Theology and Eliade The Sacred

The great historian of religion, Professor Mircea Eliade (1907-86), is best known for editing a massive multi-volume Encyclopedia of Religion.455 However, his list of other publications is huge, and his influence has been correspondingly extensive.456 At the end of an extraordinarily varied career, Eliade rejoiced in the title of Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor (later Emeritus) in the Divinity School, and Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, of the University of Chicago.457

In Eliade's lifetime, Thomas J. J. Altizer characterised him as 'the greatest living interpreter of the whole world of primitive and archaic religion'.458

Romanian in origin, Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest on 9 March 1907. His early studies in that city's university, culminating in an MA dissertation on Italian philosophy in 1928, were followed by a spell in India studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at the University of Calcutta. His 1933 Romanian Ph.D. allowed him to take up a junior teaching post at the University of Bucharest. The years of the Second World War saw him as a cultural attaché, first in London and then in Lisbon. From 1957, he was a Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago, and in 1962 he became the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service


John A. Saliba has stressed that, like other phenomenologists and historians of religion, Eliade strove to understand the religious beliefs and practices he studied and encountered, and to make some kind of sense out of it all, 'to construct an image of religious man in the light of this understanding'.460 There could be problems: as a committed Christian, writing 'primarily as a believer who looks on religion as a manifestation of the divine or the holy',461 Eliade's impartiality has been questioned.462

Saliba notes also that he omits to cover Islam and the Chinese religions.463 However, Saliba's 1976 volume predated Eliade's famous trilogy of 1978-85 entitled A History of Religious Ideas, which does provide ample coverage of those faiths.464 Saliba's criticisms were thus somewhat premature.465

Finally, Saliba notes that Eliade was no longer concerned with finding the origin of religion but that his 'two principal aims [were] integration and generalization'.466 In the latter, he is held to have succeeded: 'His works probably contain the most comprehensive generalizations of religious man in contemporary literature'.467

For Eliade, 'the essence of religion' was the aim of the phenomenological enterprise.468 This was his 'eidetic' endeavour, to deploy Husserl's own term, his attempt to reduce religious phenomena to their defining or essential characteristics.469 Eliade insisted that religion was to be studied qua religion, and Saliba notes that this was in perfect harmony 'with the phenomenological approach which concentrates on the essentials of religious beliefs and practices'.470 Furthermore, as a historian of religion, he espoused the classic tendency to stress similarities between religious beliefs, experiences, structures and meanings.471 In this, he diverged from the anthropologists of religion, who placed a greater stress on differences.472

It has been noted that three leitmotivs, or concerns, underlie all Eliade's writing about such matters as symbolism, myth and ritual. They are the idea of the sacred, the idea of death and resurrection, and the spiritual degeneration of man through the course of history.473 It is with the first of these leitmotivs that we shall be primarily concerned in this book when we come to consider our material through an Eliadean lens. For 'The Sacred' was a favourite motif of Eliade which imbued many of his books in one form or another.

In Patterns in Comparative Religion, Eliade created and discussed a morphology of the sacred.474 Elsewhere, insisting that 'every manifestation of the sacred is important to the historian of religions',475 he gave us, in his magisterial trilogy A History of Religious Ideas, 'the manifestations of the sacred in chronological order'.476 In Patterns, he provides a very simple definition of the sacred as 'the opposite of the profane'.477 While contemporary man may find comfort in life in 'a desacralized world',478 that which is sacred or holy 'manifests itself in the context of a personal total life-experience which is intimately related to the social and physical environ-


For Eliade, the sacred has certain characteristic features: we have already seen that, speaking apophatically, it is that which is not profane. Furthermore, it can have a certain ambivalent quality, both attracting and repelling.480 Although the manifestation of the sacred is, perforce, in the profane world, it 'is qualitatively different from the profane'.481 And religion itself must be studied and analysed in terms of the sacred.482

However, the sacred itself can easily be degraded. Mircea Popescu translates Eliade as follows:

Everything that is 'fantastic', everything that belongs to the extrarational - religion, magic, myth, legend - begins to degrade itself as soon as it enters 'history', as soon as it participates in 'becoming' ...483

Popescu insists that the problem of this 'desecration' or 'degradation of the sacred' in the fields of folklore is one to which Eliade alludes often and to which he wants us to pay particular attention.484 Eliade provides the striking example of the degradation of symbols which may lose their initial cosmological or other charge and degenerate into base superstition.485 There is an applicability of all this across arenas other than that of pure folklore: in the field of liturgy, for example, the Roman Catholic traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre continue to proclaim loudly that their beloved pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy has been desecrated and degraded.486

Perhaps the most powerful illustration in modern times of the desecration and degradation of a 'sacred' symbol - in this case one sacred to Mammon but attacked with profoundly religious motives - is that event which has become known in contemporary history as '9/11'. On 11 September 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were attacked and destroyed by hijacked suicide airliners.487 About 3,000 people were killed. This is neither the field of folklore nor that of the sacred in any institutionalised religious sense but rather that of grim reality, and Eliade's concept of degradation has an eerie applicability. Here was one mighty symbol of power and mercantile wealth, the World Trade Center, built by the mightiest nation on earth, deliberately destroyed by another symbol, the airliner, symbol of man's scientific advancement, willingness and ability to bridge the space, the void, between nations in terms of travel, trade and general goodwill.

The media of the day was well aware of the powerful symbolism of all this. As the Observer put it on 18 November 2001:

The twin disasters of 11 September and 12 November [2001: the crash on New York of American Airlines Airbus 300 Flight 587] have left the global travel industry confronting the worst crisis in its history. The romance and thrill of taking to the skies for business or simply a week or two away from it all, which began with the Wright Brothers and saw aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Concorde become symbols of progress, freedom and glamour, is over. With 526 passengers and crew killed in five air crashes in the past nine weeks, the public would now rather do anything, it seems, than fly.488

A more theological element, which was powerfully 'degraded', to use Eliade's term once again, was the Islamic symbolism and doctrine of jihad. No longer was it a case of the greater jihad against the evil inclinations and ambitions of the nafs ('the self' or the ego), nor even a case of the lesser jihad in defence of an Islam under threat of imminent assault or extinction. It was rather, to deploy a suitably sufl gloss, the spectacular victory of that unchained nafs.489

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment