I have a neighbor who is obsessively neat. He live on ten forested acres, and every time he drove up his long, winding driveway, the disorderly dead branches on the Ponderosa pine trees bothered him. One day he called a tree-trimming service and learned it would cost him five thousand dollars to trim all those trees. Appalled at the price, he rented a chain saw and spent several weekends perched precariously on a ladder cutting back all the branches he could reach.
He then called the service for a new estimate and got an unwelcome surprise. “Mr. Rodigues, it will probably cost you twice as much. You seem we were planning to use those lower branches to reach the higher ones. Now we have to bring in an expensive truck and work from a bucket.”
In some ways, modern society reminds me of that story. We have sawed off the lower branches on which Western Civilization was built, and the higher branches now seem dangerously out of reach. “We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and suffer it in the high places and along the banks of sacred streams,” writes Annie Dillard.
No society in history has attempted to live without a belief in the sacred, not until the modern West. Such a leap has consequences that we are only beginning to recognize.We now live in a state of confusion about the big questions that have always engaged the human race, questions of meaning, purpose, and morality. A skeptical friend of mine used to ask himself the question, “What would an atheist do?” in deliberate mockery of the What Would Jesus Do(WWJD) slogan. He finally stopped asking because he found no reliable answers.
Eliminating the sacred changes the story of our lives. In times of greater faith, people saw themselves as individual creations of a loving God who, regardless of how it may look at any given moment, has final control over a world destined for restoration. Now, people with not faith find themselves lost and alone, with no overarching story, or meta-narrative, to give promise to the future and meaning to the present.