Trance Gender

trans bathroom

 

O brave new world that hath such genders in it! Seems like everybody but me is talking about gender these days. My first reaction to the whole business is to think, “I am an old man, and this is not part of the fading world to which I belong. I don’t have an opinion about it and don’t need to.” But the more I think about the question, prompted by puzzling developments with which the news assaults me, the more I cannot help entertaining random ideas about it. Here they are.

First, I think I am noticing a rather important ambiguity, even a contradiction, in the discussion: Transgenderism advocates seem to be talking about trading one gender for another, switching teams. But much of their rhetoric appears to be saying something quite different, namely, that they are seeking to transcend gender distinctions, creating a new category of identity. I think of a book about homosexuality from some thirty or forty years ago, The Third Sex. Transgenderism as the transcending of gender categories marks the rebirth of a major movement in early Christianity. Already available in New Testament times (1 Corinthians 7:25-38 NEB; Galatians 3:27-28), the celibacy gospel of Encratism (from encrateia, “self-control”) flourished among various Christian sects (e.g., Gnostics, Marcionites, Manicheans) on into the third century. It was based on a literal reading of the Eden story. The Creator required but a single human to tend the garden oasis which he and his fellow deities frequented and which nourished them. The adam (the original, androgenous human) was allowed to share the bounty, including the Tree of Life prolongation, barred only from the Tree of Knowledge of sexual reproduction.

The adam’s simple duties left too much time on its hands, so Jehovah sought to supply a fit companion. The various animals proving unsuitable, Jehovah split the adam into male and female. But soon the Promethean serpent told the couple the secret of procreation. With access to both immortality and procreation, the humans must eventually become a rival race of gods. Thus their expulsion. Encratite Christians understood sex as the original sin, the origin of the division of humanity into classes, ethnicities, and genders with the resultant strife, prescribed roles, and oppressions. Their remedy was to undo that sin, renouncing gender roles and other conventional social structures. They embraced apocalypticism, anarchism, vegetarianism, and pacifism, simulating a pre-Fall existence. Encratism made it possible for women, freed of domestic servitude and male domination, to function as leaders and prophets. It is not too much to say the whole phenomenon was one of radical gender transcendence.

Jesus saw children being nursed. He says to his disciples, “These nursing children are like those who enter the kingdom.” They say to him, “Are we, then, to become children in order to enter the kingdom?” Jesus says to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will no more be male nor the female be female then you shall enter the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 22)

Here is the transcendence of gender and of the social duties and definitions that go along with it. This is something well beyond the decision of a male to become and to be henceforth considered a female, as in the cases of Kaitlin Jenner and Chelsea Manning and those guys who become gals and join the women’s sports teams where they take advantage of their leftover masculinity to win trophies that otherwise would go to the natural-born females. (Rest assured, this is no concern of mine, as I have not the slightest interest in sports.)

Maybe the confusion is only in my own mind. Maybe I am mixing together different factions. But if not, then I should think this contradiction requires sorting out. Are you exchanging one gender for another, or are you transcending gender itself?

My second point is a policy statement. There is a vogue for revising the English language to supply neologistical gender-neutral pronouns, and another movement to create various new pronouns appropriate to the rapidly multiplying gender classifications, some 75 by one count, over 100 by another. Every nuance requires a separate gender, and every gender demands a different pronoun, and in some places, you will be in trouble with the law if you slip and use the wrong pronoun. Well, I can only say I will not be joining the party. No one is going to dictate what I can and cannot say. You and Big Sibling can keep your Newspeak to yourselves.

gender neutral appearance

Third, another policy statement. I take individuals as they come, with their charms, their needs, their problems, their opinions, their blemishes, their virtues. I value them and rejoice in their diversity. Different religious or anti-religious or non-religious positions, various sexual orientations, political views, whatever. They are people, and I love people. So be whatever gender you want to be; it’s fine with me.

My fourth point is in some tension with the third: I view the burgeoning gender confusion, as I consider it, a major symptom of the dissolution of Western culture and civilization. Various factors are fragmenting the “sacred canopy” of values and beliefs that historically hold any society together, providing a common identity. Definitions of marriage and family, together with wise child-rearing, are rapidly eroding. “Everyone does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). “Without a [unifying] vision, a people perishes” (Proverbs 29:18).

I understand our present epidemic of gender confusion (and I know those are loaded terms) as the manifestation of what Giles Deleeuze and Felix Guattari (in their Anti-Oedipus) welcome and proclaim as the dawn of the Schizoid Man, a casting off of what neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan calls “the Law of the Father,” the identity definitions imposed on every child as part of the socialization process. Deleeuze and Guattari urge us to cast off the chains of that consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds. Be all you can be, consistent or not. I see it as the psychological equivalent of what the radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) prescribes as the only principle that does not inhibit scientific research: “Anything goes!” The postmodern person should not hesitate to “be all over the place.” His proper name is Legion. It is a wild existential freedom that does not rein itself in by restrictive codes.

Again, it is the individual/psychological version of the death of traditional Narratives that used to supply national and cultural identities, a cultural crisis discussed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition. This is what makes possible today’s espousal of “world citizenship,” open borders, and the disdain for nationalism and patriotism as mere jingoism. Personally, I believe that these trends, though much may be said in their favor, are sowing the wind and will sooner or later lead to reaping the whirlwind. Even when chaos is constructive on one level, it can simultaneously be destructive on another, as the sad history of revolutions has amply demonstrated. Who can say what will eventuate? Who knows what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?

So says Zarathustra.

Pat - Saturday Night Live

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Hawking in Hell?

I am told that various Christians went on record gloating over the passing of the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and contemplating his arrival in the magma pit of Hell. Hawking’s damning sin? Well, of course, he was an atheist, and what other destination would be fitting? Any mature person will deplore what John Beversluis called a “chop-licking attitude” at the prospect of one’s ideological opponents frying in the Inferno. These “schadenfreudians” are like cruel children, and it would be equally silly to take them as typical Christians. But their frank sadism does raise an important question about Christianity per se. Are these gloating believers hypocrites, acting in contradiction to the faith they claim to represent? Or are they consistent with that faith?

The problem is not a contradiction between such spiteful hate on the one hand and Christian belief on the other, much as we might want it to be. No, the problem is a contradiction between aspects of the Christian faith itself. It bids us go in two different directions. Some Christians proceed in one direction, the rest in the other. Even if we are non-Christians, we wish we could say that Christian faith includes a noble moral stance, fostering forgiveness and compassion. And indeed it does. But there is a fatal Tse-tse fly in the ointment. And of course that is the doctrine of an eternal Hell for those who do not accept the Christian belief.

Of course Christians deny that it is a simple matter of one’s choice of religion. They realize how unfair and arbitrary that sounds. How cruel and arbitrary that would be. So they try to ameliorate that offense by telling us (and themselves) that there is much more to it! And what is that? Wouldn’t be good works, would it? Roman Catholics seem to add works to faith, as if we must make ourselves worthy of the grace of God, whatever that might mean. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in synergism: we must work together with God’s grace for it to save us. But traditional Protestants want to stick with Martin Luther’s dicta of Sola fidei, Sold gratia (Faith alone/grace alone. Two “alones”? Well, yes, they’re both sides of the same coin: nothing but God’s grace can save us, but we must wittingly receive it or it will never really be ours. God throws out a lifeline, but the drowning man must take hold of it. I don’t know if that gets them out of the jam. If it were all simply a matter of grace, we would have Christian Universalism: everybody is saved whether they know it or not! Jesus did not merely try to save humanity, and with partial results. No, he did save the human race. He didn’t just provide the cure, like a chemist; he actually administered it, like a doctor.

Another route of attempted escape is the claim that belief is a necessary but not a sufficient condition; you must have (i.e., you must experience) a “personal relationship with Christ.” But this seems logically quite different from the transaction of trading belief in Christ’s atonement for the dropping of the charges against you as a sinner. It’s not clear what the “personal relationship” business would have to do with all the “Protestant Latin,” you know: justification, regeneration, expiation, propitiation, etc. Besides, it simply adds a kind of religious sentimentalism to correct doctrinal belief as a second qualification for salvation. It is essentially the same principle expounded by the United Pentecostal Church: you must speak in tongues in order to be saved. And this is supposed to be better than “salvation by works”?

I just don’t see how it makes sense for Stephen Hawking to be condemned to eternal torment for not having prayerful, tearful devotions every day, for failing to “have a little talk with Jesus.” Damned to the endless flames for not agreeing with an unprovable assertion about an invisible and intangible being?

But I said the real contradiction pointed up by some (I hope few) fundamentalists spitting on Hawking’s grave centers on a crucial element in Christian theology. I have always loved the joke that explains how the Unitarians and the Universalists finally got together. The Universalists said, “God is too good to send anyone to Hell,” and the Unitarians said, “And we’re too good to go there!” Well, there’s truth in that. No one deserves endless torment, not even fiends like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Yeah, they deserve plenty of retribution all right, but endless torture? Come on. If that’s the way God runs things, he’s worse than them! No, that can’t be, at least if all the talk about God being a loving Father has any truth to it. So, yes, Virginia, God is too good to send people to Hell.

hell

And there is danger in thinking he’s not. Here’s what I mean. Your God is by definition your ultimate standard of morality. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But suppose you have been taught that God’s perfection includes, is compatible with, his willingness to condemn people to unending torture. It is the greatest, most outrageous, harmonization of a biblical contradiction ever attempted, and theologians have long tried simply to split the difference between God as Love and God as the Lord of Damnation.

For most Christians, this harmonization is merely a trick of theoretical, theological damage control, just public relations. It is not an existential problem for them. They really only care about God as the loving Father. The notion of him consigning his creatures to the Hellocaust is really just a pesky distraction, no more important than whether the mustard seed is “the smallest seed on the earth” (Mark 4:31).

What do such Christians say when an outsider raises the question? It is something of a relief to hear them reply that they wish it were not true that unbelievers are doomed to Hell, but that they are obliged to believe it is, unfortunately. It’s like believing that the Nazi Holocaust happened: you wish it hadn’t, but that hardly gives you the right to deny that it did, right? At least this response is better than that of the Christians who rejoice that poor Hawking is now rotating on a spit over the flames of Hell. But it doesn’t resolve the contradiction. In fact, aren’t the more compassionate Christians implicitly admitting the existence of the contradiction? And are they not admitting that their own moral conscience is superior to that of the God who, unlike them, does not seem to mind torturing his creatures?

Oh, but perhaps God is just as pained and regretful at having to send these poor sinners to Hell! He has no choice! They should have taken him up on his offer of amnesty. Thus they have only themselves, not God, to blame. This is doubly absurd. On the one hand, to say, as apologists do, that the sinner chose Hell when he could have chosen heaven is ridiculous, especially in the case of someone like Stephen Hawking, who knew there was insufficient reason to believe in either Hell or the Gospel. C.S. Lewis said he was not asking anyone to accept Christianity against his better judgment, since that must poison “faith” with intellectual dishonesty. Too bad God does not, on the standard reading, take such an open-minded view!

On the other hand, why should God “have to” send anyone to Hell? Is he bound by some rules that are superior to himself, like Zeus, helpless before the Fates? Jesus does not seem to think so when he petitions his Father, saying “all things are possible for thee” (Mark 14:36)?

I say there is danger in believing (pretending) that a loving God can damn people to eternal suffering and still be a loving God. The danger is that you may feel entitled to make room in your heart for cruelty and gloating. After all, it’s all right for God! And this seems to be precisely the thinking of the theological sadists who relish the thought of Hawking or Gandhi or anybody else going to Hell. You see, they are not being inconsistent with their faith, which would make them hypocrites. No, they are being consistent with a self-contradictory faith. We can only be glad that most Christians do not make the logical connection. But we would be even gladder if they did see the logic of it and purge their faith of this terrible contradiction.

So says Zarathustra.

 

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Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Last evening, Carol and I were watching the latest episodes of the Hulu TV series The Path. It is an excellent show illustrating, among other things, the dangers of transformative piety, what I like to call the Shazam Model of Sanctification. It is the belief that an individual may transcend his or her natural self with all its flaws by means of this or that “spiritual” mind game. It is, I think, a case of attempted suppression of forces, urges, and quirks that cannot be eradicated. They will only seek expression in other, more devious ways, often clothed in the language and pose of moral and spiritual superiority. This is how religious leaders eventually crash and burn, subverting themselves by means of what they think are virtues but are actually vices wearing aluminum foil haloes.

I said to Carol that I was particularly impressed by the way the Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) character is both written and acted. He is the product of an abusive upbringing which eventuated in alcoholism and other back-riding monkeys. Pretending (to himself) to have overcome these problems by the techniques of Meyerism, a liberal New Age therapeutic and apocalyptic sect, abetted by the use of Ayahuasca, Cal has risen to prominence, the apparent heir to founder Steve Meyers, recently deceased. His position is challenged by Eddie Lane, a convert who had begun to lose faith in Meyerism until a visionary experience convinced him of its truth. In addition, founder Steve appeared to him, designating him, not Cal, as the true “Guardian of the Light,” the Meyerist Messiah. Cal is affronted and promptly starts scheming to take back the leadership.

Cal Roberts on Hulu's The PathCal is too easily tempted by sex and booze and is not even above a strategic murder on occasion. Yet the man exhibits real therapeutic insight and ministry skills. It would be quite easy to write him as a caricature, or even to depict him as a real-life self-drawn caricature like the unfortunate Jim Bakker. But Cal’s character works. He comes across as a complex man whose inner demons somehow energize and make possible his great gifts. I contrast him with another fictional character, Sarr Poroth, one of the main characters in T.E.D. Klein’s great 1984 novel The Ceremonies. We are told that Sarr, a rustic farmer belonging to an Amish-like community in remote Gilead, New Jersey, had a few years previously sojourned in New York City, studying anthropology. This (conveniently for the plot) equips Sarr with the knowledge he will need to understand the growing, ancient evil impinging on his rural paradise. Though I love the book, I must admit that I just couldn’t swallow this arbitrary juxtaposition of rustic sectarian and learned grad student. I thought the author should have contrived to split the character in two. Sarr combines oil and water, a forced fusion of two very different actants, or narrative functions: the hero/protagonist and the “donor,” who supplies needed knowledge, power, etc. (like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, or Merlin).

At this point, some reader might be thinking, “Not so fast! As odd as it sounds, I once knew a guy like that!” Maybe you did, but that doesn’t make any difference. Even if it happened, it was an oddity, as your very response implies. It is a question of verisimilitude, plausibility based on readers’ expectations about life and the world, expectations based on most people’s experience of the world. It is akin to the historian’s principle of analogy, which stipulates that no claimed event can be judged as probable (the best verdict any historian can render) if it is without analogy in present-day experience.

Artist Leon De Leeuw c.1964I first learned this lesson from my painting professor at Montclair State College, the great Leon de Leeuw. He told us something to this effect: “I don’t care if you did see a weird cloud that looked like that! It’s going to distract the viewer from your overall scene. If your goal is to highlight the strange cloud, take a photo of it!” Exactly, it spoils the verisimilitude by defying the viewer’s expectations for clouds.

This discussion of characters and clouds opens up a wider subject. Verisimilitude is perhaps the key to all artistic creation. I’m thinking of a wonderful scene near the end of Bergman’s classic Fanny and Alexander (hmmm… is that my favorite Bergman film, or is it The Seventh Seal? I can never decide!). Celebrating the birth of two baby girls to the Ekdahl clan, Gustav Adolf, proprietor of a restaurant adjacent to the theatre owned and run by his family, is blustering away. He reflects on how, in the face of the terrors ever threatening us out in the big world beyond the well-ordered sanctuary of elegant culture and family sentiment, the theatre provides a “little world” which re-presents for us selected elements of the outside world to help us understand it. (In this very film, we have seen that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have provided the key to understanding recent tragic family events if only anyone had noticed at the time!) Art selects certain elements of the observed world in order to construct a mental model, a map of meaning, our meaning, not necessarily the meaning, especially since there is no “the” meaning.

Think of another great movie, Man of Steel, in which young Clark Kent, suddenly under siege by his awakening super-senses, panics from sensory overload. The poor kid can’t control his X-ray vision and super-hearing. But his mom guides him to focus his attention, to weed out what he doesn’t want to hear or see at the moment. Just like the Buddha, who was selectively omniscient: he wasn’t aware of everything happening in the universe unless he directed a sensor ray to see whatever he needed to know.

What Clark was seeing and hearing during his original sensory bombardment was Kant’s Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, the Ding an sich (the “Thing in itself”). We, unlike Clark, never see this because we are born with the mental filtering apparatus Kant called the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment. These tools shape perception so that it makes sense to us. For instance, is there really a succession of moments out there? Does cause actually lead to effect? Are objects really distinct from one another? Do they truly have weight, volume, and form? We don’t know. But we cannot help perceiving reality as if this is the way things are. Kant spoke of certain Transcendentals, overarching perspectives, not directly perceived but necessary for perceptions to make sense. One of these was “World,” the very notion of a vast “container” of all the “things” we perceive, a horizon by which they appear to cohere into a united whole. (I think of what Lovecraft says in “The Call of Cthulhu” about “correlating the contents” of the mind.)

Paul Deussen (The Philosophy of the Upanishads) long ago understood Hindu Nondualism as being perfectly analogous to Kant’s epistemology: Kant’s Categories of Perception were the same as Shankara’s upadhis, the “limiting conditions” of finitude, a feature of illusory maya, the Samsaric existence we inhabit before Enlightenment. These upadhis refract our perception of the ultimate Nirguna Brahman (“Brahman without qualities”), pure Being. Think of them like water droplets in the air that refract sunlight into the spectrum of colors. This, too, is art and verisimilitude: the product is beautiful to us but as a derivative, selective distortion.

Perhaps the final paradox is that, even if the mystic manages to leap beyond the Samsaric maya, past the Categories of Perception, unto the Suchness of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, to “rise above the noise and confusion / to get a glimpse beyond this illusion,” the resultant Satori will still be a creation of the mind because what will have happened is that happy disabling of the Temporal Parietal Lobe of the brain, that gizmo which makes it possible for the infant eventually to distinguish self from world, returning us to what Freud called “the oceanic feeling of the womb.” In other words, it’s still all in your head.

Or would Kant perhaps have understood the meditative introspection of the mystics, which switches off the Temporal Parietal Lobe, as analogous to his own exploration of the workings of the mind but carried a big step further? Had the mystics, with their intra-mental flashlight, discovered a way of bypassing the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment, yielding a genuine beholding of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception? If so, they managed to behold that Truth that is far stranger than the fictions we construct to make a familiar, sensible world for ourselves. If so, the “big world” Gustav Adolf Ekdahl envisioned is a lot bigger than he thought!

So says Zarathustra.

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Spinning the Theology Wheel


Spinning the Theology Wheel

Last Friday evening, Cecilia, my mother-in-law and pal, and my wonderful wife Carol, and I were sitting around shooting the breeze after watching John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the season finale of The Exorcist TV series. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned in the direction of theology. It often does, not so much because of my own interest in all things religious, but because Carol and Cecilia have a long-running (and friendly) dispute. Cecilia is a very conservative Roman Catholic, while Carol is an enthusiastic proponent of New Thought. Cecilia is quite sure there is one true faith and that she is in it. Carol regards that as way too restrictive. Why limit your options? Why not pick and choose? The discussion raised two issues in my mind. I want to ruminate on them a bit if you’ll indulge me.

            First comes the issue of Syncretism or eclecticism: choosing elements from this religion and that, combining them into a creed of your own. Are the preferred tenets logically or practically compatible? Once at Gordon Conwell Seminary I wrote a skit pretending to be a theological game show called Twist That Text! (Gotta admit I swiped the title and the idea from my mentor Michael S. Kogan at Montclair State College.) One segment of the show featured “the Systematic Theology Wheel.” Each spoke of the wheel had a doctrine inscribed on it: “Predestination,” “Universal Election,” “Annihilation of the Wicked,” etc. You’d give it a spin, inevitably winding up with a raft of grossly incompatible doctrines which you’d then have fifteen seconds to harmonize into a coherent theological system. Our contestant won the big prize with this reasoning: “Let’s see… everyone is elected, but since there have to be some wicked to be annihilated… everyone is predestined to go to Hell!” Bingo!

Is that the way theology really works? A jury-rigged mess of disparate beliefs? For my money, that’s what the Trinity is, for example. “Now we want to be monotheists, but we also want to worship Jesus alongside God, so I guess Jesus must be God, too, but not the same one. But not really a different one, or we’d have to admit we’re polytheists. So how about this? Jesus and his Father are two persons sharing the one divine nature… or something.”

If it’s nothing but a mind game, the incompatible ideas don’t really matter. You never have to put them to practical use, so they’re untestable. But if your doctrines are applicable to your life, the contradictions will result in contradictory behavior and cognitive dissonance. The greatest example would have to be your belief that “God is love” on the one hand and that God is planning on subjecting some people to eternal torment on the other. You can always just ignore one or the other, but that’s cheating. If you try to reconcile hell belief with God’s love you must end up considering love as somehow compatible with torture. That’s screwed up, and you will be screwed up.

But I don’t think that kind of theological schizophrenia is entailed in the syncretism many people espouse. Instead, they are discovering that certain elements have appeared in different religions independently. There are spontaneous parallels that are not copyrighted by any one of the faiths in which they appear. Salvation by grace through faith has been derived by the same basic logical process in both Protestant Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism. Jesus is the savior in the one case, Amitabha Buddha in the other. Neither appears to have influenced the other.

meditating om jesusSimilarly, mystical non-dualism appears in Taoism, early Sufism, Mahayana Buddhism, and in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

            How do we account for this? Actually, it is quite simple. All religions contain a wide variety of beliefs and approaches. Activist versus passivist, salvation by faith or by works. The founder as a vicarious savior versus a way-shower. Allegorical versus literalist reading of scriptures. Ancient scripture versus ongoing revelation. And so on. The fact is that humans have the same mental machinery which they bring to bear on certain perennial questions, resulting in the same range of resultant positions. And, for example, non-dualists belonging to Hinduism recognize non-dualists in Buddhism, etc., once they come to learn about them. They find kindred spirits, merely employing different but equivalent idioms. Their links to the like-minded in other faiths are stronger than their links to the people sitting next to them in the same pew. So they belong to two different religions but in different senses. Why not? You could call such people syncretists, but this is misleading because it is in fact the same doctrine that they are holding in common with the like-minded individuals wearing different religious labels. What I’m getting at is that a “syncretist” of this kind is not creating some Mulligan stew of disparate ideas. Not spinning the Theology Wheel. No, they are happily recognizing that other faiths share some particular belief they themselves already embraced. Why not learn from what these “foreign” cousins have to say about it?

            The second question is one long ago discussed by the father of Liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a thinker very important to me personally. Is “Natural Religion” adequate? Or isn’t “Positive Religion” necessary if religion is to become more than a set of abstract, idiosyncratic opinions? “Natural” religion, popular among intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was primarily ethical and philosophical in character, overlapping with Deism. It was religiosity in general. Schleiermacher denied that this was an authentic form of religion. It was more opinion than communion, more properly to be categorized as philosophy of religion rather than religion itself. Schleiermacher stressed the need for participation in some one of the historic religious communities, and not necessarily the Christian one. It is revealing that Schleiermacher spoke of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the Christian Community.”

            Traditionally, religious communities were united by corporate worship and ritual. The strength of this approach is evident from the fact that some groups are almost indifferent to whatever beliefs their individual members may privately hold. Judaism and Episcopalianism have grown to accommodate a broad spectrum of belief in this way. But can such a common life be sustained among freethinkers? Can such a gathering transcend the character of a polite debating society?

Are these two options really alternatives, or would it be more illuminating to view them as markers along a continuous spectrum? The latter way of looking at it might make more sense of the actual social phenomena. I will say, however, that in my experience the closest thing to a Natural Religion community, namely the Unitarian Universalist Association, though it may duplicate the social patterns of traditional churches, seems to me to be more of a political group, much more ethical than religious in any traditional sense. A kindred group was until quite recently called the Ethical Culture Society, which seems to me more accurately descriptive for Unitarianism as well.

            I understand this distance between Unitarian “fellowships” and “associations” on the one hand and traditional churches, synagogues, and mosques on the other in terms of another important aspect of Schleiermacher’s thought: the indispensable character of religious piety as the conscious awareness of “absolute dependence” upon the infinite Totality of Being that is God. The ethical dimension is non-negotiable, but it is not the essence of religion as Kant thought. Scripture and myth are not merely Sunday School lessons inculcating ethical growth. Rather, for Schleiermacher, they are catalytic for “God-consciousness.” I think Unitarianism attests the truth of Schleiermacher’s opinion. Unitarianism strikes me as essentially secular and pragmatic, non-religious and sterile. In many places it gives the impression of being a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party. This is, in effect, just what Schleiermacher expected and predicted would happen once religion defines itself as ethics. Noble but arid.

            Above, I described some who feel a deeper, more significant connection to members of other traditional religions with whom, however, they share some doctrinal belief (e.g., non-dualism) even though they continue attending church alongside those without that deeper understanding. They are like the ancient Valentinian Gnostics who regularly attended Catholic congregations but also attended Gnostic study groups on the side. The church authorities thought these Gnostics should just scram and stick to their “heresy.” But the Gnostics apparently felt the need for both. I think that’s probably a pretty good model for those “syncretists” with a foot in both camps today.

So says Zarathustra,

 

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Where Understanding Ends

Has it ever struck you as pathetically absurd when you hear a defense attorney for a convicted fiend seek mitigation for him, arguing that he was made the man-monster he is by terrible childhood abuse? It seems a last-ditch tactic. But it may just work because Americans are sometimes too full of the milk of human kindness. And within such kindness lurks a hidden and most convenient assumption: that individuals are the product, not as the Buddha says, of their decisions, but of their influences, purely passive, receiving an imprint like a seal on malleable wax. Here we have yet another example of the Slave Morality despised and bemoaned by Nietzsche. Cowards love to avoid responsibility, culpability, by attacking the very notion of responsibility and therefore of culpability. If no one is really culpable, then I am not culpable. If everyone is a passive recipient of conditioning, and of nothing else, then so am I. I might feel indignant at leniency shown murderers and child molesters, but I, too, am willing to give the monster a pass if that’s the price of my being able to shirk any responsibility for my own inadequacies. We moral cowards need to stick together!

Is it really impossible to imagine that an individual has the ability to defy conditioning and environment? If it is impossible, then there is no such thing as an individual. We are then no more than instantiations of sociological factors and trends, patterns of dysfunction. The individual as such, in that case, does not “exist,” because, as Paul Tillich liked to point out, to ex-ist means to “stand out” from the field of Being. But if we are merely one more stitch in a socio-economic and psychological tapestry, we are not individuals because there is no individuality.

I think also of Martin Heidegger, who prophetically urged his readers to awaken from their collective slumber, their passive acquiescence to Das Mann, the faceless mass of humanity governed by whatever currents cause the river of humanity to drift this way or that. He had in mind the habitual laziness that tempts us to let peer pressure supply our values and beliefs. Peter Berger discussed it in terms of the Sociology of Knowledge: we will blithely share the assumptions and values of our “plausibility structure” until we come to realize that’s what we’ve been doing and snap out of it, questioning everything in order to make our own “cognitive universe” for ourselves. That, Berger called “the Heretical Imperative.” Harvey Cox posited that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve in the Eden myth was accidie, letting the serpent tell them what to do. Dostoyevsky imagined Jesus getting crucified because the religious authorities of his day wanted to protect their troubled flock from having to face the challenge of Jesus to take up the heavy cross of freedom. If we do, to return to Heidegger, we will have at last attained authentic existence, heeding the call of our long-stifled authentic self.

So what is it that determines whether we are authentic individuals or passive marionettes? Simply, it is the decision that one is going to be an individual. To decide to take and to accept responsibility. It might be that, even if we deny it, we are nonetheless merely products of greater forces which combine to create us. Considering ourselves to be individuals may be kidding ourselves. Even this may be a role assigned us without our knowing. Theoretically, we might be able to posit threads of influence that inclined us toward rebelliousness. Would that vitiate our self-confidence as “rugged individualists”? I guess it would. But that’s where understanding ends.

Kant figured that, logically, all things must transpire according to an iron chain of cause and effect, including our decisions, choices, and actions. But what does it mean that we can come to know this? Does it not imply a superiority to that chain-link determinism? Does the fictional character know that he is a fictional character? Would that not tear asunder the fictive narrative of which he forms a part? Kant inferred that our sense of autonomous freedom is a “Transcendental,” a condition, a perspective, which is not derived from the data of sense perception but which is nonetheless necessary for us to make sense of the world of perceived data. Otherwise we could not even recognize the process of cause and effect that we are in that moment transcending! Freedom is a necessary hypothesis—even if we don’t understand how it could be. We find ourselves at the top of Mount Everest without knowing how we got there.

Perhaps this sense of autonomy is an illusion. If so, consider it a legal fiction. The defense attorney can play the air violin of excuse-making as sweetly as he wants, but we shall have to stop up our ears and proceed on the assumption that his client did not have to commit the atrocity he did. We must take for granted that he could have resisted the temptation; he could have controlled his compulsion. We will consider him an autonomous individual responsible for his actions even if he does not think so, even if his lawyer begs us not to. If we don’t, if we never do, you can see what must happen to our justice system. The Slave Morality will mean that nothing is anyone’s fault, and then there is no punishment for anything. We will consider rapes, murders, etc., to be blows of fate, like hurricanes, earthquakes, disease plagues. No one’s fault, just rotten luck. This, too, is where understanding ends. Where it must end. Oh, it may be that we would have erred in our chain of reasoning if it led us to mitigate responsibility to this extent. But even if psycho-social determinists are right, “that way lies madness.” We will have become too smart for our own good, even for our own survival.

Some atheists, like E.O. Wilson, reluctantly agree that people seem to need to believe in God, and that without belief in God (whatever you want to call him, her, or it) there can be no morality. What they mean is that, sociologically, traditional societies operated under what Peter Berger called a “Sacred Canopy” of shared rules, values, beliefs, and mores, all of which were sanctioned and buttressed by the belief that God/gods had ordained these things for their pet humans, and that sooner or later there would be divine reprisals for anyone who stepped out of line. It would undermine morality if everyone came to realize that these codes were originally the pragmatic inventions of mere humans like themselves. The result would be a state of anomie, confused normlessness in the society at large, from which we suffer right now.

Okay, sociologists and philosophers who understand how the system works don’t need it; like Nietzsche’s Superman, they can create their own values (even as the original framers did!). But, like the Gnostic Illuminati, some of them, e.g., Wilson, realize this is strong medicine, too strong for the “weaker brethren.” Perhaps it would be the wiser course not to rock their boat. The truth, I think, does not always “work.” And that is where understanding ends.

So says Zarathustra.

The devil made me do it!

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Validation Post: HOLY FABLE VOL. 2

ATTN: Content Validation Request Team– Let this post serve to provide the validation requested of Carol Price, Publisher at Mindvendor as reproduced below. – Robert M. Price

ATTN: Zarathustra Speaks readership – For your convenience, we have provided the link for Holy Fable Volume II: The Gospels and Acts Undistorted by Faith  which will be active again once this unfortunate matter is settled.

 

 

 


Dec 19 (2 days ago)

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An Aversion to Averroes

Imaginary debate between Ibn Rushd and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.
Imaginary debate between Ibn Rushd and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century. [Public Domain]

The medieval Arab philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) is known for propounding the Double Truth theory, though he probably didn’t. That was most likely a polemical distortion by his opponents. But the theory is interesting in any case. The idea is that a thing may be true in the sense that philosophy, unaided reason, would logically lead to it, but false in that it runs afoul of official religious dogma. This is not quite the same thing as Aquinas saying that, for instance, though there is no intrinsic reason the universe could not be thought to have existed eternally, we can dismiss the possibility because Scripture reveals that it was created by God at a particular moment of time. In that case, it is just that, in the absence of definitive proof, we are left to speculation—until an answer comes from a different quarter. As I understand the Double Truth theory, it envisions a contradiction between reason and revelation, not just revelation picking up where reason leaves off. Double Truthism seems to intend that, even though revelation (i.e., dogma) disallows or condemns an idea, there’s still an alternative zone of some sort in which it can be considered true. It’s a clever dodge, and opponents of the idea were not slow to realize this. Nice try, but no cigar.

Stephen Jay Gould meets Pope John Paul II
Stephen Jay Gould meets Pope John Paul II

In case this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the recent contention of evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” Gould was trying to stultify the old “religion versus science” debate by saying it had all been a big misunderstanding. Like that episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Sheriff Taylor settles a generational feud between two backwoods families by demonstrating that the old offense had never actually happened in the first place. Emily Litella News commentary SNLAs Weekend Update commentator Emily Litella used to say, “Oh! That’s quite different! Never mind.” Gould made the big announcement that religion and science are talking about totally different things. Religion is not concerned to make factual assertions. Science is. They’re not working the same side of the street. Nothing to fight about, see? Let’s shake hands and go our separate ways.

But there was nothing new here. Paul Tillich, who actually knew what he was talking about, had explained it all decades before in books like his Dynamics of Faith, where he described the “intellectualistic distortion of faith,” the definition of faith as assent to certain fact-claims. Faith that Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea or that Max von Sydow rose from the dead is not proper faith. Believing that so-and-so happened when it cannot be proven from definitive evidence ultimately produces fanaticism and intellectual dishonesty, pretending you are certain of something when you have no right to be. If you admit it is impossible to be sure that certain ostensible events ever occurred, but you believe faith requires such certitude, you are in for endless torment. Forget about peace. You will forever fear that some discovery or argument will undermine your faith. “So far, so good! Nothing too threatening in the Dead Sea Scrolls thus far! I’m safe for the moment…” What kind of faith is that? Something is wrong here. What is wrong is that faith is rightly understood as ultimate concern, the never-ending struggle of Jacob with the angel. Genuine faith, Tillich explains, is compatible with doubt and even presupposes doubt—because faith is existential commitment, not affirming a set of historical assertions. Faith should have no vested interest in any particular scientific theory or historical reconstruction.

What’s the difference between Tillich’s view and Gould’s? Simply that Tillich admitted he was trying to correct most believers’ conception of faith, while Gould pretends (or thinks) he is just describing people’s faith as it is. Gould is employing an old rhetorical trick: seeming to describe when he is actually prescribing. It is to short circuit the argument, to beg the question. Pretty sneaky. People do not understand their faith as indifferent to questions of fact (science and history). Gould, like Tillich, wishes people did understand faith as these sophisticates do, but Gould is in effect trying to persuade them that they already do.  He is trying to win the war by subterfuge, by seeming to surrender. Again, he is trying to describe faith as a different language game, which believers do not think it is. John Warwick Montgomery wouldn’t let people like Gould get away with this stratagem. You may think religionists should view faith this way, but that’s not how they do view it. It’s the same strategy it was in Averroes’s day: “We’ve got the real truth, but feel free to call your nonsense ‘truth’ if you want. Just stop bothering us, okay?”

“He understood he was drawing upon two entirely different epistemologies, each appropriate to one of the hats he wore. “

I see yet another version of the Double Truth gimmick in the field of New Testament studies. The late, great Raymond E. Brown was above board about this. He admitted that there was inadequate basis for certainty on matters such as the virginal conception of Jesus. Purely as a historian, he had to admit that the story was improbable, a toss-up. But as a Roman Catholic priest, obedient to the doctrinal authority of the Church, he professed his faith that Jesus was indeed miraculously conceived without a human father. He understood he was drawing upon two entirely different epistemologies, each appropriate to one of the hats he wore. He did not try to pass off a leap of faith as a historical judgment.

Evangelical Protestants do not believe themselves duty-bound to any ecclesiastical party platform, but they do have their own version of the Double Truth model. Their a priori, controlling axiom is the authority of Scripture. This article of faith controls and dictates what they pretend are simple, honest historical judgments. As Tillich already had plenty of occasions to see, they could not admit, even to themselves, what they were really doing: apologetics on behalf of a stacked deck of theo-historical assertions. Van A. Harvey distinguishes the two hats between which the scholar must choose to don: the historian or the believer. Apologist William Lane Craig argues for the historical resurrection of Jesus based on a (contrived) presentation of the evidence as if a Buddhist, an atheist, and a Rastafarian should equally find it objectively compelling. Yet he admits that it will take the subjectively seductive influence of the Holy Ghost to bring one around to Craig’s “truth.” He’s just damn lucky that the gentle whisperings of the Paraclete just happen to come to the same conclusion as his so-impartial scholarly judgment.

It is a voluntaristic commitment to biblical inerrantism that controls the apologists’ “historical” judgments, what amounts to a second and superior source of historical information. I can only compare this Double Truth epistemology to that of Rudolph Steiner and Edgar Cayce, whose clairvoyant visions supplied them with “information” about Atlantis, Lemuria, and (of course!) the ministry of Jesus Christ “missing” from all historical records.

Perhaps the Double Truth duplicity is most sharply drawn from this angle. Are you open-endedly seeking the truth with no particular hoped-for outcome? Or are you pushing for a favored result? Are you prepared for ever-revisable, always tentative, only-provisional results, never reaching definitive certainty? Or will nothing less than a once-and-for-all verdict satisfy you? Your answers to these questions will reveal whether you are really a researcher or rather a mere apologist, a spin doctor with a conflict of interests.

            A double truth is no more the Truth than is a half-truth.

            So says Zarathustra.

The end is near cartoon.

 

 

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Super-Powered Squirts

Ever noticed how today’s cartoons and movies offer their viewers the spectacle of young kids as epic heroes? Personally, I find this trend highly annoying. I simply cannot take seriously the notion of a child or adolescent possessing the moxie and the skills or judgment to deal with and defeat veteran criminals and supernatural entities. I do realize these entertainments cater to the natural childhood fantasies of reenacting the exploits of superheroes, war heroes, cowboys, etc. That makes sense, or almost. I remember when we starry-eyed kids pretended to be the Lone Ranger or wore a bath towel as a cape (as even young Clark Kent does in a flashback scene in Man of Steel, a great moment!). But we were trying to emulate adult heroes from TV and comic books. We wanted to be Batman, not Robin. Even Robin wanted to be Batman, and in some stories he does grow up to replace his mentor.

As the great folklorist Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale) and mythographer Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) explained, hero myths seem to function as life maps for maturation, i.e., achieving maturation. The hero becomes a hero by virtue of overcoming challenges and, perhaps more importantly, setbacks in the course of his chosen mission. That mission may be to obtain the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the sword Excalibur, or the hand of the kidnapped princess. Taking it down a notch to something less overtly mythic, the quest may be to discover something, like the great Cassini photographs telling us more about the glorious planet Saturn, or finding the cure for some disease, or the recent decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript (which, darn it, did not turn out to be the Necronomicon!). Or inventing something to better the lot of mankind (like Clap-on lights or light-up sneakers).

Propp thought heroic quest myths had a more restricted scope, being all about the challenge facing a young suitor (the hero) overcoming the resistance of his beloved’s disapproving father (the villain) in order to “rescue” his bride from her dad’s household! Campbell would consider that simply one version of the Hero Myth, one of its many applications. Another would be the development of one’s talents and the public’s recognition and acclaim. Still another would be someone’s Buddha-like quest for spiritual enlightenment.

It is this archetypal dimension that gets lost in, for instance, The Never-Ending Story and the Harry Potter movies. (Life is too short for me ever to read the Harry Potter mega-novels, so I restrict my comments to the movies.) The moment Harry enters the picture, the first day of school, he is acclaimed by everyone to be a virtual Messiah of Magic, the Avatar of Sorcery. He doesn’t earn it. Why is he even wasting his time in school? (Besides, what happens with all these “wizards” when they graduate? Are they using their powers to change the TV channel without a remote? They sure aren’t magically stopping disease and war, that’s for sure. I guess their big benefit is making the big bucks for J.K. Rowling.) Take a look at Dr. Strange if you want to see a guy earn his cloak as the Sorcerer Supreme. He’s an adult, by the way.

And bespectacled Harry turns out to be pretty much nothing. Hermione and that frog-faced kid save his butt and do the fast thinking. The Disney Hercules cartoon, despite its awful trivializations, at least had the “from zero to hero” element, but Harry Potter remains an over-rated zero. And this is no accident. He reflects the “slave/herd morality” of our pathetic age. He is the epitome of all those kids who receive awards for just showing up. Excellence is downplayed, even discouraged, because it would make the many also-rans feel (justifiably!) bad. May I recommend the movie Harrison Bergeron (the one with Sean Aston and Christopher Plummer) for the perfect satire of this glorification of mediocrity.

These kid hero cartoons and movies short-circuit the process and the lesson of maturation. They would instill the false notion that any snot-nosed kid can already do the impossible. But they can do that only in the realm of childish daydreaming. And the result is that real achievement is removed from real life and restricted to the fantasy world of daydreaming. Why bother trying to translate the quest myth into real life by, say, becoming an Eagle Scout or joining the Marines? Or struggling to start your own business? Maybe it all boils down to economics and stultifying government policies.

Basic to the demands to raise the minimum wage even for burger-flipping fast food jobs is the assumption that working at Burper King or Roy Regurg or Substandardway will be a career. That is a pessimism born of a resignation to a stagnant economy, where real career jobs will never become available. Better look forward to getting that gold Hello Kitty watch when you retire from Walmart (wasn’t he the bad guy in the Harry Potter flicks?). And why should we resign ourselves to such a gloomy prospect? Because Socialist-leaning politicians expect and even seemingly desire a stagnant, shrinking economy because they figure an equality of penury is more to be desired than a system where it is possible to achieve wealth by merit, effort, and talent. It is the slave morality again. If you succeed because of superior drive and ability, that makes me feel inferior—because I am! And we can’t have that!

Similarly, these politicians and activists make it a goal to dial back American prosperity so we can stop feeling guilty for our affluence in a world of poverty. I believe that the chief motive force of Liberalism/Socialism is survivor guilt. Against this I will quote George Harrison: “I’m sorry that you’re underfed, but like you heard [I] said, ‘I’m not guilty.’”

So kid hero entertainments inculcate the lesson that dreams of glory must remain in dreamland.

But Capitalism has its share of the blame, too, for I am convinced that the glorification of super-powered squirts is one facet of the cynical scheme to redefine “youth” as an end in itself instead of a stage of growth toward the fruition of adulthood. Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom. But nowadays, advertisers and manufacturers have changed that. One reaches the prime of life as a young person, and after that it is all downhill. Don’t you see how awfully pathetic it is to look back on your high school years as the high point of your life?

“Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom.”

Treasure your memories, sure, but surely you must see the right thing to do is to get out there and make some new ones! Achieve! Dream and do! The flashy youth culture is the result of marketing. Advertising, as Alan Watts (in a rare moment of sobriety) said, is the Western version of maya, the pumped-out fog of illusory assumptions and transitory values. And nothing fades as fast as youth. “Grow [up] along with me. The best is yet to be.” It is if you make it so.

Heroes are made, not born.

So says Zarathustra.

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On Not Putting Away Childish Things

antique toy collection shadow boxI want to share some thoughts about the real importance of childhood as an ongoing source of integration and inspiration.

My title means to contradict the advice offered by 1 Corinthians 13:11 to let the past fall away like an obsolete cocoon. It’s as if your past is something you have to repent of. The closest I can get to that is what Jung says about the need to consolidate one’s Ego, then to move on to transcend it, as a kind of launch pad, to embark on the development into the Self. But what is it to “put away childish things”?

C.S. Lewis took it pretty literally. At a certain point, having graduated from school and getting ready for employment, “Jack” and his brother decided to gather up their once-prized childhood toys, stuff them into a metal box and bury them on the hillside in the countryside. Well, you will never catch me committing such a crime against myself. My childhood Teddy Bear sits atop the bedpost. My action figure collection has, over the years, expanded like the Blob. In fact everything I have ever loved has remained a part of me. Comic books, monster movies: it’s all there, like a sequence of tree rings. Put them away? Why? Why would I do that? They’ve made me what I am.

Okay, I’d have no reason to worry if I had never acquired wider interests, but I did. Early on, I developed a great interest in history, ancient and modern. I had always been fascinated with Greek and Norse mythology, and when I embraced fundamentalist Christianity at age 10, it was a natural progression along the same trajectory. It did not take long for me to realize this, when one afternoon, while taking a walk in the neighborhood, it occurred to me to ask how I knew that the biblical Jehovah was any more real than Zeus. It took me many years before I could accept that he wasn’t.

And after that, after I exited fundamentalism, I eventually figured I needed to reconcile myself to my rejected religious past. I couldn’t just cut off that part of myself. I needed to find a way to reincorporate it. I reached the point where I could recall with fondness the friendships and the good clean fun of those years. And of course I never dropped the Bible. Its fascination continued, more fervently than ever. My curiosity to understand the text had eventually led to my loss of religious faith. Only now I stopped calling my questions “doubts” and set about finding answers. I found them in biblical criticism.

And the more thoroughly I understood the Bible and Christianity as monuments of ancient mythology and religion, the more I found myself appreciating religious symbolism and rituals. I found that I loved these things all the more for not having to “believe” in them. Seems like a paradox, but it really isn’t.

Rene Guenon once said that “I” includes all my world of experience. Sounds right. I think of a scene in Star Trek IV when the touchy-feely Vulcan guru Sybok (Spock’s half-brother) offered to leech Kirk’s emotional pain from him. Kirk refused: “Dammit! I need my pain!”Your experiences are component parts of you, and it is dangerous to suppress or to amputate them.

What does “integrity” mean? In Seventies-speak, it’s “having it all together.” Like a Rubik’s Cube with all the pieces in correct alignment. If you want to have integrity, it’s not going to work if you pry out some of the pieces and toss them away.

heart vs. brain cartoonWhat particular function do your “childish things” have in the bigger picture? I recall quite clearly how, in my Junior High years, as I was reading the flood of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks featuring Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter, Bilbo, etc., I was keenly aware as it was happening that this reading was stretching and expanding my imagination. I could almost feel it! And in the decades that followed, I found that all this “sense of wonder” (an old and apt SF slogan) served me well. It installed a horizon of transcendence in my head that, I believe, forever prevented my ossifying into a mundane adult zombie, the danger Wordsworth described so well:

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

***

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. 

In a much-interpreted gospel passage we read that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child shall not enter it.” Who knows what the author meant? But what I see in it is that it takes the open eye of the child who is ready to see anything and who hopes reality is wider than what tired adults tell him it is. We need a more expansive world than the daily grind offers us, even if it is “only” the expanding cosmos inside our heads. This is a childish thing we need to retain. This is a childish thing that will keep us young in heart and mind and spirit. That way, the calendar notwithstanding, the real glory of youth will never expire.

So says Zarathustra.bob's childish things

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Planet Houston

seeking rescueHurricane Harvey has dominated news coverage the last few days (as I write), subsuming and flooding it just as it did Houston, reminding me of the scene in the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Kryptonian villain General Zod escapes the Phantom Zone and finds himself standing upon the surface of a lake. For a moment he seems to think he has emerged onto a planet covered entirely by water. He thinks it is “Planet Houston” (he says it “Who-stun”) because of a radio transmission he has overheard (or something). Now “Planet Houston” is indeed submerged beneath a watery surface, tragically, and its citizens are fleeing the flood like Kal-el from Krypton’s destruction. The amazing spectacle of volunteer rescue efforts lends the heavy doom cloud something of a silver lining: we needed a reminder that there is great good in the American people because the news is filled with the self-hatred of many whose patriotism has drowned in a deluge of survivor guilt.

General Zod walking on water

The other day I saw a Facebook post by an atheist pal of mine, observing that God appeared to be conspicuously absent from the rescue efforts. Can Christians possibly maintain their pretense that a loving God is in control of events? The Houston survivors owed their deliverance to their own and others’ heroic efforts, not to divine intervention. Of course, you can always say that God did intervene—through the actions of human beings. But that is weaseling. It is to demote God to a superfluous and redundant fifth-wheel pseudo-cause.

My friend concluded his comment with something like, “Does God care?” I could not resist adding my own quip: “God does care. It’s just that the results are the same as if he didn’t.” I hope readers caught on. My point is by no means a new one. Are you familiar with Antony Flew’s Parable of the Gardener? Here’s how it goes.

Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol it with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last, the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” (“Theology and Falsification,” 1950)

In the same way, how does a God whose “caring,” whose compassionate supervision of his creatures, is compatible with letting them drown like rats, differ from a God who is utterly indifferent to their plight? The point is not so much that the assertion of God’s caring is false. No, it’s worse than that: it’s meaningless. You’re not even making an assertion anymore.

Look at it this way: suppose you and a friend are in Houston and Harvey is wreaking havoc outside. You’re both looking out the front window. You say, “Wow! Look at that storm!”

hurricane harvey

Your friend replies, “Storm? What storm? I don’t see any storm out there!”

You stare at your friend in stunned disbelief. “Of course there’s a storm out there! What the hell is the matter with you? The rain! The wind! The uprooted trees flying through the air! The mobile homes ricocheting like ping pong balls!”

“Oh sure, I see all that stuff. But that doesn’t mean there’s a storm going on.”

“Please tell me, my friend, how is that not a storm?”

“It just isn’t, that’s all. Just because there are high winds, flooding, property damage, and people floating face down, that doesn’t mean it’s a storm.”

“Look pal, I don’t think you even know what the word ‘storm’ means!”

It occurs to you to open your dictionary to prove your point, but you notice that it’s floating away.

Or put the shoe on the other foot. The sky is clear, the sun shining. Children are romping outside without a care in the world. Neighbors are barbecuing. Your pal says, “Wow! That’s some damn storm out there, huh?”

You do a double take. “Huh? What storm? What are you talking about?”

Back and forth it goes, until your friend says, “I guess it’s just one of those storms that doesn’t get anybody wet and doesn’t damage any property! You know the kind I mean.”

Uh, no, I don’t. If you can’t specify something, anything, that would show your claim to be false, you’re saying your assertion is compatible with any and every state of affairs. And if it means everything, then it means nothing!

And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you say Hurricane Harvey doesn’t debunk the existence of Divine Providence. You’re not making any sense. You’re not even wrong! You’re just speaking in tongues. It might make you feel better, but that’s only because you don’t know what you’re saying!

If you did, you’d wake up and realize there’s no one to blame, that no one caused this, and that the only assistance you can hope for is that of your fellow human beings. If there’s any compassion in this world, on Planet Houston, that’s where you’ll find it.

So says Zarathustra.

 

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