In last week’s article, “Death does not fear churches”, I referred to God’s ‘cosmic indifference’.
Two days after I e-mailed that article, but before it appeared on Sunday, international news agencies carried a story about an ancient Israelite altar that had been excavated in the Negev Desert.
After the relevant laboratory tests, archeologists working at the site found that the matter burnt at the altar 2,700 years ago included cannabis, better known to Ugandans as marijuana.
One of the people the BBC talked to on the subject was a Nigerian scholar (a historian of religion) at a British university.
She said the presence of cannabis showed modern man (who often abuses drugs) that an ancient civilisation had developed properly controlled ritualistic use of the narcotic. The users would have the goal of raising or realising full consciousness.
Ah! Was it full consciousness?
I thought of dreadlocks and Bob Marley… Jamaica… Judaic mythology… Abyssinian connections… I had flashes of pre-Christian, pre-Islamic African shrines; their gods and their priests… Sacred figurines… Weird masks… Dedicated slaves… Haiti… Voodoo things… Native Indian shamans… Blood sacrifices… There was something that linked them all. A quest. A yearning for something intangible and transcendent. Instead of ‘full’, I prefer the phrase, altered consciousness.
To develop the state of altered consciousness to the level of intensity at which the spirits supposedly take control, or descend and possess the priest and/or their subjects, the use of wine, narcotic drugs and dancing flames sometimes accompany a pattern of songs, harps, percussion and noisy incantations. In some new Christian churches, electronic gadgets generate some of these psychedelic effects.
People in different contexts often dismiss these practices as ‘idolatry’; or describe them as features of ‘pagan’, ‘indigenous’ or ‘primitive’ religious worship. It is implied in most of the narratives that these religions are (or were) less true and, therefore, inferior to the so-called revealed religions; Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Imperial and colonial agencies triumphantly exposed the indigenous practices as fraudulent, ineffective and sometimes even criminal. The revealed religions were presented as (diversely) rooted in the only true God, who had infinite power and unfailing goodness. Thank you, to the ancient Israelites, who were the first to have direct conversations with this God.
But what if there is something odd about this unquestionable ‘truth’?
For those who needed new evidence, the Negev excavation should add a step to the journey that leads Abraham’s God back to the rich religious imagination that invented so many deities in the Bronze Age; from the Mediterranean, through the Middle East and beyond.
To experience and demonstrate their God’s presence and supposed power, the Israelite priests probably needed not only incantations and the burning of frankincense, but also the psycho-stirring effects of marijuana, before the drug got a bad name.
However bizarre the effects were, they would not necessarily have been shocking. They would have been regarded ‘normal’ at the time.
Thousands of years later, many believers are baffled by a God who appears to be either indifferent or ineffective, and whose power can no longer be convincingly ‘fixed’ by priests at the altar, except among the truly gullible.
So, the very idea of an altar can be said to have only symbolic value, without power.
Covid-19 dictates that human communities are safer when would-be church congregations stay at home. And 21st Century archaeology shows that Abrahamic ritualistic routines were even originally fake shows whose efficacy sometimes needed the power of marijuana.
You might as well remain addicted to your television screen.
Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.