The Amazing, Stretchable, Shrinkable God
ODU 2017 English Department Undergraduate Literary Essay Contest: 2nd Place Winner
Trailing off of the Enlightenment, when American thought concerned itself with matters of reason, equity, and which strategy for nation-building was coming into vogue, the young artistic tradition of the United States saw an upheaval. The heady days of humanist idealism and republican Federalism no longer captivated and entranced poets and fictionists. Instead, they spearheaded a backlash, opting for a contemplative examination of the natural and supernatural worlds. The gilded tendrils of the Age of Reason left a lingering impression, however, and American writers seemed unwilling or unable to give themselves back over to the modal thinking of Puritan discourse with regard to the divine. Instead of a slavish devotion to the Almighty, they embarked on a new course of godliness – one which reinforced the unknowability of God while disavowing the notion of a prescriptive deity that commanded them like chattel. While some may not have written about such matters openly, the effect of the new American spiritualism is seen clearly in their texts. To wit, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw a diminished influence over American thought without disappearing outright.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson conceptualized the new American faith, he saw it as a retreat from the dogma of the old world and the old God. Embracing God as found in the tracks and moors of nature, he established a stark contrast between his own writings and that of the Puritans that preceded him. He saw in nature a transcendent majesty that would gift him with the insight to see the world for all it was and all it could be. In his essay “Nature,” he believes that as man is a part of the natural world, and as the natural world is a reflection of the stunning and liminal boundary between the realm of man and the kingdom of the divine, man must then be an expression of God, unique and powerful. To illustrate his views on the marriage of man and God through the sacrament of the wood, Emerson writes, “We can foresee God in the coarse and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us…” (237). He sees God, and by extension man, as intimately entwined in physical and spiritual union, but the ragged words and rhetoric we employ to suffuse our lives with meaning and symbolism is insufficient for understanding and clarity. Ritual cannot nurture faith, it is merely palliative. In addition, his use of style suggests a less formal relationship with his creator, taking pains not to capitalize “himself” when referring to God – which remains capitalized as a proper noun – putting Emerson and Jehovah on equal footing. He harkens back to seeing God as ancient people did: an imperfect being with mortal motivations and machinations.
Imperfections in humans can be and have been suffered since our inception as a race, and for millennia we have explained imperfection as a deliberate choice on the part of God to humble us and remind us of our place in the world. With a shifting view of God, however, toward reverence as a natural and human experience, Romantic authors cultivated an evolving sense of human fallibility. Nathaniel Hawthorne explored the ramifications of an imperfect divine in his short story “The Birth-Mark,” a tragic romance about the hubris of the scientific domain and the supernatural and proper respect for flaw as natural. If we take it that the natural world is as close to God as man can be, as Hawthorne did, he reinforces the point of view that God too must be imperfect. Alluding the titular birth-mark, he explains, “It was the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain” (Hawthorne 419). Every plant and animal is imperfect, and organic growth only compounds the possible permutations of flaws. Organic growth, spurred by need of a thing, which is based in a lack of another thing, is the natural progression of Earth-bound lives. And as we are rooted in nature, which is rooted in God, then God as a being must be imperfect, as anything that sprang from a perfect creator would have to be perfect. The alternative perspective suggests that God must be perfect, and so nature must be perfect, and so man must be perfect. But man is nowhere approaching perfect, so we can accept the original claim. Either way, the notion of God as imperfect or of Man as perfect is a far cry from the God-fearing beliefs of Wigglesworth and Mather. It allows us to question other institutions of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
The institution of marriage, for instance, was and still is predominantly emblematic of religious significance to one’s husband or wife. On the heels of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Conference, Sara Willis penned a brief work of fiction under the name Fanny Fern in 1853. The piece was entitled “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” and expressed a dim view of marriage during the First-Wave of Feminism. Fern used the work to highlight the inequality inherent in the exclusion of women from the public sphere, confined to the private sphere of home and hearth, and concludes the text with exasperation: “I’ll warrant every one of you’ll try it the first chance you get; for, somehow, there’s a sort of bewitchment about it” (908). She at once decries the woman’s willingness to buy into the establishment practice and admits that there is something appealing about the whole affair. In contrast to pre-Enlightenment thought, Fern’s opinions border on sacrilege, and would have marked her as being without Grace in 17th Century New England. The confluence of novelty regarding God and his will extend beyond the writings of theologians and philosophers into the marriage bed, challenging the Letter of the gospel in favor of the Spirit of the law. When all is said and done, however, despite the heresies of the American Romantic movement, the idea of God on high would persist, albeit with a different tone.
Amidst a sea of novels and essays, the anatomical work Moby Dick presents a master-class in divinity. Enshrining knowledge and wisdom from years of study and obsession, Herman Melville’s enduring tale is, truly, about everything. The sublime as a religious, transcendent experience is explored in exhaustive detail, but even with the author’s focus on the Romantic aspects of creation, he takes the time and effort to demonstrate the hubris of the All Father on Earth as it is in Heaven. Late in the narrative, the First Officer of the whaling ship Pequod is pleading with his Captain to turn back, to let the white whale loose from his mind, to no avail: “Ahab seized a loaded musket from the rack […] and pointing it toward Starbuck, exclaimed: ‘There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod’” (Melville 362). His comparison spells out a direct connection between imperious rule and disaster as the Pequod is savaged by the awesome destructive capacity of nature’s imperfect avatar. God, as he was once conceived, cannot survive on the lip-service of a disenfranchised congregation. For God to continue to exist and to remain relevant, he must have the full-throated support of the world. Without it, his kingdom will dwindle, forcing the leaders of his church to grasp at the faithful that remain with an ever-tighter grip, until they have all been strangled. Yet the shipwreck that is his faith will linger, floating atop the waves of the vast Atlantic, until finally they sink to the bottom of the ocean or drift apart to new frontiers, seeding new beliefs like airborne soda bottles.
In the Romantic zeitgeist, however, there is no place for the Abrahamic God. He has no sway over the mortal souls of those who have turned their attentions from a divine and supernatural light toward the incandescent warmth of the God within themselves. He cannot withstand the scrutiny that comes at the intersection of empiricism and the transcendent. His legs do not support the weight of his own hegemon, letting crumble and fall the ancient customs and traditions that have ensured obedience for eons. And his might and authority may, like Ahab, prove to be his undoing, for men in power fear the loss of their power more than anything. And yet, the idea of a monolithic God will persist. The influence we allow it over our day-to-day lives will wax and wane as it always has, and in time the One-True God may experience a resurgence, somehow. But he will not recognize the world he rules over, and the world will not recognize him. He will need a new face, a new narrative. For the Romantics and those that succeeded them, there are too many plot holes in the tetragrammaton, and we have begun to demand more humanity and more humility from our deities.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Eighth Edition Vol. B, edited by Nina Baym, W.W Norton & Company, 2012, 214-243.
Fern, Fanny. “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Eighth Edition Vol. B, edited by Nina Baym, W.W Norton & Company, 2012, 907-908.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Eighth Edition Vol. B, edited by Nina Baym, W.W Norton & Company, 2012, 418-429.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.