Monday, March 17, 2014

Of doves and ravens

So now what Bill Maher says about the movie "Noah" is a thing; and he uses the movie (which, from the poster, looks silly to me.  Noah with a very sharp, vicious looking hand axe, looking all Russell Crowe as Gladiator ready to swing that thing at my head?  No thanks....) to malign the story from Genesis.  If I were smart I'd shrug and say,  "whatever," because a) I haven't seen the movie and I probably won't, and b) it's Bill Maher.

And mostly, I do.  Bill Maher's attacks on religion are even less sensible than Richard Dawkins', if such a thing is imaginable.  Still, it prompts me to reconsider the tale of the Flood and the Ark.

Not that I take any of it literally.  Even in my conservative (not radically so, but hardly theologically liberal) Presbyterian Sunday School upbringing, the story of Noah was never presented as an historical event.  Nobody ever made me believe the earth and all the fills it was covered with water for 40 days and 40 nights.  It always seemed more likely this was a "myth" in the way I was taught about myths:  stories invented to explain natural phenomena like lightning.  Although I've yet to hear a myth about what it rains, or doesn't; or why it snows; or doesn't.

And really, most myths we know anything about, including the so-called "Greek myths," have precious little to do with explanations of natural phenomena.  I can't remember any at the moment from Bulfinch; and Ovid was concerned with sex and lust, and except for something highly expurgated, like the story of Pygmalion (which I only heard about in connection with "My Fair Lady"), I never encountered those until I went looking as an adult.  Still I was raised to think myths were stories that couldn't possibly be true, and that people who used to believe them were just, well, unenlightened.

The shadow of the Enlightenment (which, as Dom Crossan mentions in his book on the Lord's Prayer, is a metaphor, not just a noun) is long.  So long, we imagine people before the Enlightenment were stupid and backwards, while we are wise and smart.  After all, we make things go.   But does anyone really think the original audience for Beowulf or Gilgamesh believed literally that Beowulf fought sea monsters for days, ripped the arm from the monster Grendel, stayed beneath a lake for hours while defeating Grendel's mother, and died slaying a dragon?  Was the story of Beowulf told to explain why dragon's hoard gold (it's where Tolkien got the idea)?  Is that anymore likely than that we think Martin Freeman is talking to a giant flying fire-breathing lizard who sounds suspiciously like Sherlock Holmes?

Or do we take Smaug as an entertaining fiction?  And does Bilbo's bravery and cleverness mirror the attributes the audience for Beowulf admired in their hero, whether he was real or just imagined?  We don't really think Superman is a alien from Krypton, that Tony Stark fashioned an Iron Man suit that could fly in the caves of Afghanistan, or that Bruce Banner didn't contract cancer from a radiation overdose but instead transformed against all known biological principles into a giant green man of impossible strength.  But we spend a lot of money watching movies about it all.  Are we really any different from the audience who first heard the exploits of Beowulf?  Or the tale of Noah?

So it doesn't matter if the story of Noah is supposed to be history or not (and, to settle the matter:  no, it's not.  Does it tell the story of the flooding of the basin that became the Mediterranean?  Maybe.  There are flood stories from that area of the world; perhaps they have basis in an experience; or perhaps cultures just liked the story and claimed it as their own.  What does it matter now?)?  No.  Far more interesting is what this story tells us about the nature of God, and there Mr. Maher is mickle in his wroth:

"What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he's mad at? I mean, besides Chris Christie."

"Hey, God, you know you're kind of a dick when you're in a movie with Russell Crowe and you're the one with anger issues."

"You know conservatives are always going on about how Americans are losing their values and their morality, well maybe it's because you worship a guy who drowns babies."

"If we were a dog and God owned us, the cops would come and take us away."

Now you could say, after this, that after all the story of Noah is just a myth, nobody really takes it seriously, and so Maher's critiques of it are wildly misplaced.  But the story of Noah is as much a party of holy scripture as the Beatitudes or Micah's famous answer to his question "What does the Lord require of you?"  So we might as well take it seriously and put away our Jeffersonian scissors.  This is a confessional matter, not just a literary or textual one.

So, confessionally, why is this story here.  Because God is a cosmic murderer, a slaughterer of souls on the order of all the Hitlers and Stalins and Pol Pots combined times 1000?  Well, first, of course:  no.  As Job says (if memory serves),  the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.  If God can take back what God has given, then God cannot commit murder.  But should God take back the lives that God has given (and how many were alive at the time of the Flood?  Does the number matter?  Or not?)?

Aye, there's the rub.

The cut to the chase here (since I am not Dom Crossan defending a point with scholarly precision) is that the story of Noah underlines the fact that God is wholly Other to us.  God is not us; not just an extension of our desires, wants, needs, fears, lusts, capacities.  That divinity-as-superhuman is the pantheon of the Greek gods, or the Norse gods currently showing up at the cineplex and on TV in multiple tales.  The God of Abraham is the God who is not us; and as the Creator and giver of life, is uniquely positioned to take life away again.  So Maher's objection that the God of Abraham is "a guy who drowns babies" its just stupid on its face.  But that doesn't mean it isn't a sound critique:  how do we worship a God so wholly other to us as that?  If God is transcendent and yet not at all imminent, what does such a God have to do with us, or us with such a God?

I am not, here, about to go on a rant about Jesus making God immanent, and so dividing Christians from Jews.  I don't mean that at all.  When Christians make Jesus the immanent version of God, they usually make him a more comfortable God, too.  And that, as Fr. Martin observes, brings its own problems.  No, let's keep the tension alive.  The story of Noah demands no less of us.

So the story of Noah is not that God is a bastard; it is that apocalypse happens, and then what?  I take my cue for that from the poster for the movie, which notes (rightly, I think) that the situation of the Flood is an apocalyptic one.  But "apocalypse" doesn't mean catastrophe; it means "revelation."  So the story of the Flood is a revelation; but a revelation of what?

First, consider the position of the people telling this story.  If it arises from an historical event, it was certainly a catastrophic one.  In a world where disaster can come upon the world on the order of a major flood, a real landscape changing event, what does that say about the place of human beings in the universe?  That the universe is capricious, uncaring, and human life is no more important than the life of a bug?  Or that gods are in control, and there is a purpose behind the disaster?  One way lies naturalism, the indifferent universe.

“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
Johannes de Silentio

Which is where Mr. Maher would prefer to be, although he clearly doesn't think his opinions lead to that; probably because he hasn't really considered the matter.  They are his opinions, they are right; 'nuff said!  But the rest of us prefer a slightly friendlier cosmos in which to dwell, so we ask:  if disaster strikes, why does it happen?  And one answer is:  because the god(s) is (are) in control.  If the god(s) is (are) in control, why does disaster happen?

The old, old question of theodicy.  So if the God of Abraham is just, and disaster strikes, disaster on a world-changing scale, there must be a reason, a connection between creation and the Creator.  That is the confession of Genesis 1 and 2:  that God is Creator, with a relationship to the Creation.  The confession of the entire Hebrew Scriptures (as well as the Christian gospels and letters) is that God is just, and will do justice in the world.  What could such a world-changing event as the Flood be, then, but an act of divine justice?  Divine because what else could it be: an indifferent universe as unconcerned with human life as a drought is to plants?

And that's better?

This is not an argument for the validity of the "religious" reasoning; it's more an explanation that we, in the West, since the "Enlightenment," divide "religion" from everything else, and while we now assume that is the default setting of humanity (and so atheists can claim their atheism is valid, and the rest of humanity across time and the globe is insane, and think their position reasonable on that basis alone), it isn't.  The Enlightenment, after all, is only 300 years on; human history goes so much further back than the last two millennia of Christianity even Christianity is a blip.  So this isn't an explanation in the post-Enligthenment sense; it is a confessional statement.  The story of Noah is, among other things, a story about the nature of God, and the nature of creation.  Creation is not chaotic, and God is not us.  The Creator gets to wipe the board when it seems wise to do so.  If that's what the story says, it doesn't also mean the story says "Go now, and understand fully."  It means "Go now and understand this is the nature of the God of Abraham, who is God and not you."  And the world is not chaos; and if that doesn't bring you comfort and security and the sense you are first among equals and every life is precious and should never, never die, then....

Well, then I can't help you.  Death is not to be celebrated; and yet we do it every day.  TV shows open with murders; characters die on screens large and small, as often as anyone cues up a movie or tunes in a TV drama or demands something via computer.  We don't celebrate death, but we make it an essential part of our entertainment.  And then we criticize people for worshipping God because God drowns babies?

There is a great line at the end of the third Matrix movie, when the Architect closes the film talking to the Oracle.  The Architect has agreed to free those humans who want to be free of the Matrix, who want to live in Zion.  The Oracle asks if she has his word; and he is insulted:  "What do you think I am?  Human?"  The Architect is not great and worthy of worship; nor is the Architect the Creator, the giver of life.  But the Architect is other; is not at all human.

The story of Noah is not a story for children.  It is also not a story summing up the divine nature of the Creator.  It is a story about God's otherness, and how that otherness is God's nature, too.  It is a story of God's transcendence; but of God's immanence and justice, too.  It is a story of God's relationship to the Creation.  Not the whole story, but an emblematic one, and, if taken seriously, a troubling one.  It is, indeed, a frightful thing to find oneself in the hands of the living God.  It always has been.  That is the apocalypse.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder what Bill Maher is going to do once the atheism fad has passed.

    Reading this, reading some of the links, I wonder why mistaking the story of Noah is real, wrong about a time and place very remote from us, is worse than being wrong about the Scopes Trial or James Randi's Carlos "Hoax". Only I'm certain that being right about both of those is what will get you into hot water with the folks who wax wroth about people who believe in Noah's Arc. And the only god figure in the Carlos "Hoax" was James Randi and there's nothing much to be learned about the universe through his lore.