A Fanciful Musician Replies
by Michael R. Miller
[ draft of June 9, 2008 ]
The quick answer I would suggest is - no. It has become increasingly clear that the traditional conceptions of the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem God are no longer adequate for the world of the 21st century. Frankly, these beliefs cause as many problems as they help solve. Am I saying that God as a belief or a fact is no longer tenable? Again - no. But our ideas of God and our assumptions regarding the Divine need to change radically if we are to have a future worth having.
At the heart of the problem is the cloudy relationship between us and God. At this point in human history it can be characterized as a power struggle, similar, I imagine to the stormy relationship between parent and adolescent. In previous times of faith it was more like the life-supporting relationship between a little child and its parent in which parental wisdom, power and goodness is not questioned. Could the parent-offspring comparison be applied further? We all know that it is possible though not inevitable that as the child matures and the parent mellows, a beautiful relationship of mutual respect and appreciation may grow. Dare we apply this to God?
I can already hear many objections to this parent-child analogy from the scientifically-minded to the religiously inclined. They would probably say
This is the kind of bunk you would expect from those undisciplined artsy-fartsy types. The critics would mostly come from two camps: those who would say that the whole God question is unimportant today and those who would maintain that God is the most important issue but that the
faith of our fathers (title of a traditional Protestant hymn) is what counts. Both of these extreme positions are foolish and show a narrow-mindedness that does little to further an understanding of an issue of such relevance today.
My simple offspring-parent analogy may or may not be helpful. But I cannot help feeling that we
moderns are losing a great opportunity to further our humanity by not freely sharing our experiences of faith and doubt in God. Of course this goes against political correctness and may not always be prudent. Yet in the long run, wouldn't the benefits outweigh the risks?
A further objection might well be that I am not particularly qualified in theology or philosophy to delve into this topic. I do have a Ph.D, but it is in musical composition! I should add at this point that I was brought as a Catholic, have been a Quaker for 32 years and recently been told that I am really a pantheist with Universalist leanings. You can judge for yourselves.
Could it be though, that my subject is of the very kind that should not be left entirely to experts? So, calling on other non-professionals to join the fray, I will bluster on, undeterred. If my thoughts prove to be of little interest to others, so be it. At least I will have satisfied a long-held urge to sort out my many notions by getting them on paper. And I will have
faced the music in my own way. Of course the thoughts of others have been a great help. Of special note in this regard has been Chet Raymo's book, Skeptics and Believers, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion (1998).
What do I mean by
facing the music? Two things: 1) being open to the expanding insights and perspectives which science offers relating to our human nature and to Nature herself including the universe, and 2) trying to integrate these into a common world view in a way that enhances our humanity, that develops what is most precious in us individually and collectively. Putting it bluntly, this simply means that if we really want a happy, peaceful, just society to develop, we can no longer use religion or science as an excuse to kill, hurt, suppress or exploit humans beings. Here's another fanciful comparison. Compared to other animals, humans are God's orphans! They appear to have been abandoned and denied the guidance that developing children need. Instead they have been kicked out of the natural world and forced to make their own way. No wonder they make so many mistakes, more mistakes it seems than their non-human brothers and sisters, who simply accept their roles of struggle and cooperation without asking why.
Science has shown us that every creature has made unique adaptations to its environment in its competition to survive and reproduce. Mankind's unique adaptation is intelligence. Armed with this, humans have won the competition against other beings hands down. They are clearly on top at least for now. But their success has come at a price. With godlike powers have come godlike responsibilities. We have still to find our true place in the natural scheme of things and act accordingly. Up to now with few natural impediments except for diseases and natural disasters, we have found it hard not to abuse our powers.
One of the powers that intelligence brings is, of course, imagination. An example of this is our almost universal traditional belief in a god or gods. I have a hunch that it is our separation from the natural world that drives us to imagine immaterial beings that control the natural world. Fears of death and catastrophe and the desire for reassurance against these fears prompt a belief in the supernatural, and tend to quell the suspicion that it may originate in our imagination. Religious beliefs become enmeshed in the culture of a nation. Religion can contribute much to national solidarity and to the self-confidence of its members. Obviously humanity as a whole has benefited from the development of individual nations in terms of ideas, concepts, inventions, technology. But the unfortunate consequence of the pursuit by each nation of its own interest has often been a violent struggle for resources and influence including wars of conquest, slavery, and oppression.
Until recently the inhuman side of nationalism was accepted as inevitable. Surprisingly, organized religion did nothing effective to curb such national violence. The hope is that now, more of us know better. Nations more and more are being forced to learn to live together cooperatively. Like it or not we have become a global village facing an ever-dwindling supply of vital resources largely because of our abuse of the environment. Nor has the problem of the control of powerful weapons yet been solved. Abuse of human rights on a national scale such as the Darfur genocide cry out for international military intervention as a police mission. Getting the international community to agree on, and to take such action is the question. Let us hope that any future Darfur will be handled as a crime against humanity with the expediency it deserves.
Many people, especially in North America, do not question the connection between morality and traditional religion. Yet many, many of our recent moral concerns are hardly addressed by Christianity, Judaism or Islam. I mean genocide, weapons of mass destruction, environmental abuse, international law, human rights, democracy, separation of church and state, income tax, universal education. Need I go further? In fact, our cherished values as a democratic society cannot be traced to religion. They stem largely from Western liberal concepts developed in Europe from about the 18th through the 21st centuries.
Of course, the lack of moral behavior in our society is a problem. But crime must be addressed with empathy for the perpetrator as well as the victim, especially if either one lacks advantages that most of us take for granted. Too often we demonize lawbreakers, forgetting that much of antisocial behavior, including lying, stealing, assault and even murder, is a kind of adaptation to an environment of neglect and oppression since early childhood. Offenders need to be involved in repairing the damage as much as possible to victims or their families. Society should use its collective
ethical imagination in finding supportive ways of integrating youth into the adult world before they become alienated.
The Ethical Imagination is actually the title of a new book by Margaret Somerville that I found very helpful in trying to answer the question in the title of this essay, Is Faith of our Fathers Enough? As a much-respected ethicist her focus is different from mine; it is on the new ethical questions raised by the new reproductive technology, genetics modification, and transhumanism. But her balanced humanistic approach in clarifying moral complexities might well serve as a model for the way we conduct our search for an idea of the Divine that we can all share, despite our various religious and non-religious persuasions. Though we may succeed in finding a basis to ethical behavior that is generally acceptable and practical, why bother with a common conception of God? Because there is subtle, though essential, connection between ethics and God or the Divine.
At this point, for the sake of clarity I would simplify the Divine as the Other, and ethics as how we treat others. I realize that the Divine also includes ourselves and how we treat ourselves. But our natural instinct of survival tends to support our personal and group interests anyway, while belittling the interests of those outside our group. As a sense of the Divine, the Other serves as a counterbalance to this
natural egotism and helps us remember to be considerate of others, which include everything from our threatened environment to our threatened fellow humans. I think that Jesus implied this when he said,
How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbour whom you can see?
If we broaden our concept of God to include 1) having a positive attitude toward life in general, and 2) trying to follow an ethical ideal, it would seem that many who might be classified as atheists, agnostics, and nontheists share theistic assumptions. In the last year of two I have gained much by reading several contemporary authors, some of whom I have already acknowledged. I would like to quote relevant passages from six more:
Different beliefs can open the mind to possibilities previously undreamed of, and this open-mindedness can be best achieved by maintaining a compassionate dialogue between all sides of the spiritual debate, especially between scientific and religious views. I believe this is what Einstein was suggesting when he said
science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind. Whether we are gazing through a telescope, or contemplating our soul, we can all marvel at the beauty and mysteriousness of the universe.
- Andrew Newberg, Why We Believe What We Believe, p. 245
Our minds have been built by selfish genes, but they have been built to be social, trustworthy, and cooperative. That is the paradox that this book has tried to explain. Human beings come into this world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit ourselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour.
- Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, p. 249
Nonzero-sumness is a kind of potential. Like what physicists call
potential energy, it can be tapped or not tapped, depending on how people behave. But there's a difference. When you tap potential energy - when you, say, nudge a bowling ball off a cliff -- you've reduced the amount of energy in the world. Nonzero-sumness, in contrast, is self-generating. To realize nonzero-sumness-to turn the potential into positive sums--often creates even more potential, more zero-sumness. That is the reason that the world once boasted only a handful of bacteria and today features IBM, Coca-Cola, and the United Nations.
- Robert Wright, Nonzero, the Logic of Human Destiny, p. 339
At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed? The problem with religion is that it blends the truth with the venom of unreason?But a more profound response to existence is possible for us, and the testimony of Jesus and of countless other men and women over the ages attests to this. The challenge for us is to start talking about this possibility in rational terms.
- Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 204
There seems to be a steadily shifting standard of what is morally acceptable. Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War. Something has shifted in the intervening decades. It has shifted in all of us, and the shift has no connection with religion. If anything it happens in spite of religion not because of it. The shift is in a recognizably consistent direction, which most of us would judge as improvement.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 268
When I was a Marxist ... I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered...(Marxism had) its messianic element...that an ultimate moment might arrive... But there came a time when I could not protect myself...from the onslaught of reality...the very concept of a total solution had led to the most appalling human sacrifices, and to the invention of excuses for them. Those of us who had sought a rational alternative to religion had reached a terminus that was comparably dogmatic. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.
- Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 151, 153
(They) tell how they combine committed membership of the Religious Society of Friends with rejection of traditional belief in a transcendent , personal and supernatural God.
- Edited by David Boulton,
Quaker Nontheists, from Godless For God's Sake, from back cover
When I started this little walk-about I used the word God. Later, on the advice of a friend, I switched to the term
Divine. In what way do I use these expressions? Not in a pious, reverent, or fearful sense, but realizing that these words are mere symbols, invented by humans to stand for a reality forever beyond their imagination, though a healthy challenge to it nonetheless. As I opined earlier God is the All. It is a reality that comprises all creation, past, present, and future, in one everlasting Now (including humans to a tiny but important extent).
The evolution of conscious beings plus their cultures could well be following a universal pattern of development from the simplest subatomic particles to the intricacies of the human brain-and beyond, on and on. However, this fascinating experiment will not continue forever. Nor do I believe that the simplest ones of the universe are less important than the most developed. In fact humans need oxygen more than the other way around. As yet we can't tell whether the whole universe will simply fizzle out in a Big Whimper, as all the galaxies spin away from each other at increasing speeds, or whether at some point, they will do an about-face and start careening back together again in a Big Crunch, eventually resulting in another Big Bang!
Amid all this cosmic boom and bust where do we poor humans fit ? Even if human existence and life in general turns out to be a freak accident that happened once in a tiny spot in the universe (among many universes!) at least we have the option of approaching existence with various attitudes. These can be helpful or unhelpful, from appreciation for life's gift to bitterness for its hurts. As we become more aware of our vital relationship with fellow humans, other life forms, and non-material things, our basic attitude can and does change for the better. I no longer believe as conventional Christians do, that there is a world beyond the physical planet Earth and the Universe. Heaven and hell simply do not exist, nor do persons survive death as persons. I believe that living this life as consciously and responsibly as I can with the invaluable help of others is better than hanging around as a ghost forever after (whatever that means). I can't help thinking that a preoccupation with a personal after-life shows that our ancient instinct of self-preservation has overpowered our more recently evolved rational sense. It is not surprising that our healthy ego and our fear for its demise should cause us to invent a world of wish fulfillment. In such a place anything in the real world that did not accord with our ideas of justice and self-importance would be corrected perfectly.
To me the Christian heaven is a kind of second Garden of Eden that blooms forever somewhere beyond the clouds, but is just big enough for those who have been
saved by Christ. The central doctrine of the redemption of mankind by Christ assumes at least the symbolic truth of Eden though it is not listed in the Apostles or the Nicean creeds. And this story implies that humans deserve a perfect world of peace and plenty where men do not have to work for a living and women do not have to bear children in pain. It seems as if the Old Testament writers did not realize how unreasonable is this expectation of such a utopia where every legitimate human desire and need is granted and every pain and fear banished. Talk about unconscious egotism, personal and social! What an example of Man's anthropocentric tendency! While such myths hardly reflect reality, they certainly show us much about ourselves; what self-centred cry-babies we adults have become!
The Eden story also tells us a few other unpleasant things about ourselves. It shows that when we don't get what we expect, we look for someone to blame and punish. The prime suspect, I would expect would be God, who fully aware of the curiosity and enterprise of humans, emphatically forbade
our first parents to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As if a desire for knowledge were a sin! But we all know that poor, naive Adam and Eve are blamed for thinking for themselves and punished by having to experience pain and death like the rest of creation and by banishment from an utopia that never existed in the first place!
What is even harder to accept is why God put his curses on all the descendants of
our first parents. I guess having prefect alibies doesn't count in God's court. Not exactly a picture of a just God! Of course the creators of this tall tale and its believers reflect the family, social, and political assumptions of their times and places ancient and modern. Such people are used to accepting the authority and power of their paterfamilias or sovereign without question no matter how unjust or arbitrary. And of course Nature herself does appear at times like a heartless tyrant, though we forget that most of the time she is more like a loving, caring mother.
It is interesting to note that in Christian theology that the one, kinglike, God becomes more like a caring father, and acquires two more persons, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, God becomes human as in some pre-Christian mythology, and as Jesus, ministers to the people of his time and place as recorded in the New Testament. However, certain ancient ideas persist in the Christian world view: 1) that the Divine essence is pure spirit, though It will manifest Itself physically from time to time in Its relation with humans, and, 2) that human sacrifice is sometimes necessary to appease the Divine for offenses against It. I can't help thinking that such beliefs are unproductive to say the least, and should be taken to an environmentally friendly dump asap.
In my view God does not exit at all if She He or It does not have a body as we do. God`s body is all the matter in existence, and all the energy that exists is God`s spirit. The third part of this trinity is unreal - Imagination, God`s soul! ( I just happen to read in Tom Harpur`s book THE PAGAN CHRIST that the ancient Egyptians also distinguished between spirit and soul!)
The worst mistake that we humans have made since time immemorial is to assume that the spirit that appears to animate the world and its creatures is
separate and other than the world and us. God has a body-the universe, that unfolds itself in an orderly way, that makes sense, whether we can discern it or not. It is wonderful but NOT miraculous or arbitrary and follows certain laws. It is NOT perfect and unchanging. It seems to be eternal and is in constant change. If it did not change it would not exist! It seems that the universe fluctuates in a huge range of vibration-like cycles, from the Big Bang/Big Crunch to the infinitessimal sub-atomic particles. I imagine that the Universe, i.e. God's body, dies in the Big Bang, but the neutrinos, i.e. God's spirit, escape, and go to form the next universe, or something like that! You see, I am a pantheist; to me Creator and Creation are one and the same.
What about Jesus? Of course he was a very great human being but he was not god. He was influenced by his society and by the spirit of his time like all of us. He helped, healed, and taught people to think of one another with empathy and to act accordingly. He spoke out against prejudice, injustice, and hypocracy. But Jesus did not tackle such evils as slavery, war, or the inferior social status of women and children. Apparently he was convinced that his mission was to improve Israel morally and to establish a sort of utopia-
My kingdom is not of this world. He saw his work as a kind of revolution against the status quo, and he expected changes in society after two years of preaching, and the whole work to be finished within the lifetime of his generation. He accepted his crucifixion as part of this process.
Jesus did not hesitate to work
miracles in order to get the poor and powerless to listen to his message of hope and forgiveness. His followers seemed to come mostly from the working class. It is hard to avoid the impression that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah and of his mission as the beginning of a new era. A Catholic priest once said to me that one had to regard him as divine or crazy! I disagree. Why not just accept him as human. The Quakers say there is that of God in every person. I would add that in the case of Jesus, there is more than the usual amount of God, crazy or not. At any rate, the actual facts of Jesus's life will never be certain despite all the historical research and Biblical scholarship of the last 75 years or so. After all he lived long before the scientific revolution in thought that began in the seventeenth century. At the time of Christ society had not generally learned to separate its ideas of truth from its moral sense. The writers of the New Testament saw no need for an objective account of a person so obviously worthy as Jesus nor of the events of his life and work, which were so demonstrably good. Like too many of us today, they would have regarded objectivity and impartiality as cold and insulting, and-disloyal. After all, Jesus is supposed to have put it this way-You are either with me or against me. Though there are problems with too much faith, too much doubt is also a problem. Many people today seem to suffer from a habitual attitude of doubt. They doubt themselves, their loved ones, their government, society in general. Let's hope that this is temporary and due to the fact that we`re all in a period of transition from many old, rigid, sectarian views of life, to one, new, dynamic, universal, view of life based on our common humanity and scientific knowledge.
In a period of rapid and accelerating change it is also harder to find a moral compass. People tend to give up trying, and refuse to commit themselves to any ideal. It is quite understandable why many of us are confused, fearful, cynical, demoralized. But we have also become more aware of ourselves due to new insights which psychology and sociology now offer us. This new consciousness can help us make better choices. With patience and persistence we need to work at being more honest and forgiving of ourselves and others. Important too is the ability to laugh at oneself, and not take little things too seriously. A sense of humour also helps in the daily give and take of human relationships. As highly individual as humans have become, yet they are the most social of creatures. Attaining a healthy balance between individual development and social interaction looks like a good objective. Yes, but there is something more to aim for than balance! It is an awareness of the Other, the nonhuman part of the Universe of which humanity is only a tiny part. This is something so easy to forget, preoccupied as we are with our individual and group activities. But to ignore the Other is to be lost. The ancients called this forgetfulness,
hubris or pride, conscious or unconscious. The tragic consequences of hubris were told by the classic Greek authors in many a tale of kings, queens, and heroes, but are really about us
writ large. And, according to Margaret Somerville, the transhumanists turn this old warning on its head: that a man who strives to be God is doomed!
To me, hubris includes our subconscious self-centredness. The price we pay is banishment, not from Eden but from the real garden of life on this planet with its joys and sorrows, its life and death. Extremists on both sides of the science-religion debate such as the transhumanists and fundamentalists had better be warned. Believing that only your group possesses the whole truth is hubris. Or close to it, don't you think? The truth in that absolute sense might as well be God, no?
But it is also clear to me that we humans need to form some idea of the Other in terms that relate to us personally. But Science is wary of this task, rightly preferring its invaluable role of presenting the truth to us as impersonally as possible, leaving it up to philosophers and theologians to find (or invent) the human meaning behind the facts. ( (The better artists actually do most of this work anyway when they can.) Of late it has become difficult for either philosophy or religion to function with wide success perhaps due to our unsettled times. What to do? As I suggested earlier, the groundwork in developing a world view that really reflects our present situation might well fall on the shoulders of non-professionals. We could do this by delving into our hearts and souls. Then, by using our individual imaginations, we could develop concepts and stories which we could then share and compare. Responding to these initiatives by us as the grass roots, professionals might later contribute their experience and expertise to this effort.
Accordingly, I would like to close this paper by sharing some of my theological/cosmological fancies. They may be similar to your notions or to the ideas of others. On the other hand they might appear quite weird and eccentric. But you must admit that they are more believable than the miracles and creation stories of most religions, and more fun than most modern philosophy. As for God, though I have referred to Him, She or It as the Other; God is also the All, which includes us of course. The All is eternal but is in constant motion, like a vibration between its expansive, creative phase and its contracting, destructive phase. This goes on at countless different levels from the sub atomic to the cosmic. In living beings the motion of the All is manifested by their birth and death, and by the life and death of the billions of cells in their bodies throughout their lifetimes.
There is only one world, the physical universe. It has two apparently contrary characters, though-that of nature and that of imagination. But the gulf between them is an illusion, which it is up to sentient beings to bridge. It is very difficult for humans to imagine God in the abstract. So long ago they constructed time-frames such as the Christian one, that consists of creation, fall, redemption, and second coming. Then they connect it all with a narrative. By today, we have also come to realize that we project our personalities on gods or God. Nothing wrong with this, provided we remember that it is we, not God, who do all this! Yet the why of Creator and Creation remains an inexplicable mystery. Anyway, here's my version of the divine narrative.... Before the Big Bang, God was pure spirit and dwelled only in the unreal world, the World of the Imagination where He had been for eons. (To me this God must have been male, because no woman would have been as impractical as He.) Anyway He amused Himself by imagining all the real worlds that could exist and how they might evolve in different ways. At first he was quite content being perfect, changeless, almighty, all knowing, and all the others impossible things God is supposed to be. In short He was unreal and boring. However, He did have potential.
Eventually, God became lonely. In fact, His loneliness got the better of Him, and He acquired some new virtues he hadn't needed before: courage, hope, and love. It also made Him decide to become real. To do this He had to take His first leap of faith by sacrificing all his godly qualities except his eternal existence. He had to love and marry a beautiful but independent-minded lady called Matter/Energy. So He joined her in a terrifying ceremony called the Big Bang in the Church of Time! Because their marriage was so complete God became a hermaphrodite, acquiring a female character while remaining masculine. The rest is history.
God's greatest fear though, was that She/He would lose the World of Imagination which He/She still needed as much as ever. But as we all know, but sometimes forget, Imagination did not disappear, and at least on planet Earth, fantastic creatures of imagination have been evolving since it began. And after humans first appeared, fantastic stories of the imagination have not been lacking either. God and Matter/Energy thus became parents countless times over. Not always very good parents it must be admitted, but some of their kids survive and do quite well in the real world. And what a good thing that that other world was never lost!