“A Room With a Deja Vu — Gods and AI” by our resident skeptic, James R. Cowles

James R. Cowles is a member of the diverse Bardo Group Beguines, which publishes The BeZine, a publication that  I manage and edit. James also regularly contributes to The BeZine’s sister site, Beguine Again. The article James is referring to here is An AI [Artificial Intelligence] god will emerge by 2042 and write its own bible. Will you worship it?  by John Brandon in VentureBeat. At any given time, on any given theme, whether you agree with him or not, James will always make you think, revisit, question. That, of course, is a very good thing. / J.D.



Every so often, I read something – a newspaper story, a journal article, an interview, a campaign speech … whatever – that elicits from me the following reaction:  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot? Ain’t we been here before? And that reaction is often followed by a supplementary reaction:  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot?  Ain’t we still here? (“It’s déjà vu all over again!” – Yogi Berra) The latest example of this species of déjà vu is an article about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to eventually evolve into a kind of silicon god with the capability of directing all human  affairs, planet-wide. The claim is that this will happen, perhaps midway through the 21st century. The article then goes on to speculate on what choices would have to be made, should such an achievement be realized, and the problems that would be posed by such a machine intelligence.  (Think of this as a real-world realization of the recent television series Person of Interest. Or perhaps more apropos would be to think of a real-life version of SkyNet from the Terminator movies.) What I find so drool-inducing, is that we – meaning the human race – have already done this. In fact, we have already done it, not just once, but several times over several millennia. We already know what choices have to be made. We already know the potential hazards.  The Venturebeat author is no doubt awesomely competent at assessing the technical complexities of artificial intelligence, neural nets, heuristic systems, etc., etc. – but has evidently never so much as touched a book of world history. Certainly least of all European history.

o Creating gods … been there, done that, bought the pure-white t-shirt and tinfoil halo

It is quite possible to argue that human beings create gods out of whole cloth in essentially the same way they create sculpture, paintings, literature, ghost-pepper dipping sauce for chicken wings ( … I’m still in recovery … ), “twerking” (izzat still a “thing”? … ), and Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ haute couture collection.  This was apparently the position of Voltaire, who once waggishly observed that if triangles conceived of gods, the gods of triangles would have three sides.  People undergoing near-death experiences usually have visions of the gods and holy people from their religion’s hagiography. I know of no instance where a dying Christian envisioned, say, Sri Ramakrishna.  I know several anecdotes about the death visions of various people prominent in the hyper-fundamentalist denomination of my youth, but have never heard tell of anyone in that company having a vision of anyone dancing or drinking alcohol.   (Going to KKK meetings, maybe, but never doing any really Big Nasty!) Does this mean that people see what they expect to see, and that they create gods from the ground up, with no admixture of reality, that gods are entirely artificial, ontologically? Maybe, but not certainly. There may well be a Reality behind those particular appearances. Maybe God, understanding that people are dying, graciously vouchsafes to them religious visions comfortably congruent with the expectations of the dying person’s religious tradition. Who knows for sure?

But two things we do know for sure are that, regardless of the gods’ ontological character, (a) the attributes and actions of those gods are certainly modeled according to the history and culture of their worshippers, so that (b) those attributes and actions serve to validate the values, morality, and actions of the worshippers’ culture. Or at least the way the gods’ worshippers wanted their culture to be. The god(s) are basically the worshippers’ culture writ large. So … e.g., did YHVH actually command the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, root and branch? Probably not, but Israel was a tiny nation in a Levant of vast empires, and so, as a defense mechanism, styled itself as a martial culture possessed of a degree of military prowess that enabled such a tiny nation to punch above its weight. And the archaic Israelites modeled the character of YHVH accordingly, as a god of war (Ex. 15:2-4).

And even that is not the earliest example of nations depicting – creating? – their gods. We could consider the Mesopotamian civilizations that predated Israel. But the point would still be the same:  contra Venturebeat, we humans have been creating and / or modifying gods for literally thousands of years. AI technology merely automates a process that was archaic when the cornerstone of the first Pyramid was laid. Now we can create gods at near light-speed.

o Creating texts that contain the teaching of the AI, the AI’s rules of conduct, and interpretive / hermeneutical principles

The Venturebeat article cites an example of how the presumptive AI god could write its own equivalent of the Bible, perhaps variations on the theme of an existing sacred text like the Bible, but with strategic forensic variations.

If you type in multiple verses from the Christian Bible, you can have the AI write a new verse that seems eerily similar. Here’s one an AI wrote:   “And let thy companies deliver thee, but will with mine own arm save them: even unto this land from, the kingdom of heaven”.

If this heuristic example seems possessed of … shall we say? … somewhat less than lapidary clarity, then whoever wrote the underlying AI program has already mastered the dubious art of making an AI that can write prose as slipperily ambiguous as traditional scriptural passages from traditional religious texts … something religious authors have been doing for — again! — thousands of years. (Of course, to a large extent, this is excusable, given that religious writers are very often dealing with subjects that do not lend themselves to quantitative or lexical precision.) There is very little, if anything, that humans can learn from AIs about writing texts whose meanings are vague enough to motivate humans to kill and maim one another over who has the “correct” interpretation.  It will be multiple millennia before AIs can hold humans a candle in this regard.

Furthermore, programming an AI to write a text of interpretive principles solves nothing. Again, humans have been doing that, time out of mind — and always failing. Why? Because how-to-interpret texts are just that:  texts. I.e., texts that themselves are subject to a plethora of interpretations.  At that point, the only way to avoid an infinite regress of interpretations is to do what the Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages:  at some point, turn from reasoned exegetical argumentation to naked force, and send in the soldiers with bonfires beneath stakes, to which heretics were attached. All of which raises a macabre possibility:  once the AI has written its sacred text, would the next logical step be for the AI to launch an AI Inquisition to enforce the AI’s official interpretation of the AI’s normative text? Again … we have already done that! So — one more time — the Venturebeat author is ‘way behind the historical curve.

o The real spanner in the works:  Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “underground man” and existentialist theoreticians of the Absurd generally

But theological issues aside, perhaps the paramount issue to be addressed is the exact-same issue that — again, for multiple thousands of years — has pertained to human relationships with traditional, non-AI gods:  how to maintain human freedom in the face of Divine sovereignty. And that issue remains unchanged, even if the Sovereign’s intentions toward human beings are benevolent. (Which need not be true:  see, e.g., David Blumenthal’s Facing the Abusing God … but that is another rant for another time.) How would we go about preserving human freedom, even in the face of the benevolence of God? 

The answer, of course, is that not everyone would want such protection, given — by hypothesis — that an AI god would always be benevolent. We can assume benevolent intentions on the part of an AI god, but such intentions are purely suppositional on our part, and need not be true.  Venturebeat’s point is well taken:  … if an AI god is in total control, you have to wonder what it might do. The “bible” might contain a prescription for how to serve the AI god. We might not even know that the AI god we are serving is primarily trying to wipe us off the face of the planet. (Cue the video clip about SkyNet from Terminator here. Also recall the Twilight Zone episode where the alien visitors brought with them a book entitled To Serve Man … which, upon translation, turned out to be a cookbook.) But for now, let’s stipulate benevolence on the part of the AI god. Existentialist philosophers / authors like Camus and Dostoyevsky counsel rebellion, even rebellion against unrelenting benevolence, for the sake of preserving human moral autonomy.  The former counseled rebellion in the face of the Absurd, to the point of constructing our own purpose for existing. The latter advised preserving the freedom to act against one’s own pragmatic self-interest by recognizing the Underground Man’s primal freedom even to harm oneself:

I am a sick man. … I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. I don’t consult a doctor for it. … But still, if I don’t consult a doctor, it is from spite. My liver is bad, well — let it get worse!

Actually, the Underground Man’s advice is not so much advice as a statement of what actually is. It is not nearly so much a matter of telling humans what they should do — rebel against their own self-interests — as it is a matter of describing what humans will in fact do, if the alternative is to submit to even benevolent bondage:  they will rebel.

That, I think, would constitute the fatal fly in the ointment of any AI god. And — again — this is hardly the first time this issue has been dealt with. According to orthodox Christian moral theology, sin did not originate with artificial intelligence technology. If anything — this is my heterodox / revisionist gloss on Christian teaching — sin originated with God’s insistence that human beings should be constrained to act in a manner consistent with their own good:  the Prescription caused the Disease. Compulsory self-interest turns even the Garden of Eden into Hell. Again, if Venturebeat is just now discovering this tragic truth, it is because Venturebeat has neglected the study of history. To say nothing of philosophy.

The above is not to prematurely judge whether AI technology will eventually develop to the point where an AI god is a practical reality. For all I know, it might actually happen. I am simply at pains to point out that, in essence, the entire subject has nothing whatsoever to do with artificial intelligence, neural nets, heuristic systems, etc. Rather, the whole issue pertains to the perennial issue of the relationship of human freedom to the Divine, which has been true since the abacus was invented.

Even an AI Eden would require an AI serpent.

© 2018, James R. Cowles

Image credits

Face behind code … Pixabay … Public domain
Ape … Max Pixel … Public domain
Mars rover … NASA … Public domain
Giacometti sculptures … City Square Alberto Giacometti Gallery of Art DC … CC BY 2.0


ABOUT

“A Local Habitation and a Name” — Poetry, Memory, and Biography by James R. Cowles

Prof. Molly Worthen’s recent reflection on the paucity of emphasis on memorizing poetry resonated with me very strongly, though for reasons she did not account for in her recent op-ed piece in the New York Times. Based on my own experience spanning an academic lifetime, I would suggest a different approach that could render memorizing poetry more relevant and even more pleasurable. My methodology is very simple and straightforward to describe and, perhaps for that reason, quite effective:  instead of emphasizing rote memorization of poetry, instill a love of the text itself. Learn to love Hamlet, love it to the point that you read it over and over again during a lifetime, and memorizing the great soliloquy will most likely take care of itself. Above all, learn to reflect on your life experience within the enclosing context of literature.  Herewith some personal examples, which include both poetry and prose.

The first time I can remember that a literary text revolutionized my life was when, in 8th-grade AP English in the early 60s, Mr. Gordon Morse, teaching English at Horace Man Intermediate School in Wichita, KS, where I grew up, one day handed out to his class mimeographed copies of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s great poem “Ulysses”.  I have written of this elsewhere. I had always had, even at that callow age, a restlessness, an intellectual wanderlust. (I think that my one signal achievement in the American educational system, in fact, is that I managed to emerge from junior-high school with my capacity for gratuitous passionate curiosity intact. Many are not so fortunate.) Thanks to Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, I realized that I was not alone. A poet writing in Victorian England was writing about me. I remember cloistering myself in my bedroom that night and skipping dinner … just to read that poem over and over again. (To this day, those few occasions when I smell mimeograph fluid always evoke memories of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”.) Now I can recite it by heart, not because I sat down and deliberately memorized it, but because awakened passion did what a brute determination to memorize could not.

In my twenties and into my early thirties, I was subject to periods of dangerously black clinical depression and abject panic attacks. That I am no longer thus tormented I credit to being married to a woman who is uniquely proficient at just putting up with me. But it was not always thus.  During that grim time, I would turn … yes … to Hamlet’s soliloquy and escape possible suicide by remembering  Hamlet’s haunting question about “what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause”.  I continued living precisely because I was more disposed to “bear those ills [I] have than fly to others [I] know not of”.  I also read multiple dozens of times Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus in my first undergraduate philosophy course at Wichita State University, and can still recite from memory the opening paragraph about suicide being the “only truly serious philosophical problem”, and why ancillary questions are just “games”. I do not know when I realized these texts were so intimate a part of me. As with “Ulysses,” I just “woke up” one day and realized they were. Over time, in both cases and in both cases because those texts had become so “existentially” important to me, I had memorized the text without consciously realizing it or intending to.

The crisis was intensified, in fact, nearly rendered hopeless, when I discovered T. S. Eliot’s pre-1929 poetry, e.g., “Hollow Men” and, of course, The Wasteland. Both were, on vastly different scales – “Hollow Men” on the level of individuals; The Wasteland on the level of the whole of western culture – autobiographical in the sense of being descriptions of my own self-perception during this period, i.e., when I was an undergraduate and early in my grad-student years.  We are the hollow men, / We are the stuffed men, / Leaning together, / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!  … Thanks to The Wasteland, I also understood intuitively and from the inside the vapidity of Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante … the wisest woman in Europe, but behind  whom stands only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And / the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, /And the dry stone no sound of water.

But fortunately for me, at some point in the process of dealing with my predisposition to depression and intermittent suicidal ideation, I discovered T. S. Eliot’s post-1929 poetry. (The “magic” year of 1929 turned out to be Eliot’s annus mirabilis:  the year he converted to Christianity, joined the Anglican Church, and became a self-described “Anglo-Catholic” — to the astonishment of good friends like Virginia Woolf.) I still saw myself in “Gerontion”:  “An old man [though I was only in my thirties] in a dry month … waiting for rain [whose] house was a decayed house”. “Gerontion” remains for me to this day one of the most starkly terrifying poems in the English language, much of the terror being traceable to Gerontion’s insipidity by virtue of his embodiment of the buried life Matthew Arnold had previously written aboutThere rises an unspeakable desire  / After the knowledge of our buried life,  / A thirst to spend our fire and restless force  / In tracking out our true, original course; / A longing to inquire  / Into the mystery of this heart which beats  / So wild, so deep in us, to know  / Whence our lives come and where they go. I could relate, and to this day can recite large passages of “Gerontion” from memory.

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding

 

I say “fortunately for me”, because, along with “Gerontion,” I also discovered Eliot’s great cycle of religious poetry, The Four Quartets, which I am still, after forty-plus years, very much in the process of unpacking, and which I still consider to this day to be the greatest religious poetry ever written, worthy of favorable comparison to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  (So compelling was this estimate that I even wrote an undergraduate thesis delineating the relationship between the two great works. Being a math, physics, and philosophy major, not an English major, at Wichita State at the time, I had to move heaven, earth, the Office of the Academic Dean, and the WSU English department to get permission, but it was worth the effort.) I do not have time to write, nor do you have time to read, the reasons why the discovery of the Quartets was the beginning of the decades-long process by which my life – I mean the following literally – was saved, and by which I was able to climb out of the black hole to which my childhood and adolescent experience with a dysfunctional family and an equally dysfunctional hyper-fundamentalist religious upbringing had previously consigned me.

So suffice to say that Eliot’s great accomplishment in the Quartets was to achieve a kind of coincidentia oppositorum of Comedy and Tragedy, depicting the dependence of each on the other, not only or even primarily at the level of the culture, but in the individual’s life – “the fire and the rose are one” (“Little Gidding”) — a reconciliation rendered even more authentic by the fact that Eliot had actually lived his poetry in his own religious and spiritual struggles, and in his fraught relationship with his disturbed wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, culminating in her commitment to a mental institution, in collaboration with Vivienne’s own brother. (To this day, I wonder if the lines Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” refer obliquely to the pangs of conscience he suffered as a result of this collaboration:  … the shame of motives late revealed, the awareness / Of things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.) At the very least, the Four Quartets is a prominent exception to Eliot’s later – and, I think, well justified — contention that the greatest problem with religious poetry is that the poet usually writes more about how she wishes she felt than about how she really feels. Perhaps so. But the Quartets is a great exception. So I feel a great kinship with Eliot because, as he wrote in Burnt Norton, “[H]uman kind / cannot bear very much reality,” and in many related ways, Eliot and I both came very much to the edge of how much “reality” a human can “bear”.

All the above accounts for why, to this day, at least half the poetry I have “accidentally” memorized is drawn from the works of T. S. Eliot, from “Hollow Men” to “Preludes” (the worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots) to The Wasteland to “Gerontion” to Four Quartets. Despite being physically and chronologically separated, these works collectively constitute a kind of twentieth-century equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress. Different as are the poets, and prose authors, whose work I have “accidentally” memorized, they all share one common characteristic:  beginning with Tennyson and “Ulysses,” they all, without exception, made explicit in words many thoughts, feelings, intuitions, insights, and just plain “hunches” that had been circulating in me for some time, and gave those thoughts, feelings, etc., an overt form.  (That is true even of the French symbolists and the more recondite texts of Wallace Stevens:  I don’t “understand” them … yet I do.) One concluding element of my “accidental” archive, this from A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name. Yes. Exactly.

During the junior-high year in AP English at Horace Mann I spent with Mr. Morse, he gave the class two poems to memorize, one for each semester:  The Wreck of the Hesperus and The Highwayman.  They were excellent poems, and, in a way, memorizing them and reciting them before the class, as we all were required to do at the end of each of the two semesters, was actually fun. But neither ignited, or was ignited by, a “fire in the belly,” like the foregoing examples. Neither “memorized themselves” as did, e.g., for me, “Ulysses” or the opening paragraph of “Little Gidding”. (Today, in fact, I remember The Wreck of the Hesperus primarily because of the hilarious and ribald Mad Magazine satire of the poem.) The common thread that unites the other poems is a love of the text itself, and the correlative love of the language – both of which were forged in the crucible of actual life-experience. I literally cannot imagine, nor do I particularly want to imagine, my life without, e.g., “Ulysses” and The Idylls of the King and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets” and Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” (and “The Snowman” and “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and “Sunday Morning” … etc.) and A. R. Ammons’ “Easter Morning” and Eliot’s “Hollow Men” and The Wasteland and “Preludes” and Four Quartets. Prof. Worthen simultaneously overestimates and underestimates the importance of memorization:  she overestimates it because she seems to confuse knowing a poem with memorizing it; and she underestimates it by seeing poetry as less than what it is, or at least as what it can eventually become:  an actual load-bearing structure of one’s identity and self-hood. A part of one’s soul.

© 2017, James R. Cowles

Editorial note: James is a feature writer at Beguine Again, the sister site to The BeZine, and a core team member of the The Bardo Group Beguines. He has master’s in math from Wichita State University, a master’s in physics as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Tulane, a master’s in English literature from Tufts by way of Harvard and, as a Council of Europe Fellow, Oxford (Exeter College … same Oxford college as JRR Tolkien), and a master’s in theology (MAPS) from Seattle University.

Image credits

Homer … British Museum … Public domain
T. S. Eliot, 1934 … Lady Ottoline Morrell … Public domain
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Little Gidding … Nick MacNeill … CC BY-SA 2.0
Portrait of Shakespeare … John Taylor (?) … Public domain
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet … James Lafayette … Public domain
Albert Camus … Robert Edwards … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

NOTIONS OF GOD … your Wednesday Writing Prompt

Swan (Hansa, हंस) is the symbol for Brahman-Atman in Hindu iconography. Brahman (/brəhmən/; ब्रह्मन्) connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe.

Swan (Hansa, हंस) is the symbol for Brahman-Atman in Hindu iconography. Brahman (/brəhmən/; ब्रह्मन्) connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe.

WEDNESDAY WRITING PROMPT: Well, it’s December and as noted yesterday the month is dense with the religious holy days. That would be joy to some and disgruntlement to others.  Wherever you stand in your thinking about God and by whatever name you call yourself and your vision of God, I thought it might be fun and interesting to write poems or essays about the nature of the Ineffible and why you do or why you don’t believe in God.

Often there is a temptation to view the other guy’s religion as superstition. Today let us write with deference for the diverse ways people try to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of a world in which illness, violence, despair, loneliness and death are as prevalent as hope, friendship, reason and birth.

If you’d like to share what you’ve written, just put the link to the piece in the comments below. Today I’ve stollen Ben Meyers’ Sunday sermon as a jumping-off point. Enjoy the read and enjoy your writing adventure. J.D.

SOME NOTIONS OF GOD

by

Rev. Benjamin Meyers

Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California

Rev. Ben Meyers of the Unitarian Universalists of San Mateo, California

One of the hazards of being a minister, I have found, is that when people I don’t know well discover that I am a minister – at some social function or party I attend or if I become a captive audience on a flight to somewhere – they will proudly proclaim to me “Oh, I don’t believe in God.”

Usually I respond with a nod and a simple “Un hum,” because sometimes their only purpose in saying this to me as a “reverend” is to shock or somehow upset me. But, if I sense they are sincere about wanting a genuine spiritual dialogue, I might say something like, “Un hum…. Well, tell me about this God in which you don’t believe?” I then listen carefully to their responses and ask questions about why and how and so forth. What generally unfolds is a story about events in their lives that led them to their assertion about the God in which they don’t believe.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam

When I have taken the time for such theological dialogue, nine times out of ten, I will eventually say something like: “Yes, I see. And you know what? I don’t believe in that God either (meaning, that old, outworn, dysfunctional, bearded, peeping-tom-in-the-sky God.) Vis-a-vis THAT God we are both atheists!”

Then I’ll suggest that now that we’ve discovered what it is we don’t believe when it comes to God, we can explore just what it is we might believe about God that would be positive, creative, healing, relational liberating and helpful. We’ll discover a kind of practical theology for ourselves.

The truly amazing and delightful and rewarding thing is that, again, nine times out of ten, IF that self-proclaimed atheist and I work together in authentic dialogue, we usually find and articulate a God-concept that we can both agree with or at least discover that our differing ideas of God are in sympathetic, parallel and supportive relationship to one another without anyone getting hurt.

There are so many creative, spirit-enriching ways for us to think about God, but getting there often means revisiting old notions about God that no longer fit our reality or experience. This work is critical to do if we are to mature spiritually as human beings.

Here’s a poem by the American writer, James Kavanaugh, entitled, “My Easy God is Dead”, which is a great expression of what I’m saying. He writes:

“I have lost my easy God—
the one whose name I knew since childhood.
He was a good God…
He was a predictable God…
He made pain sensible
and patience possible
and the future foreseeable…
Now he haunts me seldom,
some fierce umbilical is broken…
now) I live with my own fragile hopes
and sudden rising despair…
my easy God is gone—
and in his stead,
the mystery of loneliness and love!”

– ©James Kavanaugh estate

For some of us, God is, as the old Universalists put it, love, simply love—a powerful spirit of goodness, warmth, mercy and justice that lives in people and the world. For others, God is expressed as a ‘life force’ or ‘creative spirit’ or ‘higher power’ or ‘supreme intelligence’ or ‘infinite ground of being’ that animates creation making life and purpose possible. For others, God is an ‘unknowable mystery’ that utterly defies definition or description. For some of us, God is simply a concept that is of absolutely no spiritual usefulness or practical relevance—in fact, it is viewed as a source of conflict and divisiveness and not considered helpful at all.

Personally and professionally, I don’t believe a God-concept is essential or necessary for people to live lives that reflect compassion, goodness and gratitude. But, there’s no getting around the persistence of the notion of God that has permeated and continues to occupy our minds and hearts and which represents—even in its ineffableness—what I call “The BIG idea.” Our theological nuances about God are endless, and this theological diversity is (to me at least) more beautiful than it is confusing or indulgent. For I believe that God is, above all else, a radically personal reality, rightfully different for each one of us as we experience our lives in our own idiosyncratic ways.

The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was wise to declare that religion belongs to the “realm of the inexpressible.” And many Unitarian Universalist ministers attending seminary at Starr King School in the late eighties and early nineties had an incomparable New Testament professor by the name of Marcus Borg, who was so convinced of the utter subjectivity of God that he proclaimed passionately that it was absolute folly and foolishness to even attempt to share our own ideas and experience about God to others, so much so, that he wrote several books on the subject.

In one of them he implored: “Be content to know your own God–and for God’s sake–don’t try to transfer or argue it to someone else…We each must discover our own sense of life’s ultimate sacredness, not try to fit others’ into your own.”

And yet, while I agree with good professor Borg – blessed be his name – that talking about God with our clumsy, imprecise words is, by its very nature, an often subjective and slippery thing to do. I nonetheless believe, as did he by virtue of his writings on the subject, that there is great spiritual value when each of us humbly share what God does (and does not) mean to us, individually. Without such respectful sharing of our own ideas about our experiences and notions of God, how will we ever be able to mature and deepen our theological understandings and spiritual sensitivities and find the common ground that unites us, despite theological differences?

To avoid them is to invite and perpetuate distance, rather than connection. It is easier to embrace our differences and practice acceptance of one another when our differences are made known to us. It is a sign of spiritual growth and maturity to be able to do so. And, given the times in which we live, we need, now more than ever, to clarify and to promote the value of acceptance which is the cornerstone of deep faith and practice. If we can’t or don’t do so, how will we be able to foster the kind of civility and acceptance and search for common ground that is required of us as a world, a nation, a community … as people of faith?

This was the purpose and intention behind the meeting I attended this past Wednesday, from noon to 2pm, with twenty-four other religious leaders from various faith traditions. We agreed to gather and address this topic: “Leading in Difficult Times: Conversations Among Faith Leaders.”

img_0888

Present were spiritual leaders representing Muslims and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists. We were of various ages and gender-identities, ethnicities and physical abilities and what brought us together was a desire to know and to trust one another so that we could more effectively lead our people…beyond the complacencies of our unique faith communities…and to seek and FIND our common values… around which we might rally a response to the climate of hatred and violence and the wave of dangers that we collectively face…in the greater world, our own nation, in our community, our congregations and our own hearts…to counter our fears and our uncertainties and our distrust about the future.

How do we lead in difficult times unlike any other we have ever faced? We know, as clergy leaders, that to be effective in these ‘interesting times’, we must acknowledge our differences and put them aside in order to stand firm against the attack on the values we hold in common, which are shared and which are central to each of our faith traditions. It was a most remarkable session.

In circles of eight, we shared our stories. We shared our concerns and our fears. But more importantly we shared our values and that which lifts us above our fears so that we may lead beyond them and be emboldened and strengthened in solidarity with our shared purpose.

From a Buddhist minister, I learned of the fear that exists in his community that history may well repeat itself as people in our county are suddenly whisked away and interred in camps as potential enemies of the state, just as so many Japanese-Americans were during World War II. They are willing to stand with our immigrant and Muslim neighbors to ensure this does not happen again and they invited us to do the same.

My Jewish colleagues expressed concern against the quiet acquiescence and acceptance of the erosion of rights of citizens as one line in the sand after another is allowed to be crossed, just as they were in Nazi Germany until the seemingly impossible became possible. They wondered at what point would we stand together to counter the hate speech that precedes the horrors of violence?

A Latina priest from a predominantly Hispanic Episcopal church fears the scapegoating against immigrants and the very real prospect that families will be destroyed and family members ‘disappear’ without a word or trace. And how any knock on the door might mean deportation without due process or warning. She wondered aloud how it would be possible for people, “made in the same likeness of God” to be capable of oppressing “the very presence God” found in those they persecute.

Another colleague realized that we can no longer afford the luxury of believing ourselves separate from one another. They noted that, before 11/9, there seemed to be so many different causes and issues to be concerned about: Islamophobia, Misogyny, Homophobia, anti-Immigration hate and the degradation of our environment….and now we are forced to see that all of these are related and connected that, in the words of John Muir . . .

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

In the end, in my mind, we all became one faith, one people. What a moment and in the end, we made a covenant, a promise, to one another that if any ONE of us sent out a plead for help or solidarity, that we would ALL do our utmost to show up and to bring our congregations with us. It was the most deeply moving multi-faith meeting I had ever attended. There was great solidarity among us, solidarity beyond our notions of difference in theology, or culture, or practice. We affirmed one another as one. It was almost the best meeting I attended that day.

But from that meeting I came here…to Beck Hall, where our Justice Ministry Team Leaders had organized a gathering of another 25 of us to address essentially the same questions: What do we do now? How do we, as a spiritual community put our faith to action? How do we embody our mission to transform ourselves and the world in a post-11/9 world?

We began by listening to one another, by naming our fears and concerns and also giving voice to our shared values. We then organized into four areas for action: Immigration Response, Multi-Faith partnerships, Environmental Justice and Racial Justice. We came away with concrete steps to bring these issues into the life of this congregation…so that we may live out our values and stand together on the side of love – within the capacity and ability of each of us to do so – STAY TUNED. Don’t go anywhere…like Canada…yet.

All of this is by way of prefacing the sharing, however briefly, of my own notions of God, and what God (as I experience it in my everyday life) means to me. I offer my elusive understanding of God not (I assure you) to “set you straight once and for all” on the question of God. We are, after all, Unitarian Universalists who understand truth and reality as mysterious and many splendored things. I share what God means to me in the hope that my understanding might stimulate you in your own thinking and feeling about this most fundamental of religious concepts.

Most essentially, and I reserve the right to come back and revisit this subject often, or today, God, to me is a participatory phenomenon….a relational reality….a living process that needs us to exist if it is going to achieve its fullest and finest reality and power.

I believe God comes to life when we, I, become more loving, just, and giving. I like what Dorothee Soelle said …

“To believe in God means to take sides with life and to end our alliance with death. It means to stop killing and wanting to kill, and to do battle with apathy which is so akin to killing. To take sides with life and experience how we can transcend ourselves is a process that has many names and faces. Religion is one of those names. Religion can mean the radical and wholehearted attempt to take sides with life.”

If you or I don’t “take sides with life” —in our little corners of the globe, with the people near us—if we fail to bring our best and most loving gifts to the world of need, then God’s spirit is absent. If, for example, you stand faithfully by someone’s death bed, holding their hand and soothing their brow—it is your presence, your physical embrace, tentative and imperfect as they are—that are the only way that dying person is to know solace and grace and love. It is utterly without self-importance that I tell you that I deeply believe God needs me (and you) if God is to be at all. To me, the most beautiful theological thought of all is that there is a holy spirit breathing through life which WELCOMES AND ENCOURAGES our energies and gifts….the God that haunts and blesses me quietly welcomes my most passionate and loving participation in the creation of life.

This idea of god as a relational process is hardly new. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber described God as an active verb that comes to birth best in the loving “I-Thou” encounter, that mysterious arching of energy and affection, that can spark between human beings. And even more recently, the relatively new school of theology called “Process Theology” proclaims, basically, that God is a verb—a living process of justice, love, compassion and creation. The process theologians believe the God does not exist as some abstract, supernatural, heavenly personality far removed from us, but rather is a living process that invites us in ever-fuller partnership with everything that breathes, cares and grows. As a recent rock opera put it in “The Song of Three Children,” “God is not a she, God is not a he, God is not an it or a maybe. God is a moving, loving, doing, knowing, growing mystery.”

Its a hard thought to hold, isn’t it, that God (or at least one dimension of God) is a verb, a process of noble becoming rather than an actual cosmic being. The God I know and depend on for spiritual wholeness is both a presence and a process. My God is an open, available, holy spirit…a good and gracious spirit astir in-my world, which guides my heart to action, which welcomes my frail, little contributions of beauty and blessing, of service and love. If we human beings awaken to the holy powers and processes that are everywhere around and within us, then we participate in that holiness, and that participation blesses, fills and saves us.

My old, easy, predictable Gods are dead. But the creation in which I live is astir with sacredness and grace. I believe there is a Holy Spirit of Life that blesses and nurtures all who are open to its power and purpose. Name it whatever you will, describe it in whatever words work for you—but both savor and serve life’s irrepressible, unmistakable holiness.

In closing: Dag Hammarskjold had it right when he said …

“God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal deity….but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by a steady radiance–renewed daily–of the wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

Amen.

© 2016, sermon and portait, Benjamin Meyers, All rights reserved; photo credits  ~ Swan by mozzercork under CC BY 2.0 license; photograph of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, public domain;  Tree in Church Courtyard at Night, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved

Based loosely on a Sermon By Scott Alexander, entitled “Which God Don’t You Believe In?, with acknowledgements and thanks.

THE INTERFAITH CENTER FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN ISRAEL hosts a Poetry Slam, poet Michael Dickel presents

c The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development‎Interfaith Eco Poetry Slam صدى المناظرة الشعرية بين الاديان האקו-פואטרי סלאם הבין דתי

c The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development‎ Interfaith Eco Poetry Slam صدى المناظرة الشعرية بين الاديان האקו-פואטרי סלאם הבין דתי

The ICSD staff and participants from around Jerusalem gathered in Tmol Shilshom to perform and speak about faith and ecology through the art of poetry on June 30.  Michael Deckel discussed the human relationship with God and how we want a connection but cannot have one without striving to create meaning in the world.

En Gedi — Wadi David Photograph ©2015

En Gedi — Wadi David
Photograph, Michael Dickel ©2015

En Gedi

Even lizards hide from this scorched heat.
Tristram’s grackles pant in the shade of skeletal acacia.
Fan-tail ravens float on rising currents like vultures.

David hid from Saul in the strongholds of En Gedi;
along the wadi now named for him, waterfalls
drop warm water onto maidenhair ferns into tepid pools.

Any stippled shade provides shelter from the scathing sun
when hiding from midday heat or close pursuit:
Tristram and Iseult, David, seek shade, ferns, sparkling droplets.

We escape, fugitives from kings
into what little shade we find, wade
into green puddles of desert water,

for brief respite, solace,
a bright glimmer sliding down
an eroding rock face.

– Michael Dickel

© 2015/2016, poem and Ein Gedi photograph, Michael Dickel;2012, portrait (below) Aviva Dickel

RELATED:

dickelheadshot3x4-1MICHAEL DICKEL (Fragments of Michael Dickel), a poet, fiction writer, essayist, photographer, digital artist, and educator is a contributing editor for The BeZine, was associate editor and contributing editor of The Woven Tale Press, managing editor of arc-24 (2015) and arc–23 (2014), and co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). His latest book of poems is War Surrounds Us. Previous books include Midwest / Mid-East and The World Behind It, Chaos, an eBook from “why vandalism?” that is no longer available online. Dickel is the Chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English.

Dickel’s work was short-listed for the Wisehouse 2016 Poetry Award and has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, art books, and online for over twenty years. His photographs and poems have appeared in: THIS Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Cartier Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Sketchbook, Emerging Visions Visionary Art eZine, Poetry Midwest, Fotógrafos En La Calle (Street Photographers), why vandalism? [1, 2, 3, 4], Poetica Magazine—Reflections on Jewish Thought, Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and Abramelin: the Journal of Poetry and Magick, among many others (a selection of recent publications can be accessed on the Links page). Two of his poems received first and second place in the 2009 international Reuben Rose Memorial Poetry Competition.

He has also worked with documentary film productions, writing everything from fund-raising proposals to research to treatments and scripts. Working with David Fisher, he wrote a successful proposal for a U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities Bridging Cultures through Film Development Grant.

Michael (Dickel) Dekel, Ph.D., holds degrees in psychology, creative writing, and English literature. He has been teaching college and university for over 25 years—writing and literature courses in the United States and Israel – as well as courses in media and English Education in Israel. He directed the Student Writing Center at the University of Minnesota and the Macalester Academic Excellence Center at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). He currently lectures at Kibbutzim College (Tel Aviv). Dr. Dickel has published articles, presented conference papers, and led workshops on writing and the teaching of academic writing. He currently lives in Jerusalem, Israel.