The affirmation that Congress started printing on our money in 1864 was proclaimed as a motto for the United States of America as early as 1814 when Francis Scott Key included it in the fourth verse of the Star Spangled Banner. And, while these may have been mere patriotic acts spurred by the emotions of the moment, the invocation of a supreme source and foundation of universal Natural Law goes back to the earliest roots of the republic in Thomas Jefferson’s statement that lays the groundwork for America’s freedom at the top of the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming that mankind are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.
This motto has become controversial in recent years due to the notion that it is counter to the anti-establishment clause of our constitution’s first amendment in that it supposedly promotes religion, or perhaps even a particular religion. But does it really? Or does it do so only in the minds of those who wish to think of it that way? The answer depends upon what we mean by the term, “God.”
There are, seemingly, as many different ideas concerning the nature of God as there are people who hold such ideas, from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” of Thomas Jefferson, to the “God” of Albert Einstein’s “orderly harmony of that which exists,” to the all various images that people form in their minds in their contemplation of spirituality, whether it be during a sermon in church or while meditating upon the vastness of the natural universe.
What is it that we really mean when we use the term “God”? And how does this meaning relate to the founding principles of our nation, to our modern society, and to us as individual human beings?
The three letter proper name that we spell G-o-d is certainly not an exclusively Christian or Biblical term. In fact, it is only a matter of peculiar linguistic convention that we use this word at all, since its etymology is not even derived from anything that appears in the original languages of the Bible. The modern English word comes to us directly from an early German word that originally referred to the old pagan gods of their local culture. The “God” of the Bible has a number of different names in the original Hebrew that are linguistically unrelated to it: Elohim, El-Shaddai, Yahweh, Adonai, etc. So our three-letter label for the foundation of the natural order is merely a matter of convenience of translation into a language that borrows heavily from early German roots.
The equivalent to the term that we pronounce as “God” in the English language is used by people of all religions, in all of the various languages of their own cultures, and even by many people of no religion at all, to refer to the supreme authority for or source of the universe and that Order which is the ultimate origin of life.
This most fundamental meaning is the way in which the term “God” is most relevant to our society: as a reference to the Ultimate Source of the natural order of the universe and the nature of mankind. It is useful in that way regardless of whether that Ultimate Source conforms to the concepts bound within the dogmas and texts a particular religion. Because it is to the universal natural order and the source of our own nature, regardless of the form any of our limited individual human minds uses to conceptualize that universal order, that we look as a basis for the rights and freedoms that we claim as universal among mankind.
If there are ten rabbis (or preachers or priests) in a room, one can almost certainly find in that room at least eleven different views on the nature of God.Traditional aphorism regarding attempts to conceptualize the God of the Bible
When we use the term, “God,” we may think we have in mind a definite entity with known qualities whose form we can perhaps even visualize. But even the most literal-minded and fundamentalist theologians will admit that the true nature of the Foundation of a seemingly infinite universe is a mystery which the human mind cannot fully comprehend. And so, we have no choice but to leave the fullness of the meaning of the word open to the interpretation of each individual person who contemplates it.
Humans are visually oriented creatures. Whenever we think of an idea, most of us tend to form an image in our minds of the thing we are contemplating. And our historical artwork certainly does have some iconic forms that we have associated with our ideas about God. So, whether one believes in the particular conception or not, perhaps the easiest thing to come to mind at the mention of the term is the image of a powerful male figure floating above the clouds or seated on a golden throne, ready to wield his vast power and authority on a whim. Such is the image that is painted on the walls and ceilings of the medieval and renaissance churches that have been the source of many people’s notions of God ever since.
But does this image that so easily comes to mind really convey what we properly mean by the term “God?” Does the foundation of all existence in a vast and potentially infinite universe really have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and hands and feet? In centuries past, it may have been as easy to think of a creator God (or gods) in terms similar to the way we view ourselves as it was to think of the world being contained under a “firmament” of the vault of the sky. In ancient Biblical times, people could probably relate most easily to the notion of a God who formed physical reality with his two hands in the same way as those people formed their physical pottery and utensils with their own hands.
Over the past several thousand years, though, our ever greater understanding of reality has forced us to become more sophisticated in our view of both nature and its source and we find that such physical images must be taken in a more allegorical sense.
Whether we are referring to the clearly non-theistic statements about the Natural Order by someone like Albert Einstein or even to the God of the Bible as derived from Jewish scriptures and the Christian Gospels and epistles, or to the various names that spring from the plethora of other religions and cultures, whenever we use the term “God” in the context of our modern understanding of nature, it necessarily means something that is not merely a singular and limited personal entity with familiar physical characteristics, but is a presence, principle, power, or essence that is fundamental to and even inherent in the Natural Order of the Universe.
In fact, if we take a more than superficial look, we find that even many writings of our ancient philosophies and religions allow for more than the simplistic notions of the foundation of reality than that which we see in much of our artwork. And, as we see here, the Bible itself even refers to ancient Greek philosophy on the subject …:
… for in God we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, for we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 17
upon meeting the Greeks of Athens
Our relationship – and the relationship of the universe at large – with the Source of the natural order is much more intimate than that of a mere potter to his clay pottery. As the Christian apostle Paul says in the above quote, our lives, our beings, and even the structure of the world around us are intertwined with and spring forth directly from the Divine Source.
The “poets” referenced favorably above by the apostle on his visit to Athens were the Greek philosophers who, over the previous several centuries, had taken their own ancient mythology with its anthropomorphized deities and reinterpreted those deities as aspects of the essence of the natural world which is infused with, rather than an entirely separate creation of, Universal Divinity.
A more Fundamental Fundamentalism.
It is an unfortunate feature of today’s religious terminology that a particularly narrow and literalist, and therefore relatively simplistic, interpretation of religious dogma has taken on the label of “fundamentalism.” Because a particular literal interpretation of a particular scripture cannot really be fundamentalist in the truest sense of the word. The important and really fundamental foundational principles in life are more universal and have a much deeper meaning than a superficial, literal reading of the text would have us think.
Even the highly touted Christian “Golden Rule,” for example, is not a uniquely Christian concept. It was taught among Jewish scholars in the century before Jesus. And it is even central to the philosophy of Buddhism which grew out of the Far East hundreds of years before that. Such principles are basic to a civilized society and, with some thought and effort and human empathy, can be derived from a reasoned consideration of the nature of mankind, our relationship between each other, and the condition of humanity in the world. The do not belong to any particular religion.
A more fundamental fundamentalism, then, would recognize the intimate relationship between mankind, the world, and our Source as described by Paul and the ancient sages and poets to whom he refers in his quote above. And a spirituality which is truly fundamental looks beyond sectarian dogmatism to those principles that are universal and fundamental to the nature of mankind.
It is in this more universal context, then, that we look to the Foundation of our rights, our morals, and our national spirit.
And it is in that way that we will refer to “God” in these pages.