At the end of the film Henry V, a single tenor voice intones , Non nobis, non nobis, Domine…
He is joined by a few others, until in the end a whole chorus (with orchestra) crescendos to complete the verse: Sed nomini tuo da gloriam. The passage is from Psalm 115, the bit of the Roman Easter liturgy where the priests, hearing the lines, would kneel in abasement: “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name give glory.”
The verse became a familiar song of the Knights Templar during the Crusades, but its most famous use was in 1415 when the English, against heavy odds and a superior army, defeated the French at Agincourt.
It was easy to see the battle in biblical terms–and the English never tired of attributing their unlikely victory to divine intervention. Except, of course: Henry V of England and Charles VI of France were Christian kings, fighting under the banner of the same God–not Israel’s armies ranged against idol-worshiping enemies whose gods “are silver and gold” (Ps 115.4-7). Invoking a God whose inscrutable will was never known until his competing worshipers lay scattered over the battlefields of Europe (and later America) and the score tallied was one of the reasons this God had to go.
I am beginning with that scenario because God has been the commander in chief for most of human history. The wars that were fought were fought in his name. The blood that was spilled was often considered a sacrifice to his glory–the blood of soldier-martyrs, blessed through violence. Even Lincoln, no war-lover, taught that the field at Gettysburg had been “consecrated ” by blood. It is one of the vulgarities of war that the bloodier the battle, the greater the sacrifice, the more hallowed the ground: “As they danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.’” (1 Samuel 18.7).
The Lord God of hosts was a war god in his youth: he protected his property and his family (like any dues-paying NRA member) and visited his wrath on the enemies of his people with stunning severity.
As he aged, God fought less and spoke more, but through men called prophets. As people listened less, they lost more–finally the whole game. By the time the Romans got to Palestine at the end of the second century BCE, the “kingdoms” of Israel and Judah were little more than a poetic reminiscence, tolerated by a succession of warring overlords who had ruled the area for hundreds of years:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
As an icon of his glorious past, God was reinvented by Christian armies, Muslim armies, and the armies of nations that considered themselves (by common descent or adoption) the rightful possessors of his earthly dominion. Abraham’s children have habitually behaved like children everywhere, throughout time, fighting over daddy’s estate. There’s still no end in sight–though daddy seems weirdly detached from the goings-on.
In the era of kingship, God was invoked as a kind of absent father, but of a distinctly no-nonsense, sovereign variety. There was an advantage to that. No matter how unjust or imbecilic the reigning monarch, God king over all creation, in an argument that reached back to biblical times, could always be invoked. God is king. The king is–well–the king. Long live the king! Naturally this theory ran afoul of the Church where beginning in the 11th century and ever after through the Middle ages the argument could run, The king is king, but the Pope is God’s representative on earth. Thus began the longest running battle for political ascendancy the world has ever known: the one between church and state, eventually won, more or less, by the state and abetted by a religious revolution called the Reformation and an intellectual one called the Renaissance. Oddly, in both of these movements–in art, literature, poetry and music–God seemed more robust and more down to earth than he had ever been.
But seems is not was. As theories of “divine right” faded and republican and constitutional forms of government replaced monarchial ones, he was invoked less frequently. Only in the early twentieth century was his fall as lord, king, judge and lawgiver fully confirmed, and the idea of the “secular” state–an idea that had been around in philosophy for at least two centuries prior–became the new model of political straight-thinking.
Yet, I miss God. For my own reasons.
I fully accept in that “God does not exist,” if by that statement we mean the God of the Bible and the God of the Church. I am, however, not an atheist with respect to all possible formulations of the idea of God (not what Flew would call an impossibilist) and while I have a poor idea of how a credible formulation might run, I think the biblical one is historically valuable and culturally interesting. It is therefore literally false and culturally valuable, because it tells us the weakness of all such formulations, at least at a literary level. God is made in man’s image–just as, in an inverted way, the Bible tells us.
I often irritate my more militant atheist friends when they start their God-bashing binges by saying that people must have been as ignorant as geese to ever believe the things in the Bible.
But no: they were just people who believed what they believed. They believed it because there was little else to believe. They rose with the sun and went to bed when it disappeared beneath the horizon. They had no books. Why would they? They couldn’t read. The biblical world was not that different from the world they observed.
The physical and religious circumstances of the biblical writers and people of the European Middle Ages were remarkably similar, though they are separated by over a thousand years. Like the priests of biblical Jerusalem, the priests of the church (doing their job with the books they had) told people what to believe. God was God, now assisted by his only-begotten son, and he could save you or punish you, just as in olden days he had sometimes saved his people and sometimes punished them by cutting them off from his favor. Those two conditions–primarily political and territorial in the Old Testament–became something else in the Church: heaven and hell, with earth and the church, the dispenser of God’s grace, in between. The psychology of why such a God came into being, why he had to be periodically remodeled and saved from himself is disappointingly and thoroughly human and social.
At least since Feuerbach (d. 1872) the conclusion that God is what we made him has been inescapable. But it is also often ignored. It is obviously ignored by very religious people, who continue to believe that the God of the Bible exists “out there” somewhere and affects their lives and futures.
But the same kind of dyshistorical thinking also applies to atheists, who deny God exists, but need something to blame for all the outrages that have been committed in his name, and so often take the same sort of fundamentalist tack to the biblical story. They reify ignorance, ignore history and identify the problem as “religion,” an odd conclusion from people who purport also to champion the development of the species through evolution and adaptation.
Their mistake is and continues to be to meet the fundamentalist on his own ground, rather than on the field of history.
The most impressive example of this illogic is Richard Dawkins’s bumper sticker line, that “Most of us are atheists with respect to 99% of the gods who have ever existed; some of us just go one step further.” The presumed-to-be-self-evident point here is that if 99% of gods are false, there is a high probability that any god must be false.
This is shocking stuff, coming from a scientist who might be expected to know that it would take only 1 case of a “true god” to falsify 99 cases of false ones. The analogy of earth adrift in an otherwise unpopulated universe: Are we alone? There is of course a
“naturalist” argument against such possibilism (e.g. we know the conditions for life beyond earth because we know the conditions necessary for it to happen; we do not know such conditions for the existence of God); but it’s unnecessary to make it here since I agree with Dawkins’s conclusion if not with his way of reaching it.
What is true is that the God of the Judaeo Christian-Islamic tradition does not exist; we know this because we know how he developed, how his story was invented–and was changed.
Anyway, no one will miss the God of the philosophers, as dull, bloodless and expendable an entity as ever has been imagined, and very few will miss the God who soaks the world for all its evildoing in the time of Noah. (The sufficient disproof of the latter is that he hasn’t destroyed Las Vegas or went plagues on the Taliban, and if Hurricane Katrina or the multiple tsunamis of the past decade were really meant for Washington DC, he is obviously losing his grip on geography.)
The God I miss is a God of lost causes and noble pursuits, a historical residue, an adaptation of what’s left when the God of the Bible has been forgiven for his crimes against humanity. –An idea, not a tangible reality, but something that is still separate from our better selves.
Feuerbach hits the nail head on when he writes in his Lectures on the Essence of Religion (XXX)
God, I have said, is the fulfiller, or the reality, of the human desires for happiness, perfection, and immortality. From this it may be inferred that to deprive man of God is to tear the heart out of his breast.
Unfortunately this breast-rending sense of God has been replaced by a completely unworthy substitute, at least in the United States. The American People.
The mistake begins with the language of representative democracy, the United States Constitution being, I think, the first document in world history that doesn’t come from the top down–king or emperor and parliament to the people by edict. It goes bottom up: We the people. Never mind that it would have been impossible for “We the people” to write anything and that it took a committee of fairly learned men to produce the document, but one thing it doesn’t do is to drag God into the business of government.
In a famous clause of the First Amendment, it actually, if politely, excuses him from further service. No God reigns here. No monarch gloriously rules as his vicar. No act of parliament requires an act of allegiance to his Church. We the people are who we are, and who we are is The American people.
Most the people in the world know that the American people are mostly religious. So religious that they sometimes look skeptical when we boast that we are the first country ever founded on the principle of separation of church and state. Looking at the deals congressmen have to make to keep their pious Baptist and Jewish and Catholic clients happy, it is easy to forget that invoking the will of God in the way, say, a feudal king might have done, a medieval pope, or even a modern mullah, is not done here. At least not officially.
We the people have taken his place–rhetorically.
The American people will not be fooled by the President’s shenanigans. The American people will not tolerate congressional gridlock. The American people deserve answers/to know the truth/a full explanation. The American people will see this bill [insert name] for the bureaucratic pork it is. The American people will reject this bill because they respect human life. The American people want jobs not entitlements. The American people deserve to have both sides of this issue debated fully, and hence will not permit it to come to the floor for a vote. The American people….
Why do the American people deserve so much, when some of the American people can’t quote even the first line of the Preamble to the Constitution, and some (an alarming percentage as I recall) would like to see limits on freedom of speech and would be very happy to see separation of church and state relaxed, Christianity taught in schools, the Bible restored to its previous, revered status in public education, and old fashioned (family) values incorporated into everything from town council meetings to media censorship to senior proms.
Why do the American people deserve so much?
The American people are wise. They are innately good and great-hearted. Their wrath is great when you cross them–look at their armies and navies–but when you see eye to eye with them they are kind, and patient, and even (often) bountiful. They are financially shrewd and naturally prosperous. They are self-reliant, independent. They are just super.
They are therefore a useful substitute for the God who can’t be invoked. I am humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic as I write, the most flagrant hybrid of the secular and religious commitments ever penned.
The American people want to see a quick end to this conflict. The American people will not tolerate the idea that aggression can be rewarded. The American people do not want to see Gitmo a single day more, or the environment compromised by greedy men who are just interested in quick profit and development . The American people do not want their children to be saddled with debt. The American people think that everyone who is willing to work should be able to work.
There is nothing directly wrong with using this highly charged phrase as the secular equivalent for a God who has been relegated to the sidelines of history.
As long as we recognize that it takes us right back to the days of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France. It is the same schizophrenic approach to political life that characterized the primitivism of the Middle Ages and led to Endless War: one God, many purposes–none of them self-consistent, all of them subject to the whims and objectives of the invoker.
I am worried that a God who evolved through history and was then cast aside when he had developed humanitarian impulses can be replaced by The American People, whose sole interests seem to be war, taxes, profit, self-interest, and finding the right enemies of the state. Can it be the God who was cast aside was too inconvenient, and that the secular was less demanding, less judgmental, more convenient and accommodating to conscience? After all, the God of the Bible (Dawkins be screwed), evolved; the secular state is still an experiment in the process of proving itself.
When Mitch McConnell and Barack Obama, or lesser avatars, invoke the American People, they may have the Constitution and the good of the Republic in their line of sight, but I doubt it. They are simply invoking something bigger than they are–andwith the justification that (like God with kings) The American People put them where they are.
The wishful thinking is that the American people will not be able to resist appeals to their innate wisdom and honor and will not notice that their government is simply massaging them into thinking its bad (and sometimes horrible) decisions are what they wanted all along–symbolized by the magical liturgy of voting–the supreme power of the electoral process.
The American people demand an honorable end to this war. The American people stand for freedom and justice and cannot walk away from this struggle. The American people will fight as long as it takes to protest their interests. The American people want to see justice done to the poor and the homeless. But the American people know that the way to achieve this is not to raise the minimum wage. The American People will reject any attempt to raise taxes. The American People want to see their Constitutional freedoms protected. The American people want to see their borders secure….
Our ancestors enjoyed the luxury of projecting these contradictions outward, or upward, and thus externalizing them as forces they were not themselves able to control, except through prayer and wishing.
God had no obligation to respond favorably because, after all, his will was only known after the fact.
When I read the words of a Henry II, or a Thomas Becket or a Pope Urban II (the one who called the First Crusade) or even an Osama bin Laden, I am struck that the “externalizing” also created an important fiction–the idea that God, or God in history, will judge true and false actions. It is one of the principles that the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, one the three greatest thinkers America has produced, made a pillar of his “democratic” philosophy. I’ve discussed Niebuhr’s thoughts previously in these pages, but I think it’s worth mentioning something again.
The rejection of the Bible, and indeed of Christianity, is not the beginning of wisdom, political or philosophical. Not if that rejection does not include all forms of idolatry, as Niebuhr called it–false faith in non-existent saviours. I hate to say it, but there is no such thing as The American People.
The beauty of biblical thinking actually derives from the belief that the worship of the true God separates what is noble from what is false, what is worth “worshiping” from what must be rejected or even demonized. Beneath the materialism of the Biblical language are some important values that are lost if we simply substitute the people for God. History has seen lots of secular equivalents–Das Deutsche Volk und Reich, The Chinese People, the American People, even the growing use of the meme “Our Children” meaning our responsibility to the future.
But the crisis of this way of thinking–this use of The American People as a secular proxy for an absent God, becomes apparent as soon as we wonder, What thing of ultimately symbolic value, what coherent symbol of our aspirations and better selves, what criterion for justice, what instantiation of beauty or love, even of anger, can take the place the God?
If the God of Abraham, the God of Constantine, of Henry of England and Charles of France and the God of Lincoln (Abraham’s namesake) didn’t measure up, one thing is sure: The American People is a very poor substitute Non nobis, Domine!