Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last post of 2009

So once again we find ourselves making a fuss over an arbitrary calendar division. It is something I have ranted about before, so I will spare everyone the trouble (myself included) of rehashing it. I will even spare everyone a secondary rant on Avatar, which I saw today for the first time, much to my chagrin.
I write only to wish the best to those who do mind that it's the last day of the year, those who are so heartily concerned with the dates of the secularized Christian feasts of the Gregorian calendar. I love you and I care for you, I miss you and I wish all the wonderful things in the world for you. We spend our days searching and hoping and desiring and, sometimes, fulfilling. We drink, we laugh, we cry, we shout and we live, last year, this year and the next. It is for you that I write, for you that I long, for you that I live. Happy New Year.

"Seeking happiness, we spend our lives in suffering." - Tibetan Book of the Dead

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Festive, finally!

It snowed today, interspersed with a beautiful, pale bone sunlight. Sometimes it was gravitous, sticky flakes, as on my walk home tonight. The wind swirled and the cold, wet projectiles pelted my face, but I loved it. I was immensely happy. I danced through the snow, sliding down the sidewalk, singing “Winter Wonderland” as well as my scratchy throat would allow. It felt right, finally. Even now, I sit at my desk, eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and listening – God help me – to Christmas music.
Noel, noel; o holy night.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Merry something

The prevailing belief, based on years of scholarship and study, is that Jesus, "called the Christ," was not born on Christmas (Christ's mass), nor in the year zero. The calendar we use today is not even the calendar used in Roman or Jewish cultures. Very early Christians didn't celebrate Christmas, but only Easter. The day for Christmas - December 25th - was arbitrarily chosen, meant to coincide roughly with Saturnalia and other pagan winter solstice celebrations. Some Christian churches, notably the Greek and Russian Orthodox, don't celebrate the 25th as Christmas, but instead have long celebrations either before or after that date. In fact, Christmas wasn't even designated a federal holiday in the US until June of 1870. Puritans banned the celebration as hedonistic.
Christmas has become almost entirely commercial these days. December 25th is not the day when Christians celebrate the birth of their savior, but is instead the day they celebrate spending money, giving unnecessary gifts and overeating, to the point that magazine after magazine lists articles on how to prevent weight gain during the holidays, how to choose gifts that won't be returned or regifted, and how to prevent yourself from going completely broke. Airlines charge extortionate prices for flights which are no different than any other, except in date.
Throughout much of the world, Christmas is not a holiday. Other cultures and other religions celebrate their own massive festivals; Eid, Hanukkah, the Chinese New Year or Bikrami Samvat (March 16th next year, in case you're wondering) are all 'holy' in some way to those who celebrate them. In fact, one might wonder if Christmas should be such a big deal to a 'non-practicing' or unbelieving Christian. If one doesn't consider the context holy, why then the date? This year, having been living in another country, Thanksgiving seemed to have much more gravity to it, my American heritage more important in the contrast.
The date is, in the end, unimportant. We assign it however much importance we wish, based on whatever criteria we choose.

But then, this could all just be the frustrated rambling of a girl who doesn't know how to tell her parents that she can't make it home for Christmas this year.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts on Hell

Heaven and hell are two sides to a coin which has been in general circulation since mankind first realized there are consequences to choices.

The idea of divine retribution is one which is pervasive because humans are indelibly vindictive creatures. The agenda for one evening at the local symphony was a production of Hector Berlioz' Requiem, and a production it was. A full chorus on stage, four timpanists and four brass choirs arranged in the corners of the concert hall. We sat perched on the edge of the balcony, stage right. The lights dimmed. The music began. Immediately, and indeed throughout the performance, I was taken aback at the overwhelming immensity of the piece. Though full of simple chord progressions and harmonies, some minor, others major, the unforgiving point of the entire Requiem was awe and fear. The piece was large, looming, awesome and terrifying, from the melodies of the flutes to the words of the chorus. Perhaps it was merely the mood in which I happened to be, but I was struck by the notion that a God who would demand such frightened reverence is not only a God I would not love and worship, but a God at whom I grew tremendously angry. I was reminded of a passage in Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy which described that god of fear and awe, the god of destruction as well as creation, the god of Job, of the Aztecs, Moloch and Kali, as a god trapped in time - the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world. How strange and appalling it is to believe in such a god, and to try and reconcile this divine wrath with divine love! Berlioz wrote singly to that god of power, not the God of power, wisdom and love. If we lose any portion of the Godhead in our perception of the Divine (in other words, if we allow our own clouded sight to define the boundaries of what is and what is not, instead of accounting for our limited understanding), it is no wonder we arrive at something which leaves us apprehensive of God.

"A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Heretics. In a puritan and strict pamphlet once published by G.W. Foote, the author "dismissed very contemptuously any attempts to deal with the problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise." But this "fire and brimstone" approach to sin - the idea of scaring someone into submission to a cause or belief - can never truly work. "In that picturesque expression," Chesterton writes of the pamphlet, "it seems to me, is perfectly embodied the incurable morbidity of modern ethics. In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him." Frightening a person with the possibility of hell may, for the time being, scare them into outwardly behaving as they are told. But "there is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18), and so we find ultimately that providing a person with a higher goal - God - will do infinitely more to change that person for the better than does providing them with only the "diseased flesh" and threat of vindictive judgment of hell.

Evangelical Protestants, militant Muslims, and several other religions are nefarious for this "God as judge" viewpoint. But, as John Smith the Platonist once quoted, "Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be." The doctrine of eternal damnation is only one of these "traditions of men," brought about by a dogmatic understanding of scripture couched in an ideal of God as judge instead of God as merciful father. "It is difficult," says Conrad Noel in Jesus the Heretic, "to imagine a person so utterly corrupt as to merit hell, or a God so impotent as to be unable eventually to draw all men to himself." Indeed, this fits with the more Eastern thought of reincarnation - we are allowed a second, and perhaps even a hundredth or ten-thousandth chance. If, in our greatest, most selfless, most altruistic, and most loving moments, when we are most like God, we pardon even the greatest of trespasses, why should we not believe God to do the same? "Some interpretations of the doctrine of the Atonement which have been held by professing Christians are definitely anti-Christian. There is, as the outstanding example, the doctrine that God the Father was so angry with the human race because of its sins that he condemned the whole race to everlasting torture in hell; that his more merciful Son shed his blood on the Cross in order to appease the Father's wrath; and that on account of this blood-shedding those people who should afterwards be `converted' (and only those) would be let off this awful punishment and admitted to heaven when they die.... This interpretation is one variation of the general view that Jesus, by his death on the Cross, effected a favourable change in the mind of God towards men. This view, even when held in a less repulsive form than the one I have just described, is definitely unorthodox. For the orthodox teaching is that nothing could change, or is needed favourably to change, the mind of God towards men. The one thing upon which we can rely is... God's `eternal changelessness.' It is the mind of men towards God and his purpose for human life that needs changing," Robert Woodifield aptly wrote in Catholicism: Humanist and Democratic. This reminds us that a literal translation of any Scripture - or, similarly, a legalistic one - is not always appropriate. If we see God this way, it is easy to assume that heaven is some kind of reward for the good (or the "saved"), and hell a punishment for the eternally damned. F.D. Maurice argues, "Mankind stands not in Adam but in Christ. This relation is fixed, established, certain. It existed in Christ before all worlds. It was manifested when he came in the flesh." God is ours to find in the world, but not in fear. "There is no fear in love."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In Memoriam

It was eight years ago today, and it still hurts. Only the living suffer death.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fighting Flight

I spent most of yesterday either in a plane or in an airport. It is my least favorite of pastimes, worse even than trips to the dentist or having the flu. During the roughly four hours of turbulence on the connecting flight from Chicago to Vancouver, I had ample time to contemplate my own death, and noticed that (as one might imagine) my palms were sweating. But why?
We have all heard of the "fight or flight" response, and I have no inclination to disagree with its apparent evolutionary origins. Even with a lack of scientific understanding, it makes sense - we perceive a threat and react to it by quickly (and basically unconsciously) sizing it up and deciding to either attack it or run from it. Certain physiological effects accompany this response: increased adrenaline in the bloodstream, rapid heart rate, shallow breath. But why also sweaty palms?
I wondered, as I sat there in 15F, why the palms of hands (or feet) should sweat at all - it's not a tremendously large surface area from which to cool ourselves, and having the surface which comes into contact with those things which we are trying to grip get damp and slippery seems massively counter-productive. Regardless of whether I "decide" on fighting or fleeing, I'd like for my hands and feet to remain reasonably dry and capable of retaining grip (be it of a tree limb or the ground or the neck of my enemy). Perhaps it is like certain other traits, a byproduct of the original trait which is being selected for by evolutionary processes. Consider, for example, tameness in dogs: the dog-like shape (floppy ears, drooping tail, etc) is actually a byproduct of the selection of tameness, and in itself has no direct consequence on evolutionary progress. There is also the case of certain human genetic traits being tied together in this fashion: a propensity for inherent intellect and a genetic predisposition to certain diseases, for instance. Sweating palms may be the same; our bodies flush with chemicals that give us the needed boost to run or attack, but which also, as a side effect, cause us to sweat profusely. I can only speculate.
In the end, I suppose, the lesson learned is that evolution is by no means an "elegant" process, and it does not produce "elegant" results. One should feel infinitely lucky to have reached the point that we have.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fate

I'm sitting in the DRAGON counting room at TRIUMF, my eyes drooping from the jetlag which tries, somewhat successfully, to convince me that it is 5:30 in the morning. Travelling west is always easier than travelling east - for me, anyway - but an 8 hour time difference is enough to smite the best of us. My British colleagues were actively impressed that I slept until nearly 6am Vancouver time the first morning. Add to the changing time zones the unfortunate fact of my cold, which has moved from sinuses to chest in an effort to render me useless, and you're left with one red-eyed, coughing, irritated individual.
In spite of all this, I feel at home being back in the lab, haphazardly stringing lemo cables across the experimental hall, babysitting the data acquisition, spending countless hours wasting time on shift trying to locate people I know on personals websites. There is a certain atmosphere to an experiment that isn't present when I'm working on my own in a lab on campus, and I've missed it.
A few days ago, as I approached the black mental abyss of getting through a 9-hour transatlantic flight (direct from Heathrow to Vancouver), I began to struggle actively with my phobia, which inevitably leads to questions as to the nature (and existence) of fate. I am told by others that the universe, or God, could never be so cruel as to allow you the full knowledge of your own fate; that, if anything, my fear of dying in a plane crash means precisely that I won't. But I cannot believe that fate works only in our favor - I reply that what we must be left with is no fate, just the infinite possibilities of any outcome. That there cannot truly be such a thing as fate, but only coincidence and chance and randomness onto which we project (either forward or backward) our own hopes, fears, dreams and fables. We make our own fate, in that sense, not because we control the outcomes, but because we control the way we view those outcomes.
Because my phobia convinces me that I will not survive my flight, I feel fated to die in a plane crash, but since the logical portion of my brain can't accept such a viewpoint, it instead fights to convince me that all is random and there is no fate whatsoever. But it is fate that we met, he says. That you first came to Oak Ridge when you did. Is this fate, though, or merely wishful thinking? Are we writing our own fairytales after the fact, seeing the path the story took once we've walked it? In truth, I see nothing harmful in that sort of thing - it gives our lives a fuller, richer hue. But it can sometimes seem like willful ignorance. We can live as though we are lucky, but we mustn't believe in luck.
In the end, as always (so far, anyway), I get on the plane, I freak out a little bit and watch the wings flex and the ground pass by silently below, and when we land I feel sheepish for having believed the voice in my head. But was it fate that I survived? If I was so convinced that it was my fate to die, then I cannot turn around and say just as glibly that it was my fate to live instead. But such is the nature of fate - we cannot say what it is until it has passed, and yet, in that context alone, it is worthless. To know our fate beforehand is torture, to know it after the fact is mere selective history. And so the answer seems as though it must be no; fate is not real, it does not truly exist except within our minds. But when my next flight rolls around (this Thursday, in fact), I will revert to the superstitious phobe, hoping I have not tempted fate by saying such things about it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Nature of the World, and the Human Condition

When push comes to shove, as the saying goes, we are faced with a bare, ugly, barbed-wire truth: in a universe based on chance, there can be no absolute certainty.
Random fluctuations may give way on the large scale to reasonable predictability; the motion of each individual electron isn't known, but the table still stands, holds our plate, our fork, our beer. Statistics begins to dictate at the level we perceive daily, creating the generalized physics with which we are familiar: forces, accelerations, momentum and energy and the other well-known namesakes of kinematics. But it is still built upon one basic, fundamental fact, something that quantum mechanics taught us well: the world is unpredictable.
Faced with a world ripe with such possibility, the human mind - so far as we know, the only thing capable of having even a hope of coming to grips with this unpredictability - does quite the opposite: it copes. We search desperately for some word of certainty, and find it wherever seems fit: God, friendship, even a guarantee from a retail store. We force predictability and certainty into a world without such guarantees, either dishonestly, or through hope, and this, in a sense, is faith.
Our lives are spent doing a rationalization of predictability versus unpredictability, chance and likelihood. If we give up one side entirely in favor of the other, we're not being fair to the human condition. Blind faith, the "bad" kind of faith, results in the dishonest forcing of a certainty which is, in reality, unlikely. Conversely, a phobia would be understood as the one case where a person's rational balancing act of predictability and uncertainty are skewed toward uncertainty: it is the unlikely outcome which is expected.
So do we seek certainty because it is out there somewhere for us to find, or do we seek it merely because we need it to exist, regardless of whether or not it does? Is this search for certainty in an uncertain universe at least a part of what makes us human?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hard Candy

"She comes out on Fridays every time, and stands out in the line
I could have been anyone she'd seen
She waits another week to fall apart
She couldn't make another day

I wish it was anyone but me
I could have been anyone you see
She had something breakable just under her skin

American girls are weather and noise
Playing the changes for all of the boys
Holding a candle up to my hand
Making me feel so incredible

She comes out of closets every night, but then she locks herself away
Where she could keep everything from me
I could have been anyone you see
She's nothing but porcelain underneath her skin

American girls are weather and noise
Playing the changes for all of the boys
Holding a candle right up to my hand
Making me feel so incredible

Little shiver shaking me every day
But I could get this same thing anywhere
So if she goes away, well, it's all right, and I'm ok
She said, "come back again tonight,"
And I said, I might, I might, I might
She said, well that's all right
And it's all right, if it's all right with you, then it's all right
It's all right with me

I waited for an hour last Friday night
She never came around
She took almost everything from me

I'm going through my closets, trying on her clothes, almost every day
I could have been anyone you see
I wish it was anyone but me
There's nothing but pills and ashes under my skin

American girls are weather and noise
Playing the changes for all of the boys
Holding a candle up to my hand
Making me feel so incredible

If I made you cry, please tell me why
I'll try again if you let me try
American girls are feathers and cream
Coming to bed so edible

American girls, oh, American girls

You make me cry
You make me cry
You make me cry, yeah, you made me cry

You made me cry, hey, miss American girl...."
-Adam Duritz, Counting Crows, "American Girls"

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

"Can you see me up on the building
From down on the pavement, or out in the crowd?
Can you see me through the glare of the lamppost?
I'm walking a tightrope into the moon

I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant
And I don't know how to see the same things different now

Oh, could you see me, I'm one in a million
I am Icarus falling out of the sun
Could you see me fall in the light of spotlights, and jackknife
Through night as black as a bedroom
And white as a lie

I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant
And I don't know how to see the same things different now

Driving through the dark while the night turns blue
You wear your intentions as I wear my intentions:
So clear

If you see me, wading through water
Oh, come drown in the river, right in front of the world
Hey, you can wash your face and hands in the stream of my anger
It's as bright as white paper
As dark as a girl

I don't want to feel so different
But I don't want to be insignificant
And I don't know how to see the same things different now

I don't want to feel so different, but
I don't want to be insignificant
And I don't know how to see the same things different now
Now
Now..."
- Adam Duritz, Counting Crows, "Insignificant"

Monday, October 19, 2009

Photos

Just wanted to share these with everyone. Absolutely stunning.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Critique of Love

Ok, so not quite - it's a belated examination of a book I read a few weeks ago. The book is Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor by Robert C. Solomon, published by DoubleDay in 1981. I picked it up at a library book sale for something significantly less than a dollar, and since then the dusty hardcover had remained at the bottom of a box full of other such purchases. Coincidentally enough, when I finally dug the book from the box, the circumstances seemed ripe for what it had to say.

Solomon's main premise throughout the text is to return love from its status as either savior of the world (to the poetic) or end of the world (to the cynic) to its proper place as another human emotion, no more, no less. He does not fall into the trap of so many behavioral scientists now and call it mere biology, but nor does he follow Plato's long-tread path to defining love as the first step on the way to God.
The first part of the book is a history, if you will. Many modern historians and sociologists believe that the origins of romantic love are to be found in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century troubadours of Europe, and Solomon does not entirely disagree. The first inklings of the desire of romantic love are there, but it is not the whole story; a troubadour sang to his (often married) unrequited love from the ground below her tower, and she looked down on him with - what? - pity, perhaps, or amusement. The troubadour aimed, not for the culmination or satisfaction of desire, but for the desire itself. The desire is what fueled his poetry and his song, and as such, the object of said desire was, in the end, rather unimportant. It was true of the chivalric knights and their ladies as well, despite how much romanticism we read back into the stories of Guinevere and Lancelot with our own rose-colored glasses. It mattered less that the lady was Guinevere than it did the fact there was a lady. Adoration, idolatry, worship from a "safe" distance - these things may be present in romantic love, but they are not love themselves.
Enter, says Solomon, one of the greatest traditions of western civilization: Platonic love. We can look all the way back to the Greeks for the beginnings of romantic love, even if it was lost somewhere between then and now, and also despite the fact that it was to be found between old men and young boys. According to Socrates (as dutifully inscribed by his student, Plato, in Symposium), the love of one learned man for his young (and beautiful) pupil will eventually lead to the realization that the love may be for young and beautiful pupils in general, followed by the love of all that is beautiful, followed by the love of Beauty, which, in the end, becomes philosophy: contemplation of God. The problem arises, Solomon argues, when we try to make these "bootstrap" bridges permanent; romantic love (or a close approximation of what we know it to be in modern times) for the young and beautiful pupil need not lead to a philosophical realization, nor need it be a necessary prerequisite. While I personally have caught glimpses of eternity through such "profane" things as romantic love, I agree with Solomon: we do love a disservice by asserting that it must, by definition, lead us to such higher things. The book says much on this discrepancy between romantic love and Platonic love, but falls short of speaking to the validity of Platonic love on its own merit. While I agree that romantic love should be separated from its "sanctified" cousin, I feel that Platonic love - agape, in a sense, an abstract love for God and all God's creation - is a necessary goal for the spiritual life. But as such, it is distinct from, and not reliant on, human emotion.
Solomon, having thus distinguished modern romantic love from its predecessor adoration (from the troubadours) and its "higher calling" (from Plato and Socrates), sets out his own definition, the main points being laid out hence.

"Love is an emotion, nothing else." But emotions are not to be confused with simple "feelings," either. Emotions, Solomon explains, "are neither primitive nor 'natural,' but rather intelligent [though not necessarily conscious] constructions, structured by concepts and judgments that we learn in a particular culture, through which we give our experiences some shape and meaning." Love is not the only emotion; hatred, anger, pity, envy, etc, are all a part of our "toolkit" as well, and this toolkit varies based on culture, society, etc (just look at the Victorians!). A direct consequence of this portion of the definition is that, in the end, we choose love - sometimes we choose badly, sometimes well, but it is a personal choice.
Romantic love has been made explicitly possible by our specific, modern western society and culture. Independence and mobility are of utmost importance, and so our traditional ties to family and clan are broken, and we seek that intimacy elsewhere. However, not everyone need replace family and place with a single person (or string of single persons). As Solomon states, "love is not everything, and not for everybody."
Romantic love includes intimacy at its core; intimacy consists in "shared identity." Two distinct individuals come together and try to create a single coherent whole, which (by definition) is impossible, and so romantic love can be seen as a dialectic, the way two people attempt to "define themselves and each other both as individuals and as a shared identity."
Romantic love is not to be confined to one particular relationship: one man, one woman, "completing" each other. Romantic love can easily exist between two men or two women. While there may be "roles" within a romantic relationship, they are constantly changing, and have nothing to do with gender. This gender non-specificity also applies to the concept of love: it is not a purely male or female construct, as it exists today.
Love is not a "commitment," it is not forever, and it is not without reasons. One cannot truly be loved (romantic love) "no matter what" (here is where Christians, especially, seem to get confused - if we are to love all men equally as sons of God, how can we if some are better or worse than others? The common answer is to "love the sinner, hate the sin," but in practice, how does one actually do so without some kind of favoritism, which is against Platonic love in its very nature?). We may glimpse eternity from within our romantic love, but that is not the same as the love lasting forever. If a person changes substantially, his or her lover may not love him or her anymore, and this is to be expected and not vilified. If romantic love is a human emotion, like hate, it can easily change and even end, like hate. An interesting corollary is that, as one can hate several people at once, can one love several people at once? I would argue that this is, at least inherently, possible. If we truly do love for reasons (and of course we do, if we are honest with ourselves), we could love one person for a subset of those reasons, and another simultaneously for a different subset of those reasons. Replace the word "love" with "hate," and we have no problem accepting this; it is the weight of love's tradition and haughty history that causes us to blush at the thought of there being more than just "the one." This is not, you may notice, a biological argument - it has nothing to do with procreation. It pertains to romantic love, only one of the aspects of which is sex (but sex need not be the traditional, biological copulation, as any couple knows), and as such is psychological and sociological, arising within the "black box" of the human mind and human reasoning. Consider, also, we allow that, should a person become "all consumed" by hatred, it is a bad thing, for them and for others, but we do not similarly apply this to romantic love. In fact, all our fairy tales and books and movies suggest that one should become all-consumed by love, and when the honeymoon period ends and we are looking at our lover face to face, wondering what happened to the passion, we are let down all the more. Shakespeare knew that Romeo and Juliet had to die, lest they fall into the boring and mundane daily routine of "married life." We buy into the lie; we want love to be a cure-all, a panacea, the key to happiness. It isn't.
That said, the cynics are not all right, either. Love is not irrational - it is people who are irrational, and love is one of their inventions. Romantic love is not a tool for men to repress women, although unfortunately it has been used as such. Romantic love has been puffed up, but once deflated, it is not reduced to nothing. It is not merely an excuse for, as one feminist put it, "lifelong prostitution." Solomon spends a good deal of time refuting specific arguments against romantic love as laid out by some prominent feminists of his time; he is not anti-feminist, but he does insist that romantic love, as the roles within it are constantly changing for any given relationship, is not intrinsically a way for men to keep women "tethered." I agree with him, even in spite of my own unfortunate past in this respect. No human emotion can be perfect, just as no human can be perfect, but this need not mean we give up on the whole thing as a lost cause.
I disagree with Solomon's chapter on the weighty meaning of the phrase "I love you" - as my readers may remember, I subscribe to Huxley's statement that words are not the things which they represent - but the chapter is still humorous, poking fun at so many conversations in so many romantic comedies. The statement has gravity only for the reasons we give it; our meaning imbues the words, not the other way around. I am not prone to using the phrase myself, having overused it in earlier times, but I see no harm in it. These are only words, and not to be feared.

All in all, the book was quite interesting, and seemingly ahead of its time. Though one has to accept Solomon's definition in order for his main thesis to ultimately be correct, it is a relatively easy definition to adopt. If we do not see love for what it really is, we become trapped: "The miracle of love becomes a myth, and the religion [of love] becomes but an extravagant facade for lust, an opiate more powerful than religion precisely because it is entirely personal; we must always blame its failures on ourselves."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Morality at the Mall (with zombies!)

I had a strange dream last night which I will try to relate, though I fear much of the coherence will have dissipated since this morning.
It began in a mall (note: I loathe malls, and I hate "going shopping" in general, unless it is for the explicit purpose of buying copious quantities of delicious, high-quality food which I intend to prepare and eat within the foreseeable future). The trip was one of mostly necessity; a stop in the clothing store for a new dress shirt, and a bottle of facial moisturizer from the local Boots (for you Americans, that's a drugstore). I returned home with my collected purchases. But sometime between then and nightfall, the mall became haunted.
I was inexplicably called back to the mall that night, a bittersweet siren song playing in my head. The evil "me" was there, in the mall, causing destruction and mayhem (actually, that sounds like fun.... but anyway). It was my nemesis who conjured ghosts and demons and animated gargoyles into hideous monsters - ok, so I lied, there weren't actually any zombies - and I had to battle my way through them all, my quest becoming more and more apparent as I fought onward. Within the Boots was a potion, and I had to attain it. It was the "antidote," so to speak. It would defeat my arch nemesis - no, make that change my arch nemesis into good instead of evil. It would make all the difference in the world, and I had to fight for it.
Like in a bad movie or a silly video game, I outwitted demons and banished ghosts, finally making my way through the darkened mall to the staff entrance of the Boots store, the only viable way inside. I was literally two steps away - my hand on the door handle, ready to burst in, grab the potion triumphantly and save the day - when I suddenly stopped. Things began to fall into place: why was this door, the only way in, not guarded? Why had I been so successful in defeating the evil minions? And suddenly I knew. It was a trap.
My nemesis would be waiting for me just inside, ready to pounce and end once and for all this facetious game of good versus evil. I would lose because she had the upper hand, and that was that. I could not go forward; it was suicide. I could not turn back; it would mean victory for evil. But then suddenly I remembered.
The potion that I needed was precisely the same as the lotion I had purchased earlier that day. I already possessed what I needed to defeat evil - all that remained was to give up what was already mine. It was that simple. If I could let go of something I rightfully "owned," I would succeed. I released the doorknob and turned to go.
As is the case in many dreams, I found myself (without the necessity of travel) back at my home, handing the bottle of moisturizer (potion - hey, I didn't say the dream was elaborate) to someone (presumably the one who called me on the "quest" to begin with), and with that simple gesture, defeating my evil nemesis.
That was it. I won.

While much of the "feel" of the dream is lost in translation, the moral of the story was crystal clear, and the sensation of righteous victory strong and pumping through my veins when I woke.
If only more nights were so productive.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Alpha

You may have seen the billboards, or the signs plastered to the side of the bus that just drove past: a question, phrased vaguely by intention - "Does God exist?" or "Is this all there is?" - followed by a set of check-box answers, yes, no, maybe, perhaps, I don't know. It is meant to be passive and indeterminate, to draw you in with a simple but profound premise and equally simple but profound responses. The posters are purposely indirect; one would be put off by assertion.
The posters, billboards and signs are all part of an advertising scheme for the Alpha Course, a ten-week guided course of, if you will, spiritual discovery. I'd know nothing of them were it not for a colleague of mine inviting me to dinner.
Several churches in the area were sponsoring the course, and the room at the Jaipur Spice restaurant was packed full of nearly a hundred people, chatting, sipping drinks, eagerly awaiting the offerings on the buffet. After dinner, an introduction, a short speech about "asking questions," and hastily-edited video of past participants. I felt uncomfortable. It was the kind of sales pitch which is heavy-handed precisely because it purports to be "no pressure." When the people are so nice, they just wonder if you'd consider, well, you know, you don't have to come... and in the end you are guilted into attending by your own mistaken conscience. It is insidious, this "feel-good," embarrassing, individualistic and "tame" brand of Christianity. No matter how intellectual the course organizers claim it to be, in the end it still comes down to the "you have to just take it on faith" argument. You begin with the same questions as everyone ("what is the meaning of life?") and end with the answers they want you to have, because they make it feel as though that's the only solution. It isn't called "Alpha" because it sounds good. It's called alpha because it leads you to omega, and that's the design.
I wondered, as I sat there listening to the speaker spin the same old web of scriptural infallibility (though in the guise of questions - "surely the Bible can't be really, totally true, right?"), what the restaurant employees thought of it all. Did the waiters see Christianity as a threat to their mother religion? Were they Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or perhaps nothing at all? Had they heard it all before, as I had?
At the conclusion of the evening, there was not much to complain about, as there had not been much of substance up to that point. There was only dinner and a sales pitch, slightly less over-the-top than the typical timeshare broker, but all the more underhanded for not being overt. A friend of my colleague's asked, "so, do you think you might come next week?" I lied. I told him I couldn't, as I'd be out of town. I resisted the urge to lecture him - I have been down this road before, sir, and have no desire to regress - and instead just made pleasant conversation about what it's like to be a scientist, just as earlier I had resisted the urge to laugh at the man who claimed he took a "scientific approach" to religion.

"Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?" - Chuang Tzu

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday funny


"I am so excited about the Kepler mission. This is the second most important thing our species has ever done, right behind inventing the concept of delivery pizza."
(from xkcd)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A few newsworthy topics

Update: comet dust studied by researchers is full of amino acids (story here).

First, the Planck telescope (which maps billions-of-years old radiation in the universe) has sent back its first data (story here).

The very first extrasolar planet which is solid like the Earth has been found by astronomers in Germany (story here).

Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary - you know, Puff the Magic Dragon, Leavin' on a Jet Plane....) dies at age 72 (story here).

Obama has decided to scrap a long-range missile defence system in eastern Europe (stories here and here).

And lastly, Dan Brown is a successful conspiracy theorist, as usual (commentary here).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Modern day myth

Prana burns as fire; he shines as the sun;
He rains as the cloud; he blows as the wind;
He crashes as the thunder in the sky.
He is the earth; he has form and no form;
Prana is immortality.
Prashna Upanishad II.5

In the mountains of a faraway land (as I promised not to divulge its true location), I went hiking in the stillness of the afternoon. Upon cresting the shoulder of a small mount, there, behind an outcropping of crumbling granite, regally sat a winged black Dragon.
"I saw what you did, my child," he said to me.
"What did I do, sir?" I asked.
"You used your staff to knock earth into that small hole in the ground," the Dragon replied. I remembered. I had been afraid it was a snake's burrow. "You fear the snakes, but you do not fear me?" the Dragon asked.
"No sir," I replied. "I cannot fear you, for you are not real."
"But I am real," smiled the Dragon. "I am real, for the snakes are me, and the rocks and the heather are me. The birds and the pikas and the frogs, they are all me. The rushing wind and the trickling water, these too are me. Do you understand?"
I did.
The Dragon had disappeared, but within my very heart I heard his voice beckoning. "Come, my child, come with me. I shall take you home."
"Wait for me, I am coming," I called out after him. Breath filled my lungs, and across stone and heath I ran, my feet lighter. Ascending, the summit opened up to me, and I could see for hundreds of miles and millions of years in all directions.
And the Dragon was there because the rocks were there, because the birds were there.
The dragon was there because I was.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What's all the Hubble-bub?

It's the pretty new pictures. Go see.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Heaven is a Halfpipe, or, What we can learn about religion from popular music

"Now heaven would be a DJ, spinnin' dub all night long,
And heaven would be just kickin' back, with Jesus packing my bong;
And if you don't believe in Jesus, then Mohammed or Buddha, too..."

Some of you may remember this catchy OPM tune. Perhaps you didn't really think about the lyrics at the time, or, if you did, it pertained to a disdain for "the Man" and nothing more (I admit that was true for me!). But there's more to it than that, and even more than the lyrics would superficially indicate.
Aside from the obvious "up yours" aimed at the, well, traditional view of heaven, there is also the inclusiveness that many of the younger generations have embraced: "so if you want to come to my heaven, well, we're all going to have a ball, and everyone is welcome, 'cause we've got no gates or walls." It isn't veiled or subtle, but it's there. Everyone is welcome. Even "the Man."

My Dad was listening to his new Eagles album. As I listened, too, I had a stark realization. Every song spoke of God. Every single song. "They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can't kill the beast," they sang. "Love will keep us alive," they sang. "You can see the stars and still not see the light," they sang. "Learn to be still," they sang. "We all, like sheep, have gone astray." Tears came to my eyes as I heard "we chased after all the wrong gods." It was as though the strains of music grabbed a hold of my heart and squeezed. "People who live for years in the dark." The Spirit speaks. "Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?" The Spirit shouts. "I know that somebody, someday, will chase these dark clouds away." As we all live and breathe, God is in the world, and in us.

The Logos, known elsewhere under different names, "passes out of eternity into time for no other purpose than to assist the beings, whose bodily form he takes, to pass out of time into eternity," explained Huxley. God comes into the world in some form in order to bring us out of it, and, in the mean time, in order to make us images of himself within the temporal realm. Whether or not this has happened once or many times is debatable, and something over which Eastern and Western religions differ. The end goal, however, is the same: "If the Avatar's appearance upon the stage of history is enormously important, this is due to the fact that by his teaching he points out, and by his being a channel of grace and divine power he actually is, the means by which human beings may transcend the limitations of history," as Huxley stated.

And all this, just from a few simple lines in a song.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A few anthropological notes, or, why we're fearful and rude

ResearchBlogging.org





Here are two stories involving recent psychological/anthropological/biological research:
As to the first, while describing an interesting study, the story itself is characteristically media. We can pinpoint the amygdala as being the "source" of the flight-or-fight (ie, fear) response, and we have now learned that as we (or, at least, as rats) grow, a "protective molecular sheath" coats the cells of the amygdala, which seems to also "protect" the memories contained within. So baby rats can forget "traumatic" experiences which would otherwise elicit the fear response. This doesn't mean, however, that chemically (or otherwise) removing this molecular cell coating would actually "erase" memories. Baby rats forget past fears, adult rats do not; adult rats with the molecular coating removed recover "their early ability to erase fearful memories." This is not the same as actually erasing the memories themselves. Current phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder therapies aim to "reprogram" the person's fear response - such that, as the story says, a soldier who survived being in a car bomb can "learn to believe that a car ride doesn't have to end in violence." The advent of drug therapies which would dissolve this chemical sheath on amygdala cells would still need to be applied in tandem with psychological treatment. This, of course, also assumes that human beings would react as rats do to the removal of this molecular layer. Though we are similar, we are not the same. And, in the end, is it so bad that fearful memories are "erasure-resistant," as the study itself (ref 1) says? We may not wish to remember, but is that cause enough to warrant forgetting?


The second story is also quite interesting. Several biologists from the University of New Mexico and UBC in Vancouver argue that one thing - disease - basically shapes who we are and how we behave, anthropologically speaking (ref 2). The article in Smithsonian Magazine does an excellent job of explaining the main points; to quote the author, Rob Dunn's, summary:
Their theory is simple. Where diseases are common, individuals are mean to strangers. Strangers may carry new diseases and so one would do best to avoid them. When people avoid strangers—those outside the tribe—communication among tribes breaks down. That breakdown allows peoples, through time, to become more different.
Differences accumulate until in places with more diseases, for example Nigeria or Brazil, there are more cultures and languages. Sweden, for example, has few diseases and only 15 languages; Ghana, which is a similar size, has many diseases and 89 languages. Cultural diversity is, in this view, a consequence of disease.
Then Fincher and colleagues go even further. Where people are more xenophobic and cultures more differentiated from one another, wars are more likely. Democratic governments are less likely because the tribe or group comes first; the nation and individuals in other tribes within the nation come second. And finally, poverty becomes nearly inevitable as a consequence of poor governance, hostility between groups, and the factor that triggered this cascade in the first place—disease.
It's a rather convincing argument, but, as we all know, everything looks like a nail when one has a spiffy new hammer. First and foremost, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Many of those who commented on the article pointed out weaknesses in the study's theory, in addition to citing counter-examples:
"Wouldn't this behavior eventually prove maladaptive? While disease-induced xenophobia might ensure a group's survival over the course of a few generations, wouldn't that group eventually become inbred if its members cannot curb their distrust of outsiders?" - Matthew Graybosch
"The only way this theory works is if the researchers can demonstrate that indigenous theories of death and disease act identically to the modern germ theory they are using in this model." - heteromeles
"Much as we are an animal, our society is far more complex and our behavior is, biologically looking, often times irrational and likely governed by more than biological factors, at least as we understand them now (although they do provide neurological and hormonal framework)." - Marko Pecarevic
"...a small, genetically-homogeneous population may have particular reason to fear stranger's diseases, since these may wipe them out. The way out of this trap is to outbreed. But this exposes you to more diseases." - Peter H. Proctor
While "rudeness" specifically isn't actually explained by the theory (but who reads articles titled "Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism" anyway?), it would seem that, in the end, biology cannot alone explain the behavior of human beings, no matter how pretty a theory might appear (biology isn't like physics, sorry boys!). There has been, and perhaps always will be, a continuing argument over nature versus nurture (as Dunn eloquently wrote, "Somewhere, probably, a cultural anthropologist is writing and rewriting a thorough and vehement response."). Perhaps this is somewhere "true" religion can help - not the xenophobic, cultish religion, but the "love your neighbor as yourself," good-Samaritan, "heal the sick" kind of religion. We are taught to always extend our hand, even to the sick and leprous, and in light of the theory, this encouragement of sociological "mixing" would, in the end, bolster our immunity, both to disease and to fear of cultural diversity.


References:
(1)
Gogolla N, Caroni P, Lüthi A, & Herry C (2009). Perineuronal nets protect fear memories from erasure. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5945), 1258-61 PMID: 19729657

(2)
Fincher CL, Thornhill R, Murray DR, & Schaller M (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 275 (1640), 1279-85 PMID: 18302996

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Awesome


(available here)

The God Who Beckons

I apologize for leaving nothing but the strains of Shania Twain echoing across cyberspace. To make up for this disgraceful behavior, what follows is an article by Joan Chittister, Benedictine author and lecturer. The article was originally posted on NCR (linked so that I may give credit where credit is due). Although there are a few points where she strays (betraying a non-scientist's understanding of science), I agree with her on the whole.

Katie was a second-grader in one of our schools. One Friday at art class as the teacher roamed the aisles checking progress, she stopped at Katie’s desk and asked, “Well, Katie, what are you drawing?”

“I am drawing a picture of God,” Katie said proudly.

“Katie,” the teacher answered, “you can’t draw a picture of God. Nobody knows what God looks like.”

Katie said, “They will when I’m finished.”

We are all invited now to draw a new picture of God.

Picasso said: “God is just another artist. He made a giraffe, an elephant and a cat. He has no style. He just keeps trying new things.” And Simone Weil wrote, “It is only the impossible that is possible for God. He has given over the possible to the mechanics of matter and the autonomy of his creatures.”

What happens when classical spirituality meets modern science? Which of them is “right”? Are the two reconcilable? Or are they doomed to be eternal opposites?

There was a time when asking a question about the purpose of life was simpler than it is now because the answer never changed. Whatever existed and happened, we knew, was the eternal will and calculated design of the God who had made things. Our one purpose in life was to keep a set of basically intractable but ultimately fundamental rules until we had managed to negotiate this world well enough to escape it to a better one.

The process was clear. The rules were unequivocal. Life was a game played to achieve spiritual perfection, despite the fact that we came to realize as life went on that perfection essentially and continually eluded us. Worse, “God’s will for us” was never totally apparent but we knew that it had something to do with ferreting out and being faithful to an eternal plan fully known only by God but incumbent upon us.

We learned that God had a particular function or role for each of us: male and female, clergy and lay, slave and free, ruler and ruled. In that schema the purpose of life was certain, however obscure the project itself. It was, in other words, a game of cosmic dice. Some people won; some people didn’t. And God was in charge of it all.

Until Charles came along.

The unfolding of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the launch, ironically, of the priest Georges Lemaître’s big bang theory -- you can imagine how popular that made him in the church -- changed everything. Evolution and the big bang theory may have clarified the questions of science about the origin and end of life but they continue to this day to unsettle what until now had become relatively standard, unarguable theological conclusions concerning the ways of God with the world.

Two issues in particular challenge the commonplaces of religion and spiritual identity.

The first concerns the traditional definition of creation. Instead of the until now uncontested notion that every creature on earth is the unique and purposeful creation of God, it has begun to dawn, in the light of Darwin’s theory of evolution, that life may well be simply an accident of organic chemistry.

After billions of years, of multiple mistakes, a cycle of chemical configurations and a series of hit-and-miss successes, life as we know it, science tells us, simply emerged. With no sense of uniqueness, no evidence of completeness, and no supernatural intervention.

As a result, life, some argue, is a self-generating fortuity, spawned by nothing, for the sake of nothing, with nowhere to go.

With an explanation like that, the whole notion of life’s meaningfulness simply evaporates into the bizarrely unique chemistry that sustains it.

Thrown into orbit by a primordial blast -- who knows why -- billions of years ago, we are trapped here simply waiting for the fire in the blast to die out and the ice that follows it all to go to dust.

A subtler God

End of story, some say. In this model God is passé; life is purposeless. But is the tale of evolution necessarily all that bleak, all that spiritually arid, all that purposeless?

The answer, I think, does not lie in damning, rejecting or quibbling with the data of science. The answer depends on humanity’s rethinking its definition of God. It depends on our ability to imagine a greater sense of self. It depends on our understanding of the ecology of life. It depends on what the metaphor of evolution itself might have to say about both the nature of God and our own possible place in an evolving universe.

Of all the statements Einstein ever made, beyond relativity, beyond the bend in space and time, it is what he said about God that may, in the end, be seen as his most profound insight of them all.

“God,” said Einstein, “is subtle but not malicious.”

Well, perhaps ... but such subtlety and goodwill were hardly visible to the human eye, hardly arguable to those who were suffering the evil they were told was meant simply to test their fidelity or to try their character.

Such subtlety, in fact, is barely sustainable without the eye of blind faith in the light of the injustices and struggles of the real world around us.

For centuries, for instance, the struggle to define the origin of evil and the nature of God has plagued the religious community, has challenged spirituality to the limits. Few questions have done more than this one to strain the fabric of churches or the bonds between thinkers and believers, between philosophers and theologians.

In our time, with the addition of the relatively newfound scientific problem of the nature of creation itself, the very existence of religion could well seem to be in danger and a sense of spiritual purpose a thing of the past.

If life, as science says, is self-creating, what can possibly be the cosmic or overarching purpose of life? What, in fact, can be the purpose of God?

It all depends, of course, on who we say God is. A wag said: First God created humans; then humans created God. And we did. To the point that nothing we know about science now equates with what we have told ourselves about God.

As a result, science confronts the definition of God as we have framed it in the past but, in the process, ironically gives us the opportunity now to see the multiple dimensions of God that we missed.

And this great crossover point, this new Galileo moment in history, gives us a sense of purpose in life that is beyond the sanctification of the self. Indeed, this is the moment after which everything religion has said about the nature of God must somehow shift.

The God of creation, the religious world determined, was all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present and all-holy. The problem lay in the fact that a God of these proportions failed, it seemed, to exercise such power when it came to the creation this very God had created.

This God did not save the world from evil, did not exercise blatant power in behalf of the good, did not save the righteous from the unrighteous, did not act in behalf of the oppressed. This was a God whose merit theology, whose rule-driven scorekeeping, trumped care, compassion and love.

The faithful, we were taught, got the God they earned, or, conversely, lost the God they didn’t, if they were unable to figure out what that God really wanted in every situation and how to pass every spiritual double-bind test.

Instead, they could, at best, only hope for eternal life and everlasting peace somewhere else. This life was out of their hands. This world was a mysterious jumble of good and evil meant to tempt and try them. This was not a subtle God; this was a God whose “will” too often looked more like malice than it did like mercy. The ways of this God with creation were straightforward and manifest. The creator God was patriarch, lawgiver and avenging judge.

Not only was this God not a “subtle” God but how could we say with certainty that this God was not a malevolent one, except that our hearts tell us that God, to be God, must be more than that.

As a consequence of theology like that, we enthroned maleness. We exalted a “rationality” that was far too often deeply irrational. We created the distant and unemotional God of the Greek philosophers who affects our life at every stage and every moment since. This creator God exercised power over everything, we said. But then we got confused trying to explain that God’s failure to use that power in order to save us from what endangers us.

We talked about “free will” but got tangled up again in the implications of what it means to be the weanlings of an all-knowing God. If God really knew everything before it happened, how could we possibly have free will?

We chafed under the burden of the “perfectionism” that the will of an all-perfect God must, of necessity, require of us, but of which, it was clear, we were patently incapable. The inferences of this kind of God for our own well-being were heavy indeed.

But then came Darwin and evolution and an entirely new way of seeing both creation and the world. In this world, every act of creation is not the unique act of an eternal God.

Instead, the God of creation becomes the God of ongoing creation, of life intent on its own development, and of life involved in contributing to its own emerging form.

From this perspective, creation, life itself, is a work in process. It grows from one stage to another. It is immersed in both possibility and mistakes. It is a creature of imagination on the way to the unimaginable. The God of grand but hidden designs becomes the God of evolution, of the working out of creation as we go. Suddenly free will, the choices we make as we labor at the project of life, becomes important. Decision-making becomes universally significant, and selection of our actions determines the shape of an ongoing evolving world.

The humble God

A self-creating universe becomes co-creator with the humble God who shares power and waits for the best from us and provides for what we need to make it happen. We become participants in the process of life and the development of the world that is not so much planned as it is enabled. As nature grows, experiments, unfolds, selects and adapts, so then must we. Growth, not perfection, becomes the purpose of life. Ongoing creation, not predestined fate, becomes the purpose of life.

The very process of human growth, not human puppetry in the hands of a disinterested and demanding God, becomes the purpose of life. And God becomes the God of a universe on its way to growing into glory, of becoming one with its creator. Life ceases to be a program of expectations tied up in a black box, the purpose of which is to tease us into unlocking and unraveling the mystery of our lives before it gets to be too late to achieve it.

In an evolving world, then, God becomes “becoming.” God is the one who stands by as we grow from one self to another, from one level of insight to another, from one age and awareness to another. God, we come to understand, is not the God of fixed determinations now. The past is no longer a template of forever. God becomes instead the God of the future. God, we come to see in the model that is evolutionary, is promise and possibility and forever emerging life.

The spiritual implications of a creation that goes on creating are major.

We are meant to create with the creator. We are here to discover the rest of ourselves in an equally evolving cosmos. We are not about perfection. We are about always selecting the better, about entering into the transformation of the world as it experiments with life, chooses for life, sees mistakes not as failure but as one more learning on the ladder of spiritual success.

In this world, the God of evolution becomes God the mother as well as God the father. God the mother understands pain. She bears us and then lets us grow from error to solution, from failure to success. She loves us for trying. She not only sets the standard, she helps us over the bar.

She is the rest of the image of the biblical God that Abrahamic religions have largely ignored to the peril of true spiritual development but that the spirit knows and seeks forever. She, the biblical God, “Cries out as a woman in labor” (Isaiah 42:14). She is the one whom the psalmist sees as “a nursing woman” (Psalm 131: 1-2), who in Hosea (11:3-4) is a cuddling mother who takes Israel in her arms, and who, in Proverbs as wisdom, “is there with God in the beginning” (8:22-31).

In a world in evolution is there purpose in the universe? The answer must certainly be: Never more so than now. Evolution is, in fact, a great spiritual teacher. We learn from the fossils of the ages that development is most often a slow and uncertain process, a precarious and breakneck experience that demands both time and trust in the future that is God, and in the God of the future. Evolution teaches us that movement from one stage of life to another is often both cumbersome and painful but that the pain is prelude to a better self.

We learn that failure is a necessary part of life, not its misdoing. It is simply a holy invitation to become more than we are at present. Time is grace and trying is virtue. Struggle is a sign of new life, not a condemnation of this one.

Evolution shows us that the God of becoming is a beckoning God who goes before us to invite us on, to sustain us on the way, rather than a judging God who measures us by a past we did not shape.

Now human beings can begin to revel in what is meant by growing to full stature as a responsible and participative spiritual adult whose work on the planet really, really matters. Life, suddenly, is more a blessing both to the universe and to the self than it is simply a test of a person’s moral limits. To be alive, to be a person in the process of becoming, it becomes clear, is a blessing, not a bane. We are, alone and together, significant actors in the nature of life and the strengthening of the fibers of humankind.

Evolution gives us a God big enough to believe in.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Damn, I feel like a woman

Ever since Shania Twain's insipid propagation of menial feminine stereotypes in her 1995 album "The Woman in Me" (continued in rampant disregard for the sanctity of life in the subsequent "Come On Over" in '97), women around the world (and men likewise) have been forced to suffer, in true pop music fashion, the roles which are intended for them. So your rant for this Friday morning is my own version of the most catchy of the most insipid of the most menial of the songs - "Any Man of Mine." Enjoy.

This is what a woman wants...
Any man of mine should be proud of me when I do something deserving
Even when I'm ugly, he'd still better love me, since it's only fair and he probably isn't very good looking either (just go to Walmart and see what I mean)
And I can be late for a date, but it just makes me look like an idiot who can't read a clock
Any man of mine will admit that the dress doesn't fit, but he won't need to worry
Because I don't wear damn dresses anyway
And when I'm having a bad hair day, I should remember that he'll lose his hair
And if I change my mind a million times
I wanna hear him retort with logical and well-reasoned arguments as to why it will or won't work

Chorus:
Any man of mine should know better than to steal lyrics from Johnny Cash,
Better show me that he has a rudimentary knowledge of the English language,
I need a man who knows something more than just how to rhyme "know" and "go"
He should be able to pronounce "ing" without dropping the "g" like a lazy bastard
Any man of mine

Well, any man of mine should not be subjected to such horrendous treatment
As having beautiful women pointed out to him for the sole purpose of being fished for a damn compliment
And when I cook him dinner and I burn it black
He should probably have already been aware that my oven is on the fritz and suggested take-out
And if I change my mind a million times, then I'm probably not doing a good job of examining all the evidence

(Repeat Chorus x2)

Your interpretations are also welcome, of course.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Huxley, part 2

Particularly relevant to the recent discussions on RD.

And of course if anyone does not want to formulate this process [of spiritual growth/experience] in theological terms he does not have to; it is possible to think of it strictly in psychological terms. I myself happen to believe that this deeper Self within us is in some way continuous with the Mind of the universe, or whatever you like to call it; but you don't necessarily have to accept this. You can practice this entirely in psychological terms and on the basis of a complete agnosticism in regard to the conceptual ideas of orthodox religion. An agnostic can practice these things and yet come to gnosis, or knowledge; and the fruits of knowledge will be the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace, and the capacity to help other people. So that we see then, there is really no conflict between the mystical approach to religion and the scientific approach, simply because one is not committed by it to any cut and dried statement about the structure of the universe. One can remain completely an agnostic in regard to the orthodox conceptualizations of religion and yet, as I say, come to the gnosis and, finally, exhibit the fruits of the Spirit. And, as Christ said in the gospel: The tree shall be known by its fruits.


Poignant, no? And rather timely. I love that guy.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A few words of wisdom from Aldous Huxley

Wanted to share this.

A measure of detachment from egoism [worship of self] and alter-egoism [worship of some group/ideal in place of oneself - eg, nationalism - in essence, anything short of worship of the divine] is essential even if we would make contact with the secondary aspects of cosmic reality. Thus, in order to be fruitful, science must be pure. That is to say, the man of science must put aside all thoughts of personal advantage, of "practical" results, and concentrate exclusively on the task of discovering the facts and coordinating them in an intelligible theory. In the long run, alter-egoism is as fatal to science as egoism. Typical of alter-egoistic science is that secretive, nationalistic research which accompanies and precedes modern war. Such science is dedicated to its own stultification and destruction, as well as to the destruction of every other kind of human good.

These are not the only detachments which the man of science must practice. He must liberate himself not only from the cruder egoistic and alter-egoistic passions, but also from his purely intellectual prejudices - from the trammels of traditional thought-patterns, and even of common sense. Things are not what they seem; or, to be more accurate, things are not only what they seem, but very much else besides. To act upon this truth, as the man of science must constantly do, is to practice a kind of intellectual mortification.


From the essay "Man and Reality" by Aldous Huxley, printed in Huxley and God, (c) 1992 by Jacqueline Hazard Bridgeman (ed.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Allotment

smell of cows, sweetpea, whispers of rain

the dark juicy blood of blackberries on my hands

somewhere in the distance, on the wind, the Minster bells

divinely animal

the clouds rush, but I tarry

flittering blackbirds, lithe cat with onyx fur, swallows play fast and loose and ride the air just for fun

gravel, earth and stone, soft grass and low hedges

neighbor greets the sunset with a weary eye

creaking gate, beyond that -

life.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Christians, atheists and the Barna Group - or, Why Everyone is Wrong

If you ask one of the painfully vocal members of society about the nature of religion in the US, you would get one of two answers, that run something like this: "religion is an elaborate hoax, wherein a vast majority of otherwise reasonable citizens allow themselves to be convinced, on blind faith, that their relationship with a made-up, invisible entity who appeared on earth 2000 years ago only to be killed and then rise from the dead in an effort to undo what two naked folks in a garden did even longer before that because of a talking snake, will assure them a favorable position in the afterlife;" (example) or, "the fate of our nation as a godly, Christian nation is at stake, because evils - in the form of socialist government, atheist teachers in our schools, lack of patriotism, women working, terrorism, etc - are assaulting us from every side, and we must stand up to it and fight it with the help of Christ Jesus amen" (example).
All you have to do is spend five minutes on the internet to feel as though there is an ever-widening chasm between the two sides - religious and nonreligious - brought about by the ever-narrowing beliefs of the proponents of one side or the other. The fact that the "issue" of "religion and science" must be discussed at all, let alone so hotly debated, is proof itself of the schism. Or is it?

There are several dilemmas one encounters when trying to determine precisely what the real state of religiosity is. First is the use of broad, sweeping and ultimately incorrect generalizations. If we were to trust the few on either side who claim to "know" such things (the ones who write books or make movies about it), we would be forced to believe one of the two statements presented above; we would have to choose sides because, so far as we've been told, there are only two sides. Despite my conviction that I somehow lay outside of the given classifications, surely I must be the outlier, given that "all religious people" believe one thing and "all nonreligious people" another? We each find that, thanks to the generalizing which serves only to broaden the gap, we stand precariously in the canyon, wondering which side to attempt to climb. A second issue is in the personalities who make these generalizations. The most outspoken on any given issue tend to be the most opinionated, which also means they are probably farthest from the "straight and narrow path" at the center. And the farther one strays from that center, the more one becomes convinced that it cannot exist at all. I've personally known both atheists and fundamentalist, born-again Christians who assumed, in any debate, that no middle ground was attainable: either you held one extreme opinion or the other (There are many examples of this I could cite. Consider the Baptist who felt that anyone arguing the sanctity of life must fall into one of two camps: either active remorse over every accidentally squished insect, or belief that all murder is justified at all times. Consider, also, the atheist who believed that, since I made the statement "It is the narcissist who believes the [spiritual] experience pertains only to himself and not to something greater," I must also mean that a non-narcissist is someone who believes his spiritual experience to mean, as he put it, "that the entire universe has been revealed to me, and absolute morality as well, which in turn means that those who have different, spiritual experiences and conclusions are wrong and perhaps should be killed (or burned, then killed) because their experiences don't agree with my experiences." Right.). One never hears of a prophet with a message of moderation and mediation in these times; there are no Dawkins-Moreland crossbreeds. The infinitesimally small number of times a person with a reconciliatory message does appear, they are quickly branded as heretical by both sides. Such is the nature of the divide.
Is there any hope? Are we doomed to fly farther and farther apart, as two oppositely charged ions, or is it possible that we can be reunited in a neutral center? Is it at all possible that we already exist in that more or less balanced state?

It is in this light that I would like to point out a recent Barna Group study. According to the poll, 88% of Americans feel that "religious faith is very important in [their] life." However, 64% of those polled indicated that "they are completely open to carrying out and pursuing [their] faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church." A whopping 71% of Americans said they are "more likely to develop my religious beliefs on my own, rather than to accept an entire set of beliefs that a particular church teaches." Of those who professed themselves as Christians, only 55% "strongly agreed" that the Bible "is accurate in all of the principles it teaches" (note that this is not the same as believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible word of God). Another interesting note is as follows, to quote the study's authors:
Levels of distrust toward churches, church leaders and organized Christianity have been growing over the past two decades. That concern – along with the heightened independence of Americans and the profound access to information that has characterized the past decade – may have led to the emergence of a large majority of adults feeling responsible for their own theological and spiritual development. Other studies have shown an inclination for people to view a local church as a supplier of useful guidance and support, but not necessarily a reliable source of a comprehensive slate of beliefs that they must adopt.
Across the board, the research showed that women are driving these changes. This is particularly significant given prior research from Barna showing that women are more spiritually inclined, are the primary shapers of family faith experiences, and are the backbone of activity in the typical conventional church. Specifically, Barna discovered that women were more likely than men to pursue their faith in a different type of structure or environment (68% of women, 59% of men); to sense that God is motivating people to experience faith in different ways (79% vs. 60%, respectively); and to be willing try a new church (50% vs. 40%).
Another report, based on a poll by the City University of New York several years ago, indicated that those within the US population who define themselves as charismatic, pentecostal, Church of Christ, or born-again (the kinds of denominations more likely to be involved in the anti-science debate because of a stronger belief in the infallibility of the Bible) is significantly less than 10% of the population, and likely half that. About 14% of the respondents listed themselves as "not religious," and 4% ended up in the "other" category: Baha'i, spiritualist, Sikh, wiccan. Only 0.4% of those who responded, however, classified themselves as strictly "atheist" (less than 3% of those who claimed to be "not religious").

Statistically speaking, anyway, it looks like we are mostly in the middle.

The "angry atheists" and "fierce fundamentalists" who drive the wedge between sides amount to only about 5% of the entire US population. The other 95% of us have our doubts, our misgivings, are willing to examine our beliefs and alter them as necessary. The other 95% of us remain somewhere inside the gap, surrounded by a vocal but unrepresentative group of those who would tell us who we really are and what we should really think.

Don't listen to the hype. Don't believe those who would tell you that you must be this or you must be that, or those who would tell you that your neighbor must be this or must be that. Your neighbor is the same as you: unsure, searching for answers, now and then feeling confused by it all. And are we not meant to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Atheism and the internet

I have, for the past few days, been embroiled in a debate regarding Obama's pick for the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins. The debate, of course, has wandered outside its intended bounds and touched on the nature of religion, the definition of "new atheism," the interplay of faith and doubt, and (ultimately, as these things always do) the meaning of life.
I enjoy debate. I was pretty good at it in school; at least, so my teachers and classmates would tell me. The idea of good-natured banter - trying "on the fly" to refute an argument and learning something in the process, while attempting to remember one piece of the loads of information you amassed mentally in preparation - appeals to me greatly. This, I suspect, is why I have taken so easily to the system of online discussion. Someone posts a blog or an editorial or a comment, and one can respond almost immediately. We have designed this system to assist in the dissemination of ideas and to facilitate thoughtful, world-wide discussion. But what have we really achieved?
Those who, like me, have grown up with the internet (we were schoolmates together, the internet and I, if you will) expect a certain level of capability in our debates. I don't mean we expect our fellow debaters to be capable of debate, but that we ourselves be capable of certain things: anonymity, immediate access, spellcheck. When we do not have these things, we complain (picture, if you will, the recent episode of Southpark wherein the internet is "used up"). We expect that we shall be able to peruse the internet, find someone with whom we disagree, and under cover of a pseudonym proceed to tear down the opponent's argument. Debate in an online age is no more like debate once was; gone are the times of such fancies being "civil arguments" between gentlemen at Oxford or drunken follies in the back room of a pub, merely to be forgotten the next morning. I think that the advent of the internet has allowed debate to become more inane, more vicious, more polemic and more divisive - and that this leads only to greater schisms.
It has long been discussed whether electronic means of communication negatively affect one's writing ability. The lack of formality of an e-mail and the safe anonymity of the web lead to the grammatical equivalent of the "car syndrome" (people are known to pick their noses more often in the car because of the misleading feeling that they are somehow invisible). We let our manners slip because we don't have time to be bothered by all of that scholastic nonsense, and anyway, it's not like the Queen will be reading our posts and personally sending us a letter correcting our usage of her language. It's only the internet, right? Who will care? (A note to the reader: people do care.) And because the person we're debating may never meet us, we don't bother with the "pretense" of civility. If JoeSchmo123 doesn't know who you are in reality, why not try and get away with calling him an idiot? Because of the insurmountable distance between you and the rest of the world (at least so far as the internet is concerned, the distance can be as great as you wish it to be), the ordinary fear of the social repercussions of your actions is shadowed. Your name is unknown here, and that grants a certain power.
This is where the problem lies. Because the old rules of engagement are gone, replaced with the new, slipshod precepts of an online life, tact has gone as well. Witness the caliber of online arguments on Pharyngula, Religion Dispatches or elsewhere. Anonymous commentators fight to outdo one another in their proud, dogmatic boasting. And the louder you shout (figuratively speaking), the further away true discussion becomes.
I know that useful debate still exists out there in cyberspace somewhere. I've seen it on occasion, tactful and open-minded comments on topics that may or may not have a right or wrong side. People are still capable of expressing opinions as they are, opinions, instead of as absolute facts. But with the freedom of the internet comes abuse of language and abuse of others; anyone can take part in the sophistry which used to be the playful realm of gentlemanly sport, and they do so with vengeance. We forget that with all great freedoms come great responsibilities. As I wrote elsewhere, "It seems we may never find that common ground, no matter how many times we are beseeched to seek it. I fear that, in an age when global communication is as easy as the click of a button and thus the opportunity to learn everything we can from our fellow man is right before us, our anonymity within that global community will only drive us further down the road we're already traveling, to divisiveness and fragmentation, ever widening the gap."
The reason I titled this post "atheism and the internet" is this. It used to be that great thinkers, people who were well-educated in many subjects, would debate theology - the nature of God and God's relationship with the world. The sheer amount of information and experience that was pertinent to such a discussion was always, if not taken into account, at least acknowledged. But no more. The internet has allowed anyone to play the "expert." And thus the schism grows - the most indoctrinated become the most vocal, and the gap between sides in what should have been a simple exchange of ideas widens. The worst of it, I hate to say, is the staunch atheists; the followers of Dawkins and Dennett and Harris and Myers. Sure, the ultra-religious are bad, too (the strict fundamentalists and the intelligent designers), but they have, at least, the potential for their perceived relationship with God to dampen their inherent pride. The atheists are not so beholden. They blow the trumpet of Science, riding on what they see as a triumph of reason over the old ways of superstition and myth, assured in their own certainty. Despite science's tendency to point out where we should be humble, there is no humility there.
Before I am attacked, however, by those whose sensibilities I have insulted and in the very manner which I have already described, I implore you - think! The internet does not give you the right to behave poorly, it merely gives you another circumstance in which to do it. It is your choice whether you take responsibility or not.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heresy! Huzzah!

I'd like to point you to an editorial and the accompanying comments over on Religion Dispatches on a fascinating topic. You may recognize a familiar face or two, while you're at it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The occasional idiot

I ran across a story on the BBC about BrewDog's newest concoction: it's called Tokyo*, and it's just shy of 20% alcohol (by volume). Intrigued (given that BrewDog brews a beer called The Physics, how could I resist?), I read the article.
I was disappointed to find that several 'watchdog' groups and governmental entities were condemning the beer, complaining that "it is utterly irresponsible to bring out a beer which is so strong at a time when Scotland is facing unprecedented levels of alcohol-related health and social harm." In her own words, a spokeswoman for the British Liver Trust argued:
"The notion of binge-drinking is to get drunk quick, so surely this beer will help people on their way?"
Are you serious?
Has any one of these detractors ever tasted beer? Do they not understand that you drink cheap, watery beer (Coors, Bud, Pabst, Tennents, Carlyle, etc) to get drunk, but a good beer is like a good wine or a good loaf of bread - it is to be savored, enjoyed, understood in all its complexity? Who among you, I charge, would by a bottle of beer that was almost $20 and "chug" it?
BrewDog's response - that brewing high-quality, intricately flavored beers (this particular brew includes jasmine and cranberries) couldn't contribute to Scotland's binge-drinking problem - is completely reasonable. No drunk at a bar on a Friday night is going to choose the most expensive alcohol to "help [him] on [his] way" to further drunkeness. Anyone who purchases a beer from a brewery like BrewDog is doing so because they enjoy beer, not because they enjoy getting drunk. There is a difference, and it's really not so subtle.
The real problem here is not BrewDog's 18.2% a.b.v. beer. The real problem is the occasional idiot in government, the one who only reads the headline without finishing the rest of the article, the one who can see no farther than "more alcohol equals more bad." Soon, I suppose, they will turn on the whiskey distilleries with the same argument - surely, since distilled liquors are so high in alcohol content, their only purpose is to get people drunk quickly? Surely all alcoholic beverages have precisely the same taste because, as we all know, it's not the taste which the drinkers are after?
The real problem is the clash between people who believe that alcohol is intrinsically bad, the teetotallers and prohibitionists, and those who wish to do nothing but drink to get drunk. That dichotomy creates all of the tension, all of the strife, and all of the problems inherent to the system. Those of use in between - who know moderation is good, who enjoy the intricacies of the brewing process, who understand the difference between "drink" and "drunk" - we are caught in the crossfire, our liberties trampled by the one side, and our sensibilities trampled by the other.

UPDATE, July 30th:
Just a couple days, and already the BBC has waffled: "Confusion fuels alcohol misuse." Oh, right.

UPDATE, September 28th:
In response to the anger over BrewDog's "heavy" brew, a new one has been released. Take that, Scotland!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Hold your applause

So it's time once again for the Proms - the extended classical concert series held every year in London - something I've long wanted to attend but have not yet had the chance. I did, however, stumble across an article on the BBC website which speaks to a pet peeve of mine: inappropriate applause (and noise in general) during classical concerts.



Why do people insist on clapping so soon? I can guarantee that the piece you've just heard was not written to be one of those trite, commercial rock anthems wherein every major US city is named to the delight of the crowd (well, ok, unless it was one of Mozart's later works). I can hear Debussy's La Mer, or Elgar's Enigma Variations, or even Stravinsky or Shostakovich or Beethoven; I can picture in my head the moving, pained triumph of The Firebird or the sweet lyricism of the Pastoral Symphony; I can remember being on stage and throwing my heart and soul into the Russian Easter Overture and Carmina Burana. These are some of my happiest memories, but it is the music - and solely the music - which I perceive. I do not remember how people applauded at the end, whether there was a standing ovation, or if anyone shouted. In fact, the concert hall could have been empty.
But I also remember the few times I was unfortunate enough to hear inappropriate noise. These memories stick with me, and in them I do not hear the music, though I wish to. Instead of the Boston Pops performance, I hear incessantly rustling pants; I hear whispers about whether or not the theater staff intend to move the piano off the stage after the concert; and I hear those few, loud claps, that start out forceful and then grow hushed in embarrassment until the sound of them is overpowered by the uncomfortable creaking of the performers shifting in their chairs, the clapping that begins before the musicians had even lowered their instruments, between the first, rollicking movement and the second, sorrowful one. I hate those memories. The entire performance was ruined by someone who didn't know any better. Even being aware of this naivete does not improve my mood on the subject.
Perhaps I am too selfish. I could stand to be more gracious, I'm certain of that. But, both as a performer and as an observer, noise at an inappropriate time during a concert is not only jarring, it is completely disrupting, and not just for those who are trying to enjoy the music, but for my memory formation as well. I will forever be left with one memory of the performance, and it is either a beautiful memory of the music itself, or an ugly memory of noise.
Personally, I prefer the music.