Friday, September 30, 2022

We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold

Paul's address to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Mars' Hill (Acts 17:22-31) is short enough and eloquent enough to be worth quoting in its entirety.

Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, "To The Unknown God." Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" [Epimenides, Cretica]; as certain also of your own poets have said, "For we are also his offspring" [Aratus, Phenomena].

Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

One of the extraordinary things about this address is the complete lack of Jewish exceptionalism; Paul implies that the Athenians are already worshiping the true God but have an incomplete understanding of him, and the way he quotes the writings of Aratus and Epimenides -- about Zeus! -- in his support is indistinguishable from the way Jesus cited Moses and Isaiah. The Greek didactic poet and the tattooed prophet of Crete may have seen through a glass, darkly, but they saw the true God. And it is implied that the vision of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, too, was incomplete: "God . . . dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything" -- hardly an unqualified endorsement of the Temple-based cult of animal sacrifice. It was in the milieu of the Hebrew religion that Jesus lived and taught, and that is reason enough for the religion of Moses to enjoy a special status among Christians, but Paul makes no claim that it was the one true religion, or that the Greeks worshiped false Gods; the implication is that all pre-Christian understandings of the divine were mixed with a good deal of "ignorance God winked at."

Given Paul's obvious familiarity with, and sympathy towards, Greek pagan writings, it is a bit jarring to find him criticizing those who supposedly "think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device." We are the offspring of God; therefore, God can't be a statue. Well, of course he can't! And Marcus Aurelius and his horse weren't actually made of bronze, either. Even the simplest of souls -- to say nothing of Athenian philosophers! -- understands the difference between a statue and what it represents. With all due respect to Isaiah and the other great ridiculers of "idolatry," I seriously doubt whether anyone in the history of the world has ever actually believed that the gods were like gold or silver or stone. Paul is arguing against a crude caricature of paganism. In implying that the learned Athenians might mistake a gold-plated statue for cloud-gathering Zeus himself, Paul seems to fall into the same sort of "idolatrous" error he accuses them of: He attacks a man of straw as if it were real. 

And how does Paul attempt to discredit the supposed "idolatry" of the Athenians? By advocating a more anthropomorphic conception of God -- who, if we are his offspring, can hardly be anything so unlike a human being as gold or silver. This may also strike the modern reader as a strange tack to take, since "Greek paganism" as we imagine it was surely much more crudely anthropomorphic than anything Paul was promoting. After all, one of the meanings of "we are also his offspring" was that Zeus (who was basically a very powerful man living on a mountaintop in Thessaly) was a biological ancestor of the Greeks, appearing in multiple positions on their ethnic family tree with the various mortal women he had raped or seduced.

So if the Greeks never made the mistake of thinking Zeus was mineral in nature, and if they did often portray him as human, all-too-human -- and if Paul, no stranger to Greek religious thought, must surely have known that -- then what was he trying to say? Oh, probably nothing interesting. Probably just another point-missing dig at "idolatry," continuing the long monotheistic tradition of such attacks. Nevertheless, I can't help but read something else into Paul's words. I am not at all confident that it is what Paul intended, or what his listeners would have understood him to mean, but it is at any rate what his words mean to me.

Greek religion, though just as anthropomorphic in its roots as the religion of Moses, followed a similar trajectory to that religion, towards increasing idealization and abstraction. Paul was addressing Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, whose concept of Zeus was about as far removed from the thought of Homer and Hesiod as it is possible to be. Their "God" was highly abstract, with the Stoics tending toward the sort pantheism we today associate with the name of Spinoza, while the Epicureans tended toward a deism verging on an atheistic view of the gods as purely symbolic.

How did they, and their Hebrew counterparts, manage to get from the world of Homer and Moses to that? By what is called by its proponents the via negativa: by the process of taking one human characteristic of God after another, deeming it unworthy of the Supreme Being, and reconceptualizing him as lacking it. Isn't this, metaphorically, the process of making for oneself a God of gold? If gold is the noblest of substances -- glittering, pure, beautiful, incorruptible -- isn't it impious to think of God as being anything but gold? Mustn't he be more like that inorganic ideal of perfection than like anything human? But those who walk the via negative all the way to its end find themselves precisely where Moses warned his successors would end up: serving inhuman gods "which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell" (Deut. 4:28) -- but, Moses goes on to promise, "if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart" (v. 29).

So that is how I take Paul's injunction: In your pious desire to ascribe to the Most High every conceivable perfection, take care that you do not end up with a God of gold in which you can no longer recognize your loving Father. I have called this philosophers' idol -- this philosophers' stone? -- Supergod, etymologically "above God," but perhaps Ultragod -- "beyond God" -- would be more appropriate. Supergod theology comes from looking past God for something else, something he is not -- what the Nephite prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon called "looking beyond the mark."

[T]hey despised the words of plainness, . . . and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, . . . God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble (Jac. 4:14)

Jacob was speaking of "the Jews" and the reasons that they would reject their own Messiah, but isn't what he describes even more characteristically Greek than Jewish? "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23).

In our philosophical quest to understand God, we must remain firmly tethered to the most fundamental Christian creed, consisting of only two words, the most profound that Jesus ever spoke: Our Father.


Bruce Charlton said...

I couldn't see where this was going, for a while, but I like the place it went!

There is probably an element of human nature at work in this abstraction process. More intelligent people are able to think abstractly much better than less intelligent - indeed, it is pretty close to a definition of intelligence. Therefore there is probably an innate tendency for intellectuals to assert their authority and religious superiority by making the religion more abstract - including concepts of gads, God, and Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, there is a counter-tendency towards the opposite - towards 'anthropomorphizing', towards having an interface with the religion that has much more personal and human attributes.

Thus there were very popular and human-like household gods (like Bes, for the ancient Egyptians), the veneration/ worship of saints and holy men and women among Catholics - indeed the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a very much more human and personal proxy for what Catholics (Eastern and Western) made of the Trinity.

According to Ernest Gellner, Islam is in perpetual tension (and swinging back and forth) between an abstract, impersonal, rational 'pure' religion, administered by intellectual priests; and much more immediate and local versions, focused upon human individual intermediaries. Each needs the other, and benefits from the other - but there are also conflicts.

Even Jesus has been the subject of these counter tendencies, with some very abstract conceptualizations being imposed on him from very early after his death, and triumphant in the mainstream churches.

I was thinking of exactly this in relation to Rudolf Steiner, who made of Jesus Christ such an ultra-complex, multi-faceted (and abstracted, non-human) narrative - that it seems he was psychologically compelled to build up an edifice of attention and personality around the Archangel Michael - as 'the countenance of Christ', as the major focus of direct anthroposophical interaction - in effect, so as to have somebody *relatable*.

Even Mormonism, which mostly gets it right on this issue, has been invaded by many kinds of abstraction - or, rather, never really purged these elements from its doctrines and direct teachings, even when these conflict with the profoundest level of its evolutionary and pluralist metaphysical theology.

Ben Pratt said...


I've recently noticed that this tendency toward abstraction is behind the bizarre accusations made by certain confessed Christians (usually Protestants) that Mormons worship the "wrong Jesus." They go down the list of attributes that they are told Mormons believe Jesus to have, such as being the brother of Lucifer, and since it doesn't match their own assumed list of attributes, they conclude that the supposed Mormon list defines an entirely different being also called Jesus! More accurately, in this conception, the "right" and "wrong" Jesus never even seem to graduate from definitions to full-fledged Beings.

In the past I've found that this odd attack can be silenced by asking questions about how exactly this Jesus-in-the-middle intercepts my prayers to my Father. The forced shift into thinking about real Beings short-circuits the attack, which can only comfortably survive in the abstract. I've ascribed its origin to early church infiltration of neo-platonism but, as you both pointed out, the tendency toward abstraction is more universal. Hugh Nibley described this tension as between mantic and sophic worldviews.

Even before I got to the twist in the post above, I was thinking that Paul's approach in his address suggests that his assumptions about the nature of God are based on beings and not attributes. That is, he treats the Greeks as worshippers of God without full understanding of Him, as opposed to treating them as worshippers of a multiplicity of false definitions. This anti-Mormon accusation goes directly against the grain of Paul's treatment of his listeners at Mars' Hill.

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