This week’s Scotland on Sunday review is now available: David Lewis-Williams’ exceptional Conceiving God. I’ve previously really enjoyed both The Mind in the Cave and Inside the Neolithic Mind, where Lewis-Williams gets as close as might be possible to “reading” cave paintings. He even interprets the Blombos ochre, the earliest artefact which bears witness to deliberate, intentional, artificial markings on a medium. His notion of the cave wall as a “membrane” rather than a surface is ingenious, and seems convincing. His new book explores the origin of religion itself, and posits a natural, neurological explanation for the “supernatural”.
I couldn’t go into some of the further ramifications of Lewis-Williams’ hypothesis, but it strikes me that we still need to account for the change from “simple” shamanism and animism to “complex” theology, with its cosmological and ethical aspects. Personally, I’m drawn to the idea that these concepts are a by-product, a repressed awareness or even a feedback-loop from humanity’s linguistic nature. Many of the attributes associated with all-encompassing and monotheistic deities are actually attributes of language itself. The opening of the Gospel of Saint John is perhaps closer to reality than might be presumed: the word was and was with god.
Firstly, the idea of creation. Language, by giving a name to things literally calls them into being, ex nihilo. Secondly, we can parallel the Saussurian distinction between langue and parole with the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of the deity. We all partake of language, but no-one has all of language: not even the sum total of individual language users equals the absolute language. Even in complex polytheistic cultures there’s a strong correlation between language-givers and law-makers, and I’d argue that since language allows us to be both subjunctive and hypothetical, the origins of “moral codes” – what one should, could, might and ought to do – are ingrained in our linguistic capability.
If “God” is humanity’s attempt to understand its own linguistic nature, it might also explain why (in an act of supreme sublimation), so many images of “God” stress silence, music and that which language cannot grasp.