Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Theories about Religion's Origins

National Geographic reports on excavations at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey and some archeologists' new theories. (HT Big Boy Blogger Andrew Sullivan)
Eleven millennia ago nobody had digital imaging equipment, of course. Yet things have changed less than one might think. Most of the world's great religious centers, past and present, have been destinations for pilgrimages—think of the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis). They are monuments for spiritual travelers, who often came great distances, to gawk at and be stirred by. Göbekli Tepe may be the first of all of them, the beginning of a pattern. What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.
The early part of the paragraph reminds us that change may be an illusion; many things stay the same. A great Sunday morning reminder, Ecclesiastes 1:9 asserts that point poetically:  "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

The phrase "may have given rise to civilization itself" is more important; an idea has been turned on its head.  The article elaborates,
The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it.
The change is important.  Under the old theory, a group's leaders used religion to create and  maintain order.  This new interpretation indicates that religion made it possible for people to live together.  A Catholic theologian, Tim Muldoon elaborates on both points.  First,
[t]he old view was that it was all due to agriculture, the result of climate changes after the ice age.  The ability to farm brought people into closer contact, opened up new uses of time, and yielded shared stories and worship.  Religion, in such a theory, arose as a kind of social glue.  It fit what V. Gordon Childe, a Marxist British anthropologist who developed the idea of the Neolithic Revolution, thought of religion in general.  It suited a certain late 19th and early 20th century zeitgeist about religion, as developed by figures like James Frazer in his magisterial (though thoroughly biased) Golden Bough: all religions are based in fertility cults, Christianity included.  Joseph Campbell is the newer version of Frazer, but shares the same basic idea that all religions emerged from stories tied to the agricultural seasons.
Muldoon contends, the new interpretation is
stronger than the Childe-Frazer-Campbell theory, which was in thrall to a Marxist/modernist distaste for religion.  Awe and wonder are present in every child who gazes at the night sky.  There is a natural hunger for transcendence, evidenced by our simple ability to ask questions.  In this sense the scientist, the philosopher, the artist, the priest share a basic dynamism that we awkwardly call “spiritual.”  The shared desire to reach out toward the transcendent (is it any wonder that it would be pillars reaching toward the sky?) gave human beings a shared goal, and shared goals give rise to shared practices around food, clothing, shelter, and eventually rules and governance.
Mulddon then issues an important warning tempered with a hope.
A provocative takeaway: when religion loses its roots in shared desire and wonder, when it fails to capture people’s imagination, it begins to collapse.  People eventually lost interest in Göbekli Tepe around 8200 BC, perhaps because it became too big a project to maintain.  Maintenance of the institution crushed the dynamics of desire which gave rise to it.  Friedrich von Hugel suggested a similar idea: there must be a balance of the institutional with the mystical and communal aspects of religion.  Perhaps ours is the age of recovering the mystical element even as the institutional element is crumbling.
The United States is arguably the most religious country in the world.  It also arguably reserves its sense of awe and wonder solely for technology.  Religious institutions seem to have been reduced to a tool that both the political left and political right try to manipulate. Evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Republican; Democrats use position papers from mainline denominations. If Muldoon's hope comes to fruition, everyone may be reminded,
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

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