Friday, December 25, 2009

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

What Does it mean to "Believe in God?"

I'm writing this on Christmas morning, 2009. I just read that someone jumped the rope at St. Peter's in Rome and knocked Pope Benedict down during Midnight Mass. No such high drama here. I went to Mass at St. Paul's in Westerville at the Christmas Vigil. Not the best sermon, not the best music - just little people trying to work out what it means to be a Catholic Christian in a secular, nonbelieving age.

I have been asked a few times over the years if I still "believe in God." I am sometimes tempted to answer by saying "define 'God.'" Do I believe in a superman in a nightshirt who answeres petitions? No. Do I believe in a cloudbound deity who smites? No. Do I believe in an extraordinary spirit who works through time and space? Getting closer, but I would still say no.

I cannot even define God myself. Certainly not a human being, but not a ghost. Could "God" be the sum total of all our works, aspirations, dreams? Could "God" be the reality of existence? Could "God" be our own understanding of what is good in the world/universe? Does "God" necessarily remain larger than all of physical creation - a billion-billion stars, galaxies? Is God "the eternal Now?" Is "God" actually very very small, like the whisper that the prophet Elijah heard after hearing thunder and earthquakes? Is "God" a kiss, an act of forgiveness, a pat on the back? Is "God" Presence (not "a presence;" there's an important distinction)?

I'll leave it to the theologians to figure out which one is correct (likely none of the above), and whether more than one is correct, and whether any or all are heresy. I guess one of the reasons I remain Catholic is that Catholics (at least officially) believe that God is a "Mystery." That may sound like a rhetorical cop-out (you should at least theoretically be able to solve a mystery). And it gets worse from there - if Jesus is the "Son of God," what does that mean? I get dizzy just trying to construct the questions, let alone answer them.

The most beautiful writing in the New Testament is John 1:1, where God is described as both "Word" and "Love." I accept that definition as both mysterious, powerfully moving, and poetic. The "powerfully moving" part may just be my cultural ethos speaking, yet "true." I think it was William James who wrote that mysticism can be both profoundly true for the individual, but not necessarily transferrable to another individual. I can certainly get behind the idea of God as Love, and that Jesus and his teachings on love of God (returning love to love) and love of neighbor (love to mankind), are a good standard on which to base a life. But for me, the big question is whether that love can be metophorical or not.

I told a friend once that I believed God is "real" in the same sense that good poetry is "true." Is a thing beautiful because it is true, or is it/can it be the other way around? Is a beautiful woman "real?" Is a Dutch landscape painting "true?" Is the Catholic conception of Jesus/Logos/Love beautiful because it is true, or true because it is beautiful? I don't know. When I say that my battered, troubled, imperfectly held faith is true, or recite the Credo witha straight face, it is partly because it is beautiful. Whether that's good enough, I don't know.

Once in a different life I volunteered at a soup kitchen run by the Catholics of Toledo. I planned it as a Lenten project and stayed for ten years. It was dirty, smelly, cold in winter, sweltering in summer, and full of revolting sights and sounds. But, "when charity and love prevail, there God is ever found." If charity equals love and love equals God, even in a metophorical way, I will continue to believe in the metaphor. Poetically speaking.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Global Warming the Old Fashioned Way

The Copenhagen Global Warming Conference is over, and while I haven't followed it as carefully as I should, its outcome does not appear to be the life preserver we badly need. Not all is hopeless though - Barack Obama sounds like a semi-hero in keeping the talks from going down to unambiguous, chaotic failure. His detractors need to keep in mind that Obama is a pragmatist; he may be an idealist in his heart, but as president, he almost of necessity is a pragmatist.

But the real point of this entry is to recollect a movie I remember from my youth: Soylent Green (1973). As a boy, I was always squeamish about scary movies. This movie, even with its only passable acting, and lack of modern special effects, left me absolutely horrified as a kid, and depresses me as an adult, because while not "coming true" in a conventional sense, its base message is still remarkably intact.

If you've never seen it, Soylent Green is a dystopian tale of an overpopulated and depleted Earth. Set in the year 2022, the horrifically overpopulated streets of New York (pop. 40,000,000+) team with homeless, hungry people. Crowds are controlled using power shovels. All food and water is rationed, and most people eat only little wafers made of, what turns out to be, dead bodies. No one in the movie knows this of course, the wafers being advertised as a plankton derivative. Fresh food is enormously scarce and tremendously expensive. The Soylent Corporation controls the food supply, and are secretly covering up the fact that "the oceans are dying," and that humanity will probably follow it.

The movie stars Charlton Heston at his wooden best (or worst), and in kind of a sad irony the great actor Edward G. Robinson. Soylent Green was his last film. and the character he plays dies in Soylent Green. There are many details that could be listed here: Robinson and Heston eating a meal of stolen fresh food, Heston working his way down a staircase crowded with homeless, Robinson choosing assisted suicide to the tune of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the "furniture," who are live-in prostitutes; these motifs may be spooky or silly, depending on the viewer.

In the opening scene where Heston and Robinson are eating spoiled margarine, Robinson scomplains about the greenhouse effect, and Heston joins the plaintive refrain with a "so what else is new" take on the problem. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the term (I first saw this movie in about 1976).

As I write this, 2022 is only about twelve years away. And while the movie no longer scares me, global warming still does. I don't think Soylent Green was any more capable of predicting the future than any other piece of popular culture. But I think it does portray a fairly realistic guess at what the world will look like if we don't get a handle on global warming.

The picture at the start of this entry was one of the "outside" shots in the movie. I don't know the details, but apparently some of the film was shot (or retouched?) with a green filter. It does (at least to my eye) give the impression that the atmosphere is full of particulates or smog. Already we are breathing an air more full of carbon than anything our ancestors knew. But it doesn't really matter. Can a movie predict the future? Probably not, but this one shows a view "through a lens (or filter) darkly" of the dystopia we might create if we continue to ignore the warming of the planet.