Governor Mario M. Cuomo
The Omega Society
Sheraton New York
New York City
A Meditation on Ultimate Values
When I was asked by a representative of Omega to give the closing remarks following the galaxy of distinguished individuals you have already heard, I said I probably could not add much to the intelligent, subtle and splendid articulations that they were sure to deliver.
The representative said “You probably can’t, but as a former three-term governor and still active political voice, you may be able to tell us something about how politics and government might affect our search for meaning, truth and a sustainable future.”
“That input” – he said – “could be especially relevant given the frightening implications of 9/11 and other current calamities.”
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I agreed to try.
Actually, I attempted to do something similar some years ago when we were in the midst of another troubling period that created greater than usual uncertainty, agitation and anxiety. Another period when people’s search for meaningfulness intensified.
On that occasion the title of the conference was “Who (or What) is God?” with “God” being the undefined and undefinable label given to ultimate meaning and direction.
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I addressed the question then, as I do now, certainly not as a scholar, or a theologian, or an apologist, but as an ordinary New Yorker—from Queens, from asphalt streets and stickball, from a poor and middle-class neighborhood—who made a living, helped raise a family, and found his way, somewhat improbably, into the difficult world of politics.
I do it as a person who struggles to keep a belief in God that he inherited; a Catholic raised in a religion closer to the peasant roots of the simple Sunday mass practitioners than to the high intellectual traditions of the Talmudic scholars, elegant Episcopalian homilists, or abstruse Jesuit teachers.
The simple folk of South Jamaica, Queens, who came from the tenements and attached houses on Liverpool Street, perceived the world then as a sort of cosmic basic training course, filled by God with obstacles and traps to weed out the recruits unfit for eventual service in the heavenly host.
The obstacles were everywhere. The prevailing moral standard was almost impossibly high: if you liked it, it was probably a sin, if you liked it a lot it was probably a mortal sin.
Their fate on earth was to be “the poor, banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears,” until by some combination of grace and good works—and luck—they escaped final damnation.
For many, if not most of them, their sense of who or what God is was reflected in the collective experience of people who through most of their history had little capacity to learn from the exquisite musings of philosophers and theologians, and little chance to concern themselves with helping the poor or healing the world’s wounds.
They were the poor, the wounded.
It was a cold voice these people heard from God on Beaver Road, next to a cemetery across the street from St. Monica’s Catholic Church, where a famous ex-jockey, one of the homeless winos, froze to death sleeping in a large wooden crate.
No doubt there were others in America – millions indeed – who felt content with the world as they found it.
But for most of the people in my old neighborhood, it was hard to see God’s goodness in the pathetic faces of the customers in our small grocery store who pleaded with my father for bread, and maybe some cold cuts—till the next relief check came in.
It got harder still, during and after the Second World War, when the best we could say about victory was that the new terror was put down… for a while.
And a gold star in a window announced that someone’s son had been killed, his mother’s prayers at St. Monica’s never answered.
It was hard for them to believe God spoke at Hiroshima either.
Who could blame these people for feeling that if God was not dead, he must surely be looking in another direction?
Others reveled in what they believed was the cultural liberation and enlightenment of the sixties, but for most of the people of Saint Monica’s the sixties were remembered for Vietnam and the sadness memorialized by Simon and Garfunkel: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio—our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.”
No more John F. Kennedy, no more Martin Luther King. No more Bobby Kennedy. Nothing to believe in. Nothing to grab hold of. Nothing to uplift us.
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People weren’t asking “Who is God?” They were asking… “Is there a God?”
The same question many were asking after 9/11 and after a preemptive war in Iraq in the name of liberation, that killed more than 40,000 human beings, most of them innocent civilians; and after Rwanda and the grotesquely lethal tsunami.
The same question many ask today when a child dies in a crib—inexplicably.
Many of us find a way to go forward resigned to a world that has no answers to the biggest questions.
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For some of us however the burden becomes intolerable; the absurdity of a world without explanation is almost too much to live with.
Our intellects push to find a rationale, an excuse… anything to take the place of despair… some fundamental belief or belief system, some dominant purpose in life—an absorbing activity, a benign crusade, a consuming passion for romantic sex, or music or art, something larger than ourselves to believe in.
If the answer cannot be compelled by our intellect, we plead for an answer that, at least we could choose to believe without contradicting that intellect.
We yearn for more than just a God of prohibition. More than just a God of guilt and punishment.
More than John Calvin’s chilling conclusion that God loves Jacob but hates Esau.
For us, it must be a God like the one that was promised in the New Testament: a God of mercy, a God of peace, a God of hope.
In the end, to make any sense, it must be a God of love!
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Mostly, we want a God because we sense that the accumulating of material goods and the constant seeking to satisfy our petty appetites – for a flash of ecstasy or popularity or even temporary fame – is nothing more than a desperate, frantic attempt just to fill the shrinking interval between birth and eternity with something!
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In my old neighborhood, despite the doubts, the simple and sincere preachments of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, and the prodding of uneducated parents whose moral pleadings and punishments were as blunt and tough as the calluses on their hands, were still given a degree of apparent respect. Probably this was only because there seemed to be nothing more intellectually satisfying to put in their place.
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In the fifties, some of us were suddenly gifted: we were presented with the enlightened vision and profound wisdom of an extraordinary man.
A scientist, a paleontologist. A person who understood evolution. A soldier who knew the inexplicable evil of the battlefield. A scholar who studied the ages. A philosopher, a theologian, a believer. And a great priest.
Teilhard de Chardin heard our lament, and he answered us. He reoriented our theology and rewrote its language and linked it, inseparably with science. His wonderful book “The Divine Milieu,” dedicated to “those who love the world,” made negativism a sin.
Teilhard glorified the world and everything in it. He taught us to love and respect ourselves as the pinnacle of God’s creation to this point in evolution. He taught us how the whole universe – even the pain and imperfection we see – is sacred. He taught us in powerful, cogent and persuasive prose, and in soaring poetry.
He integrated his profound understanding of evolution with his religious understanding of the “Divine Milieu.” He envisioned a viable and vibrant human future: “We are all foot soldiers in the struggle to unify the human spirit despite all the disruptions of conflict, war and natural calamities.”
“Faith,” he said, “is not a call to escape the world, but to embrace it.” Creation is not an elaborate testing ground with nothing but moral obstacles to surmount, but an invitation to join in the work of restoration; a voice urging us to be involved in actively working to improve the world we were born to—by our individual and collective efforts making it kinder, safer and more loving. Repairing the wounded world, helping it move further and further upward to the “Pleroma,” St. Paul’s word for the consummation of human life. The Omega point, when the level of consciousness and civility would eventually converge, having infiltrated the whole universe, elevated to the highest level of morality. A new universe a peerless one; one we could help create by our own civilizing behavior.
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Teilhard’s vision challenges the imagination but it has achieved sufficient scientific plausibility to be given cautious but respectful attention by celebrated intellectuals like Robert Wright a scientist and a declared agnostic. (See his book “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.”)
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Actually, I would have been less influenced by Teilhard’s exquisite and moving enlightenment if I thought it was reserved for people like Robert Wright who are equipped to understand the scientific complexities and nuances that he weaves through his theology.
In fact, if one looks closely, some of the most fundamental of Teilhard’s principles are equally available to me and to all rational human beings whatever their level of formal education.
They are instructions of what has come to be called “natural theology” or the “natural law,” which is to say they can be ascertained by using evidence that is there for all of us to see and feel with nothing more than the gift of consciousness and exposure to the world around us.
Without books or history, without saints or sermons, without instruction or revelation, three things about our place in the world should occur to us as human beings.
The first is that the greatest gift we have been given is our existence, our life and the power to help procreate.
The second is because as humans with the gift of consciousness we are unique parts of creation – sharing the same principal needs, desires and threats against us – our intelligence inclines us to treat one another with respect and dignity.
The third is the inclination to work together to protect and enhance the life we share.
The Hebrews, who gave us probably the first of our monotheistic religions, made these ideas the foundation of their beliefs. Tzedakah is the principal that we should treat one another as brother and sister, children of the same great source of life. And Tikkun Olam is the principal that instructs us to join together in repairing the world.
Rabbi Hillel pointed out that these two radiantly logical principals together make up the whole law. “All the rest,” he said, “is commentary.”
Jesus confirmed it was also the whole law for Christians. “The whole law is that you should love one another as you love yourself for the love of truth and the truth is God made the world but did not complete it; you are to be collaborators in creation.”
I know of no religion recognized in this country—God-oriented or not—that rejects these ideas.
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If then, as seems to be the case, politicians today are looking for guidance from religions in learning how to create a sustainable future or looking for the best wisdom to govern by, day-to-day, the answer is apparent: To deal effectively with our problems and to make the most of all our opportunities, we must understand, accept, and apply one fundamental, indispensable proposition. It is the ancient truth that drove primitive people together to ward off their enemies and wild beasts, to find food and shelter, to raise their children in safety, and eventually to raise up a civilization.
Now, in this ever more complex world, we need to accept and apply the reality that we’re all in this together, like a family, interconnected and interdependent, and that we cannot afford to revert to a world of us against them.
It is the one great idea that is indispensable to realizing our full potential as a people.
This is true whether we are considering the sharing of the wealth in the economy of the richest nation on earth; deciding what we must do to relieve the economic and political oppression of people all over the world, or deliberating over how to join in protecting millions of Africans against the ravages of AIDS or the barbarism of war lords.
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Each of us is presented with a choice to act or not to act in a way that will move the world in a different and better direction. A brilliant agnostic Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes echoed Teilhard’s call for the vigorous involvement of all of us in the management of the world around us and added a warning. He said: “As life is action and passion we are required to share the passion and action of our time at the peril of being judged not to have lived.”
Teilhard would have augmented Holmes’ remarks with his promise of glorious attainment. “The day will come when after harnessing the wind, the mind, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love and on that day for the second time in the history of man we will have discovered fire.”
I wish I had a recording right now of a lot of people’s one favorite piece of music.
Reflecting on Teilhard’s vision and importunings, it’s easy to hear in the background Beethoven’s wonderful message to humanity which was his 9th Symphony.
With it’s unforgettable ending….
The single moral principle he wanted to share was the need to see the world as a family. Listen to it again. It begins dark and threatening; disaster and confusion loom because of clashes of will, misunderstanding and alienation. It moves into the frenetic hunt for resolution seeking an answer that will comfort and reassure humanity.
Then in the final movement it swiftly presents again the initial picture of disunity and discord, only to dissolve into the Ode to Joy, using the words of Friedrich Von Schiller’s poem, ending in ecstatic jubilation – the chorus rejoicing at the convergence of the world’s people through maturity, brotherhood … and love!
Simple, and simply wonderful!
So, “Who or What is God?”
I have grown old enough to understand the vanity of trying to define fully the infinite and eternal.
But I also understand that I’m not required to eliminate any possibilities just because my intellect is not acute enough to make them irresistible.
In the end, I can choose to believe – and call it “faith” if I must – if that promises me meaningfulness.
So, it may not be easy to understand Teilhard or believe that God commits us to the endless task of seeking improvement of the world around us, knowing that fulfillment is an eternity away.
But it’s better than the anguish of fearing futility.
Better than the emptiness of despair.
And capable of bringing meaning to our most modest and clumsy efforts.
That’s a useful consolation for any of us still struggling to believe.