Friday, April 27, 2012

Eliade, Otto, and the scorn of the academic.

Numerous deadlines have forced a sudden suspension of activity on these pages. Thankfully, the final product will also be featured herein. Although, I cannot help but offer a quick reflection on the material I've been working with lately.

One "scholar", in an article that passed through my hands for research purposes, remarked that academics have been trying to unshackle religious studies from the legacy of Eliade. The reason? Eliade, by his own admission, was not interested in offering a scientific analysis of the material he studied. Whether Eliade investigated Chinese alchemical texts or the traditions of native American shamanism, Eliade, by his own admission, sought something other, if not more, than scientific data. He sought to identify the theology one could construct from the material. He sought to create a philosophical synthesis from the material. More importantly, he sought to see how the material actually facilitated communication with the transcendent.

Eliade and Otto both sought to understand how the supernatural worked in our natural world. Their scholarship, which earned both men prestige in their life times, was, in some respects, their spiritual quest, as opposed to being a subject for their intellectual play and detached reflection. There was, on the part of both men, a conviction in another reality that could be, and perhaps wanted to be, discovered by the human person.

Today, both men are the source of both frustration and scantly veiled jealousy among many supposed scholars of religion and/or university theologians. One "scholar" noted with a tinge of condescension that Eliade's thoughts have too successfully diffused to the none-scholar. The majority outside of the university has adopted him as an expert in matters pertaining to religion and spirituality. Thus, by the force of the non-academic majority, Eliade's ideas keep returning and re-solidifying his legacy. This scholar, for his part, wants to find a way to transform Eliade into an obscure footnote in academic circles. His frustration is palpable. Eliade's ideas, in his life time no less, swept the university by storm and became part of the cultural imagination. I found a similar critique of Otto. Otto's insistence that knowledge of the sacred is predominately experiential and that scholars themselves are ill prepared to write about the sacred unless they possess some degree of experiential knowledge of it has been met with scorn by contemporary scholars, often with an accompanying admission that they have not had any such experience of the sacred to speak of.

Academic theologians/religious scholars devote their lives to the study of minutiae. They write and write, sometimes elaborate monographs composed of the most delicate research. These monographs are rarely if ever read in their entirety; normally, the reader goes through the index, skims a few pages until he or she finds the desired data and then copies the bibliographic information. Occasionally, a few more pages are necessary, but rarely is there a need to read the whole work. They research and write, consumed with mastering the thought of another human being or human beings. Their reward: tenure, maybe an honorary chair given by other obscurest, and grants. For the most part, when they die, their reward goes with them. Today's scholar lives and works with perpetual sting that he or she is thoroughly integrated into an intellectual production line that does not reward product resembling the work of the giants of eras past. There is no reward for devising a grand synthesis and attempting to pursue it.  There is no chance to write the work that will have everyone in the academy and outside of the academy investigating the contours of your thought decades hence. There is no reward to become type of figure you devote your life to studying, to becoming the intellectual obsession of a future generation. The sting is quite acute when you're dealing with figures from recent history.

Academia is a world of fragile egos. If one wishes to survive it, let only thrive in it, one must master the protocols and rituals that consistently affirm the work of others and demonstrate your subservience to them. It is a constant show of submission to senior colleagues and/or professors that determines how well one will be ingratiated into the system. Yet, for all of the mandated subservience the academic receives, he or she will likely never become more than a footnote, he or she, based upon the dominate paradigm in place, will never become the object of study, admiration, and inspiration, never joining the canon of intellectuals who perpetually influence the thought of subsequent generations.

I don't detest the university. I've learned much worth keeping and was supplied with the opportunity to study topics I once thought impenetrable. I do reject, however, contemporary academic culture and its reduction of the intellect and near annihilation of the spirit. Why? Because I hope, by the end of my life, to compose works that leave their mark upon humanity's intellectual tradition, as opposed to a footnote somewhere between pages 43 and 65. Whether the object of admiration or rejection, I want my writing read by everyone. If I can do one fourth of what Eliade did, I will have accomplished something.