What are the consequences of the 20th century losing its sense of the sacred? Australian Bible teacher JOHN SMITH ponders why our society is out of control.

John Smith
John Smith

Celebrated French intellectual Jacques Attali has been described as a "one-man think-tank, a prolific generator of thoughts and theories". An extraordinary range of thinkers and writers, including Alvin Toffler and Arthur Schlesinger junior, have been singing the praises of this cultural analyst. What then, you may ask, is his insight? Attali has certainly broken rank with the dry, spiritless logic of scientific rationalism. He goes so far as to claim that the "fundamental problems that will plague millennial man require that we restore the idea of evil, the idea of the sacred to the centre of political life". The loss of the sense of the sacred may be the most significant factor of modern life. It can be reasonably argued that even the search for scientific understanding is underpinned by the sense that beyond all activities, all institutions and laws, and all theories and intellectual ideas, there lies a purpose, a presence, a loving mystery.

With the loss of sacred belief has come the loss of meaning itself. For a decade or more, social analysts have paddled at the edge of this sea of meaning. But to many sophisticated thinkers, the very thought of religion gives rise to irrational and reactionary emotions. Attali, quoting Lusac Kolokowski, warns: "Culture, when it loses its sacred sense, loses all sense."

Is this an unreasonable proposition? After all, if there is no ultimate meaning to the whole universe, how can there be any meaning to the component parts - including human society or individual identity itself? It has struck me long ago that this society decries youthful meaningless, antisocial behaviour, but provides for our young little beyond the adrenalin rush of power, possessions and wealth. If you have no hope of obtaining them, a hot race with the cops in a stolen car running red lights at high speed may seem as good a sense of short-term substitute for meaning as you can get! "Live life meaningfully - but don't believe in any transcending meaning beyond self seems to be the self-contradictory advice to a younger generation.

I'm not simply calling us to religious membership. Some very religious folks have little sense of the sacred behind all things. For some, their lives are lived out in a schizoid division between the sacred and the secular. But to the truly converted - the presence of divine mystery and purpose permeates, promotes and purifies all of life - its art, its reasons, its relationships, its spirituality and its sensuality. The whole earth is full of glory, the entire process is full of meaning and the unfolding of history is redeemed by love.

Let me conclude, not with Attali, but with Alice Cooper. He surprised us all, last year, when he told Heavy Metal magazine: "When you narrow it all down, I think the problem is that we've put ourselves on the throne, we've made man into God... There's a real lack of moral fibre today and that's because we've replaced God with ourselves and we're doing a really poor job. It scares me. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.