Many don’t realize that when it comes to spiritual matters, there are actually two axes upon which to evaluate a given action or event.
We can call something ‘religious’ and by this we mean it observes, reflects, or otherwise lifts up a system of faith-based beliefs and practices. A worship service, a prayer, an offering, baptism, and even incense-burning, if done in homage to a higher being, can all be considered religious. The opposite of religious is ‘secular.’
On a related but distinct axis would be those things that are ‘sacred.’ ‘Sacred’ refers to the active, tangible presence of the divine: a miracle, the act of forgiveness, character transformation (when attributed to a higher being), ‘coincidences’ that really aren’t, a revelation, the movement of the Spirit, a revival, a moment of reconciliation, etc. The opposite of ‘sacred’ is ‘profane.’
The sacred may show up in the midst of the religious but is certainly not restricted to it. Likewise, the religious is certainly intended to foster the spiritual but may not always be successful in any given moment or season.
If we make the movement from secular to religious the ‘y’ axis and the movement from the profane to the sacred the ‘x’ axis, we can discuss four different quadrants:
Quadrant I – THE SECULAR AND PROFANE (bottom left): in this quadrant are those events or occurrences that show no evidence of the divine, but no one really expects them to. They are mundane in every sense of the word e.g. what one would expect to happen were there no engagement from any higher being. Examples: corruption in politics, criminal behavior, the ill effects of pop culture, consumerism, greed on wall street. There is nothing particularly redeemable about these developments but neither is there any surprise that they happen because these are not usually associated with anything spiritual anyway. This quadrant is irrelevant.
Quadrant II – THE RELIGIOUS AND PROFANE (top left): in this quadrant are those events or occurrences of a religious nature but that demonstrate no divine intervention at best and are downright evil at worst; they have the trappings of religion but are by no means good for society. Examples would be clergy sex abuse, hypocrisy, discrimination on Sunday morning, top-heavy ecclesiastical bureaucracies, promiscuity among the laity, a shooting in a place of worship. No one, inside or outside the institution, is proud of these; they give religion a bad name. This quadrant is reprehensible.
Quadrant III – THE RELIGIOUS AND SACRED (top right): in this quadrant is religion at its best, that is, when religion creates space for the divine to actually move and come alive in our midst. Examples would be a particularly moving Christmas Eve service, the feeling that God is speaking directly to you through a sermon, the Pope’s help in alleviating the poor throughout the world, a preacher who leads the Civil Rights Movement, a penitent leaving the confessional renewed, encouraged, and strengthened.
As wonderful as Quadrant III is, it has become difficult for a growing cross-section of American society to engage it. Fewer Americans each year can comfortably walk into a church or sanctuary and easily experience the sacred; it’s not easy to do. And without a lot of handholds, people can get lost in the process. It happens all the time. Meanwhile, story after story in the news about religious institutions take away their credibility. Unfortunately, this quadrant is becoming inaccessible. Which leaves us with . . .
Quadrant IV – THE SECULAR AND SACRED (bottom right): in this quadrant we find the divine at work way outside the institution, where things of a religious nature are not found, when God shows up in a place other than a worship service, a prayer meeting, or a Bible study. Examples would include a sunrise that shows forth the majesty of the Creator, a hospital bed that becomes a beacon of hope, a courtroom where the accused hugs the accuser, a classroom where a formerly ostracized kid has been lovingly folded into the friendship circle. Or a group of families from different backgrounds with no blood relation playing board games together on a Saturday night, experiencing love, kindness, and joy.
This quadrant is most compelling and offers the greatest hope for the revelation of the divine in American society today.