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The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (eds.)


Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest in 1907 and began teaching in the field the history of religions in 1946 at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was a member of the University of Chicago faculty from 1957 until his death in 1986. His many books include: Cosmos and History (1959), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1960), Images and Symbols (1969), and Myths and Reality (1963). Published by University of Chicago Press, 1959. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Preface by Jerald C. Brauer


The study of the history of religions appears to be at a critical point in its development. This is true of the discipline both in the East and in the West. For decades it seemed ready to come into its own as a major area of study in the universities and colleges. At a few European institutions it achieved such a status, but in the universities of English-speaking countries and most European schools, it remained an honored but peripheral discipline. At best, history of religions found its place in a rather uncomfortable position between the social sciences and the humanities.

Today the history of religions will either develop into a major specialty, playing a key role within and between the social sciences, humanities, and theology, or it will lapse into respectably tolerated standing within one or several of these disciplines. It is to be hoped that the former alternative will prevail, and already numerous signs indicate that this will be the case.

lt is a most auspicious period for the history of religions to become one of the pre-eminent disciplines in university life. It has more to offer both Eastern and Western man than ever before. The world condition is such that modern man, of the East and of the West, is struggling to comprehend this revolutionary age, with its sweeping changes and newly emerging pattcrns of life. One way in which man seeks to understand the present is to see it in relation to the past out of which it comes.

The world’s religions are everywhere resurgent. For the first time in modern history, Christianity, the predominant faith of the West, is faced by reinvigorated Eastern religions. This development can be explained only partially by the rising Eastern nationalism. The fact is that Western man cannot understand or appreciate the Asian peoples unless he has some knowledge and understanding of their religions. This in itself puts history of religions on a new footing in the modern university. It is no longer merely an interesting, esoteric, but respected pursuit. The history of religions is now necessary to apprehend our world situation and thus ourselves.

Another factor that has brought about this change in attitude toward the discipline is the new perspective that has been at work for the past quarter-century and is now beginning to dominate the mind and spirit of much of Western mankind. This new perspective grows out of developments in science, anthropology, and theology, but it is certain to expand in counteraction to a false equalitarianism. It upholds the uniqueness and givenness of vast expanses of human experience. Unlike the approach which seeks to reduce all experience and reality to a few basic ingredients or principles, this new perspective strives to grasp a given reality in its own terms, in its own uniqueness, and in its own context. Basic similarities are not stressed at the expense of peculiarities or differences.

Not only has the history of religions gone through this basic shift in viewpoint, as demonstrated by Professors Kitagawa and Smith, but it has helped to establish and deepen the new perspective. Religions are to be studied and understood for their own sake and not simply to provide self-knowledge, social knowledge, or ammunition to uphold a given religion. To be sure, all these things will be done, and therefore ought to be done with skill, imagination, and method, but at its best the history of religions goes beyond any one of these functions. It seeks to penetrate one of the few cardinal facts of life -- the phenomenon of man as a religious being. To properly investigate and explore this fundamental, one must begin with an attitude of respect and openness toward the religious reality itself as it is encountered in specific historical forms.

It is interesting to note that at this moment in history, when people everywhere are called upon to understand the heritage of others, a perspective dominates in the history of religions that demands investigation from a point of view that takes seriously the uniqueness and particularity of each historical religion. The discipline does not give up the search for universals or types, but it has moved far beyond the possibility of locating these in a few clear moral, ethical, or national common denominators. It can be argued that the enterprise now seeks the basically religious by moving through individual historical religious experiences rather than by ignoring or moving around the peculiar or particular experiences. Thus the discipline has much to contribute to modern self-understanding and will make its impact felt increasingly in university education.

In spite of the favorable contemporary circumstances, it will not be easy for the history of religions to establish itself as one of the leading scholarly activities in the modern university. In fact, the great danger is that it will be completely absorbed by certain other fields. The history of religions deals with materials handled also by philosophy of religion, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and theology. Its problem is to demonstrate that it is not merely ancillary to these other studies but is a discipline in its own right, drawing upon, yet making unique additions to, these areas of knowledge.

This is the question with which Professors Eliade, Danielou, Pettazzoni, and Massignon wrestle. It is the question of the methodology appropriate to the discipline. Unless a satisfactory answer can be found concerning the content and method adapted to the history of religions, it will not be able to fulfill its potential role. The late Professor Joachim Wach was probably correct in stating that there is no single procedure forever suitable to the study of the history of religions but that the method will have to be adequate to the total epoch and prevailing conditions of the time to which the study is directed. That is the point at which this discipline has now arrived. The essays of Danielou and Eliade make this quite clear.

On the other hand, there appears to be a good deal of effort in this undertaking to develop a satisfactory method and thereby to make its contributions. That is the purpose of this volume. Faced by an almost incomprehensible amount of material always contained in the most complex linguistic, political, and social contexts, the history of religions has moved ahead in the attempt to mark out its own responsibilities and contributions. It is as aware as any other discipline of the tension between objectivity and subjectivity, and it too is fighting the battle to achieve balance between unavoidable specialization and the necessity for generalization.

Scholarship in the United States sustains a notable burden in these circumstances, not only because of its unmatched financial resources, but also because of its unique position as the middle ground between European culture and the culture of the Asian nations. In this central situation American scholarship should be eager and willing to play a new role. Because of the vast amount of research in the social sciences, American universities are especially well equipped to become great centers for the study of the history of religions. They must of necessity retain a close connection with European universities while at the same time they develop and expand relations with the East and Africa.

One further practical consideration places a special obligation on American institutions. The history of religions faces increasing demands throughout American colleges and universities, but the reasons for this are not all good. Nevertheless, this presents a golden opportunity for the history of religions to seize the initiative and to turn it in the right direction. It could become as universal and as necessary a study for the college or university student as is mathematics or history. We live in the kind of world that compels us in the direction of such a movement.

It is planned to produce additional volumes in a series on the history of religions in order that specialists and other scholars may be kept abreast of developments in this investigation. An attempt will be made to focus on the major problems and areas of interest in the particular field, but an endeavor will also be made to deal with the interrelations of the history of religions to other disciplines.

It is fitting that the editorial work for this volume was done and two of the essays written by Professor Eliade and by Professor Kitagawa, a former student of the late Joachim Wach. Professor Wach was determined to build a strong discipline of the history of religions in the midst of a great American university. As his writings demonstrate, he was concerned that the question of method take temporary precedence over other aspects of study. He felt this was necessary if it was to survive as a distinct discipline and to play the creative role to which the history of religions was called by this era.

Mircea Eliade, Wach’s successor as chairman of the field of the history of religions in the theological faculty of the University of Chicago, continues in his own unique way the concern that the discipline develop and exhibit a method adequate to its own content, problems, and materials. It was to be expected that the first in a series of volumes on the history of religions edited by these scholars would deal with the central problem of methodology.

Jerald C. Brauer

 

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