Thursday, July 21, 2011

Monotheism, its changing fortunes

For a long time it has been the conventional wisdom that the evolution of world religions clearly shows that monotheism was an advance over earlier polytheistic systems, Naturally, this view has appealed to adherents of the major Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet even those without a stake in such particularist approaches could point to the “Dawn of Conscience” in ancient Egypt, culminating in the monotheism of the pharaoh Akhnaten in the fourteenth century BCE.

Often overlooked was the fact that polytheism has not simply disappeared, but remains a defining feature of Hinduism, professed by 950 million people today, or some 13 percent of the world’s population. Such is the pull of the conventional wisdom, however, that some Indologists detect a primordial monotheism in the foundational Vedic documents, a “purity” from which, ostensibly, later Hinduism diverged.

In this larger perspective, then, polytheism was either a primitive, superseded concept. or an atavistic reversion--which amounts to the same thing. The evolutionary superiority of monotheism was thus affirmed, somewhat grudgingly it must be conceded by secularists.

As I have pointed out elsewhere, recent scholarship has detected a disturbing nexus between monotheism, on the one hand, and violence and intolerance, on the other. This is part of what Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic exception.” Significantly, the conjunction of the three factors did not start with the ancient Israelites, but is already present in the very first model of monotheism, the Aten worship promulgated by Akhnaten.

Now a new charge has been brought against monotheism: that it has led to the widely lamented modern loss of meaning and helped to foster nihilism. Such, it would appear, is the message of a new book by two prestigious philosophers written for a popular audience. The book is “"All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age" by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. To be sure, the formidable Gary Wills trashed the book in his notorious review in the New York Review of Books. Still, continuing discussion suggests that perhaps it cannot be dismissed so easily.

Here is the book's thesis in a nutshell: "The world used to be in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. [. . .] Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing, and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. Or at least that is what we intend.”

While the authors particularly admire ancient Greece, they do not delude themselves with the vain hope of bringing back to life such deities as Ares and Aphrodite. They are concerned with something more general, perhaps ineffable--a mood, or attunement that opens one to a sacred dimension that once may have been understood as, and represented by a god or goddess. As some of the more skeptical Greeks themselves suggested, Ares may be understood as shorthand for military or aggressive propensity, and Aphrodite as erotic sensibility.

The authors believe that we have lost the exciting possibilities they detect in Homer's polytheism (and elsewhere in the "shining" realm). As a result people now have a "gut-level sadness," and they are capable only of leading flattened-down and meaningless lives. Our age is one that is threatened by a pervasive nihilism.

The implication is that monotheism is culpable because it has closed off our access to the shining world that our ancestors once experienced. We must find our way back to ecstasy. Still, there is ecstasy and ecstasy. The crowds manipulated by Hitler experienced ecstasy of a sort, but that is clearly not wanted.

Several questions intrude. Is it really clear that the modern world is pervaded by nihilism? Such figures as Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama do not seem to have been hobbled by this failing. Secondly, can ancient Greece (even supplemented by Dante and, curiously, Melville) really provide redemptive models? As we have noted above, the pagan gods can only be resuscitated in the enervated form of emotional registers and concepts--and not as the deities that were so palpably real to Homer and his successors.

There have been earlier efforts at recovery of the sensibility of paganism. One such was the hermetic syncretism of the Renaissance, best represented by the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Then, three hundred years later, there was the “aesthetic paganism” of such German romantics as Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Hoelderlin.

Such attempts are indeed worthy. But can they be emulated in today’s world of texting, the Internet, and all the other electronic modalities that surround us?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Burk Braun said...

A very nice post. Following my favorite theologian, Don Cupitt, I would offer that the only problem is that the old monotheism isn't giving up the ghost fast enough. If some people are, in their bereftness, plunged into a trough of nihilism, so be it.

The problem started with Platonism, and its valuation of what is ideal and unreal over what is real- of life and temporality. Christianity drove this position to new "heights" of unreality, even valuing death and suffering (even S&M in art) over life and contemporary love.

Now we are getting back to a this-world religion of love of nature, of simple pleasures, of humanism. Where in ancient times, this was expressed through animism and polytheism, which in their openness were better than the cramped and totalitarian exclusiveness of monotheism, I think we are now expressing it through straightforward love of nature and each other, without projecting into them an unreal mythos either of small superstitions or of enormous imaginary drama.

8:46 AM  
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