The Devil’s in the details

1 01 2012

There’s a Kabbalistic idea that God has both a male essence and a female essence. The female essence is called “Shechina”. Near the back of some Reform prayerbook or another in the “Prayers and Psalms for Other Occasions That You’ll Probably Need” section, I once came across a silent prayer which was all about Her. Shechina. It was a spinoff of the “Avinu Malkeinu” where instead of beginning Avinu, Malkeinu, “our Father, our King,” every line began with “Our Mother, Our Protector” or something like that. Each line had been rewritten from a female lens, so that the prayer was sort of a female mirror, a yin-and-yang companion to the “Avinu Malkeinu” – instead of “Our Father, Our King, give us strength and deliver us,” it was like “Our Mother, Our Protector, bring us inner peace and teach us how to choose the right path.” Stuff like that.

I thought that was a really cool idea when I saw it, but I’ve never been able to picture God as a girl, just because of simple lack of imagination. We are made in God’s image. I am a boy, so I see myself in God’s image. Kind of like how as a boy, most of my stuffed animals as a kid tended to get dude names as well. Make sense? Maybe it doesn’t.

But the point is, just now I had an interesting thought that challenged my way of imagining God as a male. This is sort of how it happened.

I’m reading The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and they make a foreshadowy joke about some chick (a mistress of Alexandre Dumas’) being really good in bed while she’s possessed by the Devil. I say foreshadowy because I’ve seen the movie based on the book, “The Ninth Gate” directed by Roman Polanski, and there’s a really memorable scene near the end of the movie (and presumably the book too) where the main character, played by Johnny Depp, has sex with his creepy protectress/demonic guardian angel, a blonde femme fatale with dragon-like green eyes that glow maniacally as she fucks him in front of a burning castle. Hottest straight sex scene ever. But I digress. Near the end of the movie (and this is why I’m stoked to read the book) the narrative dissolves into weird, unclear, very speculatable twists and turns that dump you out to the denouement a little too fast and leave a lot of things unexplained. One of these unexplained things is the sex scene, and when I got to that line in the book I was like “Oh. So she was possessed by the Devil.” After which, being about as mature as a 15-year-old boy, I immediately thought, “Hah. It’s like he had sex with the Devil. Kind of gay.”

Except is the Devil male?

This instantly (and I mean instantly) bloomed into a full-on pro-and-con list in my mind. What is feminine about the master of all evil, and what is masculine? You can start with symbolism, a list which looks something like this.

FEMININE: Eve. Temptress. Garden of Eden. Delilah. Femme fatale.

MASCULINE: Fallen angel. Lucifer. King of Hell. Red man with horns.

But the lists quickly got longer and more complicated. I thought to myself: could the source of all evil be masculine or feminine? The answer, of course, is no. Women, with their backstabbing and judgments and passive-agression and cunning and command of lies and mind tricks, have such style that a male Lord of the Flies could never truly be said to know everything about evil. But women are also life-givers, evil though they may sometimes be. War, maybe the ultimate evil, is inherently male. There is a certain brand of cruelty – the cruelty of dominance-asserting torture, of beating people up and stealing their lunch money and faking the basketball at them so that they flinch – that is 100% male. The Whore of Babylon may have been a home-wrecker, and she may have murdered an ex-husband here or there. But Attila she wasn’t.

So, I suddenly saw with blatant clarity how an embodiment of all evil, the “Devil”, could be a sort of two-faced being, a male avatar and a female avatar both at once. And suddenly it made sense that God could be the same way.

And my mind jumped to how these two images of God could be constructed. But where my mind had fountained with examples of male evil and female evil, I started to think about quintessential male goodness and quintessential female goodness and…



Maybe thinking about evil makes it hard for a moment to switch tack. Because given a moment I could of course come up with a list: mother and care-giver as opposed to righteous and honest, et cetera. But the hesitation to me was just as interesting the answers, and I wanted to end this thought by mentioning it.

Why is it so much easier to define people in terms of the bad than the good? Why are bad things just more memorable? Maybe it’s because a character is defined by flaws. Funny, isn’t it. God protects and nourishes us all that, but it’s in terms of the Devil that we are… us. The Devil is in the details.


3 11 2011

In my astronomy class we talked about the lives of stars today. Of course, we humans are so egocentric that any mention of this eternal, impartial cosmic phenomenon contains some sort of discussion about What Will Happen When The Sun Goes Out. God, we’re so egocentric that to even try to talk about stars’ lives without having the Sun discussion seems ridiculous, like there’s an elephant in the room.

But I digress. The term “goes out” is misleading, because actually the sun will probably turn into a red giant star, engulfing the first two planets of our solar system and turning the Earth into a barren, boiling wasteland long before it blows up and the party’s over.

We also learned about the birth of stars today. In the cloud of dust and gas that radiates from a supernova, sometimes a nebula coalesces, and sometimes within that nebula, a speck of dust swirls into the weight of its own gravity and slowly begins to heat – and another star is born. Like a phoenix, a new solar system rises from the ashes of an old one. Just like people, stars are born, stars die.

That idea, it seems, should give me some sort of comfort: the universe is cyclical, a ring of interlinked endings and beginnings, just like human life. But the point of this post is that oddly enough, it doesn’t. Because actually it’s not like human life at all. There are trillions of planets in the endless cold sky, and as far as we know not one of them has even the slightest basic similarity to this balmy cocoon we call Earth. I believe that there must be other life out there, but what if there isn’t? And what if we never find it in time? When I imagine the end of our solar system I can’t help but see it as a death from which there comes no rebirth. Because when you think of all the infinitely perfect chances that have allowed life on Earth to develop as it has – the impossible chance of there being wonderful sweet liquid water here; the insanely timed spark of protobiotic energy that somehow made a single carbon molecule suddenly decide to start flopping around trying to survive – it’s like, how could this ever happen again? How could this ever come again?

This is our one shot. Our solar system could die and reform a million times and none of these million future solar systems, each one lasting for billions of years, would ever support life again. To return to square one, to ground 0, and be faced with the impossible odds that another living planet could ever be created again: the prospect seems hopeless. Because all of those future solar systems would be nothing without life. What value does the emptiness have, if there is no human heart to wonder what lies within it?

During class today I brought my laptop and it proved to be extremely distracting; namely, I spent half the lecture reading the entire Wikipedia page for Iceland. Don’t ask me why. I sort of have a crush on the Icelandic language and the whim developed from there. But the point is, even one tiny treeless island in the frozen northern regions of our world can be the cradle for a complex and beautiful language, and one and a half thousand years of history, and a literature, and unique national sports and singer/songwriters who perform in Reykjavik cafés and a national healthcare system and a mythology full of trolls and elves who lurk beneath the glaciers and dubbed versions of every Disney movie ever made and the list goes on and on.

Why do the happenings of outer space enthrall us so, when an island can be an entire universe? Not that I don’t find astronomy interesting, just… a little bit terrifying. I don’t think I could ever devote my life to astronomy. Because without life, what’s the point? To cast your imagination into a vast and lifeless universe always and forever must bring about an existential crisis sometime.

Sometimes I imagine what went through God’s head while he created the universe. I used to believe in a very friendly, very sentient God when I was a little kid. My muddled adult faith doesn’t revisit that idea so much anymore, but sometimes I still do. I figure that belief in God is a willful submission to faith in something unproven; if you’re going to invest yourself in something that exists only in the imagination, why imagine it half-heartedly?

In this particular Bible of my head, God is very anthropomorphic indeed and specifically, he only has so big of an attention span. When God created the first atom he must have just spent millions of years basking in how brilliant that was, just watching electrons and neutrinos float about in a perfect clockwork like a kid admiring his Lego set, thinking, “Well, there it is, I created the Universe”. But then one day he got bored and suddenly – hey wait! What if there was this thing called gravity, and it allowed all these atoms to collapse in on each other, and when they got all excited and jittery because of that energy – heat! And once a few stars had formed, which must have seemed like the coolest thing ever and impossible to one-up, then God had another idea – what if these atoms can be combined into more than one substance? No, there can’t be more than one element… but what if there could? And then there was, and what a humdinger of an idea!

And thus I imagine how many eons of background must have gone into creating a universe so infinitesmal and detailed that these stars can create 117 elements, and these elements can combine on lovely little beads of fire or water floating through space, and that on these beads, Life can exist. When suddenly one day God got the idea for life, it must have been just the greatest idea ever but also about the umpteenth time he thought he wouldn’t be able to one-up himself.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic (ironic considering how often fantasy is black-listed by the conservative Church), believed that Man being created “in God’s own image” is merely a reference to the fact that we alone among all creatures make up and write stories. Just as God created the universe, we create universes of our own, and for that reason we are like God. So I think that’s the basis of how I imagine God: simply a great Cosmic Imagination. My God is only sentient because to imagine the beginnings of the universe, I must also imagine a sentient consciousness who witnesses it.

Sometimes it’s also fun to imagine how God must be different from us. For instance, color. When you project a beautiful HD image of a fiery rainbow nebula onto a projection screen, it’s funny to remember that it has nothing to do with the real thing. As far as I understand it, photography of objects in space is achieved through roundabout methods of capturing light that have little or nothing to do with the human eye. Color means nothing in the lightless vacuum of space.

I wonder what God would think if he paid enough attention to the world to notice these people called astronomers, who look at the beauty of these images and claim to love the cosmos. Hah! How could humans love what we will never understand as God does? A nebula’s heat, its sparkling diffusion of gas, and its inevitable turning gravity like a clock that never stops! And here we humans take it and transpose upon it simple, basically human ideas – ideas that mean nothing to the rest of the universe – in order to call it beautiful. Color. It’s so silly. We do not understand what’s beautiful about a nebula. A nebula is God’s child from another mother than Earth, a distant cousin to us only. Our eyes, our brilliant human eyes, are designed, specialized to see the colors of fjords and glaciers like the ones in Iceland. Not to process something as unreachable as a nebula.

No, I could never be an astronomer. I hope that one day we find life on other planets, but until then, it seems like an uphill battle to devote ourselves to anything other than the beautiful madness of life on our own. I guess can see how to a certain type of well-adjusted, unsentimental person, learning about star cycles and the death of our own Sun can be simple. To endure the emptiness, that’s one thing. But to love the emptiness – that’s something else altogether.