Understanding the Sacred

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This page reviews the different understandings of the sacred discussed on this site.

1 The Energetic Sacred:

This is the sacred understood as the manifestation of the power of the supernatural in the natural world.

Confusion exists because, historically, English speaking Protestants have not used the term sacred with reference to their own religion. They have reserved it for discussions of the mediated sacred as this occurs in other religions.

In talking about the sacred in their own religion English speaking Protestants have preferred terms like the holy and the divine. Thus we find Rudolf Otto's book translated into English as The Idea of the Holy.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James suggests that spiritual energy is transferred from the supernatural to the natural world during what he calls genuine prayer. See Spiritual energy.

2 The Unmediated Sacred:

This is a first version of the energetic sacred. It is the sacred understood as the power of the supernatural experienced personally and immediately. It is a matter of brief episodes of great emotional intensity.

The unmediated sacred is what English speaking Protestants understand as the experience of the holy or of the divine. Otto, very notably, analysed it as the numinous. In Catholicism, the unmediated sacred is a matter of mystical experience, the supernatural as experienced by mystics.

Note that this experience is unmediated in the sense that intermediate agencies are not involved. It is not completely raw experience however, because subjects must inevitably understand it in terms of their particular belief system or other culturally generated expectations.

3 The Mediated Sacred:

This is a second version of the energetic sacred. It is the manifestion of the power of the supernatural to the believer through intermediate agencies.

For example, in Catholicism, one of the ways in which the sacred is mediated is through the saints. These are in effect individuals declared by the Church to have had unmediated experience of the supernatural. Some form of engagement with them can enable ordinary believers to receive an input of supernatural power. Thus, touching a relic of a saint allows a believer to experience the mediated sacred. If asked what is being transmitted to the believer, Catholics would say something like God's grace.

The sacred mediated through individuals is observable also in Protestantism. For example, faith healing may be seen as the contact of the believing sufferer with the power of the supernatural through the mediation of the healer. Protestants themselves will understand the phenomenon as something like divine power acting through the healer.

4 The Sacred as Interface:

In Christian writing today, the term sacred may be connected with location, as in sacred place and sacred time.

In this understanding, the sacred is the interface between the supernatural and the natural. It is not the power of the supernatural transferred to the natural, but simply the reality of the supernatural experienced in the natural. Thus a church can be seen as a sacred place, a religious service as a sacred time: both of them particularly conducive to personal experience of the supernatural, experience that is beneficial, though not usually of the overwhelming kind described by James, Otto and even Durkheim.

The distinction between the sacred as interface and the mediated sacred is not absolute. In the city where I live, it is not unknown for people who are upset to go and sit quietly in the medieval cathedral, Protestant since the Reformation, in order to regain some peace of mind. In this scenario, the cathedral may be understood as an interface, but alternatively as a form of mediation.

5 The Synonymous Sacred:

Sacred as an adjective is also often used these days as an alternative to supernatural in references to what religions are all about. This usage may have arisen because the term supernatural can present difficulties. For instance, the latter has associations with horror literature that have been gradually accumulating since the Gothic novel some two centuries ago.

The sacred as a noun is frequently merely a postmodern/politically correct/commercial synonym for religion (in general), matching the use of faith as a synonym for religion (in particular). Thus a current UK undergraduate textbook on the anthropology of religion has a section entitled Sex and the Sacred. [1]

6 The Innate Sacred:

This is the alternative understanding of the sacred offered by this site. It is about the sense of connectedness with their world that most people seem to lose in childhood, but which some individuals retain throughout their lives. When you feel essentially connected with your world, you feel that it is in some sense sacred.

The innate sacred must be distinguished radically from the unmediated sacred. The former is a matter of a permanent relationship with the natural, the latter of discrete encounters with the supernatural.

The innate sacred goes unrecognised as such among those who live with it because our culture does not provide them with knowledge of it as a possibility. This can cause them great difficulties. For example, it is probable that the art of Vincent Van Gogh was an expression of his experience of the innate sacred and that at least some of his problems resulted from him not being able to cope with that experience.

In our culture, the only resource people living with the innate sacred have had in trying to make sense of their experience has been supernatural religion. Thus they may have supposed that what they were feeling was the presence of God in their lives. It seems probable, for instance, that over the centuries many Catholics have interpreted their experience of the innate sacred as a vocation for the religious life and become priests or nuns as a result.

It probably needs to be emphasised that the innate sacred has absolutely nothing to do with the supernatural or anything comparable.

7 The Proximal Sacred and the Distal Sacred:

Another way of differentiating between the innate or inherent sacred as presented by this site and the sacred of religions of the supernatural is to use the contrast between proximal and distal. The former relates to things we find sacred through immediate experience, through familiarity, things such as our family and our home; the latter relates to things that are essentially remote, things we find sacred only through some process of acquiring knowledge, things such as God and the Church.

It is in this light that Van Gogh may be seen as an artist of the sacred: his art, as in The Potato Eaters or the pictures of his and Gauguin's chairs or his representation of a starry sky, depicts the proximal sacred. By contrast, what is conventionally understood as sacred art, that of El Greco, for instance, is art of the distal sacred: evocations of people and events from far beyond the artist's actual experience.

Of course, religions of the supernatural may involve the proximal as well as the distal sacred, as in the way Christianity these days emphasises the importance of the family alongside beliefs in transcendent reality.


1 The Anthropology of Religion

The commercial phrase Sex and the Sacred doubtless derives ultimately from the 1964 film title Sex and the Single Girl. The textbook in question is Fiona Bowie: The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction [2000].

The Sex and the Sacred section is part of a chapter called Sex, Gender and the Sacred. It is made up of 9 fairly substantial paragraphs, but only 2 of them actually discuss religion: then mainly in relation to virginity in Catholicism and with no mention of the sacred. Predictably, another section of the same chapter is called what else but Deconstructing Gender: in it, religion doesn't get mentioned at all.

Sex and violence:

A section of another chapter of the book is entitled Violence and the sacred. So, sex and violence: a formula that sells books. (Compare Malinowski's catchy titles: The Sexual Life of Savages, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Crime and Custom in Savage Society.)

But most significantly, Bowie, in line with her purely commerical use of the term, makes no attempt anywhere in the book to offer any understanding of the sacred as such. The closest she gets is a single sentence dismissing Durkheim's sacred ~ profane distinction, as not being regarded as important: no doubt a postmodernist knee-jerk rejection of distinctions rather than the result of any consideration of Durkheim, such as is undertaken on this site.

In contrast, Bowie has lengthy discussions on definitions of religion and of ritual, plus a couple of dozen glossary boxes offering definitions of various technical terms. Thus Victor Turner gets a full page box for his terminology and even Roy A Rappaport gets a box for 4 bits of his utterly obscure jargon.

The historical and the marginal:

This failure to comprehend the sacred is part of the book's complete failure to confront the totality of religion seriously. In so far as the book is actually about religion, it is about the historical and the marginal rather than about the present and the central. Thus there is a whole chapter on witchcraft, but not a single word on Protestantism and very little if anything on any other of the major religions.

But then this is not just a failure of the book. Bowie reflects the state of anthropology, which has not progressed to any significant extent since its early days, a century ago. For its founders, people like James Frazer, anthropology was about the ancient and the exotic, the quaint goings-on of long ago or far away. It is still today about the humanly remote and therefore curious: rather than about ourselves, the assumed human norm.

The anthropological taboo:

In this light, we may say that anthropology has a built in us and them distinction, based on, yes, a taboo against studying us. For Frazer, the distinction was between the civilised and the primitive; for Eliade - not an anthropologist, but discussed by Bowie - the distinction was between modern man and religious man; for Douglas in Purity and Danger, it was between compartmentalised and unified experience. Today, the distinction may no longer be explicit, but it is nevertheless still there.

In fact, given its disinclination to study the human here and now, as in the culture of the anthropologists themselves, anthropology cannot possibly be regarded as a science: any more than chemistry could, if it refused to study hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002 - 2005