Eliade: Mormonism and Theories of Religion V

August 5, 2004 | 7 comments
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Unlike the other thinkers we have reviewed so far, Mircea Eliade was a religious person himself. Perhaps for this reason his sympathetic approach to religion has been extremely well accepted by Mormon scholars. When reading his books for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a strong kinship with him, as if his interpretation of religion was written about Mormonism itself. I once advocated in an EQ lesson that Eliade was essential reading for all Mormons.

While Frazer, Tylor, Freud, Durkhiem, and Marx have sought reductionist and functionalist solutions to explain religion, Eliade forcefully rejected such notions and sought to explain religion on its own terms. Its meaning could not be discerned through psychology or sociology. In doing so, some of his major insights include the relationship between the divine and earthly realm, or more precisely, the sacred and the profane. He noted that the earthly realm was often patterned after the divine, in order to make it sacred. An obvious place for this is in temples, which reflect the heavenly spheres in their design (the parallel to LDS temples should be obvious here). His understanding and articulation of sacred space has been widely accepted by LDS scholars, especially in explaining the temple. It illuminates even the geographical layout of SLC, with the SL temple as the central reference point for the city.

While in the other posts I have sought to rescue the theorists from criticism and explore how they might be helpful, the eager acceptance of Eliade by LDS causes me to want to be more critical of him here. In contemporary scholarship, he is criticized for being essentially a theologian picking out evidence from other religions to back up his claims. Additionally, his broad comparative approach often takes myths out of context and reinterprets them in his own theoretical categories. Does anyone find Eliade just a tad too convenient? Or, if Eliade fails at an explanation for all of religion, does he still succeed in explaining aspects of Mormonism, such as temples?

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7 Responses to Eliade: Mormonism and Theories of Religion V

  1. JWL on August 5, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    I have often recommended Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane to people preparing to go to the temple.

    Since Eliade knew little of Mormonism when he produced his main work, the fact that it resonates so well with Mormons at least must say something about its broader applicablility. If our test of the value of a theory of religion is whether it illuminates the religious experience, then I would say that his work is of value for the insights Mormons realize from it even if one can nitpick about its universal validity.

    I recall reading somewhere a report by a Mormon graduate student who introduced Eliade to Nibley’s writings late in Eliade’s life. My recollection was that Eliade’s reaction was interest, even though Nibley had studied with Eliade’s rivals at the Oriental Institute. I’ll see if I can find the source on that.

  2. Kevin Christensen on August 5, 2004 at 3:48 pm

    The graduate student was Gordon C. Thomasson. A conveniently available account of his experience with Eliade is in the FARMS Review 13:2, pages 105-107. Thomasson offered Eliade Nibley’s BYU Studies essay, “The Expanding Gospel,” and simply asked him what he thought. Eliade was impressed enough to want to hire Nibley.

    Kevin Christensen
    Lawrence, KS

  3. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 5, 2004 at 8:39 pm

    Well, you’ve got my link to the Chronicle article about how too many religion theorists just don’t believe that people believe in God or gods and that there isn’t any sacred, only the profane.

    I enjoyed Eliade thirty years ago or so, and I think I need to reread him again.

  4. Ethesis (Stephen M) on August 5, 2004 at 10:40 pm

    Heck, I decided to drop by Amazon.com and buy some books.

    After I made my order of Eliade books, this is what Amazon recommended to me:

    The Rites of Passage
    by Arnold Van Gennep
    Price: $13.00 Used & new from $7.00
    Ritual
    by Catherine M. Bell
    Price: $21.95 Used & new from $12.95
    The Ritual Process
    by Victor Turner
    Price: $16.95 Used & new from $12.95
    The Idea of the Holy
    by Rudolf Otto
    Price: $14.95 Used & new from $4.75
    Myth and Reality (Religious Traditions of the World)
    by Mircea Eliade
    Price: $15.50 Used & new from $10.00

  5. Jim F. on August 6, 2004 at 12:54 am

    I enjoy reading Eliade and recommend him to students who are interested in religious studies. My objection is that I think his conclusions apply reasonably well to the religions of the book and less well to other religions.

    I think what he has to say is very helpful in thinking about the temple.

  6. Anonymous on November 2, 2004 at 12:00 pm
  7. Anonymous on November 2, 2004 at 12:00 pm