Desacralization occurred because God came to be understood as dwelling far above this corrupted world and also deep inside the human heart. But where God all but ceased to dwell was in the everyday world of our social lives.
Read Part 1 of In Search of the Sacred.
The result of this hugely complex historical process (which I of course have had to greatly simplify here) is that religion became privatized. God was booted upstairs, far above the sordid affairs of this world, even as the principle of a direct and personal relationship with God became sanctified. “Every man is his own priest,” declared Luther. Desacralization occurred because God came to be understood as dwelling far above this corrupted world and also deep inside the human heart. But where God all but ceased to dwell was in the everyday world of our social lives.
As the American theologian Dan Maguire put it in Ethics for a Small Planet: “To project the experience of the sacred onto an immaterial God is to shortchange sacredness as a dimension of material life and turn it into an object of worship that is beyond our world and thus alien to life.” We today are still struggling to cope with the consequences of that split.
These changes opened up the way for innovative scientific perspectives. It’s important to remember that the early scientists most responsible for the new worldview—Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton—were also deeply religious, and understood this world only in relationship to a higher one. They all still believed in a Creator, albeit an increasingly distant one. They developed a new paradigm: God rules the universe not through a hierarchy of spiritual subordinates but with a rational system of “hidden laws.” We use the same word for laws passed by a legislature and the laws of nature because the architects of the modern view believed that natural laws were also ordained, namely by God. According to René Descartes, “God sets up mathematical laws in nature as a king sets up laws in his kingdom.”
Galileo expressed this revolutionary perspective when he wrote that “the Book of Nature is written in mathematical symbols” by “the great Geometer.” The key to its hidden meanings was therefore to be found by discovering the mathematical laws that determine how things interact with each other. Whereas the medieval worldview saw the influence of God filtering through a hierarchy of agents, of varying degrees of blessedness and power according to their station and role, the great Geometer was not to be identified with the fallen world he ruled impersonally from afar. As the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork.”
Since God was the ultimate source of all goodness, this was also the basis of an increasingly sharp split between fact and value. For both believers and nonbelievers, religion became more literalist. In place of the traditional symbols and practices that conveyed meaning in different ways, religion’s core was now assumed to be a set of propositions about the world and its Creator. As the Deity gradually disappeared into the heavens, the world he left behind slowly but surely became devalued. This opened up exciting new possibilities. Those who comprehended God’s hidden laws could use them to manipulate nature for their own purposes. But as the environmental philosopher Carolyn Merchant points out, this came at a considerable price: “The process of mechanizing the world picture removed the controls over environmental exploitation that were an inherent part of the organic view that nature was alive, sensitive, and responsive to human action.”
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.