THE CRUEL SEQUENCE — Are We Disappointed in G-d?
Angry “Atheism” and the Genesis Mystery
Jay B. Gaskill
Because the evidence on the G-d question is mixed, I am often puzzled how so many ardent atheists seem to surface within the larger sea of spiritual believers and doubters. Those of us who are counted among the “believers” typically confront and accommodate our inner doubts that stubbornly resurface almost daily. Doubts are the byproducts of the mind that has rejected fanaticism.
Few modern, thinking religious believers are nearly as ardent and secure in their affirmative beliefs as atheists are in their denials. This is one of the reasons that I am now persuaded that the roots of the most ardent forms of atheism are anger and disappointment.
We’ve heard it said (and sometimes I have repeated) that it is better to believe G-d than to believe in G-d. This is based on the assessment that many of us often seem to be able to apprehend and accept (what believers assert to be) G-d’s wishes for humankind, principally the set of moral injunctions and affirmations of the moral law, before many of us are able to accept the reality of its Author.
It’s really a matter of triage, isn’t it? After all, better to behave morally while trying to figure out “the G-d thing”, than the converse.
But to first know the moral law without becoming acquainted with its Author and what our relationship to deity means for the human condition can lead to reject the Creator on moral grounds. When we actually assimilate a moral outlook, that transformation can forever darken the way we look at the world. I believe that this transformation holds the meaning of the loss of innocence story in the Garden of Eden account in Genesis. The garden and the forbidden fruit of knowledge story is about the loss of animal innocence; animals are not critics of the World. But we humans, endowed with the capacity for comparative reason, foresight, and moral evaluation, become disappointed in the World, once we have experienced a moral awakening.
Think about the actual human situation for a moment: The natural world proceeds as if it were some vast impersonal machine, grinding up the innocent and culpable alike. Is the human world much better? People are fractious and contentious; they (we) are often mean; and yes, even occasionally they are authentically evil. The wickedness that we humans are capable of doing occasionally reaches a scale of evil that staggers the imagination and invites the anguished response: G-d made all this? Surely, we tend to think, reality is a bad joke.
One of my favorite Anglican priests reported a conversation with a rabbi friend, who said, shaking his head, “I think both of our congregations are metaphorically challenged.”
I believe that many atheists have been unaware of just how much theology is explained and discussed among many highly intelligent, science friendly people, using the language of metaphor, and just how much of ancient Holy Scripture is taken seriously, but as allegory. I suspect that the most ardent atheists were misled by the simplistic interpretations of the Eden story and the Creation account.
The “World” (meaning the whole fabric of material creation) may well have been optimally configured for the eventual emergence through gradual evolutionary processes of living organisms that would ultimately acquire a moral consciousness. But to think that G-d made a perfect world for us (in the sense of a new Eden) would be a mistake. In the Genesis account, our creator was “pleased” because the “World” and humankind were “good”. Surely, this was meant in the same sense that an architect might look at the foundation stones of a new city and say: “This is very good start. Now get busy…”
Our gift of moral knowledge comes at the price of moral disappointment. To make matters worse, we weren’t given the World Handbook of Operating Instructions. So we are first allowed to see the World through the lens of a sense of rightness and wrongness without being handed the detailed explanation of what is going on and why. We were like early adolescents dropped onto a harsh landscape and given the means to sustain ourselves over the short term. Thousands of years later (a blink within the temporal span of a universe) most of us still have a compass but only the most rudimentary of maps.
The fair implication of the Eden story is that at a certain early stage of our development, we humans chose to take our present path before we were fully ready. At the time, we might have thought we were rebelling against our Creator’s unreasonable restrictions. In effect we were perhaps prematurely asserting our post-animal nature, much like the teenager who steals the keys to the family car and takes it for a joy ride. Unlike that teenager, there is no going back home. The car is low on gas and Eden is gone.
Many of the worst authoritarian excesses of the last 150 years represented attempts to forcibly recreate “Eden” for selected humans while exploiting the rest. Too many humans are still willing to he herded like pre-Eden animals into the false Edens, only to suffer the loss of everything of real value.
Before I speculate about the possible Divine Purpose in allowing us to jump out of the nest so early and so ill prepared, consider this aside:
Assume that we were made in the divine image, that of an independent, potentially moral, conscious agent. But we enjoy the gift of only limited compassion without the divine’s deeper connections to all beings. Unsurprisingly, many “atheists” awake as morally conscious beings in a morally defective World into a state of rebellion. I believe the disconnect between moral expectations and broken world can set off what amounts to an ontological teenage tantrum:
I reject my parents and other authority figures who claimed that G-d loves me! I reject the very existence of such a deceptive Creator! The G-d I’ve been told about cannot exist because of a moral contradiction! Even worse, if such a supreme being exists, that G-d is not worthy of my attention!
I suspect that, in most cases, the animating source of the anger, stripped of all self-deception, is this:
My moral critique of the Creator relies on an unconsciously sourced corpus of moral knowledge. Truth be told, it was the Creator – the same One who created the defective World – who provided me with the means to see its flaws. While pretending to myself that I do not believe in G-d, in fact I am shunning the Creator for abandoning me without explanation. To endow me a moral sense under these circumstances was a cruel trick.
Now the short explanation for the amoral world and its bickering inhabitants is deceptively simple: The “World” is an unfinished, incomplete work-in-progress. We thinking, feeling beings were endowed with potential moral consciousness and we were added to the mix by the divine-mediated processes of creation in order to assist in the World’s proper completion. We can infer from the human situation that the threshold stage for the re-creation of the world required that we would emerge within the evolving life forms and that we would be given access to the moral law. But the long explanation must address why a benign and powerful Creator would choose to set up this situation. I’ll get to that in a moment.
It quickly becomes apparent that we were not offered the assistance of some Deus ex maxima that would always rescue us from our folly, venality and evil. I am proposing, however, that we were and are offered ongoing advice and direction. All of the following stages were left to us, using G-d’s wisdom as a guide and G-d’s love for us as moral reassurance.
Many of my secular friends immediately ask: “What advice and direction? I’ve been yelled at by too many angry fundamentalists to take you seriously.”
I submit that the problem lies in our underdeveloped communications gear, and the tendencies of many religious and secular authority figures among us (perhaps unwittingly) to distort the G-d messages as they are sometimes seduced by the perceived need to achieve worldly power. [What better tool to power than to say that G-d commissioned me?]
I am persuaded that, at this stage in our species’ development, we have been provided with the necessary cognitive equipment to discern divine communications, but the messages are plagued with an ineluctable measure of ambiguity. There are G-d messages encoded within the very large scale morphology of events, both cosmological and historical, and as profound personal epiphanies, more often than not personally transformative but fleeting. But these messages and urgings always present the opportunity for reductive, trivializing explanations to compete with the deeper, more profound implications.
The pointers to the Ultimate can always be teased out, but they are not always obvious.
I propose that the meta-narrative arc (or arch, if you will) from Pre-Big Bang Singularity to Big Civilization decodes to this: We are presented with a picture of gradually emergent form and order giving birth to emergent meaning; this was the prefigured purpose that was “hidden’ in gradualness; therefore our emergence, including our growing moral awareness was part of the staged development path of the universe.
This was ex nihilo emergence – or the emergence of being from potential being. Seen through this lens, the universe begins to make sense. The movement from no-thing to potential-states (may I call these states potentia?), then from potentia to the emergence of everything that we now observe in “the World” represents the outcome of a “soft teleology” consisting of parallel sets of development paths that, while not predetermined in any particular hour-to-hour snapshot, are nevertheless as inevitable as an avalanche seen in ultra slow motion.
The potentia were (and are) richly preconfigured and shot through with supple, alternate development pathways leading over huge temporal spans almost inevitably to life-forms, thinking-feeling beings, and, eventually to conscious persons endowed with the capacity for moral reasoning. All of these developments were the proto-divine progeny of the interplay of potentia, random/chaotic processes and existent order in theWorld. The contours and nature of creation become evident within time, but were (and are) preconfigured out of time.
I also propose that we are actually inundated by streams of divine communications. Although these “messages” are constant and omnipresent, they are received and understood by us only episodically and incompletely. For example, the divinely mediated moral injunctions that gave rise to the Decalogue were more like verbs than complete sentences. But we need to think of these divine verbs as radically compressed data packets holding infinite, unfolding meaning: “Live! Love! Nurture! Protect! Preserve! Revere!” Think of the long processes, cognitive and social, of their careful mutual reconciliation and application in the World, and the political processes of their integration with existing customs and traditions. We humans are in a very long term dialogue with the Divine Mind, one that resembles the game of charades because of our still inadequate “listening and decoding equipment”.
I celebrate the ethical atheist mindset: it almost always represents the heroic recovery from that original ontological tantrum, but without a conscious accommodation to the G-d presence. Whenever I encounter ethical atheist who manifests ethical integrity and fierce moral allegiance, I am inclined to believe that his or her mindset is operating on more that the surface, actually driven by a deeper, innate pan-generational source of ethical motivation. That deeper source closely models the moral impulses of Divine origin. In fact, once we introduce the notion of human moral consciousness as derived from the divine template (as “in the ‘image’ of”), then the signal “source” distinction (i.e., whether ethics are received from a “current” divine message or decoded from one’s inherited divine nature) bridges all the atheist/deist/theist boundaries.
I believe that most strongly motivated atheism begins with an ethical impulse and is a from of rebellion against the several popular, but false deity constructs, especially those derived from the literalist, or over-concrete theologies. The problem flows from the failure to make several important conceptual leaps. These six are among the most serious:
(1) From the vision of an extrinsic controlling deity to “pan-trinsic” omni-communicating deity;
(2) From the “world” as a realm of complete, already “perfect” order/creation, to the World filled with completing, still imperfect order/creation;
(3) From the realm of absolutely predetermined event flows, to one where event flows are partly predetermined, but not absolutely, an orderly regime leavened by chaos/creation boundary situations that allow room for divine-mediated innovation;
(4) From the top down notion of divine control, to a looser situation governed by divine “faith” in the eventual triumph of better (i.e., divine engendered) designs;
(5) From an evolving, developing world where all emerging “designs” were/are pre-pre-contained in physical spaces, to a World where the emerging designs represent a creative mix of pre-design physical elements and linked non-material innovative elements (i.e., where some potential designs, still unexpressed, reside in the G-d mind, awaiting the opportunity to emerge on the World stage);
(6) From a world where G-d’s wisdom, precepts and urgings are given intact and in perfect form to certain favored individuals, to the World where all G-d communication is widely available but inherently exceeds the “human bandwidth”. This is a situation where the “divine information receptor areas” in the brain/mind are subject to significant interference; and where it follows that the decodings and applications of G-d’s ethical guidance require reason, analysis, active participation, engagement and even testing.
Now I will venture my intuition-guided speculation about that ultimate “why?” question, which is usually posed this way:
“Why would a benevolent, all powerful deity make the world gradually, inserting us somewhere in the middle of the story, so ill equipped and so painfully subject (as in the biblical phrase) to sin, suffering and death?”
My short answer is this: Because the Supreme Being was and is a perfect moral being.
Consider the situation of a perfectly formed Being, the proto-Creator before the First Creation, the First moral Being aware of its own ‘Beingness’:
All morality consists in the right relationship of one being to other beings, whether in the present moment or the future. For this simple insight, I owe Martin Buber, who saw clearly that morality was inherent in the right conduct of the relationship between “I and thou”. Moreover, he did not, as his secular interpreters tended to do, limit the insight to the difference between the amoral “I and it” relationship and that between actual persons.
For Buber, the truly ethical relationship was a triad: I and thou was expanded to include “…and Thou” where the relationship to the third Person, Thou”, was to the Supreme “I am”. G-d – as Thou – necessarily mediates any truly moral “I and thou” exchange. In Buber’s theology, Supreme Being was both necessary and concomitant to our interpersonal ethical relationships.
Back to the ur-form of Supreme Being as proto-Creator: Assume that any Supreme Being would also be a supremely moral being. This is consistent with the insight consistently brought to those over the millennia who have reported a personal apprehension of G-d’s Presence.
Now consider that the indulgence of self-perfection without relationship is the very definition of an absolute ethical solipsism. So I believe that an ethical and moral imperative engendered the Creation Imperative: Supreme Being needed to create the “Others” (as that set of beings who were/are truly capable of loving and being loved).
A moment’s reflection tells us that such beings couldn’t really have consisted of soulless automatons pre-programmed to “love” their creator, that such “beings’ would not be worthy of the creator’s self-giving love in any event.
The “love and be loved” relationship that is the heart of moral existence implies a time frame and a degree of freedom within which a spectrum of choices – to be moral or not, to love or not – can be exercised. Choice is inherently a temporal existent (there is always before choice and after choice, a temporal sequence). To create time requires space, form and movement. All of the elements that we now observe in “the World” are necessary for “choice” to emerge in the universe.
So the “Genesis impulse” was driven by a moral imperative, the need to allow others freely to come into being and freely to live and choose. We can reasonably conclude (within the framework of this account) that the divine injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply” was the first moral impulse of the Original Being Who was driven by the imperative to become the Creator, i.e., to inaugurate and participate in fruitfulness. This, I now believe, is the particular significance of the assertion in Genesis that humankind was made in the divine image.
Following this line of thinking, we can conclude several things that would help answer the Why question:
(1) That the “World” (meaning the whole fabric of material creation) is an unfinished, incomplete work-in-progress;
(2) That the impulse to create other independent, thinking, feeling potentially moral beings was a moral imperative;
(3) And that the necessity of allowing the mergence of independent others required that the processes of creation be as open and unforced as possible.
I believe that we should infer that the vast spans of time taken up by evolution from the Big Bang to the present, and the stochastic, trial-and-error incrementalism that led to the emergence of the first fully conscious, potentially moral beings about .2 m years ago were actually necessary, given the ultimate goal of growing new independent, morally aware beings worthy of love and capable of giving love.
Note that the biblical shema (the obligation to love G-d with all one’s heart, mind and strength) and the codicil added by Jesus (to love one’s neighbors as one’s self) are coherent both with the theological model I’ve just sketched out here and with the fundamental moral law itself. [On the second point, see section V in my article “I2I – The Dialogic Imperative” posted in 2006 at http://www.jaygaskill.com/i2i.htm .]
I have speculated elsewhere that any Supreme Being endowed with prefect morality and compassion could have not been set in motion and entered into relationship with the “others” without risking a large measure of danger and experiencing an unimaginable burden of sacrifice and pain. This should not come as a surprise. Giving birth tends to be both dangerous and painful. But that is another story.
 Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “And you shall love the lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might.” [V-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b-chol l’vavcha u-v-chol m’odecha.]
 In Mark 12:28-30 28 we find this: “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ 29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And in Luke 10:25-37: 25 – “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ 27 He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied.”