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Published on September 22nd, 2010 | by Natan Margalit


Rosh Hashanah Sermon — The God Delusion: Mechanical Thinking and Organic Thinking

A man who was having delusions that he was God finally gets done with 15 years of psychotherapy.

The doctor says, “Congratulations, you’re cured!”

“Thanks, Doc,” he says somewhat glumly.

“What’s the matter, you don’t sound happy!”

“Well, Doc . . . before I was God, now I’m a nobody.”

Today I want to talk about how we have, in fact, succumbed to the delusion that we can be as gods, and as in the joke, it may not be so easy to come down from this delusion. It’s a heady, exhilarating ride, until we crash into reality.

Humans, being somewhat godly creatures, made, we are told, in the Image of God, have always had the temptation to think that we can be gods. This is not new. We find this delusion in biblical stories, especially the Tower of Babel, and Egypt. These are the biblical examples of cultures that went over the line.

And how did that work? Economics and Ecology had a lot to do with it: They were river economies: they didn’t need to pray for rain, they didn’t need a relationship with God, or with the earth, they simply used their technology to control the wealth that came directly to them with the overflow of the river. They felt they would always have all they needed.  They operated under the delusion that they could control life completely. They even seemed to think they could conquer death.

Did this make them happy? Generous? Secure?

Apparently not.

The Tower of Babel builders wanted one language, one way of thinking, and tried to build a tower to heaven. The rabbis say that when a brick fell from the tower everyone got upset, but when a worker fell off nobody cared.

Egypt bet on bricks and mortor and thought that mummies and pyramids could save them from death. They created a culture that was so afraid of death that life became like a tomb.

Because, of course, the only place where one can find that complete security, complete comfort of no change, no surprises, no discomfort, is in the tomb.

They were frustrated because life isn’t completely controllable. Life is intrinsically dynamic and unpredictable.

Of course this is not a history lesson: in the 20th century and now the 21st we have had the God Delusion badly.

A god has perfect knowledge, unlimited resources, and complete freedom. Of course complete freedom also means isolation.

We have been mesmerized by a promise of perfect knowledge: Since the 17th century Scientific Revolution we have adopted a very powerful story, and a way of thinking that has given us amazing achievements.  It says that the world is a machine. We need only break things down to their smallest components, and we can control, predict, extract. And we have succeeded fantastically, discovering atoms, molecules, cells, bacteria. We have harnessed their power in curing diseases, moving mountains, freeing people to move at greater and greater speed.

And simultaneously, we thought that resources, land, water, oil, fish, cheap labor, trees, fresh air, were unlimited. Modernity is not to be scoffed at. I wouldn’t trade it for ignorance and superstition. But it comes with its own dangers: the creation of modern Tower of Babel, .the God Delusion beckons.

Like in the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (which I have to admit I only know from the Mickey Mouse version) we grab power and it takes us along with it. We cannot control it, it controls us.

We make the world a machine, and we end up making ourselves into machines. We kill Nature, we kill ourselves. And that is no fantasia.

In search of God-like power we isolate things, looking narrowly at only at those factors that we think we can control.  For example: we have the cheapest food in human history. But this only looks good if you narrow your vision to the one factor of cost.  Just a week or so ago we got another news-making recall of salmonella contaminated eggs.  This is no isolated incident. In fact food born salmonella has doubled since the 1970s. Each year in the U.S. 5000 people die of food born diseases, with salmonella the biggest culprit.

It is a completely predictable result of the more and more mechanized practices that we use. The chickens that produce “regular” eggs of the super market live in cages smaller than this piece of paper. (show paper)  That should stop us right there. Something is very wrong. Birds, or cows, or pigs for that matter, are not machines. Period.

But, we narrow our vision: We want cheap chickens and eggs. We choose not to look at the unfortunate human beings who have so few economic options that they must work in a meat factory. These workers have a one in five chance of severe disability or death from their work. A new worker in a chicken meat factory will be put on the “pulling shift” pulling out the innards of thousands of chickens a day. She will loose her fingernails within two or three weeks from the bacteria in the chicken’s guts. People are not machines either.

We don’t want to see where our cheap food comes from.  All the endless rows of items on the supermarket shelf, most of it comes from corn in one form or another.  It takes a half a gallon of oil to produce each Midwestern bushel of corn. And that is not even counting the oil used in transportation and packaging.

That oil, carbon deposited millions of years ago in the ground, is disappearing rapidly. Well, it’s not actually disappearing, a lot of is going into the atmosphere. We don’t notice. My colleague happened to take a trip to Alaska, though, and when he got back he called me, saying, “Natan, I’m converted. I’m now an environmentalist.” After seeing the beauty of Alaska, and the melting glaciers with his own eyes, he couldn’t ignore it.

My next door neighbors are from China and they have a lovely two year old daughter. But they won’t take her back to China for a visit to see their relatives. Why? Because they know that the air is not safe to breathe.  My wife studied in China for a couple of months and got what our neighbors told us is the 100 day cough. Everyone coughs for 100 days until their lungs get used to the polluted air.

We are living in a bubble of isolation.

When the eco-statistician Lester Brown was asked what keeps him awake at night he answered: Water.  We use 70 % of our water on agriculture, for all that cheap food, and we are digging deeper and deeper into the aquifers.  Water demand has tripled in the last half century.  In the North China Plain, which produces half that country’s wheat and a third of its corn,  the water table is falling fast. Wells are going dry every day. Now they need to drill more than a half a mile down to reach fresh water.

A half a mile down! Sound familiar? That’s how deep they drilled in the Gulf to find oil. It’s the same story. We’ll be digging deeper and deeper, going into more sensitive areas, to keep it flowing.  And when the water and oil bubbles burst, as they must eventually, the cheap food that we take for granted will be gone. Will we be better at predicting and preparing for that bubble than for the housing bubble? We better hope so.

A half mile down: I’ve been riveted by the story of the copper miners in Chile, 33 miners, trapped in a small space a half mile under the ground by a mine collapse. Before contact was made they survived for 19 days eating only a spoonful of tuna and a couple sips of water a day. They had very severe and very clear limits.  And they knew it. They cooperated and shared and used ingenuity and discipline. It can be done.

We are not trapped in a mine, but we too are coming close to our limits. Only we don’t see it. We are isolated in our bubbles.

And, with all this power and control, wealth and success are we happier, more secure?

Earlier this year, David Brooks wrote in the NY Times about the Sandra Bullock Effect. She won the Oscar at the Academy Awards, but then he husband had an affair and walked out.  Should she be happy? Our society seems to act as if she should be. After all she has achieved the ultimate goal of her profession. She’ll be higher on the A list for more films. She’ll be making a lot more money. But would anyone in their right mind really choose an Oscar over a marriage? I hope not.  We know what brings happiness: Family, a sense of belonging, community, a sense of purpose. Machines don’t need these things, maybe even gods don’t, but we do.

This was supposed to be the success of rational, scientific civilization. What happened?  The earth is not a machine to be controlled. People are not clogs to fit into the economic engine. We are finding out that it doesn’t work to isolate and control and grow bigger and bigger.

As I said, this isn’t really a new problem. It’s as old as civilization. Only now we are betting the whole planet.

While the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, the super-powers of the day, were counting on their irrigation to guarantee them wealth and security, the small farmers and pastoralists in the hill country of Canaan were worried about the rainfall:

Rosh HaShana is the Day of Judgment, and that originally goes back to fact that in Israel the 8th month, October, is when it needs to rain or the year’s crops will die and the people will starve. That is a feeling of judgment, our fate hanging in the balance. All the other civilizations had rivers, but Israel totally depended on rain, we can’t control it; so the 7th month was time of anxiety and prayer. We needed to renew our relationship with God, who it was believed held the keys to the rain.

We no longer believe in a God in Heaven holding the keys to rain, watching us each day to see if we deserve it or not. But we learned from this hilly, marginal ecology that we are not in complete control and we need relationships: with God, with the soil and our family and neighbors.

We learned that more is not always better: in an unforgiving hilly and rocky land there is a narrow sweet spot of the right amount, the right amount to plant, the right about of water, sun.    There is a pattern of rightness, and we need to work humbly and skillfully with the land, the plants and animals and people to find that right pattern.

That mindset is there for us, it is our inheritance:

To remind ourselves that we are not in total control we have a day called Shabbat, in which we acknowledge that we are creatures and not only creators.

To remind ourselves that our food is a gift we stop and say a blessing, and hopefully remind ourselves where the food came from and how it was grown.

To remind ourselves that we don’t own the soul of the animal whose meat we enjoy, we pour off the blood, because the blood is the symbol of the life. And the sacred life of all beings comes from God.

To remind ourselves that we are all connected the torah commands us 36 times, more than any other command in the torah, not to oppress the stranger.

To remind ourselves that we are not gods, the very name of humanity is Adam, which is from the same word as soil, Adamah.

We have inherited a wonderful resource in Judaism that can not only help us be better Jews. It may help to save the planet.

Let me end with a strange story from the rabbis that goes back to the question of Humanity made in God’s image.

In the verse about the creation of humans in Chapter 1 of Genesis it says, “So God created Mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”(Gen. 1:28)

The ancient rabbis asked, “What does this mean, ‘In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.’”  Is it one person or two?  So they said that the first person was androgynous. Both male and female, and they were attached back to back. Then, the rabbis say, God shaved them apart and they became separate beings. And they always have yearned since then to come together, but this time, face to face.

Interpretation: We started out in the dawn of humanity, like a new born infant or a baby. We were attached, connected, in harmony with the world, still one with nature. I still see this in my younger son, Eiden, who is almost 2. He still curls up with his mother as if he’s a part of her, at home. We don’t cut his hair until he’s three to show this “being in a state of nature.”

But then humanity left the garden, in search of freedom, independence, mastery. I’m already seeing this in my older son who is five. He wants to be king, to be the best, to master all knowledge. Last week he discovered the solar system and now he has memorized it, devoured a few books and even though I read them to him, he remembers more than me. And just wait until they’re teenagers!  Like I did at that age, they will stretch to their limits, do all they can to gain independence, mastery, to test their power, to make an impact.

But, then we reach adulthood, and we begin to understand that independence isn’t everything. And we yearn for connection again. But this time we must earn it, we must consciously choose it. And that means submitting to the human condition. If we stay “free” we end up alone, isolated, running on empty.  Real life, real love, real maturity comes with turning to one another face to face, and choosing relationship, caring, responsibility and love.

So it is with humanity’s relationship to the earth.  We face the choice now: we can hold onto our delusion of unlimited power, unlimited freedom, perfect knowledge; our adolescent binge of independence.  But it is rapidly becoming clear that this is killing us, not making us happier, smarter or more secure. And we are killing our own life support system, the world.

We have the chance now to turn, to stop running and turn towards one another, towards the world and really open our eyes and see. This is a scary time, but also the most amazing opportunity. We have the chance in our generation to use all our power and knowledge with wisdom, to end poverty and hunger not by conquering the earth but by working humbly with the earth, and with one another. . We have the chance to finally fulfill the mitzvah of the Garden of Eden: to work the garden and to guard it. We have the opportunity, in our lifetimes, this year, to fulfill the potential of humanity, to be Adam, from the Adamah, the earth, and Tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  The choice is ours, the time is now.

Shana Tova!

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