Theism Revisited: God, Gods, and Íñigo Montoya
Posted by turmarion
Eight years ago, I looked at the various forms of theism and considered what they meant for us moderns, particularly my fellow Catholics. For various reasons, I want to return to that topic and look at it from a different perspective.
I’ll start with a common atheist slogan often used in discussion with monotheists (usually Christians). I should make clear upfront that I am not deriding or criticizing atheists as such. I put in that disclaimer because a commenter on one of my posts a year or so ago took considerable umbrage at my noting that he was, in fact, an atheist in linking to his blog. I thought that by doing so I was indicating that people who disagree on substantial matters can actually agree on other things. He seemed to think I was somehow calling him a horrible, awful, evil person because he was an atheist. That was a complete and total mischaracterization of what I said, and bore no resemblance to it, in fact, and we ended up having a fairly long (and, alas, pointless) argument in the comments.
Thus, I want to note here that while I’m going to discuss a view that many atheists hold that I think is mistaken, this is in no way meant to disparage atheists as such, or paint them as evil people. In fact, plenty of theists consistently make the very same mistake. It is a somewhat subtle mistake that is very widely held; and thus I think it to be worth discussing, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective. Onward, then!
The slogan I referred to above–more of a canard, I’d say–is something to the following effect: The atheist is debating a monotheist, almost always a Christian, and says, “Look, you don’t believe in Zeus or Thor or Hera or Ishtar any more than I do. There are thousands of deities in whom you disbelieve. In fact, we’re almost in complete agreement–I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Now in and of itself, this is a completely legitimate debating tactic. It’s a standard strategy to look at the places where one and one’s opponent are in agreement, and then cast the points of disagreement in light of that. In other words, you’re taking a somewhat irenic stance by acknowledging points of common ground, and by doing that, you further invite your opponent to perhaps reconsider the points in which the two of you differ.
In this particular case, though, the strategy fails because of an error in semantics. In The Princess Bride, the villain Vizzini constantly proclaims every failure of his plan as “inconceivable”, only to see the inconceivable continually happen. Eventually, in frustration, Vizzini’s accomplice, Íñigo Montoya, turns to him and says, “You keep using that word–I do not think it means what you think it means!”
Of course not only in discussion, debate, or kidnapping princesses, but in any kind of fruitful discourse, the meaning of the words must be clear, and both parties must be using key terms in the same sense. One cannot be like Bill Clinton, with different versions of “the meaning of the word ‘is'”, or Humpty Dumpty, who said that when he uses a word, it means anything he wants it to mean, as long as he pays it extra! This is a common problem in teaching science: Common terms like “theory“, “energy”, and “power”, among others, mean very different things than they do in ordinary, everyday speech. Likewise, the geometrical terms such as “point” and “line” are understood differently than in normal English, and are in fact held to be undefinable. There’s nothing wrong with that as such; one just needs to understand the context of the discussion he’s having and the appropriate meaning of the given terms in that context. “Wavy line”, for example, would be perfectly fine in normal language, but a contradiction in geometry, in which context “line” by definition is always straight (a wavy figure is a curve, not a “line”).
To give a concrete, if somewhat droll, example: When we say the word “goldfish”, we are generally referring to the well-known domesticated carp of the species Carassius auratus. Many of our families kept them in bowls or aquariums when we were kids. There is, however, another moderately common meaning of the word. There is a popular brand of cheese-flavored snack cracker called “Goldfish”. Aside from a vague similarity in shape and color (the crackers are orange and shaped like the stylized profile of Carassius auratus), the fish and the cracker obviously have nothing at all in common. However, if we are having a conversation, and when I say “goldfish” I’m referring to the crackers, and you think I’m talking about the domestic carp (maybe you’ve never heard of the cracker), then the communication is going to be fraught, at best. Maybe I say, “Yeah, I was in a rush this morning, so instead of breakfast I grabbed a handful of goldfish.” Your response is likely to be startled or confused at best, outraged at worst!
This, though, is exactly what is happening with the “I believe in just one fewer god than you do” trope. The word “god” when used to refer to beings such as Thor, Thoth, Indra, Artemis, and so on, does not mean the same thing as “god”–usually capitalized as “God”–when used to refer to the One God of the monotheistic faiths. The difference between these two usages of “god” is even greater than the difference between the domestic fish and the snack cracker, both known as “goldfish”.
“God”–usually lower-case–when used to refer to a member of the various polytheistic pantheons, as I discussed way back here, could be defined as “an anthropomorphic or semi-anthropomorphic being of great power, not subject to the ordinary laws of the cosmos, very long-lived (or immortal), inhabiting some realm ‘above’ ours, and capable of interacting with humans through prayer, supplication, etc.” Simply put, a “god” (or “goddess”) in this sense is not different from us in kind, but in degree. Apollo, for example, may be far more powerful and intelligent than we are, immortal, and not subject to many of our human limitations; but in some sense he’s still a guy. An immensely powerful guy, but a guy nonetheless.
You might say that as a human is quite a bit above a chimpanzee, farther above a dog, even farther above a goldfish (not the cracker kind!), and immensely above a microbe, while yet still being a fellow mammal (in the case of the chimp and the dog) or animal (in the case of the fish) or life form (in the case of microbe), so also a god is a being as far above us as we are above chimps or fish or microbes, but still a fellow life form. The gods of Asgard, as portrayed in the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the gods of various pantheons as portrayed in the Stargate franchise pretty much illustrate this notion. In both cases, the “gods” are highly advanced aliens with powers that seem godlike to humans. In the first Thor movie, Thor explicitly says that his people are at a level at which what humans call “science” and “magic” are the same thing. The original version of Battlestar Galactica also suggested this in the episodes in which the crew of the Galactica encountered the quasi-angelic inhabitants of the Ship of Light. These were also godlike beings who said they had once been as humans, developing over eons into their present state.
I used the term “quasi-angelic” two sentences back. Drop “quasi”, and you’ve got another candidate for being a little-g god. Angels, as described in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, are immensely powerful, far above humans in power and intelligence, and immortal; but they, like us, are below God, fellow creatures. True, angels, unlike advanced aliens, are said to be composed of spirit, not matter; but then again, super-advanced aliens are sometimes thought of as “pure energy”; so maybe angels and aliens–and gods–are not so much different after all.
Thus, the “gods” of the various polytheistic religions, the angels of the Abrahamic religions, and other similar beings in other religions and mythologies–the ahuras and yazatas of Zoroastrianism, the devas, bodhisattvas, dakinis, and other such beings of the various branches of Buddhism, the shén of Chinese folk religion, the kami of Shinto, and many others–are all the same basic category of being. Some may be conceived of as more powerful than others and specific details may vary, of course. Nevertheless, all of these beings are “anthropomorphic or semi-anthropomorphic beings of great power, not subject to the ordinary laws of the cosmos, very long-lived (or immortal), inhabiting some realm ‘above’ ours, and capable of interacting with humans through prayer, supplication, etc.” They are also similar in negative ways, too–they are all limited in that, no matter how far above humans they may be, there are limitations to what they can do (e.g. at times even Zeus is portrayed as subservient to Fate); they can in some cases be overcome, even by lowly humans; and though certain parts of the cosmos or things within it may be attributed to their actions, they do not bring the universe as such into existence (e.g. they are more like demiurges, in the sense Plato uses that term in his Timaeus, that is, beings that work with existing matter rather than creating out of nothing).
The term “God”, with a capital “g”, is another matter altogether. As understood in classical theism–the philosophical view of God that began with Platonism and was taken over by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–“God” is not an anthropomorphic being. He is not anthropomorphic–any language describing him in human terms is strictly metaphorical. Beyond that, though, He isn’t even a being and in fact not even a “He”. God is not a being like Shiva or you or me or a cat or a dog–He (which I continue to use for convenience) is Being itself. All beings must derive their existence from outside themselves–I was conceived by my parents, a cabinet is constructed by a carpenter, the Earth itself coalesced from the excess of space dust surrounding the early sun, and so on. God, though, does not derive being from anyone or anything else. He just is. All beings, including the universe itself, derive their being from Him. As I discussed back here, a good analogy for this would be the relationship between a dreamer and the beings in his dream. The dream-beings are “real” enough, as far as it goes–they are impulses in the brain of the dreamer–but they are not “real” in the sense that the dreamer is real. They are not the same kind of thing as the dreamer, and so far from being created by the dreamer, are held in existence instant to instant throughout the dream. Even if the dreamer himself appeared in the dream, his dream self is a mere extension or manifestation or avatar, not he himself as he truly is.
The term “avatar” suggests another analogy. The term is commonly used in computer gaming to refer to the character one plays in the game, and similarly in other computer and Internet contexts (e.g. an image that one sets on the main page of an account may be referred to as one’s “avatar”). The term is an interesting one–it derives from the Sanskrit avatāra, which literally means “coming down” or “descent”. An avatar is a human or at least anthropomorphic form that a Hindu god or goddess takes in order to interact directly with humans, and generally in order to accomplish some specific task. The concept is most connected with Vishnu, the Preserver of the Hindu trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Vishnu, as the Preserver, is said to come to Earth in various avatars at times of great need when the balance of the cosmos is threatened, in order to put things right again. Though Vishnu is said to have ten major and innumerable minor avatars, the best known and most popular are Rama, hero of the eponymous Rāmāyaṇa, and Krishna, probably the most beloved deity of modern Hinduism. Of course, the avatar does not exhaust the deity. Krishna, for example, truly is Vishnu, but only a tiny portion of the full divinity of Vishnu which is presented in a form humans can comprehend. This is made clear in the famous scene in Chapter XI of the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna reveals his true Divine form to Arjuna, almost overwhelming him.
As should be obvious, this is very similar to the Christian concept of the Incarnation, in which the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth. There are important differences in the exact theological understandings of Hinduism in regard to avatars of various deities, and the Christian concept of the Incarnation, of course. Still, in both cases, the human form of the deity does not exhaust Him. Vishnu is truly Krishna, but Krishna is far more than the blue-skinned but otherwise ordinary cowherd he seem to be. Jesus is true God and true man; but except for the hint dropped by the Transfiguration (an interesting parallel to Krishna’s revelation of his true self to Arjuna), he appears to be a normal Galilean carpenter, though his divinity far transcends what his disciples can see.
The point is that just as my avatar in a video game is just my representation or manifestation in the digital world, just a fragment of me in my totality, so an avatar of Vishnu or the Incarnation of Christ is but a small portion of Vishnu or YHWH as they manifest themselves in this world. The other characters in a video game are still different not in degree but in kind from myself, just as the dream beings are different in kind from the dreamer, and we are different in kind from God. This is true despite the tendency we have to anthropomorphize God as if he were a being among beings as we are. Even when he appears to be so–as in the Incarnation–this is misleading. The other characters in a video game or a dream might, upon seeing the gamer’s avatar, or the dreamer’s dream self, think, “He’s not that different from us.” In making that assumption, they would be profoundly mistaken. God the Son–or Vishnu–is no more like us than a dream is like the beings in his dream, or a gamer like the characters in the game–or a snack cracker is to a domestic fish.
Thus, “God”, understood as the Ground of Being, is not only nothing at all like us, He/She/It–since any of these pronouns is equally invalid and limpingly far from the Ultimate Reality, each is equally valid, too–is nothing at all like anything. The Divine may manifest in human form in order that we might interact with Him/Her/It; but these manifestations, be they Krishna or Christ, are not the Divine in its absolute form. In its absolute form, the Divine–which Hindus call Brahman–is beyond all concepts, beyond words, beyond even thoughts. Seen in this way, as It truly is, the Divine is called nirguna Brahman–“The Divine without attributes”. This is strikingly similar to what Kabbalistic Judaism refers to as the Ein Soph–“The Infinite” or “Without Limit”–which is God beyond all conceptions. Similarly, what Eastern Orthodox theology refers to as God’s “essence”, and what the Catholic theologian Meister Eckhart called the “Godhead”, are both very much like this conception of God beyond forms, or what some writers refer to as the “God above God”.
The place where the confusion of “gods” with “God” comes in is with the manifestations of capital-g God. As noted above, while Hinduism is very clear in holding Brahman as such to be beyond all concepts and attributes, it does concede that it does manifest in anthropomorphic form–Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Parvati, Sarasvati, and so on–in order that humans may interact with It in a comprehensible way; and that further these “masks of God”, as Joseph Campbell called them, can take on form in the phenomenal world in which we live. God conceived of in this comprehensible, personal way is referred to as Ishvara (“Lord” or more literally, “Controller”) or saguna Brahman (“the Divine with attributes”). Once more, this has striking parallels in the mystical theology of other religions. In Kabbalah, while the Ein Soph is itself unknowable, it comes into the cosmos via the sephiroth (literally “countings”, but more loosely, “manifestations”), culminating in the Shekhinah, or “Presence”, God’s manifestation in the world (which interestingly is personified as feminine). Similarly, the Orthodox idea of God’s energies–which are not His essence, but still truly Him as He acts in the world, or Eckhart’s “God”, which is the Godhead as perceived by us, are very similar. In a looser–but still, I contend, valid–fashion, the Mahayana and Vajrayana ideas of the Absolute or Trancendent (Dharmakaya or Adi Buddha) verses the Manifest or Immanent (nirmanakaya or emanation) run parallel to these notions.
In short, Krishna or Christ or Avalokiteshvara appears to be pretty much the same as lower-case “gods” such as Dionysus or Horus, in that they are anthropomorphic, capable of relating to humans in a personal way, and so on. In actuality, though, they are actually manifestations of an Absolute that in and of itself is nothing at all like anything at all. Thus, while Dionysus or Horus are in a sense “superhuman” or “superbeings” that are, for all that, different from us in degree, not kind, Krishna or Christ are manifestations of Something so much different from us that St. John of the Cross could find no way to speak of it except by calling it “Nada“–“nothing”.
In fairness, there are a couple of wrinkles in all this complicated theology. Some religions, most notably Hinduism, consider all the deities as manifestations of the Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. Thus, not only Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, but the whole vast panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as the gods and goddesses of other religions, in fact (many Hindus consider Jesus Christ to be an avatar of Vishnu, for example) are equally manifestations of the One. Many Neopagans and New Age followers in the contemporary West hold similar views. The idea is that given that humans and human cultures differ, it is natural that different cultures and different humans within those cultures would conceptualize the Absolute in different ways. Though various deities and religions might seem contradictory from the human perspective, from the transcendent perspective of the Divine, they are all ultimately One.
On the other hand, many Christians, even intelligent ones, have an image of the Christian God as not much different from lowercase “gods”. In short, they see Him as a being among others–the first being, and the creator of all other beings; but a being nonetheless. In short, from this perspective, God is not essentially different from Thor or Odin or Apollo–the only difference is that He’s “bigger” and more powerful, and there’s just one of Him. Admittedly, most Christians–like most members of any religion–are relatively theologically unsophisticated, and are probably not aware of the concepts involved in classical theism. I once knew a woman who actually believed that God literally had a physical throne in the actual sky upon which He sits. That’s a bit extreme, but there may be more people with such view than one would think.
On the other hand, even some very smart people balk at classical theism. The Evangelical theologian who wrote this article argues vehemently against classical theism and insists that God is not only an actual being–and thus not different in kind from us, just massively different in degree–but also that He is not the Absolute or infinite in any sense. He argues this on the grounds that such concepts are un-Biblical, and that they turn God into an impersonal abstraction. I very strongly and vehemently disagree with this; but having discussed this before, I will not do so here. Suffice it to say that the “I believe in just one fewer god than you do” argument could be used validly against such a view of God, and would actually in this case be harder to refute.
Still and all, though, most atheists don’t spend much time in dialogue with Neopagans, New Agers, or even Hindus, so the “all gods are one” argument is not generally in play. As to Christianity and more broadly the Abrahamic faiths, insofar as they adhere to classical theism–and historically, the major branches of all these religions have, at least on the official, theological level, embraced classical theism–then they have a far stronger argument. In this case, the atheist is not rejecting one more god–he’s rejecting something entirely different, the Source of Being Itself. It would be as if, to return to the earlier analogy, confusing domestic carp with snack crackers! Now an atheist could come back and say that there is no necessity to posit an ultimate Source or Ground of Being–but that’s a totally different argument from rejecting the Christian God on the same grounds that one rejects Thor or Zeus. It’s also possible that an atheist could acknowledge, in principle, some type of Ground of Being, but deny that it can ever manifest in a personal, interactive way, as Christians (and Hindus and others) claim. That’s a legitimate argument to make, too, but once more, it’s a totally different argument. Both of these arguments–that there is no Ground of Being, or that if there is, it’s an abstraction irrelevant to our daily concerns, are both much more complex and involved than the glib and simplistic “I believe in just one fewer god than you do” argument. This latter is based the word “god” not meaning what the debater thinks it means!
So, atheists and theists of whatever stripe may argue in good faith over the existence of God–both sides just have to be clear as to what they mean by “god”, and they must be sure to use the term in the same way.
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany”
Posted on 28/04/2020, in Catholicism, Christianity, philosophy, Plato, Plotinus, religion, theology and tagged avatar, Bhagavad Gita, Christianity, classical theism, Ground of Being, Iñigo Montoya, Incarnation, Joseph Campbell, Manny Patinkin, masks of God, monotheism, Neoplatonism, Platonism, polytheism, Princess Bride, Pure Being, religion, sayings, The Princess Bride, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
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