Monday, April 22, 2013

Other Gods Before Me

Richard Wolin:

Assmann argues that biblical monotheism, as codified by the Pentateuch, disrupted the political and cultural stability of the ancient world by introducing the concept of "religious exclusivity": that is, by claiming, as no belief system had previously, that its God was the one true God, and that, correspondingly, all other gods were false. By introducing the idea of the "one true God," Assmann suggests that monotheism upended one of the basic precepts of ancient polytheism: the principle of "divine translatability." This notion meant that, in ancient Mesopotamia, the various competing deities and idols possessed a fundamental equivalence. This equivalence provided the basis for a constructive modus vivendi among the major empires and polities that predominated in the ancient world.

Assmann readily admits that the ancient Middle East was hardly an unending expanse of peaceable kingdoms. However, he suggests that before monotheism's emergence, the rivalries and conflicts at issue were predominantly political rather than religious in nature. For this reason, they could be more readily contained. Monotheism raised the stakes of these skirmishes to fever pitch. According to Assmann, with monotheism's advent, it became next to impossible to separate narrowly political disagreements from religious disputes about "ultimate ends" (Max Weber) or "comprehensive doctrines" (John Rawls). According to the new logic of "religious exclusivity," political opponents to be conquered were turned into theological "foes" to be decimated.

By introducing the "Mosaic distinction," Assmann argues, the Old Testament established the foundations of religious intolerance, as epitomized by the theological watchwords: "No other gods!" "No god but God!" Thereafter, the pre-monotheistic deities were denigrated as "idols." As Assmann explains: Ancient Judaism "sharply distinguishes itself from the religions of its environment by demanding that its One God be worshiped to the exclusion of all others, by banning the production of images, and by making divine favor depend less on sacrificial offerings and rites than on the righteous conduct of the individual and the observance of god-given, scripturally fixed laws."

The review is negative overall, but this sure does seem like an interesting book.