Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rock, Paper, Scissors: My Working Theology

I recently discovered Roger Ebert's blog and greatly enjoy his wide-ranging thoughtful take on things, including occasional, quite casual ruminations about the nature of God. I appreciate that he shows us how he thinks, that as he moves through the world and through time he considers what he encounters in a multi-dimensional way and isn't afraid to share his observations. In one of his recent posts, he wrote (I’m taking the liberty to lift these lines out of context):
... the presence or absence of God. What difference does it make? If there were God, would there be more good in the world? If there were not a God, more evil? What we believe is sometimes more important than what we can see.... If God is omnipotent, he must hear not only our prayers but our most fleeting thoughts... A vast engine of fate and genetics, coincidence and desire, propels us helplessly in a direction we choose to think is ours. The clock ticks until something breaks or some eternal force does something to us. Then we die, and the piece is over.
I was nominally raised a Catholic. My parents sent the children to church Sunday mornings while they themselves stayed home. This disconnect only reinforced my intellectual skepticism. But I was always extremely drawn to nature. Once when I was very little I stood in the doorway on a fine, early spring morning. “Thank you God for this beautiful day,” I am reported to have said, words on occasion I repeat today.

In my youth I described myself as an agnostic and didn’t have a well formed notion of God. My views became clarified a number of years ago when I happened to hear Norman Mailer discussing his theological beliefs in a television interview. Mailer compared God to an old, tired General who though greatly weakened, valiantly perseveres, trying to keep from losing the War.

This made sense to me. God is up against a powerful countervailing force, namely, Evil. (Though I tend to eschew overly simplified binary views such as this.) If God was once omnipotent then He no longer is. This is the key, for me, to understanding why there is so much wanton suffering in the world. It is not, as I now understand it, that God is cruel and indifferent to allow for so much destruction, cruelty, and pain. When people rhetorically ask, "How could God have let this happen?," I believe that it is that God does not have the power to stop it.

I recently watched the miniseries The Lost Room. My attention wandered, but I greatly admire the premise, that a collection of mundane objects acquire special powers in and of themselves, or in combination with other objects. The objects are seemingly ordinary, a key, a comb, an ashtray, a bus ticket, and the like.

I think of God in connection with this imaginative metaphor. Again, God is not omnipotent, otherwise He could simply say Evil be gone, and Good would prevail. Rather, in the War between Good and Evil, General God has been granted the power to instill in each human a divine spark, a special power if you will. Each of us has it, but it is only a potential. For us to join God's side we have to figure out what that special talent or spark is and to abide by it, try to nurture it, be true to it. God needs all kinds. We don't know when our special little (or big) role may come to pass, what role we have in the world, in the universe. Some of us may play a more individual role - for example, an artist or poet expressing the Truth bravely. Others' sparks and talents only come to fruition in key combination with others, such as on a team in which each individual has a unique contribution to make to the whole. Or like a combination lock that requires that the individual numbers align just right in order to open it. Or like building blocks, or an alphabet. The English alphabet contains twenty-six letters. Each letter is unique, but doesn't acquire meaning until combined with others to form a word – savory vowels encased by consonant dumplings to form a tasty word. A single word, in turn, takes on further meaning in combination with other words, in a sentence, a paragraph, a poem, an essay, a novel.

The side of Evil doesn’t want all kinds. It wants monoculture. It seeks to flatten the individual, the creative power that is in each one of us, the unique God-given spark that, activated, aids God's side. Evil doesn’t want the strengths and talents of individual human beings to flower and to be expressed. In fact it would prefer that we simply do as we are told, keep quiet, and behave in lockstep. Evil prefers an uneducated, uninformed, and thoroughly confused public. Evil abhors Nature. It generates and favors art that projects the messages it wants to reinforce, that strengthens its grip and reinforces its hegemony.

It is in part due to my personal sense of theology, that I become alarmed at what I see in our culture.

I’m not religious in a formal sense. I suppose my beliefs could be categorized as gnostic. I am increasingly drawn to the spiritual, and I have an ever-deepening sense that the dots that signify our individual roles add up to a large pattern.

I don’t like where our culture is headed. Our nation was founded on principles that I believe were on "General God’s" side. The colonies overthrew the oppressive forces of the British empire. Things have changed. Or more accurately, Plus ca change plus c’est meme, that is, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” I feel as though it’s 1773 all over again, and the forces of empire once again have the upper hand. They lost in 1776 but never left, which is why, for example, slavery wasn’t eradicated til nearly 100 years later – we didn’t form “the perfect union” right off the bat.

In the last 50 years the forces of greed have gained strength. They are relentless, will stop at nothing, and threaten to overwhelm.

If you see something, say something. I’m trying. Glasses, teacup, lamplight, pen. Here you go.

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