Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Guilty pleasure

It's been a while since I taught Mircea Eliade's essay "A New Humanism," the editorial kick-off of the new journal History of Religions in 1961. (Last year Hurricane Sandy gobbled up several class sessions, so it was dropped.) While I'm no partisan of the history of religions approach to our field - and in fact start my course with its great critic Jonathan Z. Smith - this essay inspires me every time. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

The new humanism of the title is Eliade's hope for a kind of revival in human civilization to be ushered in by the study of religion. Just as the renaissance humanists regenerated western civilization by reconnecting Europe of its roots in classical antiquity, so the study of religion will let us restore our humanity after the devastations wrought by modernity and the monotheistically-inspired colonial history-makers who have "desacralized" the world. From Oriental and "archaic" societies (India and aboriginal Australia, for instance) we can relearn that human beings cannot make meaning by sheer force of will, that time destroys all things, and that man's "thirst for the real" is best answered in religious ritual and myth, as well, in a derivative way, as in the arts.

Eliade thinks of the study of religion as both an academic field and a spiritual practice - and as the potential savior of the world. It can go to the head of a scholar of religion! The problem is... Well, we now know (and you might recall) that Eliade consorted with fascists in Romania, even getting his central conception of sacred and profane from a teacher named Nae Ionesco who was the inspiration for a fascit group. There's something more than notionally antisemitic in the celebration of cyclical time and folk traditions rooted in ancient soil, and there are shades of transmuted Christian antisemitisms in the characterization of modern irreligious man as constituted by a series of refusals and denials, seeking the empty freedom which comes with killing the last god.

Since these revelations of Eliade's youth, he's damaged goods in American academe. As you know, however, I'm in a way even more troubled by the enthusiasm which which his ideas were accepted and celebrated in postwar America, the way his quest for a way out of history and politics and cosmopolitan complexity spoke to cold warriors and to the counterculture too. My version of bearing self-vigilant witness as a German isn't exhausted by the memory work of "never forget" but extends to culture critical worry that "it could happen here."

I don't think that the study of religion has to carry this antimodernist proto-fascist baggage, but every time I return to "A new humanism" I have to admit that my heart sings. My own understanding of religious studies is only a little less messianic - it's not just a compensatory discipline making up for what overhastily secularized other disciplines ignore, but a call of conscience to all the academy. You've heard my mantra before: religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real. This is a quite un-Eliadian view, I'm relieved to note, closer in fact to Weber. It's a call to recognize and wrestle with complexity and difference rather than seek a way around it. But I feel a certain kinship with Eliade in my insistence on speaking of "the real," as if religious studies alone is able even to recognize it...

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