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In more primitive cultures, a sacred ‘presence’ was part of one’s normal experience. The gods of Homer’s Greece were part of everyone’s daily life. The sharp difference that we ascribe to secular matters and sacred matters would make no sense to a Shaman. In the Garden of Eden, God walked about and spoke to the inhabitants. He spoke with Abraham and Moses. He sent His messenger to speak to Mary, and then sent His own son into the world. In these times and cultures, people were immersed in the sacred, and felt a direct participation with higher levels of existence. “During the last three or four centuries, however,” notes Douglas Sloan, “this participatory awareness of a meaningful world has dimmed almost to the point of extinction.”
At the same time, something very positive has emerged in its place: the modern development and strengthening of individual selfhood. We experience the self’s relationship to the world in a very different way than did our ancestors. We have a far greater sense of personal identity, separate from others and detached from nature. We demand and expect personal freedom and full opportunity for personal achievement.
But modern individuals in a scientific and technological world are no longer sustained by a living and sacred world. We find ourselves grounded instead in the ‘onlooker’ viewpoint of science, in which we analyze nature and find ways to make her do our bidding. And we endure the psychological consequences of holding to this position — alienation, fragmentation, loss of meaning.
Must this be the inevitable outcome of the modern experiment in individualization? Is the apex of this endeavor merely the bleak realization that the individual is alone in a senseless, violent and absurd universe? Or is it possible to remain a free and rational ‘self’, and still be connected to a living web of mutuality and authentic spiritual meaning?
This is the core issue. Can we unite material life with spiritual life, in such a way that neither domain overwhelms or erodes the other?