Sacred Democracy-The Marriage of the Ethical and the Moral

by: Posted on: December 08, 2013

Editor’s Note: In a look back on his previous columns, Damon asks, “what is it that marries the secular to the sacred?” Ultimately, he finds, democracy is the glue. He continues: “Just as the sacred has its underlying blueprint, aka the moral, the secular gives us its own overlying plan of action, aka the ethical.”



In the first of this series of columns, called “The Moral Blueprint,” I introduced the idea of a partnership between the “secular” and the “sacred” levels of human life. It seems fair to say that humankind throughout history has acknowledged not just the reality of, but the need for, such a symbiosis. (Albeit often with a sectarian bias.) I’ve suggested in subsequent columns that any nation aspiring to be deemed a democracy—in particular our own, which still remains a work in progress—needs to manifest a synchrony of both secular and sacred to have any hope at all of living up to the name. Many nations have called themselves democracies on questionable grounds, thus it remains to be considered: for nations that have failed in the attempt, might it be due to a disconnect between these two levels of human existence? And if so, what is it that marries the secular to the sacred?

Concerned that the term “sacred democracy” may imply otherwise, I tried in that opening column to show that without the secular, the sound of the sacred is simply that of one hand clapping: “as each is indispensable to a just and fair society—however distinct the human levels on which they’re called to operate.” I added that, “the secular blueprint guides us to pass laws that are just, as we educate our young toward ethical choices. The sacred, though, radiates ever and ever outward, as it is cultivated within us: an impulse of unconditional love—from, and to, every human heart.” “Many would say,” I concluded, “[the secular] is more attainable, though it is what we’ve been [relying on] for centuries. Yet which is more primary? Which is more grass-roots, ground-up, and sustainable?”

What I was trying to provide at the time was a set of distinguishing definitions for the “ethical” and the “moral.” And while such a contrast may sound like a distinction without a difference, I believe the truth to be anything but that. I believe the terms point to very separate levels of human nature, which are subtly yet distinctly different, and that it is the spirit of democracy that brings them together, as in two hands happily clapping.

This familiar Buddhist koan offers a natural bridge to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, which exemplifies the circular relationship of the secular and the sacred as aptly as any of the multitudinous “paths” and “ways” resonating in the Perennial Philosophy (“as above, so below,” it is often said). It is also said that the sacred is timeless, existing in, of, and to itself. Yet its moral essence enables individuals to cope with the sufferings and afflictions of their temporal lives—sustaining their practice of secular virtues as it draws them closer to itself. For Buddhists, it is the beacon that illuminates their path: of a right, proper, and integral (1) understanding, (2) thinking, (3) speech, (4) action, (5) livelihood, (6) effort, (7) mindfulness, until finally arriving at (8) enlightened awareness. Could such an ethical path do anything less than lead to an attitude of enlightened democratic generosity?

And, is that impulse to generosity anything but a reflection of the moral blueprint, which the sages of the ages tell us dwells at the heart-level in us all, ever ready to flower open into an “ethical culture”? In column number two, “Living Democracy as Spiritual Practice, or Vice Versa,” I used the philosophy of yoga to reinforce this very same inter-relatedness between the secular and the sacred. (Of course yoga, as we think we know it, is understood mainly to be a discipline of the body, which unto itself is a limiting fallacy. Indeed, of the ancient traditions, yoga has been susceptible to a “dumbing down” of its spiritual depth and complexity, due to the benefits of hatha yoga upon physical flexibility and one’s overall health.) I demonstrated in column two that a hierarchy of yogas traces a parallel arc with Buddhism, toward a deeper awareness from outer to inner, and mapping a natural pathway to an attitude of kinship with all life—which I call sacred democracy.

It seems fair to say that these parallel circuits of sacred and secular insight signal a mutual purpose (a kind of synergy of virtues), between the individual goal of spiritual enlightenment and the social goal of democratic fairness and justice. Yet how then do we bring about the necessary marriage of the secular and the sacred, when the argument persists so perversely over which is the only reality? How do we reconcile the cynicism of “democrats” (small d), who flaunt their contempt for the sacred, with the “pious” who echo the ancient Pharisees by preaching the dogmatic letter of their fundamentalist laws?

Turning back to Buddhism for a moment, let’s consider its four essential vows:

(1)  To save innumerable human beings.

(2)  To eradicate countless earthly desires.

(3)  To master immeasurable Buddhist teachings.

(4)  To attain supreme enlightenment.

As is predictably the case, the movement from one to four is a secular-to-sacred kind of process. Yet it is universally acknowledged that the first of the four, despite all expectations to the contrary, is preeminent among them, as a vow to relieve all others of suffering, without favoring or discriminating among them. What it fosters in Buddhists, we know, is the emotion of compassion. And isn’t that the very hallmark of democracy?

Time then to return to the indispensability of the secular in a fair and just society, and the form it takes in our actions. It’s what I’m suggesting we call the ethical blueprint. Just as the sacred has its underlying blueprint, aka the moral, the secular gives us its own overlying plan of action, aka the ethical. One of them exists in the absolute dimension of spirit, while the other exists in the relative dimension of flesh and blood human life. One of them is pure love, unconditional and unadulterated. The other is as conditional and as complex and as rife with irony as it can be. One, though incorruptible, is taken in vain in the form of moralizations and moral judgments that are the farthest thing from its sacred essence. The other, by its very nature a human work in progress, is corruptible by tribal traditions, legal manipulations, and the unnatural self-assurances that might makes right.

What I’m saying then is that the moral is and the ethical, however crucial it may be to our democratic aspirations, is ever becoming. It’s a relative world out there, and while it may be valid from time to time to pronounce this or that something to be moral or immoral, it is more within our ability to judge if it is fair or unfair, kind or unkind, just or unjust, or perhaps preeminently of all, whether it is compassionate or whether it isn’t.

Thinking along these lines, therefore, makes it clear that the question of “ethical or not” opens up a critical new can of worms. It is at the level of ethics, after all, that a democracy has to function. Life is a secular business, much if not most of the time, and anyone who says otherwise is too spiritual for anyone’s earthly good. Therefore while the secular/ethical without a sense of the sacred/moral is the sound of one hand clapping—or worse, ethically and morally discordant—it is the secular that walks and talks in a world of personal choices and public policy decisions. What, then, enables the secular nature to take command in a temporal world while maintaining its contact with the eternal sacred? What else could it be, but the sacred flow between them of the emotion of compassion?

Ironically enough, a critical sign of the spirit of sacred democracy (along with the most compelling reason for such a society to institute a secular form of governance) has to be the wisdom of its injunction against the establishment of a state religion. Tempting as it may be to advocate for a “godly government,” the freedom to honor the sacred along whatever path any citizen may choose to follow it appears to be the only way to prevent the worst kind of tyranny known to human history. Brotherly love, mutual tolerance, and unconditional compassion are the hallmarks of a sacred democracy, and they can only be kept alive in each of us as they are practiced among each of us, in a secular social milieu.

So as we ask ourselves how we can possibly live up to such an apparently elusive ideal, we can take a hint not just from the Buddhists or the yogis, but from the consensus wisdom found in the vast Perennial Philosophy, and simply give compassion its due. For everyone, that is, regardless of how much we detest their morals, their ethics, or simply their crackpot opinions. We don’t have to agree with them. We don’t even have to like them. But we have to have compassion for them. And as different from us as they seem, beneath their personalities, races, genders, generations, and political ideologies, they’re our spiritual siblings, and if we don’t wish fairness, kindness and justice for them, we can forget about having a democracy—much less about saving innumerable human beings.                      


One Response to “Sacred Democracy-The Marriage of the Ethical and the Moral”

  • Phil, Just discovered your columns. Beautiful. Can you contact me at the email above? All is OK, but Jeff is very ill. He would love to hear from you. Sorry for not staying in touch, but we talk about you all the time. I hope you are well. You taught me point of view, which naturally leads to empathy, a key to how I think. Gene
    by: Gene Meyeron: Wednesday 24th of September 2014

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