What Lion Man made me realise about our human beliefs
Lion Man, on display in the British Museum's Living Gods exhibition, is 40,000 years old. Credit: Ulmer Museum

To me, God is a bit like a conceptual artist. Like Tracy Emin et al., I’m glad he’s around, but I’m not sure I’d miss him were he to vanish without trace. His installations can be amusing and even enlightening, but when they interfere in politics, I remember, quickly, how much I resent their subsidy. In fact, I’m not particularly surprised he’s disappearing from public discourse and newspapers, as Melanie McDonagh laments.

To me, God is a bit like a conceptual artist. Like Tracy Emin et al.

But should he be pensioned off, as the uber-rationalists and the “Oh why do we have any faith schools at all” brigade would wish? And not only because: “Let’s close down CofE and Jewish and Hindu and Sikh schools, because Trojan Horse” is the best example of displacement theory known to man.

I think there is an argument to be made about God’s utility, quite beyond any religious argument. This is from the British Museum’s current exhibition about God 1:

Seeing how people believe, rather than considering what they believe, suggests that humans might be naturally inclined to believe in transcendent worlds and beings … This in turn helps to make our lives well-ordered and understandable.

It’s not that we don’t know about the dust to which we’ll return; of course we do. It’s not that we can’t accept we’re just random bits of genetic material, clinging to a rock that’s roaring through space around one of the vanishingly rare points of light dotted throughout the cosmos.

It’s just that to maintain good mental health we require a myth that’s bigger than the quotidian, and eradicating that myth would be as wicked as the burning of any other work of fiction (in fiction lies the truth; the grand human irony).

The exhibition … begins with a remarkable 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory sculpture known as the Lion Man. Depicting a lion’s upper body on the lower half of a man, it is the oldest known image of a being that does not exist in nature. It is the earliest evidence we have of beliefs and practices, and shows humans’ unique ability to communicate what’s in our minds through objects.

OK, but before we give God a free pass: what about the people who didn’t believe in Lion Man? Were they free to say “While I’m engaged with the method by which you’ve turned fear of the long, dark night into an object that is powerful in its unearthly beauty, that doesn’t mean I have to worship Lion People, does it?” Or did they just smile, and nod their heads, avoiding eye contact.

Because the needs of the people who’d look at Lion Man and raise their eyebrows matter too. No faith-based assertion, by definition unprovable, should block the harmless desires of human beings. Some specific examples: practice your fundamental Christianity, sure, but don’t take a job as a registrar of marriage and get on your high horse when a same-sex couple turn up at the town hall. Follow whichever branch of Islam is your family’s heritage, but don’t dare forbid the rest of us from discussing its ideological consequences.

Religious literacy should be a language which holds up Lion Man for inspection, describes his beauty and the consequences of accepting him as guide
Religious literacy should be a language which holds up Lion Man for inspection, describes his beauty and the consequences of accepting him as guide — but which waits to be asked before chiseling his iconography onto the carapace each of us wears to survive.

None of our carapaces is blank, and not only priests wish to carve their laws upon them. Sometimes I catch sight of demons: only from the corner of my eye, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

They grow stronger when we turn our back on the Good life. As Lion Man was an approximation to God, so God (it seems to me) is an approximation to the Good. Good is necessary, and real; as real as orange, as real as a circle, as real as the number ten — none of which you can touch — and it’s up to you if you wish to remove one of the “o”s and imbue that yearning for the unknowable-but-necessary with a personality, a back-story and a set of rules which combine the wonderful with the ridiculous.

It’s not the statues of Lion Man we need, or the rules invented by his priests about the appropriate forms of Lion Man worship. It’s our capacity to create meaning from nothing that matters; that Lion Man occurred to anyone is the miracle, and proof that the Good exists. Let there be light, we whisper in the night, in the dark. Nobody listens, and the universe doesn’t care. And yet: there is light.

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