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Our Gods and Theirs

Patrick Claffey

Living with The Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples, by Neil MacGregor, Allen Lane, £30, ISBN: 978-0241308295

Neil MacGregor’s introduction immediately sets out, with clarity and concision, what this book, which originally appeared as a series of BBC4 programmes, is about. “Living with the Gods is about one of the central facts of human existence: that every known human society shares a set of beliefs and assumptions – a faith, an ideology, a religion – that goes far beyond the life of the individual, and is an essential part of a shared identity.”

The subject, thus defined, is examined with obvious respect and a desire to understand (an approach not universal among scholars, either secular or religious), but not with rose-tinted glasses. “Such beliefs,” he writes, “have a unique power to define – and to divide – peoples.” It has long been apparent that, despite the most gloomy/optimistic predictions of secularisation theorists, religions remain “a driving force in the politics of many parts of the world”. As the French scholar Régis Debray once colourfully noted, “we can no more disinvent religion than we can the atom bomb”. The reality is that it is simply much too deeply engrained and remains a powerful force in human life, while at the same time, in Debray’s more cynical political terms, it is simply too useful.

This fact came to wider attention in the political science literature in the early ’90s with the publication of French Islamologist and political scientist Gilles Kepel’s short book La Revanche de Dieu (1991, English translation 1993). MacGregor, like Kepel, points to the reassertion of religion as a political force across the spectrum, from conservative Catholicism, through American Evangelicalism to the highly significant 1979 return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, and the emergence of the politico-religious ideology of Hindutva in a previously secular India. MacGregor comments: “To an extent rarely seen in Europe since the seventeenth century, faith now shapes global debate.”

His approach to the study of religions is in many ways quite conventional. He has obviously read Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) and, no doubt, much more. He places the emphasis on the fundamental importance of narrative; the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita.

The most powerful and most sustaining of any society’s stories are the work of generations. They are repeated, adapted and transmitted, absorbed into everyday life. Ritualised and internalised to such a degree that we are often hardly aware that we are still surrounded by the tale of our distant ancestors. They give us our particular place in a pattern which can be observed but not fully understood – and they do it almost without our knowing it. It is a process we can witness every day as we – and others – repeat that most familiar of sequences, the days of the week.

In my own research around the world religions, particularly in Africa and Asia, I have developed an interest in what I often describe in my diaries and field notes as “the everyday business of religion” or, as the author puts it here, religion “as practice rather than doctrine”: “In Living with the Gods, we shall be looking not at the life of monastic retreat, or private spirituality, at what individuals believe, or the abstract theological truths of religious ideas, which must be unknowable except to devotees. We shall be looking instead at what whole societies believe and do.” This is the world in which people come and go to synagogues, temples, mosques and churches or make their daily puja in their homes, as millions of Hindus do, in the belief that they are being seen by but also catching glimpses of some ultimate reality, however they name it.

In the first section, “Our Place in the Pattern”, the author looks at “stories from four continents told by communities to articulate their own understanding of the cosmos and their place in it”. These are mythical narratives “of animals and plants, of fire, water, light and the seasons. They offer explanations of the way people experience the world, and the role all living things play in the repeating pattern of nature.” The Lughnasa festival is a good Gaelic example of this, marking the beginning of the harvest season. “Societies inhabit these cosmological narratives, daily and annual, and so conduct a constant dialogue between a particular community and the great scheme of things. The rituals associated with these stories affirm these understandings and, as they do so, greatly strengthen the identity of the community.” They offer an understanding of reality, or perhaps more precisely what Eliade described as “the really real” of the daily lives of homo religiosus.

In Part Two, “Believing Together”, he examines how “the transient existence of each single life is woven into the much longer time-span of the community as a whole – how one life meshes many across the generations”. It is not simply a matter of believing, but perhaps more importantly of belonging to a community that is so much bigger than the individual self and is part of our path to transcendence. The Christian concept of “the communion of saints” is perhaps a good illustration of this point, as is the Hindu concept of Advaita Vedanta, the final oneness of all in Brahman, although each is quite different. From this belonging springs the need for ritual to mark initiation into the community, socialisation within its structures, often through prayer and song. It also requires ritual to see us through “the great disruptions of birth and death”. As a friend who was a religious sceptic remarked at his father’s Catholic funeral, “Hmm, they certainly do this better than anyone else.”

While secularism in indeed a reality for much of the Western world it is certainly not a universal reality and much of the world shows little sign of following the pattern that many academics had predicted it would. Just a glance will show that, despite the best efforts of the largely Western-inspired model of modernisation to bring about its usual corollary of secularisation, “the political and the religious are necessarily closely intertwined”. Even the great 1960s apostle of the theory, Peter Berger, was led to think again, writing: “My point is that the assumption that we live in a secularised world is false. The world today ... is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labelled ‘secularisation theory’ is essentially mistaken.” (Peter Berger in The Desecularisation of the World)

As MacGregor remarks in Part Three, “Theatres of Faith”: “In sacred buildings and in ritual acts […] societies articulate a view of the proper meaning of the world.” The great religious pilgrimages of the world, such as the Islamic Hajji or the Hindu Kumbh Mela provide excellent examples as they attract enormous numbers of people. The Kumbh Mela, which rotates between four holy rivers including the Ganga at Haridwar and the intriguingly invisible Sarasvati at Allahabad (the other two being the Godavari at Nashik and the Shipra at Ujjain), draws up to a hundred million pilgrims to bathe in their holy waters every twelve years. Such is the immense power of the religious imaginary. Events “repeated over the generations … define and reimagine the spiritual community and enable it to continue beyond the single life of the believer”. He or she feels part of something that is so much bigger and like the Ganga, where every Hindu wishes to leave their ashes, they become part of a flow that will go on to be carried away from the cycle or samsara or rebirth into nirvana or eternal bliss. Effectively these, and other much smaller events, are the source and power of belief and social cohesion in their host societies.

The faith of many traditional Irish Catholics often had a close relationship with what were often called “holy pictures”. These card-sized images were of a wide variety of saints, associated with a specific “intention”. The Virgin Mary was perhaps the most common, but a high place was given to other saints, notably St Anthony and St Jude, the patrons of lost objects and lost causes respectively. The Infant of Prague was also important, particularly in older parts of inner Dublin where it was commonly placed in a front window. In rural areas of Ireland, the Infant is also said to have been placed in a hedge or buried in a garden as a solicitation of good weather. In Part Four, “The Power of Images”, MacGregor tells us that God-made images “inspire extraordinary devotion”. However, man-made images such as icons, but also mass-produced “holy pictures” and other objects of all kinds “can be just as powerful as a means of binding people together”. Regardless of their artistic merits, or lack of them, they effectively create “a sense of shared belonging” and can “carry us into worlds beyond words and beyond ourselves, worlds normally accessible only to poets and prophets, mystics and shamans”. Much like the Catholic image of St Christopher, almost every vehicle in India seems to have an image of some god or goddess on the dashboard. At the entrance to many Indian restaurants in Dublin, one often finds an image of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-man son of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati or some other Hindu deity charged with bring prosperity and success to the business.

Even in our own increasingly secularised society, an image or votive object discreetly left by granny will not be discarded but kept discreetly on a shelf somewhere and perhaps referred to in a time of crisis. In these often very simple or even crude objects, MacGregor writes, “[The] ambiguities and contradictions of belief … can be accommodated or even dissolved”, much as they can by the still common practice of “stepping into the church to light a candle and say a prayer” before a medical appointment or at exam time, without advancing much further than the statue of St Anthony at the front door.

Like travellers in ancient Greece or Rome, the traveller in modern India and other parts of the world is often confronted with an apparent plurality of gods and goddesses (in India alone it is said there are as many as 330.000) very far from the Judeo-Christian or Islamic supreme being, seen as omnipresent and omnipotent, ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim, the most Gracious and most Merciful.           As the author states in his penultimate section, “One God or Many”, the politics of whether “a society is monotheistic or polytheistic are far-reaching – especially when, as in ancient Rome or modern India, the key question is how to live not only with your own gods, but with the gods of others”. It is certainly true that many of the major conflicts in the world today are framed in religious terms, even if their causes are not theological but more worldly concerns.

The question he poses in the final section, “Powers Earthly and Divine” is certainly one of the great questions of our time, when the divide between the religious and the secular appears to be deepening on questions of belief and practice, and where, in many societies, religion is treated as a threat, a clear and present danger to social cohesion, this at a time when many religious people, to differing degrees, have come to see themselves as an oppressed minority whose rights have been trampled on, the most widely discussed example being the debate surrounding the dress code of Muslim women. “How,” MacGregor sympathetically but critically asks, “do communities of faith flourish in societies inevitably run by politicians? Religious teachings can underpin the authority of a ruler but can also be used to hold them to account. Strengthening the nation-state by imposing a national faith – or even a national atheism – has always had a great appeal, but also brought great problems. In spite of all difficulties, the dream of a heavenly city, somehow to be achieved on earth still endures.”

Neill MacGregor’s previous publications include A History of the World in 100 Objects. As a former director of the National Gallery in London from 1987 to 2002 and of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015 he has had access to enormous holdings to illustrate his work. This is handsome volume, well informed, sympathetically written and richly illustrated, as one would expect.

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Patrick Claffey is Wallace Adjunct associate professor in the department of religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin.

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