Wednesday, December 21, 2011

David Marshall: "A Non-History of God"

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, I will blog about Chapter 9: “A Non-History of God”. The topic of this chapter is essentially the same as the topic of Chapter 5 of Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism: “Did God Evolve?” (see my write-up on that chapter here). Marshall argues that a number of Asian and tribal cultures manifest a belief in a Supreme Being, and that many of them go so far as to overlap with other Christian themes, such as a sense that humanity is alienated from this Supreme Being, as well as hope for a savior. (According to Marshall, some even expected the white man to come and enlighten them about the truth.) In my post on “Did God Evolve?”, I quoted a Chinese reviewer on Amazon who felt that Marshall was mis-characterizing Chinese religion and culture in his book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. The reviewer said:

“This is the kind of wholesale distortion of reality to force it into a religious agenda. The writer one-sidedly presented the popular understanding of the concept ‘God’ among Chinese, while failing to mention the Confucian loath to things that are unverifiable and things inciting exclusive cultic worship of one god. The concept of Heaven or God in Chinese intellectual history had always connotated the totalistic relationship of the universe, the partaking of moral principles by human, rather than the Christian concept of a personal, monotheistic deity. Clearly what Marshall was interested in doing is not to appreciate and learn about the subtlety of Chinese spirituality, but to sell his narrow religious view through a medium which he had very little knowledge about.”

In Jesus and the Religions of Man, however, there is much more detail and nuance about the Asian and tribal cultures, at least in comparison with The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Obviously, the entire cultures cannot be characterized as monotheistic and Christian-like in their ideas, for they may contain strong polytheistic elements, or a view that God is not personal. Marshall acknowledges that. But, for Marshall, the monotheistic, Christian-like elements are still present, or at least they have been there in the past. Sometimes, they’re held by the populace and not the elite. At other times, they’re held by the elite and not the populace. Marshall believes that there are many cases in which monotheism came first in a culture and polytheism came later. And then there is Shintoism in Japan, which does not even believe that the cosmos was created, and yet, notwithstanding Shintoism’s prominence, there are many Japanese people who hold that God created the universe. Marshall refers to the view that Nestorian Christianity had some influence on Japan, but Marshall’s belief is that the truth of Christianity is written on people’s hearts, in some capacity.

Is Marshall correct on this? To be honest, I don’t know. I suppose that the best that I can do is to keep an open mind. Among some academics, I have come across ideas that are similar to what Marshall argues in this chapter, even if they don’t overlap with Marshall entirely. When I was an undergraduate, I was debating a bunch of liberals and skeptics (since I was a conservative Christian at the time), and I raised the point that the Bible is true because divine-inspiration was the only way to account for the elevated idea of monotheism emerging in a pagan culture. An anthropology professor responded that I obviously don’t know much about the origins of monotheism, and he related that there have been tribes that I’d probably call “pagan” that had monotheistic tendencies. My Mom has taken classes and read a lot on other cultures, and she notes that a number of them have some conception of a Supreme Being, and, sometimes, even the Supreme Being’s son. My Mom is not for parallelomania, however, for she believes that we should recognize that, say, a trinity of gods in Hinduism is quite different from the Trinity in Christianity.

There is a part of me that likes what Marshall argues in this chapter. A while back, I wrote about Madeleine L’Engle’s Swiftly-Tilting Planet (see here), and I said:

“L’Engle seems to believe that certain ideas are necessary for peace to exist. For her, God loves everyone, people of different cultures believe many of the same things, and divisions are partly the result of a lack of understanding. These ideas play out in her section on the Puritans. She says that God loves the Native Americans as well as the white settlers, and she also presents their religious beliefs as roughly the same. According to L’Engle, both Christianity and Native American religions hold that there was an ancient harmony in the universe that somehow got disrupted by evil. I don’t know enough about Native American religion to evaluate this statement. I’m sure that people in all cultures realize that the world falls short of some standard of goodness, but the dispute is how to solve the problem.”

As far as I could see, Marshall does not directly comment on Native American culture, but perhaps his sources do. For me, there is a certain coziness that comes from believing that God has revealed himself, his plan, and his kindness to all cultures on the face of the earth, inviting them to receive his love. And yet, Marshall’s apologetic chest-thumping for Christianity does prompt me to ask if there is some secular way to account for the similarity of motifs across many cultures—-an anthropological or a sociological explanation, for example.

I’ll turn now to what Marshall says on page 201, which takes a different approach because it highlights the differences rather than the similarities among religions: “Pagan gods seldom if ever stood up to oppressors, human or divine, on behalf of the weak. That was the historical distinction of prophets of the true God, and what Elisha’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal was all about.”

I disagree with this, to a certain extent. Social justice shows up in “pagan” cultures as well. The Code of Hammurabi opens with an affirmation that Hammurabi as king is to protect the weak from the strong. Egypt (like the Hebrew Bible) had something like gleanings, which is leaving grain for the poor. And, on occasion, people in pagan cultures did speak truth to power and championed the rights of the oppressed (see here and here). At the same time, I do agree with Marshall that the Hebrew Bible, at least in areas, takes social justice further than surrounding nations did. For example, scholars have noted that the reason that Jezebel in I Kings 21 is baffled by King Ahab’s dismay that Naboth will not sell him his vineyard is that Jezebel came from a Phoenician culture that regarded all land as granted by the king, whereas Ahab’s Northern Israelite culture set more limits on the government and had more of a notion of private property rights. Ahab felt that he could not just take Naboth’s vineyard, and Jezebel did not understand this, for she came from a culture where all land belonged to the king. Many religious Jews and Christians may point to this as proof that the Bible is divinely-inspired, but there are also people who will seek a secular explanation for the apparent enlightenment of ancient Israel or the authors of the Hebrew Bible: the Israelites had a bad experience with despotism—-in Egypt, Canaan, or both—-and so they sought to construct a society that was not despotic.

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