Friday, December 23, 2005

nice gods finish last

God's deserving victims

While ploughing through the old testament narrative, I was struck by how unconvincing it was to a modern reader (assuming myself to be a typical modern reader). I found myself often repeating the glib mantra – if you want to be cured of religion, read the old testament. It’s hardly surprising that it’s not particularly fashionable reading these days, even for Christians.

For example, the god of the Israelites seemed to me remarkably little and local. Certainly he created the universe in six days, but that’s pretty standard behaviour for every little and local god ever invented. Admittedly it often took a few gods working together to produce the goods. In the ancient Greek version it was a female, Eurynome who was primarily responsible for creating the world out of Chaos, ‘an enormous gaping void encompassing the entire universe and surrounded by an unending stream of water ruled by the god Oceanus’. There’s more detail here. The Hindu religion has a multitude of creation myths, and gods and forces apparently capable of making it all happen, but one of the most well-known involves the sacrifice of Purusha, the primeval being, who is all that exists, including ‘whatever has been and whatever is to be’:

When Purusha, who had “a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet” was
sacrificed, the clarified butter that resulted was made into the beasts which
inhabit the earth. This same sacrifice produced the gods, Indra (the menacing
king of gods), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), as well as the Sun and the Moon. From
Purusha’s navel the atmosphere was born; his head produced the heaven; his feet
produced the earth; his ear the sky.

However, the profusion and confusion of Hindu creation myths seems to have led to a salutary uncertainty which is worth contrasting with the brief, unchallenged tale told in Genesis. Consider these verses from the Rig Veda:
Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
Who covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
But, after all, who knows, and who can say,
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
So who knows truly whence it has arisen?
(Rig Veda, X, 129)

Nothing like this speculative uncertainty is to be found in the old testament, more’s the pity. Or has uncertainty, or anything contradicting the standard version, been carefully excised from the canon?

There’s more on the Hindu creation myths here.

Of course, when I talk of the old testament god as little and local, I’m mainly referring to his sphere of operations and concern. It’s remarkable how the creator of the known universe should be so preoccupied with the protection and promotion of what a fellow-sceptic delights in describing as a small tribe of Semitic goat-herders at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

It’s also remarkable, it seems to me, that such a powerful god should be so concerned with his own survival, at least in the minds of his ‘chosen people’. He describes himself as a jealous god, and his acts also reveal him to be capricious and vengeful. Disturbingly human qualities in such a powerful being.

The all-too-human qualities of this god are of course intimately bound up with his provinciality. People make religions up as they go along, and they evolve, along with humans and the Nikkon camera. The original version of the Judeo-Christian god was a far cry from the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-perfect, all-good being which the new testament writers began to develop, but which was largely a product of later theologians. The original version was a creature primarily of power. Basically, a tyrant, being based on the most powerful humans of the time. A particular ethnic group or tribe would have noticed that, under King Habukkuk the Very Nasty they had prospered, or some of them had, because Habukkuk the Very Nasty had quashed internal dissent, unified the twelve sub-tribes, built up a considerable army by extorting tribute from the populace, invaded the lands of his neighbours, exacted more tribute and built up the tribe’s rep as the most powerful and brilliant in the region. Might’ve even presided over a flourishing of the arts too, as long as those arts helped to promote him as the greatest, smartest, mightiest ruler of his tribe ever.

This same ethnic group might’ve noticed that when King Habbukuk the Very Nice succeeded to the throne and gave back the lands won by his dad, and gave away much of his money to those he considered equally nice, and reduced the tax burden on his people and sent his soldiers home to their families, his neighbours rose up in unison against him, defeated him in battle, had him publicly disembowelled, raped and pillaged his subjects and sold them into slavery.

In others words, they’d have reasoned that nice dictators made for failed dictators, and how much more so for gods.

Basically the old testament’s god is a nasty dictator with superhuman powers and immortality. He punishes those he calls ‘wicked’, but generally, especially when mass-murder or ethnic cleansing is involved, the wickedness is unspecified beyond ‘turning away from god’ or worshipping other gods. In other words, as with most dictators, what we would now call subversion (or sedition?) – anything that might undermine his authority, is the ultimate crime.
It seems to me, then, that the old testament god is a designer-god (in the sense of a designer-drug), custom-built for a competitive, tribal region and period. A ruthless scourge of the Israelites’ enemies, a hardline unifier of the twelve tribes. His own crimes, and his disregard for his own law – especially the ‘thou shall not kill’ one, are too numerous to mention. He seems especially hot on visiting the sins of one generation upon the innocents of the next, or a much later one. By modern standards he’s a criminal to rank alongside Stalin or Hitler – anything seems justified as long as his grip on power is strengthened. His one great defence, of course, is that he doesn’t exist outside of the human imagination, and the imagination is bounded by time and culture, and changes with it – that’s why the modern god would hardly be recognisable to old testament denizens.

Next, I want to discuss what has been described as the cardinal error of the Christian religious tradition.



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