Being ‘relevant’ and the sociology of religion — and Quakerism

April 7, 2011 § 8 Comments

I have just finished reading Norman Gottwald’s massive, groundbreaking sociological analysis of the religion and culture of early Israel (that is, before the monarchy), The Tribes of Yahweh. The breadth of his scholarship is awesome, the depth of his insight truly remarkable. The book expands and deepens George Mendenhall’s thesis in The Tenth Generation that early, pre-monarchic Israel emerged as a liberation movement sparked by the Exodus community but burning to full flame among various marginalized, subservient communities within the statist, hierarchical social structure of ancient Canaan under Egyptian imperial domination—that Yahwism was a liberation movement catalyzed by a uniquely egalitarian religious impulse to create a uniquely egalitarian social system in the midst of oppressive hierarchical societies. Its priests were peers of the people, not lords, and the practice of the religion strengthened social cooperation and sharing rather than siphoning wealth from lower classes, as did the religions of the rest of ancient Palestine and Mesopotamia. That the tribes of Yahweh were united in a confederation of peers without the economic colonization or hierarchical domination that characterized the societies around them. And that, for two hundred years, this amazing movement held its own against the imperialist forces from whom they had successfully extricated themselves.

This thesis of revolution from within rather than the traditional understanding of ancient Israel as an invasion from the desert has not completely won the day, but Gottwald has successfully deconstructed the facile assumptions that supported the old model and the debate continues (The Tribes of Yahweh was written in 1979). The real contribution of the book however (according to him, anyway), is its sociological analysis of biblical religion, the thorough way in which it connects religion to society, recognizing that religious symbols and practice are completely interdependent with the social systems in which they are embedded and with the processes of social change that they help to shape and by which they are themselves influenced. In fact, Gottwald goes farther than that: he claims that religion is purely a product of social system forces. The book challenges the notion that revelation or transcendental, “supernatural” experience play any role in the formation of religion. In a sense, he’s saying that Yahweh as a god is unique because Israel was unique, rather than the other way round, which has been the premise of biblical theology in the past.

I disagree with him. I’ve had transcendental, “supernatural” experiences myself, and been in communities, including among Friends, where these experiences have helped to shape the social structure and dynamics. So I know he’s wrong in his absolutist claim that social forces alone  produce religions, not the other way around. I guess he hasn’t had such experiences. But he is right in that biblical theology has idealized religious phenomena and treated religion as somehow above and beyond the social systems in which it is embedded, and ignored the truly interactive character of religion and social dynamics.

The last few paragraphs of his book discuss what this means for religion today. The prose is a bit dense, but that does not blunt his passion or his provocative challenge to be relevant. I kept thinking of modern Quakerism as I read it and decided to share it. I also kept thinking of Ben Pink Dandelion’s book A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers. Dandelion’s book is a PhD thesis and even more dense than Gottwald’s, but similarly groundbreaking. It’s also extremely expensive and not well known among American Friends. So I have always thought to try to offer in this blog a succinct digest of his conclusions. He’s made this easier by publishing his own summary as a chapter in The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, which he co-edited with Peter Collins. In fact, all the essays in this book deserve wider reading. It’s clear from reading Dandelion’s work and the essays in The Quaker Condition that the social forces around us are remaking modern liberal Quakerism in profound ways and that we need to understand these forces and our own trajectory if we want to remain ‘relevant.’ I want to explore these ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, here’s that quote from Gottwald:

Early Israelite Yahwism is an intriguing case study in the relation of religion to social change. In the short run, Yahwism seems to have been a socially “progressive” force, serving to reinforce the retribalizing endeavors of lower classes in Canaan. In the long run, however, as we examine the course of Yahwism through biblical times and on into Judaism and Christianity, it appears to have shifted more and more into a socially “reactionary” force, its progressive impetus draining off into sectarian sub-groups or drifting along in uncritical and poorly articulated moods and tendencies in the main social body, but only now and then, as in the prophetic movement, erupting with sustained critical power.

If my line of reasoning about the relation of biblical theology and biblical sociology is correct, the most important contribution of a sociological analysis of early Israel to contemporary religious thought and practice is to close the door firmly and irrevocably on the idealist and supernaturalist illusions still permeating and bedeviling our religious outlook. Yahweh and “his” people Israel must be demystified, deromanticized, dedogmatized and deidolized. Only as we carry through this sociological demythologization of Yahwistic faith, and of its Jewish and Christian derivatives, will those of us who have been formed and nurtured by those curiously ambiguous Jewish and Christian symbols be able to align heart and head, to combine theory and practice. Cogent symbols of historico-social transcendence for the future must illuminate, amid the supersession of social forms through time, the critical intersection between lawful social process and human freedom. It is at that intersection, more or less auspicious from moment to moment, where missed and realized opportunities continually emerge for ever larger numbers of us to struggle toward meeting our genuine human needs and actualizing our repressed human potentialities.

Symbol systems claiming to be based on “biblical faith” will be judged by whether they actually clarify the range and contours of exercisable freedom within the context of the unfolding social process. Symbol systems that blur the intersection of social process and human freedom—by talking fuzzy nonsense, by isolating us in our private souls, by positing “unseen” worlds to compensate for the actual world we fear to see, by conditioning us to compete for many small favors instead of cooperating for a few big gains, by cultivating mood and sentiment in place of vision and passion, by instilling resignation in the name of sweetness and sacrifice, by persuading us to accept the humanly unacceptable and to desist from changing what is manifestly changeable, by confirming our fixations to the past and our venturelessness toward the future, by decrying power while feasting on its benefits—all such symbol systems, however venerable and psychically convenient, are bad dreams to be awakened from, cloying relics to be cast away, cruel fetters to be struck off. They are, in a word, the Canaanite idols that Israel smashed when it smashed the Canaanite kings.

Increasingly we humans are thrown together in a process that both narrows and heightens our freedom. Transformation of our social relations and of our ideas are accelerating in tandem with the quickening pace of techno-environmental and techno-economic transformations. Our “higher” cultural accomplishments, religion among them, are swept along in the transformed and transforming social process. In this rapidly complexifying and maturing sociocultural transitional period, all forms of religious faith and practice that fail to grasp and to act upon their connection with and dependence upon the cultural-material evolution of humankind are doomed to irrationality and irrelevance, whatever diversionary consolation they offer at the moment. Forms of religion capable of grasping and acting on that connection and dependence have something to contribute to the next stages in the long struggle for human liberation; and in commitment to that project, they will have something to learn, or to relearn, from the social religion of liberated Israel.

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§ 8 Responses to Being ‘relevant’ and the sociology of religion — and Quakerism

  • Matt Hisrich says:

    Hello Cian,
    Thanks for linking to the Rieger post! Would you be willing to elaborate further on your statement that “If there was an anti-Quaker theory, PCT has to come pretty close I would think”?
    Thanks again,

  • Steven,

    In case you haven’t seen this article, I wanted to pass it on to you:
    Quakers, ethics and capitalism
    By Symon Hill

  • Cian says:

    Oh, you might find this interesting:

    Rieger’s book sounds incredibly naive, if this is a fair summary. But I’ll take naive over Austrian economics, or Public Choice Theory. If there was an anti-Quaker theory, PCT has to come pretty close I would think.

  • Cian says:

    I really really enjoy reading this blog and I can’t wait to see how you’re going to apply this analysis to modern Quakerism (and the emergent church?)

    Out of curiosity, what exactly does the exodus community mean here? The minimalist school has mostly convinced me that there wasn’t an exodus from Egypt in the way described by the bible, or at least its highly unlikely given the evidence available to us. Does he mean something else?

    • Sorry, Cian, I’ve been away for the past few days and I’m only now catching up to your comments. And thanks for turning me on to Joerg Rieger. I can see that I’m going to have to read this guy.

      As for Gottwald and the “Exodus community,” he has written a massive sociological study and left the actual historical reconstruction largely undone. So we don’t learn from him who exactly left Egypt in the Exodus, how they initially interacted with indigenous proto-Israelite tribes to build the revolutionary coalition that first broke away from the Canaanite city-states, which tribes joined first, then next, et cetera. He leaves a Hansel and Gretel trail that one could follow up to a point. But laying out the actual history of the foundation of ancient Israel wasn’t his object. And unfortunately, the book of Joshua has been edited from the perspective of the monarchy, when the federation of interdependent autonomous tribes had given way to the very sort of centralized and hierarchical structures the original tribes had rebelled against, and reflects an ideology of united Israel, rather that the actual fact of emergent Israel, using, for instance, for its geography of conquest a mix of original tribal landholdings choatically combined with the new tribal borders and assignments used by the monarchy for its corvee labor and tax system for support of the centralized state (which I’m sure you remember from Lind’s book).

      If I’ve got it right, the Joseph tribes brought with them the experience of escape from Egypt and the emergent ideology of Yahwism under the care of the Levites. Apparently early military successes carved out some space in the already basically uninhabited Highlands of southern Palestine. The hill country was just too wild and unknown and far away to control from the plains where the city-states were mostly located, and they were inaccessible to both horse (for lack of water) and chariot (too rocky and steep), the military technologies that gave the Canaanites their advantage in the field. The Israelites relied instead on asses for ‘cavalry’ and guerilla warfare.

      And they also brought with them three technological breakthroughs that made occupation of the Highlands possible in meaningful numbers for the first time since the end of the Middle Bronze age 500 years before: these were iron metallurgy for tools, a new formula for watertight plaster for water cisterns, and terrace agriculture. Rain in the Highlands was just too unreliable to support agriculture on any large scale without these innovations. Moses was apparently the channel for all three: he married into the Kenite tribe, which had brought the iron age to ancient Palestine, and this allowed them to bypass the Philistines, who had a lock on metal in the region. Moses, as the magician/engineer raised in the Pharoanic court, would also have known how to survey the channel system for rain catchment and for terrace building, since that’s how Egypt farmed, using catchment basins that held the annual overflow of the Nile in catchment ponds, which were then used to irrigate fields during the growing season. Finally, apparently Moses’ in-laws were also priests of El, the practically forgotten high god of the Canaanites, whose cult was vestigial by then, having been supplanted by that of Baal, his son. The advantage here is learning the geography of the ancient shrines in the Highlands—that is, which mountains got the most rain.

      Gottwald talks a bit about these technologies, especially the role of iron, but most of this is my own reconstruction, and forms part of a book I’m writing on Spiritual Ecology: Ecology, Technology, and the Origins of Western Religion.

      As for the history, my next focus of research is to see if someone else has taken up the task of reconstructing the history of ancient Israel using Gottwald’s sociology as a foundation. The Tribes of Yahweh was published in 1979, so there’s been enough time for someone to do this. But I think there’s enough to answer your basic question: The tribe of Joseph (later apparently divided into Benjamin and Ephraim, probably, according to Gottwald, because of population pressures on their landbases) and the Levites are the Exodus tribes. And he believes there really was an Exodus, though he agrees that the evidence is contradictory. To me, the evidence doesn’t seem contradictory at all, but I haven’t studied this part of the tradition in any depth. I’ve not even read a commentary on Exodus.

      Well, this is going on and on. Thanks again for the tip on Rieger.


  • For a pacifist reading of this critical reconstructive work, see Millard Lind’s “Yahweh is a Warrior.” He makes the point that the “holy war” of ancient Israel has important distinctive features that mark it off from its Near East neighbors.

    • Yes, I’ve read Yahweh is a Warrior. Great book. Gottwald actually centers much of his argument on the way ancient Israel conducted warfare, since his whole thesis is that they were a revolutionary movement breaking away from the city states of Canaan. So the success of the enterprise depended on a unique military culture and organization, one that could compete with the armies of the states trying to prevent their defection and at the same time not threaten the egalitarian social system by concentrating too much power or requiring state support.

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