Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Lambs Lie Down with Lions

Periodically I run into people who claim to be spiritual rather than religious. They believe in a creator, but they do not believe that creator is to be found in any organized church. In fact most of them seem to believe that any form of organized religion is the antithesis of spirituality, and that adherence to the tenets and precepts of a particular faith is one of the surest ways to remove oneself from god's presence...or to remove god from one's own, whichever the case might be. Although I understand where these people are coming from, and what they mean by that, I must confess that I almost always think that they are just making excuses for their inability to embrace their own essence as beings created by the creator they say they believe in.

Nature: often majestic, but warm and fuzzy?  not so much.
Usually these irreligionists point to nature as the place where they feel most at peace and most in awe of the god of their understanding. They are not comfortable in church where too many rules and too much ritual and way too many people get in the way of encountering the divine. They see these things as impediments to experiencing the true creative genius of the god they are able to accept. Nature on the other hand, with its majestic mountains, fragrant flowers, towering trees, spectacular sunsets, surging seas, and beautiful beasts, seems a more apt repository of the perfections one would expect from the author of creation. Human beings just screw everything up, and never more thoroughly than when they are crafting social contracts with their gods.

Blue Whale - top of the food chain, size-wise, eats some of the smallest stuff in the sea.
Now it's a convenient thing to find a place of worship like nature, where all the majesty of creation is available to wonderment without any of the inconvenient exigencies of living within a community of believers who think the creator expects something in return. But is this nature really so undemanding as the detractors of religion imagine, or is it really just a wishful construct designed to get church-goers off their backs?

Mosquito: deadliest creature on the planet. Go ahead, slap one. It'll make you feel better, even in church.
I can't help but think that all the spiritual naturalists would find little peace or spirituality were they compelled to live naked and naturally within the nature they so much admire. They would soon find, without the intervention of stout walls and double pane windows at a minimum, that nature is a cruel and brutal force, and there is no difference between the top and the bottom of the food chain because the food chain is a closed loop. While death and taxes may be the surest things in our human existence, the one immutable in nature is that, sooner or later, everything gets recycled through a digestive tract.

As Jonathan Swift observed in 1733:
So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite 'em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Or Victorian mathematician, Augustus De Morgan, expanded 140 years later:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.



Flu virus: tee-friggin-ninetsy.
Pandemic: too friggin scary.
The irony of spiritual irreligion is that, once you have accepted that humanity is created, you are pretty much stuck with the notion that the same god who is responsible for all the perfections of nature also made humans with all their obvious flaws. You have to then wonder how an omnipotent god could have done such a superb job with everything in the universe except the alleged pinnacle of creation that is man. This essential tension in the logic of creation is what makes it possible for so many people to suppose that everything that exists is the result of an incomprehensible series of random accidents. In the beginning there was nothing, and then it exploded.

The difference between humans and the rest of creation, as any dutiful child of Judeo-Christian Bible believing parents will tell you, is that humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. Unfortunately, likeness to God, any god, is not a concept easily embraced by science, especially not big bang theorists or fundamental evolutionists. They need another concept to explain how we humans got where we are, however accidentally, in spite of our enormous capacity for screwing things up. Two candidates have emerged: logic and opposable thumbs. Neither one will suffice on its own for logic does not explain war, and opposable thumbs do not explain our ability to conceptualize all the possible iterations of immortality, from reincarnation to the beatific vision.

Cobra: I wouldn't want to handle one in nature or in church either.
Some tests of faith are better left to the crackpots.

To reconcile all this, one also needs to consider free will. Free will is the wild card in the miasma of creation. Free will makes it possible for humans, creatures imbued with the attributes and proclivities of their creator, to reject their essential nature and behave as if they weren't created at all, but merely the result of an incomprehensible series of random accidents, even to the point of crafting social contracts with their maker that would make that maker a little nauseous.

It is I think this last thing that makes it so difficult for us all to get together and agree on who or what God is and what we ought to do about it. Atheists apart, irreligionists are not necessarily irreverent or ungodly. Neither are the proponents of particular religions necessarily saintly. In fact it is entirely possible for them to espouse ideas antithetical to the deity they claim, and to do it in the name of that deity. This is what led Mark Twain to observe:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion--several of them.

And also:

Zeal and sincerity can carry a new religion further than any other missionary except fire and sword.

The Lion of Judah and The Lamb of God are one and the same in the Christian tradition.
Most of us prefer the Lamb because we are sinners and the Lion has ginormous teeth, teeth that trump rock, paper, scissors and most hand guns.

This is why the God of Moses and the Father of Jesus and the Allah of Mohammed look very different, one from the other, even though they are all, historically at least, the same divine fellow—the God of Abraham. Should we be excused then for wondering if this One True God that we all claim has set us on a path to mutual annihilation in a cosmic game of rock, paper, scissors where Christian supplants Jew, Muslim murders Christian, and Jew builds settlements in Muslim's homeland? Is this really what God intended, or is it possible that there have been some errors of interpretation and understanding along the way that have persuaded the devoted that wars, inquisitions, pogroms, holocausts, and acts of terror are the means by which the God of Love expects us to advance his cause?

When lions lie down with lambs, it is to keep the lambs safe from other predators until the lions are hungry.
At the risk of being branded, either literally or otherwise, an infidel, I think it is the latter. I think large errors of interpretation are self-evident. I don't believe for a minute that the Creator God wants his creatures to slaughter one another to prove their fealty—even though, in nature, He seems to have decreed that they slaughter one another in order to eat.

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