10.26.2006

Julia Sweeney and ALG on God

At AT's suggestion, we went to see Julia Sweeney's one woman show, "Letting Go of God," last night. This gives me an opportunity to write about God, which I have wanted to do for awhile.

It was hilarious. Her timing was impeccable and her facial expressions uproarious. It felt so good to laugh. I don't know if we know exactly what laughter is, why we do it, or what it releases in our brains, but it's clearly something we should all do a lot more often.

The show is about her personal religious/spiritual journey from Catholicism to atheism, with stops at pantheism, Buddhism, and New Ageism along the way. For the most part, I found it to be more funny than thought-provoking, since a lot of the questions she raised are either things that I have been thinking about for years, things that don't bother me about religion, or issues specific to Christianity that I would probably agree with her about if I thought about it at all (but I don't really--Judaism gives me enough tsuris, I have no need to struggle with Christianity).

A lot of the first half of the 2+ hour show was about her experience reading the Bible for the first time, and finding out that it was not just nice stories. The Bible is full of violent and disturbing stories--Noah drinking and passing out naked (Genesis 9:20-21), Lot offering his virgin daughters as rape victims (Genesis 19:8), Lot's daughters raping him (Genesis 19:30-36), and Abraham being willing to slaughter Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18). And that's just in the first half of Genesis! I have known that the Binding of Isaac is a horrifying, confusing, disturbing story since I was an adolescent, if not earlier. Someone says that the real test was not if Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, but if he was willing to change his mind, having made it up, only at the behest of an angel and not God (see Ramban Genesis 22:12 and later commentaries). That helps a bit. There are other interpretations out there that make the story a bit more palatable, and the existence of such interpretations is comforting to me, because it means that lots and lots of people find this story impossible to read with a clear conscience in the plain sense of the text. I like that the Jewish interpretive tradition, at least, reads and rereads texts that are disturbing and looks for ways to make them less so. As for the rest? I kind of like the fact that the Bible acknowledges that people are a violent, messy lot, and prompt us to ask, "How do we live together despite that?" The Bible provides few answers, and I don't think that the Bible is necessarily in the business of holding up role models. I find it disturbing when either evangelical Christians or religious people of any stripe claim that that's the case.

For me, one key to my ability to be religious in the modern world is critical reading of texts. The idea that any text must be accepted unconditionally or that some dogmatic elements of religion are unquestionable is anathema to me. If I didn't feel that religion allowed me to ask any questions I want of anything I read or hear at any time, I wouldn't be able to consider myself religious.

The second half of the show was more about her struggles once she abandoned the idea of practicing the Catholicism with which she was raised. She thought she might find God in nature, or in Tibet, or in New Age spirituality. Each place she looked ended up raising more questions than it answered. In the end, she studied science and found truth there. In finding truth in science, she decided that she had to reject God. That's a vast oversimplification of one woman's admirable search for a truth that she could live with, but since this is my blog, I get to do that. Towards the end, she referenced Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. I think she said that because spiritual feelings or experiences light up the same region of the brain as extra-terrestrial experiences, and because the mind "resides" in the brain and is composed of mere electrical impulses that trigger cells to release various neurotransmitters, somehow that shows that God isn't real or that the soul isn't real.

(That doesn't make much sense to me. The soul may be what we call the experience of all those neurotransmitters being released, or the collective whole of what the mind produces. It's like saying emotions aren't real because all they are is chemical concoctions of the brain. Yes, they are, but so what?)

I don't know if God is real or isn't real. I chose to believe in God and that makes God real to me. I would say that I chose to live my life as if God exists and that makes God real to me, but I'm not sure what I consider the most essential aspects of my life would look that different if I chose not to believe in God. So we'll say that the belief, rather than any particular actions, make God real to me.

Who is this God? What is this God? I don't know if God is a supreme Being who anthropomorphically fashioned a universe out of nothing, or if God is a collective term we use to describe that which we can't understand about the world in which we live. Maybe God is some part of my unconscious mind that looks out for my welfare, even (or especially) when my conscious mind seems hell-bent on destroying me. It is not inconceivable to me that God exists solely within me, within the firing neurons in my brain, and that when we speak about God, we each speak about our individual conceptions of God. (Really, what choice do we have? Whenever we speak about religion from a personal perspective, we can only speak from our own experiences.)

Choosing to believe in God--whatever form or non-form this God may take--provides benefits without which life would be more difficult, and I don't see a problem with choosing to believe in something that makes life more livable. From my perspective, life is hard enough as it is, without a self-dictated need to only believe in things that can be empirically proven.

Am I deluding myself? Maybe, but that's part of how we all make it through life. We choose to believe things that we don't have empirical evidence for all the time. The more entangled our lives are with those of other people, the more unprovable (and even unlikely) things we believe. I choose to believe in God.
Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." --Alice in Wonderland

5 comments:

AT said...

RE laughter: If a dog says "woof," and a cat says "meow," and a horse says "neigh," and a cow says "moo," what sound does a human make? Answer: We laugh and we cry. Even as babies, before we can speak. Laughing and crying are the built-in sounds humans instinctively make. (I heard this on NPR once. Thought it was a cool idea.)

Anonymous said...

I had a couple comments on your feelings toward biblical history first off noah becoming drunk and passing out is uplifting to me because it shows that even God's most respectable followers slip up sometimes we are all sinners but it also tells of his son looking at him while he was naked and being repramanded for it which goes back to moral issues, 2 wrongs don't make a right. next Lot offered his virgin daughters as rape victims instead of the crowd wanting to rape God's angels the angels were there to pass judgement on the town and Lot was trying to help them but that wasn't the point the point was that the town was destroyed because the men wanted to rape other men now I'm not an expert on the bible and I'm not real sure about the reasoning behind his daughters wanting to rape him as far as Abraham is concerned I wish my faith was as deep as his He was willing to sacrifice (not slaughter) his only son in the name of the Lord God only wanted to see if he was willing He didn't really want him to kill his son. You should be thankful that he did because if there weren't people like Abraham and Noah in the world God would have wiped us out a long time ago!!! But on a good note you do have some kind of belief that there is a God or else these things would not bother you so much and I notice that you only commented on Genesis which leads me to believe that you didn't make it passed there try reading matthew mark or luke it's so much more inspirational and gives you a better understanding of why they did these things

David said...

re: Finding Jesus above - I recommend more punctuation. Also, most Jews prefer to comment on the Hebrew bible instead of the Christian one. Just sayin'

re: your post, I agree that the descriptions of the Patriarchs as flawed individuals is profound - I personally believe that the Akedah was a test which Abraham failed: he was willing to commit the same type of horror which the local pagans regularly did (killing his child because a Heavenly voice told him to do so).

I'm of the opinion that we have all of the rules of the Torah because of this: once God had decided that He was going to use Abraham's children to teach the world monotheism, he had to see whether they would intuitively "get it." Clearly Abraham didn't, and thus, God knew that all the rest of us (who didn't talk to him on a one-to-one basis) would need very, very clear and precise instructions.

I also agree with reading the texts critically: there are principles of faith, but every system has its postulates, and those principles are things which provide the structure into which the texts are placed so that they can instruct us on how to live our lives in the service of God.

Elie said...

The Binding of Isaac is indeed a difficult passage, and its meaning and lesson are understood in many different ways, even by traditional Jewish commentators. Under some interpretations, it not only comes out "more palatable", but unfolds as a profound and beautiful story. See this post of mine from last year for one view.

Her Bad Mother said...

I totally, 100% agree that the key to having faith in contemporary life is embedding that faith in critical understanding - if that's not a contradiction in terms, which I don't think it is. That is, by approaching our own faith (and the source of our faith) critically and thoughtfully.

I sometimes, in my modern philosophy classes, teach Rousseau's retelling of the last few chapters of the Book of Judges, in which there is much grisly violence (rape, mutilation), and my students are always alarmed at Rousseau's claim that his treatment of that story demonstrates the gentleness and goodness of his soul - I explain that what *I* think he means is that he has shown how it is possible to see through the violence of the story - to read it critically - to see the force of love and community and the possibility of reconciliation.