Secular vs. Sacred: The Modern Dilemma

by Peter Saint-Andre

This 1991 essay of mine was awarded honorable mention in the tenth annual North American Essay Contest held by The Humanist magazine. The entries that year must have been of low quality if even this essay won honorable mention.

Consider the following three premises of Christian religion, and a conclusion that follows from them:

God exists.

God is divine.

Man is made in the image of God.

Therefore: human divinity exists.

The kernel of wisdom here is that there is truth in established religion -- but that if religion is directed toward the supernatural, then it is misdirected. For there exists no supernatural realm, no spiritual aspect of existence divorced from the physical. In fact, all spirituality that we know is human spirituality: a human response to nature, including human nature and our fellow human beings. For example, "God created the universe" can mean, on a natural interpretation, "There is a divine element in the relation between man and the rest of nature", just as "Man is made in the image of God" can mean that there is something divine about human beings.

The fundamental point here is that the divine, the sacred, and so on, are concepts, and exist only because human consciousness itself exists in and is aware of the universe. Such concepts have been and continue to be necessary for the fullest understanding of existence. The reason why the spiritual element of human life has been so long ignored in modern civilization is simply that it has, for so long now, been misdirected towards the supernatural (or, less charitably, co-opted by organized, unworldly religions). But let us not therefore conclude that there is something inherently wrong with spiritual concepts themselves, for they pick out aspects of human existence that no other concepts can.

It strikes me, then, that there is one "voyage of exploration" necessary to the flourishing and the future of our civilization that has not yet been undertaken: an exploration of what is naturally true in each of the major religions of the world (Christianity in all its forms, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). This study would involve a reinterpretation, so far as is possible, of the supernatural aspects of these religions in natural terms -- that is, in terms that have reference to human life on this earth. For this reason, I call the project "natural (or naturalized) religion".

Yet natural religion will need to include more than simply an investigation of the sacred as secular. For naturalized religion will reveal not only that the sacred can be secular, but also that the secular can indeed be sacred (as, for instance, in Herbert Fingarette's reading of the thought of Confucius).

The naturalization of religion is vitally important. For one thing, the project of evaluating conceptions of the sacred in human terms is an international one, just as the results are bound to increase understanding among people of diverse cultures.

Consider also the truism that the rise of modern, secular culture precludes (and even has destroyed) the sacred and divine aspects of human existence. Yet this truism is not true. It is, rather, a tragic misunderstanding, perhaps even a Big Lie. We will never progress humanistically until we move beyond this false dichotomy of the secular vs. the sacred.

The key word here is "humanistically": religion naturalized must be grounded on man humanized. The opposition of secular and sacred is simply the latest form of the ancient mind-body dichotomy, that ancient rending of the life of man. Who could deny the importance of either our material or our spiritual existence? Both are inherently vital spheres, thrown at war with one another by certain traditions within Western thought. The time has come to resolve this dispute once and for all.

We can witness the folly of this dichotomy even in present-day politics. Traditionally, the Left has honored spiritual values above all (as in its defense of free speech), while seeming all too willing to expropriate or nationalize material values. The Right, on the other hand, has advocated the untrammeled freedom to exchange material values (the free market), while giving shorter shrift to the free exchange of ideas. Yet, in this way, neither Left nor Right does full justice to the integrated character of human life. Full human rights must encompass both material freedom and spiritual freedom, else we will simply keep swinging back and forth between repression of the soul and repression of the body -- neither of which brings us any closer to a truly free and humanistic society.

Historically, the modern codification of the soul-body dichotomy goes back to Descartes and his Faustian deal with the Church, in which Descartes won the metaphysical realm of Body for the investigations of the scientists, but abandoned the realm of Soul to the strictures of religion. While this "peace treaty" between reason and faith brought the West undreamt-of material prosperity and scientific progress, it also led to the spiritual stagnation of the modern West.

However, I believe there is little reason for guilt in the West over this spiritual stagnation of ours. Let us recall the wise words of twentieth-century Chinese intellectual Hu Shih: it is the West, he said, that is spiritually superior to the East, not the other way about, precisely because it is the West that has provided for the material needs of individuals (cf. Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs": only material prosperity can truly pave the way for the pursuit of higher needs). Through this surprising inversion of the common wisdom about the vaunted spiritual superiority of the East, Hu Shih rejects the false dichotomy of secular vs. sacred. And Hu Shih's temerity indicates a good metaphysics on his part: a metaphysics that squarely rejects the Cartesian dualism.

Natural religion must be based not only on good metaphysics, but also on good epistemology. We must ask ourselves: how and why were concepts such as the divine and the sacred formed by human beings? What are the logical antecedents and ingredients of these concepts? How can we define them in a natural or naturalistic way? What do they refer to in reality? Our methodology is important here, for what we are talking about is the application of the rational methodology of science to our deepest ethical/religous concepts.

Another way of putting it is that our religious concepts must at last become "naturalized citizens" in the homeland of human knowledge. Only then will a complete, human grasp of the world be within our reach. Furthermore, our attitude towards the secular and the sacred is a deep aspect of what Jose Ortega y Gasset called "metaphysical sentiment", or "the essential, ultimate, and basic impression which we have of the universe." Ortega goes on to describe how metaphysical sentiment "acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be.... It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward all of reality, the pleasure which the world and life hold for us."

Can we fail to see a connection between the modern-day derision of sacredness in life and the all-too-common escape from reality in the form of drugs, or the disturbing degree to which people in our society seem willing to take human lives with neither provocation nor compunction? More and more, it appears that the world holds little pleasure for people today, and that "the sacredness of life" is an empty phrase.

Consider also the fact that it is acceptance of the dichotomy between secular and sacred that underlies the split between the "two cultures" of science and art, perhaps the most corrosive fissure in twentieth-century society. Ever since the triumph of Romanticism in the nineteenth century, artists have been accorded the mantle of the divine. Yet I, for one, am deeply disturbed by the fact that twentieth-century has been so beneficial to human life (even beautiful, I would submit), whereas so much of the art of this century has been almost deliberately ugly. Why is it that the modern products of material technology are so good for us both materially and aesthetically, while the modern products of art so often create spiritual values of horror and disgust? With twentieth-century arists seemingly unwilling to create works of nobility, sublimity, meaning, or beauty -- thereby effectively denying the mnost inspiring possibilities of human existence -- how can we expect the climate of our culture to be dominated by anything but a negative view of human nature?

Given the current climate of our culture, another area of concern has to be the connection between "religious" concepts and ethics. We all are familiar with the phrase "is nothing sacred?", uttered in despair when yet another atrocity has been committed in the world. Yet the importance of conceptions of the sacred for ethical behavior has never been elucidated. Popularly, there seems to be a recognition that such concepts provide a mooring for ethics, as witness the common belief that "without God, everything is permitted". Yet, naturally interpreted, is it true that "without a conception of the sacred, everything is permitted"? What function does the sacred serve in our lives? Is the sacred an irremediably personal concept or is it more objective, picking out universal aspects of human nature and experience?

I believe that the concept of the sacred runs deep in the human mind, and that at least some "religious" concepts are potentially universal (perhaps a la Joseph Campbell). We all share in our nature as human beings, and there is much more that we have in common than is peculiar to each one of us. Unfortunately, when one speaks of "human nature" one is working at a high level of abstraction. Yet I believe that there has been a trend toward some universal ethical beliefs, as for instance the recent recognition (in only the last ten years or so) of the universality of human rights.

Indeed, the increasing respect for human rights in the world provides a good example of an ethical belief that is founded on a universal conception of sacredness. Recall, for instance, the "people power" protests throughout the world in recent years, starting in the Phillipines and spreading to places as diverse as Burma and Lithuania. Two images especially from the past few years are etched in my mind: the picture of nearly one million people crowded into Wenceslas Square in Prague, and the video still of a lone man stopping a line of tanks in Beijing. What do these actions signify? What is the source of their peculiar moral force? I submit that each person who stood up to be counted in such "people power" protests was saying, in effect: "I am a human being, and each individual human life possesses an inherent sacredness; you who are our rulers must recognize the sacredness and the rights of each one of us, and you violate them at the peril of your own humanity."

The full meaning of this rising recognition of human rights has not been amply appreciated and commented on as yet. For human rights do not exist in a vacuum, but depend on a positive vision of human nature and the ultimate value of each individual. Until now, that positive vision has been left in the shadows.

We can continue hoping that this trend toward universal ethical beliefs will flourish, and with time grow into the worldwide flowering of a humanistic culture. But such a culture will not come without urging, nor without the ideas and the vision to back it up. A great part of that humanistic vision is bound up with the development of what I have called natural religion, and with a positive bridging of the destructive gap between the material and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred, that has so characterized modern society.

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