Reflection on the Concept of Sacred Space
The idea that sacred space is not centered on a physical location or object and rather that sacred space is a part of the makeup of the nature that determines religion is an intriguing question to explore. At a time when theorists and the scholars of religious sciences were trying to explain the prevalence and persistence of religion though economics, psychology, sociology, and other social sciences that the great reductionists of the past century chose to focus on, Mircea Eliade was presenting a radical concept that religion can in fact be explained on its own terms. As a historian of religion Eliade used the concepts of sacred time and sacred space as the two proposed drivers that aid in this exploration. Yet Eliade’s work, as is the case of the work of all great theorists, is open to interpretation and critique. One such critique is briefly disused here, made by one of Eliade’s students: Jonathan Smith. In this reflection essay I also explore the ideas of sacred space as independent of physical boundaries. Last I present my own reflections on and understanding of the concept of sacred space as it relates to the study or religion.
Micrea Eliade as a scholar, influenced the world of the study of religious studies in the twentieth century. At the basis of Micrea Eliade’s theories lies the concept of the sacred, as in sacred time and sacred space. This is the axis mundi around which religion is built and religion functions “on its own terms”, religion is in fact the cause of social dynamics and it is not as reductionists proclaim a by-product of other societal forces like economics. For Eliade religion can in fact be explained historically through phenomenology and through symbolism. Eliade professes the historical study of religion and joining historical study of religion and phenomenology. In his most famous book The Sacred and the Profane (1957) Eliade centers the discussion around the idea of the axis mundi, a pillar that like a tree reaches into the sky, into the heavens, into the realms of God. This pillar is then centered in the Earthly community through the physical roots of a structure, a fixed point where the entire cosmos is fixed on. Eliade almost suggests that the tree could be alive, a physical link between the sacred and the divine. Eliade’s prolific writing starts the exploration of the concept of “archetypes” in religion and Eliade describes that the authority of the sacred controls all. The intense desire of the people to imitate Gods stems from a desire that archaic people have not only to mirror the realm of the sacred, but to actually be in it (Pals, 2006, 2008). Smith (1972) proclaims that “for Eliade, the Sacred, and sacred space and time in particular, is the extraordinary, the realm in which the sacred paradoxically manifests itself through hierophanies, kratophanies and the like. (…) The profane is the ordinary, the neutral, the realm of the adiaphora” and sacred space in particular is “the irruptive element (…) experienced by the religious man as non-homogenous (…) a breakthrough in the normal ontological levels [that] allows the possibility of (…) reifying or sacralizing the profane. (…)” and Eliade (1957:29) himself describes it through the “image of an opening (…) implying a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different… something that does not belong to this world has manifested itself.” Sacred space is thus defined as a physical space then that is made sacred through a linking to the divine space and in this world can easily be identified as a particular edifice centrally located in the archaic, and sometimes in the more modern, communities.
The critique, as it relates to the concept of sacred space, that Jonathan Z Smith (1972) provides on Eliade is timid and centers on the periphery of the points that Eliade makes in his writings: “has not the illuminating category of the “center” been too narrowly discussed in literalistic terms of geographical symbolism?” Smith (2009) in Map is Not Territory expands further his ideas and argumentations introducing the idea that space is only artificially defined as belonging or not belonging to a particular territory. “There is nothing that is inherently or essentially clean or unclean, sacred or profane. There are situational or relational categories, mobile boundaries which shift according to the map being employed.” In a commonly understood convention, countries decided to clearly define their boundaries by creating borders, that artificially separate what is Thailand and what is Cambodia for example, and once that clear demarcation was achieved then a lot of energy and attention were put into defining what character each piece of land has. Yet as anyone who has walked across an Earth based physical border has seen, the Earth is effectively the same on both sides, and certainly a creature like an Earth worm could not possibly be educated to distinguish between the two sides. Even in extreme examples as is that of the border between Israel and Palestine that are in that case irrigated or not, cleaner or not, and even separated by a physical wall, if we were to observe by a few meters under the Earth the boundaries would merge to define a connected whole. So it is natural then to question whether when we, even artificially and with the full understanding of the artificiality of the exercise, try to contain sacred into a particular physical or geographic location are simply following our limited nature that tries to shape the world into boxes that we can understand. As Smith is proposing what if “map” is more than a mere territorial delineation? In that instance can we still clearly define what is sacred and what is profane as we persist in studying religion in an emic anthropological fashion? We can propose that this serious effort to study something that for the believer is sacred in an observational scientific way only is starting to present serious limitations in its undertaking.
We can question whether in religious studies, as we try to find a scientific way to address the motivation, basis and understanding or religion, whether we are simply trying to define and contain in a particular territory, calling it sacred, the feelings and possibly the reality of connectedness that are generated through religion and in fact transcends those boundaries. We can observe the “history” of the development of religious studies and observe as Smith suggests that Religious Studies is a discipline that is yet to be defined, between “religion and the human sciences”, “religion and the humanities”, “history and religion”, even in opposition to “theology” as some prefer. And realizing that the discussion of what is “religious studies” is really a discussion about maps, we can start wondering what in human nature finds comfort in clearly defined ideas and concepts. Is it maybe that the “chaos”, that is part of life itself, may be too intense a concept to grasp, so in opposition an “orderly” scientific approach is being designed to pacify the study. As Roof (1999) suggests a method in the studies of religion might be an appropriate start to clearly defining and understanding the discipline. The question of what religious studies is, or will be is an open subject of discussion and as such we can approach the subject through the prism of space, sacred space, geographical space or mapping to further our understanding and possibilities.
In conclusion we can consider that Eliade proposed a model of sacred space to begin the conversation in a scientific way that religion is its own justification. The critique that Smith engages in, because it centers on the concepts of this geographical artificial demarcation, is mild. The early critiques attacked Eliade as a theologian even though he never expressed his own personal opinion, since for a scientist he seemed to bring respect towards the concept of the sacred itself. Yet we may consider that there is no conflict in that view. Eliade may or may have not succeeded in making the study of religion a phenomenological and historical enterprise, using comparison in hugely varied time and space events and theories. The linkage point of view that Eliade takes about symbols, the symbol being the link between the sacred and the profane, this concept of the “axis mundi” that he professes, may simply be put into the “map” of the “time” when Eliade was active and the “space” of a field of religious studies he was infiltrating, that was diametrically defined by theorists like Tylor, Durkheim, and Weber. Eliade offered a natural explanation on how the fabric of society is woven with religion. Something that has been as consistent and as persistent across cultures and throughout history, as religion has been, could be investigated in more ways than simple “maps” as religious studies enters the postmodern era and redefines itself.
Eliade, Micrea. 1949. The Sacred and the Profane. Harvest Book, New York.
Pals, Daniel. 2006. Eight Theories of Religion. Oxford University Press.
Pals, Daniel. 2008. Introducing Religion: Readings from the Classic Theorists. Oxford University Press.
Roof, Wade Clark (1999) Religious Studies and Sociology Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 28, No. 5, pp. 522-524.
Smith, Jonathan Z. (1972) The Wobling Pivot. The Journal of Religion, The University of Chicago Press. vol 52 No 2 pp 134-149.
Smith, Jonathan Z. (2009) Map is Not Territory. Readings in the Theory of Religion: Map, Text, Body Equinox Publishing pp. 107-123.
Wentz, Richard (1970), Should Religious Studies Develop a Method? The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 41, No. 6, pp. 463-477