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Darkness into Light: What is Sacred to Me


What liberal theologians, from Karl Rahner and Paul Tillich to Gordon Kaufman and Karen Armstrong, have to say about God provides a useful entrée to what I find sacred. Put simply, what I find sacred may be epistemic rather than ontological, about how we know rather than what is actually out there: The sacred is what is at the horizon of human subjectivity, in our reaching out of the darkness in ourselves toward some greater light, and we know not what. In doing so we transcend ourselves, we make ourselves more than we were. By transcend, I do not refer to any otherworldly or supernatural realm, only to orienting toward what is beyond our epistemic limitations, the limits of cognition.

Whether there is an a priori transcendental condition for the possibility of human subjectivity I do not know; but I do not think that “without the self-revelation of the infinite horizon of knowing and being… all things would be ultimately meaningless.” There is certainly an important “other” that lurks beyond our ken, but whether that is our own deeper interior or simply the epistemics of what we do not know, that affects what we think, feel, and do, I do not and maybe cannot know. I’m also a believer in epistemic free will, the inevitability of experiencing our will as free as long as we do not, and cannot, know all that determines it (though some of it is certainly influenced by us, for good or ill).

I agree that the interdependence and interconnectedness of the world, and our being regularly confronted with a diversity of religious views, suggests that we have a real problem when we start claiming any kind of exclusivity. I do think that religion is about what we do when we come up against the very limits of our language and our minds, and that we recognize, therefore, that we best not reify the symbols we use. I do believe that we will find no meaning and fulfillment in some extra-human reality when our science teaches us that meaning, purpose, and will are products of our biological evolution, and therefore cannot be presumed to prefigure it.

Whether there is some Gödel-like limit to our ability to plumb our own mysteries, what we do know about ourselves can be deeply frightening. What is sacred to me is what brings us out of this darkness into the light. That in the darkest night of the soul, the roots of prayer reside in the moment when we must recognize our limits, when we feel alone, defeated, broken, and we cry out “God help me, I can’t do it on my own anymore.” The dark eros of creativity, that cusp of the unconscious, is in that anxious edge of chaos from which renewal comes. The heart of creativity, of change, of the emergence of novelty is in the moments of grace, when we know we do not deserve what comes to us, but it does anyway, when we realize we are never alone, even if what finally is “other” is even within us, overwhelmed with gratitude to a universe in which we do have a place, even mortality something the gods might envy, “the poignancy of the transient – that sweet sadness of grasping for something we know we cannot hold…” or even reaching for what we cannot grasp. Yes, we can and do fail, the other side of risk and challenge without which there would be no life at all, even death, finally, a gift which makes consciousness possible, without which we could not live, or love passionately.

What is sacred is not what denies that death is real, but what makes it lose its sting, in those moments when eternity breaks into time, those gracious gifts of pride in a father’s eye, of feeling his confidence in my step, of dancing with my newborn daughter in my arms in the recovery room, in the magic in a young girl’s heart, on hearing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto live for the first time: “If I live to be a thousand years, I will never forget this moment.” What is sacred is in those creative moments where one loses oneself in the project, or those moments of love or commitment when one’s life is poured into a larger vessel, giving oneself in love to others, to a future one may never see, to surrender even one’s life, finally, to that for which it is worth dying, not to obtain some other end but out of gratitude that we already have it. Or in those moments when we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, already there before us but for our blindness, our ignorance, or our selfishness. We touch the sacred when we listen to the better angels of our nature even when we know it will hurt, or give of ourselves in even those little gifts of presence which can so heal another’s troubled soul; we do this not because it will bring some reward, but because doing it is the reward.

I also think incarnation is sacred. Not The Incarnation, as if there were only one avatar, but our incarnation. Not only is it miraculous, as Richard Dawkins points out in Unweaving the Rainbow, that we are even alive, given the vast majority of people that could be thrown up by the lottery of DNA who were never born, but that each moment of that life, given all the myriad complexities and uniquenesses of its determinants, is even less likely. We may be constituted by what we imagine ourselves to be, but we are the bodies doing the imagining. It is this body that makes everything else that I ever do possible, its sine qua non. It is also what makes it possible for me to connect with others, and with vision and touch, and sexuality, I can connect with another in the most intimate and fulfilling of ways, and without which I couldn’t.

In the realm of conation, even more than that of cognition and emotion, sometimes the absence of evidence, of love, of moral decision, of real human support (which really does require presence) is the evidence of absence. Disembodied love is not love at all, as so much of our communication is nonverbal, so much of our moral action and fellow feeling requires empathic and bodily connection. Mutual empathy may even be constitutive of self-identity out of a primary intersubjectivity from which it is differentiated. How are you ever with someone without being there for them, as often as not, quite literally? Loneliness and redemption, alienation and reunion, absence and presence, as I have argued elsewhere, are relational, and they require bodily presence, even to loving wastefully, our overflowing cups filled again and again.

I find the sacred in the unplumbed mystery of human life, in creativity, and its roots in our dark side, and its motivation to step beyond ourselves. I find the sacred in those moments in which eternity breaks into time, and moments of our lives are marked forever. I find the sacred in our incarnation, our empathic and embodied presence for each other. I even find it in personalizations, in imaginative projections, and in prayer. I also find the sacred in the poetries, the rituals, the music and dance that move us more than, but not exclusive of our knowledge, our curiosity, our awe and our exploration of mystery. I find it in other places where time and human practices lend historical significance, or simple quietude to a place. I find the sacred in wooded places on the Appalachian Trail, on ocean beaches, in front of the art of Goya, or Picasso, at a concert of Mozart’s Requiem, even watching a summer thunderstorm, or in my everyday stargazing out of my attic El Cielo, or sharing a tête-a-tête with a friend on my magic rose-bowered deck, any of a number of times or places, or of course, with people, for which there is no other instrumental purpose than to be there, or with them. The small signs of moral progress, of hope for our shared life on this planet.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I try to remember what Peter Berger said in his preface to The Heretical Imperative, that “in that Raison du Coeur in which all religious affirmations are finally based, the intellectual is not more privileged by even an iota than any other human being.” I do get lost in the heady word of ideas, hedged in by the intellectual’s “possibilities and impossibilities.” I am a man of words, of stories written and spoken, and I do believe in the value of stories and the myths that, as Solon said, are not stories about something that never happened, but stories about things that happen over and over, stories that inspire us, and stories in which we cast ourselves to find, or create, meaning in our lives. But finally, I think, what I find the most sacred, and the most meaningful, are those things that render me speechless, whether with awe or love. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

NOTE: This is an essay originally posted on the website of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science for which I was President from 2005-2007, and Co-organized conferences in 2009 and 2016. I was voted Academic Fellow in 2010, still one of my most cherished honors.

You can see the whole set of essays on the sacred at http://www.iras.org/the-sacred.html.

The program for the 2009 conference on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual”:

http://www.iras.org/uploads/1/7/5/4/17545549/conference_book_2009.pdf

For the 2016 conference on “How Can We Know? Co-Creating Knowledge in Perilous Times”:

http://www.iras.org/uploads/1/7/5/4/17545549/iras_orange_book_2016.pdf