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REVIEW — Living with the Gods

In ‘Living with the Gods’, Neil MacGregor says that a set of shared beliefs and assumptions (faith, ideology, religion, etc) are at the centre of human existence and progress. Mphuthumi Ntabeni was enthralled by MacGregor’s idea that no organised society, in the past, has ever been able to thrive without a shared set of beliefs. It is simply a crucial part of our shared identity.

Living with the Gods by Neil MacGregor. Penguin Books (Imprint: Allen Lane). Published: 17/09/2018. ISBN: 9780241308295. Length: 512pp.

“[A] society with a belief in something beyond itself, a narrative that goes beyond the immediate and beyond the self, seems better equipped to confront threats to its existence, to survive and to flourish.”

From the beginning of this book MacGregor hastens to warn us, that his book is “emphatically not a history of religion, nor an argument in favour of faith, [and] still less a defence of any particular system of belief.”  He is more interested in interrogating religious practices across history and around the globe, in order “to understand what shared religious beliefs can mean in the public life of a community or a nation, how they shape the relationship between the individual and the state, and how they have become a crucial contributor to who we are. For in deciding how we live with our gods we also decide”, he says, “how to live with each other.”

The author is more interested in notions of freedom and social justice, and in comparisons about which religious beliefs or system has, or can provide, greater material benefits for its society.

In short, the question he indirectly asks is: which religious system is best for human progress and freedom, and why? He’s not really interested in individual belief, ontology, spirituality or theology.

He approaches religion as values-based stories that are told to transmit the wisdom of the past.  To make his point, he quotes Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

This led me to think also of the prayer of Moses, which is regarded as the oldest psalm in the Bible: “we spend our years as a tale that is told.” In fact there are several complementary quotes in this quietly erudite book that does not wear its profound learning on the sleeve.

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim is at the heart of the book’s thesis.

Durkheim was of the opinion that the stories we tell have an over-arching influence on how we construct our societies. The ideals they illustrate, and the ceremonies within which they are enacted, constitute the essential elements of any system of communal belief. In a sense, the stories are the society, Durkheim claimed.

Ben Okri, award winning author of The Famished Road also lives by a similar mantra. Stories, he says, “are a secret reservoir of values: change the stories individuals and nations live by and tell themselves, and you change the individuals and the nations.”

Nations, like ours in South Africa, who were invaded by aggressive acts of colonialism that almost truncated the natural progression of culture and traditions, provoking untold crises, understand this very well.

We find it not only necessary, but urgent, to return to the retelling of our own stories — even those of invasion and defeat — so that we might heal and repair what was bruised.  We need to hear our own voices — as self-facilitators of this recuperation process — to bring healing to our collective, wounded, and festering, memory.

For as MacGregor explains,  “If, for whatever reason, we lose or forget them [our stories], in a very real way, collectively, we no longer exist.”  For those who never experience this loss it is easy to be dismissive of this need, as seen when making careless statements like: “You need to move on”; “What’s in the past is the past.” But those who live with this loss know what Faulkner, who lived in a former slave colony, understood so succinctly: “The past has gone nowhere.”

As a Scotsman whose culture and traditions suffered the similar fate of being colonised and almost destroyed by the English, MacGregor perfectly understands that “the most powerful and most sustaining of any society’s stories are the work of generations. They are repeated, adapted and transmitted, absorbed into everyday life, ritualized and internalized to such a degree that we are often hardly aware that we are still surrounded by the tales of distant ancestors.” And when you rob people of this, you rob them of their collective identity.

I can sing the glories of this book ceaselessly, but let me share just one more of his insights.

The idea of dividing the cycle of the moon into four seven-day weeks, which began in ancient Babylon, popularised into the familiar modern form by a Jewish model, through the story of Creation as told in Genesis, is another example he draws out.

In the Genesis story, God makes the world in six days and rests on the seventh,  ordering humanity and their animals to do likewise. Consequently, every week now connects us to the beginning of time itself and therefore, to the recurrent rhythm of our existence. But that’s just the half of it.

Our unique languages and beliefs contributed to what we call the week days. In English the origins of these names are “an inherited meditation on the cycles of time, as we observe the pattern of the sun, the moon and the planets circling above us…” They begin with the sun and the moon—Sunday and Moonday.

“In England, somewhere around the seventh century, the planets tethered to the exotic gods of Rome were renamed for the equivalent northern gods, and it is their Anglo-Saxon names—Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frige—that distinguish the days for English-speakers into Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday… On Saturday, these homely Anglo-Saxon gods are, however, joined by Saturn, the one Roman immigrant who stubbornly retained his Latin name, making our week, like our language itself, a peculiar German–Latin hybrid.”

MacGegor demonstrates in these brilliant ways how we still live with ancient gods.

“In Italian, as in French and the other Romance languages, after Friday there is no Saturn’s day. Instead, the week shifts into a different religious world. The fifth of the pagan gods gives way to the Sabbath of the single God of the Jews – sabato and samedi. And after the Jewish Sabbath comes not the day of the sun, but domenica or dimanche: it is the day of dominus, the Lord.”

In Latin Europe the weekend is not about the pattern of movement in the skies, but about how we should worship on earth. Thus the days of the week give time a shape, placing the everyday routine of our single lives in a pattern both of cosmic harmony and of social order.

Lastly, we see that the pagan Roman planetary gods, even where long supplanted by Roman Catholicism and the Romance languages, and added to them the Jewish and Christian holy days, stand quietly firm. Only in Eastern Europe and the Middle East has the Greek Orthodox church rejected those displaced pagan gods — and their planets — entirely.

The Eastern church chose instead to stay with the radically different tradition of the Jews, a model later adopted also by the Protestants and Muslims. Their week has a clear centre: “the one and only God, and the day principally devoted to his worship – Friday, Saturday or Sunday as appropriate for Muslims, Jews or Christians.” The days in-between have no pagan or cosmic resonances, but are simply numbered in sequence — the day after, or the second day, the third day, and so on.

So the turn of the week in Hebrew, Russian or Arabic (to venture no further afield) tells a story of a narrative of the active practice of faith and of rigorous monotheism, “of one single god around whom alone the pattern of our lives is to be ordered – a god who emphatically does not share time with the gods of the heathens.”

Betraying the overwhelming Protestant influence over the amaXhosa, in our language the days are also numerical, with the exception of Sunday which we call iCawe, sabato, the Day of Worship. Monday, again betraying the Protestant confusion then, is called uMvulo, the Opening Day, then Tuesday is Lwesibini (Second Day), so forth until Saturday, uMgqibelo, the Last Day.

Living With the Gods is probably the most crucial book I’ve ever read – next to the Bible.

I am unlikely ever to convey the beauty and simplicity of its language; the depth and comprehensibility of its learning; its brilliant narrative economy, and so much else. The lack of disfiguring egoism emanating from the author’s voice makes for calming and nourishing reading, as necessary as the sunlight is over the earth. This is a brilliant book from one of the most beautiful minds of our generation.

Robert Neil MacGregor, OM, AO, FSA (born 16 June 1946) is a British art historian and former museum director. He was the editor of the Burlington Magazine from 1981 to 1987, then Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015, and is currently the founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.