The Other I

August 2, 2010

“Sacred” as an alternative to “god”

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last three days I have been engaged in no fewer than four discussions about the alternative to God.

If, as we all agreed, the traditional concept of god is anthropomorphic and coercive, and if, as we all agreed, this concept of god appears to be incompatible with science, what is the alternative?

It was apparent during these various conversations how central the question of reductionism is to this question.

Traditional reductionism says that everything that has ever happened or will happen in the entire universe is ultimately completely explicable in terms of the interactions of fundamental particles.  In terms of God, the most this position can say is that there might be a Creator God who set the universe in motion and then dissociated himself from any further interactions with it.  It is a machine which now runs on its own and will inevitably go forward according to the mechanical laws which govern it.

The alternative within science to traditional reductionism is not as fully defined as this.  There is agreement that the traditional approach has been breathtakingly successful in explaining some phenomena.  There is also agreement that at this point traditional reductionism is incapable of predicting the course of developments once we enter the realm of living things.  It cannot predict with any precision the course of evolution, of the development of the economy, of technological advances, or even the direction of the stock market within the next week.  It doesn’t even have any suggestions about how to go about making these predictions in a more scientifically precise way.

The alternative or additions required to reductionism are far from agreed, however.  Not everyone agrees whether all the laws governing the universe can be called “natural.”  Or whether a creative impetus is intrinsic to the universe.  Or whether we need a new concept of an immanent, even emerging “god,” or whether the word “sacred” describes the mystery in which we find ourselves immersed.

I have already said that I do not believe in the traditional concept of god.  Even the word “sacred” makes me very jittery.  I have heard people describe what they mean by “sacred.”  They use words like  overwhelming reality, stunning, awesome, astonishing, mysterious, amazing, all of which I can use without a qualm.  But “sacred” carries too much baggage for me.

No matter how much people argue that they don’t mean “god,” when they say “sacred,” I cannot banish the image of votive candles and priests in vestments lifting their hand in blessing.  “Sacred” for many is liberating with a suggestion of infinity.  For me it is coercive and suffocating.

I suppose my hang-up with the word sacred stems from my childhood when I was taught that “sex is sacred.”  This piety didn’t succeed in permanently ruining the possibility of sexual pleasure, but for some time it was pretty effective.

And it does seem to have permanently influenced my reaction to the term “sacred”.


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