Why cultivate a relationship with the sacred?

Something is drawing me to cultivate a relationship with the sacred – to cast off secular skepticism; to take an interest in the divine order of the world; and to rediscover how interfacing with that order shapes both the soul and the world as we see it. Why should I listen?

One of the Story of Abraham tapestries by Willem Pannemaker, commissioned by Henry VIII circa 1540. Image credit: https://www.rct.uk/
How can I feel I have arrived home in something that is in many ways so ­foreign to me? And yet beneath the surface it is not foreign at all, but a reversion to the sacred order of things.

Paul Kingsnorth, The Cross and the Machine

I have a confession to make:  I recently started attending church for the first time in years. Something is drawing me to cultivate a relationship with the sacred – to cast off secular skepticism; to take an interest in the divine order of the world; and to rediscover how interfacing with that order shapes both the soul and the world as we see it.

As is so often the case, this transformation defies explication. After much reading and conversing and soul searching, there is a kind of opening – the revelation of seeing the world through an enchanted lens that is both novel and ancient. It's interesting, then, to attempt to communicate back across the void separating a secular life from an enchanted one and ask: why cultivate a relationship with the sacred?

Of course, one answer is simple and takes only a sentence, but requires the full faith of someone who need not ask the question in the first place. That answer is that the sacred exists – God exists – and is by definition the highest intrinsic good, so it is our primary moral and spiritual duty to cultivate that sacred relationship. Whether or not one believes that answer, it isn't the one that brought me here.

In fact, this began with a somewhat different line of inquiry: how should one live a good life? While thinking about that topic, I was most compelled to write about the importance of cultivating healthy relationships – with people, of course, but also with the underlying structure of reality. Whatever else can be said about how people should live, we should at least recognize the importance of acting in harmony with the given structure into which we were all born.

Because it is so abstract, it's worth pausing to explore the idea of structure. Structures have the property of imposing constraints in order to permit phenomena. A riverbank constrains the flow of water in order to permit a river. A house constrains interior space in order to permit livable shelter. A marriage constrains choice of sexual partners in order to permit a healthy family. These are only a few examples, of course, but point to the broad idea of structure as "that which permits by means of constraint," where that which is permitted transcends that which is constrained.

The case I aim to make for the importance of attending to the sacred is predicated on the idea that flourishing is permitted by forming responsible relationships with structure. First of all, we should acknowledge that nature and culture inevitably impose structure in the form of constraints against which mankind can struggle, but within which mankind can also flourish given the right wisdom and orientation. We should then understand the project of mankind as acting harmoniously in accordance with such constraints so that transcendence is permitted. Lastly, we should recognize that structure has a foundation upon which everything rests, which is rightly understood as the sacred, and which we must prioritize in order to flourish.

Interfacing with nature

Most people will identify a certain higher order to a beautiful landscape. Mountains triumphantly shoulder the weight of the heavens, while rivers pour through verdant valleys, nourishing the flora and fauna that take refuge there. Plants and animals find their place within nature, interacting in ways that draw on the existing structure and contribute back to it, even without expressing a conscious understanding of their role in the ecosystem. It is a matter of behavior, not belief.

Facing the splendor of harmonic natural order, we should feel a humble appreciation, a fearful respect, and a weighty responsibility to contribute to its conservation. But why are those feelings healthy and natural? Why is it a sign of pathology to not feel that reverence? The answer is simple enough: given that nature imposes the most primordial constraints with which mankind interfaces, we must reconcile our behavior with nature if we are to thrive. We must find our place in the order.

In order to merely survive, people have learned to cope with nature's limits, which include time, geography, temperature, and hunger. But we should seek more than mere survival – we should seek to transcend. Rather than merely scavenging for food, people can cultivate crops and cuisines that produce bounty and brilliance. Rather than merely seeking temporary shelter, people can erect magnificent wonders that last generations and exalt their highest virtues. Rather than merely survive the inevitable decline of aging for as long as possible, people can embed themselves within families and ancestries and heritages – stories that predate bodily existence, and will long outlive any individual.

These technologies – cuisine, architecture, and storytelling – are transcendent precisely because they result in a world that is richer and more meaningful than a counterfactual world in which humans simply did not need to eat or find shelter or worry about death in the first place. Such a world would be inert and meaningless. The fact that nature imposes such constraints allows mankind to flourish beyond what would be possible in the absence of all constraint.

Of course, flourishing should not be confused with brandishing power. Largely due to technological advancement, people can exert forces upon the natural order in dangerous and short-sighted ways. Unsustainable agricultural practices can erode the generational gift of fertile land. Nourishing traditional cuisines can be abandoned in favor of the anti-culture of cheap "fast food" meals. Vibrant historic towns can wither away, while bustling cities erect hideous buildings that cultivate humanity's basest instincts, and eventually collapse into a state of urban decay that corrupts the soul. In this way, people alienated from wisdom – particularly generational wisdom – will work against themselves, and will eventually have to relearn painful lessons.

The domain of structures and technologies that mankind develops to cope with, flourish within, and wield power against nature is the domain of culture. It is a domain full of its own constraints, which are imposed by technology itself, as well as human nature and societal structures. Such constraints are often less physical than they are emotional and moral. Of course, that is not to say they are less important – if anything, the task of permitting emotional and moral flourishing is the most essential role of culture.

Culture as a tool for transcendence

Speaking of culture in the abstract is really to speak of the collection of historically- and geographically-enmeshed cultures that local communities have developed over millennia to deal with the aforementioned natural constraints, but also forces such as sexual desire, addictive appetites, technological advance, and the imperative to find meaning. Again, mankind's challenge goes beyond simply surviving – it is to invent, inherit, and pass down ways of working in harmony with these forces so that transcendence and flourishing is made possible.

Cultures are generally defined by a shared set of norms, stewarded between generations, to which the people of a community adhere. Such norms help people answer questions as broad-ranging as what to eat, when to pray, how to raise a family, and which values to hold above other values – a question that strikes directly at the heart of what is sacred, or what is above all else. Considering the splendor of a healthy and harmonious culture (even if ours is not currently so healthy and harmonious) we should feel the same humble appreciation, fearful respect, and weighty responsibility that we do in the face of the sacred order of nature – a clear signal that cultural order deserves to be recognized as sacred to some extent.

Unfortunately, in the secular West many people are alienated from the idea that culture is genuinely important, that cultural norms should be respected, and that there is a sacred cultural order in the first place. Rather, they might feel that cultural norms are stifling, restricting, and arbitrary. So why should we reaffirm the importance of cultivating sacredness in culture? The answer, again, is simple: faced with immutable constraints, mankind's choice is between either blinding itself and struggling needlessly, or recognizing higher order and fostering paths of transcendence.

As mentioned above, the constraints that culture should address deal with intimate and moral topics including sexual desire, addictive appetites, and yearning for meaning. Rather than merely satiate sexual desire with pornography and one-night stands, people can form healthy marriages that quench desire while permitting loving families to grow. Rather than taking drugs and eating junk food as a fleeting indulgence of appetites, we can nurture good habits of sleep and diet and exercise that yield long-lasting health and growth. Rather than temporarily distracting ourselves from the yearning for meaning with technological novelties, over-consumption of media, or obsessive participation in work and play, we can form meaningful human bonds and we can read and pray and fast, focusing our attention on cultivating relationships with the sacred fonts of wisdom and meaning that humans have cultivated for centuries. In general, we can seek higher and deeper truths that provide a solid foundation for a healthy life.

Cultural and religious norms like marriage, community building, and fasting and prayer are transcendent precisely because they result in a world that is richer and more meaningful than a counterfactual world in which humans simply did not need to satiate sexual desire, raise families, or find meaning in the first place. The constraints permit flourishing, but only if people can behave in accordance with the given structure.

Such norms are developed over millennia and handed down precisely because they deal with aspects of life about which it is inadvisable to reason as a deracinated individual – aspects such as desire and addiction, which are faced most responsibly within the context of generational wisdom. Making hubristic mistakes by violating cultural norms is akin to building a village in the historic path of a volcanic lava flow, just because land is cheap there:  people might manage to build a community in the short term, but a disastrous demise is inevitable.

It should come as no surprise, then, that sacred texts like the Bible are largely dedicated to transmitting cultural norms, and to telling stories about communities that succeeded in preserving generational wisdom, or failed to do so and have thus suffered and perished. Because culture is man-made, the constraints with which it grapples are often criticized as arbitrary or needlessly oppressive. But those constraints are both important and likely immutable, given the right frame of reference. As such, the major challenge facing culture is the task of remembering.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen writes of culture as collective memory:

A better way to understand culture is as a kind of collective trust. Culture is the practice of full temporality, an institution that connects the present to the past and the future. As the Greeks understood, the mother of culture – of the Nine Muses – was Mnemosyne, whose name means "memory." Culture educates us about our generational debts and obligations... It is itself an education in the full dimension of human temporality, meant to abridge our temptation to live within the present, with the attendant dispositions of ingratitude and irresponsibility that [the] narrowing of temporality encourages. (77)

We must first remember so that we can use the tool of culture to learn how to interface responsibly with the underlying structure of nature, morality, and society. But, as with nature, we must be careful not to merely brandish power – lest culture turn tyrannical. Of course, there is not a single "solution" to the temptations of tyranny. It must be incumbent upon each living generation to strike a balance between deep remembrance and judicious stewardship to prevent the sacred structure from becoming forgotten or corrupt. Only through the synthesis of deep remembrance and sound judgment can healthy culture persist.

It's worth pausing on the phrase "sacred structure" – because structure and the sacred are not necessarily synonymous, and not inherently bound. The sacred is specifically that which is first or highest in the structural order. So why is it so important to cultivate a relationship with what is first and highest? Why does something have to be first at all?

First things first

Determining what is first in an order is a question of priority, which brings to mind the metaphor of a house. Every house is built atop a foundation. The foundation is visible neither to the tenants nor the neighborhood. Superficially, the walls and the roof and even the ornate details seem to matter more. It's likely that, in the course of daily life, nobody even consciously remembers that the whole enterprise rests on the ongoing strength and unity of the foundation. But a wise builder knows that problems with the foundation need to be solved at the level of the foundation. If walls are collapsing due to a crumbling foundation, it would be folly to try to fix the situation by building more walls. The foundation must come first.

Mapping this metaphor onto the cultivation of responsible relationships with structure yields the idea that there is a foundation that must come first – a stable and unifying surface upon which mankind can develop cultural norms, families, agriculture, architecture, medicine, et cetera. Without that foundation, mankind will behave like a foolish builder, trying to erect walls on shifting sands or trying to patch a roof over a split foundation, eventually finding that his frustrated efforts result only in further deterioration. He might even blame "the other" for sabotaging his plans. If only "they" got onboard with all he wanted to build, utopia would surely exist by now. But, of course, the answer lies not across the aisle, but beneath our feet.

Focusing on the sacred as "first" and "foundational" discloses two universal and abstract constraints underpinning all other constraints:  complexity and scarcity. At any given moment in time, there are a functionally infinite number of problems worthy of attention, but only a finite number of people and communities to attend to them.

To rely once more on the construction metaphor, we can imagine building or repairing many homes and schools and hospitals, each with walls and roofs; but focusing on only the walls – or even an individial building – will inevitably lead to imbalanced, unstable structures sitting in inappropriate places. After all, the foundation dictates where the buildings and their walls must be built for the structures to stand. In that way, focusing on what is foundational shows us not just where our culture can or should be built, but where it must be built in order to last for generations.

Of course, one can imagine abstract structures that have no "first" element – a pure ring, for example. But in the embodied and temporal world there are always firsts:  time – and death, ultimately – constrains us to order and prioritize; gravity constrains us to build up starting from the ground; family and locality make ordered claims upon our attention and care. To an embodied being, moral relativism is no more functionally appropriate than physical relativism would be to a builder, convinced to build the walls first and save the foundation for last.

This points to what I mean by the sacred – a term I've intentionally left undefined. (It would be foolish to try to define it, but it would be lazy to not address the term at all.) The sacred includes those deep and immovable elements to which people return for stability and nourishment:  churches and other places of worship, where the architecture calls its inhabitants to cultivate transcendent virtues, and rituals that form the soul have been stewarded for centuries; the Bible and other sacred texts, which transmit stories full of wisdom and paradox, and which have helped people to focus their attention, ground their morality, and order their thoughts for ages; and poetry, hymns, chanting, and great works music that rejoice life, soothe the soul, and provide a solid foundation for moral life as well as a place of refuge from the suffering that everyone will inevitably face.

Thus, identifying and worshiping the sacred is not about pursuing arbitrary "power" that oppresses – quite the opposite, in fact. Nor is it about propagating anachronistic music or irrelevant fairy tales. The worship of the sacred is about interfacing with the deepest wells of wisdom, the most mysterious forms of art, and the most timeless sources of moral truths in ways that prioritize the foundation of culture. It is about glorifying that which we have learned must come first for all else to stand.

Perhaps John Vervaeke said it best in conversation with Jonathan Pageau:

To quote Aristotle, "First things first"... He means that the task is to realize what the first principles are and to prioritize them... I think of that as the virtue of reverence, and I think reverence is to properly realize the relevance of something that should be given a priority, even over yourself, and that's where you start to get notions of sacrifice and worship.

Without putting first things first, culture beings to fail in ways that are, paradoxically, both unexpected and self-fulfilling. People obsessed with maximizing freedom and individual prosperity end up perpetuating a system in which the common good is unachievable for so many. People obsessed with "safety" end up accidentally harming the most vulnerable among us. People obsessed with ending racial disparity end up stoking racial division. The list goes on, and affects movements across political and economic boundaries.

This is exemplified in a recent article entitled Have No Fearfittingly published in First Things magazine – in which Liel Leibovitz shares a teaching from the Talmud that is a bit of "dry legalese" about what to do if a grave site is unmarked in a field, leading some to imagine that the entire field should be avoided for fear of violating the unmarked grave. But, he explains, the Talmud suggests otherwise:

Don’t sweat it too much. You are to place a marker not too far from where you think the grave is likely to be and then go about your business. Their reasoning for this procedure? “So as not to cause a loss of Eretz Yisrael,” a loss of the Land of Israel.

The Talmud is famous for cloaking profound teaching in dry legalese. You hardly have to be a rabbinic scholar to know that the Land of ­Israel, that strip of earth promised to Abraham, is sacred. Thus, by warning us against losing even an inch of holy acreage unnecessarily, the rabbis are delivering a timely reminder. Yes, we need to be sure not to run afoul of death’s polluting power. That’s the point of all the rules concerning burial, contact with dead bodies, and mourning. But some things are more important, and they take priority. Put simply: Without risk, there can be no life.

Seems obvious enough. The land is sacred, so we should put that first, ordering our concerns about rituals of death as secondary. How could this apply to a contemporary setting? Leibovitz continues:

Only a fool who confuses staying alive with living well would forsake even a small piece of the Promised Land.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. Just look at some of the pandemic countermeasures that seem more symbolic than effective, and you’ll see a society in the grip of the cult of zero risk. We mask and test; we card and censure. We deride as heresy any ­attempts to ask when enough is enough, or whether strictures laid down “in the abundance of caution” amount to too much precaution.
Those with specialized knowledge need to debate the merits of masks, vaccines, and mandates with facts and figures and data. But the rest of us should have a conversation about something much larger, which is the proper balance between safety and risk, between security and adventure. We should—of course!—take reasonable precautions to protect ourselves and those around us. But let us not become inflamed by risk-aversion. Zero risk ensures pretty close to zero life. It causes us to sacrifice too much of what makes life worth living.

Leibovitz's writing perfectly illustrates how, without putting sacred wisdom first, mankind will inevitably struggle to balance the forces of complexity and scarcity within the ordered structure, and will make the wrong sacrifices in a world where sacrifices are not optional.

Weaving the tapestry

Meditating on how to act in accordance with structure by prioritizing what is first according to cultural wisdom in order to flourish has brought to mind the image of weaving a tapestry. A tapestry seems rather simple in one sense:  it's just a woven fabric that conveys an image. But in order to craft a durable, orderly, and beautiful tapestry, there are rules that cannot be ignored.

First and foremost, there is the warp, running vertically, which sets the foundation and defines the scale and size and boundaries. Then, there is the weft, which is the medium that the artist weaves into the warp, simultaneously playing into the order, developing the visual pattern, and constructing the whole piece.

The warp, running vertically, is the medium through which the weft is woven to create the full tapestry. Image credit: Getty Museum.

In the final product the warp is not generally visible, but trying to weave a tapestry without cultivating an understanding of the warp and the patterns that it does and does not allow will inevitably lead to calamity. Focusing on the warp, but trying to reason from first principles will also likely lead to a mess. The task, properly understood, requires remembering – learning from the wisdom of old masters – and focusing attention on what the underlying foundation permits. It is also a practice, so it is necessarily embodied. And the result, if done properly, can transcend mere fabric.

We should strive to weave great tapestries. We should strive to build timeless architecture atop firm foundations. We have an obligation to remember all that we've been granted by our ancestors, and to steward that wisdom for our children. We should reject the moral relativism that leads to blindness and suffering, just as we should reject the brandishing of power that leads to tyranny. But that requires deep memory and good judgment – two skills that are earned by cultivating a relationship with the sacred.