Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

DSCN6127

Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

DOA

Wormhole3Perhaps it’s just me, but the third season of Through the Wormhole has taken a dramatically metaphysical turn. I always run behind the time when it comes to media; I know that the season is long passed. I started watching Through the Wormhole shortly after the first season became available on DVD. Science has always been an abiding interest of mine, and I face it as someone raised religious and wondering whence lies the truth. (“Through the wormhole,” for the record, is where it might be found according to Morgan Freeman in the opening voiceover.) The third season, through which I’m currently making my way, has begun to raise disturbing questions about life and mortality that start to highlight some of the more Frankensteinian aspects to human curiosity. I recently watched the episode “Can We Resurrect the Dead?”

In the world with which I am familiar, resurrection has always been a religious issue. I grew up with a strong notion of the afterlife, and it was suggested to me that survival beyond death was assured. But the resurrection that various scientists are now exploring is of a different order. For those who can afford the increasingly astronomical costs of top medical care, resurrection is not such an unusual thing. Only, when your body is resuscitated, you wake up the the same weary body that just died. So some of the scientists interviewed suggest that if we can reverse the death “mechanism” that is apparently built into our own mitochondria, we might be able to bring back the dead. Even more bizarre are those called “life loggers” who wear devices to record their experiences in life so that they can be uploaded and preserved. A consciousness digitized and stored on a hard drive heaven for all eternity. Meanwhile a scientist smoking a cigarette in Japan shows us a robot straight from the uncanny valley that looks almost like him and is sent to do some of his lectures in his place.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that resurrection used to be somewhat simpler. It was a matter of following the right doctrine and living a life worthy of being continued after this one ends. Now it is a matter of peering through a microscope, or trying to capture on mere devices the multitude of experiences that flood us daily, making us human. Can our future, digital selves really experience human emotion? All those pictures taken while riding a bike—will they convey the effort of balance learned as a child, the sensation of a self-generated breeze on my face, the wonderful weary sensation in my legs upon stepping off? What of that hint of lilac in the air that I picked up momentarily on the wind? Will eternal life, missing the actual life be worth it? I think Victor Frankenstein discovered the answer to that almost two centuries ago.

Sporting Chance

IMG_0997

I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

BruceAlmighty

One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

OhGod

Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

God Particle

Over the last couple of days the Higgs boson has been in the news. Although I seldom ventured too far from New College and the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, it makes me glow with a special pride knowing I inhabited a small corner of the university of Peter Higgs. (And many other luminaries, including Charles Darwin.) My hopes of understanding the Higgs boson are more remote than even finding a university post (very long odds indeed), but I know that it is so important to physics that it has earned the moniker of “the God particle.” I first learned of the Higgs boson through Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series. At that stage it hadn’t yet acquired its divine status. Godhood must be earned, after all, at least in the eyes of humans. It is the proposed particle that stands to make sense of quantum physics, the world of the very small and the very weird.

There is an object lesson hidden in here. When even scientists get pushed to the limits of human knowledge, superlatives grow diminished. What can we call such a radical, powerful force in human thought? The particle itself, the boson, is not inherently stronger than a proton or electron, but its divine designation comes from its ability to, dare I say, replace god. In other words, it is the particle that explains so much that it is like the new god. News stories do not tell us where the nickname arose, but the best guess seems to be that some journalist with a flair for the dramatic brought God into the equation. God sells copy. But has the name also got enough room for a snake around the tree—or rather, around the nucleus?

In America, where science is under siege, any claims for God will be taken literally by some. We have witnessed again and again sheer silliness being paraded as “science” by Bible “experts” who take nearly half the population with them. The mental gyrations of the intelligent design crowd as they try to force God back into the equation should be warning enough. The God particle is baiting them and most Americans are ill-equipped to decide for themselves what is actually science. No sooner do we get a grip on nanotechnology than we begin building nanocathedrals. In that cathedral if scientists find the Higgs boson, it will not be god. It will, like god, open the door to many more unexplained phenomena, for god is not an explanatory principle. If we need a name to convey the great, rational explanatory power of such an elusive sub-atomic bit it seems to me—and I may be biased—that we call it the Edinburgh particle instead.

Old Myth

The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.

In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.

Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.

Theseus looking for immortality

Always Against Us

In one of the coolest homework assignments ever, my daughter was supposed to watch The Matrix. Her digital electronics class makes constant reference to the movie, so her teacher decided that in order to “get it,” those who hadn’t seen the movie should watch it. I know the film has many nay-sayers and some of the acting may not attain the highest standards, but it remains among my favorite movies. At Nashotah House, early in the dawning millennium, many students watched the film religiously. One student had it on his laptop and a small knot of his classmates would gather around just about every morning to watch before my class began. I was a bit put off by the claims that it was a “New Testament allegory,” but I have come to realize that without resurrection, the film industry in this country would be dead. American audiences (especially) crave the possibility of coming back. And even though I’m as much a sucker for a good love story as the next guy, that resurrection scene isn’t the highlight of the movie. Not by a long shot.

The Matrix has always been one of my favorites because of the basic premise: what if the world is not real? I’ve been plagued by that question for about as long as I can remember. When, in my first philosophy class, I learned about naïve realism, my worldview shifted. Who’s to say what’s real? And if someone decides to shoot me to shut me up, the lights might go out, but will there be anything left behind? Not that I believe I’m a source of energy for evil robot overlords (I get too easily chilled to believe that), but I often think about the tenuousness of it all. Our reality changes when we fall asleep, and each day we assume that a continuity is the same as the essence of our existence. There’s no way to check it, however, and I’m not entirely convinced. That’s why I like The Matrix so much. Someone else understands my deep fear that none of this is real.

The moment when Neo refuses to leave, but turns to fight Agent Smith, Trinity asks Morpheus what is happening. Morpheus responds, “He’s beginning to believe!” That line always gets me. The idea that something out there actually tips the balance on the side of good creates a longing so deep that it hurts. When I wake up the next morning, however, I see the headlines bring more suffering, more status quo ante-Christ. The last thing I want to see on the front page is Chris Christie’s face first thing in the morning. It can be a very cruel world. In one of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole episodes, a scientist suggests that a Matrix-like world may match our reality. God, the scientist suggests, may be a programmer and has coded us to live in a virtual world. The tapping of my fingers is just an algorithm. I’m not yet beginning to believe that. But if I ever do I’ll be forced to conclude that our programming deity has either a wicked sense of humor, or is just plain wicked.

Waiting on a Miracle

A Google search for Morgan Freeman and FIRST Robotics will bring up an online invitation to the FIRST Robotics national championship in St Louis. After having spent yesterday at the Philadelphia FIRST Robotics regional competition I was once again struck at how emotional such events can be. I reflect on how emotion often drives religion and it is obvious that humans crave this kind of fulfillment. We look for something to believe in. Science and technology fields of inquiry are offering answers to age-old questions and present-day problems. God has been removed from the machine, but a divine residue remains. Whenever I attend these competitions I am alert for how religion manages to cling on to this highly humanistic art of robot building. I’m never disappointed.

The Dean of Temple University’s College of Engineering (which was hosting the event) spoke of the emotional rescue of the Chilean miners last year and how the press hailed the feat as 75 percent engineering and 25 percent miracle. The Dean espoused that the goal of engineering is to bring the engineering factor up to 100 percent. A world where we no longer rely on miracles. Any of us who’ve every waited on a miracle know that the outcomes are chancy at best. And yet the religious language was not over. DuPont, one of the corporate sponsors for FIRST Robotics, had a promotional slide on the projection system reading “The Miracles of Science.” Of course, that is one of their corporate logos, but the question left lingering in the air is: does the miracle come from God or human engineering?

Teams from a wide variety of high schools participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition. The founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, was present yesterday to celebrate the final regional event. Several parochial schools compete in the competitions, and religious language is evident in team names, logos, and mascots. One of the winning alliance members yesterday was the Miracle Workerz (I didn’t catch what high school they were from) making a hat-trick of miracle references. Another team mentor was caught on the camera making the sign of the cross as he left the robot to make its way into the finals. Even though my team did not make it out of the elimination rounds this time, I left feeling inspired. Dean Kamen revealed new ways that FIRST is promoting technology to better the future while the headlines remind us how dangerous religious extremists can be. At the same time, even in this future that our engineers are designing, God is still hidden in the machine.

A gift of the gods or human innovation?

Determinism to Succeed

I’ve been watching some episodes of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, the recent Science Channel sop to the masses to explain what scientists are thinking. I always appreciate when scientists (and other specialists) are willing to abandon argot and talk to the rest of us in plainspeak. Even if the implications are a little scary. The episodes I watched this weekend shared a near determinism. The physicists interviewed stopped shy of saying that all is ordained by the rules of science, but the implications still rang loudly in my ears. This concept is at home in the church.

Back as a college student attending a Presbyterian school (I have never ascribed to this particular flavor of Christian thought), I first chanced upon predestination. In fact, the subject was well nigh unavoidable. Students of all majors and backgrounds ended up discussing it around dinner tables as well as in the classroom. The instigator, instead of physics, was John Calvin. His theology suggested that mere mortals had no say in their destinies; God created some to be saved, the rest to be damned, fairness be confounded. I sat through many classes where the professors would argue with erudite words that all this had been foreordained. Some, “double predestinarians,” went as far as to argue that every firing of every synapse, every motion of every muscle, had been predetermined by God before the creation of the world. When I asked “why?” I was told that God has his (always “his”) reasons, and that I, a non-Presbyterian, should simply accept my fate.

Four years of wrangling and no one managed to convince the opposite party. One of my more intelligent professors once told me after class, “you free-willers always win on philosophical grounds, but we predestinarians always win on scriptural grounds.” He seemed to think that solved it. Perhaps he was predestined to conclude that. I disagreed. No greater monster could exist than a deity who predestined the horror we’ve created in our world. To see all this human suffering, much of it pointless, and simply shrug and say “God has his reasons,” is to implicate the creator in a cosmic Nuremberg. For me, I’d feel safer with the physicists saying it is all a matter of unfeeling cosmic laws. Perhaps I’m predestined to write this, but I still think they’re all wrong.

Was Calvin predestined to wear that hat?

Ouroboros

The Science Channel’s program, Through the Wormhole, hosted by Morgan Freeman, has a noble goal: help educate non-scientists with cutting-edge ideas. The series opens with an episode on God: “Is There a Creator?” Interestingly, in our society there are those who turn the question around. Religious folks ask the question: does science really have the answers? It is the classic ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail. Perhaps the best way to consider this entrenched issue is to consider its history. Gods emerged as explanatory figures. In the days when the Bible was the oldest known book, it was believable that God had dictated it and therefore the idea of God required no explanation: the ultimate tautology. When extra-biblical material predating the Bible was discovered, a warning bell rang. Most established religions in the western world simply pretended not to hear.

Snake, dragon, whatever.

Neuroscientist Michael Persinger of Laurentian University features in this Wormhole episode, demonstrating his “God helmet.” The principle is that stimulating the specific part of the right hemisphere of the brain that corresponds to the left hemisphere’s region of “selfhood,” a brain will fabricate a presence. While the experiment has promising results, it can’t fully explain God. Other neuroscientists are working on the issue as well. Historically we know that Yahweh was one among a polytheistic entourage of deities. With the stresses and mysteries of exilic existence, monotheism was born. Only one of those many gods survived. By studying the character of Yahweh’s departed compatriots, however, we can learn of the origins of gods as well.

Science entered the picture much later. By the time of truly empirical observation, God was an assumption as certain as ether. When science offered an alternative explanation, religion countered. “I see your Big Bang and raise you one Prime Mover.” And thus it will always go. With no witnesses, alas, no intelligence even yet evolved, our universe began. We can ask the physicist or we can ask the priest. Even if God is discovered and described in the laboratory, with or without a helmet, those standing outside will always believe, with Anselm, that there is an even bigger one somewhere out there.