Rant Number 404 20 July 2010
‘Father, where does God live?’ a little girl once wanted to know in Sunday school. ‘In Heaven, dear’ was my banal get out. Still, it is not only children who naively inquire after the spatial coordinates of the Divine. St Augustine himself met an old, holy hermit who thought God had a body and lived somewhere out in space. With biblical and logical arguments the saint showed him the idea was incoherent. Were such thing possible, the being in question would not be God but his antithesis. A limited, circumscribed, finite and flawed caricature of the Almighty, Infinite Creator of Heaven and earth. On Saturday night, on Channel 4, I watched this hypothetical, Lesser God portrayed in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Universally panned by critics as an out and out disastrous movie. But the critics are not gods.
To boldly go where no man has gone before is the motto of Starship Enterprise. Indeed. Hijacked by Mr Spock’s half-brother, the Vulcan Sybok, Captain Kirk and his crew set off for planet Sha Ka Rae, supposedly God’s abode. Vulcans are an infuriatingly logical lot but Sybok is a strange, un-Vulcan figure. He believes emotions, not logic, are the key to understanding life and human beings. His magical gift is to take away people’s pains by sharing them and so restoring the sufferers to well-being. Through his special feelings Sybok has thus perceived God yearns to be discovered, to be known by his creatures. And so this touchy-feely Vulcan has set off on his search.
The movie pictures Sybok as manipulative and deluded. A cross between a Freudian shrink and a scientologist. Yet in an important sense he has got it right. Human beings do not live by cold reason. What’s logical about a mother caring for her child? Or John loving Mary? Or people giving their money to feed the starving? Sentiments, emotions are what get us going, not ratiocination. A truth as old as mankind. As for pain, it is Kirk who shows himself irrational when he refuses to be healed, saying: ‘My pain is part of me. I need my pain.’ A view anyone who has ever sat on a dentist’s chair would instantly find ludicrous.
Reason and the intellect, however, are also divine gifts to man. (In Greek Logos, the Divine Reason, and logic are etymologically related.) There is no intrinsic merit in being perversely illogical. Thus Sybok’s hunger for God - the goal of all mystics and saints - is right and proper. Only the way he goes about it is misguided.
Planet Sha Ka Rae at first seems a disappointing blue desert. Then Stonehenge-like megaliths sprout up and point the searchers to the putative godhead. A kaleidoscopic entity ‘with a thousand faces’ which manifests itself in whatever shape and form your mind is apt to comprehend. This again is acceptable. Many centuries ago the philosopher Xenophanes wrote that ‘if lions and oxen and horses had hands and could produce works of art they would paint their gods like lions and oxen and horses.’ Further, St Thomas Aquinas’s concept of God would hardly resemble that of a pious Catholic follower of Padre Pio. The notion of a unitary God who adjusts himself to creaturely limitations makes sense. Theophanies – God’s self-disclosures to creatures – are inevitably mediated by doctrinal, cultural and psychological factors. The Blessed Virgin Mary is unlikely to reveal herself to the Ulster Unionist Reverend Ian Paisley and an Orthodox Jew would not normally have visions of the Crucified Christ. (Though I know of at least one case were that actually happened. Martin Israel, who later on sought baptism and became a priest.)
Where the supposed Lord of Sha Ka Rae falls grievously short is on the wee matter of God’s attributes. ‘Give me the Enterprise!’ he demands. ‘Excuse me, but why does God need a space ship?’ Kirk not unreasonably retorts. And when the bogus being begins to lash out against the disrespectful, doubts mount. Clearly, he proves himself only a minor Gnostic impostor. A kind of spatiotemporally bound and terminally weak Ahriman. At last a death ray from a Klingon ship disposes of him for good. Serves him right. You don’t usurp God’s role in vain.
‘Maybe God lives inside our hearts’ muses Captain Kirk. Corny and unoriginal though that may sound, it gestures towards a deep truth. E.A. Poe’s deep short story, The Purloined Letter, suggests that what you seek far away may actually be under your very nose. ‘I am nearer to you than the jugular vein’ says Allah in the Qur’an. The birds searching for their King, the Simurgh, in Farid Uddin Attar’s famous allegory discover they themselves are the Simurgh. A story in the Arabian Nights tells of a man who dreams of a hidden treasure and so journeys across seas and mountains to find it. Eventually he realises that the treasure was buried all along in his home garden. A Sufi saying is a variation on the same theme. God says: ‘I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known. Therefore I created a world.’ But, like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ immortal parable, perhaps sometimes the searcher has to go astray first. To travel into far countries and get tragically lost, before realising the wide arms of the Father were waiting to hug you all the time back home...
Suppose, however, that the phoney deity of Shah Ka Rae had been smarter. That he had managed to trick the Trekkers into mistaking him for the real thing. The consequences would have been ruinous for humanity. With the Anti-God in disguise, free and at large, Planet Earth would be in a pickle. Ghastly scenario. It does not bear thinking about but...wait a minute. Might not a pessimist infer that is what has actually happened? ‘The Gnostic Fraud has been very subtle. To avoid detection he has masked himself as abstractions, as high principles, as noble ideas. Like democracy, equality and human rights. Aren’t they the gods of our time? Worshipped as absolutes, like the One True God used to be? The Fraud today acts through them. His voice is that of the EU, the BBC, of NGO’s, of Oxfam and Greenpeace....’
Huh! Don’t want to believe it but...why does it ring a bell?
Revd Frank Julian Gelli
Saturday, 24 July 2010
Rant Number 404 20 July 2010