Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Gone: The Secular and the Sacred

*Earlier this year, the American Atheists sued "over the inclusion of cross-shaped steel beams, dubbed the "World Trade Center Cross," in the exhibit at the National September 11th Memorial and Museum." The given reason was that the beams' inclusion "promotes Christianity over all other religions on public property and diminishes the civil rights of non-Christians." I find such reasoning difficult to swallow. This seems to be rooted in the tiresome debate over whether or not America is a "Christian nation" (a problematic phrase to begin with)[1] as well as the tendency for some atheists to overreact to anything that remotely comes close to mentioning Jesus.[2]

With today being the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I have reflected on the uproar over a religious symbol at Ground Zero. Of course, there are those who have tried to distinguish between the religious and secular expression of human nature. For example, in his amusing, yet shallow book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, author Christopher Hitchens admits, "We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and - since there is no other metaphor - the soul."[3] He suggests, "The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by the immersion in the near-miraculous work of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also 'man-made' (though one sometimes wonders, as in the case of Mozart)."[4] Obviously, Mr. Hitchens misses the irony in his statement; an irony that is pointed out brilliantly by Daniel Peterson:

[Without religion], we would be without Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," Schubert's "Mass in G," Mozart's "Requiem," Vivaldi's "Gloria," Wagner's "Parzifal" and Handel's "Messiah." We'd have neither the musical compositions of John Tavener and Arvo Part nor the choral music of John Rutter. (For that matter, there wouldn't be many choirs.) Nor would we have gospel music. Dante's "Divine Comedy"? Erased. Likewise, Milton's "Paradise Lost," Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Goethe's "Faust" would be gone, as would the Arthurian legends...We couldn't read Shusako Endo's "Silence," most poems of T.S. Eliot, the novels of G.K. Chesterton and Dostoevsky, or the writings of C.S. Lewis. There would be no Augustine, no Aquinas, no Kierkegaard. "Les Misérables" would make no sense. Lincoln's majestic "Second Inaugural Address" would be unthinkable.[5]

September 11, 2001 was a date in a list of many that reminded us all of the fallen nature of humankind and the fragility of life. It also reminded us of the need for redemption. The issue over the World Trade Center Cross confirms my suspicions that some Americans have forgotten the necessity and power of the sacred myth. Catholic theologian Tim Muldoon recently penned,

In studying the Western cultural tradition, it is clear to me that good societies, those comprised of people with a shared sense of purpose that spills over into care for their fellow citizens, are those built around a shared myth. In ancient Greece, there was a myth of the hero; in classical Greece, of virtue; in ancient Israel, of divine protection; in Christian Europe, of Christ the King. By "myth" here I do not mean a false story, nor do I suggest that all myths are equal. Instead I mean a story that gives shape to a culture, gives its efforts meaning, gives its people a sense of what they strive for as a community.

Despite Hitchen's praise, art more-or-less failed us in the wake of 9/11, particularly the film industry.[6] Can the symbol of the cross provide any comfort or reconciliation for the hardened secularist? I believe it can. As Oxford professor and The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien stated in his famous essay "On Fairy Stories,"

The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [i.e. "The Consolation of the Happy Ending"]. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads to sadness or to wrath. It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed...The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth...It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

The story of atonement, resurrection, redemption, and eventual justice is one that transcends cultures, nations, and ideologies. It is a reminder of the good that also paradoxically exists with the evil in this world. It is a reminder that human nature has what we could refer to as divine qualities and potential, despite its inherent weaknesses. Finally, it is a reminder that hope can triumph over current circumstances, allowing society to recover a normal balance once more.

The difference between the hope found in the Gospels and the hope found in other literary pieces is that there is the possibility that the hope of the Gospels is real.

*Yes, there is a Led Zeppelin reference in the title. And I just realized that I kind of ripped off Mircea Eliade's title The Sacred and the Profane.

1. For informative readings on religion and the American founding, see Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2007) and David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

2. As referenced previously on my blog, Hank Campbell has an excellent article on avoiding atheist stereotypes.

3. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 5; emphasis mine.

4. Hitchens, 2007: 151.

5. See also Peterson, "Editor's Introduction: God and Mr. Hitchens," FARMS Review 19:2 (2007).

6. It could be argued that art has been failing us for a long time given its continual rejection of sacred beauty. See Roger Scruton's Beauty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), BBC special "Why Beauty Matters," or City Journal article "Beauty and Desecration."


  1. Well said, Walker. There has been similar controversy of cross along the highway in Utah, meant as memorials of State Troopers that died in a car accidents. The objections are absolutely ridiculous.

    Thought your last paragraph was particularly poignant. How often is the cross and crucifixion invoked metaphorically in a purely secular setting to represent the challenges and opposition faced by a person or group? Or what about the rhetoric of redemption, resurrection, etc.? All of these have been used in purely secular ways to invoke precisely the types of things you discussed.

    Should the world by completely purged of these sorts of analogies in the name of the secularist doctrine of strict separation of church and state (or, perhaps in view of the atheist, separation of private religion and public life)? Utter nonsense.

  2. Walker,

    I suppose I probably don't need to ask, but how familiar are you with the works of Mircea Eliade (in particular his book, "The Sacred and the Profane"? Your post title reminded me of that book for obvious reasons.) If you're not, you ought to spend a little time with the man.

    As for the title, well, that metaphor pre-dates the world: it's the eternal dichotomy of "good vs. evil," "sacred and secular/profane," "us vs. them," "Superman vs. Lex Luthor," or "Babylon vs. Zion." In my own (rather shallow) studies, I've concluded that this dichotomy is not only necessary (the whole "opposition in all things" bit), but that "fence sitting" is not something truly sustainable in the long haul: sooner or later, these stark polar opposites require one to come down on one side of the fence or the other.

    When that happens--and it seems to be more common on the secular/profane side of the fence--the fighting starts.

    My suspicion is this: the secular/profane is, in essence, a distorted mirror image of the sacred. It doesn't take much real though to see the clear parallels between the two. The issue is that one side is merely mimicry: it lacks substance.

    It is my opinion that the lack of substance is something that those who embrace the profane cannot help but feel, no matter their efforts to avoid or ignore it. Thus, an internal conflict, and the triggering of psychological survival instinct. The need to justify one's existence. It appears that those who are insecure often use the tactic of bringing others down in an attempt to be the de facto "top dog." I suppose this state would allow the continued illusion of "being right"--of self-justification.

    The vehement attacks on religion seem to smack of the need for self-justification. Admittedly, there are almost certainly religious people who do the same thing, and probably even engage in bitter attacks on atheism. That suggests they have their own demons to deal with. But from what little I know, the "healthy, whole, and secure"--and this is displayed in the animal kingdom as well-- rarely (if ever) attack. There's simply no need to.

    The removal of religion--of real religion at least-- is nothing less than the active severing of our ties to the sacred; ties to a realm greater, more substantial and more meaningful than this "vale of tears" in which we dwell for a few, cosmic moments. Like a deep-sea diver suddenly cut off from his oxygen, compensatory measures--usually immediate and sometimes even violent-- seem to become the order of the day. It's life or death.

    I'm glad you used a quote that clarified the idea that a "myth" is not a false story, by the way. After the readings I've done, I have a more difficult time using that word the way I used to. Myths are much more profound and meaningful to me these days.

    And by the way, I loved the Tolkien quote. It's fascinating to know that such a devout secularist as Tolkien would still find the essential truths of scripture. That raises my estimation of the man. I wish I could have sat in on any of the more serious conversations he and C.S. Lewis had.

    Thanks for your comments, as always.

  3. I've read his 'The Myth of the Eternal Return'. I haven't been able to use the term "myth" the same way again. Karen Armstrong also discusses it in her book 'The Case for God'.

    Tolkien was actually a devout Catholic. Very devout. He was kind of put off that Lewis chose Anglicanism.