Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What Makes God(s) Real

Wow. There is a lot of bad God art on the internet.

Look through this blog, and you'll notice that I try to put an arresting image at the top of every post. For this one, I wanted something other than the typical old but virile white guy to represent God. I briefly considered a blue, flute-playing Krishna (nice to see God playing the flute), but Hindu art always feels schlocky to me. The same is true of most Christian art, by the way; I'm an equal-opportunity snob when it comes to religious iconography. In any case, I do like to think that, if God were to pick a contemporary human face, it would be that of Morgan Freeman, so here he is:


Writing this blog has brought out the frustrated theologian in me, and I've gone on at length about a wide variety of theological problems. Today I'm going to tackle idolatry, in the sense of what makes a god obviously false. I will not be attempting to prove the reality of God (I'm no Schubert Ogden), but I will begin with my minimal standard for accepting that a god is not false: that he/she/it exceeds our highest ideals for human behavior. Thus, pettiness, selfishness, vindictiveness, exploitiveness, jealousy, a violent nature--none of these qualities will be found in a true god.

That automatically rules out the gods of both the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, who are, for the most part, stand-ins for human archetypes, constantly bickering with each other, manipulating human destiny to settle arguments, raping human women whenever they feel like it, punishing humans who have the bad fortune to stumble upon goddesses who neglected to hang the "do not disturb" sign at the entrance to the forest glade where they were bathing, and on and on. These mythical gods do provide great insights into human nature, but their flaws far outweigh any  qualifications for divinity.

It also calls into question many of the primitive stories about the God of Israel, who is depicted at times as whimsical, capricious, bloodthirsty, even cruel; and who certainly takes no thought to the suffering of those he chooses to destroy for their sins. Granted, there is always the sense that those who are punished have it coming to them, that God does not impulsively lash out at humans who've done nothing to deserve such treatment; but even so, the sin that merits such punishment often shrinks by comparison to God's response.

Before you insist that I'm only talking about the "Old Testament God" here, let me offer up this story from Acts 5: Ananias and Sapphira, members of the early church in Jerusalem, sell some property, and bring only a portion of the proceeds to Peter as a tithe. Peter calls them on their withholding, and they are both struck dead right there in the church. Harsh punishment for having a savings account, but that's how God continues to act, despite all our efforts to cram the deity into a different box for the New Testament. It's far more radical, in fact, than anything the IRS has ever done to collect on hidden taxable income.

I point again to the dictum above: a the minimal standard for a true god is exceeding the highest ideal we'd have for a human in the same situation. The most dogged of tax assessors wouldn't smite a client for tucking away a nest egg; but for Ananias and Sapphira, the penalty is death. Take that, New Testament God of Love!

The ancient world was, of course, rife with actual idols, carved and graven images of deities or furniture for those deities. The Hebrews frowned upon such things, believing strongly that, provincial though their god might be, at least he couldn't be confined to a block of wood. Don't permit a representation of God, the reasoning went, and you you're less likely to think you can control God's actions. There were still plenty of efforts to manipulate this God through prayers and sacrifices, but at least imagery was off the table. That's why belief in a false god is called idolatry; there were literally idols that people worshiped. This anathematization of images was carried over into Islam, where it was taken to a much further extreme: no images of any kind were to be created by Muslim artists. That's why Muslim art is so abstract.

There are, of course, still world religions who create images of their deities. Hinduism immediately springs to mind. Buddhism makes use of similar imagery to represent its saints. And Christianity, despite periods of art-bashing, has generally favored iconography, as any quick web search will reveal. Some of the greatest art of the western world was created in the service of Christian religion. In fact, it was understood in preliterate times that people needed something to hang onto as they stood through interminable Latin masses, incapable of understanding almost anything the priest said, and so churches and cathedrals were decorated with frescoes, statuary, and stained glass depicting the great saints and stories of the faith. As a Protestant, I have often felt a twinge of discomfort when observing Catholic veneration of a statue or image (particularly unavoidable during my year teaching in a Catholic school).

But really, I doubt that anyone using representational religious art, whether it is tacky or transcendent, makes the mistake of confusing the art with the deity it represents. We know the difference between the material and the ineffable--mostly.

There are times when our respect for material objects goes a bit far. Even the most iconoclastic of Protestants will have qualms about desecrating a Bible; burning Korans can lead to rioting in some Muslim nations. Shifting our focus to civil religion, I am, thanks to spending my formative years as a Boy Scout, especially sensitive to flag desecration. I respect protesters' Constitutional right to burn and otherwise deface the stars-and-stripes, but that doesn't keep me from averting my eyes when I see it happen, and I'm similarly uncomfortable with letting a flag touch the ground. Old habits die hard.

No, when we're going to worship a false god in the modern world, we don't turn to something as simple as a piece of ivory or stone. Our false gods are abstractions, concepts, principles we use to organize our cosmology, to establish codes of ethics for ourselves and codes of judgment for others. We may ascribe these principles to gods of actual religions, but to the extent that they fall short of the

1) Capitalism: As I previously wrote in a post about money, this is the real god of America, the god in which we genuinely trust. Adam Smith, the Moses of the Free Market, talked about Capitalism exerting an "invisible hand" on the behavior of the market. Writing as a philosopher of the Enlightenment, he believed in the inherent goodness and generosity of human nature, in the imago dei implanted in us at Creation that makes us reflections of the Almighty, and guides us to look out for each other, even as most of our actions are guided by self-interest. While it is true that some wealthy individuals act benevolently, using their fortunes to better the lives of others, capitalism is, at best, a morally neutral force in the world. Witness how the demonic self-interest of Wall Street brokers nearly destroyed the American economy in 2008. Or go back a few years earlier, to the Enron scandal. Take a look at how profiteering drives gas prices up and down, how hospitals routinely bankrupt patients, how supplying American consumers with cheap goods turns Asian laborers into slaves, and you've got all you need to know that capitalism is a false god with all too many worshipers, the most fundamentalist of them occupying the capitol.

2) Patriotism: I'm a patriot. I believe strongly in the Constitution and its protection of the rights of the minority, however small that minority may be. I have made many a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to visit the temples of our civil religion. And as I said earlier, I believe in treating flags with respect. Even so, I quail at the abominations performed in the name of patriotism, the senseless wars, the pointless deaths, the destruction of whole peoples whose only sin is to speak a different language, worship a different god, or have the bad luck to be born on the other side of an artificial line on a map. It's good to love our country, but when that love turns to hatred and violence of the other, the nation has been transformed into the cruelest of false gods.

3) Violence: I've written about this in other places, too. The god of war is often another face of patriotism, but it also exists in its own right independent of love of country. There are some who love war simply because it gives their lives meaning. And war is not the only incarnation of this god. Every fall, millions worship at the altar of professional football, sacrificing the health of young men whose few years in the limelight will mean a lifetime spent hobbling about on ruined knees, dying early deaths from repeated brain traumas. When the NFL talks of changing rules to disallow head-butting, the fans rise up to protest that the game just won't be as interesting without it. A god that demands sacrifices like these is as false as the god who sends young men and women overseas to die for a cause that no one can articulate.

4) Test Scores: This may seem puny on a list that includes macroeconomics and international conflict, but it is altering the lives of millions of children. Standardized testing has consumed public education to the point that school funding is rewarded based on how well children fill in bubbles on a test sheet, and test preparation has crowded out both the funding and the time for arts and physical education. This false religion goes beyond K-12 schools, as many college admissions and financial aid are based on SAT and ACT scores; and graduate school admissions on GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT scores. There is no escaping the truth that high test scores reveal, to at least some extent, the highly specialized ability to take tests well--an ability that only translates into either academic or professional excellence to the extent that it also involves taking tests. It's an inherently invalid criterion for entry into a career path, and yet most Americans are judged by it at multiple points in their lives. And yes, it's a jealous, judgmental god that demands the obeisance of teachers and administrators at every level of American education.

5) Celebrity: There's nothing new about bemoaning fan culture. Entertainment and sports giants have been unabashedly called idols for generations, worshiped with a fervor rarely expressed toward more orthodox gods. Because celebrities are as human as the people worshiping them, they are, perhaps, the most likely to topple from their pedestals, disillusioning those who most admire them. The cost of being a celebrity is well known: the constant unauthorized photographs, appeals for autographs and other memorabilia, and utter lack of privacy, with the covers of supermarket magazines filled with embarrassing photographs and lurid headlines. Ironically, this is a case of the religion being falser than the god, for its adherents are the fickle ones, abandoning today's idol for tomorrow's hot commodity without regret.

This list is far from comprehensive, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of false gods to fill it out. The point in every case is this: worship a false god, and your heart will be broken, as will the hearts of all those you love. Find yourself a true god instead. It need not be a personified creedal deity. It may simply be a philosophy that calls you to a higher good, toward generosity toward neighbors, mercy toward enemies, and charity toward the disadvantaged. It may lead you to enlist in a just cause, to forego wealth in favor of benevolence, to serve humanity's greater good rather than your own self-interest. Pick something to believe in, test it for Truth, and build your life around it. You, and your world, will be all the better for it.

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