Religion and the Sacred

The sacred as principle

Since the gods are, in some ways, beyond our understanding, one might expect them to be a disorderly influence in the world whose actions would always be associated with the irregular or the inexplicable.  In fact, religious peoples have generally had the opposite belief.  Namely, they hold that the divine is the source of the order in the universe.  From the earliest times, man has been impressed by this order:  season follows season, the stars follow precisely the same courses each year, and each animal reproduces its own kind.  Surely, he thinks, the God who is the ultimate reality must be the author of this order.  The cosmic order itself comes to be seen as a manifestation of the divine presence, i.e. it comes to be seen as a sacred order.  By its very existence, it reveals the rationality of God.  This intuition continued in man until at least the nineteenth century.  For example, when Maupertuis and Euler discovered the principle of least action, they were convinced that something so simple and beautiful must be the work of God Himself.  It is a strange claim made by atheists that the reason primitive man was religious was that he didn’t know the world is governed by regular laws.  In fact, it was the existence of regular laws that struck him as the most obvious manifestation of divine forces.

The religious view of cosmic order includes more than what we would now call the laws of physics and biology.  The basic laws of morality, the natural law, were also thought to be part of the same order.  To commit murder or adultery was to put oneself in antagonism with the order of the universe, to become “unnatural”.  Such sins offend and enrage the gods, all religious men agreed.  So it must be, for just as the motion of the stars reveals one aspect of God’s rationality, so the natural moral law reveals the moral aspect of His rationality—His supreme justice.  In fact, once the cosmic order has “tipped us off” to this aspect of the divine nature, we realize that it is a necessary part of the sacred.  A god who did not love order and hate sin would not be God.

The sacred as source

Since nothing has existence apart from its essential order, to bestow order is at the same time to give existence.  This is another universally-agreed quality of the sacred presence, that it is uniquely creative.  Religious man always finds his god at the source or origin of things.  The images of creation and ordering are found in every religion:  God separates the sky from the earth, the water from the land, and thus fashions our world.  He is both the center, the heart, of the world of beings and also the source of their being.  Here is another aspect of man’s attraction to the divine:  he wishes to return to his source, to recover the original purity of his existence.  In Eliade’s words, religious man has “nostalgia for origins” which is “nostalgia for being”.  Communion with the sacred offers him a chance for “rebirth”, a chance to be “made new”.  An echo of this religious desire is seen in a modern man’s pining for lost innocence.  This desire is not, as those who would dismiss it say, a wish to lose the wisdom and experience one has gained through life.  Nor is it merely the moral desire to stop sinning; a guiltless man can have the same yearning.  It is a fundamentally religious desire to be back at the heart of things.  A man gripped by it feels that his life is being dissipated in unimportant, superficial things, and he longs to recollect himself to the important and the real.

Beginnings are sacred—creation is when God touches the world.  This is why the bond between parents and children partakes of the sacred in every culture.  Because the divine creative force acted through my parents to create me, I owe a special religious duty to them.  My parents are a personal religious icon, an image of God, for me.  We should not be surprised to find that ancestor worship is one of the oldest and most common religious forms.  The parental image carries over to a people’s highest gods, whom they call “father” or “mother”.  The holiness of creation also acts in the other direction.  I myself have heard mothers speak of a religious awe inspired by their newborns.  Here one intuits with particular clarity the connection between newness/purity and the sacred.  Not surprising is the special horror with which religious people regard parricide as well as (in those cultures where the humanity of the child is fully recognized) abortion and infanticide.  These crimes are not just murder, but also desecration.

We needn’t consider so exalted a thing as the creation of a human being to ignite the religious imagination.  Anthropologists as far back as Frazer have noted the deep link between mythology and agriculture among primitive peoples.  A divine power controls the growth of their crops, primitive farmers are convinced, and so farming is a religious practice.  Properly understood, this is by no means a stupid or “superstitious” belief.  Nor are such sentiments limited to primitive religions.  It is by no arbitrary choice that Christian churches face east.  The sun rises in the east; the eastern horizon is where the day begins, and hence where God—the source of all that is new—“touches” the earth.

How can this sacred presence be the source of every being?  Why does it alone possess the power of creation and renewal?  It can only be because the Holy One possesses being in its full plenitude.  It possesses every perfection and every power necessarily and to a super-eminent degree.  Such has been the conviction of theologians and mystics the world over.  We exist by participating in God; He is where the stream of being finds its source.

This is religion.  It is a set of experiences and a way of viewing the world.  Seen in its true nature, we see how ignorant are those who dismiss it as foolish, or childish, or craven.  Religion addresses man’s highest intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties.  It does, certainly, assert a number of truth claims.  Religion asserts that there exists a sacred Being, or a sacred aspect of all things, that is supremely good, powerful, majestic, beautiful, rational, and just.  This sacred Being is the source of all other aspects of being, and It has no source outside Itself.  The just and fitting response to this Being is worship.  No matter how noble and beautiful religion is, for it to be valid, these claims must be true.

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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