Sanctuary and Saeculum: The Desire to Be God

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943: 556).

Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely.

Our history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise.

There are many ways, but they can, historically, be divided into two broad paths. The first is rooted in the recognition that while all things participate in the divine –in the power of Being as such– the boundary between contingent and necessary Being is impermeable. Being human means cultivating and ripening Being, our own and that of others, which is all ultimately the same Being, and not real ours. Some tributaries of this path argue that deification is simply impossible and that we must, in the end, learn to live with our contingency and dependence. Others argue that if we allow ourselves to be stretched far enough, recognizing that the Self is empty and becoming willing to lose it, we can achieve a kind of connaturality with the divine. In either case, the phenomenal world is sacred, a portal to the divine which must be be respected and nurtured. But there is nothing we can do with it or to it that will liberate us from our condition of (inter)dependence. This is the way of indigenous and aboriginal wisdom. It is also the way of the great axial traditions which emerged after 800 BCE: Hellenism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Judaism and its derivatives.

The second path, on the other hand, seeks divinization by means of innerworldly civilizational progress. This is the way of the great sacral monarchies of the Bronze Age and of the great Iron Age empires of the Qin and the Hellenistic-Roman world. And it is the way we are living today, whether we believe in it or not, a way which emerged out of the Norman conquests, the Crusades, and the Reconquista, which flourished as a result of the scientific and industrial revolutions, and which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific and technological progress and the economic development they make possible.

The first of these paths we call Sanctuary. It is focused on seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening Being wherever we find it. In so doing we create sanctuaries, places where we encounter, nurture, and are nurtured by the sacred.

The second path we call the Saeculum, and Patriarchy and Imperium and Capital are its instruments.

Sanctuary however, cannot be identified with Religion or the Saeculum with all things secular. The Saeculum seeks divinity by way of conquest, sacrifice, and exploitation, extracting and concentrating for itself the power of Being in the hope of eventually transcending finitude. And the first conquest was that of women by men, a conquest which was historically identical with humanity’s first acts of enslavement and instrumentalization.

Religion is like Sanctuary in that it seeks the power of Being as such, wherever it finds it. But in a world already darkened by the conquest of women and the sacrifice of human, a world of warlord states and dependent peasant villages as well as the later world of Imperium and Capital, we will find the power of Being as such –however temporarily enslaved and deformed– in the patriarchal and the imperial and the exploitative for the simple reason that Nothing exists without it. In a world already darkened by the Saeculum, most sanctuaries are also darkened and darkened sanctuaries are places of great danger, serving as they do the interest of the Saeculum while pretending to seek and respect and nurture the sacred.

The desire which gave birth to the Saeculum, on the other hand, is as holy as that which gives birth to Sanctuary: it is the desire for God. And the whole matrix of secular activity is, in substance, nothing other than a nursery for Being. Sanctuary is here too, especially where those engaged in secular activity recognize in their labor not simply an extension of Imperium or an accumulation of Capital but rather a ripening of Being. And so in addition to darkened sanctuaries we find illumination in the secular.

The issue between the two paths is, ultimately, ontological. At the ontological level it is the difference between an analogical and a univocal metaphysics. Sanctuary recognizes that not everything exists in the same way –that in particular for anything to exist in the way we do, as contingent beings dependent on others, something must have the power of Being in itself. In order to exist we must participate in this Being. But we cannot, no matter what we do, actually become Being, at least not in essence. Or, to put the matter in the somewhat different terms preferred by Buddhism and other ways of negation, nothing has inherent existence. We live in each other’s embrace. That which allows existence is the very negation of self-possession or substance of any kind.

Saeculum, on the other hand, is predicated on what I will argue is the false claim that all things exist in the same way, that Being is univocal. There are, however, two very different forms of this error. The dominant form sees only contingent being, and then asks whether or not there is already one of these beings which is infinitely powerful Being to which the only reasonable response is one of absolute submission. Those that answer yes comprise what we call the Theistic Saeculum, which includes most Protestantisms and at least some Asharite Islam). Those who answer no and then dedicate themselves to building God (or getting as close as the laws and constants of physics will allow us) comprise the Technocratic Saeculum.

But it is also possible to recognize the conceptual distinction between contingent and necessary Being but then confuse participation in the power of Being as such with possession of that power –to mistake contingent being for Being as such. This error is a particular danger for those who, intensely aware of how many sanctuaries have become darkened return to secular activity and seek –and find– the sacred there. This is the way of the Humanistic Saeculum, a way which is largely in occultation at present, but which was of great significance in the epoch immediately preceding our own.

But when we say that the difference between Sanctuary and Saeculum is ontological, we do not mean that it is simply a contest of metaphysical theories, or even ideologies, though it is also that. The struggle between the paths is fought out pyschosexually, politically, economically, and technologically and, perhaps, even ecologically and demographically. Psychosexually the struggle is between creative orientations which understand sexuality as sacrament and patriarchal formations which repress and control and sublimate the feminine. Politically the struggle is between building and exercising power (the power to do and to Be) on the one hand and command and control on the other. Economically the struggle is between investing in human development and investing in service of accumulation. Technologically the struggle is between nurturing matter’s immanent drive towards complexity and organization (hortic and alchemical technologies) on the one hand and breaking down existing forms of organization to release energy and do work (industrial technologies) on the other hand. Ecologically and demographically it is the difference between a k strategy which invests in a small number of offspring and ripens their capacity to Be and an r strategy which turns wombs into factories and generates as much raw labor power as possible.

Humanity now stands at a very specific juncture with respect to the struggle between Sanctuary and the Saeculum. But more on that in the next post …


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