Thursday, October 23, 2014

Original Monotheism

Review of In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism by Winfried Corduan (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2013).

The author reprises the debate that raged in the 19th Century as to the origin and evolution of religion. At that time the dominant view emerged, championed by such noted scholars as E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer, that religion emerged first as a sort of animism in which societies began to worship spirits that inhabited the forest, river and mountain, later evolving to become polytheistic and eventually monotheistic. ‘Primitive’ communities in the world today, the argument followed, are archaic throw backs to older times, representing an unbroken tradition that gives us insight into the nature of the first religion. This was very convenient for them, as Corduan quotes Evans-Pritchard:

We should, I think, realize what was the intention of many of these scholars if we are to understand their theoretical constructions. They sought, and found, in primitive religions a weapon, which could, they thought, be used with deadly effect against Christianity. (11)

Other scholars challenged this view. Among them were Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt who argued that there are many societies that have the very simplest material culture that are, nevertheless, monotheistic. Schmidt in particular adduced an impressive array of evidence to back up his thesis, covering many volumes of, says the German-born author, difficult German. Corduan argues that Schmidt’s detractors clearly did not read his works closely at all but rather decided to dismiss his arguments on the basis of a supposed bias since he was a Catholic priest. Those same interlocutors expected their own views to be taken seriously by virtue of their not be religiously motivated and that is what happened. Schmidt’s views were ignored for the most part and by the mid-twentieth century a consensus emerged not to pursue this discussion further such that the Macmillan Dictionary of Anthropology on my bookshelf does not even mention him.

The culture-historical method that Schmidt’s theory grew out of lies over a narrative of migration which goes something like this: Groups of people migrate for many reasons and as they do so those groups encounter other groups and compete for food and other resources. The group with the less-developed technology ends up either being absorbed into the other group or migrating to another place as they are out-competed. Migration places the less-developed group in a more marginal environment. This can happen again and again, and has done so throughout human history. As has become very clear through genetic studies in recent years, “the history of humans is to a large extent the history of the migrations of people groups” (146). The groups with the least developed technology today, such as those of Southeast Australia, Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, the African jungle, or the Andaman Islands, living in isolated or inhospitable environments, therefore, are those whose culture preserves elements that are among the oldest in the world. The culture-historical method, then, uses this premise to tease out the oldest elements of culture. Using this method, then, Schmidt demonstrated that, far from being a new phenomenon, the oldest form of religion in the world is monotheistic and thus the culture-historical method supports the biblical narrative.

This is a work of apologetics and therefore out of my field of expertise. The author is well versed in philosophy, so employs careful logic to make his case. It would be good to see those that have inherited the mantle of Schmidt’s detractors work their way through the arguments. I cannot do that but want simply to state that I found the book compelling and fitting into my own studies of human development. Nevertheless, I have an issue with one assertion, that phenomenology is necessarily a subjective description in contrast to history being objective narrative (269). I fail to see why phenomenology is necessarily any more subjective than history. Indeed, phenomenology is surely the synchronic counterpart to the diachronic of history and therefore not necessarily any less reliable at all. The reliability of phenomenological descriptions can be challenged on at least two levels: the phenomena themselves and the interpretation of those phenomena in exactly the same way that historical accounts can be.

There are, in addition, a number of minor issues that I want to point out.

  • In a number of places Corduan mistakenly refers to roving groups of hunter gatherers, such as various Aboriginal groups in Australia, as ‘clans’ (e.g. 66). The term usually employed in the discipline is ‘band’ rather than clan: the latter refers rather to certain social structures that are typical of more complex societies such as those that have a pastoral or agricultural economy.
  • I am puzzled by Corduan’s use of the term ‘phratry’ which does not fit with common use as I understand it; he may have read more widely than I so I am open to being corrected. As I understand it, phratry is not synonymous with clan as the author seems to think (e.g. 83, 112) but rather refers to a grouping of two or more clans that claim common descent from a mythical ancestor, thereby making the phratry an exogamous group. If the society is divided into two phratries then each of these is a moiety but phratries are not necessarily moieties (121).    
  • Homo neanderthalensis is spelled homo neanderthalis (194).
  • Corduan calls the Nepali language ‘Nepalese’, a term which is reserved as an adjective for the people or their culture.

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