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Concepts Of Divine Personages

( Originally Published 1910 )

WE here propose to give a schematic account of the possible origin and development of the deistic 'concepts' of religion. In this connection we shall also consider the various beliefs in spiritual beings, in so far as they seem to play a part in the religious consciousness. The literature which deals with this subject is already so overwhelming and so intricate that it seems almost gratuitous to attempt to add anything worth while to it, at least within the limits of a brief essay. There are, however, certain facts, perhaps in themselves already well known, that may be brought together in such a way as to give something of a new perspective to a problem which appears hopelessly complicated and illusive.

We wish, above all, to emphasize certain relationships between a people and its deities; to show, not merely how man's economic and social interests, together with the activities growing out of them, may be correlated with much, if not all, the varied material belonging to this field, but also to indicate how intimate and fundamental these economic and social facts are in the origin and development of deistic ideas.

It is, of course, generally recognized that deities of all types are closely related to the cultural level of their human adherents, or, as is sometimes said, that they are the direct reflection of the people's social and political ideals.' In the inquiry here proposed, however, it will be shown that this relationship is more than a mere reflection, that the idea of a god with all the conscious attitudes which may attend it is but part and parcel of this larger, social background, an almost inevitable, or at least legitimate, product of that back-ground. In general terms, the proposition is that if people do certain things in certain ways, quite definite types of conscious attitudes may,- on the whole, be expected, attitudes representing, as it were, the elaboration, on the conscious side, of these overt forms of behavior.

In the preceding chapters it has been pointed out that the religious consciousness is of the valuational type, and that it has, at least in part, been built up through the various adjustments which men have been led to make in dealing with their physical and social environment. The considerations in favor of this theory have been somewhat as follows : One's conception of the value of a thing is altogether dependent upon the extent to which he has identified himself with it, worked with it, and met various problems arising out of this active association. It has been shown, further, that religious values are so intimately associated with social structure and activity that they may fairly be regarded as owing their distinctive features to social influences of one sort or another. The best evidence that the valuational attitudes of religion are but specializations from a broad matrix of social interests is to be found in the fact that religious ceremonials of all sorts seem, fundamentally, to be merely forms of economic activity, or other social re-actions of various sorts, playful and serious. Such ceremonials were evidently not devised to give expression to a preexisting religious sense, but were rather the basis upon which that sense developed, and this underpinning of reactions, let it be noted, was such as appeared quite naturally in the course of the life-process.

Just as our ordinary concepts, our ideational constructions of all sorts, go back finally to our active attitude toward the world, and are to be viewed as specializations of this attitude, so do all the `concepts' and values of the religious consciousness have a natural history. The scientific examination of these religious `concepts' cannot start from the hypothesis that they have, in some undefined way, sprung up outside the pale of the life-process, merely receiving a coloring from it or being modelled more or less upon the analogy of some form of institutional life. We must see in these `concepts' rather the explicit outcome of antecedent conditions, phenomena organically related to other manifestations of social life. This natural history of religion has, from many points of view, a general scientific interest because, notwithstanding the great and almost unresolvable complexity of primitive religion, the material with which one here has to deal retains in a peculiar way the coloring of its ultimate social and economic relation-ships. Much light is thus thrown upon the general problems of the development of human intelligence and the method of social differentiation.

Our general thesis is, then, that social bodies may quite naturally differentiate deities of various types; or, negatively, that deities are not relatively independent affairs merely colored by, or seen through, social customs and social ideals. In each deity we may find some expression of the value-sense of a people rather than an indication of a more or less imperfect consciousness of some supreme being such as the higher forms of monotheism present. Since the gods of a people are thus explicitly related to its social life, it follows that the deistic conceptions of different times and races are, in the main, quite discrete and unrelated to each other except in the fact that they are all varying modes of social reaction and social determination. The only unity that can be given the various concepts of different primitive religions is that of their common relation to social backgrounds of some sort.'

But, although we may not, at least from a scientific point of view, trace a gradual unfolding of some innate concept of a divine or ethical ruler of the universe, we may roughly group different points of view with reference to their ideal relation to some of the types of ethical monotheism. We may find in various primitive ideas, not necessary stages toward the development of the so-called higher deistic conceptions, but rather more or less complicated results of different types of social and economic interaction, which, to say the least, throw some light upon the influences operative in the evolution of the higher conceptions, and help us to see that these purer ideas really have had a natural history, even though it may not be possible to trace it out in all its details.

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