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The Human Need for Sacred Community

In addition to our many physical needs, we humans have psychological needs (or perhaps better put, spiritual needs). Among the most important of these are:

One: The need to feel that our lives are important and meaningful; that as individuals we are much more than brief blooms of insignificant life on a small planet orbiting a minor star in an unimportant galaxy.

Two: The need for moral guidance, that is, to know what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad.

For most human beings throughout history these two great needs have been taken care of by membership in what may be called a sacred community: a clan, a tribe, an ancient Greek city-state, a nation, a church, a totalitarian political party.

From the point of view of the individual, his sacred community is self-evidently important and significant. If my tribe is important and significant, then I, part of that tribe, share in its importance and significance. As a mere individual I may be of little or no significance; but as a member of the tribe, I am very significant. My tribe is important in the eyes of God (or History), and so I too am important to God.

It may happen, however, that I experience a “crisis of faith,” that I come to doubt the absolute importance my tribe. Why would I do that? Perhaps because I have become aware of social groups that are far more powerful and more clever than my little tribe. In that case, I will also doubt the importance and significance of my own life.

A sacred community lays down the moral rules I should live by. It gives me rules of prohibition (“thou must not”), rules of proscription (“thou must”), and rules of permission (“thou may”). But if I have a crisis of faith, if I come to doubt the absolute worth of my sacred community, I will doubt its rules of morality as well. I will no longer be sure of what’s right or wrong, of what’s good or bad.

If this crisis of faith occurs, I will have three choices: either (a) I will have to quell my doubts and re-affirm, despite all arguments to the contrary, my faith in the ultimate worth of my sacred community; or (b) I will have to seek a new and better moral community, one I have no doubts about; or (c) I will have to learn to live without the support of a moral community.

Extreme Unction by Nicholas Poussin, c. 1640 [Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England] (Click to expand)

This last option (c) is very hard. Not many persons are able to live well without the support of a moral community. Perhaps the best Epicurean philosophers of the ancient world were able to do this; for example, Epicurus himself. The Epicurean philosophy emerged, by the way, as a response to the collapse of the Greek city-state. How could anybody in the age of Philip and Alexander continue to think of the city-state as a thing of absolute worth?

Option (b), seeking a new and better moral community, is the one usually chosen. Thus, the breakdown of the sacred communities of the ancient world led eventually to the acceptance of new and better moral community, the Christian Church. The trouble with this is that there is a long time – often a very long time indeed – between the breakdown of the old community and the finding of a new and better community. Years may pass, even centuries. The collapse of the city-state took place in the 4th century BC for the Greek world, but it wasn’t until the 4th and 5th centuries AD that the Christian Church was more or less solidly established as the new and better moral community. In the interval, there was much confusion and despair about life, and much moral anarchy.

Option (a), the quelling of doubts about the old faith and the old sacred community, is what we witness today in much of the Islamic world. In our age of travel and TV and movies and the Internet, Muslims living in predominantly Islamic countries cannot avoid being aware that the West is far ahead of them in science, technology, medicine, warfare, politics, and even in some aspects of morality (e.g., giving equal rights to women). This awareness of their cultural inferiority cannot but stimulate doubts in Muslims about the validity of their sacred community and its faith.

Vast numbers quell these doubts by re-affirming, despite their questions, their belief in the eternal truth and validity of Islam. And some of these re-affirmers – especially young persons – go so far as to make jihad against the West and its culture of modernity. But for every violent young man who takes up a gun (or a bomb) against the West, there are probably a hundred or a thousand Muslims who in their hearts and minds re-affirm their shaky faith by detesting Western modernity. Not jihadists themselves, they quietly sympathize with the brave jihadists.

Meanwhile, we in the West are, for the most part, persons of little faith. Not many fully believe in Christianity any more. Further, our post-Christian faiths have shown little staying power. Nationalism, for example, once a very powerful post-Christian faith, is now waning. Communism, once a powerful post-Christian and post-nationalist faith, is today pretty much a dead faith. Radical feminism, a lively faith in the 1970s and ‘80s, is fading, now only a shadow of what it once was – kept alive today by a few left-wing nuns and other old ladies. And secular humanism, whatever that means, or the old faith in “progress” seem to have little power to inspire anymore.

The liveliest post-Christian faith today is the LGBT movement. It provides, at least temporarily, meaning and a moral code (a highly permissive one) for a handful of odd people, but nothing for the rest of us. So that too will fizzle out before long.

Much of the West is doomed, I fear, to roam in a moral and metaphysical wilderness for a long time to come.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.