Online Edition – Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999
The Paradox of the Sacred in a Secular Age
What Must Modern Man Do to Recover a Genuine Sense of Divine Reality?
by James Hitchcock
The concept of the sacred, in Catholic theology and spirituality, refers to those modes through which God manifests His almighty power to finite men. These manifestations are primarily sacramental in nature, meaning that they reveal the spiritual through the material, the infinite through the finite, the unseen through the visible.
Human beings are by nature religious and have a sense of the sacred, unless it is deliberately bleached out of them, as modern culture attempts to do. However, so deep and so natural is this religious sense that, when it is suppressed, it reasserts itself in distorted ways. The contemporary New Age movement — a resurgent belief in ancient magical ideas, along with newer inventions of the same kind — is now the chief example of this.
The Catholic sense of the sacred comes under attack both from classical Protestantism, which sees Christian faith as a wholly inward and spiritual reality, and from New Age adherents, who accuse the Church of trying to restrict the supernatural to itself. New Age is in effect polytheistic, and all genuine monotheism is subject to the charge of being "exclusive".
After the Second Vatican Council numerous mistakes in liturgical "reform" were made, including an overly puritanical stripping away of many traditional ritual elements through which a sense of the sacred was expressed. Many Catholics deeply feel this deprivation.
But beyond this mistaken puritanism has been a deliberate attempt to obliterate the sacred character of the liturgy, by reducing it to a purely human action in which professed Christians come together to support and affirm one another. "Experimental" modern liturgies by design do not speak of the holy, of the transcendent, of the divine but consciously keep people’s attention focused on the human community itself.
A genuine sense of the sacred inspires awe and even fear in the believer. However, genuine Christianity moves beyond those emotions to love and trust, based not on the worth of the individual but on God’s own saving grace. Sinful humans can feel welcome within the sacred precincts because they have been redeemed by Christ and thus enabled to rise above themselves, even as the sacred liturgy is not itself a human action but a divine action in which men are privileged to participate.
As classical Catholic theology has always recognized, man is by nature homo religiosus, meaning that he has by nature a sense of the divine reality and a desire to relate to it. Ultimately the universe, and man’s place in it, is mysterious in the fullest sense.
Modern secular man has tried to deny or ignore this reality, with limited success. There are many people whose horizons seem never to rise beyond the wholly mundane, who are content to live their lives in a world circumscribed by what they can perceive with their senses. In the l960s there developed an entire theology of this, best known from a book by the liberal Baptist Harvey Cox, The Secular City, in which Christians were told that henceforth they would have to ignore the entire "religious" dimension of reality and concentrate their attention entirely on the reform of society, a claim passionately endorsed even by many Catholic priests and religious.
But divine reality cannot be encompassed within a human framework, and human awareness of that reality keeps breaking through the limits that secularity tries to impose on it. Thus within a few years of the announcement of the theology of secularity, America was awash in a vast sea of religiosity, some of it new, some quite old, all of it claiming to give access to the higher powers of the universe — astrology, witchcraft, goddess worship, the mystical powers of nature, etc., etc.
Historians and anthropologists have long recognized that the practice of magic is not most intense in the primitive and "backward" cultures of the world but in fact intensifies under conditions of social and cultural change. Thus the notorious witch mania did not occur in the "Dark Ages" (c. 500-l000) but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when there was demonstrable "progress" in many areas of life. So also the religiosity of the New Age (the term now used for belief in the supernatural expressed outside the categories of traditional religion) was an emanation from modern, secular, materialistic, technological America.
It developed in that context primarily for two reasons. One was the sense that materialistic secularism is simply not sufficient, cannot finally give meaning to life. The other, closely related both to this spiritual hunger and to the very materialism of the culture, is the assumption – by prosperous, self-absorbed people – that they ought to deny themselves nothing and that ignoring the reality of the spiritual may cut them off from psychological satisfaction. A determined secularism, in the sense of denying the reality of the supernatural, is deemed a kind of myopic self-denial.
Significantly, the decline in organized religion in America has mainly affected the "mainstream" churches, those which most enthusiastically embraced the secular theology of the l960’s and which have remained committed to a largely secular approach to religion as social action and personal therapy. Orthodox groups within each religious tradition have continued to grow, some of them rapidly, even as New Age movements also flourish. What orthodox and New Age have in common is an awareness of the transcendent nature of reality, the fact that secularity is finally not satisfying.
From the Protestant side, the Catholic Church has always in effect been accused of fostering magic, of promoting the "idolatry" of sacred rituals, sacred objects, and other such things. Classical Protestantism claims to be pure Christianity, which is said to be wholly inward and spiritual. But, as historians and anthropologists have again recognized, the Catholic Church has always been a major bulwark against promiscuous religiosity, uncontrolled belief in magic and the supernatural. Instead it has focused man’s attentions on the sacred rituals authorized by Christ Himself and has consistently battled against an excessive credulity which issues in superstition. An authentically Catholic culture is one where the incidence of magic is low.
In the period after the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has been attacked from both sides. On the one hand secularizers continue to ridicule it as representing a pre-modern kind of credulity, even as apostles of the New Age condemn it for restricting the sense of the sacred within Catholic boundaries. Catholic "reformers" themselves on the one hand advocate a continued puritanical stripping away of the sacred in modern Western culture, even as they demand that the Church show itself more open to pagan customs and beliefs in non-Western cultures. Catholics who, for example, ridicule the veneration of relics as superstitious at the same time may flirt with New Age beliefs about magic crystals or astrology.
Magic has been called the pornography of religion, in that the repression of authentic religious beliefs and practices does not finally issue in complete secularism but rather in a distorted and perverted sense of the supernatural. Just as the pornography of sex destroys the possibility of genuine love, so the pornography of religion excludes genuine faith.
The great chasm between classical Catholicism and classical Protestantism has been precisely the Church’s sacramental claims the belief that God manifests Himself to the world not only in His Word, as read and preached and as it enters into human hearts, but also in material objects which have been made holy, including human gestures which are elevated to the status of sacred rituals.
Thus the Catholic sense of the sacred is always paradoxical. It affirms the primacy of the spiritual but through the medium of the material, such as water, oil, bread, and wine. It focuses people’s attention on the here-and-now what they can sensually apprehend directly in front of themselves even as it points them far beyond this world to an infinite world they cannot apprehend. As the historian Christopher Dawson observed, to the great world-denying religions of the East, like Buddhism and Hinduism, the Catholic Church looks Western and materialistic, even as to Western Protestants and secularists it looks exotic and Eastern.
If man is indeed homo religiosus, then the Catholic Church’s worship flows out of, and corresponds to, the deepest realities of human nature. Men are too physical for a wholly inward and spiritual religion, even as they are too spiritual for a worldly materialism. Only a sacramental religion, in which the spiritual is mediated through the material, is fully suited to human nature.
The sacred cannot be defined, precisely because it refers to those ways through which the infinity of the divine manifests itself to finite human beings. The natural response to all manifestations of the sacred is one of awe, worship, humility, and obedience, a sense of being in the presence of something infinitely greater than oneself, toward which no attitude would be appropriate except adoration.
But throughout human history, in all the religions of the world, men have often manifested a remarkable degree of casualness in the presence of the sacred. While inappropriate and illogical, this fact is understandable, in that only saints can sustain the genuine sense of the sacred at all time. Most people, even if they are believers, in a sense suppress their realization of the sacred (as in a Catholic’s merely routine reception of Communion) because otherwise it would require them to remain in a psychological state which they could not sustain continuously.
However, this natural casualness (perhaps more accurately, this sense of familiarity) becomes pernicious when it is conscious and deliberate. Liturgical "reformers" after the Council embarked on an inherently contradictory enterprise which inevitably did severe damage to the liturgical life of the Church. They tried to maintain some sense of the liturgy as a sacred action even as they also tried to make it as familiar and comfortable as possible. This is most commonly manifest in the almost defiantly casual posture affected by some priests and their congregants, in which prayers and rituals are often improvised, a conversational tone is maintained throughout the service, and everything is kept within cozy bounds no different from the spirit of a casual dinner party in someone’s home.
Those who have engineered this kind of worship in a sense understand exactly what they are doing. They wish at all costs to avoid a sense of the sacred as, in the famous description of the phenomenologist of religion Rudolf Otto, mysterium tremendum et fascinans — "a mystery awful and compelling". The sacred is "awe-ful" in the literal sense filling the individual with a sense of awe. In the Catholic tradition this has taken the form, among others, of a spontaneous falling to one’s knees, as the shepherds and the Wise Men are shown doing at the crib of the infant Jesus.
The engineers of liturgical change moved to extirpate this sense of the sacred partly from a misplaced puritanism the belief that "externals" do not really matter; partly from a mistaken secularist assumption that such things are no longer real to "modern man"; but perhaps mainly from deep-seated cultural rejection of the very idea of humility and of human sinfulness.
Religious modernists refuse to bow their knees to any higher reality and instead accept only the "god" whom they can define for themselves, a process by which they in effect deify themselves and make their own perceptions the ultimate criterion of truth. Thus the ideal liturgy, form the standpoint of the most determined reformers, is a democratic process of mutual searching and assistance, members of the community simply exchanging ideas, feelings, and experiences, constantly "affirming" one another. This kind of religion finally becomes exactly what the pioneer sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim claimed was the reality of all religion the community worshipping itself.
If the New Age movement sometimes seems to possess even more of a sense of the supernatural than does the Catholic Church, there is a crucial difference that itself accounts for almost all the appeal of the New Age: it is a kind of spirituality that holds out only the prospect of spiritual pleasure and fulfillment, which never speaks of duty or self-sacrifice. There is no moral dimension to the New Age, and one approaches the sacred entirely as a good to be savored and appropriated for one’s personal use.
By contrast, a sense of the sacred as tremendum inspires not only awe and reverence but a profound sense of unworthiness, and therefore even of fear. The worshipper is acutely conscious of his presumption in even placing himself in the presence of the holy, one of the things meant by "fear of the Lord". It is an entirely appropriate psychological state that has now been almost entirely defined out of existence. But this sense of the sacred integrally involves morality, since the worshipper feels compelled to purify himself so as to be less unworthy of being in the divine presence, and thus feels an unquestioning obligation to obey the divine commands.
But Christianity also transcends this fear and sense of unworthiness, which is characteristic of all genuine (as opposed to New Age) pagan religions. Again the sacramental (more adequately, incarnational) principle is crucial. The infinite and awe-ful God has become one of us, has shown us His loving face, has invited us to enter into a personal relationship with Him, has even deigned to call us His sons. Thus authentic Catholic worship is once again paradoxical, bringing together both the natural sense of sacred awe and the inviting love that Christ manifests towards every person. Worship is a trembling response to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, but also a joyful event.
It is crucial, however, that this joyfulness be recognized as emanating not from ourselves but from the sacred mysteries. We can be in the presence of the Lord in a spirit of love and joy not because we have legitimately asserted our own worthiness but because we have become partakers in God’s own life. Our acts of worship are finally not our acts but divine actions in which we are privileged to participate. Thus we should never experience liturgy as a human creation but always as an action given to us from on high, into which we are privileged to enter.
At the time of the Council, reformers also castigated traditional forms of worship as being divorced from the "real world," as fostering a spiritual narcissism in which the obligation to love one’s neighbor was neglected in favor of ritual attempts to get closer to God. To the degree that this charge was true, it identified a genuine abuse that cried out to be corrected.
However, a self-consciously "worldly" mode of worship is not the appropriate corrective. Such an approach leads not to a revitalized but to a weakened faith, precisely to the secularizing kind of theology that has now lost all power. Catholics do not make their worship relevant to the world by hearing sermons about current social problems or by trying to find in the designated Scripture readings messages that can be applied to contemporary social needs.
Instead, devout Catholics enter into divine worship so deeply, and with such complete generosity of spirit, that they are fully open to the transforming power of God and become new men. An authentic sense of the sacred cannot coexist with an easy, selfish worldliness which prevails outside the times of formal worship. A Catholic who truly comprehends the meaning of the sacred liturgy goes out into the world a changed person, and lives every aspect of his life accordingly.
(James Hitchcock, professor of history at Saint Louis University, writes and lectures widely on Catholic issues. His column appears in the diocesan press, and can be read on the web site of our "sister" organization, Women for Faith & Family, by clicking here. Among his books are Recovery of the Sacred and Catholicism and Modernity. He is a past president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court is to be published by Princeton University Press.)