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Abstract: The purpose of this article is to clarify some of the areas considered most problematic in Mircea Eliade's approach to religion. One of its principal goals is to show that Eliade's method is primarily phenomenological rather than theological, as some interpreters of his work maintain. In presenting this phenomenological interpretation of Eliade four areas of his approach are addressed: (1) the extent to which it incorporates historical method; (2) the meaning of religion as sui generis and irreducible; (3) Eliade's use of the term 'sacred'; and (4) Eliade's hierarchalizing of religious phenomena. Eliade's departure from phenomenology to explain the causes of religious experience is also addressed.
Mircea Eliade's approach to religion has been described as (among other things) essentialist, ahistorical, theological, etc. These types of criticisms have often been justified. But in many cases they have failed to do justice to Eliade's work, either by misunderstanding key concepts or by presenting his approach so superficially that its potential strengths go unacknowledged. Eliade may very well be 'essentialist' (for example), but there is a certain logic to his essentialism that gets lost in the knee-jerk tendency to caricature whatever offends current methodological sensibilities. My intention in this article is to review and clarify some of these misunderstood and/or inadequately presented areas of Eliade's method. Brian Rennie's Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion  has already clarified a great deal, and much of what follows is indebted to his extensive research and insightful account of Eliade's views. Still, Rennie occasionally misses the mark. Certain points with respect to Eliade's methodology and interpretation of religion require additional analysis.
For the most part, my remarks are based on only two of Eliade's works: Patterns in Comparative Religion  and his essay 'Methodological remarks on the study of religious symbolism'.  My conclusions, then, are tentative. However, in both these works Eliade:
(1) provides a general account of his methodological approach, and,
(2) raises the methodological issues that have proven most problematic in the eyes of Eliade's critics.
For these reasons these two works provide a sound basis for further reflection on Eliade's methodology.
Eliade, history, and phenomenology
Eliade identifies himself as a 'historian of religions', a designation that turns out to be misleading. Historical method, for Eliade, is only a first step, leading to a phenomenological or philosophical approach to religion;  'the history of religions does not merely describe religious phenomena -- it goes on to 'systematize ... and ... reflect on [their] structure'.  Setting aside Eliade's own claims to consider what he actually does, this second step turns out to be definitive of his method as whole. Eliade's approach is guided and shaped by implicit presuppositions and concerns that are essentially phenomenological. 'General structures', 'universal systems', 'the sacred', 'modes/modalities of the sacred' are primarily used in a phenomenological sense to refer to structures of consciousness, elements in such structures, or systems of structures that constitute a religious mode of relating to one's world. The structure Eliade considers fundamental -- that which defines the religious as religious -- i s the intentional relation between believer and the sacred, where 'sacred' is phenomenologically understood as that category of objects construed in the mind of the believer as both ultimately real and other with respect to the profane/material world.
The centrality of phenomenology over history in Eliade is reflected in his general understanding of the religious phenomenon as 'hierophany'. For Eliade, the hierophany is any 'manifestation of the sacred', and as such, has two elements: the 'modality of the sacred' and the expression of that modality as a concrete historical phenomena. 'Modality of the sacred' is a phenomenological expression, referring at its most basic level to the structure of relation between the believer and the sacred. The hierophany as 'historical incident', on the other hand, is the historically particularized form of this underlying structure, 'reveal[ing] some attitude man has had toward the sacred sacred.'  At this level, the hierophany represents a concrete, historically conditioned way in which the sacred was conceived and therefore experienced. Approaching the religious phenomenon as hierophany, then, involves focusing on 'the religious significance to the believer',  either in terms of conscious experience, attitudes, a nd beliefs (which are historically particularized) or in terms of the phenomenological structures informing these attitudes, i.e., the modalities of the sacred.
Since 'every hierophany we look at is also an historical fact', Eliade insists that 'understanding [the religious phenomena] will always come about in relation to history'.  And since the religious phenomena as 'historical incident' expresses 'some attitude man has had toward the sacred',  historical analysis involves the description of such attitudes, including an account of their evolution. Eliade states that 'the history of religions is ... largely the history of the devaluations and the revaluations which make up the process of the expression of the sacred'  -- in other words, the history of what people have valued as sacred. Historical analysis is also concerned with a given phenomenon's context. Eliade claims that 'all expressions or conceptual formulation of ... religious experience is imbedded in a historical context'.  But Eliade does not (in the sources I have examined) practise this level of analysis. 'I have not tried', he writes, 'to study religious phenomena in their historical fr amework, but merely as hierophanies.'  He goes on to claim that historical context is irrelevant to the extent that one's focus is on the content and structure of religious experience itself. 
Eliade's de-emphasis on history goes beyond the issue of context. Even though Eliade insists that hierophanies are both universal and historical and that understanding them requires historical analysis, it is specifically the manifestation of the hierophany that is historical. Meaning is found in the 'modalities of the sacred' revealed by the hierophany. Eliade's approach, then, naturally focuses on these 'modalities', downplaying historical considerations in favour of phenomenological analysis. As Eliade states, 'the religious historian ... must first of all understand and explain the modality of the sacred that that hierophany discloses'.  Identifying the modalities of the sacred is 'more important' than 'trac[ing] the history of a hierophany'. 
Eliade's phenomenological method is reminiscent of Husserl's.  For Husserl, phenomenology involved the identification of essential structures of consciousness and the description of how 'objects' -- and ultimately a 'world' -- are intentionally constituted according to such structures. In terms of method, this required bracketing the 'natural attitude' (the tendency of ordinary awareness to experience objects as independently existing rather than as always 'intentionally given') and paying attention to the form and content of experience itself. Eliade's phenomenological approach has the same basic intent: to identify and describe structures of consciousness, in this case religious structures, in the mind of the believer. Though Eliade does not use the term, verstehen ('empathy') would seem to be his method of identifying such structures. But not 'empathy' in the sense used by Dilthey. Eliade does not attempt to recreate the believer's experience in his own consciousness. Rather, he analyses concrete reli gious phenomena based on the view that they encode the experience that created them, therefore making it possible to use the phenomena as a means of reconstructing the phenomenological structures underlying that experience. In this sense, verstehen is less problematic for Eliade than it is for other phenomenologists of religion who paradoxically attempt to practise the epoche while simultaneously seeking to recreate the believer's experience in their …