The problem now is not only do we not have the right answer, we’re not even sure we have the right question.
—Richard Berendzen, astronomer
While the discovery of a seemingly ageless universe occasioned the remark, it reflects the disorientation I experienced in trying to explain God. I did not have answers to questions I wasn’t sure were right. The main point of inquiry was how could God be personal. I stumbled along a road of platitudes centered on the vanity of any attempt to personify a supreme being.
As my catechism taught: there is only one God—a supreme being who is omnipotent. In a word, almighty. A word used to describe that which we cannot conceive, a wonderment, a bewilderment, something without shape or face or speech. God is an amorphous something, a something which probably is not living or breathing. And yet we wish it were a father, a father with a face. We wish it were alive, we wish it were breathing, of body and soul, walking among us, conversing with us. We are desperate in our want to belong to it and it to us.
In the face of this facelessness, man attempts to create not something out of nothing but something out of everything. Why it may take on many looks can be answered by the man who sculpted a dog out of wood; when asked how he did it, he answered simply, I carved away all that didn’t belong to my dog. This idea may go a long way in explaining the variety in religions: Catholic icons, Hindu cows or craven images.
The form invariably dictates the character of our faceless God and likewise the steps required to worship it. There is all manner of ritual and sacrifice, some conducted in unfathomable crazes and rages, all an effort to understand why we are here and for what purpose. To answer these enormously troubling questions we ascribe to God certain traits—again depending on the people and its temperament; implacable and cruel, noble and gentle, all knowing and all enforcing, benign and merciful—or merciful and yet vengeful.
Certain quarters assure themselves that the Bible is the bedrock. This supreme being spoke, someone was listening and happened to have a pencil. Please strike that; it reflects prejudice. Amend it to read: God spoke and someone heard. And now we are the keepers of the word of the supreme.
The universe, as best we understand, is 18 billion years old. So I asked myself is God’s message comparable to the travel of starlight: uttered millions or billions of years ago and only now reaching us? Or have we looked inside ourselves and seen part of the Big Bang, part of the Word? The news article suggests as much, for its claim is that the universe is older than its stars. But such a statement lends credence to the notion that God first created the word, then the other stuff such as the sun and the earth. Were we known before we ever were?
No, we are here, illusion or no. It is just me, just you. And what we do matters. Why? Not because of any cosmic cop. No naughty or nice syndrome in the galactic. Because there are others ahead of us whose lives will be directly affected by what I do or don’t do or deny or uphold. Inasmuch as I am part, I am the whole—the whole of mankind behind me, the future cascading before me. It is for me to determine the course of mankind. I am influential, if not powerful, both in word and deed. What I say to myself in my darkest moments, all men will hear, what I do in the darkest corners all men will eventually see. My temptations are all men’s, my victories belong to all, for I am one who came before and part of those who will come after.
I once thought that we, all of us, were God. Write such nonsense off to the struggles of youth. Now I see that we, all of us, those before me and after, are history, we are a story being told and retold, one that goes untold and at the same time is unfolding. We are players, we are parts, and we join in the whole.
Once in the ardor of my rebellion against the deity, I prayed for an extraterrestrial visitor. I wanted to ask the alien if Christ had ever come to live and die among them in order to free their souls from an original sin. I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in to have them answer no, so then I could challenge the testament in its entirety. Now I understand the alien could answer yes or no, and it wouldn’t matter. We still face the same condition—lost subjects of a supreme being that is omnipotent.
How can I be sure there is a God, after all it wasn’t long ago that I denounced the concept and discovered that I lost the fear and loathing that accompanied it. Lost the fear but the terror remains.
To paraphrase Rand, God is a terror because we cannot know it. It is closed to us, mindless of us. And since it is absolute, it is absolutely closed, absolutely inconsiderate. We stand before it unable to divine our way, much less a destination we cannot reach even if we knew it. Without purpose and intent, we face the horror that is ourselves, we confront but cannot communicate, we speak but no one, not even ourselves, hears. We cannot fathom or discern so even our actions become suspect. The terror is within and without, at all times relentless. We know God by the terror and in just the same fashion, we know life by suffering. Unamuno said as much.
But let’s take a more practical tack. Obviously we had no hand in nature, the construction of its laws and its obedience to the flow of evolution. What we create only destroys nature, be it intentional or inadvertent. We stake no claim to creation; we know only too well we are the results, albeit misguided and forlorn. So we harken back to the astronomers’ calculation of 18 billion years; even before the Big Bang the universe existed. Who or what introduced elements into this limitless vacuum? Who or what set in motion this enduring march toward human life so long ago? It is the height of understatement to say it was something greater than us, something far more powerful, and something that knew everything at once. God. This monosyllabic utterance will do as good as any, but never do it justice.
And now to the issue at hand. How to personalize this God, this cause? We are given to make-believe—out of the terror, the desolation, the dire need for the strength to live together and the stability to stand alone. At their core, all religions are the same—a statement of awe and the conditions which will allow us to live in awe. Since no one is successful in abiding by these conditions, there are mild prescriptions for forgetting the constancy of awe.
Concepts such as omnipotence are not readily grasped. In order to make God discernible we attribute to it certain human traits; thereby subtracting from infinity. The math aside, let’s take mercy. In our thirst for eternity we grant God the capacity to be lenient in the face of our transgressions. Likewise, we offer ourselves the chance to exercise mercy amongst ourselves since we strive to emulate the divine. The connection here has a clever duality—us to ourselves and us to God. Once connected, we are now associated. Associated, united. United, kin.
Now that God looks like us and acts like us we will know God when we see God. This goes to the heart of the adage—seek and you shall find. We don’t know what to look for unless it resembles something we have seen, something we know. When Lawrence of Arabia showed Arabs pictures he had taken of them, they did not know what they were looking at; they had never seen their own image. Given the ability to see God we can pursue God. We can search for it in the hope of finding a reason for our being here, our primary purpose. For man it is imperative that he understand why, that his presence has meaning. Who better to answer such soul-seated troubles than the one that made all things?
(One of the difficulties in writing the paragraph above is the pronoun—it. My tendency was to use—him. Why him, why not her? Again we have added a human trait, a He-God, not a She-God. By doing so, we reduce God’s stature. And ultimately the possibility of mercy.)
Other properties we ascribe to God are thought and actions. We say God thinks and acts, or that for God the two activities are one and the same. Additionally, we claim that we exist because we are in God’s thoughts. If we weren’t, we would die or far worse, never have been. What all this points to is our quietly raging dependency. It has been argued that dependency is the essence of religious sense. Once dependent, we are susceptible. Now the situation is right or ripe. Let’s play this card known as religion, for we are supremely capable of tricking out God in all manner of lore and luridness.
Dependency may not capture the entirety of the religious sense. Add to the mix the idea of wishing and willing. The wish to be known by the divine, the willingness to believe this is not only possible but very probable. One of the most accepted ways to accomplish this is to pray. Prayer in and of itself is a very humbling experience because you surrender your freedom to God in the hopes it can change your fate. Examine the idea closer and you can easily substitute praying to God with rubbing a rabbit’s foot. Each seeks the same end: a turn of events in your favor. You look for assistance and support. If what you pray for or rub the furry foot for happens, you are at a complete loss to explain how or why. You simply trust, perhaps in the furry foot or prayer. Does it really matter which?
The idea of an answered prayer bores in on the essence of a God that presides over us, that nurtures us, so much so in fact that God gave us its son in order that we might kill him and thus rid ourselves of the ultimate divine offense. This strikes me as nothing short of Pre-Copernican: the sun does indeed revolve around us, the universe orbits us. We are the center of it all. By extension, we are the focal point of God. In the center of this seemingly infinite maelstrom, this behemoth that has lived for 18 billion years, is the Earth. More important, the Earth’s occupants. We are the bullseyes in this galactic whirligig that we can scarcely comprehend. This is vanity of divine proportions. It is only outdone by the fantastic notion of in-his-image-and-likeness.
Are we capable of being everywhere at once? Are we capable of a cognitive process that exceeds thought? Are we capable of infinite mercy? Are we even capable of forgiving the slightest transgression? No! No! And hell no!
To add us to the equation, to couple our characteristics to that of the infinite, is nothing short of arrogance. More to the point, by our ascription, we weaken the idea of God. Is God arrogant? When you are the only one who is and all else exists in time, what would be the point? No, the point is that there is grave danger in anthropomorphism. We can make an arrogant God, we can believe in something akin to a cosmic cop. We can have a God who condones many wives or just one or none at all. We can have a God who says if you sin you will burn in hell or if you sin you will be born again under less than satisfactory circumstances. By and large, the gods we conjure are dangerous, very dangerous. Proceed with caution.
In the end, we are the children of creation. We act in earnest, for we want to survive. Survive our own death.
Timothy L Rodriguez has published in English and Spanish. His novel—Guess Who Holds Thee?—is available on Amazon. His fiction and poems have appeared in over a dozen national and international journals including New London Writers (UK), honorable mention in an international short story competition sponsored by The Writer’s Drawer (Israel), Main Street Rag, Heyday Magazine, and Stoneboat Literary Journal. His novel—Never Is Now—was serialized at www.newlondonwriters.com.