Tuesday, January 18, 2011
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) And of course such claims, relentlessly repeated, have got to us. We don’t question the axiom that God existed before we came along, because it appears self-evident. Even an atheist would accept that a God, if he existed, must be there from the beginning, before man came along.
But I hope to show you that it cannot be so. Man must precede God, for God is a word without which we could not be having this discussion. (Yes, it is a discussion. As I write, I’m in lively debate with myself. You are invited to join in.) Words are part of language. Words signify something so that communication can take place. So before there can be the concept of God, there have to be human beings, who have learned how to share their observations by means of language. If we can’t see it, that’s only because we have been so thoroughly conditioned to think of God as pre-existing.
“Oh, but this is absurd!” I hear you saying. “God is the Creator who made us in his image. Therefore he came first.” Yes, the Bible says that, but the God that people depend on is the God whose existence is confirmed by their experience, in the manner I shall set out below. There may be a God who made us, but that is unknowable. Whereof we do not know, thereof we cannot speak. In some areas, we have no alternative but to be agnostic *.
In short, God, “the mighty power in whom we trust”, must be based on some present reality. It’s the same for any other concept. For a word like “dog” to exist, someone must know what a dog is, and be able to show someone else, otherwise the word is just an empty sound. It has always surprised me how easily a child learns to identify and name a dog, by pointing, looking at the mother’s lips, repeating the word. (How can the child generalize amongst examples of such different colours, shapes and sizes, recognizing them all as members of dogkind? Plato might have explained that in the invisible Heaven of Forms, the ultimate prototype dog wags its archetypal tail and barks its paradigmatic bark.)
If you want to teach a child about the Judaeo-Christian God, it’s not as though you can point to God in the street, as you can with a dog. It wouldn’t help if you waved your arms about and said “All this is God”, meaning the world, the universe, everything. For these are difficult concepts too, and the child might think that God is something to do with arm-waving. I remember driving with my four-year-old son on a foggy day, and saying, “Look! Fog!” He asked where. I pointed out the window. He said, “I can’t see anything.” I said, “Right! That’s what fog is.” “No,” he replied. “I can’t see anything at all, Dad.” So perhaps God is like fog, but even less visible to the eye.
But what we want to know is, how was God first discovered (or perhaps invented) by adults? In the Bible, it’s straightforward enough. God creates Adam and Eve and immediately talks to them:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply etc etc. (Genesis 1:27-28)
As I proposed in my last, this portrayal of God is a literary device, like the whole Garden of Eden story. For the sake of the tale, Adam and Eve are created fully-grown and (presumably) complete with navels, to which no umbilical cord has ever been attached. They are able to understand Hebrew and speak it. But we are not to condemn these literary devices as falsehoods. Every true story, or every fiction embodying an important truth, takes liberties with reality. We have no difficulty with this, except when we are trying to destroy our opponent’s credibility with rigorous logic.
So, setting the Biblical myths to one side, how did those tribes really discover and name something as God, or whatever word they used in Hebrew? I propose that it was not completely unlike naming a dog. Someone has an experience, through some combination of senses + emotion + intellect, and tries to tell someone else about it. This is where naming first occurs. It is also clear that for language to exist, there must be at least two persons. Person A feels the need to isolate something out of the totality of changing impressions that make up conscious life, by giving it a name. Only by doing this (or failing this, by pointing) can he identify it as the topic of communication. So I say to my small son, “Look, fog!” He soon grasps it, even though at first he “cannot see anything”.
Since the Judaeo-Christian God cannot be represented as a graven image, pointing won’t work. Naming and description is necessary. How did the Children of Israel know about God, before the Old Testament was written? There must have been a dialogue. Person A says to person B, “Listen to what I am saying. This is God!”, in the same way that a mother says “Look, dog!” to her toddler, or I once said “Look, fog!” to my son. There was not just one dialogue, but myriads of them, countless millions, because the knowing of God, (“fear of” or “love of”) happens across the globe and over the millennia. I cannot declare the content of such dialogue, for its variety must be endless. But I propose that it’s possible to distil the essence.
Person A is the “knower” and person B is the “believer”, who believes because he hasn’t (yet) had the experience which has inspired the knower, but still, he accepts it. There has to be an experience somewhere, that is to say a combination, as I said before, of senses + emotion + intellect, in some proportion. Or—and this predominates in the Old Testament—the experience manifests as an inner voice of guidance, which must have come from somewhere, therefore from God. Or a prayer—of supplication or thanksgiving. Or even an absence, in the spot where there was a sense of presence before.
It is of course possible for a so-called “knower” to speak falsely, of an experience which he doesn’t have, and for the believer to believe it nevertheless. And then it is possible for the speaker, that is, person A, to start believing it later, because person B has started to believe it. And we must grant that belief itself is an experience—if only of imagination! It is part of the human repertoire to imagine something before it has any anchoring in senses, emotion or intellect. (Clearly imagination is a double-edged sword. We may use it to cut through ignorance and absorb learning as a child does—but we might get cut ourselves, and be defrauded by fantasy.) Imagination is a kind of experience because this is the way we are made. We are capable of creating something out of nothing. You could fake two love letters, one from “him to her”, one from “her to him”. In Shakespeare’s comedies they end up falling in love with one another, even if one is a girl disguised as a boy. (In Shakespeare’s day, all the female parts were boys disguised as girls, but anyway we delight in the illusion of seeing what is not.)
So we are perfectly capable of being deluded about God. But this is the worst-case scenario, and doesn’t justify the disrespect implicit in The God Delusion and God is Not Great. God is the treasure of millions and you can’t argue that away with logic. By “treasure” I mean the most valuable thing they possess. The less they possess materially, the more they are likely to treasure God. I don’t think anyone should have the disrespect to call them deluded. They should be given the benefit of the doubt. If you must, you can call it technically a delusion, because faith in God has no scientific basis. By the same token, you can call the rainbow a delusion, until the day a scientist comes along and gives his blessing, saying, “It’s all right, there actually is a rainbow, because Mr Isaac Newton has just written a treatise called Opticks which explains how refracted white light splits into a spectrum.”
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. (Psalm 14:1). But which of us is in no danger of foolishness? The cleverer we are, the closer to foolishness.
I think I may read the Book of Isaiah next. An inner voice suggested it. Personally, I don’t use the word God to explain anything.
Definition of “agnostic”, from the Oxford English Dictionary:
One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
[Suggested by Prof. Huxley at a party held previous to the formation of the now defunct Metaphysical Society, at Mr. James Knowles’s house on Clapham Common, one evening in 1869, in my hearing. He took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the Unknown God.’ R. H. Hutton in letter 13 Mar. 1881.]
Posted by Vincent at 2:54 pm
Saturday, January 15, 2011
We’ll come to the answer later. It’s much easier to tell you how I arrived at it: through wayfaring. Wayfaring is freedom bought at a price, or more likely granted, like a scholarship. To own no land and have no debts is a kind of riches, because you are free from obligations. So you could sell up and go, “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” (Luke 18:22.) Or, having nothing to sell up, you could just go with pockets empty, sponsored by nothing more definite than Grace. This is the allegory of the Wayfarer, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m no full-time wayfarer, for I don’t have to look for somewhere to lay my head, or depend each day on the kindness of strangers. I have a pretty little house, that’s to say it’s pretty on the inside. Its immediate surroundings, to be honest, are not of my choosing. The pilgrim joyfully chooses choicelessness. I submit gladly to the world as its child, or as a harp submits to the player, or perhaps as an aeolian harp submits to the ghostly caress of the wind, to vibrate with it. The Oxford English Dictionary offers an apt quotation:
1910 Encycl. Brit. XI. 656/1 Some [rocks] .. are accumulated by the drifting action of wind upon loose materials, and are known as ‘aeolian’ formations. Familiar instances of such wind-formed deposits are the sand dunes along many parts of the sea coast.
Yes! Let me be shaped by the wind. Wayfaring is the method, but the purpose is hidden. What I’m drawn to is walking without knowing where I am going, the very opposite of what’s considered normal or desirable. To succeed in this world, they say, you must visualize your objective and pursue it tirelessly. That never worked for me. My objectives were unsuitable, and led me to misery. These days my wisdom is to follow my nose, obey the mysterious impulse. The concealed purpose of my life is concealed even from me. I open myself to the guidance of something other than the conscious mind. Within this surrender is a more deeply concealed purpose: to take down the dictation, to be the stenographer, of an inner voice, without troubling what that inner voice may be or where it comes from.
There is inevitably something “hit and miss” about this type of wayfaring. For instance, I’ve been asking myself why I’m bothering with a study of the Bible, especially after discovering therein a God whose wickedness is greater than that of the reader. Is it for the purpose of deriding Christianity and despising Judaism? Is it to try and understand the roots of a form of behaviour apparent in present-day Israel and the United States? I don’t know, for I merely follow my nose.
I walked through the woods yesterday communing with myself, voice recorder being my silent witness, pondering the questions of God’s existence and nature. It was plain I could place no dependence on the authors of the books of Samuel. Their clear purpose was to present the life and lineage of David, and the influence of God on the historical narrative. They were more concerned to demonstrate that Israel’s fortunes were the result of the interplay between God and man, than to present a God for the approval of future generations. Those generations have cherished the storytelling, and the Bible as a whole has remained the world’s most popular book, inspirer of paintings, sculptures, oratorios, hymns, negro spirituals and medieval cathedrals. But I’d guess that the books of Samuel have not added much to theology or mystical awareness.
So then it occurred to me that the Lord depicted in these books is a construct, a literary device springing from the needs of the narrative. He functions as a thread helping the listener or reader detect at every twist and turn who is right and who is wrong. This is no easy job in the case of David, whose family engage in adultery, rape, incest, fratricide, war crimes and genocide. Not all of these are condemned by the Lord.
But if God is a construct in Samuel, what about in the other books, Genesis for example? How else was it possible to explain how we, and our world, began? Could it be that “God” is always a construct, derived from some need to label and explain, that varies with the time and the speaker?
It seems to be part of human nature to grant reality to expressed ideas, at the expense of unexpressed experience. Say something, write it down, and then it acquires a spurious reality, discussed, argued about, even fought and died for; regardless of whether it has any other existence or not. Whereas a private feeling or sensation may stay unacknowledged, unexpressed, unvalued — even if millions have felt the same thing. Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind: understanding the ideas which have shaped our world view (page 8), says:
Plato maintained a strong distrust of knowledge gained by sense perceptions, since such knowledge is constantly changing, relative and private to each individual. . . . Knowledge based on the senses is therefore a subjective judgement, an ever-varying opinion without any absolute foundation. True knowledge, by contrast, is possible only from a direct apprehension of the transcendent Forms, which are eternal and beyond the shifting confusion and imperfection of the physical plane.
I shall call this “Plato’s mistake”. I cherish knowledge based on the senses, and claim it is the only knowledge, no matter how it varies. I’m suspicious of intellectual ideas, which the Western mind clings to as its greatest achievement. To me, it seems absurd that there should be a “Western mind” at all. I’d like to repudiate the error so deeply embedded in its psyche, this worm in the apple of both Christianity and science, that so easily divorces concepts from reality. I have no belief in Plato’s transcendent Forms. “Hold on,” you protest. “Science constantly checks its concepts against reality. For this reason, we may say that its truths are objective.” Furthermore, you may argue, the Western mind, which I have the temerity to challenge, is the bringer of technology, capitalism, science as we know it, progress. Its victory is all but won. All that stands in its way is “superstition”, says one point of view. Another point of view deplores the godlessness of mankind.
So we watch from the sidelines a bitter and violent battle. I suspect that Christians wouldn’t defend their Old Testament God or any aspect of their religion, if they weren’t under attack from their declared enemies: humanists, atheists, scientists generally.
Defending ideas is a certain path to falsehood. I shan’t do it. I won’t even defend that promised answer to “the God-question”, which will now have to wait till my next.
Photo: inside Canterbury Cathedral, 16th March 2009.
Posted by Vincent at 7:48 pm
Monday, January 10, 2011
I Samuel starts off with a simple tale which arouses our interest and sympathy. A man has two wives. One has borne children, but the other is barren. Her name is Hannah and he loves her the most. This prompts the less-loved wife to “provoke her sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb”. Hannah goes to the temple and prays for a man-child, vowing that she’ll surrender her firstborn to the Lord. There are parts of the world where this still happens, not always in the best interests of the child, if the prayed-for miracle happens. Anyway it works for Hannah, and she gives Samuel to the old priest Eli as soon as he is weaned. This was the part of the story which touched me most. I suppose I felt equally abandoned when I was sent to boarding school at the age of 6.
So identifying with the boy Samuel I’m looking for kindness in this story, whether it comes from my guardian Eli, or from the Lord, who speaks to me in the middle of the night. Not yet knowing the Lord’s ways, I run to Eli in my bare feet and nightshirt to say “Here am I; for thou calledst me.” After having his sleep interrupted three times, Eli advises me to say “Speak: for thy servant heareth,” so that the Lord may speak to me. What a bombshell! He starts off like this: “Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone that heareth it shall tingle.” He goes on to tell me that the house of Eli is condemned by its iniquity, which “shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever.” The reason? “because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.” I lie there sleepless the rest of the night, wondering how I’m going to break the news to Eli when he asks. Is this visitation to tell me something about God? No, it’s a story-teller’s device. I cannot imagine any kind of god introducing itself this way to an innocent child.
Still, I seem to survive the trauma of this ear-tingling visitation, because the tale goes on to say: “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.” From the narrative point of view this is acceptable, because as far as I can see the whole point of the Samuel story is to fill in the details of a succession. It’s about who leads the people of Israel. So Eli is discredited because of his sons and his failure to be a good father, but Samuel is Eli’s godson and a good man, so he establishes legitimacy so that in later years he is worthy to anoint Saul as the king, and David after that. The Lord would have preferred a succession of prophets but the people are clamouring for a king. So they shall have a king. As Samuel points out accusingly, the Lord God of Israel has protected the people till now, especially delivering them out of the hand of the Egyptians: “and [yet] ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto him, ‘Nay, but set a king over us’.” Prophets are by definition right, and the people are always wrong, unless they walk in the ways of the Lord, and then they may become prophets themselves.
How Samuel and Saul meet up is described in detail. Saul is a “choice young man, and a goodly”, but that doesn’t mean that God speaks to him directly. That job is reserved for a prophet, although the text explains that the common people didn’t use the term “prophet”, only “seer”—I suppose this meant fortune-tellers. Saul gets lost after travelling far and wide looking for his father’s asses, and (to cut the story short) he and his servant find “young maidens going out to draw water, and [he] said unto them, ‘Is the seer here?’” So Saul goes to meet Samuel, either for help in finding the asses, or in finding his way back home, I’m not sure which. Samuel has been tipped off by the Lord that the man who will be king is going to pay a visit, though he’s a Benjamite, from the smallest of the twelve tribes. Samuel has his cook prepare a shoulder of mutton for Saul, invites him to stay the night. The next morning he gets Saul alone to anoint him and kiss him, on the Lord’s instructions. He tells him where to find the asses, and to expect certain encounters with men carrying various things by way of identification. And he tells Saul that “the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man.” Then Samuel announces to the children of Israel that Saul is now their king. They take note that Saul is head and shoulders taller than anyone else. “And all the people shouted, and said, ‘God save the king’.”
King Saul becomes a popular hero for standing up to the Ammonites and Philistines, smiting and slaying them with tireless energy. But he needs Samuel to deliver God’s rebuke when he disobeys, for example when he spares the king of the Amalekites:
Then said Samuel, “Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.”
And Agag came to him delicately. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”
And Samuel said, “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.”
And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
To me, the book so far has one sole purpose, to tell the continuing history of the Children of Israel, whose greatest asset is their Lord God. If I hadn’t read the book of Genesis, which declares that this same God created heaven and earth, I’d think he was just a local god, who would be unknown to the people except when he speaks via the prophets.
As we have just seen, this same God gives instructions which conflict with the conscience and good sense of his people. Even I was shocked, as a ten-year-old. I didn’t understand that my headmaster, Monty Brummell-Hicks, was Machiavellian in teaching such young children this part of Scripture. It was to prepare us for the arbitrary commands of hierarchical superiors, for the smooth administration of a far-flung Empire; whilst provoking our natural sense of kindness and fair-play, and making us think. And when we rebelled against this representation of God, who seemed so much crueler than most human beings, the trump card was laid before us. Now we would understand that the Old Testament people had the wrong idea about God. That’s why God had to send Jesus Christ, so that God could be redefined as Love!
But reading the story again, in maturity, I see that it’s building up to the reigns of David and his son Solomon, which I understand were the high points of Israel’s history, to the point where the Gospel writers were at pains to present Jesus as a “son of David”, through the lineage of Joseph. They must have thought this was important, because it blurs the other lineage, through the Virgin birth. Well, I suppose Jesus could have a biological father and a “God”father. The clear aim is to “sell” Jesus as the Messiah, to as many people as possible. It backfires of course because those who believe that Jesus is of the royal house of David, he who killed Goliath dead with a single stone, will also believe that Jesus will kick out the Romans. They will be disappointed when he gets crucified by them. But never mind those people! They never bought Christianity because it hadn’t yet been invented. St Paul did that, and showed that a crucified Christ was someone to be proud of, not ashamed.
I’m ignorant and no scholar, but it almost seems as if Christianity has laid claim to the Old Testament for purposes of the traditional marketing trick, “Before” and “After”. Old T, New T. Spot the difference.
- - - - - - -
The above is based on I Samuel, Chapters 1—10.
The lower illustration shows Samuel anointing Saul.
Posted by Vincent at 2:27 pm
Friday, January 07, 2011
The Public school, for which I was prepared at a prep school, had an equally clear purpose. It was to prepare you for responsibility. Perhaps you might go to the Colonies, to help run the Empire. You might go on to enter the Army (as an officer) or the Church as a clergyman who might climb the ladder to bishophood. Most public schools were “C of E”, that is, Anglican. At any rate, Scripture was an important curriculum subject. Your teacher might or might not be a Christian, in the sense we use the word today. One kept one’s beliefs (as indeed one’s sexuality) to oneself, though an astute boy would learn to detect the identity of his schoolmaster by various little clues. In consequence of my education, then, I became steeped in the Bible, its stories and often its exact words, from an early age without ever, then or later, becoming a Christian. The criterion for Christianhood was crystal-clear to an intelligent child from the age of eight. Our service of Mattins on Sunday morning followed the Book of Common Prayer (first published 1549) which required that every member of the congregation face to the east (I think) and chant the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” I know it off by heart. As I transcribe it, I hear the assembled congregation repeat it, hundreds of times. But I never believed, then or now.
So, that is my context. Had I been sent to Sunday School, I might have been exposed to the same texts, but in a context of declared believers, who would have been more selective as to what they taught young children. For as we shall see, the stories of Samuel, Saul, Jonathan and David are grimmer than Grimm’s Fairy Tales, full of smiting, slaying, betrayals, arbitrary tyrants (both fathers and The Lord) and wicked sons. We shall be looking to see what edification, if any, may be extracted therefrom. It starts beguilingly enough, with the boy Samuel given for adoption to the old priest Eli, and being woken in the night by a voice. He thinks it must be Eli, but it turns out to be that mysterious being: The Lord. Eli tells him, if it happens again, to say “Speak; for thy servant heareth.” Will we learn how God speaks to Man?
Posted by Vincent at 6:02 am
Thursday, January 06, 2011
The attached photographic evidence (if you can believe that) shows the various books I have currently in a half-read state, complete with bookmarks. After recently declaring that I won’t translate any more Camus, I immediately thought, “What the hell, I will translate more Camus!” I like the provocative things he has to say, but to appreciate them, I need to proceed at the snail’s pace that literary translation demands. It suits my style actually. It gives the opportunity to undertake endless edits later, by way of apology for the initial slapdash rendering (my New Year’s resolution being to go on being the way I am, only more so.) Amis’ Pregnant Widow is his latest novel, and it’s all about—well let me quote from the blurb: “Summer 1970. Sex is very much on everyone’s mind. The girls are acting like boys and the boys are going on acting like boys.” Then there’s The Idiot, part of my plan to read Dostoyevsky’s major novels in the correct order. The Passion of the Western Mind, by Richard Tarnas, comes from the library, so I shall have to try and get through it in the next three weeks.
However, the book which currently excites me most is the Bible, more specifically The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. It’s a beautiful edition, well-bound and typeset to the highest standard. Its title reminds me that this book is literature. I don’t have to be Christian, Jew or anything else to read it. The layout, and introductory notes to each part, provide consistent support to the sense of detachment which I consider essential to approaching the content. Elsewhere in this blog I’ve spoken of the Bible as a ritual or magic object, holy by definition but intimidating as to its content. The intimidation mainly comes from that cultural strain which insists that I consider it as Holy Writ, my shield and breastplate to overcome the travails of this world. Lay that on me, and I demur, rejecting its cruel and biased God. But present it to me as literature, and I recall my own heritage.
This very edition was the one I learned Bible stories from, aged 8 to 11 at boarding school. We went through the major stories, all presented in the text of the King James version, but in chapters and paragraphs like a book, not in numbered verses. Some was prose, some was verse. I know those stories. I want to revisit them. So I started with the first book of Samuel, for it’s the one I remember most vividly. In gratitude for being granted a son when she thought she was barren, Hannah with her husband’s agreement sends her firstborn Samuel to the household of a holy man, Eli, as soon as he is weaned. I remember vividly how the boy Samuel goes to Eli several times in the middle of the night:
And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here am I; for thou didst call me.”
And Eli perceived that the Lord had called the child. Therefore Eli said unto Samuel, “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he call thee, that thou shalt say, ‘Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
So? What is so special about it? All those years of my midlife, when I’ve stayed in a lonely hotel room with just a Gideon Bible for company, I’ve never thought to read it. Yes, because it was alien to me, as alien as that group of Gideons, whoever they may be, who have devoted themselves to printing and distributing those books, which I have never found in a state that indicated a reader had ever opened them.
More sacred is the memory of one’s own childhood. And so this edition, that I bought the other day via Amazon, used but in excellent condition is as close to me as my own genetic code, and a thousand times more legible. And now I find myself wishing I could find a Bible-reading buddy to share experiences. Evangelical Christians need not apply. It wouldn’t be fair. They’d be thinking they could make a convert.
Of course I am trying to share the experience with you, dear reader, and not succeeding very well. But it has probably happened to you too, that the adult can peer through the child’s eyes to obtain a double vision: what was seen then and what is seen now. And thus to tie up a loose end, and reconcile one’s whole existence. It’s a big task, takes the entire lifetime.
Posted by Vincent at 11:43 am