Friday, November 22, 2013

From whence cometh my help?

On what seems to be the new theme of my blog -- theology and movies -- I got into a discussion over at the B-Movie Cathechism  recently about a very geeky question (are the Asgardians in the Marvel universe really gods or not?) that brings up some interesting larger questions. What exactly is a god, anyway? And what do we mean by "worship"?

The latter question came up because I was arguing that if beings as powerful as the ones depicted in the last Thor movie really exist, the biblical ban on idolatry doesn't really make sense.
if the Aesir et al. are the ones who actually do stuff like save the world -- or the universe -- why SHOULDN'T the people worship them? Give them offerings, thank them for their works, beg them for favors, pretty much like people do with earthly rulers anyway? It doesn't necessarily exclude the worship of a higher being -- some pagan religions recognize both kinds -- so I don't see why Yahweh would come down so hard against idolatry unless he really did cut out the middleman?
Eegah answered:
if we followed that line of reasoning, why then wouldn't we worship guardian angels, soldiers, doctors, or even ourselves, since we are the "hands and feet of Christ" in the world? Because, from the Catholic standpoint at least, we recognize a God who works through his creations all the time, but we reserve our worship (or we're supposed to) for the creator himself. 
 In a sense, though, we already do worship those people, at least in the ways that I described in my post. Sacrificing a goat might seem esoteric to us nowadays, but as far as I can tell the pagans conceived of it as just an extension of their gift-exchange economy -- if you want to get on someone's good side, especially a powerful person who can do you favors, you give them presents. So what is it that distinguishes worship from that normal sort of schmoozing?

In the Bible, the main issue does seem to be mistaking who is actually doing things for you. Hence when Aaron rolls out the golden calf, he declares, "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt," because why else would they worship it? The Israelites were living in a world of god-kings who claimed power over the forces of nature; events like the plagues of Exodus were meant to show who was really in charge.

So attribution is one aspect of worship. But the other aspect is interpersonal. I mean, we all know that we depend on the sun for our very existence, but even people who don't care about the First Commandment don't worship it, because they don't think the sun actually cares whether you worship it or not. And in fact, pagan religions have deities such as Olorun, who are above the other gods but indeed are so above it all that there's no point in trying to interact with them. The persistence of voodoo in theoretically Catholic Haiti shows that if you think the Christian God is just like Olorun, you can continue your relations with all your traditional lower-level spiritual beings without seeing a conflict. I think that was the real problem I was having with Eegah's theory -- yes, there could be a Creator more powerful than the Aesir, but the more indirectly he works with the world, the more he looks like Olorun instead of Yahweh.

In fact, to the extent that the Aesir of the Marvel universe are being worshipped inappropriately, I would venture to say it's not for their acts of world-saving but for all those daily small-scale functions that pagans attributed to them. The last time I considered this subject I theorized that even if the Aesir were aliens, they would have been mistaken for gods that the ancient Germans already believed in, because pagans saw gods not as intruders upon the natural order but as running the natural order itself. So the sin of the Aesir would have been in letting the humans believe they could actually hear and respond to all the petitions for rain or for children or for victory in battle or what have you, as they were off fighting their big important battles.

Out in the real world, those small personal prayers are increasingly being answered by technology, and therein lies the paganism of the secular age. As much as philosophers may argue that Christianity and science aren't inherently in conflict, on that basic Old Testament question -- who can do what for me? -- there has been a conspicuous shift in the last few centuries. At one time, the sick went to faith healers like Jesus, whose abilities were evidence of their spirituality; now you go to a doctor whose relationship with God is irrelevant, so long as he has the right equipment and technical training. In some ways, we're all in Olorun's world now, that impersonally provides our livelihood but can't be adored or bargained with. And maybe that's why we still like to populate our imaginary worlds with gods.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed, I see so many ways in which people willfully tell themselves fairy stories about how they do live in a world in which bargaining or pleasing somebody or something will make everything okay, if they just do it well enough. This can manifest in all kinds of ways. Like both sides in a football game praying earnestly to win and the winner thanking god when they do (they seriously believe in a god that grants favors like winning football games, in exchange for praying hard enough?). Like people telling you you have cancer because of your unresolved issues or your non-macrobiotic diet or your failure to consume a supplement (because if it's not those things, then cancer really is a terrifying thing that can happen to anybody through no fault of their own, and that's unfaceable). Like people hearing that something bad is looming in your life, and telling you they'll pray for you (as if prayer works on some strange sort of volume basis, so if you can just get enough people praying for you it might come right - or perhaps that you just need THAT person, who really, really means it when they pray, to be doing the praying).