by Fred Zackel
A pride of lions in the night is Chaos. Out of Chaos comes Order.
So … In God We Trust.
That makes a nice bumper sticker. There is more, of course, that cascades from that turning point in our evolution.
For example, what we triggered by imagining the Divine might be our way of saying we imagine that we’re getting noticed by the Cosmos. American naturalist writer Stephen Crane (1871-1900) wrote the following doggerel:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
That being the case, we humans invented God. Or the gods. Or the Goddess. As a night light.
I imagined you, God. You are a palimpsest of all the imagery my ancestors and family and culture could have imagined before me that they all slathered onto me like butter on bread.
The Divine is evolutionary technology. A weapon. Or a tool.
Being Human, we “imagineered” our Divines, all of them, to be extensions of us. To be solutions to our desperate straits.
As a sidebar, imagining the Divine validates us. We become real players by being seen by the Divine. I have self-esteem because You see Me, Lord. That this conceit is so one-sided, so vain, well, why should that be a problem? After all, I know YOU see ME. (Even better it’s great that YOU don’t put me on the spot except through my imagination.)
The world assaults me. Hell is other people.
But “In God We Trust” is printed on the Almighty Dollar.
We are creatures of the Herd. I am a social creature. I network. Without the Herd, we are lost in the white noise of our own tumbling thoughts. We are lost in our solitude.
Being Human, we suffer from chronic loneliness. Comes from being up an acacia tree on the beige savannah listening to our kin being eaten by lions and hyenas in the night, I suspect.
I always wondered how much of our imagination grew out of us being omnivores and not carnivores for all those millennia on the beige savannah. After all, omnivores have imagination. When you can eat anything, the possibilities are endless. And doubt and fear hold hands like children lost.
Solitude is dark. Being Human, we are scared of the dark. The beige savannah at night was always filled with monsters that could see and smell us. Hyenas, for instance. Human hairs were recovered from a 200,000-year-old clump of hyena dung found in Gladysvale cave, South Africa. Hyenas have the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom. By the way, listen closely tonight. Hyenas signal each other with what most observers say sounds like an asthma attack.
Death comes like a cough in the night.
A lioness hidden in the long grass selects her target, leaps, attacks and kills a zebra, her sharp teeth crushing its windpipe as the animal is hauled squealing and suffocating to the ground. Then the lioness does not move: the impassive brutality of the carnivore. Stare into the lioness’ eyes: the impassive patience of the carnivore. (The abyss looks back at us.) She waits to dine. She has plenty of time until death comes.
In mid-November 2007, in the Maralal safari area north-east of Nairobi, Moses Lekalau, a thirty-five year old Kenyan herdsman, was jumped by a lion. He fought off the beast and killed it with a spear in a grueling half-hour long battle. But then, the poor man exhausted from his efforts, died after being attacked by a pack of hyenas. Wildlife experts point out that it is very rare for hyenas to attack people; hyenas eat leftovers from other predators. Mister Lekala was one such leftover.
Want some good advice? The kind of advice that has helped you and me and our species survive the past four or five million years? In the dark when you can see eyes winking at you, it’s time to fight or flee.
But I may be barking up the wrong tree.
Solitude is not part of the Herd. We have been culled, you and I, even if we did it to ourselves. Even if we took it up ourselves to move away from safety and security. That we did it to ourselves will not help us. Being alone drifts into loneliness and sometimes into fear.
The Book of Job says, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
At this instant, the abyss lies inside us. I am human; see me fear.
The Terror is the anonymity that comes with the abyss.
As a species, we saw our faces reflected in the waterhole and realized that we stood apart from the Great Scheme of Things. We were sentients aware of ourselves. We had a Theory of Mind, and we saw our own mortality and were scared shitless.
One sinister word for it, “abyss” — which comes from the Greek, “a” or “without” and “byssos” or “bottom” – lets us imagine a horrific image that perfectly evokes the dark infinities and the primal chaos.
The abyss is mesmerizing, and we do love being mesmerized.
The abyss suggests we all have an appointment in Samara, or rather, an appointment with despair, the goddess of empty rooms. The abyss is about death.
Who among us wants to face it?
Wanting to face death, well, you must be a refugee from something worse, right? And that’s your life. Something worse is … being alive. We must sympathize with our suicides.
Being human, we love being in control. Being human, we love being competent. The abyss threatens both illusions. Chaos is uncertainty, volatility and anxiety … and fear.
Anomie & chaos hold hands; they are enraptured of each other.
The uncertainty of an afterlife creates anxiety. I don’t want to die! What will happen to me? What we Christians call Original Sin is probably predicated by our Original Fear of Death.
Save us, we beg the Immortal Divine.
But no one returns from the Undiscovered Country.
Trust God on this one, okay?
For that reason alone, we need to have imagined a conscious being to have created us for His (?) Purposes. (You mean, for Our Purposes?) Either way, the alternatives are frightening to contemplate; they give us vertigo, as if we stood at a great height with a stiff wind at our backs over an never-ending abyss. Who will protect us?
In ancient Egypt, the Cosmic “order” is “maat.” Notice that these ancient gods care about the weight of the soul versus the weight of a feather. Yet this concept was not unique to the ancients. When the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo was alive, most Christians believed that Saint Michael the Archangel holds the scales that weigh the soul after death. He is the bridge between Life and the Afterlife.
Be amazed! Be astonished! The gods care about US. Astonishing, isn’t it, that with the entire cosmos as their bailiwick — a hundred billion galaxies! — the gods worry about the weight of our miserable souls. Not all the human souls combined into a gigantic blog, but each individual soul individually.
The Gods care about us on a one-to-one basis.
We’re so vain that we probably think this cosmos is about us.
The Ugarit god of chaos was Mot, or more formally, Mot-and-Shar, aka “death and the prince,” which was an in-joke among the Canaanites (aka the Ugarites) that had a multiple of meanings, including Death and the Prince of Dissolution or maybe Death and the Prince of Evil. (Death has a sidekick, a Doctor Watson to chronicle his adventures …? Hmm.)
When folks back then were feeling ironic, or maybe paranoid about the future, Mot got called “the beloved one,” which oozes more with resignation and outright begging than with the audacity of hope. Generally speaking, Mot served a lot of community needs. He was the god of sterility, death, and the underworld. In one hand he holds the scepter of bereavement, and in the other the scepter of widowhood. His jaws and throat are described in cosmic proportions and serve as a euphemism for death.
The Jaws of Death, eh? Hmm, I’ve heard that one before.
As far as most humans see it, the greatest battlefield is between Chaos and Order. As long as people go to work together, today there will be no revolution. (The Herd is a Cosmic Force, too. When the Herd is restless with too many obsolete ideas, it can stampede into revolution at the slightest noise. See Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria … Scotland?)
OTOH, human beings are basically lazy. This is not said in the derogative. Once we get past survival and the sexual replication of ourselves, we should enjoy life. Ordinary life is supposed to drift by. That’s what our ancestors for the past four or five million years dreamed about and prayed for sitting on ther branches of an acacia tree. They would treasure that we take all their hard work and sacrifice for granted.
We treasure continuity. Even in our courts, where what the higher courts call “stare decisis” means “let the decision stand.”
U. S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis in his most famous dissent with the Court said in “Olmstead vs. U.S.” that the original framers of our Constitution “conferred, as against the government, the right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized man.”
Give me a break. I vant to be alone.
But being lazy is also being passive.
Complacency is a biological luxury, mostly. Sloths pull it off with classic panache. That a sloth can grow moss on its belly from upside-down inactivity haunts me, I admit. With a mossy belly, even I would feel guilty. Oh, I can get over it in time …
We avoid choices. We vote for the incumbent. We never question the faith of our fathers. (Abraham did question the faith of his fathers; look where it got him. At the age of 99, he prowls the tribal tents at night, a bloody flint knife in hand, an old man bleeding at the crotch, looking for new converts to his new monotheism. A blood-drenched lunatic, Abraham became the common root of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Why do I have so much trouble with him? Why is he so terrifying?)
Being basically lazy and passive, we accept the default choice.
We do not like to take matters into our own hands. We do not like to change our behaviors. Inertia then dictates our behavior. We stay the course.
We thus take things for granted and assume somebody else will keep the machinery maintained for our listening enjoyment.
We have income tax deductions taken from our paychecks. We have social security taken from our paychecks. We want to be automatically enrolled in that Radically New System that Improves Our Lives without us asking for or filling out an application. We don’t want a federal health care program because it might fuck with our Medicare.
A lot can be said for paternalism.
Our Father up in Heaven … Love Me!
Yet the cosmos is not intrinsically random. The mechanisms replicate themselves in regular ways. The fluctuations themselves are random; the rules, once triggered randomly, then seem to work in orderly ways. In evolution, for instance, natural selection, sexual selection, mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, all contribute to these changes in human beings. Some triggers are infinitesimal in what changes happen, while others occur on a gargantuan scale. Some are successful, while others produce dead ends.
Serendipity is a goddess. She brings Order to Chaos. Same as her sister Entropy.
The abyss is inside us. It is not external. It is the fear that death brings nothingness. The Divine helps us keep the abyss at bay. The Divine is our imaginary friend. We imagined the Divine so we could cope with solitude. We crave solace, even if it’s deferred. Even if it’s denied, we will forgive Him.
Solitude is unsettling. Panic-inducing sometimes, too. Look around. What do you hear? Silence. Well, Silence is not sensory deprivation. But being human we don’t think so. Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”
We cry out, “I can talk to God in the silence.” Hear my echoes through the empty rooms. We imagine the Divine as our companion in order to have our fear of solitude dissipate. Be quiet! I am listening to God.
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death … I am not alone. Hey, I can get the Divine to walk with me; the Divine is my bodyguard, my safety, my security. Watch me. Please watch over me, Oh Lord.
I hate being alone. Sensory deprivation is too close to being thrown into the abyss.
As the fear fades, we may abandon our fears and gain a sense of frustration at how the Cosmos ignores our little bleats. Which brings us back to Stephen Crane. (See above.)
We are made in the image of God. We are a mirror’s reflection of Him. He looks at us to see Himself acting. Without us, He wouldn’t know who He is. We made Him who He is.
Our hostility is often incoherent. Infuriating, isn’t it, the Silence of the Divine?
Consciousness is ultimately personal; to paraphrase the British author Ian McEwan, we enjoy contemplating our brain. Consciousness when viewed from inside feels like a Las Vegas neon sign in the desert twilight: it feels brighter than it is. Consciousness lives within the bell jars of our skulls; we think more of it shines out than actually does. That may be why I treasure the time alone with my thoughts. (Cell phones were made to interrupt us, to distract us from being alone with our thoughts. Quick! Throw them out of your car!)
Some of us shine and light up the night. After her tragic death from skiing in March, 2009, film scholar David Kipen said: “(Tony Award-winning actress Natasha) Richardson radiated intelligence in everything she did.”
Let us ruminate over that notion: she “radiated intelligence.”
In terms of our species, is there any better epitaph?
We can be seen from Space also means we have usurped the Divine. We have his vantage point on ourselves. (Better than looking in a mirror, eh, Bunky?) Another reason what that Apollo 8 photograph of the blue and white ball of earth floating in black space is so wonderful. Us looking at ourselves; our first step into stellar narcissism.
The Apollo 8 photo is our largest mirror. Our greatest self-portrait. What comes second is our footsteps in the moon dust.
Our computers have lengthened our central nervous systems. Now we can reach out anywhere and touch everything, even if anything and everything are actually only virtually here and now. As we grow more global, as we evolve, will the Divine be more virtual yet more personal?
What god will we dream up next?
Boredom is the downside of having nothing to do. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. I need stimulation. No, I cannot sit still. We are not yet adults in this Cosmos. Arrgghh!
On the beige savannah, part of me is always on alert for the beige lion moving through the swaying grasses. (No kidding, beige savannah is the most popular interior house paint in the world Four, maybe three million years we lived there. I live in my living room. I have a tan sofa and matching armchairs. We want the savannah still; it was our species’ Garden of Eden, after all. Perhaps that’s why we always want a white ceiling, when a sky-blue one might be more cheery.)
The supernatural overwhelms the rational, and the abyss is the chasm between them. But where the hell is the bridge? Oh, it’s there, just invisible, as if this were an Indiana Jones movie. Faith is the Bridge. Just sprinkle the sand and then step off. Faith helps us walk the bridge we cannot see. We are the bridge; the bridge lies inside us.
Without faith, without belief, we feel the phantom pains of the amputee. We know something is missing, but maybe not what it is. We have lost our grip, His hand to hold, our tool, our weapon against the Long Cold Night. We cannot walk that bridge so well.
We would fall forever. The abyss is bottomless.
But let me quote William James' almost infamous definition of religion in “The Varieties of Religious Experience”: “Religion … shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.”
Wrestling with God is deciphering the mind of God.
Let us also tell ourselves that wrestling with God is searching our hearts for wisdom and the courage to go it alone without Him. Without a night light.