Bear with me folks. If this works out, it’ll be an interesting ride.
I’m going to cover a fairly broad swath of history here; I know there are exceptions and variants out there. I’m painting with broad brushstrokes and some pastels today.
When I was a young man, the narrative in my fancy-ass private school was that of progress. We were grunt-y ape things, weak and helpless, then we discovered fire and some other tools (hi, 2001: A Space Odyssey!) and started kicking but. The slightly better ape things started inventing explanations for things because they were ignorant and stupid. Then finally, we mastered the Awesome Art of Agriculture ™ and zip! Up we went! Iron Age, Bronze, Steel, Industrial, Information! Screw these impersonal forces! We started modeling gods after our super-selves! This small civilized nation (Israel) came up with a radical new spiritual technology - Monotheism! omg lol of course! There’s only one god! That’s the only thing that makes sense! (is it just me or was there a lot of exclamation points in that historical journey?)
This handily ended up with religion - defined as a thing which dealt with non-material issues like death, marriage and sin – being resoundingly hailed as the -only- type of religion to have and science - defined as a thing which dealt with material issues like death, marriage and taxes - in control of everything else. All hail progress!
I’d like to think I see things with a little more nuance now.
For folks like me, who work in technology, we understand that there are some branches of technology / science that are simply dead ends. Phlogiston, for example. Or steam powered toilets. The same applies to most branches of technology, even social or spiritual ones.
Today, I’m going to take a hard look at the principle of monotheism.
Gospel: Old English godspel… literally “good spell,” from god “good” (see good (adj.)) + spel “story, message” (see spell (n.1)). A translation of Latin bona adnuntiatio, itself a translation of Greek euangelion “reward for bringing good news” (see evangel). The first element of the Old English word originally had a long “o,” but it shifted under mistaken association with God, as if “God-story”
According to the Gospel of Quinn, the humans were granted authority over the province of stories. This was the spark that led to their initial success and transformation into our form about a half-million years ago. It also empowered them to co-evolve with wolves (another alpha predator) with unprecedented success and adoption of pack habits resulted from band to more complex systems recognizably about 40K-70K years ago. In addition, it allowed them to pull in relatives like the Neanderthals and Denisovans into our genetic fold. It was a hell of an invention.
Story, as a tool, is primarily one of observation and transformation. At its simplest, it involved a transformation of self-over-time. There is an origin to a story, a middle, and a terminus. The stories that allowed us to track animals and identify beneficial plants AND transmit that to another generation (and, of course, each other) are persistent, resilient and the core to our success.
As stories are a function of observation, we quickly observed patterns around us. Relatively persistent phenomenon could be labeled. “Nouns”, if you will. Their activity “Verbs”. Both represented change / time, NOT permanency. This flexibility allowed people to recognize shifts in the world around them with delightful precision and aided with our exploration around the globe.
You know, I read the above and, as usual, I over-complicate things. The much simpler version is: Stories are important to humans, and kind of unique to us. Stories -always- contain change and time and things. And the world is -all- about change.
Life’s pretty damned simple when you look at it. You need to be able to eat, drink clean water, have shelter when you need it. A way to communicate with your fellow humans so you can have kids (if you want them) and get help when you need it. That’s about it.
The details about how you get all that stuff though… that’s the awesome part. And it’s a worthy life. It’s life for the majority of people and it’s really cool. Each landscape on the face of the planet is unique – and the idea of ‘landscape’ is defined by major boundaries that create difficulties for life to travel / create a radically different ecosystem. Story knowledge that is harvested from one environment to the other is difficult to transmit with any kind of meaningful precision and that’s okay! This depth of knowledge (as opposed to breadth of knowledge which is common today) meant that human cultures existed on the scale of millennia instead of decades or centuries.
Animism, the religion of the Ancients who reside in Deeptime, came from that success and those observations
Deeptime: Coined by Joana Macy (borrowed from the term for ‘geological epochs’) as a way to connect with ancestors that exist in cultures so far removed from our own to be virtually incomprehensible but still vitally needed for our spirit.
Spirit: mid-13c., “animating or vital principle in man and animals,” from Anglo-French spirit, Old French espirit “spirit, soul” (12c., Modern French esprit) and directly from Latin spiritus “a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,” hence “inspiration; breath of life,” hence “life;” also “disposition, character; high spirit, vigor, courage; pride, arrogance,” related to spirare “to breathe,” perhaps from PIE *(s)peis- “to blow” (source also of Old Church Slavonic pisto “to play on the flute”)
Here’s where we get into the realm of the spirits. Say that word nowadays (or ‘gods’ for that matter) and you get a whole D&D manual worth of monsters, critters, creatures and creepy crawlies. You have people scoffing at the notion of spirits or offering homage without understanding. Spirit refers to a process. Specifically, an external, motive force that moves in time. You have a spirit. Your body is what channels the spirit and makes it into the eddy in space/time that makes up “you.” Interesting, yes?
Some strange few folks, they’re not content with the life well-lived. Their curiosity leads to other venues. What other forces are out there beyond the animals and the plants and each other? If we’re only an eddy in the water, what happens to the current as it moves on? Does it maintain a sense of ‘you-ness’ (the answer is ‘yes’, by the way)? The weather… what about that? What about the forces people call ‘bad luck’ or ‘good’? What about the origin of the people themselves? What forces keep them coherent as a society?
The people who pursued this path ended up in stories often portrayed as great hunters (I include plants in this ), or great healers or great dreamers. They were recognized as not only people interested in spirits but who had spirits interested in them.
Great dreamers. Defining that as a moment. Not someone who -has- dreams, but someone who dreams. Who feels visions rush through them, who can hold strange worlds and strange concepts in their skulls. The kind of person you turn to, if they have any kind of social aptitude, for advice in case of dispute. The kind of person who can clarify things.
Nowadays, we might call them ‘chiefs’ or ‘big men’ ( there were PLENTY of women and Genderfluids in that category as well!) or ‘captains’ (the local term in my territory). It’s easy to call people like that ‘touched by the gods’ or ‘blessed by the gods’.
On a smaller scale, it’s easy to have someone like that but also keep them humble. After all, to the couple of hundred folks around you, you might seem totally and completely godlike in your intellect, but your family remembers the time you accidentally let off a fart near the campfire and damn near burned the pavilion down.
These people who you could term ‘spiritually-touched’ worked out because their work was based on OBSERVATION and TRANSFORMATION. Yeah, I’m emphasizing those terms again. It’s important. You couldn’t just walk over the hill and carry all your power with you because it was based in the observed world and sussing out those details could take ages. Don’t believe me? Tell me, right now, how many earthworms are in nearest available patch of earth to you. That’s just one detail…
Imagine spending thirty years learning how to talk to the ocean and then moving to the desert. Oops.
The above covers the majority of human history. Observation, hypothesis, experimentation, revision, replication, dissemination. The cornerstones of all human cultures before the introduction of the dead-end branch known as civilization.
Civilization: a culture — that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts — that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning state or city), "and the definition of city as a group of “people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”… by such definitions, civilizations and cities are both unsustainable:
‘Two things happen as soon as you require the importation of resources. One of them is that your way of living can never be sustainable, because, if you require the importation of resources, it means you’ve denuded the landscape of that particular resource, and, as your city grows, you’ll denude an ever-larger area. […] And the other thing it means is that your way of life must be based on violence, because if you require the importation of resources, trade will never be sufficiently reliable because, if you require the importation of resources and the people in the next watershed over aren’t going to trade you for it, you’re going to take it.’ — Derrick Jensen, Book lecture for Endgame
You ever read those old faery stories? Where the guy bargains away something precious for a handful of riches that ends up being leaves? Or walnut husks? Or scorpions? Cities are a great example of that. Marduk bargained away the future of his people for a crapload of wheat and signed his and the neighboring people’s lives into eternal servitude. Hell of a stupid trade.
So, agriculture. You’ve got a crop to protect against rampant intruders (like deer, mice, etc.), so you put badasses in charge. You get most people to farm. The once-spiritual long-seeing dudes get in charge, emerging as ‘warlords’ and ‘kings’ of the system while retaining their claim to godliness. Remember those people that used to keep them humble? Screw that. Those folks get burned or hanged or bludgeoned to death. Can’t get in the way of progress, right?
Here’s the issue with civilization (well… one of many): either (a) farming is successful & produces a lot of people and has to expand or (b) they end up wrecking the land and a lot of people have to move or © most likely, both. Remember at the beginning of this oh-so-short story I was talking about animism as a function of observation and change? Well screw that people! We just kill the folks next to us and move our story! That’ll work, right?
Most empires tried to do exactly that. Transplant their gods. And ultimately, these believes would break down and fractionalize. Heresies would arise. Because observations did not match reality. And let’s be brutally honest. Reality sucked for most civilized folk. Hells, it’s only because I’m in the top point one percent in the world that I’m able to type this up and share it with you folks.
Time and process don’t stop if we just want it to. Very, very intelligent people tried very hard to uncover why life was so miserable. The answer provided by civilization was simple: if only everyone could just work as -one-, everything would be okay. So why doesn’t that apply to religion?
The Persian Empire, around the time of the Greeks, gave up on that for a while and let people keep their religion. Didn’t matter. They fell. Their gods couldn’t help them. Zoroaster came up with a good idea that seemed to satisfy a small group of people for a time. There were two forces in the universe. One good, one bad. Even though they were both equal in power, the good one had an advantage and was fighting for us, the common man. And at the end of all things, there’d be this cool final battle and everything would be restored to Awesome Default setting forever and ever.
As far as answers are, this was the equivalent of " Someone else will figure out this crap somewhere down the line."
To be fair and cover a couple of other little bits, Hinduism handled the problem by saying “your little ‘gods’ are cute but there’s only really big one, right? And we own it.” Shintoism and Taoism are cool attempts by animism to infiltrate civilization with some varying success. Buddhism is Taoism + a mental / spiritual band-aid to help stop the bleeding from civilized wounds. Confucianism is a civilized attempt to make sense of the whole mess.)
Here’s where Judaism comes in, in this world of divine kings and games of ‘our god is better than your god’ and awkward attempts at unification (“We’ve got to unify to fight the Bad God!” – Zoroaster). And common narrative is that the Jews responded by creating the idea of monotheism.
Yeah. Don’t think so.
So here’s what the skinny was around Genesis. The Jews had battled their way out of generational slavery. They were a hell-and-gone away from their homeland. The kids were used to being forced to worship the gods of one (or more) of these jerk kingdoms who had enslaved. How do you deal with that?
They reacted by creating a clear pathway back to their land. An immediate-return religion.
YHVH – also known as the Tetragramaton, the name given to the Hebrew tribal deity. Loosely, it translates to “everything”.
Angel – taken from the Greek word “angelos” meaning messenger. Originally supposed to be “daimon”, which was a spiritual helper but the term was not used because it had both negative AND positive aspects. Applied to two different terms in the Bible: the Word of God, which encompasses emanations of YHVH so powerful it took physical form, and to the Elohim, which can be translated as ‘sons of god’
How do you explain to your kids that, even though they’ve spent their young lifetime watching Mom & Dad bow to a Golden Calf, that this is now -wrong-? How do you explain to them that the land they have never seen, never experienced, is -so- much better than where they were at?
You tell them this.
“Look, my child. The universe loves us. It got us out of captivity. It protects and shelters and feeds us right now. And the gods in this universe? Well, if they rise up against us, the universe itself will shout out ‘I like these people! Leave them alone.’. So here’s some ground rules. There’s the Elohim and then there are foreign gods. You’re only going to truly know the Elohim once we return home. Until then, don’t bow down to these representations of gods. How is a single god more important than the favor of the universe? Don’t worship them. You’ve got enough to do! And once we get home. Once the home is ours again, we are in the hands of the Elohim once again.”
Obviously things didn’t work out as intended. I am secure in saying that if I laid this down at the feet of many Jews, they’d be scratching their head. But look at how absolutely utterly magnificent an attempt this is at trying to preserve a tribal legacy from the depredations of a foreign land and aid them in coherence in getting home.
In that aspect, it worked amazing. Jews, as a tribal people, have a resilient and coherent society even today, synagogues helping to cement that cohesion even while the only temple to the Elohim can exist in Jerusalem. It was an amazing, mostly successful attempt and I’m honestly in awe of it.
So with that, I’m going to move on to where it all seriously went south.
About the time Yeshua was up to his/her hijinks (seriously, if you haven’t read this article, read it: [http://www.nthposition.com/jesusampalinsky.php](Jesus & Alinsky)), the Romans were trying out a new unity spiritual technology of their own: rebranding.
They’d conquer a place, usher in some roads, and start lecturing on how their gods were pretty much identical to the local ones. So, if you wanted to continue your ways of worship, you simply had to call your gods by the Roman equivalents. And celebrate the Roman holidays too. And respect the Roman worship because, you know, your gods and the Romans were the same.
Rebranding worked great for a time but like all the other attempts, it started to fall apart as the Empire slowly did.
Here’s where Saul of Tarsus steps into the picture. Saul’s a sad dude. He’s a Roman but his Dad really talks about how cool it is to be a Jew. It gets so contentious, Saul finally ends up going out and hunting down Jewish apocalypse cults, like this Yeshua one that says the Roman Empire sucks and it’s going to fall horribly because it’s filled with lechers and perverts and just generally terrible people. He gets a head injury and somewhere in the recovery period figures out his job was teen angst and decides to ‘become Jewish’.
In context, consider how easy would it be for you, tomorrow, to become Maori or Sami or Tongva…
Saul takes the Roman concept of rebranding to ridiculous heights, claims spiritual superiority, and takes the message of a tribal religion and applies it to the Empire. It probably would have stopped somewhere in there, except that Constantine spotted that it was a great way to unify people.
“The Universe is OUR god. That means it’s so much bigger than your gods. And it likes us because Saul says so and Saul has talked to the Universe lately. Entry fee is: belief is Iesu. Thank you for playing.”
The above is likely not a direct quote from Constantine. I wasn’t there.
You really can’t get more detached from direct observation than saying ‘the universe loves ME more than it loves YOU’ and while this sham worked for a while, it ended up in the same division that claimed all the attempts to unify spirit. And as it did it gave birth to the ultimate twins of detachment. Welcome to the spiritual technologies known as Science and Theosophy.
Science is the madness that results from faith being so long divorced from common practice. It looks at the last few thousand years of devastation and, instead of questioning the cultural wounds imposed on the people, says:
“There are forces in this universe but they are IMPERSONAL ones. They don’t care for us and they probably don’t even think or aren’t alive or aren’t of any importance.”
Animists from over forty thousand years of observation roll their eyes at its ignorance.
Theosophy is the rationalization that occurs when you are trying to fit all of those personal forces into a framework where they flat don’t fit. Theosophy appeared at the heart of the Spiritualist Movement in the late 19th Century and is best recognized today through both New Age and Waldorf movements. Theosophy wants to say:
“We are all part of a primitive space-time, the lowest of the low, and every ill we get, we deserve. In fact, we’ve asked for it. This is elementary school for gods. Once we’ve learned enough lessons, we will uplift from this precocious plane and enter the real Reality.”
And animists bang their head on the wall as theosophists try to sell dreamcatchers – summoning charms SPECIFICALLY made for the Spider God of a certain tribe – as special nightmare stoppers theosophists ‘made in their past lives as native american shamans’.
So what is the takeaway from this entire lecture? E pluribus unum? Infinite diversity, infinite combinations? Perhaps it’s something as simple as highlighting both a seductive but dangerous (and ultimately futile) spiritual technology meant to unify the planet AND an attempt by one tribe to preserve their identity long enough to return to its roots. Only one of these technologies is worthy of study, the other only as a warning to future generations and a lesson of history.
Thank you for listening.
First Church of Coyote
wondering why oranges are called oranges and yellows are called lemons.