Saturday, October 21, 2006


When I discovered science-fiction about 1950 or so, science-fiction was just discovering itself. My first taste was Heinlein’s “Red Planet Earth,” which clearly impressed George Lucas quite a bit -- it surfaces in “Star Wars.” For instance, there’s a lot of echo between R2D2 and Willis, the furry basketball with the hidden capacities of a Swiss army knife. For Darrell Kipp “Stranger in a Strange Land” was and remains an accurate description of what it means to be Blackfeet.

No doubt science fiction of that kind was prompted by awareness of other cultures, heightened by warfare, anthropology, art and psychoanalysts. It was the Korean War and we found our opponents entirely too inscrutable. We thought about “brain-washing” and the loss of identity. At home we all tried to be the good God-fearing, hard-working citizens who deserved to win WWII, but around the edges we were aware that there was much we didn’t understand. More frightening, maybe some things that were totally beyond understanding. Sci-fi was a narrative way of doing philosophy about the nature of reality. I suppose it has roots in Gulliver’s Travels -- hard to avoid the satirical element.

Such strong currents in a culture don’t just go away. They go deeper and transform. I’m thinking about this issue because of the great wave of political books we’ve just had, and how they have suddenly been replaced by religious books. This is not the opening up to Eastern religions of the Aquarian Age which seems to have regularized now, safely anchored in ashrams and public personalities.

Now we must understand Islam, our alien sibling, one that is far more dangerous because it is more like us, raised in the same household but the one who took after the other parent, not the parent who sheltered and nourished us. This discussion is not going to be outside the God-box, not going to be distracted by nonsense about a Mother-god. We’re not talking about God-is-love. We’re talking about Big-Time, Father, I’m-the-Decider God, partly because this is clearly what the Bushes have been about. (Interesting that Bush the Sister/Daughter has now written a sort of marginal or bridge book.) There’s something psychoanalytical in here about whether Barbara Bush isn’t the real “father” of George II, but I think I’ll leave that alone.

Still, it does hint at the question that seems to be obsessing many blogs and books: IS THERE ANY GOD AT ALL? This doesn’t allow for any Buddhist double-talk about whether there is existence. In Jim Holt’s review of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” in the October 22 issue of the NYTimes Book Review, he uses the Tillich-ian phrase “the ground of being” in passing, without even quotes, as though it were just another description of God with no meaning, knocking aside Tillich’s ingenious solution to Being/Not Being by inventing a pre-existing “ground” that includes both. These guys are not to be distracted. Okay, they’ll accept the Big Bang, but what was before THAT?

Neither will they accept personal, subjective, emotional perception of God. They demand to know whether this “God” who has supposedly been underpinning our very nation is just a delusion and, if not, why the hell have we been deluded into believing Him? And if He’s not there, what is any of it worth anyway? They seem a little jealous of the Islamic certitude that Allah IS there.

These writers need to have read more sci-fi. They don’t have a lot of imagination about alternatives, which is why I appreciate Dawkins saying his book is “to raise consciousness.” Can there be a better use of religious OR scientific thought? Holt does a bit of straw-man reasoning, summarizing what he thinks Dawkins is saying and then knocking his lists down. He claims it all goes back to Bertrand Russell, who had a HUGE impact on my father, who never really converted his agricultural education (poetic and romantic) to a scientific world-view -- which left him needing the discipline of my “contentious Presbyterian” mother. He always had questions sticking out over the edge of his beliefs.

One of Dawkins/Holt’s wisecracks that I appreciated was that “there are very few atheists in prisons” (D.) to which Holt adds, “even fewer Unitarians, I’d wager.” Holt seems to have the idea that Unitarians are A-theists, in the sense of ANTI-theists rather than NON-theists. (One can play with this pattern quite a bit. I like PAN-theism, but since people seem to think that has something to do with Greek mythology and talking rocks, I like OMNI-theism even more: existence saturated with an immanent “god.”) But they are never terms that will get you out of the God Box. (Classic Unitarians had no quarrel with God -- they questioned the divinity of Jesus and the political formulation of the Trinity.)

Another Holt/Dawkins remark I like is the observation that “the biblical Yahweh is an ‘appalling role model.’” Not much of an improvement over Jupiter/Zeus. Vindictive, sexist, genocidal, violent. In fact, my big quarrel with fundamentalist Christians is that they are A-Jesus. They seem to totally ignore the New Testament and the Gospels, in spite of standing up to read them every Sunday. It’s as though they are unintentional Unitarians, rejecting Jesus as the New Word.

(On the other hand, I always chuckle when I remember some earnest Unitarian Sunday School teachers who were going to teach Bible stories. One of the tales turned out to be about rude kids who mocked a couple of prophets for being bald. The prophets caused bears to rush out of the woods and eat the kids. Wouldn’t Bush love to be able to call ravenous bears to come out of the woods? But maybe that’s what has happened in Iraq. It’s just that the bears turned out to be Islamic factions. They do eat the occasional journalist.)

Holt’s tie-off for his review made me giggle, as he quotes an authority my favorite PNWD Unitarian ministers used to love: “Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel ‘The Mackerel Plaza’: ‘It is the final proof of God’s omnipotentence that he need not exist in order to save us.’” Yes.

Bob Scriver used to say, “All you can do is the best you can do.” Yes. And it’s a helluva lot more than many of us are doing. We can do better than this for ourselves and others. If we just understood the others a little better.


Anonymous said...

Your quote from Bob Scriver brought me up short. I've frequently said that all I/we can do is what I/we can do. "The best" seems to have eluded me til now. Thanks for a thoughtful piece--all of the paragraphs, not just the last.
Cop Car

prairie mary said...

The problem, of course, is trying to figure out what "the best" really is. It's like that old man who wants a ride across the river on your back but keeps changing from one thing into another: a tiger, a child, a whirlwind, a bonfine, your mother...

Prairie Mary

The Emerson Avenger said...

Well Holt is partially right. Modern Unitarians aka Unitarian*Universalists aka U*Us have a wide variety of beliefs but the Unitarian "religious community" most certainly does include ANTI-theistic militant fundamentalist atheist "Humanists. This faction of U*Uism may be dying out but vocal anti-religious and anti-Christian disciples of Dawkins can and do many U*U congregations considerably less than welcoming to God believing people in general and Christians in particular.