by Rick Bayan
(August 1998) When I was a mere pup, no older than some of the unopened soup cans in my cupboard today, I used to believe that God looked like Arthur Godfrey.
For those of you too young to remember, Arthur Godfrey's benign countenance beamed its way into millions of American homes during television's infancy. He was among the first and most legendary of the daytime talk-show hosts. His cheerfully bulbous features -- the features of a middle-aged cherub -- conveyed a benevolence that passeth all understanding. To my three-year-old mind, he was almost an object of reverence. I watched in awe as his image materialized on that mysterious glowing screen.
When I first heard about God, I assumed he was simply a more distant incarnation of Arthur Godfrey. The names were similar; maybe they were cousins. And from that time forward, whenever I tried to visualize the face of God, I would invariably see the puffy cheeks, the mirthful eyes, the perpetual beaming smile of... ARTHUR GODFREY.
There was no avoiding it. In the crazy maze of my youthful imagination, God and Arthur Godfrey became inextricably linked. At school, when we'd say grace before our mid-afternoon snackfest of milk and cookies, there was Arthur Godfrey nodding his approval from on high. When I walked through a field on a sparkling day and dared to look the sun in its face, it was the unmistakable face of Arthur Godfrey I beheld. Godfrey was everywhere, and he made me feel at ease in the world.
Only later did the more orthodox theologies cloud my sunny relationship with the supreme deity. Yes, God was our shepherd, his mercy was everlasting, and his truth endureth to all generations. But he was also known to pull an occasional fast one.
The God of the Old Testament could be alarmingly ruthless and persnickety. He had a nasty penchant for punishing the innocent along with the guilty, yet nobody quibbled with his decisions. Why would he drown hordes of helpless children in the Flood, or smite all those firstborn sons in the land of Egypt, or turn Lot's good wife into a pillar of salt? For that matter, why would he condemn all of humankind because our first ancestors ate some unwashed fruit? And why the seemingly petty obsessions with dietary habits and Jewish men's hairstyles? Could the creator of the galaxies really be all that chagrined if we ate a bratwurst?
Even the New Testament God, with his mellow '60s message of love and brotherhood, could turn spiteful if we didn't play by his rules. Sure, he'd reward us if we accepted his son as our personal lord and savior; otherwise we could bake in hell for all eternity. And how would he know which of us deserved a place of honor in his own lofty accommodations? He'd have to tally the scoresheets of billions of individual humans from the Paleolithic to the present. As if he isn't busy enough inventing new viruses or destroying stars in the dark regions beyond the Crab Nebula.
And how is it that so many generations of believers have bowed to his more unfathomable whims with the bland resignation of sheared sheep? Eighteenth-century burying grounds are littered with the remnants of human bodies rudely snatched in their infancy; I've seen mildewed monuments to entire broods carried off by a single epidemic. How could the faithful parents not have been consumed by rage at their presumptive benefactor? Meekly and heroically, they subjected their own will to his: "Here lyeth all that is Mortal of our beloved Daughter Elizabeth, whom it pleased God to take from us in the seventh Yeare of her Age. Praised be His glorious Name." If they felt betrayed, they didn't let it ruffle their periwigs.
Creator, benefactor, destroyer, heartbreaker. Exactly what kind of deity are we dealing with here? Who IS this God that so many of us have worshiped, abandoned, loved, cursed, wrestled with, and obsessed about for all these many centuries? Is he a charitable fellow whose eye is on the sparrow, or a remote and brilliant physicist more concerned with gravitation than salvation? Might he be the abstract, beneficent Providence invoked by Franklin and Jefferson? How about Chairman and CEO of the universe? Does his tolerance for evil make him indistinguishable from the devil? Could he be (choose one) Yahweh, Zeus, Allah, Wotan, Quetzalcoatl, Ahura-Mazda, Shiva or the Tao? Is he dead, nonexistent or just retired? Have the New-Agers discovered him in their hazy preoccupation with healing energy? Finally, could he be a she? Will the real God please stand up?
I have a suggestion. If we want to get better acquainted with God, let's look at the world he created. We should see his imprint all over it, shouldn't we? By his works we shall know him. It seems so simple, so obvious... I'm astonished that none of the major religions ever considered it before.
What can we deduce about God by observing the world?
He must love insects, for he made so many of them. They must have been his favorite hobby when he was young, and he never lost his fascination with them. The termite population alone is said to outweigh the world's human population by a ratio of ten to one. In other words, for every hundred-pound fashion model, the good lord has provided the world with a thousand pounds of termites.
He's fond of stars, obviously; they're as staggeringly numerous as grains of sand, which he also must love. Crabgrass, dandelions, ragweed, cancer cells, antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- all favored by the Almighty. You'd think he'd like dogs, but he suffers them to live only a dozen or so years, while parrots frequently become centenarians. Sometimes there's no accounting for his taste.
I'm convinced that God loves a good prank. When I drop a screw and it promptly rolls out of sight... when I can't find a checkbook that was in plain view not five minutes ago... when I'm on a date and I see the woman of my dreams sitting alone at the next table... there I discern the handiwork of the Almighty in all its mischievous glory.
God appears to be fairly enthusiastic about sex. The entire pageant of life revolves around the act of procreation. We tend to grow extinct without it. If God cast a dim eye on the felicities of conjugation, he would have had us reproducing like mushrooms or amoebas. Instead, he invented genitals.
Somewhat surprisingly for a divinity who endorses procreation, the real God is tough on babies. Perhaps ten percent of lion cubs survive their first year. The numbers are even more depressing for lesser creatures. If you enter this world as a crab or a herring, good luck. You're FOOD -- even before you GROW UP to be food. Among our own favored species, as we've already observed, infant mortality has been a fact of life for millennia. In some of the most godforsaken nations, half the children are history by the age of five.
In general, God appears to concern himself more with the breed than the individual. It matters little to him what happens to every Tom, Dick and Hideki; they're expendable commodities on the battlefield of life, much like the countless shrimp that end up on our cocktail plates. To God, one shrimp is pretty much like another -- no matter that the population is decimated and millions of lives are lost, as long as a few lusty specimens survive to perpetuate their genes.
Now and then he'll give up on an entire breed that proves too hapless or absurdly designed. Dodos, dimetrodons, great auks and giant ground sloths have all joined the roster of God's Edsels. They're just a few of his discontinued models.
God may be preoccupied with species, but he seems to delight in tormenting certain types of individuals. Crazy people, sickly people, the weak, the ugly, the maladjusted, the shy, the stupid, the overly intelligent, the insecure -- chronic sufferers all. He values pluck and aggressiveness; the go-getter who builds his own successful sheet-metal business is the good lord's fair-haired boy. God appears to be ambivalent toward the Jewish people he professed to embrace as his nation; he has granted them success and distinction at the price of eternal vigilance.
But God has the most fun with artists and writers: he inflames them with the desire to rival his own creations, then douses their overheated ambitions with a cold spray from the garden hose of reality. If they persist, he slams them to the ground and tweaks them on the proboscis for good measure. A fortunate few break free and prosper; the others lament the day they didn't become bank clerks.
You have to wonder why the Almighty would go out of his way to thwart the competition, for no human can rival him as an artist. God has yet to create an ill-formed mountain or tree. His birds and butterflies are mostly magnificent. No Monet can match the color and composition of his most enchanting landscapes. Rockbound coasts, fields of wildflowers, the glint of sunlight glowing through translucent green leaves, a silent explosion of cumulus clouds, the purples and golds of sunset -- all smack of artistry beyond the limits of human attainment. He deserves our critical acclaim.
But still the hard truth remains: God can be as merciless as he is magnanimous. What do we make of a Providence who destroys as readily as he provides? Can we still be friends? Or do we need to keep genuflecting while we duck for cover? An adversarial God is small comfort when we're struggling to survive. His opposition exhausts us. More and more often, I've found myself longing for the sunny God of my youth.
The other day, after work, I was walking along a stream a few miles from town. I crossed over a graceful stone bridge, then proceeded up the road. On my right, behind an old Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse, a little girl was frolicking with a woolly white dog. Both of them seemed to exult in being young and alive together. It was high summer. Tall flowers shot upward in a brilliant profusion of colors straight out of a Crayola box. The early evening sun cast a pleasing golden-green patchwork across the lush lawn, while thrushes warbled from the cool darkness of the trees. It was as nearly perfect a scene of earthly contentment as one could hope to see.
I looked into the western sky, where the sun reclined gently toward the horizon -- a calm, benevolent, cherubic sun. Could it be? There, amid peach- colored clouds, the unmistakable countenance of Arthur Godfrey beamed again. My old friend was back in his rightful place after a long and painful absence; his smile comforted me.