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What is Power?



And how can you find your own? The source is closer than you may think.

This article appeared in our June 2004 issue.

At a recent discussion on “Spirituality and Politics,” the panelists — all luminaries of the human potential movement — spoke of paradigm change, the evolution of consciousness, and the need for radical political transformation. But one word they never mentioned was “power.”

This set me to wondering What is my relationship to power? I reject both the extremes of quietism — the resignation from all efforts to wield political power — and jihad — the willingness to use violence to secure the political triumph of my beliefs. Likewise, I reject the secular vision of raw, amoral power exerted through economic pressure or military might.

Because I am, at heart, “religious” in some left handed way, I need to understand the nature of sacred power in order to know how I should relate to political power in an appropriate way. What belongs to God and what to Caesar?

The Sacred Cosmos

Step back into pre-modern times. Once upon a time, sacred power was nearly inseparable from magic. Power was thought to reside in chants, rituals, and power objects, like the ark of the covenant, that were charged with a kind of spiritual high-voltage electricity. Priests who knew the right chants, ceremonies, and rituals had access to the sacred realm. Inspired oracles, shamans, and charismatic leaders enjoyed a more Dionysian kind of power. As the major world religions became more established, sacred power was transferred to the bureaucracy, to the office rather than the man. Dance gave way to dogma. Ecstasy was replaced by authority.

As Emerson observed, in the first generation of a religion, the men were golden and the goblets were wooden. In the second generation the goblets were golden and the men were wooden. Popes, pastors, priests, imams, and rabbis are uncomfortable with charismatic prophets and spirit-filled saints. Religious power becomes a monopoly controlled by a hierarchy that uses bell, book, and candle to mystify the masses.

My own understanding of power is rooted in a type of experience of sacred mystery, awe-filled power, that the two greatest phenomenologists of religion, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, convince me is perennial and lies at the heart of all the great world religions.

In The Idea of the Holy, Otto shows that religion is not about ideas of God, but about the experience of the holy that always contains the same elements. We always encounter the holy as a mysterium: tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that evokes awe and terror because of its terrible power and fascination and attraction because of its overwhelming beauty and promise of fulfillment. Mircea Eliade carries this idea a step further by tracing the contrast between sacred and profane ways of experiencing the world.

No matter whether the holy appears to us in an encounter with a rock, a bush, a flower in a crannied wall, or in the words or presence of a teacher or prophet such as Jesus or Mohammed, we find ourselves in the presence of power that is luminous and revelatory. To encounter the holy is to live in the presence of what is real rather than illusory, lasting rather than ephemeral, power. The moment we pass through the looking glass into the realm of the sacred everything changes, turns upside down, is transvalued. We become convinced that the sacred vision reveals the true nature of reality and the profane vision of a desacralized cosmos is illusion. Because an encounter with the holy changes our identity, it causes words to twist and turn and mean just the opposite of what they meant when they appeared on the front page of The New York Times.

The Birth of Sacred Power

No word undergoes a more radical transformation than “power.” The perennial experience of the sacred begins with a sense of overwhelming impotence. In the presence of the terrible power of the “wholly other” God we experience our profound creatureliness, our nothingness. We are “but dust and ashes.” Impotence in the face of the sacred cannot be cured by Viagra or by classes in self-esteem. It is not the result of an occasional and circumstantial failure of power, but of the fundamental realization that we are not in control. The basic human condition is the result of a one-party contract imposed on us by God that we are powerless to change.

Paradoxically, it is within this context of the experience of transience, contingency, and absolute dependency that the unique sense of sacred personal power is born. In a deathbed interview I did with the philosopher Ernest Becker he said it this way: “The human animal has no strength and this inability to stand on one’s own feet is one of the most tragic aspects of life. When you finally break through your character armor and discover your vulnerability, it becomes impossible to live without massive anxiety unless you find a new power source. And this is where the idea of God comes in. Ultimate power.”

How God becomes the ultimate power source in the life of a believer becomes clear only when we realize the radically different character of the worlds inhabited by religious and nonreligious persons. Between sacred and profane visions of the world there is an absolute gulf. The power that moves the profane world is happenstance, faceless, impersonal, and blind — nature “red in tooth and claw” (Darwin), society “a condition of war of all against all” (Hobbes), politics nothing but a game of amoral power (Machiavelli or Henry Kissinger). Bertrand Russell captured the essence of the profane metaphysic in his vision of Man as a weary but unyielding Atlas who constructs his own world despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

To be animated by a sense of the sacred is to live in a world that is charged with the power and grandeur of God but forever escapes our understanding and control. Among the Melanesians this ubiquitous sacred power and dynamism was called mana and was thought to be the supernatural force that made a canoe go swiftly, a trawl-net catch fish, or the leader of a clan charismatic and wise. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the power and the glory of God are manifest in the entire cosmos, in the fearful “tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night” no less than in the gentle lamb. Even in Buddhism, a nontheistic religion, everything is considered a manifestation of the eternal Buddha nature and this present world is an arena of soul-making designed to lead us toward enlightenment and liberation.

Beyond Benevolence

Critics of religion, from Feuerbach and Nietzsche to Freud, have charged that the notion of an all-powerful God is a pathological shadow drama, like the Story of 0, a form of glorified sadomasochism in which we deny our power, project it onto an omnipotent being, and imagine ourselves cared for by a benevolent providence. While this criticism may apply to naive, literalistic ideas of God as a Big Daddy in the Sky, it completely misses any sophisticated notions of God as the Ground of Being, as the immanent power and intelligence in the cosmos. The language of “omnipotence” is a poetic expression of the intimate experience of being encompassed within the liveliness of God.

From the perspective of the sacred vision there are no separate entities, no disconnected facts. “God” is the code word for the original systems theory. All reality is intercourse, interconnection, interaction, interbeing, interfeeling, interpower. In the beginning and the end is the word; there is only communication. There is nothing atomic, individual, split-off, separate. The starting point for any religious philosophy is: We are; therefore I am. Subtract interaction and communication and there would be neither God, nor cosmos, nor human beings. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas puts this notion of the radical immanence of divine power in the mouth of Jesus: “Split the wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

“Religion” in its original sense was the yoke that binds us together in a celebration of our interbeing. The communion of all believers is rooted in the awareness that to be alive is to partake of the divine power. The body of God is daily bread. The experience of residing within the empowering creativity of the divine brings the best of theology into line with the consensus of modern sciences in its rejection of the old notions of power. Science, cybernetics, ecology, and religion are all moving beyond the metaphor of power, beyond the vision of a universe made up of separate entities interacting by push-pull, cause-effect.

The Source of Your Power

If that entity I call myself is not an autonomous center of action, but is (pardon the language) radically dependent on, ontologically bonded to, intersubjectively connected with, erotically inseparable from God (the Ground of All Being and Becoming, the Self-Transcending-Transcender-of-All, the Alpha and Omega) how should I think about my personal power?


I am no-thing and All, an omnipotent part of an omnipotent whole, a sinner (sundered) and a saint (whole). At its best, religion reveals both truths about man: his wormlikenessas well as his godlikeness. How do I experience my godlikeness? My sacred power? Not by proclaiming myself “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,” “a weary but unyielding Atlas.” Not by courses in self-esteem that assure me that I create my own reality. It begins with a quiet moment when my normal identity disappears and I am wonderstruck, terrified, and fascinated to realize that my existence, like that of the cosmos, is mysterious beyond anything I can comprehend or control.

When I consider my life existentially I realize that I am not a standardized human unit that can be replaced by another standardized unit. To myself I am not a specimen, or a member of a species that evolved from a chance collision of particles in the cosmic soup. The state may consider me a citizen to be numbered, taxed, conscripted, fit into the demands of a five-year plan. My employer may consider me a resource to be used or discarded as needed. But to myself I am a being who fits into no pigeonhole, a bud beginning to unfold, a story waiting to be told.

The experience of creatureliness brings with it the realization that my life, like the cosmos, is a manifestation of God, an outflowing from the Fertile Void. Tire life that is given to me is not an abstraction but a rich bundle of talents and potentialities that I may choose to actualize or not, My unique, precious, and unrepeatable life is a work in progress that depends on my will, imagination, and energy to bring it to fruition. As I struggle to bring forth what is within me, to actualize my gifts, I am empowered and encouraged and experience the fullness of being, or, in traditional language, I am “saved.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.”

Tire abiding sense of power, purpose, and meaning that the sacred perspective offers the individual is the conviction that one’s most idiosyncratic gift — one’s vocation — is an integral part of the divine creative process — the eighth day of creation. Again from my deathbed interview with Ernest Becker: “What makes dying easier is to know that beyond the absurdity of one’s own life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what is happening to us, there is the fact of tremendous creative energies of the cosmos that are using us for some purpose we don’t know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, that is the thing that consoles.”

When I experience myself as sacred, as an incarnate spirit, a divine being with fingerprints, I discover that the words “power,” “potential,” “promise,” “purpose,” and “vocation” are identical. “Power” comes from the Latin potentia, potential. My potential is discovered in the unfolding of my talents and gifts. My power increases as I fulfill the promise of my being. My vocation is the voice of my future calling me to become. My gifts, my vocation, are woven into my DNA. My end (telos) is in my beginning. My DNA is a strand in the ongoing process of creation.

Creating a Covenant

What does it mean to act in a sacred manner in civic and political matters? What is the difference between treating my neighbor in a sacred and a profane way? A secular community emerges from a social contract by which individuals governed by self-interest agree to limit their exercise of power to enjoy the benefits of community. To survive, a community must maintain a minimum level of civility. Without a degree of power-sharing, a respect for the law, and a distribution of goods that allows people to live, political power degenerates into strategic violence in an effort to enforce obedience. Absolute power in the hands of the few destroys the potential of the many. A sacred community emerges not from a contract but from a covenant based on the experience of the essential communion of self and other. I and thou are not separate self-interested entities but entwined spirited beings. We exist only by coexisting. There is no I without thou; no self without other; no singularity without plurality; no plenitude without multitude; no passion without compassion, no promise without compromise; no potency without co-potency. Sacred community requires far more than mere civility or fairness.

Although the great religions have very different theologies, they share a common vision of the action that characterizes the life of the sincere believer. The summary of this consensus: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” The golden rule places a maximum demand on all who would be guided by it. When we unpack the implications of this simple, universal commandment, we find that it involves the recognition of the preciousness of all persons and the intention to respond to all members of the global village with empathy and compassion.

Once we acknowledge the inseparability of the self from the community, the quest for justice takes on a radical nature that goes beyond the civic virtues we owe to our immediate neighbors. It is no longer satisfied by mere fairness or by the obligation to share a minimum of wealth and power. It demands that we seek the fulfillment of the potentiality and promise of our neighbors near and far.

Love radicalizes the demand for justice by extending it beyond tribe or nation to all members of the commonwealth of all beings. As the Buddhist vow puts the matter: “Sentient Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.”

It is clear that power is an inevitable dimension in all human relationships, but it is self-evident that all persons are not created equal either in the amount or type of power given to them. The gifts of energy, imagination, intelligence, health, wealth, and access to education are unequally distributed. To have a vocation is to accept and develop whatever gifts, talents, and privileges we have been given — not as possessions to which we are entitled but as a trust to be used for the enrichment of the commonwealth.

Carl Jung famously said: “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking.” But renouncing the will to power — the grasping after power for one’s own safety and security — does not mean that a loving person will abandon the use of political power. Power becomes sacred when it is used in the service of compassion, power for others rather than power over others.

Because, as Marx taught us, no ruling class ever voluntarily gives up its privilege and power, love seeking justice must use power. The awareness of the sacredness of all life brings with it a painful awareness of desecration, violation, and sacrilege. At this point in history, numberless masses live in desperate circumstances, their potentialities for fulfillment stunted by tyranny, injustice, poverty, and pollution of the environment. Compassionate citizens of the global commonwealth and common poverty need to marshal righteous anger and sacred rage and use all available nonviolent types of power against entrenched power elites for the enfranchisement of the powerless. Sacred love seeks power to secure justice, not to enforce ideological, doctrinal, or sexual conformity.

Map for an Endless Journey

The question of whether love sometimes demands that we resort to violence to secure justice remains moot, and is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, pacifists from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., believing that it is better to suffer violence than to inflict it, advocated nonviolent direct action to change unjust social structures. Others, citing the example of Hitler and the Holocaust, believe there are crimes against humanity so horrendous that warfare may be the only way to serve the cause of justice.

The obvious difficulty with the notion of a just war is that it is so frequently used to justify the profaning actions of profane nations. It is increasingly difficult to imagine that any war that makes use of weapons of mass destruction, which by definition are indiscriminate and genocidal, could be sanctified by an appeal to justice. I am inclined to believe that the only just use of violence is by police and peacekeeping forces under the auspices of the United Nations.

These reflections on sacred and profane power leave many of my questions unanswered. Like anyone who has experienced an epiphany of the holy in any form, I am caught up in the perennial struggle between proponents of sacred and profane views of the world. Like it or not, we are all citizens of both realms and must find some way to live in a creative tension between the two. I am under no illusion that I will ever live in a commonwealth governed equally by love, power, and justice. But a map showing the topography of these competing kingdoms of human consciousness helps me to understand the direction in which I must travel to fulfill the sacred promise of my life, to become a wholesome person.

Our Power to Choose

To encounter the holy is to live in the presence of what is real rather than what is illusory, lasting rather than ephemeral. The encounter changes our identity and causes words to twist and turn. Power comes to mean just the opposite of what it seems on the front page of The New York Times. You feel the difference between what is profane and what is sacred.

PROFANE POWER... Seeks to dominate the other Is individualistic Demands conformity, obedience Is used to gain more power Coerces Separates Mystifies Is violent Hypnotizes Is a zero-sum game Is diminished by being shared Is a possession Is speedy Is neurotic — it seeks vindictive triumph

SACRED POWER... Seeks the fulfillment of the other Is intersubjective Creates diversity, pluralism Is used to gain justice Invites Unites Is wonderful Is awesome Fascinates Is a win-win game Is increased by being shared Is a gift Bides its time Is erotic — it seeks to enjoy the other

Sam Keen, whose Psychology Today conversations brought Joseph Campbell, Norman O. Brown, and other seminal thinkers to national attention, holds two M.A.s in theology from Harvard and a Princeton Ph.D. in philosophy. His books include the best-seller Fire in the Belly, Hymns to an Unknown God, and his most recent, Learning to Fly: Trapeze – Fear, Trust, and the Joy of Letting Go.

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