"Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:" (Exodus 20:3-5, KJV)What’s the big deal about graven images? you may wonder.
Historically, it seems to have been a tribal thing: the neighboring tribes made statues that represented their deities, so the Hebrew people, to be distinctive, insisted on having no deity statuary. Nor, for that matter, any angel statuary, nor thing-in-the-earth statuary, nor thing-in-the-water-under-the-earth statuary. No figurines of elephants or parrots or fish: none of that. For the ancient Hebrew people, this was part of how one affirmed one’s loyalty to the tribe. “We’re the people who don’t do that – so don’t do that,” they said.
It may have started that way, but the sanction against idolatry ended up pointing the Hebrew people toward something important. As a statue is fixed and static and unchanging, a person might also have certain ideas, beliefs, concepts that become fixed and static. The commandment against idols isn’t just about statues and figurines. It’s about any concept or thought-pattern that has become fixed and rigid. By abjuring graven images, the Hebrew people were subtly reoriented toward a conception of God as dynamic, unfolding, and always beyond whatever you can imagine, always other than anything you think.
The divine creative movement of the universe is dynamic, changing. Human understanding is ever unfolding. Idolatry means clinging to a fixed, static conception; closing ourselves to new learning.
Thus we see that it actually is quite apt for this mention of idolatry to be included in our humanist source. The guidance of reason and the results of science continually overturn our idols, challenge what we think we know.
Moreover, this is really the point that I think John Scotus Eriugena was on about. Any time someone says God exists, she has some idea of what this God is that exists. This is problematic because any concept at all, if you’re stuck on it, is an idol. As soon as you have an idea of God – any idea – smash that idol and return to a stance of total openness to whatever the world might present to you without forcing it into one or another of your preconceived conceptual categories.
If you were to sincerely practice living this way, you would find yourself saying a lot of things that contradict other things you’ve said. Congratulations. That means you’re not making idols of your past statements. It means you have opened up to contain multitudes. As Walt Whitman said:
“Do I contradict myself?In an earlier post, I suggested some things that God might mean:
Very well, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.”
- Community-forming power;
- the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity;
- the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
- any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment;
- the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
- the cosmos.
Or rather, maybe, less.
We’re saying THAT – while at the same time whispering “but remember, also not THAT.” By saying “God,” we are invoking a tradition which, for all its abuses and its nonsense, also includes the reminder that all our ideas are inadequate, a tradition which calls us to smash our idols, a tradition that says there is more there than our words can say – so much more that even our truest words are also false to the fullness of the mystery within which we live and breathe and have our being.
There is no God – that is, there is no possible concept that can encapsulate all of the wonder and the paradox that is this dear life – the wonder and the paradox that is directly staring us in the face every moment, saying, “hey you, knock over the idols of what you think you know and wake up.”
Whatever you think you know, this moment has something new and fresh to teach you. Are you listening? Are you looking? Always. For there is no God, and she is always with you -- whispering: “Pay attention.”
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This is part 3 of 3 of "There Is No God and She Is Always with You"
Part 1: Religious Humanism
Part 2: The New New Atheism