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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art

Religious and Non-religious

Eliade makes a clear distinction of experiences of space and time for those whom he labels ‘religious man’ as opposed to ‘non-religious man’. He adopts these terms to differentiate between so-called primitive peoples whose whole world, it is assumed, is inscribed within religious parameters, and the modern subject of secular culture for whom clearly defined boundaries separate the church and the street, even if, as he intimates, the threshold that separates them neither prohibits nor precludes passage between the two. If the anthropological scope of his work exposes the intolerable terminological prejudices of his age, the difference of religious and non-religious in contemporary terms is in itself a helpful, if unresolved, distinction to be drawn when considering the impact of art encounters within ecclesiastical spaces: in contemporary Western terms, what does it mean to be religious or non-religious, and how do these terms enable us to designate something as sacred and something else profane? If, for Eliade, writing in the late 1950s, they mark a clearly religious division, does that division seem less assured today? For example, is a sense of the sacred necessarily determined by whether or not one considers oneself to be religious? Is the sacred experienced as something that falls so far outside quotidian existence that it bears no relation to it or can it be felt psychologically in the everyday things of life?

The important thing to note is Eliade’s conflation of the religious and the sacred, and the non-religious and the profane. It is this categorisation of experience that will be questioned, particularly in its import for the use of believing or non-believing artists. Although it might be true to say that, by and large, only those professing to be Christians partake of the sacraments, this is not necessarily the case for those who experience the church as a sacramental space. Thus, sensitivity to sacred space and sacred time may not be so easily ascribed to the ‘religious’ in Eliade’s strict sense. One of the issues this study must acknowledge as a fundamental uncertainty is how to differentiate between religious and non-religious experience in the modern world as it relates to the sacred. If we protest that so-called non-religious man is also aware of temporal discrepancies, of experiencing real duration, then the following question must be asked: are these experiences something to which the name of the sacred can or should be applied? Or, as David Jones, the poet, essayist and artist, would say, can we legitimately speak of human experience as intrinsically sacramental? As sacredness is divorced from conventional patterns of belief, so it may re-emerge in unusual moments of epiphany, or more commonly in what we could call a sacramental attitude towards life in the sense that Jones conveys. But Eliade himself provides a response to this impasse, albeit with the caveat that it merely simulates sacrality. He concedes that even the most de-sacralised existence, the most non-religious of profane worlds, ‘never succeeds in completely doing away with religious behaviour’. Traces are still preserved ‘of a religious valorisation of the world’, even if ‘no true orientation’ is possible (1959: 23). Though fragmented and dispersed, dissociated from specifically religious environments, the sacred finds other footholds in the profane world:

There are, for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others — a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth. Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.

(1959: 24)

Eliade appears to concede the persistence of a kind of secular holiness, a residue of mankind’s inherent tendency to religious belief. Others would no doubt refrain from ascribing to these ‘holy places’ any such quasi-religious motivation. Nevertheless, as Levi-Strauss notes in his brief digression on the contrast of the sacred and the profane in Tristes Tropiques, even the non-believer feels compelled to adopt a respectful attitude on entering a place of worship (1976: 300). Thus, on the one hand, the sacred, as a qualitatively distinct locus, inheres in secular life, while on the other, the secularised life still registers a difference between profane and sacred worlds. Consider the attitude of deference displayed within art galleries and museums, so often rather tiresomely described as our modern cathedrals, especially by those eager to invest art with spiritual values no longer thought to be offered by the church. Doesn’t it imply a kind of reverence for a modern notion of sacred values?

Of course, the question of the sacred as religious cannot be avoided. Contra Durkheim and Freud, for whom the sacred is possible as a manifestation of a religious motivation, but only within sociological or psychological frameworks, Eliade makes the important point that religious phenomena must also be considered ‘on their own plane of reference’, that is, as religious, otherwise specific aspects of the sacred are wilfully ignored (Allen 1972: 173). This cautions the secularist against dismissing religious experience as merely psychologically or socially induced, but also against the religious believer’s rejection of experiences claimed to be spiritual or sacred by those whose framework of thinking falls outside a conventional religious worldview. Clearly, for many of those actively involved in commissioning or inviting art into ecclesiastical spaces and those who regularly attend or use these spaces, this transcendent dimension is inseparable from their understanding of the sacred, even if it is not necessarily so for many of the artists approached or for many of those who will experience the works in their ecclesiastical context. Even so, by the standards of Eliade’s criteria, art introduced into ecclesiastical spaces cannot avoid being considered in its relation to the religious and the sacred, and judged accordingly. At the same time, experiences of art will be seriously hampered if they are reduced to conventional expectations of sacrality. But before we go any further with this, let us backtrack to the inauguration of this opposition of the sacred and the profane, generally credited to Emile Durkheim.

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