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Rediscovering the Sacred in Secular Spaces

A French woman was raised a Roman Catholic but reveals that today she no longer considers herself one. Indeed, she has taken herself off the church rolls. When asked why, one might expect from her the sorts of complaints usually leveled against established religion. But not in this case. Her answer came directly and without qualification: She could no longer afford to pay the taxes. It turns out that in France, to be a member of a church means to pay tribute to the state, which, in turn, supports various religious institutions. This lady simply decided to give herself a tax cut by ceasing to identify herself as a Catholic, in the same way someone might decide to save money by forgoing a night on the town.

Why doesn’t this woman think of her religious identity as a fundamental spiritual issue on which rests the fate of her soul? Why doesn’t she see that Christianity is not simply about being a part of a social group but, rather, about the most fundamental issue of our lives: the relationship between man and God?

It seems to me that what she has lost sight of–and this is true with Western culture in general–is the meaning and mystery of the sacred. This is a widespread problem in our day, when large institutions in society seem to deliver only secular messages. In response, religious leaders shift between two extremes: on the one hand, an aggressive triumphalism that seeks to battle the secular world through political action; on the other, a passive quietism that despairs of the world and counsels retreat into small sects of pietistic purity. In the spirit of Saint Thomas More, who said, “The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them,” I would like to suggest a third option. Seeds of the sacred are scattered throughout the secular cultural landscape, waiting to be discovered.

For example: One outstanding mark of our times is the dramatic economic change the world has undergone in the last ten years, change that has grown more conspicuous as the nightmare of communism recedes into memory. Today, there is no longer any serious dispute that markets, prices, and private property–not government control–are the foundation of economic development.

Yet many Christians remain suspicious of the free market and, especially, of anything that smacks of “commercialization” or “commodification.” They are not, however, making all the proper distinctions. It is one thing to remind of the traditional teaching that wealth is not an inherent good; it is quite another to say that wealth is capable of no good at all.

The material world cannot offer us salvation, to be sure, but it does not then follow that it is inherently corrupt. Christians make a grave error when they hold that commercial culture has no redeeming value. This is why the Acton Institute continues to look for seeds of the sacred in the secular space of commercial culture.

For example, through work, we learn service. Through entrepreneurship, we learn creativity. Through the personal responsibility required by the free economy–akin to the personal responsibility at the heart of our faith–we learn prudence and thrift. And through the expansion of international markets, we learn how to cooperate in commerce, in knowledge, and in the building of a peaceful and just world.

It is no accident that Jesus did not use simply wheat and grapes–the work of the earth untransformed–at the Last Supper. No, he used natural elements from earth transformed through human labor into bread and wine, which are then transformed again into our spiritual food and drink. Their use at the Lord’s Table teaches us that the work of our hands is not unfitting but, rather, especially fitting for sacred purposes. It teaches us how to discover beneath the seemingly inescapably mundane, secular world the transcendent beauty and power of God’s grace.