Home/Rod Dreher/The Sacred & The ‘Real’

The Sacred & The ‘Real’

Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), historian of religion

I’ve spent much of this afternoon going through boxes of documents and artifacts that my mother gave to me as she was cleaning out her house and preparing for her move. I wish I had worn a mask while doing it; the dust from decades of old papers — some going back to the 19th century — overwhelmed the Benadryl barrier. While working, I listened to this two-hour podcast of maximum heaviosity featuring Jordan Peterson, Bishop Robert Barron, John Vervaeke, and Jonathan Pageau. 

They’re talking about meaning, and it is at times riveting and at times baffling, trying to keep up with them. But wow, it’s exhilarating to me as I get started on this new book project of mine, which is going to focus on this very issue, though from a particular perspective. Towards the end of the podcast, Bishop Barron said that the Church in our time erred by trying to be too much like the world, when instead it ought to be doing as Jordan Peterson is doing, and going back to the Scriptures to reveal deep meaning within them, as the Church Fathers did. My own book project is going to be in part about that, though I’m not going to focus on Scripture per se, but on the book of Nature (meaning, the material world as sign and pattern pointing to God and ultimate meaning).

As some of you know, I write a Substack newsletter that’s a lot quieter than what you read on this blog. I deliberately exclude current events and culture war topics, instead focusing on spirituality, art, and the things that give us hope. It’s a much more difficult thing to write than this blog, especially in this time of decline and disintegration. But this forthcoming book (no title yet) is going to be purely about learning to see reasons for hope. If you are a fan of the work of Pageau, Peterson, Vodolazkin, McGilchrist, and others of that genre, you will love this book, I bet.

Anyway, here’s something I sent out to my Substack readers after the book deal became official.

In the past, when I have been at the beginning of writing a book, I have felt the burden of the project acutely. Writing a book is hard. Even though I’ve gotten to be pretty good at it, it’s still intimidating to begin with a blank page in front of you, knowing that you have to fill about 220 of them with quality prose.

This time, it feels different. I don’t want to overthink it, but rather be grateful for that sense of peace and confidence that I am certain has been given to me by God. As you well know, so much of my work focuses on what’s wrong with the world. It hasn’t been only critique. Both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies identify what’s wrong, and offer advice on how to deal with this particular kind of brokenness we are now enduring.

But this new book, which doesn’t yet have a title, is going to be focused entirely on reasons to believe that God exists, and that He is everywhere present and filling all things. In one sense, it is going to be my account of where the hope that lives in me comes from, though of course I’m going to be telling the stories of others.

One of the audiences for this book is my 17-year-old self, sitting on the tour bus outside the Chartres cathedral, trying to decide if I should go in or not. Why wouldn’t I have gone? Why did I almost stay on the bus? Because I thought I had religion all figured out. What’s the point of looking at another old church? I went in because the prospect of boredom sitting on the bus waiting for all the old people on the guided tour to go through the cathedral was too much. You readers know that it was there that God first showed himself to me, and set the hook.

I want doubting young people who read this book to come away feeling that they should go inside the cathedral, because God is waiting for them there.

I’m also writing the book for people like myself: believers who are heavily laden with burdens that we can’t quite surrender to the Lord. For those who believe, but scan the world all the time for signs that help our unbelief to transform into a deeper faith. Reporting and writing this book will be for me something of a personal quest.

The other day at coffee hour, after the Sunday liturgy, I asked one of the young men who is a recent convert to Orthodoxy why he came in. He told me that the church he had been attending – a non-denominational Protestant church – never had answers for him. He said when he was 14, he would ask his pastor questions, and the pastor would fail to answer them – but then the question would arise in the pastor’s next sermon. “I figured that if I at fourteen, knowing nothing at all, could stump my pastor, that I must be in the wrong place,” he said.

Eventually he drifted, until he got a roommate who was Orthodox, and who invited him to church. The young man never left. In Orthodoxy, he found the depth he had been looking for, but thought did not exist.

You might remember that I spoke to a 16 year old boy, a newcomer, a couple of weeks ago, asking him what brought him to an Orthodox parish. He kept saying that Orthodoxy is “real,” and that he is in search of the “real.” He is a teenager, and struggled to be precise with words, but I understood him to be saying that Orthodoxy doesn’t play around. My twentysomething interlocutor this past Sunday certainly emphasized that. He said that in his previous churches, many Christians of his generation are always hedging their bets about what they believe, and how they live. In Orthodoxy, he said, that’s a lot harder to do. That’s why this way of following Christ feels more “real” to him.

I recalled those conversations this morning on the flight to Colorado Springs (I have a very quick trip to visit Focus On The Family and record a podcast), when I re-read the final chapter of Mircea Eliade’s great book The Sacred And The Profane. Both of these young men drawn to Orthodoxy talk about one form of the “realness” it offers, but I think there’s something deeper. The Eliade book captures it well. I’m going to quote Eliade here at length, because it captures my greatest hope for this book’s effect. My ambition for this book is somewhat insane, but … why not? Eliade writes:

What we find as soon as we place ourselves in the perspective of religious man of the archaic societies is that the world exists because it was created by the gods, and that the existence of the world itself “means” something, “wants to say” something, that the world is neither mute nor opaque, that it is not an inert thing without purpose or significance. For religious man, the cosmos “lives” and “speaks.” The mere life of the cosmos is proof of its sanctity, since the cosmos was created by the gods and the gods show themselves to men through cosmic life.

This is why, beginning at a certain stage of culture, man conceives of himself as a microcosm. He forms part of the gods’ creation; in other words, he finds in himself the same sanctity that he recognizes in the cosmos. It follows that his life is homologized to cosmic life; as a divine work, the cosmos becomes the paradigmatic image of human existence.

In this book I’m about to write, I have to teach the reader to regard himself as living in a cosmos: that is, an ordered universe filled with hierarchy and meaning. In the Middle Ages, the great cathedrals were constructed as visible models of the cosmos, to convey to the worshiper where he stands in the great chain of being, and how everything stands in relation to everything else. If you’ve ever been inside one of these buildings, you will likely have experienced the strange, wonderful feeling of being simultaneously diminished and elevated by awe.

Eliade tries to explain how to archaic man, religious similes were more than just metaphors: “Let us attempt to understand the existential situation of one for whom all these homologies are experiences and not simply ideas.” Yes! That neatly sums up the main approach I will be taking in this book: to talk to people who have not merely thought about God, but who have experienced Him in an extraordinary way.

Eliade says to religious man, it is necessary to be open to the world. “Openness to the world enables religious man to know himself in knowing the world – and this knowledge is precious to him because it is religious, because it pertains to being.” For religious man, he continues, “the whole of life is capable of being sanctified.”

Here is a passage in Eliade that stands the received modern narrative about the nature of religious people on its head:

We have seen that religious man lives in an open cosmos and that he is open to the world. This means (a) that he is in communication with the gods; (b) that he shares in the sanctity of the world. That religious man can live only in an open world, we saw when we analyzed the structure of sacred space; man desires to dwell at a center, where there is the possibility of communicating with the gods. His dwelling is a microcosm; and so too his body.

In other words, what if the truly religious are not the ones who hide from reality, but who are better able than seculars to to live in the world as it is?

Note too that Eliade says that for traditional religious man, his body and his home are integrated into the wider cosmos. The body is not a separate, autonomous entity. The great historian Peter Brown said that for the people of Late Antiquity, the body

was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods of from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.

With this book, I hope to do my part to restore the old cosmic vision of interconnectedness and meaning. Why? Because it’s true, and I believe it is necessary for us to live within the fullness of our God-given nature. In this sense, the book will challenge Christians to be more traditionally Christian.

Eliade said that the loss of roots in the countryside has a lot to do with the desacralization of modern societies:

The cosmic liturgy, the mystery of nature’s participation in the Christological drama, have become inaccessible to Christians living in a modern city. Their religious experience is no longer open to the cosmos. In the last analysis, it is a strictly private experience; salvation is a problem that concerns man and his god; at most, man recognizes that he is responsible not only to God but also to history. But in these ma-God-history relationships there is no place for the cosmos. From this it would appear that, even for a genuine Christian, the world is no longer felt as the work of God.

That is so powerful, and so true. I can feel it myself. In theory I share this cosmic vision, based on my theological principles, and what it tells us about the nature of reality. But do I live as if I believed these things? No, not really. Sometimes. Mostly, though, I dwell in my head. One of the personal goals of this book is to learn how to get out of my head, and open myself up to God’s presence in His cosmos.

Eliade goes on to say that this openness to the cosmos means that even the little things — objects, gestures — in a religious man’s life matter:

It is his familiar everyday life that is transfigured in the experience of religious man; he finds a cipher everywhere. Even the most habitual gesture can signify a spiritual act. The road and walking can be transfigured into religious values, for every road can symbolize the “road of life,” and any walk a “pilgrimage,” a peregrination to the Center of the World.

Well, to be fair to myself, that’s pretty much how I live now. So maybe I’m not fully inside my head. But I do want to know more, and to grow spiritually. One great fault I have is a distaste for being in nature. It comes from a childhood growing up in Louisiana, where the presence of poisonous snakes makes being in the woods hazardous. I was particularly scared of snakes, so excursions into nature, which were frequent (I hunted a lot with my dad), were not pleasant.

But I have been in the past two or three years in forests in the Azores, which I think is snake-free, as well as in England, where the snakes are not as poisonous as in Louisiana, and I really, really loved it. It felt great to be in a wood where you didn’t have to keep your eyes peeled so that you don’t step on your death. So I know that my resistance to nature is limited. In researching this book, I will talk to Christians who experience God’s presence profoundly in nature. I want them to help me see what they see.

I find this line of Eliade’s to be crucial to the project:

[R]eligious man wants to be other than he finds himself on the “natural” level and undertakes to make himself in accordance with the ideal image revealed to him by myths.

This seems to be a key divide between traditional religion and modern, therapeutic conceptions of religion. The latter tries to help us to be okay with who we are, not call us to repent and live in a higher way — the way that is built into the structure of reality.

Similarly, here is Eliade defining religious man and nonreligious man:

Whatever the historical context in which he is placed, ‘homo religiosus’ always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious — that is, participates in reality.

I venture to say that whether these young inquirers and converts understand it or not, this is at bottom why Orthodoxy feels “real” to them: because the Orthodox Church has preserved this traditional understanding of the God-filled cosmos better than any other church in modernity. You don’t have to have the metaphysics proclaimed to you from the pulpit. Even if you don’t read a word of theology explaining how Orthodox Christianity views the connection between the spiritual world and the material world, come to services often enough and you will assimilate this way of seeing and being.

On the other hand, writes Eliade

the nonreligious man refuses transcendence, accepts the relativity of “reality,” and may even come to doubt the meaning of existence. …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 demysticized. He will not be truly free until he has killed the last god.

It can’t get any clearer than that. I wonder: is the nature of our time such that these are the only choices in front of us: either become religious in the archaic sense, or be drawn inexorably into the demysticization of the dying modern world. If Flannery O’Connor is right to say that you have to push back against the world as hard as it pushes against you, then yes, that might be the stark choice facing us.

It seems very clear that the journey into reporting this next book will send me into Orthodoxy in a much deeper way than before. I have been hesitant to explore Orthodoxy much beyond going to liturgy, receiving the sacraments, and minding my own prayer life. As you know, after I crashed and burned in Catholicism, I have struggled to feel safe enough to “let go” within a church tradition. But I’ve been Orthodox for 16 years now, and it’s time to go deeper. I anticipate that I will find resources in this, my adopted tradition, that I never knew existed — and that I can share with the general Christian community in crisis.

I hope you readers of this newsletter will have fun with me as I keep you updated throughout this project. This time, I intend to do something I foolishly failed to do in interviewing people for Live Not By Lies: record these interviews with an HD camera. We’re going to get some solid gold material from believers who have had extraordinary hierophanies — inbreakings of the sacred — and who can give us all hope and faith.

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about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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