Monday, June 4, 2012

Robert Bellah's "Religion in Human Evolution": Book Review

"Even though, as it is widely believed, morality and religion are evolutionary emergents, evolution cannot tell us which one of them to follow." (48) This "discouraging but indisputable truth," for Bellah, demonstrates the challenge of finding meaning "only in evolution" for today's scholars and thinkers. This review, in-depth as far as small space allows, looks at how Bellah's work compares to recent surveys by other scholars of the Axial Age. A life's work, for a sociologist born in 1927, remains a formidable contribution in six-hundred narrated pages and, as he acknowledges, stopping 2,000 years before our era, it's long enough. It gives prolonged attention to what Max Weber and Emile Durkheim pioneered: the study of religious aspects as they culturally evolved.

Of course, it's bolstered by what science knows now vs. when his predecessors labored to make sense out of religion's roots and branches. His opening starts slowly, as "Religion and Reality" shuffles various capabilities of how we know concepts which in turn will contribute to varieties of religious experience. It's not as compelling as I wished, but chapter two, about evolution's "metanarrative," picked up the pace.

Still, Bellah admits he's as baffled by cosmology as we are, while he tries to cover the enormous span of physical evolution in an alternately meticulous and halting manner that doesn't do as much justice to his primary concerns as they merit. He proposes that we regard ancient accounts as "true myths," and he urges respect for religion on its own terms the same as science, revamping Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" as overlapping, each sphere usefully based in not reductionist but emergent explanations, to borrow from biologists, that take on the field at its own level. Science and religion both, Bellah notes, appeal to a sense of awe when their most eloquent advocates attempt to articulate the persistent mystery at the heart of how each field of inquiry unfolds over eons.

These eons, as empathy in its "motor mimicry and emotional contagion" shows over a hundred million years of primate evolution, stretch into pre-linguistic ritual and what Bellah regards as "sacred play" in such activities. While Bellah correctly critiques in passing both Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" and Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God" (both reviewed by me in 2011), I think Bellah's analysis wanders into territory that the main narrative did not need, and that Wade offers a more cogent popularization of the pre-linguistic stages, despite the monotheistic limits of both Wade and Wright which Bellah attempts to counter with his massive analysis and compendium. I still did not find as clear an explanation of ritual play as I expected, even after a lot of research here. But I did learn how only our species can march in step or dance as one troupe...

He applies, loosely, Merlin Donald's mimetic, mythic, and theoretical stages of human culture (these augment the hybrid system we have that diverges from the episodic consciousness we share with higher mammals) to parallel his own enactive, symbolic, and conceptual religious representational types. This chapter uses three traditional societies today which offer glimpses into mythic cultures once upon a time. The Kalapalo of Brazil, the Australian Aborigine Walbiri, and the Navajo demonstrate how ritual and narrative produce meaning. Bellah seemed more confident in this chapter, as after all he draws on the Navajo, the subject of his earliest research decades ago.

Tribal egalitarianism, he posits, does impose the will of the collective on the will of each, and its intermediate position between the despotism of primates and that of archaic states gains coverage with two Polynesian entities, Tikopia and Hawai'i, where a comparatively better documented record survives of what a kingdom bent on imposing its will on a people subjected to a relentless social system under brutal control under dominant males meant, in terms of taboo, ritual, and--as with many such societies--human sacrifice. There's no romanticizing "pre-contact" Polynesia in these pages.

With the Hawaiians, we benefit from a written history of what was still oral memory via David Malo's testimony; for Mesopotamia, the records of course exist, but much about belief must be extrapolated from tablets and archeological sites. Next, Bellah contrasts the Mesopotamian "heterarchy" with the Polynesian archaic states; as for the Egyptians, we are "creatures of myth" as inescapably as they were, for after all, "we are what we remember." (228)

Archaic states, with "vertical" enforcement where the king acts in league with the gods to order the cosmos and the polity, replace the imposed solidarity of tribes. In turn, the axial age enables the "moral upstart who relies on speech, not force," appears to stay alive long enough to appeal to ethical standards and to call for reflection. Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation" (reviewed immediately prior to Bellah's book) reminds us of this shift towards compassion and self-analysis. Bellah favors a more academic tone than Armstrong, and the details she highlights tend to be overshadowed by the scholarly colleagues Bellah introduces and answers in his dense discussion. However, Bellah cites Karl Jaspers: "The Axial Age too ended in failure. History went on." (qtd. 282)

While Armstrong, as Rodney Stark's "Discovering God" (reviewed also in late 2011), prefers a more optimistic, if guarded, spin on the meaning of the Axial Age if we regard it as beneficial. Bellah opts for nuance. A clan of frontier Canaanites worshipped a generic, or a high, god "El" from the pantheon, but El did not seem to matter much "at the level of family piety." (qtd. 288) He and Asherah have children, including Baal and Yahweh; gradually as a jealous "god among gods" Yahweh shoves aside and then denies the other gods until only he is regarded as legitimate.

So, how did these marginal hill-dwelling Israelites grab so much attention? By using the tension between particularism and universality. Hostile prophets provoke Israel and Judah to repent; the kings lose clout as exclusive mediators with the divine powers. Monarchs weaken; a covenant model based on fidelity to "Yahweh alone" rallies Judah's bastion against the Assyrian empire. Yet, the twist comes as the prophets assert Assyria's also subordinate to Yahweh, who punishes Israel via that empire for infidelity. The Deuteronomists promote Moses as half-Lenin, half social-democrat, to borrow Michael Walzer's critique.  Still, Moses refused to be a king; the people make the covenant.

Bellah takes Stephen Geller's argument that the norms of the Torah supplanted priestly sacrifice as the central way the "chosen people" communicated with a just God. Yahweh internationalizes (as Stark and Wright agree), and this relationship, as a covenant, enables Jewish success even in exile. Narrative is employed to force the archaic trio of God, king, and nation into ethical freedom. We inherit a "metanarrative" that justifies moral, social, and political programs, ever since the Bible. The Muslim Umma and the Christian Church emerge from this "entering wedge" of a people defined without a monarchy, who submit to rule by divine law instead of the machinations of a secular state.

Ancient Greece features a warrior cult and in the polis a steady evolution from pre-state. I wish we knew more of Anaximander with his "boundless" apeiron preceding creation, or Xenophanes' skepticism: if horses and cattle could draw, their gods would resemble them. Bellah's presentation lacks Armstrong's knack for the telling anecdote or excerpt from a primary source--he likes citing scholars--but it's similar in scope; with Heraclitus we approach "mythospeculation," the verge of philosophy. Plato reforms the synthetic hybrid system with theory but does not replace it--Bellah cautions that this had to wait until the "emergence of Western modernity" in the 17c. (395)

Back to China, while Plato followed the Seven Sages, Confucius preceded all major Chinese thinkers. Ritual was analyzed, meritocracy grew, and nobility turned into a status that birth alone might not attain, but adherence to an elitist, elaborately implemented, top-down mandate from heaven (mixed in Mencius with populism). But, Bellah mentions (more as an aside) how universal values embed themselves in the Analects. Warfare also depended on merit in a fluctuating time, and Mozi's contributions towards "right views" of rulers and a utilitarian concern towards all are less remembered today, thanks to Confucian rivals. The Dao, in #6, 15, 28, gains welcome if brief explication for its evocations of how weak overcomes strong; oddly #53 may in its primitivism find common ground with Legalism, if a small patch.

Xunzi as a final "Warring States" moral reformer merits mention: "I once spent a whole day in si 'reflection,' but I found it of less value than a moment of xue 'learning.' I once tried standing on tiptoe and gazing into the distance, but I found I could see much farther by climbing to a high place."(qtd. 474) Bellah integrates more primary passages in discussing the Dao and Xunzi, sharpening his study.

As Bellah tells us at the end of this Chinese chapter, the problem with Greece and Israel is that we are so familiar with the latter cultures compared to Asia, that it is tempting in those two "to find what at the moment our culture wants to find." (475) This can be charged to Armstrong, Stark, Wade, and Wright, naturally, and all of us as reader-critics. He notes how all he can do is give an interpretation. At least with China, its distance from our cultural legacy forces Westerners to approach cautiously. The question persists: who rules? Is a "junzi/ gentleman" from a hereditary caste, or a moral elite?

Bellah opens the Indian chapter confessing freshman-level instead of grad-student competence.  He covers the standard Vedic formulations, and he considers India in Upanishadic times as religiously axial, but archaic in ethics, social structure, and rational discourse (as in Japan). The Buddha's breakthrough as a teacher of ethics accessible to all remains that tradition's axial contribution. Bellah quotes Steven Collins on the path demanding action, leading to nirvana, the "city without fear." Ethical universalism, in turn, sparked a similar promotion by theistic Hinduism and King Ashoka.

He comes around to serious play in the conclusion, realizing accurately it demanded more depth. He looks at renouncers as "moral upstarts" in archaic states who paved a stealthy way for social protest in the axial centuries by prophets, reformers, and teachers. Their utopias--Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Lyceum, Buddhist parables or Second Isaiah--combined political criticism and religious reform. Bellah transfers this to animal play, "flow," and "theoria" as a heightened consciousness. This last chapter, for those pressed for time, serves well as a coda and an exegesis of the major narrative's themes, especially the "relaxed fields" of play and culture which were sometimes buried in the text.

Summing up, Bellah explains how he gave the West less attention than China and India. While parts of this feel like other, shorter texts in their necessarily wide-ranging "metanarratives" from primordial soup to Brazil nuts, and while parts could have been edited (as in frequent give-and-take with his colleagues), it remains a valuable reference, for it brings into one big book the gist of such research.

He ends by warning us that we face the sixth extinction moment unfolding now, as we destroy our planet, in our deep history. He finds some hope that today's serious sociologists of religion do not elevate Christianity above all other faiths, and that in such acceptance a mature pluralism might allow us to advance in understanding on each others' own tolerant, peaceful terms. No universal category, by its very nature, after all, can free itself from its own particular emphases. He rushes past this admission, but he closes by acknowledging that theory needs to remain anchored in a cultural context, lest it "can assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes." (606) (Amazon US 4-30-12)

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