Mircea Eliade

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion

Review by Thomas D. Carroll, 2002

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt & Brace, 1959.

It is daunting to consider the many standpoints from which one could approach a review of this classic introductory text in the study of religions. This review examines how Eliade deals with the category of religious experience. Eliade’s discussion of religious experience reveals interesting connections with the perennialism/contextualism debates. It would seem with respect to the issue of the nature of religious experience that Eliade is something of a weak perennialist. Rather than arguing or supposing that all religious or mystical experiences encounter the same reality (perennialism), Eliade would argue that experience of the sacred is a natural part of human experience (what I will call weak perennialism) Consider the following expression of Eliade’s views:

[T]here are differences in religious experience explained by differences in economy, culture, and social organization—in short, by history. Nevertheless, between the nomadic hunters and the sedentary cultivators there is a similarity in behavior that seems to us infinitely more important than their differences: both live in a sacralized cosmos, both share in a cosmic sacrality manifested equally in the animal world and in the vegetable world. (p. 17).

 Eliade sees his work as continuing the project begun by Rudolf Otto in Das Heilige. Eliade seeks to explore the explanatory power of Otto’s analysis of religious experience. In particular, Eliade is concerned with showing how helpful the idea of religious experience as the awe-inspiring and terrifying encounter with the wholly other is in exploring the religious significance of natural objects, life processes, sacred space (religious sites), and sacred time (religious rituals). A particular virtue of Eliade’s approach is its integration of ‘ordinary’ religious experience and ‘extraordinary’ or abnormal experience into one overall view of religious experience.

Eliade’s theory is reductionist (as are all theories in relation to their phenomena). He seeks to show how any of a number of religious experiences or activities symbolize the encounter of a people with the wholly other (a.k.a. the sacred). Perhaps this is one difference between contextualists and perennialists with respect to religious experience. A major difference between Eliade and some of the contextualists who came after him is that Eliade clearly believes the encounter with the sacred to be a regular (even, natural) aspect of human life. It is not so much that contextualists would reject this view as much as they would abstain from generalizing about human nature. With that in mind, he concludes the book with some reflection on the ubiquity of pseudo-religious experiences among the nonreligious (thus displaying significant explanatory power with his theory). In the case of this text, Eliade uses a weak form of perennialism to develop his theory of religious experience. Agree with him or not, one ought to admire how useful his theory is.