In the Beginning …
IN THE BEGINNING, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore. Eventually he was said to have disappeared.
That, at least, is one theory, popularized by Father Wilhelm Schmidt in The Origin of the Idea of God, first published in 1912. Schmidt suggested that there had been a primitive monotheism before men and women had started to worship a number of gods. Originally they had acknowledged only one Supreme Deity, who had created the world and governed human affairs from afar. Belief in such a High God (sometimes called the Sky God, since he is associated with the heavens) is still a feature of the religious life in many indigenous African tribes. They yearn toward God in prayer; believe that he is watching over them and will punish wrongdoing. Yet he is strangely absent from their daily lives: he has no special cult and is never depicted in effigy. The tribesmen say that he is inexpressible and cannot be contaminated by the world of men. Some people say that he has “gone away.” Anthropologists suggest that this God has become so distant and exalted that he has in effect been replaced by lesser spirits and more accessible gods. So too, Schmidt’s theory goes, in ancient times, the High God was replaced by the more attractive gods of the pagan pantheons. In the beginning, therefore, there was One God. If this is so, then monotheism was one of the earliest ideas evolved by human beings to explain the mystery and tragedy of life. It also indicates some of the problems that such a deity might have to face.
It is impossible to prove this one way or the other. There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced. These ideas disappear quietly, like the Sky God, with no great fanfare. In our own day, many people would say that the God worshipped for centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims has become as remote as the Sky God. Some have actually claimed that he has died. Certainly he seems to be disappearing from the lives of an increasing number of people, especially in Western Europe. They speak of a “God-shaped hole” in their consciousness where he used to be, because, irrelevant though he may seem in certain quarters, he has played a crucial role in our history and has been one of the greatest human ideas of all time. To understand what we are losing—if, that is, he really is disappearing—we need to see what people were doing when they began to worship this God, what he meant and how he was conceived. To do that we need to go back to the ancient world of the Middle East, where the idea of our God gradually emerged about 14,000 years ago.
One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the physical and material world in front of us. This method of looking at the world has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the “spiritual” or the “holy” which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world. In the South Sea Islands, they call this mysterious force mana; others experience it as a presence or spirit; sometimes it has been felt as an impersonal power, like a form of radioactivity or electricity. It was believed to reside in the tribal chief, in plants, rocks or animals. The Latins experienced numina (spirits) in sacred groves; Arabs felt that the landscape was populated by the jinn. Naturally people wanted to get in touch with this reality and make it work for them, but they also simply wanted to admire it. When they personalized the unseen forces and made them gods, associated with the wind, sun, sea and stars but possessing human characteristics, they were expressing their sense of affinity with the unseen and with the world around them.
Rudolf Otto, the German historian of religion who published his important book The Idea of the Holy in 1917, believed that this sense of the “numinous” was basic to religion. It preceded any desire to explain the origin of the world or find a basis for ethical behavior. The numinous power was sensed by human beings in different ways—sometimes it inspired wild, bacchanalian excitement; sometimes a deep calm; sometimes people felt dread, awe and humility in the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of life. When people began to devise their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena. The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives; indeed, poets, artists and musicians are often impelled by a similar desire today. In the Palaeolithic period, for example, when agriculture was developing, the cult of the Mother Goddess expressed a sense that the fertility which was transforming human life was actually sacred. Artists carved those statues depicting her as a naked, pregnant woman which archaeologists have found all over Europe, the Middle East and India. The Great Mother remained imaginatively important for centuries. Like the old Sky God, she was absorbed into later pantheons and took her place alongside the older deities. She was usually one of the most powerful of the gods, certainly more powerful than the Sky God, who remained a rather shadowy figure. She was called Inana in ancient Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt and Aphrodite in Greece, and remarkably similar stories were devised in all these cultures to express her role in the spiritual lives of the people. These myths were not intended to be taken literally, but were metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way. These dramatic and evocative stories of gods and goddesses helped people to articulate their sense of the powerful but unseen forces that surrounded them.
Indeed, it seems that in the ancient world people believed that it was only by participating in this divine life that they would become truly human. Earthly life was obviously fragile and overshadowed by mortality, but if men and women imitated the actions of the gods they would share to some degree their greater power and effectiveness. Thus it was said that the gods had shown men how to build their cities and temples, which were mere copies of their own homes in the divine realm. The sacred world of the gods—as recounted in myth—was not just an ideal toward which men and women should aspire, but was the prototype of human existence; it was the original pattern or the archetype on which our life here below had been modeled. Everything on earth was thus believed to be a replica of something in the divine world, a perception that informed the mythology, ritual and social organization of most of the cultures of antiquity and continues to influence more traditional societies in our own day.1 In ancient Iran, for example, every single person or object in the mundane world (getik) was held to have its counterpart in the archetypal world of sacred reality (menok). This is a perspective that is difficult for us to appreciate in the modern world, since we see autonomy and independence as supreme human values. Yet the famous tag post coitum omne animal tristis est still expresses a common experience: after an intense and eagerly anticipated moment, we often feel that we have missed something greater that remains just beyond our grasp. The imitation of a god is still an important religious notion: resting on the Sabbath or washing somebody’s feet on Maundy Thursday—actions that are meaningless in themselves—are now significant and sacred because people believe that they were once performed by God.
Copyright © 2011 by Karen Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.