Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Image and Likeness

(Why the "New Atheists" Are Late to the Party and Limited in their Outlook)

The Likeness of God

Detail from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
It’s a paper tiger that the “new atheists” love to trot out: that image of God as an old man in the sky that they cannot believe in. They are often heard speaking out against the concept of a God sitting in the clouds ready to ready to smite erring humans. While they are justified in discounting that image of God, they are a little late in coming to the party. In reading the biblical authors, we see that there is a long-running attempt to discount that notion within the sacred texts as well. Within the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Bible one can see that people’s concept of God was something that evolved over time. Primitive concepts often gave way to new understandings.

Putting Away the Wrathful God

Moses, as envisioned by Michalangelo
carved in stone like so many commandments
One of the few places in the Bible that presents an actual picture of God as the angry wrathful man up on high, which some mistakenly see as THE biblical view, is when God spoke to Moses at Sinai. The notable thing about that divine encounter is that MOSES QUICKLY CORRECTED THE ALMIGHTY, moving God away from wrath and toward compassion (Exodus 32: 10-14). What escapes many faithful readers as well as critics is that even in the earliest recording of scripture, the human writers of the sacred text saw a need to steer away from the concept of a wrathful God.

A few years ago, I posted a light-hearted commentary on that passage in Exodus (Human Reason Calms an Angry Deity -- with the subtitle, "What to do when God shows his ass"). Rabbi Aaron Alexander, in an article on Huffington Post, refers to commentary from the Babylonian Talmud showing how God needs the human factor. Quoting Rabbi Abbahu:

Were it not that a verse of Torah fully spelled it out, it would never have been possible to make such a [theological statement] statement suggesting God's dependence on a human. The verse teaches that Moses seized the Holy Blessed One, like a person who grabs his friend by the garment. He said to him, 'Lord of the world, I shall not let you go until you forgive and pardon them.' (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, 32a)

Mythic Understanding

Some of the richest as well as the most grappling religious writings come from the Babylonian rabbinic period. I think this is because they were living in the highest culture of the time and dealing with the devastation of their own culture. It is from that kind of struggle that deep stories emerge. We miss something important when we continue to look at God in literal terms, tying to "get it right." We miss the point that the myths we tell speak very deep truths about our own inner nature. For example, this story of Moses' dialogue with God is reflective that within the human heart, there is an immense wrathful anger that is quite dangerous, but there is also a very strong compassionate quality. Both of these qualities of our own nature have the potential either to wreak havoc or to nurture the common good.
In the New Testament book of Acts, Paul described God as the one "in whom we live and move and have our being." The apostle Paul, who grew up as a Jew in the Hellenistic culture of the Mediterranean world was speaking to Greeks and harking to the wisdom of Greek poets as he attempted to bear witness to the God of the Hebrews. Paul, as he would indicate in some of his letters, had mystical experiences on occasion which shaped his understanding of God within his own Judeo-Hellenistic culture. His is definitely not an anthropomorphic image of a god removed from creation and humankind, but rather one in which the divine is intimately connected to all that we see and experience. He describes a reality that is in us, around us, and enervating our very existence. Paul's vision is certainly a far cry from an old man bonking heads  from on high.

The Stories We Tell

Mircea Eliade wrote about myth and religion. He talked about how human beings apprehend the sacred in the midst of ordinary life by way of ritual and religion. Reading some of his works about ancient myth and religious practices helped me to realize that the ancient peoples were not simple-minded, as we moderns sometimes assume. I stated before that a difference was that "their mode of thinking was mythopoeic while our modern mindset is scientific and analytical." Eliade understood that myth is not falsehood; myth is truth spoken from a mythopoeic mindset  one might even say a poetic mindset.

Meister Eckhart, 13th century mystic, said "That which one says is God, he is not; that which one does not say, he is more truly that." I would concur. There are no words we could conjure that would scale the heights or plumb the depths of the divine. I would add, however, that whatever one says about God (or the devil for that matter) says something very true about the nature of humanity. The stories we tell are ingenious ways of communicating inner truths that we are often blind to when speaking in matter of fact, day-to-day language.

One of the easiest ways to avoid looking inside ourselves to see our own humanity, and to acknowledge who we really are, is to discredit mythic language and sacred speech as falsehoods, or relics of the past.  Carl Jung was a pioneer in showing how our mythic archetypes reveal much about the human psyche. Jean Shinoda Bolen is a psychiatrist and author whom I had the privilege of hearing years ago. Two of her books, Gods in Every Man and Goddesses in Every Woman, draw upon Jungian concepts of inner archetypes to help people understand why we do the things we do, and to learn how to find a sense of wholeness and purpose.

The poet Robert Bly has done similar things in his work with the Mythopoeic Mens’ Movement, and his book, Iron John, which explores the fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm collection. He affirms the wisdom of ancient story to help modern men to begin to understand why they feel disconnected and how they can make their way back to inner wholeness and connection. Having a poetic mindset, Bly was able to see the wisdom to be found in the ancient stories that emerged from older cultures.

So it is quite alright not to believe in a god who is “the old man up in the sky,” though you are still somewhat behind if that is as far as your disbelief has taken you. There are limitless sacred wonders to apprehend, whether we look outward to the physical world, or inward into the realm of the soul. To gain some insight into who we are and what in the world we are up to, I would highly recommend listening to some old, old stories.


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