Sacred and Profane

Jesus lived happily ever after in Japan because Isukiri took his place on the cross

Jesus lived happily ever after in Japan because Isukiri took his place on the cross

“The Sacred and the Profane” is a dichotomy used by scholars who study religions as a handy tool to categorise the religious realm in clear-cut terms.

We think we know what we mean by Profane: It’s related to every day life, so we don’t have to treat it respectfully).

The Sacred is different: It is special and it involves doing extra-ordinary things, so you’d better watch your mouth (no profanities!) when you talk about the Sacred.

However, these meanings are not as easy-to-grasp as they seem.

What do we mean by Sacred and Profane (pro – fanum in-Front-of-the-Temple, so not inside) in a non-Indo-European language? Would they be translatable?

Let’s look at what has been done using NSM (the Natural Semantic Metalanguage) in explaining God’s power in Ewe (a language spoken in Ghana and Togo):

Máwú se ú!

I now know this: something good happened to you
I think you feel something good because it happened
I feel something good because of this
I want you to know this
everyone knows good things like this don’t happen to people
if a being of another kind does not do something

because of all this I say:

         God is strong (God can do many things, people can’t do these things)

everyone knows it is good if people say these words when something good happens

(Goddard & Wierzbicka, 1997: 250-251.)

This (Sacred) somebody is not like everybody else, like people.

It’s something else or somebody else. Which one is it?

The guy with a long white beard? The snake? The tree? The river? The ocean? The turtle

The Sacred is the Other, about whom I think like this:

I want to spend a long time doing something about this someone else.

Religion involves spending some time doing something: praying, going to church, genuflecting n times a day, washing in a certain manner, keeping a certain style of hair, and so on.

How much time you spent on it shows how much closer this something else is to what you consider Sacred.

Should you spend a long time thinking about soccer [hello reader from Brasil], this fairly mundane sport may acquire some dimensions of the Sacred. How is the Sacred different from football? Well, obviously, for most people football is something of this world: You can see it.

However, this (overstretched) analogy shows us that a lot of people would rather watch than do what this someone else [=their favourite player] does.

More people prefer to be watchers rather than doers.

Do we see the same phenomenon in that many people admire Jesus, but few people do as he did?

“The Sacred and the Profane”

  1. the first difference is time;
  2. the second difference is that it is something else, different from ordinary reality.

At any moment of our lives, we could be struck down, by divinity or by accident, depends on what you believe. We could die and then the question is:

How much time did we spend in (with? for?) the Sacred and how much time did you spend in (with? for?) the Profane?

Is the family sacred to you? What else is sacred to you? Your country? Your people? Your belief itself? Your truth?

What is true? What is good?

The Sacred has to be good; you have to think about this something else as something good, and we get to the third difference. The Sacred is something very good.

The third difference has a very important consequence:

We condemn anybody who thinks about something else different from the something else that we think of.

This person appears to be willingly ignoring the Good.

Do we allow other persons the freedom to ignore what we think is Good?

Do we mind? Do we resent the fact that they like something else that they think is Good, but they don’t like our something else which we think is Good?

What is sacred for kaizen (改善) is the Change-into-Good, into a version of the Sacred that is

  1. wide enough to accommodate everybody else, and (at the same time)
  2. narrow enough to discount a lot of bad ideas about the Sacred (for example, the claim that our group has been “chosen” over others by the Sacred).


Goddard, Cliff and Anna Wierzbicka, 1997. ‘Discourse and Culture’. In Teun A. van Dijk (ed.), Discourse as Social Interaction. London: Sage Publications, pp 231-259.

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