journey post 20: Learning to think about what God is like
There is something to be said for the life of the genuinely poor, those who live in the so-called “third world.” I know something about this; we lived eight years in a small village (pop. ±100) in West Africa, where people lived in family compounds and earned an average annual income of $300. Life was tough, and life expectancy was about 30 years (though, if you lived past seven, you’d likely make it to 60 or 70). Houses were produced from the land, so one always had a home and family to go to, a place to eat, sleep, work, die. Crops were generally good, and the purpose and use of every plant around was known.
A typical village like what we lived in
Time without clocks is cyclical, regulated by sun and seasons. There was time, when work was done and between seasons, for talk and play, for thinking and remembering. Stories, traditions, values were passed on by fire and moonlight. A pre-literate society doesn’t store memory on paper … it is always there, ready to pass on. Being poor did not lead to despair. We call being poor “poverty” for those living within a consumer society of overabundance. It was not that these people didn’t ever feel stuck, or couldn’t dream or be envious. Being poor was just normal life. Worry about someone pulling the plug or the effects of technology on attention-span is for us in the West. Time was always there for processing life and for ruminating on big questions. Time allowed for curiosity, creativity, innovation, and making do—which was survival.
Don’t imagine for a moment I’m trying to paint a romantic picture of the poor primitive life. I would not trade my life in America for it—but there are important lessons for us to consider about it.
I grew up in Los Angeles, where city light kept us from seeing many stars and the smog covered most of the rest. Whenever I got away to the mountains, the night sky took my breath away. The African sky is packed with stars that nearly touch…. Such majestic beauty as that has long been contemplated by the little people who live in this land we call earth. What is up there? An Emerald City, a great wizard?…. Among the Manjako, he was “Nasien-batsi,” the “chief of the sky,” (a deistic version of creator), and he was a frequent topic when there was time. What was he* like? Did he bless a select few but leave Black people to worry and fear the local gods and spirits, the ancestors, magic, and witchcraft?
Short of some direct revelation, people have wondered about this “Chief of the Sky,” or whatever you call him, since the beginning. Is he good? Bad? Beyond good and evil? Are there good and bad gods (a very common belief in the world), engaged in an eternal tug of war with humans caught in the middle?
I appreciate C.S. Lewis: he makes me think. His little volume, Mere Christianity, which I read in 1970 and am rereading now, helps us think about the possibilities of God. Lewis doesn’t make authoritative pronouncements, rather, he has too much respect for his fellow mortals and their intelligence. His book has this message between the lines: “The creator gave you a brain: use it. It will tell you much about him.” He warns us not to read into it our own version of the Christian God (as I did in 1970, to my great regret).
Lewis says there are two viewpoints about ultimate reality: a materialist view and a religious-type view. Either everything came about with no purpose or meaning attached—it just is—or something was behind it, some personal being or non-personal life-force. Lewis doesn’t try to sucker-punch us into Christianity. He won’t get into the creation-evolution debate, nor does he allow us to assume that science can solve the question of origins or meaning. Science is based on our curiosity and creativity and innovation and making do, and it has advanced us greatly. When science does its job, it describes what is, what may have happened or may come, but little else.
How, then, can we hope to answer questions about origins or meaning—or God? According to Lewis, we have two clues. One is the universe itself. It shows us power and complexity and beauty and artistry; it is also horrifically dangerous. If there is a creator, then these descriptors are certainly linked to him. However, these descriptors only give an outsider perspective. They do not yield meaning or motivation. This is akin to watching a man all day long while never knowing why he does anything.
The other clue provides an insider view, Lewis says. This other clue is the “law of human nature” or “moral law” written upon the conscience of humanity. It is the one thing in all existence that can give us some understanding, if only we think, about what matters to the creator and what he is like. Just as we listen to a man’s conversation and understand what is important to him, when we listen to our conscience it is like listening in to the conversation of God, so to speak, as he tells us what he is concerned about, what matters. This is precisely what conscience does. Such knowledge does not necessitate some special revelation.**
Conscience tells us, for example, that this Being is much concerned with right and wrong in how we treat one another, i.e., about goodness, justice, and evil. Yet, interestingly enough, as Lewis points out, it cannot reveal to us whether this creator is “good” in the way we might want: it will not tell us whether such a being is merciful or forgiving, that he will let us off when we go wrong. All we can conclude is that, if right and wrong is important to this “God,” then what happens when we are wrong? (Keep in mind that we’re looking at the visible creation and the conscience inside our own heads. We have not yet arrived at any specific version of God.) If justice is important to this God, where does that leave us? We have cause for fear, “great unease” as I mentioned elsewhere. This is not a very comforting conclusion. If this God is truly just, as we suspect, the there must be an accounting….
Returning to the poor and the point about time and thinking about God, Nasien-batsi, or whatever. With all our advances in technology, we have largely succeeded in crowding our lives with mental busyness—the tyranny of the urgent. We may not be poor in material wealth, but we may have created our own poverty by denying ourselves the blessing of time to think about things that matter. What have we lost?
*I use traditional “he” here to avoid the cumbersome “he-she-it.”
** Readers may note a similarity here with Paul’s letter to the Romans, in the New Testament, where he writes about creation (the universe) and a law written upon the heart, leading conscience to tell us about God’s power, divine nature, and what he expects.