Monotheism Cosmotheism (Jan Assmann)


I’m actually very confused about Jan Assmann’s critique of monotheism. It may be confusing and confused, but it is in no way anything simple or consistent. I’d been avoiding Assmann for a while, having other things to read, but I rushed to read him after reading Shaul Magid’s American Post-Judaism, because Assmann’s  critique of monotheism, or rather “the Mosaic distinction” is a building block to Shaul’s project, which interests me very much.

By Mosaic distinction, Assmann means not monotheism per se but rather the distinction between “true” versus “false” religions. It is this distinction that Assmann identifies at the source of intra-religious hostility. This much I understood about Assmann’s thesis without having actually read him. The Mosaic distinction is at the heart of “secondary” religions. These present themselves in the history of memory as a radical break into the slow, evolutionary cultural orders of primary religions. Secondary religions figure on the figure of an alien God not tied down to time and to place, in contrast to the primary religions displaced but never entirely repressed by them. Primary religions are rooted in the life of a place and a community, at home in the world or cosmos, in nature and its cycles. It’s the difference between locative and utopian religions as theorized by J.Z. Smith, but Assmann comes to the discussion with what seems to be more ideological heat or conviction.

The critics, of course, were wrong when they claimed this to be some kind of anti-monotheism, anti-Semitism, or anti-Judaism. Wrong for two reasons. First, the so-called “Mosaic distinction” is an event that occurs across religious cultures as well as inside them. It has less to do with Egypt versus Israel than one might have thought. It was, after all, Akhenatan, not Moses, who introduced the Mosaic distinction, while the priestly writers in the Bible are just as much the representatives of primary religion as the representatives of ancient Egyptian cosmotheism, i.e. the priestly religion of Leviticus can be read as cosmotheistic, a point made by Richard Rubenstein in the first edition of After Auschwitz back in the 1960s. Second, as Assmann say repeatedly in The Price of Monotheism, he does not reject the Mosaic distinction in favor of “cosmotheism,” i.e. primary religion. The point made by him by the very end of the book is to temper the western religious tradition, to temper the Mosaic distinction with cosmotheism, to keep the Mosaic distinction, but to make it more fluid.

What both the supporters and critics seemed to have missed is the fundamental ambivalence con-fusing Assmann’s cultural critique. These con-fusions about the Mosaic distinction versus cosmotheism are fourfold and systematic.

–The Mosaic distinction as represented by Assmann in a negative light constitutes the generating source of exclusive and excluding forms of monotheism, in which the other, other gods, are judged to be “false,” in contrast to the true, single God of the monotheist. The exclusions are violent and uncompromising, and turn against other people. This is the familiar criticism of monotheism advanced by Regina Schwartz and others. It is only one part of Assmann’s presentation.

–The Mosaic distinction is represented by Assmann in a positive light in that the Mosaic distinction forces the critical distinction between true politics and false politics. The transcendent God cannot be represented by a profane ruler as once previously (p.47). Once God and world have been rendered distinct, the political meaning and consequence of the Mosaic distinction “lies in the separation of politics and religion.” Royalty disappears, the kingdom of God is not of this earth, etc. (p.48).  Or put this way, in a form slightly altered from the one presented by Assmann, the Mosaic distinction frees God from the world, from cosmos, society, and fate, while at the same time, the human person is emancipated from human persons (p.41). The political sovereign can no longer “represent” God in the world since God no longer belongs to the world.

–Cosmotheism is represented by Assmann in a positive light. It represents forms of religion that are rooted in the world and in nature. Their colors are more bright and vibrant than the dull, more sober and “somber” palette ascribed by Assmann to the Mosaic distinction and secondary religions (p.116). Its wisdom, the wisdom of Solomon, is a worldly form of secular wisdom. Cosmotheism is the religion of “rapt assent” and veneration before the world (pp.9, 69)

–Cosmotheism is represented by Assmann in a negative light, perhaps because it constitutes the religion of “rapt assent” and veneration before the state and its profane sovereign. Unable to separate religion from the world, it is unable to make a disjoint between God and state politics. Cosmotheism reflects the divinization of the world, but also of political mastery (p.57). The religion of dominion, it generates hermeticism, Spinozism, freemasonry, Rosicruciansim, Nazism, and New Age religions (p.75).

In his own project, Shaul wants to undo the Mosaic distinction. As for me, I’ll stick with the Mosaic distinction because, sublimated, it ends up liberal, whereas cosmotheism ends up Schmittian and fascist. I have no doubt that Assmann has his eye on this distinction as well. Any confusion about him is this. It seems that Assmann rejects the Mosaic distinction only to affirm it; and he embraces cosmotheism only to reject it, that he wants to fold the other into the one. Maybe that’s not a “confusion.” Maybe that’s precisely the trick. At any rate, “the price of monotheism” seems less steep than the price of cosmotheism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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