The Sense of the Sacred


This is what religion is all about — our sense of the sacred.

The rest — whether there is a “God,” what “he’s” like, and what “he” wants with us — is belief … conjecture … inference … opinion … projection … stories from the past … the myths of ancient  peoples … the poetry of mystics … the rituals and traditions of families and clans and nations.  To the extent that there is anything anyone can declare to be a sheer indisputable fact, it is that we have a sense of the sacred.  And it is universal.

The minute we move from the fact to what may explain it, we are in a maelstrom of narratives, some of which are religious: they point to some objective ground, like “gods,” that tells us why we have a sense of the sacred and how we should respond to it.  Others are non-religious: some deny there is any outside explanation and assign it to an idiosyncrasy of the human organism — a psycho-biological epiphenomenon.  But whether explained or explained away, the fact remains: we all have a sense of the sacred and it follows us wherever we go.  We have to find a way to understand and deal with it, for it has dominated our destiny as a species.

I have some ideas about this question that I would like to share.  But first I want to make clear exactly what it is I am talking about.

My definition of the sense of the sacred is very broad; in my view religion, patriotism, ethnic pride are not the only manifestations of the phenomenon, it goes well beyond the usual categories.  For me its effects are in evidence in all phases of human life: anything that goes beyond the knee-jerk, scruffy business of staying alive and satisfying individual raw basic needs is due to our sense of the sacred.  Yes, I am saying that whatever we are not driven to do … whatever we choose to do without coercion — only because we think it is good — derives from our sense of the sacred.  Even those who prioritize their own pleasure and comfort, have made an evaluation; they are responding to what they think is right and true and it engages their sense of the sacred.  The “sacred” corresponds to what we perceive as valuable in itself, regardless of how it may or may not benefit us.  “Truth,” for example — simple straightforward facts, scientific, forensic, interpersonal — there is nothing religious or patriotic about truth, and the truth does not always benefit us, yet we hold the truth sacred.

Certain non-religious aspects of human life have always been acknowledged as the domain of the sacred.  Our morality, for instance, what undergirds our laws and behavior — that there is right and wrong, and not just what is good and bad for us — is an expression of our sense of the sacred.  Our love of justice, our outrage at injustice, the exploitation of the defenseless and economic imbalance, our respect for the rights of individuals and the autonomy of groups and nations, the esteem we have for our families and friends, our readiness to protect them and enhance their lives, these are all expressions of our sense of the sacred.  We also reverence the institutions set to guard the customs by which we live.  None of these things are directly religious nor are they always positive.  Outrage at injustice or the perception that autonomy is being repressed can result in centuries of enmity between people, generating sustained retaliatory injustices; they have spawned some of the worst cases of intra-species violence among us.

We are social organisms.  That means much more than a preference for human company; it means life or death for the individual.  We cannot survive outside of human society.  The collective well-being of the community with which one’s own destiny is tied, therefore, is necessarily an ultimate value.  Hence society is considered sacred and the traditional ways society protects itself and regulates the interchanges among its members are invariably also treated as sacred.  This too has two sides.  For the preservation of society and its traditional routines often involves shoring up inequities and suppressing the autonomy of groups and individuals inside and outside the community.

All of it, good and bad, is ultimately reducible to the sense of the sacred.  It explains everything we do.  Some may object that such a definition virtually equates to conscious intelligence itself and does not provide a basis for understanding the ordinary use of the term.  My response is simply to ask that we look honestly at the range of objects to which we actually relate as sacred, whether we are accustomed to use the word with them or not.  The sense of the sacred draws us out of ourselves and displays our willingness to do and endure things that go beyond self-interest.  When the sacred comes into play, people show an astonishing ability to transcend and even to suspend ordinary pursuits, at times foregoing their own survival in the effort to “serve” whatever it is that is engaging their sense of the sacred.  This is quite remarkable.  Aside from the hard-wired algorithms of the social insects, the only phenomenon that even approaches this unique human reaction is the urgency with which animals defend their young.  But even there, it never goes so far as to ignore self-survival.

Survival is ultimate.  It is an irrepressible organismic instinct   The ferocity with which all animal organisms, including insects and humans, defend themselves against death is the primary evidence for the genetic homogeneity of the matter of which we are made and the character of that matter’s energy.   Matter’s energy is focused on surviving, being-here — existing.

The disposition to deny oneself in deference to something “other” than ourselves is counter-intuitive.  But the very paradox suggests that in some way our sense of the sacred derives its energy from the drive to survive itself — the fundamental and most intensely self-interested of all instincts.  This is a clue.  There is a profound connection between the two and it is explained by what we are.  We are constructed of matter’s existential energy — being-here is what we are made of; it is no surprise that it is what we want and what we do … in fact, it is all we want, and it is everything we do. 


 The sense of the sacred is the echo in us of the LIFE that spawned and sustains us.  It is the recognition that we are part of a universal community by which we live and survive.  We are inheritors.  We are not self-originating and we are not alone.  We are the product of an evolving material substrate whose labyrinthine explorations have left its tracks clearly delineated in our flesh and in the sister organisms with whom we share the earth.  The DNA coding that gives us this magnificent and improbable humanity is the same mechanism that gives each of our sibling species their own unique character.  The system was discovered and perfected over billions of years by the anguished struggle to survive of primitive organisms some of which have themselves failed in their quest and have disappeared from the face of the earth.  We owe them; they are our ancestral benefactors.  We’ve done nothing; it all just fell in our laps.

This matter of which we are made is not a thing.  It is an energy whose primary focus is to be-here, to exist.  The drive to survive characterizes every organism on the planet, and yet there is nothing else in any of us but the atoms and molecules of the elements proportionately present in the rocks and soil, atmosphere and oceans of the earth.  The homogeneity at the base of the vast diversity of things is astonishing.  All of us, from protozoa to primates, utilizing the same common materials found on the earth and bearing the features of our common lineage, are energized toward one common goal: to continue to be here.  And we humans, conscious and intelligent as we are, can see it everywhere we look.  The earth is teeming with living things struggling like us to stay alive … to survive.  It is the struggle to survive that drove evolution; it gave us our bodies and our minds.

Everything that contributes to our survival is precious to us, because being-here is precious to us.  We all share that joy, but alone of all living things we humans have words for it.  We can step outside ourselves and stand under it all.  We can see ourselves being-here and loving it beyond measure.  Being-here is to die for.  Therefore we give it a special word: sacred; being-here is sacred to us because we crave being ourselves.  We can see and taste our joy at being-here and our words sing our joy, “I am-here, I am-here, I am-here” like the birds who sing and sing and sing … for no reason whatsoever.  There is no purpose to being-here.  Being-here is itself the purpose, the only purpose.  It’s where the chain ends; there is no more, nothing further, nowhere else to go.  And it is sacred to us because we are that!

We love ourselves, we love our life, we love being-here, and we stand in awe of the being-here that we see all around us.  We know it is all the same: the same stuff, the same chemistry, the same wiring, the same body structures, the same organs in the same places, the same instincts, the same ways of surviving, the same joy at living, the same recoil from deathIt is the root and meaning of it all: material existence in time. 

The inner wordless recognition that we are exclusively constituted of existence — every fiber and function of our body — locks us into our foundational relationships and orientation; it accounts for our primal scream.  We emerge from the bowels of our earth-mother screaming.  It’s an announcement and a warning.  “I am-here,” it says.  “Being-here has arrived … move over.”  And so begins our contribution to the common project: material energy’s insatiable prowling to test the limits of what it is capable of doing and enduring, and so perhaps to come to understand what existence is.  It is in these explorations that evolution provides the point of the lance, creating time, working to reverse the entropic future.  Matter’s energy being all it can be is where we live and move and have our being.


The sense of the sacred so dominates human consciousness that throughout our history as a species we have shaped our social lives around religion. Given the importance of the community for survival, this is critical to understanding who we are.  Religion was part of the survival apparatus of the community.  It provided mythic narratives, ritual poetry and moral codes that directly acknow­ledged the existential power of the sacred by relating to what was imagined lay behind it.  That relationship always involved a declaration, real or symbolic, of our disposition to self-sacrifice — to ignore survival and self-gratifi­cation in the service of the sacred, the guarantor of existence and the survival of the community.  These religions and the traditional dynamics they employ are with us still.

The identification of some objective outside source of the sacred, like the gods or “God,” is a hallmark of religion.  Since our sense of the sacred is an internal human predisposition which in itself is invisible and unfocused, it is inevitable that we would project this amorphous but powerful force onto a concretely imaginable entity.  It is an example of the human symbol-making function.  Unfortunately, in so doing, the “sacred” comes to be equated with the symbol — the “thing” or person projected, usually a god — rather than the originating internal human source.  We see the same process operating in other areas.  We tend to “reify” (make a “thing” out of) abstractions not unlike the way “justice,” for example, became for Plato an entity in itself.  He thought justice had an independent existence apart from the human beings who conceived it.  Even today in front of our courthouses we have statues to a blindfolded “justice” personified.  Generally we do not confuse the symbol with the reality.  In the case of religion, however, we did.  Some see the entire history of religious doctrine in the West as a process of reification — mis-taking metaphors for realities.  The fact that Jesus called himself the “son” of “God,” for example, despite his clarifications that we are all the children of “God” and other explicit disclaimers, inevitably came to be taken as a literal scientific reality.  We have lived with this glaring contradiction for 1700 years.

Religion tends to limit the true scope of the sacred.  Not only did religion give symbols — like the gods — a reality they did not have, but by identifying “the sacred” exclusively with them, the idea of “the profane” was born as the attribute assigned to everything that was not sacred and we imagined that different rules applied to it.  Thus was generated an artificial duality that has become embedded in our culture — the “sacred and the profane” — and the inevitable belief that our sense of the sacred should be restricted to the objectified religious “sacred.”  But however common the usage, it must be recognized as a false projection.  It is the result of taking a symbol for reality.  It ignores the potentially universal scope of our sense of the sacred and therefore misses the place where the sacred really resides: in the human organism’s innate predisposition to recognize and respect the supreme value of being-here, in which it lives and moves and has its being.  

The sense of the sacred is not limited to its symbols.  It is capable of functioning in every area of human activity where evaluation and choice are made.  There is no “objective sacred” different from an “objective profane.”  All things insofar as they are perceivable as being-here and thus having independent existence and value can become the focus of our sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is like a powerful light-source that resides within us, it is the expression of the existential energy of matter; it is a light that we shine on things.  Our reverence and respect for reality, existence  — which, after all, is what we are made of — is the source of our sense of the sacred.

(to be continued …)


2 comments on “The Sense of the Sacred

  1. Sal Umana says:

    Tony, How can I thank you, over and over again for what you share with us. For me, this was a very special breakthrough, because I was born a mystic and I see your mysticism coming out loud and clear in this essay. Last Sunday we sang “Morning has broken, like the first morning” and then I read you chirping like a bird: “Being-here is to die for. I am-here.I am-here, I am-here.Like birds who sing and sing and sing, for no reason whatsoever. I am-here. Being here has arrived…move over.” I have been singing this song since my novitiate in 1948. Thanks.
    Sal Umana

  2. Bob Willis says:

    Two new-born fawns gambol on the green outside our window: we smile with delight. On a late summer’s evening, a brilliant light show shimmers across our northern sky: we gasp with wonder. A young niece guides me to her spot on a rock projecting into a mountain stream: she sighs, “it is so peaceful here.” I swell with love. As the clouds part above us, an awesome majesty of the ice-mountain shoots heaven-ward: we gape with joy.
    You say rightly, I think, that we humans are a social organism. We cannot even grow into being human except with others like us. But I would go further. Whatever we choose to relate to, whatever we gaze at, whatever we listen to, we become one with. It is that becoming one with that generates for me the experience of the sacred. None of these are god; all are sacred. I can only shake my head sadly when someone declares that my fawns or my northern lights or my stream or my mountain are not sacred, that they are only profane.
    I accept that being-here is the sacred. For me, however, I would take a further step. In my experience “being” is “becoming.” Therefore, the sacred, in experience, is “becoming-here.” But that “becoming” only actually happens in relationship. So the sacred happens in us in the moments of “becoming-here-together.” Open arms co-create the sacred.
    Pat and I send our love, Bob

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