Religion and the Sacred

For the plain truth is that all this is a trick of making things seem distant and dehumanized, merely by pretending not to understand things that we do understand…Who does not find dreams mysterious, and feel that they lie on the dark borderland of being?  Who does not feel the death and resurrection of the growing things of the earth as something near to the secret of the universe?  Who does not understand that there must always be the savour of something sacred about the authority and the solidarity that is the soul of the tribe?”

The true nature of religion

To understand religion, we must consider it in its essence.  What, then, is religion essentially?  I think a suitable definition would be this:  religion is man’s response to the sacred.  This definition has two key words—“response” and “sacred”.  When I say that religion is a response, this means that religious acts are intentional acts; they are always directed at something, and, I would include, are directed at something outside of oneself.  In this way, religion is like sight or smell, like love or hatred.  Religion is not a thing like fatigue—which need be directed at nothing in particular, nor is it a thing like self-confidence—which is directed at oneself.  The other key word is “sacred”.   What religion responds to is a quality called “the sacred” or “the holy.”  When a person responds religiously to tribal authority, to the immensity of a storm, or to the cycles of death and rebirth in nature, it is to the aspect of holiness in these things that the religious person responds.  All of these aspects of life—and many more—are indeed connected to religion, not because they “cause” it, but because these things reflect or participate in the sacred.  Although it manifests itself in many ways, the sacred is a single, distinct dimension of being.  This unity of object gives religion its coherence.  The religious man knows that there is a logic connecting the concepts of God, purity, sacrifice, and priesthood.  It is therefore foolish to look for separate evolutionary causes for the various aspects of religion, when we know that they are intelligibly connected.  Given the basic facts of men’s apprehension of the sacred and their capacity for abstract reasoning, we can count on them to have been drawn into the logic of the thing.  We have no need for further hypotheses.

In defense of religion II:  The meaning of the sacred

Modern man has a terribly impoverished sense of the sacred, but most of us have experienced a hint of it at some point in our lives.  It may happen in a church or other holy ground, at a funeral or other solemn event, at the sight of something immense like a mountain or something beautiful like music.  Whatever the occasion, we felt ourselves to be in the presence of a mysterious Something.  This “something” I will call “the sacred” or “the holy”, because we have not yet established what it is.  Historically, men experienced this awesome presence before they developed the concepts to explain it.  Before we can decide whether religion is true, we must first know what it claims and how it views the world.  That is the goal of this chapter.

The sacred as precious

Even today, men use the word “sacred”, as when one says that nature, human life, or marriage is “sacred”.  What do such claims mean?  Most obviously, they are assertions of objective value.  If a thing is sacred, we certainly shouldn’t wantonly destroy it.  What’s more, we shouldn’t treat it as a mere means to our own ends; a sacred thing demands to be respected for its own intrinsic goodness.  Even this recognition, however, only begins to capture the value response demanded by something sacred.  The sacred demands not only respect, but also reverence.  It makes claims not only on our words and actions, but also on our thoughts and feelings.  In this, the sacred is like other objects we rightly revere, such as our parents and our country, although even reverence is a weaker value response than the esteem we give to a thing we regard as holy.

When I am in the presence of the sacred, I feel that it demands my entire attention.  Any turning away toward other things—what I cannot help but call “lesser things”—would be grossly inappropriate.  The sacred impresses me with its supreme purity, a word that those who have never experienced the sacred can’t hope to understand.   With the idea of the sacred comes the idea of the profane, of those things in which the sacred is absent or veiled.  Profane things are not worthy of being in holy places.  To rightly remain in the sacred presence, a thing must be consecrated, that is, the sacred must assimilate the thing to itself.  The worshiper knows himself to be naturally profane, and he will only dare to approach the holy presence after separating himself from the rest of the profane world through ascetic practices and only with the aid of rituals that effect his own consecration.  What is true of the worshiper is more emphatically true of the priest—he undergoes a more elaborate ritual consecration and makes a more extreme renunciation of the profane world.

2 Responses

  1. […] and political authority are sacred.  (I’ve described the quality of being sacred in detail here.)  Profane things are not evil—some of them, such as friendship, money, entertainment, and […]

  2. First, you fail to distinguish between mythology and religion. The former is generally subsumed under the latter as a component of its transmission. However, there are those like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, your apparent mentor, who regard mythology as the broader term, designating a collection of symbolic images and metaphoric narratives that are universal in human experience and intended to awaken consciousness to its meaning and being within its existence.

    It is in this context that Campbell called religion misunderstood mythology. Religion invariably imposes factuality and historicity on an experience of illumination and insight that is instead intended to be dimensionless, not localized either in time or space. Eliade discusses at length the trans-dimensional nature of sacred time and sacred space and the way in which religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, radically altered the concept. The referents of three great world religions are to places and events fixed in historical time and space. Their insistence on this literalness in doctrine, on the “truth” of their contrary and contending interpretations even about their supposedly common divine father, results in the on-going madness of their trying to drop bombs on each other in the name of religion. And it is in this context that Campbell called religion a “defense against the experience of God.”

    In contrast, the referents of mythology are to places and events unfixed from the temporal or spatial and so evocative of the transcendent, and like art, expressive of “not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact.”

    Second, you skate dangerously close to pantheism when you describe the cosmic order “as a manifestation of the divine presence.” The Catholic Church has been very adamant on rejecting this linkage. At any rate, it is a vast leap in faith to conclude that this cosmic order “By its very existence, … reveals the rationality of God.” Looking at nature ravenous in tooth and claw might as easily lead to the opposite conclusion of an order devoid of divinity. In either case, it is a matter of interpretation, not “gospel” truth.  

    Finally your contention that religion without qualification posits a Divinity “that is supremely good, powerful, majestic, beautiful, rational, and just” is utter nonsense. You are, of course, speaking solely in the context of a western Deity, more particularly a Christian one. But religion generally subscribes to no such list of predicates. Islam, for example, firmly rejects any such attributes as merely human qualities whereas Allah is not bound by notions of goodness or justice or rationality but is entirely unconstrained in the exercise of his arbitrary and capricious Will. Even so-called natural laws of cause and effect, those that you assume reflect a Divine rationality at work in the cosmic order, do not apply to Allah and are inoperative in a world entirely dependent on his constant intervention and maintenance.

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