Sacred and Profane Power


“We are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight Where ignorant armies clash by night”  Matthew Arnold

Once again, the Empire is threatened. This time not by a man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, but by holy warriors who use their own deaths as weapons of mass destruction to cripple the powerful.

In the gathering chaos that followed the events of 9/11 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists are hugely interested in acquiring power to compel obedience, by way of ballots or bullets. They dream of neo-theocracies in which their orthodoxy will be enforced by law. The self-righteous right is eager to usurp the secular power of the state to enforce the rule of the Torah, Koran or Bible and compel their neighbors to abide by their notions of revelation and redemption. In the name of the greater glory of God, they preach jihad, bomb abortion clinics, encourage riots of ethnic and religious cleansing, train teen-agers to become martyrs in suicide brigades, and use military power to occupy the “holy land” supposedly given them by the Almighty.


Meanwhile the profane juggernaut -the New American Empire (NAE) and the Global Economic Order,(GEO) —rolls on its relentless way. To the advocates of military and economic power, might make right. In true Manichean fashion, they divide the world into Us and Them, good and evil, the children of light and the children of darkness. The kingdom, the power and the glory belong to those with the largest armies, weapons of mass destruction and GNP. The underdeveloped masses that survive on less than $2 per day are denied any significant political power.

Below the surface of the now and future power struggles lie perennial questions. What is the nature of power? Sacred power?  Profane power?

All of this leaves me wondering: What is my relationship to power? Because I am, at heart, religious in some left-handed way, I need to understand the nature of sacred power in order to know how I should relate to political power in an appropriate way. What belongs to God and what to Caesar?

The Sacred Cosmos: The Power of Being

My understanding of sacred power is rooted in a type of experience that the two greatest phenomenologists of religion, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, convince me is perennial and lies at the heart of all the great world religions.

In The Idea of the Holy, Otto shows that religion is not about Ideas of God, but about an epiphany of the holy that evokes feelings of awe and terror because of its terrible power and feelings of fascination and attraction because of its overwhelming beauty and promise of fulfillment.

Mircea Eliade carries this idea a step further by tracing the

contrast between sacred and profane ways of experiencing the world. No matter whether the epiphany of the holy involves an encounter with a rock, a bush, a flower in a crannied wall, or the words or presence of a teacher or prophet such as Jesus or Mohammed, it brings us into the presence of power that is numinous and revelatory.

The moment we pass through the looking glass into the realm of the sacred everything changes, turns upside down, is transvalued. We become convinced that the sacred vision reveals the true nature of reality and the profane vision of a desacralized cosmos is an illusion. Because an encounter with the holy changes our identity it causes words to twist and turn and mean just the opposite of what they meant when they appeared on the front page of the NY Times. No word undergoes a more radical transformation than “power”.

The perennial experience of the sacred begins with a sense of overwhelming impotence. In the presence of the “wholly other” God we experience our profound creatureliness, our nothingness. We are “but dust and ashes” Fredrich Schliermacher, the 19 century theologian, defines religion, or God consciousness, as this feeling of being absolutely dependent on a “whence” that cannot be rendered conceptually. Our identity as creatures involves an awareness of impotence in the face of the sacred cannot be cured by Viagra or by classes in self-esteem. It is not the result of an occasional failure of power, but of the fundamental realization that we are not in control. Penultimately, we can fabricate a Wall Mart full of goodies. Ultimately, we die. “Like the grass of the field, the wind passes over us and we are gone” We are impermanent and without the power to will our own existence. After we find ourselves having been thrown into existence without our consent, “to be or not to be” is the question. Once existing, we gain the power to make one irrevocable choice—to continue living or to commit suicide.   But the basic human condition is the result of a one-party contract imposed on us by God that we are powerless to change.

Paradoxically, It is within this context of the experience of transience, contingency, and absolute dependency that a unique sense of sacred personal power is born. In a deathbed interview I did with the philosopher Ernest Becker he said it this way: The human animal has no strength and this inability to stand on one’s own feet is one of the most tragic aspects of life. When you finally break through your character armor and discover your vulnerability, it becomes impossible to live without massive anxiety unless you find a new power source. And this is where the idea of God comes in.”

Ultimate Power: The Cybernetic God

How God becomes the ultimate power source in the life of a believer becomes clear only when we realize the radically different character of the worlds inhabited by religious and non-religious persons. Between sacred and profane visions of the world there is an absolute gulf.

The power that moves the profane world is happenstance, faceless, impersonal and blind. Nature is seen as “red in tooth and claw” (Darwin), society as “a condition of war of everyone against everyone” (Hobbes), politics as nothing but a game of amoral power (Machiavelli or Henry Kissinger.) Bertrand Russell captured the essence of the profane metaphysic in his vision of man as a weary but unyielding Atlas who constructs his own world despite the trampling march of unconscious power.


To be animated by a sense of the sacred is to live in a world that is charged with the power and grandeur of God but forever escapes our understanding and control.

From the perspective of the sacred vision there are no separate entities, no disconnected facts. “God” is the code word for the original systems theory. All reality is intercourse, interconnection, inter-action, interbeing, interfering, interpower. in the beginning and the end is the word; there is only communication. There is nothing atomic, in-dividual, split off, separate. The starting point for any religious philosophy is: We are; therefore, I am. Subtract interaction and communication and there would be neither God, cosmos nor human beings. The gnostic Gospel of Thomas puts this notion of the radical immanence of divine power in the mouth of Jesus: “Split the wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

“Religion” in its original sense was the yoke that binds us together in a celebration of our interbeing. The communion of all believers is rooted in the awareness that to be alive is to partake of the divine power. The body of God is daily bread.

The experience of residing within the empowering creativity of the divine brings the best of theology into line with the consensus of modern sciences in its rejection of the old notions of power. Science, cybernetics, ecology and religion are all moving beyond the metaphor of power, beyond the vision of a universe made up of separate entities interacting by push-pull, cause-effect.

Gregory Bateson put it this way: “As a result of systems theory, ecology, cybernetics, and even semantics, the metaphor “power” as used to talk about politics and personal relations is no longer acceptable. In principle all metaphors derived from a physical world of impacts, forces, energy, etc., are unacceptable in explanations of events and processes in the biological world of information, purpose, context, organization and meaning. The “power” metaphor… must be looked at, as a functioning falsehood or error, causing what pathologies?’^”

Joseph Campbell tells us it was always so: “Certain spiritual principles have remained constant throughout the course of human history… The universal doctrine teaches that…all things and beings are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as manna, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God.”(JC. Hero 257))

The Sacred Self: Power. Potentiality. Promise

If that entity I call my “self ” is not an autonomous center of action, but is (pardon the language) radically dependent on, ontologically bonded to, intersubjectively connected with, erotically inseparable from God  (the Ground of all Being and Becoming, the Self-transcending-Transcender-of all, the Alpha and Omega) how should I think about my personal power?


I am no-thing and Everything, an impotent part of an omnipotent whole, a sinner (sundered) and a saint (whole), “At its best, religion reveals both truths about man: his worm likeness as well as his godlikeness. Religious heroism involves living in primary awe at the miracle of the created object—including oneself in one’s own godlikeness.” (Becker)

How do I experience my godlikeness? My sacred power? Not by proclaiming myself ‘the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,””a weary but unyielding Atlas,” Not by courses in self-esteem that assure me that I create my own reality.

It begins with a quiet moment when my normal identity disappears and I am wonderstruck, terrified and fascinated to realize that my existence, like that of the cosmos, is mysterious beyond anything I can comprehend or control. When I consider my life existentially I realize that I am not a standardized human unit that can be replaced by another standardized unit. To myself I am not a specimen, or a member of a species that evolved from a chance collision of particles in the cosmic soup. The state may consider me a citizen to be numbered, taxed, conscripted, fitted into the demands of a five year plan. My employer may consider me a resource to be used or discarded as needed. But to myself I fits into no pigeon hole. I am a bud beginning to unfold, a story waiting to be told.


The experience of creatureliness brings with it the realization that my life, like the cosmos, is a manifestation of God, an out flowing from the Fertile Void, The life that is given to me is not an abstraction but a rich bundle of talents and potentialities that I may choose to actualize or not. My unique, precious and unrepeatable life is a work in progress that depends on my will, imagination and energy to bring to fruition. As I struggle to bring ffoth what is within me, to actualize my gifts, I am em-powered and en-couraged and experience the fullness of being, or, in traditional language, I am ‘saved” As Jesus says in The Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.’

Power as Potentiality

The abiding sense of power, purpose and meaning that the sacred perspective offers the individual flows from the conviction that one’s most idiosyncratic gift -one’s vocation- is an integral part of the divine creative process-the 8th day of creation. Again Earnest Becker: “What makes dying easier is …to know that beyond the absurdity of one’s own life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what is happening to us, there is the fact of tremendous creative energies of the cosmos that are using us for some purpose we don’t know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, that is the thing that consoles.”

When I experience my self as sacred, a divine being with fingerprints, I discover that the words “power,’ ‘potential’, ‘promise’, ‘purpose’, ‘vocation” are identical.

“Power” comes from the Latin “potentia” – potential.

My potential is discovered in the unfolding of my talents and gifts

My power increases as I fulfill the promise of my being.

My vocation is the voice of my future calling me to become.

My gifts, my vocation, are woven into my DNA

My end (telos) is in my beginning

My DNA is a strand in the ongoing process of creation

The power-potential-promise of my being is integral to


Holy Community: Compassion and the Quest for Justice

What does it mean to act in a sacred manner in civic and political matters? What is the difference between treating my neighbor in a sacred and a profane way? A secular community emerges from a social contract by which individuals governed by self-interest agree to limit their exercise of power in order to enjoy the benefits of community. To survive, a community must maintain a minimum level of civility. Without a degree of power sharing, respect for the law and a distribution of goods that allows people to live, political power degenerates into strategic violence in an effort to enforce obedience. Absolute power in the hands of the few destroys the potentialities of the many. Under the rule of the Grand Inquisitor a thousand flowers are prevented from blooming.

A sacred community emerges not from a contract but from a covenant based on the experience of the essential communion of self and other. I and thou are not separate self-interested entities but entwined spirited beings. We exist only by coexisting. There is no I without thou; no self without other; no singularity without plurality; no plenitude without multitude; no passion without compassion’ no promise without corn-promise; no potency without co-potency.

Sacred community requires far more than mere civility or fairness. Although the great religions have very different theologies, they share a common vision of the kind of action that characterizes the life of the sincere believer.  The summary of this consensus: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” The golden rule places a maximum demand on all who would be guided by it. When we unpack the implications of this simple, universal commandment we find it involves the recognition of the preciousness of all persons and the intention to respond to all members of the global village with empathy and compassion .


Once we acknowledge the inseparability of the self from the community, the quest for justice takes on a radical nature that goes beyond the civic virtues we owe to our immediate neighbors, it is no longer satisfied by mere fairness or by the obligation to share a minimum of wealth and power. It demands that we seek the fulfillment of the potentiality and promise of our neighbors, near and far. Love radicalizes the demand for justice by extending it beyond tribe or nation to all members of the commonwealth of all beings. As the Buddhist vow puts the matter: ” Sentient Beings are numberless I vow to save them.”

When we remember that being a person, from a sacred perspective, involves power -potentiality-promise, it is clear that power is an inevitable dimension in all human relationships. But, it is self-evident that all persons are not created equal either in the amount or type of power given to them. The gifts of energy, imagination, intelligence, health, wealth, and access to education are unequally distributed. To have a vocation is to accept and develop whatever gifts, talents and privileges we have been given not as possessions to which we are entitled but as a trust to be used for the enrichment of the commonwealth.

Love, politics and power

Carl Jung famously said:  ” Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking.” But renouncing the will to power -the grasping after power for one’s own safety and security– does not mean that a loving person will abandon the use of political power. Power becomes sacred when it is used in the service of compassion, power for others rather than power over others.

Because, as Marx taught us, no ruling class ever voluntarily gives up its privilege and power, love seeking justice must use power. The awareness of the sacredness of all life brings with it a painful awareness of desecration, violation and sacrilege. At this point in history, numberless masses live in desperate circumstances, their potentialities for fulfillment stunted by tyranny, injustice, poverty and pollution of the environment. Compassionate citizens of the global commonwealth and commonpoverty need to marshal righteous anger and sacred rage and use all available nonviolent types of power against entrenched power elites for the enfranchisement of the powerless.   Sacred love seeks power to secure justice, not to enforce ideological, doctrinal or sexual conformity.

The question of whether love sometimes demands that we resort to violence to secure justice remains moot, and is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, pacifists from Jesus to Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr, believing that it is better to suffer violence than inflict it, advocated nonviolent direct action to change unjust social structures. Others, citing the example of Hitler and the holocaust, believe there are crimes against humanity so horrendous that warfare may be the only way to serve the cause of justice. The obvious difficulty with the notion of a just war is that it is so frequently used to justify the profaning actions of profane nations. It is increasingly difficult to imagine that any war that makes use of weapons of mass destruction, that by definition are indiscriminate and genocidal, could be sanctified by an appeal to justice. I am inclined to believe that the only just use of violence is by police and peace keeping forces under the auspices of the United Nations.




Map for an Endless Journey

These reflections on sacred and profane power leave many of my questions unanswered. Like anyone who has experienced an epiphany of the sacred in any form, I am caught up in the perennial struggle between sacred and profane views of the world. Like it or not, I am a citizen of both realms and must find some way to live in a creative tension between the two.

I am under no illusion that I will ever live in a commonwealth governed equally by love, power and justice. But a map showing the topography of these competing kingdoms of human consciousness helps me to understand the direction in which I must travel to fulfill the sacred promise of my life, to become a wholesome person.