One argument that has been made to explain the dominance of instrumental reason - reason that is mechanical, decontextualized, and ultimately forms the foundation for narrow, prescriptive ideologies - is that instrumental reason has assumed a leadership role because of the disappearance of the sacred in our lives. Narrow, utopian ideologies that provide all the answers savage the sacred because they try to exorcise it of the mysterious. The sacred exists only when people are willing to acknowledge that there is so much they don’t know - a larger world which can, perhaps, be touched briefly through engaging with sacred rituals and/or customs. When dogmatic ideologies promise something pure and perfect, they remove our need to sustain an attitude of humility and unknowingness in the face of the mysteries of life; they try to make life easy for us. Or, put another way, the decline of the sacred in our society reflects not only a damaged ability to revere mystery, but to even tolerate it.
This is partly a consequence of the normalization of narcissism in society: the false sense of superiority that comes with secretly fearing the unknown, consuming an identity or role to protect against that fear, and then adopting behavior patterns that convey expertness where none exists. Narcissistic behavior is perfectly capable of displaying a charming face of flexibility and sure-footedness while simultaneously trembling - usually in fearful isolation - that it will be discovered for its immense insecurities. It elevates a false sense of the individual self to the level of the sacred, providing cover for its subsequent dives into various pools of entitlement, arrogance, and manipulation.
Another way our relationship to mystery and the sacred has been damaged is through our conscious separation from the world around us - not just the natural world, but the world of human community. Our embrace of the frontier ethic operates in a similar way to narcissism’s elevation of the individual: it holds up notions such as “conquering nature”, “limitless opportunity”, or being a “self-made man” as being themselves sacred, when they are in fact simply appealing ideas with severe limitations. The consequences of those limitations, in fact, are much more severely felt when we do consider them sacred.
These two examples suggest that human beings still thirst for the sacred, but are rapidly losing the capacity to understand what it actually is, much less access it. They diminish it by replacing mystery with certainty. They diminish it by elevating the individual above community. They diminish it by wrenching human beings out of context from the world around them, focusing instead on narrow, ideological objectives.
If we’re to reclaim the sacred, we have to ask a few questions. The first one that comes to my mind is this: What is it in the notion of the sacred that is of value to human beings? And, if that question can be answered, can the firewall between the sacred and the “ordinary” be sustained in ways that don’t open communities to the abuses of power authorities assigned to be gatekeepers of the sacred have engaged in throughout the history of religion? The sexual abuse of children by so many priests, monks and elders comes to mind as one example.
These are hard questions to answer. But the argument that an absence of the sacred is prompting us to destroy the very threads that hold our lives together - the environment, and other human beings in particular - is compelling. Can we value our sense of mystery towards life’s infinite manifestations to a point where we can be at peace with “not knowing”? Can we do this in a way that is willing to humbly acknowledge that some aspects of life will always be beyond our comprehension? Can we do this in a way that doesn’t dampen our pursuit of greater knowledge but rather encourages it? A way that couples that pursuit with a recognition of our limitations?