I’m having a hard time getting into Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf, so I may save my reading of that for another time. Instead, I’ll be blogging through another book: James David Audlin’s Circle of Life: Traditional Teachings of Native American Elders.
In this post, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Audlin says on page ix:
“Another elder, despite growing up poor in the rural Ozarks, educated himself magnificently and became an expert on the religions of the world, studies that convinced him that Native American spirituality is but one expression of the true faith of all the Original Peoples.”
This reminded me of the scholar Edward Causaubon’s attempt in George Eliott’s Middlemarch to find the original religion that is behind all of the world’s religions. Is this even possible? Was there really a primeval religion—-“the true faith of all the Original Peoples”? I remember a professor telling us what she believed was the difference between the University of Chicago’s approach to religion and Yale’s approach. Yale, according to her, looked at the distinct manifestations of religion throughout history, whereas the University of Chicago sought a primeval religion. I’m not sure how true this is. My impression (from looking at catalogs and the writings of faculty from those institutions) is that both schools look at the distinct manifestations of religion within their historical contexts. It was interesting to me, however, that a professor of mine who got his degree from the University of Chicago began his class on religion by seeking to define what religion was, and by looking at terms that apply to a number of religions. It’s like we were going from general to specific rather than focusing primarily on the specific (which was what my Yale-educated professor did—-focused on the specific), or at least that we were seeking what various religions had in common.
In terms of primeval religion, I suppose that scholars can look at evidences for the earliest religions that were in the world. There was cave-man spirituality, for example. It was probably very rudimentary, though, in terms of lacking the moral advancement that later religions attained. That being the case, would we even want to embrace the “true faith of all the Original Peoples”?
There are a number of Jews and Christians who believe that the commonalities among certain religions of the world indicate descent from a common religion. If you were to point out the similarities between themes in the Hebrew Bible and themes that appear in ancient Near Eastern religions, for example, many of them would tell you that this is not evidence that the Hebrew Bible merely copied stuff from other religions at the time. Rather, they’d contend, there was a primeval religion, and it got corrupted in the other nations, while the Hebrew Bible preserves it in its purity. I can’t really disprove that claim. I wouldn’t be surprised if ancient Near Eastern religions had commonalities because they descended from a common source. But I also wouldn’t preclude the possibility that there were times when one culture influenced another, and vice-versa. Life can get pretty messy.