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---- meets Kirchliche Dogmatik
What a long day yesterday was! Of course, today was shortened by an hour by the government, putting us already into daylight savings time, but that didn't make yesterday shorter. I'm not complaining; the Dodge Dakota is definitely worth our previous two well-worn jalopies. Still, it was one of the few occasions when a second vehicle would have come in handy. June needed to be at Seth and Amber's at 6 am, so she could accompany Amber and the whippets (Anna, Mischa, and Tiger) for agility trials ("obstacle courses"). So I had to get up at five to drive her because I would need the pickup later to go to the program at the Gray Barn. It was the second performance of the Tippy Ditch Trio, augmented by the amazing Susan J. D. A.--which made us a mixed quartet or a bulging trio. We did four numbers; I stuck to the bass for the first three. Susan played my banjo on one of the numbers, and on the last one I played the three-string guitar that Kaktus Jim had made and given me as a present. We're planning on doing it again next Saturday night at 7 pm when we'll be playing for "Cowboy Church" at Trinity Methodist in Hartford City, Indiana. Since I don't think anyone shot any pictures this time, I made a video at home of my number on the three-string, so you can have some idea of what I'm talking about.
One might have thought that after getting home again after dropping off June, I would spend a few more hours sleeping, or alternatively I would get in a long nap later; I know I thought so. Somehow that never transpired. I spent the day doing some small things, reading some articles, and, before I knew it, it was time to get ready for the Tippy Ditch Trio's contribution to musical culture in north-central Indiana.
I just finished re-reading The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers (Gifford Lectures, 1936; Oxford: Clarendon, 1947) by Werner Jaeger (1888-1961). This book was assigned reading way back in my first semester of seminary, and I really felt like I needed to revisit it in the context of my manuscript on original monotheism. In the process of reading it, one paradoxical thing that happened was that the glue stopped holding this paperback together, and lots of pages separated themselves. How appropriate that a book on Pre-Socratic philosophers should come in fragments! (That's an academician's joke.)
Jaeger's thesis is that for quite a while Greek religion had been operating on the polytheistic level, as represented by Homer and Hesiod, for example. Thales made the first break away from this pattern with his parallel declarations that everything was water and that everything was filled with gods.
However, the real revolution occurred with Anaximander and his teaching that the universal principle was the Unbounded (Infinite, Absolute), a prevision of Aristotle's unmoved mover and eventually the God of Christianity. According to Jaeger, when Anaximenes--third in line after Thales and Anaximander--proposed air as the basic element, he was not just going back to Thales' more physicalist mindset, but he thought of air as a way in which the Unbounded manifested itself. This understanding of physics as theology was implied by Xenophanes and propelled forward by Heraclitus with his notion of the Logos and the ultimately self-contained cycle of becoming. So, too, Anaxagoras and Empedokles must be understood as advancing a natural theology.
Here's an interesting twist. One might think that Parmenides with his rather stark pantheism of Being would be a perfect fit for Jaeger's thesis. But Jaeger writes him off, so to speak, as being a consistent logical philosopher who lacks the deep mystical inclinations that he sees in the aforementioned thinkers. As I alluded to above, although Jaeger does not work out the later development in this book, he sees this movement toward monotheism continuing in Plato and Aristotle and onwards. Thus a conception of God develops that lends itself easily to synthesizing with Semitic theology so as to form the Christian notion of God. In this manner Greek philosophy contributed to a new phase in the emergence of religion.
Let me raise some critical questions. Obviously, I'm not intending for this post to be a review of a book published sixty-five years ago. The point is that Jaeger exemplifies some ideas and catalyzes some others in my mind, which anyone engaging with other religions, historical or contemporary, should keep in mind.1. I'm in no position to argue with Jaeger's exegesis of the various fragments that have come down to us. Saying so is not humility; it's a fact. However, a legitimate question is whether we really have enough material, particularly in the early fragments, to do any safe exegesis on them. By "fragments" we actually don't mean pages torn out of a book that show up here and there, but they are second-hand reports. Here are a couple of fictitious examples:
By judicial standards, this would definitely be considered "not the best evidence." Just think of the way in which many people take biblical quotations out of context to make points that are pretty much contrary to their meaning in context. So, in my perception, Jaeger seems to squeeze more meaning than is really available out of Anaximander, and, given the insecure nature of the conclusion he draws concerning Anaximander, his "Anaximanderization" of Anaximenes strikes me as even more precarious. Jaeger could be right. His exegesis seems to point in that direction. I'm just not sure that there is enough material on which to build a compelling exegesis.
2. I find it difficult to see any real development in Greek thought towards monotheism. As far back as we can go, there appear to be people who thought that the traditional Homeric pantheon was not to be taken literally. By Jaeger's own examples, many educated people in the sixth century were already not taking the polytheistic mythology seriously, though at times they accommodated the Homeric polytheism as an expression of the many facets of the one true divine reality, much as many educated Hindus today say that the various deities are merely different aspects of the one Brahman. I'm not sure we can really document an increase in such a quasi-monotheistic point of view from the Presocratic era into Hellenism. The main reason we see it asserted more in philosophical writings is that there were more philosophers and more writings.
3. (Going beyond Jaeger) In reconstructing the historical development of the religion of a certain culture, we must be careful to differentiate between the narrative of its mythology and the actual historical events. The mythology may recapitulate the history of the religion in question, but it may also be a fictional embellishment of the religion, and we cannot uncritically accept the mythological sequence as history. For example, Greek mythology tells us that Kronos was the father of Zeus, and that Zeus led a rebellion against him so as to take his place as the highest god. So, it's easy to infer that at one time the people worshiped Kronos as the supreme god and then later on switched to Zeus as the chief. We cannot rule out that such a sequence is reflected in the account, but there is no reason to assume a logical implication along that line. The mythology certainly contributes to the body of evidence, but we cannot rule out the thesis that, as the mythology concerning Zeus increased, someone raised the atheist's avowal of non-understanding by asking, "But who made God?", and so someone else, who didn't understand things either, invented an ancestry for him, complete with the idea that he had taken his father's place as an act of rebellion.
4. (Going way past Jaeger) Similarly, we need to be extremely careful with accounts of how one ancient culture described the religion and deities of another ancient cultures. Back then, just as much as now, people tended to apply categories that they understood to other religions, and the result at times was a severe misunderstanding. Take, for example, the relatively enigmatic Norse deity Tius. There is a lot that we do not know about him, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was the Norse equivalent to Dyaus Pitar, Zeus, Jupiter, and so forth. If so, he could go back to the God of original monotheism and then, in the decay that followed, he might have been thought of as the head of the pantheon. For all that we know, he may have functioned in that capacity in parts of the Norse/Germanic area for a long time. Most of the documentation that we have for Norse mythology (e.g., the Eddas) represent an oblique slice through geography and time. When the Romans first encountered Tius, they were impressed by his depiction as a powerful warrior, and they equated him with Mars, the god of war. We can forgive the Romans for making this mistake, but we need to recognize that it was a mistake. Like his IndoEuropean equivalents, Zeus and Dyaus, Tius probably was worshiped as supreme at one time and then was eventually replaced by Wodan (Odin), who himself was not as popular in some German areas as Thor (possibly an analog to Indra) had become. The fact that in some areas where he still was being acknowledged he appeared rather war-like should not lead us to confuse him with the equivalent of the god of war in the early IndoEuropean pantheon.
5. Jaeger illustrates well the point on which I keep insisting that, even though scholars eventually gave up officially on the "evolution of religion," they have continued to employ its categories, and, I might add, are still doing so to this day. Max Müller (1823-1900), for all his faults, had this going for him: He always credited people living in a society imbued with mythology with enough intelligence to recognize that the myths and the behavior of the gods depicted in them were too ridiculous to be true. He thought that these absurdities were due to a misunderstanding of language, which occurred when people misinterpreted metaphors as factual narratives. This is an idea I'm discussing at greater length in the manuscript on original monotheism. Eventually, Müller's philological approach was replaced in popularity by "evolutionism," and in the evolution-based anthropology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, European-originated people were considered to be the most advanced race. Human beings whose religion consisted of a lot of mythology were routinely labeled as "primitive" and "savages." They were supposedly not intelligent enough (so John Muir), or their intelligence was considered to be of a different kind (so E.B. Tylor), so that their minds could not yet grasp such lofty ideas as there being only one God, the Creator. And, in so many words, Jaeger's book exemplifies that point as well. Greek religion was hobbling along, shackled by the polytheism we see in Homer and Hesiod, until the philosophers finally came up with a renewed origin of religion. I'm not so sure about this scheme.
By the way, I may have missed it or forgotten already, but I don't recall a single reference to the roughly simultaneous development of religion and philosophy in India, as recorded in the Upanishads and the Sutras of the various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, which analyzed with wide-spread debate and rigor topics that Anaximander, Heraclitus and Parmenides just barely hinted at. That's okay, of course. If Jaeger wanted to write about the Presocratics and not about South-Asian philosophy, we can't hold that against him. However, for the sake of our gaining a fuller, and perhaps more accurate, picture of the history of philosophy in general, we can no longer confine ourselves to a few people on the outskirts of Greek colonies. Not when the same issues were discussed in much greater depth, with a much larger written legacy, in India.
And that's why, in order to be a part of the effort to get out of our Western provincialism, I'm inviting you to start learning Sanskrit with me, beginning with the free sessions at the ISCA conference, April 13 & 14 in Kansas City.