Sacred and Profane Polarity

Eliade’s division of the world into heterogeneous and homogeneous, religious and non-religious forces is indebted to an unnamed but evident source: Durkheim’s discourse of sacred and profane polarity. His spacing of the sacred as something set alongside, but wholly different from, the profane (spatially, temporally and psychologically) is again premised on their absolute heterogeneity. Nothing is so ‘profoundly differentiated’ or ‘radically opposed’, says Durkheim, as these two categories of experience, whose antagonism is exacerbated by their profound resistance to any form of mingling or contact (1995: 37). Like Eliade, he owes this schema, in part, to the perceived schism between the church and secular society, leading to the recognition of a cultural divorce of religious and non-religious life, which both assume as a given. If this marks a division of the sacred and profane worlds, however, it does so only within the context of a sacred that no longer possesses any meaningful religious purchase other than the symbolic.

Within anthropological accounts, Durkheim notes a prevailing theme from which his picture of a sacred and profane polarity emerges: principally, that neither one can touch the other. One is endangered, the other is polluted. The irrefrangible separation of the sacred and the profane that Durkheim’s thesis demands — he speaks of a ‘barrier’ that sets the sacred apart from the profane, signified we could say by the slash in the syntagm ‘sacred/profane’ — is not only for the protection of the sacred, to keep it free from sacrilege, but is also for the protection of whatever it threatens by contagion or defilement. Whenever something is established as sacred, there immediately arise concerns not only of pollution from the profane world but also of the contaminating nature of the sacred itself. In order to conceptualise this counter-intuitive notion of a sacred that defiles, Durkheim introduces a secondary distinction: a sacred pure as opposed to a sacred impure, or an auspicious and inauspicious sacred. These distinctions are not of the same order of the prohibited contact between the sacred and the profane, but arise from a disparity between aspects of the sacred itself, a disparity evident in its etymology.1 The sacred may be experienced as dangerous as well as august, as cursed as well as blessed, as a source of fear as well as reverence.2 As Durkheim points out, both a holy rite (sacred pure) and a dead body (sacred impure) fall within the auspices of the sacred. Yet each provokes contrary feelings: the former respect and veneration, the latter disgust and horror. It is equally the case, as he also proposes, that there can be a certain horror in religious respect (the awfulness of awe), especially if it is an intense experience, while fear or horror is not without a reverential aspect. After all, the visual focus for a Christian churchgoer is an object of execution, an iconic symbolisation of a horrific scene of torture and agony, as Grunewald’s altar- piece so viscerally shows and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ exploited to full cinematic revulsion.

Alongside an opposition of the sacred and the profane, then, there exists an ambiguity of religious forces within the sacred itself, contrasting holy, benevolent or positive attributes with impure, negative ones. Between the two, there is total enmity, each forbidden to the other through contact, proximity or association. In fact, says Durkheim: ‘Any contact between them is considered the worst of profanations’ (1995: 413).Yet both fall under the auspices of ‘religious forces’ and hence the sacred. Though opposed, these two aspects are like two sides of the same coin, inextricably linked through a kind of sacred kinship, especially in their relationship to the profane, which is as prohibitive for one as for the other. And yet at the same time the barrier or threshold holding these worlds apart proves not to be the impermeable screen it is purported to be. If it is the case that something impure (a corpse, for example) can be transformed into something holy (the protecting spirit of one’s ancestor), it is equally the case that the sacred and the profane cannot be so securely segregated. However necessary the distance between them, it is not absolute; if contact is forbidden, it is not actually impossible. Nevertheless, it cannot be achieved without consequences and requires an administered process of transition, hence Durkheim’s approach to the phenomenon of religious belief and practice. His insistence on a complete segregation of the sacred realm from the profane is due to the sacred’s ‘extraordinary contagiousness’, its paradoxical tendency ‘to spread into the same profane world that it otherwise excludes’ (1995: 322). Inversely, the profane being or object cannot violate the prohibitions that keep it safely distant from the sacred without thereby being polluted by it, becoming subject to a force that is naturally hostile to it. Sacred inviolability is therefore accompanied by a corresponding notion of the sacred as pollutant, hence the indispensability of measures designed to hold the sacred and the profane apart; why, in some sense, ‘a void must be opened between them’ (1995: 322). But can such precautions be of any effect if each of these two apparently heterogeneous states so readily infects the other? Earlier in his text, Durkheim had conceded as much regarding attempts to confine religious and secular to distinct spheres: just as the profane or secular world seeps into sacred spaces through the transitional space of the threshold, so too, he notes, ‘it is virtually impossible for religion ever to reach the point of being concentrated hermetically in the spatial and temporal milieux that are assigned to it; a little of it inevitably filters out’ (1995: 313).

An immediate objection might be raised at this point. Why take a socioanthropological approach to a theme that might more justifiably call for a theological reading? The theme of the sacred and the profane presupposes a division between that which belongs to the temple fanum) as sanctified and whatever remains outside or before it (pro). But, as many theologians have argued, there is no outside to the sacred. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ says the psalmist (Psalms 24:1), which implies that an anthropologist’s willingness to divide the world into demarcated regions of sacred and profane is unlikely to be shared by a theologian for whom the sacred is potentially at work everywhere. As Philip Sheldrake says, ‘we cannot conceive of sacramentality as the “eccentric” intrusion of grace, or godly space, into what is otherwise a profane world. We exist in an essentially sacramental universe or in graced nature’ (2001: 65). However, as he argues in a more recent text, if in pre-Christian antiquity the profane was used to distinguish ordinary reality from the domain of religious cult, with Christianity’s broader notion of sacred reality, the profane takes on a more directly oppositional role in relation to the sacred (2009: 156). Furthermore, even if the sacred is not confined to a specifically religious milieu, it is clear that we do recognise certain sacred precincts as distinct from the world around them. Tillich made precisely this point in his development of a theology of culture (1959: 175). In this sense, the profane is simply the ordinary, spiritually neutral space of secular culture, ‘the realm of the adiaphora’, says Jonathan Z. Smith, borrowing from Lutheran theology a term indicating rites and actions that are a matter of indifference to religious belief (1972: 137).

We must always bear in mind that Durkheim’s is an openly secular interpretation of sacred forces, one which seeks the origins of sacredness in the mind and one’s experience of the world. Its contagion therefore lies in its embeddedness in the world, having no higher, external authority to assure its integrity. The significance of this biased perspective is that objects, occasions and people ‘take on religious significance that is not intrinsic to them but is conferred on them from outside. Hence contagion is not a kind of secondary process by which sacredness propagates, once acquired, but is instead the very process by which sacredness is acquired’ (1995: 313). By contagion, the natural difference of things is no bar to their acquisition of sacredness, for it depends on nothing inherent to them, only on the possibility of contact, proximity and association. Each is capable of inducing this transference of sacrality, which draws out the inessential yet transformative character of the sacred as something that is, as it were, added to the real, but taking no space (Durkheim 1995: xlv). Rites of consecration are evidence of this transferable quality of contagion, through formalised and public ritual. The font or altar in the craftsman’s workshop or artist’s studio is a worked object that becomes in situ a part of the sacred furniture of the church, formalised as such by a ceremony of consecration. If we adhere to this view that sacred forces do not have a place of their own, that they ‘take no space’, then their transference becomes more explicable. Even so, it remains a counter-intuitive concept in the context of the church considering the degree to which we traditionally see the sacred as integral, self-contained and localised rather than diffuse and evanescent. The uses of contemporary art have been instrumental in challenging this view. If the sacred is an epiphenomenon of social and cultural forces engineered towards the organic solidarity of so-called primitive communities, and a bulwark against the threat of anomie for modern societies, as Durkheim’s thesis implies, then the fluidity of the sacred makes sense, organised as it is around contingency rather than necessity. If, however, the sacred is of divine rather than human origin, then its volatility must be viewed in a different light. In either case, this has serious implications for the uses of unconventional forms of art within the church.

One of the questions raised by the former proposition is how much the secular world should play a part in the aesthetic environment of the church. As an element of the civic landscape, most notably in times of crisis, commemoration and celebration, this perspective would suggest a high degree of flow between sacred and secular milieus. Alternatively, proponents of the second proposition frequently take a defensive stance of safeguarding the sacred against the unwelcome and contaminating influence of the secular. Objections to modern artworks in churches often take the form of arguments against the pollution of the sacred environment by something profane, blasphemous or sacrilegious, often veiled beneath the more mundane criticism of ‘inappropriateness’. The theologian Mark C. Taylor makes this point in the introduction to Disfiguring, his study of artistic experience as religious experience: ‘Art, we are repeatedly told, is not only corrupt but also corrupting. Many representatives of the religious and political right assume that it is their God-given mission to purge the polis of this catastrophic disease’ (1992: 2). Closely aligned with this threat of defilement is, in part, the sense of being out of place, of not belonging. In other words, something registers as sacred or profane only according to where it is experienced. An artwork may be deemed entirely unproblematic when seen in a gallery, yet inconceivable for a cathedral. More confusing still is the idea that the same work of art may live a double life within the same kind of context, sacrilegious in one cathedral and sanctioned in another, or why one kind of ritual, sacred in one place, can be considered inadmissible in another. Both The Messenger and Portrait of Young Man Standing have lived this kind of double life, controversial in one cathedral but entirely admissible in another. For this reason, new and unexpected forms of art in churches walk a fine line between sacrilege and sanctity, the fear of pollution mustering opposition to anything that threatens to confuse, contradict or undermine the familiar structures of the sacred environment.

For those who defend the place of contemporary art in opposition to the kind of reactive attitudes that Taylor contests, art is seen as an important agent in traversing carefully protected borders, spiritually and aesthetically, and thus a progressive force in the church. For those who oppose it, art is frequently regarded as a polluting agent. At its most radical, for those suspicious of its contaminating influence, art works against what might be perceived as the good health of the ecclesiastical body. For others, this is precisely why art is welcome, as a counter-infection to a moribund status quo.3 This question of contamination also reflects upon the work of art itself. One of the difficulties for works of art in this respect is the likelihood of becoming hermeneutically overcoded simply by their presence in an ecclesiastical context. The fear that the work becomes laden with unintended meaning is precisely the danger (or challenge) of sacred contagion faced by artworks in churches, a liability sometimes voiced by participating artists or their critics.

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