There is a reason I love the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.” I was actually that geeky kid with a bad haircut and thick glasses staying up too late playing Dungeons and Dragons. I was always a little more Lord of the Rings than Star Wars, though I have read my share of science fiction over the years… Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, even Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, though the fact that Card is a hatemonger has taken the shine off of his work a little bit.
I never, however, read anything by the con artist L. Ron Hubbard, nor have I read anything by Arthur C. Clarke, the co-creator with Stanley Kubrick of the 1968 film masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey,” though I have seen the film. And yeah, I don’t get the ending either.
It is said that the movie was almost prophetic in anticipating later developments in space exploration, that it got a lot right when it came to the science of space travel, though for the latest in the weird and quantum universe, the much newer film “Interstellar” reflects decades of advances in understanding space and time, or to be honest, guessing about the nature of space and time, for the more we learn, the weirder it gets.
The brand placement, such a big part of the Hollywood hype machine today, is pretty big in one of 20001’s early scenes, projecting a number of major names into the future, commercialized space if you will, like an outer space Hilton, very much still with us. There’s an orbital Howard Johnson’s restaurant, the real chain down from thousands of locations to one making its last stand in Lake George, New York. Then there is a space plane version of Pan American, the real airline a thing of the past. But I’d like to focus on two particular classes of objects unique to the movie, the mysterious monoliths, and the artificial intelligence called Hal. And I’d like to suggest that one is the god we think we’ve built while the other is the god we have actually built, and neither has anything to do with the God that is.
But first, the gods that were…
We can only guess at what might have been if the late Christopher Logue had completed his masterful reconstruction of the Iliad. The fragments we have, collected and published two years ago as “War Music,” include this passage:
Setting down her topaz saucer heaped with nectarine jelly
Emptying her blood-red mouth set in her ice-white face
Teenaged Athena jumped up and shrieked:
‘Kill! Kill for me!
Better to die than to live without killing!’
Modern and gruesome and completely in keeping with the tone of the original, R-rated at best.
Most of us learned some of the stories of the Greek pantheon as kids, others as we read the classics in high school and college, not only the two Homeric epics, but also the great Greek plays. On their face, these ancient myths are no more ridiculous than elements of our own mythic tradition. If humans can be shaped from mud, then why can’t Prometheus bring fire?
The Greek gods, like Athena in Logue’s adaptation, are simply humans writ large, immortal and immensely powerful, vain, lust-filled, violent. The chief of the pantheon is a serial rapist, Leda, Ganymede, countless other victims, and the rest of the immortal cast isn’t much better.
It would be easy for other ancient cults to look down their collective noses at the Greeks and their unruly and uncivil deities. Certainly many rebelled against this construction of deity. For example, the Hebrews with their Yahweh. Now there was a God you could admire, the one god of the one tribe… willing to kill the puny at the slightest insult, mass murderer and the one who gave the orders for ethnic cleansing and genocide. You know, one of the good guys…
So it turns out that the Hebrews didn’t arrive at an ethical and universal monotheism overnight after all, that our sacred text contains stories of an angry, temperamental, and violent god. Even when they got to a mostly good god in the end, they were still encumbered by ideas of holy violence and divine racism, our tribe and a god who sanctions our violence in a zero sum world. While Jesus the revolutionary prophet would move them closer, there was still the stink of tribalism.
In the meanwhile, some folks in Greece started to move beyond the primitive belief in human-like gods. They spoke in abstractions of perfection, sometimes of an epic struggle between good and evil, life and destruction. Plato’s thought already held sway from Spain to Persia by the time of Jesus, and a follow-on school called Neo-Platonism was developing in the 3rd century, also formative years for Christian theology, which caught a mild case of Platonism.
Given the unspeakable evils done in the name of tribal gods, given that blood-mouthed Athena and others of her ilk were simply not credible, given that the Christian movement was multi-cultural and cosmopolitan, the Christians needed to be a theology that allowed for a better believable god. Funny that multi-cultural and cosmopolitan have become dirty words to so many Christians today when those conditions are the only reason anyone is a Christian today.
Given the need for a new understanding of the divine, the early Christians wielded the scalpel of Platonic thought and surgically removed all of the bad bits of Yahweh, the difficult bits of God, and grafted on a Platonic god, abstract, singular, perfect. The result was two things, yet was neither thing, both a personal god described as love and in some way present in the person of Jesus and the Platonic ideal god of the “omnis,” the god that must be omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent; all-knowing, always present, all-powerful.
To make this god fit the ideal, we needed to explain away every divine temper-tantrum and act of cruelty, for God could not look like blood-mouthed Athena or rapist Zeus, and by extension, since Jesus must be fully god, we also needed to explain away his every imperfection. To do so, Christians had to claim that everything since Creation was a fully-scripted divine play, that our struggles were about as real as professional wrestling, with everything pre-destined to be, given that God already knows what is going to happen.
This god, this Frankenstein god stiched together from parts, is like the monoliths that show up in 2001, first as early hominids evolve, again as humankind heads out into space, alien and mysterious things. They are cold, imposing, blank, mysterious, and so is the god that results when we try to turn Yahweh into an idea. The Jesus that results from this approach isn’t much better, since everything is scripted, so even the suffering on the cross is only sort of suffering, the mistakes and misjudgments recorded in the gospels cannot be mistakes and misjudgments. We mortals are but puppets in a divine drama, on for our act and whisked off the stage, never to be seen or heard again.
But follow the logic for a bit, and you run into even worse problems. Take predestination as an example. This is an old and mostly, I hope, discarded theology from our own reform tradition, one that follows the cold sterile logic on the omniscient God. For if God knows who will be saved, God has predestined who will be saved. At the most extreme, this view creates a god who calls creatures into being having already determined that their fate will be eternal suffering. How is that god good? This god, omniscient and omnipotent, also allows earthly suffering as a way to teach and test, trial by torture, rearranges cell chemistry to save some and destroy others, sends a madman into an elementary school with an assault rifle because “God needed some new angels.” Because an all-powerful god can, apparently, run out of angels, and cancer is just part of the plan. This is the twisted god of so many Christians today, even before this idol is draped in an American flag and handed an AK-47.
This god is less alien and more like the Hal 9000, the computer intelligence in 2001 that is supposed to serve humankind, but instead turns on humankind, killing astronauts to preserve the idea that it is perfect. This is the god that we have created, a false god that you cannot see, ready to blast you into space without warning, to shut down your life support as part of a plan we do not understand. And like Hal, the only answer to this god is to unplug it completely, fading out singing “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer true. I’m half crazy, over the love of you.”
The answer to the gaping question in our lives is not found by papering over our fear with a false god. It is to be found in learning to walk with both fear and wonder.
God, a God who loves, can be neither the abstract monolith, mysterious and frightening, nor can God be the monster we humans have created to fit us, already too small, nor can god be constructed to justify our pitiable schemes, smaller still. This tiny false god who picks and chooses among humans in an arbitrary and capricious way could never be the same god we name as love.
And it never was. Because love is not a monolith. God is not sterile, abstract. God is not hard and clean. Relationship requires vulnerability. God cannot be love if God’s heart cannot be broken.
Our insistence that God be perfect and all powerful is killing God. Our insistence that God serve us is producing a god we need to disconnect. No wonder so few find this faith relevant. They don’t want faith as anesthetic. They want a faith that is about living.
God is alive? Those ancient Hebrews got it right when they named God not “I Am” but “I Am Becoming,” which might as well be “I Am Alive.” “Living God” may be the closest we come to God’s actual name.
The ancient Hebrews constructed a God that could learn, that could regret, a God that could desire. Some might claim that the resulting God is anthropomorphic, a little too human-shaped, placing us at risk again of creating a god of arbitrary violence, and the Hebrew god was a monster, just as the god of American White-Nationalism is a monster, the god of Nazi Christians was a monster, the god of the Salvadoran elite was a monster.
But God, living God, is no monster. God creates and loves and is broken hearted when we break one another’s hearts. God speaks justice and love and creativity into all that is.
Is you god too small? Is your god a monster? Unplug that god and welcome into your life a God called “I Am Alive,” a God that spoke creation, that loves creation, and that is watching as a Word spoken into the void unfolds in worlds, in poetry, in song, in love. God is broken-hearted love, learning love, engaged love… Be not afraid.