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


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"