The Sacred or Divine
How can we understand concepts like the sacred or divine when there is so much denial of their existence and the religions of the world are so divided on the matter?
There is no universally accepted evidence that something we might call the sacred or the divine exists, yet the majority of people across the world claim to be religious or to hold to something approximating religious faith. There may be many reasons for this, not least being humility - acceptance that humankind for all its glories is ultimately finite and pretty small. So it is that there is a widespread acceptance of something greater than the obvious, the visible, the tangible. Some grand ideation is needed to account for the wonder of the Universe, the unity within diversity, the harmonies, the balances, the boundless creativity.
Simultaneously, there is a need to account for the other end of the scale, that is, the deeply personal experiences of individuals who feel their lives touched on a daily basis with something they call sacred or divine. Without commentary on the authenticity of these experiences, the simple fact is that they exist and need a language of their own.
A huge concept beyond definition
A remarkable pantheon of identities has developed across the world, all seeking to account for substantially the same thing. This family of ideas is quite simply the largest product of the human brain. However, by its own nature the sacred or divine forever eludes definition. It is something that is accepted as being beyond the compass or grasp of humankind, even though it is widely assumed to have certain attributes, such as transcendence and immanence. Truth, love, creativity, change, death – all these and much more are somewhere in the overall mix.
In earlier times there were somewhat simplistic and often anthropomorphic or animalistic characterisations of this sacred or divine. Now we are more sophisticated. Though there is no agreement on what we are talking about, we have moved to conceptions that are at once deep and expansive, like Brahman, the Tao, and the Ground of All Being.
It is important to note that these conceptions all transcend value, though value is presumed to be at the heart of them. More than bespeaking value they bespeak universality – and yet it is individual values (love, creation, change, death etc.) that are the portals by which we engage with the sacred or divine.
For all that we are looking here at something vast, it is probably not true to say that the sacred or divine is all nature, or all that is. Similarly, to turn the thing slightly on its head, we are not talking about the idea that all life is sacred (something that always seems to me slightly odd, for life is simply a biological fact). Rather we are looking at something else – a spirit, a logic, whatever – something that is the core of all life or all that is, that explains it, that perpetuates it.
Interpreted different ways
If all this seems too much to grasp, we have understood why people from different cultures have extracted some things from this zone where the sacred or divine is. Thus Christianity has made a big deal of sacrificial love – the love that is so great that, even though it may seem to lead to death, in fact it leads to new life. (This of course is the centre of Christianity but there is much more). Other faith traditions have formed their own views on what constitutes the sacred or divine. All these views are partial yet they are all – or mostly all – valid to some degree.
Faith traditions as a whole, and individuals who might also be adherents to those traditions, each have their own personal take on this one core construct – the source of life and death, the unifier, the ongoing creator, the giver of meaning. Anthropomorphic views persist because of their relative immediacy and therefore personal power: God, Jesus, Allah, the Indian gods, and so on. But more abstract and one might say sophisticated views are increasingly prevalent.
Just as the sacred or define by its own nature defies definition, so too do human relationships with the sacred or divine. A range of needs appear to be fulfilled, corresponding loosely with what we understand from psychology to be the hierarchy of needs. Thus in various respects there is security, but also feelings of nourishment, warmth through connection with all other life, guidance and direction through the multiple challenges of life, inspiration to break the bounds of humanness – and more. Equally, it is hard to see what precisely the deniers of the sacred or divine get from their stance. Presumably they have different ways of meeting the same needs in their own life. Possibly the difference lies in intensity of life experience, for believers are hooked in to an intensity, a sense of life without limits, that is unique to the transcendent.
Interpreted and experienced
For the record, I have my own personal take on these things which serves me well and is worth sharing. For me the divine or sacred is ultimately as I have described it above, the ground of all being, the core of existence, the way all things are. As such it contains all value: good and bad, beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, and so on. It is, in a way, as flexible and wonderful as Brahman and the Tao. But in everyday life, I hold to that part of the sacred or divine which is goodness, and goodness I see in value terms as truth intersecting with love, or truth energised by love into creative action – the boundless ongoing creativity of the world. Thus part of my approach is Eastern and part is Western, but with a distinctly modern cast. And if anyone thinks that this is too dry and academic, my reply is “Not so!” Everywhere I go, all the time, I find innumerable examples of the presence of truth and love joined in creative action, from the budding of a leaf to the utility of a pavement. So for me, in my particular fashion, the sacred or divine is a constant presence and indeed an inspiration.
Believers in God or gods, and even some non-believers, have a sense that there is such a thing in our Universe as the sacred or divine, but struggle to grasp what it might mean. This is hardly surprising, for by definition it is something infinitely larger than the race of humankind with all its limitations. There are many ways of understanding the sacred or divine, from the all-powerful personal deity to something abstract, and from the Universe or life itself to the everyday experience of love in our lives. But increasingly we tend to view these matters in abstract terms, for instance the Ground of All Being.
One view is that the sacred or divine comprises all value: good and bad, beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, and so on. It is, in a way, as flexible and wonderful as Brahman and the Tao. This does not prevent us from – simultaneously – embracing that part of the sacred or divine which is goodness. In this interpretation, goodness is seen as in value terms as truth intersecting with love, or truth energised by love into creative action – the boundless ongoing creativity of the world.