Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chemosh is a god not an idol

When I was in Sunday school, when I was eleven or twelve and would win one piece of candy for showing up and another for memorizing the weekly Bible verse, we learned about the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 20:
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

We learned that the first commandment, the 'no other gods before me' bit, said that God comes first. The second commandment means that we shouldn't worship idols, like Chemosh the Fish-Headed God of the Moabites or nice cars or Yojo or career success or Dionysius. The third commandment obviously meant we shouldn't say, 'Oh my God,' but we went ahead and agreed that damn and the F-word were probably out, too.*

Chemosh isn't an idol, he's a false god.

The 'before' in the first commandment isn't a word indicating sequence, it indicates presence. That is, God tells the Israelites not merely that he must be their first and best, but that he must be their only, all other gods are false. Oh, sure, they might be real, but they're empty.

The second commandment can't be a condemnation of worshipping other gods, because this is covered under the first commandment. The second commandment condemns idolatry, a worship practice.

An idol isn't a god, it's an image.

No one ever thought their little statue of Chemosh or Zeus or Yojo or the Woman of Willendorf was god, they thought these statues were portals or points of connection to spiritual forces, perhaps personified as gods.

We're not quite sure, honestly, but it seems as if the Woman of Willendorf and similar statues, with large thighs and pendulous breasts, would grant a user similar fertility. This is called sympathetic magic, the belief that things are connected to their images. Similarly, it has been suggested that the cave paintings in France, images of successful hunts, were believed to actually cause successful hunts.

Certainly, people would drink the blood of bulls hoping to become strong. (It is this practice that the Biblical prohibitions on consuming blood were written to address.) Today, in places, people consume rhino horns and tiger penises and asparagus as aphrodisiacs.

(If you're like me and were puzzled as to why it was tough to find asparagus on Valentine's Day, now you know that sympathetic magic is the reason.)

In Bible times, worshippers of Ba'al Hadad would make sacrifices in front of bull statues. No one ever thought that Ba'al Hadad was actually a bull; he obviously looks like a human being. However, everyone knew that Ba'al Hadad was powerful, and so are bulls, so by sacrificing to a bull statue, one might hope to manipulate Ba'al Hadad to access his power for one's own purposes.

A king (seen, in some cultures, as a god) would make statues 'in his own image' to mark the boundary of his kingdom. No one thought that a statue of the king was the king himself, but this symbol of the king's presence was respected throughout the kingdom.

The God of the Jews was presenting himself as transcendent, having no body, eschewing physical manifestation. Well, not quite. God doesn't seem to have a problem with appearing as a torch and firepot or a mysterious stranger or a luchador or a burning bush or a pillar of cloud or a pillar or fire. However, each time that God appears, he does so entirely on his own terms.

The second commandment condemns misrepresenting and manipulating God.

Names are a sort of image. A god's name would be used in curses and hexes to invoke that god. The third commandment says that God's name ought not be used frivolously, and that when it is used, it ought to be taken seriously; a vow made in God's name ought to be kept. We ought not use God's name to boss him around, to make him operate on our terms.

Now, while Moses was up on the mountain learning all of these things about God being transcendent, the only one worthy of worship, who ought not be misrepresented, manipulated, or wrongfully invoked, the Israelites were downstairs, misrepresenting and attempting to manipulate and wrongfully invoke God. That is, while they sure were glad that God delivered them from Egypt, life in the desert was unpleasant, and they wanted him to get the lead out; he was taking too long up on that mountain with Moses. They made a calf out of the gold they had lying around. They didn't think that a literal calf had rescued them from Egypt, but they identified the calf statue with the divine power behind that deliverance. They didn't quit God and try to go shopping for a new god, they wanted to control their patron deity.

At its best, the church builds grand cathedrals with tall steeples, reminding us that God doesn't live in the building but over it. The church must remind us that God can not be apprehended.

People gather around positive statements, though. I like God, but I'd like him better if I could see him, and I'd like him best if I could make him in my own image. Books about what God is like and how to get what you want from him sell better than books about how you don't know as much about God as you'd like but you ought to trust him through uncertainty, rather than trying to push him around like he's your butler.

Martin Luther rightly stated that no one can break any of God's laws without first breaking the first commandment. People misrepresent God when they would rather be worshipping another god, they manipulate God when they want him to give them something more important to them than God himself, when this other end becomes their real god, and they misuse God's name when they think they know better than God how he ought to do his job.


*This misunderstanding of the Ten Commandments might well simply be my own, I mean no disrespect to my Sunday school teacher. In fact, Miss Letty was actually a very good Sunday School teacher; she didn't just teach us Bible stories, she taught us the Bible, and how it tells one story over and over, from beginning to end. Every Sunday morning, we would pray for missionaries all over the world. If she did slightly misinterpret the first three commandments, she wasn't doing much worse than the authors of the Westminster Catechism***.

**There are a couple of tangled-up things here. What I'm calling the first and second commandments are actually intertwined, textually. Verse 3 is clearly about the first commandment, and verse 4 is clearly about the second, but verses 5 and 6 most clearly apply to what I'm reading as the first commandment. I think this entanglement is due to a second issue of entanglement. That is, not many people in the Old Testament Jewish culture would have worshipped God with idols, nor would they have worshipped other gods but eschewed idols: in general, the first two commandments were violated simultaneously. The exceptions that come to mind are the golden calf (Exodus 32) and Nehushtan, the bronze serpent (II Kings 18:1-4), where symbols were used wrongly to worship God, rather than to other gods.

***For Presbyterian and Anglican Nerds:
The Westminster Catechism exegetes the first and third commandments quite well, but horribly botches the explanation of the second (Q109 in the Larger, Q51 in the Shorter), using it to justify the regulative principle of worship, that is, that God should only be worshipped by the means he himself proscribed. The second commandment doesn't quite say that; it condemns a specific practice. In its condemnation of something that God himself does not, the Westminster Catechism misrepresents God's will, and, on this point, is, ironically, idolatrous.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gum and cigarettes

I once knew a woman named Mary. She told me this story. One time, she was walking around in Baltimore, and she saw a man on the street who looked bedraggled and hungry. God told her, she says, to pop in at the 7-Eleven to pick up lunch for this guy. As she headed to the cash register, she felt an impulse to purchase a pack of gum. She gave the bag of food to the hungry man, and he thanked her, and asked her if she had any cigarettes. 'No, but is gum okay?' She says that he said yes.

Mary takes this impulse to pick up the pack of gum, when she wouldn't ordinarily have thought to, as a sign of God's work in her life.

I call shenanigans.

What smoker thinks finds gum to be a satisfying substitute for nicotine?

Worse, though, Mary thinks that God's telling her to pick up a pack of gum, and the hungry man's acceptance of it, is a satisfying reason to believe in God. That she doesn't see God smiting with plagues or healing lepers or parting seas or raising the dead doesn't bother her, because she's settled for God telling her to pick up a pack of gum. If God is real the way that Mary says that she thinks he is, she wouldn't bother telling this story about the gum‚ she would find it mundane.

When believers tell lame stories, I lose confidence that God is real.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Giving dead Jesus a spice rub

In the story in Mark 16, three women show up at Jesus' tomb on a Sunday morning. They popped by the market on the way there, to get some expensive spices to embalm Jesus. If they were to embalm a man, that would violate cultural mores about gender separation. On the way to the tomb, they talked about how they don't know how they will roll away the stone door to the tomb.

These women had tremendous faith. Otherwise, they wouldn't have done the risky thing of blowing their paycheck on spices and they wouldn't have been willing to do this taboo act of embalming a man as women. They were undeterred by the stone.

Their faith was good for making dead Jesus smell better.

When I first gave up on belief in God, I wanted to keep Christianity. I figured I could use Jesus as a good example, to give me stability, even though I didn't believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead and gives new life. I believed that Jesus was decomposing, if he'd been real in the first place. The worst part was that I thought that by following Jesus, I could think of myself as a good person, and so justify myself.

Embracing Jesus' teaching while denying his resurrection isn't that different from what these women were doing; I was giving dead Jesus a spice rub.

There are other ways to kill Jesus and try to make him smell good, but they're subtler.

In a lot of churches I've been to, the explanatory talk before communion about how it's 'just a symbol' takes longer than the rite itself. I've heard plenty of devotional talks on why miracles don't happen anymore. I'm perturbed by how cheerfully some say that gifts of prophecy and tongues passed with the passing of the apostolic age.

Whenever pastors preach on the story of the rich young ruler, most of the sermon is fancy dancing to explain why, when Jesus said 'sell all you have and give to the poor', he didn't mean it literally.

When I tell Christians that I have trouble believing that God is real and worth having over for tea because I don't see him working in falsifiable ways, they talk up coincidences into signs. When I'm unsatisfied with their signs, they ask me what it would take for me to believe, and I say that witnessing an exorcism or a miraculous healing would help me a lot. I'm told that's unfair; I shouldn't require a miracle before I'm willing to believe.

Everyone starts out with one idea of God or another, and everyone has to whittle off the parts that don't fit with their experiences. What makes me mad is when people aren't disappointed the God they're left with.

Yes, the women in the story, Mary, Mary, and Salome, had their faith misdirected. They lowered their expectations for Jesus because they were sure that he wouldn't rise from the dead and they didn't want to be disappointed. They had some sort of faith, though, when no one else had any to speak of, and, misguided as they were, these women showed up where they expected to find Jesus. They didn't find the dead Jesus they expected, and this terrified and amazed them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New editorial policy

I have a new editorial policy—I'm reorganizing all the stuff I make and do. This blog is now exclusively about Christian agnosticism and existentialism, and I'll be talking about these things a little more directly than I have in the past.

This is because, when I reviewed what people liked and what they didn't, I can't find any pattern with regard to what amuses you, my dear readers.

However, last Friday, a complete stranger commented on my year-and-a-half-old post on Christian agnosticism. This was the tenth stranger to do so for that post; for every other post, I've only gotten comments from about two strangers. Evidently, some people find Christianity implausible and beautiful, and they don't know what to do, so they go to Google. Walking this tension is the thing I want to write about the very most. I like to think I'm saying something new, and, if I'm not, let me know, because if someone's written a book that would explain my spirituality to me, I'd like to read it, so I could save some time.

For stuff about the fire across the street and product packaging, I've made a new blog: Alex's Id Funnel. This is where to go if you don't care about my writing having editorial standards but do care about my dish washing habits or quesadilla makers. I got a Palm Centro smartphone recently, and it has a camera. The resulting digital debris (eg, farm animals and church signs) goes to Picasa. I make other stuff on the web, too, like Dollar Book Blog, and I have indexed it for your convenience.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Intelligent design makes me a Christian agnostic

I'd categorize arguments for the existence of God into three categories*:
  1. First cause
  2. History
  3. Experience
By first cause arguments, I mean arguments like the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, that is, that for the universe to move, something had to kick it into action, for it to have design, it must have a designer, and for rules to exist, a rule-giver must preside. By historical arguments, I mean people pointing to miraculous historical events like the Israelite exodus of Egypt, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed. By arguments from experience, I mean both people talking about internal spiritual experiences (a guiding light, for example) and eyewitness accounts of peculiar phenomena.

It seems to me that the first cause arguments, especially arguments like the anthropic principle and irreducible complexity, are today the most popular proofs of God's existence among smart believers. This is diabolical.

In He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Francis Schaeffer makes clumsy attempts at proving God's existence. What I love about this book, though, why I recommend it, actually, is that Schaeffer makes it clear that he's arguing for the existence of not just any sort of God, but the Personal-Infinite God.

If God's really real and really worth talking about, he'd interact with us in some personal way. Spinoza proved that God exists quite decisively, but in such a way that his God isn't worth writing Mom about. Scott Adams, my favorite Spinozist, says that this universe-God is even intelligent, in a sense. This isn't the same as God being personal.

I started writing this essay a year ago, and it stalled, because I thought that what bothered me most about these arguments from first cause is that they're deeply flawed. I realized that what bothers me more is that arguments from first cause don't work to establish God as a person who cares about us. That's the sort of God that I want to believe in.

That the most popular arguments for the existence of God don't point to the sort of God I need makes me think that God isn't real.

Jason doesn't buy the New Perspective on Paul because he doesn't trust theology that requires skill in parsing Greek verbs to be understood.

If God were real, we wouldn't fuss with learning modal logic notation to even understand Gödel's onotological proof of God's existence. We wouldn't mess with statistical mechanics to show that atheistic abiogenesis is unlikely. We'd say things like, 'Hey, you know Leper Larry? He's not a leper, anymore. Wild!' And we don't, and either God isn't real and I could be having a lot more fun getting into trouble, or he is and I am looking for him where he isn't, and you probably are, too.

*By wild coincidence, Wikipedia categorizes arguments for the existence of God into the same three categories that I do.