UU Homework: Is the world friendly? What is ‘God’?

At the end of his sermon today, Rev Mark Evens gave the congregants some homework. First, to livestream events from the UU General Assembly in Providence, RI later this week, which I may or may not be doing. Second and third, to answer these questions: Is the world a friendly place? And, what does the word ‘God’ mean to me?

Let’s take those in the other order.

The letters G-o-d in a row signify, first of all, the divine entity worshipped by the Abrahamic faiths. This is their primary signification in my home culture. This meaning isn’t particularly important to me, personally; I don’t believe in that divinity or follow any of those scriptures.

The letters g-o-d, now, denote any named or felt or otherwise identified divine entity, in any religion. I assume an agentive entity, that is, one that can affect the course of events in the world in some way (including influencing people simply by bringing its presence or some information to their attention; if a friend is comforted by the presence of a god, and as a result has the internal strength to accomplish some task, I would say that god has affected the course of events in the world). This meaning also isn’t very important to me personally; I’ve never felt the presence of any divine entity or anything close to that kind of experience, although I’m not going to tell someone their subjective experiences are false or try to explain it away.

For many people, g-o-d constitutes a symbol of that which caused the world to be, whether that’s an active agent, the laws of nature, or something else. ‘God’ may be a pointer to the life energy that suffuses the world, if you believe in that sort of thing. For many people, it evokes an abstract, present sense of the divine.

These people are also likely to say that the world is a friendly place. After all, if God is love, and God is in everything, then love is accessible from wherever you stand, even if it may not seem that way at first glance. Myself, I like Mark’s answer to “Is the world a friendly place?” He said, “the world is a friendly place around me, but it isn’t everywhere.”

The world is indeed a friendly place around me; I have family and friends who care for me deeply, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a computer on my lap, words in my head becoming words on the screen. I have teachers and fellow students and a safety net. I have a remarkable amount of freedom to pursue the things I desire most.

But the world as a whole is not friendly. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said when I saw him speak a couple months ago, Earth is trying to kill us. All the time. Moreover, the universe is trying to kill us. All the time. From supernovas to prions, at nearly any size there’s something that’s deadly to humans. Nature is not friendly. It isn’t malicious, either; it just is; it just happens. We have no control over how friendly nature is. All we can do, for that, is defend ourselves from the harsh parts and try to appreciate the beautiful, cute, and fuzzy parts.

Nature is not our biggest problem, though. We are. Why is the world a friendly place around me? Because the people around me have worked to make it that way. If the world is not a friendly place for, say, a fast-food worker in Florida or a farmer in Ecuador or a beggar in Serbia, it is such largely because of the people who encircle that person’s life, because several someones in several somewheres don’t care to make sure that their employees earn enough to support themselves and their children, or don’t care to make sure they pay their suppliers enough, or don’t care to create programs to feed, clothe, and house the poor.

The world is not a friendly place by default, but we can make it friendly, or at least safe, for those around us, especially if we work together with that as our goal. (Cheesy, but sincere!)

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2 thoughts on “UU Homework: Is the world friendly? What is ‘God’?

  1. I agree that the world isn’t friendly because the world isn’t capable of being friendly. Only people are capable of that. Even when people create an environment, it’s not the *place* that’s friendly, because kindness/benevolence is only something that can happen between two people, not a person and a place.

    The importance of focusing on person-person friendliness over person-place can be highlighted by thought-experimenting visitors into nominally “friendly” environments where they wouldn’t ordinarily belong. A group of Irish Travellers might be friendly to one another, but hostile to outsiders visiting their camp. A LGBTQ service organization might not welcome a group of conversion therapists or anti-gay lobbyists. An ordinary US food cupboard might not welcome an ordinary Afghan family after seeing the head of the household use violence to enforce discipline.

    From my examples it should be pretty obvious that I don’t believe that the world can (or should) be a friendly place from all people to all people. Friendliness reinforces social groups internally and allows them to expand and interact with others. But not every group values that sort of change, and some groups have beliefs or practices so opposed that practically any unmediated exchange will lead to conflict.

    I think the best we can hope for is to make the world a “polite” or “civil” place.

  2. That’s a good point. Apropos Matt’s comment on Facebook, I was also eliding the definition of “world” I was working with; as an existential nihilist, I believe we make our own meaning, and similarly I was slipping smoothly from a definition of the world as “stuff that exists” to the world as “an ontological cluster constituted by meaning made by us and the people around us,” which, you know, is a pretty significant elision.

    Your point still applies, however, and is well-taken, although I would hold out hope that we can make the world civil between groups and friendly within groups, if the groups are well-constituted (modulo inevitable occasional human explosions; even the most utopically peaceful group has the occasional violence, IIUC).

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