Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Deism’

Let Us Make God in Our Image

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Religion and Society on September 30, 2012 at 3:44 am

Earlier in the week, while writing my Tower of Babel post, I stumbled across a number of images that I found quite interesting. It seems the story has captured the imagination of many artists over the centuries, each artist with his own interpretation of what the Tower may have looked like.

Here’s an illustration from Germany, around 1370:

This artist’s rendition is very simple, almost childlike. The Tower resembles a kind of watchtower, which would be the best interpretation of the original Hebrew word used in the story. Notice the lack of any kind of background detail or lack of historical cues. Ropes a pulleys are the method of construction.

Here’s a work by a French illustrator in 1425:

Notice that the artist’s time and culture constrain his imagination; everything in the picture looks like 15th century France, while nothing at all resembles Mesopotamia or 5000 BC – except perhaps that lone camel. The tower is modest, almost delicate, a mere five stories tall, the materials, technology, manner of dress – all decidedly medieval France. I’m no expert, but I get the feeling that this artist had access to the work of the prior one, and made his version look more ‘authentic’. Still using ropes and pulleys, and the work-shed has been moved to the other side of the frame. Striking illustration, but no one could consider it an accurate representation.

By the 16th century, there are several paintings of the Tower that bear a striking resemblance in style to the Coliseum of Rome, including one of the more famous works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder:

Of course we know that by this time, Europe was leaving the Middle Ages behind, and artists were beginning to paint with greater realism. A great age of travel and commerce was beginning, meaning that artists and others were able to actually see other countries, with architectural styles much different from their own. They were able to paint or draw more convincingly due to a greater knowledge of the world and better access to technology. The Tower is much more imposing – but is still perhaps only 15 to 20 stories high.

By the 19th century, Europeans were ‘discovering’ the remotest parts of the Earth, and were by this time familiar with the Pyramids of Giza, pre-Giza ‘step-pyramids’, and Mesopotamian ziggurats. They had learned that the ancients were able to build on a scale much larger than had previously been imagined. They found that the Bible story of Babel had not previously created the right images and ideas in their minds – nor had they realized that the ancients had possessed better technology than medieval Europe. It was now possible for artists like Gustave Dore to render a much more imposing structure:

I’ve gone to the trouble of posting all these pictures to make a simple point about our perception of God. Many believers contend that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and makes the scriptures ‘real’ to us, explaining exactly what it is that God meant when he inspired their writing. These paintings and drawings of the Tower of Babel would seem to suggest otherwise. The artists that created these images, inspired though they may have been, were not able to see outside the confines of their own space and time, were not able to grasp exactly what the Bible was describing – probably Etemenanki, rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar just before the Judean captivity.

When we read something in the Bible that was written hundreds of year ago, we look at it through the prism our own culture, technology, and understanding of the world around us – we simply cannot help ourselves. There is simply no evidence of a supernatural substance that reveals God’s mind to us. When we read the Bible, we interpret what we read based upon the knowledge and assumptions of our particular society. It is not God’s mind that alters our perception, it is our own minds that alter our perception of God. The images in our minds of what happens in the Bible are not controlled by God, but rather, our minds control what God does or says.

In other words, God did not create man in his image, man created God in man’s image. We make gods that fit into our culture and conform to our pre-conceived ideas about how the world should work.

Ever notice how when angry preachers talk about God, he’s angry? When laid-back guys like Joel Osteen try to explain what God is saying, God sounds positive, cheery, motivational? To the mystic, God is transcendent; to the guilty, he is merciful, to the terrorist, he is vengeful. God is, in fact, pretty much whatever we need him to be when we need him to be. He is our handiwork, not vice-versa. Those who say that God is no longer necessary to explain the world are only doing what men have always done, which is to understand the divine through the bias of culture and technology; it just so happens that 21st technology has advanced to the point that not even the ‘prime mover’ of Deism is necessary.

Travelling around Asia, I could always tell what kind of Buddhist temple I was in by what the Buddha images looked like. Fat and happy? Chinese Buddha. Intense, languid eyed – Indian Buddha. Serene, calm – Thai Buddha. In fact, each culture creates images of the Buddha that very much look like their idealized cultural self. And if Buddhists make Buddhas that reflect the notions of their societies, you can bet that American Christians do the same thing.

God helps those who help themselves. Jesus may have appeared poor, but he was secretly rich. God wants you to live the American dream. We’ve made God in our own image.

One of the best images I ran across last week was M.C. Escher’s version of the Tower of Babel:

His rendition is completely modern. A tower can be a hundred stories high with today’s technology; you need only walk the downtown of a major metropolis to feel the awe of  dozens of such structures towering above your head. And Escher’s point of view is modern as well – his perspective is not that of a man on the ground looking up, but from the sky looking downward.

Modern man has become God’s equal – perhaps his better. He can look down upon the Earth from space and see all things, big and small, as they happen. And unlike the Genesis god who had to ‘come down’ to see the Tower, we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our own homes.

Too bad God didn’t have Google Earth back then.

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How I Almost Met Neil Armstrong

In American Society, Current events on August 27, 2012 at 12:42 am

I met Neil Armstrong last year – almost, sort of. I was waiting tables at a fairly nice restaurant here in Cincinnati; it paid better than the teaching I was doing – a shame really that a waiter can earn more than a teacher in this country, but that’s a rant for another day. Anyway, a large party came in and took a table in the corner. The group appeared to be a large family – three men, all 50s or 60s, two or three women I assumed were their wives, and a fellow maybe 80 years of age who seemed to be the family patriarch. He took his place at the head of the table – which meant he faced the corner and it was almost impossible to get a direct view of his face.

There was something about the demeanor of the entire family that made those of us nearby suspect that somebody at the table must be famous – they were gracious but guarded, polite beyond fault, never talking down to the waiter, but punctuating every request with a please or a thank you, ordering modestly but well from the menu. It wasn’t my table, but I was close enough to help keep the water glasses full, remove a few empty plates.

With the Bengals and Reds playing their home games just a couple of miles away, I assumed that someone must be a sports personality, or perhaps a team owner or something like that. I’ve waited on current players a time or two – catcher Ryan Hannigan, second baseman Brandon Phillips, even the infamous wide receiver Chad Johnson a.k.a. Ochocinco. A couple of the 50-60 somethings looked so familiar – Johnny Bench? Who was that pitcher in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series? We couldn’t quite figure it out.

After the plates were cleared away, the check was delivered, and the patriarch folded it around his credit card and handed it to me. Several of us gathered around the register to take a peek at the name, see if it would give us a clue as to whom we had been waiting on for the past hour.

Neil Armstrong.

Working in the hospitality business throughout my 20s, I’ve chatted with a few celebrities over the years – Lyle Lovett, Bernadette Peters (gotta be my age to remember her), Lee Majors, more professional athletes than I can remember, maybe one or two others if I thought about it long enough. But knowing that Neil Armstrong was in the room left me speechless. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve visited 26 foreign countries, and lived abroad for over a decade – but this guy has been to the moon, for God’s sake! I wanted to shake his hand, say I really admired him – something, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. And today, reading the eulogies and articles that inevitably appear moments after someone famous has passed on, I remembered why.

 

Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11

 

I read a snippet of an interview in which Armstrong was saddened by the cutbacks in the space program. His reason? The fact that American space exploration had been so inspirational to students, had motivated so many children to do well in school.

I was definitely one of those kids. I was 5 years old when Neil Armstrong made history, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only tyke who decided at that moment that I was going to become an astronaut. My Mom, always the amateur psychologist, informed me that I’d have to make straight A’s when I started school in a few weeks – they didn’t let anyone become an astronaut if they didn’t have good grades. Her ruse worked – I made straight A’s almost every term for the next 10 years. And every toy I asked for – a chemistry set, a model of the human brain, etc. – had something to do with science.

Over the years, what I wanted to be when I grew up would change many times – marine biologist, opera singer, television evangelist – you name it. But Neil Armstrong made me want to be the best student in the class, made me want to stop at the library after school and read further about things we had talked about in class that day, let me see the wonder of scientific discovery. Although we moved around a lot when I was a child – I went to nine different schools in twelve years – I was always one of the top students. It was part of who I was as a kid, what gave me confidence – what helped to shape me into the person I am today.

Neil Armstrong made me want to be smart, something it seems so many students aren’t interested in today. They want to be rich, or famous, or if that’s not possible, at least have their own reality TV show. Why work so hard for an A when a C will get you by? Today’s heroes wear bling and have ‘tude. Anyone emulating Armstrong would definitely be a geek.

I thought I knew pretty much everything about this great American hero – that he was chosen to be the first man on the moon mostly because of his perceived lack of ego, that he didn’t give autographs or get publicly involved in politics, that he didn’t approve of the US being the world’s policeman, that he once sued a barber for selling a lock of his hair. But today I read something that made me like him even more.

On an application he made to lead a Boy Scout troop, he wrote in his religious affiliation as ‘Deist‘.

There seems to be a belief – perhaps a fear – commonly held by religious folks, that if our nation doesn’t get back to its ‘Christian roots’, that we’ll cease to do great things or that we’ll spiral into an immoral abyss. Men like Neil Armstrong – and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and other famous agnostics – are evidence that this simply isn’t true. You can live an exemplary life without organized faith. Many of our great American heroes achieved what they did by casting off the ancient superstitions that have bound men’s minds for so long in order to further our grand experiment in democracy.

It seems appropriate that the moon appeared so huge and bright in the twilight sky last night.

If only America had more men like Neil Armstrong.

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