February 4, 2017

Religion, Monotheism, and Ancestral Tradition

Religions that shift veneration away from accomplished and wise ancestors to more abstract, anti-iconic notions of divinity are most successful in times of social crisis, when elders fail in their duties and the collective wisdom of past ancestors seems unable to address the complexity of interpersonal conflict, ecological crisis or the breakdown of political order. In such moments the idea of calling on a force/idea that transcends local ancestral wisdom (a High God) becomes more and more powerful. Originally the High God and the Ancestral traditions could coexist in mutual harmony. But social crisis has tended historically to weaken the ancestral tradition and strengthen the High God tradition (who is seen as above it). This is at least part of the explanation why the original Egyptian religion was weakened over time and eventually abandoned. The reasons for this gradual shift are something I am still studying. Historically, the vulnerability of ancestral transmission as a form of active wisdom, has been replaced by the idea of wisdom as coming in the form of 'revelation' from a High God. An exclusivist 'High God' paradigm has become the new 'norm' of religious practice, condemning the older tradition of ancestral transmission as paganism, shirk, idolatry, kufr, superstition, etc, and projecting itself as ancient and unchanging and true, over against the false idolatry of the ancestral tradition. When believers in the exclusivist High God tradition complain about the anti-iconoclasm of the Wahhabis, they are really complaining about the epistemology at the very core of their own professed tradition, taken to its logical extreme. My own opinion is that the healthiest belief systems have to make room for both communication with ancestral traditions, broadly conceived (an open question is: what does it mean to communicate with ancestors in 2016, when those links were severed in past generations?), and the High God tradition as a form of transcendent 'outside' knowledge. The old ways are not always the best ways, nor are the new ways necessarily an improvement on the past.


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