Sunday, December 31, 2006

The post-evolution God

I have a belief about creationists. It comes from a lifetime of listening to arguments against evolution that don’t work. It’s even obvious they don’t work if you know the subject well. I used to try to teach creationists what I know about something like thermodynamics, having been a physicist, but it was frustrating. For one, there are all these counterarguments creationists have become used to saying in response to how they misuse thermodynamics or whatever else they claim prohibits evolution. Then if I do make headway, creationists just shift to a different argument, one equally flawed, unless they move all the way to some metaphysics that invalidates science, which no one does. So anyone trying to prove that arguments against evolution don’t work has an immense task to counter every bit of nonsense that has been said against evolution. Yet nonsense it is. It’s obvious, if you know the subject. What is this?

Eventually it hit me. Opposition to evolution is not about the arguments. Those are just ammunition. The real reason people oppose evolution, at least the people I’ve met, is that they want God to micromanage their own lives. They don’t want a God who lets nature take its course, either because He chooses to or because He is powerless to do otherwise.

I understand that. Maybe that was the fundamental desire behind religion, to get help with an uncertain life. So of course God was the master of nature, even its creator, who could change whatever we wanted changed, if we were good enough, if we sacrificed enough, if we were obedient enough, if we knew the right magic. People don’t want to give that up. Even some liberals believe in a God who micromanages the physical world, only in a liberal way. Other liberals believe in God as an impersonal resource for love or magic. Other liberals come close to how atheists see God, as a better part of us, if atheists are feeling charitable about how to put that.

I’m a liberal. I’m also an empiricist. So it’s easy for me to believe that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what anyone says He is. I was resigned that there was no personal God until I started praying out of desperation in my thirties. Then God showed up! I wanted Him to fix things, to turn time back if necessary, if He would, if He could. He can’t. He tells me that now, when I can hear Him more easily. The possibilities were much broader when I was coming to know God better.

How many people ever know God better? Many people work on knowing a theology better, whether that’s something traditional or more modern. But how do you know God? Even now, the atheists could be right and the God of my understanding be something entirely within my mind. There’s no way I made God up. He reflects something real even if He is only in my mind. He is emphatic that that is not the case, though. There is more. There is a spiritual side to the universe, a nonphysical side. I’ve experienced it, the direction, strength, and comfort that come from something not available to me rationally. God says He is the source of this. Who am I to argue?

When God isn’t the God people want, they argue. Even accepting the truth of evolution people can argue that God micromanages evolution, as Francis Collins does. I’m not sure if that’s a trend for the future. I think people eventually do have to face that God doesn’t control nature even a little bit. Then what? Do they give up on God, or do they accept whoever and whatever God is?

It is a very different God who acts through spirit, whatever that is, and one’s mind, rather than through anything physical. It’s not just those who hate evolution who resist a purely spiritual God. Many want God to be everywhere in the physical universe, as much in us as anywhere else. It would save time looking for Him. But if finding God were much easier, I suspect our culture would be much better and loving than it is by now.

God is whoever and whatever God is, but my experiences of God narrow that for me. I write about that all the time, how the God of my understanding is different from what others present as God. I was once loathe to say my God is a different God than the God of the Bible or some other theology. That makes for such an obvious counterattack that I’m not Christian. But I met Christ. I’m not sure if the most efficient way to God is through Christ or around Him. I think I’ve tried both, but maybe it was all the former. God knows. What human beings pretend to know is much less important.

The truth of evolution does cut off a lot of religion from having any meaning. A physics professor I once had used to pile up articles about different theories in his area of physics. Then some experiment would come along and invalidate an entire stack of papers on one theory. So into the garbage they went. People are not so flexible about religion, but that is what is what would be reasonable. God is whoever and whatever God is, but unless I’ve missed something, He has nothing to do with nature, not now, maybe not ever. People would want some confirmation before believing that. So ask God. Few people will. They don’t want to know.

Some people are so disinclined to ask God for direction, they’d rather be atheist if they can’t believe traditional theology. One could say that is a result of evolution being true. I suppose it is. Maybe it will be the largest result. But there is an opportunity for something else. Between the God-shaped void that even evolutionary psychologists find within us and a physical world that needs no God, there is a conflict about how we should live. Just living naturally is one solution. Finding that there is a reliable supernatural is another, one in which I just close my eyes and God is always there. Then there’s a whole lot of fantasy people can live in. So far the post-evolution world is mostly that last one, where even people who have a belief in evolution maintain some fantasy along with that. I don’t think that’s stable. I think that’s a transitional state of culture. Eventually I think people can live naturally or with a God for whom evolution makes sense. Nothing else is real. If so, nothing else is real even now, and all this religious fantasy is just a different way of living naturally than those who live without any semblance of God.

God has to be a God for whom evolution makes sense. About that I have many questions. Was He waiting for intelligent life? Does life give Him something? Does He give something to life? God says His answers are no, yes, and yes. A complete context for answers like that takes more time.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dreaming of moving along

I awoke with a dream that combined two themes that have been recurring for me for years. One is stealing cars. One is winding up in buildings where room after room opens into another room, no halls, just rooms.

I described a residential version of the latter before. Last night the scene was a restaurant. I think I was leaving at the end of the meal and turned the wrong way. So I wandered through employee areas, then storage areas, then through doors off the storage areas into rooms where no one had been for decades, then into places that perhaps no one still alive knew existed. At one point I found a garage door that used to connect the restaurant with the outside world, but someone had erected a concrete wall to keep people from entering that way. Darn, so close to getting out.

I followed more doors. Eventually I popped out unexpectedly through an unused door into the dining room. My appearance startled a waitress so that she dropped a customer’s salad on the floor. Sorry, just passing through. And out the main door this time.

It occurs to me how this is a little like going through doors in the sci-fi miniseries The Lost Room that showed on the Sci Fi Channel this month. Of course my dreams about the room through the next door have always been potluck, not where I decided to go, but maybe the theme is not mine alone.

Then in the parking lot I was faced with a dilemma I often face in dreams. My car wasn’t anywhere nearby. I forget if I had gotten a ride to the restaurant or magically came out somewhere far away from my car. Either way my solution was one I’ve frequently used in dreams. I hotwired a car and drove off to wherever my car was.

Of course in real life, I don’t know how to hotwire a car beyond what I have seen in movies. It’s strange how different dreams can be. In dreams I get concerned that someone can trace all these thefts to me through my fingerprints. It doesn’t change my actions. It just occurs to me sometimes that my fingerprints are on file somewhere, having been taken for my medical license and for my volunteer work. That’s actually real. Yet when I’m fully awake I know my fingers never have been anywhere that would cause the police to knock on my door. There is this transition between dreaming and being awake where facts like that suddenly dawn on me – whew! There are a number of reasons I prefer to live in reality than in my dreams.

Such dreams are about discontent with what’s here, about moving along to someplace I’d prefer. It’s about exploring all possibilities, accepting whatever comes. It’s about doing whatever needs to be done, without malice, but without worrying too much how it affects people. And the God who is constantly with me while I’m awake has no presence at all during my dreams. I don’t even remember He exists when I’m dreaming. Somehow I don’t need Him for direction, strength, and comfort in my dreams. So why do I in reality? It’s an interesting question.

In reality I’ve explored about as many possibilities as I ever will. I hardly ever find a door where I don’t know what’s on the other side. In my dreams, my next move always beckons me. I’m never confused about that. One can say my journey through the bowels of the restaurant is just like a man refusing to ask for directions, but that’s not really it. It does hit me I made a wrong turn, but then there are doors I want to explore and do. I can honestly say in my dream, “I meant to do that,” not as a cover-up. There is no issue in my dream of whether something will turn out well or not. There is just the next door.

Real life is not so automatic. There are choices, and I can see beyond to various possible consequences of any choice. There’s uncertainty. There’s confusion. That’s what got me praying to God again in my thirties. And strangely enough, God responded. I never look for God in my dreams that way. Nothing prompts me to do so.

Perhaps God so fills my consciousness that He is the universe in my dreams, when He is not that in reality. Perhaps God would rather life be automatic. Perhaps He’d rather hear “thank you” than “help me”. I find it hard to believe He wants me to steal cars. Maybe if I were more patient, I’d walk. That’s a good possibility for me in reality.

Whatever the nuances, I always find my way out in dreams. It takes persistence. It takes exploring more possibilities, no matter how many dead ends there have been so far. That’s how I found God, unless that’s how He found me.

So what is “out”? Am I there today? Do I have to wait to die when some part of my consciousness will continue outside of the constraints of all these rooms? As in all things I ask God these. Right now He answers, “you need to eat something”. OK, more doors later.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Until they give up, it's pointless

I read a piece on Church of the Churchless today that is so transparent. The author, Brian Hines, related how it made his day for the check-out clerk to go one more sentence than is the norm to inquire about what made his day nice. So he told her how it was that there was one more Self-Realization Fellowship calendar left that his wife had requested as a Christmas gift. Then he said something about guardian angels looking after procrastinators, something he apparently doesn’t believe. No, it was the conversation he found to be a joy, not that he was lucky or blessed, depending on one’s point of view.

I have no problem with valuing existential joy. I value all sorts of existential joy, from as meaningless as winning at Free Cell on my computer, especially when I have a moment when I need some little thing I can control, to as meaningful as helping people. In between are joys about sex or food some might describe or beauty in nature or the joy of self-expression. There are a lot of things that make life worth living.

But Hines is someone who believes that’s all there is:

“A hypothetical God or ultimate reality doesn’t make for a nice day. Real nice moments make for a nice day. There’s no need to bring God into them. The guardian angels I brought into my check-out line conversation were totally extraneous.”

Oh, that’s not very informed. I find no conflict between finding joy in little things or big things around me and finding joy in the Holy Spirit who is my constant companion. I’m sure many believers don’t feel the Holy Spirit. Maybe they would act better if they did. Maybe atheists are right and what I feel as the Holy Spirit is something very different. It is a joy nevertheless, one that Brian Hines seems to know nothing about. So I would tell him, as I try to tell a lot of people.

How? Now, there’s the problem. I can tell all kinds of stories, as I’ve told on this blog, and most people would still have no idea what it’s like to be me. It’s not that my spiritual experiences are unique. I read something like Roman 8:9, where Paul writes, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” Knowing everything Paul writes about his spiritual experiences, I suspect he is describing an almost tangible presence of God, not something at all hypothetical.

It’s hard to know how many Christians experience that. I guess it’s few or there wouldn’t be so many hypocrites among Christians, but those few do talk about it a lot and talk about the joy of living in the Spirit and having the Spirit within them. I’m not sure I would pick out one such person as perfectly trustworthy, but I have my own experiences that make me think I know what they mean. Is that the only way? Either you feel the joy of the Spirit or you only believe in a hypothetical God or some God that is purely an intellectual construct, as may be the case with most traditionalists?

Beats me, I know my life. I know it’s better than what Brian Hines described. I would tell everyone that, but I bet you can imagine what kind of dust that stirs up.

I asked God, as I always do when I’m lacking direction. God said it was pointless for me to comment on the Church of the Churchless. There’s no way to get across briefly where I’m coming from. Here, there’s plenty of background if anyone cares to know. More importantly all these people who fight over religion, from atheists to traditionalists with everyone in between never will learn anything until they’re ready to give up on the way they live, a way they justify with their words.

I gave up in my thirties, when I admitted defeat in my marriage and career and started praying. That road-to-Damascus experience came quickly with that, but since then it’s been much more slowly how the presence of God has built up, first in my prayers, then sporadically in my life, then constantly, as the Spirit living in me. I don’t know if that can happen to anyone. Maybe there are biological, cultural and spiritual factors that matter. But it’s real, and it’s better than just the existential joy anyone comes across in life, the joy that the Spirit only makes better.

Until they give up, people call me liar or fool. Some even call me a tool of the devil, as the Spirit I experience knows those aren’t His words in the Bible, but the words of men. God is whoever and whatever God is, not what men say God is. That seems inescapable to me, and yet another reason why God needs to be real, not just an idea.

I bet most people would just ignore me until they give up, no matter how vocal I tried to be. People have a choice, right up until they die, and then their body gives up. Is there anything left then that will still resist? I don’t know, but I know that biological, cultural, and spiritual evolution all take many years. Many generations have to go through life before much changes. It’s not magic words that matter. It’s who and what God really is. That Brian Hines finds God to be hypothetical explains why he can’t find more than existential joy to honor. Maybe he’s right. Then I have to find a different name for what I experience. No, I think he’s wrong. So does God. He didn’t want you to think it’s just me, so He said to add that part. What a complex feeling comes with that, joy, awe, and a little something negative anticipating those who can’t believe God said that to me. It is what it is. How it affects people depends on them.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Diagnosing your enemy

One of the recommended diaries today at the Daily Kos is from a psychiatrist who claims that George Bush has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. This is not a new tactic. I very quickly found google able to confirm my memory that this same charge was directed at Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It’s even been directed at liberalism itself. It probably could be directed at most Presidents. It’s not the first time it’s been leveled at George Bush, not even the first time in the last four years.

The thing is that no psychiatrist would use “fantasy” and “lack of empathy” as loosely with a client as it takes to give any leader a diagnosis of a personality disorder. The President of the United States isn’t engaged in fantasy if he sees himself as President. I don’t know any of the above men personally, but I suspect they all have empathy well within the limits of normal among their own family and friends. To say someone doesn’t have empathy because he’s doing things you don’t think are caring enough is loaded with bias. The kind of people who are solidly within the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder do not win political campaigns.

There are two ways to diagnose one’s enemy. One is to think of arguments that “prove” your enemy is evil, insane, and dangerous, the worse the better. Of course your enemy is doing that about you, too, unless he can just ignore you, so I’m not sure what that accomplishes. It’s not like the public is going to decide anything on the basis of your argument. They know you’re as wacko as anyone else.

The other way is to realize that your greatest enemy is in the mirror and go from there. I haven’t found many people willing to acknowledge that. People feel in less danger from themselves than from those terrible people they can’t help but attack. That may be a miscalculation. You have to consider the distance involved. Other people have to cover that distance to get to you. You have to be someone they would target. I’m sure there are a number of steps.

I don’t have to go through any steps at all to hurt my life. I’m right here in me, ready to throw myself under the bus. So what if I waste my time fantasizing about the evils of other people? What do I care about them? They hurt people. They deserve to be hurt, too.

Wait a minute, fantasy, lack of empathy, something here seems familiar. Fortunately once you realize your greatest enemy is in the mirror, you can do something about what you see.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Personal revelation

I like days when I learn something. Today I learned something by googling “personal revelation”. I expected to see a list of sites dominated by evangelicals warning how straying from the Bible turns everyone into Jim Jones and David Koresh, as I’ve heard on Christian radio and occasionally in person for years. Maybe there would be a few New Age sites trying to justify whatever wacko revelations someone has had there.

That’s not the list that came up. First off in the real list was a very serious Mormon teaching about obtaining personal revelation. It quotes Joseph Smith as writing, “No man is a minister of Jesus Christ without being a Prophet. No man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has a testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy.” Hmmm, that’s like what Paul wrote in Romans 8:9, a statement that so many Christians ignore in favor of statements that make salvation less demanding.

It’s too bad Joseph Smith was nuts. I’m sure Paul was nuts, too, though that’s harder to document. If it’s not apparent from men like that, the article on personal revelation in Wikipedia gives more examples, at least some of whom anyone would think are nuts. Many religions started this way, if not all of them.

I would shrug my shoulders at all this except for my own spiritual experiences. They’re nuts, too, of course. Most people would say so. I’ve written about those experiences before here, about my road-to-Damascus experience almost 18 years ago and lesser appreciations of the presence of God ever since, in recent years continuously. They’re surely nuts. Certain neuroscientists even speculate what sort of disturbance in the brain causes one to experience God, whether that’s a projection, a misinterpretation of oneself, or a signal that there’s something important going on when our ordinary sensations show nothing of importance. Yes, get back to me on that when you have any physiological data at all to go with speculation that invalidates such a large chunk of human history, something more than a patient who experiences God after a seizure.

I have plenty of reasons never to have said anything about experiencing God. Yet I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, and maybe it was inevitable that eventually I would just give up and write openly about His constant presence as I have lately. I don’t know how many times God interrupted something I was writing, as I was writing, and said something, before I said, “Fine, I’ll put down that You just now corrected what I just wrote. Does that make You happy?” As a matter of fact it did.

I’ve longed to do well describing an experience even as simple as that, where the presence of God asserts itself after being quiet for a couple of pages of words I’ve written, to say these last words I wrote are wrong. I can describe the sensation of hearing God’s words, knowing that’s His voice, not mine. I can try to explain that it’s not just words, but feeling His presence, both tactilely and as something filling up part of my personal space. Where it really gets hard is that I know this presence. We’ve been round and round for 18 years, working out that He’s God, and I’m not, at least in the simplest way of seeing that. I think that’s the truly deficient part of describing this. I know this is God. No one else does.

I can imagine the circumstances that allowed other people in history to pass their own revelations on to others. Arabs needed a leader when Mohammed had his experiences of Gabriel teaching him the Quran. Jews and Christians have had their needs, too. So have others. So the hopper of religious beliefs is so full, it’s hard to believe I couldn’t find something in there that works for me. Yet I couldn’t. I am still a liberal Christian, but those Bible-believing Christians who deny that I am a Christian do have a point.

Some would say that's why I created my own God. If atheists are right about everything, then I suppose that’s what I did, but I certainly didn’t set out to do that. I surely would have had certain features of God be different if it were my choice and definitely have Him or Her just tell me one straight story that covers everything instead of all these bits and pieces I get from living in the Spirit and having the Spirit live in me. People fight so strenuously over whose truth is correct, from atheism to a just-so story like evangelical Christianity to something with a lot unknown, yet human beings are in no position to know the ultimate truth about anything, unless some spirit that knows tells us. Right now, God tells me something He has told me before, that no one knows the ultimate truth, even Him, unless there’s some Most High God He doesn’t know who hasn’t told Him. So why are people so arrogant about what they think?

I know, it is human nature to be arrogant in spite of our ignorance. So that includes me, right? I agree with that. God doesn’t. He’s right here. Ask Him if you don’t believe me.

I’ve been trying to pass this off to Him for years, telling anyone I speak to about this that the main reason I share any of this is to encourage others to seek God directly. I don’t want anyone to waste time having to learn that all religions are indeed false, and only God matters. I know people have to waste some time learning that, but I would like to make it less.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have any success in that. So I have another reason why I write about this. I’m compelled to. Something in me has to be expressed, or it just sits in me as a lump. Is it like delivering a baby? Is it like eliminating waste? If describing the presence of God is not as involuntary as those processes, it is almost as compelling.

Almost as compelling might be the part where I say anyone can experience God like this. I’m sure part of that is my egalitarian liberalism. Part of it is because I’m not about to have followers, so the only way anyone can experience what I have, or even part of it, is to approach God. Maybe the biggest part goes back to God being God, not me. He’s the one who is trustworthy, not me. So explore God yourself.

That’s what I’ve always said. Yet my appreciation that this is a lie has grown. I don’t want to claim a special relationship with God, because I know how crazy that is as much as anyone does. People who insult me by saying that I’m just talking about an imaginary friend named God have no idea how well I know that perspective that this is all nuts or that during the entire 18 years that I’ve watched the presence of God evolve around me and in me, first with a bang, then in subtle ways, I’ve known how nuts it is. I’ve been professionally trained to know it’s nuts. Yet I watch and fight with the experience until the experience shows me that it’s just not natural. It’s not me. It’s God, whoever and whatever God is. This is God, the same God everyone has ever experienced, only I experience Him with the benefit of what I know, and we evolve together. God does change. He and She both say so.

I don’t suppose everyone can experience that, despite that sometimes my words say they can. Even people who hear from God, it’s more from them than from God. I don’t know what that means. God tries to tell me, and quite frankly, I’m not going to repeat what God says on this point. It’s been said by others in other ways. It’s not important for people to understand better, except people could back off from making so much of their lives about following religion or resisting religion. It’s God that matters, not religion. I don’t know how to tell people that more than I have.

It’s not a revelation. It’s a relationship with God. It’s not an idea. It’s a way to live. It’ a way to live that even after thousands of years of hearing about it people don’t understand. People want rules they can follow. People want to be in charge of their lives, to be free apart from whatever rules they have to keep out of trouble. Yet we are connected to things larger than us by biology, culture and Spirit. We cannot be free of that. The conflicts between our desires and reality will be worked out eventually. My confidence in that is both through reason and revelation. It’s a powerful thing when those agree.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Preaching to the choir

I was over at the Daily Kos this afternoon. Among those railing against war and corporations was someone who had put in a lot of work on a presentation about why she opposes the death penalty. It referenced cases. It had tables. It was a lot of work. Eventually I got past that observation to get to another one - this is preaching to the choir! No one supporting the death penalty is reading this.

In fact opinions about the death penalty are well researched. There are studies going back to at least 1990 (Justice Quarterly 7:175, 1990) saying that if you sit down a proponent of the death penalty and hit him or her with all the data saying their reasons are no good, such as data saying there is no deterrence from the death penalty, it doesn't change anyone's mind. They just shift to some other reason. People speak of their support for the death penalty in terms of reasons, just as with almost any other opinion, but underneath their reasons is whatever sense of justice or vengeance or conformity or whatever else that is the real basis for their opinion. So is the real basis for many opinions hidden.

Now I thought about saying some of this in response to this piece this afternoon, but then I couldn't see any good it would do. I've been seeing this throughout the 8 years I've been online, and it never has helped to point this out. Lots of people preach to the choir. All sorts of religious arguments are preached that way, conservative, liberal, atheist, with all sorts of subdivisions within those that argue in a way that only those who already agree with that person will agree this time. All sorts of political sites fulfill the same purpose. Like the Daily Kos they are easily ruffled by people who see an issue differently, even by seeing different means to the same ends.

Somehow it didn't used to dawn on me the way it does now. People want to preach to the choir. They want to make their case with no understanding why other people don't see it that way. They want to just pile up words and sometimes numbers and graphs, as if those who believe otherwise will just capitulate to that. Sometimes two people with opposite views will both be preaching to the choir, in the process talking past each other, swapping argument for argument, but with no understanding and no synthesis. I used to just see this as combativeness, but maybe this is how much people want to preach to the choir. They'll even preach to the choir when some other person is not part of their choir.

This is nothing new. Christians have been evangelizing this way for a long time. Some taylor a message to their listeners, but some don't.

I have to think that someday those who are big on arguments will figure out the pointlessness of them. Creationists will understand eventually they'll never dent evolution, won't they? Political extremists from both sides will notice the country isn't flocking to them, won't they? Maybe the only way a lifetime of opinions stops is when someone dies. I'm familiar with that phenomenon already.

I'm sure there's a lot to say about that. For me it suffices to know that people want to preach to the choir, people throughout the political or religious spectrum, even any other sort of people I suppose. I've seen it again and again, and no one thanks me if I point that out to them. I don't point it out to them just to be smart. Preaching to the choir isn't the best preaching, unless someone joins the choir. Even then, it's wasting a lot of time. It's not that I want to keep anyone from wasting time. I want people who agree with me to be effective. There's nothing I can do about that. For anyone who reads this, there are millions who are too busy preaching to the choir.

It's what people want to do. Who am I to stand in their way?

I've already been drifting toward the idea that cultural evolution has a mind of its own, that people don't know what they're doing enough to change society. This is another point about that. All these websites that fight with trolls and think the answer is to get rid of conflicts so everyone can write and read in peace become temples to conformity, like churches and other institutions have been. It's not just conservatives. It's not just the religious. Conformity is everywhere, unless you choose to walk away from it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I wish I could do whatever I want to do, eat whatever I want to eat, and still be healthy. Biology says no.

I wish I could write out half a page of words that would be efficient, convincing and pleasing to read so that no one in the world need waste their time with counterproductive thoughts and actions any more. Culture says no. People have too much junk in their minds to be replaced so easily. New words image are not so easily formed. People’s attention is not easily seized, not productively anyway.

I notice that other things I desire and can’t have don’t seem so oppressive. It would be nice to fly like Superman, but I never feel a moment’s frustration about that. Do I understand it better when physics says no? I doubt that’s it. I think the difference is in my desire, not in what limits my desire.

Why do I desire anything? It’s one of those fundamental truths that behavioral scientists rarely bother with. If we didn’t desire safety, food, sex and such things, there wouldn’t be life to live through and study. So there must be such desires in us somewhere. Where? Oh, how about the hypothalamus where at least some thermostats and chemostats reside in us? Maybe it’s some set point like these that pulls us toward it for any desire we feel.

OK, so there’s some set point for freedom of action, I guess. And there’s some set point that as I look around wants everyone I see to be happy, maybe just so I can be happy, maybe something selfless. Only such set points haven’t been as successful as the ones that just kept the species going. They’re not as adapted to reality as my breathing is to the Earth’s atmosphere.

So evolution will take care of it, right? If not biological evolution, there’s cultural evolution. If not cultural evolution, maybe there’s such a thing as spiritual evolution. Of course, that may be a long time to wait, but maybe not at this time. In 2006 cultural evolution has caused there to be a revolution in genetics and biochemistry that can help bypass how slowly biological evolution adapts. It may not happen in my lifetime, but soon there will be treatments that will let people eat whatever they want and not digest it, more acceptably than when Romans threw up their food, or treatments that will reduce our hunger to a healthier level, better than amphetamines do. I think I’d take the latter treatment, if they both work. It would at least save on the cost of food.

The prospects of an exercise pill are not so clear, but I’m sure technology will help something with that, with monitoring how much exercise is enough, with preventing boredom in the process. Cultural evolution hasn’t always complemented biology. Sometimes it has made our biological cruelty and destructiveness worse, but it has promise.

What about the limits of cultural evolution, though? Like biology, culture only adapts as fast as it can. Biology has to wait for useful mutations to happen along and to be selected for through a number of life cycles. Culture has to use ideas and techniques that have found a place in the current culture. It’s been 10,000 years, and we’re still trying to figure out how to live with each other when there’s wealth to be had, first from agricultural surplus, now from all kinds of poorly distributed surpluses. Oh, another 10,000 years, and it will all work out, right?

Remember the movie Back to the Future? When Marty first comes to Doc Brown’s door in 1955, Doc is wearing a mind-reading machine. It fails miserably to help Doc know what Marty wants. So Doc asks Marty, “Do you know what this means?” and answers his own question, “It means that this damn thing doesn’t work at all!” Few elements of culture don’t work at all, but so many don’t do what it’s claimed they do. From traditional religion to atheism to all sorts of liberal religion, I just wanted something that fit my life, and none of them work. I would say they don’t work at all, but that would be typical human exaggeration. They work some for people who need an answer instead of uncertainty, who need fellowship and don’t mind if that fellowship requires lies or other dishonest conformity.

Around the world, many people who fight or threaten to fight do so for nothing. The real Allah does not bless them for trying to retake Jerusalem. The powerful weapons people develop for their governments will benefit no one. So many religious rituals, doctrines and leaders are nothing more than idols. Many of my fellow liberals would be kinder and say it all has meaning, but I believe just the opposite. There is very little meaning in most of religion, just the barest shreds of truth that there is something greater than any one of us, even greater than what we can conceive.

All religion is part of cultural evolution, but almost all of it is a dead end. Seeing that is part of cultural evolution, too, a backlash, one not strong enough to undo the tribal forces that brought about so many religions and cause religions to still be used to further themselves, even in the US, even in post-modern Europe, even among atheists who reassure each other that atheism is the only way that makes sense.

It was pondering how “this damn thing doesn’t work at all” that I found God 17 years ago. There’s no way to advance any wisdom from that effectively. There’s no way to make it easier for someone else. The culture doesn’t allow it any more than biology or culture allow me to do whatever I feel like. I wish God were just the opposite of such limitations, but while I find no barrier between God and me about what we both want, there is a considerable barrier to communication. Maybe it’s just biology. Maybe it’s more than that. I hear from God in words, but not as long narratives or images as in the Bible or the Quran. The process has convinced me that God is nothing like the omnipotence and omniscience of tradition. He is merely God, whoever and whatever God is, a nonphysical helper whom I encountered in praying for God’s help. His is the direction, strength and comfort that I have come to appreciate is available to anyone who asks, but few actually ask. Many believe they already have the help they need from their theology, and never wait for confirmation from God that such theology is true, if they even ask God about that.

I’ve yet to find words to get across the essence of what I would say about the cultures of our world. All religions are false in some respect, including atheism. There is a way that I can’t reproduce with words, because it consists of being led by the one true God, living in the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to live within me. Paul described the same way, but the church that venerates Paul doesn’t teach people to live by those words. The church cannot live in the Spirit, only human beings can, and then they carry the baggage of their culture with them, as Paul did, stuck with a culture that believed everything was either clean or unclean, either redeemed or judged.

There is spiritual evolution. Any one person can feel that changing him or her, but what happens within just one person does nothing to the culture. Must culture be changed or does the Spirit pop up in another person that much stronger for having lived in another? God tells me that not only is it the latter, but that the Spirit grows even beyond Her time in individual humans. Traditionalists don’t believe in spiritual imperfection or change, but there is no way to make sense of this world without them. The limitations aren’t just in us.

There are some things I want to do that I will never do. I make my own routines so I can live as best I can despite that. When I need to try my hardest to keep my weight down, I record the fats, carbs, fiber and proteins of everything I eat, and know what limits I have to stick to, even if my body wants more.

There are only so many hours in a day that I can try to say some different than I already have. It may only be useful for self-expression. Our culture is so much against the real God. Then again so is biology and maybe spirituality, too. It takes determination to pray, “God help me!” and discern a response that doesn’t just come from within me. I gave up on everything else. It may have been like Menelaus holding Proteus by the throat for a while, despite whatever form the god took, until God surrendered.

Numbers in my computer overcome biology well enough for me, but I can’t do that with culture on my own. With culture I can speak with God anytime I turn my attention to Him. No one believes it, but that’s what I do. God has told me for years that anyone can do the same if they wish. It takes a commitment and a willingness to hear Him and not the fantasies that New Agers or evangelicals publish as words coming from God. It wasn’t easy. It meant realizing how much I still wanted God to be like the God of the Bible, when He is not. It’s meant learning to let God be who and what He is, not what would sell books. It’s frustrating, but there’s one part that I know is as trustworthy as the numbers on my computer are for my diet. If I close my eyes, He comes. If I need direction, strength, or comfort, that’s what I get. God loves me, and I love God. If no one else wants to do what I’ve done, if it’s too crazy or time-consuming for someone else, they won’t get past the culture that says God is beyond knowing. They won’t get past the culture or the biology that says that what someone else says can’t be trusted. It can’t, of course, yet we have to trust someone. I trust God. It works for me.

I’m left uncertain what my limitations really are. They are certainly physics, biology, culture, but what else? And how many ways around them are there? For that one can only explore.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's my birthday!

I found a picture that says how life has changed in my lifetime as well as any one thing does.

It’s easy to think of the entire 20th century as continuous with the 21st for as long as I can picture the new century. People remain the same biologically, so far, which is important not only physically but behaviorally. I suppose most houses built in 1954 remain occupied. There were cars in 1954. I heard as a child we had a black 1955 Chevrolet with red wheels when I was born. There are cars now. They’re better now. They’re air conditioned, form-fitted, personally musical, computer managed with accessories activated by a pushbutton instead of muscles. There are interstate highways to drive them on. So road trips are longer and faster with fewer stops, but not all that much different. Still can you imagine driving between LA and San Diego all the way on the Pacific Coast Highway, a two-lane road with stop signs?

Other things are like night and day. The n-word has become the word most likely to destroy a career or an excuse to set O.J. Simpson free instead of being an everyday label. Many used it to describe Elvis Presley’s music in 1954. White folks were supposed to use more disciplined rhythms, ones less likely to stir the blood. Somehow babies were made anyway.

Race in society has changed like night and day, despite those who still see racism everywhere. If it is still everywhere, it’s different than it was.

Sex as recreation was more secret in 1954 than today. USC cheerleaders kept the sexual imagery of their sweaters as cheerleaders were transformed into the hip thrusting sex fantasies of today, but much is different. There actually were cheerleaders leading cheers at a football game in the fifties instead of dancing girls on the field and honey shots on TV. Part of me says that’s progress.

It’s not that sexual repression dominated the past and easing of that repression has only happened recently. Flappers in the twenties didn’t hide their legs. Prostitution has always worked about the same way, no matter how many images or how few a society provided a man to whet his appetite. Sex was not discovered in the sixties to accompany drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, even if oral contraceptives made sex a little more carefree. Sex will not go away unless we manage to become much more totalitarian than we ever have before.

Yet I look at the picture above and know that something has changed forever during my lifetime, more than just my knowledge of life. Black and white photos and movies were the height of technology in the fifties. Now one can fake life in still images or animation and only someone who knows life well can tell the images are faked either in form or meaning or both. I can write something in my study, and my words are suddenly available not only to those I would send them to deliberately, but anyone else who stumbles on them. It’s information overload for some. It’s a business opportunity for spamming scum or more responsible advertisers. But those are not the important developments.

No one buys a car without air-conditioning now the way they did in the fifties. One can drive without it, but why choose that when it’s almost free? When it comes to choosing for one’s entire life, the choice is not as simple, but the idea is the same. What’s available? What’s the benefit? What’s the cost? The number of ways to answer those questions has exploded. At one time, the most important way to be would have been to do the same thing that everyone I know does. I suppose the fifties were still like that. It’s not the only option now. Now my life is full of possibilities, everywhere I go, because everywhere I go I carry an information revolution with me, partly in my mind, partly in my microchips.

It’s no accident that some people look to ancient ideas about religion, whether conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims or liberals repackaging eastern religions as intellectual or New Age, and see perfection. People want perfection, not the murky world of the information revolution, filled with possibilities, good and bad. It’s like wanting the simplicity of a car without air-conditioning. It works, right? This new world of possibilities is a lot more than air-conditioning. How can that work?

It works because the Earth continues to go around the sun, because life is resilient, and because if there is God, He is even more resilient. He is also unlikely to be captured by visions of our world thousands of years old.

There is no resistance in me to the idea that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what anyone says about Him. I look at how most people insist they are right in their beliefs, political or religious, conservative, liberal or atheist, and know that time will prove them wrong, in their lifetime or later. Our past was not so special as to be the only way to live. Everyone who thinks it was will die. And if there is an afterlife, they will find it is much different than they predicted. Then what?

Few think about that. Most people seem content in their beliefs. It’s not reasonable. It’s rational that their beliefs are the best that they can come up with in their own minds, but look at the world, both the internet and the real world it mirrors. Why should anyone have picked the one true way in all that? People believe in such miracles. We are big on fantasy. But because it is fantasy that an ancient belief is perfect, they will die in that belief and pay whatever consequences there are for that belief. People can ridicule the other guy all they want in that, but it is they themselves who are ridiculous.

I would not want to go back to the styles of 1954. At least part of me likes the dancing girls at football games today, even if another part of me wonders how this integrates with the rest of our society and its gender roles. I’m sure that will be worked out eventually. Today is a time of great transition in our world. There are many choices for our future, but I doubt we’re the ones making them. Our nature is what it is, genetic, cultural, and spiritual. It matters whether there is a God or no God. A lot of things matter. Such things shape our future. Most of us are just along for the ride.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stabbed in the back

It was either the late seventies or the eighties when I saw Barry Goldwater on TV. He was sitting on a stage with several other men. They were discussing Vietnam. I have a vivid memory of Goldwater saying, “We could have won that war.” I’m sure it’s such a strong memory because of my emotional reaction to that, having paid so much attention to things in the sixties and seventies, something like, “What, is he insane?”

I still read an occasional piece arguing as Goldwater did. They argue that if Lyndon Johnson had let the air war in the sixties proceed without restraints, maybe with invasion of North Vietnam, maybe even with the use of nuclear weapons as some advocated in the Korean War, we would have won. How do they know? All they really know is we could have been more aggressive. What would have been the cost? At what point would Chinese and Soviet forces have fought back just as freely?

In the end it was still up to local people to secure some part of the country as a regime friendly to us. Was it just because we didn’t kill more Vietnamese in the North that prevented that?

It’s hard to know what caution in Korea or Vietnam was justified, but we can know exactly what the immediate response would have been if US generals hadn’t been restrained in 1962 in Cuba. The Pentagon was set to invade Cuba until John Kennedy decided on blockade instead. Unknown to them, there were tactical nuclear weapons fully operational in Cuba. Our invasion would have been hit by nuclear weapons. Where would we have responded, just Cuba or the Soviet Union? Which American cities would have been destroyed in response to that?

We made it out of the Cold War without an exchange of nuclear weapons. We were lucky. Conservatives never mention that. They speak as if we could have done whatever we wanted, and everything would have turned out just fine. As lucky as we were, I wouldn’t bet on replaying the Cold War differently. But some think we should have won even more. Some think the only way they can lose is if someone stabbed them in the back, like Lyndon Johnson in mismanaging the war in Vietnam or the anti-war movement for forcing an end to it.

I’m sure that someday, after the greater mission in Iraq fails and our troops come home, someone will be saying, “We could have won that war.” I’m not the first one to realize that or to say it will be presented as true Americans being stabbed in the back. This same link brings up the greatest recent example of such propaganda, which was Germans blaming defeat in World War I on being stabbed in the back. This wasn’t just Nazi propaganda. Even Hindenburg said this was the case. Sometimes people forget about so much context behind how vicious the Nazis were to the Jews in the thirties. The Jews were as entrenched as among those who “stabbed us in the back” for World War I as Jane Fonda is for Vietnam. Conservatives are still auditioning who they are going to blame the most for stabbing us in the back for Iraq. I’m sure they’ll come to a consensus eventually.

The human need for scapegoats is very old. Nero needed a scapegoat for a disastrous fire he may or may not have been at fault for. The perception against Nero was there, whether true or not, so he made torches of Christians to emphasize they were the bad ones. How many believed that? It’s hard to say, but apparently Nero’s voice was the one that counted.

Today there are many voices. I would like to believe that no one again will be as fooled as Germans were in making scapegoats of Jews, but maybe I’m overly optimistic. I’ve always thought it was silly to compare George Bush with Hitler, but what if Mr. Bush’s lies were more effective? How bad could he be? His lies that Democrats are the enemy didn’t win him the last election. What if it had? What if conservative politicians or conservative Christians could do whatever they wanted to the rest of us? I expect whatever repression that would result wouldn’t change my life at this point, but where would that movement go? How would it be different than those throughout history who saw others as stabbing them in the back?

That’s not just about war. Bill O’Reilly thinks anyone who says, “Happy Holidays” has stabbed Christmas in the back. Traditional Christians say anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe has stabbed God in the back. Anti-abortionists see abortion as murder in part to express how abortion in the last 40 years has broken from the tradition of it being illegal. Abortion was legalized, but if you call it murder, you can say what a betrayal that is just that easily.

For anyone who believes the world is making progress, there’s someone who believes that tradition is being stabbed in the back, whether that’s Christianity or Islam, whether that’s about gender roles or about less passive attitudes toward prolonging death. I see the world as going through a great transition because of the Enlightenment and revolution in science and technology. It’s not just that some people want the world to be unchanged by this while others want everything changed. It’s that those who want their traditions are so determined that their ways are the only good ways, while progressives say that traditionalists are merely unenlightened. Both are simplistic, as human beings are naturally. If God indeed knows more than I do, then He certainly knows that such simplistic ideas are wrong.

Then on top of such strong feelings about whether change is good or bad comes something truly evil, like the Nazis, the evils of hatred, indifference toward others and lies. You can see that with or without the phrase, “stabbed in the back”. There’s so much clever rhetoric to supplement that. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio today calling the Iran Study Group the “Iraq Surrender Group”. Frank Gaffney used that insult a couple of days ago, before the report was public. Who has time to read a 160-page report? It’s much more effective to craft a short insult, because for many the only strategy to war is to do everything you can think of, for as long as possible. After all it’s not such propagandists who build a corps of volunteers to go and do the fighting. As long as you favor extreme measures, no one can accuse you of stabbing the troops in the back.

That’s not a rational choice to pretend to be the toughest guy on the block. That’s evil, evil that hates those with different beliefs, that is indifferent to the costs of being extreme, and lies that anyone has done a complete analysis that says the extreme way is the best way. I find it easiest to see this with rhetoric about war, but all of politics and religion is similar. People are people. I think culture will force us to adapt to a new world eventually. No one who actually fights wants to keep it up forever. But in the meantime there are so many people who insist they are right, so much so that if events go against them, someone must have stabbed them in the back. It’s evil. I can’t beat it, but I’m at least going to try to avoid being anyone’s human torch.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The unseen force that drives me and sustains my life

It is a challenge to see the world as ancient people saw it. It’s been a windy weekend in southern California. I was out watching the trees being blown by the wind when it dawned on me how differently I see this scene than someone must have seen it thousands of years ago.

I know what pushing the trees besides wind. It’s air – 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, some water vapor, with small amounts of many other molecules dissolved in the more plentiful gases. I don’t visualize little balls of gas knocking tree limbs aside, but I realize I know they are the culprit as I watch that limb, not anything mysterious. I can visualize the little balls if I need to focus more on them, but even without that, I know that’s what air is, and it’s nothing mysterious. It’s just too thin to be visible. It’s the same air I learned about in science classes. Some of it moves in convection currents. Some gets caught up in huge circular movements related to storms. I was never much of a meteorologist to explain every kind of wind, but I remember those maps of winds over the globe, different at different altitudes, with the prevailing winds over North America such that it’s quicker to fly from LA to New York than the other way around. For the same reason, weather systems in the US move from west to east.

Today the wind here is coming from the east. There’s a high over the Rockies to the north. There’s a storm in Mexico. The winds go counterclockwise around the storm and/or clockwise around the high, so here they are. Actually it’s a little north of due east. At one point on my walk today I realized the trees were being blown directly from the north, but there were hills to the west. I suppose the wind was being deflected.

I suppose some ancient people got out enough to understand how wind is deflected by mountains, but I bet it wasn’t many. Did ancient people see wind as a fluid bouncing off rock to turn into another direction? Did they care? Did it matter that much to them what the wind was doing except right where they were?

Ancient people reported wind. They knew wind from one direction might mean rain, but not a different direction. They didn’t always have maps to correlate that with where the nearest ocean was. They just had their experience. Their ships couldn’t fight the wind the way even sailing ships can fight it now. The wind was just this unseen force from God.

Now it’s not except for those who have a very traditional way of looking at things, who think God does what He wants, and meteorologists just happen to notice God’s unvarying pattern, which just happens to be perfectly explained by physics, even if weather is not completely predictable by knowing the physics that makes it work. Most people who look at the wind moving things now take the simple view that they are seeing something completely physical, as I do.

Simplicity wasn’t always that way. What is wind if you have no idea what air is? People always knew what air was good for. I’m sure every generation had plenty of people who explored holding their breath. People knew breathing air was essential. Water was no substitute for that, not for us. But why?

Why because we need air. There’s something of life in it. Smother us and we die. No one who’s dead needs to breathe. Something called a spirit needs to breathe and leaves us with our last breath. Otherwise the spirit would keep us alive. Even God has a Spirit, a life, something animate. So there is wind, and “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) Many plays on words were possible based on the Greek word “pneuma” meaning both “wind” and “spirit”, as did the Hebrew word “ruach”.

I read these words attributed to Jesus by the author of John, and I know they’re wrong. I’m not the best at describing where the wind comes from and where it goes, but some are very good at it and have accurate maps and predictions to prove it. Or am I being too literal?

It is strange. I suspect ancient people were very literal about the connection between spirit, wind, air, and life. They knew there was something beyond understanding in that, mysteries God alone understood. So it was beyond understanding to detail how a person was transformed by being reborn of the Spirit.

But now both wind and biological life are very well understood. The movement of air is much like the movement of water. Life needs oxygen to burn food. God needn’t do anything about that. If I hadn’t thought of how different knowledge is today from ancient times, I wouldn’t have thought of God in the wind at all today. I would think of God as I do everyday, as a nonphysical being that communicates with me, cares for me, and loves me. I do so because there’s been a long tradition of there being such a God, so I looked for Him, found Him, and live in Him to my benefit, maybe for His benefit as well. Yet I don’t see Him in the physical world at all. The physical world has so many mechanisms that can be known in incredible detail, and none of them care if I pray or that I love the God of my understanding.

Ancient people were ignorant of physics. Does that make it more likely or less likely that they were knowledgeable of the real God? Anyone can decide that for oneself. I might believe the latter as strongly as my fellow scientists who are atheists, seeing no reason to consider God as real at all, but God showed up for me when I started praying in my thirties. He was not wind. He was not indisputably in the physical world at all, but He was indisputably in my mind. How did He get there? What a softball question for anyone who wants to deny God or anyone who wants to insist that tradition has it right about God. In contrast to such people, God tells me He filled a need in me. I’ve gone with Him down a string of questions and answers like that. God assures me that He exists beyond me. He is even grateful that I don’t need to see Him in the wind or some other idol in order just to know that He exists. To pin God down to any form like that is to guarantee that you cannot know the full range of God or that it is far less than the idols of omnipotence, omniscience or other perfection that traditions try to force on God.

God is not a bad name for Him, coming from an Indo-European root meaning to invoke, as it does. Those who call on God and mean it do not inherit the wind. Someday all these ancient beliefs that people proudly proclaim will die. It might take 500 years. It might take more. Then it won’t be such an intriguing thing to wonder why people still believe them, why they believe God would punish this place with a hurricane, but not that place, so many problems with tradition like that. People probably won’t walk along in that very different future as I do knowing how there was once so much confusion between God and the wind.

God drives me, but from within, not through an atmospheric disturbance. God enhances my life, but not biologically. I don’t suppose there ever will be maps showing what God is up to. Traditional religion has failed to produce those. God tells me directly that His third greatest priority is that I be happy. The first two may be finished before 500 hundred years. Then maybe happiness will be the priority for everyone. I’m sure even human beings can tell the difference between that and the wind.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Continuity of dreams

In real life I haven’t seen a hundred dollar bill in years, but I saw one in my last dream. I had taken a taxi. All I had in my wallet was this worn, older style hundred, and the driver didn’t have change. But as fortune would have it, there was a Bank of America right there, and I could get 5 twenties for my hundred just like that. I was a little embarrassed that this meant just a dollar tip for the driver, but not all that embarrassed. He hadn’t done anything close to deserving a 21 dollar tip. That’s the breaks.

My dream self is not as clever as my waking self. Now that I’m awake, I know what I would have done in real life, where I’m always thinking ahead toward something like having the perfect change for a tip. I would have gotten different change at the bank to allow for a better tip. I didn’t think of that in my dream. Things just happen in dreamland, even if I’m the one doing them. There’s not much thought involved.

I suppose my dream self doesn’t have the extensive consciousness my waking self has in order to be so clever. I wonder if whole sections of my brain are walled off in REM sleep, cognitive areas no doubt, just as brainstem mechanisms paralyze our muscles during REM sleep to keep us out of trouble. Dreams might work best if we can’t question them as much as some of us do real life. I think I have to be close to waking up to say or think in a dream, “Wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be like this.”

That’s not my biggest neuroscientific observation from this dream, though. What impresses me even more is that I’ve seen that hundred dollar bill before, in a dream an earlier night. There is memory during dreams that I can’t fully access when I’m awake. I remember the part of the dream that’s fresh when I wake up. Before that it’s hazy, even though I can remember some. The dream itself remembers, however. This taxi dream started an earlier night, maybe over more nights than just these two. There were several stops in the trip, which I would guess went up the peninsula to San Francisco, all of which are obscured to me now. But I remember the hundred. It was an earlier night. The hundred in my wallet looked familiar in the dream I last had, where I had the explicit memory from an earlier night. Now I just remember that I remembered during the dream not having any other currency. It’s not the same memory during wakefulness. If there weren’t some overlap I wouldn’t remember my dreams at all, as many people don’t.

Others have written about the state of consciousness in dreams being different than wakefulness. Anyone who wants to explore that can look up what’s written under “state-dependent learning”. When that was the rage, people would have cassette tapes read to them at night hoping they would learn while they were asleep. It’s not that easy.

But there is a memory within dreams that is separate from wakefulness. Maybe if I could suddenly have the sensations of dreamland, the appropriate memories would return with those external cues, but I bet it’s more than that. Psychoanalysts were comfortable calling dreamland “the unconscious”, but I’m not. Where is the unconscious? In Freud’s day there was so much uncharted brain, one could stick the unconscious all sorts of places. That’s not true today. Maybe the unconscious exists as imagination exists, alongside the conscious brain, in parallel. All visions occur in the visual cortex, in theory, in greatest detail when there are sensations from the outside world supporting what we see, but also when we remember, imagine, or dream. When it comes to perception, memory and imagination, we do all of that at once while we’re awake. It’s how we make sense of what we see. Only dreaming is so different, where there is a world that is detailed far beyond our ability either to remember or to imagine. Does dreamland just lie dormant in our cerebral cortex, waiting for REM sleep to return? Is dreamland waiting with its separate memories, separate desires and separate physics?

Whatever the truth is, it’s silly to say that dreams are just a dumping of useless information. They are so much more structured than that, meaningful if only in the symbols that they stir up. My guess is that the parallel world of dreams is more than just giving symbols to our waking self. There are differences that puzzle me. God who has been my constant companion during wakefulness for years is not there in my dreams. He’s not needed. It’s always peaceful in my dreams. I’m never stuck as to what to do in my dreams. Maybe She doesn’t like me, as simple as I am in my dreams. Maybe God just doesn’t reach there. Maybe God is too big to fit there, cut off from everything outside as dreamland is.

There’s also very little sexuality in my dreams. In real life it always hits me viscerally how attractive the prettiest woman in the room is. In dreams that never occurs to me. Dreams are about reliving moments, like all these dreams I have that are nostalgic for medicine, though at the same time there are many strange symbols within them. Dreams are about going places and doing things, if not literally with this taxi ride, then cognitively, like the implications of universal salad dressing. That’s what I dream about. I suppose if I were a sexually repressed 19th-century woman in Vienna, it might be different, but it still wouldn’t be trivial.

Maybe dreams are just an escape from real life, with their own memory and own rules because the brain creates those things easily. Perhaps it’s the brain that holds dreamland and the real world separately, making dreams a playland where even God stays out, but not intentionally, just because the brain can. If it’s something else that is trying to communicate to me beyond what reaches me when I’m awake, I don’t get it. If the message is just live and notice the odd things, I’ve been doing that for some time.

Dreams are what they are. As with God, many people have strong opinions saying they know everything about it. Then where did my hundred dollar bill come from, and where did it go? If it was just flotsam pulled from my memory, why did it stay a while and not just float away?

In the 21st century, we can answer some questions with considerable detail and precision. For others, people just make up answers, as many do about dreams and God. In my real life, I’m very clever about telling the difference. In dreamland, I don’t need to be. Troublemakers don’t get into my dreams somehow, so I don’t need to be clever. I’m glad it’s not up to me to choose one over the other, but it is interesting to see the possibilities.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Universal salad dressing

I had another memorable dream last night. There was a case of industrial espionage at Kraft Foods. Someone stole research Kraft was doing on the perfect salad dressing – low fat, low carbs, great taste, great texture. My dream was about all these people involved after the event talking about the implications of the theft and what should be done. It was like the TV crime shows, but no technology was on display and no one went anywhere to interview anyone. It was just like one of these plays where people stand around and talk, not something that would get a big audience on the big screen or TV.

It’s amazing how novel these dream people are, while at the same time conforming to every expectation I would have of such a scene on TV. Almost all of them are inventions of wherever dreams come from – brain/mind/wherever my extended consciousness reaches at night/whatever reaches into me. Occasionally recognizable celebrities or people I know from real life show up in my dreams, but mostly dream people are unique to whatever dream they populate, yet with unsurprising features. They don’t distract from the themes of the dream either by being strange or by being too familiar. They’re perfectly cast in their roles. Who does this?

It’s not hard for me to recognize themes in my dreams. This certainly is a time to dream about food. Crime shows are the rage. People talking are always the rage. Most intriguing to me is this theme of universality. It’s not just regarding strife at the dinner table with someone liking one food and hating another. It’s about all strife, and the perfect world to end all strife.

That won’t start with salad dressing, but it’s a symbol, you know. I know it is with me. I was not big on diversity as a kid. I was for unity, unity to fix my fractured family, unity to let me fit in with the other kids despite how different I was from them, unity like Malcolm X said Islam promised for him and me. I suppose Malcolm didn’t understand to whom he was talking on that one, nor was that his first mistake about which religion was best, but just because Islam isn’t the perfect religion doesn’t negate the attraction of whatever universal is the perfect religion.

Even as a kid I knew my attraction to there being one way to anything, one truth, one right way, was that then there would be a way for me. So I could imagine one politics and one religion in a utopian way instead of how totalitarian movements actually turn out. In real life, when someone says there’s one way, it’s always the wrong way. I suppose as a kid I hoped to find an exception to that, but I never have.

In all the politics, religions and ways to live I’ve seen, there is none I would follow exactly. There is a God I follow, one that Jesus led me to, but not in the same way as most who call themselves Christian. I’ve wondered about the fundamental truth of this. Is there one God for the universe? Are there many right ways to see that God or just many ways to see Him incorrectly, some worse than others? Perhaps there’s a different God for everyone, a testimony to our individual journeys leaving footprints on some generic Spirit.

In recent years, I quickly get an answer to such wondering. God says to me that while spirituality is a cooperative effort between individuals and Spirit, there is one universe and one God, like it or not. As with visions I’ve described before, the universe God means is much more than the 4-dimensional physical one we see either directly or through machines. The same God who helps me with the most mundane things exists far beyond everything I know, and I know a lot. God says so.

That’s where my dream went, from talk of universal salad dressing that would work for everyone to thoughts of greater universal things. My dreams are always so peaceful on these points while the world is so contentious. God tells me He can’t fix this. People will give up when they feel like it, when the Rapture never comes, when the Messiah never comes, when the 12th Iman never emerges, when the perfect religion finally becomes popular. I think it’s perfect to say that God is whoever and whatever God is, not who people say He is or isn’t, but there’s no enthusiasm for that beyond my attraction to that phrase.

People want power, more power than they can get in an individual life. They will settle for knowledge, love and goodness. Maybe they just want their own salad dressing, but I suspect it’s worse than that. People really believe in their opinions. I understand how often it’s a matter that everyone they trust believes as they do. Nothing inventive will change such people.

People need something real. They will settle for rituals and other things that pretend to be real, but will die when the last believer in them dies. The power that the real God gives is much weaker than what people have fantasized and requires a much longer time to master. So it is for God’s knowledge, love and goodness as well. But God’s things endure while fantasy dies with us. I guess that in 500 years we will understand this better. A better salad dressing will come sooner than that. Foods that counter the obesity epidemic will come. Technology and invention will fix the weaknesses that technology and invention unmasked about our nature.

There is one God, not someone who created a perfect world except for some rebellion, but someone who tells me that He is not the creator at all. He is the Helper, the one who can fill that God-shaped void in our brain with the power, knowledge, love and goodness it craves, but we also can fill it with all kinds of junk if we don’t care to wait for Him.

That is the universality I know works compared to all these that don’t. I remembered this much by the end of my dream, but everyone else was still doing what they do in real life. They stand around and talk. Then I woke up.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Lies are the worst

George Will wrote a column about Pilgrims this week. In it he accepts the conclusions of an English author Godfrey Hodgson that there was no turkey at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. An article by an actual reporter was not as gullible, instead reviewing the back and forth of where such “debunking” came from.

Some look at the only two primary sources about this feast in 1621 and see plenty of evidence for turkeys. In his letter of December 11, 1621, Edward Winslow described hunting fowl for the feast. In his later memoir, Of Plimouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford writes of the great store of wild turkeys. Hodgson, among other “debunkers”, read the latter as not specifically linking turkeys to the feast with the Indians, while the former doesn’t say “turkey”, so of course, it can only mean ducks and geese.

On such wishful thinking people declare much about Thanksgiving to be a myth. Some put it absolutely that nothing but myth connects 1621 with modern celebrations of Thanksgiving. At the same time Texas nationalists proclaim the actual first Thanksgiving to have occurred in May, 1541 in the Texas panhandle, as Coronado found food along the way of his failure to find fortune in the Rocky Mountains and Plains. What a strange definition of “Thanksgiving” it takes to proclaim that.

People are that strange. I regularly write about the lies that fill politics, religion and life in general, so I have sympathy for debunking, yet so often debunking is just more lies, either out of carelessness or maliciousness. Those who proclaim loyalty only to the TRUTH are liable to launch into foolishness about how evolution is just an atheistic conspiracy or about whoever disagrees with them is wrong. It’s not about TRUTH. It’s about opinions dishonestly presented as reliable. It’s about lies.

I can’t prove absolutely that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving any more than I can prove there is a God, but to dismiss everything over the years that points to either one as mere myth is certainly a lie. People want the truth to be what they want it to be, whether that’s no God or God being what one’s church says God is. Yet God is neither of those. God is whoever and whatever God is. So is history. So is reality. It’s a challenge for people to face that.

Hatred is not purely evil. Our anger can be protective. It can give us determination. Indifference is likewise not always evil. It might be best for something or someone to work out their problems without me sometimes. I don’t find a silver lining like that for lies. I want to say what I have to say without having to fit it to whatever lies have gone before. That’s one reason to embrace the truth. But I can’t embrace the truth by telling more lies, just substituting my lies for popular lies.

It’s so easy in science. Scientists tell lies all the time, even social scientists about Thanksgiving, but the way to undo that is clear. What is the claim? What is the data? How good is the data? Why conflict of interest might be skewing the process? It works. It doesn’t necessarily work at any one time by majority vote, but the lies will die off if the evidence shows the opposite.

I have great hope from my experience in science. It may not matter in the long run that people are such naturally born liars. For now, though, our culture is full of lies alongside what’s true. I don’t think anything is as oppressive as that.

Two things were obstacles to my becoming Christian in my twenties. One was that creationists said such silly things about science. The other was the problem of evil. Why does God allow all this hatred, indifference and falseness? I became convinced God isn’t responsible for any of that. He knows the truth of science. He didn’t create these evils of human nature. We choose them everyday. Some call that a lie, proof supposedly that there can be no concept of God that works.

It can be a subtle thing which is the lie and which is the truth. Encountering a God who always tells the truth makes that easier. The thing is I might have to admit my mistake in hearing God in a certain way. Words are ambiguous. Even concepts are. That makes liars of us all, as is our nature, but there is something bigger than that nature. That’s where so much of religion seems stuck now to me. People won’t give up their flawed ideas about God to reach for a better God, a real God. Atheists are dead set against that as a solution to their objections. Traditionalists deny any problem. Everyone lies about it. That’s where we are.

Thank God for biology that drives us forward as a species whether we know what we’re doing or not. Thank God for cultural evolution that comes up with things like the scientific method because they work. Someday we will be pulled out of the muck of our own nature. In the meantime we will lie left and right and for what? For our petty partisanships and for our egos. They will all die with us.

What lives is harder to see, but it is what God is made of.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The answer to "God help me!"

It’s hard for me to tell if people have learned much from pieces I’ve written since I went online in 1998. I have learned things. Sometimes I stumbled into phrases and metaphors that give me a much better handle on expressing what I know, and having a better handle helps not only express what I already appreciated, but also helps take ideas farther than I could before.

When I first started writing about my spiritual experiences, I doubt that I had a succinct definition for “God”. Like many liberals I paid more attention to “God is love” than God as Creator, but I’m sure neither of those simplicities captured the essence of God for me. Then at some point there came this idea that did do that. I like a definition that God is the answer that I get when I pray, “God help me!”

For me that definition is much more concrete than most definitions of God, even God as creator. The universe is massive. There are many different aspects to creation, from the overall structure of the universe to all the little details. What can I know about God from that, especially when science tells me that if God is the Creator, He is outside all the things explained perfectly well by science? But that God helps me when I ask is almost tangible. It isn’t to those who don’t perceive an answer to their prayers. It depends what prayers someone prays. One can pray for the protection of a family member. If nothing happens, was that God or the natural course of things? It’s similar for praying for someone’s healing in most cases. It can be hard to tell that God did anything.

But the definition I like isn’t about just any prayer. It’s a helpless prayer. It’s a nonspecific prayer. It’s a prayer where I don’t even know what to ask for, regardless of the exact words that come to me to express that. And God answers such a prayer. How many people know that? I don’t know. How many people ever pray such a prayer? How many people wait for God to do something in response? How many people are ready to say that it was God who responded, not circumstances that would have happened anyway?

I’m sure some people shy away from this approach because they see no proof that anything that follows a prayer is from God. Of course there’s no proof. If there were proof, everyone would find the real God and not the contradictory, distant, oversimplified being that traditions force on people. I have never found proof of God in theological and philosophical claims of ways to prove God. I found God as a presence that built up as my prayer life evolved, not in the response to one prayer, but in a pattern, a pattern in which I asked for direction, strength and comfort from God, and got direction, strength and comfort.

I admit that when I started hearing from God in words it was easier to look back and say, “Yes, this is the same God I’ve always known, the Helper, the God who is love, though not the indiscriminating love some of my fellow liberals believe in.” God would guide me through looking at that. Yet to define God as a voice in me that says, “I am God” is not right. I wouldn’t trust such a voice if He hadn’t already proven Himself as the answer to my prayer.

If I pray prayers like, “God help me!” repeatedly and only hear from the same demon over and over again, then what hope is there? What sort of universe would make that a reality, even just for me? A universe where I’ve already lost, that’s what sort. It’s not worth worrying about beyond that.

Is that what people worry about in defining God in terms of personal experience, that it might be wrong? What if it’s right? How extraordinarily liberating would that be? And people don’t worry about defining God in abstract terms that don’t necessarily connect to reality at all, but create a straightjacket for us? How puzzling.

As with all of religion, I think the biggest problem is that people don’t question tradition enough. Traditional Christians accept their traditional view of God. Traditional Muslims accept the Muslim view. Those who see God as existing in everything and everyone draw from Eastern religion and recent New Age traditions to feel secure in their beliefs. What a house of cards, all of them.

God is whoever and whatever God is, another phrase I stumbled on to express a problem with so many religions. Anyone who says he or she knows exactly who God is lies, whether that belief is by revelation, by reasoning or by intuition. So says God to me. No one can prove otherwise. Anyone can believe otherwise, for all sorts of reasons. So how are those beliefs working for you?

I suspect most people would say their beliefs are working just fine for them, or they would change their beliefs. Yet an outsider can see what someone’s beliefs cost them, how what someone thinks is a meaningful ritual or valuable idea is just a waste of time. God can see how many lives are wasted in false faith. Someday what is true will emerge from the discontent with what is false. It’s not easy. It’s much easier for human beings to reject one thing and embrace its opposite, as atheists do. It’s easier to go from one false belief to a different false belief than to find the one belief that’s true. Many of my fellow liberals hate that idea, preferring that there is no truth, so everyone can be equal. That’s not my experience.

God is the answer to, “God help me!” I believe that’s true, but I know that more fundamental is that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what someone says He is.

People don’t jump on that bandwagon. Is that because I haven’t explained it well enough? Are people not ready? Is that because they are so comfortable in their currents beliefs or lack thereof? Is that because people are too comfortable in their lives to ask for God’s help, the real God, not the fantasy that fixes anything by going poof?

To any such questions, God tells me the answer doesn’t matter. God is available to whoever asks. He knows His threshold for helping someone. It’s not the same for everyone. Different people have different needs. Those who think their traditions substitute for the real God may be beyond doing anything with them in this life. It’s not as though God communicates with us so easily that He can do anything about that anyway. I don’t know what God’s limits are. I don’t think He knows either. God has no mirror. But it’s quite clear He could do more for us. We would have to let Him. There are many reasons why we don’t. But anyone who wants to see what happens when he or she sincerely prays, “God help me!” can get a handle on the real God. They don’t need to know anything I think about that. So I can let go. Biological, cultural, and spiritual evolution will change what I can’t change, and I can just pay attention to the answer I received.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ridculing others about sexuality

This weekend I’ve run into a couple of perspectives about one group judging another over different approaches to sex. One is in an interview with Mike Jones, the male prostitute who blew the whistle on Ted Haggard’s hypocrisy. Mr. Jones is surprised to have received only silence from gay rights groups. Apparently gay pride doesn’t extend to whores. It is hard to judge silence, of course, but Mr. Jones contrasts the silence to the multiple thanks he’s gotten from members of Mr. Haggard’s congregation for forcing Mr. Haggard to get the help he needs.

There is a quite verbal judgment of others on display at Feministing, where a link led me to see a sexual purity ball:

I thought about adding my comment to all those calling this incestuous, psychologically damaging, and so forth, but I suppose that would be pointless. I've never had good luck telling anyone that their ridicule of something is off base. Still I wish there were a way to let people who are so resentful about fathers standing in for God to let go of that anger. Teachers are in loco parentis. Someone has to stand in for God the same way. Parents are the obvious choice, and many cultures have chosen the father as the more obvious of the two parents. When girls pledge their sexual purity to their father, they are not promising incest with their father until they marry someone else. They are making a pledge of abstinence, one that they would make to God if God had a visual presence. I'm sure a pledge to their mothers would work equally as well, except mothers don't stand in for God in conservative religion. How vicious to call it incest.

At the same time I know of no study saying there is more psychopathology in girls who have given a pledge to sexual purity. Puberty is a tough time for everyone. Who knows what the best way is?

I've argued before with conservatives who said God's plan for everyone is no sex before marriage. Biology certainly didn't listen if God ever said that. Beyond that I have my own experience to say that God's plan may be more flexible. Circumstances were such that there was no chance for me to remain a virgin for very long when I started college in 1971. There were co-ed dorms. There were movies where everyone had sex on the screen, so why not later among the audience? There were drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Of course there was sex, too.

So I learned in college that I’m the kind of person who gets very attached to any woman I have sex with. To lose her is like having an arm ripped out. Some would call that immaturity or even pathology, yet it never went away. I’ve loved every woman I ever had sex with, even though maybe 70% of them proved they weren’t for me eventually. When I was in medical school, I even loved a woman I dated for a while who didn’t feel ready for sex again after the last time led to an abortion. I would go back in time and try again with her, not for sex, but for love.

I learned more about love before marriage because sex was so prevalent in the seventies. Was it helpful? Or would I have learned that just as well after marriage? I don’t know. My children taught me more about love, from the love they evoked from me, than anything that had gone before. So did I need to learn the intimacy that sex taught me before marriage, what I wouldn’t have learned if my subculture believed in no sex before marriage? Did the skill at intimacy help make me a good physician instead of a researcher? I don’t know.

It is amazing that there should be uncertainty about such a central part of life as sex despite so many thousands of years of experience with it. Yet it’s clear what the conflict is. Sexual desire is incredibly powerful, yet the way of just giving in to it is constantly tested with familiar results: abandonment, disease, untimely pregnancy, becoming stuck with a partner who’s not good for you. Of course these can happen to some degree after marriage, but aren’t these consequences a big part of why culture has tried to resist biology with respect to sex rather than it all being a patriarchy trying to control everyone else?

God’s plan for me didn’t involve my trying to run from my culture as much as it would have taken for my virginity to survive my freshman year of college. God's love hasn’t revolved around sex any more than it’s revolved around eating or around recreational drugs. Maybe a sexual purity ball is an overblown ritual. Maybe it is indeed what God wants for those involved. My daughters can say if my hands-off approach was better or worse for them. They might be wrong. How much do we know about what’s the best way for us? Is it really sensible to educate kids about sex and expect them to decide when they’re ready for sex? It may be the most realistic way of doing it, but that’s not a reason to refrain from asking questions.

Those who say God’s plan is no sex before marriage, for everyone, do not allow questions. It’s certainly an overblown claim. Those who say the best way is whatever feels good do not allow questions. That’s certainly just as wrong as it is just as oversimplified. The things I’m sure of on the subject of when best to become sexual is that puberty is overwhelming and that any aspect of culture meant to delay sex after puberty will be imperfect, yet there are good reasons to delay sex. And that’s just the start of where one can ask questions.

Some people would rather make judgments. It’s human nature. I wonder what our culture can do about that. Judgments may even cause more turmoil than sex does, and the good that comes from sex seems much more than anything good that comes from judgments. Since few take Matthew 7:1 seriously, how about rings to symbolize a commitment to withhold judgment, for everyone?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What thanks has God earned?

Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy has had a difficult year following the suicide of his son on December 22, 2005. He missed only one game as coach, but it certainly affected him and the team for some time after that. In a rambling post-game comment after the Colts lost to the Steelers the next month in the playoffs, Dungy spoke of how proud he was of his team, how God had helped them through this difficulty. In part Dungy said, “I really thought the Lord’s hand was on this team.”

Some used this quote out of context as if Dungy had said he thought God would give them victory, but didn’t. In context that’s clearly not what Dungy thought. Dungy thought God’s hand was on his team for emotional support, to get through trials. Scoring points was up to the players. UCC minister Dwight Hein added a complete fantasy to the above quote, saying that Dungy was, “in total disbelief that they lost”. No, that’s not true. I watched the comment at the time on TV. It’s also clearly not the case from the longer quote. People are so primed to believe their prejudice over reality.

I can try to understand why people are so primed to believe that someone is claiming God controls victory or defeat in sports. Receivers thank God for touchdowns. Baseball players point to the sky on crossing the plate with a home run. What does it mean to thank God when I’m happy about something that’s happened?

Sometimes God tells me that I’m thanking Him for something He didn’t do. He’s always right. I do often thank God where I know it’s doubtful that He did anything. A light stays green. Something I need is on sale. I quickly find which of 917 hiding places I used the night before for my glasses when I don’t have time to search many of them. God tells me He’s not responsible if I just get lucky.

He doesn’t say that when I’m sure it was God, when I ask for His direction, strength or comfort and get exactly that. I do feel some guilt that while I’m grateful for God’s help in these ways, and I’m sure there’s no way I could create these mental miracles without God, I wish there were more. I also wish reality were sufficient. Yet I understand the peaceful fatalism that comes from believing God controls everything. So even if a family member dies, some will say God must know what He is doing. Tony Dungy was speaking like that this past summer about his son James’ death.

Only there’s no way God even allowed James to commit suicide, much less controlled it. I asked God again about that. He says there is rarely anything but tragedy in suicide. He would stop almost all of them if He could.

There is a choice to be made in theology. Did God make us free? Did nature make us free? Could the latter be true even to a degree that it frustrates God?

It depends how one defines God. If one defines God as being in control of everything or at least responsible in the sense of having created everything, then of course God made us free, directly or indirectly. It makes sense to direct every “thank you” about that freedom to Him. But what if God is something else? I know God best as the one who answers if I pray, “God help me!” It may be very complicated who and what God is, even as simple as theologians and philosophers pretend they know God to be.

I am satisfied that I cannot penetrate the depths of who and what God is, nor can any other human being. I can know what comes to me, including that I want to thank God, even to excess sometimes. I know what God tells me about His desires. He freed me from some of the tyranny of our culture, where almost all rhetoric is false, be it politics, religion, or even sports. I didn’t need Him for freedom that comes naturally to most of us, to walk, to talk, even if I have thanked Him for both of those more than once.

God would reign in much of the freedom we have to hurt each other. He would do it today, with an armada of His spaceships, if He had any. Only He doesn’t. So our cultural evolution and spiritual evolution proceed quite slowly. People say many foolish things. Some are because they don’t care about the context of a quote. They just want to use the quote to push a pre-existing agenda. They have the freedom to do so, not from God, but from nature. Both liberals and conservatives can thank nature and a liberal democracy for being able to say whatever they damn well please. God would use lightning bolts to criticize such speech if He could. He can’t.

He says there’s no need to thank Him for things He can’t do, like hit a home run. If people want to, He doesn’t mind. It puts them in a better frame of mind to reach for things He can do that people generally don’t let Him do, to guide them, to strengthen them, to comfort them. James Dungy couldn’t figure out how to get enough of these from God for his life to look better than suicide. God tells me He doesn’t know why. God wonders if it was His fault, if He should have tried something else on James, but at the same time God knows the suicide wasn’t His choice. He can accept Tony Dungy finding comfort in believing the opposite, but some of us need to know the truth, for God’s sake.

God could do much more for us than He does, but it is a cooperative effort. People didn’t find their ultimate way to God thousands of years ago. They don’t know what they’re doing today. It’s not that God will be different in 500 years. It’s that people will discover how hollow old ways are. That drives many people into new fantasies, but among all this that is false, there is a real God, a God who can be approached from any direction. It takes patience, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness to hear Him, but He is there and can give us things for which He earns our gratitude. He is there whether anyone believes my words about Him or not.