Michael J. Altman (U of Alabama) has a fascinating post about “The History of Religions in American Religious History” over at Religion in American History. He argues that Eliade’s sui generis or “religion on its own terms” approach became essential to the “liberal (post?) Protestant approach to religion as a meaning-making system.” Altman is absolutely right to laud the effect Eliade had on religious studies in the second half of the 20th century.
There is really no escaping the orbit of his scholarship or his academic progeny. I certainly haven’t been able to escape it. As a Master’s student at Miami University, I trained with several of Eliade’s former students, and their shelves were lined with books annotated by Eliade that they obtained after he passed in 1986. I freely admit that I fall into the camp of Eliadean critics such as J. Z. Smith, but my disapproval of Eliade’s work is fundamentally about the destructive consequences of his comparative approach and not my reluctance to acknowledge his intellectual legacy.
The issue I wanted to raise with Altman’s post is its obvious oversight of William James. I don’t blame Altman much. He’s teaching an Introduction to Religious Studies course, and he cannot possibly cover every angle. So when the material extends from Durkheim, Freud, Hume to Eliade, then it is natural to say “Then comes Eliade. In America.”
The problem is that Altman lays the “explanation is anathema” approach at Eliade’s feet. I could easily quibble with this description of Eliade’s theories–his descriptive categories are actually explanations and therefore explanation is anything but anathema to Eliade and other comparativists. But I think the bigger issue is that the presentation of religion as sui generis in America is really the product of William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
We could have an interesting discussion about whether James’ Varieties or Eliade’s Sacred had a greater influence on the understanding of religion in America. There’s an element of periodization to grapple with, too. Altman suggests that Eliade is responsible for late 20th century liberal perspectives. Of course, James was pretty much the poster child for early 20th century liberal perspectives. He is a major part of the cadre of American progressives, right? How do we reconcile these?
For me, what Eliade brought to the table that James did not was his stress on the universalism of religious beliefs across time and space. Cultural and historical differences were no obstacle for his comparisons. Religious behavior was native to humanity. Descriptive categories of belief, symbols, and rituals were ways to demonstrate the nature of homo religiosus.
[If I were to pick a second item I might say that his perspective was inexorably tied to emerging theories of modernity’s disenchantment and critiques of modern religious sensibilities. This component of Eliade’s work feels inseparable from the ravages of WWII and the rise of strongly atheistic governments.]
Eliade’s critics–especially J. Z. Smith–have been forceful about Eliade’s arm-chair anthropology. Creative comparisons remain the lifeblood for historians of religion, but I think we’re more careful than ever about the serious implications of cross-cultural categories.
A lack of caution in that area is one of the traits of modern liberalism. Oddly enough, those who argue that God is one or that all paths lead up the same mountain sustain a difference-obliterating and culture-erasing practice that diminishes the diversity they claim to cherish. (This is an accusation laid against the work of, say, Diana Eck, in the recent work of Stephen Prothero.)
At the end of the day, many religious studies scholars agree that world religions (already a contested and constructed category) are rivals and not merely alternative versions of the truth (if we even have a right to make that judgment). I think Eliade would have a serious problem with that reality of today’s field, but that’s where we are.