Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
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Mandates of Heaven

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What preoccupies us, then, is not God as a fact of nature, but as a fabrication useful for a God-fearing society. God himself becomes not a power but an image. —Daniel J. Boorstin


This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly doesn’t trade in divine revelation, engage in theological dispute, or doubt the existence of God. What is of interest are the ways in which religious belief gives birth to historical event, makes law and prayer and politics, accounts for the death of an army or the life of a saint. Questions about the nature or substance of deity, whether it divides into three parts or seven, speaks Latin to the Romans, in tongues when traveling in Kentucky, I’ve learned over the last sixty-odd years to leave to sources more reliably informed. My grasp of metaphysics is as imperfect as my knowledge of Aramaic. I came to my early acquaintance with the Bible in company with my first readings of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Bulfinch’s Mythology, but as an unbaptized child raised in a family unaffiliated with the teachings of a church, I missed the explanation as to why the stories about Moses and Jesus were to be taken as true while those about Apollo and Rumpelstiltskin were not.

Four years at Yale College in the 1950s rendered the question moot. It wasn’t that I’d missed the explanation; there was no explanation to miss, at least not one accessible by means other than the proverbial leap of faith. Then as now, the college was heavily invested in the proceeds of the Protestant Reformation, the testimony of God’s will being done present in the stonework of Harkness Tower and the cautionary ringing of its bells, as well as in the readings from scripture in Battell Chapel and the petitionings of Providence prior to the Harvard game. The college had been established in 1701 to bring a great light unto the gentiles in the Connecticut wilderness, the mission still extant 250 years later in the assigned study of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and John Donne’s verse. Nowhere in the texts did I see anything other than words on paper—very beautiful words but not the living presence to which they alluded in rhyme royal and iambic pentameter. I attributed the failure to the weakness of my imagination and my poor performance at both the pole vault and the long jump.

I brought the same qualities into the apostate lecture halls where it was announced that God was dead. The time and cause of death were variously given in sophomore and senior surveys of western civilization—disemboweled by Machiavelli in sixteenth-century Florence, assassinated in eighteenth-century Paris by agents of the French Enlightenment, lost at sea in 1835 while on a voyage with Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, garroted by Friedrich Nietzsche on a Swiss Alp in the autumn of 1882, disappeared into the nuclear cloud ascending from Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The assisting coroners attached to one or another of the history faculties submitted densely footnoted autopsy reports, but none of the lab work brought forth a thumbprint of the deceased.

The fact of God’s life apparently as unverifiable as the proof of his death, I reached the conclusion suggested by the French philosopher Michel Onfray that “God is neither dead nor dying because he is not mortal”—the story about the blessed Virgin in the manger with the three Magi therefore made of the same cloud-capped stuff as the story about Goldilocks in the forest with the three bears. Onfray observes that “a fiction does not die, an illusion never passes away,” situating Yahweh, together with Ulysses, Allah, Lancelot of the Lake, and Gitche Manitou, among the immortals sustained on the life-support systems of poetry and the high approval ratings awarded to magicians pulling rabbits out of hats. Similarly the British essayist William Hazlitt, who likens the fabrication of divinity to a little girl’s dressing up her favorite doll, a harmless enough occupation until the dolls, turning “deformed and preposterous,” prompt their votaries to drench “the earth with tears and blood.”

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Well, I've just about abandoned Harper's since L.L.'s departure, and have been starved for the acid wit and scathing commentary. I may have to get a paper route and subscribe to The Quarterly...........

    Posted by Nervo LeCluque on Sun 16 May 2010

  • definitely, a god fearing society is w/o proof is one that ignorant and always retroactive. subscribe? possible if I land this new position.

    Posted by Oliver on Mon 14 Jun 2010

  • Yeah dude, whatever floats your boat. . . .

    I just doubt that such extreme vacuity could actually float anyone's boat.

    Do you really want to invent a religion that you don't believe in? Why? What are the benefits? Can't they be got in other ways?

    I mean, it doesn't even sound like this is an expedient to be employed only until the unfit masses may be re-educated to accept the 20th c. social sciences . . .

    I'm honestly confused why you would want to use something you consider to be absolutely nothing more than a parlour trick.

    Posted by Aaron on Mon 9 Aug 2010

  • I'm commenting on L.L.'s piece on Celebrity in a recent issue of commondreams.org. I might have been the only person who was reading Jung's "Two Essays in Analytical Psychology" while watching how Oliver North's creative accessorization of his marine uniform made him seem a great deal more heroic than the compromised and jowly senatorial inquisitors who questioned him over his escapades in the Iran-Contra affair. He completely won over the other spectators in the room in which I watched the hearings in the summer of 87. Tough-talking Ollie! Nothing wrong with his killer instinct!
    This experience lead me via the works of Campbell etc. to create a mini rock opera entitled, "Revenge of the Media gods" copywright 1988. Media gods are deities in the Church of the Christ, the First Consumer or simply, the Church of the First Consumer. If you would like to hear the songs that i have written in regard to this theme I'd be very happy to trade a listen to my songs for a subscription to your quaterly for which, I, being someone who lives under the current poverty line, cannot afford. The fifty bucks it would cost to learn the history of and reasons for my poverty could be better spent on fresh fruit and vegetables.

    Posted by patrick skey on Tue 14 Dec 2010

  • Ref: Posted by Nervo LeCluque on Sun 16 May 2010

    Ditto my friend. I have all Lapham's books, and saved only those issues of Harper's in which he wrote the 'Notebook'. I periodically re-read everything. I ditched my Harper's subscription when Lapham left.

    Lapham's sardonic wit exactly matches what I please to believe is my own, although I can't write anywhere near as eloquently. I'm tempted to subscribe to LQ, but again it would be only to read Lapham's prose. I ought to expand my horizons I suppose.

    Posted by Paul Pelosi on Sun 27 Feb 2011

  • @ Aaron: Words fail me ... and you.

    Posted by norton on Sat 11 Jun 2011

  • Scathing critique of current religious tendencies...Lapham writes like a latter-day H L Mencken...

    Posted by Purushotham on Wed 29 Jun 2011

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About the Text

Lewis H. Lapham is the Editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

Religion! How it dominates man’s mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. God is everything, man is nothing, says religion. But out of that nothing God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began.
Emma Goldman, 1910
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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