Imaginary Gods

Something you learn as you get older is that there is no limit to human ingenuity. Another thing you learn is that there is also no limit to the human capacity for acting completely insensibly. Popular culture is rife with examples of both. Sometimes in the same example.

Italian (con-?)artist Salvatore Garau recently managed to sell an invisible sculpture… for 15000 Euros. Fifteen. Thousand. Euros. I want you to grasp the full import of that. He managed to convince somebody not only that what he wasn’t seeing was an artwork, but that it was such an impressive piece of art that it was worth investing the equivalent of the average world citizen’s annual income to “own” it. Garau’s next step should be to try to convince the buyer that the…ahem…”artwork” is part of a triptych.

Happily for Garau this kind of thing is only considered to be fraud if it happens in a business context. When it comes to art or religion, it is considered gauche to make these kinds of trenchant observations. Of course, Garau defends the piece, which he calls lo Sono (translated as “I am”). He argues that it is not ‘nothing’; rather it is a “vacuum” (a distinction of dubious validity): “The successful outcome of the auction testifies to an irrefutable fact: the [vacuum] is nothing but a space full of energy, and even if we empty it and nothing remains, according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that nothingness has a weight… It therefore has energy that condenses and transforms into particles, in short, in us! When I decide to ‘exhibit’ an immaterial sculpture in a given space, that space will concentrate a certain quantity and density of thoughts in a precise point, creating a sculpture that from my title alone will take the most varied forms”. And then he makes a wonderful observation: “After all, don’t we give shape to a God we have never seen?”

The logic, put differently, runs like this: we cannot see God but we are happy to believe that God exists. We cannot see the sculpture either, but it would not, therefore, be unreasonable to infer that it also exists. When you look at this empty space, he is arguing, your imagination will uniquely fill it if you believe there is an artwork there, so that no two people will not see exactly the same thing. And the God reference cunningly convinces our minds that this act of wishful thinking is somehow transcendent. Amusingly, there is also an appeal to scientific authority (Heisenberg would cringe) just in case the viewer can’t relate to the more religiously oriented rationale. But the whole defense of the “piece” (for lack of a better word – I am reluctant to credit Garau by using a term that implies existence, but I nevertheless need to reference it) amounts to: “This is not a con. Really, it is not. Trust me”. The buyer even received a certificate of authenticity to prove it. But I have been around the block a few too many times to be convinced.

Still, there is a great deal of truth to what Garau says, ironically. Many Christianities (I think we need to dispense with the illusion that “Christianity” comprises a single body of believers with one coherent set of beliefs) have been doing more or less the same thing to us for a long time: trying to convince us that the God of our imaginations is real.

And the God of our imaginations is a terrifying being. Primarily because our understandings of the world and the ways that we relate are essentially violent. Garau hints at the fact that we always make sense of the unfamiliar by referencing the familiar: the characteristics we ascribe to an invisible deity will always be rooted in visible humanity. As Karl Barth notes, our gods are always exaggerated versions of ourselves.

The ramifications of this are startling: even the gods to whom we attribute noble qualities will be monstrous. So long as we conceive of justice as “people getting what they deserve” or of goodness as obedience to a particular code of behaviour, and so long as our notions of power involve exploitative and unequal relationships, our gods will always be tyrants. Given the fact that all human culture and all forms of human social cohesion are rooted in scapegoating violence (a concept I have discussed elsewhere), our qualities projected to the nth degree must invariably produce bloodthirsty Aztec-type deities.  The God of most Christianities is no exception.

The church has tried all sorts of creative ways to deflect attention from this, but the God we worship is no different from the Molech-type gods we detest. We have created a false polarisation of  “perfect love” and “perfect justice” to try to account for the enormous gap between what Jesus – whom we believe to  be God incarnate – teaches about enemy love and the God-construct we worship, whom we are sure requires blood appeasement. We have developed a doctrine of “the Spirit interpreting Scripture” so that we can avoid the uncomfortable recognition that we read ourselves into the Biblical texts and that the God we consequently read out of them is a God who conveniently tends to harbour the same prejudices we do.  We have made God in our own image and convinced ourselves that the sculpture is real.

The thing is, a core tenet of Christianities is that Garau’s assumption is wrong: we have seen God. And God looks like Jesus. Suddenly the limitless possibilities of what God might be like become severely restricted. Suddenly not every representation of God’s nature can have equal validity. Just because a scriptural text says “God said…”, does not mean God said it. Not if what it says is incompatible with the revelation that is Jesus.

I don’t think Christians have adequately considered the ramifications of incarnation. First, the act of God actually becoming human utterly nullifies any notion of God being too holy to even look on humans – a core presupposition in Calvinist theology. There can be no gap between holy God and sinful humanity because the holy God and the fatally flawed human are the same being. Second, it means that the most trustworthy reference point for determining God’s will is not a text, but a person. Christians often argue with me at this point that we still come to know Jesus via a text. And this is true, of course. And, of course, the Jesus we see there is still subject to our interpretation of a gospel writer’s interpretation of the sources the writer used to design the narrative. But even then, the face of God has a more clear definition than it did before. There are certain things that Jesus is not, whatever reading you might have, and by extension there are certain qualities that God can simply not possess, if you accept – as most Christians do – that Jesus is God incarnate.

Most significantly, God cannot be violent. Jesus’s teachings on enemy love and forgiveness, combined with a distinctly pacifist ethic, are distinctive features of him in every depiction. And that has clear implications for Christian theology. At least, it should have. It falsifies any theological doctrine that would have God act violently, and prohibits the divine sanctioning of any violent action on the part of the Christian. It invalidates notions of covenant, with all of its blessings and curses, falsifies any interpretations of the Passion story that involve God punishing an innocent Jesus for the sins of humanity, and renders the idea of Hell utterly ridiculous. In other words, the idea that Jesus is God incarnate renders void much of contemporary Christian doctrine.

Can I be completely honest? I think that what most Christianities are selling is a variation of Garau’s lo Sono. There is really nothing there but projections of our own fears and desires. I am there, but not God. And the church has been forced to engage in some very creative thinking to convince us to buy this “immaterial” art. Not necessarily out of any ignoble intention, although I think some churches are consciously exploitative, but more frequently simply because their violent human logoi are incapable of understanding God’s non-violence, and they struggle to reconcile the two. And much like the new “owner” of lo Sono, to admit that we have invested so much into a scam can be more difficult than simply continuing in the delusion, so we would rather invent fanciful justifications for our position than accept the obvious truth. Sometimes it is easier – so to speak – not to see.

But the incarnation, if you accept Jesus’s life as such, is not so easy to ignore. It is a stumbling block that confounds our understandings not only of God, but of ourselves, and what it means to be in relationship. It is the real piece of art that makes us see that fake for what it is (or, as the case might be, isn’t), that compels us look at what we have bought and recognise that we have been conned. And my hope is that, as we start to explore the incarnation in the next few posts, we will become brave enough to accept that we have invested too much in the immaterial, and to become more discerning in what we value.

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