The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 1: Echoes of the Primeval Revelation

A number of hunter-gatherer tribes, peoples who neither cultivate fields nor keep herds, harbor a fervent belief that the Supreme Being once lived with their ancestors on this earth for some days or weeks. Details about circumstances and events differ completely from those of Genesis, but the central belief that God befriended the ancestors and revealed Himself to them is identical. As in Genesis, this Supreme Being is all good. He likewise expects the people to obey His injunctions and to live by the high moral standards He patterns for them. That part is clear in Genesis as well as in typical hunter-gatherer myths.

But there is one remarkable difference: Genesis tells us almost nothing about a life after death, whereas typical hunter-gatherer myths make a great point of that. This suggests, to me at least, that hunter-gatherer myths are more ancient than the traditions re-composed into Genesis. Heaven awaits the good in the primitive myths. There they will be young and sound again, healthy, happy and joyous in a paradise of God's benign presence. In some of their myths punishment awaits evil people in the next world.

Information on hunter-gatherer myths is massively available in the twelve tomes of anthropologist Father Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD (1868-1954) titled Der Ursprung der Gottes Idee, (Origin of the Idea of God), (Fribourg, Switzerland), and in the sources which he indicates. The Anthropos Institute, which he founded, is now situated at Saint Augustine, Germany. Ernest Brandewie, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at Indiana University, translated from German to English much of what we will use here, in Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God. We will draw generously from that work, and frequently from primary sources there indicated. In Volume VI of Ursprung we find this summary passage describing the longing of typical hunter-gatherers for a re-union with the Supreme Being in the afterlife:

The time that the great Supreme Being spent on earth living intimately with man shortly after He, the Boundless Good, had filled His creation with goodness until it overflowed (cf. p. 404) was considered to be the best of all times on this earth, according to the beliefs common to this oldest era. People looked back to this time as to a lost island of bliss with painful longing, a longing they now believe will be satisfied when the souls of the good will live in heaven; life in heaven, not on this earth, will reestablish that golden age. We find glowing descriptions of this coming heavenly paradise among the Maidu, the Lenape-Delaware, the Salis, the Wiradyuri and the Kamilaroi...They give us an idea about the rapture under which the earliest men viewed the heavenly sojourn which the blessed deserve and spend with their Creator and Judge (Ursprung472, trans. by Ernest Brandewie in Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God, p. 272).

The fact that Genesis chapter 1 relates the story of creation somewhat differently than chapter 2 implies that God's basic revealed truth can be made known to us in changed cultural garb. The revelation which is God's word communicated to humans, is the hallowed message; the man who speaks or writes the message, does so in a familiar cultural setting. When we change clothes we do not become different people, and when the cultural style of narrating the revelation is changed, the message can endure in a new setting.

Hunter-gatherers do not name the Supreme Being by the name of Jahweh as Moses did. Neither do they speak about six days of creation. The cultural settings of creation stories by the Lenape, the Maidu, the Yamana, the Australian Aborigines, the Ainu are all different, each rendering the message intelligible and artful, adapted to the native audience; but the core revelation contained in them about the majestic Supreme Being who is Creator, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, is essentially identical.

Are the myths of primitives different versions of the Genesis account? The question can be answered no in one sense, yes in another. We usually think of a "version" as a worded document. What God revealed to Adam and Eve was surely not in writing. Humans invented writing only a few thousand years ago. The Lord likely spoke to them in their own language which is now obsolete, and imprinted His revelation as concepts upon their minds - as light from His light. He also wrote into their hearts what we can rightly term as the "Ten Commandments of Eden," which are the foundation of human culture and civilization. It was the task of succeeding generations to express aptly in their own language and culture the original primeval revelation. The inspired author of Genesis - whether in touch with the primeval revelation, or taught anew by God, or both - expressed the message in the elegant manner we have learned to love, soaring in style and content far above the hunter-gatherer myths. Primitive peoples, surely not without continuous help from God, express the basic concepts in their own culture-modified fashion, but not always without admixture of error.

Poets, priests, and gifted narrators forever invented new and inspiring ways to convey the truths to people of their culture. In short, various primitive peoples may indeed express the concepts of the original revelation with varying degrees of success, without depending upon any continuity of an original linguistic version of the same. The message is handed down, refreshed continually by God, understood by succeeding generations. We think of the message which the Apostles from Galilee preached on Pentecost, whose content the hearers perceived undistorted, each in their own language.

My intention is to put forth arguments that Genesis and the primitive myths reflect God's primeval revelation to our first ancestors. When we find great supernatural truths sung and taught in primitive myths as well as in Genesis, we look for a common source, revelation made by God. The words are not related, but the source of the content is perhaps common, namely the primeval revelation made by God to our first parents. That will be the connecting thread of this book.

The Need of Revelation

The master theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), reminds us that the limited power of our human thinking capacity - the faculty of our reason - does not easily achieve clear concepts about the Supreme Being, unless it is assisted to do so by the teaching of a revelation. We have reason to question whether the hunter-gatherers learned their clear concepts about God through their intellectual powers alone, without being assisted by God Himself through revelation. And since their beliefs in an afterlife in heaven contain supernatural elements, not accessible to human reason, their existence points to revelation made by God. For when humans perceive that God calls them to live with Him in heaven, this invitation is initiated by God. Humans cannot force open a door into heaven.

For numerous generations descendants of Abraham recited this message orally before it was committed to writing. But before Abraham came to be, Aborigines in Australia were reciting myths of similar content. As one of them witnessed: "We Aborigines are a religious people... My people existed in Australia thousands of years before Abraham. In all that time God was with my people. He worked through their culture. He was preparing us for the day when we would see features of Aborigines in the image of his Son" (Mrs. Elsie Heiss, Sydney, at the Oceania Synod of Bishops, Rome, 1998, quoting Deacon Boniface Perdiert (L'Osservatore Romano 16 December 1998, p. 11). And before Homo Sapiens migrated into Australia some 60,000 years ago, the first parents of our human race received a revelation from God. Genesis is now written in letters, but its content cannot contradict the primeval revelation which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, God gave to our first parents:

54"God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word, provides men with constant evidence of himself in created realities. And furthermore, wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation, he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning." He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice.

55 This revelation was not broken off by our first parent's sin. "After the fall, (God) buoyed them up with the hope of salvation by promising redemption; and he has never ceased to show his solicitude for the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing."

The couple whom the Bible designates as Adam and Eve were most likely hunter-gatherers, living the pattern of life common to humans before animal husbandry and agriculture began some 10,000 years ago. If there is a nexus of continuity between the primeval revelation by which God made Himself known to our first ancestors, and the inspired writing of Genesis, the connection must be one of faith rather than of letters. We cannot know whether some of the hunter-gatherers preserved the original revealed message uninterruptedly in some form or other, or whether God renewed it for them again and again. Neither can we know whether Genesis has an uninterrupted nexus with the original primeval revelation, or whether it is a renewal of the primeval revelation inspired for the Bible, clothed now in a Hebrew cultural garb.

The fact that the original revelation is associated with supernatural grace and contains truths which the human mind cannot learn unless God teaches them must be kept in mind.

One road of access to truth for humans is our native power of reason. A second road to truth is direct teaching done by God Himself, which we call revelation. God being a Spirit, can communicate with us, Spirit to spirit, when He wills to do so. For example, God gave the Three Wise Men faith in Christ: "Today, the Magi see clearly, in swaddling clothes, the one they have long awaited as he lay hidden among the stars" (St. Peter Chrisologos, Sermo 160, Office of Readings, Monday after Epiphany). Reason is our native intellectual power. Faith is an infusion of subtle light from God: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor 13:12). By reason we examine the evidence, whether God has spoken through a revelation; by faith we accept the revelation which reason presents and make it our own. As Pope John Paul II states in the opening words to the Encyclical Fides et Ratio:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth (14 September, 1998).

St. Thomas Aquinas asks why we need revelation at all if we can already know God by reason. He then answers his own question. Few people, he writes, would acquire adequate knowledge about God by mere exercise of the intellect. Some people lack talent to think with acumen; others are too busy with necessities imposed on them by their daily lives and would not "give much time to the leisure of contemplative inquiry as to reach the highest peak at which human investigation can arrive, namely the knowledge of God." Finally, some, being indolent, do not make the needed effort to learn about God properly:

In order to know the things that the reason can investigate concerning God, a knowledge of many things must already be possessed. For almost all of philosophy is directed towards the knowledge of God, and that is why metaphysics, which deals with divine things, is the last part of philosophy to be learned. This means that we are able to arrive at the inquiry concerning the aforementioned truth only on the basis of a great deal of labor spent in study. Now, those who wish to undergo such labor for the mere love of knowledge are few, even though God has inserted into the minds of men a natural appetite for knowledge (Summa Contra Gentiles 1,4; trans. Anton C. Pegis).

Thomas goes on to state that it would take a great deal of time to arrive at a proper understanding of God if we use only the powers of reason, because the truth about God is so profound that we can acquire it only after a long training. Secondly, young people are still so much swayed by the feelings and passions that they are not in a condition to acquire enough knowledge about so lofty a truth. "One becomes wise and knowing in repose," he observes, quoting Aristotle. Therefore "if the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of the reason, the human race would remain in the blackest shadows of ignorance. For then the knowledge of God, which especially renders men perfect and good, would come to be possessed only by a few, and these few would require a great deal of time in order to reach it" (loc. cit.).

Moreover, continues Thomas, we frequently err in our judgments due to the weakness of our intellect, and for that reason many are deterred by an admixture of errors from even seeing the truth of things that have been duly proven. We even believe that some falsehood is demonstrated and foolproof when it is not. "That is why it was necessary that the unshakeable certitude and pure truth concerning divine things should be presented to men by way of faith" (loc. cit.). Thomas ends the discourse with thanks to God that He has made it easier for us to know Him by providing us with revelation:

Beneficially, therefore, did the divine Mercy provide that it should instruct us to hold by faith even those truths that the human reason is able to investigate. In this way, all men would easily be able to have a share in the knowledge of God, and this without uncertainty and error.

Therefore it is written: "Henceforward you walk not as also the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind, having their understanding darkened" (Eph. 4:17-18). And again: "All thy children shall be taught of the Lord" (Isa 54:13).

The Greek Philosopher Plato wrote: "Finding the creator and father of this universe is toilsome and, after he has been found, it is not possible for everyone to speak of him" (Timaeus, 28,c; see Albert Vanhoye, S.J. "The discourse at the Areopagus and the universality of truth" in Oss. Rom. 24 Feb. 1999).

All the more, continues Thomas, divine revelation is absolutely necessary to learn about truths which surpass the powers of reason [such as belief in heaven by hunter-gatherers]. Vatican I, in 1870, articulated as a doctrine of the faith the teaching that divine revelation is absolutely necessary for humans in order to gain access to supernatural truths; heaven and divine adoption are truths that lie beyond the natural sphere, and can be known only through revelation:

It is, however, not for this reason that revelation is to be called absolutely necessary; but because God in His infinite goodness has ordained man to a supernatural end, viz., to share in the good things of God which utterly exceed the intelligence of the human mind; for "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9) (DS, 3005; Dupuis, 114).

The widespread knowledge about the Supreme Being among ordinary hunter-gatherers, and their intimate trust in Him as "Our Father," points unmistakably, I believe, to divine revelation at one time or other, in one manner or other, as the source of that belief. In chapters which follow, we will find that numerous hunter-gatherers believe that God exists, and that He rewards the good and punishes the evil in the next life. That cannot be explained, I believe, without concluding that they are therefore in touch with divine revelation.

We ask, then, whether the hunter-gatherers of America, Australia, Asia, and Africa all received separate revelations about the Supreme Being; or might they all have kept, to a certain extent, belief in the original revelation which was made to our first ancestors, the people we call our Adam and Eve?

Revelation Answers the Basic Questions About the Meaning of Life

Doctrine about original sin provides us with the knowledge that our first ancestors received revelation from God together with the original gifts of holiness and justice. This revelation about God filled a great need in the lives of man ever since. For man passionately seeks to know what purpose his life has, how he began, and what will happen to him after death. And he desires enduringly to act in accordance with his deepest yearnings and insights. Schmidt observes plausibly that knowledge about the Supreme Being, once grasped by humans, has an in-built tendency to perpetuate itself; for man continuously searches for those very items of truth which revelation teaches with certainty, with lucidity, and with convincing finality:

Man needs to find a rational cause; this is satisfied by the concept of a Supreme Being who created the world and those that dwell therein.

Man has social needs; these find their support in belief in a Supreme Being who is also the Father of mankind, who founded the family and to whom, therefore, man and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters and kinsfolk owe allegiance.

Man has moral needs; and these too find their stay and support in a Supreme Being who is lawgiver, overseer, and judge of the good and bad, and is himself free from all moral taint.

Man has emotional needs; he can anchor his need to trust, to love and to be thankful in the Supreme Being who is a Father, who is all good, and from whom all good things come to him.

Man feels the need of a protector to whom he can entrust himself with confidence; he finds this protector in the Supreme Being who is matchless [in power and goodness] who stands above all other beings and rules over them.

This exalted figure of the Supreme Being with all the attributes which man seeks, furnished primitive man with the rationale and strength to live meaningfully and to love sincerely, to trust and to work, to engage in the quest of becoming master of the world and not its slave, and to aspire to strive toward still higher goals beyond this earth.

Only through this image of God does the dynamic progress of humanity at its origin become intelligible; even today the replete energies of humans to work, to be responsible, to strive for better things, and to aspire toward human togetherness, have their roots in the ancient culture. It is therefore a significant and well structured and functionally efficient religion which we meet here among a whole series of tribes of the ancient cultures [the hunter-gatherers] (Schmidt, Handbuch Der Vergleichende Religionsgeschicte,282-283; trans. by author).

This describes well the powerful and enduring dynamism which belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, lends to humans. This belief is the source of spiritual, psychic, and cultural power that enduringly supplies humans with the energy to find life worth living, to pursue a meaningful life individually and to develop and maintain orderly social structures through all times and ages.

David Rooney finds it plausible that the monotheism we discover among so many scattered and diverse peoples may be an echo of the revelation of God Himself to the first human creatures; and for an echo to survive the countless opportunities for tergiversation during the long span of millennia, there must have been a tremendous and memorable event to begin it all. He quotes Wilhelm Schmidt's characterization of that primeval revelation:

Something tremendous must have presented itself to them, an experience which gripped and shook their whole being to its inmost depths, and which in its overwhelming power immediately caused that unity and solidarity in their religion.

This something cannot have been a merely subjective process within man himself; for it would have produced neither the power and the coherent solidarity of that religion as a whole, nor the clarity and stability of its beliefs and forms of worship. Neither can it have been a purely impersonal, uncommon experience; else it would be even more inexplicable how from these purely impersonal entities such effects of power, stability, and clarity could have been exerted upon the personalities of these people.

No; it must have been a tremendous, mighty personality which presented itself to them: capable of captivating their intellect with luminous truths, of binding their will by high and noble moral commands, and of winning their hearts through ravishing beauty and goodness (W. Schmidt, Primitive Religion, tr. Joseph Baierl, Herder, 1939, pp.182-183; quoted in Rooney, p. 217).

Although our Homo Sapiens race launched itself in the one single geographic locality - whether in Africa or Asia - in which God granted them the primeval revelation, subsequent generations fanned out eventually into all the continents, even to the edges of the habitable world. It is a fact to be marveled at that in the five continents in which hunter-gatherers eventually settled (we have no record of them in Europe) they give testimony to a belief in the Supreme Being.

It is regrettable that theological manuals and biblical studies generally ignore the data about the belief of hunter-gatherers in the Supreme being and in the after life. All peoples on earth today, and all scholars, are descendants of hunter-gatherers, the key culture of all humanity until about 10,000 years ago. Our descent from hunter-gatherer believers who observed the primeval revelation supplies a plausible explanation why monotheism, worship of the Supreme Being, monogamous marriage, Ten Commandments to order social life - all these and more are a common heritage of most ordinary people of all the world, no matter to which religion they may formally adhere. For all have descended from original hunter-gatherer societies in which monotheism prevailed everywhere around the globe.

Next Page: Chapt: 2 Lifestyles of hunter-gatherers
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17