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The Theology of Altizer: Critique and Response by John B. Cobb, Jr. (editor)

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1970. Used by Permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 14: Notes for a Dialogue by Mircea Eliade

Note: Mircea Eliade is Professor of the History of Religions at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Illinois.

Some months ago I gladly accepted the invitation to discuss Thomas Altizer’s book, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred.1 Unfortunately, I did not have the time to write the "critical dialogue" that I originally had in mind. But while rereading Professor Altizer’s book, I made a series of rather loosely Connected critical notes and comments. These are certainly inadequate, and I had hoped to develop and articulate them more fully.

I am happy to be included in a volume devoted to Professor Altizer’s works, if only to express publicly my friendship for the man and my admiration for the author. The issue of agreeing or disagreeing with his theological innovations is, at least in my case, irrelevant. I am interested in Altizer’s writings for their own sake; I consider them original and important spiritual adventures.

My notes are largely confined to certain of Altizer’s interpretations with which I find points of disagreement and misunderstanding. I did not feel it necessary to be concerned with what I may call the positive aspects of his analysis.

1. A preliminary remark is that the book is personally important for Altizer, because it uncovers the direction of his own thinking. This does not imply that it is not a "serious" or "scholarly" work; it is, but, as happens with so many other scholarly products, it is also a deeply personal undertaking. Altizer does much more than present, discuss, and criticize my contribution to the understanding of homo religiosus. He writes original and always stimulating chapters on Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Proust, Freud, and Teilhard de Chardin. His comments on Nietzsche, especially, are of great consequence, for they reveal Altizer’s deepest level of preoccupation and commitment. Indeed, a few years after the publication of this book, he became the most popular champion of the "death of God" theology.

2. I have the impression that the reader must finish the volume feeling rather disappointed with Altizer’s declaration that my work utilizes the dialectic of the sacred in a "revolutionary" way. This is not surprising; for after Nietzsche’s splendid proclamation of "in jedem Nu beginnt das Sein," Proust’s discovery that "the only paradise is always the paradise we have lost," or Freud’s heroic transformation of metaphysics into metapsychology, how can one be attracted to the ideas of an author whose books bear such titles as Shamanism, Yoga, or The Forge and the Crucible? Or, to put it even more bluntly: how can the works of a historian and phenomenologist of religion display problems, discoveries, and splendors comparable with those found in The Idiot, Thus Spake Zarathustra, The Interpretation of Dreams, or The Phenomenon of Man?

3. Of course, one recognizes Altizer’s design: convinced that my interpretation of the dialectic of the sacred is timely for Christian theology, he wanted to show that other thinkers and artists have anticipated this type of dialectic or have proposed similar paradoxical recoveries of the sacred. I can only be thankful that he chose to discuss my work in the context of so many giants. But all of them are creative authors, and Altizer, who relied exclusively on my "scholarly" studies published in English and French, has ignored the complementary part of my oeuvre written in Romanian (eight novels, two volumes of short stories, five volumes of philosophical essays and literary criticism). Of course, these works are not yet available in English and only a few are translated into French and German; but I do not understand why Altizer did not consult Forêt interdite (a rather large novel of almost seven hundred pages), which could have helped him grasp more acutely my personal ideas on time, history, destiny, etc.

The fact is that "situations" and "messages" comparable, for example, with those deciphered in Kierkegaard, Camus, or Sartre, could be found in my literary and philosophical writings rather than in, say, Shamanism, Yoga, or even in The Sacred and the Profane. Thus, when Altizer states that "Dostoevsky’s novels demonstrate that a Christian sensibility can be open to the profane -- indeed, can be immersed in the profane -- while yet remaining indubitably Christian" (p. 113), he describes what I have tried to show in most of my fiction. Likewise, he could not have written that I "remain closed to the religious power of the profane" (p. 196), if he had read Sarpele (Bucharest: Editura Ciorne, 1937; in German translation published as Andronic und die Schlange, Munich: Nymphenbürger Verlag, 1939) or other of my novellas and short stories.

4. Altizer could reply that I did not manifest the same "openness to the profane" in my historical and hermeneutical works. Here, it seems to me, is a rather serious misunderstanding. In all my "scholarly" studies I attempted to illustrate a rigorous and relevant hermeneutics of the sacred. I did not intend to elaborate a personal philosophical anthropology. My principal objective was to forge a hermeneutical method capable of revealing to modern, desacralized man the meaning and spiritual values of archaic, Oriental, and traditional religious creations. I am truly grateful to Altizer for understanding so well, and expressing so sympathetically, my endeavor to disclose the coherence and richness of "primitive" and Asiatic religions. However, one can again detect a certain kind of malentendu. Reading his enthusiastic analysis of Yoga, Shamanism, The Forge and the Crucible, etc., one can receive the impression that these books constitute a cryptic philosophical anthropology. Altizer appears to be convinced that I present the "situation" of the shaman, the yogi, the alchemist, and particularly the "archaic mode of being in the world" as models for modern man. Naturally enough, he opposes this nostalgia as a regression to the archaic. "Like the Oriental mystic," he writes, "Eliade conceives of the way to the ultimate sacred as a return to the ‘nontime’ of the primordial beginning." And after quoting a passage from Patterns in Comparative Religion2 he adds: "As always, Eliade, in such statements, reveals his non-Christian ground; he is unable to say Yes to the future, to envision a truly New Creation, to look forward to the Kingdom of God" (p. 195).

Altizer has unraveled intentions in my works of which I am not aware.3 My scholarly enterprise was always more modest and more related to the labor of a religious hermeneut. I was striving simply to disclose the meaning and relevance of non-Western and non-Christian religions. I still think that such a "creative hermeneutics" is an important contribution to contemporary culture. This is not because it proposes "models" for a modern man, Christian or agnostic, for I never suggested that we must go back to the archaic or Oriental modes of existence in order to recapture the sacred.4 The possible relevance of my hermeneutics lies elsewhere -- it contributes toward filling the gap, so to say, between the modern, Western or Westernized, world and the "eccentric," dark, and enigmatic "primitive" and Oriental worlds. To understand the archaic or Asiatic modes of being, that is, to realize the religious foundation of their existence, is for me already a considerable accomplishment, not only because it helps a Westerner to communicate meaningfully with the representatives of Asia and the Third World, but, more so, because through such a hermeneutics Western spiritual creativity can be immensely stimulated.

5. It is true that the effort to understand non-Western and non-Christian values cannot succeed without a certain "sympathy" on the part of the hermeneut. This is the case especially when one tries to elucidate the meaning of archaic, and sometimes rather aberrant, religious creations. But such a "sympathy" does not imply either an adhesion to, or a nostalgia for, archaic creations. I have emphasized "primitive" religions only because I felt that previous exegesis, illustrated by so many famous anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists, did not do them full justice.

Altizer repeatedly refers to the "prophetic" quality of my work. Were I tempted to accept such an exalted appraisal, I would specify that it is a "prophetism" directly related to our historical moment, namely, the coming together of previously separated worlds, the "planetization" of culture. Indeed, I am convinced that this is the most recent and the most pertinent discovery of the West: the religious, cultural, and political existence of Oriental and "primitive" worlds. For a theologian, real "modernity" is not only the confrontation with the technological, desacralized societies of the West, but the dialogue with the religions that originated and unfolded outside of the Judeo-Christian traditions.

This is surely not a rejection of history, but an anticipation of the creative acts of the future. It is true that I have used the expression the "terror of history," but I was referring particularly to peoples that did not have the possibility or opportunity to "make" history, and to epochs when history was made exclusively by a handful of masters and terrorists, whatever they chose to call themselves. It is against the different types of postHegelian "historicisms" that I rebelled rather than against history as such.5

6. Altizer’s most serious criticism concerns my understanding of the dialectic of the sacred as a hierophany. He interprets this as meaning that the sacred abolishes the profane object in which it manifests itself. But I have repeatedly pointed out that, for example, a sacred stone does not cease to be a stone; in other words, it preserves its place and function in the cosmic environment. In fact, hierophanies could not abolish the profane world, for it is the very manifestation of the sacred that establishes the world, i.e., transforms a formless, unintelligible, and terrifying chaos into a cosmos.6 To quote what I wrote elsewhere:

It was the experience of the sacred which gave birth to the idea that something really exists, that there are absolute values capable of guiding man and giving a meaning to human existence. It is, then, through the experience of the sacred that the ideas of reality, truth, and significance first dawned, to be later elaborated and systematized by metaphysical speculations. The apodictic value of myth is periodically reconfirmed by rituals. Recollection and reenactment of the primordial event help "primitive" men to distinguish and hold to the Real. By virtue of the continual repetition of a paradigmatic act, something shows itself to be fixed and enduring in the universal flux.7

In short, the hierophany is an ontophany -- the experience of the sacred gives reality, shape, and meaning to the world.

Altizer seems very impressed by the archaic and Oriental obsession with the "beginnings." In the nostalgia for a mythical illud tempus, he sees essentially the inability of the "primitive" to affirm the present and the "primitive’s" fear of the future. But this is only partially true, for the models revealed in illo tempore serve to renew the world and to reinforce human life. Although apparently only imitating models supposed to have been revealed in the primordial, mythical time, homo religiosus also conquered the material world. One must always keep this fact in mind when assessing the meaning and function of myth.


1. Thomas J. J. Altizer, Mircea Eliade and the Dialectic of the Sacred (The Westminster Press, 1963). References to pages in this book are included in parentheses in the text rather than in the notes.

2. Mircea Eliade, Traité d’histoire des religions (Paris: Payot, 1949); Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. by Rosemary Sheed (Sheed & Ward, Inc., 1958), p. 408.

3. Sometimes Altizer misunderstands me, as for instance when he writes that "Eliade has confessed that, in the purer expressions of the sacred, the sacred is both inside and outside of ‘time’; here, the sacred and the profane are no longer in simple opposition" (p. 195). He refers to my Méphistophélès et l’Androgyne (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1962), p. 87; but in that passage I was only analyzing an experience related by Warner Allen in his book, The Time-less Moment; I was not conveying my own understanding of the sacred "inside" or "outside" of time.

4. I do not understand why Altizer considers that a correct exegesis of the yogic types of "knowledge" should imply the allegiance to Oriental modes of cognition and the rejection of Western philosophy also. Thus, after quoting two passages from my Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, tr. by Willard R. Trask (Bollingen Series LVI, Pantheon Books, Inc., 1958), pp. 51 f., he writes: "At this point it will be sufficient to note that Eliade is seeking a form of knowledge in which cognition, as the Western thinker understands it, will have disappeared. Rebelling against the ‘secular’ thought which has now overwhelmed the West, he seeks an authentic mode of understanding the sacred that will allow the sacred to be itself" (pp. 33-34). As a matter of fact, in my book on yoga I tried to elucidate only a specific, and extremely suggestive, Indian mode of thinking. I did not put forward my own philosophical presuppositions.

5. Altizer insists on the ahistorical character of my works. However, in Yoga, in my Birth and Rebirth (tr. by Willard R. Trask [Harper & Brothers, 1958]), and in other minor monographs I tried to describe the transformation of religious patterns by the very fact of their involvement with historical time. Moreover, the synchronic approach is as valid as the diachronic one. I concentrate primarily on structures because I am convinced that such a method is the most adequate for uncovering the meaning of religious phenomena.

6. Altizer asks himself: "Can Eliade remain content with the idea that the goal of man’s choice of the sacred is simply to arrive at a precosmic state? If so, he will be forced to abandon both his dialectical method and his Christian ground" (p. 104). Here again, I do not recognize my thinking. For the last thirty years, and in hundreds of pages, I have stressed the paradigmatic value of the cosmogonic myth, showing that the cosmogony constitutes the exemplary model for all kinds of "creations." The reintegration of the precosmic state is only a moment in the cosmogonic process, and it is superfluous to indicate the religious function of such ephemeral recoveries of the primordial Chaos. There are, certainly, examples depicting the desire to remain definitely in a precosmic state, but these are exceptions belonging mostly to "sophisticated" stages of some high religions (for example, post-Buddhist India).

7. Mircea Eliade, Preface to Thomas N. Munson, Reflective Theology (Yale University Press, 1968), pp. viii-ix.

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