For my money, one of the most insightful critics working just now is Timothy Morton, whose latest book, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People lays out one direction human thinking might go if we manage to save ourselves here in the Anthropocene.
Morton’s focus is “object-oriented ontology,” a very Western world way of saying that everything matters.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that agricultural societies and the religions spun from them will likely be the end of humanity. (Notice what the American right is doing lately?) Or . . . we could see the light, as it were.
Most of us — most of us born in Western or Westernized nations — carry a very large and very damaging assumption that the worldview created by agricultural societies is somehow true. Real. “The way things really are.”
The worldview of agricultural societies forms our religions, our philosophies, our economies; our very way of being in the world. We see dichotomies and opposites everywhere around us:
And on and on. Agra-cultural assumptions find dichotomies everywhere; everything has a slot and an answer.
But what if that is all wrong?
After all, Genesis 3:17 asserts that farming is the curse on humanity for disobedience:
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life . . . (King James Version)
Yep, Adam — eat dirt, buddy. It’s a farming life for you. And farming is more than merely following an ox around all day. It’s also about patriarchal monarchy and pleasing the God you ticked off in the Garden.
This is not the way most of the people on the planet lived when Lord Sargon was kicking around Mesopotamia. Now, thanks to the colonizing work of the Western world, it is. And that may be our undoing.
For example. . . The manuscript called 1 and 2 Samuel in Hebrew scriptures was written sometime between 630–540 BCE, but contains much older material out of oral tradition. And the warning is clear.
In the first book, the people come to the prophet Samuel asking him to anoint a king for them. Up to that time, the tribes that made up the Hebrew nation had depended upon “judges” — charismatic leaders who rose up to address specific invasions or threats. After their service, these leaders faded again back into the tribal structures. The developing cult of YHWH bound the tribes together, not politics. But the people wanted a permanent strong man.
Samuel doesn’t mince any words about what having a king means:
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (1 Samuel 8:10–18, New Revised Standard Version)
Well, yes, that about sums it up. (Recognize Trump, anyone? Recognize the right-wing god?)
The kings of the agricultural kingdoms were not like the chiefs of tribes. Chiefs achieved loyalty with their fighting prowess and their largess to the people of their tribe. They were firsts among equals, but with that “the first shall be last” thing going on.
Samual the prophet explains the new agricultural kings: the people and their possessions would become the king’s, and the king would act out of pride and greed — taxing, spending, exploiting labor, making war, and drafting youth into his armies. He would be like the great monarchs of the Middle East, monarchs such as Sargon, Marduk, and Hammurabi.
What Samual did not say — and perhaps he himself did not know— is that under monarchy of the agricultural-kingdom type, the Hebrew god would become a monarch of the type that agricultural kingdoms create.
In the minds of the people, the Hebrew god YHWH would get himself a throne — and, yes, patriarchy would rule. The king would necessarily be male — he would get himself a throne and begin meting out laws with a big stick.
Interestingly — perhaps because the Hebrew people were never all that successful under their kings — YHWH never quite took on the monarchical trappings that would become the mainstay of the god of the Christians, modeled as He was on Roman emperors.
Subsequent European monarchies followed the model in both their monarchs and their gods.
And here we are, on a planet that is an “it.” We’re still following the “subdue the earth” orders from Eden. Yes, you and me too.
Can we escape agra-religion’s logic and return to a world in which non-human animals are people too? In which “resources” have personhood? Where there is no “it” or “them” or “other”?
More personally: are you ready to give up these distinctions and live in a world where flora and fauna and you are equals?
Seriously, read the book.
Back to the future.