Old Words for New Times: Hierophany, Science, and Religion

By Adam Frank | March 4, 2008 2:44 pm

Adam FrankTrying to get beyond the traditional science v. religion debate, we have had quite a bit of discussion here about the relevance and resonance of words: Sacred, Spiritual, Religion, Rationality. Today, I want to throw a new term into the mix, one that I discovered while trolling around in the literature of Religious Studies.

Being a scientist, and untrained in the scholarship on human spiritual endeavor, part of my research for my latest book involved making my way through Religion 101. That is where I encountered the extraordinary writings of Mircea Eliade and the heritage of “hierophany.”

Eliade was the doyen of the “Chicago School” of Religious Studies. He was a prodigious writer (anthropology, religious studies, novels, and plays) and was a controversial figure in both his ideas and his politics. Without doubt though he is considered one of the last century’s great thinkers on religion, its forms, and its relevance.

Separating the sacred from profane was crucial for Marcia Eliade. It guided his thinking about religion, and what he called “religious man.” Eliade points to the numinous, that elusive but illuminating ground of religious experience: “The numinous presents itself as something wholly other, something basically and totally different.” This is how he launches his account of religious man’s confrontation with the sacred.

This sense of the “wholly other” is what appears directly in our experience. What matters is how we encounter the scared. It appears, or erupts, into our lives. Thinking about it or theorizing on it misses its essential, living power. Eliade is explicit about definitions, and the idea that there is a fundamental gap that language cannot cross. The experience cannot be distilled into definitions or analytical concepts. Simply put, words fail. “Language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience,” he says. The experience of the world’s sacred character can never be wrapped up and contained—it can only be pointed to through metaphor or analogy.

Eliade offers up a new term, “hierophany,” to designate where and when the sacred erupts into the world. A hierophany is the manifestation of the sacred, the act of its appearance in the world. A hierophany occurs when “something sacred shows itself.” According to Eliade, this process forms the heart of all religious life.

“It could be said that the history of religions—from the most primitive to the most highly developed—is constituted by a great number of hierophanies,” he says. The hierophany is the capacity of the sacred to appear in the midst of the profane. It is the capacity for the world to take on a character that stands apart from petty work-a-day urgencies. For us, the sacred does not have to point to anything supernatural, but instead is a lived experience of the mystery, the open-ended quality at the root of human being.

Science and its fruits can serve, always have served, as hierophanies. We do not explicitly acknowledge them, but they are there. All those Nova specials on Cosmology with their soaring music, all the IMAX science movies with their beautiful graphics and invocation of awe and wonder are designed as hierophanies. All the ways science is brought into the public domain are imbued with an old imperative—to serve as a gateway and bring that elusive “wholly other” quality to the fore. Hierophanies have been part of human experience for 50,000 years since we stumbled into culture and self-consciousness. The aspiration to science, the aspiration to draw closer to the world’s extraordinary harmony and invisible sense of order through science, comes from its capacity to act as a hierophany.

The profane is simply our day-to-day unreflective way of moving through the world. The hierophany is when you suddenly notice, the grand arc of a crow through the winter sky, the pattern of ripples on a sand dune, the ordered anarchy of an ant colony. Science begins there.

I will leave it at that for now. A rich constellation of ideas collects around this term hierophany, and in it I believe there is one new path for thinking about science as a sacred and spiritual endeavor. It is, in a word, useful for going someplace new, interesting, and very necessary.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
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Comments (36)

  1. vel

    what is sacred then? A cow plop may be hierophanous to a Hindu but to me it’s fertilizer.

  2. Mike Gottschalk

    To the extant that I’ve felt a need to ‘fight’ science has been the extant to which science considers the experience you are calling a hierophany a mere fantasy and impossibility. At street level, I hear science’s claims that the real world is only a machine based on Newton’s Physics, and that experiences of aliveness and consciousness serve only as conveniences for talking amongst our illusional selves. The irony is, we can admire everything around us except the only ones on this planet who understand a hierophany. So no Adam, I disagree with you on one point: science’s ‘fruits’ have also gone a long way to dispel the validity and importance of experiencing hierophanies in any meaningful way.

    Btw, I experience myself and my world as an hierophany on a daily basis. And as a religious thinker, I too don’t like the term super natural because the “natural” itself is barely believable; when someone craves the super natural, I question their understanding of ‘god’.

  3. Mike Gottschalk

    @vel: Hopefully vel, you’ll come to appreciate fertilizer too as a kind of hierophany. I’m reminded of a Buddhist koan: Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

  4. PeterS

    Mike, I agree science has done much to reduce our view of the world to a mechanistic one where all runs in an ordered way and all things are explainable; a world where there is no mystery, no sacredness, merely a lack of sufficient knowledge. Coupled with this, because of science’s great effectiveness, is the deep belief that any lack of knowledge or explanation will duly be made up for by further scientific investigation.

    The scientific method requires us to think this way, that there are not unexplainable gaps, that there are no boundaries to our investigative probing. And if we think that way in our work this mindset will inevitably permeate through to the general consciousness, validated by the great success of the scientific method.

    So people like Dennett will postulate consciousness is merely a biochemical phenomena, that religion and religious states are ‘merely’ evolutionary adaptations with survival value. And they should continue to push the scientific boundaries in every area of our experience.

    The casualties of the general adoption of this rationalist worldview have been the more traditional religions and we can see this in declining attendances in western Europe. Their rigid and literalist interpretations of their founding documents prevented them reinterpreting and restating religious belief in a way that made sense to the prevalent rationalist worldview. Remember that this rationalist worldview is seemingly validated by the enormous success of the scientific method.

    The crucial point I am trying to make is that the fault does not lie with science and the “need to fight ‘science'” that you articulate is the wrong response. The important thing for us is to reformulate and reinterpret our beliefs in the ‘sacred’ in a thoughtful way so that they resonate in a society with a prevailing rationalist worldview while being conformant with scientific knowledge. This does not require us to be untrue to ourselves but it does require us, among other things, to discard outdated cultural baggage (such as terminology rooted in pre-industrial culture).

    Adam Frank’s writings are an important example of this process and this is why I follow the discussion so carefully.

  5. Mike Gottschalk

    Peter, I used the word fight because it’s the common stance of the religious side. I put it in quotes because my fight if you will, is not that common stance: in fact, I refuse to enter into a dialogue with anyone who seems more interested in fighting than understanding.

    You are accustomed to hearing debate from the religious side that invests themselves in a world view regardless of facts. I am not that religious thinker. In fact, I may not be religious at all if it means that to be religious is to think in a prescribed way. Yet if my only other choice is to be a scientific thinker, how is this any less prescriptive? And am I willing to b(l)ind myself with any institution that presently exists? Sometimes I feel like a man without a country.

    I find it uncanny how the scientific minded can mimic the religious minded at an existential level, when scientists will only allow their knowing to comprehend reality within their comfort zone. But the great success of science blinds scientists from seeing the shared maladies. If there is a fight on my part, it’s against the blinders- whether religious or scientific- that keep us from not only seeing but experiencing the full range of genius embodied in the human level of order. ( On this site, you don’t get to see me “fight” against the religious blinders where I utilize the understanding derived from science.)

    For the sake of human kind, the scientific method needs to remain intact. Please. It has to. I’m only asking that scientists protect themselves from a meme take over: Human Being is larger than any method.

    Our largeness is based on a true ambiguity: we exist as something that is equally contingent upon physical processes and processes that, for lack of a better word, we call spiritual. I think Maslow’s shape of the triangle to describe human experience is mistaken. More accurately I would utilize the ellipse: the shape based on two necessary points. Our contingency is a polar contingency: eliminate either pole and Human Being disappears.

    The dialogue that I’m interested in, is the one that explores the fulness of Human Being from both of our poles of existence. And thats why Peter, I too am following Adam Frank’s writing, and why I’m enjoying the dialogue with you as well.

    I am not pitched in any battle what so ever. I am not invested in any particular belief whether it stems from science or religion. Further more, I don’t want science to change it’s methods in any way.

  6. I enjoy this discussion but isn’t it clear by now that both religion and science have been manipulated by the powerful to serve their interests against the majority population of all species? That is why I say that it is politics that has shackled both to some degree. Religion first, historically, was used to eliminate most the cultures on the planet along with the knowledge of their ecosystems, their religions etc., for the benefit of power elites bent on social control and who have now enlisted science to that task as well. We all know science is not pure due to the funding methodologies today, don’t we? …controlled again by whom? So knowing that we should be able to get beyond the science/religion debate and realize the people are constantly bamboozled on both fronts. So, I would say it is not science that” lets D-ism be the dominant myth” but the dominant power structure, media etc., right? And similarly religion. The debate itself illustrates this as each holds the other to an older less evolved place. I think evolution will soon bring us to a integrated worldview of science & religion or we will go extinct. It is time to see through the divide and conquer strategies of the social managers, don’t you think?

  7. Mike Gottschalk

    Yes Howard, I whole heartedly agree. And to be fair, I knew the real answer to my above question lay in the hijacking of ideas by social managers as you put it. I was just poking a bit. I must say though, I was rather pleased by my literary form of D-ism to communicate how one doesn’t need god to be religious…. ;)

    Maybe if there is a point that I might make in this moment, it would be that while we can easily talk of the need for new myths, we have myths in place that suffer from our lack of attention. For instance, while some would utilize D-ism from imperialistic motives, I recognize from evolution a greater sense of responsibility: in human being we have a say in the ways we shape our lives together like no other species – ever. What will we do with such power? At least you guys have myth material coined in the modern period. I gotta deal with people’s sense of god -whether on the part of religion or science- that was coined in the time of Ptolemy and that time’s ensuing cosmology.

    Howard and Peter, if I made it sound like I was attacking you or science I certainly apologize. I know if we were face to face, our dialogue could feel rigorous but it would never feel malicious. I’m here to evolve with you guys.

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