Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2

What is God?: The Tribal God

May 5th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 9 Comments

A previous post on “What is God?”: What is God?: The Personal God.

A long long time ago, but not in a far away galaxy, tribalism was the order of the day, and it was good. Some insist that tribalism is the natural state for humanity. Borrowing a paragraph from Wikipedia’s article on Tribalism:

According to a study by Robin Dunbar at the University of Liverpool, primate brain size is determined by social group size. Dunbar’s conclusion was that the human brain can only really understand a maximum of 150 individuals as fully developed, complex people (see Dunbar’s number). Malcolm Gladwell expanded on this conclusion sociologically in his book, The Tipping Point. According to these studies, then, “tribalism” is in some sense an inescapable fact of human neurology, simply because the human brain is not adapted to working with large populations. Beyond 150, the human brain must resort to some combination of hierarchical schemes, stereotypes, and other simplified models in order to understand so many people.

This combination of “hierarchical schemes, stereotypes and other simplified models” is the root of much evil. 😉 Such unavoidably impersonal societies bring many challenges, and necessitates that other big evil, politics. But I digress.

Tribal Stories

Humans are story-telling creatures. Most “moderns” have lost an appreciation for how the oral tradition worked, having been replaced by writing and “modern western culture”. If you have gone camping with a large group at a young age, you likely have memories of stories told around the camp fire. Nowadays we often tell ghost stories or horror stories. Education takes place in schools, after all, camp fire stories are there for entertainment. Picture an illiterate culture, prior to the development of a writing system though. In such societies, tribal stories become your education.

In pre-modern times, people looked up at the stars, played connect-the-dot, constructing pictures of creatures and men, populating the sky with images that were then connected to stories of creation and seasons and human nature. The sun took part in these stories, as did the moon, the wind, the sea, everything man saw was permeated with meaning. Man “named” the creatures and the elements, the stars and the rocks. This happened numerous times in numerous cultures, creating different stories and different pictures.

Some stories described the origins of everything, for example “the wonderful creation stories of the people of the high Andes and the frozen north”. Other stories describe the tribe’s past, retold over generations, defining the character of the people and shaping their future. I.e. the stories do contain elements of history, but in a pre-modern era, the real value of these stories to their tribal hosts were not in “factual history”, but rather as narratives to shape their present and their future. These stories were told and retold and developed to the point where they provided identity and meaning, and some understanding or acceptance of the human condition.

The narratives included lessons on ethics and morality, about how we should relate to nature, they contained foreign policy guidelines on how to relate to neighbouring tribes. These stories defined the tribe’s identity, their world view, their values. These stories are, in my opinion, some of the most remarkable and beautiful things in human culture, and should be cherished. I look forward to the days when I can share diverse cultures’ stories with my children, in part an excuse to discover their beauty for myself.

I don’t know how much exposure most people have to diverse cultures and mythologies. I was in the fortunate position to have spent five years in a British school in The Netherlands (called, aptly, “The British School in The Netherlands”, or BSN). I remember learning about ancient Egyptian mythology there, and I have had some exposure to Greek mythology, but I cannot even remember how much or from where. What mythologies are South Africans exposed to? Do South Africans learn about diverse cultures, or is that not as common in a strongly religious country with shared and cherished religious narratives?

The stories and narratives I am most familiar with, are indeed those absorbed into the Judeo-Christian culture, and partly into western culture. For one example, the primary narrative of the Israelites, the founding story of their tribe (which was a state-level society, thus technically no longer a “tribe”, but you’ll notice I’m not going with academic definitions here), is the Exodus story: the story of their journey out of Egypt, a narrative about the return from exile. This narrative was repeated via the Babylonian exile and return, and is foundational to the Israelite or Judean culture. It echoes throughout their scripture.

An Aside: Zombie Religion

As an aside, I would argue that much of Western culture has effectively lost knowledge and understanding of the cultural and Old Testament context for the New Testament stories. Fundamentalism decontextualises a couple of elements out of the original tradition, losing the wealth of cultural “meat”, the very “life” that the stories used to have. The result is a zombified version of the tradition that lumbers forth, barely doing anything more than just “surviving” in a purely selfish Darwinian sense: a zombie adapted to avoid death, but not “truly alive” any more, and no longer in a symbiotic relationship with its hosts: us humans. Parasitical…

I believe the emerging church conversation is bringing the flesh back, that many there understand the nature and value of narratives and oral traditions, and that this could restore the tradition to a “living, breathing” organism again. Yes, many mainline traditions have managed to keep the flesh, by good training of its leaders, but I suspect modernism and “fact fundamentalism” have still atrophied or mortified some of the tissue. I hope that there too, some stretching and some exercise will restore the organism to a more glorious state. May it again become a symbiotic partner amongst our diverse cultures.

Cue: God

In theistic traditions, these stories are about “the gods”, or about “God”. As the subject of these stories, God becomes the shared central idea of a tribe with regards to how they relate to one another, the environment around them, and towards that which is bigger than them and outside of their control (“in the hands of God”).

In polytheistic traditions, the stories are about a whole pantheon of gods. The god a particular person chooses to be loyal to, reflects something of that person’s character. This ties in with the idea of a culture and its values being defined by its stories and its God.

In eastern traditions, trying to identify a “central concept” or named entity or idea is more tricky. In Taoism, the stories are about the Tao, or the path or the way. (Remarkable similarity with the early Christians considering themselves people of the way, no?) Buddhism is tricky to cast into this mold I’ve sketched out. I suppose we could talk about “awakening” (enlightenment, or maybe attainment of “nirvana”), but that doesn’t quite work. What would be a unifying factor amongst a “tribe of Buddhists”? Again, they’d be unified in their way of life, or their search? Meh… moving on…

Some traditions have “nature” as their “God concept”, focusing directly on how they relate to their environment. Other traditions revere their ancestors. All can be considered an attempt to connect to that “something greater”, that “thing beyond themselves”. From a monotheistic perspective, all would be considered an attempt at connecting to “God”, while from a non-theistic humanist perspective, all could be considered an attempt of connecting to, and understanding, that “transcendent” thing: the human experience. (With the human experience being subjective. I’m defining the word “transcendent” in such a way that I can use it to refer to it: the experience of the various forms love, for example, I’d like to describe as “transcendent”. A reductionist understanding or description would have you babbling about things like serotonin or somesuch, but doesn’t really talk about what the experience is like, to be a part of the whole, consisting of all the reductionistic parts, with the whole being somehow “more” than “just the sum of the parts”.)

In Focus: The Monotheistic Tribal God

Bringing all of this back into focus for this blog: in monotheistic traditions then, “The Tribal God” aspect of “God”, is the central subject of the narratives of monotheistic culture, the pivotal point or focus point for that culture. In effect thus, a particular monotheistic tribe is defined by its God.

The “God concept” then permeates all aspects of that culture, from discussions on how people relate to one another (described in terms of the concept of “living out God’s love” towards one another), to thinking about what is “right” and “wrong”, what it means to be thankful and appreciative for existence, what creativity is, and how to relate to — and accept things — that are out of your control. While I’m touching on the “personal God” idea here, that was the topic of the previous post. The most important idea I’m trying to convey in this post, is the concept of shared narrative, of communication and relation within the tribe.

Your connection to and solidarity with the tribe depends on this shared concept, the common corpus of stories to which you can refer when dealing with fellow tribesmen. This ties in with what I have suggested in the past, that these traditions are a “language”. It is the language of the tribe, a language with which to describe the world and the human experience.

Categories: Worldviews
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9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // May 5, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    Coming up tomorrow (because this post was getting too long), a follow-up on contemporary tribes, and science narratives.

  • 2 Johan Swarts // May 6, 2008 at 4:08 am


    tribalism is ook weer groot in postmodernisme 😉

  • 3 Contemporary Tribes // May 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    […] Blog | Comments ← What is God?: The Tribal God […]

  • 4 Hugo // May 6, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    So vertel ons ‘n klein bietjie van postmodernisme en tribalism?

  • 5 Serdyn du Toit // May 10, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Hi Hugo!

    Ja, bietjie meer oor die konneksie tussen postmodernisme en tribalism sal SUPERinteressant wees! Skuus, ek moet erken ek het nie eintlik veel van jou artikel gelees nie…as mense begin praat oor godsdiens dan val my brein net bietjie aan die slaap… *MAAR* hierdie hele tribalism konsep is vir my superinteressant!!!!

    Dat deesdae is daar seker nie meer tribes in die ou vorm van die woord nie, maar dat alle mense soek seker nog hulle “plek” (in die verlede seker “tribe”) in die wereld en dat hierdie plekke waarin ons onsself sien of bevind (fisies of in ons eie private gedagtewerelde) is op ‘n metaforiese manier ‘n konneksie tussen ons en ons en ons families se geskiedenis. Dat die plek waar ons onsself bevind is ‘n metaforiese konneksie tussen die tyd van nou en ons verlede.

    Wel, ek dink dat die konsep van “plek” is baie belangrik en dat godsdiens speel seker by baie mense ‘n belangrike rol in terme van die “plek” waarin hulle hulself sien. Anyhoo, skuus as ek nou miskien bietjie offtopic gegaan het – maar ek dink hierdie konsep van “plek” of tribes is net so belangrik en iets wat almal seker gereeld oor moet dink in terme van waar mens mensself bevind en ook waar mens mensself graag sal wil bevind.

    En seker ook Suid-Afrika…dat baie mense het seker nie ‘n goeie “konsep van plek” rondom Suid-Afrika nie… In ‘n sekere mate is dit seker realiteit, maar ook seker in ons gedagtes – want op die ou end is “Suid-Afrika” seker maar net ‘n groep mense wat sukkel om ‘n bestaan te maak en te vind. Maar ja, kom ons praat liewerste nie oor politiek nie 🙂

    Anyhoo, baie interessante gedagtes!!!! >:D

  • 6 Johan Swarts // May 12, 2008 at 2:44 am

    Skies, ek sien nou eers jy’t gevra, Hugo.

    Tribalism is juis baie groot in postmodernisme wanneer dit gaan oor die rol wat tegnologie speel. Ek moet bieg ek het ontsaglik lanklaas daarmee gewerk, (drie jaar gelede in ‘n tweedejaarsfilosofieklas) maar die idee is eenvoudig: in ‘n postmoderne milieu kloek mense saam in stamme, omdat daar nie meer een groot standaardstam is nie.

    Dit was seker die vrotste verduideliking wat ek kon gee…

    (Grief, ek het daai werk lanklaas gedoen).

    Probeer;2-M en

  • 7 Serdyn du Toit // May 12, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Baie interessant! Sal self bietjie na daardie artikels loer 🙂

  • 8 Schalk // Jan 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Gaan niemand ietsie verder skryf hier nie! Wat ek dusver gelees het is interresant.

  • 9 Hugo // Jan 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Haai Schalk! Waaroor wonder jy spesifiek? Waaroor moet iemand meer skryf? 😉

    Die kom nou van ‘n hele tydjie terug (wow, amper 3 jaar…) maar ek sal sekerlik weer hieraan raak, as ek ooit weer genoeg tyd saamskraap.

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