Monday, September 12, 2011

Robert Bellah's Final Attempt at Religious Evolution

I am working through Robert Bellah's magnum opus, the just-published Religion in Human Evolution. As the title suggests, he is placing the development of all religious institutions in the large framework of biological evolution. The core of this large book is a detailed treatment of the breakthrough to theoretical thought in the "axial age" (the centuries around 500 BCE) when the foundations for the world religions and great civilizations of history were laid in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India.

His discussion of the development of ancient Israel's religion is the most personally interesting to me, and the most personally distressing. Bellah, one of the most eminent living sociologists of religion, has also been an active Episcopalian. I was grieved to see, therefore, that he follows what he calls "most scholars" - most secular scholars - in treating all the story of the Bible up to the prophets as mythic rather than historic. He thinks David and Solomon may have been historic figures, but not as grand as they are made out. All the story before that - certainly Genesis, but also Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and even Moses - were made up or embellished later to support a new, unified story of one God that the earlier "Israelites" probably did not believe - if they even existed.

Bellah makes repeated claims like this: The original god of the people who become Israel was El, with his consort Ashterah. Yahweh was another god of a different group. When El and Yahweh were merged in the later story, Ashterah came along as Yahweh's consort, too. Bellah concludes "the existence of Mrs. God, so unseemly to Jewish and Christian orthodoxy, has become widely, though not universally, accepted."

What saddens me in this statement is not so much the substance of it. Disbelieving the biblical story is what makes secular scholars secular. Rather, I wish that Bellah had not left the sentence unfinished - that he had not implied "accepted by all people whose opinions are worth listening to."

I will keep my own counsel, and my own authorities, on how to understand the Bible.


Kentucky Red (not the Republican kind) said...

He sounds a lot like what I hear in Dr. McCullough's class, and I can't say I disagree. However, I grant you that he should probably mention dissenting views or the fact that the scholars that he implies are of a certain school of thought.

Kentucky Red (not the Republican kind) said...

Also, I feel he should have mentioned that the different views on God's changing image in Judeo-Christian thought are all theoretical, there is no absolute proof, but it is another interesting theory with much scholarly evidence.