Navigating the False Dichotomy

Years ago, I heard an old small group leader refer to the false dichotomy of the sacred and secular. I spent a lot of time trying to understand it, pondering it, learning how to recognize the fallacy when it manifested itself in my life, and correcting my own thoughts. And though it’s not nearly so prevalent in my thoughts now as it was when the concept was novel to me, it still presents itself to me from time to time, and when it does it’s always good to chew on it for a while.

“False dichotomy of the sacred and secular.” I always hear that as a whole phrase, and it sounds large and somewhat ostentatious, so I’ll parse it before I dive into my purpose. A dichotomy is a contrast between two things, things that are entirely different, mutually exclusive, as if they are two planes that cannot intersect. So there’s the idea that sacred and secular are so polar opposite that they don’t interact with one another. There is private religion on one level, where one is involved in church and Bible study, and interaction with the public, with peers and colleagues at school or work is on another level, and neither overlaps with the other. I’m sure this accurately reflects the lives of some people, but it’s considered by many to be a false dichotomy, because it’s not an honest representation of our lives or our selves. The two aspects of our lives do intersect and ought to intersect. It’s crucial that we learn to bridge that divide.

Moreover, throughout the past year, I’ve been struck by a couple of other dichotomies, and it’s become evident to me that there is relationship between the three of them. One of my key words is wonder. I am wide-eyed. Regardless of how many autumns I experience in my life, I will never not see the splendor of a row of crimson and gold trees as some of their leaves are carried off by the wind, or of a flock of flying geese silhouetted by the sunset. I will always love the glitter of stars, and the softness of moonlight will always stir something inside my soul. There is beauty in this world, there is art, and I know the Artist, and every painting, every moving picture that catches my eye will leave me awed and feeling as if it were a gift and a grace especially for me. And I’m fortunate to live in a city that does have trees, and to work at a location that’s a little bit away from the hustle and bustle, where there’s a little pond out back to the west that’s filled with geese and ducks and looks gorgeous at sunset. But I do still live in a city. A cloudscape or a sunset will catch my eye while I’m sitting at a traffic light, or I’ll see a cardinal, but then it lands on a lamppost. And sometimes I’m disappointed that the glory of the picture is sullied by something so seemingly ugly and manmade. The urban-metal-concrete-plastic material of civilization sometimes seems to ruin the beauty that God has put on display. It’s so prosaic. Which leads me to another key word, poetic. I have always appreciated stories, poems, and imagery. I am right-brained, and I’m more head-in-the-clouds than down-to-earth. No one has ever described me as pragmatic (not that there’s anything wrong with pragmatism, it’s just not where I am). I’ve always had an intuition that there’s a distinction between poetry and prose, and the understanding that those apply not only to words, but also to life and situations. Anything that possesses a romantic, or lyrical, or imaginative, or otherwise generally creative and inspiring aspect is poetic. Then there are Mondays and mundane aspects such as chores and work, and those are boringly prosaic. It’s true that some people only look at things through prose, and perhaps they won’t really relate to this post, but for my part I think there are dreamier, sweeter aspects to real life, and those are the ones that breathe poetry into a moment. And there’s something so disappointing about having to move from the poetic mountains to the prosaic valleys.

Do you see the polarity? Sacred and secular. Natural and manmade. Poetry and prose. They all seem to coincide and run parallel to one another. But if the first is a false dichotomy, and I believe that it is, then it’s likely all are false. The sacred, poetic, natural creation is juxtaposed with the secular, prosaic, and manmade. And I’m starting to see that there are layers upon layers of both planes, overlapping and intersecting with one another, bleeding through. Sometimes the greyest days bring out the most vivid color. Myth and poesy and story show up in the everyday pragmatism of reality. Maybe the beauty and the poem of sacred Creation and the prosy, urban world aren’t as mutually exclusive as I’d previously thought. Not to say that buildings and exhaust fumes are equal to a sunrise and a poem, of course, but I want to learn to appreciate the juxtaposition of a moon and a lamppost, of a forest and a city block, as well as I can learn to bridge sacred and secular. And if I can apply these ideas, to be meditative in the midst of “real life,” maybe I can learn, for one thing, what it really means to pray without ceasing.