The Real and the Significant

In “Human Existence and Sanctified Life,”[i] in particular as it relates to the modern world, Mircea Eliade seems to be suggesting that modern man, insomuch as he has become nonreligious to an extent not previously seen throughout history, is engaged in pointlessly denying something that is still fundamental to his being: his own religious instinct. For Eliade, the profane man “forms himself by a series of denials and refusals, but he continues to be haunted by the realities that he has refused and denied” (Eliade, 204). Implicit then in Eliade’s argument is that there is something very real behind historical man’s religious behavior. Modern man, insofar as he has become nonreligious, can only be denying the existence of something that is in fact really there, not unlike the manner in which many so-called “closet” homosexuals deny their own true sexuality and continue to falsely act and live out their lives as though they were of a different sexual orientation.

What then can be understood of the realities that form the object of the profane man’s denial in Eliade’s theory, and how did Eliade conclude upon the existence of such realities? The “realities” that Eliade is alluding to, the trans-human meanings associated with sacred attitudes and beliefs, are not be strictly defined by Eliade, but there seems to be little doubt to Eliade that those meanings do in any case have ontological status. Eliade in fact frequently associates religion with meaning: in his analysis of the behaviors and attitudes proper to homo religiosus, Eliade concludes that “by reactualizing sacred history, by imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods – that is, in the real and the significant  (my emphasis) (Eliade, 202).” Although he does not spell it out in this chapter of his book, by associating man’s religious behavior in this way with “the real and the significant” it would seem that Eliade at some point in the course of his research was led to the profound conclusion that religion is not merely a fictitious product of the human imagination. By associating religious behavior with the terms “meaning,” “real” and “significant,” Eliade is implicitly suggesting that the religious man somehow possesses a level of understanding of the world not accessible to the profane man, a “superior” understanding of sorts. Although Eliade states that the “existential choice” (Eliade, 203) of the non-religious man is “not without its greatness,” he also at the same time refers to this non-religious existence as “tragic.” And while Eliade is careful not to go beyond describing the idea of an absolute reality as an object of belief for homo religioso, that is to say, something of an unconfirmed truth, he assigns to this belief the function of making the world real for homo religioso (Eliade, 203), once again associating the sacred with the real. 

Furthermore, in describing the nonreligious man’s descent from homo religioso as a “process of desacralization” (Eliade, 203), Eliade contends that nonreligious man is merely “opposing his predecessor,” that is to say homo religioso, and that this amounts to merely a denial of man’s sacred history. Eliade goes on further to say that the religious behavior of the nonreligious man’s ancestors are “still emotionally present to him, in one form or another, ready to be reactualized in his deepest being” (Eliade, 204). But even if this is indeed the case, given the shear magnitude and relative success rate of the process of desacralization observable in modern society, one might wonder for how much longer the non-religious man’s psyche will continue to house these deep-seeded religious impulses? In hypothesizing favorably in this way about the future prospects of modern man’s spiritual tendency and in assuming that such a tendency can be disguised but not altogether extinguished, can Eliade not himself be understood as ultimately having a certain belief regarding the root or origin of the emotional spark that drives man’s religious imagination? Eliade cites New Year celebrations and marriage ceremonies as evidence that even the nonreligious man continues to engage in religious behavior. According the Eliade, “the majority of the “irreligious” still behave religiously, even though they are not aware of the fact” (Eliade, 205). But what religious meaning can these forms of “merrymaking” really have for the nonreligious man who does not engage in them specifically to acknowledge their religious meaning?  How can Eliade objectively conclude on a scientific (or strictly logical) basis that there is any sacred substance to these behaviors of non-religious men?

[i] Mircea Eleade, The Sacred and the Profane :  The Nature of Religion (San Diego : A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1959), pp. 162-213.


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