Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not Likeable, But Plausible

It really shouldn’t irritate me as much as it does. After all, it’s a pretty generic question, and one of the most basic, even if the follow-up tends to ruffle feathers. “Do you believe in God?” she asked. She considered it to be answerable with a basic yes-no-don’t know, and I suppose it is for most people. So I guess what bothers me is my own unhappiness with those options, which leads to the question of why I don’t like them.

I think a good part of it is my hard-headed, engineering-school mindset. I’m not comfortable giving answers without justification, and since proving the negative is probably impossible, and God hasn’t seen fit to settle the issue definitively to the positive (which to me is the best argument for negative, but it relies on the assumption that God would tell us of His existence), I’m left with intuition, and I’m not an intuitive person. As for “don’t know”, that is the bane of scientific minds. But in the end I fell back on the old Spock/Data answer: insufficient information.

After that conversation I tried to conjure up a variation of the question with which I could be comfortable. Eventually I came up with this:

“Is there a concept of God that you feel is compatible with the overall state of mankind and the universe?”

Yes, I know the idea that God doesn’t exist would also work. I guess that conversation just put me in the mood for a stroll down Deity Drive. (Large estates on that street. Some remind me of the movie Sunset Boulevard; slowly decaying as they cling to the past. Others look as though they were abandoned during the mortgage crisis; impressive but unoccupied. And what’s with all the plastic flamingos? But I digress.)

As you can see, it’s both more theoretical (not asking for firm belief) and more tangible (actually trying to relate God to our existence). Most importantly for this humble blog, though, is that I can actually answer it. There have been many Gods in human history that did this to some degree - Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies as well as any number of so-called pagan deities. But the more I’ve mulled it over, the better the God of Abraham as described in the Old Testament fits.

This is the God Lewis Black has described as “kind of a prick”, the God of whom David Plotz - after finishing a series in which he read the entire Old Testament, blogging as he went – said:

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

I find that reaction interesting because it speaks to the human desire that God should adhere to our concepts of morality and justice, and basically be nice. Christians hold this especially dear, to the point of glossing over the explicit examples to the contrary both in their own texts and in the world around them. Lewis Black has noted that the New Testament Christian God seems to be generally nicer than the Old Testament Jewish version, which Christians attribute to Jesus, of course. Personally, I can’t help but connect that to the fact that God is much less directly involved with earthly affairs in the New Testament.

(Explaining God’s apparent decision to adopt a hands-off approach has long been a source of vexation to believers. My completely fabricated speculation that would account for it: God decided “OK, I’ve gotten things going and forgiven your sins; now I’m done. Fix your world yourselves.” Some explicit intervention would definitely settle a lot of things, though.)

I think that conceding the possibility that God may not always be a sweet wonderful being makes Him more believable. It certainly makes it easier to answer another version of my question. When someone considers the sorry state of the world and asks, “What God would allow this?” it’s not hard to point at old Jehovah and say “Look at His record. I wouldn’t put it past Him.”