God in the Flesh

Are gods physical beings? It appears that, in general, earlier cultures considered them to be such, but religion has developed away from that idea toward that of their being pure spirit. Of course, gods can TAKE physical form if they want, but they don’t HAVE to. The idea of a god having a true form that they couldn’t show was pretty common, as with Semele dying instantly when she saw the true appearance of Zeus.

I wonder if the same thing would apply to seeing a PICTURE of the true appearance of Zeus.
There were still plenty of physical representations of Zeus, but they were presumably how he would manifest himself to humans, not how he actually looked when in all his divine glory.

The forms that Zeus could take in Greek mythology were pretty esoteric on occasion, like the shower of gold he uses to impregnate Danae.

Still, it appears that the ancient Greeks were consistent in saying that Zeus HAD a physical form, even if it was one we mortals couldn’t comprehend. This seems to have applied even more to the Norse gods, as Odin giving up one eye in exchange for a drink from Mimir’s well wouldn’t have been much of a sacrifice if he didn’t need eyes. So what about Yahweh, the God who clawed his way to the top of modern religion by declaring all the others frauds? Yeah, I’m being rather flippant here, but as an atheist I can’t say I view monotheism as inherently superior to polytheism. It does appear to be the trend that was followed in most cultures, however, and it is linked to the idea of a non-physical God. After all, if your deity is all-pervasive, why limit it to any physical representation? This is probably part of why graven images were condemned in Judaism, although as I’ve mentioned before I feel there was also an element of elitism involved there.

As with many subjects, the Bible is hardly consistent on whether God has a physical form. You don’t need to look any farther than the very first chapter of Genesis to see an indication that he is indeed corporeal, as he creates humans in his own image. Indeed, both male and female are said to be in his image, so does God look like both genders at once? Certainly the idea that God is male has lasted even until today, and I have to wonder how and why a non-physical being would have a gender.

In Exodus 33, Yahweh tells Moses, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live,” which expresses a similar idea to how Zeus couldn’t show his true form to mortals. A few verses later, God shows his “back parts” to the prophet. In other parts of the Moses story, Yahweh manifests himself as a burning bush and a pillar of flame, although we don’t exactly know how physical these forms were.

I suppose the idea that gods could be non-corporeal went along with the one that ANYTHING could be non-corporeal. In ancient religion, not only did the gods live in physical places you could presumably get to if you tried hard enough, but so did dead people. The underworld was literally underground, and Heaven actually in the sky above our mortal realm. In Genesis, the firmament is said to separate Earth from Heaven, suggesting God lives on top of the dome of the sky. It’s quite likely that the idea of spiritual entities developed when it became clear you COULDN’T physically reach the homes of the gods or the dead. Some Greek philosophers claimed that the gods were made of aether or quintessence, the fifth of the classical elements according to Aristotle. Plato thought of aether as a more magical kind of air, while Aristotle considered it something else entirely. The idea of this mystical substance continued into medieval times, when it was thought to be what the stars were made of. Since then, we’ve learned what stars are really composed of, but gods still remain a mystery.

I can say that, for my part, I’m not really a believer in the spiritual. Saying that something exists without a physical form strikes me as a convenient excuse, especially when you try to give it traits that only physical objects are known to have, like consciousness. How can something be conscious without a brain? Throughout history, there have been many things that have been thought to be outside human understanding, only for them to be quantified later on. And even if there are things it turns out we’ll never know, there doesn’t mean there ISN’T a rational explanation for them. Obviously, though, I could be wrong.

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8 Responses to God in the Flesh

  1. I used to have a salt-water aquarium, with several serpent sea-stars. Amazing creatures that never failed to make me smile. Starfish don’t have brains. But these guys certainly didn’t seem to notice it, or suffer the loss. They were always the first ones on the scene when I put food in the tank; they were sensitive to touch, light, temperature, orientation and the status of the water around them. They would “fight” for food with other creatures (including fellow sea stars) and knew to conceal themselves in the case of potential threats. They were among the three species in the tank I was able to “train” to feed by hand (the puffers and lionfish were the other two.)

    I think that what we, as humans, define as “rational” is very limited, almost to the point of absurd, as you noted since there were countless things that in the past would’ve seemed impossible or ridiculous, but which are now accepted as normal. With the possibility of black holes and parallel universes regularly discussed in science journals, this shouldn’t be the case. But Scientism (or logical positivism) has made us, as a society, small-minded and dogmatic. If we can’t explain, define or quantify it in fancy language, then it can’t be explained and isn’t real. Despite being less versed in math and science, people in the past were more open to a wider view of reality. By the same token, they could only be communicated to by things that they readily understood. So, the Bible’s anthropomorphism makes sense, as a poetic means of allowing the common man (not just the wealthy educated) to comprehend concepts that would otherwise be beyond them, and this is true for then and now, since the “how” is not as important in the wider scheme, and would take an encyclopedia to present.

    So, when God says to Moses that no man may see his face and yet live, he’s actually revealing a scientific and psychological principle at the same time, and without going into the tedium of how. For example, as a powerful force of energy, looking upon God’s “face” would, like looking into a sun, prove destructive. Psychologically, it indicates that God is far beyond what we can understand in our current state. When he says I’ll allow you to see me as I depart (from behind), that continues to speak on these levels (and possibly others). From a certain distance, one can safely view an atom splitting. On a psychological and spiritual level, God allows us to “see” his glory, even if we can’t see the whole picture. But it’s enough to understand the human experience and live a good life. To me, that’s what’s fascinating about the Bible. It says a LOT in a small space, and allows us to dig as deeply as we want to, and even to grow with it as our perspective grows.

    I’ve always liked de chardin’s quote that said “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” To me, that about sums it up, as does the quote you laid out above (being made of earth and stars–love that one). But as I lean more and more towards the kind of existentialism Kierkegaard spoke of, I think that spirituality is the kind of thing that individually we need to experience to properly grasp. That’s not to say logic is to be abandoned. Quite the contrary. Logic can bring us to a certain place, but it can only take us so far. Love can’t be quantified. Compassion can’t be measured. Forgiveness might even seem outright irrational at times. But dealing with our fellow beings, we require these things. And on a romantic level, we can’t appeal to logic to prove that the one we love will love us in return and make for a good spouse (though we can use to help us spot red flags, if such exist). We can’t even discern our own hearts most of the time, and many of the choices we make in life are small leaps of faith based on whatever scant evidence we can gather. Perhaps to find the divine within and without, we can use logic to prepare our minds to be more psychologically fertile to the possibilities.

    • Nathan says:

      Starfish don’t have centralized brains, but they DO have nervous systems, and certainly aren’t immaterial beings.

      • True, but I find it amazing that a creature with no brain (and, for that matter, no blood flowing through its system) can make decisions. It’s amusing too that starfish, despite being radially symmetrical, move bilaterally symmetrical like we do. They choose a “front” and use their other limbs to help them propel forward. If they want to change direction, they choose another “front” and move forward in that direction. (http://machineslikeus.com/news/brainless-starfish-moves-people)

        But underwater life is amazing to me in general. Cnidarians like jellyfish have no brains and no central nervous system, and yet they can see and hunt and find a safe place to reproduce.

        As much as we can begin to quantify and understand these things, they remain outside the range of the “normal” human experience. Underwater life is very alien to us in many ways. We’re just now beginning to get a handle on it. By the same measure, we don’t have a grasp yet on other frontiers, and the metaphysical plane is, as of now, beyond our ability to quantify, let alone discern, which is why many claim it doesn’t exist. But being invisible to our eyes doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist (as quantum physics and gravity and black holes testify).

        If any of this makes sense, that’ll be a miracle right there as I’m rushing to get to work!

  2. Christianity does not classify God as male. It generally prefers a male image, to protect the doctrine that the universe is something that He made, like an artist, as opposed to it being something that kinda happened by accident, as in many pagan and Gnostic creation myths, but, this being once understood, a female image is also acceptable. See, for example, Dame Julian of Norwich.

  3. I basically agree with everything Joe said above, and he said more and better than I would have said, but I just want to add that:

    I just finished reading a book about kundalini energy last night, so that’s fresh in my mind as I read about being struck dead by seeing God’s True Form while not ready to handle it, and images of God as fire. And E=Mc2 (forgive me for not knowing how to type superscript in an Internet comment). I think there’s a lot here that has to do with Pure Energy, basically, and perhaps this all has to do with the relationship between energy and matter.

    As you say in your last paragraph, things that were once inexplicable have eventually been explained– but that doesn’t necessarily mean it proves such things are mechanical and impersonal. I think of A Wrinkle In Time. “Yes. I believe that [things always have an explanation]. But I think that with our human limitations we’re not always able to understand the explanations. But just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean an explanation doesn’t exist.” It’s science fiction, but those who easily use all this advanced quantum physics are celestial beings who clearly believe in a Higher Power Still.

    Gah, every so often I forget how MUCH I love that book, and then I’m sucked into it again.

  4. Bryan Babel says:

    “The connoisseurs and artists who have made objections to
    Mr. B[lake].’s mode of representing spirits with real bodies, would do
    well to consider that the Venus, the Minerva, the Jupiter, the
    Apollo, which they admire in Greek statues, are all of them
    representations of spiritual existences of God’s immortal, to
    the mortal perishing organ of sight; and yet they are embodied
    and organized in solid marble. Mr B. requires the same latitude
    and all is well. The Prophets describe what they saw in Vision
    as real and existing men whom they saw with their imaginative and
    immortal organs; the Apostles the same; the clearer the organ the
    more distinct the object. A Spirit and a Vision are not, as the
    modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour or a
    nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all
    that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does
    not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger
    and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see does not
    imagine at all. The painter of this work asserts that all his
    imaginations appear to him infinitely more perfect and more
    minutely organized than any thing seen by his
    mortal eye.” –William Blake’s opinion.

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