Saturday, February 24, 2007

"The problem of evil"

Evil is one of those embarrassing intellectual problems that philosophers and theologians have spent countless hours wrestling with over the millennia. I've read some of their thoughts about it. Today I had one of my own. Not a new thought, but very much my own:

If God exists, God is evil. Some people suffer terribly and may even have their lives snuffed out way, way short of having even a single opportunity to seek God. I was driving to the garbage dump, my dog Wally in the backseat as usual taking a ride in the car with Papa. And God's evil (if God exists) struck me with profound clarity, such that people's attempt to rationalize God's benevolence seemed to me the height of self-delusion.

Harold Bloom, the author of Jesus and Yahweh, said last year in an interview on PBS that he has nightmares about Yahweh. I wonder if I'll dream tonight?

Sunday, February 11, 2007


The operative word in yesterday's question was "should." And it's an operative word in the messages from the various prophets mentioned yesterday.

"Should." Believe this, not that. Do this way, not that. The "should" is emphatically explicit in that stone monument they wanted to leave standing at the courthouse in Gainesville, Georgia: "Thou shalt not...." Children want such explicit direction, such guidance. Should I fold the toilet paper, Papa?

The toilet paper question, of course, is one of those mundane ones, not one of Gauguin's big three, "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?"* But you may have noticed that the prophets' various messages include, and may even emphasize by the relative number of words they use to convey, what to do in many and sundry mundane situations. They have to do, for example, with how to select and prepare food, how many times a day to pray and what bodily position to assume to do so, or how to punish people who transgress about this, that, or the other thing. I believe, but haven't verified yet, that Muhammad even prescribed which hand to use to administer the toilet paper.

Do you need that?

[the unfolding may only have begun...]

* "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

Saturday, February 10, 2007

How many folds?

How many times should you fold your toilet paper?

We humans want answers to the important questions of life. Several years ago a success coach was addressing a large number of young professional women. The audience responded gratefully when she met their need to know how many times to fold their toilet paper, especially before a business meeting. (Twelve layers*, she said.)

Don't doubt that this was an important question. You too have many particularly vivid memories of a parent or a neighbor or a friend imparting some such information to yourself. I can remember clearly a college roommate's telling me what his father had told him about shaving with or against the grain of the beard and, before that, my dad's showing me how to fold...toilet paper. Oh, you don't just wad it up?

And there are other questions that don't seem so mundane. "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" to quote Paul Gauguin's famous painting, "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?":

We want answers to such questions. And to get them we often look for someone we trust to tell us. A Tony Robbins or a Wayne Dyer or an M. Scott Peck or Norman Vincent Peale. The last two are dead now, but they were big not many years ago. Or someone who claimed to speak for or from God, like Moses or Jesus Christ or Muhammad. Those last ones have stood the "tests" of lots of other people following them and of their having done so for a long, long time. And two 19th century American prophets, the Latter Day Saint Joseph Smith and Jehovah's Witness Charles Taze Russell, have had their respective international followers for a while, too.

Whichever source we accept is almost always one that our friends or our family or the members of our community accept. If it isn't a natural philosopher or Moses or Muhammad, but it is Joseph Smith, then it's likely the Mormons for us too.

It helps if whatever source is near to hand gives answers more or less like the ones we want to believe. In our rebellious stage, if we had one, we were disinclined to believe what our family or our neighbors believed. We left, to return later perhaps as a prodigal child, to look anew at the source familiar to our childhood and adolescence.

If we've traveled or read a bit, we may now be aware that that source isn't the only one. If it had been Jesus, it might now include the possibility of a humanist philosopher or of Gautama or Muhammad. The question may have become whether to choose one of these or...?

[more to be unfolded later]

*How many folds to get twelve layers depends on whether you're using one- or two-ply paper. The speaker didn't cover this, but I've found that an efficient way to get twelve layers with one-ply paper is to
  1. Unroll twelve squares (or an equivalent length).
  2. Fold in half (lengthwise).
  3. Fold in half again.
  4. Fold over one third.
  5. Fold over the other third.
With two-ply, unroll six squares and skip the third step.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Open letter to my friends at the Democratic Party blog

Yesterday I wrote to my set of friends at the Democratic Party blog:
Hey, all of you guys and gal been doing okay? I haven't checked my Demo blog in weeks. I have been fairly active (on the subject of religion) lately on my main blog. As a sort of "spontaneous moment" a few weeks ago, I put up a very informal "religion survey" and was surprised and gratified to have two Muslims (so far) take it.

As you may have seen, I had read Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and my reaction was both to become very suspicious of Islam and to let my own Christian beliefs get stirred and shaken up. As a whirlwind result, I've gone from doubtful Christian to agnostic non-Christian, to God-believing but Jesus-as-savior-rejecting Christian, to (at the moment) leaning toward Islam (as more accurately expressing my way of thinking and believing about spirituality; that way of thinking, by the way, is very well expressed by Maliha's long [fifth] comment [now yesterday] morning on my post titled "Grave second thoughts".... ; I commend her comment to you for what I think is a reliable, responsible representation of Islam).

However, I can't see ever converting to Islam formally. I very much dislike its outward trappings (and, of course, its still being associated with radical Islamism, however illegitimate Islam's hijacking by the Islamists might be. Part of my "whirlwind experience" (even before I read Harris) involved my being turned off by misguided, Bush-supporting Christian fundamentalists' "hijacking" Christianity. I decided that that was a very stupid reason for getting soured on Christianity, so maybe I shouldn't hold the suicide-bombers against Islam, whatever Harris says.

Anyway, it has been an interesting time for me. And, at the age of 64, your body stiff, your joints noisy, your sex-drive off, you kind of want such times!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Being pragmatic about this

I've been buoyed today by comments on my post "Grave second thoughts." A theme of the post and of the comments is that good people acting as individuals can (or should try to) make the world a better place. Maliha, for example, speaks of "walking the walk" when it comes to religion:
The meaning of "walk the walk" goes beyond rituals...extending compassion, working for justice, and being commited to the spirit of the law as much as the law itself.
And after I admitted that I myself had been "tilting at windmills" with my impractical, idealistic proposal for a "new, consolidated Abramaic religion," that thoughtful and compassionate blogger Scary Monster reminded me that
To dream and hope for the improvement of life is neither foolish nor a waste of time. It's the questions we ask ourselves and each other that will eventually bring things into balance.
In questioning the sources of my quixotic bent, I guessed that I might have been
motivated by my 1960s, Beatles desire to find a way for currently unreconciled groups to "come together now, love one another right now"....
And Maliha responded:
At the risk of sounding Hippy, I would like to see a "love" revolution, which will bring us closer to ourselves and to each other. I saw this saying (is it from the Bible?) on a church notice board once:
When the power of love overwhelms the love for power; only then peace will reign [she was paraphrasing].
I thought it was really gorgeous.
And, serendipity of serendipities! I investigated a new visitor to Moristotle who also commented on the post ("Jolene42") and discovered that her motto on her own blog is
When the power of love becomes stronger than the love of power, we will have peace.
And she attributes it to Jimi Hendrix!


A little later, I was driving to pick up our poodle Wally at the groomer's and listening to R.W.B. Lewis's biography of the James family (The Jameses: A Family Narrative, pp. 562-563), when I heard this passage:
The whole contrast of the difference between pragmatism and rationalism, James then said [in Lecture VI on pragmatism at Columbia University in 1907], was now in sight (italics his):
The essential contrast is that for rationalism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity, while for pragmatism it is still in the making, and awaits part of its complexion from the future. On the one side the universe is absolutely secure, on the other it is still pursuing its adventures.
In the closing lecture, William James enlarges on that last image of an adventurous universe. The grand issue arises of "the salvation of the world"; and as against the pessimists who declare it impossible and the optimists who think it inevitable, the pragmatist takes the view that the world's salvation is possible. The pragmatist, says James, believes that the world can be bettered, here and there, bit by bit, in patches—and this by the moral and intellectual actions of individual human beings. "Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow...why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places...of the world [italics added by Lewis]—why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this?"
And this brought me right back squarely up against one of the things that most struck me in Sam Harris's book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion: his attack on the philsophy of pragmatism was no less hard-hitting than his attack on religion. (Pragmatism, he said, is relativistic, but truth is truth.)

It is fitting that my circling back from Harris to reconnect with my belief "in Something that we know as God/Allah/or whatever other name" should circumscribe the enabling philosophy of William James.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Grave second thoughts...

Hardly twenty-four hours after posting my proposal of "a new, consolidated Abramaic religion," and I've already been wondering, What was I thinking? Even the Baptists can't get together over their own set of core tenets. How are Jews and Christians and Muslims generally going to do so?

People splinter into religious groups. That's what people do.

My momentary vision of a "consolidated religion" was likely motivated by a desire "to find a way to improve society and relations with those we share the world with," as the blogger puts it who goes by the handle "Scary Monster" (though the person is a mild-mannered school teacher). Or motivated by my 1960s, Beatles desire to find a way for currently unreconciled groups to "come together now, love one another right now"...? Pie in the sky.

And what made me think that anyone would sign up for "a consolidated religion"?! That's about as naive a hope as the one I had as an adolescent, that all we need to do to gain another person's agreement is to "reason together" about the facts. That empty hope rested on the false assumption that everyone can see the facts the same way. Alas, disagreement goes much, much deeper, to the assumptions, values, agendas that powerfully control how we perceive the world (and the "facts") in the first place.

The desire or need for individuals to "apprehend themselves [as standing] in relation to whatever they may consider the divine" (as William James wrote) will have to be each individual's project and struggle. I momentarily lost sight of that, which has been as core a belief of mine as regards religion as I have. I think I must have been drunk to imagine that I could "will to believe...a set of encompassing [Abramaic] tenets" who only recently decided to give up wavering between believing and not believing [in] the special divinity of Jesus Christ, coming down as not believing it! And me who eschews dogma, the very thing that "encompassing tenets" would surely amount to!

What a short-lived fantasy it seems to have been, my proposal of a consolidated, Abramaic religion! What a suspect proposal to have spent words on!

The only part of the post that I think really sticks, for me personally, is James's idea that our own subconscious is the "hither side" of the "more" that is God.
Oh, terrestial/celestial muse,
inspire me, please,
to think on spiritual matters clearly,
without jargonese,

Show me how to find my way
and, if I find it, what to say.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A new, consolidated Abrahamic religion?

I have taken a few days to think, away from writing about my spiritual journey, hoping at some point to write a more or less comprehensive "credo" here. I expect, still, to do that. But I've come to realize that such a statement will be the accretion of less comprehensive writings along the I might as well let those relative fragments continue to come out.

Maliha wrote something the other day (in a comment on her post, "Black and White Truth," which she says she wrote partly as a result of her dialogue with me) that has resonated with me since. She wrote, "Belief in a certain religion is a willing choice that a person has to make."

One reason this has resonated with me, I'm sure, is that in my reading of R.W.B. Lewis's biography of the James family (The James: A Family Narrative), I've been struck powerfully by philosopher William James's psychology of the will, and also by his writings, first as the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-02, which he worked into his masterpiece book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. For example:
Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men [and women] in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine [James's own emphasis].
And what in religions is called "God" (or "Allah" or whatever), William James identified as "a more":
Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.
Readers familiar with some of my earlier thinking may appreciate the power with which this strikes me. And they probably know about my use of a muse. Well, of course, and as I understand, that muse is my "subconscious." But by calling it a muse as though it were an independent entity I acknowledge that in some sense it transcends me, certainly transcends my consciousness.

Anyway, the nub of all this is the notion that we are all, through our consciousness and our subconsciousness, directly linked to...God/Allah/what you will call it. This isn't a new notion for me, but a rediscovered old notion, so that I am experiencing a rebirth of religious understanding or belief. (I mentioned something akin to this earlier in a comment to Victor on my post "Monday Musings.")

Maliha's remark about will encourages me to be reminded that I can simply will to believe this again.

And Friday I listened to a podcast from Yale University on reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. I was struck perhaps most of all by the realization (or another reminder, actually, for I already knew this) that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all Abramaic religions. One speaker emphasized how important it is today for there to be dialogue among individuals who really believe their religion (whichever of the three it is), not among politicians who say they represent the religions....

But what I got from the podcast, personally, was the vision that a set of encompassing tenets could be shaped to define a single religion for Jews and Christians and Muslims to congregate within. I was thrilled to think that I could will to believe such a set of tenets. Jews would somehow have to reconcile with Jesus Christ, and Christians would somehow have to reconcile with Muhammad. Muslims seem to have already pretty much reconciled with Moses et alia and Christ (if I understand Islam aright).

Please let me know, if you would, what you think about the notion of a consolidated Abramaic religion.

The Battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415)

That there aren't many good men in the world is nothing new,
And few of them are the ones who go around "fucking you";
    But the good ones definitely include
    The English who would have got screwed
If the French could have stopped them from plucking yew.