What first motivated human beings to construct religious narratives?
In that first part I wrote yesterday on the origins of human religion I ended with the words Peekaboo and its Dutch equivalent, Kiekeboe, as well as an illustration of some magical mushrooms.
Taking a peek, or taking a look is een kijkje nemen in Dutch. Kijken (pronounced something like 'kayken') means 'to look' ; een kiekje is an archaic form of kijkje which once had acquired the meaning of 'a snapshot'--but that's not what I was going to write about today.
It is the word 'boo' or 'boe' that interests me more right now.
The verb to 'be', the expression human 'being', as well as the Dutch 'ik ben' (and German ich bin, I am) are all related to the sound boo or boe--as are numerous other words: like boor or boer, bower and bowerij, bouwen (to build) and verbouwen (to grow, in the sense of cultivate) even names of districts or countries, like Bohemia, Bavaria or Burgundy. They are all based on the same onomatopoeic expression boo/boe!--and an Onomatopoeia is one of the oldest ways that words have been created out of the stream of sounds which our earliest animal ancestors had evolved to make naturally.
The visual equivalent of a sudden sound is often associated with things that suddenly spring up out of nowhere, or out of hiding, such as for instance out of a hiding place under the ground, from where they suddenly burst into view almost as if out of nowhere: first there is nothing--and then 'boo' something comes up out of the ground. Is it merely accidental or fortuitous that we talk about the Big Bang? The Big Boo!
Look, a Big Booboo! Miraculo! It's a miracle! Mirare is the Latin word for taking a look at something. Mira! means: Look! in Spanish as well. It is associated with wonder: mira! look at that! Thus a miraculum is a miracle, something to be looked at in wonder, a sight to be wondered at.
We all know how much babies, bébés, who also come miraculously out of their hiding places in the womb, love to admire their big booboos! And then there are the big boobs bigger babies love to admire as well.
One of the first wonderments of early man was when he saw plants springing up out of the soil. Boo! Mira! It's a wonder! It is almost scary that something like a big bushy plant or a huge tree can rise up from the ground like a tiny little seedling coming out of an even tinier seed. But once you get the hang of it, your fear turns to confidence and laughter--what a pleasant surprise! We have found a way to grow things from the soil by taking these tiny seeds and sticking them in the earth--and after a little while--boo! there it is--our food supply. Our very own big boob! Thus farmers, boors, boeren gained the skill to feed their family and their tribe. No wonder than that tribes of farmers gave their occupational names to the places they inhabited--like Bohemia or Burgondy. To be seems to have had a connection to that onomatopoeic expression of something suddenly coming into being.
One of the things quickest to rise from the soil after a good insemination of rain were mushrooms--and some of those mushrooms had great power--power to feed you, but also power to make you sick and sometimes power to heal you when you are sick. Mushrooms were very miraculous indeed. And then there were some mushrooms that did an entirely different thing altogether--they played tricks on your mind, they changed the world you were acustomed to, altered the reality you were used to.
These were the most powerful mushrooms. Magical mushrooms--mag being an Indo-European root having to do with might, macht, or power--from which we derive the word magus (plural magi) or magician as well, for the mag were also known as the powerful priests of the Medes and Persians--three of whom came to adore the baby Jesus--dressed kind of like Barack Obama in Somali dress, if you will recall:
They were scary, those magical mushrooms, and yet, endlessly fascinating. While mushrooms were not the only booboos that provided mind altering substances to our early ancestors, they may have been the most ancient. One of the things they did was that they often gave the partakers entirely new visions and insights into the spiritual or flowing nature of reality entirely hidden from view to those who refrained, and thus remained rooted in the universe of things: material objects and their conceptual counterparts.
These new insights on the flowing (or spiritual) nature of reality could also bestowe new powers on the partakers--provided they didn't succomb to the ill effects of the poisons these substances often contained--for what doesn't kill you makes you you stronger. They found that they had strange new visions, their perceptions were sharper, clearer, and they felt less confined by their difficult physical reality. They had greater endurance and could stand more pain. It often made them more fearless and courageous in battle--while in their opponents this altered behavior often inspired fear--for you can't account for crazy people, people gone amok, berserk, or whatever terms were used to describe such outrageous behavior.
All these advantages encouraged them to try many more and different substances and investigate what powers they could harness from them as well. One can perceive in these origins not only the beginnings of medicine and religion but of philosophy, psychology, science and the process of invention itself.
They may have begun to tell stories of their encounters with strange beings, not ordinarily seen or heard, powerful beings that had great energy and had to be propitiated or appealed to, so that they might be more kindly disposed to the tribe--or more negatively disposed to its enemies. These extraordinary beings were energies, forces, powers, such as the biblical elohim that our early ancestors may have personified in ways that made them easier to deal with--to make them more of a known quantity, something or someone you could study and get more familiar with, enter into some relationship with or at least develop ways of dealing with that seemed safer, more reliable and even advantageous. Thus energies or forces or powers, elohim, became known as 'gods'--and eventually the plural was read as a singular: a single God who controlled all the other powers.
Bara elohim ha-shamayim wa ha-aretz: In the beginning the energies formed the heavens and the earth.
I can just hear some of you ask the question: " So why are 'the energies' always translated as 'God' in the Genesis? Well, that is a good question--but it is not really always the case: Elohim , when used of the true God it is used singular, as a composite unity, when it is used of false gods it is used in the plural. In other words--biblical translators didn't just translate, they editorialized. Literally elohim simply means energies. And this is one of the few instances where it seems to me a literal translation will do just fine.
In the Amazon region religion continues to have direct and powerful connections to various psychedelic substances found in nature. There is no reason to assume that our own ancestors were very different.
In many contemporary forms of religion watered down versions of these mind altering sacramental foods and beverages continue to be of symbolic importance.
The question as to what the earliest human religions might have been will probably never be answered, but one thing is for sure--they could not have predated language, for without language there could be no religion: spirituality, yes-- religion, no. That's why 'the word' is so important in religion--without words language is very limited, if it is even possible. It is hard to see how one could create a coherent religious doctrine through body language for instance--even though spiritual values certainly can be communicated through body language: acceptance, rejection, love, envy, hate, generosity, compassion, indifference, greed, stinginess, understanding--none of these need words to express themselves--ask Marcel Marceau.
When Jesus proclaimed that he was 'the Word' or when the Gospel of John states: "in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God--en archei en ho logos, kai ho logos en pros ton theon, kai ho logos en ho theos"--something important is communicated to us about the significance of the word in relation to religion: religion can not exist without the word. Without the word, the whole concept of God doesn't even exist! That's of course is the conclusion I came to in the first part of my present exploration, if you will recall.
Spirituality certainly can exist without words, but religion cannot, since it is based on concepts and words.
However, as Pope Benedict said in his controversial Regensburg address (if you recall my journal entry at http://forthuyse.googlepages.com/asteleinchina ) the Greek word logos has a deep meaning that he claims needs to be understood in the context of Greek philosophy--and this may be true, for Christianity did not just come out of nowhere--like all of human religions and indeed all of human cultures there are indeed very deep connections to those traditions that went before.
The meanings of words depend on the cultural contexts in which such words may be used, however, and these contexts also change. To rely on a static sense of the word logos or what it may have meant to some Greek philosopher is in itself an impossibility--for which philosopher would you pick? There are so many!
In a fascinating C-Span forum some time ago on the topic of intellectual property rights law one of the main speakers, the well known author Jonathan Lethem - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia remarked that we are all constantly plagiarizing--Everyone does it, all the time. That is of course a very unpopular truism in a country where everything is always supposed to belong exclusively to some particular person or group.
But Jonathan was right--and that comes from me, a one time intellectual property attorney who used to baby sit for Jonathan in Boerum Hill when he was a kid. The kid did very well indeed! Bravo Jonathan! Of course I can't claim any credit, for actually it was my wife Nina who did most of the baby sitting--we had a mutual arrangement with our friends and neighbours, Judy and Dick Lethem, who took turns babysitting for our kids as well. And they too did a fine job, for I am mighty proud of my kids too.
But let's have a look at another statement from Jesus, the one where he said 'I am the Way'. One is tempted to read that not as 'Eimi Hodos' and look for an ancient Greek cultural context, but as 'I am the Tao' and switch to a more contemporary sense of that phrase. So let's do that, shall we--for who is to say that TAOISM had not made its inroads into Hellenized Middle Eastern thought and philosophy--check the journal entry I wrote on http://forthuyse.googlepages.com/padmasambhavatobarackobamapart3, and you will see that there were many very early connections between the diverse forms of human spirituality and religion.
The reason why it is tempting to read the words 'I am the Way' in a Chinese context is because The Word is so intimately connected to the conceptual left hemisphere of our brain--the one we think with, where logic resides, and which dominated Greek culture in particular, while The Tao, which is Chinese for The Way, appears much more related to the intuitive right hemisphere of our brain--and thus appears to provide a wholesome, holistic balance--see: Tao - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The way deals more with the flow of energy, the word deals in the conceptual coin of logic.
In saying this, I am not making a logical statement--Jesus spoke neither Greek nor Chinese: he spoke Aramaic--so whatever Benedict or I can come up with in Greek or Chinese philosophy might logically have had no significance in Jesus' own statements. But while Jesus may not have been specifically a scholar of either Greek or Chinese philosophy, as a learned rabbi he most likely was an excellent Jewish scholar and as such knew about Hellenic influences on Jewish scholarship, which were considerable in his day--and also of the more Far Eastern influences that might have crept into Judaeism by various routes since well even before the time of Alexander the Great.
I may elaborate on this in Part Three, but for now, suffice it to say that neither Judaeism nor its later off shoots of Christianity and Islam ever developed in splendid isolation--just as today many Christian scholars are aware of other traditions and other disciplines and often incorporate ideas from such outside sources into their own religious thinking--religions in the past absorbed and exchanged mutual influences. They were often more like partners than like competitors in human cultural developments--especially from a spiritual perspective, if less so from a religious point of view. It is very much the way discussions on the pros and cons of globalization tend to emphasize sometimes cooperation and at other times competition.
Nothing wrong with that.
Like Jonathan Lethem said: we (including all human beings, human cultures, philosophies and religions) are constantly plagiarizing each other--or to put a more positive spin on it: we human beings all stand on each other's shoulders--are all influenced by each other's achievements and discoveries. It is a mutual process.
Globalization is actually not such a new phenomenon--it's just that our various mutual influences and interactions have speeded up greatly. The flow of the spirit has become very active indeed and is moving mightily in our day--for good or for bad. The problem is that religions have always tended to be quite jealous of their unique intellectual proprietary rights. Religions have rarely been able to separate themselves from politics and nationality, and nation states and national religions tend to throw up boundaries and walls to protect themselves from outsiders--or to prevent insiders from escaping from the sphere of their power and influence.
However, if we go beyond the logical, beyond the verbal, and allow meanings to flow as they might following paths of freedom, tolerance and wisdom or sophia rather than the jealously rigid structures of conceptual logic--what Jesus said is very interesting--and even enlightening.
He implied that he was both The Word and The Way--meaning the energy he personified was both the flowing energy of spiritual intuition and the conceptual energy of religious logic--encompassing both.
In a way it was a meeting of the East and the West. I am not saying that's what he meant--merely that one could find that meaning in the context of today. And in reading spiritual (as opposed to doctrinal) texts, what is important is how the text communicates itself to the contemporary and even individual reader.
If it doesn't do that, then what's the point of the communication? We need to be interactive consumers of spiritual messages, for we are not separate from the divine reality--we are indeed part and parcel of it.
When the divine reality talks, it doesn't just talk to us, but also through us. That's what we need to realize.
But back to the question of what might have motivated early human beings to formulate religious narratives, or stories of identity, belonging and origin. Well, the way Bishop Spong put it, as quoted in Part One of this present exploration: Religion is primarily a search for security and not a search for truth.
We need boundaries and walls to protect our identity. That's what I was paid to do when I worked for Langner, Parry, Card and Langner, or later Haseltine Lake & Co, back in New York, in the sixties. Here's a historical link to both of those firms for those interested: Ladas & Parry - About Us - Firm History
I was supposed to protect the proprietary rights of our clients to their 'intellectual property'--by using the kind of walls provided by laws and statutes, institutions and courts, and even those provided by well protected national and jurisdictional boundaries--for as an international trademarks attorney, I used those boundaries both defensively and offensively in my clients interests. My clients were not churches or religions, but corporations like Bristol Myers, Coca Cola, General Motors and Monsanto, to mention just a few. But what's the difference? One uses theologians, the other lawyers as their jockstraps--jeolously to protect and support their vulnerable manhood.
The well known legends of the past that we are familiar with and which have come down to us in literary and religious writings include endless epic poems like the The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, as well Sumerian Myths, the Zoroastrian Avesta, or Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Jewish Bible and more recent stories like those of the New Testament or the Koran--but also the Mayan's Popol Vuh ( Recovering the Lost World - The Popol Vu) and even The Legend of Aeneas and the Foundation of Rome recounted by Virgil.
The stories may not be strictly historical, but they are always great reading, great literature, full of wisdom and insight--and always about relationship, about the soul. But the motivation for such epic stories and narrations--some of which became the foundations of major religious or philosophical movements, others, like Homer and Shakespeare, retained their essentially more literary and less religious qualities--all had at some level to do with the establishment, encouragement or preservation of tribal or national identity: with the bond that tied their people together and reconnected them to their past, or even to their origins in a divine and spiritually flowing reality. It is what gave people a sense of belonging and security--and made them strong in battle for the defense of their people.
Nothing wrong with that--if you don't go overboard, like the Facists and the Nazi's did--and many other odious groups of people in various times and places. And even in America too we have to guard against going overboard: when a lapel pin becomes more important in a presidential debate than climate change, the economy, health care, or the disastrous strategy of the war in Iraq then we are definitely going overboard. Nomsane? Nufsaid.
Maybe this is a good place to end this segment and go home for a well deserved rest. I have picked up a bad cold and am sneezing constantly. Achoo! Prosit! Thank you.
I said that the other day to a little dachshund who sneezed right near my table at the sidewalk terrace of the Venue Cafe across from the old Mint. It made the owner, a tall, darkhaired handsome woman, laugh out loud--and I kept her laughing by saying after each canine sneeze: Gesundheit! Or: Santé! The little dog was really cute. Achoo! Here I go again! I really have to go home now.
Good night folks. Slaap wel. En gij die slaapt: ontwaakt! Those of you who are asleep, wake up!