Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Faith in God; or, The Character of God…

Let us suppose, for the sheer unadulterated pleasure of it, that it were possible to reflect on things such as God and the Gods without facing accusations of being an atheist or some other sort of evil human being. This is not simply a theoretical question of possibility, nor a Straw Man, because I was once invited to participate in a formal Public Debate with a church pastor, who absolutely assured me, a university professor of Ethics, that it was impossible to be moral without also believing in God. His insinuation, of course, was unmistakable—that because I challenge the traditional ideas about God, I cannot be moral; but he only strongly implied this during the Debate, so I deduced that some sense of common decency must have been keeping him from just shouting out in this public venue that I was an infidel and destined to burn in the lowest fires of where-ever….! This church pastor was in fact arguing for a world in which any Human Reflection, when pointed toward the Idea of God, is and should be considered an immoral act!

Anyway… our present Reflection on the character of God and the Gods is ‘immoral’ in precisely this way. In the sense of our church pastor, though, I am probably even a worse infidel than one who simply questions whether He/She/It/They exist—such questions hold little interest for me at this point because, at the end of the day, conversations about the existence of things invisible, such as souls and demons, gods and angels, are conventionally typecast and therefore wearying in their predictability. Rather, I think I must be for my church pastor an infidel of an entirely more pernicious sort, which is due, I am sure, to a Nietzschean sensibility deeply rooted in my education; because I dare to wonder (in an Aristotelian kind of way) about one of the ‘accouterments’ that has long been associated with religious thinking—about one of the qualities of character that has been traditionally wrapped around the Concept of Deity—about Duty. The conventional conversation revolves around man’s duty to God; but my wonder is whether Gods have any Obligation to the world of men? Do Gods have a sense of Duty vis-à-vis men?

It is amazing to me how much our respect for the Idea of God has diminished since the High Middle Ages. The Idea of the new-world God, the One which is articulated for the ‘three great monotheistic religions’, and which we have conceptually identified as titular Supreme Being of the modern world, is both pampered and immoral, and therefore ultimately unsatisfying.
We pamper this new-world God-Idea in that we refuse systematically to make him carry the burden or blame for any of the ‘bad stuff’ that happens in the world, i.e., disasters, devastating illnesses, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, great storms, and other formidable crisis-events of nature. Religious thinkers, in a twist of sophistry worthy of the great Scholastic-era pedants, like generally to blame such events on the Evil One, thereby blaming One invisible ‘critter’ and acquitting Another. It is obviously too difficult for a simple philosopher and infidel to tell the difference between all these invisible ‘critters’… For the run-of-the-mill, generally thoughtful but not necessarily religious kinds of thinker, though, who have learned to ‘secularize’ natural events, we seem to have acquired the populist knack of thinking of men as Nietzschean camels – as beasts of burden; and our burden is to lug around on our metaphorical backs the ‘bad stuff that happens in the world’ as moralized baggage—the world is become a morality tale, a day-time soap opera replete with the eternal questions: what did you learn from this crisis that happened to you? what from that? I guess that will teach me to…! Every moment of our time spent in the new-world is a teaching/learning moment, because we are functionally alone to walk through the days of our lives. If we can- will- are not able to detect the Hand of God (either the good One or the bad One) in the world, thus tracing the causal burden to He/She/It/They, and if we do not learn some point of moral edification from the events and circumstances of our own life, then we will be left with simply having to endure in complete ignorance and impotence the ‘bad stuff’ that happens to us.
We have also morally neutered this new-world God, making Him, finally, immoral. There is no moral accountability that we attach to this Creature-Idea we have named God; so “It” can use all the resources of knowledge, the unfathomable power of the world and all the planetary systems, to move and manipulate the world of men without giving Itself away.  Unlimited power and no need to render accounts, and still It fails to indicate clearly to Men either what It wishes to achieve with all the Sound and the Fury unchained on this planet, or what the more general game plan is for Men and this their world. In this respect, the new-world God is significantly inferior, both conceptually and morally, to the old-world pagan conception of God and the Gods.

In 468 B.C. a lyric poet named Bacchylides, nephew of the very famous poet, Simonides, wrote a splendid celebratory ode (Epinicia 3) for Hiero tyrannos on the occasion of his chariot-race victory in the Olympic games. By way of honoring this King Hiero, Bacchylides tells the story of another, former great king, called King Croesus. It is this Croesus story ‘behind’ the Hiero story that is relevant to our present reflection; because like this victorious Hiero of Syracuse, the historical Croesus of Lydia was both a princely contributor to the temple of Apollo in Delphi, and he was also clearly rewarded by the Gods in exchange for his generous support of the temple. In other words, we learn in this story that the old-world pagan Gods, Zeus and Apollo to be precise, actually reach out to and reward really and truly the pious conduct of Croesus, who has been an active supporter of the Apollonian temple. There is the premise of a fundamental duty-based reciprocity from Gods to men.
            In the story, Bacchylides tells us of Croesus and of the fall of his empire, Lydia. We learn that Zeus had destined Sardis (a city located in Lydia) to be captured by the Persian army, and that instead of waiting patiently for himself and his family to be captured and lead into slavery by the Persians, King Croesus had a great pyre built up in front of his palace; and climbing up upon the pyre with his ‘inconsolably weeping’ wife and daughters, Croesus orders a slave to kindle the wooden structure. But even as the slave is setting spark to kindle, Croesus has not yet finished with the God; for he lifts his hands and his voice to the ‘steep’ heavens and bitterly ‘screams’ at the God, specifically Apollo, about His personal failure to uphold justice in the relationship between Himself and this pious king, i.e., the ‘I got your back and you got my back’ sort of justice—(the Greek is lovely, and you can download Greek fonts here for free): Ὑπέρβιε δαῖμον, ποῦ θεῶν ἐστιν χάρις? (Hyperbie daimon, pou theon estin charis?). Of course, the narrow bond of obligation between Apollo and Croesus also bespeaks the broader duty-bound relationship between Gods and men, not just from men to Gods, but more importantly in the light of this reflection, from Gods to men.
            So ode-ifies Bacchylides: “‘Outrageous deity, where is the thanks (recognition of duty or obligation) from the gods? Where is lord Apollo? [40] …What was hated is loved. To die is sweetest.’ So Croesus spoke, and he bid the slave with the delicate step to kindle the wooden structure. […] But when the flashing force of terrible fire began to shoot through the wood, [55] Zeus set a dark rain-cloud over it, and began to quench the golden flame. Nothing is unbelievable which is brought about by the gods' ambition.”
            Now what is exactly happening here in this story? Croesus holds that Apollo, the God, has a debt toward him, a man, because this man had not only recognized his debt toward the temple of the God, but he had always been faithful to pay that debt. Unfortunately the story goes that Apollo was off busy somewhere else, perhaps neglecting other faithful supporters, so in a deus-ex-machina moment, Zeus steps in with his dark rain-cloud and saves the day. Then, says Bacchylides, after Zeus has squared the justice issue, Apollo finally decides to show up, “and brings the old man to live among the Hyperboreans, [60] along with his slender-ankled daughters, because of his piety, since of all mortals he sent the greatest gifts to holy Pytho.”

The old-world idea that the Gods have a duty-bound obligation to men is not limited to the pagan Greek poets, however, but can also be also found in the Hebrew Bible, for example in Psalm 82. In this intriguing Psalm, Asaph gives us something rather unique in the history of poetic literature—a job description for Gods.
            The narrator begins by setting the song-plot: God takes his place in the council of the Gods in order to pass judgment. In this song it is clear that the Judging God is displeased with His divine Companions, and so He asks them a fairly blunt (some might say, blatantly ill-mannered) question: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” Not dissimilar to the neglectful Apollo of Bacchylides’ ode, these Canaanite Gods are clearly not very nice either, or else They have just had a very poor work ethic. It is at this point in the song that the Judging God delivers Himself of the ‘job description’ for Gods in Their relationships with men, which has four parts.
1.     “Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
2.     maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
3.     Rescue the weak and the needy;
4.     deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

Then the Judge proceeds to remind the heavenly Cohort that although they are Gods (verse 6), and children of the Most High, if They do not want to ‘do the God-job’, then, He says to Them, “you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” This One imagines no reward for a (God-)job poorly done.

Those days are long gone when a man could understand and respect the Idea of a Self-respecting God—a God with character. Instead, in our world-become-modern all we have to play with is an anemic cardboard cut-out character/caricature Deity; and this One is never far from His band of earthly authoritarians, who are neither Gods that they should understand the generous nature of the job (per Asaph), nor respectful of the type of duty-bound obligations that once bound Gods to men and vice-versa (per Bacchylides).
            The only way to demonstrate that the titular Supreme Being of the modern imagination is not a God of the pampered and immoral cardboard cut-out sort, and therefore not inferior to the old pagan conception of God and the Gods, would perhaps be to do the following…

·      Every time something bad happens to us, let us ‘scream’ out at God and put the blame squarely at His feet. We should then look for a black rain cloud to pass over and put out the fire.
o   Nota Bene: Bring your own watering can just in case.
·      For the vulnerable and defenseless, let them raise their hands to the sky and ‘scream’ out at God, and remind Him that He has a responsibility toward us men to protect and defend, for we wander the world in darkness. We should then look to be hidden in a cleft in the rocks.
o   Nota Bene: Wear climbing shoes and bring your own ropes.
·      Let us remind ourselves that God is in the business of looking after our interests, if we have looked after His interests.
·      Let us hold God accountable for the things, great and small, that are good and evil in the world.

If this does not persuade us of the emptiness in our ‘steep’ heavens, then nothing will.

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