In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. By Winfried Corduan. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013. 368 pp. $19.99. ISBN 978-0-8054-4778-1.
The idea that human religions developed, progressively, from some form of animism or polytheism into the predominant theistic religions has been the predominant view of historians and historians of religion for some time now. Evolutionary theory is applied to the development of human society and religion, and, in this way, we are told that humankind evolved from the least complicated religious views to the most complicated and developed religious views. Though the evolution of religion has been a predominant view, there have also been those who have proposed that, on the contrary, the original religion of mankind was Monotheism, and that this Monotheism was eventually corrupted, degrading into the various polytheism and animistic religions. In his recent book, “In the Beginning God”, Winfried Corduan, a well-known expert in the study of Religions, argues that the theory of an original Monotheism merits a second chance, especially since it has never really been refuted; it was just put to the side by rhetorically powerful, but philosophically unsound, critiques. In this review we will begin by noting the purpose of the book. We will then give an overview of the content. This will be followed by our opinion concerning the relative worth of this book.
The purpose of this book is to explain the genesis of the theory of original monotheism, its reception by those scholars who were researching the history of religion, and to contend that this theory, which has never been properly refuted, seems to be even more valid today, then it was when it was originally proposed. The book is written so that people who are unfamiliar with the study of the history of religion can understand what is at stake, and follow the discussion. However, the book will be of great interest to those who are currently involved in researching the history of religion.
The book is presented almost like a history of the history of religions. The book advances by explaining each step in turn. The reader, in chapter 1, is introduced to the important questions that are asked by those who engage in the history of religion, as well as the terms that are used by this domain of research. Chapter 2 considers the contributions of Max Muller to the study of human religions, which developed out of his work concerning the Indo-European Languages. Muller proposed that much of Mythology came about through a confusion of and literal application of poetic language. We are introduced to his theory, his method, and the general application of his method to Sanskrit. We are then presented with Andrew Lang’s critique of Muller. In chapter 3 we are introduced to E. B. Tylor, who is used as the primary representative of a Darwinian evolutionary theory concerning the development of human religions. Corduan begins by presenting a number of questionable assumptions that Tylor (and others) uncritically accepted. We are then introduced to a number of scholars who engaged in this debate, including Adolphe Pictet (who proposed original monotheism), and some of his critics: John Muir, Otto Pfleiderer and Edmond Scherer. These sections are used as a prelude to an examination of Tylor’s work, which is explained and critiqued in the rest of the chapter. This chapter contains an interesting excursus concerning the development of a Darwinian history of socio-religious development. In chapter 4 Corduan returns to Lang, mentioned in chapter 2, in order to take a look at Lang’s rejection of his professors’, E. B. Tylor, theories, and his proposal of the possibility of an original monotheism. Lang’s work centered around the aboriginals of Australia, and Corduan takes the time to explain the important elements of Lang’s research and theories. Corduan also notes, as this chapter advances, the names and work of a number of prominent scholars whose research helped Lang. In chapter 5 Corduan continues his explanation of Andrew Lang’s research, and introduces the reader to the various responses to Lang’s theory. Corduan also takes the time to point the errors in Lang’s research, but, even more importantly, the errors in the critiques of Lang’s research. This chapter also explains the basic social structure of the Australian aboriginal groups (especially Totemism). The reader is left with the impression that the critiques of Lang’s theories did not actually affect the overall theory.
In chapter 6 we are introduced to Wilhelm Schmidt and Fritz Graebner. These scholars developed the Cultural-historical method of Ethnology, and in chapter 6 Corduan explains the important elements of their method, discusses elements which contribute to cultural migrations, and considers the elements that allow us to notice the possibility of interaction between cultures. In chapter 7 Corduan explains the results of the cultural-historical method. In this chapter Corduan considers a number of aboriginal groups in North America and shows how the cultural-historical method, when applied to these groups in North America, is able to give testable and falsifiable results (which, however, seem to be confirmed by the work of ethnologists and anthropologists). In chapter 8 Corduan considers the reception of Schmidt’s work by noting how other scholars interacted with it. Corduan explains the most important critiques, and notes how none of them affect the overall method, but, rather, help to refine the results; rendering the method even more useful. One is left with the notion that most of the people who actually interacted with Schmidt and Graebner never even took the time to read and study their theory.
In chapter 9 Corduan explains the theories of Mircea Eliade, Rudolf Otto and Émile Durkheim, showing how, rather than engage the question of the historical origin of human religions, these scholars preferred to remove all question of historicity, and concentrate on the psychological or phenomenological origins of religion. These authors created confusion by using the term “origin” in a psychological and non-historical (temporal) manner. Corduan takes the time to critique their views. In chapter 10 Corduan, rather than concentrating on those cultures that seem to be the most primitive (meaning closest to the original human culture), turns to the cultures of the great civilizations (Egypt, China, etc.). He seeks to discover whether it is possible, or not, to find, at the base of these polytheistic religions, a core of monotheism. Corduan does not make any absolute claims, but argues, providing evidence as needed, that there does indeed seem to be a monotheistic core in these religions. The concluding chapter is an overview of what has been discovered, a discussion of the utility of these discoveries for Christian Apologetics, as well as a caution concerning the use of these conclusions.
Winfried Corduan presents a compelling case for the claim that the theory of original monotheism must be put back on the table. In fact, he presents a convincing argument that the theory of original monotheism was never removed from the table, just ignored by those who claimed to be working in that domain. As a relative beginner in this domain of research I found this book extremely interesting. The arguments presented by Corduan were well presented, and the evidence was easy to understand. I would have suspected that this type of book would have been difficult to follow, as I am unfamiliar with the history of this domain of research, but, the opposite was, in fact, the case. Corduan takes the time to explain the terms properly, to outline the arguments, and to introduce the important people who worked in this area of research. Corduan has presented the theory in an easy to understand and coherent manner. This book will hopefully stimulate renewed interest in the theory of original monotheism, and will hopefully send many scholars back to workshop in order to truly give this theory a critical consideration. I highly recommend this book.