Tuesday, January 27, 2015

God's Big Job

Suppose, for a moment, that there is a God.
God’s job is very large.­ It includes at least two (maybe only two?) jobs. He has to create the world. He has to govern it.
He has to launch the spatio-temporal world from within a non-spatio-temporal eternity. He has to govern the world in a way that allows for gratuitous-suffering-without-recourse, while retaining His attributes of greatness (omnipotence) and goodness (omnibenevolence).  As history happens (with its Holocausts, its wars, its plagues and famines and fires) the stain of cruelty and indifference keeps spreading toward these two attributes of God, and they keep receding in a process of apologetics and intellectual strategic retreat.
The Watchmaker argument (that God created the universe, imparted some sort of internal momentum to it, and sat back to watch it change) feels silly. If there is a God, the God somehow has to pervade everything; viewed theistically, everything bespeaks the God, from the experience of this or that object’s presence, to the general fact of experience itself. There can’t be a dichotomy of the sacred and the profane if all of it is God’s work. Human free will can destroy the local world called Earth (and it has), but human nature is still an expression of the Creator’s nature. Not because it says so in the Bible (which it does, e.g. Gen. 1:26), but because the idea of God tends to include the idea that everything which exists is, one way or another, the product of His will. God’s world has the character that we experience it to have, and both the world and we in it are artifacts of the same divine mind. As is made clear in texts like the Book of Job, the Iliad, and the Gilgamesh, this is a world defined partly by loss and death, a distribution of pain and deprivation that is not reducible to reward-and-punishment. God cannot be trusted. It’s common for God to sustain people, and it’s common for God to crush people like insects.
Piety is a system for governing persons and communities; piety is a way to cope with the infinite gap between the mortal and the divine. Unless there is some revealed religion (and I don’t think there is such a thing), all piety comes from our side, not God’s; we write the contracts of morality wherein a currency called virtue buys a thing called happiness, but God does not sign these contracts. He does not write books and send them down from Heaven in a basket with a very long rope. Piety is not the thing Job thought it was: a prophylactic against future harm, a charm against divine abuse and divine neglect, the demonstrative show of utter compliance that aims to mollify an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power. I used to say that religion/piety is like the dead mouse that a cat brings to its wise, mighty, provident human owner; the mouse is useless to the human, but she appreciates it because she knows it is absolutely the best the cat can do. Another analogy is the dress made by a little girl for her Mother; the dress is tiny and lopsided, and Mommy can't possibly wear it, but its value is great because her daughter made it out of gratitude. 
The trouble is, gratitude is mixed with horror and terror when the Parent is an unpredictable and arbitrary authority of unlimited power, rather like an alcoholic parent with borderline personality disorder. After Auschwitz, it's a little crazy to pray the prayers of gratitude even if one is currently loaded with blessings, because it's been shown that all mortal persons (human or otherwise) and states of affairs are subject to sudden reversals that eventuate in soul-crushing agony, no matter how pious people are. It's a bit like having your bags subject to arbitrary search by police, such that if they decide to plant drugs on you, you could rot in jail forever without charge or trial. This kind of arbitrary power is politically justified by the creation of an evil bogeyman, from whom the intrusive and capricious police are busy protecting us; but who plays that role for God? Why should He permit a Devil to slaughter his children? Or if there is no Devil, and human beings are responsible for evil, we can plead as Socrates did, that we are "in need, not of punishment, but of instruction." 
That leaves open the question of "natural evil," which was brought into terribly sharp focus by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. I can't possibly believe that my good fortune is linked to my having prayed the correct prayers correctly, when millions of other people, plenty of whom were surely at least as pious and at least as innocent as myself were burned to ashes in Pompeii ("natural evil") or, indeed, in the ovens of the Nazis (not so natural).
It could be that we have not avoided destroying the biosphere because we could not have avoided it. Having evolved (in God’s world) to use all the available resources, we do just that, until the limits of our planet are reached and five or six billion people die off in a giant crash (of climate change, pollution, and depletion). This conduct is strangely similar to being told not to eat a potent magic fruit, and being unable to refrain from doing so because of the nature of human desire (itself an artifact of God’s creativity in making us). The fruit was a shortcut to a “knowledge of good and evil” that is normally acquired in a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. The fossil fuels that provided the energy for our destruction of the biosphere and doomed the human project were also a shortcut to power that would otherwise be acquired through labor, a cumulative, difficult, lengthy, incremental process of learning and suffering, harming and being harmed, helping and being helped. This, it turns out, is the eventual meaning of the story of the Fall: all is lost by a hubristic grasping at shortcuts. 
The Comforters of Job urge him to propitiate their contract-signing God of reward-and-punishment. But Job knows he has already done that, to no avail. His experience has proven that their God is a social artifact, and at the end of the book (Job 42:7), God Himself speaks from the whirlwind and affirms that Job is correct; the comforters are wrong; God is the wild spirit that invented predation and death and sex and music, not a giant human king or magistrate with an accounting ledger on his giant desk in Heaven.
I've been reading an amazing and highly sophisticated 2009 book about the two hemispheres of the brain, called The Master and His Emissary, by Ian McGilchrist. 
Broadly speaking, the Left Hemisphere sees the world in terms of logic, linear phenomena, and continua of discrete units comprising rigid categories--all of which conduces to control and effective manipulation of the environment for personal survival. The Right Hemisphere can tolerate paradox and slip right past it with a subtly wise smile like the Mona Lisa's; it is gestalt-oriented, holistic, interested in the uniqueness of individual people and things, and able to tolerate ambiguity and even ambivalence. McGilchrist doesn't discuss theism (or if he does, I haven't read that far yet), but it seems to me safe to say that in general, it is the Left Hemisphere that insists that God must come from somewhere in spacetime. The concept of eternity is entirely foreign to it. Recall part 21 of the Fifth Point in Six Theosophic Points (1620) by Jacob Boehme (1574-1624): 
Here external Reason says: God has created the soul in flesh and blood in the outer world, what harm can that do it? This Reason knows no more of the soul's origin than a cow does of a new stable door. She looks at it, and it seems to her to be strange; so also to external Reason the inner world seems to be something strange. 
I guess the way to tie all this together is to note that the most destructive idea in the history of the world is dominionism, rooted in (once again) Genesis 1:26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. That's the God of Exodus and Leviticus, who makes deals and assigns prizes and torments. It is not the wild God of Job and Ecclesiastes who does whatever the fuck He feels like doing, no matter the implications for people's well-being, for better or worse: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods;" says King Lear, "they kill us for their sport." 
This little essay has been a representative snippet of my endless, so-far futile search for A Plausible God who would somehow be available to human relationship. Apparently there is none. 
Now about those methane clathrates...