Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 3

Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 3

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Metanexus: Views 2001.12.27 2056 words

Willem Drees asserts that religions emerged in confrontation with the powerof storms, of the sea and the mountains, thunder and lightning. Whenconfronted with unpredictable events we still use animistic language. Weeven do so in our dealings with technological products; the car ‘does notwant’ to start and the computer ‘does not understand us’. Animistic languageseems outdated, a projection; lightning is no longer seen as thrown downupon us by wrathful gods. But still we humans use such figures of speech,though often in more positive versions as talking with trees, discerning ‘aplan’ in life’s events and denying meaningless contingency.

Is religion then simply a product of the brain’s innate capacity and doggeddetermination to find or create meaning, pattern, or continuity in all thatit encounters and perceives? Consider the fact that while there is a blindspot on the retina there is (usually) not a blind spot in one’s field ofvision? The brain (not the mind), rather like the rest of nature, abhors avacuum and does us the courtesy of continuing the pattern perceived despitethe lack of sensory input due to the presence of the optic nerve and theconcomitant absence of information. Pattern is necessary. And where there isnothing, a pattern will be created over it. A meaning will be imbued. Astory will be told.

And so we continue today with the third part of a series on creationnarratives and their possible meanings. All of the columns are excerpts fromWillem Drees’ new book Creation: From Nothing Until Now (Paperback orLibrary Binding, 128pp; ISBN: 0-4152-5653-4; Routledge; December 2001).Parts 1 & 2 were posted to Metanexus:Views on 2001.12.17 and on 2001..12.18respectively. In his analysis of the creation of creation narratives, Dreesobserves that religions

may have emerged partially in the confrontation with the accidental in ourown lives and those of others dear to us. One can think, also in our time,of transitions and crises such as birth and death. Religious language is,among other things, a way of speaking of humans who have to cope withaspects of reality they do not understand or control. Thus, religiouspractices and beliefs may have been important to our ancestors as ways tomaintain social, cosmic, and personal order.

In other words, religion and/or religions are a way to keep the world fromfalling apart. But is this all they are? To discover Prof. Drees’ view onthe matter, read on!

Willem B. Drees is professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at LeidenUniversity, the Netherlands. He has an advanced degree in theoreticalphysics (Utrecht, 1977) and doctorates in theology (Groningen, 1989) andphilosophy (Amsterdam, 1994).

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Creation: From Nothing Until Now, Part 3From: Willem B. DreesEmail: <>

Religion cement of the tribe response to power of mountains, the storm, the sea, birth and death, power as large as gods.Yesterday ten thousand years ago Abel was killed by his brother, we farmers eat ashamed our bread, the earth cries, forever red?A new age, a prophet warns king and people, a carpenter tells ‘a man who fell among robbers, was cared for by an enemy’.

Religions arose in human history. The evidence is indirect. Whereas fossilsmay reveal an upright posture or a particular brain size, convictions do notleave univocal traces. Graves may provide clues. Ritual burial was alreadyan established practice tens of thousands of years ago, even among theNeanderthals. Perhaps they believed in an afterlife.

Religions need not be seen as merely by-products of human evolution.Rituals and myths may have been essential in the emergence of humans.Genetic and cultural information co-evolved in our evolutionary history. Themore culture demands, the more brain capacity becomes an important asset forthose endowed with it. Culture is a social phenomenon, present in groups ofhominids. Living together must have been a serious challenge. Among the antsthe social life of large groups is supported by the genetic relatednessbetween the individuals involved. Among hominids this has not been the case,at least not in the same extent. How did groups manage to live together?Myths and rituals may have been essential as cement of the tribe. Therituals that make the boy into the warrior and the girl into the bride,affirm everybody’s place in and commitment to the group. Myths, storiestransfer the values of the group from generation to generation. Without suchreligious support for social order humans would not have evolved in the waythey have.

Religions also emerged in confrontation with the power of storms, of thesea and the mountains, thunder and lightning. When confronted withunpredictable events we still use animistic language. We even do so in ourdealings with technological products; the car ‘does not want’ to start andthe computer ‘does not understand us’. Animistic language seems outdated, aprojection; lightning is no longer seen as thrown down upon us by wrathfulgods. But still we humans use such figures of speech, though often in morepositive versions as talking with trees, discerning ‘a plan’ in life’sevents and denying meaningless contingency.

Religions may have emerged partially in the confrontation with theaccidental in our own lives and those of others dear to us. One can think,also in our time, of transitions and crises such as birth and death.Religious language is, among other things, a way of speaking of humans whohave to cope with aspects of reality they do not understand or control.Thus, religious practices and beliefs may have been important to ourancestors as ways to maintain social, cosmic, and personal order.

Agriculture began about ten thousand years ago. Humans crowded together insmall areas such as fertile plains along rivers. This gave more opportunityfor small elites to control the harvest; societies became more hierarchical.There will have been conflicts between sedentary farmers and nomads withtheir cattle. In the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament, we see traces of suchconflicts. The nomadic sons of Jacob travel for food to agricultural Egypt.One of the most vivid stories of the clash between nomads and farmers is theone about Cain and Abel. Abel herds sheep; Cain is at first working theland. These brothers stood in each others way; the nomad was killed. Thetransition between nomad and farmer is still fluid in those centuries. Cainwanders and becomes the forefather of shepherds, wandering musicians andblacksmiths. Thus to fratricide they ascribed in Israel the emergence of asemi-nomadic tribe, the Kenites. Out of these the father-in-law of Moses,Jethro, would come.

The transition to agriculture resulted in the cohabitation of largergroups. It allowed for the emergence of cities, since farmers produced morethan needed for their own families. These new technologies were not merelyresulting in an economic transition; value systems had to change as well.Such new circumstances will have resulted in stress; stress which wasresolved in modified rituals. The place and responsibilities of each one inthe social structure had to be indicated and internalized. That is also oneof the functions of the commandments of the Old Testament, includingcommandments which in general terms are still ours (such as ‘the TenCommandments’) as well as commandments which we lay aside as rules from atime and world which is now gone.

All those millennia religions seem not to have been oriented towards changeor redemption, but towards the maintenance of personal, social and cosmicorder. The priests and the powerful were on the same side. In the context oftheir religion people interpreted their lives, with its fortunes andmisfortunes. The social order seemed obvious and unchangeable. In thecontext of the community one affirmed one’s own position in life andaccepted one’s death.

Some centuries before the beginning of our era a new attitude emerged,and with it new types of religion. Karl Jaspers, who introduced this view ofcultural history, spoke of the Axial Age. He thereby presented this periodas a turning point in cultural history. This period, between 800 and 200BCE, has been significant in different regions on our globe. In Greece therewere great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In Israelprophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea were active. In Persiathere was Zoroaster, in India Gautama (Buddha) and Mahavira, the founder ofJainism, and in China Confucius and Lao Tze (Taoism). The world religionsarose aside of the tribal religions.

It is risky to emphasize common aspects of developments in all theseregions; differences in cultural traditions are significant. However, invarious ways one of the fruits of the changes in these centuries was agreater sense of individual responsibility. The continuation of the tribe orcommunity with its fixed positions and role expectations was no longerprimary, but rather the focus was on the individual and what he or she couldbecome. Besides, the social and cosmic order is no longer affirmed. Instead,our current earthly existence is felt lacking. In the religious myths ourlives are confronted with something different, something better. In Hinduismthis is redemption out of the cycles of earthly existence, in Buddhism it isNirvana and Enlightenment. Among Jews the expectation of a Kingdom of Goddevelops; in Christianity this longing returns also with a more individualfocus as expectations about redemption and eternal life.

In consequence, whereas earlier religions affirmed one’s place in thecourse of events, the world religions also nourished prophetic protest. Theprophets in Israel weren’t fortune-tellers divining the future. Rather theywere individuals who came forward to speak to the king and the people abouttheir doings and dealings. Prophetic texts have something ominous; theyannounce judgment on those who do not live rightly. But they also spoke ofhope when the people lost confidence. The prophetic religiosity that hasemerged in history out of the tribal religious traditions integratescriticism and longing. Faith is no longer mainly about powers that we do notunderstand or control. Faith becomes also the confrontation with situationsin reality that we do not want to accept. To articulate this criticaldimension, there is a dualistic element in religious images, a contrastbetween what is and what should be, whether articulated in the pair of earthand heaven, or as the city of men and the city of God, or as the present andthe Kingdom, nature and grace, or in one of many other ways.

A few centuries later, someone asked Jesus what was the most importantcommandment. Jesus returned the question: ‘What do you yourself think?’ Uponwhich the one who asked answered: ‘To love God with all your heart, and withall your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and yourneighbor as yourself’. Then he asked Jesus whom he had to count as hisneighbors. How far does this extend? Then Jesus told a story of ‘one of us’who had been attacked while on the road. A priest passed by. One of us, buthe did nothing. An assistant of the temple passed by. One of us, but he toodid not help. And a man from Samaria came by. Not one of us; the Samaritansweren’t our friends. But this stranger halted, he took care of the woundedman and brought him to an inn. When he had to leave, this Samaritan evenleft some money so that the innkeeper would continue caring for the man.

Jesus told stories. Stories about Jesus are told. Those stories havefound their way into faith in miracles and have resulted in complicatedtheological constructions, for instance about the relationship between Jesusand God. In my opinion, more important than such speculative interpretationsof Jesus are the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and the other stories. Ibelieve that we primarily should seek to share the faith of Jesus, ratherthan faith in Jesus. In the attention given to those who were excluded, inthe invitation to those who did not expect a future, as for instance the’lost son’, the prophetic protest and longing speaks to us. Boundaries areabandoned; the stranger takes care of the beaten.

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