Heschel: “God is every [human being’s] pedigree. He is either the Father of all people or of no one. The image of God is either in every individual or in no one. God’s covenant is with all people, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all people. The image of God is in the criminal as well as in the saint. How can my regard for others be contingent upon their merit, if I know that in the eyes of God I myself may be without merit!”
Like spiders spinning webs, humans construct meaning. We live always in the present mystery of reality – or in the real presence of mystery – but we live (and will die) for meaning. From the time we’re still in the womb our brain is not only regulating the homeostasis of the body, but is also gathering information from the environment in the form of basic, very visceral impressions. Perhaps the most “primordial” of all such impressions is our sense of the degree in which the supporting reality of our existence is providential.
Awareness arises in the brain beginning at the level of individual nerve cells, which have evolved the ability to carry electrical charges and spritz chemical messages to their neighbors. These chemicals (called neurotransmitters) serve to amplify or suppress the wave of energy, and as it makes its way across the tiny gaps separating the cells it becomes information and “jumps” to the level of circuits – lines and loops of brain cells “talking” to each other.
Distinct circuits of local communication proceed to link together in networks, pulling information from the various outposts of brain specialization (the various lobes and centers dedicated to processing specific kinds of information like visual, auditory, motion, and so forth). Finally – and this is all happening in fractions of a second – all this cross-talk up and down, back and forth, enables the brain to construct a representation of experience, a meaning of mystery.
I said “finally,” but there’s more. Next the brain makes associations of this momentary representation with many others it has kept on record (in memory). Complicated and historically deep mental maps of our experienced reality are then correlated into a single and fairly seamless worldview, which is the spider’s web we inhabit and maintain throughout our lives.
You should be visualizing a neural latticework arranged hierarchically from individual cells to circuits to networks to a broad-scale symphony of cross-talk among the major brain regions, all working to produce the web of meaning called a worldview. From the far edges of our constructed world picture, we could trace a winding path back down through this complicated webwork and into our moment-by-moment experience of life. This is where we hold our deepest impressions of reality, whether and to what degree we are supported in the larger mystery of being.
Of course, the brain itself doesn’t know that all of this is its own invention, a mere representation or facsimile of the ineffable energy field of reality. It probably doesn’t care. As long as it can manage to produce a worldview adaptive to our various life-environments and give us a chance for reproductive success, it’s done its job. Only with the emergence of a self-aware ego – a center of personal identity – does the philosophical question of truth present itself.
For instance, Heschel invokes the metaphor of God as father, which is itself part of a relational model (since “father” only makes sense in relation to “child”). Where is truth in this metaphor? Are we to take it literally, where God is regarded as a being who is like a father to us? The philosophical position of metaphysical realism supports such a literal reading. (This is the basic assumption that the mythological god, the narrative character who is found in the sacred stories of most cultures, exists outside our myths in just the way he is represented in our myths.)
But the evolution of human consciousness has moved us to the place now where metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. In fact, the force of religion, denominational membership and church attendance in our day have fallen off dramatically. Some well-intentioned but increasingly desperate pundits are recommending better marketing gimmicks or innovative outreach strategies, when the real problem (in my opinion) is that the postmodern mind is finding it harder to believe in a god who’s not around anymore.
The solution is neither to abandon our myths and the mythological god, nor to insist dogmatically on their literal truth; the way through is not atheism or religious fundamentalism. Post-theism provides the investigative space where we can take our metaphors seriously, but not literally. How would that look?
Heschel’s metaphor of God as father is not a reference to the mythological god of the Bible, but rather to the present mystery of reality beneath, within and all around us. It’s not that god (a separate and supernatural being) is like a father to us, or that he is literally the father of Jesus the son, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued in a lecture I attended back in my seminary days. Strictly speaking, the mythological god is only related to other fictional characters who share narrative space with him (or her). To the brains of storytellers who make up the myths, the mythological god is a metaphor of something else, which I’m calling the present mystery of reality.
Reality is “father” in the way it sources our existence and provides for our needs. God as “mother” is another, even older metaphor for the way mystery contains and nurtures us. Because this real presence is the grounding support and generative life fuse in everyone, all human beings possess a “divine dignity” – even if we regularly fall short of fully expressing it in the way we live. Whereas our egos may get puffed up and strut around in self-importance, thinking “I” am better than the rest, at the level of soul our dignity as human beings is intrinsic to each and equal among all. Saints don’t have more of it, and criminals don’t have less.
My theory is that most of the small-mindedness, internal tensions and sectarian conflicts of religion are really a symptom of an underlying spiritual anxiety. For one reason or another, many have lost faith in a provident reality. Or perhaps we have climbed so high into our worldviews and gotten tangled up in our webs of meaning, that now we dangle over an apparent abyss, afraid to let go.
But we can let go. There’s more to life than just what it means.