Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow


The Book of Exodus tells of a God who is constant yet changing. The contrast is one of essence and form, being and manifestation. The I AM who leads Moses and Aaron through the wilderness is the unchanging Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet this same God appears now in the burning bush, then in a still small voice, and again as a pillar of fire.

In our time it seems that the ancient patterns still hold. The sacred continues to be constant yet changing. The God in whom some 95 percent of the U.S. population claims to believe is the God revealed in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And yet this God is one whose manifestations continue to change. The sacred is evident now in the burning passions of our moral crusades, then in the stillness of our everyday lives, and again in the fiery rhetoric of our nation’s pulpits.

There has been much talk about a revival of religious dedication in our country and abroad. In affluent white-collar suburbs around Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, sprawling charismatic churches pack in crowds on Sunday mornings numbering in the thousands. On college campuses students flock to courses in religious studies, keep local Zen masters busy, and startle their teachers with tales of conversion and mystical experiences. Across the landscape in Poland, Brazil, Indonesia, and Iran, new cathedrals, mosques, and humbler places of worship have sprung up everywhere. Newscasters struggle to understand the nuances of fundamentalist theology. And even the scandals of religious hucksters seem to arouse more curiosity than scorn. Just when we thought the rational forces of science and technology had succeeded in pushing the sacred mysteries from our midst — just when the material affluence of advanced industrial society seemed on the verge of satisfying all our needs — the power of an awakening god seemed to shatter all our expectations.

But it may be that rediscovery is a better word than revival to describe what is happening. Revival connotes an active moving of the spirit. We speak of revivals and awakenings in our nation’s history as if the two were synonymous. They connote individual conversion, rededication, a more active form of participation. They also connote a collective turning point, a time when cultural energy was redirected. It was, we learn, the First "Great Awakening" in the 1740s and 1750s that led to the revolutionary zeal on which our nation’s drive for independence was based. And we learn that the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s provided a foundation for the abolitionist crusade of the 1840s and 1850s.

With these images in our history, it has often been tempting to depict contemporary religious currents in the same terms. When the civil rights movement erupted in the 1960s, social observers suggested that the nation was experiencing a revival of the religious zeal that had inspired abolition, the Social Gospel, and the progressive movement. Later in the same decade, a flurry of experimentation with Eastern religions and meditation techniques in the company of political activism and the drug culture led some to speculate that the demise of modernity was at hand, bringing with it (as in all social crises) a return to the sacred. Only a few years after this (but seemingly a millennium later in cultural time) a born-again president and new political muscle-flexing among evangelicals again prompted headlines about religious revival. Similar conclusions were drawn from fundamentalist movements in Iran and Lebanon, from Zionist factions in Israel, from heightened conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, and from the growing audiences being cultivated by "televangelists" in the United States.

So many revivals in such a short span of time is cause, in my view, to question whether what we are witnessing are really revivals at all. Perhaps we are indeed in the midst of some global reorientation — a worldwide return to the sacred — that has manifested itself in many ways. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Rather than millions of people (here and there) being drawn by the spirit to a great renewal of faith, the evidence suggests that commitments to the sacred have been relatively constant overall but have surfaced in different forms from one place or year to the next. The sleeping god has not awakened; the awakened god has been made visible in manifold ways.

I believe the imagery of rediscovery works better than the language of revival because we live in a pluralistic world and our commitments are largely shaped by the extent of this pluralism. An example will perhaps show what I mean. Suppose my neighbor belongs to a Pentecostal church and invites me to attend with him. I do and am attracted by what I experience. Rather than watching Meet the Press and the NFL pregame show, I start attending the church faithfully. I spend my Wednesday evenings in a home fellowship group and read my Bible more often than ever before. Am I part of a religious revival? If millions like me were doing the same thing, we might think so. But look closer at my commitments. More than likely the manifestation of the sacred I am now experiencing has been there all along. It may have been there in the particular Pentecostal church I’ve joined; it certainly has been there in hundreds of thousands of other churches. Some are decaying, some are rebuilding, but overall the balance sheet is not radically different. And even for me as an individual, is it not important to note that this is by no means the first time I’ve been a church-goer, that I had been recently finding a kind of joy (one might call it an experience of the sacred) reading T. S. Eliot, that my commitment to the new church is by no means total (in the sense of excluding work or family or friends), and that if statistical predictions work in my case I will probably have moved on to some other kind of commitment in five or ten years.

I have, by my sudden involvement in the local Pentecostal church, "discovered" a sense of sacredness that was already there. I may even have "rediscovered" the sacred after a dry period in my life when I felt no zeal for religion.

My point is not to belabor what may seem a trite terminological dispute. It is rather to alter, if only slightly, the perspective from which we view what is happening in contemporary religion. In naive conceptions of revivalism at least, it is altogether too easy to slip into notions about upswings and downswings, as if religious commitment were something like the Gross National Product, as if the sacred somehow slips away and then needs to be revived again. The view I want to suggest as a guiding metaphor in this volume is rooted more in an image of terrain. The sacred is always there, like the divine spirit that moved before the Israelites on their journey to the promised land. Sometimes we see it clearly, sometimes it is hidden from our view. In one instance we see it in the civil rights activism of a Martin Luther King, Jr. In another instance we see it in the religious broadcasting of a Jerry Falwell. In still another instance we see it in the close community that grows up around a neighborhood Bible study.

This metaphor, I believe, calls us to become more sensitive to the ways in which the sacred may manifest itself in contemporary society. Religious sentiment does not simply wax and wane; it changes clothes and appears in garb to which we are sometimes unaccustomed. It may well be all around us, and yet we have not trained ourselves to recognize it.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we are not neutral with respect to the sacred. Whether we see it depends to some extent on how well we have been sensitized. Our outlooks can blind us to its existence; our frameworks of understanding can help us to rediscover it. Certainly a believer would admit as much. The same holds true for the student of religion who wishes to understand it better from either the inside or the outside. Having theoretical tools at our disposal may help us rediscover the ways in which the sacred enters into our social existence.

That is my aim. The strategy for achieving this aim is to consider critically some of the major theoretical perspectives from which social scientists have tried to understand contemporary religion. In the following chapters I summarize a variety of theoretical perspectives, discuss some of the issues to which they might be applied, and add some critical commentary on what we might hope to gain from each perspective.

A natural and yet perhaps unusual place to begin is the relation between sacredness and our everyday lives. It is natural to begin here because everyday reality, as it is called, is where we spend so much of our time. It is perhaps an unusual place to start, though, because our everyday lives tend to be plains of humdrum daily existence rather than peaks on which the gods visibly dwell. All the more reason, then, to look here: by examining the sacred in relation to everyday reality, we can understand better the limits of our daily lives, the ways in which the sacred functions, and the traces it may leave for us to rediscover it.

The work of sociologist Peter L. Berger has been particularly influential in guiding us toward an understanding of everyday reality and its relation to the sacred. In Chapter 1 I have attempted to summarize the main points of Berger’s argument, showing how it provides a useful way of understanding the extent to which sacred and nonsacred realities alike are constructed collectively with symbols; I then suggest some features of religion in contemporary society that seem to make sense in these terms. I also point out some of the limitations that seem to creep into applications of Berger’s perspective most commonly.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has proven another valuable source from which to draw insights about contemporary religion, especially its cultural dimension. Social scientists and students of religion in a wide variety of disciplines have drunk deeply from Geertz’s well. The draught, though, has been heavily filtered, leaving a somewhat curious aftertaste. Only in recent years has a broader understanding of the cultural dimension been incorporated into some of the social sciences (perhaps notably, sociology). As a result, some of the ways in which Geertz has been interpreted are now being modified. And more generally, an enlarged variety of cultural manifestations of the sacred stands to be considered. In Chapter 2 I survey these developments.

Among the lessons that emerge from close inspection of the perspectives offered by Peter Berger and Clifford Geertz is the conclusion that more attention needs to be given to religious discourse. Religion, after all, is not primarily a matter of moods and motivations; it comes to us as we interact with others and it is reinforced by that interaction. And much of this interaction consists of discourse: we talk about our beliefs, listen to sermons, read the discourse of sacred tradition, and may even hear the voice of our own conscience. All this is self-evident, and yet we have largely neglected to bring discourse analysis to bear on the study of religion within the social sciences. In Chapter 3 I draw on the work of two literary critics — Northrop Frye and Susan Rubin Suleiman — to suggest some ways in which we might enrich our understanding of religious discourse.

To return briefly to the image of sacredness being constant yet changing, I have focused mainly on the constant aspect of this tension in the first three chapters. In the final four chapters I turn explicitly to questions of change. Here again, there are a number of useful theoretical frameworks from which to draw.

In many discussions of contemporary religion there is an implicit conception of social or cultural evolution. We stand, according to this view, at the edge of history, always moving qualitatively away from the heritage that forms our past. Contemporary society — and hence, contemporary religion — is continually shaped and reshaped by these long-term dynamics. Again, it is not so much that religion is eroding but that it is changing in form. To understand it, therefore, we must gain sensitivity to the most likely of these forms. A summary and comparison of three of the principal contributions to this literature — the work of Robert N. Bellah, Jurgen Habermas, and Nikas Luhmann — is the focus of Chapter 4.

These contributions have been erected on the foundations of Max Weber’s classical. work in the sociology of religion. And the Weberian perspective itself continues to provide a fruitful way of posing questions about the changes in contemporary religion. Is our faith subject to processes of rationalization? Have we inherited a fundamentally individualistic religious perspective? How do economic and political developments shape our views of human nature and of God? Social scientists have been guided by the Weberian perspective in conducting research on these questions, and their research, in turn, has begun to reshape our understanding of the Weberian perspective. In Chapter 5 I consider the contributions of five recent studies in the Weberian tradition, showing similarities among them and suggesting some general issues that students of religious change may wish to examine.

Beyond the question of change in religion in general, the issue of religion’s changing public role in contemporary societies has been of particular interest, especially because of the political implications of these changes. In one period evangelical and fundamentalist Christians sit passively on the political sidelines while their liberal counterparts struggle on the field; a few years later their roles are reversed. The overall strength of spiritual commitment in the two periods is not decidedly different; only the public consequences of spirituality have changed. Why?

Several distinct perspectives have been offered to answer questions about the changing place of public religion. Modernization theory emphasizes long-term weakening of religion’s capacity to influence the public realm but also posits periods of reaction in which religiously inspired backlash movements may appear. World-system theory also emphasizes the long-term forces that affect religion but stresses short-term economic cycles and different structural positions as well. A more inductive set of arguments (what might be termed "structural contingency" theories) focuses on the opportunities and constraints that may impinge on the activities of religious groups as a result of the organizational relations among state officials, elites, and established religious bodies. And the theory of "lifeworld colonization" provides insights into the nature of the public realm itself and the ways in which public religion may be shaped by the forces of bureaucracy and markets. In Chapter 6 I survey the main arguments of these theoretical perspectives, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each, and suggest some additional considerations for understanding episodes of religious restructuring.

Finally, living as we do in an increasingly interdependent world, we would do well to pay closer attention to the ways in which social processes at the global level may be influencing the quality and location of the sacred. A focus on broad comparative trends in the world’s most powerful societies can sensitize us to those conditions in our own society that may be universal or that may be distinctive. Paying attention to the larger dynamics of economic and political change in the world system can also help us understand better the contexts and forces to which immediate decisions are subject. It may seem from a limited domestic perspective, for example, that the churches are being shaped by rising levels of education; yet, from a broader perspective these changes in education may in turn represent national responses to an increasingly competitive world economy. There may also be instances in which our understanding of the dynamics between religion and society prove simply to be wrong unless we interpret them as part of some larger system of relations in world society. A consideration of the various gains that may come from adopting an international perspective on religion is the focus of Chapter 7.

These considerations, then, are intended to guide us in our efforts to rediscover the sacred in contemporary society — to guide us by providing lenses through which to view the changing manifestations of the sacred. Within the social sciences themselves much renewed interest in the social role of the sacred has been evident in recent years. The newscasters and newsmakers have repeatedly conspired to turn our attention to the continuing influence of religion in contemporary society. At times the events themselves have dictated the questions that had to be confronted. And yet, as I try to show in this volume, there is a rich array of theoretical perspectives on which to draw as well. Beyond that, we stand to gain as individuals — in our own distinctive quests for the sacred — by understanding more fully how the sacred and the society in which we live intermingle. If it is the case, as some argue, that a whole generation of Americans is now rediscovering the sacred, then the time has surely come for sustained reflection on the social dimensions of this quest.