Thursday, November 07, 2013

In the Beginning, God -- by Winfried Corduan

(Adapted from Amazon review, just posted.)

I have been fascinated by evidence for God in non-western cultures for some thirty years, since first reading Don Richardson's Eternity in Their Hearts. One chapter of my own first book, True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture (which Corduan has apparently not read) described God as he was worshipped, and often neglected, in China. Since then, as regular readers of this blog know, I have read, written, and even debated the idea with atheists like Richard Carrier and Hector Avalos. But in some ways, this book takes the debate to a whole new level.

What you should know about In the Beginning God is that the book is (a) based on serious and systematic scholarship; (b) walks you through the historical debate over High Gods step by step; (c) explains most of the key issues simply, though there are a few difficult stretches; (d) is often witty, even acerbic, in dialoguing with scholars whom Corduan thinks haven't done their homework, or fail to think clearly. And that is just about everybody in classical anthropology -- Tylor, Muller, Eliade, Otto, Durkheim, Radin, even Andrew Lang a few times, more gently -- except Corduan's hero, Wilhelm Schmidt. (And Corduan even corrects him on occasion.)

Schmidt's argument is the heart and soul of this book, though, and it is Corduan's intention to resurrect and rehabilitate it. The former by itself is an extremely useful service, since Schdmit's multi-thousand page, 13 volume, early 20th-Century masterwork on the origin of the idea of God, and of religion, is still mostly just in German. Two books are in English, which I have largely read, but I don't read German, and apparently this German is particularly tough going. Also, even in English Schmidt's jargon takes some getting used to, and of course not all of his ideas or background assumptions are still viable.

Corduan describes the concept of "culture circles" that is the heart of Schmidt's anthropology with consummate simplicity and clarity. The upshot is that the religious thinking of earliest man is believed to be preserved among "primitive" tribes scattered to the wastelands of several continents. And that belief turns out to be monotheism, that is faith or awareness of one Supreme God who is morally good and who calls His people to a strict morality. This belief is corrupted more or less by subsequent social developments, in pastoral and agricultural and urban societies. But traces of it can also be found especially among the pastoralists, often very clear traces.

What I realized, in reading Corduan's careful account, is that my own writing on this subject has at times been a bit sloppy. I described the general phenomena accurately, and drew what I still think are plausible philosophical conclusions from that phenomena -- including what I call "TACT," the Theistic Argument from Cultural Transcendence.  But I largely ignored the methodical cultural anthropology at the heart of Schmidt's method. (Often citing Durkheim, Radin and Eliade, among even more hostile sources whom Corduan does not name, like Marvin Harris, as "hostile witnesses" to establish the phenomena itself, along with specialists in particular geographical regions.) I will, in the future, be more careful in how I construct my anthropological argument for God. But I believe Corduan's argument adds force to TACT, by focusing primary attention on the most primitive tribes.

Not that this book is entirely successful. Sometimes the evidence Corduan cites seems so ephemeral that it would seem better just to admit, "We don't know what these people really thought." The people themselves seem to have disappeared, and no very careful study of their beliefs was made while they were still around. And sometimes the connections between tribes which Corduan and Schmidt appear so confident of, are not demonstrated to my full satisfaction. We are asked, in essence, to take it on faith in Schmidt's scholarship, which makes the argument a bit shakier in spots than one might wish.

One early claim struck me as simply ludicrous:

"Few people would be able to master the languages of Australia in just a few months, but few people would stay up late into the night in an effort to do so." (140)

I'm sorry. No one then, now, or ever, has "mastered" even one utterly novel language at long distance in "a few months." Having studied many languages myself, over decades not months, taught hundreds of students English, and been around other intelligent language students, I do not believe anyone can "master" a language continents removed in "a few months." And Australia had hundreds of tribes. (It would have helped if Corduan had given us a stronger sketch of demographics. He mentions some 11 tribes in Australia that have some notion of God -- what percent of the total does that constitute? How wide a geographical spread? I think Durkheim mentions a few more.)

Anyway, this assertion about Schmidt learning all those languages is glib and unreasonable, does not clearly indicate what Schmidt actually accomplished (no doubt he was one heck of a linguist), and raised doubts in my mind about Corduan's understanding.  So I put a fat black asterisk beside Corduan after that comment, and kept waiting for him to confirm my fears by saying something else really dumb -- but he never did.

Altar of Heaven, Beijing, where the emperor worshiped God.
In fact, when Corduan began describing Shang Di or Tian in Chinese tradition, I was quite impressed. Book of History and Book of Poetry, especially, though he does not name them, are deeply infused with theistic belief. Shang Di / Tian (the two are identified in the Classics) is a righteous and personal God, faith in whom has been an important strand of Chinese religion for thousands of years. Yes, the evidence is that even Confucius was a theist.

Unlike even Rodney Stark or Don Richardson, still less critics like Ames and Hall, Corduan gets ancient Chinese theism almost exactly right. This is a tradition I wrote a fair chunk of my dissertation on, and have read and analyzed the original sources in Classical Chinese (not the work of months, and I don't claim mastery), so I was counting on finding a few errors in his exposition and correcting them, as with every other non-specialist I have read on the subject.  But he didn't really make any, though of course there is much more to say. 

I would add that studying the work of a Chinese philosopher and apologist Yuan Zhiming, and then the original texts of Taoist philosophy, I have recently also come to the more radical conclusion that Lao Zi, the "founder of Taoism," was a theist, too, in the Chinese theistic mode. (And probably Zhuang Zi, certainly Mo Zi, but that's old news.)

Corduan ought to have mentioned Mateo Ricci and James Legge for their "discovery of God" in China, and for Legge's remarkable scholarship on the Classics. Both men announced their findings long before Lang, let along Schmidt, so I was surprised they didn't at least get a mention.  (Especially since Legge translated several volumes of the Sacred Books of the East series, edited by Max Muller, which Corduan does talk about.)

This book also raises a question in my mind, which Corduan does not address. Corduan supposes God probably revealed Himself to primitive peoples -- that's why their faith is so strong, and almost ubiquitous.  That's not just an historical claim about what God did in the past: some awareness of God must be more recent and fresh, or it would not remain so strong.  So why not reveal Himself to "later" peoples as well? This takes us into the theology of history, and Corduan may be wise not to hike down that rocky trail. But St. Paul's approach in Romans 1-2, and in Acts 14 and 17, may help Christians tentatively consider this question -- which would no doubt take another book.

But still, this book is a game-changer. Corduan is a careful if sometimes acerbic scholar. In general, he is very logical, and quick to notice and destroy poor reasoning, often with some wit. (Sometimes a tad too thoroughly, perhaps, running the risk of being unfair.) Corduan himself does not go much beyond the bounds of the evidence. (This comes as something of a shock, considering Corduan's very conservative view of Scripture and apparently earth history, a few parenthetical comments about which I am afraid some skeptical readers may take at as a poor excuse to discredit the whole). By the end of the book, I was hoping for a stronger apologetic conclusion. But I think this book is ultimately stronger for its caution. With the further insight and partial correction that this excellent work brings, I am hoping to continue to TACT-fully explore the implications of "primitive theism" for how we today understand God's revelation to all the world.

(Dr. Corduan responds here.) 

1 comment:

David B Marshall said...

Here are Win's comments on his blog:

"Did I really say that Wilhelm Schmidt mastered all of the aboriginal languages of Australia in just a few months? I could play word games and say that I really didn’t say exactly that. My remark was more general, namely, that few people have ever done so. But if I stuck to that excuse, I would be disingenuous because in the context I certainly attributed that feat to Schmidt. Thus, I sit with my face just a little red. David Marshall is right: That was a dumb thing to say. I’m referring to an excellent review of In the Beginning God that he wrote for Amazon and also posted on his blog. Obviously, I’m grateful for the positive comments, but his specific criticisms are very worthwhile as well. I hope that the discussion on the whole will stay on that level, even if my writing style is somewhat “acerbic.” People who know me are aware of the fact that I come down hard on myself as well—too much so according to some folks. Anyway, I just want to thank David Marshall for a very helpful review and promise to read his books. And I should have said something like “Schmidt became knowledgeable on the Australian languages that were relevant for the discussion of his day in a surprisingly short time.”

Here's the address: