Breaking Symmetry: American Gods
Dr. Terry Boyd elucidates the peregrination of our American Gods.
In this vast and silent universe, there are forces that are greater than us, whether we like it or not. This is not an article of faith, although, perhaps it should be.
It seems to me that very few people in the United States truly believe in a god. Most that do either believe in the wrong ones or they believe in the wrong ways. Usually, this means that their god is rooting for their political party, or that it wants them to be wealthy, or that it may or may not—depending on the frequency and intensity of prayer—keep them and their loved ones among the living for another year. America’s gods generally want what Americans want them to want. America’s gods are perfectly mundane, and they never surprise.
We shouldn’t forget that, as a historical fact, most gods are natural forces. They command by fiat and yet dare to call their decrees “laws.” They are dangerous, unpredictable, and incomprehensible. They are callous to most human affairs. They are indifferent to our actions, except, at times, as spectators. Even then, little that we do merits their attention other than war—and the antics of those brave fools who dare to stand against them.
Loving gods have emerged from time to time, but largely as a novelty. Perhaps they were an innovation that was made possible by the increasing safety that humans found in growing civilizations. Perhaps they ousted the old gods, as the Olympians did the Titans, through cunning and reason. Whatever their origins, the loving gods have all met the same fate. The loving gods have always fallen before the combined forces of wonder and confusion.
Because they love us, these gods are answerable to us. This relation made it possible to do what would have been incomprehensible for Kronos or Shiva. Love granted us the gift of the honest, open, question. So we asked and asked. Eventually, we came to this: “If you are loving, omnipotent, and omniscient, then why is there evil?”
That impossible, fateful, question spills so naturally from the lips of every youthful believer. As it ponders this question, the loving god nods, kneels, and then climbs up onto the cross to be gawked at by those who don’t question, by those who don’t know the value of ends, by those who don’t know how to begin again, by those who think that to live means not to die.
This question returns us to the incomprehensible: everyone knows that evil is of human origin. In any case, it’s certain that we’ve witnessed evil only from human hands.
Evil is no mystery. It is simply the consequences of acts that oppose the laws of nature. We are free to respect the gods of the forest or the river or the savannah, and we are free to breach their laws. In doing so, we run the risk of being snatched out of life by the unseen forces that continue to exceed our knowledge, will, and understanding.
Along the way, we’ve learned to see these forces. And we’ve learned that they don’t always see us. This taught us at least one thing: the gods’ laws are not absolute. It’s a numbers game. And the more we know, the more we are willing to risk. Armed with this knowledge, we have learned to sin with purpose.
We should be ashamed of the way that we’ve treated the loving gods. They put a kind face on the horrors of this world, and they helped us, in spite of ourselves, to view one another as members of a common humanity. They have exhorted us to love. They have taught us to seek peace and harmony. This is no small achievement, and we should take care to think hard about exactly what this means. Each of us has seen the inside of this human experience, and it is evident that anger and the will to destroy come far more naturally to us than love and commitment. If we were created in a god’s image, it would be wise to remember that we were stamped with our likeness long before the loving gods arrived. We were formed in clay and hardened by kiln. Kinship with fire, blood, and soil promised protection.
Still, the loving gods have, miraculously, made their mark. They’ve marked us with a capacity to share, to love, to forgive, and to hope—a pretty good track record, I’d say. But a capacity is a mere chance. It is an initiation. It is the possible that we are left to actualize. The Word was to be made flesh.
But it’s easier to simply believe. Believing that we are made in their images, we’ve convinced ourselves that they are like us and that what they want is their only law.
We’ve convinced ourselves that belief is what they want. If only we would believe, the world would be safe. If only we would believe, we would do away with all this vengeance, war, and hellfire. So we’ve continued to ask much of these gods, armed with our half-assed beliefs, our thoughts, and our prayers.
We’ve asked them to clean up for us, to take responsibility for the evil, pain, and suffering that we see in this world. This is a bit of a silly request, since gods are, and only ever have been, the artistic elaborations of those very things.
Once we found newer and better explanations and sources of power, we wanted the Gods to serve newer and better purposes. We wanted them to absolve us; to make us clean and innocent and whole again.
Since, of course, they could no such thing, we have abandoned them; they who have given us so much.
Our greatest error in becoming a nation of atheists has been to forget the wrathful and vengeful nature of the gods. In a year like this one, we find ourselves astonished to discover that the gods’ wrath is the one part that has always been real. The loving gods were conjured to help us to cope with this fact, to reconcile ourselves to the vast, silent, dissolution out of which we are woven.
Our relationships with the gods are borne in the courage to face the unknown, the incomprehensible, and the forces that over-awe. It is in our confusion and wonder that we learn to appreciate the universe that we inhabit. It is confusion and wonder that drives us to honor and seek after its mysteries. It is confusion and wonder that compels us to seek communion.
It is confusion and wonder—not truth—that will set us free.
If you’ve been paying attention at all you would know that the clearest truth in this universe is that this universe wants us dead. This is considerably clearer than gauge bosons, quantum entanglement, wormholes, and warp drives—however fine a distraction these ideas have proven to be.
The verdict is clear.
The earth is a relatively small planet in an incomprehensibly large planetary solar system. This solar system is embedded in a galaxy that, no matter what you’d like to believe, is so large that Captain Picard and his physics-defying Enterprise has never crossed its boundaries. ( I haven’t seen every episode of Star Trek and I’ve never read a Star Trek novel, but if you nerds want to fight, come and see me)
And the universe has unfurled billions of such galaxies. To our knowledge, we’re the only place in this sprawling sea of quiet that harbors life. And, frankly, there are places even on this earth that would off us within seconds. Virtually every other swath and torrent of space and time in the universe would obliterate every living thing that we’ve ever heard of, were it not for the peculiar satellite that is currently keeping you and me afloat.
Life is, by any measure, the least likely thing that would ever fucking happen, ever. It’s a miracle. We are among the miraculous.
We are among the rarest things in the universe. Far rarer than diamonds—which, as it turns out, fall from the sky, like rain, on Saturn and Jupiter. That astonishing fact is vastly more probable than even the most trivial features of our existence, like eyelashes, or first kisses.
And it isn’t just that we, the living, are rare. We’re also almost impossible.
We are an asymmetry in time and space. As the universe pushes outward and into the future, our gaze falls upon the wonders of its past. And as that completed perfection approaches us, it dissolves into the uncertainty of here and now, stopping briefly to push its way through us, before tumbling toward its destiny of chaos and disorder. And yet, we stand, always on the cusp of this perilous transformation of past into future.
We, the living, stand in defiance of this entropic decree, of this last unbroken law and unseen force; stealing order and expelling chaos for as long as we can pull off the trick. In the end, of course, it will hardly have mattered that we were here to build, believe, create, and destroy. It will hardly have mattered how we manage to guide the affairs of this tiny, wet, rock.
The end is predestined by those forces which exceed us.
But the beginnings are not. This is, perhaps, owed to the mark of the loving gods.
We are the miraculous. At every moment we are the one chance, in all of the known universe, to begin anew. To begin is to stand against the flowing force of the universe, it is to defy the decree of the universe’s destiny to end in chaos.
It is only here and now, on this planet, among these living, that any such task may be ventured. In our world, the law of god is that very little of what could be ever is; and that most of what you’ll ever be is nothing at all.
Be ready to sin.