Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gods on Earth

The problem with God is not one of truth or falsehood.  The nature of reality is to exist beyond our ability to grasp it.  We cannot see the past clearly, and the future is even more opaque, resisting every human effort to predict or control.  Some people call this opacity (which is an inalienable part of human experience) God, and I am fine with that.  (More than fine.  When I speak of God, this opacity is the reality at which I point.)

In this sense, God's existence is not up for debate.  (If you are the kind of person who cringes and raves every time somebody uses the word God, then replace it with Nature: my meaning will remain unchanged.)  God is not true or false.  He is not existent or non-existent.  We are here--reading and writing, talking and doing, living and dying--so obviously God exists.  But don't celebrate (or lament) my conversion to religious nuttiness prematurely.  Let me finish speaking before you break out the holy water (or beg me to read another book by Richard Dawkins).

The problem with God is that people speak for him (it, them, her if you like to think of Mother Nature).  People look into the world around them, see whatever they see, and then use their perception as a tool for relating to me.  That is fine (unavoidable: I cannot escape the reality that people use their perceptive powers to guide their relationships, including relationships they have with me).  But there is a right way to relate to others and a wrong way, and God's most vocal advocates (I say as an historian) show a tendency to prefer the wrong way.

Historically, God's most vocal spokesmen are rather stuck-up.  They think they see further into life's opacity than other people.  They think their vision is so much better than mine that I should rely on them to make all meaningful decisions for me.  Rather than live with my own experience and learn from it (the good and the bad), I should just take their word for everything and do what they would do--always and uncritically, no matter what happens to me.  If they tell me to jump off a cliff in God's name, then by God I had better do that (or be cast out of all polite society as some kind of pariah).  If they tell me to pay taxes, then I had better pay up and never mind where the money goes: that's God's business, not mine.  If God wants to build giant luxury malls in Salt Lake City or bail out a bunch of dead companies on Wall Street that nobody else has any earthly use for, then my place is to help him do it--without questions, without criticism, without anything that God's faithful stewards might possibly construe as arrogance or insubordination.

This is where I have a problem.  I don't mind that Apollo comes to you in dreams and tells you what to do.  I mind when he comes to you in dreams and sends you to tell me what to do.  How convenient that God, a mystery I can never perfectly know, orders me to become your abject slave!  What a beautiful thing!  (For you, eh?  If you are the kind of person who likes having saps wait on you hand and foot, begging you to put a good word in for them to the scary Reality out there that none of us really understands.)

When I refuse to submit abjectly to uppity priests of Apollo, they often resort to vague threats.  Supposedly, the entire fabric of polite society will unravel utterly if I don't pay them their protection money.  Apollo will get really, really mad and send a plague to ruin me and all those who act like me.  This might well happen (plagues are historical realities that strike unpredictably).  But it could still happen if I accepted the premise that I should spend my entire life bowing and scraping to a bunch of men in suits.  These men don't control plagues any more than I do.  They don't necessarily understand more than I do.  They don't know me better than I know myself.  They are not necessarily better judges of my circumstances than I am.  And contrary to the threats they utter when I shake off the chains of abject obedience with which they want to load me, I do not lose the ability to be polite and appropriately deferent merely because I am not entirely under their thumbs.  I am not polite merely because I am scared stiff of what Apollo might do to me should I be gratuitously rude.  I am polite because I like manners.  I like society.  I like pleasing people and having people strive to please me.  I like cooperation.  I like trade.  I like honest business, in which the terms are clearly negotiated between peers who respect one another as equals.

Real peers understand that equality is not about looking the same--speaking the same words, reading the same books, eating the same foods, having the same kind of sex, having the same kind of family, and so on.  It is about expressing thoughtful and cultivated humanity.  We all have humanity in us, and we all express it differently.  Real peers see the utility inherent in that difference and respect it where it offers more potential for benefit than for harm.  Real peers have enough experience with humanity to know what kinds of it are really dangerous.  They don't waste time attacking harmless things (like gay people, feminists, or intellectuals).  They save their righteous wrath for the really dangerous stuff (Apollo's prophets, priests, and kings--CEOs, CFOs, and commanders-in-chief, along with their endless task-forces of diligent, self-important bureaucrats).  They also recognize that there are smart and stupid ways to be angry.  They avoid stupid rebellions--like loud protests occupying this or that, or political rallies in which we pretend that the solution to all our problems is to pick more a beneficent bully to collect Apollo's protection money, as though mafia politics magically become harmless when the enforcer professes to have "traditional values."  I couldn't care less what values you profess, until you expect me to profess them exactly as you do or lose my ability to participate in society.  Then I get upset, not because of your values (per se), but because of you (you might profess the values of Gandhi or Jesus, but if you profess them as a domineering bully, then I don't like you: you are the problem, not your irrelevant values).

Believe in Apollo.  Believe in Odin.  Believe in Jesus.  Believe in Allah.  Believe in your American dream.  Believe in Richard Dawkins.  But don't make me believe the way you do.  Don't pretend that the only way to be polite is the particular way you happened upon.  Don't go around trying to make me ashamed merely because I don't exist precisely the way you do.  Maybe I don't sacrifice goats at the right altar.  Maybe I don't attend the right church on the right day.  Maybe I don't wear a burkha (or make my wife wear one).  Maybe I don't think bailing out bad businesses represents a good way to save America (or anybody).  Maybe I don't think Dawkins really is the brilliant, original iconoclast that he pretends to be.  So what?  I can still be a good member of society--a good person whom other good people will want to do business with.  Bad stuff will still happen, to me and everybody else.  That is the nature of life, something that nobody can ever change (no matter how we all pray to Apollo to hold the plagues).  Life is built out of death.  Each generation makes way for the next, and all animal species of record eventually go extinct. 

Maybe there is some kind of afterlife (or alternative life outside the narrow spectrum of experience we currently reside in without being remotely able to comprehend).  Who knows?  The precise nature of its putative existence is irrelevant to the way we deal with one another here and now.  We have to be polite here and now not because of what Apollo may or may not do, but in spite of it.  We have to live with one another politely because we love civility, not because some men claiming to speak for God will blow our heads off otherwise (or because we think being nice gets us into Apollo's good graces: historically, this is just wrong; the good die young).

Really polite society exists indifferent to external circumstances outside human control.  It is polite because it loves civility, generous because it loves generosity, loving because it is love.  I don't wake up and decide to love my family (my darling wife and my two little kids, my parents and siblings, my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins) because of some dream from Apollo, or some tough guys in suits who claim to speak for Apollo.  I love my family because I am love.  That is what I do.  The love is there: I look into my heart and it is there, instantly and absolutely.  It doesn't need to be "protected" by laws or guns or offerings on the altar dedicated by Apollo's only true and living henchmen.  When I look into history, what I see is that efforts to protect it inevitably damage more than they help.  (Maybe that is wrong, but I cannot help seeing it.) 

From my limited and limiting perspective, the best way to cultivate love is to let it express itself freely where it exists.  It won't exist everywhere.  Sometimes, it turns very quickly to destructive hate (and then it must be arrested, restrained--maybe even jailed or killed in some circumstances, but we should strive to make our interventions as rare as possible rather than look for excuses to invoke harsh penalties).  The really good priests are those who offer themselves as useful peers to those looking for ways to express the love they discover inside themselves.  Not all priests are made to serve all men.  Some of us won't be able to help others deal with Apollo.  That is OK.  The smart person goes through life looking for priests (peers) who can help him (or her).  He doesn't blame or punish those who cannot help.  He doesn't demand from them the help they are not capable of giving.  (If they don't want to participate in his marriage, he would never force them to.  But he would seek to solemnize that marriage elsewhere, with a different priest--one who can offer what he needs to create his own unique and cultured response to life's opacity.)

We are all artists, making art of our lives as we respond to the mystery that none of us understands (opacity, Nature, God, Apollo).  My art doesn't have to be the only art.  You can paint in one style while I paint in another.  My paintings might not be very good.  They might never grace a museum.  People who happen to see them might come away mocking ("what trash this loser makes! what a worthless life he has! they should outlaw this kind of stupidity!").  That is OK, too, in my view.  But the line must be drawn somewhere.  I must be free to display my worthless garbage of an artistic oeuvre somewhere, if only on the inside of the refrigerator box where I am currently living.  I have to exist somewhere.  My art has to have a place somewhere.  It isn't the kind of art created by really dangerous predators (the serial killers, banksters, politicians, or journalists).  To condemn my art utterly, such that I am not allowed to make or enjoy it anywhere, is to kill me.  I don't want to die.  I don't want to kill you (or anyone).  I am perfectly content to let you make your art, and display it wherever you have opportunity to do so.  The worst you will get from me are a few caustic comments (which you are always free to ignore).  Why should you expect more than that?  Why demand that everyone make or love the same art?  Even if we wanted this to happen (as we don't), reality would flout our fond daydream, since we are not all cut out to make or enjoy the same kind of art.  God does not make us that way.  Presumably he is OK with what he himself makes.  If he is not, then at the very least he is capable of doing his own enforcing, pouring out his own plagues upon the just and the unjust without working through committees of bureaucratic busybodies eager to pronounce authoritative judgement on the lives of their fellowmen.

Make your own art.  Not mine.  Worship your own god.  Not mine.  Give yourself commandments to aid you moment to moment (with every little decision you make).  Don't give me those commandments (they don't help me, since my life is not yours, my god is not yours, my art is not yours). If you really want to be helpful to other artists, give advice ("this is how I make art; feel free to use my art to help with yours, if you like").  That is the basic message of this interminable essay. 

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