The Sacred and the Profane


For people like myself, trained since childhood for the Catholic priesthood, the “sacred” was neatly divided from the “profane” and easily identified because it was thoroughly exhausted in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

What was sacred was what was declared sacred by the teachings of the ecclesiastical authorities and accepted as sacred by those who submitted to their teaching. “Sacred” was a word, therefore, that labeled a social bond: the Roman Catholic Church, docens et discens, both teaching and listening … and when that bond was broken — when I stopped listening — the word and category became meaningless; the sacred no longer existed. Suddenly, for people like me, nothing was sacred.

The division of reality into sacred and profane has been called a “principle,” following the categorical analysis of social philosophers, like Emile Durkheim. Along with the prestige of his name, saying the distinction between sacred and profane is a “principle” implies that it is grounded in reality, i.e., that there is something intrinsic and necessary about dividing the world into sacred and profane. But in fact it is merely the generalized description of a series of human societies that have, since time immemorial, divided reality into the “sacred and the profane.” So it is not a principle, it is rather a sociological “law” in the sense of a valid description of a repeated pattern of behavior for “larger” societies (not all sub-groups are covered) that, until modern times, seems to have had no exceptions. But it cannot be used as a universal premise from which to deduce incontrovertible conclusions … even when its predictions appear to be confirmed. It’s the nature of a scientific law. The most it can validly claim is that it is an accurate description of observed facts and its predictions have a high degree of probability. It cannot be adduced, for example, to disprove either of its two contraries: that some people may believe everything is sacred, or that some may believe nothing is sacred. Indeed, if the attitude that I once had represents the “truth,” as I believed it did, then the law would be invalidated because for me, temporarily, there was nothing sacred.  On the other hand, perhaps many people will finally come to the same conclusion that I have:   everything is sacred.

The Catholic Church of my formative experience was a perfect example of Durkheim’s sociological law, because it had, at least since the third century of the common era, declared itself to be the only authentic source and repository of the sacred in the universe. “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” was coined by Cyprian of Carthage around 250 ce. It was the same as saying the Church alone is sacred and outside the Church everything is profane. The Church, still to this day in its official documents, claims that anything besides itself that has any sacredness to it at all, has received that sacredness through contact with the Christian message or its ritual … or with Christians whose thoughts and actions had been sacralized by those words and rituals. Until that contact is made and those transformations occur, all of reality remains profane, and being profane according to ancient Christian ideology connotes a measure of corruption; non-Chris­tian reality is un-redeemed, “unregenerate,” under the control of Satan. That means it is not only not-sacred, but it is anti-sacred — actively hostile to the sacred. To one degree or another, non-Christian … and then, after the Reformation, non-Catholic … meant “actively evil.” Thus was the “sacred” made distinct from the “profane” in Western Catholic eyes, a condition that called for a “mission” to transform the profane into the sacred (make everyone Catholic), or if that proved impossible, to preside over their damnation, for the profane had no right to exist. By thus demonizing the existence of non-Catholic, non-Christian, and non-human reality, the core beliefs of the Catholic Church have maintained the perennial justifications for the separation, exploitation and even the extermination of “the profane” which includes all of nature.

A binary system

But notice in the traditional scheme of things: the sacred and the profane are intrinsically bound together in a binary system. You can’t have one without the other; if there were no “sacred,” there would be no “profane” and vice-versa. Once the sacred disappears, the profane disappears with it. We should take note of the transcendent importance of this fact. It means that by doing away with Durkheim’s categories, we immediately do away with the age-old justifications for the traditional hostilities that characterize the human family and condone disregard for species other than man and the earth that spawned us all. It is an absolutely necessary first step on the road to a new way of being-human. So when I thought that nothing is sacred because I realized that the claims of the Catholic Church were false, I also implicitly acknowledged, whether I was aware of it or not, that nothing is profane. Annihilating the sacred/profane dichotomy set me on a promontory with a view of universal reality rarely achieved by religion-bound humans in this vale of tears. By discovering that nothing is sacred I came within reach of its correlate implication which is much more important: nothing is profane.

Once you make that step, and realize there is nothing profane, you have opened a door to a respect and esteem for things (and people) that you may have been taught by your religious tradition to hold in disdain. Words like “respect” and “esteem,” like “cherish” and “love,” come awfully close to what people have in mind when they use the word “sacred.” Opening our eyes to the transcendent significance of that step is the beginning of wisdom: the understanding of what “sacred” really means — that everything is sacred.


So we have stumbled onto a series of paradoxes: the path to understanding that everything is sacred begins by realizing that, in the traditional sense, nothing is sacred. And since the traditional sacred has always been identified with traditional religion, saying nothing is sacred necessarily involves the abandonment of religion in its traditional form. The ultimate paradox is that the universalism that first-century Christians claimed to bring to the religious life of humankind has been vitiated by the sectarian beliefs that have come to define the Christian institution at least since the third century. Clearly we are dealing with two different notions of what “sacred” means, and the traditional, sectarian meaning we are familiar with — which requires a complementary “profane” — is not only at odds with the earlier version but it has clearly displaced it. My rejection of the accepted dichotomy as meaningless represents a first step toward the other. I am on the way toward a new way of being human.

It’s important to keep in mind that both I and Durkheim before me were working off that “traditional” definition of “sacred.” The word “sacred” had been given a sectarian significance by a class-dominated Christianity that was almost two millennia old by modern times and formed the horizon of our lives. We knew nothing else. I contend that the “sacred/profane” dichotomy became a categorical paradigm in Durkheim’s mind because Christianity in its sectarian form dominated the religious environment in which he was formed. From there it was not difficult for him to see that Christianity’s precursors, like Judaism and later Islam, concurred; Christian sectarianism had, in fact, emerged historically from and recapitulated their fundamental assumptions. The “religions of the Book” all divide the world between the sacred and the profane. Asian religions like Jainism, early Buddhism, Taoism are different. They do not fit so easily into that schema.

If we look at the question as a function of logic, my conviction that being “sacred” can only mean being opposed to what is “profane” is really the result of a circular reasoning. The very category is established only by ecclesiastical fiat — an historically conditioned sectarian Christianity taken as a paradigm — and when made to function like a universal “principle” proves only itself. As a premise it is false and misleading. When the term is finally factored out, the equation yields the beginnings of an understanding of the universality of the sacred. A “sacred” that needs a “profane” to make itself intelligible is logically untenable — it floats groundlessly in mid-air — and its effects on the human project, predictably, distorting.

Existence is sacred

If our “classical” sociological definition of “sacred” is indefensible, what then is the true one? The true definition of “sacred” stands on its own.   It has no need for opposition to an imagined “profane.” The sense of the sacred is the primordial human reaction to being-here — existence, LIFE. It is the direct corollary of the irrepressible joy-of-life that accompanies the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation and the inescapable ecstatic embrace of self-identity. It is inescapable because it is embedded in the organic matter of which we are made. It is innate. As such the sacred is revealed as absolutely universal, for all things share that élan, and it is necessarily self-grounded, self-evident, and undeniable. There is nothing profane, as I discovered from my insight that nothing is “sacred,” and therefore no transformation from profane to sacred is required. The spontaneous focus of the conatus’ self-embrace is for the organism to continue to be what it is. To continue in existence as I am is survival. Survival is not optional. It is the “law of nature” that establishes the foundational priority of the sacred. We are in the realm of metaphysical transcendentals here: the sacred is an intrinsic and inalienable property of existence that emanates from the drive to survive. Transcendence — the characteristic of properties that qualify absolutely everything that exists — arises from the very inner depths of mundane reality itself and is intimately identified with it. I am organically predisposed to cherish life.


If the “sacred” is the psychological reflection of the very energy of existence itself, its universality is primordial. How did such a transcendent foundation get trivialized into the sacred / profane dichotomy so characteristic of our religions? Our particular Western Christian way of structuring the sacred-profane divide is rooted in our history. Specifically, it comes from two beliefs inherited from ancient times, each coming from one of the two source cultures which melded in Christianity: (1) the Greek belief that (sacred) spirit “fell” into (profane) matter — the body — a substance distinct from spirit and the cause of all human weakness, corruption and mortality, and (2) the Jewish myth-turned-belief that the events in the garden of Eden literally introduced evil, suffering and death (the profane) into human life, a subsequent corruption of pristine (sacred) reality that reached even to the human spirit. Both were erroneous, but Christians believed them; together they guaranteed that the natural universe including humankind would be considered corrupt and evil without the saving action of the Christian Church.   The Church was sacred, everything else — absolutely everything — was profane. The Greek and Jewish traditions had concurred in this: nature as we know it was the result of an unnatural “fall.” Both agree: the universe is not what it was supposed to be; it had to be “saved” from what it had become and transformed back into what it should have been. “Nature” was corrupt, it needed to be made whole and healthy by something more powerful than nature — something “supernatural.”

Christians then, taking the “fall” as the primary fact of life and the source of all human suffering and mortality, claimed that it was the death of Christ that “saved” us and reversed the effects of the fall. They then said that the Church was the “body of Christ,” the repository and exclusive agent of the “saving power” of Christ’s death through time. This dynamic, in place by the third century, set the clear lines that divided the sacred from the profane for western Christendom for millennia … for me and for everyone else.


But it was not always so. Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim is their inspiration, was conspicuous in flouting the customary sacred/profane taboos of the time. In fact, if the gospel accounts can be trusted, it was precisely Jesus’ penchant for disregarding the prohibitions against contact with the profane that was the main cause of contention in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities: he consorted with “tax collectors and prostitutes,” he performed works of healing and condoned his disciples’ gathering grain on the Sabbath, he healed lepers, the possessed, the blind and crippled, a hemorrhaging woman … all of whom were considered unclean, “sinners,” and were to be avoided. Some of the most moving stories about Jesus recounted his characteristic way of treating the “profane” as if they were “sacred:” the story of the prodigal son, the woman taken in adultery, his friendliness with the Samaritan woman at the well, the gentile woman in Sidon who asked him to heal her daughter.

It seems Jesus knew that nothing was profane without having to get there by the “back door” — by way of thinking that nothing was sacred. Everything in his demeanor and what he said indicates that he had a profound understanding of the primordiality and the universality of the sacred. For Jesus, everyone and everything was sacred, nothing was profane.

Some people attribute this to a “special knowledge” he had because he was “God.” But there is nothing in the narratives to indicate that he was telling people something they had never heard of or did not immediately recognize as human and completely familiar. This was not an esoteric “gnosis,” it was the fundamental message that Jesus had gleaned from his formation, life and experience as a Jew who knew the story of his people and the poetry of the prophets who interpreted that story. Jesus had no knowledge that was not available and familiar to all. If there was any source of his simple wisdom outside of his personal experience and family formation, it was the Jewish religion as practiced in Palestine of the first century ce. His vision was entirely human, profoundly human.

The only thing “divine” about him was the depth of his humanity. He was one of us, no more no less. The claim that Jesus was “God” is just another alienating tactic designed to excuse refusal to embrace the natural humanity that we all have. The kind of humanity Jesus was talking about is familiar to us all; and we have all met many people of other traditions and no tradition, who live it with an ease and simple joy that owes nothing to the “sacred” beliefs, rituals and practices hawked by the Catholic Church. Jesus, like any good Jew is a mensch — a human being. That’s all he’s talking about: be a mensch, be what you are. Be a human being. Being a human being means recognizing that being human the way Jesus was human is completely natural; it means living with the understanding that everything is sacred.



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