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An Essay About God — In Questions.

In A God of Infinite Possibility on November 19, 2015 at 11:31 am

So you believe that telling people they can’t force others to participate in a prayer to a god they don’t believe in or in the words of a faith to which they don’t belong means that your god has been kicked out of our public places? You believe that your god has sent natural disasters and acts of terrorism and violence to punish people because they don’t express sufficient worship and obeisance to your god? You believe that your god encourages you and will reward you for killing those whose beliefs are different from yours, or who look different, live differently, or love one another in ways you don’t approve of? You believe in a god with male genitalia?

Is this not a weak, petty, vengeful, angry, violent, vain, jealous and frightened god that you believe in.? Is not such a god almost human?

You say you believe in a god that is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient? Can such a god not be wherever god wants to be? Is such a god subject to the restrictions of human laws? But why would god go where god is not wanted? Why not believe in a god that goes where god is not wanted precisely because that is where god might most need to be?

You say you believe in a compassionate, loving god who weeps for every sparrow that falls from the tree? Why would such a god rain death on the innocent as punishment for the wicked? Would such a god not protect the weak against the powerful, rather than simply comfort the survivors afterwards? Would not a forgiving god seek to heal the wicked rather than to destroy them; for surely they are sick in their souls?

You say that we are all the children of god? Why does your god require the worship of god’s children? Do you require the worship of your children? Do you require that everyone else’s children should worship you, also? Why would your god require that all god’s children worship identically, rather than to worship as they will? What makes your worship superior? Do you think that you worship god for god? Why do you not worship god because your worship and your prayers connect you to all god’s children?

Do you believe there is only one god? Or do you believe that there is only one “true” god? If there are other gods besides yours, is your god afraid of them? Does your god require you to go to war against those who believe in other gods? Why does your god not want you, instead, to show them the compassion, the love, the forgiveness, and the healing power of your god; so that they will see that your god is a god worthy of admiration and respect? If you believe that there is only one god, then what is it to you if others do not believe? Will your god not love you if others do not love your god?

Do you believe that your god knows all and is all powerful? Then why does your god not know the truth that is in every person’s heart? And knowing, is your god powerless to heal, to change, to make right what is wrong? Are you more powerful than your god? Are you able to do what your god cannot? If your god has created the universe and all that is in it, who are you to question what has been created? Is your god an irrational god who has created an irrational universe? Is your god a trickster god who has given god’s human children the intelligence to see what god has created and seek to understand it, but made all that we observe an illusion? If we study god’s creation as it is, as god has presented it to us, if we seek to understand that god’s creation by making rational sense of the clues god has left for us, is that not the best way to understand our relationship to god?

Why do you give human form to your god? Do you really want your god to be human? Are we humans not flawed and limited? Can we not aspire to a god who transcends the human, who may have the power to lift us up to the very best that we can be; rather than envision a god who is less than god might be? Is it not true that definitions don’t just tell us what something is, they tell us also what it is not? If your god is a man, then is to be a woman to be not god?

Are you reading this and thinking that I am insulting your god? Do you think that it is your god I mean here? If so, then are you not confirming that the questions themselves are valid? And if you believe that I am not describing the god you believe in, then why are you insulted for your god? If you are nodding your head and thinking that I am absolutely right about someone else’s god, are you simultaneously congratulating yourself on not believing in such a god? How, exactly, are you acting in the world to serve that god who is not the god I have described? Are you congratulating yourself that you don’t believe in any god at all? Do you see that this, like everything I have described above is simply human?

Whether we believe in a god, or not, isn’t it foolish of us to use what we believe to separate us, to hurt each other and to destroy this impossibly vast and wonderful creation regardless of how it was created or what it means? Is that what you believe your god, or your science, requires?

We Are All God-stuff

In A God of Infinite Possibility on September 25, 2015 at 10:30 am

One of the core questions of religion has to do with what happens to us when we die. “Us” in this question isn’t our physical bodies. We know what happens to them. They decay. “Us” refers to what most religions call our soul, and science might call our consciousness.

Because we are sentient creatures with the ability for abstract thought and abstract language, because we are conscious of the “I” of our existence, then we have to wonder what happens to the “I” after death. Various religions contemplate the passage of our conscious self, the thing that identifies us uniquely as a human being, our soul, into some sort of heaven, or afterlife of continued experience; others suggest a kind of recycling of the soul; rebirth into a new life, a new form, a new physical human or otherwise, a new “I” that continues the old “I” but is different from it. Certain atheists would argue that it simply ceases to exist, that the I is a product of our biological brain and when the brain ceases to function, so does the “I.”

As a deist, a person who believes in a god, but seeks to discover how that god operates by looking at the world as it is, I believe that there may be a mid-point where the scientific and the spiritual may connect.

Let us imagine for a moment that the soul exists as distinct from the physical self; that human consciousness is a function of the soul; and that the soul survives the physical form.

I realize that I have already lost the atheists, but bear with me. Even if you do not believe in god, it is useful to understand how belief can co-exist with science, aside from the old argument that science explains how god created the world, but does not preclude god.

Philosophically, we can begin with the question of what existed before the universe. If there was a big bang, what exactly went bang? The simple science I learned in high school said that matter and energy are essentially the same thing, and the smallest pieces of physical reality that have been discovered seem to exist as both matter and energy almost simultaneously. So we might speculate that the universe was created out of that fundamental energy/matter.

For the sake of argument, let’s call that energy/matter god. We don’t really know what god is made of, after all. Is god spirit or consciousness or divine energy? Okay, but what, exactly are those things? Certainly most people, theists and atheists alike, would not try to argue that god is physically the same as human beings, made of flesh and bone; subject as we are to all our physical ills and limitations. In the same way, we would not argue that the mind or consciousness of god is the same as the mind and consciousness of humans. So let us call the primary energy/matter – or consciousness, if you will, or spirit – of the universe, god.

If what existed before the universe was this energy/matter called god, and that energy/matter is the stuff of which the universe is made, and that god was responsible for the creation of the universe, then we can get to the religious idea that god created the universe out of the only materials available at the time. To put it another way, god created the universe out of god.

If that’s the case, then all that is, is god. We are all made of god-stuff; we are all made of god. God is in every bit of the universe, in every bit of us.

It is also reasonable to guess that god did not use all of the energy/matter of god in creating the universe. Some was left over. And as specific physical systems age and die and disintegrate, they are recycled by the universe. They return to god-stuff.

We know that matter and energy recycle in the physical world. We can see it every time we eat a meal, or light a fire, or start a compost pile, or watch a firefly. We know it every time we dig up a pile of bone fragments that were once a body. And we try in vain to prevent it or at least slow it down every time we embalm a body and encase it in a concrete tomb to protect it from the natural elements of decay.

We know both scientifically and theologically that the body returns to god-stuff, returns to god, when we die. But what about US? What about our consciousness, our soul, and more importantly our identity? Who we are seems inextricably interconnected with our physical existence. When we lose that connection to physical reality what do we become? Are we nothing more than a memory in those who remain in the physical?

But if god is the primary energy/matter of the universe, and if god is conscious energy/matter, and if we are all made of god-stuff and return to god-stuff when we die, then it is reasonable to believe that our consciousness, our soul, our personality returns to god/consciousness. Different belief systems will speculate differently about how that return manifests. Some will see the human soul as distinct and individual, retaining that individuality and distinctness after death. Others will see the individual soul returning to the one soul, becoming part of the god/matter/energy of all things, becoming indistinguishable from it. Still others will believe that the distinct energy/matter of individuals will continue to have individual experience, continue to learn and grow, will go to distinct places in the whole of the god/energy/matter and feel joy or suffering or something else. The differences in these beliefs have, of course, more to do with our human needs, and with who we are in this life, with our hopes and fears and desires, than with anything we can objectively demonstrate about what actually happens.

I believe that the universe is a rational universe. It can be observed by humans, and humans can use those observations to build understanding about how it all works. But I also believe that human understanding is limited by the simple reality of being human. I don’t believe that we have come anywhere even close to exhausting the possible limits of human intellect or human experience or human understanding, knowledge or spirit. So I have to wonder what possibilities open up for us when we are freed of the limits of our physical human existence. As a deist, I seek answers to that wonder in both science and belief and do not see them as incompatible. I certainly do not see them as exclusive or in conflict. It isn’t necessary to reject science to find god or reject god to understand science.

I believe in a universe that is of god and is god; a god of infinite possibility and endless variety. I believe that we are all made of god-stuff and that we return to god-stuff when we die. I believe that it is equally possible that we retain our individual identity and that we surrender it to the larger identity of god.

On the other hand, however we return to the energy/matter of the universe, the idea that we are all made of the same god-stuff that has built the universe might help us to begin to see our relationships with each other and with the world we live in in more loving ways, regardless of what we choose to believe about what happens afterwards. The more important piece is an understanding that, whether you see it as scientific or religious, we are here now, in this time and place; we are part of it and it is part of us. Taking care of any part of the whole takes care of some part of us. We don’t have to die to return to god. All we have to do is turn to each other and to the world; and see them as they really are – energy/matter/god.

Why Not Believe in God? Good Question.

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 5, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Let me start by making it clear that I believe in the existence of god. And the two most important pieces of that statement to me are the word “believe” and the lower-case ”g.” But it is the purpose of this essay neither to argue about that belief nor to persuade anyone that I am correct.
Instead, I want to say that I think that I can understand why a reasonable person might not believe in god. And the fault lies with religion. Because the Earth’s religions have without exception provided such limited visions of what god might be that a reasonable person can find fault with them all; they have nearly all insisted on remaining devoutly loyal to ancient and untenable perceptions of the nature of reality and the realities of nature, clinging to ideas that defy what any intelligent person can easily observe or can discover through simple research about how the universe is constructed and how it works; they have constructed dogmas and ideologies that are often simultaneously simplistic and obscure; and they have chosen to fight one another over the righteousness of their beliefs, even engaging in actions that contradict and defy the very teachings they claim to be defending in their righteousness. And along the way they have dragged the bulk of humanity through unconscionable suffering. The fact that they have provided many people with clearly positive things, such as compassion, hope, community and a sense of connection to the better parts of their human soul (for want of a better word) does not in any way excuse nor mitigate any of the above.
The reasons for these things are all grounded in the fact that religion is a human activity. Of all the creatures we know of, of all that is in nature, only humans practice religion; only humans express a belief in god. One of the most important aspects of religion is that it gives context and community and power to particular moral imperatives. Now you don’t need a religion in order to have a powerful moral code, you only have to be human; but religion makes it easier by giving large numbers of people access to a moral code that they can reference as necessary without having to think about what their personal moral code might be every time life presents them with a moral dilemma requiring a choice. Now you may think this is a good thing or a bad thing, but I present it simply as an observation, not a judgment.
The rest of the world’s creatures have no need of a morality, because they do not have the capacity to see themselves as separate from the rest of the universe. A cat that kills a bird does not do so because it considers the murder a good thing, and it cannot consider whether it might be more useful to kill the rats instead; it is simply doing what it was designed to do as part of the great ecology of the universe. But a human being is blessed or cursed with the ability to consider its choices as one living in the world, but not necessarily part of it; affecting it and affected by it, but somehow above it; its caretaker, beneficiary, and most self-consciously important denizen. We know that what we do affects the world, but we are often more concerned about what it can do for us than what we are doing to it – and more concerned about what other humans can do for us than what we are doing to each other. Used properly, a solid moral code can help us to navigate through all that for everyone’s ultimate benefit. Used badly it justifies the bizarre, the atrocious, the criminal and the destructive.
Given these kinds of perceptions, it is not at all unreasonable to look at the world with as objective a view as is humanly possible; to not assume or believe that which does not hold out the possibility of proof. There is morality in the notion that this is all there is, and that we need to preserve it, nurture it; understand it; and treat all of it, including ourselves and other humans, with the utmost respect and care. This does not, of course, describe the perspectives, beliefs or actions of all atheists any more than a single description can describe the morality of all believers in god; but it is certainly a reasonable thing to believe in, and it is open to the same limitless individual variations as any religious belief. And it is open to the same possibility of abuse.
The point is that either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The difference is in how each of us defines god. Our beliefs are in our definitions. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. And the same is true of those who do not believe in the existence of god. Get them together and being honest about the details of such things and they will find that they do not all agree about everything they believe about the non-existence of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might or might not exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those beliefs and perceptions. We can use our idea of god and the universe to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
Arguing about the existence of god will never ultimately answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction; but talking about what we believe and how we are trying to understand what others believe could possibly bring us to a place where we can see the human in all of us, where we can honor the human experience in all its diversity and wonder; if only more of us could do that without judgment, but with a genuine desire to know and respect each other. In the end, I believe that whether you believe in god is less important than how you use what you believe to guide your actions in the world.

A Solemn Ceremonial Prayer

In A God of Infinite Possibility on May 6, 2014 at 4:35 pm

The Supreme Court of the United States has just ruled, on a 5-4 split vote, that sectarian prayer at town hall meetings is allowed because, essentially, it is traditional, it has a ceremonial value and its purpose is to enhance the solemnity of the occasion.
So, I would like, therefor, to ask the following questions.

Where, exactly does the Constitution establish “tradition” as a constitutional standard? This is especially troubling, because nearly all of the justices seemed to agree that the traditional nature of the practice was part of why it was allowed before legislative sessions in a 1983 decision. But tradition isn’t a constitutional argument. Tradition is the argument of those who want to continue to do something they really shouldn’t be doing. And what constitutes a tradition? The long-established, traditional and formal motto on the Great Seal of the United States was “E Pluribus Unum” until it was changed in 1954. If a suggestion were made to return to the original, would tradition now favor “In God We Trust”? Moreover, the tradition argument has been rejected in other instances, such as the argument that state houses in the South should be able to fly the Confederate Battle Flag. And arguments about “traditional” marriage are being routinely rejected by the courts in same-sex marriage suits. Any time I hear someone arguing about tradition in a constitutional issue, I would ask them where in the Constitution they find that.

How does one give a purely “ceremonial” sectarian prayer? This includes at least two separate concerns. First, the definition of prayer is an appeal to a deity. This assumes, does it not, the existence of a deity. Belief in a deity is, also by definition, a defining characteristic of a religion. There was, apparently, some small effort on the part of the Greece, NY, Town Council to solicit prayers from a variety of religious representatives and they even said that they would welcome an atheist who wished to give the prayer; but the overwhelming majority of prayers have been Christian and many have made a point of proclaiming the existence of God and Jesus as defined by Christianity. Now quite apart from the idea that an atheist prayer is something of an oxymoron, how can any prayer be purely ceremonial? Do those clergy, or others, who deliver the prayer recognize that this particular prayer has no religious value in this particular instance? Are there special prayers that are only ceremonial? Do the people praying cross their fingers behind their backs so God will know they’re just kidding this time? Let’s be honest here. No sincere believer ever says a prayer to God only for the ceremonial value it holds.
Let us imagine for a moment, though, that the Town Council in your home town is genuinely interested in having a fully diverse and representative group of people deliver prayers on a rotating basis at the beginning of meetings. They do a thorough outreach to every belief system in the town and secure a Catholic priest, a Baptist, a Methodist, a Congregationalist, an Evangelical Free Bible Congregation, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Baha’i, a Wiccan, a Deist, an Agnostic, and an Atheist. Would the townspeople who might be willing to sit quietly while being led in a prayer asking the blessings of Allah or Shiva, or Goddess, or Baha’u’llah? Would they feel satisfied if the prayer leader specifically invoked Jesus as the one true path, and be able to contain themselves if the prayer specifically denied Jesus’ existence? And if we assume that all are willing to be equally affirmed or offended in their turns, is anything really valuable achieved thereby? Which leads to the next question.

How does any of this contribute to the ”solemnity” of the occasion? Town meetings and legislative sessions are, after all, functions of government. Those chosen to serve as representatives to these bodies are supposed to conduct the business of government. Is this not itself a solemn enough responsibility? What exactly does a prayer add to that? If I am elected to represent a body of citizens who have entrusted me to take care of their business, should I not already be approaching that work in a solemn manner? Am I not most often asked, upon election, to take a solemn oath to that effect? And can we honestly say that that is the purpose in mind when a clergyman gives such a prayer? Does the minister ask only that God make this occasion more solemn? Does any prayer which asks for a special degree of divine grace or blessing really just address the “solemnity” of the moment; or is it doing more than that, asking more than that? Is it, in fact, offering the subtle or not-so-subtle argument that a deity exists and the blessing of the deity is somehow part of and necessary to the work of the government; and is this not a de facto establishment of a religious component to the proceedings?

Might I make a suggestion? If your town is asking that something be done before town meeting to solemnize the occasion in a ceremonial fashion, why not make it a secular ceremony as befits the work at hand. Why not something like this:
As we prepare to commence the work of this Council (legislature, governmental body, etc.) let us all take a moment to individually and personally commit to the solemn and sacred task ahead. May the members of the council, whose duty it is represent the needs, desires and interests of the people they serve, be deliberate, reasonable, fair and sober in their deliberations and their actions. May those gathered here to observe or participate in this meeting as citizens remember that the work of this body is to serve the whole community and accept that there will be times when their personal petitions will not be granted. And may all present be willing to listen, to be respectful of one another, to be civil in their discourse, and to be mindful that the work of governing is a process that transcends the decisions of one day.


I don’t pretend that this is a perfect text. I’m certain that a group of fair-minded citizens could devise something appropriate for their own community. But isn’t this closer to what we should be ceremonially solemnizing at the beginning of a government meeting in a democracy that seeks keep separate the function and responsibilities of churches and the state?

Of Holy Days and Holidays

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Between the vernal equinox and the new year are more than two dozen secular and religious observances. Some, like Thanksgiving and the winter solstice, are clearly secular; although there may be religious observances connected to them. Some, such as the birth of Baha`u`llah, the founder of the Baha`i faith, and Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Mohammed’s grandson for the Shia and Moses’ fast after the escape from Egypt for Sunnis, or the Jewish Hannukah, are clearly religious. Others seem to straddle the religious and the secular. Halloween, for instance is celebrated as a day of costuming and trick-or-treating by a great many people of all faiths and beliefs, but is also the Christian All Hallows Eve followed by All Saints Day; in the same way, there is, in the United States certainly, a large commercial and secular celebration of Christmas that has little but the name to connect it to the Western Christian Holy Day (Orthodox Christmas isn’t until the first week in January).
A significant number of the religious holy days are celebrations of birth or death. In addition to All Hallows Day (which honors the dead) and the Baha`i birthday celebrations (in addition to Baha`u`llah there is also the birthday of the Bab, founder of the Babi, a precursor to Baha`i) and Christmas, there are the birthday of Guru Nawak and the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahador in the Sikh faith, and the Ascension of Abou`l-Bahar in the Baha`i.
Other observances concern specific events in the history of specific faiths. Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, which is the day that Prince Gautama took his seat under the Bodhi tree, where he would receive the enlightenment and awaken spiritually as the Buddha. The Baha`i celebrate the Day of the Covenant. Early November gives us New Year in the Muslim calendar and Bandi Chhor Divas, the liberation of the 6th Guru and the 52 Kings in the Sikh.
A significant number of observances and holidays have a connection to nature, the passage of time, and to beginnings and endings; and often cross secular and religious lines. New Year’s Day in the common calendar is celebrated the first day of January, a month named after the Roman God Janus, who had two faces and could look backward and forward at the same time. At the same time, the Shinto celebrate Gantan-Sai by saying prayers for inner renewal, prosperity and health. The Hindu celebration of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, honors the human urge to move toward the light, even as the northern hemisphere moves toward its darkest days. Also, of course, there is the Pagan Yule at the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Pagan celebrations also coincide with Halloween with Samhain in the northern hemisphere signifying beginnings and endings and the remembrance of the dead; and Beltaine in the southern hemisphere signifying the conjoining of the God and Goddess, and the beginning of creation.
All of these things are excellent reasons to celebrate. Even those who espouse no spiritual or religious beliefs at all can recognize that we humans are tied biologically, psychologically, and emotionally to the natural rhythms of the planet and the universe and find useful, even inspirational, metaphors in this season. The Fall has long signified old age, the fading of the light, and of life. After the solstice we begin to see through the Winter the return of the light, the preparation for the rebirth and renewal that come with the Spring.
The point of all this is not simply the number of celebrations or the common themes that run through them. That’s important and points to how much we humans have in common, how much we are all alike. This is true all year long. You can pick any time of year and find just as many instances of secular and religious holy days, holidays and observances that will make the same point. But soon we will begin to see people arguing about what to call this time of year. We will once again be told that “Happy Holidays” is an attack on Christianity, that the birth of Christ is the only legitimate “reason for the season.” This is the point I want to address.
This nation, and the world, is full of good reasons to celebrate. The simple recognition of that fact does not diminish the specialness or significance of any specific celebration. If you are a Christian and wish to greet other Christians by saying “Merry Christmas,” then do so. If you choose not to acknowledge the celebrations of non-Christians, then don’t. You will be the less for it. But when those who do wish to recognize the fullness and diversity of the season say “Happy Holidays,” that does not steal anything from you. There is enough love and good will and humanity to go around and to celebrate. And all these holidays and holy days are supposed to be celebrations of the best of us.
This year, let us not worry so much about what we call the season and think, instead, about how we are going to live it; and beyond that about how we can take the best lessons of the season forward into our lives in the new year. That would really be something to celebrate.

The Selfishness of Grief

In A God of Infinite Possibility on September 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm

All human interaction is based on our desire to have our needs met. All relationships are based on a sharing of needs and agreements to help each other satisfy needs appropriate to the relationship. In other words, we desire and expect our relationships to help us meet our needs. The greater the need, the more we move from desiring, to expecting, to requiring that the other meet our needs. The more intense the emotion, the more intensely selfish we may become.
Thus it is with the selfishness of grief.
Grief is a response to real or perceived loss. There are times when we can know very directly what it is we have lost. At other times, we infer that we have lost something because we are aware of an emptiness that cannot always be named, but we grieve whatever was where the emptiness now is; or what was supposed to fill the emptiness, but hasn’t. And we turn that need, that emptiness, outward. We desire, expect, require that others help us to fill in that space or help us to understand and reconcile the emptiness.
At first, we are rewarded for our grief. Others see that we are grieving and come forward to comfort us, to express their love for us and their caring for what has happened, their understanding of the emptiness which has caused our grief. But the others in our lives have lives of their own. At some point they will move on and we are less and less able to call on them to help us with our grief. This is natural, but also hurtful. We don’t understand. We are still grieving, how can it be that others are no longer available to fill the emptiness, to resolve the grief. This can lead us to anger. The other has abandoned us. How selfish it is of them to get on with their lives while we still grieve. Our need is greater than theirs and they must acknowledge that and satisfy our need.
This process is especially difficult when it is expressed in the relationships between people who are both grieving the same loss; which is, of course, not the same loss at all. The same thing may have been lost, but the loss is different for each of us; and so is the grieving. It’s easy to assume that because what has been lost is the same, then the other must be grieving as we are. So when either of behaves in ways that do not meet the needs of our grief, we are hurt by that. Clearly, our grief must be greater than theirs, more important, even superior. We require them to know this and to do what we need, rather than what they need. We may even understand that what the other is doing is related to their own process of grief, but our own needs are more important.
This gets all mixed up with love, also. If the other does not grieve as we do, does not continue to meet our needs as we desire and expect, then how can we trust that they love us? If our grief is superior, so must be our love. How can they not see this? We begin to want our grief, our love, to “win.” I may know that you love me, and I may know that you are grieving; but not nearly as much as I love you, not nearly as much as I am grieving. And each of these proves the other. And in this circular argument I am convinced that your responsibility for meeting my need is self-evident.
We are all selfish in our need and more selfish when our need is greater. This is natural. But it is a good thing to be aware of our own and others’ selfishness, to consider how that is affecting our relationships, and to forgive ourselves and others for the things we do that are hurtful to each other. It is good, I think, to try to stay conscious of this common selfishness that grief creates and remember to say to one another, “I love you and I honor your grief, but I am taking care of myself right now. If what you need is in conflict with what I need, we may both feel hurt by that; but I haven’t stopped loving you, and I haven’t stopped grieving, and I haven’t stopped needing.

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.

A Creation Story

In A God of Infinite Possibility on November 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Before the beginning there was Existence.  And Existence was without form and without size and without time and was therefore infinite.  And Existence knew Itself, for there was nothing else to know.

And Existence chose and in the choosing changed Itself.  And that was the beginning of time, for now Existence could measure Itself by Its choices and by the change that Existence knew came from Its choices.

And Existence chose to create of Itself, for there was nothing else to create of.  And Existence chose to create of Itself a universe; and It gathered parts of Itself together and of Itself created energy and matter.  And It gave the energy and matter rules and set them in motion; and that was the beginning of form and space.

And in the course of time, energy and matter formed stars and planets and moons and all that the cosmos contains.  And in the course of time, the planets saw the growth of all manner of life; and all was according to the rules by which Existence had set the universe in motion.  And each life held within it some part of Existence, and each part of Existence knew itself.

And in the course of time, each new life, each part of Existence, chose and in the choosing changed itself.  And that was the beginning of evolution.  And in the course of evolution, life became more complex; and as life became more complex, it learned.  And in learning, each part of Existence knew itself and measured time by its knowing and measured space by its knowing.

And in the course of time, some parts of Existence grew and changed and became human, and humankind knew that it needed to name itself and its experience of the universe; and that was the beginning of language.  And each of these parts of Existence not only knew itself, but could imagine the Existence from which it had sprung.  And that was the beginning of religion.  And each of these parts of Existence knew and could observe its own experience of the universe and see that Existence had set the universe in motion according to rules that governed that motion; and that was the beginning of science.

And through it all, Existence learned; and Existence knew that whatever choice any part of Existence made brought change; and every choice and every change that any part of Existence made was made by all of Existence.

And humankind began to see that Existence did not judge, so humans took that task unto themselves; and that was the beginning of morality.  And the parts of Existence that were humankind saw that their lives needed order and predictability and boundaries to make sense of time and space; and that was the beginning of law.

And Existence was pleased with Itself.   And because only Existence Itself could be infinite, It had created Its universe in time and space and made it finite; and now Existence made Itself known to humankind and to each part of Existence according to its own experience of time and space; and to each according to its own imagination of religion, and understanding of science.  And humankind gave Existence many names, such as God and Goddess and Allah and Ra and Isis and Vishnu and Zeus and Hera and Wodin and Freya and Baal.  And Reason.  But Existence knew that names are only necessary for humankind to make order and sense of its own small part of Existence, but Existence Itself has no name and needs no name.

And that is the beginning of wisdom.

The Question of Evil — Part 2

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

If everything that is, is God, then what is evil?  Is it part of God?  Did God create it?  What is the purpose of evil?

What if there were no “evil” in the world?  What if everything was equally “good?”  No matter what you chose, the consequences would be equally happy, equally beneficial.  How would you choose?  Even simple choices would have no meaning, no significance, no basis for evaluation.  Should I have coffee or tea?  Should I wear the blue shirt or the red?  Should I turn left or right?  What do I prefer?  And on what basis do I prefer it?  When all is good, judgment becomes impossible.  Now the same would be true if there were only evil, of course.  If we could not perceive both good and evil, then choice would be arbitrary and meaningless.

It is interesting to note that the thing that is forbidden in the Garden of Eden is knowledge; specifically, the knowledge of good and evil.  This makes sense only if Adam and Eve are ignorant of both.  They cannot know evil without knowing good, or good without evil, because one is necessary to the other.  Something is good to the extent that it is not evil and vice-versa.  Something is better to the extent that it is less evil and more good; it is worse to the extent that it is less good and more evil.  Now, if it seems I am using evil almost synonymously with “bad,” it’s because I am.  If we believe that there are degrees of evil , or if we simply believe that an evil thing is extremely bad, then we can talk about good and evil as directions rather than places.  And we can see that our ability to understand great good requires us to imagine great evil to compare it with.  Our ability to believe in the Devil as perfect evil requires us to believe in God as perfect good.  Otherwise, what does any of it mean?

As an analogy, consider the idea that if everyone were rich, then no one would be.  An understanding of great wealth requires a contrasting understanding of great poverty.  But when does one become perfectly wealthy?  We have no agreement as to when someone would be so wealthy that no more wealth would be possible or necessary, because we have no contrasting image of someone so poor that greater poverty would be impossible.  Would ownership of literally everything make someone perfectly wealthy?  What if he owned everything and was owed an equal amount? Or twice as much?  Would that make everyone else perfectly poor?  Or would some owe more than others?  Would we have to adjust our understanding of wealth to mean “less in debt?”  At that point would it make any difference?  Perhaps we could even argue that at some point being even more in debt might be a form of wealth, because those who owed the most would be worth the most.  But what if we were to consider wealth and poverty not as places, but as directions?  We would be wealthy to the extent that our choices around wealth moved in a “wealthy” direction; poor to the extent that our wealth choices moved in the direction of “poverty.”

Consider also a bar magnet.  One end is “north,” and the other is “south.”  Or we might call one end “positive” and the other “negative.”  But these distinctions are arbitrary.  If the ends aren’t labeled, how do we know which is which?  And the “positive” and “negative” qualities are not just at the ends.  If we cut the magnet in half, we get two new magnets, each of which has the same qualities of positive and negative.  Cut the two magnets into four, or eight, or sixteen, or however many you want, and you will never reach a point where any piece is all one or the other.

This is the nature of good and evil in our choices.  All choices are actions, and all actions contain the possibility of both good and evil.  Large choices have greater possibilities for good or evil, smaller choices have smaller possibility, but no matter how you slice it, every choice has the potential for either.  In choosing, as in magnets, positive and negative aren’t ends, they are directions.  We can determine the “north” and “south” ends of the magnet if we can make it into a compass, which would allow us to position the magnet according to known, fixed points – one north and one south.  In the same way, we can know the directions our choices might lead us in if we can make magnets of them, orient them to some sort of fixed moral points labeled good and evil.

Morality is our compass.  Our particular standards of morality are the fixed points against which we can orient the positive and negative directions of our actions.  Morality is a set of judgments based on our perceptions of good and evil, of benefit or harm.  Something is evil to the extent that it causes harm, good to the extent that it creates benefit.  But these are arbitrary and human determinations.  That which benefits me might harm you, for instance.  That which I think is good, you might find to be evil.  Each of us has her or his own compass, and they do not all point to the same fixed pole.  And so we gather into communities of various kinds, both spiritual and secular, where we can be with others who have similar compasses to our own.  This doesn’t make the compasses any less arbitrary or human, but it does give us support for our moral judgments.

The Eden Dilemma and the Question of Evil — Part 1

In A God of Infinite Possibility on October 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm

THE EDEN DILEMMA

                If we try to imagine life in the Biblical Garden of Eden, we run into a major problem.  Adam and Eve are depicted as living in a paradise of Godly perfection.  Until the appearance of the serpent, there is no evil: no violence, no corruption, neither illness nor death.  The inhabitants can look forward to an eternity of constant goodness.  But they are also both ignorant and naïve, and purposeless.  Adam is apparently given the task of naming everything in the garden, but why?  Is it just busy-work?  He is incapable of failing at the task, because there are no standards against which to judge his efforts.  Making a mistake is impossible, because a mistake would suggest that there are ”better” or “worse” choices; but this is Eden where there is only good.  But what does “good” mean without anything else to compare it to?  And what of Eve?  Except to provide companionship for Adam, she has no purpose at all.  And what sort of companionship can she provide?  What will they talk about?  There is no point in discussing the names Adam is giving the animals, because there is no basis for discussing them.  After Adam says that this animal is a “sheep,” for instance, and Eve acknowledges the name, what more is there to discuss?  It is impossible to ask whether it is a good name, because it must be.  She can’t even ask “why,” because there is no particular reason for any of it.  And if there were reasons they would all be good reasons.  It is an endless, eternal cycle of unrelenting “goodness.”

Except for three important details.  There is forbidden fruit, there is the ability to make a choice, and there is a possibility of desire.

Without knowledge of good and evil, choice becomes meaningless; and without choice there is no point in knowing about good and evil.  So Adam and Eve must have been given the ability to choose.  They must have had free will.  Otherwise, there would have been no reason for God to deny them access to the Tree of Knowledge, because they could not have chosen to eat from it anyway.  But the ability to choose requires that there be a choice to make.  What choices did Adam and Eve actually have?  They could choose to go to this place or that within Eden, but all places were equally perfect.  They could choose to eat any of the fruit from any tree in the garden, but all fruits were equally perfect.  They could interact with any of the animals in the garden, but all animals and all interactions were equally perfect.  Without the forbidden fruit, without a choice, free will had no meaning.  So how could they choose?

In the absence of reason as a basis for choice, we have to have desire.  If it is equally good to eat a peach or a fig, then perhaps we simply need to desire one or the other.  “I think I would like a peach today,” doesn’t require us to denigrate the choice of a fig, only to recognize a momentary preference.  If we do not think about our preferences, but simply respond to them, act on them, then knowledge of good and evil is only necessary if there is the possibility of evil in a choice we might desire.  This is the real meaning of the serpent.  The serpent doesn’t make Eve aware of the choice – she already knows that the fruit is forbidden – the serpent’s role is to convince Eve that she desires the fruit, so that she has a reason to choose it.  And the fact that the fruit is forbidden is an argument in favor of desire, because unless the thing is desirable, there is no reason to choose it, and consequently no reason to forbid the choice.

But there is still a problem.  The forbidden fruit gives Adam and Eve the knowledge that there is both good and evil in the world, but it doesn’t give them clear knowledge of which is which.  This they have to figure out as they go along.  They quickly understand that things have changed; but they have no solid basis for judging those changes.  They find that they are naked, and become ashamed by the knowledge.  Why?  They have been naked all along in Eden, and Eden is perfect, so why should nakedness be shameful?  Apparently, it is the knowledge of their nakedness that is shameful, not the nakedness itself.  Things get topsy-turvy pretty quickly after that.  In Eden, there is no death.  The lion and the lamb lie down together and both eat grass.  Adam and Eve eat only fruit.  But after they eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and know that they are naked, Got clothes them in animal skins.  They learn that not only are the animals now killing each other for survival, but that they must also kill in order to survive.  Before the fall, God had created a world in which killing was not possible; after the fall, the descendants of Adam and Eve kill each other – beginning with Adam and Eve’s first born sons – in order to have the things they need and desire;  and even more than that, they kill other animals, make sacrifices, to honor God.  So is killing evil, or good?

Before the fall, Adam and Eve are ignorant of sex.  There is no need for sex, because there is no need for procreation.  In fact, procreation would be a problem, because there is no death.  There is no desire for sex, because there is no knowledge of sex.  Knowledge of sex would be a problem in Eden unless procreation was impossible, because if sexual activity is a choice, then desire may lead us to choose it, and in the absence of pregnancy prevention, choosing it would inevitably lead to procreation.  But is sex, therefore, evil?  Is procreation?  Is everything that did not exist in Eden before the fall evil by definition?  Note that eating the forbidden fruit doesn’t creategood and evil, it simply allows Adam and Eve to know that they exist.  It allows them to see the possibilities for good and evil in the choices they might make, and to consider those possibilities as they choose.

Thus, the lesson of the Garden of Eden becomes not the emergence of evil, or original sin, but the attainment of knowledge, and with it full humanity.  It is, after all, our ability to choose and to give meaning to our choices that makes us human.  Why would God set it up that way?  Perhaps because if good is the direction of God, then maybe God wants us to choose it; to go toward God consciously; to know what it is we are doing.  And we cannot always know which choice is the “good” one because life is more complex than that, and because the experience of life is, itself, essential to understanding the choices.  If it were easier, it wouldn’t mean so much.

An old folk song praises the day that Eve got Adam to eat the apple, because without that we wouldn’t be here at all.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge, in Eden, was the only fruit (other than eternal life) that was not to be eaten.  Now it is the only fruit we must eat.  We must not go ignorantly or accidently toward God (except of course in the case of children or other innocents), but must eat daily of the fruit of knowledge and then choose.

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