O surpriză cu Mircea Eliade

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Key insights from

The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion

By Mircea Eliade

What you’ll learn

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian historian of religion, a philosopher, and a novelist. His research led him all over the world, including to British-occupied India, Italy, and the United States, where he held a professorship at the University of Chicago. In addition to his native Romanian, he mastered French, Italian, German, and English, and he learned to read Persian, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. Eliade is most remembered for his significant contributions to the study of religion.

In The Sacred and the Profane (originally published in 1957), he explores how religious man (Homo religiosus) experiences the sacred, and how these experiences form the starting point of religions. He also describes how the non-religious tend to experience life in the profane mode of operating. Eliade emphasizes throughout his work that a totally profane existence is impossible, and that even the modern, industrialized Westerner—who is mostly terrified and suspicious of the sacred—still preserves aspects of religious observance without even realizing it.

Read on for key insights from The Sacred and The Profane.

1. For the most part, modern society experiences life through profane eyes, and struggles to identify with the sacred.

One of the best ways to understand the sacred is to set it in contrast with the profane. The sacred and the profane represent two distinct ways of existing and attending to the world. It’s not dramatic to say there’s a chasm separating these two ways of being. Living in the modern world, which is largely profane, allows the differences between the profane era of today to stand in sharp relief from ancient cultures.

The modern world is largely desacralized compared to earlier, primal civilizations that were saturated in a sacralized experience of the world. The totally desacralized world is new to the human experience. For most archaic societies the whole cosmos was enchanted, full of wonders, deities, demons, and monsters. It’s hard for many modern people to wrap their minds around that mentality. The shift toward decidedly non-religious societies has happened so quickly that many have lost touch with what the sacred-saturated existence of ancient and primeval societies would have been like or how they would have experienced the sacred.

Whatever desacralization has taken place in recent times, we are still Homo religiosus. Traces of religion and wisps of the sacred remain in the lives and practices of even the most profane. Rediscovering the power of the sacred allows us to re-enter those aspects of a religious human experience that we have lost touch with.

The profane has been so a part of us that we don’t know just how dramatically different life could be experienced. By learning how people from past periods of history experienced the sacred and interacted with it, we can discover what we’ve lost in our own world, and have the option of reincorporating the sacred into our lives.

2. Sacred spaces interrupt the endless chaos of space by creating places where heaven and earth can meet.

The profane experience of space is homogenous. In other words, there are no boundary lines dividing sacred and profane areas. Places are just places. It’s all the same, all ordinary, all profane. There’s no absolute, orienting point around which life’s activities are centered. Compare the profane experience of the world to the sacralized experience of the world, where there are sometimes very sharp boundaries between sacred and profane places. When Moses approaches the burning bush, Yahweh instructs him, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Sacred spaces are created through moments of hierophany [Eliade’s term for irruption of the sacred in a profane space]. One could make a strong case that religions are born and sustained through these manifestations of the sacred. Oftentimes, people will consecrate the site of a hierophany and build around it, whether it’s a river, a mountain, or a place where something spectacular happened.

By sacralizing a site, people are actually reenacting the gods’ original act of creation. In the middle of the chaos and confusion of unceasingly ordinary space, the sacred steps in and it offers an anchoring point. When people orient themselves around an absolute point and build around it, they mimic the gods in the creation of the world. They bring forth something settled and habitable. They create the cosmos, just like the gods did, and that space becomes the center of the world for them, the axis that existence turns on.

It’s not dramatic to call this process of building around hierophanies the creation of the world because sacred spaces set limits to the homogeneity of ordinary experience. By setting limits and then getting as close to the sacred as possible, humans draw lines between the world “in here” and the chaos “out there” beyond the boundaries of the sacred. Beyond the limits of the sacred (aka the known realm), there is chaotic non-existence. Cultures develop myths about the demons, monsters, and foreigners out there beyond the limits, all who are determined to reintroduce chaos to the order the sacred has brought.

The homogeneous (profane) view of land is chaos, whereas the heterogeneous (sacred) view of land offers clarity by giving a point around which life is organized. Just like there was the chaos of nothingness before the Spirit, hovering over it, brought light and form into being, so people recreate the world by making places of hierophany the center of their existences. A sacred space is the seat of great power, and people have historically wanted to be as close to it as possible.

3. Profane time is historical and linear; sacred time is mythical and cyclical.

We’ve discussed how the sacred view of life turns homogeneous spaces into heterogeneous spaces by disrupting endless chaos through manifestations of the divine that can anchor societies around a place that is qualitatively different from the ordinary space around it. What is true of space is also true of time: The non-religious, profane view of time is homogenous, an unbroken duration. It’s the ceaseless flow of historical events. The sacred experience of time is heterogeneous, meaning that profane time is punctuated—even punctured—by sacred moments where time is not an arrow sailing onward into the future, but is cyclical.

Sacred time is cyclical time, returning people through ritual and rites to the original moment when that sacred event they’re commemorating first took place. This sacred variety of time is the “eternal mythical present.” Festivals and liturgies are portals by which people can enter into this timeless time, and bring it into the mundane.

Just as profane, ordinary space is disrupted by a sacred moment, which people make into a sacred site, time itself becomes a sacred temple that people inhabit. When people step off the street and into a church, they leave the profane realm and enter into a sacred site. Through the church’s rites and liturgy, people also leave the normal flow of time as duration and enter into sacred time, where they recreate the original events captured in myth.

Certain indigenous Americans talk about the year as a world or cosmos that annually is reborn, lives, and dies. The world is constantly reborn and made new. In India we see the same desire to sanctify time when people construct fire altars. One of India’s sacred texts reads that “the fire altar is the year,” and that building the altar (with 360 bricks to represent the days, and another 360 to represent nights) renews time. The act is the creation of the cosmos writ small, and thus it is a means of making the world sacred. Fire rites of India mark the edge of the world and the remaking of time. Similarly, the Temple of Jerusalem has rituals that express the sanctity of time. According to the Jewish historian Flavius, the 12 loaves on the temple’s table represent the year’s 12 months.

In general, sacred time is cyclical and profane time is linear, but Judaism and especially Christianity offer a strange exception to the division between historical, profane time and mythic, sacred time. The disruption comes from not just remembering their myths, but insisting on documenting them historically. For Christianity, the Incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ marks a blending of historical and mythical time. He was God born in a very particular time and place, “in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1). It doesn’t quite fit the archaic religious man mold or the modern profane, historical mode.

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4. For Homo religiosus, nature is never merely “natural.”

Since the dawn of human time there has been this persistent belief in a Creator God residing in the celestial realm. It’s the God who is “up there.” Infinite height has always been associated with transcendence, so the God is often associated with the sky or the heavens and often referred to as “most high.” In the Maori culture of New Zealand, the Most High God is called Iho, which means “elevated.” Among the Yoruba of West Africa, God’s name translates as “Owner of the Sky.” The Ainu found in the hinterlands of Japan and Russia call him “the Divine Chief of the Sky.” His name is Kaumi in their language, which literally translates to “Sky.” This pattern of associating creator God with the sky is found among major world civilizations across history, too, from the Chinese and Indians to Slavs and Indo-Europeans.

This all-powerful Creator Sky God is always a person, rather than some impersonal force, but he is always distant. It’s like he uses up his energy creating the world and the first humans and then he retreats to sleep or rest, hidden by the clouds or among the stars.

The remoteness of these celestial gods led primitive societies to look for sacredness in what was immediately at hand in his world—agriculture, sexuality, and fertility, for example. These themes are all very feminine and relate to a mother-goddess of some kind. The shift in attention from the distant, masculine, powerful Sky God to the earthy concreteness of sex and crops makes sense. The goddesses associated with the earth, with fertility of crops or of women are often seen as more relatable, dynamic, and relational. People looked to nature and found a sense of sacred nurture.

Primitive and tribal societies tend to focus on goddesses and gods that are “closer to home” and relate more directly to everyday life, but they still invoke the remote Sky God as a last resort in times of extreme crisis. When appeals to ancestors, goddesses, and demi-gods do nothing to relieve the drought or thwart enemies, they cry out to the Creator God for mercy.

This was the common pattern for primitive societies and for the ancient Hebrews. In periods of stability and wealth, the Hebrews would drift toward Baal, Ashtaroth, and other local deities, but when the crops were dying or when the Philistines were threatening to wipe them out, they would remember Yahweh and beg for deliverance.

The goddesses and gods that monitored the cosmic rhythms of life and seasons and reproduction were impressive enough in times of peace. They were “specialists” and their powers were obvious, and they could enhance life and reproduce it, but they could not save it when things became dire.

5. Homo religiosus is central to our identity as humans, even if we try to cover it up.

In modern, industrialized societies, the profane (i.e., desacralized) way of living is more pervasive than ever before. The sacred continues to linger in these people’s attitudes and actions of even those in our society who are most radically desacralized (scientists and intellectuals, for example). The world today has become very disenchanted, but there is no such thing as a totally profane individual or totally profane society. Even if someone embraces a profane existence and totally rejects any religious assumptions about life, this person will be unsuccessful in eradicating their religious behaviors and intuitions.

For example, from the profane point of view, all space is the same. There aren’t sacred spaces that are set apart from the normal spaces. And yet, someone’s birthplace, the location where people met their first love, a far-off city that someone visited as a child—these places hold some kind of holiness even in the profane existence. These places intimate a reality different from everyday places.

And while non-religious individuals might not have access to that mythic, cyclical time that liturgies and rites open up to the religious, the non-religious still experience moments when the duration of time is interrupted or shifts. Sometimes time changes when a song transports someone to an earlier era, or while counting down the minutes till a loved one comes home, or in moments of celebration.

And of course, the non-religious still experience some of the wonder, grandeur, and mystery of nature. Such reactions to nature are connected to primal sacred values—even if those values have been forgotten. No one is completely irreligious if they marvel at a mountain or the sea. These evocative moments are experiences deeper than mere emotion and amusement; they intimate something sacred to the religious and irreligious alike—even if the irreligious no longer have words for the experience. Traces of the sacred are present, even if the message is garbled.

6. Ancient primitive societies give us the best glimpses of life lived in the sacred realm.

Despite the glimmers of transcendence that linger in non-religious attitudes and actions, the cosmos becomes grim, dim, still, and silent for those living a profane existence. This is most noticeable among people in the West, especially in an industrialized society and among intellectuals. For many in the West, their idea of religion has been set by a profane version of Christianity that has been robbed of much of its primal power. Urban Christianity is not “bad” or “inferior,” but its religious sense has been diminished, and it certainly doesn’t represent the whole of religious experience by any stretch of the imagination.

Still, this modern, urban form of Christianity is all Westerners will know about the sacred if they don’t venture beyond the borders of their own time and territory and try to see the world through the eyes of others. Some curious Westerners are exploring Eastern traditions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, which will certainly offer a wider view of the sacred. But even this approach has its limitations. Today’s Europeans would get clearer glimpses of religious life and sacred cosmos through looking into Europe’s old folk tales and mythologies—or even interacting with those Europeans who have only ever lived in remote rural areas.

Even better than looking at old folk tales and myths is to study primitive human societies, because the world of primitive societies was brimming with sacredness. They saw the cosmos as an act of divine creation, and everything had the potential to be sacralized for the religious man, from space to time to seemingly ordinary objects. For example, a stone that comes to hold sacred meaning remains a stone but also becomes so much more. It’s revered for what it represents—not for being a stone.

Attempting to understand the world not just with our own modern lens but also through primal eyes helps us become open to aspects of life and being that our current  zeitgeists block. Seeing the world through religious eyes opens up the opportunity to live life in multiple dimensions. In other words, the existence of the religious person is a human existence, but, simultaneously, it participates in something cosmic and divine.


These insights are just an introduction. If you’re ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of The Sacred and The Profane here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

Categories: Teologice

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