Wrathful and Jealous

Depiction of hell, in the illuminated prayerbook, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 108, created between c. 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg Brothers.Depiction of hell, in the illuminated prayerbook, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 108, created between c. 1412 and 1416 by the Limbourg Brothers.
How did we get to where we are today, facing environmental catastrophe, species extinction, conflict, hatred, division and destruction on a grand scale?

A critical factor has been the way that human spirituality has changed over time, moving from animism through polytheism and henotheism to monotheism.

In theological terms, the movement has been from “immanence” to “transcendence”, from integration to separation. Immanent spirituality in belief systems such as pantheism and animism is based on the recognition that Life, Spirit, sacredness is “in-dwelling”, permeating everything, everywhere. There’s only one world in animism and pantheism. There are no other-worldly domains, no heavens or hells, for the administration of rewards and punishments respectively.

By contrast, belief systems based on transcendence – such as the monotheistic religions – feature entities/gods that transcend Reality, standing above and apart from the world and everything in it.

In psychological terms, the movement has been from a recognition of feminine and masculine on an equal footing towards a misogynistic psychology in which masculine characteristics predominate.

In cultural terms, the movement has been from nomadic hunter/gatherer societies towards more settled societies based initially on agriculture and subsequently on industry and commerce. In hunter/gatherer cultures, the focus is on avoiding waste. In agricultural/industrial cultures, the focus is on producing a surplus.

These trends are all clearly reflected in the world today, in which dominance, conflict and destruction are prevailing themes.

In the Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – there is one transcendent god, known by several names including Jehovah and Allah. Among his attributes are anger and jealousy. He says so himself: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Old Testament, Exodus 20:5), and “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me" (Old Testament, Exodus 20:2). In the Quran there are unequivocal instructions (8:38, 9:29, 9:5, 9:11) to convert “unbelievers”, and if conversion fails, to slay them.

Jehovah sees humans as children who must obey or be punished, and who are not mature enough to enjoy the privileges of adulthood, such as the knowledge of good and evil. When the fallen angel, Lucifer (“light-bringer”), gives humankind a great gift – a fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – he too is severely punished by the wrathful father. In the New Testament, Jesus gives humankind great gifts, and is required by Jehovah to experience the agony of crucifixion.

But Jehovah has his generous side. He gave humans “…dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (King James Bible, Genesis 1:26). So there are some perks to being Jehovah’s children. As long as you’re not a fish.

Somewhere between animism and monotheism is polytheism/paganism. In monotheistic theologies, the one and only god is all-knowing and all-powerful. By contrast, in polytheism the gods have the decency to acknowledge their limitations, but sadly are beginning to develop the same destructive psychology that characterizes Jehovah/Allah.

Zeus, for example, king of the Olympian gods of ancient Greece, is full of jealousy, rage and thunder. When Prometheus (“forethought”) disobeys Zeus by giving humankind a great gift, that of fire, Zeus punishes Prometheus by binding him to a rock and sending an eagle to peck out his liver. The misogyny of Zeus is reflected in the numerous abductions and rapes he commits, including that of his own daughter, Persephone.

Of course, cruelty, rage and punishment are also present in pantheism and animism, but are not dominant themes. As the historian Lord Acton wrote in 1887, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Clearly, the same can be said of gods.

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