The lat­est re­views and in­ter­views

Hav­ing cu­rated the ac­claimed His­tory of the World in 100 Ob­jects, Neil MacGre­gor’s lat­est project brings him from New­grange to CERN and be­yond to ex­plore hu­man so­ci­eties’ shared be­liefs, writes TP O’Ma­hony

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - News -

WEST­ERN man has lived with gods since the birth of civil­i­sa­tion in an­cient Athens and Rome. The Greeks had their gods who made their abode on Mount Olym­pus, with Zeus and his formidable wife Hera be­ing the chief among them. Their Ro­man coun­ter­parts were Jupiter and Juno. But the sig­nif­i­cance of these deities is that they rep­re­sented ar­che­typal forms which were cen­tral to man’s self-un­der­stand­ing and his self-con­structed sys­tem of mean­ing. In other words, they were cru­cial el­e­ments in the “sto­ries” which mankind told to it­self and about it­self. From this cre­ative process emerged “re­li­gion”.

In his lav­ishly-il­lus­trated book (based on an award-win­ning BBC Ra­dio 4 se­ries), Neil MacGre­gor, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Gallery and af­ter­wards of the British Mu­seum, traces the his­tory of re­li­gion through a se­lec­tion of arte­facts. Best known for his ear­lier work, his ac­claimed His­tory of the

World in 100 Ob­jects, MacGre­gor was the cu­ra­tor of the Liv­ing with the Gods ex­hi­bi­tion in the British Mu­seum, which drew in big crowds.

This re­flected in part the reawak­en­ing of in­ter­est in re­li­gion as a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal phe­nom­e­non in the after­math of the 9/11 at­tacks in New York and Wash­ing­ton DC. As Linda Wood­head, Pro­fes­sor of the So­ci­ol­ogy of Re­li­gion at Lan­caster Uni­ver­sity, has noted, in “early 2001 the sub­ject of re­li­gion in the mod­ern world was still con­sid­ered mar­ginal by many peo­ple — in the in­ter­ven­ing years that sit­u­a­tion has changed out of all recog­ni­tion. Like it or loathe it, re­li­gion is back on the agenda again”.

gods have never gone away, of course. It may have been in the post-1945 world, after the truly ap­palling loss of life and the wide­spread dev­as­ta­tion, along with the con­cen­tra­tion camp hor­rors of the se­cond world war, that we were wit­ness­ing their twi­light. The “ab­sence” of the gods emerged as a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of post-war cul­ture. This was the ma­trix from which is­sued forth Sa­muel Beck­ett’s mas­ter­piece Wait­ing for

Godot, em­blem­atic of a loss of faith in the di­vine across Europe. A decade or so later we saw the growth of the “Death of God” move­ment in the United States.

That sit­u­a­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cally. “Fifty years ago it was widely as­sumed that re­li­gion was on the wane al­most ev­ery­where: now, far from be­ing marginalised, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween faith and so­ci­ety has moved to the cen­tre of pol­i­tics and global con­ver­sa­tion,” writes MacGre­gor him­self. Why has be­lief come back? And why does it mat­ter so much?

This is the back­ground against which the author worked on the ex­hi­bi­tion in the British Mu­seum, and then went on to write this ex­cel­lent 470-page vol­ume. But right from the out­set he makes it clear what the aim of the book is, and what he is not at­tempt­ing.

“Liv­ing with the Gods is about one of the cen­tral facts of hu­man ex­is­tence: that ev­ery known so­ci­ety shares a set of be­liefs and as­sump­tions — a faith, an ide­ol­ogy, a re­li­gion — that goes far be­yond the life of the in­di­vid­ual, and is an es­sen­tial part of a shared iden­tity. Such be­liefs have a unique power to de­fine — and to di­vide — peo­ples, and are a driv­ing force in the pol­i­tics of many parts of the world to­day. Some­times they are sec­u­lar, most ob­vi­ously in the case of na­tion­al­ism, but through­out his­tory they have most of­ten been, in the widest sense, re­li­gious.

“This book is em­phat­i­cally not a his­tory of re­li­gion, nor an ar­gu­ment in favour of faith, still less a de­fence of any par­tic­u­lar sys­tem of be­lief. Look­ing across his­tory and around the globe, it in­ter­ro­gates ob­jects, places and hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties to try 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 how to live with each other.”

MacGre­gor re­minds us that not all re­li­gion is founded on be­liefs based on diThe

vinely in­spired texts held to con­tain ab­so­lute truths from which re­li­gious author­ity ul­ti­mately de­rives. “If there is one im­age that sums up that view of or­gan­ised re­li­gion in the West, it would surely be Moses on Mount Si­nai, re­ceiv­ing, di­rectly from God, the Ten Com­mand­ments: one all-pow­er­ful, all-con­trol­ling God, hand­ing down a text, writ­ten in un­change­able stone, which sets out clear and im­mutable doc­trine about how we should wor­ship him, and what we should (but mostly should not) do.”

In the West, the three Abra­hamic faiths — Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam — are cen­tral to our un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion, with their be­lief in a sin­gle God and a set of sa­cred texts. Ac­cord­ingly, dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tions of re­li­gion would ex­clude Bud­dhism, for in­stance, which does not re­quire be­lief in a per­sonal God, en­ti­tled to obe­di­ence. It is in­deed true that Eu­ro­peans strug­gle to cope with un­fa­mil­iar, dis­con­cert­ingly fluid ideas of the di­vine.

But, as the author em­pha­sises through the kalei­do­scope of ob­jects, mon­u­ments and ideas he has as­sem­bled, re­li­gion and our un­der­stand­ing of the di­vine can­not be con­fined to syn­a­gogues, churches, and mosques.

Among the many ex­am­ples em­body­ing older man­i­fes­ta­tions of the di­vine which he ex­plores are New­grange, the head­quar­ters of CERN (the Eu­ro­pean Cen­tre for Nu­clear Re­search near Geneva), and the Tem­ple of Vesta in the cen­tre of the Ro­man Fo­rum.

The author re­minds us that New­grange, about 50km north of Dublin, is older than Stone­henge, or than the pyra­mids of Egypt. “We can­not know with cer­tainty what be­liefs or ri­tu­als led to the mak­ing of New­grange, but all ex­perts agree that there must have been both. Walk­ing into the heart of this cir­cu­lar man­made mound feels like mak­ing a short jour­ney into the mys­tery of life and death ... some com­plex struc­ture of faith and rit­ual must lie be­hind the mak­ing of New­grange.”

CERN is cho­sen not so much for it­self but be­cause at the en­trance to its head­quar­ters the Hindu god Shiva is shown danc­ing in a per­pet­ual cir­cle of fire. “In Hindu tra­di­tion Shiva’s fire cre­ates and sus­tains us, yet it also de­stroys us. Like nu­clear en­ergy, fire ul­ti­mately eludes hu­man un­der­stand­ing or hu­man con­trol.” Fire is also cen­tral to the story of the god­dess Vesta and her Vestal Vir­gins in Rome. The cen­tral job of the lat­ter was to tend the sa­cred flame of the city. The author quotes Mary Beard, Pro­fes­sor of Clas­sics at Cam­bridge: “Like al­most all Ro­man priest­hoods, this was an elite job. But it was very un­usual be­cause it was a fe­male elite job, which guar­an­teed the Vestal and her fam­ily a place at the very heart of Ro­man re­li­gion — and so at the very heart of the Ro­man po­lit­i­cal world too”.

What MacGre­gor’s book re­in­forces is the cru­cial dis­tinc­tion be­tween re­li­gious in­struc­tion (in­doc­tri­na­tion) and re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion, and the im­por­tance of the lat­ter which teaches stu­dents about a range of re­li­gions and be­liefs but does not pro­mote any one re­li­gion. In Ir­ish se­condary schools, the State-ap­proved syl­labus on re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion is com­pul­sory and is an ex­am­i­na­tion sub­ject. That’s in­creas­ingly im­por­tant be­cause, as Peter L Berger, Pro­fes­sor of So­ci­ol­ogy at Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity, has em­pha­sised: “Those who ne­glect re­li­gion in their analy­ses of con­tem­po­rary af­fairs do so at great peril.”

Pic­ture: Sean Gallup/Getty Im­ages

ALL BOW: Neil MacGre­gor, is once again ex­am­in­ing hu­man-made ob­jects — but also places and ac­tiv­i­ties — to help us un­der­stand the na­ture of re­li­gion and so­ci­ety.

Liv­ing With the Gods Neil MacGre­gor Allen Lane, £30

ALL RISE: The win­ter sol­stice at New­grange; the ne­olithic burial cham­ber in Co Meath is one of the many ex­am­ples of more an­cient man­i­fes­ta­tions of the di­vine.

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