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Evolution of God

 

The Evolution of God 

“No light or beauty has ever come from a person who cannot bear the sight of dark and difficult things.” – Carl Jung

 

Historically we cannot separate gods and humans. Since before recorded time this sometimes cozy, often difficult, family relationship has continued uninterrupted to this day.

Since first appearing in the minds of humans, god and gods have presented a host of fascinating problems: God is absolute ruler of heaven and earth. God is everywhere and anywhere. God is good. God is creator and destroyer. God is your best friend. God is your worst nightmare. God gives you the right over all other life. God is on your side, only your side. And sometimes God cuts you and I down like ripe wheat – and leaves us to figure it out.

And in all religions, legends, fairy tales, perhaps even in our own dream-images, there appear many, many stories about humans and god: Mankind obeying god, man trying hard to understand god’s inconsistent complexities, man questioning god, rebelling against god, man reshaping god… Say, who’s in charge here, anyway?

Who is in charge? I’ll take a view that’s blasphemy to many but obvious to others: In the beginning humans created God. Moreover, creating gods is something that humans have always done. We do it so well. A really clever person, like Monty Python, can go on wonderfully about the hilarious doings of humans and gods, because the subject is a natural. So little time, so much good material.

 

Yes, gods are humankind’s most bizarre yet heartfelt creation. So what do we do with a subject that, for as long as humans have been human, has had a major grip on untold millions of people… yet has no empirical basis in reality? No proof, no problem? But the problem is huge. For a subject with no apparent basis in reality, here in our small Tuolumne County main library a twenty-foot line of shelves taller than your head, comprising some hundreds of books, is devoted to or about God. Imagine the total world’s literature on what seems sheer fantasy!

Where does all this god stuff come from? The psychologist Carl Jung tells us that our god-urges, god-images, come from the deepest layers of the mind, the human unconscious.  Jung says they come from us, unconsciously. Emotionally charged images, what the Latins called “numinous spirits” and Jung calls Archetypes and religions call gods, have occurred spontaneously and in similar patterns worldwide. The evidence is impressive.

If these god images come from within us, we might consider that these forces are, somehow, nature at work. We are nature. Are not our minds, instincts, unconscious energies also nature at work? And is nature not always creating?

The writer and teacher Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, tells us that while he believes that the idea of god is based on illusion, he feels this illusion has slowly evolved into the morality and ethics of today. He suggests we have become a more conscious and better people as a result of this illusion. (As a result of illusion…?) Yes, I’m trying to figure that one out too, but take a look at Wright’s excellent book. It’s in the library, in that twenty-foot stack.

 

Reason tells us that we modern humans are or should be skeptics. The very basis of Science is skepticism. Further, Karen Armstrong, a leading writer on religion, states that our current secularism is entirely a new experiment, unprecedented in human history; an experiment we have yet to see how it will work out.

Armstrong further states that our Western liberal humanism is not something that comes naturally to us. Liberal Humanism not natural? Now there’s a challenge for Unitarian-Universalists! She states that Humanism, like an appreciation of art or poetry, has to be cultivated.

In recent history some writers have claimed that, whatever the origin, “God is now dead.” Caput! Finis! Is God dead? If so, then why does it feel like the atmosphere is crammed with more gods than teen–age text messages?

 

But the theme here is, Gods and Change. Let’s move on and take a broad look at the pagans, where I admit I have a soft spot.

The Pagans were like us, except that they were closer to Nature. Gods to the pagan are primarily Nature, Nature in all her aspects– wild, nourishing, destructive, giving. Many gods were needed to cover the vastness of nature. While we moderns have edited out a sense of a “spiritual” Nature, I do wonder what we would see if we could again look on Nature with truly Pagan eyes?

Sure, dream on, you may say. But I’m rather in favor of a healthy fantasy. There is something wonderful about feeling a brother to a tree, a sister to the soulness of flowing water. And so what if we make up a few stories about nymphs and imps to make nature seem even more alive? I can get into it.

And keep in mind that the pagan people were holistic. Native American beliefs were and are holistic. Ancient people believed that it was only by participating in this holistic natural world would they become truly human. Truly human. We might say that, today, only by participating in a holistic ecological union with nature, including the awesome mysteries that science offers, will we become truly human.

Pagan myths are often thought of as childish and unsubtle. But not always. Here is a pagan story of gods and change. Interestingly, change is built into the story itself. It’s a Norse myth called “Loki and the Death of Balder.”

Balder was the god of light, joy, purity, beauty, and innocence. He was loved by all gods and humans and was considered to be the best of the gods. Yet his mother, Frigg, had disturbing dreams of his death and had to act.  She went to the creatures and forces in nature and asked them to promise never to harm Balder. They agreed.

Enter Loki. Loki was not a full-fledged god, yet he was a companion and confident to the gods. They let him hang around. He was also a Trickster. Loki changed his image and, appearing to Frigg as a friend, asked her if she was certain that all creatures had taken the pledge. Frigg confided that she passed up one little plant in the West called mistletoe. She thought him too small to worry about. Besides he was so weak he couldn’t even root in the earth. Loki immediately located the mistletoe and, returning with it, tricked another god into throwing a mistletoe dart at Balder, an act that seemed entirely innocent. The dart struck Balder in the heart, killing him immediately.

The other gods lamented a great loss.

Why would such a myth exist? Why would these ancient people invent the story of the death of such a good god? And what of Loki?

I’ll share my take on Balder’s death. Balder was too cool. Perfect. Light without dark. Balder had to go because, while the Norse could conceive of perfection, they had to do the right thing, the natural holistic thing, and bring an end to perfect Balder.

And it took a free agent to do it. Loki was the agent of change. Change, like chance, is that strange something that plays with all life, even behind the backs of the gods. Loki is not superior to the gods but is a necessary radical element of nature. He is nature at work. Even the old powerful gods must submit to nature’s whims and ways. Change is built into the myth.

Christianity also has a built-in story of the death of god. The message of Jesus is marvelous, and was fitting for the increasingly complex world that was coming to the Mediterranean. It applies to this day. But the driving myth underlying the teachings of Jesus hardened. We are told that Jesus was resurrected and returned to the godhead, a godhead the early Christians had adapted from the concept of Monotheism. Monotheism, Exclusive and Perfect, cannot change and cannot tolerate competition. The pagans had to go.

I suppose it was somewhat confusing to have many gods and spirits, and therefore efficient and effective to have one god instead. Central government has its place. But an absolute god must absorb all the other gods who previously represented the great forces, powers and special interests: fate, chance, luck, wisdom, all beginnings, all endings. Imagine all the gods of Homer and other religions compressed into one. Can the center hold? Will things fall apart?

So we now have a Perfect and Absolute God that cannot be compromised. Seems as secure as did Balder. But we have a fly in the sacred ointment. Enter the Trickster.

It seems this new Absolute God could not contain or control rebellious Lucifer. God created all things, yet could not contain the Trickster. And a Trickster is quite capable of upsetting the apple cart, as Adam and Eve well know.

Thus, our Christian myth is confusing. One Perfect and Absolute God, yet a divided Kingdom of Good and Evil at war with itself. So which is it, a Monotheism or Dualism? This is one of the theological messes that the West has struggled with. Thankfully some wits have tried to lighten the burden with humor, like:  If god can do anything, can god create a rock that god can’t lift? Ok…many of the jokes are much better than that.

Christian Monotheism split and hardened into an unyielding cosmic duality:  god and satan, saved and unsaved, heaven and hell, hell often being described as Earth itself. In so hardening, the future of Christianity rendered itself incapable of change, incapable of adjusting to a more insightful and subtle mind.

 

Here’s a little story of “subtle mind.” In ancient Crete the Minoan Civilization had an interesting event that we can see painted on vases. Skilled athletes would enter an arena with a large wild bull, wickedly horned, then run toward the bull as it charged, and at the last moment leap between the horns, perform a handspring off the bull’s back and land on their feet gracefully.

This heroic sport is interpreted by some cultural scholars as the key to a sophisticated philosophy of life:  do not allow yourself to be hooked by the horns of dilemma; avoid the pressures and temptations of choosing between extremes; in all of life as well as in the face of danger, be supple and subtle of mind. These subtleties were not interesting to the early Christians, whose mission was to purge the world of paganism and instill a new order.

The price of rigidity is recorded in the history books. Rigid minds, unsubtle minds, literal minds may be humanity’s greatest problem. If the Western God is split between light and dark, those of us who adopt this world picture are also split, and it goes deep.

Western religion, as it has developed, mistrusts not only human nature, but Nature, that is, life itself. When a major myth for centuries teaches the doctrines of innate evil, inherited sin, a natural evil in women, and a waiting hellfire, all watched over by an God that is said to be Absolute but is itself severely divided, the result is a social disaster: the result is a world that cannot produce a free people or a free mind.

But in Nature, which includes the restless human psyche, things change: We now live in a time of a dying god. The putting away of a dead god may be the most important liberating act a human can perform.

But in putting away a dead god we also become burdened with the responsibility of ourselves. We are thrown back onto ourselves. Thinkers like Jung and Karen Armstrong tell us that we must become more subtle. We must understand our own complex natures. Ethics and morality are dependent on more careful thinking than a dogmatic moral code of good and evil. Thus, the responsibilities are ours and are not easy. We are not spared the responsibility and even torment of ethical decisions.

Some artists and poets tell us that Angels and Demons do not live in a separate and rigid world. They live side by side; they have interbred; they are in us. The poet Rilke was once advised by a friend to go into therapy with what was then a new science called psychology. His friend suggested that he, Rilke, might then get rid of his demons. Rilke replied that he was afraid that if his demons were to disappear so would his angels.

We are probably beyond the age of myth. But if a new story line, a new god-myth were to develop I like to think it would be a story line acceptable to an aware people, a people willing to be world citizens, a people willing to face a cosmos beyond the imagination of our ancestors, a people capable of leaping between the horns of the bull.

And this new myth, like a healthy science, would by necessity incorporate change into it — that tricky Loki thing.

Modern science has had to adjust to “built in” change. Our scientists now describe a nature that does not fit the old sense of reality: Electrons that behave madly and badly; Mathematics that must now include random chance. They call it “Chaos Theory.”

I’m suggesting that the ancient Norse intuitively had a built-in chaos theory and Loki was its agent. Gods must change, and Perfect gods must die, else gods, cultures, become rigid. Carl Jung would remind our scientists that some of the old gods keep reappearing: Loki can change his clothes, reappear, and fool the gods; even the gods of science and math.

Gods change. A new Sky God would somehow have to let go of the old picture of heaven and instead include the 50 billion galaxies we now know of. Fifty billion galaxies, someone has figured out, are as many galaxies as there are grains in several thousand one-pound boxes of salt. (Who did the counting?) And a new Earth Goddess would have to let go of some old fairies and include the stranger fairies of quantum mechanics.

Let’s finish with the words of a visionary of our time. Carl Sagan writes:

“In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded: ‘This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said –  grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed?’

“Instead,” Sagan continues, “they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion… that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths.”

Sagan concludes, “Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

 

In closing:

Look out God, the times they are a-changing.