Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | February 8, 2011

Gods and Objects

We are so very used to thinking about ourselves as objects.

That might sound strange, but consider: we view ourselves as relatively powerless beings that are vulnerable to all kinds of forces, most of them more powerful than we are and beyond our control. We only feel really powerful when we compare ourselves to relatively powerless things. Other relatively powerless beings intimidate us with ease. Anything from natural disasters to microbes can end the whole lot of us, and we live in not a little dread of them all our lives. On a grand scale, how much do we really control and how much controls us? How then do we differ from objects? We don’t like admitting that we see ourselves through those glasses. We’ve worn them for so long that we forget, even deny, that they are perched on our noses.

I like to ask people what they want. Wanting, at least, is one thing that we don’t have in common with objects. Someone might complain about the poor treatment they received, or try to think through a problem, or strategize how to achieve a goal. I like listening to them for a while. It’s always interesting to hear how people frame the questions that they want to answer, and to see how differently a familiar situation appears when viewed through someone else’s eyes. Those are views you can’t discover on your own.

After listening a while, I ask them what they want. It’s always a challenge. Invariably, they respond by describing how they want things to be, but that’s not what I asked. When this happens, I try to make my question clearer. Sometimes it irritates them, but sometimes we connect. Sometimes I get them just a step closer to my real question. On the second take, instead of describing how they want things to be, some respond curiously. They list the preconditions that limit their range of options. X, Y, and Z are the only apparent options. X doesn’t make sense, so they are left with Y or Z. Y is impossible given the current situation, so that leaves only Z. To me, this might be a valid response to the question, “If you can’t have what you want, what would you settle for instead?”

It’s always cool when we do connect and people understand what I’m really asking. It’s cool even before I hear their answers, because I often see a light go on in their eyes. Maybe that light has to do with validation. Here I am, interested in what they want instead of their best guess about what is possible or proper or advisable or permitted. Just realizing that I’m interested in what they want makes them perk up, like someone just noticed them in the room. Being recognized is powerful. Sometimes they respond as if it’s a new experience to have someone treat what they want like it matters. They aren’t used to it, like a sudden waft of warm, sunlit breeze after  months of musty Seattle rain.

When they get to it, their descriptions of what they really want almost always involve something that they didn’t think they could have. Simply describing it makes a difference, even if they still think they can’t have it. You can see in their faces, in their postures, in their tones; their very beings seem to expand a bit. And it makes me feel like asking, “Who said that you couldn’t have it?” but of course it’s never that simple. Maybe they tried and failed many times, and now trying again seems fruitless or impossible. Maybe they were shot down by family or friends who ridiculed their aspirations, or worse, ridiculed them for daring to have aspirations. Judging from my own life, though, those are superficial explanations.

We are always the first person and the last person to deny ourselves what we want. We decide that trying again is futile or that the situation makes it impossible. We decide to listen to others who ridicule our aspirations. And, if we are honest, we know that we said all that nay-saying to ourselves before we heard it from anyone else. We silently prophesied it before we gave anyone the chance to echo what we already feared and believed.

A much-avoided saying of Jesus offers a radical alternative to the idea that we are objects to be manipulated, whose right to want and right to power must be established and defended before we have any at all:

Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’?” John 10:34

Most religious thinking portrays us as small, relatively powerless objects being manipulated on some divine or cosmic board like so many game pieces. Many scientific perspectives effect the same view. Religions offer little more than spiritual supplements that, in the form of enlightenment or God’s grace, merely mitigate our impotence. Some, like Hinduism and Buddhism, affirm our connectedness to divinity and power only by eradicating us as individuals, rendering us in some ways as less than objects. Most Christian thinking presumes our objectification: we are lost, sinful, depraved, doomed creatures apart from God’s grace, power, and salvation.

Such views are quite different than the one that Jesus presented. He didn’t make it up. He simply cited a claim made by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, written in Holy Scripture and recognized for centuries. God said so. Neither did Jesus think of or treat people like objects, but he chided many for acting the part. We might be gods who falsely believe in our own objectification, sure. That would make us deluded gods, but gods nevertheless.

Affirming our godhood doesn’t set well with people intent on keeping us in our places. Some might regard it as blasphemy, even if they happen to be atheists. (If you read the entire passage, you’ll see that this was precisely the accusation that Jesus faced when he said those words. Start at verse 22.) How dare we claim to be gods? They want us to believe that we are powerless objects in need of help–their help more often than not. The world is full of offers to help us acquire the wherewithal to change ourselves into something a bit less pitiful than the wretched creatures we supposedly are, for a nominal fee of course.

But of course, some people are gods. We tend to prefer other terms: idol, celebrity, chief, tyrant, billionaire, Holiness. Millions recognize them as such, whether for their knowledge, wisdom, beneficence, achievement, or brutality. All it takes is enough people to say so. What the worshippers don’t realize is that their gods are gods only because they can elicit say-so. Without that say-so, those gods are no different than you or me. History is rife with examples of those who merited god status and never got it, passed over in favor of their inferiors. Examples also abound of gods that simply lacked sufficient merit, even of gods who were monsters. Merit doesn’t qualify anyone for this kind of “godhood.” Say-so does. If any real godhood remains once the say-so is gone, there’s no reason to think it’s more or better than yours or mine. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it, with or without the say-so. If you are a god, you don’t need worshipers before you know it and act like it.

Innumerable forces compel objects to find paths of least resistance or risk being crushed. Gods affirm and act. Sure, sometimes good things fall into our laps even if we don’t act. Someone somewhere will win the lottery, just probably not you or me. Besides, good fortune isn’t the same thing as success.

I learned a lot about success from sports. I learned a lot about failure from business. In sports, at least in my youth, I was a god. I could hit home runs. I was fast. I could throw hard and true. Recently, I leaned my son’s Triumph Daytona 650 into turns at 120+ MPH, just like he did, coming out of them exhilarated and unscathed. So, why did my first motorcycle accident happen when I was only going 35 MPH? Maybe because I was headed for the side of the road, felt sure that I would hit the ditch, and tapped the brake instead of doing what I should have done: lean into the turn and roll on more throttle. It would have taken confidence to do that, and I didn’t have it.

In business, I started behind the 8-ball and scrambled, barely managing factors that seemed largely beyond my control. They eventually overwhelmed me. Would a more “positive attitude” have changed the outcome of my business attempts? God only knows, but I know that if anything could have changed the outcome, conducting my business as an empowered individual—a god in the best sense—was something that could have done it. And being a god is more than just “positive attitude.”

Think about your own successes. You had some, or you probably wouldn’t be here. Even in simple things, like baking a cake or acing a test or approaching a pretty girl or getting that adorable guy’s attention, success is invariably linked to confidence, except for lucky accidents that we have no real right to call “successes.” What was it like as you were in the process of succeeding? Did you doubt every step of the way, or did it seem inevitable, even easy? When we find ourselves doubting every step of the way, even if things still turn out like we hoped they would, we don’t usually feel successful. We feel surprised, relieved, even lucky. We might claim credit for the success, but we don’t feel it.

When we are winning and we know it, we experience something else entirely. Some call it being “in the zone.” When we’re in the zone or in the groove or in the flow or in the spirit, (whatever our metaphor of choice might be,) we feel empowered; success is a foregone conclusion. We expect it. Doubt and failure aren’t in our minds. Like Isaiah, who said, “I have set my face like flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed,” we are intent on our goal and give it our all. We feel our godhood.

Sooner or later the zone ends or the groove is over or the spirit leaves. What do we do then? Do we again affirm what we want and act with confidence, or do we start looking or waiting for the next amazing constellation of circumstances to emerge, like those that created the last zone or groove? Or do we pitifully hope for nothing more than to avoid a bruising? Are we gods, or are we just objects wishing and hoping to fall onto some magical track that we can ride, weaving in and out between the myriad manipulative forces that make us feel so vulnerable and powerless?

As long as we regard ourselves as objects, the stuff of manipulation by heaven, earth, gods, and other people, it probably doesn’t matter in the long run whether we spend our lives hoping for magical tracks or being crushed because we couldn’t find any. Either way we are the same: objects, not gods.

Regardless of the magic or the crushing that life might bring us, if we affirm what we want and act like gods, how is that a bad thing? Viktor Frankl described what he realized during his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps:

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.  

— Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning. Beacon Press, 1992. pp. 113-114. (italics Frankl’s)

Life is asking. As objects, we hunt for right answers as if we were taking a school test, hoping for a grade that will please teachers and parents, those gods of educational approval. As gods ourselves, we choose our own tests and create our own answers. All creation still groans under our wars over “right” answers; answers we devised with self-objectifying glasses firmly perched, skewing our views; answers we use to objectify us all and pillage our world. It’s long past time to quit that folly and start answering life creatively, powerfully.

According to Paul in his letter to the Romans, the creation earnestly looks for and eagerly expects the revealing of the sons of God. I like thinking that the eagerness and expectation he described involves excitement to see what we come up with. Gods and sons of God; who are they? They must, at a minimum, be people who think that they are gods, who feel their godhood, who don’t see themselves as objects, but as creators. In my experience, those who knock it haven’t tried it, and not so many have dared to try, yet.

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