It is mystery why some block their ears shut, with stone, against the whisper of the Holy, while others, a few, who are not so clogged up, are able to apprehend even the faintest resonance of the Sacred, like a pin dropping in the midst of a raucous crowd of distracted bystanders, none of whom hears anything but the general clamor, nor has the slightest idea as to what for Heaven’s sake is going on beneath the surface.
This is the major thematic chord that Robert Coles strikes within his brilliantly engaging exposition of the secular mind, beginning in encounter with the voices of Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah and Jesus, as their prophetic words continue to press upon our world. He follows with a deep probing of the secular mind of the 19th century with its roots in the Enlightenment (“Where We Stood” in the midst of scientific rationalism). He concludes with an inspection of the secular mind of the 20th century as it turns into the year 2000 and beyond (“Where We Stand” as post-Freudians on the precipice of a dawning age of “biopsychiatry” as one of many new frontiers within a still emerging Brave New World).
As a humanist psychiatrist and committed Christian from Harvard, and a student of people, culture, literature and religion, Coles seeks to discern and to defend the indispensable and saving grace of the sacred mind as it contends with the stubborn persistence of the secular mind in all of us. He carries on a substantive, inspiring and insightful dialogue with many influential persons, including Sigmund Freud who catapulted a post-Darwinian era into an even more thoroughly rationalist and modernist worldview.
Woven into the narrative are first-hand conversations with luminaries whom Coles knew personally, including Paul Tillich, Dorothy Day, Anna Freud, Karen Horney, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and William Carlos Williams. Present also are the voices of figures he came to know through their written work — S¿ren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Eliot, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Blaise Pascal, St. Augustine, Czeslaw Milosz, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Jesus of Nazareth, however, is the great protagonist of the sacred and challenger of the secular, pointing always, and at great cost, to the One God whom the world worships and shuns, craves and betrays. From these pages we gain a lively sense of the crisis of soul in our own time, yet, even so, a profound recognition of the sacred order to which we truly belong.
As for Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, Coles minces no words when contrasting the self-knowledge gotten, not gained, from a “godless materialism” (Freud’s own term for psychoanalysis), with the divine self-knowledge that sees us for who we are, and for who we are not.
As readers who are mindful of our own secular proclivities, Coles summons us to the in-breaking of the Sacred. Because Holiness is buried treasure, we have to dig for it, assuming we know where to look for it.
How, then, is the Word of God to be heard, understood and heeded in a secularized world? Plainly and simply, it isn’t easy. Dorothy Day, as one who acted courageously upon what she heard, put it well. “I’m in church seeking the sacred, but I go there as a secular person. I feel split, try as I might not to be!”
Is there anyone seeking to be faithful who is not split, and therefore always dependent upon the effulgence of grace in every given moment? Coles entices us into the mysterious Presence of the Lord — how God sets foot, as though having legs, in the realm of the here and now — so that we in our thoroughgoing secularity, being utterly absorbed in the mundane, may be found standing at any given moment upon the threshold of the Sacred, within hearing distance — just as God’s Word is spoken!