The sacred, in its simplest sense, is the restraining force on human appetite that gives birth to desire, mediated by the world of signs. Readers of these Chronicles will have remarked that over the past year or so, stimulated by exchanges with Bishop Pierre Whalon (see Chronicle 678), as well as by becoming an octogenarian, I have sought to explore the sacred as an anthropological category, one with which I had previously little concerned myself. Dealing with the sacred as a phenomenon distinct from the God and gods of human religions is perhaps the ultimate challenge to human self-knowledge.
The three Abrahamic versions of the sacred make up a dialectic that, unlike Hegel’s forward-moving syntheses, loses as much as it gains, another way of expressing the essential paradox of the sacred itself, the key to which is its minimality. The sacred is a unitary phenomenon, a sense of obligation, ultimately to the human community, however defined. The Hebrew One God is the simplest formulation of this unity.
The society in which the One God emerged could not conceive itself as even potentially “global.” The communal unity that God guaranteed was and is that of the Hebrew/Jewish people. Its principle applies to everyone, but it has no organic connection with other communities, above all not with those of the archaic empires like Egypt, through its Exodus from which the Hebrew people defined itself. And henceforth, the Jews with their religion kept apart, and were ultimately sent into exile for their resistance to full integration into the maximally inclusive Roman Empire.
Christianity was a Jewish heresy that permitted those outside the Jewish community to accept and be “saved” by the One God. After years of persecution, the Empire was able to find a modus vivendi with Christianity because it distinguished the realm of God from that of Caesar. Yet in order for this to be theologically consistent, the One God was obliged to undergo the complication of the Trinity. The transcendental God of the Hebrews was separated from “his” people and incarnated as a human being who, although a Jew, was cast out by the Jews as well as the imperial Romans, and in his role as the exemplary exile from all communities could be recognized as the Son, the singular human individual in his filial relationship to the One God. God’s third “person,” the mediating Spirit, cannot simply be identified with language; it can just as well be understood as the sacred itself, detached from the willing beings of God and Man, but shared by both through language. The “personification” of this mediating entity should be seen as an important step toward what we can begin to see as a Christian “originary hypothesis.”
We must not neglect the third member of the Abrahamic community. Islam is a return to the strict monotheism of the Jews, but in a mode that, unlike “tribal” Judaism, has been rendered invulnerable to the Trinitarian Incarnation and its corollary, the separation of the human and divine kingdoms. This invulnerability is achieved by taking the existence of the Judeo-Christian dichotomy as proof that neither religion could be the genuine expression of Allah as the named One God. Islam purports to be the originary religion of all humanity, first given to humanity incompletely before being revealed to Mohammed in its definitive form.
The Muslim solution to the diversity of human societies and their gods is simply to deny the validity of any human community outside the Umma. The destiny of Allah is not simply to rule over the spiritual but the physical/political world, to unite all humans in a single community. This conception, which emerged as an alternative in the margins of the imperial world, was for centuries singularly effective.
But with the beginnings of Europe’s modernization, Islam’s requirement of “submission” that made it fundamentally incompatible with secularization prevented it, in contrast with Christianity, from absorbing the economic and scientific advances of emerging modernity, many of which it had helped inaugurate. Thus Islam’s progressive conquests came to an end, although, in contrast with Christianity, its belief system still appears to show few signs of losing its potency. (But see contra Daniel Pipes on Muslim apostasy, https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-muslims-leave-the-faith-11596755143 [8/6/2020]; and https://www.yonkerstribune.com/2021/11/will-islam-survive-islamism-by-daniel-pipes [11/16/2021])
The 20th-century secularizing tendency of Ataturk and other Muslim nations has been largely reversed largely as a consequence of the polarizing effect of the Zionist migration and establishment of the Israeli state. After many decades of stalemate, the Abraham Accords are a hopeful sign of the integration of Israel into an “Abrahamic” Middle East, one that would welcome Christians as well. For beyond its political benefits, cooperation between Israel and the Arab-Sunni world has the potential of finally healing the Muslim-Christian/Jewish breach that has existed since the emergence of Islam.
Given that none of the three Abrahamic religions, much less any others, have been able to establish hegemony over all humanity, we begin to perceive the need for a fundamental notion of the sacred no longer as a substantive credo but, by analogy with language as such, as opposed to any specific tongue, as an essential agent of human social existence.
Although we cannot expect to find in the human brain a neurologically specific “religion module” comparable to Chomsky’s “language module,” we may claim nonetheless that the sacred and language are the two poles of the human: the first, as the overall enabling principle of voluntary human self-control (the Superego), lacking which our communities could not maintain themselves, and the second, as a potentially limitless system of communication whose indefinite degree of différance, as manifested in Chomsky’s postulate of indefinite recursion, complements the unity of the sacred.
Complementary to the Abrahamic world are the very different configurations of East Asian religion, which, while not having inspired the creation of a rival form of modernity, have given their societies, in contrast with those of Islam, the ability to adapt to its Western model, beginning with the Japanese of the Meiji era.
It is tempting, if perhaps overly schematic, to see the contrast between West and East as embodied in that between the Western One God, whose authority reigns over every detail of the universe, and the essentially atheistic religion of Buddha, for which desire for the things of the world, and the very ability of language to contribute to its implementation, must be denounced as an illusion, in contrast with the passive contemplation of the scene of representation itself. Desire tempts us to defile this scene with worldly objects rather than maintain it in its state of pure virtuality, which is that of the Nirvana to which the Buddhist ethic would have us all aspire. Although the relationship of Indian religion to its social order is too complex to be dealt with here, it is the original source of the Nirvana doctrine, which the otherworldliness of Buddhism purified by rejecting the caste system and with it, the religious basis for the archaic Indian social order.
I pointed out in Chronicles 515–516 that at what might be called the extreme point of Buddhist otherworldliness, the paradoxical analyses of Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna reject the very idea of the declarative sentence as an instrument of meaning, in contrast with Zeno’s “Western” paradoxes, which anticipate the new mathematical branches of infinite series and calculus. (See Musashi Tachikawa, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nagarjuna, Delhi, 1997). Whereas the proposition as the primary instrument of mature language makes possible the establishment of empirical truths that can be connected through logical reasoning to construct complex artifacts and gain control of the natural world, the point of Nagarjuna’s conundrums is to deny to the point of paradox the possibility of any genuine correspondence between language and reality.
This rejection of the very principle of human language is no doubt not really meant to persuade us to abandon use of the declarative sentence. Its purpose is rather to turn our desire away from the truths it formulates, given their complicity with worldly temporality. Only the contemplation of the empty scene of representation provides authentic assurance against possible disillusion, for only the scene itself is permanent, ontologically stable. Such Eastern belief systems may not have broken through to the construction of socio-economic modernity, but as the popularity of Yoga and various forms of “meditation” demonstrates, they provide many in the West with spiritual resources for dealing with it.
It is not difficult to see how the Judeo-Christian reliance on the One God can be transformed into the Buddhist reduction of faith to the scenic, to the sacred as such. In so doing, the willfulness of the One God, or in moral terms, his interdicting role as Superego, is replaced by the conception that all temporal entities are ultimately ephemeral and meaningless, that rather than opposing God’s will to our desire, we should simply recognize the sacred truth of the illusory nature of desire as such, and of the language that proposes objects to it, phenomena that share the same birth and the same essence. The scene of representation as the true realm of the sacred is only truly itself when it has been disencumbered of worldly objects.
It is nonetheless notable how well the cultures of East Asia have adapted to Western modernity. It strikes me as symptomatic that in Japan, the first such culture to “Westernize,” Buddhism tends to be accompanied by Shinto observances, experienced by the general public as solemn duties but not, to the extent that I have observed it, accompanied by the kind of prayerful reflection that such practices demand in an Abrahamic setting. Such signs of respect for ancestral beliefs are above all affirmations of ancestral, ethnic unity.
Whereas modern technology and scientific research, creations of the Christian West, as Rodney Stark pointed out in How the West Won (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014), demonstrate by their results the fecundity of their intellectual basis, Eastern receptivity, not merely to Western artifacts (like AK47s) but to modernity’s organizational and institutional structures, reflects the fecund openness of the empty scene to worldly practices that can demonstrate their effectiveness.
Last we come to China, whose foundational Confucianism-cum-Taoism, very different indeed from the post-Axial religions of the West, is much closer to the ethical systems of the old empires, largely shorn of their supernatural element and reduced to ethical principles of “good conduct” and “naturalness.” This belief system suits what has remained the “Middle Empire” in various but similar guises over several thousand years: an ethnically and linguistically diverse community united in a single polity with a single ruling hierarchy, for which the sacred provides formulas for good governance that ideally can be followed at every social level. That, detached from the Chinese imperium, the mindset created by this system is no less flexible than that of Japanese Shintoism-cum-Buddhism is demonstrated by the successful Westernizing of the breakaway domains of Hong Kong and Taiwan. In contrast, the insistence of mainland China that these domains be fully reintegrated into its imperial system reflects the scandal inherent in such violations of the founding principle of Chinese territorial integrity.
In its general acceptance by the population, the sacralization of Chinese leaders such as Mao and now Xi (not to speak of the Chinese-style Supreme Leaders of North Korea) exceeds even the most idolatrous relationships to political leaders in the West. Despite China’s recent economic and geopolitical success, it remains unclear to what extent participation in the market-based “capitalist” world economy can continue to flourish under so autocratic a system. Beyond the disciplining of Hong Kong and the constant threats to Taiwan, recent government actions against major Chinese entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, whose accomplishments had previously been fully accepted by the government (see https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/world/persecution-jack-ma-sends-red-signal-chinese-investors [1/23/2021]), reflect tensions within “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that may not be compatible with its long-run economic efficiency.
But similar remarks can be made about today’s West, whose susceptibility to antinomic ideologies has not ceased to increase at the expense of what we might call its instinct of self-preservation. The “civil sacred” of Western liberal democracy is widely under attack by a left-wing culture that increasingly rejects its marriage of Judeo-Christian ethics and national patriotism, issuing sacralized imperatives such as ending the use of fossil fuels, insuring racial “equity,” and tolerating in the name of penal reform increasing levels of public disorder and thuggery—all premised on what I have described as the symbolic rejection of firstness. In a sequel to this Chronicle, I will attempt to reexamine this question with specific focus on its sacred roots.