The West End Uniting Church Philosophy Group invites you to a discussion – Is God a European?
Thursday October 17
7.00 – 8.30pm
at the West End Uniting Church
corner Sussex and Vulture Streets West End
We will explore biblical, European and Aboriginal notions of God and spirituality and ask the question – Did the European missionaries bring knowledge of God to this country or must the churches learn about God from Aboriginal people?
background reading –
West End Uniting Church Philosophy Group – Facebook page
Following is the text of the presentation given on the night –
Is God a European?
In this talk I will argue that the notion of God that is held and promoted by the mainstream Christian church today is an ideological construct of Europe’s cultural heritage, a continuation of the evolution of Helenist society. Hellenism refers to the culture of Greece and Rome although it has its roots in the Egyptian and Persian empires. It is the tradition of empire and so-called civilisation. Hellenist is what the bible refers to as gentile. I will argue that there is a strong similarity between notions of God in the bible and Australian Aboriginal notions of spirituality and that these notions are radically different from the religious notions of Europe.
In 2009 the Uniting Church of Australia amended its constitution to include, amongst other things, the statements –
“When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.”
“ The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.”
This recognition that God was in this country and that Aboriginal people had a relationship with God before the missionaries arrived was the most significant change in church law, of any denomination around the globe, since the sixteenth century papal encyclical “Sublimus Dei” that decreed that indigenous people were human beings.
However there is an obvious and I would say dishonest flaw in the Uniting Church’s preamble in that Aboriginal law, custom and ceremony indicates nothing of a triune God, the father, son and holy spirit. Interestingly enough, the bible also indicates nothing of the notion of a triune God, it emerged from the European church centuries after the writing of the new testament. The Uniting church has retrospectively imposed the European notion of the Holy trinity onto Aboriginal spirituality in the same way that the whole church has retrospectively imposed the notion of the trinity onto the bible. As such, the church has been blind to what knowledge of God is really revealed in either the bible or Aboriginal law, custom and ceremony and been unable to explore the possible connections between the two..
The bible is not a European text, it is a collection of tribal indigenous Hebrew dreaming stories of creation and ancestors written by and for tribal indigenous Hebrews.
I would like to draw your attention to an article written by Rev Graham Paulson entitled “Towards an Aboriginal Theology” (that can be found on “Unlearning the Problem” website). This article argues that Aboriginal Christians should approach the bible from their own cultural and spiritual frameworks, and bypass the cultural baggage of the colonial missionaries who brought the bible to this country. Rev Paulson juxtaposes Aboriginal spirituality and biblical notions of God and spirituality and also suggests the two are very similar.
Rev Paulson says of Aboriginal spirituality –
“First, Aboriginal spirituality arises out of the belief that the world is populated by spirit beings. In addition to human beings, Aboriginal people believe that ancestral spirits are all around us. Totemic spirits also co-exist with us.”
– “Secondly, those spirit beings are responsible for the shaping of creation and animating of all life.”
“Thirdly, the spirit beings are linked to space and place, and in this sense they are territorial.”
“Fourthly, the spirit beings are also linked to human identity and to human experience through totems that are allocated in relation to specific incidents or events (e.g., conception, birth, skin clan and moiety).”
“Fifthly, the spirit beings are arranged in a hierarchical structure.”……….. “The gaining of power by the acquiring of traditional and ceremonial knowledge is an experience only reserved for the initiated whose personality and character satisfy their traditional elders.”……. “for any given sacred site or totem there are owners of the sacred business, minders of sacred sites and participants in the ceremony that re-enacts that sacred story.”
“Sixthly, the spirit beings have the power to help or hinder human interests.”…………. “Certain spirits are believed to have the power to make rain, foster natural growth, assist in hunting and food gathering and even to the finding of spouses or partners. It is also believed that they have the power to act against the wishes of people if the correct ceremonies and/or rituals are not practised or observed.”
(That is the end of the Rev Paulson quotes).
Within some Aboriginal cosmologies there is also a notion of a supreme being, an overarching source point of the plethora of creator spirits. For example Amongst the Kabi Kabi people just North of here is a notion of a God whose name cannot be mentioned except in the context of higher reverential conversation. Perhaps this is like the fourth commandment “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”
I hope this discussion is appropriately reverential and I mention this name with permission of Kabi Kabi law man Mr Alex Bond who told me about it. “Birral”. I have also heard of a similar notion of Biami in central and Northern New South Wales and Dimuru in Cape York.
There are basically three words, or variants of them, in the bible used to name God, two Hebrew and one Greek.
In the Hebrew Old testament the first word used is Elohiym which means a collective of divine or spiritual creator beings. In Genesis it is the breath of the elohiym that hovered above the waters of the unformed earth and that animated the world including humans. This notion is not unlike Aboriginal creator spirits. Many orthodox theologians have tried to explain away the plurality of elohiym by saying it is often used in the context of singular grammar but the word means what it means – a collective. In english there are many collective nouns used with singular grammar, such as “a church” or “an orchestra” yet nobody denies the collectivity of these entities.
The other Hebrew word for God is Yahwey which means simply “I AM”, the existential reality.
Exodus 3:13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” (Yahway) And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord,the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
Yahwey is an existential divine presence and the god of the ancestors and future generations.
The God of the Old Testament, Yahway and Elohiym, is a nameless existential collective entity, a God of ancestors and future generations whose breath animates the whole world.
The New Testament uses the Greek word Theos to describe God. Theos is etymylogically (which refers to the root and history of words) the same as Zeus, the Greek God of Gods represented by the planet Jupiter. All the lessor Greek gods were also theos. In ancient Greek. Theos refers to the personified astrological Gods. Greek Theos entities are represented by symbols and images and worshipped in temples dedicated to them.
The underlying platform of theos is philosophical dualism including the division of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, soul and body – a central pillar of Hellenist thought. Within Hellenist cosmology, the gods did not manifest existentially in the land or in humans but were simply an idea to be believed in, a superstition. They were personified astrological entities that existed in the sun and planets far from earth and made rare and temporary visits from the spiritual plane into material reality. The Gods themselves were not sovereign over the earth but provided spiritual justification, blessings and favours to earthly kings and emperors.
The Hebrew New Testament writers did not indicate a radical transformation of the nature of God in their use of the Greek word Theos. They used the imposed language of the colonising empire to represent their ancient concepts in the same way as Australian Aboriginal people today might use English words like “dreaming”, “corroboree” or indeed “God” to describe their own ancient spiritual concepts.
The apostle Paul explains the difference between the Hebrew and Roman concepts of God in Acts 17 –
“22 So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op′agus (rock of Mars), said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, 28 for
‘In him we live and move and have our being’;”
Despite being described in Greek, the God of the New Testament is the same God as the Old Testament and different from the Greek Theos.
After the creation story, the central theme of the bible from Abraham to Jesus is the covenant between God, the people and the land. The land is not a generic concept such as “earth” or the environment but a specific piece of real estate between the Euphrates and Nile rivers. The God of land covenants is territorial, not unlike Aboriginal spirituality.
The bible narrative is about ancestral land rights and dispossession of land rights by the empires of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome.
In the decades following the crucifixion of Jesus, the time of the writing of the new testament, the tribal indigenous Hebrews rose up and overthrew the Roman colonisers.
They re-instituted Aboriginal sovereignty just as the Biblical Hebrews did in the Maccabees revolt against Greek colonisation, as they did in the return from exile in Babylon and as they did in the return from slavery in Egypt. The renewal and restoration of the land covenant is a recurring theme in the bible repeated by Jesus when he declared the Jubilee year, the year of return of land to the traditional owners as appointed by Joshua and Moses. The renewal and restoration of Abraham’s land covenant is the central theme in the old and new testaments.
From 70 AD until the end of the second century Rome re-invaded Abraham’s land, exterminated all nationalist resistance in the Holy land and drove the surviving Hebrews into exile throughout the empire. In exile, many Hebrew nationalists including the new Christian movement engaged in anti-imperial resistance alongside indigenous people of other nations. Egypt became the centre of Christianity in this time, in the city of Alexandria and the wilderness communities of the desert fathers. The tribes of Egypt were all at war with each other until Christianity provided a unifying anti-Roman force. Christianity did not replace the indigenous culture and spirituality but provided an internationalist umbrella that joined them all as well as the exiled Hebrews. Christians were involved in anti-imperialist movements throughout the empire including in the belly of the beast in Corinth, Athens Ephesis and so on. According to English folklore, Joseph of Aramathea, the man who removed Jesus from the cross, went to England and began a church amongst the Druids and joined them in their resistance to Rome which was occurring in the same way and at the same time as the brutal Roman invasion and domination of Abraham and Jesus’ land. This is where the Holy grail mythology comes from. English Celtic Christianity emerged in England hundreds of years before the religion of Rome was imposed.
The first christians certainly did go and preach the gospel in the whole world, or at least as much of it as was known to them, in accord with Jesus’ commission. During this period Rome brutally repressed the Christian movement across the empire.
By the beginning of the third century Christianity was becoming popular in mainstream Roman society, one of many popular religions in the empire. It was no longer predominantly Hebrew movement but was now a broader Helenist religion. While some Christians still maintained an anti imperial stance, especially those in North Africa, many Christians learnt to exist in and collaborate with the empire. While Caesar Constantine maintained intense persecution of Hebrews, who became known as Jews, he legalised Christianity.
In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicea to institutionalise Christianity as an official religion of state and determine a single doctrine of what it was. All those within the broader Christian movement who either continued to resist collaboration with the empire, such as the Donatists, and those who disagreed with the official religious doctrine, such as the Arians, were declared heretics and, in the words of the original Nicean creed “anathematised” which means their teachers were killed or exiled, their writings were burnt, those who possessed their writings were killed and all who refused to renounce their heresy were killed. This was the beginning of European Christianity. Before Constantine Christianity was an illegal anti-imperialist movement however Constantine adopted Christianity and the symbol of the cross became the banner under which his imperial armies went into battle.
By the end of the third century the empire adopted Christianity as the only religion of empire, all other religions were incorporated into the Christian church or anathematised. Rome claimed dominion over the whole world and imposed its single universal or “catholic” (which means universal) religion onto all the regions of the universal empire, replacing the indigenous cultures and spiritualities of the people colonised by the empire.
The tribal indigenous Elohiym and Yahway, the existential creator and animator that lived within the land and the people was transformed into a Hellenist theos and described as the Holy Trinity, father son and holy ghost – a subdivision of the personalised non-material god. God was no longer the ultimate sovereign who engaged with humanity by ancestral land covenants but had become a deity that justified the political sovereignty of emperors and their invasion and colonisation of the whole world, just like the pre-Christian theos entities did.
For the duration of the Roman empires, east and west, the Christian church was an agency of the imperial state and controlled by it. After that, the holy Roman empire emerged with the church itself as the imperial state. Later, The Holy Roman empire instituted the Christian states of Europe of which the church was again an agency of the state. This is the heritage of the church.
The European so-called enlightenment saw the beginnings of secular society, either by way of atheism and the declaration that God is dead or by the protestant reformation and doctrines of the separation of Church and state, most profoundly described by Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine is an evolution from traditional, pre-christian helenist dualism, the separation of spirit and matter, heaven and earth. Secular atheism is also a continuation of the Helenist cultural heritage, it simply abolishes the notion of spirit and heaven but continues to embrace the traditional notion of a spiritless material world, it continues the materialist half of the equation and as such is identical to the European church’s philosophy regarding the material world. Secular materialist atheism and its notions of democracy and science are as much a product of Helenism as the modern church is. Both the church doctrine and secular atheist philosophy do not acknowledge God as a sovereign existential force of and within material reality.
I have suggested that the tribal indigenous Hebrew notions of Elohiym and Yahway is a different paradigm to the Hellenic Theos. I have suggested that the Hellenic dualism of spirit and matter is a different understanding of reality to the holistic biblical God that animates creation. I now also suggest that there is another Hellenic dualism that has been continued by the church but does not exist in biblical spirituality and that is the dualism of good and evil. This dualism exists in the Christian church as well as secular society, most profoundly in the legal system of guilt and punishment but also in basic mainstream secular value systems.
In the bible, God’s first commandment to humans was thou shall not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, yet the christian church has been obsessed with the knowledge of good and evil. What better could describe the church’s historical mission except teaching the knowledge of good and evil? Within the Hellenic framework of dualisms, God has been attributed as only good and evil has been relegated to the realm of the devil as a counter balance to God. Yet in the bible God is responsible for many things that we might consider evil, for example the black magic that killed all the first born sons of Egypt in the passover. I repeat one of Rev Paulson’s points that Aboriginal animating spirits can help or hinder human interests. I would go further to suggest that Aboriginal masters of black magic, the kadaitcha or featherfoot men, have holy and honourable places within Aboriginal spirituality. In the bible and Aboriginal spirituality there is no dualism of good and evil. This does not mean there is no ethical framework but rather ethics are based on frameworks of relationship and alienation, health and sickness, completeness and incompleteness, fulfillment and unfulfilment – not good and evil. The dualism of good and evil and its associated paradigm of guilt and punishment is extinguished by Jesus, this is how he saves people from sin, not by bearing the legitimate punishment of others as the European church has preached. The radical forgiveness and grace of Jesus is the antithesis to the knowledge of good and evil, it is this forgiveness that returns us to the consciousness of the garden of eden in restored relationship to God.
According to the bible the first consequence of disobedience to God, the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was shame for nakedness. I note that when the missionaries arrived here Aboriginal people were living naked in the Garden without shame. It was not the Genesis serpent that lead Aboriginal people into shame for their nakedness but the missionaries, they brought sin and the knowledge of good and evil into this garden.
My own cultural heritage is English and Irish. My people, my indigenous land rights, my ancestral spirituality and my covenant with God was smashed by the Roman empire in exactly the same way and at same time as the land and spirituality of Jesus and his ancestors were. The revolutionary Hebrew Christians of the first century joined with my English ancestors to resist the Roman invasion. The replacement of the existential animating God and ancestral land rights with the universal religion of empire is as relevant to me as it is to Australian Aboriginal people – the same thing occured to us all except much earlier to the tribes of Europe. The cultural heritage of Imperialism, colonisation and the Theos that justifies it is something that I feel I must repent from, not embrace and certainly not promote to others.
Just as Rev Paulson’s article suggests Aboriginal christians must approach the bible through the perspective of Aboriginal spirituality, I suggest that we Europeans must also approach the bible through the example of Aboriginality and the ancient ancestral covenant of this land in order to reclaim our own relationship with the existential creator God of our own ancestors and of the land that we now live on. We must embark on a process of renewal and restoration, of repentance to re-find our place in the garden of eden.
In conclusion, I would suggest that believing in God is meaningless. Belief is just the holding of an opinion, the rational acceptance of a doctrine. The task is to existentially be in God which is a matter of consciousness, not belief. The essential difference between European religion and indigenous spirituality is not a matter of different belief structures but the difference between belief and being. The Hellenist imperial paradigm conceives of reality in terms of a belief structure whether it be theological superstition, good and evil or science . Aboriginal and biblical spiritualities involve consciously living in relationship with the holistic animating force of material reality right here right now, something an ignorant baby does naturally.
There endeth the sermon.