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The Amiable, Amenable “God”, and His Convenient Religions

On Sunday February 8, 1998, the BBC broadcast a half-hour program on religion and business, money and morality – “God and Mammon”. Interviews were done with various individuals involved in business: in London’s financial center, called “the City”; with a Jain businessman in India; with American Christian corporate consultants, manufacturers and businessmen, who made company decisions based on the Bible, or the Holy Spirit’s inspiration; with a Jewish, a Muslim, and a British-Buddhist businessman. I could only feel – after having studied religious history, theology, philosophy, etc., for more than two decades, in addition to especially observing religious life and practices in the USA and elsewhere – that “God” seems to be a truly amenable sort of Omnipotence.

God or Mammon?

A banker, a solicitor, a construction site foreman, a manufacturer, a businessman, an investor, and others, were all confidently convinced that “God” (except for the Buddhist, who substituted Nirvana) was on their side. (One thinks here of the wars in history, where each opposing side believed that “God” was with them, supporting their side.) Each of these individuals – even with their varied religious perspectives – had their own personally-satisfying interpretation of their religion, its doctrines and moral injunctions, etc.; and though their interpretative views differed at times, each of the interviewees had an understanding – a “theology” – which justified or supported what they were doing in business – it was “religiously correct”. There was not a single interviewee who said that “God and Mammon” were and are in contrast, or that their business practices were either selfish, merely pecuniary, a storing up of useless riches in this world, or of questionable morality in its competitiveness with other men and women of Mankind. The Jain businessman, who was driving a new BMW, had a cellular telephone, a big house, etc., when asked specifically how he understood the relation of his obvious material wealth and his religious beliefs, described how one must not be attached to worldly goods. He had them aplenty – but as he claimed to “be detached”, in his own comfortable view of Jainism, he did not violate his beliefs, or offend its view of “God”. For several American Christian businessmen interviewed, religion, God, “Jesus the Lord”, and such, meant a good working moral ethic in business practices, good treatment of their employees, and so on. Now some of this is laudable and predictable; some tendentious; some implausible and seemingly self-serving. But to me it all seemed rather self-deceiving, in an ultimate sense that is, and in a way that goes to the heart of the human condition – materially and spiritually. What these businessmen said was, most, all quite standard and unsurprising – this program and its comments were not some great religious or historical event in the history of Mankind! Basically it was a rather safe, predictable program. (Islamic radicals – Taliban and the Algerian killers, et al – show the extremes to which religion and “God” can go. One of the Algerian militants is reported to have said: We are among those, who slaughter in the name of God).

And benevolent and bourgeois as this BBC program was, it struck me – having listened to such programs now for more than two decades – as in fact shallow, and self-serving. Whether there is some ultimate God; whatever are His/ Her/Its (politically correct!) characteristics; to what degree the various religions provide insight and knowledge of “God” (or Nirvana); whatever actual relation “God” has to the interviewed individual banker, solicitor, manufacturer, and so on, and their varying views of “God and Mammon” – there was something fundamentally false about their comfortable relations to religion, “God”, morality, and money. Whatever “God” is really like; I believe it is an illusion (though likely a necessary one), a self-justifying deception, to imagine that we in our time can speak about “God” in such ways – even with the aid of the texts of the various “religions” of the world.

Were someone – who was not a scientist, and who had not made any special study of the subject – to speak about, say, chemistry, molecular biology, sub-nucleic physics, with as much interpretive liberty as these interviewees spoke about the Omnipotent Almighty God, who is said to have created the Universe, they would be considered quacks, madmen, or fools. Science requires facts, and while “God” has his religions, with their divine texts, nonetheless the businessmen’s interpretations seemed too easy – even fanciful. It was all too flat, too convenient, too comfortable and comforting – too human, and (in this program) too businesslike. Necessary as such beliefs probably are for individual and collective sanity and society, they still seemed to me to be quite illusory. Whatever God’s ultimate status may be, I don’t believe such casual radio commentaries are serious, when they are so convenient and unchallenging to our time and life. It would be more honest to say that we hope there is a God; that we pray that there IS a God; rather than to make all of the various human claims (that are made to other men) about “God”, and His/Her/Its wishes, character, and plans for humanity. (The word prayer is related to the German word fragen, which means to ask a question.)

Now these human mental self-deceptions are, as I see them, probably absolutely necessary for the various nations’ and cultures’ social orders. Probably most men and women in any society or culture are more or less like children, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually. And as a child is not fully conscious, nor clear about the realities of themselves or the world, living in imaginations, fantasies, ideals, dreams, etc., so most people (“adults” of whatever years of age) seem not only to need “God” and religion to justify and give meaning and morality to their lives, but also to live in a bit of a dreamy fantasy as to the veracity and reality of their beliefs. How in the world – as the formulaic expression goes in American English – do these people imagine they can make claims about “God”?

It is sometimes astonishing to hear what some men will say and claim of “God” – on American television, for example. Such people speak as if the “Enlightenment” has never occurred in Western History. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in a private letter to John Adams on August 22, 1813 touching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

“It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that there are one and one is three; and yet the one is not three, and the three is not one,...”

“God” (or Nirvana) is most often what the individual, the group, the social class, the religion (or sect, or denomination) need. The majority of people I have met or observed over the years, who are “believers” – “religious”, seem to need “God” (even if “God” is really more just an unconscious reflection of themselves). Indeed, few people or societies can probably live well, healthily, or long, without some ultimate meaning, for mankind requires meaning to live (both man and meaning stem in the Indo-European root mens – to think) – even if that is a belief in the future Utopia of communism, the happiness believed to belong to the realized “American Dream”, or the Islamic heavenly paradise, the Christian “New Jerusalem”,...

The human being – I can only agree with the many writers, philosophers and social observers who have said this before over the past centuries – is a strange, ambiguous creature. Stable, at times; silly and/or stupid much of the rest. To hear these interviewees speak of ‘God” and the various religions, one would think that He/She/It were some benevolent grandfather who lived somewhere upstairs, retired and slightly senescent, and for whom the younger human creature could speak and report to humanity in just about anyway they wished. (Is “God”, since Creation, off sleeping somewhere? See American Reflections, in English, No. 31, August, 1996.) Of course, there are various letters, notes, messages and communiqués from the Omnipotence upstairs, by interpreting which men and women seem to be able to justify just about anything. (Taliban, Algerians, businessmen), and since the Old Man upstairs seems nowadays to speak rarely, many men and women reveal themselves happy to speak for him. This all seems to me to be human folly, nonsense and exaggeration – whether it is the very popular television preachers in the USA, or business on the BBC.

John Adams, Second US President, and a serious and deeply well-read student of religion and theology for more than five decades of his life, wrote towards the end of his life to Thomas Jefferson on April 19, 1817:

“Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no Religion in it’. . . . [But] without Religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.”

And it is for similar reasons that I see the religions, the religious (and their many surrogates, such as sports, hobbies, political causes, etc.) as necessary. Most religious life today says a great deal – when it attempts to speak about “God” – about Mankind (in his various traditions, cultures, religions, sects, social classes, job positions, personal perspectives, etc.)

Listening to the BBC’s program on “God and Mammon”, religion, morality and business, I tend to exclaim, this is human self-delusion, and exaggeration, self-consolation, mental mirroring for human meaning. Let us, frankly, rather say aloud and clear to ourselves, that this is Foolishness, that it is preposterous for people to so naively speak of and for “God” today. Let us say that we do not know God, that we perhaps believe he exists, but not deceive ourselves – unless it is necessary? – that we understand ‘God”, and can describe He/She/It and/or His/ Her/Its ways to mankind. (That mankind is lost, does not mean that “God” is found.) But if we did this . . . with the majority of mankind being as they are, would not this world become, as John Adams suggested, a “Hell”?

Still, it is sleepy, or daydreaming . . . , it is somewhat of a child’s lullaby, to speak so casually, conveniently and comfortingly of and for “God” in the world today. People seem to prefer – probably require – an amiable “God”, a convenient democratic “theology” or religion, to any realistic acknowledgment of our often unwanted human agnostic condition. Yes, there are the various “religions” with their “holy scripts”, often claimed to be the inspired word of the divine.

There are legends, lores and sayings, that there are, at any time, Seven Wise Men alive, on the earth, who maintain a conscious knowledge and link to God. They are the upper links of mankind in the famous “Great Chain of Being”. Let us hope that it is so. But for the majority Mankind, “God” seems to be a necessary, amiable, amenable “Omnipotence”, about Which and for Whom one can often hear religious dreamers, and businessmen make very convenient and comforting comments and conclusions!

First published in the magazine English, #45, December 1998, p. 14.