Sunday, November 4, 2012

God Is a Really Good Story

I've been struggling for months, not with my non-theism, but with a way to frame it that reflects my sense of "yes." Our family has been attending a different Friends Meeting than we had been for over a decade, one which was founded several years ago out of a desire to have a more explicitly theist worship. A number of our friends have been involved in the group. We tried it one Sunday, and just kept going.

It would make a good narrative, I suppose, or anyway a more stock narrative, to say I was somehow converted or convinced. I haven't been, not in the way that is usually meant. But I have been sitting with a kind of "disturbance in the Force" that predates our joining Laughing Waters worship. I've spent most of this year trying to get to where this disturbance is coming from.

I had an image come to me in worship last Sunday. It was simple, but it's a puzzle, and it's not leaving me alone. It's a question, which I know is concealed behind an impenetrable wall. The question, not the answer. I don't know what the wall is (I assume it's metaphorical), and I don't know what the question is. So like the character in Kafka's "Before the Law," I'm waiting.

One thing that has been coming more clearly to me, is how I stand in relation to God. I've been getting clearer and clearer over the last few years in my non-theism, moving from a "Who the heck knows" attitude to a "I'll be really surprised if there is a God." I've been enjoying Frank Turner's joyful "no!" in his song, "Glory Hallelujah":

And within the last few months, I've come to see God as a really central, vital—and fictional— character. A really really important figure who doesn't exist factually. That feels right to me. Because it's not that Yahweh is undeserving of respect. Jesus and the Holy Spirit too. The stories in the Bible, and all the saints stories, and all the stories of what faith can do... all important.

I think the big mistake is actually trying to bring factuality into religious discussion, as if reproducible evidence will make it work better. It doesn't. Personal witness, yes. Scientific proofs, no. Why should this be?

I think we often assume that what is factual is more real than what is found in stories. As They Might Be Giants says, "Science is Real:"

But while science is about real things in the sense that it's about things we can share even with strangers, it isn't a very rich internal language, or even much of a language for intimate social interactions, as between a parent and child, or between lovers or even close friends. Part of what makes intimate human relationships work is specifically the non-reproducible results: the specific moments shared and not in need of public justification.

It's these non-reproducible results—having specific human feelings of love, hate, anger, joy, calm, or fury at specific times and places—that story-telling works with. They are not recipes, despite what folklorists and mythologists want us to think. If they were, they would have been written as recipes or maps. Instead, stories are about specific characters with whom we can parallel our own specific experiences.

Science is a kind of discussion we can have with strangers, and as such it is essential. It's hard to imagine a world in which we didn't have the dollar, and the degree centigrade, and the meter and liter and so on and on... a world where we couldn't trust in a platform of common discourse that can go as far as things like human rights.

And this is why human rights, while they are vital, are not enough. Invoking rights means we are strangers who are trying not to hurt each other. We need more than that, and most of us have more than that, in the form of love.

Love is not rational, as Mr Spock and Mr Data found over and over in Star Trek. It does not submit to measurement. But for human beings, it is clearly essential.

So how do we get from this point to a fictional God?

I was flabbergasted by this video a month or so ago. US Representative Paul Broun, who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology, which got a wide mocking audience via Facebook:

It's flabbergasting because I've come to think of this kind of science-bashing as coming from ignoramuses, not medical doctors with public policy reach. But the more I think about the kind of religious absolutism this represents—the notion that scriptural knowledge trumps science and law, that God's truth surrounds and contains whatever petty knowledge we mortals can hope to obtain, the less it looks like the problem is that surround. The problem seems to me to be the idea that factualism is the true container for the human experience.

Facts are bits of reality we can wrap our minds around, and share with strangers. Wonder and love— and religion—are what we share with friends. So when we try and make religion factual, try to make that the gold standard for legitimate discourse, we alienate ourselves from the very intimate moments of love and transcendence we're trying to get to.

Why do we try to tell each other God is real in one way or another? Well, God is real in the same sense that our love is real, or our anger, or our fear. God is real in the same sense that any truly powerful, heart-changing story is real. Don't tell me that what rips my heart out at the end of Shawshank Redemption, or what made me feel a deep ache of mourning that lasted for days at the end of Stephen King's 11/23/63, isn't real. Of course they're real. But they are real fictions.

So. This, it seems to me, is a task before us: to confront literalism—the demand that what is important is always factually true. It isn't. And that confrontation needs to include a robust counterproposal to the argument of literalism. It needs to not try and toss out God, but to make God's proper place respectable again. A shining throne? Not my style, but if that works for you, fine. I don't care for the big royal medal ceremony at the end of Star Wars either. No, what I mean is not what kinds of trappings God deserves, but what kind of genuine respect God-stories deserve, without requiring they sound like lab reports.

And hand-in-hand with this is a recognition that the way the universe works that we have learned through scientific experiment—the truly universal and factual world—is a truer framework for the world we enter as strangers.


Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks for this, Nat. I'm grateful to know more about where you are coming from--and I think the bridges you are building internally can be quite useful for me and others too. Thanks for making them explicit.

Gail said...

I really enjoyed this post. It caught my attention because I, too, have described many aspects of theology as "a really good story". But I believe all it is is a good story. I have a lot of respect for those people who find comfort in that story, but less so for people who rely on it so strongly as to will it to be fact. Wishing really hard for something just doesn't transform it from fiction to fact.

At the same time, I have been trying for some time to somehow rectify my belief in quakerism with my disbelief in God. Quakerism is, after all, a traditionally Christian religion and so I sometimes find myself wondering if I really fit or if I'm trying to force my way into something that seems nice but doesn't actually align with my beliefs.

Of course, the vast majority of Quakers I've met don't seem to care so much about the details of my beliefs and are very supportive of my joining them for worship. But then, even the word "worship" sits uncomfortably with me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject to get my own mind churning.