An important distinction to be made in the field of ethics is the distinction between Sacred Law and Moral Truth. Misunderstanding this distinction is one path to the perilous embrace of moral relativism.
The notion of The Sacred is essentially the referent of a human emotion directed toward the divine. In other words, it is the referent of piety. That is, the pious man honors the Sacred. Although the emotion itself seems to be universal, its referents are, in fact, quite varied. It is my belief, that what is regarded as Sacred is the product of human convention; the emotion it encapsulates, however, is not, and can be characterized as “Love of the Divine.” For example, the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments and the Buddhist Eight Noble Truths are both examples of Sacred Laws. And they are revered as such in their respective cultures.
However, what if we consider the Aztecs and their practice of ritual human sacrifice? Fortunately, that practice has been relegated to the past. However, it does raise an interesting question. Ritual human sacrifice was considered to be a Sacred practice demanded by the Sacred Law of the Aztecs. How can a practice like ritual sacrifice be understood in a moral context? This seems to be a clear case where Sacred Law and Moral Truth conflict.
What is Moral Truth? Essentially, it is the code of conduct that regulates how we interact with other humans and other life. However, there is more intended than just a “code of conduct.” It is not a simple, axiomatic system of rules. It is the spirit or emotion behind any such moral rules and it can be characterized best by “love for fellow humans.”
What is surprising is that Moral Truth can be used to contradict Sacred Truth; that is, in a certain sense, Moral Truth is “higher” than Sacred Truth. I say that it is higher because, more often than not, any ritual, rite, or law that is deemed Sacred, has a tendency to take on an absolute quality in itself: the ritual or law becomes psychologically entrenched as an end in itself, and that is dangerous, if not altogether wrong. The Aztec practice of ritual human sacrifice, for example, shows the extreme to which this can descend when the ritual becomes the end and not the love of the Divine. To guard against this, one must never lose sight of the fact that the Sacred Ritual or Sacred Law is the “medium” through which one learns to love the Divine, not the essence of the Divine itself. This raises an interesting question. What is the true nature of the Divine? For the Aztecs, it seems clear that the Divine is understood in terms of Power. The Divine is something to be placated with human sacrifice, lest it grow angry and punish humanity. The Christian God, on the other hand, is not only All-Powerful but is understood as synonymous with Love. God is first and foremost a loving God. Because of this, the Judeo-Christian tradition eliminated ritual human sacrifice thousands of years ago.
Still, it seems odd to say that Moral Truth is “higher” than Sacred Law. After all, what can be higher than God? However, this difficulty vanishes because the Sacred is a human construct to reach toward the Divine, not the other way around. That is, it is more human-dependant, than God-dependant. To say a certain stone (or book) is Sacred, is to say that some humans revere said stone (or book) as a medium for them to grow closer to God; it is not a means for God to grow closer to them. The benefits of honoring the Sacred are relative to the individual in his or her culture.
The flip side of being a good person, however, is embracing Moral Truth (which is love of family, friends, and neighbors). Moral knowledge is accumulated through a life time of experience dealing with other humans, and human history is a process through which humanity as a whole gains moral knowledge. And now, after thousands of years of history, certain practices like cannibalism and ritual sacrifice have been relegated to the past. Clearly, if the highest Moral Truth is Love, then it is exceptionally difficult to understand how one could ritually sacrifice anyone at all. This provides us with a clear cut instance in which Moral Truth trumps Sacred Law. We say no to ritual human sacrifice on moral grounds. The result is that what we wish to deem as Sacred is up to us; however, this choice is constrained by Moral Truth.