The Value of the Sacred

by Dorian Minors

August 24, 2021

Analects  |  Newsletter


At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lies the spiritual ones—to connect with the world, and something greater than ourselves. He describes, in this space, the kinds of ‘peak’ experiences many of us are familiar with—a feeling of euphoria or bliss when encountering an awe-inspiring piece of art or natural vista. If we are familiar with Maslow’s states of transcendence, it implies we are capable of fulfilling our spiritual needs. One then wonders why we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis. I suspect a reason lies in a problematic attitude toward the concept of the sacred.

The sacred isn't a social myth; a delusion of the religious. It is what happens when we bind moments of personal meaning and power to something greater than ourselves. And, without the sacred, we are left unable to transform meaning into purpose.

By the end of his career, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs had become a deeply magnetic model of human growth and potential. We need shelter, safety, belonging, and esteem, and each of these holds less urgency than the next. Insufficient safety will be a far more powerful motivator than insufficient belonging. Too few of any of these deficiency needs, and we would lack the capacity for growth.

But Maslow’s passion was not so much for our mundane needs as for our spiritual needs. Maslow believed that the ultimate peak of the human experience was that of transcendence. Here we were capable of achieving:

the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos

Transcendence, for Maslow, was experienced in the form of ‘peak’ and ‘high plateau’ experiences. The former, states of “highest happiness and fulfillment” with a “special flavour of wonder, of awe”. The latter were states of serenity and calm, characterised by a sense of unity, appreciation, and “cognitive blissfulness”.

These peak experiences are something felt by many. Entering a grand cathedral, or gazing over a natural vista. In the arms of a lover or around the campfire with friends. During the rhythm of meditation or in the flow of creative work. All of these states of mind are familiar to us, if not in practice at least intellectually.

If we are familiar with Maslow’s states of transcendence, it implies we are capable of fulfilling our spiritual needs. One then wonders why we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis or crisis of meaning so prevelant that new economies are being formed to exploit our vulnerability.

We could list some common and intuitive reasons for this. The decline of religiosity, the perverse activity of religious institutions, or the increasing superficiality of growth narratives in the modern media landscape.

But I suspect a more fundamental reason lies beneath these things. A problematic attitude toward the concept of the sacred.

The sacred and the profane

Émile Durkheim established a dichotomy that has both coloured and epitomised the secular ‘western’ relationship to the subject. In his 1912 thesis on the subject Durkheim clearly set out the terms of the sacred and the profane. For Durkheim:

neither man nor nature is inherently sacred

Neither is the sacred something that has been imbued with the ‘divine’. Rather, the sacred is something that is subject to some kind of prohibition that radically distinguishes it from something else. These something elses become, then, the profane.

His core example lies in a study of totemism in some indigenous Australian communities. Durkheim saw clans, or ‘mobs’ as they would call themselves now, who were defined by some relationship between the members and a totemic entity—a local plant or animal for example. This totemic entity was represented by some emblem: a design or mark that could confer ‘sacredness’ on other things.

Among the Arunta, for example, the mark would be placed on various rocks or wooden objects. These objects, or churingas, must then be kept apart from anything untouched by the mark. No profane person could look upon them, only those who had been made sacred by initiation. When not in use they would be hidden away. Those hidden locations would then, by association, become sacred with prohibitions surrounding who could enter the vicinity. Those within the clan would become sacred by virtue of their affiliation with the churingas and the totemic entity with prohibitions around affiliating with other clans. And above all, any physical manifestation of the totemic entity—the plant or animal on which it was based—would be untouchable at the risk of death.

For Durkheim:

religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same space… religious and profane life cannot coexist in the same time

This contagious chain of prohibitions is that which distinguishes the sacred from the profane.

The misdemeanours of the heart

Durkheim very clearly suspects that sacredness comes with a kind of power. The power of some explicit or implicit prohibition on behaviour. For Durkheim, this power was a social power. A force produced by the collective conscious of a community:

They are only collective forces hypostasized, that is to say, moral forces; they are made up of the ideas and sentiments awakened in us by the spectacle of society, and not of sensations coming from the physical world

And it is this, I suspect, that has led us to misunderstand the origin of the sacred. We suspect sacredness comes from socially derived prohibitions on behaviour.

But it probably doesn’t.

In his compilation of lectures on the subject of religious experience, William James’ notes:

It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call “something there,” more deep and more general than any of the special and particular “senses” by which current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.

He calls this sense “an undifferentiated sense of reality”.

In her song C.S. Lewis Song, Brooke Fraser makes the eponymous author’s words quite beautiful:

If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy, I can only conclude that I was not made for here

These kinds of feelings appear unexplained by Durkheim’s thesis. James identified a number of them in his surveys of the religious experience, from the trivial to the profound. For example, déjà vu—something that might make us aware of possibilities beyond our perceptions. Or, another example in what he calls ‘mystical consciousness’, quoting an interviewee:

When I walk the fields, I am oppressed now and then with an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but understand it … and this feeling of being surrounded by truths which I cannot grasp amounts to indescribable awe sometimes

He goes on to speak of the experiences produced by entheogens, including his own on nitrous oxide, which open us up to the notion that:

our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness, as we call it, is but one especial type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different

Before winding up by describing contact with some divine and unifying force, here quoting one interviewee:

I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God

And finally, oneness with that same force:

In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.

Some aspects of religions aren’t communally built. Some aspects of religion are personally felt. More importantly, many aspects of religion can be divorced from these personal feelings. The sacred is not the exclusive province of the community priest.

Hierophanies and Kratophanies

Mircea Eliade also had ideas about the sacred and profane. From his distinct lack of acknowledgement of Durkheim before him, we can assume that Eliade had very different ideas.

In his 1958 work Patterns in Comparative Religion, Eliade’s primary concern is the complexity of historical conceptions of ‘sacredness’:

This choice, even if confined to the major manifestations, is a delicate matter … We are faced with rites, myths, divine forms, sacred and venerated objects, symbols, cosmologies, theologoumena, consecrated men, animals and plants, sacred places, and more. And each category has its own morphology-of a branching and luxuriant richness.

His quest, in this book, was to explore common sacred patterns across religions and across time. To do this he collects hierophanies: manifestations or modalities of the sacred “in the mental world of those who believed in it”.

His explicit intent is to consider all hierophanies for their universal value. Something that is difficult not merely for their number and diversity, but also because:

the Western mind … automatically relates all ideas of the sacred … to certain historical forms of Judaeo-Christian religious life, alien hierophanies must appear largely as aberrations … it is hard to understand the sacred value attached to stones, say, or the mystique of eroticism … And even if he can see some justification for these queer hierophanies … there are [some] the modern man will never come to accept, which he cannot see as having the value of a hierophany at all, in which he can discern no modality of the sacred.

He speaks, for example of the ‘perfect forms’ of the ancient Greeks, or the sacredness of seasons and symbols. He speaks of trying to move beyond modern academic categorisations of “pantheism, fetishism, infantilism”. Instead, by paying attention to “what they actually meant to those who held them, we shall be better able to understand the past and present meaning of the sacred”.

From this perspective we see that “it is quite certain that anything man has ever handled, felt, come in contact with or loved can become a hierophany” and over tens of thousands of years “it seems improbable that there remains anything that has not at some time been so transfigured.”

The question, of course, is if anything can be sacred, how do we tell what is? In contrast to Durkheim’s more rigorous and sharp distinction, Eliade’s reintroduces the uncertainty felt by James’ interviewee:

an innate feeling that everything I see has a meaning, if I could but understand it

Eliade’s answer is a direct riposte to Durkheim and those that followed. For Eliade the dichotomy between sacred and profane is a dialectic—a conversation—between the two kinds of thing. A hierophany is distinguished by the “singling out” of it over something like it. It becomes a hierophany as soon as it ceases to be “a mere profane something”. This implies a choice on our behalf. The choice that this hierophany, for some reason, reveals something more than simply itself. It has meaning beyond what it means.

Eliade, for example, describes that anything:

unusual, unique, new, perfect or monstrous at once becomes imbued with magico-religious powers and an object of veneration or fear according to the circumstances

For example, perfection causes fear in us. Something ‘too good to be true’ feels certain to be followed by something unfortunate—“[p]erfection is not of this world. The “astonishing”, also, is the sign of a force that may be celebrated but may also represent danger. Two yolks in an egg, or two fruits on a stem. Rare, welcome, yet with a hint of unease.

Here, Eliade introduces the concept of the kratophany: a manifestation of power, and with this concept we see the elegance of Eliade’s definition. For Eliade, any kratophany is liable to become a hierophany. By ‘singling out’ something for its influence on the human psyche or on the world—its force or effectiveness—it is likely to become a manifestation of the sacred.

The ‘taboo’ is a clear example of this. An example of Durkheim’s prohibitions, better explained as kratophany:

the elements of the taboo itself are always the same : certain things, or persons, or places belong in some way to a different order of being, and therefore any contact with them will produce an upheaval at the ontological level which might well prove fatal

Or, the peculiarity that, as many scholars have noted:

religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability

William James, Varieties in Religious Experience

Eliade notes “that shamans, sorcerers and medicine men are recruited for preference from among … those who are nervously unbalanced is due to this same value set upon the unaccustomed and the extraordinary.”

But not all kratophanies are hierophanies. Manifestations of power are under no obligation to become manifestations of the sacred. Their sacred character must be proved. This last piece of the sacred puzzle requires that the thing that is singled out, for its unusual character or its power, fit into a broader system:

We find everywhere, even apart from these traces of higher religious forms, a system into which the elementary hierophanies fit. The “system” is always greater than they are: it is made up of all the religious experiences of the tribe ( … kratophanies … totemism … ancestor worship, and much more), but also contains a corpus of traditional theories which cannot be reduced to elementary hierophanies

It is this system, from myths to moral theories, that makes a hierophany. Eliade illustrates with the god Lesa of the Konde:

Anything great of its kind, such as a great ox or even a great he-goat, or any other impressive object, is called Kyala, by which it may be meant that God takes up his abode­ temporarily in these things. When a great storm lashes the lake into fury, God is walking on the face of the waters : when the roar of the waterfall is louder than usual, it is the voice of God. The earthquake is caused by his mighty footstep, and the lightning is Lesa, God coming down in anger. God sometimes comes also in the body of a lion or a snake, and it is in that form he walks about among men to behold their doings

These particular hierophanies are defined by the god which inhabits them.

Eliade also considers the Melanesian concept of mana: a “mysterious but active power which belongs to certain people, and generally to the souls of the dead and all spirits”. The creation of the Cosmos is, for those that believe, a reflection of the great mana of the Creator. A conquered tribe was subjugated because their mana was not strong enough. “Even latrines have a certain mana in that they are ‘receptacles of power’-for human bodies and their excretions have it.”

But mana is only present in the world because it was bestowed. A “thing, a cosmic phenomenon, in fact any being whatever, possesses mana thanks either to the intervention of some spirit, or to getting involved in an epiphany of some divine being”. It is the system that connects those things ‘singled out’ with the sacred.

Things that fill you up

Something like mana exists in an enormous number of cultures. The Orenda of the Iroquis, wakanda of the Sioux, manitou of the Algonquin, zemi of the Carribean, or petara of the Dayak. Eliade notes that “there are those who would place a similar interpretation upon the Indian brahman, the Iranian khvarenah, the Roman imperium, the Nordic hamingja”, or even perhaps the Abrahamic holy spirit.

In Eliade’s conception of the sacred, this pattern of sacredness begins to make sense. We are, each of us, in a constant dialectic between the things in our lives, and the often transient meanings those things may hold for us at a moment in time. What better way to conceptualise such a dialectic than a ‘filling force’? Something that flows into and out of such things as the meaning comes and goes?

A very tangible example of this comes in the form of art. The creative inspiration that inspires us to paint or compose a work of music or film is derived from the meaning some moment or idea holds for us. Our connection to a piece of art or song reflects the truth that it holds for us or the stories that we identify with. It is no wonder then, that history is littered with examples of a ‘filling force’ related to the arts. Think of the notion of the muse, some source of inspiration conceptually derived from the eponymous Greek goddesses. Or consider the Druidic concept of awen, a source of instinctive and poetic knowledge and inspiration.

These meanings are kratophanies—manifestations of power. Such things rarely, however, become hierophanies in a secular-dominant world. Not because they lack the potential, but because they don’t fit into a system.

The meaning in a song arrives, generates emotion, but unanchored by a system of meaning it departs some time later leaving only the memory of its passing. An artwork strikes us and we place it upon our wall, but as time passes it fails to grab our attention and becomes no different from the paint it rests upon.

Similarly, we can understand, for example, the power in the phases of the moon or the changes in the season. But, divorced from the natural world as we tend to be, such things fail to become kratophanies. Or, perhaps they do hold some kind of charismatic power for us but fail to fit within the systems that characterise our lived experience and so fail to become hierophanies.

Our world is filled and refilled with kratophanies, but nothing in particular binds them.

Spiritual miscommunication

The lack of this core feature of hierophany, I suggest, is a core contributor to our modern spiritual crisis. Moments of meaning emerge and dissipate but without a system to uplift these moments into manifestations of the sacred we are left without the tools to continue a dialogue with the meaning. They are isolated, and we are isolated from them. Eliade notes:

one of the major differences separating the people of the early cultures from people today is precisely the utter incapacity of the latter to live their organic life … as a sacrament … for the modern they are simply physiological acts, whereas for primitive man they were sacraments, ceremonies by means of which he communicated with the force which stood for Life itself

The language is, perhaps, romantic. But the impact of such a thing is quite potent. These rites and ceremonies, charged with meaning and bound to some greater whole permit one to approach our lives with purpose. To set us free from our animalistic patterns of automatic thought and behaviour and set us apart from the world, “from the profane, from nothingness”.


Maslow saw in spirituality a set of needs. The highest forms of human experience. For Maslow, these were most obviously characterised by those ‘peak’ and ‘plateau’ moments. Here, by chance or by the imposing force of the environment around us, we become connected to something greater than ourselves. Nature, the cosmos, the realisation that the self we imagine for ourselves has arbitrary boundaries. Whatever we choose to call this thing, it lies there, not far out of reach. And it represents an opportunity for wellbeing that is vastly underutilised. It simply requires us to engage in the dialectic of the sacred and the profane. To elevate our kratophanies into hierophanies. Because:

The great lesson from the true mystics, from the Zen monks, and now also from the Humanistic and Transpersonal psychologists—is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s back yard. (Maslow, 1970, p.85)

You just have to bind them to you.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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