The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
THE GOD FROM THE MACHINE
In classical drama, plays from ancient Greece and Rome, it sometimes happened that the dramatist would get matters so tangled for his protagonists that the only way to settle matters and save the situation was to call on divine help. A god would appear from on high in some sort of contraption — I don't know quite how they did it — and straighten things out by passing a few miracles. It happened often enough that a term from it entered our literary and then our common vocabulary: deus ex machina, the god from the machine. It meant anything that could arrange a miraculous rescue when the situation seemed to have gotten tangled and dangerous beyond hope in our mortal affairs.
As a literary device, of course, it can no longer be used seriously. There is, in reading literature, as Coleridge said, the necessity for a suspension of disbelief. We can immerse ourselves in fictional worlds of fantasy or frivolity, suspending our disbelief, and accepting the deus ex machina of, for instance, P.G. Wodehouse's divinely competent and intelligent Jeeves who always rescues poor Bertie Wooster miraculously at the 11th hour, just before he is about to be forced to walk up to the altar with one of his grim fiancées, spend a few nights in the jug, or be banned from the table prepared by the supreme chef employed by his Aunt Dahlia. However, in serious literature which attempts to reflect and shape reality, the world described must bear a close resemblance to the world in which we live, and miraculous rescues simply can't be accepted. When I was watching cartoons with my children when they were small, I would often go along with all of its craziness up to a point at which I would say, “I don’t believe that!” I may have believed all sorts of impossibilities up to that time, but then there would be something that wouldn’t fit, that brought the mechanics of the suspension of disbelief too sharply to my consciousness. In serious literature (and by the way, when I call it serious I am not making a judgment either as to value or to quality. There is frivolous literature that I think will last as classics through generations when its serious contemporaries have been long since dead — P. G. Wodehouse’s felicities being some of them) the miraculous savior would have the same effect. We would be brought sharply out of the world of the work that we are experiencing, knowing that we have been convinced of its untruth, and can no longer experience it on the same level. “I don’t believe that!” we would probably say.
That's why it seems so odd that so much of our society today seems to be looking so hard for a new god from the machine, in all kinds of ways. It seems that we really have got things so messed up, that only a miracle will save us, and so we're looking for miracles. All of us. Me too.
One of the most obvious examples of miraculous thinking is a state lottery. Florida’s is one of the oldest, but given the fact that its earnings are earmarked for education I would be willing to bet that it was sold as the deus ex machina that would save the state’s educational system. That’s how it’s always sold in other states. People vote for it with a sense of high virtue, and, of course, the tax money that would have been used for education is immediately diverted to other projects. When I was in public school in Florida the schools I attended were comparable to the ones in the Middle West and the northeast. Since dependence on the lottery state spending on education has fallen to the point that we are now forty-eighth in per capita pupil spending.
Gambling now and then is fun, just as having an occasional strong drink is fun. I certainly don't think it should be illegal, and I do think it should be heavily taxed, and may even be a good source of tax revenue. However, gambling can, and often does, become a drug to which people are seriously, even fatally addicted, and to have a government, which is supposed to be instituted for the good of the citizens actively promoting it, I think is appalling. People become addicted to it most easily when their fantasies tell them that gambling will be their miraculous financial savior. In fact, people mostly lose. That's why it is so profitable for the casino, the racetrack, or, in this case, the state, to feed their fantasies and take their money. When Biloxi, MS became the southern Atlantic City, all anyone could talk about was what a great windfall it was for the city and state and for the job market. Maybe so, but I have seldom been saddened more than I was driving on the Gulf highway approaching Biloxi and seeing that every other building was either a mission or a pawn shop.
A state lottery is probably the most regressive tax ever invented, even more so than social security. The fact that the lottery is voluntary does not make it less regressive. The people who pay the most are those who can least afford it, since they are the ones most in need of a miracle to save them.
It is also dangerous to a sense of moral responsibility. At least it's dangerous to mine. Every time I get one of those mailings that offer a prize of $10,000,000, it ruins me for days. I would much rather spend my time thinking about how to spend that money than how to manage the money I earn more wisely and the chances of winning are at least as small as in a state lottery. Once I was given a Maryland state lottery ticket. I think the prize was $4,500,000 that time. That's less than half of what my financial fantasies tell me that I really need, but it still wasted a sufficient amount of my time daydreaming about it. As you can see, I didn't win.
All over the world there are indications that people are just plain scared. They can't see any human solution to the problems that plague us. We are destroying our planet, which is nothing new, but there are more of us now, so we can do it on a larger scale. It used to be that the depredations of humankind were small enough to be made up by the normal recovery techniques of nature. Although medieval cities stank to high heaven, and the people in them died of disease and dirt, the earth itself was not harmed, and not far from the cities anyone could find clean air and water. Now we wonder if we can survive if we do not pollute our environment in all kinds of ways, and if we continue to do so, we know we won't survive. We've invented direct killing techniques which can destroy not only all human beings, but probably all life on earth. We use presently abundant but non-renewable fossil fuels, and will even wage war to protect our supply, and the lip service we pay to alternative energy sources — even hybrid cars — is palliative fantasy. We have masses of people who are hungry, even starving, and homeless, though there are fewer of these sufferers in the United States than in many places. Nevertheless we cannot seem even to feed, house or educate our own. People see and suffer from those ills and others and the consequences of them, and reacting to them in fear and lack of understanding not only compound them but create more, thus becoming more desperate until they feel at last that only a miracle can save us. So they begin looking for miracles, for a god from the machine.
Sometimes it's money that we think will save us. It may not save the world in the end, but it will at least temporarily save the state, and will certainly save the individual. If they can't earn it, they'll gamble for it or steal it. Sometimes it's drugs. At least then you forget the pain. Sometimes it's a notion that they actually call god. I suspect it is this same fear and need which have caused the upsurge in fundamentalist, magical religions all over the world. Human beings seem to have shown that they can't save themselves, so they turn back to the idea of a God who not only created them and the universe but will take care of them, too.. Sometimes it produces an ecstasy akin to that of drugs, and believers then feel that everything will be all right. Sometimes it produces a rigidity of thought and action that rather than improving matters takes them farther down the road to insolubility, because problems are ignored or inappropriate solutions are proposed from ancient authority which was faced with very different problems from our present ones. Apocalyptic thinking, the idea that God is coming soon to fix things, allows you to ignore depredations to the environment, over-population and human suffering, and encourages a rather terrifying foreign policy.
But there are all kinds of magical thinking. I suspect that it is driving our recent politics. At the last presidential election I had only sympathy for whoever was elected to do an impossible job in such perilous times. Others seemed to think that our president could simply wave a magic wand and solve all the accumulated problems of two wars and a devastated economy. When that didn’t happen, in their anger they tried a different magic formula, and made the impossible even worse. I shudder to think of the next permutation.
Easy solutions or escapes from reality make the problems we have worse rather than solving them. They either keep people from confronting them, since the deus ex machina will take care of it, or they compound the fear and the problem, as do violence, crime and drug addiction or other dependencies, and the attempts at solutions based on inappropriate values like the fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim and others) who try to control others on the basis of religions whose rules were laid down to fit a world far other than the one in which we live today can be even worse.
I do not have solutions for all our problems. I probably don't have solutions for any of them, but I know for certain that looking for miracles will solve nothing at all. There are miracles and magic in the world. In fact, life itself, the universe, love, commitment, beauty, all are miracles. The development of a flower or a baby, the beauty of a sunset, the grandeur of the ocean in storm are all magic. These, however, are things, however wonderful, that belong in the natural world. They do not suspend natural laws, and they are not things that can only happen on the basis of the wildest chance. I do not deny flatly that natural laws are never suspended, or that fantastic luck can never come your way, but if you build your life around that hope, the likelihood that you will be disappointed approaches certainty. To look for a god from a machine is a prescription for eventual despair.
It may be that this part of the unique message of Unitarian Universalism, that we cannot look for divine intervention or miraculous solutions to our problems, is one of the things that keeps us from widespread popularity as a religious faith. As far back as when Thomas Jefferson edited the Bible to omit the accounts of miracles, we have known that we cannot depend on magic to save us. That does not mean that I do not believe in imaginings and fantasy of a better future. That is actually the first step in achieving a better future — imagining what it might be like. Fantasy can give us the pattern for which to strive. However, it is important to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It's really fine for me to imagine how I would spend $10,000,000 so long as I know for a fact that I'm very unlikely ever to have it — particularly since I've never won anything in my life but a few dancing lessons and a Florida-shaped fruit basket — and as long as it doesn't become an obsession and an expectation. It not only adds pleasure to life to have one rich in fantasy, but it is good for one's mental health as well. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that I try to discover and get involved in serious, non-miraculous efforts to solve the real problems of the real world, without recourse to a god from a machine, who was an actor, after all. We need to work out our own salvation, as individuals and a society, by making the choices that are creative — that are loving, committed and realistic. We need to look at our hopes, hopes that we need to have in order to exist at all, and make sure that the god for which we look is not out of machine, an easy (and false) miracle, but the god of loving commitment to our own solutions to our problems.