Common Elements in Cross-Cultural Religious Expression – Part 3 (II.A: God’s Presence to Our Consciousness)

Eliade made a most remarkable discovery – namely that for more than four millennia, human beings from virtually every culture around the world yearned for and sought the sacred.

In virtually every culture the expression and the fulfillment of that yearning is similar in four general areas:

  1. A belief in the sacred (transcendent reality) in which there is absolute truth and goodness.
  2. The Sacred (transcendent reality) desires to connect with human beings and so enters into the profane world at a particular place. Its entrance into the world is the originative or creative moment. The physical world may have existed before the sacred’s entrance into it, but the world was not significant or real prior to its entrance. Thus for traditional man true reality and meaning began when the sacred reality broke through.
  3. When the sacred reality broke through, it sacralized (made holy) the place and time it entered. When human beings draw close to the place of entrance it makes them holy. Similarly when human beings celebrate the ritual of origin and recount the myth of origin, time collapses, and they re-enter the sacred time of origin again connecting them with the sacred which strengthens them.
  4. The celebration of rituals and recounting of myths not only strengthens the participants but also imparts what Eliade terms “paradigmatic models” – that is lessons about purpose in life, the goods to be pursued, evils to be avoided, the virtues and laws that will help to achieve the good, and the vices that will undermine it. Thus traditional man receives purpose, direction, and virtue from reentering the sacred time through ritual and myth.

The odds of these similarities among the world’s religions occurring by pure chance are exceedingly low, so we must seek an explanatory cause.

What could have produced this four-fold coincidence of religious belief and expression in so many utterly diverse cultures with so many distinct histories?

The sheer variety of communities, cultures, and histories virtually rules out social explanations as a cause of the four common features of religion. In the absence of a social cause, we will have to examine whether there could be a common cause within individual humans beings who participate in very different cultures.

We have already seen one potential candidate for a common cause within a vast majority of individuals – namely Otto’s numinous experience. However, before we can turn to this supernatural interior explanation, we must rule out potential natural (physical) explanations.

Though we cannot completely rule out a natural cause, we can show the vexing questions that natural causes (insofar as they are natural) will be unlikely to answer:

  1. How does a natural (physical) cause produce an awareness of transcendent reality, a desire to draw close to that reality, and a passion to seek it?
  2. How can a natural cause produce a belief that the transcendent reality wants to connect with human kind, and will even “step down” to enter into the profane world to make it sacred for human kind?
  3. How can a natural cause produce a belief that the transcendent reality is absolutely good and possesses absolute truth?
  4. How can a natural cause produce a belief that real meaning – and reality itself – does not come from profane nature, but only from the sacred reality?

Eliade (and his colleagues) never found an adequate answer from the domain of natural causation. As a result, he rejects the possibility of finding such an answer from any secular scientific or social scientific discipline (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.).

Realizing that no combination of natural phenomena could add up to a transnatural or supernatural one, he concluded that the cause must be some irreducible presence of the sacred-transcendent reality within us:

To try to grasp the essence of such a phenomenon (hierophany – the appearance of sacred transcendent reality in the world) by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it – the element of the sacred.

Obviously there are no purely religious phenomena; no phenomenon can be solely and exclusively religious. Because religion is human it must for that very reason be something social, something linguistic, something economic…

But it would be hopeless to try and explain religion in terms of any one of those basic functions which are really no more than another [natural] way of saying what man is.

Next, let’s delve into the concept of Homo Religiosus.

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