The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
NB: to properly understand this book and the time, I will be walking on some difficult terrain, especially when it comes to the Israelites and aspects of the Jewish tradition beyond that which pointed to Jesus. I am not trying to understand or develop theology when I note the history: there is much of Old Testament Jewish history prior to the times of the prophets that is greatly similar to all Middle Eastern cultures of the time: wars, territories conquering and conquered, massacres, slavery, dislocation, etc., etc., etc.
Why do I point this out? The Old Testament, absent that which points to Jesus, can be a history about any of the tribes and gods in the Middle East of the time. Change the names and the victors, and it is the same story: my god is bigger than your god; god will lead us to victory in battle; god, why have you forsaken your people; god, why have you abandoned us?
In the beginning was the Word. The Word became flesh. This is unique. In the Old Testament, it is what points to this Word that is unique – unique vs. other Middle Eastern religions and unique, to my knowledge, among any of the major religions around the world. Without the Word, it is just tribes doing battle and hoping that my god is stronger than your god.
Armstrong turns to the ninth century BC, the time that straddled the aftermath of the collapse of the Bronze Age and began the journey toward the Axial Age. Again, to pinpoint one particular time as the transition across four major cultures – Greek, Middle East, Indian, and Chinese – is painting with too broad a stoke. In any case, let’s see if the picture is still worth painting.
First, the Greeks. The collapse of the earlier Greek civilization left them in centuries of what Armstrong calls a dark age. Now, as they were coming back to life (documented via trading with Canaanites, known to the Greeks as Phoenicians), a spiritual limbo remained:
…Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its Gods dangerous, cruel, and arbitrary…. Their rituals and myths would always hint at the unspeakable and the forbidden….
In the beginning there was no benevolent creator god and no divine order. There were two gods, Chaos and Gaia (Earth). They were too hostile to procreate, so they each generated offspring independently. Children and grandchildren of the gods were born, some so hated that they were forced back into the womb. Genitals cut off during intercourse. Children swallowed such that they would not be able to succeed the parent in power and authority. And these were just the offspring of Gaia! So much for worshipping mother earth.
From Chaos’s clan came tales of abusing offspring and murdering of parents. Banquet stews containing the bodies of the host’s sons. Sacrificing children. Meanwhile, humans are presented in myth as completely impotent.
But Greek rituals did also allow people to see that they could live through fear and pain and come out the other side; it was essential to not deny this reality of human suffering. Greek ritual would end in katharsis (purification), the gods were appeased and the miasma dispersed.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, the Israelites were dealing with the might of the Egyptians – and benefitting. They expanded into former territories of the Canaanites, destroyed by Egypt. But there remained foreign gods, including Baal worship. Yahweh was the most powerful God within the rivalries amongst the gods:
Psalm 89: 6 For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord? 7 God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him. 8 O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?
According to Armstrong, with the time of Elijah there was a turning: Israel’s God grew increasingly concerned about social justice, accusing the other deities of neglecting this duty. It was not that this concept was alien to the Middle East; it was merely that the God of Israel was becoming more complete, obviating the necessity of other gods to complement Yahweh in this task.
Israel was about to embark on a lonely, painful journey of severance from the mythical and cultic consensus of the Middle East.
The Chinese were also concerned about preserving the natural order of things via rituals, ensuring that human society would conform to the Way (dao). Chinese would not be interested in a god who was entirely separate from the natural order; Heaven and Earth were complementary.
They saw a continuum between Heaven and Earth, a continuum with their ancestors. They weren’t looking “out there” for something holy; they were looking to make the world divine. When the king was on the right path, he opened the Way for heaven on Earth. He would also conquer enemies and attract loyal followers; if he was not on the right path, his authority would become malign.
The right path offered a king with supreme power, but one not free to do as he would choose. He had to follow the right path. If he carried out the rituals properly, all things would be calm and docile.
During the third century BC, the Chinese philosopher Xunzi would look back to the earlier period and give some context and understanding to the meaning of the rituals:
“The mature person takes joy in carrying out the Way; the petty man takes joy in gratifying his desires. He who curbs his desires in accordance with the Way will be joyful and free from disorder, but he who forgets the Way in pursuit of desire will fall into delusion and joylessness.”
And in two sentences, Xunzi has summarized today’s meaning crisis.
In India, the move was to take practices that might lead to violence out of the sacrificial rituals. No harm or injury was to come to any of the participants. It seems to strike a new meaning into the term “sacrifice.” Someone who knew ritual science didn’t even have to attend the ritual sacrifice and still find his way to heaven!
So, where are we? One might begin to find something approaching natural law in the Chinese concept of the Way. One might also find something of the shape of natural law in the Greek path of confronting pain and suffering.
I would add that the Old Testament offered that man was made in God's image – something that I do not recall Armstrong having touched on. But put all of this together, and some foundations of natural law are forming.