Looking for God in all the wrong places.
The still-missing him of the question and response is God. The question is itself a response to the posters I periodically tack up around campus publicizing my English 378 course, "The Search for God." These posters invite students of varying beliefs (or disbeliefs) to participate in a three-credit course exploring through literature the great questions about God: His (?) existence, his moral nature, his communications with humans, his moral demands upon us, his rewards and punishments. The literature itself ranges from the Old and New Testaments to Thomas Paine, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, and Elie Wiesel.
I suspect my colleagues think me to be the village atheist and do not anticipate much more than a quip for an answer to their question. But I have been teaching this course since 1984 and seriously pondering these questions for many years before then. In the process, my thought has evolved in unexpected ways. Perhaps a more serious response is now in order.
But first a disclaimer. I am not a professional theologian or philosopher. My reading in these fields has been wide but unsystematic. Many of my ideas have been acquired directly or indirectly from this reading over the years; I am now unable to document some of these sources. I do not delude myself that I have some entirely original thought to contribute. Nevertheless, there might well be some originality in my synthesis of these ideas or in the process by which they gradually emerged for me or in my expression of the experience. I invite those readers who find such possibilities intriguing.
Do I believe that God exists? The first time the question occurred to me I was an eighth grader recently finished with the mild doctrination of my parents' Congregational church and confirmed a thirteen-year-old Christian. I had just completed my dutiful bedtime prayer ("... and God bless Mom and Dad and ...") when something resembling a reverse revelation occurred--a considerable shock. Everything that I had been taught about him suddenly seemed nonsensical, even preposterous. The experience reminded me of Paul on the road to Damascus, except that I was lying in bed, and the voice was saying, "Carl! I Don't Exist!"
As I now recall, my disbelief then was based upon a sudden realization of the gigantic gulf between the world I perceived and the fundamental assertion of Christianity: that an invisible spirit is everywhere, listening to and watching over all human beings simultaneously. The idea seemed contrary to all common sense. In fact, God seemed no more real than that rotund gentleman who, in a single night, delivers Christmas gifts to all the world's children. Santa, at least, was not invisible. The one inexplicable fact was that so many otherwise normal adults, having outgrown Santa Claus, still seemed to believe in God.
Despite years of searching since then, my answer to the question of God's absolute, objective existence has not changed. The God of my fathers, of the Bible, and of orthodox Christian confession--omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, the creator of heaven and earth, the supernatural father who listens to our prayers and sometimes answers them, who is angry at our sinfulness but who so loves the world that he offers his only son as a blood sacrifice to himself so that whosoever shall believe in this son shall not be tormented forever in hell but shall have eternal bliss in heaven--this God is not my personal lord and savior. This God is no more real to me than Jupiter or Wotan.
And yet, paradoxically, this God of Christianity has, over the years, attained for me a very real existence. The only way of clarifying this apparent muddle, this contradiction between disbelief and belief, is to consider carefully both the subject and the predicate in the assertion "God exists."
What does the Christian believer actually assert in the statement "God exists"? First, what does the word God signify in this context? In the imagination of children and other unsophisticated believers, God is a spatiotemporal being--a bearded, robed figure seated on a great white throne in heaven. Many modern believers modify or abandon this unsophisticated view; the problem is how to replace this concept of God and still remain within the fold of the faith. For all Christianity, the Holy Bible is a bedrock source; Protestantism has traditionally proclaimed the Bible as God's sole revelation of himself. But the Bible is a product of ancient, nomadic religious communities believing in an essentially anthropomorphic God armed with supernatural powers. According to this view, he made us in his image, he speaks our language, and he has clearly human emotions. Unfortunately, the Bible tells stories about this God, revealing in him some of the most unworthy human impulses and motives: favoritism, jealousy, anger, callousness, cruelty, even sadism. In fact, God reveals himself to be very wicked.
I know from painful experience that, in making such a statement, I will offend and anger some who might read this. How can I write something so outrageous, so blasphemous, so contrary to church teachings? But the Bible--God's own testimony, according to Christian teaching--is replete with evidence supporting these charges. Consider the most serious of them: that the God of the Bible is cruel--even to the point of sadism. In Genesis 22:1-13, God compels Abraham, his most favored human, to "take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest ... and offer him there for a burnt offering." Abraham follows God's orders: "And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son." Only at the last second does God relent and allow Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. According to standard exegesis, this ordeal was imposed upon Abraham to test his fidelity but Christian doctrine also holds that God is omniscient. If so, God knew that Abraham would pass the test; therefore Abraham's suffering was pointless. Even if God were not omniscient, the test was appallingly cruel.
In a recent discussion of this passage with an honors world literature class, I suggested the psychological torture that Abraham endured by comparing him to William Styron's title character in his novel Sophie's Choice. Sophie, you may recall, is forced by a physician at Auschwitz to choose which of her two young children will live and which will die--if she doesn't choose, both will be murdered. Sophie survives Auschwitz but never recovers from the psychological trauma. Several students were infuriated that I seemed to be comparing God to a sadistic Nazi physician. That was not my point, but is the comparison in fact unjust? If the Bible is God's self-revelation, what is it that he is revealing? I only know that, if God put me in Abraham's position, demanding that I murder my son to prove my loyalty, I would tell him to relocate to a warmer climate. I hope and believe that even the Reverend Billy Graham, if faced with Abraham's situation, would tell God the same thing.
But wait. Abraham was not forced to actually murder his son, just prove his willingness to do so. And this is just one small episode in an epic-sized text. Am I being unjust to the biblical God?
The case of Job, however, is equally distressing. According to God's own testimony, Job is a "perfect and upright man, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil" (Job 1:1). Yet to prove to Satan Job's doglike fidelity, God allows Job to be tortured. As a result, Satan reduces Job to squalid poverty, covers his entire body with painful boils, and murders all his children. Finally, even the ultra-pious Job challenges God's justice: "For he breaketh me with a tempest, and multiplieth my wounds without cause.... He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked.... He will laugh at the trial of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked" (9:17-24). God responds by brow-beating Job into abject submission but never answers the challenge. How could he? According to God's own words, lie has destroyed Job without cause (2:3).
As I ask my students: haven't we all met Job? Don't we all know some decent but miserable person whose life seems to be one catastrophe followed by another? We are fascinated by the story of Job because he is all around us--Job is legion. We know, too, that some day we may share Job's fate--to paraphrase Pogo, we have met Job and he is us.
Still, the stories of Abraham and Job are small scale--God and an individual. The story of the flood (Genesis 6-8) enlarges God's field of action. He is displeased with human wickedness and violence; his response is to exterminate, with the exception of one family, the entire human race--men, women, children, babies (not to mention the extermination of almost all animals). This exceeds the Holocaust; I don't think a word exists for a crime on this scale. And to what end? The earth is eventually repopulated by humans who seem to be no better than those wiped out the first time.
In Exodus, God established the moral code of the Ten Commandments for his people. But what is to be made of the morality of God himself in this book? The Egyptians have enslaved his tribe, the Hebrews, so God visits plagues on the Egyptians to force them to release his people from bondage. But the plagues are punishment for an entire people--not just for Pharaoh, who alone makes decisions. And Pharaoh is at several times willing to free the Hebrews, but God again and again hardens Pharaoh's heart--the text is explicit on this point--so that Pharaoh does not release the Hebrews and God has the opportunity to place ever-more severe plagues upon the Egyptians (9:14, 10:1, and 10:27). God is not satisfied until he has slaughtered all the firstborn of the Egyptians "unto the firstborn of the maid-servant that is behind the mill" (11:5). And to what purpose? In God's own words, "Pharaoh shall not hearken to you [Moses]; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt" (11:9). Wonders indeed. Cruelty and slaughter.
The entire book of Joshua is only a slight variation of this portrait of a God of murderous cruelty. Instead of accomplishing the deed himself, however, God commands his special people, the Hebrews, to invade the lands of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and many other tribes; burn their temples; and kill them all--men, women, and children. There are no Geneva Accords in God's moral universe. And yet, despite all the biblical evidence to the contrary, God is asserted by Christian teaching to be morally perfect, just, and merciful.
The Christian God can be indicted not only on evidence from the Bible--"his holy word"--but also on evidence from the universal experience of humankind. Traditional Christianity teaches that the morally perfect God is also the omniscient and omnipotent creator of the world and that everything that happens happens because he so wills it. But everyone--even the most pious believer--acknowledges that the world is filled with both moral and natural evil. Moral evil is the wickedness committed by human beings; natural evils are the hurtful, destructive elements found in nature--plagues, hurricanes, earthquakes, and diseases. (Mark Twain added flies to the list.)
Christianity traditionally excuses God from any blame for moral evil, saying these wicked deeds are the free choices made by humans. But this free-will defense--a mainstay of Christian apologetics for centuries--has always seemed to me a shabby attempt to blame the victim. God is, after all, our creator, according to Christian teaching. If we consistently exercise free will unwisely or wickedly--if we sin--this argues for a defect in our nature, a nature given to us by God. This is not to excuse the agent. But consider: if a manufacturer with perfect quality control puts on the market a product that he or she knows will self-destruct and, in self-destructing, bring misery and death to innocent bystanders, we would judge such a manufacturer a scoundrel. I don't think God should be held to a lower standard.
Defenders of the free-will doctrine sometimes hold that it is a precious gift--a gift which confers on us our full humanity--but a necessary consequence is that we will sometimes misuse this free will and choose wickedness. This argument will not withstand careful scrutiny. If God had made us sufficiently wise, sufficiently noble, we would always choose good rather than evil. According to Christian teaching, God's only begotten son was so good that he never sinned. Yet surely God did not deny Jesus the precious gift of free will. Why did God not love us sufficiently to make us, like Jesus, proof against sinful temptation? Given the power, is this not what any good parent would do for his or her children? Again, I do not think God should be held to a lower standard. If he had made us defect-free, all the pain and misery caused by moral evil would have been avoided. What satisfaction can God find in the suffering we too often bring upon ourselves and others?
One further thought. If free will is such a precious gift, surely God will not deny his chosen this gift when they reach heaven. But if a necessary consequence of this gift is that it will sometimes be misused, won't this also be the case in heaven? Recall that, according to Christian tradition, a great part of the angelic host did precisely this, rebelling against God and suffering expulsion from heaven. If such was the fate even of angels, can God's chosen saints anticipate anything better? Given Christian teaching, there is no reason to expect an end to this pattern of sin and punishment. Unless God repairs the defects in our nature--defects which he is supposedly responsible for in the first place--happiness will be no more secure in heaven than it was on earth.
And a final perspective on moral evil. If God is a loving father to all of us, why did he, in his omnipotence and omniscience, allow Hitler to survive long enough to slaughter millions, to destroy entire nations? When Hitler almost miraculously survived an assassination attempt, he attributed his deliverance to God. Can any traditional Christian contradict him? And so the prayers of millions were unanswered, and the ovens at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka continued changing babies into ashes and smoke. This same God gave pitifully short lives to Keats and Mozart, who brought joy to so many. The Christian God could effortlessly reduce moral evil in this world by the timely removal from our midst of the most wicked, those who bring only suffering and death, rather than the most worthy, those who bring joy. But often he does not.
As to natural evil--over which free will can have no control--when children die painful, protracted deaths from cancer or other hideous diseases and, in dying, blight the lives of those who love and would nurture them, an omniscient, omnipotent God cannot escape responsibility. Emily Dickinson suggests this in one of her most chilling poems:
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play--
In accidental power--
The blonde Assassin passes on--
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.
We call earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and droughts "acts of God." But can the God who so acts be good?
More fundamentally, can the God of traditional Christianity exist? Can the cruel, mass-murdering tribal deity of the Bible, the creator of the earth with all its evil, be also an infinitely good, just, merciful, knowledgeable, and powerful father of all humanity? Asserting this seems no more rational than asserting the existence of a good evil or a square circle. The moral dilemmas in this portrait of God seem to me unresolvable; I find, as a result, the traditional Christian idea of God to be incoherent and unintelligible.
Contemporary Christian teachings have several responses to these moral dilemmas. One is to differentiate between the Old Testament God, who is sometimes admitted to seem somewhat harsh and judgmental--or is perhaps only partially revealed and understood--and the New Testament God, the God of forgiveness and mercy. But this interpretation fails to recognize that the New Testament God, not the God of the Hebrews, presides over hell. The Old Testament God contented himself with mass murder; the New Testament God pursues his hapless victims beyond the grave to torture them for all eternity. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994):
Jesus solemnly proclaims that he
"will send his angels, and they will
gather ... all evil doers, and throw
them into the furnace of fire," and
that he will pronounce the condemnation:
"Depart from me, you
cursed, into the eternal fire!"
And his victims, according to Christian orthodoxy, are a large majority of the human race--his own defective, doomed, and damned children. Is the human imagination capable of an evil more fiendish than this?
Many liberal Protestant churches, such as the Congregational church of my childhood and the United Church of Christ church I attended for several years in the 1980s, simply ignore the repulsive elements of God's biblical self-revelation. The focus of pulpit teaching and worship is restricted to all the most positive biblical passages--praise God from whom all blessings flow. Hell is never mentioned or becomes only the loneliness and pain of being alienated from the kind, loving, heavenly father. In effect, if not literally, the Bible is expurgated, bowdlerized, but the God who emerges from this process is not the God of our fathers. These churches do leave us with a semi-biblical God who is loving and good. But alas, these churches are clearly in decline.
The more conservative Protestant churches are, by contrast, robust and growing. They generally condemn this liberal temporizing, seeing it, perhaps rightly, as a weigh station on the road leading to that dreaded secular humanism. Conservative Protestantism, unlike the liberal branches, insists that the Bible is historical and inerrant; thus, the God of the Bible must be embraced in his entirety and pronounced good, just, and merciful, even in those episodes where he appears far otherwise. Did God command his people to exterminate the Canaanites--men, women, and children? Well, the Canaanites must have deserved such treatment, and the good lord was right in demanding it (so I have been told by a true believer). But such thinking perverts the words--the very idea--of goodness, justice, and mercy And the God who sanctions, who commands such behavior is also the engineer of the train that goes to Auschwitz.
Another response sometimes forthcoming from the faithful is that God is simply beyond our ken. Indeed one Roman Catholic believer informed me last year that God is utterly beyond human comprehension. But this having been said, no other statement about God can be made. The biblical God who has revealed himself to humanity is abandoned, replaced by God as an indeterminate blank--a word without semantic content. All that I have said to this point should make clear why I am not a Christian, why I do not believe--indeed, cannot believe --in the God of traditional Christianity. What then did I mean when I stated my belief that God does exist? Am I just as confused, muddled, as I think traditional Christian belief to be?
My answer to these questions involves first a closer analysis of both subject and predicate in the statement "God exists." What does the word exist signify? Let's begin with the most familiar and comfortable sense of this word, involving the existence of material objects in the world around us--trees, frogs, chairs, rocks. Our knowledge of these things comes to us first and foremost through our senses--we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch them. Most of us seldom or never consider them in any other light. We are materialists, in the philosophical sense of the word.
When I teach Emersonian idealism to my American literature students, to make the concept accessible, I find I must first undermine their unreflecting materialistic assumptions. I quote Emerson: "The senses give us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell." Then I ask the students, "Is modern physics essentially materialistic or idealistic in its understanding of nature?" Almost invariably the students respond "materialistic." So I give them a quick survey of twentieth-century physics, which also says, in varying vocabularies, that the senses do not reveal the ultimate nature of the world of objects. Atomic physics teaches a universe of elusive particles; field theory teaches a universe of electromagnetic waves and gravitational fields. Both have been empirically verified, as has a third model, quantum physics. Yet the three seem in conflict with each other, and the cosmos exists, simultaneously, as particles, waves, and units of energy. And our unaided senses reveal nothing to us of the mysterious underlying structure of the material world.
Consider further, whether the theoretical framework is atomic physics (e=[mc.sup.2]), field theory, or quantum physics: all three assert that matter--that all things--are essentially energy. I ask my students to think of energy, energy itself, and then to think of a chair as energy, despite the partial, misleading report of the senses. Emerson's idealism was pantheistic, identifying everything in nature with spirit, with the oversoul, with God. But modern physics makes what could be viewed as a parallel assertion using a different vocabulary, substituting energy for spirit.
But asserting the identity between the underlying energy of the universe and God unfortunately muddles the debate about the existence of God; it is bad science and bad theology. Common sense precludes denying the existence of the universe; if the universe is God, the theists win the debate by radical redefinition. But this God is completely other than the God asserted by Christianity, which is supernatural rather than nature itself, known through faith, not science. And God conceptualized this way has one other difference from the Christian God: the energy that is the cosmos itself is completely amoral, entirely apart from any human concept of good and evil, and unresponsive to prayer. This "God" is embodied equally and indifferently in flowers and fungi; in saints and slugs; in a grain of dust, a cancer cell, a turd. But this "God" at least lacks the appalling malice of the Christian God.
But I think we--I think I--need more from God. To understand that the universe is essentially energy is to see the universe more truly; but to identify this energy with God accomplishes nothing, and it leaves unsatisfied aspirations that almost everyone shares to goodness, to a sense of a better, more fulfilling human existence. To find a God relevant to such aspirations, I think it necessary to once again examine the concept of existence itself.
Outside of the external, objective world, there exist non-spatiotemporal realities. We know the words love, justice, and mercy to represent an order of reality, even though they attach to no specific visual or audio image, even though they occupy no space at any specific time. Ideas of this kind relate not to things or objects but to actions. Love, mercy, and justice are known in the external world--the world of objects--by human deeds. R. Buckminster Fuller once wrote that God is a verb not a noun. This statement, of course, is linguistic nonsense--just try to write an intelligible English sentence with God in the verb slot. Nevertheless, the statement is somehow true, another way of saying that God is not a thing or a person but an ideal that is made manifest only by human actions. In a non-human world--an ocean world, for example, inhabited by starfish and sharks, algae and plankton--there is no love, no mercy, no justice. And the only God is the amoral energy of nature.
By contrast, in our world--in the world of human societies--love, mercy, and justice do exist. And so does the real God--the God of good and evil. Or rather, many Gods: Roman Catholic Gods, Protestant Gods, Jewish Gods, Muslim Gods--a God for each believer. The problem is that most believers, I think, accept a composite God who is a preposterous muddle of contradictions, a God infected with the gravest moral evil. But this makes that God no less real.
I don't believe that Christians worship a God they know to be evil. Many worship as they have been taught to worship, never seriously exploring the moral implications of the biblical God. Other believers are capable of incredible feats of rationalization to protect themselves from uncomfortable challenges to the teachings of parents and church. Others might worship out of fear and denial. Reading the works of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century American Puritans, I sense that they sometimes saw the biblical God as I see him but feared hellfire so utterly that they would say, believe, whatever this God required of them. Since they believed that the only alternative to belief and worship was eternal torture, can they be blamed? Perhaps some modern believers respond to the same fear.
But I can't help wondering whether belief in and worship of a God for this reason isn't a moral failure--a betrayal of worthy human values. Should we really wish to spend all eternity worshipping a God who is for all eternity torturing most of the human race, including, in all probability, people we knew and loved? Make no mistake; this is a traditional Christian teaching.
Michael Wigglesworth, whose Day of Doom was the single best-selling book in the United States for almost a century, revealed this loathsome implication of the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell:
The godly wife conceives no grief,
nor can she shed a tear
For the sad state of her dear mate,
when she his doom doth hear...
The pious father had now much rather
his graceless son should lie
In hell with devils, for all his evils
Than God most high should injury
by sparring him sustain;
And doth rejoice to hear Christ's voice
adjudging him to pain....
Yet this God, the God of traditional Christianity, is real--as real as any idea. And God is a tremendously powerful idea, an idea that can transform individuals and worlds. "God will help me overcome this sickness." "God will save me from despair." "God inspires me to serve my unfortunate brethren." But also "God commanded me to kill my beloved son, Isaac." "God has commanded me to exterminate the Canaanites." Or the Jews. Or witches, heretics, papists, infidels, Indians, homosexuals, Bosnians. And so God too often becomes an incarnation of our most wicked impulses.
I believe that, first, we must take responsibility for our God. To do this, we must recognize the nature of his existence. This God--the God of good and evil--is not a spatiotemporal thing like a tree or a frog. This God is instead an idea--like love, mercy, and justice (or their opposites)--and so he is whatever we think him to be, believe him to be, dream him to be.
Sometimes believers and even organized religion itself seem to touch upon the nature of this God's existence. "God is love." "The Kingdom of God is within you." Or God is identified with a spirit of good will and community, with a life freed from the shackles of greed, a life of sharing and forgiveness. William Blake wrote of this God in his poem, "The Divine Image":
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All Pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form
In heathen, turk, or jew:
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
So perhaps we can have a better God--a God freed from the barbarism of ancient origins, a God who does not need editing or sanitizing or rationalizing. Perhaps we can have a God who embodies only our highest ideals.
Have I found God? I think that at least I have made some progress, and that I now know better what it is that I am searching for.
Carl Stecher is a professor of English at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts, and a former Woodrow Wilson Fellow.
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|Title Annotation:||Exploring the Humanist Philosophy|
|Date:||May 1, 1998|
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