Category Archives: Deities

Posts that discuss ancient goddesses and gods

Middle Eastern Idol

As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.

The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.

An idol moment?

An idol moment?

The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.

Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

With My Luck

I wish I didn’t believe in luck. I guess I’m just not lucky that way. And I’m not alone. Of all the “superstitions” that haunt the human psyche, luck is among the most pervasive. We either have windfalls that make our lives easy, or, like many of us, a series of unfortunate events against which we constantly have to struggle. We call it luck. But is it real? William Ian Miller wrote an intriguing piece called “May You Have My Luck” for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review. There’s nothing as mysterious to me as the hapless professor. I mean, they have it all, right? Educated at fine schools, cushy jobs that pay reasonably well, interviews on documentaries, jobs that among the rarest on earth? Who wouldn’t want that kind of luck? (I am also a believer in myth, so that also must be taken into account.) The reason I raise luck here, however, is that Miller’s article again and again returns to religion. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just unavoidable. Luck, no matter how we define it, goes back in some way to the favor of the gods.

We all know people that we think of as lucky. Success seems to follow on success for them. They are at the right place just at the right moment, and their lives seem to be easy and not so full of stress as those of the rest of us. Most people, as Miller observes, have middling luck. Things go our way sometimes, and then they don’t go our way at others. My fascination, however, lies with those on the other end of the spectrum. There are those who seem to get very few breaks. They may do all the right things, follow all the wisest advice, work harder than anyone else, and still end up on the bad end of luck’s roulette. Ironically, they may be religious people to boot. Their deity, according to their sacred traditions, is the most powerful entity in the universe. And yet things don’t go their way. We call it luck. Is it more powerful than the divine?

This question, or more properly, conundrum, lies behind any concept of luck. Shifting to the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, does God direct luck or does luck exist independently of God? Does luck even exist at all? Is it just the name we give to a series of random happenings in retrospect and which have no inherent meaning? Ah, that seems to be the very point! Meaning. What do these things that happen to us mean? Whether or not we believe that life has any meaning, our minds are biologically programmed to seek it out. Very few of us are content to find only food, shelter, and air to breathe. We want something more out of life. We may not be able to name it, but whatever it is, we could conceivably call it meaning. We are looking for a purpose to our mere existence, even if we don’t believe in it. Gods or no gods, we are left trying to discern what they require of us. And whether we find it or not, it seems, is purely a matter of luck.

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Incitatus Redux

What more is there to say about God and politics? Far too much, I fear. In a Sunday Review in the New York Times, Frank Bruni lays out a catalogue of what, in a rational universe, would be considered violations of the United States constitution by politicians who insist their (conservative) Christianity is the faith of the nation. This is, however, one of the philosophical conundrums of religious freedom. Religious believers are free to use their faith to try to change the system from within. And the fact that the media is telling us that religion has become irrelevant doesn’t help. Who should be afraid of what’s irrelevant? Can irrelevant substances harm you? Can irrelevant bullets kill you? Why, yes, they can! And so being told repeatedly by the media that religion is something we can safely lock into a box marked “Medievalisms Outdated” we step out the door to see politicians using a religion poorly understood to gain power. A recipe for an apocalypse, it sounds like to me.

Academics too readily fall prey to the media hype. University presidents and deans suppose that religion really is dead and shouldn’t be studied. Who’s going to help us through the morass of the upcoming election if people who understand religion are made indigent and put out on the streets? Good luck to the rest of society! We must, if we are to survive, understand religion. Its death, following shortly on that of God, was proclaimed early last century. And yet it’s showing no signs of dying. In fact, it’s just waking up. Who are we going to ask? Scientists? Accountants? Economists? What will you really learn about our laws being God’s laws in the minds of the wealthy and powerful? Don’t ask me—I’ve only spent some thirty-five years studying religion. What do I know?

I sometimes wonder what it must’ve been like to live in Rome as Alaric was whetting his sword among his Visigothic horde. Insane—literally insane—emperors wielded unchallenged power and lived lives of opulence amid the slaves and poor. Religion was front and center on the agenda, of course, because emperors were gods. You don’t have to listen too deeply to hear the same message even today. Those who proclaim God as the justification for their political ambitions know that God is the ultimate malleable deity. In fact, God can even be in the Oval Office. Lead can line your aqueducts and your horse can be made a senator. Lord knows an ass can be. And all the while let’s shut down the voices of those who’ve looked at religion, beginning in the Stone Age and up to now. If we want to grab power it’s vital that we keep it from public view that self-deification is as old as kingship and in a post-religious world, we have only to pretend.

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

Thor’s Return

Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.

There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.

On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

The Battle of the Doomed Gods