Andrew Stehlik – Polytheism, Monotheism and Beyond
Audio download of Andrew (Ondrej) Stehlik’s lecture “Polytheism, Monotheism and Beyond.”
From the Julian Jaynes Society Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies.
Summary: Julian Jaynes presented an interesting anthropological theory of the origins and development of religion. He based most of his observations on Classic Homeric material with only cursory attention given to a few other regions and traditions. Recent developments in our understanding of the Near Eastern religious milieu and especially the most recent developments in our understanding of the Biblical religion asks for closer attention and assessment since it can provide interesting new perspectives and supportive insights.
Small cumulative advances in the academic study of the Biblical texts (So-called Biblical minimalists also known as the Copenhagen School — Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche together with other scholars, for instance Philip R. Davies) and especially in the discipline of Near Eastern Archeology (Israel Finkelstein, cooperating on popularizing volumes with Neil Asher Silberman) started to accelerate in 1990s. Simultaneously the dating of the final authorship of the Biblical texts has been moved forward by several centuries to the Persian and perhaps even later Hellenistic period (the Persian dating being proposed by Peter Frei). It is now a well-established fact that the Biblical text cannot be used as a direct source for the study of Ancient History. For instance the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, the Exodus narrative, the sagas of the unified monarchy of David and Solomon are now viewed as predominantly literary compositions.
The full appreciation of the fact that the Biblical texts and narratives do not relate history in a straightforward fashion is only a negative aspect of the recent development. This development is complemented and greatly surpassed by a positive impact. Religious texts, appropriately understood, can help us decipher, illuminate and understand some of the most fascinating and complex anthropological processes.
For instance, viewed in the ANE context, the Biblical texts preserved (like DNA) remnants of the developmental stages of monotheization of the original (polytheistic) religion. The work of Mark S. Smith from NYU and others ANE scholars like my Edinburgh professor Nicolas Wyatt clearly demonstrates that the Bible contains a substantial part of the North-West Semitic pantheon and mythology. Their publications illuminate the complex and diverse processes which lead toward the final form of the monotheistic text.
Ancient myths were “democratized” and transformed into heroic legends while divine characters were re-named and re-coined as patriarchs and other human characters. The North-West Semitic Pantheon and the characteristics and functions of its original deities were assimilated (god El), substituted (gods Yarich and Shemesh), subsumed and sublimated (goddess Asherah) expropriated and suppressed (god Baal), or inhibited and obscured (plethora of minor deities). Old religious practices were re-framed, re-narrated, hidden, forbidden and/or suppressed.
From a different point of view and with different accents, it can be described with Jan Assmann as a transition from the concept of multiple immanent deities representing natural forces towards a transcendent deity as a guarantor of the natural order. This process was accompanied by a transition from a broadly inclusive natural religiosity to a strictly exclusive supranatural one. We can also observe a simultaneous shift from sacrificial religion to a religion concerned with education and teaching (a shift from orthopraxy to orthodoxy) and from an oral tradition to the written fixation of religion.
I find this new understanding of the development of the Ancient Near Eastern religion surprisingly harmonious with Julian Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind and its transition towards modern consciousness. The theory of Jan Assmann should be of particular interest. Assmann outlines a fast transition/shift from the primary to the secondary religion which cannot be reversed and which he calls the Mosaic Distinction. I would like to suggest that the immanent, natural, oral, inclusive and orthopraxy-oriented religion represents an original (and organic) religion of the bicameral stage and perhaps an early post-breakdown stage. As the process of the breakdown of the bicameral mind deepened, religiosity started to move first slowly, but inevitably, towards transcendent, supranatural, written, exclusivistic and orthodoxy-oriented religion. Breakdown of bicameralism and the disintegration of organic religiosity, are simultaneous and complementary processes. And just like the modern concept of consciousness, any contact between old organic religiosity and new world religions leads to irreversible changes in self-understanding.
As the world monotheistic religions are discovering and deepening this ability of anthropological self-reflection, we are clearly entering a new stage of religious development. A radically new form of religiosity, non-dogmatic, post-transcendent, is becoming possible and probable just like some kind of new reintegration of the human mind and self understanding.
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