I am one of the relatively few nonsupernaturalists who regularly listens to Contemporary Christian Music. This past week, I listened repeatedly to Nichole Nordeman's song "Legacy" because of its resonance with the criticism I made a week ago in my post "Breaking the Chains" of careerism among economists and other academics. There I write:
For most who go into academia, the salary they will get in academia is lower than they could get outside. So most who go into academia make that choice in part out of the joy of ideas, a burning desire for self-expression, a genuine fascination with learning how the world works, or out of idealism—the hope of making the world a better place through their efforts. But by the time those who are successful make it through the long grind of graduate school, getting a job and getting tenure, many have had that joy of ideas, desire for self-expression, thirst for understanding and idealism snuffed out. For many their work life has become a checklist of duties plus the narrow quest for publications in top journals. This fading away of higher, brighter goals betrays the reasons they chose academia in the first place.
Because I believe it has an important message, but don't believe in the supernatural framing of the message, I want to give a nonsupernatural, teleotheistic interpretation of the lyrics of "Legacy." If you click on the video above, you can hear the song while you read.
What is Teleotheism?
I first need to define Teleotheism to make a bit clearer what a "teleotheistic interpretation" might be. Teleotheism is the belief that God comes at the end, not at the beginning.
As for the origin and history of the word "Teleotheism," when I wrote the Unitarian-Universalist sermon "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life," I googled to find the preexisting word "Teleotheism" from the bvio.com post "Talk:-ism." But if you google the word now, you will find my blog post with the text of "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life" as the top hit. The second hit is to a video of the second time I gave the sermon, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. The third is Noah Smith's endorsement of Teleotheism. (For the word "teleotheistic," the top three hits are two for my post "The Teleotheistic Achievement of the New Testament" and one for my post "What If Jesus Was Really Resurrected?")
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin did not use the term "Teleotheism" (or at least the Wikipedia entry on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin makes no mention of it), but Teleotheism is a good description of his beliefs, and particularly of his views about what he called "the Omega Point."
My Teleotheism differs from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Teleotheism by having God at the end only as a possibility, not as a foregone conclusion. Reaching God will require the best efforts of many. Here is the passage from "Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life" that best explains my version of Teleotheism:
The key difference between evolution as our creator and the god of the Bible is that with evolution the best comes at the end, not at the beginning. There was no Garden of Eden—only primordial soup in a warm pond. But heaven is still possible; we and our descendants just need to build it.
The first task is to decide what we want. The medieval theologian Anselm defined God as “that than which no greater can be thought” and proceeded to argue that God must exist since something that exists is greater than something that doesn’t exist. Therefore, the greatest of all things must exist. It is my understanding that modern philosophers reject Anselm’s argument on the basis that “existence” is not an ordinary attribute like being massive or being photosynthetic. Existence has a special status in logic. So let me do a riff on Anselm by defining God as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” God is the heaven—or in Mormon terms, the Zion, the ideal society—that we and our descendants can build, and god is a reasonable description of the kind of people who make up that society. But what does a heavenly society look like?
Let’s start with the easier question of what an ideal human being looks like. Here I look to Jesus. Not the historical Jesus, but the imagined Jesus who is the projection of every good human trait, as valued by our culture. It makes all the sense in the world to ask “what would Jesus do” even if one believes that the historical Jesus was only a man, since “what would Jesus do” is a good shorthand for what our culture thinks a good person would do. This is an example of the way in which many of the highest ideas of goodness in Western Culture are embedded in religious language.
A Teleotheistic Interpretation of Nichole Nordeman's Lyrics for "Legacy"
In her lyrics for "Legacy," Nichole begins by saying that a certain amount of ordinary ambition is OK:
I don't mind if you've got something nice to say about me
And I enjoy an accolade like the rest
And you could take my picture and hang it in a gallery
Of all the who's-who's and so-and-so's
That used to be the best at such and such,
It wouldn't matter much.
I won't lie, it feels alright to see your name in lights,
We all need an 'Atta boy' or 'Atta girl'
But ordinary ambition can easily get off track. As I wrote in "Breaking the Chains" for the case of academics:
Treating publishing in top journals as the end itself is off target. It is the broad road that leads to the destruction of much of your potential for joy, self-expression, understanding and doing good in the world. Putting the higher, brighter goals first—with publications as only one of several tools for achieving those goals—is the narrow gate to joy, self-expression, understanding and doing good.
Nichole expresses a corresponding idea this way:
But in the end I'd like to hang my hat on more besides
The temporary trappings of this world.
Without a God who currently exists, getting beyond "the temporary trappings of this world" is a matter of doing things that could withstand the judgment of history a long time from now, when people are much wiser than they are now.
I say "doing things that could withstand the judgment of history" because many of the good things we do will never make it into the historical record at all. And there is another big gap between the set of things that make it into the historical record for those who diligently seek the information out, and those things that any ordinary person will every hear or read about. For example, if you think fame is a reasonable goal for an economist, just ask your non-economist friends how many economists they can name whom they don't know personally. You may be surprised at how few that number is. As another example, even though economists think about Gross Domestic Product quite a bit, and a book exists about the origins of GDP, I think you could safely lay even odds that a randomly chosen economist could not name the economists who put together the conceptual and practical framework for measuring GDP.
Because of the frailty of human memory and the difficulty of achieving any lasting fame, when Nichole sings
I want to leave a legacy,
How will they remember me?
I take her "How will they remember me?" as mostly literary license. Nevertheless, targeting what our friends who are the wisest and who care about the most people will think of us after we are gone is not a terrible proxy for "doing things that could withstand the judgments of history a long time from now, when people are much wiser than they are now."
Nichole points to some clues for how to judge one's actions with one's legacy in mind (relative to the lyrics at the link, I moved the question mark from the second line below to the third to better match what I hear):
Did I choose to love?
Did I point to you enough
To make a mark on things?
"Did I choose to love?" needs no reinterpretation at all.
As for the line "Did I point to you enough," given the conventions of Contemporary Christian Music, by "you," Nichole clearly intends "God." The meaning "God's name" for "your name" four lines down in "Who blessed your name unapologetically" is also clear. To give the teleotheistic spin to "Did I point to you enough" and "Who blessed your name unapologetically," consider my "Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet":
In this moment, as in all the moments I have, may the image of the God or Gods Who May Be burn brightly in my heart.
Let faith give me a felt assurance that what must be done to bring the Day of Awakening and the Day of Fulfilment closer can be done in a spirit of joy and contentment.
Let the gathering powers of heaven be at my left hand and my right. Let there be many heroes and saints to blaze the trail in front of me. Let the younger generations who will follow discern the truth and wield it to strengthen good and weaken evil. Let the grandeur of the Universe above inspire noble thoughts that lead to noble plans and noble deeds. Let the Earth beneath be a remembrance of the wisdom of our ancestors and of others who have died before us. And may the light within be an ocean of conscious and unconscious being to sustain me and those who are with me through all the trials we must go through.
In this moment, I am. And I am grateful that I am. May others be, now and for all time.
My post "Daily Devotional for the Not-Yet" gives a detailed teleotheistic interpretation of this devotional, but here what I want to emphasize is that even those of us who doubt that God currently exists can point to God in the sense of "The God or Gods Who May Be." That is, we should always point boldly and unapologetically toward the good and even transcendent things that are possible if people work toward those higher, brighter goals instead of a pitifully small and narrow conception of self-interest.
What your self-interest is depends on what you decide your "self" is. If you decide that your "self" has a part that extends to the end of time, and includes the welfare of the many human beings and other sophonts who exist now and will exist in the future, then your self-interest may tend toward God, or in my phrase, "The God or Gods Who May Be."
Of course, even if you decide to take an expansive view of your own self-interest that encompasses the interests of many others, both now and in the (possibly distant) future, there are tradeoffs. But there are always tradeoffs. I like working on math problems and hate to stop when I am on a roll; but then that math might come at the expense of sleep. Similarly, tending our self-interest in the direction that encompasses the interests of others sometimes comes at the expense of other dimensions of our self-interest. So it is often appropriate to talk about making sacrifices in order to do good. As Nichole expresses it,
I want to leave an offering
The next line in "Legacy" adds in a different note: "A child of mercy and grace." Here is the context:
A child of mercy and grace
Who blessed your name unapologetically
And leave that kind of legacy.
Teleotheistically, we are all children of mercy and grace in that we have all escaped the destructiveness of the cruel creator god, evolution. In the history of our planet, most genetic lines were wiped out. Our lines were not. That is mercy and grace. But it is not the mercy and grace of a benevolent god, but the grace of a terrible and brutal god, evolution, who brought us into existence by killing off many, many other experiments. We have been spared, not entirely capriciously, but not out of any kindness either.
Still, a certain gratitude is warranted, or at least an appreciation of the chance that we have been given that only a vanishingly small fraction of all possible human beings (and an even tinier fraction of all possible intelligent beings) have ever had. Let us make the most of this chance that we have.
To make the most of that chance, we need to steel ourselves for the needed sacrifices. One thought that helps is how short-lived some of the things we might need to sacrifice will be in any case. Nichole's next stanza goes
I don't have to look too far or too long a while
To make a lengthy list of all that I enjoy
It's an accumulating trinket and a treasure pile
Where moth and rust, thieves and such
Will soon enough destroy.
That said, pleasures for ourselves and others are, in my view at least, an element of “the greatest of all things that can come true.” We should not sacrifice unnecessarily now pleasures that are part of our image of heaven in the future. The final words of my "Agnostic Invocation" are
And may we understand more fully the mystery of the humanity we all share, and act as one family to bring this Earth nearer to Heaven. Amen.
Let us not begrudge ourselves a bit of Heaven now, unless it costs us Heaven later.
Other than refrains, the final thought in "Legacy" is this:
Not well-traveled, not well-read
Not well-to-do, or well-bred.
Just want to hear instead,
Well done, good and faithful one'
In itself, being well-traveled is good. Being well-read is good. Being well-to-do is good, if it doesn't come at the expense of other, more important things. And being "well-bred" in the sense of having parents who help one appreciate one's own potential is good. (See "The Unavoidability of Faith.") And for those of us who are academics, let me add to Nichole's list that having many publications and being well-cited is good, insofar as it is an indication of having done worthwhile investigations and having accurately and vividly communicated what one found. But we should not take too much pride in these good things if that pride distracts us from doing what needs to be done to further the cause of building the ideal society and making it possible for those who come after us to reach their full potential, which we now only glimpse "like puzzling reflections in a mirror" as the image of God.
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but if we could live that long, then we would see everything with perfect clarity, just as God would then know me completely. (teleotheistic reinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:12, taking the New Living Translation as a starting point)