God in the Forest
In the late 1800s, a now-famous philosophical question was posed in a magazine: “If a tree were to fall on an island where there are no human beings, would be there any sound?” Many people’s immediate reaction is “Duh! Of course it would make a sound! There would just be no one to hear the sound.”
But that is the trick of the question. Does sound exist without ears to hear it? If we think about that from a purely scientific angle, the answer would seem to be no. Sound is a wave. It is a vibration that travels through the air, water, or other media. If a tree crashes in a forest, certainly a vibration will travel through the air. However, without ears to intercept the vibration and to “process” the vibration, there is no sound. A world without ears is a soundless world.
And this realization leads us to the question of linear thinking. The Japanese Zen Buddhist master Hakuin, who lived from 1686-1769, presented a Zen koan, or riddle, which has becomes almost as famous as the question about the tree falling in the forest. “In clapping both hands, a sound is heard,” Hakuin said. “What is the sound of one hand?”
Linear thinking replies with the answer, “Don’t be dumb. There is no sound.” But Zen is anything but linear. I cannot hear the sound of one hand. However, perhaps the hand makes a sound I cannot hear. I can’t see in the infrared spectrum, as birds do, but the infrared spectrum exists. Just because I cannot smell the myriad things that dogs can smell even at far distances doesn’t mean that those substances have no odor and cannot be smelled – the dog has many times more olfactory cells than I do, and so a walk for a dog is a garden of rich odors to which I am , thankfully, oblivious.
It is equally true, then, that we are utterly unaware of sights and sounds and sensations that other sentient beings on earth experience every day and that we may be aware of ideas, sensations, and sensory information that no other sentient beings on earth experience. Let’s use those thoughts to ponder a question that may make us profoundly uncomfortable. If humans are the only creatures on earth that are capable of perceiving and contemplating the Infinite, then if there were no humans on earth, would there be an Infinite? Let’s say you believe in God. Would there be a God; would that God “want” anything?
If we think about that question from the perspective of all of the world’s scriptures, the answer is “no.” Nowhere in the Quran, in the Torah, in the New Testament, in the Upanishads, in the Buddhist sutras, in any scripture does God make demands on fish, on insects, on mammals or reptiles, on amphibians, on plants or flowers or trees or any living thing, except for humans. In the scope of human knowledge and human understanding, humans are the ones that God directs, that God invites, with whom God speaks. Humans are the ones who perceive the Infinite.
Let’s assume for a moment that humans are unique in our belief that there is a God, or prime creator, or even enlightenment. If we are unique in this perception amongst all other living things, then we must ask ourselves an important question: Whose ideas are these, anyway? When we say “This is what God (or the Buddha or Jesus) wants,” are we talking only about what we want?
First, we have to define who we are. We are humankind. All over the world, whether rich or poor, whether a country dweller or an urbanite, whether an indigenous person or a migrant, no matter how much cultures differ, people have the same basic needs for survival and safety. This is where we need to make a key observation: religion, any religion, is about more than a higher power. It is also about culture and human experience. Let us suppose for a moment that God exists. If God is the God of all humans, the God with a message only for humans, then that God must have the same wants of all of us. Why would it make sense to think that God is a continental and national God: that God has one set of ideas for people in Bosnia but other ideas for people in Serbia; that God wants certain acts from people in Poland, but different acts from people in Germany; that God has one set of expectations for one tribe in Rwanda but different expectations for a different tribe? If God wants what God wants only from humans, then what does God want from all of us?
Many in the world today will focus on a particular passage or two out of a scripture to justify their beliefs about what they think God wants. We can misunderstand. We can distort the message. We may not do that willfully or out of any evil intent. We do it because we believe we have educated ourselves. We have listened to rabbis and imams and pastors whom we see as more learned than ourselves; we rely on them for their wisdom. In relying on them, we may convince ourselves that we are relying on the direct word of and from God, rather than on the ideas of other humans who are as fallible as ourselves.
This, in fact, is the human dilemma. We believe that we have received messages from the Infinite through the ages. However, when trying to discern the message, all we have are the words of humans.