The image of God, or of a supernatural being or beings somehow controlling the universe, must have entered the human brain very early in our history on this planet. Creationists and evolutionists and everyone in between, I think, can agree on this much: whether we think of primitive ape-like ancestors looking at the sunrise at the dawn of our existence, or Adam watching the sunset at the end of the sixth day of creation, the sense of wonder and awe at the machinations of the universe that humans experienced during the dawn of their existence created an impression on our consciousness that exists to this day.
We are curious creatures, we humans. We constantly ask questions and invent new tools and systems to find the answers. Consequently, the capacity to believe in God began the minute we asked, “What made all of this? How did we come into existence?” We may choose, in these cynical, existential times, not to believe in anything other than our own selves. Advances in science lead us to the understanding that everything came into existence by chance and coincidence. But the ability to imagine a force that created and unites everything in the universe still rests within us as part of our primitive conscience.
Right around this time, I think we must have discovered our capacity for a language that went beyond mere communication of danger or the location of food to our clan or tribe. It’s no coincidence that in the second Biblical story of creation, in Genesis 2, God charges both Eve and Adam to name the creatures of the earth. Once humans became conscious of their surroundings, they needed to have some kind of control over them, if only philosophically. Or, to put it another way, as John begins his gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”
So, add together our curiosity, our capacity for language and the visceral, emotional responses that natural world in all its manifestations produces within us, and it is not hard to conclude that humans are hard-wired to believe in some form of deity. (Whether we choose to do so, however, is a whole different question.)
It is here that God’s biography begins.
Don’t believe me? Then imagine yourself around a campfire, thousands upon thousands of years ago, joining your clan in an evening of feasting. A beast has been slaughtered, or the earth has been bountiful, and for this night at least, bellies are full and spirits are high. As nightfall comes on, the stars in all their magnificence shine in the firmament. A crescent moon hangs low in the sky, full of mystery and significance. Suddenly, an elder member of the clan begins telling a story, and you listen attentively as the tale unfolds. It is a tale about how the world came into being. You have heard it before, but you could hear it again and again. You stare heavenward, and in the stars you swear you can make out the giant figures who keep the universe in motion.
We love our stories. From Hollywood movies to Shakespeare’s plays to our favorite novels, we love to be entertained and immersed in worlds different from our own. But just because the beginning is a story doesn’t mean it is not true.
Far from it.
There is a saying, whose origins I am still trying to trace, that goes something like “The tale is true in the telling.” The spirit of that saying is that the ingenuity, the imagination that goes into the telling of a story, makes it true even if, factually speaking, it is not. Put another way, this is Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” that unspoken pact we make with ourselves every time we go to the theater or the movies that lets us buy into the plot even when we know that these are only actors on the stage or screen.
If this is so, then the old fundamentalist vs. interpretative argument about the correct way to understand religious scripture is, to quote Douglas Adams, a load of old dingo’s kidneys. Wondering whether God, or a particular character or event in the Bible, or any other scripture or myth for that matter, is factually true is missing the point. The truth is this: these stories exist because we needed, and still do need, stories to help us understand our lives and the world around us. And, I will argue later, even though science has cast doubt on the validity of these stories, we still need them, though we are at a point in our civilization where the stories need to be retold, reimagined or reinterpreted.
OK. That’s a good place to stop for now. Next time, I want to talk about where this all goes pear-shaped.