Sunday, February 25, 2007

Taking Leave

In 1959, "Saxophone Collosus" Sonny Rollins felt so frustrated with his musical limitations that he stopped playing in public and recording for three years while he labored in private to become a better musician. He spent part of that period practicing on New York City's Williamsburg Bridge in order not to disturb a pregnant neighbor. At that time, he was widely acknowledged to be the best jazz saxophonist in America, yet he was still dissatisfied.

This story has always resonated with me in a deep and powerful way, and never more so than now. I empathize with how Rollins must have felt. Of course, I am nowhere near the writer that he was a saxophonist when he disappeared from the public eye and ear. But I feel the same nagging frustration with my limitations as a writer that he must have felt as a saxophonist. In fact, I now feel those frustrations so acutely that I have decided to suspend posting to my blogs indefinitely. Not only do I feel the need to work in private at becoming a better writer, but I also believe that I need to engage in extensive reading and reflection in order to have anything in mind worth writing about.

I have tried to take leave of blogging before but was unable to resist the siren song to return for more than a day or two. It will be different this time. I may never return, and if I do, it will not happen until I feel in the depths of my being that the time is right. I hope that some of you have enjoyed one or more of my blogs since they have been online. I hope that people will enjoy them even more if and when I return.

Goodbye, and all the best.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Swear to Allah?

As I was eating breakfast this morning while watching the news, I saw a clip of an Iranian ambassador categorically denying that Iran's controversial uranium enrichment program is being used to make weapons grade uranium for atomic bombs. It suddenly occurred to me that a journalist interviewing him should ask him if he'd swear to Allah that what he says is true and that may he and his wife and children burn in screaming agony forever and ever in hell if he's lying. It would be interesting to see how he responded.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Curious About the Media's Effect on the Iraq War

I'm curious....

How much effect the advent of television and movies has had on our (as a culture) willingness to engage in warfare. While people often credit TV (Huntley-Brinkley-Cronkite) for helping to end the VietNam war by delivering the reality of the carnage to our living rooms, at the same time, we are subject to an endless series of fictional scenarios in which, with the sacrifice of secondary and tertiary players in the game, the heroes ALWAYS win in the end.

That would certainly help explain the chickenhawk mentality. The problem isn't that they haven't experienced actual combat and warfare. The problem is that they've experienced an idealized and unrealistic version instead. That's why they keep on insisting that we clap louder. They actually believe that that's the key to victory. It also helps explain all this claptrap about "giving comfort to the enemy". They actually beleive that cheerleading helps us win.


--Paul Dirks (a letter to the editor in

Godless Hell

I've been discussing the subject of hell with a Catholic in a religion forum. This guy is bright and challenges me to understand what the Catholic Church officially teaches about hell before I disagree with it. I must say that I think my understanding of Church teachings on hell has deepened as a result, and I think this has helped me to refine my objections to them. Here is what I wrote yesterday summarizing my central objections:

(1) Can one freely choose to act in a manner that one fully knows will lead to eternal hell? And even if one could, (2) Would a perfectly loving, just, and merciful God allow someone to make such a choice?

Let us assume, for the moment, that one could, with adequate knowledge, freely make such a choice if God allowed it. The question is, How could a perfectly loving, just, and merciful God allow it? As I understand it, the Church teaches that he does it because he gives us freedom and respects our capacity to exercise it. But this is how I look at it. If I were a human parent, I too would want my child to exercise as much freedom as possible. However, if I knew that he had a proclivity for pouring gasoline over himself and setting himself on fire, I would not allow him to do it if I could prevent it. Even if I thought he was choosing this with full knowledge of the consequences and completely free of any pathological compulsion to do it, which I almost certainly wouldn't (but we can get into that later), I wouldn't believe that his freedom should extend as far as his bringing such horrible pain and death to himself. And I don't think I'm being foolish in thinking that as bad as this kind of death would be, it is infinitesimally so compared to spending eternity completely isolated from all love and goodness. It just seems inconceivable to me that any parent--human or divine--could allow someone enough "freedom" to choose such an awesomely horrible fate for himself. It seems entirely unloving, unjust, and unmerciful.

But then it also seems to me that no one who fully knew God's love and the joys of heaven on the one hand, and the awfulness of isolation from God, love, and goodness for eternity that goes with rejecting God on the other could freely make such a choice. I know I'm repeating what I've posted before, and I admit that I can't prove it, but everything I think I know about human nature and psychology tells me that people naturally seek to experience pleasure and avoid pain and would, therefore, not knowingly choose to reject eternal joy in heaven for eternal pain in hell unless they were overwhelmed by an irresistible compulsion to do it. Yet, it also seems to me that unless someone has experienced God's love in a very powerful and direct way and/or the horrible isolation of hell in an equally powerful and direct way, he lacks the fullness of knowledge to make a sufficiently "informed" choice between them for which he can justly be held accountable.

And this is why I have said, time and again, that I find a hell of eternal suffering in total isolation from any vestige of God, goodness, and love to be utterly incompatible with a God of perfect love, justice, and mercy.

So far, my discussion partner hasn't replied. However, I suspect that he will in time, and that he will challenge me to refine my objections even further. Who knows? He may even persuade me to abandon my objections and embrace the Catholic position on hell and, ultimately, the Catholic faith. Now THAT would be a miracle!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What to Do About Tim Hardaway?

Tim Hardaway was a superb point guard when he played in the NBA. He was noted for his excellent passing, shooting, and "killer crossover" dribble that left men guarding him glued to the floor as he flashed past them for an easy open shot, assist, or dunk. Unfortunately, he has recently achieved notoriety of a more dubious nature. During a recent radio interview in Miami, he had some unflattering things to say about homosexuals in the wake of ex-NBA journeyman John Amaechi's recent coming out as a gay man who remained in the closet during his brief tenure in a decidedly gay-unfriendly NBA. Hardaway said that if he knew a gay player was on his team, he would have asked that the player be traded because:

"First of all I wouldn’t want him on my team. Second of all, if he was on my team I would really distance myself from him because I don’t think that’s right and I don’t think he should be in the locker room when we’re in the locker room. Something has to give. If you have 12 other ballplayers in your locker room that's upset and can't concentrate and always worried about him in the locker room or on the court or whatever, it's going to be hard for your teammates to win and accept him as a teammate."

Even after the host of the program criticized his remarks, he proceeded to say, "I hate gay people. I let it be known I don’t like gay people. I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic. It shouldn’t be in the world, in the United States. I don’t like it." And he embraced and added to those comments in another media interview later that day. Only later did he apologize by saying, "Yes, I regret it. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said I hate gay people or anything like that. That was my mistake."

The fallout of Hardaway's comments was predictable and immediate. NBA commissioner David Stern barred him from participating in activities scheduled for this weekend's All-Star game in Las Vegas and from future appearances for the league, and he was subsequenly fired from his jobs with the Indiana Wildcats of the Continental Basketball Association and with Trinity Sports.

I don't like what Hardaway said, but the consequences he has faced in the aftermath have me asking some questions of myself that I'd like to share with you.

Should he have been fired for what he said? A case can most certainly be made that when someone represents business organizations very much in the public eye, it is entirely proper to fire that person if he conducts himself in ways not in keeping with the philosophy or rules of conduct of those organizations and that could adversely affect their reputation and bottom line. As Commissioner Stern stated, "It is inappropriate for him to be representing us given the disparity between his views and ours."

On the other hand, what terrible thing did he actually do? He said what he really felt and thought without urging that violence be committed against gay people (unless one takes his "It shouldn't be in the world..." as an incitement to such violence), and he probably spoke for the majority of NBA players. As John Amaechi himself said in reaction to Hardaway's remarks: "Finally, someone who is honest. It is ridiculous, absurd, petty, bigoted and shows a lack of empathy that is gargantuan and unfathomable. But it is honest. And it illustrates the problem better than any of the fuzzy language other people have used so far."

Moreover, I wonder how Commissioner Stern would have reacted if one of the NBA's current or past superstars--say LeBron James or Michael Jordan--publicly expressed similar sentiments. Would he have abruptly terminated THEM too from all present and future official involvement with the NBA? Was what Hardaway said really bad enough to get him fired, especially in the wake of the formal public apology issued through his agent?:

"As an African-American, I know all too well the negative thoughts and feelings hatred and bigotry cause. I regret and apologize for the statements that I made that have certainly caused the same kinds of feelings and reactions. I especially apologize to my fans, friends and family in Miami and Chicago. I am committed to examining my feelings and will recognize, appreciate and respect the differences among people in our society. I regret any embarrassment I have caused the league on the eve of one of their greatest annual events."

Suppose Hardaway had said something like this on that radio program:

"I have to admit that I hate homosexuals. After all, my Christian faith says that homosexual acts are a sinful abomination, and I confess that, given my upbringing in a black culture with a real antipathy to homosexuality and homosexuals, I've found it awfully difficult to stop at just hating the sin instead of also hating the sinner. I'm not proud of this, and I'm working on overcoming it. But I personally would find it very difficult to play on the same team with someone I knew to be homosexual. What's more, I think it could cause a lot of problems with the team given the fact that many players feel the same way I do about gays and would also feel very uncomfortable having a gay guy showering with them in the locker room. Not only that, but I also believe that having an acknowledged gay player in the NBA sets a bad example for impressionable young people. So, I think that openly gay people should not be allowed to play in the NBA."

Would this have been better? It invokes an almost universal Christian belief that gay sex is abominably sinful and sounds virtuously open and honest while nevertheless admitting personal shortcoming. Yet, in essence, it says pretty much what Hardaway actually did say.

Suppose Hardaway had not said he hated gays, only that his faith condemns gay sex and that he thought having an openly gay guy on the team and in the locker room could cause team dissension and set a poor example for youth. Would that too have been unacceptable? Would the expression of ANY negative opinions about gay people or gay players in the NBA have been unacceptable and deserving of immediate firing, and, if not, where should the line be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable criticisms of homosexuality?

And now suppose that a player or other representative of the NBA or some other sports organization came out and publicly announced that he hates people who hate homosexuals and thinks they should not be in the world or this country and that they should be fired from their jobs? Would it be right to fire THIS individual as well for his own hateful and derogatory comments?

I don't know exactly how to answer these questions. I'm inclined to think that Hardaway should not have been fired, especially if he issued more apologies. But I DO know that, as unpleasant and unfortunate as I found Hardaway's comments to be, I hope he gets a second chance.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bill's Back

The people in Iraq don't want this. The people in America don't want this. The Iraq Study Group doesn't recommend it. The Democrats are against it. Most of the people in his own party are against it, even though many of them wouldn't say so out loud. But George Bush, he knows better. That is a kind of arrogance that is very hard to swallow at this point, especially when it's costing this many lives. Even the pope -- remember he said something bad about the Muslims a few months ago? The infallible pope came out and said, "Geez, my bad. That came out wrong. I didn't mean that." Yeah, the pope can say he's sorry, but this recovering alcoholic from Midland, Texas, he can't even say he's wrong.
--Bill Maher

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Camille Paglia on the Iraq War

I want American troops out now -- not next year but tomorrow. Support of the troops means not subjecting them to an unsustainable and ultimately unwinnable mission, cooked up by armchair cowboys who see the world in simplistic cartoon terms ("good guys" vs. "bad guys"). The provincial philistines of the Bush administration blundered into the Mideast with little more than superficial knowledge of its tangled history and ancient culture. And they have colossally wasted American blood and treasure on a project that had only a tangential relation to the atrocity of 9/11.

--Camille Paglia

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What Was He Thinking?

A young man walked into a Salt Lake City mall last night and calmly and indiscriminately shot to death two young women, two men, and a teenage girl and wounded four others before police killed him with a hail of gunfire after he failed to drop his weapon and surrender. Had the police not responded as quickly as they did--reports are that the gunman was "contained" within six minutes of the first gunshots fired--many more might have died or been wounded.

The question that comes to mind is, Why did this young man do what he did? Was it a case of "suicide by cop"? It's doubtful that he expected to live after he murdered those people. The fact that he responded to a command to surrender by firing shotgun blasts at police certainly suggests this.

But if he wanted to die, why did he want to kill as many innocent people as he could first? Whether Christian or not, don't most people fear "dying in sin" enough or feel sufficient uncertainty about what might await them in a possible afterlife that the last thing they would want to do just before dying is murder as many innocent people as possible?

I don't know about you, but if I wanted the police to kill me, I'd be as much of a saint as I could be for as long as possible before the fateful moment. And when that moment came, I'd do something to attract the police's attention that didn't harm anyone, and I would point an unloaded gun at police to get them to shoot me.

Don't worry, I have no desire to commit suicide by cop or any other means. But if I did, I would be an agnostic male version of Mother Teresa beforehand. I wouldn't walk into a mall with a shotgun and handgun and start blowing away men, women, and girls out doing an evening's shopping.

What was he thinking?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Outlaw Childless Marriages in State of Washington

I've probably made it only too clear that I have problems with conventional Christianity. By "conventional Christianity," I mean Christianity as it's understood and practiced by most people who call themselves Christian and that espouses some version of the Apostle's Creed. I concede, in deference to those who maintain this, that there might be a more evolved, unconventional Christianity possible and that some people in the past and present may even embody it. But, as I've said before, I wonder just how far one can depart from conventional Christianity and still be Christian in any meaningful sense.

One problem, among many, that I have with Christianity is its stance on gay sex and gay marriage. The Catholic Church formally proclaims that all gay sex constitutes "intrinsically disordered" acts of "grave depravity" and "under no circumstances can they be approved." Most other Christian churches officially agree. They base their prohibition on biblical condemnations of homosexual acts and on the notion that gay sex violates the God-given procreative purpose of human sexuality. My counterargument to this has been that if it's permissible for heterosexual couples to have sexual relations without wanting or being able to have children, homosexual couples should be able to do the same. And when Christians reply that sex should only take place within marriage, I respond by stating that gays should be allowed to marry.

Well, it seems that the gay Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance agrees with me and has chosen a wonderfully ironic way to respond to Washington state's banning of gay marriage on the grounds that gay couples can't procreate. They are circulating a petition that would place on the ballot an initiative that would require married heterosexual couples to produce children within three years or have their marriages automatically annulled.

This group admits that the proposed law is "absurd" but argues: “For many years, social conservatives have claimed that marriage exists solely for the purpose of procreation. The Washington Supreme Court echoed that claim in their lead ruling. The time has come for these conservatives to be dosed with their own medicine.”

I couldn't agree more. What do you think?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Obama's Call to Renewal

Last June 28, the Reverend Jim Wallis' Christian evangelical organization of political progressives, Call to Renewal, sponsored a conference entitled, "Building a Covenant for a New America." Attending this conference were religious leaders, social activists, and major politicians including Hillary Clinton and keynote speaker Barack Obama.

Obama has attracted extraordinary attention for a relatively inexperienced politician ever since his bedazzlingly brilliant keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. He has continued to deliver remarkable speeches since then including his keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference. Here is an excerpt from that speech urging people of all faiths and political persuasions to work together to achieve common goals and good:

And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix.

I believe in vigorous enforcement of our non-discrimination laws. But I also believe that a transformation of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part of the nation's CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion of lawyers. They have more lawyers than us anyway.

I think that we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys. I think that the work that Marian Wright Edelman has done all her life is absolutely how we should prioritize our resources in the wealthiest nation on earth. I also think that we should give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished.

But, you know, my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Right Wing Civility and Substance?

As I drove home from the bowling center this morning, I tuned in to the Dennis Prager show and heard a caller say that he'd just had an unpleasant exchange with liberal talk show host Ed Schultz on Schultz' program in which Schultz had angrily called Prager insulting names. Prager replied that while there are certainly exceptions on both sides, he generally finds people, including media representatives, on the political right to be far more civil and substantive in their arguments than are those on the political left. Prager opined that people on the left habitually engage in name calling and other ad hominem attacks to compensate for the weakness of their positions. Is this your perception as well?

My own perception, as one who has traditionally leaned decidedly to the political left in most respects, is that Prager may be correct. Not that I've sampled that many right wing television and radio programs, but I've sampled enough on the other side of the aisle to conclude that there is a lot of name calling and personal attacking from the left, and that people on the right, such as Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt, do tend to stick to issues rather than attack persons, and to frame rational arguments even if I disagree with many of their conclusions. Perhaps your perception is different.

In any case, I would love to see people in the media from all across the political spectrum express their views and disagreements with other people's views with civility, respect, and reason instead of resorting to intellectually bankrupt personal insults. I would also like to see more of this in Internet discussion forums. And while I can't force others to live up to this ideal, I can strive do a better job of living up to it myself.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Basic Questions About the Biblical God

I've been trying to discuss the biblical God and Christianity in a Yahoo discussion group. Yet one self-professed Christian keeps saying that my skeptical questions about Christianity are too "uninformed" and "sophomoric" to merit a response other than, "Do your homework and read reams of Christian documents." But I disagree. I believe that my questions are reasonable and that Christians who have already "done their homework" should be able to offer answers powerful enough, if there are any, to compel people like myself to look further and to do it with a mind and heart open enough to behold the truth.

This is what I posted there this morning and would like to share and discuss here as well if anyone wants to read and discuss it:

Does the biblical God want us to know, love, and serve him? If the
answer is yes, why doesn't he make us certain that he exists? Some
argue that he doesn't do this because (1) it would take away our free
will and/or (2) we would be too overwhelmed by beholding Him in His
full glory.

But why would God making us certain that he exists rob us of our
so-called free will? When children know that their earthly parents
exist and will reward them for obedience or punish them for
disobedience, do they not still have the "free will" to love and obey
or to not love and disobey? Don't adults who know for certain that a
police car is driving right behind them on the freeway still have the
"free will" to speed or to remain at the speed limit? If the answer
to these questions is yes, why don't people who know for certain that
the biblical God exists still have the "free will" to either love and
obey or to not love and disobey the biblical God?

As for God not being able to show himself to us fully without
overwhelming or destroying us, are these the only choices that
Almighty God has? Either he makes us certain that he exists by
revealing himself to us fully, or he plays hide-and-seek with us? Is
there not a third alternative? Can't he make us certain that he
exists the same way that he makes us certain that we ourselves exist
or by absolutely persuasive "signs and wonders" that we can all behold

Doesn't the fact that we have no such certainty of the biblical God's
existence very strongly suggest that there is no such God? In fact,
isn't this reason enough in itself to be so skeptical that He exists
that one is perfectly justified in not seeking Him out?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Presidential Evolution

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

----- H.L. Mencken, 86 years ago.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Trivial Enrichment

When I was younger, lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, cared more about professional sports than I do now, and the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers were in the Super Bowl, Super Bowl Sunday meant a lot more to me than it does now, and I made sure that I saw every second of the games and of the commercials that punctuated them.

Today, I plan to watch most of the game (after I pick up my wife when she gets off work), but with no real interest in who wins or even in the sport being played, and I'll probably be dividing my attention between the game and my laptop computer. In fact, my most pressing reason for watching the game at all will be that my Thai wife wants to see it and familiarize herself more with an American culture that is still largely alien to her, and I want to share this with her. Oh, and, yes, it's nice once a year or so to settle in and watch a big game like a Super Bowl on a big screen TV in the stunning detail of high definition where faces in the stands are actually clear and distinct faces instead of an anonymous blur of humanity, and blades of grass on the field are actually individual blades of grass instead of an undifferentiated sea of green.

A week or month at most after the game, I probably won't even remember who won it or even which teams played and which players played well or poorly. Nor will I be likely to remember much about the ballyhooed commercials. Some might ask why I would waste my time on something from which I expect to derive so little when I could spend that time doing something much more enduringly meaningful and productive like, well, blogging or reading Thomas Aquinas so that I could see just how simplistic the Christian straw men are that I'm accused of compulsively attacking in cyberspace.

Part of me would agree that life is so short, time is so precious, and there are so many things of importance that I want to do with the indefinite but surely relatively small amount of life I have left that I should leave the TV off this afternoon or my wife to watch it alone in the living room while I retire to the inner-sanctum of this room where I now sit alone with my desktop computer, my books, and my "profound" thoughts to do something worthwhile.

But even if my wife would stand for this (which she most assuredly would not), I would want to be in the living room enjoying that magnificently over-hyped event with her and, indirectly, with countless millions of other people, and feel deeply and warmly grateful that we can all spend a priceless portion of eternity together in spirit sharing the Super Bowl experience rather than going our habitually separate ways engaged in separate pursuits that are ultimately, in the cosmic scheme of things, just as trivial and a whole lot less enjoyable than watching the Bears and the Colts and the commercials.

Come to think of it, I doubt that I'll be using my laptop this afternoon. I'll be too busy watching the Super Bowl with my beloved and the rest of America.

Resignation Letter, P. 2

Here is Part 2 of the passages I'm posting from the letter Alan Watts wrote in August of 1950 to formally announce his resignation from the Episcopal ministry and Church:

Insofar as the Church is committed to a desire for and a clinging to authority, permanence, spiritual safety, and absolute guides of conduct, it is clinging to its own death. By such means, belief in God, the hope for immortality, and the quest for salvation, become only escapes from the inner emptiness and insecurity which most of us feel in the depths of our being when confronted with the loneliness, the transiency, and the uncertainty of human life. But that inner emptiness is not a void to be filled with comforts; it is a window to be looked through. It is not an evil that life--our own life--flows, changes, and passes away. It is a revelation to prevent us from clinging to ourselves, for whoever lets go of himself finds God. The state of eternal life and oneness with God comes to pass--like a miracle--only when we release our grasp on every form of spiritual security. To cling to security is only to cling to oneself, and perish of strangulation.

It would be a silly kind of pride to pretend that we can surrender this passion for safety just by trying. It is not effort that breaks the vicious cycle of self-strangulation; it is an awareness and understanding of its complete futility. To be aware of this futility is to look through the emptiness within--that window into heaven which affords us the vision of God.

Much of this has a familiar ring to the Christian. "Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it." But I have found that you cannot make this point clear within the Church as it exists without running into contradictions at every step. The liturgy is cluttered beyond hope with sentiments, prayers, and hymns conceived in the state of anxious grasping to forms. And that is by no means all.

During the past years, I have continued my studies of the spiritual teachings of the Orient, alongside with Catholic theology, and, though I have sometimes doubted it, I am now fully persuaded that the Church's claim to be the best of all ways to God is not only a mistake, but also a symptom of anxiety. Obviously, one who has found a great truth is eager to share it with others. But to insist--often in ignorance of other revelations--that one's own is supreme argues a certain inferiority complex characteristic of all imperialisms. "Methinks thou dost protest too much." This claim to supremacy is, for me, the chiefest sign of how deeply the Church is committed to this self-strangulation, this anxiety for certainty, and I cannot support the proselytism in which it issues...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Resignation Letter, P. 1

Alan Watts was born in 1915, grew up in England, attended the Anglican Church, and received a solid elementary and high school education in Anglican boarding schools. But he was also precociously fascinated with Eastern philosophy and religion and became secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge at the age of 16. After he got married and came to America, he needed to find work that ideally allowed him to support himself and his family from his continuing study and practice of religion, and it seemed like a good idea at the time to become an Episcopal priest. He immersed himself in his seminary studies, was ordained in 1945, and became chaplain at Northwestern University which gave him "all the advantages of the academic environment and a congregation of young people whose religious ideas and attitudes were not yet firmly embalmed." His book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion served as his Master's thesis and received praise from religious scholars including Canon Iddings Bell who hailed it as "one of the half-dozen most significant books on religion published in the twentieth century." His ministry and membership in the Church lasted until August of 1950, when he wrote his letter of resignation. Below is an excerpt from that letter that can be found, along with ensuing correspondence, on pages 207-217 of his autobiographical masterpiece In My Own Way. Tomorrow, I will post another excerpt.

I have come to the conclusion that I cannot remain in either the ministry or the communion of the Episcopal Church.

In retrospect, I believe that I entered the ministry under the influence of a tendency which has become rather widespread--a tendency to seek refuge from the confusion of our times by giving in to a kind of nostalgia. In a world where all the traditions in which men have found security are crumbling, the mind seeks peace and sanity in an attempt to return to a former state of faith. It envies the inner calm and certitude of an earlier age, where men could put absolute and childlike trust in the authority of the Church, and in the ordered beauty of an ancient doctrine.

Undoubtedly, the form of Christian doctrine and worship contains the most profound truth, but I am afraid that the attempt to maintain and revive it is an ineffectual resistance to inevitable change. For so many people, the forms no longer convey their meaning, and the language they speak is both archaic and cumbersome. Others want to believe, and try to convince themselves that they do so, but their faith has that hollow self-consciousness so characteristic of the modern convert, since the mind is acting a role untrue to its inmost state. You cannot imitate faith, and when forms of belief, like all other finite things, begin to die, the effort to revive them is imitation. It doesn't ring true. But the forms perish, not only because they are mortal, but also because the Spirit within them is breaking them as a bird breaks from its shell.

We are living in a time of disintegration and iconoclasm which the Hindus call Kali Yuga. It hurts and frightens us, but is not essentially evil. It is rather a universal Passion in which man cries "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But it is the prelude to a Resurrection, because spiritual growth depends upon ceasing to cling to any form of life for security. Forms are not contrary to the Spirit, but it is their nature to die; their transiency is their very life, and a permanent form would be a monstrosity--a finite thing aping God.

The Spirit uses forms, and reveals itself through them, for which reason they are both wonderful and necessary. But they are not exempt from the simplest law of life--that, like every other living thing, to grasp them is to strangle and kill them. To preserve them in death is to cling to corruption.

He who is, for Christians, the form of God, "the express image of his person," did not forget to warn us: "It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away, the Paraclete cannot come unto you." After his Resurrection the same warning was given to Saint Mary Magdalene: "Do not cling to me!" The tragedy of the Church is that in trying to love form, it has denied its whole nature by trying to make it absolute. The image and the words of Christ himself have been corrupted in the very act of giving them permanent and absolute authority. He has been made into an idol which must be destroyed in his own Name...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Reasonable or Racist?

I've just read an article in this month's Scientific American about the IQ scores of black people. It says that black people tested around the world show an average IQ score that is fifteen points lower than the average IQ score of white people. Some researchers say this gap is narrowing, others say it isn't, but all say that there is definitely a sizable gap. The question is, Why? Is it because blacks, on average, don't eat as well as whites, have poorer health than whites, or have a less intellectually enriching environment than whites? Is it because blacks, on average, inherit genes that account for their lower IQ scores? Or is it some combination of these factors? If the IQ disparity is all or mostly acquired, why is it? That is, why is the black diet, on average, worse than the white diet, or black health worse than white, or the black environment more intellectually impoverished than the white? If it's genetic, what accounts for this genetic discrepancy? If it's a combination of these factors, what percentage does each play in the mix, and how do these various acquired and innate factors interact to produce their effect? And what, if anything, can and should be done to change things and narrow if not eliminate the gap?

Many would say that it's wrong and even egregiously racist to even talk about this issue, much less to research it in depth. Not long ago, I would have agreed with them to the point where I would have never posted an entry like this in a personal blog or written or talked about it anywhere else, and I would have probably criticized if not condemned anyone who did or who conducted scientific research on it. Now I'm uncertain of what to do. Uncertain enough not to dwell on the matter at great length. But also uncertain enough to say something about it instead of abstaining entirely.

Yet, what this entry is about, far more than it's about apparent IQ differences between races, is the broader philosophical issue of which subjects or issues one should be free to consider and publicly discuss and which not, and how we determine the difference between the two. And I pose these questions not as a prelude to presenting answers, tentative or otherwise, but simply because, as I read the aforementioned article and thought about it, I thought of these questions to which I want to give ongoing consideration and you an opportunity to respond if you so desire.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Alan Watts' Skepticism and Mine

I've just posted a four-part series of Alan Watts quotes from his essay Was Jesus a Freak? This is how I understand his essential message:

Those familiar with the history and psychology of religion know that Jesus was one of many who have experienced oneness with Ultimate Reality. Unfortunately, when he talked about this experience, his fellow Jews misinterpreted him to say that he was the only son of the Jewish God as Cosmic Creator-King, and some powerful Jews saw this as blasphemous and used it as an excuse to turn him over to the Romans for execution. After his death, some Jews saw him as the prophesized Messiah as well as God incarnate crucified and resurrected to redeem humankind from its sins. But in understanding Jesus as the one and only God-man who was literally resurrected from the dead, they and the "Christians" who came after them have missed the essential point that they too are just as much "sons"--i.e., of the nature--of God as was Jesus, and in worshiping Jesus as a freak of the supernatural, they have all but denied themselves the opportunity to experience "Christ consciousness" that could kill their false and constricting sense of self and resurrect them to a new and transfiguring sense of their all-encompassing, true Self. They are also inclined to arrogantly see worship of this freaky Jesus as the only truly valid form of religion and the only viable way to salvation envisioned as posthumous eternal bliss in heaven. On the other hand, if they understood Jesus for who he really was and his experience for what it really was, they would understand that Christianity has universal appeal only when it presents Jesus as one of many profound sages cognizant of the identity with Ultimate Reality that we all share, and that those who realize this not only know experientially that the true heaven is right here and now, but they also live more harmoniously with others in this world.

I believe that Alan Watts is right on target with his critique of conventional, institutional Christianity, and I have great difficulty seeing a viable alternative to worshiping the freaky Jesus that would qualify as Christian. For instance, here is the Apostle's Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead.

He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy *catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.


This creed, which, as I understand it, is officially endorsed or implicitly accepted by most Christian churches in the West, appears to make belief in the literally freaky Jesus paramount. You simply can't be Christian unless you believe that Jesus was a freak of the supernatural.

Now some commentators have suggested to me that Christianity has the potential to grow out of this constricting literalism and its resulting exclusivity that removes it from the living stream of universal, transformative wisdom, and that this growth must come from within Christianity itself, spurred by the great mystics and other realizers of Christianity's higher wisdom and potential for universality. However, I share Watt's skepticism that this can and will ever happen. It seems to me that Christianity is so flawed to the core that it might be better to abandon it than to try to transform it from either within or without.

Soon, I'd like to share with you excerpts from Alan Watts' letter of resignation from the Episcopal priesthood that expresses, with greater eloquence than I could ever hope to muster, his skepticism and mine about Christianity's potential to evolve.