Who will save your soul? In search of a humane God

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Michael G. Brock

I

Serving Two Masters

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other…”1

At the end of last summer I went to a celebration of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, with a friend of mine. My background is Irish Catholic, but everyone was cordial and welcomed me to the celebration. While watching the Tiger game I got into a brief discussion of religion with one of the guests and I told him I didn’t believe in human gods.

He laughed and said, “Maybe you’ll become Jewish.”

I said, “There are worse things to be, but I have too much faith in God to believe in religion.”

He laughed again, but that is really how I feel. As much as I am convinced there is a God, I see why others don’t believe. Most non-believers’ arguments don’t have as much to do with God as they do with religious trappings: All religions ask you to believe things that you know are scientifically impossible. They tell you in subtle or not so subtle ways that you are better than other people, and that those who believe otherwise are wrong or misguided, or perhaps fundamentally evil.

Religion is based in culture and most people believe what they believe because that is their culture; it’s what they were born into. Hence, historically, while religion has tried to teach its adherents to behave morally toward those of its own persuasion, it has been the rationale for mistreating those who don’t believe as we do, or who worship differently. These differences have even served as a justification for genocide, especially in the 20th century.

Ethnocentrism, the belief in the superiority of one’s culture and beliefs, probably predates civilization. The need to band together against the elements, wild animals and hostile tribes, and for the individuals to sacrifice their own immediate needs for the needs of the group requires the belief that those needs are somehow superior to one’s own needs and that it is right and just to make sacrifices for the good of the group. One rationale for making that sacrifice is patriotism, and religion has often been married to patriotism, as evidenced by the phrase, “God and country.” The notion that God sanctions the killing of those who have a different language or culture, even though they may share the same God and fundamental beliefs, has persisted throughout history, and is as prevalent today as it ever was.

Nor is this a belief and attitude that is confined to wartime. A few years back I read an authorized biography of the Beatles in which they confirmed that they had stopped touring because of multiple death threats made from America’s “Bible Belt” after John Lennon’s comments that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In fact, as William F. Buckley pointed out at the time, local gods have always been more popular than the Universal God, so it was probably the case that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and no one should be surprised by that. But the reason for the death threats against the Beatles was the threat some Christians felt to themselves and their world view by someone as transient as a pop star saying in essence that he was more important than the person they believe is a human incarnation of God. Moreover, any truth to the statement aside, and regardless of the tenor of the times, for one to be audacious enough to claim that the message of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” in a benign anarchy was more important than Jesus’ Message of universal, altruistic love, non-violent mercy and forgiveness, and self-control, seemed to many unforgivable, and deserving the ultimate punishment of violent retaliation.

Despite the seeming contradiction of that position, the reaction resonates for the same reasons that others have reacted violently to perceived or real insults to religious leaders. Such attacks or insults represent a threat to the underlying presumptions of an entire culture or people about the meaning of life and one’s existence on the planet. For all the hard evidence we have about the makeup of the atmosphere of Jupiter, or what happens when you split a uranium atom, or power aircraft by controlled burning of carbon fuels, nobody really knows why we exist, what the ultimate meaning of life is, or what happens when we die. The best we have are someone’s opinions. It is the unknowability of absolute truth and the importance of the questions religious leaders answer that give those opinions such great weight. We need to feel that we matter, whether individually, or as extension of our culture—we need certainty about the uncertain.

Isn’t this ultimately why we are willing to argue in favor of something we know can’t be true? To believe that the world was created in six days? That a human can be divine? That God will listen to the pleading of humans and subvert the laws of physics to alter the course of human history? And isn’t this why we offer these alleged “miracles” as proof of what might be true, but for which there is no irrefutable proof: that there is a Master of the Universe and that this Master is aware of and cares about my race and myself as an individual, small as I am in the vast, unexplained and unknowable expanse of space?

However, by explaining God and the Universe in a way that favors myself and my group, I have also succeeded in placing others in a less favorable position, not only in my eyes, but in the eyes of the Ultimate Authority. And by despiritualizing others, I have committed perhaps the most common and the most grievous of all human sins, I have given God my attributes and my preferences, and rationalized my dehumanizing of other humans, and indeed all other life forms because of my perception that I am God’s favorite and that others are less favored. Therefore, they are less worthy of what I have or want, perhaps even less worthy of existence than me or those like me.

In the studies of what traits distinguish a murderer, researchers consistently find that murders have the ability to objectify others, and see them as less than human. For whatever inherent or cultural reasons, some humans have an easier time dehumanizing others than most of us. The great irony is that this person, when given the rationale of religious superiority, is capable of atrocities they would not think of without it. And while religion may make most of us more moral and less self-centered than we would be without it, this particular personality now has a free pass to indulge whatever antisocial impulses they may have because it is what God expects—even demands—of him.

A relationship with God, particularly the relationship talked about by mystics—those who believe in a direct person relationship with and experience of the infinite, like Jesus, Gandhi, Buber and Hafiz—is something that is quite different, and in many ways diametrically opposed to this ethnocentric and political view of God, and something much more universal. For them, what one believes, or whether one strictly follows the “rules,” is not as important as a growing experience of, and relationship with a God that cannot be manipulated or used for one’s own purposes. He/She/It must be approached in humble prayer and/or meditation; and will then leads us through subtle pressure down a strange and unforeseeable path to serve Its will through surrender of our will and ego to a Higher Purpose.

The mystic is characterized by a disinterest in immutable absolutes of behavior, hard and fast rules, however good, are perceived as guidelines that may define the boundaries of a relationship, but can never address all aspects of the subtle course of life or interaction with others. There is an understanding that one who feels they own the truth is perhaps the one who is furthest from a relationship with God; that the universe is in constant motion and no hard and fast rules can apply to all situations.

Love is the common theme that runs through all mystical writings; love of God first of all, then by extension love for our fellow humans and, ultimately, all of God’s creation. Moreover, love is not a feeling, love is service and sacrifice of pride, ego and selfishness. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus is quoted in Matthew2, and, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.3” Gandhi saw the psychological advantage in doing this. By treating his enemies, the representatives of the occupying British Empire, with respect and dignity he ultimately shamed them into leaving India to work out its own issues without resorting to violent rebellion. There were exceptions to be sure, but it was a comparatively peaceful transition to self-rule.4

Persian Sufi poet Hafiz has a poem in which he is asked in a hypothetical conversation about the truth of his guest’s visions, and whether they are from God. He answers the guest, “You asked me if I thought your visions were true. I would say that they were if they make you become more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know.”5

Love and kindness are the recurrent themes of the mystics of all faiths and all ages. It is their passion and their obsession, and goes far beyond concerns about the rules or the minimum requirements. The question they ask is, “How can I give more?” “How can I be a better servant?” “How can I surrender more of myself, and in so doing, merge with God, who is both the source and recipient of all love?” It was this question Francis of Assisi addressed when he wrote: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”
A
nd, as Hafiz states the same concept somewhat differently: “Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me”…Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?”
M
y daughter embraces a formal religion, but like all who wish to do so and stay sane, she is in a process of continual evaluation of what aspects she accepts as true to her understanding of God, and which ring false and are not to be given much weight. She tells me that without the existence of the religious structure there would be no source for the development of my (or presumably any mystic’s) concept of God. She has a point. Monotheism did not come out of thin air, it was a concept that grew out of the mutual group consciousness of the Jews, Christians, Muslims and other monotheistic faiths.
Bu
t the emphasis for mystics has always been the similarities and what unites us all, and not the theological divide; a divide built of theories that cannot be proven, but only debated and fought over. What we can know of God can be experienced and demonstrated, inferred and given voice in art and music, but can never be fully grasped in linear thought or defined in theology. In the words of Lao Tzu, “There is a way that can be spoken, but it is not the Infinite Way.”6 And though they may be intertwined and inseparable, God and religion will always represent for me an example of Jesus’ admonition that one cannot serve two masters. Jesus said that one cannot serve both God and money, but it may be equally true that one cannot serve both God and religion; we will wind up committed to one and, in one way or another, forsaking the other.

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II

Are Science and  God Incompatible?

Before the advent of modern science, religion was presumed to have all the answers to the meaning of life. It explained how the world came to be and how it functioned. Myths and legends of the many gods of the Greeks, Romans and Persians depicted a battle between good and evil acted out by anthropomorphic deities, who could be moral and immoral by turns, who interacted with humans, and sometimes bore children with them. Good didn’t always win, and there was an uneasy and frequently changing equilibrium. Natural phenomena were explained by the whims, moods and favor or disfavor of the Gods.
Except that today most of the world believes in one God who rules over all, not a lot has changed. This God can still be seen as capricious, and as favoring one group over another. Much human conflict is still rooted in which group God favors, and humans still petition this God to bless their endeavors, from love to warfare. When their desires are satisfied they give thanks, and attribute their good fortune to God’s favor. When they are disappointed they may vacillate between feeling unworthy, and blaming God for betrayal. It is a great human desire is to be certain of some ultimate meaning, and it is still a major function of religion to provide that meaning.

Since the advent of modern science at the time of the renaissance, more and more natural phenomena have been explained as functions of scientific laws. Storms are the result of the heating and cooling of the earth’s atmosphere, earthquakes are caused by shifts in huge tectonic plates, and the planets revolve around the sun because of gravity. It is generally accepted that the universe began with a big bang, and that our solar system is about 4.5 billion years old. Most scientists believe that humans evolved from lower forms of life, and these theories are generally accepted because more primitive forms of humans and their civilizations have been discovered by archeologists, and their ages determined by carbon dating.

Science has made possible an explosion in population and medicine and technologies that give more people longer life at a higher quality than has ever been possible in human history. Consequently, few people doubt the underlying principles of modern science, and even if we don’t understand a lot of the concepts, we certainly see the proof in the pudding. Much of what was previously thought to be literally true about the creation of the earth and life as we know it in six days by an anthropomorphic God is now thought by most to be a mythopoeic explanation by human storytellers who lacked the scientific background to provide a more accurate account of historical events. They are widely viewed as fiction.

But if religious accounts of events are fictionalized, does that mean they do not contain any truth, or that what religions have to tell us about how to live have no merit? Has science replaced religion?
Some would argue it has, and that religious explanations for events are no longer necessary now that we have more accurate explanations for natural phenomena. But even though scientists as a group are more skeptical than the general population, roughly half of them believe in God or a Higher Power. It may not be the personal God of the Bible, it may be the impersonal God of Spinoza (the great clockmaker as it were) which was the God that Einstein7 famously referred to in his statement the “God does not play dice with men.”

Why would people with a better explanation believe in God? Perhaps it is because Science can explain the “how” of things with a fair degree of certainty, and in so doing it may have replaced one of the functions of a Creator, but there is really no science to tell us “why.” Even with the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, there has never been, and probably could never be any material evidence that would prove or disprove the existence of God.

How do we prove intent? as in whether the universe was formed by intent vs. accident? When I look at the universe, or that part of it I can experience, I am amazed by two thoughts: that the world seems to be so amazingly well-organized down to the minutest detail, and that the world seems to be entirely random and unpredictable. Every discovery and explanation for events seems to invite many more questions and this process seems to go on eternally. Everything we know seems to emphasize how much we don’t know, and suggests that what we will never know is infinite.

Some scientists have suggested that there is a limit to infinity, but is that possible? Is there really any possible end to discovery? Sure, when the sun becomes a red giant and the world we live in ends, or if humans make an end to life on earth before that happens, there will be an end to human discovery. But did scientific law begin with humans? And will it end when we end? Surely not. Universal order has existed since the beginning of time and will continue as long as there is a physical universe. So while there are new discoveries every day and “the only constant is change,” there is also, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “nothing new under the sun8.”

Marcus Aurelius said of human existence that if you live to be 40 you’ve seen it all.9 So there is the eternal paradox of immutable law and continual permutations. Does anyone believe this will change? That there will be no more change? Quantum physics notwithstanding, will there be a change in the laws governing the physical universe? Will gravity cease to exist? Will there be no variations to endless repetitions of the natural universe, and will the universe cease to evolve?

But evolve toward what? What does it all mean? Science is incapable of providing those answers. And if religion is fiction, isn’t it true that humans always have and always will resort to fiction as a way of explaining what cannot be explained in any other way? Why are stories so important to humans? Can anyone go through life without them? And who but a reductionist wants to hear only stories that are devoid of imagination and relate only facts? Are such people capable of scientific discovery?

To be controlled by dogma, whether religious or scientific, is to be rigid and joyless, the opposite of spiritual and opposed to the spirit of discovery that informs both scientific and artistic pursuits. The human who is fully alive and creative is able to extrapolate from what is what could be, and to recombine elements of fact or fiction into new truths that resonate in the human soul. It is not a zero sum game, fact or fiction, science or faith in greater force. Not all truth can be quantified in mathematical or scientific terms. Even if the truths that are important to an individual can be, how do they quantify the wonder and precision, the sense of satisfaction that one gains through discovery? Why do they not delight (as some do!) in smashing the world to bits instead?

Indeed, scientists’ discoveries have no innate morality; they can be used for good or for evil purposes. Most are used for both, and there is to be sure an ongoing struggle between the individual good and the good of all. And why does one care about whether a thing is good or evil? The words presume meaning—a meaning that nihilists don’t acknowledge, or if they do, define in a way that no reasonable person would agree with. Scientists presume their discoveries will lead to a better world, but will it? What is a better world? Better for whom and in what way? Can values be quantified in such a way as to satisfy some kind of absolute standard? Even the nearly absolute standards of science? Especially the absolute standards of science!

Yet values are real and necessary. Those who say that science answers all of life’s questions and that religion is not necessary take so much for granted that they would be shocked if they saw how much of life they actually take on faith. Not everyone assumes there is a reason to get up in the morning, or carry on with life. Does science provide that meaning? Science may be that meaning for the scientist, but does it provide a hard and fast reason for enduring what Thomas Wolfe called “the hard and purposeless suffering of life”10? Science can offer no ultimate meaning, and no solution for the existential crisis. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl concluded in his book about surviving the Holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, stripped of all outward trappings, one makes a decision that life has meaning. For him the meaning was the memory of having loved and having been loved.11

Freud defined mental health as the ability to love and work productively. It might be said that to work productively is to love, because love is service. Love is not merely a feeling, it is behavior. Therefore work—any kind of work done or product made as a service to others—is an act of love. We all recognize love, but can science quantify it? Love is essential to the existence of every human being and every society, and without it neither can survive. And Freud himself had no explanation for why any one person loves another; he said there was no explanation. Even if science can measure what part of the brain is activated when we love, can love, or any human experience, be reduced to its corresponding biochemistry?

Ultimately, science is a kind of truth, as law may be a kind of truth, or an approach to the truth, but it is not the whole truth. Making sense of mystery is an entirely different kind of truth, and one that may even be more necessary to the human soul/psyche than scientific truth. It existed long before science and has never ceased to be a human need. Anyone who has gone to a movie or a play, or listened to a pop song or a symphony has experienced some kind of distillation of their emotional reaction to the human experience, and has felt some degree of satisfaction when the story or music gave them some clarity that squared with their own experience.

So essential is this experience that Shakespeare was led to expound in “The Merchant of Venice:”

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus:

Let no such man be trusted…12

There is ultimately no conflict between a spiritual way of life and a belief in scientific discovery, even though there may be conflict between literal interpretations of religious writings and what we know to be scientifically possible. Stephen Hawking’s efforts notwithstanding, there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of God, but the belief that life has some intrinsic meaning and the ability to define what that meaning is for one’s self is essential for all of us to go on living. Those who can no longer convince themselves that such meaning exists cease to exist.

I no longer see conflict between what the scientist defines as meaning and what I define as meaning, though I might call it God and they might call it scientific law. We are both searching for and perceiving order. We are like the mystics of all religions, who, though they are coming from very different points on the religious spectrum, are constantly having the same experience and discovering and rediscovering the same truths. What exists is what exists, and all of us at any given time can apprehend only a small slice of existence, and only though the particular lens with which we have been provided. Still, we are all viewing the same truth, filled with the same mystery, and hopefully finding enough meaning there to keep going and find existence worth the effort.

III

The Politics of Religion

In his book about the historical Jesus, titled, Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan points out that the Christian world did not become united about the divinity of Jesus until the Council of Nicaea in 325. He correctly attributes this event to the conversion of Constantine, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, to Christianity. What he does not delve into were the reasons it was important to the emperor to have theological consistency among Christians. However, if Christianity was going to be the State religion, it seems apparent that disputes about theological issues needed to be resolved in the interests of political harmony.

Disagreements about theology were common at that time. Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, a monotheistic faith, that not only rejected the idea of human divinity, but whose traditional adherents were outraged by (the apostle) Paul’s teaching that gentile converts could eat pork and that circumcision was not essential. Paul was teaching in synagogues as well as churches, and many Jewish followers of Jesus were not pleased by what Paul said. Many thought that Jesus was the Messiah, but there is no teaching in the Old Testament to suggest that the Messiah was divine.

There was a major dispute between Jesus’ brother James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, and Paul, which resulted in Paul being called back from the diaspora to perform a ritual cleansing at the Temple. Both James and Paul were ultimately killed by their enemies, but it was mostly Paul’s writings that survived and ultimately determined the course of the new religion. For all the stories about miracles performed by Jesus, including rising from the dead and appearing before his disciples in the flesh, the Gospels are far from clear about Jesus’ divinity. In fact, depending on the translation, there is either none or one passage in scripture where Jesus claimed his own divinity.

But what is most telling is the consistency of the words actually attributed to Jesus. There are multiple examples in the Gospels of Jesus stating that “It is the Father in me that does the works13,” and, “The father is greater than I14,” and even in the only prayer he taught, Jesus said to pray to God “Our Father15.” According to Christian theology, Jesus is a coequal with God and the Holy Spirt in a Triune God, but if that is the case, how can God be greater than God? As Martin Buber Points out in his seminal work, I and Thou, this clear contradiction. And what about the notion that one God could have not only three manifestations, but three clearly separate identities? Christian apologists tend to pass these contradictions off as mysteries, that cannot be explained, but have to be accepted on faith. But these tenants of faith were not accepted by either the Jews that came before, or the Muslims that came after, so how did they become central tenants of an ostensibly monotheistic faith?

Part of the reason was undeniably Paul’s hero worship of Jesus16, who was a truly remarkable human being. He spoke of a higher morality than anyone had taught before or since. And while it could be argued that Gandhi extended Jesus’ concepts of loving your enemies and resisting injustice without turning to violence (as Jesus did when he attacked the money changers in the Temple), his fundamental teachings were those of Jesus. And though he ultimately decided to remain a Hindu, it was more likely for cultural reasons rather than spiritual.

Indeed, Gandhi hated many aspects of Hindu teachings, especially the caste system; and though he loved the Bhagavad Gita, he did not teach war as a spiritual undertaking—far from it. He believed that peace was the spiritual path. His take away from the Gita was that when one is certain of God’s will in a situation, he needed to follow God’s will without concern for the outcome.

He was not, however, arrogant enough to think he had a lock on the truth, and when he was convinced by Nehru that there would be a rebellion that no one would control among Hindus if Gandhi allowed Jinnah to form the first government of a free India, he capitulated. Ultimately, it was a Hindu who felt he had given away too much power to the Muslims that assassinated him, but not before he was heartbroken to see India divided along religious lines, spawning a conflict that has continued with varying degrees of intensity until this day. That Gandhi felt access to God was something that no person had control over was apparent in his respect for adherents of all religions and is well documented in his book of autobiographical writings called, All Men Are Brothers.

That disputes such as those noted above could be disruptive to political harmony was undoubtedly more apparent to people of earlier times and other places than it is to Americans of today, who have a secular government and who agree to disagree about religion. In most places in the world and for most of human history, religion and politics have been closely linked, and war over religious issues has been a constant up until today. So, when Constantine convened a counsel in 325 to standardize Christian worship, it was not entirely for his own personal religious reasons. He was riding the tide, as was Clovis when he unified France under the Christian banner around 500 CE.

Both leaders unquestionably saw one religion as beneficial to their political purposes. It seems not only possible, but extremely likely that Constantine had some influence over the bishops in attendances at the Counsel of Nicaea regarding which tenants of the faith became the standard. It is also worth remembering that when Romans wanted to shore up their power, it was not uncommon to have themselves deified. Constantine did not attempt to do this, and it is not clear that he put pressure upon the bishops at Nicaea to find that Jesus was divine, but it did meet the needs of the Emperor that Jesus’ divinity insured his authority could not therefore be questioned.

Religion continues to be political, both in the ends that it is put to by political leaders, and within established religions themselves. Prior to the separation of church and state in the west, which was a long back and forth process over centuries, religious and political leaders of empires and states frequently vied for power. During the Christian period, challengers to the Roman church’s authority were often burned at the stake. Sometimes it was simple trickery and malice, as in the case of John Huss (or Jan Hus) in 1415, who petitioned the Church of Rome for many of the same reforms requested 100 years later by Martin Luther. Sometimes, as in the case of Joan of Arc in 1431, it was with the consent of political authorities—in her case the French Dauphin, to whom she had become something of an embarrassment, after initially being useful.

Martin Luther, who, after failing to obtain reforms based on his famous “95 theses” in Rome, elected to break with the Catholic Church in 1520-21, and began the protestant movement. It is noteworthy that in his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he supported the new nationalism by advocating German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealed to the German princes to help effect the reformation in Germany. He attacked the Pope’s claim of authority over secular rulers and denied the Pope was the final interpreter of scripture, enunciating the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Once Rome’s authority had been successfully challenged by Luther, Henry VIII of England was able to use the precedent in 1534 to successfully (after some back and forth) establish an independent Church of England, that changed little of Catholic theology, but which made the King (and subsequently the Queen) of England also the spiritual head of the church. The intent and effect was clearly to diminish the political power of Rome. The Pope fought back by excommunicating protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1570, clearly hoping to incite rebellion among the Catholics in the population, but this effort ultimately failed.17

The notion that religion is an affair between each human and his God is gaining increasing acceptance in the West. There is the rise of the New Age movement, and ecumenical movements that deny the existence of a central authority. Perhaps it is as George Bernard Shaw states in his introduction to the play, St. Joan, that a true protestant is one who invents his or her own religion. In his exposition of this topic, however, what Shaw defines as “true Protestantism,” is Joan’s personal relationship and interaction with God. She talks to God, and God talks back; which might be more accurately defined as mysticism.

Luther’s statements about the priesthood of all believers notwithstanding, Protestants look as much to their clergy for leadership and interpretation of spiritual texts as Catholics, and the same can be accurately said of any organized religion. Any theology is ultimately a political statement of corporately held beliefs and agreed upon rules for personal and social interaction. However successful a sect is in separating itself from its parent religion, it ultimately winds up establishing its own rules and ecclesiastical hierarchy, which like any rules devoid of spirit tend to stifle more than inspire, and to leave the indi