Monday, April 30, 2007

Why are there four Gospels?

Near the end of the second century C.E., Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern France), had an explanation for why there are (and should be) precisely four Gospels in the New Testament:
Irenaeus says that...heretics had mistakenly assumed that only one or another of the Gospels was to be accepted as scripture: Jewish Christians who held to the ongoing validity of the Law used only Matthew; certain groups who argued that Jesus was not really the Christ accepted only the Gospel of Mark; Marcion and his followers accepted only (a form of) Luke; and a group of Gnostics called the Valentinians accepted only John. All these groups were in error, however, because [argued Irenaeus]
it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since, there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel...it is fitting that she should have four pillars...(Against Heresies 3.11.7)
In other words, four corners of the earth, four winds, four pillars—and necessarily, then, four Gospels. [from Bart D. Ehrman's estimable book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, p. 35]
Ah, wondrous the human ways in which the book believed by many to be "the Word of God" took its canonical form....

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Peaceful Unneediness

I find myself this morning in one of those blessèdly relaxed moods of unneediness, having nothing to say, needing to say nothing. But enjoying the irony, the paradox of saying so....

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Worms’ meat...or more?

Does the reality of the food chain undermine the possibility of transcendence, which we self-conscious creatures long for in our quieter, emptier moments? Consciousness tells us there’s more, and of course we want it. Modern advertising depends on it. Wanting more might be humankind’s signal identifying trait: the lust for transcendence.

But man doesn’t sit atop the food chain as he likes to think. He too can be eaten.
Shakespeare of course knew this. His Mercutio, wounded by Tybalt’s sword thrust in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, says, “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man”; he has been “made worms’ meat of” [III.i.96,111]. And his Rosalind in As You Like It: “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love” [IV.i.105-106].
And John Donne knew it: “When my mouth shall be filled with dust, and the worm shall feed, and feed sweetly upon me...” [XXVI Sermons, no. 26].
And Benjamin Frankin: “The body of Benjamin Frankin, Printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding), lies here, food for worms...” [Epitaph on Himself].
Branches of forensic science rest on the fact that corpses are eaten by maggots and even by the microorganisms that in life inhabited their intestines [Jessica Snyder Sachs’s Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death].

And the cosmological parallel to this is the death of stars. Our own sun will someday die. If there is still life on Earth when that day arrives, what do we think will happen to it in the days following? And what other life on other planets has already perished in other cataclysisms of dying suns?

Does the reality of the food chain, of the birth and death of suns and planets, say no to the possibility of transcendence? We self-conscious creatures may long for it and our consciousness may tell us there’s more, and even that there’s God...But can we ever know it? Or is our only consolation to believe (conjure the faith) that the Being we prayed into Being really did make this world...and an afterworld1?

We live in the moment, and the moment is brief. But the moment that we have can be for love and laughter...or for unspeakable alternatives. Within this bloody cycle of Nature and the Cosmos, we can choose to be, for however brief a moment...whatever we have the means to be. Nature’s means to create and destroy are awesome, but man’s are not negligible.
____________________
  1. My gratitude for Howard Nemerov's “Creation Myth on a Moebius Band” will not die willingly:
    The world's just mad enough to have been made
    By the Being his beings into Being prayed.

Friday, April 27, 2007

"If God is so wonderful..."

N'est-pas un interlude

In another scene in David Lodge's novel about Henry James (Author, Author!), George Du Maurier talks about his religious beliefs:
Du Maurier...had hardly any beliefs at all. "I think I was born a sceptic," he told Henry when they were seated one day on the Bench of Confidences. He had been brought up a Protestant, since his father was of Huguenot ancestry, and his mother's family Anglican, but their attitude to religion was more pragmatic than dogmatic. "My brother Eugene was baptised in a Catholic church to please an aristocratic friend of the family he was named for. I think they would have made him a Hindoo if it would have improved his prospects." Du Maurier laughed a little shamefacedly at his own joke. "No, that's not fair—they were Christians of a kind, but not devout. My father had a loathing for priests and pastors—'les corbeaux' he used to call them because of their black cassocks. He and Maman seldom went to church. They taught me to say my prayers—but even as a young boy I couldn't see the point of praying. If God was so wonderful, why did he need me to tell him so? And what was the point of asking him for favours, since if he existed he knew what I wanted already?" [p. 89]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What's the only word...?

What's the only word pronounced incorrectly in all three of the following dictionaries?
  • The third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
  • The second edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language
  • Webster's Third New International Dictionary

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Have things changed much?

Encore un autre interlude

In September 1893, the fictional Henry James portrayed in David Lodge's hugely entertaining novel Author, Author! stopped for dinner with his friend George Du Maurier at the Cod and Lobster Inn in Staithes on the east coast of England.
Perhaps the ale was unusually strong, for Du Maurier was particularly loquacious over the meal. He reverted to the subject of his dealings with Harper. It seemed that [his second novel] Trilby contained a passage of authorial polemic in favor of nudity, which the publishers wanted to cut out.

"I have a theory, you see, Henry, that if only our climate allowed it, we should be much happier going around without clothes. There is nothing inherently shameful or indecent about the human body."

"The weather in North Yorkshire certainly precludes the experiment," said Henry, as he cracked open a lobster claw. "But even in Samoa—where I understand from Louis Stevenson the natives make do with very little raiment—even there I don't think I would care to meet my friends in a state of nature. Most of us are simply not beautiful enough."

"Ah, but that's because we neglect our bodies. And we neglect them because we cover them up with layers of cloth—and in the case of women, distort their natural shapes with whalebone and bustles and lacing and suchlike. Now if we saw each other habitually in a state of nature, as you call it, as a matter of course, we should take pains to exercise and diet to make our bodies strong and healthy and attractive."

"What about those who are irredeemably ugly or misshapen?" Henry objected.

"They wouldn't reproduce, because nobody would marry them," said Du Maurier triumphantly, evidently seeing this as a knockdown argument. "By Darwin's law of natural selection we would—in the course of a few generations—eliminate ugliness from the human race. We would also get rid of all the sniggering smut and furtive lust that surrounds the mere mention of the human body in polite society, and corrupts relations between men and women." [pp. 190-191]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How long can it be?

This morning someone forwarded me one of those angry e-mails now circulating the Internet that express the sender's utter bewilderment at the behavior of the "President of the United States":
Sometimes it takes a while for something to sink into my over-taxed brain. But I finally heard Georgie, in his presser with General Petraus, say that the Congress has no right to try and micro-manage the war. "No one should be telling the general what to do."

Uh...Excuse me, you Dim Witted Twit....Sorry, George. In America, the Congress, and the American people, do control the military. We decide with our votes, and our protests, what the military will and will not do....Unitary Executive, my ass. You really don't have a clue....
Whatever epithets best peg Bush, the ones we're hearing these days are being uttered so loudly and openly it makes me wonder how long it can be before people march on Washington to hurl them at Bush personally and demand that he get out of the White House immediately and hotfoot it back to Texas and take up an occupation that he may actually be competent to do—apilar brocha y arbustos [stacking brush and shrubs].

Freedom is not perfect

I speak of freedom in all its grand imperfection, constrained by many variables, including our genomic inheritance, our early environment, how we were indoctrinated, traumatic experiences we have suffered, the weight of our habits.

And we are hedged in by constraints of available means. We must exercise our freedom in the places we occupy (or in other places to which we have the means to move). A rich man in America (where rich men are becoming richer and poor men are becoming poorer) has more latitude to exercise his freedom than a poor man has.

Or he seems to. For when I speak of freedom, I am mindful of the context of the responsibility it entails. Another “actual constraint of means” is the array of consequences that may follow from our acts. Clearly, when we act consciously and with as much knowledge as we can bring to bear, we must take into account what is likely to flow from acting (or from not acting). And we are responsible for consequences. In fact, if we aren’t responsible for consequences, what could the “responsibility of freedom” even mean?

A rich man can cause a lot more havoc than a poor man can. (This is also true of rich nations in relation to poor. The United States and Western Europe contribute about two-thirds of the Earth’s greenhouse emissions. The poor people of Africa, who will be among those most affected by the disastrous results of atmospheric warming, contribute only about three percent.) The rich therefore have more responsibility for using their freedom wisely.

I do not mean this observation as an apologia for inequality of wealth in American (or in the world). I deplore the widening divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.” In fact, one reason the divide between rich and poor is widening seems to be that many of the rich, rather than live up to their responsibility, are instead greedily exploiting their economic advantage (for short-term gain and long-term catastrophe). And the rich includes us who choose to drive when we could walk or take a bus.

Nevertheless, I speak of freedom as a fact, however constrained it may be by means (including consequences) and the various contributing causes (congenital, environmental, educational, habitual). For if freedom isn’t even possible in this time/space continuum, then what are we even talking about here? And why are we talking at all? And how could you choose to walk today?

Monday, April 23, 2007

443rd birthday/391st deathday

Let us today remember the birthday of William Shakespeare, born on April 23, 1564—so far as scholars can make out. One measure of Shakespeare's enduring memory is that the Sixteenth Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations1 devotes sixty-three 2-column pages to him, while devoting only two-thirds that number to The Holy Bible.

His Sonnet LV may as well have been addressed to himself:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
With that ending reference to Judgment Day, the sonnet predicts that the beloved shall live until the very end of time. Shakespeare gives every indication of going to do so.

And in the following passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream [II.i.148-154], Shakespeare could have been describing the works of his own imagination:
    Oberon...My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember'st
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres
To hear the sea-maid's music.
    Puck.                                    I remember.

By the way, Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday. He had recently written his own epitaph (as I learned from Stephen J. Greenblatt's excellent book, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare):
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Let us remember, remember.
________________________
  1. Bartlett's is "a collection of passages, phrases, and proverbs traced to their sources in ancient and modern literature."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Freer today, both from and to

As a direct and immediate result of my return last night to my avowed path of self-discovery, I feel freer this morning. Freer both from and to.

Freer from the danger of walling myself in when trying to fortify a current position...from hurting people who don't share my position...from hurting myself by hurting them.

Freer to love...to appreciate and learn from others...to explore more options...to discover better points of view...to approach the truth...to enjoy my freedom.

For realizing I'd lost my way...I praise.
For renewed toleration and respect for others...I praise.
For the renewed sense of my own freedom, and the freedom of others...I praise.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

“Alea jacta est” (not)

“Alea jacta est,” said Caesar at the moment of crossing the Rubicon. And I almost crossed my own Rubicon this morning. In fact, I did cross for a few minutes, but turned back. Turned back and unposted the item I’d posted minutes before. The die was, in the end, not cast.

What happened was that I’d forgotten recently the path I’m on in life (and had come to share on this blog)—a path of self-discovery. I had unfortunately tarried away from discovering positions to consider awhile before moving on, and started to argue for them and, dangerously, to argue against the positions of others.

So...right, you’ve guessed it, I started out the day posting something stupid for a few minutes. (And not only stupid, but hurtful. In the few minutes the item was up—I learned hours later—it was read by the good friend I'd failed to respect.)

Now I’ve apologized and asked to be forgiven and I’m hoping to regain my path and get back in my friend’s good graces. As someone has wisely said, it’s not sufficient to talk about using your freedom wisely. You have to...use it wisely.

Enough said.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ladies and gentlemen

N'est pas un interlude

In David Lodge's novel about Henry James (Author, Author!), the author recounts an anecdote told by James's friend George Du Maurier:
It was a fine but very cold Sunday just before Christmas, and Henry had made the effort to walk up to Hampstead and take Du Maurier for his constitutional on the Heath, according to custom. They were alone, apart from the terrier Don, who nosed about on the frost-hardened ground looking frustrated at the scarcity of interesting smells. It was too cold to sit on their favorite bench—cold enough for people to be skating on the ponds. Watching them, Du Maurier recalled an occasion long ago when a dog fell through the ice on the Whitestone Pond and got into difficulties, and he had plunged into the icy water to rescue the creature. "The grateful owner tried to tip me half-a-crown, upon which I'm afraid I was rather short with him. 'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I didn't realize you were a gentleman.'" [pp. 143-144]
Men and women—gentlemen and ladies in their God-blessed freedom—should not require the promise of heaven (or the hope of avoiding hell) to do what is right.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Those French writers!

Un autre interlude

In David Lodge's novel about Henry James (Author, Author!), the author describes James's lunch with another author:
...A few days earlier, Henry had lunched with [Guy de] Maupassant at a fashionable London restaurant, and the Frenchman had embarrassed him by trying to enlist his help in picking up a woman seated alone at a table on the opposite side of the dining room.

"Go and ask her if she would like to join us, Henry," Maupassant said. (Mercifully they were both speaking French.)

"I couldn't possibly, Guy," said Henry. "I don't know who she is."

"Well, send her a note by the waiter. Tell her we would like to make her acquaintance."

"Certainly not."

"I would do it myself, but my English is not good enough."

"You simply cannot do such things here, Guy," Henry protested. "It's impossible."

"Why not?" Maupassant demanded, helping himself to more wine, to the distress of the hovering waiter who considered this operation to be his duty. "She is available, without doubt. Why else is she dining alone in a public restaurant?"

"There is a new species of respectable but emancipated ladies in this country who are laying claim to some of the traditional prerogatives of men. I daresay she is one such."

Maupassant snorted derisively. "I want a woman," he grumbled. "Not an emancipated one, just an ordinary woman, as long as she has a pretty face and a nice arse. I haven't had one since I got to London."

Henry was relieved to get him out of the restaurant without creating a scene. It confirmed all his prejudices about the morals of French writers. How right he had been to flee Paris! [p. 81]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Feliz cumpleaños, Padre!

Next week our lovely señora from Chile, Carola
(which does rhyme, after all, with "Motorola"!),
    will fly home to Santiago
    and take with her a fárrago
Of happy gifts por her padre and drink Pepsi Cola!
Ooh, my ear is so bad! Here's the original version of the limerick:
Next week our lovely señora from Chile, Carola
(which doesn't rhyme with "Motorola" but with "where'll the"),
    will fly home to Santiago
    and take with her a fárrago
Of happy gifts por her padre...in a barrel, ¡uh!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The latest on my religion survey

On Sunday last, Susie P (my dear friend of 40+ years) responded to my religion survey. Because that survey was posted quite a while ago (and hardly anyone is following it now), I share here Susie’s response:

1. Religiously, how would you describe or classify yourself?

I am a Jew. [Name withheld] says he does not believe in god and maggi averred the same, but I do. I also believe in “the force,” in elves and fairies, go figure, oh, and throw in a few Norse and other myth gods while you’re at it. Oh! And god as depicted on Dad’s album cover for My Fair Lady—George Bernard Shaw. But I also have fears that there is nothing there, and that this is all there is and it has NO MEANING, cause after we leave?? And cause we can’t seem to really improve as a species and I now have trouble with the passover seder language, as I don’t believe in better, I don’t see peace in our time

2. Whatever you answered, what is it about you that leads you to say that?

As you know, I was raised a liberal jew and I remain such, years after education and regular temple attendance. And I believe in both the christian (activist) version “DO unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the jewish version “DO NOT do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you” (stay outta my face). I went to easter services at a Lutheran church as mike wound up singing in a choir, it was nice, I liked the Ner Tamid (eternal flame) same as ours, (I always seem more that is the same all over- like, all cuisines have a blintz) I liked the pastors homily, I liked the choir, I did not say “he is risen” at every opportunity, I believe Jesus was one of many great and good prophets but that he was the one with GREAT PR, so he has lasted. I suspect Peter on that account, and as the reading for the day said it was Peter who went back to the cave and saw the “linen” I immediately wanted to know if he had gone alone, were there other witnesses, where did the linen REALLY come from etc (too much CSI)?

Further (I was obviously dying to share all this, thanks for the opportunity) I noticed also in the bible readings for the service that at first Jesus felt that the Jews were discriminating and he wanted everyone to share in gods blessings, but in the next reading the “church” said, “only us that is good [our definition] get to play” hunh? Turned his inclusiveness right around, that’s ORGANIZED religion and bureacracy for you!

3. If you answered Christian, how much, if any, do your religious beliefs influence how you vote?

As a jew, I’m liberal to my core, too many relatives would roll in their…ashes, if I voted republican, ’sides, never agreed with one as much as I agree with dems. daddy never admitted to voting FOR anyone, only against someone worse, when I asked him who he WOULD like to vote FOR, he said “Chester Bowles”

4. If you answered Muslim, do you approve of martyrdom “in defense of Islam”?

na, but I know that is wrong in terms of the Koran when it kills others

5. If you answered Judaic, how do you feel about Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians?

Frequently not happy, but I haven’t lived with suicide bombers in my market (just old dudes with their lead foots on the accelerator) I think that in the face of that, it takes super-human and/or insanity to continue to love and try to get folks to see we are more the same than different, but someone has a great stake in keeping folks apart, I suspect power greed and not enough water to go around, and some non-jews are bred to hate us and want us pushed into the mediterranean, no matter how we try to get along, they think we should never have been given part of Palestine, and so it goes on and on and on

6. Anything else you’d like to say by way of your “religious statement”?

good lord! I think I’ve said quite enough!!!

On which I commented:

Susie seems to be, like me and my learned poet friend, a “believer in all things.”

It has turned out, quite unexpectedly but to my satisfation, that my musings about how it is possible to “believe all things” have led to a number of insights into the paradox of freedom (both God’s and mankind’s) that inhabits “the seminal nut of being.” These insights have shed light not only on the human condition but also on the nature of God—in particular the revelation that God is morally neutral, or amoral. God’s amorality explains why it’s futile for the opposing parties in a bloodbath to all call on God to bless their killing enterprise. It’s all the same to God, just mankind’s sophisticated elaboration on the workings of the food chain.

Or, as the Zen philosopher Alan Watts said (approximately), Man is but a worm with a brain to amuse himself while food passes from his mouth to his anus.

Monday, April 16, 2007

God morally neutral?

A response1 to yesterday's post, "Morally Superior to God?" has it that
Maybe good is in the eye of the beholder. I kill in the name of God; so that is good. I don't kill in the name of God; so that is good. Are the sins listed by man of any concern to God? Does he really care if two men marry? Or a bomb kills twenty people? If it's true, that a better life awaits after death; wouldn't God think us silly to cry about dying?
Far be it from me to say what God might think silly, but the extreme relativism of "good in the eye of the beholder" amounts to moral neutrality, or amorality. Since the paradox of God's freedom leads to everything's being required, it would seem that God must be morally neutral, or amoral.

Which of course implies that it is logically impossible for man to be "morally superior to God." But, in any case, our motivation for doing good should not be to compare favorably with God, any more than we can act truly morally out of a fear of God's punishment.
_______________
  1. Thank you, Ed, for helping me find the logic of God's apparent amorality.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Morally superior to God?

The paradox of freedom at the core of Being (oh, so mysterious Being!) requires everything—that there be hunger as well as satiety, drought as well as rainfall, death as well as birth, deformity as well as perfection. The same paradox permits everything—that we murder as well as aid, rape as well as love, lie as well as say true, waste as well as conserve. Shall we, therefore, choose to do anything whatsoever? What is to stop us?

If indeed the world was "made by the Being his beings into Being prayed" (to quote Howard Nemerov's couplet on "The Myth of Creation on a Moebius Band"), perhaps His beings prayed Him into Being as much to protect them from themselves (and from others) as to be able to believe that they would live forever. Were they not sure enough of themselves to be good without the fear of punishment to keep them from being bad? (It's easy to see, certainly, that they might not have been sure enough of others if their choices weren't regulated by a fear of divine punishment.)

But since we are free to choose—at least to the extent that we are able to exercise the choice—I say let's choose to do good without being constrained to do it by fear of punishment. Why, just because everything is permitted, should we imitate God?

Salud the Moristotles!

Today is the forty-first anniversary of the Moristotles' wedding in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, the informal ceremony witnessed by their friends Jim and Carole Sue. May there be many, many more anniversaries—especially as their years together only get better.
They are, simply put, just a couple of old lovers,
Who're blessed that over them a good spirit hovers
    To keep them laughing like children
    That they continually will then
Be still rolling like thunder under the covers.
[Thank you, Elton John.]

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Socrates drank hemlock

As a teenager I had great faith in reason, and whatever faith I may have been born with was no doubt strengthened by my youthful reading of Plato's dialogues. I believed that if a person presented a logical argument for something, then everyone who could understand it was bound to accept it. I eventually realized, however, that such rationality failed many more times than it succeeded. People just wouldn't be bound by logic. And in time I remembered that Socrates ended up drinking hemlock.

But now it seems to me consistent with the paradox of freedom tucked inside the Seminal Nut of Being that logic doesn't rule the affairs of the universe any more than it rules the affairs of humankind. Miracles (expressions of God's freedom?) demonstrate its misrule in the one, and human freedom its misrule in the other.

We're heard of the possibility that if humans are utterly free to act (that is, without correction from God) then everything is permitted. But even more fundamental, now, it seems that everything is required: not only the svelte grace of the gazelle, but also the gazelle's glazed eye as the lion takes it down for dinner; not only the perfectly born baby, but also the still birth; not only the hero's recognition in public adulation and fable, but also the innocent man's execution for another man's crime; and on and on, world without end.

In the droll English film I watched last night ("Keeping Mum"1), the Reverend Walter Goodfellow, Vicar of the Parish of Little Wollop, sums it up in his opening address at an Anglican convention:
Isaiah, Chapter 55, Verse 8:
My ways are not your ways.
And I think what He basically means by that is:
I'm mysterious, folks. Live with it!
_______________
  1. Released in 2005, directed by Niall Johnson, with Rowan Atkinson as Rev. Goodfellow, Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Maggie Smith as Grace Hawkins, and Patrick Swayze as Lance.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Congratulations, Ray!

Ah! I forgot last Sunday that it was not only the traditional anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also the fifth anniversary of the resurrection from prison of Ray Krone, who served ten years for a crime he didn't commit. Belated congratulations, Ray!

Ray's story will be told in his cousin Jim Rix's forthcoming true-crime book, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out. Thanks to the author for reminding me today that Easter was also the anniversary of Ray's April 8, 2002 release from Arizona State Prison.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The apparent benefit of embracing

Un interlude

George Du Maurier, the Punch illustrator (1865-1896), was a Frenchman who, like his younger friend Henry James, settled in England. As Henry James became a fictional character in Colm Tóibín's novel The Master, so he becomes again in David Lodge's novel Author, Author! Lodge describes James's friendship with Du Maurier, including James's frequent visits with Du Maurier's family:
[Du Maurier's children] were a good-looking and high-spirited brood. Beatrix, the eldest, was a real beauty, who had only just "come out" when Henry met her, and being squeezed into a broom cupboard with her during some boisterous game of Hide and Seek, pressed up against her sweet-smelling, gently yeilding form in the dark, had been one of the more remarkable sensations in his experience, and one which helped him to understand the ecstasy that lovers apparently derived from embracing. He watched with fascination as she opened like a flower to the warmth of a developing social life.

Du Maurier himself was brazenly prejudiced in favour of beautiful women. He kept two plaster models of the Venus de Milo in the house—one on the mantlepiece of the studio-living-room, and another on a pedestal at the angle of the staircase—as icons of his devotion to the ideal female form....

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ramifications of paradox

The freedom paradox from which springs all things possible (and all beliefs possible) bears a family resemblance to Howard Nemerov's "Creation Myth on a Moebius Band":
This world's just mad enough to have been made
By the Being his beings into Being Prayed
and to Martin Heideggar's metaphysical question:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
["There isn't nothing." ≡ "There's something."]
on which David Lodge embroidered in his tragicomic novel How Far Can You Go? [Souls and Bodies in the U.S.]:
Our friends had started life with too many beliefs—the penalty of a Catholic upbringing. They were weighed down with beliefs, useless answers to non-questions. To work their way back to the fundamental ones—what can we know? why is there anything at all? why not nothing? what may we hope? why are we here? what is it all about?—they had to dismantle all that apparatus of superfluous belief and discard it piece by piece....[p. 143]
And all such paradoxes are akin to miracles, whose paradox is to seem to shatter science by contravening natural law.

These paradoxes are family, but is one of them the Grandaddy? Or, as the paradox has been put colloquially for generations:
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A seminal paradox

Something I wrote yesterday has continued to nibble at my thoughts like a bird pecking seeds:
For does it make sense to say, "You are free, but don't act freely"?
Actually, what has been nibbling is the subtle paradox hiding in the positive variant, God's presumed command: "You are free, go and act freely."

The paradox is that if I go and act freely, I'm doing as I'm told and am therefore not acting freely." Or, if I act freely by choosing not to act freely, then am I acting freely or not acting freely (or perhaps both)? (It's like Russell's paradox: if a barber shaves men if and only if they do not shave themselves, then should the barber shave himself or not?)

Freedom may be the seminal logical contradiction by which it is possible to believe all things (and maybe even by which "All things are possible with God" [Mark 10:27]). (Russell pointed out that if you admit a contradiction into your logical system, then you can prove anything whatsoever.)

Monday, April 9, 2007

"God-blessed freedom"

Now that I've recovered from the embarrassment of having been called "a fine upstanding Christian" by one of my readers, I'm ready to say a bit more about "God-blessed freedom" (as I termed it yesterday).

I assume [what I think we simply must assume for discussion of faith to proceed]: that humans are free—at least to some degree, which might even be extensible through self-knowledge and discipline.

It follows, if we are in some sense created by God, that God created our freedom. That's part of what I meant by the phrase "God-blessed freedom." The other part of my understanding of this God-granted freedom is that with it comes the implicit invitation to use it. In fact, it may be a logical necessity. For does it make sense to say, "You are free, but don't act freely"?

Religions of course provide various instructions or directions about how to use it. A good friend of mine thinks that the message of most religions (that is, God's message as promoted by these religions) is to "do good one to another." Nevertheless many religious people study their holy book to get explicit, specific instructions about how to be good, as though they didn't particularly want to exercise their intelligence to figure it out. (Indeed, freedom can be a burden, for it entails responsibility.)

What delighted me yesterday was to realize that to exercise my freedom on my own, honestly and from love, is sufficient to "be okay with God." It is not necessary to do anything else—like pray, attend church, read the holy book, even worship as ordinarily understood. It appeared to me that using my freedom could itself be an act of worship, an act of obedience and praise.

But in practice I don't dwell on that, for I don't get warm, fuzzy feelings from the concept of being obedient to God. "Obedience to God" seems on its face to require that a person follow explicit instructions. How can that be free?

The feeling I felt upon gaining this insight I compared yesterday to the feeling I had upon "being saved" fifty-six years ago: The significance of God's blessing of freedom came to me as a stroke of forgiveness and liberation.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Oh, what a feeling

An hour after my Easter Sunday post

How like the feeling I had fifty-six years ago—when as a child of eight, I "got saved"—is the feeling I have been luxuriating in during the joyful hour since I declared my faith in my God-blessed freedom.

Fifty-six years ago I felt relieved, freed from the sin the brimstone preacher had, by his Biblical quotations and exhortations, convinced me of (and convinced others in the congregation of that night).

And here again today I feel relieved, freed...to be free. What a feeling indeed!

Easter Sunday, this holiest of Christian holidays

First I want to remember my father, born on this day one hundred and two years ago. That is, if he had risen from the dead in the year 1980 the way the Christ Jesus did approximately two thousand years ago, he would BE one hundred and two today. I love you, Dad.

[Today was also the fifth anniversary of Ray Krone's resurrection from prison.]

A learned friend of mine writes me that
People don't like the Bible because...they don't like the responsibilities it places upon us. Or as James puts it:
Therefore, if one knows how to do what is right and yet does not do it, it is a sin for him. [Jas 4:17]
Better not to know it. Better to shoot down the source.
I am glad to be at home today and not perched indecisively on an uncomfortable church pew somewhere. Despite my being utterly dependent on God, and despite my by no means trying to shoot down the revealed word of God but believing that Jesus indeed was God's son, died, and rose again, I am nevertheless free to go my own way—to sin, if that be what it is.

I suspect that God, however, even admires this his creature's exercise of freedom. "I did well in creating Moristotle's freedom. One of my best works," saith God. Amen.

Lookahead to a coming post: I have discovered the original but until-now lost account of a witness to Jesus's utterance of the parable of creation as God's zoological garden. I'm still working on the translation, but as soon as I think I have it rendered accurately enough, I'll report it here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The pause that refreshes

When the slogan "the pause that refreshes" came to me this morning, I thought I was remembering it from Pepsi Cola advertising. Maybe I was, but in an article on cola advertising, that particular slogan isn't listed as having been one of either Coke's or Pepsi's, although the word "refreshing" occurs in several other slogans.

Well, never mind. The refreshing pause that I'm talking about is the pause that an aware person interjects between a stimulus and the person's otherwise automatic response. That pause is (or can be) refreshing precisely because it gives the person the opportunity to exercise a choice as to whether to act automatically or in some new way—even a very innovative way.

In the religious context, a person's automatic response to "the stimulus of life" (or perhaps more poignantly to the stimulus of learning that we all die) might be to believe as the person's parents believed.

Muhammad Asad reports in his memoir, The Road to Mecca (1952), that he found very attractive to himself personally what he observed in the 1920's to be the cultural tendency of Arabs to do just that: believe as their parents (and virtually everyone else around them) believed. To Asad, this was a very good thing, integrating an Arab's physical and spiritual life into something peaceful, natural, anxiety-free—unlike the European's neurotic, awkward, spiritual anxiety. In other words, whatever pause the Europeans had taken to cut themselves free from precedent was, to Asad, anything but "refreshing" spiritually.

Yet myself, very unlike Asad, I feel rather at home and comfortable with pausing to exercise my thought and creativity. I can hardly imagine ever becoming a "Muslim automaton."

Anyway, that's my current take on one of Asad's theses in The Road to Mecca (as I now read Chapter 5 of 12).

When a belief is a tenet

Today's word of the day (at dictionary.com) is timely. No, not the word "timely," but the timely word "tenet" [TEN-it, noun], defined as "any opinion, principle, dogma, belief, or doctrine that a person holds or maintains as true."

A tenet, in the context of my previous post in which I stated that the probability value of a belief is less than 1 and more than 0, is a belief to which the believer in effect assigns a value of 1. It doesn't mean that the belief is in fact true, but only that, for the person holding the belief as a tenet, it is true. He acts as though it is true.

He might even become fanatical about it, although that is not necessary. I think it is possible, for example, for a person to hold as a tenet that Jesus was the Son of God, died for our sins, and rose again (a timely observation, given that we're now only two days away from Good Friday), and yet believe that the Prophet Muhammad was, as Muslims believe, a Messenger of God. Believe it, that is, in a fifty-fifty way of noncommitality that doesn't lead the person to throw himself down in prayer toward Mecca whenever the Muslims do.

Or vice versa: That a tenet-holding Muslim (and I'm getting the impression from my reading that Muslims as a group tend to be a good deal more "tenet-holding" than Christians as a group) could "believe fifty-fifty" that Jesus was the Son of God, etc.

Hmm, well, maybe not....

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Second solution to the paradox of "believing (and disbelieving) all things"

I like the "alternating solution" to the paradox of "believing (and disbelieving) all things." It seems to capture reality. One's belief can and does waver, alternating over time. But, while I like it, it strikes me as legerdemain insofar as a way to avoid the stronger paradox of believing and disbelieving at the same time—an adroit maneuver to reframe the problem so as to escape.

The stronger paradox resembles a mirror. You look into a mirror and see the right side of your face as the left side of the image looking back at you. But the image looking back at you is you. The right side of your face is on the right at the same time it is also on the left.

My second solution to the paradox begins with the fact that when we know that something is so, its probability value is 1; when we know something is not so, its probability value is 0. One and 0 represent certainty. When we only believe that something is so or that something is not so, the probability value lies somewhere between 0 and 1. Beliefs and disbeliefs have values less than 1 but more than 0.

When a man predicts the weather—for example, whether it will rain in Cleveland—he gives the chance of rain as a percentage between 0 and 1. "There's a 60% chance of rain." Note that if he assigns a probability of 50%, he indicates that he has no more reason to believe that it will rain than he has to believe that it won't. "Fifty-fifty" represents maximum uncertainty.

In the stronger version of the paradox (in which we believe and disbelieve the same thing at the same time) the quantity that is less than 1 and greater than 0 is divided between the two. If it is divided equally, that would indicate that we are maximally uncertain as to which might be true. When belief alternately becomes stronger than disbelief, its quantity is more than one-half, disbelief's less.

The philosophy of "believing (and disbelieving) all things" seems, though, to call on us to be even-handed (or "open-minded") in how we regard things that we don't know, to treat believing and disbelieving equally; that is, as a "fifty-fifty" proposition. Even if maximal uncertainty ensures that we won't become fanatical, it's an untenable (unrealistic) position to maintain. Not even dispassionate, rational scientists can maintain it. We've got scientists, for example, whose belief that God exists approaches a probability of 1, while atheistic scientists' belief in God approaches zero.

Solution two rejects the notion that the philosophy of believing all things requires us as a logical necessity both to believe and to disbelieve everything that we don't know to be true.

Why was that not a logical necessity, after all? Well, look again into the mirror. Your head is atop your body both in reality and in the mirror, and your feet (assuming you have them) are below in both cases. But the right side of your face is also on the right in the mirror, and the left side on the left! No different from the reflection of your head and your feet. The mirror paradox works (or seems to work) because a switch in point of view is subtly introduced. You have to turn 180 degrees to assume the position of the image in the mirror. But the image in the mirror is not you. Its left and right hands are wrong.