Thursday, November 20, 2008

God

Sometimes I miss God.

By this I mean I sometimes miss my old ideas about God.

And by this I mean a vague nostalgia for a time when those ideas did some kind of real work.

There's a sense of innocence lost. Like Bob Seger, sometimes I "wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." To speak of knowledge, rather than simply belief, might be arrogant but it's honest. I know things, and even if ultimately these are just things I know about my own belief, I know them. I claim them. I own them. Nostalgia notwithstanding, I wouldn't go back. I can't even imagine what it would be like to go back, though it would make certain things a bit easier.

Because we're home-schoolers, and the stereotypical homeschooling family is a bastion of right-wing wackiness, we ended up on an Answers in Genesis mailing list. "Why do we have this," I hissed to my wife the first time I saw their literature among our mail. I looked at it warily, hoping I could incinerate with my eyes. This is science written by people who don't understand mythology, and that means that we are not friends.

The evolution ship sailed a long time ago for me. I recognize an ineffable bias toward life in our little corner of the universe, some sort of elan vital that animates the process by which we have come to exist and to be able to face the paradox of our own existence. But that existence evinces the rough-and-tumble of adaptation more than it does the pristine hand of design. There's a delightful haphazardness to the whole thing, just as much Loki as Thor, as much Coyote trickster as Great Spirit. To put a single, omnipotent, agentic deity in charge of the whole shebang is to create a totem to absurdity, a shrine to silliness. The older I get, the more creationist propaganda bugs the shit out of me.

I'm a Christian. This is my background, my faith, the mythological language I speak as a native tongue. But I like my Christianity as mythology, as religion, as something that is life-giving and meaningful but not intended as substitute for critical thought. As something that impels me to greater compassion, something that inspires me to contribute to the greater good. Something that binds me to the rest of humanity. We're in this together.

Theology is not ontological discovery. Theologians -- including those us of armed with only a few Bible classes and a high-speed internet connection -- are not uncovering what God is "really like." Please. Can we really be that delusional? I know, I know -- we can. We are. It's probably in our genes. But seriously. It's not that what we think about God is unimportant; I love the prophetic passages where the Hebrew God whom Jesus worshiped is pictured as a champion of the poor, the downtrodden the alien. I'm a good liberal. I believe in that shit.

But it's the justice I believe in -- the picture of God that communicates such justice to us is just window-dressing. I believe in it because it resonates with what I see in the world, it speaks to my concerns for our survival as a species. Something's gotta give, or someday -- years or centuries or millennia from now -- we're going to destroy ourselves. I agree with those conservative voices who suggest we can't really destroy the Earth. I'm sure they're right; the biosphere is remarkably resilient. And I tend to be leery of predictions of immanent catastrophe.

But I have no doubt we could make our planet a really, really uncomfortable place for mammals -- and this, I submit, is not in our best interest. This much I believe. I can even go so far as to say that there's something larger than ourselves to which we are in some way accountable. I'm willing to call that something "God" as a way of keeping conversations shorter. But this is a vague sentiment, a misty notion. I don't know what this "God" is like; to me it's more like the Tao than something personal, but my Taoism only goes so far.

I have difficult ascribing specific intelligence or agency to this divine whatever-it-is, only because our concepts of intelligence and agency are anthropocentric. Mammalian brains are generally more complex than reptile brains, and primate brains are more complex than those of their four-legged cousins. Human brains are the most complex of the primates, and it is this difference that we laud as intelligence. Then we ascribe that same kind of intelligence to God, only more of it, so that God is a big celestial uber-primate, king of the mammal-brains. Am I the only person who has a problem with this?

As much as I love theology, or maybe I just love biblical literature (which sounds more like me), the deeply ontological stuff -- the nature of the Trinity, hypostatic union, that sort of thing -- starts me eye-rolling. A friend of mine likes the Trinity because of the picture of God-as-community, and because it can serve to temper some of the more strident side effects of strict monotheism. I can dig that. But not all conversations about such things evince this kind of literary awareness, this slightly ironic bent toward the aesthetic.

Tell me that the Trinity is a poetically beautiful idea, that it reflects a longstanding predilection for "threeness" that shows up in our earliest religious formulations, that it rounds out and roughs up our conceptions about God, and I'll listen. Start using lame metaphors -- as if the Trinity, like basic sanitation, is something we really need to understand -- or complaining that The Shack is undermining trinitarian doctrine, and I'm checking out. (Which is not to defend The Shack. I read it. It's crap.)

I may have more support from my tradition than is immediately obvious. Slavoj Žižek suggests that Jesus's "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" beats Nietzsche's "God is dead" to the punch. John Caputo develops a similar idea in The Weakness of God, a Derridean theology of the Cross. My own take on this requires us to imagine a time before Mark's gospel gets its Easter ending, a time before the Gospel of Luke and its sequel narrate the resurrection and ascension as discrete events, a time when these ideas were conflated, before anti-gnostic sentiment demanded a literal resurrection which then demanded a literal and separate ascension in order to explain where Jesus went. A time that, I admit, might not exist.

To claim ascension was to claim kingship -- ascension was to a throne, primarily, in this case a heavenly one. It marked Jesus, a dead guy, as the awaited king; a dead guy, not Herod, was king of the Jews, the Passion his grisly coronation. A dead guy, not Caesar, was the divine ruler of the whole world. A dead guy, not Caiaphas, was High Priest -- and his own sacrifice to boot. This is the morbid scandal, the "perverse core," of Christianity (the phrase, if not this meaning, is Žižek's).

Is God dead? Not exactly -- but a dead guy is God. The rest of the history of Christianity is the story of trying to hide this shame, this nakedness, this stark existential reality. We hide it like we hide the evidence of our own animality, ashamed of what we really are, like so many cats in the litter box of systematic theology.

Amazing things can and do happen, and I'm all for karma, but when we take a good, hard look at winning and losing, at success and failure, these sorts of things seem less determined by a single locus of divine benevolence than an anarchy of fates or the interplay of chaos and complexity. Meaningless? That's assuming a lot. I see patterns in my life, threads and trajectories out of which I fashion meaning.

But I can't tell you why my life is so rife with such raw material for meaning-making when the only patterns available to some of us are those of squalor and shame, of loneliness and isolation, of destitution and defeat. I got lucky, and there's a temptation toward a kind of pre-emptive survivor's guilt, but that's not helpful at all. The hungry can't eat our guilt.

What if the real secret of the Christian message, the real meaning of the Cross, is that there is no God to save us from ourselves? It's not that God doesn't exist, necessarily; it's just that whenever we think that God is on our side, justifying our position, poised to swoop in and vindicate our good standing in the world, he's busy doing something else. Sure, he might raise us from the dead, if we're willing to believe in that sort of thing, but he's not taking us down from the cross.

There are other ways to get here, but I'll only speak for my tradition. In Christian doctrine, Christ is God. The Church is the Body of Christ. And people make up the church. Do the math. We're it. We want to shrink from this, to deny this, to blame God but at a certain point, if we dig deep enough, think hard enough, pray fervently enough we can't help but run up against this. We can be ennobled by it or we can continue to shrink from it. How many of our invocations of God are just ways of dodging responsibility?