The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty
Part 2 – Sacralism
In the ancient world, the democracy practised in Athens was an aberration. This is because all ancient societies were sacral societies, where there was no democracy. A sacral society is the opposite of a democratic society. In a sacral society, individual rights and freedom of conscious and freedom of choice simply do not exist. In a sacral society the interests of the community, or nation, are paramount. The goal of a sacral society is uniformity – where everyone thinks and acts the same. In a sacral society, uniformity is considered the highest ideal, because this gives cohesion to the society/nation and cohesion maintains the strength of the society/nation. Anyone who thinks differently is considered to be a heretic – and in a sacral society heresy is considered to be tantamount to treason against the state.
Religion plays a major role in a sacral society. Religion is the glue that holds a sacral society together – it is the key factor in achieving uniformity. All sacral society religions, achieve uniformity through sacramentalism. Sacramentalism is the practise of exercising one’s religion as a community – religious rites and worship are conducted together at an appointed time, at an appointed place, in an appointed manner. In a sacral society one’s religion is a matter of birth, determined by one’s inclusion in the social unit [extended family, tribe, nation] – there is no place for individuality or choice. Anybody who steps out of line, becomes a heretic:
Moreover, it is a characteristic of a sacral society that in it there are no heretics. The words “heretic” and “heresy” are derived from the Greek verb hairein, which means “to stand before alternatives and make a choice between them.” However, in a sacral situation there are no options on the level of one’s highest loyalty, no choice, no two or more contestants for that loyalty. For this reason, it is correct to say that in the pre-Christian situation there are no heretics — because there is no choice. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, (The Christian Hymnary Publishers, Sarasota, Florida) p. 23.
Those of us who have been nurtured on Western ideals, would not enjoy living in a sacral society – but sacralism is exactly what Plato is advocating in his philosophy. Karl Popper, summarises Plato’s philosophy – highlighting the extreme nature, and lengths he was prepared to go to maintain a sacral society:
The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anyone be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in peace… to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move or wash, or take his meals… only if he is told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, p.103.
“Never to dream of acting independently and to become utterly incapable of it” – in other words Plato, the father of Western Civilization, wants to build a society where the citizens are trained, educated, and shaped to be incapable of making choices for themselves.
In Plato’s ideal world this anti-individualism, would reign over the whole of society, including that realm were individualism should be paramount – namely religion. Quoting directly from ‘the father of western civilization’ this is what he says:
Let this be the simple form of the law:- No one shall possess shrines of the Gods in private houses, and he who is found to possess them, and perform any sacred rites not publicly authorized – supposing the offender to be some man or woman who is not guilty of any other great and impious crime – shall be informed against by him who is acquainted with the fact, which shall be announced by him to the guardians of the law; and let them issue orders that he or she shall carry away their private rites to the public temples, and if they do not persuade them, let them inflict a penalty on them until they comply. And if a person be proven guilty of impiety, not merely from childish levity, but such as grown – up men may be guilty of, whether he have sacrificed publicly or privately to any Gods, let him be punished with death, for his sacrifice is impure. Plato’s Laws, part 5, p. 3.
Plato is advocating what we, today, would call a police state – complete with neighborhood spies, to inform on those, daring to perform individualistic worship practices. And yes, Plato advocated the death penalty, for all those who refused to comply with the sacral requirements regarding religion. This indicates how Plato places religion at the core of his philosophy. For Plato, religion is the foundation of his whole system. For Plato, sacramental religion produces uniformity in society, and uniformity is the foundation of harmony and peace between the citizens of that society. This arrangement is so important in the Platonic system, that a police state is the only way to enforce it. There is no place for religious or political freedom. There is no place for individual rights, or the freedom to choose any alternative. Karl Popper’s conclusion is that Plato’s philosophy is far from being democratic – it is something else entirely – something which we now call totalitarianism:
I believe that Plato’s political programme, far from being morally superior to totalitarianism, is fundamentally identical with it. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, p. 87.
So, in summery Plato’s philosophy which advocates a sacral society looks like this:
- Pre-existent model society (Atlantis)
- Must go back not forwards
- Wise few, rule over ignorant many
- Individuality condemned
- Everyone answerable to a superior
- No unauthorised private worship
- Death for transgressors
To illustrate the nature of a sacral society, we only need to turn to the biblical account of Babylon, given in the Book of Daniel. In the Book of Daniel, king Nebuchadnezzar was given a dream and Daniel explained to him what the dream meant. But Nebuchadnezzar was not completely satisfied with the explanation. He was not happy, to be just the head of the figurine. He was not happy, with the news that there would be another kingdom after his. So, he made a replica of what he saw in vision, made completely out of gold, and he commanded all his subject people to bow down and worship it – on pain of death if they refused. This story is familiar to most, about how the three faithful friends of Daniel, refused to bow down. And in spite of the king’s threats, they stood steadfast, exercising their choice as individuals, against the demands of the society that they lived in. The king of course, could not have his authority challenged in this manner and followed through with his threats, but a higher power honoured the choices made by the faithful friends and saved them in a miraculous manner.
In this example, from the Book of Daniel, we have the perfect example of a sacral society and how it worked. The essence of a sacral society is uniformity. Everyone not only doing the same things, at the same time, but also in the same manner. Individuality and dissent are not tolerated. Individuality and dissent are always punished, and often punished with death. In such a society there are no individual choices, there is no freedom of the conscious, there is no democracy and individual rights. This is the kind of society that Plato advocated, and Plato is heralded as the father of Western Civilisation. But those of us who live in Western Civilisation societies, have freedom of conscious, we have free choice, we have democracies, and we have individual rights. So, how can Plato and the other democracy hating philosophers be the fathers of modern Western Civilization? We will answer this question in our next presentations, and eventually we will see why there is an important connection between the teaching of the Athenian philosophers and the Book of Revelation.
Sacral societies were the norm in the ancient past. The democracy of ancient Athens was an anomaly in a sacral world. Plato and his fellow philosophers wrote and spoke against democracy and individualism. They advocated totalitarian systems that they considered more homogenous and would foster uniformity. Nevertheless, in spite of their anti-democratic and anti-individualism these Athenian philosophers (especially Plato) and heralded as the ‘fathers of western civilization. This situation would appear to be an obvious contradiction. The purpose of this historical prologue is to untangle this complex apparent contradiction and demonstrate why this is so important to Unraveling Revelation.