Religion is inseparable from the sacred, the channel through which the divine transcendent communicates with man, according to man’s sensate nature. Any object, natural or man-made—a Gothic cathedral or the lapis negra excavated on the Roman forum—may assume the character of sacredness. Through it, the divine communication becomes incarnated, and, in the intellectual-rational order, verities of the faith are better approached and understood. After the material devastations of the first religious wars, in the second quarter of the 16th century, the Council of Trent saw fit to rehabilitate the sacred images and symbols, in liturgy and in churches, precisely with these arguments: The human comprehension of abstract (dogmatic and doctrinal) truths must be aided through an appeal to the senses in shapes, colors, music, architecture, stone, wood, glass, and precious metals and stones. Through the sacred and the beauty and awe it conveys, the spiritual in man is mobilized; he is enveloped in a supernatural reality in contrast with his daily routine and concrete preoccupations. The sacred makes possible the recognition of man’s dual nature, his simultaneous existence in the profane and the sacred, the rational and the mystical, in God’s presence and in the daily contact with the surrounding world of nature and humanity.
As Mircea Eliade notes, any block of stone, among the many other ordinary blocks of stone, may be sacred, endowed with powers and influences and emanations increasingly distinguishing it, transfiguring it. It is, of course, no “ordinary” stone; it has been selected for its shape, the place it occupies, the mysterious events that occurred around it; in other words, a succession of events has lifted it above the customary and penetrated the consciousness of those participating in those events. Or the block of stone we are talking about may be one shaped according to cultic specifications (like Hinduist altar-stones) which allow it to serve divine purposes and become a revered more-than-object. We see from this example that a sacred “object” must be integrated into a sacred network, an ensemble of which it becomes a part, just as religious man is not an individual alone inventing his own worship, but a member of a community. Accordingly, the sacred manifests itself in a location, a time, through gestures and rituals, vestments and buildings, and of course sacraments, the precise, unalterable symbols through which the divine reality is communicated.
We find these sacred elements built into every religion, Thomas Molnar is a visiting professor of religious studies at Yale University. although the shapes, sizes, relationships, lights, and shadows are differently arranged and proportioned in each, following the doctrinal requirements and the dictation of the faith. Yet, each sacred object and ritual inspires awe because of a tradition-governed location, a long and consecrated time, the repetition of immemorial motions, the uniqueness of symbols. Let us consider a few examples of sacred objects and symbols. The Gothic stained glass window (whose colors cannot be imitated, that art having been lost) is predominantly blue, like heaven, while the yellows, the reds, the greens signify Christ’s blood, or the color of precious stones. The cathedral itself is elongated, suggesting Christ’s body on the cross, his heart where the altar is, his arms forming the transept. The colonnade running from the main entrance towards the altar is an invitation in stone for the worshiper to come forward, while at the same time it is a pilgrimage of the homo viator, the medieval term for man traveling through this earthly existence.
The Hindu temple, in contrast, displays no simple plan; it is teeming with statuettes, proliferating like plants in the jungle. Through these many forms, the Hindu religion does not pay its respects to the rich variety of existence; on the contrary, it expresses contempt for the material world so very different, ontologically different, from the eternal repose of absorption in Nothingness. The ground plan of a mosque, unlike that of a Christian church or the patio of a Clunyite monastery, is of no particular shape and reproduces no willed and interpreted form. This deliberate lack of form is to indicate that the Moslem has no privileged place where he would be nearer to Allah, who always sees him and is immeasurably superior to him, inscrutable in his ways. This is also why Islamic art recognizes no human figures (the creation of man is Allah’s act, not to be imitated) and deemphasizes the intellect through the use of the flowing lines and repetitive circularity of what we call the arabesque.
These few illustrations tell us the interconnectedness of the sacred which traditionally defined the artist’s role and within which he finds it possible and joyful to trace his lines. This means that there is a sacred style and that it requires a certain sacred content, too. When the Renaissance painter (a Mantegna, an Occello) becomes too preoccupied with perspective, over against the deliberate lack of perspective of medieval painting, this means that man becomes its center (it is from the painter’s perspective, from his self, that the world is observed) instead of the centerless figuration of the created world. Geometry takes over humanity.
Not only art, but also public and political life follow the dictates of the sacred, at least in traditional societies. Cities and temples and royal palaces as well as burial grounds were always traced according to sacred requirements. A city or a temple is built around the center of the world (“axis mundi”) which runs through it; it is founded in sacred time which then remains a commemorated day or period; and the rites of foundation, primordial gestures, are to be repeated to the letter, thereby enabling the population to reconnect itself with the time and place of origin. Place, time, and ritual were at the beginning divine realities: The gods themselves chose the place and the time, and they once performed the sacred motions or dances. The American (Mexican) Indians’ bear-dance, the dances of African tribes, the artistic dances of Hindu celebrants are all religious rituals, through which the members of tribe or temple commune with the founding gods and goddesses and capture their continued benevolence, while also conjuring the evil spirits.
In general, then, the sacred presupposes a cosmos divided into strata, from the most sacred to the most profane, and presupposes also a hierarchy of performers and worshipers. In other words, in the universe of the sacred there is an interaction between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the divine and the human, the permanent and the changing, the clergy and the laity. The line between sacred and profane is clearly drawn, it is inviolate, unless crossed by the appropriate person, so as not to damage the social-sacred fabric. In the nonmonotheistic religions the line is very sharp because individual and collective well-being depends on the correct manipulation of the macrocosm: celestial bodies, intracosmic powers, spirits. Any mismanagement in this domain—the slightest deviation from the magical manipulation of sacred objects and ceremonies—may bring down curses on man, member of the microcosm.
In monotheistic religions, all these cosmic and intracosmic forces are abolished. The one-God with his personal attributes cannot be softened by any ceremony, but only by right living, an interiorization of the moral commandments, by prayer and good deeds. Here the magical element is discarded, but the danger is then an exaggerated rationalism which also discards symbols and sacraments and generally the rich presence of the sacred. A good many thinkers, this writer among them, believe that the exclusive growth of the rational, at the expense of the sacred, has desiccated Western civilization, making ours the first desacralized society in history, a danger to ourselves and to other civilizations.
Desacralization, first noticed in art and literature, and relatively late in religion itself, is the nonbelief in a transcendent agent, followed by the “profanization” of the sacred. One by one, with a kind of devilish systematization and logic, first the divine, then its mirror-image, the human figure, are discarded, and later the familiar features of objects—until in every branch of art the strange, inhuman, and the shocking, finally the totally meaningless, take their place. The reason is that man believes he has no need of the divine nor of the channels of revealing the divine; he believes all powers have been given to him, or rather that they are self-generated powers, crowned by rationality. Science solves all problems, our contemporaries are told, and few notice that science itself becomes thus “sacralized,” but only with a kind of blind sacredness, opening on nothing and nowhere.
Behind this process of desacralization, noted by Max Weber, Rene Guenon, Titus Burckhardt, and Oswald Spengler, a new cosmological landscape has emerged, one that has replaced the traditional cosmology of all peoples who did nothing more than play variations on the same theme. The basic theme was, as we have seen, the division of the cosmos into strata inhabited by different and unequal forces, a most inspiring picture for poets, thinkers, artists, and religious geniuses. These teeming spirits and powers were conveyors of influences which, in turn, manifested themselves in relics, talismans, amulets, but also in a wide variety of objects and symbols. The cosmos was always the same yet always different, and its motions were of different qualities, from the perfection of circular movement to the imperfection of sublunar ones.
The cosmos, the world-all, was itself never-changing, immobile, and closed upon itself, and beautiful in its basic immutability which was also mirrored in the regularity of historical events and the sameness of human destiny. Art, historiography, and politics thus had eternal models and canons of beauty. Man himself knew his place, rather low on the scale of things and beings, but a safe place if the protective forces were rightly invoked and given tribute. There was no question of excessive individualism, since even the gods were subject to Fate, and in the Hindu pantheon they could even die when a Great Cycle came to an end.
Now this cosmology is no more. It was gradually replaced, through the 14th to the 19th century, by the cosmology which to a large extent determines our civilization and supplies its models. The old cosmology was alive, diverse, and provided man and communities with anthropomorphic models, themselves easily made into stories (mythology), with gods, men, and animals. Modern cosmology is depersonalized and de-animated; it consists of dead bodies on orbits, colliding and circling, cold mechanisms rushing toward infinity. In short, these features of modern cosmology do not speak to man; they are “frighteningly silent,” as Pascal described infinite space at the very time it was first conceived, in the 17th century.
We have lived ever since beneath the rule of inflexible mechanical laws operating in an indifferent space where there are no privileged locations or beings. Inevitably, the regularly orbiting and gravitationally linked bodies constitute a model, which has had a tremendous effect on our concept of the individual, the State, and all the arts and sciences. Citizenship is reduced to equality among so many predictable bodies in social orbit. The laws governing societies reproduce mechanical sociological laws, without historic roots. Architecture is dehumanized into large and blind cement blocks, making it impossible to distinguish a museum, a school, an office building, or a church, all with mechanically straight, functional lines, and without decoration. The walls are as speechless as machines. Nothing stands out. Nothing catches the eye as it travels up and down. In a medieval or Renaissance painting, a myriad of objects crowd around the characters, themselves covered with richly colored wrappers: plants of all kinds, animals, precious stones and spices, amulets, dwarfs, hunting or love scenes. In contrast, consider a modern painting, and observe its nakedness, its lack of symbols, and the teeming forms of life. With the exception of a Chagall, all these things have been exiled, our forms which surround us and permeate our senses and sensibilities have been exiled as superfluities; cold rationality prevails. To quote Chesterton, madness occurs when only rationality remains on the scene.
Desacralization has now penetrated the Christian churches: the exclusion of Latin with its mysteries, as if prayer were an entirely rational mode of addressing the Deity, tolerating no form of incantation, mystery, and, yes, incomprehension. Music in churches follows modern norms: Church architecture deliberately ignores the divine ground plan, the requisite place of the altar, the centrality of Christ. Christ himself is figured as a mad person, unable to carry the message of goodness and truth, an embodiment of meaninglessness.
Compare this, in turn, with the long and glorious history of Christ in art, on which a Chateaubriand could base, two centuries ago, an entire apologia of the Christian religion. Depending on the nation and civilizational background, Christ was the Good Pastor in the early centuries, the Pantocrator of Byzantine churches, the tortured man-god of Grünewald, the ascending figure of the Baroque. The Madonna is different yet the same in Michelangelo’s Pietà, under the brush of Raphael, or the Polish Virgin of Czestochowa, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, in Mexico.
All this sacrality, in art and life, followed certain rules. The sacred is always an object (for the eyes, the ears, the touch, the smell, the spiritual grasp), but it is a unique one, although through its powerful emanations it affects everything in its presence. Yet the source is unmistakable. Now our industrial society has endangered this uniqueness, since it accustomed us to the endless reproduction of the same, whether objects, images, the printed and spoken word. With every passing day, new inventions remove us from the divine-human framework in which objects made sense and in which the sacred justified also the other hierarchies of existence.
Television, radio, and movies banalize story-telling, present empty stereotypes. The art of a Henry Moore, a Calder, a Giacometti accustom us to the formless, the frightening, the meaningless, so that inhumanity and violence appear as norms of existence. Machines bring us in comfortable contact with sacred celebrations, as when television zeroes in on the priest’s tongue as he swallows the host. No mystery remains; man is removed from art, as both Malraux and Ortega assert. There are now novels (the “nouveau roman” in France, just rewarded with the Nobel prize in the person of Claude Simon) which have entirely banished the human being and reduced the “story” to objects, seen through the “camera eye.”
The question of resacralization inevitably arises. The various formulae and recipes are, without exception, phoney, because the cause of the sacred is not man’s, it is God’s cause. Desacralized man cannot climb back to the sacred cavern; he has lost the leading thread. The sacred arises much like civilizations arise, without man’s consciously pursued actions. But we know that every civilization is a human stylization on an already given theme, a divine and cosmic theme. The civilization-giving process follows from the cosmological model. Nobody creates a cosmological model; only our individualistic and simplifying bent suggests that such models may be one man’s work, as we are taught that our cosmology owes its alpha and omega to the one Galileo. A cosmology, that is a world picture, a collective, time-transcending vision, is the product offerees perhaps beyond our comprehension, and certainly beyond our creative power. At best, it is the work of many individuals and groups, not necessarily pursuing the same object, but harmonizing nevertheless under the vast vault of the same impulse, as the works of St. Benedict, Dante, and Goethe, great men with diverse motivations, were ultimately harmonized.
In fact, a new cosmology has already made its beginnings. The Galilean/Newtonian universe (Newton himself was dissatisfied with it) is slowly, ever so slowly, gliding out of focus, and a finite cosmos has reappeared on our horizon. Industrial society itself has produced not only critics, but also thinkers (strangely, among schools of sociology) who analyze its enormous blockages and counterproductive achievements. We may live through the last stages of mindlessly reproduced consumer “goods” and of a return to the uniqueness of objects. There is, of course, no way of forecasting a new civilization, although thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger have forcefully stated the exhaustion of the present “gods” (or idols) and the expectation of “new gods” leading us in some new direction. Being attuned to new “gods,” we do not renounce the Christian civilization, but remain attentive to its timeless source and inspiration.