From 1508-1512, the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo worked painstakingly on his most famous work of art.
Applied directly to the wet plaster in the ceiling, The Creation of Adam forms just one small, though prominent, rectangular portion of the kaleidoscopic series of paintings and figures with which Michelangelo covered the entire hundred-foot ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Working on top of scaffolding three stories above the floor, his head painfully craned upwards for hours at a time and with wet paint dripping down on him constantly, the work of art Michelangelo produced represented nothing less than a metaphor for the tough and exhausting process of creation itself.
Man creates God creating Man.
And perhaps, to go back a layer further -- God created a man, who now creates God creating Man. The line between creator and created begins to break down, and in this morass lies Michelangelo’s great genius of insight -- to provoke that ancient question of whether man, by our more nobler nature, can attain the essence of the divine, or whether our mortal coils do restrict us from doing so.
A third question lurks in the particular way he portrayed God -- Michelangelo surrounds Him with a flowing drapery that curiously resembles the brain. A student of human anatomy, Michelangelo, historians of art tell us, almost certainly had performed the dissections necessary to understand the physical shape and form of the brain. The superficial similarities are almost positively an effort on the artist’s part to evoke that most intellectual organ.
Here then is the question it raises, and it is profound: by this imagery, did Michelangelo mean to suggest God himself to be but a figment of human imagination?
My, what an incisive and penetrating intellect to hint at such profound questions in an age steeped in religiosity, no matter how tempered by growing celebration of rationality and humanity...
But alas, the intrigue here likely falls flat.
Michelangelo, we know, remained a devout Catholic all his life. More probably he tried to invoke that notion that the divine is in us, and if that divine nature is to be found anywhere, it is in the mind. Possible atheistic interpretations amount to anachronistic constructs made only recently in our own time of growing secularism.
But regardless of intent, there is something fascinating about the impulse to encase god in a brain-like shape. There exists something deeply hubristic and heretical about a literal surrounding and encapsulating of God within the brain. It implies the more abstract idea that we in some way control Him, capture Him, or even supercede Him.
God creates man creates god.
Or maybe man created the story that God created man.
Or maybe God created man, but with the ability to achieve the divine.
Perhaps this whole paradoxical tangle implies the two are somehow inseparable, arising as two sides of the same coin, or two threads intertwined. The whole pursuit to discover where one ends and the other begins a misperceiving that they cannot be separated at all.
To push you, however vaguely, in the direction of resolution, let me take you back two centuries before the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was so elegantly covered, to the greatest Christian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. As he understood it, there are two forms of knowledge. Laws and principles of normal human thought can be built up through reason. We can learn about the world, study science, and create logical proofs. All this he deemed ‘philosophy.’ But he claimed there to be a second form of knowledge, which was truth, ascertained not through philosophy but ‘theology.’ These truths were not products of reason, but of divine revelation alone.
What exactly constitutes revelation, is less clear.
But think, nevertheless, of this: If we return to our present hour, to our own era of growing agnosticism and secular spirituality, unobscured by the mythic and looming figure of “God,” and if we look clearly at ourselves and our beliefs, I wonder if at a certain point we can no longer separate “reason” and “revelation,” or “God” and “man” and find that the whole idea that they are even divided requires as much faith in the spite of facts than any separate god figure ever did.
Perhaps this separation of reality into part man and part god is the origin of religion itself. And given that humans tend to have faith in those things that quell their fear, one can only wonder what great leviathan lurks in the abyss of the human psyche to create the faith necessary for such a momentous division.
Perhaps the inevitable unification of God and man is what Michelangelo painstakingly invested four years of his hard work to portend to us through the almost-but-not-quite touching fingers of God and Adam.
Or perhaps, rather, I’ve gotten myself lost in Biblical fairy tales again.
How easily, as if by the devil's magic, our delusions can possess us.
Perhaps these delusions make us sinful human and separate us from the divine; perhaps they are divinity itself.
It’s worth pondering, either way.
Never forget that you’re the one who needs to sort it all out.