The night before the National Media Prayer Breakfast, I checked into a hotel by the airport and settled down with a book I’d bought the previous day at a used bookstore in Salem, Oregon. It was The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion: The Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual Within Life and Culture, by Mircea Eliade, originally published by Rowolhlt Taschenbuc Verlag GmbH in 1957, translated from “the French” by Willard R. Trask and published in the U.S. by Harcourt in 1959. I had no doubt it was an absurd book. Indeed, I had been told as much by serious scholars of religion, men and women attuned to the subtleties of philology and semiotics and anthropological discourse, smart people who had told me that Eliade’s work had been denounced as colonialist, orientalist, generalist’s fiction. I could have guessed as much from the cover, to which great care had been devoted by Harcourt. It was white, weathered to cream by lonely years on the used bookstore’s shelves. The title was spelled out in slender but sturdy sans serif script, emblazoned across the belly of an abstracted, rubenesque lady angel drawn in a flurry of red and brown lines, as if she were a sculpture made of wire. She was an enticing figure, meant to seduce in a day when a book such as this would have been on display in a town such as Salem; when the colonialist, orientalist, generalist’s broad strokes of great thinkers such as Eliade were considered fit fare for small town burghers; when the local minister might thread an allusion, or a whole cloth quotation, from such learned pages into his Sunday sermon… “‘Thus,’ Professor Mircea Eliade, Chairman of the Department of History of Religions at the University of Chicago reminds us, ‘it is easy’ [here the pastor must pause, to alert his listeners to their own intellectual strengths] ‘to understand that religious man deeply desires to be, to participate in reality, to be saturated with power.’”
“Religious man.” Such phrasing makes me think of a neanderthal dragging behind him a dead antelope slated for sacrifice. For that phrase alone, Eliade might have been cast into the outer rings of academe. Not for its inherent sexism, the reaction to which within academe is much overestimated by those without; but for the blunt broadness of the phrase’s taxonomy; for proposing “religious man” as a species. Eliade was, in fact, too clever to commit such a crime without qualification, but in his correction he sins just as grandly, by claiming that we are all, each and every one, an example of “religious man,” and that proof of our identity is found in our varied beliefs that we live in a “world” of any kind. The concept of “world,” preaches Eliade, arises from a religious impulse to make order, to name, and by doing so, to “create.” The results give birth to the division between sacred and profane, the former that which allows communication with gods—by necessity ordered and named and thus religious—the latter that which does not—disorder, unnamed, distant, and other.
Yes, this is a broad generalization, as untrue as it is true, misapplied in as many situations as it would be aptly deployed. And here is another generalization: Eliade’s great swathes of descriptive ordering, naming, and creating once found a popular audience because they fit so well the giant leaps of deduction and inference made by American Christians, a genus of many species, nearly all marked by the paradoxical and proud truth of two unique claims to universality, Christianity and Americanness. Eliade wrote for “educated people”; but in theme if not form, his work endures in the lives of a subset of believing people, those who believe in marking, for better and usually worse, the boundaries between sacred and profane.
I fell asleep with Eliade’s angel’s wire wings spread across my face. Then I snorted awake when I’d exhausted the oxygen beneath the tent of her pages, rolled over, and went to sleep dreaming, literally, of prayer and bacon.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).