Monday, January 29, 2007

Monday Musings

The other day I had occasion to share with someone something that I have thought for many years:
God [if God exists] can communicate with us any damn way God pleases [that is, through the Bible, the Quran..., the angelic kindness of a stranger...]
This morning as I was about to enter the allergy clinic for my bimonthly antigen injection, a vibrant, dark-skinned young nurse called out to me from down the hall, "Hi! What's your name?"

"[Moristotle]...What's yours?"


We approached, took each other's hand, and shook firmly, smiling at each other with a kind of recognition. I continued to hold her hand while saying, "Something seems to have happened to you this morning. Did you have an angelic visitation, or perhaps a revelation from God directly?"

Eloise was now beaming even more brightly. "I had a great session this morning with my prayer partner."

"Aha!" I said. "Good on you!"

This proof that indeed "something had happened" to this young stranger relieved me of the possible impertinence of my opening remarks to her. And it seemed that something had just happened to me too. A few minutes later, as I was sitting in a clinic waiting room, my muse began whispering to me, rather urgently. I quickly found a piece of paper and borrowed a pencil. I took some dictation:
God is the answer to certain questions we ask:
"Why is there something rather than nothing?"

"How is it possible that we ask and thereby receive?"

"Why does the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike?"

"Why are innocent animals devoured in the mechanism of the food chain?"

Etc., etc.
How can we identify questions to which God is the answer? Or, What are the criteria for such questions?

What if such a question has no answer; does that mean there is no God?

Some of these questions may be answerable by science. If they can be, are they therefore disqualified? Or, Is "can't be answered by science" one of the criteria? If so, then why? [My muse seemed to be reflecting Maliha's comment of yesterday:
I always wondered why there was such a disconnect between Science and Religion. Why does it have to be either Science OR God? I...understand God more through Science (precision, beauty, perfection, symmetry, etc.). And Science has an added layer of meaning when looking at it through the prism of a gnostic.
For more of Maliha's comment, plus previous whisperings from my muse, see yesterday's "Open Letter to Maliha."]
More things to think on. Thank you, my muse.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Open Letter to Maliha on Agnosticism

Dear Maliha, thank you for coming to my blog and providing a Muslim perspective on religion. But thank you even more for your provocative questions, which I am trying to use to better travel my "journey of self-discovery through self-exploration." At about 8:40 this morning you commented, for example:
I don't understand agnosticism, because it seems so uncommitted to anything.

And then how would you derive meaning to our existence? What's the point? Is there a point? Are we just a comical abberation of a universe gone wild?

I am really interested in the thought process, because as I have struggled in determining whether Islam is "the" path (and now I am settling for its [being] "a" path), I never questioned the existence of just seems like everything would be too mundane for such a beautiful world.
I must have read that not long after you submitted it, for at 10:01 I commented back to you:
I'[ll think] on these things...But know that I can't tell you when my muse is likely to strike with something like insight. She comes in her own time, but always faithfully responsive to my sincere desire for answers.
Well, within about one hour my muse was already starting to whisper to me, urgently, while I was driving home after doing an errand. Already, while driving out of my yard to go do the errand, I had been thinking that if an agnostic is not committed to anything, then the term hardly seems to apply to me. I feel committed. I am passionate about responding impeccably to life, to "the human condition." I have never been a couch potato, a spectator, a blindly following dogmatist. I have tried to engage life, to have passed this way not in vain.

In other words, your comments were affecting me powerfully and I'm sure they strengthened my desire to hear from my muse. And this, in turn, prompted her to aid me as quickly as possible.

At any rate, because I was driving when she started to whisper to me, I pulled off the road and took notes:
Free thinkers, free from received opinions about faith and science, pre-fabricated thought structures, and, perhaps most of all, other people's revelations, unless they accord with my own experience and the light of my own reason. Descartes tried to practice methodical doubt. In my own way, I have lately been trying to practice constructive skepticism.

Maybe I'm not agnostic as to whether God is or is not, but rather as to what God is (beyond the I AM THAT I AM). For I do believe in...Something. Maybe it's just that I'm unwilling to say I know what it is (because I don't think I do).
[Added on Monday: More whisperings followed, with some guidance on what God is.]

Friday, January 26, 2007


Sam Harris, I think, thinks he can know. He is a scientist. He even "knows" that God doesn't exist. That is, he is literally an atheist.

I have labeled myself an agnostic with respect to God. Or an "agnostic Christian," if my answers to my own "religion survey" are to be believed.

But it occurs to me now that I am maybe an agnostic in a wider sense. I don't think that we can know everything. I'm an agnostic, that is, with respect to science, too.

And I don't mind being a lone, wide-ranging, "Thomas Painean" free-thinker. It's the way I've come now, a good deal more than midway through my life, to respond to this "human condition."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"Sanguine [religious] healthy-mindedness..."

Let sanguine healthy-mindedness do its best with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting, still the evil background is really there to be thought of, and the skull will grin in at the banguet.
Psychologist and philosopher William James wrote that, in his masterpiece in the psychology of religion, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

James (1842-1910) identified two religious mentalities: "the religion of healthy-mindedness" and the religion of "the sick soul." Both mentalities seemed to be present in James himself, for I doubt that he could have had the insight quoted above in any way other than by introspection.

In my own way, I've had the same experience. I've had numerous moments in my life of feeling so fulfilled and joyous that I've actually voiced the opinion that "I could die this moment and in perfect happiness have no regrets whatsoever." But I've also faced the "skull grinning in at the banquet." This life is (or may be) all there is, and may not be enough. It hasn't been enough, anyway, for me to have read all of William James's brother Henry's novels yet!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Please take my religion survey

A friend of mine told a friend of hers who used to be Muslim of my interest in Sam Harris. He read my posts on Harris, especially the ones discussing what Harris says about Islam in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. (You can call up all of my posts that have the Sam Harris label by clicking on that label at the bottom of this post.) As a result, he wants to meet me, and I've agreed to join my friend and him for lunch.

In thinking about what a former Muslim might ask me, I've begun to think of what I might ask him. And in doing that, I've found myself thinking of questions I might ask other people, such as a cousin whose father (like my mother) was very religious and regularly attended an Assembly of God church. I've always suspected that this cousin isn't what you'd call particularly "religious." But I don't really know, and I'd sort of like to find out before it's too late. After all, it has been many years since we were teenage cousins together (and even rode in the same car to that Assembly of God church).

That's sort of where this survey comes from. If you'd be so kind as to take it and give your answers publicly (as it were), I'd appreciate it. (If you're not familiar with how to make a comment, click on "Comments" below.):

  1. Religiously, how would you describe or classify yourself? (not religious, Christian, Muslim, Judaic, other: _________)
  2. Whatever you answered, what is it about you that leads you to say that?
  3. If you answered Christian, how much, if any, do your religious beliefs influence how you vote?
  4. If you answered Muslim, do you approve of martyrdom "in defense of Islam"?
  5. If you answered Judaic, how do you feel about Israel's policies toward the Palestinians?
  6. Anything else you'd like to say by way of your "religious statement"?

In fairness, I'll answer these questions myself:

  1. Religiously, how would you describe or classify yourself?
    agnostic Christian
  2. Whatever you answered, what is it about you that leads you to say that?
    While I'm uncertain as to whether God exists and do not believe that Jesus was the "son of God" in a way different from how you or I might be "a child of God," I have been raised in the Christian tradition, and I more or less try to imitate Christ's example of love and doing unto others.
  3. If you answered Christian, how much, if any, do your religious beliefs influence how you vote?
    Surprisingly (to myself), I'd say quite a bit, but in the "liberal way" of influencing me to vote "for the common good." To me, Jesus was a champion of social justice.
  4. If you answered Muslim, do you approve of martyrdom "in defense of Islam"?
    not applicable
  5. If you answered Judaic, how do you feel about Israel's policies toward the Palestinians?
    not applicable
  6. Anything else you'd like to say by way of your "religious statement"?
    I once gave an impromptu sermon in an Episcopal church in San Jose, California. In the couple of minutes I had to prepare, I "called on the Holy Spirit" to come to my aid, and I spontaneously chose as my text the passage from the Book of Exodus in which the burning bush says unto Moses to tell the people that he's been talking with "I AM THAT I AM." In the short sermon that I then delivered I said that God is as God is, and God is going to be that way regardless of what you or I believe God is. Either or both of us could be wrong. I said that, in that sense, it doesn't matter what we believe about God.

    I'd add now that God is, OR IS NOT, as God is, OR IS NOT, and what we believe doesn't affect it one way or another. So let's not fight over it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

On passively accepting evil...

On April 4, 1967 (one year to the day before his assassination), the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Riverside Church in Manhattan, and among the things he said in a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence" was the following*:
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
This seems to me to echo the sentiment of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321):
The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.
While I "believe in" Dante's hell only as a poetic construct (in the stomach-turning "Inferno" third of his Divine Comedy), I do get the message. We are called on to avoid "passively accepting evil" by informing ourselves of it and protesting against it in whatever great or small ways we can.
* Brought to my attention by Bob Herbert's op-ed piece ("The Lost Voice of Protest") in today's New York Times.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bush: The Student-in-Chief?

By way of recommending Maureen Dowd's op-ed piece ("Aux Barricades!") in today's New York Times, in which she says:
It’s unnerving to be tutored by an educator in chief who is himself being tutored. The president elucidating the Iraqi insurgency for us is learning about the Algerian insurgency from the man who failed to quell the Vietcong insurgency.

During his “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Bush mentioned that he was reading Alistair Horne’s classic history, A Savage War of Peace, about why the French suffered a colonial disaster in a guerrilla war against Muslims in Algiers from 1954 to 1962.

The book was recommended to W. by Henry Kissinger, who is working on an official biography of himself with Mr. Horne.

Mr. Horne recalled that Dr. Kissinger told him: “The president’s one of my best students. He reads all the books I send him.” The author asked the president’s foreign affairs adviser if W. ever wrote any essays on the books. “Henry just laughed,” Mr. Horne said.

It seems far too late for Mr. Bush to begin studying about counterinsurgency now that Iraq has cratered into civil war. Can’t someone get the president a copy of Gone with the Wind?
I quote my friend Keith S's comment on the piece:
Hoo-boy! Zing!

My comment to the twig [i.e. Bush] on all his new-fangled book reading...the final exam is over, you didn't pass, stop studying. But it is so typical of this administration. Throw out the baby with the washwater, trip over the baby, fall in the mud, and then try to develop a plan for cleaning the baby without using washwater.

I found the comparison to DeGaulle interesting on many levels. To think that the defacto leader of the French Resistance would think that a guerilla force would recognize defeat and give up...well, I just don't know what to say. It is an impeccable comparison of two people with more ego than intelligence who refused to learn from history, personal or otherwise.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"I do, yeah," explains the Educator-in-Chief

On "60 Minutes" last night, Bush was asked whether he thought he had the authority to send additional troops to Iraq, even with the opposition in Congress. "I do, yeah," he said. "I'm gonna have to keep explaining," he said, after referring to himself as the "Educator-in-Chief."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A moral imperative

I watched Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," last night. I knew what was in it, but I hadn't expected to be moved the way I was by actually watching it. I was moved by Gore's conclusion that it's a moral imperative to do something to try to avert the environmental cataclysm threatening Planet Earth. This means, among other things, that it's a matter of conscience that I go back to commuting to work by way of the local transit system. I'd commuted by bus for some months before my vacation in California in October, but I haven't ridden the bus since.

I'm going to start again on Tuesday. (I'm off for MLK's birthday.)

And, if I intend to continue to blog politically occasionally, it is more important to talk about this issue than about Iraq. Alas, Bush will still be part of the discussion, since the Busheviks have been largely successful at misleading people through their comprehensive campaign to hide the truth—such as a White House official's distorting government climate reports:
In handwritten notes on drafts of several reports issued in 2002 and 2003, the official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved. In many cases, the changes appeared in the final reports.

The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.

Mr. Cooney is chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues.

Before going to the White House in 2001, he was the "climate team leader" and a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry. A lawyer with a bachelor's degree in economics, he has no scientific training. [The New York Times, June 8, 2005]

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What about Bush?

This just in from The New York Times ("In 2 Pennsylania Towns, Skepticism and Resignation," by Ian Urbina):
CLIFTON HEIGHTS, Pa., Jan. 11 — Hunched over a beer with a crowd of other veterans at the American Legion here, Rocco Polidoro, said he is sure of one thing: President Bush’s plan to send some 20,000 more troops into Iraq will only make matters worse.

“What I don’t understand is who the president is listening to,” said Mr. Polidoro, a life-long Republican who like a majority in this Republican district voted for an anti-war Democrat in the last election. “If vets, military brass, the Baker Committee, the international community and now most voters say it’s time to get out, then in my view it’s time to get out.”

...“It’s one thing to be steadfast and another to be stubborn,” said Rick Lacey, another Republican at the Legion hall who voted for a Democrat in the last election.
So, is Bush steadfast or stubborn...or so dumb that he doesn't even know that almost everyone else is smarter than he is?

I enjoy working with people who are smarter, quicker, abler, and more intelligent than I am, but I'm still smart enough to tell the difference. It's a national tragedy to have someone in the White House who is so dumb that he can't.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Exception to the commutative law for addition!

I've been looking for years for an exception to the commutative law for addition [and subtraction], and at last I've found it! One way to state the commutative law is that
a + (b + c) = (a + b) + c
and I was always amazed to find that it held, time after time after time.

So you can imagine how excited I am to have discovered an exception:

Yesterday at midnight, Blogger bumped up my age from 63 to 64. That is,
[current year] - 1943 = 64.
But check this! I graduated from college in 1964. I was 21 years old. That is:
1964 - 1943 = 21.
But it is now 42 years later
[current year] - 1964 = 42
21 + 42 = 63, not 64.
That is, as an explicit exception to the commutative law:
[current year1] - 1943 ≠ [current year2] - 1964 - 21.
...Oh, sh_t...(1) Blogger (obviously!) changed the calender. (2) And I didn't.

Monday, January 8, 2007

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me...?"

At the stroke of midnight, timely on cue,
I clicked and updated my profile view,
    With its number on stage
    For reporting my age.
Happy my birthday, everyone of you!
My title was taken from a pertinent Beatles song. For those of you too young to know who the Beatles are (and I met a teenager at our party last night who'd never heard of them), there's an interesting article about the song in Wikipedia.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Quoting Walt Whitman

My "Youie" portrait was a quotation...

of the frontispiece engraving of Walt Whitman, age 37, for Leaves of Grass (steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison).
A couple of years earlier (1987) I'd heard a lecture by Joyce Carol Oates, at an Emily Dickinson conference in Chapel Hill, in which she'd said that "Dickinson, like Whitman and Rilke, was a poet of the soul." "Youie," I thought, was a revelation about soul.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Photographs from "Youie" year

Today I changed my profile photo, from the one on the the one on the right.
Moristotle during Youie SummerMoristotle in Chicago, 1989
The two photos were taken within a few weeks of one another about seventeen and a half years ago. The one on the right was taken at the 36th International Technical Communication Conference, May 14-17, 1989, in Chicago, the month before what I know as "Youie Summer" began—and during which the photo on the left (that's a Stetson) was taken. In retrospect, I could see signs in Chicago that something like "Youie" was coming. I remember sitting in the lobby of my hotel meditating and feeling tingly premonitions.
A lot has happened since 1989, since that manic summer . My journal, Youie: You Must Change Your Life (the subtitle taken from the last line of Rilke's poem, "Torso of an Archaic Appolo"), consumed my manic energy and, its central "prophecy" unfulfilled, left me depressed and vulnerable to a half-year bout of chronic fatigue syndrome. Followed by a heart attack (apparently provoked by an allergic reaction to a powerful antibiotic). Toastmasters and a run at public speaking. Brain surgery for a pineal tumor. Hurricane Fran and a dozen big trees down in our yard, all close enough to have hit the house if they'd fallen differently. Retirement after employment with one company for thirty years. Brief but interesting stint as a telemarketer of pre-paid cremation. New job in public postsecondary education administration. Literary agency. Web design. The Moristotle blog. Encounter with the writings of Sam Harris. Awareness that the foregoing list is arbitrary. It mentions no dogs, leaves out my wife of almost 41 years,doesn't mention my dear son or my dear daughter, or any of my wonderful friends. Nor the death of a sister, or of our mother.
Must stop. Becoming too emotional.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

"Class warfare" seems to have survived the Old Year

One of my born-again, Bush-approving cousins sent me a newspaper letter to the editor by a guy out in Oregon who says he has a job, gets paid, pays his taxes, "and the government distributes my taxes as they see fit." He doesn't say what his job is, but:
In order for me to get that paycheck, I am required to pass a random urine test, which I have no problem with.

What I do have a problem with is the distribution of my taxes to people who don't have to pass a urine test. Shouldn't one have to pass a urine test to get a welfare check, because I have to pass one to go earn it for them?
My cousin asked,
Pretty good idea, don’t you think???
I replied:
You mean, because the guy works in a nuclear reactor or somewhere and has to undergo random drug tests, everyone who receives the benefit of taxes should also undergo them? Well, YOU receive the benefit of taxes. Do you think YOU should undergo random drug tests? <smile>
She replied:
The point is not for "all who receive the benefit of taxes," just for the welfare/drug addict bunch who could get a job but won't.

Have a Happy New Year.
I replied:
Ah, right, they are a worthless lot.
But I think that maybe I should have said that we all need someone who we're not and are a lot better than. That may be the common demoninator of all class warfare, even the "warfare" of most of We the People's wanting the superwealthy to pay more in taxes. After all, do they think they're better than Us just because they have a million times more money than we do?