This article pairs well with the following episode with Taj Smith:
God as Change
There are a few descriptions of God out there that I can believe in. In her book Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler, the seminal science fiction and afrofuturist writer, outlines one such God, and that God is change.
All that you touch
all that you change
The only lasting truth
God is change.
– Parable of the Sower
What the word “God” means varies between and even within religions. Though the most powerful meaning of that word connotes “ultimate reality;" not just a singular deity that rules the world, but the true state of existence. The notion of “change” is a good candidate to fill God's shoes.
Change has been happening since the start of our universe and will continue until its end. Every human life is affected by change, from inception to demise. Change continues after death: our particles rejoining the ongoing parade of life: from the worm-churned earth, to the zipping birds, to the cats that move like rivers, to the rivers that swallow cats, to the civilizations that drink-up rivers, and to the droughts that bring down kingdoms. Change is the sign under which we live. As far as we can tell, it’s universal and all-pervasive. It’s what brought us into existence and what will wipe us from the universe, whether slowly or all at once, like a rag passing over a speck.
What more could you want from a God?
What more could you want from a God? Relatability, probably.
Butler’s conception of God in this novel isn't a personal God. Change has no agency or sentience; it’s a process. Elsewhere in Parable of the Sower, the protagonist says: “My God doesn’t love me or hate me or watch over me or know me at all, and I feel no love for or loyalty to my God. My God just is.” This version of God is tantamount to a law of nature. But if that’s true, why not just call it a law of nature? Why not just switch out “God” for “change" and never look back? There might be good reason why not.
The usefulness of the term “God” is likely the very reason we invented deities to begin with: it personifies an abstract and unknown reality. Lightning was made relatable as the work of Zeus, Odin, or thunderbirds. The ocean's bounty and fury had to do with Poseidon, Mazu, Varuna, and other sea-deities. At some point in our evolution, human beings developed a comprehensive theory of mind (an ability to understand other human as having minds, beliefs, and intentions different from our own). We then attributed similar mind and agency to non-human creatures and phenomenon like animals, floods, volcanos, droughts, the seasons, time, death, and even fate. We used to barter with these deities: ask them for favors, sacrifice livestock (or one another). We lived in an uncertain and difficult world and sought control of our surroundings any way we could: either through tool-making or relationships with magical entities. But now, when tool-making has come so far, why do so many people still appeal to these magical relations? Why do we still want to emotionally relate to the universe at all?
A Robotic Dog
Personifying the universe changes how we feel about it. An animistic, or personified universe versus one that’s materialistic is the difference between looking at a dog and a robotic dog. (Let’s assume our sci-fi dog only moves like a dog without having dog-feelings and dog-mind.) Even though a robotic dog may move just like a living dog, we know it’s not a living pooch that can feel and suffer. We may be fascinated by the robotic dog; we may study its structure and how it works; we can have emotions about this robotic dog, but it would be much harder to have an emotional relationship with the robotic dog. Theory of mind is an important part of empathy. If we know no one is on the other side, it’s hard to recognize and relate to that entity.
The same goes for the universe. We are social creatures and some part of our brain is constantly scanning the world on the lookout for other creatures with minds. If we anthropomorphize the world in which we live—whether just the lightning, volcanos, and oceans or the entirety of the universe—then we are more easily able to enter into intuitive social relationship with it. We can regard a stream as nurturing. We can struggle against a drought. We can plead with or worship the sun—or whatever deity rules the world—with the hope our supplication is noted. The feeling of a conscious “living” universe is qualitatively different than a materialistic or “dead” universe. Sociality is intuitive and deeply entwined with our feelings. Mathematics and science is not intuitive. For most people, understanding the chemistry and biology of a forest does not help them connect with the forest on a human level. A myth that the trees in a certain forest are hundreds of years old with a language and memory all their own—they are made more social, human-like, and intuitively relatable as living entities.
Put another way: If you were alone on an island floating on a dark sea, what would you rather have with you? A dog? Or a robot dog? Or as Tom Hanks' character in the movie Castaway discovers, better to ascribe a personality to a volleyball than go mad in isolation.
We are minds that yearn for other minds.
The Robes of God
Based on our current scientific understanding, a materialistic “dead” universe seems to be the most likely description of reality. But a “living” universe may better fit our emotional needs.
Butler’s God in Parable of the Sower strikes a balance between these poles:
We do not worship God
we perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
we shape God.
In the end , we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
and God is change.
Parable of the Sower
There is no need to worship the phenomenon of change. Change is not conscious nor has agency. But calling it “God” implies and allows an emotional and religious connection to form between a person and a non-human, abstract concept (in this case, change). This sense of personal connection to the rules and forces that govern the universe alters the qualitative experience of a religion from a purely intellectual one to one that involves emotion and sociality. This may be the general difference between philosophy and religion: in philosophy, our relationship with the universe is primarily mediated by rationality while in religion it is primarily mediated by sociality.
The personal part of a “personal God” is an emotional and psychological glue. It’s far easier to activate human beings when they believe a sentient entity is involved. Consider how hard animal rights groups work to personify the animals they’re trying to protect: if we can visualize a mama cow's wailing as her baby is taken away from her, then we might think twice about where we get our milk. Personification alters how we interact with the rest of the world—both living and inanimate.
As we float on our circular island in the middle of a vast black ocean, our emotional attitude toward the universe partly depends on whether we belief our universe is living or not. Butler’s conception of God in Parable of the Sower splits the difference between an animate and inanimate ultimate reality: To believe in God as change is to believe in the very real and universal phenomenon of change—evolution, tectonic shift, growth, death, planetary destruction, planetary formation. To ascribe the name “God” to change is to become emotionally involved with this changing and otherwise non-human universe. Butler acknowledges the universe is not alive like we’re alive. But how we name and think about reality can change the way we relate to it.
By calling change “God” we start to think about it as a personified entity. Change plays an active, daily role in human life but also supersedes it. Change can be learned from but cannot teach. Change can destroy or create and do both without concern. Change is neither alive nor can it die—it goes on forever, affecting the entirety of our universe. By dressing change in the robes of God, we have a special type of deity: one that exists beyond human social intuition but to which we can still relate. And if we can better relate to the world, we may reduce our sense of alienation in it.