Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How do we find the sacred without God?

In the world of religion, God defines the sacred. The meaning of life is determined by the maker; the task of humans is to learn God’s will and align their values with God’s values. Existential decisions are made in the light of the divine sacred. So it might seem that, without God’s authoritative perspective, humans are at a tragic loss concerning what to do with themselves, what to care about, how to organize and bring meaning to their lives. This utter loss of meaning is known as nihilism. Is the sacred dead in a world without God?

In All Things Shining, a book written by Sean Kelly (Harvard) and Hubert Dreyfus (UC Berkeley –fun fact!) and released earlier this year, the authors mine the classics of Western literature in order to (with a hidden assist from Heidegger) revive/reframe options for a nontheistic notion of the sacred.

The authors offer three (or four) options for locating the sacred:

1) Physis, or “whooshing.” In moments of openness to moods and inspiration, forces that feel external take a hold of us and help us know and act on, instinctually, what the situation calls for—thus we form a “relation to a source of meaning outside of us” aka the sacred. The primary examples offered of this openness to excellence are the heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Bill Bradley. The “whoosh” is a reference to the way a sports crowd instinctually “rises as one” when an impressive play happens.

2)Poeisis, or skill. Skilled craftsman, especially ones who do not use industrial tools, gain an intimate knowledge of their materials. In this manner, they become aware of meaningful differences in their encounter with the world. The cultivation of skill thus brings with it sensitivity to meaningful differences. “There is, therefore, a kind of feedback loop between craftsman and craft: each jointly cultivates the other into a state of mutual understanding and respect.” (211)

3)Technology—not. To the authors, technology dulls human sensitivity to details and to greatness. They typify technology as “an autonomous and self-sufficient way of life that laughs at everything of sacred worth.” (220) In the view of technology the world is “not sacred but devoid of intrinsic worth, ready to be molded to our desires and will.” (223)

4)Meta-poesis, the skill to know which “whooshing” experiences are appropriate and which are abhorrent. This is the closest the authors come to including the ethical in their ideas about the sacred.

To me, their entire argument hinges on meta-poeisis. While inspiration and skill are powerful and personally-orienting elements in human life, it is ethically irresponsible to make them synonymous with the sacred, because inspiration and skill are ethically neutral. The authors know this, and include meta-poeisis in their discussion because without it, one could be inspired to “whoosh it up” with Nazi mobs. (They fail to acknowledge the ethical neutrality of skill, but I will provide my favorite counter-example: Dexter Morgan. A genius killer like Dexter certainly lives in a world of meaningful differences—one cannot just hack at a body mindlessly. But Dexter’s skill in killing does not engage the sacred, although his inner struggle with vigilantism does.)) So how does one develop the meta-poietic skill to know when to engage physis, poeisis, and technology? The authors tell us that developing such a skill takes courage and risk. We only learn by trying—so go out and get swept up by that “fanatical leader’s totalizing rhetoric,” and only after that will you have the power to discriminate between leaders worth following or not. (220)

As a Humanist, there are certain things I hold sacred—life, love, freedom from suffering—and I do so because I believe that there is an essentially ethical component to the sacred. To me, what we hold sacred must be very very important, fundamental to human life, and precious. The sacred can be violated. Physis and poeisis, inspiration/possession and skill are powerful modes for humans to connect to the world—but they are not in themselves sacred, and they do not naturally connect us to the sacred. “Try it and see” seems like bad advice for finding out if a demagogue is worth following—mostly because the advice depends on an ethical instinct that the authors never really discuss. If, as they say, I have no objective basis for determining right and wrong, how will being inside the Nazi mob help me determine better if they are worth following?

Kelly and Dreyfus finish their book by telling us to try many things and see whatever we find meaningful. If we find ourselves drawn into meaningful involvement, then that is a domain worth caring about. (219) But I think their use of the word ‘meaningful’ is both vague and ethically irresponsible. In my next post, I will focus on the authors’ love of sports examples, and examine the sacred secular in relation to the world of sports spectatorship.

If you want a headstart on the conversation, check out Stephen Colbert’s interview with SeanKelly.

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