From stones laid 11,000 years ago to modern Japanese temple offerings … reflections on objects and faith
Neil MacGregor has chosen to open his new book with a statement of what it is not. Living with the Gods, he writes, is neither a history of religion, nor an argument in favour of faith, nor a defence of any one belief. Rather, it is an attempt to define the nature of belief, the way it influences people and the countries they inhabit, and to show how fundamental it is in explaining who we are and where we came from. For, as he says, it is in deciding how we live with the gods that we decide how to live with each other.
MacGregor has spent many years using art and artefacts as a means of looking at the past, and once again his new book has been accompanied by a radio series and an exhibition. Most of the objects he describes come from the riches of the British Museum, of which he was director for 13 years. Scrolls, pots, fragments of cloth, hair, icons, coins, statues, cuneiform texts and inscribed vessels act as triggers for short essays designed to show how societies have imagined and inhabited their place in the world. Though much of the modern world lives far from its dead, the British Museum is full of their spirits. This scholarly, elegantly written book is a reminder of how seldom, when visiting a museum, most of us take the time to inquire into what lies behind the objects we look at. Living with the Gods is a celebration of curiosity.
The Enlightenment thinkers believed that if you could separate organised religion from the state, there would be no more wars. It was, MacGregor writes, to ignore a crucial element in the human psyche: the need to belong and to have a story, a narrative, not only as an individual but as a community, complete with legends and myths; and it was ever thus. At Göbekli Tepe in south-eastern Turkey, 6,000 years before Stonehenge was built, hunter-gatherers were already cooperating in the making of a shared site for religious ceremonies. It suggests, MacGregor notes, that “we lived with the gods before we lived at close quarters with each other”. Analysing, one by one, objects from every corner of the world and every moment in history, he describes the way that humans have used places, as well as objects that can be touched and felt, to make connections with the divine. It is this interweaving of history and the links between time and place that make his book so enjoyable and so impressive.