Friday, 28 November 2014

An Original Idea

I want to share an insight that I came across recently to do with the origin of religious belief. 
I'll keep it fairly brief. 

The ancient world was a world full of gods. Every nation/tribe had their own god and it seems like there was a god for almost everything. There were Gods of agriculture (Artemis), of fertility (Isis), of beauty (Aphrodite), war (Mars), for pregnancy (Bes), of the ocean (Poseidon), of households, you name it. The big ones are well known to us, gods like Nike the god of victory, but many are not.

More like temperamental supermen/women (or X-Men) than supreme beings these gods were powerful, but moody with quite troubled histories. They were as likely to change as the English weather and notoriously difficult to please, Jupiter was notably hard to placate. Fanciful and mythological stories abounded about those gods and where they came from. Take, for example, the story of Cybele & Attis: Cybele, so it goes, fell in love with the (supernatural) shepherd man Attis. Atiis (regrettably) cheated on her by having sex with a Nymph (as you do), and what happened next reads like a late night episode of TOWIE. Cybele got jealous and afflicted Attis with insanity who, in a mad frenzy, castrated himself (owch), lay down under a pine tree and died of blood loss. Cybele then regretted what she'd done and raised him back to life to serve as her companion forever.

Gods were the physical representation of deep seated societal/personal needs and their idols were the objects people focused their petitioning toward. The gods represented whatever it was the people needed; safety, victory, health, happiness, and although we don't (in the secular west) bow down to physical statues we do still desire the same things the Ancients did. We may not burn incense to Artemis or bulls to Isis but we still sacrifice all sorts of things in pursuit of a a desire. We pursue wealth or success, sometimes at the expense of family or health and people are known to make themselves ill for the sake of a Ferrari or a weekend break in Florence. We may not bow down to Aphrodite the goddess of beauty but we do sometimes spend hours in front of the mirror pursuing the exact same thing our ancestors did. We're not too dissimilar from them.

this next bit is what fascinates me

Iraq. The first human cities and centres of civilisation began in ancient Iraq (known then as Sumer, later, Babylon). It was from here that humanity spread and when it did people took their gods with them. The Egyptian gods, for example, are simply rebranded and slightly reinvented versions of the gods from Ancient Sumer (Iraq). The Greeks took their gods from Egypt restyled them and made them cool, and the Romans (as we know) took theirs from Greece. So, the goddess Cybele (mentioned above) was already popular in Rome before traders from the East brought her to the city, only in Rome she was known as Magna Mater (the Great Mother). Same gods, same aim, different place and time.

In nearly all the world Polytheism (belief in many gods) was the only form of theism (or religion) available.

In Nearly all the world.

There was another god available, but he was a god vastly unlike any of the others. Whereas the gods of the nations were fickle, argumentative and immoral this god was, well pure. He didn't fight the other gods, he didn't lie, he could be relied upon and he loved human beings unconditionally.The stories about this god were placed in space and time and they were told in historical rather than mythological terms. This god was different from the others. Not only did this god claim to have created everything but he claimed also to be in charge of everything as well, actively involved in his creation. This god was insistent as well that he was the only god in the world and even went so far as to say that the 'other gods were not gods at all.' This god claimed to be God. 

The uniqueness of this god cannot be overstated. In a world full of gods the Jewish people had an original idea, a concept of a god so utterly different from anyone else around them. It wasn't until Zoroaster in the 6th Century BCE that anyone else even claimed to have such an idea (and even then it could be argued that Zoroaster stole many of his ideas from the Jews). 

I find this fascinating. In a world where polytheism was the only religious option on the menu Abram's family (again from ancient Iraq) not only invented monotheism, but they managed to stick doggedly to it despite all the pressure against them. When all around them were insisting that Asherah or Baal could be trusted, they kept to their conviction that there was and is only one God (albeit not without many slides into idolatry). 

Do you see how strange this is? 

This would be like insisting that Nokias were the only true mobile phone in the world and that all the other 'phones in the world weren't even 'phones at all. All the world may be Apple, but you don't buy into any of it. Bizarre. 

I'm not, by inference, now going to insist that since this god was original in his day that he therefore must also be right. All I'm saying is that it's well, interesting and maybe just a little bit intriguing as well. Seeing this makes me want to investigate more about this god, where he came from and how on earth the Jews came up with the idea in the first place...


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Much of the information and ideas in this blog comes from Rodney Stark's 'The Triumph of Christianity' and Tim Keller's 'Counterfeit Gods'.

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