“Is it a Christian book?” the editor inquired when I suggested that Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane might be an interesting choice for the re-read column. Well, you likely wouldn’t find this book on the shelf at your local Christian bookstore, but if you were to take a graduate course on the history of religion you would almost certainly read something by Eliade, and this book is probably his most popular. Indeed, his dichotomy of “sacred and profane” has inundated the academic collective unconscious, so much so that scholars and lay religious alike tend to imagine the world in those categories.
The Sacred and the Profane is really a work of religious psychology. It is an attempt to show how the “religious” person lives a life in a sacred universe, and to show how that person’s total experience of life compares with the experience of modern people who live in a largely desacralized world. The underlying thesis of Eliade’s book is that modern humans are greatly impoverished because they live in a completely profane cosmos, a cosmos without access to the sacred.
Eliade divides his investigation of the sacred into four general categories: sacred space, sacred time, nature and the sacred cosmos, and the sanctified life. Eschewing narrative explanations, Eliade opts instead for pan-historical, or pan-cultural modalities of belief and practice. He speaks of human universals, and simply of sacred and profane “man.”
He begins by asserting that the only real space is sacred space, and likewise the only real time is sacred time. In fact sacred spaces and times provide a point of reference for all other spaces and times. It is in these ritual moments, and in these ritual places, that regular time and space is generated. In other words, according to Eliade, what religious men and women do in worship is reflective of their regular existence, and moreover the experience of time and space in the regular world reflects the sacred. In pre-modern cultures for example the seasonal cycle of planting, growing, harvesting, resting, becomes a re-enactment of sorts of the “sacred genesis.”
Eliade points out that Christianity in particular provides a sacred context for regular time. The Christian God is incarnated, that is, he actually takes on a “historically conditioned human existence.” Through this, history itself becomes sacred history—events do not just re-enact or reflect, but actually are sacred because God has invaded profane time with his sacred presence.
Eliade then turns to a brief examination of what he refers to as “cosmic symbolism”–water, earth, the sacred tree, the body, the home–are all seen as representative of a kind of religious value. He insists that the world and its symbols, seen as the gods’ (or God’s) creation, and invested with a kind of sacred meaning, allow one to see the preciousness of nature, of the universe.
Eliade completes his book by contrasting the spiritual experience of “religious man” with that of “profane man.” This is a non-too-subtle critique of modernity, and its tendency to desacralize the universe and human existence. “As for the Christianity of the industrial societies and especially the Christianity of intellectuals, it has long since lost the cosmic values that is till possessed in the Middle Ages…the religious sense of urban populations is gravely impoverished. The cosmic liturgy, the mystery of nature's participation in the Christological drama, have become inaccessible to Christians living in a modern city. Their religious experience is no longer open to the cosmos. In the last analysis, it is a strictly private experience; salvation is a problem that concerns man and his god…but in these man-God-history relationships there is no place for the cosmos. From this it would appear that, even for a genuine Christian, the world is no longer felt as the work of God.”
If there is one drawback to this book it is that it may simply be too short. In searching for common patterns, for structural similarities, Eliade distills many unique and distinguishing features in favor of reductionist portraits that perhaps do not convey the real complexity of ancient faith streams. Nevertheless, for the sensitive post-modern Christian, this little book offers a powerful challenge to live a “sanctified” life. For ancient man, Eliade suggests, the whole of life is capable of being sanctified, “…life is lived on a twofold plane; it takes its course as human existence and, at the same time, shares in a transhuman life…” Therefore, all that humans do—their every action—should reflect and in a sense “re-actualize” the presence of God in this world. Moreover, the world itself should be recognized as God’s sacred space, and life should take place in recognition of the many points of connection God has offered us through nature and action. The Sacred and the Profane is an important book which allows the reader to consider how he or she might live in greater contemplation of the sacred as it emerges in everyday life.