In Whose Image? Let

In Whose Image?

Let me remind readers of the test I took last night which called me an atheist. If only life were that easy! And life can be made almost that easy, if you simply turn off all inquiry into the nature of stuff, and either accept someone else's beliefs about God (regardless of what you think), or simply declare that you are an atheist, and thereby bypass detailed religious arguments (again, regardless of what you think).

That would be a lot easier than grappling with stuff which is guaranteed to piss people off. I have found that even talking about the history of religion is enough to piss off numerous people, without even speculating about one's personal beliefs.

Anyway, for today I will try to stick with religious history. My beliefs (if any) are irrelevant, but I have just as much right to speculate about why others believe what they do as to speculate why people might have voted for Clinton or Bush. (Glad we have the First Amendment, folks. This ain't Saudi Arabia yet. But I do believe that the First Amendment is a tool for freedom which requires constant maintenance, a set of muscles which must be regularly exercised. If you don't use it, you lose it!)

Earlier I asked whether man has the right to be wrong. Now I wish to examine theoretically whether God (or the gods) are entitled to the same right.

At the outset, I would note that on the issue of fallibility, the ancient gods win hands down. Here's Roger L. Simon reflecting eloquently on the Kobe Bryant affair:

[M]aybe this is a good thing for us, if not for him. We don't need to make athletes, even ones who can speak Italian in the middle of a three-sixty dunk, into heroes. In fact we don't need to make anyone into heroes. We're all just human and that's it. The whole idea of role models is, well, kind of pathetic. No one can live up to it.... Still, I have to admit I am hugely depressed by the whole thing. Watching Kobe was always a joy, a pleasure to see what the human body could do. The Greeks had it better. They knew we were all fallible and they made their gods that way.

Note: Anyone who hasn't done so already should buy Roger Simon's new thriller, a terrifying new twist on "media terrorism."

I agree completely. I never liked the idea of role models either. Nor do I care much for super-authoritarianism. Humanistic or humanized gods therefore appeal to me.

Might it be that this tension -- between authoritarian gods and the more human variety -- contributed to the appeal of Christianity? (After all, what better way to humanize a god than by making him a man?)

Or did the old original Jehovah have human qualities? You wouldn't know it from the way the fundamentalist fanatics talk, but Alan Dershowitz, a Biblical scholar as well as a legal scholar, maintains that back in the old days, the original God of the Torah not only invited arguments, but that followers are obligated to argue with God:

Using examples, Mr. Dershowitz contends the Bible is a book for the ages. He points to a surprising range of people who invite us to argue with the Bible. Mr. Dershowitz tells why he believes we all have an obligation to argue with God. Mr. Dershowitz suggests that the God of Genesis is an imperfect god.
Once again, I see at least tentative confirmation of one of my theses. The original God of the Hebrews -- from which modern Christianity and Islam evolved -- might not have been quite the monster which some of today's fundamentalist bigots claim he was. At least, not to the ancient Jews.

If ancient Jews worshiped a humanistic God, why has that been suppressed? And who suppressed it?

I can't speak for the followers of Muhammad, but from what I've seen of Christianity, nothing in the teachings of Jesus Christ would transform the god of the Hebrews into the bigoted monster behind September 11.

Might a small minority of people be projecting their insecurities? What puzzles me the most about radical "Christian" fundamentalism is how such a doctrine could evolve when it is in such clear contrast to the personality and teachings of Jesus Christ. I have to suspect that some of these folks (especially the men) either hate the real Jesus, or are very uneasy about him and therefore want him recast in a more violent, more "manly" vein.

In that regard, the following quote comes to mind:

Jesus was not a sissy!"
-- Jerry Falwell
Similarly, a young self-styled "Pagan" who hates homosexuals once told me, "Jesus was a faggot!" (At the time I really didn't know how to respond.)

A stubborn problem for some people is that the pure essence of the loving, compassionate, forgiving, turn-the-other-cheek, Jesus is just not something with which they can identify.

Might some followers therefore have a major psychological need to transform Christianity into what they deem a "real man's" religion?

This is not logical. But then, neither is pick-and-choose fundamentalism, because there is nothing literal about such selective interpretations of the Bible. They are looking for what they want.

If these people want to create their own version of intolerant, brutal Christianity, that is their First Amendment right. However, I think they are biting off more than they can chew when they attempt to claim it is the only Christianity.

What if the Rapture really occurred, and they were left behind? What then? How can they be so sure of their predestination?

Let's move from Falwell's sissy concerns to Saint Sebastian, a favorite theme in Renaissance art. There must have been hundreds if not thousands of versions of that particular martyrdom.

Here are some typical examples.

For more Sebastian iconography and its interpretation over the years, see this. Much has been made of the choice of Sebastian (favorite of the Emperor Diocletian) as a homo-erotic theme by furtively closeted Renaissance artists.

This, I think, is more of a commentary on Renaissance or even modern culture than Roman culture, as once again the Romans did not think in such terms. But then, religious themes have always been used as a "cover" for various works of art which might otherwise have generated controversy. (Cf. Bosch, Bruegel, et al.)

In the film "Carrie," Saint Sebastian was featured as a statue in Sissy Spacek's prayer closet. Carrie's fiercely fundamentalist mom ended up pinioned by knives in almost exactly the same position, echoing a theme of Saint Sebastian as a sort of protest saint (if such things are possible). Protest saint or not, I see little evidence that Protestants ever cared much for Sebastian; I would not be surprised if Sebastian played a part in the development of Calvinist austerity.


I really ought to do more research, because the above turns out to be more than my own speculation.

Seriously, I just learned that indeed, the Calvinists didn't much care for Sebastian. When they found Saint Sebastian's shrine, they trashed his bones, throwing them into a watery ditch! Similar fates were meted out to Rasputin by the Commies, and to Buddhist statues by the Taliban.

Now, if certain Christians are so dissatisfied with what appears to be too much traditional tolerance -- whether by early Hebrews, by Jesus himself, or by his early followers, then what are the implications vis--vis Islam? Might some of them have been similarly outraged over the idea of religious tolerance? Might some of them have wanted to come up with more of a "real man's" religion.

Does that mean religion is a popularity contest? Or, in blogger language, how many hits are generated by God the Bigot as opposed to God the Compassionate?

Bigotry, while never boring (and certain to generate hits) is not my idea of perfection.

But then, doesn't that mean we've come full circle in this discussion? If bigotry is a human failing, and if failed human beings have attempted to project that onto God, then isnt that another example of projecting human frailties onto a deity? Surely, the people who do that ought not object to dissenting views of God.

Who gets to argue these things, and who gets to determine whether God is right, or which gods are right? (And I still haven't answered the more perplexing question about whether God has a right to be wrong.)

Greek, Roman, or Hebrew, the ancient gods left some room for doubt -- something I think is healthy.

posted by Eric on 07.20.03 at 02:48 PM


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Good work

Jess   ·  September 17, 2003 7:17 PM

Thank you for reading this, and for your comment!

Eric Scheie   ·  September 23, 2003 10:28 PM

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