The Secular Sublime

by Tracy R. Walsh

Amid the ongoing conversation about whether non-believers can ever truly understand religious art, Kenan Malik calls for a humanist appreciation of the sacred:

Transcendence does not necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion, solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it.

The capacity to grasp the transcendent in this fashion has transformed through history. In the premodern world it was difficult to conceive of meaning or purpose except in relation to God, or gods, or as aspects of the universe itself (though there were major strands in ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese philosophy that attempted to understand this in a purely human way). Hence, transcendence was inevitably seen in a religious light. But with modernity it became increasingly plausible to imagine purpose and meaning as humanly created. Indeed, as the French philosopher Denis Diderot claimed: “If we banish man, the thinking and contemplating being, from the face of the earth, this moving and sublime spectacle of nature will be nothing more than a sad and mute scene.” It was “the presence of man which makes the existence of beings meaningful.” …

If today we are uncomfortable with the idea of the transcendent, if many reject the idea entirely, while others can discover it only in a religious context, it is largely because we have a degraded sense of the human. That is why to read Marilynne Robinson, to gaze upon a Rothko, to listen to Olivier Messiaen can feel so essential. For some it may be to surrender to a religious experience. It is also, paradoxically, to remind ourselves what is truly human about the human condition.