Sunday, July 13, 2008

We wear the chains we forge in life

"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?" – A Christmas Carol

What is the reality of any literary or cinematic image? Is it to be found literally or metaphorically? Are the words above simply the product of the imagination of Charles Dickens, or do they reflect a real process Dickens observed? Are these words about an archaic notion of sin, or are the links made not of sin but a different sort of burden we create for ourselves? Was Dickens describing events he thought an observer could witness or was his entire story occurring only in Scrooge’s mind?

What is imagination anyway? Explain the anatomy and physiology of it to me. Where does our will guide what we imagine?

We rarely reflect on how symbolism dominates our consciousness. We are in much better touch with how our senses stimulate us. How symbols do the same is so surreptitious. I look at a word, and I always know I’m using my eyes. I know a lot about how I do this thanks to science, if I care to reflect on that. In contrast, I rarely think about just how many symbols are involved with such reading. There are letters and language, the symbols that let me recognize a word, then the concepts symbolized by the word, with whatever ambiguity there may be in that, then the overall meaning of phrases, sentences, and entire stories, the larger symbols for which that word is a piece. These symbols affect me according to so many connections to experiences, values, and desires I carry with me. A Buddhist might summarize these as delusions and attachments. People vary in what symbols they use to describe reality.

Is there one person on the planet whose view of reality is best? I might be interested in that question except for how quickly knowledge increases, the world changes, and I change. I doubt any one person is keeping up with all of that.

Is there one sort of view of reality that’s best? Are literal descriptions better? Are metaphors better? Is objective data over entire populations better or do subjective anecdotes flesh out or even replace data in some essential way? So many parts of us like our imagination are impossible to detail currently in any material way, yet I’d hate to rely only on metaphors to talk about my experience of life. That would be maddeningly ambiguous. I think we’re stuck with both the literal and the metaphorical for the foreseeable future.

That gets me back to the metaphor that we wear chains that we’ve forged in life. As I have no hope of describing the burden we carry through purely literal means, I embrace this metaphor. I prefer it to the passivity implied by the idea of memes. I doubt that I see this exactly as Dickens did. Chains are not just a burden, but also security, stability, strength. This I would point out to anyone advocating complete freedom from them, be that person a Buddhist who is bad-mouthing attachments or some secular youth advocating a freedom of expression that is one step short of anarchy. In giving up all restraint, all that is left is nature. Such is my experience.

So what’s wrong with nature? Have you seen the physical and mental suffering that comes from living a life entirely by whatever thoughts and feelings come to us naturally? All that’s wrong with politics is just this. All that’s wrong with religion and the lack thereof is just this. To escape our nature we not only have to learn the discipline of the scientific method, a philosophical method and/or psychotherapy such as cognitive therapy, we have to use such discipline throughout our lives. A scientist who knows how to be scientific about genetics, but has natural prejudice about the rest of life has at least one arm in chains.

There is a lot one could write about how we are chained by the thoughts and feelings that come to us naturally, by everything that is unhealthy in that. Yet what reaches people? Most people can agree Scrooge’s life needed improvement. Our own chains are another matter. Who is willing to see that Republicans are restricted by the neo-con triad of low taxes, an aggressive foreign policy and wanting to rollback every social change since the fifties? Their opponents are, but not so much true believers. Likewise Democrats would have difficulty seeing the bondage in believing that every problem has a simple solution, a solution that would be in place already except for greed and corruption.

We are in chains, some foundational from our biology and culture, the rest of our own making. We are surrounded by spirits, some of whom would free us, the rest who would eat our livers each day as they did to Prometheus. In saying that I’m being at least as metaphorical as Dickens was about what was binding Scrooge really and what really freed him. Was it 3 dreams? Were the space and elements for these 3 spirits already in his mind or did they need to enter him? Whatever these spirits were, they were not that part of Scrooge’s mind he called his self. So are spirits in everyone’s minds beyond the boundary of oneself.

Dickens wrote of a solution that is forced on Scrooge. Marley’s ghost intervenes. Three spirits intervene, whether they are dreams or something even more strange, whether they are purely psychological or also spiritual. None of them asked Scrooge for consent.

If such freedom from our chains can be forced on us, why don’t we hear of it happening more? I would think that’s because it can’t be forced on us, naturally or supernaturally. Courts can order psychotherapy or 12 steps as an alternative to jail, but even they can’t force a person to accept what they hear. Supernatural experiences like Scrooge’s are rare, and ones I’ve experienced or read about do not involve anyone as resistant as Scrooge. It seems such experiences only happen to people who welcome them at least a little.

We wear chains we’ve forged in life. Some ask for help getting rid of them, yet rarely does that help come dramatically. Try to dive into this realistically and so much time will be spent on what really is a false belief and then which false beliefs are binding us too tightly and which provide necessary support to living. Thank God cultural evolution will sort this out for people as a whole, regardless of which metaphors they like. It’s enough for me just to sort it out in my own life.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The hateful words of Maureen Dowd and everyone else

Media Matters recently documented a pattern New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd follows as she ridicules political candidates. Dowd often has portrayed Hillary Clinton as masculine, such as writing that Senator Clinton won the Indiana primary by playing “The Man”. She has portrayed Barack Obama and John Edwards as effeminate, even claiming that historians will note that one reason Obama defeated the first serious female candidate for President was because voters were drawn to his “more feminine management style”.

I had been meaning to look up how Dowd started calling Senator Obama “Obambi”. Was that the fawn Bambi or the grown-up Bambi? Now Media Matters has helped me with that. Frequently procrastination does have that benefit. It turns out that Dowd in her column of December 13, 2006 foresaw the manly Clinton as Godzilla, taking on the not-so-black Obambi in a way that in Dowd’s mind presumably followed the very brief plot of the movie Bambi vs. Godzilla, something all of us born in the fifties must know. Dowd’s analysis of the race thereby fell short of reminding anyone of Cassandra. Apparently Dowd compensates for such lack of vision with her biting ridicule of the candidates. It wasn’t just straight analysis that got her that 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her columns on Monica Lewinsky.

Interestingly, Dowd once made the same claim for which Christopher Matthews had to apologize this year, that Clinton, “won her Senate seat only after becoming sympathetic as a victim”. Meanwhile Dowd victimized Senator Edwards, calling him a “Breck girl”. Before the current campaign, Al Gore seemed effeminate to her as well. Didn’t Dowd have any men in her life to show her that helping people is not effeminate?

At the same time Dowd finds few emasculating nicknames for Republican candidates. She didn’t ignore Rudy Giuliani dressing up as a woman, of course. But to find any sexist insult of John McCain, Media Matters had to go back to April 30, 2000, when Dowd called him “McDiva” on comparing Senator McCain to Diana Ross.

It’s not that Republicans can’t be funny as the butt of jokes. Those are easy to find in the blogosphere. But Republicans as effeminate? Well, I think I’ve seen those, but perhaps Dowd’s readers wouldn’t think that’s as funny. I’m sure Dowd knows her audience.

One thing I did notice in looking at Dowd’s columns in the Media Matters links is how much she calls Senator Obama, “Barry”. Is this where so many in the blogosphere decided this was a cool thing to do? Much more subtle than “Hussein”, I suppose.

Maureen Dowd, trendsetter for hateful words one can pretend are cool, only there’s no chance that Dowd invented such a disguise for hate. Go through any newspaper archive and look at 19th-century political attacks, words and cartoons. I’m sure “Ape” Lincoln was thought to be a clever and penetrating insult at the time. Yeah, we’ll keep that ape from becoming President. Then when he did, we’ll secede. We won’t stand for being under that ape. Then if they want to fight us, bring it on. Yeah, it was really clever to make such an extreme caricature of Lincoln.

I know of no place on either the political spectrum or the religious spectrum where there aren’t some people who think such ridicule is funny, as long as it’s directed at those other people, the ones not as cool as we are. Part of me would preach for the better way, the way of love, even for one’s enemy, instead of hate, indifference or the strange way some people combine both in their contempt for some scapegoat. Yet the more interesting part for me is to look at Maureen Dowd and know she’s not at all unique. She’s prolific in her insults, but not unique.

Maybe Dowd shares my beliefs that all religions are false and all politics corrupt. Maybe that’s where her contempt for just about everyone comes from. Is it cynicism or does she find existential joy in attacking the powerful? I don’t know Maureen Dowd well enough to tell the difference, but either way I’d rather be more straightforward. She’s not that right in relentlessly insulting candidates through gender roles. She just has a taste for that sort of insult, whether it tastes bitter or sweet to her.

There is a better way than hate and indifference if people want to choose it, but again and again, people choose hate and indifference. There is power in the latter, power in finding people who agree with you in mocking those other people, enough people to win elections, even to establish a political philosophy that will last more than one election. Such a winning political philosophy and coalition is still transient, of course, but that’s enough power for many people to embrace it.

Plus look at all the fun various people are having calling Senator Obama “Barry”, from anti-McCain libertarians and neo-cons to loyal Republicans to those who still say it’s Senator Clinton or nothing for them. They have at least 5 months to enjoy that. Then one just has to tweak one’s hatred a little after one’s position has been defeated at the polls. It can still be so clever. What do those stupid voters know?

I don’t think hatred and indifference are going away. I think it’s human nature. People so often subdivide hatred, so it becomes OK to hate racism or hate sexism or even try to decide which is being favored more, racism or sexism. It’s all hatred, whether it’s more traditional, more institutionalized or more organically from the present, whether the purveyors of a particular hatred are in power or out of power. Only some people say it’s just those other people who hate. “We’re fine. We’re being clever. They’re stupid” Right.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"Whatever God wants, He keeps!"

I heard a joke many years ago, more than once I think. I considered retelling it here in a way that’s neither sectarian nor ethnic, but since I heard it told by a Jewish man and the link here is about Jewish humor, I’ll just reproduce it this way:

As retold by Bruce Lowitt

A Catholic, a Protestant and a Jew are discussing tithing. They draw a circle in chalk on the pavement below them.

The Catholic says: "We should take the money and throw it in the air, and whatever lands inside the circle, we give to God."

The Protestant says: "No, we should throw it in the air and whatever lands outside the circle we give to God."

The Jew says: “No, we throw it in the air; whatever God wants, He keeps!”

Apparently the joke is supposed to resonate with the stereotype of the miserly Jew, but I have remembered it often over the years as something one reasonably could expect of an omnipotent God. Why not? Given enough faith, why not expect the omnipotent God to pluck whatever money He wants from out of the air?

And if God has no direct need for money, but would like it to be sent to some approved cause, why not announce that, either to a single individual or in some sort of broadcast? Some believe that the Bible is a broadcast from God. There are many verses there that encourage charity. Some like Matthew 25 described fearsome consequences for those who fail to help others.

Yet many claim to be believers while doing little to help others. Do they pick and choose what parts of the Bible to believe, maybe even while accusing liberals of being inferior for doing just that? Do they expect the omnipotent God to speak to them individually, something like, “I mean you!” Is it the absence of this that has them believing they don’t need to do more than they are?

This is not just about charity. People seem to have the same attitude towards their beliefs, their lifestyle, and the judgments they make. If the omnipotent God wanted them to be different, wouldn’t He tell them? If not through a great, big booming voice, then perhaps one can hear a still, small voice. If not even that, surely God can reach us through our conscience, as secularly as any of us may see that happening.

I often think of this when I hear anyone proclaim that their beliefs are right, and everyone else’s beliefs are wrong, be that person atheist, liberal or traditionalist. I’ve heard that recently from some who claim Jeremiah Wright can’t be Christian, along with calling him racist, hater, demagogue, anti-American, whatever else.

Do people even consider the possibilities that their judgments are exactly the opposite of how God sees it unless God Himself tells them? I suppose someone less than God might make a dent in such judgments, a religious leader perhaps, someone trusted by the person making judgments. Yet religious leaders tend to make the same judgments as their followers. Jerry Falwell didn’t shy away from saying that he knew God’s mind about sexual orientation. Who says he did?

Of course many people make claims not based on their theology, but supposedly supported by logic. Only I’ve been online for ten years, and one of the most pointless things I’ve done online is try to point out the lack of a foundation for judgments such as these. That doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

People believe what their group believes, their political group, their religious group, the people at work. People may extend those group beliefs in some idiosyncratic way or even abandon some of them should their experience teach them otherwise, but how often do you go wrong deciding what someone’s religion or politics is based on their rhetoric? I don’t think it’s very often.

People largely conform to their group and if they’re open to God leading them in another way at all, it’s only the God as seen by their group who can lead. Even that might not be enough. Otherwise, why don’t all those who believe in an omnipotent God assume things such as God’s power to whisk money out of the air? Because they’ve never seen it? Oh come on, people believe all sorts of things they’ve never seen, as long as enough other people back them up in those beliefs.

This year’s Presidential campaign is not going to be about whether or not Jeremiah Wright deserves the judgments various people make about him. I’m not sure if there ever will be a dialog about this during the lifetime of those involved. Instead people have their opinions based on their experience and wherever they get their beliefs, and I expect those opinions to be quite stable, because I don’t expect God to do anything to change this.

Personally I believe that’s because God lacks the power to communicate to those who have no idea who the real God is. That’s what God tells me. It fits with what I see, and most of what God tells me I find to be helpful, so I believe it.

Ancient people saw it otherwise. They supposed gods controlled everything. Who was there to say differently? Theologians built on that to make this perfect God with absolute and infinite properties, making Him completely different from any of us profane creatures, just as Aristotle decided celestial movement must be entirely different from terrestrial movement. It’s been known that Aristotle was wrong for at least 400 years. It does take time for the consequences of new knowledge to take hold fully.

God is whoever and whatever God is, even if He is no more sacred than anything else, even if nothing is omnipotent or omniscient. An omnipotent God could proclaim who and what He is to a few individuals, to everyone, however He wants to do it, but you’d think that would be a reliable process, not like the mess of this world. A non-existent God can’t tell anyone anything. If those were the only two possibilities, God’s failure to correct the most obviously incorrect judgments of His followers would be so incomprehensible to me, it would be yet one more observation that makes me sure He doesn’t exist.

There are possibilities between those two, however. What I observe of people’s opinions, both religious and political, may be almost entirely the result of biological evolution and cultural evolution, with only a little bit of input from people who have tried to understand God directly. So we have the contrast of a Bible with a verse like Matthew 7:1 in it, a verse that says not to judge, yet Bible-believers are just as judgmental as anyone else, and not any more accurate in their judgments. It seems that many say they are Bible believers from their culture, from their church, but they don’t actually believe words from the Bible. An omnipotent God would do better than that. Even a God with some power over such believers would do better than that. What about a God with very little power over Bible believers or idolators of the Bible, whichever term is more accurate?

All religion is false. All politics is corrupt. That’s not absolutely true, but isn’t it amazing how close to being true it is?

People pretend that’s not true. Their religion is fine, but Jeremiah Wright’s Christianity certainly isn’t or maybe it’s John Hagee’s Christianity someone would say isn’t really Christian. Their own politics is fine, but not the politics of those evil people on the other side or stupid people or selfish people or crazy people.

I watch people come at these conflicts rationally. What a waste of words, time, and effort. Professional politicians know how to win elections. Their efforts are not so wasted. It matter some who wins. Cultural evolution is built up from such choices. But what an excessive amount of attention politics gets, religion, too, especially when so much of both are pride and idolatries.

Hardly anyone looks to God directly. To some degree, that can be just as crazy as expecting God to pull your money out of the air unless He doesn’t care if you keep it all. Yet looking to God doesn’t have to involve any physical miracle, the likes of which I have never seen. One can talk with God not sure if there is a God. I suppose it helps to have some expectation there is a God. Otherwise who would stick with this enough to consider how God might answer one of us profane creatures?

However it works, I’m convinced there is a God who is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, yet helps me with direction, strength, comfort, love, and hope, through prayer, through words that are better than my words. He can’t change anyone’s mind involuntarily, so those who are sure God would fix them if they need to be fixed might better reconsider that. Few will. It’s human nature for people to keep certain beliefs until they die. Because of that cultural evolution has to wait for younger generations to replace older ones.

Individuals can change faster than cultures, but we have to give up the delusion that we know so much for that. Giving up that delusion didn’t send me into my backyard to give God whatever part of my money He wants. If I threw my money up into the air and claimed God didn’t want it, I’d be lying. I don’t believe in a God who can do physical miracles. I’d be lying if I suggested I did. I know that. The God who somehow shares my consciousness knows that. There’s no point in lying to someone who knows me that well.

I don’t rely on any kind of casting lots to know what God wants. I don’t trust any ritual, doctrine, religious leader, book, or institution to substitute for God. Why should they? Who says God wants them to? Have you asked Him?

Few people have. They believe whatever words pass their lips, whatever excuses they have to say they can say and do whatever they say and do and be in the right. Anyone is free to live that way. It is such a natural thing for our brain to think of how we are right in what we say and do. Yet people on both sides of a conflict insist they are right despite having completely contradictory opinions. They can’t all be right. They may all be wrong.

That’s what I’ve come to in recent years. They are all wrong. Each of the characters in the above joke is wrong. Each pretends they can know God through a ritual. In real life it’s doctrines and leaders people fight over more than rituals, but it’s the same process. People want to know what to do quickly, too quickly to consult God seriously. People want to say and do what they’ve already decided on saying and doing, whether it’s some judgment they’ve made of other people or some action they decided for themselves. Few even pretend to ask God. So the world is full of falseness, hatred, and indifference. Before you decide that means there isn’t a God, consider another possibility.

If you want to know what God wants, ask Him. Every other method is hopelessly flawed. There are flaws in how we ask God anything, but my experience in this has surprised me and made me a believer in whoever and whatever God is. That is not hopeless.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So few fear that God is on the other side of the fight

George Will wrote a column for the Washington Post yesterday that’s such junk, I’m not going to link to it. In it he calls Jeremiah Wright a demagogue and says that Obama’s association with such a man for 20 years should be a central issue for the Presidential campaign. Ah yes, judging a black man for having poor judgment while all these white people making that judgment don’t worry at all about how strangely any white preachers preach. What a world.

Reverend Wright doesn’t strike me as a demagogue, defined in my dictionary as a leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace. Wright only has power inside a church, where being a pastor is a lot more about getting things done and serving people than manipulating them. Yes, he is emotional, and that is unacceptable to some people, isn’t it? So many people have such inexperience with emotion that they see anger and they say it is hate. No, not necessarily.

A big part of my story since first experiencing God 19 years ago is that I wanted to know God wherever I could find him. I went to liberal churches and conservative churches. The difference there is simple enough. The latter believe the Bible was almost dictated by God. The former drifted away from that. They don’t often drift away as far as I have. I’m sure the Bible is strictly the words of men, even if some of those men knew a little about the real God.

There is another dimension that defines churches, namely how emotional a church is, what kind of music they play. Unfortunately for me there isn’t such a thing as a very liberal, very charismatic church, not one with a grip on reality as well as spirituality. That’s where I’d like to go. I know that from my time in more sedate liberal churches and fairly conservative, charismatic churches like the Vineyard fellowships. Ooh, I’d like to do some cultural engineering combining things I like about those while leaving out things I don’t like, such as the prejudices of sedate liberals against strong spiritual experience and the prejudices of conservatives against both liberal religion and liberal politics.

It’s occurred to me before that a Spirit-filled African-American church might be closest to what I want, but then I have this obvious reason not to fit in there, even if there’s plenty of testimony from whites attending Trinity United Church of Christ that they felt comfortable there, testimony lost on so many who have judged Reverend Wright recently. Still I wouldn’t fit in that well culturally, and I’m still too liberal for them theologically. I don’t think God punishes anyone with weather or strife. I don’t see that God controls the physical world at all. I don’t see any reason to believe in physical miracles. I don’t receive any revelation from God that I should believe in them anyway, just the opposite. I’m not sure what kind of church would put up with such beliefs from me.

I do know that I can have church just with God, communing with Him away from any distractions in prayer and in other ways. From that I’ve received God’s direction, comfort, strength, love, and hope for many years. Anyone could join me in that church. No one has wanted to. I understand. It’s too different.

I could be wrong. Maybe those few Catholics are right who claim their church is the only one God established. Maybe it’s that broader belief that conservatives have that believing the Bible to be the Word of God is what is critical. Maybe the real God goes even further than that, but not as far as I go.

I’ve worried about that at times, talked with God about that many times. That’s one reason I’ve explored every kind of church, even religions beyond Christianity. Where is God? I’ve wanted to know, relentlessly.

That’s how I’ve come to seeing my basic belief as being that God is whoever and whatever God is, not what any human being says God is, as that human being has no way of knowing anything of God except by God, and the mistakes human beings have made about this are plentiful and obvious.

That doesn’t exclude God being the traditional God of absolute power, knowledge, love, and goodness despite how this world looks, but that’s not the God I experience. My experience is no guarantee that God is as I experience Him to be. I can only rely on God to lead me past my experience if that is the direction I should follow, so that has been my constant prayer for years, for God to do just that. So from that, here I am, an extremely liberal, extremely charismatic Christian who understands Jeremiah Wright a lot better despite my light skin than so many know-it-alls in the media.

I know God might be very much with Jeremiah Wright. “God Damn America” is just as biblical as he said it is. Every “woe to” in the Bible, such as Luke 6: 24-26, can be replaced by “damn”. Instead of “woe to hypocrites”, “damn hypocrites” means the same thing.

Is that for this world or the next world? You can do what I do and ask God such questions. It’s usually slow getting an answer that way, but I’m quite grateful for how that’s worked for me. It doesn’t seem Sean Hannity has gotten good answers about Jeremiah Wright. Who do suppose Hannity asked? Perhaps it was his image in the mirror.

God is whoever and whatever God is. One can call that a tautology, but it isn’t if each “is” is somewhat different. Oh, someone beat me to that one, but it’s true. Words can be so ambiguous, any of them. How can people never wonder if God is on the other side of their fight? How can people dismiss the possibility that they’re wrong so easily?

It must be human nature. Yet when one becomes aware of the true range of possibilities, such as what science shows compared to what we learn only directly with our senses, one can learn not to be so limited, even to think that there might be more than just the physical universe. Experience helps in many ways. One way is that once you have considered that you are on the wrong side of God, it’s not as hard to imagine that possibility the next time.

My first experience with God was God telling me that I was wrong in giving up on the possibility that there is a God who loved me. That teaches me that I can drift off into being wrong again. It’s easier to consider the second time, the third time, ….

So many in politics and religion don’t seem to know this. I find that to be much more important than whether one expresses emotions “arrogantly” or suppresses one’s emotions so much that one’s anger and fear only comes out in intellectual prejudices.

Is God on the other side? I’ve asked that regularly. I’m with Jeremiah Wright, not that everything he says is right, but I’m with him, and I’m against the uninformed judgments in the media that says Wright should be shunned. That doesn’t mean God is with him also, unless you’re willing to believe how God answers me.

Yet all these conservatives are sure that God is with them or maybe that God is above all this. How do they know if they don’t ask that question from the only One who can answer it accurately?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Will lies ever be completely unacceptable?

I paused on Fox News while channel surfing today. Fred “Beetle” Barnes and Morton Kondracke were expressing such sympathy for the Democratic Party. Barack Obama is in trouble they say because he can’t carry the traditional Democrats Hillary Clinton won in Pennsylvania, such as union members. Yet it would divide Democrats terribly for superdelegates to give the nomination to Senator Clinton. I guess Democrats just have to get used to the inevitability of President John McCain. I’m glad that such a mainstream neo-con as Barnes and Republicanly minded independent as Kondracke would take the time to give us Democrats such compassionate advice as just to give up all hope.

The lies these two were telling were not entirely invented. The exit polls indicating how union members voted in Pennsylvania are a matter of record. Yet consider the possibilities that The Beltway Boys didn’t, that Obama will win the votes of many who voted for Clinton in the primary, that there are many groups that will determine the next President, not just union members, that the number of McCain Democrats will not challenge the phenomenon of Reagan Democrats. There are always many more possibilities than know-it-alls on TV are likely to consider. Why don’t they consider them? Well, there are a number of possibilities.

However one labels lies that aren’t complete fiction, be that spin, concern trolling, a false front, partisan speculation, poor documentation, rationales or false hope, they are less than the whole truth. People tend to pick out what’s wrong with the other guy instead of what’s wrong with me or my guy. It seems to be human nature. Was that nature all The Beltway Boys were expressing, or were they more deliberately being optimistic for McCain and pessimistic for us enemy Democrats? I don’t know, but I know it was some kind of lie. Otherwise why didn’t they consider other possibilities? Why didn’t they consider how they might be exactly wrong? Oh, would that be bad for ratings? So that’s just another type of lie, irrational confidence so as to impress viewers.

Everyone lies sometimes, but some go farther than others. Both Obama and Clinton claim to have misspoke in the past month, “misspoke” for me meaning someone made a slip of the tongue such as if I said Iran when I meant Iraq. Neither misspoke in that sense. Senator Clinton told the same story about her courageous experience several times, and it was so different from what actually happened when she landed in Bosnia that to say she “misspoke” is just another lie. Then Senator Obama copied her “misspoke” label to explain away his going too far in his analysis of the sociology of bitter votes.

Some in the media essentially called Senator Clinton a liar by juxtaposing her story with what is documented. I didn’t hear anyone suggest Senator Obama did more than misspeak, but then I didn’t search for that. Yes, I’m sure there are different degrees of lying, and this is an example. To me Senator Clinton’s lies are simply unacceptable. They are forgivable if she wanted forgiveness for them, but I have no reason to think she wants that. It seems she wants to say she’s said nothing morally wrong, just factually incorrect. Oh come on. You may keep most of your supporters with that claim, but not me.

Senator Clinton continues to lie today by saying she is ahead in the popular vote without explaining what an eccentric definition of popular vote she is using. That’s a lie. It’s deception. It’s deliberate. It’s to make her look better than she is. It is immoral according to any moral system that says love and truth are the ultimate good things. There are many such systems, theistic and atheistic.

How many people care if the person they support politically lies? I’m sure it depends on how bad the lie is and what trouble that lie causes. I myself have given up on Senator Clinton because of her lies after voting for her on February 5. I haven’t done that with Senator Obama’s lies. They aren’t as bad as Clinton’s lies, in my judgment.

Is it OK if every individual decides for himself or herself when lies are unacceptable? It doesn’t seem to be OK, judging by how much politics is full of lies. It seems many individuals are letting political liars off the hook. Of course religion is also full of lies. Just about anything people believe about themselves, other people, life and the world is full of lies, from nutritional fantasies to what one thinks about one’s job. Human beings desperately want to be seen in a certain way, such as how Bill Clinton doesn’t want his wife to be seen as a quitter. So people tell lies that they like better than reality. Not many people tell them they can’t do that. In this current world I observe I’m not sure whom I would trust to be a judge of who’s lying except doing that for myself. That’s one reason I wish we could be more effective at identifying and having sanctions against all lies, not just the worst ones. I actually would like to be able to trust some random purveyor of information, instead of thinking through or researching whom I can't trust.

I don’t suppose this will change anytime soon. Will it ever? Experience does make people more sensitive to why people say and do what they do. “Concern troll” is recognized by many in the blogosphere, when the deception involved in that wouldn’t have been as obvious in the past. Will people in the future be even less easily fooled, sometime after the Fox News Channel collapses in shame around 2025?

I hope so. Can you imagine just how many words 6 billion people waste on lies? What if we used those words to work on reality instead of on fantasies?

Will cultural evolution go in the direction where lies are less acceptable today? Will people be less partisan so that when they say, “That’s a lie,” they’re more likely to be right than telling their own lie? Will voters and other supporters abandon their leaders if that leader tells lies as big as Hillary Clinton’s lies? It hasn’t happened yet, but I for one don’t want to go through another 8 years where every communication from the government is as creative as they have been in the last 8 years. The specter of that is unacceptable to me. Experience changes us, both individually and collectively. I’m not sure if there are sufficient forces to keep lies as prevalent as they are despite such experience. I don’t find that I want to explore them much. If my hope for the future is false, I don’t mind. False hope is sometimes better than no hope at all. That makes us suckers for some lies, but I hope not too much.

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.