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In Search of the Sacred, by David Loy, Part 1 of 4

June 24, 2017

The idea of a secular world was originally one half of a duality—and it remains haunted by the loss of its other half. Modernity developed out of the separation that ensued when that other half gradually disappeared into the clouds.

Today Buddhism faces what is likely its greatest challenge ever, as it makes its way into a modern world completely different from anything it has encountered before. In sharp contrast to the traditional Asian cultures that have long been its home, Buddhism now finds itself part of a global civilization with apparently limitless possibilities, where new modes of communication and transportation enable us to interact on a scale unthinkable just a few generations ago. It is also a world where reductionist science and all-powerful technologies fuel the apparently irresistible value system of consumerism, which is converting more people more quickly than any religion ever has. The result is a ravenous economic juggernaut that is endangering the whole planet.

The common denominator of all these characteristics is their secularity. In contrast to all the major premodern civilizations we know about, the modern world is resolutely secular: earthly, nonspiritual, irreligious, materialistic. Many people today take such secularity for granted, assuming that—once superstitious beliefs have been removed—the modern secular view is an accurate description of what the world really is. Yet secularity is not simply the everyday world we actually live in: it is a historically conditioned understanding of where and what we are—a worldview, moreover, that becomes quite questionable when we look into its origins and implications.

The idea of a secular world was originally one half of a duality—and it remains haunted by the loss of its other half. Modernity developed out of the separation that ensued when that other half gradually disappeared into the clouds.

The term secular (from Latin saeculum, “generation, age”) initially referred to the temporal world of earthly travails where we are born, suffer, and die, in contrast to the eternity of one’s heavenly or hellish afterlife. The focus of the contrast eventually shifted to a division between God’s transcendence and a despiritualized material world. God was believed to be the source of meaning, value, and goodness; the world he created came to be understood as a material machine.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, Europeans still understood the earth and its creatures according to a hierarchical paradigm: everything, including human society, has its ordained place within a tiered cosmos not only created but also sustained by God. In the 16th and 17th centuries this medieval worldview collapsed. The main characteristics of the modern world—including the nation-state, capitalism, and mechanistic science—developed and converged during the religious chaos of those centuries.

This crisis was initiated largely by the Protestant Reformation, beginning in the 16th century with the ideas and writings of Luther and spread by means of the printing press Gutenberg had developed in the 1440s. Luther’s translation of the entire Bible from Latin into German in 1534 meant that the common people could read the Bible themselves, and Luther and Calvin eliminated the intricate web of mediation (sacraments, priests, icons, holy days, monasticism, pilgrimages, and so forth) between God and this world—a network that had constituted, in effect, its sacred dimension.

For Protestant believers, mystery and miracle became deemphasized in ways that opened the door for the materialistic explanations of science and the materialistic concerns of capitalism. In The Sacred Canopy, the American sociologist Peter Berger describes this emerging worldview as one in which “reality is polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically ‘fallen’ humanity that . . . is devoid of sacred qualities. Between them lies an altogether ‘natural’ universe, God’s creation to be sure, but in itself bereft of numinosity.”

Click to read Part 2.

In Search of the Sacred, was written by David R. Loy, a professor, writer and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition. This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of Tricycle Magazine as In search of the Sacred, Buddhist Reflections on the Secular.

Images: Featured) Pattern by Hansbenn 1) Sky by alles, 2) Cloud/Mountains by Twilightzone. All images are CC0 Public Domain from
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