Gods and Graven Images
Every so often, I return to thinking about the Ten Commandments.
In those revisits, I continue to discover how far removed I am from those ancient Christian tenets I grew up with as a child.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” says the first commandment. This is the I-am-the-leader-of-the-pack commandment telling humanity that there is only one God and, as my grandchildren would say, “He’s it.”
Monotheism may have resulted from those traditions that needed some single force to be at the helm of all of reality, some irreducible entity that would be the cosmic explanation, the first cause, the ultimate overseer, the grand patriarch.
The one-sky-god tradition of Christianity seems to have originated as a continuation of the Old Testament and as a kind of Oedipal, son-kills-the-father reaction to the Roman and Greek cosmologies that were steeped in other-worldly gods and goddesses, sometimes playful, more often than not, revengeful, even, God forbid, downright lustful.
One God would be the steadfast norm, the Christian cosmic mooring that would replace the “pagan” frenzy of Roman and Greek divinities. This austere, minimalist cosmology would, of course, be belied by the intricate theological debates of the Middle Ages, debates that, today, would make even a Supreme Court clerk blush.One God, of course, is less than two, and certainly less than the vast array of lustful, proud, avenging Roman and Greek gods who always managed to take sides in human affairs.
During the period of the Elmer Glue-like alliance between the Holy Roman Empire and the Vatican, Catholics, among other Christian sects, also took up the notion of a divinity taking sides as Voltaire succinctly pointed out: “God is always on the side of the biggest battalions.” (It was very clear, after all, that the Crusades against the infidels-du-jour, the Muslims, had the solid backing of the Catholic monotheistic God, not to mention, all the prayers and blessings of the Catholic clergy.)
A more up-to-date version is a high-school team’s huddling moment of prayer before a basketball game. And who can forget a famous Hail-Mary-Pass moment during America’s infamous Super Bowl.
Monotheism also made it easier, over time, for a male clerical hierarchy to have a unified front against heretics and apostates. If there were too many individuated cults worshiping a local divinity, as in India or in pre-Yahweh Old Testament times, it would have been impossible to keep the tight theological control the Catholic Church hierarchy had over its followers for centuries.
Just because Christianity had one patriarch at the helm of an expanding or contracting universe did not stop the Medieval casuists, however, from plunging into the Kafkaesque world of the esoteric, a world in which theologians, with their best thinking caps on, would “discover” limbo,venial sins, indulgences, the hierarchy of angels, and the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role as “intercessor.” (The Medieval cult of Mary was a very powerful tradition prompting artists and musicians to devote many songs and paintings to her.)
It would seem that the Medieval theologians were trying to make up for lost time in having adhered, for centuries, to a simple, one-God cosmology. Not to mention that human nature was to have been declared by Christian theologians as a composite of “reason” and “free will.” But it was always the other guy’s reason that suffered from ignorance, as Galileo was to have learned, while the arguments of those theologians on the politically-correct side of the Vatican debates were supposed to have reflected God’s most subtly tailored thinking—an I’m-more-rational-than-you kind of thing.
The first commandment, in the end, may be less about the existence of an omniscient overseer than as a practical way of keeping the masses in tow. Monotheism would prove to be much less messier than polytheism, a theological model that would have just added more scrolls to the theological arguments. “Keep it simple,” as they say.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The theological metamorphosis is clear here. Out with the old, in with the new. No more golden calves. No more local deities. “Graven images,” of course were verboten. And the brief addendum, “for I am a jealous God,” is unblushingly attached to the second commandment just in case humans may have forgotten that the Old Testament God may have been a cranky, self-indulgent patriarch always in need of attention.
Possessiveness, emotional territoriality, and co-dependency, we are told by many a modern psychologist are just not healthy behavioral traits. Shakespeare’s Iago even had to remind his out-of-sorts boss, Othello, that jealousy is the “green eyed monster” that will, my friends, eat you alive. No argument there, I would think.
Now, as a very-much-died-in-the-wool human, I can take some solace in knowing that Yahweh suffered from over attachment, benevolence out-of-control, another helicopter parent hovering over the Hebrews, if you will. I can, indeed, feel his pain in wanting to be the omnipresent caretaker.
But I hold the line on the “Slaying-of-mine-enemies” thing. At my post Social-Security age, I just don’t have the energy or the interest (and it helps to have a diminishing cardio vascular system—it just takes the spunk out of revenge, if you know what I mean).
For some reason, the concept of a “jealous God” never seems to have come up in any theological discussions over the many years I had contemplated becoming a Trappist monk. However, as a young Roman Catholic elementary school child, I do remember hearing, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” At the time, I had never heard of jealousy as one of God’s attributes. But I had been well rehearsed in the graven-images-and-false-idols theology.
Could it be that the Old Testament God had some deep-seated fear of being the scorned lover, the guy who would always be the best man, the chronic second choice, or the quiet geek-in-the-corner of human indifference?
Or was it simply a “guy” thing? Order. Demand. Threaten. Avenge. Silence. Conquer. Execute. Shock and Awe. “Brook no fools,” as a crusty old patriarch might say.
The jealous God tradition got shelved in the New Testament and during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The new God figure of Christianity would be portrayed as a king, a shepherd, a son, a consoler, a prophet, a fisherman, and a graceful sufferer.
Monotheistic Christianity had a brief polytheism scare-moment during the theological debates over the nature of God around the fourth century. How was Christ, portrayed in the New Testament as the “son of God,” going to fit into the scheme of the one-god tradition.
Well, leave it to your handy theologians to figure that out. They kept the one-nature-of-God concept but somehow managed to divide God’s nature into three persons: the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost (something akin to the US Supreme Court finding persons all over the corporate world in its Citizens United case).
As a young, naïve Catholic elementary student, I was taught about the doctrine of the Trinity—the father, the son, the Holy Ghost—with an easy-to-remember analogy: the three-leaf clover. God would still be one, like the clover, I was told by the nuns. But he would always have “three” distinct parts or persons. The Siamese twins comparison was out of the question because it did not compute, mathematically, nor was it a Western-friendly analogy.
Monotheism certainly has its tender moments. It also has its cruel scenarios. If I poke fun at the monotheism tradition, I do so in an attempt to pull the traditionalists over to the side of poetry.
I taught literature for thirty five years. I am a poet and novelist. I love to read from all kinds of spiritual traditions. I love the Psalms. I am comforted by Bach oratorios. I still weep listening to Verdi’s “Requiem.” And I love metaphors.
The one-God tradition, to me, is all about poetry. And poetry, to me, is all about desire and story. We create epic stories, I believe, out of our desire to stay connected to our humanity—our desires, our memories, our hurts, our passions. Some of us need heroes and monarchs. Some of us need parents. Some of us need caretakers and consolers. Some of us need lovers. Some of us have to be around children to keep our innocense. Some of us want teachers in our lives. Some of us need “One” God to speak to all those sides of our desires.
Others like me can be contented with the desires of those who need “One” divinity to represent the totality of everything, to be the alpha and omega of all reality, the monarch, if you will, of all Being—past, present, future.
And many of us desperately need transcendence, something to take us away from the rabble. Some of us arrive at transcendence in song and language—the two vehicles for desire. That is the part of our poetic sensibility that we all lean into on a warm summer night listening to a favorite song or hearing the words of an old friend on an answering machine.
Monotheism, to me, is all about poetry. We listen to the “words” of an ancient text. We hear a minister or priest say something from the pulpit. We hear an old hymn. We connect to that sense of “oneness,” that sparks in us a desire to change, to be renewed, to be different from our old, naughty, disgruntled selves.
If we “make up” stories about an eternal life, I cannot fault that poetic desire for things to go on. After all, I would love to be thirty forever. I would love to have an infinite number of chances for getting an intimate relationship right. I would love to endlessly listen to the Gerard Manley Hopkins line, “The achieve of, the mastery of the thing.” I would love to know that the memory of my father kneeling in front of his garden will always be with me. And I would love for the lives of my children and grandchildren just to go on and on. And on.