Famous sociologist Mircea Eliade coined the term homo religiosus to describe a kind of person who shares particular attitudes with all people of faith.
In the previous post we discussed Eliade’s four similarities among world religions and how to find a reasonable explanation for this remarkable phenomenon among utterly diverse cultures throughout history.
(If you want an in-depth understanding of the theory of homo religiosus and its background, you should take a moment to read over the previous post.)
We now move into the interior domain of the people who participate in these religions (whom Eliade terms homo religiosus).
Do the similarities among world religions indicate a concomitant similarity among religious people? Eliade is convinced that they do:
…Religious man assumes a particular and characteristic mode of existence in the world and, despite the great number of historico-religious forms, this characteristic mode is always recognizable.
Whatever the historical context in which he is placed, homo religiosus always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potentialities in proportion as it is religious – that is, participates in reality.
The gods created man and the world, the culture heroes completed Creation, and the history of all these divine and semidivine works is preserved in the myths. By reactualizing sacred history, by imitating the divine behavior, man puts and keeps himself close to the gods – that is, in the real and significant.
Where did this common, interior religious disposition come from?
Did it come from the teaching of religious people within an already formed religious community, or rather did it come from something within homo religiosus himself — which he brought to the community of belief?
Religious communities teach lessons and doctrines to their adherents – how their religious rituals function, the details of the myths, the meaning of various symbols, colors, and actions, the sacredness of particular places and times, etc.
Yet Eliade believes that this alone cannot make a religion.
There must be people who are aware of the sacred, desire it, are passionate about it, and are fulfilled by it.
They must also be capable of understanding the significance of sacred time, sacred place, sacred myth, sacred ritual, and sacred symbol.
If these interior dispositions were not antecedently present, traditional man would never have sought out religion and would certainly not have made it his center of meaning and the source of reality.
Without an awareness of and desire for the sacred (transcendent reality), traditional man would have found a substitute for the center of significance and source of reality – perhaps food, shelter, procreation, manhood, womanhood, knowledge, practical skills, etc.
No intelligent being will place something unintelligible and undesired at the center of meaning and reality.
In light of this, it is likely that homo religiosus did not acquire his awareness of and desire for the sacred transcendent reality from a religious cult or community.
If he did not have an antecedent desire to connect with the transcendent reality, he would have been indifferent to sacred cult and community – like children who are indifferent to anything whose value they do not comprehend.
In contrast, homo religiosus is attracted to, fascinated by, and fulfilled by the sacred, re-presented in religious rituals and myths.
He seeks out and participates in sacred ritual because he is aware of the sacred and understands its central significance in his life.
Here, we turn to the work of another sociologist, Rudolf Otto.
Otto identified and described a phenomenon he called the numinous experience, which is separated into two “poles.”
The first pole corresponds to the sense of mystery, awesomeness, Otherness, uncontrollableness, and dauntingness arising out of a sense of the transcendent Other’s power, majesty, and glory.
The second pole, on the other hand, is associated with a sense of fascination with, desire for, and passion for the transcendent reality arising out of a sense of its goodness and care.
Can this irreducible experience of the numen explain homo religiosus’ awareness of and desire for the sacred — his belief in the absolute goodness and truth of the sacred reality; his belief that the sacred reality broke into the profane world to connect with humanity; and his fascination with sacred place, time, myth, and symbol?
In fact, the numinous experience cannot explain the four-fold content of the religious intuition – it is, in the end, merely another way of describing that intuition.
However, it can explain why human beings have a sense of transcendent reality that causes them to passionately desire and seek it in sacred places, rituals, myths, and symbols.
If Otto’s numinous experience does not provide the awareness, desire, and passionate pursuit of the sacred in religious community, places, myths, rituals, and symbols, then what does?
What else could explain the common human desire for, interest in, and passion about the sacred?
What else could provoke human beings to surrender individually and collectively to a non-empirical reality?
What else could provoke human beings to place such a reality at the center of their individual and collective universe?
What else could ground homo religiosus’ belief in the significance of sacred place, time, myth, ritual, and symbol when these realities are so much less obvious than the profane ones?
Merely natural explanations fall far short of what is needed to explain this most peculiar common desire to invest ultimate significance and reality in what is invisible, out of reach, wholly Other, and uncontrollable.
If no alternative explanation can be found, then it is likely that our inner experience of the numen (transcendent reality) has incited our interest in, desire for, fascination with, and surrender to the sacred.
Yet, the numinous experience does not account for everything in the religious intuition of homo religiosus.
Though it is the source of the feeling-contents of the transcendent reality’s presence (as mysterious, daunting, fascinating, good, and “wholly Other”), it does not explain the common cross-cultural belief of homo religiosus in an appearance of the sacred (transcendent reality) in the world at a particular place and time, or the sanctification of the world and individuals through that appearance, or the power of ritual and myth to re-actualize this appearance and sanctification.
This additional intuition of the sacred-transcendent reality’s presence and sanctification provides the impetus to move from the numinous experience to religion – that is, religious community and expression that seeks the transcendent reality in sacred places, rituals, myths, and symbols.
Thus it seems that the sacred (transcendent reality) manifests itself in an additional way – in an intuitive way — building upon the numinous manifestation of itself — to incite us to look for hierophany, to form religious community around it and to be fulfilled by it.
Henceforth I will call this additional intuitive manifestation of the transcendent reality, “the religious intuition.”
The coincidence of Otto’s and Eliade’s research has a mutually corroborative effect, because they come from different data sets – Otto’s from the study of the common interior spiritual experience of individuals and Eliade’s from the study of the common beliefs and expressions of world religions.
When two distinct data sets connect causally it enhances the probative force of both and provides a broader and deeper explanation of our relationship to the transcendent.