One semester in REL 101 I told students that I would perform a “ritual” with them, whereby I would make “the Sacred” manifest itself. My ritual supplies included a bowl of water, a glue stick, a lighter, and some square, rectangular, and long strips of white, green, red, and blue paper.
I began the ritual by gluing together strips of paper into various shapes, and then having students come up in turns and either tear my creation into pieces or burn it with the lighter (and then toss it in the water to avoid tripping smoke alarms).
We repeated these steps of the ritual five or six times, until I glued together red, white, and blue pieces of paper such that they vaguely resembled an American flag. Apparently “the Sacred” had appeared, as no student would tear or burn (dare I say “profane”?) the ritual creation. Apparently we were successful in forcing a hierophany.
Less sophisticated reasons for the exercise included the following:
- It was fun watching students try to figure out what the heck I was doing.
- It was fun to play with fire.
- I’m a jerk and enjoy satirizing Eliade.
But there are more sophisticated, Durkheimean reasons for the exercise. I explained to students that:
- There’s nothing necessarily mysterious or supernatural about those cultural institutions we call religions—holding symbols or practices as “sacred” is par for the course for pretty much any social collective.
- Those cultural institutions we call religious seem functionally identical to those cultural institutions called nationalisms, despite many attempts to render the former as unique, distinct, or sui generis.
Those of you in the US, be on the lookout for appearances of “the Sacred” on this high holy day of American nationalism …