In Defense of a Sacred Space; or The Role for Churchgoing in a Secular Age
Mindscapes: The UPEI Arts Review, 08 May 2012
Mindscapes: The UPEI Arts Review, 08 May 2012
I.Over the last couple of years, I have been a member of the Canadian Secular Alliance, a non-profit public policy think tank that promotes government neutrality in religious matters and respect for the separation of church and state. Through working on various projects with the group’s members, most of whom are atheists and secular humanists, I have been made to refine and, in some cases, challenge my own views. One issue of particular interest is the decline in church attendance in Canada and several other Western nations over the last few decades, which has been described as a process of “unchurching.”1 Many of my colleagues applaud this as a development in the quest to undermine the influence of Christianity and as evidence of increased skepticism from the masses toward theism.
Notwithstanding any progress that has been made toward a change in the Zeitgeist about religion, I think it would be too generous to credit intellectual skepticism for this decline. For one, the tenets of religious belief systems have been under academic scrutiny for centuries and public policy has for a long time been unconnected from direct clerical influence. Secondly, the cultural phenomenon of secularization seems to be incongruent with the more recent decline in churchgoing. Though a general state of unbelief may well be at play, it seems more plausible that most people simply no longer feel socially compelled to go to church and have found other ways to spend their Sunday mornings.
Although churchgoing may retain a sense of meaning and necessity for many individuals, families, and communities, it no longer holds public significance in the way it once did. Many secular-minded people are relieved to see that less of the rank-and-file population is interested in religious ritual, but I am unsure that such a reductionist interpretation of this development is accurate. In my experience, the impression that many non-believers have of churchgoing is a caricature that fails to account for many of the more subtle and less-discussed characteristics of religious rituals. In order to appreciate the sociological significance of churchgoing, we must examine the role of the church as an institution of meaning and reflection that we are missing in our secular age. By doing so, we should find that far from solely being a vehicle of indoctrination, the church may be an institution that can be used to foster a secular sense of the sacred.
For many people, both religious and nonreligious, the word “sacred” carries a heavy religious connotation that unjustifiably blinds us from discussing a broader and more all-encompassing understanding of the concept. By “sacred,” I am referring to an appreciation for the numinous, a kind of reverence for an elevated sense of being and experience. My interest is to examine the relationship between this reverence and the practice of rituals.
To be clear, I am not necessarily speaking of the particular religious rituals of one branch of Christianity, of a specific denominational tradition, or even of Christian practices in general. What I am speaking of is the significance of public rituals and of sacred spaces — institutions that are not by any means limited to the Christian religion. While the endeavor of secularists to challenge the influence of religion is both just and necessary, I fear that we may synchronically destroy the very idea of meaningful public places and ceremonies, which can legitimately illuminate our experience as social beings. To avoid this unintentional destruction, we need to build a social institution that encourages reflection and a sense of community without threatening our secular sensibility.
Our culture is in an interesting but troubling place vis-à-vis its Christian history. On the one hand, we are willing to quite openly challenge the demands that Christianity puts on its adherents and subsequently separate ourselves from this part of our heritage. On the other, we seem incapable of providing an alternative to the imagery that we have inherited from the faith. The most obvious examples of this are weddings and funerals, which are very meaning-laden events that remain important ceremonies in the lives of both believers and non-believers. Yet despite the declining significance of Christian theology, our secular society still clings to its pious past when questions of meaning inevitably and uncomfortably arise.
It is certainly true that many non-believers and lapsed Christians simply go through the motions at these kinds of rituals, repeating the holy words along with everyone else while not believing that their actions are of actual consequence to the Almighty. This is perhaps less true in the case of funerals, which can have the effect of turning introspective the thoughts of even the most convinced non-believer, especially when the deceased person is a close friend or family member. My point is better illustrated by weddings, whose secular significance has become a matter of public debate in the controversy over same-sex marriage. Though marriage has lost much of its Christian meaning and has been replaced by a more legalistic and contractual understanding, it remains that weddings are special events, especially for the couple being married.
Though it is technically possible to skip out on the Christian ritual, the completely secular alternative is unimpressive and reinforces a nihilistic interpretation of marriage. For this reason, many atheists and agnostics choose to be married by clergy in a real church, even if the religious completely unconnected from their actual beliefs. Some occasions call for greater expressions of meaning, and when secularism’s answer is a courthouse ceremony with a justice of the peace, the pious Christian rituals of old seem less foolish than we may have thought.
Western civilization's disenchantment with religion is one of the most discussed topics in the discipline of political philosophy. In addition to the various consequences of political secularism, the public policy doctrine best understood as the separation of church and state, the process of secularization elicits other important questions about meaning in our post-Christian society. This question was of particular importance to Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, two 20th-century political philosophers who were critical of atheism and modernity.
Neither Strauss nor Voegelin were religious people but both worried that radical skepticism had serious consequences for Western societies. For Voegelin, such disenchantment with a belief in a higher power was inextricably linked to the rise of totalitarian ideologies, which turned the 20th century into a bloodbath. However, Voegelin's critique of communism, fascism, and national socialism was far from the mainstream criticism of today’s religious commentators, who attempt to smear atheism by merely associating it with such regimes.2 Voegelin was not critical of these totalitarian regimes because they were not religious enough, but rather because they resembled dogmatic religious fanaticism and combined the worst part of religion – complete worship – with the worst part of atheism – deafness to “nonexistent reality.”3
Voegelin's problem with atheism, especially in its modern and virulent form, was that it failed to adequately account for limits to mankind's power and position in the universe. Religious beliefs reinforced the concept of metaxy (Plato’s term meaning “in betweenness”), which describes the human understanding that “[we] occupy a plane of experience that extends from the ‘pole’ of worldly or sensual experiences to the ‘pole’ of divine or numinous experiences.”4
In his 1995 text “Revolt Against Modernity,” Ted McAllister summarizes Voegelin's understanding of metaxy as follows:
Humans necessarily experience alienation because they feel the attraction of the divine, whole, timeless pole of existence while they live in the mundane, partial and historical cosmos. Despite the pull toward the divine pole of our existence, human life is constituted in the tensional field between two heuristically understood poles of existence. To ignore or attempt to eliminate one of the poles is a futile attempt to escape one's humanity.5
While religion speaks to the existential tension between God and man, Voegelin believed that “dogmatic atheism” collapses the metaxy. An inevitable consequence of this collapse is an attempt to create heaven on Earth via transformative ideologies such as Marxism. While Marx and his predecessor Hegel did not believe in human nature, they did believe in human history. In contrast, Voegelin believed that metaxy was an inalienable part of human nature. One could say that if Voegelin’s reading of human nature is correct, it means that the leftist revolutionaries in France and Russia were trying to realize the numinous through the wholly-human means of ideology. Voegelin called this attempt to create heaven on Earth the “immanentization of the eschaton,”6 a phrase frequently used by the late American writer William F. Buckley, Jr. when referring to utopian projects. On this point, the British journalist Peter Hitchens wrote that he “[has] seldom seen a more powerful argument for the fallen nature of man, and his inability to achieve perfection, than those countries in which man sets himself up to replace God with the State.”7 The tension of metaxy provides an example of Voegelin’s attempt to expose the corruption of totalitarian ideologies.
A good illustration of Voegelin’s ideas about the transcendent is contained in his 1965 essay “Immortality: Experience and Symbol.” Though it is clear that he was contemptuous of dogmatic skepticism, it is also true that he saw dogmatic belief as problematic. Voegelin divided our spiritual spectrum into three categories: original experience, dogmatic belief, and skepticism.8 The middle position, dogmatic belief, is worrisome because it effectively replaces genuine transcendent experience with more tangible propositions, either in the form of propositional substitutes about the experience, or in adherence to a set of rules which exemplify one’s piety.
What is valuable, according to Voegelin, is the original account — the shared religious experience that reinforces the tension of metaxy. Presumably the life of Jesus would qualify as an original account of transcendent experience. But once dogmas become the principal ground of religious faith, the entire domain of the numinous is undermined by skepticism in the form of “smart idiot” questions, such as “How do you know?” and “How can you prove it?”9 In other words, fundamentalist believers who shout biblical verses at people are not only misdirecting their spiritual impulses in the direction of dogmatism, but they are also destroying the very valuable domain of the numinous.
The value of religious belief for Leo Strauss’s ideas is much less abstract. For Strauss, an atheist Jew (to avoid the misnomer secular Jew) who emigrated from Germany in the late 1930s, religion was a useful tool, not only for keeping law and order, but also for giving citizens a sense of meaning. He believed that religion forms a part of society’s character by providing certain beneficial myths. In Strauss’s view, the death of God resulted in two kinds of nihilism – the brutal nihilism of the 20th-century totalitarianisms and a softer nihilism that is present in Western liberalism. This gentle nihilism, which is generally seen as non-threatening, has led to pervasive relativism. Western society is no longer grounded in its beliefs of old and instead floats along without link to its traditions, which are rooted in Judeo-Christian precepts.
One cannot underemphasize the degree to which Strauss saw religion as purely instrumental. Through Strauss, like Nietzsche, was something of an agonized non-believer who perceived a vacuum of meaning created by the death of God, he believed that religion was, at best, the noble lie of Book 3 of the Republic — a salutary illusion for the great unwashed.10 Philosophers were equipped to deal with nihilism, but this was not true for the general population, amongst whom the philosophers had to live and who provided the supporting framework for philosophical life.
Strauss cared primarily about the life of the philosopher and believed that philosophizing was objectively the most esteemed way to live one’s life. He contended that it was not the job of the philosopher to question the myths of his own society and that some thinkers might even have to fake their own piety. This was necessary not only to protect philosophers from persecution, but also to protect society from the truths that would destabilize the existing order. A prime example of a philosopher who practiced such a strategy was al-Farabi, one of Strauss’s favorite thinkers, who had to conform to his society’s Islamic beliefs while also contributing to political thought.11
Another central topic of Straussian philosophy is the relationship between reason and revelation, which Strauss represented as “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” respectively. Though he did not believe that reason and revelation are reconcilable, he did think that both needed to be kept in play and that one must recognize the influence of both traditions in the character of Western civilization.12 Interestingly, Strauss’s opinion on the irreconcilable nature of faith and reason is shared by many present-day advocates of atheism, though their conclusion about the utility of religion is obviously different. An oft-misunderstood aspect of the New Atheism movement of the last decade is its supposed aversion to spiritual experience of any kind. In fact, many of the New Atheists, though especially the American neuroscientist Sam Harris, have been outspoken about our need to take seriously this dimension of human life.
I have no doubt that there exists a vast world of meaning that is unconnected to revelation or to belief in the supernatural. We have at our disposal mountains of reflection upon the human condition in the form of literature, poetry, art, and music that has yet to meaningfully penetrate our secular psyche in the way that religious imagery once did. The Voegelinian and Straussian analyses are salient because they demonstrate that meaning matters, and not only to the most enlightened part of the population, but also to the average person. More importantly, though, I think it is unfair and insulting to suggest that in order for the everyman to have a meaningful life, he has to believe in fantastical fairy tales and absurd propositions, such as the notion that a particular book was authored by the creator of the universe. One thing that continues to make Christianity powerful to many people is its ability to deliver meaningful messages using language that makes a congregation feel included. More complicated concepts of the faith are reengineered to make sense to the average person; this combines with the fellowship of the church to make the entire ordeal a meaningful ritual.
There is no secular equivalent to this, which means that even the greatest works of literature are viewed as the domain of academics. There is no reason for which the writing of Mark Twain, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, and Herman Melville should remain locked away for only the ultra-literate. Fiction is more than what most people imagine, as it is our primary source of reflection, especially for ethical questions. Good stories not only entertain us but also force us to think, and this adds light and meaning to the life of the reader. The challenge is to create a public and secular institution that can extract and disseminate meaning from literature in the way that churches do from Christian theology.
The 2011 book All Things Shining gives insights into how this secular sense of the sacred can be attained. Its authors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, are leading interpreters of existential philosophy and phenomenology. Dreyfus and Kelly attempt to provide an antidote to Nietzschean nihilism by tracing literary meaning from the Homeric epic poems, to the Christian literature of Dante, to Melville’s allusion-filled Moby Dick. The authors admire the polytheism of Homer for its openness to physis, the phenomenon of divine moods.13 These moods are not individual as we understand them, but are rather shared and collective moods that come along and take hold of us for awhile and then let go. This creates a “wooshing up” feeling in which everyone present is swept along in the sense that something special is happening. Physis is critical to the understanding of meaning for Greek polytheism; the gods occupy the domain of divine transcendent moods into which humans can be swept up. It is the experience of these divine moods that makes life meaningful.
There are moments in life that seem to foist meaning upon us. As I mentioned above, weddings and funerals are events which, for most of us, are inherently riddled with significance. Moods of joy that accompany the blessing of a relationship and moods of mourning that accompany a death are collective emotions that we often associate with religious faith or spirituality. Dreyfus and Kelly further illustrate this by referencing a scene from the film Pulp Fiction, in which Jules and Vincent, who are hit men, narrowly avoid death when none of their enemy’s bullets hits them at close range.14 The authors indicate that this case is analogous, even in the quantity of ammunition, to the scene from the Odyssey when all six spears miss Odysseus.
Jules claims that their survival is a miracle, which he attributes to divine intervention, while Vincent chalks it up to blind chance. Although Dreyfus and Kelly don’t support a completely theological reading of the event (as Pope John Paul II did when he credited Saint Mary for saving him from an assassination attempt),15 they do feel that Vincent’s response is nihilistic.
The Greeks felt that excellence in life requires highlighting a central fact of existence: wonderful things outside your control are constantly happening for you. That background sense of human existence is what justified and reinforced the feeling of gratitude that was so central to the Homeric understanding of what is admirable in life. Whether that gratitude is directed toward Athena, Jesus, Vishnu, or nobody at all is almost irrelevant.16
We should, they suggest, appreciate such good fortune in the way that Greek polytheists did: as a kind of divine luck, even if it is not understood in the explicit form of a guardian angel. The reaction of both Jules and Vincent are wrong, they insist. Vincent is ungrateful, attributing a significant event to mere chance, while Jules leans on theistic imagery that is no longer legitimate in our secular age.
In the conclusion of the book, Dreyfus and Kelly further discuss the “wooshing up” phenomenon in the context of contemporary culture. Sacred moments are most easily found in sporting events, they say, because great athletes can shine like Greek gods.17 To illustrate this point, the authors cite David Foster Wallace’s admiration of tennis great Roger Federer. Watching Federer play, Wallace said, was like a religious experience.18 Dreyfus and Kelly think that being wooshed up at a sporting event is akin to the physis of Homer’s epic poems. It is especially important that these sporting events are shared experiences, which create a collective mood. In our modern and enlightened age, we resist being swept away by collective emotions because we associate it with immaturity. Instead, we prefer to admire the calm, stoic people who respond rationally and unemotionally to everything.19 Yet if people lacked the power to be wooshed up, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would not have had the effect that it did, and our society would be poorer for it.20
There is a caveat, however. Just as one can be wooshed up by an anti-racism speech, one can also be wooshed up by a pro-racism speech, and by all aspects of the book’s thorough explication, the Germans who applauded at Hitler rallies were also experiencing physis. It is surely unfortunate that there were not more Kantian rationalists to counter the public mood that engendered German fascism and anti-Semitism. Dreyfus and Kelly do not omit this concern, to which they dedicate a sizeable part of their final chapter. They say that physis needs to be put in its place, not by Kantian hyper-rationalism, but rather by poiesis — a process of nurturing that is rooted in certain “kind[s] of sacred practice[s] still available at the margins of our culture....”21 These practices are “sacred, shining things” that root us in our humanity through the development and perfection of skills. The combination of these skills — a kind of meta-poiesis — helps to safeguard us against bad physis. Dreyfus and Kelly complain that sacred skills, such as craftsmanship, have largely been lost as a result of technological advances and that we have been robbed of our nurturing experiences. They believe that in order to foster good physis, we need to rehumanize ourselves by finding the sacred, shining things in everyday life, such as the ability to navigate or the experience of drinking a special and well-brewed cup of coffee.22
Given the task that Dreyfus and Kelly set out for themselves at the beginning of the book, their final prescription for avoiding nihilism seems to ring hollow. This concern was strongly articulated by Gary Wills, an American historian and expert in the ideology of the Roman Catholic Church, who published an excoriating critique of All Things Shining in the April 7, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.23 Even if their conclusion turned out to be unsatisfying, the authors’ manner of identifying a secular sacredness is still a valuable contribution to this discussion. They demonstrate that by appreciating shared emotions, we can experience the tension of metaxy and retain a sense of sacredness and meaning, even in an epoch without explicit and prescribed meanings that come from Christianity.
Moreover, Dreyfus and Kelly’s conception of poiesis is rooted in more individual experiences that nurture us against destructive physis. We need to find sacred, shining things in our own lives, they claim, which help us to identify and experience moments of deep fulfillment. A weakness in this approach is that it requires each person to find and be the judge of their own poietic moments, such as the sacred cup of coffee, which was mocked by Wills in his review. However, one should remember that in previous eras, the experience of churchgoing was a much more influential vehicle of socialization than it is today. Perhaps a more community-focused conception of poiesis is what we need both as a safeguard against destructive physis and as an environment in which to experience productive physis. Not only do we need sacred moments, but we also need sacred spaces.
Sacred spaces are places where we remind ourselves that there is more to life than the mere belly-to-earth survival to which we all attend. All societies create such places, though ours are quickly disappearing or being corrupted at the hands of our means-oriented world view. Of course, churches are not the only sacred places in our society, and one could argue that the secular sense of the sacred is better represented in other institutions, such as universities, museums, theaters, and libraries. We should try to save them as well, but I believe that a more elementary sacred space, represented in previous ages by the church, would serve to engender an appreciation for the numinous that we currently lack.
Churchgoing has been brought into serious disrepute in the last few decades, especially by the rise of mega churches in the United States’ ultra-Protestant Bible Belt. However, I think that we should be careful of dismissing community rituals on this ground alone and recognize whatever advantages remain in churchgoing as a societal institution.
As is often the case with the subject of the numinous, the arts provide a much clearer reflection on the experience of churchgoing than does the dry prose of philosophy. Perhaps even more than devotional literature, the works of several non-religious poets help to illuminate our understanding of churchgoing. In his 2010 essay “In Search of a Sacred Space,” Brent MacLaine describes a “tidy tradition of lyric poems that ambitiously addresses humankind’s search for a grand symmetry.”24 The central objective of the piece is to analyze the poem “What was Conceived” by John Smith, a poet from Prince Edward Island. The poem speaks of the decline in our culture’s ambition to create a symmetry in life, which was once the domain of clergy, religious ritual and holy texts. Now the “Old cathedral relaxes into a diorama of rubble.”
In William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” one can sympathize with the speaker’s dismay that “The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”25 In the context of the horror of the First World War, in which the poem was written, the reader feels compelled to share Yeats’s frustration with the profound injustice of the world and with his desire to make sense of it. Given the Catholic imagery that informed the identity of Irish society, even a non-Christian can appreciate Yeats’s feeling that “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” It is evident that dire circumstances can both strengthen and damage one’s sense of the transcendent.
Of this “tidy tradition,” the most depressing is Thomas Hardy’s “A Cathedral Façade at Midnight,” which laments the progress of “Reason’s movement / Making meaningless.”26 To a non-believer, such pessimism cuts to the core of one’s belief in a godless world with meaning. It appears that Hardy sees no future for the sacred in a world that rejects faith. His lament continues in his earlier poem “God’s Funeral:”
“And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,
“Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.27
A different attitude is adopted by Smith in “All Things Conceived,” in which he exhibits a cautious optimism for a renewed sense of the sacred:
Old choirs blown to the winds, one has no option
but to write one’s own liturgy, and this in turn
sets out around itself its immanent architecture, a sacred space.28
Perhaps the sense of seriousness that one feels in a church is even better described by Philip Larkin, whose poem “Churchgoing” expresses his feeling of “awkward reverence” when he visits a Gothic church in the English countryside:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.29
One can easily relate to Larkin’s experience, as I have many times felt the sensation of butterflies in my stomach when walking into a church. The sheer beauty of the architecture of many churches is enough to produce this effect, aided by the way in which the sound of one’s footsteps seem to be more amplified than usual. Besides this special and sacred feeling that can result from the presence of the edifice alone, there is an additional set of feelings that can be conjured up by the ritual of churchgoing. If nothing else, ceremonies of all kinds, but especially religious ones, seem to elicit a sense of timelessness and the sentiment that one is passing time in a more heightened way than he otherwise would.
Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral exemplifies the synthesis between an appreciation for the numinous and the church as a symbol to represent it.30 The narrator and protagonist begins the story as man with no appreciation for anything in life beyond the sensual pleasures of his television and liquor cabinet. He is forced to spend an evening with a blind man, who asks him to explain what a cathedral looks like. He is unable to do this, so the blind man suggests that they draw the cathedral together on a piece of cardboard. When he shuts his eyes and draws along with the blind man, he undergoes a profound spiritual experience that connects him to the blind man in a way that he could not have imagined. This cathartic moment also opens him to the realm of the numinous and gives him a feeling of otherworldliness. Even though the narrator and the blind man are not in a church, the experience of churchgoing and the imagery of the cathedral provides a vehicle through which the protagonist realizes this personal transformation.
More importantly perhaps is the sense of community and belonging that accompanies churchgoing for many people. I was especially moved by the comments of a young woman, not older than myself, at a public lecture that I attended, in which she described her own experience with churchgoing. Though she did not believe in the doctrines of her parents’ church, whose denomination she did not specify, she spoke of how she felt indebted to the community of believers in her congregation, who took a serious interest in her upbringing and personal development. To her, this community felt like a special extended family that took an active but respectful role in preparing her for life as an adult. Even though she could not claim to have ever honestly believed in any of the supernatural preachments of the clergy, she acknowledged that she could not imagine having this extended family without the institution of the church.
A final point about the virtue of churchgoing involves the role of sacred spaces as places of reflection. We lead busy lives that are supplemented, if not dominated, by numerous technological forms of entertainment and distraction. These devices might well provide connections for us to other people via the internet and portable phone networks, but they have also crowded out the sort of community experience that is essential to our grounding as social beings. Our increasing reliance upon an “expertocracy” to guide our lifestyles and attitudes further disconnects us from grassroots interest in the common good. Though religious teachings may provide misguided approaches to many of our society’s problems, the church nonetheless provides a space in which the community can pause to reflect on the big questions of life.
I do not intend to glorify religious institutions as a means of glossing over the very real problems that are created by and are inherent in the religious mentality. The basic arguments against theism have been articulated by the likes of Baruch Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, and Karl Marx and do not require rehashing here. However, as it concerns this discussion, one cannot help but be worried by the characterization of churchgoers as a flock — a metaphor that illustrates the dehumanizing, undignifying and servile nature of religious belief. Worse yet is the tendency of religion to approach the teaching of ethics in the form of instruction and commandment, which hollows out the requirement of thoughtful reflection in the resolution of moral dilemmas.
Furthermore, I am not advocating the creation of a Church of Atheism that would spew out the talking points of famous non-believers as doctrine. However, I think we are very mistaken in believing that the removal of ritual will foster skepticism, or the average citizen of today is any better engaged in informed discourse about the common good than was the pious everyman of the past. If anything, the supervising clergy of old has been replaced by a secular version of the moral elite, which imposes a top-down moral program on a population that has been conditioned to underestimate the value of its own opinions.
The kind of sacred institution that I envision would be a place that cultivates a grassroots preoccupation with the common good through participation, a sense of community, and the telling of good stories. It would be loosely based on the model of the Greek symposium, where groups of citizens would meet socially and discuss important issues together. In addition to addressing concerns facing the material health of the group, the new symposium would pose questions about justice and the responsibilities of individual citizens to the rest of society. This institution would also serve as an environment for encouraging a shared interest in the well-being of children in the community. One would hope that the development of a shared space would help to foster the sense of the sacred that Dreyfus and Kelly were talking about.
The existing religious tradition that exemplifies the sort of required approach is the Jewish ritual called the Passover Seder, in which children of the group are given the opportunity to ask questions about their religion. Traditional stories are retold, accompanied by the drinking of wine and the sharing of a meal, which make the ritual a meaningful event for those who practice it. Obviously there is a theistic element of this ritual that need not be emulated, but the basic idea of developing a sense of community through the asking of questions and the telling of stories is necessary for the building of such an institution.
It is often noted that ancient holy texts are what bind the practitioners of a religion together, especially in the case of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Similarly, some have lamented criticism of The Bible for breaking the spell of the faith, warning against an inevitable onslaught of nihilism. But the truth is that the post-scriptural world is not devoid of meaningful imagery. We have hundreds of years of literature in our own language, plus the translations from many others, as a canon of stories that reflect on many of our most important themes. The goal is not to turn every person into an English Professor, as this would miss the point entirely. But just as biblical stories meant something to the average person during the epoch of Christian influence, the stories of our own canon need to be made meaningful to the average person in this age. Not only do stories illustrate these themes, but they also serve as reference points for further discussion. The only way that these references can be useful is if they are widely understood, and our society’s current condition of cultural illiteracy is nothing short of disgraceful. Having public rituals whose language and meanings are understood is doubtless a vital part of a shared sense of community.
To some non-believers, the idea of building a 21st-century symposium does not seem right; it looks like a church and sounds like a church, so it must be some kind of surreptitious way of keeping religion around when it no longer belongs. Much to the contrary, however, the development of this kind of cultural institution would in fact be an important step in emancipating ourselves from religion. While many theists can bring themselves to understand why some people are skeptical of specific religious claims, they are much less willing to sacrifice their foundational belief in the supernatural. They believe that outside the reductionist imagery of a deity-controlled universe lies an empty world of meaninglessness. They are wrong, but we do little to disabuse them of this idea. Instead of using our own tradition to illustrate our appreciation for the transcendent, we tell people that they should be content to live in a time when their tangible needs can be met by science and their convictions can be guarded away in private. But as Dreyfus and Kelly show us, the makings of many sacred moments of physis arrive when a group of people is swept up in a collective mood that comes along for awhile and then lets go.
Secularists must provide a more compelling alternative to the nihilism that is feared by those who are skeptical of “dogmatic atheism.” By setting out to develop a place within our culture for the transcendent, we can build a just city while proving that the devout do not have a monopoly on meaning. But until we have a secular equivalent to the religious sacred space, humanism cannot accurately claim to have replaced religion.
1. Gallup International, “Most Britons, Canadians ‘Unchurched,’” HYPERLINK: http://www.gallup.com/poll/19267/Most-Britons-Canadians-Unchurched.aspx.
Kevin J. Christiano, “The Trajectory of Catholicism in Twentieth-Century Quebec,” in The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholicism since 1950 in the United States, Ireland and Quebec, ed. Leslie Woodcock Tentler (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 30.
2. On a historical note, it is necessary to point out that fascist regimes in Austria, Spain and Croatia were closely tied with Roman Catholicism; the Nazi ideology was largely informed by pagan beliefs, while atheism was indeed an essential component to the Marxist ideals of communism.
3. Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, eds. Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004), p. 177.
4. Ted V. McAllister, Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, & the Search for a Postliberal Order (Lawerence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), p. 114-115.
5. Ibid., p. 115.
6. Ibid., p. 119.
7. Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) p. 111.
8. Eric Voegelin, “Immortality: Experience and Symbol,” p. 179-180.
9. Ibid., p. 179.
10. Plato, The Republic, (415d).
11. Shadia Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (New York: Palgrave MacMillan updated edition, 2005), p. 21-22.
12. Leo Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” in Faith and Political Philosophy: The Correspondence between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, eds. Peter Emberley and Barry Cooper (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004), p. 109-114.
13. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), p. 83.
14. Ibid., p. 68-72.
15. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: First Mariner Books, 2008), p. 56.
16. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, p. 71.
17. Ibid., p. 192.
18. Ibid., p. 194-199.
19. Ibid., p. 200.
20. Ibid., p. 211-212.
21. Ibid., p. 206.
22. Ibid, p. 214-218.
23. Garry Wills, “Superficial & Sublime?” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 58, No. 6, HYPERLINK: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/apr/07/superficial-sublime/?pagination=false.
24. Brent MacLaine, “In Search of a Sacred Space,” Canadian Notes and Queries, Vol. 78, p. 23-26.
25. William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1919. HYPERLINK: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw351.html.
26. Thomas Hardy, “A Cathedral Façade at Midnight,” in Human Shows, 1925.
27. Thomas Hardy, “God’s Funeral,” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. 126-128.
28. John Smith, “What Was Conceived” is printed at the beginning of Brent MacLaine’s essay “In Search of a Sacred Space,” Canadian Notes and Queries, Vol. 78, p. 23-26.
29. Philip Larkin, “Churchgoing”, in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007), p. 209-210.
30. Raymond Carver, “Cathedral,” in Cathedral (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), p. 209-228.
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