Sunday, February 23, 2014

Polytheogenesis: The Emergence of the Gods (2/23/14)

Polytheogenesis:  The Emergence of the Gods
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 23, 2014

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Peering into the ancient past from a cultural context that long ago abandoned primitive polytheism, we too often fail to appreciate that, inasmuch as the gods were created by human imagination to explain natural phenomena, they were just as much concepts of primitive science as they were of primitive religion.  Just as modern physicists have created such terms as electrons, quarks and black holes in order to explain natural phenomena, the ancients created terms like spirits, jinn, angels, devils and gods…”
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God, p. 102

Your car won’t start.   You turn the key and you hear wuhhh, wuhhh, wuhhh.   You pat the car on the dashboard.  

“Come on, baby.  Come on.”   Wuhhh, wuhhh, wuhhh.

Finally, when you realize that the car will not obey, in frustration you hit the dash board harder, “Stupid car!”

You speak to the car as if it could hear you or could act or had a will.   You speak to it as if it were an agent.    Why do you do that?  You might say that you don’t really mean to, that you know better.  Of course.   Absolutely you know better.   

But you do it anyway.    It can be a car, a lawnmower, a raincloud, the sun, “Come on sun, come on out and shine.”   We know better.  But we do it anyway.   We may even laugh at ourselves for doing it.  

Play a game and notice it.  Notice when you or someone else treats an inanimate object as if it were an agent.   

“That table cloth wants a cleaning.”

“That cupcake is speaking to me.  I can hear it calling my name.”

“The moon is showing off tonight.”

Now, of course we don’t mean it literally.  We are being poetic.    Poetry, stories and songs are full of this attribution of agency to inanimate things:

“The bottle was my friend but now it wants me dead.”

“Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone.”

Yes, we are playing.  But why?  Why do we do that?   

The answer may go way back, way before human beings even.  It might be a matter of survival.   Your dog hears a noise and is immediately on high alert.   Why?  No the question is, “Who?”  Your dog connects noise with an agent.  Somewhere in evolutionary history, animals survived by linking noises with agents.   The noise of a breaking stick could signify lunch.    It could be lunch or I could be its lunch.   Every noise signaled the possibility of predator or prey.  Better safe than sorry.    That trick of giving agency to sights, sounds, smells, even the change of air pressure or temperature on skin provided a survival advantage to animals that were faster than others in making those connections.  

Now your dog after hearing a noise, responding, and realizing that the threat or opportunity is over, goes back to sleep and forgets about it.   Here is where human beings are different.  Human beings continue to worry over it.  We imagine things and tell stories to ourselves.  Those stories are particularly creative if there is nothing there!   The trick of giving agency to inanimate things aided by the evolutionary development of language led to the explosion of explanation by storytelling.            

The telling of stories to explain the who behind the event is primal and natural.  This orange ball that is so bright it hurts your eyes rises over there, moves across the dome, and dies over there.   Everyday it is born, shines and then dies.  He gives us heat and light.   Who is that?   He is Shemesh.   That is the proper name from one ancient near eastern culture.    Every ancient culture has had a proper name for him.  He is the main guy.   The main god.   

All those little lights in the sky at night.  Who are those guys?  What do they do? Stories get told about them.   The stories are fascinating, beautiful and complex. Maybe that is where father or mother have gone.    Maybe they control what happens to us.  If I study them maybe I can learn my future.

Not just stories about stars and the sun get told.  Forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, lightning, everything is a who.   The world is populated by “whos.”    These whos become goblins, spirits, and forest nymphs, and of course gods.    If these gods and spirits are doing things, it would be important to be in relationship with these beings.     Not only are there stories, but there are rituals and practices designed to help us be in good relationship with those beings who are in control of our lives. 

If you look at our hymnal, you can see that it is filled with song stories about an agent.   We will talk about the emergence of monotheism next week, but it is a development of this early storytelling that had been going on for tens of thousands of years.    The hymns are especially fun when they try to be modern.    One of my favorites is called, “God Who Spins the Whirling Planets.”    I know I am being irreverent but I can’t help but picture a Harlem Globetrotter spinning Jupiter on his finger.      You can’t have a spinning planet without a spinner.   You can’t have creation without a creator.  You can’t have rain without a rainmaker.  That is the logic of agency.  It is natural to think that way.  It is common sense.  It is ancient and likely a product of giving agency to inanimate things that goes back tens of millions of years, long before humans.      

Robert McCauley at Emory has written a new book called, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.   He shows that science is a hard way of thinking.  It goes against what is intuitive or what appears to be common sense.     Science challenges those more natural ways of thinking.  Even if we know that a being isn’t spinning the planets in a literal way, it is still unnatural to think that ultimately no one is spinning them.    

Even as human cultures have evolved from more primitive polytheism to various forms of monotheism, in practical matters, it isn’t pure monotheism.  Think of saints, angels, spirits of the dead, all acting as agents within popular forms of religion, or beyond religion, just life.   

The book of Deuteronomy is an ancient bridge between polytheism and monotheism.  You could call it henotheism.  That is there are a lot of gods but one in particular is the god to whom you need to pay attention.  The book of Deuteronomy written in the 7th century BCE is filled with references to gods.   

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Notice that the “Most High” and the “Lord” is not necessarily the same character.  The Most High created the gods.  The “Lord” is Jacob or Israel’s god.   The message is he is your god.  Don’t go flirting with the others.   That is a big challenge.  The other nations seem to be doing well.  Maybe a sacrifice to one of those gods would be a good idea.   

Early Christians in the Roman Empire ran afoul of their neighbors and were called atheists because they didn’t sacrifice to the Greek and Roman gods.   By not sacrificing they were bringing danger on the community.    Their neighbors would say it is because those Christians didn’t sacrifice that we didn’t get rain.  The gods are punishing all of us because of the arrogance of the Christians. 

Ironically you hear this kind of rhetoric today from Christians.  Many Christians talk about how their god will remove his blessing on our nation because we have taken god out of school or have removed Christian symbols from public places.   You hear things like, “God will punish this country because of gay marriage.”   The superstition that a divine agent will punish us is alive and well whether people are polytheistic or monotheistic.   Superstition is really primitive science that is no longer credible except to the people who still believe in it. 

I am not really a purist.  Even though I don’t think unseen whos exist, I still think it is fun to recite poetry and to sing songs to them.   I still speak to my car as if it might respond.   I still sing a hymn to the god who spins the whirling planets even though at most I am singing the praises of gravity.    But I am also singing with limited words a song of awe and wonder that there are such things as planets.  

The gods and particularly the stories of the gods are important to me.   They manifest human creativity and imagination.   The gods are ours.  We made them and we deserve credit for doing a remarkable thing.    The gods are an expression of the universe.   They didn’t create the universe.  The universe created them through us.     

The gods tell us about ourselves.  They are windows into our psyches.  The gods are our fears and our hopes.  They are our sins and our virtues.   The names we give to the gods are the names we are trying out on ourselves.   Who are we and why are we here?  What are we to be about?    Who is my neighbor?  Why am I suffering?    Why am I feeling restless?    What is love?

We answer our own questions by telling stories.  Here is one about Jesus Christ who like the sun dies and rises again.   Here is Krishna who when you look into his mouth and into his soul you see the universe.    Here are Zeus and Hera.   They can tell you about hubris and jealousy.   

Perhaps the gods do speak about a reality, the reality of the human mind.   Perhaps as agents they touch on another desire, the desire for a relationship, for a Thou who I can embrace.    Perhaps the gods are the guideposts I find as I search for meaning, for love, for a who who knows me and who cares that I am.    

Maybe this who is only a projection.   Then again, maybe projection and story is our limited way to speak of a reality beyond all words.   I’ll leave that open.   After all, we want to leave something to mystery.


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