Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

The Neighborhood

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Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Illusions

While out driving one winter evening, the sun was setting below a distant horizon that I couldn’t see. Trees lined the sides of the road and, while creating not exactly a tunnel, they blocked the actual view of the orb itself. The day had been partly sunny with cloud forms shifting between layers of the atmosphere. Even though I had studied weather pretty intensely for a number of years, I couldn’t readily identify the cloud types. Thin, smooth lengths of cloud seemed to be suddenly rising up into cumulus banks, heavy with snow. Not far away, the sky was clear. As the sun was going down, these dramatic clouds were lit with the colors of fire: yellows, oranges, and reds. Further to the west, a high, broken bank of clouds glowed a rosy red against a twilight sky. Since the highway we were on was straight, I had a fairly consistent view of the warm tones of the sun highlighting the impressive clouds. My camera couldn’t hope to catch the intensity of the palette revealed to my eyes. When the sun finally fell beyond the range of the clouds, they appeared gray and prosaic against a darkening sky. They had been alight only moments ago, and now they were dull, and not even white.

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What I’d learned of physics reminded me that even these colors were not inherent to the clouds—colors are simply reflections of light rays and the range that we see depends on our eyes. An object’s color, in other words, is a kind of illusion. It’s an illusion we share, and although some people are color-blind, we make the conventions of color part of everyday life. Red means stop, and green mean go, for example. Objective reality is simply the fact that objects reflect different wavelengths of color. Depending on the light source, they appear a specific color to us. While we take colors for granted, they are actually a way of conveying meaning that isn’t entirely real.

Ancient people looking at the colors in the sky could only understand them as caused by the activity of the gods. Bright hues in the clouds suddenly diminished to gray could be the basis for a myth of heavenly conflict. A rainbow, according to Genesis, is a sign that such a conflict is finally over. I don’t know what the gods might have been doing overhead that night, but as the sun disappeared and a full moon rose, throwing soft, but pervasive light from the broken clouds that have only moments before had appeared red, another reality seemed to be taking over. I suspect that we have lost much by no longer watching the sky. My daily work generally involves sitting in a windowless room, and in Midtown the sky is occluded with human attempts to climb to heaven. When I can see the sky for an extended period of time, it seems that the gods are putting on a show, if only we’d watch.

The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.

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Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Birth of Religion

Since “religion” is a relatively modern concept, I always begin my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class with an exploration of what “religion” is. We all have a concept of “religion” (I’ve reached my quotation quota, so I’ll assume it is safe to write “religion” without them from now on). The idea, however, is an offshoot of the development of monotheism. Prior to the recognition of a single deity, in a world where no laws of physics existed, just about everything was the result of the conflicting interests of the gods. Why call it anything special beyond the facts of daily life? Keep the gods happy, live long and prosper.

With monotheism arrives the component of belief. If there are hundreds or thousands of gods, belief in the right one simply doesn’t enter the equation. Ancient gods aren’t overly concerned with humans. People were created to serve them, but salvation, fulfillment, apotheosis, and belief weren’t part of the picture. Look at the world around you: this is proof of the gods and their power. Religion in such a world is more a matter of what you do – placating the gods – than it is a matter of what you believe. It is difficult for modern people to project their minds back to a world without the explanatory value of science, a world where all could be explained by the gods. Such was the world of antiquity.

Once monotheism emerges with its views of belief in the correct god, and the corollary of that god’s personal concern for you, religion experiences a sea change. Yes, that god still may require placation, and yes, that god may still intervene regularly in the world, but this is the only god now. One of the surest ways to anger him (for he is male, like human rulers) is to disbelieve. A jealous deity, he detests belief in other gods, although they do not exist. At this juncture, we have found religion. When the world itself operates at the behest on one god, keeping that one god satisfied becomes a specialized part of life and religion is born. The world will never be the same again.

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