Ontology of God is now a book:
Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak.by Dorian Scott Cole. Description. .
Religions typically begin with a code of conduct that is a minimum standard: laws. At some point, they broaden their perspective and state their overall mandate: "love." This is the consistent history of development of religions that appeared and grew during the Axial Age. This includes Judaism, Brahmanism (root of Hindu and Buddhism), and the even earlier religions in Egypt and Sumer. A summary of each of these, and others, appears in later paragraphs.
First, to clarify some issues before expanding on these basic statements:
The problem of evil: There are many ways to describe evil. It is probably not "sin" which is simply shortcomings and failures of mankind, or the results of misplaced and mistaken motivations. Evil is typically not the selfishness of people, which we all have to overcome to make this world work, but that is closer. I have often described evil as the willing mistreatment of others for personal gain.
An evil action is probably the willing adoption of forces, ignoring good actions and being destructive of others, often placing selfish interests above all else, regardless of consequences. Of course, something like atomic energy can be used for good or evil. The force itself is neither good nor bad.
An evil influence is one that compels people to do an evil action. Do such influences exist? This is debatable. The idea of acquiring money would generally be considered a good idea. The idea of robbing a bank is an inherently destructive idea since the action must harm people. Exceptions might occur as part of a wider plan for good. The idea of killing others to gain what they have is a destructive idea. These ideas might be said to be inherently evil because they are destructive to mankind.
Such influences might be personified as "Satanic," or "demonic," or interpreted as "psychological," or considered to be "just life," or the "battle between good and evil." They could in no way be regarded as "good" or "neutral" influences. There are certainly strong influences that people find difficult to resist, and which are destructive to both individuals and humanity.
Personally, I don't regard God and religion to be primarily about some cosmic battle between good and evil, although many people are torn at that level. Cosmic battles are part of the mythos (stories that form meaning frameworks and carry values, as opposed to more immediately practical (praxis) frameworks such as laws) of many religions. These cosmic battles, such as the Star Wars movie episodes, capture the imagination. Cosmic battles make captivating stories. But I see the problem of the influence of evil within the wider framework of leading people to overcome negative influences and work in positive ways.
I should also clarify that it is faith and belief in God that lead people to a life affirming and positive existence (now and continuing), and people are individually responsible for pursuing or responding to this spiritual awareness. Religions offer paths to both an informed awareness and practical steps to achieve results.
Religion is not a spiritual awareness. Religion is responsible for reaching out to people to make them aware of God's requirements, and support, and an effective path, through a community of believers. Religion is not responsible for any individual's conduct or ultimate judgment of them - any person who acts against his own conscience gravely injures himself, religion or no religion.
The law and allegiance
The law gives humanity the most basic requirements for living with others. It is following the "rule of law" that lets nations (of people) live in a just society. In the modern world, most societies have turned from barbaric conduct, tyranny, and oppressive leaders, to freedom and governing laws - codes of conduct that enable peace and justice. It is largely from religion that these codes of conduct were obtained.
Today, when some Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims demand that their society be based on laws from God, their demand is redundant. Laws are already based on the spirit, if not the letter, of ancient laws, and requirements of God, that ensure a just society.
These laws, as illustrated below, have been stated numerous times throughout history, as civilizations have tried to write into a code the laws that should guide humanity.
Ancient Sumer: The earliest recorded laws are from Ancient Sumer, the city of Ur (Abraham's birthplace), around 2050 BC. Ur-Nammu (the first human representative appointed to them by the gods), after removing the external threat of the land being taken over by Lagesh, immediately instituted social and moral reforms.
First Ur-Nammu attributed these laws to the gods, and then he banned witchcraft (bearing on allegiance to the gods). He then turned to social justice. Rather than cruel eye-for-eye laws, Ur-Nammu created more humane laws setting monetary recompense for people who were injured by others. He established accurate weights and measures for trade; ensured that the wealthy did not rob from the poor, widows, and orphans; and established other laws to ensure justice in the land. He threw out the officials who used their power to take the people's beasts of burden and food animals.
At this early date, over a period of 60 years, the laws of Sumer became very sophisticated. Women could own land, and marriage agreements were set in written contracts. Courts with named judges were set up for lawsuits, and rules established for pretrial investigations and subpoenas. Lawsuits (reflecting laws) were over marriage contracts, divorces, inheritance, slaves, hiring of boats, pledges, property damage, and malfeasance in office.*1
The Sumerians established a law code regarding what can be termed religion, and regarding people's treatment of each other, and attributed it to the gods. Over the centuries, they continued to develop many law codes regarding the Temples, their treatment by government officials, and their treatment of each other, including the concept of "freedom." They were later destroyed by the Akkadians and the Amorites (Babylon), although many of their ideas were handed down to us today through other cultures which had associated with the Sumerians.*(s)
Hammurabi Law Code
Destroying the Sumerian culture put an end to humane punishments, but many of the Sumerian ideas about justice prevailed in the conquering culture. Hammurabi, King of Babylon, very concerned about oppression, instituted a law code over the land with 282 laws.
Hammurabi didn't set up any kind of law regarding religion. However, his preamble to his laws asserts:
"Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness (right-living and blameless) in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak;"
- Translated by L. W. King
Further, Hammurabi asserted that he was appointed by the high god and the god rulers, and that he has proven his loyalty to them by aiding them.
Hammurabi's laws involve false witness against others, corrupt judges, theft, slaves, medical malpractice, property rights, use of mercenaries, tilling the land and laziness or failure to fulfill, damage from carelessness, fair trade, adultery, divorce, support of dependents, inheritance, incest, injury of others, and malfeasance of tradesmen.
So, Hammurabi's basic laws related to allegiance to the gods, and to people's treatment of each other.
Ancient Egypt held no recorded law code, as such (that has yet been found). The goddess Ma'at represented the fundamental order of the universe. She represented truth, order, justice, and balance in the universe. In the Underworld (the commonly held idea in the Orient and North Africa regarding where people go at death) Ma'at was the judge who weighed a person's heart against a feather to see if the person had been "just" during their life. Even though Osiris was the supreme deity, all of the gods deferred to Ma'at.
The Pharoah represented God, and he made the laws. Pharoahs often emphasized their role in upholding justice by taking the name "Beloved of Ma'at." In general, Egypt had a well-ordered society, and the things that were considered wrong in other societies were also considered wrong in Egypt. The Pharoah appointed officials in his administration to act as judges. So traditional ideas of right and wrong were the rules that applied to society. Later, as in Ancient Greece, oracles, who represented the gods, were consulted on issues.
So here again in Ancient Egypt, there was first an allegiance to God, and the idea of justice was the uppermost ideal ascribed to God, and the most fundamental value in the land.
The Israelites (Jews) similarly created a body of law, which became known to them as "Law," or Torah. This law began with Moses and the inspired writing of the Ten Commandments from God. While we don't have a list of the ten which Moses recorded, there are ten scattered among various places of the "legal" books of the Bible, which are generally considered to compose that list.*2
In the accepted lists, the Israelites were to "have no gods before me." That is, the God who they identified as the God without a name, known as "I am," or the God of Abraham, God Almighty (or commonly referred to in the region as Most High), who became known to them as "The Lord," who they called Jehovah.
The commandments involved a day of rest (not worship), family relationships (honor, adultery), crime and false witness, and "coveting" what other's have (interpretation: delight in other's mates and property in a preoccupied way that misdirects energy and actions).
Over the centuries of Ancient Israel, to these few laws were added other laws, and they blossomed into a large body of laws and interpretations, often taken to extremes which lost the spirit of the law, and then became cited and interpreted to support Judaism, Christianity, and the Muslim faiths.
The spirit of the Israelite initial laws was to enlist allegiance to God, get everyone moving in the same direction, establish some basic rules of conduct toward other people, strengthen the family (adultery), set rules about over-working and getting refreshed, and even prevent crime (suppress coveting). So again we see that allegiance to God came first, as a way of directing conduct toward others.
In Aztec culture (pre-conquest), the Great Speaker was head of the government, considered a god, and the main priest of the Great Temple. The Aztec also believed in an underworld (nine of them) to which the dead went, which was characteristically drab. The Supreme Being is Ometeotl, and Quetzalcoatl is the lawgiver, and civilizer. The law addressed grievances like adultery, theft, and selling substandard goods.
Here again, there was first an allegiance to God, and then the idea of justice.
In Hinduism, Brahman is the Supreme God above all gods (there is but one God in Hinduism, who manifests in several gods and goddesses). Brahman is the law-giver.
In Hinduism, Dharma, encompasses many ideas that are central to the religion. Its primary meaning is "that which is established." It relates to law, morality, and scripture, which include conduct, good works, and justice (or punishment). This same principal is found in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
So in Hinduism, allegiance to God comes first, followed by law.
Greek law, for reference, did not appear in any codified form until around 620 BC. At that time, Draco was appointed to write the first written law in Ancient Greece, so far as has been found. Draco became known as "the lawgiver," and he was followed in this role by Solon. The laws addressed family matters regarding inheritance and support, property ownership and transfer rights, trade laws, and criminal law. Greek law was not inspired by religion in the Axial Age, as civilization developed, but was probably modeled on surrounding civilizations.
Not all civilizations initiated laws claiming God as the origin, nor did they develop similar laws under influence of other civilizations, even centuries after the Axial Age. For example, the Mongols (or Huns), up through the time of Attila the Hun, around 400 AD, had no formal code. These were tribal people whose laws were simply their customs and sense of right and wrong. Attila seemed to be bent on dragging all of the civilizations around him back into barbarianism.
By the time of Chinggis Kahn around 1200, the Mongols had created a few laws, and Kahn enumerated considerably more that he wanted them to follow. These were later recorded as Chinggis Khan's Yasa and Bilig. None of these were attributed to God. Tribal people seem to be the last to acquire law, probably influenced by the civilizations around them, and only some attributed these to God.
The Cherokee (Native American) law was also of a religious origin. The world is naturally in harmony (balance), and it is the responsibility of the people to keep it that way. If a person disturbs the balance, it was the responsibility of the person, or the jurisdiction, to recompense. For example, a murder would require a death.
The laws in these ancient societies were expressed in different ways, and probably met the specific needs of these societies. Themes run through them all, even if on different continents that had never had contact.
The spirit of the ancient laws, declared to be divine in origin, involved the following:
Basically the laws were about how we treat each other in society.
One primary concern of God is about social justice. That we set up our social structures, such as legal and trade infrastructures and our everyday individual interactions with others, so that people are treated equitably, and abuse and oppression are minimized.
Religion is not about redistribution of wealth. If you take from the rich and give it to others, some of them will simply waste the funds and have it gone in a day. Redistribution of wealth is a Robin Hood approach that ends in everyone being in economic rubble - and usually undeserved at that. It is about assuring that everyone will have enough, at least have the opportunity and skills necessary to have the basics.
Religion isn't about religious institutions setting up world-wide institutions for economic relief (except where they must).
Religion is not about being the government. Religion has enough to do without trying to run the world. Besides, when religion becomes such a bureacracy, it becomes ineffective, a master rather than an inviter (which automatically disavows the value of religion), and often becomes corrupt so that its image is tarnished. This has happened repeatedly in many religions through history. Religion is about influencing the world through the people who are its followers. Law, on the other hand, is a safeguard for society, not a primary instrument of moral transformation. The two, government and religion, are a necessary check and balance system, with religion advocating in government when necessary.
Religion is first about advocating morality in society, so that society addresses the needs of its constituents.
Note that a diversity of religious opinion is always present, including extremists, and no single opinion should sway government opinion, as some extreme fundamentalists frequently try to do. Government and law are a basis for society, not the totality of it. Government represents all of the people, not just those who are religious.
Ghandi's activism is an example that I wear out, so this time I will use another example that I ran across in a book that I am now reading, "The Battle For God." Author Karen Armstrong points out an effective Islamic advocacy in 18th. Century Egypt. The powerful Ottomans ruled Egypt in 1794.
The Ulema (scholars, teachers, intellectuals) were a very powerful tool of communication between the government and people. The Ulema also held the majority of positions in the legal system, held powerful political positions, and were the guardians of the Shariah (Sunni Muslim religious law). They could easily rally the people. Once when the government raised taxes, the Ulema advocated against it, declaring it oppressive and un-Islamic, and brought a mob to the streets in protest. The government was forced to back down.*3
Religion has the power and obligation to influence government, societies, and the world.
The first thing that can be said that characterizes man's relationship with God, is creating a "just" society. The spirit of "Just" finds its most pragmatic expression in "law" - that is, how we treat each other. Specifics vary by religion, circumstances, and over time. There are a variety of forms that accomplish tasks, but there is a spirit of the law that must have integrity. This spirit of the law must be reflected in a societal infrastructure that must be in place to govern conduct at a most basic level. Without this infrastructure, there is tyranny, oppression, failure of the family (the primary support structure of humanity - regardless of form), severe economic and opportunity disparity, and lack of responsibility and accountability. Laws must be durable, but not necessarily permanent, as reflected in the variation in ancient laws.
When we think of justice and law, we typically think of the legal system. The legal system too often is about neither justice nor law. Something that is "lawful" isn't necessarily right. High interest rates may be "legal," but that doesn't make them moral. An action to bring about "justice" doesn't necessarily right a wrong. Religion deals with a much deeper understanding of what is just.
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French juste, from Latin justus, from jus right, law; akin to Sanskrit yos welfare [bold: editor]
1 a : having a basis in or conforming to fact or reason : REASONABLE b archaic : faithful to an original c : conforming to a standard of correctness : PROPER
2 a (1) : acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good : RIGHTEOUS (2) : being what is merited : DESERVED b : legally correct : LAWFUL
- © 2005 Merriam-Webster, Incorporated
Justice is about preserving and restoring harmony and balance. For example, a just society is one in which trade is fair - people can't become wealthy through theft and unfair advantage to the detriment of the poor, and those who are dependent and vulnerable have financial support available to them. Widows, who are dependent on husbands, as they have been through history and still are in most of the world population... The infirm should not be reduced to begging.
Religion and society have endless advocacy work cut out for them in social action to ensure that we live in a harmonious, just, and balanced world:
The idea of justice is not a small idea restricted to the confines of the legal system, that is, "punishing" criminals. A just society is one in which all people are treated with respect, people are free from tyranny and oppression, people are able to support their families, families are able to stay together, and there is recompense for injustice. This is the essence of morality. This is the essence of law. This is the basic part of the essence of following God. This kind of advocacy and activism is the most basic expression of Godliness and religion by the religious community both directly and through inspiring individuals. Without these fundamentals in place, the messages of religion have an empty promise in them, and simply indicate that God and religion do not care for them in any real way - people are shown nothing.
The Jewish Prophet Micah, in the early 6th. Century BC, summed up what it is that God requires of people. We have covered two of those requirements: allegiance to God and justice.
Micah 6:8 "He has showed you, O' man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
- New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society
Laws only go so far in creating a just society. You can create endless laws to address every conceivable way in which people can be harmful to each other. People are diabolically creative at finding ways to steal and harm others. Conversely, getting people to do good for each other is very difficult to impossible with laws (although sometimes laws are a necessary beginning). Life isn't just about surviving, but about opportunity, growing, and excelling.
No one would have time to read all of the law books needed to corral the misconduct of people - it would be an endless course of classroom study. Laws are a foundation of minimum conduct, but much more than law is needed to transform selfish, and even brutal, people into kind people. As religions matured, and people's understanding increased, so did their acknowledgment mature about what God asks of us. That is the subject of the next article in this series.
1. Kramer, Samuel Noah. The Sumerians; Their History, Culture, and Character, The University of Chicago Press, paperback 1971 (1963), pp 79 - 87.
3. Armstrong, Karen. The Battle For God - A History Of Fundamentalism, Ballantine Publishing Group, paperback 2000, pp 42 - 43.
My intention in these articles of research is not that of the religious reformist (reformists try to go back to the original, thinking that we have somehow lost the path and are trying to get back on it). Experience is a great and valuable teacher, improving our understanding of the past and needs for the future. A experience grows so do our understanding and concepts. My approach is to try to understand from our rich heritage what the original spirit of things was in addressing needs and objectives in the past, clear away the muddle of unnecessary things that grows up around these, and then reconstruct, adapt, and create so that we have ways of addressing current and future needs. The approach is deconstructive, reconstructive, progressive, adaptive, and creative.
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