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Sacred and Profane


The distinction between the sacred and the profane is of prime importance in all religions. Here the nature of these two concepts will be considered, first from the viewpoint of comparative religion, and then as understood in the Bible.

In Comparative Religion. The sacred may be defined most easily as the opposite of the profane, but it must be kept in mind that this distinction is not applicable in the same way in all cultures and stages of culture. Yet even when all necessary attention has been given to cultural elements special to time and place, it is still evident that man, in respect to the phenomenon of religion, exhibits a kind of psychic reaction that is ambivalent. He feels himself drawn to the sacred and, at the same time, he regards the sacred as awe-inspiring or frightening mystery (cf., e.g., Ex 3.5; Lk 5.8). Accordingly, since R. Otto, the sacred has been called a mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum. The rites in the various religions recognize this ambivalence, since they are at once expressions of awe and precautionary measures. Encounter with the sacred is dangerous, and the mingling of the sacred and the profane is avoided everywhere.

Religion as the oldest and most universal phenomenon of mankind is intelligible and explicable only if it is conceived as a reaction of man to a call of the sacred previously made to him. The sacred in the full sense of the word is God. Man understands the sacred as the "wholly Other," and therefore he recognizes himself as a creature dependent and prepared for subjection. At the same time, on the basis of his consciousness of his personality, he feels himself impelled to domination and to initiative action. Man is aware of the sacred, because it manifests itself, appearing in various objects (hierophany), e.g., the firmament, stars, water, trees, vegetation, and stones. These objects are never worshiped in themselves, but always because the sacred reveals itself in them. The sacred stone remains a stone, but through a hierophany it is changed into a supernatural reality for the homo religiosus.

The experience of the sacred is independent of the nature of the object in which it manifests itself, because this experience does not signify a subjective disposition through which the sacred is projected into the objects concerned. The sacred space or area is designated by a hierophany or a theophany (Jgs 6.2426; 2 Sm 24.1625) and must be separated from amorphous profane space (Gn 28.17; Ez 42.20). Sacred time is homogeneous, and profane time, heterogeneous. Accordingly, religious feasts can be repeated at any time and frequently, and their mystery can always be represented again or reenacted. The liturgy of Good Friday, for example, makes possible a participation in the event of the first Good Friday. Christianity differs from all other religions in its evaluation of the sacred. For the Christian there are close connections between sacred and good, religion and morality, God and love. He knows no ambivalent attitude toward the sacred. Vacillation between fear and love has its source only in the conscience of the individual; the fear of God signifies reverence exclusively, and not an existential anxiety.

The sacred has a thoroughly personal character, for the sacredness of objects, places, and actions is constituted by their concrete relation to sacred persons, and ultimately, always to God.

Bibliography: r. otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. j. w. harvey (2d ed. New York 1958). m. eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, tr. w. r. trask (New York 1959); Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958) 137. r. caillois, L'Homme et le Sacré (2d ed. Paris 1953). b. hÄring, Das Heilige und das Gute (Freiburg 1950). o. schilling, Das Heilige und Gute im A.T. (Leipzig 1956). j. dillersberger, Das Heilige im N.T. (Kufstein 1926).

[w. j. kornfeld]

In the Bible. The original Hebrew word expressed by holy or sacred is qādôš (holy; qōdeš, holiness), with the general meaning of separated or removed from the profane or unclean and destined for God's service. Profane (ōl ) is derived from a root that means permissible for ordinary use. Thus the profane is accessible to all, whereas the sacred is removed from common use.

According to Lv 10.10, priests are to distinguish between sacred and profane, clean and unclean. A person or thing is sacred according to its proximity to Yahweh Himself. Unlike other religions, the OT religion proposes Yahweh as "the holy One of Israel." He is the entirely Other, superior to all, inaccessible to the created world (1 Sm 6.20). The angels are the holy ones of God's court, reserved for His service. Priests who serve His sanctuary are holy (Lv ch. 21).

To be sacred is, in an active sense, to keep oneself free from impurities, and passively, to be set apart as something to be revered. The priest's clothing is sacred (Ex 28.43; Nm 8.7; Ex 29.29; 31.10). The priest's offering is sacred (Lv 6.1011). Such sacredness is a "state" or "condition" from which men emerge to reenter normal life.

Israel as a nation is holy (Ex 19.5) because Yahweh has chosen it to be "His own" (Lv 20.26; Dt 7.6; Jer 2.3). The land of Israel is holy because it is Yahweh's abode (Hos 8.1; 9.15; 4 Kgs 5.17; Zec 2.16; 2 Mc 1.7); Jerusalem and the Temple are holy (Is 52.1; 3 Kgs 9.3); the dwelling is approachable only by Levites (Nm 1.51); and the ark is untouchable (Lv 16.12). To approach the sanctuary or altar in an unclean state is to profane things sacred to Yahweh (Lv 21.23). Times also are sacred. Working on the Sabbath desecrates it (Ex 31.14; Ez 20.13).

The distinction between sacred and profane reaches God Himself. Yahweh is profaned when something sacred to Him or His holy name is profaned (Lv 22.2; Mal 1.12). His name is profaned by the sacrificing of children to Moloch (Lv 18.21) and by idolatry (Ez 20.40). Yahweh is depicted as profaning His heritage (Is 48.6), His sanctuary (Ez 24.21), and His holy gates (Is 43.28). Profane is used as synonymous with and parallel to unclean (Ez 22.26; Lv 10.10).

In the NT the ritualistic distinction between the profane and the sacred is abolished (Mk 7.15; Acts 10.15, 28; Rom 14.14). Christ (Mt 15.1120) and His Spirit (Acts ch. 1011) convinced the Apostles that what profanes man is moral impurity.

See Also: holiness (in the bible); pure and impure; sin (in the bible).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 101218; 192728. j. muilenburg, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 2:616625. l. e. toombs, ibid. 3:893.

[j. lachowski]

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