Sunday, February 24, 2008


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When I was midway on the mountain, I heard a voice from heaven saying, "O Muhammad! thou art the apostle of God and I am Gabriel." I raised my head towards heaven to see who was speaking, and lo, [it was] Gabriel in the form of a man with feet astride the horizon. - Ibn Ishaq, Sira, in Guillaume, trans., A Life of Muhammad
The world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger. - Karen Armstrong, A History of God

When I was a child, I believed in flying horses and the sorcery of wizards. I believed that goblins and witches flew wicked and dark in the night sky beneath the benevolent Moon, while ghosts languished eerily in graveyards and the deserted houses of the dead. My parents, who were - and still are - very sensible and practical people, never taught me otherwise.

They read to my siblings and me a great deal of wonderfully imaginative literature, but I do not recall any meaningful disclaimers from them that the monsters and magic in those stories were matters of fiction.

I imagine it never occurred to them to do so. Certainly my parents didn't believe in fairies or monsters. They were merely reading us the stories that we loved and breathing life into the embers of our nascent imaginations.

The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward was one of favorite books as a child.

While inadvertently teaching us that the world was full of magical things by reading us those wonderful stories, they deliberately taught us to believe in an omniscient, corpulent bearer of gifts (the jolly old elf, who sees you when you're sleeping and who knows when you're awake), a nymph with a creepy obsession with discarded teeth, and an enormous magic rabbit who, being confusingly in league with Jesus, went around depositing candy in secret places. I'm sure there were more.
At five years old, an age at which I still thought the universal solvent was Sherlock Holmes, I could have taken a lie-detector test about any of these benevolent supernatural holiday beings and passed with flying colors because my parents and relatives so enthusiastically advocated their existence.
We've all heard it a hundred times: "If you don't go to bed now, Santa is going to know it and you are not going to get any presents!"
Of course, all these sentiments were lovingly expressed in the spirit of the holidays, and without the benefit of some of my present reflections I did the same thing to my daughter when the time came.
For some reason, people find it endearing to tell extraordinary falsehoods to impressionable children about such things, which I believe tends to cultivate misunderstandings about the nature of the world that regrettably survive in one form or another into adulthood.
It is during this period of impressionability that we also teach children about God and all those fantastical stories from the Bible as if every bit of it were wholly true.
If that last sentence strikes you as odd, and you still believe in the literal truth of the events of the Old Testament, such as that Adam and Eve were the first-ever humans or that God purposely killed nearly everyone on Earth in a great flood, it may be past time to revise your understanding of reality.
Nevertheless, I'd be willing to bet that most young children of Christian families roughly equate Santa and God in their meager understanding of the world.
The tradition in this country is to disabuse our children of their belief in the holiday fairies at some point during their childhood, but the simplistic notion of a personified God that is taught to most Christian children is left unrevised.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes:
My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of the complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed.
The same was true for me, and I imagine that most people who were raised in Christian households would say the same.
It turns out that this simplistic notion of God as basically an omniscient human superhero is characteristic of western Christianity, but many other cultures and ethnic groups hold a more complex, abstract notion of God.
My family attended a local Episcopal church with marginal regularity. My parents have never been extremely religious people, but they would take us to church occasionally and it was very much a part of my upbringing.

Acolytes retreat into the church after an uplifting sermon out of doors.

Just behind the alter in our old wooden church was an immense fresco of a shadowy figure - who I took to represent God - standing ominously behind Jesus hanging dead on a wooden cross. This portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ graphically depicted the iron bolts through his hands and feet and Pilate's darkly sardonic titulus - INRI - above Jesus's lifeless head.
The fresco was a work of extraordinary beauty and power, and it mesmerized me as a child. It seemed almost magical, and I often thought I could see the faces of angels (or ghosts) in the mist lingering in the gloom behind the fallen son of God.
This haunting portrait of the violence of the crucifixion and, importantly, the anthropomorphized portrait of God behind the crucified Christ, informed my early perception of the nature of God.

This fresco still hangs in St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Jefferson, North Carolina. Biblical accounts of the crucifixion indicate that Pilate wrote the phrase Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum - which means approximately Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews - and attached it to Jesus's cross in three languages. It is common for artwork depicting the crucifixion of Christ to abbreviate the expression to "INRI."

In Sunday school, to accompany my personified notions of God, I developed a vivid image of the devil (or Satan, or Lucifer). In my mind, the devil was a blood-red winged and deceitful half-man, half-beast who scratched and salivated for my soul at the black gates of Hell.
The devil and his soul-stealing mischief were chillingly described by my Sunday-school teachers as quite real, and the whole thing was indeed very frightening to me as a child. In my mind, these perceptions of God, the devil, and Hell were as real as my own parents.

Mihaly Zichy's Lucifer (ca. 1887)
It is interesting to consider, therefore, how a child who has been taught from his earliest memories that the world is filled with gods and demons and magical things might interpret the world around him when presented with certain stimuli of unknown origin. By rearing our children in this fashion, do we not predispose them to see angels and demons when in fact there may be none at all?

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Part II: The Vision of Ezekiel

The Vision of Ezekiel by Raphael. "Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking." See generally Ezekiel 1:1-28.

One night, as I lay in bed at four or five years old contemplating my mortality, I noticed a faint, ethereal flash of light that appeared to hover briefly in the middle of my room before quickly disappearing.
Wide-eyed, I blinked through the darkness trying to make out what I had just seen. Seconds later, the apparition reappeared. It seemed to glide through the air; it seemed to move like mist.
I was terrified. I truly do not recall a more frightening experience in my life. I wanted to yell for my parents, but I was choked and strangled by fear.
Utterly paralyzed, I considered making a mad dash for the door (which was inconveniently closed at the time) while I scanned the room in a panic for my ghostly visitor. Again, the mysterious light appeared and moved vaguely about the room.

Jacob wrestles with God. "For I have seen God face to face." Genesis 32:21-32.

After a minute or two of abject horror, the feeling of which still chills me to this day, it occurred to me that the flashes of light were fairly regular in interval and duration.
I breathlessly began to count the time between flashes along with the hollow ticks from the old clock on my nightstand: 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 (flash). 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 (flash).
I counted again and again to make sure that I was not imagining the regularity. After a prolonged period of time, my adrenalin began to dissipate and the regularity of intervals suggested to me, even at that age, that perhaps the source of the light that had so terrified me was not supernatural after all.

Gabriel shows Muhammad the city of Madinah.

Having theorized a natural origin for the ghostly flash, although still being unable to fathom what could be causing the phenomenon, I cautiously pushed back the covers and - still with no small amount of terror - made a break for the only light switch in the room - which was inconveniently located next to the door where the apparition first appeared.
Turning on the light seemed to cause the ghost to flee; I felt safe again, and I stood for several breathless seconds looking about the room for evidence of the enigmatic specter. Turning up nothing, I gathered the courage to turn off the light again to see if it would reappear. Almost immediately the apparition appeared and washed across the wall in front of me just as it had before.
Looking back toward my bed, I noticed a sharp pinpoint of light quickly flash and disappear outside my window. Again, I counted and saw that the light outside the window flashed at the predicted interval. At five years old, this was my very first "what in the fuck?" moment.
After further investigation, I belatedly discovered that the mysterious light was coming from a newly installed airport beacon at the town airport five miles away. The beacon turned 360 degrees and the light from the beacon came through my eastern window once per revolution every eight seconds.
Yet, it could have turned out differently.
I might have scrambled out of the room, consulted my parents, and, if they had been susceptible to such notions, they might have confirmed for me what I first suspected: that I had seen a ghost, perhaps a dead relative who had slept in that room once upon a time. I might continue to believe to this day that I had truly seen a ghost, and I no doubt would believe it no matter what anyone tried to tell me given the searing nature of the experience.
Had my upbringing been slightly different, perhaps instead of a ghost - which was an idea that truly fascinated me throughout my childhood - I might have seen a religious icon; perhaps the Virgin Mary or the angel Gabriel that visited Muhammad and directed him to recite. Perhaps I would have seen a great chariot as imagined by Ezekiel. Or I might even have perceived a vision of God or his angels there in the dark above my bed.
This dubious portrait has been alleged with excitement to be an actual image of Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism. Described by biographers as a "religious genius," he founded Mormonism after receiving multiple revelations by the angel Moroni and transcribing the chief Mormon text on the basis of these revelations. After some research, it is apparent to me that he made up every word out of whole cloth. I find it doubtful that he even believed it himself.
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Part III: The Graveyard of Dead Gods and Angels
For time out of mind, human beings have seen angels, gods, and demons in their midst. Until comparatively recently, humans lived and walked with a panoply of gods and angels, and demons and fairies were blamed for the world's mischief and misery.
As the second opening quotation indicates, in the days of antiquity "[t]he world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger."
This was certainly true at the time of events of the Old Testament, but even today there remains a marked credulity among humans in regard to visitations from angels.
As described above, Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) purported having many encounters with an angel (circa 1830) that led to the sacred text and rites of Mormonism.
Despite innumerable anachronisms and other ridiculous falsehoods in the divinely inspired text, millions of Americans are of the Mormon faith today and sincerely believe in the authenticity of the revelations given to Smith, who by all credible accounts was a pathological, self-serving mountebank of the first division.
Curiously, because one of Smith's revelations included the idea that men (but not women) can receive revelations directly from God, numerous others in the Mormon faith have come forward claiming to have received divine revelations through encounters with angels or direct communications with God, and many of them have started new sects of Mormonism.
Muhammad is of course another notable example of a historical figure who received revelations from God after being visited by an angel. Muhammad could not read or write, so he dictated the Qur'an (literally, the "recitation") as the revelations came to him. It is no secret that this religious text, like the Bible, has been used to justify bloody atrocities in the name of God.
Westerners tend to reject the proposition that Muhammad was actually visited by an angel bearing revelations from God. Why is this? Is Muhammad's account of his terrifying encounter with Gabriel less credible than Moses's similar encounters with God?
God appears in shrubbery and instructs Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Exodus 3:1-21. Some religious scholars have argued that God's revelation of himself through a burning bush is a metaphor for hallucinations achieved by smoking the reefer.
The Bible is a superb compendium of stories of angels and deities revealing themselves to the common people for various purposes. In the Old Testament, it was not unusual for God or some random angels to just show up and talk for a while, and in some cases, such as Jacob's wrestling match with God, it was not immediately recognized that God was present until some time later.
In addition to God and all the various angels of antiquity, the Bible describes innumerable other gods with which God (a/k/a Yahweh) competed for the loyalty of the people. Recall that Yahweh commanded his people not to worship these other gods, for Yahweh was a jealous and vengeful god who, by my reading, was scary as fuck.
The Ten Commandments, which are set out in both Exodus (20:2-17) and Deuteronomy (5:6-21), make these other gods a central part of Old Testament theology:
Ye shall have no other gods before me . . . You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:7, 9-10.)
Apart from the sadistic nature of this sort of nonsense (punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, an idea that is fairly central to Christian theology), one can't help but wonder what happened to all these gods that the Old Testament God was so obsessed with.
Did these other gods really exist at all?
If not, why did God make such a fuss about them?
If so, where are they today?
The answer, of course, is that these other gods do not exist today, and they did not exist at the time the Old Testament (or the Qur'an) was written. They have never existed. They were fables, metaphors, parables, and attempts to express the ineffable, but they were not real.
Most westerners have become atheists with respect to all these other gods. We consider the idea of their existence today to be quite silly. Is there one among you who continues to believe such gods exist?
Tracing the visions of Homo sapiens through the ages reveals that we first perceived gods among us, then as time passed we whittled away the excess gods but continued to see demons in the world around us; then witches became all the rage, and lest you think that this was mere fancy, recall that we rounded them up and burned them alive by the thousands.
See this article on the Malleus Maleficarum (the "Hammer of Witches") for a truly frightening example of what human beings are capable of in response to a belief in supernatural (i.e., non-existent) things.
This book (written ca. 1486) is a treatise on the reality of witches and the most effective ways to root them out and burn them in the name of God. In Europe, tens of thousands of women and children were found to be witches and were immolated on burning pyres to the great satisfaction of spectators.
Abandoning our widespread belief in witches, we soon thereafter saw spaceships in the night sky instead of women on broomsticks. Now even the aliens have retreated, leaving only God, and staggering atrocities are committed in His name.
We should be able to learn something from all of our past misperceptions. The lesson is that human beings are too frequently incapable of distinguishing what is real from that which we wish to be real.
The tendency of Homo sapiens to discard reason and adopt myth as reality is an unfortunate legacy for a species that has such extraordinary powers of reason. And there has been a cost.
This notion can be summarized concisely by this disconcerting fact: if someone is going to blow up the building you work in, chances are it is going to be done in the name of God with the dreamy expectation of His heavenly reward.
Ours is not a demon-haunted world. Gods do not walk among us, nor do they loftily reside in the sky or the heavens. They do not interfere with human affairs, or bring rain, or punish us for iniquities, or prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Our world is a natural world, unvisited by ghosts and goblins, and unmolested by the magic of witches and wizards. If there are events for which there are not natural explanations, I have not yet heard of them.
If we wish to understand our universe and survive as a species, we must discard mythology and instead practice reason. We must take great care to recognize a nearly universal human weakness: that we humans too often accept as true that which we merely wish to be true, instead of only those things for which there is evidence to believe.
The strength of one's convictions should be proportional to the evidence therefor. In the world of false prophets and revelations from angels, upon which all our modern religious beliefs are based, precisely the opposite has occurred. Too many of us believe most strongly those ideas for which there is the least amount of evidence.
Let us learn from our mistakes, sharpen our powers of discernment, and move away from that marked credulity that beguiles us into perceiving angels and devils among us when in fact there are none.
St. Francis Day at St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Try as I might, I could not hear the voice of God in my ears. 
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