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Wendell Beane

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Methodological, Pedagogical, and Philosophical Reflections on Mircea Eliade as Historian of Religions.

Wendell Beane

Eliade has been characterized as a scholar, poet, phenomenologist, structuralist, and even a theologian. As in the case of all intellectual giants, the very range and profundity of this scholars' work will tend to make such viewpoints inevitable. A discussion of Eliade's brilliant career and his own self-understanding, however, must take into account his claims (1) that he was not so methodologically self-conscious as his critics would wish; (2) that one can hardly understand him without taking into account his work as a whole; and (3) that the historian of religions completes his historical work as a phenomenologist or philosopher of religion.

Doubtless the first claim accounts for much of the controversy regarding his method; the second, feasible or not, concerns the relevance of an interdisciplinary factor for understanding him; and the third (viz. his use of the term philosopher) has implications unexplored by too many inside and outside of the History of Religions field. That parenthetical term tends to be provocatively illustrated by Eliade's statement that "religion . . . does not necessarily imply belief in God, gods, or ghosts, but refers to the experience of the sacred, and, consequently, is related to the idea of being, meaning, and truth" (Quest, i). The controversial tension between romanticism and historiography, though not new, revolves around that element in human nature which reflects the thirst for and 'ideal understanding' of religious phenomena, i.e. at the level of the 'universal.' Eliade, then, by deflecting our attention from mere history, or more, historicism as such, was inviting us to contemplate the philosophical significance of religion as itself revealing a capacity to answer questions of being, meaning, and truth.

The question of the role of the 'romantic' aspect of his scholarly studies continues deeply, of course, to disturb both those who have outright rejected Eliade's implied methodological assumptions and those who continue to turn an approving eye towards his pervasive emphasis on the human religious experience of what he called the Sacred. I will, ironically, demonstrate that scholars in either of these two camps tend to betray their own brands of methodological romanticism, much as Eliade could note in Ordeal by Labyrinth: Conversations with Claude Henri Rocquet, that "it is possible to recognize several great Biblical myths in Marx and Marxism," for example.

Whether or not the extent of his actual influence in the United States can be reasonably determined, I will take account of evidence of repudiation, ambiguity, and acceptance among academics. This paper will, nonetheless, argue that there is something in the thought of Eliade that deserves to influence the study of religion in the United States-and anywhere else for that matter. Before explicating, I intend to define such terms as romantic, and historiographic, as I understand them, and especially what I mean by legitimate. The substance of what I will call the legitimation process involves the conviction that Eliade, as a rather complex scholar of religion, may well constitute a refutation to a continuing but certainly fallacious generalization in the study of religion: that the philosophically 'engaged' researcher cannot be regarded as compatible with a basically historical approach to the questions of being, meaning, and truth to which the data of the study of religion continue to give rise, whether archaic or modern.

Accordingly, not only does Eliade's own understanding of the term "history" reflect this perspective (the Marburg platform notwithstanding), but it is buttressed by the fact that the very definition of historical among historians, even those without religious agenda, remains an open one.

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Dr. Wendell Charles Beane is Professor of History of Religions at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and does comparative research in his approach to the study of the major world religious traditions. He studied history, French , and pastoral theology at Howard University. He has been an Elder in the United Methodist Church since 1961. A student of Mircea Eliade and a graduate of the University of Chicago (Ph. D.), he has been a Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies and, at present, teaches world religions, Hinduism, issues in contemporary world religions, perennial myths and modern mysteries; a seminar on comparative-religious views of suffering; religion, faith, and healing; and comparative mysticism. He was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1990, and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents Award for Teaching Excellence in 1992. He has written scholarly articles for international journals, such as History of Religions (Chicago), Religious Studies (Cambridge), and World Faiths Insight (London). He is the author of Myth, Cult, and Symbols in Shakata Hinduism (E.J. Brill), and editor (with W.G. Doty) of Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader, 2 Vols. (Harper and Row). He has delivered papers before the American Academy of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the University of Wisconsin Madison Annual Conference on South Asia, and the National Medical Association. He has travelled widely and has spoken on various subjects ranging from Biblical mysteries and spirituality to meditation and mysticism. He is a former Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and was a Visiting Scholar at Andover Newton Theological Seminary for the year 1992-1993. he is now writing a book, entitled Interreligious Dialogue From a Christian Perspective: Problems and Prospects.