Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Mircea Eliade and the Quest for Religious Meaning

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

Mircea Eliade and the Quest for Religious Meaning

Article excerpt

Abstract: As Mircea Eliade's translator and biographer Mac Linscott Ricketts states, Eliade involved the whole discipline of the history of religions in the quest for meaning. The paper examines Eliade's approach of religious documents, with benefits and shortcomings as appraised by some of his American critics, and looks closely at the Eliadean creative hermeneutics and the ambitious mission he envisaged for the discipline he has founded in the United States.

Key words: creative hermeneutics, new humanism, homo religiosus, myth, symbol, image, sacred and profane

"Creative hermeneutics changes man; it is more than instruction; it is also a spiritual technique susceptible of modifying the quality of existence itself. This is true above all for the historico-religious hermeneutics. A good history of religions book ought to produce in the reader an action of awakening."

Mircea Eliade1

Within a framework of discussion on exegesis and interpretation of religious texts, Mircea Eliade's "creative hermeneutics" calls for attention as a method that opened new possibilities for breaking knowledge limits and grasping meanings that otherwise could remain "hidden" in opaque "texts". Employing both reason and imagination, his endeavor opened up documents for the historian to "see" the spiritual message. I submit that only a person of "double vocation" like Eliade, who operated freely in two registers, scholarly and literary, could enrich the former with the creativity typical of the latter.

In this dual condition Eliade appears as a paradoxical author, himself attracted to paradox in human existence, who designed a "method for understanding and interpretation that is also paradoxical, full, imaginative, vital, and remains always open to the hidden and partial disclosure of essence." 2

Intertwined, religiousness and creativity, that Eliade believes to be the two major human attributes, produce myths, rites, images and symbols, "religious creations" that convey human experiences and carry worlds of meaning. To examine these documents as creations, and penetrate to their spiritual substance, the historian of religions needs a special investigative tool. "Hierophanies and religious symbols constitute a prereflective language. As is the case of a special language, sui generis, it necessitates a proper hermeneutics" writes Eliade in a Journal II entry on June 24, 1968. 3

Challenged by Claude-Henri Rocquet in the 1978 interview to talk about hermeneutics, Eliade defines it as "the search for the meaning, or the meanings, that any given religious idea or phenomenon has possessed in time."4 A historical account of the various religious expressions would be incomplete in the absence of a hermeneutical approach that should produce the meanings of the religious data. The "creative hermeneutics" that Eliade advocates discloses layers of meanings. By interpreting universal symbols, one discovers that new significance adds to the previous ones that the symbol held, as the symbol remains open. Using the example of the water symbol, Eliade shows that to the purification meaning of water baptism across the world, Christianity adds a new value that enriches the structure and turns baptism into a sacrament for Christians as an act instituted by Christ. Similarly, the symbol of the cosmic tree, that links two levels of existence, cosmic and human, and signifies the death-rebirth cycle, is extended through Christianity into the symbol of the cross that holds the mystery of death and resurrection.

In what Bryan Rennie calls a "methodological openness"5, Eliade initiates a holistic, cross-cultural, trans-historical humanistic approach of the religious text constituted by every form of religious expression to be found. To be able to investigate the religious thinking and creativity of humankind in its massive variety of forms and expressions, Eliade sets the rule of not focusing on difference, but on the elements of unity, the constants, the common patterns identifiable trans-historically, that "keep" humanity together. …

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