Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sacred and profane

Since my new book was published, I have been asked several times how it is possible to be a "religious naturalist" -- that is, how can one be religious without a belief in the supernatural. Isn't religiosity precisely the human response to that which is other than nature?

To answer the question properly would require a book -- a book of considerably more depth and scholarship than my own, which is the personal account of a journey from supernaturalism without religion (formulaic Catholicism) to religion without supernaturalism (religious naturalism). A proper answer would have to consider homo religiosus in the broadest possible cultural context.

But perhaps the required book has already been written, and it is not such a big book after all, although the scholarship upon which it is based was formidable. I refer to Mircea Eliade's The Scared and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, a classic that was there for me as I began my own religious journey half-a-century ago.

For Eliade, the defining aspect of the religious experience is the awareness of something we perceive in the natural world that transcends the immediately obvious. The religious experience might begin with something as mundane as a stone or a tree, but then comes the hierophany (sacred+reveal) in which one becomes aware of a sacred reality that elevates and subsumes the profane. "For religious man, nature is never only 'natural'," he writes. In moments of hierophany one catches a glimpse of something that collectively embraces both the perceived and the perceiver. Eliade occasionally uses the term "supernatural" for this transcending thing, but he makes clear that natural and supernatural (in his use of the term) are "indissolubly connected." The profane and the sacred are not a dualism, not two different orders of reality, but rather more like the particular and the universal, the immediately present and the dimly perceived whole.

Homo religiosus has given various names to the thing perceived in the moment of hierophany : God, gods, the world soul, the Wholly Other, the mysterium tremendum, or mysterium fascinans. What unites all religious experience is not the name one gives to the thing perceived as through a glass darkly, but the powerful, soul-shaking sense that one is caught up in something vastly more powerful than oneself to which one ought to pay attention.

To be religious, then, is to be open to the experience of the sacred, to live one's life prepared to be rung like a bell. Science takes place entirely in the world of the profane. But the world exposed by science greatly expands our opportunity to experience the sacred. Who can look at the breathtaking photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope without having a jaw-dropping hierophany of a -- a something, a wonderful and fascinating generative wholeness that transcends the objects photographed, yet is indissolubly connected to them? The poet experiences a hierophany upon beholding a flower in a crannied wall, but to understand what is taking place ceaselessly in every cell of the flower -- the winding and unwinding DNA, spinning out proteins -- taps even deeper into our capacity to marvel. The more we understand, the more we become aware of how little we understand -- and the more we are able to refine the names we place on the thing we perceive. Perhaps the ultimate and most respectful response is not a name, but silence.

The sacred and the profane represent two aspects of our lives, both no doubt grounded in our biological natures. They are inseparable. We live our lives primarily in the profane: work, eating, sleep, sex. The profane is where we pursue reliable scientific knowledge of the world. Science does not diminish the sacred; rather, it expands the realm of experience where we might encounter the sacred. One can be religious without believing in a supernatural being who exists outside of nature. Rather, focusing one's attention on a supernatural phantasm might sharply reduce one's ability to experience the sacred in this world in which we live and breathe and have our being.

I should add: There are those within the naturalist community who will dismiss all talk of the "sacred" and the "holy" as so much mystical hogwash. I trust I have made it abundantly clear that I am not evoking the supernatural in the sense that the word is generally understood. One would have to be particularly insensitive to the world to want to live only with what can be reliably known, oblivious to the greater mystery that so far, and perhaps forever, eludes our grasp.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.