Rieff performs a massive interpretive exploration of the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. He sometimes makes the reader work to keep up with his extraordinary insights, but it is worth the effort. The passage below contains references to ideas central to Rieff's larger project. I will not try to contextualize them here; I think -- and hope -- that the overall sense comes through despite the complexity. His reference to the university bears the hallmarks of the student unrest of the latter quarter of the 20th century during which Rieff was a university professor, making his remarks slightly -- only slightly -- anachronistic. I have other minor quibbles with the quotation below, in general it is so bold and brilliant that I don't feel the need to let them interfere at this point.
Some will be put off by Rieff's apocalyptic tone, as some have been by René Girard's. By quoting it, I may be tarred with that brush. I take refuge in Girard's insistence that "The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope." That, at least, is my reason for calling your attention to Rieff's jeremiad.
Rieff's point of departure in what follows is Weber's brilliant definition of the sacred, one which illustrates its cultural significance, namely that: "The sacred is the uniquely unalterable." Returning to his analysis of the indispensability of cultural norms, Rieff elaborates on the Weber's lapidary formula:
Here is the crux of the anti-political meaning of charisma: the interdicts must be uniquely unalterable -- i.e. sacred. Political charisma is patently anti-interdictory, a form of desacralization -- in short, transgressive, which is so utterly opposed to the "uniquely unalterable" that transgressives treat their acts, rightly, as the ultimate alternative to the sacred. In a culture without sacramental action, indeed, transgressive motifs have displaced interdictory as the most demanding. We scarcely remember what the sacred is -- and are horrified by what we have forgotten. Anything that is uniquely unalterable horrifies us even to imagine, because we are living, acting transgressions. We are the horror. To us, nothing is sacred . . .Rieff would later say: "Anyone knowledgeable enough about himself as an organization man knows that evil angels have all but seized control of the world; everything is explained by my deeply felt theory of transgressions except the way out."
There is, I think, no doubt about the explanatory power of Rieff's theory of transgressions -- though it is really a theory of historical desacralization which will bear its greatest fruit when integrated with Girard's work on that subject -- there is a hint at least of "the way out" it seems to me. It is found in his fascinating and brilliant observation Rieff makes that the culture he sees succumbing to the transgressive imperatives once kept in check by sacred interdictions is "a culture without sacramental action."
Therein lies the hidden -- carefully hidden -- hope for those with eyes to see. The alternative -- ultimately the only alternative -- to the sacred is the sacramental. The only thing that can replace the implacable unalterability of the old sacred system that was dismantled on Golgotha is the covenantal unalterability of the sacramental, as in, "I will be with you until the end of the age," inasmuch as you "do this in remembrance of me."
"The world will pass away, but my words will not pass away."