Another Man’s System: The Science and Art of Engineering Deities
Standing male worshiper from the Tel Asmar hoard, circa 2900 –2600 B.C. via Met Museum /Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer. (If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.)
Excavated from the Iraqi desert at Tel Asmar in 1933 by a group of archeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute were a dozen votive figurines carved during the Sumerian Early Dynastic Age, almost five millennia ago. Variously made of alabaster, gypsum and limestone, with inlet of lapis lazuli and opal, the so-called “Tel Asmar Hoard” constituted one of the finest discoveries of ancient Mesopotamian liturgical objects.
None of the statues is over three-feet tall; the shortest is only eight inches in height, but what they lack in stature they make up for in their startling uncanniness. Representing both female and male worshipers, most of the Tel Asmar artifacts depicts their figures as wearing the traditional skirts of the Early Dynastic Age; the men have long, pleated beards that bear traces of the bitumen which dyed them black, and the women’s heads are framed with coiled braids. Figurines rigidly stand and clasp their hands underneath their chests, disquieting thin-lipped smiles on their standardized faces. One of their discoverers, the Dutch scholar Henri Frankfort, accurately—if soberly—described them by saying that they approached “bold simplifications which approximate, in a varying degree, the ultimate limit, namely purely geometrical bodies.” Whether gods or humans, the figurines convey the unsettling sense which often accompanies those sojourns into the divine, that realm of the not-quite human. What strikes a viewer the most is not their stature, or their bodily positioning, or their features, save for two – the massive, wide-eyed, unworldly, inhuman eyes that still stare out some five-thousand years later.
At some Sumerian sites, whether dedicated to the fertility god Abu (as is the case at Tel Asmar), the god of the air Enlil, or the mysterious Queen of Heaven and goddess of love, fertility, and sex, who goes by the name Inanna, the votive figurines have some variation in the creepy ocular details. Some figurines have lapis lazuli pressed into their sockets to give the statues a wide, blue-eyed appearance; others have black obsidian in lieu of more human orbs. Many have lost their eyes entirely, now only in possession of the darker-than-dark color that is pure absence.
Art historian Jean M. Evans (the current Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the Oriental Institute) writes in The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture: An Archeology of the Early Dynastic Temple that the “eerie effect of the enlarged eyes… has often arisen as a question. These eyes are perplexing.” Several hypotheses have been tendered over the decades as to why the Tal Asmar figurines, and other Sumerian votive statues, have this distinctive characteristic. Wide eyes, especially those absurdly large ones on these idols, could convey an emotion of surprise, or of ecstasy, or pupil-engorged intoxication. Evans gives several examples of modern interactions viewers have had with the figurines, quoting the American painter Willem de Kooning who commented that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a cache of Sumerian statues with “huge staring goggle eyes” that were “wild-eyed,” and the psychologist George Frankl writing in The Social History of the Unconsciousness that these spheres of obsidian and opal convey a “sense of awe and apprehension which obviously indicated the anxiety those people felt in the presence of the gods.” Regardless of the intent (or multiple purposes) of the statues’ creators, Evans makes the point that the artworks have become “the subjects and objects of gaze.” Consider the first of these functions when deciding why the creatures’ pupils are so wide–it’s because they’re looking at you.
When a creature with eyes like that looks at you, it’s impossible not to sense sentience, a consciousness, a vitality, a life. It reminds me of the line from the 17th century poet Fulke Greville, when he wrote of “The eye a watch so inward sense plac’d, /Not seeing, yet still having power of sight.” That’s the fundamental paradox of iconoclasm, because if you smashed something like that votive figurine, you’re acknowledging its power–that it’s alive. Controversial but invaluable psychoanalyst Julian Jaynes writes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind about the Tal Asmar hoard’s “huge globular eyes hypnotically staring out of the unrecorded past of 5000 years ago with defiant authority.” Figurines such as these were central to his audacious hypothesis that “consciousness,” in the modern sense of there being a sort of interior monologue intrinsic to individuality, is a shockingly recent development, with the majority of human history being dominated by quasi-schizophrenic people who would attribute such intrinsic thoughts to external sources, to being the very voices of the gods.
Such an argument–as hard to prove as it is almost certainly accurate–has profound theological implications concerning individuality, the atomism of the soul, and the unity of God. Because as an empirical argument, Jaynes’ claims are hard to falsify, and are thus beyond the purview of science, despite his protestations. Yet Jaynes does defer to semi-scientific evidence, not least of which are those striking eyes of Tel Asmar. Analyzing those strange figures, Jaynes writes that “you are more likely to feel a superior’s authority when you and he are staring straight into each other’s eyes.” Part of Tel Asmar’s uncanniness is to make the viewer feel viewed, to make us feel judged. Jaynes writes that “There is a kind of stress, an unresolvedness about the experience, and withal something of a diminution of consciousness, so that, were such a relationship mimicked in a statue, it would enhance the hallucination of divine speech.”
The people who carved such figures, who used them in worship, would have actually heard them speak, Jaynes would argue, or they would have at least mistaken their own thoughts for the voices of those gods. Consequently, that’s how I imagine the idols which populated the Sumerian workshop of Terah, the father of the biblical patriarch Abraham, of whom it was said in Joshua 24:2 that he had “worshiped other gods,” and who was famed for the quality of his statues throughout the land of Ur. The bible is scant on the details of Terah’s disreputable profession, but the narrative is filled in by other sources. In the third century of the Common Era, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba records a defiant act of iconoclastic fury that Abraham committed against his father. Writing in the midrash Genesis Rabba that Abram (as he was known before his friendship with God) waited until Terah left his workshop, and then he “took a stick, broke the idols, and put the stick in the largest idol’s hand. When Terah returned, he demanded that Abram explain what he’d done. Abram told his father that the idols fought among themselves and the largest broke the others with the stick.” And thus, Rabbi Hiyya records the genesis of Jewish humor, because that story is hilarious. As recounted in the midrash, an enraged Terah demanded to know why he was being mocked, screaming that the idols had no knowledge. Like a Zen master, young Abram imparted to his father the satori whereby the later would understand the deaf, dumb, muteness of his inert shapes of limestone and gypsum.
Except the story must by necessity be more complicated than that, for if we’re to understand that idols are stupid things incapable of making anything happen, then the narrative tells the exact opposite tale. Were Terah’s statues simply inert, they’d pose no threat to his son. Furthermore, by inspiring such a violent act, the idols were literally able to compel action, they were able to make something happen. Writing of far more recent bouts of iconoclasm, albeit ones that drew inspiration and justification from examples such as that of Abraham’s, literary scholar James Simpson in Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition speaks of the “numinous power of images” and of how iconoclasm only makes sense as a practice since those who advocated for it “feel the moving power of idols.”
As a representative example, the scholar John Dominic Crossan writes about the defaced representations of the mostly forgotten disciple St. Thecla, a (celibate) consort of Paul who was celebrated by women of the early Christian church as one especially touched by the Lord. Crossan describes a particular act of vandalism against a Byzantine fresco depicting Thecla, who was subsequently erased from Christian history, explaining that “some later person scratched out the eyes and erased the upraised hand of Thecla.” From his In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Empire with God’s Kingdom, Crossan explains that there are profound implications to this selective destruction, for “If the eyes of both images had been disfigured,” that would have been characteristic of the eight-century iconoclastic controversy within the Orthodox Church. Instead, Crossan writes, “here only Thecla’s eyes and her authoritative hand are destroyed” as an attempt to blind and silence Thecla. This is done so not as a demonstration of the error in ascribing supernatural powers to idols and icons – it’s done to neutralize those very same powers. An iconoclast betrays himself, for in his nervous smashing he belies the faith in which he holds the idol. Abraham may have been laughing, but it was an anxious laugh.
Abraham’s father was a designer of Gods, an engineer of deities, an adept in that science and art that could perhaps be called deopoesis – the invention of gods. Arguably that might make his son the first critic. Terah’s deities were made of lapis lazuli bonded with bitumen to alabaster, but Abraham’s mental God of pure abstracted thought was no less an act of deopoesis. As approaches to the ineffable, whether concrete or abstract, limestone or poetry, any such encapsulation of the infinite has about it a bit of the idolatrous, which is to say that it has at its core the aesthetic. A mistake to assume that the creation of gods isn’t an art like any other, and not just in the literal sense that Terah or the sculptors of Tel Asmar are artists making representations of gods, but that we create gods themselves, and they are a medium of creative expression as surely as gypsum and obsidian. There is the ineffable, but the nature of such a thing is that there is an eternal gulf between its reality and the myopia of our understanding; everything else in faith is a question of deopoesis. We discover not facts about God, but rather invent narrative details about Her, it is an act of creation.
As Michel de Montaigne infamously wrote in the 16th century, “Man is certainly insane; he can’t make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” But who would want a worm when you could have a god? Though Montaigne surely meant to castigate human hubris, there is an admirable challenge in the idea of literally designing gods, of creating and compiling the attributes of a deity as a creative act, and then willing it to faith. Literary critics speak of mythopoesis, that is the creation of realistic sounding mythological systems, as in writers as varied (and as famous) as J.R.R. Tolkien, or H.P. Lovecraft. Deopoesis is something different, rarer, and all the more remarkable–it’s the conscious willing of a god into existence, and then having faith in that very same creation. This isn’t an obscure issue of only hermetic import–indeed in the humid days of the Anthropocene the invention of new gods and new judgements may be an issue of collective salvation.
There are certainly examples of this in history, more remarkable deopoesis than simply the carving of a statue (though often those activities are inextricably bound). Pantheons perhaps evolve organically, but there have been audacious examples of creatures becoming the creator, of gods themselves birthed from the minds of mere humans. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV was such a figure of singular genius, who in the thirteenth-century before the Common Era looked upon the multitude of scarab-headed and jackal-faced Egyptian deities, and eliminated them entirely in favor of his own invented god Aten – the sun disk. Centering his new cult in the priestly city of Amarna, Amenhotep IV took the name Akhenaten in honor of this god of his own creation, and in the process abolished millennia of profoundly conservative Egyptian religious culture. Under the rule of Akhenaten, there was a reform of religion and representation, whereby this newly invented god would supplant those previous anthropomorphic monsters in favor an entirely abstract disk. Scholar James K. Hoffmeir enthuses in Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism that “something radical took place in Egypt during… [his] reign that was unprecedented.”
Art of the Amarna period, as this solar interregnum in Egyptian history has been remembered, frequently depict Akhenaten with his distended paunch and his thin limbs prostrate with his beautiful wife Nefertiti before the glowing infinite circle of the dazzling sun. Hoffmeir describes Atenism as a religion of “poetic beauty and… theological profundity,” a system fully conceived of by Akhenaten and then, for a brief period, willed into existence. The first and perhaps greatest of the Godbuilders, in his Great Hymn to Aten he writes of his deity “O sole god, like whom there is no other!/Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,/Whilst thou wert alone,” an apt description of Akhenaten’s own process of singular creation as well. The Amarna revolution supposedly couldn’t last, reactionaries pushing Egypt back to the old gods upon the ascension of Akhenaten’s son the boy-king Tutankhamen. A bit of that solar energy remained however, absorbed into the blackness of subsequent literatures, hot to the touch even if clouds have obscured Aten in the meantime. When Akhenaten worshiped Aten in his hymn by marveling at “How many are your deeds… you alone, All peoples, herds, and flocks,” a later poet in a different language would borrow identical language (indeed paralleled throughout the entire extent of the lyric), imploring “how manifold are your works… you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” That later poem is commonly attributed to a different ruler, King David, and it’s remembered as Psalm 104, as Aten was traded for Adonai.
The elevation of Yahweh into the one true God was perhaps the ultimate example of Godbuilding, if not the only one. Some historians have seen traces of Akhenaten’s monotheism within the Hebrew version, not least of whom was Sigmund Freud in his idiosyncratic 1939 study Moses and Monotheism. In that odd book, the psychoanalyst argues that “Moses is an Egyptian of noble origin whom the myth transforms into a Jew,” a renegade priest of Atenism who melded the once-again-forbidden Egyptian monotheism with the henotheism of the enslaved Hebrews, later leading them on their exodus. Even if Freud’s hypothesis is dubious (though, it should be charitably said, not completely so), philology demonstrates that the ultimate God of the Bible is the product of a particular type of literary critical construction, that the being we associate with the monotheistic Lord of scripture was the result of melding together several different Near Eastern deities into a new one. Such is obvious from the various names with which God is referenced in the Bible, from “Yahweh” to the (plural) “Elohim.”
That these were the appropriated names of different Canaanite gods is crucial in understanding such audacious Godbuilding, as is the reality that within the Torah the portions in which He is referred to as Yahweh were most likely first made by a scribe in the southern Kingdom of Judea, and the section where He is called Elohim were penned by a poet in the northern Kingdom of Israel. These slightly different figures would be melded together into the unified books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers during the eighth-century before the Common Era, when following the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom, Israelite refugees arrived in Jerusalem, and there was a political need to synthesize the national epics of the two Hebrew nations into a singular text. Consequently, the God who we’ve come to worship was constructed because of political expediency and as facilitated through an aesthetic act. Jack Miles explains in God: A Biography that the Lord “arose as a fusion… The inner contradictions that were the result of the fusion took shape, quite early on, as a finite set of inner contradictions. It was the biblical writers’ common intellectual grasp of this nest of contradictions… that permitted them, working over centuries, to contribute to the drawing of a single character.” It should be said a character of tremendous subtlety, nuance, and complexity exhibiting a psychologically rich interiority – the result of Hebrew Godbuilding. The non-reconciliation of those contradictions gives God a psychological verisimilitude lacking in most polytheistic gods, and certainly in the flat sunny disk of Aten as well. Call Him the Lord of redaction, a deity of editing.
There were other conscious acts of political Godbuilding that followed that of Yahweh/Elohim in antiquity, such as the syncretic Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. Commissioned to be an invented deity by the ethnically Macedonian ruler Ptolemy in the third-century before the Common Era, Serapis was meant to meld together the traditions of both Greece and Egypt into a god suitable for worship by both. Serapis was clearly and obviously designed and created, the engineering of a god as an artistic act, with the new deity combining the biography of Osiris with the anthropomorphic appearance of a Greek god. Edwyn Beavan writes in The House of Ptolemy that the dynasty was “marked by one new creation, destined to have a future in the Greek world – the creation of a new cult. A deity whose name had hitherto been unknown to the Greeks outside Egypt became of the great gods of later Paganism – Serapis.” Like Aten, Serapis was the result of state-planning, a god constructed by bureaucracy but facilitated through ritualistic poetry. Worship of Serapis may strain our credulity, trained as we all are in the Protestant heresy of atheism, for his cult begs the question of why anyone would give due reverence to an entity which they knew wasn’t real? But the reality or unreality of Serapis is to miss the point – he is not theory, hypothesis, thesis, postulate, axiom, or theorem. Serapis is a creative act, that he was invented is precisely the reason why he is worthy of worship. Deopoesis is nothing if not an acknowledgement that reverence is found not in logic but in aesthetics. French philosopher Paul Veyne writes in his invaluable study Did Greeks Believe Their Myths? that “truths are already products of the imagination and that the imagination has always governed. It is imagination that rules, not reality, reason, or the ongoing work of the negative.” He makes clear in his study that gods were not considered “real” by the ancient Greeks in the sense that we think of material objects as being “real,” or in the sense that since the Reformation we’ve defined God as being “real” (reducing the Almighty to the level of a chair or a bench whose existence can be easily affirmed or denied). As such, a god was nearer in ontological import to a fictional character, and thus the invention of a being like Serapis would be viewed as no more of a swindle, hoax, lie, or fabrication than would the creation of characters with names like Hamlet or Huck Finn.
As both gods, and God, became viewed more as hypotheses about objective reality, and thus privy to empirical falsification, the idea of there being virtue in the invention of deities would have become largely nonsensical, though not entirely anathema. There have been movements, even in modern times, that have tried to do what Akhenaten did with Aten or Ptolemy with Serapis – to invent gods. One of the most infamous versions were the multitude of vying cults born out of the anticlericalism of the French Revolution, one being the Cult of Reason founded in 1794 by, among others, Antonine-Francois Momoro and Joseph Fouche, and the other Maximilien Robespierre’s more conventionally theistic Cult of the Supreme Being, both established in 1794, as well as Theophilanthropy which was conceived in part by Thomas Paine by 1797. As Robespierre would describe his invented religion, it would exist to “detest bad faith and despotism, to punish tyrants and traitors, to assist the unfortunate, to respect the weak, to defend the oppressed, to do all the good one can to one’s neighbor, and to behave with justice towards all men.” The Cult of Reason saw Notre Dame and other cathedrals deconsecrated in favor of a the worship of pure Rationality, with girls adorned as if they were Athena having tricolor streamers set in their hair while robed in sashes with “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” stitched onto them. Robespierre’s more traditional Cult of the Supreme Being replaced the atheism of the Momoro and Fouche’s cult with a sort of reserved deism, but both consciously constructed new aesthetic experiences of a type of divinity, an exercise in the invention of transcendent and noumenal technologies. Nothing more amply demonstrates the manner in which the Enlightenment was simply a form of secularized religion than the ways in which the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being were invented to turn rationality into its own form of ritualized metaphysic.
Revolutionaries were still in the business of inventing deities two centuries later, when a contingent of the Bolsheviks advocated for what they called “God-Building.” One of the strangest, and least theorized, aspects of the Russian Revolution, the practice of deopoetic God-Building establishes how fundamentally theological the Marxist project actually was, in a similar manner to how Robespierre, Momoro, and Fouche’s project revealed the sacred core at the center of the French Revolution. Drawing inspiration directly from those earlier projects, the writer Anatoly Lunacharsky advocated for creating a new faith to supplant Orthodoxy in the same way that the Cult of Reason had been intended to supplant Catholicism (and Atenism supplanted Egyptian polytheism). Elaborating on the practice of God-Building in Religion and Socialism, Lunacharsky wrote that “Scientific socialism, is the most religious of all religions, and the true Social Democrat is the most deeply religious of all human beings.” Rejecting the materialism of the most vulgar forms of Marxism, Lunacharsky sought in his role as the People’s Commissariat for Education to orient Bolshevism on a secure theological footing. For Lunacharsky, Soviet Communism had to grapple with the religious dimensions implicit within the teleological and eschatological faith of Marxism (despite its protestations towards being science), and he saw in God-Building a manner of reconciling the faith of the mass of Russian people with the rationality of socialism.
Drawing inspiration from sources as varied as Ernst Mach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the Eleusinian mystery cults of ancient Greece, Lunacharsky claimed in his role as the Peoples’ Commissariat of Education that “Socialism unites secular and religious ideological groups in the struggle for the proletariat. Any action aiming to merge socialism with religious fanaticism, or militant atheism, are actions aimed at splitting the proletarian class and have the formula of ‘divide and rule,’ which plays into the hands of the bourgeois dictatorship.” Vladimir Lenin, it should be said, vociferously disagreed with Lunacharsky, even as the latter’s minority position exerted some influence on Bolsheviks who sought the melding of politics and the transcendent into a new faith. Important to understand that the God-Builders were not cynically advocating the cooption of religion for political aims, but were rather genuinely trying to invent a new religion. British philosopher John Gray explains in The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death that in Russia “science and the occult were not separate, but mingled in a current of thought that aimed to create a substitute for religion,” with the God-Builders like Lunacharsky maintaining that eventually the “dead could be technologically resurrected.” God-Building had as its dominating metaphysic a radical materialism elevated to the level of the noumenal, with Lunacharsky commanding that “You must love and deify matter above everything else, the corporal nature of the life of your body as the primary cause of things, as existence without a beginning or end, which has been and forever will be.” Regardless of one’s thoughts on the theology, that God-Building is a theology is obvious.
What all of these case studies demonstrate – Atenism, Serapis, Enlightenment cults, God-Building, and even Abrahamic monotheism itself – is that there are aesthetic ruptures within religious history that countenance the practice of deopoesis, of inventing gods. These moments are constrained, circumscribed, defined activities, religious movements separate from the inchoate stream of religious evolutionary development as well as revolutionary prophetic movements led by figures operating under less conscious intentionality. To borrow the language of the cultural studies theorist Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature, deopoesis is normally a residual phenomenon, despite occasionally being emergent. Such a practice, to invent gods, is never the dominant schema of a culture, even while there are venerable examples of aesthetic approaches to conceiving of the divine. I would propose that if we are to trace the dominant paradigms of how divinity has been conceived over the course of the last several millennia, that we can divide history into five major epochs, each of which is named after the primary means of discussing, thinking about, and conceiving of the transcendent within that era. That’s not to say that other methods of thinking are precluded during those eras, only that they must by necessity either be residual or emergent. Broadly, I argue that as more complex, abstract, and universalizing religious conceptions emerged from polytheistic practices during the Axial Age, that the history of humanity’s relationship with the idea of God can be divided into an 1) Ethical Age, 2) Metaphysical Age, 3) Logical Age, 4) Epistemological Age, and finally a 5) coming Aesthetic Age.
The Ethical Age is equivalent with the era a half-millennia before the Common Era first called the Axial Age by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. He identified that era with the arrival of several disparate religious and philosophical movements defined by both abstraction and universalism, seeing in Greek philosophy, Hebrew monotheism, the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhism, and Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, diverse approaches to conceiving of a religious, philosophical, and ethical realm which is transcendent of immediate circumstance. Not uncoincidentally during the same period in which Jaynes sees interiority developing, Jaspers explains that the Axial Age was “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” In my schema, I see the Axial Age as equivalent to an Ethical Age, because the most pressing way of talking about God ceased to be ritualistic and became an issue of elucidating correct conduct, morality, and practice. Rather than defining God’s attributes, as would be a later philosophical concern, the sages of the Ethical Age sought to define humanity’s relationship to God and to each other. As Jaspers correctly saw the Axial Age as defined by universality and abstraction, so could it be added that works as varied as Leviticus, Plato’s The Republic, and Confucius’ Analects took as their primary concern an orthopraxic ethical dimension. A preeminent example of the Ethical Age would be formulations of what’s often called the “Golden Rule,” seemingly universal axioms like Confucius’ “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others” or Leviticus’ “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The Metaphysical Age comes into fruition shortly after the beginning of the Common Era, and while marked by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the concurrent rise of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism it doesn’t easily map onto either. As a dominant paradigm during the Metaphysical Age, there is a concern with the proper definition of God’s actual qualities, the development of a kind of divine cosmology that is ever complicated and baroque. In late antiquity, this becomes abundantly clear in the ornate arguments of the seven ecumenical Church councils held over the course of the fifth through eighth-centuries and convened variously at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Ethical conduct was a secondary concern for the bishops meeting at these synods, rather attention was paid to the complex innerworkings of divinity, and the imposition of a difficult philosophical framework onto the experience of the transcendent. Representative would be the decision arrived at in Chalcedon in 451, whereby the assembled bishops confessed “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, or a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead,” and so on and so forth. There is no doubt to the existence of God, rather divinity is discussed as if the intricate workings of God can be ascertained through definition. Lest the Metaphysical Age be read as primarily Christian, and thus court the ugliness of supercessionism, it should be said that equivalent developments existed with the beginnings of Jewish Kabbalah and the academies of Julian the Apostate’s theological Neo-Paganism.
By the end of the first millennium, the Metaphysical Age transitions into the Logical Age, as the councils’ definitions of God promulgated by fiat seek to justify themselves on a firmer rational basis, in part by recourse to complex syllogistic argumentation. Broadly concurrent with the Middle Ages, and especially the Aristotelian scholasticism of the High Middle Ages as exemplified by Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides and Rashi, Christian theologians like Aquinas and Peter Abelard, and Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna, the Logical Age was a liminal period between the intellectual certainties of the Metaphysical Age and the skepticism of the coming Epistemological Age. Though all serious religious doubts are still emergent, the Logical Age speaks of God in a manner unthinkable during the Metaphysical Age, arguing not about the details of divine definition, but rather how they can be placed on a firm rational basis. This is the era of the great proofs of God’s existence. A representative example is the immaculate syllogism of a thinker like Anselm, who in his eleventh-century Proslogion conceived of the ontological proof of God’s existence. Anselm maintains that God’s existence can be concluded rationally since “Therefore, Lord… we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be thought,” and as a manner of logical necessity it must hold that God Himself exists. Regardless of how convincing one finds the syllogism (and attitudes have varied), what makes Anselm’s proof representative of the Logical Age is that it exists at all. Despite the example of pre-Socratic and Socratic proofs of God’s existence, during the Church councils of the previous millennium, the assembled weren’t interested in proving God’s existence, which was felt, intuited, believed, and lived as a matter of principle, content rather to define the attributes of that being whom they knew to be real. By Anselm’s era, a logical proof of God’s existence indicates not actual doubt – the monk never wavered in his faith and he wrote the syllogism to glorify a God that he believed in – but of the theoretical possibility of doubt.
The Logical Age thus transitions into the Epistemological Age with the arrival of early modernity. By the Renaissance, Reformation, and later Enlightenment the rationality of the previous era had descended into doubts and skepticisms, as the primary issue of proving God’s existence to glorify a being whom you never doubted transformed into a central question of whether God actually exists at all. Lucien Febvre writes in his classic of Annales School historiography The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais that in the age before modernity, “Every activity of the day… was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions” so that there were “conceptual difficulties” with even conceiving of religious skepticism. The options of skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism were an intellectual impossibility even during the Logical Age, but by the Epistemological Age religious uncertainty became a possibility, so that the Reformation sees the valorization and redefinition of faith as the assent towards unproven axioms. Seventeenth-century proofs of God’s existence from figures like Rene Descartes, and Immanuel Kant’s eighteenth-century disparagement of the validity for such a project, speaks to an anxious new status quo.
By the Age of Epistemology, however, and atheism itself becomes viable, and the flip-side of the new dominant, doubting faith. First with the hedging agnosticism of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, and then the transitory atheisms of the eighteenth-century and the full-throated atheism of the nineteenth-century, epistemology became the dominant schema through which God was understood. If the Ethical Age asked “How does God wish us to act?” then the Metaphysical Age asked “How do we define God?” and the Logical Age asked “How do we prove those definitions of God?” then the Epistemological Age asked “Can we prove God?” What then shall be the dominant question of the Aesthetic Age? Those previous ruptures in history give us clue, those emergent discourses that in the coming millennium shall be dominant. No longer are we concerned with defining God, or proving His existence. Rather the new question will be – how do we make God beautiful? How do we design God to be sublime? How do we invent a God who moves us? What creating creatures shall we create? The operative mode of the Aesthetic Age will be deopoesis, as the preeminent task of culture will be to invent God. In the upcoming era, new gods shall be born again.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.