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 death. It 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.
The sense of the sacred is always associated with the community on which survival depends. So the religious rituals of self-sacrifice performed the secondary function of sacralizing social life by grounding the community — its routines, its regulations, its castes and its “values” — in the wellspring of the sacred, but always in terms of religion’s separation of the sacred from the profane. As society changed — specifically in how it guaranteed survival — what religion had narrowly sanctioned as “sacred” had to change with it; if it didn’t, society would generate a religion that would. Society and religion are integral. Theocracy is the normal state of affairs; it is natural. Religion is society’s sounding board for declaring its values sacred. Those values are what justify society’s survival system guaranteeing existence.
The adjustments made by Christianity in the second century of the common era is an example of a change of this type. It adapted to living permanently with and within the Roman Empire instead of actively anticipating Rome’s downfall in the Second Coming. Those modifications were responsible for allowing Rome to feel confident that in selecting Christianity as its state religion it was not shooting itself in the foot. There were a number of features that assured the empire that its own existence and values were safe with Christianity: hierarchy, a rigid upper-class control of authority and ritual, a quid pro quo “salvation” conditioned on compliant behavior judged by a demanding “God” who sanctioned Rome’s right to rule. It was a far cry from the original invitation to join Jesus’ “Way,” an egalitarian movement of the common people wrapped in the arms of a merciful “God” who promised the final overthrow of Rome’s system of injustice and idolatry. Christianity effectively re-invented itself, choosing to function on a dynamic that was quite the opposite of that of its founder. It changed its world-view from one-world to two, and embraced as its own the class structures that were at the very heart of Roman exploitation. Christianity never challenged the ancient
Mediterranean economic system which was based entirely on slavery on a vast scale. Control by an aristocratic hierarchy and serfs bound to the land remained in place throughout the subsequent history of Europe in all the nations of the West including the Americas, until the late 18th century. And all through that time its sacred justification was provided by the Catholic Church and its many reformed versions, very few of which ever challenged those structures.
We can’t fail to appreciate the political implications of all this. These dynamics are not just the fall-out of ancient illusions; they are invariables that do not change with time or with the symbols that objectify them. The Catholic/Christian hierarchy was tied to the Roman Imperial, class-based world-view. They have not officially represented European nations since Europe’s “democratizing” project began with the French and American revolutions. The Christian state religions of Europe disappeared but left a great tension in their wake. Society requires a “religion.” We are still defined by the inescapable need to sacralize the social realities by which we survive and work out our destiny. Our sense of the sacred will not go away, and the connection between survival (being-here, existence), the community, what we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for, and “God” is a constant. “God” is a projection of human existential dependency. It is naturally dominated by society’s existential (survival) role. Young men have always killed one another and died willingly for their clan and nation even though they were of the same religion. Religion did not create this disposition; it was an innate inclination and ancient religion was the expression of it. The human proclivity to be of service to the “sacred” as determined by the survival community will continue to function in the absence of an established religion; it will ineluctably interpret as sacred the processes by which the community currently guarantees survival, and it will eventually develop symbols and rituals — however “irreligious” they may at first appear — that objectify and externalize those “sacred” processes. In the United States politically conservative Christians, the most socially prominent of whom are the Roman Catholic hierarchy, are currently attempting to redefine Christianity along the lines of the “modern” sacred categories of economic wealthmaking — the corporate business model — in an attempt to align their religion with the values that rule our societies. The fact that this redefinition stands in stark contrast to the words and spirit of their founder is generally not a matter of serious concern — nor has it ever been.
This is not the willful immorality of greedy and arrogant men, it is the normal process by which society attempts to find a way to declare itself sacred. A new sacred world view begins to emerge and to function as the old religion did, shaping and subordinating all of economic, political and social activities to the new values. If a traditional religion can re-tool itself to do this, all the better. In the case of Christianity, impossible as it was to imagine, it changed itself to reflect the sacred structures and values of the Roman Empire. If it wants to become the “state religion” of today’s global capitalist empire currently managed by the United States, it will have to reinvent itself once again. Some believe that transformation is, in fact, well under way and that a return to theocracy, now openly part of political discourse, lies ahead.
In our times, traditional hieratic controls and their associated values in the West began to be abandoned two hundred years ago with the collapse of the ancien regime and its birth-right nobility rooted in land and agricultural wealth. The Catholic/Christian hierarchy had been wed to that nobility. Simultaneously, the industrial and political revolutions spawned a technology-led world of values focused on “freedom,” increasingly interpreted in our day to mean the opportunity for any individual to pursue the unlimited accumulation of wealth for the purposes of consuming at levels once available only to the aristocracy — the “good life.” The “divine birth-right” class structures supposedly razed in that transition, were quickly re-erected under the rubric of the “superiority” displayed by individuals who had the ability to produce and accumulate wealth. Wealthmaking took the place of nobility of birth; it became an ultimate value and qualified the economically successful — despite their lack of political credentials and experience (like movie stars)— for membership in the ruling elite. Political power was now a derivative of wealth and not birth. By our time it has already become “tradition” and is given the deference reserved for venerable elders.
The current survival pattern in mass society is based on industrial production. Even our food is produced in industrial modes. Production and consumption are mutually dependent aspects of this system. This is the mechanism by which the community provides actual survival and security to its individual members, hence it has become sacred and its sacredness radiates out to sacralize whatever serves and strengthens the system.
Each side of the cycle of production and consumption requires the other. Production must be aimed at providing what consumers want, and consumers must be encouraged to want what is being produced or the system will fail. Success in selling, and active participation in buying not just anything, but specifically the products that are being made by the production machinery, take on a value — a “sacredness” — determined by the needs of the survival system as it has evolved regardless of its relevance to the optimal physical and spiritual health of the human organism. In order to guarantee survival, the system itself must first survive, and consumers must be made to “sacrifice themselves” for it. These are common patterns that have defined the “sacred” life of the species since time immemorial. People sacrifice themselves for the survival of their way of life. Human society is like a “superorganism” and its parts and members spontaneously live for what they see is the good of the whole … by which they survive.
This accounts for some of the anomalies that characterize our times. For example: national governments like our own, dedicated to keeping the system alive, use public funds to shore up industries and enterprises which provide dubiously important goods and services on the claim that they are so essential to society’s survival that they cannot be allowed to fail. Governments are also officially in the business of finding overseas clients (consumers) for their producing industries. Where a country like ours has, for historic reasons, developed a machinery for making weapons of war, the government encourages other governments, however poor their people, to buy these military supplies, effectively transforming themselves into warmaking nations pushing their neighbors to arm themselves in self-defense. In 2012 The US accounted for 79% of arms sold to third world countries. This insanity does not come from a satanic desire to foment wars or to divert much needed resources from the poor, it is the result of having to support the nation’s productive sector and the high paying “jobs” that it supports. No religion denounces it.
An entire industry has developed — advertising — dedicated to manipulating consumers so they will desire the items that are being produced regardless of quality or need. The tools of persuasion employed to these ends can be so seductive, and their public display so unavoidable, that they undermine the individual’s self-possession and self-control. Studies have shown that the high American obesity rate and associated disorders like type 2 diabetes correlate with the avalanche of advertising by large restaurant and fast-food chains. Despite everyone’s recognition that this is more than a mere annoyance, and that the damage to the public’s health is significant and costly, there is no effort to control it; rather, consistent with the analysis presented here, it is declared constitutionally protected speech: advertising is essential to the running of the system, and so is “sacred.” The churches, of course, never say a word about it.
Few remain unaffected by the brainwashing. People find themselves drawn into habits of “conspicuous consumption” where a decision to buy is not made because of need, but for other reasons: a visible proof of their worth as consumers — their value as participating members of society — and a response to subconscious desires created by commercial advertising.
Valid members of society are certified as such by their participation in the consumption of what the economic machinery is producing. The pursuit of “social justice” is co-opted and rendered acceptable because it is seen as the attempt to include more people in the consumption benefits of the “good life,” thus strengthening the system. Those who don’t agree with these values are considered eccentric if not sociopathic. This applies to those who dare to pursue “other” goals: the formation of an egalitarian, classless society, the radical equalization of wealth and international power, the enrichment of human relationships, a pursuit of knowledge for wisdom and not for “higher paying jobs,” the enjoyment of manual skills and communal labor, eliminating reliance on the production machinery of the system, solitude, silence, and the contemplation of LIFE. These “sociopaths” are often (self) quarantined in asylums of varying degrees of coercion and respectability, from jails to monasteries. Why do we all find this “normal”? … because the definition of what is “sacred” is dependent on the actual survival systems that are in place. We all know what is expected of us even if it is never articulated: producers must provide what will sell (this includes intellectual, esthetic and religious “products”), and consumers must buy what is being sold (however superfluous) … and we comply.
Careers and life-styles are chosen, not because of interest in the work, but because people want to secure for themselves sufficient consumer power to sustain their recognized membership in “respectable” society. “Respectability” is the system reinforcing itself by transforming what it needs into “sacred values;” those who do not venerate those values are ostracized. This is the role of religion. It sanctions the status quo — it “baptizes” how we actually survive and galvanizes people into the common effort. Those that think it functions otherwise are living in illusion.
Contrary to what many believe, this is not a corruption of religion, it is rather its authentic historic role. Society is normally and naturally a theocracy. Mystics like Jesus and the Buddha were eccentrics — sociopaths — who were so appalled at conditions and so transfixed by the universality of the sacred and its echo in us that they were able to transcend society’s mediation of existence entirely and relate directly to its source in our sense of the sacred. Their sense of the sacred did not correspond to any existing social structures and so could not be immediately utilized. Each of them took the symbol of “God” from their ancestral religion and revised it so radically (Buddha eliminating it altogether) that it could no longer serve to support their society’s sacred claims. Each ended up negating the social order of his day. Jesus projected the end of the world and the beginning of a society ruled by “God” himself, and the Buddha counseled leaving society entirely and permanently living in the sangha, an alternative community sheltered from society’s false “sacred.” Their visions implied a new society. Their message was a rebellion against the status quo. Each was later co-opted and harnessed into service by being integrated into their contemporary society’s religious project. And so their visions were deformed. Now we have the delicious irony of a Jesus who said we had a “loving Father” who forgave all, himself being turned into the “Terrible Judge” of the living and the dead, and a Buddha who rejected belief in the gods entirely, being made a god who grants what people desire.
There are a number of ways people have reacted to modernization and the end of state religions, but they never go so far as to challenge consumer-focused wealthmaking as sacred and the consuming individual as the symbol of respectability — the “proper” (sacred) way of being-here as a human being. Conservatives loudly bemoan the loss of the “old values” embedded in traditional religions and claim to seek to reimpose them. But it is significant and very revealing that they do not challenge the heuristic role of wealth in the exercise of political power: they do not advocate for the re-installation of birthright aristocracy. But while their own self-interest is surely a factor here, what I want to emphasize is that they are promoting a value that has gained credibility as the sacred symbol of the system by which we all currently survive; wealthmaking and the wealthy consumer are icons that are now old enough to be respected as tradition.
Then there are the people conservatives call “liberal” whom they accuse of simply letting the “takers” (non-wealthmakers) guide economic and social policy. In an “Ayn Rand” scenario, conservatives equate the accumulation of wealth with hard work and intelligence, the qualities of “superior” human beings. You don’t have to know someone personally to know their “worth” as human beings, you just have to look at their level of consumption. Liberals are accused of not respecting the accumulation of wealth as the sacred guiding principal of personal superiority, social aspiration and the true indicator of the right to rule. It is similarly revealing, however, that liberals for their part do not argue with the premise, but rather vociferously deny the charge. They make it a point to declare the goal of public policy to be the “good life” for all, an expansion of the power to consume at high levels identified as “middle-class,” a maneuver they insist will strengthen the system. There is no commitment whatsoever to reduce superfluous consumption, to pursue the equalization of wealth or the elimination of the enormous disparities of income in a world where one half of the population of the earth, 3 billion people, live on less than $3 per day. Conservatives seem not to hear any of this this and insist on denouncing liberals as “socialists” which identifies them as demonic — the anti-Christ. Their sense of the sacred is clearly in play here. But in fact, from the perspective of sacred values there is no difference between them and they are both supported by religion.
Practically, however, those differences can be very important because even a slightly more equitable distribution of wealth can spell the difference between life and death for people on the edge; but I want to emphasize, that is more a by-product than a goal. Liberals’ redistribution efforts are rarely couched in such basic terms; they prefer to describe their policies as functions of upward mobility — giving more people access to the “middle class” and the power to consume at respectable levels. It reveals that whatever else is going on, the system will always be served and preserved. There is, in fact, no serious talk of socialism, and for conservatives to call the adjustments proposed by liberals socialism is ludicrous.
They are both illustrations of the undisputed place of the power to consume as the sacred value in the culture of our time. The entire globe is now infected with its pursuit. Whether in the long run this will be good or bad, beneficial or not, for a human species that must find ways to sustain the earth’s life-support systems and sister species if it is itself to survive, remains to be seen. But we can be sure of one thing in advance: whatever guarantees being-here will eventually become “sacred” and society will find some way to proclaim it loud and clear.
The upshot of the discussion so far is that the sense of the sacred is an abiding feature of humankind as it has evolved. The claim that the loss of tradition entails the loss of the sense of the sacred is simply not true. The sense of the sacred cannot be lost. The loss of tradition involves a change in the focus of the sense of the sacred and therefore a change in what symbols are used to objectify it, and what kind of society it sanctions, but the sense of the sacred remains. It can be manipulated, deformed and exploited, but it cannot be eliminated for it is our instinctive predisposition to recognize and cherish the matrix in which we live and move and have our being.
As a non-rational instinct, our sense of the sacred functions less like reason and more like taste. The principal source of taste is tradition. People tend to like what their ethnic and family traditions have liked. Food is a prime example, but tradition determines taste in many areas, like politics and religion. Tradition is an objectified set of symbols — a world-view — whose values are held in high regard because of precedent alone. It is the power of social inertia. What is sacred is what everyone believes has always worked for community survival. Like the common instinct to do what you see everyone else doing, respect for what people “have always done” is an non-rational survival mechanism, hard-wired in us by evolution, of awesome weight and momentum.
Traditional taste is dominated by assurances that are not rationally grounded. They come only from a trust in what we believe worked for our ancestors. The naïve attempt to make the current system conform to the traditional “sacred” is pathetic and doomed to failure; few really try it though they couch their goals in those terms. The truth, as always, is rather the opposite: religion tends to conform to the system within which it lives and survives.
Part of what complicates these issues in our times is the simultaneous presence of multiple obsolete historical traditions and their availability for the refined taste of the discriminating consumer. In this form religion has become a “product” of commercial enterprise. Like a museum that provides an esthetic experience of life in another era, the “Church” makes a business of offering the experience of an ancient tradition as an item for sale, and thus secures a respectable place for itself as a wealthmaking business in a business society. The traditional “sacred” it brokers, however, is irrelevant to the times we live in, as its own submission before the “god” of the marketplace for its self-identity shows. The overt call, quite explicit in documents coming from the Catholic hierarchy, for church personnel to concentrate on promoting the “Catholic brand” and the crass marketing of “Catholic education” to those who can pay regardless of religious affiliation makes the case clearly. The corporate business model dominates Catholic policy in practice and is more consciously articulated as such all the time.
Whatever “new sacred” might be emerging under pressure from new survival imperatives created by our global economy at the present moment does not (yet) enjoy the assurances that come with time and tradition. Conservatives are afraid, correctly in my opinion, that future survival for our self-consciously global community depends upon an abandonment of many of the practices that are proving to be destructive of the earth’s ability to sustain life, and will require an equalization of wealth and power across the globe. Both these inevitabilities will entail a radical reduction in consumption as currently enjoyed by the heretofore privileged “first world.” Traditional focus on wealth and the wealthy will no longer work. Emerging needs will require “socialism,” and tradition cannot support it. Accepted tradition, per se, carries weight regardless of the incredibility or even absurdity of the objectified symbols it happens to rest on. Conservative ideologues attempt to provide some rational support to what is really cherished and chosen for other reasons, not for their relevance to what the human community actually needs.
It is proverbial that you cannot argue with taste. You can argue with the rationalized world-view that is adduced to support it, but since taste is tied to a tradition embraced for itself and ultimately without needing any further reason, demolishing its rational supports will change nothing. It will simply reveal the non-rational roots of these preferences.
It hardly needs stating that when conservatives claim that the loss of tradition has caused a loss of the sense of the sacred, what they are really complaining about is that the sense of the sacred is now beginning to project different sacred objects — symbols and rituals that do not accord with their taste. They simply do not like the emerging world-view, which they presciently call socialist; but they cannot claim that it represents a loss of the sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred cannot be lost, it can only be changed. They do not want these newly emerging values to determine how society will structure itself. They want to preserve “old” structures. It is not surprising; those structures are the very ones that preserve (their) wealth and privilege.
Religious conservatives like Kolakowski criticize the venality and self-centeredness of the culture that emerged with “modernism” (the industrial technology-based world that arose with the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries — the age we live in), and propose a remedy in the return to a traditional religious vision. They decry the loss of the sense of the sacred which they claim belief in “God” alone can restore. Some of them espouse a politics of the Ayn Rand persuasion. Applying standards set by their guru, they have concluded that since “wealthmaking” is the work of “superior” human beings, it is a sure sign of “God’s” presence and approval. However simplistic, the view is consistent with the traditional Christian belief in divine providence which has always claimed that nothing exists that “God” does not will or permit. Providence has been the logical source for the legitimacy of rule by the wealthy in the popular mind since long before the advent of Christianity … and Roman Catholic Christianity saw no reason to change it.
Clearly, then, there is no way of preventing belief in “God” from being used to confer a “divine right” on the arrogant self-glorification and crass inequities harbored by this theory. To suggest that adulation of wealthy individuals somehow corresponds to having a sense of the sacred is laughable, despite the evidence for its widespread acceptance not only today but throughout history. If anything, “God’s” traditional role as conceived in the western religious view has rather functioned to undermine our sense of the sacredness of all human life and the rest of the material universe.
But the theory hardly needs refutation. The more serious thinkers among them, like Kolakowski, do not make an idol out of wealth. But beyond saying that in the absence of other values, venality and selfishness take over by default, they make no effort to refute the theory; they simply ignore it. For me, this is problematic. The logical implications of tradition are often taken places by the popular mind that do not appear on the verbal surface of doctrines like “providence.” The job of the philosopher is precisely to get below the surface and follow where the tracks lead. And when these unexpected consequences show themselves to be damaging to the human project, the entire world-view on which they rest is called into question. The connection between “divine providence” and the idolatry of wealth and power may not be explicit, but people have always lived by its inner logic. I have great difficulty in suppressing the suspicion that “philosophers” who do not see it and confront it, are in fact under its spell.
The traditional sacred world-view that religious conservatives want us to return to is built around a few key tenets that they claim are critical to a sense of the sacred. I believe there are three: (1) the belief in a rational humanoid “God” (labeled “supernatural theism”); (2) the belief that besides this universe of matter there is another world where “spirits” alone live; and (3) the belief that we will be judged and receive eternal reward or punishment in that other world after death. The disappearance of these beliefs does not mean an end to the sense of the sacred, as I have been arguing throughout this series, but rather represents an evolution. Conservatives’ only real complaint is that where this evolution is going is not to their taste. I have dealt with these issues many times in the past, but I want to reflect on each of them again, briefly.
The first tenet is that “God” is a “person,” rational and purposeful, almighty and omniscient, providentially managing all events in the universe as traditionally imagined. If “he” weren’t, there would be no need for theodicy. Theodicy is a branch of theology dedicated to defending “God’s” reputation by explaining why “he allows” evil and suffering in the universe. It’s only if “God” controls every last event by rational choice or conscious permission, that any accusation could be leveled at the quality of his management. It is this same infantile belief in “divine providence” that is responsible for the claim that “God” “wills” certain people to have wealth and power, and certain empires to rule the earth, just as he wills (predestines) some to be saved and leaves the rest to wallow in their turpitude and ultimately reap damnation. This is the “doctrine” that had Augustine in a hammerlock. Some years ago I attributed it to a theological aberration, rational but erroneous; but now I believe it is more the result of a puerile lack of intellectual rigor, the inability to get beneath traditional imagery dominated by the values of a paternalistic, authoritarian culture.
I am talking about an anthropomorphic imagery we have about “God” that we have inherited from our tradition. It is almost ineradicable. The overwhelming power of cultural inertia is at work here. No matter how we twist and shout, every time the word “God” is used that imagery kicks in. Without a program of daily “meditative therapeutics” it is almost impossible to stop thinking about “God” as a rational person who micromanages the universe. The clue that this is at root sloppy thinking is that we do exactly the same thing with other forms of life like animals, and even “nature” itself. We invariably project the kind of intentionality onto these things that only rational beings could have. In biology it is at least acknowledged to be metaphorical speech even if little effort is made to correct it. In the case of “God” why should it be so hard to admit that all imagery is equally metaphoric — with all the distance from literal reality that that implies? Even for the mediaeval scholastics, saying that “God” had “intellect and will” did not mean that “God” had thoughts, desires, preferences and feelings like an ordinary “person.” “God” is not a person as we humans understand the word … and who else is there to understand it?
So let it evolve. To change the imagery also requires changing the word. I use the word LIFE, meaning what stands at the core of material energy in which all things have existence and vitality not as recipient strangers but as intimate participating symbionts, like the members and organs of a universal body or the leaves and branches of a cosmic tree. If the imagery surrounding “God” were not taken literally, but rather as a poetic personification of LIFE — then the need for “theodicy” will disappear; the survival struggles of living organisms and the immense failure of rejected evolutionary genotypes will be seen as a natural by-product of LIFE exploring its own inner potential. It seems obvious that matter’s super-abundant energy is no more consciously intentional than our own instinctual drives which derive directly from it; matter is uncontrollably driven to exist. It is a passion not an action. We know what that feels like because we experience it in ourselves. Matter’s energy does not choose to create any more than it chooses to live; its creativity is an emanation of the irrepressible LIFE at the core of its existence. LIFE is not a rational project. It is not chosen. It is a force whose non-rational and irrepressible character has earned it the label “impersonal.” It is only we “persons” who bring “reason” and deliberation and calculating purpose to it; and it is we who erroneously project that since our “reason” evolved from it, it had to have “reason” itself for, ex nihilo nihil fit, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” But the “principle of sufficient reason” is an axiom created by us. There is nothing a priori about it. It must submit to the evidence like every other “truth;” and the scientific evidence in this case indicates that mind came from mindless matter and not the other way around, obeying “principles” and driven by energies that we have yet to understand.
In the conception I am proposing we are not other than “God” even though none of us, nor even all of us collectively, is “God.” The projection of “God” as a separate person is just another example of the symbol-making function of human consciousness, taking invisible forces and universal homogeneity and rendering them imaginable by turning them into objectified entities with a human character. Freud identified belief in a “God”-person as the need to feel protected by a Parent — the residue of our childhood dependency. As a metaphor “God” refers to the energy for existence and its corollary creativity — LIFE — possessed by all who share the matter of this universe. This “God” is making exploratory mistakes and suffering — probing to find those combinations of factors that will allow LIFE to continue and express itself, survive and create. It is this process that has produced the creative effects of the evolution of organic matter. Our human nature was one of them.
When one contemplates the “distance” matter has traveled from the initial proton formation following the big bang to the emergence of homo sapiens sapiens, the extrapolation of this creative potential into the future leaves the mind positively overwhelmed — overcome, overawed, speechless. What is there about matter’s energy that is not to trust? Who is not glad they are part of this process? And if you don’t see it, take my word for it, every particle of your being has been part of it for 13.7 billion years and will be part of whatever billions of years more it will go on exploring what it can become.
There is no one providentially micromanaging the universe. There is no one to accuse or exonerate. And we all know it because that is exactly the way we live our lives. We pray to express our desires out loud, but no one relies on “God” to provide them with health and the means of survival. Those that do, we take to court or the manicomium. Our daily bread is the work of human hands. And so is the management of the resources of the earth. Our environmental irresponsibility will not be forgiven and forgotten by a doting Parent. If we allow the earth to be destroyed we will be destroyed along with it.
If you think “God” is literally a rational humanoid person, open your eyes, there is no such “God” out there! We have our little aphorisms to explain things, like “God helps those who help themselves,” but he doesn’t help the helpless, does he? — those who cannot help themselves. The ability to even imagine a “God” who could be so heartless as to refuse to intervene in cases of a toddler with cancer or the depredations of pedophile priests when he could, tells me more about the impoverished humanity of the imaginer than the character of “God.” Trust me … you can trust the character of “God,” if “God” doesn’t intervene, it’s because he can’t. The absurdity here is indisputable … the traditional version of “providence” is utterly false. And if “providence” is false, supernatural theism is false. There is no such “God.”
But if you think of “God” as a symbolic personification of the life-giving creative energies embedded in the matter of which all things are made, then the sense of the sacred is redirected toward the living “divine” potential of matter and a family solidarity among all things that share this treasure. There is no loss of the sense of the sacred, and we are rendered respectful, reverent, collaborative and intimately familiar with the earth and the other species — our siblings — that it has spawned. This view of things is called pan-entheism. Panentheism grounds a universal mysticism compatible with science that our former world-view — supernatural theism — lacked entirely.
But can we “relate” to this “God”? Is there, in other words, at some remote and inaccessible depth, a non-rational center analogous to “personality” or “intentionality” that is the source and final gathering, a still point — an Alpha and Omega — of this vast astonishing display of existential energy? The only thing we have evidence for is the LIFE we see on our planet and in the universe around us, and which we also hear echoed in our own sense of the sacred, and there is nothing to suggest that our ordinary use of the word “person” accurately describes it. Whatever “person” could mean outside of the context of our experience is, by definition, beyond the reach of our imagination. People — and traditions — who see a loving Parent behind that opaque mask are taking a leap, making a choice, and projecting a metaphor to describe that choice, not drawing a conclusion … and so are those who don’t. Each of them must accept responsibility — and be respected — for their choices.
Our relationship to “that in which we live and move and have our being” can only be characterized from our side, because we have no idea what the source of LIFE really is … and personally, I don’t care; it’s none of my business. I don’t have to know. “God” has a right to be whatever “he” is. In my own particular case the awe and gratitude I feel toward whatever it is that has given me my very self — both what and that I am — remains foremost in my thoughts. I love my life. I can’t help it. The abundant LIFE that has made “me” possible, I legitimately refer to as “benevolent” regardless of the random events that accompany what it has done for me. It’s similar to my parents’ mindless ecstatic copulation unleashing the penetration of a random egg by a random sperm. It does not diminish the gratitude with which I cherish them and their love for me to know they did not “choose” me personally. I was a random stranger who entered their lives for better or worse. I am no less grateful to whatever it is, and however mindless and “impersonal” its mechanisms, that spawned and sustains the universe, the earth, all its species … and me. It seems to have no control over its inclination to generosity and creativity. I really don’t know what it is like outside of its echo in my sense of the sacred … which is my awe at being-here. I love it for I love being-here being me. “God,” for me is a metaphor for the LIFE that roils all around me and inside me — the energy we all share.
“God” is whatever “he” is. What you or I think he is has no effect on the reality. Our religions — even if they should turn out by some chance to be accurate descriptions of “divine” reality — are the result of our projections … our conjectures … our inferences … our traditions. We have no independent source of information about “God.” “No one,” says John, “has ever seen God.” Since religion is our projection let us humbly recognize that it is really we who are being projected and described … we, this matter of which we are made … which accounts for our instincts … our aspirations … our hopes … what we cherish as sacred. It’s natural that we imagine “God” in our own image and likeness, we have nothing else to go on. It is good that we be what we are, with our symbols and metaphors … and leave “God” to be what “he” is.
A World of Spirits
The second “traditional” belief is that there is a separate world of spirit and our souls really belong there; the material universe is only a temporary exile. The belief is actually quite Manichaean, for it denigrates matter and fails to explain the ancient Christian hope in the resurrection of the body. For consider: with this belief there is absolutely no need for you to be reunited with your body; “salvation” begins when the body is finally sloughed off at death. All reward and punishment is fully applied to your disembodied “soul;” the body is utterly superfluous. “The resurrection of the body” — a belief already so threatened by the second century that it had to be expressly elicited in the Creed — was a meaningless addition to the newly adopted platonic-Christian world-view; it had become an empty formula.
That wasn’t true of the earliest followers of Jesus. Paul’s converts believed they were their bodies and therefore required a physical, bodily immortality won by the resurrection of Christ. They did not believe in the immortality of the human “soul” as Plato taught. Immortality was a special gift to Christians, the result of being steeped in the mysteries of Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism and the eucharist. Paul’s message was clear: the body had to be saved or there was no salvation … we have to rise or there was no resurrection. There is clear evidence of this as late as the second century in the writings of the apologists. To my mind it is significant that the change over to the Platonic view occurred exactly at the time the upper classes were taking control of authority and ritual in the Church and insulating themselves as a hierarchy from the body of believers. Platonism was the favored philosophy of the Greco-Roman upper classes.
Matter cannot be reduced to the inanimate and mechanical features that it displays in its more primitive, less developed manifestations. This material universe has evolved living, sentient, conscious and intelligent beings; there is no indication that at any level — plant animal or human — things are made of anything but matter. Matter, in other words, is capable of everything we see it doing right before our eyes, even if we don’t understand how it does it. There is no need to call on other-worldly “spirit” to explain it. What we used to call “spirit” is really a developed property of matter.
Rationally speaking, the very idea that a spiritual “God” created matter is absurd. It is self-contradictory. Consider: If “God” is pure spirit with no admixture of matter, then matter is “his” complete antithesis. There would be no possibility that he created matter because he could never have thought it or even imagined it. Where would he go for the blueprint? Whoever or whatever is responsible for creating matter had to be matter. Either “God” could think matter, which in classic theology would make “God” to be matter, because “God” is what he thinks — “his” essence is his existence — or matter had to come from somewhere else other than “God” at which point “God” ceases to be “God.” The very thought is absurd.
The claim that there are two distinct “realities,” matter and spirit, and that spirit is in fact immortal, vastly superior to matter, and that matter’s mechanical inertia is what undermines the rationality of spirit and leads it into “sin,” has served to denigrate matter and especially the human body. Our experience in the West is that under the tutelage of a dualist platonic Christianity our culture has fostered a schizoid alienation for individuals leading to emotional pathologies and destructive social dysfunctionality. Dualism holds that matter is perishing; the human soul alone will not perish and therefore it is the only entity in the material universe that is of any permanent value — the only “sacred” thing in a world of “profane” matter. Dualism seriously limits and deforms our sense of the sacred.
Contrariwise, there is no loss of the sacred if there is no spirit, and even if there were no immortality of any kind. The recognition and respect for the independent value of existence continues to function because it is an intrinsic part of our human apparatus, and with the disappearance of that other world, our sense of the sacred is forced to focus on this world and the species and people in it — to recognize their value and serve their needs. This is closer to what Jesus taught than what the Church began teaching in the second century. Even at the sermon on the mount, which used a “judgment after death” scenario as backdrop, the entire focus of Jesus’ message was on responding to the concrete physical, bodily and emotional needs of human beings in this world — feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, making peace between people. There were no supernatural mechanisms suggested. Jesus did not say, “I was hungry and you infused me with sanctifying grace so my hunger could gain merit in the afterlife … I was in prison and you issued me an indulgence so I could go to heaven after my execution.” Nothing Jesus said was focused on what to do for the afterlife … how to get into heaven, how to avoid damnation. His vision had to do with life in this world and treating it like the sacred thing it is. Not only would none of his message be lost if there were no spirit, it is less likely that we would be distracted by the self-interest of reward and punishment. It is an invitation to serve one another and the earth with a pure heart.
Heaven or Hell
This brings us to the third belief that completes the scaffolding of our traditional world-view: divine judgment with reward and punishment after death. As we’ve already mentioned this was definitely not the focus of Jesus’ preaching. As far as the historical record is concerned, it seems to have been a belief of the ancient Egyptians at least as far back as c.1500 bce if not earlier, but there is no evidence for it among the Jews or the Greeks. It became a generalized belief in the mediterranean world only after the beginning of the common era with the ascendency of Platonism and Platonism’s absorption by Christianity. Plato was inspired by the Pythagoreans and there is some evidence that they, in turn, were influenced by the Egyptians. Judgment-after-death goes hand-in-glove with the Platonic doctrine of the separable soul, which was not a Jewish and therefore not originally a Christian belief.
Why did Christianity make the change? I believe that as the expectation for an imminent general resurrection and apocalyptic end-of-time proved illusory, Christian leaders realized they had to either close up shop or re-invent their narrative. It would be reasonable to estimate that the “wake-up call” occurred no more than two generations after Paul’s kerygma, beginning in the second century. It coincided with all the changes we have encountered in the very early evolution of Christianity: it reflected the upper-class assumption of command and control. Jesus had promised a “divine judgment” that would punish those responsible for creating a world full of violence and plunder. The new Christian authorities decided that a judgment of the individual soul at the time of death preserved the essence of that promise and spread around the blame. It wasn’t that much of a shift … it was becoming a general belief anyway. It meant that the failure of the parousía to materialize would no longer be a public embarrassment, and the fear that “judgment” inspired in the individual believer was very effective in getting people to obey the “commandments” and the church authorities. Eventually imperial interests also came to see how effective it was for securing behavioral compliance throughout the Empire.
The sense of the sacred is not diminished in the least if the traditional Christian belief in the individual judgment is discarded. Christianity lived without it from the time of its birth until the upper-class take-over in the second century. The argument that only fear of punishment will stop people from “sinning” is typical of upper-class prejudice toward the lower classes; it infantilizes the Christian believer; it discourages moral and relational maturity and it excuses the failure of the individual to assume responsibility for his/her behavior. The truth of the matter is the fear of hell was politically expedient for the State. It guaranteed compliance to law without requiring a massive police presence for enforcement. It was a manipulative theocratic mechanism; it had nothing to do with relationship to “God” or our sense of the sacredness of the world.
Self-transcendence in the service of some ultimate “value” has been recognized throughout our history as a “peak experience.” Traditional religions have claimed ownership of it and concretized it in rituals of sacrifice. The act of serving something greater than oneself has generated feelings that are uniquely ecstatic and gratifying. The refined pleasure they give is so intense and extraordinary that it is self-justifying. It has become a desideratum — an end in itself — for many people. It can be an addiction. Some people cannot live without having a cause they are ready to die for.
Take away the sacred — something to die for — and what’s left? … the simple pursuit of survival and the relationships, physical comforts and pleasures that gratify our daily routines and sustain us emotionally. Many believe this is the “ultimate value.” But no sooner do we express that insight than we realize that we invariably bring our sense of the sacred to bear on it, for those who believe it is the real destiny of humankind, also believe it is “sacred.” They tend to exhibit the same non-rational willingness to endure suffering for their conviction and to guarantee that all people have access to these simple goals as any true believer. What this tells me is that we are so constructed of the “sense of the sacred” at the foundations of our humanity that we take its very antithesis and metamorphose it into a sacred object. The “sense of the sacred” is as bedrock as you can get with humankind. You cannot get beyond it. Whatever we do humanly, that is by evaluation and choice and not as a response to imminent death or basic instinct, is driven by our sense of the sacred.
So, are we caught in this trap? Are we simply programmed to be creatures of religion?
Only if you think that religion owns and defines the sacred.
If these reflections have tried to say anything, it is that the sense of the sacred is an inalienable human instinct. It is a connatural reaction that is the reflection in us of what we share with our source … the material energy in which we live and move and have our being. It does not belong to religion, it belongs to us. It means we belong here and we should learn to feel at home in the material universe that bore us. It invites us to appropriate for ourselves the right and obligation to direct those energies to the protection and enhancement of LIFE’s creative project.