A God that can be mocked is not God

Sun 17 Jan

This January I have preached on current controversies in the Christian arena  - on Wheaton College and its insistence that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God; and on the portrayal/betrayal of Mary as untainted by human sexuality.  Today, the last in this series, I wish to reflect upon the latest Charlie Hebdo cartoon and the Vatican’s reaction to it.

Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine, one year on from the killing of 8 of its staff by al-Qaida fanatics, put on the front page of its anniversary edition a cartoon of God.  God is portrayed as a bearded old man, with a machine gun slung over his shoulder, and spots of blood on his robe.  The caption reads: “One year on: the assassin is still out there”.

The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano responded:

“Behind the deceitful flag of uncompromising secularism, [Charlie Hebdo] is forgetting once more that religious leaders of every faith unceasingly reject violence in the name of religion – using God to justify hatred is a genuine blasphemy”.

A spokesperson for Charlie Hebdo responded:

“[This cartoon] represents the symbolic figure of God.  It's the God of all those who have faith. To us, it's the very idea of God that may have killed our friends.  So we wanted to widen our vision of things.  Faith is not always peaceful.  Maybe we should learn to live with a little less of God.”

The Vatican paper went on to refer to Pope Francis’ words following the killings last year.  “To kill in the name of God is an absurdity,” he said.  Yet Francis also cautioned “each religion has its dignity” and “there are limits”.  He explained, “If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched, and that’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it.”

Francis seemed to, and the Vatican paper now seems to, be making the case for a new commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Mock God’, with its leader seemingly saying killing for God is a no-no but punching for God is okay [??]. 

There is a long history of controversy in the church concerning images for God – images whether drawn by a cartoonist, beautifully painted by iconographers, or crafted with words – and there has been plenty of violence in that history.  I will draw your attention to two examples.

Firstly, in the 8th and 9th centuries in the Byzantine Empire, there was a significant dispute over the use of images/icons in worship.  The iconoclasts (those who rejected images) cited the Ten Commandments[i] and the possibility of idolatry.  The defenders of the use of icons insisted on the symbolic nature of images and on the dignity of creation.

In the early church, the making and veneration of portraits of Christ and the saints was consistently opposed [yes, there is no portrait of Jesus by anyone who saw him].  The use of icons, nevertheless, grew in popularity in the Eastern provinces of the Empire.  Towards the end of the 6th and in the 7th centuries icons became the object of an officially encouraged cult, often involving superstitious beliefs.

I think there is a psychological propensity for many believers to want a fixed point in their life of faith.  We want to believe that some things are unchanging (particularly when there is change happening all around us).  Worshipping an invisible God, following the example of an invisible Jesus, does not satisfy that need for a fixed point.  So we try to find other fixed points, like an image, a building, an authority figure, or a text.

The story from Exodus 32 of the golden calf speaks about this psychological propensity for a fixed point.  The pilgrim Hebrews did not have a building [later this propensity would inspire their leaders to construct the Jerusalem temple], their authority figure [Moses] had gone up the mountain to commune with the invisible God [Yahweh] and he was taking too long, and so they prevailed upon his 2IC [Aaron] to construct for them an icon.  Aaron, as many religious leaders have over the centuries, capitulated in the name of keeping the majority happy. 

Both Moses and Yahweh were livid.  Yahweh wanted to torch them.  Moses told Yahweh to cool His murderous urges,[ii] and says he’ll sort it.  So Moses heads down the mountain, carrying under his arm the tablets of stone upon which the 10 commandments have been divinely inscribed.  Note the irony of this.  Those commandments would later themselves become an icon.

Well, Moses yells and screams at them.  He tells them to destroy the calf – melt it down – and then drink it.  [What a waste you might say!  All that gold!]  Moses also, in his anger, smashes the tablets of stone – the miraculous gift of Yahweh to the community.  I wonder whether he subconsciously knew he had been carrying another ‘calf’ under his arm.[iii] 

I suspect the writer/editor of this calf story was part of the faction within emergent Judaism who was sceptical of fixed points.  For around fixed points [Kings and Temples], power accumulates, and that power starts to dictate what God is like and demand obedience to the God they fashion.  This sceptical faction preferred the metaphors of journey, tents, charisma and quest, where everything is provisional and nothing should be fixed for too long, for ultimately and always God is beyond us.

Something similar was in the minds of those who opposed the veneration of icons in the Byzantine Empire.  In 730 those labelled ‘iconoclasts’ celebrated a victory when the Emperor, Leo III, prohibited their use.  This unfortunately inaugurated a violent persecution of icon worshippers.  However in 787 the Empress Irene convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea [across the harbour from modern day Istanbul] at which iconoclasm was condemned. 

The iconoclasts regained power again in 814 after Leo V’s accession, and the use of icons was again forbidden at a council (815).  This second iconoclast period ended with the death of Emperor Theophilus in 842 when his widow restored icon veneration – an event still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy.

For the sake of beauty and art – and the pointers they can be to the mystery of both our humanity and its transcendence/divinity - I’m glad of this historical outcome.  But as you will have noticed with my telling of the golden calf story, philosophically I have sympathy with the iconoclasts.  Rather than just appreciate the image, ponder its meaning[s], and follow its encouragement, we have elevated some images – and some theological ideas, buildings, and institutions - to a “Thou shalt not mock” status.  As I’ve said on earlier occasions, ‘Father’ God is one example.

The second historical example is that of our own denomination which came to birth in the 16th century as part of Reformed Christianity.  Zwingli [one of the heavyweight leaders] made every effort to model worship on the practices of the early Church as found in his reading of the Bible, and the result has been a profound distrust of symbolism in Reformed churches. 

Presbyterians spurned the outcome of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and generally embraced iconoclasm[iv].  Much beautiful religious art was destroyed.  A typical Presbyterian church had no images of God, Jesus, or any saint.  Presbyterians seemed to believe that any reliance on symbolism to manifest or display or teach Christian truth subtracted from the authority they accorded to scripture alone. 

Of course what Reformed Christianity did, by elevating the Bible to a near God-like infallibility, was to make an idol of it.  Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), an American Congregational minister, made the case in the 19th century that Reformed Christians ought not forget that words, too, had symbolic meaning.  Despite his stature as one of the most prominent American theologians of the 19th century, his admonitions were largely ignored.

Not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries did Presbyterian and Reformed Christians begin to soften their stance against symbols.  Some churches, like our own, differed from the denominational norm and introduced stained glass windows with images, and in the late 20th century even icons.

There is a maxim worth meditating upon from the Buddhist tradition: “If you meet a Buddha on the road kill it.”[v]  Of course ‘road’, ‘Buddha’ and ‘kill’ are all symbolic, not literal.  Your life, your spiritual quest, is the ‘road’.  The ‘Buddha’ is your notion of what is true and real.  The ‘Buddha’ is what you esteem, in Christian language what you think is God’s truth or God’s self.  To ‘kill’ is to discard your notion, your image of what is true.  For as it’s written: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”  In Hebrew/Christian language: “The God that can be named is not God”.  Or in my language: “A God that can be mocked is not God.”

All our language, depictions, and ideas about God are provisional.  On our spiritual journey there are places we camp for a while.  But they are not places where we ‘build a house’ and forever proclaim God is here – for that is like trying to contain and own the sky.  And those who do ‘build a house’ and say a Pope or a Bible or a Confession or a gender for God are always true and infallible need to be mocked.  They need to be laughed at.  Objectivity when it comes to God needs to laughed into subjectivity, absolutism derided into relativism.

I finish with parts of a poem written by Bruce Sanguin[vi]:

“Who told you I need a house”, asks the nomad G_d,

of those who grew weary of the eternal restlessness

thinking S/He might appreciate

a fixed address, like a Queen or a priest?

“Your  temples

conceal streams of grace

where once desert pilgrims

found respite, quenched thirst, offered thanks,

and then felt the mistrals moving them on.

Manager priests in fixed and fancy offices

do not feel the wind

or hear the gurgling music…

If you must build your houses,

then make them sacraments of Sophia—

more mobile than motion.

Tilt the foundation

toward the future,

so that in short order

gravity pours even the most

reluctant inhabitants,

out the open door,

to join the procession of pilgrims,

led by the one who has no place

to rest his head….

Befriend fear,

that unsolicited angel

appearing at the tent

of your life,

come to announce

that the Wild One

is breaking camp and moving on.

Time to pull up stakes.

Again.

Nobody, (not the Nazarene for sure),

said it would be easy…

 

[i] Exodus 20:4

[ii] Note too that Moses has murderous instincts [he orders 3000 to be slain], and Yahweh throws in a plague for good measure.

[iii] Later, in another chapter, Yahweh helps Moses make replicas.

[iv] For example Q.51 of the Shorter Catechism interprets the 2nd commandment literally and forcefully.

[v] An old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect).

[vi] http://brucesanguin.com/who-told-you-i-need-a-house/

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