Friday, April 17, 2015

Our Father Who Art in Heaven

When the psalmist says that God is on high, this is not a sense to which space travel is relevant. It has more in common with the sense in which we speak of high spirits. But this does not mean that space travel cannot come between us and the language of the psalmist. It can do so by making us think that the use of ‘high’ in space travel is the only intelligible use. But it never did make sense to ask of the God who is said to be on high, “How high?” 
—D. Z. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 165.
This is a kernel of profound truth sheathed in a bad argument. I will explain what I think is right about it first.

If an educated, honest person is going to believe in God, he cannot possibly believe that he is in the sky. That’s elementary. We now know, and have known for hundreds of years, that if you go up past the atmosphere, all you’ll find is space, and then some more space and then some more, dotted here and there by a lump of rock or gas. You won’t find a single angel: neither a baroque fat baby, nor a Renaissance handsome warrior, nor one of the holy, terrifying creatures of the ancient Near East. Even the ocean is less frighteningly empty. The throne of God is not an astronomical object: even the most convinced Evangelical does not think so.

Anyone? Anyone...?
This means, for one, that a religious person cannot take anything in the Bible literally that refers to heaven. Take, for example, Deut. 33:26: There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. As any Hebrew-school teacher will explain, this has nothing to do with outer space. Instead, we’re supposed to take it as a metaphorical expression of God’s spiritual loftiness. Or: when Christ rose to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father, it’s not like his soul and body simply rose up like smoke. A modern person has to take it some other way. Perhaps heaven is a non-physical world which Christ reached by crossing a mystical boundary. Or we can treat it even more symbolically. Simone Weil, or someone I can’t remember, said that he “rose up” when he got put up on the cross—that the crucifixion was the elevation of suffering to eternal concern. To anyone who takes religion seriously, this seems like an obvious point. It is crucial to the distinction between religion and superstition. So Phillips is right to point out that “how high?” is a senseless question. Talk of heaven in educated religious discourse has nothing to do with the sky.

This is not, of course, to say that the sky does not figure highly in modern religious symbolism. People in their right minds still have religious experiences when, for example, they look at a burning sunset. (Case in point.) I myself have seen God in the stars over the desert. And we do still read those Biblical verses with a special thrill, perhaps because we associate them with the lofty vault that we see every day. But even so, the physical sky appears to the religious as only an expression of God’s creation: it is not his literal dwelling place.

(Then again: There’s a better home awaitin’ in the sky, Lord, in the sky.)

So far so good. The problem is that Phillips insists, in his own italics, that it never made sense to think of God as literally living in the sky. As an empirical historical matter, that simply isn’t true. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, God was really up there, separated from us by a distance that could in principle be measured.

Take the easiest example: sun-worship. The Egyptians, together with the Aztecs and countless other peoples the world over, literally believed that the sun was a god. What would Phillips have said to Akhenaton, the pharaoh who established a monotheistic cult of the sun? That he was conceptually confused? To Akhenaton’s eye, Aton—the living disc of the sun—was simply there, and we could see and feel him on a daily basis. Needless to say the same goes for the pre-Socratic Greeks, who had not yet learned to scoff at the story that Helios drives the sun on his chariot.

The Old Testament, too, imagines God as literally living above the clouds. Take the story of the Tower of Babel, for instance, in which God becomes afraid that humankind will build a tower so high that it will challenge his lofty kingdom. In the story of Noah, meanwhile, he pulls open the windows in the raqiʿa, the firmament, letting the waters in his kingdom—the shamayim—leak down to flood the earth. Human beings, for their part, were never destined to enter heaven, with the notable exception of Enoch: they went below the earth regardless of their moral conduct and lived as half-dead phantoms. (I recommend this article, which gives a thorough account of Israelite cosmology and actually takes my argument even farther than I do.)

The Germans had their sky-god too, called Thor in some branches of their language. (Happy Thursday, by the way!) So obvious was it that he literally lived above the earth that St. Boniface was able to destroy the Hessians’ belief in him by cutting down his oak and not being instantly smitten by a lightning bolt from the sky. Finally, in the medieval Christian case, God was fully integrated into the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Going out from Earth, first there were the spheres of the planets, than those of the fixed stars. Finally, in the outermost sphere, there were God, the angels, and the righteous dead.

A sixteenth century drawing. Written around the outermost circle:
“The Fiery Heaven; the House of God and All the Elect.”
So how high is God? This is a map of exactly how high.
But we need only turn to etymology to find our proof: the identification of divine heaven with the sky shows itself in almost every historical European language. The German Himmel, the Greek uranos, the Romance ciel, and the Slavic nebo are all used for both the blue sky and the house of God. So is the Hebrew shamayim. In English itself, the word sky is a late Medieval import from Norse; before that, heofon was the generic word for what’s up there. When our ancestors prayed to fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum, and lifted their palms and faces skyward, they knew exactly why they were looking up.

(If you want to lose half an hour, by the way, look at this wonderful map.)

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, apocryphally said that he didn’t see any god up there. We take this as an ironic statement; absurd because we cannot imagine what the opposite would have been. But I submit that Gagarin’s comment would have been extremely surprising to most primitive people, and most pre-moderns in general, if they’d been able to conceive of space travel at all. If God wasn’t in the sky, where was he?

This leads me to a general point. It is often easy to forget just how strange non-modern religions were, at least with respect to our own Darwinian-Copernican world picture. To pre-modern man, the world was alive, and the sky even more so: it was populated by waking beings, enormous and vastly powerful. Phillips forgets this in his attempt to purify religion of any empirical stain, and we will forget it too if we read too much modern theology and too few ancient sources. We will also forget it if we don’t read at all.

We should take Phillips’ mistake as a cautionary tale. Phillips was perhaps the most analytically insightful religious philosopher of the twentieth century, and even he succumbed to ignoring the religious history that was not convenient to his idea of true religion. The cynic in me wants to say now that only an unbeliever can be free of the temptation to stain his religious history with religious precepts. But that’s not quite true. Anyone with a brain and a book can do history. But a believer, or anyone with an interest in the outcome of his scholarship, must simply be extremely wary, and at times subdue himself. He can tie himself to the mast as he sails past the Sirens.

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