To balance out last week’s post about the political background to our current situation in the West, I thought it would be a good idea to look at the other side of the civilisational coin and talk about religion. Arguably, our current predicament is far more of a religious problem than a political one, although, as we saw last week, the two have always been intertwined in Faustian civilisation as they are in every society.
It’s precisely because we live at a time when the founding religion of Faustian civilisation, Christianity, is but a pale shadow of its former self that our understanding of spiritual matters is pretty much non-existent. Take the words “sacred” and “holy”. To the extent that we use these words at all, they mean something like “good” or even “nice”. The New Age crowd uses terms like “sacred masculinity” or “sacred femininity” and this mostly constitutes a laundry list of things which are good about each sex. The sacred feminine is nurturing and the sacred masculine is strong etc. The truth is that the sacred is almost the opposite of the good.
The word sacred comes from the Latin where it has a variety of meanings. One of them is “to make holy”. The word holy is related to the word whole and the word health. So, we can also say that sacred means “to make whole” and “to make healthy”. But this implies that the thing in question is not whole or not healthy. That leads to another implication: what is sacred may not be interfered with in a way that threatens its holiness, its wholeness, its health. If you do mess with the sacred, you can expect punishment. The sacred is, therefore, also powerful and dangerous. It must be respected.
All these various meanings are present in the Bible. But just as Christianity has now been watered down to the point where all the sacredness has gone out of it, so too we now think of Jesus as some kind of peace-loving hippie. Really? Consider this passage from Matthew 10:34-36:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.”
Does that sound like a peace-loving hippie? Truth is, Jesus was dangerous. That’s why they had him killed. In doing so, they made him one of the most sacred figures in history.
We can get a better appreciation of the meaning of sacredness by sidestepping the millennia of cultural baggage inherited from Christianity and taking a wider, non-European view. This will also give us a useful point of comparison to better understand the revolution that Christianity brought.
Let’s start with an example that is completely foreign to us in our jet-setting world of global travel and tourism: the stranger. For most societies throughout history, strangers were sacred. Which is to say, strangers were dangerous. The arrival of a stranger at your home or in your village was a big deal.
The anthropological literature shows two predominant responses to the arrival of a stranger. The first is to either kill them, drive them away or run away yourself. This strategy allows you to avoid the danger.
The second option is far more nuanced and introduces the idea of sacred rites. Rites and ceremonies are ways of navigating through the danger posed by the sacred. The anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, noted that sacred rites have a three-part structure: separation – transition – incorporation. The arrival of a stranger constitutes a separation from the normal world. The community is no longer in profane (normal) status but switches into sacred status. In order to get back to the profane, the community invokes sacred rites of transition and incorporation.
The goal is to get back to the profane (normality). But the rites do more than that. They incorporate the sacred. Remembering that the sacred is dangerous and powerful but also potentially impure and diseased, sacred rites have a protective function. But they also integrate the stranger at a physical, social, political and metaphysical level. This incorporation can take forms that those of us with a Christian heritage would find very strange; in particular, one of the more common rites of incorporation: sex.
Those who have read The Travels of Marco Polo might remember his accounts of villagers in China who send their young women to meet a traveller (stranger) and have sex with him. It’s tempting to think such stories were inserted to, errrr, sex up the narrative and boost sales of Polo’s book back in Italy. But, actually, this is a well-attested phenomenon in the anthropological literature.
We also find it in stories from the British explorers. Tahiti was particularly famous on this score. Both Captain Cook and William Bligh’s crews were treated to a free-sex environment which, for a Protestant of that era, especially one of low social status such as a seaman, must have seemed unbelievable.
Strangers are sacred and the sacred has power. When you incorporate a stranger into your community, you incorporate his power. The power can be material as in money or goods for trade. But there is also a metaphysical power; something like mana or chi. A stranger is assumed to have mana and the woman who sleeps with him incorporates that mana. That’s why the Chinese villagers were happy to have their young women sleep with travellers from Europe in Marco Polo’s day.
If all this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that modern pick-up artists have recaptured the same dynamic. The one thing you cannot be as a pick-up artist is a “nice guy”. Nice guys do not have mana. Pick-up artists have rediscovered the sacred power of the stranger.
Sex as an incorporation rite can be used wherever such a rite makes sense. One such context is negotiation. In Australian aboriginal culture, when two tribes were carrying out a negotiation, women from one tribe would come to the place of negotiation with the men. Once the negotiation was finished, the men from that tribe would return to camp while the women would wait a short distance away from the negotiation area. The men from the other tribe would stay to discuss their decision. If they decided to go ahead with the deal, they would go and find the women and have sex with them. If there was no deal, they would return to their own camp.
We can see such practices at play in the modern world. Back when I worked at a lawyer’s office, one of our most interesting cases was a professional man who was suing his company for wrongful dismissal. His company asserted that he had behaved inappropriately on a business trip to Hong Kong by sleeping with a prostitute paid for by a client. His counterargument was that this was the way business was conducted there and therefore he had done what was necessary to close the deal.
Years later, I would experience something very similar myself on a trip to Chengdu where I inadvertently ended up in a private karaoke room full of high-end Chinese call-girls. But that’s a story best told after a few beers. (Don’t worry, I showed my repressed Catholic heritage and politely declined their services).
Sacred rites facilitate the navigation of situations which are dangerous or powerful. Prior to a negotiation, the relationship between the two parties is in a profane state; an equilibrium or stasis. That stasis is broken when one party changes the relationship by suggesting a new deal. At that point, both parties enter the sacred state which must be navigated to ensure a return to the profane. Failure to do so can lead to negative outcomes. The war in Ukraine is a reminder of that.
Although it would never occur to us with our secular mindset, a business deal is a sacred rite. A business lunch is a communal meal. A handshake is a rite of incorporation. A suit and tie is the sacred outfit worn for the occasion. In some parts of the world, it is natural to include a sex rite in a negotiation. There is nothing remarkable about this from an anthropological point of view. In fact, it’s arguable that nations with a Christian heritage are the weird ones with our strange views towards sex.
Of course, the anthropological literature is full of other practices that we would consider not just strange but horrendous. Bestiality, cannibalism and paedophilia have been practiced widely including in Ancient Greece and Rome. Given the obsession of Faustian culture with the Classical world, why were such things unknown? The answer is that they were airbrushed out of history by the Church. And here we come to the point: the influence of the Christian church on Faustian notions of sacredness.
I mentioned last week that the Christian Church largely created Faustian society beginning around the year 1000 A.D. We can now be more specific about one aspect of that dynamic. The Church created a shared zone of spiritual understanding. It defined the sacred rites and practices for the people under its influence. It did so by systematically repressing folk religions. Each region in Europe would have had their own versions of sacred rites defined by local custom. The Church got rid of all that and replaced it with the Church’s sacred rites.
The prevailing notion these days is that all this was achieved through violence and coercion. No doubt there was some of that. But there is a more fundamental reason why the Church was able to unite disparate communities in Europe and then later around the world.
In the 19th century, European anthropologists and linguists had access to the global reach of European civilisation and were able to sift through the languages, customs and sacred rites from cultures all around the world. They realised that, while there was enormous variety, there was also what appeared to be universal elements of human language and culture. The argument between what is universal and what is not is still ongoing to this day.
Whatever the theory says, it is simply a fact that the Christian church had a number of sacred rites that are found across a wide variety of cultures. Baptism, the use of water in rites of purification and incorporation, is almost a universal of human culture. The Last Supper is an example of a communal feast; another universal. Jesus healing the sick is a universal sacred rite because sacredness is linked with disease and impurity. Jesus’ 40 days in the desert is a prime example of an initiation rite. It has direct equivalents in the Australian aboriginal walkabout and the Native American vision quest to take just two examples from unrelated cultures.
But perhaps what was most important about Christianity was that it brought in a level of abstraction. Let’s take one of the most important Christian rites – the Eucharist.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53–55)
The people Jesus is addressing in this Bible passage take his words literally and think that Jesus is telling them to eat his body. But Jesus was speaking in a parable. His meaning would later be captured in the rite of the Eucharist where bread and the wine are ceremonially transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ and then consumed by members of the congregation.
When Christian missionaries arrived in Australia and began explaining the Christian rites to Australian aboriginals, the aboriginals recognised some of the rites as being similar to their own tradition. One of those rites was ritual cannibalism. Close family members would eat the flesh and drink the blood of the deceased. They did so for exactly the reason stated by Jesus in the quote above; namely, it was believed that the flesh contained power, spirit or “life”. It was sacred. Ritual cannibalism is an incorporation rite that aims to integrate the power of the sacred.
The Eucharist replaces ritual cannibalism with a symbol, an abstraction, that means the same thing. It is precisely because ritual cannibalism was practiced in a number of different cultures, not just Australian aboriginal culture, that such a rite could resonate. This is how the Christian message was able to spread in vastly different cultures from the one it originated in. It was also what allowed the church to unite the disparate peoples of Europe under a single religion and create the Faustian culture in the first place.
That unification began to break down with the Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion. If Catholicism was already an abstraction away from localised rites, Protestantism went one step further and created what Kierkegaard later called the single individual before God. To a large extent, Protestantism removed the social nature of sacred rites. Everybody was now answerable directly to the most sacred being of all: God. But remember that sacredness is danger and power. Protestantism had left people alone to face what they believed to be the highest power in the world.
This is not a theory. It was a lived experience. Many protestant priests complained that members of their congregation came to them with crippling anxiety. Protestantism created what Kierkegaard called the sickness unto death (remember, sickness is one of the meanings of sacred). To live every moment of your life in front of God is a matter for saints. It means there is no let up. There is no transition into or out of the profane but just a never-ending (eternal) sacredness. While Catholicism retained the social element of sacred rites with a social hierarchy of spiritual expectation, Protestantism left people alone in the face of the sacred.
Protestantism had demanded of its followers something that most people were not ready to achieve. As a result, the Protestant message began to be watered down to make it palatable. It ended up morphing into bourgeois materialism. By Kierkegaard’s time, all the sacredness, all the power and all the danger had already gone out of Protestantism. Most people were just going through the motions. It was the beginning of the mass hypocrisy which is still with us to this day.
With Protestantism no longer sacred, people began looking elsewhere for meaning. The aforementioned bourgeois materialism was one such avenue. Another was nation-state politics. There was the rise of nationalism, communism and anarchism. Meanwhile, another -ism, industrial capitalism, radically altered and de-sacralised society.
When nationalism blew itself up (literally) in the world wars, we were left with capitalism and its stepchild “science and technology” as the sole remaining sacred forces of our society. Economists and experts became the high priests and we had a decades-long fossil-fuel driven party. The abstract, spiritual power of the sacred had been replaced by the entirely material power of machines.
The sacred is power. It is energy. It is dangerous. The negotiation of the sacred gives a rhythm to life as people navigate through the dangers involved. These dangers give meaning and excitement to life. A life without the sacred is boring and monotonous; a perfect description of post-war suburbia.
A life without the sacred, even in the presence of historically unprecedented material prosperity, also leads to anxiety. The sacred rites are a journey through danger. They are a mental test and to pass the test and come out the other side is to build character or, to say the same thing with different metaphysics, to incorporate the power of the sacred into yourself. Without such experiences, one is permanently anxious and permanently in need of reassurance that one is “safe”.
That’s where we are today. A society obsessed with “safety” because we have run out of sacred rites completely. We tried to fill the void left by the absence of sacred Christianity with the nation state, science and technology and economics. Corona represents the defeat of economics. The decision to lockdown, with the inevitable economic repercussions which we are only just beginning to see, were a changing of the guard. The economists have been turfed out of their sacramental role. Our Dominant Minority knows that they can no longer deliver economic growth and they are desperately trying to create new sacramental rites to replace the economic ones that have been the mainstay of the postwar years.
Where are they turning for those rites? One area is the medical profession. This is not that surprising when you think about it. Birth and death are the two most important sacred rites in any society. For most humans throughout history, birth and death occurred in the home or in a sacred place set aside for the purpose. In the modern West, we are born and we die almost exclusively in hospital. Ergo, the hospital has become the most sacred place in our society. This actually makes perfect sense because holiness and healthiness are both elements of the sacred and many sacred rites in pre-scientific societies are aimed at protection from illness.
The huge problem, of course, is that medical professionals are not trained in the sacred and don’t consider themselves to be doing sacred work. Nevertheless, we have increasingly come to rely on the medical industry as a proxy for the sacred. Medical spending in the post wars years has increased in inverse proportion to church attendance. That is not a coincidence.
This has two effects. Firstly, the medical industry is treating people who have nothing physically wrong with them but rather have a “spiritual” problem. Naturally, such treatments do not work because they are not addressing the underlying problem. Because any medical intervention has side effects, the cost of the side effects outweighs the benefits and the medical industry is becoming a net cause of illness rather than its cure.
Secondly, the increasing demand for medical services has massively increased the price; a price we can no longer afford and are running up huge debts to pay for. Without the necessary money, the medical system is increasingly failing to maintain even a basic standard of care and what should be the sacred rites of birth, death and illness are increasingly morphing into the kind of outright inhumanity that only an underfunded bureaucracy can produce.
We have looked everywhere for the sacred except the one place which can actually deliver it: religion. But what we are starting to see now is a reversion to pre-Christian forms of sacred rites; albeit in the guise of “science”, “medicine” and “progress” and this is where we re-connect to politics because these new “sacred rites” are being promulgated by the Dominant Minority; the global “elites”.
Consider the stories of Silicon Valley billionaires using blood transfusions from the young to “live forever”. This is nothing more than a high-tech version of drinking blood; a classic incorporation rite.
The gender surgeries and associated medications for young people fit clearly into the category of bodily mutilation rites that are almost a universal in the anthropological literature. Van Gennep says of this rite:
“The mutilated individual is removed from the common mass of humanity by a rite of separation…which automatically incorporates him into a defined group; since the operation leaves ineradicable traces, the incorporation is permanent.”
The trans craze has created new sacred groupings with associated mutilation practices consonant with initiation rites given to adolescents in many societies throughout history. The increasing number of vaccinations given to young people also fits into this category of sacred rites during childhood.
Another childhood rite is teaching about sex. Van Gennep notes that the arrival of the second set of teeth is the marker for the beginning of sex education in many cultures which would put the age of sex education at 7 years old. The recent craze in exposing young children to sexually explicit material fits this category as do moves by globalist bodies to reduce the age of consent which would revert back to non-European historical norms (the northern European paradigm is anthropologically unusual for the late age of both consent and marriage).
Here in Australia, we have the Welcome to Country ceremonies which refer back to the sacred rites performed on the traveller in non-European culture. We see similar concepts in New Zealand, Canada and the US with land acknowledgements.
Corona is, of course, the big one; possibly the first ever global sacrament. Before corona, each of was profane: pure, un-diseased, not dangerous. In the early days of 2020, we all became sacred: impure, diseased and dangerous. It didn’t matter that you had no symptoms. Having no symptoms just meant you were asymptomatic. Everybody was now sacred.
Having moved everybody into the sacred category, we needed a purification rite to get them back to the profane. That was the vaccine; your ticket back to “normality”.
Corona was a perfect example of the structure that Van Gennep identified. Every sacred rite of passage has three stages: separation, transition and incorporation. The lockdowns were the separation phase. The incorporation phase was the vaccines. In the transition phase, we were told we were entering a new normal and that is totally fitting because the whole point of a rite of passage is to transition out of an old world and into a new one.
The problem with every one of these new “sacred” rites is that they are not really intended to bring us back to the profane. On the contrary, they seem custom designed to keep us in an eternal sacred state. The never-ending new covid variants and the never-ending booster shots to go with them (the word “booster” implies energy and power and, therefore, sacredness).
This makes perfect sense when you consider that all this is driven by the Dominant Minority of Faustian culture. From the Dominant Minority’s point of view, the general public really is sacred; it is dangerous and impure. That is why all of these new rites have suddenly appeared in the wake of the Trump and Brexit votes which were markers of the power of the public. Ironically, this eternal “sacredness” that never lets up is just Protestantism re-packaged for the modern world.
Once again, the Faustian represents the inversion of the Classical. The Dominant Minority in Ancient Rome governed by pushing exoteric rites that no longer had any esoteric content. The esoteric was re-created from the Proletariat in the form of Christianity. In the modern West, it is the Proletariat who still believes in the exoteric institutions and morality of society while the Dominant Minority undermines those institutions esoterically. The Dominant Minority of Rome was trying to keep its population unified. The Dominant Minority of the West rules by divide and conquer.
What has changed in the last 30 years is that the esoteric activities of the Dominant Minority are no longer productive but destructive. That’s the sign that we are moving out of the Universal State and into what Toynbee called the Interregnum. According to Toynbee, we should now see a new religion arise from the Proletariat.
Both Toynbee and Spengler, and also Jung in a more roundabout way, predicted that it would be Christianity that would rise again to form that new religion. Although that seems incredibly unlikely looking at the current state of the church, I think they are right. Once the lights start going out and the internet is unavailable, people will have to turn somewhere for sacred guidance and, as much as we deny it, our culture is still predicated to an enormous extent on Christian assumptions. It won’t take much to rediscover those assumptions. It may very well be that the second coming of Christ really is at hand.