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Defining the Sacred and Profane By Frank Rodriquez In this unit, we are considering what Kimball calls the "ideal time." His premise is that some religious faithful want to return the world to an "ideal time." The "ideal time" can be either future oriented ­ as in those awaiting the "rapture" ­ or past oriented ­ as in those who want to revive the "old time religion." In either case, people who long for the "ideal time" sometimes grow impatient with God's pace of change, and may begin to live and act in ways that they hope will hasten the coming of that time. One of the premier scholars of religion was a gentleman named Mircea Eliade (Mur-chee-ah A-lee-ah-day). In 1957, he published a book titled The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. In this book, he looks at the different ways that "religious man" and "secular man" relate to "sacred time" and "sacred space." Along the way, he argues that for "religious man," it is religious tradition that designates what is "sacred" and what is "profane." Indeed, he argues that providing us with this distinction is the purpose and nature of religion. It is our religion that says "this place is sacred," and "that place is not." Most people today think of the word profane strictly in terms of its application to curse words, or anything vulgar and offensive. But the word has more than one meaning, and can be applied to anything secular, non-holy, or ordinary. The Latin root of the word is profanus, which means before (pro) the temple (fanum). So all things "sacred" (holy) are the opposite of all things "profane" (not holy). In other words, the world is comprised of things, places and times that are "holy," and things, places and times that are "ordinary." For instance, if you're standing in front of a church, you are standing on


regular, everyday concrete. But when you enter the church, you may have a sense of entering a sacred space, a holy space. From an objective point of view, the concrete in front of the church is no different than the concrete slab that makes up the floor inside the church (with the exception of carpet or tile). Only in the mind of the believer, in the inner life and sensibility, is the space inside the church in any way different or "sacred." This difference between the "sacred" and the "profane" loses some of its meaning in today's world, and in our culture, where we often don't have a real sense of sacred times and spaces. Eliade's book is an examination of the way pre-modern humans experienced the sacred and profane as opposed to the way modern humans do. A major theme of his book is that modern societies live an entirely "profane" existence ­ that is to say, we don't have and honor "holy" places the way ancient cultures did. In ancient cultures, places were literally considered "holy," and people were afraid to walk or be near the holy places. Perhaps the closest we come to the fear, awe and reverential feelings of pre-modern man for sacred space is when we stand in a cemetery, especially at night. We are reminded of "sacred time," explains Eliade, in the rituals and festivals we celebrate each year. At Christmas time, for instance, we pause to honor the sacred time when Jesus was supposedly born. 1 At Easter, we honor the sacred time of Jesus' resurrection. Eliade explains that "sacred time" is non-linear. That is, it is qualitatively different than ordinary time, even though it happens within ordinary time. Christmas can


Early Christians may have simply adopted the traditional birth date of an earlier God. The god Mithra, also called

Mithras, shared many common characteristics with the traditional stories surrounding Jesus. Mithra was born at the winter solstice; he was born in a stable; his mother was a virgin; his birth was honored by shepherds bearing gifts. The similarities between Mithra and Jesus have often been used by non-believers to dispute Christian beliefs.


fall on any given Wednesday, and Wednesday is just another ordinary day of the week. But Christmas Day, and the sacred event it causes us to recall, somehow elevates, makes "sacred," that ordinary day of the week on which it happens to occur. So in a sense, on the "sacred" day, we are somehow linked back to, reminded of, and elevated out of profane and into sacred time. That is the reason we have holidays (holy days). This book is a fascinating book, and is a classic in religious studies. This book introduced many students to the "history of religions," or "comparative religion" as we know it today. Many people, myself included, would disagree with Eliade's assertion that modern humans don't have a sense of sacred space or time, and that modern humans are "nonreligious." Throughout the book, Eliade seems to equate modernity with being "nonreligious." Studies have shown, however, that America has become more "religious" as it has quickly become what is arguably the most modern society in the world. Sacred spaces and times in America, however, are less and less about religious sensibilities, however, and are more often about historical sensibilities. Consider, for instance, the spontaneous "shrine" along the fence outside the bombed out


Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. Consider the new memorial being planned for the space where the World Trade Center towers once stood. And consider, finally, rituals associated with things like football at the University of Oklahoma, when the first few Saturdays in the fall semester a dedicated to ritual gatherings, sharing of communal food and drink, and donning and displaying sacred colors. In this unit of study, you should be asking yourself these questions: What is "sacred" space and time to me, and to my society? How does it become "sacred." What do I consider "profane"? What, in my own experience, is the difference between the sacred and profane? In your own inner life, what do you consider the "ideal time"? Is it related to a religious sentiment, or to a personal experience? Do you long and yearn for "the big get even," when God returns to finally judge all of mankind ­ especially those who do not believe and think like you? Do you wish the world could return to a simpler time, when religion was pure, and beliefs were not so corrupted by worldly concerns? Or is there a simpler "ideal time" that you wish you could return to personally? Like the time you first fell in love? Or the first job you ever had? Or that "one time at band camp"?



Defining What is Sacred and Profane

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