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Eternal Return in Cambodia

By Steven Ford

In his 1953 classic The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History religious historian Mircea Eliade makes a truly profound observation. Religious people have, across cultures and throughout the ages, conceived of sacred time less as a linear reality than as a circle. The religious impulse, Eliade believes, locates the present moment somewhere along a cosmic circle that both starts and finishes at a point that might be called “beginnings-consummation.” Religious people, therefore, find meaning and strength in “hoping backward and remembering forward” to that primal time. One possible biblical “time loop,” if you will, begins in mythical Eden and ends with its reconstruction as the Kingdom.

I’m writing from a place called Choeung Ek, about ten miles south of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. This is the best known of the infamous killing fields, places where more than a million real and imagined opponents of the Khmer Rouge (which had started its life as a movement for social justice) met horribly violent ends between 1975 and 1979. The Buddhist stupa recently opened here displays thousands of human skulls retrieved from the surrounding mass graves. Many show signs of bludgeoning. The story here is that fatal beatings saved the cost of bullets. It’s an eerie, sobering place.

I’ve talked to a few survivors of the Khmer Rouge tragedy, both here and among the guides at the Genocide Museum in central Phnom Penh. All relate similar stories of how they got through it, living off the land in the rain forest, eating leaves and grubs for weeks at a time. More important spiritually, though, was a hazy collective memory among survivors, inspired by the ancient ruins at Angkor Wat and elsewhere throughout the country. There was clearly a time in the mythical past when Cambodia was both prosperous and powerful. Just look at the grand old temples, they told me. They also clung to a soul-sustaining body of collective hope: for them, the temples pointed toward a future return to national greatness once the “troubles” had come to an end. Eliade might say that in the sacred realm what is to be has already been, for the sacred future is a return to the sacred past.

To meet particular needs, Jews and Christians have positioned the “beginnings-consummation” at various points on the circle of sacred time. Isaiah 35:1-10, written during the Babylonian captivity, gives hope to a subjugated people by “remembering forward” the Exodus. And the writer of Revelation sees the end of Christian persecution in a return to the time of creation (Rev. 21:1-5).

It’s death one thinks about at Choeung Ek, surrounded as one is by human skulls. And it’s death that all of us have to think about sometimes, whether we like it or not. Eliade’s “discovery” of circular sacred history provides a useful framework for doing that.

For us in the Church, the seminal events of the sacred past are the death and resurrection of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ,” Paul assures the baptized, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). As we contemplate (and eventually face) our own death, we can “remember forward” and “hope backward” the resurrection into which we have been grafted by our baptism. “You have died,” writes the author of Colossians, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (3:2-4).

Conceiving of sacred time as circular rather than linear is the genius of religious people, as Eliade would have it. What is to be has already been, for the future is found in the past. Hoping into our sacred past and remembering into our sacred future gives a Christian perspective to our personal Choeung Ek places and moments, when we’re confronted with the reality of death and forced to find meaning of our own.

The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle, Tempe, Arizona.

Eternal Return Cambodia


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