The Christ of History
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954).1
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) was born in Bucharest, Romania, and educated at the University of Bucharest. After receiving a master’s degree in philosophy in 1928, he attended the University of Calcutta in India and studied Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. In 1931 Eliade spent six months in the ashram (hermitage) of Rishikesh, Himalaya. Upon returning to Romania, he earned his Ph.D. and then taught the history of religions and Indian philosophy at his alma mater. During World War II he was attached to the diplomatic service in London, England, and Lisbon, Portugal. After the war Eliade accepted a visiting professorship at the École des Hautes Études of the Sorbonne in Paris and then emigrated to the United States in 1948. In 1956 he was named Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. And in 1961 he founded the journal History of Religions. Eliade was a prolific writer of both nonfiction and fiction and a renowned scholar on the meaning of religious cultures. Among his many publications was a three-volume work entitled A History of Religious Ideas (1978-1985). He also was editor of the 16-volume Encyclopedia of Religion (1987).2 Nevertheless, he considered his slender volume The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History “the most significant of my books.”3 From his study of the symbols, myths and rites of primitive and ancient or archaic mankind, Eliade sought to understand the religious thinking and behavior of early man.
Man and the Beginning of History
From the beginning man (male and female) has been a religious animal.4 He is Homo religiosus. In everything he has thought and done, man has sought to maintain his connection with God. No time, place or event was significant to early man unless it was a repetition of a divine event, it was a place that God occupied, or it returned man to the Creation at the beginning of time. Through the use of symbols, myths and rites, man constantly imagined himself thinking God’s thoughts, repeating God’s actions, occupying God’s space, and living in God’s time. As long as man lived in the presence of God, he believed that he could escape the terrors of profane time, space and events. For example, to the Hebrews God was present in the Sabbath, which repeated the moment of Creation rest. God was present in the earthly Tabernacle and Temple, for they were copies of the heavenly sanctuary. God was present in marriage, which repeated his creative union of “Adam” and “Eve.” God was present in baptism, because it repeated God’s rescue of mankind from the chaotic, primeval waters and/or the Exodus crossing of the Red Sea.
Countless other examples could be given from ancient myths, but the record is clear. Archaic man determined to avoid his own presence in history by constantly returning to the time, place and event of God’s first presence. As Eliade states:
If we observe the general behavior of archaic man, we are struck by the following fact: neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them. . . .
Human acts, . . . their meaning, their value, are not connected with their crude physical datum but with their property of reproducing a primordial act, of repeating a mythical example.5
Much later, the Hebrew prophets vainly sought to orient the Jewish people to irreversible, straight-line history rather than cyclical history by showing that time and space and events could be endured because God was present in history. Despite these attempts by the prophets, the Hebrews repeatedly turned to the old symbols, myths and rites of Baal and Ashtoreth, whom they believed annihilated history by returning man to the beginning.6
Man and the End of History
Then Jewish messianism appeared. Messianism took another approach — the belief in a future, final regeneration of the world.
Since he can no longer ignore or periodically abolish history, the Hebrew tolerates it in the hope that it will finally end, at some more or less distant future moment. The irreversibility of historical events and of time is compensated by the limitation of history to time. [In archaic societies] . . . history was refused, ignored, or abolished by the periodic repetition of the Creation and by the periodic regeneration of time. . . . [In] the Messianic conception history must be tolerated because it has an eschatological function, but it can be tolerated only because it is known that, one day or another, it will cease. History is thus abolished, not through consciousness of living an eternal present . . . nor by means of a periodically repeated ritual . . . — it is abolished in the future. Periodic regeneration of the Creation is replaced by a single regeneration that will take place in an in illo tempore to come. But the will to put a final and definitive end to history is itself still an antihistorical attitude, exactly as are the other traditional conceptions.7
The idea that man could tolerate history because God would come and put an end to history was extended by Hebrew and Christian apocalyptists, who terrorized even the end of history. This view has persisted down to our time. Even today, many religious persuasions continue to predict the imminent end of history when they preach the end of the age, the end of the world, the rapture, the judgment, the tribulation, Armageddon, etc.
Man Alone in History
However, in the last 300 years humanism, Marxism, historicism and existentialism have been born out of a conviction that, because of his impassibility or nonexistence, God is not and cannot be present at the beginning of history, at the end of history, or throughout the course of history. Man is alone in history. “Historical man” is the man “who is, insofar as he makes himself, within history.”8 Man must negotiate all times, places and events by himself alone. Man must shake his fist in the face of God or at a nameless cosmic chaos and endure the terror of history alone. The well-known psychoanalyst and humanist Erich Fromm declared:
As long as anyone believes that his idea and purpose is outside him, that it is above the clouds, in the past or in the future, he will go outside himself and seek fulfillment where it can not be found. He will look for resolutions and answers at every point except the one where they can be found — in himself.9
The autonomous (self-contained) man of Erich Fromm and all other historicists is collapsing under the weight of the terror of history. As a result, we have now come to “a single, common crisis.”10 Autonomous man cannot survive autonomous history.
Modern man’s boasted freedom to make history is illusory for nearly the whole of the human race. At most, man is left free to choose between two positions: (1) to oppose the history that is being made by the very small minority (and, in this case, he is free to choose between suicide and deportation); (2) to take refuge in a subhuman existence or in flight. The “freedom” that historical existence implies . . . becomes . . . more alien from any transhistorical model.11
Faith and History
If man cannot live within the horizon of a constant new beginning, if he cannot live with the prospect of a future ending, and if he cannot live autonomously by making his own history, how then can man live? Simply this: Man can live only by a new category introduced into
religious experience: the category of faith. It must not be forgotten that, if Abraham’s faith can be defined as “for God everything is possible,” the faith of Christianity implies that everything is also possible for man. “ . . . Have faith in God. For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (Mark 11:22-24). Faith, in this context, as in many others, means absolute emancipation from any kind of natural “law” and hence the highest freedom that man can imagine: freedom to intervene even in the ontological constitution [being or existence] of the universe. It is, consequently, a pre-eminently creative freedom. In other words, it constitutes a new formula for man’s collaboration with the creation — the first, but also the only such formula accorded to him since the traditional horizon of archetypes and repetition [returning to the beginning] was transcended. Only such a freedom . . . is able to defend modern man from the terror of history — a freedom, that is, which has its source and finds its guaranty and support in God. Every other modern freedom, whatever satisfactions it may procure to him who possesses it, is powerless to justify history; and thus, for every man who is sincere with himself, is equivalent to the terror of history.12
Where, then, does Judeo-Christian “faith,” which is not confined to any religion, leave humanity with respect to history — with respect to time, to place, to events, to all of mankind’s historical presuppositions and preconceptions? Does it leave us with an interminable repetition of the beginning? No! Does it leave us with the destruction of history and the end of the cosmos? No! Does it leave us with autonomous man to wrestle alone in and with the terror of history? No! Rather, faith — wherever evidenced by loving care and compassion for others — thereby grasps the unseen hand of the risen, living, ascendant Lord. Such faith relationally unites humanity with the resurrected Christ, who is universally present in history. Indeed, the universal Christ is none other than the historical Jesus, who alone declares, “ . . . [L]o, I am with you [humanity] always . . . ” (Matthew 28:20, RSV). Although little appreciated or understood, Christ alone gives transcendent meaning to history. Moreover, through his relational presence with all humanity, Christ alone can carry us beyond the terror of history, beyond the mediation of the law, beyond the grave, beyond our autonomous selves.
Man is the only religious animal. Man exists to encounter God and, with God, to encounter himself and all others. This encounter does not take place by abolishing history — by returning man to the beginning or projecting him to the end. This encounter does not take place when man makes himself god and attempts to create history himself. This encounter only occurs wherever faith, acting for others, thereby grasps the relational presence of the risen Christ. Christ alone, who is universally present with humanity always, can free us — and himself — from the terror of history, from the mediatorial intervention of the law, from the bondage of the grave, and from our imagined autonomous selves.
- Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask, is available from Barnes & Nobel at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/myth-of-the-eternal-return-mircea-eliade/1120011676?ean=9780691182971. (go back)
- See Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. Eliade, Mircea; The International Who’s Who: 1985-86, 49th ed. (London: Europe Publications), p. 417. (go back)
- Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), p. xv. (go back)
- See John Elson, “How Man Created God,” Time, 27 September 1993, pp. 77, 78. (go back)
- Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return, pp. 3, 4. (go back)
- See ibid., pp. 2, 3. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 111, 112. (go back)
- Ibid., p. ix. (go back)
- Erich Fromm, Man for Himself (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1947), p. 249. (go back)
- See “A Single, Common Crisis,” Outlook (Prequel 1993.2). (go back)
- Eliade, Myth of the Eternal Return, pp. 156, 157. (go back)
- Ibid., pp. 160, 161. (go back)
This article was originally published December 1993 under the Quest imprint.