Sunday, February 08, 2009

the problem of compatibilism 1

see him?

Religious thinking is hard to encapsulate in a single simple definition, though we generally know it when we encounter it. Rather than trying to capture the whole of religion, from Australian Aboriginal Dreaming to ancestor worship in China or Africa, to the deistic hierarchies of the Vikings or the Greeks, I'll focus on the inter-related monotheistic religions we in 'the west' are most impacted by. These religions require belief in a creator god, and in some notion of the soul and another world.

The biblical god created humans in his own image [Genesis 1: 27, Genesis 5:1], but no such claim is made in the Koran, which seems rather to emphasise the otherness of god - there is no god but god is chanted some 2700 times throughout the book, and more specifically, There is nothing comparable to him [112: 4] and vision cannot grasp him, but his grasp is all over vision [6: 103]. Clearly, the biblical references help to cement a special relationship between humans and their god, very much like producing a 'chip off the old block'. We're all god's children, which is more than can be said for rats, bats and mosquitoes. Yet it's notable that despite this biblical assurance that our god is like us, this god is almost never depicted in Christian iconography [in fact there were intense arguments in the early centuries of Christianity on just this issue]. Many would have considered such depictions as blasphemous, as all Moslems did vis-a-vis their god [arguably the same god], but the real issue around whether or not to forbid images of god was that there must be a gap between human and god, and to depict would mean somehow to depict the gap, and how could this be done? The safest approach would simply be to forbid.

This gap is of course a major problem not only for iconographers, but for the compatibility of religion and science. It's the gap that must be crossed in a leap of faith. Nevertheless, in many people's understanding of their personal god, there isn't much of a gap; their god answers their prayers, soothes them, reassures them, watches over them and so forth, or so they claim. He also offers them a life after death, though again, as with the shifting nature of the Christian god, from raging biblical tyrant to omnipotent omniscient effulgence, the nature of the afterlife has shifted, as the literal concepts of heaven and hell have become a growing embarrassment to thinking believers. Not that such concepts were ever particularly fixed. Hell isn't mentioned in the Old Testament, but it was one of Jesus's favourite subjects - or perhaps rather a favourite subject of the 'gospel' authors. When it's described, it's usually in terms of fire, but also darkness, and everlastingness. The most fulsome descriptions are in Revelations, not surprisingly, but they aren't very fulsome either. The really imaginative work on the subject was done in later centuries, culminating in Dante's dazzling but idiosyncratic vision of nine circles, and the more populist representations of the mystery plays.



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