In which I blaspheme: Monotheism’s biggest failure.

Ok, that’s kind of a grand statement. Maybe I shouldn’t claim to have uncovered the single biggest failure of the world’s monotheistic faiths. But for my money, it’s certainly right up there.

As readers of this blog are surely aware, I believe in God.

I furthermore believe that God is loving and good, and that when we say that we’re made in His* image, we mean the best of us. “Our better angels” are, to my mind, those parts of the human spirit that fly up to meet their Creator and attempt to express His love, His goodness, on this earth.

I also believe, in what I take to be a very Jewish sense, that God is everywhere and yet nowhere. We are not God, but reflections of Him. He can be found in our homes and in our hearts, but He is neither in the heavens nor in the depths. He is not corporeal, and when we speak of His arms, or His voice, we are only making use of the only tools we have to imagine the unimaginable — yet should I call upon Him, His is the still, small voice that is as near as my child’s breath, as she whispers in my ear.

God is ultimately unknowable, because He is so entirely Not Us. Bigger, Grander, More Powerful beyond measure — how can it be otherwise, when He created the world and all that’s in it? And yes, I believe that the Big Bang was an act of God, and I honestly cannot understand how the one could possibly contradict the other.

What is God not, then? Where did monotheism get it wrong?

On the “perfect” part.

I don’t believe God is perfect. I don’t believe God is all-powerful, and I suspect that He is not all-knowing. I cannot, and continue to believe that He is loving.

There is too much broken and wrong in this world, too much pain and too much horror, for me to believe that our Creator has the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to.

But that’s what the world’s three biggest monotheistic faiths would have us believe. We try to explain it away — in Judaism, many say that God does only good, we just don’t always recognize it as such; some say that we call down upon ourselves the world’s horrors with our behavior — but I think that most believers choose not to think about it too much, because if we do, the whole thing shatters at the feet of a starving or murdered child.

The failure, then, is not simply in getting something so crucial so badly wrong — it’s in creating a system that demands that God’s creatures find a way to believe something truly terrible. Perhaps if we posit a Satan (in which I do not believe, but for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and posit) we can lay the world’s woes at Satan’s feet — but then we’re positing a genuine rival to God. We’re saying that there’s someone else out there, as powerful or nearly-as powerful as God, whom God is unable to defeat. Because if God is loving and can save us from Satan’s evil hands — why the long game? Why not just be done with it?

It’s  my experience that when people in the West reject God, they’re more often than not (not always, of course, but pretty often) rejecting organized religion, and more to the point, organized Western religion’s vision of a God who is all-powerful, and yet isn’t overly concerned with starving, bloodied children.

So here’s our choice: God – all powerful, perfect and all knowing? Or loving?

I’m sticking with loving.

(And to those who would argue that I’m going pretty far out on several limbs simultaneously, I can only say: Why do you think they call it “faith”?)

*****

*I’m comfortable with the English-language cultural convention of referring to the Divine in the male singular, but I don’t for a minute think that S/He/It is actually anything like any human. 

19 Comments

  1. lysana

     /  January 30, 2012

    Part of the reason I embraced polytheism is because of the problem of how powerful a deity is supposed to be. If your god is triple-omni, it leads one down roads of fate vs free will that just get ugly. Either that, or you have a sado-masochistic god who enjoys evil while it breaks their heart to see it happen. Now, I can’t claim to understand any deity, whether there’s one or ten thousand. What I have seen agrees with your blasphemy. I just personally attribute some of it to otherworldly bureaucracy causing oversights and overlaps. As well as the fact we’re allowed pretty much free reign while we’re expected to act like we know better than to crap in our own beds.

  2. Darth Thulhu

     /  January 30, 2012

    The practical attribute that cannot manifest is all-powerful. I can envision a Divinity that is all-Knowing but close to strictly hands-off, but a Divinity that meddles frequently runs right into moral culpability for all the horrors of Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw.

    Regardless of whether or not the Divine is or is not all-powerful in some abstract Beyond-This-Universe sense, as a practical matter the Divine is clearly not racking up supernatural physics-defying miracles with any regularity. As but one single example, it’s been at least a few weeks since astronomers last saw the Moon explode into a flaming Star of David and then reconstitute itself without deviation.

    I am all for the paradoxical infinite God of Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. As the Baha’i aphorism has it, God is vaster than the cosmos but closer to us than our own jugular veins. But the collararies to that paradox are: if God is Infinitely Powerful then God is also Infinitely Restrained, and if God is Infintely Knowledgible then God is also Infinitely Unknowable. As a practical matter, God doesn’t arbitrarily intervene, with either information or action. Even when God does purposefully intervene (Moses, others), the intervention is eminently deniable: visions of fire that don’t consume the bush they enwreath, commandments shared when Moses is otherwise utterly alone, etc.

    One can easily come up with moral reasons for God to be self-restraining. An active God eventually ends up morally obligated to smother all of Creation: every ill must be thwarted, every imperfection erased, every person must exist eternally in a kind of static Stepford “Heaven” or idyllic Garden of Eden where nothing untoward ever happens.

    If that is to be avoided, yet God remain loving, then God has to be very hands-off. Inspire prophets, perhaps actually Manifest and Incarnate a few times (always deniably), perhaps do interesting nudges with quantum mechanical froth, but generally actively Not Intervene in the physical Creation, so as not to crush it under the sledgehammer of Omnipotence.

    That’s my take, anyway.

    • I love this That’s my take, anyway – because bottom line, that’s all any of us has.

      (Well, that and the exploding moon thing!)

  3. I read your post with interest. Few submissions though

    a. God has granted we humans some portion of His knowledge, power, providence, wisdom and mercy. Man can thus analogously have some idea of the attributes of God.

    b. God has send us in this world as his viceroy and has enjoined upon us a test that is to live life with faith in God and love and to live along side other fellow humans in peace and harmony and not to mess with Gods nature.

    c. Basically what you had written is what scriptures tells us Angels has said to God when at the time of creation of Adam- Wilt thou place therein on who will do harm therein and will shed blood?

    d. There is too much broken and wrong in this world because of we humans, too much pain and too much horror is also created by we humans , and the very reason Creator despite having the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to is THAT with the very message not to do this. We are failing in this test of humanity.

    Imagine you giving your child a exam to pass and your child didn’t event attempt to try it, and after spending the whole day on PS3 when just has few minutes before submission of assignment to you. Ask the same questions. why have mom put me in this mess she knows all the answers why cant she fix it for me?

    We have spread havoc on this earth and only we can mend it and make it good- then we will pass the test God has given to us.

    • First of all, thanks for stopping by!

      All I can say, though, is that I cannot believe that a loving God would punish a child for my failure to study for an exam (so to speak). I’m not really arguing, though, because faith is so deeply personal and I believe that we each have to find our own way — I just have a different faith than you.

      • ansari

         /  January 30, 2012

        Well to be honest thank you for writing a very thought provoking piece. One foot note, I didn’t say God is punishing us- its basically our own deads which come upon us. Positive part is that God is the most forgiving! If we don’t build dams and levys to contain river water, then the devestation because of flooding is not Gods punishment but due to our own inability to do the right thing-whats best for our fellow human beings!

  4. Correction.
    There is too much broken and wrong in this world because of we humans, too much pain and too much horror is also created by we humans , and the very reason Creator despite having the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to is THAT the very message with which human beings were created and send to earth …we are failing in that test. Now how can we expect from the creator to perform on something which the creator expects from us

  5. It’s always seemed to me that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing (and perfect, and loving), He could have his own reasons quite beyond my comprehension for having this world turn out the way that it does. Sure, I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people; but I’m just some guy. My failure to comprehend God’s ways isn’t enough for me to say that he’s fallen short of any ideals. Given that He managed to create everything in the universe, I’m just going to have to conclude that His views on those ideals are different from mine, and His are presumably a-OK.

    Incidentally, I’m an atheist– I’ve been unable to persuade myself that the evidence supports the proposition that any supernatural beings exist. So, take this for what it’s worth.

    • My husband is in the same place: unable to persuade himself that the evidence supports the proposition that any supernatural beings exist. So I take you to be marrying material! : )

  6. “There is too much broken and wrong in this world, too much pain and too much horror, for me to believe that our Creator has the power to fix it, and yet chooses not to.”

    I believe that He has chosen to fix it, and He is in the process of fixing it through us. It can’t be mended until we are mended, and this needs to be a healing that we each assent to on an individual level, in personal response to His love. Murder seems something so horrible, so far removed from us, but is it that far removed from the anger and spite we sometimes harbour in ourselves? It has to begin somewhere, and these are the seeds. The beginning of the end is when we began to weed them out. Like weeding in a garden, it’s a long and difficult process, because once these habits get ingrained they multiply.

    Why doesn’t He just wave one almighty hand, banish them now? I have wondered this too. Perhaps it is just not possible for us as humans to know what love means until you have stared its opposite in the face and said, “No.”

  7. dmf

     /  January 30, 2012

    this won’t be of direct use for you ee, but the catholic theologian John Caputo has found in the life, and death, of Jesus a model of the “weakness” of God, in that God’s power is not that of a super-man space alien, or mythological Sky-King, but rather a power of love and conscience, of callings to our better angels.
    Even an atheist like myself can appreciate the ways in which we are called by love and justice and such regardless of the source(s) of these slightly more than human (we always fall short) inspirations.

    • Second on Caputo.

      Also, have you read Jack Miles’s “God: A Biography”? Because you should read Jack Miles’s “God: A Biography”.

      • Yes, in fact, I did – but so long ago that all I can remember is that I liked it.

        I think perhaps I should read it AGAIN.

  8. What is “God” was nothing more (!) than the sum total of everything in the universe, inter-connected, the source of all happiness and all evil? Reality, as it were. Not so much an “Other” as the divine creative force? That’s what 51% of me thinks, anyway, and truly it places responsibility for all the shitty things people do to each other squarely where it belongs (with us), and also allows that birth and death (however terrible) are just the way things are. Not fair and, oh by the way, who says they should be.

    The other 49% is constantly pissed off at a more anthropomorphic God, the unknowable “Thou” who has chosen to withdraw from the realm of taking care of business. I’m willing to be loved by this God, but also to have a really good argument now and again.

    The former is a more “perfect” God. The latter makes for much better stories.

  9. Ash Can

     /  January 31, 2012

    I really like this essay, as well as the comments after it. As for my point of view — that of a lifelong practicing Catholic who has long had disagreements with Church hierarchy but who still sees too much good in the religion itself to leave — I’ve always assumed the perfection of God. However, more recently, I’ve heard a couple of observations on the imperfection of God, one from a Catholic priest and one from a Jewish theologian, that I find very intriguing. In both cases, the theme was basically the same — God/Jesus learning to deal optimally with humans, once in the instance of Job, and the other of Jesus treating a Gentile woman in an excessively offhanded way but eventually being persuaded by her to see her viewpoint.

    This way of thinking certainly challenges my assumption of the perfection of God and Jesus, but I realize that it does so in a very positive manner. First, I think we have to examine what “perfection” means. Given the very nature of God as ultimately unknowable in full, my personal idea of how a perfect God behaves is not likely to be identical to how God being perfectly himself behaves. Does “perfection” mean “flawless?” If so, is a learning-process God exhibiting a flaw or an asset (viz., flexibility)? Does “perfection” mean “not allowing anything bad to happen?” Not in the theological tradition I grew up with. That tradition holds that in the beginning, when God created the angels, he endowed them with free will from the start. Those who came to have excessive regard for themselves and refused to act in service to God were given the boot and became the denizens of hell we call devils, with their ringleader undergoing the name change from Lucifer to Satan. The creation of humanity mirrored this process, with humans given free will from the start, to decide whether or not to do good. Regardless of how metaphoric or fanciful this story may be, it establishes the concept of this life as a proving ground, a constant struggle between good and evil. Nowhere in scripture are we promised an easy go of this life. We’re promised only that we are loved, and if we love back evil cannot ultimately triumph over us. In the meantime, though, bad things happen, often at random. The issue is not that they happen. The issue is of how we respond to them. If they cause us to despair and to forgo the struggle to make the world a better place, in however small a way we can, then Satan/evil wins. And God allows this all to take place because he refuses to meddle with our free wills, and because it’s his design to set up this life as a proving ground — even though we, and he, take our lumps over it.

    And moreover, is even perceiving God as perfect limiting him in a way (he who is unlimitable)?

    This, of course, is nothing more than my own $0.02. Once again, great essay, great thread.

  10. I remember one novel where it turned out that Yaweh was an ‘artist’. Honestly, that would explain a lot.

  11. aaron

     /  May 16, 2013

    Methinks the lady doth not blaspheme enough. Please consider the possibility that all these strenuous mental gyrations are completely unnecessary if we simply abandon the (sorry, but – completely silly) notion of a magical entity living in the sky. Consciousness, sentience – these are attributes of evolved biological systems. We do not observe these attributes in any other context, and if you think about it the attributes don’t make sense in any other context.

    • I would never walk into your house and announce your core lack of faith “silly.” I’m not sure why you think it was reasonable to walk into my house and tell me that my core faith is.