Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
God’s Goods is not primarily about God. God’s Goods is about the goods “God” “created” and called “good,” and it is about the violation of those goods by the three theistic religions. God’s Goods is not a Christian religion, nor even primarily theistic. It is a humanistic, naturalistic, deistic religious perspective that seeks to reconnect humanity to its natural origin, home, responsibilities, and possibilities.
God, for Better or Worse
Cultures generate god-images which then orient and guide those cultures. Humans may be seen as the “coherence-seeking creatures.” We know enough to want it all to make sense. “God” becomes the way we make sense of large and small issues, for better or worse. By God I don’t mean some big, mean man in the sky or any sort of a narrow anthropomorphic projection (man-made imagination). Such projections of our yearning for coherence can come back to haunt us.
“Beware of the gods you invoke,” wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick.
“Better to believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a [person] can cherish. If the God [we] believe in is small and mean, the more intensely [we] holds [our] belief …, the smaller and meaner [we] will be. [People] have believed in a cruel God who will send a large part of the human race to an endless hell, and in the belief all their own cruelty was confirmed . . . It behooves us to take care what kind of God we believe in. Some of the people who do not believe in God at all are more merciful, truth-loving, and just than are some who do.”
It is typical for humans to generate god images. Though some may be accurate and helpful, many are mere imagination, badly imagined, then believed by many, and too-often imposed with fury by zealots.
Humanists believe in the ability, fallibility, responsibility, and possibility of humans to freely and fully live well in this life. Humanists are wary of god-beliefs and good at warning us of becoming inept, gullible, and subservient because of various beliefs in God. Humanists rightly warn of the power ploy lurking in the pose of piety. People can be misled and controlled by the beliefs and expectations of others concerning belief in God, and then by their own minds because of such beliefs. Belief in God doesn’t make it true (whether in individuals or large groupings, such as religions), except it creates a psychological reality that then can manifest in social directions, helpfully or dangerously so.
But humanists can be so skeptical of god-beliefs they can fail to admit with sympathetic understanding the fuller nature of many humans who believe dearly in God. The gods we generate (or believe in, or perceive) can be a source of orientation, consolation, and inspiration. Feeling like we know how the world came to be and how we’re to live in it can alleviate our anxiety at not knowing such answers and God can be a comfort in lessening our guilt, grief, or fear of death. Believing in God may not be a humanistic thing to do, but it is a very human thing to do, and there may be ways in which we can accept it in us and others as a humane thing to do.
So while I reject many images of God from many scriptures (including some in the Bible) I do not reject God in the cosmos or humans. “God” is the answer for what is that we know must be but don’t yet know the whole answer to. We know we don’t know it all, yet it all works well. We know only enough to know it is endlessly awesome. Some sum that up as “God.” It really explains nothing, for it merely doubles the mystery (adding the Creator to the Creation as things we don’t fully understand). Answers are there. It is permissible for humans to work at discovering the answers, but as we know more we know we don’t know even more. Mystery and ignorance expands even as we solve mysteries and dispel ignorance. To ask the question, “Why is there anything at all to work so wonderfully well instead of nothing at all?” is to work from a base of existing in a universe that works wonderfully well to begin with. We didn’t create the universe; it creates us. While I favor rational scientific and intuitive knowing of the nature of reality as part of our religious curiosity and dedication, I do not suppose a theistic or atheistic ultimate answer. We are made of substances and processes that we didn’t create. They work well to create our bodies and minds that make our questions and efforts at answers possible at all. I honor that primary reality, however created.
“Man is the measure of all things,” wrote Protagoras. I more readily accept, “Man is the measurer of all things.” That there are things here to measure is not our doing. Relating well to their presence, origin and workings is part of what I mean by religion. Question: “How did it all come to be and what does it all mean?” Answer: “God only knows.” Fine. The God I accept here is found in the truth of reality. By studying reality we discover that truth which some call God. The God I do mean here may be alluded to in various scriptures, but is better known via the study of existence itself. This deist approach sees the laws of nature as the avenues to God. The outer and inner realms are ours to explore and discover. No scripture, tradition, or person has the right to bar our inquiry and connection.
Though our western religious tradition has impeded and continues to thwart the rise and working of the scientific method, science is a better way, from this deist perspective, to know religious truth. It is not the only way, nor an infallible way, but it is a valued and fruitful way. Far from being non-religious or anti-religious, scientists are doing a sort of religious work by investigating and understanding the truths that make us up. When religions impede or impugn such work as violating their beliefs they wrongly violate a sacred activity – knowing the truth, or at least, some truths. In this way, religions offend and thwart religion.
So also do they interfere with whatever inner sense of connection people have by creating or favoring God-images that are magnified versions of their own stern and narrow egos. Consolation, conscience, and commitment should not be forced through their sieves of scripture, dogma or fatwa. As Emerson taught, religion is real only by being primarily real, in you as you. We each are connected to reality; religions can be wrong in saying how.
Religion: Relating Well to Reality
By “religion” I mean “reconnecting with the reality of our existence.” The word religion comes from etymological (the origins and paths of words) sources meaning “to bind back together” or “to reconnect to our roots.” When religions try to tell you the source you’re alienated from and need to reconnect with is God they may be right, depending on whether the God we’re supposedly alien from is realistic and accurate, or merely the idea others have had which still others believe and would impose.
Some religions would impose their idea called Creationism over the carefully assembled and collectively known (and self-correcting) theory of Evolution. Such Christian religions resent and resist evolution as violating their scriptures and beliefs. They seek to prevent evolution theory from being taught in science classrooms, or want Creationism taught in those classrooms as if it were an equally compelling scientific theory, which it is not. They resent evolution and science for taking their scriptures and God out of the story, but in doing so, they further alienate us from the real root of our existence and our pathway to whatever reality that created it, which I here call: God. The irony is – religions can be anti-religious. In the name of God they alienate us from God, the “ground of our being.”
Or from our actual ground, if you prefer. Some are so fed-up with God-talk, so offended by what has happened in that name that they resent the word being used at all. I even wince at using the title of this religion: God’s Goods. But by “God” I mean: that which creates us. Call it God, or the cosmos, or the Ultimate Mystery, or whatever name best fits, but it is ultimately true that we didn’t create the world, the world creates us. The word for It doesn’t matter as much as It matters. The natural universe that makes us up is neither fallen nor alien. It is our religious home. It is our obvious realm for living, learning, and loving. We may temporarily own small parts of it, but ultimately, it owns us. We don’t own it; we owe it.
So, this long introduction is to acknowledge that which is greater than ourselves that we are free to investigate but which we don’t and maybe won’t fully know – God – as a way of getting to the more germane point for we humans – God’s Goods. God is not the point of God’s Goods, relating well with the goods is.
The Authority of Scripture
To do this I will use some important scripture, but to use scripture I first have to clarify its authority. Our culture’s scripture, the Bible, is not the one and only inerrant word of God to humans, it is one of many sets of words by humans about God, nature, history, and meaning. It is not The Truth, and believing so is a dangerous folly for humans to follow. The bible has power because many humans believe it does. The Bible may contain truths, but not every word is The Truth, especially when preachers take a phrase here, a sentence there, and weave them together into their own story as if it were God’s message to us. Along with some of the most sublime and wise words humanity has generated come some of the most viscous and stupid things we’ve ever devised. Believing they’re all equally valid is lazy and dangerous. It perpetuates the same old sad and silly mistakes from the past into the future, insisting we repeat the same things again that never worked then. Humans need to grow up when using scripture (ours or other’s) and keep in mind, as Gershwin put it, “it ain’t necessarily so.” The authority of the Bible or any scripture isn’t inherent but co-created by the mix of the actual words and those who believe and interpret them. Believing, in part, makes it so, if only for the believer and hence, the society influenced by such belief.
Given that much of the world does use a common set of scriptures (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all use what we call the Old Testament) as the common foundation for their fuller scriptures (the Torah, New Testament, and Koran, respectively), and given that all three of these great monotheistic religions are currently also the world’s great problem-makers (taunting age-old antagonisms towards war), and given that they all rest on the same mythic foundations, it would do us all well to examine those myths.
All religions have a cosmogonic myth at origin, that is, a story that tells how the cosmos was generated. Some Pacific islanders believe the world was born out of the mouth of a large snake. That “solves” the explanation for them. Our culture’s cosmogonic myth is told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Genesis One tells the foundational creation story, and then Genesis Two and Three tells another one! It is the second story, the Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden story, that dominates our self-understanding. We will examine this second creation story, but we will return to the far more helpful first story, Genesis One, that usually is overlooked, for it has the key to solve the problems rooted in the second. Genesis One has God defining natural existence, all life, and us, as “good.” Genesis Two and Three confuses and looses those goods for a fallen version. Genesis One affirms our full, free participation in existence. Genesis Two and Three describe how we lose that by getting caught in false judgments, either our own or those of the subtle serpents (or religions) that trick us.
The second creation story, told in Genesis Two and Three, has YHWH God (a masculine, singular name) creating Eden in the desert, the Adam out of the mud, and Eve out of Adam’s rib (back in the days when women could take a ribbing). They have full access to all the abundance of the Garden, including the Tree of Eternal Life, but are not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But they do. The subtle deceiver, in the form of a snake, tells Eve they can be like the gods, knowing good and evil. (It is interesting to note that many try to figure out what the fruit was. It is often depicted as an apple. Those who believe the Bible is literal and accurate look for such “truths” when the truth of a myth lies in its ability to speak well of the human condition in symbolic or story form. Or some may try to interpret the metaphor, insisting the forbidden fruit was sex, which is ironic, as we will soon see.) She eats, shares it with Adam, and suddenly they realize they’re naked, shamefully cover their bodies with the first clothes, and try to hide from God. He sees this, asks “who told you you were naked?” and angrily expels them from the Garden (where the tree of eternal life grows) to live lives of toil and trouble. From this emerge the various stories of covenant, broken covenant, and the need for redemption. In the Christian tradition this “fall” is the origin of Original Sin, which we all supposedly have, and which we get saved from by Jesus’ expiatory sacrifice on the cross, that is, if we believe in him, that act, and that view of sin. To get at eternal life, we’re to believe Christianity’s telling of this cosmogonic myth and the redemption scheme they believe follows from it. Please note: it wasn’t sex itself that was the sin, it was shame of sex that resulted from the sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What wasn’t evil in God’s eyes or theirs got seen as a shame when they ate of the forbidden fruit. What was whole got divided, alienating them from their own and each other’s bodies, their garden, and their God. The good and evil they came to know alienated them. It tries to know the ultimate by knowing opposites, divides what was whole, and leads to trouble. The subtle deceiver advises: “You will be as God, knowing good and evil,” but that advice leads into essential confusion and alienation, its own sort of sin.
This myth is useful to us. It tells of an essential alienation. Religions are meant to make us whole, to reconnect us to our roots, our reality. This myth tells of alienation, a false or confusing so-called knowledge of good and evil that creates division and discord. (I won’t go into some potential meanings of the myth here that could account for its staying power.) It could be the religions of the world have the interpretation right, or it could be they continue the rule and ruse of the subtle deceiver, confusing us about just what is good and evil, alienating us from our selves, from each other, from our garden, and from our God. They claim to know the ultimate and say, “You’ll be as a god, knowing good and evil,” but what they know “ain’t necessarily so.” All three monotheistic religions could be just plain wrong. Or the secular answers can be wrong too. We can be advised to buy this product or that, pursue this work or that, honor one sort of person but not another, ruin the environment and call it progress, start wars in the name of peace. All of these relative goods and evils can be wrong.
There is no need for confusion about an alienating knowledge of good and evil, for good was defined by God in Genesis One, the first creation story. In it, found on page one of the scriptures for all three monotheistic religions, Elohim God generates in six stages all of an evolutionary natural cosmos, each and every part of which gets called “good.” It starts from light (which God calls good) and moves to matter (also good) through plants to animals (they’re good too) to humans, “male and female He made them in His image” goes the oddly phrased passage using clunky masculine pronouns. But the point is that we males and females are also called good by God.
Some important religious foundations are told in this creation myth. The God is Elohim (a name having singular and plural as well as male and female elements). The story is evolutionary (much like science’s theory) starting from light and evolving into more complex matter and life until humans are generated in six “days,” though days could mean various stages or epochs of time. But most importantly, each and every stage of this – Elohim God calls “good.” Seen all together, God calls it, “very good.”
I agree with God here. Or perhaps I could say, I agree with the value this scripture passage places on our natural existence, what I call God’s Goods. This endlessly amazing universe we are born of and live in is “good, very good.” We didn’t create it, we don’t own it, and we shouldn’t treat it badly. This passage goes on to offer a couple of instructions. It simply offers a healthy (to us and the planet) diet, “fruits, nuts, and herbs that bear their seed,” and says to “multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it.” We mostly don’t eat that diet, but some do, and they’re very healthy. We have multiplied, exponentially. We haven’t replenished the earth, but we’re learning how we could augment that responsible cycle. And we are learning about “dominion,” which also could mean have dominion in our selves to live well with life as sovereign humans, not fallen sinners or gullible subjects.
There is no “bow down to worship and obey Me” by God here. There is simply an affirmation of natural existence and us in it.
Nor is there an explanation of evil. But perhaps we can extrapolate that evil is that which denies or destroys what is good – natural existence and us in it. We insult Creation and Creator by believing we are inherently flawed or fallen, shameful or alien. We violate this given Creation by believing it is a mere stepping stone to a more important divine reality. How can any person or religion claim to honor the Creator while shaming our bodies, stifling our souls, or letting Creation go to ecological or militarized hell? How can the religious world overlook such an obvious and helpful scripture passage? It’s as if they ignore and forsake God’s goods in favor of their own picky, shallow versions. Sovereignty becomes shame. Merriment becomes martyrdom. Travail becomes spiritual tactics. Ethics have nothing to do with relating well to God’s goods, but get scuttled into a fantasy formula of faith.
An Earthly Religion Loves God’s Goods
I do not have to “believe in the Bible” to ask the three monotheistic religions how well they relate to, treat, and are a part of God’s goods. Do they care for earth’s life, or not? Are we males and females born free, fallible, able, and worthy, or not? Has our Creator endowed us with “inalienable rights,” or not? Do they accept their God’s creating and valuing natural existence as “good,” or not?
I love Genesis One because it affirms this magnificent universe. The biosphere that thinly resides on the surface of our Earth is as rare and precarious as it is reliable and precious. We exist in a narrow band between the extremes of ice and fire. As science and some shamans teach, it is all delicately interconnected. How well we care for it is partly determined by how much we enjoy, appreciate, and live harmoniously with it. It could continue to exist in an ongoing dynamic harmony for millions of years, allowing us to further discover its mysteries and promise.
We humans could increasingly enjoy freedom and fulfillment were we to want it and know it is ours to find and fashion! To do this, we have to admit there is no magic fix, no savior to float down and rescue us from ourselves and our misguided religions. While admitting our (and everyone’s) fallibility, we must live up to both our ability and our responsibility.
Some say the lesson of the second Genesis story is that we were punished for disobeying God. They then tend to say we should obey them, or some kingly or political order. But perhaps the lesson is more that we should remember and acknowledge the original goods, God’s goods, the natural goods of our lives in this existence, and disobey those who would deny them and keep us from our freedom and fulfillment in them. Our freeborn sovereignty is more important than their institutionalized identities.
Natural existence, from sub-atomic energies to far-flung galaxies, with us learning of it all from our precious, precarious planet, is an unending marvel. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, spirituality – all these are too essential to us to let small-minded, stubborn religions to apply shallow, life-distressing, soul-repressing judgments to it. We owe Creation and its Creator a smarter, more caring stewardship and a fuller, more loving celebration of it. It is our free-born human right and responsibility.
Nature pre-exists and outlasts the religions that fail to honor it. These religions and others might try to tell you what to believe about God and good and evil, but it’s your right and responsibility to decide for yourself. Whether we’re believers in God or not, our religious task and opportunity is to distinguish between, serve, and enjoy what I have called God’s goods – and the so-called goods and evils various others tempt and confuse you with.
Byron Bradley Carrier
For a small God’s Goods Gathering
© January 20, 2005