Shifting Ideas of Gods, Goddesses and God and the Development of Personal Monotheism

Talk, First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles April 15, 2018

(A brief look at how ideas about gods, goddesses and God in the Middle East shifted from the Stone Age to recent times, and how this may evolve going forward. ")

The starting point for our story this morning is a recent book, The Great Shift: encountering God in Biblical Times. The author, James Kugel is a Professor Emeritus at Bar Ilan University in Israel, and also a Professor Emeritus at Harvard. Kugel is an unorthodox Orthodox Jew respected in academic circles, but a puzzle to traditional believers. I appreciate his ability to live simultaneously in the academic world of the surface and the divine world of the Kingdom of God. Let's begin our story with our great-grandparents in the distant past. The really distant past. It was no fun being an early human ten thousand years ago. When our ancestors emerged from the Neolithic Age they were pressed on all sides by deadly predators both human and animal, cataclysmic disruptions from massive climate changes. They felt they were besieged by a pantheon of powerful unseen spirits. They lived in constant fear of death. Things have changed somewhat recently, but not all that much. Early man used a primitive language of grunts and chirps. Today, we have advanced to grunts and tweets.

Emotionally, life at the purely instinctive animal level isn't all bad. No thought, no worries, no anxieties. Living for the moment has its good points. But at some point we humanoids emerged from being pure animals, with instincts that limited us to seeing only the challenges of the moment. As we humans evolved, conscious reflections, ideas and imagination began to circle around in our bigger skulls. Having an imagination is not all good. As we began to imagine and develop the concept of "tomorrow," problems and fears appeared and got magnified. The problems and fears of "today" were projected onto a fuzzily imagined "tomorrow." Even today, that's a pretty good working definition of anxiety. Our imagined tomorrow is often filled with echoes and complications of today's problems and fears. We need imagination to suffer from angst. But there’s more: Kugel writes that anthropologists believe early humans had little concept of a personal self, or "I." Early humans identified with and were attached to “our family” — “our clan” or “our tribe.” We were collective. And everything outside was “The Other.” We were wide open, vulnerable to the terrifying "outside." We didn’t have science or culture to explain what was happening — and how to avoid the bad stuff. So we humans conceived of invisible or barely glimpsed spirits animating the trees, the animals, the weather — even rocks. Our ancestors were open and vulnerable to the visible and the invisible powers and dangers all around them. The obvious explanation was that nothing moved unless it had some spirit inside it.

The belief that all things move by their own spirit is pantheism. But pure pantheism is chaos - everything in nature has its own spirit or god. Overwhelming! Humans hate chaos; but we love stories. Story telling is one of the good features of imagination. Stories give order and structure and meaning to our experience. Since we all love stories, as humans developed, the plot-less reality show of pantheism became the intricate soap opera of polytheism. No longer an infinity of unknown gods, but specific gods - and goddesses - each with their own story, often interwoven with the stories of other gods and goddesses. It was a short leap from the spirit of a sandstorm to the tales of Dagon and Moloch, the fierce gods of the Gaza plains. This pantheon of gods was powerful, whimsical, and not particularly nice. We loved stories about the gods and goddesses, but we didn't want to attract their attention. Like the IRS, they were not here to help us. So, we paid our protection money to appease these gods and kept our eyes down hoping they wouldn't notice our family.

Bronze Age Egypt had a keenly developed polytheism. The pantheon included Amon, Re and Ptah, Horu, Set, Osiris, Isis and ultimately, Aton Ra, the Sun god, who emerged as the ruling god under Pharaoh Amenhotep IV. This pharaoh fashioned himself the son of Aton. Monolatry, or the idea of one principal god ruling a pantheon of lesser gods, was unpopular. Priests reestablished the importance of their particular gods pretty quickly.

Farther north, in the Canaanite area, Moloch, Dagon, Astarte, Baal and even El and his consort Asherah, were among the unseen powers that animated nature. Later, long after Abraham met and spoke with God, these Philistine, Moabite and Edomite gods and idols were a constant source of temptation to the Israelites. To be clear, these pagans who worshipped idols were actually worshipping their god, not the idol. In idol worship, pagans believe the god inhabits the idol, in essence it takes up residence in the carved or cast object. So, when one worships the idol, one is actually worshiping the god living in it, not an object. To emphasize this, after he finished carving it, the idol maker would declare, "I, Sam Smith did not make this god."

The ancient gods could also be in more than one place at the same time. Thus, there could be an Astarte of Gaza and an Astarte of Hebron - no conflict. Today we have a problem with the idea of things being in two places at the same time, but particle physics has shown that even quanta can be in more than one place at the same time. We have problems with that as well. In general, we humans aren’t very comfortable with abstraction. We like the concrete and firm. Idol worship is still an attractive seduction for us, though we may worship the idols of financial security or personal independence.

Now let’s look at the next stage of development. We call ourselves Christians or Jews or Muslims, but what really differentiates us from the pagan Pantheists, Polytheists, and Monolators, is we are all Monotheists. Almost uniquely, Christians, Jews and Muslims acknowledge and worship one God. There may be lesser spirits, but only one God. Monotheism is the belief that only one God exists, and other gods and goddesses are an illusion. The idea of only one God was a radical innovation. Up to that time, pagans believed in the reality of many gods, and maybe one as the principal god, or monolatry. Odin, or Ba'al, or Aton Ra may be pre-eminent, but not solo. They were in charge of a pantheon of subordinate gods and goddesses. The idea of only one God was literally unheard of. It's still taking a while for us to "get it."

The moment of birth of our monotheism was perhaps God's call to Abram. When God spoke to Abraham, God not only declared that he was One God, but that he was not an “it”. We don’t know if the voice of God vibrated air or eardrum. Nonetheless Abram's mind was open to the outside, registered the voice, and Abram quite likely responded to God in similar manner.

This and Abraham's subsequent dialogues with God are something very new in the world. God became personal. He sought out individuals, attracted their attention, and spoke to the person as one person speaks to another. Abram is not a priest serving an idol. He is a person, a self. God chose to make contact —and contract —with Abraham. This was not only the start of monotheism, but the beginning of Personal Monotheism. A double innovation. A personal God who took notice of humanity and laid out a future course for humanity in the form of a promise, a contract. This is our faith today.

So when the Hebrews left Egypt in the late Bronze Age, God did not speak to everyone. He engaged with the people through a particular person, a prophet who speaks for God. God established a pattern early on; first something visual to get attention —a burning bush, the arrival of three visitors, a vision. Then a message. The prophets were open enough to the many worlds around them that they saw the vision and heard the message. Kugel and others liken this contact to seeing and hearing as in a sort of "fog," in which the veil of apparent reality is pierced. God draws back the curtain that separates the four-dimensional world of space and time from the eternal world of timeless infinity within which our reality is suspended. He grants us a glimpse. But God was reaching out to humans person-to-person. People only sometimes and selectively listened to the prophet. You remember some of the famous moments of backsliding: Worshipping the golden calf elevated another god, and returned to polytheism, which was displeasing to God.

Later in the Iron Age, the 1,000 year time of the prophets after David, God began to communicate with humanity another way —through the written word. By the time of the return from exile in Babylon, Ezra the Priest and Scribe assembled a collection of written scrolls of the Law. Ezra assembled the first Bible, Much of this written Law was its many instructions on how to serve God in the Temple. The Old Testament people were called – through the prophets – to follow the written law. Then, in the first century of the modern era the Temple was destroyed by Rome and literal adherence to the written law was no longer possible. The temple priesthood was abolished. At the same time, the promised Messiah came into the world and personal monotheism shifted to two new forms.

On one path, veneration of the written word became a new form of worship. Study and analysis of Torah acquired the status of prayer. Thus the rabbis began a compendium of legal interpretations of the written word. This compendium of Torah and Talmud commentary is termed the Megillot. Studying Talmud and Torah becomes a major way rabbinic personal monotheists communicate with God. What we call the Jewish religion today is fundamentally the continuation of Rabbinic Personal Monotheism, veneration of the literal written word of God.

But there was another path as well. Something new. The living Word. “Fear Not. Behold, I bring you good news.” Angels announced the birth of the Messiah and the beginning of the present era of personal monotheism, Messianic Personal Monotheism.

When God engaged with us through the Living Word, Jesus asked us to follow him. Where? Our destination is a dimly viewed mystery. But God showed us the direction, and like Abraham we set out in faith, without a literal road map but with an internal GPS. Our god inhabits us. Our ancestors who believed the gods inhabited their idols had the right general idea. The spirit of the living God lives in each of us. He's taken up residence in the Temple of our bodies.

With the life, ministry and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, , God again and forever changed how we encounter Him. We personal monotheists now seek God within rather than waiting for God to seek us out. Jesus showed us how to do this —and made it possible. Jesus' followers carried the living word to all the nations. It was no longer restricted to one tiny priestly tribe. With transport and pacification made possible by Roman roads and Roman police, the living word went out to all the Western world.

And in the seventh century of this era, God transformed the remaining pagans of the Middle East to personal monotheism as well. The Arabs, too, received the written word, the Quran, and today many follow the path of Islam. Yes, a different form, but personal monotheism all the same. To recap our story , God sought us out when we were pagans - like ancient Abram, then God spoke through prophets like Moses and Isaiah, then God encountered us through the written word, and now God encounters us in the living word. He is now a God whom we seek out.

It is difficult today to fully comprehend the world of our early human ancestors. As rational, western adults it's difficult for us to imagine a lack of separation between "us" and “things out there." We have filters and barriers of logic and cultural understanding. We carefully examine and filter what we see and experience. We are essentially impermeable, non-porous. And, we generally have culturally established categories, or stereotypes that assign a value or meaning to what we see and experience outside. We are good at separating what's inside us from what's outside. We’ve come a long way from the world of our ancestors. This hard shell insulates and protects us from chaos but there is a downside.

In addition, modern age humans have developed a very strong sense of self, an "I". This "ego" self is impermeable, hard. We work hard to protect our ego self. I believe we are in a phase in the west where many have become so impervious to the world beyond this one, that faith and vision is difficult for us. Our impermeable shell limits full use of all our senses. We don't see ghosts. But we miss seeing angels.

Instead, we've tried some "isms" to replace faith, and our 20th century was not successful for humanity. Sadly, many continue to shut God out. We don't even have a language for the divine "fog" and the reality beyond our three-D world. We do not open our inner eyes and ears. In traditional versions of the Bible the presence of divine beings, or a glimpse of Heaven, is signaled by the words, “Lo” and “Behold.” This is very different from “Show and Tell.” This is, "Look, really look!" This is, "See, really see!"

We hear and see certain limited wave-lengths, but we've not yet tuned in to God's frequency. I believe in time we will all seek God out, and "Lo! and Behold!", we'll get a glimpse of how God is changing us, evolving and ripening our species, maturing each one of us. So we can conclude our story with, "And they all lived happily ever after ...and forever."

Now it's time for your comments and questions...