For the past few days, I’ve been pondering this idea of an Artificial God. To give a bit of background, this idea comes from a speech by Douglas Adams in 1998. Here is the link to a transcript.
The basic idea is that some concepts, though clear products of the imagination, and as not-real as, well, money, have a definite impact and a definite meaning to us. Money, and the entire system of transacting these pieces of paper–or better, sliding a plastic card through a little device–forms the very real underpinnings of our civilization. So much so that we’d doubtless drop back 100,000 years if the whole system collapsed. Having it in place though has allowed unprecedented advances in art, technology and science to happen. Shakespeare, Heinlein, Apollo 11, the Empire State Building, John Ford, Richard Dawkins, the Beatles, all these people and their works, and so many tangible things exist because at its heart, our civilization depends on a largely imaginary concept, and evolved from that and around that. It allowed the species to delve into philosophy, science, music, learning, in a way impossible otherwise.
The same can be said for God. God as a concept. God as principal creator as envisioned by a species of tool-makers and creators. Such a concept is strictly a product of the human imagination–make no mistake, Douglas Adams was very much an atheist and found the other way of thinking a bit silly. But he saw the need some may have for such crutches, hence his extemporaneous speech.
This comes to mind as I read a book by Becky Garrison called Jesus Died For This? To be certain, I am not her target audience–her disparaging references to the New Atheists are eye-rollingly typical of Christians. Also, her interludes of trying to commune with the spirits of St. Brigid and St. Kevin while travelling in Ireland do read like flights of fancy. However, she is trying to find something authentic and, well, “real” to her–the “risen Christ.”
I can identify with this. I did the same thing for a short time some years back. I was never a born-again Christian. That would be impossible because I don’t believe in the resurrection as an actual historic event. I believe my description of such a thing would be “highly fucking unlikely.” I cannot be a Christian for that reason right there. Also I cannot countenance–let alone actually believe–in the notion of Biblical literalness or (chuckle) infallibility. That I would describe as “bullshit.”
I do love the English language.
So how could I possibly identify with an avowed Christian like that?
Why, the search for authenticity of course. The search for capital-tee Truth. For Garrison it is the search for the “risen Christ.” For me it was just trying to find a way to reconcile my Catholic upbringing with my travels through Zen and the findings of science. The Truth was there somewhere.
Perhaps it was in a more metaphoric reading of the Bible. A reading filtered through human nature and Buddhist thought. The connections between Jesus and Buddha were explored by Thich Nhat Hanh, and I commend you to his teachings.
Trouble with that was, of course, the schitzophrenic nature of God in the old versus new testaments. Not to mention the contradictory views of Jesus in the four gospels. I am not talking Rashomon-style point-of-view errors, I am talking about the sort of depictions that can only come from four separate traditions based on one story, what we call the Gospel of Mark.
So suffice to say there was some serious cherry-picking done by yours truly. In fact, except for Ecclesiastes and Mark (and maybe Romans), the rest of the Bible is completely useless, even as a metaphoric guide to human behavior. Complete and utter shit.
But of course, what all that inspired over the last two millennia! Ah yes, the art and music! Yeah, not all bad, and should each and all be considered on their own merits, and owing to that other imaginary concept, money. Excess time and excess money and someone’s devotion can produce amazing art.
And that is the Truth right there, isn’t it? Devotion. Inspiration. Even the word speaks of the “cool breeze” of the Jesus Sutras. Spiritus Sanctus. Sacred breath, sacred wind. (watch which hole it’s coming out!) Inspiration is the heart of creativity, whatever that inspiration might be. Some of my material in Turboblues comes from the time when I took inspiration from my cherry-picked vision of God. Even at my most starry-eyed though, I knew it was the product of a powerful (albeit sleep-deprived) imagination. God as love, love as the product of devotion, or through the power of sex, sex as the timeless yet long-lost union with the divine. Ikkyu called his brand of lust-infused Zen “red-thread.” It’s the less imaginative, the less daring, the simple-minded, who conflate lust with something bad. Lust is what it is. Used well, it can bring you to quite tangible, almost divine bliss. Used poorly, well, you might understand Hell as it truly is. Hell’s not a place, though I have been there through misused lust.
In any case, that way of thinking, that circular and circuitous route to and through an imaginary god, had to stop. It was the product of a powerful imagination and a lot of thinking. And lack of sleep.
So bring this back to Artificial God, why doncha!
I’m getting there.
Man has a peculiar ability to create, beyond mere problem solving. He creates tools and thinks of processes to solve problems, like how to kill food more efficiently, or to stay warm, or to eat better. He sees the lightning, hears the thunder, feels the wind and the sun, and comprehends this according to terms he understands: Hierarchy. Pecking order. Leadership. Something that makes such mighty forces must be an entity greater than himself. And these things must be “made” by someone, else how did they come to be?
So he combines all this into something he calls, well, one of the billion names of God. Every tribe had its personal name for this being, and make no mistake, it was a human being, only amplified a thousandfold. Fallible, emotional, petty, just like humans. They create totems, symbols, icons, to signify their god, and invent amazing stories to entertain themselves, because this creation of theirs inspired them. In time, as generations picked up, made sense and made use of the concept, it became an institution which was itself picked up and used and understood in differing ways.
Fast-forward through the ages, and God becomes less real, more idealized. More abstract. Terms like infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent become used to describe the god we call God. The world of phenomenon known to the ancients gives way to a world described by something called the Scientific Method. The world this method describes is one of simple processes which, when writ large and repeatedly, shows enormous complexity. Even to the point where a simpler mind would intuit a designer. The ancient concepts die hard, and the world as it truly exists (like, say, at the quantum level) is one that is foreign to our thinking.
Douglas Adams posited an Artificial God as a way of inspiring creative thought while something enormously better becomes more well known. Richard Dawkins wrote a wonderful book on that something better called Unweaving The Rainbow, and I fully commend that book to you as well.
Unconsciously, those who search for a Theory of Everything follow the same path to the divine. Their search may one day bear fruit, and it may not. The Artificial God of their understanding inspires them to push back the darkness, but it is definitely an artifice, and they do not pretend otherwise.
The god of my understanding was always an artificial one and try as I might, I could not pretend otherwise either. But I do love the work I got out of it.