Friday, January 06, 2006

Best Books of 2005 - Anthropology

The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade

I know, this is history of religions and not anthropology. But I usually don't care for history of religions and this book contains a good deal of anthropological detail. Generalizing about religious myths and rituals across cultures is a risky endeavor. As I mentioned in the post about Mary Douglas, anthropology made tremendous strides in the 20th century precisely because there was a movement away from generalized idealogies in favor of attempting to understand cultures as they function on their own.

This endeavor, of course, leaves many uncomfortable, since it seems to imply that there is no cross-cultural standard of truth (many anthropologists will explicitly claim this).

And yet, there are fundamental questions that all human beings face. In this classic text, Eliade tackles the question: "How do human beings make sense of the ongoing tradedy of history?" His insights are important, as he reminds Westerners that our concept of history as a linear story moving toward an eschatological climax (the Second Coming, the New World Order, the World Democratic Revolution, etc) differs from the view of most cultures throughout history. In these cultures, time is understood cyclically, and the actors in history are understood not as individuals who make unrepeatable choices, but as archetypes whose function it is either to destabilize or restabilize the cosmos. In this understanding, human beings are not faced with existential angst, but rather can be expected to encounter patterns of events that call for specific types of responses.

We don't often today think of our world in this way, but there is in the Biblical tradition a good deal to support this model. As a small but significant example, every saint is a re-occurence of Christ's presence on earth and so can be expected to endure crucifixion in one way or another. Often times, when we encounter suffering today, Christians wonder if we are doing something wrong. "Do not be surprised when the world hates you!" It is in these situations that we are faced with the arcetypal pattern of Christian faith: martyrdom. Perhaps suffering is the 'eternal return' of Christ on earth, with the difference that we know that as Christ's Resurrection broke the power of the principalities and transcended time, we too can hope for an end of suffering and glory when He does come again.

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