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.
"... the God of Israel was becoming more complete ..."ReplyDelete
This certainly doesn't fit in with the idea of an all-knowing unchangeable God, does it? It also smacks of the idea that man created god, not the other way around. I suggest three alternative interpretations:
1.) God grants us whatever knowledge we are ready to receive. Perhaps the idea of social justice was considered stupid or weak among people that routinely committed genocide against other nations. God gave to man some knowledge and, if the people obeyed that, He gave more knowledge.
2.) This knowledge did, in fact, exist among the people, but is now lost to us. As a heretic, I don't believe that the Bible contains all the words of God. There may be other prophetic writings, hidden away or destroyed, which contain more of God's word than what we currently possess.
3.) Both 1 and 2 are correct.
My atheist friend Rick would say that religion is a tool of men to control the masses and, in most cases, I would agree with him. God, being good, cannot be the author of confusion - and if there is a single way - a "strait and narrow path and few there be that find it" - then not all paths lead in the direction we want to go. Given the number of religions and religious variations in the world, that implies that there are many wrong paths, which tasks us to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Of course, all paths could be wrong; in which case, God would need to restore the correct path ...
"... the God of Israel was becoming more complete ..."Delete
In the eyes of the Israelites.
No one can ever fully know or understand God; that our understanding of Him evolves is not due to a shortcoming of God's or some "change" in His nature, it is due to our imperfection as humans.
Evolve as it will, human understanding of God will never be complete or accurate.
Woody, I agree with your 3rd assertion.Delete
In regards to your 1st point, I concur that mankind has, and will always be, limited by the degree to which we are receptive to the truth that God desires to reveal to us. The modern-day prophet Joseph Smith said it beautifully... "God has created man with a mind capable of instruction and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer a man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at the point in faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker and is caught up to dwell with him".
In regards to your second point, it has always been a mystery to me why people, who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, would reject the idea that there might be other valuable prophetic writings which are not included in the Bible. Consider the Book of Mormon, for instance, which is a collection of the writings of prophets of God who lived in ancient America. It is a beautiful "second witness" to the eternal truths contained in the Bible. We know that the house of Israel was, indeed, scattered (with the prophecy that they would be gathered again in the last days). Why would God not continue to communicate with his people who were scattered. I have no doubt that other writings will yet be discovered which will provide even greater evidence of God, and which will help us to further understand His divine nature.
I will agree that the limitations of Man prevent full understanding of God.ReplyDelete
"And this is life eternal; that they might know thee, the only true God; and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent"
I reject the idea of an unknowable God. I reject the idea that all things must be believed without knowledge. Somebody must have known something about God - if not, how did the Bible come into existence? Or, is all holy writ simply a collection of guesswork?
The unknowability of God is of Greek philosophical origin and emanates from the great contradictory questions - "Can God make a rock that He is unable to lift" and so forth. Such questions set up a straw-man argument - since we cannot answer these questions, and since God must have such attributes (a total assumption), we cannot know God.
A god that is unknowable is a ready tool for unprincipled sociopaths who can then step in and "interpret" what this unknowable god wants its people to do ... which is nearly always to serve the sociopath. This also serves to discourage people from finding the "strait and narrow path" which leads to the real God.
I have found this image worth a thousand words:
There was no one "somebody" that wrote the text we now know as the Bible. Many "somebodies" knew something, but there is no chance that one somebody knew everything.
Greek or not Greek, I cannot comprehend how it is even conceivable that a human being on this earth can know or understand God fully. It makes a mockery of the idea of "God." You seem to agree with this in your opening sentence, so I really am not sure what we are talking about.
"... You seem to agree with this in your opening sentence, so I really am not sure what we are talking about ..."Delete
This is what we're talking about.
The Greeks, depending on your point of view, either reasoned god out of existence or made him so incomprehensible as to be irrelevant. My point is that God is neither one of these.
There are things we can comprehend about God. We may not be able to wrap our minds around how much power He has or how much He knows but we can understand that He loves us - and, one of the reasons for Jesus living among men is that, by doing all things that he saw his Father do, He gave us an example of godly conduct, equal with His Father, that we ourselves can try to emulate.
Finally got around to looking at the image. Fascinating. I would be curious to know what the most cross-referenced passage would be - that would be the passage near the center of the picture. Also, who decided what scripture should be cross referenced to what.Delete
hello I read your article on Lew Rockwell this morning and this is the only place I could find to comment.ReplyDelete
I would consider myself a true apologist on this subject. But I must warn you it will not be what you might think. I will for now avoid citing book chapter verse, though I can point you there also. In other words this will by a summary not an line by line exposition.
Yahweh, God the Father, in Genesis gave each nation on earth and "angel" to guide, care for and teach each of these nations.
God took Israel as His nation to oversee.
The other angels disobeyed and left their natural habitation and had hybrid offspring with human women. Genesis 6
These hybrids became numerous, sometimes referred to as nephilim in scripture. They were giants and much more powerful than normal humans.
The battle from the beginning was the seed of the woman and the seed of the elohim.
The pseudapigrapha more particularly the book of Enoch gives much more info in detail.
The satan (not the name of an individual angel but the prosecutor in the court of God) caused mankind to "fall" losing their dominion over earth. The whole battle for redemption was to wipe out the invading angels and return the earth to the saints of the most high.
The flood and any battles such as the Israelites entering the promised land to kill every man, women and child was to rid the earth of these invading supernatural beings that were cruelly ruling over mankind.
Christ won the battle in ad70 crushing the head of the satan and regaining dominion for man.
All evil spirits demons are gone now. No devil to make you do it. Just mankind. If you wonder where your problems come from look in the mirror. Its your own bad choices.
Mankind is free, saved, redeemed from the fall and slavery of the world wide dominion of the evil elohim forever.
Now we just need to learn to love God and each other and He has given us the instructions in His book.