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A History of Religious Ideas Vol.3: by Mircea Eliade, translated by Alf Hiltebeitel and Diane Apostolos Cappadona (University of Chicago: $27.50; 348 pp.)

December 22, 1985|Niaian Smart | Smart, who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, is author of many books including "Worldviews" (Scribner's). and

This is the third of four volumes surveying world religions by the dean of the history of religions in the United States. Mircea Eliade, Romanian by upbringing, French by culture and above all American in influence, has over the last 30 years placed his stamp on the comparative study of religion. Now in old age, he is completing, amid great difficulties (failing eyesight and arthritic hands), what is doubtless his last great work. The present volume covers what to Western readers must appear the most crucial period in human religious history, for it includes the formation of classical Christianity and the Reformation, of Judaism as it emerged in much the general form by which we know it today, and of Islam. But it also includes some other material which both reflects Eliade's own interests and the general time span he has set himself. Thus there are discussions of the religions of ancient Eurasia--Turkish, Mongolian, Finnish, Balt and Slav; of those echoes of ancient heresy such as the Bogomils, who were important both in Eastern and Western Christendom and were stamped out in the 13th Century by Christianity's only successful Crusade; of the Hermetic tradition and other survivors of pre-Christian thought before and after the Reformation; and of classical Tibetan religion.

The last is stuck a little disjointedly on the end of Eliade's main narrative. The dislocation is inevitable because of course the history of human religions was until recent times the histories of wholly or partly separated cultures. But now we have moved into a single world history, where all faiths are in contact. It is in our period of global civilization that interest in the field of cross-cultural religious study (and practice) has rightly burgeoned. Though some Christians, Jews and Muslims are suspicious of mutual dialogue, there are many others who sincerely wish to have a better grasp of each others' ideas and feelings. We all need to know about religions to understand world culture. Eliade's major contribution has been his presentation of deep symbolic themes, of sacred space and time, for instance, drawn from the archaic patterns of human religious thinking, and taken up variously in the great religions. In many ways, he sees a continuity between the older themes of ancient "non-literate" religions, for instance of the Siberian shamans, or experiential specialists, and the religious themes of the world religions.

What slants on religions does Eliade give here, which are illuminating and which you would not get from other pan-religious histories? First, although he is selective, there is a certain balance--especially in treating Christianity quite substantially in its Eastern Orthodox form, and in the emphasis on the Shiites in his exposition of Islam, which is often too simplistically identified with the mainstream Sunni tradition. Second, he brings out the continuing importance of esoteric religion--Sufism, the persistence of Neoplatonism, and--in Judaism--the Kabbalah. Third, there are interesting insights into pre-Christian religions in Eastern Europe. There is also an excellently conceived review of research and bibliographic material. Though the book will be useful to students in the field it also could interest a much wider general audience.

There are omissions. There is not much treatment of the political and social setting in which the religions had to develop. There is not much, therefore, on the immediate and for the modern world significantly political consequences of the Reformation, though these may come in the last volume. There is not much on the actual patterns of worship and religious practice surrounding the symbolic themes and interior experiences which he tends to emphasize. Nor has Eliade ever been very greatly interested in doctrine and ethics. But since so much of traditional teaching about religion has emphasized these dimensions and neglected the experiences, rituals, symbols and mythic resonances of religion, he is in his own way redressing the balance. His title, thus, is just a little misleading. But this volume is a further manifestation of the broad vision of one of the age's major scholars. We look forward to the fourth volume, with which he is now, helped by colleagues and students, struggling. This third volume and its predecessors are a great achievement.

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