Mircea Eliade, a sociologist who conducted an in-depth, years long study of world religions, determined several basic similarities among religions.  He uses two major concepts to organize the common cross-cultural elements of religious expression:

  1. ‘hierophany’
  2. ‘homo religiosus’

A brief explanation of each from his seminal work The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion will help to elaborate his theory.

“Hierophany” — from Greek — means “appearance of the sacred.”

An Appearance of the Sacred: the Hierophany

It expands the more common term theophany (“an appearance of God”) to include all world religions.

All world religions are based on a belief that transcendent reality (whether it be God or gods or a quasi-personal force) has broken into the world, bringing with it sacredness or holiness (transcendent goodness, power, and beauty) splitting the world into two parts – “the sacred” (connected to transcendent reality) and “the profane” (not connected to transcendent reality).

Eliade described this universal dimension of hierophanies as follows:

It could be said that the history of religions – from the most primitive to the most highly developed – is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realties.

From the most elementary hierophany – e.g. manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree – to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.

Every religion identifies a place and a time (or places and times) when the transcendent breaks into the world (and world history). When it does, it makes holy or sacred the place and the time of the “breakthrough.”

The sacred place does not simply remind (mentally) religious people about the “breakthrough,” it retains its sacredness, so that pilgrims who come to it can continue to have an experience of the transcendent which sanctifies them.

A Sacred Place - similarities among religions

Thus pilgrims actually experience the sacred at the place where the transcendent reality appeared. In primitive religions,  villages have centers which imitate a place of sacredness, and then extend out from that center. Eliade notes in this regard:

…Settling in a territory reiterates the cosmogony. Now that the cosmogonic  value of the Center has become clear, we can still better understand why every human establishment repeats the creation of the world from a central point (the navel).

Just as the universe unfolds from a center and stretches out toward the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection.

The creation or origin story provides an ideal model of place that when imitated sacralizes villages, temples and homes. According to Eliade:

…religious architecture simply took over and developed the cosmological symbolism already present in the structure of primitive habitations. In its turn, the human habitation has been chronologically preceded by the provisionally consecrated and cosmicized…

All symbols and rituals having to do with temples, cities, and houses are finally derived from the primary experience of sacred space.

In virtually every culture, the hierophany not only sacralizes space and place, but also time. The time of the hierophany is the origin or creation of reality. It is the sacred time, and like sacred places has the capacity to sacralize people who enter into it.

But how can a religious person enter into the sacred time (the time of origin or creation)? With every elapsed moment of time, we pull further away from the sacred time (origin), and so it would seem that we become more and more profane as history progresses.

A Sacred Place - the hierophany

Eliade discovered that most religions do not have this problem because of their belief in what he terms, “the myth of eternal return.”

For Eliade, “the myth of eternal return” refers to the capacity to return to the time of origin or creation by participating in religious rituals or recounting sacred myths. Sacred rituals are not simply a commemoration or mental remembrance of the sacred origin; they are a reliving or “reactualizing” of it.

As the ritual is celebrated, the participants enter into the sacred time of origin allowing them to connect with the transcendent reality in it.

Continue this topic in the next post: “Common Elements in Cross-Cultural Religious Expression – Part 2”.

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