Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ancient Cosmologies and the Enlightenment

In academic circles discussing the ANE (Ancient Near East), there is an emphasis on interpreting the ancients in their contexts. The ancients live in a world of spirits and a world without science, and thus we should not interpret them as dealing with questions of science. Such a concordist view of interpreting ancient cosmologies is anachronistic, it is claimed. Rather, to avoid a confusion of hermeneutical horizons, we must read the ancient records and ancient cosmologies as in the non-scientific, spiritual world of the ancients. This discussion concerning ancient cosmologies of course is pertinent for Christianity, for it likewise relegates the Genesis account as being an ancient cosmology, albeit a true cosmology. Reading the Genesis account in its ANE non-scientific and spiritual hermeneutical context means that the Genesis account is not strictly "literal" in its history. This allows for other views such as the Framework Hypothesis to emerge, since it supposedly does justice to the mytho-poetic elements in the text of Genesis.

The issue here before us is whether this way of reading the ANE is correct. Before we address this question, it would be helpful to see the background of this view of reading the ancients, which comes from the Enlightenment. Now, of course, just because something comes from the Enlightenment is not an indication that is necessarily wrong, or that it is necessarily right. However, it is helpful to see the meta-structure that lies unspoken beneath this reading of the ancients.

The idea of ever forward human progress is a product of the Enlightenment. The human race was becoming better and better. With the flowering of the new humanism came new theories regarding society and the development of society. Society was seen as developing from the idea of the savage hunter gatherers to tribes then towards kingdoms and empires. Broadly speaking, religions meanwhile evolve from the primitive animism to polytheism to monotheism, and finally atheism. This is the understanding which stems from the French Enlightenment with its antipathy towards all forms of organized religion. The idea of evolution and progress was already present way before Charles Darwin applied it to living beings; in other words, Darwin did not invent evolution, just biological evolution. The evolutionary ideas can be seen in the Hegelian dialectic, and the form in which it greatly affects our study is in the school of History of Religions (or in German "Religionsgeschichtlicheschule"). The ancients were seen as generally superstitious and thus ancient cosmologies were seen as nothing more than tribal fairy tales, which we in the modern world know are false.

ANE studies are done with the concepts of History of Religions in the background. Thus, when works such as the Enuma Elish or the Baal Epic or the Gilgamesh Epic are found, they are interpreted accordingly. The description of gods and men are seen as myths, in the sense that they are superstitions which the ancient in their ignorance believed to be true. It is poetic, by which is meant that these are hymns and poetry (which they generally area). Such depiction of the gods are used for polemical purposes against other cultures as well, as when one compares the varying accounts and how different cultures switch the name of the victorious god(s) or goddess(es).

The unchallenged assumption behind the mainstream reading of the ancient cosmologies concern how they think the ancients view these stories. It is commonly assumed that just because these are non-scientific and spiritual therefore the ancients did not in any sense view them as being actually descriptive of what has happened in real history. In other words, stories like Enuma Elish can be said to be the ancient equivalent of the Marvel comics, or the movie Prometheus — fairy tales and fantasy stories made up by superstitious people to make sense of the world. This is also the sense that anything non scientific must be equal to falsehood, as if just because the ancients were non scientific therefore they cannot be describing anything real in actual history. That is why all of them are just collectively labeled as "myths," a nice patronizing way of saying that the ancients were superstitious idiots but we want to think that we are treating what they say seriously. After all, we all know a priori that Marduk, Tiamat and Ea were mere figments of the wild imaginations of the ancients. We just nod our heads, smile at the stories, and say that we now as modern men and women know better.

This however should not be the way we view the ancients. Yes, the ancients were non scientific. That does not mean that they weren't trying to describe or convey what they thought were real history. The conflict of the gods could well be a case of different tribes stating that the same god or gods were favoring them, and the other side has fallen from true worship. Here is where the problem with interpreting ancient cosmologies come in. Too many people it seems accept the Enlightenment premise(s) as a given. But why should we do so? Upon what basis can we claim that non scientific people cannot be describing or recounting what they thought was real history, even in a poetic form? It is almost like that option is not even considered in discussion of ancient cosmologies. The debate over concordism for example puts forward two options: an anachronistic pseudo-scientific reading of the text, or a mytho-poetic reading of the text. But there is a third option: a non-scientific communication of what the ancients thought was real history.

In light of all these, my question is: Why is this third option never explored? It seems strange that within evangelical and Reformed circles, no one has ever explored this option. Why is that so?

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