When Did We Get to Be Better than God?

Child holding mother's hand.
Child holding mother's hand.

I sense a move afoot that expresses a profound anxiety with where the future is headed. That the world feels like a foreign place to so many is simultaneously distressing and unsurprising to those who feel they’ve somehow been left behind. The tectonic plates of science, morality, politics, and religion all seem to be shifting in ways that leave so many unsettled.

Let me suggest a few of the stressors in no particular order: Climate change. Same gender marriage. Donald Trump. The declining influence of Christianity in the West. The rise of terrorism. Apparent state sanctioned violence toward young African Americans. The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Attempts to counteract the suspicion of refugees and immigrants. Earnest discussions about whether or not to prevent Muslims from entering the United States.

Typically, the way we tend to react when our own worlds appear insecure is dismay. You lose your job. Your doctor confirms what you’ve secretly dreaded for years--that you have Type II Diabetes. Your child is failing eighth grade. Your aunt Hilda threatens to leave her condo in Minneapolis and move in with you. All of these kinds of things threaten to disrupt your stable existence; and you can feel the stomach acid rising up into your esophagus and the increased heart rate. You rehearse catastrophizing scenarios that wake you up in the middle of the night, when the house is silent and life seems much more fraught.

But what happens when reality itself feels untethered?

How do you feel, for instance, when the political principles that you assumed shaped the world start to unravel? What’s the appropriate response when your particular take on morality undergoes a public beating? How do you deal with the confusion when scientific consensus tells you that what you’ve always believed was science … isn’t? How do you respond to the disconcerting news that the religious expression you’ve taken for granted as having been written into the Constitution turns out to be understood as only one religious expression among many--and a beleaguered one at that?

Fear? Alarm? Panic?

Unfortunately, fear--while evolutionarily advantageous for escaping chance encounters with saber-tooth tigers in the African savanna--isn’t an effective longterm coping strategy. In a heightened state of fear, we have a tendency to strike out at anything that looks vaguely like a threat. Whether what we encounter is an actual threat gets pushed aside. Our fear responses, which are seated in the limbic system, aren’t calibrated for the comprehensive investigation of threats; their function is to get enough adrenaline pumping so that our bodies have the resources necessary for fighting or fleeing. The brain’s logic is that it’s better to misidentify a non-threat as a potential menace than to ignore it and risk being lunch.

Our highly sensitive instincts served us well in the early days of humanity’s existence. Indeed, our ability to identify danger is what allowed us to survive long enough to evolve.

However, the same threat detection system that kept us from winding up on the menu back at the dawn of human existence doesn’t help us when the greatest threats we face are the passive-aggressive notes from Janice the break-room nazi, whose purpose in life, it seems, is to catch whoever it is who keeps leaving half-empty yogurt cartons in the refrigerator. In the world we now inhabit viewing every new thing, each new face as a potential threat is maladaptive behavior.

Our chronic fear makes us less safe, just to the extent that we’re always more apt to shoot, stab, shun, or shame those who in reality have no interest in squaring off against us as our enemies. Our persistent consternation causes us to view every change in our environment, every challenge to our settled beliefs as an attack on all that is good and holy in the world.

Look, I understand the inclination. I have my own reservations about the future too. But we who claim to locate our understanding of truth in the divine cannot be constantly suspicious that somehow our purchase on reality is threatened, just because that reality asks us to readjust our perceptions of it. We who find our surest source of strength in God cannot live in perpetual fear of those whom God loves just as much as God loves us.

And so to my Christian sisters and brothers, I say:

God doesn’t live in fear of a world that frightens us, doesn’t hide from a science that displaces the settled orthodoxies of previous generations, refuses to be boxed in by a morality that made more sense in a world that could never have anticipated the world we live in, who isn’t afraid to joyfully inhabit new religious structures as old ones die off.

God loves Muslims as much as Christians, LGBTQ people as much as straight folks, immigrants and refugees as much as US citizens, poor people as much as the rich.

We should be exceedingly suspicious of any God who is more intellectually rigid than we are, who disapproves of all the same people we disapprove of.

When did we get to be better than God?