A short note on God

I’ve been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, thanks in large part to the new TV series on Starz based on the novel. Gaiman’s works always disappoint me in the end. Not because they’re bad, (I can never put them down), but because I prefer two types of endings: fell-good cheesy ones and depressing I-hope-you-learned-your-lesson ones. Gaiman’s endings always make me think, and I don’t necessarily like that in my fiction.

Behavioral economists will tell me that I’m not actually disappointed in Gaiman’s work because I always come back for more, but I insist they’re wrong.

At any rate, American Gods got me thinking about, well, God. The God I grew up with was the Mormon God (I’m a reluctant atheist now). The Mormon God is a loving god. It’s a man, with a wife, who views human beings as his children. Jesus Christ is his oldest son, and Lucifer is the 2nd oldest.Prior to human life on earth, a war erupted in Heaven between two factions, one led by Jesus and the other by Lucifer. (I highlight the word “war” because this is how Mormons describe what is essentially a philosophical argument. No blood was shed. It is a culture war. Mormons view themselves as God’s warriors. Because they view their God as a loving one, they smile and are nice to everybody, but they do so because they are at war.)

Jesus argued that everybody should have free choice in what they do on earth. All of his brothers and sisters (i.e. God’s children) should be free to make mistakes and sin. Jesus offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb for everybody. He would die on earth so that his brothers and sisters would get a chance to repent for their mistakes and sins.

Lucifer argued that everybody should have an outline of what to do in order to get back to Heaven. His brothers and sisters would already have their lives planned out for them when they were born, and there would be no room to make mistakes. Thus nobody would have to worry about making mistakes, so nobody would not make it back to Heaven.

At the end of their great debate, the people of Heaven, God’s children, the future inhabitants of earth, held a vote and decided to go with Jesus’ plan. Lucifer was butthurt, and left Heaven to found his own society, based on his plan, in Hell. According to the founders of the Mormon Church, about 1/3 of Heaven went with Lucifer. They didn’t have the courage to be tested through free agency. They wanted every aspect of their lives to be planned for them.

This portrait gives you a view, I hope, of a distinctly American God, born as he was in the early 19th century: democratic, freedom-loving, and generous. There is a lot to chew on here, I know. There’s lots of questions, too, such as “why did we have to leave Heaven in the first place?” The answer I received to most of my questions was “faith.”

The Mormon God, though, was also a mass murderer. He killed lots of people (or had people killed) to make his point, more than once. How can a loving God commit (or support) such atrocities? Nothing adds up. It didn’t add up when I was 10, or 16, or 25.

I think the bad math explains polytheistic logic pretty well. Instead of an omnipotent god who loves you immensely and also slaughters human life in anger or jealousy, there is a god responsible for love, and one for war, one for greed, etc. You can simply worship as you please. This polytheistic framework leads directly to questions about self-discipline, though: If you have many gods for many motives, wouldn’t this make it easier to murder people without feeling guilty about it? To swindle people? Just ignore the gods of love or forgiveness or justice and pray to the gods of anger or expedience.

Reality doesn’t conform to this rough logic, though. India’s Hindu population is no less violent than, say, Muslim Albania or Christian Serbia (or secular Los Angeles). India’s merchant class is no less devout than the West’s or Islam’s. Religion can shape a person’s life, indeed a whole culture, but it has less of an effect on good and bad than we like to think.

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One thought on “A short note on God

  1. There have been a few different responses to the problem of theodicy – how does a good god permit evil in the world? – and they all leave something to be desired.

    Polytheism skirts the issue by instantiating all divine powers in multiple gods, who are often in conflict with each other. Plato rightly points out in Euthyphro that if these gods are in conflict, they each have a different conception of what is good, for if it were all the same, then they would not be in conflict. If each god says X, Y, or Z is good, then we have a problem: is the good good because the gods say it is good, or do the gods say X is good because it is good for some other reason? If the former, then there is no “good” because each has a different definition. If the latter, there is one good, the gods have nothing to do with, many gods have it wrong, and by the way, why should we worship these fallible beings when they can’t even tell us the best way to act? Polytheistic religion is a simplistic mode of worship because it cannot answer the important questions of civic life; it more properly answers questions of physics (“Zeus is creating this storm right now!”) for primitive societies than questions of metaphysics or ethics, which become more important as society becomes more complex over time.

    I would wager that the practical considerations raised in Euthyphro would be reflected in society by a non-religious code of ethics, both implicit, such as the laws of hospitality or the taboo on the despoiling of corpses (I refer to the Greeks here), and explicit, such as the law codes carved into marble in the town square. Polytheism thus seems to harbor the seeds of its own destruction, for the lack of rigid, traditional moral thought from the gods allowed for the flourishing of philosophy and thence the supersession of polytheism. You see this in India as well, for the early Vedic religion, very close to the Indo-European archetype, gradually gave way to the prescriptive philosophies outlined in th Upanishads.

    Judaism offers many contradictions, which you would expect in a religion so old. On the one hand, it seems to find a way out of the problem because Yahweh began as the god of war in the Canaanite pantheon, and there was no need for him to be all good. As the national god of the Israelites, he was the father of the people and acted accordingly. He massacred the Egyptians but also allowed his people to be enslaved by them; he empowered Moses to liberate the people and then, in a fit of pique, tried to kill him; he allowed Joshua to become the warlord of Israel, conquering Canaan by the sword. He is not the god of all men, but of some men, and he protects them and provides them with the spiritual means to vanquish their enemies. His goodness is defined by his patronage of the Israelites, and their fortunes depend on how assiduously they cling to him – if they abandon him for other gods (which ancient Israelites believed existed, though they did not pay them homage), then Yahweh would forsake them, and they would be defeated in battle. On the other hand, Yahweh as war god has proven problematic for theologians later on, such as Maimonides, who attempted to bring God in line with Greek philosophic ideals: he must be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent. Now, not only must God’s fundamental goodness be reconciled with his bloodlust, but also his unboundedness, a key reason why Jesus as both God and man was rejected, must be reconciled with clear descriptions of him in Torah in the form of a man, giving messages, wrestling with his followers, stretching a literal hand over the land.

    Christianity must reconcile its Judaic origins and the Jewish war god, Yahweh, with the compassionate father figure and the son who died for our sins. From what I can tell, there is a complicated argument about the progression of history and the unveiling of God’s design on earth. The bloodiness of the past is sacrificed in the form of the Son, who absolves us of sin and inaugurates a new spiritual community on earth. The law is not abolished but fulfilled in him, and through him, we attain peace. Evil is brought into the world through the devil, who fell from grace and yet whose actions exist as part of God’s plan to purify the world and bring about the end of times, where God will finally triumph over Satan and all who cleaved to him will find eternal peace and all who rejected him will burn in eternal hellfire. Having faith in the plan of god means that evil, though it appears, is not truly evil, but a purifying fire, one whose effects will be to the good when all is revealed. There is something very Zoroastrianism in this view.

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