Sunday, February 03, 2013

Did man create God or vice-versa? Does it matter?

The argument over whether God exists is frequently a stale and fruitless exercise in dueling talking points, sound bites, and idées fixes, that begin and end with the certitude that the opposing side is made up of idiots who are incapable of understanding self-evident truths. In this vein, "samearl" writes, in response to a Huffington Post piece on the Prime Mover argument for the existence of God, "Jehovah was created a few thousand years ago by a tribe of bronze age sheepherders as one of their gods. He started to grow in prominence when certain sects began to give him more importance and had him say "Ye shall have no other gods before me.'"

I would like to posit that it actually makes no difference whether God created mankind, or mankind created God. The whole "creation" bit, while  interesting ontologically, is pretty much irrelevant theologically.

One cam make a very good case that humans created the multiple deities of the ancient world. Many of these are functional gods: you pray to Demeter to bring the harvest, to Tlaloc to make rain, to Hapi to cause the Nile to flood. (This is an oversimplification but gets to the essential point.) 

So we can see why humans would find it useful to invent these gods, and pray to them. 

What about God, singular, the God of the Hebrew scriptures and their offshoots? Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Man invented God. 

In one of the earliest stories in the Bible, Cain, the firstborn child in history, kills his brother Abel. The story is short (concision is one of the greatest strengths of the Bible); we shall give it entire:

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

(Genesis 4:1-16 ESV)

In this story, what "function" does God perform? Clearly, God is not a "puppetmaster"; Cain makes his own choices.* God certainly doesn't provide any easy answers or explanations, nor does God provide any tangible benefits (fire, crops, tools, etc.) to his creation. So what does he provide?

Instruction, for one thing; God recommends (but does not order) that Cain do right, and not evil. Witness, for another: "The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground." Justice: "You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." And mercy: God's mark on Cain, and curse on his potential attackers, protects his life. Above all, God gives to Cain--and through him, to us--a powerful lesson in the ultimate value of human life; 
even the life of one who has killed. 

All of the sturm und drang of the first six days of creation is magnificent, dramatic, and metaphorically plausible (how is "Let there be light!" different from the Big Bang?); but for purposes of understanding how to live one's life, the creator God is much less important than the God who confronts Cain--and all of us. It really doesn't matter who invented whom; What is important is the awesome moral drama of human existence.

*If God wanted puppets, he already had them in the form of angels, who by tradition have no will of their own and can only exercise God's commands.

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