God and His Bureaucrats
Several years ago now, I found myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them. Although I knew Christian believers in that group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local religion.
We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him. He was very passionate about our topic of discussion. He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up. Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.
He spoke thus:
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do (slam) believe in God. But we also (slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”
This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being. They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.
This view is also reflected in the governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces. Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families. It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.
My pagan friend went on,
“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”
His point was that showing disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring God.
Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.
This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.
Local Religions Ground but also Divide
I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this. You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.
United by One God
I could probably write another 1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it. So instead, listen to the words of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan philosophers:
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
(You wouldn’t think “He determined the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)
“God did this so that people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”
(By the way, notice how he alludes to the wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the Creator.)
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”
Acts 17:22 – 31