Michael Benedikt: Whether or not God exists is entirely up to you
“God,” Bernard Lonergan once warranted, “is the unrestricted act of understanding, the eternal rapture, glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of ‘Eureka’.”
This discernment—these “remarkable words,” to quote Anglican priest, theoretical physicist, and theologian, John Polkinghorne—appear on page 684 of Insight (which is volume 3 of the projected 25-volume Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan), which Google dubs the author’s “masterwork”. A Quebec-born Jesuit priest and professor of divinity at Harvard University, Lonergan (1904-1984), a philosopher, theologian, and economist, “is regarded by many as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century,” Wikipedia declares.
Which is not to say that his notion…or any notion…about God is actually, factually true. But it is novel.
Not like the garden variety names and titles, the stock-in-trade descriptors and metaphors, with which we’re all familiar—you know, “father,” “potter,” “fortress”. The ones found in the ever so many books with titles like these: Knowing God by Name, Praying Through the Names of God, The Power of God’s Names. Why, an earlier “Library Learnings” essay cited such a book, mystic Matthew Fox’s Naming the Unnamable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God—Including the Unnameable God. They’re myriad, these names and understandings of God.
But here is one—maybe of a kind with Lonergan’s?—new to this writer, and captivating: God is the good we do.
Please, read those six words again. And think what’s being claimed. And understand that Michael Benedikt means them, literally. He used them as the title of his 2007 book, God Is the Good We Do. He says it in the first paragraph of his preface: “…think of God…as something—’someone’—we bring to life when and as we do good.” He says it in the last sentence in the book: “…God is the good we do, and this God is as real—as actual—as your smile.” And he says it, in different ways, in so many words, throughout his 273-page book, now in the SSUC Library.
He repeats himself because—this is a guess, mind you—what he’s saying is so unfamiliar, so uncontemplated, so wondrous, that a lot of readers will have a hard time grasping his brainstorm. So it is that, in their reviews of the book, critics speak of “a passionate and profound rethinking of the meaning of the divine”; “a radically beautiful idea”; and “a highly imaginative and provocative new conception of God”. The publisher, Bottino Books, pictures it as “offering a fresh new way to think about God”.
In a 2008 review of the book, Mitchell Silver, writing in Jewish Currents, commends Benedikt for the “comprehensive case” he makes for his theology, and then declares, “He does so with deep learning, intellectual honesty, and humane wisdom; and his may be about the best God a full commitment to rationality will allow.”
Still, Benedikt himself acknowledges that “no can say who or what God is with absolute certainty, and that includes me.” But this doesn’t stop him from pleading his case, compellingly, four times over, actually: initially, in affective poetry; then, “with a measure of scholarship”; next, in “a debate with a selection of theologians, scientists, and philosophers”; and, finally, in a series of reflections.
The Kingdom of God—here and now
In the whole of his book, Michael Benedikt offers up just one prayer, or benediction, hope-filled, evocative:
“The kingdom of God has established itself already. It is in our midst, as Jesus said. But it is not whole, and may never be. It has the shape of an archipelago, with islands that rise up and sink down continuously, sometimes connecting together to form a larger mass, sometimes breaking up into hundreds of smaller pieces or disappearing entirely. The king that rules this archipelago has no permanent palace or throne, but as many temporary ones as there are people who are doing good, knowing they are free to do otherwise.
“May you live on one of those islands of peace, happiness, and good will. May it surround you and be in your heart. May it grow larger and join with others; may it grow over in complexity and variety, order and lifefulness, until the time of your children and beyond.”
In the gracious baker’s dozen poems with which he begins his book, he affirms, “God is the good we do in everything we do”; “God…forms wherever and whenever there is choosing of good over bad, of beauty over ugliness, of truth over falsehood, and life over death”; “God is…everyone, with or without an idea of God in their heads, doing good willingly, in freedom, for any reason, but especially ‘just because’”; “God begins and ends with us. God is in our hands”; “God is brought to life, and flourishes, only in actual good doings”.
Being a do-gooder—that’s what’s being put forward, yes?—Benedikt calls it theopraxy, “’the practice of God’. It is ordinary good-doing being sanctified.” It is, he maintains, “a form of theism”. And he underscores it in his book’s subtitle, Theology of Theopraxy. In it, “God is an activity—a verb.” So, “God can be enacted into existence anywhere and at any time through acts of care, love, intelligence, and courage….” Elsewhere in the book, he adds, this is “a skill that people can develop.”
He adds this, too, lest we think too highly of ourselves: “God is the deed, not the doer.” The theology of theopraxy “does not claim that any person can be God, or ever was God, or ever will be God; only that some of their deeds are, have been, and will be. When God is the good we do, no one can say, ‘I am God’ or ‘We are gods,’ only that ‘I do God’ or ‘We do God’….” And again, “…our project is not to be God, but to give God life in ours.”
Now it is that he champions this surmise artfully: “In the view of the theology of theopraxy, neither the stars nor the moon nor the twitter of the rainforest proves that God exists; but a bowl of soup, a loving hand, a genuine smile, a beautiful room, a pardon given, do. …Experiences of goodness-in-deed are experiences of God, as direct as they can be. If you live in peace and decency, they are not at all uncommon. You just have to know what to call them.”
But life does have its ups and downs, which Benedikt acknowledges. “God’s absence from vast swaths of life is real,” he points out, but “it is precisely God’s absence that calls forth the resolve to make God actual, to make God present in and through what we say and do.” So, then, “Without our meritoriousness, God vanishes. Put another way, a world without good is a world without God, and we could not live in it for long.” He reconcieves the meaning of “God” such that “everything good about God is retained, everything impossible about God is eliminated.” Like evil.
“God does not preside over battle.” Benedikt writes of this in one of those early-on poems. “God does not hover over the smoking fields of destruction, but wells up in the tears of those who bend over the wounded. God did not make the ovens of Auschwitz, or watch the Nazis build them, and do nothing. But was extinguished ‘himself’ over and over again. God is more easily vanquished than life.”
“Look upon these things and be glad”
“The truth is that some measure of goodness is all around,” Benedikt attests. “Every iota of tact, every laugh among friends, every moment of patience and offering of help, is an instance of God. Every obedience to law, every washing of hands, feeding a pet, or letting someone sleep, is God at work. This is what it means to know that God is immanent and in our hands. …good-doing is always up to us….
“Recall the hells-on-earth that dot human history. Bring to mind the ones that exist right now somewhere on the planet. Now, look out of your window. Every bird not shot, every walker not carrying a gun, every car waiting patiently for a traffic light to change, every repairman writing up a job fairly, every person dying in a fresh hospital bed rather than on a battlefield or in a gutter, every street that is swept, every bush that is trimmed, every toddler studying a worm—is God evidenced and instanced. Look upon these things and be glad. Rejoice at peace and decency….”
A decade ago, Benedikt affirmed his truth once more, this time in Tikkun Magazine, which is named for the Jewish concept of healing and transforming a fragmented world: God is “enacted in daily human encounters, choices, and deeds. This is a God to cherish…a reflection of the fact that voluntary goodness emerges from the matrix of human life in acts of love, duty, beauty, compassion, forbearance, and wisdom; it emerges from motherly, fatherly, brotherly, sisterly, and neighbourly acts…[which are] essential not only to our happiness, but to our continuance, and even to that of life on earth. Is it not miracle enough that a whole new level of being/doing is struggling to its feet on this planet?
“And if we are inclined to concede that the emotion of awe is necessary for any God to be God to us, may we not feel awe at a child’s first words? Or radical amazement at the flowering of the Torah on this speck of dust drifting among the mindless, wheeling stars? …divinity is evidenced—indeed constituted—not by how the stars twirl or how life began, but by how graciously we step forward into the next moment.”
As confident as he is of his conception, as persuasive as he is telling of it, Benedikt, here and there throughout his book, acknowledges that, “It will be difficult for orthodox believers of any tradition to accept that people produce God….” Unhesitatingly, in answering a question he poses already in the preface—for whom is his theology suited?—he allows, “Not everyone.” He reckons, “Not everyone can form a mental image of this God.”
“For thinking people, for spiritual seekers, and for the truly devout of every religion, the meaning of ‘God’ is not settled, and cannot be. The theology of theopraxy would put a seal on this state of affairs, and say: Amen, ‘God,’ if not God, is the greatest still-evolving idea human beings ever had.” In fact, “In the theology of theopraxy, God evolves and improves indefinitely, just as we humans do, ups and downs included.”
Certainly, the theology of theopraxy is not being proffered as some new-fangled alternative religion, “but rather as a meta-religion.” (This, elsewhere, is defined as “a simple, unifying religion that the majority of pro-social people around the world can endorse and practice to the benefit of themselves and all humankind.”) It “allows one to appreciate and endorse what traditional religions offer, with their language, rituals, and myths largely intact. …The intention is to help people admire the beauty, wisdom, and rigour of the founding texts and images of their religious heritage from a new evolutionary vantage point, and to participate in religious life with a new frame of mind.”
Really, this theology “is not as dangerous as traditional believers might think it is,” he suggests. “Or as heretical.” Indeed, it’s a theology that disparages not at all existing religious traditions and cultures. The author insists, “we can find ways to accept and adapt—rather than discard or replace—the practices, rituals, and commitments that constitute long-evolved religions, which, although they preserve old and even wrong understandings of God—and perhaps in part because they do—are beautiful and moving in the way no deistic, humanistic, New Age, or purely civic equivalents can be.” It might even “allow people to embrace their home religion in a deeper and more existential way than they were capable of before.”
So, “A devout (but open-minded) believer could say to a subscriber to theopraxy: ‘Look, if you want to believe that man produces God, go ahead. You’d be wrong. But God won’t mind, just so long as you do His will.’ And the subscriber to theopraxy could say to the orthodox believer in return: ‘Look, if you want to believe that God creates the universe from nothing, sees all, does all, metes out justice, hears prayer, speaks to prophets and/or manifested himself in Jesus, go ahead. Just do good.’ Anyone who observed the everyday actions of an exemplary theopractioner would see only a dignified, humane, courageous, and loving human being who might be of any, or no, standard religious persuasion.”
It could well be—here is an instance—that persons who have lost a loved one “derive genuine comfort from traditional belief in God.” If that’s so, then, in their grieving, the theology of theopraxy’s understanding of God “must be able to offer equal or greater long-term healing and return to life.” If it doesn’t, “then it must concede that for these people traditional faith is better—is truer to God—than the theology of theopraxy….”
Benedikt goes ever further: “…if and where any other worldview is found to be better at producing good and preventing evil” than his own, “then the theology of theopraxy…would have to remove itself from consideration” as the best on offer. “And remove itself happily, since there would be [then] other philosophies which better prepared people for the very theopraxy that its theology aims at encouraging.”
Meantime, subscribers can experience “the profound happiness available here on earth to those who do good, and do good again, which is God’s ‘will’ that we do, and God’s substance while being done.”
Too good to be true, this fancy that we, with a smile, can bring God into existence? It’s outlandish, it’s too simple, it’s heretical, it’s presumptuous of us.
But, if only for a moment, let’s let our hearts take wing, and suppose it were true. We do good. All the time. Or try our darnedest. And so do others, so does everyone. Then, wouldn’t life be as songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss once had it? “I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do. They’re really saying, I love you…. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
Meet author Michael Benedikt
A “student of the world”
“God Is the Good We Do is a work of theology,” its author Michael Benedikt explains in his contribution to the book, Reasonable Perspectives on Religion [Richard Curtis, ed., Rowman & Littlefield publisher, 2010], “written for…the educated reader, in particular, who is wondering why he or she should not abandon religious practice entirely, and with that, all serious talk about ‘God’. It was also written for those…who feel the undertow of doubt, who cannot ‘believe’ as fully as they would like to.
“So rather than a work fully of philosophy, wherein cool argument reigns, and rather than a work fully of religious studies…God Is the Good We Do, wearing its claim on its sleeve, tries to understand God as though it were possible to get it right, for a while if not forever, and to do no harm in the process. It describes a theology that some committed atheists have found ‘interesting, but too religious still,’ and committed believers have found ‘interesting, but not religious enough’. …I do not…expect readers of the entire book to entirely agree….”
That this man would write such a book is—what—uncommon? Unexpected? Uncustomary? Unheard-of? After all, he’s not a philosopher, a religious studies professor, a cleric. He’s an architect.
At the University of Texas in Austin for the last 32 years, Michael Benedikt, who teaches design studio and architectural theory, is the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture distinguished professor of architecture; director of the graduate program in interdisciplinary studies; and the Hal Box endowed chair in urbanism. Until he stepped down last year, he served, as well, as director of the Center for American Architecture and Design, and as editor of CENTER: Architecture and Design in America. His latest book, Architecture Beyond Experience, was published last year. Australian by birth, he holds a degree in architecture from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, and another in environmental design which he earned at Yale.
It’s not surprising, then, that Rachel Kohn, in the 2008 interview she conducted with the author for Australia’s ABC Radio National, wondered, “Well, how did you go from being an architect to writing such a profound and intense book?”
In an exchange of e-mails with this writer, Benedikt professes, “…that I am an architect—more an architect-educator, than practitioner—does not define who I am as a person. I am lots of ‘other things,’ too. My interest in theology and spirituality and philosophy goes back to my childhood.” He is, as he told Kohn, “The child of two Holocaust survivors, so for me the ‘problem of evil’—which is about wondering where God is when things are going very, very badly for innocents—was a problem,” one with which he, from an early age, had to deal, both emotionally and philosophically.
“Jewish by birth and enculturation, but not very observant,” something he mentions in the preface of his book, Benedikt told this writer, “I have gone through phases of Zen mysticism, scientific atheism, Whiteheadian process theology, and Buberian dialogism, with theodicy as the constant problem to be solved.” (His solution? “…the theology of theopraxy proffers that God has only one of the attributes traditionally ascribed to God, namely perfect goodness.”) So, God Is the Good We Do “represents the result of some 50 years of mental effort….”
In that interview with ABC Radio National, Benedikt added, “So, religious questions and religion’s problems were part of my constitution even as I went through a scientific education, and became the great lover of science I still am. It’s reconciling these two, in my maturity, that led me to write the book.”
Also in 2008, he took part in a conversation with Front Porch Austin—he calls it “a weird and wonderful ‘pub-church’“—which pointed out that he’s produced “an absolutely mammoth list of contributions to academia,” and that he’d copped “some impressive awards, as well.” “His openmindedness and creative earnest” was pointed up, as well as the fact that he “tempers his intelligence with a sharp wit and a dry sense of humour.” Ultimately, Front Porch described this polymath as a “student of the world,” and one of “Austin’s most interesting minds.”
Glance over this highlights-only digest again; look over the essay this sidebar accompanies; and do read GGWD: how could one not agree?