Sunday, September 19, 2010

God vs. gods

Daniel Quinn.  The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  New York: Bantam, 1996.  ISBN 0553379011.

In my last post, I included this quote but did not really say much about it (Quinn, The Story of B, 300-301):
Let me begin with the great secret of the animist life, Louis.  When other people look for God, you'll see them automatically look up into the sky.  They really imagine that, if there's a God, he's far, far away--remote and untouchable.  I don't know how they can bear living with such a God, Louis.  I really don't.  But they're not our problem.  I've told you that, among the animists of the world, not a single one can tell you the number of the gods.  They don't know the number and neither do I...What's important to us is not how many they are but where they are.  If you go among the Alawa of Australia or the Bushmen of Africa or the Navajo of North America or the Onabasulu of New Guinea--or any other of hundreds of Leaver peoples [as opposed to Takers, the agriculturalists] I could name--you'll soon find out where the gods are.  The gods are here...I mean here.  Among the Alawa: here.  Among the Bushmen: here.  Among the Navajo: here.  Among the Kreen-Akrore: here.  Among the Onabasulu: here...
This isn't a theological statement they're making.  The Alawa are not saying to the Bushmen, 'Your gods are frauds, the true gods are our gods.' The Kreen-Akrore are not saying to the Onabasulu, 'You have no gods, only we have gods.  Nothing of the kind.  They're saying, 'Our place is a sacred place, like no other in the world.'  They would never think of looking elsewhere to find the gods.  The gods are to be found among them--living where they live.  The god is what animates their place.  That's what a god is.  A god is that strange force that makes every place a place--a place like no other in the world.  A god is the fire that burns in this place and no other--and no place in which the fire burns is devoid of god.  All of this should explain to you why I don't reject the name that was given to us by an outsider.  Even though it was bestowed with a false understanding of our vision, the name animism captures a glimmer of it.
Unlike the God whose name beings with a capital letter, our gods are not all-powerful, Louis.  Can you imagine that?  Any one of them can be vanquished by a flamethrower or a bulldozer or a bomb--silenced, driven away, enfeebled.  Sit in the middle of a shopping mall at midnight, surrounded by half a mile of concrete in all directions, and there the god that was once as strong as a buffalo or a rhinoceros is as feeble as a moth sprayed with pyrethrin.  Feeble, but not dead, not wholly extinguished.  Tear down the mall and rip up the concrete, and within days the place will be pulsing with life again.  Nothing needs to be done, beyond carting away the poisons.  The god knows how to take care of that place.  It will never be what it was before--but nothing is ever what it was before.  It doesn't need to be what it was before.  You'll hear people talk about turning the plains of North America back into what they were before the Takers arrived.  This is nonsense.  What the plains were five hundred years ago was not their final form, was not the final, sacrosanct form ordained for them from the beginning of time.  There is no such form and never will be any such form.  Everything here is on the way.  Everything here is in process.
The picture of deity given here is one that appeals to me a lot in the wake of my faith crisis.  Contrary to what many people seem to expect (and to what this blog may sometimes appear to indicate), my conversion to disbelief did not make me an immediate "expert" on life, the universe, and everything.  When people ask me "why?" now, I give them guesses (like the one I posted in my last entry) not once-and-for-all answers (like the truth I was certain of as a believer).  My lack of knowledge regarding the ultimate causes of things means that I am necessarily still comfortable with the idea of "unknowns" -- in theory, I have nothing against referring to these unknowns with names (like "God").  But in the wake of considering the world as I see it (and reading Quinn), I think "gods" is a better name for life's unknowns as I experience them than "God".  Let me try to explain what I mean by this.

In the world I live in, life consists of multiple mysterious systems in balance (from galactic star clusters down to atoms, with everything in between, including the planet's biosphere with its different ecosystems, and the bodies of individual plant and animal organisms, each of which is an ecosystem unto itself).  I cannot know what keeps these systems running (hence the mystery), but I can see that they are all running at different rates, in different ways, with different points of interface linking them to one another.  I see that when something disturbs the equilibrium of one system and not another (when someone runs my buddy over with a car but does not hit me, for example), the disturbed system suffers (and may die), while the undisturbed one continues on (to an inevitable dissolution: all systems are eventually recycled).  So each system has its own unknown, its own mysterious center of balance that holds it together until it falls apart: its own "god" (if you will).  My "god" (the unknown center of the complex of systems that is me) presides over the interface of several other "gods" within me (multi-organ systems, individual organs, cells, and independent organisms who live inside me), and is presided over in turn by other "gods" (which define the ecosystem that is my habitat, the planet that houses that ecosystem, etc.).  These "gods" are real.  I interact with them in a material and vital way every day.  They are also vulnerable.  As Quinn says, a flamethrower (or shopping mall) has the power to destroy or weaken them.  Unlike the almighty God I imagined as a Mormon, they represent something I might actually destroy in a careless fit of whatever it is that causes people to detonate bombs, deplete soils, and generally waste resources wantonly.

I am not adamantly opposed to the idea of some almighty uber-controller managing all systems: I do not deny the possibility that a big "God" exists out there somewhere.  But when I examine life as I experience it, it makes more sense to posit lots of smaller, more local, weaker "gods" who manage the mystery of life between them.  When I look into the world, I do not see a grand, unitary purpose rolling forward to inexorable fulfillment: I see multiple purposes, some realized and some not, some great and some small.  I do not know the causes for all things, but I do get the feeling that there are causes (in the plural) rather than a single cause (Aristotle's Prime Mover).  More urgently, I see that my previous focus on the possibility (which I regarded as a certainty) of a single ruling cause led me to neglect paying too much heed to smaller causes.  Since I assumed God was capable of restoring whatever havoc I might wreak in his world, I was not particularly worried about overtaxing the environment: I was philosophically down with killing many small (real) gods wantonly in the name of my big (imaginary) God.

Before you decide to ignore me as some kind of crazy, New Age hippie, you should know that I have no illusions about "saving the world" as it is.  Like Quinn says above, there are no eternal, Platonic forms for life as we experience it: it is a journey, not a destination.  Today's gods must die to make way for those of tomorrow.  I know this fact, and embrace it: life is death (as Heraclitus would say).  But I also know what follows from this: to waste death is to waste life.  If we kill all the bison for sport today, there will be none left when our grandchildren are hungry tomorrow.  If we strip all the soils down to bedrock today to feed our modern civilization, our grandchildren (billions of them) will have to discover some new life to take if the race is to continue.  Based on our past experience (the lessons of history as I read them), we cannot subsist happily writing blank checks for unlimited resources and hoping God (the big one) will honor them with manna from on high.  Rather than consume the small gods today and hope the big one sends us a fat paycheck tomorrow, picking up the tab for our indulgence, we need to cultivate the small gods: we need to refocus our efforts toward intelligent production.  Make every life lost count for something valuable, something that preserves (as much as possible) the integrity of the whole system as it moves into eternity.


  1. I'll have to think about this more, but in a way you seem to be restating
    (what I perceive to be) the Mormon idea of the soul. We each have our own, [pre-]Godlike soul that is guided by its individual agency. This applies to individual things and, through them, to larger communities.

    Also, I would never ignore you because you're a crazy, New Age hippie: I love you because of it.

  2. Very cool thoughts Joseph. I actually just finished reading "The Story of B" a few months ago. Quinn blows my mind.

    I also do not find a mighty distant God that useful. It seems the idea cannot be consistent with all the happenings on this planet unless this God only cares about Humans whom he has grown like seeds in a garden over billions of years. If this god exists we are the long awaited fruit and EVERYTHING else is going to the compost heap. Seems like a mighty wasteful recipe.

    This feels so unintuitive to me. IMO We are primates who are no greater, but just as great as all the other beautiful organisms that exist on this planet. It would be nice if our beliefs helped us better appreciate this fact.

  3. "We are primates who are no greater, but just as great as all the other beautiful organisms that exist on this planet. It would be nice if our beliefs helped us better appreciate this fact."

    Thanks for saying this, Chris. This is the perspective I am interested in developing as well.