Saturday, November 04, 2006

“PROBLEM? NO PROBLEM.”

Thus sayeth that legendary philosopher, Tony Montana, when he received a proposal that would have seemed daunting to anyone without Olympian ambitions. But Tony was a man of such ambitions that no challenge was too much for him. Whether it involved killing statesmen, killing cops, killing drug dealers, or killing brain cells … he was always the man for the job, regardless of its scope.

So, with the inspiration of that great cultural icon at my side, allow me to tackle what is supposed to be one of the most difficult and profound problems facing humankind. I’m referring to the so-called “problem of evil.”

Anyone who is steeped in religious literature is surely sick of the phrase. You see it everywhere. And if you attend church or synagogue, you hear it over and over again during lectures or even from the pulpit. How can this world be so full of horrible things if God is as “good” as the sages say He is? And if God isn’t so good, or isn’t so powerful as to prevent the parade of horribles, then what kind of deity are we worshipping?

Oi gevalt. You want to kvell about God, but instead, His world leaves you kvetching!

Well, maybe it leaves you kvetching, but not me. And not Tony either. We realize that the problem isn’t with “evil,” it’s with God. More to the point, it’s not with the idea of divinity; it’s with the concept of God that’s been bantered about for the past several thousand years.

Let’s first of all agree on this much: those who posit the existence of a “problem of evil” are correct about one thing. This world doesn’t appear to be the product of a single omni-benevolent, omnipotent deity. What, you mean you’re so happy that you don’t know what I’m talking about? You haven’t encountered enough suffering to know why this “evil” thing is such a big deal? Just walk on down to the Vietnam Memorial – or if you don’t live in my town, fly out here and then go visit. Start saying the names of the dead soldiers one at a time. When you’ve said all 50,000, just remember: more than 100 times that number were killed by Hitler. And all of them died just as senselessly.

You might, of course, contrast those deaths with the “sensible” ones that take place in nature every day. Lions killing gazelles. Wild dogs killing wildebeests. Sensible? Perhaps. But horrible nonetheless. The death of any mammal is heart wrenching, and not just to the deceased but to their families as well. Life is full of those little tragedies. Not one minute goes by without one.

So call it “evil,” or call it “sad,” or call it whatever you want – there’s no question that this world is nearly as replete with sadness as with joy. The question is why any God worthy of the name would allow so much of it to continue? Those who ponder the problem of evil ask themselves the question: if they were God, would they have permitted Hitler to attain such power? Would they have permitted the Serengeti to become so filled with carnivores? Would they have sent us earthquakes in which dozens or hundreds of children – innocent little children – are literally buried alive? Of course not. So what does that say about God? Has he no more heart than Tony Montana, or at least no more power?

Actually, Tony Montana and “God” have the same degree of heart. And the same degree of power. None at all. That’s because they’re both fictional characters. More specifically, they are both fictional people.

The concept of Tony Montana doesn’t frustrate me because he’s a fictional person based, loosely, on real flesh-and-blood men. But “God” is a fictional person that is supposedly based on something that transcends humanity. Why, then, do we continue to paint human portraits of God? Why do we consider it a problem if the world doesn’t resemble what it would look like if it were the product of a benign, human-like ruler?

Seriously, either God is transcendent or God is person-like. Which is it? Can we please stop trying to have it both ways before every intelligent teenager in the world who takes a close look at religious philosophy starts to ask why the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes?

The “sages” are to blame, you know. They’re the ones who continue to perpetuate the idea that God should be analogized to human beings. Maybe it made sense 500 years ago, but now that the terms “free thinker” and “atheist” are becoming synonymous, you’d think that we would realize the dangers in attributing human personality characteristics to the source of all Being.

I heard a justification for divine anthropomorphisms just a few weeks ago from a Jewish writer whom I respect very much. “We’re human beings. We speak in a language that’s inevitably tied to our humanity. So if we want the idea of ‘God’ to have any meaning, we have no choice but to discuss God in human terms.”

Yup, there it is. The rationalization that’s been used by theologians from time immemorial. It’s almost as eternal as God – and very nearly as tragic as God’s world.

There are no profound and yet easy ways to grasp hold of divinity. Sure, we can personify divinity all we want, but while the rewards for our own little egos might be great, we can assure ourselves that we will have lost divinity in the process. Even if you accept as I do that God exists, by fashioning God in our idealized image we have rendered God into a pure fiction. Indeed, by talking about God at times as the Ein Sof – the unknowable, eternal unity – and at other times as the cosmic “person” or the great “father,” we’re essentially admitting that we would rather appropriate God’s name for our own parochial objectives than respect and honor God for what God is. In short, we would rather utilize the name of God than honor it.

And we call that spirituality?

Let us, then, cast aside all the unpalatable rationalizations of the elders and start only with principles they espouse to which we clearly can’t object:. Here’s one: to be human is to be limited in our use of language and in our capacity to conceive of truth. With that principle in mind, let’s play a game based on the idea that we must pick some kind of anthropomorphism to conceive of the divine power. Try this one.

Stop thinking of this planet as the product of a single, omnipotent, omni-benevolent human-like will. Stop thinking about God as a being who deliberates at Time X about how to improve His world, decides what to do at Time Y, and then acts at Time Z in accordance with His ever-benign and yet ever-rational desires. (Some religious people might think that all that happens prior to the commencement of time, but for our purposes it hardly matters whether God is “deistic” or “theistic” – both seem quite implausible given the facts on the ground in Auschwitz and the Serengeti.)

Instead, think of this entire universe – everything we can perceive, measure, or even contemplate measuring – as a single dream of a God who has infinite dreams, though in this case, the dreams have impact on the physical world as well as the mind of the dreamer. Think of reality, in other words, as a multi-verse that expresses not the will of God but the way of God, a way that isn’t so much conscious as supra-conscious. That term connotes that the mind can achieve a state that somehow transcends consciousness, an idea that is common to Eastern spirituality, but is quite foreign to the Western mindset, which worships the will as the highest possible quality of mental life.

The God I’m positing here didn’t choose this world as an expression of love. God simply expresses all the thoughts/desires/impulses, etc. that can possibly be dreamed, or expressed, in one universe or another or another. In the words of Spinoza, God “lacked not material for creating all things from the highest to the lowest degree of perfection, or , to speak more accurately, the laws of his nature were so comprehensive as to suffice for the production of everything that can be conceived by an infinite intellect…”

Does that conception satisfy our hearts? Does it make us feel quite as warm and cuddly about our “Lord”? Does it make us feel that we are living in a world that comports with our ideas of justice? Does it allow us to see God as a trusted “father” or “partner”?

Perhaps not. Then again, if we’re talking about honoring God, we’re not so concerned about asking what God can do for us. We want to know what we can do for God. And we should start by opening our eyes as far as they can open to the realities of a world that is not the product of an idealized super-human creator.

Problem? No problem. What we consider to be signs of “evil” are just manifestations of the infinite manifestations of an infinite mind ... one that is capable of love, hatred, and every other emotion under the sun and beyond. You see, the God I’m talking about exists through us as well, and when we experience love, you can honestly attribute it to God as well. I don’t distinguish between “God” and “reality” except God refers to the infinite, eternal, and ultimate source of reality (Being itself), whereas specific finite beings are mere fragments, mere manifestations of that universal substance.

But let me not let this descend into metaphysical speculation. Some of these points are highly questionable, but others are not. It’s a fact that the “problem of evil” seems to be such a difficult problem precisely because we view God primarily as a super-human being. It’s also a fact that we need not view God in that way in order to practice monotheism or pursue spirituality. We make that choice because our ancestors have done so, and despite the fact that so many of our youth are being turned off to religion because of the illogic of our ancestors’ philosophy.

It’s a challenge worthy of Tony Montana: Say hello to my little friend. It’s called: Reason. When you hear someone fracture enough of its precepts, ask yourself whether that’s really necessary. Isn’t there a better way out of the maze than either blazing the same old trails, or standing in awe at the difficulty of our task? Let’s reserve the emotion of awe for when it’s really deserved. Let’s not posit false dilemmas and label them profound simply because we can’t stomach any of the obvious possible solutions.

4 comments:

Finding Fair Hope said...

It's difficult to comment on this post because it is so neatly crafted.

Long frustrated with questions about why God "does" this or that, I have tried over and over to explain that God is not a man, "doing" stuff. It's not a "he" who giveth and taketh away, seemingly whimsically. Why would "he" indeed.

Have you ever read that the original translation of the Bible's "God's will" was "God's yearning"? That is easier to picture somehow, the yearning of a spirit, beyond our comprehension somehow, a basic yearning for us.

You have put it another way, perhaps better. We are a dream of a God we cannot know yet cannot doubt. Doubt only enters the picture when we envision ourselves in the image of this concept (or it in our image).

Well done. I shall read this post over and over because there is much more to it than the Sopranos.

That Cleaning Lady said...

Well, I was hoping you'd go easy on me, considering it's my first time here...Thanks to Grammie for sending me here for a bit of heavy think time.
I had spent time wondering myself about why God "does" this or that, and had decided a while ago that man does this or that, not God, and God gave us free will to decide what to do or not do, our choice. I don't think that God sits up there on his throne watching his children screw things up, watching the clock till the countdown is done and HE comes down and starts tossing judgment around.
Being a human being, its very difficult not to put a human spin on God. We can't even look at the stars without naming them, and I'm pretty sure they don't care. We have to have a picture of everything in order to prove its existence, thus our drivers licenses, social security cards and FBI files. We are pictured, therefore we exist. Sad, but human.
I'm impressed with your logic and educated way of putting pen to paper (as it were) and putting thought to mind on a very large subject.

Daniel Spiro said...

FFH --

I'm not familiar with "yearning" as the original analogue of "will." Clearly, whatever the word it, I can't imagine it corresponds very well to any human concept.

Thank you for your kind words about the post.

Daniel Spiro said...

Cleaning Lady,

Welcome. And thanks for your kind words. I assure you that not all of my posts involve heavy think time. (See, e.g., the post about "Larger Than Life" which is from August if you want something completely different.) Also, many of my posts involve politics, and these days, it is almost impossible to bring cerebral activity to the political realm -- not unless you want to bang your head against the wall.

The older I get, the more satisfying I find it to contemplate religion/spirituality, and the more frustrated I become about politics. But I am a native Washingtonian, and interest in politics remains in my blood.

Also, since you're new here, allow me to shamelessly promote my philosophical novel, The Creed Room, which is about both religion, politics and education -- and also works in love and intrigue. There's a link in my blog to my web page discussing the book, and you can also read a lot about it on Amazon.com or on my publisher's website -- www.theaegispress.com If not for my publisher, this website wouldn't have even existed.

Next week, I'm taking off the week from work to concentrate entirely on a second novel, on which I'm still far from finished. It primarily involves religion, but I'd rather not be too specific yet about the book.

Your comment about how we invariably put a human spin on everything is undeniable. But if we are aware of this bias and try hard to do something about it, we can fundamentally alter our world view. I happen to think that's a good thing -- at least it's proven to feel right for me.