For Real, What Is Intelligence?

Conventional wisdom says we must ask the right question to get the right answer. So when I spotted a Chicago Tribune column asking, “If God’s so intelligent, why is every last thing on Earth so messed up?” I almost choked on my salt and pepper potato chip. In the article entitled “God’s Imperfect World”, the Trib’s Perspective Editor questioned all kinds of Divine creation—from cats, dogs, and human body parts, to underwater creatures:

God filled the oceans up with such a creepy collection of unlikely things you would never go to the beach again if you could see some of them gathered in one place. I’m talking bug-eyed fish with teeth like needles and marshmallow-size glow-in-the-dark lures hanging from their noses.”

Chicago Tribune editorial

Quite graphic, huh? Ironically, a few hours later, I stumbled upon an online news report announcing the discovery that crocodiles’ immune system kills HIV. By studying the reptiles’ blood, Australian scientists hope to develop powerful drugs to combat the disease in humans. And we thought they were all about the shoes and handbags. Who knew? Even that toothy, bug-eyed fish probably has a powerful healing role to play in life’s theater. In fact, scientists say that only a sponge does not grow or contribute to the evolutionary chain.

It intrigues me that this obviously observant journalist has never noticed the mathematical precision with which everything in the Universe seems to operate. It’s so precise that scientists can measure the distance between planets and the speed a planet rotates, predict when one will cast a shadow over another, and forecast the path of comets.

We debate the creative nature of God vs. Intelligent Design as if they are mutually exclusive. I’ll say it again: We must ask the right questions to get the right answers. How about asking, “Why do I think God has a body or acts like a male human? What evidence is there that God lives in a faraway place? Why do I believe that there is imperfection in anything God creates? Is it possible that my vision of God is too myopic?”

And the biggie: “Is it possible that God is Divine Intelligence?” One well-known source describes God as a Being with hands, feet, and other human body parts, then alternately describes God as Spirit. We know that Spirit has no human body. On some pages, God is described as jealous; on others, God is described as love. But we know that love is not jealous. On some pages, God is described as forgiving; on others, “He” is vengeful and punitive.

This is all so confusing, and it forces us to choose which God to believe in: the one who promotes war or prefers peace, the God who reacts with uncontrollable wrath, unspeakable violence, vengeance and sadism when we don’t do precisely what “He” wants us to do, or the God who grants free will to all, and allows us to learn from the consequences.

Let’s face it, some of us–OK, most of us–learn by doing, not by lecture. Free will and consequences teach us why the rule is golden. Someone can command you to do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But after you discover that whatever you do will be done to you, you will actively choose to treat people the way you’d want to be treated. Is there any question that God is intelligent?

Isn’t it fascinating that some of us would rather believe that God is the absence of intelligence (or worse, satanic and tyrannical) than to entertain the notion that ancient scribes who wrote these horrible legends about God were capable of human error? Their vision of an intervening being who answers some prayers, and not others, forces us to believe that God will help someone pass a barber’s exam or win a football game, but will not lift a “hand” to shield children about to be attacked by pedophiles or murderers. What’s that about?

We’re admonished not to ask questions, but the All-Powerful God has nothing to fear from our questions. The All-Knowing God is not threatened by our questions. The Unconditionally Loving God is not outraged by our questions, and certainly not insecure about our search for Truth.

I don’t know about you, but it seems more prudent to question our intelligence about God than to question whether God is intelligent. Really.

What’s an Act of God?

The thought of 30,000 unbathed, hungry souls living–barely surviving, really–inside a New Orleans sports stadium with no water, food, electricity, toilets, or air conditioning pales when compared with the conditions on the streets outside. There are reports of corpses on medians and lawns, anarchy and rape. Rape? Did I hear that correctly?

A man’s body lies in state in a chaise lounge outside the Superdome; nearby, an elderly woman’s body sits in her wheelchair. Babies are dying in their mothers’ arms from dehydration and malnutrition, not in Botswana or Rwanda, in these united states of America.

Meteorologists had forecasted Katrina’s ferocity; and the people in her path were forewarned. But no one could have anticipated that this horrific hurricane would burrow a hole down to the core of human nature and uncap a geyser of toxic slime that would quickly contaminate an entire city and mesmerize a nation flooded with perhaps too much eyewitness news.

On my sorority’s local graduate chapter listserv, hundreds of us were riveted by the story of the tense search for two of our members who were vacationing in New Orleans when Katrina barged in. Finally, word came from the daughter of one (and the granddaughter of the other) that they had been contacted and were safe inside their downtown hotel. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. A couple of days later we learned that they had arrived in Texas by bus. They were lucky.

It seems that another bus had been sent to transport the hotel guests out of town, but it was hijacked, looted, and the driver was killed. The second driver assigned to the rescue crept through the darkness with his headlights off. And the lights remained that way until the bus and its precious passengers were safely out of harm’s way in the lawless city with snipers taking aim at innocent passersby and choppers delivering food. Can you imagine being safer driving with your headlights off? With no streetlights? Absolutely chilling.

I had my own problems. I wasn’t sure how to find my aunt, who has lived in New Orleans most of her adult life. I tracked down her daughter in Atlanta, and was relieved to discover that she had insisted that Aunt Georgie and her caregiver drive to Atlanta. They arrived the day before the storm hit. It was good to hear Aunt Georgie’s voice.

“We don’t understand why God lets these things happen,” she said wistfully, and a bit confused. “We just have to accept it.”

My dear aunt, once a college instructor and now suffering from dementia, doesn’t quite grasp the gravity of the conditions back home. She told me that she’s returning home in a few days. Heaven only knows what she’d find, if that were possible.

I read a newspaper story about a woman who returned to her heavily damaged New Orleans home. Pointing at the crucifix on the wall, she despondently told the reporter, “That was supposed to protect my home. I guess He let me down.”

Is that what God does–let us down? Really? I’ll bet that even folks who believe that God would forsake us for any reason and would blithely harm our bodies and destroy our possessions must be crying, “Why us, Lord? What did we do to deserve this devastation?”

Some say God sent Katrina to punish America for something or another; but no one has said specifically why Bible Belt states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were selected as sacrificial lambs. Most who live there believe that God punishes the innocent to show the rest of us the power of His wrath. It’s a warning, they say, an opportunity for us to change our behavior.

Of course, this presumes that God is not Love, although most of us don’t realize it. That’s because most of us have never asked the simple question, “Would Love do that?”

We’re admonished to have faith and not ask questions about God. We cannot possibly comprehend what God is or why God does anything, they say. OK. So let’s not question God. Let’s question ourselves, instead:

  • If five foreigners kill thousands of American office workers because the U.S. government supports the men’s enemies, you would call it _________.
  • If a nation’s leader tortures his people because they disagree with him, you would call him _________________.
  • If your boss says, “Do as I say, not as I do!” you would consider her ___________.
  • If a parent locks a child in a basement without food or water for a month because she stole candy from the corner store, you would declare that the parent is _________.
  • If one person is blamed or punished for the crime of another, you would declare it an ____________.
  • If a parent leaves his or her helpless newborns in the care and control of someone known to be satanic, you would label it _______________.
  • If a father of ten takes his kids to a foreign land and gives only two of them enough money and information to get back home, you would say he was ____________.

Take a moment to review your answers. How many times did you fill in the blank with the word “mysterious”? I ask that because many of us fervently believe that God has done all of these things–and more. Ironically, when God performs these deeds, we no longer see them as terrorism, genocide or child abuse; we say, “God’s ways are mysterious.”

Isn’t it “mysterious” that we never give God the benefit of the doubt? Isn’t it mysterious that we automatically believe the horrible things we’ve been told about God, and we never say, “Wait a minute–would Unconditional Love do that?” Isn’t it “mysterious” that we only find these acts to be unjust, sadistic, and hateful when humans do them?

If we believe that God is unfair, judgmental, and unforgiving, are we more (or less) likely to be unfair, judgmental, and unforgiving? If we believe that God is violent and vindictive, are we more (or less) likely to be violent and vindictive? If we believe that God has no regard for our well being, are we more (or less) likely to come together or fall apart when tragedy strikes?

Our ancient ancestors didn’t understand the occasionally destructive force of nature. Lacking the benefit of scientific instruments to explain conditions that precipitate storm patterns and hurricane seasons, they concluded that they must have done something to elicit the outrage an awesome and volatile force who lived in the sky; they were being severely punished. We are no longer these ancient people. Why are we clinging to these ancient thoughts in 2005 C.E.?

What if we decided to believe–I mean truly believe–that God is good all the time? What if we looked at everything that happens through that prism? Instead of falsely accusing the omnipresent God of forsaking us, we might see that it was the omniscient God that gave us the reasoning faculties to decide whether to live in areas that have “hurricane seasons”. We’d also see that it was the omnipotent God that provided the technology to predict a hurricane’s arrival so that we can get out of its path, in the event we decided to live in or visit these areas.

Are God’s ways “mysterious”, or are our beliefs about God the real mystery here?

Our beliefs are the authors of all our life dramas. Our beliefs script our perceptions–and our responses to every situation we encounter. Our beliefs dictate how we treat each other, how we perceive ourselves, how we move through the world of work. Our beliefs impact all of our outcomes. Our beliefs create our reality. It’s possible that some of our beliefs need to be questioned, maybe even forsaken.

When we look at New Orleans, we see that the human tragedy dramatically upstages the natural one. It is no mystery that anarchy is boldly strutting down the path cut by the uncontrollable force of nature we call Katrina. In fact, the only mystery is why we believe it was an act of the Unconditional Love we call God.

One day, we might decide to leave this drama behind.