Wayfinding among the Sacred

On a recent trip to the used books section of the Harvard Book Store, I asked a friend of mine, who is training to become a minister, to suggest an introductory title to religion. He picked out Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. The staff had flagged this book as one of their picks, too, and previously caught my eye. So last week I went home with a copy of my very own.

In the introduction, the author explains that for the purposes of this book, the sacred is merely the opposite of the profane, which makes sense given the title of the book. It’d be surprising if they were secretly the same thing, wouldn’t it? At this point the text only hints at what that relationship between these “two modes of existence” actually is.

Shortly thereafter, the book dives in on sacred space. According to this account, sacred places mark identifiable fixed points in the landscape, against which a person can orient himself relative to the rest of the world. In contrast, profane space is “homogeneous  and neutral”. I suppose that because profane space has no distinguishing features, it’s impossible to navigate. But I find that counter to my intuition and to my experience. Landmarks have existed for a long time, and not even most of them are temples.

I live in Cambridge and visitors stop to ask me directions all the time. “Follow this street until you pass three stop lights, then make a left. Continue until you see Chinese restaurant on the right side. If you pass a supermarket parking lot on your left, you’ve gone too far.” Now, in these directions I’ve mentioned lots of landmarks to help strangers find their way. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to find much that is sacred in the stop lights, restaurant, or parking lot. Landmarks do afford familiarity to otherwise unfamiliar space. And they might signal safety or danger. (Don’t walk around that pond at night!) But sacrality? I think that they can, but aren’t required to. I’d be willing to concede that I’m wrong.

If everything that I use to orient myself is in some sense sacred, I’d be okay with that. But that means that just about every space I’ve visited is sacred. That absolutely everything carries with it some sort of special spark is a very, very old idea that I might be willing to admit to if you asked me directly. On the other hand, that makes sacred spaces, when considered as a whole, a  large homogeneous space itself. And that sounds suspiciously profane. (Unless, of course, each sacred space is sacred in its very own snowflake kind of way. Now, I may be simply confessing my my own limited capacity to experience the sacred, but a lot of my transcendent experiences have felt more or less the same to me. That shared feeling is, in part, how I know that they’re transcendent.)

In chapter one, I think that Eliade overstated his case or I misunderstood it. In some instances I do believe that sacred spaces help people orient themselves in the world, but I do not believe that every thing that helps people—even very religious people—orient themselves is sacred. It’s like how all squares are rectangles, but most rectangles are not squares. So too with signposts: most of them are profane, but a few of them are sacred to some.