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Quodlibet Journal: Volume 1 Number 7, November 1999

The Christian Sacred: Absence, Ambiguity and Paradox
© Alan Altany


The sacred is what is, what is real, what is most real by virtue of it being the sacred. The sacred is the path and goal of all religious traditions which teach the wisdom of living in contact with the sacred while realized that the sacred can be a dangerous experience because it is like fire: it can give warmth and light, but it can also burn and destroy if approached without regard for its power and difference from the profane.

It seems to me that religions had there very beginnings through individual or communal experiences of the sacred (mysticism) and those experiences became the foundation for narratives or myths which creatively explored the meaning and implications of those experiences. Rituals were a means to regularly re-create the contact with the sacred, or Ultimate Reality/God/Divine, even to participate in the very sacredness of the sacred. From that perspective, the sacred is a way of talking about the way humans have experienced the divine. A spiritual person seeks to experience more and more of life and the cosmos as sacred while a profane, or non-sacred cosmos, would be equivalent to a kind of living hell.

It is my contention that, other than the development and appearance of human consciousness or awareness in the the world, the most significant change in that consciousness has occurred in the modern world. For the first time in human history most people, even devoutly religious people, now operate with a profane consciousness in a profane cosmos . Experience life and existence with a sacred consciousness in a sacred cosmos has become very rare, especially in the traditions of the major world religions.

The result of this dramatic and traumatic shift can be said to be the hidden and unrealized basis for the cultural triumph of the trivial, banal, frivolous, violent, crude, pornographic and nihilistic. The sacred finds human expression through both anthropomorphic and non-personal means through a poetic, imaginative, intuitive and contemplative vision of existence. The profane is sheer prosaic and factual prose. Have you ever wonder why poetry and art in our age has such little appeal to so many? Part of the reason is that artists, like most everyone else, have been affected by this awareness-shift, but also because the profane is reductionistic and has little room for the greater whole.

In this article I want to argue, using the problem of the sacred in Christianity, that the loss of the sacred is, paradoxically, both catastrophic for human consciousness and culture, but also is a seed for a re generation of that sacred through its very contact with the profane. In other words, the sacred and the profane do not necessarily construct a hostile dualism, but the profane, for our age, is a way to become aware of the sacred.

If we live in a disenchanted cosmos, it is because the sacred first became disembodied and then detached and distracted from human concerns. This amnesia would lead, historically, to where we are today, waiting not only for Godot, but for more than a profane consciousness can even imagine. The loss of the sacred into the profane can only be transformed by full immersion in the profane as a kind of sacrament of the sacred. A deconsecrated universe is not a uni-verse at all because it has lost its soul and its universality. This article seeks to expose the profane and the sacred whereby the very nakedness of the profane discloses the immanently hidden and obvious presence of the sacred.

The geography of this article's trajectory is complex and multivaried as we looked at the problem of the sacred through the perspective of Christianity. For Christianity the sacred is God and the manifestations of God's creativity and will. Thus, Christian sacrality refers to that which makes that which is real, real. It is not just the spiritual dimension of life and existence, but spirited existence as a whole which includes the physical world and cosmos, of which human beings are a part.

From shamanism's primal, ecstatic vision of a sacred continuum, Eliade's interpretation of the sacred as the necessary and unique element of any religion, Bonhoeffer's necessary immersion in the profane, the "death of God" movement as manifest in Altizer's view of the dialectic between the sacred and the profane, Cobb's sense of the modern eclipse of the sacred into a diffused, personalized presence, to the conclusions presented, the sacred and the profane will be seen to "need" each other.

The Argument

For the religious person the sacred is as a koan, a reality so real that it cannot be defined controlled and managed by concepts. It is known through intimate experience. The modern age at the very least has had a very ambiguous attitude towards the sacred; sometimes a diffidence, sometimes a full denial. Modern literature has no lack of an apocalyptic sense of foreboding that the end of civilization, perhaps even human life on earth, is near. " Secularization " is the word used to describe the process whereby the sacred is abrogated and voided in favor of a totally this-worldly attitude. The idea of a society held in balance by its relationship with the sacred is replaced by a view of the absolute need to focus on this world and life, here and now. The consequence has been paradoxical. It has been said that "mass culture is often attacked as the ultimate result of secularization; 'bread and circuses' are held to be among the worse products of an age that has liquidated the sacred ." [1]

In such a condition religion recedes in importance and society defines itself from within its own boundaries. However, a crucial distinction exists that leads to another view of the results of secularization, namely of that between religion and the sacred. For it must be apparent to many that in spite of the world-wide impetus of secularization and its shift from a supernatural to a naturalistic anthropology and sociology there remains, and in some cases has been initiated, a hermeneutics of the sacred in the very heart of a positivistic, secularized age. Some would say that the process of seculariza-tion has been a necessary stripping away of anachronistic views of the sacred. This is one of the meanings of the "death of God" theology of the 1960s. In the midst of the paradoxes some people came to behold the sacred as the antithesis of the secular and a kind of philosopher's stone by which the secular attains its teleological destiny by becoming one with the sacred.

I t is obvious that the modern world finds it almost impossible to simply accept a bifurcated reality of the supernatural and the natural. Scientific discoveries and materialistic progress have encouraged a largely physical interpretation of reality. Modern poetry stresses the turn towards the world and the human in all its heights and dregs. William Carlos Williams in his now famous phrase "no ideas but in things" was advocating a rejection of transcendence in favor of worldly immanence. So was Denise Levertov:

Marvelous Truth, confront us at every turn, in every guise, iron ball, egg, dark horse, shadow, cloud of breath in the air...

However, in its extreme statement the holy has no boundaries, no substantial oppositions, as the profane is seen as a kind of veil that obscures the universal holiness of all:

Everything is holy! Everybody's holy! holy! holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is in eternity! Everyman's an angel!
- Allen Ginsberg, Footnote to "Howl," 1955

The danger here is that the sacred becomes so vacuous of meaning that it loses its power for people. If the profane or secular is judged to be merely a mask over the sacred or to be without ontological reality, then the power of the sacred to transform anything outside itself is also lost. On the other hand, the complete denial of the sacred leads to the possibility of experiencing the world as an absurdity with no escape, no exit. Both a pure supernaturalism and a strict naturalism lead to loss of the world as a fertile existence: "The one abandoned the independence of the world for the sovereignty of God, and the other abandoned the mystery of the divine support of creation for a world that was supposed to be self-caused. The one lost the creation, the other the Creator; and both proceeded to anathematize each other." [2] Thus, to proclaim "Secularism!" or "Supernaturalism!" as polemic curses does little to help. It simply is the case that secularism is an ongoing fact and that the old definitions and ideas of the sacred "cut no mustard outside the Church--and very little inside it." [3]

The problem of the sacred today is many faceted. But for most people if hierophanies or epiphanies are to be experienced in this age, it must occur in the world, not in some separate realm of sanctity. This was the vision of Theodore Roethke in his poetry as he summarized in "In a Dark Time: "All natural shapes blazing unnatural light" where unnatural can be taken to mean the trans-natural or supernatural. The apparent absence of the experience of the sacred as a transformative reality has meant for some poets a turning inward with no way out, a confessional poetry where few alternatives to darkness are found. In "Lady Lazarus" Sylvia Plath says that

Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.

D. H. Lawrence is reported to often have said that "we have killed the mysteries and devoured the secrets." He meant not only those people outside of religion, but many inside it whose moralism and rationalism ignore the depths of life itself.

In the fourteenth century the German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said that if we knew one thing in the world fully, such as a flower, we would know all of existence and even begin to really know God. Less than a century later in England another mystic, Juliana of Norwich, reported an insight she had where she was holding a hazelnut in the palm of her hand:

I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marveled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little(ness). And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall (last) for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God. [5]

William Blake's famous line, "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite," is in a similar vein. A twentieth century American Christian monk, Thomas Merton , struggled with the "world." Was it just corrupt through and through? Was it holy and good because God created it? He believed that in spite of the dangers of focusing upon the world instead of upon God, he still found within himself "an unspeakable reverence for the holiness of created things, for they are pure and perfect and they belong to God and they are mirrors of His beauty." [6] A little later he wrote that "God is holiness. And therefore things are holy in proportion as they share what He is." [7]

The world is thus understood as an analogy of sacred realities and a sacramental threshold to the divine. A stark contrast is found in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea where the main character suddenly becomes aware of the roots of a chestnut tree in the park. Instead of a sacramental vision of the sacred, the roots "strike" him as thick and imposing and suffocating. Their very existence seems random and dead-ended. No transcendence is felt. As a symbol for the world, the roots have no meaning, no destiny other than a momentary appearance in the general condition of existence: absurdity . A chasm separates this view from Christian sacramentalism as well as from a haiku by the Chinese zen poet, P'and-yun:

How wondrously supernatural,
And how miraculous this!
I draw water, and I carry fuel!

How the sacred and profane are understood and interpreted has profound consequences in any age, including our own, since the denial or demoting of the sacred is a relatively recent event in human history.

In earlier times the sacred had not been an unchallenged concept. It was associated with its antithesis, that which was taboo . Art was religious art in the sense of having magico-religious powers in the tribal consciousness. Certain words or animals or events were forbidden as being dangerous and destructive. They were taboo. The sacred was also dangerous , but it had the power to sustain the people if approached in the right way. Today, art has often lost its religious connection and is more often seen as primarily personal work by one individual who is an artist. Outside of the Eastern Orthodox interpretation of icons, there is little vestige of art as transformative of both an individual and a culture. In one sense the sacred has been secularized into an evolutionary notion of "progress" and the taboo has been relegated to ancient superstitions.

The problem of the sacred is all around us. The modern American writer, Flannery O'Connor, said it very well:

I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that. is not the gravest concern to you and everybody else and for me that is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times. [8]

The role of the shaman in tribal life provides a contrast with the modern situation in society as a whole. The shaman (medicine man, psychopomp, witch doctor, priest, poet, mystic) has been the feared and respected member of the tribe who has visited the realm of death and traveled in the geography of the spiritual world and returned to the tribe with the knowledge of how to live in relation to the feared and fascinating sacred. The positivistic mentality dismisses this as non-sense and totally unverifiable. In his book, The Shaman's Doorway, Stephen Larsen stresses the limitations of this view:

The scientist is only the magician of the daylight world. He has lost touch with the nocturnal world of the imagination... He is only in touch with his abstract logic or his experimental design, and is thus an exile from the mythological; his magic be-longs to the universe s ? en only in one specialized state of consciousness. [9]

For the shaman all is interrelated. The Sioux medicine man, or shaman, Lame Deer says that "to us life,, all life, is sacred... All nature is in me and a bit of myself is in all of nature." [10] This sacrality is based on the belief that the profane is a possible revealer of the sacred, that all of nature is the locus of hierophany : "We Indians live in a world of symbols and images where the spiritual and the commonplace are.one." [11] This has a certain similarity with the Puritan understanding of nature as the language of God and with Catholic sacramental theology. But the problem remains that has been called "desacralization" and secularization." This "radical desacralization of the universe is a recent, characteristically modern, and largely western development." [12] A desacralized cosmos is a homogeneous one with no center or unpredictable eruption of the sacred into the profane. For T. S. Eliot this has led to a corruption of modern literature by a secularism that is "simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life: of something which I assume to be our pri-mary concern." [13] Is there something "other" than the immediately perceivable? Can transcendence have any meaning in the modern world? Does secularism mean the end of the holy?

In the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant developed his epistemology around a dualism of phenomenal and noumenal existence. Phenomena were known through the senses and rational categories of human thought, while the numen was a mystery, transcending reason, unknowable in itself. When it is said of Martin Heidegger that for him holiness is "that power and from wherewith a thing is what it is--whose penumbra of mystery naturally evokes an attitude of awe and astonishment," [14] we find ourselves in the Kantian tradition and face to face with the work of the modern theologian, Rudolph Otto , in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Otto seeks to analyze the sacred as the "Wholly Other," as a non-rational reality that is numinous and beyond the self. For Otto the sacred is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans , an awful and dreadful, yet fascinating and attractive mystery. This sacred reality is not seen as a part of some thing else or reducible to some non-sacral quantity, but as being sui generis and not comprehensible in rational or ethical terms alone. For Otto the sacred has ontological reality, not just psychological impact. The holy or God is "das ganz Andere" and thus remains in necessary tension to the fully immanent. Clearly, here the sacred is seen as transcendent and over against the profane. But a further analysis of the sacred is necessary if the points of contact between the sacred and the profane are to be further explored. The work of Mircea Eliade is of great help here.

Eliade believes that the necessary and unique and irreducible element in religious experience is the element of the sacred. [15] He differs from Otto in that he wants not only to see the sacred as a phenomenon with a non-rational aspect, but to see it in its fullness. In this regard he presents the sacred as being in opposition to the profane: "the religious experience presupposes a bipartition of the world into the sacred and the profane." [16] For Eliade the sacred is that which is most real and despite the form of manifestation of the sacred, a "sacred thing... is sacred because it reveals or shares in ultimate reality." [17] The way that sacred is disclosed is through what he calls hierophany where the sacred is manifest through something profane in a dialectical process. Since the profane refers to that which is natural and historical, the locus for this dialectic is the ordinary world. The paradox in this dialectic of the sacred is that the sacred as transcendent, "wholly other, ultimate, infinite, transhistorical, limits itself by incarnating itself in something profane, relative, finite, historical." [18]

Since there are no pristine and pure religious phenomena, [19] Eliade believes the experience of the sacred is always an historical event. In fact, through symbolism the historical event or physical object is understood by the religious person in a new way because it has been transformed into something other than what the profane experience seems to be. [20] Eliade sees the modern world as more interested in the immanent than the transcendent and when this is combined with the concurrent loss of sacramental symbolism, the world is experienced often in a completely profane way. To Eliade this desacralized cosmos is a late development in human history.

The problem becomes one of how to live in a completely profane world since the "religious man can live only in a sacred world because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence." [21] Given that the sacred is not experienced directly in this sacrality model of Eliade, what is to be done? He responds that the religious person must enter into a sacral time, the time of origins, illud tempus, the eternal present, where the sacral events of the mythical past become reactualized in the present. This is a kind of nostalgia for paradise that motivates the religious person to experience the sacred in the context of the here and now. This person sees the world as non-homogeneous, having a center, a beginning, an ultimate purpose. The uniformity of the profane world is broken and the threshold is crossed into the Center of the World, into the time of beginnings, where the religious person contacts the full manifestation of being, absolute reality or the sacred "which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real..." [22]

For Eliade these hierophanies are intimately related to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation , of the divine becoming human, of the sacred disclosing itself in and through the profane. He sees the Incarnation of Christ as the one sound of which all hierophanies in all religious experiences are echoes. [23] Thus, the religious person participates in imitatio dei by entering into the transformation of the profane into the sacred, changing chaos to cosmos . Eliade wrote of modern nonreligion as equal to a new "fall" of humanity where the sense of the sacred is hidden deep in the unconscious. [24] The dialectic of the sacred and its hierophanies are the ways the religious person faces this situation since they tend "endlessly to reduce the spheres that are profane and eventually to abolish them. Some of the highest religious experiences identify the sacred with the whole universe." [25]

The vision of Eliade is that the profane is progressively transformed into the sacred, into participation in ultimate reality. In the modern world this must be done in the face of desacralizing forces seeking to "retransform the sacred into the profane." [26] Therefore, the sacred is seen as the deepest human destiny, the lived dream:

... Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream...
- T. S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"

It is not that the sacred begins to glow and the profane gives off a foul odor. William Blake had said that as a person is, so she or he sees. The process of the transformation of the profane is, for Eliade, ontological but requires the religious person to be somehow incorporated into the timeless source of reality itself. Giles Gunn summarizes this position when he says that

the words sacred and profane apply not to different kinds of objects which confront us in experience but rather to different ways of perceiving and then relating ourselves to them... Man responds religiously to such objects, Eliade contends, only where he seeks through myth and ritual to repeat those acts in illo tempore by which their sacred character was first made manifest. [27]

If indeed the idea of the sacred is so problematic to the modern mind and if the sacred is not to be experienced as a separate category of pure experience, then a possible way to the recovery of the sacred is to "plunge into the radically profane as a way to the Holy." [28] For Martin Heidegger, the poet has a crucial role in this effort because he sees the poet, as opposed to the philosopher, being more adept "in the art of 'paying heed' to the concrete actualities of earth... by inviting an attitude of enthrallment before (them)" [29] which opens people to that which enables them to be what they are. For Heidegger this is Being itself which constitutes the dimension of the Holy.

But it has been the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who has spoken powerfully about the profane being the necessary way the modern world must speak of the sacred. He speaks of the "Beyond," the deepest reality, being found in the historical moment. He certainly supports the position that a religious vision that speaks of a metaphysical differentiation of reality into two realms of the natural and the supernatural is beyond the comprehension of the modern world, that the Deus ex machina, has lost its meaning. Homo religiosus is no more, for Bonhoeffer, and any talk of God must be done in a non-religious way. Thus, the Christian is not to live a "religious" life as though the sacred were an isolated level of existence above the ways of the world. Rather, the Christian is to fully embrace the world and engage in the cultural and societal realities of the age. For Bonhoeffer the sacred can only be realized in the existential depths of each historical reality. [30]

For poetry and literature this means that the secular will be the way the realities of life must be presented. The fact that modern poetry frequently explores the worldly, the physical and biological and psychological does not necessarily mean that the sacred is dead in our times. Its eclipse has been interpreted to be a necessary death leading to a new vision of the sacred not dependent upon the traditional dualistic realm of the supernatural and the natural. In this sense secularism is not just a caustic denial of any value to the sacred, but is a revival of the sacramental principle that has been on the wane since the rise of Protestantism and science in the sixteenth century.

Nathan Scott describes this principle as meaning that "certain objects or actions or words or places belonging to the ordinary spheres of life may convey to us a unique illumination of the whole mystery of our existence because in these actions and realities... something 'numinous' is resident, something holy and gracious. [31] In its largest sense, the sacramental vision (as William Temple insisted) says that nothing could strictly be a sacrament unless everything were fundamentally sacramental. [32] For the Christian this vision is a manifestation of the personal character of ultimate reality. If the sacred is seemingly lost, this renewed kind of sacramentalism would depend upon a stark secularity to develop dialectically a preliminary sense of contemplation of reality in all its facets. This secularity would also free the poet and writer from topic and style constraints.

In the 1960s modern secularity in relation to the sacred was given a controversial expression in the "death of God" movement by some Protestant theologians. With roots running back through the French Enlightenment, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, evolutionism, Freud, Marxism, Hegel as well as literary figures, this movement said that the traditional concepts and language about God are inadequate and misleading, that moderns experience God as absent, silent and, in its most radical form, as nonexistent. The fact of atheism gave impetus to this movement and there can be seen a kind of kinship between atheism and apophatic mysticism with its denial of God as conceptually knowable or as a being among other beings.

One of the main figures of the death of God movement was Thomas Altizer . A brief review of his interpretation of the dialectic between the sacred and the profane will further clarify what has already been said. He states that the profane is not an illusion or simply a mask over a universal sacrality, but is a real force which, from the Christian point of view, must not only be negated, but reversed and transformed into the form of the sacred. [33] He thinks of religion as a process of negation and regeneration where "its seeming negation of the profane is at bottom an epiphany or renewal of an original and primordial sacred... therefore an absolute negation of the profane is equivalent to a total affirmation of the sacred. [34] Altizer finds a problem here because if there is a regeneration of a primordial Totality where the profane is simply annulled through a non-dialectial identity of opposites, then the profane loses its reality by disappearing into the sacred, leaving the sacred without a profane opposite. He finds this to be contrary to Christian eschatology and the meaning of the Incarnation.

Whereas Christian theology takes the Fall as real, as a fracture of existence where the world and human existence are seen to be divided from their divine ground, the Asian view sees no such Fall and therefore no need for a re-transformation within time and space. Altizer insists that only Christianity realizes the need for that re-transformation where the sacred or the nostalgia for paradise is not for a primordial Totality prior to the break between the sacred and the profane, but for an actual transformation, not just negation, of the profane "by moving through fallenness and death to a definitive and final reconciliation 'between the sacred and the profane." [35] In this process the profane must be accepted as real if there is to be a genuine dialectic and a coincidentia oppositorum of the sacred and profane. The Christian view is here distinguished from the general view of religion by its forward movement through time towards an eschatological end or transformation of all existence. Sacred and profane are not abolished as opposites in the process of transformation and an original Totality of full sacrality is denied in order that the profane be given its needed reality:

As opposed to this backward movement of the.religious expressions of mysticism, a Christian repetition must move forward beyond the death of a primordial or original sacred to an eschatological coincidentia oppositorum that reconciles and unites the sacred and the profane. [36]

Altizer places the Incarnation at the center of his dialectic using its kenotic meaning to show that it is not just a past event, but must be a continual process of spirit becoming flesh, of the sacred becoming profane. He criticizes "religious Christianity" for its focus upon an original or primordial sacred where God is pure actuality and static. Instead of moving forward to the End, it is moving backward towards the Beginning. He judges this to mean lifelessness and the turning of a primordial Sacredness into a present idol. It is here that he sees the need for the death of God where God is understood as the Primordial God of the Beginning if the spirit is to unite with the flesh here and now. Altizerís position means that the sacred and the profane are really in opposition and that the world is a fallen and profane reality. Only in final eschatological life will flesh and spirit, profane and sacred become identical. In a kenotic dialectic the spirit empties itself of spirit as to become flesh and flesh negates itself as flesh to become spirit. The Incarnation becomes a perpetual process until the End:

Simply to raise these questions in the context of our time and situation is to recognize the possibility that the death of God--i.e., the dissolution of all images and symbols of an original sacred, and the collapse of a sacred or transcendent realm underlying this dissolution--is a culminating expression of the forward movement of the Incarnation. [37]

With the kenotic negation of the sacred as a primordial reality, it can then become incarnate in the profane at the same time that the profane becomes manifest in the sacred: "a consistently Christian dialectical understanding of the sacred must finally look forward to the resurrection of the profane in a transfigured and thus finally sacred form." [38] With Altizer the profane is given definite reality and the sacred is not an immutable category of metaphysics. The world is the place for such a transformative process.

In his book, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, the theologian John Cobb presents his theory of the eclipse of the sacred in the specific image of Christ in modern art. He, too, sees it as an ongoing, historical transformation. Cobb says that in modern times profane consciousness and cultural, religious pluralism have led the way in obscuring Christ in art, but with the result, seldom understood, that the real meaning of Christ was thus appropriated. He describes this theory by saying that as "Christ disappeared from the context of Western art he became, under other names, its acknowledged inner principle." [39] The transforming power moved from a transcendent realm to the center of the artist's creative life. The sacred was thus associated not strictly with the Christ image, but with the creative principle of art itself. It was a process of iconoclasm and autonomy which Cobb believes opened the way for radical reliance upon the artist's inner resources to the extent that "the absolute of modern art... is ... artistic creativity as such. [40]

The Christ image basically disappeared from modern art, but not its liberating meaning. Cobb says that Christ "breaks the relation to himself as objectified figure and becomes the principle of liberation..." [41] which is identified with suffering humanity and the profane. Cobb is not saying that the sacred is dead, but that it has died a necessary death in the modern world so that it could be a source of personalizing transformation. In his 1814 poem, "The Holy Longing," Goethe speaks of a dying that is a necessary prelude for meaning:

And so long as you haven't experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth. [42]

For Cobb the sacred disappeared in modern secular society, died, and was then found to be at the center of seeking what it means to be human in the complexities of contemporary culture.

This death of the Christ image or sacred is really.an event within modern consciousness. It is a new way of seeing the profane in relation to the sacred, a dialectical encounter leading to the transformation of the profane into the formless sacred. In "Come into Animal Presence" Denise Levertov portrays the sacred as an enduring, if sometimes obscured, presence that waits for the human vision to experience it:

Those who were sacred have remained so, holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence of bronze, only the sight that saw it faltered and turned from it. An old joy returns in holy presence. [43]

For Thomas Merton the sacred is experienced in a contemplative or mystical attitude towards existence that sees the meaning and mystery (i.e., sacrality) of existence as being both hidden and obvious. In "Hagia Sophia" Merton begins the poem with these words about Wisdom as one face of the sacred:

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness ... That which is poorest and humblest, that which is most hidden in all things is nevertheless most obvious in them, and quite manifest.


Thus, in technological, positivistic, contemporary culture the sacred does seem to have died, but disappeared. It can even be said that such a vision of the sacred becomes prophetic by exposing the social and worldly aspects of the holy. The traditional notion that the sacred is, in essence, ineffable can be still justified, but it can also be argued that such an experience of the sacred as ineffable is fully compatible with a social, cultural, psychological and historical interpretation of the sacred being in necessary contact and interaction with the profane, transforming the profane in the process and sub- summing it with the sacred.

The sacred may have ontological validity, but it needs existential confrontation with the profane if humans are to come into contact with the sacred in the contemporary mind and culture. The sacred, therefore, is the very ground of human consciousness and that consciousness only "knows" the sacred in its historical manifestation, integrating the intellect and the unconscious and contemplation with both social existence and social concern. In a strangely profound sense, the profane is what gives human their experience of the sacred.

The sacred is the disparaged mythos of our age as its pattern of historical involvement has been greatly forgotten or ignored. Yet that mythos is what can help revitalize both a mystical and worldly idea of the sacred by re-membering the truth-telling power of myth to represent the mystery and by re-minding us that the world is the geography of forms in which the formless sacred is active.

By a dialectical interaction, the profane becomes the necessary field for that action. When the profane is profaned, instead of coming into contact with the sacred, the profane becomes only a homogeneous expanse and much of 20th century art, literature and life has been a reflection of a visceral and vacuous longing for what all of previous history knew as the sacred. Our age has lost its vision of the sacred by losing its vision of the meaning of the profane and it has lost its sense of the possibilities of the profane because it has lost its care for the sacred. It is a great millennial hope that the hiddenness of the sacred will become obvious.

When I hear comments of pure incomprehension about random violence, the reification of humans into information processing systems, the failure to find ways through suffering, the obsessive need to be busy and the absence of an appreciation for silence and a contemplative attitude, I see it as the result of an absence of awe, a loss of a vision of the sacred and for the sacred. The sacred is ambiguous and it places us in utter paradox, but how else could what is meant by the sacred be in relation to human consciousness? It is my hope that the argument presented here will help in the momentum to reconcept- ualize and reexperience what spiritual traditions from indigenous peoples to contemporary Christianity call the sacred. By transcending its tendency towards dualism and propositional formatting of truths, Christianity can itself be a sacramental agent for contemporary culture and consciousness to experience the sacred because of, not in spite of, the role of the profane. The Christian sacred is a call for an even greater shift in human consciousness than the one that was responsible for bringing about the present trauma of the spirit. If Christianity can overcome its lingering Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and supernaturalism and displace them with a mystical vision of the cosmos, then the profane can be a veritible theophany.


1. Patrick Brantlinger, Bread and Circuses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 38.

2. Robert Farrar Capon, "The Secular and the Sacred," The Sacred and the Secular , ed. Michael Taylor, S. J. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 178.

3. Ibid., p. 175.

4. John McGill Krumm, "Theology and Literature: The Terms of the Dialogue on the Modem Scene," The Climate of Faith in Modem Literature, ed. Nathan Scott (New York: Seabury Press, 1964), p. 39.

5. Revelations of Devine Love , cited in F. C. Happold, Mysticism (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), p. 323.

6. Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953), p. 238.

7. Ibid., p. 262.

8. Nathan Scott, Adversity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 134-135.

9. New York: Harper & Row, 1976, p. 20.

10. John Lame Deer and Richard Erodes, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), pp. 126, 29. "1 wanted to feel, smell, hear and see, but not see with my eyes and my mind only wanted to see with cant ista-the eye of the heart. This eye has its own way of looking at things," p. 30.

11. Ibid., pp. 96-97.

12. Eugene Webb, The Dark Dove (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975), p. 101.

13. "Religion and Literature," Wilbur Scott, ed., Five Approaches of Literary Criticism (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 52.

14. Scott, Negative Capability , pp. 73-74.

15. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion , trans. by Rosemary Sheed (New York: New American Library, 1958/1963), P. xiii. '

16. Eliade, The Quest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 133.

17. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion , p. 158.

18. Douglas Allen, "Phenomenological Method and the Dialectic of the Sacred," Imagination and Meaning , eds. Norman J. Girardot and Mac Linscott Ricketts (New York: Seabury Press, 1982), p. 78.

19. Ibid., p. 76.

20. Eliade, Patterns , p. 452.

21. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane ., trans. by Willard Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), p. 64.

22. Ibid., p. 202.

23. "One might even say that all hierophanies are simply prefigurations of the miracle of the Incarnation, that every hierophany is an abortive attempt to reveal the mystery of the coming together of God and man," Patterns , p. 29.

24. Sacred and Profane , p. 213.

25. Patterns , p. 459.

26. Eliade, The Quest, p. 133.

27. Giles Gunn, The Interpretation of Otherness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 186-187.

28. Scott, Adversity and Grace , p. 161.

29. Nathan Scott, T he Wild Prayer of Longing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), pp. 73-74.

30. Scott, Adversity and Grace , pp. 10- 11.

31. Wild Prayer , p. 49.

32. Ibid., p. 73.

33. This review is based upon Altizer's essay "The Sacred and the Profane: A Dialectic Understanding of Christianity," Death of God , pp. 140-155.

34. Ibid., p. 145.

35. Ibid., p. 148.

36. Ibid., p. 151.

37. Ibid., p. 155.

38. Ibid.

39. John Cobb, Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 31.

40. Ibid., p. 4 1.

41. Ibid., p. 58.

42. Translated by Robert Bly in his News of the Universe (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980), p. 70.

43. Levertov writes in "The Depths" of a very incarnate sense of holiness where the profane is a path of meaning:

.. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.
After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.

Bibliography of Works Cited

Allen, Douglas. "Phenomenological Method and the Dialectic of the Sacred." Imagination and Meaning. Eds. Norman J. Girardot and Mac Linscott Ricketts. New York: Seabury Press, 1982, p. 78.

Bly, Robert. News of the Universe . San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980, p. 70.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Bread and Circuses . Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984, p. 38.

Capon, Robert Farrar. "The Secular and the Sacred." The Sacred and the Secular . Ed. Michael J. Taylor, S.J. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968, p. 178.

Cobb, John. Christ in a Pluralistic Age . Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975. P. 3 1.

Deer, John Lame and Richard Erodes. Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. New York: Simon & Schulster, 1972, pp. 126, 29.

Eli.ade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion . New York: New American Library, 1958/1963, p. xiii.

Ehade, Mircea. The Quest . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 133.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959, p. 64.

Gunn, Giles. The Interpretation of Otherness . New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, pp. 186-187.

Happold, F.C. 'Revelations of Devine Love." Mysticism. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963, p. 323.

Krumm, John McGill. 'Theology and Literature: The Terms of the Dialogue on the Modem Scene." The Climate of Faith in Modern Literature . Ed. Nathan Scott. New York: Seabury Press, 1964, p. 39.

Merton, Thomas. The Sign ofJonas . New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1953, p. 238.

Scott, Nathan. Adversity and Grace . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 134-135.

Scott, Nathan. The Wild Prayer of Longing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 197 1, pp. 73-73.

Scott, Wilbur. "Religion and Literature." Five Approaches of Literary Criticism. New York: Macmillian, 1962, p. 52.

Webb, Eugene. The Dark Dove . Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975, p. 101.

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