My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

When Home is 93 Billion Light Years Around

In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.

There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.

But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.

To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.

In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).

People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.

With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?

I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.

Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.

This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”

The Fall-Guy for the Weather?

Today where I live, the weather could hardly be more pleasant. The air is warm but not humid, and an agreeable breeze keeps the warmth from turning into heat. It is hard not to think of ancient Near Eastern weather gods on a day like today. More on this in a moment.

In the modern Western world, many of us will actually thank God (most likely, a God in a monotheistic religion) for such an unusually perfect day. Others will simply admire it and be glad at the felicitous combination of atmospheric forces that produced these conditions. There is nothing wrong per se in being grateful to God for fantastic weather. But then that does generate a quandary of its own. Do we believe that God specifically creates the weather for each day everywhere? If so, what are we saying about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, overabundance of rain?

Most compassionate people in our society (myself included), after hurricane Katrina and the indiscriminate suffering it inflicted, reject the notion that God purposefully generates weather. In the aftermath of Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin threw a match into a powder keg with the statement that the hurricane could have been God’s punishment for the city’s sins. [The topic of “retribution theology” is one unto itself, and will be the subject of its own blog post eventually]. Mayor Nagin was not the only person to hold such a view, but most people — quite sensibly — pointed to the federal government as the primary cause of the scale of that city’s suffering. The existence of such fierce weather and the devastation it can wreak raised the question among many people of faith: what do we think about such things?

Ancient societies had their own answers, which we would largely (and I think rightly) reject today. In Greece, you could either thank or blame Zeus for your weather; in Rome, Jupiter, Zeus’ equivalent. In the ancient Near East, depending on where and when one lived, the fall-guy for the weather was either Baal, Hadad, Enlil, or — in ancient Israel — Yahweh. Who, judging by certain storm-god imagery attributed to him in the Bible, absorbed in popular culture some of the weather-god language formerly assigned to Baal. It is also worth noting here that at least one biblical author disagreed with thinking of Yahweh as a storm god similar to Baal: the writer of 1 Kings 19, who described Elijah hiding in a cave sulking on Mt Horeb. Elijah witnesses first a powerful wind breaking the rocks apart, then an earthquake, then a fire; but the writer states clearly that Yahweh was not present in these forces. Elijah then hears a gentle whisper, and Elijah comes out to talk with God, for it was in the whisper that Yahweh could be found. Legendary biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross observed that this passage (among other things) likely represents a protest against the sometimes-identification of Yahweh with Baal.

In ancient societies, many people believed that if the weather was good, the gods were pleased with the city/country. If the weather was bad, the gods were either displeased or were having a battle amongst themselves — in Greece the gods seem to have been especially cranky. We find another sort of answer in Job, however. In the concluding chapters of that book, we hear Job railing at God for an often patently unjust universe, accusing God of being derelict in his duties to maintain the balance of justice (duties commonly expected of deities in the ancient Near East). With audacity that we can only admire, Job demands an answer. He gets one, but not any that he expected.

God’s response to Job, basically, is that Job as a human doesn’t know squat about the universe. In a response that must have sent Job diving for cover under the nearest palm tree, God delivers a litany of the things Job can’t even begin to understand: the stars, the oceans, the wind, the animals in the great deep, the way justice works, the universe in general…. basically, everything. Here, I believe, is our connection with the weather. God states that he has tamed, with a ring through the nose, the great beasts that symbolized Chaos: Leviathan and Behemoth. Under the purview of God, these Chaos creatures now play and skip like frolicking and perhaps not always well-behaved animals; they do not, as they did in primordial times, rule the cosmos with freakish destruction.

The implication may be that God has to a large degree tamed and controlled Chaos; but God has not killed it. Chaos is restrained, but it is a restrained power. In modern times, when we see a hurricane swirling in grandeur on a satellite image, we cannot help feeling a shiver of admiration, of pure respect at a force of nature so untouchable in its raw power. We are fascinated and attracted by it. It is chaos, it is formed by our Earth’s complicated and wonderful atmosphere and all the raw forces that move that atmosphere.

I would think that the same holds true for gorgeous, perfect days such as the one I am now experiencing where I live. It is a product of the unpredictable movement of atmospheric components. Does this mean God had nothing to do with it, even indirectly? Since I believe God created all the components of the Universe, my answer to that is probably no. And I will still thank God for this delectable day, in the same way that I thank God for any other blessing I detect in my life.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010