Monday, June 9, 2014


We can credit or blame Michelangelo for the “Old Man in the Sky” that instinctively comes into our minds whenever we hear the word “God.” Of course, such an image long predates Michelangelo, but the great Florentine gave that metaphor a depth, force, and seriousness that is unprecedented. 
Michelangelo shows God, the greatest of sculptors, putting the spark of life into his greatest creation, Adam. That Adam is already living and responds shows us that this is not a literal illustration of the Genesis story in any sense, but a conceptual image, a picture intended to inspire us to think about the larger issues beyond the literal story; God and humanity, being and nothingness, creator and creation, agency and reception, etc. 
The greatness of Michelangelo is that he can put so much meaning so convincingly into such a bare image; an encounter between 2 large figures with no landscape setting, no assisting allegory, no other special effects or additions. Both figures can exist only in the realm of art. They would be impossible in real life. Adam, the first and most magnificent of men, closest to the prototype in the mind of God, reclines in the pose of a Classical river god, and looks up with a certain sad reluctance as he reaches out to accept the spark of life from God. God is an impossible figure, an old man with an athletic body that would be the envy of the healthiest of young men. He is literally ageless in this picture. What’s more, he flies through the air with an unselfconscious ease. He wears a mantle that billows out like a sail in the wind and is filled with tumultuous figures. Who are they? Angels? It’s not clear. There is a mysterious figure under God’s arm that some scholars identify as Eve, already present in the Creator’s thoughts. Others identify her as the Virgin Mary since she is next to a large infantile figure. Michelangelo gives us no clues. 
Michelangelo painted the figure of God to be an image of what God does, not so much of who God is. In contrast to the passive Adam, God is action, a figure boiling with energy, the very embodiment of creation, history, and life itself.

Michelangelo’s god remains a powerful and compelling image, though not a very satisfactory image, perhaps not even to Michelangelo himself. Even in this famous work of art, God remains mysterious and unapproachable. This figure is only a metaphor, and like all metaphors for God, an inadequate one despite its power.

It is a commonplace that ours is a secular or “godless” age. Balderdash! We’ve only traded in one god for another.

Behold the Lord your God:

This is the god we really believe in despite what we say we do or don’t believe in. Money may not be a personal or a transcendent god, but it is a god nonetheless commanding our fear and obedience; and it requires our faith. All currency is an act of faith, even gold. What gives those scraps of engraved paper in our pockets any value at all is “the full faith and credit of the United States.” In order for those dollars to mean anything, we have to hold that faith. Money works the miracles, heals the sick, provides our daily bread, and protects us from misfortune and our enemies. Money puts in our hands powers that we once attributed to the gods. Money gives our lives meaning and purpose. We pin our hopes for salvation on money.

Money has only one morality, profit. Anything and everything goes no matter how obscene and evil in the name of profit. Profit is the sole measure of virtue and success. All the meaning we need is written on a price tag.

Does money have any kind of will or agency? Was this the original purpose of money? Of course not. For centuries, money was an instrument, a tool. Whether it was for power and glory or a modest level of comfort and dignity, money was always nothing more than a means to a desired end. Now, through not fault of its own, money is an end in itself. In a polarized age where there is no agreement on anything, money is the last universally accepted criterion left to us. It is the very last true article of faith that we really do believe in unreservedly with all our hearts, with all our minds, and with all our might.

Ours is not a materialist age, but a nihilistic age. Materialism requires a certain measure of conviction that not many people can muster or sustain.

I sometimes think that in the war between the fundamentalists and the missionary atheists over the existence of God, they are both looking in the wrong place. They are both appealing to the orderly designs of nature for definitive proof that God does or does not exist. 

 First of all, a god whose existence could be proven and demonstrated probably would not be God (a point made by thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard). As philosophers from Aquinas to Kant have gone to great pains to point out, arguments for the existence of God always end in cul-de-sacs of tautology. 
Just like faith in the value of currency, so belief in God is ultimately an arbitrary act of faith. 

Second, why should we be looking at nature for “proof” that God exists? Nature and all that is in it are as material and mortal as we are. We are part of that nature, tied in our very substance and by descent to all other life and matter. When we look at nature, we are looking not at God, but an extension of ourselves, at the community of being from which we emerged and to which we will return. So we are infinitesimally tiny in comparison to the cosmos, so what. We are the ones who feel small. The cosmos doesn’t feel anything. We don’t live in the cosmos or the subatomic realm of quantum mechanics. We can’t live in those places. Both of them are lethal to human life. Our world is embedded in those worlds, but they are not what we live in.

 We live in the world that we apprehend with our senses and our reason. The world that we see and experience every day is the world for which we are ultimately responsible. The rest of the vast cosmos can take care of itself without us. Most of us will never visit the cosmos except in the realm of imagination. Our senses and reason may indeed be very limited, may even be less than many other animals (none of us will ever have the hearing of our dogs or see as clearly and sharply as the hawk or see the colors that a bee sees), but our reason and senses are all that we have to find our way through a vast and mysterious universe. We are the prisoners of a single moment in time and a single place in space. Our knowledge will always be limited and conditional.

For that reason, I hold to a kind of reverent agnosticism. I have no idea what may or may not lie outside the bounds of my comprehension. Perhaps death is an end, or perhaps another horizon beyond which I can’t see. I like everyone else will find out eventually. Even so, whether I end in destruction or transcendence, my dying may resolve no more mysteries than my living.

It is the business of visionaries and heroes always to expand that world of the known and familiar. We may indeed be prisoners of time and space, but our cell has grown exponentially larger over the past 500 years and will grow larger still.

This print by Francisco de Goya from his series The Disasters of War has always meant a lot to me. In it a long dead corpse writes the word “nada” “nothing” on a tablet.

Is this a confession of atheism as critics once thought? The blackness around the corpse is hardly empty space. If you look carefully, it is filled with distorted and shrieking faces. The Beyond in this print is hardly empty or silent, but it remains inexplicable. Perhaps the noble war dead, always invoked in memorial speeches, ultimately have nothing to say (as one of my students suggested). Or perhaps they are telling us from the beyond that there is nothing there, or nothing that we would understand. I’ve always understood this print to be an implicit rebuke to the easy explanations of religious orthodoxy and to an equally facile secularism.

If we are to find signs of God anywhere, assuming he exists, then they won’t be anywhere out in the cosmos or the Beyond. Perhaps God is to be found in something that we share with each other and with other forms of life, love. That’s hardly definitive proof, but then, faith is ultimately and unavoidably an arbitrary decision. Love, what a strange place to imagine finding traces of God! The ancients understood love to be a kind of madness that was destructive and yet indispensable. Love can destroy life and make life at the same time. Love can humiliate the gods and glorify mortals. Love inspires crime and creation (“Eros, builder of cities” – WH Auden from his “Homage to Sigmund Freud”). There is no emotion more selfish or more selfless than love. And yet the Christian faith (among others) proclaims that God is Love. What may be nothing more than a biochemical reaction to sexual arousal that ultimately means nothing, might actually have a transcendent dimension that lives at the very point where Being and Nothingness meet, where Life and Death meet. That same passion that can drive us to murderous fits of jealously could also move us to look outside ourselves and see not just the objects of our sexual desires, but our neighbors, and even our enemies, as our Beloveds. The God who Loves and is Love could hold each and all of us as His Beloveds; God the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love between them in Augustine’s formula for the Holy Trinity. Out of Love, that same God became one of us in our full humanity sharing our limitations and our mortality. Out of Love, that God accomplished our salvation for us, and died as one of us and for us. In the Resurrection, God does not promise to revive our corpses, or to give us any free pass from death. God promises that our ends will not be our conclusions.

What keeps me coming back to an insufferably obscurantist religion, which must by necessity of human nature fail the large expectations it cultivates, is the revolution at its heart. In the idea of God becoming a mortal human being, and choosing to live among us not as a glorious all-powerful monarch but among the least of us. In that act, the grim mathematics of power and weakness, domination and submission, success and failure, by which the world has always worked are thrown out the window. Our salvation is a free gift. We don’t have to take any tests or even fill out any forms. It is there for us already. The idea of pulling ourselves up into heaven by our own bootstraps, of attaining apotheosis through mighty works of strength and virtue is out the window along with all other criteria of success and power.


IT said...

Lovely reflection.

JCF said...

"Our salvation is a free gift. We don’t have to take any tests or even fill out any forms. It is there for us already. The idea of pulling ourselves up into heaven by our own bootstraps, of attaining apotheosis through mighty works of strength and virtue is out the window"

Hmmm. If I'm ambivalent to this, it's only because I recall learning the Buddhist claim (well, some schools of Buddhism!) that if salvation is not EARNED, it isn't really salvation.

The whole "Faith vs Works" thing: I think this is another (wait for it) paradox. It's a completely free gift, AND we have to work for it. I know that seems like a contradiction...but then again I've longed believed that Heaven is that place where contradictions meet. x = Not x.

[And "Meh" to Michelangelo's God: give me Rublev's Holy Trinity any day! ;-)]

Erika Baker said...

I love this essay. I love how you examine well worn images and ideas and breathe life into them.

The end leaves me with the question of what you mean by salvation?

Counterlight said...

I'm now very puzzled. How exactly is Christian salvation to be "earned?" I understand Buddhist salvation where you really are expected to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But what happened to the concept of Grace? Or did I miss something a few weeks ago?
I do remember the "Archbishop" of Pittsburgh complaining a lot about "cheap grace" not too long ago.

Erika Baker said...

Doesn't the idea of cheap grace go back to Bonhoeffer who said: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Not the same as working hard to earn salvation.

MarkBrunson said...

I think there's a good deal of misunderstanding, both about Buddhism and Christianity, here. The concept of "salvation" isn't really part of Buddhism - you can work to get off the wheel of phenomenal existence, but that isn't "salvation," as you were never anything other than that, just unaware of what you already were. There's nothing to be saved from. Nirvana isn't even salvation from reincarnation, as such, as it is transcendental understanding of existence.

In Christianity, salvation is from our own sin and ignorance, which requires an outside force. Yet, Christianity tells us, as well, that the outside force becomes inside through incarnation. Cheap Grace is, I think, sitting back and saying, "Ah! I have Grace! I have Salvation! Mine!" You have nothing. The whole point of Grace is to "do" as well as to "be." This is the reason we are given an inner helper. What good is personal salvation? What good is any salvation that is unreflected in action? If it is unreflected, can we say that we are saved, at all? If so, from what and for what?

This is why I believe it is fundamentally unhealthy and unchristian to wait for the "coming of the Kingdom" or a "Second Coming." We're it! He's here! If we do it, it's Him doing it.