A Personal History of God

Freud says in Civilization and its Discontents that religion is an "oceanic feeling" and that he has never felt it. I have never had this feeling either.

The closest I have ever come to an oceanic feeling has been when I was in the ocean. Scuba diving, on a coral reef, in about 40 feet of water, with the light coming down in stripes as in a cathedral, the surface tension fluttering like a mirror made of mercury, and coral heads and reef fish all around me.

I have had a feeling of peace and beauty in such surroundings-- overcome my anxiety, and even passed into a trance state, in awe--but I believe I was in awe of nature, not of God.

My History of God

I have been reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God. The author, a woman of immense knowledge and apparent faith (she never preaches) traces the idea of God from its origins through its manifestations in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, in all their variations. We begin with a cruel, personal God, and voyage through abstract Gods both rational and mystical, a reformer's God, and finally reach (possibly) a dead God.

I attended Hebrew School beginning around age 9 or 10, through my bar mitzvah, and I remember a Professor Lieberman who used the Bible to illustrate God's evolution from cruelty to love. He explained, of course, that it was not God who had changed, but man's perception of him; that man had become less cruel as he knew God more.

I thought this was an interesting idea, once I got hold of it; but neither Hebrew school, nor Rabbi Sak at Temple, nor my personal explorations and thought experiments, ever gave me a personal conception of God.

Years later, I had the opportunity to experience a charismatic Rabbi-- he officiated at my stepson's bar mitzvah--and have often wondered if I would have a different relationship to religion if the Rabbi had been more persuasive. Rabbi Sak was slow, considered, and dull, and failed even to persuade me that he believed in God, as opposed to right actions and Jewish culture. His solutions to problems always seemed pedantic rather than intuitive. The only evidence I can give of this was the story he told one time of the peasant who could not get in from the fields to the synagogue before darkness fell. He lay down in his wagon, and repeated the alphabet over and over again, figuring to get one letter right each time, until he had spelled out the whole service. I wondered why he did not simply make up his own prayer?

Reform Judaism is in fact a pale religion, really more of a cultural than a religious phenomenon. Anyone who wants to live life fully-- roaring villains and beauties painful and joyous to contemplate-- would really be a Hasid or a Baptist.

I could not locate God in the synagogue, so I took him home with me, and looked at him from every angle. I tried the usual vain thought experiment of begging or daring him to manifest himself: just raise that pencil from its cup, and I will know you exist, but will not tell anyone of the miracle you made. A believer would say that the arrogance and the vanity of the question alone would be sufficient to prevent God from answering.

I was never able to figure out, and still cannot today, why a personal, interventive God, the kind who sees the sparrow fall, would permit murder and torture in the world, especially the murder and torture of children. The horrifying news on the television of children killed in a school explosion--heads had rolled free-- revealed an incident which should not be permitted by God. The man with the pitted face who tracked me down the street one day until I ran into the sanctuary of a doctor's office, was a more personal incident difficult to reconcile with the idea of a kind God.

I had the night horrors then, and lay awake every night, thinking about axe murderers, the abominable snowman, and the Loch Ness monster. I felt weak and helpless in a world of which I could not perceive the reason and the pattern. I did not believe my parents had the strength or the common sense to protect me.

Around the same age, ten, I asked my father if I would be drafted in eight years to fight in the Vietnam war, and possibly be killed. He said it would be long over by then (it wasn't) and that, in any event, it was always the other guy who died in a war. I asked whether the other guy's father didn't tell him the same thing.

Here I became acquainted with the answer that was no answer. (Here is a kit for constructing Zen thoughts. Take a noun, and use it three times in a sentence, to contradict itself, to wit: the only answer is the answer which is no answer.) I came to believe that God was such an answer. I learned that God, therefore, was not an answer but a question: Who made God? Why stop at God in any chain of questions? How could anything exist, which created everything but was not itself created?

Billy August, the most popular boy in the 6th grade, claimed he could comprehend infinity, but I thought he was showing off. The idea of an endless universe was as incomprehensible as the idea that the universe ended. If it ended, what was outside it?

A Personal God

I concluded I would rather go mad than believe in a personal God. A God who watched each of us and was able to intervene at any time was an oppressive, even insane presence, surely a serial killer for permitting serial murder to exist in the world. A jealous God would throw you down for being successful; an angry God would delight in punishing and killing. Of angry, vengeful, jealous Gods, if one chose to believe in them, there was no lack of evidence; but, unfortunately, of a loving, forgiving, protective God there was no trace.

It was not possible to deny, through rationalization, the acts of a wrathful God. Statements such as "God gives you what you need," or (when a girl in Hebrew school ran away, then died in a fire) "God called her" or "God moves in mysterious ways" were unbearable. In a science fiction story by Gene Wolfe, "The Death of Dr. Island", the murder of an incurable girl patient was permissible because it sparked the recovery of the boy who murdered her. If the end did not justify the means in human behavior, I would not allow for that forbidden calculus in God's actions. Any good accomplished by the burning to death of a twelve year old girl was outweighed by her suffering.

I read the Bible, and, besides the no longer shocking story of Abraham and Isaac, (which has been explained so often, and in such gentle terms), I found the quote "the LORD met him, and sought to kill him", and Zipporah cutting off her son's bloody foreskin, which is never discussed anywhere, but which reveals the blood and horror underlying so much of the Bible.

Ambrose Bierce said that God is a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh. When I thought of God as a child, and even today, I am never filled with joy; instead, I am seized by an ineffable anxiety, as one contemplating a magic force that can stop my throat or crush my heart at an angry thought; a master who can brook no doubt or dissent, and who throws people away very easily.

The advertisements for the movie The Terminator said: "It cannot be bargained with. It cannot be reasoned with. It feels no pity. It feels no remorse." Again, I would rather go mad, or die, than live in a world ruled by such a deity.

I cannot say for certain why I reasoned from the world, as it was, or my life as it was, to such a cruel God. Probably there is some pathology in the answer. But the world was and is cruel, and I had not learned to harden myself to it. In the day, and during the terrible nights, I died over and over; everything I saw, heard about, read of or imagined, everything horrible and torturous, happened to me, over and over, world without end, amen.

Armstrong, thank goodness, repudiates the personal God as an illusion or self-deception. God, she seems to think, should be a beacon, drawing us out of ourselves, while a personal God, created in our own image, may be greedy, dishonest or racist like us, and therefore confirms our complacency. The personal, involved God is not a possibility anyway, based on the evidence of our eyes, for, if he really loved us, he could not treat us this way. No rationalization, no cosmic plan, will justify the dangers, evils and terrors of this world. So I concluded that I was an atheist, for it was less frightening to live in an empty or random world, then in one ruled by an angry God.

An Abstract God

Another childhood thought experiment involved extinct species and the fossil record. I imagined that a whole civilization of amoeba-like beings had existed too soft even to leave an impression in mud. They had built their empires, then vanished without a trace.

Certainly, such a thing was possible; but Occam's Razor dictated that there was no reason to believe in such beings, since there was no evidence of them.

An abstract God seemed to me very similar to these amoebas. I read Spinoza, and granted that there might be a God so vast, so unconscious, so uninvolved with our affairs, that we had no conception of him, or he of us; but such a God did not seem to me to serve any purpose in our lives, nor was there any evidence of him.

Such a God at least had the virtue that he was not a roaring villain; he was even geometrically rather pretty. On the other hand, he bore a distressing resemblance to the God of Freud's psychotic Dr. Schreiber, a complex, fractured, schizophrenic God with 'forecourts" and numerous other rooms, aspects and features. So I abandoned all thought of an abstract God, as he did nothing for me.

A Contract with the Storm

In high school and college, I began to read the philosophers, with two voices appealing to me the most: Epictetus, with his stoic tale of resignation, and Nietzsche, with his chilling tale of Godless freedom. If God did not exist, was it true, as Dostoyevsky speculated in Karamazov, that all is permitted? Mark Twain's story of the man who killed his conscience, and the real life story of serial killer Ted Bundy, left me wondering whether there was a race of human beings motivated solely by their own satisfaction, without reference to any moral scheme or outside law. At this point, I had to satisfy myself with the idea that, lacking an objective, external moral law, one still had to be afraid of human law, and that even if some supermen escaped, humans would join forces to drag down as many as they could.

An oversimplified but dramatic way of stating the dilemma: either God--if he existed as the angry personal God, able to intervene in history--was a serial killer; or, if God did not exist, then serial killers were God.

Thornton Wilder had offered a way out. I read The Bridge at San Luis Rey at age 9 or 10. A priest investigates an incident in which a bridge collapsed, looking for some common link between the travellers who died, some pattern in their deaths that would explain God's actions in allowing the bridge to fall. He finds none: some of the dead were good, some bad, some indifferent; all is random. And he loses his faith.

Disbelieving in God would be a relief from fear of an angry, arbitrary God-- God the serial killer. But it would also leave me completely alone, in a random, violent world. Which was better, loneliness and fear, or the presence of a magical, angry God who might at least protect one from violence if properly propitiated?

It wasn't really a choice. I had never gotten a handle on the right way to propitiate God, and I well knew that wishing for something did not make it so. There was no apparent way to make peace with the idea of God, but I might be able to strike some sort of internal accomodation that would help me deal with the emptiness.

And I have. In an essay some months ago, I wrote about taking a daily balance of yourself. I learned to invest my energies in living in a way that I was comfortable with, according to my moral lights, which I came to see had nothing whatever to do with God. After I reached the age of twenty-two, I could say that I had had most of the important human experiences--love, cooperation, ideas, travel--all except raising a child (which I have done since). I learned to live my life so that if I was killed at any time I would have no regrets; I would try to say goodbye to people as if I were saying goodbye to them forever, with nothing unresolved. In a Paris post-office in July 1978, I crouched against a wall while a man in a ski-mask aimed a machine gun at me; I knew in a moment he would either fire or he would not fire, and it really did not seem to matter very much. Though I would rather live, I accept that I will die some day, and no-one ever gave me any guarantees as to the date or manner of my passing. So if I have lived at full volume, giving of myself and opening myself to experience, it should not much matter if I have merely outlined my life or filled in the outlines; life after age 22 simply was a series of iterations, of increasingly detailed passes at the same subject matter.

This does not make life meaningless; quite the opposite: it shows us how to make it meaningful. It has the meaning we give it: to improve the lives of others, to leave our altruistic mark (as Clarence the angel says in Its a Wonderful Life, "No man is a failure who has friends"), to have a few ideas of our own or to improve those of others and strengthen their presence in the world, perhaps by teaching them.

The lesson of the fox in The Little Prince has its place here too. When I was young, I always thought I would be famous, and love someone remarkable. But these are idle pursuits. If you have done your work in the world well, possibly fame will follow; but if it does not, you may still be content you have done your work well. And people are unique because you love them, and not the other way around (this is the fox's lesson.) "Puisque tu es ma rose...."

So I made a contract with the storm around me; it would howl in peace and I would feel peace. More properly, I made a contract with myself to weather the storm.

Other People's Religions

I have continued to be an interested observer of religion. I have been to weddings, baptisms and masses at Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. I went to midnight mass one Christmas week at St. Martin in the Fields in London. It was very beautiful, the way churches themselves are. I admired the believers and especially their warmth. Any service in which people take a moment to turn around and shake hands, and wish each other well, seems to express what is best about religion.

I do not go to synagogue any more, but once a year we hold the Passover service at my mother's house. The message of Passover has to do with compassion for the weak and survival despite the depradations of the powerful. There is a moment in the service which moves me very much and has had a profound effect on my life: when we read the words "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone."

I admire honest, simple, kind believers, and wish religion were in general an influence to be like them. But I must suspect that they believe because they are already like that, not that they come to be like that because they believe. I have met too many devout people of all persuasions who are nasty, narrow, selfish and hateful. Organized religion itself is so often like that. Today, various organized religions stand for murder or bias, or are essentially political organizations without ethical undertones. I believe the good person is an exception in a religious context as in any other.

There are times when I too would like to be kind, simple, gentle, and a believer in a God with those qualities. But I have reasoned it through, and once you have seen something clearly, your heart cannot lead you away from it, no matter what it may yearn for.

Today, I am an agnostic rather than an atheist because to be certain God does not exist would be arrogant and presumptuous. The most I can say is that I see no evidence of God. I will not believe that God exists simply because we need him, or are lonely, or because life must have meaning, or because we die.

A Prayer

It would not be honest of me to close without telling you that I prayed once last year. I have not prayed since childhood, not since the thought experiment in which I asked God to move the pencil. I do not really know how to pray, in the sense of someone who knows he has a relationship with God or is communicating with an actual being.

My youngest brother called to say that he had been diagnosed with HIV and the storm, for the first time in many years, smashed through the wall. Everything revised itself; I began to see what the years to come would be like, for him and for us, and I could not stand the thought of my brother's suffering. One morning, before my wife was awake, I knelt down in the living room and spoke to God. What I told him is private. But I stand by it today; I think about it sometimes and reaffirm it. I gave my word, and I do not know whether the being to whom I gave my word exists, but I stand by it.

When my brother called again, a week later, to say that a second test had disclosed that the results of the first one was false (a third test confirmed it), I felt such joy that I jumped into a snowbank in front of our house, and I played in the snow like a child.