I got to thinking about fertility gods the other day. Goddesses to be specific, for most, as you might expect are female representations.
I recall a couple of years ago, the Contrarian and I became quite engrossed in a public television series on art. The documentarian started with the most primitive of art, often found on cave walls in Europe, and moved through to more modern pieces. It was a real eye opener, and helped me in many ways to understand art better. As some of you may recall, I’m reading a coffee table tome on art history, and I recalled the IPT (Iowa Public TV) show, while reading of the prehistoric era.
To the point, I learned that when it came to fertility goddesses, they were pretty much the same worldwide. That means that if you found one in South America, it might look amazingly similar to one found on the Russian Steppes. That idea initially floored me. It still does, but I’ve had some time to let it sit and ferment as it were.
My analysis is as follows. Man and woman, as they contemplate their lives, recognize the importance of procreation. Children, early on, and up to fairly recent times, were not only blessings in and of themselves, but were also quite coldly, economic commodities. Boys and girls were essential to the family. They assisted in all manner of tasks, tasks that could not be accomplished simply by two adults.
Some where, early on, humanity determined that there were mystical beings, called gods, who directed human affairs, and a good deal of the natural forces we are forced to contend with. Rain, and snow, cold and heat were deemed the gifts of gods or their punishment. We began to offer worship to them to gain what we wished and to avoid that which we did not wish.
So, man and woman thought about how to improve their likelihood of having children. The began to envision a goddess of pregnancy and fertility. How would she look? As you can see from the photograph, a rather bulbous body was thought to denote perhaps a well fed woman? Huge breasts stood for the ability to suckle children successfully? The face was of little consequence, nor were the other limbs. Healthy fat women with big breasts seem to be everybody’s determination of what a fertility goddess should look like.
This suggests that worldwide the human race is pretty much genetically predisposed to view the world in the same manner. Or so I have concluded. We deduce conclusions from facts in the same manner. I don’t know quite how to reconcile that with the fact that we seem to be at odds with each other on so many issues these days.
One would assume that the mind that can visualize a fertility goddess the same as another living very far away in entirely different circumstances, would mean that we were genetically predisposed to empathize with each other. Yet, it seems we are not. Palestinians seem unable to empathize with Israelis or vice versa. I am told that the animosities between Turkish people and Armenian folks have gone on for some centuries with little abatement.
I can only conclude that such loss of empathy has been a culturalization event. We have grown apart in our humanity by events and by folks who have chosen to interpret those events in ways that divide. It seems we have taken the division caused by competition for limited resources and never let go.
That of course begs the question of what limited resources. One would have thought that another herd of bison or woolly mammoth would be just around the corner. Yet compete we did, and somewhere in that, we lost our ability to empathize. It seems it must be taught again.
I can understand the fertility goddess thing as a result of evolution. No doubt it is useful to humans to view the world with rationality, and that leads to an increase in survival chances. We view the world with the same tools and come to rational conclusions about it. That makes sense.
But another issue doesn’t. There are those in the medical and biology field who now tell us that they have uncovered a “God gene.” The chief proponent of this work is one Dean H. Hamer, author of “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes.” While many disagree and criticize his work, it positively sets the evangelical right on a path of apoplectic denial. God forbid that we are inclined to believe!
But that is not the point of Hamer’s work at all. What he says that several genes seem to be at play when Buddhists meditate or when nuns pray. There is a genetic predisposition to “transcendence.” This is not the same as God, but it does cause us to look outward, away from ourselves, to find meaning to the world around us.
That transcendence can cause us to empathize I would think with others, but of course, also to conclude that some greater force is at work defining our world, and controlling what happens in our lives. The first part makes sense to me from a evolutionary frame. Anything that causes us to empathize with others and to cooperate seems a good survival technique.
But I am constrained to figure out how belief in a superior deity is helpful to survival, or was deemed useful such that it was perpetuated in the gene pool as a valuable addition to our human condition. Perhaps there is just something I fail to understand about evolution.
Unlike the wingnuttery religious right, I don’t see Hamer’s and other’s work as some danger to religion. Of course, that is crazy anyway, since truth should always be our goal, not simply results that support our pet theories of the world.
Since, I don’t see the “God gene” as an evolutionary necessity or even a help, I can easily conclude that the God gene, is indeed that Spirit of God placed within all humans (whether it extends to all life is another question. I personally think it does, but that isn’t the issue before us.). I see the research as just as much supportive of that as it supports the notions of so-called atheists that it’s all a figment of our genetic soup.
I find the God gene, a comfort in fact. It suggests to me at least that we are all on a path to our Creator, though some of us know it not. We are all journeying, however consciously or unconsciously that is occurring.
I’m sure there is more wrong with my analysis that right. I’m neither a geneticist nor an evolutionary biologist. I barely skim the surface of those disciplines in terms of knowledge. Yet, I am comforted, as I said.
Isn’t this more interesting to contemplate than to continue to argue about what the “real presence” means? Are we to be forever bogged down in issues of apostolic succession and women’s ordination, celibacy, homosexuality, and all this? Why oh why aren’t we celebrating our, should I dare say, God given ability, to share a world view of God’s presence? Should we not celebrate our ability to both see a mountain in the distance or a stream jumping with salmon? Are not these the hallmarks of our unity?
Let us have the spirited discussions about all these sundry other matters, yet, on Sunday, let’s go to church and worship, setting aside all our utterly unimportant differences. On one thing we all agree, we are called to transcend our limited selves, we are drawn to that. Let us transcend and begin the process of healing.
May you dream of peace and understanding, unity and compassion, empathy and cooperation in this season of the Epiphany.