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Is Nothing Sacred …

… Sacred?

Trading in the “Decider” for the UnDecider and reclaiming sanity and sacredness

HUM 4554
Religious Quest and Human Dilemma
Jan Whitehouse
When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon. And
when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth
before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again. And when they arose early the
next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. The head of
Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.
(1 Samuel 5:2-4, NKJV)

Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this. Doctor: “Then stop doing it.” – Henny Youngman

People seldom do what they believe in. They do what is convenient, then repent. - Bob Dylan

“Postmodern” as a term, showed up just shy of fifty years ago, coinciding with the

discovery of our capacity to destroy ourselves not by the might of the gargantuan, but by

the energy of the infinitesimal. “Deconstruction” thus came not just as an intellectual

avenue of discourse, but as the tragically concrete and inevitable Undoer of our conceit,

replacing the “high places” of our presumptions and leaving us to gape at a mushroom

cloud where they had been erected. As Postmodernist thought becomes the prevailing

currency, we are still buffeted by the death throes of Modernism. The central human

dilemma in our contemporary postmodern culture is, in my estimation, that we are

not yet fully postmodern.

I am persuaded that Modernism and its emphasis on the individual has run its course1, but

that course has “reaped the whirlwind” in terms of catastrophes natural and relational.

A case and an essay could be devoted to examining the ’08 presidential election as a metaphor of this
epochal succession

Of course it was Modernism which begat advances in all areas of life – medical,

scientific, artistic, etc. – advances for which gratitude is an insufficient word. Therefore,

keep the baby. As Paul Brockelman in The Inside Story puts it, postmodernism “does not

do away with many positive and still useful elements of modernity…[it] does not reject

science and technological favor of intuition or pure feeling.2

That said, under the umbrella of Modernism huddles a modern hydra, with a multiplicity

of whack-a-mole woes and challenges. With the Enlightenment license to pursue

ourselves, with great gusto we set off. We objectified nature (√), built empires (√) and

subsumed whole cultures (√).

Modernism seduced us by first appealing to our vain piety, saying it was God’s will we

should dominate and consume the Earth. Francis Bacon convinced the faithful that nature

was a temperamental woman you could rape if she wasn’t cooperating. He so much as

advised us to think of mastering nature as taking another crack at Eden’s apple, but with

this apple, you can eat/mash up/poison/plow over it without consequence. Have at it!

Rolling in our excess, we have credited, revered and served The Market as our Provider.3

Thanks to that theology, we are presently found at the intersection of Shit Street and

Wind-our-Watch Boulevard.

Brockelman, Paul. The Inside Story: A Narrative Approach to Religious Understanding. Albany, NY:
State University of New York Press, 1992.

See Harvey Cox’s prophetic and rip-roaring essay, “The Market as God” in the March 1999 issue of The
Atlantic. Available at

Postmodernism is in its dawn as an era and it “dawns” on us, as it did the Hebrews toiling

in Egypt that we have similarly been enslaved by the shrinking vistas offered by a

Modern worldview. They were consigned to wandering in the desert, and we likewise

face a desertworld full of the unknown as we head out into the new postmodern

territories. Headlines carry the inconceivable news that we shall be shifting post-haste

from self-gratification to living sacrificially.

Can we live sacrificially? What will such living mean? Can we, amidst all this paradigm

renovation, regain a sense of the sacred? “How then, shall we live?”

Postmodern talk makes waves, rattles nerves. This removal of Manicheistic dualism, an

introduction of an admission of knowing there’s unknowing creates – tension. Believers

grounded in a modernist approach to understanding perceive an abandonment of

orthodoxy. They see a gauntlet thrown and perhaps have prematurely gone gunning for

what may wind up to be an illusion of differences. Their once-comforting blanky of

Modern certainty with its trusty empirical thought – which as practiced by the religionist

was a high-wire act – is completely threadbare but, rather than trade out for a functioning

new one, they’ll Linus through.

Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are portrayed in this tableau vivant of Modernism’s

dwindling intellectual credibility. Modernism started receiving invitations to join AARP a

couple decades ago and now is truly in its sunset years. Modernism is at this point is like

Grandpa insisting on his autonomy, but he’s got a broken hip, doesn’t remember your

name and can’t figure out the shower.

There’s grief also in recognition of having been short-changed by Modernism.

Religionists accommodated its model of empirical regimentation by creating a system of

apologetics that are Absolute and turn on “Proofs.” Believers were complicit in making

shipwrecks of their faith by capitulating to the world order. They wrecked much of what

they’ve touched and trashed their creed in the process.

Secularists have been likewise stranded by the insufficiency of the finite. Regarding their

believing counterparts, they rarely found models of faith. They instead beheld a paranoid

fear-driven people who often seem largely confused and theologically illiterate. The

comfort from feeling marginally better off for pursuing intellectual honesty is a cold

comfort though. These are broad brush strokes, as there are individuals who daub their

canvasses with a variety of capacities and ideas – but those nuanced folk are living

“postmodernly,” aren’t they?

Both camps feel the palpable absence of the sacred and submit to and/or witness a cheap

substitute for holiness in mega-worship power structure-sanctioned dogmatism. Flag-

swathed crosses are saluted while prayer-cloth hucksters promise healing on TV. But as

Caputo and Bob Dylan point out, everybody serves somebody and we are in no finer

fettle for ordering spirituality a la carte. Religion and para-religions are created on the fly

– cheap and customizable to suit lifestyle and ideology – all answerable to the common,

shared-by-all civic religion that exalts and affirms the individual.

Modernism’s Invisible Hand trickled down a twisted idea of responsible financial

stewardship. Just a step to the right and John Calvin’s prudent instruction to invest wealth

rather than thoughtlessly squander it got recast as a mandate to amass personal wealth as

a way of demonstrating one’s being elect of God.4

This assignment encourages my opinion, as if that’s important. So, I would say, and I

think others would affirm, that just plain living makes a person, and yes, a species,

“postmodern.” I mean to say that in the course of a lifetime, unexpected and unmerited

rewards along with equally surprising setbacks can make it difficult to escape the

realization that you don’t know as much as you thought you did.

If we turn to science and regard it in a postmodern light, we can draw analogies between

the sacral, secular and post-secular epochs (as outlined by Caputo5 throughout the second

chapter of On Religion) and mathematicians like René Thom and Benoit Mandlebrot.

Mandlebrot’s fractals have become a kind of chaos icon –an emblem of the endless

permutations of postmodernity. If, under Mandlebrot, geo-metry goes back to the Earth,

then it is only to prove that the Earth, once thought flat (pre-modern), then spherical

(modern), is now fractal and infinite, thus demonstrably postmodernish (“ish” because

should that turn out to be The Truth of earth’s nature, then chaos is refuted.6 (Sim, p.63)

Calvin actually cautioned us against “barbarous men” and “others [who] pillage poor people of their
money, and afterwards squander it in insane largesses.” [quoting from Calvin’s Institutes in] Coker, William
Francis. Readings in Political Philosophy. The Macmillan Company, New York. 1914. p. 197

Caputo, John D. On Religion. New York. Routledge, 2001

Sim, Stuart. Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. New York. Routledge, 2005. p. 63

Brockelman supports this as he references Stephen Toulmin, quoting from The Return to


There is [now] indeed room for scientists, philosophers, and theologians to sit
down together and to reexamine in detail the scientific, ethical, and theological
issues that arise about such ideas as ‘natural status’ and the ‘larger scheme of
things. (Brockelman, p. 121)7

Via postmodernism’s inclusive regard for what has gone before, we have an opportunity

to rediscover submerged values and ideas about sacredness. We can recover

creational/environmental priorities as offered in St. Basil's prayer8, of contrition as

Augustine's, of ecstasy of Teresa of Avila or the honesty of Job or St. John of the Cross.

We can consider with new sincerity collective goals such as are expressed in the Sermon

on the Mount and the two summary commandments of "love God with all.../love

neighbor as self."

Brockelman, Paul. The Inside Story: A Narrative Approach to Religious Understanding. Albany, NY.
State University of New York Press, 1992.

The familiar prayer goes, "The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Oh, God, enlarge within us 
the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as 
their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high 
dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in 
song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for 
Thee and that they love the sweetness of life.” [as quoted in] Fox, Michael W. The Boundless Circle:  
Caring for Creatures and Creation. Wheaton, IL. Quest Books, 1996. p. 50

Chidester gave the impression that the business of living was messy and so focused his

text to revolve around the one shared and never shared experience: death (I know, I’m

just not “getting” him.). He was safe in that and he was safe in saying, “Death apparently

stands as the ultimate limit situation in human life. Clearly, human beings have refused to

stop at that limit.”9 (Chidester. p. 247)

But the art of living must be essayed and the quest to recover sanctity in living is not a
fool’s errand:
Religion encourages love and benevolence, as we have seen, by absolutising the
moral principle of life until it achieves the purity of absolute disinterestedness [in
the self] and by imparting transcendent worth to the life of others. The
transcendent perspective of religion makes all men our brothers and nullifies the
divisions, by which nature, climate, geography and the accidents of history divide
the human family. (Niebuhr. p.71)10

In order to approach and participate in the sacred, one must leave behind the ordinary, the

realm of everything we take for granted. We must shed, be pressed through, and allow

that we may have to relinquish our self-directedness, including and perhaps foremost, our

sense of rightness. One has to trade in a culture that says admission of guilt is weakness

for personal accountability.

Let’s look a moment at the recent interview Charlie Gibson had with George W. Bush as
the president ends his term:

GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?

Chidester, David. Patterns of Transcendence: Religion Death and Dying. Stamford, CT:
Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932.

BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the
intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the
weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people
in my administration [not me]; a lot of members in Congress [also not me], prior to my
[wasn’t even around] arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of
leaders of nations around the world [totally different zip code] were all looking at the
same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had
been different, I guess.11

Thomas à Kempis said, “We often do a bad act, and make a worse excuse.”

David Foster Wallace (sadly, deceased), in a brilliant commencement address at Kenyon

College in 2005, challenged the graduates to examine as he was doing, his

deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the real-est, most vivid,
and most important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural,
basic self-centeredness because it is so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the
same for all of us. It’s our default setting, hard-wired into our boards from birth.12

So from these two chicken/egg ideas, accountability and weaning ourselves from

ourselves, we can turn to the doctrines of grace (to borrow from my own tradition) which

are all about emptying ourselves of our standard egocentric demands for security, desires,

appreciation, and control. Prayer is a way we can express our desire to become vessels.

St. John of the Cross might as well have been challenging our modern sensibilities when

he said, “It seems you want to measure God by the measure of your own capacity, but it

As transcribed by ABC News:

Wallace, David Foster. Kenyon College commencement address 2005, as transcribed by The Wall Street

will not be so.”13 He thought it best to unoccupy our hearts.

A contemporary of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, similarly taught praying as mostly

listening: remaining still and attentive in the presence of Christ. The prayers she did

verbalize were usually fortune cookie-like in their brevity: “Let nothing disturb you, Let

nothing frighten you,all things pass away;God never changes.Patience obtains all things.

He who has Godfinds he lacks nothing;God alone suffices.”14

Both offered instruction in this other-directed sort of praying, emptying the self so as to

be filled with God. Every religion incorporates some sort of contemplative prayer. In

Hebrew it’s called gerushin. Lectio Divina is making a comeback. Eastern Orthodoxers

pray in time with the breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, [breathing in] have mercy

on me [breathing out].” The aim of this repetition is to prepare the mind for intimate


Repeating the name of God is a way to empty the crowded mind of self-chatter. You can

begin with those small waiting-in-line, stopped-at-the-light-moments, or whenever you

notice you’re bombarded by the radio interference of your inner yakkety-yak. Use the

moment to open up the channel.

Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God.” St. Francis of Assisi spent

St. John of the Cross. Letter 3: To Madre Ana de San Alberto, prioress of Caravaca 7 Granada, 1582


whole nights repeating: “Who are you, O God, and who am I?” He did so not expecting a

“you are _____ and I am ____” answer as much as to use this prayer as a means of prying

himself away from the narrow, self-centered mind in order to enter the Holy of holies.

This is all very nice, after all, a quiet mind is indeed an antidote to the cacophony of the

world. But for such practices to be beyond expedient and be efficacious, to enter the Holy

of holies, we become aware of the sacred. We recall that God is holy. We see that we are

created in God’s image, but we are by no stretch of the imagination holy. As we are,

strutting and straining to shut the hell (literally intended) up, we have no patience—we

whine. We get caught up in everything that forestalls that which means everything. These

distractions are yet another sort of worship, and that continues the frustrating cycle.

…the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or
sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind
of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more
selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully
aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from
operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and
power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration
and craving and the worship of self.15 (Wallace)

But before we can hunker down into our prayer closets, we may ask what bridge exists

between crusty concerns of the day and the slipstream purity of the sacred? More

importantly, how might my unholiness be held at bay so I may bask in the beatific vision?

It’s easy to pick on the squirming president and chortle that he “man up” and own up. But

his reflex is mine and I know it. I think to show integrity and admit wrongdoing shows

character, but deep confession requires more than good upbringing and more than good

Wallace, David Foster. Kenyon College commencement address 2005, as transcribed by The Wall Street

character. It is a gift. I’ll elaborate in a moment.

As I said about the march of time making one “postmodern,” as I get older, all I don’t

know has, curiously – incongruously – combined to strengthen my faith. Weird, because

reason would warrant that acknowledgement of unknowing would naturally be faith-

shattering. Who in their right mind could conjure for themselves enduring faith? Anyone

can perhaps be compelled by glorious rhetoric or song and find themselves enlisting

when the altar call calls.16 But the trouble with emotional conversions is the same as

falling out of love: the heart can be as faithful as a weathervane. Add to fledgling belief

the inevitable tragedies, injustices and corruption of day-to-day existence and soon the

reasoning person shakes off the fairydust of his/her confessional contract.

So what then, in the event faith abides? If the Reformers are correct and it is faith that

finds us and not vice versa, does it mean the individual is not in the driver’s seat? And if

one embraces faith that has come and yet persists in embracing intellectualism (the

Modernist says pick one, can’t have both), then how can faith and knowledge collegially

cohabit the mind?

Here’s an offering: knowledge seems to be a thing one strives for, while wisdom and faith

are bestowed. It doesn’t have to be a contradiction.

The believer looking through a postmodern lens considers such undoing and incongruity

The “altar call” portion included in some Protestant services is a very recent

a blessing: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” (Job 13:15 KJV)

Knowledge is malleable – it shape-shifts. Entire spheres of knowledge can even be

destroyed, which for most, is severely disorienting. Wisdom however, is the sturdy rock:

solid, but not intractable. Knowledge is Heidegger, Niebuhr, Derrida, the landscaper, etc.

Wisdom permits Gandhi to thank his assassin, saying, “You send me to God.” Wisdom

appoints the unlikely anti-hero, say for example, Johnny Cash, as her herald and gives the

rest of us a glimpse of her enduring power. Likewise, an admixture of wisdom and faith

empowers Cash to declare without apology in chain gang work rhythm, may throw your rock and hide your hand

Workin' in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What's done in the dark will be brought to the light

You can run on for a long time

Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down17

Faith then has to be a gift. Who’d have been brave enough to accuse Johnny Cash of

succumbing to “the opiate of the people” when he knew his way around the entire

pharmacy? When Cash told us to repent, he told himself first (most effectively in his

cover of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.”18). Perhaps it’s this uncompromising nakedness that
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” traditional, performed by Johnny Cash

Reznor, Trent. “Hurt” as performed by Cash, Johnny.

caused a cast of unlikely sinner poster children like Iggy Pop, Keith Richards or Anthony

Kiedis to unreservedly honor Cash by appearing in his posthumous video, his final

j’accuse. For Cash, it was also importantly, a je m’accuse.

If the Man in Black then is regarded as wise, if faith is a gift that can’t vacillate, be lumpy

or limp – is repentance as I hinted above, also a gift and from whence do these gifts come

that grant us entry into The Sacred?

I have arrived at a peaceful “yes,” all these and more - and all I have not the capacity to

imagine - are gifts. I am satisfied as Abraham Kuyper was when he proposed that

“secular” was a false proposition, saying “there is not one square inch in all creation over

which Jesus does not say ‘this is mine.’”

When the hub of my thought became a two-pronged recognition of the sovereignty and

the holiness of God, the muddled befuddling cross-purposes of scripture were

harmonized and the sense and the nonsense were reconciled. Contra to prevalent

Reformed tradition, my sense of sovereignty persuades me encounter is purposed and it’s

probably likely I am to learn from the stranger than I am there to instruct. Each tradition

that is not my own is ultimately my own, for I am contained in an amniotic hold of

Creation. To reiterate an earlier thought – if Paul was speaking truly when he wrote that it

is in God “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then it is we then who

are encompassed within reality, rather than fantasy masters of a Baconian Legoland.

So, Modern dissembler, keep your provable formulas and give me my hallucinatory

fractals and beautiful, stupefying Golden Ratio. They instruct me in Assurance surpassing

paltry proof. I can affirm the improbable – that a lion could lie down with a lamb or

swords could be converted to plowshares. I can share the Psalmist’s vision: “Mercy and

truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalm 85:10


Works Cited:
ABC News: Gibson/Bush interview 12/2008
Brockelman, Paul. The Inside Story: A Narrative Approach to Religious Understanding.
Albany, NY. State University of New York Press, 1992.

Caputo, John D. On Religion. New York. Routledge, 2001

Cash, Johnny. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” traditional, performed by Johnny Cash
Chidester, David. Patterns of Transcendence: Religion Death and Dying. Stamford, CT:
Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.
Coker, William Francis. Readings in Political Philosophy. The Macmillan Company,
New York. 1914

Fox, Michael W. The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures and Creation. Wheaton, IL. 
Quest Books, 1996.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
Reznor, Trent. “Hurt” as performed by Cash, Johnny.
St. John of the Cross. Letter 3: To Madre Ana de San Alberto, prioress of Caravaca 7
Granada, 1582

Sim, Stuart. Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. New York. Routledge, 2005.

Wallace, David Foster. Kenyon College commencement address 2005, as transcribed by

The Wall Street Journal.