Friday, February 10, 2012

Faith, History, and Eschatology

Just finished reading The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade, thought I would share some sections of the book here.  This is not meant to be a summary of the book’s main argument, I’m intentionally focusing in on a few things that I found particularly interesting.
The book is dealing with ancient/ “primitive”/ “archaic” understandings of humanity’s relationship with metaphysical concepts like “reality” or “being” or “time.”  To give you a little background:
The metaphysical concepts of the archaic world were not always formulated in theoretical language; but the symbol, the myth, the rite, express, on different planes and through the means proper to them, a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things, a system that can be regarded as constituting a metaphysics.  - 3
In other words, religious myths and religious actions were a major locus of how such concepts were understood in the ancient world.  
[On the] “primitive” ontological conception: an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.  Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is “meaningless,” i.e., it lacks reality...  Hence it could be said that this “primitive” ontology has a Platonic structure. - 34
Insofar as an act (or an object) acquires a certain reality through the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures, and acquires it through that alone, there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of “history”; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place. - 35
Essentially, Eliade argues that for the ancient world a kind of dualism pervaded their philosophy in which that which was truly real was that which could escape the changing flow of time.  This was enacted through the retelling of religious myths, which were timeless, and the participation in religious rituals, through which Eliade writes “[ancient man] repeats the gestures of another and, through this repetition, lives always in an atemporal present.” - 86
For contrast, take a modern view of time and history as exemplified by Hegel:
For Hegel, history is “free” and always “new,” it does not repeat itself; nevertheless, it conforms to the plans of providence; hence it has a model (ideal, but none the less a model) in the dialectic of spirit itself.  To this history which does not repeat itself, Hegel opposes nature, in which things are reproduced ad infinitum. - 90
And now for the really interesting bit, contrast both these models with Eliade’s interpretation of the relationship with time and reality in ancient Hebrew thought:
For the first time, we find affirmed, and increasingly accepted, the idea that historical events have a value in themselves, insofar as they are determined by the will of God.  This God of the Jewish people is no longer an Oriental divinity, creator of archetypal gestures, but a personality who ceaselessly intervenes in history, who reveals his will through events (invasions, sieges, battles, and so on)... It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.  We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history. - 104
What makes this even more interesting is the way in which this conception of history takes on an eschatological dimension:
Under the “pressure of history” and supported by the prophetic and Messianic experience, a new interpretation of historical events dawns among the children of Israel.  Without finally renouncing the traditional concept of archetypes and repetitions, Israel attempts to “save” historical events by regarding them as active presences of Yahweh.  Whereas, for example, among Mesopotamian peoples individual or collective sufferings were tolerated insofar as they were caused by the conflict between divine and demonic forces, that is, formed a part of the cosmic drama, in the Israel of the Messianic prophets, historical events could be tolerated because, on the one hand, they were willed by Yahweh, and, on the other hand, because they were necessary to the final salvation of the chosen people.  - 106-07
Out of this eschatological dimension develops a new perception of God which makes possible faith (interesting to note that Eliade’s understanding of faith here is being influenced by Kierkegaard):
Abraham’s religious act [the sacrifice of Isaac] inaugurates a new religious dimension: God reveals himself as personal, as a “totally distinct” existence that ordains, bestows, demands, without any rational (i.e., general and foreseeable) justification, and for which all is possible.  This new religious dimension renders “faith” possible in the Judaeo-Christian sense.  - 110
In another gesture to Kierkegaard, Eliade then describes how this kind of faith, made possible in Judaism and Christianity, has struggled to catch on:
Neither in Christianity nor in Judaism does the discovery of this new dimension in religious experience, faith, produce a basic modification of traditional conceptions.  Faith is merely made possible for each individual Christian.  The great majority of so-called Christian populations continue, down to our day, to preserve themselves from history by ignoring it and by tolerating it rather than by giving it the meaning of a negative or positive theophany.  - 111
In other words, Eliade seems to be suggesting, for the majority of the Christian tradition the locus of religion is still found in ritual (which recalls the idea of participating in an eternal present) and not in “faith.”  I find this whole comparison very interesting for a few reasons.  First, it definitely seems to be a jab at Catholicism in the name of promoting a kind of Kierkegaardian, perhaps even evangelical, conception of “faith.”  It is also interesting because of the way in which “faith” in this sense is intertwined very closely with eschatology.  Any thoughts?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I am reading a book by George Eldon Ladd which focuses on eschatology so my mind is on the topic. Is Eliade saying that Christianity is based on our experiences with God as opposed to this "belief in things we have not seen or experienced" type of "faith"? -Clayton

    1. Hey Clayton, good to hear from you! Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed the post. I'm not entirely sure that I understand your question, but as best I can tell Eliade isn't really interested in exploring what any particular religion is based on (historical experience or psychology or whatever else someone might want to hypothesize), he's more interested in describing commonalities and patterns in the "thought" that arises from religions that already exist.

      With that said, he does discuss the relationship of what he terms "myth" and what he terms "history" in places. He seems to argue that the two are not entirely exclusive of one another but that over time "myth" usually overtakes "history" in human memory for a variety of reasons. His main focus is on the "myth" side of things, understanding how myths attempt to describe the world.


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