Friday, August 21, 2015

The Sacred and Profane, part i

I wouldn’t be a proper member of the UChicago Divinity community if at some point in my writing career I didn’t tackle the long-challenged distinctions of the sacred and profane.  However, I have no Eliade-an or Smith-ian aspirations of setting the definitive record or for myth-making.  The idea of the “sacred” is a thick enough topic that I could (will?) pursue a whole other degree focused on its intricate relation and manifestation in religion, so let’s not get too unbounded with our thoughts, here.  What I want to do in this space is explore some observations and thoughts that have been shared with me and that I have in turn filtered through my work and experiences here.  

Where do we start? The sacred evokes some idea of divinity, some grand other, guiding forces, holiness, maybe even purity.  To my mind, profane takes the form of worldly, mundane, temporal, potentially dirty.  But let’s also consult the lineage of UChicago giants that have hoisted this conversation to new heights.  Please forgive my brevity on these summaries — trying to harness my writing-from-memory-and-bookless skills. 
Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion
Eliade’s explanations go something like this.  For the archaic [his terminology for pre-modern, not contemporary] individual, only through perceived repetition of mythical meaning (ritual), and thus meaning-making in the individual’s life, does anything move into the realm of the sacred.  Think of things like prayer beads.  By themselves they may be just a type of necklace, but imbued with the fingers’ counting devotion as a practitioner recites her Our Father or Mantra or Supha, a whole new mental/emotional world is entered through interaction with them.  So, in Eliade’s terms the distinction comes from the appeal to archetypes and repeating an “original” meaning in order to be sacred.  The qualification of “archaic” is not essential for this post, but it raises some good questions for modern-us!   
J.Z. SmithMap Is Not Territory
Smith qualifies Eliade’s work as a study of patterns across cultures, many, many cultures.  These patterns ultimately provide us with symbols to fit over our ideas, experiences, and categories.  Smith explains that the sacred and profane are just the two most distinct.  My words above are reminiscent of his descriptions…extraordinary, orderly…versus ordinary, disordered.  He then refines this distinction further by creating a spectrum of meaning-making, instead of Eliade’s cycle of repeating meaning.  This spectrum means that a culture can create a “new” sacred by rejecting past meanings.    

Bruce LincolnGods & Demons, Priests and Scholars
Lincoln drops the mic on the argument, claiming both have it wrong, and in turn creates a whole new myth-system by focusing on the dynamic disorder of chaos (did he just juxtapose the terms we were trying to separate??).  In this scenario, order (the sacred) arises out of the chaotic beginning (profane) and then redefines everything.  To try to present this differently, it’s not so much the fact that there is a sacred and profane, per se, but the fact that there is a power dynamic between them that mediates their distinction.   

So we’re left with a tough move.  Do we follow suit with Eliade and Smith to break the sacred and profane completely apart in opposition, reciprocally defined in the negative of the other?  Or do we search for a blend and different type of interdependence between the two after Lincoln? Do we privilege one term over the other?  Does it really just boil down to myth versus ritual? Is the sacred a distinct entity or pluralistic or multivalent?  Who decides what really is sacred or profane?  What does the and even mean in our phrase?  What do we gain / lose with even making a distinction?  How do we experience either?  Can we experience either, or merely point with words?  At this stop, I hope your thoughts are with me on the live (and living) aspect of our terms.  Let that settle for a moment — some serious water flowing there.

The Hanuman Chalisa on the back of a calendar, a devotional to the monkey god Hanuman.
On a past night I met a wonderful couple that invited me to walk with them around Fatehsagar.  The lake was a calm blue that evening while the sun set on us.  As it turns out Sagar Ji’s background is in geography as a professor and in application with natural resource development, even a few years of work with Seva Mandir on reforestation in Udaipur.  Once I opened that I am a Divinity student, he immediately asked me the question, “What do you think about the sacred?” I gave some surface-level thoughts, but was more interested in where he was leading.  He continued that India probably has the most sacredly attributed nature and physical land space in the world, but it is destroying itself.  Why are we drilling mines everywhere? Why are we dumping trash anywhere? Why are we so neglectful and disinterested with our pollution?  How can we claim that the sacred is in the land, yet we defecate and spread waste into our rivers, thus contaminating them and not only detracting from our land’s beauty, but also ailing ourselves?  My mind raced through everything I’d seen the past weeks.  Have we forgotten our conviction of God’s presence in everything?  Is God slipping behind the commodifications of modernity?  Is the temporary and illusory material satisfaction overwhelming our deep and precious faith?  Where is our spirituality? Where has our sense of the sacred gone?

What I see from these questions is a near-complete elimination of that previously cited, seminal work in the history of religions -- the sacred and the profane isn't a phrase to distinguish a dichotomy, but is a phrase that reveals the dual nature of life and being.  In our human condition we can destroy, wreck, and neglect that which we hold dear to us, even cherish as sacred.  

Oh, wait, this is a piece on India, not a human manifesto…check out part ii tomorrow for the rest!

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