A man came to the caliph claiming to be a prophet, goes a 9th-century joke. "By
Allah, you are a stupid prophet!" exclaimed the caliph. "That," the prophet
replied, "is why I was sent to people like you." That God might send a stupid
prophet to a stupid people is one thing. But what if the prophet were sent by a
stupid god? Stupid is, as Forrest Gump said, as stupid does, and what I mean
specifically by stupid is not getting the joke.
To avoid confusion, I want to make clear that I do not believe in stupid gods,
but only in the one and unique God of the Bible. That is only a personal
opinion, though, and a commentator must be fair to the billions of people who
do in fact believe in stupid gods.
Isaiah (44:16 et Seq) has a stand-up theology routine about this: Man chops
wood, and "Half of it he burnt with fire, on half of it he ate meat, he roasted
a roast and became sated; he even warmed
himself and said, 'Aha, I am warm, I see fire.' And what is left over from it
he made for a god, for his graven image; he kneels to it and prostrates himself
and prays to it, and he says, 'Save me, for you are my god.'
Of course, we flatter ourselves that our idols are clever because they are not
made out of wood, but silicon, for example, the universally worshiped god
"Google", the new omniscient deity whose Mercury now is called "Gmail".
Google is a silly god, as borne out by the following true story. File this
under "You can't make this stuff up:" A reader has sent me a transcript of an
e-mail flirtation with a prospective paramour, in which cats - their
stretching, purring, whimsicality, and so on - serve as the obvious sort of
metaphor. After the exchange of several such messages, the god Google revealed
himself to the amorous correspondents by sending them push-ads for cat food,
cat-grooming products, cat enclosures, cat condos, cat acupuncture, pedigreed
kittens, and so forth. The cat conversation, of course, was a joke, and Google
did not get the joke. It is as if the Delphic Oracle had sent Oedipus a bunion
remover, or commended aluminum siding to the Athenians before Salamis. Just
like the Delphic Oracle, the great god Google has to make a living.
The god Google is not quite omniscient, but like Goethe's Mephistopheles, much
is known to him, for example, the contents of an Internet flirtation on
anonymous e-mail accounts. It is not that Google doesn't exist. We know
perfectly well that he exists. The trouble is that he is stupid in precisely
the way that the characters in the Naked Gun movies are stupid:
everything is taken literally. Literal language is a failure, and that is why
mankind communicates through metaphor. The Turing test for "strong" artificial
intelligence asks us to have a conversation with a computer, and see whether we
can distinguish its responses from those of a human interlocutor. Try telling
jokes to a group including a computer, and see if the computer laughs at the
In fact, there is a small but persistent body of research that purports to
teach jokes to computers. I suspect that the joke is in the effort, not the
computers, however. A Russian physicist named Suslov recently published a
monograph summarized as follows: "A computer model of a 'sense of humor' is
proposed. The humorous effect is interpreted as a specific malfunction in the
course of information processing due to the need for the rapid deletion of the
false version transmitted into consciousness. The biological function of a
sense of humor consists in speeding up the bringing of information into
consciousness and in fuller use of the resources of the brain." In this case,
Aristotle's self-referential problem, "is 'redness' red?" is a howling
affirmative: analysis of computer humor is hilarious.
Although this paper is cited straight-faced by technical publications, I think
it is a spoof and a hoax, for the jokes that Suslov wants his computer to get
are stock jokes, but transcribed in his article in a stand-up comic's stage
Russian accent. For example, Suslov quotes:
The marriage agent in the home of bride:
- You can judge by these things, how rich are these people.
- But cannot they borrow these things to produce an impression?
Oh, nuts! Who will trust even a thing to these people?
That is one of a large list of canonical Jewish matchmaker jokes. The
matchmaker tries to impress a prospective bridegroom with the value of the
bride's family silver. "What if they borrowed it for the occasion?" the
bridegroom asks. "Those thieves? No one would lend them so much as a teaspoon,"
the matchmaker replies. Think of Eddie Murphy made up in whiteface as an
elderly Jew in the barbershop at the end of the film Coming to America,
shouting, "Vat do you know from funny, you bastards?"
Intentionally (as I suspect) or not, the impression conveyed is of Jewish jokes
told by a Russian who does not get them. All the less should we doubt that the
Russian's computer will get the jokes. Nonetheless, I fell off my chair and
rolled on the floor for a bit while reading his treatise. The fact that
computers do not get jokes does not stop computer scientists from being
The gods are stupid because we make them in our own silly image. We do this not
because we are stupid - well, not necessarily - but because we are only capable
of thinking of a God that has something in common with us; if God had nothing
in common with us, how could we conceive of him? From that paradox comes the via
negativa, the negative path of philosophy, in which we think of God as
Wholly Other and restrict our attention to what God is not, rather than making
the futile effort to ascertain what he is.
But the via negativa, for all its lofty provenance from great
philosophers, has the terrible deficiency that we are not simply creatures of
the mind, but also of flesh and blood: we have emotions, and we are mortal, and
each day that takes us farther from the cradle and closer to the grave reminds
of us our fragility. We cannot be content in our own skin, whose
best-used-by-date is reached in late adolescence, and feel compelled to get out
of it. That is called falling in love.
The stupidity of the gods is inconvenient as a purely intellectual matter, but
falling in love with stupid gods takes us into another dimension of humiliation
altogether. We love what we comprehend. "Lust was given to the worm, while the
cherub stands before God," wrote Friedrich Schiller in a line emphasized by
Beethoven in the finale of the 9th Symphony. Everyone loves; the only question
is whom, and how.
Even the devil loves, according to his keenest observer, the great German poet
J W Goethe. That is significant, for if the devil can fall in love, a fortiori,
so can the rest of us. But the way in which the devil falls in love is
hilarious. Lust for prepubescent angels paralyzes the devil in the penultimate
scene of Goethe's Faust, as troops of angels and demons join battle over
the soul of the just-deceased protagonist. For my money it is the funniest as
well as the filthiest moment in the high literature of the West. A flight of
cherubim arrives to claim Faust's soul, scattering flower-petals which burn the
opposing devils like brimstone. Their chief Mephistopheles finds he cannot
curse, and that he is overwhelmed with desire for the boy angels. "My head, my
heart, my liver burn - a more-than-devilish element! That is why you moan so
monstrously, you unhappy lovers, who spurned, twist their necks to stare at
As lust overwhelms him, Mephistopheles remonstrates to one cherub, "You don't
need to make a face like a priest, and in all decency you could get more naked
- that long nightshirt you're wearing is an exaggeration. Oh, they're turning -
just look at them from behind! - the little rogues are much too appetizing!"
Love, Goethe shows, conquers all, but only according to the capacity of the
conquered to love. Evil is the absence of good, and the will towards evil seeks
to pervert the good. That is why the devil becomes a pathetic pedophile in
response to divine beauty.
Goethe wants us to laugh at the perverse old devil whose hatred cuts him off
from God, but who cannot help lusting after the cherubic exemplar of divine
beauty. Isaiah wants us to laugh at the pagan who fashions an idol out of the
wood left over from cooking his dinner. And if I may add my grain of sand in
such august company, I want you to laugh at the god Google. It is much easier,
though, to laugh at the wrong sort of love than to encounter the right sort.
We go looking for love in all the wrong places because it is terrifying to love
the God of the Bible. Simply to evoke this fear is to put the fear God into us,
as it were, and I found cold shivers shooting down my spine while reading the
new English translation of a 20th-century classic of Hebrew literature, From
There You Shall Seek, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Ktav Publishing:
New York 2008).
Divine love, we flatter ourselves, is a comforting thing, a warm emanation of a
beneficent presence in the universe. The Bible's lovely pastoral, the Song of
Songs, teaches us divine love by a sort of analogia amoris, an analogy
between the love between God and his congregation and the love of bridegroom
and bride. That this love is interlaced with fear and withdrawal is the central
theme of Soloveitchik's book. It is far beyond my competence to review it,
although I recommend it - with trepidation. It is not hard to grasp even from a
layman's reading why its author dominated the Modern Orthodox branch of Judaism
for decades as the Rav of Yeshiva University in New York.
All of us in some sense are unhappy lovers, even God's congregation in pursuit
of its union with God as in the Song of Songs, Soloveitchik argues.
The Song of Songs is not only an idyll but also a complaint, Soloveitchik
observes. The bride and bridegroom cannot be united. Despite their love which
is as strong as death, they hesitate or hide from each other at the crucial
moment. A few excerpts from Rabbi Soloveitchik's summary:
beautiful, my beloved, your eyes are doves," he sings (Song of Songs 1:15),
hidden among the ancient, glorious hills. He sees her, but cannot be seen. He
is very, very close to her, but also immeasurably distant ... their love cannot
be realized, their yearning cannot be fulfilled completely. But why? Why must
he flee from her at the moment that she pursues him? Why does he not look and
see that she is made with longing and yearning? ...
"Where has my beloved gone?" Her entire self pleads, "If you meet my beloved,
tell him this: that I am faint with loveĒ (Song 5:8). She sobs in her agony,
loneliness and suffering. Suddenly her lover appears from the obscurity of the
dark night, knocking on his dear one's door ... Nevertheless the beloved
refuses to rise from her bed and open the door to her lover (Song 5:3) ... Yet,
after a moment the beloved leaps off her bed, her hands dripping myrrh on the
handles of the bolt. She opens her abode to her lover .... The door opens - but
the lover is not there. "I rose to let in my beloved .... But my beloved had
turned and gone! (Song 5:5-6).
Soloveitchik's commentary on the
Song of Songs helps explain why Jewish literature has no interest in romance in
the usual sense of the word. One will ransack Jewish fiction without finding an
Isolde, a Juliet, an Anna Karenina or an Emma Bovary. The canonical Jewish joke
on the subject concerns an elderly Jewish couple. "Let's to go the theater!"
says Sadie. "I don't want to go to the theater," counters Abe. "It's boring."
"What do you mean, 'It's boring'?" Sadie protests. "Theaters are for
entertainment. Entertainment is the opposite of boring. If it was boring, why
would they have theaters?"
"I don't care," Abe replies. "It's boring."
"Why is it boring?"
Abe sighs and explains: "When he wants, she doesn't want. When she wants, he
doesn't want. And when they both want, it's over."
Like most Jewish jokes, this one works on several levels, but the truly
esoteric level might be this: the cosmic drama of divine love is infinitely
more absorbing than any earthly affair. The ruddy lad and the Shulamite maiden
search for each other, leaping across hills like a hart, and wandering the
streets of Jerusalem at night, but shun the moment of consummation. When he
wants, she doesn't want; when she wants, he doesn't want.
In the Christian reading of the Song of Songs, eg, in the sermons of St Bernard
of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the lover hides behind the lattice to gaze at the
beloved because love remains trapped in the body. The lattice, explains St
Bernard, represents corrupt and sinful flesh, in which love may dwell
imperfectly. Only when the soul sheds the body can it find true union with God.
Rabbi Soloveitchik's account, which draws on Jewish traditional sources, offers
less comfort: union with God would annihilate the soul, which draws back from
the divine presence, whereas as God himself must withdraw from the world in
order to allow creation to exist.
There is a reason that there are stupid gods who send stupid prophets to people
like us. We flatter ourselves with the stupid gods of our own creation, because
such gods are far more manageable than the terrifying, all-consuming love of
the God of Creation.