Religion and the Sacred

The irreligious often have trouble understanding the idea of profanity.  To be profane does not mean to be bad; it’s no more an insult than not being royalty is an insult.  In fact, many profane things are recognized by the religious person as good in themselves.  Whereas bad things should not exist anywhere, profane things have their rightful place, but that place is outside the temple.  For example, talking and joking among friends is itself a great blessing, but it is not compatible with the solemnity of worship.  (Thus, the post-Vatican II effort to make Mass more “friendly” by encouraging parishioners to shake hands and chat reflects a gross lack of understanding of religious worship, as does the unfortunate habit priests have developed of telling jokes during the homily.  The Mass is not meant to be fun or friendly—these things are good but profane.  The Mass is meant to be a religious sacrifice.)  Thus, the religious person recognizes more levels of value than the secular person.  While the latter organizes the world into evil, neutral, and good, the former recognizes evil, neutral-profane, good-profane, and holy/sacred.

The religious man builds his world around his idea of the sacred.  As Mircea Eliade pointed out, this is true even in a purely spatial sense:  the holy ground provides a “center of the world”, a fixed point with which to orient oneself, and around which everything else is ordered.  At the heart of the home and the city was once a sacred place, an inner sanctuary.  The home is where the sacred fire is kept, where the hearth gods dwell, where ancestors are worshiped.  Even today, millions of worshipers face the holy city, Jerusalem or Mecca, to worship as a way of facing God.  A religious people also put the sacred at the center of their social world.   They are driven to consecrate and ritualize all that is most important to them:  political authority, marriage, childbirth, coming of age, and death.  This provides a holy ground to these things, a religious assurance that they belong above the level of mere instrumentality.

The sacred as awesome

This begins to touch on other aspects of the sacred, because this word means more than just “supremely valuable”.  A thing may be valuable but fragile, like civil peace.  A thing may be valuable but unnecessary, like an appreciation for art—a good thing, but a person who lacks it should not feel that his life has been superficial or incomplete.  The sacred is not like this.  It is central not only socially but ontologically.  A man who encountered the sacred is convinced that he has touched the mysterious center of things.  It’s not just another aspect of reality that he’s encountered; it is the most fundamental aspect, the most real.  Whatever sacred beings he believes in, he knows that their being is the truth that lies beneath the surface of everyday life.  Therefore, he can’t help but see the life of the irreligious man as radically incomplete and superficial.  Here, he thinks, is someone who lives only on the surface of things, who has never sensed their depth.

The sacred is indeed mysterious—how could the ultimate reality be anything else?  Men have always sensed that something about the universe exceeds the grasp of their minds.  The sacred is said to be immense, awesome, all-powerful.  To describe the force of its presence, those who experience it use images of fire, of mountains, of storm and thunder.  However, we must understand that sacred power has a distinctive character, just as sacred goodness does.  Most especially, we must realize that these are not separate qualities, but two aspects of holiness.  It is not like the case of a king who is both just and powerful, but the two qualities are independent and could exist in separation.  The power of the gods is at once physical and moral.  It is more like the case of an immensely strong personality, in whose presence men fear their own personalities would be overwhelmed and overwritten, a personality that speaks with such authority that one almost expects the stones and the trees to obey it.  This is the sort of force that the sacred has, not only to destroy me, but also to transform me.  A fearful thing, indeed!  A unique power gives rise to a unique dread, but also a unique hope.  Here we should also remember that “awesome” does not mean “strong enough to kill me”, although no religious man doubts that the gods could do that.  We also describe a brilliant sunset or a vast canyon as awesome.  The sacred captivates my soul by its immensity, which is not just formless bigness, but overwhelming beauty.  Such is the divine majesty, and we can see how baseless is the atheist claim that religious people only worship their gods because they fear them.

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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