Archive for category Religion
The situation is almost surreal. A small group of Republicans want to shut down government to try to stop government funding of Planned Parenthood. Not that Planned Parenthood had done anything illegal, but this is part of the on going anti-abortion crusade, this time fed by videos showing officials of the organization un-emotional over the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses for on going medical experiments. There is nothing wrong with that practice either – better that than just throw it away – but for the zealots that was enough.
Never mind that if that funding was cut – 40% of Planned Parenthood’s budget comes from federal funds, mostly Medicaid – there would probably be a large increase in abortions since so many poor benefit from the contraception services the organization provides – a much more important part of their operation than abortions. Never mind as well that the President would veto the action, and a shut down would probably hurt the 2016 Republicans as much as the 1995 shutdown hurt the GOP in 1996. Zealots rarely give in to rational thought.
Both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell recognized that their moral duty was to govern, and not risk the horrid effects of a shutdown over this quixotic fight. While McConnell has most of the Senate on his side (only a whiney Ted Cruz strongly disagrees), Boehner faced a full uprising from House Conservatives, about three or four dozen who want to fight this jihad rather than compromise and govern.
And these members, as well as many conservative media sources like Rush Limbaugh and redstate.com, routinely attack Boehner with a vengeance, denigrating him and calling him a lackey to Obama, all because he recognized the limits of divided government. These people, so frothy in their fervor, don’t understand that they are not only a minority in the GOP, but a detriment to a party that hopes to regain the White House in 2016. The Democrats have no strong Presidential candidates on the horizon, this could be a big GOP year if they don’t blow it.
Boehner had enough.
He has been fighting this fight for four years, since he became speaker (he joined the House in 1990). He has survived despite vilification from the right wing, in large part because most Republicans respect him and know he has conservative values. He choose to leave at a time no one expected, but which seems appropriate.
We don’t yet know when he made the decision. I wonder if, listening to the Pontiff talk about the need to govern and compromise, he realized he needed to extricate himself from a caucus in complete disarray. Maybe he decided that this was an appropriate ending point for his career – he has wanted a Papal address to Congress for years, starting back when John Paul II was Pope – the visit of the head of a Catholic Church that means much to him.
Boehner was crucified by his caucus because he wanted to do the right thing – make compromises and govern, recognizing that the Democrats weren’t an enemy to be annihilated, but a necessary part of a democracy that runs well only when there are diverse perspectives which are listened to and respected. With inbred blogs and media pushing emotional themes and making compromise look like surrender, he was humiliated every day for trying to do the job of Speaker of the House properly.
He deserved better. He took a lot of bullets for the GOP, he made compromises that were necessary. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the news of Boehner’s departure “seismic” and it seems a clear indicator of the dysfunction within the majority party. He will no doubt push the hated compromise through, doing his duty to the democracy he serves and avoiding a catastrophic government shutdown. Already firebrand Cruz is attacking him, even as other Republicans praise his service, and former Presidential candidate John McCain expresses sorrow over his departure.
The Republicans, already wounded by the bizarre media behavior of people like Trump and Carson, have just over a year to get their act together and show Americans they are a responsible conservative party, not a group of loons wanting to shut down the government over one organization’s funding. With Clinton’s woes, they should be in a much better position then they are. It’s time for the majority of Republicans to take back their party from the extremists. That would be best for the GOP, and best for the country.
(This blog entry is a bit different – I’m in an introspective mood today)
We live in a world. Everything about our existence says that every effect has a cause, everything has a beginning, and you can’t get something from nothing.
So why does a world exist? Why is there something and not nothing?
It seems that there should be no world, no existence. The existence of a world requires a contradiction. Somehow something came from nothing. If you posit a beginning or a cause from something else, you just push back the problem. If one says “God created the world,” then the question becomes “why is there a God rather than no God?”
If one posits the big bang as creating space-time, the current popular theory, then what came before the Big Bang?
Therein lies a hint of an answer. If the big bang marks the creation point of space-time then whatever “caused” the big bang or “came before” it must be outside space-time. Yet we are fundamentally unable to even imagine a world that is not predicated on space-time. Our minds can only think in terms of a progression of events, one thing causing another, with time marching only forward, the present ceasing to exist as it continually becomes the past.
Our minds think of material cause and effect. That limitation is the main reason we cannot answer the question why is there something and not nothing. In our space-time frame of reference this is a paradox, a contradiction. Existence should not exist.
Contradictions are funny things. Aristotle says that two sides of a contradiction cannot both be true. A house cannot be both white and not white. But it’s not so clear cut. Reality isn’t the same as our linguistic symbolic representations of reality. We can create statements that contradict each other, but those statements may be poor reflections of reality. The fact light is both a particle and a wave — a contradictory state of affairs that is nonetheless apparently true — doesn’t really violate a law of contradictions. Our language constructs a contradiction because it imprecisely describes reality. We don’t really understand the nature of light – either the photons or the waves.
Thus it is very possible for two contradictory statements to be true.
So the contradiction behind the notion that a world exists is really a paradox. There may be an explanation, but it is outside our ability to comprehend – it is outside of space/time.
Is this an argument for the existence of God? Well, some conceptions of God claim that God is incomprehensible, and certainly whatever is outside space/time is by definition incomprehensible for us beings trapped in this space-time universe. However particular God-stories (various world religions) are of little help. If the concept of God is broadened to mean whatever force can explain the existence of this space-time universe and its attributes, then we have a form of Deism. But we know nothing about this God.
More convincingly is an argument in favor of some kind of non-material or “spiritual” aspect of existence. Since existence itself rests on the necessity of both sides of a contradiction being true, it’s clear that the material world itself is limited in scope. Any meaning or purpose this world has cannot be determined by looking at science or the material attributes of this world. That will give us knowledge on how we experience the functioning of this world, but not any meaning.
Of course, it’s possible the world is meaningless – that whatever created space-time was a kind of accident, and as soon as this universe runs its course it will collapse on itself and space-time will be “forgotten.” Yet that seems a dubious proposition to hold on purely pragmatic grounds. If the universe is meaningless and yet we search for meaning, we haven’t lost anything – in fact, we can create our own meaning for the brief dance we have on this planet. If there is a deeper meaning, then searching for it may connect us at least intuitively with a better understanding of why we have physical lives, and how we should best handle this experience.
Moreover, psychologically it’s very easy for us to become “hypnotized” by the world in which we find ourselves. Hypnosis operates on suggestions, and our world hurls suggestions at us all day, coming from our culture, media, friends, etc. We can lose ourselves in the routine doing what we think must be done, taking time for a distraction now and then, but not really making our lives something we consciously shape, reflect upon, and experience as truly meaningful.
To me, that would be boring – sort of like going through life half asleep.
So why is there something and not nothing? I don’t know. But contemplating the question gives me a stronger sense that I should reflect on what my experience here means, and look inside myself as well as out into the world.
While some on the right claim that President Obama’s health care law amounts to war on Roman Catholicism due to its birth control provisions, others on the right are attacking the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis I, for being “Marxist.”
The charge is absurd.
Marxism is a particular theory about how history unfolds, an enlightenment style reason-based theory which seeks to objectively show that there is a correct interpretation of history based on the nature of the mode of production – or how value is produced. Any economic system (slavery, feudalism, capitalism) that generates value through exploitation (a small group benefiting from the work of others) inherently contains contradictions. Those contradictions inevitably cause the system to collapse, until finally a system with no exploitation (communism – the anti-statist utopian Marxian version) comes without internal contradictions. History is a human construct, Marxism has no place for a deity. I very much doubt that the Pontiff believes any of that to be true.
Pope Francis I instead provides a conservative critique of capitalism, one that echoes some of the anti-Communist John Paul II’s ideas. The Pontiff released a 50,000 treatise, Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), which calls for a series of reforms and admonishes “unfettered” capitalism. He criticizes trickle down economics, and decries “the idolatry of money” which will lead to a “new tyranny.” He bemoans the “culture of prosperity” where materialism defines human value, but leaves the majority on the outside, often suffering. Even those well off feel like their life is lacking because the culture defines so much by material success. People turn artificial wants into perceived needs.
The Pope was not attacking market economics but naive capitalism – those who believe that markets always turn self-interest into the best result possible. Naive capitalists believe that the “winners” deserve to take as much as they can get away with because they are smarter or work harder. Moreover, they believe that the game is always open for others to win – that the playing field is level and the market will somehow prevent winners from building structural advantage and using their position in society to benefit themselves and guarantee that they and their children will have a much better shot at continuing to “win.” Naive capitalists believe the “losers” are inferior – they deserve to be poor.
The conservative critique of capitalism is not that somehow everyone should be equal. Traditional conservatism accepts the idea that inequality is inevitable in society, but that it cannot be so pervasive as to be culturally destabilizing. They distrust capitalism because it debases the culture. It appeals to the masses, and replaces community with consumption. It rationalizes wealth inequality without creating a sense of social responsibility. Conservatives also distrust human nature; they believe that utopian visions of capitalism underestimate human greed, ruthlessness and willingness to cheat/abuse others out of self interest.
Traditional conservatism has an organic view of society – that the culture is an entity that is greater than the sum of the individuals. It distrusts the radical individualism of naive capitalism, noting that the individual is embedded in a culture and society from which identity, interests, morals and desires all spring. The culture maintains social stability and order. Reason alone cannot replace it, since reason is a tool that can rationalize just about anything. Reason can justify a whole host of contradictory principles and ideals — whatever the individual wants to believe. That was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French revolution; you take away the cultural glue that holds society together and everything falls apart.
For conservative critics of capitalism, the market doesn’t magically follow the values society holds, nor do peoples’ decisions on what to buy and sell necessarily support their core values. That’s why people have constructed governments to, among other things, tame the excesses of capitalism.
Even the capitalist hero, Adam Smith, knew markets were not magic. While naive capitalists use his metaphor of the “hidden hand,” it’s a metaphor he only used once, and in a limited context. If you actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations it’s clear that he is critical of the capitalists of his era. Karl Marx even considered Smith his favorite economist, saying that only in communism would Smith’s ideas work properly. Those nuances don’t fit into the good vs. evil simplistic dichotomy of the Limbaughesque world.
To be sure, the conservative critique of capitalism is distrustful of big government and efforts to promote equal outcomes. Conservatives embrace tradition, family, community and custom. Capitalism does damage to all of those – thanks to capitalism Christmas now is more about shopping than worship. Thanks to capitalism extended families in close contact have become rare. A sense of community has been replaced by people who hardly know their neighbors, especially in urban areas. Custom has been replaced by fad. Perhaps that is why Limbaugh and others want to try to hide all this using a claim that any critique of capitalism is “Marxist.”
Agree or disagree, the Pope is decrying the materialism, self-centered individualism, and lack of concern for the community that raw capitalism often fosters. That is a value-based critique, not at all Marxist. The Limbaughs of the world want to put their hands over their ears and mutter “Marxist, Marxist, Marxist…” because they don’t want to delve into the details of how the world really works — So much easier to have a “left vs. right” caricature than to actually consider the gritty complexity of reality.
In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God. Both were Deists. Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God. Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover. Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator? Beyond that, though Deists had different views.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans. Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires. He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God. On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake. It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants. It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”
(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).
Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw. Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery. Horrific suffering thanks to nature. How could this be the handiwork of a loving God? Why would God allow such misery to occur?
Rousseau offered an answer. Nature is God’s message, and God is love. So the problem must be humans. God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities. People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake. It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.
This infuriated Voltaire. He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril. But Voltaire was not sure how to respond. Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity? But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?
He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.” Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences. Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”
So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote. And wrote. The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist. It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical. Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best. Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake. Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved. (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).
By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best. Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”
That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:
To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant. I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work. Perhaps God is out creating other worlds. In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love. Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.
Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.” It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct. It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement. It is secular because God is irrelevant. Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need. Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.
Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics. We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans. Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.
Yet perhaps there is a middle ground. This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning. Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value. Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology. Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value. Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.
It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be). But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.” Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”
Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world. Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense. For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs. Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.
That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute. Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion. Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience. Perhaps both were right in their own way. We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive. God? Spirit? Does it really matter?
I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy. Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.
One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people. It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas. It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices. It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse. That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.
In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection. The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification. Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves. Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.
Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual. If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.
This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values. The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view. Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive. If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.
Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends. People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering. If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters. Collect sexual encounters and material objects. What else is there to life?
Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation. But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed. Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy. Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill needs that cannot be met. Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.
The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality. And that leads me to the other article.
Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):
• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm
This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.” They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values. The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.
I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t. I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it. The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed. Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.
To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality. Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways. The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear. Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.
Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible. Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning. And everything is better with meaning.
Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays. Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights. Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have. Many families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.
One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Kids get it when they watch the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot. The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind. Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living. The eternal trumps the temporal, values trump self-interest.
Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box” stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday. Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.
Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists and then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted. Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done. The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.
Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them? Sigh. I think I have one more I can send out.” “Dad, why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yeah, for the retailers! For the small shops in the mall!
A savior is born in Bethlehem. Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that. Christians will, but many will quickly pivot “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”
What irony! The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year. Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get. Starting Thanksgiving evening we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”
What if people decided to reject that and grab the true Christmas spirit instead? For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism.
One does not have to be Christian to celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections. The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions. After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions. The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.
The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence. If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be and the best for humanity. The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry and perhaps non-existent.
The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one rejects the story behind the holiday. That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year. That spirit is here, inside each of us, and in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year. Grab the Christmas spirit! Share it. Make this a season of joy rather than greed. Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism. A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls. And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.
(Note, this is part 9 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.” It is in English, which the book calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all thecomplexities of the world as it really is. I’m not sure where this book came from). Picking up where I left off, the next section in this ‘guidebook’ is “Empaths and Extensions.”
EMPATHS and EXTENSIONS
One of the more difficult aspects of playing Quantum Life is the nature of existence in Quantum Life as a single, discrete entity with connections to others blocked (at least to the conscious mind).
In true reality there are no such distinct barriers, real world entities reach out, touch, feel, and integrate a wide variety of experiences into the “self.” That lack of a discrete self and meshing of identities, experiences and emotion is what gives real existence its fundamental joy and contentment. It is why we lack the drama, horror and ecstasy of the Quantum Life experience.
The game would be unbearable if the self was truly discrete and disconnected. Despite the blocking of both memory and psychic connections, the game requires ways of allowing players to still maintain aspects of their true selves outside the discrete Quantum Life identity they don for the game. Most do this through extensions, but some play the game as empaths.
Some players choose a life where the connections are more “open” than usual. These people are called empaths. In a sense they experience game reality a bit more like true reality, though in a manner that can be overwhelming. Anyone choosing such a life should be an experienced, advanced player. In the Quantum Life world it isn’t expected that people connect with others, and as such empaths may appear to be weak, overly emotional, hyper-sensitive or lost in their imagination. They are prone to escapism both because such connections can overload the Quantum Life self, and because empathic connections decrease the need for Quantum Life style “social” connections.
Such players must learn to trust their enhanced connections which inevitably work against the materialist conventional wisdom shared by most players. When they trust their experiences as legitimate and true, they find a disconnect between themselves and the reality of less connected players. They see the world and its inner truths more clearly, almost as if they are awake and others are in a kind of hypnotic state.
People choose such a life for a variety of reasons. Very advanced players want to take the lessons learned from the separation and uncertainty of playing Quantum Life back into true reality. Such lifetimes are efforts to learn how to hold on to a concept of self while re-connecting with greater reality.
Others choose such a life in order to either help other players or play a larger cultural role in bringing about and understanding major social changes. Such an existence can be quiet, with an individual using empathy to guide other players through difficult life lessons as a kind of teacher who not only understands but in a real way lives the experience with those being helped. Others might become known as great teachers. Most religions are built on the experiences and teachings of empaths, though often these are mangled and altered in the course of time. Empaths have at times been called teachers, speakers, healers, gurus, or holy men/women.
Most players don’t have the capacity to choose such a life and thus need to redirect their inherent need not to be completely alone/cut off. In Quantum Life they do so by having a variety of other experiences that symbolically reflect their life choices. Every individual player has aspects of themselves living as animals, plants, soil, rocks and other “material” aspects of the game environment. Almost every player has trillions of simple extensions, including entities such as bacteria, viruses, etc. The cells that make up their game body are such extensions. The entire game environment is comprised of extensions.
Extensions are literally what keeps players sane — able to play the game without losing the capacity for rational thought. It creates a comfortable web of knowledge and a sense of connection to the wider world which exhibits itself as such things as an instinct to survive, a belief in the importance of the world in which they find themselves, and as a force for psychological stability. Nature reflects the thoughts and actions of players at a fundamental level — players are linked with their environment completely.
Such extensions are also the way that entities outside the game can communicate and interact with players in the game. They exist only as small particles or very simple creatures (though often trillions of them at once) to integrate some of their real world insight into the fabric of the Quantum Life game, thus available to players. The players don’t know they are receiving these messages, which show themselves through symbols or synchronicity — what players often dismiss as luck and coincidence.
All players have at their finger tips a vast reservoir of insight and strength available to them. They need to look inside and trust connections they feel, but can’t understand. They can find power working with nature, recognizing it as a reflection of/extension of themselves. Without extensions, players would be overwhelmed by the game. Without extensions intruding from those still outside the game, players would lose themselves in the game more often and veer ever farther from their purpose.
(OK, that’s enough transcribing of this strange book for today)
Modern physics is only touching the big questions about the origin of the universe. Do black holes spawn universes? Are we in a multi-verse with parallel realities less than an atom’s length away? Perhaps — those are the kinds of theories occupying modern physics these days as scientists probe the nature of the big bang and what may have caused it.
So what should we humans believe? Clearly scientific knowledge is uncertain at best. We know we are in a space-time universe, space-time appears to have come into being at an event called the “big bang,” and if we take quantum physics seriously, the world is probabilistic and far more weird and indeterminate as most of us would like to believe. The old determinist Newtonian world of clear laws and causality is long gone, even though in every day life that is still the approach we take.
Consider: Since we live in a space time universe, we are incapable of comprehending or even imagining reality outside space time. Something outside space-time has no beginning or end, since those are merely temporal markers. If something is outside space-time it has no location, that is a spatial marker. Yet there is no way to dismiss the possibility that reality includes entities outside of space-time. We just can’t comprehend what they would be like or how they operate, it is beyond our cognitive capacities. Just as an ant in the White House can’t comprehend the politics going on around it, our frame of reference and mental capacities are limited to the space-time reality we inhabit.
For religious folk, this opens up the possibility for the existence of God – an existence that is not in denial of science. If God is outside space-time, then we cannot imagine God’s nature. God need have no beginning or operate under causal laws like we do. This fits Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu conceptions of God well, though Christians and Jews have tended to anthropomorphize God and give it human traits.
That said, claims about God that can be tested in the material world are fair game. The idea that the earth is 6000 years old, for instance, can be falsified. But for those of us who are not religious, the real question here is what the term “God” means. Is it a source for this reality from beyond space-time?
There are a few ways to deal with this question. First, you can dismiss it as irrelevant. There is no way to test any hypothesis about reality outside space-time, so contemplating it is at best a playful intellectual indulgence, at worst a waste of time. This is generally the atheist/materialist reaction. Speculation about something we cannot know is meaningless and beliefs about it are irrational and potentially dangerous. Better to stick to trying to figure out the world we have access to and can study.
A second way to deal with this is to simply choose a religious faith and believe it. We can’t know, but maybe a benevolent God gives us access to knowledge through the heart, with faith the key to achieving that kind of enlightenment. Supplement that with emotional satisfaction about one’s perceived connection with God, and religious belief can be very satisfying, it can create a sense of meaning in life. The trouble is that this is true for a vast variety of diverse and often contradictory religious claims. Either people are choosing to believe in myth and fantasy, or they all grasp aspects of the truth but build human stories around it that can conflict, or (to me unlikely) one group has it right and the others have it wrong.
A third possible reaction is to consider subjective experience and intuition as evidence to explore connections to a spiritual side of reality that may not be testable in the scientific/materialist sense. That would involve consideration of dreams, feelings, meditation, and efforts at deep empathy. The idea here is that we may be connected to the God/spiritual world outside space time, but not in a way that exhibits itself through what we can measure and test within the confines of space-time. Any knowledge gained from such explorations is subjective and personal.
It seems that spiritualism of this sort would have to deny dogma, since dogma rests on claims of certainty. Instead, ideas would be judged by how well they work in the world or each individual, or whether or not they ring true inside. I can believe that I draw to me all my experiences through my state of mind and my choices, but I can’t prove it or demand others believe it.
Despite the uncertainty there is a sense of liberation in this approach. If one takes a purely atheistic/materialist approach to life, there is a kind of meaninglessness and emptiness to existence. We all will die, the sun will eventually go nova, the universe will dissipate and everything we do and achieve will be forgotten. Nothing truly matters, except for our transient and fading experiences. These experiences can be very meaningful, to be sure, and atheists can find meaning in rational materialism – but to me a reliance on the material side of life seems incomplete. I cannot look at the world that way.
If one takes a religious approach, there is some heaven or judgment one looks forward to or dreads, with hope for some kind of paradise, be it union with the whole via Nirvana or a heaven of spiritual delights. For a spiritual approach there is uncertainty and a sense that it is most important that one live true to oneself and ones’ beliefs and reflections. Success or failure in the material sense are less important than spiritual living. The idea of judgment seems absurd because how can one be judged when our knowledge is so ambiguous? Rather than judgment day there’s karma – our actions and choices create our situations. And that’s where I end up. I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that there is a unity to all experience and that there is deep meaning. Living with a spiritual perspective works for me, and that’s ultimately all one can hope for.
Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.
While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful. If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place. If you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done? People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do. They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger? How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings. To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.
Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites. I especially like the lines
“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”
In a revealing article in “Politico,” Republicans admitted that they are dropping their focus on the issue of gay marriage. The article points out that in the 90s this was a bread and butter issue for conservatives. They decried “activist judges” who tried to force acceptance of gay marriage on the country, and could appeal to the emotions of citizens who wanted to maintain the “traditional” definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
Conservatives are quoted noting that there has been a cultural sea change in how Americans think. Only 30% of Republicans actively support gay marriage, but if you went back to the early 90s polls would have probably shown at best 30% of the country supporting it. As with any culture shift, the youth are leading the way. People between 18 and 26 overwhelming support gay marriage rights 70% to 30%. Yet even in the mainstream the shift is becoming very clear — what once was seen as weird or at least exotic is now common place.
Rick Santorum’s quixotic run for the GOP nomination demonstrates the change. His emphasis on contraception, opposition to abortion (even in the case of rape and incest) and rejection of gay marriage have led most Republicans to consider him un-electable. His views are simply too far from the mainstream, even though twenty years ago they would be defining stances in the ‘culture wars’ launched by social conservatives in the eighties.
To groups like Equality Maine, the battle is nowhere near over. They are fighting to pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Maine, and are confident that they can succeed. In 2009 they lost a referendum 53% to 47% in which the voters rejected same sex marriage. Things could be very different this time around.
Not only is it a Presidential election year, meaning a much broader voter turnout, but unlike three years ago the Roman Catholic church is going to sit this one out. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) is on the defensive about tactics it employed to try to drive a wedge between blacks and gays, convince hispanics that opposition to same sex marriage was a “badge of Anglo identity” and get children to speak out against gay parents. The fact Romney gave to that group is being used with success against him, as it makes him vulnerable to charges of “right wing extremism.”
In 1992 President Clinton retreated from allowing open service by gays in the military, implementing “don’t ask don’t tell,” which social conservatives still saw as going to far. In 2010 President Obama gained political support and stature by going back to Clinton’s original decision, repealing DADT. The appeal of a Falwell-esque “moral majority” is virtually nil, Pat Robertson has become more a joke than a political force, and Republican sops to social conservatives do them more political harm than good. Within the Republican party the libertarian wing is eclipsing the religious conservative wing of the party.
Yet while that can all be seen in a positive light, there is something missing. Perhaps the biggest distortion in the so-called ‘culture wars’ is the way in which religion and spirituality got defined in terms of very socially conservative world views. Take the recent “reason rally” in Washington — the alternative to religion appears to be a cold, materialist embrace of rational thought. The world has no inherent meaning or value other than that which we create for it, and we should do so using reason and logic.
Back in 1789 the French revolution embraced reason as the key for governance and learned a hard lesson – reason is a tool, it is not a path to truth, especially not in terms of values and ethics. Where reason leads depends on core assumptions made, and those assumptions ultimately are taken on faith — or based on sentiment/emotion. Reason as a tool is meaningless on its own.
Embracing reason alone doesn’t counter consumerism, hyper materialism, and the sense of emptiness many find in day to day routines, especially in a culture where community solidarity has given way to the notion that each individual is responsible for his or her own happiness. For all their faults, religions do serve a function of giving people a sense of a deeper meaning and a ethical core that rises above individual self-interest.
So the culture wars may be over, but the need for meaning and a core sense of meaning is still something people yearn for. We live in a society with unprecedented material wealth, yet full of problems ranging from anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders and a general sense of emptiness about life.
This 1979 video from Supertramp captures the dilemma. There is something missing in the purely rational approach to life. So the conservative “culture wars” may be ending, but the challenge to build a positive sense of identity and meaning remains. The economic crisis may have dented the drive of consumerism, but people still look for external fulfillment of internal needs.
The next culture shift needs to address that issue. It’s one thing to combat the fear of those who are different, we also need positive change. Reaching out, understanding both ourselves and others, and overcoming alienation and low self-esteem requires openness to sentiment, emotion and a sense of wonder. It’s not enough to just work against fear, we need to promote love. Not love as romance or abstract emotion, but as a concrete sense of connection to each other and our world.
So after the culture wars, it’s time to build positive cultural peace.