What Are the Sacred and the Spiritual?
This definition has to be supported
by two other definitions. We characterize the experience that initiates
a religion as being of the sacred or of the spiritual (or of both
together, as is not uncommon), rather than being simply any sort
of life experience.
The sacred has also been called the holy or the numinous or the divine. Each of these terms has slightly different connotations, but we can offer a general definition that captures the common meaning.
The sacred is a mysterious manifestation of power and presence that is experienced as both primordial and transformative, inspiring awe and rapt attention. This is usually an event that represents a break or discontinuity from the ordinary, forcing a re-establishment or recalibration of perspective on the part of the experiencer, but it may also be something seemingly ordinary, repeated exposure to which gradually produces a perception of mysteriously cumulative significance out of proportion to the significance originally invested in it.
Thus the sacred powerfully seizes our attention in the moment that we experience it, yet it seems an extension of something persistent from other times beyond memory or into times that are still unfolding. Mircea Eliade characterizes the sacred as that whose manifestation "ontologically founds the world," and we can agree in the sense that it establishes new borders, boundaries, centers or other points of orientation, inviting us to see the world from a new perspective. It is also important to point out the mysteriousness of what is experienced. Without mystery there is no incentive for further exploration, and hence no religion.
The term spiritual originally derives from a word for breathing in and out, and has since acquired many connotations around non-corporeal entities or "spirits" that can enter and leave the physical body and breach its boundaries. So in a general way, not keeping strictly to this sort of notion of the spiritual, we can say that spiritual concerns are those which relate to the shifting border between self and other or self and world. There is much overlap between the spiritual and the mystical, although the mystical is perhaps more narrowly restricted to experiences that are intellectually ineffable and that have an ecstatic affective component. We can try to capture the more general sense of the spiritual in the following definition.
The spiritual is a perception of the commonality of mindfulness in the world that shifts the boundaries between self and other, producing a sense of the union of purposes of self and other in confronting the existential questions of life, and providing a mediation of the challenge-response interaction between self and other, one and many, that underlies existential questions.
The first question of existentialism, of course, is "Who is it that is asking this question?" In an existentialism without spiritual belief, we can pose questions to the world but without hope of answer, and we can be challenged by the world yet without hope that our response will truly affect it. With spiritual beliefs, something seems to go in and out of us; the border can shift or become more or less permeable.
In some ways the sacred and the spiritual seem to pull in opposite directions, the former toward demarcations and exceptions of startling proportions, the latter toward commonalities and blurring of previously accepted boundaries. That most religions include both in their germinal development shows that the differences may be complementary, however.
The founding experience and the initial response to it (for instance, the shaman's response to experience of an hallucinogenic mushroom, the Apostles' feeling of the inrush of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Buddha's enlightenment, etc.), as initially articulated and ordered, give rise to an ongoing process of elaboration and meaning-creation that occurs as the foundational events are embedded in a system (for instance, the tradition of shamanic healing practices, the codified creeds and ceremonies of the Christian churches, the monastic culture of Buddhism, etc.).
When considering a religion, it is valuable to provisionally separate the earlier and later steps, but this is not always easy to do after the passage of any appreciable amount of time. The benefit of doing so (when it can be done) is that it helps to indicate which of the accretions of belief, practice and custom in the religion derive from secondary interactions with its host culture (for instance, those which help it grow to institutional status, those brought in by converts who may not have access to the foundational experiences, etc.). This is not to say that we should be more concerned about the allegedly pristine form of a religion than about its later development, but rather that we gain a fuller picture of the religion by understanding what factors contributed to its growing in different ways at different times. And it also seems noteworthy that, in certain generations, many more adherents of a religion may attempt to return to the experiential "roots" of the religion and seek to
recapture or recreate the original experiences that inspired the founders, either by attempting to re-enact practices that were current during the lives of the founders, or by wholly novel means.