Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god.


I have never been a fervent believer in the Divine, but as I have aged, the need for a radical harmonization of apostolic doctrines has become increasingly obvious to me. As for the institutions that act as if they alone have discovered the cosmic truth, I can only say I am reminded of a child’s boast that their father (or mother) is the strongest, or the smartest. Some of us, eventually, become less certain…

Gods serve many purposes in our lives, though -whether it be one all-encompassing deity who somehow attends to everything, or multiple gods, each with special expertise in specific areas. I suppose culture and tradition dictate the variety, but no matter the choice, the god is performing an important function, serving an identified need. It seems to me that this should be telling us something -either about Society itself, or more likely, about humanity’s need (or hope) for reassurance and guidance through life’s uncertainties. Gods are things we  praise for our successes, or try to appease for our misfortunes; we do not drift alone.

But is it fair to suggest that gods are merely acting in loco parentis? At my age, I am the parent, I realize; I have been for many years -notwithstanding the reluctant but inevitable decline into my children’s anticipatory arms. We all ripen and mature until we either fall or are picked from the tree, so does that require a changing of gods, or merely repurposing them? An interesting question for a largely  agnostic elder, I think, and yet increasingly apt when there are so few leaves left on the branch.

But I what puzzles me still, is the feature I would bestow upon any god in whom I could believe -in whose arms I would be content to rest. Would it be omniscience? It would be reassuring if I thought that things had already been anticipated and the equations solved. On the other hand, I would be unhappy if there were no mysteries -if someone had already solved them, and was merely toying with me. Patronizing me like a parent would a child.

I suppose I could accept the idea of a sort of guardian god who made sure things didn’t get too far out of hand, although belief in an entity like that seems increasingly untenable nowadays: when is the god going to intervene -or maybe, how is it going to take over, and what would that mean? Surely it shouldn’t be too one-sided and risk accusations of bias, or favouritism. And anyway, wouldn’t its retribution be the very destruction we are hoping to avoid? Of course we wouldn’t want a god who just let things slide until it was too late -we might as well not have one then.

These are difficult problems for any god I imagine, let alone one we could all embrace.

Still, a retiree like me is only expected to enquire about these things, not necessarily to answer them. But I did come across an instructive essay that I hoped might tell me what to look for in a god. It was written by Benjamin Grant Purzycki, an anthropologist at the  University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/why-god-knows-more-about-misbehaviour-than-anything-else

He starts out by commenting on the obvious: ‘many thoughtful people have burned considerable numbers of calories trying to unravel the mystery that is God’s mind and the implications it has for, quite literally, everything… Those following the Abrahamic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – focus on God’s mind.’ What does He know, in other words? What does He care about? A person chosen randomly from one of those persuasions might say ‘murder, theft and deceit; generosity, kindness and love. [But] amid God’s infinite knowledge, His concerns are quite narrow: He knows everything but cares only about the moral stuff.’

How about those who make it their business to know more about gods (or God)? ‘theologians and philosophers continue to argue over the implications of omniscience. It might be intuitive for us to assume that gods know more than humans, but to consciously and consistently think that gods know everything isn’t quite as easy.’ God may know I told a lie yesterday; God may even care about that, but if He knows, for example, that I went for a walk this morning, does He actually care? If not, then why make it His business to know it in the Grand Scheme of things? Is it just to keep tabs on us? Make sure we don’t do something bad on the walk?

As Purzycki points out, ‘From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct.’ Is that how we figure gods should work? ‘The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes. Globally, belief in moralistic gods appears to be more common in complex societies… It pays to have an all-knowing, morally concerned Big Brother God in places with greater anonymity and less accountability.’

Still, although these ethical gods may be more common in labyrinthine cultures, not all societies are like that -some have multiple, single-purpose gods. Some of them are land-based, and intent on preserving territorial imperatives: water supplies, say, or perhaps the supply of edible animals. Sometimes they command co-operation with the folks over the hill, sometimes they figure they can conquer them. ‘Gods appear to care about the things that, on average, curb locally specific risks and costly engagements. Religious systems predictably conform to local problems, and the gods steer our attention toward ways that address those problems… The minds of gods are but single points within complex systems of human co‑ordination and co‑operation.’ And, like societies and their changing needs, gods evolve accordingly. They must, if they are to continue to exist and become spiritual manifestations of the Zeitgeist. Failing that, ‘in prosperous regions where secular forms of social services and justice become really effective, religiosity dwindles.’ So, as Purzycki suggests, ‘This inverse relationship between secular justice and economic equality and religious adherence suggests that the social functions of religion can be co-opted by secular institutions, thus rendering our obsession with what God knows and cares about more or less irrelevant.’

Actually, I didn’t really want to have to acknowledge that about religions, any more than wanting to think that once my parents had raised me and taught me how to cope in a changing world, I had no need for them. On the contrary, I am still grateful for their role in moulding me into who I am and the embedded guidance I can still receive should I ever search for it. Of course they are no longer central to my life, but they are still there, nonetheless -if only in memory. I would not have it any other way.

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