No Other Gods

(This is Neil.) I’ve returned from my absence (grading and a seminar are to blame). You are probably shrugging your collective shoulders right now. Therefore, I’ll get right to the point of this post.

On an airplane, I happened to be reading a couple of back issues of Theology Today and came upon a guest editorial by the author Marilynne Robinson, originally delivered as a sermon at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary on April 20, 2006. It is entitled “No Other Gods.”  

Robinson notes that, according to Genesis, God declares each element of his creation to be good. The most expansive version of God’s consideration, she reminds us, occurs after the creation of humankind: “God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Even after all of the murder and idolatry that is recounted in the Old Testament, we will read again, “For God so loved the world …”

After this, it might seem strange that many consider Christianity less humanistic than the paganism of the classical cultures. The Greeks lack any account of the creation of mankind. They did speak of the creation of womankind, but only because it was seen as a curse. We can read in Hesiod’s Theogony, “Women are bad for men, and they conspire in wrong, and Zeus the Thunderer made it so.”

But, still, many have considered Christianity less humanistic than the paganism of the classical cultures. And, Robinson suggests, they have often done so in an anti-Semitic manner, by connecting Christianity to the perceived shame of its origins in those whom Julian the Apostate considered to be a subject people devoid of any special privileges or gifts – the Jews. Sadly, Christians have often internalized this critique and distanced themselves from what seems to be the unending violence and provinciality of the Old Testament. Who now reads Leviticus? Those who actually do read Leviticus often seem to do so to congratulate themselves on their “progress” away from its strange prohibitions. (It should be noted here that one of the clear advances of the recent “third quest” for the historical Jesus is the reconnection of Jesus with his Jewish context.)

So, many of the cultured despisers of Christianity posit an equivalency between the Hebrew God and Baal or Marduk or El or Zeus or Thor. “All of the scholarly talk of Yahwism encourages us to imagine a Wagnerian cast of robust primitives, low of brow, thunderbolts in hand, no one of them friendlier to metaphysics than any other.” Thus, the sordid origins of Christianity (and Judaism). Or so it is thought.  

But, Robinson says, there is a radical metaphysics in the tetragrammaton – the Hebrew God, being in time and beyond time, always present yet unknowable, has nothing standing in the way of his steadfast love. Because he is one, without conflict or rivalry, he can sustain “one gracious purpose toward the whole of his creation.” This God can pronounce his creation to be good. 

Robinson writes about our “human-centered” God:

I have seen the transition from the worship of Baal to the worship of Yahweh described as a change from mythic narrative to epic narrative. That is to say, the figure of Yahweh is associated with events that are or are taken to be historical; rather than war among the gods, we have the defeat of Pharaoh, the conquest of Canaan. This seems to me a superficial account of a much profounder difference. History is the domain of human beings, and the God of Israel, uniquely, concerns himself with human beings – not with a few favored individuals, Utnapishtim or Odysseus, but with “all the families of the earth.” Pagan critics of early Christianity remarked on this extraordinary conception of God established by Moses. In the third century, Porphyry of Tyre, dismissing monotheism, wrote, “The supreme God would not be supreme unless he ruled over other gods. Only this sort of power would do justice to the greatness of God and redound to his honor.” The second-century Greek writer Celsus said, “It is impossible that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, for it would have been impossible for God to have received back his spirit once it had been defiled by coming into contact with human flesh.” The concept of a lone God deeply committed to – we may say in love with – humanity is to them a startling and distasteful thought. Over against reactions like these, the potency of that word “good,” spoken over the whole of creation, becomes clear. And it is as remarkable as monotheism itself. It is the basis of the most Hebrew and least pagan belief, that God’s steadfast love endures forever.

We have become very used to an utterly radical belief, one that is an immediate consequence of Hebrew monotheism. Emperor Julian objected to the first creation narrative in Genesis because “Moses says nothing about the begetting or making of a spirit, merely that ‘the spirit of God moved above the face of the waters,’ but nothing at all about the nature of this spirit, whether generated or ungenerated.” Julian’s own language was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism, which was for him generally consistent with traditional religion. In contrast to pagan cosmogonies, with their genealogies and their generations of contending gods, the God of Moses is suddenly present and acting, having, for human purposes, no history before the series of fiats that establish this humanly habitable reality.

The word history is itself inappropriate here, implying as it does a time before time, so to speak. The God of Moses, in the very fact of existing – for the purposes of our understanding, as he exists toward us – is less anthropomorphic than the pagan gods, whose interest in humankind is comparatively slight. The Genesis account does not invite speculation about the nature of God in himself, and so it avoids the inevitable importation of human categories like origins, or like the circumstance in which he, before or apart from creation, might be thought to exist. And creation itself moves toward history – that is to say, myth moves toward epic, almost immediately, in the second human generation, when Cain commits a murder, takes a wife, and founds a city. By comparison again, according to the flood narrative called Atrahasis, the defeated gods of Akkadian myth have toiled for thousands of years after their rebellion and have effectively threatened another rebellion before fourteen nameless humans, seven of each gender, are fashioned of blood and clay to be toilers in their place. The biblical narrative, on the other hand, becomes human centered as quickly as the account of creation will permit. This is consistent with the fact that the God of Moses has, for our purposes, no other interest than this mortal world.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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