20 Oct Gazing on the Face of God
I came across the following image, in the National Geographic Magazine of June 2002 (Empires Across the Andes) showing “The Staff God” – a powerful deity thought by the pre-Inca peoples of the Andes known as the Tiwanaku to control lightning, rain and life-sustaining crops.
I was attracted to it because of its absurdity. It’s like a caricature of a “primitive god” found in comic books and old-fashioned boys’ adventure stories. It is indeed like a child’s drawing, and the efforts of its creator to invoke awe in the viewer now only produce a smile, in the same way that a Halloween mask does.
And yet once the people of a powerful, sophisticated civilization (one much longer-lasting than the Incas) felt a thrill of fear when they looked on this image: because this was a picture of the god who determined whether they lived or died. And the impulse behind its creation is the same one that has created deities throughout history: the need to invent some supernaturally powerful force that controls and explains human destiny. It is the same impulse that led to the God of Abraham and Isaac.
And here the genius of the Fourth Commandment – “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” becomes apparent. If the ancient Hebrews had tried to come up with visualisation of the most powerful and terrifying God they could imagine – might it not, today, look as absurd as the Tiwanaku’s Staff God? Might not The Lord of Hosts too have been consigned to the scrap-book of childhood fantasies?
But by insisting no visual representation be made, the children of Israel ensured that The Lord’s image would form itself inside the believer’s mind, would conform to whatever psychological needs the individual had – and would be able to mutate, invisibly, from generation to generation.
Thus was the Lord of Hosts able to evolve into Islam’s Allah and Christianity’s Jehovah. Followers of Mohammed wisely maintained the ancient ban on picturing their God, but Christians, spreading their religion in a Roman world full of supernatural statuary, found themselves trying to show what He looked like: and the image that best exemplifies that effort is to be found in Michelangelo’s great mural in the Sistine Chapel.
Superb though Michelangelo’s work is, it perfectly demonstrates the dangers of fixing the image of God in physical form. Jehovah here becomes the original “Old Man in a Nightie” – a personification that can be – and has been – considered and rejected by countless millions in the Western world ever since.
As long as God remains in the imagination, He can take whatever form the believer needs Him to have. As soon as He’s captured in a picture, He can be thought about rationally: and becomes vulnerable.
And of course in a civilization dedicated to and indeed built on the scientific understanding of the universe, Jehovah becomes very vulnerable indeed.
An Old Man in the Nightie planned the Big Bang? Arranged the galaxies? Knows what is going on in billions of solar systems? Takes a personal interest in the day to day actions of countless billions of creatures populating planets across the cosmos? Punishes and rewards those actions? It’s hard to believe.
But attribute those actions to a God who cannot even be visualized, much less explained – and all things are possible. If you cannot even imagine what God looks like, how can you rationalize how He operates? How can you question it? You’re not being asked to believe in some semi-tangible idol, like the long-dead religions of the past – but in an idea. And ideas can go on forever.
Just so long as you don’t get too specific about what they look like.