Must a secular ‘way of being’ be ‘broken’ and devoid of the sacred?
by Christian Y. Cardall
Here I continue the discussion of a previous thread, and also begin to respond to Jim F.’s unpublished paper “Theology as a Hermeneutic of Religious Experience,” which he was generous enough to send me privately. If this makes this post especially confusing to other readers, I’m sorry. (If it is unfair to Jim to respond like this without his text being available to all to speak for itself, I apologize for that too!) Because Jim’s paper is not (I hope) written for the layman, I am not equipped to get all one could out of some of its technical terminology and arguments; but still I found it unusually fascinating and thought-provoking. I hope I was able to take some significant ideas away. My responses will show whether that is so, or whether instead my technical inadequacies have allowed me to go grossly astray, landing me flat on my face.
From Jim’s paper I think I got a better sense of what he called at one point in his last comment a “world-view/mythology/universe of discourse/world.” I hope I will not conflate too badly the two senses of this he mentioned in that last comment, but if left uncorrected, here and in subsequent installments of my response I will simply use the term “way of being” (short for “way of being in the world,” and closely related to “myth,” with the latter narrating the former)—the preferred term in his paper, which I agree is a quite enlightening way to think about it.
…myth shapes human existence by giving us a structure on which we hang our understanding of society and the world…The term ‘way of being’ really comes into its own with the following insight:
As a framework or ordering that makes understanding possible, the symbolic realm of myth and ritual is broader than that of philosophical and theological reflection. Indeed, myth and ritual are not merely ways of understanding the world, means for reflection. The myth and ritual of any particular religion manifest a way of being in the world—an attitude in the root sense of the word, a way of fitting, an aptitude—namely, the way of being of the religion in question. Reflection and understanding occur within the myth or ordering given by that way of being…
Like many, perhaps even all religions, biblical religions call us to live in a certain way. They may do so conceptually, but they need not and, for the most part, they do not. For the most part, they call us to engage ourselves in the world in a particular way, and they do that with scripture and ritual and, especially, in their practices. As Kierkegaard points out, “The Christian thesis goes not: intelligere ut credam, nor credere ut intelligam. No it goes: Act according to the commands and orders of Christ; do the Father's will—and you will become a believing-one.”Hence, for example, the Mormon emphasis on worthiness as a prerequisite to testimony.
These quotations refer specifically to religion, but I believe they can also be applied to secular or scientific ways of being. For instance, science arguably has its own “scripture and ritual and, especially, … practices.” Only those who practice it—who are immersed in this way of being—can really begin to appreciate its power. Laymen are often not truly converted, but instead mere sign-seekers willing to consume the technological fruits of science upon their lusts. They lack what Stephen J. Gould calls an “intimacy with the world of science (knowing its norms in their bones, and its quirks and foibles in their daily experience)…”. With their lips they draw nigh to science, but they deny the power thereof. For when the moment of temptation arrives—when the results of science threaten to open new possibilities for the construction of secular myths offering alternative meanings of our lives, and reasonable norms that might govern them—those not deeply rooted succumb. Unable to “apply a professional’s ‘feel’ for the doing of science to grasp the technical complexities…in a useful manner inaccessible to [non-scientists]” (Gould again, here and previously in a different context), they are seduced by such false doctrines as young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design—perverse abominations to those who live and breathe and practice science.
(Jim’s paper and previous comments make clear that he is not one such apostate of the scientific myth, even if he might wish for reforms. While he would reject secular myths of human meaning built on present scientific understandings, he does not reject scientific findings or methods in what he would consider their own sphere, nor attempt to inappropriately bastardize either scientific or religious myth.)
Down off my soapbox, and back to Jim’s paper: I’m not familiar with the detailed analysis, but am generally aware that objectivity pure and undefiled is not possible, and so tend to accept as very likely the assertion that not only ‘religion’ but also ‘secularism’ also operates within the context of a particular myth or way of being. (Indeed, the preceding paragraphs illustrate that I accept it.)
If I understood Jim’s paper correctly, his main argument is that if analysis of religion is to be undertaken, it ought to be done within the context of its own religious myth and not through the lens of the secular myth.
He goes further, saying it is not, as usually asserted, the religious myth that is “broken”—in the sense, I gather, of being blind to its own mythical underpinnings, and unable to account for itself—but the secular one. I think the overall tone of the paper may be too pessimistic towards the possibilities of a more viable secular myth. For one thing, secularism need not be conceived as monolithic. There is no single religious myth or way of being, and the same is true of secular myths. I am not persuaded that all possible versions of secularism that might be constructed are necessarily broken. Just as Jim suggests it may be possible to reflect validly and meaningfully on a religion from within its own way of being, the same may be true of a secular way of being.
As as final note in this first part of my response, I urge that care be taken with the religious/secular dichotomy that has been set up here. I do think it’s workable with sufficient wisdom and discretion. In particular, the possibility exists that, with appropriate definitions, both religious and secular ways of being could each have sacred and profane elements or aspects. I assert that religious ways of being do not, or should not, enjoy hegemony over sacredness. Consider, for example, the feeling evoked by Darwin’s closing sentence of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved.As for profanity in religious ways of being, religiously motivated terrorism comes immediately to mind in the harshest sense of ‘profane.’ More benignly, one may consider the frequency with which sentimentality is passed off as spirituality in lessons and talks, or—more visually—the kitsch in a Deseret Book catalog. (I hasten to add that when I say “profane,” I do not necessarily imply inappropriateness—there’s nothing necessarily inappropriate about, say, green jello or missionary open houses—it’s just that they may not be sacred, regardless of how ingrained they may be in our religious way of being.)