The History of God(s)

Never let it be said that I’m afraid of tackling the tough stuff. Any one who writes about god in Texas better be a preacher or a converted sinner.  I am neither.

I’m not taking  a secular nor a religious approach to the topic.  I’m going to try to deal with the subject as my old history teacher and wide receiver coach, Wally L., would have.  Only the facts…names and dates in particular.  This is not the place for, nor am I inclined to evangelize a point of view.  I’ll let you decide for yourself if any of this makes sense.

For source material I’ve relied on the research of cadres of academics who never tire of writing about god(s) as well as the King James Version of The Good Book.  I’ve not spent much time on the Torah or the Quran as they are but other versions of the Abrahamic tradition and tend to deal with the dogma and laws of their respective brands of religion. As far as I can tell, and according to the people who really study this stuff, they all give allegiance to the same god, abeit in sharply different ways.  Oddly, none of the great bodies of religious writings deal with the origin of god.  Let me give you but one example.  In Genesis, the first verse of the first chapter says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Nary a word about when or from whence god came.  I guess the implication is that he was just always there…in the beginning, whenever that was.  I know.  You and I were taught in whatever version of Sunday school we attended that Moses wrote Genesis, and he had a direct pipeline to the man.  Remember Moses did the burning bush thing with god and actually spoke (or communicated somehow) to him about a whole range of things, or at least ten of them.  The problem is that all the smart guys pooh pooh this idea.  Moses died about 1441 BCE and all the other scholarly evidence points to Genesis being written between 600 and 500 BCE.  The actual authorship of Genesis is variously ascribed to one of several sources.  The one embraced by most current biblical scholars is referred to as Yahwist or Jahwist who gathered the stories told around campfires in the desert and merged these stories with bits and pieces of legend from the Babylonians and other ancient peoples.  In these passages, the Hebrew letters YHWH, also Yahweh or Jehovah, were used to designate god.  Yes, I know, it’s really confusing.  And this only deals with the god of Abraham.  So now we have one version of god, the presence of which is described only in a book (Genesis) who no one is really sure who wrote or when it was written.  To add further to the confusion, Genesis, as well as the rest of the bible wasn’t even the official word of god until Emperor Constantine gathered up a bunch of bishops of the church and had them vote on which books were in or out at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE.  As word has it, this august group also voted in Jesus as well…just to make it official I guess.

This god of Abraham now is accepted and venerated by roughly 50% of the peeps in the world.  Yep.  That’s right.  2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims (although at the rate they keep killing one another, this number may go down), and 14 million Jews out of a total world population of 7.2 billion.  Hmm.  That means in about four thousand years, there’s still not a clear majority opinion on the matter.  Remember I said in the beginning, I only deal in facts.

This next bit may be a bit controversial, but I believe it to be backed up by the science.  The god of Abraham wasn’t the first monotheistic god.  Yes, that’s what I said.  There were other supreme (gods) before Abraham’s version.  I’m not making this stuff up.  A word on monotheism.  It is, as you know, the belief in one all powerful god.  Omnipotent and omniscient.  The record, as it is currently understood by man, can point to no evidence of monotheism before 1750 BCE.  None, nada.  Yes, there were all kinds of gods, but none of the sort that most of us have come to believe is the god of Abraham.  Now the question for you is does the fact that there is no historical evidence of a single, all powerful god prior to that date mean that one did not exist,  that man had just not discovered him yet, or that he was merely in hiding waiting for a more propitious moment to reveal himself to man.  Another of the many tough questions for you to answer.

As I suggested above, at or about the same time in other regions of the ancient world, civilizations were morphing from polytheism to their own brand of a monotheistic god.  So at about the same time (give or take a few hundred years) polytheistic gods began to go out of favor and began to be replaced by other, more powerful and dynastic supreme beings.  That fact that there was then and continues today to be more than one version of these supreme beings is more than a little problematic from a logic point of view, i.e. how can there be more than one supreme anything?  That means of course, if you follow this line of reasoning, that either one is right and the others are wrong, or that all of them are wrong.  I have my suspicions, but I’m leaving it to you, dear reader, to figure it out for yourself.

Let me ask you this, if there is god, what does this god look like?  Hmmm.  The only place I was able to find some certainty on this question was in classical greek and roman history.  They had pretty fixed ideas about what their god(s) looked like.  If you care to look, you can find paintings and sculptures of Zeus, Jupiter, Mars and all the rest, and they look like, well, er, you and I.  Of course, I know they generally were wrapped in robes and carried lightening bolts or tridents or other paraphernalia, but they pretty much looked like us humans.  In case you are interested this phenomenum is called anthropomorphism…which is the assignment of human characteristics to non-humans.  Practitioners of the christian faith, by and large, hang their vision of their god on Genesis 1:26-27 wherein is says in part…”and god created humankind in his image…”.  Clearly whoever read this part of Genesis took some liberties when they started putting oil on canvas.  You will remember that most god pictures in churches and museums depicts a 40’ish male with wavy long brown hair, a beard that would make your average hippie proud, and a robe with a rope sash.  I will admit that I haven’t done extensive research on this, but I’m pretty sure that the KJV says naught about rope sashes and beards.  Oddly, the other two religions of the Abrahamic tradition think it is verboten to paint a picture or build a statue of what god looks like.  And if you are of the Islamic faith, you cold get in really deep water by doing so.

So here it is in a nut shell.  An abbreviated Cliff notes version of the god(s) time line. In short, it is the history of god.

Sometime during the stone age, most likely in the middle paleolithic era (200,000-45,000 BCE), evidence emerged that early man (homo neanderthalensis) practiced totem and animal worship.  Whether these early rituals should be counted as the earliest evidence of gods is a mystery to me, but it sure gets a lot of attention from folks inside the ivy covered walls.  More importantly, and more certainly, during the upper paleolithic age (50,000 BCE-10,000BCE, archeologists have discovered anthropomorphic images in burial sites.  These images and other burial evidence are strongly suggestive of belief in a “greater power” and some form of life beyond death.  If these don’t count as gods, they certainly seem to have god-like characteristics.

Evidence of wide spread polytheism emerged in the civilizations of the neolithic age which spanned the period from 10,000 to 2,000 BCE.  In fact, the evidence I’ve seen suggests that this period was the absolute hay day for gods.  In the Tigris and Euphrates river valley the Sumarians and and Mesopotanians had a surfeit of cranky and demanding gods and goddesses..  In Egypt, one king had the clever idea of naming himself as a god, but also embraced Horus, the Falcon god, Osiris, the Nile god, and Ra, the sun god as well as many others.  In the Indus river valley the gods (too many and confusing to name) were emerging as the foundation of the Hindu religion.  The Agean civilizations, ancient Greece, Rome, Minoa, and Mycea not only had their gods, they gave human characteristics to them and assigned them functional responsibilities.  Zeus, Jupiter, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, et al reigned over certain of natural phenomena.

For reasons that their is little agreement on, the god tide turned about 2000 BCE.  Polytheism began to falter and monotheism, and single all powerful gods began to emerge.  Chief among this new class of gods was the aforementioned god of Abraham.  He/she/it appeared, as described in Genesis, with the Covenant of Abraham when god called on him to abandon his home and move lock, stock and barrel to the promised land called Canaan.  As far as I can tell, there is no earlier reference to this god before the Covenant…well, there is the reference in Genesis I cited earlier about” …in the beginning…”.

Perhaps you will be surprised to know that there are still other monotheistic gods at work today.  The Zoroastrians have their Ahura Mastra, the Baha’i have their own god who they call interchangeably allah or god, and those followers of the Sikh faith have Waheguru.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed.

So you say, “what’s the point of all of this.  Well, I dunno except that I find it interesting that about 85% of the population of the planet claim allegiance to some god or other. The other 15% are either outright disbelievers or don’t much give a flip one way or the other.  One thing is for sure and that is that the idea of god in various forms has been around for a long, long time.  Which leads me to where I come out on the issue (now I’m moving from historical fact to opinion, so you are entitled to stop reading here).  The fact of a single, omnipotent, omniscient supernatural power does not appeal to me on the face of it and does not seem to be supported by empirical evidence.  Likewise, having a whole boatload of gods for various purposes doesn’t pass my sniff test either.  What I do believe is supported by evidence gathered over the millennia is that the idea of god(s) is a powerful notion which has enjoyed staying power through the ages.  I suspect that there is no evidence or lack thereof that would persuade those who are inclined to believe in either the fact or idea of god to abandon that belief.  It may be that belief in some god is in the very nature of man. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let this devolve into a “did god create man or did man create god” philosophical squabble.

Some time ago I had the joy of a hike around our farm with one of my grandchildren.  During the course of our walk we talked.  Well, mostly he asked questions, and I tried to answer.  “Pops”, he asked, “where does dirt come from?”.  You know the kind of questions I’m talking about.  And finally, he asked what I will call the G question.  “Pops, do you believe in god?”  I had long anticipated the time when one of my grandchildren would ask, and I thought I had prepared well for it.  I had not.  My answer was dissembling and confusing, and wasn’t really an answer.  I mumbled something about nature and the nature of man.  “Well”, he said, “what I really meant is that if there is a god and god is good, why wouldn’t a lot of gods be better?”.  I had no answer then and I have none now.








Tale of Two Germanys

This is a plaque at the entrance of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The Palace is the site of the historic Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of WWII.

Germany is an economic miracle.  There’s no other way to describe it.  Think of it.  In the last ninety years, Germany lost two wars, sixteen per cent  of their population was killed as a result of the wars, their industrial base was decimated, they became a pariah in the eyes of the world, their national identity questioned, and were occupied by the armies of the countries who had defeated them.  Many of their leaders were tried, convicted, and either executed or imprisoned.  They were a pawn of the cold war and lived as a divided county for thirty years and then endured the pains of unification.  And yet….

Germany is number fourteen in population at about eighty two million, but has a nominal GDP of $3.3 trillion which is fourth in the world.  They are number two in exports with $1.33 trillion, which believe it or not, is more than we export from the US.  Germany has a well deserved reputation for their high quality products in a wide range of industries from automotive to optics to high tech.  Beyond economic factors, Germany has a number of other qualities including a beautiful topography and robust supply of natural resources which make it an attractive place for its citizens, trading partners, and tourists alike.  Food is not one of them…unless you like sausage.  It has a tradition of education and the arts equal to any other country in the world and a legacy of artists, writers, and philosophers that is universally recognized.  And yet…

As I strolled around Frankfurt in the comforting light rain, I couldn’t help but think what it must have looked like sixty five years ago.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, most of central Frankfurt was more or less obliterated by Allied bombing in 1944 which also killed about five thousand of its citizens.  One wonders, whether that would have been considered a criminal act had we not won the war.  More on this later.

Cicero said that an unjust peace is better than a just war, and in the abstract, I would agree.  It just doesn’t seem to apply to what Hitler instigated in 1939.  I, like you, studied the war in my school days, and since, I’ve read more than a little about WWII, but until this trip, and this time in my life, I never tried to understand or articulate the principles that motivated Hitler, the National Socialist Party, and the Germans to do what they did.  Back to the Nazis….the actual party name was translated as the National Socialist Democratic Workers Party or NSDAP.  Hmmm?  Why is it that the most tyrannical of political institutions always have “Democratic” or “Workers” in the name?  Looks like they would work in “Republican” every now and then.  I’ve searched the literature for a succinct articulation of the raison d’etre for Nazism, and I’ve come up with my own short list.

It goes like this:

Aryans as the Master Race:  Alfred Rosenburg, the putative theorist of the Nazi Party, espoused the theory that Aryans derived from Atlantis as a warrior people living on the Germanic plane and were direct ancestors of the early Germanic tribes.  Hitler, writing in Mein Kamph, opined that it was essential to keep the Aryan strain pure, else it would be diluted with the impure blood of the darker races of Southern Europe.  He also noted that it was necessary to guard against allowing weak members of the Aryan race to propagate for the same reason.  There’s lots more of this bs, but it’s so weird that I refuse to even mention it.

Anti-Semitism:  This is way over my head and has pretty much been wrestled to ground by far more nimble minds than mine.  I will only say that the seeds of Hitler’s virulent form of anti-Semitism which ultimately led him to his “final solution” were sewn during his stay in Vienna starting in 1907.  Vienna was the hot bed of anti-Semitic thought in those days, and he clearly drank the cool-aid while there.  He also came later to the view that European Jews, and German Jews, in particular, were to blame for the fall of the Weimar Republic.

Lebensraum:  A literal translation would be habitat or living space.  As Hitler demonstrated beginning in 1939, the Nazi policy would be to kill, deport or enslave Polish, Russian and other Slavic populations, who were inferior, and repopulate the lands with Germanic peoples.  In short, he needed more land, particularly lands to the east, for Germany to grow and prosper as the master race and natural rulers of the world.

It was for these objectives that Germany ignored the Treaty of Versailles, trampled the Mutual Non-Agression Pact with Russia, and ultimately pursued a strategy which resulted in the death of between sixty and seventy million people in Europe, including almost ten million of his own people.  You know the rest of the story.  The allies defeated Germany, Hitler killed himself, we tried and convicted many of the leading Nazi figures at Nuremberg, and Germany rebuilt itself.

As I traveled on through Germany to Nuremberg and finally to Munich, I continued to wrestle with the contradiction of the Germany of WWII and now.  The duality of Germany’s nature still eluded me.  Many would say that the rise of German militarism in the 1930’s was motivated by many complex factors including the demise of the Weimar Republic, but their ultimate behavior remains inexplicable.  Telford Taylor, assistant chief prosecutor and one of the leading figures of the Nuremberg Trials , said, “…the gas chambers, mountains of corpses, human lamp shades, shrunken skulls, freezing experiments and bank vaults filled with gold teeth…were the poisoned fruit of the tree of German militarism.”

I guess it’s possible to understand the killing of one or two or even a thousand, but sixty thousand, or six million or sixty million defies the imagination.  The Nazi atrocities were so monstrous, so enormous, so outside the realm of human experience that it’s hard to believe they happened, much less comprehend why they happened, even when confronted with the hard evidence.  But it’s real.  They did those things and more.

Now as I walk through the large outdoor market near the Marienplatz in Munich, I can’t help but wonder if the group of twenty something young men could have been in the SA or Gestapo, or if the prosperous middle-aged man walking by could have conducted the medical experiments for which the Nazis became infamous, or if the street sweeper might have been a guard at one of the concentration camps.  I feel some guilt in having such thoughts, and my mind wanders to the bit of religious dogma that first gave me pause with Christianity.  In Exodus is written of “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children and on to the third and fourth generation”.  In that I refused to accept this biblical admonition, I suspect, then, to blame succeeding generations of Germans for acts committed by their fathers and fathers’  fathers, makes no sense either.  I certainly cannot lay blame on my wife for the institution of slavery because her ancestors were slaveholders as were many, if not most, of the early settlers of Texas.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors and while true, I much prefer the admonition of Maya Angelou who wrote, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be un-lived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.

Perhaps we will have the courage to not need to relive the history of Nazi Germany again.

I liked the Germany a found on this trip, perhaps it was because I stopped trying to relive history or it may be because I had my eyes and mind wide open.

“I SHALL RETURN” or not…

These words uttered by General Douglas McArthur as he left Corregidor for Australia in 1941 shaped his place in history as well as the strategy of the Pacific Command and his own behavior for the next three years.  It also pretty much sums up what most Americans know about the Republic of the Philippines today.

I first visited Manila almost exactly twenty years ago as I was surveying possible new locations to plant the my company’s flag in Asia.  My mind was pretty much made up as I left the doors of the worst airport I’d seen in Asia and entered what Dante might have called the gates of hell.  It surely had the same climatic conditions, and the sights, sounds and smells also suggested some connection to the nether regions.  It was a most unpleasant visit characterized by monumental traffic jams, bad food, dirty hotel rooms, and no visible redeeming virtues.  Even a dinner at the home of the resident Bank of America representative was negatively shaped by the security guards with automatic rifles at his door.  No flag planting was contemplated for the foreseeable future.

So you might appreciate, I wasn’t expecting much.  The two hour delay at DFW and the three hours huddled in a smallish, smelly “executive lounge” of Philippine Airlines in San Francisco didn’t help to enhance my attitude either.  The good news was that we didn’t have to stop in Guam for refueling which allowed us to land an hour early at a sparkling new airport in Manila.  I’d slept well in uncomfortable first class seats of an aged 747, and was served well by a cabin staff that outnumbered the two of us in the eighteen first class seats.  The hour and a half wait for my luggage was not an auspicious start however. Now back on my original schedule, I was met by my handler, ushered to a car and driver, and whisked to the Makati Shangra La where I was coddled through check-in to my room before 7:00 am.  Time for a rest, much needed ablutions, and preparation to reintroduce myself to Manila.

I know you didn’t sign on to this for a history or geography lesson, but some context setting is essential, so be patient.  The Philippines is an archipelago (for you illiterate philistines that is “a large group of islands”).  7,000 of them to be exact.  To be less exact, one wag told me the number depended on whether we were at high or low tide.  All but about 4000 of them are uninhabited, but Luzon in the north and Mindinao in the south are the two largest and contain the vast majority of the population.  In fact, Manila, with a population of eleven million give or take a million, has almost 15% of the eighty some million of the country.  Religion defines culture so I might as well tell you that the distribution is about 7% protestant, 7% Muslim, 85% Catholic, and 1% all other.  Count me as an all other. The Muslims are heavily concentrated in two provinces in southern Mindinao where we still read almost daily about guerrilla violence.  I can’t quite figure out who they are violent against or why. I also hear vague references to Al Qaeda, but that term now applies to all bad guys everywhere. The Philippine archipelago is just a few hundred klicks from the mainland of SE Asia.  Short jumps by air to Malaysia, Vietnam, et al, but for most people, the Philippines are not on the way to anywhere.  And it’s next door neighbor is Indonesia, another archipelago, with more than twice as many islands and a lot more muslims as well.

I’m gonna give you the cliff notes version of Philippine history, because I don’t suspect you would stand much more.  I’ll divide their history into four vastly oversimplified eras.  The indigenous era, the immigration era, the Spanish Colonial era, the American era, and now.  Well, I guess you can tell that’s five eras, and to get it into five I had to collapse the four years of Japanese domination into the American era, and I completely skipped three years of British rule in the 17th century.  Even this Cliff Notes version of history is pretty hard to get organized or to keep simple.

Here’s the thing I like about history….there are some really pretty big gaps that no one seems to care much about.  For example, the earliest remains of human kind in the Philippine archipelago, according to the Philippine National Museum of Culture, were from about 20,000 BC.  Of course, that makes no sense.  Java Man, otherwise known as homo erectus was identified in central Java, a little over 1400 miles from Manila with an age of over 700,000 years.  What happened in that other 680,000 years?  No baby making?  They stuck close to their own campfire.?  So much for the indigenous era.  The immigration era (my own term btw) is where things start to get interesting.  About 3000 years ago the negritos, well they weren’t called negritos then (the Spanish hung that on them because they were “little black people”) came overland, by boat or dropped from the sky and settled the central part of the archipelago.  Then about 2000 years ago the much taller and fairer skinned Indonesians came in several waves.  Ok, what happens when you cross a tall green tomato plant with a short yellow tomato plant?

Answer, you get a medium greenish/yellow tomato plant.  And that’s what happened here.  Everything would have been ok except that the pesky Spainards figured out that you could grow lots of stuff here, and the women were pretty easy to look at as well.  They hung around for 500 or so years until we kicked them out at the end of the 19th century.  They left the catholic church behind and took a craving for mangos with them.  So much for the Spanish colonial era.

The American era started out with a fake big bang.  I say fake only because we said they did it, and history pretty much shows that we did it to ourselves. In any case, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, we used it as an excuse to help along our manifest destiny.  Does this have a familiar ring to it.  Gulf of Tonkin anyone?  Or how about the fake WMD instigated Iraq war authorization.  It’s pretty clear from several hundred years of activity, if we don’t have the facts, we just make s**t up and start shooting.  In this case, the shooting didn’t last long.  About six months in several different locations around the world, including Manila, where Spain had the temerity and the ammo to shoot back.  In the fine print of the Treaty of Paris (1898) they agreed to sell us Puerto Rico, Guam, and, you guessed it, the Philippines for the princely sum of $20 million.  I never did figure why we didn’t get Cuba in the deal, but not bad, eh.  Well, maybe not Guam.

So democracy had triumphed over evil once again and the American century was under way….off to a great start as we say.  Oops, one tiny detail that doesn’t get a lot of play in our 8th grade US history readers; we spent the next four years putting down the “Philippine Insurrection” as we then referred to it.  They like to call it the Philippine-American War.  We lost a few thousand troops, who had absolutely no idea that they were fighting and dying for a diplomatic fine point, and as for the Philippine people, they lost a lot of citizens and suffered extraordinary destruction of villages, cities, and what little infrastructure they had.  But we had to give democracy a chance.

I won’t spend a lot of ink on the Nipponese interlude as it has been well chronicled.  One little nugget on McArthur.  It seems that we had more than one Pacific surprise in December of 1941.  Several hours after the Japanese caught us with our pants down in Hawaii, they did it again at Clark Field near Manila.  McArthur was caught sleeping, literally.  General Doug did come back and pounded the bejesus out of the Japanese, unfortunately they were in Manila at the time and once again, the Philippine people were the recipients of some pretty severe “collateral damage”.  I guess in a fit of remorse or guilt or whatever, we tried to make up for it by granting independence to the New Republic on July 4, 1946.  Wonder how they come up with that date?  It’s worthy of Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and they weren’t even there.  So ended the American era and began the now era.

I’m going to save my in depth reporting of the “now in the Philippines era” until my next segment, but let me give you a teaser.  Their professional basketball teams are named after their sponsors.  So the following headline in the sports page is not out of the question.  “The Coca Cola drowns Pepsi in Title Game”  I’m not kidding.  Got so much to say and so little patience from my readers.

I shall return…..