renewed during the sacrament are holy because they are recognized by God.

Priesthood
 
The priesthood is the authority to act in God's name and use His power. A person counts as having the status of priesthood holder when they are authorized to perform specific functions such as blessing the Sacrament or healing the sick. A person only has the priesthood when they are recognized by God as having that priesthood. God recognizes a person's priesthood when they are righteous and have been given the priesthood by someone else who has the priesthood who has been authorized by a church official such as the Bishop.

Temple
 
The temple is holy because it is God's house. Temples are centers for creating, preserving, and transmitting other Holy symbols. By itself, the physical building that constitutes a temple is not Holy. You need the building plus God's recognition that it is a temple for it to be holy.

I could describe many more religious concepts using these terms. There is a general formula that comes out of these examples:

X counts as something holy if it has a status that is recognized by God in order to perform a specific function that it cannot perform without God's recognition of that status. That status always comes with deontic powers such as rights, authorizations, and permissions, or obligations, duties, and requirements.

Nothing is holy in this context unless God recognizes it as being holy and sacred. And, nothing is holy unless it is assigned a certain status in order to perform a specific function. These concepts should be thought about with an attitude of reverence and we should treat these concepts as God treats them. That which is unholy is that which has a status such that we are obligated to avoid it. God does not dwell in unholy temples. We should likewise not enter unholy places or situations.

Holy objects are different from other social objects (like money) in that an object can be holy even if God is the only person that recognizes them as being holy. Whereas all other social objects exist only if there is a large amount of people that recognize them as existing.

Sources: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/ancient-temples-and-sacred-symbolism-video/ The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle