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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.