1. Is God vulnerable?
Apparently. To feel is to be vulnerable, is it not? To suffer?
The noise of humanity irritated the Mesopotamian gods so miserably that they wiped it out with a flood, the one on which the Genesis version is based. Then they ran to their father Anu to shelter them from it. Fraidy-cats. Then they suffered remorse for having caused it. They felt it all.
Isis was vulnerable to love and loss, and her brother-husband Osiris to deception, to assassination and—if you consider it a vulnerability—to rebirth.
The Greek gods, who Homer said "dwell in bliss," nevertheless suffered jealousy, envy, anger, fear, indignation, ugliness, deformity, lameness, castration, and ultimately death. So much for bliss.
And they suffered pleasure, if you consider that a vulnerability.
The Nordic gods were subject to the same things, and of course to twilight.
The Judaeo-Christian-Muslim God was notoriously jealous, and with some reason: scholars are telling us all those names of his were actually of other gods, lots of them. He suffered anger, rage, vengefulness and, we can only conclude, a sense of obligation to put on our own vulnerability, sweat blood in terror and submit to torture from which death could only be a relief. It’s a beautiful story, “The notion,” as T.S. Eliot says, “of some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing.”
If only it weren’t so mixed up with hellfire and sexual prohibition. “As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on,” says William Blake, “so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” Hence the hypocrisy of the diaper: the Romans didn’t nail anybody up in his underwear. Even Salvador Dalí paints it on. Only Michelangelo gives us a nude Christ.
And like Socrates, he may just be a character in a book. The four most important people in Western culture—Homer (for Alexander wanted to be Achilles, and Caesar wanted to be Alexander), Socrates, Jesus and Shakespeare—may never have existed.
May be as misnomer
For several otherwise out-of-work guys
Half his size.
Dalí once remarked that he adored weakness, which he found consonant with modern physics, and that he painted anti-matter angels. Perhaps we could imagine an anti-matter God, who submits himself to his cosmos like any artist to his work, and then what happens happens. The price for freedom, after all, is vulnerability.
But let’s not get carried away. Ignorance—and here’s an adage I can sign—is bliss. Who knows what's behind the curtain? On Isis’s statue the inscription said, "I am all that was, is and will be, and no mortal has yet lifted my veil."
2) Is God evil?
There’s a case for it. The shadow side of our culture is Gnosticism, the belief that we ourselves are sparks of the original God, held prisoner here by a second-rate god, a Demiurge, psychotic and inferior, who split off from Godhead and trapped us here. Vulnerability again: apparently it’s eternal.
When you get the gnosis, the knowledge, from a redeemer or just by waking up, you can never lose the sense that you are God, and the sky-god isn’t.
It’s been with us since the first century, the idea that the Demiurge put us in a garden and told us we could do anything we wanted except eat the fruit of a certain tree. Well, what else could we do? Then he came looking for us—very creepy: “Who told you you were naked?” In this version the serpent is the redeemer, the ancient symbol of wisdom.
Then "God" wiped us out with a flood, after which he promised he wouldn’t do that any more; next time he’d do it by fire. Thanks a lot. (Which Planet of the Apes movie is it where the people worship an atom bomb as a manifestation of God? What James Baldwin called The Fire Next Time.)
But there are lots of versions. The texts were suppressed, and until recently the only source we had on them was the Church Fathers, who summarized them to condemn them. The thing went underground and spread to Islam, where the Sufis adopted it, and were horribly beaten down. The great Persian poet Rumi was a Gnostic.
In the middle ages Gnosticism emerged in Kabbalah. And from Islam it came, through both the Muslim-occupied Balkans and Muslim-occupied Spain, to northern Italy and the south of France. There it appeared as Catharism ("Purism"): the Cathars were vegetarians, egalitarians, feminists—the whole trip—and embodied a heresy so threatening that the Pope sent a crusade against them.
The leader of the crusade, Simon de Montfort (I’m quoting the Wikipedia) “ordered his troops to gouge out the eyes of 100 prisoners, cut off their noses and lips, then send them back to the towers led by a prisoner with one remaining eye.” It didn’t work, so they slaughtered them and burned down their cities. The Cistercian abbot who led the attack on Béziers was asked how to distinguish Cathars from Christians. "Kill them all," he said. "God will know his own."
Courtly love comes down to us from poems written at that time, and in that place, and imitated ever since. We’re still in the habit of letting ladies go first, though we no longer hold their chairs while they sit or take our hats off in their presence, possibly because we’re not wearing hats.
And though the exaltation of women was a civilizing force in those barbaric times, it’s no exaggeration to say that the women’s revolution has been against courtly love.
But here’s the thing: many people believe that courtly-love literature was not about lovers and their high unattainable ladies, but code for the poet yearning for his high unattainable self, his godhead. Saying it in code is better than having your eyes gouged out.
Notice that the lover never “attains” his beloved—that’s one of the rules. In the north of France, where it took the form of romance, Tristan and Isolde don’t have sex; they sleep with a sword between them: their job is to yearn. And it’s that way down to Wagner, down to pop songs.
Dante seems to have sensed the spiritual meaning. His sonnets to Beatrice are the strongest courtly-love poems I know; and it’s she who, in the Commedia, leads him up to the light.
God as gay
In Paradise Lost Milton, who knew the ancient languages—and the Fathers by heart—puts the Gnostic arguments in Satan’s mouth. Milton, as Blake says, “was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” It’s Milton’s Satan who inspires English Romanticism. In Byron’s Cain, Cain is a hero who defies the illegitimate God and commits murder, fuck you. Shelley despises the world he finds himself in, and even sweet Wordsworth adapts Satan’s speeches to his own sense of self.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.
Well, that’s the sweet way of saying it. You get your sweet Gnostics, like Emerson, and you get your bitter Gnostics, like Samuel Beckett, who thinks even after we die the torture continues. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is not just the black guy in white society; he's the unseen self.
Blake wondered what kind of God could make the tiger: “Did he who made the lamb make thee?” (I have lambs and tigers in my own heart, it doesn’t seem that remarkable.) Queegueg says the same thing in Moby-Dick which, along with Peter Pan and Under the Volcano, is the great Gnostic novel: when a shark he thought dead snaps at him he says, “Queequeg no care what god made him shark, wedder Feejee God or Nantucket god; but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.” And we get it again with the enormous fat crocodile in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line: who made that thing?
Ingmar Bergman gave us a vision of God as a rapacious spider, and Stanley Kubrick had the Gnostic paranoia (see Some Thoughts on Stanley Kubrick). David Lynch combines that with Presbyterianism, an easy fit: Romanticism is not only Gnosticism, it's post-Christian Presbyterianism; that is to say it's dualistic—it rejects the world. (For more on dualism, see Greece versus the Puritans.)
"That is God...a shout in the street."
Classicists like Joyce and Dalí don't care for that. In 1943 Dalí wrote, “Hitler wants war, not in order to win, as most people think, but to lose. He is romantic, and an integral masochist, and exactly as in Wagner’s operas it has to end for him, the hero, as tragically as possible. The end to which Hitler aspires is to feel his enemy’s boot crushing his face, which for that matter is unmistakably marked by disaster.”
I wonder what he'd say about Merkel.
Nevertheless our own time is heavy with Gnostics. In Peter Weir’s Fearless Jeff Bridges looks up at the sky and says, “You want to kill me, but you can’t.” In Weir's Dead Poets Society those boys who stand up on their desks at the end are assuming their full stature by defying the Demiurge—who is really rather a nice guy, isn’t he? And in his The Truman Show the Demiurge is a reality-TV producer who keeps Truman in a false world.
For the young, of course, there’s The Matrix: God as computer.
The discovery of the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi in 1945 had something to do with this mood: for the first time we had the real texts, and a different kind of Jesus, a stay-light-on-your-feet Jesus. The Copts are the ancient guardians of this tradition.
But it's always with us, texts or no. In its debased form it’s the content of all those Twitter messages, LinkedIn messages, inspiration messages, you-can-do-it messages. Here’s a profile I just saw: “Beyond Your Fear Is A Whole New You! We all have fear about something in our lives. Whether it is rejection, loss, failure or a number of any other emotions that are like anchors dragging behind us and holding us back from doing what....” There are more redeemers out there than people who give a rat’s ass.
But that’s the way we see things these days. Emersonianism is America. “Yes we can!” Harold Bloom says most Americans are Gnostics without knowing it.
But what a paranoid vision! And it’s a dogma! I hate dogma. There’s a difference, after all, between belief and faith. (See also Thinking about God, by Doctor Robert MacLean, PhD,)
Nor can I square it with my enjoyment of the world; Gnosticism is scarcely what you’d call earthy. Mine is a precarious position, yes, but as my alter ego says in The Cad, "if you're not making a fool of yourself, you're not alive." We speak from experience there, Toby and I.
And who says it has to be squared? "Commonsense is square," said Vladimir Nabokov, "whereas all the most essential visions and values of life are beautifully round."
Socrates, whether he existed or not, said "The best theory of the gods is no theory at all."
Enigma, then, is God's real name. And the world's. And yours.