As part of my effort to gradually get myself back in an academic frame of mind for the coming autumn, among other reasons, for the past week I’ve been going through a bunch of old debates between Muslims and Christians over doctrines the former find disturbing. I don’t have any magic bullets by which either side can decisively win these debates, but I’ve actually been struck by the extent to which both sides actually miss what I consider to be the main point of the matter. Both sides seem to have been thoroughly preoccupied with justifying their attempts to build military empires loosely based on their concepts of what God is like. Whatever else can be said about the nature of God, one thing I consider to be most certain: the creator of the universe isn’t interested in putting his stamp of approval on any piss-ant human militarily empire.
Let me give a partial disclaimer regarding my pacifist sympathies to start with: I have three siblings who have served in the US military, and a vast number of veterans in my extended family as well. I have no problem with that. None of them have been involved in combat so far this century, and if they had I might want to have a longer talk with them about the role they played in killing people they didn’t know for reasons they didn’t really understand, but for me that’s hypothetical. In principle I believe in the idea of each country at least maintaining a military deterrent against foreign invaders, and against domestic radicals who would want to start civil wars as well. I also believe that militarily taking part in the legitimate defense of the human rights of people in other nations, particularly in terms of international cooperative missions, can be quite justifiable under many circumstances. So with all that in mind I have no problem whatsoever with the fact that the older of my two adult sons currently has a career as a drill sergeant in Finland’s military. I’m quite proud of the work he does and its value for this country and the world.
What I can’t get behind is the idea that we can solve the world’s problems by bombing the hell out of people who don’t conform to our dictates of what sort of people should live where, or those who don’t readily enough hand over natural resources to corporations that want them. This implies some critique of the United States, of course, with its unjustifiable mega-spending on military hardware –– with some of the brass somehow having managed to convince their congressmen that American really needs to have more machinery for killing people than all the rest of the nations on earth put together, and that unilaterally taking on the role of policing the rest of the world is somehow the United States’ moral responsibility. But this month it must be said that both Russians and Israelis have been outdoing Americans even in terms of promoting crazy aggressive warmongering…
But that’s actually beside the point of what I wanted to talk about here, which is all the debates over the nature of God.
You see, if the point of having a religion for you is to get some sort of magical advantage in the process of “smiting your enemies” it doesn’t really make any difference which type of God you believe in. Whatever theological excuses you make for yourself in that process, what that sort of faith ultimately comes down to is playing some version of “Age of Mythology” inside your head: you try to build enough temples and do enough ritual offerings so that your demiurges fight harder and stronger than the next guy’s demiurges. In practice having that sort of faith can give you a powerful psychological advantage in warfare, or in sports even; but that does not mean that there really is some supernatural power out there, related to the powers that brought the universe into being, which for some reason has now become dedicated to helping your side kick ass. Deluding yourself into thinking that you do have such a supernatural advantage is key to maintaining the psychological advantage, but that doesn’t mean that there is any transcendent truth to it.
So for those purposes the point is not to discover what is ultimately “out there” but to get your team unified in and excited about the idea that some great big something out there is going to ensure that you guys are going to win. If it helps build that kind of excitement for you to paint pictures of this big “something out there” as having claws or fangs or giant wings, or some exaggerated signs of human masculinity or femininity, or just to tell everyone that your god is too powerful to depicted in such fashions, that all ultimately comes down to psychological tactics, not spiritual sensitivity.
There is, however, a whole different approach to “doing religion”, which I far more strongly recommend: searching for some sort of evidence that we’re not alone in this vast universe, that our lives have some significance, and that we can be part of something bigger than just our isolated selves. The problem is that this ultimately runs into direct conflict with Age of Mythology style religion: Searching for that “something beyond ourselves” which can ultimately give our lives meaning inevitably entails recognizing, at some point, that connecting with the ultimate source of our life inevitably involves connecting with the source of everyone else’s life as well –– including those whose asses we’d so like to kick. And if we’re going to believe that this power is benevolent enough to take an active interest in our little lives, that automatically implies then that he/she/it would have the same benevolent interest in those who aren’t actually part of our tribe. Exploring that series of connections can really screw up the whole Age of Mythology thing, so many of those for whom religion is a means of tribalistic or nationalistic self-promotion would prefer not to take their theology quite that far.
If we’re interested enough in these ultimate cause and connection matters to set aside our tribal power interests though there are all sorts of interesting places that can take us. In some ways it can bring us right to the border of schizophrenia! Schizophrenia is basically the sort of brain malfunction where the sufferer can’t entirely tell what is part of him/her and what isn’t; what experiences are coming from inside the head and what is coming from the outside world; where exactly the border between “me” and “non-me” falls. So if your religion starts to blur the lines between who you are and all the rest of the world’s psychic experiences, that can lead to some serious malfunctions!
But on the other hand if we remain strictly and carefully isolated from any sense of connection with the “non-me” world out there, we live lives of miserable and meaningless isolation. However you set out defining such things, love remains THE key element of the human experience that makes it worthwhile. When you truly and deeply love someone then, you become willing to let down your border defenses; you let that person inside of you a bit. Their joys become your joys. Their pains become your pains.
The problem with love though is that it radically increases the risk of internal conflict within our minds. Many of us are prone to having all sorts of conflicts within ourselves even without getting other people involved. We find all sorts of different perspectives competing for control of our lives –– all of which ultimately come from the same genetic predispositions and collection of human experiences that make each of us who we are. So with that level of conflict already going on inside of our heads, how much worse could it get if we allow others to become part of who we are? Plenty! When, through loving others, we bring their conflicting perspectives into ourselves, coming from entirely different genetic predispositions and collections of life experiences, the conflicts can get A LOT nastier!
And actually that conflict potential is where both love and schizophrenia can become problematic. The trouble isn’t so much the confusion over what is part of you and what isn’t, but the huge powerful struggles waging war within one’s mind or soul. If we could have the interconnection of love without all the conflict potential that goes with it, that would really be perfect. So that really should be the ultimate goal of any and every religion which manages to transcend tribal contests as its reason for being. God, from this perspective, is the force that we can connect with which in turn enables us to connect with each other on a deeper sort of level without literally driving each other crazy. Or as the Apostle John put it, in much simpler terms: “God is love.”
So then we come to the question of what form this all-powerful force of love has to take in order for it to have relevance to life as we humans know it. How can this Ultimate Love from “out there” enable us, with our own human limitations, to connect with itself (or himself) and thereby with each other –– again, without driving each other crazy? This is the fundamental dilemma that every non-tribal-success-oriented religion has to work out.
Christianity’s way of doing that has to do with the cluster of doctrines that we refer to in short-hand as the Trinity; which has a unique ability to drive other monotheists, Muslims and Jews in particular, entirely crazy. “How can God be one and still somehow be three?” But puzzling over this matter, however, we easily get sidetracked from the real primary issue: how can pathetic little creatures like ourselves hope to meaningfully connect with the ultimate source of life, the universe and everything? How can we learn to transcend borders of our own selfhood through love in ways that give us a more satisfying understanding of who we really are and how we can relate to each other? If we’re going to have a faith which values both personal identity and transcendent connection, we have to base that on an understanding of divinity where God also has a clear form of personal identity but where he also transcends the limits of a simple fixed identity in the process of loving. In short, because love inevitably makes distinctions in identity ambiguous, for God to be love inevitably means that there will necessarily be an element of ambiguity in the process of interconnection within God’s identity.
The relevant question from there is how we can get our heads around the idea of ambiguous personal identity through perfect loving interconnection without that entailing the sort of internalized conflict that always goes with the human experience of love? This relates back to our tendency still to picture gods as military support devices. To that way of thinking, each individual god has its own personal ambitions and tactical objectives. The only way to eliminate conflict between gods from this perspective is to have one god capable of dominating all the other ones entirely. But in slipping back into that warring mindset the purpose of believing in a loving God has already been forgotten.
The prophets of ancient Israel and Judah, whose message was foundational to the teachings of Jesus, struggled with this issue on a number of levels. They were very much coming from a place of thinking according to the Age of Mythology paradigm: If you lose the war it’s either because you’ve got a weaker god or you didn’t do enough to keep that god satisfied with you. Leaving the possibility of their god’s strength being limited entirely aside, they set to work explaining what the people must have done wrong for their warrior god to have stopped fighting for them. Much of the time they did this with graphic verbal images of sexual infidelity: JHWH rejecting his chosen people because they spent too much time screwing around with other gods. But once in a while, just once in a while, they seemed to grasp that if they were really dealing with the creator of the universe, not just some little local tribal god, it was rather inappropriate to relate to him on the level of saying that his primary “job” is to help our army dominate the other one in battle. They also started to realize that there were limits with how far they should take that jealous boyfriend motif. They started recognizing that treating people, any people, as disposable commodities was at the root of many of their problems. They started to see that an addiction to violence as a means of dealing with things and cycles of vengeance just weren’t going to work out well for anyone in the long run. They started to preach that the point of religion should be recognizing “God’s heart of compassion”… for all nations. Those are the principles that Jesus in turn really drove home.
I could proof-text this out for you, but hopefully you get the idea without.
So yeah, once we get beyond playing supernatural war games with our faith –– once we learn to focus on compassion and connection that overcomes conflicts being the true core issue of faith –– the intellectual problems inherent in the doctrine of the trinity become far less critical. That doesn’t make it rationally comprehensible, but it can be argued that love never is logically comprehensible, and if love is going to be the point of our lives we’re just going to have to learn to deal with that.
Those are my meandering meditations for this week. I hope they hold deeper meaning for some of you. Cheers.