Long before any religion formed and named itself, whether pagan or monotheistic, there was our Natural world. Our earliest sense of God’s divinity came once men and women recognized that we were both different than other creatures yet part of the larger Natural whole, easily witnessed both on the ground as well as in the seas and sky. We could walk and talk, think for ourselves and yet, each evening, accepted our dependence on what God provided us in terms of food and makeable shelter. What I have called the chasm between the human and the divine is always most evident where we have to fend for ourselves in unfamiliar, rugged or watery places, far from our modern suburban comforts. This formed perhaps the purest sense of our Godly worship, how we necessarily had to introject (purpose-fully absorb) Him because there was no ability to fashion for ourselves anything separate from what He gifted us for daily living. Primitive men introjected images of horses and cattle (as seen in the Paleolithic caves in France and Spain) as what God was for them. Such art-work was neither pagan nor theological—rather these images represented for the primitives the unbendable connection with He who provided sustenance in food and weather, which they themselves could not. There was great curiosity about the world from this acceptance of their Natural dependency. There were, however, as yet no named God or gods, no divine beings from “somewhere else in the sky,” no theological doctrines or rituals performed to “serve” Him. All of that would come much later over thousands of years. First, we had to find God as a divine being.
Until the Jews, there was no single God who reigned in Heaven to offer His people hope and promise for our human future. Their concept of a monotheistic God, given to Abraham and later channeled into the Shema, represented a radical reordering of divine purpose from the Egyptians and later the Greeks, whose gods were estranged from our human doings and “mostly played around in the sky, causing mischief.” Praying to a single God, instead of often humanly ignoring a panoply of gods, upended our sense of what was Godly possible: that now He could be prayed to and worshipped as the divine influence to whom we could remain beholden. Whether or not the Abraham story is historically true, Jesus later confirmed its purpose: to link us to a singular God, who would bore into our lives on occasions of His choosing to “set us right” in His image. This Jewish contribution, for me, makes every poly-theistic religion use-less as works of theological conjecture and thus “unprovable.”
Judaism, because of its excessive use of religious laws and doctrinal decisions, itself largely withered after Jesus’ resurrection, because He had usurped what could be studied and obediently performed with a living person who showed us what God wanted us to do. Jesus is not merely “replacement theology,” He transcended Jewish oral and written laws with “the mouth of God” in His flesh—not only words, but miracles and bodily resurrection through and beyond His death on the Cross. Judaism sometimes tried to shed its skin as a “mere religion,” but never caught up with where God told it to go as encouraged by the Old Testament prophets, particularly regarding idolatry. Its original 613 laws became their idolatry, but with an admittedly better intended purpose. Judaism became another theological cocoon, with more to come otherwise. Everything we think about God is likely at least half-wrong, if His signature is no where to be found.
Catholicism replaced these 613 Jewish laws with sometimes strange, questionably tenable notions about how God works and how we are to serve Him. There is the Pope, there is celibacy, there is purgatory and there is transubstantiation, among others. Like Judaism (its parental influence, really), Catholicism is complex and demanding, in some ways more abstract and yet also too absolute. It singularly offers a human intermediary (the Pope) who, lacking any verifiable sense of divinity, espouses a historically repressive lifestyle and too few genuine answers to life’s perplexing questions. While Judaism shackles its followers with too many things to do on a daily basis (such as during Passover), Catholicism spins itself around certain ideas which do not lend any greater certainty to the value of God beyond repeating such ideas in seemingly endless combinations of “this and that.” On the few occasions that I have attended Mass, I experience both the emphasis on “Catholic pageantry” and often the sense of my life draining out of me, knowing this basic ritual has been performed millions of times around the world for sinners like you and me. Celibacy for priests and nuns is based upon the especially wrong-full notion that sexual orgasm is to be “conquered” through perpetual abstinence, as though this actually makes any serious difference in our righteous service to others. God gave us a penis and clitoris not to be ignored, but to be enjoyed, with whom and when it makes sense to do so. Transubstantiation, in its most literal translation, becomes a hallucinatory act of conjuring Jesus’ body and blood into what we can hold and taste across nearly two thousand years of His physical absence. Communion is meant to remember Him, not to push the Spiritual envelope into quasi-psychotic absurdity. Purgatory, a uniquely Catholic idea, makes no sense to me at all.
Having been raised as a Presbyterian and attending three of its churches before and around lengthy absences, it is a sense of paler Protestant faith drawn from church that I know best. There are no religious laws, fewer overarching ideas and only two sacraments: baptism and Communion, instead of Catholicism’s seven rituals. While Martin Luther and John Calvin arguably made “improvements” in the liturgical style of the Catholic Mass, their own dogmatic biases overlaid much constriction upon the worshipping lives of the Protestants, and almost certainly contributed to the Puritans’ rapid down-fall after the Salem witch trials. Charges of “white bread Protestantism” rang truer through the mid-20th Century, and the long, painful and now accelerating exodus from their churches has occurred over the past fifty years. Whereas the Jewish and Catholic faiths overloaded their faith-full with too much “regulation,” the Protestants have been rightly accused of blandness, “relativism,” and no coherent message or purpose beyond “come to church every Sunday.” It is this “monotony of performances” that I finally had to abandon some four years ago—irritated every time I went because nothing much ever happens. It has become church with no real purpose. I came to understand why Jesus trusted the wayward Peter more than merely building a church.
As I described in my book, Once Every Day Becomes Easter (2015), the long and longest efforts to fill the chasm between the human and the divine with theological speculations, religious laws and strict-spun practices has not resolved the most basic questions we still face: who is God, and how does He actually work in the world and our lives; can we affect Him in any way, whether through prayer or our actions in aiding others; and what is this place called Heaven? Admittedly, all the speculation felt necessary because there is little clear way to know anything about God except what He actually does, so I will start with that: perhaps it is better to work backwards from the more obvious acts of God toward any reasons to explain Him. If religion were at least a little more like science—facts before theories—this might prove more useful, even if such “science” only goes so far. What I am really tired of is the clergy hanging onto such theologies with no clear sense that they ever really occur. Maybe personal testimonials can play a role in such “science,” for example, Jews who accept Jesus after reading the New Testament, and being surprised to find out that He and the disciples were Jewish. Really.
So, I come back to the Natural world. By now, we can assume that God created the universe in general and our Earth in particular. Scientists tell us the chances of biological life being created at random are miniscule. There is a Natural order which remains recurringly sensible and sustains us over days and centuries. In his book, Finding Darwin’s God (1999), Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller states: “the study of Nature is akin to the worship of God,” and so it more profitable to start with what He made to find the origins of His divinity, long before Judaism, the Bible and all the theological rancor, some of which I have recently learned resulted in Christians killing Jews in the Middle Ages. God, of course, would have had no interest in religious wars fought in His name, since He never told us to explain Him, only to obey through serving others. Ask an atheist how gravity was created, and they will merely look at you, dumb-founded.
If we accept a God-made universe and the basic tenets of the evolution of life over millions of years (finally agreeing that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve was the Israelites’ attempt to explain our human origins, in ca. 1700-1200 B.C., and so for them such a story was mythically necessary—no more and no less), I come back to why He wanted to create we human beings at all—yes, in His own image, but why? He could have stopped and stuck with the other mammals, and suffered so much less soul-ache from our stupidity and trying to render Him modernly irrelevant. Why did God want to “drink the gamble” that we could become truly devoted to Him as a larger populace without idolatry and other distractions, that all religions could be boiled down to a basic acceptance of who He is and why He matters to us? He always knew that we would daily fail Him in countless ways, so why bother at all? It is circular: God had to create us to see if we could worship and serve Him to render plain the possibility that He would truly matter on a human level. The problem is that He does and (for us) He does not matter, because we are solipsistically human, and, too often in our machinal world, don’t need Him to survive and even thrive. He gave us our human lives to thrive in Him.
Last night, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at our local Catholic church. It was well attended by a mixture of older white and Hispanic parishioners, with a seasoned priest who was, shall we say, less than humble. The service last 25 minutes, and presented familiar material and an amusing but disjointed homily. Hence, this was his beginning to Lent, which for me is the most important Christian season because of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, as nothing else in our faith matters nearly as much. I wondered what the others made of this service, being Catholics and hence used to their overly formal, liturgical style of worship. Many would have come from work, perhaps had not yet had their dinner, being busy in the middle of the week. Thus only 25 minutes devoted to the origins of our faith, bound by Catholic “procedures,” with little sense of how fasting and prayers are supposed to help us self-examine our way to greater faith. I did pick up a brochure in the lobby about such introspection, asking many tangential questions, but not the one that matters most: Who is God, and why should we believe in and serve Him?
What has come to annoy me greatly is our collective assumption that we somehow know who God actually is. It is, of course, easier to say who and what He is not: for me (since I reject the Trinity) God is not human (I would say that Jesus was a God-infused man who transcended into still-human divinity through God’s will, though He was not a god on His own), He never dies, He understands everything simultaneously, He continues the Earthen world for our benefit (despite our polluting it, day after decade), and endlessly waits for us to find Him, eventually. God never stops loving us and never quits “doing His job” for us. God is the Father we never deserve but are gifted anyway.
That said, Catholic writer Michael Novak reminded us in one of his books that no one sees God, echoing Scripture. This lack of seeing Him fuels even empirical scientists to doubt His presence, as though science can explain the creation and maintenance of the universe without a divine intelligence. Science can describe and explain what and how, but guesses at why less clearly. If the universe was created out of random events, does that mean there is no God, or is it more problematic for them to deal with an unseen Creator? Wiser scientists explain Natural events as indicative of God’s handiwork, instead of denying Him altogether. Like so much in life, it is not either / or, but both—both what we see in Nature and how the long-unseen complexities (e.g., DNA) were formed out of His wisdom. Astronomers are often telling us about how newly-discovered planets could contain life, but there are so many necessary variables for this to occur. Are we alone in the universe? Probably not, but perhaps we are in our local portion of the Milky Way.
Our prejudices and practices in various religions were formed out of trying to skirt this chasm between our seen world and the unseen God. Jews would say theirs is the only true religion, since it was given to them by God to Abraham and Moses, that no other religions have such momentous ancestors. Muslims would, of course, look to Mohammed in this regard. Christians push this further by citing Jesus Christ as greater than these others, because of His performing miracles and being resurrected. For me, the proof of God comes from the Natural world as well as two main other sources: the Shroud of Turin and near-death experiences, both of which I discussed in my book. Thus, it is not merely faith in the unseen God, but what we see from Him in our lives and establishing Jesus Christ as the bodily linkage between God and ourselves.
So, before and beyond all the religions, limited as they are by substituting doctrines and other systems of thought (e.g., Hinduism) for realistically delving into this fundamental question, let us finally try to better clarify our sense of who God truly is, so late as it is in our human doings:
- We can only assume that God has always existed. Atheists talk about “parallel universes,” but this is silly. At some point, He created the universe, perhaps in the “Big Bang” theory as astronomers have described to us. The evolution of the species in the Darwinian manner remains our best means of explaining how humans came to be—not Adam and Eve. God gave we humans free will, thumbs and self-consciousness, allowing us to drift away from Him in abstracted thought, in self-absorbed triumphs and the idolatrous worship of our capacity to make ever-new technology. He knew we could not hold fast to Him in all ways of our being forever, has tolerated our religious factions and frictions, and daily awaits our return to Him. God’s patience with us is our constellation. He knew we would eventually shed our primitive awe of His Natural world, and spoil His bounty with our reckless plunder. God likely will not clean up our polluting messes, either, as He tends not to save us from ourselves when we are disobediently foolish.
- Whether from some or many of the 300 Old Testament prophecies about the Jewish Messiah or because God knew that we would always partake of idolatry without a physical manifestation of Him, Jesus Christ was born, raised and sacrificed to draw us to God through miracles, teachings and eventually His crucifixion and resurrection to purposefully stifle endless debates about who God might be and how to worship Him. Jesus therefore filled the chasm between the human and the divine with Himself, without doctrines or mere promises for a better life. Jews have generally rejected Jesus because He did not bring world peace, as they had expected. We just finished watching the Winter Olympics, where our expectations are upended almost every day for two weeks. Necessarily, God does as He wishes, and it is not for us to second-guess this by overusing doctrines to try explain Him to ourselves. God already knows what He is doing.
- Lastly, the old question of why God does so little to ease our lives of burdens, illnesses and death. God never promised to spare us anything, just as He always provides us with the basic Natural elements to sustain us. He might well say that we are too often only ungrateful. He does not attempt to control the weather, to limit the course of illnesses (this has been an especially bad flu season) or prevent tragedies and calamities. God daily provides and occasionally proves Himself to be undeniably miraculous. This may be all we can ask of Him, and thank Him so.