Indian Gods, American Gods

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 21 Oct 2008 07:49

On the menu of the restaurant at Green Hills Cottage is a little illustration of Laxshmi.

“You like Indian gods?” Amar asked me, as pursued the breakfast options.

“Um…sure,” I replied. “They’re interesting. But I don’t know many of the stories.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, and I’ve realized that, in fact, I do like the Indian gods. They are funny looking, they draw strange devotions, and they seem to crop up in the strangest places, but that makes them all the more endearing. In fact, I think I prefer them to the American gods.

In America, our relationship to our gods has two unique, contradictory characteristics: we don’t believe in them, and we take them extraordinarily seriously. There are two basic types of gods in America, and this is true of both of them.

The first type of god is God in the traditional, religious sense. In America, this sort of god is politely excluded from any kind of serious public discourse. The intention of this exclusion was to indicate that religious passions were too important, too personal and too holy to be sullied by engagement in the dirty affairs of everyday life. But the effect has been the eruption of a perception amongst many that religion is too unimportant, too fickle, and too abstract to have anything meaningful to say about the affairs of this world.

Unfortunately, many religious Americans have gone on to demonstrate this by living lives that are more or less identical across the boundaries of dogma. There are hundreds of religious paths to choose from in America, but what a person claims to believe tends to have little or no impact on how they live. Even for religious people, it seems that the “good life” is defined more by cultural values than spiritual ones. Such being the case, it is difficult to provide any sociological evidence to counter the argument that God is dead.

Nathaniel contemplates theology with his feet in the Ganges.
Nathaniel contemplates theology with his feet in the Ganges.

When questioned as to their motivation for continuing on their spiritual path, many can’t do much more than claim a higher degree of aesthetic or existential satisfaction than they would have without their faith. So religion has becomes a hobby amongst hobbies: an end pursued for personal fulfillment. A person is free to be serious about his religion, but that even that seriousness is something of a joke—it is no more meaningful than being passionate about chess or classical music.

The other type of god is the everyday god: the entities to whom we actively turn for our everyday provision. We say we do not believe in these gods. Indeed, we tell ourselves that they are not gods: we say they are only systems built by men, and as such, we can understand, influence, and control them. American mythology spends a lot of time and energy propagating the idea that each and every individual voice is heard, and all of these views are sagely taken into consideration when determining the best course of action.

But in fact, this is not the case. The juggernaut of the American system chugs steadily onward for its own reasons. It is so massive and so complicated that no one really understands it, and no one can really control it. Most people don’t like the direction it is moving in for one reason or another, but the reasons for its malfunction are so complex that no one can even agree on where to start.

Meanwhile, politicians who promise that only they can fix these problems share their insights with us in thirty-second commercial snippets. They implore us to write on little pieces of paper which of these two men we think to be Messiah, and then, when the dust clears, we have a new High Priest, who does things in ways only marginally different than all of his predecessors.

We say our national decisions are made by leaders in Washington DC we have the right to elect, but we may as well say that they are made by gods in heaven we have the right to petition. We say the Dow Jones is a measure of how well the economy is doing, we may as well say it is a measure of the favor our priests have earned with the god of wealth. It is only really a matter of semantics.

So I prefer the Indian gods. The Indian gods I can see; I can ponder them and laugh at them, because I know that, in the end, they are powerless. The American gods are invisible and fearful, for they control almost every important aspect of my life. The Indian gods are worshiped with complex, colorful, and beautiful rituals. American gods are worshiped through benign, everyday rituals, like balancing the checkbook, and paying taxes. The Indian gods live in elaborate mythologies that remind us that our lives are only partially in our control, and that the gods will have the last laugh. Our mythologies about American gods try to convince us that we are totally free and in complete control, which is simply not true.

Of course, to either American gods or Indian gods, I prefer the Lord Jesus Christ, Creator, Redeemer, and King of the Universe, to whom alone is due the truest and deepest worship. He is both the Liberator and the reason Liberation is meaningful. By His grace, I am free to respect and learn from the Indian gods, and see in them little fragments of the Gospel. And I pray that one day also I will be freed from the strong invisible shackles of the American gods, that they may be as small as the gods of India, subject also to the all-encompassing Lordship of Jesus Christ, transfigured in the light of His resurrection.

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