O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?
Interpreting the Gods
One of the most curious feature of the Bible is the way that its language seems to suggest that somehow the “gods” are real. The Lord is not only the “God of gods”, but sometimes the biblical authors would even address the “gods” like in this passage,
All who worship images are put to shame,
those who boast in idols—
worship him, all you gods!
The psalmist here is telling the gods to actually worship the Lord; so if the gods did not exist, what exactly is he doing talking to the gods?
One must understand that the majority of the Scriptures were not written within the context of Greek rationalistic metaphysics whereby one theoreticised in pristine form the “existence” of God with definite and sharply defined attributes (e.g. the omni-properties, etc). They had a much moreconcrete idea of god which is nicely captured by Luther’s definition in his exposition on the first commandment,
What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart
Thus, a “god” isn’t an entity of sorts of which we speculate whether it exists (like some newly postulated particle of physics), it is simply anything from which we expect and rely on for our goods and our health. Luther very nicely relates this to money by explaining that money becomes our god when someone who “has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God.” Thus, when we come to expect and rely on something for all our good and happiness, then that thing has effectively become a god for us. This is confirmed throughout the Scriptures for example here,
He will say: “Now where are their gods,
the rock they took refuge in,
the gods who ate the fat of their sacrifices
and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
Let them rise up to help you!
Let them give you shelter!
Thus undoubtedly a “god” is simply something, or someone, whom we take refuge in and from whom we expect help. It could be our parents, our government, etc. As long as we expect from that entity any good and health, that entity has become a god.
On Gods and Idol
Thus, if a god is not some kind of definitive philosophical entity, but simply anything from whom we rely on, then all creation is teeming with gods. From the sun we expect light and heat which is vital for the nourishment of the eco-system; from the sky we expect rain for water, from the oceans seafood, from our parents love, care and nurture, and from our government, law and order. Thus, in a certain sense, everything within creation has its ordained office to provide us with goods and health. And Christ himself points out that we also are “gods”, because we do expect help and comfort from our fellow human friends, etc.
But whilst all gods in the universe has its proper place, they exceed their legitimate boundaries when they start claiming to be everything. Governments and the political order today has an especial tendency to promise the heavens and the earth to their electorate to get elected, claiming to be the source of all good in society. Worse if when our government god starts claiming a divine mandate to rule and demand unquestioned allegiance in all its action and unlimited rights to do anything in order to achieve its aims. When a god exceeds its ordained boundaries by the true God of gods and creator of all, and when people start putting their trust on that god and rely on it for everything and obey it without question, then that god has become an idol. This of course is not just true of governments; it holds true also for money or any aspect of creation.
On a related note, I want to make some speculative comments on the nature of spirits (after all God is also “God of the spirits of all flesh”). Our conception of “spirits” come mostly from Hollywood movies depicting spiritual possessions and ghostly events. But the reality is that spirits are not so crudely (and superstitiously!) anthropomorphic, and are in fact much more powerful than that.
First, it is necessary to understand that spirits, are part of creation. In the Nicene Creed, we confess that “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible“. The Lord is also the maker of all invisible and spiritual realities too.
But what are spirits? I want to suggest that spirits are more like memes (think internet memes) and ideas, rather than disembodiment consciousness floating around the universe. Think “spirit of the times”, i.e. the cultural ideas, patterns of beliefs, etc which hold sway (possess?) over wide bodies of people. The idea of “memes” was coined by Richard Dawkins (or was it Daniel Dennett? can’t remember) as a parallel to “genes”. Just as genes “seek” to propagate themselves and spread their genetic codes, likewise are ideas subject to an evolutionary survival of the fittest, and the “best” idea is one which can spread and survivie our human environment. Like memes have to compete with other memes in order to win out and all that.
Of course, one need not buy into the evolutionary theory of “memes” in order to understand how these “spirits” or ideas work. People have done great and terrible things because they have been possessed (literally!) or convinced about a certain idea or ideal. People act according to the ideas by which they are seized and pursue ideals which has captured their imaginations. These spirits are even more dangerous than any Hollywood spiritual possession can be. It can be as exalted as a vision for an entire society (For Mao Zedong pursuing his crazy pure communist idea nearly destroyed all of ancient chinese culture!), or simply as mundane as being possessed by a desire for someone (such desire and love has driven people mad; now this is real spiritual possession!)
Just as there are wicked spirits, spirits which gives false ideas and convictions not in line with creator of all spirits, the Holy Spirit, there are also good spirits or ideas, inspired positively by the Holy Ghost, the source of all good things. In the Book of Common Prayer liturgy for confirmation whereby the Bishop prays for the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the person, the Bishop would begin his prayer this way,
ALMIGHTY and everliving God, who hast vouchsafed to regenerate these thy servants of water and the holy ghost: And hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins: Send down from heaven we beseech thee, (O Lord) upon them thy holy ghost the comforter, with the manifold gifts of grace, the spirit of wisdom and understanding; the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength; The spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fulfill them, (O Lord) with the spirit of thy holy fear.
Thus, there is a prayer for the “spirit of wisdom and understanding”, which are good and excellent spirits to be possessed by. Thus, to be possessed by a good spirit or idea which is both holy and good is a desirable thing.
Of course, if one is “possessed” by an “evil spirit”, the solution is not to get exorcised by a priest using ritual words but as the Scripture admonishes us,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophetshave gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
1 John 4:1-3
Thus, when a politician or philosopher starts promoting some grandiose idea or scheme, or when someone suggests an idea or scheme to us, we should not allow those spirits to possess us by rhetoric or fine words or by our desires but to test those spirits and the ideas which they propose against the person and teaching of Christ. And if those spirits contradict Christ they are to be rejected off hand by the Word of God, exposed and demythologised by Christ as the lying spirits they are.
Gods and Spirits in Christian Devotion: A Test Case in Japanese Culture
I guess the question now is, can we actually talk to the gods and treat gods and spirits like persons? Of course, personhood is a matter of degree, i.e. we talk to babies even though they don’t understand us, we talk to our pets and they seem to understand us, in a manner of speaking, and some of us even talk to our plants! Monarchies are literally incarnations of the state, a personification of the nation, so if you want to talk to Britain, speak to the Queen.
Of course in the Bible, anthropomorphising inanimate objects aren’t uncommon, as the Psalmist in Psalm 148:3-5 exhorts,
Praise ye him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD: for he commanded, and they were created.
The Psalmist here is talking to suns and moons and what have you, telling them to praise the Lord and all that. Thus, there isn’t any real harm in the devotional language of talking to the stuff of creation as if they were alive and telling them to praise God.
There might of course be a deeper theological significance to “anthropomorphising” the things of creation; it is to acknowledge their significance as ordained by their Creator, and that the good which they give us is to be “received with thanksgiving”, for the good which they give us ultimately comes from God. And who knows? May be Leibniz may have a point, that all creation consists of “soul atoms” and all things are run by a teeming hosts (and horrors of horrors, committee!) of angels and spirits. So, it might be good to say hello to the tired angel running say, a tree, from time to time.
I discuss this because it might have evangelistic significance. Now, as a disclaimer, I know virtually nothing about Japanese culture, but from what I understand, Japanese culture sees all nature teeming with spirits and gods. River gods, etc. And they have these stone statues littered throughout Japan, the god of some tree or road or something. My suggestion would be that these “gods” can actually be incorporated into Christianity, provided that they are placed in their proper perspective. (1) They are servants of the true “God of gods”, providing oxygen or smooth roads for us, etc. (2) There is no need to sacrifice anything to them since they don’t need our good, they have received everything from their creator, except in the “ordinary” good they need, i.e. for trees, water and good soil, etc (3) It is alright to acknowledge their contribution to our well being as a way of giving thanks to God for providing that specific good to us by the customary bowing or nodding practices or devotional language. Paying respect to stone gods representing trees is as innocent as paying respecting and honouring monarchs representing the state. Of course, neither is true God of gods, but that does not mean that we ought to devalue or disregard the good which comes from trees or governmental authority, both are ordained by God for the wellbeing of humanity.
Well, these are so far quite speculative, but I hope that it gave some interesting insights into the nature of spirits and gods in the Bible, and how to engage these concepts in today’s world.