Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 15D — Our Response Part 3

Our reader has asked us what we think of ‘Mircea Eliade, Romania’s great theologian, and his work in studying religions’.

When we ourselves saw the light on the road to Damascus, we did not deem it necessary to confer with flesh and blood in Chicago, so we have never studied the Chicago School of the study of religion. Hence, we really know very little about Mircea Eliade.

When we were thinking about this response, we searched the Internet on ‘Mircea Eliade’, but we were doubtful about what we read: Wikipedia is like a fish four days dead. But one thing rang true, that Eliade was the co-founder of the Chicago School of the study of religion, a school that dominated the study of religion in the United States for the last half of the Twentieth Century. But we would be hard-pressed to outline the tenets of the Chicago School. We understand, again from the Internet, that it is derived from the school of Rudolf Otto.

While some of Rudolf Otto’s concepts are useful, they are not the whole story. To suggest that Tatiana Goricheva had a subjective, psychological experience of the ‘holy’ would make her snort: she met God. Period. She’s a changed woman.

In this regard it is useful to look at our reader’s use of the term ‘theologian’. In the Orthodox Church, there are three saints who are given the title ‘theologian’: St John, the author of the Fourth Gospel; St Gregory of Nazianzus, the friend of St Basil the Great; and St Symeon, the 10–11th Century mystic. No one else bears the title.

The 153 Chapters on Prayer, now ascribed to Evagrius Ponticus, has a dictum that he who prays correctly is a theologian and a theologian is he who prays correctly. In other words, the theologian is one who has immediate direct experience of God. This dictum is repeated by St Maximos the Confessor.

Now there are of course academic professors of theology. These are professors who in the case of Orthodoxy discuss both historically and intellectually the tenets of Orthodoxy and what they mean.

In none of the above senses was Mircea Eliade a theologian. He was a student of comparative religion.

We do not know Eliades personal history, so we do not know what relations he had with the Orthodox Church, especially how he died—whether as a member of the Church or not. We have no idea. There are some indications on the Internet that in India he engaged in practices that are not acceptable to the Church, but we have no idea how true these assertions are, nor, if they are true, whether Mircea Eliade ever went through the cycle of Orthodox conversion according to the Parable of the Prodigal Son that we have discussed above. He might have; he might not; we have no information.

In general, this is not to deny that something useful might come out of the study of comparative religion, assuming that the person doing the study is a devout Orthodox. However, usually the devout Orthodox spend their time on other activities, like prayer or learning Orthodoxy. But that is not to say that such a study is impossible or wrong.

What is necessary here is a sensitivity to issues in the history of ideas: where did Eliade’s ideas come from? On the Internet, they say ‘ultimately from Kant by way of Rudolf Otto’. What connection do Eliade’s sources have to philosophical schools opposed to revealed religion, to Orthodoxy, to Roman Catholicism or to whatever? We have never done this study, but this is the sort of question that the Orthodox must raise. This is not to be fanatical but to be open-eyed. In this regard it is worthwhile to note that towards the ends of both their lives, Eliade was a collaborator with C. G. Jung, Hesse’s psychoanalyst.

We are a little more confident in discussing Jung’s religious orientation: The road taken by Jung is an ersatz-Religion that bedecks itself in myths and archetypes but lacks the essential capacity to meet God, to love.

Now this is not to say that in his scholarly work, Eliade was not an effective Professor. We really do not know. We have only read one work, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, and while we had some small questions about it, especially about his treatment of the Jesus Prayer (he dismisses it), we liked its general tone and it was in any event an early work of Eliade’s.

The next issue is the relation of secular learning, especially the study of comparative literature, to religion.

Both St Gregory the Theologian and St Basil the Great studied in Athens at the university for many years. St Gregory delayed his baptism lest he defile it in Athens. Both saints used the literary and philosophical knowledge that they gained in Athens in the service of the Orthodox Church. St Basil wrote a homily on the use of pagan literature in which he counsels the young to study and to make use of it, but not to get mixed up in the myths of the pagan gods. We would say: without getting lost in philosophical schools opposed to religion and especially to the Orthodox Church. One saint has described the Orthodox use of pagan learning as ‘despoiling the Egyptians’, after a passage in Exodus.

In general, we would counsel our young reader to get the best education he can, but to have a certain critical attitude, so that he understands when he’s being sold a philosophical bill of goods. That is not to say that he should pass his remaining time in boarding school arguing, or that he should do so in college. He is clearly philosophically and literarily oriented, and he will also need to do some work in the history of ideas. The only advice we would give is for him to get into the best college he can and make the most of his years there, without sacrificing his faith and without falling into sin. This may require—and certainly does require—the support of the Church through regular confession.

Our own view is that the study of comparative literature will give our reader some insight into the human condition: great literature portrays the human condition; like all great art it has both its limitations and its strokes of blinding insight. Great art cannot be opposed to religion: religion speaks to the human condition that it portrays. And it is not so bad for a student who is well-grounded in Orthodoxy to read something of the literature that arises out of cultural contexts defined by other faiths: he will understand his own faith better when he sees how the other faith moulds the weltanschauung of both the author and the characters in the author’s work.

With respect to the issue of monasticism, it is clearly early for our reader actively to be considering entry into a monastery. However, there is no reason he should not be investigating the matter while he is completing his education, through reading and even through having a confessor who is a monk in a monastery. In general, unless there are serious reasons to do otherwise, we counsel all to get the best education they can before entering a monastery.

As we have emphasized, our reader has to exercise a certain amount of discretion, only attending Church and monasteries which are in a canonical jurisdiction (i.e. in active communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; this includes the Romanian Church).

If we suppose that one day our young Romanian-American reader will have a position of authority in American or other society, then it behoves him to know how to think, and how to understand both American and other societies. The study of comparative literature will give him that, especially when combined with some work in philosophy and languages, including ancient Greek. He will come out an educated man, an educated Orthodox. We wish him well.

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