Thursday 21 March 2002

A loss of faith

Since I started this weblog I’ve been encouraged, by reading a variety of other weblogs, to reflect on the nature of faith and belief. Although I am not a Christian, I love reading the King James Version of the Bible (particularly the New Testament). I have a number of Christian friends whom I greatly respect, mainly because there is no discernable difference between their beliefs and their behavior, a phenomenon that is greatly at odds with the experiences of my Catholic childhood and, more particularly, my adolescence. I attended a religious school where the gap between what was preached and what was practised was so immense that only a child or a fool could fail to apprehend it.

In my last couple of years of high school, the members of the religious order to whom our “education” had been entrusted became almost manic at the prospect that those students who intended to enrol in a university course would, by doing so, risk “losing the faith.” My faith had already been cast adrift and all that kept me connected was a thread of loyalty to the beliefs of my parents. In 1969 that thread was cleanly severed by a book: Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization, a work of cultural anthropology that is now, unfortunately, out of print.

Peter Farb: Man's Rise to Civilization I cannot recall buying the book, though I know I must have been attracted by a paragraph on the back cover:

Peter Farb examines the contrasting customs of North American Indian tribes to explain the evolution of man as a social being—his relationships with his family and kin groups, his religions and his political institutions.

Farb’s book traces the history of the major indigenous cultures of North America, from Mexico to the Arctic. By the time I was halfway through the last chapter, titled The Hopes of the Oppressed, I was no longer a Catholic or a Christian.

Farb’s argument is straightforward. It was then, and it remains, persuasive. The emergence of Jesus Christ, like the Native American messiahs who appeared in the late nineteeth century, was an inevitable response to specific social conditions.

Every messianic movement known to history has arisen in a society that has been subjected to the severe stress of contact with an alien culture—involving military defeat, epidemic, and acculturation…

Farb argues that such societies, whether the Jews under Roman occupation or Native Americans engulfed by the tide of white settlers, deteriorate to the point where they no longer possess the will to resist, and inevitably they reach a point of imminent collapse.

The collapse may be forestalled or even averted if a revitalization or messianic movement arises that is acceptable to the culture. Such a movement depends upon the appearance of a particular personality at a certain precise time in the disintegration of the culture.

Almost every messianic movement known around the world came into being as the result of the hallucinatory visions of a prophet.

Invariably the prophet emerges from his hallucinatory vision bearing a message from the supernatural that makes certain promises: the return of the bison herds, a happy hunting ground, or peace on earth and good will to men. Whatever the specific promises, the prophet offers a new power, a revitalization of the whole society. But to obtain these promises, the prophet says that certain rituals must be followed. These rituals may include dancing around a ghost pole or being baptized in water, but usually numerous other duties must be attended to day after day. At the same time that the prophet offers promises to the faithful, he also threatens punishment and catastrophe, such as world destruction or everlasting damnation. The prophet now declares the old ways dead and shifts attention to a new way or to a revised conception of an old part of the culture. To spread the word of what he has learned from his visions, he gathers about him disciples and missionaries.

The prophet has generally lived in obscurity until he suddenly emerges, liberated from spiritual apathy. Immune to the stress that still afflicts his brethren, he appears supernatural to them.

The disciples who gather around the prophet also, like him, undergo a revitalizing personality change—as did Peter, to name one very familiar example. The prophet continues his spiritual leadership, but the disciples take upon themselves the practical tasks of organizing the campaign to establish the new movement. They convert large numbers of people, who in turn also undergo revitalizing personality transformations. If the messianic movement has been allowed to survive to this point by the oppressive, dominant culture that called it into being in the first place, a vital step must now be taken. The prophet must emphasize that he is only the intermediary between the converts and the supernatural being whose message he has been spreading. This step is essential, for it ensures the continuity of the new movement after its founding prophet dies. The prophet puts the converts and the supernatural being into close touch with each other by calling for certain symbolic duties the faithful must perform toward the supernatural being, such as eating peyote or partaking of bread and wine.

At this point most messianic movements attempt, and usually fail, to resist both the alien oppressors and internal factionalism.

Most messianic movements, though, make the disastrous mistake that almost all Jewish and American Indian messianic movements did: They choose to fight. Islam alone succeeded by force of arms, whereas the success of the early Christians was their choice of universal peace as their weapon.

Once the messianic movement has won a large following, a new culture begins to emerge out of the death of the old—not only in religious affairs but in all aspects of economic, social, and political life as well. An organization with a secular and a sacerdotal hierarchy arises to perpetuate the new doctrine. The religion in that way becomes routinized in a stable culture. All routinized religions today (whether they be the Native American Church, Mohammedanism, Judaism, or Christianity) are successful descendants of what originated as messianic movements—that is, one personality’s vision of a new way of life for a culture under extreme stress.

The Pueblo prophet Popé in 1680, the Delaware Prophet in 1762, the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa at the beginning of the nineteenth century and Smohalla at the end, the Paiute prophet Wodziwob and his successor Wovoka who preached the Ghost Dance religion (and greatly impressed the Mormons who regarded the Indians as the descendants of the Jews)… Farb’s accounts of these and other prophets annihilated any lingering belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Ultimately the Marist Brothers were correct, though I doubt any of them would have anticipated that I would lose my Catholic faith by reading a book about the rise and fall of Native American civilization.

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There's a very curious verse in the 3rd Chapter of Genesis that addresses what you experienced: Then the LORD God said: "See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever." Sounds like jealousy to me. And a conversation among a group of 'gods'. Weird stuff, even from a christian perspective.
But the bottom line is that Eden was for sheep, and the sentient choose independence and all that it entails. Non servium, indeed.

Posted by don on 21 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Sounds like an interesting book :) I grew up without religion and came to Catholicism in my mid twenties (man - saying my mid-twenties is strange...). Anyway, I read a book called 'mere christianity' by CS Lewis that did the exact opposite your book did.
I *do* recognize alot of the truth in what you're saying though. Religions can't help but be changed by the times they are forged in and practiced in. After all - what is a religion but the people in it and the practices they follow? A good book I read, with a little bit of an Islamic slant, and an anti-Christianity slant, is called "A History Of God" by Karen Armstrong. It documents the history of worshipping 'the one god'. The god of Islam, Christianity, and Judiasm. It is an amazing book. She's an ex-nun whose become an agnostic. I think that colors her writing a bit. In any case, she's very informative.
I might pick up the book you suggest and give it a try. I doubt it will move me the same because my path has been the direct opposite - no upbringing in any faith to an adult slowly approaching it - cautious as anything.
The news about the church recently has been really disturbing. Like I said at my site... evil is evil. Justice must be done and reforms must be made to make sure this doesn't happen ever again. It can shake anyone's faith.

Posted by Karl on 22 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"All routinized religions today (whether they be the Native American Church, Mohammedanism, Judaism, or Christianity) are successful descendants of what originated as messianic movements -- that is, one personality's vision of a new way of life for a culture under extreme stress." Hm. That's interesting and incorrect about Judaism. We have little else to go by but the less-than-fully-accurate traditional texts of the Old Testament, but I don't remember reading that Abraham was part of a culture under stress.
When what is now modern-day Judaism was conceived several centuries ago, it had nothing to do with Messianic movements and everything to do with the religious leaders banding together to determine how Jewish law could fit the new rules of the Diaspora. For instance--how can we worship when we no longer have the Temple, or a head priest? Answer: We no longer need the Temple or a priest, and thus minyans and synagogues and rabbis were born.
We're still waiting on the Messiah. I'd like to see him/her come ASAP, if you don't mind.

Posted by Meryl Yourish on 22 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I have come to a place similar to Jonathan's, largely by the same Catholic route, though Jung, and then onto other kinds of books -- Merlin Stone, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Robert Graves, Elaine Pagels.... What research and writing ultimately shows, it seems to me, is that we humans continue to create and re-create our gods in our own images. And then when we allow our worst human nationalistic tendencies to motivate crimes against those not of our politics or faith, we can say -- not "the devil made me do it" but "it is the will of god."
I prefer to go the route of poetry: Roethke in this case: "I breathe what I am, the first and last of all things."
We are the messiahs.

Posted by Elaine on 24 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

in response to meryl, wouldn't moses count as a messiah under this definition? he came to the hebrews under the stress of enslavement, and then gave them new laws from god. it's not an exact parallel, but is it close enough?

Posted by jim on 25 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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