"When on High the Heavens..."
6. History of the Discipline
Jonah Lynch – December 2020
Recent developments and open questions
Buccellati's contribution in the present work
Mesopotamian studiesBuccellati's main field of study regards the history and archaeology of Mesopotamia, and When on High the Heavens is part of a larger project that aims to describe several major aspects of Mesopotamian civilization. We begin with a survey of three major authors who have produced large-scale works regarding Mesopotamian religion: Leo Oppenheim, Thorkild Jacobsen, and Jean Bottéro.
A. Leo OppenheimIn 1964, A. Leo Oppenheim published his Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, which had an important impact both within the field and beyond its boundaries. (See here for excerpts.) The author was willing to constantly reshape his view of Mesopotamian civilization as new information came to light. The pages of his works are full of admissions of ignorance: he was highly sensititive to the gaps in the record and almost suspicious of the ability of a scholar to propose a synthesis, except with reference to specific and highly documented periods and places. He preferred to propose a “portrait" of Mesopotamia: the presentation of an individual in his uniqueness, but selective of certain features. With respect to our topic, he famously entitled his chapter on religion "Why a Mesopotamian religion should not be written". The evidence is too spotty, in his view, and the difficulty in overcoming the barriers of “conceptual conditioning” too great. A few of his reasons are worth mentioning here: while we can excavate temples and marvel at their size, we do not know how they were used; the prayers, mythological, and ritual texts that promise to shed light on “what is commonly meant by religion” perhaps do not, or do so in a way that is irremediably distorted by the haphazards of which texts are extant and which are not. According to Oppenheim, we all too easily fall victim to the lure of the myths of Mesopotamia, “searching for deep insights and voices from the dawn of history, which they allegedly convey.” (Portrait, ch. 4).
Oppenheim also held that Mesopotamian religion, as a “complex, multilayered accumulation” was not amenable to “survey or a structural evaluation—if one desires to avoid generalizations”. In this sense, his stance is a challenge to the proposal of the present web site and the volume by Buccellati that is at its core, which does deal in both a survey and a structural evaluation. We hope that the generalities thus involved are not imprecise.
For Oppenheim, something like an “unobstructed view” of Mesopotamian religion could be had by separating the royal, priestly, and “common man” perspectives; but while some information is available about the first two, the third of these categories is “the most unknown element in Mesopotamian religion”. Therefore, Oppenheim tended to limit his interpretations to the features that could be clearly delineated. Oppenheim interpreted polytheism as essentially plurality and multiplicity, as opposed to the directional “path and the gate”, which he considered typical of the “one-dimensional pressure of revealed religion”.
Thorkild JacobsenA little more than a decade after the Portrait, Oppenheim’s colleague at the University of Chicago, Thorkild Jacobsen, dedicated an entire volume to the question of Mesopotamian religion. His work, entitled The Treasures of Darkness. A History of Mesopotamian Religion (1976) is rather more hopeful than Oppenheim’s about the possibility of describing Mesopotamian religion. (See here for excerpts.) Building on his 1963 article about the “central concerns” of said project, he divides Mesopotamian history into four sections that roughly correspond to the four millenia BC. Jacobsen defines Mesopotamian religion as the human response to a numinous experience, in particular concerning human fears and the desire to ally one’s self with the gods in order to find security and salvation. Consequently, he organizes the millennia around basic fears.
At the beginnings of the large scale Mesopotamian economy, according to Jacobsen, the fear of starvation of large numbers of people and its attendant horrors (cannibalism, etc.) dominated religious experience. At this early stage, religious texts focus on natural powers, fertility gods and the cycle of birth and death in the natural world.
The third millenium exhibited a new fundamental fear, war, which denser population made more frequent. The archeological record shows the immense energies expended during this period in constructing walls and fortifications. Poetic laments describe the horrors of war-ravaged cities. The new institution of the king, to whom the people looked for security against external foes, offered a new metaphor that could be applied to the gods, which deepened and extended the experience of the numinous particularly in the direction of “majestas” and energy (on this topic, see R. Otto's The Idea of the Holy, full text here).
Jacobsen affirms that during the second millenium BC, Mesopotamian religious experience was further enriched by becoming personal and individual, not only collective. Correspondingly, the god is typically personal, and the “parent-child” metaphor began to be used. Jacobsen makes many acute psychological observations of what experiences might lie behind the extant documents. He summarizes the process of three millennia: “human prayer slowly grew from ‘give us this day our daily bread’ to ‘preserve us from evil’ and—lastly ‘forgive us our trespasses’.”
Jacobsen occasionally, and with sensitivity, quotes passages from biblical as well as Mesopotamian sources. Jacobsen also applies an interesting linguistic metaphor, classifying earlier fertility gods as intransitive, whereas the later royal gods act with “transitive” will and energy. This is a terminology which Buccellati takes up as well. See on this point the theme transitivity/intransitivity.
Jacobsen’s schematic outline is supported by paraphrases and translations of poetic texts, presented and analyzed with a “typological and historical approach”. Unlike Oppenheim’s portrait, which focuses on what can be said with certainty about some few aspects of Mesopotamian religion and frequently points out what cannot be said, Jacobsen’s volume has the advantage of presenting an easily understandable sequence of development together with the disadvantage of avoiding much discussion of the philological questions.
Jean BottéroJean Bottéro made an important contribution to the study of Mesopotamian religion in 1992 in Mesopotamia. Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. (See here for excerpts.) He emphasizes that the Mesopotamian religion is a true system (as does Buccellati), coherent and logical and that can be known to a degree greater than Oppenheim’s “feigned agnosticism” (Writing, p. 201) would have allowed. He also points out the numinous origins of Mesopotamian religion, which in his view "was the product of communal reactions towards the same sacred in the darkness of prehistory”, and not the product of a charismatic founder, as in most of the “religions” that we are familiar with today. For this reason, “religion was perfectly joined with the civilization and confused with it” (Writing, p. 203).
Bottéro describes polytheism as a feudal structure, in which the gods are “entirely like men, but better” (Writing, p. 212). This conclusion is supported by the cosmogony that described mankind created as vassals to do the work the gods were tired of doing. It is also supported by the functionalization of humans within the cities, which led to a flattening of human personality, and also to slavery (see Buccellati, §2.10). But it can be argued, as Buccellati does, that the gods are not like humans, and rather are hypostatized “attributes”. See here and here and Buccellati §5.1. This nuance seems to be accepted also by Bottéro, in that he describes the governance of the gods as regarding only their own specific territory, and their human subjects as accepting their rule in a way similar to how they accepted their human governors. “It was a distant era when man accepted that one never escapes one’s ultimate destiny whatever one does”. (Writing, p. 231).
More recent scholarship, such as for instance that of Mark Smith (see the review here), has further focused on specific aspects of the picture traced thus far.
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Biblical studiesThe writings known collectively as the Bible have a long and complex history. They were written, revised, read, and commented for centuries before the beginning of what in the West can be referred to as the Christian era.
Text and critiqueAfter the destruction of the second temple and in light of the ensuing diaspora, layers of interpretation were developed within the Jewish community with the explicit aim to “build a hedge around the Torah”. That stage in development was complicated by the Christian re-interpretation of the same scriptures, their inclusion in an authoritatively defined “canon”, and by their translation into languages that heretofore had not hosted the Jewish religious texts.
The textual transmission of the biblical writings over the following centuries was susceptible to theologically loaded translations as well as scribal errors or omissions. After the first formative centuries of the Christian era, the transmitted text was substantially unvaried (in Latin, in the version produced by Jerome) and largely read only by the official clergy. This situation obtained until the age of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). The Bible was translated into a modern language, and widely disseminated among the population thanks to the recent invention of the printing press. Erasmus pioneered a textual critical method that attempted to amend the text of the Gospels—and in a first, published his results. Together with the renewed interest in classical studies and methods that began in the Renaissance, this event led to approaches to the Bible that had not been attempted before.
In the 19th century, textual criticism was practiced widely in the Protestant milieu, and attracted and influenced Catholic scholars to the point that a series of papal declarations were emitted in order to clarify which methods were considered usable within the complex Catholic approach to interpretation, which admits not only textual criticism, but also arguments from tradition and from authority. The “Modernist controversy”, as the related (but wider) debate about Catholic theology at the turn of the Twentieth century has been called, came to a head with the publication of the 'small syllabus' Lamentabili sane, promulgated by Pius X in July of 1907. Vatican II documents in the Catholic Church, especially Dei Verbum (1965), and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), are the fruit of a century's work on reconciling different interpretative methods.
Scholarship and personal faithMost readings of the Bible are the expression of a faith community, and are defined by the interpretation given to certain key passages. These passages are in turn interpreted using instruments that produce the ‘right’ answer, which leads to a difficult relationship between Biblical studies and the scientific instruments of philology.
This is one area which distinguishes the present work. Buccellati makes no secret of the fact that he was raised and educated within the Catholic tradition. Several of his books contain prefaces by or dedications to churchmen. Within the present volume, a sympathetic evaluation, perhaps the fruit of personal conviction, can be noticed in several passages which connect the two spiritualities that are the direct focus of attention (Mesopotamian and Biblical spirituality) to the later Christian spirituality.
The author’s expressed position is that it is possible to have a personal creed, to belong to the intellectual tradition of humanism, and to carry out serious scientific work, deploying all the critical tools at his disposal. He affirms that all scholars have a personal starting-point, which should be declared and kept in mind when interpreting other traditions. The chimerical neutrality of the scholar should give way instead to a frank declaration of one’s starting point as well as an empathetic and scientifically valid examination of the object of study.
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Comparative religionFrom the flurry of activity around Biblical studies and the first discoveries in archaeology in the early nineteenth century, a separate discipline known as “comparative religion”, “history of religion(s)” and recently more generally as “religious studies” has emerged. Although the title of this discipline is still a matter of debate, in this context we prefer the specific term “comparative” because it is linked to the way Buccellati describes his own project as a “structural comparison”. His efforts are not in full continuity with what is known as the “comparative religion” enterprise, but there are also several significant connections.
The science of religionThe scientific study of religion gradually developed out of the greatly broadened world-view that resulted from European exploration of the rest of the world during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. While until that time, the mostly Christian west could look with some condescension upon the rest of the world as composed of Jews, Moors, and Pagans, after having direct contact with the great variety of other religious practices and beliefs this view was no longer possible. Christendom’s view of other religions began to be recast through the acute and sympathetic observations of churchmen like Matteo Ricci and Bartolomeo de las Casas, whose work was characterized by a deep appreciation for the peoples they encountered.
With regard to the specific example of Ricci, Eric Sharpe affirms that “the 'religion' of China, without mysteries, without 'priestcraft', and inculcating a lofty moral ideal, provided—or appeared to provide—a welcome proof that, as certain European savants were claiming, the essence of religion was of precisely this nature, and that all later elaborations on this simple theme were both unnecessary and undesirable.” (Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, p. 15) The “savants” to whom Sharpe alludes were precursors of the “deists”, who began to view all things religious as if from a neutral height, untouched by the specifics of a creed and a history, instead affirming only the outlines of a Supreme Power as god. Many further developments occurred: Hegel proposed his all-encompassing history of the Spirit, crowned with Christianity. Darwin and others proposed various forms of evolution that were applied first to the natural sciences, and soon thereafter to religion too.
These proposals were not always neutral and detached; see for instance John Tyndall’s 1874 phrase “We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as they do this, submit to its control and relinquish all thought of controlling it” (in Sharpe, p. 29). A less antagonistic view, although perhaps overly optimistic, was expressed by Friedrich Max Müller in 1867: “The Science of Religion may be the last of the sciences which man is destined to elaborate; but when it is elaborated, it will change the aspect of the world, and give new life to Christianity itself.” (in Sharpe, p. 31).
Friedrich Max MüllerMüller produced a method that "can be characterised as scientific, critical, historical and comparative: scientific because of its inductive pattern and its belief in universal laws of cause and effect, and because of its distrust of obvious a priori arguments; critical because of its fundamental attitude to evidence; historical because of the new sense of continuity between the past and the present to which it gave rise; comparative because it claimed comparison to be the basis of all knowledge. It compared the known with the unknown, it compared phenomena in apparent temporal sequence, it compared phenomena belonging to different areas but having features in common. In all this, in true scientific spirit, it set out to determine, with regard to religion, the genus 'religion' which underlay the species 'the religions'." (Sharpe, p. 31-32).
The language of “species” and “genus” as applied to culture or religion has been rightly criticized for begging important questions, and even for creating overarching groups where what actually exists are only distinct experiences that bear no real commonality. It may be objected, however, that all language depends on the interplay of incomplete signs that refer to other realities. We will return to this issue later in this article in the discussion of structuralism and Buccellati’s proposed way out of the impasse.
J. G. FrazerAt the turn of the twentieth century, the work of J. G. Frazer gave impetus to the burgeoning project of comparative religion. His The Golden Bough, while repudiated by recent generations of scholars in the various disciplines affected by his scholarship (anthropology, philosophy, theology, sociology...), was enormously influential. According to Cairns Craig, this was because Frazer's work "collapsed traditional conceptions of progressive history, revealing that the past that modern humanity thought it had left behind still shadowed its contemporary existence and was, indeed, more pervasive in modern consciousness than the discoveries of science made over the last four hundred years. Frazer's presentation of the history of humanity negated both the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century social Darwinist conceptions of continuous progressive improvement towards ever-higher levels of rationality." (Introduction to The Golden Bough, 16).
Mircea EliadeIn the mid-twentieth century, no name was more influential in comparative religion than Mircea Eliade. He proposed a cross-cultural reading of data from a large variety of religious traditions, and presented his data as an objective description, free from value judgments. He gathered and presented his data under such categories as "the sacred", the "center of the world" (axis mundi), the "great" times of origin, distinct from chronological time. These categories are related to many symbols in the natural world, such as the transcendence of the sky, the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, water, stones, fertility. One of his important works on this topic was Patterns in Comparative Religion, published in 1958.
Recent generations of scholars have questioned Eliade's project on the grounds that he imposes abstract "platonizing" categories on human experience, and thus suppresses difference. The comparative approach, it is suggested, "conjures and imposes abstracted categories that too often erase culturally embedded distinctions and realities" (Dempsey, p. 5). Even the term "religion" has come under fire for being ethnocentric (Bianchi 1993, 350).
The struggle for a definition of religionUgo Bianchi, an Italian scholar of the history of religion who served as the president of the IAHR, repeatedly attempted to steer a middle ground. In 1985, he defended his approach against claims of imperialism. In a 1993 article, he pointed out that Eliade's hermeneutics "opposing substance (the purely "religious") with accidents (its different cultural and historical incarnations)", is "antithetical to the inductive stance of the history of religions." (Bianchi 1993, p. 351). According to Bianchi, "the struggle against a priori reductionism, whether theoretical, ideological, or programmatic, is fought not so much with contrary assumptions as with sound, comparative, cultural-historical research. Once the issue of the relations between religion and other cultural elements is posited in the ambit of comparative-historical research, it reveals clearly the full, specific "weight" of religion, both phenomenological and historical, and as a result discourages overly bold attempts to explain away or to reduce, that is, to formulate incomplete interpretations." (Bianchi 1985, p. 54). An important contribution by Bianchi was his insistence on the concept of analogy as a way to avoid the unacceptable alternatives between reductionism and ideology. He wrote that “Comparative study results in a ‘historical typology’ of religion. It studies religion as a "concrete universal" (not in the Hegelian sense) on the basis of a methodology that is positive and inductive, not deductive or normative. It does not aim to be systematic in the sense of nomothetic or taxonomic. Moreover, the history of religions should not reason per genus et differentiam specificam, that is, by means of ‘categories,’ as if religion ‘in general’ were a genus whose characters were wholly represented in each of the species subordinated to it, or as if religion were an essence that underlies the accidents represented by the differences inherent in the different ‘historical’ religions.” (Bianchi 1985, p. 65).
The debate is far from over. A 2002 conference, the proceedings of which were published as How to do Comparative Religion (René Gothóni, ed., 2005), highlighted yet again the divide between reductionist approaches and hermeutical or phenomenological approaches. This divide is also referred to as being between 'science' and 'religion', in which the former coincides with truth and certainty, and the second with irrationality and belief. There are more nuanced ways of understanding these alternatives. One, represented by the editors of the 2002 proceedings, is to consider with Protagoras that every argument has a justified counter-argument. Debate, then, is the necessary and proper way to mediate alternative accounts.
Buccellati and comparisonIn the context of the present website, it is worth pointing out that the proposal presented by Buccellati is that alternative explanations are not simply and binarily opposed. Rather (perhaps analogically) alternative explanations are all incomplete descriptions of an overall reality. However, some are more complete than others, and alternatives can be compared through their structures. Even though the ‘real’ structure of reality remains occult, alternative versions or descriptions of that reality may be made explicit, and compared on the basis of their structures.
For Buccellati, monotheism and polytheism represent two alternative ways to interpret the complex of relations between humans and the 'absolute'. Each system proposes its 'laws', which are internally coherent, even if they cannot necessarily be evaluated with respect to each other. Both interpretations are valid, deeply interesting, and valuable for the contemporary reader, whatever religious or nonreligious perspective she may have.
The comparative approach is not finished, notwithstanding the criticisms that correctly can be brought to bear against it. Comparison is an unavoidable characteristic of all human observation and production of thoughts and communication. As Corinne Dempsey puts it, "The question then becomes not whether we should compare but, in comparing, how we can do so transparently and responsibly. How do we choose among infinitely available points of comparison such that the process advances rather than predetermines or undermines our knowledge of religious phenomena?" (Depsey, p. 4) One useful signpost was given by Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), who proposed that the comparative study of religion should describe the faith of other peoples' in such a way that those people could recognize themselves in the description.
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Recent developments and open problems
The problem of universalsIn the study of religion or spirituality, as we briefly noted above, the question of universals arises regarding the very term "religion". For a time, it was considered a neutral category that could contain a variety of expressions. More recently, this approach has been widely criticized, and the literature is full of caveats regarding the applicability of such a term. See, for example, the debates about whether or not Confucianism or Buddhism are to be regarded as “religions”. Likewise, Eliade’s proposal of the category of the ‘sacred’ as a central and universal human category has come under fire, as have all other attempts at an abstract definition of the term.
Universals may be criticized as imprecise, but without them, how can communication happen? Without an overall category within which to situate a given phenomenon, how can it be studied? “It is obvious that whichever way one imagine religion and the study of it, it will not be possible to do so without the activity of comparison, without the evaluations of resemblances and differences, without generalization and ‘even’ without universals” (J.S. Jensen, Universals, General Terms and the Comparative Study of Religion, 250). And yet: we are also all too aware of the fact that any categorization inevitably colors the phenomenon that is so categorized. From this awareness arises a tendency to seek a ‘pure reason’ that can examine phenomena without being affected by them. This tendency has an illustrious pedigree, but such ‘pure’ unembodied rationality does not ever actually exist.
Cognitive scienceIt would seem that we are left only with ‘similarities and differences’, analogies. Such an outcome may seem to renounce the ontological certainties that theology proposes, and hard science would replace—but recent cognitive science research suggests that in fact the brain mostly deals in analogies, both on the level of its architecture and processing methodology and on the level of its heuristic decision-making. Boyer, a proponent of a cognitive approach to the study of religion, proposes that religions offer a “minimally counter intuitive” way to reconcile explicit violation of some intuitive principles with the implicit confirmation of other intuitive principles. (See Boyer, Explaining Religious Ideas, 52). But “empiric knowledge” is not actually how the brain knows things. Boyer is probably not a cartesian, yet he (unwittingly?) imposes a rationalistic, “enlightenment” idea of measurement and precision on processes that are stochastic and approximate.
Other scholars suggest that historical research is a “laudable endeavor”, but must be augmented in order to address the “universal questions”, which cannot be done “by means of localized interpretations”. This suggestion must however contend with the fact that in order to address any question, one must have data, and the only data at hand are a) the still-inconclusive research regarding the internal operation of the human brain and b) the artifacts, texts, and rituals present within human activity. To suggest that one may answer universal questions without attention to “localized interpretations” is like suggesting that one may explain chemical (or biological!) systems using only the tools of physics. It appears to be true on a first reading, but one is quickly convinced that in fact many phenomena can only be described at different scales, using the different (and permeable) rules that describe that particular scale of organization.
Clifford Geertz famously stated that 'culture is indispensable to the construction of mind' (Geertz, The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man, 49). With regard to developments in neuroscience since that (1973) enunciation, its truth is presumably because the "construction of mind" is the creation of connections between mental processes, which occurs though the encounter with extra-personal beings and actions, is always embodied, and extends by analogy processes regarding visible objects to a presumed invisible world. The point is that the visible world does not sufficiently explain itself, so an invisible world is postulated to explain the phenomena (which is the same principle as in many other areas of science, such as the discovery of bacteria, atoms, etc).
Nevertheless, merely pointing out the fact that the presumedly “hard” sciences are ambiguous would seem to lead us to the same conclusion: it would seem that fields of study like the history of religions are doomed to failure. If the universal term “religion” is an unusable category, and if history is an unworkable method in the face of recent advances in neuroscience, then what remains? In such an event, it would not be surprising if universities were to reduce or eliminate their support of a field that could at best define itself as a “description over time of the presumed relations between humans and a perhaps-immaginary extra-human power”. But the very extension and continued relevance of religious phenomena (whatever one means by the adjective) shows that (at least) we are in front of a skandalon which shows no signs of courteously leaving the stage.
How could the scholars engaged in studying the history of religions, and the critics of their methods, pay due respect to each other’s results? How could the just criticism of universalistic language, and the just specification of multiplicity and detail within each cultural unit on whatever scale, be honored without ipso facto renouncing all claim to universality and communication?
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Buccellati's contribution in the present workOne promising way forward, at the juncture of each of the disciplines mentioned above, is represented in Buccellati's comparative studies in Mesopotamian and Biblical religion. For Buccellati, religion is the codification of the human relation with the absolute, which although unknown, powerfully and inescapably determines human existence.
Buccellati contends that although no word for “religion” exists in the ancient languages of Babylon, it is nevertheless possible to speak of Mesopotamian religion (or spirituality). The non-existence of the word does not imply the non-existence of the human experience that is indicated by the word, and this affirmation can be shown convincingly by comparing the structures of religious experience. In Buccellati’s view, this human experience is essentially the “interaction with an absolute that remains empirically unknown, but is however empirically presupposed”. What is more, this interaction is structured in different ways in different cultures. While a terminological comparison will inevitably run aground on the lack of the relevant terms, or their ambiguity, it is however possible to compare the structures of two different “spiritualities” in a fruitful and scientifically honest manner. This is one possible way to address the problem of “universals” without recourse to a Cartesian impoverishment of vast tracts of human experience.
Buccellati’s proposal offers an intellectually rigorous approach to the problems briefly outlined above. It is unafraid of the encroachment of a new science, since it defines itself in terms that can only be enriched by a more adequate description of reality. It also is unwilling to renounce universality, precisely in the sense that it expects all new science, and all adequate descriptions of reality, to converge. Building on a linguistic sensitivity and his prior studies in philosophy, Buccellati proposes in Critique of Archaeological Reason (Cambridge 2017) a Kant-inspired theory of how to conceive of a hierarchical system of reference points that allows the atoms of sense data to converge in an overall description of a complex reality. (See in particular ch. 14, and the companion website Critique of Archaeological Reason). Buccellati sees the true finality of his study—and of all humanistic studies—in the formation of a sensibility that is able to encounter an alien culture, and make it one’s own, to “reacquire in a reasoned manner a human experience that was literally buried under the weight of its own collapse.” Back to top: History of the Discipline