Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dispelling the Nongospel of the Freaky Jesus, P. 4

Christianity has universality, or catholicity, only in recognizing
that Jesus is one particular instance and expression of a wisdom which
was also, if differently, realized in the Buddha, in Lao-Tzu, and in
such modern avatars as Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, and, perhaps,
Aurobindo and Inayat Khan. (I could make a very long list.) This
wisdom is that none of us are brief island existences, but forms and
expressions of one and the same eternal "I am" waving in different
ways, such that, whenever this is realized to be the case, we wave
more harmoniously with other waves.
--Alan Watts from Was Jesus a Freak?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Dispelling the Nongospel of the Freaky Jesus, P. 3

So it turns out, alas, that our new breed of Jesus freaks are
following the old nongospel of the freaky Jesus--of the bizarre man
who was unnaturally born and whose corpse was weirdly reanimated for a
space trip into heaven. (One can, of course, interpret these ancient
images in a more profound and nonliteral way...) But to identify
Jesus as the one and only historical incarnation of a divinity
considered as the royal, imperial, and militant Jehovah, is only to
reinforce the pestiferous arrogance of "white" Christianity--with all
the cruel self-righteousness of its missionary zeal. They may,
perhaps, be forgiven for their ignorance, but today, when we are
exposed to all the riches of the world's varying cultures and
religions, there is no further excuse for the parochial fanaticism of
spiritual in-groups.
--Alan Watts from Was Jesus a Freak?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Dispelling the Nongospel of the Freaky Jesus, P. 2

But Jesus had to speak through a public-address system--the only one
available--which distorted his words, so that they came forth as the
bombastic claim to be the one and only appearance of the Christ, of
the incarnation of God as man. This is not good news. The good news
is that if Jesus could realize his identity with God, you can
also--but this God does not have to be idolized as an imperious
monarch with a royal court of angels and ministers. God, as "the love
which moves the sun and other stars," is something much more inward,
intimate, and mysterious--in the sense of being too close to be seen
as an object.
--Alan Watts from Was Jesus a Freak?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

While My Ukulele Gently Weeps

The late George Harrison was my favorite Beatle. He may have been overshadowed, so far as the general public was concerned, by Paul and John, but his spiritual depth, gentleness, and humility appealed greatly to me as did his songwriting. For instance, Frank Sinatra is reputed to have called "Something" "the greatest love song of the last 50 years." Another of my favorite Harrison songs was "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Here is a clip of a guy named Jake Shimabukuro playing a beautiful rendition of this song on a ukulele.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Last night I attended a training session for volunteer adult literacy tutors. It was a frustrating experience. I've made frequent mention here that I have learning disabilities. One profoundly frustrating disability is my difficulty in being able to follow instructions, whether they're spoken, written, or demonstrated. It takes me far more time than it does most people to learn the sequence of behaviors for performing various procedures.

The adult literacy program in Sacramento County uses the Laubach method of teaching elementary reading and writing skills. It employs precise procedures for teaching these skills. The training workshops consist of people briefly explaining and demonstrating these procedures and then having us practice them with each other using the tutor's and learner's manuals.

Unfortunately, we aren't allowed to study these manuals before the training sessions, nor are we allowed to borrow them after unless and until we're actually matched with a learner. This makes it all but impossible for me to learn the skills. If I'm to have any chance of learning them, I need to take a lot of time to study the manuals, practice the procedures, and absorb their pedagogical logic on my own.

Even then, I'm not sure if I can do it, but I want to try. I've wanted to do something like this for years but have always been too afraid to try. I always believed that I could never learn the procedures and that I'd look stupid and feel embarrassed and ashamed in the workshops and end up failing.

Last night I felt frustrated. But, fortunately, I'm more accepting than I used to be of the fact that I have this problem learning things that come much more easily to most people, and I 'm more willing and able to set aside embarrassment and shame in favor of making an effort to overcome the problem. I want to overcome this problem. I want to help other people overcome their problems or learning disabilities with language skills. I want to give something to my community. I want to show myself that I can do things I didn't think I could do and gain useful skills and self-confidence I've never had.

But, in this case, it looks to be a steep uphill climb. I've e-mailed the program coordinators about my concerns. I've asked to be allowed to borrow instructional materials and study them outside the training session and before I'm matched with a learner. But even if they agree to this, the next and last training session is an intensive seven hour one tomorrow, and I don't have enough time to adequately prepare for it. Try as I might to make myself believe otherwise and to go into tomorrow's session with a positive attitude, I find myself anticipating hours and hours of frustrating hell.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dispelling the Nongospel of the Freaky Jesus

It is obvious to any informed student of the history and psychology of
religion that Jesus was one, of many, who had an intense experience of
cosmic consciousness--of the vivid realization that oneself is a
manifestation of the eternal energy of the universe, the basic "I am."
But it is very hard to express this experience when the only religious
imagery at your disposal conceives the "I am" as an all-knowing and
all-powerful monarch, autocrat, and beneficent tyrant enthroned in a
court of adoring subjects. In such a cultural context, you cannot say
"I am God" without being accused of subversion, insubordination,
megalomania, arrogance, and blasphemy. Yet that was why Jesus was
crucified. In India, people would have laughed and rejoiced with him.
--Alan Watts from Was Jesus a Freak?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bowling Lessons

Debbie Haggerty is my doubles partner in my bowling league. She's also one of the best bowling coaches in the world. My friend Tim is a fine bowler with a simple style that enables him to be accurate and consistent. He loves the game and is always looking to learn more about it and improve his skills. One skill he wants to improve is his ability to roll a more powerful ball so that he can get more strikes. So, when I told him about Debbie, he resolved to take a lesson with her. Yesterday, he was finally able to drive here from the Bay Area and make good on that resolution, and I accompanied him to the bowling center.

He and I practiced for 90 minutes before Debbie arrived. Then she watched him carefully and videotaped him from several different angles. After that, she replayed the videos for him in regular, slow, and very slow motion showing him what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong and gave him suggestions on what he can do to improve, especially in the way of generating a more powerful roll on his ball. She then watched him try out those suggestions. Tim's a quick learner, and he was soon knocking down pins with more forcefulness than I was accustomed to seeing from him. I have no doubt that what he learned will make him a better bowler, because it will enable him to throw a more powerful ball without sacrificing the effective simplicity of his game.

Even though I didn't ask for it and didn't pay her for a lesson, she also videotaped me from the back and side and replayed it for me. It was a revelation. I've seen myself on videotape before, but never as clearly in regular and slow motion as I did yesterday. I was actually somewhat pleasantly surprised at how graceful I looked in some respects. Nevertheless, my game bears the somewhat archaic signature of someone who began bowling in the late 1960's with its long slide and extended follow through. And I was doing something blatantly wrong that was affecting my ability to be consistent. I was holding and pushing the ball slightly to the right of my trunk when I began walking to the foul line, and this caused me to swing the ball slightly left behind my back in my backswing, forcing me to try to get the ball back on line in my forward swing. She told me to hold the ball a little further left and make sure I push it straight out rather than to the right and that this should enable me to achieve a straighter, more consistent backswing which, in turn, should help me to be more accurate and consistent. She also made a suggestion about how to hold the ball before I begin my approach so that I can effortlessly generate a more consistent and powerful release and ball reaction leading to more strikes.

I was very pleased with what I learned and look forward to trying it out. I've always had difficulty understanding biomechanical principles and following instructions. This is why I've never sought out coaching and haven't asked Debbie for advice when we bowl together in league. But I understood the simple suggestions she gave me yesterday and think they will help me a lot. I think I'll now be less reluctant to ask her for advice when we're bowling together, and I may even hire her for some formal lessons.

Perhaps it's not too late to teach an old dog or, in this case, old bowler new tricks.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Paco DeLucia--Flamenco Guitar Master

I recently posted about a dazzling concert I attended in San Francisco in 1980 featuring three incredible acoustic guitarists--John McLaughlin, Paco, DeLucia, and Al DiMeola. That post was chiefly about John McLaughlin. This one is about Paco DeLucia.

Paco is one of the greatest flamenco guitarists ever. He was born in Spain in 1947 and was a child prodigy who was playing on the radio at age 11, won a special prize at a national flamenco competition a year later, and was touring with renowned flamenco dancer Jose Greco's troupe at age 14. Since then, he has recorded numerous albums, toured the world many times, and become a leading exponent not only of traditional flamenco guitar but also of New Flamenco and world music. His version of the famous classical piece Concierto de Aranjuez is said to have prompted the composer, Joaquin Rodrigo, to exclaim that he had never heard his composition, normally performed by great classical guitarists, played so brilliantly. But I became aware of Paco through his collaborations with Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin and, later, with McLaughlin and Al DiMeola.

Paco is a spellbinding master of the flamenco guitar, as this solo from his Saturday night in San Francisco performance and this duet with John McLaughlin years later reveal.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Poetry and Scripture

Gagdad Bob was inspired by my recent posts on the Bible and poem deafness to write about "scripture and revelation." I'd like to address some of what he said today.

I am not going to provide a link, because I don't want to needlessly embarrass the person or make them feel self-conscious.

I wouldn't have written about it in the first place if I felt unduly embarrassed or self-conscious about it. Besides, my humble blog could have used the publicity. :-) On the other hand, I don't need a bunch of true-believing proselytizers either.

Basically, the dilemma has to do with an integral-type person who says he does not comprehend Christian scripture, so he must reject it.

I don't "reject" it in the sense of resolutely concluding that it reveals no important truths. But I DO wonder what truths it may reveal and how we can know what they are.

He is particularly appalled by Old Testament stories of God expressing his frustration and disappointment with mankind by effacing them from the planet and starting over. Viewing the situation in wholly humanistic, rationalistic, and literal terms, this person can find no possible justification for God's act of mass-killing. And if we interpret this story in an allegorical way, who's to say that we can't interpret everything else in the Bible in such a way, including, say, the resurrection of Jesus? So this person has jettisoned Christianity entirely, in favor of a more abstract and impersonal Buddhistic notion of God.

What justification IS there when the story's taken literally? What compelling allegorical meaning does it have about any true God? Why should we interpret Jesus' resurrection literally? Do we need to interpret it literally to be "saved"?

Now interestingly, in a subsequent post, this person may have provided a hint of insight into his own spiritual infirmity -- indeed, if that is what it is -- by pointing out that he has never in his life been able to comprehend poetry. He doesn't believe this equates to stupidity, since he certainly understands plain English and has no trouble expressing himself. But when it comes to poetry, he either derives no coherent message or a flat and literal one. He cannot intuit the specifically poetic sense of the poem, which obviously rises above the literal.

This is an excellent summary of my difficulty, except that I said it appears to be true of "most" rather than all poetry I've encountered. I guess the same goes for the Bible. I don't seem to grasp the inner truth of many of its verses, but I think I may understand and even resonate with some of them.

For the whole point about scripture, as far as I am concerned, is that it is not so much the "word of God" per se. Rather, I see it as a message from man to man -- a divinely inspired message from man's higher self to his lower self, expressed in a language that the lower self can comprehend.

If scripture is inspired by God and is "man's higher self" speaking intelligibly to his "lower self," what relation does "man's higher self" have to his "lower self" and to God?

if scripture were purely in the language of the celestial realm from which it arises, man, as he is presently constituted (and certainly ancient man) would not be able to comprehend it.

If man's "higher self" wrote it, didn't it translate this writing from the "language of the celestial realm"? That is, didn't it already understand the "celestial language" before it could express it in scriptural language? If so, why does it need to translate the "celestial" language into something simpler? Why does the "lower self" need to understand it, and can it understand the "celestial language" in any meaningful way from reading the simplified translation?

How do we respond to the person who rejects the entirety of scripture based upon this or that seeming absurdity?

Speaking for myself (and I suspect for many others), I don't "reject the entirety of scripture" based on "this or that" dubious literal passage. I acknowledge that if one looks hard enough, one can probably find "meaning" in virtually every biblical passage, much the way one can "find" objects or even an entire story in every Rorshach ink blot. So, I don't necessarily "reject" any scripture. What I do is question whether parts of scripture that seem incredible on a literal level should be taken that way, even if they're officially supposed to be, and, if some fundamental parts that are supposed to be taken literally are exceedingly dubious when taken that way rather than as allegories, what this means for the entire faith. For instance, if one can legitimately doubt, even if one can't outright dismiss, the unique divinity and resurrection of Jesus, how should this affect our interpretation of scripture as a whole and our allegiance to any Christian church's teachings?

When Scripture is envisaged in its totality it imparts global value and its supernatural character to whomever is not blinded by any prejudice and who has been able to preserve intact the normally human sensibility for the majestic and the sacred."

I may be somewhat "prejudiced" against taking ancient stories of miraculous people and events as actual history, but I don't know that my degree of prejudice in this regard constitutes pathological "blindness." Rather, it seems quite prudent. But what I'd really like to know is what "global value" and "supernatural character" is "imparted" to someone capable of "envisaging" scripture "in its totality." What does this graced person understand about God and Jesus, and how does he feel and live?

Thus, we might say that the "poetic sense" is analogous to the "musical sense" of the sophisticated listener who is able to pull together all of the diverse musical connections as they are deployed in time (i.e., melodically) and space (i.e., harmonically)...While I am unable to appreciate either opera in general or Wagner in particular, that doesn't detract from the deeper point that I am trying to make about scripture and the poetic sense.

If the "poetic sense" is, indeed, "analogous to the musical sense of the sophisticated listener," and most readers of the scripture are no more sophisticated in their poetic sense than most musical listeners are sophisticated in their musical sense, just how well does scripture speak to the "lower self" of most of us, and, if it's truly "divinely inspired," why doesn't it do a better job of speaking to most of our "lower selves" than it seems to?

Lessons Learned From a Tragic Death

Last Friday, a Sacramento radio station held an early-morning contest in which 20 people off the street competed to see who could drink the most water over several hours without going to the bathroom or throwing up. The grand prize was a new Nintendo video game called the Wii. I don't listen to this station or play video games. The reason I'm writing about this is that one of the contestants died later as the apparent result of acute "water intoxication," and ten employees of the radio station were fired in the aftermath. The contestant was Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three. She drank nearly two gallons of water in less than four hours before giving up after complaining that she had a headache and felt light-headed. She drove home, calling in sick to work along the way, and was found dead at home by her mother several hours later. The fired employees were the five on-air personalities from the show and supporting staff.

The Sacramento County sheriff announced that he lacked cause to conduct a criminal investigation of the incident. "
It's not as if [Ms Strange] was somehow in their custody and they had a role to care for her," he said. "Rather, it was an invitation to a contest that was clearly ill-advised. She was exercising her free will." I'm not a lawyer and don't really know what the law has to say about the issue of criminal negligence, but I suspect that the sheriff is right so far as possible criminal prosecution is concerned. A lawsuit in the civil court may be an entirely different matter, and a personal injury attorney commenting on the case has already said as much. No one forced Ms. Strange to drink all that water, and she even signed a waiver absolving the radio station of all responsibility for whatever happened, but I can well imagine a slick civil lawyer making a persuasive case that those radio station employees not only should have known about the perils of water intoxication but actually did know about them and said as much on the air during the contest, and that it was, therefore, their responsibility not to put people in harm's way. At the very least, they should have made sure that all the contestants were fully apprised of the risk they were taking on.

Along with the issue of legal responsibility, I have questions about moral responsibility and about whether the ten radio staff involved in this unfortunate affair have been treated fairly. I have mixed thoughts and emotions about all of this. Let me begin by saying it's a terrible tragedy that this mother of three young children who put herself through the ordeal of the contest in order to win an expensive video game system for her children died from her efforts. Yet, having said this, it seems to me that too many people are too quick to blame others for their own foolish actions and that this growing shift of responsibility for one's actions from oneself onto others may not be such a good thing for our society. On the other hand, I recognize the psychological reality that people are naturally inclined to place their trust in authority figures. For Jennifer Strange, those radio personalities were probably people she trusted to know that the contest they were sponsoring was unlikely to present any serious threat to her health. Should she have trusted them? Obviously not. But people foolishly exhibit such trust frequently, and this should be taken into account whenever we contemplate involving others in dangerous activities.

I don't want to write a philosophical tome on the subject. I'll just say that, based on my admittedly limited understanding of the facts of the case and of all the legal principles and issues involved, I'm inclined to believe that there should be no criminal prosecution in this case, that if a civil suit is brought forth (as it almost certainly will be) it should fail (even though it probably won't), and that the radio station was justified in firing at least the five participating on-air personalities (although I'm not sure about the other staff members) involved with the show in question. In any case, I hope this tragedy makes people less inclined to participate in dangerous activities under the auspices of individuals or institutions they shouldn't necessarily trust just because they happen to hold positions of authority or public prominence, and that it also makes those who hold these positions more circumspect about sponsoring activities in which an impressionable public can place themselves in harm's way.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Poem Deaf

I have never been able to make heads nor tails of most poetry. I don't know why. I could chalk it up to plain stupidity, but I think I'm reasonably knowledgeable and have a decent command of the English language. However, when I read most poetry, it's just words that don't convey any coherent message to me. Or the only message I get from it is so insipidly literal and mundane that it's surely not what or all the author intended. I may understand some of the symbolism or allusions, but, like I said, when I try to weave everything together into a unified story, scene, or message that makes sense, I can't.

For this reason, I've stayed away from most poetry and even song lyrics and stuck largely with prose and instrumental music respectively. Simon and Garfunkle songs are one of the only notable exceptions I can think of to this. I always seemed to "get" many of their songs (although I never had a clue about Baby Driver ). But I'm not sure what that says about the quality of Paul Simon's lyrics or my capacity for comprehension.

I bought a book recently that I hope will help me understand poetry better and appreciate it more. I'll have more to say about it later, after I've worked my way through it or at least started to do so.

In the meantime, I'd like so share with you one of my feeble attempts at writing poetry. I wrote it when I was a lot younger and even more foolish than I am now. It was my attempt to capsulize my philosophy of divine Oneness and apply it to the alienation and loneliness I felt at the time:

Whichever Way You Go

Dear and troubled friend.
Can you see without without within, or within without without?
Look to yourself and see Tao .
Look to Tao and see yourself.
Either Way or no Way, it doesn't matter how.
Tao takes care of itself.

Whichever way you go, Tao is sure to flow.
So, what's the problem?

Now do you see why I and poetry don't mix very well? :-)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Is God a Mass Murderer?

There's a new blog in town. It's called Biblical Bunk and is authored by someone who goes by the improbable name of Adonis Anacondus. His second post is titled Noah's Flood: Is Bible God a Mass Murderer? Here is the post:

Is Bible God a mass murderer of men, women, children, babies and fetuses?

If Noah's Flood actually took place and you worship or pray to Bible God does this mean that you condone mass baby murder?

Since Satan never killed anyone in the Bible does this mean he is Good and Bible God is Evil?

Why do Christians often declare they detest murder yet go to all lengths to defend what looks like the mass murder of Bible God?

This is how I replied:

The Bible literally says that God killed countless men, women, children, babies, and fetuses. So if we read it as literally true in these accounts, God killed all of these people. But did his killing constitute the "murder" you say it does? One definition of "murder" is: "The unlawful killing of one human by another." I often define murder as "unjustified homicide." Do God's killings meet the first definition? No, since the biblical God is not a human being. What about my second definition? Christians reply that since God is and does only good, he cannot do something that is unjustified; therefore, his homicides are justifiable. I think this is debatable, but I won't elaborate right now. Some Christians also reply that these stories should not necessarily be interpreted literally. Rather, they should be seen as metaphors authored by ancient people to eff ineffable truths about the awesomely incomprehensible nature of God. Thus, if you ask them what these metaphors tell us about the living God, they say that this can't be precisely expressed in literal language but can only be understood to any degree via some complex and prolonged process of faith-based study and contemplation.

I confess that I don't know what to make of all this. It seems to me that there can be no justification for God's literal acts of mass-killing; I can't imagine how even a metaphorical interpretation of them tells us anything valid about a true God who is truly as supremely loving, just, and merciful as Christians believe him to be; and, finally, if we aren't to interpret THESE stories as literal fact, why should we interpret miraculous stories about Jesus' virgin birth, unique divinity, and bodily resurrection as literally true? Yet, can someone who doesn't interpret them in this way be Christian? I understand that such a person cannot.

That is one reason why I do not consider myself Christian.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Saturday Night in San Francisco

John McLaughlin has been my favorite musician for the past 35 years. He is one of the most accomplished and respected guitarists in the world. He is astoundingly proficient technically on both acoustic and electric guitar. He has a profound grasp of music and guitar theory. He can play world-class jazz, rock, blues, and world fusion music. His groups and compositions over the course of his career show remarkable creative diversity. To my mind, he's an indubitable genius who has given me and countless others innumerable hours of joy and inspiration.

And at no time did I feel more joy and inspiration from his music than I did at a concert at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco on a Saturday night in December of 1980, when he, Al DiMeola, and flamenco guitar legend Paco DeLucia put on an acoustic guitar concert for the ages. In fact, it, or, rather, the previous night's showing has been preserved for the ages in one of the most popular guitar albums of all time--Friday Night in San Francisco . But I saw them the next night, and, if anything, they were even better. Never have I attended a concert that swept me and the rest of the audience away with so much impassioned virtuosity. It was magical and one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I have just discovered video from that concert on YouTube, and I'm in heaven when I watch it and relive the bliss of that night. Here is a video of a McLaughlin solo from that night. I'm looking forward to seeing more of that concert on YouTube or somewhere else if and when it becomes available.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Discussion Continues

The discussion of Catholicism I've reported in previous entries has continued. Here is what I posted to the message board today:

You keep saying that when I express my misgivings about
Catholicism, I don't know what I'm talking about and am arguing
against straw men. You say that I need to spend at least several
months intensively studying and meditating on its key teachings before
I'm qualified to challenge them or the faith from which they issue. I
admit that I don't know reams of facts about the finer details of
Church teachings and history, but I don't concede that this makes the
arguments I've posed here against Catholicism unsound. Furthermore,
if these arguments are sound, I contend that they provide ample reason
not to waste my time engaging in the kind of intensive study of
Catholicism you say I should.

Let us take just one of my arguments for now. I argue that if the God
worshiped by the Catholic Church really existed and wanted us to know,
love, and serve him with total devotion in this life and join him for
blissful eternity instead of suffering apart from him for eternity in
the next, it's legitimate to assume that he would make sure we know
that he exists from the very outset instead of requiring us to seek
out what seems like a fairy tale to many of us; therefore, he probably
doesn't exist and there is no compelling reason to seek him out.

You counter-argue that God transcends such "simple logic" and that he
doesn't make us certain of his existence because that would compromise
our free will. I counter-counter argue that my faith that a real God
who wants us to embrace him would make us certain of his existence is
at least as sensible as your faith that he wouldn't, and I ask why we
still couldn't have the free will to obey or disobey God even if he
made us certain that he exists.

Now you can dismiss my argument, counter-counter argument, and
question as ignorant and "sophomoric," but I don't believe that they
are, and I think they provide ample justification in themselves for my
not spending months or years poring over scripture and Catholic
theology before I further challenge Catholicism in places like this
with this and many more arguments and questions. And if I'm wrong
about this, then surely a wannabe Jesuit like yourself can do a better
job of addressing my comments and questions than you have so far so
that I might begin to see enough of the light that I'll want to
investigate further to see more of it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Skull Full of Mush?

Earlier, I posted something about my discussion on a religious message board concerning my skepticism over the ambiguities of interpreting implausible scripture. I've continued to have a discussion with that gentleman, and the crux of his reply to my objections is that I need to do my "homework" in terms of open-mindedly studying scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church before I engage in further straw man arguments against the Church in particular and Christianity in general.

This is how I recently responded to him:

I confess that I take it on faith that a real God would not
require us to "do our homework" in order to make clear sense of the
sacred texts that speak for him, or, if he did, he would first make us
indubitably aware of his existence and of the fact that the Bible,
among all so-called sacred texts, and the RCC, among all religious
institutions, are the only sacred text and religious institution that
bear his official seal of approval. This way we could do our homework
fully confident that our efforts, guided by the divine authority of
the RCC, would yield worthwhile results rather than, to paraphrase
Professor Kingsfield from "The Paper Chase," a skull full of useless
theological mush.

Why would someone do his homework or join the Church and take the
Church as his spiritual guide if he has strong and legitimate doubt
that the biblical God exists, much less that the Church and Bible
speak for him, and how could a supremely loving, just, and merciful
God require that someone do this or suffer eternal, excruciating
torment if he doesn't?

My faith tells me that he wouldn't. My faith tells me that such a God
does not exist and that any scripture or institution that teaches
otherwise is to be viewed with a healthy dose of profound skepticism.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Kosmos in a Single Sentence

Once upon a time, one of my philosophy professors asked the class if we could think of one sentence that did a good job of summarizing the essence of any great philosopher's philosophy. The one that came to my mind immediately was Spinoza's, "The better we understand particular things, the better we understand God." I was too shy to say this in class. But I ended up writing a paper that purported to show how the essence of Spinoza's metaphysics, ethics, theology, and politics could all be inferred from this one little quote. I say my paper "purported to show" this, because, in retrospect, I'm sure it was comically crude and didn't come even close to accomplishing its lofty task.

Yet, I think tremendous wisdom is nevertheless distilled in that pithy quote. So when I recently encountered, by way of Bill Harryman's blog, a blog article that asked its readers to post a single sentence that captures the essential knowledge or wisdom they have gained from their field of expertise or interest, I thought of Spinoza's quote and a couple of others and fused them into one compound sentence: "All is One and One is All; the better we understand particular things, the better we understand God; and in this life, we cannot do great things, we can only do small things with great love."

Actually, I posted the first two parts of this sentence in the comments section of Bill's and the other blog and have subsequently added the third part, courtesy of Mother Teresa, here to distill my essential metaphysics, ethics, theology, and politics. That is, I believe that we would do well to understand, not only with our intellects but also with our hearts, that "God" is the unified totality of existence in which every particular part of It exists and functions only in relation to the Whole, that the person who understands this deeply is overflowing with love for the divine Oneness and Its ostensive parts and conducts his or her life accordingly, and that the best political system is one that benevolently and effectively fosters this understanding, feeling, and conduct.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saddam's Execution Revisited

In a previous post, I expressed my mixed thoughts and feelings about Saddam Hussein's execution. This was before more recent and vivid revelations surfaced of how Saddam was vindictively taunted by his gleeful executioners as his death sentence was being carried out. Let me be clear that I am unequivocally opposed to the undignified manner of his execution. I believe that if capital punishment must be inflicted on anyone, it should be carried out with an utmost formality and grave solemnity that conveys the message, "All human life is precious, and we regretfully take this one as a last resort and in the hope that the day is soon coming when we will never need to do it again."

However, in response to what I posted originally, someone named Mireille said:

Yes, Steve, I also am very against death as a penalty. This penalty does not make any sense to me. To kill someone because they have committed the heinous crime of murder. If this crime is so heinous why do we also do it when giving the punishment?
To me it is like punishing a little boy who has defaced a public building by going around to his house and defacing his bedroom.

This is how I replied:

Mireille, I agree with you that it generally seems paradoxical to kill people for killing. It seems even worse to do it in the most cold-bloodedly methodical manner typical of state-sponsored execution. However, as today's entry explains, I feel ambivalent about the execution of Saddam Hussein. As much as I deplore capital punishment in general and even though I felt no elation over Hussein's execution, it is "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that Saddam and his government did such horrible things from a position of such prominence and power that if anyone deserves to die the way Saddam did, it was Saddam and his underlings.

And at least now, precious resources needn't be spent and worry exercised over keeping him secure from rescue attempts, and there can be no rallying hope among his supporters that he might someday emerge to lead them back to former days of ignominious glory. Though I'm skeptical that his death will do much to bring peace, order, and progress to a devastated and chaotic Iraq, I feel some glimmer of hope that it might contribute to this worthy cause. I hope because, frankly, I don't know what else to do at this point.

I may now, in the wake of all the ensuing controversy, be even more skeptical that Saddam's execution will do more good than harm. But I still hope that it will.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Tribute to Gerald Ford

I was in my early 20's when Gerald Ford was president. In those days, I hated the Republican Party, despised politics in general, and paid as little attention to either as I could. But I used to laugh at Chevy Chase's merciless mockery of Ford on Saturday Night Live, and I didn't approve of Ford's pardoning of Richard Nixon. Yet, I never felt the animosity if not hatred toward him that I later did for Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr. Gerald Ford was a man you just couldn't hate.

I never thought much about why at the time. But in the wake of his recent death and with what I would like to think is at least a little more maturity than I had over three decades ago, I've thought about it quite a lot. I've come to the conclusion that Gerald Ford was one of the most unassuming, genial, straightforward, commonsensical, and just plain decent men to serve in high political office during my lifetime. As Dick Cheney pointed out in his eulogy, Ford was no philosopher-statesman, but he was exactly what our nation needed when circumstances forced him into a position he hadn't anticipated and probably never really wanted. And if he didn't perform his duties with dazzling oratory and brilliance, at least he did so with genuine modesty and integrity and without the Machiavellian artifice so characteristic of politicians. He did what he thought was right. Not "right" in terms of political ideology, but right in terms of solid moral sensibilities.

In retrospect, I believe that he not only thought he was but also that he actually WAS morally right to pardon Nixon rather than allow this country, already bruised and demoralized by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and a faltering economy, to glumly wallow in a protracted trial that would, at best, have proven what we already knew and what the pardon itself implied. Ironically, doing the right thing may well have cost Ford victory in the 1976 election, and cynical politicians would no doubt cite this as good reason to elevate personal expediency over selfless rectitude in one's political acts. But am I naive to think that if we had more politicians at every level who are more intent on doing right than on getting re-elected, we and our children and they and their children might inhabit a better nation and world than we all do? And isn't it likely that Gerald Ford was able to look back on his life when he came to its end and feel a sense of glowing satisfaction and pride over the essential integrity and goodness with which he conducted his private and publicly political life that few politicians will ever know?

I don't mourn the death of Gerald Ford. He lived a remarkably full life of 93 years as high-school and college football star, Yale Law School graduate, valiant naval officer during World War II, distinguished congressman and House Minority Leader, Vice President, President, elder statesman, and loving and devoted family man. But I have great admiration and respect for the kind of man he was, and I believe that the world of politics and the world at large is diminished by his passing. He may have been a "Ford, not a Lincoln," but what a rugged, reliable, and quietly capable old Ford he was.