Monday, December 31, 2007

Half empty, half full

I was halfway into a profound thought while seated at my computer recently when I noticed my water glass. Hey, it’s half-full, as exactly as I can tell just looking at it! Now there’s a metaphor that’s been beaten to death. Before everyone had experience with transparent drinking glasses, there was a saying about half a loaf being better than none. I’m sure there’s a series of sayings on this point in various languages going back nearly to when humans first spoke about their possessions, sometime after our ancestors first appreciated that having more is better. Was that even before we had brains? Is there anything that is more of a no-brainer than that having some is better than having none, even if we want more? But where do we go from there? Do we ration what we have? Is only a new supply of resources going to make the situation better?

The thing is that while I do indeed tend to focus on the water or other things I have rather than what I no longer have, it’s not as though there are only two ways to see this. The truth about how I look at my water glass when half the water is left is more complicated than that it is half full. I see my water. Half of this last round I poured is gone. Half remains. When that’s gone, I’ll pour some more. As long as I know there’s more water coming after this, it’s not much of a challenge emotionally or intellectually. A third, three quarters, overflowing, the overall reality remains the same.

If the glass of water or its metaphorical equivalent were the last glass of water that ever would exist, I’d much more likely be a half-empty kind of guy. Like many metaphors, the circumstances of what’s really under discussion are important.

“Do I have enough?” is not a simple question, whether one is discussing physical needs, emotional needs, or spiritual needs. It’s not a simple dichotomy of whether it’s best to look to what one has or to what one no longer has. Aren’t both possible, with other possibilities as well? Yet human nature tries to make everything a dichotomy.

On spiritual topics, I’m forever writing about the atheist vs. traditionalist dichotomy, in my case rejecting both. Within theism, there’s the rigid, conservative vs. the experimental, liberal dichotomy. I firmly belong to the latter school, but that’s not the whole story. People get stuck on such things, on some simple identity, either for ourselves or for the world around us.

There are always many possibilities, not just two. Yet there is always one reality. God is whoever and whatever God is, as is anything else. The things I need form a set that is a single reality, though it’s a different set of what I need to survive vs. what I need to be happy. How I look at my wants is not the most important part of that.

Yet people talk about that last part, because we have this very visual and understandable metaphor of whether a glass is half empty or half full. Right now my water glass is both. Later today I will refill it the same way regardless of how I label it now. It’s not a big deal. Nor is it a big deal for many other things in my life where I might wonder if I have enough, material things or more abstract qualities to my life.

But thinking of all the possibilities, that I think is a big deal. I look at those who seem needy spiritually, and I think that’s what they’re missing the most. It’s not so much what they wish they still had, such as youth, wealth, family, companions, or a place that felt more like home. It’s not so much focusing on what they have now, as if God has to have given them what they need as far as theology, customs and materials. Otherwise they might need to rethink whether they know anything about God. Who wants to do that?

I think what’s missing is not appreciating the possibilities for becoming content. They are many, though for any one of us, they may boil down to just one possibility, one we may already have in our possession or not. Many possibilities, one reality, it’s not a simple dichotomy. It’s not that feeling empty is bad while full is good, or the opposite. It’s not that the beliefs I have are good, while everything else is bad. There’s more to it than that.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dead faith walking

“If anybody wants to believe that they are the descendents of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it. I don’t know how far they will march that back, but I believe all of us in this room are the unique creations of a God who knows us and loves us and who created us for His own purpose.” – Mike Huckabee, New Hampshire Republican debate, June 5, 2007

With Mike Huckabee getting a lot of air time recently, both pro and con, I was curious to look back at some of his videos. So I came across this quote from 6 months ago. The first thing that hit me was the idea that beliefs are based on what we want to believe. Is that just us fools who disagree with Rev. Huckabee, or would the right reverend say everyone believes what they want to believe?

I don’t believe what I want to believe. I want to believe that the Chargers will win the Super Bowl and the Padres the World Series. I want to believe that I’ll meet a beautiful woman 20 years younger than I am who for some reason is utterly devoted to me. I want to believe ice cream has no calories. Instead I believe just the opposite. My experiences have taught me to expect other than what I might want. That’s part of growing up.

There’s evidence that we are descended from primates in comparative anatomy and physiology. I wonder if some even thought of that before the 19th century. It’s so obvious. Then in the 20th century there’s so much biochemistry that connects not just some species, but all of life, at least DNA-based life, so much that education will teach you the truth is much more profound than that we are descended from primates. All of life is made up of cousins of varying distance. Even an animal and a plant are cousins. They weren’t separate creations. Just look at all the data.

Now with fossils that aren’t just an isolated skeleton here and there, but part of a mountain of data to document the 4+ billion year history of the Earth, and molecular clocks that are amazingly consistent at putting together who our ancestors are, for the last 50,000 years or 50 million years, one can be a lot more detailed than saying we’re descended from primates. It’s not some whim. It’s not even mere hypothesis. Either Rev. Huckabee doesn’t know that or dismisses such knowledge. Either way he is deluded that people believe this because they want to believe it.

I learned evolution in school, with a lot of supporting data. It made sense to me. Since then I’ve heard a lot of arguments against evolution. There’s always a flaw in them. I didn’t find those flaws because I wanted the argument to be flawed. I scrutinize any new information skeptically, whether it’s a report of a new experiment or some comment on an old one. I learned that from role models in science and other analytical pursuits. People make mistakes. Sometimes they’re honest mistakes. Sometimes they’re stupid mistakes. Sometimes they’re just engaging in rhetoric and never have done the work to examine all human experience that relates to their topic. It’s good to recognize this.

I suspect that when Genesis was written thousands of years ago, it was the best any human being could do at the time at imagining where the world, life, and his people came from. I suspect when other Bible verses were written, such as God knitting us together in our mother’s womb, there was no data to suggest otherwise. It wasn’t known we had DNA that knitted us together, with no additional supernatural action needed. A lot wasn’t known.

It’s known now. It’s known so well that I can only imagine Mike Huckabee being filled with contempt for such knowledge when he said that believing we are descended from primates comes from wanting to believe that, completely the opposite from when he says that people are welcome to such beliefs. People have such difficulty labeling emotions in their rhetoric designed to make them look good. So they lie a lot.

It’s not that my fellow liberal Christians do much better on this point. Many accept evolution because science says so or for the same reasons that science says so, yet they still want the same Creator God who loves every bit of His creation and has a purpose for each little bit.

Almost 20 years ago I decided to ask God about such things. I’m satisfied with the direction and other answers that approach has gotten me. It’s impossible to recreate a course like that for someone else. Most people come to their beliefs differently than I have. But just believing what they want? I don’t see people doing that, no matter how many people in our culture belittle the beliefs of others that way.

Yet any public figure will likely get away with claiming beliefs are chosen by want and that God’s purpose is in every bit of existence, every open wound, every desperate mind, everyone who is crushed by the world instead of being loved by anyone. I don’t believe that such claims will be accepted forever. God tells me each year will pass without a Rapture. Science tells me that the details of our molecular heritage will become so detailed that it will require no thought at all to see that our creation required neither an omnipotent God nor an accident, but a physical process that Rev. Huckabee doesn’t realize is a third possibility besides his metaphysical dichotomy.

God is whoever and whatever God is. So is the world. So is life. So am I and everyone else. If people don’t consider fully the possibility that they’re wrong, if they only consider straw man arguments as the alternative to their beliefs, what is the chance that their beliefs happen to be the one possibility that is reality? I wouldn’t bet on it. Exploring that takes me farther from tradition every year, farther from atheism, too.

Many people are ducking the conflict between how science shows God does not micromanage the world and how that means God must be different than tradition sees God. Is God Creator at all? What is your definition for God? I’ve written about mine before. I don’t see people doing that. I see people always talking about the Creator, whether theist or atheist. Such talk has a limited future. I suspect someone will still be talking like Rev. Huckabee in 100 years, but not 500 years. It’s a pity so many will waste their time on this in the meantime. Mike Huckabee is just a dead faith walking.

I don’t welcome Mike Huckabee spouting simplicities and fantasies in a public forum. I think people would be better served by a well-informed critique of the contradictions in his beliefs, as well as where he is just ignorant. But there’s very little I can do about that, nor can God. Ask Him. Think about it. Look into it. Ask Him again. It works for me. I don’t know why that doesn’t work for everyone. I know it doesn’t. That it doesn’t is one reason for a dead faith, one that claims that the Bible is all there is to faith. Time will tell. In the meantime I could write for days about why I believe very little of real faith comes from the Bible. I wanted to believe something a lot simpler, whether something as simple as what Mike Huckabee believes or even as simple as what atheists believe. It turns out I can’t believe either one. Reality is more complicated. You do have to want reality instead of fantasy, a reality where God is whoever and whatever God is, whether just inside my head or beyond physical reality in a grander way than any human being has imagined. But to do that you have to be pretty flexible about who your Daddy is, not just limiting yourself to who you want Him and/or Her to be.