I went to the United Methodist church this morning, and the pastor was talking about the evolution of religion, particularly regarding the question of what is pleasing to God. She said that life in the early days of humanity was unpredictable, that people valued fertility in human and animal reproduction and crops, and that they tried to appease deities so that things would work out well for them. They sought to appease deities through animal sacrifice. As people formed cities, they relied on deities to protect their cities from enemies. At this point in time, trust in the deities was promoted, and people could express that trust through praise and worship.
Eventually, there developed the concept of loving God, and that, too, could be expressed through worship. And there developed the concept of love for neighbor. The pastor defined love for neighbor as not harming people, and instead helping people who are in need. The pastor discussed the prophet Amos, who delivered his prophecies in a time when Israel was at relative peace and had prosperity, and yet there was a significant amount of economic inequality. Justice usually favored the wealthy and well-connected and did not work for the poor and the vulnerable. Yet, the pastor was saying, many Israelites thought that they were still good with God because they were offering the right sacrifices and were worshiping God at festivals. Amos was telling them that they were wrong: that God wanted for them to love their neighbors.
The pastor was saying that Jesus emphasized a concept that was an undercurrent in the Hebrew Bible (particularly Wisdom literature, I think she said): the concept of communion with God—-that God is in our midst. She also talked about the importance of cultural context: the way that we please God today may not look entirely like the ways that people sought to please God in the past. We don’t offer goats anymore, and, whereas people giving others their cloaks may have made sense in a past historical context, it does not so much to people in twenty-first century America, and so we should discuss what love for neighbor means in our current context. The pastor concluded by asking what God wants from us, and her answer was “us.”
One can probably question certain evolutionary models of religion. On the one hand, I would not go so far as to say that there is nothing to them at all. For example, I do believe that, when it comes to concern for the vulnerable, Christianity was a step up from Greek and Roman societies, even though I would not go far as to say that the Greeks and the Romans lacked ethical consciousness. On the other hand, we cannot be too rigid when it comes to defining stages of religion, for there may be exceptions to the rules, or more to the story. Would I be shocked to learn, for example, that there was ethical consciousness in primitive societies? Not particularly. People need ethics to live in harmony and to define what is theirs. Some of this question of religious evolution may be a matter of what is emphasized: a religion may promote both ethics and ritual, but which is the more dominant? Throughout history, there have been times when there has been an emphasis on religious ritual, but there have also been corrective voices who have advocated a deeper connection with the divine, or ethics and social justice.
My pastor’s sermon gives me a chance to write about Ahiqar, which I recently read for my daily quiet time in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha. Ahiqar could date to the seventh to the sixth centuries B.C.E. On the one hand, Ahiqar affirms that the god Shamash is the champion of those who have been treated unjustly. On the other hand, in the story of Ahiqar, we see a disturbing detail. Ahiqar, a wise adviser to the king, is falsely accused of treason, and he agrees to a plan from someone he helped in the past. The plan is to kill a slave and to pretend that the slave is Ahiqar, so that the king will think that Ahiqar is already dead and thus will not kill him. That is pretty shocking! There is not much value placed on the life of the slave there, is there? Scholars disagree about whether the proverbs of Ahiqar and the story of Ahiqar were separate pieces that were put together, or if they were intended to be in the same book. In any case, we see in Ahiqar some ethical considerations, but also some pretty significant blind spots, or cases in which ethics are not taken far enough. My question would be: What are our blind spots? What if we do not even know about them? Sobering thought, isn’t it?
What does this have to do with the pastor’s sermon? Oh, it somewhat overlaps with the issue of moral evolution. Plus, the pastor this morning was going into how different themes play out in the Bible and how the Bible reflects religious evolution, on some level, and I would say that we see a similar sort of phenomenon in the Bible that we see in Ahiqar: a concept of justice and love for neighbor, but also times when many can read pieces of the Bible and think, “What the heck?”
I could go on by asking if I love my neighbor, but I’ll stop here. I’m sure that I’ll have a chance to wrestle with the question of whether I love my neighbor in the future!