return to religion-online

The Significance of Mircea Eliade for Christian Theology

by Joseph G. Muthuraj

The Rev. Joseph G. Muthuraj, Ph.D. is Professor of New Testament and Dean of Doctoral Studies at United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This article appeared in the Bangalore Theological Forum, (United Theological College, Bangalore), Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, December 2001, pp. 38-59. Used by permission.


I formulate my experience of reading Eliade as a student engaged in the study of Christian theology particularly that of New Testament with a purpose of making use of his insights in the search for developing new perspectives and paradigms to do theology. NT discipline is one of the fields of study within 'Theology' and NT subjects are part of theological curriculums. It is nourished by those scholars, who have had competence in philology, historical criticism, literary criticism, Philosophy, Sociology and History of Religions. The study of NT, however, still remains as a branch within the intellectual tradition of the Western Enlightenment era. The developments in this discipline, as pointed out by J. Riches, are also due to the 'wider cultural shifts, which have their complex roots in major political and economic changes in our (western) societies'.

i) History of Religions School in NT Scholarship

In the past half-century, Christian Theology and History of Religions functioned with little mutual influence. There were serious attempts to study NT from History of Religions perspectives. Scholars of repute W. Wrede, A. Hilgenfeld, O. Pfleiderer, H. Gunkel, G. Dalman, A. Deissman, W. Bousset, R. Reitzenstein, J. Weiss, R. Bultmann made significant contributions. Equally influential were scholars such as J. Wellhausen, A. Harnack, A. Jülicher, P. Feine, G. Heinrici, K. Deissner who opposed the new methodological principle, i.e. History of religions, for the study of the history of early Christianity. Space does not permit me to evaluate the contributions made by all of them or even any one of them. The main characteristic of the History of Religions School was 'to interpret primitive Christianity within the framework of the religions of the time'. It sought to explain Christianity as a product of the development of the spirit of classical antiquity. It was argued that the designation "History of Primitive Christian Religion" and not "New Testament Theology" is more suitable to refer to the study of the New Testament. Hence the task of New Testament scholarship was regarded as an attempt to depict primitive Christian religion. Its questions, therefore, were rightly concerned with the relationship between early Christianity and contemporary religious phenomena found in Judaism, Hellenism and what is being called 'Orient'.

Jewish and Hellenistic antecedents were uncovered by many studies. The significant contribution made by the History of Religions School was that it brought to light the role played by oriental religion and piety in the formation of NT religion. However, many scholars regard Oriental religions as detrimental to Christianity and describe them in pejorative sense as being syncretistic, polytheistic and idol worshipping. Some even understand and interpret New Testament Christianity as a triumph achieved over the eastern/oriental religions. As a student of History of Religions School within NT studies, which remains largely Occidental in its approach and conclusions, I look for further inspiration from History of Religions scholars, particularly from the contributions made by Eliade to the study of religious dimensions of NT religion. It is hoped that my reading of this historian of religion will help to create an interest among NT students to incorporate some of his insights into the study of New Testament. The streams of both disciplines should flow closely to each other so that there might take place a creative interplay of their perspectives.

ii) Towards an Indian Attempt

The second objective of my reading the works of Eliade is that India has left an indelible mark in his spiritual quest, which actually received its impetus and animation from Eliade's brief period of stay in India. Eliade devoted himself fully to the task of learning Indian religion and philosophy. He regarded Surendranath Dasgupta as his master and guru. Eliade drank from the wells of Indian religious heritage. His knowledge of Yoga, Indian philosophical systems, Indian epics, Vedas, Upanishads, Buddhism, Jainism, Indian folklore, art, alchemy, popular myths and rituals has made him one of the best Indologists that the West has ever produced. He also has shown a sympathetic attitude towards India's struggle for freedom from colonial rule. These have generated within me kindred feelings towards Eliade and hence the question I would like to ask is, 'Is Eliade showing the way for an Indian student who is engaged in the study NT history and Theology?'

1) Is Eliade a Christian Theologian?

Eliade did not undergo a formal theological training. In many places, he begins a discussion or an explanation of a religious phenomenon in a theological fashion but, to the disappointment of the theologians, he does not take them further. The following words are his typical reaction: 'I am not speaking theologically, for which I have neither the responsibility nor the competence'. Yet, one can catch a glimpse of theological reasoning underpinning his writings. Eliade's sources, which gave theological coating to his creative work, came largely from the writings of the early Church Fathers. Nonetheless, he feels that the polemical stance taken by the Church Fathers against other religions is not strictly necessary 'in our own day'. Biblical references are found very rare in his writings. Yet, he deals with the biblical themes such as God, Christ, Cross, Baptism and symbols and images in the Bible.

i) Death of God Theology - Sky and Sky Gods

Eliade wrote about 'sky and sky gods' when Christian theology was shaken at its very foundations by the 'death of God' theology. He spoke of 'God up there' when theologians such as J. A. T. Robinson were busy with erasing the mythical language of three-storied universe that underlies the early Christian thought and experience. Robinson argued in favor of 'the detaching of the Christian doctrine of God from any necessary dependence on a 'supernaturalistic' worldview'. He understood this as a prophetic aspect of the Church's ministry to the world. It was at this time atheism was regarded as the Christian Gospel that should be preached to the world. J. J. Altizer, for example, maintained boldly by stating, 'Throughout its history Christian theology has been thwarted from reaching its intrinsic goal by its bondage to a transcendent, a sovereign, and an impassive God'. Eliade criticized the Death of God theology and argued that the theology of death of God was based on an understanding of God who was withdrawn from the earth and was forgotten by human beings (deus otiosus). For Eliade, God is indefinable and the moment we attempt to define God in clear-cut language we then lose the mystery of God. The second chapter in Patterns in Comparative Religion provides a good treatment on the subject of 'The Sky and Sky Gods'. There is almost a universal belief in celestial divine being, which created the universe and guarantees the fecundity of the earth and protector of life. Sky is associated with the wealth of mythological and religious significance. '"Height", "being on high", infinite space - all these are hierophanies of what is transcendent, what is supremely sacred'. The Supreme Beings associated with sky hierophanies are creators and they give life. The sky-gods phenomena were subjected to monotheistic beliefs. Such motifs are found in the speeches made by Paul and Barnabas in Lystra (Ac. 14: 15-18 ) and the famous proclamation by Paul before the Areopagus in the multi-religious city Athens (Ac. 17: 22-31).

ii) Cosmic Christianity

The Letters to Ephesians and Colossians make reference to 'Cosmic Christ' (Eph. 1: 17-23; Col. 2: 5-11). There are theologians in India who spoke of 'cosmic Christ'. Eliade's idea of cosmic Christianity has some interesting theological features. He understood Christianity not in terms of the categories of the Western Europe. He observed that the myths and symbols of pre-Christian Europe survived in Christianity in Central and Western Europe as St. Georges and St. Eliases. Whereas in South and Southeastern Europe, Church has been imbued with so many cosmic symbols. The religious experience peculiar to the rural populations was nourished by what he called, "Cosmic Christianity". Cosmic Christianity, for Eliade, is a peasant-centered religion with its array of cosmic liturgies and religious folklores. It is not a paganization of Christianity and is not expressed by a scholastic theology. It is a popular theology that is built on the meaning and significance of seasonal festivals and religious folklore, which reflect the life of the common folk. Thus, cosmic symbols of folkloric themes such as Water, Tree, Vine, the plough and the axe, the ship, chariot etc which have been already assimilated by Judaism are passed on to the Church, which gave them sacramental meaning.

iii) Christology

Christology has received a new dimension in Eliades' popular theology, which has cosmic dimensions. His Christology, in one sense, is local and is bound with the social and political realities in Romania. Romania's literary creations and religious observances, according to Eliade, are entrenched in devotion to Christ. Eliade then goes on to claim that the images of Christ in the Gospels stand in no contradiction to images of Christ in religious folklore. But he does not go on to demonstrate it, which a NT student would have liked him to do. For a Christian, Eliade considers the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as a supreme hierophany, a manifestation of the sacred. In Christian folklore, Cross is conceived as Cosmic Tree, a universal symbol of hierophany. Tree constitutes religious life and is seen as i) an alter, ii) an image of the cosmos, iii) a cosmic theophany, iv) symbol of life, v) centre of the world and support of the universe, vi) mystical bond between tree and men and vii) the tree as symbol of resurrection of vegetation of spring and of the 'rebirth' of the year. Theology of the Cross is a theology of Cosmic Tree, an ideogram in several cultures but particularly in Mesopotamia and Vedic Writings. The idea of cosmic renovation symbolized by the World Tree is continued by the Salvation from the Cross. Eliade explains Cosmic Christianity of the rural population as being dominated by 'nostalgia for a Nature sanctified by the presence of Jesus'. This nostalgia has social and political dimensions as it is for the restoration of Nature from wars, devastations and conquests. It also refers to the state of liberation from the exploitation of the peasants by various classes and masters. For Eliade, liberation is 'a passive revolt against the tragedy and injustice of History…'.

Hence, social justice and liberation are central to the popular Christology envisioned by Eliade. He sees in Marxist Communism a messianic Judaeo-Christian ideology at work. According to Eliade, the great eschatological myths of Asia-Mediterranean world and millennialist structures underlie Marxism. Thus, Maxism is embedded in Judeo-Christian eschatological hope of an absolute end to History. The content of this hope is: i) Marx ascribes soteriological function to the proletariat, ii) the apocalyptic conflict between Good and Evil in society and iii) the final victory belongs to Christ. Eliade, brings sacredness to peasant struggle in History and sees a Christological basis for achieving victory at the end.

Perhaps, Eliade's political affiliation too here becomes apparent. He clearly sees a role for Marxism, which, he thinks, has enriched the myth of Golden Age found in many religious traditions by working towards building a classless society. It is doubtful whether these remarks of Eliade should be taken as his political allegiance to Marxism. What is to be noted here is that Eliade sees some religious basis for Marxism but he has had no hierophanic explanation for what he calls, 'the racist myth of "Aryanism"'. He does use the word 'Aryan' in his writings but the sense in which it was used during the Second World War is not to be found. Eliade contends that Nazism replaced the Judeo-Christian eschatology with Nordic paganism. Christian values were abolished in order to rediscover the spiritual sources of race. When this was translated into political realities, Eliade described it as 'a pessimistic vision of the end of history'.

Whatever his political affiliations were in Romania and whether his political ideology backfired or not, it should be said that Eliade probably was a nationalist who had a cosmic vision. Eliade was a nationalist to the extent that he desired freedom for the peasant communities of Eastern Europe from oppression and invasion. In his own words, 'As for the rural peoples of eastern Europe, they succeeded in bearing disasters and persecution principally by virtue of the cosmic Christianity….The conception of a cosmos redeemed by the death and resurrection of the Saviour, and sanctified by the footsteps of God, of Jesus, the Virgin, and the saints, made possible…' The terror of history was the time in bondage for Romanians who were in the hands of the oppressive forces, which invaded Romania time and again. He sums it up thus: 'There is no effective military or political defense against the "terror of history", simply because of the crushing inequality between the invaders and the invaded peoples….Small political groups of peasants could not long resist the masses of the invaders' But the folk genius gave the most effective response through folk-lore which transformed these misfortunes into moments of joy and happiness. This quest and longing for freedom, according to Eliade, was sustained by their devotion to cosmic Christianity.

Cosmic Christianity transcends narrow nationalism. Eliade affirms that it exists not only in places like 'rural Romania, but is also to be found in India, in the Mediterranean religion, in Negro spirituals…' It injects solidarity among the suffering masses whoever they are and wherever they happen to live. It is in this struggle for identity, which cuts across geographical and ethnic boundaries, Eliade finds the true meaning of Christianity. In this sense, Eliade can be seen as a theologian of cosmic Christianity.

3) M. Eliade and P. Tillich

What does Christian Theology has to do with History of Religions? There are those who advocate the meeting of the two in a manner which will benefit both. There are, on the other hand, those who think that the concerns of the two are not compatible with each other. Relationship between the two disciplines is discussed from the point of view of theology providing the normative base to the study of Religions. D. Allen is of the view that History of Religions must be 'aided by and dependent upon a normative discipline such as theology'. J. Kittagawa, a colleague of Eliade, admits that a theological history of religions is legitimate and admissible but it should be kept distinct from the 'humanistic' History of Religions, which develop sufficient understanding of classical forms of religious phenomena. For Kittagawa, Religionswissenschaft and theology can interact but they remain separate. E. J. Lott, one of my mentors, stresses that Christian theology should be dependent upon Religious Studies. He suggests, 'For theology cannot function reflectively and contextually in an isolated state of independence from other religious traditions and ignorant of the findings of religious studies.'

The main concern was with regard to theologian's attitude toward other religions and this was deeply challenged by the History of Religions research. H. Kraemer, for example, took Bible as the basis for judging the value of other religions. He argues that 'theology is fully entitled to formulate the case and to say its personal word on the problem of religion and religions, on the basis of its peculiar presuppositions' Kraemer considers Hindu spirituality is antagonistic to Biblical revelation. He maintains, 'It is impossible, from the Indian standpoint, to understand and interpret true Christianity adequately. It can, in principle, only be a rock offence, "foolishness"'. Certainly, one will find that Kraemer's views are at odds with Eliade. The most effective criticism against Theology comes from K. W. Bolle. In his article, 'History of Religions with a Hermeneutic Oriented toward Christian Theology?' criticizes the form of theological hermeneutic, which operates along the lines of certain fixed contrasts. They are, "the others" and "we", "paganism/heathens" and "the true religion", "natural religion" and "the revealed religion" etc. Most NT studies are based on such fallacious distinctions and premises. He points out, 'An extraneous contrast between the "pagan" and the "Christian" does not come up in the major (theological) arguments'. Bolle advocates deprovincialization of Christian theology so that theology incorporates the idea of universality. He observes, 'It is a ghastly symptom that some modern Christian theologians, paying attention to religious man, can consider the subject closed with a few lines on Buddhism and Hinduism, the only concern being to safeguard the Christian faith on an intellectual plane by comparing it to the other, superficially conceived religious notions'. Bolle concludes his article rather pessimistically by pointing to the inevitability of retaining the question mark in the title of his article with the suggestion that separation of Christian theology and History of Religions could be seen as strength rather than as weakness on the part of each discipline. For Bolle, it is perhaps a gain to History of Religions.

Paul Tillich, a distinguished Systematic Theologian, who was the personal friend of Eliade, responded most positively to the challenges that History of Religions posed to the theologians. He too criticizes, like Bolle, theologians' viewpoint of the 'other'. Tillich argues that the significance of History of religions for Christian Theology can only be grasped if the theologian is willing to accept and work on the basis of five presuppositions. They are: i) revelatory experiences are common to all religions, ii) revelation is received under finite human condition, iii) the three types of criticisms, mystical, prophetic and secular help to address the distortions that crept into revealed religions, iv) History of Religions makes 'a concrete theology that has universal significance' possible and v) an acknowledgement that 'the sacred is the creative ground and at the same time a critical judgement of the secular'. These are the fruits of the interchange between a theology and a History of Religion. These should be pursued and possibilities of further interpenetration should be explored. Tillich still sees possibilities for interaction and collaboration between History of Religions and Christian Theology. The following remarks made by Paul Tillich are worth noting:

'I now want to return my thanks on this point to my friend Professor Eliade for two years of seminars and the co-operation we had in them. In these seminars I experienced that every individual doctrinal statement or ritual expression of Christianity receives a new intensity of meaning. And in terms of a kind of apologia, yet also a self-accusation, I must say that my own Systematic Theology was written before these seminars….Its purpose was the discussion or the answering of questions coming from the scientific and philosophical criticism of Christianity. But perhaps we need a longer, more intensive period of interpenetration of systematic theological study and religious historical studies…. This is my hope for the future of theology'

Every student of Theology and Religion should cherish this hope and work towards its realization.

4) Eliade's Critique of Theologians

Eliade lived and wrote at a time when theological writings urged for the separation of 'religion' and 'Christianity'. When Bonhoffer called persistently for 'Religionless Christianity' and when Karl Barth declared that Christianity was not a religion, Eliade was occupied with validating religious inquiries in the study the religious phenomena. He insisted that religious phenomena can be interpreted only if they are studied as something religious. 'To try to grasp the essence of such phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it- the element of the sacred'. Perhaps, one should understand here the two basic distinctions made by Eliade in the methodology of the study of religious phenomena. One concentrates on the characteristic structures of religious phenomena, i.e. the essence of religion and the other on their historical contexts in order to discover and communicate their history. Eliade interprets Christian experience on the basis of cross-cultural parallels irrespective of their historical contexts, which divide humanity on the basis of language, geography and religion.

Eliade sees differences in the roles of historian of religion and a theologian. He maintains that the very procedures of the historian of religion are dissimilar to that of a theologian. A theologian aims to see in the content of a religious experience the clearer and deeper understanding of the relationship between God-Creator and man-creature. Whereas, a historian of religion concentrates primarily on religious symbols completes his/her analysis of religious phenomena as phenomenologist or philosopher of religion. Eliade's challenge to the theologians should be taken seriously. Eliade criticizes theologians for two reasons. He comments that theologians are 'suspicious of historico-religious hermeneutics that might encourage syncretism or religious dillettantism or worse yet, raise doubts about the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian revelation'. He recognizes the importance of Judaism from which many of the antecedents of early Christian myth and understanding of history came from. Unlike an anti-semitic theologian, Eliade stresses the firm historical connection between Judaism and Christianity. He acknowledges that 'Christianity is a historic religion, deeply rooted in another historic religion, that of the Jews'. Judaism, for him, has had a long religious history and pre-history and is resplendent with myths and symbols, which are acquired by Christianity. This did not leave Judaism exhausted of its meaning and significance. However, Eliade hesitates to assign a privileged position to the Judeo-Christian tradition as he argues that there are images and symbols in Christianity, which are common properties of the entire religious history of humanity.

His second criticism is that many contemporary theologians work on the premises of sociology of religion and accept the inevitability of technology. Science and technology treat religions and religious behavior something other than superstition and ignorance. Sociologists, Weber and Durkheim, made religion central to their theory of society. They drew their definition of religion from the point of view of its impact on society. This sociological definition restricts and at times eliminates other dimensions of meaning of religion.

Thirdly, Eliade observes that theological study seeks to study selected data from monotheistic religions rather than from the so-called primitive materials and, moreover, secondary importance is accorded to religions of the Mediterranean world. This is very much the case with the section of NT studies, which deals with the description of early Christianity. An accurate knowledge of the broader and heterogeneous Mediterranean cultures is fundamental to that description. NT scholarship ignores the Afro-Asiatic landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean in favor of western Mediterranean world, which is regarded as the sea-bed of European civilization. Alice Bach in her article argues that a biblical scholar assumes a divinity, which is congenial to and arises out of the myths of Greece and Rome, the Mediterranean roots of European culture. The discarded aspects of Rome and Greece, Egypt and Ethiopia had oriental elements derived from the religious and cultural traditions of Indo-Iran landscape. As a result we have an account of early Christianity which is Occidental in nature and is opposed to the other, the Orient. This created the Christian/pagan distinction in the reading of NT.

One of the contributions of Eliade, which will have great significance for study of NT history is that Eliade sees cultural contacts and reciprocal influences between Indo-Iranian, Mesopotamian, Mediterranean worlds. Once this cultural bond is recognized then NT world need not be narrowly defined. Quite rightly, Eliade considers in his second volume of A History of Religious Ideas, Vedas, Upanishads, Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Greco-Oriental Mysteries, Iranian religious synthesis as forerunners of Christianity. The fact that they are prolegomena to NT religion should be applied as one of the most important criteria for historical interpretation in NT studies. The Eastern civilization can be proud of the contribution it has made to the make-up of the world of thought that saw the birth of NT Christianity. It will enable an Indian student of NT to find his/her rightful place in NT scholarship. Eliade understands syncretism not in a pejorative sense but as something inherent in culture and religion to influence each other. It is not a sign of weakness but strength. We need to re-examine the methods of history and categories of theological interpretation in the light of the criticisms of Eliade.

5) Creative Hermeneutics of Eliade

History of Religions has found its powerful formulation in the writings of Eliade. We shall now identify some of its key principles, procedures and methods that can be assimilated into the methodological frameworks to the study of NT. History of Religions should be governed by, what Eliade calls, a 'creative hermeneutics'. There are two important aspects to it. A) Eliade urges that Western thought should be open to new perspective by breaking the confinements of provincialism. He writes, 'Western philosophy cannot contain itself indefinitely within its own tradition without the risk of becoming provincial' Western consciousness should recognize 'only one history, the Universal history, and that the ethnocentric history is surpassed as being provincial'. The works of historians of religions in the nineteenth century failed to be creative and to achieve 'interpretive cultural syntheses in favor of fragmented, analytical research'. This suggestion of Eliade is vital for NT hermeneutics too as we seek to intermingle Western and Eastern modes of inquiries to acquire a holistic vision.

B) Eliade's creative hermeneutics changes man. It prepares man to encounter with 'foreign' worlds, their myths and rituals. The world hitherto remained unknown to Western consciousness is making inroads into history. Eliade acknowledges the value of freedom from western rule attained by countries such as India and stresses the need for incorporating a wider world, Oriental, Australian, African and Oceanian, and into the scope of History of religions. Europe has had dialogue and exchange with extra-European spiritualities but mainly in the field of arts. A creative encounter is to happen between scholars not just among artists. This is not merely an attempt on the part of Eliade to create a new methodological principle but a demand for a change in the attitude and approach of the historians of religions towards 'foreign' religious forms. D. Allen is right when he observes that Eliade derives "much of his methodological framework from religious phenomena of the more 'inclusivistic' Eastern traditions".

There are attempts in NT studies to devise methods, which will introduce new forms of exegesis informed by social scientific input. Theological education is involved in an effort to try out, practice and establish necessary norms of hermeneutics. A theological student in India cannot ask, consciously or unconsciously, western questions and to undertake research which will be meaningful only to Westerners. The elements of Creative hermeneutics as proposed by Eliade can pave the way for dialogue to create a wider cultural base to study NT which has hitherto been dominated by European and North American worldviews.

6) Eliade and R. Bultmann

Another important aspect of Eliade's contribution is found in his critical response to Existentialism of the twentieth century. Existentialism was one of the preferred dialogue partners for NT theologians. M. Heidegger's existentialism had a strong impact on Rudolf Bultmann's (1884-1976) thinking and it played a formative role in modern NT theology. The disciplines represented by Eliade and Bultmann though different and yet they found their hermeneutical contexts same. Both wrote in a context of Existential philosophy, which gripped the Western thinking. Bultmann began writing in the early decades of twentieth century, that is the time between the first two world wars. To both of them, philosophical concerns, particularly Existential philosophical issues posed important challenges. Eliade and Bultmann chose to walk by two divergent paths and arrived naturally at two different conclusions.

i) Demythologization

Bultmann argued that the existential language provides a frame of reference that will help us to understand the myths and symbols. He contends, 'The contrast between the ancient world-view of the Bible and the modern world-view is the contrast between two ways of thinking, the mythological and scientific'. Literary criticism and existential philosophy are the tools applied by Bultmann to study the myths. They have damaged the nature and the essence of myths and showed them as primitive errors, which need to be adapted to suit the modern thinking. The result was that a large portion of NT was consigned to mute existence that they have lost capacity to say anything meaningful. ‘Too much of the New Testament is thus condemned to silence; and this is precisely what happens to the New Testament when Bultmann's principle of interpretation is applied to it'

Eliade, on the other hand, took the diametrically opposite view. Eliade emphasized the myths and mythical thought in the religions. He holds that images, symbols and myths cannot be translated into concepts. They have many frames of references and multivalent meanings and hence any attempt to limit them to one meaning or one frame of reference ought to be discouraged. In a quite un-Bultmannian way, Eliade states, 'To translate an image into a concrete terminology by restricting it to any one of its frame of reference is to do worse than mutilate it-it is to annihilate, to annul it as an instrument of cognition'. Eliade sums it up thus: 'These few cursory observations have shown us in what sense Christianity is prolonging a "mythical" conduct of life into the modern world. If we take account of the true nature and function of the myth, Christianity does not appear to have surpassed the mode of being of archaic man; but then it could not….It remains, however, to enquire what has taken the place of the myth among those of the moderns who have preserved nothing of Christianity but the dead letter'. This forms a fitting reply to those who pursue demythologization as one of the ways to make NT intelligible. Bultmann's demythologization is found congenial to the current antipathy to religious questions, which has crushed out the mythical aspects of Christian spirituality.

ii) Understanding of 'Man'

The other most important difference between Bultmann and Eliade is to be found in their understandings of 'Man'. Understanding 'Man' for Bultmann and for Eliade is to ascertain the meaning of 'human existence'. But Bultmann views man as historic being and history stands under transitoriness. 'Man' implies finitude, 'our being toward death'. Death stands as a threat to man's life. 'Man rebels against death and knows that as one who is fallen under it he is not in his authenticity'. For Eliade, Man is not purely a historical being. Man is not an entity bound to situation and time. Man cannot be explained by his hereditary and social conditioning. This unique understanding of man separates a Existentialist historian and a historian of religion. A historian of religion takes into account authentic factors of human life other than his historicality experienced in given point of time in history. Bultmann emphasized the latter. Mere historic awareness in man does not make him fully human, Eliade asserted. The unconscious sector of his humanity Eliade's humanism provides a new scenario for understanding human beings. His contention is that man cannot be reduced to his historical dimension. Man cannot be regarded as being imprisoned to historical conditionings. Religious structures, for Eliade, are non-temporal and non-historical. The Bultmannian idea of personal history that defines human existence and its authenticity are criticized by Eliade. 'His (man's) authentic existence is realising itself in history, in time, in his time-which is not that of his father. Neither it is the time of his contemporaries in another continent, or even in another country. That being so, what business have we to be talking about the behaviour of man in general? This man in general is no more than an abstraction: he exists only on the strength of a misunderstanding due to the imperfection of language'. There is a non-historical portion of every human being, according to Elide. Man attains to the primordial humanity through images and symbols. "Dreams, waking dreams, the images of his nostalgias and of his enthusiasms,etc., are so many forces that may historically-conditioned human being into a spiritual world that is infinitely richer than the closed world of his own "historical moment."' True History and the history of human condition belongs to the primordial myth and 'it is in this,' affirms Eliade, 'that one must seek and find again the principles and the paradigms for all the conduct of life'.

Eliade contrasts between existence of archaic man and existence as 'modern man'. He understands 'modern man' thus: '"modern man" is such in his insistence upon being exclusively historical; i.e., he is, above all, the "man" of historicism, of Marxism, and of existentialism'. Eliade does not recognize himself in such a man. A historicist view denies existence of archaic man. The 'archaic man' and the 'historical man (modern man) represent two types of humanity. The former, Eliade calls 'man of the archaic cultures', 'man of traditional civilizations', 'primitive man', 'man of premodern socities' etc. In his work, The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), Eliade deals with the major concern of 'valorization' of human existence. It discusses the problem of the position of 'historical man' in relation to 'archaic man'. Eliade argues that historicism, Marxism and existentialism taught men to cope with history, to tolerate it. But archaic men defended themselves against history 'either by periodically abolishing it through repetition of the cosmogony and a periodic regeneration of time…' The profound insight that Eliade places the problem of human existence and history within the horizon of archaic spirituality and not within the modern Existential framework. It is a spirituality in which myth and archaic man belong to each other. Primitive man did not think in terms of history. Myths were re-actualized continuously through rituals and ceremonies. He felt the need for returning to that mythical moment which was ahistorical. In this archaic man experienced regeneration and renewal as if he entered into a newly built house for the first time. This unique experience enacts a primordial unity, the joy of existence that existed in creation.

NT theology can find valorisation and one can hear the message of NT afresh when a new way of reading NT is made possible which will preserve the myths and symbols and redeem one from the modern myths of Science and Technology.

7) Eliade's Orientalism and New Humanism: Homologization of Western and Eastern Religious Thoughts

E. Said has made a powerful critique of Western Orientalism. These are some of the attacks made against the Orientalists of nineteenth century who continue to copy the same thing also in the twentieth century. He observed that a western orientalist could be regarded as a special agent of western power as it attempted a colonial policy vis-à-vis the Orient. He observed that in the West, the Orient was located in a comparative framework with Occident, as if the Orient remained beyond the Occident, and interpreted the Orient standing from a distant. He also observed that the Orient was overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its longevity, its primitivity and so forth'. Such an overesteem, according to Said, was matched by an undervalue of the Orient as backward and barbaric. So unequal are Oriental to European achievements with stereotypical portrayal of the East: Orient in itself was subordinated intellectually to the West. Western Orientalists reduced the model of the Orient suitable for the dominant culture and the general picture of the Orient was that it was associated with escapism of sexual fantasy and the familiar clichés such as harems, slaves, dancing girls and boys, ointments and so on. Said decries the unequal partnership between East and West. A Western Orientalist did not live like an ordinary citizen in the Orient. For him, to live in the Orient was to live the privileged live of 'a representative European whose empire (French or British) contains the Orient in its military, economic, and above all, cultural arms'.

The above criticisms do not match what Eliade's experience with the East and particularly when he had a close and positive encounter with Indian spirituality not for the purpose of ruling, subduing and exploiting but to discover the true humanity. Eliade stresses the need for developing a scholarly interest to the cultures of the non-Western peoples which is different from study conducted in the nineteenth century. Eliade criticizes the nineteenth century attempt of Indologists as detached and reductionistic. First and foremost, Eliade did not subscribe to the origin of Aryan Race theory in the study of Oriental religion and culture. Through his knowledge of Indian religion and culture, he did not submit himself to a racial theory of any kind which will fit into the scheme of 'human origin' advocated by the Naturwissenschaft school. Max Müller, a renowned Indologist from Germany is credited with the popularization of the Aryan racial theory in the middle of 19th century. Though he argued that Aryan meant only a linguistic family and never applied to race, the damage was already done. Eliade neither agrees with the view that Hinduism belongs to the family of Aryan religions nor does he define the relationship between Christianity and other religious traditions on the basis of what was known as a 'progressive history of religion'. According to the latter, each religion is placed in a sequence according to some qualitative differences between them arbitrarily established. In this line which constantly moves upwards Christianity occupies the highest and last point and it is called 'revealed religion'. Eliade argues that in Hinduism one finds a synthesis of two spiritual traditions, the tradition of Aryan language Indo-Europeans and Dravidian with Harappan elements. Indo-Europeans contributed to the pre-Aryan Indus civilization its patriarchal structure, pastoral economy and the worship of sky gods. Indo European was thoroughly Asianized and Hinduism represents the resultant victory of the Indian soil. This estimation of Eliade is in complete contrast to what other Indologists thought about the role of Indo-European tradition within Hinduism.

The nineteenth century research in Indology reflected different spirit of man, which failed to see the cultural heritage of the non-Western peoples as 'an integral part of the history of human spirit'. Their estimation of others as 'inferior societies' was largely 'derived form the positivistic, antireligious, and ametaphysical attitude entertained by a number of worthy explorers and ethnologists who had approached the "savages" with a ideology of Comte, Darwin, or Spencer. Among the "primitives" they everywhere discovered "fetishism" and "religious infantilism" - simply because they could see nothing else'. He called for a widening of western consciousness with a new knowledge of Asiatic societies and cultures. They were all considered as 'outsiders' but there is no need any longer to see then 'foreign' and non-western spirituality. He urges, '…we shall have to consider the cultures of non-Western peoples in their own right, and try to understand them with the same intellectual passion that we devote to understanding the Homeric world, the prophets of Israel, or the mystical philosophy of Meister Eckhardt. In other words, we must approach-and fortunately a beginning has already been made-Oceanic or African myths, symbols and rites with the same respect and the same desire to learn that hitherto we have devoted to the cultural creations of the West'.

For an Indian student, Eliade forms a mediating ground between Western and Eastern schools of thought because of his unique understanding of Orientalism. According to Eliade, the historian of religion will include the entire religious history of humanity, from Paleolithic to modern period, in his/her field of investigation without any pre-judgement. A true dialogue cannot be limited to discussing superficial elements of religions but must address the central values in each culture. This is vital as it will help the participants in dialogue to hear, see and touch 'the rich religious soil', which nourishes each culture. In this context, a historian of religion plays an important role in bringing cultures together to interact, speak to each other. The religious renaissance experienced by the West at the beginning of the twentieth century enabled the West to understand the spiritual horizon of the primitives, namely, 'the structure of their symbols, the function of their myths, the maturity of their mysticisms'. This new state of affairs Eliade calls as New Humanism.

For Eliade, this new awakening not only represents the strength of the West but also corresponds to the problems natural to European culture. Eliade's Western Indianism is not based on western superiority and knowledge over the weak and backward India. It denotes a confluence of West and East in which the West touches upon the strength of Indian philosophy. For Eliade, this process is culminated in India beginning to assert its place in the consciousness of the West. Amidst the problems that confronted the West the interaction with Indian spirituality takes place. 'We may, however, remark that the problems that today absorb the western mind also prepare it for a better understanding of Indian spirituality; indeed, they incite it to employ, for its own philosophical effort, the millennial experience of India'. The learning is not one-sided. Eliade is not proposing that both cultures learn from each other. It is not philosophical syncretism. He rather calls both Westerners and non-westerners 'to think in terms of universal history and to forge universal spiritual values'.

Eliade proposes a comparative method, a new way in which any culture or civilization compares itself with the other. 'We propose to reverse the terms of comparison, to place ourselves outside our civilization and our own moment of history, and to consider these from the standpoint of other cultures and other religions'. He urges an European reader to acquire a vision of an extra-European civilization'. 'If we can homologize the two philosophical horizons-Indian and Western- Hinduism constitutes the traditions of Aryan speaking Indo-European and that of the aborigines including Dravidians and Harappan cultural elements. It is a synthesis between the two in which the Indo European elements merged with those of the mysticism that was germane to the Indian soil. Eliade sees not much contradictions and incompatible elements between Indian and Western philosophy. Long before, depth psychology was the sages and the ascetics of India were led 'to explore the obscure zones of unconscious'. The problem of temporality and historicity of the human being, which is at the centre of European thought has preoccupied Indian philosophy from its beginnings.

Eliade, an advocate of the East to the West, writes,

'A number of Western investigators and philosophers may find the Indian analyses rather oversimplified and the proposed solutions ineffectual…Western philosophers may perhaps find the jargon of Indian philosophy outmoded, lacking in precision, unserviceable….The great discoveries of Indian thought will in the end be recognized, under and despite the philosophic jargon. It is impossible, for example, to disregard one of India's greatest discoveries: that of consciousness as witness, of consciousness freed from its psychophysiological structures and their temporal conditioning, the consciousness of the "liberated" man, of him, that is, who has succeeded in emancipating himself from temporality and thereafter knows the true, inexpressible freedom'.

The following quotation from Eliade's novel is also worth noting:

'But there is here [in India] a certain atmosphere of renunciation,…of control of the consciousness, of love, which is favorable for me. Neither theosophy, nor brahmanic practices, nor rituals - nothing barbarous, nothing created by history. But an extraordinary belief in the reality of the verities, in the power of man (sic) to know them and to live them by an interior realization, by purity, and above all be meditation'.

A welcome change is taking place in the NT studies that there is a new awareness to anti-semitism both within NT and in NT scholarship. A similar awareness towards the thought and practice of anti-Hamitism (anti-Orient) needs to be brought about by post-colonial readings of NT. But I am optimistic that the new humanism propounded by Eliade has more positive edge over any post-colonial attempt to deconstruct Western Orientalism.


NT is immersed in a hermeneutical tradition nourished in Western thinking. The Historical methodology, which provides the concepts and tools for the study of NT, has largely ignored the questions concerning the 'Sacred'. Eliade's achievements will help to meet the deficiency created by historical positivism, which pervades the NT scholarship. There are several significant methodological contributions by Eliade to the hermeneutics of NT which we have outlined above. Generally speaking, NT student has to march backward into OT and forward into creeds and confessions of the Christian Church. Eliade, as a fine Historian of Religion, has made us see the wider spectrum of religious experience within which and against which NT can be read. The worldview of NT is far wider and broader that it includes East and its multi-dimensional religious history and thought. Eliade's deep interest in myths, symbols and in archaic and Indian (oriental) religions will have paramount significance, first of all, for opening up religious dimension of the NT Christianity. Secondly, it offers a firm foundation on which an Indian student can build with a view to restore some of the NT religious phenomena which are closer to oriental instincts and experience.

The field of Christian Theology should not be defined in a way that it can exclude the other. We ought to rethink our purpose and recast our basic concepts. Significant NT scholarship can develop beyond and beside the Eliadean ideas and perspectives. A student of NT in India will find helpful directives in Eliade. He/she is grateful to Eliade for maintaining that myths and symbols communicate their messages even though modern (European) mind can claim not to have understood them. The NT student is now free to conduct his/her hermeneutical work upon myths without having to ask the question whether myths are intelligible to certain society lived or living at a given historical moment. One can discern potential openings for more fruitful study of religious phenomena in the NT. It inspires new perspectives that will help an Indian NT student to preserve the spiritual aspects of NT Christianity. In this respect, I find Eliade as a most trustworthy companion. He has shown the way that an Indian can walk in his footsteps. He is a true dialogue partner for a student of religion from the Indian sub-continent. In Eliade, an Indian Christian finds a Guru who opens the eyes to see the wealth of Indian traditions and who has made Indian/oriental religious philosophy dialogue with Western/occidental philosophical thought. Eliade is asking the modern (European) man to enlarge his 'self' to discover that human aspect within him which will help him understand the myths in religion. He deplores the wrong image of India developed in the perception of the West that Indian metaphysics and philosophy devalue Life. The provincial modes of thought and expression have to acknowledge not as Universal in themselves. The method and function of history of religions can assist NT theologians to understand its universal claim.

Finally, Eliade venerates his Christian heritage but takes up a shy attitude towards Christian Theology. It will be very difficult to judge him as someone who 'stands in the periphery of every religion, by profession as well as by conviction'. But it will be unfair to call him 'a religious mind without religion'.








































Viewed 24452 times.