In defense of religion, Chapter 2

Here is chapter 2 of my defense of religion.  Actually, I’m still in the description part.  The defense part is still to come, so please be patient.  In this chapter, which is about four pages, I analyse the nature of holiness.

In defense of religion II:  The meaning of the sacred

Modern man has a terribly impoverished sense of the sacred, but most of us have experienced a hint of it at some point in our lives.  It may happen in a church or other holy ground, at a funeral or other solemn event, at the sight of something immense like a mountain or something beautiful like music.  Whatever the occasion, we felt ourselves to be in the presence of a mysterious Something.  This “something” I will call “the sacred” or “the holy”, because we have not yet established what it is.  Historically, men experienced this awesome presence before they developed the concepts to explain it.  Before we can decide whether religion is true, we must first know what it claims and how it views the world.  That is the goal of this chapter.

The sacred as precious

Even today, men use the word “sacred”, as when one says that nature, human life, or marriage is “sacred”.  What do such claims mean?  Most obviously, they are assertions of objective value.  If a thing is sacred, we certainly shouldn’t wantonly destroy it.  What’s more, we shouldn’t treat it as a mere means to our own ends; a sacred thing demands to be respected for its own intrinsic goodness.  Even this recognition, however, only begins to capture the value response demanded by something sacred.  The sacred demands not only respect, but also reverence.  It makes claims not only on our words and actions, but also on our thoughts and feelings.  In this, the sacred is like other objects we rightly revere, such as our parents and our country, although even reverence is a weaker value response than the esteem we give to a thing we regard as holy.

When I am in the presence of the sacred, I feel that it demands my entire attention.  Any turning away toward other things—what I cannot help but call “lesser things”—would be grossly inappropriate.  The sacred impresses me with its supreme purity, a word that those who have never experienced the sacred can’t hope to understand.   With the idea of the sacred comes the idea of the profane, of those things in which the sacred is absent or veiled.  Profane things are not worthy of being in holy places.  To rightly remain in the sacred presence, a thing must be consecrated, that is, the sacred must assimilate the thing to itself.  The worshiper knows himself to be naturally profane, and he will only dare to approach the holy presence after separating himself from the rest of the profane world through ascetic practices and only with the aid of rituals that effect his own consecration.  What is true of the worshiper is more emphatically true of the priest—he undergoes a more elaborate ritual consecration and makes a more extreme renunciation of the profane world.

The irreligious often have trouble understanding the idea of profanity.  To be profane does not mean to be bad; it’s no more an insult than not being royalty is an insult.  In fact, many profane things are recognized by the religious person as good in themselves.  Whereas bad things should not exist anywhere, profane things have their rightful place, but that place is outside the temple.  For example, talking and joking among friends is itself a great blessing, but it is not compatible with the solemnity of worship.  (Thus, the post-Vatican II effort to make Mass more “friendly” by encouraging parishioners to shake hands and chat reflects a gross lack of understanding of religious worship, as does the unfortunate habit priests have developed of telling jokes during the homily.  The Mass is not meant to be fun or friendly—these things are good but profane.  The Mass is meant to be a religious sacrifice.)  Thus, the religious person recognizes more levels of value than the secular person.  While the latter organizes the world into evil, neutral, and good, the former recognizes evil, neutral-profane, good-profane, and holy/sacred.

The religious man builds his world around his idea of the sacred.  As Mircea Eliade pointed out, this is true even in a purely spatial sense:  the holy ground provides a “center of the world”, a fixed point with which to orient oneself, and around which everything else is ordered.  At the heart of the home and the city was once a sacred place, an inner sanctuary.  The home is where the sacred fire is kept, where the hearth gods dwell, where ancestors are worshiped.  Even today, millions of worshipers face the holy city, Jerusalem or Mecca, to worship as a way of facing God.  A religious people also put the sacred at the center of their social world.   They are driven to consecrate and ritualize all that is most important to them:  political authority, marriage, childbirth, coming of age, and death.  This provides a holy ground to these things, a religious assurance that they belong above the level of mere instrumentality.

The sacred as awesome

This begins to touch on other aspects of the sacred, because this word means more than just “supremely valuable”.  A thing may be valuable but fragile, like civil peace.  A thing may be valuable but unnecessary, like an appreciation for art—a good thing, but a person who lacks it should not feel that his life has been superficial or incomplete.  The sacred is not like this.  It is central not only socially but ontologically.  A man who encountered the sacred is convinced that he has touched the mysterious center of things.  It’s not just another aspect of reality that he’s encountered; it is the most fundamental aspect, the most real.  Whatever sacred beings he believes in, he knows that their being is the truth that lies beneath the surface of everyday life.  Therefore, he can’t help but see the life of the irreligious man as radically incomplete and superficial.  Here, he thinks, is someone who lives only on the surface of things, who has never sensed their depth.

The sacred is indeed mysterious—how could the ultimate reality be anything else?  Men have always sensed that something about the universe exceeds the grasp of their minds.  The sacred is said to be immense, awesome, all-powerful.  To describe the force of its presence, those who experience it use images of fire, of mountains, of storm and thunder.  However, we must understand that sacred power has a distinctive character, just as sacred goodness does.  Most especially, we must realize that these are not separate qualities, but two aspects of holiness.  It is not like the case of a king who is both just and powerful, but the two qualities are independent and could exist in separation.  The power of the gods is at once physical and moral.  It is more like the case of an immensely strong personality, in whose presence men fear their own personalities would be overwhelmed and overwritten, a personality that speaks with such authority that one almost expects the stones and the trees to obey it.  This is the sort of force that the sacred has, not only to destroy me, but also to transform me.  A fearful thing, indeed!  A unique power gives rise to a unique dread, but also a unique hope.  Here we should also remember that “awesome” does not mean “strong enough to kill me”, although no religious man doubts that the gods could do that.  We also describe a brilliant sunset or a vast canyon as awesome.  The sacred captivates my soul by its immensity, which is not just formless bigness, but overwhelming beauty.  Such is the divine majesty, and we can see how baseless is the atheist claim that religious people only worship their gods because they fear them.

The sacred as principle

Since the gods are, in some ways, beyond our understanding, one might expect them to be a disorderly influence in the world whose actions would always be associated with the irregular or the inexplicable.  In fact, religious peoples have generally had the opposite belief.  Namely, they hold that the divine is the source of the order in the universe.  From the earliest times, man has been impressed by this order:  season follows season, the stars follow precisely the same courses each year, and each animal reproduces its own kind.  Surely, he thinks, the God who is the ultimate reality must be the author of this order.  The cosmic order itself comes to be seen as a manifestation of the divine presence, i.e. it comes to be seen as a sacred order.  By its very existence, it reveals the rationality of God.  This intuition continued in man until at least the nineteenth century.  For example, when Maupertuis and Euler discovered the principle of least action, they were convinced that something so simple and beautiful must be the work of God Himself.  It is a strange claim made by atheists that the reason primitive man was religious was that he didn’t know the world is governed by regular laws.  In fact, it was the existence of regular laws that struck him as the most obvious manifestation of divine forces.

The religious view of cosmic order includes more than what we would now call the laws of physics and biology.  The basic laws of morality, the natural law, were also thought to be part of the same order.  To commit murder or adultery was to put oneself in antagonism with the order of the universe, to become “unnatural”.  Such sins offend and enrage the gods, all religious men agreed.  So it must be, for just as the motion of the stars reveals one aspect of God’s rationality, so the natural moral law reveals the moral aspect of His rationality—His supreme justice.  In fact, once the cosmic order has “tipped us off” to this aspect of the divine nature, we realize that it is a necessary part of the sacred.  A god who did not love order and hate sin would not be God.

The sacred as source

Since nothing has existence apart from its essential order, to bestow order is at the same time to give existence.  This is another universally-agreed quality of the sacred presence, that it is uniquely creative.  Religious man always finds his god at the source or origin of things.  The images of creation and ordering are found in every religion:  God separates the sky from the earth, the water from the land, and thus fashions our world.  He is both the center, the heart, of the world of beings and also the source of their being.  Here is another aspect of man’s attraction to the divine:  he wishes to return to his source, to recover the original purity of his existence.  In Eliade’s words, religious man has “nostalgia for origins” which is “nostalgia for being”.  Communion with the sacred offers him a chance for “rebirth”, a chance to be “made new”.  An echo of this religious desire is seen in a modern man’s pining for lost innocence.  This desire is not, as those who would dismiss it say, a wish to lose the wisdom and experience one has gained through life.  Nor is it merely the moral desire to stop sinning; a guiltless man can have the same yearning.  It is a fundamentally religious desire to be back at the heart of things.  A man gripped by it feels that his life is being dissipated in unimportant, superficial things, and he longs to recollect himself to the important and the real.

Beginnings are sacred—creation is when God touches the world.  This is why the bond between parents and children partakes of the sacred in every culture.  Because the divine creative force acted through my parents to create me, I owe a special religious duty to them.  My parents are a personal religious icon, an image of God, for me.  We should not be surprised to find that ancestor worship is one of the oldest and most common religious forms.  The parental image carries over to a people’s highest gods, whom they call “father” or “mother”.  The holiness of creation also acts in the other direction.  I myself have heard mothers speak of a religious awe inspired by their newborns.  Here one intuits with particular clarity the connection between newness/purity and the sacred.  Not surprising is the special horror with which religious people regard parricide as well as (in those cultures where the humanity of the child is fully recognized) abortion and infanticide.  These crimes are not just murder, but also desecration.

We needn’t consider so exalted a thing as the creation of a human being to ignite the religious imagination.  Anthropologists as far back as Frazer have noted the deep link between mythology and agriculture among primitive peoples.  A divine power controls the growth of their crops, primitive farmers are convinced, and so farming is a religious practice.  Properly understood, this is by no means a stupid or “superstitious” belief.  Nor are such sentiments limited to primitive religions.  It is by no arbitrary choice that Christian churches face east.  The sun rises in the east; the eastern horizon is where the day begins, and hence where God—the source of all that is new—“touches” the earth.

How can this sacred presence be the source of every being?  Why does it alone possess the power of creation and renewal?  It can only be because the Holy One possesses being in its full plenitude.  It possesses every perfection and every power necessarily and to a super-eminent degree.  Such has been the conviction of theologians and mystics the world over.  We exist by participating in God; He is where the stream of being finds its source.

This is religion.  It is a set of experiences and a way of viewing the world.  Seen in its true nature, we see how ignorant are those who dismiss it as foolish, or childish, or craven.  Religion addresses man’s highest intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties.  It does, certainly, assert a number of truth claims.  Religion asserts that there exists a sacred Being, or a sacred aspect of all things, that is supremely good, powerful, majestic, beautiful, rational, and just.  This sacred Being is the source of all other aspects of being, and It has no source outside Itself.  The just and fitting response to this Being is worship.  No matter how noble and beautiful religion is, for it to be valid, these claims must be true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: