About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Eco-sensitive Biblical Animism

This time we will be talking about archaic epistemology which I would call, for lack of better words, remnants of biblical animism. Animism will not be for us today a fully formed religious system; rather it will be that mode of thinking and relating to the outside world in which boundaries between divine, spiritual, human and natural (animate as well as inanimate) remain largely fluid. We will concentrate especially on how this less regimented mode of thinking can influence our understanding of the biblical text, our faith, our self-understanding and relationship to the world.
The Bible preserved only two reports of speaking animals. The biblical editorial process was driven by a developing strict monotheism which certainly led to the elimination of many other examples.
    These two instances of talking animals were not eliminated, most likely, because in these two stories the talking animals were an integral part of the narrative plot. Also both stories used talking animals (remnants of animism) in an important dogmatic (Genesis) or folkloric (Numbers) to advocate powerfully for monotheism.
    Yet the narrative itself clearly outlines constitutive aspects of a different (animistic) mentality. Animals are talking just like any other character. In the narrative this is treated as absolutely natural. Only the book of Numbers hints at some explanation in the divine command to donkey to speak. In both cases animals are the source of special knowledge (alternative mode of understanding the divine plan) which they communicate to humans.
    Even if we interpret these talking animals as a rhetorical and dramatic tools, or as a projections of a person’s own thoughts into any given animal (in fact, a kind of hallucinations) the fact that this is accepted without any substantial commentary, alarm or explanation can tell us that the narrators mind-set was different from our current most common post-enlightenment way of thinking.

     (A tangential comment about the role and image of snakes. Especially in medieval and post-medieval religion and culture snakes received a demonically sinister reputation. That was not the original intention of Genesis. The ancient meaning and symbolism of snakes was complex and far from being only negative - here I would like to refer to book by the professor of NT theology from Princeton James H. Charlesworth: The Good and Evil Serpent, 2010.)
    Many biblical animals were most likely "made silent" by dogmatic censorship of a lengthy editorial process, as I have mentioned earlier. But old underlying modes of perception and reflection of the world could not be completely eliminated. They are scattered throughout the biblical text very often unnoticed unless we know and recognize their broader epistemological context.
    Here is one example - most clearly stated in the myth from Ugarit. But a similar situation (inanimate objects or realities) communicating message appears in Psalms and in the Prophets, while still being hinted at in Paul’s letter to Romans. (It is actually associated with the name of this blog.)
    Clearly many realities of the world were perceived as able to communicate - share messages/information. Direct contradiction in the second half of the quotation from the Psalm (it is not word, it cannot be heard X yet their voice permeates the world and words go as far as limits of the world) outlines ancient recognition of substantially different mode of this communication.
    Among Old Testament scholars there has been long-standing recognition that certain stones, trees and springs in the Old Testament times enjoyed a special status. They were not only associated with mythical/legendary events and figures, but were often recognized as associated with local numina (spirits or deities). Here I am using just three examples. Each of them could easily be expanded, and a number of similar instances of special stones (or circles of stones), trees and springs can be mentioned.
    Archeology confirms the religious significance of stones while paleo-epigraphy and art shows stylized trees or decorated poles clearly linked with Asherah (compare this tree positioned above a lion with a goddess standing on a lion few slides earlier).
    Please note that in modern scholarship archeology is not used to provide support for any individual biblical text but helps with our general understanding of the religious and anthropological milieu.
Here are two quotations which can help us understand the mentality of an animistic religious system and its relationship to nature.
    I mentioned Lynn White and his epoch-defying article at the end of our last lecture. White's article is now almost 50 years old, yet it remains relevant. It is especially relevant in the church setting because churches have never really dealt with this challenge. White nicely outlines why an animistic world-view has a higher sensitivity towards nature. We can also begin to understand why the ascent of supranatural theism of Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and their rampant anthropocentrism, led to the degradation of nature into an object to be exploited. All three monotheistic religions separated deity from nature and created predominantly anthropocentric religious systems (preoccupied with religious teachings, worship and human relationships).
    White was a medievalist, not an anthropologist-ethnologist; his definition of animism is rather schematic. For that reason I cite the second quotation on our slide from the insightful anthropologist Irving Hallowell. It marvelously shows that our modern scientific inclination to categorize might not be an adequate method for the assessment of a different mentality. It might be true that every tree or every spring had their own numina, but they were not necessarily identical or even identically important or powerful.

As an illustration I used a black, palm size, pebble - it is a stone with multiple stories. 1) I remember when I picked it up in 2007 near World’s End Park in Pennsylvania on a spring Saturday trip with my family. It brings back personal memories. 2) But at the same time I know it is a pebble formed of Pennsylvania black coal - it carries the story of early 20th century mining and families who used to live there in now abandoned towns. 3) It also carries an even older history of the Carboniferous geological era hundreds of millions of years ago, when this stone was a lump of peat and fern leaves. These are just three stories of this stone. There  might be more - 4) We brought this stone with us from our previous home. It moved with us from Binghamton to NYC. 5) And now I bring it to this lecture as an illustration and it shared some of its history with us. You might say, it is I who is speaking on behalf of the inert stone and responsible for the message. I simply learned all of it and pulled all this information together, because I became curious about this stone. And purely objectively you are right. But cannot it be claimed that I became sensitive to these diverse stories and shared them with you on behalf of that stone? “Of course, stones are not alive, but some are!”
Lynn White in the mentioned article blamed western medieval Christianity for the objectification of nature which fostered its ruthless exploitation and eventually led us to our ecological crisis.
    I am convinced that this process has much deeper roots growing from anthropocentric supranatural monotheism (religious ideology which started to appear in Judaic tradition in the early Hellenistic period). This quotation from Josephus Flavius shows ruthless monotheistic propaganda on its worst. I wrote about this particular incident in an earlier blog.
    Augurs did not claim that a bird knew the future, but that the future could be discerned from bird’s behaviour. Josephus is recording (approvingly) anti-divination propaganda which at the end carried the day but was offensively simplistic, manipulative, and ruthless towards nature.
    Of course in a similar mode you could disprove roosters’ ability to predict daybreak by killing all of them. But that would be an obviously stupid argument. We enjoy cock-crowing (most of the time :-) just like we rely on police dogs to find searched stuff etc...
    In the end we are dependent on nature, on plants and animals to feed us. Without harmony with nature we cannot survive, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of nature. And any religion which spreads such delusion needs to be overcome and replaced if we and the rest of the planet are to survive. As Lynn White wrote, we really need a new religion, we need a new deep mode of thinking about ourselves, nature and God. A large part of this new religion can consist in returning to a time before mechanistic and anthropocentric monotheism took over our faith. In this slide this anthopocentric monotheism is represented by Josephus, but in our faith tradition it is more fully represented by final editorial stages of the Tenach (the Old Testament).
We can share many misgivings and hesitations about postmodernism, but it is having a clear impact on our thinking. It is broadening our perspective and introduces new layers of imagination, creativity and playfulness together with a greater appreciation for natural phenomena and our human responsibility for the broad environment. Here I am presenting one of my beloved artists and architects and a prophet of a postmodern way of living. Hundertwasser was known to work with recycled and reclaimed materials. He was known for his rejection of prefabricated industrial engineering, for his respect and celebration of nature and for his love of specific decorativeness. He intentionally did not work with rulers; an uneven, naturally undulating sidewalk was to him “melody for the feet”. He marvelously demonstrates that ecology does not mean dull, grim, boring or fascist. In our world we need more Friedensreichs (Realms of freedom).
P.S. 2014-06-02 - I have just discovered an interesting article by Swedish Anthropologist Alf Hornborg: Animism, fetishism, and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world. Alf presents very interesting insights, I personally would trace the beginning of objectivism to the shift towards ideological monotheism. 

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Thank you for sharing! My name is Joshua and I am a rabbinical student currently researching and writing about animism in Judaism. I would love to compare notes with you.