A Little God Talk
Let me make very clear that I respect serious, religious followers, those who truly believe in and feel enriched by their chosen faith. I envy them, in fact, because they are benefiting from a source of peace — a “balm” if you will — that I feel is forever closed to me due to a personal system of ideas that won’t permit it. To those for whom the explanations and forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and all the other -isms give satisfaction and security, I think it’s wonderful. I remember I once stopped at a McDonald's in Connecticut on my way back from New Jersey and saw a man organize his Big Mac, fries and Coke on the table in front of him and then clasp his hands and bow his head in prayer. That’s religion for me. That’s what it’s all about. Not the riches of the Vatican, no liturgical mumbo-jumbo, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just a simple man giving God thanks for his simple meal. Some might be struck by the tackiness of it — a McDonald's after all — but I felt the poignancy. I couldn’t help thinking Jesus would eat at a McDonald's while the Pharisees dined at the Ritz.
Having come from good Scandinavian stock, I was naturally raised a Lutheran. I went to Sunday School and sang the Bible songs and knew that Jesus was a handsome white man with long hair and a beard and who had a special liking for children. He walked with me and He talked with me. Every year my Sunday School pin grew longer and longer and I loved to hear the Bible stories. My family had a Bible storybook and one day I pretended I was sick so I could stay home from school and read it. I particularly liked the Old Testament stories, because God back then was more into signs and wonders. And there was a lot of smiting going on. I wondered at the personality shift God underwent from the Old Testament to the New. The Old Testament God was a proactive God, while the New Testament God seemed a bit too laissez faire for my tastes. The Old Testament God nearly wiped everybody out with a flood because of the wickedness. I wondered, Were they any more wicked back then than we are now? for even as I child I knew we could still be pretty wicked. Would there be another flood? Or maybe that was what the hydrogen bomb was for.
I seriously considered becoming a minister when I was in my teens. My nickname in high school was “Rev,” which was short for “Reverend.” I attended Pentecostal services and heard people speak in tongues (which I believe, to this day, to be no sham — whatever it was those people were doing, they were sincere and it sounded just like language). But somewhere along the way my intellect kicked in. My big, stupid, brain couldn’t just let me enjoy and be satisfied with the system of beliefs I was being fed. And I fell away. It turned out my seed was sown on rocky soil.
So here’s my present take on God and religion, and it goes a little something like this:
Man is, by nature, curious. That’s what makes man great, the “paragon of animals” as Shakespeare put it. Curiosity has spurred man on to discover and build and conquer, to cure diseases, control mighty rivers, connect up the farthest reaches of the planet and swing a golf iron on the moon. Man always wants to find out. Man has questions and he craves answers. And when he doesn’t get answers, it frustrates him because he can’t stop trying no matter how blocked he gets. So finally, to quell the inner turmoil, to give him some peace of mind, I think man eventually invents the answers.
Why are we here? How did we get here? What is the meaning of life? How can the infinite, like space and time, exist? Men of genius have driven themselves mad by these questions, while lesser lights like myself go running to the pharmacy for a bottle of Excedrin. And, for a lot of people — often very intelligent people who could whip me in an I.Q. contest with half their brain tied behind their back — that’s where the Bible comes in, because there in that one-and-a-half-inch thick book are all the answers in black and white and the gray areas in between. The creation of the world. An all-powerful, benevolent being who watches over us. The parables. Wisdom and poetry, signs and wonders. It’s all there.
Here’s my big problem with the Bible: it’s written by men. Wait a minute, that’s not quite right: it was told and retold and retold and re-retold and then it was written by men, sort of like that game of telephone we played as kids. Men who lived thousands of years ago, whose belief systems, education and frames of references were vastly different from ours, telling stories we would surely brand as tall tales if they didn't have the stamp of authenticity the Bible gives them. Greek mythology? Ha, ha, ha! People used to think that stuff was true! The world created in seven days? You better believe it. The Shinto deities? Puh-leeze! The Father, Son and Holy Ghost? What’s so strange about that? Krishna Consciousness? That wacky cult, with their saffron robes, weird hairdos and all that chanting? Catholic monastic orders? God bless those robed, tonsured holy men and their Gregorian chant.
To sum up: I just don’t buy the Bible. I regard it more as mythology than anything else. And as the Bible is the foundation of the Christian Church, I don’t consider myself a Christian either.
I had a discussion with a friend of mine about God once, and I mentioned that Spinoza considered God and Nature to be the same thing. She liked that notion, and said she often thought of God as a force, like electricity. As we pursued this course, we agreed that all of this, the universe, our planet, and the life our planet sustains can’t be an accident, and that those philosophical arguments of First Cause and the Prime Mover must be true, so there really was a God, as it was impossible for us to conceive there wasn’t. When you entertain notions like these, you automatically start asking yourself, what is God like? And then: what possible inkling of the nature of the Infinite can be imparted to our mean, finite minds? Just who is it we pray to anyway? Can we ever know?
The excellent novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, takes place in a small Georgia town during the Depression and tells how several of the tortured souls who live there gravitate toward a deaf mute by the name of John Singer. Singer was an intelligent man who could read lips and was, after a fashion, considered a good “listener” — certainly one who couldn’t talk back anyway. A young girl, an old, black doctor, a disenchanted social activist and a lonely widower visited him often and unburdened themselves, each feeling certain that Singer understood them perfectly, was simpatico with them in fact. The truth was, John Singer was a sad man who accepted their company out of loneliness and felt bewildered by their talk. The John Singer they knew wasn’t the John Singer who was. Two completely separate people.
I think during those infrequent times when I pray, I kind of make my own John Singer. I assume the Being I’m speaking to knows my history, my virtues and my foibles, my desires and my intentions. He knows I try to be good and He gives me a little pat on the head when I’m done. But can it really be that way? Is this God the God of the universe, the God of all sentient life? The God of the billions here on Earth and infinite numbers that people the other planets? How much attention can He seriously devote to me, for in His eyes I can only be the size of a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-atomic particle. I am really only one billionth the size of a neutrino. How can He possibly be the God I was raised to believe in?
God, for all we know, might be a colossal, impassive clock that exactly ticks out the tune the universe inexorably turns to. Benjamin Franklin, mindful of the vastness of the universe and the certainty of intelligent life other than our own, imagined that God delegated responsibility for our welfare among legions of lesser gods who reported back to him. Boss God. God Central. Why not? Makes as much sense as anything else.
I believe there is a God, but I don’t know what He’s like. I occasionally pray, but I don’t know who I’m talking to. I enjoy the feeling of being in churches and synagogues, but I am careful not to analyze why that’s so. I wonder what will happen to me after I die, but I have only vague ideas. I have this notion that my soul or consciousness or essence is like matter, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed, and will continue after the corporeal part of my being has passed on. Reincarnation doesn’t seem entirely out of line to me, as it’s really hard for me to believe that at some point I will simply stop. It’s all a great mystery. Unexplainable, inconceivable, but not unacceptable.