Oh Daddy: Understanding Deism as a Human Developmental Imperative
by Chen Chapman
you soothe me with your smile
you’re letting me know
everything’s all right...
- Christine McVie/Fleetwood Mac/Rumours LP 1977
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If I’m really honest, I have to admit that even as an Agnostic, I’m guilty of looking skyward at particularly rough times in life. It goes a little something like this:
"Hey -- if you’re out there -- could you cut me some slack? I’m a nice person, I try hard ...let’s have a little justice and compassion here, OK?”
I don’t expect an answer. I don’t even hope for one, really. And though it seems logical that the next leg of that process would be to wait for Divine guidance, I don’t. My higher mind does not permit it. My higher mind firmly believes that there are no accessible answers to how or why things outside the realm of our corporeal experience work as they do. This sky-glancing behavior is simply a holdover from the childhood rituals of bedtime prayer and candles on birthday cakes -- wishing for wishes to come true.
Like everyone else, however secretly, I have a solace-and-comfort seeking vestigial infant living deep within my consciousness.
From the moment of our earliest awareness, we humans have sought to understand how and why things happen. As a species, we’ve demonstrated exceptional creativity in pursuit of problem-solving and academic understanding. Through these means, we seek to comprehend and control not only our physical world, but our inner, private worlds as well.
All in all, we’ve so far succeeded quite nicely in our efforts to hold sway over our environment. That any of us is able to access this article via Internet is proof in and of itself that we’ve performed our own miracles through ingenuity and dogmatic pursuit of concrete knowledge; we’re barely 150 years from the start of the industrial revolution. Our great advances (and horrifying mistakes) continue to occur at an increasingly dizzying, almost exponential rate - but we still cannot come close to being “Masters of the Universe”, and even less so, masters of ourselves.
This is, for many people, a terrible predicament. Who’s in charge here, anyway?
All humans are born completely helpless and remain largely unable to fend for themselves longer than any other species. Unlike other species, during our protracted infancy and childhood, we develop an extraordinary bond of dependency with our caretakers. As infants, our survival depends upon our acceptance of a much larger and wholly mysterious being -- our “greater other”. Understanding this being is not relevant; we learn only that when we cry we are subsequently fed or warmed or held or cleansed. Over time, we learn that we can call upon our mysterious “other”; our cries are like prayers that are likely to be answered in a fairly predictable manner.
As we move through early childhood, we relate to our caretakers as being magical and all-powerful; they teach us, provide for us, make our decisions for us ...they can even make monsters, real or imagined, go away. We are thoroughly amazed by their abilities, taking it for granted that these caretakers really are all-powerful; we perceive that they have no limitations. Eventually, we learn that our caretakers can also punish us when we fail to comply, and forgive us when we do comply. We know instinctually that our survival is dependent upon not only the provisional benevolence of our caretakers, but also upon our ability to attain forgiveness.
In addition, children, whose intellect / worldview is unsophisticated even while often supremely logical, sharp, and insightful, rely on their caretakers for digestible explanations for what is not understood. It is a rare parent or educator who does not edit actual facts to suit the developmental stage of a child -- and children take great comfort in explanations that are clear, concise, and comprehensible from their point of view. This includes magical, wishful and fanciful explanations; few children under 6 ever question the existence of Santa Claus, the stork, or the Easter Bunny - or the giant spider in the closet.
As children transition into middle childhood, they begin to question the explanations, directives and logic of their caretakers, frequently perpetrating acts of overt and covert rebellion and manipulation in order to test the validity of the information given them as well as the resolve and commitment of their caretakers. For example, a 5-9 year old may well understand the rule of “green beans before ice cream”, but will whine, plead and cajole “but why” to see if this rule will be enforced ...and to see if the logic and position of the caretaker can be deconstructed:
"Because green beans are good for you, and ice cream isn’t so much so."
"Green beans have vitamins and fiber, which help your body. Ice cream has lots of fat and sugar; those are not good for you.?
"Too much fat and sugar can make you overweight and damage your teeth."
"But I only want to have it before dinner THIS ONCE -- please?"
"I’m sorry, no ice cream before dinner"
"That’s the rule."
"But why?" and so on.
Paradoxically, the child who consistently “loses” this bid is most often comforted, on a deep and sub-conscious level, even while overtly experiencing and displaying dismay and/or disappointment. Don’t let a tantrum fool you - this failure to dominate the caretaker assures the child that he is protected from himself and his impulses, and relieved of the responsibility of making difficult choices. This child is freed from the tyranny of his desire and his ignorance because a “greater other” is in control of what he himself is ill prepared to manage. Through this consistent relationship with the caretaker, he learns to control himself and restrain his impulses even when he does not completely wish to do so he develops an ethical and moral structure in tandem with a tolerance for delayed gratification. As an adult, he is fairly self-reliant in behavioral terms but is likely to remain close to his caretaker. He perceives the caretaker as benevolent, loving and reliable -- and will tend, in most cases, to view other authority figures similarly, exhibiting a high degree of acceptance of and cooperation with authority that he encounters.
Conversely, the child who too-often “wins” experiences not only the “thrill of victory”, but the “agony of uncertainty”. This child is inadequately protected from himself -- and as a logical extension, from the world at large. Although he is superficially “free”, he is actually imprisoned by the experiential nature of his life -- forced to react willy-nilly based on immediate circumstance rather than operate experimentally, - e.g. performing sensitive tests on a carousel or subway train as opposed to in a controlled laboratory environment. This child may grow to experience ethical and moral decision-making as incidental to personal gratification unless directed by a highly compelling threat of punishment from the caretaker. However, this child will remain cautiously close to even his negligent caretaker, as he needs a great deal of comfort and refuge in the face of an unpredictable world. As an adult, he is more likely to need continuing intervention and comfort from a variety of authority figures -- be they judge, psychologist, AA, church or collection agency, although he will perceive these as being somewhat unpredictable and therefore potentially dangerous. However, his desire and/or need for their interaction and intervention is not lessened by this perception, especially on the sub-conscious level.
In either case, it is the intervention of a greater being that guides the child’s actions and thought patterns, whether by consistent teaching, the caretaker’s passivity and/or palliative comfort, or by threat.
Of course, as we move on through adolescence and early adulthood, all previous bets are off. It now becomes the “job” of the child to separate, physically and ideologically, from the caretaker. However, those early lessons of “freedom through control” are brought with us, as is the growing acceptance that we are not and will never be in complete control and understanding of our world, thus never entirely free nor entirely independent.
We discover how profoundly flawed and often wrong our caretakers are, as well. But as most of the ideology of the caretaker is likely to still seem sound (or at least tolerable and comfortingly familiar) and our bond is likely to still be strong, even this voluntary separation is usually limited. It is as if we have an invisible rubber band connecting us to our caretakers (even the shoddy or inhumane ones) that brings us back even after we have wandered far afield. But ultimately, we do separate somewhat and begin to function independently of the original caretaker. The rubber band is there, but its normative condition is now looser and wider in scope.
Once the process of separation from the human caretaker begins to, it is this “rubber band” that links us to our infantile need for a connection to a greater, smarter, more capable and more controlled being that manifests itself as Deism -- in steps the greatest of “greater others”.
It is no accident that many religious experiences, rejections and/or conversions take place in early adolescence. Ask a 10 year old about Sunday school and what you’ll likely hear is “I don’t know the teacher is old and she smelled funny ...umm Jesus died or something and Joey showed me his really cool Game Boy, can I have one?” Similarly, if queried about general “right vs. wrong”, he will likely echo the beliefs of his caretaker. For him, responsibility for philosophical and moral decisions still belongs to the caretaker. Ask a 12-16 year old about the role of church or God and you will often hear a recitation of “the rules” -- how we should behave, what God says, and why we should listen -- or alternately, why God does not exist, how we know, and so on. If asked questions about secular ethics and morality, he is still likely to remain similarly inclined to his caretaker’s basic beliefs, although he is also likely to offer some philosophical modifications and at least a handful of oppositional viewpoints that reflect his own experience with contemporary culture. He is beginning to think for himself. Even if he does not break significantly from the traditional views of his caretaker, he is beginning to place a higher priority on his own personal interpretation of those views than on the interpretations of his original caretaker.
However, as deeply attached the adolescent may seem to his own views and interpretations, he is still bound by an inherent “rubber band”. As he grows more concerned with “independence”, the adolescent quickly replaces the waning authority of his original caretaker with the next available and least (apparently) flawed alternative. Although it may sometimes seem that a peer group serves as the replacement, upon closer inspection it can be seen that adolescents group themselves (a pattern which continues through adulthood) according to their agreement about who or what is their highest authority. In a small handful of cases, a particularly bright and articulate adolescent may reject his peers and his role as adolescent, and instead carve a position for himself among a group of adults who appear to share similar views. Either way, the need/desire for connection with a “greater other” continues to manifest itself. Whether to adults, God, pop culture icons, teachers, philosophers or the star quarterback of their high school’s football team, they are still looking somewhere for validation, comfort and direction.
In the case of the thoroughly rebellious (though not psychotic -- that’s outside the scope of this article) teenaged “loner”, it is clear that his need and desire for authority, however unconscious, is greatest of all. By the extreme nature of his challenges to community standards, and very importantly, the standards of his peers, he illustrates quite pointedly his desire for someone or something to “take over” and control his impulses for him and to protect him from himself. Although it may appear that he is unaware of the consequences of his actions, he is in fact completely cognizant of the likely outcome when he is engaging in anti-social behavior. For him juvenile detention, mental hospital, military school or prison will serve nicely as a corporeal caretaker/greater other - hopefully providing him with the structure, consistency and direction he needs to adapt to his world.
Even as relatively normal, healthy adults, where we are inadequate or unprepared, it is our ingrained response to look to a caretaker/greater other, either the one we have created within ourselves or the currently elected one without -- spouse, therapist, friend, God, etc. - for guidance. Whether or not we act on this in any way, the instinct remains. When we behave badly, we have a biological urge to placate our caretaker, attain forgiveness and thus ensure that our essential needs for survival will be met. When we have “bad thoughts”, we look over our shoulder for the caretaker to provide us with the control that we need. When we yearn to comprehend but cannot, we long to trust that our caretaker is handling it for us, so we can be relieved of the twin burdens of knowledge and understanding -- in other words, so we can “let go” our obsessions with unanswerable questions.
Most of all, when we find real-live monsters under the bed -- terrorism, famine, cancer, death, betrayal and other seen and unforeseen calamities -- we yearn down deep to cry out most loudly, so that we may be held and comforted, warmed and cleansed and fed until our empty places no longer ache.
In a relationship with an ultimate caretaker, a Deity, humans are as the comforted child, free from the tyranny of uncertainty -- and as the neglected child, anxious and in need of comforting limits. As adult humans, we come to realize not only that are we personally limited in our ability to know, understand and control everything around us -- but so it is with every other human. What makes a relationship with a Deity so compelling is our infantile longing to believe that someone, somewhere, is in charge of this mess -- and like green beans before ice cream, even if we don’t truly understand the reasons for our hardships and inconveniences, someone does.
Given our eons-old developmental patterns, it must be recognized that a desire to “know” is completely natural and understandable. However, through dedicated effort to sort through the differences between intellect and emotion - and the acquisition of a healthy respect for the places where they overlap and/or contradict one another -- one must also come to accept the inherent fallibility of any human evaluation of the “source of all that is”.
In my own desperately uncertain hours? In my longing and unquenchable desire? When the sun splinters at the horizon and all is one frozen moment of staggering where-did-this-come-from tell-me-the-secret beauty?
I wish. Oh daddy, do I wish. And I honor my wishes as much as I honor my intellect, my creativity or my achievements. Wishing, ultimately, will not make it so -- but blowing out those candles while envisioning peace on earth, a fat piggy bank and the unquestioning adoration of my “greater other(s)” can still feel good.