Thursday, May 07, 2015

A modern anthropomorphism

But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

- Xenophanes c 500 BCE

The Bible contains several shocking and frank anthropomorphisms. God gets angry, blows heat through his nose when he suffers jealousy, changes his mind and forgives people. He rests, remembers and relents.  He walks about a garden. He smells a scent and finds it pleasing.  In various places we hear that He has ears and eyes, a face, a palm, a finger, hair, a back, an arm, wings and feet that rest on a sapphire brick.

At the same time, Jews have long maintained that material representations of God are forbidden. 

At first, this restriction was limited to idols. As Judaism encountered more sophisticated theologies, the restriction expanded. Onkelos and Philo, thanks to Greek influence, stripped their commentaries and translations of all anthropomorphisms. Centuries later, Saadiah Gaon and the Rambam, thanks to Muslim influence, went even further. Saadiah held that that all corporeal references to God refer to non corporeal matters, and that that the only the attribute of existence could be ascribed to God, while Rambam insisted on non literal, allegorical understandings of all anthropomorphic expressions and said all who disagreed with him were heretics with no share in the world to come.

And yet, Jews continue to ascribe human characteristics to God, and continue to describe him in positive terms, while remaining blind to the fact that no one has any concrete knowledge of God.

For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge
 - Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, (c 320)

What I find most amusing about the typical 21st Jewish anthropomorphism is that it is completely out of date. Here's what I mean.

Not having any first-hand information regarding God's attributes, human beings have always imagined that he has the characteristics of a powerful ruler. But powerful rulers are not the same in every era.

When Jews commit the sin of anthropomorphism, the  ruler we have in mind is not a 21st century president or  a 21st century CEO, but a 12th century feudal lord.  Consider the differences:

Moderns believe that respect must be earned, ie commanded, while the medieval ruler takes it as his due. A medieval ruler is concerned about honor, and prestige and image far more than his modern contemporary is. A modern laughs off insults that a medieval would never tolerate..

Moreover, a 21st century leader doesn't throw a hissy fit when he's slighted, or demand ostentatious shows of loyalty and fidelity. He doesn't demand reverence and submission or require that his honor be satisfied. Those are all the behaviors of a medieval king. And its also the behavior of the Jewish God, as he is most commonly anthropomorphized.

What would happen if we were to update our anthropomorphisms, and imagine our God as a modern CEO instead of as a medieval king? Possible?

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