Most talk about God is childishly anthropomorphic: God is pretty much like us, except that he is immortal, omniscient, etc. This lends credence to the facile Freudian idea that God the father is just a projection of one’s real father. The semi-facetious denunciation of patriarchy as phallogocentric expresses the anthropological truth of Freudianism: as a Lacano-Derridean might put it, the logos supplements the absence of the phallus. But seeking God through sexual difference maintains the naive fiction that since we can understand the sacred only in human terms, we must seek it within the limits of individual experience.
A current example of the persistence of religious anthropomorphism is Jack Miles‘ God: A Biography, which was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize in its category. I will always be grateful to Miles, who as a former editor at the University of California Press was not only instrumental in publishing The Origin of Language and its sequel The End of Culture, but devised the term generative anthropology for what I had intended to qualify by the Gallicism “genetic.” Miles’s own picture of God is generative enough, but his model, neither originary anthropology nor psychoanalysis, is that of developmental psychology: God, like us, learns from experience. Perhaps there is no simpler way of understanding the emergence within the Judeo-Christian tradition of the understanding of mimetic desire that Girard refers to as things hidden since the foundation of the world. But this is hardly minimal thinking in our sense of the term. If we attribute to God a human psychology from the outset, we will never understand the emergence in the world of either God or humanity.
The most telling critique of the naive attitude toward God is that it fails to examine his role as subject of language. The Bible tells us that God created the world with words. The anthropomorphic vision of God is advanced to a higher level when God is no longer merely the object of the biographical narrative but its subject as well. To tell God’s story in Miles’s sense is to subordinate one’s own discourse to a sacred text, the divine provenance of which is accepted on faith.
But how do we know what it means to be, like God, the subject of a discourse of creation? As Gustave Flaubert wrote at the age of fourteen in the epilogue to an early story: “Ecrire! oh! écrire, c’est s’emparer du monde, de ses préjugés, de ses vertus et le résumer dans un livre… [to write is to take hold of the world, its prejudices, its virtues and sum it all up in a book]”; and in a more famous passage from a letter of March 1857, “L’artiste doit être dans son oeuvre comme Dieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant[;] qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’on ne le voie pas [The artist must be in his work like God in creation, invisible and omnipotent; we should feel him everywhere, but not see him].” Which is to say that in the nineteenth century, perhaps even today, the most culturally powerful way to model the discursive creativity of God is to write a novel.
Novels are not normally about God; but that is just the point. If all we can know about God is anthropomorphic, then the way to know him best is to choose humanity as the subject of our story. The novelist creates a world through language. His experience tells us much about the possibilities of the Being whom we understand as having created humanity through language.
In the first place, it tells us about the limits imposed by narrative form. One might think that the interest of telling a good story is irrelevant to the ontology of creation through discourse. But culture is one. The Being that stands behind the originary sign also stands behind the cultural elaboration of this sign. If a novel is esthetically satisfying to us, its discourse must fulfill the same function as the sign, the deferral of violence. The novel must contain within itself the paradoxical self-generation of the originary scene–it must give esthetic pleasure. The only difference is that in the novel, as in any artwork, the esthetic oscillation between sign and imaginary reality must maintain itself on its own, in the absence of even ritualized violence. Literary discourse must create an imaginary world within which the internalized conflict we call resentment is deferred. This is Aristotle‘s catharsis of the passions.
There are those naive enough to consider the existence of evil as proof of God’s nonexistence. Events like the Lisbon earthquake in the 18th century and the Holocaust fifty years ago have provoked such thoughts; Woody Allen‘s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, as I pointed out in a recent column, suggests that Allen has been traumatized by it. But the mature view is that evil is part of a plan whose benevolence we must take on faith since it transcends our power of understanding.
Our best model for God’s understanding of human history is the storyteller’s understanding of his story. Although the relationship between an unknowable transcendent plan and its worldly implementation derives from that between signs and objects in general, it is more closely modeled by the relationship between a story’s author and its characters. The characters cannot know the outcome that the author knows from the outset because they exist respectively on the different levels of content and form. The homology between God’s creation and the novelist’s is neither miraculous nor fortuitous; it brings together two types of cultural agency made possible by the originary emergence of the sign. The strength of originary thinking is that it is able to reveal the central unity behind this and other cultural homologies.
The nineteenth-century novel in particular incarnates an ambition to provide a “total” picture of its time. This vision of the novel is most closely associated with Honoré de Balzac; but Balzac’s decision to include all his major works in a single Comédie Humaine reflects the discovery that although the novel in general terms was a model of the creation, a single novel structured by an individual human biography could not accomplish this task. Another French writer, Marcel Proust, found both the solution and the reductio ad absurdum of this conundrum by combining the subject of the novel with its object: the content of Proust’s unique novel A la recherche du temps perdu generates its formal subject. The novel is, in short, God’s autobiography. Miles could not follow this model because no sacred text, let alone the Bible, could have furnished his material; the only examples are literary. But we can read every other novel in the light of Proust’s unique experiment.
Proust’s self-generating novel, as his critics love to point out, doesn’t really generate itself at all, since the protagonist as novelist cannot be shown, only told about. But this shows us the relationship between the novel’s temporality and its constitution of the creative subject. When we talk about God anthropomorphically, we understand his motivations in terms of local human time, since for him to interact with us, he must operate within our temporal limitations even if his own understanding and capacity for action are instantaneous. (Similarly, Superman can only communicate with the inhabitants of Metropolis if he slows down to their speed.) But we have no simple anthropomorphic idea of the spiritual component of God’s time, what Heidegger referred to under the rubric of Ekstasis, our projection of ourselves in time. The horizon of our action lies beyond the immediate moment in which we act; even the present as present for us is a projection. This is a structure of transcendence that language makes possible. The practical use of Plato’s Ideas, emphasized in Aristotle’s Forms, is in our projects of creation. The mental Form of a chair is the basis from which I construct a chair out of “formless” matter.
But God does not experience the temporality of human praxis; he can produce all the chairs he likes in no time at all. How then can we understand the project that presides over God’s otherwise incomprehensible acts? Proust’s novel suggests that God’s purpose is his own revelation in human time, that is, the constitution in human time of the divine subject. The totalizing project of A la recherche is no less than the acquisition of immortality, the recuperation of every second lost in living within the timeless universe of meaning. If its necessary incompleteness testifies to our inability to create a perfect model of divine consciousness, the explicit nature of its quest for transcendence makes our esthetic pleasure in its achievement a model of the act of faith in God. For the difference between believer and nonbeliever is no more than the decision to attribute to God as reality the perfection that we can experience only as the horizon of our action. The believer begs the question of Anselm‘s ontological proof that the most perfect being must possess the “perfection” of existence.
Whether or not we believe in God’s existence, we cannot expect to experience the foundations of this existence in worldly terms more convincingly than in the novel. For originary thinking, theology is vanishingly close to anthropology: when literature talks about the human, it is also talking about God.