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Substituting Spirituality and the Sacred for Religion and Theism? Substituting Spirituality and the Sacred for Religion and Theism?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-08-21 10:00:09
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Since the times of Voltaire and the Enlightenment there is afoot within Western Civilization a very intriguing cultural phenomenon: a tendency to see religion as the root of all evil in tandem with a debunking of its claims to transcendence and the supernatural substituted with the immanence of the Cosmos, often conceived as eternal, with the sacred conceived as immanent within the Cosmos and discoverable not exteriorly or objectively but interiorly and subjectively within the self, or the human brain, a material organ quite often confused for the immaterial mind. Paradoxically, to arrive at this discovery one has to obliterate the self in a state of contemplation of the same Cosmos. Philosophy and rationality simply will not do.

What is very interesting in this cultural tendency, which is now some three hundred years old, is unlike the more secular materialistic scientific positivistic schemes, it retains the language of religion albeit it disposes of the word religion: contemplative ritual, or spontaneous ritual and contemplation, sacred space to be discovered within, mysticism, are all retained. Many are easily fooled by this language which in reality disguises an attack on theism.

There is a name for this phenomenon in philosophy; it is called the “non-realist” attack on theism which rationally argues that it is a mistake to think of God as someone existing independently of human beings. That the true meaning of any religious language (or contemplative or mystical language) is not to describe some sort of objectively existing being; rather it is a way of representing to ourselves the ideal unity of all our moral and spiritual values, and the claims that those values have on us.

Consider those statements from a recent posting in Ovi (“Awakening the Sacred Within” by Martin LaFevre): “the numinous is utterly beyond word and symbol,” “the sacred does not belong a supernatural realm,... it is immanent in the universe.” “There is no separate God” i.e., there is only the sacred which may or may not have an origin but “it just is.” And of course one can easily find communion with it via contemplation of the Cosmos, preferably a nature undisturbed by humans and their messy history within a self that has momentarily been obliterated in contemplation.

As mentioned, this is usually presented as something “enlightened” new and progressive to be opposed to the gothic thinking of medieval scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas. And indeed, it all sounds spiritual and even pious, a far cry from the sardonic attacks of a Voltaire on Christianity and the Catholic Church, but one ought not to be fooled by it. It is religious language all right but one useful to talk about spiritual values in a materialistic godless world going toward its own destruction.  Within this kind of language, more often than not one will detect an ax to grind, a blatant biased attack on religion in general; comments such as these: “It is often said that ‘life is cheap’ and certainly humans treat it that way, as the carnage of war, needless starvation, and the slaughter of animals attest. All of which have been supported, indeed underpinned by organized religions, especially Catholicism and Christianity” [emphasis mine]. The translation of this passage (which can be found in the same publication in Ovi magazine mentioned above) is this: since religion is the cause of all evils in the world, the sooner it is disposed of, the better. In fact, these “non-realists” vis a vis God, see religions and Christianity’s demise as imminent. Never mind, a St. Francis of Assisi, a Nicholas of Cusa, a John of the Cross, a Christopher Dawson, a J.K. Chesterton; scholars these who have examined the phenomenon of religious experience throughout the ages; they simply do not know what they are talking about, so the argument goes, since they have probably never discovered the sacred within their own brain.

There are in fact three relatively modern scholars who have had much to say about the phenomenon of religion and religious experiences: Vico, Jung, and Eliade. All four were convinced that one will understand precious little about the nature of man unless one first understands that such a nature, from its very inception is underpinned by religion (expressed as the burial of the dead in primitive man); which is to say, man is by nature religious, and when he proceeds to throw religion and a transcendent supernatural God out the window, it will promptly return from the back door as an ideology and as idolatry or as a cult or sort. He will invariably end up worshipping an ideology (a product of his mind) such as Nazism or Communism, or an idol such as the God or the philosophers (that is to say, the idea of God) or the Cosmos worshipped as a god of sort. “We are made of the stuff of the stars” used to exclaim the astronomer Karl Sagan, implying that like the stars and the Cosmos we are also gods. This is worship of the self, is known in psychology as narcissism or megalomania, a refusal to accept one’s finitude and creaturehood. Karl Sagan considered it his duty to inform those who did not know about their godliness immanent in the Cosmos that they were gods and therefore eternal with the Cosmos. His language also came close to the mystical and spiritual.

We have already explored in this magazine the philosophy or religion of Giambattista Vico and his concept of Providence immanent but also transcendent within history. I have also contributed at least one article on Jung’s concept of “the collective unconscious” and the religious nature of man. Let us now briefly look at the religious paradigms of Mircea Eliad, who wrote several insightful books on the phenomenon of the sacred and the profane in the 50s and 60s. One of his most famous was his The Sacred and the Profane (1957). Indeed, to speak of the sacred one must also have in mind what is not sacred, the profane. 

Mircea Eliade was an historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago He was a leading interpreter of religious experience, who established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day. His theory that hierophanies form the basis of religion, splitting the human experience of reality into sacred and profane space and time, has proved very influential.  One of his most influential contributions to religious studies was his theory of the Eternal Return, which holds that myths and rituals do not simply commemorate hierophanies, but, at least to the minds of the religious, actually participate in them. In his The Sacred and the Profane (1957) Eliade claims that, whereas for non-religious man the spatial aspect of the world is basically experienced as uniformly neutral, for religious man it was experienced as non-homogeneous, partly sacred and partly not so. In particular, religious man experienced the world as having a sacred centre and sought to live there.

Eliade qualifies his claim that modern, non-religious man experiences the spacial aspect of his world as uniformly neutral. In fact, the latter experiences particular locations as special on account of personal associations: locations such as his place of birth. This sort of experience is to be regarded as degraded religious experience.

Eliade next discusses sacred places. An obvious example for us is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside. An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods. Sacred places were revealed to religious man by means of signs of various sorts, recognised as coming from the divine.

The major differentiation of space for religious man was that between cosmos and chaos. Traditional societies understood their own territory as cosmos, a world created out of primordial chaos by their gods, with surrounding territory remaining as chaos. Any extension of its territory was understood by a society as a repetition of the cosmogony, of the original divine act of creation of its world.

An example of how cosmogony worked, of how cosmos was imposed on chaos, concerns a nomadic Australian tribe, called the Achilpa. Their divine founder had fashioned and anointed a sacred pole, which the tribe carried with them on their wanderings. Its bending told them in which direction to travel and its very presence ensured that wherever they were they had cosmos, their world, around them. At the same time, the pole linked the people with their founder, above them in the heavens: after making the pole, he had climbed up it and vanished into the sky.

Similar beliefs in other pre-modern societies attached to sacred pillars, trees etc. They maintained the cosmos of our world amid the chaos of surrounding space and kept open the connection with the divine founders in the heavens above.

In fact, in developed religious systems of this kind, there were three cosmic levels: not only earth and heaven, but an underworld as well. The axis mundi, the vertical feature, was seen as the centre of the world and as linking together all three cosmic levels. Instead of a pole, pillar or tree, the axis mundi might be, say, a ladder or a mountain.

Beliefs in cosmic mountains included the idea that our world is holy because it is the place closest to heaven. Eliade notes that temples might be seen as equivalents of sacred mountains. Indeed, some, such as the Babylonian ziggurat, were built to be artificial sacred mountains.

Religious man might understand his world as being at the centre of the world on three scales: country, city, sanctuary. That way, Palestine, Jerusalem, the Temple were all seen as the centre of the world.

What is more, for religious man, cosmos in its birth spread out from the centre. Consequently, when he undertook new construction work, religious man, by analogy, organised it outwards from a central point. Thus, a new village might be developed from a crossroads outwards, giving it four zones. Such a plan made a new construction an imago mundi, a representation of the cosmos on the ground.

Understanding his world this way, religious man experienced attacks from enemies as the work of demons, enemies of the divine creation who threatened to return that creation to chaos. Typically, such demons were represented as dragons; in fact, chaos itself might be represented as a dragon.

Eliade notes that something of this way of thinking persists in his contemporary world, in talk of dark forces threatening to plunge civilisation into chaos.

Going back to the imago mundi, the cosmic order represented in construction, Eliade points out that religious man saw it in his dwelling. Thus, peoples whose tents or huts had a central post or pillar could understand it as an axis mundi, supporting our world and linking it to heaven.

An alternative way of associating the dwelling place with the cosmic order was to make the building of it imitate the creation of the cosmos. So, we may associate traditions in which new construction work involved blood sacrifice with cosmogonies in which the creation of the world out of chaos was represented as the slaying of some primordial monster.

Overall, Eliade finds a chronological progression in sacred space from that created by the sacred pole of the nomadic Achilpa, to that of fixed dwellings, to that of religious architecture.

With the advent of the temple, Eliade discerns an altogether new stage in religious man's understanding of sacred space. A temple was an imago mundi, symbolising the cosmos, the sacred order divinely imposed on primordial chaos. But it was more than that: it was the house of the gods and as such positively sustaining the sacredness of our world. This new understanding carried through into the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In his concluding remarks, Eliade points out that religious man's experience of sacred space obviously differed from culture to culture. However, beneath the differences there was an underlying commonality of experience that becomes evident in the contrast with non-religious man's non-experience of sacred space.




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Emanuel Paparella2012-08-21 13:15:55
Errata: in paragraph 6 line 2, all four should read all three.

The fourth I had in mind but was left out is William James and his well known insightful The Varieties of Religious Experiences.

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