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Alfred Loisy’s Comparative Method in Les mystères païens et le mystère chrétien

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While the work of the “father of Roman Catholic Modernism” prior to his excommunication in 1908 has been extensively studied, Alfred Loisy’s later career as professor of Histoire des Religions at the Collège de France has received less attention. This article examines his original contribution to comparative methodology for the interrelation between early Christianity and the pagan mystery cults. Loisy’s explicit aim was to integrate the historical, sociological, psychological, and anthropological approaches of his time into an original and all-encompassing methodological framework.Our article pays special attention to Loisy’s predominant yet hitherto unnoticed use of a model of analogy. Crucial to this interpretation are (a) the idea that the Christian mystery and the pagan mysteries are the result of a universal and independent, analogous evolution of religions, and (b) the theory that ritual precedes myth, adopted from the Cambridge Myth and Ritual School. We show that Loisy’s novelty resided in the fact that he consistently applied these principles to both the pagan cults and to Christianity, but it will also become clear that his systematic approach entailed major problems for the individual features of the compared cults, problems which he tended to overlook. Loisy combined this analogical framework with a psychological interpretation of the genesis of the belief in Christ’s resurrection and with a historical-genealogical explanation of Paul’s knowledge and use of the mystery cults. The article also uses unpublished material from Loisy’s correspondence with Franz Cumont.

Affiliations: 1: Ghent University, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Department of Philosophy Blandijnberg 2, B-9000 GentBelgium ; 2: Ghent University, Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Department of Philosophy Blandijnberg 2, B-9000 GentBelgium


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