Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hawking God

Steven Hawking has made the news again with a comment that not only is being reported wrongly but is not really surprising.  Hawking has become the physics darling of the media and as one of the smartest people in the world his words carry cache.  What I find surprising is how amazingly wrong the press got what he said.  Hawking called the concept of heaven and the God, as often defined by western culture a fairy story.  I would argue with his choice of words since in literature discussions the use of the words fairy tale and fairy story specifically exclude religious text.  But maybe he is correct.  The definition of God in our culture and certainly the concept of heaven prevalent in our society are not so much religious writings as they are extrapolations of what might be.  Drawn from ancient Greek and Roman concepts the ideas of heaven and hell are often seen as a place where we have temporal and physical existence as an individual.  That doesn't sound like any explanation in my Bible of life after death.  However when one is looking for a way to create a carrot and stick to explain the need for positive behavior, this is as good as any.  The Biblical formula of not getting rain in the proper season, for example, is only a good learning tool if in fact there is a connection for violating Biblical law and rain.  If there wasn't then how can one believe anything in the Torah.  This is what drives many away from religion and here is a prime example.  Hawking's proclamation is being held up by those who seem to make a career out of attacking religion any religion.  However what Hawking actually said was much in line with most modern religions.  Focusing on the here and now is far more important to modern Jewish thought and many Christian preachers than thinking about the world to come.  For them as for me, living a good life is a reward in itself.  I know, not the wonderful concept of the afterlife that would bring perpetual joy but trust me, if you do the math there are real problems with seeing heaven in its pop culture construct as joy.  

But what drove some people over the edge was Hawking's claim (though he did it last year and only now getting more traction) that the universe can exist without any God or gods and in fact is likely to exist without one.  "Hawking says there is no God" ran the banner headlines all over the internet.  But what in fact Hawking did was say the God of Newton, the mindful, purposeful creator God, who with intention and plan started the universe's balling a rolling or the every intervening God that picks winners and losers of life and football does not exist, or more correctly nothing suggests that that God does.  Again not a new idea, many modern theologians have written about a God outside of direct interaction with universe.  In fact Reconstructionist Judaism in fact is based in part on the theology of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan who said God is what drives existence itself.  Not a separate entity.   God is not a celestial hall monitor looking for sins in humanity, nor a supernatural concierge to give us things asked for.  Reconstructionist Judaism sees a good metaphor for God as the electricity running through our wired homes, adding that we as humans must activate Godness for God to be part of our world as one flips a switch to turn on the  light.  This evolution of the God concept is seen in other faith traditions as well.  But many many cling to the older notions of God that Hawking can't rectify with reality.  

I remember an episode of West Wing where President Jed Bartlet was disclosing to the country that he has MS, something he kept quiet while campaigning.  His life-long secretary had just been killed in a drunk driving accident and the funeral had just ended. He stood in the middle of the National Cathedral to give a speech.  A devote Catholic he comes face to face in a way with his God...the words directed straight at this God.

Bartlet: You're a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? "You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God," says Graham Greene. I don't know who's ass he was kissing there 'cause I think you're just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours except praise his glory and praise his name? There's a tropical storm that's gaining speed and power. They say we haven't had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year, 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? It fixes the other ships. It doesn't even carry guns. It just goes around and fixes the other ships and delivers the mail. That's all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I've committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn't good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. Thirty million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We're not fighting a war. I've raised three children. That's not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!

The Latin is :

Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To hell with your punishments.(actually to the cross)   I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you!" (again literally to the cross with you)  

Later in the episode he is confronted by the memory of his secretary, Mrs. Landingham. 
He dialogues with her:

"I have MS and I didn't tell anybody." 
        "Yeah. So, you're having a little bit of a day." 
"Are you going to make jokes?" 
         "God doesn't make cars crash and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse." 
"The party's not going to want me to run." 
          "The party will come back. You'll get them back." 
"I've got a secret for you Mrs. Landingham, I've never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party." 
          "I've got a secret for you, Mr. President: Your father was a prick who couldn't get          
           over the fact that he wasn't as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. 
           Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off 
           than you." 

They go on to discuss the state of society and work still needed to me finished.  She concludes with the following. 

". . . . You know if you don't want to run again, I respect that. But if you don't run cause you think it will be too hard or you think you're going to lose, well, God, Jed, I don't even want to know you."  

You can see here the struggle between the concepts that embody the old world idea of what God is and the more modern idea that we have a role to make Godness grow in the universe.  A struggle that Hawking probably has been living with for quite some time, a struggle that is clear in the work of Hawking's predecessor Einstein and of course many many modern people who take their faith seriously.  But the message I would give to Hawking is that he is right there is no sense of worrying about an afterlife, but if we work hard together, honor the simplest of tenets of most faiths, and engage Godness in this world we can build heaven here, and while it will not be an eternity, it will make the short time we have better for all. 

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