I was brought up a Christian, in the American Baptist tradition, baptized by my father, the minister of the churches I attended until I left the church for good after high school. I had mentally absconded well before that, however, starting around the age of six, because—I secretly told myself—these parishioners weren’t hearing what my father was saying to them or following biblical precepts and ministerial requests, as I was. They were hypocrites devilishly dedicated to bad ways! Why would I want to associate with them? Since I had heard what my father said the first time, and followed his advice religiously, why should I keep going back week after week to hear more? Why not go out into the world, meet new people, and get on with life? Oh my, I must have been an impatient and censorious child.
Actually, what I did at age 6 is break away from my mother’s hand as our family of four, headed by my father the minister, wished the parishioners well on the church steps after Sunday service. I ran off into the bushes at the side of the church and hid in crouched position until my mother collected me. She asked: “What’s this all about?” “I don’t know,” I answered. The above “memory” is what my adult mind has been able to fashion out of this small escape all those years ago. Imagination, in my opinion, is a much under-appreciated fount of historical reconstruction.
Today, at age 75, I miss the church, I miss my long deceased parents, I miss the communion, particularly the singing, and I miss members of the congregations that I once knew well. I’ve tried to follow biblical and Christian precepts in everyday conduct. I’ve tended to conceive of the world as itself a church and to think of ordinary work in missionary terms, much as Max Weber explained the type of person I am in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have all my life thought of work in the dutiful terms of my Puritan forbears.
My basic problem, then and now, is an inability to believe in God. I’m not an atheist. I would never say: There is no God! God does not exist! I’m not much of an agnostic either; my preference that God exist overmatches any inclination to spend much time doubting. I wish there were a God, but I don’t think so. More on point, other people’s assertions about God mostly leave me cold. Or, to state my problem in a way that connects back to that intolerant child of six: the images of God I hear spoken of, or have read about, have the fingerprints of man, and only man, all over them. God dissolves for me in human hands, and in the incessant yak of human voices. Images of God often seem artful inventions that their creators and culture adopters carry around in their mental portfolios until they can be redeemed for eternal rewards or wielded as weapons for protection. God is variously advertised as the out-of-jail card, the last chance lottery ticket, the head cheerleader of touchdowns and home runs, and the most powerful weapon to deploy on the various battlefields of life.
That doesn’t exactly capture my view either. Let me try it another way. When inspired in some delightful, happy way, I invent a God of thanksgiving, an external source to thank for the wonder and joy of life instead of taking credit myself or giving the credit to human worthies. After all, we’re entirely inheritors; we contributed not a whit to the origin of life. Life is given to us, a priceless, pure gift. We can receive the gift, hopefully value it, nurture it, carry it wisely and pass it on, but we’re no part of its origination.
I also find myself at times inventing in horror and sympathy a God of emergency care to provide help when no human could to the victims of an earthquake, volcano, tsunami, drought, plague, or other terrifying tragedy. God help them. Give them comfort. Bring them peace. The biblical Job, and all of the Jobs of the world, deserve God, and I in compassion am relieved to create God for them.
When I say I’m inventing God, I mean that a concept of God comes to mind at such times, while at other times, and at most times, I’m divinely vacuous. God is absent for me. While the images of God I ‘invent’ may be thoroughly cultural and historical in origin, and thus plagiarized, hackneyed, unoriginal constructions in and of themselves, they are nonetheless fundamentally human constructions. They are all too human. Concepts of God always require a human designer, even for the designer who chooses to invent a discovery of God, thus hiding the act of invention itself. In that respect, God is an answer to a set of design parameters, much in the same fashion as a mask and costume responds to one’s needs and inclinations for Halloween. It is always a human who does the thinking, talking, and dressing up. In this way God assumes a rightful place with the dolls, bears, and action figures in a child’s treasure chest, and later in a rear of the brain safety deposit box.
I don’t mind or complain when others invent Gods of thanksgiving or emergency care. As I’ve confessed, I do it occasionally myself. Maybe there are other Gods I’ll find myself inventing in the future. Why not? There is no need to forsake God’s arrival in advance. Otherwise, though, God talk mostly makes me sick: the omniscience, the omni-presence, the watchful guard, the record keeper, the domicile architect of hell, purgatory, and heaven, the disappointed one, the wrathful one, the flood maker, the jealous one, the saccharine lover, the savior, the shepherd, the predestinator, the gate-keeper, the judge, the destroyer, the warrior, the redeemer, the secret friend, the definer of evil and good. Beyond Gods of thanksgiving, peacefulness, creativity, and emergency care, the common, racetrack-fast, bulk traffic of divine invention, selection, and public announcement distresses more than comforts me.
My concern is the terrible weakness of man and the horrible things men do in the name of God or following loose bouts of God talk. War and violent attacks on others are the obvious examples. God, once invented and routinely promulgated in fervent belief, tends to get the garbage dump of human problems heaped on His divine shoulders. If humans create the problem, they should, in my judgment, solve the problem. It’s only fair. God would have done enough if He, She, or It were the Creator. Who could ask for more than the gift of life? Humans need to stop dumping their problems on God and take responsibility for their self-generated issues themselves.
Strong religious belief, centered on the worship of God, has throughout history resisted and retarded liberty, reason, and science. One can certainly be a scientist and believe in God, many scientists have and do. However, believers in God don’t often extend reciprocal favor to science. Instead, evolution, a process that appears to be embedded in matter itself, and the foundation of biological science, is viewed as so threatening to the creation myth of Genesis as to require an all out fight, including the pretence that the creation story has itself been verified by science. As Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning Physicist, pointed out, ours is not a scientific age even though our age is totally dependent on scientists and science. In other words, reason and science may furnish the foundation of our occupational thinking during the work week, but ancient tales and archaic beliefs—many frankly horrible, some silly, most untrue—are resurrected from family ancestry commitments in the search for the meaning of life on weekends.
This won’t serve well for the future if our species is to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood and attain the promise of the self-description homo sapiens. For myself, I find greater, richer, fuller meaning in the scientific search for truth in nature—in mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and like pursuits—than I do in religious traditions. Instead of wringing our hands that our children never learn enough science and math to compete materially in a soul-deadening, consumer culture, I recommend advising them to pursue the mystery and reverence of life, by delving deeply into the spaces and distances of an expanding universe, and into the infinitesimal quanta of particle physics. They would do well to pursue mathematics as if it were the language of the universe. Let them delight in visions of the atom. Grant them permission to appreciate the intricate architecture and processes of their own bodies and of the flora and fauna of the evolving organic world. May life renew itself spiritually and mentally in their minds. May they discover that nature is itself marvelous and through thought and experiment can be wonderously divined.
April 13, 2012