Tuesday, May 31, 2005

An Unbelievable God, Part 2

Someone replied to my previous message in what seemed to be a very earnest and respectfuly Christian manner. This is what he wrote:

You sound like a very intelligent person with very valid concerns about adopting a faith in the judeo-christian God. Many people have, and still have, those same concerns. A am not a religous official or biblical scholar, but I would like a chance to address your concerns. First of all, you asked how people can believe in something that cannot be proven (paraphrasing your first statements). That is really the essence of faith and truely the definition of it. Faith is believing in that which cannot be proven. We all have faith in things, religion, people, pop science, etc. I am sure you put your faith in things or people every day, for those things have proven themselves faithful and unfaithful. So now, why put yor faith into a God that you have heard so many bad things about. Well, if that is all I had to go on, I wouldn't do it either. So you are joined by millions, and that would include me if I didn't step and try try to find out for myself who this God really is.
Some people are more sceptical than others, some more analytical, some more stubborn, etc. Thank God we are all different. I was of the more analytical group. That made me even more resistant to a faith in God, especially when I didn't analyze the facts myself. But at a point in my life ten years ago I made the choice to objectively examine the basis of this faith, namely the Bible, and find out for myself if I should put my faith in Him. Well, after hearing the evidence, inconclusive as it was for there would be no reason for faith if it was conclusive, I had no choice but to obey my understanding and accept this faith. Yes, I could have chosen to reject it still, but I would have to had rejected the process I use to examine all things in my life. I am too reasonable for that. So, I must conclude that to reject the case for faith in God, you must examine the evidence yourself, or you are merely forming your opinions and beliefs on what others say, and you seem too intelligent for that. Others will tell you you don't have to do this, but what they are not telling you is that you are placing your faith in them and what they say. I am not trying to influence you into believing ANYTHING, just trying to influence you into finding out for yourself. If you do that, like I have, and put your faith in God, like I did, you will be labeled a Nut,Jesus-Freak,Right Wing Extremeist (though my faith and politics are two different things). But hey, if using my own mind to decide what I want to believe is being one of those things, then "guilty as charged".
The other questions and concerns you have, Old Testament judgements, heaven and hell, loving God, etc. will surely be answered when you take the time to find out what God says about himself (the bible) and not what others say. Ususally these others never got to know God but just passed a judgement based on what they heard. Again, you seem too intelligent for that. It is important however, to examine the bible with someone who does know the book and can explain things that may seem unclear to you. Clarity will come with experience of the material, not manipulation by others. My suggestion is to find a bible-study group and be up front with them that you just want to know what the bible says. Most "Christian Fundamentalists" ( I like that term because it suggests that you "really" believe in your faith )will be very kind and respect your wishes to not be proseltized (sp.). I hope you may become certain in your faith, whether to believe in God or not. Both ways are a faith because either side of the issue cannot be proven. God Bless.

This is how I replied to him:

Thank you for your uncommonly gracious and thoughtful response. I’d like to address some of your points.

I agree that the essence of faith is unproven belief. We have faith in things that seem true or comforting to us but which we cannot know for sure to be true. For if we were sure of them, there would not be faith; there would be certainty.

You say that you have faith in an unproven biblical God. I say that I don’t have faith in this God. You say that you came to your faith by thoroughly examining the Bible, and you urge me to conduct this examination for myself and see what happens. But I am a busy man with many obligations and interests. The amount of time and energy I would need to spend studying the Bible to the degree that you recommend would divert me from these other activities. In order for me to do this, I must have a preliminary level of faith that it is worth doing. I do not yet have this faith, any more than you would likely have faith in my telling you that before you can legitimately embrace Christianity, you must invest at least the same amount of effort in studying the sacred texts of all the great religions traditions that you have in studying the Bible so that you can make an informed choice. I could argue that the sacred text of any religion can seem plausible and compelling when examined by itself by a mind seeking a comforting sense of purpose and security and that it is only when all the sacred texts are examined and unbiased comparisons are made between them that one even begins to be in a position to choose intelligently or perhaps decide that no established religion is sufficiently more compelling than any other to choose any of them.

You say that if I study the Bible the way you recommend, my concerns about Old Testament and other passages implying God’s indifference or outright cruelty regarding human suffering will be allayed. Do you mean that I will understand that there is no everlasting hell; that God didn’t drown innocent babies and children in Noah’s day or inflict any of the other slaughters, plagues, and pestilences attributed to him in Holy Scripture; that there really is a way of reconciling the problem of pandemic evil in the world with God’s alleged omnipotence, omniscience, supreme love, supreme justice, and supreme mercy; that we, some 2000 years afterwards, are not required to believe without proof that Jesus was the one and only son of God and that he died on the cross as a brutally bloody sacrifice that was the best way an omniscient God could devise to purchase our redemption? These alleged acts, qualities, and demands of God are so overwhelmingly implausible if not repugnant to me that unless you can assure me that they are not literally true, I could no more read the Bible looking for salvation than I could read Mein Kampf for the same reason on the assurances of others that if I really take the time and make the effort to study and understand this wonderful book, my preliminary concerns and revulsions will be dispelled.

Something tells me that neither you nor any other Christian is prepared to make this assurance. Even if you tried, you would then be faced with the onerous task of explaining why I should regard a sacred text consisting of so much myth and metaphor rather than literal truth and a religion grounded upon it as more worthy of my embrace than any other sacred text and derivative religion. Can you do this?

Monday, May 30, 2005

An Unbelievable God

I recently became involved in an online discussion about the biblical God. Here is one of my posts there:

Catholic and other Christian fundamentalists say that we humans are faced with a simple choice. We can either love, worship, and obey God as the Bible literally portrays “him,” or we can suffer everlasting torment in hell. But I say there is nothing simple about believing in the unbelievable, much less loving, worshipping, and obeying a God in which one cannot believe. I cannot believe in God as the Bible literally portrays him. I have many reasons for this, but some of the most pressing ones concern the Bible’s numerous accounts of God inflicting undeserved suffering and death on countless human beings either through direct acts of deliberate murder and destruction or by designing a world in which rampant natural calamities harm and destroy lives, and God’s consigning people to everlasting torture in hell. I cannot reconcile any of this with the Bible’s insistence that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and supremely loving, just, and merciful.

Catholic and other Christian fundamentalists tell me that a loving, just, and merciful God drowned all the little babies and children of the world in Noah’s time except those on the Ark, and that a loving, just, and merciful God made hell and sends people there for not loving him and following his rules. Yet, how could anyone believe that such acts are just, much less merciful, acts of a loving God? If we would not call a human parent loving, just, and merciful who says, “Love and obey me and I will reward you beyond your wildest dreams, but don’t love me and don’t obey me and I will throw you into a fiery furnace,” why would we regard the biblical God as being any better? Indeed, isn’t the biblical God infinitely worse than this because not only does he threaten a fiery furnace that burns and burns forever or some everlastingly torturous equivalent, but he also forces us to choose between him and never-ending reward on the one hand and never-ending punishment on the other without even proving to us that he and these realms exist as anything more than myths in an ancient religious document? How could anyone believe that this is a “simple” choice, and that those who “choose” neither God and heaven nor hell because they have perfectly good grounds for doubting both, deserve to go to hell and end up going there?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Movie Review: The Assassination of Richard Nixon

In 1974, a Baltimore man named Sam Byck attempted to hijack an airliner so he could crash it into the White House and incinerate President Nixon, and he sent audiotapes to Leonard Bernstein detailing his motives. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) is “inspired” by this historical footnote. In it, Sean Penn plays the role of Sam Bicke, a pathetic man who is desperately out-of-place in 1974 America.

In simplistic terms, Bicke is a total “loser.” He’s been separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and three children for almost two years but entertains pitiful delusions of reconciliation. He has one friend, a black auto mechanic (Don Cheadle). He flees from one job to another, ending up selling office furniture for an unctuous boss who gives him self-help books on tape and a tape recorder-player with which to boost his ego, fire up his motivation, and master the pushy art of friendly persuasion. But Sam doesn’t have the drive to study the tapes in a serious way, the social skills to translate their theory into effective practice, or the temperament to persuade people to buy things they don’t really want for prices they don’t want to pay.

Not only that, but he is too busy trying to force himself back on his wife who wants nothing more to do with him than to collect his child support checks to help her meet the expenses of raising the children and maintaining the house while she moves on with her life; too busy struggling to get a loan to start up an ill-conceived business with his friend to sell and install tires out of a bright red bus that doesn’t even run; and too busy railing against the corrupt unfairness of a social system that rewards people with obscene amounts of wealth and power for lying, conniving, and manipulating while people of integrity and decency flounder and fail to find success or happiness.

As Bicke’s failures mount, he becomes increasingly unhinged, quitting his job, stealing from his brother, making an abortive attempt to kill his ex-boss, and then seizing upon an insane plan to assassinate President Nixon and destroy the White House in a blaze of glorious triumph of the little man over the iconic symbols of oppressive and immoral wealth and power. As he explains in his rambling tape to Leonard Bernstein, he’s going to demonstrate that even the smallest grain of sand on the vast beach that is the American and world populace can have a mighty impact on everyone.

Sean Penn has to be one of the finest actors on film, and I believe that this film features one of his greatest performances. In fact, I think it’s stunning. I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of capturing Bicke’s alienation from society; his bumbling social ineptitude and incessant self-preoccupation; his maddeningly clueless pursuit of the impossible; his crushing despair as he sees his marriage, his friendship, his career aspirations, his relationship with his brother, and his entire life inexorably disintegrate; and his irreversible plunge into the black depths of tragedy.

Some have criticized the film for being a rip-off of Taxi Driver. I may be in a distinct minority, but I actually found Penn’s Sam Bicke to be a more believable and compelling character than DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, and Assassination a more involving study of alienation and decline into madness than Taxi Driver.

Others have complained that The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an unmitigated and unrelenting downer with no redeeming message or point. I admit that I have probably never squirmed with as much discomfort or felt such unremitting bleakness while watching a film as I did while watching this one. My wife kept saying with exasperation, “He’s stupid . . . a stupid man!”

Yes, I believe that he was stupid in terms of social or emotional intelligence, and not terribly bright intellectually or strong in any other way, and that this unfortunate constellation of inadequacies crumbled into madness under the demands and pressures of everyday life. I believe that this was the “point” of the movie and that it was portrayed so masterfully that it was all the point there needed to be. If one watches this film with an open and compassionate mind and heart instead of being clouded by expectations of a “good time” or by judgmental contempt for the protagonist, one can gain deep and valuable insight into the anatomy of alienation, despair, and desperation to “be somebody” in a world that is oblivious to your existence when it isn’t being contemptuous of it.

Sam Bicke is so pathetic that it’s hard to sympathize with him when he constantly whines about deceit and injustice at work and in life, doggedly pursues his estranged wife who obviously has no interest in reconciliation, and pushes awkwardly and overbearingly for a business loan that hasn’t an iota’s chance of being approved. But there are many people in this world who are like Sam Bicke to some degree or other, and they are human beings who hope and dream until they feel so defeated and hopeless that they live out their sad lives in lonely, lingering obscurity, or eat, drink, or drug themselves to quicker death, or destroy themselves and sometimes others in sudden, ugly acts of shocking violence.

I believe that it is incumbent on us as individuals and as a society to minimize this suffering and destruction by taking more of an interest in the Sam Bicke’s of our world, showing them that we do care about them, providing them a niche in society where they can feel nurtured, valued, and loved, and making expert help available to them and steering them toward it when they need it.

I had never even heard of The Assassination of Richard Nixon until recently, but as soon as I did hear of it, I just had to see it. I’m glad I did. Bearing in mind that I’m a pretty tough grader, I give it an A-.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Father, forgive them...

I recently wrote that even though I questioned the literal resurrection of Jesus, I wanted to believe that the biblical stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could have valuable symbolic meaning. An example of this is the verse from Luke 23:24 where Jesus is close to death on the cross but nevertheless beseeches God to have mercy on his Roman and Jewish persecutors: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

To me this story is the highest expression of love and wisdom. It doesn’t really matter to me whether the story is literally true or apocryphal. It represents a level of consciousness far beyond what most of us could ever hope to attain but toward which we should all strive. For it seems profoundly true to me that those who hurt others without just cause do so out of a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding of the injustice and suffering they’re inflicting, and that the proper attitude to harbor with respect to people afflicted by such deficiency is one of unconditional empathy, compassion, love, mercy, and forgiveness. Not only does it feel better to love than to hate, but also a society filled with people who love rather than hate defective souls seems more likely to raise fewer defective souls who commit hurtful acts.

To love these individuals doesn’t have to mean letting them walk away from their destructive acts without facing any consequences. But it does mean that those consequences are imposed without hateful vindictiveness that damages the punisher and society as a whole as much if not more as it does the punished. Whether Jesus actually felt this way and said those words or not, my heart-of-hearts tells me that this is the way to be and draws inspiration from the biblical passage I cited. What I find terribly curious is that most people who call themselves Christian and espouse belief in the literal meaning of New Testament Jesus stories seldom manifest or even aspire to manifest this kind of loving wisdom. How truly Christian are these ‘true-believers’?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mindful Driving Through Life

A key reason why I like Eknath Easwaran’s teachings so much is that he expresses them with wonderful metaphors that make his messages so clear, compelling, and memorable. For instance, in yesterday’s thought for the day, he likens the mind lacking in the discipline of mindfulness to a poor driver. Just as the poor driver may inadvertently wander into your lane and then dangerously overcorrect until he eventually causes an accident, an unfocused mind

weaves through life, running into difficult situations and colliding with other people.” However, a mind focused by mindfulness practice and complementary disciplines stays in its own lane. It cannot be swept away by an impulsive desire or fear; it cannot be haunted by an unpleasant memory or by anxiety about the future. There is no skill more worth learning than the art of directing attention as we choose.”

Now, when I find my mind wandering or racing from one thought or whim to another, I will think of the poor driver and try to stay in my own lane.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Ressurection: Myth or Fact?

I watched a 20/20 special last Friday exploring the Resurrection story of Jesus. The program featured comments by leading Christian and history scholars and a tour of the most likely places of Jesus’ crucifixion, entombment, and movements after his resurrection. The overall theme of the program seemed to be that Jesus truly did rise from the dead in some fashion and that we have ample grounds for believing this.

Scholars argued that no one of that time, including the Romans, is on record as having denied that Jesus’ body disappeared from his tomb shortly after his death. Second, all of his disciples claimed to have seen his resurrected body even if they didn’t always recognize him at first. Third, and most compellingly, although most of his disciples were in hiding after his apprehension and during his execution, their lives changed profoundly after claiming to see his resurrected body. From that point on, they and their followers openly declared their faith and risked and in many cases had inflicted upon them arrest, agonizing torture, and death for that faith. Finally, quite a number of men lived around the time of Jesus who preached and had followings of their own and claimed to be the Messiah and to work miracles, and they too were crucified. But we don’t know anything more about them, whereas Jesus’ life and story grew into the most popular and powerful religion the world has ever seen. An itinerant preacher for only a year or two (biblical accounts differ on this) who lived only into his early thirties became, after his death, the most famous if not revered person in history. How could all of this have happened if Jesus was not truly the Son of God and did not truly rise from the dead?

I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I don’t believe that he rose from the dead. I believe that Christianity is based on a fairy tale. I don’t claim to know for sure that it is, but I never cease to be amazed at how otherwise intelligent and sensible people of today can believe the biblical story of Jesus without question and at how an American politician who said he or she doesn’t believe it wouldn’t have a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of being elected to high office, whereas one who espoused belief in such an equally implausible figure as Santa Claus or a flying saucer God would be mocked and scorned right out of the campaign if not committed to a mental hospital.

I wrote a moment ago of the “biblical story” of Jesus because that is essentially all it is. So far as I know, there is scant and totally unremarkable mention of Jesus by any of his contemporaries other than his followers. Virtually everything believers think they know about Jesus comes from a few books in a religious document designed to spread and reinforce the Christian faith, and even these books were written decades after Jesus’ death. And, interestingly enough, even these books differ in what they say about the matter. Most of our information about Jesus’ life comes from the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yet, Mark ends with an empty tomb, and the other Gospels differ on important details regarding who saw Jesus’ resurrected body and how and where they saw it. This hardly seems like the stuff of indubitable historical fact.

But even if all these books agreed with one another and told the same story, there would still be serious problems with the story itself. There is the terribly vexing question of why an omniscient and omnipotent God of supreme love and mercy would create human beings with a nature he always knew would sin and require redemption, and why he would decide that the best and only way to provide redemption was to incarnate himself into Jesus and suffer and die on the cross and then require that everyone from that era until the end of the world believe the biblical story of Jesus if they were to be saved. If we are to believe what the Gospels tell us, even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t believe that Jesus was God incarnate whose mission was to redeem humankind by his death and resurrection until they allegedly saw him resurrected. Though they lived with him, heard all his preachings, and saw all of his alleged miracles, they were devastated when they saw him apprehended by the Jewish authorities, and they ran and hid from the Jews and the Romans lest they meet the same fate as Jesus. And when some reported seeing Jesus alive again after his death, most of these same disciples didn’t believe it. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was dead and so were their hopes of him being the Messiah who would deliver their people from Roman dominance.

If even these disciples who knew Jesus more intimately by far than anyone didn’t understand his mission and didn’t believe he was the Son of God and didn’t believe he died for our sins and was resurrected until they allegedly saw his resurrected body with their own eyes, how in the world can we, almost two thousand years later, be expected to believe a word of it? Interestingly enough, one of the scholars, Fr. Richard McBrien, interviewed in the 20/20 program said that he sometimes has difficulty believing it. If a Catholic priest and leading authority on Catholic teachings has this difficulty, how can the rest of us, especially those of us outside the Church and outside Christianity entirely, be reasonably expected to believe at all? Yet we are told that we will suffer forever in hell if we don’t and rise to heaven only if we do. This seems utterly and completely absurd!

Of course, we are still left with the questions of how Jesus’ disciples allegedly transformed from dispirited, terrified men in hiding after Jesus’ arrest to bold evangelists risking limb and life after his death, and how Christianity went on to become the world’s most popular religion. How could this have happened if Jesus wasn’t truly the Son of God who rose from the dead to redeem us?

I admit that it’s difficult to explain, but when seeking an explanation, doesn’t it make sense to pick simpler, more plausible explanations over more complicated and less plausible ones? If so, is it simpler and more plausible to believe that Jesus was what the bible and Christian religion say he was, or that he was a mortal man who died on the cross and that his followers felt so desperate to find justification and meaning for the lives they had led with Jesus and the sacrifices they had made that they succumbed to a kind of collective hallucination and delusion about Jesus’ resurrection that gave them overriding purpose for the rest of their lives? Is it simpler and more plausible to assume that Christianity became the world’s most popular and powerful religion because it’s the true religion, or that Jesus lived in the right place at the right time for his followers to influence Roman civilization to influence all of dominant Western civilization with the Christian message? Does anyone believe that Jesus would have the impact he did on the world if he had been born and executed in Tibet or Mexico?

I would like to believe that Jesus was an extraordinarily wise and spiritually realized man whose biblical story of life, death, and resurrection is a mixture of truth and myth that can have powerful metaphorical and transfiguring meaning for humankind. But I cannot, using the tools of reason and commonsense that God himself allegedly gave us, believe that Jesus was literally what the bible and conventional Christian teachings tell me he was. How can anyone?

Friday, May 20, 2005

A Sufi's View of Alleged Desecration

One of my favorite websites is Beliefnet. It addresses all the great religious traditions from every perspective and posts readers' comments on every article. Many of those comments are thoughtful and eloquent. One of the most thoughtful and eloquent comments I've ever read there was posted by someone who identifies his religious affiliation as Sufi. Sufis are Muslim mystics who value direct religious experience over dogma, love over righteousness. This man is commenting on an article about the Newsweek story concerning the alleged desecration of the Qur'an by interregators at Guantanamo Bay. I wrote about this myself in a recent entry. This man makes some of the same points I did, but how I wish I could have expressed them as beautifully as he did!

A book is paper, its words penned in ink. It is no more and no less holy as a form than any other.

Reverence is paid to the source of wisdom and knowledge that is communicated through a holy book to the heart and mind of the reader. If a person desecrates the book it is the deficiency of the person who desecrates that is shown, and is no cause for any other reaction but pity towards the person who does it.

Neither Mohammed, nor Allah, nor the faith of a Muslim is diminished by the blashemous act of a non-Muslim. Allah is more than any form, including the Qu'ran. Reverence is reserved for the One, and mercy towards those who need it is the best response.

The Power of Minimalism

I listened this morning to a conversation between Ken Wilber and Rick Rubin. Rubin is a very successful music producer who has worked with artists ranging from Nine Inch Nails to Public Enemy to Johnny Cash. He says that many producers are solely concerned with making money, but that he has always put quality first. He wants to bring out the essence of the best of what a talented artist or group has to offer, and he believes that the best way to do this is generally to strip their songs to their barest elements. If this unadorned essence has the power to move people emotionally the way the best music does better than almost anything, then he and the artists collaborate to make the song as good as possible. If it doesn’t, then throw it out. He says that this is an unusual approach because it takes so much more time and effort to pare greatness down to its vital core than it does to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into a mediocre song to blanket its shortcomings under a diverting canopy of pleasing sound. Wilber says that the same applies to writing a book, and he paraphrases Karl Marx who said something like, “I don’t have the time to write a short book.” But Wilber and Rubin agree that taking the time to slice away the flab and say what one has to say with compact precision and power is time well spent.

I agree with this in principle, but it is so, so difficult for me to write as concisely as I would like. I know that I often use too many words big and small to get to my point and that I’ve probably turned off a lot of prospective readers by doing it. But it takes so much time and effort to figure out precisely what I want to say and then strip away the excess verbiage until only the raw essence remains. And when I’ve struggled and strained to the point where I think I’ve done this, my prose sometimes seems colorless, rigid, indifferent, and even simpleminded. Yet, something tells me that I need to keep trying, that if I can’t make my point, the whole point, and nothing but the point with unvarnished clarity and concision, I don’t really have a worthwhile point to make, and if I don’t have a worthwhile point to make, why write at all?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Religion and Death

One of my dearest friends is now grieving over the recent death of her dearest friend to breast cancer. I e-mailed her a beautiful little poem in which she, I, and many others have found consolation over the years in the wake of personal loss:

Do not stand by my grave and weep,
I am not there...
I do not sleep,
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
I am the soft uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the stars that shine at night.
Do not stand by my grave and cry...
I am not there,
I did not die.

I don’t know who wrote this poem. I’ve seen it attributed to many people. But it’s a wonderful expression of my view of our nature: Each and every one of us is fundamentally inseparable from and therefore ultimately IS the unified totality of existence, and when a person dies, the essence of what that person was has not perished and never will. He or she is not just figuratively but is quite literally the “diamond glint on snow,” “the gentle autumn rain,” “the stars that shine at night,” and my very own heartbeat, thoughts, emotions, and dreams.

Some would say this is wishful, childish thinking. They would say that people are bodies with or without souls and that when they die, they’re either nothing more than rotting corpses or cremated ash, or they’re incorporeal souls that have moved on to new lives in heaven (or hell) or in different bodies here on earth.

They may be right. They may be wrong. I don’t really know. I feel certain of very little even about life, much less about death. But I wonder what difference it would or should make if I did feel certain about the nature of death and the fate of the dead. If a key role of religion or spirituality is to help us understand and cope with life’s most momentous events and biggest challenges, shouldn’t it help us to understand and cope with our death or with the deaths of others? Yet, how should we understand death from a religious or spiritual perspective, and how should our understanding affect our emotions and actions?

These are questions for which I have no answers at present, only more and more questions. I do believe that religion or spirituality worthy of the name and of our time should profoundly affect the way we feel about the deaths of friends, loved ones, and ourselves, but I’m not sure precisely how.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The True Outrage

A recent Newsweek article said that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had desecrated copies of the Quran—the Islamic holy book--in order to provoke detainees into disclosing information about terrorist activity. Muslims in several nations responded with violent protests and riots that have resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people. Even after Newsweek retracted this story because of insufficient evidence, the protests continue, and the Pakistani information minister chided Newsweek by saying, “Just an apology is not enough. They should think 101 times before publishing news that hurts hearts." Meanwhile, the top Muslim authority in Saudi Arabia condemned the alleged desecration and urged a full inquiry "to alleviate the sorrow that befell Muslims."

I agree that news media should be extremely careful about reporting such predictably inflammatory stories. They should not rush to publish these stories unless and until they are sure of their facts and sources. I don’t know why Newsweek printed a story that they later deemed unsupportable. Did they print a false story because they succumbed to the pressure of being first with the ‘big scoop’? Or did they print a true story that they later retracted because of government pressure?

But what’s more interesting to me is the Muslim reaction. Are Muslims justified in feeling so upset by this unconfirmed story that they rage and riot in the streets? If so, why? Is almighty Allah truly harmed if someone, and a non-believer at that, flushes a copy of the Quran down the toilet? If he is, how mighty a god is he? Is Islam truly harmed by this act? If so, how legitimate a religion is it? Are Muslims truly harmed by it? Does it undermine their faith in Islam or Allah? How so? If Allah is just as mighty, Islam just as legitimate, and a Muslim’s faith just as strong whether some non-believing American interrogator flushes or doesn’t flush a copy of the Quran down the toilet, why all the violent upset and outrage?

I might be accused of applying too much rational commonsense to something—religion—that is more a matter of the heart than of the mind. But it seems to me that religion in general and Islam in particular need to effect a wiser and more wholesome balance of head and heart than we see throughout the Middle East and much of the entire world.

I’m not suggesting that religious people should never feel upset or even outraged. But it seems to me that they should feel far more upset and outraged over seeing human beings gleefully beheaded and blown to bloody shreds in the name of their god and faith than in seeing a book flushed down the toilet. A book can easily be replaced. A human life cannot. The interrogator’s alleged act reflects mainly on the weakness of his own character that it could be so lacking in regard and respect for another person’s faith and feelings. But a fatwah against the likes of Salman Rushdie, a brutal beheading of a journalist accompanied by joyful cries of “Allah O Akbar (God is great),” or the incineration of a bus filled with innocent schoolchildren is a far uglier reflection on the character of the person who carries it out or endorses it because it displays abject disregard, disrespect, and even hatred for the precious sacredness of a human life and for the redemptive capacity of that life. And what casts a religion in a worse light—flushing a copy of its bible down the toilet or barbarously murdering people and celebrating these murders in its and its god’s name? How many turn away from or even condemn religion in general and Islam in particular over the former compared to the latter?

Many Muslims need to grow up. Many Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and people of other faiths also need to grow up and value love, compassion, and respect for all humankind more than they do printing on paper and blind adherence to dogma. Until then, they limit themselves and dishonor their faith in the eyes of growing numbers of people such as myself. In today’s world, the greatest enemy to any faith is not the scornful non-believer, but the violently fanatical ‘defender of the faith.’

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sculpting a Life

Eknath Easwaran says, “With every thought, we are working on our destiny.” Like the sculptor whose every light as well as heavy strike against the stone shapes the final figure, so our every thought, word, and deed, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, is vitally important in determining the course and quality of our lives for better or worse and should be carried out with this kept firmly in mind. Yet, how many of us live this way? Don’t most of us make thoughtless strike after strike against the stone of our lives until too many of us regretfully end up with a final figure, a life’s work that is nothing at all like what we wanted it to be?

I have made so many thoughtless strikes against my stone over the last fifty-two years, and I’m far from satisfied with the figure I see when I force myself to take a close, hard look. I wonder whether there’s enough stone left and whether I have enough skill and vision to sculpt a figure I can be proud of when I come to the end of my days.

But what would I rather do? Go on hammering away at the remainder of my stone with thoughtless imprecision until the final result is sure to be crude and ugly, or do my very best from this point on to create something beautiful and inspiring with every strike of the chisel against what remains of my stone?

In his book Meditation, Easwaran writes:

It is no small thing to compose a sonata or write a perceptive novel; we are indebted to the great composers and writers who have given us beauty and insight into human nature. But I am most moved by the beauty of the perfectly crafted life, where every bit of selfishness has been carved away and what is felt, thought, said, and done are brought into harmony.

It may be impossible to craft a perfect life, but I would like to believe that most of us are capable of doing better, often much better than we do, and that our highest calling is to do our very best from this point on.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Not So Miraculous?

When I told my friend Craig about the golf story I wrote about yesterday, he didn’t seem terribly impressed. I was surprised at his reaction. I know that some things can appear to the mathematically unsophisticated to much more improbable than they really are. A case in point was when a psychology professor long ago in a classroom far away told us that the odds of two people in our modest sized class sharing the same birthday were a lot higher than we might think. In fact, he said, it was almost certain that at least two of us had the same birthday. We were skeptical. So, he proposed that we put his assertion to the test by having people call out their birthdays until someone else had the same birthday. The first person to call out her birthday was a young woman in the first seat in the front row. She said, “March 24,” and I said, “Bingo” and raised my hand, and everybody laughed.

I don’t know what the probability was of that happening, but it was surely many orders of magnitude higher than that of the three holes-in-one that some mathematician calculated to have a probability of one in 27 trillion. But my friend wondered how easy it would be for three consecutive bowlers to score a perfect 300 game. I opined that I thought it would be much easier than the three consecutive holes-in-one, but Craig didn’t think so. He thought the three 300’s would be at least as difficult and probably more so, and I thought that if he was right, three holes in one wouldn’t be that difficult after all, for I could easily imagine three consecutive bowlers bowling 300. Why my friend Tim and I began a game last week with our first seven strikes in a row. I got tapped with a ten-pin on the next ball and ended up with eleven out of twelve strikes for a 279 game; he got eleven strikes in a row before leaving a ten pin on his final ball and shooting 299. All that separated us from back-to-back 300’s were two measly strikes. If there had been a third bowler with us throwing the ball as well as we were on that lane, it’s quite conceivable that we could have had three consecutive perfect games.

But would that have really been equivalent to back-to-back-to-back holes-in one on the same hole? Craig argued that in order to bowl a 300 game, you have to strike twelve times in a row as opposed to having to make only one good shot to get a hole-in-one. But it seems to me that this is a little like saying that it’s it’s harder for a good high jumper to clear a six foot bar twelve times in a row than it is to clear a seven-and-a-half foot bar once. I don’t know the statistics on this, but I suspect that holes-in-one are far less prevalent than 300 games, because I suspect that they’re much harder to get. And the odds against getting back-to-back-to-back holes-in-one must be, well, somewhere around 27 trillion to one.

I still don’t believe that those guys did it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Probability of a Miracle

Golfers probably heard this story months ago. But I’m not a golfer, so I heard about it only a couple of nights ago on the local news. It seems that three friends were out playing golf together and scored back-to-back-to back holes-in-one on the same hole. Someone calculated the odds against this happening to be 27 trillion to one. Of course, a lot of people didn’t believe them, so they paid $4,000 out of their own pockets to undergo polygraph testing that proved that they weren’t lying about their claim.

What do I think about this? First of all, I think that if their claim is true, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. In fact, it’s so darn amazing that it strikes me as virtually impossible. I’m more inclined to believe that the polygraph results were false for some reason or other than I am to believe that three men went to a golf hole and scored consecutive holes-in-one.

What could have been wrong with the polygraph result? The person administering the test may have been bribed to report that the claim was not a lie. Or he (or she) may have been incompetent. Or the machine may have been malfunctioning. Or the men may have found a way to defeat the machine. Or they may have all have succumbed to the delusion that they shot consecutive holes-in-one when they really didn’t. In this case, they wouldn’t be lying in the sense of deliberately telling a falsehood as truth, and the machine would not detect them to be lying even though they weren’t telling the truth.

None of these possibilities seem very probable, and some seem more improbable than others. But none seem remotely as improbable to me as what these men claim that they did on that golf course.

But this raises an interesting issue for me. Just how do mathematicians go about estimating the probabilities of events such as these, and how accurate are these estimates? I guess it’s relatively easy to estimate the probability of a fair coin flipped in a fair way coming up heads on the next flip, but what about estimating the probability of a particular raindrop falling on the precise spot that it does, or of long-lost Uncle Elmer calling at a particular date and time, or of the universe as we know it existing, or of three men hitting back-to-back-to-back holes in one on the same hole?

Speaking of probability estimates, I’ve been watching a new series on CBS called Numb3rs. It’s about a mathematics prodigy and professor who helps his FBI agent brother solve and prevent crimes by using complex mathematical analyses and probability predictions. It strikes me as mostly nonsense, but intriguing nonsense that performs the valuable service of making math and intellect appealing to people, especially young people who have subsisted for far too long on an entertainment junk diet of mindless sitcoms, “reality” shows, and gun-blasting action programs. I can’t help but think that more than a few young men and women will be inspired by Numb3rs to go into math and science, and that this is surely a good thing.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Learning to Swim

Eknath Easwaran’s thought for today offers a rather different way of looking at love than we encounter in most movies, TV programs, or romantic novels and, consequently, have enshrined in our minds and hearts. Most of us think of love as a kind of contract in which we will love someone only as much and as long as they love and fulfill us sexually, romantically, and in every other way. No wonder, Easwaran says, that many of us feel so lonely and unhappy, even as we live and sleep with our spouses or partners.

“No matter what the relationship may be, when you look on another person as someone who can give you love, you are really faking love,” he tells us.

“If you are interested in making love,” he continues, “in making it grow without end, try looking on that person as someone you can give your love to – someone to whom you can go on giving always.” This is what Easwaran considers to be genuine love. But he warns us that learning to love for real is very difficult, like swimming against a strong current. Not the current of a river, but the current of lifelong conditioning to see love in a false way—as a contract filled with conditions ultimately aimed at making ME happy. To swim against this current all the way to the shore of genuine love requires us to strengthen the “muscles” of our will and wisdom through constant use backed by a spiritual path of meditation, mantram, mindfulness, slowing down, training the senses, spiritual literature, and spiritual companionship. Then,
“When you put the other person’s welfare foremost every day, no matter how strong the opposing tide inside, you discover after a while that you can love a little more today than you did yesterday. Tomorrow you will be able to love a little more.”

Friday, May 13, 2005

Benign Neglect

Eknath Easwaran says that selfish desires are like “delicate houseplants” that need a lot of attention to grow, whereas if they’re neglected, they wither and die. We can neglect our selfish desires by reciting our mantram and keeping our minds focused on worthwhile work, especially that which serves others.

This might sound like a way of dealing with selfishness that is unworkably simplistic at best and, at its worst, could amount to unhealthy repression. I might add that Easwaran counsels the same essential approach to dispelling emotions such as jealousy, resentment, and anger.

But it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s urging us to practice these techniques within the framework of an entire way-of-life that integrates complementary elements such as meditation, mindfulness, slowing down, and participating in a spiritual community of some sort. When looked at and practiced this way, Easwaran’s approach to overcoming selfishness and other misguided attitudes and emotions through benign neglect may be effective and wholesome.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Beyond Religion As We Know It

Huston Smith, renowned scholar of the world’s religions or “wisdom traditions” as he calls them, says that these traditions don’t need to change their fundamental teachings and practices in response to the exigencies of today’s world except in one important respect. They have always taught compassion and charity, but they originated in times when people, living in smaller communities or larger ones relatively insulated from other communities and cultures, believed that fundamental social institutions such as government and slavery were manifestations of natural law that could not be changed. So people may have extended charity and compassion to their families and friends and to others with whom they had face-to-face contact in their communities, but they tended not to push for incorporating these virtues within social institutions because they believed that it was against natural law to do so.

However, as transportation and communication improved, people in one community or culture became increasingly aware of other communities and cultures and of the fact that there were important differences between the institutions in different communities and cultures. This demonstrated that these institutions weren’t immutable products of natural law but arbitrary and malleable products of human invention.

Nevertheless, even though people have become more and more aware of this, they need the wisdom traditions to encourage and inspire them to instill the qualities of compassion, charity, and social justice into social and cultural institutions that are moving more slowly in this direction than they should. For example, a candidate for president couldn’t get elected today if he said that government should adopt measures requiring those of us who have more to make major sacrifices to insure that desperately poor and needy people in this country and throughout the world have adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care. The founders and sacred texts of all the great traditions teach compassion, charity, and social justice, and their followers have a responsibility to practice them as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and members of other faiths, but we must also practice them on the institutional and governmental level if we and these virtues are to truly transform the world. Yet, this is unlikely to happen unless the wisdom traditions become more actively involved in making it happen. This is how they need to change so that they can change us and we can change the world.

I have tremendous respect for Huston Smith as a religious scholar and as a person. Though I have never met him personally, I have seen and heard him interviewed many times on television and radio and have come away from every such experience with the impression that he is one of the wisest and most warmly engaging human beings on earth. People who know him say the same and love him. However, unlike him, I tend to believe that the wisdom traditions, such as they are, need to change profoundly to significantly improve the quality of life for most people in today’s world, much less deliver us to any kind of ‘promised land’ of fulfillment or realization of our highest purpose. That is, I believe that the wisdom traditions, such as they are, are too rooted in archaic myths and traditions to serve as a medium through which most of us can transform ourselves and the world. I believe that their teachings and practices need to incorporate not only the best of ancient knowledge and wisdom, but also the best of the what all the relevant disciplines of today--including the physical, biological, psychological, social, and information sciences and modern philosophy--tell us about ourselves and the universe and the relation between the two, and how not only to experience this understanding as abstract concepts but also how to live it as concrete percepts or realization.

In other words, I believe that religion needs not so much to collaborate with these disciplines as to include and integrate them in a new and tenable way, and only then will religion--no longer religion as such but a whole and powerful way of understanding and living--inspire and effect the changes in ourselves and in the world that the best of the ancient religious leaders and texts implore us to achieve. Such a new religion or way of life may very well abandon the fairy tale gods and myths of antiquity or make it exceedingly clear, in way they don’t now, that these are only myths designed to direct our attention toward the deeper truths they symbolize. But if human beings in today’s and tomorrow’s world are to develop into the best and happiest people they can be, it may be time for them to put down the religious toys of children and step into the world of religious adolescence and adulthood.

As quixotic and wildly grandiose as it may be, I am dedicated to fashioning my own understanding of what such a new religion or way of life might be, and my goal is to write an influential book about it someday.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Learning to Sit Still

Eknath Easwaran’s thought for the day likens the mind to an employee that needs to be trained well for his job by following “sound shop standards.” What are these standards? “Good, creative, consistently kind thinking, and no around-the-clock activity, either. When the mind has nothing productive to do, we need to learn how to close up shop and let it rest.” He also quotes Blaise Pascal, who said, “All human evil comes from this: a man's being unable to sit still in a room.”

I’m not sure that all human evil stems from an unfocused mind. In fact, I suspect that some have perpetrated great evil precisely because their powerful minds were focused on nothing but nefarious ends. However, I believe that there is truth to be found in the notion that if a great many more of us could learn to focus our minds in the ways that Easwaran and other sages have taught for millennia, we would see far less evil in the world and far more good. I grow increasingly convinced that mindfulness channeled into lovingly positive ends is, if not the panacea to our worst ills, the best medicine going.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Infantile Grasping

Eknath Easwaran writes today about how many of us are like a baby who doesn’t know how to let go of the rattle in his hand in order to take hold of a toothbrush. You can see the baby wanting to grab the toothbrush, but he hasn’t yet developed to the stage of figuring out that he has to drop the rattle before he can take something new into his hand. And so he just sits there looking flustered.

Many of us who want to rise to a higher level of spiritual realization hold on to our old ways of seeing and living in the world because, like the baby, we haven’t yet matured to the point of figuring out that we can’t acquire the new and better until we discard the old. But, Easwaran assures us, the day may well come when we will want something bad enough and see what we have to do to get it, and, in renouncing the old, open ourselves to a new life.

I am like the frustrated baby still grasping his rattle while Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eknath Easwaran, and Ken Wilber dangle priceless treasures before me.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Better Living Through Philosophy

Yesterday I heard Christopher Phillips on a local PBS station discussing the benefits of Socratic or philosophical dialogue. Phillips has written several books about applying philosophical reasoning to one’s everyday life. He argues that when people engage in genuine, rational dialogue about such important concepts as justice, goodness, courage, and virtue, they sharpen their minds and open their minds and hearts to other people’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions in ways that bring people together in mutual understanding and caring. He also argues that it makes us less vulnerable to the rhetorical manipulations of politicians, advertisers, and demagogues.

I’m inclined to agree. I realize that most of us are so busy working and taking care of other pressing duties that we have little time or energy left for philosophizing about abstract concepts such as justice or engaging in reflective dialogue with others about them. And yet I fear that our failure to do these things does indeed promote fuzzy thinking about important matters, sacrifice the opportunity to draw closer to others, and make us more susceptible to being controlled by people acting against our best interests.

Yet, I have taken enough philosophy courses in school and done enough philosophizing on my own to realize that philosophical musings often lead to a frustrated sense of having wasted one’s time, and I’m not aware of the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues ever arriving at a definitive definition of the qualities he attempted to define and understand through the method of reasoning that bears his name. I suspect that this is probably because there is no way of perfectly defining such highly abstract qualities as justice or goodness or virtue. No matter how clear and refined the definition, it is always possible to pose an example that intuitively seems to embody the quality in question but doesn’t fit our definition, or an example that fits the definition but doesn’t intuitively seem to embody the quality so defined, or not to know, because of the abstract ambiguity of some of the words in the definition itself, whether that definition does or doesn’t apply to a particular example. For example, if one defines ‘justice’ as ‘giving everyone who has illegitimately harmed another or been harmed by an act what they deserve as a result of that act,” how does one know if a given act is ‘illegitimate’ or what everyone involved on both sides of the act actually ‘deserve’?

No, philosophical reasoning by oneself or together with others in something approximating Socratic dialogue is not, in itself, the pathway to Truth and fulfillment. But I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One man feels the trunk and thinks that’s what an elephant looks like. Another feels the tail and thinks that’s the whole elephant. And another feels a leg and mistakes that for the entire animal. Only when each impression is combined with all of the others does a more complete understanding of the elephant begin to emerge. In much the same way, only when philosophical reasoning is combined with other ways of learning and living does one’s understanding of oneself, others, and the world grow beyond the narrower proportions of what it is for all too many of us today.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Weekend in LA

My wife and I spent last weekend down in LA. Before we sold our house in Redwood City, we briefly considered moving to the LA area because of the large job market, the relatively inexpensive real estate, the huge Thai and other Asian communities, the wide variety of education opportunities and entertainment options, the moderate weather, and the fact that my friend of 35 years lives there. We even looked at houses there in late 2003 and liked some of the ones we saw. But the traffic was terrible, the air was dirty, there was the ever-present danger of a massive earthquake, there was too much gang violence and other crime, and it was too far away from family and other friends. We decided that Sacramento was a better choice in that it offered many of the benefits of LA with fewer of the liabilities. We’re delighted that we made the choice we did.

But it’s still fun to go to LA from time to time, and it takes only about five to six hours of driving to get there. When I was younger, I thought I despised LA. After all, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and we looked down on “La-La land” as a place of stifling traffic and smog and of the superficially rich and phony. But it was easy for me to buy into these stereotypes because I hadn’t actually been there since I was a kid. Once I started going there fairly regularly a few years ago, I discovered that I liked the area more than I expected and that it wasn’t really so different from my beloved Bay Area.

We drove down there this time with my wife’s aunt and uncle. My wife’s uncle works for the Hyatt Regency Hotel and can get free accommodations for family and friends anywhere. We stayed one night in the Hyatt Regency on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. It was disappointingly ordinary. Our room was scarcely indistinguishable from that of a Motel 8 at what would have been more than three times the price if we had paid for it. But we spent the next night in the Hyatt Park Regency near Beverly Hills, and that was an entirely different and far more luxurious place. I didn’t know it at the time, but that hotel overlooks the 20th Century Fox studios, and I might have even been able to watch them shooting a movie had I ventured over to the hotel sundeck and garden and looked out.

When we weren’t eating and shopping in Hollywood’s “Thai Town” (the largest Thai community outside Thailand, from what I understand), we spent a fair amount of time driving around Beverly Hills looking at the fancy houses and cars. I wish we’d had a map of celebrity houses at the time. I admit that I’m still a kid at heart who still gets something of a thrill out of being close to the stars. I also found myself daydreaming of what it would be like to live in one of those gorgeous, tree-shaded houses and drive a fancy Mercedes, BMW, or new and sporty Bentley like the one I saw on Santa Monica Blvd. I can understand the intoxicating allure of these things, even though I’d like to think that even if I could afford them (which, of course, I’ll never be able to), I would eschew them for more modest trappings of the “good life” that I think I pretty much have already. No, even if I had Bill Gates’ money, I wouldn’t live in Beverly Hills. But I might drive a new BMW 330i.

I used to think it was flat-out immoral to live in anything better than a modest house, drive a modest car, eat in modest restaurants, stay in modest motels, or even hire someone else to mow your lawn or clean your house. But now I’m more inclined to believe that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with nice houses, cars, restaurants, hotels, and services if one can readily afford them and doesn’t become so jaded and spoiled by them that one looks down on and can’t enjoy anything less and feels superior to those who can’t afford anything better. After all, there’s something to be said for paying good money to people who build quality products and provide quality services in a world filled with mediocrity and just plain junk.

I know that it’s largely academic for someone like me to contemplate these matters, unless I win the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes that I dutifully enter upon every opportunity. But as long as I don’t lose sight of my highest priorities, I don’t think it hurts to daydream a little and to enjoy if not admire a little glitz, glamour, and luxury. And my reading of Ken Wilber has helped to show me that spirituality and materialism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, Spirit can be seen as giving rise to and encompassing all of Reality such that a fuller embrace of the material world can constitute a fuller embrace of Spirit. I think it largely boils down to the attitude with which one embraces the material world.

I could say a lot more, but, as usual here of late, I feel inclined to say less for the time being.