In discussions about the relation of the sacred to the secular, it is the political, social, legal and economic spheres that most often come to the fore. Examples abound of treatments of the relations between religious and secular legal codes, ranging from Locke to Carl Schmitt; of the distinction between covenant and contract debates, from Kant to Lenn Goodman; of the importation of sovereignty theory from the religious to the secular sphere, from Kantorowicz to Jean Bethke-Ehlstein. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has immeasurably advanced our understanding of the assumptions governing these categories and their relations. In my earlier wrestling with the topic, I was preoccupied with the ways in which collective identity was figured in the Hebrew Bible—as a covenanted community, a people with a shared book, a shared history, a common territory, a kinship group—and how those understandings have haunted secular ideas of community (The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism).

What has received less attention is what secular spheres inherit from the sacred in ways less socio-political in nature: not how communities are imagined, ordered and governed, but, to put it simply,  the question of mystery.  By its very nature, mystery is much more difficult to speak about, and certainly to track.  But religious ritual claims to offer mystery as well as sociality. It claims to make the transcendent immanent, and transcendence—whether vertical or horizontal, above or beyond—is the sphere of the sacred, of what is beyond our comprehension, control and use. We can point to it, sign it, and by doing so, evoke it. But that “beyond” is more than we can say, hear, touch, taste or even understand. (For a further discussion of Transcendence, see the collected essays in Transcendence: Philosophy, Literature and Theology Approach the Beyond, the first of which is by Charles Taylor).

Does the mystery evoked by religious ritual survive outside of such ritual? Does mystery have a place in broader cultural spheres? This is the question I address in Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford, 2009). When we drink wine, we can toast “salute,” “cin cin,” in a foreign tongue—but we are only engaging in a debased allusion to the Latin words that effect a miracle in the ritual. We are not changed thereby and we do not hope thereby to change the world.  In contrast, the believer is changed decisively by partaking the host. What do we have beyond ritual that could even begin to address the needs addressed by the Eucharist, for example, to cleanse human fault and overcome death, to achieve communal justice and establish peace?  Ironically, when the ritual of the Mass was under attack and revision during the Reformation, the arts took up the challenge.  Tragedy took on justice explicitly, lyric poetry took on the function of praise and lament that had been the work of the psalms, and even the epic conjured a world full of  divine presence. The arts became the forum for making transcendence immanent.

The reason is not hard to find. Both ritual and the arts share a common denominator: both are activities of sign-making.  In his Epoch and Artist of 1959, David Jones astutely noted that “the term ‘sacrament’ and ‘sacramental’ are apt to give off over-tones and under-tones that for a number of disparate reasons have a kind of narrowing effect. Thus, for Christians and especially for the Catholic Christian, those terms carry a specialized meaning and a special aura surrounds them.  On the other hand, for secularized man in general, and especially for post-Christians or anti-Christians such terms are suspect or uncongenial.  So that in various opposing ways the wide significance and primary meaning is obscured.”  Jones continues, suggesting that the “primary meaning,” is sign-making. “Not only are the arts characterized by the activity of sign-making, ultimately, the very work of the sign implies the sacred.” Why does a sign inevitably evoke the sacred? Because it works by evoking something beyond itself, something that transcends the sign, and thereby participates in transcendence. It is in this sense that Jones believed  “man is unavoidably a sacramentalist and his works are sacramental in character.”

This is admittedly a theological view of human artifice. The modern world has bequeathed to us two radically different ways of understanding human making: in one, humans are instrumental, and the world is used and manipulated, as in a technological vision. In the other, the world is manifest by human productions.  This is the claim of icons—that they are portals to the divine, rather than human achievements.  But that could also be the wider claim of art: that what we make is, at its core, a manifestation of the world, of its mystery.  And that dualism can be challenged when we regard precisely what we make as manifest.

There is another component of sacramentality beyond sign-making: efficacy.  “A Sacrament is a thing subjected to the senses, which has the power not only of signifying but also of effecting grace,” according to the Council of Trent. While the source of the efficacy of art is debated—it is situated in the artist, in outside inspiration, in the work itself—most agree on the ability of art to manifest a world.  (This explains that otherwise audacious comparison of the artist to the Creator, the Supreme Artist).

The theatre does not make the claims of the Mass. The actors may dress in elaborate costumes and perform ceremonial-like acts, but they do not alter the participant or change the world. Nonetheless, theatre is more than mere representation. Usually,  the created theatrical world either depicts wrongs being set right, inviting its audience to celebrate justice (in comedy) or depicts the triumph of wrongdoing, inviting the audience  to grieve over injustice (in tragedy). While it doesn’t fulfill the craving for justice in the world, theatre evinces that craving, and this too, is a kind of efficacy.

Take Puccini’s Tosca, for example, an especially good case because even as it is explicitly anti-clerical, it conveys  much of the power of ritual to stir up ethical responses. The Church is broadly depicted as corrupt and abusive and its head of secret police, Scarpia, not only ruthlessly orders the torture of the brave Mario in order to extract from him the hiding place of the escaped leader of the Republic (and representative of freedom), but unconscionably offers to save Mario from execution in exchange for his lover Tosca’s  favors.  Despising Scarpia, a distraught Tosca nonetheless accepts the terrible terms, asking God why, when she has been so pious, she must suffer so. In return, Scarpia promises to arrange that Mario’s “execution” will be staged with blanks instead of bullets. As Scarpia’s ensuing seduction of Tosca begins, we thrill  to see Tosca drive a knife through Scarpia, “before whom all of Rome trembled.” She has defended herself, been faithful to her love, and defeated evil. Not the corrupt Church, but true Christian values have prevailed. (Perhaps the compromises of this imaginative possibility is why many some New Yorkers recently found the updated version at the Met to be a bit scandalous, with its suggestions of Scarpia’s sexual arousal by Mary Magdalene.)

The final act opens in suspense at dawn: the executioners prepare, Mario writes his final love letter to Tosca and then she arrives.  She explains to Mario that he will be allowed to escape but that he must first go through the charade of the execution to satisfy the law, advising him to fall convincingly before his executioners. At last, the firing squad shoots:  he falls, and Tosca, exultant that she will now be able to leave this realm of corruption, urges Mario to hurry. When he fails to move, she discovers that Scarpia’s treachery extended beyond his grave: the bullets were real.  What does the audience experience at this exquisite moment, one whose terrible tension is accented so dramatically by Puccini’s musical score? We know the truth: that she has been betrayed, that he lies dead.  But held out to us in that moment is her belief in the other possibility—that love has triumphed, that evil does not prevail, that her suffering has been redeemed, that this fundamentally Christian plot could have a happy ending. When it doesn’t, when this vision is abruptly denied, we may not kill ourselves (as she does), but we understand her sacrifice as completely intelligible. When the curtain comes down and Puccini’s mysterious world is withdrawn, how can we not return to the other created world with longing for it to be just? The evocations of sympathy and revulsion, of pity and fear, are evocations of an ethical sensibility, and one could hope that an ethical sensibility would, in turn, inform our world.  This may well be the cultural legacy of the sacramental.