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OPINION - Sense of the sacred in all things

Noel Moules, a thinker, teacher, and activist for peace, justice and deep ecology, shares his views on the sacred in all things.

Read time: 15 minutes and 39 seconds

On 10th July 1996, the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, spoke to a business and finance community about ‘The Sense of the Sacred in the Modern World’. He observed “The Western world has lost a sense of the wholeness of our environment …[with] an increasing failure to appreciate or understand tradition and the wisdom of our forebears accumulated over the centuries …[requiring the] survival in our hearts of that profound sense of the sacred.” He movingly referenced Islam as a culture where the scientific and the sacred were far better balanced, wiser, and thus more civilised. I certainly agree Western society has lost its sense of the sacred, and that other spiritualities (like Islam) have much to teach us. My surprise, however, was the absence of any reference to the potential contribution Christianity might make; especially knowing that one day he was likely to be ‘The Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ (the position he now holds). On the other hand, I’m not at all surprised.

“The Western world has lost a sense of the wholeness of our environment".

Western Christianity was plagued from the outset by Gnosticism, with its belief that the whole material-physical world is evil. A view, while rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, nevertheless has subtly and persistently influenced the Church in the West to this day (mostly unconsciously but unquestionably powerfully); in complete contrast to the Eastern Orthodox church. Catholics and Protestants have no ‘doctrine of matter’ and consequently hold very mixed ideas about any ‘sense of the sacred.’

I personally believe that absolutely everything is sacred: the whole material universe, visible and invisible. However, before I unpack my statement - biblically, theologically, and scientifically - I want to make sure we understand how I am using the two key words: ‘sacred’ and ‘matter’.

Sacred as an English word comes from the Latin sacrare, ‘made holy by association with the divine’. Which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root sak – ‘to sanctify,’ with the sense of ‘entitled to respect or reverence.’ The biblical Hebrew refers to the sacred by speaking of qadosh (lit: ‘belonging to’ or ‘separate from’), translated as ‘holy’, which expresses the very essence of divine being. Qadosh is best understood as ‘unique’. So, “Be holy, for I am holy”, becomes “Be unique for I am unique” (cf. Leviticus 11:44; 1Peter 1:16). Closely associated with qadosh (and so with the idea of the sacred), is kabod translated as ‘glory’, which has the sense of ‘beauty, brilliance, splendour, and magnificence in outward appearance.’ It also carries the sensation of ‘the weight of majestic presence’. So, everything is indeed sacred because, being holy, all things both flow from and share in, the unique essence and qualities of the divine character; plus, the brilliance and the ‘weight’ of their own, and divine, combined presence. I will unpack this further below

I personally believe that absolutely everything is sacred: the whole material universe, visible and invisible.

Also, just a brief reflection on the word ‘spirit’. This is tightly interwoven within the understanding of the ‘sacred’. Across many global cultures ’spirit’ is spoken of using the imagery of ‘wind’ or ‘breath’; as in the biblical languages Hebrew: ruach, Greek: pneuma. I use ‘spirit’ with the sense of ‘energy’ and ‘essence’, whether speaking of the person of the Godhead, the character of the divine, or more widely across the material world as a whole.

Matter is (in popular scientific language) ‘the stuff from which you and all the things in the world around you are made.’ (Interesting to note how the powerful biblical phrase ‘all things’ is being used here in a scientific statement). At the heart of each atom is a nucleus, orbited by a cloud of electrons. At the centre of each nuclear particle (protons and neutrons) there are even smaller particles – quarks. As far as we know electrons and quarks are not made of anything smaller; so, all matter in all its cosmic variety and complexity is made up entirely from electrons and quarks.

Science continues to confirm the wholistic nature of the universe. The biblical text constantly affirms the wholistic quality of everything. However, traditional Western Christianity is steeped in dualism (another consequence of Gnosticism). This is usually revealed immediately we begin to talk about the ‘sacredness’ of things. Words like, ‘anointed’, ‘filled’, ‘baptised’, and ‘receiving’ the Spirit, all suggest to many people that ‘sacredness’ is something external and separate from the physical material world, which has to be ‘gifted’ to a particular person, place, or physical item, by God in order to become sacred. This is not so. These words are each making a very particular point about identifying or empowering someone, something, or somewhere, consecrating them for a particular role or task. They are not in any way denying the reality that all things are already sacred. They are in fact consciously building upon this foundational truth.

Science continues to confirm the wholistic nature of the universe.

As a Christian, I have become convinced that the true nature of the vibrant physical reality we call matter, must include spirit. That is, spirit is part of the very physical structure of matter itself, it is essential to its reality. It is not that matter without spirit would not be alive; rather that without spirit matter would not even exist. This is another foundational reason why we can - and must - say everything is indeed sacred. In summary what I am saying is, ‘that it is matter itself that is in fact the real miracle, and as such it is intrinsically sacred.’

In the light of the above, what is the biblical evidence to support the sacredness of all things?’ Let’s begin with the angelic cry that opens Isaiah’s inaugural vision, which sets out the character and qualities of the eternal ‘Sacred One’, who is within themself the source of all that is sacred:

‘Holy (qadosh), holy, holy, is YHVH Omnipotent!
the whole earth is filled with God’s glory (kabod)’
(Isaiah 6:3)

This being so, the sacredness of ‘all things’ then must begin to become a reality with God’s creation of ‘all things.’ We take our first step by focusing on the divine spirit-wind-breath-word:

‘Earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the ruach (spirit, wind, breath) of God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Light; Be!” and light was.’
(Genesis 1:2-3)

‘By the word of God, the heavens were made, and all the stars by the breath of God’s mouth.’

Interestingly, we see here the four classic ancient elements (key expressions of matter) in inter-play: Earth (solid), Water (liquid), Wind (gas), Light/Fire (plasma). Each are also seen as major re-occurring expressions of the sacred throughout scripture. Creator and creation in sacred interbeing.

Other powerful examples of creation-breath, and therefore the sacred infusing matter, are:

‘By the word of God, the heavens were made,

and all the stars by the breath of God’s mouth.’

(Psalm 33:6)

“The God who made the world and all things (panta) in it …

gives to all things (panta), life and breath and all things (panta)”.

(Acts 17:24-25)

These are truly astonishing words. The Greek word ‘panta’ usually translated ‘all things’, actually has the sense of, ‘absolutely everything without exception, and forever’. Everything is sacred!

Our next step is to affirm that the quality and character of all matter is that it is good:

4 God saw the light was good; …10 God called the dry land Earth, … the waters Seas … God saw it was good … 12 Earth brought forth vegetation …God saw it was good … 17 God set sun, moon, stars in the sky … God saw it was good … 21 God created … every [water-creature] … every winged bird ... God saw it was good … 25 God made wild animals … the cattle … God saw it was good … 26 God said, ‘Let us make humankind … 31 God saw everything created, and indeed, it was very good. (Genesis 1:4-31)

These seven repeated declarations, woven through the opening biblical ‘Creation Hymn’ say it all. How Gnosticism could gain and maintain its sustained impact on Western theology, in the light of these words, can only be a terrible example of ‘reading without understanding’. Compounding this tragedy is the fact that in popular Western culture today the word ‘good’ has become almost bland, its power all but evaporated.

The Hebrew word for ‘good’ here is tov, which has a number of nuances:

Tov is a core quality of God, creation is a full expression of ‘good’ echoing the divine character.

Tov is like the response of an artist viewing their masterpiece, “This is ‘good, this is ‘exactly as I imagined it would be!” In fact, it is, “Completely perfect!” – ‘the very best that it can be’.

Tov also carries a strong sense of purpose, - ‘It is good for …’ This reminds us that the sacred is not some static principle, but a dynamic, relational reality, overflowing with possibility.

Continued below...

Christianity OPINION - Sense of the sacred in all things

The goodness and sacredness of the earth is powerfully shown in the story of Jesus. We are told that following his baptism:

The whole of creation is saturated in the sacred.

‘Jesus was full of the Spirit … the Spirit drove him into the wilderness …’
(Luke 4:1; Mark 1:12-13)

During his ministry desert places were where Jesus often went to pray, to grieve, to find solitude, to rest, and frequently to teach. He would go into the wilderness while it was still dark to be alone and to think and pray. It was his place of spiritual reflection and empowering.

The Hebrew word for ‘desert’ is midbar. It is closely linked to two other words. These three words each share three letters from their common Hebrew root d-b-r:

Midbar - desert, described and understood as ‘a land not sown.’
Dobro - a desert gathering place (in Aramaic) where flocks can graze in shalom-peace.
Dbir - the name used for the ‘Holy of Holies’ (‘Most Holy Place’) in the Temple in Jerusalem.

This is truly significant. So, the sacredness of the wild desert and the ‘Holy of Holies’ are in fact seamlessly one. The Bedouin have always believed that the desert is uniquely holy, sacred, and the abode of the Spirit.

Jesus would of course have known of Jacob’s response to his own desert spiritual encounter:

“Truly YHVH is in this place - and I did not know it … How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven!”
(Genesis 28:16)

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body”. (Luke 22:19)

Speaking of Jesus raises a central question about the sacredness of creation and incarnation. For me, incarnation clearly begins with creation. Let’s start with some remarkable words of a psalmist:

‘The heavens are telling the glory of God,
the skies proclaim the divine handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words.
their voice is not heard.
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world’
(Ps 19:1-4)

The whole of creation is saturated in the sacred. The source of which creation both incarnates and proclaims, in a sustained - though almost silent – stream of shouts and songs, audible only to those who have the spiritual desire-sensitivity to actually pause, listen, hear, and learn from them.

Our next quote, from the apostle Paul, takes the previous one even further. He makes the astonishing statement that the whole of creation actually makes visible, understandable, and clear, the invisible eternal power, and personal divine nature/character of God:

‘For what can be known about God is plain …
Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power
and divine nature, invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen through the things God has made’.
(Rom 1:19-20)

These words are phenomenal! If this isn’t creation as full incarnation, then what is it? I feel they have never truly impacted traditional or popular Christian thinking as they should; I wonder why?

Evil is not the opposite of the sacred and the good (that is dualism), rather it is a perversion of it.

Also note this observation made following Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan:
‘… the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form (Gk: somatikos), as a dove’.
(Luke 3:22)

For your reflection. In the light of the above statements, can we restate the words of Colossians 2.9 - originally spoken about Jesus – in terms of creation?

‘For in Jesus, creation is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Gk: somatikos)’.

We are not suggesting ‘pantheism’ (see below). We are suggesting ‘incarnation’. If we can re-state the words, replacing ‘Jesus’ with ‘creation’, what does that imply? If we cannot, then why not?

Here we are of course dealing with mystery; but never forget that a biblical understanding of mystery always combines that which is beyond our understanding, with that which is crystal clear before us but needs a totally fresh understanding.

On another occasion Paul adds to this thinking when speaking to the citizens of Athens:

“God who made the world and all things in it …
made all nations to inhabit the earth …
God did this so that they would seek, reach out for, and find the One,
who is not really far from any of us.
The One in whom we live and move and have our being”.
(Acts 17:24, 26-28)

Having, I hope, established that everything is in fact sacred, how should we speak of God’s relationship to creation? The main options as I see them are:

Dualism - ‘everything not sacred is secular, everything is either-or’.
Panentheism - ‘everything in God, God in everything’.
Incarnation – ‘everything as God, God as everything’
Pantheism - ‘everything is God, God is everything’.

‘The creation itself will be set free from its bondage and decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21)

For me, ‘dualism’ is just wrong, while ‘pantheism’ is just too far. ‘Panentheism’ is growing in popularity, a good positive step away from ‘dualism’ and a much more attractive than the phrase ‘non-dualism’. I embrace ‘panentheism’, it moves us in the right direction, however, it also lacks the intensity and physicality of relationship, meaning, and character, which our experience of the ‘sacredness of all things’ (including the biblical statements), clearly communicates to us.

It is vital to remember that when we say, ’everything is sacred’, we understand this sacredness is two-fold. First, that tree, that rock, that person, is sacred in their own right so recognised for who they are within themselves. Second, because it is the Spirit and Creator who enables them to be sacred. So, sacredness should deepen our relationship with every particular expression of creation, as well as with the Creator themself.

Jesus’ incarnation does not make matter sacred. Matter is already sacred. Jesus’ incarnation simply and powerfully confirms this truth. Jesus’ own words when breaking and sharing the Passover bread with his disciples are simple, yet have deeply disturbing implications:

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body”.
(Luke 22:19)

They challenge the sacramental view that priestly prayer miraculously changes matter.
They challenge the symbolic view that the bread/wine simply represent the reality.
They challenge the view that matter is mundane, revealing it is a sacred-miraculous reality.

This being so, the beautiful word ‘sacramental’ should now provoke us to ask, “Am I encountering the living, dying, risen Jesus in everything I engage with, especially in the food that I eat?”

This leaves the question, “What then is the significance and purpose of Jesus’ incarnation?” In a phrase, ‘to reveal and deal with the mystery of evil’. Evil’s origins are uncertain (hence the mystery), but as humans we have allowed ourselves to become enmeshed in it, with creation suffering the consequences of our choice. Evil is not the opposite of the sacred and the good (that is dualism), rather it is a perversion of it. ‘Profane’ describes that which is not ‘sacred’ (Latin: pro fano means ‘outside the temple’). Throughout scripture there are inferences that creation is the ‘Temple of God’ (cf. Psalm 104). Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection first ‘reveal’ exactly what the ‘sacred’ truly is, and then they ‘deal’ a response that will ensure the fulness of sacred salvation will ultimately embrace (without exception) the totality of ‘all things’ ever created. Prefaced by judgement (the most terrible-beautiful concept in scripture), where everything is finally put right and becomes shalom, and concluded with creation totally renewed - most certainly not replaced!

All creation is a palpable mystery, an immense incarnation of cosmic proportions

Reflect on these statements, remembering that the Greek ‘panta’ means ‘absolutely everything without exception, and forever’.

‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things (panta) to myself’ (John 12:32)
‘... at the renewal of all things’ (panta) (Matthew 19:28)
‘… until the time of universal restoration’ (Acts 3:21)
‘... through [Jesus] to reconcile all things (panta) ... making shalom (peace) (Colossians 1:20)
‘For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that God may be merciful to all’ (Romans 11:32)
‘The creation itself will be set free from its bondage and decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21)
‘But in accordance with God’s promise, we wait for renewed heavens and a renewed earth, where righteousness is at home’ (2 Pt 3:13)

To conclude, here are some thoughts from Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis, on how the Eastern churches understand the sacred and creation:

“We need to recall the sacramental principle, which ultimately demands from us the recognition that nothing in life is profane and unsacred … there is an invisible dimension to all things visible, and a beyond to everything material. All creation is a palpable mystery, an immense incarnation of cosmic proportions …the Incarnation [is seen] more as a spiritual movement than as an isolated moment …the logoi of Creation and the logos of Christ”.