There are no places where God isn’t present, though we rarely believe that. Like the people of old, we still have certain taboo areas, places that for us are far from God.
In the gospels we see Jesus going into those places that are considered godless and taboo and dispelling old fears and superstitions by taking God’s presence into them.
Thus we see Jesus entering into the lives of the sick, touching lepers, curing a woman struggling with menstruation, dining with prostitutes, and ultimately dying on a cross. All of these were considered unholy, unclean, taboo places, especially death by crucifixion – “Cursed is the one who dies on a tree!” There were powerful fears and taboos surrounding these things.
Yet Jesus entered those places without false fear and superstition. But he didn’t enter into them the way we, the adult children of the Enlightenment, do. For us, the dispelling of superstition, unhealthy taboo, and false fear is generally seen as a triumph of personal maturity, a growing-up, a liberation from false, phantom ghosts that we’re too smart to believe in. For us, it’s a question of false fear and unhealthy timidity, suffered in the name of religion, being exposed. Good riddance.
Some of this, in fact, is good. We’ve always lived with too much fear. True religion is meant to free us from this. That’s why virtually every time God appears in Scripture the first words are: “Do not be afraid!”
But our problem today is that, while we have entered old taboo areas and exposed false fears and superstitions, we haven’t, like Jesus, baptized those areas and made them holy. We haven’t taken God into them. Instead we have mostly emptied them, de-enchanted them, flattened them out, taken the mystique and soul out of them and left nothing but the biological, the social, the natural. We’ve cleared away a lot of false fear and superstition, but one wonders how much we’ve really gained.
Take just one example, sex: For most of history there has been, for all peoples, a great many taboos around sex. All the great religions of the world have deemed sex as sacred and surrounded it with every kind of prohibition and taboo, as indeed has virtually every culture until recently. In Jesus’ time, for example, adultery was punishable by death and the simple biological fact of menstruation was seen to render you unclean.
We’ve come a long way since then and now live in a culture that has essentially no religious, moral, or psychological taboos around sex and has little, if any, fear of it. The good news in this is that we have emptied sex of superstition, false fear, and false taboo. The bad news is that we have also robbed it of most of its sacredness, mystique, depth, and soul. We’ve been able to exorcise its demons, but have been unable to baptize it. We’ve removed its stigma, but without being able to infuse it with the sacred.
And we’re the poorer for it: So now we have lovers instead of spouses and soul mates because when sex is emptied of the sacred it can be casual and schizophrenic. We talk of someone as “hot” rather than as beautiful because once there are no longer any divine angels inside sex, there is mostly only biology left. And we go home after having sex because we haven’t found a home in it, despite the fact that anthropologically and religiously sex is meant to bring us home and be, itself, the most intimate of all homes. Unlike Jesus, we haven’t been able to take God into the place of taboo.
So today there’s a lot of sex, but a growing loneliness. We have no fear of sex, but our souls aren’t healed by it either. We’re liberated, but not whole or happy.
Perhaps our grandparents lived in too much fear of sex, but at least for them it held the sacred. We have little fear, but we also have a dumbed-down reality. Free of angels and demons, we experience precious little in the way of mystery and all too soon know the truth of William Auden’s comment: “We all know the few things that man, as a mammal, can do.”
In truth, there is a certain moral victory in our demystifying of sex from false taboo, but, until we re-enchant it (by taking the sacred into that former-taboo space) that victory will be a hollow one.
Jesus went into places that were considered taboo, unclean, and outside of God’s grace and cast out false fear and superstition there. But he did this not to claim some personal maturity. He did it to take God’s presence into those places. He came to free us from fear, even as he taught us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
And that’s the challenge: We are to fear nothing, even as we are to have a holy, reverential fear of everything. One, without the other, is not good.