MR: “Eliade’s Return”

A new issue of The Mormon Review is available, with a review of Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return by Richard Lyman Bushman.  Eliade is a major scholar of religious studies, and his ideas regarding sacred space and sacred time have been hugely influential on how two generations of Mormon intellectuals have thought about the temple.  The article is available at:

Richard Lyman Bushman, “Eliade’s Return,” The Mormon Review, vol.1 no. 3 [HTML] [PDF]

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56 comments for “MR: “Eliade’s Return”

  1. September 7, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I felt like I suddenly understood what the temple was all about after reading the Myth of Eternal Return. I’m using Eliade, particularly the Myth of Eternal Return, for my dissertation on the rise of Mormonism, so I totally agree.

  2. Nate Oman
    September 7, 2009 at 10:29 am

    It gives you some idea of the family that I grew up in, that I believe my father gave me my copy of The Myth of the Eternal Return shortly before I took out my own endowments. (Or it may have been Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane.)

  3. September 7, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    One of my institute teachers at The U introduced me to Eliade’s work. Since then his books have been a significant part of how I think about my faith. I’m glad to see this review.

  4. September 7, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Great article. A lot of Eliade’s points regarding ancient temples square with Nibley’s. I share Prof. Bushman’s experience that I remember exactly where I was when certain Great Ideas regarding the temple were brought home to me through the writings of others.

  5. September 7, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    As if I weren’t behind enough if my reading…

    Thanks for the great review and for bringing this book to my attention. Amazon will deliver it on Thursday. :-) ..bruce..

  6. September 7, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    While I’m not sure I buy the thesis of dealing with terror it is a fact that Eliadi is a great way to introduce people to the temple. Were I a rich Bishop or Stake President I’d give a copy of a few of his books to everyone getting their endowments.

  7. September 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Geoff, Nibley came out of that structuralist era that includes Campbell, Eliadi, and many others. The main difference is that Nibley is an odd mixture of Platonism and diffusionism (IMO) whereas most doing mythic criticism in the 50’s and 60’s saw it as relating to underlying psychic structures in the brain. Nibley sees it either as recollection of a society in heaven or divine revelation of eternal truths.

    However one should keep in mind that there is a reason why post-structuralism arose. Structuralism has many flaws. And the mythic structuralists in particular tended to try and fit myths or narratives into larger narratives by divorcing them from their natural contexts. Contexts that often undermined their use by figures like Campbell. Of course the main criticism of Nibley is also that he divorces his examples from their natural contexts – contexts which often undermine his use.

    So there are good reasons to be somewhat skeptical of these sorts of books and articles.

  8. September 7, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Eliade has taken a beating for the last two decades for the reasons Clark lays out. Yet on the question of mythical similarities Eliade, as I understand, cannot be neatly classified. He certainly wasn’t a structuralist like Levi-Straus, and critics often overlook his last major work A History of Religious Ideas, where he traces concepts historically. There Eliade traces ideas through all kids of religions and what he says about Christianity is really fascinating. I think it really fits the Mormon view. So in the end, Eliade argued that ideas simply persisted.

  9. September 7, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I deeply respect Eliade. He’s far more genius than I’ll ever be, but at the same time I don’t think LDSs should uncritically flock to him, the way that they have, IMO, flocked to Margaret Barker (who Bushman also cites). While Eliade more or less founded the modern comparative study of religion, the field has built on his work and moved on.

    To me, Eliade represents the current state of field of LDS comparative studies (using the word ‘field’ in a loose sense). It’s decontextualized (moving from one society/tradition/time period to the next without the self awareness of the difficulty of doing so), presumes a shared religiosity (i.e., a common “ancient” religiousness), and is really theology masquerading as comparative religion (in other words it’s primary interest is not in lucid description, but in reaffirming our truth claims). The end result tends not to be an accurate depiction of the ‘other’, but a distorted ‘other’ used to reaffirm Mormon triumphalism. This isn’t to say that Eliade no longer has things to offer–the majority of Bushman’s essay points in this direction; but just that uncritically touting his efforts fosters rather than solves these problems.

    To get a good idea of how Eliade fits into the larger conversation I would recommend Sharpe’s “Comparative Religion: A History”. I believe a new and updated edition was published a couple of years ago.

  10. September 8, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Interesting how old works are still generating thoughts and comment.

    When I read the title of this post, I was wondering if Eliade had returned from the dead … or if his school of thinking were making a comeback.

    In a way, both are happening.

  11. Nate Oman
    September 8, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Small Axe: It’s odd to me that you read Mormon uses of Eliade as being theology masquerading as comparative religious studies. Why not simply see it as theology, pure and simple. I realize that for religious studies types there is a certain embarrassment about doing theology, especially given the importance of the new field to differentiate itself from the older div school curriculum. On the other hand, for those of us unburdened with disciplinary anxiety about the autonomy of religious studies, I don’t see what we need to be embarrassed about doing Mormon theology, including Mormon theology that borrows ideas somewhat promiscuously from folks like Barker or Eliade. Of course, we could still be doing Mormon theology badly (and most of the time we probably are), but the fact that something doesn’t constitute cutting edge research in comparative religion seems neither here nor there on the question of whether it is good theology.

  12. September 8, 2009 at 10:30 am

    I knew Eliade as a self-indulgent autobiographer and the rightist author of a hagiographic, apologetic history of the Romanian people before I knew him as a comparatist. Which, to be honest, put me off his work, but perhaps I’ll pick up Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. But that’s just an aside.

    Bushman writes: “In Mormonism, redemption at the end does not alone give history meaning; the gritty reality of everyday experience is all part of an eternal education.”

    One of the things that the Romanians taught me is that the gritty reality of everyday experience is much easier to value when it’s swathed in the bougie life of an abundance of basic goods and services and leisure time. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t learn from their gritty realities. But sometimes the drive to find the education in the experience too quickly diminishes and at the same time makes too important all the crap that happened. And sometimes it takes years to unlearn the terror and suspicion that is taught so well and so long it seeps in to your marrow. That there were Romanians who were willing to try to embrace what Bushman calls the “ordinary Mormons day by day use their theology” is to me, a mystery, a miracle, and something pretty damn amazing. That it didn’t always work was a tragedy. The moments when it did — pure joy.

  13. TT
    September 8, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I’d say there is nothing embarrassing about doing theology per se, but one who is doing it should do it self-consciously, with an awareness of the disciplinary boundaries. The problem with Eliade is not that he is theological per se, but that his theology pretends to be comparative religion.
    If LDSs want to use Eliade theologically to understand the temple, they should be aware that the comparative claims that he is making are highly suspect. To the extent that LDS work that uses Eliade theologically to understand the temple as some sort of representative of “arachaic religion” or unproblematically compared to other ancient temples and societies, they make the mistake of doing theology badly.

    I find Bushman’s rejection of historicism interesting, and I sympathize for the search for “meaning,” but I wonder if we shouldn’t historicize Eliade for a moment. The kind of nihilism that Eliade attributes to it seems to be a kind of lazy anti-relativism. His claim in the 70’s that historicism would die is manifestly wrong in today’s academy, which has systematically dismantled the structuralism of the mid-twentieth century, a move that had already started when Eliade was writing. I wonder if Bushman and Eliade have substituted nostalgia for “meaning” in history for the critical evaluation of the structures which supposedly provide that meaning.

  14. Nate Oman
    September 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    TT: I am walking out the door for a run, so I don’t have time to make a longer reply, but let me see if this summarizes things well:

    1. One could read Eliade primarily for the structuralist argument that he makes about comparative religion. This structuralism could then be adopted by Mormons as evidence of diffusionism from an archaic, ur-religion that takes some kind of Mormon form. (This is how Nibley reads the structuralist argument).

    2. This (1) is a bad use of Eliade because his structuralism has been undermined by a more nuanced understanding of the traditions that he compares. In the end, there is no deep structure. Just the stories that we tell about how one damn thing happens after another to produce whatever it is we are looking at.

    3. One the other hand, one could also read Eliade not because he provides insight into deep structures, but because the structure that he lays out happens to give one a bit of leverage in rendering the admittedly foreign rituals of the temple more meaningful. One can leverage Eliade in this way without taking any particular view as to the validity of his structuralism or its source.

    Provided that this captures what you are saying, I think that we basically agree. My problem is that I think that Small Axe (and you?) assumes that 1 is more common than 3, while I think that the opposite is true. I am also less sanguine about the ability to disentangle some autonomous discipline called “religious studies” from a set of theological commitments. I think that insisting on the ability to accomplish this disentanglement is important for religious studies types largely for institutional reasons having to do with one’s professional status within the academy. On the other hand, I am less convinced that the failure to disentangle one’s theological commitments entirely from how one talks about religion is actually that big of an intellectual problem per se. Since I — and most Mormons — are not professional practitioners of the discipline of “religious studies,” I am not convinced that we need to have too much anxiety to whether we might be doing theology, just so long as we are always willing to revise our beliefs and interpretations in the face of good reasons to do so. Until the need for the distinction is cashed out in terms of illuminating concrete points of confusion, my suspicion is that we may simply be engaged in boundary maintenance for institutional rather than intellectual reasons.

    (Note: I am not trying to diss religious studies here. I am a law professor, and if ever there was a field with huge anxieties about autonomy and major problems with intellectual boundaries driven by institutional imperatives it’s law.)

  15. SC Taysom
    September 8, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    It’s not just Eliade that occupies an ambiguous place in religious studies theory these days–it’s basically any scholar thought to be a phenomenologist, from Rudolph Otto to Ninian Smart and beyond. The assumption of a “numinous other” located outside of human cultural or psychological systems is seen as crypto-theology. And Nate’s point about the boundaries between religious studies and theology is the jumping off point for some very important debates in the field at this very moment. To summarize, a small but vocal group of scholars have called for the abandonment of religious studies because it is studying something–“religion”–which is an untenable vehicle for taxonomy because it is a category invented by Western Christians and into which theologian/scholars tried to shove disparate cultural manifestations. Everything flowing from those beginnings, the argument goes, is, consciously or not, crypto-theology. So Nate is correct, if you aren’t involved in the religious studies academic community, and you are in fact working from explicitly theist assumptions it doesn’t really matter if Eliade is working from a phenomenological assumption. If you are writing a dissertation in a elite religious studies department, using Eliade will probably require some justification.

  16. Daniel
    September 8, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    In the name of “meaning”, Eliade suggests (and Bushman takes up the offer) that, against the terror of history “Mormons day by day use their theology to deal with the terrors that he thought were the greatest challenge to human understanding.”

    Such readings of Eliade as that proposed by Oman, that claim not necessarily to be providing insights into deep structures — but instead simply (and naively?) to appreciate Eliade for “the structure that he lays out [that] happens to give one a bit of leverage in rendering the admittedly foreign rituals of the temple more meaningful” — such readings are the unfortunate result of a refusal to distinguish between religious studies and theology.

    Bushman virtually exults in the idea that we LDS “constantly evoke the phrase ‘a learning experience’ to account for sorrows and disasters.” Thus, the deep structure need only deep enough as to “give thee experience” in some divine pedagogical endeavor.

    To preserve “meaning”, Eliade, Bushman, and Oman would have us preserve such deep structure (so long as we don’t take it too seriously) as constitutes complicity with an ultimately amoral ontology.

    “To give thee experience” as a pedagogical ontology and basis for protecting ourselves against despair, and preserving “meaning”, leads to every sort of spiritual, moral, and practical license. Its optimism turns to an ethical indifference whereby Latter-day Saints deliberately seek to “taste the bitter so that they might better appreciate the sweet”, or to deliberately sin so that they might better appreciate repentance and the Atonement.

    On this view, Eliade is used by Mormons to justify a wreckless and systematically corrupt curiosity: after the pure and classic truths, the exciting and rancid ones must be experienced! It makes the “experience” the horror of history produces in us a sufficient reason for the perpetration of evil. In so doing, it transforms life from a tragic reality into an insincere melodramatic exhibition, as foul or as tawdry as anyone’s diseased curiosity pleases to carry it out.

    Give me historicism a thousand times over rather than such an abomination!

  17. SC Taysom
    September 8, 2009 at 6:58 pm


  18. Nate Oman
    September 8, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Daniel: That is a wonderful bit of polysyllabic polemic, but I have to confess that I am not quite sure who it is against. I certainly don’t recognize the straw-Nate against whom you tilt. My own appropriation of Eliade is linked far less to his attacks on historicism, than to using ideas like sacred space and temple as an orienting point in the universe. I really don’t care whether these ideas reflect some deep structure in the human mind, diffusion from a primal ur source, or something else. Put more polysyllabiclly, Eliade’s virtue for me lies in hermeneutic inspiration rather than in the revelation of any particular ontology. Once the spark of inspiration comes, however, my main interest is in the hermeneutic rather than some ontology that lies behind Eliade’s structuralism.

  19. September 8, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    SC Tysom: It seems to me that in many ways the project of religious studies as an autonomous discipline doesn’t make sense. To the extent that one isn’t going to do theology or philosophy of religion or the like, it seems to me that what one is really doing is either history or some form of social science, one simply looks to the bits of the culture that are in some way “religious.” The debates about what constitutes “religion” strike me as being driven — to put it crassly — mainly by the need to create an intellectual reason for housing a particular group of scholars in their own department with their own budget.

  20. SC Taysom
    September 8, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    It’s certainly true that religious studies does not exist as a discipline in itself–it is inherently interdisciplinary and faculty members in RS departments are, as you suggest, usually historians, anthropologists, sociologists, etc.

  21. September 8, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Wow Nate, what sitting through three years of religious studies courses has taught me is that you are exactly right. It became pretty clear to all of us that religious studies is not a discipline but a conversation between disciplines about this thing we call in the West “religion” (what exactly religion is we don’t want to think to hard about for the reasons SC lays out; however, in the West, it’s a concept we’re pretty comfortable with so why rock the boat when pretty much all the universities are in the West).

    But yeah, SC, I am planning on making Eliade pretty central to my dissertation on the rise of Mormonism and my adviser has been pretty encouraging about my preliminary work. In the Myth of the Eternal Return, Eliade argues that what he calls homo religiosis is how peasants think and I simply argue that for whatever reason, it describes Mormonism very well. I start with the question of why is Mormonism so “Catholic” and end with the answer that it is in fact “archaic.” I wrote a paper for one of the classes that I titled “The Death of Eliade Is Greatly Exaggerated” and ended it with the line “Whether homo religiousis ever existed in the ancient world, he seems to have been fully manifest in Joseph Smith.”

  22. SC Taysom
    September 8, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    That’s the sort of thing that I meant when I said that it would require justification. For whatever reason, it’s acceptable to apply Eliade as long as one is careful to disavow the global element inherent in his original work. In your case, it seems as if you are using Eliade’s work as first-order data rather than as a guiding interpretive template, which is a very clever way of satisfying all parties.

  23. September 8, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    It seems to me that the issue of “deep structure” is a bit of a red herring. It was the quest, arising out of psycho-analysis and Freud in particular, of a kind of “natural kinds.” I think everyone agrees that to the degree one can find them it is through empirical cognitive science and some aspects of psychology. That is I think appealing to what is honestly variations of comparative literature is very limited in what it can tell us. That’s not to say there aren’t something close to deep structures. Just that we have to find them in science first and then use that to enlighten us about literature and ritual.

    So in that I agree with all the critics.

    Having said that though I think with regards to the question of meaning, which need not (and probably can not) exhibit a deep structure, I think people are pushing things too far. I think to say that nothing Eliadi says is worthwhile is pretty exaggerated. Clearly there is a meaning to the temple and it has somethings in common with the ancient world (unless some are saying there is no overlap of meaning).

    Personally a lot (but hardly all) of what Eliadi wrote lined up quite well with my experiences of the temple. And I really think that were someone to read Eliadi they’d have a richer temple experience.

    But to perhaps turn the ball over to the other side, what book would you recommend to the average member that would enlighten them about the meaning and contextualize the temple? For all its flaws I can’t think of a better text than Elaidi’s short works.

  24. September 8, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Daniel, I confess I’ve read your comments a few times and I’m still not sure what you’re arguing. I think you’re saying that there being an overaching meaning to overcome the terror of history (not historicism) is bad because it makes us not care about changing history. I confess I don’t see how that follows theoretically. Certainly Mormons can see meaning in giving experience without casting off the call to make the world a better place. Maybe I’m just too much the Nietzschean but it seems to me that the overcoming of history is precisely that of meaning making. That is if you can (following Nietzsche) laugh at all tragedies, real or imaginary, then you can overcome them by reconstituting them as something more.

    So quite the opposite of turning one to a kind of destructive nihilism it seems to me that this view has us turn into creators. “It” (meaning our historical situatedness) gives us experience because it is in experience that we learn to be transformative.

    Of course I do think the point Eliadi grasps at in places (eternal recurrence) can be destructive if we take it to entail a kind of fatalism. (Admittedly even Nietzsche turned there with his appeal to the Stoic Eternal Recurrance) But I think if one rejects the kind of determinism entailed by most forms of the Platonic One that Eternal Recurrence (or selection by greater forces) can be salvaged. And indeed some sense of Eternal Recurrence is found within our temple where we repeat a creation drama that has gone on before.

    Yet I don’t think any Mormon thinks this entails fatalism nor the kind of nihilism you suggest.

  25. Nate Oman
    September 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    As an admitted and ignorant outsider RS strikes me as very similiar to a field like political science or law which ultimately consists less of a set of unique methodologies or even a clearly defined subject area than as a cluster of conversations on loosely related topics. What is curious to me is that say political scientists don’t seem to have the same sort of anxiety about discussing the boundaries of the political. If the odd scholar doing poltical economy or development economics or political philosophy pops up no goes on a hunt for crypto- something or other. It seems to me that the anxiety has everything to do with differentiating oneself from div schools. For all I know the few legal studies departments engage in similar hints from crypto-lawyering.

  26. September 8, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Well, since Clark invoked comparative literature in relation to Eliade’s comparative religions approach: with all due respect to the legal scholars, only Comp Lit has actually used the term anxiogenic to define itself. I don’t have the reference in hand, but the term was introduced to me in the intro essay to the standard intro to the field that I read in my first Comp Lit class in grad school. I have to say, though: coming as I was from English Lit (with a heavy emphasis on English Lit as British Lit), I found it rather refreshing for a field to be so up front about its history and blurriness and anxieties.

  27. Nate Oman
    September 9, 2009 at 8:31 am

    “I found it rather refreshing…”

    Be that as it may, “anxiogenic” is an awful neologism that only an academic could love.

  28. September 9, 2009 at 9:18 am

    Some would say comp lit and all its offspring are an awful neologism. ;-P

  29. Daniel
    September 9, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Clark, I appreciate your thoughtful reply. “Learning to be transformative” for its own sake IS fatalism.

    The more fundamental question remains: Why TRY to salvage “the Eternal Recurrence (or selection by greater forces)” at all?

  30. Daniel
    September 9, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Nate, isn’t “hermeneutic inspiration” for its own sake pretty meaningless?

  31. Nate Oman
    September 9, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    “Nate, isn’t “hermeneutic inspiration” for its own sake pretty meaningless?”


  32. Daniel
    September 9, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Please explain why “hermeneutic inspiration” is self-evidently meaningful as the end toward which history and human existence should strive.

  33. TT
    September 9, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    I think that you unfairly portray the problem of “crypto-theology” as simply one of disciplinary policing, a problem of the sociology of the academy, or worse, “the need to create an intellectual reason for housing a particular group of scholars in their own department with their own budget.”
    It is true that in many corners of RS there is a hostility to “theology,” the kind of normative intellectual work that pretends to be merely descriptive. In other corners, theology is recognized as a mode of doing RS within a particular tradition.
    I, however, have not made either of these arguments about the disciplinary relationship b/t religion and theology. Rather, I have argued that Eliade is bad theology inasmuch as it pretends to be doing something other than theology, building on a weak foundation. Eliade has a particular view of the world that he goes all over looking for, and lo and behold, he manages to find it. The problem, however, is that what he has “found” often badly distorts what he is looking at.
    Given that the problem of the “theological” influences in the way that one talks about “religion” is bound up in questions of essentialism, orientalism and post-colonialism, there are significant intellectual issues that go beyond wanting to get a bigger departmental budget. There was a markedly Christianocentric interpretation of the very categories of “religion” for much of the 20th century, one that privileged Protestant values such as “belief” over “ritual,” or “ritual” as expressing “belief” (the latter is what Eliade does, which ritual theories have shown is a Western assumption). The problem is that when we uncritically try to salvage the “theology” from the bad version of RS, we tend to reify the very categories of analysis in our theology that the critiques have undermined. This kind of theology has a particular history (in Eliade’s case it is actually quite a seedy history with his relationship with Theosophical movements which saw all religion as expressing the same fundamental truth), and this history needs to be understood in order to do our theology well.

    In your 14, I think that (1) is more common than (3) because (1) is what Nibley, Madsen, and all of the contemporary Margaret Barker-ites are doing. I have few objections to anyone who does (3) so long as they are careful about making comparative assertions about the temple with the limitations I describe above. Do you have anyone in mind who does (3) as you describe it?

    Steve Flemming,
    I think that your paper sounds interesting. I wonder, however, if we don’t run into a similar problem of interpreting JS through Eliade’s paradigm and make the same mistakes that Eliade did in his reading of other traditions. What do we have to ignore or supress to make Eliade’s view of “archiac” religion fit JS? I am hesitant to “apply” theory in this way as an overlay onto specific religious figures because I worry that it doesn’t tell the whole story.

  34. Nate Oman
    September 9, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    TT: I will defer to your better sense of the interior debates within RS. I confess that my skepticism about the ubdr linings of the crypto theology debat has as much to do with stuff I have read in the chronicle of higher Ed as with your remarks. I agree that christiancentrism infects thinking about religion inthe west and I am even working on an article that makes this point with regard to legal thnking about religion. I am more skeptical about the project of RS devoid of theological commitments, parriculary if RS scholars are going to provide us with any insight into religion beyond the nominalism of thick description. At some level I am suspious of social science that continually retreats into calls for greater nuance. It strikes me as intellectually safe but also often stale in the end. I am thinkinghere if movements like the old institutional economics (shudder).

    With regard to lds uses of Eliade I confess I was thinking mainly of personal conversations rather than published works. Names that come to mind are Dan Peterson, Jim Faulconer and my friend Taylor Petrey at Harvard div school who is mainly responsible for my thinking on Eliade.

  35. Nate Oman
    September 9, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Note: my last comment was typed on an iPhone. Apologies for the typos.

  36. September 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    TT, I’m actually very, very sympathetic to the criticism you make. (Probably you could guess that from past discussions) That said, I think one has to be careful. After all blanket categories like “the west” are just as problematic as the categories they are employed to criticize.

    The other problem I have is dividing things in terms like “belief vs. non-belief” as if it is merely competing taxonomies. That is many criticisms of structuralism entail an appeal to structuralism. That is that all thinking is not only structuralist be privileges essentially one taxonomy above others. I just don’t think people think in that fashion and the attempt to portray cultures as determined by such thinking fails. (Which isn’t to say such taxonomies aren’t useful as a first order approximation to bring out some feature an audience may have missed)

    Now I’d say that while some approaches to cognition do privilege one form above others (thinking here of Representationalism in cognitive science) I think in general most would recognize human behavior as complex. To the degree that these represent real “deep structures” (and, with some quibbling, I think by and large they do) then that ought inform how we view ritual, interpretation, and so forth. Given the role of belief is so key in cognition, but hardly exhaustive, I think we err if we downplay too much belief. I agree that some (such as Eliadi) privilege belief too much. But in reacting against it I think we often go too far in the other direction. Such categories are hardly the mere totalizing domination of western culture.

  37. September 9, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Daniel, (#29), I think nihilism arises out of an attitude that sees the transformative as nihilistic and demands an already existing “form” to give meaning. That is meaning essentially is the discovery of some always pre-existent meaning. Not pre-existant in the Mormon sense of merely earlier but pre-existent in the sense of a first cause or first source before existence itself. Nihilism arises (as Nietzsche and others noted) when the west began to realize that this God as primum movens didn’t exist. (Was dead)

    Of course I think most forms of Mormon theology, especially traditional Nauvoo theology, already of necessity rejects such a conception of God. So in a sense the traditional world of Christendom sees Mormons as nihilistic in that we deny their conception of God.

    However I strongly believe that the beliefs upon which this nihilism can arise are themselves wrong. That meaning arises not out of this first cause but out of transformation. That is the God within Mormonism is transformation (or as Joseph put it: eternal progression)

    As for eternal recurrence, the question is whether it is the return of the same or the similar. That is, what do we mean by forms? Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence, as I noted, is basically the Stoic one and thus is still tied to the very conception of God that he saw as dead. He merely thought that by moving to the conceptual geometry of a circle rather than a ray that somehow he could escape the nihilism. But I don’t think it works. If, as Mormonism in most of its theologies asserts, the conceptual geometry is of a line with no beginning nor end then I believe that nihilism is escaped.

  38. September 9, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    SC, thanks, my adviser seemed to like it.
    TT, to give you some context of why I’m choosing Eliade, you ought to read my article “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism,” in Church History 77, no. 1 (2008). (You can get it online, but I wasn’t able to get the link to work). I’m thinking of employing Eliade to help me deal with what I see as a persistent religiosity in the early Mormons that led to a series of religious forms that look rather Catholic/medieval to me (priesthood, work for the dead, exorcism, miracles, angels, tithes, parishes, sacred space, holy liquids, etc). So I was wondering why did such beliefs persists when the puritans generally tried to obliterate them. Anyway, I argue that certain groups of people continued to think in more “traditional” ways about religion and I find Eliade’s descriptions useful. I don’t see myself as trying to make Joseph Smith fit. In my opinion, whereas John Brooke argued that hermeticism explained the inner logic of Mormonism, I see Elide’s paradigms as a better fit (though, Eliade did write in university thesis on Renaissance hermeticism and employs it in his History of Religious Ideas). So following Eliade, I’m thinking of arguing that this worldview persists among certain peoples and that such peoples were most likely to find Mormonism appealing.

  39. September 10, 2009 at 12:46 am

    Interesting thesis Steve. There’s an other article I came upon recently whose name escapes me that makes a similar argument, only that Mormonism is best found with roots in radical Protestantism rather than hermeticism.

    While I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make a decision yet I find these alternative views rather exciting. (Although I also hope someone else takes up the Quinn/Brookes view in a more rigorous fashion as well)

  40. Mark D.
    September 10, 2009 at 1:04 am

    It is difficult to think of any single idea that is more contrary to the gospel as taught in the scriptures than the idea of eternal recurrence. It is poison.

  41. Mark D.
    September 10, 2009 at 1:14 am

    For example:

    “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

  42. September 10, 2009 at 7:04 am

    Clark, are you thinking of this article? “’Congenial to Almost Every Shade of Radicalism”: The Delaware Valley and the Success of Early Mormonism” Religion and American Culture 17, no. 2 (Summer 2007):129-64.

    If it is the one you’re thinking of, Steve wrote that one, too.

  43. September 10, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Mark. I agree with regards to the Stoic form. Note that wasn’t what I was arguing for. Indeed I argued against it in the above. Nor is Eliadi exactly sugggesting the Stoic vision of recurrence.

    David. What can I say but doh!

  44. Daniel
    September 10, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Mark D,

    “the idea of eternal recurrence. It is poison.”

    I wish I could be so concise. I agree completely.

  45. Daniel
    September 10, 2009 at 11:03 am


    I understand your point, and have heard a similar argument several times from various BYU professors. I have never been convinced, however, and can only respond that the nihilism to which I refer could be said to be an ethical rather than ontological nihilism. Mine has never been a Nietzschean argument.

    When you invoke “eternal progression” (“God within Mormonism is transformation”…you mean God is NOT Love?) — along a “line with no beginning nor end”, you are merely substituting the deep structure and deterministic “form” of the line for other deterministic geometries. Different geometry does not escape nihilism.

    I still see no reason to accept that “transformation” (or “eternal progression”) for its own sake is meaningful as it must invoke a deterministic “form” against which “progress” can be defined (i.e., regardless whether the “line” has no beginning and no end, movement in one direction and not the other is “progress”). This is no escape at all.

    The danger I tried to articulate above (and for which the lawyer has given me an award for “polysyllabic polemic”) is that the epistemic mechanism of “eternal progression” is “experience” and the attitude toward “transformation” (for its own sake”…

    “…turns to an ethical indifference whereby Latter-day Saints deliberately seek to “taste the bitter so that they might better appreciate the sweet”, or to deliberately sin so that they might better appreciate repentance and the Atonement.

    On this view, Eliade is used by Mormons to justify a wreckless and systematically corrupt curiosity: after the pure and classic truths, the exciting and rancid ones must be experienced! It makes the “experience” the horror of history produces in us a sufficient reason for the perpetration of evil. In so doing, it transforms life from a tragic reality into an insincere melodramatic exhibition, as foul or as tawdry as anyone’s diseased curiosity pleases to carry it out.”

  46. September 10, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Daniel, if your argument is simply that Ethics demands platonism then I suspect there’s not much to say. I just think there’s inherently a huge problem reconciling the Christian God with the Platonic God. Heaven knows Christian theologians have tried at least since Augustine. I just don’t think it works if only due to the Euthyphro dilemma. (An argument Blake Ostler presents quite well in his Theology).

    More particularly I think it wrong to see Ethics as tied to precriptive beliefs about what to do. You can see this in your rejoinder about love where you make an opposition between love and transformation. Whereas for me love isn’t about prescriptive beliefs but about a fully transformational relationship. The way you present love turns us into automations and the difference between God and Man is that we are merely malfunctioning love achines.

    But of course if your criticisms reduce to “platonism is right” then there is the big question of how to reconcile your view to LDS theology. Especially the LDS view of the purpose of mortality (which has the nice side effect of pointing towards a solution to the problems of evil)

  47. September 10, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Sorry for some of the typoes. I’m writing on my phone.

    In particular that should sat Blake’s theological writings in the above.

  48. Daniel
    September 10, 2009 at 1:33 pm


    “…the LDS view of the purpose of mortality (which has the nice side effect of pointing towards a solution to the problems of evil)”

    I think pursuing this point will clarify my point.

    Please clarify for me how you think the LDS view of the purpose of mortality solves the problems of evil.

    I am hoping you are not going to cite David Paulsen’s failed (IMHO) attempts in response…

  49. September 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the citation David. And Clark, Brooke and Quinn’s themes will be pretty important to what I’m trying to do. See pages 92-96 in my Church History article for my preliminary arguments on some of these things.

  50. September 10, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I posted this in the Skousen thread by accident. (Bad iPhone, bad)

    As to the problem of evil note I didn’t say there was a solution. I agree with Dennis Potter in that. However the view we chose to experience these evils for personal growth is very compelling and I believe points us towards the solution.

    However if good and evil are viewed Platonically as pre-existing determinate propositional content then this transformational view won’t be compelling. Which returns us to the original point. Why be a Platonist?

    Steve, I’ll go back to the Church History article. (I’m hoping to start up my blog again tonight, and I’ve commented on it before there) BTW – I’m glad someone is thinking through rigorously these issues since all too often Brooke and Quinn get appealed to a bit too superficially. I think they raise important questions, but neither really engaged those questions remotely satisfactorily IMO. I kept expecting someone else to take up the questions and it’s surprising that in all these years so little has been done.

  51. Mark D.
    September 11, 2009 at 1:03 am

    I think good and evil are *much* too complex to be understood in terms of simple, static Platonic abstractions, even if they require (as they must) a small handful of absolutes to give them foundation. e.g. if pain isn’t real, the reality of evil is in serious question.

  52. September 15, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Sorry, I’ve been out of town; and this thread has probably long since grown cold. I’ll just make a few short comments since much of the discussion stemmed from my earlier remarks. I also don’t want anyone to think that I was trying to pull a fast one by being critical of the OP and then not wanting to engage the responses.

    I suppose the bottom line is not that I’m advocating LDSs avoiding Eliade, but rather that they read him critically. While I do think that he can make, and has made, productive contributions to scholarship, personal theology, LDS temple experiences, etc., I do not think people should read him unaware of the problems of his approach.

    In line with TT I have no qualms with theology. I do have problems with bad theology and I believe that Eliade has to be appropriately nuanced in order to do good comparative theology. FWIW, I think a fine example of comparative theology in this vein is an article in the recent edition of Element, which compares Confucianism and Mormonism.

    More germane to this forum, my problem is with conflating theology and descriptive analysis. Not that they are necessarily two separate things, but they tend begin with different motivations, and believe it’s important to be self aware of one’s motivations and recognize the way in which motivation can shape method.

    I’m going to refrain from addressing the issue of religious studies as a discipline except to say that the kinds of conversations that happen in religious studies departments tend to be significantly different than those that occur in history, anthropology, or area studies departments; although this certainly is not uniformly the case. I’m not sure these conversations constitute a distinction approach or method, but there is certainly more at stake than the financial means of securing jobs for one’s friends (not that this isn’t a factor, of course).

  53. September 15, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    SmallAxe: I am sure that once I finish going through the outside scholarship reviews for my promotion file this fall, I’ll be less cynical about the politics of disciplinary reflection ;->…

  54. September 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Nate, after I get rich from teaching in academia I’ll endow a chair–The Nathan B. Oman Chair of Law and Religion. It will be reserved for only our friends ;>)

  55. September 15, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    One would hope that no thinking gets invoked uncritically. But I think you’re right SmallAxe that some do read Eliade like that. I find him interesting, but dated. Still I think he offers many something important to see in the temple that they may not have even if it’s old hat to many of us from our college days. Eliade’s other nice feature is that he writes very well and is very approachable by a lay member. Something one can’t say about many other writings of that sort.

  56. September 15, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Oh, yeah. In terms of accessibility there’s no question. Someone asked above for a substitute for Eliade, and given his accessibility that’s a difficult task. Of course comparative studies have moved into more contextualist approaches, and that, by nature, may make the entry point less accessible.

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