Friday, August 20, 2010

Durkheim on Sacred Time

In a previous post, I reviewed Judith Shulevitz's The Sabbath World, a lovely book on the personal and corporate meaning of Sabbath practice. While reading it, I noticed that Shulevitz draws on the work of the late 19th/early 20th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, specifically, his classic text The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.

My office neighbor, the wonderful sociologist of religion Mal Gold, lent me his copy so I could track down Shulevitz's references. Now, if I were a real scholar, I would have read the whole thing cover to cover, but instead I looked up Durkheim's reflections on time. (Mal assures me that even sociologists of religion don't enjoy plowing through the entire 450 page, densely packed tome.)

The book summarizes research on traditional, aboriginal religions of Australia, which Durkheim considers a good baseline for comparison with other forms of religion elsewhere. Leaving aside the validity of his methods and his larger thesis about religion, I found several of his points about time to be interesting (as did Judith Shulevitz). Durkheim helps us discover what the fullness of time might mean.

1. Time is a social and collective reality first and foremost 
This contention is central to Durkheim's whole thesis about the collectivity of societies defining what religion is. He argues that individuals alone would not have consciousness of time. Instead, the regular intervals of time marked out by society give rise to time consciousness. All the divisions of time come from social life (p. 9-10).  "Every call to a feast, hunt, or military expedition implies that a common time is established that everyone conceives in the same way" (444). Society comes first, constructing how individuals think.

2. Divisions of time into sacred and profane are basic in aboriginal religion and therefore in all religious practices
Durkheim says that Australian aborigines divided all of life into material pursuits (hunting/fishing/war) or religion (p. 311). Separate holy days for religious life allowed the time to be marked as different. "Ritual cessation of work is thus no more than a special case of the general incompatibility of that divides the sacred and the profane . . . (p. 312). As he puts it,
Religious and profane life cannot coexist at the same time. In consequence, religious life must have specified days or periods assigned to it from which all profane occupations are withdrawn. Thus were holy days born. There is no religion, and hence no society, that has not known and practiced this division of time into two distinct parts that alternate one with another according to a principle that varies with peoples and civilizations. In fact, probably the necessity of that alteration led men to insert distinctions and differentiations into the homogeneity and continuity of duration that it does not naturally have (p. 313).
3.  Religious festivals and holy days instill a collective "effervescence" (p. 385-86)
As Durkheim puts it, religious ceremonies "set collectivity in motion; groups come together to celebrate them" (p. 352). During ordinary times, we focus on "utilitarian and individualistic affairs. Everyone goes about his own personal business; for most people, what is most important is to meet the demands of material life" (352). By contrast, on feast days the people focus on "the beliefs held in common: the memories of great ancestors, the collective ideal the ancestors embody--in short, social things" (352). People feel "reborn . . . reanimated . . . reawaken[ed] . . . regenerated" (353). But this energy cannot be sustained forever, so society must return to ordinary times.

Seasons of feasting and fasting go way back to aboriginal practice. However, we've moved away from that practice. The philosopher Charles Taylor believes that the rejection of such "higher times" eventually led to a flatter kind of secular time (see chapter 1 of my book). I argue that we have flattened our experience of time to one dimension, cutting off our collective connection to higher, sacred times.

4. "The more societies develop, the less is their tolerance for interruptions that are too pronounced" (354)
In other words, the higher times of feasting and the lower times of work are less extreme in their highs and lows, "the contrast between them is less marked" (354). In the modern world we preferred less of a roller coaster and more of a flatness in our experience of time, with fewer highs and lows. Homogeneity, rather than differentiation between sacred time and secular time, became the norm.

But, as I noted in my post on Shulevitz, postmodern time, organized by cellphones and mobile electronic devices, may become more fluid than modern time. So are we headed back toward a more individualized experience of time, or are we opening up spaces for collective interruptions again? How are we experiencing time these days?

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