The Secular and the Sacred

July 20, 2010

In the days of the young empire, a provincial walked in the empire's capital.

He had traveled a long distance from a minor town, to join the urban throngs of tourists, pilgrims, and supplicants. A very long walk over the course of a day brought within close view all the buildings and monuments of the capital center.

The green core of the capital center was surrounded by secular temples, erected during an earlier period of confident idealism. As monuments to the power of rational ideas, they each announced their foundational importance to the republic. Evocative of an early and extinct empire’s capital, which the provincial had seen years ago, they also tried to transcend time itself. Whether devoted to politics, the sciences, the fine and industrial arts, or to war memorials, these bright secular temples seemed to serve as the national pillars, in both a concrete and an abstract sense. They stood serenely facing each other as they stood around the vast stretch of a grassy mall. That public space itself must have been designed to stretch out both space and time, to broaden the perspective of any onlooker. The emptiness of that central space created a curious expanding vacuum. As the mind abhors any vacuum, a tremendous gravity seemed to inflate that space, helping to hold the weighty temples into their locked positions.

That vast mall was no empty space indeed. It seemed to the provincial that a powerful energy, invisible yet potential, charged the very air. Was this space designed for the people, rather than the powerful? Was this space more about the people, about a public who could come to view the theater of government and also to take a role to play within that theater?

This great space and these secular temples are where the secular tries to transcend the particularity of just one civilized culture. They ask for the approval of all humanity, pleading for a verdict of justification from any intellect anywhere. Really, they are not preservation museums, or enclosed places to safely rest at home, but instead they are open portals for adventurous transmigration. As humanity elevate its gaze above the past and present, searching for reliable stars to steer by, these secular temples are the consecrated observatories of the finest ideals. They are hardly just testimonials to past victories or current power. They speak to far greater things than the worship of domestic accomplishments or national pride. They try to pledge loyalty to unreachable ideals and not to any ownership of secured goods. These secular temples are instruments for lengthening and focusing the intensified vision of the human heart. They let us humbly ponder our proper place in this vast universe.

There could be no essential dichotomy between the categories of the secular and the sacred. In the real world, their concrete unity does require prevailing conditions freeing the mind enough to take a very long view of things. These conditions are rare and precious, and so is the struggle to expand them. The actual history of humanity has periodically divorced the secular and sacred, when particular civilizations neglectfully permit some hardened hearts to divide into armed camps fighting over fossilized creeds. To let such fights consume us would be to ignore the greatest cause of all, and bring down upon us the harsh but just verdict of extinction.

When the secular tries to be the merely secular, muscular with a leveled gaze only upon its own past monuments, it forgets how to morally justify its power. When the religious tries to be the merely religious, rigid with a devoted gaze only upon its past prophets, it forgets how to practically justify its faith. But we can do better. Above any fight between the secular and the sacred, the flickering stars remain patient. They beckon even if no one is looking. Where the secular is the sacred, and the sacred is the secular, a truly special space opens up for our inspired viewing. To what shall you devote your life? No more profound question could be asked, and answered. What both the secular and religious demand from us, when functioning well, is our energetic commitment to that which truly deserves our awe, respect, and fidelity. We are no mere spectators, as we can become vital actors.

We are pilgrims taking a brief part in a drama whose beginnings are lost in the hazy past and whose destiny lies ahead in impenetrable mist. We take our reference points as best we can, with our best available instruments. The various temples of any city do look quite different, with architectures connoting diverse cultural themes. But do not get fixated on superficial appearances. They are all architectures of the human spirit built up to convey us towards something higher. The secular and the sacred are at least unified in this thought, that the conditions enabling humanity to enter a vaster and weightier stage for our cosmic roles are conditions most precious and worth great sacrifice. The constellation of freedom has a pole position, for all of us.

The play has already begun, and we have been given our initial places. How we can play our chosen roles now depends not on ourselves, but upon our stars.


#1 Randy (Guest) on Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 9:55am

“When the secular tries to be the merely secular ... it forgets how to morally justify its power”

This is, of course, bigotry.

#2 tudza (Guest) on Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 11:42pm

That big empty space?  The mall in DC maybe?

Great for throwing boomerangs.

#3 Jon (Guest) on Wednesday July 21, 2010 at 6:54am


- provides a sense of openness, release, freedom…

  may we go on…with humility.

“...architectures of the human spirit…”

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