Stonehenge Step Aside (plus God)

11,600 years ago — 7,000 years before Stonehenge — humans built an elaborate temple. They had no writing. They had no metal. They had no pottery. They didn’t even have wheels to aid construction. But they had some kind of yearning.

The site is Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey.

The temple is impossible. The humans foraging for food at the time had no way to undertake such a construction, or to haul the massive stones from a distance, or even to stay in one place long enough to think about constructing a temple.

But there it is. Our origins are a massive multiplying mystery.

Let’s think about God and His chronology.

11,600 years ago, human hunter-gatherers on the border of the Ice Age build a temple, having (to our knowledge) never built anything more complicated than a hut. This is a sacred outreach, a spectacular superfluity in the teeth of challenging Neolithic survival. Nothing seems necessary about the temple, in the way that huts and game and berries are necessary. But such an undertaking could not have happened unless its builders viewed it as necessary — indeed, more urgent than huts and game and berries.

Yet God waited until over 7,000 years after this human monumental yearning for the divine to get in touch with Abraham, and the authors of the Hindu Vedas, then another 1,400 years to inspire Gautama the Buddha, and then another 600 years to send His son into human history to die for our sins, and another 600 years thereafter to speak with Mohamed. Why?

Why not establish the definitive relationship of God and humanity at the earliest point of humanoid yearning for the divine? Why not get it settled? What was God thinking?

Why would God be coy? Perhaps God desired true presence with human beings only when they could truly register it, only when it was possible to spread the Word by other than word-of-mouth. Perhaps God was dealing with other matters for a few millennia.

I must confess to a bias here. The asserted omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience of God makes God unreal to me. An all-powerful, everywhere, all-knowing God generates mind-boggling contradictions. I like a smaller God. A God with a personality — which is impossible if God is all-everything. The ultimate turbo-God looks so much like a necessary heuristic, a concept that had to be invented to reinforce monotheism, but which strips God of any meaningfulness. God is everything? Okay. Not helpful.

If God, possibly, is not literally everything (and therefore potentially meaningful), then a God-space becomes much more attractive. Interestingly, every major religion treats God, in its narrative passages, as a personality. The Jewish scriptures show God changing His mind, getting emotional, engaging in negotiations with good people, and evolving in His sensibility. Christianity and Islam built upon this narrative, but became much more rigorously monotheistic and absolutist — while, oddly, embracing the original Jewish narrative — and in the case of Christianity, ironically, developing a polytheistic heuristic with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The reach of the human imagination is awe-inspiring, and never more so than when it seeks the divine. Our religious architecture — our urgent thinking and feeling about God and everything we conceive in that urgency — is, to borrow Keats, a thing of beauty, a joy forever, and always the best of the human impulse to stand modest before what we cannot understand.

I love the humans that built the Gobekli Tepe temple. I love their sacrifice and their devotion. They were modest and lifted up their hands to God, somehow, and said please save us. And the rest is history.

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25 Responses to Stonehenge Step Aside (plus God)

  1. Terrance H. says:

    Kendrick,

    I’ve been thinking about writing a post discussing my feelings on religion, but more specifically, God. I just don’t know what I believe anymore, and this was reinforced a few days ago when a 90 year old woman was hit by a car and killed in her church parking lot, a mere block from my favorite local library. She had attended that church for seven decades.

    As far as the temples and other monuments of faith, I’ll only say that when people believe, they can do some pretty amazing things. What I wonder and worry about is whether it’s always people doing amazing things.

    • Terrance, the woman hit by a car has little to do with religion or God. In our crazy pin-ball world, people get hit by cars. No coherent theology or anti-theology pins random tragedies on God. Even the three-Os crowd (Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent) acknowledges free will and a space for human beings to bounce off each other in that crazy pin-ball way and decide what they’ll do with the results. To be sure, some people of faith speak of “God’s will,” or describe the 90-year-old woman’s fate as God bringing her home. But (to the extent these are not simply comfort phrases) the notion that God steers “everything” is an indefensible theological abyss. Whatever your current feelings about religion and God, let them not be driven by random tragedies.

      • Terrance H. says:

        . Whatever your current feelings about religion and God, let them not be driven by random tragedies.

        That’s incredibly difficult, I’ve found. But I understand what you’re saying.

  2. Larry Beck says:

    “Yet God waited until … Why?

    Kinda punches a big ole hole in the religious fundamentalist belief that earth is only slightly over 5000 years old too.

    I like your approach to this with the smaller more personal God but I don’t think you have really moved the conversation beyond the concept that ancient people were prone to attribute things they didn’t understand to a realm that consisted of imaginary beings with super human capacities to make the skies rumble during a lightning storm or pull the ball of fire across the skies with a chariot.

    • Cheers Larry. I don’t think many fundamentalists believe the earth is only slightly over 5,000 years old. That’s vintage Scopes Monkey Trial era, not modern fundamentalists. I don’t like hating on people of faith, in any form. I have my own doubts and demons, but I will always defend people of faith until they give me a specific reason to condemn them.

      And how much do we moderns “understand”? I see just as much myth — in the narrative explanatory sense of that word — today as in ancient times. I see even more determination in modern times to wrap ourselves in ideological cocoons, complete with handy “talking points,” and insulate ourselves from any potentially disruptive evidence. I see it on the left and the right. I respect the ancients for their modesty, for their deep understanding that they did not know, and their expensive temples signaling a humble plea to the divine. We moderns could do with a little of that modesty.

  3. Jeff says:

    I love this piece. I will have to look up some of the words. Just one thought: Divine inspiration?Possibly. Space Aliens? Almost as likely.

    • Thanks Jeff. I haven’t ruled out Erich von Daniken’s theories. Our distant past really doesn’t make any sense. Deep ancient peoples achieved so many things that they weren’t supposed to be able to achieve. Visitations from aliens with advanced technologies isn’t implausible. A bit odd we haven’t heard from them since. But maybe they were on a really long exploration mission and simply can’t double back for a few thousand years.

      • Jeff says:

        Or worse, they didn’t find us very interesting and got tired of showing us how to do everything.

  4. John Myste says:

    Obviously, why God did anything he did will never make sense to our insect minds. He could explain it, but we would never understand the answer. I cannot even understand how my television makes a picture, how am I going to understand the mind of God?

    Even the simple things baffle me, such as why it’s OK for God to kill babies to punish their fathers or how God so loved the world that He gave the life of His only begotten Son’s life, but then the Son woke up in three days, meaning that God did not love the world that much after all.

    Oh, and how the Son is the Father, and the Father did not die, so the Son did not even die for three days.

    Of course it’s all true, but my insect mind cannot fathom is. And I am supposed to want him to explain why He did not show himself sooner?

    • I’m less dismissive of the human mind. In fact I am in awe of the human mind and imagination. The “God” to which you’re comparing our “insect minds” is exactly the God that troubles me. Yes, if God is everything, then we are close to nothing, or bugs. But that is a heuristic for radical alienation of God and human. I don’t buy it. I think God, if He exists, is much closer and accessible to humans. He’s not everything. He’s just more and better and wiser.

      Your examples of bafflement betray a “gotcha'” religious politics. Contradictions that are not really contradictions, misunderstandings of nuanced theologies. Syllogisms that abort. It does not follow that God did not love the world because Jesus resurrected. God gave his only begotten Son, according to Christian theology, into human form and suffering and death so that sinful humans would have a route to God because God resolutely pushed into that possibility. Jesus resurrected, according to Christian theology, because He is God — but that detracts not a whit from the extraordinary narrative of His suffering and death on the cross — and that extraordinary divine gesture.

      • John Myste says:

        God gave his only begotten Son, according to Christian theology, into human form and suffering and death so that sinful humans would have a route to God because God resolutely pushed into that possibility. Jesus resurrected, according to Christian theology, because He is God — but that detracts not a whit from the extraordinary narrative of His suffering and death on the cross — and that extraordinary divine gesture.

        Surely you jest. To paraphrase, though God was deceptive, the suffering was real and thought the methodology was pointless, it was a good try.

        • John Myste says:

          I don’t buy it. I think God, if He exists, is much closer and accessible to humans. He’s not everything. He’s just more and better and wiser. I tend to think the opposite. If a God existed, he would be extremely inaccessible to humans and probably would lack interest.

          • But that would be a pointless God. Granted, a pointless God is possible, but hardly plausible. If God exists, He connects with human beings. Whatever else may be going on in the universe, human beings must surely interest God. We’re sufficiently odd and urgent to capture the attention of even the most lackadaisical deity.

        • Where was God deceptive? I don’t see any deception, except by your false syllogism about Jesus waking up, which somehow converted the suffering of Jesus into divine trickery. What?!

  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I used to love the ritual and mystery of the Catholic church. I loved the Latin Mass. Perhaps when I was younger I didn’t want God to be that accessible. Perhaps I need a God who can be bigger and more powerful than I am so that all the craziness going on right now can make just a little more sense and be just a bit more bearable. Of course, for me, I can’t wrap my head around God being “everything.” I suppose I don’t need to. I can’t answer any of your questions, but I will say this: Barely a day goes by that I don’t lift up my hands to God, and say, please save us… soon. Not talking rapture here, by any means. Just give us some wisdom and compassion!

    • Cheers Jean. And the key is modesty — so that when we lift up our hands in supplication for wisdom and compassion, we’re not disrespecting the Other and focused on “Wisdom” as we conceive it and “Compassion” as we conceive it, as against those barbarians who don’t get it, but open to wisdom and compassion from unexpected sources, befitting a people who do not know any final truth, but profoundly respect every instance of sincerity in pursuit of truth.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        Yes, I can’t argue with that. But, I do wish for compassion and wisdom for barbarians as well. I can’t help it. Truly you don’t think that there aren’t any barbarians among us who’d be a bit more deserving of those two gifts?

        • Well, yes, I have my list of barbarians. Problem is, my list and your list likely overlap, but are most certainly not identical. That’s the problem. And that’s why we’re obliged to assume people behave in good faith unless they give us compelling evidence to the contrary.

  6. “Perhaps God was dealing with other matters for a few millennia.”
    😀

    I don’t know. Abraham, Mohammed, et. al were inspired when it was possible to record the messages they got. Maybe the ones before were inspired and did the word-of-mouth thing. Just because we have written accounts doesn’t mean the ones before didn’t get messages too. Maybe those messages were carved into the stone. Or maybe not. They could be saying, “I can show you where the best berries are for a small fee.”

    • You’re right. God may well have spoken to the pre-literate ancients, and we simply have no record of it. In fact, perhaps it was a God-speak that inspired the Gobleki Tepe temple. But God has been indisputably coy.

  7. John Myste says:

    But that would be a pointless God. Granted, a pointless God is possible, but hardly plausible. If God exists, He connects with human beings.

    Fallacy of Appeal to Consequence.

    • Not at all. I’m not trying to prove God exists by pointing to pleasant consequences of believing He exists. I’m suggesting that your conditional description of God makes no sense.

      • John Myste says:

        I did not imply that you were speaking to the existence of God, but rather to the nature of God. You say that if a God exists, He connects with human beings, else he would be a pointless God. Whether connecting with humans makes Him pointless has nothing to do with whether He connects with human beings or not. Perhaps He does exist, though I doubt it, and if so, perhaps He is pointless, from our perspective.

        As for my “conditional” description of God, I got it from the New Testament. I did not invent it.

        • Your conditional description of God: “If a God existed, he would be extremely inaccessible to humans and probably would lack interest.” Maybe you didn’t invent it — but that’s nowhere in the New Testament. To the stark contrary, the New Testament — both the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles — are very much about an immediate and engaged God.

          On the logic point, yes, a description of God that makes Him pointless undermines that description. Pointlessness is a God-deal-breaker. It’s not an incidental factor — like, maybe God has a purple birth mark. Or not. If God is pointless, God is not.

          • John Myste says:

            Your conditional description of God: “If a God existed, he would be extremely inaccessible to humans and probably would lack interest.” Maybe you didn’t invent it — but that’s nowhere in the New Testament. To the stark contrary, the New Testament — both the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles — are very much about an immediate and engaged God.

            Nor was any such claim made. The claim that I made was that Jesus was not given up or killed, but merely slept for a few days and that He was awake while he slept. That is in the New Testament. You are applying a statement about one think to a statement about another.

            On the logic point, yes, a description of God that makes Him pointless undermines that description. This is the fallacy of Appeal to Consequence I mentioned earlier. It is textbook.

            Pointlessness is a God-deal-breaker. Depends on the deal you imagine, sir. I do not believe any such deal exists.

            It’s not an incidental factor — like, maybe God has a purple birth mark. Or not. If God is pointless, God is not. I will pretend there is a reason to think God exists for the sake of the discussion. If God is pointless, which to you seems to be mean He does not interact with humanity, they He is “not,” which I assume means does not exist. I have made plenty of things in my life that I no longer interact with. Also, the idea that there is a divine being is not refuted by creation through evolution and the idea that God cares about our relatively unimportant lives does not refute the existence of God. I must assume that you also believe God interacts with the lives of toads as well, else God does not exist.

            You are making an assertion that you cannot know. The burden of proof is on your shoulders.

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