We like to think of knowledge as a binary system: things are either knowable or unknowable, with nothing in between. Yet some kinds of knowledge sit in an epistemological uncanny valley: both true and not true; or false and useful; or inevitable no matter how many little details they get wrong.
Mircea Eliade’s book “The Sacred and the Profane,” is such an uncanny book. First published in 1957, it is a brilliant, highly problematic, book that proves nothing and yet has likely changed the way I think about religion for the rest of my life. Even when it’s wrong (and I think it’s wrong fairly often) it will be a touchstone against which I measure whatever concepts I’m working with.
Eliade grasps as a foundational principle something that most partisans of contemporary religious shouting matches do not: that religion is not based on argument but on an experiential premise: “religious man” experiences the world as fundamentally meaningful. “Secular man” does not. Everything emerges from this difference: once you experience the world as meaningful, there are rational and important questions to ask about what meaning is, where it comes from, and how you engage with it. These questions are nonsense to “secular man,” for whom meaning is obviously a wholly subjective concept lacking any grounding in reality, rendering all conversations about it as something out in the world automatically absurd.
Secularists can argue that this is all the result of a giant delusion, but “religious man’s” thoughts and behaviors must be understood not as a playful brush with make-believe, but as a penetrating and vitally important quest to understand reality. “Religious man’s desire to live in the sacred is in fact equivalent to his desire to take up his abode in objective reality, not to let himself be paralyzed by the never-ceasing relativity of purely subjective experiences, to live in a real and effective world, and not in an illusion,” Eliade states (page 28).
The fundamental concern of religion, then – far more than any particular doctrine – is to access the meaningful, out of which the sacred comes. The term for breaking through from the profane world where everything is relative and therefore ultimately homogenous and indistinguishable (it’s all just atoms and chemicals, right?) to the sacred world where things are genuinely distinguishable by their fundamental meaning, is “hierophany” – a term so useful that I honestly don’t know how I got by without it all these years.
For Eliade, the ultimate purpose and measure of success of a religious ritual is to create hierophany. And from this central insight – so sharp it can cut diamonds – comes a second: that the baseline hierophany in any religious system is the creation of the world.
If you’re asking what any of this has to do with Burning Man, I’d direct your attention to two pointa: first, that “hierophany” is actually a pretty good description of the profound experiences people have at Burning Man. It’s hardly the only kind of experience people have there, but it’s both common and notable – and one that often creates the kind of life-changing experiences people have. Burning Man doesn’t tell anyone what should be meaningful to them, but very often people at Burning Man have breakthroughs in which they have direct experiences of what is unconditionally meaningful to them. That’s hierophany.
The second point: Burning Man events do in fact, create not just temporary cities, but (in their way) temporary universes. They are very much a ritual acts of creation.
I think this idea of world creation in The Sacred and the Profane is more problematic , but Eliade takes it and runs with it beautifully. The creation myth of a religion represents the ultimate hierophany because creating the world is literally what establishes order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness, time and space out of nothingness. And we who live in the created world best access that sacred reality by recreating that original hierophany through ritual. We sanctify the world by doing a version of what was done in the original sanctification that was the creation of the world. We repeat, through ritual, the act of imparting meaning to meaninglessness. And by creating sacred space out of space and sacred time out of time and placing ourselves in our appropriate relationship with nature and the cosmos, we heal the broken world around us and make our lives meaningful.
“(R)eligious man reactualizes the cosmogony not only each time he creates something (his “own world” – the inhabited territory – or a city, a house, etc.), but also when he wants to ensure a fortunate reign for a new sovereign, or to save threatened crops, or in the case of a war, a sea voyage, and so on. But above all, the ritual recitation of the cosmogonic myth plays an important role in healing, when what is sought is the regeneration of the human being,” Eliade writes. “The conception underlying these curative rituals seems to be the following: life cannot be repaired, it can only be recreated through symbolic repetition of the cosmogyny” (pages 81-82)
By encountering “the deepest structures of the world,” the sacred upon which all meaning depends, religious man takes on responsibilities that “secular man” does not recognize … or at least doesn’t admit to. To a secular (or in Eliade’s word, “profane”) culture the only responsibilities that can be imagined are to self and the rules of society. There is no such thing as a higher calling. The fact that many people living in such societies still feel such a calling is a telltale sign that we are not in fact as secular as we think – a point made repeatedly by philosophers such Nietzsche and (more recently) thinkers like Terry Eagleton: we may not believe any more, but we don’t want to give up the ways in which belief organized our world.
“In short, the majority of men ‘without religion’ still hold to pseudo religions and degenerated mythologies,” Eliade writes. “There is nothing surprising in this, for, as we saw, profane man is the descendant of homo religious and he cannot wipe out his own history – that is, the behavior of his religious ancestors which has made him what he is today. This is all the more true because a great part of his existence is fed by impulses that come to him from the depths of his being, from the same zone that has been called the ‘unconscious.’ A purely rational man is an abstraction; he is never found in real life. Every human being is made up at once of his conscious activity and his irrational experiences. Now, the contents and structures of the unconscious exhibit astonishing similarities to mythological images and figures … the contents and structures of the unconscious are the result of immemorial existential situations, especially of critical situations, and this is why the unconscious has a religious aura. For every existential crisis once again puts in question both the reality of the world and man’s presence in the world. This means that the existential crisis is, finally, ‘religious,’ since on the archaic levels of culture being and the sacred are one.” (pages 209 – 210)
What do we do with this knowledge? Since the Enlightenment, a movement has been growing amongst the cultures of “secular man” to declare war upon irrationality, and even the unconscious itself: everything we are must be explicable and answerable to rational principles.
“Modern nonreligious man assumes a new existential situation; he regards himself solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence. In other words, he accepts no model for humanity outside the human condition as it can be seen in the various historical situations. Man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom. He will become himself only when he is totally demystified. He will not be truly free until he has killed the last god.” (Page 203)
This approach has paid significant dividends over the last few centuries, including the emancipation of women, the advancement of science, and the sexual revolution. But it’s also fair to ask: how’s that war for rationality working for us now? Are we winning? Do we even want to live in the world that winning would lead to?
Another approach is to use what we can learn about the way our subjectivities and irrationalities interact with the world, and use that knowledge to create hierophanies that channel our existential needs towards the kind of world we want to live in. To accept that either “meaning” is real, or that the need for it isn’t going away – and work with it, in all its depths and contradictions, rather than try to scour it from the human experience.
Once again, this seems especially germane to Burning Man.
The Sacred and the Profane is a problematic book. For all that Eliade is astonishingly erudite on the subject of comparative religion, the book is an artifact of its time, colonial in some assumptions, relying on translations that have often been updated and improved over the years, and making a claim to “scientific” rigor that is simply not there. A whole chapter at the end is dedicated to describing the way the study of religion is now thoroughly scientific. Raise your hand if, 60 years later, you consider this to be one of the sciences.
Such issues lead Eliade to make confident assertions that are presented as facts no matter how questionable on their face. Statements like this:
“It is through lunar symbolism that religious man was led to compare vast masses of apparently unrelated facts and finally to integrate them in a single system … In general most of the ideas of cycle, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, but also of reconciliation of contraries, of concidentia oppositorum, were either discovered or clarified by virtue of lunar symbolism.” (page 156)
Are unprovable and strike me as likely untrue. They are also exactly the kind of thing that a comprehensive theory of a human activity will propose in order to be as comprehensive as possible. Big theories are better off humble.
But even when it is wrong, The Sacred and the Profane is still a brilliant – and useful – way of looking at issues of religion, symbolism, and ritual. And thus it takes us into the uncanny, where it bridges the gap between what we can know and what we can only reach for in the realm of gods and the unconscious.
Which is exactly where some of us like to be, or at least visit.
Quotes are from the 1959 Harper Torchbooks edition.