Why Is God Always Depicted As A White Man? A Speculative Essay
Thank you for the question: Why is God always depicted as a white man?
Though you did not specify, I will assume we are talking about the Christian context. I take the picture you used, in your question, to be a representation of Jesus Christ. It is important to be clear on that from the start because we are talking about Christianity, as used as an identity-shaping force, as religion has always used (in one of its facets) to begin to group people together as THEM and US.
Now, what follows, though, is highly speculative. I might be wrong, but here's what I have come up with. What follows is something of an exercise in the philosophy of history. Anyway, let's get started.
Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) was an African-American entertainer (part of the whole tuxedo-clad 'Rat Pack' gang with Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra). He was Jewish by faith, having converted from the Catholicism of his upbringing, in 1961, according to Wikipedia (1).
Here's the point: Mr. Davis was Jewish (by faith) but there was a certain way that he would never and could never really be a Jew.
His situation is, of course, to be distinguished from that of the Ethiopian Jews. They are not simply Ethiopians who happen to also be of the Jewish faith. No, for them, their Jew-ness is intrinsic to who they are as a people; they consider it literally embedded in their DNA. They trace their lineage back to Solomon and Sheba. The state of Israel accepts that.
Now, my thesis is that this fusion of religion with ethnicity in such a way as to achieve virtually inextricable synonym-ization of one (religion) with the other (ethnicity), had been a goal of European ruling classes for many centuries. That you, vveasey, even ask the question (Why is God always depicted as a white man?), demonstrates the spectacular success of their efforts.
Why did the European ruling classes want to create this synonym-ization of ethnicity and faith?
Let's get started
I would begin by drawing your attention to the Byzantine Iconoclast movement. All of the sudden, in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Eastern Church called off the use of religious images (2).
I have never even heard of a satisfactory explanation for why such a bizarre proposition arose out of any branch of the Christian Church. When you look at this, a lot of head-shaking is inspired: What, no more religious images?!?! What in the world are we even in business for in the first place? If we're going to call off the use of religious images, we might as put out a 'Going Out of Business' sign and go home.
The thing is: This was a movement of the Eastern Church and ruling classes. The Western Church and ruling classes strongly disagreed and went right on using icons. I am suggesting (and I think more exploratory historical investigation needs to be done on this) that this was, something of a contest between the East and West.
Question: If the Iconoclast movement was a kind of contest between the Eastern Church and ruling classes and the Western Church and other ruling classes, then what would have been the stakes?
Short Answer: The right to 'host' the 'symbiot' of Christianity as a vital adjunct-component of a projected-identity.
Question: How can the Eastern Church and ruling classes be said to have been engaging in a contest to win 'the right to host the symbiot of Christianity as a vital adjunct-component of a projected identity,' when their position was to do seek to do away with religious iconic images?
Some things to keep in mind
1. Christianity got its big break, as it were, with the Western Roman Emperor, Constantine I (ruled 306-337). This is the guy who had the dream that his forces would win a battle by a symbol, he later took to be the Christian Cross (3). Christianity did not become THE state religion but was legitimated as a valid, protected religion of the empire, and its prestige would only grow.
2. In the fifth century the Western half of the Roman empire went away. The Eastern half, centered around Constantinople (Byzantium) persisted for another one thousand years.
3. The Eastern Greek-speaking Byzantines continued to refer to themselves as 'Romans,' and dreamed of, one day, rebuilding the old Roman empire in its territorial entirety.
4. The important thing to see, here, is that the East was holding on to the dream of a Roman imperial revival, while the West was moving on; they were done with the 'Glory of Rome' thing.
Question: That's all well and good, but what does any of this have to do with the supposed 'contest' between the East and the West 'for the right to host Christianity as a 'symbiot' as a vital adjunct-component of a projected identity'? And what exactly was the East 'contesting' for, given that this side was calling for an end to the use of religious icons?
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
I trust you all know the science fiction television series, Star Trek. I trust you all also know that the original series has spawned several spin-offs. One of those spin-offs is called, Deep Space Nine, the one in which a Commander Sisko takes command of a space station in the Beta Quadrant, I believe. They have a shape-shifter chief of security called Odo; a Bajoran tactical officer, a Kiera... something; a Ferengi proprietor of the station's bar/casino/lounge called Quark; and a first officer/science officer called Jadzia Dax.
It is Jadzia Dax who interests us here. She is from a 'humanoid species' known as the Trill. They look a lot like 'Terrans,' except for the leopard spots running up and down the length of their necks.
The Trill share their home world with another sentient species called 'symbiots.' These symbiots are creatures that look like.... kidneys or something. They are virtually immortal by 'humanoid' standards.
It is the tradition of the humanoid Trill to put on regular selection periods to identify those who are most worthy to 'host' a symbiot. Every time a Trill is awarded a symbiot and undergoes the surgical procedure to have it implanted in his/her body, that humanoid Trill suddenly gains access to all the accumulated knowledge and experiences of the no doubt several lifetimes lived by the symbiots, through successive hosts.
Now then, it is considered---on the Trill home world---to be the height of accomplishment to be selected as a symbiot host. It is considered to be the height of what it means to be a Trill; it is the maximum culmination; it is to be the ultimate Trill. Yes, it is that important.
You know, there was an episode in which a Trill rejected for hosting broke onto the space station, took the crew hostage, and forcefully ripped away from Jadzia that which, from his perspective, he had been cheated out of and so forth. At one point, Jadzia tried to reason with the insane Trill, telling him some fluff about how lots and lots of Trills who are joined with a symbiot go on to live 'very full lives,' and so forth. You could tell she wouldn't have known what to do with herself had she been rejected.
Anyway, I want you to think of the institution of Christianity, with its accumulated history of culture, scholarship, pomp and ritual, global persuasive force, and so forth---even by the eighth century---as the 'symbiot,' of obvious desirability to 'possess.'
Are you with me?
Now I'd like you to think of both the ruling hierarchy of the Eastern part of the old Roman empire and the ruling hierarchy of what had been (but was no longer) the Western part of the old Roman empire.
I want you to think of both the East and West as competing entities, contesting, if you will, in an admittedly rather abstract way, for the right to 'host' the 'symbiot' of Christianity.
Question: I don't get it. Why would the East and West have been engaged over some abstract contest over Christianity, as it related identity. Didn't these people know who they were?
Answer: The short answer, as I theorize, is no.
Let's go deeper.
Let's remember what happened. We're basically talking about the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in the West. As I said before, the dream was kept alive in the East, centered around Constantinople, for another thousand years.
When empires break up and go away, there are things that need to be adjusted; and not the least of which is the sense of identity.
For the people living in, let's call it, the Old West, the question before them would have been something like this: If we are no longer Romans, Roman subjects; if we no longer even define ourselves negatively with respect to an imperial Rome that no longer exists, then WHO ARE WE NOW? HOW DO WE THINK OF OURSELVES?
For the people living in the Old East, the question would have been slightly different. That is because, the Greek-speaking people of the Old East, centered around imperial Constantinople (Byzantine Empire), continued to refer to themselves as 'Romans,' and dream of the day when the whole Roman empire, East and West, would be restored. And yet they still sought to possess Christianity as its 'symbiot.'
Question: Why was the identity as 'Romans' not enough for the people living in the Old East?
Answer: I'm not going to go into detail here, for the purposes of this essay. Let's just suffice it to say that the time of polytheism has passed, more or less. With increasing urbanization, the tendency the world over has been toward conceptual consolidation in religion; in fact, pressure builds toward a 'more efficient,' if you like, monotheism (4).
I'm just going to say that the people living in the Old East needed something to replace the so-called polytheistic paganism of the past, to give their reasserted 'Roman' identity meaning. What it meant to be a 'Roman' was to be a Christian (Catholic); and, as you know, even today we have the term 'Roman Catholic.'
So what we can say also, is that the people of the Old East wanted Christianity to remain a Roman imperial religion; they wanted to keep the cult under Roman imperial control, somehow. The people of the Old West saw the possession of the 'symbiot' of Christianity as a way of starting over, starting fresh, re-becoming after they had un-become as Romans, Roman subjects, or even antagonistic anti-Romans.
The thing about the Old East and the Old West was, I think, that the former was more ethnically diverse than the latter region, in terms of having people with various skin colors living there. It seems to me that this demographic difference would have been crucial. That is because, for the Old West, one could come up with a general, ambiguous, composite, 'Western European, Nordic/Scandinavian type as Jesus, Son of God. You could present this Nordic composite of Jesus in the Old Wet and not offend anybody; on the contrary, everybody would have 'seen himself' in that depiction of Jesus, Son of God, The Lord. Do you follow me?
But the same could not be said for the region of the Old East. If you tried to develop a single, composite image of 'God' or 'The Son of God,' what-have-you, you could not do this without offending somebody, again, because of the greater ethnic diversity of this region as compared to the Old West. If you are the leaders of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, you want the various peoples living in the Old East to go along with what you're doing, right? What better way to put them off and disincline them to support your project if you insult them by suggesting that 'God' is someone other than You or You or You? Does that make sense?
And so, it would seem that the best thing to do in this instance, would be to say that no symbols can represent the divine, yes?
But for the people living in the Old West, who were, let's remember, done with the imperial Rome thing, the 'ethnicity' of 'European-ness' would be fused with a definite, representational and symbolized Christianity.
As you know, the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople in 1452, bringing the Byzantine Empire to an end. I wouldn't be surprised if the people of the Old West (especially the ruling classes) had looked upon this event as God's judgment, somehow, 'His' making Himself clear about whom he favored to embody 'His Word,' and so forth.
And so, it seems to me, in this way Christianity became synonymized with what would become a Western European, white-skinned, Nordic/Scandinavian ethnic type.
Hope that helps. :)
Thank you so much for reading.
Addendum: added 12/02/2014
There is an issue of Christology that comes up and has relevance to the discussion above. The issue that various important people got to thinking, meeting, and talking about at various important meetings was this: What is the nature of Christ? Is he all-divine or half-human and half-divine?
The terms, which go back to the early Byzantine years (5th century C.E.) are monophysite and dyophysite/diaphysite. The former term---monophysite---means that Christ is of one ('mono') nature; that is to say that his soul self and his physical self fused, so that he owes nothing, by way of genetic inheritance to Mary; I'll come back to this point. The point, for now, is that monophysitism refers to Christ as being of one divine nature.
The term diaphysite means that Christ is of two natures, both divine.
What does all of that mean?
Well, I think this question must be understood in the context of which side---the Old East or Old West---either had a political interest in personalizing or de-personalizing the divine, in the figure of Jesus Christ.
But let's back up a step. I think it would be helpful to think of this matter in modern term. If a man and a woman have a child in the usual way, we understand that both the man and woman are genetic donors to the child. The child at birth partakes of both the physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual natures of both parents by way of genetic inheritance.
But what if the woman---the man's wife, let's say---cannot physically bring a pregnancy to term? What is needed is a second woman to act as the surrogate "mother." This surrogate must physically carry the pregnancy to term, which is to say, of course, that the second woman agrees to house, within her body for nine months, the wife's egg fertilized by the father's sperm, yes?
In this case, its easy to see, the surrogate is not a genetic donor to the child. The child is every bit Fred and Thelma's---let's call them---genetically.
So, it seems to me, then, that the question to ask, in terms of determining Christ's nature is this: What was Mary's role? Was she merely a surrogate "mother," carrying an already divinely "fertilized" "egg," which would have emerged as the "baby Jesus," no matter where or in whom it was deposited? That is to say, could one have simply put the divinely "fertilized" "egg" into, say, a fish tank, with the same results nine months later, or within any time frame that God had chosen? If this was the case (and if such could have been determined), then surely a monophysite view would have been the correct analysis.
I should mention that such a position would appear to perfectly serve the needs of the Old East (Byzantine) ruling classes, who could not politically afford to personalize the divine, as we discussed,----so as not to offend ethnically diverse populations, whose cooperation the Byzantine ruling classes would have badly needed.
But if you wanted to say that the person of Christ was actually created within the womb of his "mother," Mary, that his person was created as a result of the "genetic donations" of both divine "sperm" and Mary's "egg"---if you want to say that both "God" and "Mary" actually made genetic donations to a bundle of cells that would become Jesus Christ---then you advocate a diaphysite position. You would be saying that Christ had two natures, human and divine.
One implication to draw from this is this: Divinity can be passed along and inherited genetically.
This position would appear to serve the needs of the emerging ruling classes of the Old West, where it was not only acceptable but almost necessary to personalize the divine.
I'll just say one more thing and close with this. There is an excluded book of the Bible, The Gospel of Judas Iscariot that certainly puts a monophysite spin on the events concerning his alleged betrayal of Jesus.
My understanding is that this book does not actually dispute the events told in the popularly accepted version. Its just that another wrinkle is added. This gospel says that Jesus asked Judas to betray him so that the centurions would kill him, Jesus, so that his divine soul (which, apparently, was the primary seat of identity from Christ's own perspective) could be released and set free (5).
If you think about the books that were included in the Bible and those that were not (the Apocrypha), you can tell that certainly those authorities of 'Old West-[ern],' diaphysite sympathies controlled the process of what would and what would not be included in the Bible. And, I suppose, this might have had something to do with the declining power of the Old East during the course of centuries as the center of gravity---politically, militarily, economically---shifted from east to west.
Okay, we're really done now!
1. Retrieved 12/1/14: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sammy_Davis,_Jr. paragraph 25
2. Retrieved 12/1/14: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconoclasm#Byzantine_iconoclasm
3. Retrieved 12/1/14: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great
4. Harman, Chris. A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. Verso, 2008. 91
According to Chris Harman, the monotheism of the Jews fitted the urban situation of the converts. The pagan religions made sense for the country people, for whom the local village or clan was the very center of social existence. "But the urban traders, artisans and beggars had repeated contact with a very large number of people from different localities and in different occupations. An anonymous, all-embracing deity could seem to provide support and protection in such multiple encounters."
Harman says that it is precisely this reason why there were trends toward monotheism in all the great civilizations of antiquity---Buddhism in India and China, the worship of a single god in Persia, Zoroaster; and even Roman paganism tended toward the worship of a sun god that was more powerful than the other deities.
5. Retrieved 12/2/14: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Judas
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