Scrambling the Sacred and the Profane: A Random Monday Morning Reflection

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 10, 2008

egg.jpg“The toughest struggle of all is to try to meld the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, this world and the next. Admit to this preoccupation and you’re in deep trouble with your church and your state. Try to make a record of it, as did St. Augustine, or St. John of the Cross, or William Blake, and you’re scorned and, perhaps, imprisoned by your contemporaries, even if later generations regard you–usually without reading you–a classic.”

Jim Christy, The Long, Slow Death of Jack Kerouac (91-92)

Western society disciples its people into disregarding the supernatural. The tendency of our culture is to disregard such things as “unreal.” People of faith have struggled against such conditioning, but we fail. While we carve out a little space for our silly supernatural ideas, such ideas usually have little-or-nothing to do with real life.  Bear with me as I shift into a strange analogy…

Sometimes when you’re baking, you are called upon to separate the yolk from the whites (when you make something airy and light sometimes you’ll just use the whites…and sometimes when making things like custard you’ll just use the yolks). During the Enlightenment, some folks decided to toss out the yolk, and bake their Western cake with only the whites. And as they attempted to through the yolk of religion into the trash (pun intended), some Christians said: “wait, we’ll take that.”

So, for hundreds of years, Christians in the West have had a yolk and had the white, and kept them distinct in two separate halves of an eggshell.  This has been the acceptable arrangement for years.

And the worst thing you can do is scramble them together. The toughest struggle of all is to try to meld the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, this world and the next… When you disrupt the social contact, you get into trouble, even in a country like the United States, which has scrambled its eggs for a long time.

It seems as though in this country, its all about HOW you scramble your eggs. It is ok, for instance, to use American civil religion to advance good-old-fashioned political agendas. And it is ok, for instance, to put American flags in sanctuaries or have little kids in urban Christian outreach centers do the pledge of Allegiance. But when you decide to scramble American life by trying to fold the teachings of Jesus directly into the rest of life, folks get upset. 

So, if we use Christianity to embolden American imperialism, it is unworthy of comment. But when you quote the teachings of Jesus to oppose the Iraq War, you’ve crossed the line.

And somehow, as Christians, we listen to the Old Testament in our justification for going to war in the first place while we marginalize the entire New Testament and the first three centuries of early Church witness against violence.

For some reason, if we take a confusing passage in Romans 13 and use it to foster a strong call to American citizenship, it is fine. But if you find an anti-imperial thread throughout most of the New Testament and, as a result, call into question our fidelity to the State, you get funny looks.

If we bring up discrepancies between the wealthy and the poor or among races or people of various religions, we run the risk of being called “divisive.” Meanwhile Jesus launched off his Sermon on the Plain with a list of Blessings (like, for the poor) and Woes (like, to the rich)…

Last night, after our Sunday evening gathering, I commiserated with a retiring professor from the University of Minnesota about how strange it is to attempt to take the ethical teachings of Jesus seriously. He was telling me about his recent journey into exploring the implications of the Kingdom of God, how lonely it is. We both felt it is odd that when you really start to get serious about following in Jesus’ footsteps, churches become really unsafe. I’ve found it is easier to talk about my journey with Jesus with non-Christians than it is with most Christians. And the sad thing is that I’m not alone.

I even had one pastor email me to express his frustration with me for suggesting that Jesus “challenged the status quo of his day” because he didn’t think that young folks need encouragement challenging the status quo in our day.

If find myself, as I get older, coming out of my shell more and more with a desire to scramble the sacred and the profane. If anything, I’m convinced that young folks challenge the status quo too little, rather than too much.

All the time, I hear about young Christians walking away from the faith. They explore the anemic tradition that has been passed down to them–a religion that confines and limits and stifles, rather than one that opens of new possiblities, sparks creativity, and provokes. They conclude that Christianity isn’t all its cracked up to be. And so they leave.

And whenever you try to shake things up a bit…to scramble the bifurcated realms of our spiritual life and our “real” life (which is usually how we think about it, don’t we), folks get upset.

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5 Responses to “Scrambling the Sacred and the Profane: A Random Monday Morning Reflection”

  1. mountainguy on March 10th, 2008 9:17 am

    I believe that reality, and thus, human condition, is found to be between the sacred and the profane. We are in part sacred and in part profane. I’ve always found myself between science and belief, between Occam and scholastics, between heaven and hell, between the mountain and the valley… this is the human condition… sacred and profane… too much confusion in this world.

    Nice article

    greetings from the tropical mountain.

  2. Michael Cline on March 10th, 2008 5:05 pm

    I think it is quite possible that the categories of “profane” and “sacred” do in fact exist when actualized in particular places and times and that to implode them onto each other is to essentially make Christianity unidentifiable. HOWEVER, I think the main question is not whether these paradigms exist, but what does it mean to see the profane and the sacred in the midst of everyday life (or “real life”).

    This is a great piece, Mark.

  3. jurisnaturalist on March 10th, 2008 10:38 pm

    I am moved.
    I just viewed Apocalypse Now, Redux. Talk about the sacred and the profane. The paganism. The horror.
    We really cannot have more gods than One. Yet American Christians have two masters. I spent the weekend with some of the brightest and most promising of these at a Fellowship gathering. Most professed Christ. But it sent shivers up my spine when I heard one describe his personal philosophy as: God, Family, Country. This same young man said he was ready to enlist when he heard about 911, and was still considering it. They do not see the contradiction because they chose not to be rigorous with their thoughts. They mix the sacred with the profane.
    Nathanael Snow

  4. Maria Kirby on March 10th, 2008 11:04 pm

    Waffles are one of my favorite foods and they’re made of whole eggs that have been separated. The yolks are added with the regular wet ingredients, but the whites are beaten stiff and folded in at the end. If you try to beat the yolk in with the whites, then the whites won’t become stiff and the waffles will be flat and not light, fluffy, and crunchy. Waffles need to be made with the whole egg, not just the whites, and not just the yolks. But the two parts need to be processed and added separately for the waffles to turn out right.
    God calls us to be holy, separate people, but to live in a sinful world. We are to keep the Sabbath holy, yet do the work of the Father each and every day. God calls us to spiritual disciplines like fasting, and gives us the freedom to eat any of his creation.
    God loves us and dies for us, but will send us to hell if we don’t repent. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, yet he warned that families will be divided because of him.
    We can belong to the kingdom of God and love our country. We can be peacemakers and still go to war. We can be divisive and never go to war. We can reject our homeland and never move away. We are to love everyone; rich or poor, pacifist or warmonger, radical or conformist, dogmatic or spirit lead. It is the unity of love that communicates we are Christ’s disciples. The batter of love unifies two separate parts of an egg, the sacred and profane, into a whole delicious waffle life.
    It is right to speak out against evil, but doing good for evil doer is what conquers evil. Following the forgiver means forgiving others. God calls us to be vulnerable and take risks when he knows we will be misunderstood, criticized, and rejected, because God is in the business of forgiving and he wants to forgive others through us. When we crack our shells and engage others through the soft side of our vulnerability, he can pierce their hearts with the sword of the Spirit because love conquers all.
    P.S. Being different is difficult, but too much salt in one bite is hard to swallow. Great art work is marked not only by its creativity, but its adherence to discipline.

  5. Jason on March 11th, 2008 6:36 am

    Great post! I believe we should challenge the status quo no matter what the age. We should never be content with things just because of [insert well worn excuse here]

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