But I would suggest that exclusivity did more even than this scholarship has observed. Inclusive monotheism rolled the pagan gods into One, but like them that One remained firmly grounded in the old holistic world. Pluriform or uniform, the gods of nature could never fit comfortably in a world that had split the natural from the supernatural. Their worshippers had left them behind in this regard. In the late second century ad, as E.
Dodds and many others since have noted, social and political turmoil turned this sojourn into a stampede. Only an exclusive God could fully meet the demands of a society in the grip of supernaturalism, because only an exclusive God could be said to stand above nature rather than merely being part of it. And since these demons were thought of as holding the natural world in their grip, the old gods were still the gods of nature.
In this specific religious context, exclusivity constituted the precise adaptation that allowed faith to hit upon its most resonant message, the triumph of the unseen over the seen. By the time of Jesus, both pagan and Jewish miracle-workers were a dime a dozen. But Christian faith emphasized miracles in a way that was stunningly original in its rhetorical coherence and sophistication. The Gospels, the New Testament as a whole, and all of patristic literature are saturated with the wonder-working abilities not only of Jesus but also of his followers, through whom Jesus was said to work.
This process seems to have begun with St. With this stroke, Christianity finally offered a coherent response to the challenge of radical naturalism initiated by Thales and first articulated by Hippocrates. For more than a thousand years, until the Protestant Reformation, miracles stood as the unquestioned benchmark of religious credibility—and credulity—in the Christian world. It went hand-in-hand with the demotion of nature itself.
And neither can be adequately explained without reference to the original rise of reason in classical antiquity. Yet the deep connections among reason, exclusivity, and supernaturalism go unremarked by the scholars who have described the latter two phenomena, seemingly without noticing the first. Where is the E.
Dodds of the new millennium? Strikingly, the issue at stake was not whether miracles occurred, but whose miracles were divinely sourced, and whose were merely demonic or magical. Certainly, both the Hebrew God and the original pagan gods had been seen as capable of working wonders. But the scrutinizing lens of reason magnified the miracle to gigantic proportions. The stronger the bonds of nature are perceived to be, the stronger must be the power that bends or breaks them; the more concrete the boundary between natural and supernatural, the bigger the thrill of transgression.
This psychological effect set the stage for the new prominence of miracles starting just before the Christian era. In the same way, it also ratcheted up the power and the glory of the new Christian God, whose totalizing authority makes not just Zeus but even the Old Testament God look rather anemic—if bad-tempered—by comparison. If we do wish to look for something that acted on religion in a way similar to steroids, in effect pumping up our conception of God and the divine, reason is a good place to start.
The Attributes of God
There are likewise fruitful connections to explore between reason and the rising appetite in late antiquity for ethics and morality in religion. Nature is demonstrably amoral, and nature gods are hard to corral into a moral enclosure. A marginalized minority of a marginalized minority, Jewish apocalypticists were double outcasts, excluded from the official power structures of Jewish life. Not surprisingly, they preached that the world was ruled by evil powers, and that those powers would soon be overturned by divine vengeance, most often in a great eschatological upheaval.
A world dominated by evil powers is the common thread that runs between exclusivity and apocalypticism, and recent scholars like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman emphasize that both Jesus and Paul were apocalyptic preachers. Ehrman thinks that even in the time of Jesus, not all Jews were exclusive monotheists.
Exclusivity may actually have infiltrated back into mainstream Judaism from the apocalyptic tradition that evolved into Christianity. Indeed, it was being swamped precisely because, then as now, it was so threatening to religious sentiment. Exclusivity fed into that reaction. Exclusivity at once focused supernaturalism and cleared the way for divine agency, by demonizing the weakened gods and putting the one true God above them and their material realm.
But what was it about the apocalyptic outlook that gave it such broad and lasting appeal as exclusive monotheism was taken up by entire cultures and societies? Once more, we can look to reason and its psychological consequences for an answer. From an epistemological standpoint, all believers are marginalized in this world. The End Times retain their original intoxicating flavor of revenge fantasy—which evolved first in a specific social context, but rapidly acquired broader appeal as cosmic payback for the outrage of naturalistic thinking. Nor does it suggest that the rise of Christianity was inevitable.
But it does explain how the major features that these traditions tend to share—not just monotheism and exclusivity, but also supernaturalism and apocalypticism—evolved and spread, and it does so in a way that connects them in a coherent narrative. And perhaps it suggests that if Christianity had not emerged, some other tradition that possessed these adaptations is likely to have evolved sooner or later—possibly, like Christianity, from an apocalyptic Jewish cult.
Instead, we see them arising close together in both geography and time—the eastern Mediterranean world during the flowering of Greek thought. When we think about it this way, the idea that the origins of these two seminal and often opposed innovations might be unrelated strikes us as unlikely, to say the least. It presupposes a coincidence whose stark improbability has been ignored by recent historians of science and religion alike.
The tradition of exclusive monotheism, apparently, is how our religious instinct has expressed itself when confronted by the tradition of free rational inquiry. To put it another way, faith is the unassailable citadel to which religion withdrew after reason had overrun much of its original territory. In the face of such relentless, even terrifying, psychological pressure, it makes sense that our collective embrace of the supernatural, if it was to persist without dissolving completely, would have to tighten to the point of obsessiveness.
But faith is also a mobile citadel, a portable fortress. Like the alien monster in countless movies, faith only gets stronger every time you shoot at it. If this model is correct in its psychology, monotheistic faith will spread across the globe together with reason—as indeed it seems to be doing already, whether through outright conversion or the subtle moulding of older traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism into more monotheistic forms.
Faith and reason help define the package we call Western civilization. We might even say that they do define it, and that they also account for its stunning global success. For both good and ill, we might add. New atheist rants notwithstanding, the historical record shows that faith and reason stand equally ready to be invoked by the peaceful and the violent, the tolerant and the intolerant, alike.
Faith matters: 7 things Christians, Jews and Muslims share
After all, we gain something with the advent of reason, but we also leave something behind. Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, eds. West, it should be noted, observes that Aristotle says nothing about the monistic conception of Water attributed to Thales by later sources. Group selection like evolutionary psychology itself remains controversial.
An alternative theory has it arising as a by-product of other traits.
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