Thursday, August 10, 2017

TRANSFIGURATION

I started writing about transfiguration on the the Feast of the Transfiguration -August 6th. The story of Jesus being transfigured in front of his disciple, Peter, James, and John is found in all three synoptic gospels.  It is perhaps one of the strangest stories in the New Testament. According to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story of Jesus's transfiguration is told to the other disciples of Jesus only after Jesus' resurrection.  Until then, it was a kept secret by Peter, James,and John. Another reason for its being unique is that it is explained in terms of a shared visionary experience by Peter, James, and John about the divine presence in Jesus.  For me, the unique feature of this story is not so much what it says about who Jesus is (the reason it is recorded in these  gospels) but rather the mystical attributes it reveals.

The account that captures its mystical aspect is the Gospel of Luke, perhaps the most mystical gospel of the four canonical gospels.  What lends it being a mystical experience is that it is told through Peter's account of it whose reaction typifies a mystical experience. One's attention is drawn to what Peter experiences.

That all three synoptic gospels record Peter's reaction is noteworthy.  Peter's response to "seeing" Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus strikes me as visionary intuition..  He never met Moses or Elijah before this experience and there are no introductions made by Jesus or God regarding who these other two men standing beside Jesus are.  Peter, James, and John "just" know.  

The delay in telling others about this experience also seems typical of those who have mystical experiences.  What seems so experientially certain at the time is hard to explain later, as there is no rationale one can provide for having such an experience, since even a basic sense time and place during such experiences can lose relevance.  It's only later, sometimes much later, that such experiences reveal their meanings and purpose and even then one tends towards describing the experience in what sounds to others as metaphors: "It was like... ."

In that sense, the story of the Transfiguration rings true as a mystical experience.  The Lucan account provides some significant clues to the event's mystical nature.   The context in which this experience occurs is during prayer.  Jesus takes these three disciples up mountain to pray, and Jesus is known for praying a long time to the extent that his disciples start falling asleep.  There is significance in this.  Both prayer and sleep can be considered liminal environments or moments.  They are thresholds between this time and place and another time and place, between the transient here and the eternal and now.  It is in this liminal moment that Jesus is transfigured - seen and experienced differently - whose divinity (our) shines through.

MYSTICISM

Let's pause here to examine what is meant by mysticism.  I have been reluctant to talk about theism's mystical side, as it can be easily used to dismiss rational and reasoned explanations to various theistic theologies and dogmas which are themselves the products of rational reasoning and becomes an excuse for not explaining something with is touted as necessary to believe in order to be saved. In my opinion this is an abuse of what is meant by mysticism. Beliefs have very little to do with mysticism. In truth, belief is confounded by the mystical.

Mystery is a term that I use very carefully and would differentiate it from the mystical.  The term "mystery" undoubtedly gets wrapped into the mystical; as within the mystical there are things that are hard to explain in a purely rational or  intellectual manner, but I would caution that the mystical has its own explanations that proceed from experience and intuition; that are perceived as being mystical after the fact rather than before or at the time of the experience.

Like intuition, the mystical experience dawns on one.

This is the primary difference between intellect and intuition.  Intellect involves rational reasoning - figuring things out - knowing through reason whereas intuition is about knowing through experience and the imprinted feelings that result from such experience.   This is not to say that the intellect does not play a role in defining the mystical, it does.  The fact is intuition and intellect are in constant interplay with each other.

PROPHETIC PERCEPTION

Intuition is very much akin to the prophetic.  Intuition is a form of perception that awakens one's consciousness to something obvious once perceived, that was not considered such in the  world of everydayness which appears mundane.  Intuition like prophecy grasps the ignored obvious, the multitude of meanings and applications that swirl in and around everyday situations that go largely ignored.  Once something is intuited it is hard to ignore its presence and application. One of the temptations that a mystical novice encounters is insisting that everyone needs to see and "feel" what he or she  experienced.  This is what prompts Jesus to say to his disciples on various occasions to tell no one.  They simply were not capable of the time to fully digest their experience. 

The mystical experience is largely a personal experience - a revealing of the divine presence in one's life. It only takes one such experience to be transformative.   That these moments are written about by a number of mystics occurs after they're digested and put it into language that can be grasped by the reader or the mystic's audience.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of several mystical experiences mentioned in the New Testament, Mary and Gabriel, Peter's dream  and Paul's vision on the road to Damascus as samples of other mystical stories.  The Hebrew Scriptures also contain references to the mystical experiences of Abraham, Sarah,  Jacob, Moses, Elijah and others.  Examining them as such is worthy endeavor as they provide a window into the intuitive nature of the mind in general and the theistic mind in particular.

In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus we only hear of Peter's reaction to the experience.  We do not know what reaction James and John had, beyond one of fear/awe and silence. Peter wants to build three booths, reminiscent of Jewish Feast of Succoth, the feast of ingathering, which has apocalyptic overtones in this context.  In Matthew and Luke a cloud comes over them.  In Matthew the cloud is described as bright.  In Luke it overshadows them - hinting of them experiencing darkness and hearing a voice declaring Jesus to be the son of the voice, which we understand as being God.

When the cloud disappears, only Jesus is standing near them.  There is little doubt that if Jesus hadn't verified their experience they might have written it off as a dream, which mystic experience often feels like. The experience frequently leaves one with a sense of wonderment and questioning what just happened, "Is what I'm feeling now the point of the experience?"

The feeling in question frequently involves a sense of divine love,awe, guidance, and revelation. I suspect people have such experiences more than they let on, and most simply do not talk about them as they are hard to explain and don't make sense to someone who hasn't had the experience. They feel personal; an intuitive insight that is meant be played out rather than talked about.

In future posts, I will examine some of the mystical experiences talked about in scripture and attempt to relate them the mystical element expressed in the arts -  music, visual, dance, and poetry.

Until then, stay faithful.








Monday, July 17, 2017

WORKING THE SOIL OF ONE'S SOUL - A homily.


“But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it.”
Matthew 13:23a
(From the Parable of the Sower)

 
When we hear a story like the Parable of the Sower, what does each one of us hear?   Can we personally relate to it, or is it a story that goes in one ear and out the other?

Jesus says in this and other parables, “Let him who has ears hear.”  Jesus gave his audiences parables to make them think before believing.
 
Belief without thought is an exercise in mindlessness and can lead to spiritual blindness. 

Parables are minimal stories that have multiple layers.   Jesus’ purpose in telling parables was to help his audience, to help us understand the Kingdom, the realm of God, which from today’s perspective encompasses the whole of creation, the immensity of the universe itself.   Jesus generally provided an explanation of his parables, but if one studies these explanations, one frequently ends up with wanting more clarification, and that’s where listening with one’s heart, one’s mind, and one’s soul comes in. 

One can apply and interpret a parable any number of ways, but there are three general questions that can help us understand them:
 
1)      What is this story saying to me and about me? 

2)      What is this story saying about the world I live in?

3)      What is this story saying about God’s relationship to me and how I ought to relate to the world I know?

The context, the language, and the metaphors may reflect a different time, but parables always retain a current application and meaning. In today’s gospel the seed is presented as the word about the Kingdom.  As such, the word of the Kingdom is everywhere, because the realm of God is all of God’s creation, and it is found in the everydayness of our lives – God’s voice can be heard in the daily events by those who are seeking its guidance, hearing it with an open heart and  receiving it with an open mind.

In a portion of Matthew 13 that was skipped over in the lectionary’s presentation of this parable, Jesus says of his audience at the time “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing they do not hear.”  (Matthew 13:13b New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA ). [1]  “Seeing but not seeing and hearing but not hearing” is a condition that many religious people have because they have been indoctrinated to believe without thinking, to believe without understanding, which results in becoming closeminded and hardhearted . 
 
This is not Jesus’s way.  Jesus wants us to consider the lilies of the field and God’s concern for birds in order to understand the Kingdom so that faith rooted in God’s love carries us through each moment of our lives.[2]

So for a moment let’s think through Jesus’ explanation of this parable:
 
What about the path or the wayside, as is interpreted in some translations?  Am I walking on the wayside of life – just going through the motions – not really paying attention to what is really going on, not hearing anything, not trying to understand what’s taking place in life?  The seed is there, but so are those who would distort it, deprive it of its meaning, to tell me the Kingdom isn’t so or isn’t for me.  On the other hand, am I the devil’s advocate for those passing by or who are living on the fringe of life?  Am I one who deprives the kingdom of its meaning?  
 
What about the dry and rocky situations?  The seed is there also, but am I too dried out – to concrete in what I believe and how I think to allow the word to take root?   Do I dry others out with my hot wind and rock solid ways?
 
What about the thorny situations life throws our way?  The seed is there also, but do these thorny situations get in the way, stifle the word’s growth in me?  Am I choking on the issues and concerns I’m constantly trying to tend to?  Am I a thorn?   Do I choke out the spiritual growth that has rooted in other people’s lives?

It is easy to overlook the seed of God’s realm. The word is so prevalent that we are prone to tune it out because we’re good at habitually tuning things out, especially things we don’t want to hear and sometimes God is telling us things in the everydayness of our lives that we don’t want to acknowledge. And yet, God’s presence is constant, God’s word will not nor can it be silenced.

Jesus’ approach to tending the garden of the Kingdom is for us to tend to the garden of one’s heart and soul, the core of one’s being, the soil in which God’s kingdom is planted.  Tending takes time. One has to work the soil of one’s soul - put faith in action – recognize and utilize one’s daily mistakes and failures as fertilizer to learn, to understand and nourish the kingdom’s growth, to water it deeply through mindful meditation and contemplation - to trim away excess and to prevent our own weediness and thorny issues from distracting us in tending the turf given us in in this life. 

Every human has this seed. We are its casings.  It’s called in the image of God.  When we were breathed to life by God’s Spirit, he made us sowers of the seed we contain – Seed sowing seed.[3]

Not everyone is aware that they carry this seed in them; that they can hear the word of God in their own life experiences; in the everydayness of their lives; that they can awaken and bloom in God’s garden, the realm of God here and now.  It should be one of the reasons we come, to this place of worship – to be reminded of our task as sowers, to think deeply about and ponder God’s realm that surrounds us, to be tilled by prayer, watered and nourished by sacrament and scripture so that when we leave this place we’re ready to sow the seeds given us. 

It’s not so much about being careful where we sow word of the Kingdom, but that we sow and nourish it indiscriminately because God’s seed, God’s word, is everywhere, in every situation – waiting to be heard, waiting to be understood – waiting to grow.
 
* * * * * * * * * *
Until next time, stay faithful.



[1] Isaiah 6;9
[2] Matthew 6:25-34
[3] See Genesis 1:27-28

Friday, June 30, 2017

FUNDAMENTALISM - An Intellectual Disorder?

Humans are religious animals; in that, we share ideologies with each other and form likeminded groups that clump around them whether of a theistic or secular nature.  Since starting this blog, I have been intrigued by our ideas and beliefs; how we came up with them and how they have shaped our understanding of reality and bestow an identity on those who adhere to them.

LEARNING AND REASONING

Our minds have the ability to conceptualize the world in which we live; that is, to develop concepts that identify thoughts about ourselves, our experiences, and what it all means. Reality or our perception of reality is largely ideologically based on both deductive and inductive reasoning processes. Our perceptions have been retained through a collective memory called history that we humans are capable of passing on to each successive generation; allowing us to learn and increase our knowledge.

As a species, humans continually reason and learn.  The only thing that stops a human from reasoning and learning is a dysfunction of the brain which is the result of some form of natural defect or some form of trauma that renders the brain incapable of retaining knowledge.  An intellectual disorder, by contrast, is a dysfunction of the learning process itself that can be caused by indoctrination or brainwashing.

As perception is geared to sense experience, perception can also be engineered to interpret experience via indoctrination or brainwashing. Ideologies that are presented as absolute truths are easily used to engineer perceptions which then interprets experience that shapes perception. This form of intellectual looping disrupts the learning/ reasoning process which is usually localized around a particular ideology.  In other words, a person can reason and learn normally until whatever experience or piece of information comes in contact with an indoctrinated ideology which automatically shapes the person's perception of that experience or information.  When the ability to freely reason is interrupted, learning from that experience or information cannot occur or it becomes grossly distorted.

Intelligent reasoning requires room for proof, if proof exists and room for doubt, should proof be lacking. In other words, reason and learning requires intellectual flexibility. A mindset that interferes with intellectual flexibility can be viewed as an intellectual disorder. The essential trademark of fundamentalism is its intellectual inflexibility or its absolutism regarding an ideological belief.

FUNDAMENTALISM

Fundamentalism, in general, does not require proof as a basis for reason.  It's major indicator is an unfaltering belief in an ideology's unquestionability. Attempting debate with an ardent fundamentalist will result in circular arguments based on a presumed infallible premise. It is this looping aspect of fundamentalism that defines it as an intellectual disorder.

Fundamentalism is not just the domain of theistic conservatives or scriptural literalist. Fundamentalism is found among conservative, liberal, and progressive ideologies of  every type; including, economic, political and theological ideologies. What allows ideologies to become prone towards fundamentalism is that every ideological belief is resistant to proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Consider some examples of the ideological concepts (beliefs) that fit this definition:

In theism, the concept of God.

In politics, the concept that democracy or a strong sense of patriotism and nationalism is essential to good governance and social order.

In economics the concepts of capitalism, communism, or socialism betters the lives of most people.

All of these concepts are ideological beliefs that have functionality in defining our experiences but cannot be proven to be absolute fact or truth by themselves.

The fundamentalist, however, equates belief in an ideology as proof of its absolute truth even when facts and events demonstrates its fallibility.  For the ardent fundamentalist, intellectual reasoning is the enemy. There is no room for doubt. Ardent fundamentalists  are so convinced of their ideological truths that they cannot entertain doubt or tolerate reasoned opposition to their fundamental ideology and are quick to demonize anyone who attempts to do so.

FEW ARDENT FUNDAMENTALISTS

Fundamentalism has become an ideology in its own right that attaches itself to other types of ideologies. Speculatively speaking, I suspect most who identify as fundamentalist are probably not ardent fundamentalists and personally have no problem entertaining doubt on a personal level.  What they probably are subject to is groupthink; of saying they are fundamentalist just to keep the peace.  They have learned to say the "right" things and vote the "right" way, but harbor personal doubts and are perfectly capable of reasoning if they "have to."  For example, if they are a Christian fundamentalist, their biggest concern is not how God sees them,  but how other members of their group sees them.  If they say the wrong things, are perceived as doing the wrong things, or voting the wrong way -  they fear they'll be the one's labeled as disordered.  

FUNDAMENTALISM AND VIOLENCE

Fundamentalism, in its most ardent forms, tends towards violence when faced with criticism and doubt.  Fundamentalism is easily radicalized, as is seen in fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Buddhism.  On the political scale, fundamentalism in the form of patriotism and nationalism are equally prone to radicalization and violence.  Political ideologies in the United States, for example, have become so polarized between various types of conservative and liberal ideologies to have acquired the patina if not the substance of being fundamentalist in nature. 

The bottom line in any fundamental treatment of an ideology is its intransigence, its inability or refusal to reason and learn.  This is becoming and perhaps already is the death knell of the human species.  We cannot afford to become unreasonable in the face of undeniable facts.

The prophetic field of science is exposing us to the ignored obvious of the human causes of climate changes and species extinction, as are also the fields of economics and social science which are exposing us to the detrimental effects of economic and social inequality.  The doubling-down attitude expressed by various ardent theistic and political ideologues is indicative of fundamentalism at the height of unreason.   Fundamentalism is a disorder our world no longer can afford to entertain on a global level if we are to co-exist and survive as species.

Until next time, stay faithful.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

MUTUAL SELF DESTRUCTION AND THE PURSUIT OF PEACE - Part III

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds"
J. R. Oppenheimer 
quoting from the Bhagavad -Gita

I want to start this post by reposting a paragraph from my last post:


Are certain global populations prone to engage in activities that disturb and disrupt merely to feel stimulated? This may sound like a trite assessment of situations involving suicide bombers and mass killings, but is modern terrorism, for example, in reality a response to global boredom that has been brought about by a relative prolonged period of peace?



* * * * * * * * * *

With the detonation of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945  at 5:29 AM, we discovered that our fate and the fate of this planet lies in our hands.  We, as a whole, have yet to recognize the ideological fallout that began at that moment. We have yet grasp its implications as Oppenheimer did on that fateful morning; that we are the masters of our fate.


THE EMBLEMS OF OBSELESCENCE


Nuclear weapons are and remain weapons of war, but they also serve as potent emblems of war's obsolescence. The bombings of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have taught us that not only nuclear war is untenable, but all warfare is untenable. The fact that nations who possess and maintain nuclear weapons as a deterrence and other nations who are trying to obtain them as leverage, demonstrates an inability to recognize this glaring truth. Yet, we have ignored the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and war with each other like dare devils who toy with death in order to feel alive.  We appear  stuck in a world order of our own making and are metaphorically spinning our wheels in the mud and muck of ideologies that have lost their relevance.

Another emblem of war's obsolescence is the suicide bomber; the person or persons who have lost all personal meaning and whose willingness to destroy their own existence and those of others is based on the premise of preserving ideologies rendered irrelevant in a changed understanding of reality.  In other words, the suicide bomber is a literal representation of a religious ideology in its death throes. 

All religious ideologies, both theistic and secular pale in comparison to the fact that scientific theories are shaping our understanding of reality.  We have yet to grasp the significance of this and the fact that what we thought was ideologically true about our world and who we are was made obsolete in the blinding flash of theoretical physics becoming fact in 1945.


REALITY REVISITED


In past posts, I stated that reality can be defined as a consensus of perceptions.  In the mundane, macro world that largely remains the case.  A chair is a chair because everyone agrees it's a chair.  In our every day existence reality is defined by our senses and our minds.

The practical application of theoretical science in almost every aspect of daily life, however, has exposed us to the fact that reality is more than our senses can perceive.  As such, empirical reality is no longer a matter of sense perception nor is it dependent on consensus because the field of science is itself a field of intellectual fluctuation because theoretically, at the unseen quantum level, reality fluctuates. 

Human intelligence appears as a fluke in evolutionary biology.  The ambiguous human mind may well have shaped the physical properties of the human brain, shrunk its size and enhancing and streamlining its cognitive abilities as a  mysterious self regulating function of the brain itself.   The conscious human mind is a phenomenon that remains unexplained.  Some might be tempted to conclude that the conscious human mind suggest the working of a God. 

Perhaps  -   but I'm inclined to believe that the concept of God is the by-product of the human mind, as an intuitive insight about its conscious self.

The saying, "Seeing is believing" captures the essence of the problem we humans have with perception in a scientific world where seeing is no longer a matter of the senses as it is a function of the intellectual mind's ability to calculate in theoretical terms a reality that stretches the imagination by its functionality.  It does not require an ideological belief  to be true for it relies on its provability to be fact.

Seeing and believing have held our common perception of reality together for millennia, but we are in an age where neither what we see nor what we believe matters when it comes to defining what reality really is.  Ironically, in the face of a reality that is no longer dependent on general consensus by the masses, the masses are prone to reverse the old saying from seeing is believing to believing is seeing; as in, seeing what we want to believe as opposed to seeing as a mental comprehension of what cannot be perceived by the naked eye.

If such beliefs would lead us to see the value of scientific knowledge and invest faith in the scientific approach in order to comprehend reality, that would be a step in the right direction, but the tendency has been for many is to put their faith in the fossilized ideological beliefs that for centuries defined a reality and a world that no longer exists.

Herein lies a great danger because ideological beliefs, by themselves, are nonfactual.  In the light of a fluctuating reality there is a tendency to become obsessed with believing and utilizing ideologies rooted in a past that seemed reliably concrete, but which are quickly exposed as having no basis in reality.   That, in itself, is the biggest threat to our existence.

As I mentioned in my first post on this topic, science cannot lead us to make the right decisions.  Science can only give us the knowledge by which to do or undo things.  By itself, science is morally ambivalent, as all knowledge is.  What we do with knowledge, however, is ethically and morally relevant. What we do with knowledge matters.

The perspective of history and science has narrowed to a point that allows us to see that what that we do as single people or single nations has an impact on the whole of our planet in a dramatic never before seen way.  The age in which we live should awaken us to fact that there exists more than one way in which we are mutually self destructive.  The most recent and more urgent concern regarding self destruction is our inadvertent relationship to climate change.  This is something that, in relative historical terms, has snuck up on us.

For centuries, climate just happened.  There was no studying it in an empirical way.  In fact, like most scientific knowledge, it has only been in the last century or so that we are able to understand the workings of climate and how humans and our treatment of the environment effect its fluctuations.


AN EMBARRASSING ACT OF STUPIDITY


It is embarrassing that the United States, of all nations, has through our president's executive action pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement when there is so much empirical evidence pointing to global warming's human origins.  The fact that our current president was elected, in part, on an agenda that denied climate change makes it clear that many in this nation are selfishly toying with the death of this planet in order to live in their version of the past by leaving the climatic changes we have caused up to a God of their own making.  It is the epitome of willful ignorance to subscribe to the mindless belief there is nothing we can do.  Science knows better and so does intuitive theism, in which the workings of God are seen as directly related to our own faithfulness in preserving the world in which we live.

SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE IS EMPIRICALLY BASED, NOT IDEOLOGICALLY BASED; THEREFORE, IT SHOULD NOT BE TREATED AS FODDER FOR POLITICAL DEBATE. IT IS NOT MATTER OF OPINION.  IT EITHER STANDS OR IT DOESN'T BASED ON EVIDENCE.

The foolishness of political leaders who wish to treat scientific knowledge as ideological belief demonstrates either a willful, negligent disregard for the wellbeing of humanity and this planet or just plain mind-numbing stupidity.


THE IMPULSE OF RELIGION AND THE PRESERVATION OF THE PLANET


If the impulse of religion is the recognition that we need each other in order to save each other, then there is one thing that should bring us together like no other, and that one thing should be preserving our planet - our common home.

If there is one fear that should transcend all other fears, it should be the fear of losing it.

If there is one thing that should motivate us to look past our differences and drive us towards each other to accomplish a single purpose it should be our love for it.  

There is no reason to be bored as there can be no peace as the absence of things which disrupt and disturb us in the pursuit of saving our common home.

 If we can work to save our planet, peace as the absence of war, will be accomplished because we will be engaged in avoiding anything that distracts, disrupts, or disturbs us from reaching our common goal of planetary preservation. 

That we understand the role we have in preserving our world comes to us as both a blessing and a curse. 

The blessing is that we have reason to set aside our differences and work together to preserve this amazing planet home of ours, the curse is if we do not do so quickly we and our planet will become extinct. 

Any salvation theology or philosophy that distracts us from saving our planet is a heresy that must be shelved for the sake of survival.

Pursuing peace as a goal in by itself will not preserve our planet. It is in the recognition that war is an obsolescence we can't afford and recognizing that the fear of the other is nothing more than a predatory, instinctual behavior that leads to self destruction.  

Peace, as the absence of war and fear can only be accomplished by a conscious, reasoned, and hands on approach by the whole of humanity in a purposeful effort to save our planet.  

Until next time, stay faithful.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

MUTUAL SELF-DESTRUCTION AND THE PURSUIT OF PEACE - Part II

"The peace... which passeth understanding..."
Philippians 4


FEELING AT PEACE

Mutual self destruction may appear to be a new phenomenon that has emerged in our collective consciousness as a result of living in a nuclear age, but as I have hinted in my last post, the fear of mutual annihilation is rooted in our instinctual past.   The reason I feel confident in saying this is that the pursuit of lasting peace is as old as human history.

Peace is an abstract concept that does not exist without a context. While many may think of peace as a feeling, I would suggest that peace can neither be felt nor is it an emotional state.  Peace is a condition brought about by absence.  In other words, peace requires that a disturbing or disrupting precondition is removed or ended in order to "feel" at peace.

What we define as "feeling at peace" are emotions associated with an absence that have disturbed and disrupted our sense of normalcy which result in feelings of relief, joy, and/or security.  As such we tend to make such emotional feelings synonymous with a "feeling" of peace, but for the purpose of these posts, peace is defined as absence.

Why this is important to understand I hope to make clear in this post.  The primary reason peace is so difficult to maintain is, among other things, that humans are not natural peacekeepers. We are the descendants of prehistoric predators who have risen to the top of the food chain only to realize that we are the only creatures on the planet who pose a challenge to our own survival.

This realization has been around since the dawn of human history.  In my opinion, realizing our proclivity towards self destruction contributed to the rise of civilization and turning us into the religious animals we are.  What living in a nuclear age has changed is in regard to how easily accomplished this is and how tentative maintaining peace as the absence of all out war has become.

PURSUING PEACE

The pursuit of peace is rooted in the polar functions of the Impulse of Religion and the Differentiating Paradigm of Religion. In past posts I have used these terms to identify two early phases of religious development; the recognition of needing others to survive and differentiating what it means to be same and other.

Hypothetically speaking, one can identify the Impulse of Religion with the intellectual mind and the Differentiating Paradigm of Religion with the instinctual mind.  The Impulse of Religion seeks to reason and  recognizes the need of the other; whereas, the Differentiating Paradigm of Religion sees differences in the other as a threat to me and mine and leads to clumping around that which is familiar and fearing that which is different.

In these two functions is found the roots of civilization and the ideologies that bind us together into religious communities.  In this post, I want to ponder how the fears we have are related to the concept of peace and how the perception of fear and the pursuit of peace to rid us of our fear created a religious (binding) reaction that led to theism and civilization.

Fear is what brought us to our intellectual senses, so to speak. Once we rose to the top of the food chain, annihilated the competition, and started to populate and spread out over the world as tribal nomads, the biggest creature hazard we faced was ourselves. The other threat to our existence was natural disaster and the unseen.   Harnessing nature turned out to be an easier task than harnessing our predatory instincts which we turn on ourselves.

Theism arose to address that which humans found difficult to control or subdue in themselves. Initially the focus of theism was an attempt to placate what was understood to be an even higher level of creature, the gods, who were believed to control the unseen hazards and the forces of nature.
Human intuition (an enormous leap beyond instinct) deduced that every action involving inanimate substances in nature had a creature cause behind it.

Even though humans were at the top of the food chain on earth, intuition led our earliest ancestors to conclude there to be higher levels of the food chain, the gods, who were causing all sorts of havoc; earthquakes, floods, storms, and volcanism, not to mention the causes of disease and plagues.  Human and animal sacrifices to the gods give evidence to the primitive understanding that the gods were considered part of the food chain we needed to fear.  Simply put, the gods were a tough crowd to please.

Eventually, intellectual theism addressed and attempted to abate the innate forces within ourselves that caused us to engage in acts considered self destructive.  The greatest feat in early human history was the domestication of ourselves.  We call it being civilized.

Like domestication, civilization requires elements of control in order to ensure order and avoid chaos. Civilization led to consistent practices that people began to rely on; a familiarity that, for the most part resulted in contentment.  In that respect very little has changed about being human.  As long as we're content, we abhor change, but we are rarely content for long.

Unfortunately, history demonstrates that humans are poor at self regulation.  Curbing our predatory instincts as individuals became a communal effort and remains so to this day.  Even when regulated, contentment is fleeting. We live in a universe of polarities that is reflected in our genetic makeup and evident in our ideological interactions.

This polarity finds expression in almost every human activity.  Take our attraction to sports; for example, and the attraction of both seeing people win and lose.  Consider the daredevil: The greater the risk of failure, the greater the feeling of accomplishment - surviving a momentary brush with death leads to the exhilarating feeling of being alive.  Of course not everyone is a daredevil, but you can catch my drift.

THE VOID OF PEACE

The difficulty with maintaining peace is that it presents a void.  In the short term, peace "feels" good because we fill the void with transient feelings generated by the absence of that which we found disruptive and disturbing.  Over time these feelings dissipate and feelings of ennui set in. Boredom is a reaction to the absence of stimulus.  Peace is not very stimulating.  The key to maintaining peace is how to stave off the ennui that will eventually ensues and lead our species to engage in disruptive and disturbing behaviors.

Peace may be too abstract for us to fully realize due to its transcendent nature.  The Christian apostle, Paul, captures this sense of transcendence in his letter to the Philippians, "And the peace of God which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7 KJV) While such a peace sounds tangible to our longing ears, Paul's concept of a peace that passes understanding grasps the abstract transcendent nature of peace.  What Paul's comment brings to bear on the concept of a lasting peace is the notion of agency in order to still (quiet) the mind and heart of a predatory species that is subject to ennui.  Paul's identifying agency  of God's peace is agency of faith in his concept of "Christ Jesus."

Peace requires agency.  We are an addiction-prone species that craves stimulation.  When we are not feeling stimulated, we feel the void; we feel empty and bored.  Peace, in and of itself, is boring and boring is not bad.  Experts will tell us that boredom serves a purpose.  It's nature's way to make us pause and consciously quiet the mind. It is ironic, then, that we grew up in a world we are parents and authority figures enforced the notion of "go out and play outside" - do something - when we complained of boredom.  It might have been better if they said, "Think about that for a moment." 

On a personal level "thinking" and quieting the mind is readily accomplished, but on a global level boredom is a problem.  Globally speaking, are we bored?

Are certain global populations prone to engage in activities that disturb and disrupt merely to feel stimulated. This may sound like a trite assessment of situations involving suicide bombers and mass killings, but is modern terrorism, for example, in reality a response to global boredom that has been brought about by a relative prolonged period of peace?

Has the void of  peace caused a polar reversal to occur in what former President Obama called the trajectory of history, which, until recently, has tended towards inclusiveness?

Until next time, stay faithful.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

GETTING TO KNOW AN UNKNOWN GOD - A homily

[Delivered on May 21, 2017 at Christ Episcopal Church, Yankton, South Dakota]

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ From Acts 17
It’s not every Sunday one can give a homily based on Greek legend, Geek mythology, and the New Testament. So I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to do so.
In order to fully appreciate our first reading from Acts 17, we need to know why Paul addressed the Athenians at the Areopagus and why he cites two poems about the Greek god, Zeus. The author of Acts, Luke, likely assumed that everybody of his day, two thousand years ago, would have known why, but knowledge can get lost in two thousand years.  So let’s take a moment to rewind and review:
The Areopagus is a rock outcropping in Athens that was used in Paul’s time for conducting public trials. Here the Athenians wanted to discern if Paul was introducing a new religion into their city as Paul’s preaching about Jesus and his resurrection seemed to indicate.  Introducing a new religion was considered corruption, a serious crime in ancient Athens; a charge that resulted in the death of Socrates in 399 BCE. 
On his way there, Paul passes an altar to “The Unknown God,” the history of which Paul uses in his effective defense, along with citing two early Greek poems to support the premise that he was not preaching something new.
The first poet cited is Epimenides who wrote a poem called, "Cretica." In "Cretica," Epimenides argues with his fellow Cretans that Zeus was very much alive as evident in our being alive after they had built a symbolic tomb declaring him dead:
They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
 
                        Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. 
                        But you (Zeus) are not dead: you live and abide forever,
                        For in you we live and move and have our being[1]
 As a side note, the line about Cretans being liars is cited, verbatim,  in Paul’s letter to Titus (1:12) and is the basis for Epimenides Paradox which states if being a Cretan himself, Epimenides, in calling Cretans liars is also a liar by telling a truth applicable to himself.
In fact, the altar to The Unknown God has a close connection to Epimenides:
 
During the time of the great Athenian law giver, Solon, the Athenians suffered a horrendous plague attributed to an act of treachery on people who they granted asylum and then killed. To rid themselves of the resulting plague, they tried appeasing their gods through sacrifice, but nothing was working. 
So they approached the Oracle at Delphi who informed them that there was a god they failed to appease.  When they asked which one, she said she didn’t know but they should send for Epimenides, a prophet in Crete, who would help them.  So they did.
When Epimenides arrives in Athens he comments that they must be very religious because of the many gods and goddesses they have. He told them there is an good and great unknown god who was smiling on their ignorance but was willing to be appeased. When they perform the proper rituals throughout the city, the plague is ended and they erect altars to this unknown god throughout Athens. [2]
The second “poet” Paul cites is the philosopher Aratus, from his work Phenomenon:
… always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring[3]
* * * * * * * * * * *
Avoiding the name Zeus, Paul infers, via his reference to the unknown god, the philosophical idea of a Superior God whose nominal identity is simply “God” which we monotheists have adopted.  As a result, Paul’s catechesis on God and who we are in relation to God boils down to this: 
Question: Who is God? 
Answer: God is that Being in which we live, move, and have our being. 
Question: Who are we? 
Answer: We are his offspring.”
In my opinion, this is the best definition of God and our relationship to God found anywhere. God is the active force of all that is, has been, and will be, and we are the incarnate manifestations of that activity. We live because God is living, we move because God is moving, we are because God is.  This concept of everything existing in God – panentheism – is found in Paul’s understanding of the Risen Christ. Jesus, as the Risen Christ, is, in Paul’s theology,  the cosmic nexus between God and humankind.
Paul’s personal encounters with Jesus occurred in his visions of the Risen Christ.  The only historical information about Jesus that gets any press began in Paul’s epistles begins on Maundy Thursday and ends on Easter Morning. Consequently, his epistles never mention Jesus’ parentage, his miracles, his parables, his disciples other than Peter, or his ministerial teachings other than the words of institution used in Holy Communion. 
For Paul, the Resurrection was the reset point of God’s original relationship with us. Jesus as the Risen Christ is declared by Paul to be the first born of a new creation who, as a man was sown a physical body and, as the Christ was raised a spiritual body as stated in his first letter to the Corinthians (15)
* * * * * * * * * *
In his defense at the Areopagus, Paul also accused the Athenians of becoming too religious for their own good, as demonstrated by their many idols. They had become God-blind – a problem every age encounters, including our own. Paul knew something about being God-blind. 
It took his vision of the risen Christ on his way to Damascus to experience literal blindness which led him to see how blind he was about God.  He went from being Saul, the Pharisee, a devout believer in a God of laws and strict discipline, to Paul, a prisoner of Christ, a man of faith, hope, and love who became shackled to a God of faith, hope, and love in us.
It was the wide embrace of God, the God and Father of all, as expressed in the poetry of Epimenides and Aratus that prompted him to a make the revolutionary claim echoed in every social/religious debate to this day:
“For there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in the risen Christ,” as he writes to the Galatians (Galatians 3:28).
Too often it is the Christians of today; especially those of rigid inclination who treat the Bible as being the literal inerrant word of God that are not only God-blind but also Bible-idolators.  After all, it was Paul who entered into their inerrant view of the Biblical record the words of Epimenides and Aratus, the poets of Zeus, giving Epimenides’ Paradox a new twist:
If the word of God is literal and inerrant, are the quotes by Epimenides and Aratus found in the New Testament, inerrant also? 
By extension, does not Paul’s use of their definition of Zeus make Zeus another name for God?
* * * * * * * * * *
God is known by many names; and yet, no single name can describe the ineffable, intimate, pervading sense of BEING that God is.  So in our liturgies and hymns when we reference God’s name, we capitalize the word “Name,” as in today’s opening hymn:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.
To all life thou givest, to both great and small; in all life thou livest, the true life of all.  We blossom and flourish, like leaves on the tree, then wither and perish; but nought changeth thee.[4]
To which, I am confident, Aratus, Epimenides, and Paul would say, “AMEN!”  
* * * * * * * * * *
Until next time, stay faithful.


[1] Translated by Prof. J. Rendel Harris in a series of articles in the Expositor (Oct. 1906, 305–17; Apr. 1907, 332–37; Apr. 1912, 348–353;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epimenides
[2] “To An Unknown God,” Christians in Crete, Connecting God’s Family http://christiansincrete.org/news/to-an-unknown-god/
[3] “Phenomenon” translated by G.R. Mair; http://www.theoi.com/Text/AratusPhaenomena.html
[4] “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” by Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908), number 423 in The Hymnal 1982.
 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

MUTUAL SELF-DESTRUCTION AND THE PURSUIT OF PEACE - Part I

With this post, I begin to ponder the  concept of mutual self destruction and the pursuit of peace.  In this posts I will speculate on why there appears to be a strong connection between fear and peace in the human mind.


MUTUAL SELF DESTRUCTION AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT OUR SPECIES



I remember being in grade school in the late 1950's and early 60's and having to participate in atomic bomb drills, by climbing under our desks and hunkering down. These were, of course, acts of futility should we have been under a real atomic attack as anyone from Japan would have told us.  I suspect the drills served another purpose; to bring the reality of mutual self-destruction home to the average U.S. citizen and provide some sense of hope about surviving an attack by doing something. I also remember the television commercials about building fallout shelters which my family couldn't have afforded.  I grew up feeling that disaster was upon us at any given moment.  I didn't obsess about it, but it was always there, ready to pop up into my awareness.

Since that time, our ability to destroy each other has vastly improved; with larger nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenals at our disposal.  Deterrence is the foundation upon which modern defense is built.  A relative sense of world peace is maintained by the fact that an all out global war involving any or all of these weapons would ensure the annihilation of life on this planet. We have witnessed their effectiveness on a small scale in Japan, Iraq, and Syria.

This fear has kept us from all out war for nearly three quarters of a century, but it has become an increasingly tenuous deterrent as the rise of nationalism amongst first world nations is evident and the treatise that they agreed on are being questioned.

Peace based on the fear of mutual self destruction is porous.

This foundation holds only on the assurance that those who possess such weapons will not use them and keep them from those who would.  This worked as long as the knowledge and technology needed to make such weapons could be withheld, however, knowledge is fluid and eventually is leaked.  The only thing staving off world-wide proliferation is control of the materials needed to make such weapons.

This is where philosophy becomes pragmatic. Science can tell us how to make such destructive weapons but it cannot prevent us from using them. As I have mentioned in other posts, there is a tendency in the field of science to "do it" if something is thought to be theoretically possible; that if  your side doesn't "do it" another side will.   This has been born out in the development of nuclear and other weapons.  It is that reality that has pushed us towards making a philosophical solution that is rooted in the ethical mandate to refrain from doing that which one wouldn't want done.

It is no longer a question of refraining from doing to others what one doesn't want done to oneself.  It is an imperative of not doing it at all because doing it is suicide.

What the concept of mutual destruction demonstrates is that fear remains the most potent motivation in the human drive for survival.  While most would say that peace is what we desire most, our desire for peace, by itself, is not potent or visceral enough to prevent us from self destruction whereas the fear of it is.  Fear produces a tangible feeling that peace does not.  We can gauge fear better than peace and there may be a reason for that.

PREDATORY FEAR

Fear is a predatory instinct related to environmental factors. When factors that contribute to fear are present they can be measured by the intensity of the fear we feel.  Peace, on the other hand, is largely an absence of these factors which then results in a feeling of safety and wellbeing.  We experience a momentary sense of relief in the removal of that which we feared.  A sense of peace quickly evaporates into the mundane, however, as the absence of the factors that led to fear is sustained. This can eventually lead to a numbing of the fear factor, something we are witnessing in the world today.

Predation as an instinctual motive for species survival is not prone to maintaining peace.   What has prevented us from killing ourselves off as a species millennia ago has been the recognition that we are the only species on this planet capable of doing so. I believe that warfare evolved as an attempt to curb the predatory instinct and define it in terms of conquest rather than annihilation. The crusades are an example of the papacy trying to maintain peace in Christendom by directing and expending the nobility's war prone tendencies to annihilate each other on freeing the Holy Land from the Arab domination through conquest.

War was largely thought of in terms of military game theory throughput most of warfare's history.  Civilian populations were largely left out of the fray of military battle, but that changed drastically in the First World War when towns and cities became deliberate targets for indiscriminate aerial bombing. World War Two saw cities firebombed for no other purpose than to bring a nation to its knees by terrorizing its population and destroying its infrastructure.  The war with Japan ended with the near total destruction of Hiroshima's and Nagasaki's civilian population by two atomic bombs as a way of securing the end of that war and establishing peace.  It exacted a terrible price and led to an arms race that ensured mutual self destruction.  No amount of rationalization can explain away this gargantuan leap by our species towards self annihilation.

The real victims of war are the civilians in modern warfare.  In the past, armies were defeated and populations conquered and enslaved.  Today cities are destroyed and civilian centers targeted in which hundreds of thousands civilians perish or are forced from their homes while military losses are relatively minor in comparison.

In our narrowing world, conquest is an anachronism that risks annihilation.

Nationalism is a fundamentalism that the world cannot sustain.

A PROFOUND EMBARRASSMENT

We have come to a point in our existence as a species where we hold the keys to our own mass extinction.

So while we can, let's ponder how profoundly embarrassing that is.   Seriously!

Here we are the most intelligent animals on the planet who managed to survived any number of obstacles, who are on the verge of human space exploration while continuing to rely on what basically amounts to a primeval fear of the predator in order to ensure world peace. 

Grant it there are layers of diplomatic rationale in which this fear is couched, but the core upon which world peace is maintained is the looming reality of mutual self destruction which brings me to wonder about the evolution of human intelligence and the role it plays in the pursuit of peace.

We have outsmarted every other species, including the annihilation of many of them along our ascent to the top of the food chain.  As Yuval Harari explained in his book, "Sapiens," this included the probable annihilation of our closest hominid relatives more than twenty thousand years ago.

But what is it that continues to makes us fear ourselves and, in turn,  requires such an enormous intellectual effort to prevent us from self annihilation? 

Why do we continue to prey on our own kind?  

While we hold the keys to our self destruction are we capable of forging the keys to lasting peace?

These are and should be uncomfortable questions for us to ponder.  Evolution perhaps holds an answer that, ironically, may not be totally related to evolution itself.

Allow me to speculate, since I really don't know: 

THE INTELLECT

From what little I know of evolution, I have surmised that human intelligence/consciousness developed faster than evolution should have allowed. In fact, we are still accelerating in this intellectual development by evolutionary standards. What actually clues me to this seeming acceleration is the fact that we have not lost our pre-intellectual instincts.  Intelligence does not appear to have necessarily evolved from our instincts or by having opposable thumbs and the ability to manipulate our environment manually.

We have retained our basic predatory survival instincts in spite of being intellectually aware or conscious.  Our instincts remain intact and as I have indicated they are very operative in the pursuit of peace.  We have, however, subdued them intellectually to the extent that we no longer think of them in terms of instincts and have largely intellectualized them as emotions.

So if intelligence is not a direct product of evolution, what is it?

Is learning evolutionary or is it something else? 

For instance, I have been pondering in recent past posts the fact that we get ahead of ourselves intellectually before we can fully process the ramifications of our intellectual endeavors in terms of what it means to our survival.  Of course, we have no sure way of knowing what our intellectual pursuits will result in causing.  It has been only in the last century that we have begun to explore and understand the scientific basis for human intelligence.

It is the intelligent mind that appears to be using our instinctual fears to prevent us from self destruction by seeing a need for the other of our species as necessary to our survival.  This was probably not an a-ha moment, but a gradual awareness preceding from repetitive experiences of seeing the mutual benefit of working with the other.

Nevertheless, our own kind poses a challenge to us and is why we ended up with warring clans, tribes, and nations.  We have yet to rid ourselves of the notion that race and ethnicity pose a threat. 
It's embarrassing that we possess such great intellectual abilities, but find them hostage to a primal fear of the other, even though the other is much the same as oneself. 

Intelligence requires a great deal of energy on a personal level. As a species we have mitigated this expenditure by the process of consensus. [I'm taking a giant leap forward in the story intellectual development.]  The ability to communicate ideas and perceptions have made us the masters of our own reality.  We have been able to convert, corral, and conceptualize our fears into ideologies, moral codes, and laws that minimize the amount of intellectual energy needed by an individual to process or convert our fears in a constructive way.

We have banked on the fear of a more powerful other in order to establish behaviors that preserve our species and maintains our sense of reality.  In other words, we became civilized.

This, in my opinion, was not evolutionary in the sense of a natural, organic evolution. There was a seismic leap to intellect that bypassed instinct while leaving instinct intact. What probably contributed the most to this shift was our ability to communicate discrete information.

One can speculate that the homo sapiens brain's  response to this relatively sudden shift was to shrink in size.  Why?

Shared communicative thought processes requires less space and energy.  Our brains became leaner and more efficient as a result of processing information in a communicative manner rather than solely relying on figuring things out by themselves.

According to anthropologists, Neanderthal brains were larger than the brains of homo sapiens. What this may indicate is higher reliance on the Neanderthal self to process information; that Neanderthals lacked the discreet communicative skills of homo sapiens that gave our species the edge on survival.

ABSTRACTION

Much of what we communicate is conceptually abstract.  We don't think of it as such because much of what is abstract is treated concretely because of its common and regular usage.  Where our ability for abstraction came from is anyone's guess, but it is indicative of the intellectual mind. The intellectual mind is a creative mind, it seeks a tomorrow, whereas the instinctual mind is not and lives for the day.

As such, human beings are of two minds that function simultaneously.   If I were to provide an analogy, I would liken this two minded approach to two tectonic plates colliding with each other with the instinctual mind being subducted under the intellectual mind. What we see is largely the intellectual mind at work, but what we feel remains largely instinctual.

Sticking with this geological analogy, peace is an abstract concept that rides above the subducted predatory impulse that gives rise to fear which periodically emerges into our intellectual consciousness when environmental conditions draw our instinctual drives to the surface.  On the surface of intellectual consciousness, we feel fear that is rooted in our subducted instinctual mind and desire peace as means to ease our collective tremors.

In my next post, I will offer a brief review of the role fear and pursuit of peace has played in defining civilization and religion.

Until next time, stay faithful.