Looking for God in a Godless World
What is “God”? That question may seem remote from our cares du jour—what’s going to happen in Europe and how it will affect our presidential election. But I think the question and its consequences have legs far longer than most people believe. Read on.
For agnostics like me, the question is much more interesting than whether God exists. People have been trying to prove or disprove that for as long as human history. No one has yet won that battle decisively, and probably no one ever will. So I don’t devote much time to thinking or reading about it, let alone trying to answer it. I much prefer to think about, “if God exists, what is God”? What is his/her/its essence?
To me, God is the personification of human morality. It’s what we do for each other and our species, rather than for our individual selves. It’s what motivates soldiers to die for their country, whistle blowers to call Citbank and its legions of lawyers out for institutional policies that foster and reward liars’ loans, and Cory Booker to rush into a burning building to save a potential victim. It’s something that we believe in that’s bigger than ourselves, our families, and our human institutions.
You might think that this form of God contradicts our essential, selfish, individual nature. To an indefinable extent, that’s true. But which is the bigger and better part of our nature? Individually, we are weaker than many chimps, smaller than a horse or rhinoceros, and far more vulnerable than any big cat. Yet collectively, we are the top of the food chain and the dominant species on our planet.
So if “God” is what motivates us to work together, and occasionally to sacrifice our individual selves to the common good, it’s a big part of our evolution, our species and even our individual genetic identity. In that sense, God is built into our DNA.
But there, too, lies a paradox. Individually, we are weak, small and stupid. Collectively, we are strong, intelligent and masters of our small planet. So if God is to prevail among us, it must rely upon human institutions, too. It can’t depend entirely upon extraordinary people like Jesus, who come along only once every couple of millennia.
Hence the Catholic Church.
But, aye, there’s the rub. Any outsider who looks at the Catholic Church today—not to mention many Catholics—has to be full of doubt.
After murder, pedophilia may be our most repugnant crime. To use children’s immature, innocent and pristine bodies, against their will, to satisfy adults’ sexual cravings is a crime in any society. There can be no excuse of expediency, since most children cannot bear children, let alone from homosexual abuse.
So how could the Church, which has stood—often alone—for human morality for large parts of two millennia, institutionally countenance and conceal such repugnant crimes to protect its own?
That’s the significance of the trial now before a jury in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for the Monseigneur caught in the middle (after his Cardinal’s convenient death), the trial is not really about him. It’s about a human institution that protected criminals, under any moral code, for far too long.
But it’s even more than that. Religion itself is on trial. Religion requires human institutions to propagate and maintain itself. Run by humans, those institutions are inevitably fallible, whatever their divine pretensions. And their recent record is not particularly good, even as compared to much-maligned secular governments.
So it is that secular governments are prosecuting Catholic pedophiles, and the tide of prosecutions will only wax larger. Civil suits are like to follow, with large damage awards. If successful, they might do what centuries of wars with Protestants could not. They could give the coup de grace to the mightiest religious institution in human history.
The Catholic Church is not the only failing religious institution. Islam is failing, too. Many of its practitioners can’t see the writing on the wall, but it is there to see.
Islam suffers from the exact opposite of the Catholic disease, which is too much centralization in Rome. In contrast, Islam is dispersed. Not only does it have various sects, including Sunni, Shiites, Wahhabis, and Sufis. Even within each sect, it has no universally recognized religious authority. How else could the late Obama bin Laden, a Saudi renegade with absolutely no religious training or authority, purport to issue a “fatwa” (religious decree) ordering Muslims to kill innocent Americans and Westerners wherever they may be found?
If a Catholic assumed religious authority in like manner, he/she would be excommunicated in short order. But Islam is decentralized, and that is both a blessing and a curse. It is still waiting for its Martin Luther to set individual consciences free to see God in their own individual way. Yet while it waits, it is vulnerable to false pretenders like bin Laden and al-Awlaki, and their self-evident evil stains its legacy and promotes Islamophobia.
So what have believers of various stripes today? The two great proselytizing religions—Catholic Christianity and Islam—are on the ropes. Karol Józef Wojtyła, known to Catholics as Pope John Paul II, was one of the last millennium’s greatest Catholic leaders. But he is dead. His successor is nothing more than a religious accountant or lawyer. He is an anally retentive scholar without a soul, ignorant of all the great social movements of our time, opposed to women’s ordination and justice for homosexuals.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq appears to have the intellect but not the leadership. While mimicking our doctrine of separation of church and state, his brand of “quietism” keeps him from mimicking Pope John Paul II. Into the vacuum of leadership that he and others left strode the late bin Laden, Murderer of Innocents.
So as people outside China and India look for moral sustenance, where can they turn? There is no easy answer.
That’s why I continue to believe in the President. More than any other current leader, he seems to understand an essential truth about our species. Individually, we are nothing. We are individual animals brighter than birds and monkeys, nothing more.
But collectively, we can remake ourselves in God’s image. We can make a Paradise for ourselves, right here on this Earth, if we cooperate and love our enemies and our neighbors as Jesus taught. Or we can make our Earth a Hell, by fighting each other and ignoring the clear and present danger of global warming.
More than any politician in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Karol Józef Wojtyła, the President understands this essential truth about our species. Time after time, he has sought compromise over confrontation, often to his political disadvantage. In 2008, I thought he could attract some evangelicals and other believers to his side. I think he still can. (Or at least he could convince them to stay home on election day.)
The major theme of this election is of course the economy. But an important minor theme is the search for God, in the form of much-neglected human morality.
It’s there in the search for a way to keep Iran from becoming a belligerent nuclear power without starting a murderous war. It’s there in evangelicals’ quest for absolute truth in the Bible. It’s there in their misguided hope for an apocalyptic “Rapture,” which would likely take the form of nuclear Armageddon or runaway climate change. It’s there in the anguish of so many Catholics, who are trying to decide whether to leave the Church that has nurtured them from birth but has also coddled pedophiles.
There is no way that Mitt Romney can tap into this angst. He’s a Mormon—a member of an outlying religion misunderstood and distrusted by the vast majority of Americans. For largely good reasons, neither he nor the President wants to introduce Romney’s religion into the campaign. More important, he has lied far too often—even about his successes, such as health-care mandates in Massachusetts—to claim the mantle of moral leader. Who can believe in a man who changes his views with every poll?
The President can exploit this moral angst. At his core, he is a moral man, a Man of God, if you will. Again and again, he has turned his cheek and tried to cooperate with his sworn enemies, just as Jesus advised. He has tried honestly to find common ground with adversaries as varied as the Tea Party and Iran. And while (for good reasons) he has broken some campaign promises, he has always tried to tell the truth, concealing only actionable intelligence.
So I cannot understand why neither he nor his campaign has yet introduced this attractive facet of his persona into the campaign, as subtly as they feel necessary.
In a Godless world, believers and even unbelievers are looking for something to believe in, just as they were in 2008. Obama has it in him, but he has to bring it out. It will take some of his superb political understanding, not just quoting scripture, to do it in a way that modern people, both religious and secular, can understand.
But he can do it. Doing so might give him victory, no matter what happens in Europe. And even if he loses, he can leave a moral legacy he can be proud of. After two millennia, who remembers Caesar more than Jesus? And whom does Obama resemble more?