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Mircea Eliade On The Meaning Of Temples

According to the historian of religion, houses of worship sanctify the world
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(Readers, I didn’t want to end this week on a sour note. Below is an adapted piece from my Substack blog: further thoughts on Mircea Eliade’s great book “The Sacred and the Profane”.)

Eliade says that temples exist symbolically “at the center of the world” because they are where man establishes communication with the transcendent realm. It’s not that man can’t talk to God in other places and in other ways, but the temple is a special place set apart. The temple often represents a sacred mountain where the initial meeting with God happened. For traditional Christians, churches are a representation of Golgotha, and therefore “the pre-eminent ‘link’ between earth and heaven.” Obviously there are countless churches in the world, so understand that they all exist at the center of the world in a symbolic, mythic sense.

This jumped out at me because it is easy to see how the older, sacramental forms of Christianity conform to this global pattern. The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the core of the religion, and is re-enacted every time there is a liturgy at the altar. The altar is Golgotha, which is part of Mount Moriah, on which the city of Jerusalem is built. When you take the sacramentality out of the religion, as many forms of Protestantism have, it wrecks the symbolism. How can a church that looks like a theatrical space do the symbolic work it is supposed to do? Does it matter? I think it surely must.

You’ll remember, maybe, the lovely line from an older black lady running the dry cleaners in my hometown, St. Francisville, when my then-priest brought Orthodox liturgical vestments to her for the first time: “Ooooh-weee, those look like they got God all over them!” Yes, exactly! (Father Matthew, from Washington state, was amazed and delighted to go on to discuss the Old Testament in detail with this same woman, who had only a high school education.) Physical space, visual imagery, sounds, smells — these things matter. They aren’t the same thing as God, but they prepare us, consciously and subconsciously, to enter into communion with Him. The fact that traditional religions of all kinds, around the world, build temples that don’t look the same, but which symbolically perform the same function, is anthropologically meaningful, don’t you think?

Let me be clear: it’s not that God is not with people who worship in low-church Protestant temples; it’s that the structures perhaps make it harder for the worshipers to feel God’s presence. This matters for my book project, because I am trying to figure out how we can re-enchant the world, and live more like “religious man” (Eliade’s term) lived in the premodern era. The Protestantization of worship spaces, and the de-sacramentalization of some forms of Christianity, likely contributed to the disenchantment of the world. It wasn’t on purpose — nobody can accuse the Puritans, for example, of wanting to push God out of the world — but their theology, and horror at things that smacked of papistry, might have led them to throw out too much.

(Notice I qualify all these conclusions with “might,” etc., because I don’t want to make firm statements without more research. This newsletter, re: Eliade, is basically a notebook.)

Eliade discusses how for religious man, even his home must be configured religiously, that is to say, to bring it closer to the Center Of The World by making it a place that looks like where God dwells. In Orthodoxy, it is customary for an Orthodox home to have an icon corner, which functions as a kind of home altar. This is where the family gathers to pray. Eliade talks about how the modernist architect Le Corbusier described the home as “a machine to live in,” and goes on to say that the desacralization of the home is part of the greater desacralization of the cosmos by industrial, Enlightenment, scientific thought. He wonders if “this secularization of nature is really final, if no possibility remains for nonreligious man to rediscover the sacred dimension of existence in the world.” My task in this book is to discover what nonreligious man needs to do to rediscover it — and what religious man needs to do both to ground himself more deeply in the religious sense, and to make true religion more inviting to nonreligious man.

We know that a religion that accommodates itself to a desacralized, profane world is not attractive to non-religious people … but at the same time, very many of them don’t want to do what it takes to be authentically religious. This is a challenge for us. Intuitively, it seems to me that we have to make our habitation — not just our houses, but the world we live in — seem more sacred. At the Touchstone conference, a Catholic man from Chicago told me that his parish did a formal procession through a downtown neighborhood, and everybody was staring — not in a hostile way, but in a “what is that?” sense. Most had never seen such a thing, I would wager.

Church historian Robert Louis Wilken, in his great 2004 essay “The Church As Culture,” writes:

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.

The poet Dana Gioia, the current director of the National Endowment for the Arts, puts it nicely in the poem “Autumn Inaugural”:

There will always be those who reject ceremony,
who claim that resolution requires no fanfare,
those who demand the spirit stay fixed
like a desert saint, fed only on faith,
to worship in no temple but the weather.

Gioia acknowledges the point:

Symbols betray us.
They are always more or less than what
is really meant.


But shall there be no
processions by torchlight because we are weak?

Praise to the rituals that celebrate change,
old robes worn for new beginnings,
solemn protocol where the mutable soul,
surrounded by ancient experience,
grows young in the imagination’s white dress.

Because it is not the rituals we honor
but our trust in what they signify, these rites
that honor us as witnesses—whether to watch
lovers swear loyalty in a careless world
or a newborn washed with water and oil.

If Christ is culture, let the sidewalks be lit with fire on Easter Eve, let traffic stop for a column of Christians waving palm branches on a spring morning, let streets be blocked off as the faithful gather for a Corpus Christi procession. Then will others know that there is another city in their midst, another commonwealth, one that has its face, like the faces of angels, turned toward the face of God.

Beautifully said!

Eliade writes (emphasis in the original):

In the last analysis, it is by virtue of the temple that the world is resanctified in every part. However impure it may have become, the world is continually purified by the sanctity of sanctuaries.

I believe that the presence of God wherever He is worshipped — a fine Gothic cathedral or a storefront Pentecostal church — resanctifies the world. But churches that look like churches, and are thereby set apart visually from all other buildings, convey to everyone, even nonbelievers, that God is present. Consider these two Lutheran churches in Oslo, Norway:

Which one sanctifies the city? From a purely spiritual point of view, none of us can say. But from a symbolic point of view, the answer is obviously the one on top. It looks like a temple. In fact, Eliade explains that in traditional religious cultures, temples usually have a symbolic opening to the sky, to convey the sense that there is a passage between the building and heaven. The architect of the church on the bottom (and those who hired him to do that work) have lost a sense of the symbolic world and why it matters. It’s not just that the church on the bottom is ugly. It’s that it does not do what a church is supposed to do in terms of directing the thoughts of those inside and outside of it to the sacred. The church on the bottom is a modern church because its architects (and those who hired them) have discarded the grammar of sacred architecture. They’re speaking symbolic gobbledygook.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Eliade goes on to talk about how traditionally, the church building represents the cosmos. It’s not simply a building in which believers worship. The traditional church “both incarnates and sanctifies the world,” he writes.

“[T]he experience of sacred space makes possible the ‘founding of the world’: where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself, the world comes into existence,” Eliade writes. In case you’ve forgotten since the last newsletter, by “the real,” Eliade means the belief of religious man that ultimate reality is part of the unseen realm undergirding all visible reality. By “the founding of the world,” he means giving form and stable meaning to the world in which the religious man dwells.

Eliade (emphases in original):

Every world is the work of the gods, for it was either created directly by the gods or was consecrated, hence cosmicized, by men ritually reactualizing the paradigmatic act of Creation. This is as much as to say that religious man can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence. This religious need expresses an unquenchable ontological thirst. Religious man thirsts for being. His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness. The unknown space that extends beyond his world — an uncosmicized because unconsecrated space, a mere amorphous extent into which no orientation has yet been projected, and hence in which no structure has yet arisen — for religious man, this profane space represents absolute nonbeing. If, by some evil chance, he strays into it, he feels emptied of his ontic substance, as if he were dissolving in Chaos, and he finally dies.

This passage made me wonder about something. I believe that man is naturally religious. I believe that on both theological and anthropological grounds. We cannot entirely dispel the religious instinct. Wokeness, for example, cannot fully be understood unless you admit its pseudoreligious elements; the craving for a sense of ultimate justice, meaning, and moral structure runs too deep. Wokeness is not a religion, but it mimics one. I am wondering if the disintegration of the West is happening because we have slowly bled out our “ontic substance” as we have grown assimilated into a world built physically, and interiorly, on profane assumptions, and as Christianity has declined both in numbers and in belief.

In simpler language, are we disintegrating as a civilization because we have lost our relationship with God? It has been widely observed that primitive tribes often do not survive their encounter with modernity. If they live on biologically, it is often in a state of chaos, misery, and sometimes substance addiction. The shattering of their cosmos was spiritually unsurvivable. I read not long ago an account of this happening to a traditional Eskimo village, I believe it was. Everybody there just kind of gave up. Even though their lives became materially easier thanks to technology and money, the sudden loss of their traditional way of life was devastating. Maybe we Westerners did not fall apart because it did not come upon us suddenly … but it has eventually caught up with us. Now we live in metaphysical, spiritual, and moral chaos, the seriousness of which is somewhat concealed by our wealth. We cannot reverse the unwinding without recovering the sacred. If we can.

This, by the way, is the view of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, who is not a religious believer. Yet he believes as a matter of anthropological and sociological truth that human societies must be religious, or they die. Louis Betty is an American scholar of French literature who wrote a very good book on Houellebecq as a pessimistic novelist of post-Christian culture. I interviewed him here. This is what Betty said when I asked him about Houllebecq’s conviction that irreligious societies eventually wind down:

Here it’s important, I think, to distinguish between religion as a human phenomenon and the specific case of Christianity in Europe. I don’t think such a thing as a “society without religion,” in the sense of having a metaphysical framework, really exists; to me, that’s akin to imagining a society without a language, or some notion of kinship, or ways of preparing food. I’m not an anthropologist, but it seems clear that any human society worthy of the adjective “human” is going to articulate some metaphysical system that makes sense of reality and offers consolation and a sense of meaning in the midst of natural vicissitude.

In the case of Christianity in Europe, I think the question to ask is something like this: can a civilization maintain its identity if it sheds its native religion? Houellebecq doesn’t think so, and neither do I. This isn’t a political or polemical point. Imagine taking as an anthropological platitude the claim that human beings will be religious and, moreover, that civilizations are built upon the metaphysical systems they create (or which are revealed to them, to give credit to the metaphysical on its own terms). It’s obvious from such an assumption that the collapse of the metaphysics entails the eventual collapse of everything else. This should be deeply alarming to anyone who cares about the West’s tradition of humanitarianism, which emerges—and it would be wonderful if we could all agree on this—out of the original Judaic notion of imago Dei and later from Christian humanism. Secular humanism has been running for quite some time on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian religious inheritance, but it’s not clear how much longer that can go on.

Honestly, it’s frightening to think what a truly post-Christian West would mean for our basic institutions. I’m not stumping for Christianity here; I just happen to have the intellectual conviction that the analysis of human society begins with religion. If you incline toward Marxian thinking, which looks at things in the diametrically opposed way, you’re going to hate what I’m saying. But that’s how I see it.

In this passage from a 2003 TED talk (21 minutes), the anthropologist and popular writer Wade Davis explains inadvertently Eliade’s point about how for traditional religious man, the world in which we live bears cosmic meaning, and trains us to live by the sacred:

Now, of all the peoples that I’ve ever been with, the most extraordinary are the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. Descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization which once carpeted the Caribbean coastal plain of Colombia, in the wake of the conquest, these people retreated into an isolated volcanic massif that soars above the Caribbean coastal plain. In a bloodstained continent, these people alone were never conquered by the Spanish. To this day, they remain ruled by a ritual priesthood but the training for the priesthood is rather extraordinary. The young acolytes are taken away from their families at the age of three and four, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness in stone huts at the base of glaciers for 18 years: two nine-year periods deliberately chosen to mimic the nine months of gestation they spend in their natural mother’s womb; now they are metaphorically in the womb of the great mother. And for this entire time, they are inculturated into the values of their society, values that maintain the proposition that their prayers and their prayers alone maintain the cosmic — or we might say the ecological — balance. And at the end of this amazing initiation, one day they’re suddenly taken out and for the first time in their lives, at the age of 18, they see a sunrise. And in that crystal moment of awareness of first light as the Sun begins to bathe the slopes of the stunningly beautiful landscape, suddenly everything they have learned in the abstract is affirmed in stunning glory. And the priest steps back and says, “You see? It’s really as I’ve told you. It is that beautiful. It is yours to protect.” They call themselves the “elder brothers” and they say we, who are the younger brothers, are the ones responsible for destroying the world.

Now, this level of intuition becomes very important. Whenever we think of indigenous people and landscape, we either invoke Rousseau and the old canard of the “noble savage,” which is an idea racist in its simplicity, or alternatively, we invoke Thoreau and say these people are closer to the Earth than we are. Well, indigenous people are neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia. There’s not a lot of room for either in the malarial swamps of the Asmat or in the chilling winds of Tibet, but they have, nevertheless, through time and ritual, forged a traditional mystique of the Earth that is based not on the idea of being self-consciously close to it, but on a far subtler intuition: the idea that the Earth itself can only exist because it is breathed into being by human consciousness.

Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who’s raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource or that place than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s the abode of a spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant. What’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world. I was raised in the forests of British Columbia to believe those forests existed to be cut. That made me a different human being than my friends amongst the Kwagiulth who believe that those forests were the abode of Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven and the cannibal spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world, spirits they would have to engage during their Hamatsa initiation.

Obviously I don’t believe in these pagan religions, but I believe that Davis’s account teaches us something about my own religion. If I really believed, as the Orthodox prayer teaches, that God is “everywhere present and fills all things,” I can’t look at the mountain in the same way that the young kid from Montana does, even if the young kid is a Christian. That kid might be a Protestant, or a modern Catholic or modern Orthodox — untrained theologically in their own tradition, and therefore regarding the world through nominalist eyes. Then again, let’s not be unfair to Protestants. It is hard to find an American who treasures the natural world more than Wendell Berry, who is a low-church Protestant. And I don’t think most American Catholics or American Orthodox would think substantially different about the mountain than any Protestant or non-Christian would. We WEIRDoes are all practical nominalists.

What I’m after is the recovery of a vision that sees the world as sacred, really sacred, which means that we cannot make use of it mindlessly, or without limits. To see it as sacred doesn’t mean you can’t use it, but you can’t use it without a sense of reverence. We’ve all heard stories about native hunters who thank the slain deer for giving its life to support the tribe. That’s the kind of reverence I’m talking about. I don’t have much of it myself, but I would like to acquire more. Working on this book is going to be a real journey for me — and for you readers.

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