My brother, Arthur, was an only child for four years. I’m told he had an imaginary friend he called, Borneo, made out of a stuffed animal or raggedy piece of blanket. Could that be why I was born, to replace his beloved schmatta? I don’t know if Borneo ever answered him back but eventually he either outgrew his companion or I replaced him. Maybe in my brother’s eyes I had committed fratricide. In any case Arthur tried to find his own way. The Lord would not be his shepherd. He walked that lonesome valley by himself.
God spoke to me in that unique Mid-Atlantic voice of Franklin Roosevelt. During the second week of April in 1945 as I was coming home from Hebrew school in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah news hit the street that my God had died. FDR had been with me for the first twelve years and twenty-two days of my life. When I told the rabbi I no longer believed in God he said, So you think God cares?
I would have thought God to be either angry or aggrieved over every missing sheep from his flock. In fact the feeling was mutual. For me Yahweh’s obituary was a slow death-bed scene. I became pious every Thursday night to get me through those Friday tests. By the afternoon I was on my own. At some point I decided I could do it without providential intervention altogether. If he didn’t care, I also didn’t.
Around 400 BCE, give or take a decade, Euripides wrote the great dramas which have survived millennia. Unlike his contemporaries, Aeschylus and Sophocles, he depicted man as he is rather than as he aspired to be. The plays explore the full range of human behavior in nuanced language. It was the Greek way to ascribe victory, defeat, revenge, betrayal, the several forms of love, etc … to one of a pantheon of gods. Whether Euripides actually believed in their existence is another story. One senses that for both him and his audience the occupants of Mt. Olympus may not have been a living presence. Besides, it’s a wonder how anyone could navigate between Apollonian rationality and Dionysian debauchery except as depicted on the stage.
Sort of like the way we inflate our super heroes, hiss our villains and might allow for no 13th floor in a hotel. Or maybe the way Trump
Deplorables cheer his reckless moves as the indecipherable acts of a super-being who holds his residence in a tower. Once we transfer our autonomy the rest comes easy to an authoritarian.
Besides fear of mortality which religion depends upon, there is something in human nature that embraces mystery particularly as those things inexplicable diminish. No, it wasn’t the wrath of Zeus which caused the mountainside to bury Route One at Big Sur. Nor did some benevolent god answer our prayers with enough rain to quench our drought. Sorry, but that diagnosis of lymphoma is not part of our creator’s grand plan. Gods wither when met by science. And when we have no answer it’s called randomness.
We have many friends, still. I can’t think of a single one who professes to be a believer in the literal sense. Paul Sawyer, the minister of the Valley Unitarian Fellowship in which I was an active member for a dozen years, used to say that in order to be truly religious one would be advised to stop believing in any supreme being. In other words atheists are better prepared to be spiritual people. Belief in a supernatural and all the falderal that attaches itself to the edifice and the Good Book detracts from one’s inclination to find his own communion with Nature and his fellow humans. There is certainly enough mystery in human interaction to keep us pondering until the curtain goes down.
In her work as a therapist Peggy encouraged her clients to find an inner guide (god). Give him/her a name. Borneo, perhaps. Let that ally speak. Listen closely. Be gentle, it could be one of your gods, maybe a Greek from Olympus making a comeback.
I’ve come to believe that the god concept is both a universally agreed-upon lie and a vibrant metaphor in the Greek sense, for the wide spectrum of human possibility which summons all the deities from the mountain top as players.