What has fascinated me in my study of world religions is how human desires and contexts, especially socio-political and environmental contexts in which religions originate and evolve, tend to determine how we conceive our doctrines and gods. I wish to reflect on this insight, and I think it is best to start with one of my favorite thinkers of Ancient Greece in the poet Xenophanes.
Xenophanes On Anthropomorphic Religion
Xenophanes of the fifth century BCE is known for his criticism of the anthropomorphism he perceived in popular religion, especially in the Greek religion of his day. In several pithy statements, Xenophanes condemns creating the gods in the image of imperfect humans. Pointing his criticism at Hesiod and Homer, the two writers and founders of Greek religion, theogony, and mythology, Xenophanes writes that they “have attributed to the gods all sorts of things that are matters of reproach and censure among men: theft, adultery, and mutual deception… as they sang of numerous illicit divine deeds: theft, adultery, and mutual deceit.” It seems here Xenophanes is taking issue with depicting the gods in inappropriate ways as being imperfect; after all, the gods should be morally perfect if they are to have the status of gods. Xenophanes then points out the anthropomorphic religion of the Ethiopians and Thracians who “say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired.” And perhaps my favourite Xenophanes quote,
“But if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen, and they would make the bodies of the sort which each of them had.”
The White Jesus
What impresses me here is that Xenophanes’ insight seems an indubitable fact to the creation and evolution of world religions, including those still in existence and those lost to the sands of time. This personal reflection was largely inspired not only by my study of world religions but also by a particular Christian magazine (“Joy!”) I happened to come across recently. This magazine does concern me (and this is not only because they took a testimonial article from my website two or so years ago without crediting me or asking for my permission) but because of their several anthropomorphic and anachronistic depictions of Jesus Christ that would have so concerned Xenophanes and just about every historian today. Rather than depicting Jesus as the likely dark-skinned, dark-haired Jew he was, what we find in Joy! and many other Western depictions of Christ is a white man who would not look at all out of place in modern-day Los Angeles or Sydney (perhaps with the exception of his long beard). Joy! goes further and gives him perfect blue eyes! My own view of this blatant anachronism is that Christian writers and artists really need a stronger grasp of history and historical Jesus studies, especially since the latter has come to emphasize the Jewishness of Christ and the context in which he was raised and became active. I think the unfortunate impression the white, blue-eyed, Americanized Jesus gives knowledgeable persons who are not part of the Christian faith is one of a foolish belief system that can’t even get its own history correct, even the history of its very founder. But I suppose that to many Christian publications producing content for a largely white, western audience history doesn’t matter that much, at least not as much as knowing one’s audience (marketing 101).
A General Pattern in Religions
As I noted earlier, one sees this pattern in numerous world religions where there is an appropriation of religious symbols. Always striking to me is the Rastafarian interpretation and black-centric reading of the Bible in light of the religion’s colonial history. For example, rather than the Promised Land being what every biblical scholar knows it to be, namely the land of Canaan that God promises to the Jewish people (as taught in the Torah), the overwhelming forces of colonialism have manipulated Rastafari thought to such an extent that they have appropriated the Promised Land and located it in Ethiopia (a doctrine known as Ethiopianism) to where enslaved blacks will return with the assistance of a black messiah. As becomes apparent, the Rastafarian religion is created in the image of the colonized black man.
In the religion of Ancient Egypt, it becomes apparent how dependency on an agricultural lifestyle and its central place within Egyptian experience came to influence notions of the afterlife. If one could, as they believed, successfully enter into paradise (the criterion being that one’s heart weighs less than a feather when it is judged) he will find himself in the paradisiacal Field of Reeds with Osiris where they gather rich crops of barley and wheat. This belief in successful harvests is depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs. As such, the popular religion of the ancient Egyptians seems to have resembled the life of ancient Egyptians on the ground.
One sees additional evidence of this pattern in the Islamic doctrine of heaven, Jannah, that would so appeal to desert dwellers. What person living in the harsh climate of an unforgiving desert would not look forward to a heaven in which there are “dates and pomegranates” (Qur’an 55:68), an “abundance of fruit” (43:71, 73), and gardens bursting with a constant flow of water (3:136; 13:35; 15:45; 22:23)? The Islamic heaven is revealed to have lofty gardens, shady valleys, fountains, rivers of milk, water, and honey; most of which cannot be found in or around Mecca and Medina. It is not difficult to see how the Prophet, his companions, and the early Muslims would have so produced such an idea in their unforgiving context of seventh-century Arabia.
There are many other examples we could use, for example, we could note the Babylonian creation myth symbolizing the power of the king and state of Babylon, the Greek gods who fight trivial battles and had fleshy affairs like humans do (this of course concerning Xenophanes), the Viking afterlife of Valhalla where the dead warriors are said to drink and eat abundantly and practice combat in anticipation of the day of battle, the shamanic belief in spirits that can inhabit animals of the natural environment (it happens that many Shamanic peoples like the Inuit and Sami had a close connection to nature), and so on. It seems clear that religions take shape not necessarily through divine revelation but in context, whether that context is a desert, tundra, rain forest, or a freezing arctic-like location. If one comes from a culture and people who place emphasis on battle we can expect the gods to be warriors too. If we are agricultural, we can expect our gods to be associated with the changes in seasons. We can also expect agricultural themes to find their ways into our doctrine of the afterlife. If we are intent on centralizing rule we can expect our gods, like Marduk of the Enuma Elish or the myth of Julius Caesar ascending to the gods in a comet (apparently making Augustus the “Son of a God” in popular Roman imagination), to legitimate that rule.
Does This Invite Skepticism?
But I am careful not to read too much into this. I can certainly see uncharitable critics of religion taking this indubitable fact to “prove” that gods do not exist and that all religions are merely man-made constructs. In my mind, this is going too far in the absence of additional substantiation that would be needed. To the contrary of that skeptical position and on the surface of this observation, I do not see an incompatibility between divine revelation, the existence of God or gods, or true religion, with religions beginning and evolving according to contexts and human desires, or being made in our image, so to speak.