At last I’ve got round to watching on iPlayer the second part of Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s series on the Bible. The title was ‘Did God Have a Wife?’ The reactions provoked in me this time were rather different from those that arose in response to her first programme which I blogged about earlier this month.
Then I was struck by how good an example it provided of the inherent ambiguity of complex realities, and of how different they can seem when viewed from different angles. This time I was not triggered by any divergent views among dispassionate scholars about the evidence. It is widely accepted, I think, that in the history of Israelite theology the move was from polytheism to monotheism. Stavrakopoulou find traces of this in the Bible itself and this is not a huge surprise. She makes as much as she can out of the moment in which she confronts a scholar of Judaism with this evidence in order to elicit the predictable response that this would not be a position acceptable within his theology.
The problem for me lies in the implications she derives from this and from his similar equally predictable failure to agree that Asherah was widely accepted by the Israelites of the time to be the wife of El, the name God was equally widely known by then.
For her this calls into question the whole concept of monotheism, for her the ark of Yahweh is irreversibly holed below the waterline. She rightly points out that the masculine emphasis of early forms of monotheism, which suppressed the feminine side and therefore deleted Asherah from the record, was basically unhealthy. But this only sinks the concept entirely if the idea of one God must by definition be male and if we assume that a single deity of any kind can only be a figment of human imagination.
There is a subtler position, which she never mentions, that reflects the likely reality more faithfully. This position has, for me, been most effectively expressed by Robert Wright, whose book, The Evolution of God, I have reviewed elsewhere. I can’t reproduce his whole argument now anymore than I was able to last time. It is enough to say that his premise on this question is that human understanding of the divine, whatever that is, has evolved over millennia, usually under the pressure of harsh political realities.
He describes the point in Israelite history when monolatry took hold. He sees it interconnected with, though not reducible to, a nationalist Israelite foreign policy (FP – page 146). He feels this would explain, for example, ‘why the Bible’s calls for exclusive devotion to Yahweh are so often infused with a nationalist spirit.’ This can’t be a complete explanation, in his view, as Israelite monotheism did not only have to reject foreign gods but their own ‘indigenous pantheon,’ including Asherah, as well (page 147). The matter of domestic politics (DP – page 148) has also to be involved. There was a sense in which Yahweh ‘gave legitimacy to the king’ (ibid.). He succinctly summarises his case by saying (page 150):
Supernatural pluralism was an enemy of royal power.
Any alert reader could well be saying at this point, ‘If he thinks he is safeguarding the survival of the concept of monotheism by this line of argument, he must be more deluded than I gave him credit for.’ And of course by itself it does little to further the case for the objective existence of a single ‘God.’ What it does do is lend support to Wright’s overall case that humanity’s ideas about God have changed over time and, on average, have developed greater levels of subtlety and sophistication as civilisations have lifted to higher levels of complexity. I started at this unpromising point in the story because this is where Stavrakopoulou begins and ends.
If we move forward in time, there is Philo‘s appealing contribution to the evolution of our idea of God (page 189 passim). He saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’ Wright feels that something made ‘tolerance attractive to Philo’ (page 189) – something that made him pay selective attention to expressions in the Bible that pointed in that direction. The ambiguity of scripture allowed him to read tolerance into the record. What pointed him in that direction though?
Wright’s full argument is complex and multifaceted and has to be read in toto to do his case justice. I am simply going to pick out one key point here. It hinges upon the fact that Philo ‘inhabited overlapping worlds’ rather as we do now (page 194):
Ethnically and religiously he was a Jew. Politically, he lived in the Roman Empire. Intellectually and socially, his world was Greek.
Maintaining his status as a member of a rich and influential family he needed to stay on good terms with many powerful people from many different backgrounds. He was devoutly religious so repudiating his monotheism was not an option even though Roman leaders thought of themselves as divine (page 195).
He had to preserve the viability of his Jewish world – and the integrity of his Jewish faith – even amid the Greek, Roman and Egyptian worlds.
In the end (page 196):
Intolerance, he saw, would breed intolerance, and the result could be lose-lose. However false pagan gods may be, those who believe in them “are not peaceful toward or reconciled with those who do not gladly accept their opinion, and this is the beginning and origin of wars.” And, after all, “to us the Law [the Torah] has described the source of peace as a beautiful possession.”
He was astute enough to survive an encounter with the reputedly callous and sadistic Caligula (page 196).
While this does not do much either to make a completely convincing argument for the objective reality of monotheism, it does illustrate that an advance in a civilisation’s complexity seems to go hand in hand with a moral advance in our ideas of God. What was arguably true then is even more true now.
Would it then be too ridiculous to extrapolate from that, by analogy with the way that physical evolution, over long periods of time, equips organisms to respond more effectively to the objective environment and increase their chances of survival? Is it stretching things too far to say that advances in social complexity similarly enforce advances in moral understanding and that these are conducive to survival because our understanding then captures more accurately some superordinate reality? Central to this moral understanding there could well be a concept of a single underlying power in the universe that turns out objectively to be the best approximation currently available to describe what is out there, and perhaps within us too.
There is much in Baha’i scripture that maps onto this – progressive revelation for example which teaches that this Being we call God, whose true nature we will never fully understand, speaks to us through people more able than the rest of us to access this deeper reality and what they can say becomes a fuller explanation of the truth as our capacity to understand develops over long spans of time. It is important to note that a full understanding of the nature of God is forever beyond us: this, of course, implies that a successful attack on some description or other of ‘God’ will never amount to a disproof of the objective existence of such a Being.
To be fair the most we can say, on the basis of reason alone, is that belief in either the existence or non-existence of God is equally rational.
It is also worth pointing out, though, that it is going beyond the evidence to declare that simply because the brain has simulated a belief or experience it must be utterly false. The brain is the physical substrate of all our experiences and thereby underpins all our beliefs, rather as a radio is the means by which we experience the programmes transmitted in the form of waves, but that does not make these experiences baseless.
There is something out there corresponding to our experience of blue even though it is not ‘blue,’ it is simply a wavelength of light. Similarly there may well be something out there corresponding to God, though such an entity is unlikely to be literally and simply the bright white light of some near death and mystical experiences.
And just as our ability to create the experience of blue by stimulating the brain with electrodes does not take away the reality of that wavelength of light, so our ability to create a sense of the divine by stimulating the ‘God spot’ with electromagnets similarly fails to prove there is nothing divine out there.
If Stavrakopoulou’s aim is irreversibly to undermine the construct of monotheism it is unlikely to be achieved by simply finding flaws in people’s ideas about God. In fact, the concept is inherently beyond proof or disproof in rational terms. It is a question of faith, and disbelief is as much an act of faith as theism. That’s a trap in reality from which there’s no escape, no matter how desperate reductionists of all kinds are to have us believe otherwise. We must choose what we believe: there is nothing there outside our minds that will compel us to believe one thing rather than the other on this issue. It is, though, imperative that we make this choice wisely. I have to leave it to you to decide what wisdom is in this case.