The Stages of World Religion - part 1CHRISTOPHER DAWSON
Christopher Dawson outlines the first three of seven stages in the development of religion: the Primitive, the Neolithic, and Archaic Culture Religion.Preface: The Nature of Religion
Taken in this sense the religious instinct is part of the nature of man. It involves both affection and fear, and its power is strongest at times of individual or social crisis, when the routine of ordinary life is broken through and men are face to face with the unforeseen and the unknown. Hence the moments of vital change in the life of the individual birth, puberty, and death are pre-eminently religious, and so, too, for a society that lives in close dependence on Nature, are the vital moments of the life of the earth, spring and winter, seed-time and harvest, the yearly death and rebirth of nature.
1. Religion as Old as Humanity.
A culture can only be understood from within. It is a spiritual community which owes its unity to common beliefs and a common attitude to life, far more than to any uniformity of physical type.
Hence the study of primitive culture is intimately bound up with that of primitive religion. Throughout the history of humanity the religious impulse has been always and everywhere present as one of the great permanent forces that make and alter man's destiny, and the deeper we delve in the past, the more evident it is how inseparable is the religious instinct from human life and society. The beginnings of religion are as old as the human consciousness, and we can no more go behind the religious stage in human history than we can go behind the origins of language or of social life itself.
2. The Religion of the Hunter
For the primitive peoples belonging to the hunting culture are in no sense pre-religious or a-religious. They are on the contrary more religious than the peoples of the higher cultures, since the essential religious attitude the sense of dependence on mysterious external powers is stronger with them than it is in the case of civilized societies. The culture-peoples even at their lowest have conquered a certain autonomy and security against the external world. Nature is to them partly external and foreign the forest and the jungle as against the village and the field partly conquered and harnessed as in the case of the domesticated animal and the artificially raised crop. But the hunter lives always in a state of utter dependence on Nature, such as we cannot conceive. Nature is always and everywhere his mistress and mother, and he is a parasite living on her bounty through her elder and wiser and stronger children, the beasts. Hence the religion of the primitive hunter is characterized by universality and vagueness. . . . He sees everywhere behind the outward appearance of things a vague undifferentiated supernatural power which shows itself alike in beast and plant, in storm and thunder, in rock and tree, in the magic of the shaman, and in the spirits of the dead.
3. Primitive Experience of the Transcendent
The primitive has the same ultimate experience of reality on the deeper level of consciousness as the civilized man, but he has no criterion to separate what is spiritually transcendent from what is naturally extraordinary. He cannot connect his intuition of transcendent power with any rational metaphysical system; but he can superimpose upon it some image or intuition of external reality which makes a powerful psychological appeal to him, since primitive thought develops by association and images rather than by arguments and ideas. Hence his vision of the external world is related to religion and to the world of the gods in an entirely different way to that of civilized man. To the primitive hunter, for example, the beasts are not merely a source of food supply, and an occasional danger, they are mysterious beings which are in a sense superior to man and nearer to the divine world. The strength of the bull, the swiftness of the deer, the flight of the eagle, the cunning of the serpent, are revelations of superhuman, and consequently divine, power and glory. And the same is true of the attitude of the primitive farmer to the earth and the fruits of the earth. However low is the level of his culture, man cannot but recognize the existence of laws and rhythms and cycles of change in the life of nature in which his own life is involved. There is day and night, summer and winter, birth and death; the rain falls and the grass grows, the seed ripens; but these things are not mechanical changes of "natural" material facts, they are divine mysteries to be adored with trembling. Behind these appearances there are divine powers gods or spirits or undifferentiated magical forces which must be propitiated and served if man is to live.
4. Sacred Rules and Religious Sanctions
The man who forsakes the safe way of ancestral custom, who disregards the verdict of the gods or who infringes the sacred order is exposed to terrible spiritual dangers. He is the "impious" man, the archetype of the sinner and the criminal who is at once the object of divine vengeance and human abhorrence. It is difficult to exaggerate the tremendous force of this primitive sense of guilt and supernatural penalty which is so prominent in ancient mythology and ritual and which has entered so largely into the modern psychological terminology of the unconscious. But it is not difficult for us to comprehend it, since it still survives in the literary traditions of tragedy and in the basic religious concept of sin.
5. Mythology and Religious Experience
Nevertheless mythology has its own value and importance, if not in the sphere of religion at least in that of thought. It gives room for the first exercise of free rational enquiry and opens the way to genuine intellectual speculation which finds expression in the elaborate semi-philosophical cosmological systems of the Polynesians and the Pueblo Indians. Even in its more primitive forms it embodies a certain criticism of life. Indeed it may be argued that the omnipresent figure of the trickster is given the leading place in cosmology, not merely for his literary attractiveness, but because primitive man is conscious of an arbitrary and malevolent element in life which must have a wider cosmic significance. Among the African peoples, above all, the existence of a critical and pessimistic attitude to life is especially marked. The divine figures of mythology are not merely cunning tricksters, they are often definitely malevolent powers who lie in wait for man to destroy him. Or they are beings which have changed their original nature and hardened their hearts towards man. "Cagn at first was very good and nice, but he got spoilt through fighting so many things," said the same Bushman Quing whom we have already quoted. "Leza, the god of the Ba Ila, is not only the creator and preserver who sends rain and fruitful seasons. He is the Besetting One, he who sits on the back of every one of us and we cannot shake him off." Like Cagn, he has become old and perverse, and the whole order of nature has become changed for the worse. (E. W. Smith and A. M. Dale, The Ila Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, 1920, Vol. II, p. 197ff.)
It seems as though the critical element in primitive thought does not as a rule tend towards the advancement and purification of religious conceptions, but rather to their contamination and negation.
He is neither an animist nor a polytheist, since the mysterious power he worships is not completely identified with any of the individual forms through which it is manifested. Nor is he a pantheist, since the essential quality of this power is its transcendent or supernatural character.
"The religious faith of the Dakota is not in his gods as such. It is in a mysterious and intangible something of which they are only the embodiment, and that in such a measure and degree as may accord with the individual fancy of the worshipper. Each one will worship some of these divinities and neglect and despise others; but the great object of all their worship, whatever its chosen medium, is the Taku Wakan, which is the supernatural and mysterious. No one term can express the full meaning of the Dakota's Wakan. It comprehends all mystery, secret power and divinity" (Riggs and Dorsey, Study of Siouan Cults (1889-90), pp. 422-3).
Thus alike for the savage and the philosopher all ends in mystery, and the vagueness and confusion of the primitive mind reaches the same conclusion as the profundity of the mystic.
1. The Nature of the Neolithic
The change from the palaeolithic to the neolithic culture one of the greatest changes in the whole range of human history is not a mere change in the manufacture of stone implements; in some cases, that change hardly took place and the old palaeolithic technique was continued right into historic times. The true change was a change of life. Man ceased to be a parasite on Nature, like the hunter. He learnt to cooperate with Nature to govern and direct her. From a food-gatherer, he becomes a food-producer. And that change involved a revolution in his whole way of life, in his social organization and manner of settlement, in his relation to his environment and to his fellowmen, in his religion and thought.
2. Priesthood and Fertility Cults
One of the oldest and most universal forms of religion consists in the worship of the Mother Goddess, the goddess of the earth and of all that lives and grows. This divine figure appears all over the world in connection with the beginnings of the higher civilization in Mesopotamia and Syria, in the Aegean and Asia Minor, in prehistoric Europe, and even in West Africa and in the New World. The rude female figures, which represent idols of the goddess, or fertility charms, have been discovered by the spade of the archaeologist in the earliest deposits of the prehistoric cultures, while in the higher civilizations the same figure reigns in the great temple cities of Babylonia and Asia Minor as she still does in modern India today....
But the fertility cult finds its most characteristic expression in those symbolic representations of the divine marriage of the Great Mother, and of the death and resurrection of her divine child or lover, the god of vegetation, which formed the mysteries of so many ancient Asiatic cults, such as those of Ishtar and Tamnuz, of Attis and Cybele, and of Astarte and Adonis. And it is easy to see how the drama of the death and resurrection of the powers of nature would become inseparably bound up with symbolical representations such as the opening of the furrows, the sowing and watering of the seed, and the reaping of the sacred corn sheave. We may well believe that some such symbolic representation or imitation of the processes of nature may have actually given rise to a knowledge of agriculture, and that its practical utilization followed on its first performance as a sacred ritual act intended to promote the increase of the natural products of the soil. In the same way, the keeping of sacred animals, such as the bull and the cow, which were the symbols or the incarnations of the divine fecundity, may have led, in Western Asia, to the discovery of the art of the domestication and breeding of animals. For all these arts of husbandry were, to the men of the ancient world, no mere matters of practical economy, but sacred mysteries, the secret of which lay at the very heart of their religions.
But whatever may be the final conclusions regarding the religious origins of agriculture and the domestication of animals, there can be no doubt that the earliest forms of the higher civilization were charactized by the development of the priesthood as an organized social order. The transition from Shamanism to priesthood approximately corresponds with the transition from the lower to the higher type of culture.
It is unfortunately impossible to study this process of evolution in the cultures of the old world, for the decisive step had already been taken before the beginnings of history. In America, however, where, as we have already said, the whole sequence of cultures is more recent than in Eurasia, it is still possible to find examples of very primitive types of agricultural societies, and even of the transitional phase between the culture of the hunter and that of the peasant. In every case there seems to be a very close association between the practice of agriculture and the development of ritual ceremonies and priestly organization....
The most remarkable of all these societies is that of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, since, in spite of changes of population, their culture tradition has survived almost intact from prehistoric times; in fact it is essentially of the same type as the early neolithic peasant cultures of the Old World, especially the so-called Painted Pottery cultures, and it seems to carry us back to the first beginnings of the higher civilization such as underlie the earliest historic cultures of Sumer and Egypt. The whole life of the people centres in the rites concerned with the cultivation of the maize, and its fertilization by warmth and moisture. Dr. C. Wissler, the great authority on native American culture, writes: "The appearance of the clouds, the rain, maize planting, in fact the whole round of daily life is accompanied by ritualistic procedures, each group of priests performing its part at the appointed time. While essentially magical, these rituals contain a large amount of practical knowledge as to the care of seed and the time and place of planting, etc." (The American Indian, pp. 194-5.) In spite of the comparatively small size of these communities, they possess a large number of different priesthoods and religious confraternities, each of which has its specific functions and ceremonials.
3. Element of Sacrifice in the Peasant Religion
In its early form the central idea of the Peasant Religion was undoubtedly that of the beneficent power of the divine nature as manifested in the fruitfulness of the earth, and the entire dependence of man upon its bounty. It was only by obedience to the laws of the Great Mother and by an imitation of her mysteries that man could learn to participate in her gifts. Thus every agricultural operation was a religious rite or a sacramental act through which divine powers were brought into activity. Men opened the earth with their ploughs to receive the miraculously quickened seed. They irrigated and rendered it fruitful with the help of the fertilizing god of fresh water. Finally with rites of propitiation and lamentation they reaped the harvest and ground the grain, taking, in a sense, the life of the god of vegetation that they themselves might live.
Thus all the primitive agricultural implements, the plough, the sickle, and the cart, were sacred things; and the same is true of the domestic animals, the goat, the sheep, and the pig all are sacred to the Great Mother. But most of all the cow, the representative of fertility, and the bull, who, like the vegetation god himself, is the embodiment of the vital force of Nature, but who must sacrifice his male force and freedom in order that he may labour as the patient plough ox in the service of the Great Mother.
It is in this point that the severe and even cruel aspect of the Peasant Religion is most apparent. The Goddess in the Phrygian form of the legend destroys the virility of her divine lover, Attis, of whom the bull was perhaps the animal embodiment; and even at Erech, the great centre of her cult in Babylonia, she is served by eunuch priests....
But even in its most repulsive forms, this cult bears witness to a profound consciousness that the increase of life could only be obtained by sacrifice, whether it was the sacrifice of virility, as in the case of Attis and his eunuch priests, or of the first-born children, as in Syria, or of the king himself, who was forced in Phoenicia and Cyprus to lay down his own life for the life of his people.
4. The Pastoral Religion
On the other hand, the pastoral tribe is patriarchal and aristocratic, and the masculine element everywhere predominates. The shepherd requires no less daring and hardihood than the hunter. He has to defend his flock against the attacks of wild beasts, and the raids of other nomads. The choice of new pastures and the conduct of tribal forays constantly call for the exercise of qualities of leadership and decision.
This contrast between the agricultural and the pastoral societies finds a counterpart in their religions.
Both of them are Nature Religions, and have their origin in the vague undifferentiated religion of primitive peoples that we have described in the second chapter, but each has concentrated its worship on a different aspect of nature. The Religion of the Peasant is concerned above all with the mystery of life, and he sees the divine power embodied in the Earth Mother and the Vegetation God who is her consort or son. The Religion of the Shepherd, on the other hand, is concerned not so much with the Earth as with the Heavens, and it is the powers of Heaven the Sky, the Sun, and the Storm, that take the first place in his worship.
Among the pastoral peoples all over the world, from Siberia to Africa, we find the Sky God as a vague and often impersonal power which is yet conceived as the creator and supreme ruler of the universe. It is characteristic alike of the ancient Aryans, the Turks, the Mongols, the Hamites, and many of the Negro peoples of Africa, and even among peoples of the higher culture such as the Sumerians and the Chinese it appears as one of the earliest elements in their religion, inherited perhaps from an older phase of barbarism. Even the lower peoples of the hunting culture are not entirely devoid of the conception, and it has a good claim to be considered the oldest and most universal religion of the world.
With the advance of the pastoral culture and the development of the warrior tribe, the Sky God tends to become personified as a celestial hero and chieftain, but at the very end of the development, in classical times, men could still speak of the Sky God in the old undifferentiated way, as in the Roman expression "sub Jove" for "under the open sky."
The Sky God of the warrior peoples is, however, above all the god of the thunderbolt and the storm. He is the Adad and Amor of the Semites, the Teshub of Asia Minor, the Aryan Indra, and the Scandinavian Thor. These are incalculable and formidable powers, whom man cannot control or cooperate with, jealous and arbitrary rulers after the image of their own chieftains who must be feared and obeyed implicitly and blindly. Nevertheless, they have the virtues as well as the defects of the warlike pastoral psychology. They are the guardians of the masculine tribal morality righteous gods who hate lies and uncleanness and disobedience. While the religions of the settled agricultural peoples were idolatrous and immoral, or at least non-moral, it was the pastoral peoples who developed such high conceptions of the divinity as Varuna, the guardian of righteousness and Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord. Above all the Jewish people could never have developed their ethical and monotheist religion amidst the idolatrous and voluptuous cults of the agricultural peoples of Syria, had it not been for their pastoral and tribal tradition, and it was to the desert that the prophets and reformers turned for inspiration in the great crises of national history.
5. Religion and the Patriarchal Family
This religious exaltation of the family profoundly affects men's attitude to marriage and the sexual aspects of life in general. It is not limited, as is often supposed, to the idealization of the possessive male as father and head of the household; it equally transforms the conception of womanhood. It was the patriarchal family which created those spiritual ideals of motherhood and virginity which have had so deep an influence on the moral development of culture. No doubt the deification of womanhood through the worship of the Mother Goddess had its origin in the ancient matrilinear societies. But the primitive Mother Goddess is a barbaric and formidable deity who embodies the ruthless fecundity of nature, and her rites are usually marked by licentiousness and cruelty. It was the patriarchal culture which transformed this sinister goddess into the gracious figures of Demeter and Persephone and Aphrodite, and which created those higher types of divine virginity which we see in Athene, the giver of good counsel, and Artemis, the guardian of youth.
The patriarchal society was in fact the creator of those moral ideas which have entered so deeply into the texture of civilization that they have become a part of our thought. Not only the names of piety and chastity, honour and modesty, but the values for which they stand are derived from this source, so that even where the patriarchal family has passed away we are still dependent on the moral tradition that it created. Consequently, we find that the existing world civilizations from Europe to China are all founded on the tradition of the patriarchal family.
1. Central Tradition of World Civilization
Thus the essential feature of this archaic civilization is the existence of a learned priesthood whose predominance gave the whole culture a markedly theocratic character. In most cases the society found its centre in a sacred city and a city temple, the god of which was the ruler and owner of the land. The service of the gods provided the ritual setting and pattern by which the life of the community was ordered.
In Mesopotamia such temple cities were already in existence in the fourth millennium B.C., and the earliest tablets discovered at Urukh beneath the great temple of the Mother Goddess prove that even at this period the temple had become at once a centre of economic organization and a centre of learning. The rise of these wealthy and learned temple corporations which possessed archives and schools and all the apparatus of scholarship was of decisive importance for the history of culture, since it opened the way to the systematic accumulation of knowledge and the cultivation of science and literature.
But it was of no less importance for religion, since the rise of the priesthood created a principle of social organization within the religious sphere and tended to substitute an ordered system of hierarchical relations for the individual and incalculable activities of the prophet, the Shaman and the magician.
Viewed as a whole, this sacerdotal type of culture must be regarded as the central tradition of world civilization on which all existing forms of higher culture depend or from which they derive....
It would seem as though this sacerdotal phase was not merely characteristic of a particular historical development but was an indispensable condition for the appearance of a higher culture in any part of the world and in any age.
2. Ritual Order from America to China
Now when a ceremonial cycle of this type, based upon the agricultural year, has once been established, it is capable of being developed into a vast ritual order which embraces the whole social and intellectual life of society. This is what we find in the higher civilizations of Central America, such as those of the Maya and the Aztec peoples. In the case of the former, the development of the ritual cycle led to that amazing progress in astronomical and chronological science which is embodied in the great Maya calendar, with its ingenious system of interlocking cycles, and its simultaneous use of the Venus year of 584 days, as well as of the solar and lunar periods. This calendar is, as Wissler says, "not a dating device," but a ceremonial order which "provides the religious programme for each day in the year or a complete cycle of never ending services." The ritual order was at once the reflection and fulfillment of the cosmic order, since it coordinated the order of the heavens with that of the seasons, and by its ceaseless round of sacrifice and prayer assisted the powers of nature to function.
The same system was inherited by the later Aztec culture of Mexico which, however, in spite of its military power, stood on a far lower level of civilization than that of the old Maya city states.
Thus in both of these instances, as well as in the South American cultures, the civilization was essentially a development of the ritual order, and when, as in the case of the Maya culture, the ritual was broken or its custodian, the priesthood, declined, the whole civilization fell into decay.
3. The Temple Estate and the Sacred City
The temple with the temple estate is in fact the foundation of the whole archaic culture of Western Asia.
It was the germ of the city, which was essentially a sacred city, the dwelling place and throne of a god. It was the germ of the state, and this explains the sacred and theocratic character of political authority, for the king was a priest king, the vicegerent of the city god, with whom he ultimately came to be identified, so that his power rested not on the right of conquest or the choice of the people, but on divine right or the choice of the god, a conception which is of enormous importance for subsequent history.
Further, the temple was the basis of economic development, it alone possessed the resources and the authority that are necessary for a highly developed economic organization. The great works of irrigation, which above all rendered possible the increase of population and the growth of cities in Babylonia, involved a vast control of labour and a unity of direction to which a population of peasants could never have attained by themselves. It was the superhuman authority and the express mandate of the god that alone rendered these great communal enterprises possible. And hence we note the importance of the divinities of canals and irrigation in the early Sumerian religion.
Above the city as a symbol of this religious dominance rose the great staged temple pyramid or ziggurat, the proud titles of which such as the Foundation Stone of Heaven and Earth at Babylon, or the Link between Heaven and Earth at Larsa recall the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Thus the God was the real ruler of the city, and the Sumerian territories are often described not as the land of such-and-such a city, but the land of such-and-such a god....
In all these ways, the temple and the religious conceptions which it stood for supplied the basis of the new cultural development which transformed the ancient world about the fourth millennium B.C. All over the East, from Crete and Egypt to Southwest Persia, and even to India, the Sacred City appears at the dawn of history as the essential organ of the higher civilization.
4. Messianic Character of Kingship
Even the Persian conquest which finally put an end to the independence of Mesopotamia was explained on the same principle. Marduk had taken pity upon his people. "He considered all the lands, he saw them and sought for a just king, a king according to his heart whom he would lead by the hand. He called his name Cyrus, King of Anzan, and he appointed his name for a universal royalty." And this finally leads us to the sublime conception of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets: "Thus saith the Lord to my anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken to subdue nations before his face and to turn the backs of kings.... For the sake of My servant Jacob and Israel My chosen I have called thee by thy name. I have given thee the title of honour, though thou hast not known Me...." (Isaiah 45:1-6.)
Hence the royal office possessed an almost Messianic character. The gods chose the king to be the Shepherd and Saviour of his people; and even external Nature shared in the life-giving effects of his advent.
5. Religion and Egyptian Culture
Never perhaps before or since has a high civilization attained to the centralization and unification that characterized the Egyptian state in the age of the Pyramid Builders. It was more than state socialism, for it meant the entire absorption of the whole life of the individual in a cause outside himself. The whole vast bureaucratic and economic organization of the Empire was directed to a single end, the glorification of the Sun god and his child the god King.
It is indeed one of the most remarkable spectacles in history to see all the resources of a great culture and a powerful state organized, not for war and conquest, not for the enrichment of a dominant class, but simply to provide the sepulchre and to endow the chantries and tomb-temples of the dead Kings. And yet it was this very concentration on death and the after life that gave Egyptian civilization its amazing stability. The Sun and the Nile, Re and Osiris, the Pyramid and the Mummy, as long as those remained, it seemed that Egypt must stand fast, her life bound up in the unending round of prayer and ritual observance. All the great development of Egyptian art and learning grew up in the service of this central religious idea, and when, in the age of final decadence, foreign powers took possession of the sacred kingdom, Libyans and Persians, Greeks and Romans all found it necessary to "take the gifts of Horus," and to disguise their upstart imperialism under the forms of the ancient solar theocracy, in order that the machinery of Egyptian civilization should continue to function.
6. Idolatry of the Archaic Cultures
On the other hand, the identification of religion with the particular cultural synthesis which has been achieved at a definite point of time and space by the action of historical forces is fatal to the universal character of religious truth. It is indeed a kind of idolatry the substitution of an image made by man for the eternal transcendent reality. If this identification is carried to its extreme conclusion, the marriage of religion and culture is equally fatal to either partner, since religion is so tied to the social order that it loses its spiritual character, and the free development of culture is restricted by the bonds of religious tradition until the social organism becomes as rigid and lifeless as a mummy.
All of them were idolatrous orders which ultimately became fossil relics of a dead past, like Ptolemaic Egypt, where an alien dynasty of Macadonian adventurers was worshipped under the old Pharaonic titles and were represented on the walls of the temples wearing the old insignia of the divine monarchy...
(Each ruler was) worshipped by the priests as the living image of Amon, and praised for his devotion to the divine animals and the wealth he lavished on their mummies and their tombs.
The immense mausoleum of the dead Apis bulls at Sakkarah with its 3,000 tombs is an apt monument and symbol of a religion that becomes bound to the corpse of a dead culture; and we cannot wonder at the violence with which the world religions rejected and condemned the idolatry of the earth-bound religions of the archaic culture.
Dawson, Christopher. The Stages of World Religion. Dawson Newsletter Vol. IV # 4 (Winter 1985-86).
Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.
Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.
Copyright © 2005 Julian Philip Scott
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