Thursday, December 12, 2013


I was fascinated to find the above Christmas shrine set up in one of the rooms at Norwich Central Baptist Church. Let me first say that this idealised kitschy display doesn't do a great deal for me. However, there is, in my opinion, much latitude in how people can express their faith; this kind of reification of cherished religious scenes is only human.

Now, here's an interesting hypothetical: Imagine  NCBC becoming an archaeological site many years into the future. Imagine that the archaeologists have come to the conclusion that the site of NCBC was a place of "ritualistic" significance. If with this conclusion in front of them our archaeologists dig up the above statuettes (which by then are likely to have lost their relation to one another) they might conclude that they have in their hands the deities worshipped at NCBC; a very  natural and understandable conclusion, but it's wrong, of course. 

History may be far less straightforward than archaeology (and even documents) can tell. These figurines are, in fact, not idols but symbols representing cherished ideas about God. The lesson is this: When interpreting the signals we receive from history, the data can be ambiguous and we must be careful how we interpret those signals. 

When Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia talks about the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten's attitude to the "Sun God" (or the "Aten") we find that we cannot accuse Akhenaten of Sun Worship, any more than NCBC could be accused of worshipping porcelain deities. As Ward says:

The Solar monotheism of the Hymn to the Sun seems better, in one way, Lewis argues, than the primitive Judaism we find in the early books of the Old Testament, but it does not follow that 'Akhenatenism' would have been a better  first step in the history of divine revelation. Akhenaten was astonishingly advanced; he did not identify God with the Sun in a strictly heliolatrous way but understood the visible disc as a divine manifestation. This early Egyptian religion, 'a simple, enlightened, reasonable Monotheism,' looks much more like developed Christianity, from one perspective, than those first documents of Judaism in which Yahweh appears to be little more than a peculiar tribal deity.

Our archaeologists would probably be a bit puzzled by the presence of a porcelain baby. If they are so far into the future that our times have become merged with the societies of the agricultural revolution as a whole they might think that this figure has sacrificial significance. In the sense they are likely to picture this sacrifice taking place this would be wrong, of course; but it is ironic that in another sense they would be close to a shocking truth!

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