The “sacred” is another word for existence. That equation is central to the network of ideas that I espouse. The “sacred” is the crossover point, the nexus between the objective and subjective aspects of reality. It is the resonance of the impact of existence, being-here, on the conscious human organism. It functions as much like a transcendental as any concept does in our non-Platonic, non-static, process universe.
Transcendentals, traditionally, were properties that were derived from the trans categorical nature of “being” as a concept. In some systems they were based on how “being” was thought to be apprehended by a particular human faculty, e.g., “being” for the mind was “Truth,” for the will it was “the Good.” “Being” transcended and comprehended all other ideas. Transcendentals, like “Truth” and “Goodness,” as equivalencies of “being,” were then said to apply to whatever exists wherever being is found, regardless of what kind of thing it is. Truth, beauty, goodness, oneness, are some of those transcendentals selected over the centuries.
A process universe
We live in a universe in process. We no longer live in a world ruled by fixed ideas. Science has identified two overriding characteristics of the reality it encounters that are contrary if not contradictory to the traditional world view inherited from the past: reality is matter not spirit, and reality is dynamic — constantly changing — not static.
To put it tersely, we live in a universe of evolving matter. This completely reverses our multi-millennial conviction that the world was permanently structured by fixed ideas projected into a passive material envelope by the mind and will of an unchangeable “God.” The keynote of that older vision was the unchanging nature of “God’s” creative ideas. Ideas, essences, were mental (spiritual) products that gave formless matter a recognizable form and made it to be “something.” This “something” was what the ancients meant by “being,” and it was characterized by the domination of matter (potentially able to be formed into anything) by a formative, stable, intelligent and intelligible “spirit” — specific essential ideas and the minds that thought them, “God’s” and ours. The traditional “transcendentals” were elaborated in the context of a static, well-ordered, pre-planned universe.
Evolution demands an entirely new way of looking at things, and therefore a new way of conceiving “matter” and a new concept of “being” that comprehends what matter does. This new concept of “being” springs directly and immediately from the dynamic nature of material reality, and is best served by a new word to remind us that it is different from the old. I use the word existence or “being-here” to refer to this new concept of an evolving matter. It is an arbitrary shift that replaces the word “being” which had static connotations. Existence in my lexicon is matter’s energy; it is not a “thing,” but an energy — observable and potentially measurable — that things do when they are-here and driven to find ways to survive. It reveals that “being” is dominated by becoming, not as we once thought, the other way around. Heraclitus, we might say in our time, has gained the ascendency over Parmenides: reality is not “one” and unchanging; rather, it is many and it “runs” — panta rei. Matter is alive and evolves; it passes life along to whatever it becomes. It creates new things out of itself the way leaves are extruded from the branches of an immense tree.
The traditional transcendentals were posited of “being” as an abstract concept that exists in our heads at the apex of a “world of ideas.” The transcendental was then applied, a priori, from the top down, from “being” to the individual existing thing. Things were “good” by deduction from the fact that they were part of “being.” But there is no world of ideas. A new a posteriori concept of being requires new transcendentals, properties that characterize what exists as it exists in the real world where everything is in the constant flux of creative becoming. One of those transcendentals is LIFE; another is “sacredness.”
“Life” as a transcendental
Despite the evidence of evolution, many would dispute the assertion that matter is alive. We tend to forget that evolution only entered the scientific picture in 1859. Modern science had already been functioning for several centuries before Darwin. Those centuries had established the assumptions that scientists took for granted as they plied their trade. The early philosophers of modern science assumed a definition of “matter” inherited from their forebears. Matter had been considered the passive recipient of essential ideas, and until 1859 there was nothing to indicate that that was incorrect. Early scientists like Galileo and Newton restricted their work to what their observations revealed about matter, but they continued to believe that what they were looking at were the outward material manifestations of an inner spiritual “nature” — an entelechy, an essence, an idea — given to the thing by “God’s” creative mind, much as the mediaeval theologians did. They continued to assume that matter was passive to ideas, and so they defined “matter,” as Descartes did, as a “substance that could be acted upon but could not act,” and “spirit” as a “second substance which went beyond the capacities of mere matter,” providing life and intelligence in an otherwise inert world. Early scientists’ major innovation was that they refused to define the “nature” they sought beforehand, a priori, as did their scholastic predecessors, but insisted on measured observations building up to a tentative “hypothesis.” But their a posteriori methods did not directly challenge the overall philosophical prejudice that “matter” was passive, dead, inert — made up of elements that could be structured into a functioning mechanism only by whatever spiritual essence enlivened them, a “soul” of some type. Descartes’ definition of a dead “matter” in fact, depended upon the simultaneous presence of a living “spirit” — “that which went beyond the capacities of matter” — or there was no way to explain life. Matter was unintelligible without spirit.
This was the concept of matter that was firmly in place in 1859 when the world was confronted with the astonishing reality that living forms were not inserted into a passive material receptacle by “God” but were actively and autonomously evolved by and from the very “matter” of which they were made. Matter, it seems, was not inert at all; it was alive and its inner vitality was responsible for all the species that exist across the face of the earth! But in 1859 the notion of a living matter ran counter to the foundational assumptions about matter’s inertness that over the previous 250 years had given science an unprecedented control over nature. Science was not about to abandon those assumptions. Hence to this day most people still operate on Descartes’ definition of matter — a definition that assumes a material universe enlivened by “something else,” something that comes from another world. Strangely, many others, so-called “materialists,” refuse to acknowledge the existence of spirit or of any other world, nevertheless still accept Descartes’ definition of matter as passive and all motion as mechanically impelled. That creates a problem: for without “spirit” they are unable to explain the presence of life, and blindly project that “someday” science will discover the “inert mechanism” responsible for life. The anomaly here is glaring, and that kind of materialist (there are other kinds, like myself, who believe that vitality is intrinsic to matter) simply lives with the paradox that a world full of life evolved from a matter that is totally dead.
Some of them, like Daniel Dennett, follow through on the implications of that projection. To be logically consistent, Dennett says that if life is due to some as yet undiscovered mechanism, then we are mechanisms to the bone, and what we have been calling “life” is, in fact, nothing more than a label we give to a perceptual illusion. Dennett says the mechanical nature of reality is hidden to non-scientific observation by the macro level at which perception takes place. He insists that if we could perceive the operations of “life” at the quantum, sub-atomic level, we would see … or rather, we would not see how we were any different from an extremely sophisticated robot. If matter is what modern science says it is — dead, inert, passive — then life is an illusion.
But if Dennett is wrong … and we don’t have to find something other than mechanism for him to be wrong; for if matter is really alive, then mechanism is not really only mechanism even though it is only matter, and the presence of mechanism is no proof that matter is not alive … then life characterizes reality wherever it is found … at whatever point in time … at whatever level of complexity … and in whatever form, however primitive it has to that point evolved. What we have here is a clash of assumptions; and the point is moot and academic. For if you cannot tell the difference between life and its mechanisms, then the difference doesn’t matter. The burden of proof, it seems to me, rests with those who claim life is an illusion, for we know we are alive. In a universe in process, life, whatever the vehicle it rides in, characterizes all existence. It is a transcendental.
The Sacred as transcendental
Most of us were brought up associating the word “sacred” with a Church or a religion. But I am using the word in a more original sense … the sense that I believe it had before any church or religion appropriated it — as a transcendental that describes our reaction to being-here.
Like every organism on earth, existence has walloped us over the head. For by evolving us out of itself matter passed on to us its own existential energy: the joy of being-here alive and an insatiable thirst for staying here. We love life and we are driven to survive no matter what the cost. What the religions of the past saw as the root of all selfishness we now recognize to be the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation embedded in every organism. It is a driving energy to exist resident in the organic material of which we are made. It is not optional; we are all biologically programmed to love, cherish and protect our being-here above all things; it’s a bio-chemical phenomenon. It is this love for existence, first our own, and then everything around us that supports, protects and enhances our being-here, that evokes the sense of the sacred and applies it to those things. (Correlatively, hatred and violence are generated in proportion to and directed at whatever is perceived to threaten our being-here.) The sacred is the ecstatic self-embrace of organic existence resonating in human consciousness.
We humans are aware that we are not physically pre-determined by the conatus because we can commit suicide (animals can’t commit suicide because they don’t have the imagination); but it is a predisposition so powerful that few ever contemplate contravening it. It is focused exclusively on living; dying is not part of the instinctual program. And that’s not only true of us; all organisms of whatever kind are similar. Every animal we know of defends its life, fights to reproduce itself, protects the life it has spawned and never expects to die. This is “subjective” for sure, but what else do we mean by “objective” except that which compels universal acquiescence? We are obsessed with being-here and we have no choice in the matter. Being-here, existence, is to die for; it is sacred. It is the absolute horizon … there is nothing more ultimate, subjectively or objectively, because we cannot get outside of it or outside of ourselves to judge our obsession by some other standard. We ourselves are specimens of matter’s energy, and we are programmed to be-here endlessly precisely because we are made of matter. The “sacred” — the joy of being here — is co-terminus with matter’s energy — existence. It is a transcendental.
Religion’s “sacred” — an inevitable displacement
If the “sacred” is a transcendental, co-extensive with existence, it is completely natural. That means the millennial “supernatural” imagery projected by the various religions is a massive displacement and supremely vulnerable to exploitation. But it is almost inevitable. It is an example of the attempt to give the unimaginable primordial energies that drive our lives a concrete imaginable form. It’s what we do: we make visible symbols for what we cannot see. It comes from having an imagination. Take “justice” for example. The thirst for justice resides in the human heart, but it is easily displaced by the scaffolding we erect for its protection … like laws, and constitutions, and court systems, etc. That doesn’t make it any less elusive. Socrates’ question “what is justice” still remains unanswered, as does our thirst for it. But while we will not say “the gods are just” as Socrates’ friends did, we will always be tempted to say “the laws are just,” or the constitution is just, or the courts are just. They are concrete realities we entrust with the care of justice, whereas “justice” itself, regardless of how deeply we feel it and know without a doubt of its “existence” and respond to its cry, is completely beyond conceptualization. Justice is something we do. In fact, the minute we stop doing it and try to define it, it stops being “justice” and becomes something else … like “law,” or “jurisprudence,” etc.
Esthetic appreciation is similar. We love to define the “beauty” we see or hear in some work of art or music, but we are immediately aware that the definition is a falsification and a displacement. The subjective experience is irreplaceable, but we know it’s not only subjective. Where the “objective” beauty lies, however, eludes specification. We have to acknowledge that our subjective reaction has an objective dimension to it that we cannot define without falsifying it. We are easily seduced into letting some “knowledgeable critic” tell us what is beautiful in one work and what is ugly in another. The unaccustomed stillness of simply enjoying beauty wordlessly is more than we can stand. We have to understand “why” — we have to substitute another image, “another word” for the one that is before us, an image we construct and can understand; it gives us a feeling of control. But it’s a kind of check-mate … the minute you stop playing and start defining, the game is over.
Religion is the same. We put religion in place of the sacred because we cannot bear the imageless silence of simply being-here immersed in the very thing we thirst for and cherish above all else. We are the very being-here that mesmerizes us but we cannot understand it and we cannot control it, and so we call on our imagination to explain things “in other words” and put us back in charge. The illusion that we can create images and symbols to understand and control existence is the birth of religion. At the end of the day, the experience of the sacred can be lost, displaced by the images — “religion” — the “other words” that we turn to for explanation and control. But there is no control; and if the images we create tell us otherwise, they falsify reality and give us a distorted vision of what we think we are.
We are the children of existence. As we awaken to our reality we find ourselves wanting to be-here above all else. This desire to live generates a conscious awareness that our lives are dominated by an innate compulsion that may not be to our liking because it gives us no rest. The singular and obsessive pursuit of continued existence is the characteristic feature of everything that matter’s creative energy has morphed into on this planet. It defines us … we do not define it. Our sense of the sacred springs from this awareness, and from there our morality, our ability to hear and respond to the cry for justice, our compassion for all things that share this thirst for being-here.