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The Finite God

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Chapter 4 – A God of Infinite Possibility

To define God is to make God finite.
This is inevitable. It is in our nature as humans to use language to define, and definition is – by definition – to make things finite.
It is also in the nature of humans to define things personally, based on our own experience of them. Contrary to what most people seem to believe, dictionaries do not regulate definition. The best they can do is to record commonly understood denotative meanings at the particular time of the dictionary’s compilation and publication. They cannot record connotative meanings, and they are continually revising and updating the denotative ones. They can, also, record the origin and evolution of words as much as they are understood, but that is only useful in knowing how a word has acquired some of its meaning, not in understanding what it means to each of us separately. And definitions have two effects; they do not simply define what something is, but also define what it is not.
For most of our language, this is sufficient. As long as you and I share a general understanding of what a table is, then we can make use of one without serious complications. I can ask you to put something on a table that is somewhere within our common field of present experience and you can do that successfully.
But much of our experience of the world requires language for things that aren’t so clearly delineated. God is one of those things. If you ask me whether I believe in God and I say that I do, I have not told you anything about what I actually believe. I have only told you that I believe in something and I choose to call that something God.
Often, we don’t even really know our own definition of God. This isn’t all that surprising. We also don’t always know our definitions of things like Freedom, Patriotism, Love, Truth, or a thousand other complex and personal concepts, feelings and human qualities and characteristics. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that our definitions of these things are changeable; and they are primarily expressed not in words, but in actions. Our definition of God isn’t simply contained in some words we recite, but in how we behave in the world. Still, the words are important. If we try to write down a definition of God we will find that the words begin to get us into trouble with ourselves as we try to sort out what is included and excluded by our definitions.
Is God, for instance, masculine? If not, then what does it mean to talk of “God the Father?” If so, then does that not mean that the feminine is not God? It is possible to talk of God the Father as one aspect of God, but that requires more specificity. Are we really praying only to the masculine aspect when we say “The Lord’s Prayer?” And do we have prayers to the feminine aspect as well? If the tri-partite God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost),” where is the feminine in that definition? Is the Holy Spirit feminine? There’s nothing to indicate it. Doesn’t this definition suggest that the Mother, the Daughter are “not-God?” If your answer is “of course the mother and daughter are part of God,” but you continue to pray only to God the Father, then your definition of words and your definition of action are at odds.
And, conversely, if you pray to the Goddess does that mean that your definition of the divine excludes the masculine? If so, then why do you use a term which is the diminutive form of the masculine? A goddess is a feminine god, which only makes sense if a god is by definition masculine. If god is a neuter, genderless noun, then goddess has no reference point in its definition.
This is also a problem for the atheist. The term literally means “without god.” But what does that mean without a clear definition of the god or gods one is without? An atheist is, by the use of that term, defined by what he does not believe rather than by what he does believe. This may be why so many atheists seem to spend all their time trying to argue the non-existence of God, rather than offering a clear, common definition of what they believe. Of course, there is no single definition of what an atheist believes, because atheists are as diverse as deists, but at least god-believers often have specific communities of people with similar enough beliefs to create a sense of common definition. There are humanists and rationalists and agnostics and scientific realists, and so forth, but none of these is necessarily incompatible with a belief in some kind of God.
We might also ask ourselves whether the God we believe in is the same today as it was at some point in the past. What did you believe God to be when you were a child? Has that perception of God changed? How? Why? If you no longer believe in God, do you really mean that you no longer believe in the God of your childhood and have not found a suitable replacement; except, perhaps, a rationalist rejection of all the god-definitions you know or can imagine?
The point is that we all believe in something. We have some set of primary definitions and core perceptions that guide our actions, our choices, in the world and help us to find our own truth in the universe. It is therefore, important to take the time to articulate those beliefs and perceptions, to say what our truth is. Otherwise we are simply throwing labels around, names that don’t really mean what we think they mean.

Reentry and a Perfect Landing

In Travels With Myself on August 7, 2013 at 2:40 am

In my first entry for this blog, I compared leaving home to achieving escape velocity. Well, yesterday I came back into orbit, made my final approach and reentry, and came in for a graceful landing back in Putnam.
I started the day in the Finger Lakes region of New York, just west of Canandaigua. As I followed US 20 the hills and towns through the center of the state, I began to feel as though I was just on the edge of the familiar. MY goal was to reach Albany, then look for a place to spend the night before making my final push into Western Massachusetts and then down into Connecticut.
Feeling as though I was making progress again, I began to take time to admire the neat, quiet towns in places like Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Auburn; to comment to myself on the wonderful parks that adorn the waterfront of the lakes such as Seneca Lake in towns like Geneva; to gasp appreciatively at the green, surprising valleys as I maneuvered around and over the hills south of the Adirondacks; and to feel a sense of being drawn in as I approached Albany through Esperance and Guilderland, whose names call to mind stories full of wee folk and Rip Van Winkle and the headless horseman. Although the actual setting for those stories was south and east in the Catskills, I discovered that New York State is filled with such places with mysterious settings and magical names.
I stop for lunch in Albany and looked again at the map. The tourist map I was using had no indication of distances between points, so I had to estimate from the scale at the bottom of the map. I figured that I could make it to Pittsfield, MA, about the time I would usually stop for the night and that I would either go that far or stop just short of the state line somewhere around Nassau. I drove quietly through Albany. At the shoreline of the Hudson River, the roads suddenly get busy and confusing as Interstates 87 and 90 converge and blend momentarily with UCS 20 and NY 9 to whisk the traffic over the river and set it on its way either east into New England or south toward Manhattan and New Jersey.
I was finally getting into the near-familiar orbit, just outside the familiar atmosphere of home.
As I emerged onto US 20 and NY 9 east of the Hudson, I saw a sign that indicated that Pittsfield was only 33 miles ahead. It was just about 1:45. I made a quick calculation and realized that if I were in Pittsfield before 2:30 I would then be only about three to three-and-a-half hours from home. If I extended my driving day just a little longer than usual I could be in Putnam by 6:00 or so even accounting for traffic, slow sections of road, driving through Springfield, and other unknowable factors. I began my approach by angling south and deciding to abandon 20 for I 90, thus gaining a little time, perhaps, and putting myself on trajectory toward Palmer, MA, where I could pick up 20 again, a road that I had traveled often over the years.
I soon realized that I had made a miscalculation. I 90 was winding and gusty and uncomfortable. It also led me to pay my very first toll in more than 9,000 miles of driving. It was only 85 cents, but still.
So I recalculated the angle of my approach. I stopped briefly at a rest area near Lee, picked up a map of Massachusetts, saw that I could get back on 20 at the next exit and sent a message letting Sue (who I wanted to be there when I got in) that I was close to home and not stopping for the night. Two miles later I was off the highway, driving through the forests and glens of the foothills of the Berkshires, passed Jacob’s Pillow and Chester/Blandford and back on down under the Interstate toward Westfield. The road then swung straight east again into Springfield, where it is provided easy passage along I 291 over the Connecticut River and on toward Palmer.
At Palmer, I knew my way in and began my final reentry. Here 20 glides smoothly down through Brimfield, past all those fields that are brought to life when antiques dealers converge on the otherwise quiet fields; into Sturbridge, past the shops and restaurants and Old Sturbridge Village; until the course adjustment at Rte 13 through Southbridge; and the
glide down Rtes 169 and 171 into Putnam.
I could feel the gravitational pull of home exert its force as I crossed the hill by the Sturbridge Inn. I had alerted Sue that I was on my way and hoped that she might be able to get to the condo and turn on the water heater so that I could get a badly needed shower, so I stopped quickly for wine and flowers in Putnam then began my landing approach up Rte 12 and onto Perry Street. I was disappointed to see that Sue had not yet arrived, but as I pulled into the driveway she pulled in right behind me, and brought dinner with her: perfect landing.
There is an arc to our comings and goings, whether we are just running out to the store for milk or traveling across the country and back. How often have we heard it said that the trip home seemed shorter than the trip out somewhere? How often do we find ourselves following the same familiar paths home even when we have taken a new route to get someplace? When we travel locally, we may become inured to the arc because our daily routine obscures it, makes it ordinary. But when we travel some distance there is a sense of breaking free, then of being in a new place, and satisfying return to home and the familiar.
I had thought this might be my last entry in “Travels With Myself,” but I may do one more over the next couple of days to debrief and catalog a few somewhat random and non sequitur observations and experiences gleaned from six weeks on nine thousand miles of road through twenty-one states, six of them twice and ten of them states I had never been in before. I hope you’ll bear with me; and I thank you all who have read all or part of my journal. Without these letters home, the road would have been longer and more lonesome.

Distance, Time, and the Eye Of The Beholder

In Travels With Myself on August 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I am becoming somewhat obsessive about orientation and location. I keep checking my maps to see where I am, to guess how far it might be to some arbitrary next checkpoint or landmark, to try to figure out just how long it might take me to get there. I already know that I will stay on US 20 all the way back to Sturbridge, MA, except to perhaps take a short section of the Mass Pike around Springfield. I also know that I will be on the road at least two more days before I see Putnam. I am thinking that there are two reasons for this.
The first, and probably least important, reason is that the countryside is becoming more populated and busy as I have gotten out of the rural areas of the Midwest. Small towns run more closely together and their town centers are larger and more crowded. I am not so often alone on the road, but share it with more small vehicles rather than large trucks. There is more signage, both on the highway itself and along the roadside giving information about business, attractions, and local features. The result is that I have more to capture my attention, so I can’t just get into the groove of driving, feeling a part of the country I’m traveling through, letting my mind wander or think about much of anything other than whether I am still on course or how much progress I’m making. This is made harder by a confusing array of local, state, national and interstate routes all intersecting and crossing each other, so that there are times when a single post might have as many as eight or more route signs and two or three arrows pointing in several directions.
Also, the experience of time passing is different now than before. On those long stretches of road through the plains, I often found myself amazed at how far I had traveled because I hadn’t seen anything to mark my passage. Now, there are so many things to mark the way that I am amazed that I haven’t gone much farther than I have. Since not all maps have distances marked along the major and secondary routes, I am sometimes left to guess at how far I’ve gone; and I usually guess that the distances between points on the map are smaller than they actually are; so I think that someplace must be just ahead when I am still 20 miles or more away.
The second reason is that I am getting closer to home. This part of the country feels more familiar. I know the end point of this road and have driven a major section of it often; so I keep projecting my trip forward to that point and trying to sense the erosion of distance as I drive towards it. I don’t think that this is the same as wishing time away. I’m not so much trying to make my trip shorter than it will be, I’m just trying to get a sense of placement relative to the things I know.
This wasn’t a problem for the first two-thirds of the trip, because I was moving away or moving parallel, so the actual distance or my specific relationship to it was less important. I was so disconnected from home by the physical separation and by the sense of movement away, at first; and by the sense that I had gone as far away as possible, when I had reached the Pacific; that the exact measurements didn’t matter. I was out there on my own, and no matter what happened home had nothing to do with it.
In my first entry I used the metaphor of reaching escape velocity, of breaking free of the gravity exerted by home. I can see home now, in my mind’s eye, and I am beginning to anticipate getting back into a familiar orbit and planning my reentry into my native atmosphere. I will write more about this as I complete the journey, but I believe this is a natural response for people who have not traveled extensively or very far. I have traveled so often in New England that it almost doesn’t feel like travelling at all to go up to Burlington, VT, or the coast of Maine. Central Massachusetts is a short trip for a summer afternoon. Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts are in the neighborhood. I drive them without even thinking about the distances or the time unless I have some other agenda that demands it. Only map-makers and literalists think of time and distance as fixed. For the rest of us, they are as arbitrary and mutable as the perceptions of our hearts.

A Long Drive On A Good Road

In Travels With Myself on August 4, 2013 at 1:28 am

Today I had an easy and pleasant drive from Michigan City, Indiana, to Cleveland, Ohio; from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie; across northern Indiana and Ohio just south of the Michigan Line. Us 20 passes through farmland and small towns, and dodges around the city of Toledo, rising and falling across gentle hills and running straight ahead for miles. Along the way, I learned a few things.
There is a significant population of Amish in north central Indiana. They move, hurry even, along the sides of the highway between the farms and the towns in their horse drawn buggies, often with small trailers full of goods or kids, or a young man on a bicycle coming up behind. The wide shoulder of the road provides ample room for the wagons, and the automobiles pass by respectfully.
Saturday in the summer brings people out into the small towns. Today I passed through two street fair celebrations, in Fayette and Oak Shade; and drove through the Saturday busy streets of small, clean, appealing cities like Maumee and Lakewood that ring the cities of Toledo and Cleveland like aprons. Traffic moved smoothly along mostly good pavement and broad streets.
There are surprisingly few places to stay along US 20. I started looking for a campground as I approached Oberlin, but didn’t find any place to stay until Cleveland, and then I almost missed the Days Inn because 20 passed by the rear entrance rather than the front. It would seem that travelers along 20 are anticipated to be hungry and need gasoline, but not to sleep.
I also came to the realization that if one has acquired a map for each state one has passed through going in one direction, then one doesn’t need a new map for each state when passing through them again in the other direction. Unfortunately this revelation did not become manifest at the Iowa/Illinois border or the Illinois/Indiana border, but only when I was already a third of the way through Ohio and had not yet found a new state map.
I didn’t say that my discoveries were all significant.

Crossing Illinois

In Travels With Myself on August 2, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Illinois is really quite narrow across the top. Even the southeasterly trip from East Dubuque to Chicago is only 177 miles. The trip from the Iowa line to the outskirts of the megacity of Chicago and its exurbs takes less time than the trip from, let’s say, Elgin to the Indiana line. Traffic started to build as soon as I got past Freeport, began to get fairly congested at Rockford, and then gradually became a crawl as I worked my way through Schaumburg and Oak Park and Oak Lawn toward Lake Michigan.
Admittedly, I had chosen to take US 20 and stay off the faster interstates, because I wanted to see some of Chicago and I wanted to avoid the toll roads. I had also seen that US Routes 20 and 12 run very close to the Michigan shore, and I wanted to get a look at the lake, even perhaps picnic there. Unfortunately, 20 winds through the outlying villages and never even comes close to Chicago proper; and I traveled all the way from Oak Lawn to Michigan City, Indiana and never saw even a glimpse of the lake. Between the highway and the lake are railroad tracks, a few small towns and a great many industrial complexes. Eventually, I followed 20 a little further inland and decided to wait for Lake Erie to see if I can get a better view.
I don’t mind city driving; after all the hours I have spent in the last few days zipping past cornfields, at least the scenery was different and I had time to look at it. But even there I was somewhat disappointed. In “Illini” (I assume this would be a correct term for the language of Illinois) the “village” does not indicate a quaint little community with, perhaps, a town square, a church, a general store and a few houses. A “village” is a city of 20,000 or so people, with a decidedly urban feel, but almost entirely low-rise architecture; and bad roads. I encountered more potholes and rough pavement of a more jarring and potentially destructive character than I have encountered thus far in more than 7,000 miles.
There is also a remarkable shortage of easily accessible parks or rest areas along the whole length of US 20 across Illinois. I would have thought that a state that can easily be crossed in a couple of hours by people rushing through between Iowa or Michigan and Indiana would be some interest in giving people reasons to stop; but unless your interests run to the urban, and the popular mythology of Chicago in particular, there seems to be few attractions worth noting. The only sort of interesting bit of tourist appeal for me was the discovery that the city of Galena, where I stayed last night, was the hometown of Ulysses S. Grant. That at least is a useful bit of trivia I now know that I didn’t know before.
Also, in the last few days I have been through three different cities that can’t seem to decide what state they’re in. This seems to be a mid-western phenomenon. I first encountered it with Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas. Now I have been through Sioux City, Nebraska and Iowa; Dubuque, Iowa and Illinois; and Chicago, Illinois and Indiana, which has the additional feature of stretching over into Gary. Oregon has Portland, which melds with Vancouver, Washington, but at least they have separate names. (Though, technically, to be fair, it is East Dubuque and East Chicago.) But nobody in Chicago even saw any reason to post a sign indicating that I had officially entered another state. Such, I suppose is the nature of human-defined boundaries.

The American Corn Patch

In Travels With Myself on August 2, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa are virtually one great big corn field. In Nebraska, nearly all the fields have signs running along the road indicating which hybrid variety of corn or other produce is being grown in the field. In Iowa, not so much. As I drove along US 20, however, it looked as though the corn was growing green and healthy; but one local man told me that the stalks aren’t as tall, and the ears aren’t as large as they should be; and the ground water and wells are drying up. This was less apparent along the highway, where there were large farming operations, with crop dusters flying overhead at 7:30 in the morning, and the corn fields stretched on for miles and acres upon acres. When I got off the highway, however, and followed Iowa D20 out of Fort Dodge, I was able to get a look at some smaller farms, where watering from a tank truck wasn’t keeping up with what was needed. Here the farms were dry and struggling.
One sign of progress in the area was the large number of wind turbines that shared the fields with the corn, as they had shared with the wheat and the cattle in Washington. Unlike Washington, however, I saw no high-tension towers leading away from the turbines. I can only guess that those must have been at the further reaches of the fields, rather than positioned along the roads.
Iowa along US 20 clearly does not think of itself as a tourist destination. The indication of an historic site or special feature is rare. Most of the signs labeled “Tourist Information” give directions to some kind of tourist business, such as a hotel or restaurant. So I was actually surprised when I took a small detour off of US 20 into Fort Dodge to refresh my coffee cup and make a rest stop, and there on my left was the Fort Dodge Museum and Historic Village. I pulled in and was confronted with a good-sized log-walled western fort. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to pay the small price of admission and tour the grounds. It was an interesting, eclectic, and confusing sort of place.
One of the first things I learned as I looked over the self-guided tour sheet, was that Fort Dodge actually never looked like this. The original fort, which was an army outpost from 1850-1853, had no walls, log or otherwise. It was just a collection of buildings sitting open in the prairie. Then I noticed that the buildings along the town street outside the fort were all either reconstructions of what such buildings might have looked like, or had been brought there from someplace else. The artifacts inside were certainly historic antiques, but mostly not from the time of the fort, but from later years after settlers had arrived and begun to build a town and then on up well into the first half of the 20th century. Until I realized this, I was a bit disconcerted to discover that I was familiar with many of the items on display. In first grade, I sat in desks just like the ones in the schoolhouse; I was familiar with the student inkwells and with the two-edge safety razors and manually operated hair trimmers in the mercantile.
Inside the fort walls, there was exactly one building, the commander’s office that was original to the fort. All the others were reconstructions, made from original materials, but brought in from all over Iowa. Just as I was settling into the idea that this was intended to represent the kinds of things one might have found in a 19th century Iowan fort and town, I entered the first of two long buildings where there were displayed a wide variety of Native American artifacts, military artifacts from the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, plus a variety of domestic objects such as sewing and cooking utensils, hand-made and store-bought women’s clothing, and some early radios and one of the first GE refrigerators.
In the far corner of the fort was one of the more intriguing displays: the Cardiff Giant. Now if you have heard of the Cardiff Giant, you know that it was a hoax perpetrated in Cardiff, New York, by a farmer who arranged to have an enormous “petrified” figure of a man dug up for the astonishment of his neighbors and his own and his relatives’ enrichment. Well, it turns out that the stone used for carving the giant was quarried near Fort Dodge and shipped east for carving and burying. Now that would be an interesting bit of history, but for some reason, the designers of the exhibit felt it would be more interesting to create a fanciful story (told on the signage without any indication of tongue in cheek) about how the local people called in a sculptor to create a replica of the hoax, only to have the exact same figure emerge from the stone with just a few whacks of the hammer to loosen the surrounding material; thus making this figure the “real” petrified giant.
I did take a walk around the gift shop, however, where I found a mix of wooden and plastic toys, some out-of-place tropical/Polynesian items, some stones and arrowheads, and a few books about the history of Iowa. The best part was a brief conversation with the man who had greeted me on my arrival and was in charge of the store. We talked a bit about the weather and a little about Marshall Bill Tillman, a f one-time Marshall of Dodge City Kansas who was born in fort Dodge and with whom I am familiar because I had an interest as a youth in stories of the old west outlaws and the lawmen who opposed them.
And thus I spent a refreshing and enjoyable hour before setting off once more on my drive across the cornfields, which had become in Iowa once more barren of trees except for a few distant groves. And thus the road and the landscape continued until I passed through Dubuque and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, where the road suddenly dropped down a long hill toward the river, bounded up over a two-lane bridge, and climbed on the other side into a whole new place of hills and trees and industry.

Going With The Flow Across The Plains

In Travels With Myself on August 1, 2013 at 12:20 am

The laws of simple physics tell me that if I am driving 65 miles an hour, it is irrelevant where I am doing the driving. 65 miles an hour is 65 miles an hour. The somewhat less specific laws of perception, however, allow me to believe that 65 miles an hour is crawling along when I am driving along a long, wide, flat, straight road through miles and miles of ranchland, pasture, and acres of cornfields where even the small towns may be thirty or more miles apart and I am virtually the only moving thing on the road. This contradiction between the laws of physics and the laws of perception are brought suddenly to my attention every time I hit a stretch of road where a strong wind gusts across an open field or the top of a hill, ad every time one of the larger, les streamlined trailer trucks goes cruising by in the opposite direction and my 65 mile an hour RV collides with the truck’s 65 mile per hour wake. Fortunately, the trucks pass no more frequently than any other vehicles and the gusty winds are becoming increasingly rare as I make my way east.
All in all, today was an easy travel day. There aren’t a lot of attractions to call me off the road out here, and I find myself back in a mode of simply enjoying the driving. All of which left me time to notice random sights and events.
Nebraska has some simple, but accurate little blue signs announcing one’s imminent arrival at a roadside turnout. I laughed out loud at the first one I saw today. I was slowing down in anticipation of an area of road work, when I noticed a small, square blue sign sporting a silhouette of a tree with a picnic table siting under it. Beneath the sign was an arrow pointing across the road and the legend “1/4 mile.” I looked up and right there, a quarter of a mile up the road was a large tree with a picnic table under it, exactly as the sign had pictured it. Alas, I was disappointed to discover that all the little blue signs were exactly the same regardless of the actual number of trees and tables or their relationship to each other.
Randolph, NE, the “Honey Capital,” is building a combination motel and laundromat; which sounds like an excellent idea to me. Depending on how they plan to rent the rooms, I could imagine people finding lots more interesting ways to spend their time than reading old copies of People Magazine while their clothes are merrily sloshing around in the washing machines or tumbling in the dryers.
I am happy to be seeing so many trees again. Nothing yet like the forests of the Northeast, but a nice, regular mix of broadleaf and evergreen trees along the road and in small woods off in the distance. I remember that one of the first things I noticed heading west was the gradual disappearance of trees as I crossed the Midwest toward the mountains.
I am getting some really excellent miles per gallon since I crossed the continental divide. The only thing I can think to account for this is that I have been moving steadily along flat straight stretches of good road and generally moving from higher to lower elevations. I have noticed the same effect just driving to the Rhode Island beaches from northeastern Connecticut. I get better mileage as I head toward the coast than I do returning inland.
I have travelled a greater distance than usual today, and am staying the night in the little town of Moville, Iowa, which has one small motel that happened to have a room in spite of the fact that there was a classic car cruise in town today and they just opened the County
Fair. I make sure that I have a full tank of gas every morning, and I was glad to know that I was prepared when I crossed the Iowa state line and found no accommodations for the first 15 miles into the state. This is another conflict between physics and perception. According to physics, 100 miles is a fixed distance; according to perception, it depends on the size and color of the lines on the roadmap and how many little black dots of what size are arrayed along the lines: the big red lines and the even bigger double orange lines, especially when they are spotted with lots of black dots, are shorter than the miles printed alongside them.

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