Origin of the Idea of a Supreme Being in Primitive Culture

If we apply that criterion to the abundant mass of data which we can now produce regarding the primitive Supreme Being, the first thing to notice is that the total sum of the facts is of a nature to satisfy the total sum of human needs. 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. He had 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 the bad, and is himself free from all moral taint. Man’s emotional wants, trust, love, thankfulness, are satisfied by such a being, a Father from whom comes all good and nothing but good.

Man needs a protector to whom he can resign himself; this need is supplied in this Being, who is supreme and great above all others. Thus in all these attributes this exalted figure furnished primitive man with the ability and the power to live and to love, to trust and to work, the prospect of becoming the master of the world and not its slave, and the aspiration to attain to yet higher, supra-mundane goals beyond. Only through
this conception of deity can we explain the power of our earliest ancestors to struggle onwards; and the most precious of human energies—labour, responsibility, aspirations upward, feeling for the unity of all mankind—still trace their origin to those primeval days. We thus find, among a whole series of primitive races, a notable religion, many- branched and thoroughly effective.

The second unity into which all the individual traits of the primitive Supreme Being combine and, as it were, stand shoulder to shoulder, is that of time; for he fills all time. From his eternal heaven he invades Nothingness, and begins the time-series with his creative activity. Throughout all the periods of creation and all successive periods he is lord of man’s history, although he does not always actively interpose. He stands,
moreover, at the beginning of each human life, accompanies it through all its length of days, awaits its appearance before his tribunal and determines the nature of its eternity. For such a unity as this primitive man has no model and no corroboration in what he sees and experiences in his own time.

The third unity, which also combines all the separate facts concerning the primitive Supreme Being, is that of space; for he dominates all space. There is but one Supreme Being, and he fills this universe; there is but one sovereign and one power extending over these distances and joining them one to another. For the God of these primitive men is not the god merely of one tribe and its environment; if only because he is the creator of the whole world and of all men, he has no neighbour whose realm could limit his. The thoughts and feelings of these men have no room for more than one Supreme Being. The personal experience of primitive man did not show him unity of time; still less did he find unity of space therein, and least of all in his social conditions. Primitive monotheism is founded upon the sovereignty over these two unities; this high god is so great that he alone suffices for everything and for all—for all men and all times, all ideals, longings and needs. And therefore he has no peer, for his greatness knows no bounds and thus leaves no room for any neighbour.

Source: Wilhelm Koppers,  (1886-1961), Roman Catholic priest and cultural anthropologist


One thought on “Origin of the Idea of a Supreme Being in Primitive Culture

  1. I wish some would also see early civilzations and their pagan religions, not as a suggestion that Christianity came from them, but rather they were a sort of preview from God! Humans have always been searching for something beyond our physical existence because we have something which is beyond this physical universe (our souls).

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