Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane

Dr. Sim Liddon's thoughts on the sacred and the profane have some profound implications for our understanding of psychological reality and our deeper comprehension of a world view as it relates to Islamic Humanism. He draws on the thoughts of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade:


In 1917, Otto published Das Heilige (The Sacred), which has been acclaimed even to this day for its description of the frightening experience of feeling the presence of "the sacred" or "the holy." In this situation one experiences something totally different from that of the reality reflected through the senses, for one "knows" or experiences one's self to be in the presence of something "supernatural." The experience is characterized by Otto as (a) terrifying to an extreme degree and (b) giving the individual the impression that he is the presence of something wholly separate from himself, called by Otto the wholly other." For people living in the modern world of "natural" events, this process of "knowing" the reality of something unseen and supernatural is difficult to grasp. However, the accounts in the previous chapters on the beliefs of the primitives can give an appreciation of this phenomenon. From an examination of this literature it is clear that for those experiencing the "wholly other," the unseen and "supernatural" world is as real as the experience of the reality of the "natural" world, and yet it is totally different.

Otto described the feeling of trembling, awe, mystery, and fascination when feeling one's self to be in the presence of 'the Divine," and he interpreted this experience as being induced by a divine power (more precisely, the experience is induced by the revelation of divine power). Otto maintained that this experience is at the very heart of religion and has been its essence throughout history.. This is true not only for religion as we know it today but also during its evolutionary stages.

"It must be admitted that when religious evolution first begins sundry curious phenomena confront us, preliminary to religion proper and deeply affecting its subsequent course. Such are the notions "clean: and "unclean," belief in or worship of the dead, belief in or worship of "souls" or "spirits," magic, fairy tales, myths, homage to natural objects, whether frightful or extraordinary, noxious or advantageous, the strange idea of "power' (Orenda or Manali), fetishism and totemism, worship of animals and plants and demonism and polydemonism. Different as these things are, they are all haunted by a common (element) which is easily identifiable." (Otto 1982, p. 116)

The common element is of course the terrifying and awful experience of the "wholly other," the "sacred." Moreover, this experiencing of an unseen power (or witch or god) as wholly separate and distinct from one's self is, Otto maintained, evidence of the "actual existence" of an unseen "holy" presence, the Divine. Just as one's feeling of beauty arises in part as a reflection of the actual existence of something beautiful, this feeling of the presence of a Divine power is for Otto a reflection of the "actual existence" of an unseen but Divine reality. Such an interpretation is of course open to question, for the phenomenon could just as easily be seen as an experiential phenomenon of the believer himself, as an aspect of the "state of believing," needing no other reference point as such. In this case the emphasis would be placed upon the act of believing in the same way that, in the previous chapter, one might understand the native's "belief" in the reality of witches not to be supportive of the existence of the witches per se, but due to the inability of the primitive to distinguish between "objects" and ideas, "things" and images, so that an idea or image is experienced as real and as an object.

Otto himself recognized this, in a sense. In fact, he argued that the belief in the actual existence of demons and witches was a result of experiencing "the demonic." It was, he maintained, a "rationalization" of the feelings of awe and dread related to experiencing the "wholly other." However, he failed to use the same logic to conclude that the modern belief in God is likewise a "rationalization," perhaps of love, concern, and affection for those who deity is a loving God. Instead, for Otto the experience of feeling one's self to be in the presence of the "Supreme and Sublime Deity" was evidence of the actual existence of the Divine and was no mere "rationalization," no mere mental phenomenon due to the nature of a particular mode of believing. Furthermore, individuals capable of such experiences, as was true for Otto himself, possessed the faculty of "divination."

It is precisely at this point where religion diverges from psychology as a science. This is important if one is to understand "believing" (including religious "believing"), in terms of the human being instead of Something or Someone "out there," instead of something "wholly other." Such an approach must conclude that one's belief in God is in fact a rationalization, an objectification of those feelings one attributes to God. This is the kind of language psychology must use, and the individual is the kind of reference point upon which a psychology must be based. However, it would seem to us a bit reductionistic to leave it at that, for a psychology must be open to new and different possibilities, even the possibility that there is more to "God" than merely the rationalization of feelings.

Psychology itself cannot disprove that there is Something or Someone "out there," but as a branch of science it must assume a different perspective. While religion finds it in the nature of the "supernatural" experience itself that one need look no further for understanding, psychology must focus on the experience of the individual and place this phenomenon into a context of understanding that does not assume supernatural realities. Moreover, even if religion's assertions are assumed to be true, it will only gain from psychology's efforts, for the comfort and reassurance that religion has to offer will only be enhanced by its integration with a broader and more flexible understanding.

Be that as it may, one cannot minimize the importance of Otto and his description of the individual's experience of "the sacred," for it is clear that this experience has been of utmost importance throughout the history of religion. For religious scholars this comes as no revelation; but for most of us who have lived a "profane" life and have not been familiar with the experience of the "sacred," the identification of this experience as the sine qua non of religions offers a new insight and a new way of understanding at least some aspects of religious phenomena. For instance, another religious scholar, Eliade, in his book The Sacred and the Profane, echoed the same point made by Otto.

"It could be said that the history of religion - from the most primitive to the most highly developed - is constituted by a great number...of...manifestations of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree - to the supreme (which for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no dissolution of continuity. In each case we are confronted by the same mysterious act - the manifestation of something a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane world."

The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred. He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example. But...what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because something that is no longer stone or tree but sacred ("wholly other")." (Eliade 1959, pp. 11-12)

Eliade then goes on to elaborate on the idea that throughout the ages the hallmark of religion has been this phenomenon of experiencing something "wholly other" as an unseen reality, the experience of the sacred or Divine as manifesting itself in the natural world. Whereas modern individuals consider such acts as eating, having sex, hunting, crossing a stream, planting corn, etc, as only behavioral acts, for the primitive these acts became "a sacrament...a communion with the sacred" (Eliade 1959, p. 14). The primitive lived in a "sacralized cosmos." According to this view, the essential difference between the mind of modern man and that of the primitive is this existential mode of being in the world. Thus "the sacred" and "the profane" become two modes of "being in the world," two modes of believing and viewing reality. And the same mode of "being in" and viewing the world that was true of the primitive can be seen as characterizing religious experience throughout the course of history.

This point, which Otto and Eliade make, is pivotal in examining the relationship between bimodal mental processing and at least some aspects of religion; so let us look at it more closely. First Otto and Eliade observe, from examining written and oral accounts, that the history of religion is the history of experiencing the feeling of being in the presence of sacred, unseen realities or entities. Second they assume the existence of the latter.

The radically different approach of psychology can agree with their observation but not endorse their assumption. From a psychological perspective, the observed phenomenon can be seen as an expression, not of some assumed deity but of the individual's state of believing. A feeling is symbolized by an image, as a feeling of fear is symbolized by the image of a witch, and in this mode of believing no distinction is made between the image and the external reality. We have termed the inability to separate the symbol from that for which it stands as "adifferentiation," and we have used the term "objectification" for the experience of feeling a mental image to be thee "outside," objective world.

I suggest that because of adifferentiation and objectification the symbolized feelings are experienced not as mental phenomena but as objects in the objective world. Conceptualizing this as a psychological process rather than as evidence of a supernatural entity turns us toward the individual and away from speculations about unseen realities. It allows us to examine some aspects or phenomena of personal religion, not in terms of supernatural entities but as products of a particular mode of believing, and in terms of reasoned concepts acceptable to psychology and science in general.

In spite of the fact that a modern psychological perspective might interpret Otto differently, his work remains a landmark in the examination of religious experience. He considered himself to be working within the psychology of religion, and in this capacity he was unique for his time. Working at a time when psychology was beginning to look more carefully at the phenomenon of the human religious experience, Otto's work was important in that his was the first to look carefully at the different parameters of experiencing "the sacred" and to identify clearly "the wholly other." As such his work is important, for it allows us to identify what has been the hallmark of religious experience throughout the ages. If we focus on his observations and descriptions instead of his conclusions, we become aware that a predominance of the gestalt mode of processing and the experiences of adifferentiation and objectification has been characteristic of personal religious experience throughout history, resulting in the sine qua non of religion, the feeling of being in the presence of unseen powers and entities, the experience of feeling the reality of the "wholly other." Liddon, 1989, pp. 132-138).

~Excerpted from "The Dual Brain, Religion and the Unconscious" by Sim C. Liddon, M.D.

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