The Holy Ghost in the Machine

Every time I see that TV commercial forGhost in the Machine by Labyrinth Creations the Christian Mingle dating service, I am torn between the rival urges to vomit and to laugh. Please understand me: my reactions stem not from any anti-Evangelical animus, though, as you know, I am pleased to have put those childish things behind me many years ago now. Nor do I even think the Born-Again dating computer idea is a bad one. The pain of loneliness is a severe one, and I am happy when people find a kindred spirit and a welcome heart. I can even appreciate the “Christians only” policy. Why invite unnecessary obstacles and tensions by initiating a relationship with someone who does not share your deepest beliefs? You won’t want to have to sacrifice your beliefs (and with them your integrity) in favor of your heart’s desire. “What shall it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his own soul in the bargain?” Amen.
Initially, I cannot help thinking these poor Christians are being exploited, but that is probably groundless. What gets my hackles up is the pretentious claim that this electronic lonely hearts club is God’s medium for setting you up with a mate, or at least a date, like the Reverend Moon matching you up, by inspired intuition, with a partner you have never even met before. The commercial’s pitch smacks of medicine show rhetoric, of the boasts of TV evangelists. But there is a deeper and more important issue here. Christian Mingle embodies, of all things, a reductive and insidious God concept.
The commercial promises the viewer God’s guidance through the medium of their computers. When people are desperate enough to try this gambit, it means they have given up on their prayers to God to reveal his choice for the lonely Christian’s mate. It is to admit that no name or picture will come in a dream or a still small voice. In other words, God’s will is not going to be revealed directly. One has given up on miracle and switched to providence, that tendency to look at the state and outcome of mundane events as having been orchestrated by the deity behind the scenes and through secondary causes.
We see the same phenomenon when we look at the advice given to earnest young Evangelicals for vocational choice: should Tim become a missionary or should he serve Christ “under cover” in a secular occupation? And if so, how to choose the line of work? Evangelical counselors are reality-minded enough not to encourage their youth to rely on voices from heaven or “feeling led.” They know they would be inviting trouble through such subjectivity. Remember the joke that these very people sometimes tell as a cautionary tale. Some guy, seeking God’s will for his life, prays, “Show me your will” and lets his Bible fall open randomly. Closing his eyes, he stabs a finger at the text, which happens to read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Spooked, he tries again, only this time he comes up with the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.” Really alarmed now, he makes one last attempt and gets “What thou doest, do quickly.” One hopes he did not carry out the suicidal mandate of his imagined oracle but instead concluded that this was not the method to pursue!
So, counselors tell him, he ought to assess his interests and abilities, ask himself what work would make him feel satisfaction, on the assumption that God has assigned him his talents and proclivities and hence wants him to pursue them. Check into the jobs that interest you. Talk with people already thus employed. In other words, it is simple common sense, good advice. It assumes that God is at work through secondary causes. Maybe so.
But then there’s Occam’s Razor, the principle of simplicity. If apparent and immediate factors are sufficient to account for a phenomenon, then it becomes superfluous to posit some other, more elaborate causal factor. My old pal Lin Carter, the fantasy writer, used to amuse himself by saying a little incantation before leaving his apartment: “Go, gnomes, and cause money to come!” Then Lin (often a poor man—you know how it is with us writers) would look down on the ground, on the sidewalks, as he ran his errands for the day, and if he spotted spare change, he would pick it up and playfully give credit to the gnomes. He didn’t believe in gnomes, of course. He knew his good fortune was attributable to people’s tendency to pull keys or a handkerchief out of a pocket without noticing that coins are dislodged along with it.
I have to think that crediting God’s providence for a good romantic match is no different from Lin Carter’s thanking the gnomes, only Lin was fully aware that he was playing a game. You might ask, “What harm is done in either case?” None, in these cases. But there are others where it is more dangerous. How about the submission of billions of people to religious institutions which are the creations of human beings like themselves but who claim to be the mouthpieces of the gods. The Iranian mullahs. The Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant megachurches with their Bible ventriloquists barking marching orders from the pulpit.
Let me hasten to admit that there is a superhuman dimension to all such institutions, and not just religious ones. Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger (see Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality and Berger, The Sacred Canopy) explains how institutions of all sorts are the creations of mere human beings but soon come to possess a reality above and beyond the humans that created them. Governments, societies, religions, corporations, you name it, they all come to dominate the people they also serve. A second generation arises, whose forbears created these entities (the Constitution, the Creed, the Papacy, etc.). These people did not create the institutions they have inherited, and so they do not experience them as human creations at all. Rather, they are simply given, part of the landscape of the reality people are born into. Several institutions stand ready right outside the delivery room to baptize, to circumcise, to register, to catechize, to indoctrinate.
As Jacques Lacan says, one only becomes a person, a subjectivity of a specific kind, by becoming subject to what he calls “the law of the father.” DeLeeuze and Guatari (in the Anti-Oedipus) urge their readers to affirm their freedom by repudiating this defining yoke. Such rebellion will look something like insanity, as it did to the Soviet government when they used to send political dissidents to the gulag as mental patients to the asylum. “You don’t agree with reality as the State defines it? Then you are insane, Comrade!” Certainly, many have regarded me as crazy or at least heretical for views I hold. But I take my clue from Patrick McGoohan’s TV series The Prisoner: “I am not a number. I am a free man!” At least as free as I can be from the cookie cutter catechism of the institutions around me. That doesn’t mean I cannot approve and agree with some or many things they do or say. It just means that the choice, and the obligation to make an informed choice, belong to me. I am not sure that Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” means much more than that. It does, however, mean at least that.
I am far from where I started. If lonely Christians find mates through something like Christian Mingle, good for them. But I believe that many pretty harmless things hint at tendencies, principles, realities that underlie them and may manifest elsewhere in more serious, even dangerous forms. Especially when they claim to be representing Almighty God.  It is your own voice that is the voice of God, for there is no God besides you.

So says Zarathustra.

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3 Responses to The Holy Ghost in the Machine

  1. Lori Carlile says:

    Thanks for this Dr. Price. I was taught, back in my pre-deconversion days, that God uses “means” to accomplish His purposes or answer prayers. Thus God would get all the credit no matter what. If I had a job, it was God who “enabled” me to work. In answer to my prayers for a husband, God used the “means” of my and Kevin’s faithful chuch attendance rather than a computerized dating service. Financial gain was “God blessing the tithe”, while a lack thereof was Him teaching us “contentment”. I had a friend who had given up praying for a husband and was instead praying for contentment regarding her single status. I wish I knew about Occam’s Razor back then! It would have eliminated the endless guessing game! Thanks again. Your friend, Lori

  2. Dan Mertens says:

    Just to say how much I appreciate these essays and also how much I envy your freedom. This recovering catholic is still working on the pope business, but your words are a great help.

  3. djkrause says:

    Read this quite late (2015). Bob, you wrote: “At least as free as I can be from the cookie cutter catechism of the institutions around me. . . . I am far from where I started.”

    I am also, and it is a very inspiring and profound thought.

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