Friday, June 30, 2006

The universe is so big, the mind so intricate

When it comes to explaining the world I live in, religion doesn’t work. Science works, but is disturbingly incomplete. I can see how it wasn’t like that for people thousands of years ago, even hundreds of years ago. If one just takes our world at face value, I can see coming up with explanations as ancient people did – that there is something alive behind every feature, a god for every river, every mountain, a god to push the sun across the sky, maybe as a menial task, but maybe as a grand chariot that inspires us all. I can see how some would say no, this is all one God, our God, not yours. And how this God relates to us is a reasonable subject for so many stories.

But living today, I know context for what I see that ancient people had no way of knowing, context that means their ideas don’t work at all. Consider how large the universe is. Just to know that stars we see at night are hundreds of light-years away is mind-boggling. Yet cosmologists explain that the universe is at least 14 billion light-years across, more if the early universe was inflationary. Even our galaxy being 100,000 light-years across is mind-boggling, before getting to how many more galaxies there are than just the Milky Way. Who can grasp a light-year when light takes 8 minutes to get here from the sun? I can do the math of how many 8-minute periods are in a year (65,745), but from there to the nearest star being over 4 light-years away, the center of our galaxy being about 30,000 light-years, the next galaxy being 2 million light-years, leaves me without understanding. Why so big?

Are there gods all across the universe? If there’s just one God, why should there be so many stars? That religious people have their answer for this doesn’t surprise me. Excuses come very naturally to people. But how can anyone have confidence in why one God would need so many stars? I can understand making an assortment, but trillions or orders of magnitude beyond that? Maybe it takes that many to get one world with beings that can relate to Him, but then traditionalists don’t believe in God being limited to natural processes, so already that doesn’t work.

It’s hard to find a place for God in science, but then there are these places where science hasn’t gone very far. My colleagues in neuroscience didn’t worry about that. Surely there never has been a stop sign to the scientific method except for people’s prejudices or a dumb question like what time it was before there was time. Surely functional MRI will tell us everything left to know about the brain, as EEG was once expected to do. Won’t it?

It is impressive to think about where knowledge will be by the end of this century as the genetics revolution and neuroscience revolution play out. We will know all 25,000 of our genes, the proteins they make, and the variations in them that make us different from one another. We will know our evolution better by knowing which molecular changes went along with each change in us, when each change happened, and maybe which way we’d like it to go now. Will that be all there is?

I doubt it. I suspect there will still be a place for spirit, not the life force that the word “spirit” meant long ago, but something that knowing all of our genetics and all of neuroscience may leave unanswered. Why do people do what they do? Will it be enough to know all the genetics and environmental factors that manipulate us? Will that explain everything? I doubt it. Any advertiser knows a pretty girl gets my attention, maybe some things beyond that, but everything I do? No, I don’t think so.

I look at the world I experience, outside of me and within me at the same time, and compare that to the definition of consciousness that neuroscience taught me, that consciousness is just the subjective experience of a world built up by my senses, inside and out, along with the feedback of living in that world. It is the image of a world that includes everything I know of me, projected by my brain onto some virtual screen, where I live out my life. Experience tells me that the real world is very close to how I experience it in my consciousness. Individuals vary only in such details as what does it mean to me that a baby is crying, what do I want today, and what will happen if I do this or that to try to get it. Our emotions, our abstract models of how the world works, everything like that is in our consciousness. It disappears with sleep or certain other states, but then comes right back, unless we’re dead. Then maybe it comes back somewhere else.

I doubt that science will explain all of that any better than Genesis explains why there are so many stars. Maybe I’m wrong. Time will tell. I’ll be dead, but time will still tell. Believers of any variety don’t like considering that they might be dead wrong, including atheists. My time on the net has taught me that even agnostics don’t like to embrace the possibility that they are wrong with a full bear hug. They don’t want to know that there is a truth that can be known short of some comprehensive understanding of everything, what, how, when, where, and why. Having listened to so many try to sell their version of some political or religious truth, I don’t blame anyone for being skeptical, but that’s no reason to imprison oneself with a firm belief, even belief in atheism or agnosticism.

I hesitate to say that there is some perfect understanding of life and everything related to life just waiting to be put into words. But I know two points that anyone desiring to be a know-it-all needs to appreciate before his or her words mean anything. The universe is so big. The mind is so intricate. Why?

The physicist in me says that the universe is so big because it’s started expanding so long ago. The neuroscientist in me would like to catalog everything I sense, in reality and through imagination, along with my thoughts and feelings and measure how well this fits into the brain along with all of my long-term memories and knowledge of language and other things that let me process all this information. Is there enough room in the brain to make it work? I don’t know how to do that. Maybe neuroscientists will figure out all of that eventually, even enough to satisfy me, or maybe it will just continue to be obscure. In that case, there will remain the possibility that there is more to the mind than is in the brain. As the spinal cord needs a brain to regulate it, does the brain need a spirit to regulate it, a spirit not to found in a physical form?

It’s a question much more likely to draw out prejudice from people than wisdom. Maybe the answer is a simple no. Maybe neuroscience will demonstrate that there is nothing missing from purely material models just as physics is missing nothing except the precise origin of the universe and a few details that won’t fundamentally change anything. Medicine is the same showing that life can be explained completely through physiology as a dynamic process that ends when that process falls apart from lack of oxygen or similar cause, with no need for a mysterious life force. Why shouldn’t the mind be the same? Only because it’s not the same. Physics is physical. Life and death of a body is physical. Is my experience of life completely physical? I once thought so, but things keep coming up that I can’t explain, just as astronomy once kept coming up with facts that showed anyone willing to see that ancient religions got it wrong.

I’m comfortable with half of it. The universe is so big because traditional ideas of the creation are wrong. But why is the mind so intricate? Why would evolution make it so complicated? Our mind is so intricate that people refuse to go everywhere their minds would go, instead insisting that some things are right, while some are wrong, making oversimplification part of human nature. Is there an evolutionary advantage for that? Instead of having such conflict, why not just be dumb and good at procreation?

Maybe this century will make the mind as easy to understand as physics makes the universe. Maybe I was born at an awkward time for knowledge. Yet I have been to the future by a different means than confidence in the scientific method. The scientific method eventually may show that there is something to the mind as inaccessible to us as that time before time began. If I can’t get there, can spirit come to me? If so, that makes both the universe and the mind so much bigger.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The basic problem

Anyone who reads enough of what I write knows I reduce all sorts of problems to human nature. What ails human beings is their humanity. So it is with all the problems of the cultures we have produced in interaction with our environment. The problem with cultures is that human nature made them. Our shortcomings are amplified in them. I think evolutionary psychologists are on the right track when it comes to how this relates to religion. There isn’t enough known yet to make that a first-rate story. We need to finish understanding all 25,000 of our genes to see how they make this God-shaped void in us, maybe more in some than in others. Is it mostly the work of individual genes recreating that God-shaped void in each individual human being or by feeding back to us through the culture our genes created? I also think we need to appreciate the possibilities for what fills that void in us, for a God who isn’t just an abstraction, but a being as people have experienced. God is whoever and whatever God is, not just what anyone would like Him to be, traditional, non-existent, abstract, whatever.

I suppose the comfort I find in this is that it means there is something real behind all the misery in life, not just the conjecture of any one religion, such as the idea of sin for Jews and Christians or delusions and attachments for Buddhism. There is some truth in those, but some fantasy, too, and people are confused as a result. There are challenges to being human, maybe one challenge that is the most fundamental, and I’m sure it’s natural, not spiritual, not the result of Adam’s sin, but the result of evolution, not imposed by God, but something for which God is a solution. So what is the basic problem?

Is it that people live in Fantasyland and only awaken to reality when some trauma forces them to see their fantasy? Is it selfishness? Is it materialism? Is it how overwhelming culture is in corrupting our minds with the fantasies of one particular culture? Are we so weak that we will be healed only when our cultures are healed?

It’s not that we can’t function now. We reproduce. Physically we have been enormously successful. We even have had some success at turning away from war. Maybe everything is fine. Maybe it only seems so troubled as this is such a time of transition from living the fairly natural lives that people lived in early civilizations to a time when we understand our nature better than we once did and can make choices that counter our nature. Do we really have such choices or is it just our nature fooling us that we do? Such a question makes me wonder what the basic problem is. What do we struggle against?

Do we struggle mostly against our own fears? Is the future fine no matter who wins some battle for the hearts and minds of people? I’m not sure how the future can be such a sure thing, even though I always find some flaw in those who say our future is doomed for whatever reason.

Do we struggle against our powerlessness? People are such control freaks. Those who aren’t warning others that everyone has to do this or die are trying to control the flow of information that could show that those warnings are correct. Everyone must control some part of his or her life, yet so often people deny that there is more that they cannot control, cannot know. One can argue about how much of life is which, but it’s obvious that there is much to life we cannot control, and it is human nature to minimize that. That’s healthy. It’s good to say, “What could I have done differently?” when something bad happens, but most people overdo that or focus on the supposed power of someone else to have done something when the others are just as powerless.

I am tempted to say that the basic problem is that people don’t give up in all these things to some higher power. Yet people often do exactly that, only so often what they give up to is something false. I’m sure I’ve given enough reasons elsewhere why I think both traditionalists and atheists are false, yet I’ve lived my entire life knowing that there is always some way they could be right. I don’t believe it, but there is a way. I can live with that. I truly believe that God is whoever and whatever God is. I’m at peace with any possibility. The ultimate power is beyond me, no matter what it is.

Yet there is only one reality. Everything else is false. My guess is that not a single human religion has gotten everything just right. They’ve all missed the mark. Not only is that the conclusion the odds favor, look at what religions have done. What perfection have they produced? What culture have they made that is so good, everyone else wants to be part of it?

I can restate how I started this and say that the basic problem is that we’re only human. We only know what our senses have told us. That has built up impressively over the millennia. Still the claims that so many people make for what they believe, politically, religiously, are so overblown. Few understand how much they don’t know.

If all we have is humanity, biological evolution will proceed, and the culture produced by the intelligent life biology produced will evolve as well. Being the self-regulating systems that they are, biological and cultural evolution will go exactly where they were “supposed” to go. Why fight the inevitable, especially when I’m so small, and the world is so big? Anyone who wants to steer is welcome to try. It’s only in trying that people learn to give up.

I find it hard to believe that human misery will ever end that way. Maybe I’m wrong. Whichever it is, I think more about what help we can get from beyond us, from God. Obviously that’s not easy. Whether that’s because of us, because of God, or because of the process of communication between us is hard to say. God has not demonstrated the power that 1st-century Christians thought He had. Some 21st-century Christians don’t believe that. They’ll die off eventually like everyone else. The future is in who comes next.

We are whoever and whatever we are. God is whoever and whatever God is. It seems neither of us can make all the pain go away easily. That leaves communication.

I hear from God in words. Some people do. A few publish what God tells them, and such publications vary from New Age speeches that God gave to Neale Donald Walsch in his 3 volumes of Conversations With God to the simplistic things that evangelist Joyce Meyer reports as hearing from God in her books. Unlike my fellow liberals who believe that all religions are true, I don’t think the words that are in common between the three of us are worth anything. Not even 2 of the 3 of us can both be right. So is human reasoning going to pick out which one is right or if all are wrong, including me? I don’t see how.

I see one entity that might help me with this, God. If there is no God, then it doesn’t matter. If there is, why not let Him bring me to wherever He wills? If God is not trustworthy, there’s no chance of my doing anything on my own anyway. I could go on like that at length, but it all amounts to the first 3 steps of the 12 steps, the ones I first did in 1994. People have been facing those for a long time, some embracing them, some rejecting them. The question has been around for a very long time before 12 steps: Will you let God help you do what you cannot? Anyone who is willing to answer in the affirmative will find that God can’t do everything we might want. Why not? So many words and ideas have been devoted to answering that. They’re contradictory, saying people didn’t approach God the right way, were interfered with by evil spirits, aren’t the ones chosen by God, … with different details from each religion. I don’t believe any of it any more. The basic problem is something else.

God tells me that. We’ve done what we know to do. He’s done what He’s known to do. There’s more to it than that. What can we do together?

Come again? That’s right, when have people ever cooperated with the real God? People have heard about God, a source of power, knowledge, love, and goodness. They’ve tried to reach Him in various ways. They’ve made up stories about who they think God is and what He’s done. Those stories are wrong. Anyone who hasn’t figured that out in the 21st century is headed for a dead end.

God is whoever and whatever God is. Even God can’t know the details of that – He has no mirror. He has us, but so much of what we say and do is wrapped up in us. We say we worship God, but whom do we worship, the real God or this substitute Daddy and King whose only agenda is conformity? Conservative Christians insist on conformity. Buddhist monks are begrudgingly allowed to watch the World Cup on TV, but are supposed to keep from having any emotion from it. What God does this?

God is whoever and whatever God is. If He thinks emotions are bad, I’m willing to listen. That’s not what I hear, though. My life with God has taken us up mountains and down into valleys so much I’ve lost count of them. Eventually I got the hang of it. God, You’re just as emotional as I am. Maybe that’s just the way He is with me. Maybe that’s how it translates into my language. He is whoever and whatever He is.

I don’t know what exactly has released everything I experience of God. I used to ask the Spirit when our relationship started. Was it when the bishop had his hands on my head at Confirmation? Was it when I prayed the right prayer in my thirties? The Spirit said it was before the beginning of time, whenever that is. I don’t think She was trying to be cryptic. It just sounds that way after a time.

Eventually I’ll write more about this here, but one of the summary things I know from God is that God is different from what any religion says He is. It gets back to what the basic problem is for human beings.

My understanding is that this is the basic problem:


I really think that’s it. Listen, it’s good for you individually. It’s good for the planet. Listen to know that what you’re hearing is junk. Listen to know that what you’re hearing is exactly right. Unfortunately people aren’t good at this distinction – many things about our nature influence that. But there is a God who can help this.

I suppose it would take a lot to sell that. There are lots of issues like what things are worth listening to. I like surrendering to God, whoever and whatever God is, those parts of life that are good and trustworthy, or if He does hurt me, He has a good explanation. If it’s all up to humanity, from my human abilities to finding the perfect religion to guide me, it’s all human nature. It’s all flawed. God can be past that. Why deal with middlemen? If it worked to deal with middlemen, wouldn’t that be obvious?

It’s a tough sell. I don’t know why I don’t hear more people advocating simply surrendering to God, not worrying about any other label. They do in 12-step groups, but many have a hard time listening to God in them. Well, it’s the best I’ve done in 51 years. I don’t expect to find anything better. What future that gives me I can only trust God for. It makes everyday in the present better for me. If that’s all there is, what a waste. People could have so much more than they do. How much is it people’s choice not to listen to God? How many people could God relate to directly? How many would He or She want to know better?

I don’t know what the possibilities are for people listening to God, but I’m pretty sure that this is the basic problem: People don’t listen to God. It would transform our nature if we did that more.

It is interesting to me that this is what the Bible says. Adam and Eve didn’t listen. Or they listened too much to what is not God. I find the Bible unbelievable in the details of how it says that flaw in listening led to so much misery, but there is such a flaw in us. Someone has known that much for a long time.

Life is enough. But there is this basic problem that makes life difficult. So it is difficult, but not impossible. So many people are sure they can’t hear God. It is difficult, but not impossible. Anyone can ask for His help in doing that. It’s not up to us to answer such a prayer ourselves, but the only way to know that is to listen.

Life is for the living

Last Saturday there was a high-speed chase down Washington Avenue. The police were after a young man who had stolen a car. He went off the street and crashed into the building that houses the charity where I volunteer, in the process taking out the box that supplies power to the building.

The young man died. Power to the building could not be immediately restored. There was some part involved in replacing the damage that would take a few days to get. They rented a generator to keep the refrigerators going in the kitchen, and so they could serve breakfast Monday morning. The rest of the building could keep going without power, though not as lively as it usually is.

The cubicle where I usually talk with clients is in the middle of the building, a place that is quite dark without power. So Monday morning, I was talking to clients in a now nonfunctional computer lab, because it has windows, reviewing their needs within earshot of others. No one seemed to mind the lack of privacy. I suppose people who are overly embarrassed by their situation don’t come to us. We could still give people food, fliers about where else to get food and clothing vouchers. I couldn’t use the computer as I usually can to print out information for clients about anything under the sun, but I know enough about jobs, housing, and health care off the top of my head to be helpful. One woman was particularly grateful to learn the county does pay for a few visits to a doctor and dentist for homeless who have no other coverage for health care. It’s amazing how many services there are that few people have heard of.

After a couple of hours, I was feeling irritable. That usually does happen when I volunteer. The emotional burden piles up. I don’t know if it was more the darkness or the increasing summer heat that was making it more intense this day. Maybe it was both.

I’ve come to appreciate in recent years how much I dislike darkness. I’m not afraid of it. It’s just oppressive. I can do more in the light. I’m faster in the light. One of our case managers has this habit of not turning on the light to her office. I walk in there a lot. It’s necessary for the few papers I need to push around. Eventually I asked her if I could turn the light on. She said, “Thank you”. Oh, I thought she wanted it off. No, not exactly. Now I just turn on the light whenever I walk in. She stills says, “Thank you”. Why she does is a mystery to me. I guess it’s just one thing I do for me that someone else doesn’t need or doesn’t want enough to do, but it’s still for the collective best. I want the light on enough to turn it on instantly when I see a dark room. Whether some people like the darkness or have more tolerance or other priorities is beyond me. I just know I’ve had enough of the dark, when I have a choice.

So here we were with even more darkness than usual and decidedly more heat. It’s that dead guy’s fault. I was already feeling strange realizing how much indifference I felt toward his death. I don’t know when he chose death, whether it was when he stole the car or when he ran from the police, but at some point, he chose his death. I suspect he could have made a better choice, but who knows?

What I do know was that the way he died was creating some discomfort for a lot of people. Something in me says the discomfort shouldn’t matter compared to a man losing his left. Something else says this jerk must have lost his life a long time ago. It was his death that was playing out for years, no longer his life, as it is for many clients I see and many public figures I learn about. So why not finish that play, tragedy as it is, in a way that doesn’t inconvenience so many people?

This comes up a lot, not only when people die who seemed determined to die, but also when people act up out of their own misery, creating problems for others. That runaway bride who started in Georgia and wound up in Albuquerque comes to mind. I’ve always been able to be forgiving for such people, maybe not as easily as some, but more than most. Still there is a mixture of feelings.

This young man in the stolen car at first generated no forgiveness from me. If I knew something about him, that would change. Now that Monday is over, I don’t mind the experience. It gave me something to think about. It doesn’t make his death worthwhile. His death was a waste no matter what came of it. Dumb kid.

Monday I was indifferent to his death. Everyone was. There were things to do in the present. There was nothing to do about whatever aspects of our society leave a young man to choose stealing a car as his best option for that moment. How dumb is that?

Maybe it’s artificial. First I’m indifferent to this thief. Then I’m angry for the darkness and heat he caused. Then I forgive him by saying he chose what society gave him to choose, and I indict society in the same breath. Some might forgive society in the next breath, but I have this long list of indictments of society from previous cases, about which no one has gotten society’s attention.

No, it’s not artificial. Maybe it’s all biology. Maybe there’s something spiritual, as well. What does it mean that society’s defenders are so much more articulate these days than society’s detractors? I’m afraid it means nothing good. Society has some high-priced lawyers working for it. I just have my rage.

Society has given me air conditioning and lights most days. I can’t get that mad if I am not given them this one day. But it’s that discomfort that reminds me that the worst darkness is not cured by turning a light switch. It is the same as when I walk into a dark room and instantly want to turn on a light. So it is when I look at our culture and see the hatred, indifference and falseness. Where’s the switch for that?

The only switch I know is God. It’s strange to say that when so many use the word “God” to further hatred, indifference and falseness. They don’t know the real God, or they wouldn’t use Him this way.

Get up, God! Get up, and beat the crap out of all Your enemies! It’s like what people wrote in the Old Testament. It’s not what happened.

It doesn’t work that way. The light of God comes slowly, as a dawn, not as a switch. That so many spew darkness and call it light is nothing new. They are dead already. Life beckons for the living, not through death, but through life.

Friday, June 23, 2006

I want to live in Who-ville

One scene made the greatest impression on me from the original cartoon version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, from 1966, the one narrated by Boris Karloff. It’s near the end, after the Grinch has stolen everything from the town. He turns his ear toward town, expecting to hear wailing over what he’s done. Instead he hears singing. The loss of all their material things did nothing to dissuade the townspeople from their custom of holding hands in a circle and singing this cheerful song to welcome Christmas. The song was crucial. Holding hands and smiling is nice, but the song brings out so much more that the cheer is heartfelt, not just for show.

A strange thing about this is that I don’t like people who are constantly happy. I don’t hate them. I just find it creepy if people can’t find other emotions within them to express as well. In my volunteer work with needy people, there’s plenty to be angry about, from how people are neglected by the system to individual evils that have hurt people. Some of the volunteers can talk about such things as I do, but a few aren’t like that, being perpetually cheerful instead, as certain church people can be. I don’t know if that’s because they were taught never to be negative or if it’s in their nature. The Whos may be like that, but that sort of weird happiness is not what attracts me to Who-ville. It’s the resilience and the priorities expressed in Ted Geisel’s story that I embrace, the singing, too. I feel my clients’ pain, but there’s no point in wallowing in it. We have things to do, to do the best we can to cope with what the cold, cruel world has dealt out.

Spending time successfully coping with that world, without a lot of money to buy shortcuts, does teach that material things don’t matter that much. It’s a tricky lesson. So many material things make life easier. They’re worth something, but not that much. Yet some attachments matter a great deal. I wish Buddhists understood the last part, since they do so well with the first part. Happiness that goes deep instead of just being painted on isn’t based in nothingness or some denial of self, but in connecting to that which supports my happiness, like a group that could stand around and sing a cheerful song to welcome Christmas after having been robbed blind by someone who wanted to make them cry. First things first. We’ll do the paperwork for the police and the insurance in the morning. Oh, you didn’t know the Whos were insured? What, you thought they were superhuman in their faith? That’s the benefit of living in Ted Geisel’s hometown. You can get the whole story here.

I don’t suppose a cheerful song of renewal would go over well with my clients. They’re too focused on just getting through the next threat to their survival, but if they were somewhat farther along with beating back the world and somewhat more attached to God than most people, I could see it, a song of solidarity, just as I feel solidarity with God.

I never have found a church where I felt this way. There have always been ideology problems. My mother used to tell the story that when I was very young, we attended an Episcopal church where the minister was previously a Catholic priest and maintained some of those ways, such as swinging incense and dressing up more than the average Protestant clergy. He made such an impression on me that I cried out, “Is that God?” Unfortunately it was an imposter, just a minister, not the real God. I’ve had problems ever since with the appearances of churches not matching reality, from ideas to actions.

Yet some things about Christianity connected with me in a way that holds me tight. Crosses comfort me in a powerful way. On the worst days of my life, I found crosses in all sorts of walls and other structures where no one intended there to be a cross. In the shower, the tile walls are full of crosses. I can touch them, and God is there. One can become so intimate with God if one works at it. Maybe God has to want that, too. I’m not sure why it’s not a common experience, but it’s not. Nothing in church has ever connected with me the same way, not even Communion.

Near my home are two crosses on hills. One is private land. The owner had to switch from a wooden cross to a metal one due to vandals cutting down the wooden one, but now it’s reasonably stable. A larger cross is on land the city owns. There’s been a court case over it for years. The city has lost again and again. Yes, before 1960 courts never bothered over crosses on public land, but now the first amendment is enforced and no court can ignore that. Still a majority of voters want the city to fight on. Polls show they back off only if fighting on means new taxes to pay for it. As long as it’s existing money diverted from better things to fuel this fight, it’s fight, fight, fight. “We’re right, and those liberal courts are wrong.” One Christian leader talked about taking the issue to the streets, I suppose for demonstrations, not violence, but the rhetoric does get pretty hot.

Strangely I don’t think of the fighting when I see the crosses. I think of God in various ways. Other things will trigger that for me, even when the public cross is finally taken down. I know I wouldn’t react the same to a Star of David or a crescent put up instead, even alongside the cross. For me that would be pointless. I suppose multiple symbols would then make me think of all this fighting people do over religion. I definitely don’t think of God when I pass the Mormon temple near the cross. I wonder what these people were thinking with such a garish display. Did Joseph Smith see this coming? It’s all pretty worldly thoughts. That changes when I see something that connects me to God.

I wish that involved other people for me more than it does. Maybe the Whos would be just as bad in their theology as anyone else. I wouldn’t mind looking like a Who. Appearance is not a big deal for me. I already like the singing, but they’re said to be noisy as well. Well, there are earplugs. It’s a rather secluded, provincial setting. Well, maybe one doesn’t have to stay there year round. But if they demand beliefs in oversimplified and overgeneralized views of the physical world and ancient fantasies of the unknowable, spiritual world, then I wouldn’t want to live in Who-ville. It would be just like here, where the biggest Christian cause is to keep a cross on a hill, in rebellion against the courts. We want what we want. That’s human nature proclaiming itself in people who wear a Christian veneer. That’s not unique to where I live.

Watching the spectacle of September 11, I thought about things ranging from genocide to pacifism. How many Muslims would be willing to commit genocide and against whom? How many types of non-Muslims would like to kill all Muslims? One way to end a conflict is to kill everyone on one side. It’s not the best way, but it works, and it’s one that doesn’t defy human nature.

Meanwhile there is the other extreme. Can you imagine an American President getting up and saying, “We mourn our 3000 dead, but we are 300,000,000 more and are willing to end this conflict rather than expand it through vengeance.” It’s unthinkable, isn’t it? I suppose genocide is, too, but our thoughts as a people can get much closer to genocide than to peace. It’s just a matter of defining the group narrowly enough to get a consensus to wipe them out. Call it War on Terror, Terror including whatever people you want to kill. Have you noticed that “captured on the battlefield” seems to mean about anywhere on the planet?

Maybe the Whos are just are bad. Do they live to end poverty? Do they live to end conflict? Even with Ted Geisel’s papers, who can say? One song doesn’t tell me everything, but it’s a start. Of course the Whos are fictional. God is not. The basis of my attraction to Him cannot be shared the way a cartoon on TV is shared. Yet it’s similar. I don’t know that much about God, but I know enough to be devoted to Him. I also know people where I live are not like Him, even the ones who claim to be. That won’t change quickly. I don’t know if it will change at all. Maybe God just wants a small number of people to be like Him. That would be enough to change the world, maybe. Maybe that’s not God’s goal. There is happiness living with God, the same that attracts me to Who-ville, a happiness that knows suffering, that can even punch suffering in the nose, but then move on. I trust Him regarding the details. I already know that it is not constant, painted-on happiness. I don’t suppose even Dr. Seuss wanted that.

The closest I can get to Who-ville is to live with God, here and now, despite the world being just as it is. There are many differences between the fantasy of the former and the reality of the latter, but I think the essence of both is the same. I surrender to a group that is worth surrendering to, not just to anyone.

Father's Day

Usually I don’t dwell on holidays invented to sell greeting cards and other gifts. It’s hard for me to ignore Father’s Day, though. It touches me in more than one way.

Being a father changed me, taught me much more about love than I had understood before, showed me that I really could be controlled by something voluntarily, instead of obedience always being tyranny. Some men can turn their backs on that. Maybe it’s a genetic thing that I can’t. Maybe it’s something else.

As far as my being a father, I can dispense with Father’s Day easily. I’ve told my daughters I expect to be remembered on Father’s Day and my birthday, as long as I’m conscious. Beyond that they’re free. I have spoken. Of course, there is this unspoken reality of the consequences if that was all they ever did, but such consequences are dictated by nature, by my nature and everyone else’s. I like my rule better somehow. That’s what I want, not the tyranny of nature, even though nature may be better at being either father, mother or both than I am. Still I’m satisfied with that.

By the way, my birthday is December 7, a convenient distance from Father’s Day in June, one reason for my rule. Contrary to what this automated site says, that does not make me a Sagittarius. Anyone who has worked with the real stars knows the Earth has shifted in the 2000 years since the sun signs in the newspaper were even close to being accurate. It’s called precession of the Earth’s axis, as any spinning top does. It takes about 26,000 years for a complete cycle, meaning the sun’s place in the zodiac has shifted about 1 sign in the 12 (about 2000/ 26,000) all around the sky. So the sun was actually in Scorpio on the day I was born, not Sagittarius. There are astronomical tables where you can look it up as I once did. One more lie I was told growing up. Maybe it’s just an honest mistake. It depends how charitable I feel at a given moment.

My older daughter was born on December 15. On that day, the sun wasn’t in any of the 12 signs of the Zodiac. It was in Ophiuchus, a constellation that just crosses the ecliptic, but is ignored by astrologers. Someone liked 12 more than 13. I don’t know why. It’s not that there’s no place for 13. Lunar calendars require both 12-month years and 13-month years to keep in phase with the solar year. A 19 year cycle of 7 13-month years and 12 12-month years comes very close to the reality of the ratio of the moon’s orbit to the Earth’s orbit, but even that doesn’t match a reality that wasn’t designed for every answer to be in round numbers. The Muslim calendar ignores this, having always 12 months. As a result it loses ground to reality every year, and Ramadan cycles through every season of the year. Astrology lost whatever grip it had on reality even earlier.

Ophiuchus was a physician whose place in the stars is to be stepping on Scorpio, crushing it. Meanwhile the Archer has his arrow aimed directly at Antares, the red giant star that ancients saw as the heart of the Scorpion. The Archer never has let his arrow fly, maybe someday. Antares is dead meat either way. Any red giant of that size has only one destiny, to become a supernova, in this case just 330 light-years from Earth. The only other large red giant that close to us is Betelgeuse, on the other side of the sky, in Orion, the Hunter, placed as far away in the sky as possible from the scorpion that in mythology killed him. Betelgeuse is 310 light-years from Earth. Which star blows up first, Antares or Betelgeuse? Both might have already done so, in our 18th century. It just hasn’t gotten to us yet whether they did or not. Odds are they are supernova still to come, not yet happened, but things with long odds do happen. They might not be yet to happen, but already happened and not communicated to us yet.

In between Antares and Betelgeuse, there was once a red giant that went supernova and seeded our area of space with materials we use for life. Whether one sees such a contribution as mother or father, I’m sure no card is required. Is any remembrance at all?

My daughters listen to such things from me. I don’t know how much they have to pretend to be interested. I don’t care. I love them just for listening. I’d love them even if they didn’t listen, but not as much. It’s true. Love has favorites.

More problematic for me is who my Daddy is, someone closer than that primordial supernova ejaculating into space. There were clues when I was growing up that it wasn’t clear who my Daddy is. Things came up when my parents fought late at night, probably not realizing I could hear from my room, not sleeping through so much racket. It took until I was an adult to put this together with other things from my childhood, such as Dad never playing with me. A child has no point of reference to see one’s childhood as strange. That changes eventually.

Finally after Dad died in 1987, Mom gave up. She told me everything, more than Dad ever knew. It was like a dam burst. She regretted saying the worst revelations she dumped on me. She later said, “I take it back,” when she was upset that some details had passed through other family members and back to her. Sometimes my mother lies very well. Sometimes the lies are transparent. She still lies either way, desperate for something that hurts to go away. I remember being a child like that. I wish everybody did.

I know many more details about the adultery that gave me life than I do about that primordial supernova that gave us all life. Both are interesting stores about the natural course of things. In my twenties I was satisfied by so many stories like these that nature was what one could trust. There was even some love in nature someplace. Yet human nature is full of lies. Politics is. Religion is. Lots of things are.

I’m not sure I ever thought about whether there is anyone with no need and no desire to lie to me. In retrospect I’m sure that was at least an unspoken criteria in whatever drew me away from my fatherless childhood into some direction, into something like what a father would give me beyond that single sperm I got from my biological father. I was at peace with my mother’s husband before he died. He provided for me materially. He gave me an opportunity to be sympathetic to how hard life had been on him, through my mother and in other ways. He was the one person in the family who treated me as an adult, my being the youngest child, the accident. But he was no father emotionally or spiritually.

School adopted me first. I was a smart and obedient kid. They liked that. School doesn’t lie that much. Eventually one can see that academics becomes overblown in some ways, unable to see outside its boundaries on some subjects. But apart from occasional academic fraud and some political infighting, there are no flagrant lies. I think academics continued as my real father all the way through my twenties, into a career as a neurologist that was partly academic.

I didn’t set out to make God my father. I just started praying again because things weren’t going well. I could use whatever help I could get that way. It was a big deal when God first spoke to me, so big it was confusing. More understandable was the presence that built over time as I prayed each day. Less and less did I pray into nothingness. Instead there was someone there, someone helping to pull words out of me, someone to listen, more and more actively.

A good father is someone who will love me no matter what. He is someone with no need to lie to me and no desire to lie to me. God has seemed like a good father to me. He says He is. I believe Him. I’m not sure why I need this beyond that single sperm of instructions from my biological father. We need a place to stand, a foundation. That’s clear enough. Why does that foundation have to love me? Because without that, there’s a hole in me. Without that, I am devalued. It’s strange, but it’s familiar.

So thank you, Father, I’m glad you made me Yours.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Why should I care?

Sometimes I realize how much more complicated it is to be a liberal Christian than a Bible-believing Christian. One of those times is when someone says that he or she has no reason to care about the suffering of other people. The traditional wisdom regarding that is that such an attitude will send you to hell. Read Matthew 25: 31- 46, case closed. Even Bono knows this one, though I’ve heard him err in saying it’s Matthew 23. Of course many traditional Christians are hypocrites on this point, but that’s not for lack of clarity in what the Bible says about helping others. Many traditional Christians just manage to find ways around this clarity to some excuse that lets them do what they want to do, human nature being what it is.

There are many reasons the needy are neglected in our world. Many of them I wouldn’t even start to analyze, but I hear this one basic question from time to time and wonder why I don’t have a better answer. I have a tentative answer today: You should care about other people because doing so lets God live within you and provide you with more direction, strength and comfort than you possibly could imagine coming to you naturally.

I haven’t tried this on anyone. I don’t actually know that it’s true. I don’t know what conditions allow God to live within someone, but not everyone. I know I experience God as above, but was it necessary that I embrace a life of helping people? Was it other things, too, or instead? Traditional Protestant Christianity says that helping people is not necessary to have a saving faith, but who with a saving faith would turn his or her back on others in need? Many in the church do. Do they have any faith?

I leave that to the church. For me it’s enough to know that caring for people to an unusual degree has something to do with God. Maybe it doesn’t always. Maybe there are other things that are equally important to God. It’s hard to know the details of such a spiritual thing unless someone pretends to know them. There just is this wide gulf between some who say that everyone’s suffering matters and those who only care about their small group of friends and family, maybe not even them. Many people talk in a way that sounds as if they are between these two extremes, but their actions speak otherwise. They may pat themselves on the back for donating to some highly publicized disaster, but ordinary suffering doesn’t move them at all. “Why can’t the needy just pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Why don’t these depressed people just snap out of it? Why can’t the unemployed just hold a job? Why can’t addicts just stop being addicts? I’m only going to help those who help themselves (and therefore need nothing from me).”

Then there are those who are so concerned that a few human cells conceived in dish, never having seen a woman’s uterus, not be dissociated into a culture of stem cells, that it is better for them to live out an existence as freezer burn. Somehow I would put the needs of many who are indisputably deserving of my concern above those of cells extremely unlikely to ever be the precursor of an actual human being. I understand God would, too, if anyone wanted to leave the matter to Him.

Why should it be any different? Does the suffering of people hurt God? Matthew 25 suggests so. As with anything spiritual, the details of why that should be are quite fuzzy. I know what God says to me, which is that there is a way He wants me to go. I trust Him, so I do go His way. He wouldn’t trust me otherwise. I wouldn’t trust myself. Why that matters is even more obscure. In contrast, people’s suffering is right in front of me. I see it. I feel it. I’ve learned so many ins and outs about it through my career and volunteer work. That I can understand. What God needs of me, why God needs anything, how many people He needs anything from are questions maybe God will explain in time. In the meantime I do what I know to do. I suppose everyone does, even when I hate what they do. There’s some benefit to accepting that.

“Why should I care?” That sounds like someone who is spiritually dead. “So what the hell is spiritually dead?” It’s to be cut off from the spiritual side of reality. “What is that?” I don’t know. I’m not spiritually dead. I get all kinds of input that just doesn’t seem natural. Something unnatural lives in me somewhere – that’s all I can imagine.

I wonder if I could get that far without someone insulting me. Whatever the reality is, people can turn toward a number of ways to live. Maybe we have considerable freedom in this. Maybe it’s all pre-ordained. Maybe only a few people have it in them to care about everyone. Why try to make everyone else be the same way? I believe there’s no compelling answer that makes me want to try to make everyone care. I care about clients who include some very selfish people. There are good reasons they are that way, spiritually dead if that is indeed what correlates with not caring about others. I also believe there may indeed be a reward for opening oneself up to others, as in my tentative answer above. It’s worth asking God about. Unfortunately there’s no good way to make the answer as simple as the question.

“Why should I care?” So God can live in you. And you in Him.

Oh, no one is going to accept that at face value, human nature being what it is.

God is whoever and whatever God is

I love tautologies and the meanings one can read into them with a bit of inflection here or there. Many don’t. Months ago, some sportswriter was blasting how frequently players answered reporters’ questions with, “It is what it is,” or words to that effect. Tiger Woods even used that phrase this week. This writer gave the players some credit that maybe they were trying to say, “The thing speaks for itself,” but felt frustrated at the uncertainty that this was actually what anyone meant. He was more inclined to say this is a fad, popular as a meaningless thing to say just to fend off the question about someone’s performance. It’s like saying someone’s “nice” because you can’t think of something specific.

I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s an important observation that analysis often produces a false image. “Why did you do that?” usually triggers some answer, but my experience is that there’s always more than one reason for anything, even more than two. Picking one reason can diminish one’s understanding, as everyone then speaks as if that’s the only reason.

This has happened to God. As a liberal Christian, people who know nothing of me have labeled my way to God as “picking and choosing”. From their point of view, one either believes everything written about God in the Bible, or one is following a different gospel. Why? Is there some God besides God? It seems to me that God is what must be accepted for whatever He is, not how God is portrayed in the Bible. I’m not picking the God I like from the Bible, but trying to understand the reality of God from having Him in my life and rejecting any ways in which the Bible doesn’t fit that.

God is God, not a book. You’d think that’s obvious. It is obvious enough that anyone who idolizes the Bible will say that of course he or she worships God, not a book. Yet everything about God that is different from what the Bible says is inaccessible to a Bible-believing Christian. Is the Bible perfect when it comes to how God wants us to live? How about in circumstances that didn’t exist thousands of years ago? Is it enough to God for someone just to worship a part of Him? How can anyone know? I think it’s best to ask Him, but find that’s not a popular position.

People can argue forever about such things, but so what? At least one side of the argument has to be wrong, maybe both sides. It’s clear from watching arguments that the words used aren’t so magical as to decide anything. Even the role models that any faith puts forth aren’t that helpful. Show me the religion that has existed to end poverty or one that has ended conflict except by saying everyone else should agree with us. All religions are false in some way.

God is a different matter. People mean some combination of power, knowledge, love, and goodness in referring to God. Surely these things exist. What combination of them is the real God? Some say God is the ultimate in all these. I don’t know that. Some focus on God the creator. The creation was very far from me, in time if not in space. It’s too far away for me to know God that way.

I think I know God best from prayer. I’ve prayed successfully for direction, strength, comfort and some prayers prescribed by 12 steps. Praying to win the lottery didn’t help. I still think my winning the lottery would be a good thing. My guess is that God thinks so, too. He actually just confirmed that for me in words. Unfortunately the real God doesn’t seem to control physical events as some expect Him to. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I’d be happy to find out that’s the case. In the meantime, though, there are all these amputated limbs, none of them ever having grown back miraculously. I’ve seen presentations claiming medical miracles. There’s always some obvious problem in such a claim to someone with enough training. Still one physical miracle would change how I see God’s power. I would welcome that. It could happen. I have time.

I’ve been frustrated with how unfocused liberal Christians are about God. Some who are supposedly like me deny a spiritual side to the universe completely, making God into some abstract love or resource. Others insist that their New Age fantasies make sense when they don’t to me. Others stay very close to tradition, even as in other areas they break from tradition entirely, as an Episcopalian minister once said to me, keeping one foot in the Bible and another in science. That can be a precarious position.

I’ll always be a liberal Christian. Jesus Christ will always be my Lord and my Savior, and those words will mean whatever they mean in the real world, both physically and spiritually, not what some conservative says they mean in his or her theology. Having ten bullet points does not make anything real. Words are just words. Yet some words are more comforting than others.

In recent years, I’ve found one sentence to be particularly comforting. God is God. It’s like what Muslims say, that there is no allah but Allah. It’s not meaningless. His existence does not depend on what anyone says He is or She is or isn’t. For those who hate tautologies, I can expand it a little. God is whoever and whatever God is. It’s still almost a tautology, but I get meaning out of it. To me it means that the God I know best, whoever and whatever gave me the direction, strength, and comfort I’ve received in prayer, plus whatever more there is to God, exists as a person or not, with grand attributes or quite puny ones, as something close to the traditional God or quite different from that. No know-it-all can pin that down any better than I can. I experience God as I do. Those who only experience God at a distance, through their theology, have only words, and words aren’t nearly as magical as ancient people thought they were.

That might sound like agnosticism, but it’s not. I’m devoted to God, whoever and whatever God is. It’s not that I don’t know Him. I just don’t know that much about Him, but do know that those who claim to know everything actually know next to nothing. The part of God I experience I perceive clearly. There is more to God than that. At least He tells me there is. I believe Him. I believe Him over those who claim that ancient people had everything right when they didn’t even know that moonlight is reflected sunlight, over those who say their modern theology describes the real God when it includes nothing I know, and over those who say there can’t be a God because they find no need for Him. I hope I can write from time to time about how I have found the limited God I know more trustworthy than any human being. He has an advantage being inside my consciousness somehow, when anyone else has to rely on conventional communication, but the difference is more than that.

I suppose it is human nature that people’s beliefs are usually more detailed than this. Neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists can speak to how that reflects our brain being built to fill in any void, such as the blind spots we have in either eye. In addition to that, we don’t walk well where we can’t see. I knew that many years ago, but it’s still been amazing over the years to watch how people defend their beliefs with just some notions for why they believe what they do. I defend what I know or opinions that are a matter of taste, but I know there is a fundamental truth to the phrase, “It is what it is,” no matter what kind of smarty pants ridicules that or wise fool insists that it is something else.

God especially is worth getting to know by more than just quoting what someone else says. He is what He is. She is what She is. They are what They are, multifaceted as They are, one as They are, Elohim, but one. It’s not that everyone is right in what they say about God. It seems to me everyone is wrong. God is not to be found in those places where people seem to be least wrong about Him. I’ve looked there, just as Joseph Campbell and others told me to. Religion is so artificial. Maybe it doesn’t work for everyone to stop at some point and just ask God who He is and what He’d like me to do about it. It worked for me. I’ll write more about it. I need to do that, even if only God cares.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Open for business

OK, I give up. Sometime in the past year I switched from doing Google searches, not otherwise specified, to those just in the blogosphere. I find more interesting hits show up that way. Yet too often I find posts I'd like to comment on, and the blogger doesn't allow anonymous comments. OK, I can adapt. Flexibility is a good thing. So here goes ...