The sharp difference that we ascribe to secular matters and sacred matters could never make sense to a Shaman. The gods and goddesses of Homer’s Greece were part of everyone’s daily life. In the Garden of Eden, God walked about and talked to the inhabitants. He spoke with Abraham and Moses, and later sent His son into the world.
In these times and cultures, people believed they were immersed in a sacred world, they knew who and what they were, and most importantly they felt a direct participation in higher levels of existence that gave their lives purpose and value. But for the most part, writes Douglas Sloan, during the last three or four centuries “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 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 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 from the outside and find ways to make her do our bidding. We have been phenomenally successful at this, and our intelligence and creativity continue to bear fruit every day. It is also true, however, that we endure the psychological consequences of holding to this position: alienation, fragmentation, loss of meaning. Nothing characterizes the modern world more completely than the loss of an intuitive understanding of transcendence, our lack of appreciation for levels of reality above our everyday affairs. By shutting the door on transcendence, we have cut off any light from that world that might have illuminated this one, leaving us in darkness, leaving us with nothing but a dead world where scientists are merely performing an autopsy.
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 meaningless, 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 meaning?