Wednesday, September 27, 2006

God-ness Gracious Me!!

In “Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” Roberto Calasso retells and reinterprets the tales of Greek Mythology? the deeds of the Gods and Heroes as apprehended by the imaginations and recorded in the literature of the Ancient (and classical) Greeks. The pantheon of the Olympians; which succeeded the pantheon of the Titans; which succeeded the pantheon of chaos. Zeus usurps the throne of Chronos, who in turn had usurped the throne of Uranus. Then in the closing years of the Roman Empire the anointed one usurped the throne of Zeus. The God of Mount Sinai replaced the Gods of Olympus.

What do these divinities have in common? What similarity is there between Kristos Pantocrator and the Mighty Thunderer? Is there any similarity at all? This question is deceptively simple to answer. One part of the deception is wrought by the faith one might or might not have in either of these illustrious personages. The other part of the deception is brought on by the bewitchment of words. The theogonic terms in use most often tend to be attributive instead of definitive. In part the second deception is a derivative of the first one. Descriptions of divinities are often in the forms of faith generated praises that enumerate and or extol the qualities of divinity. It is considered presumptuous and irreverent to try to examine descriptions in terms of the necessary and sufficient features of divinity. Rarely does one attempt to define the idea of God. Rarely does one attempt to build a propositional construct of the form:

Iff A has the features P, Q, R, S,…
then A ≡ God.

The way I see it, the general solution to the above God-equation would be the realm of the Philosophy of Religion. Each religious tradition would have one or more particular solutions to the equation. It is a peculiar feature of the God-equation that the particular solutions to the same equation are deemed mutually ‘heretical’ by many of the religious traditions that developed the particular solution(s). A peculiar feature of the term heretical – which means “a (usually religious) opinion or doctrine (which is) at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine” - is that the etymology of heresy derives from the Greek word hairesis - (the) act of choosing. Inherent in the idea of heresy then is the denial of choice; many particular solutions to the God-equation have navigated a path involving rejection of heresies (other divergent particular solutions) - i.e., suppression of choice.

So what features necessary and sufficient features could we enumerate? One approach would be to list the attributes of the various divinities encountered in a survey of human cultures and use this ‘master list’ to pick the definitive features. In theory, the least common denominator of features should be the super-set of the required necessary and sufficient conditions to define God. Unfortunately this approach is not workable – some of the attributes – especially one’s drawn from different particular solutions tend to be mutually exclusive. Eliminating such mutually exclusive attributes as unnecessary would leave us with too small a set of features. Only two to my mind: immortality and the possession of super-natural powers. But this extremely stripped down version would not suffice – it would lump a whole class of mythical beings as Gods. So the common features of Allah, Zeus, Christ and Anubis – for instance do not yield a working definition of a God.

The other approach, I would call the God/god approach. Since religious traditions can usually be grouped into monotheistic and polytheistic – we might postulate two definitions; one for the monotheistic God and another for the polytheistic gods. As any text on Philosophy of Religion would declaim, God has the following attributes:
1. Simplicity – One and indivisible without parts (though how a Trinitarian God can also be one and indivisible is a question which no Christian has been able to explain to me so I could understand)
2. Omnipotence – condition of all powerful
3. Omniscience – condition of being all knowing, possessing complete knowledge
4. Eternal, everlasting and timeless
5. Immutable – unchanging, absolute
6. Perfectly Good and incapable of Sin

This arrangement might seem satisfactory for it is plain that the Olympian divinities do not possess these attributes. But this cannot be generalized to all polytheistic religions. The extravagantly polytheistic Hindu family of religions has several deities who are said to possess these attributes. The mighty Triad – the Trimurti for instance, as well as the Devi the Mother Goddess. The classificatory approach also seems to be headed nowhere.

Peculiar problems are posed by the abstract ‘deities’ (if they can even be called deities) of the Indic tradition. How can the eternal Dharmakaya or the ineffable Brahman be characterized on the above scale. A definition by generating the necessary and sufficient features or conditions of God-ness is unworkable for conceptions of Deity that are by definition unconditioned and atrributeless.

The only feasible definition then is one based on human response, a God is a being possessed with supernatural powers or attributes, and is believed in and worshiped by a people. To rephrase as a propositional construct:

An entity is a God if and only if it
is a being
is possessed with supernatural powers or attributes
is believed in by a people and
is worshipped by the people who believe in it.

I am not too happy with this definition – I mean if David Copperfield were to be believed in and worshipped by a people he would be a God?

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