Sacred Space and Time

Eliade begins from the supposition that the sacred and the profane stand for two experiences of the world that are fundamentally opposed, the former offering access to some ‘really real’ behind the so-called reality of the latter. In an attempt to discern the traces of the sacred, he turns to a comparative study of religion, from which he concludes that any religion will reveal a qualitative contrast of the sacred and the profane. To explain this distinction, he selects an example pertinent to this study: a church in a modern city. In doing so he outlines both a sense of separation that the sacred and the profane represent, and their place of meeting at a point of threshold, where such continuities and discontinuities gather:

For a believer, the church shares in a different space from the street in which it stands. The door that opens on the interior of the church actually signifies a solution of continuity. The threshold that separates the two spaces also indicates the distance between two modes of being, the profane and the religious. The threshold is the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds — and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred becomes possible. (Eliade 1959: 25)

Etymologically ‘profane’ begins as a spatial metaphor in order to make an experiential, sacramental or ontological distinction. Every church, synagogue or mosque is an actual physical embodiment of the sanctified and separated space from which it is differentiated. But as this quotation shows, for Eliade, the sacred and the profane are not only distinguished spatially but also existentially, as two modes of being in the world. The first distinction of the sacred and the profane made by Eliade is therefore between heterogeneous and homogeneous space, inhabited respectively by what he calls ‘homo religiosus’ and ‘homo modernus’. His influential study, The Sacred and the Profane, begins by claiming that for the latter, space is essentially homogenous, whereas for the former, space is characterised by interruptions and breaks in which qualitative differences become apparent. This qualitative difference of non-homogeneous space he regards as a primary religious experience, requiring a religious sensibility that can distinguish between the sacred on the one hand and non-sacred or profane on the other.

Sacred time too has distinct and differing qualities. Paralleling spatial experience, it is neither homogeneous nor continuous. Instead, it contrasts the ordinary temporal duration of profane time with a ritualised time. By means of rites, one can pass from this ordinary duration to a sacred time, one disengaged from the time of the world. This break with homogeneous time clearly resonates with Bergson’s distinction of a homogeneous, mechanistic time of mathematical measurement from the flow of experienced time, which constitutes the basis of his philosophy of duration. Thus, we might see the movement from profane to sacred time as a shift between differing modes of duration. This is where we derive our notion of the secular, which begins as a temporal metaphor (saeculum: the here and now) to indicate a qualitative difference from religion’s concern with eternity. For Eliade, it is distinguishable by the refusal of homo religiosus to live solely in what we might call ‘the historical present’, that is, to be constrained by the regular passage of quotidian time. ‘Religious man’, he suggests, lives in two kinds of time, sacred time and profane time, the former being the most important. Sacred time is associated with ritual, with an effort to step outside habitual patterns and daily routines, at the same time that, as Eliade contends, it makes ordinary time possible (1959: 89). Thus, he claims, a sense of duration beyond the temporal rhythms of daily existence forms the basis of a religious understanding of the world. That said, Eliade concedes that ‘non-religious man’ is not entirely inured to a sense of sacred time. He recognises that his experience of time also manifests discontinuities and heterogeneities. For example, he makes the distinction between the general monotony of the working week and what he terms ‘festal time’, and also notes that other occasions afford ‘varying temporal rhythms’ and ‘different intensities’ (1959: 71). Such intensities constitute a different sensation or quality of time, but Eliade denies that they fall within the bracket of the sacred, insisting on an essential difference between the two experiences. They represent a difference of degree but not of kind, whereas those whom he calls ‘religious’ experience periods of time distinct in kind from whatever precedes or follows them, having an entirely different structure and origin. The sanctified time they experience, most typically brought into the present via religious ritual, is a liturgical time, inaccessible to the non-religious:

Just as a church constitutes a break in plane in the profane space of a modern city, the service celebrated inside it marks a break in profane temporal duration. It is no longer today’s historical time that is present — the time that is experienced, for instance, in the adjacent streets — but the time in which the historical existence ofJesus Christ occurred, the time sanctified by his preaching, by his passion, death, and resurrection.

(1959: 71-72)

Such an idealised, even Kierkegaardian, view of religious experience may, I suspect, be rare, and Eliade’s reference to the divine unusual. His approach tends to be seen in phenomenological rather than ontological or metaphysical terms. Consequently, his analysis leaves us without any really satisfactory definitions of religious and non-religious in modern terms. In this instance he does not stray far from the rather limited distinctions of Christian and nonChristian, clearly implied by his reference to liturgical time and the historicity of Christ.

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