What is causing our world’s descent into moral chaos? In his article in the last issue Dr. Outler looked beneath symptoms to the root cause: radical secularism has rejected the sacred and deified the human. Paradoxically, by losing the sacred it has lost the truly human as well. The solution is found not in a return to the sacral tyrannies of Tutankhamen or Innocent III, but in the justifying faith that grounds God’s sacred order in the texture of Christian freedom.

In this article, Dr. Outler presents more precise proofs of secularism’s failure, including its devastation of the realms of law and of marriage. He sees its answers—the cults of “success,” psychological nostrums, and secular supernaturalism—as merely the self-centered reciprocal of the loss of the sacred. But in Romans 8 we find the gospel answer: a return to the sacred through Jesus Christ.

Since time immemorial, the sense of the sacred has connoted a specific human sensibility of the transcendent (this was Rudolf Otto’s main point). Homo sapiens is, by his Creator’s design, homo religiosus. Of all God’s creations, the human uniquely bears the image of God. Even in its defacement by sin, this has not been totally eradicated; and insofar as it continues to exist, it defines “the human.” This means that human life and society have always been sacralized in some sense and in some measure—and still are, even if now only latently. There is no truly human self-awareness apart from an accompanying awareness of being grasped by, immersed in, suffused with, the sacred order.

There is a consensus to this effect among most historians of religion—men as diverse as Émile Durkheim, Julian Haynes, Gerardus Van Der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade, Geoffrey Parrinder, even Claude Lévi-Strauss (to name 6 of 60). The greatest of these, Professor Eliade, has spoken of the contrasts between the sacral values in archaic cultures and “the ultimate stages of desacralization” in the modern Western world.

And they also all agree that the loss of the sacred is never complete, even in a radically desacralized society. To be human at all is to have some sense of transcendence, if only as a function of the paradox that lies between the infinitude of human aspiration and those two grim brackets of our finitude: birth and death.

One need not take this scenario of Paradise Lost too seriously to acknowledge Milton’s central thesis: the essential human tragedy comes from the corruption of the human beset by a superstitious belief in the autonomy of the creature. For this was also the burden of the biblical polemic against idolatry—including the prophetic condemnations of the idolatrous corruptions of religion itself. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam quickly discovered how subtly religious awe, reverence, and submission may be corrupted when married to the pomp and exaltation and arrogance of secular power. The glistening splendors of the Byzantine court blinded many a pious eye to the sodden mudsills of humanity on which that splendor rested. The heights of a Gothic cathedral blurred one’s sight of the huddled misery around its base. This insensitivity of the sacred hierarchy to the stifled cries of God’s poor thus triggered the reckless desacralizations that have issued in the shambles of secularism in which we now stand.

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We cannot, of course, go back. But then, neither need we any longer defend the abuses that desacralization has brought with it. The Communist Manifesto was passionately humanitarian: but what has happened to the human cause in Marxist countries? The Secular City, The Greening of America, Where the Wasteland Ends were all cheerful projections of new human harmonies. But who can walk the streets of any “secular city” without a leaden heart or physical fear? Who doubts that America, instead of “greening,” is in “the sere and yellow leaf”? Where does the human wasteland end—and when?

Protestant liberalism spawned a whole series of what now seem wildly unrealistic enchantments. As Symonds wrote: “These things shall be: a nobler race / Than e’er the world hath known shall rise / … / They shall be gentle, brave and strong.” Try singing this after your weekly round with Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, and National Catholic Reporter!

The truth is that the reduction of theology to anthropology has served neither the cause of God nor of man very well. There is a new sense of autonomy abroad, but with it have come new enslavements and new impotencies. The triumphs of technology have loosed upon us demonic forces (inflation, domestic disorders, impending new holocausts) that threaten human survival on this fragile, lonesome planet.

True, there has been gain in many of the emancipations from the older oppressions, supported as they were by legalism, sacerdotalism, moralism, and even by those guilt trips that drive neurotics to the psychiatrists. But who foresaw how devastating a plague upon the human spirit these new antinomianisms would be? What has all this led us to? And what more, and worse, still lies ahead? What else besides a haunted feeling of being at the end of an era ushered in by Hume and Gibbon and Kant and Voltaire (or in still another possible scenario, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx)?

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We have moved from the mindset in which, even for a deist, it seemed fit enough to speak of men and women being created (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …”); to the settled conviction that humanity is on its own in an impersonal, natural matrix; to the paradox of believing that we are, after all, masters of our fate, captains of our souls—and yet not inrictus in any sense that matters in the end.

We have moved from a mindset in which the sacred order was defined as “The Kingdom of God” to a brazen narcissism in which the human potential has been translated into utopian subjunctives: you can be happy—or rich, or whatever—if only … We have “progressed” from a milieu that found its sonorities in Bach’s B Minor Mass to the flamboyant exaltation of the Verdi Requiem to Mahler’s agonizing triumph in his Second (Resurrection) Symphony to Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and finally to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (about which we are told that it’s only good, clean fun, and that Christians ought to be broad-minded enough to laugh at a clever, sacrilegious joke).


We are witnesses to a massive shift from the original notion of a free church in a free state to the increasingly hostile interventions of judicial opinions and civil regulations. These control what may be studied of religion in the schools. They determine when human life begins and ends, and how defenseless lives (if labeled “unwanted”) may be disposed of. All of this supports ethical relativism, and relegates religion to the margins of public policy.

For good or ill, divine law and civil law here have been linked from the beginning of time. The majesty of the law came, at least in large part, from its acknowledged analogies to the sacred order itself. We need not wonder at the fact that even civil law has lost its majesty since it has come to be regarded as manmade, as whatever the legislators vote and the judges opine. In the realm of social control, we must conclude, the results of the loss of the sacred are devastating to human law.


It is at least as bad in the domain of marriage and the family. Surely our most crucial analog to the sacred order is the family, that unique human matrix where persons may live out their very different lives, each to its full potential. In the family as evolved in the Judeo-Christian tradition we can rightly acknowledge the sacredness of the human self in all its mystery (inception, emergence, maturation, exit).

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In the human species, the family is an exceptionally stressful syndrome, involving unavoidable interpersonal relationships, with irreducible inequalities of various sorts, and yet also with the possibilities of equal belonging and full mutuality.

So matrimony has to be “holy” or it is tragically unholy; only a sacred covenant can hold its career on a relatively steady course. Only selves who hold each other sacred can sanctify sex. Only selves who hold human selfhood sacred can be motivated to safeguard the rights of the unborn, the newborn. Only when we live life in a sacred order are we compensated for the drudgeries of child rearing, the fearful hazards of growing up, the cruel traps of middle age, the appalling loneliness of old age.

Stultify the sacred character of this most difficult and most rewarding of all human commitments, as we have, and things are bound to fall apart. Marriages may then be regarded as provisional and sex becomes less sacred, more sensual. A correlation between the loss of the sacred and the loss of the fully human becomes empirically verifiable.

Self-Centered Substitutes

Any such “loss of the sacred” naturally generates a plethora of substitutes, all sharing the common character of self-centeredness. The sense of the sacred implies a sense of Another—and this becomes the ground, not only for one’s self-relating to the sacred Other, but to other selves as also sacred (which is to say, to an ethic that is neither hedonistic nor depersonalized, but religious, in the literal sense of demanding a response of obedience. The loss of the sacred, therefore, calls out and “justifies” the whole adventure of self-salvation. There are three current aspects of this increasingly desperate adventure.

In the beginning, there was the cult of positive thinking. From Coué to Carnegie to Erhard and Wayne Dyer, one can trace a progression of banalities, all devoted to “success”—subjectively defined and self-achieved.

But the pursuit of success suffers the same final frustrations as the pursuit of moral perfection described in Romans 7—partial success is no more finally fulfilling than partial obedience to the Law. And yet all the worldly “success” we ever know is partial; in the nature of the case, there is never enough for the secular man or woman. The over-reacher always ends up stultified by his shortfalls. Every program of self-salvation comes finally to the despair of Romans 7:18—“the will to do good may be there, but the power to get it done is not.” This is bound to be disconcerting to those who had been promised self-salvation.

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Closely akin to these worshipers of “success” are the evangelists of redemption by one psychological nostrum or another. This is the hugely successful renaissance of an old tradition: Gnosticism. By secret wisdom one may tap his innate potential by some formula or cultic program. Martin Gross has provided us with a sort of annotated catalogue of currently fashionable gnostic sects in The Psychological Society. The range is fascinating: from the high-minded gurus of freedom and inner directedness (Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow) to the hard-eyed egocentrism of Werner Erhard to the soft-headed cheerfulness of Tom Harris to the laid-back spontaneities of Esalen.

At least two things are obvious in every case. First, all are escapist routes from specifically bourgeois miseries. Second, the ethics of these sectarians are uncompromisingly secularistic in their premises. Philip Rieff can finally come up with nothing more realistic than an appeal for an ethics of decency and decorum—as if he had never heard of Romans 7:18.

But the nearest thing to a secular substitute for the recovery of a false sense of the sacred in these days may be found in secular supernaturalism. Here we see a boom in astrology, new “turnings to the East,” new claims for transcendental meditation, new forms of sorcery, new explorations in parapsychology, and the old pretensions of “Scientology,” and so on. The shared promise of all these is a revision of that promise made long ago to our first parents: “You will not really die [if you disregard the sacred order]; actually you will be godlike yourselves” (a slightly loose but not inaccurate translation of Gen. 3:4). That such a lie should last so long and take so many shapes in human history points us toward the very heart of “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7).

Here then is my thesis: The loss of the sacred in our time and the upsurge of self-sufficiency are reciprocals—and this is a massive new chapter in a long, tragic history.

Despite all the cheerful promises of “progress,” it is finally clear that none of the great human issues has yet been resolved to our lasting benefit. For all the consciousness raisings we have had on this aspect of human indignity, or that, for all our fine frenzies of moral indignation, our actual gains toward peace and plenty and happiness seem disproportionately low.

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Thus far the loss of the sacred in our time; thus far the human wasteland of godlessness; thus far the loss of faith in God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, the lack of assurance that the Paraclete is our sufficient reliance; thus far the gathering dusk of another dark age, a setting for another Boethius; thus far the delusions of human self-sufficiency; thus far our reenactment of Romans 1 and 2.

The Future

We could speak of the human prospect only in tears were it not for our faith in the lordship of Jesus Christ, together with our memories and expectations of various “surprises of the Spirit” and the solid, sure serenity that breathes through Romans 8.

In looking to the future, we must make careful distinctions between any idea of recovering the sense of sacred order within scattered enclaves of the Spirit and a renewed commitment of the whole Christian community to God’s kingdom and his righteousness (which always includes our love of our neighbor in God).

We must not settle for anything less than our best wisdom, our best-tested faith, our truest love. We must ask ourselves and each other what we have to say about the possibility of a really radical shift in the basic sensibilities in our society—away from the miasmas of narcissism to yet another awakening in the Spirit with its fresh and controlling sense of the sacred. What would it take to renew faith in God’s immanent rule of righteousness in human life and society, to reenlist Christians for new patterns of disciplined life in witness, service, and dauntless hope?

The whole of Romans 8 is the great alternative clue to the recovery of the full richness of the sacred order in which we, and humanity, may come to live again, and truly. Notice how Saint Paul’s argument has moved from the flat-voiced doomsaying in 1:18–2:29, through a terse exposition of the evangelical mystery of God’s free pardon for Christ’s sake appropriated by faith alone, to a restatement of the human condition in the pitiless realism of chapter 7.

Then in chapter 8 Paul shouts out that people liberated by the Spirit live “in the Spirit” because that Spirit dwells within them (v. 9). This is his description of life in the sacred order, in the kingdom of God. It is a life in which the Spirit attests our sonship with our heavenly Father, since, far from the primal dread in the presence of God, the Spirit-filled person may speak to the Almighty as “Abba.” This is the commanded life that still has its ordeals in tragic plenty, its modicums of heroism, its repeated frustration in good causes that may not triumph. But it is a life with no final despair, since we now live in an unshakable certitude that nothing in all creation “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Maybe the time has come again to take Saint Luke seriously about his subjunctive in 18:17: “Should anyone not accept the kingdom of God [the sacred order] as a child he will simply never enter it at all.”

After a bitter prodigal’s journey into the same far country of godlessness we have been exploring, one derelict-tumed-Christian-poet was redeemed to write “The Hound of Heaven.” He also left a poem so nearly private that it went unpublished till found in his papers after his death. But Francis Thompson’s “In No Strange Country” is yet another way of evoking our sense of the sacred which, however lost, may yet be recovered to humanity’s great gain!

But when so sad thou canst not sadder,

Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss

Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder

Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter

Cry—clinging Heaven by the hems;

And lo, Christ walking on the water

Not of Gennesareth, but Thames.

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