What About God?
Some people seem to need a “Supreme Being” in their lives. Others appear to get along quite well without one. If these were only private matters, the world of human society would have been a much less troubled place than it has always been over the past millennia. But unfortunately, such matters are anything but private. The first thing a person wants to do, once he or she has become infused with a God idea, is to share it with others. People’s ideas about God, and particularly about how God wants them to live, bring them together in all sorts of religious groups. But those same ideas also divide those groups from each other, sometimes peacefully, sometimes in the most hideously violent ways. Even today – hard as it is to believe in a world of highly advanced science and technology – there are religious groups whose God not only condones, but commands, acts of mass murder. And there are still countries, like India and Pakistan, which, although neighbors, are separated by their Gods.
At the same time, there are people whose Gods impose upon them very difficult duties, which require whole-hearted service of all kinds to the most needy and unfortunate of their fellow creatures. Ultimately these benevolent individuals have no other reason for this kind of selfless devotion, other than “the will of God.”
Some people need a god in human form. In fact, most of the world’s great religions trace their origins to some historical character. Others, like Hinduism, mingle animals with people in their pantheon. Then again, there are those who find it impossible, and perhaps irreverent, to visualize God at all.
But Gods serve various purposes in human lives, and one of them is to swear by – which ironically has two very different meanings, both of which involve what we call “oaths.” On the one hand, taking an oath is a sort of semi-sacred means of pledging oneself to do something promised. For example, in the courtroom, a witness was traditionally required to promise to tell the truth by taking an oath, which might begin by saying “I swear by Almighty God,” or might end with the words, “so help me God.” (But I’ve been unable to find any clear definition of what “so help me” actually means.)
Then there are also the “oath of office” and various other oaths, connected with such procedures as getting married or joining the military. Traditionally they invoked God, but nowadays God has been permitted to slip away, and oath-takers are allowed simply to “affirm.” Nevertheless, there is still some legal power in reminding a witness that he or she is “under oath.”
But “swearing” can also mean using foul language. The dividing line between a sacred “oath” and the other kind seems to come at the point at which one calls upon God to condemn whoever, or whatever, one has strong feelings against. Condemnation, of course, means, in religious terms, being consigned to Hell, or, as the expression has developed in vulgar speech, to be God-damned.
Nevertheless, in our supposedly secular society, references to God are to be found everywhere. The Declaration of Independence refers to God four separate times. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address speaks, in its final sentence, of “this nation, under God.” Even the money which we still use declares that “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
Of course, the United States is not the only country which claims a special relationship with God. In fact, the official motto of the British Monarchy is “DIEU ET MON DROIT,” which translates from the French as “GOD AND MY RIGHT,” and goes far back into the Middle Ages, when Britain claimed large parts of France.
My own writings have embraced the God phenomenon. In fact, God is to be found in no fewer than two hundred of my ten thousand published epigrams. You could not call any of them religious in any conventional sense – but neither are they calculated to offend anyone’s personal faith. For example, one of the earliest (and shortest) simply says “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GOD.” Occasionally I do receive critical mail from persons who feel that I am not religious enough. But my doubts are never expressed more strongly than in #9598, which says, “MY THEOLOGIAN SAYS THERE IS A GOD – BUT I FEEL I SHOULD GET A SECOND OPINION.”
Let me conclude on a relatively upbeat note, with #9040: “GOD ALWAYS HAS THE LAST WORD – SO I CAN ONLY HOPE IT’S A GOOD WORD.”