Tuesday, December 27, 2016

CATHOLIC SOCIOBIOLOGY -- The Sacred as Reality: The Religious Insights of Mircea Eliade

by David Pence

"Christ entered history as a community, a society not simply as a message. The form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church does not simply infiltrate culture. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life..."

"At the beginning of the third century the building of catacombs--they were not hideouts during persecution; they were burial grounds and places of worship and their locations were not secret. The transition from models of accommodation and adaptation that were materially invisible to a new level of Christian identity that was palpable and visible. Christians created a material culture that was tangible occupied space, was public and was distinctively Christian."

"For the early Christians there was only one day, the day of the Resurrection celebrated each time the community gathered, normally on Sunday...Over time other feasts were celebrated. The Christian year was organized into two major cycles-one centered on his birth; the other on his suffering, death and resurrection. Like the earliest (and later) Christian art, the liturgical year had a narrative shape drawn from the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels. Through ritual it imprinted the Biblical narrative on the the minds and hearts of the faithful, not simply as a matter of private devotion but as a fully public act setting the rhythm of communal life."

These descriptions of sacred time and sacred space in Catholic culture are by Robert Louis Wilken. His brilliant book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, explains why Christianity was best described not so much as a Belief, as a Way.

To better appreciate the categories of sacred time, space, and person, it is instructive to learn from one of the great students of worldwide religious practice. A thinker shaped by the Eastern tradition of Orthodoxy has looked at multiple ancient religious traditions. His unique formulation allows us to understand man in his seeking, God in His revelation, and the Church in its sacralizing mission in an ever more profound way.

Romanian émigré Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) taught at  the University of Chicago, writing novels and books including two classics on the nature of religion: The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949) and The Sacred and the Profane (1957). His influence on current political thinkers is unfortunately limited but Professor Francis Oakley carries his mantle well in this reflection on mankind's most durable form of government-the sacral office of  Kingship.  

Professor Eliade in 1959

From The Myth of the Eternal Return:

"Archaic ontology is the conception of being and reality which can be read from the behavior of the man of the pre-modern societies. It is useless to search archaic languages for terms like "being" and "non being" or "real" and "unreal"… But if the word is lacking, the thing is present -- in a coherent fashion -- through symbols and myths."
"Objects and acts acquire a value and in so doing become real because they participate, in one way or another, in a reality that transcends them. A stone becomes sacred – and hence is saturated with being – because it constitutes a hierophany (a manifestation of the sacred higher order) because in some way it commemorates a mythical act."

"For archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of a celestial archetype. Reality is conferred through participation in the "symbolism of the Center" …  "Cities, temples, houses become real by the fact of being assimilated to the center of the World (axis mundi)."
"Rituals and gestures acquire meaning only because they deliberately repeat such an act posited ab origine by gods, heroes, or ancestors."
"The man of traditional culture sees himself as real only to the extent that he ceases to be himself and is satisfied with imitating and repeating the gestures of a Divine Other."

"A second aspect of primitive ontology -- that a being attains reality only by the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures and acquires reality only through that action alone, there is an abolition of profane time or history. He who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported to the mythical epoch in which the revelation took place.  'In illo tempore' at that sacred time 'once upon a time.' --

"The abolition of profane time and the individual’s projection into mythical time do not occur except at essential periods when the individual is truly himself -- on the occasion of important acts of eating, generation, ceremonies, hunting, fishing, war and work. The rest of his life is spent in profane time which is without meaning and in a state of becoming."
[A previously performed Act of God -- ritually repeated by man -- is what reunites man’s being with reality]

"Archaic man sets himself in opposition to history -- he lived in conformity to extra human models, in conformity with archetypes that respected the 'law' of hierophany -- a revelation of some sacred act that occurs in illo tempore (at that particular sacred time)."

Thus the norms of real existence were "exemplary acts that the divine beings did first. Man realized his real identity by repeating those sacred acts throughout the course of his life."

The Myth of the Eternal Return provided a language and perspective for the Christian to better understand his own tradition. The liturgical ordering of sacred space, time, and matter  imitates the work of God in Creation -- and Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.
The book was Eliade’s attempt to argue against the historical determinism of his time. He tried to shake sense into homo ratio that archaic man knew something about human nature that modern man was losing. The sacred is reality; and man is most man when he is homo religiosus.

The Sacred and the Profane is an even more accessible book for the Christian. If archaic man tried to conform himself to sacred acts already performed, the Christian liturgically participates in the historical divine act whereby God entered into history.  Thus, in the Eucharist, the Christian is no longer abolishing historical time but bringing it into union with Christ who is both the Perfection of Nature and the Lord of History. While the Eucharist is a kind of "sacred time machine", The Mass also reconfigures space.   The altar at the time of the Eucharist becomes the axis mundi--the center of the world.  The Christian priest establishes sacred order out of chaos. He expels the Evil One. That is how man participates in God’s initial (ab origine; in illo tempore) work of creation and His subsequent cleansing of Heaven.
 We are perfected in acts of the liturgy but like ancient man, daily life takes on a sacred dimension as well. Eliade’s reflections show why men love sports, war, fishing, and hunting. The thrill of the chase and the exaltation of the kill are primordial acts which link man in the Divine Drama. Those primal acts of contest (no less than acts of communion like eating, marrying, and worship) mimic actions already performed by God and perfected in the Body of Christ.

From The Sacred and Profane:
"The abyss that divides the two modalities of experience -- sacred and profane -- will be apparent when we come to describe sacred space and the ritual building of human habitation or the varieties of the religious experience of time, or the relations of religious man to nature and the world of tools or the consecration of human life itself, the sacrality with which man’s vital functions (food, sex, work, and such) can be charged. Simply calling to mind what work and home and tools have come to mean for modern non-religious man will show with the utmost vividness how this distinguishes him from archaic man or even from a peasant of Christian Europe."

[Keeping liturgical time incorporates the Christian personally into a communal history, which binds the Church as a Body into the Divine unfolding of God’s Ultimate Plan for creation]    

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