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The still, small voice of sacred thought

By Ron Charles / April 8, 1999



THE SECULAR MIND By Robert Coles Princeton U Press 189 pp., $19.95

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When Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles thinks out loud, as he does through much of "The Secular Mind," his wending contemplation on sacred and secular thought, the rewards are profound, but very hard won.

The four essays in this collection consider the way mankind's concern with the material world has pushed against the craving for transcendence, for contact with something beyond, even God. As Coles humbly admits, the terms of this conversation are frustratingly slippery. His argument, to quote Emily Dickinson, "stands beyond / Invisible, as Music - / But positive, as Sound."

The first essay, "Secularism in the Biblical Tradition," considers the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son as a sign of obedience to God. For Coles, and the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, whom he considers at length, this remarkable story epitomizes the sacred thought that is outside the realm of logic, reasonableness, or "our ordinary ethical standards."

He argues that the contemporary world has grown so secular, so concerned with the cares of this world, that it no longer tolerates the intensity, the passion, or even the language of those Old Testament voices who felt full of sacred fire. To speak of today's moral decline with even mild indignation or outrage is to risk being labeled uptight or "consigned to the ranks of the mentally unsettled or worse."

Quoting extensively from his interviews with Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, he recalls her lamenting, "In our secular world there's plenty of room for social or cultural criticism, so long as it is secular in nature." To invoke God's name with any sincerity or to refer to the most elemental spiritual desires as a motivating factor in one's work is to become a quaint embarrassment.

"Secular minds," Coles claims, are "unable to fathom the workings ... of the mind tied significantly to the sacred." But that inability, he goes on, generates a tremendous response from the secular mind. His next three essays present a sweeping analysis of 19th- and 20th-century literature, science, and politics - all the various ways mankind has designed to explain the material world in its own terms.

Particularly illuminating is Coles's analysis of George Elliot's novels. "She is taking the measure," he writes, "of a world becoming more conclusively secular - where once great and constant consideration was given to the 'image of God,' now the mind of man commanded the major attention of people who may have attended church regularly, but who looked less upward toward the heavens than directly in a nearby mirror."

One of the many remarkable aspects of the book is hearing this famous psychiatrist express such deep reservations about Sigmund Freud, particularly Freud's dismissive attitude toward religious faith. In lengthy conversations with Anna Freud, Coles admires her father's analysis of the human mind - and even depends on basic Freudian terms for much of his discussion. But he deeply regrets the way psychoanalysis, like other sciences, quickly became a new orthodoxy to replace the religious orthodoxy it rejected.

His final essay is less intellectually demanding, but it's the most thought-provoking. Quoting at length from a conversation with one of his students, Coles encourages us to consider the unsettling future of a culture whose sciences will someday claim to understand everything about the nature of thought.

Already, he notes with concern, psychiatric drugs are used as "elegant levers" to adjust people's moods and personalities. Surely the time will come when, "as Freud anticipated, 'mind' will increasingly become 'matter,' a move from metapsychological inquiry to medical applications and interventions tied to a materialist comprehension of how the brain works."

His graduate student wonders, "Will there always be a 'me' who wonders about what she's doing, and why, or will the 'me' or the 'you' get lost in all the understanding or control we have over the way the brain works?" It's a pleasure to be in the presence of a man so smart and yet still capable of being rendered speechless by a student's sincere philosophical concerns. There are no conclusions here, but following Coles's considerations is worth the effort.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.