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V: The Tribal and National Character and Functions of the Deity

Omnipotence and omnipresence are characteristics of divinity that can only be grasped and imagined by the most advanced societies. The narrower social units of primitive times evolved narrower religious concepts. One such simple unit through which most families of mankind have passed is the tribe; and the special traits of tribal society are reflected in tribal religion, of which the fullest picture is presented us by the early Hellenic and Judaic records. It is true that a purely tribal religion is only found in a few savage societies of modern times; and we are not concerned at present with their stage of culture. When we survey the societies of the past that belong to the higher history of our subject, we find them already advanced beyond the stage at which the isolated tribe formed the sole unit of corporate life. This is eminently true of the Hellenes, who preserved at the period of their highest culture the clear tribal imprint on many of their social institutions, but who at the dawn of their history were already gathering into cities, and the cities were usually formed by the coalescence of many tribes and even aliens; it is true also of the Hebrews, for, though the tribal organization is most marked in their society, they are already an intertribal union and in some degree a nation at the dawn of their history, with some measure of central government even under their judges, and with full measure under their kings. Ancient Arabia before Islam presents the same picture of many kindred tribes with common intertribal cults, and Mecca was a holy centre long before Mahomet. In the great kingdoms of the ancient world which contribute so much material to our theme, Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, the Hittite realm and Persia, religion has become national and imperial, the deities mighty territorial potentates with far-reaching influence. Even in ancient India, which was not united till the reign of Asoka, we find the worship of the same deities spread over wide areas and throughout large aggregates of men. And among these great communities the old tribal separatism has been swallowed up and lost, only faint traces of it surviving perhaps in the legend or ritual-law of some local temple; the same may be said of ancient China, Mexico, and Peru.

Nevertheless all these peoples, except for one short interval in the reign of the gifted but premature Ikhnaton of Egypt, and except for a certain higher outlook suggested or foreshadowed by some of the Hebrew prophets, are alike in this, that their deities are tribal-national, local or territorial, that is to say, particularist deities who do not claim or receive the worship of alien communities. This, then, gives us the vital and the momentous distinction between particularist and universal religion, which to students of the higher aspects of our subject is primary; and the full account of the effects of this distinction would be almost conterminous with the history of ancient civilization. The influence also of such a distinction upon the attributes and concept of the divinity is obviously far-reaching; and only the salient points and problems can be here set forth.

We need not wonder that for many aeons mankind should have remained in the particularist stage of religion, and that the advance to the belief in a god of all mankind, of the whole earth, and the whole universe should be so late and so difficult that it has not yet prevailed. The outlook of early man was limited to his own narrow region and to the patch of the heavens above it; if he was like some modern savages he was not always aware that the sun which rises to-day was the same as that which rose yesterday or which shines on another tribe a hundred miles away. His concept of deity then must follow his separatist concepts of nature. For those inquirers, indeed, of a former generation who believed that all mankind was once in the tribal totemistic stage, that each tribe had one totem only and that the totem became the special god of the tribe, an explanation why all early religion was particular and separatist was at once provided. But those of us who cherish those beliefs no longer need not be embarrassed for an explanation of the fact. Two dominant factors may be accepted as suggesting or dictating a particular society's devotion to one or more particular deities: locality and sense of kinship. A special locality has been from time immemorial haunted by some god or goddess, for reasons often far beyond our ken; the aboriginal tribe or society that has lived there for many ages is whole-heartedly devoted to him or to her, and they are his own, perhaps his ‘peculiar’, people; or an alien tribe arrives and acquires the region and acquires gradually the same devotion to the cult which is deep-rooted in the soil. Thus Athens was the primeval home of the Minoan-Mycenean virgin-goddess Athena; but the Nordic Hellenic tribes who came down and settled round the Akropolis, and who had not known her in their northern home, became her special and beloved people, and scarcely left her even when Christianity gained possession of their rock. This is only a salient instance of what must have happened again and again in the settlements and migrations of tribes.

A still stronger tie is the feeling of kinship between the tribe or community and the divinity; and this might find expression in the belief that the divinity was the physical parent, the ancestor or ancestress of the tribe or of the royal or ruling families of it. Hence arose the sexual myths explaining the divine ancestry which belong to a barbaric phase of the religious imagination, found for instance in Scandinavia in respect of some of the royal houses and found broadcast in ancient Greece in respect of the leading Hellenic tribes; thus Zeus is the ancestor or paternal god of the Aiakidai, of the Pelopidai, and therefore of the later Dorians, Apollo as the father of Ion is the ancestor of the Ionians, Poseidon of the Minyans. In Egypt it is only the royal dynasty that were of divine ancestry, the Pharaohs being the sons of the sun-god. On the other hand, in the earliest recorded stage of Hebrew religious thought, God has no physical kinship with man, and the children of Israel were a ‘peculiar’ people because Jahwé called Abraham and their devotion to Jahwé arose from God's own election.

In any case, the sense of fellowship and intimacy uniting the tribe and the tribal god is fostered and strengthened by the sacrificial meal, the deep significance of which in the communities of Mediterranean culture has been the theme of Professor Robertson Smith's master-work, The Religion of the Semites. The tribal worshipper and his deity feasted together, and might be conceived to become thereby in a sense ‘of one flesh’. In some communities this solemn meal might acquire a deeper sacramental character, the worshipper believing that he was partaking of food or drink that was possessed by the divine spirit. The potent influence of this sacrificial meal, whether sacramental or merely communal, upon the religious imagination and the moral and social life of the tribe or community has been impressively set forth by the above-mentioned writer.1 The deity takes on the character of the fellow, the friend and helper of the tribe or society, the guardian of its social life, partaking of its loves and hatreds, assisting it in war against the tribal enemy; while the temperamental differences of the peoples will develop his character and attributes differently. The Hellenic communities for the most part lived on terms of genial comradeship with their divine patrons, without brooding deeply upon them. But the Hebrew mind with its deeper sense of the awfulness and ineffable majesty of Jahwé, and with its intense conviction of the reality and moral authority of their tribal god, has evolved the highest ethical monotheism and the deepest belief in a personal god that the world has known.

This, then, is our debt to the tribal separatist religion. We may say that its narrowness has been redeemed by its strong intensity of feeling, whence have sprung these fruits for the world, garnered mainly from the tribal religion of a ‘peculiar’ people. It is easy, on the other hand, to recognize its drawbacks and the limited conception of Godhead that it implies. The tribal god may be cruel and pitiless in respect of aliens; the cruelty of Jahwé, a reflex of old Hebrew ferocity, is a blot on the older religion of Israel and its shadow remains in our own. The tribal god is a communal god and concerned mainly with the whole society and less with the individual soul; and this stage of society is adverse to the emergence of deep personal religion, just as it is adverse to the separate claims of the individual life. Also, the morality of the tribe, its moral responsibility is corporate, and the whole body must suffer for the sins of an individual; the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children; Jahwé visits the offence of David upon the whole people; the deity sends a plague or a dearth upon the land where one person has sinned. There is some survival of this mode of thought even in our own culture; for in certain doctrine concerning the Atonement, as that through the sin of Adam all mankind are guilty, our own advanced theology bears the imprint of the old tribal theory of corporate responsibility, of which the converse doctrine is that one life may atone for the sin of the whole community; and that is the basis of much of our Christology.

As the tribe developed into the nation or into the Hellenic city-state with its passion for autonomy, religion retained its local and exclusive character, sometimes even intensified. To share in the worship was the privilege of the citizens, which might be and often was refused to the alien and the slave; and certain cults might be the exclusive privilege of certain families; or the priesthood might be in the hands of certain tribes, like the Levites or the Eumolpidai, that had become incorporated in the larger aggregate. In such a religion there is no spirit of propagandism, the Hellenic colonies do not preach Zeus and Apollo, though they might wisely admit the barbarians under pressure.

The small independent civic states of Greece, each based on some fusion of tribal groups, present the most salient examples of the strength and the weakness of civic, local, and national religion; for all the institutions of the Greek polis were permeated with religion, more deeply than was the case in any other recorded society except the Hebraic; and the life of the Hellenic community was far more varied and rich, more adapted to the free spirit of man than was that of Israel; for, as has been said, in Hellas religion was a servant rather than a master. Attic literature and records afford many interesting illustrations of this unique interaction of the two spheres, the divine and the secular. The highest divinities become politicians, inspiring council in the council-chamber and in the assembly and are even supposed to preside over the orators' platform, deriving from these functions certain titles whereby they might be invoked. Apollo was elected as an annual magistrate at Miletos, Boreas was admitted and invoked as a citizen in Magna Graecia at the city of Thourioi; perhaps the strangest phenomenon of all is an Attic inscription which invokes Athena as the embodiment of the democracy, the only example in history of that mode of government being regarded as part of the divine order of the State.

The contrast that such a society presents in this vital respect to our own or to any modern political community is glaring. We do not enjoy hearing our party orators speak religion, as did the Athenian in the age of Demosthenes; we do not approve of preaching party politics in the pulpit. We try to keep our deepest religion away from the atmosphere of politicians, hoping to preserve its purity and truthfulness. Yet some touch of the old-world civic and national religion still lingers in our liturgies. We still pray for the king, the nobles, the commons, and the magistracy, and for victory over the king's enemies; and the old tribal society would have found this part of our service most congenial. The Houses of Parliament pray for divine guidance in their counsels, just as the Athenian Boulé prayed; for we, like the people of ancient Athens, believe that the deity inspires counsels of political wisdom and righteousness; and there still may be some surviving who believe in the divine right of kings, as did the ancient Egyptian; and our liturgy still uses complimentary terms concerning our sovereign in commending him to the Most High. For the liturgy of a great historic church is the mirror of many ages.

The chief danger to which a society may be exposed by the narrow view of religion that we have called tribal is the danger lest the passionate devotion to the tribal god should engender a morbid excess of self-exaltation, quickening at last the belief that one's tribe is a ‘chosen’ people, divinely charged with the extermination of alien peoples of other gods. This belief is the momentous product of that view of the character and attributes of the deity that we may call particularist. It is irreconcilable with any humanitarian religion or with the higher belief in a Universal Father. History records the tragic issue of such a belief in the necessary destruction of Jerusalem; and the modern parody or base revival of this tribal vanity, the German attempt to substitute ‘von Gott’ for the God of mankind, contributed to the downfall of Germany. Wars of religion, rightly so called, the outcome of the fanatical cruelty that prompts or justifies the extermination of aliens of different creed, are practically unknown in the ancient world, save in Judaic history; and in spite of the revelations of some of their older prophets, this spirit of fanaticism waxes fiercest in their later period, in the Maccabean wars and under the Roman Empire; and the tribal egotism of which it is a part is imprinted even on their later conception of a Messianic millennium. As the same spirit appears with devastating results in Islam, the conclusion has been drawn that it is a vice natural to the Semitic races; but the records of other Semitic peoples do not justify us in branding thus the Semitic character in general. We may explain the religious wars of Islam mainly by the Judaic tradition that deeply influenced Mahomet, partly also by the necessity he was under of alluring his followers by the hope of spoil. The self-inflicted agonies of earlier and later Christendom are the fatal consequence of the same Judaic tradition, from which the early Christian Church in accepting the Judaic canon was unable to free itself, and which engendered the dogma that God's pity and scheme of salvation are extended only to those who hold the right theory of his nature and follow the right worship, and that those who do not are outside the pale of his mercy or orthodox man's compassion. Even Puritanism, having escaped from the cruelties of Catholicism, was cruel in proportion as it was Judaic; and we can see the influence of the fierce tribal religious spirit in the later controversies concerning the abolition of slavery. By the side of this alien element in our religion and wholly irreconcilable with it is the conception of an all-loving universal God, which was the birthright of Christianity.

The progress from the tribal-particularist phase to the universal concept of God is the most interesting event in our religious history; and we would wish to discern and understand the influences making for that development. It has sometimes been associated with the expansion of mighty empires, obliterating the narrow limits of tribe and small nation. Thus the astonishing outburst of the world-religion of the monotheist Ikhnaton has been naturally connected by Breasted with the great imperial extension of the Egyptian power, enfolding then the greater part of anterior Asia. Much also has been said and written concerning the essential help given to the propagation of so universalistic a religion as Christianity by the fact of the Roman Empire holding together in peace so many and such varied communities of men; and even the Paganism of this Empire was displaying the same universal spirit, as it was wont to fuse various local deities into one, and seemed striving to reach the conception of a universal God of mankind. And even the great kingdoms that emerged from the empire of Alexander show some signs of the same influence at work. The early monotheism of China, so far as it is discernible there, might also be connected with the far-reaching geographical extent of that realm.

But it by no means follows that the mere influence of a far-flung empire engenders in the advanced religious thinkers who are members of it the concept of a world-deity who is concerned equally with all mankind. The old Mesopotamian religion embraced a vast imperial society; but the Sumerian-Babylonian divinities, though one of them might be the creator of the whole world, are not clearly imagined as concerned with all mankind, but only with the ‘dark-haired people’. A few incantations may designate Ishtar as ‘the Mother of Gods and men’,2 but probably only in the sense that she is the pro-creative source of all physical life; and other formulae attached to the Highest Gods such as Enlil and Bel, ‘Lord of the breath of life of Sumer’, ‘Lord of the Life of the Land’,3 do not reach to the height of such a concept as of a Universal Providence of all mankind. We have marked some approach to this in the early monotheism of Egypt and in the prophetic monotheism of Israel. But the people of Israel were not the people of a great empire. Nor were the Homeric Greeks; yet we find among them a glimmering of the same idea in that strange and pregnant Homeric phrase, ‘Zeus the father of Gods and men’, which as I have shown possessed no physical sense but only a moral or providential sense;4 and we must not in this formula interpret ‘men’ in a limited or national reference; for other Homeric utterances reveal the High God as more than a merely national God; he regards Greeks and Trojans alike: ‘they are both a care to me, though they perish.’5

In fact Greece was the cradle of the humanitarian spirit. And those who in the former generation belittled its contribution to the development of higher religion ignored the significance of the rise of Orphism, a Dionysiac mystical religion, the first example in the world of the missionary spirit of propagandism; for it passed over the barriers of tribe, city, nation, and social status, proclaiming to all the world its message of salvation, which was based on the dogma of the kinship of man with God. Its votaries may not have been numerous or strongly influential. But in the fifth century Euripides stands forth as the poet-prophet of the humanitarian spirit. In his ethical and religious utterances we feel that the human soul is escaping the bondage of tribe and city and the narrower conceptions of kinship; as in his beautiful fragment

The whole heaven is open to the eagle's flight,

And to a noble man the whole earth is his fatherland.6

This free and expansive view is maintained also by Menander, the great master of the younger Attic comedy in the fourth century and like Euripides a moralist and preacher with a larger audience than the philosophers had. It is salient also in all Greek philosophy, even in the earliest Ionian and Pythagorean, in the Platonic and Aristotelian scarcely less than in the later Stoicism which endeavoured to found a philosophy harmonizing physics, ethics, and religion for the whole world. All the thinkers of these schools, when they discuss the nature of God and his relations to the world and to the human life and soul, speak in terms applicable to the whole cosmos and to the aggregate of mankind, and the narrowness of the old clan-religion, the religion of the tribe, the city, or the special group, nowhere appears.

The same impression is made on us by much of the higher Hebrew prophecy, and by many passages full of personal religious inspiration in the Babylonian and Vedic hymns. We discern in these the true utterance and voice of personal religion, in which the individual soul is in direct and tense communion with God; and we may discern, what may seem like a paradox, that it is through the emergence of individualism in the sphere of ethics and religion that the concept of God is broadened and universalized till it rises wholly above the limitations of the social group, whether clan or empire, and is adequate for mankind as a whole. For the individual, when he can retreat from the group and strive in close and intense communion with the deity is probably never then conscious of himself as a member of a special social unit but only as a single self in relation to the Highest Power. Such a retreat may imply egotism, in contrast with the altruism of social clan-worship; but the individual at such moments, standing outside all social status, puts himself consciously or unconsciously on the plane of all the souls in the world, and hence could arise the world-concept of God as the Lord of all human life.

We have noted in a former lecture certain utterances in the various religions of the pregnant idea that the divinity deals directly with the soul or mind of man, which is regarded at times as in a special sense his shrine or temple or even identified with him. Certain moral religious implications, of philosophic as well as social significance, are involved in this idea. It may suggest the view, revolutionary of the old-world order, that if all souls are equal before God, slavery is unjustified; but as Greece was the first home of modernism, it was only Greece that dared to draw this corollary, to which Christendom was blind for long. As against the narrow view of Aristotle that the barbarian is by nature intended for slavery, Philemon, an Attic poet of the fourth century, anticipates the doctrine of the American Revolution by declaring that ‘no one is by nature born a slave’.7

Another corollary, entirely repugnant to the old clan-morality, is that vicarious punishment and vicarious atonement are unjust and against true religion; the sins of the fathers shall not be visited on the children: the soul that sinneth it shall die. We are familiar with the impressive deliverance of Ezekiel on this vital matter. It is not so well known that Theognis, a contemporary of his in distant Greece, had independently attained almost the same height of vision.8 ‘Father Zeus, would that this were the will of the Gods that he who deviseth unrighteousness in his soul should himself pay the penalty of his evil deeds and that the wickedness of the father should not become a curse to the children; but that the children of an unjust father whose hearts are set on righteousness… should never pay the penalty for the trespass of their sires.’ Later Jewish thought was by no means enlightened on this point: ‘did this man sin or his parents that he was born blind?’ And our own Christology, as we have seen, is not yet delivered from the fetters of group-morality. It was left for Mahomet to take up the torch from Ezekiel and to champion the doctrine in religion of the sole responsibility of the individual: ‘he who errs, errs only against his own soul, nor shall one burdened soul bear the burden of another;’9 nor, as we have seen, does Mahomet allow of any mediator between the soul and God, as is allowed in an earthly monarchy between the individual and the ruler.

We may say then that under different inspirations the Hellene through clearness of bold thinking, the Hebrew through passion for righteousness, the mode of escape was shown from ‘the sting of heredity’, and that the development of personal religion quickened and facilitated the birth of the concept of a universal God standing everywhere in the same relation to the individual soul.

But one momentous inheritance from the old clan-religion that could fructify and expand in a larger setting was the belief in a kinship between God and man; this belief was often taken in a literal physical sense, as we have seen, and supposed to rest on real fact in the old tribe and the old city; then when men could come to regard themselves, as in the Stoic view, as citizens of the whole world, so Augustine's idea of a Civitas Dei, a city of God in which all men were brothers and united in fellowship with God, could arise. But the idea of the universal brotherhood of man remains a religious ideal, undeveloped and perhaps incapable of developing into any practical social form.

Meantime, the spirit of national separatism, though it is not allowed to determine or to dominate the conception of God and of his functions and attributes, asserts itself strongly in established worship. Some recent writers have expounded religion as essentially a social phenomenon. We may believe, certainly, that it began with the social unit; and the congregation of the faithful is the modern representative of the clan or the tribe. We are aware also of the powerful psychic stimulus conveyed to the individual by the soul-magnetism of the crowd engaged in a common service. But personal religion, though later in time, may be claimed to take precedence of the corporate in respect of depth and height. The corporate or the congregational is hierarchic and conservative; the prophet, the seeker for a new revelation, must escape from the crowd into the wilderness for a time; and the history of progressive religion justifies the old belief, strongly held by the Cambridge Platonists, that God as the source of all soul-life reveals himself most profoundly to the individual soul in solitude.10

  • 1.

    Vide specially op. cit. pp. 237–50.

  • 2.

    Zimmern, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, (K. A. T.)3, p. 430.

  • 3.

    Greece and Babylon, p. 160.

  • 4.

    Vide my Hibbert Lectures, p. 93.

  • 5.

    Il. 20. 21. It is noteworthy that II Esdras (7. 61) puts the opposite of this phrase into the mouth of the Most High: ‘I will not grieve over the multitude of them that perish.’

  • 6.

    Stob, Florileg. 40, § 7 (Meineke, vol. 2, p. 65).

  • 7.

    Frag. 39 (Meineke, Frag. Com. Graec. 4, p. 47).

  • 8.

    11. 732–40.

  • 9.

    Qur'an (Palmer), Pt. II, p. 3.

  • 10.

    Vide Cambridge Platonists (Benjamin Whichcoto), p. 43.

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