God: The Enigma

My sleep these days is distrubed by a nightmare. A grim-faced man sooner or later accosts me with a handgun. As he is about to pull the trigger I awake in a cold sweat. I think I know the reason for the nightmare: it results from remembering a time in my life when I was in mortal danger of being shot or burned to death.

During the 1980's I worked in Congress for the old Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Its chairman, Rep. Morris K. Udall, assigned me to investigate gross violations of the federal strip mining reclamation law, at that time widespread in the Appalachian coalfields. I teamed up with a man from the General Accounting Office. For two years we roamed the mountains of West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia collecting evidence. It was a very hostile environment. The coalmine operators we interviewed clearly resented our intrusion. We were aware they carried handguns; and high mortality rates indicated that they were not shy about firing away, if sufficiently arroused.

Prudently, we rode with state police in their cars. We wore bullet-proof vests and my partner got permission to carry a gun for protection (I declined to do so). Sometimes at night a police car was stationed outside our motel rooms. We could easily imagine Molotov cocktails coming through our windows, trapping us inside. Despite all of our precautions, I have no doubt that we were in grave peril as we went about our work.

Fortunately, we survived this experience unscathed. It comes to mind because some of us at All Souls Church Unitarian are re-examining traditional religious concepts, chiefly the idea of God. Now I do believe that the vast majority of humankind, being religiously inclined, tend to draw up some kind of mental contract - whether explicit or not - with their personal deity, however they may visualize such an entity.

Their quid pro quo goes something like this: At the very least, when I am in mortal danger I can call on you, Yahweh, Allah, Brahma, etc., to provide succor and/or pull me through a tight spot, in exchange for which I provide burnt offerings, light votive candles, take a dip in the Ganges, travel to Mecca, or even butcher my first-born son - as Father Abraham was prepared to do - in order to placate you or accumulate spiritual credit toward a guaranteed improved after-life - in case you are unable to rescue me.

Now I am asking myself: To what, or whom, do I owe the generally satisfactory outcome of my risky venture into the minefields of Appalachia? I don't remember getting down on my knees to beg God's protection on those motel nights when I felt sure I was the likely target of a Molotov cocktail. No, I was scared stiff. I dragged my mattress onto the floor, on the dubious assumption that this manuever would imporve my chances of surviving. Did God protect me, even though I ignored him? Was God working his will through the state troopers, my bullet-proof vest, my partner's hidden gun, or the whole federal law enforcement panopoly that backed me up? Or was it just plain dumb luck?

I lean toward the latter theory. A supernatural being looking out for little ole me may be comforting at a gut level, but my mind, dear friends, stubbornly rejects the idea.

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