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The Loss of the Sacred in American Culture

The Loss of the Sacred in American Culture

There’s a grim scene near the end of The Iliad in which the Greek hero Achilles, because of his rage and grief over the death of his comrade Patroclus at the hands of the Trojan prince Hector, slays Hector in battle and drags his corpse behind his chariot, day after day, desecrating the body in a manner unthinkable to the ancient Greeks. In fact, the affront to the dignity of this hero and prince, as well as the violation of the sacred customs of Greek society, eventually compels the gods to intervene. They tell Priam, the elderly king of Troy, to go to Achilles and plead for the body of Hector so that it may be properly honored and buried. The gods will not allow such a desecration to continue.

In these final lines of this epic poem—which, along with The Odyssey forms the bedrock of Western literature and arguably Western Civilization as a whole—Homer reaffirms a notion that all Greeks would have agreed with: There are certain lines that must not be crossed, certain sacred realities that cannot be defied, even by the semidivine hero Achilles.

I offer this example to illustrate the point that certain concepts and customs—even those that were not, strictly speaking, religious—were (more or less) universally respected in the ancient Greek world. Another instance would be the Greek notion of xenia, which was the sacred obligation of hospitality to strangers and the important customs that bound guests and hosts together.

In Homeric poetry, those who violated these laws of hospitality—such as did the cyclops Polyphemus or the brash young suitors of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, on Ithaca—suffered brutal punishments as a consequence. Homer constantly insists on the importance of certain traditions that humanity must respect, including honoring the dead and welcoming guests into one’s home.

What the Greeks and most civilizations throughout history possessed was a sense of the sacred, even if it was sometimes ill-defined or even erroneous. The word sacred derives from the Latin sacrare, which means “to set apart.” Something sacred is set apart from common, or profane, use (from the Latin pro fanum, “outside the temple”). It rises above the everyday and the ordinary, forming a bridge between common human existence and the transcendent.

Such a sense of the sacred is predicated on the recognition of realities higher than the individual self and to which the self must submit, at least from time to time, whether that be ideals of justice, the nobility of virtue, the importance of human dignity, the respect owed the state, or the reverence due to the gods. Different cultures have, of course, prized different ideals and held as sacred various customs.

What is unusual, even pathological, I would suggest, is for a culture to have no sacred customs at all. And yet, more and more, I see this happening in America. For what do all Americans hold as sacred? What do we consider untouchable, inviolable?

We might once have said things like our flag or our anthem, but that is no longer universally respected, as evidenced by the “take a knee” phenomenon. Our national heroes and their legacy, maybe? No more—the memory of our forefathers has been intentionally tainted by educational programs like Critical Race Theory and their monuments defaced and even pulled down. What about our famous American individualism and respect for the rights of the individual? Only if you are part of a designated victim group. A Christian heritage and Christian morals, then? Please. The fastest growing religious affiliation in the United States as of 2021 is “none.”

But perhaps worse than the outright rage-filled attacks on the sacred (like the tearing down of monuments) is the banality and crassness that characterizes so much of pop culture. There is a madness of mundanity about us. Nothing is all that serious to us, it seems. Nothing is above being joked about. Crudeness and foul language (“profanities”) characterize much of our speech.

I think for many Americans it’s not a case of willfully and giddily de-reverencing sacred realities; more often, the possibility of the sacred has never really occurred to them, steeped as they are in scientific secularism. Many of us are simply adrift in a sea of materialist consumerism and instant gratification, with the glare of electronic devices reflected in our empty eyes.

All this is the fruit of a predominating postmodern philosophy, insidiously infused with skepticism, nihilism, and materialism. To take the case of materialism, for example: If that philosophy is true, then nothing is to be reverenced, for nothing is actually any different from anything else. Nothing is “set apart.” Everything is composed of the same atoms. Why honor the body of a fallen warrior? Chemically speaking, it’s the same as any body. It decomposes the same way as roadkill does.

Moreover, from a materialist standpoint, all of our concepts of high ideals—love, justice, sacrifice, and courage, for example—are merely the accidental consequences of blind chemical reactions in our brains. They have no intrinsic or transcendent meaning, so what is there to reverence about them?

In addition to being born of a recognition of realities beyond mere matter, a sense of the sacred is born ultimately of a sense of humility. For all their pagan ignorance, the Greeks recognized the existence of realities above the whims of an individual human being, forces more powerful than the will of man. For Homer, man was not the ultimate lord of the universe. Homer knew through his poetic intuition that there were higher powers and higher realities than the everyday life of the herdsman, the sailor, or even the king. To have a sense of the sacred, one must be prepared to accept the existence of something beyond and greater than the self.

I think it is precisely this sense of humility that we are losing through the arrogance of our scientific and materialist ruling paradigm. The attitude of humility and wonder is also not fostered by the narcissism, hedonism, and consumerism that characterizes our culture more and more. The Greeks had a word for that as well: hubris, the pride that “goeth before destruction,” as the biblical writer phrased it.

All of this demands that we ask: If a culture is defined by those values and customs it considers untouchable and nonnegotiable—sacred—then who are we as Americans in the 21st century? And can a society that has lost its sense of the sacred endure?

Image credit: Pexels

Walker Larson
Walker Larson

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  • Avatar
    January 17, 2024, 10:46 am

    You stated beautifully what is such a sad loss of our present days. Decay and ugliness are being touted as the new standard. Seeking beauty leads us upward. Our downward spiral away from beauty and morality is destruction. Can we ever recover…

    • Avatar
      sally L sweet@Carolyn
      January 17, 2024, 4:29 pm

      My parents and I knew and appreciated the same poetry–The Chambered Nautilus by Emerson, "Build ye more stately mansions, o my soul, as the swift seasons roll…" And Longfellow's Psalm of Life. Life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal. Dust to art to dust returneth is not written of the soul." I was 16 and they were 46 and my grandparents 66 when we recited those poems together. It was so gratifying to have unifying values among my grandparents, born in the 19th century and all of us knowing and appreciating the same works of literature, as well as the Bible. Enduring values. The family business began with the first shipment being delivered by horse-drawn wagon and ultimately with computerized orders and payroll. Through it all, we had a culture that affirmed our values. As Toqueville observed after his visit here from France in the 18th century, "America is great because she is good. When she ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

  • Avatar
    Mary Gottlieb
    January 17, 2024, 4:41 pm

    Brilliant assessment…. just what most truth adherents are perceiving…. It would seem ignorance and mediocrity have
    become the norm.

    • Avatar
      Phoebe H Conway@Mary Gottlieb
      January 18, 2024, 9:14 am

      Carolyn, Sally, and Marilyn have said it all. I have felt for some time now that we have lost our way. I fear there is no hope.

  • Avatar
    robert chadis
    January 18, 2024, 7:48 am

    Uh, to answer I would need many words, as you (author) surely know So, here are a few bits. Life is individual, but survival is social. A nation stands on values. Humans evolve through time, socially, politically, psychologically. To discuss Homer well would require a lengthy book—indeed, sacred values have never been analyzed easily. Actually, I hope USA will learn to behave more responsibly by surviving the current sociopathic threats—that Trumpism will function as a vaccinating threat to arouse defense of sacred ideals. By the way, Benjamin Franklin said, #We must all hang together or we will all hang separately#—USA is part of a sacred community of nations…NATO protects USA as much as it protects Europe. Isolationism is blasphemy.

    • Avatar
      Lizzie@robert chadis
      January 19, 2024, 6:07 am

      Robert has a lot to say that is on point. But why only point to Trumpism? I've thought all along that his election was a symptom of our ills rather than the real problem. When one has a disease, do doctors merely treat the symptoms or do they look for and treat the cause of the disease? Trump's election pulled back the curtain and exposed a great divide that had been developing for the last few decades.
      Trump's continued popularity merely confirms that the divide is deeply rooted. He is more popular with older voters because they have witnessed the decline in our culture and perceive him as upholding values long respected in our society. What about other political figures and their behavior leads Trump supporters to see him as a better warrior for those values? Is it that he, at least, seems to uphold values? Not defending his behavior but simply asking questions.
      Why are so many drawn to him and are adamant in their rejection of others? Is it a perceived lack of values (any values beyond self) in the others? Why do so many look at him and see the lesser of evils? Are there other forces at work here? Remember, about half the country chose him in the last election and would do so again this time around. The fact that Trump and Biden are within the margin of error of each other in the polls shows that we are in a battle, even a war. But what is the war really about?
      I think this article hits the nail on the head. We've lost our direction as a nation and a society because we've lost any sense of values beyond what's happening inside our own heads.


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