In his authoritative book on the subject of what is “sacred,” Mircea Eliade begins by defining the sacred as “the opposite of the profane.”[1] Eliade elaborates that, “The sacred always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ realities.”[2] He points out that both “sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history.” [3]

This definition is certainly broad, and rather meaningless without a definition of “the profane.” Although not supplied in this book, the common dictionary definition of the profane is, “not concerned with religion or religious purposes.” [4] This too is lacking as it leaves open what is within “religion” or “religious.” The following definitions are helpful. Religion is “a … system of religious beliefs;” “religious” is “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.” [5] So, anything pertaining to a deity, or more broadly an “ultimate reality,” is “sacred.”

Using this definition, it can be argued that everyone has some aspect of their life they consider sacred. It sums up the human reality that not everyone values everything equally. For example, one person may consider very good food “sacred” and be willing to make certain sacrifices in its pursuit. To someone else, this pursuit of food may be ludicrous because, after all, it is just food.

Under this broad definition, then, everyone experiences the sacred. [6] According to Eliade, “Even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world.” [7] For example, certain places will develop special meaning to an individual during his or her lifetime. This might be a birthplace, hometown, or the first foreign town or country one visits or some monument therein. [8] These are then “sacred places” of that person’s private, individual universe or “ultimate reality.” [9]

This explanation, and the idea that everyone experiences the sacred, is useful to a mediator. This is so in any mediation because everyone holds something apart as sacred, and being able to detect and extrapolate from that may be very useful in bring the parties closer together. Second, this is especially useful in mediations of “real” (i.e. there is more at stake than a monetary settlement) conflict. These “real” conflicts will often involve some aspect of identity, and that may be derived from or related to one’s “sacred” values. Honing in on this has the potential to allow a mediator to find common ground between the parties by assessing and analyzing each party’s “sacred.”

One example of how this might apply is to focus the parties on the fact they are both holding something “sacred.” Although what is held sacred is different, and there is conflict between these two sacred realities, it may be demonstrated that each party is experiencing a “sacred” life. For example, let us presume party A is Christian, and party B is Muslim. A conflict has arisen between these parties because party A is attempting to convince party B Jesus is the son of God, and party B is trying to convince party A that there is no God but God. This conflict is a manifestation of each party’s understanding of their own “sacred.” Instead of attempting to get the parties to reconcile their sacred values, the mediator may encourage them to step back and acknowledge that although they each hold different beliefs, they both adhere to those beliefs in very much the same manner. They both go to places of worship on a certain day, they both observe certain holidays that are sacred for certain reasons, and they both pray. Therefore, although their beliefs may be different at one level, they are carrying out their sacred adherence to those beliefs in much the same manner.

This can be applied also in a non-religious context. Let us assume party A values exercise and fitness and party B, who is somewhat overweight, values natural food. On the surface, there is a conflict because party A thinks party B needs to be in better shape in order to be “healthy” and party B thinks party A is wasting his life exercising in all of his free time. Further, to party B, being “healthy” is achieved by eating natural, unprocessed organic foods, and considers it absurd that party A drinks “non-fat half and half” to be “healthy.” Like the above discussion regarding the sacred, here the parties are setting apart certain values as superior, or “sacred.” Again the two sets of sacred values have given rise to conflict. And, again, by drilling down to the fact that each party is in fact doing the same thing, adhering to their interpretation of what is “sacred,” or “healthy,” the mediator will likely be able to get the two sides to understand each other even if they do not agree.

In these contexts, where there is a value-system conflict, an appeal to the “sacred” may be appropriate. If each party expressly claims to live a “sacred” life, no matter what they consider “sacred,” common ground may be found by illustrating that although the two live separate sacred lives, they are parallel in striving to pursue the sacred as opposed to the profane.

by Jasper Ozbirn
1 MIRCEA ELIADE, THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE: THE NATURE OF RELIGION, 10 (1957, Willard R. Trask, trans.).
2 Id.
3 Id. at 14. It should be noted here that not only is there a differentiation between a sacred life and a profane life, but there are many different interpretations of the “sacred.” This provides the basis of disputes between various religions. E.g. the difference of opinion between Catholics and Protestants, each of which hold the Bible as the governing text.
4 MERRIAM-WEBSTER’S COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY, 929 (10th ed. 2001).
5 Id. at 985.
6 ELIADE, supra note 2, at 23.
7 Id.
8 See id. at 24.
9 Id.
TAGGED: * Articles, Religion

Jasper L. Ozbirn received a LL.M. in Dispute Resolution with an Emphasis in Mediation from the Straus Institute, Pepperdine University School of Law in May of 2011. He is presently an associate attorney with Citron & Citron in Santa Monica, California.