Monday, August 07, 2006

On Whether God Takes Side

What if God is an artist who sits back after creation and "paring his fingernails" ?

With a seemingly never-ending series of deadly conflicts, wars, human failures, and natural disasters, this is the season when one tends to think about God. I came across a nicely written article that may stimulate your thought. Enjoy it:

God is not on my side. Or yours
Roger Rosenblatt on whether God takes sides

Time, Sunday, Dec. 09, 2001

This is the season when one tends to think about God (if one thinks about God at all), and I would like to offer the opinion that God is not thinking about us. Or if he is (I'll stay with he), one has no way of knowing that--unless, of course, one is like Mohamed Atta, who had a pathological view of faith, or Jerry Falwell, whose mind is Taliban minus the bloodlust. This week the Taliban leader, Mohammed Omar, may be wondering how tight he is with God, after all. In September he was certain that God rooted for our extinction. Now, with the surrender of Kandahar, the mullah may be shopping for a more competent deity.
"A fanatic," said Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, "is a man that does what he thinks th' Lord wud do if He knew th' facts in th' case." On the other hand, there are folks like me who are fanatically uncertain about what God is thinking. I believe in him, all right. But I do not believe that he is on our, or any, side in wars or that he oversouls his way through the trees or that he presides over my bowling game.

The essential act of faith, it seems to me, is wonder--a sort of involuntary fascination in awe. By awe, I do not mean the act of seeking, either--the quest one hears a lot these days in the affectionate recollection of George Harrison's My Sweet Lord. I don't believe in seeking, and I don't believe in finding.

Most religions make awe difficult, because they are concerned with ideology, uniformity, loyalty and favoritism--not the most useful tools for those who choose to live in mystery. One says that he respects someone else's religion, but it is like saying he thinks someone else's children wonderful. Similarly, if one prays for gifts and protections, one must naturally assume that God micromanages the universe for the advantage of particular believers. If, however, one sees prayer as what theologian Paul Tillich called "the great deep sigh," prayer becomes an act of unconscious adoration. Religion becomes more generous and modest. Even the Gospels were written "according to," which was a way of saying "as I see it."

One would like to think that God is on our side against the terrorists, because the terrorists are wrong and we are in the right, and any deity worth his salt would be able to discern that objective truth. But this is simply good-hearted arrogance cloaked in morality--the same kind of thinking that makes people decide that God created humans in his own image. (See the old New Yorker cartoon that shows a giraffe in a field, thinking "And God made giraffe in his own image.") The God worth worshiping is the one who pays us the compliment of self-regulation, and we might return it by minding our own business.

So indefinite is my idea of God that I do not even connect it to morality. It is pleasant to believe that God wants us to behave well, and that if we do, we may be making those choices that he hoped for when he let us alone. Then again, we may not. What if God is who James Joyce said he is in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one who sits back after creation "paring his fingernails"? The idea is hard to swallow, which is what makes faith equally confounding and thrilling.

In practical terms, it might be quite upsetting to learn God's opinion on such issues as human cloning, abortion, school prayer, capital punishment, conservation, nuclear weapons, starvation, disease and an excessive number of Krispy Kremes. Where has God been since 1973 regarding the New York Knicks? I'd like to know. If one wants proof that God does not side with someone who merely invokes his name frequently, take point guard Charlie Ward (please).

This whole business of knowing God's devices is particularly nettling to us modern scientific Americans, who have assured ourselves that we are capable of knowing everything. But it is always interesting to see how knowledge, no matter how fundamental or revolutionary, discloses as many mysteries as it unravels.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his way to America from Nazi Germany at the outbreak of World War II but then decided to return to his country to join the Resistance. He participated in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler, and was caught, jailed and hanged. Bonhoeffer addressed this question of knowing with the example of a rose. He said that science allows us to grasp nearly everything about the composition of a rose because we have learned so much about pollination, photosynthesis and so forth. And yet, he said, once we have done all that analysis, we still ask, What is a rose?
Hitler had a different question. "Who says," he asked, "that I am not under the special protection of God?"