The Other I

September 18, 2018

More than Pope Francis can deal with?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:17 pm

Concept conceptual yellow cross religion symbol silhouette in nature over sunset or sunrise sky Premium PhotoI have been surprised at the scope and depth of responses to my last post discussing what Pope Francis should do about the problem of pedophilia and other sexual misconduct among supposedly celibate priests.  Most of the responses have come to me privately, almost all of them with deep feeling.

Some responders think Pope Francis should resign, along with all the other hierarchy who over the years have failed to deal effectively with errant priests.  Others have argued that, although Francis is out of his depth, at least he acknowledges his mistakes, and if he were to step down from the papal throne, there is a significant danger that he would be replaced by a cardinal who thinks the problem is basically homosexual priests, and that in any case, it should be the sole authority of the Roman Catholic Church to deal with the problem, that it should not be put into the hands of the political justice system, and that, as far as possible, the abuses should remain out of the public domain.

But by far the most arresting response that I had never thought of before is the doctrinal one.  An ex-Protestant minister told me that the reverence the Roman Catholic laity give to Catholic priests is far greater and even essentially different from the respect offered to Protestant ministers and even Anglican vicars.  Catholics believe priests are ordained with an irrevocable ability to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This ability lifts them onto a level of sanctity even in this life that the mere laity cannot achieve.

As someone else pointed out, even Vatican II did not suggest that priests should not be addressed as “Father,” rather worrisomely the term used to address God.  She and her husband have left the Catholic Church and attend a Unitarian Church whose vicar is a woman.  She says the difference between the unquestioning obedience by her Catholic friends to their priests is qualitatively different from the respect given to their vicar whom they are even free to address by her first name.

I fear the hypothesis that belief in the unique power of the priest to consecrate bread into the body of Christ might be more supportive of clerical sexual misconduct than most people think.  If so, the problem is far more difficult to address effectively than I have appreciated.

The fact that so much misconduct is being exposed today, in the context of so many people’s loss of faith in the infallibility of Catholic doctrine, may support the suggestion that the Roman Catholic Church needs a “Protestant Reformation.”

October 16, 2016

The Good Old Days of Breadmaking

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 12:40 pm

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts recently, we elderly are subject to the temptation of wiping out the negative aspects of the past from our memory banks, leading to a rather one-sided longing to return to a mythical “Good Old Days” that never really existed.

But the more I read about the history of Christianity, the more I wonder if I might still be committed to the Christian faith if I’d lived several thousand years ago before church leaders decided that the diversity of beliefs held by various sub-groups was unacceptable, and declared anybody who did not agree with them to be heretical.  Up until then, “faith” was not seen as synonymous with doctrine, but with faithfulness.  And until then, love was still, as St. Paul wrote, “the greatest of these.”

At about the same time, Constantine decided that the Christian God was a better backup for governments trying to hold onto power than the fickle gods of the pagans.  So the Romans adopted Christianity as their official religion, moved the clergy into palaces and cathedrals, gave them royal robes and head-gear, gold crosses and incense burners to demonstrate their “lordship”.

But I’ve just learned that it was at about this time, and almost certainly a result of these changes, that the meaning of “lord” and “lady” changed dramatically.  Until then, these terms did not refer to any kind of authority or royalty.  The “lord” simply referred to the “keeper of the bread,” and the “lady” was “the maker of the bread.”

That makes a lot of sense to me.  And it seems to fit so much better with the original message of Christianity.

Perhaps the change in meaning is another example of the original biblical warning that where there is power or money, there is always temptation.  Pope Francis has just said it again.


May 25, 2016


A friend recently sent me an article commenting on Pope Francis and his attitude toward the poor.  The view of the author is that Francis’ views is Marxist and betrays the essence of Christianity.

Francis sounded at first like such a breath of fresh air in the face of a rigid and often uncaring and out-of-touch Vatican hierarchy.  But  I’ve started thinking once again about the Eight Beatitudes and what the Sermon on the Mount really says with its proclamations that the poor are “blessed.”

If “blessed are the poor” means, in modern day language, that celebrity or mega-wealth or a Facebook full of friends are rarely goals worth pursuing in their own right, then I agree.

But that’s not what Christianity has, by and large, been teaching for the last several thousand years.  Taking a vow of poverty, for instance, automatically lifted someone to a higher plane of holiness, even if the vow did not remotely entail the imminent danger of being hungry or cold or dispossessed.  Apart from that group of well-cared for allegedly poor nuns, monks, and brothers, most of those elevated to the official status of saints were not poor.  They were among the Great and the Good, people in positions of power and authority who treated their servants with a certain amount of fairness, or who took up the sword to slay the enemies of Christianity.  Or sometimes merely the version of Christianity currently in favour.

So what is essentially “Christian” about being poor?

Well, for starters, the translation of the beatitude about the poor in the Bibles with which I am acquainted does not say “Blessed are the poor,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  It does not bless poverty in the economic sense.  It does not suggest that being hungry or living in squalor or unable to obtain an education for lack of funds is intrinsically blessed.  Conversely, it does not support the conclusion that people like Donald Trump, among others, who have declared themselves legally bankrupt on occasions are subsequently automatically “blessed.”

It seems to me that, challenging as economic poverty may be, “blessed” is a great deal more difficult to achieve.  In some ways, we are all “poor.”  We are all incomplete, all needy in different ways, we all need support and help from others.  It’s not being “poor” that is blessed.  It’s what we do with those challenges presented by our incompleteness.

Do we respond with violence, jealousy, resentment, with passive acceptance or helplessness?  Admittedly society is apt to respond to those who respond to their economic poverty with physical violence with a tit-for-tat punishment such as prison sentences and exile.  Those whose poverty is not economic are rarely punished with the same vindictive anger by society.  Partly because the violence of the well-off is less apt to be overtly physically abusive, and more apt to be manifest in betrayals, and scams.  But in either case, neither being rich nor poor or somewhere in-between is, all by itself, “blessed.”

By the same token, “serving the poor” in the economic sense of poverty, is not somehow holier than meeting all the other human needs we have besides those for food and shelter.  We need love, we need to feel special, we need guidance too.

And we need to give every bit as much as we need to receive.  The overt “giver” is often, in the very act, the true “receiver.”

I suspect that “poor” is much deeper, more complex, and more universal, than either Christianity or Marxism would have us believe.


March 8, 2016

A story for Women’s Day

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 9:36 pm

When I was ten years old, my mother had twins – a boy named Bob and a girl, Mary.  Within a year, my brother Tom and I had assumed the responsibility of socializing them, teaching them essential tasks such as learning to walk, to button one’s shirt, and critically, the highly abstract and complex task of learning to tie their shoe laces.

To fully understand the implications of the story I am about to tell, it is necessary to understand that the subtle indoctrination of Roman Catholicism in our family included the indisputable truth that men are more intelligent than women.  Bob, therefore, had to learn to tie his shoes before his sister Mary, or suffer the humiliation of sexual failure at the mature age of two.

So Tom set about teaching Bob to tie his shoe laces, and I took over the job of tutoring Mary.

Mary learned to tie her shoe laces first.

But when I told this momentous fact to Tom, and he asked Mary to prove it, she pretended that she couldn’t do it.

In fact, she refused to admit that she knew how to tie her laces until Bob had learned and demonstrated his achievement first.

My temptation is to say that this illustrates that girls really are smarter than boys, or that I was a better teacher than my brother, but of course it doesn’t.

But do you think that sometimes girls are just kinder than our counterparts?  I can’t ask Mary what she thinks because she died of cancer 20 years ago.

But that’s my hypothesis.  I think even at the age of two, there was no way she was going to play a game of one-up-man-ship  with her dear twin brother.

I Can Tie My Own Shoes (I Can Books) by Ltd. Top That Publishing





December 27, 2015

Am I still a Catholic?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:25 pm

Several weeks ago, I received a comment asking several questions on this blog post of June 19, 2007  “The night I left the convent.”  The questioner asked if I was still a Catholic, if I believed in God, and if I’d felt a “desire to serve Jesus” when I’d entered the convent.

The questions might sound simple, but the answers aren’t.  “Am I still a Catholic?” doesn’t have a black & white Yes or No answer.  It depends on what being “Catholic” means.

I do not think the essence of being a Catholic  or a Christian – by any definition Catholic or Protestant – lies in doctrine.  It is a tragic mistake to think our salvation is based on what we believe and has led to centuries of religious slaughter.   The fundamental Christian message is one of love.  Nothing can replace it.  And love can make up for all – all – the other deficits which might afflict us.

And so no, I am not still a Catholic by the demands of those who insist that I agree with the decrees of the Catholic hierarchy.  I do not believe in  the doctrines most traditional Catholics would accept as essential to Catholic belief.  I have no doubt that by most standards I would be excommunicated.   I would not even try to partake in communion.

In fact, I do not believe in what most believers mean when they use the term “God.”  By definition, I cannot see how “God” can possibly be as human as most people conceive this concept.  But more profoundly, I  emphatically reject the concept of an all-powerful, all-loving creator who is prepared to send his creatures to an everlasting hell fire should they step over the mark and not manage to get to a priest for official forgiveness before death overcomes him.   I was taught that even so much as eating a single bite of meat on Friday was a mortal sin, an act so evil that it would dam me for eternity if I didn’t get to confession and receive forgiveness.  I won’t go on further at how hideous I experience this God to be.  Yes, we live in mystery.  We do not understand our universe in any ultimate sense.  But I do not give “God” as my answer to those ultimate questions.

Yet there are other ways in which I am still a Catholic.  The version of Catholicism I was given taught that all humankind are brothers.  We are called on to love all of our fellow mankind, and to care for all living things.  For me, the core of Christianity is “the greatest of these”.  That, as St. Paul said, is love.

That really does mean, though, that we cannot divide the world into “us” and “them.”  The important distinctions are neither Jew or gentile, male or female, Black or White, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian, believer or non-believer, the saved or the unredeemed,  the right and the wrong.

We are all incomplete.  We all need each other.  We all need both to love and to be loved.  And none of us are 100% right.

There are other ways as well in which I am still culturally a Catholic.  I still like right answers, a preference which to some extent was reinforced by being socialized as a member of what I was told was the “one and only true church.”   I was quite good when I was young at explaining and defending those “right answers.”  I have found this tendency in general has often been useful in solving practical problems.  But an attitude like that can interfere with creativity, and I have often failed to distinguish between rigid rules and principles.   It was only in my later years that I have come to fully understand that rules are valuable suggestions that may be useful in achieving ones goals.  But disobeying a rule or even a law isn’t the same thing as committing a sin.

I have never felt any particular passion to “serve Jesus.”  Most of my life I have found great pleasure in helping others.  I loved teaching, for instance, with a passion.  And there was a time when I thought I was wise enough to construct a world that would eliminate injustice and unfairness and suffering.  I wasn’t, and I am hugely grateful I was never given the power to demonstrate my ignorance.

So am I still a Catholic?

Depends on what that means.

Now I have to stop or I will end up moving this post to trash in sheer embarrassment.





November 20, 2015

Are we doomed without religion?

In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.

Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.

One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species.  We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo.  There are thousands of examples.  If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.

Where does this altruism come from?  In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief.  Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes.  It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations.  But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.

Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures?  Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?

If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?

Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment.  But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself,  as if we need to be bribed to love others.

We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals.  We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.

Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?

Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.

But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.

Could we survive without religion?  could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?

As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer.  I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse.  Religion does not do a lot for me these days.  I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding.  Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.

I don’t know.  I would be interested to know what you think.

November 19, 2015

Does religion make us feel superior?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Life as a Nun — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

For the first 6 years when I was a nun, we dressed in traditional habits, covering everything except our faces and hands.  Obviously, no one would mistake us for anything but nuns, Christians dedicating our virginity to a higher calling.  We younger nuns eventually received permission to wear habits that were a little less traditional, but the mark of our “chosen way” of life was still pretty clear.  Everybody with whom we worked knew who and what we were.MM%2520group%25202

(FYI, I am in the middle of the bottom row)

When I left the convent after nine years and began life as a student in New York City, I realized that I’d been divested of a cloak of sanctity.  Strangers on the streets no longer held doors open for me, for instance, or offered me a seat in place of theirs on the subway.

But the bigger change was in myself.  I no longer thought of myself as holier than a mere  lay person.  And I realized that just putting on that habit had made me feel morally superior to the layman who did not aspire to the level of sainthood which I sought for myself.  Indeed, which to some extent I assumed I had already achieved for myself.

That insight was close to half a century ago and I have tended to reflect on it occasionally with some embarrassment at my arrogant egocentrism.

But I read a research review in the Economist this month, Matthew 22:39, that has made me wonder if my personal experience is not far more significant and widespread than I realized.  Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago has studied more than a thousand children between 5 and 12 years of age in America, Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa and Turkey from many different religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. Decety and his colleagues played a game with each of the children in which they had a chance to share their winnings with other children who had not had a chance to win anything.

Children of families of non-believers were willing to share significantly more of their winnings than were children of families who said they were religious.  Not only that, but religious parents predicted with a fair amount of confidence that their children would be more generous than children of families that practiced no religion.  Their predictions were wrong.  Children raised in religious families were less generous than children with no religious background.  Significantly so.

As the world today is facing repeated murderous onslaughts from young people who believe they are killing and dying for the One and Only True Religion, I am beginning to wonder in a way I have not done before if the problem is not one religion or another, but the underlying message, whatever version it may be.  Does teaching a child that they belong to the One and Only True Church – whether it is Roman Catholicism or extreme Islam or all those True Religions in between convince us by that very fact that we are intrinsically morally superior?  Is it equivalent to donning that nun’s habit which somehow transformed me into someone wiser, holier, more righteous than everybody else?

Wars, as we know, are often fought flying religious banners, often on both sides.  This has led some thinkers to argue that religion causes war.  I’ve always tended to think that if there is a causal link between the two that it is not religion that causes wars but rather that religion was a potent force for energizing those who were fighting for their own people, their values, their identity, and most especially, for greater wealth.

But now I’m beginning to wonder.  Does religion itself make us feel superior?  is it in the very nature of religion to convince us that we are right, that we deserve everything that is given to us and that anybody who opposes us are on the side of the devil whom we must fight with all our strength and energy?  Obviously, that fight does not necessarily manifest itself in war.  But I wonder if, even in our charitable activities,  it does not manifest itself in an attitude of moral superiority.


September 8, 2015

The heart vs the brain

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:18 pm

I’ve not karumphed over my interpretation of religious obedience for many years, but a friend has just reminded me of the kind of advice we were given over 50 years ago as young Maryknoll sisters:

“God doesn’t want your brains, but your love …so don’t get upset after we teach you all this smart missiology and anthropology stuff when the bishop hasn’t opened a book in 40 years!  Just obey the bishop and please God.”  “I bet they don’t think like that now,” she added.

I suspect most American nuns might not think that way now, which is why the Vatican still has so much trouble with them.  Because I know a good number of priests and bishops who certainly still think like that.

This distinction between heart and brain, in other words, between love and intelligence, is bogus power-hungry advice posing as religious humility to keep people in their place.  Isn’t it, after all, the excuse that the Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials to justify the death of 14 million innocent people in the gas chambers of their concentration camps?  “I was merely following orders.”

As human beings, we survive by using both our capacity for love and for intelligence, and they are inseparable.  Does it not take intelligence to care for the sick?  to develop a vaccine for ebola or polio or small pox?  Does it not take intelligence to teach children to read or develop mathematical skills?  Does it not take intelligence to provide balanced meals for the family?  Does it not take intelligence to represent a defendant in court?  Does it not take intelligence to treat the mentally ill?  Does it not take intelligence to respond with compassion to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and starvation in the world today?  Does it not take intelligence to run a farm that produces food for an entire community?

No:  don’t tell me that God doesn’t want my brain.  Do not tell me that I will please God if I do what the bishop or president or even the pope tells me to do – no matter how ignorant or damaged or unloving he has on occasion been known to be.  I know I might be wrong myself.  But I will take responsibility for doing my best to make a judgement based on respect for the life that surrounds me.

I will not willingly denigrate intelligence as merely a form of hubris, or elevate ignorance to the level of unquestioning obedience.

Whew!  I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about this.  I think I owe it to what I learned from my parents – one who, when I was growing up, I thought was The Brain, and the other whom I thought was The Heart.  But they worked together in socializing their children.  I learned something essential from that.

June 26, 2015

Sinner or saint

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

“The biggest deception of the past thousand years is this:

 to confuse poverty with stupidity.”  

Orhan Pamuk

Or, I would suggest, with crime.

Or race.

Or sanctity.

Poverty, however one defines it, is too complex for such simplicity.

June 9, 2015

My kind of nun

NUNSA friend just sent me the link to an eulogy in the Huffington Post, The Atheist and the Nun.  She sent it to me with the note “Thought of you … your kind of nun!”  It is a tribute to a nun whom the columnist, Alice McManus, had known as a student in high school.

Alice was routinely expelled from classrooms and clubs for defending gay rights in the Catholic schools where her parents hoped she would get a good education.  But Sister Pat was different from all the other teachers.  She did not teach me to love God, says Alice.  She taught me to love people.

“I’m still an atheist,” she writes. “But Sister Pat wouldn’t have minded. … Ironically, she also taught me to have faith. Not in God, but in people. Because there are people out there who are just amazing through and through. Who do good everyday for all the right reasons. And for me, that’s even more impressive than an all-powerful being.  Sister Pat herself was a beacon of light and hope — but one that you could touch and hug.  She will be missed.”

I am deeply moved that someone sees Sister Pat as the kind of person I admire, whom I would like to be like.

I do not call myself an atheist.  I do totally dismiss the popular demagogue of a supposedly all-loving, all-forgiving God who can somehow be placated by the tortuous crucifixion of his son, but whose forgiveness nonetheless includes sending people to eternal hell fire for eating meat on a Friday.  But atheists too often in my experience are just as intolerant of believers as some believers are of those who disagree with them.  I prefer to live in the amazing mystery of the universe with the knowledge that understanding it fully is beyond the bounds of human capacities — even those of the great genius.

What I do find astonishing is that praise of people like Sister Pat is so rare.  How did Christianity ever become so distorted as to assign to itself the right to judge which sinners are not “one of us,” to cast them out, to refuse to break bread with them?  How did doctrine ever become more important than loving one’s fellow human beings?

Today, becoming a saint isn’t nearly as popular an ideal as it used to be.  The achievement of sainthood, marked by inexplicable miracles seemingly beyond natural causes, is broadly seen as superstitious unscientific ignorance.  It is being replaced by a desire for celebrity, to be very beautiful, acquire great wealth, or possibly die as a martyr (also known as freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view).

But in some deep and terrifying ways, aren’t they are all self-seeking goals for self-aggrandizement?

The older I get, the greater becomes my appreciate for those who love others.  Period.  They don’t need praise or recognition.  Love of those around them is what their lives, ultimately, are for.   I cannot think of any other achievement that I value or admire, however significant, if it is not at the same time imbued with this love of neighbour.

February 23, 2015

How do I know what I know I know?

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Bee on a rose by lalylaura

Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would still smell just as sweet, but the rose as it is seen or smelled by a bee gathering pollen is very different from the Valentine rose I received .

This example of Immanuel Kant’s epistemology has had a very big influence on my understanding of the world.  Kant said was that what we perceive is always a result not just of the object we are perceiving, but also of the organism which is perceiving it.  There is no way, he argued, to get around that.  We will always be limited to perspectives we  are capable of taking.  So a color-blind person can’t see the difference between red and green.  He might believe other people when he is told there is a difference.  But  he cannot himself perceive it.  When I hear a foreign language, I don’t hear the meaning that someone who speaks that language can hear.

I am not a philosopher, however, and I was shocked to learn that Kant had also argued that music could never be anything more than entertainment, because it did not deal with ideas.  I am sure that any well-read philosopher knows this, but I had no idea Kant was such an intellectualizer.

This matters to me because I often intellectualize.  If I can’t think something through intellectually, I haven’t been convinced I know it.  I often haven’t, in other words, trusted my feelings or my intuition.

I love music, but it is only in my very adult years that I have come to appreciate that I learn something through music that I can’t learn by logic or by applying the scientific method.  The same can be said for all sorts of other kinds of experience which are not strictly-speaking rational or logically arrived at, or which I don’t have the opportunity to examine scientifically.  Being open to my intuitions has almost been like discovering a brand new universe.

I’m not suggesting that intuition is somehow better than scientific reasoning or logical conclusions.   But it is different.  We can understand differently depending on how we arrive there.

And both approaches are subject to error.  Our religious, ethical, or moral convictions may be based on intuition or reasoning.  Either way, we can be wrong.  Obviously sometimes we are, because not only do we personally sometimes change our minds, but the world even today is rife with examples of people defending with their very lives opposing beliefs and principles.  We know that sometimes, somebody is horribly wrong somewhere.

I am not a believer in any religion.  But I am beginning to wonder if we do not need what many people may call their religious convictions, and which I might, these days, call my intuitions.  This whole question of intuition and thinking seems to me to be related to the issue of science and religion.

A subject on which I suspect I am going to risk embarrassing myself by blogging in upcoming days.

December 23, 2014

Is there a Santa Claus?

I was raised as a Roman Catholic.  But my parents, and the priests and religious brothers who were in our house literally on at least a weekly basis all understood that something that is metaphorically true is no less true than something that is literally true.   I understood, for instance, that someone who might be  “A bright light” wasn’t someone you switched on to read in the dark.  But that did not reduce the value of the person’s gifts or make it less true.  Alternatively, someone who was “a pain in the neck,” was not a physical pain to be treated with an aspirin but an irritation on a psychological or social level.

Metaphorical truth on the religious level was no less elevated.  My favourite biblical metaphor was the injunction not to bury one’s talents, but to use them.  It never occurred to me that I was being exhorted to go out and literally bury something in the ground.  And if it had, the idea as I reached adulthood would have appeared childish, if not downright silly.

In many cases, metaphors are far more powerful than literal truth.  My wedding ring, for instance, is the most valuable piece of jewelry I own.  It’s not the most valuable in terms of money, but in terms of what it stands for – a lifetime commitment from a man who loves me.  I remember someone who put her hand on my shoulder when I spilled hot oil onto her legs when I was taking a roast out of the oven.  I was aghast.  “It’s all right,” that gesture said.  It was a metaphorical truth I still remember.

I remember these things because metaphors so often convey an emotional depth that literal fact does not.  They convey a strength and significance that gives them an endurance.

In this context, I think much of modern Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, robs its followers of its greatest gifts by insisting on literal interpretations of so many of its doctrines.  We’re coming up to Christmas, a feast of immense metaphorical potential.  Is it less powerful if there was no literal birth in a stable?  no star guiding three kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  No angels calling the shepherds to the manger? Is it less powerful if Mary was not literally a virgin?  Any parent with their newborn child in his or her arms knows that gold and singing angels are not literally needed to make those moments any more profound.

In truth, if so many biblical and doctrinal truths were understood as metaphorical truths, we would not in the modern world find ourselves so often scoffing in disbelief.  Instead, we could ask what the metaphorical meaning of the doctrines might mean, rather than struggling with the conflict between religious teaching and science, or the ridiculous conclusions so often required by a literal interpretation.

We could listen to the music, we could look at the art, we could listen to the stories and the poetry and be transformed by their beauty and hope.  And yes, their truth.

Yes, Virginia:  there is a Santa Claus.


November 11, 2014

Selling God

We get a lot of unsolicited calls at our door in this little village.  If it’s not a delivery of something we have ordered, it is inevitably a request for money or a workman offering to give us a price to pressure-wash our drive or roof, or do work on our garden.

Yesterday, when my husband answered the doorbell he was met by a well-dressed woman, probably in her mid-sixties, who spoke with a mid-west American accent.  She was carrying several bibles.  I was on my way out to the garden and so by chance was standing in the entrance hall.  The conversation went something like “Good morning, Sir.  It is a lovely morning, isn’t it?  I was wondering:  have you ever thought about what makes you happy?”

I let out a noise which can probably best be described as something between a cough and a snort.  My husband paused, and then said in a not-unlikely but firm voice “Go away.  Just go away.”  She smiled, replied “”All right.  Have a good day” and left.

I have been wondering what I would have said had I been the prime combatant – err, I mean conversationalist – at the door.  I would have been tempted to ask how anyone can sell happiness as a payment for Christian belief in a crucified Saviour.  Or I might have mentioned the quote from Aristotle taught to us as children by my father who said that happiness is a by-product, not something that can be acquired by going after it directly.  Or if I was really going to take her on, I might have mentioned that I was a psychologist, and thinking about what makes people happy is something I have done all my professional life.

Come to think of it, I think it was a good thing I wasn’t the one who answered the door.

What do you think?  What would you have said:  Have you ever thought about what makes you happy?

July 10, 2014

The peace of the incomprehensible

A friend sent me a reference to a series of books by Ilia Delio, which he said seemed to echo some of my ideas and which he thought I might like to read.  So I checked Delio out on Amazon and saw that the introductory quote in one of her books was Einstein’s “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

No.  I am among that group of scientists, including Stephen Hawking who believes that we will never reduce the universe to the totally comprehensible – that there is an infinity which we will never exhaust.

I find a deep and profound peace in that acceptance.  I don’t have all the answers;   I never will.  I live surrounded by mystery.  Somehow I am immensely comfortable here.  That knowledge and that peace is probably the single most important contribution to my coming to terms with my childhood socialization as a Roman Catholic.  There were several other significant steps as well.

One was the realization that the concept of matter as totally inert had been exploded with Einstein’s equation  e=mc2 – the equation that demonstrated that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  We know now that matter is not a passive blob sitting there until something else pushes it along.  Matter is a seething mass of movement and energy at its very core.

Why is this so exciting?  Well, for me, it brought the problem of the emergence of consciousness into the scientific world.  Even today, in my opinion, the single most important unresolved question for science is the fact that we have no idea how the brain produces something as seemingly immaterial as consciousness.  Consciousness in all of life is totally dependent on a functioning body.  Today through MRI scans, we are even learning some of the minute pathways in the brain that are activated by various kinds of consciousness.  But we do not have a theory about how this conversion takes place.   It is a parallel problem to the one we had when we used to think, less than two centuries ago, that matter and energy were two completely different things.  I do not have the answer to what many philosophers call “the mind-body problem” but I am convinced now that the answer lies in the natural world.

In other words, we do not have to have recourse to Plato’s “spiritual” world which Christianity eventually adopted as “heaven” and “hell,” populated by spiritual beings including God, the angels, and the souls of those who have died before us.  I remember the almost ecstatic feeling I had when I realized that I was already home in this universe.  I am not living in exile.  For all its pain and trouble and difficulties, I am already where I belong.   And whatever happens after death, I will not be spirited away into some another plain, to some ethereal heaven or fire of hell.  However it will happen, what I am will continue to evolve as part of this natural universe.

Another giant step in my coming to terms with Roman Catholicism was the discovery that the original meaning of “faith” as understood by the Hebrews and the early Christians did not reflect adherence to a strict set of doctrines, but is more accurately translated as “faithfulness.”  “Faithfulness” does not require that every one in the community always agree, or always accept the same doctrines.  This switch to belonging to the community based on faith as unquestioning acceptance of universal dogmas did not occur in the Christian church until the 4th century.  Until then, the  essence of the Christian message was that “the greatest of these is love,” that “we are no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female;  we are all one.”  In other words, we are all — all — in this together.  All of us in the human family.

Refusing to reduce faithfulness and universal love of all humanity to a set of doctrinal and liturgical rituals might diminish the power of religious leaders.  It certainly destroys the “one of us” attitude of so many religions, and the claims of any single religious tradition that it is the “one and only true church.”   Roman Catholicism with its proclivity today for excommunicating dissidents and its insistence on papal infallibility is benign compared to its torture and execution of those who refused to accept church authority for over a millennium until papal power was finally separated from the secular authority of the state.  But this commitment to literally killing those who disagree with us is still rife in the world today.  Turn on the news tonight and look at what is going on in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, even in the United States where some fundamentalists are trying to change the law to match their own religious beliefs.  In this war-torn, trigger-happy world, we badly need to understand the original Christian message that we are all one.
One doesn’t  have to be a Christian to understand that.  Unfortunately, the converse is also true:  one can think of oneself as a Christian and not understand it.


July 5, 2014

A heroic lesson still unlearned

The most frequently read post on this blog by far is the post  Why do abused children become abusers?    Why, I asked, are a disproportionate number of abusers people who have themselves been abused?  Would you not think that they, above all, would know how painful and destructive it is?  The key explanation seems to be that we don’t learn kindness and love through negative example.  We need to learn how to love from positive experience – at least from one other person in our lives for however short a time.

I have reflected on this fact again several times this week but especially this morning when I read that Israeli pathologists have announced that the Palestinian teenager kidnapped and murdered in an apparent revenge attack following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli boys last week, was burned alive.  Not just murdered.  Murdered in what must have been excruciating agony.

Would you not think that every Jew in the land, above all, would shudder at the horror of this act?  This is a people living in a land returned to them after the Holocaust, in which up to 8 million Jews were put into gas chambers for no other reason than that they were Jews.  This is a people whose by-word is “Never Again!”

This is not to suggest that the majority of the Israelis support this ghastly revenge.  I strongly suspect that the majority are as appalled as I am.

But how could there be a single Israeli who feels that this act is not abhorrent?

I think it is because kindness and love are not learned simply because one sees how terrible hatred and abuse can be.  Unfortunately, there is in all of us an instinctive desire for what we blindly call “justice,” a “tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.”

But history shows us it doesn’t work.  The legacy is bitterness and anger and an unending cycle of revenge.

It will not bring peace.

June 25, 2014

How we think about God

I have been introducing myself to a field of study called neurotheology.  It’s a relatively new field, made possible by our developing ability to study the brain.  Using magnetic resonance imaging  or MRI scans, it is possible to see which parts of the brain are operating in relation to different actions.   Different parts of the brain are activated, for instance, for analytical thought than are activated for strong emotions.  Nor do we use the same parts of the brain to see, to hear, to position ourselves in time and space.

Neurotheology is interested in how the brain is activated when a person meditates or thinks about God or other religious subjects.

This, as I have said, is a relatively new field, and the findings thus far, fascinating as they are, are still tentative, and should not be taken as “gospel truth.”  What does look pretty clear is that there is a relationship between the part of the brain that is active and a person’s concept or experience of some transcendent reality, whether it is called “nothingness”, or “god” or “the universe.”  This is accompanied by a loss of a sense of self, but a strong sense of interconnectedness of all existence.  During experiences like this, there is an increased activity of the limbic system which is connected with the experience of emotion, and a decreased activity in that part of the brain that we use to orient ourselves in time and space.

Interestingly, people who do not believe in any concept of God tend to have brains with highly active analytical areas, while at the other extreme, when people having what they describe as a religious experience and are speaking in tongues, analytical activity is almost completely replaced by an active limbic or emotional activity.

In addition, those who believe that God or other supernatural agents influence what happens in the time and space in which we live tend to use brain pathways often associated with fear.  Those who emphasize doctrinal believes use pathways primarily associated with language, while atheists favor visual pathways.

Similarly, the practice of religion often seems to be a healthy activity, leading to better mental, and physical health,  better social relationships and a sense of well-being.  Paradoxically, those who are “born again” religious converts often show signs of hippocampal atrophy leading to memory, dementia, depressions, and Alzheimer’s.

How strong any of these trends are is not clear.

In any case, our brains, formed by both genetics and the environment, are ultimately unique to each one of us.  Our experiences are highly individual — whether it be in relation to music or math, art or nature, hot or cold, men or women, colors or tastes.  It is no surprise, then, that individual experiences of transcendence, or concepts of divinity should be so varied.

There is a common mistake, however, made by both committed believers and non-believers.  That is the conclusion that if we can identify the parts of the brain that are associated with an experience of God, we can prove that “God” is no more than an illusion.  This isn’t so.  We don’t conclude that what we see is an illusion just because we know the part of the brain that is responsible for our experience of sight.  It is possible that God created humans with a brain that is capable of experiencing transcendent reality.

Each of us probably has a fairly strong opinion about this.  I know I do.  But I do know that if I want to prove my point, science, even neurotheology, can’t give me the indisputable evidence, whichever side I’m on.







April 22, 2014

“Forgive us as…”

For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy.  One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.

In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others.  In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father,  the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.”  But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.

Last week,  something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.

Maryam Hosseinzadeh, standing on a chair, slaps Balal.Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran.  Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged.  There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim.   The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck.  The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner.  She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!”  She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.

There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.

This story seems to have been in all the international news media.  But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless.  As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium.   Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart.  I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger.   And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.

But I have never known anyone who has achieved  it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice”  for the murder of her son.

I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.

But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.

April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates.   The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable.  The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.

I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible.  How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic?  The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.”  They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”

But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself.  Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of  Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”

In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught.  For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”

Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic?  It’s not that I don’t feel welcome.  It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, so sexually neurotic, so authoritarian.  But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off.   Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?

It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.  And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.

This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of  Christianity:  that we are all one.  We are all in this together.  Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners.  He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics.  I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists.  We are all of these things.  Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings.  All human beings.

This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion.  Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life.  Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures.  We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions.  But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness.  We have incalculable benefit  to gain from embracing our differences.

So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences.  It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other.  Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.

Am I, I wonder, a minority?


November 18, 2013

Christians and Catholics and everybody else


A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.

For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment.  Yes, I thought,  being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”

But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.

It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t.  I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.

Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications.  But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”

There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor.   Not all are religious.  NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion.  Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor.  Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue.  And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.

This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.

I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers.  Loving others might be a central value  of Christianity.  But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity.  Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour.  It’s just not the only one.

September 29, 2013

Why do I care at all?

A comment following my post yesterday asked why I care at all about what happens to the structure of the Roman Catholic church, or about whether it might change from bottom-up after changes from the top-down have clearly failed.

Actually, I wrote the post as a result of discovering yet another of my unrecognized Catholic assumptions.  You’d think after almost half a century during which I no longer considered myself a Catholic that I wouldn’t still be discovering ways in which I am unconsciously thinking like one.  But it was only when I heard someone express the view that if Pope Francis can’t change the Vatican-controlled structure of the church, he will be a failure that I recognized this same unspoken assumption in my own thinking.

A study of history shows that power is rarely yielded by those who hold it.  Cultural and social structures change when the people no longer recognize their authority as legitimate.  Why would the Roman Catholic church be any different?  It won’t.

Do I care?  I do not take my direction from the church.  But many people do, and in that sense, I care to the extent that any powerful institution is as bigoted and sexist as the Roman Catholic church so often is.  But I do not see myself involved in any attempts to try to change that particular institution – from below, from above, or from the outside.

One thing I do ponder occasionally, however, is the recognition that some of my values were rooted in my early socialization as a Catholic.  They are values like a respect for truth, for the rights of others, for the value of work.  Not uniquely Catholic or even Christian values.  But it is where I first learned them.

I am grateful.

September 28, 2013

Top-down or Bottom-up?

I said in a post last month that my worry about Pope Francis was that he would eventually be canonized as a saint, while the Vatican hierarchy itself proceeded in its autocratic ways unchanged.

But I’m not so sure about that.  Pope John XXIII tried the top-down method of reforming the church.  He called Vatican II, and all sort of suggestions for radical reform were heralded.  Then the pope died and for the last half century, the Vatican has systematically dismantled, ignored, over-ridden or distorted practically every reform suggested by Vatican II.  Meanwhile, the exodus from the RC Church has reached hundreds of thousands.

And so I’m wondering now if the mistake is expecting change to be mandated from the top, rather than from below.  Perhaps 50 years ago too many practicing Catholics expected it to be done for them, so that all they had to do was to continue to follow in humble obedience.

But several of the things Pope Francis has said and done suggest that he does not think this kind of blind obedience to church authority is any more Christian than blind obedience to civil authority.  The Nuremberg trials were based on the recognition that “I was only doing what I was told” is not an adequate justification for crimes against humanity.  In the end, we must refuse to follow commands against humanity no matter where they emanate from.

So when Pope Francis asks questions like the one he asked about homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”, is he not saying that the bottom line is not obedience even to church teaching?  is he not saying the bottom line is caring, love, respect for our fellow-man?  When some bishops and priests are welcoming divorced Catholics who have remarried to the communion alter, are they not saying that love is more important than obedience?  When theologians argue against excommunicating a nun working in an emergency ward for authorizing an abortion for a woman who had been raped in order to save the life of the mother, isn’t the fundamental principle one of love?  When millions of couples use birth control so that they can engage in sex without passing on the AIDS virus or having another child which they cannot feed or care for, isn’t it getting our priorities backwards to say that this expression of love must take second place to procreation under any circumstances?

I don’t know, but maybe what Pope Francis is saying is that “the greatest of these is love.”  That whatever we do, for a Christian it is love that is the bottom line.  It’s not doctrine, not obedience, not approval from the religious powers that be.  Of course, the hierarchical structure of the church needs fundamental change.  But perhaps it is only going to come from the bottom up.  That’s the way it was with the first Christians.

Hmmm.  I might even consider myself an aspiring Christian again.  Though I’m sure I couldn’t possibly get the Vatican’s acceptance.  I don’t think they could handle the scope of my disbelief.

Well, unless maybe if I met Pope Francis.  He did say recently he believed that many atheists were men and women of good will and didn’t suggest that their only future was the fire of hell.

August 13, 2013

The unfinished story

More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years.  Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y.  along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.

Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews  a long education.  It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and  I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be.  Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors?  Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor?  Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind.  Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.

As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily.   I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.”  Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries.  A few simply broke under the strain.  In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year.  Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old.  Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.

I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.

Summer in the City 1967What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place.  But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning.  Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent!  I wasn’t wrong.  The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor,  to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology.  But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person.  And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there.  They made a difference.  I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.

As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot.  They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know.  The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change.  It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.

But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops.  The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at  Maryknoll.  Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning.  Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it.  My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful.  But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.

Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming.  I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.

Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.

July 31, 2013

Poverty really isn’t good for us

There’s a column in The Economist this week reviewing a paper by an economics professor at Georgetown University on our changing attitudes toward poverty during the last four hundred years or so.

The thinking that dominated European thought between the 16th and 18th century was that poor people were an economic necessity f a society didn’t have slaves.  Who else would be the workers in the factories and fields if we wanted to keep things ticking over?

Given that they were economically necessary, there was not much appetite for improving their lot.  Even the Poor Laws designed in the 18th century were not really designed to help people get out of poverty, but just to help them survive shocks like failed harvests or unexpected illness.

I suppose it’s not surprising that the poor, by and large, were blamed for their own plight.  The comforting rationalization gradually emerged that people were poor because of their own flaws like laziness, alcoholism, and lack of discipline.  The clergyman Thomas Malthus popularized this view, which led to an adjustment of the Poor Laws making the workhouse the only option on the grounds that people shouldn’t be given money or food or even shelter if they wouldn’t work.

There are people alive today whose parents and relatives know what the workhouse was like, or who survived under exploitative factory regimes.  But in the 20th century these attitudes toward the poor began to change.  Researchers began to show that poverty really isn’t good for the economy at large.  Henry Ford exemplified this thinking, insisting that if his workers were paid enough to buy the cars they were helping to manufacture it would be beneficial for everybody.  And Karl Marx began to develop a theory whereby the workers themselves would take over ownership of the economies which depended on them – although in practice it didn’t work out that way.

For the West, the real game-changer was the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  People couldn’t get work no matter how hard they tried, and platitudes blaming the poor themselves stopped working.  In addition, it became increasingly apparent that high levels of poverty were a drain, not an engine, for economic growth.

Fascinatingly, though, it was not until the 1990’s that economists began to develop alternative models to Communism by which the poor could be helped to break out of poverty.  Researchers began to demonstrate that low levels of education, health, and nutrition rather than laziness and drunkenness often kept people in poverty.   As a result, countries now are changing their policies.  Brazil, for instance, gives poor people money as long as they send their children to school, or protect their health by having them vaccinated.

For me, reading this article was like opening up a huge window to let in the fresh air.  I found the analysis of poverty as an economic challenge much more liberating than the traditional schizophrenic view of Christianity in which the hierarchy live in palaces and dress up in gold and jewels to carry out religious ceremonies and in which the poor are kept in their place with charity and assurances that they are blessed.

Poverty, real poverty, is not a virtue.  That is not to say that avaricious materialism is not destructive.  I think it is.  But its alternative isn’t poverty.

I’ve always had doubts about giving money to charitable causes for anything but short-term help in emergencies.  I’d rather give to the Malala Fund or some other fund that provides education for those who otherwise could not get it.

July 25, 2013

Papal thumbs up

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:32 pm






I noticed on the news tonight that Pope Francis gave a blessing to a young boy in Brazil today, and followed it with a thumbs up sign.

I know it’s a long way off from carrying forward the Church reforms stalled after Vatican II.

But I have to admit it’s refreshing, coming from someone sitting in St. Peter’s chair.

July 17, 2013

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

A comment following my post two days ago “What’s good for the goose…” suggests that sometimes we are introduced to an idea that we somehow recognize without further analysis, that resonate with a depth that cannot be fully described.  As I said, I’ve had this experience in what we sometimes call “love at first sight.”  I’ve also had it in relation to music.  I can’t tell you why a piece speaks to me, or even put into words what it means.  But it is sometimes immensely powerful.

Ideas, on the other hand, rarely bowl me over in that way.  I love ideas, but I so often see their potential limitations that I am rarely stunned into silent awe.   “And the greatest of these is love,” probably belongs to that very small group of ideas that seem to reflect a transcendent truth.  And Chomsky’s exploration of the implications of Einstein’s e=mc2 which completely eliminates my need for another “spiritual” world beyond the world of energy and matter in which we exist.

Today I was introduced to a third idea that I find simply stunning.  It is an explanation of the “sin” committed by Adam and Eve which drove them out of Eden.  The Sin was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, an action which always mystified me.  Until now, I thought this sin was a violation of some supposed arbitrary rule like eating pork or having meat on Friday.  Or far more destructively, the sin was the desire to understand, a definition that in my view represented nothing more than the attempt by those in positions of power to maintain that power by keeping the “plebs” in a state of ignorance by naming the attempt to gain knowledge “hubris.”

But today I was introduced to a third possibility.  The sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is exactly that.  It is believing that we can judge who is bad and who is good.  It is believing that we know who is pleasing to God and who isn’t, who is on their way to hell and who is going to heaven.  It is knowing who the enemy is who deserves to be killed, it knowing what other people’s motives are, it is knowing who is “one of us,” and who isn’t.

Believing that we can make these kinds of judgements with accuracy and impunity is what destroyed life in the Garden of Eden.  It divided the human community into good and bad, into “us” and “them.”  It gave war and revenge a legitimate evil justification.  No wonder the authors of Genesis made this an idea of the devil.

I need to think about this more deeply, but I am wondering if ultimately Genesis sees a willingness to settle our differences through physical power rather than through listening and negotiation and compromise as THE great sin of mankind.

Is all war, then, always wrong?

I have been greatly influenced by World War II.  Could we, in all conscience, simply have let Hitler complete his ghastly work of ethnic cleansing?

Clearly Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, his “peace in our time,” was a charade.

But could we have, should we have, negotiated?  Could we, in the worst case, negotiated to accept all of the Jews and all the other people Hitler claimed were “inferior,” into our own countries?

And what of Afghanistan today?  From what I am reading, outsiders from the British, the French, the Russians, and now the Americans, have,  for centuries, misunderstood the tribes living there.  Today we Americans have vilified the Taliban, with the “knowledge” that they are evil.  It’s an attitude which is making negotiations with these “terrorists,” and  our withdrawal from Afghanistan extremely difficult.  Because we already know who is right.  We already know that anybody who disagrees with us are the “bad guys.”

Of course we have to live by principles, and by our convictions.

But eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil might just be that terrible sin of judgement by which we think we know not only ourselves but everybody else too.

What if we had the conviction that war is always a Great Sin, always the wrong way to solve our differences?  Yes, I know this is immensely idealistic.  But as an ideal, how does it stand up against the nuclear option?  or sending in “more troops”?  or “dying for one’s country”?

As I say, I need to think about this more.  But I’m stunned.

July 13, 2013

What’s good for the goose…

When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.

The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either.  Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.

This rarely  emerges as an urgent problem for most of us.  Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand.  I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch.   Some people do.  But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work.  Gravity is one example.  Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years.  We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics.  In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.

Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.”  They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence.  What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies.  God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him.  Others have a  more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description.  Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.

So I Got It Wrong

The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not.  I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.

I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight.  I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus.  Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.

But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are?  And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?

No.  Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.

Even if they do disagree with me.

June 13, 2013

What is a thought made of?

Someone just asked me what I thought about recent research strongly suggesting that the brain and thought are intrinsically related.  Is thought physical, he asked?  

This is cheating, I know, but this was my attempt to answer the question to the best of my ability:

Whew!  Do you know you are grappling with one of the biggest philosophical, theological, and scientific questions of all time.  In psychology it’s most often referred to as “the mind-body problem,” but the question goes back at least as far as Plato.

 Whatever it’s called, the question is whether consciousness/thought/learning/intelligence are intrinsically bodily processes?  and if they are, how is it that something that seems to have no physical characteristics can possibly be physical?  Thought, in any of its forms, does not seem to take up any space whatsoever.  And although a thought can be communicated, the word or message itself is not the thought itself.  In other words, thought seems to depend on the body, but it seems to be different from any other bodily process which we can observe.
Basically, there are three potential solutions to this conundrum:
The first is the one offered by Plato – that there are two completely separate worlds – the natural world and the world of pure ideas.  Despite the fact that the early Christians did not believe in another world, this is the solution evenually adopted by the Roman Catholic church and in which you and I were socialized as Catholics.  Plato’s world of ideas became the spiritual world inhabited by God, the angels, and all the human souls who have managed to make it out of purgatory and into heaven.  
The second solution came into its own with the scientific revolution.  Paradoxically, it was in an attempt to keep the Roman Catholic authorities happy by assuring them that science only dealt with the “natural world,” and that the spiritual world was still under the sole authority of the church.  But in the process of accepting this division, science accepted the assumption that matter is completely passive, moved only by external forces.  Given that understanding of matter, life itself and especially thinking seemed to belong to the spiritual world.  The idea of a soul still seemed logically necessary.  Some scientists in recent centuries, however, rejected both the idea of a separate spiritual world and the idea of a soul.  Since they couldn’t explain thought, they simply said it didn’t really exist – that it is an epi-phenomenon, rather like a shadow that is really only the reflection of other forces and not real in itself.
Since Einstein a third possibility has been increasing in popularity, and is one with which I myself have the most resonance.  Until just over a century ago, most scientists assumed that energy and matter were two different things.  But Einstein’s theory, with his equation E=mc2, demonstrates that energy and matter are two forms of the same thing.  In other words, matter is potentially dynamic.  It is not an inert blob passively sitting there waiting for something to push it.  Actually, there is no evidence that we have ever seen in the entire universe of this kind of complete inertness.  A stone that looks to us like it’s just sitting there is a seething mass on the atomic level.  Matter, even on the level of the smallest particles, is continuously interacting.  Development, then, is intrinsic in matter.  The emergence of life and of consciousness is built-in to the very nature of matter.
(Interestingly, this position  has a lot in common with the original Hebrew position, and some forms of paganism, especially animism.)
This latter position makes sense to me, but as you may have noticed it does not solve the mind-body problem.  We still don’t know how thought is related to the brain.  MRI studies show increasingly that the brain operates in different ways depending on the thought processes that are occurring.  We also know, of course, that if the brain stops functioning altogether, thought, and life itself ceases altogether as well.
My own assumption is that there is a relationship between mind and body parallel to the relationship between matter and energy – that they are different forms of the same thing.  But we don’t have a clue at this point what the nature of this relationship might be.  Some scientists see this question of consciousness as one of the most profound unanswered problems of modern science, far outstripping the Higgs Bosom.   How do bio-chemical processes produce something that seems as ethereal as thought?
I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years, and for a long time didn’t see how we could make sense of life if we abandoned the idea of a separate soul.  I don’t think that anymore.  
But as I say – it’s still an unsolved mystery.  
Take your pick.

June 11, 2013

Spot the difference

I remember as a child a game in which we tried to spot the difference between two drawings.  Below is a grown-up version making the rounds on the internet.
There are 6 differences that can be spotted, and two more the camera doesn’t catch.
1. The golden throne is replaced by a wooden chair …
something more appropriate for 

the disciple of a carpenter.
2. The gold-embroidered red stole,
heir of the Roman Empire, and the

red cape have been discarded .
3. The classic red Prada footwear are now just plain old black shoes.
4.  The cross in the second photo has no rubies or diamonds.
5.  There’s no red carpet in the second photo.  
Not apparent in the photos:
6.  the papal ring is gold in the first photo, silver in the second.  
7. And under the cassock in the second photo are black pants, a reminder that the wearer is another priest.
Have you guessed the 8th?  There’s a different man sitting there…
I would need an impossible doctrinal revolution to be re-converted.  But I’m glad for the differences.  It reflects, after all, the community into which I was born.

June 10, 2013

The liberty to think or the duty to believe?

For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was taught history from the perspective of Roman Catholicism.  That perspective was probably most influential in relation to the Tudor era of Henry VIII and his offspring Queens Mary and Elizabeth.  I have three brothers named after Catholic martyrs of this period – Thomas More, John Fischer, and Richard Reynolds.  According to the stories I was told, they were heroic martyrs who defended the True Church against the monarchs trying to displace the divine authority of Rome.  I had no idea that the “other side” also had an array of martyrs who had stood up against the Catholic regime.

The BBC right now is running a series of documentaries on this Tudor era.  Last night we watched the story of William Tyndale, the English priest who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English.

As a Maryknoll nun, I also fought for the right to read the bible privately instead of hearing it only read, usually by a priest who then explained to us what it meant. Since I had Vatican II as the justification for my argument, I was not burned at the stake for my views.  Instead we actually managed to convince our superiors to change their minds.  At the time, however, I had no appreciation of the depth that had caused the determination to keep the bible out of the hands of anyone but the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Tyndale was an ordained Roman Catholic priest educated at Oxford.  But he believed that the Word of God should be put into the hands “even of the plowman,” that God spoke directly to each of us, without the intervention of others.  Tyndale was vehemently opposed by both church and government authorities who argued that ordinary people would descend into lawlessness and chaos if they were permitted to interpret the Word of God on their own.  Tyndale was pursued and finally cornered by the arch-heretic hunter Thomas More (he who was himself to be beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn) who was one of the leading defenders of this religious “rule of law” view.

Besides that, over the years, the Roman Catholic Church had added a good deal of superfluous doctrine to scriptures – original sin, purgatory, ordination of priests, confession, and indulgences were doctrines added centuries after the scriptures were written.  But since people were not permitted to read the bible for themselves, few of them were aware that these were additions, and believed them to share the authority of sacred scriptures. Rome rightly feared that if the bible were to get into the hands of ordinary people – even into the hands of mere plowmen – the authority of Rome would be undermined.

But ultimately, after many struggles and persecutions, the King James Bible, which incorporated most of Tyndale’s elegant translations, was placed in every church in Britain.  Every one who could read was free to read it and draw inspiration from it.

It was, said Melvin Bragg, the triumph of “the liberty to think rather than the duty to believe.”  It was the triumph of individual conscience against even religious authority.  It was the triumph of the common, ordinary man.

It was also, I think, one of the foundation stones of democracy.  People not only could hear the word of God without depending on the interpretation of the authority of the church.  That same ordinary man, that same plowman, had a right to determine who was to govern the society of which he was a part.

I understand now why so many people were afraid that electing John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president in the US could spell the end of democracy as we knew it.  Their fear was unfounded.  But I understand now where it came from.

June 2, 2013

Everybody wins

I’ve just read an interview with Noam Chomsky in which he suggests that effective education doesn’t teach to tests, but teaches students to discuss and explore processes, events, issues, problems.

This reflects my own philosophy of education.  I never tried to teach my students the right answers.  Their grades didn’t depend on their agreeing with me or with any particular theory we might be studying.  Their grade depended on their ability to describe each theory, or each side of an issue, in a way that someone espousing that theory would agree fairly reflects their thinking.  Then, and only then, do I think we have the credentials to make our own decisions.

Every once in a while, a student would say he or she didn’t want to learn about some theory or other because he didn’t agree with it.

How in heavens’ name can we legitimately disagree with someone if we don’t know what they are saying?


I’ve once again gotten so excited about the value of understanding the points of view with which we disagree that I’ve even fantasized writing a book for teachers who are mandated by state law to teach both Darwin’s theory of evolution and Creationism.

What an incredible opportunity for a teacher in this position!

This is a topic about which feelings run so deep that they often suffocate rational discussion.  And I am not talking only about the view of Creationists.  I have met Evolutionists (with whom I happen to agree, by the way) who are as dogmatic, close-minded, and judgemental about Creationists as any one.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could learn in the classroom to take the alternative seriously, seriously enough to grapple with the legitimate claims of both sides?

Wouldn’t we have brighter students?  And would we have a society that is more tolerant of those with whom we disagree?


Oh no, I’m not going to write another book!  There’s too much work to do in the garden anyway.



May 15, 2013

Ignoring the question

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

When I was about ten years old, my brother Jack came home from first grade one afternoon, and told my mother that he had some homework.  It was, he said, to learn the first five questions of the catechism.

I’m sure by then my mother knew the first five questions by heart – Q:  “Who made you?”   A:  “God made me.”  Q:  “Who is God?”  A:  God is the infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving…” etc.  But she nonetheless sat down with Jack, opened his catechism and asked him:  “Who made you?”  “Who made you?” repeated Jack.  “That’s right,” my mother replied, “who made you?  What is the answer?”

“Oh, we don’t have to learn the answers,” Jack said.  “We just have to learn the questions.”

At the mature age of ten years, I thought this was so very funny.

But now I think how right this little brother of mine was.  As Roman Catholics, we belonged to the One and Only True Church, which in addition had just a century earlier infallibly declared itself infallible.  We had no need of questions;  we already had the answers.

And yet the questions are profound:  where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?  Oh, those questions are worth learning.  They are worth a lifetime of pondering.

What a terrible loss to learn to skip over them before we had barely reached the age of reason.

Jack was right:  we have to learn the questions.

April 29, 2013

The original garden view

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

I was taken aback when I was asked recently by a friend why anybody who doesn’t believe in God and in heaven and hell would bother trying to be good.  If there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward, why should we bother trying to be loving and generous?  Why bother being faithful and honest?  Why value truth above lies?

We’ve known each other for more than half our lives, and I thought my own answer to this question was clear:

Because human beings are happier if we love each other, if we are honest and truthful and trustworthy.

St. Augustine of Hippo concluded in the 4th century that the reason we humans suffer is because we are conceived in sin.  Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ate that forbidden apple, and God was so angry that He has punished every man, woman, and child ever since.  That, despite the fact that we are redeemed by the death of God’s own son.  We might be redeemed, but even innocent children are still being punished.

I don’t think that’s the meaning of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and I don’t think that’s the way the Hebrews, who did not believe in heaven and hell, understood its meaning.  I know that Augustine was trying to solve the problem of suffering, but he didn’t.  Turning God into an unforgiving, irrational tyrant doesn’t make sense.  Especially when at the same time one wants to argue that this is an all-powerful God of Love.

I think the Garden of Eden is a poetic answer to a question we all ask sooner or later – why is there so much suffering?  And I think the answer suggested by this ancient Hebraic parable is that we create much of our own suffering.  There are things we might want to do – figuratively eating the forbidden apple.  But if we do, we are ultimately going to be unhappy.  Profoundly unhappy.  Far more often than we want to admit, we create our own unhappiness.  We expel ourselves from paradise.  It is not God.  It is we ourselves who create our own hell.

I think Freud, who was Jewish, understood this.  As he was puzzling over patterns of unhappiness in people’s lives, he reached the conclusion that we so often are the authors of our own unhappiness.

It is Cain who murdered Abel, and the story is not that it made him happy.  So too, it is we who are bombing each other, it is we who are destroying so much of our environment, it is we who are untrustworthy, we who do not keep our promises.

It is we, not an eternally unforgiving God, who are the authors of much of our own discontent.




March 25, 2013

Serving the poor might be a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

The new Pope Francis said that he wanted to focus the church on service to the poor.  At first this sounds wonderful.  Which is why I’ve been trying to figure out why it is making me so uncomfortable.

First of all, I worry about defining the poor.  What qualifies someone as being poor enough to deserve service?  We are all poor in the sense that we all need each other.  We all need love and caring and forgiveness.  We all need to work with others – even when we work alone.  We need forgiveness, we need others to enjoy us, we need others to appreciate what we try to do for them.  We need them to remember us, we need them to share their insights and skills, we need support, even if it is to do no more than deliver our daily mail.  Or email and social network messages.  We all need that birthday card, that telephone call, that text message, that smile from a neighbor.

I also worry about this implication that I am a holier person, a better Christian, if I serve the poor.   Why?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am a creative physicist?  if I discover how to use electricity?  if I share a great musical talent?  or paint great pictures ?  if I develop a business that provides thousands of jobs?  If I am a dedicated teacher on a good salary?  Am I holier if I serve the poor than if I am myself poor?  Is being poor intrinsically better than being middle class?  or even a rich philanthropist?  Is it better for me to be poor or to serve the poor than to use my particular talents which may, actually, make a lot of money?

I worry too about what serving the poor as a primary focus pushes out of first place.  I’m afraid that a goal like “serving the poor” still  leaves too much room for discrimination – in terms of gender, ethnicity, color, religion, age.  Of course I’m not against helping the poor.  And I’m glad if a focus on serving the poor means that the Roman Church will be less obsessed with doctrinal issues like gay marriage, consenting homosexual relationships, birth control, papal infallibility, and the plethora of beliefs which the church has insisted are necessary for salvation, beliefs that seem to the Vatican are more critical to true Christianity than loving our fellow creatures.

But I’ve been around a long time, and I’m afraid it might not mean any of these things.

I would feel less uneasy if the pope had made love his primary focus.  That would not have excluded giving a loaf of bread to someone in need, it would not have excluded teaching, or caring for the sick.  But it would have been a great deal less patronizing.  Which ones of us want to be “served” because we are poor?   Look at the expression on the face of the young man whose foot is being kissed by the pope.  Perhaps I am projecting, but what I see on that face is the expression of someone who is not at all sure he’s not being used.  There’s no way I would want someone kissing my foot on the grounds that I’m among the needy poor.  It’s demeaning.

Love, as a primary focus, instead of serving the poor, also would have made it much more obvious that discrimination in relation someone who is of a different religious, sexual, or ethnic persuasion is against the basic Christian commitment above all to love.  It would not have distinguished between the poor and those who aren’t poor.  It would not have suggested to the Christian who is “serving the poor” that he or she is in some way superior to those being served.

No matter what our talents, what our economic condition, what our social status, we all need to serve and to be served, we all need to be needed.  And so I don’t like this materialist division between the poor and those who supposedly aren’t.

We are all in this together.  We need each other.

We all need to love and to be loved.





February 28, 2013

Who is this speaking, please?

I felt a certain admiration for Pope Benedict as I listened to his final address to the public in St. Peter’s Square.  He seemed remarkably honest about the problems in the Vatican which he felt he no longer had the energy to deal with.  I’ve watched a lot of high-achievers unable to recognize that they have passed their peak, that it is time to step down, and I thought there was a courageous honesty in that shy smile.

At the same time, something else bothered me.  Benedict kept talking about his following the voice of God, and urging his listeners to do the same.

But the age-old question remained un-addressed.  The RC Church teaches that we must follow our conscience, no matter how isolated it may make us, no matter what authorities may say, no matter what the cost.  So it is no defense that some action may have been legal, if at the same time it was immoral.  It was not a defense to say that one was ordered to shove 14 million people into gas chambers during World War II.  Or ordered by one’s husband to beat one’s one child to death.  It is not a defense simply to follow custom, even if it is a religious custom.

The question, though, is how one knows if what one is listening to is the voice of God.  Cromwell was convinced he was listening to the voice of God.  The man who shot President Reagan believed he had heard the voice of God telling him to do it.  Men and women put to death by the Inquisition of the Church died because they believed they had heard the voice of God.  Today thousands of terrorists believe they are being called by God to be martyrs.  Our own military personnel often believe that they are doing the work of God.

I can understand saying that I hope I am responding to the voice of God.  But that’s not what the pope said.  He said he was responding to the voice of God.  That sounds like a kind of arrogance to me that makes me very nervous.

It’s that attitude that makes it possible for Church officials to exercise power by decreeing that disagreeing with them is to disagree with God.  It’s the grounds on which even today priests and nuns have been silenced or excommunicated for disagreeing with the Vatican about married priests, or the ordination of women, or the literal truth of the virgin birth of Jesus, or the right of divorced people who have remarried to receive the sacraments.

February 12, 2013

That Tree of Knowledge

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 2:53 pm

Another blogger writing a series of thoughts on biblical stories asked last week about those two famous trees in the garden of Eden – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Why weren’t they just called the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death?

That tree of knowledge caused me a certain amount of consternation in my earlier days.  It was suggested to me more than once that using my intelligence was a sign of hubris and unwillingness to serve others with humility.  And indeed, it did seem to me that the Genesis story did teach that the pursuit of knowledge is what began the cascade of good and evil which ultimately leads to death.

Obviously I don’t agree with that interpretation.  But I don’t think either that is what the original story in Genesis was meant to convey at all.  First of all, I think the word “knowledge” does not refer to information or intelligence, but to behavior.  I think it is used here with the same meaning often used in the bible to refer to carnal knowledge – to “know” one’s wife is to have sexual intercourse with her.  In this case, I think the “knowledge” of good and evil refers to engaging in behaviors that are destructive.  Like Cain murdering Abel.

I’m not convinced either that the Genesis story meant to suggest that before Adam and Eve human death did not exist.  The Hebrews do not seem to have preached this.

My own view is that what Genesis was saying is that there is a kind of alienation from life  which the human kind of knowledge seems uniquely capable of creating.  In our religious, philosophical, and scientific pursuits, we often set ourselves apart and above every other being in the universe.  We separate ourselves, we see ourselves as totally different.  In this isolation, our individual death really is the end of everything.  We do not see ourselves as part of a larger world, as participating in a process that is far greater than our few measured years.

We also often cut ourselves off from learning from other life forms which have not tasted of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  All living beings do not flee death in terror.  Although I am in good health, as I am getting older, I can even feel a potential letting go in myself.  I have had the privilege of being with animals and with some humans as they have reached the end of their lives.  In both, I have sometimes seen a deep, almost transcendent, sense that it is time to go.  There has not been a terrified struggle, but a peaceful letting go, a sense that this part of the story is finished.

I’m not talking about the frenzied rush which engulfs living things faced with premature death.  I saw it in the spider which managed to get into my shower at eleven o’clock last night.  I saw it on the face of a woman today who thought she had stepped into the path of an on-coming car.  It is something that most of us have experienced in the face of grave danger.

I’m talking about the general knowledge that we are going to die some day in the unspecified future.  I’m not convinced that the fear that engulfs many people as a result of simply knowing that at some point this life is going to end is intrinsically “natural.”  It is a fear that comes with the tree of Knowledge.  But it’s not a tree of true Knowledge.  It’s a tree of denial, of false superiority, of losing contact with what we really are, and where we truly belong.

That tree of knowledge of good and evil is the Genesis explanation of death because it is a tree of alienation.  Metaphorically, it is we who walked out of the Garden of Eden, and are now spinning around in ungrounded fear.

But I think we can go home again.  I think we can learn again to love what we are and our place in the universe – however mysterious that is.

February 11, 2013

The resignation of the pope

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 5:25 pm

Benedict XVI announced today that he is resigning at the end of this month.  He said that he was too old to continue to do the job required of the pontiff.

If that is the real reason, I admire his capacity for self-knowledge.  It has seemed to me over the years that one of the great challenges of old age which too many of us fail is to recognize that we can’t do what we used to do.  We might have accomplished a great deal, we might have been great leaders in our fields of endeavour, our contributions may have been significant.

But no matter how large or small our achievements may have been, we do not stay at the top of our game.  Our physical and mental energies decrease.  We are not what we were.

And quite possibly, the higher up the tree one has climbed, the harder it is to recognize this.

So if Benedict has in truth been able to recognize that he simply no longer belongs in the position of leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, I think his decision is one that many of us need to emulate in our own small ways.

But of course in this age of lost innocence, one cannot help but wonder.  The popes have declared themselves infallible, but it has thus far been beyond even a pope to declare himself incorruptible, competent and wise.

Is there some scandal threatening to emerge, some new cover-up of hierarchical corruption, paedophilia, or hypocrisy that is what the pope really does not have the strength or courage to face?

I don’t know.  Obviously I don’t know.  I do hope this decision is one of humility and wisdom.  If it is, it may perhaps be one of the biggest benefits to the church of this pontiff’s reign.

February 10, 2013

The conundrum of freedom

In a recent post from the Writer’s Treehut, the author explores the question of free will.  He looks at how our ideas of free will have changed over time.  We no longer seriously accept “the devil made me do it,” as an explanation for behavior, for instance, and see “God told me to do it” as either unacceptable or insane.  Recent brain research, on the other hand, is suggesting that close to 90% of the activity of the brain does not reach consciousness.  Even more surprising is the discovery that most of the decisions which we think of as “conscious and deliberate” are accomplished in the brain before we are aware of it.

Much of modern thought on free will stands simultaneously on two opposing sides of the teeter totter.  With democracy, we defend the concepts of freedom and individual responsibility.  At the same time, we are faced with increasing evidence that we are not as in control of our own choices as we often think.

Almost everyone will agree that free will is not without its limits.  I cannot voluntarily kill myself by holding my breath.  I cannot jump out a fifth-floor window and fly safely to the ground.  I cannot survive without minimum amounts of food and drink.

But what about that huge grey area over which some people sometimes seem to be able to make choices and others cannot?  How long can I choose to stay awake?  What about the endless diets that are broken within days?  what about addictions to alcohol, caffeine, drugs?  What about breaking into a cold sweat in response to perceived danger?  Can we suppress that adrenalin rush supporting a flash of anger or sexual arousal?  Can I hide an embarrassing blush on my cheek?  or suppress an involuntary startle?

What about those responses which are learned from our culture?  What clothes I can remove in public without embarrassment is largely learned.  My sense of injustice is greatly influenced by religious and cultural values which I have been taught.  Food that I can eat without positively gagging is often determined by custom.  My beliefs about when I might legitimately kill another person, my response to rape, my evaluation even of the expression on a person’s face are learned.

And yet they all seem to become involuntary, beyond my conscious control and free will.

Since we are all different both in terms of our genetic inheritance, and our physical and social environmental histories, it seems to me it is simply impossible for us to judge just how responsible someone else is for their own behavior.  I don’t even know for sure just how free my own choices are in any particular circumstance.

Having said all that, I am not willing to make the jump made by so many liberal thinkers that we are all responsible for what happens to others.

It is not that I don’t think I could often live your life quite well enough.

But there is no way I want someone else to take responsibility for my choices.

Yes, I am grateful for advice.  Yes, I am hugely indebted to those in my lifetime who have given to me great gifts that I in no way deserved.  Yes, without the good fortune that has been granted me, I could be a far more vicious  self-serving, insensitive human being than in my worst moments I have perhaps sometimes been.

But you are not responsible for me.  And in the same sense, I am not responsible for you.

That does leave us a problem, though.  Societies cannot survive, human beings cannot live, without rather large swathes of behavior control.  Society must control the expression of some behaviors or cease to exist.

So do we hold those violators – mass murderers, for instance? – responsible?  Do we try to inhibit that kind of behavior through use of punishment?  Do we simply lock people up for their own and our safety, even if they are not “guilty” in the sense that they are not responsible for what they have, or might, do?

Personally, I think we each experience ourselves as making choices.  I think that experience is part of our survival mechanism.  But perhaps our free will is an illusion, in the same way our experience of  Earth as flat is an illusion.

Just how free we actually are is a fascinating question to which we haven’t a clear answer.  Maybe we don’t even have a clue.

January 22, 2013

Not sure I know what you mean…

So explain again how comparing apples and oranges is fruitless?

(Andertoons Comics)

Children don’t usually begin to understand metaphors much before the age of 6 or 7.  Until then, they tend to interpret everything they hear  solely in literalist terms.  I know a child who thought, when her mother said her dad was late for dinner because he was “tied up on the road” thought he has been delayed by men with ropes.

Similarly one of the most profound disagreements between fundamentalist and traditional Christians is whether the bible should always be understood literally or whether it is sometimes more accurate to interpret it metaphorically.

January 12, 2013

Poor me

I’ve just been given an insight that is so obvious I can’t believe I haven’t understood it before.  It’s about the Christian message to serve the poor.

Even as a young Maryknoller committed to working with the poor in undeveloped countries, I had a problem with this teaching.  It felt too much like bribery to me – this idea that we care for the needs of others and in return convert them to our religious beliefs.  Shouldn’t we, I thought, separate the two?  shouldn’t we either say we were trying to convert others or serve others, but make sure the two things were not associated together?  If we didn’t, wouldn’t people reasonably conclude that the Christian God offered both good fortune in this world, as well as in heaven?

What I have just realized is that “the poor” is all of us.  Serving the poor isn’t about economic poverty – it’s about noticing and caring and giving and sharing in relation to any need.  “The poor” aren’t just the sick or the disabled or the elderly.  They aren’t just children or those suffering grief or misfortune.  It’s not just those displaced by a tsunami or fire, not just the starving or refugees from war.

It’s also the well-off, the competent, the pillars of society too, people with full-time jobs with responsibility, who are in decent housing they can afford.  Because we all need kindness and compassion.  We all need companionship and appreciation for what we do.   We all get ourselves into messes and confusions and attacks of loneliness and regret and need help.

I find this idea liberating.  Even as I sit in front of my computer too expensive for many people in the world to afford, living in my centrally heated house with running hot and cold water, I too am among the poor.

Whatever kindness, however trivial, any of us engages in, is not less significant because we aren’t among the economically deprived.  We are each incomplete in many ways and we need others, perhaps not for money, but for love, for understanding, for respect, we need forgiveness,  to learn almost everything.  Even to want to live at all.

I’ve called this a Christian message, because that is the form in which I was introduced to it.  But it’s a human message.  It spans all religions and non-religions, in every human community that has ever existed.

We’re all poor in some critical way.  We all need each other.  Like it or not – and sometimes I admit I don’t – we’re all in this together.

December 20, 2012

God and the good life

We’ve been watching a BBC documentary about  how Rome became a Holy City.  It’s quite a surprising story.

It did not begin with Christianity, but with the Roman monarchy seven and a half centuries before Christ.  From the very beginning, Romans, like people world-wide, built temples to their gods who in turn looked after them.  As the Roman Empire expanded, the rulers had no problem with adding new gods to the pantheon as long as people were also willing to pay due worship to the Roman gods who were responsible for bestowing such success on Rome and the lands it ruled.

This system of broad tolerance worked well for more than 800 years.  But the Christians broke the rules.  They wouldn’t offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.  At first, this was not much more than an inconvenience to the Roman authorities.  Christianity was a lower-class minority religion of little influence.  Christians were martyred, but not with any particular focus, and it was not thought that the Roman gods would take offense and withdraw their favour bestowed on Rome for so long.

But gradually, the number of Christians began to increase in worrying numbers, and the authorities began to hunt and kill them in significant numbers.  But still the number of Christian converts kept increasing, and began to exercise worrying influence.


One of the chief reasons seems to be that the Christian God was making a better offer than the Roman gods.  The Roman Empire was experiencing increasing difficulties from attacking barbarians like the Goths, Burgundians, Franks, and Vandals.  The Roman gods seemed to be withdrawing their favour.  The Christian God, on the other hand, was offering eternal life.  No other God offered this.  Health and wealth in this life was no match for an unassailable promise of eternal happiness.  As Rome’s troubles increased, so did the converts to Christianity.

In the 4th century, Constantine switched gods.  Christian priests and bishops were given civil authority, they were moved into palaces befitting their new social status, and the promise of heaven and hell became part of the law-enforcement strategies of government.  Gradually the temples to the old gods of Rome were replaced with Christian churches, and a huge basilica was built to mark the place where St. Peter was martyred.  Eventually, the old gods faded from memory altogether.

Nobody shopped around any more for the god making the best offer.  There was only the one true God of Christianity.

The belief that a powerful God will look after his followers, however, has never disappeared.  Belief in the Christian God survived centuries of personal disease and death.  But when the Black Death swept repeatedly through Europe slaying the virtuous and sinners alike, faith in the Christian God was challenged.  Eventually, the monolithic authority of Rome was broken.

But not the belief that God looks after his own.  Protestants taught that salvation is a gift from God, not something we earn, but something we are given.  However, it was possible to tell if one was predestined for salvation, because those predestined to go to heaven were already being taken care of by God.  The Chosen had greater wealth, greater status, better health.  We could tell who the Great and the Good were.

This sense that God either does – or at least should! – take care of his followers has not died out today.   Many people believe that the Apocalypse will descend upon us and sweep away unbelievers.  Believers, however, will be saved.

Similarly, for many people, personal tragedy is still a threat to faith.  A friend here in England explained his loss of faith to me once.  Jesus was supposed to have died for our sins.  We are supposed to have been forgiven.  But the punishment goes on unabated.  His doctor, he said, was a better option than God.

I was taught from an early age that suffering was part of God’s inscrutable plan.  “I never promised you a rose garden” was part of the Christian message from the start.

That belief sustained me through some hard times when I was young.  But I was mystified by it by the time I was six years old, and I never understood it.  I guess a lot of people don’t either.



December 18, 2012

Christianity’s split personality

Christianity, it seems to me, has a deep split in relation to its view of poverty.

On the one hand, there is the sanctification of poverty.  Religious take vows of poverty, and the poverty of saints is often held up as an example of selflessness and holiness.  Giving up everything beyond the mere essentials required for survival is seen as the true wisdom.   Being poor, then, is seen as intrinsically valuable in itself.  Doing without, being hungry or cold, is virtuous.  This is more than a warning not to become obsessed with material wealth and the accumulation of things.  The rich man, the bible says, will find it as difficult to enter the gates of heaven as will the camel getting through the eye of the needle.  The poor are truly the humble saints among us.

At the same time, poverty is often used as the explanation, even the excuse, for anti-social or criminal behavior.  In a stance of patronizing arrogance, Christians often suggest that the poor should be forgiven, because poverty is the reason they are under-socialized.   Inequality, they lament, is the scandal, a profound unfairness that we must strive to overcome.

On the other hand, in a paradoxical contradiction, we praise the Great and the Good.  We bury them in our churches with great aplomb.  Christian leaders themselves parade in an astonishing array of material riches.  Bishops live in palaces, they carry gold sceptres and jewel-studded crosses, wear luxurious robes, and adorn churches with a display of great wealth.  Even those who take vows of poverty rarely know what it’s like to wonder where their next meal is going to come from or where they will lay down at night.  I know, because I lived an extraordinarily comfortable life under a vow of poverty.  I was never cold, I was never without access to running water, I was never denied medical help, I was never hungry.

Stripped of its religious aura, I think most people would agree that poverty is not in itself an indicator of either holiness or lack thereof.  Heroic generosity and selfless dedication reside among both the comfortably well-off and those with fewer material assets.   Yes, extreme poverty that denies people enough food and water, that prevents access to adequate medical care or security is something which we must strive to reduce and ultimately eliminate.  If we can cure or prevent it, we must try to do so.  By the same token, an obsession to acquire things, to have as much or more than one’s neighbours is equally not a formula for human fulfillment.  Money can solve some problems, but money will not of itself bring happiness nor is it a mark of virtue.

But is it easier to be holy if one is poor?  I doubt it.  Is it easier to be good if one is not poor?

I don’t know.  But I’m trying!



November 15, 2012

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

As a child I was taught that we are made in the image and likeness of God.
But as an adult, I think it is we who have usually made God in our image and likeness.

November 2, 2012

Are we all in this together?

Scholars have argued strenuously and publicly recently about whether we would be  better off without religion.  There are those who argue, on the one hand, that without religious values, we would have no enduring reason to be moral.  Others point to the wars and crimes perpetrated under the banner of religion and argue just as strongly that we would be better off without religion at all.

Both of these arguments assume that religion is a primary source of human behavior.  They assume that religion is the cause of much of what we do, that it is an primary basic controlling factor.

But I think the sociologist Max Weber was closer to the mark.  He argued that religion is a construction of society, and as such is as much a mirror of what we do as a cause.  In this sense, there is a close relationship between religious and political thought.  Both as individuals and as societies, we use religion to justify and explain to ourselves and others the things we do.  But they are things that we actually do for other reasons.   Most fundamentally, the primary motivation for are behaviors is survival.  We may label those reasons political or religious, and they are those things.  But the root goal of politics and of religion is survival, or elaborations of survival.

So if a society survives, it will have religious values that are good for that survival.  If a society does not survive, neither will its religion.  Cannibalism, for instance, even when practiced for religious reasons, has largely died out – either because societies engaging in the ritual eating of hearts and brains of those whom they admire have died out or because their religious beliefs have changed, perhaps with the arrival of missionaries.

With this view of religion in mind, it has occurred to me that there should be a positive correlation between the evolutionary principle of survival and the widely held religious principle of love.  Evolution says that we are driven by the innate energy which motivates us to survive.  Religions across the world teach that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

As we look at our planet today, it is becoming increasingly clear how much we are connected.  The effects of pollution or drought, of the success or failure of food production, of war, of inventions, of trade, of better communications, of cooperation across borders, or disruptive weather patterns all reach across borders.  We don’t live in our houses independent of others.  We cannot survive without other humans, other animals, other plants, even without billions and billions of organisms on which we depend mostly without even knowing it.

Loving and taking care of each other and of the entire living world is indeed a survival mechanism.  God’s mandate to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is perhaps more relevant in this 21st century than ever before.

We are all in this together.  Much as we might like to think it all depends on the individual, it is patently obvious that it does not.  We can’t survive without taking care of the whole.

So loving our neighbor isn’t just a charitable thing to do.  It’s a self-serving survival act as well.

November 1, 2012

The message of the witches

I’ve learned more about the history of Halloween and witches, and read more about witches today than I have in a whole life time.  I will link to some of writing I’ve found most provocative because they are worth going to.  Here are some of the things I have found most fascinating.

When I went trick or treating as a child, I was told Halloween began as a day in which people who had died and gone to purgatory came to our doors to beg for prayers in order to be in heaven to celebrate All Saints Day the following morning.  I recently learned that the custom had come to America from Ireland, and I myself have seen it return to this side of the pond almost certainly as a commercial holiday to fill in the space between the end of summer and Christmas.  Until the last 20 years, few farmers even grew pumpkins here in England, and when they first began to appear in supermarkets,  nobody knew how to cook them.

Now I have been astonished to learn that, like Christmas, Halloween was a pagan feast converted by the Roman church to fit Christian theology.  For the Druids it was a Festival of the Dead, and it remained full of dread until modern times.

The origin of witches goes back much further even than the Druids.  “Witch” is a derivative of the word “widow,” and the world over, women who survived their husbands were viewed with fear and suspicion.   Even the wives of gods were potential witches. Kali, the wife of the Hindu god Shiva is pictured with withered skin and dressed in black.  In earthly life,  widows were typically cast out with no community support.  Even in modern times in the Western world, wives could be left outcasts and penniless if their husbands died before them.  Widowed women, therefore, in order to survive often resorted to helping others.   That help might be in the form of potions, some mere placebos, some effective, some deadly.  Witches were sometimes sought to cast spells on enemies, and predict the future.  A mixture of fear and belief made a witch’s life style a dangerous one.

What of witches today?  Germaine Greer  has a warning more terrifying than any Halloween story.  Stephen Hawking, the renown physicist at Cambridge, warns that humans are destroying earth’s environment and will not survive another thousand years if we do not colonize another planet.  Greer points out that life on this planet, from microbes to humans, are interconnected.  We cannot survive without the support of an incredibly complex system beginning with microbes, which support plant life, which are essential for animal life.  Another planet, she points out, will not come equipped with the support system we need.

The really scary Halloween story is how desperately we need to care for our planet.

October 20, 2012

The blind spot in deduction

I suggested in my last post that the use of deductive thought as a result of my socialization as a Catholic had limited the scope of my thinking.  Before I elaborate on this, let me make it clear that both deductive and inductive thought are legitimate forms of reasoning, and both are used every day in almost every walk of life.  So what’s the difference?

To perhaps over-simplify somewhat, deductive thought works by starting with the Right Answer (or General Principles, or Theory), and then explains why it is so.  This is a perfectly respectable and valid method of reasoning for many situations.  I can state categorically, for instance, that the fire in my fireplace is always hot.  And it is possible to show why it must be so.  Or I can say that a my car will not run when there is no gas in the tank; and I can then explain why and how gas is the car’s source of energy, and won’t run if I put water in the tank instead.  Or I may start out with the Right Answer that the sun moves everyday around the world, because every day of my life I have seen it come up and move across the sky to the other side.

Inductive reasoning works the other way around.  It starts out with the observation and then tries to explain why or how it is so.   Instead of beginning with the answer, it begins with the observation which it then tries to explain.  This is the classic method used by science.  Copernicus, for instance, did not begin with the assumption that the sun moved around the earth.  He began with his observations of movements in both the day and night sky, and concluded that the theory that earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around explained our observations better and with fewer contradictions.

It is worth while pointing out that once a scientific theory is accepted, it is then often tested using deductive reasoning.  The theory is treated like the Right Answer.  But if, as often happens, subsequent observations are not in line with what the theory predicts should be observed, it is the theory, not the observation, that is discarded.  That is why the history of science is strewn with answers that for years, sometimes even for centuries, were accepted as valid, accepted as facts, but which are now discarded.  Newton’s concept of gravity is a classic example.   Scientists still talk about gravity, but with Einstein’s theory of relativity, how it works and what it actually is changed so fundamentally that it barely resembles Newton’s original theory.

Deductive thought was given its prominence in Catholic theological thinking by Thomas Aquinas who was trying to show that Aristotle’s deductive reasoning need not be feared by the Catholic authorities, who until then, had forbidden believers to read Aristotle.

Thomas of Aquinas used this method by making a theological belief the initial Right Answer, which he then defended using deductive reasoning.  For example: He began with the statement that  There is a God,  and  then went on to offer his “proofs”  showing that this must be so.

There is a critical difference, however, between the use of deductive reasoning used to examine religious belief and deductive reasoning used to examine scientific facts rooted in theory.  If our observations contradict theory, scientists question the theory, that is they question the original Right Answer.  Theological thought assumes that their initial Right Answers are infallible and in the face of observations that seem to contradict that Answer, do not question its validity.

This is how I was taught to think.  And I was pretty good at it.   The Church told me what the right answers were, and I was able to explain why those answers had to be right.  I could explain why unbaptized babies could never go to heaven and had to be satisfied with a place called Limbo.  I could explain why abortion was always murder but war and capital punishment weren’t.  I could explain why adultery or suicide could never be sanctioned, and homosexuality was “unnatural.”  I got a lot of positive feedback, because I was better than average at this kind of reasoning.

The problem was that I never questioned the initial Right Answer.  I only learned to defend it.

Once again, that resulted in my downgrading what I observed.  When my superiors at Maryknoll asked me if I was happy there, I knew the “right” answer was yes.  I didn’t stop to reflect for as much as five minutes about how I actually felt.  (And in retrospect, there was a great deal of evidence that how I felt was not happy.)  I did not take seriously the beauty around me, the pleasures that were so plentifully provided, I certainly did not experience awe or delight in any of the incredible things about life that I was learning in biology or chemistry, or merely looking up at the sky.

For me, the only real mysteries worth contemplating were mysteries like the virgin birth, or the three persons in one god, or the resurrection.

Today these mysteries fall flat.  They do not fill me with the awe or exhilaration or even the peace that mysteries surrounding me every day can do.  I look at a bug crawling along the ceiling and am amazed.  I look at the tenacity of life reflected in the weeds in my garden, and am thrilled.  And of course there is the Big Bang and Quantum Physics and Mozart and ee cummings and the absolutely explosive joy of being alive, of being loved, of loving.


October 18, 2012

My Catholic thinking, part 1

I have recently read a short book “Belief or Nonbelief,” a dialogue between the renowned author/philosopher/ex-Catholic Umberto Eco and Cardinal Carlo Martini, now-diseased liberal archbishop of Milan and friend of Pope John XXII.  Martini is the cardinal who said shortly before his death that the Roman Catholic church was three centuries out of date, and needed to rethink, among other things, its position on abortion.

The dialogue between these two men was refreshing in its openness and respect for each other’s opinions.  Both were educated, and able to listen with a sincerely open interest in the other’s point of view.  Until I got to the last chapter I didn’t find anything terribly surprising.

But in the last question, Martini asked Eco how it was possible for him to have a set of moral principles not grounded in the belief in a personal God.  How, he asked, could the moral values of a non-believer withstand the grave temptations that face so many people in life?  Martini was not questioning that non-believers do often indeed stand up for moral principles with a strength that rivals that of any Christian saint.  But he just couldn’t understand it.  Why?  he asks, What for?  Why would a non-believer not simply plum for the pleasures of the here and now, and what is best for him personally, whatever the effects it may have on others?

I was shocked by Martini’s incomprehension, and have been trying to understand it.  Martini is now dead, so analyzing his thought is fairly irrelevant.  But I can analyze my own Catholic socialization and assumptions, and I think I can understand Martini’s mystification.

There are two things I would point to, both of which I think tend to separate the Catholic intellectual from actually living in this world, from embracing it, from experiencing its incredible mystery.  Not all Catholics think this way, nor do only Catholics think this way.  But it characterizes the Catholic intellectual and theological analysis par excellence and is reflected in the thinking of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Vatican teaching.

The first factor is the dualism of a Platonic world view that Christianity espoused by the end of the third century.  This world of matter, for Platonic Christians, is not the real world we should take account of.  What counts is the spiritual world from which truth and beauty emanate and where our destiny lies.  This material world is but an inferior, even sin-filled shadow, with the beguiling pleasures that constantly tempt us to turn our gaze from the divine to the mundanely human.  Because many Christians think of it as inferior, we disregard our worldly experience, and don’t look for truth and beauty here.   And so we don’t see it.  And not surprisingly, we don’t find it.

So this platonic dualism keeps us from looking for truth in this world.  I think Martini didn’t see it because he never took it seriously enough.  I might be wrong.  But I’ve been there.  I’ve looked at worldly beauty and earthly pleasures with a hands-off disdain, rather as if it were a version of fast-food that some people consume instead of “real” food which is what is really good for us.  Whatever allure the world offered was at best second-rate.  If I wanted the real thing, I had to look elsewhere.

The second factor I think in Martini’s inability to understand how a non-believer could be truly moral lies in the difference between deductive and inductive thought, a factor that for me was, I think, even more alienating than Plato’s dualism.

But this is enough for this post.  I will explore in my next how I think an over-emphasis on deductive thought over-developed half my brain, and left the other half unused.


October 10, 2012

Original Sin as a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:00 pm
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Raised as a Catholic as I was, I was taught that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve stained the soul of every human being ever born.  As a child, I thought of it as a big black mark streaked across my soul which was a sort of diamond-shaped translucent light somewhere around my heart.  Since I had been baptized, the streak wasn’t so black anymore, but the stain was still there.  I was still fundamentally and inescapably a sinner, potentially a bad person caring more about myself than about God.

With the biblical studies we received at Maryknoll, I did come to understand that the Hebrews saw the story in Genesis as a metaphor, as an expression of a sense that somehow something seemed wrong with the world.  But for the millennia in which it was solely their Holy Book, the Hebrews did not see it as a story about original sin.

The theory of original sin as it is presently taught by the Roman Catholic church was developed not by Jesus, but by Augustine, a 4th century Roman convert who was trying to explain, above all, his own sexual lust which tormented him apparently relentlessly.   With the adaptation of Christianity as the official Roman religion, the celebration of communion was no longer a coming together of the faithful to witness to their faith.  Instead, the communion table was transformed into a sacrificial altar in which the faithful were reminded that we are all sinners redeemed by the death of Jesus.  We were guilty of that death, and if God the Father had not been propitiated by the execution of his Son, we would have had to serve an eternal punishment for our sins.  As it was, we were fortunate that we only have to suffer while we are still on Earth.

With time, I dismissed the theory of original sin as a misunderstood literalist interpretation of Genesis which nonetheless proved useful for those wishing to convince us of the fundamental sinfulness of human beings.  Original sin is pagan in its origins, developed by people trying to understand why they were being punished by natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts, illness and fire, starvation and disease.  But today, it is a manifestation of hubris.  It assumes that we humans are responsible for everything that happens in the universe, a view of human control which would be laughable if it weren’t so delusional.

As I recently finished reading Tony Equale’s Religion in a material universe,  it dawned on me that this idea of original sin is still more pervasive and destructive in Western thought than I’ve appreciated.  How often we explain behavior that seems gratuitously cruel or blatantly unfair as a result of inherent sinfulness   or selfishness that the person has failed to overcome?  Judges not infrequently will sentence prisoners found guilty of some particularly heinous and inexplicable crime as “evil.”  The death penalty is often justified on the ground that the perpetrator is irredeemable.

I don’t think that’s how it is.  This might sound bonkers, but I think we are all doing the best we can.  I’m not advocating some poly-anna free-for-all tolerance when I say that.  But I am saying that we would be much better off trying to understand why we and others do the things we do before we start trying to change them or ourselves by whipping the sinfulness out of our systems. If sinfulness isn’t the problem, then whipping it out isn’t going to be the solution.

My own hypotheses about this question at the moment is rather Buddhist:  we are incomplete.  I come to that from an extrapolation, though, of what I know about evolution.   Like all other organisms that we have ever encountered, we are driven by a survival mechanism.  To live is our first and foremost drive.  And life is our first and foremost responsibility.  Not always our own lives, which we may endanger for the sake of others.  But nonetheless, life is our highest value, driven by an inescapable impulse to preserve it.

If we start out with this assumption – that survival, not sinfulness – is our most fundamental impulse, we will approach our own behavior and that of others from quite a different perspective, with different questions and searching for different answers.

Okay, I wake up in the morning, turn on the news, and sometimes everything looks so horribly bad.  Sometimes it looks as if we are nothing besides stupid, and self-serving, and violent, and arrogant, and bigoted.  Sometimes resident evil looks more than proven by the manifest evidence.

But I do think that’s the wrong end of the stick.

And the more we believe it, the less we are going to be able to bring our best talents and abilities to address the real world in which we find ourselves.

October 4, 2012

Blessed are the poor?

I think sometimes that modern Christianity has a slightly schizophrenic attitude toward the poor.

On the one hand, religious men and women often take vows of poverty, and even though this rarely entails real deep poverty, it is a statement that poverty is a desirable condition that aids in achieving sanctity.

And we often castigate the rich for the very fact that they are rich.  After all, as Jesus said, it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter heaven.

So Christians often feel a duty to try to help the poor and to reduce poverty.  They rail at inequality and the injustice they think this reflects.  They set up charities, send food and clothes, run schools and hospitals, and will even dedicate their entire lives to reduce poverty.

Poverty, though, is also offered as the explanation for levels of crime in poor areas that occur with less frequency in more affluent areas.  So although maybe it’s not all their fault, poor people should not be judged in the same way for their offenses as those who aren’t poor.  Apparently poverty might corrupt, but the poor aren’t as guilty as those who do the same thing when they aren’t poor.

I think the assumption that poor people commit more crimes than people who aren’t poor is not substantiated by the facts, and in any case is an insult to the poor.  But many people think they are being charitable by saying that it is poverty makes us more likely to steal, to commit violent crimes, etc.

I’m certainly in favor of eliminating destitute poverty and starvation in the world.  In fact, I wish many religious leaders were a little less concerned with short-term charity and more informed about economics and with building systems in which people have gainful and meaningful work throughout their lives.  Being unable to find work when one can work impresses me as terrible as grave illness.  Getting short-term help in an emergency is tremendously valuable.  But it’s not a long-term solution.

I think that it is better not to turn poverty into a virtue or lack of it into selfishness.

This post also offer a little admiration for economists.  They are not all out there to make millions of dollars for themselves in short-term bonuses.  Many economists really are struggling with understanding how to provide food and clothing, education, and opportunity for everyone.

I think Bill Clinton was right.  “It’s the economy, stupid.”

October 2, 2012

Why I’m (not) a Catholic or a Muslim or an Aboriginine either

Following my post last week, “Is it a spiritual problem?” one reader commented with a description of some grass-roots Catholics whose generosity and dedication is life-long and outstanding.   “It’s why,” she said, “I’m still a Catholic.”

I too know Catholics whose generosity and selfless concern for others is humbling.  Given my background, I may, in fact, know more such Catholic men and women around the world than most.  Why, then, am I not still a Catholic?  I’m not even still a Christian in terms of doctrinal belief.

There are two significant reasons.  The first is that, not only do I know many dedicated and loving Catholics.  I also know many dedicated and loving Muslims.  And many dedicated and loving Jews.  And I have no doubt that there are many dedicated and loving Buddhists and Communists and Aboriginine Australians.  Why then, aren’t I a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew?

Because although there are loving Catholics, it isn’t being a Catholic that makes people loving.  In fact, one will find this selflessness among any group of people who have survived more than a generation or two.  Because our very survival in human society requires some degree of altruism, of unearned generosity, or unconditional love.

I think it is a very dangerous conclusion to believe that it is being a Catholic (or a Muslim or Buddhist or…etc) that makes me or anyone else morally good.  Because it is a small step that millions of believers have taken over the centuries to conclude that my group is superior to all those who do not belong.

Our world is rife today with people of every persuasion who think that their beliefs make them better than everybody who does not share them.  Christians and Islamists  in particular today, are killing each other with the conviction that they are doing the will of God, that they are doing something heroic, that they are even laying down their lives for a cause worth dying for.  Depending on who is doing the labeling, we might call them terrorists or martyrs, holy or evil, heroic or damned.

That brings me to the second reason why I’m not still a Christian in terms of religious belief (although I strive to be “Christian” in the sense that it means I care about and respect all fellow human beings).  There are many Christian dogmas that I believe are positively destructive.  I don’t mean they are unscientific or superstitious.  I mean I believe some teachings are positively destructive.  And I would say the same thing about many Muslim beliefs, and many other religious beliefs as well.

But that is a topic for another post.

September 25, 2012

Is it a spiritual problem?

Some time ago a neighbor who is active in her local church asked me why I never attended Sunday services.  I paused to frame my answer in such a way as not to suggest that I think every religious believer reflects the power-hungry hypocrisy of the institutional church or believes all the doctrinal teachings which seem to reflect a scientific view four centuries out of date.

Misunderstanding my hesitation, she suggested sympathetically “Is it a spiritual problem, dear?”

I thought at that point that I’d rather try to explain quantum physics to a six-year-old than explain my problem with religion.  I mumbled something about the problem of evil, which is indeed the core of my difficulty, but which was philosophical enough to end the conversation, and we moved on to safer ground.

Asked that question by a believer today, I would not be quite so dumbfounded.  I would give examples instead to illustrate my problem.

The first might be a recent decree by the Roman Catholic bishops of Germany that Catholics who do not continue to pay a mandated 8% tax to the church will no longer be permitted to receive Holy Communion or to be buried in a Catholic cemetery.  In other words, if you can’t – or won’t – pay for it, salvation isn’t on offer.  How can the bishops possibly rationalize this as a manifestation Christian charity?   Jesus said to his disciples when they asked how one knew who to follow “By their fruits you will know them.”  In other words, look at how they live, how they treat their fellow-man, not at what they say.

Truly, truly, I can usually figure out some explanation that makes sense for a point of view even if I don’t agree with it, but this decree is completely outflanking me.  If anyone reading this can offer a Christian justification for a decree like this, please,  consider adding it as a comment to this post.  I promise it will be read with a serious intent to understand (if not with a promise to agree).

To scandalize me further, I have recently discovered that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by the Vatican in 1992, the account of the fall in Genesis refers to a real primeval event that took place at the beginning of the history of man.  Since then, “history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.”  In addition, the Catechism decrees that the fall of the angels was also a real event, which is why there are now real devils still led by the arch-devil Satan. Between them, these two events can explain many of our gravest sufferings, including physical disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and ultimately of the fact that each of us is destined to die.  Death, the church teaches, is a punishment for these original sins.  Before that, humans were destined never to die.

Some people – many of whom I count among my friends – can attend church and are not as disoriented or perturbed as I am by decrees such as those of the German bishops or teachings such as those of the Roman Catholic catechism.  But I am.  I cannot be inspired by hymns and rituals reflecting attitudes and behaviors like these.  They don’t help me love my fellow-man.  On a good day I am patronizing and isolated.  On bad days I’m furious.

So is it a spiritual problem, dear?  Yes, but not, I think, what my neighbour meant.


August 10, 2012

Where does morality come from?

Is it possible for people who are not religious, who do not believe in God or in life after death still be moral?  Without religion and the fear of hell or promise of eternal happiness, where is the bedrock of morality?

Although religion often supports moral principles, I think moral principles come from a deeper dimension which may be reflected and strengthened by religion but do not originate there.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist at Harvard, provided evidence that for me is convincing that moral development follows a similar pattern in all the world’s great religions and philosophies.  His theory builds on Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which shows how human thinking develops in three main stages from birth through adulthood.  So does moral reasoning.

As young children, our thinking is concrete, egocentric, and immediate. What is in front of us is what is most important.  Our behavior, therefore, is influenced by what happens when we do or don’t do something.  In other words, by reward and punishment.

Gradually, though, we become aware that other people have thoughts and feelings too, and that what they think about us can have important implications for getting what we want.  In other words, we become more socialized, and what other people may think of us and respond to us begins to influence us.  We may bring our mother flowers to please her, and learn to say please and thank you because it’s the polite thing to do which will lead to social approval.

Finally as adolescents and adults we become capable of thinking abstractly.  We develop a respect for law and order not just to avoid punishment, but because we appreciate that we need rules and laws to get along.  We can’t even play a game of baseball without agreed rules.   The highest level of moral reasoning, is based on abstract principles.  These are principles like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I said in an earlier post that I once seriously examined the possibility of murdering someone.  In the end, I did not do it.  Not out of fear of eternal punishment or even of being caught and punished in this world, because I thought there was a pretty good chance I could get away with it.  In the end, I did not do it because I believed that under the circumstances I did not have the right to end this person’s life.

I do not think that taking someone’s life is always wrong.  I do not believe it is wrong if I am defending my own life or that of someone else whose own life is being unjustly attacked and when killing the attacker seems to be the only way of defending the person being attacked.  It seems to me that killing someone else in war can sometimes be justified (though not nearly as often as we do so).

I think these apparently contradictory positions — that sometimes it is wrong and sometimes it is right to kill somebody — arise from a single principle, which is paradoxically, a respect for life.

In fact, I think a respect for life, even a respect for everything that is, for everything that exists, for everything that has been created, if you will, is the essence of morality.

But how to apply this principle is, to say the least, often very tricky.  It might sound simple and straight-forward, but situations are often so multi-faceted and human ignorance so profound that sometimes we simply do not know what is best.

Some religions try to get around it by making absolute rules.  But that doesn’t work.  Lying isn’t always wrong, just as telling the whole truth isn’t always the best way to witness to the truth.   Stealing isn’t always wrong.  Murder isn’t always wrong.

But where does this underlying moral principle come from, this fundamental respect for what is, that seems to emerge around the world?  I think it comes from the very nature of the universe.  Science has shown an increasing movement toward greater integration and co-ordination, even cooperation,  since the Big Bang (which is as far back as we can see at the moment).  It is most apparent in the evolution of life, from the single-celled bacteria to human beings like us.  There are a lot of side-shoots, failures, and mass extinctions.  But the process is not reverting to disorganized chaos.

I think the essential impulse to respect what is lies at the heart of the universe.

I suppose, therefore, that though it may thrill us, it should not surprise us to see altruistic behavior in life forms besides ours.  We know now that trees communicate with each other when they are threatened with disease, which enables them to arm themselves.  Dolphins save human swimmers from shark attacks, a bear will share his dinner with a starving cat, a rhinoceros swims to the edge of the lake every morning for a deer to clean his teeth.

So did the religion in which I was raised and in which I no longer believe play a part in the development of whatever moral principles I may have?  Undoubtedly.  Without those discussions around the dinner table, my moral reasoning would be stunted.  Without the examples of courage and generosity which surrounded me, I would be a different kind of person than I am.

But what I kept is not religion.  What I kept was a respect for life.  For what is.

August 4, 2012

The uncertainty of religious certainty

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:36 pm

Faith is by definition the decision to accept without empirical evidence that something as true.  In fact, it’s not just a decision.  It’s a commitment to live one’s life based on the conviction that these unproven beliefs are true.

The debate about the relationship between reason and revelation has been going on in the Western world for almost a millennium.  My thoughts here are obviously not original or even blazingly convincing to everyone.  Personally, I think I probably would have made a very good Lutheran  because Luther argued that doubt is an essential component of faith.

Do we need to make decisions in life, to have convictions and values which are not based on incontrovertible evidence?  In practice, I can’t see how we can do otherwise.  The situations we face are unique, and always will be, and some of the most significant are beyond the scope of reason or science, including most notably questions about what happens after we die, and whether life has any ultimate meaning at all  Science, previous experience, research, the wisdom of others can help us think about these questions.  But they can’t provide absolute certainty.  Neither can religious belief.  We very often must make leaps in the dark.

It is an act of the very reason with which humans are endowed, to question whether the particular truths which we choose to accept are indeed true, or whether they are beliefs about which we may be wrong.  Religion teaches that faith is not a rational achievement but a gift from God.

It might be easy to conclude that our own beliefs are a result of divine revelation if all religions arrived at the same “truths.”  But they don’t.  Different religions often teach contradictory “truths.”   How do we know that our religious beliefs, like our secular beliefs, are not the result of the time in which we live, our socialization and culture, our education, even our personal predispositions?  I can’t see how we can.  Doubt, as Luther said, is an intrinsic aspect of faith.

Much of Christianity today is convulsed by the controversy over whether what we believe or what we do constitutes the essence of Christian revelation.  The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church are not the only leaders of Christian religions to argue that what we think – the dogmas we believe – is essential to salvation.  What we do, how we behave, can be forgiven in confession and so even sinners who repent can gain salvation. But there is no salvation for those who refuse to accept the dogmas of Christianity.

To shore up the dangerously swelling sea of doubt in relation to many of its dogmas, the Roman Catholic Church  simply declared that the pope is infallible.  This is a recent addition to the beliefs required for salvation, which also include the virgin birth, the assumption, the divinity of Jesus, and his physical resurrection after the crucifixion.

But the pope hasn’t always been infallible.  As late as the middle ages, the pope was selected by the ruling classes of Rome.  It was understood by all to be a political appointment, and invariably the appointment went to a member of the appointing ruling class.  Sex scandals and corruption were often the norm.  Eventually the election of the pope was limited to the cardinals of the church.  This did not make the appointment less political, but the hope was that it would further the ends of the church itself more specifically.

It was not until the 19th century that the pope declared himself infallible.  Under pain of sin, Roman Catholics now must accept his infallible statements as divine revelation.

And so religious certainty is, indeed, unquestionably certain in the sense that it is unchallengeable within the context of faith.  That certainty rests not on evidence but on the personal decision to accept without question and without evidence.

What, then, if religious teaching and scientific findings contradict each other?  The Dalai Lama, and indeed Jesus himself declared that God reveals himself through creation.  The evidence of creation as it is revealed through science and other paths of experience tells us about God himself.  Religious teachings must expand, must listen to, must accept science as a light revealing something about God himself.

It seems to me that either religious teachers or scientists who think that religion and science are incompatible have too narrow a view of the nature of what either religion or science is,  the kind and source of the uncertain certainty each can provide or even the questions each can legitimately address.  Religious leaders from whatever denomination who think they have a divine mandate to overrule science may proclaim that the theory of evolution is wrong, that the earth is not more than four or five thousand years old, that it is human sin that leads to the destruction caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.  I doubt that holiness by any definition requires such extreme denial of scientific conclusions.  But scientists too have been known to make proclamations in the name of science which are just as out of bounds.

It’s scary to live in a world of uncertainty, in a world without clear right answers.  And insofar as religious institutions are political, it is a great temptation for its leaders to maintain power by playing on this fear,  proclaiming that they know the way across the desert, that they do not share in the human condition of ignorance but have been given an elevated wisdom enlightened by divine revelation.

I think this is a terrible betrayal of the essence of religion.  We do live in a universe that inspires awe.  We do live in a universe that suggests to each of us some great mystery that we can only intuit but not control or understand.  True religion I think is an acknowledgement of that mystery, its celebration, its contemplation.  Not a method of social control or an introduction to science.

But if religion does not rightfully belong in the role of social control, where are we to get our moral values?  If not religion and fear of eternal damnation, why should we not murder and steal?  why should we not lie and betray?  Why should we not live for the day?

Why, specifically, did I not commit that murder which I once meticulously planned?

That’s for my next post.  For what it’s worth.

August 2, 2012

Absolutely right!

I grew up in a family in which there was never a suggestion that there is an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science.  My views of both science and religion have matured over the years, but I am still of the opinion that apparent conflicts between these two approaches are based on a profound misunderstanding of science, religion, or both.

One of the most widespread misunderstandings, I think, is in relation to the certainty of science.  Many people think that scientific facts are absolute, that they are permanently and unquestionably certain.  They aren’t.  Even such “facts” that earth is round and revolves around the sun are not unassailable.

I’m not suggesting here that I’m not convinced of these particular facts.  I do rather think the world is round and goes around the sun.  But what I am saying is that, as Kant pointed out, we are always limited by the perspectives of  the time and space in which we live, as well as of the abilities of the human mind to process what we observe.  From another perspective – perhaps from the perspective of a different universe or with a different sensory abilities than we humans possess – the world may look completely different.

Indeed, even Newton’s theory of gravity has undergone grave changes since he first formulated it.  We now know that the universe does not operate like a huge machine, and that Newton’s calculations apply to what happens on our planet earth,  but the further away we get from earth, the less accurate they are.   Without adjustments directed by Einstein’s theory of relativity, our rockets that landed on the moon would have missed its target and might even now still be spiral ling into outer space.

Many “facts” require less extreme contortions or effort to develop human perspectives which could bring them into doubt.  As a simple example, for instance, many major illnesses such as schizophrenia, manic depression, cancer, and heart disease run in families.  Isn’t it obvious, therefore, as many thought, that they are genetic?

Well, no.  Language runs in families, but it’s not genetic.  Occupations tend to run in families but they are not genetic.  To discover just how much any correlation like this is due to genetic factors, to environmental conditions, or most often to an interaction between the two is subject to extraordinarily complex research and subsequent supposition.

Besides our facts which frequently change as scientific theories change, there are also many important, even extremely significant, questions which science simply cannot address, let alone answer.  One obvious example among many is what happens after we die?  We may make assumptions, but we don’t know.  And we can’t use the scientific method to find out.

So if one wants certainty, if one cannot live without absolute answers, science is not the place to go.

But unfortunately neither is religion.

About which more in my next post.

July 8, 2012

Disconcerting insights of childhood

A friend just told me the story of her grandfather’s death when she was four years old.  Her grandfather, whom she adored and describes as her “alpha male,” was laid out at home,  As she stood looking at him, not fully understanding what was happening, her aunt told her not to worry, that he was only sleeping.  My friend was outraged.  She didn’t know what was going on, but she knew that her grandfather did not sleep in a box in the living room surrounded by candles and flowers and crying people. “You are lying to me!  Why are you lying to me!” she shouted, stamping her foot and bursting into tears.
My older brother once told me that he used to go to his room and cry because after he died he was going to heaven and it sounded awful.  It was going to be so boring sitting around all day with nothing to do but adore God.

I was close to four decades older than he was before I began to think the same thing.  First, just which “me” did I want to survive in this place of unchanging perfection?  None of them.  Not the me when I was three or 23 or any of the close to half century of me’s which have appeared since.  No change, no challenges, nothing to learn, nothing new, no problems, no one to help, no surprises.  Just dance and be merry.  Every boring day after day after day for infinity.  
I now understand what my four-year-old friend was stamping her foot about.  And my six-year-old brother was crying about. 
I can’t really accuse anybody of lying to me.  But heaven as most people present it sounds pretty unappealing.  In fact, try as I might, and this really is disconcerting, I simply can’t imagine an improved alternative to the universe as we know it.  As soon as I get rid of something that seems just intolerable – genocide, war, child abuse – I also end up eliminating at the same time what is best, most beautiful, most loving.  Even eliminating death as we know it has an unacceptable downside.
I guess it’s a good thing it wasn’t my job to create the universe.
To state what might seem obvious, but hasn’t always been to me – my job is to be as fully human as I can.  I don’t have to be a good honey bee or good lion or a great apple.  I never aspired after any of those things.  But I did suspect for a long time that I could definitely have improved on God’s job.  Or at least the work being done by guardian angels, who do seem to have absented themselves during work hours quite too often.

May 30, 2012

Darwin’s conundrum

As I said in my post yesterday, a fundamental piece is missing in my understanding of the nature of life so that the whole universal endeavour seems contradictory.  Our study of the evolution of life on this planet seems to suggest that there are two universal characteristic of all living things.   First, living organisms, including us, are potentially capable of doing anything, apparently without any exceptions whatsoever, to survive.  Since we all must kill to eat, all living things are at least complicit in preying on others.  Second, we engage in caring, cooperative, and generous behaviors toward others, something which we also need to receive if we are to survive not only as a species but as individuals.

Two days ago the mother and father of six children were arrested for deliberately starting a fire that killed their six asleep in the upstairs bedrooms.  Several years ago, a mother was convicted of arranging for the kidnap of her daughter in order to make money.  Yesterday the UN observers in Syria reported finding 13 bodies with their hands died behind their back and shot in the head at close range.  Before that, a hundred members of an extended family, including almost half children, were knifed to death in Houla.

Why? Why do the most fundamental impulses of survival sometimes seem to get so horribly out of kilter?

The Platonic-Christian answer is that we are born sinners in dire need of redemption.  Most religions teach some variation on this theme including often the existence of a positive force of evil which is at odds with the forces of good.  Buddha, on the other hand, said that behaviors like these are a reflection of our incompleteness.

This makes more sense to me.  We are not morally outraged by a crocodile that consumes a hapless swimmer for lunch, the lion that preys on the lamb, or even the maggots feeding on the dead bird.  We are not morally outraged by the bear that attacks the hunter in order to preserve its own life or that of its cubs.  We are not even morally outraged by two animals fighting a deadly duel over a fertile female.

But we are morally outraged by similar behaviors among ourselves.  We do believe that we have developed an awareness and sensitivity that often makes these behaviors unnecessary for survival.  (Although it is worth pointing out that we often justify killing and torture and deceit if we feel threatened.  Look at the response of the United States after 9/11, and the government-sanctioned torture of sometimes completely innocent suspects.)

It seems to me that the idea of sin developed as a useful survival mechanism to control some of the worst of our self-destructive and murderous behaviors, survival behaviors which seem to have got out of control.  Behaviors that endanger our own survival or that of the community to which we belong are controlled by society by calling them “sins.”  Threats of punishment, whether it be in the present life or the “next,” often control many excesses.

But it obviously isn’t complete.  And in any case, it’s a stop-gap effort.  When we are not convinced for ourselves that some behaviors are wrong, we will rob, steal, betray, murder, and torture as long as we think we can get away with it.  I do not think this is a result of some people being “evil.”  It’s because we are not yet fully developed human beings.  We act instinctively, without further thought, defending our survival by whatever means we can.

I planned a murder once.  I seriously planned it and seriously considered whether I could get away with it without getting caught.  I decided I could.

But I didn’t do it.

My first response was to be shaken to the core of my being at the discovery that I am capable of such wretched self-serving, viciousness.  I was already middle-aged, and although I had enough self-knowledge by then to realize I was not all that morally superior to everybody else, I did not think I was capable of this.  It took me years to forgive myself for what I finally recognized as a potentially unrestrained drive for survival.

But I didn’t commit murder.  And perhaps to understand why is as informative as why I even considered it.  Not to pat myself on the back as a good person after all, but to understand how it is that we all are capable of developing fundamental moral principles based on the very survival principles that sometimes seem to go so horribly array.

But enough already on this weighty subject.  Why I didn’t do it is the subject of another post.


May 29, 2012

Two sides of survival

One of the most interesting puzzles for me in science arises out of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But first, let me begin by making it clear that I’ve never been aghast to have learned that we Homo sapiens have evolved from earlier primates and before that from fish and before that, etc.  I’m not sure why people find this either demeaning or unworthy of God.  I think it’s truly marvellous.  There is this great, incredible, amazing universe and as far as we can tell, we are at this point the most exalted thing that has arisen out of it.  I’m not saying I’m of the conviction that it was created just for us, though I suppose that’s possible.  But we do, at this point, seem to be at the top of the pinnacle.

It connects us to everything.  We are part of everything.  We belong here.  We’re not strangers somehow exiled in a foreign country speaking a foreign language.

So I really love Darwin’s theory of evolution.  I love what it says about us and our place in the world and who we are.

But it does create a conundrum for me.  If we are part of the process of what the universe is and is becoming, then to understand ourselves we need to understand this process and to embrace it.

Science in general  and the theory of evolution in particular tells us that this process is one of non-stop becoming.  The universe and every living thing in it is driven by an impulse to survive, to endure, somehow, even to become more.

But here’s my conundrum.  To survive all living things do two things:  they prey on and consume each other, and they cooperate with each other.  We can see this among one-celled bacteria who consume each other, but also join together to create more complex organisms for living.   We see it in everything in the animal kingdom, and we see it in ourselves.  One does not need to turn on the television for the latest bombing, war, torture, or murder for examples of our drive to eliminate enemies of our survival at whatever cost.  It is impossible to do something as simple as walk into a supermarket without seeing evidence of all the killing that goes on to support even the most pacific human life.

At the same time, cooperative, supportive behavior among and between various life forms is just as deep and pervasive.  Viruses might invade another organism and eventually kill it.  On the other hand, even our own guts are filled with essential bacteria whose life support we could not live without.  We see dolphins helping humans, dogs helping elephants, giraffes helping hippopotamus,  we see what we call heroism and kindness and altruism and generosity in the human condition daily.

We often tend to think that competitive survival behaviors are selfish and destructive, and that altruistic selfless concern for others is always essentially a higher form of relating to the world.

But that isn’t so.  Even the holiest among us must kill in order to eat.  And even the most selfless will become a burden on society if they are unable to stand up for themselves when necessary.

To survive we need both.  What is moral is a balance between self-reliance and concern.

But that’s enough for today.  I’ll save a discussion about how this idea underlies my current views of morality for another post.

PS:  Don’t ask about the watering system.  Sufficient to say that sometimes a few babbling paragraphs of philosophical angst are a downright relief.

May 26, 2012

My liberating puzzle II

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The second unresolved problem which I find both fascinating and liberating is what has been known for a century and a half in philosophy and psychology as the Mind-Body problem.

Essentially, the problem is that all the evidence suggests that what we think and feel (okay, what we call our “mental processes”) both is influenced by and influences our observable physical processes.  We know that drugs, for instance, can influence our mental state.  And we know that what we think can influence our physical state.  What we think is happening or even think might happen can increase our pulse rate and blood pressure.  But how physical changes influence the energy of thought and vice versa is unclear.  That they do is undoubtedly so.  But how does something physical like a drug affects something apparently non-physical like a thought?

It is in some ways the same as the more modern question, What is Life?  How do a series of apparently mechanistic chemical reactions lead to a dynamic organism capable of self-replication, driven by self-preservation, and possessing a variety of levels and forms consciousness?

This question is actually a relatively recent one because when science as a separate discipline first emerged in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic church still held powerful temporal powers and severely punished those who were considered heretics.  Cruel executions were quite common.  Scientists, therefore, made a great effort to avoid suggesting that they were infringing on Rome’s territory.  Science, they said, was concerned only with the natural world.  The spiritual world still belonged exclusively to Rome.  Since the spiritual world included the soul, the life-giving force in every living thing, the question of how life could arise out of natural forces was too dangerous to even raise.

Matter, on the other hand, the stuff of this apparently imperfect, inferior, and temporary world was not alive.  Natural laws were not dynamic but purely mechanistic.  Newton’s theory of gravity seemed to offer a comprehensive view of this assumption.

By the 19th century, however, scientists were free to dismiss the soul as a life force.  But if life and consciousness could not be explained by a soul from another world, then life must occur naturally.  Consciousness must also be a natural phenomenon.  And so the mind-body problem, and questions about the nature of life emerged.

I remained a dualist for far longer than I remained a religious believer because I could think of no resolution to these twin problems.  Many scientists today remain “reductionists” arguing that consciousness is only an epi-phenomenon.  For them, once science is able to develop the conditions in a laboratory in which life emerges from a chemical reaction, the problem is solved.  For them, life is shown to be the result of a purely mechanistic process.

I’ve never been able to accept this reasoning.  Consciousness is real in its own right.  It is not a figment of my imagination.  I believe we still have the problem, even if we know all the life-producing equations, of how apparently something as ethereal and immaterial as thought and feeling arise out of matter.

I think now the answer lies somewhere in recognizing that until recently we have misunderstood the nature of matter.  Einstein’s theory rejects the mechanistic view of matter held by Newton, and demonstrates instead that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.  Matter, in other words, is dynamic rather than passive.  The emergence of life, then, is not a supernatural event, but a natural result of the energy intrinsic to matter.

This insight still leaves us with unanswered questions, but I find looking for it in the mystery of the natural world more freeing than looking for the answer in Plato’s supernatural world or religion’s “soul” which is conceived as a force created directly by God and wholly above and outside of nature.  Science is only recently coming to terms with the realization that the nature of life and of consciousness lies wholly within its realm.

Yes, life, the mind, the body, consciousness belongs to the poet, to the artist, to the religious thinker, to the mystic, to philosophy.  But it belongs just as fully and wholly to the scientist.

May 11, 2012

My tirade against anger

You might not believe this but the Catholic bishops in America are now accusing the Girl Scouts of being in conflict with church teaching, and are launching an official inquiry.

Notice it’s the Girl Scouts, not the Boy Scouts, who are accused of being in conflict with church teaching.  Wonder why…

Okay, that’s enough on the subject of the American bishops for a while.  I find I’m in danger of fighting against rather than fight for something when I concentrate too much on the Catholic hierarchy.

And for whatever bio-chemical, cultural, personal reasons, I find that getting angry is counter-productive.  I start concentrating on the wrong things, it uses up useless energy, and as far as I can see, I’ve never helped anybody, including myself, when I’m angry.

I’m not walking away from helping sisters if I can – or even the Girl Scouts.  But I’m going to stop fulminating.

May 10, 2012

My sisters after all

I doubt that I share a single Catholic doctrine with 99.9% of American nuns.  And so I have assumed that I simply do not belong to that community by any definition of the term.

But I’m somewhat surprised to discover that I do.  Faith among the early Christian communities did not mean doctrinal agreement as it has come to be taught by the Roman Catholic church today.  It meant faithfulness to each other, it meant helping when the other was in need, it meant respecting each other.  It meant the Good Samaritan not the hypocritical Pharisees presiding over the temple.

And by that definition, I find that I am absolutely still part of that community of which so many American nuns are such a heart-stopping example.

There is a gathering in support of American nuns being held outside New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral next Tuesday at 4:30.  If it didn’t involve my having to book an international air flight, I’d be there.

It might be that I am far too separated from American Catholicism to make a valid judgement.  But I just can’t see the Vatican winning this fight against American nuns.  I don’t give donations to the Catholic church.  But I would contribute to the pensions of nuns rather than see them out on the street like so many millions of people they have helped.

I’m surprised to discover just how roused I am capable of becoming over this issue.  But the thing is I don’t think I’m unusual.  The following letter to Cardinal Dolan in Rome rather catches the spirit, I think.

Posted: 05/08/2012 4:46 pm

 Dear Cardinal Dolan,

Because “60 Minutes” names you Our Man in Rome (as the most likely to become the first American Pope), I’m writing to ask about the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns — presumably for not being “Catholic enough.” Can you find out: What is the Pope thinking? Can you influence this disastrous endeavor?

Let’s assume the Vatican lacks knowledge of the role of nuns in American history: those women who pioneered health treatments, of cancer and hospice (Sister Rose Hawthorne Lathrop), of alcoholics (Sister Mary Ignatia) and of lepers (Mother Marianne Cope); who built schools –through college — to educate African- and Native-Americans more than 80 years before our Civil Rights movement began (St. Katharine Drexel); and the colonist who founded the first American religious order (St. Elizabeth Seton) to care for poor children. Does the Pope know that American nuns developed the first infant incubator, built and ran the hospital that became Mayo Clinic and founded the world’s largest private school system? That nuns were once THE educated working women in our country, establishing orphanages, hospitals and social service agencies with creativity, grit and perseverance (and sometimes being silenced by their bishops for their innovations).

If the Pope does not consider this history significant to today’s nuns, please appeal to the Vatican’s self-interest. I’m aware that public relations is not a Vatican concern (nor even a concept) and that our hierarchy responds globally to crises with advice only from its lawyers. But isn’t it time to ask the Pope: How’s that been working out for you? It’s time to suggest firing the lawyers and hiring a public relations consultant.

Please don’t forget to quote those adjectives the U. S. media use to describe this “insulting” “immoral” “abusive” “sexist” “hostile” investigation. Newspapers claim the nuns are “being bullied” by the Vatican, and speculating that the underlying motive of this “inquisition” is for the Vatican to raid the assets of female religious orders to help pay claims from the pedophile lawsuits. Note that this is just what our Catholic media is saying!

Please also warn the Pope about repercussions in terms of branding and image. These elderly women — their average age is 70 — who’ve spent their lives as poorly paid servants in parishes and communities, are still working because they were given no pensions or health care benefits. They cannot afford to retire. Their only rest will come in their coffins, when each sister is buried with the letter she wrote when she entered her convent decades ago, telling why she chose to serve God by serving others. Common decency aside, common sense dictates that sympathy will be for these women, rather than for the powerful men investigating them.

It’s also been reported that because the Vatican suspects our nuns of disregarding Catholic teaching on certain hot-button issues, it needs to determine if these sisters are verifiably Catholic. No doubt birth control is one of these issues. But why pick on our nuns? More than 77 percent of American Catholics consider using birth control morally acceptable. None of us can recall the last time we heard a priest support the Vatican’s birth control ban from the pulpit; even our pastors — looking into parishes with two-child families — know that that ship has sailed. It left way back in 1963, when the pill was prescribed by Catholic doctors for the health and welfare of mothers and families. Our nuns should be the last to be interrogated on this issue, and at this late date.

Our Catholic media also speculates that the investigation is an attempt by the Vatican to influence American politics, specifically to oust President Obama. Has anyone pointed out to the Pope that even Catholic Republicans did not vote for the Catholic, Rick Santorum, who championed the Church’s birth control ban? GOP Catholics support the Mormon!

Perhaps the sisters have been discussing the ordination of women and married people, though open discussion of this is forbidden by the Vatican. Please inform the Holy Father that we’ve all been discussing that, for decades. Tell him about the doctrines we cherish, the First Amendment to our Constitution, and Article 6, #1782 in the Catechism on “Moral Conscience”: “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.”

OK, let’s admit that the “f-word” has surfaced in coverage of this nightmare, as the most damning charge of all. U.S. bishops reportedly alerted the Vatican that many of our nuns are … Feminists. That may be because our American sisters took Vatican II and Pope John XXIII seriously 50 years ago, when they were challenged to rethink their vocations, “to make the truth of the Gospel shine,” and to “dedicate [them]selves without fear to that work which our era demands of us.” The nuns quit wearing the medieval habits that separated them from others, and many moved from convents into a larger community to serve in new ways. They also embraced the Council’s call for dialogue, by not only talking with but listening to those they serve, many of whom are poor women. Would that our hierarchy could seek and get such an education!

These questions remain: Does the Pope really want to force American Catholics to choose between standing with our nuns or with a male hierarchy interrogating them for nebulous infractions, with a stated agenda of keeping their findings secret? Where could we find Jesus in all this — among our nuns, whose life of service is based on the Gospels’ call to justice and charity, or in the Vatican, whose concerns appear to be power and secrecy? At the very least, let the investigators ask those who know our nuns best — the homeless, prisoners, battered women and their children, immigrants, inner-city students, the disabled, the bereaved and the bullied — if these elderly women are “Catholic enough.” And if not, then who is? Is even the Pope “Catholic enough”?

Carol DeChant founded the public relations firm DeChant-Hughes & Associates, Inc. Her recent book is “Great American Catholic Eulogies” (ACTA Publishers).

May 8, 2012

Reflections on abortion

I am too old for the question of abortion to be one which I will face personally.  And the terminated pregnancies which I have experienced were not chosen.

However, in the face of the increasing number of states in America which are trying to outlaw abortion outright under any circumstances, I have been thinking about why I disagree  with what is essentially the Roman Catholic position that abortion is always murder, and therefore never justified.  Since murder is wrong, Catholics are taught that they have an obligation to stop what they see as the mass murders of abortion, whether or not the persons involved in the act believe it is.  The obligation is as great as it would be to stop the mass murders of Jews or the mentally retarded or ethnic groups who may be considered to be sub-human.

I’ve asked several people whose values I respect for their take on this question.  The answers I found most enlightening are from Tony Equale whose blog I also read regularly.  I don’t claim they are original, but these are the conclusions which I myself have now reached.

First of all, I think sex is not part of the natural order purely for the sake of procreation.  Nor is it purely for the sake of pleasure.  Some 2 million years ago, humans evolved in which it was no longer apparent when the female was fertile.  The result of this was greater equality between the sexes, less competition, and a more influential and long-term role for fathers during what became the long years of human childhood.  So in my opinion, natural law dictates that the purpose of human sexual intercourse is not simply procreation, but the maintenance of a loving,  stable relationship between the parents which greatly facilitates the raising their offspring. (Paradoxically, sexual relationships between people who have no intention of having children together is often a learning experience which leads to a maturity which is of great benefit to us all.  Even to those of us who are no longer children.)

So I don’t think we humans have evolved in such a way that we benefit from reducing sex to no more than a passing pleasure with no inter-personal consequences.  But sex isn’t just about having children either.

So what about abortion?  Catholics believe that what makes a human being a person is the addition of a spiritual soul to the material body.  It is the soul that makes the person and is put there by God in a deliberate act.  It is not clear to theologians when the soul is combined with the physical body, and so the church argues that we must assume it is from the very moment of conception.

But must we?  Does this make sense?  Let’s think about it.  The church teaches that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing.  Yet it also teaches that this God inserts a living soul into the body of human beings conceived under the most terrible circumstances.  Perhaps the woman was raped.  Perhaps it was a young girl impregnated by her father.  Perhaps the foetus will be born under circumstances where the child will be abandoned, starved, abused, severely deformed, in extreme pain.  Perhaps the pregnancy will kill the mother through no fault of her own, leaving other children motherless.  According to the church, this all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God going to make this egg which has been penetrated by a sperm a person, come hell or high water.

No.  I don’t believe it.  This is a contradiction in terms.  If a human being were to behave in such a fashion, would impose this kind of suffering on another human being when he had the knowledge and power not to do so, we would never call it loving.  We might even call it evil.  We certainly would not tell everyone to go and do likewise.

Roman Catholics believe that abortion must be treated as murder because it is the willful termination of the life of an innocent person.

I don’t think it necessarily is.  I don’t think we are dealing with a person in the early days of pregnancy.  It is a potential person, which is something entirely different. Just as an acorn is not an oak tree but a potential tree, just as a seed is not an apple but only carries that potential, the foetus is not a person with all the rights of personhood.

But there’s a second issue, and that revolves around the times when the church, and indeed society, condone the murder of persons.  We can kill another person in war, to protect our own lives or the life of someone else.  Sometimes we are faced with the terrible and difficult decision of having to choose who should die, rather than if anyone should die.  Even if one believes that abortion always results in the death of an innocent unborn foetus, there are conditions under which I believe it is justified.

Is abortion simple?  rarely.  Does it have consequences?  inevitably.  Do I think it should be treated as a birth control method when other methods are available?  no.

But there are times when abortion is the brave, the courageous, the moral choice.

May 4, 2012

May 1, 2012

My box of candy

I promised myself I could start blogging regularly today because I’ve pretty much finished working on the second edition of my book The Big Bang to Now.  I still have some finishing touches to complete, but I feel good enough to start nibbling away on my box of candy again.

So herein resumes my daily offerings of rants, meditations, reports, questions, opinions, and other assorted trivia.

Today I want to celebrate American nuns.  The Vatican, while madly trying to cover up the serious and often criminal sexual activities of many Catholic priests has turned instead its guns on American nuns for serving the gay community, and for the audacity to suggest that women should be ordained.

I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that the bishops and the Vatican have no idea what they are taking on.  American nuns are human.  They have limitations and failings like the rest of the human species.  But my experience – and I have a lot of it close up – is that American nuns are often exceptionally dedicated, generous, and unselfish in their commitment to serving the poor and those in need.  Possibly just as much to the point, many of them are exceptionally bright and well-educated, and do not feel inferior to men who have unilaterally declared themselves to be infallible.

Some Catholics, both male and female, will submit to the Vatican’s’ wishes.  But I suspect that more will simply disregard the bishops and their mandates even more than they already have, as coming from a group of sex-obsessed, power-hungry men who have no idea what is actually going on in the real world which they purport to serve.

I have been scandalized to learn recently that an Australian nun who had the temerity to “out” a paedophile priest was first excommunicated.  She has now been beatified.  But priests and nuns are still being excommunicated this very moment for even arguing that women should be allowed to be ordained.  And to my surprise, thinking that I already knew it all, I learned today that Catholics in Austria are routinely excommunicated for failing to pay a church-mandated tax.  Paedophile priests, on the other hand, are not excommunicated, because they are “sick.”

Okay, for a more cheerful way of looking at it, double click on the link:

Do you see what I mean?  I don’t think those bishops should mess with American nuns myself.

April 8, 2012

Myths for our time

I said in my post yesterday that Christianity has been facing the destruction of many of its myths with the beginning of the scientific revolution 600 years  ago.  In a way, this is surprising, because historically, Christianity has been absolutely brilliant at incorporating the myths of the peoples converted to Christianity.  Christmas and Easter are perhaps the most well-known but there are hundreds of myths like this which have enriched Christianity over the centuries.

Christianity, like other great religions, addresses questions which cannot ultimately be addressed by science –  questions like what happens after we die? why do the innocent suffer and the guilty suffer?  Why then has Christianity been so flummoxed by the discoveries and inventions of science?

I’m wondering if it is because so often Christian missionaries have arrived with so much more knowledge, so many treasures, so much temporal power that they have not felt the need to incorporate science into their myths.  Christianity has so often been almost like a cargo cult.  Christians had so much, it must have looked as if their god was indeed better than those already in residence.

And yet there is so much in science that could resonate with the basic Christian message.  There are mysteries at the center of science that, for me, at least, are as awe-filled and awful as the mystery of god.  Aren’t concepts like dark energy, or the singularity out of which the universe burst 67 billion years ago an opportunity to suggest that we perhaps need to forego our anthropomorphic concepts of god arising from an era when gods lived in the mountains and growled in the thunder?

This is not an argument for God.  It’s a word that, perhaps because of my socialization, I cannot use to describe the mystery which seems to reside at the heart of existence.  For a similar reason, perhaps, many of the Christian myths strike me as childish.  But that is not true for hundreds of thousands of people who can draw great strength and courage from these myths.  I watched my own mother face death from cancer at the age of 48 leaving behind ten children under the age of 20.  The myth of heaven brought her great strength, and she faced her death with a courage that I still find simply incredible.

But this is a hope that more people who understand Christianity might be able to develop myths that incorporate the essence of the Christian message within a framework that does not require the believer to fear or distort science.  Primack and Abrams in their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, are trying to do this in a way that I find quite tantalizing.  They argue that science is showing that we are, in a most extraordinary way, quite literally in the center of the universe.

Similarly, Tony Equale in his Easter post has taken the message of god’s universal love to a new and challenging level.  Five hundred years ago Galileo challenged the Church to stretch its world beyond that of Earth.  This post challenges us to stretch god’s love beyond our universe, beyond time as we know it.

It seems to me that our religious myths must begin to develop this way.  Or there will be an ever-widening gap between science and religion.  This will be a terrible loss.  Science is too powerful to be unexamined, it is potentially too destructive not to be submitted to the demands of respect and even love for our fellow-man.

April 7, 2012

Keep Calm and Put the Kettle On

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:24 pm

Given the kind of reflective intelligence we humans seem to possess in abundance, I think our greatest fear is not of death but of meaninglessness.  We can bear almost unlimited suffering and loss, failure, poverty, humiliation and pain, and even death if we believe it has some meaning, some ultimate purpose which they serve.  It is the despair that nothing matters that we cannot bear.

It is our myths, often our religious myths, that give ultimate meaning to so many of us.  By myth I do not mean fairy-tales like Alice in Wonderland.  I mean poetic metaphors that speak a truth which cannot be spoken in any other way.  To carry meaning for us, these myths do not have to be accurate in every detail, but they do up to a point have to be believable.  We don’t think anymore that the thunder coming out of the mountains is the sound of angry gods.  So these gods can no longer inspire us.

Unfortunately, Christianity has also been facing the destruction of its myths for the last 500 years.  But however angry it may have made those who denied it, the world was not flat, the angels were not holding up the stars, the sun was not going around the earth.  We may feel condescending toward those who could not accept this 400 years ago.  But today there are those who would rather throw science out than face the evidence that we have descended from earlier primates, that the world was not created in seven days, that the universe is not 4,000 but closer to 67 billion years old, that the resurrection of the body in physical form is impossible.

I think the reason for this seemingly irrational dismissal of science is due to sheer fear of meaninglessness.  Fear that science is taking away any value in living.  It’s a fear that if one accepts the science of today one must inevitably conclude that the universe is one vast mechanistic impersonal engine in which justice and love and sharing and all the wonderful things we humans do has no value or meaning.  In the end, we all, the good and bad equally, will evaporate into one vast dark echoing void.  That we have lived and suffered and loved won’t matter one wit.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to the meaning of the universe.  Or even of life in particular.  But what gives me such great energy from the celebration of Easter is the realization that people have been staring into the void for thousands of years.  And always, somewhere deep inside themselves they have found the courage to believe that somehow, even in the darkest hours, in the face of death and apparent total defeat, life is worth living.

What we today call Easter did not originate with Christianity.  It is a celebration of hope that has been celebrated by human communities for at least ten thousand years.  It was expropriated by Christianity because it so vividly reflected what Christians believed was the message of Christ’s return from the dead.  At its center, Easter is the celebration of life, a vindication of the hope to which people clung during the dark long and cold days of winter.  Easter is a vindication of courage in the face of what so often looks like the end of life.  Possibly even of all life as we know it.

The English, in their wonderful understated way, had a motto as London and Coventry and other major cities were being bombed during World War II:  Keep Calm and Carry On.

Yesterday I bought a coffee mug that adapted this quiet determination to keep living even in the darkest hour.


Have a Happy Easter.  And should you indulge in a cup of tea as well, think of it as an act of dogged trust:  Life is worth living, however it might sometimes look.

March 28, 2012

Be careful which god we choose

I have just been reading about Tucume in the Pervuian Valley of the Pyramids, neither of which I have ever heard of before.  It is a valley first discovered by a German engineer turned archaeologist in the early 1900’s, but which is only now yielding its secrets to modern forensics.

Tacume itself is the third and largest of the pyramid cities built in the shadow of Stingray Mountain.  Unlike the Egyptian pryamids, the Peruvian pyramids are not burial places, but huge solid man-made structures with rooms on top where the leaders of the people lived in luxury.  Tacume has 26 such pyramids which represent years of work by thousands of workmen.  Building the pyramids was, undoubtedly, an ongoing and massive project.

But quite suddenly, in the mid-sixteenth century, the people themselves destroyed it in a massive fire.  The evidence is that the same thing happened to the earlier pyramid cities some centuries earlier.  Why?

Records suggest that the people of the pyramid city believed that the gods resided in Stingray Mountain.  In emulating them, the leaders of the people lived atop the man-made pyramid mountains.  But it was their job to live pure lives and to appease the gods who, if they became angry, would send life-destroying weather in the shape floods and winds and drought.  Today this weather is seen as the result of El Nino, but the people around Stingray believed it was due to their sinfulness.  Burning down the pyramid cities was required because it had been defiled and must be purified.

The disaster that hit Tucume was not a weather event, however.  It was reports of men riding into cities further north on strange animals that we recognize as horses but which the people had never seen before.  They believed they were the gods of Stingray Mountain incarnate, come to wreck vengence on the people who had dared to disobey them.  In an effort to appease the gods, the people offered hundreds of men, women, and children in gruesome sacrifice.  Forensic archaeologists are today examining their remains left in front of the building which had been the temple.

But the gods were not appeased and the Spaniards kept advancing.  The people of Tucume burned their pyramids and melted into the forest before the Spaniards actually reached their valley.

But they believed, they believed absolutely that their understanding of what was happening was right.  They believed so absolutely that they were willing to sacrifice their own families and children, to completely destroy their homes and to flee into the forest.

What’s so scary about this story for me is that we still have not learned that just because we believe we are right doesn’t make it so.  We can be willing to die for our convictions.  But we can still be wrong.

Yesterday the Scientific American featured a report by scientists that we have reached the tipping point in relation to global warming.  We have, at most, a short decade to begin to turn things around.

Earlier this week, Tennessee became the 4th state in America to pass a law requiring that schools include in their science classes the teaching that global warming may not be real.  Unfortunately, making a law requiring people to say it isn’t true isn’t going to keep the planet from warming, or prevent the quite dire consequences to life on the planet that will arise from it.

Making it a law that it isn’t real won’t stop global warming.  The Roman Catholic Church threatened Galileo with the excruciating torture of the rack if he did not withdraw his assertion that the earth  revolved around the sun.  Galileo publicly withdrew his assertion and lived the rest of his life under house arrest.

But the earth isn’t flat.  And it’s still revolving around the sun.



March 15, 2012

The invention of the soul

I read a post on The Writer’s Treehut yesterday discussing the legacy of  isolation and despair that the concept of soul and of our separate individuality generates in so many of us.  I believe it does.  I too believe that the idea that we each have a soul that separates us from the consequences of what happens to everybody else is often destructive for ourselves.

Most people, I think, assume that the concept of soul has biblical roots. But it does not. Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either. The core of the idea comes from Plato who lived almost half a millennium before Christ. He was trying to solve the intellectual problem of how we can have ideas of perfect things when perfect things do not exist in the material world. He decided there must be another world where these things are perfect – perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect people, perfect everything.

This perfect world represented the scientific – not religious – thinking of the day. It’s rather like our scientific ideas today about dark energy. We really haven’t a clue what dark energy might be, but it seems to be the only kind of thing scientists can think of at the moment to explain the extraordinary things we do observe. The secular idea of a soul was adopted by Christian theologians because it represented the scientific thinking of the day.

The idea of the soul was discarded long ago as a scientific concept, but its usefulness for controlling the behavior of believers by religious authorities remains. The existence of the soul comes packaged with the promise of eternal life – as a way for my most precious personal ego to survive forever. And the promise is that it will survive in perfect bliss if I do what religious leaders tell me to do. Eternal life as ME is no longer an idea that personally holds any allure or coercive power over me, but it did for a long time.

The invention of the idea of soul also has another hidden and I think immensely destructive result – it suggests that salvation is individual. You as a sinner might not go to heaven, but I can make sure that I do. In other words, we are not all in this together. I can feel superior to you, separate from your sinfulness, safe from it, whatever you do, even it kills me, even if it wipes out the entire human species. Because my soul will survive and go to heaven while you will go to hell. Ha! I shall win in the end!

The alternative is that we are all in this together, and that if we are, we must care about what happens to everybody else, care about their suffering, their lives, their opportunities. But there are many ways of doing this. Being incomplete as we are, many of those ways are self-absorbed, debilitating, neurotic, self-deluding. As a human race, we still seem addicted to “doing good” by bombing, shooting, punishing, and killing the bad guys. We even then pat ourselves on the back as heroic and patriotic. I have not been able to adopt the pacifist view 100%. Perhaps I was too influenced by the horrors of World War II gas chambers. But we are far too trigger-happy. We don’t really believe in diplomacy. We don’t really think that perhaps we too have to change, not just everybody else. We seem to think that because we have the bombs, we have the military, we must be right. It would be nice to say this applies to only America, but it seems to be a world-wide belief: the best way to impose the right way (which of course is the way revealed to me) is to be the biggest bully on the street. We imprison or kill anyone who does not accept our standards. Then people have to listen, even if they aren’t convinced.

There are two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years. The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world. And the second idea is the one that is central to this post – that we are all in this together. There is no possibility that I can just take care of myself. I myself depend in my very essence on what happens to all of us.

We know that children brought up in isolation cannot develop even the most basic human abilities.  We need others to have food to eat, to speak a language, to make a child.  We need others to be able to love, to feel that we are of value, to feel the joy of helping, of laughing together.  I don’t mean we have to agree with each other – what a boring dull prospect.

Home Safety


But we can’t become ourselves without everybody and even everything else.  We need the bees, and the cows.  We need the wheat fields and the sun and the rain.  In fact, we need the whole universe.

It’s our home.

January 23, 2012

Still thinking like a Catholic

I grew up in an intellectual family.  I learned around the dinner table how to question and to look at other points of view before drawing my own conclusions.  I learned how to doubt received wisdom and even to question Catholic dogma.  This didn’t happen in most families I knew, and most Catholics I knew did not debate theological issues with the kind of knife-edge precision I’d learned at home.

When shortly after leaving the convent I stopped believing in just about all the tenets of faith required by Roman Catholicism, I naively thought I no longer thought like a Catholic.  My graduate education and all my professional life were in secular universities with no overt Catholic influences at all.

When my English, Protestant, academic husband assured me that many of my thought processes were still Catholic, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Over the years I have recognized bits and pieces of what he meant.  But I am still uncovering layers of undiscovered socialization that go back to those discussions around the dinner table.  There are several characteristics of my thought that I can still point to.

My thinking is organized, with a much greater emphasis on right answers than creative solutions.  It makes me good at figuring things out, but highly critical of “wrong” answers.   I’m good at explaining things if someone wants to understand.  I am, however, exasperated with people whose thinking seems based more on wishful thinking than on evidence or logic.  My patience all but runs out if they are nonetheless adamant about how right they are.

I have always used ideas rather than experience as the main criterion for judging the validity of a position.  I did it first with Catholic dogma, and later with scientific principles.  I didn’t ask myself what I was feeling.  Dogma or theories told me what I was supposed to be feeling, so I thought that’s what I felt.  The Church taught that we should forgive others as an all-loving God forgave us our sins.  I didn’t feel outrage that an all-loving  God was capable of the kind of vindictive unforgiveness required by someone who inflicts eternal hell fire on anyone who crosses him once too often and doesn’t manage to get access to absolution before dying.  It didn’t even bother me that this all-loving God wouldn’t let completely innocent babies into heaven if they died without being baptized.  Later in my life, Freud said I was repressing the knowledge of an Oedipus complex, so I went into psychoanalysis to uncover it.  I knew beforehand what I was looking for.  I knew beforehand what I was supposed to be feeling.

I look now with astonishment at those who from a very young age simply dismissed some of these ideas as so contradicting their own experience and common sense that they disregarded them without any guilt or confusion whatsoever.  They just never took them seriously.

It’s not that I am against not trusting our own experiences.  If science has taught us anything, it’s that we make mistakes, that we misinterpret, we draw the wrong conclusions.  The world is not flat, despite my experience that it is, the sun does not go around the earth despite the fact that I see it doing so in the sky every day.   But experience is what we all begin with, and to dismiss it as I have during so much of my life in favour of pre-ordained “right answers” is to be alienated from myself.

I think that on some level I have always sensed that my search for right answers, for a complete world view devoid of contradictions and paradoxes, was limiting.  It’s why I find modern art  so liberating.  It’s why what sounds so much like the illogical nonsense of quantum mechanics is so freeing.  I keep looking for the kind of right answers, the kind of complete coherent system Roman Catholicism offered me as a child, and then experience an almost mystical delight when the whole system falls apart and has to be put together again.

Learning to trust my own intuitions is probably what I now call my acts of faith.  My intuition is that my husband loves me.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do have experience.  My intuition is that despite all its travails, life is worth living.  I don’t have scientific proof.  But I do experience it.

I still like right answers.  I still like things to make sense, to be organized and coherent.

But at least I don’t trust my right answers anymore.  If Plato didn’t devise an infallible system, if Kant or Newton didn’t, if Einstein couldn’t, then I think I can rest assured that I’m not going to.  So I don’t know how to solve all the world’s problems.  I don’t have all the right answers.  And I’m not, after all,  responsible for running the world.

What a relief.

November 11, 2011

By their fruits you know them?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

In a comment following the post, My Word Phobias, Chris suggested the way believing in God might make in our view of the universe.

Since we all belong to the same human species, we all  observe the universe through the medium of the same five senses and using whatever allotment of human intelligence we possess.  So on one level, the universe we observe is the same whatever our religious beliefs.

And yet most people think whether we believe in God or not makes a very big difference.

There are those on one side who believe that if we don’t believe in God, there is no reason for us to behave morally, with generosity or love toward our fellow-man.  Without God and the potential reward of heaven and punishment of hell, why should we not, they ask, simply pursue our own self-interest to the exclusion of anything or anybody else?  Almost all of us are acquainted with committed believers whose lives are almost breathtakingly selfless.  Mother Teresa or Gandhi are two contemporary examples but there are thousands more.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that belief in God is the justification given for  some of the worst atrocities, wars, acts of terrorism, and murders every committed.  They argue, also with a good deal of evidence, that religious institutions not only cover-up abuse and violence but historically have often instigated, praised, and even sanctified it.

So does believing in God make us better or worse?

The evidence is mixed.  Whichever side of the divide one may be on, both research and personal experiences can produce conflicting support.

But I wonder if this problem often asks the question the wrong way around.

Perhaps it is not belief in God that makes us good or bad.  Perhaps we fashion the metaphors of God that reflect and support the kind of person we want to be, or to justify what we have already decided to do.

Perhaps loving people fashion a loving God, vengeful people fashion a vengeful God, others an indifferent God.  And so on.

Perhaps, even those who don’t believe in God at all are independent types who think it is we who are in charge of our own destiny.

November 5, 2011

My word phobias

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 9:52 pm
Tags: ,

I am trying to get over my phobia about using the words “god” and its cousin “prayer.”

A comment following my post yesterday made me realize that I’m communicating no better by avoiding these words than if I occasionally tolerate them.

Yes, I do cringe when I hear God described as a kind of all-powerful, unforgiving and irrational tyrant.  It also bothers me when people’s use of prayer depends on a Sugar Daddy concept of God. Praying that it won’t rain on the picnic tomorrow assumes that God can be cajoled into giving us things if we ask nicely enough.  If God can and does intervene in our lives in this way, the problems of a loving God who permits so much innocent suffering become insurmountable.

But there are mature concepts of God.  They are concepts that accept that God is far beyond our understanding, that we cannot reduce God to human dimensions, that profound mystery is inherent and pervasive.  We have metaphors of Creator Gods, and Loving Gods, and Angry Gods.  None of these can possibly describe God.  Actually, most people who say they are atheists often sense a potential for mystery that our anthropomorphized Gods could not possibly include.  On the other hand, mystics of almost every religion have understood this as well.

There are also mature concepts of prayer.  They don’t always mean that I will batter God for favours.  “Prayer” may mean I am honouring the mystery.  Or prayer may mean I am acknowledging our human family as my family.  It may mean I am doing everything I can think of — and it may be very little — to care, or to be of help to someone I love.

And so I am going to stop feeling like a lying hypocrite should I tell someone they are in my “thoughts and prayers.”

And I am going to stop gagging every time I use the word God.  I doubt that it will ever become my favourite word, but it is sheer hubris on my part to assume that nobody but myself and a small coterie of comrades can use that term with intelligence and philosophical integrity.

Now back to worrying about the euro – which at this point seems to me to be one of life’s great mysteries, the shape of which changes at least daily.


October 18, 2011

Did something really go wrong?,

Following my post yesterday, Sanstorm commented that,”yes, the whole caboodle is fallen.”   Although this view that something has gone terribly wrong with the world is one that I grew up with, I was taken aback by Sanstorm’s conclusion.

For her, nature’s predatory behaviors confirm that indeed, there was a terrible Fall.  I look at the natural world, including its predatory behaviors, and conclude just the opposite.


Yes, if we judge all behavior in terms of our moral codes,  animals, including humans, are often immoral, greedy, selfish, thieving reprobates.

But what if, instead, we look at the universe as evolving, if we look at everything that happens in the universe as a thrust toward greater life?  Then our apparently selfish behaviors are a manifestation of that thrust toward greater life which most of us recognize in ourselves.  We are born with this drive to live, to stay alive, to be more.

This drive toward greater life isn’t just manifest in our apparently self-serving, however.  It is also manifest in the altruistic behaviors, the sharing, the putting oneself in danger or even sacrificing ones own life for the sake of others.   Animal studies confirm what I suspect many societies have understood for thousands of years – that although other animals hunt and kill other organisms in order to survive, they also engage in a heartening array of altruistic and surprisingly intelligent behaviors.

The mistake of sociobiology is not to suggest that all our genes are “selfish” in the sense we seek to preserve and expand our own genetic heritage.  The mistake is not to recognize that caring for others, even those not of our own species, even for those things which are not manifestly alive (like the environment), is also part of this thust for life.

So we look at the universe and we have a choice.  We may decide that something has gone terribly wrong.  Christian theology opts for this choice – we are all sinners living in a material world which is not our true spiritual home and from which we must strive to free ourselves.  Or we can conclude that we are part of a great ongoing evolution of life which has continued for millions of years.

Depending on which explanation one opts for, one will conclude either  that our theory is wrong or that creation itself is intrinsically badly messed up.

Given the fallacy of human reasoning, I’m much more inclined to think that it is our understanding of the universe that is wrong rather than the universe which is running amuck.

I think the essence of morality is to choose life.  Sometimes we make terrible mistakes so that what we think is a choice for life is a choice for death.  Sometimes these choices are so catastrophic that we look back on them with horror, and we can see no explanation for them save that they are sinful.

And yet we know that there are times when the truly moral choice is to lie, or steal, or even kill.  Societies tell us that these things are wrong and under normal circumstances life will be better served by truth, by care, by mutual respect.  But not always.

So I look at that penguin “stealing” stones from his neighbour’s nest, and it gives me hope.

It gives me hope that the drive, the thirst for life pervades the universe.  And even when things seem to go horribly wrong, it may be our lack of vision that is the limitation.

It might not be that the whole of creation has somehow become screwed up.

As someone wiser than I put it, the universe is unfolding as it should.


October 17, 2011

It started way before Adam and Eve ate the apple

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:12 pm

Although I have worried about the ambiguities of right and wrong since I was old enough to think about it – which I think was about six – it is only in recent years that I have seriously begun to wonder about the source of our ethical and moral principles, and then the blog  Thinking makes it so turned casual conversation into serious thought.

I am now convinced that human morality cannot be separated from evolution and its driving force toward life.  But if I ever entertained the comfortable illusion that other living creatures were not capable of the same duplicitous behavior in the drive for life as we humans, I am now wholly disabused.

I know that lions hunt deer to kill and consume, I know that cuddly bears eat fish without guilt, I know that eagles swoop on helpless prey and devour them with relish, that the cat sits for patient hours waiting for the mouse, that the squirrel raids the birds’ eggs.

And now I see that even lovely little foot-and-a-half high penguins steal from each other.  It doesn’t look to me as if the innocent and naive are going to flourish.  Just look at this:

‘Criminal’ penguin caught on film


September 18, 2011

Revolution Revisited

I doubt that Rome is tempted to self-doubt by this, but it is quite surprising to me to realize how many of the issues within Roman Catholicism these days are the very issues over which the Protestant Revolution was fought.

For example:  

  • the ordination of women
  • corruption and sexual abuse
  • the primacy of individual conscience
  • the tolerance of doctrinal diversity and the identification of faith with faithfulness rather than dogma
  • the role of the priest within the community
  • celibacy of the priesthood
  • papal infallibility
  • the belief that the minister should be chosen by the community to whom he or she belongs rather than appointed by the bishop
  • whether the primary commitment of the serving priest should be first to the community or to Rome
  • whether the celebration of the Eucharist was meant by Jesus at the Last Supper to be celebrated in his memory, or whether Jesus meant to bestow the power to transform the bread and wine literally into his real substantial body and blood.

There are other issues today which were not dealt with by the Protestants but which are still important.  The seemingly eternal discussion about the unknowable nature of God, the reality of the Trinity, of original sin, and of the existence of a supernatural world.

These issues are all interesting, but the  most critically important seems to me to be the difference between faithfulness and dogma.

I cannot be convinced that whether we believe in the virgin birth or papal infallibility or original sin is actually more important to true holiness or fulfillment than how we live and whether we love our fellow creatures.

September 17, 2011

My People

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 7:54 pm

For the last few days, we watched a mining accident unfold in Wales.  It started on Thursday morning about 9 o’clock when the mine flooded.  Three miners escaped, one of whom is critically ill from swallowing slurry.  Four men were still trapped and we watched almost minute by minute as they tried to rescue them.  But by Friday afternoon, all four remaining miners were found dead.

It was not quite as long-lasting as the Chilean mine disaster, but it was much closer.

What I realized for the first time was how very much these people are my husband’s people.  He grew up in a mining community, his father, his grandfathers, his uncles, the fathers and brothers of his school friends, and eventually those friends themselves worked in the coal mines.  His mother who ran a grocery store would sometimes give change after the wives and mothers  of laid-off miners made a purchase.  Except that the “change” handed back was often twice the cost of the original purchase.

Peter never worked in the mine.  But I saw, as we watched this disaster unfold, that they were his people and although he found it extremely stressful to watch, he also could not walk away.  He knows what it is like when the men are trapped.  It is not just that his grandfather was trapped, and his dad was bombed.  When miners are trapped, something that happens to the whole community.  Nobody goes about their business “as usual.”

As I was watching the rescuers,  I realized that, although I no longer share the doctrine of Christianity and most especially the dogmas of Roman Catholicism, they are still my people the way the mining communities are still Peter’s people.   I understand them in a way I can understand no other people.  Because I am part of them. And I can’t remain indifferent to what is happening within Roman Catholicism simply because I am no longer part of it, anymore than Peter can remain detached from a mining accident.

I think this is related to what Christians mean when they talk about faithfulness (as opposed to faith).

But I think the important thing about the concept of my people and the strength that comes from recognizing it is not to forget that in the most significant way, “my people” includes every other human on the planet.

This conclusion doesn’t require Christianity to see it.  Globalization makes it imperative.  We can’t solve our environmental problems alone, or stimulate our economies alone, or keep ourselves and our children safe alone.

It’s true now in a way it’s never been so before:  the whole world are one people.  We are all in this together.

September 12, 2011

God’s favourite

In his comment following yesterday post on 9/11, Tony Equale forcefully suggests that the response of “kicking ass,” (which as I recall was President Bush’s colloquial way of expressing a determination to go to war) was self-destructive.

Instead of sitting in quiet dignity, aware of our strength and self-worth, we went to wars that, even if they had been justified, we cannot win, and which, given Vietnam and the earlier  experiences of Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, we should have known we could not win.  As a psychologist, I’ve learned not to trust anger in either myself or others.  Far more often than not, it is a sign of weakness, not strength.  Often it is irrational.

The assertion that our angry irrational outrage against countries that had nothing at all to do with the 9/11 attack arose from an “ancient paranoid ethno-religious rage,” as Equale puts it, has made me wonder about this almost universal tendency for societies to declare themselves to be superior to everybody else.  Most often this takes the form of identifying ones community or society as “God’s chosen people”  (though there are variations on this theme, as the study of the history of non-Judeo-Christian cultures demonstrates).

This position as God’s favourite has huge advantages.  First, it helps cement a social identity and to enforce a cohesive set of laws and customs.  Of course, it makes us intrinsically superior to everybody else as well, without our having to do a single thing.  We have been chosen.  And anybody who attacks us is therefore not only in the wrong, but by that very fact become God’s enemies.

Given that Christianity is supposed to include all people everywhere, one would think that this might lead Christians to work for peace and justice and love on a global scale.  Unfortunately, a belief in our unassailable self-worth is not so easily achieved.  Religion is used as often as the justification for attacking our fellow-man as it is for caring for him.  And her.

Being God’s favourite, though, does, I think have potential.  Parents have favourites.  They will respond to something in one child that another child does not have.  But if they are good parents, each child is a favourite in a different way.

Personally, if one believes that God has Chosen People, I think the mature version must be to recognize that God has many favourites.  We are each Chosen.  We are each his Favourites.

So maybe I’d better be careful about beating you up.  God might not like it.


September 9, 2011


Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:07 pm

I looked up the word Faith in Hebrew yesterday to see how the word might have been used in the original biblical texts of early Christianity.  What exactly, for instance, did St. Paul mean when he wrote “Faith, hope, and love, these three.  But the greatest of these is love”?

There seem to be as many meanings for the word faith in Hebrew as in English.  The term emuna refers to belief, the meaning that is most often understood when we use the term “Christian faith,” for instance.  It is the only definition which until recently I ever applied to religious faith.

But there is another Hebrew word, emun, which means confidence or trust.  It is what we mean when we say, for instance, that we have faith that someone will keep their word.  We trust them.

The third Hebrew word for faith, mivtakh, is similar to emun and means loyalty or allegiance.  It’s the meaning in the phrase “keep the faith.”  In other words, stay loyal to your people, maintain your allegiance.

Neither of these last two words require  adherence to a set of  dogmas.  They require rather something closer to what I think is conveyed by the term faithfulness.

From what I have read recently about the history of early Christianity, this is far closer to what Christians meant by faith.  Until the 4th century, there was a high tolerance of dogmatic variability.  Faith did not require Christians to all believe the same thing.  It required that they remain committed to their people.  And their people, for Christians, is the whole world.  Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither man or woman, neither black nor white are excluded.  Christian faithfulness is to the entire human race.

At the moment, though, what I find so liberating about translating the biblical term as faithfulness is that it greatly reduces my sense of alienation from Christians whose beliefs are different from mine.

Like so many others, my own family is riven with deep disagreements about Christian beliefs.  And too often we have found it not only impossible to talk to each other about anything important.  I have often felt like a hypocrite.  I don’t want to disparage or criticize the belief of others, but I don’t want to pretend or even lie either.  And so mostly I have felt alienated from those whose beliefs are so important to them and which I do not share.

But this doesn’t seem so terribly important if the essence of Christianity is not faith but faithfulness.  Others might think it is, and of course, that remains a source of tension.  But their beliefs which I myself cannot share no longer mean to me that I am an outcast from the people with whom I grew up and with whom I still share so much.

The difference between faith as dogma and faith as faithfulness is right now being faced by Maryknoll, the American missionary communities of priests, brothers, sisters, and lay workers of which I was a part.  One of the priests of Maryknoll who has worked among the poor for more than 40 years has been excommunicated by Rome for his defense of the ordination of women, and the Maryknoll priests are currently in the process of expelling him from the community.

Many Maryknollers are appalled.  For them, faith is faithfulness.  Faith is doing what I have seen so many of them doing — welcoming those who may no longer be nuns or active priests , may no longer be believers at all but who care about the human community, who want to help, who are committed to building a fairer, more just and loving world.

I think in some ways these latter Maryknollers are fighting Rome for their faith on exactly the same principles that the early Christians fought against Roman tyranny.

That takes courage.

But they’ve given me a great gift.  I won’t say so out loud because I’m sure to be misunderstood.  But on their terms, I’m a Christian.  And I will strive to be faithful to the people to whom I belong.  And who belong to me.


September 2, 2011

Preaching vs dialogue

Several days ago it was suggested to me, as it occasionally is, that I am on my way to hell.

Now there is no possibility that these suggestions can put the fear of God into me and nudge me even slightly toward changing my evil ways.  But until now, my stance has always been to take the person seriously.  To ask why they think they know that I am careening on a downhill slide, and to try to enter into a dialogue.

I admit a satisfying dialogue rarely ensues.  But when my response yesterday elicited a virulent attack on my motives, I realized that I simply do not have the psychological energy to endure much of this.

As I reflected on my withdrawal from combat, I began to reassess my interpretation of what I would call fundamentalism.  I have tended to dismiss this kind of thinking as either uneducated or arising out of a psychological rigidity flowing from fear.

This may often be the case.  But it has just occurred to me that there may be another explanation as well.  For thousands of years, prophets have preached.  They have not entered into dialogue.  They have not suggested there may be another way of seeing things.  They have not examined the evidence and suggested a reasonable hypothesis or conclusion on which to act.

Prophets proclaim.  They warn.  They accuse.  They thunder.  They are right!  Not only right, absolutely right.  Unquestionably right.  So right that you will be damned to eternal hell fire if you don’t follow them.

I think that has often been my misunderstanding.

People who have so kindly suggested that I am on my way to hell don’t want dialogue.  They are following the prophets as an example of how to go forth and preach the message of the Lord.

Of course, I think Jesus did say something about a new way…

Okay, enough sarcasm.  I think I should just admit that I am no more capable of carrying on a dialogue with a preacher than a preacher’s method is of convincing me.

August 29, 2011

The limits of literal translation…

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 1:34 pm

And God separated the light from the dark  

August 20, 2011

A rose by any other name would still…

I know the point Shakespeare was trying to make when he gave Romeo these words of love to say to Juliet.  He was trying to say that the names of their warring family were unimportant, that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.

But the words we choose do matter.  They have meanings that march on with layers of meaning given to them through centuries of use.  In the process, many of the most important of these words not only have an intellectual meaning but become clothed with nuances and values that cannot simply be defined away.

I can’t simply say, for instance, “Happy Birthday, dear lout;  I hope you have a lousy year,” and then say that when I use the word “lout” I mean “love.”  Or when I say “lousy” from now on I want you to understand that I mean “lovely.”   It might survive as a joke, but should I call that person “Lout” for the ensuing weeks and months, I doubt it would remain funny.  Because I simply cannot change the meaning of the word “lout” all by myself.  “Lout” means something to the whole English-speaking community and I can’t change it to suit my private definitions.

I am now discovering just how true this is for the word “God.”  It seems to me that, although I share this problem with many others, there are a surprising number who can radically change what they hear when the word “God” is used with little disturbance.

But I can’t do it.  I realized this on reading Tony Equale’s recent post on the need to humanize Christian doctrine.  He totally dismisses the existence of a supernatural world somehow existing apart and above our natural world.  There is, however, a presence in the natural world.  He describes something which scientists and mystics alike have sensed – that there is some ultimate unity in nature, some transcending energy that permeates the entire universe, or even universes if that is the case, perhaps something like light.  Yes, I said to myself, I can allow that.  There seems to be a great abiding mystery at the core of things – perhaps a bit like dark energy.  We can’t describe it, we don’t know what it is, but it seems that it must be there. Although we cannot say we comprehend it in any fullness,  it is, whatever else a natural, not a supernatural, presence.

But then the word “God” came into the picture.  Arrrgh!  NO! I practically shouted out loud.  NOT GOD!

I have been trying to understand this response.  And I think it’s the name.  I learned a lot of theology in my youth, and I believed it.  God was supernatural, he was all-powerful, an incomprehensible male.  He was loving and willing to forgive under certain conditions, but if you pushed him too far, God’s revenge would last for eternity.  He was someone who could be persuaded by the excruciating death of his only son to forgive  our sins,  an apparent vicious paradox I admit I did not understand but somehow convinced myself made sense.  Just as I accepted the curse of original sin visited on every child born on this planet despite the sacrifice of his son which supposedly had earned humanity God’s forgiveness.

Some people don’t seem to carry the weight of all this when they hear the word “God,” and can use it to describe a completely different concept from the one still being defended by most by the leaders of Christianity, and especially by the leaders in Rome.

But I can’t.  For the first time, I have had some sympathy with Richard Dawkins whose anger, if not his ideas, have always alienated me.  Dawkins has said quite clearly what concept of God he so vehemently rejects, but he seemed so angry and I often wondered if his real problem was with his own father.

But I take it back.  I had a deep love and delight in my own father and had a hugely enriching relationship with him.  My problem with “God” is not my problem with my father.  Or with men in general.

No, it’s really the traditional concept of God that I find so revolting.  So unloving.  So arrogant.

And it just doesn’t help to say that isn’t what God is.  No of course it isn’t.  But I can’t use the word God and I can’t hear anyone else use it without that gut reaction of revulsion.

July 8, 2011

The universe in context

It is sometimes surprising how radically the meaning of something can change when we put the exact same words in a different context.

 My father-in-law used to refer to his wife as “the rose in his garden.”  He was obviously not referring to a botanical reality.  He did, however, have a rose-bush in his garden, and when he said when we pruned it in the fall that we should “murder” it, he was just as obviously not referring to his wife.  Actually, he didn’t mean to literally murder the bush either.

Sometimes we can mistake the context or an idea or not recognize that it’s a context at all.  When I was about three, my mother once explained that my dad would be late for dinner because he was “tied up on the road.”  I thought she meant this literally, and wondered how my father was going to unknot the ropes which were tying him up.

It’s not just the thinking of individuals that we need to understand in context.  Stories, literature, art, myth, even laws have to be understood in context.

 So too, scientific thinking, like all other thought, has developed in a context.  In terms of modern science, it emerged in 15th century Europe when the political power of the Roman Church was still paramount.  As the story of Galileo demonstrates, it was often dangerous to think scientifically, and scientists for centuries tread a careful path between evaluating observable evidence and avoiding censure.

One of the attempts to do this was to emphasize that science was concerned only with explanations provided by natural laws.  Theological thought, God, and the rest of the spiritual world belonged solely to the authority of the Church.  This was not a totally successful strategy – it is still not today – but it often created the space for some kind of co-existence.

Bu the thinking of scientists was not uninfluenced by this compromise.  One of the most critical compromises was the scientists’ implicit agreement to keep hands off the supernatural world.  But without realizing it, I believe scientists surrendered a part of reality to the religious authorities.  Plato had posited a supernatural world in the first place to explain how it was possible for us to have ideas about perfect things that do not actually exist in the concrete world of our experience.

In giving up the supernatural world as an explanation for natural events, scientists inadvertently assented to give consciousness a spiritual dimension.  Consciousness, intention and goal-seeking were dismissed as potentially authentic scientific explanations.

This surrender was given a major boost by Newton’s theory of gravity.  What gravity did was to mechanize the scientific view of the universe.  It was – and is – an incredibly powerful theory, and displaced angels and similar explanations for how the stars stay up in the sky while apples fall to the ground.

Ironically, Newton himself recognized that gravity was not exactly a mechanical dynamic.  Gravity does not involve any physical contact between bodies acting on each other, and Newton was forced to posit an additional mysterious force which he did not elaborate.  It was perhaps comparable to the concept of dark energy which scientists today posit must be out there, but which they cannot yet define.

This mechanization represented a huge leap forward in our understanding of the universe.  But it also led to what I think was a terrible loss from which we are only just beginning to recover in the last one hundred years or so.

With mechanization, the universe became passive.  Dynamic forces were dismissed as epi-phenomena — not real in themselves.  Animals were said to be no more than sophisticated machines, and were subject to horribly cruel experiments on the grounds that they are incapable of feeling any more than a car engine can feel.  Everything that ever happened or ever would happen was the result of the operation of completely mechanical forces that will roll irrevocably forward to final entropy.

Science today sees the universe as far more dynamic.  Matter itself is no longer perceived as purely passive, but to contain within itself the very energy that pushes the unfolding universe forward.

In the past, and for some even today, this suggestion that the universe possesses an intrinsic dynamic was dangerously close to a return to supernatural explanations.  It was sneaking God in by the back door.

But today as quantum mechanics on one hand and astrophysics on the other are revealing realities to us that are incomprehensible in terms of our common sense conclusions, mysteries such as the thought processes that Plato found so inexplicable, or the potential of an intrinsically dynamic universe are no longer so intolerable.  Scientists are less terrified of questions that in the past might have been held up as evidence of God and a supernatural world.

I think that in some ways this is giving us our world back.  One can be a scientist without having to deny the essential reality of so many of those realities that were volunteered originally to the Church.

It’s why I myself find it so liberating to accept that I live inevitably in mystery.  It means I don’t have to distort my experience to fit theory.

I can just say “we don’t know yet.”

And we’re never ever going to get to the point where there isn’t something we can’t explain.


April 22, 2011

My Good Friday reverie

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:00 pm

Along with all the theology and immensely rich ritual of Holy Week and Easter, death came to our door as I was growing up rather often during this season.  So even today, Good Friday has a frisson for me that few other days of the year elicit.

Which is probably why I’ve been thinking today about my own death.  It seems that however much I think and talk about the certainty of dying, when that moment comes, I am going to be profoundly shocked.  When the doctors say “there is nothing more we can do,” or in whatever version the new dawn announces itself, I am not, somehow yet prepared for it.

Giving up the fear of hell that was so deeply instilled in our Catholic socialization in itself is no help.  It is the thought of me no longer being here, me no longer adding my two cents worth to life, that seems so unbelievable.

So I’ve been looking closely at the life of other living things.  I am, after all, a part of this great, marvellous, beautiful system that includes trees and flowers, spiders and cats, dogs and birds and squirrels, and the clucking hens our neighbours have just brought home on the other side of our garden fence.

Part of the beauty of this life for every single living thing is being born, is living and growing, and then being finished.  It is dying, often with great beauty and grace.  One can see the age in trees and dogs just as one sees it on the faces and the studied walk of my fellow elderly humans.

Age is beautiful, notwithstanding the unrelenting advertising of Botox and cosmetics suggesting that it is to be feared and banished from consciousness.

So on this Good Friday, I am trying to remember that age isn’t just the price of life.  Age in itself is beautiful.

If I trust life, if my only faith is that existence is somehow worth it whatever the cost, then I must trust that death is somehow right too.  It is not the outrage that I have so often thought.  It’s not a punishment for sin, whatever Adam and Eve thought.

Which is why I’m trying to get my head around what life means.  I want to be able to embrace my death when the time comes.  As somehow, in some inexplicable way, it is part of the gift of life, not just its price.

April 18, 2011

Biblical discrepancies

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

For fundamentalists who believe that every word in the Bible is literally and absolutely true, the fact that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke put the Last Supper on a different day than John puts it is a difficulty mostly to be denied or at best ignored.  For Biblical scholars, it is a problem to be solved.

Maundy Thursday « Matt Zainea | Fish of a Different Color

Essentially, the question seems to have been whether the Last Supper took place with the start of the Passover or, as John claims, on the day before that.

Now, a professor at Cambridge University thinks he has solved the conundrum.  He says that research indicates that there were two different calendars used to determine Passover.  One is the lunar calendar which puts the Last Supper on a Thursday.  But there was also a more ancient calendar in use in among the Hebrews in the first century that would put the start of Passover, and so the Last Supper, on a Wednesday.

A Last Supper on Wednesday would make more sense, in that it doesn’t mean that the arrest of Jesus in the Garden, his interrogation and two separate trials took place not in less than 24 hours, but in closer to 48.  This interpretation also eliminates the apparent contradiction between the various gospels which would solve a problem for fundamentalists.

But it would fix Good Friday on April 3, and Easter on April 5 every year.

That might ruffle some cherished certainties about how things are supposed to be.

April 12, 2011

Faith and Belief: Teeth-grinding moment

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

It was with a surprising depth of sadness that I learned yesterday that the Maryknoll Fathers are going to expel Father Roy Bourgeois because he has refused to back down on his support for the ordination of women.

I haven’t had a lot to do with Maryknoll since I left the convent there more than 40 years ago, but as I’ve indicated in several posts before, I always felt that, despite everything, mostly the heart of Maryknollers was in the right place.  I don’t take it all back.  But I’m wiser and sadder.  It is, after all, an order that stands by the worst of the status quo.

Several years ago, Father Roy participated in the ordination of a woman priest.  He was summoned to Rome and when he refused to back down, excommunicated.  But he was still a member of the Maryknoll community.  Now the superiors of the Maryknoll Fathers have told him that if he will not recant his position, he will be expelled from the community and that Maryknoll will recommend that Rome proceed with stripping him of his priestly position.

This seems to me to be a painfully contemporary example of belief taking precedence over faith.  Father Roy has worked among the poor in Latin America and stood against state-sponsored terrorism at great personal cost.  But he is not toeing the party line.  It’s another example of the Church saying that what a person believes is far more important to Rome than what a person does.  Defending the Roman-mandated dogma is more important than loving one’s neighbour.

In the context of the action taken by the Church against pedophile priests, the censures against Father Roy seem not only draconian but even perverse.  Priests convicted of child abuse are not excommunicated.  But if you argue that women can and should be ordained priests, your sin is so terrible that you can no longer be tolerated as a member of the community which, by definition, is a community of sinners.  Murderers aren’t excommunicated, even unrepentant ones.  Thieves and child-abusers, polygamists and liars aren’t excommunicated.  But the defense of the ordination of women is so terrible that the Church cannot let this terrible evil continue to dwell in its midst.

Personally, I am not in favour of ordaining women priests.  But that is because I have, to my amazement, discovered that the foundation for the ordination of men as it is currently practiced in the Roman Catholic Church arose out of the power structures of pagan Rome and was adopted only in the 4th century at the demands of civil Roman authority who had adopted Christianity.

It was only then that the priesthood was separated as a hierarchy, when bishops moved into palaces, adopted royal robes and began to be called “lord.”  They haven’t moved out of the palaces to this day.  The reason that Protestants don’t have priests in the sense that Roman Catholics do is not because – as I was taught – the sacred line of authority leading back to the apostles was broken with the Protestant Revolution.  It is because the Protestants themselves determined to return to the concept of the priesthood as it was understood in early Christianity.  Priests were not a caste above the people, with a special wisdom and authority not possessed by the unordained.  Priests were not even necessarily all men.  Research is now suggesting that women were priests too.

So I don’t think women should struggle to become part of the aristocracy that now constitutes the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church.  I think priests should once again become part of the people.

I know Rome won’t change.  It is not in the nature of power and authority that it is given up voluntarily.

But people can change.  Tens of thousands of people are already standing in the Tahrir Squares of Catholicism.   Only a few, though, are being asked to pay the price that Father Ray is being asked to pay.

April 8, 2011

Intellectualizing isn’t all that intelligent

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:19 pm

I have in my life more than once been accused of being too cerebral, of intellectualizing everything.  I would like to say that it was meant as a compliment to my intellectual capacity, but it wasn’t and I knew it.

But I could never understand what people meant, let alone have any idea of how to live any other way.  Doesn’t every body think?  And isn’t what we think about something a significant determinant of how we evaluate it and how we behave?

Well, yes.  But at last, I think I have finally discovered what people were saying to me.

It goes back to this difference between faith and belief.  I always thought they were the same thing.  A good person, therefore, believed what the Catholic Church taught.  That was the first essential step without which one could not embark on the path of holiness.

I was a relatively bright child and eager to please, and so  I got a lot of praise for being a good girl.  I liked school and got good grades, I took care of my younger brothers and sisters, I did jobs around the house efficiently.  I had a high proportion of the “right” answers that pleased the adults in my life.

But I lost contact with myself.  In some ways, I always felt as if I were living my life not looking directly at life but through a mirror.  Instead of asking myself what I thought or felt about anything, I asked only what I was supposed to feel about something.

Unlike so many of my friends, I didn’t think forbidding newborn babies entrance into heaven because they didn’t get baptized before they died reflected a pretty unlikeable God.  I didn’t wonder what kind of divine vindictiveness insisted on cursing totally innocent babies with the blot of original sin.  I worked out a rationalization instead.   I didn’t wonder why we had to forgive those who might have hurt us, but why a supposedly all-loving God could send somebody to hell forever for something as menial as eating meat on a Friday.

When the nuns at Maryknoll asked me if I were happy there I said yes.  But I remember quite clearly saying “of course, the right answer is yes.  If I say no, I won’t be allowed to stay, and I have a vocation, so I must be happy.”  But I didn’t ever ask myself if I were actually happy.   I believed I was happy because I was supposed to be.

I rejected most Catholic doctrine by the time I’d reached my late twenties.

But what I didn’t change nearly as radically was using theory to tell me how to evaluate my experience, rather than using experience to evaluate theory.  I used to think music appreciation was understanding the technicalities of music, or that to really appreciate art I had to know what school it belonged to.

In other words, I didn’t listen to myself.  I listened to the damn theory.  And stopped.  That’s the point.  Not that theory isn’t ever helpful or enlightening.

But I so often simply dismissed experience as a flawed distortion of what was “really” right.

I do not think all Catholics are the kind intellectualizer I have so often been.  But Catholics who are intellectuals, I suspect, are more apt to be intellectualizers – to be separated from their gut reactions, to trust the theory more than they trust themselves.  Because Roman Catholicism says that those who do not accept Catholic dogma are heretics who will go to hell.  So if we accept Catholic theology, we are very apt to put it before our own assessments based on something as fallible as personal experience.

Several friends with whom I grew up have recently said things like “Well, we never took that nonsense in religion class seriously, did we?”  Yes, I did.  And I envy them for their uncomplicated ability to reject it and simply stay rooted in themselves.

My husband who was a sociologist of religion laughed when we first met and I said I wasn’t a Catholic anymore.  “It takes a lot more than changing your beliefs not to be a Catholic.”  And for almost 40 years, I have felt there was some essential characteristic of being a Catholic that I did not understand about myself.

I think I have finally put my finger on it.

And I am loving it.  I go out and feel the sun on my face and just let myself enjoy it.  I listen to music without trying to figure it out, I am moved by poetry without needing to be able to explain it.

There are those who say that trusting ones experience is the real basis of faith.  I trust my own experience that being kind is better than hatred, that truth is better than lies, that I like to be helpful rather than spiteful.  I have faith that to be alive is wonderful even when it’s painful and impossible to understand.

I don’t particularly like the word – the associations are too constraining.  But by this definition, I’ll agree to having faith.

April 3, 2011

Mother’s Day and Mother Church

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

Today is Mother’s day over here, which is how I discovered that Mother’s day is another one of the pagan celebrations – like Christmas and Easter and Halloween – that the Church took over from the peoples it converted and made its own.

The pagan celebrations  were originally a spring ritual and centered around not our individual mothers, but around Mother Nature.  According to the version adapted for Christianity, this is the day in mid-Lent to return to the Mother Church.  It’s a custom which has not altogether died out here in Britain, and people often still return to the church where their families originally worshipped.

As with Christmas and Easter, I find myself feeling that the original pagan celebrations are somehow closer to the Earth and life as I know it.

I’m not against Catholicism adopting the beliefs and rituals of other beliefs.  But I think it would a be a richer church if it acknowledged that these insights and celebrations did not originate with them.

No single religion, no single philosophy or teaching, has an exclusive a monopoly on celebrating our place in the universe.

March 31, 2011

The problem of evil: Revisited for the umpteenth time

I was six years old when I first formulated the problem of evil for myself.  Why, I asked my father, if God didn’t want us to commit sins and if he could do anything he wanted to, didn’t he just make us so that we didn’t want to sin in the first place?

My formulations have become more sophisticated in the six decades since then, but in some form or other, it’s a question I can’t leave alone.

I tried atheism as a solution for a short time.  That solved the problem of god but it doesn’t solve the problem of suffering.

For a rather an embarrassingly longer time, I tried sainthood.  I would become a saint and in the process transform the world.  Mother Teresa may have failed.  Even Jesus had not succeeded in eliminating suffering.  But I had some vague notion that I could transform the world.

The next option, using my brain rather than virtue, fell upon similar barren ground.  Being rather well-educated, you might think that even a casual acquaintance of the destruction resulting from world-reformers in the 20th century would have kept me from even starting down the path of utopia creation.

But somehow I kept feeling responsible for the world’s suffering, with a nagging sense of guilt that somehow I wasn’t doing enough.  Here I was – and still am – living in relative comfort and safety.  How can this be fair?

It’s not fair, of course.  I don’t deserve, I have not earned, the good fortune which has graced my life.

And I still do not know why there is so much suffering in the world.  I no longer feel totally responsible for it, but I would like to understand it.

Buddha said that sin is not a positive evil, but is, rather incompleteness.   It is an indicator that we have not yet arrived, that we are still a work in progress.  It’s an idea that resonates with me.

And if I have any tenants of what might be called faith left, it is that existence is good.  To be alive is intrinsically valuable.

Exactly how suffering fits into this I’m not sure.  Except that somehow I believe that it is a creative part of the unfolding of the universe.

This is, I accept, an act of faith.  I can look at my own life and see in retrospect that what I thought was the worst possible thing that could happen was perhaps the best.  But there is much suffering that I cannot imagine being creative.  I find it impossible to look sanguinely as some suffering and blithely sing along with Mary Poppins that it will all be wonderful in the end.

So it’s an act of faith.  Or rather an act of hope.  I trust in the universe as it is.  I trust that what looks so terribly wrong from my small perspective and that I personally cannot fix will, in the end,  lead to greater good.

Having said that, if I live long enough, I am sure to visit this question umpteen more times.

March 30, 2011

Sometimes 2 + 2 = 3

I have often thought that a key problem with religious fundamentalism is that believers have lost the capacity to understand symbolic thought.  They have lost the capacity to value poetry as a kind of truth.  Metaphor is soft-headed thinking.

According to fundamentalists, God could not possibly be speaking in metaphors or symbols.  The only valid interpretation of the Bible is a literal one.  And so they get themselves into the impossible position of arguing against all the evidence that the world was created in six days about four thousand years ago, and that Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden until they listened to the advice of the snake.

This is actually a rather recent interpretation of biblical truth.  For thousands of years the scriptures were interpreted metaphorically.  The Hebrews themselves  understood metaphor, a fact illustrated by Jesus’ frequent use of parables to teach a universal truth or principle.

So where has this anti-symbolic prejudice come from?

As a scientist I hate to say this.  But I fear that at least part of the problem comes from us.  For hundreds of years there have been scientists who have argued that the only reliable, verifiable source of truth is through the application of the scientific method.

Valuable as I think it is, the scientific method does not “do” metaphor.  The very first thing one learns in applying the scientific method is to define terms in clear, unambiguous and concrete terms.   In other words, science defines terms literally.

This is fine.  This is legitimate and immensely valuable.

But over the years, scientific thought has in the minds of many taken a place of precedence.  It is seen as superior to any other kind of thinking.  And so when funds are cut by stretched governments or educational institutions, the arts are cut rather than science.  Film, literature, sculpture, poetry, music are all “soft” subjects, rather like dessert following a meal.  They are pleasant and enjoyable, but in tough times, they are a luxury.

Similarly, only highly intelligent students are considered suitable for careers in the hard sciences.  Poetry and story-writing and composing music again are seen as wonderful contributions to a society that can afford such luxuries.

Which is why I fear that scientific thinking has contributed to the impoverishment that I believe is reflected in so much fundamentalist thought.

Yes, I am a scientist by nature, by education, by choice.  I value what it has given me, which has included moments of intense, even transcendent, joy and profound insight.

But to think that the arts are somehow secondary in our endeavour to become fulfilled human beings is a terrible impoverishment.  They aren’t a luxury.  We need them in the worst of times possibly even more than we need them in the best.

March 23, 2011

Take your pick

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:51 pm

Yesterday I read about a research study that says that religious belief is dying out and will eventually become extinct in nine countries.  The suggestion is that as people become better educated and more affluent, they become less religious.

On the other hand, several days earlier I came across a research study reporting that religious families around the world have more children than non-religious families.

Personally I very much doubt that religion is on its way out.

Changing yes.

I strongly suspect that as long as there are people who wonder what we are doing here and where we are going, as long as we are social animals, we are going to have some forms of what today is called religion.

March 22, 2011

A different road

Several years ago I returned to Maryknoll, the motherhouse of the order of nuns to which I belonged for nine years.  I was there to give a talk to current and former Maryknollers about my book The Big Bang to Now.   It’s a book based on current scientific thought and research, including most significantly, Darwin’s theory of evolution.

There were some listening to what I had to say who were made extremely uncomfortable:  Where was the Garden of Eden in all of this?  where, even, was God?

But what, in retrospect, impressed me most was not their confusion.  It was their ability to put it aside.  It was their ability not to dismiss me as a faithless sinner probably careening down the road to hell.  There was a split between what I would now call faith and belief.  The teachings of the Catholic Church did not inform my world view.  But somehow the women there were able to dismiss this.

And I think that has been a characteristic of many Maryknollers from the very beginning.  I myself cannot live as a participant in a community that is overtly committed to a view of the world with which I am fundamentally at odds.  But many of these men and women can.  And do.

I came away after that weekend at Maryknoll feeling that, although it was not my way, there is something there of deep and profound value.  And something that, to some extent, I was perhaps missing.  They trust what they know.  The contradictions between this and standard doctrine may have been a concern, but if something was going to take second place, it was the doctrine, not their conviction that people have a universal right to love and respect.  Whatever the Church’s dogma might say, what drives so many of them is that children should not have to live on the street, that mothers should not have to die giving birth because there is no medical help, that people should not be starving, that young women should not be driven to prostitution because they are bringing in the only income in the family, that learning how to read makes a difference to people’s lives that matters.

I don’t want to turn all Maryknollers into saints.  They aren’t.

But it is often too easy for me to see the flaws and limitations, and to miss the obvious:  that somehow so many of these women seem to have quietly been able to hold onto the most basic of Christian messages.  And that is a message of love and hope and peace.

If one has that, everything else is optional.  And if you don’t have that, one is not a christian.

March 20, 2011

“Do you believe in God?”

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 1:54 pm

“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious…To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly:  this is religiousness.

“In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

Albert Einstein in response to a telegram asking:  ‘Do you believe in God?’

Sent by Herbert Goldstein, rabbi in the New York Jewish community.

Einstein added that  anyone who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe is akin to a snuffed out candle.

One does not need the mind of an Einstein to stand in awe.  Look at the face of a child, listen to a Mozart concerto, stand under the sky and watch the snow come down or the flowers come up.

Get up in the morning and be amazed.

March 19, 2011

Faith is not necessarily belief

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

After several strong recommendations from sources I respect, I have finally started to read The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox.  I’ve read about 50 pages so far and have scribbled myself enough notes for 5 posts on the topic.   The most significant ideas so far are not new to me but they are explored and expanded in ways I find quite exhilarating.

Cox begins with a distinction between religious faith and religious belief.  Cox was raised as a Methodist and says this idea is not new to him.  But I was raised, indoctrinated, and excelled as a Roman Catholic, and I find the idea absolutely mind-boggling.  It is more than a breath of fresh air.  It’s like a completely new world vision.   I wonder what kind of person I would have become had I understood this half a century ago.

According to Cox, early Christians tolerated a wide variety of different doctrines in their midst.  Dogma, for them, was not the essence of faith and did not define the Christian identity.  The community and something closer to what we mean by trust or perhaps even commitment and love were the essence of faith.   Because love was the essence of the message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have not read the relevant chapters in detail, but Cox argues that doctrine replaced love as the essence of faith when it was adopted by the Roman Empire as its official religion.  (About which I will no doubt write more in later posts. )  But the idea of the centrality of love was never completely lost to Christianity, and often existed side by side with doctrinal correctness.

That is the world in which I was socialized.  I believed it was possible to be a good person without being a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian.  But I did not understand that it was possible to be a legitimate Christian if one did not accept Christian doctrine.  In fact, I think I often felt just a little smugly superior to those simple naive loving ignorant people who thought they were good Catholics but whose theology would – in centuries gone by – have gotten them burned at the stake.

How did we ever come to this monstrous arrogance?  How did we ever seriously think that the essence of what we believe is so much more important than what we do?   Today we have people making ghastly accusations based on belief.  Christians condemn other Christians to hell because they do not accept that the world was created in six days about 4,000 years ago.  No matter that you love your children, sacrifice for the good of your community, act with integrity and love.  You are going to hell because you do not believe that Jesus is literally present in the consecrated bread.  Because you do not believe that there are 3 persons in god.  Because you do not accept the infallibility of the pope or the virgin birth or the resurrection, because you believe in sex before marriage, or think birth control and abortion can be responsible choices.

What shocks me is not that so many people today reject this controlling, frightened, finger-wagging.

No, what shocks me is how long it took me to understand how profoundly wrong it is.

But it also helps me understand how it is that some people I know have been able to stay within the Church.  They never took all that doctrine as seriously as I did.  So they were able to grasp something about faith that I missed.  I had no choice but to leave the Church absolutely and totally, because I thought only a hypocrite or fool could stay.

I’m not suggesting I could possibly return to any church.  But I now understand the priest who answered the woman who told him she would like to return to the Catholic Church but that she didn’t believe in the resurrection or that Jesus was divine and much else.  She didn’t actually say she didn’t always believe in God, but I suspect she came close.

“That isn’t what faith is about,” the priest told her.  “If you feel you belong, you belong.”

Or as a student said in commenting on reports that Mother Teresa sometimes felt pangs of doubt “Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

March 1, 2011

Morality in the hands of government

I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments.  For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.

The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America.  The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims.  The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion.  Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.

At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court.  I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate.  But it’s a lot better than nothing.

February 28, 2011

Is equality secular or religious?

The High Court in London today ruled that a couple who taught their children that homosexuality was wrong could not be approved to adopt a child.  They ruled that the couple were unfit as potential adoptive parents on the grounds that it is against the law to discriminate against homosexuals.

The couple are Pentecostal Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin and argued that discrimination against them on the grounds of their religious beliefs violated their rights to religious freedom.

What is so ground-breaking about this court ruling is that it ruled that secular laws of equality take precedence over religious laws, and that discrimination could not be justified on the basis of religious freedom.

Personally, I am loudly cheering the court’s decision.

But I do now find myself wrestling with a philosophical question about the source of moral values.  I’m not of the view that if people don’t believe in some kind of God they have no reason to be good.

But I have not yet answered to my own satisfaction the question of where I think moral and ethical values should be rooted.  I wouldn’t trust a group of elected legislators in any country I know with the task of making laws that simply suit their private moral views.

I need to do more thinking and reading about this.  Where do my moral values come from and why am I so convinced it is right to respect creation and all that entails?

February 13, 2011

God as an ink blot test

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:15 pm

I was somewhat taken aback reading the New York Review of Books yesterday to realize just how many books have been published lately discussing the relationship between science and religion.  It seems to be a topic of greater importance to more people than I’d realized.

Personally, I’ve been trying to decide whether I agree with those who argue that the human race would be better off if belief in god were exculpated altogether.  Their point of view is that god and religion have been used from the very beginning to justify and motivate our aggression against our fellow humans and to avoid taking personal responsibility for ourselves.

“God,” of course, and the power of religion has often been used to justify every conceivable outrage from murder, torture, slavery, rape, starvation, stealing and vast destruction.

And yes, the concept of god is always incomplete, a metaphoric approximation at best, a ghastly projection of the worst of what we ourselves are at worst.

And yes, the existence of god can be neither proven nor disproven.  Belief in god is, after all, an act of faith.

But before I get too exercised with eliminating the concept of god, I would like to ask first what concept of “god” we want to eliminate.

“I believe in God”t doesn’t always mean “I have the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.”  It doesn’t necessarily mean “If you don’t believe in my God you are going to hell,” or even “If you don’t believe in God you are flawed, ” or “Those who do not believe in my God should be wiped off the face of the earth.”  It doesn’t even mean God as Creator or God as Father or God as our Judge when we die.

For some people,  “I believe in God” really means “I believe in love, in generosity, in forgiveness, in not judging.”  Or it means something like “I believe life is worth living despite some of the terrible things that happen to us.”  Or sometimes “I believe in something beyond myself, beyond today, beyond what money can buy.”  For some people, “god” is not a person in any sense of the word at all, god does not reside in another world beyond this universe, but is a presence which permeates and pervades everything but is nonetheless beyond human ability to understand.

As readers of this blog know, I personally cannot use the term “God” to describe anything in which I believe.  But some people can.  And some people have a concept of god which it seems to me is not only benign or positively enhancing.  Some concepts of god, it seems to me, actually are bulwarks against some of the worst abuses for which “God” is sometimes invoked.

“God,” just as all human reality, is always in part a reflection of the nature of the human mind.  As Stephen Hawking suggests in his latest book, The Grand Design, all of reality is a hypothesis.  So our concepts of “God,” just as everything else we think we know, is in part like the answers we give to an ink blot test.  It is, in part, a projection of our own ideas, hopes, and experiences.

I’m not convinced that eliminating “God” wholesale from our pantheon of beliefs will result in any great improvements in human life.  It depends on exactly which “God” we are eliminating, and what else we are putting in its place.

Recent history suggests to me that the replacement can be just as vindictive, just as selfish, just as arrogant, just as self-serving.

I suspect that changing ourselves into more loving, more intelligent, more responsible human beings is a lot harder than simply getting rid of “god.”

What we put in its place is the really significant task.

January 25, 2011

Missing the obvious

People suffering from a cognitive syndrome known as Asperger’s Syndrome are often extremely intelligent.  I mean off the graph super-intelligent.  At the same time, they are sometimes incredibly literal in their interpretations.   Many times they simply do not understand metaphors or figures of speech or symbolic thought at all.

I was reading a blog post today by the mother of a child with Asperger’s  and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder if Fundamentalists suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome.  Whatever religious persuasion they are, they seem convinced that God cannot speak in symbols – that whatever is written in the bible or other sacred texts is meant to be taken literally.

Why has it not occurred to me before that this may be because it is the believers who have trouble understanding symbols? This seems such an obvious possibility that it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I have never considered it.

If it’s so, it does change the whole premise of the argument, doesn’t it?  I mean, if I’m trying to communicate with someone who takes everything literally, I don’t use figures of speech.

If you’d like a marvellous example of a real-life difficulty, read today’s post on “What we have here…is a failure to communicate.”  Besides being a superb illustration of  Asperger’s, it’s also a hopeful approach suggesting  it is a problem not always totally beyond resolution of a loving and creative mother.

January 20, 2011

Belief and behaviour

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:40 pm

A leading member of the government who is also a Muslim is giving a talk tonight in which she says that Islamaphobia has passed what she calls the “dinner table test.” She is saying that prejudice against Muslims has become politically acceptable in parts of society whose members would otherwise disavow prejudice against racial or ethnic minorities.  Along with bringing it to the attention of the British, she says she brought up the issue when she met recently with Pope Benedict XVI.

I wonder what the pope actually thinks.  Because Christians can hardly hold our heads up high when it comes to racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice.  Until well into the 20th century, Christian churches in American southern states maintained that separation of Blacks and Whites was perfectly acceptable in the eyes of God.

But I think we must fact the painful reality that the problem is deeper than the legacy of American slavery.

Christianity is a religion that claims to be the one and only true religion founded by God in the person of Jesus and declares that outside the Church there is no salvation.

  • It then seems understandable that believers may think that followers of other religions are inferior or even satanic, and may speak and act accordingly.

Christianity is a religion that teaches that Jesus who was God was rejected by the Jews whose leaders were responsible for his death.

  • It seems understandable then that Christians waged crusades for centuries against unbelievers and apostates, and not only felt no guilt for their murders, rape and pillage on the way, but in some cases were even elevated as saints for such heroic acts.
  • It seems understandable that Christians have not objected to centuries of segregation, enforced poverty, murder and genocide against “unbelieving” Jews.
  • It seems quite understandable why, in all good will and often at personal cost, missionaries have set out to convert the “pagans” and in the process brought disease and destroyed the social structure of the peoples toward whom they felt so lovingly superior.

Do I think all Christians suffer from this arrogant insufferable blindness?

Absolutely not.  I know too many Christians whose selflessness puts me to humbled shame.  There are Christians who are guided solely by the injunction to love.

But there is a relationship between our dogmas and our behavior.  Some beliefs are destructive and self-serving.  They aren’t all Christian dogmas.  Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists, polytheists, monotheists, pagans and mystics have all shown themselves capable of producing virulent teachings that lead to the self-justification, even the sanctification, of the most murderous acts.

I personally am not against every set of beliefs categorized as religious.  I am not even against any possible concept which might be described by some as “God” although it is a word that I personally cannot use.

But I do think that religion can be as great a force for the worst in ourselves as it can be a force for what is best in us.  I do think there is an intimate connection between what we believe and what we do.  I know – I know from personal experience – that it is much easier to see the limitations of the religious beliefs of others than of my own.  But I know that Christianity, like other religious beliefs, has been and often still is used to justify and elevate terrible things.

We have to have the courage to admit that we have done some of these things not in spite of our beliefs but because of them.

January 19, 2011

Googling for God

Out of idle curiosity, I went to the Google search engine and looked for “what is god?”  Google found 372 million answers.

Valuable as I find Google for learning many things, this might not be the best method for finding enlightenment.  By the bottom of the first page, Google was suggesting God knows you have a right to refuse Obamacare might be of interest.

Okay, this is my nonsense for the day.  Tomorrow it’s back to the serious angst.

December 15, 2010

Upon my soul

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

As a young child I was taught I had a soul which would never die.  This soul came from God  and if I was good and did not to get dirt all over this soul by being bad and committing sins, I would go to heaven which was my soul’s true home.    I understood that little sins would make little marks on my soul, and big sins would make big black marks on my soul that were so terrible that if I died with even a single big black mark on it, my soul would be condemned to hell for eternity.

That was the basic theology of it.  Since I was a child and could not conceive of things that did not have some concrete reality, I created a picture of my soul.  It was shaped like a diamond and situated just in front of my heart.  It was a rather milky transparency, somewhat tattered like a paper from which the  marks made by my sins had frequently been erased.  There was a large grey blotch which is where the most terrible sin – Original Sin – had been when I was born but which had been erased when I was baptized.

Of course, this was a childish view and as I grew up, my understanding of what a soul was became more abstract and sophisticated.  I understood then that my soul was my life force and when it left my body my body would die but my soul would continue to live.  I also understood that the soul was given to each person at the moment of conception, and that it belonged to a spiritual world that was superior to the world of earthly things.

Although by young adulthood, I’d given up belief in this soul whose rank in heaven was one level below that of angels, I am only now in the last stage of my life truly becoming free of the alienation from myself that this concept of spirit supported.  It doesn’t seem to me to have been true for everyone who believed or believes they have a soul which will one day go to either heaven or hell.  But for me, the idea of a soul which really belonged to a spiritual world beyond this one help separate me from myself.

Pleasure was always dangerous – whether it was in the food I ate, the friends I had, in sexual embrace, in the joy of problem-solving or the smell of the fresh spring air.  It was safer and more admirable to exercise self-restraint, to remember others rather than oneself, to bear pain rather than to enjoy pleasure, to share with others rather than to indulge in taking pleasure for myself.  My pleasure itself sprang from that material carnal self that was the enemy of the soul.

I was a person whom I now see as having been too repressed, too controlled, needing always to do the right thing.  I could never really forget myself because some terrible impulse might slip out.  I could never, figuratively or literally, dance with abandon, shout with joy, sing at the top of my voice.

But in recent years  I have not only abandoned the idea of some other world besides this one to which I will one day ascend.  As I’ve said before, I feel as if I’ve come home, that I’m already where I truly belong. Now  I experience all those impulses and pleasures in myself which before always had to be kept under my strict control as wonderful.  They are an expression of the very core of myself, part of my life force, my impulse to live, to be, to grow.  Yes, of course they must be channelled.  But they are vibrant, dynamic, they are what I am.

Instead of blanking out, instead of repressing and controlling, I enjoy.  I even exult.

I’m dancing.

But let me not go too far in blaming theology for my personal psychology.  Perhaps the idea of a spiritual soul was a convenient rationalization for my own timidity, my own fear of making a fool of myself.  If I had not adopted that particular rationalization, I very well may have found some other excuse for a fear of being ridiculous or out of control.

But for me, at least, the way I defended myself with my supposed spiritual self was often not quite as elevating as I liked to believe.

December 12, 2010

Yahweh and the Universe

Unlike other societies who made images of their gods and carried them around with them, the Hebrews were forbidden to make images of God.  Their prophets destroyed them in righteous fury.

Instead, the nomadic Hebrews  carried an empty tent which symbolized the presence of their God in their midst.  God could not be reduced to images.  Yahweh is He- Whose-Name-Cannot-Be- Spoken — He-Whom-We-Cannot-Know.  The Hebrews did not think their sacred writings were inspired by God with a message meant to be understood literally.

Actually, what I like about the Hebraic concept of Yahweh is that in some ways it resembles the Universe.   It is an amazing, fantastic, inspiring and inexhaustible reality about which we can always understand more and never comprehend totally.

December 11, 2010

The small possibility that I am wrong

Earlier this week we watched a tv programme in which Jacob Bronowski’s daughter, now in her sixties, tried to understand her father who died ,pre tjam 30 years ago.  If you are old enough, you may remember the tv series The Ascent of Man, in which Bronowski argued that science was one of the greatest forces for good that mankind has at its disposal.

His daughter, now an eminent historian, was greatly influenced by her father and his ideals, and it was a great shock to discover recently that during WWII, he had used his rarefied mathematical ability to help allied planes drop bombs on German cities like Dresden and Berlin so as to maximize damage.  How, she wondered, did he live with this?  And what did he think and feel when he was sent after the war by the military to assess the damage of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

She discovered that Bronowski was not a man who went through life undisturbed by the decisions he had made.  In fact, she discovered and presented some gripping video in which her father faces the issue straight on.

He stands on the edge of a field at Auschwitz where the human ash of hundreds of thousands of Nazi victims of the gas ovens was dumped.  He bends down and takes the ashes into his hands and looks at them intently.  It is not possible, he said, to be absolutely sure about the choices we make.  Life faces us with dilemmas in which the moral choice is not always clear, in which doing anything or even nothing seems tainted with guilt.  But we must, he said, make the choices to the best of our ability at the time.

But we may be wrong.

We may be horribly, terribly wrong.

And then he quoted again that wrenching plea from Oliver Cromwell:  We beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, to consider the possibility that you may be mistaken.  If only people like Hitler or Stalin had remembered that.  It was not science, he said, that murdered these people.  It was people who would not accept that they could be wrong.

I think this is the key to why Bronowski so valued science.  Because built into science is the unrelenting possibility that evidence will prove one wrong.

The history of science is littered with theories that have been accepted and then replaced by new theories because there is new evidence or new a new way of looking at old evidence.  Even Newton’s theory of gravity has not remained unscathed.  No scientist now believes the universe runs solely on the mechanical principles that he thought.

For science, there is always the potential for looking at things from another point of view.  There is always the possibility that I am wrong.

To live with that knowledge, not just in relation to science, but in relation to all the judgements I make, seems to me to demand great strength of character and discipline, but also to offer great rewards.

  • To be in the middle of a heated fight and to consider that there may be another legitimate point of view is not easy.  But it may save a relationship.
  • To be able to consider the possibility that someone who has done great harm may be something else besides a selfish brute who should be kept in prison for life may be the path to forgiveness, even of ourselves.
  • To be able to see something from a different point of view is the essential ingredient of creativity.
  • To believe that what seem to be two diametrically opposed ideas might somehow be compatible might reduce my bigotry.
  • Whatever else, it invariably makes life a surprise.

I have thought for a long time that the key moral value underlying science was to tell the truth – not to lie about what one saw.   But I think now, there is another moral principle just as important, just a hard to practice, and just as applicable in the world beyond science:  to always remember that I might be wrong;  that there might be another point of view that is just as legitimate, or even sometimes more legitimate, than the one of which I am so convinced.

But it’s hard work.  Maybe the work of a lifetime.

December 9, 2010

Music, mystery, and math

It’s not clear to me whether Iannis Xenakis thought of himself more as a musician or an architect.  He was outstandingly brilliant in both.  Mathematics was a bridge for him, and he found music in his modernistic architecture and geometry and set theory in music.

But he was a no mere translator of music into numbers.

Music, he said, was a way to find answers to phenomena we don’t understand.

Xanakis does not seemed to have talked a lot about what he came to understand through music.  Perhaps he felt the music said it for him.

If so, I think I understand.  Music often gives me a glimpse of things I do not yet have words for.  It’s like an arrow pointing to something which I cannot yet reach through rational  or scientific analysis.

I have too great a legacy of distrust for belief based on “faith” to place unquestioning trust in insights music suggests to me.  But I take it seriously.  And it has given me immense joy and strength.

December 2, 2010

More wrestling with selfish genes

Raised as a Catholic, I was taught from an early age that human beings are damaged.  The doctrine of original sin is the explanation for the loss of the mythical Garden of Eden when everything was idyllic, without conflict, or injustice.  We are the reason everything went wrong.  Adam and Eve committed some grave sin, and were thrown out of Eden by an angry God who cursed all human offspring with the stain of sin from birth.

Put that way, it makes God sound like a vengeful vindictive unforgiving and unloving tyrant, and it makes no sense to me.  But this idea that we are cursed by an essential self-seeking sinfulness goes back much further than the Old Testament and survives in much of current scientific theory.

I think part of the reason the idea is so tenacious is that it carries the message that we are not helpless – that by being good we can influence what happens to us.  I think we would often prefer to feel responsible rather than helpless, even if the cost is admitting to inescapable guilt.

I abandoned the idea of original sin many decades ago.  But it is only now that I have begun to question the source of a similarity between original sin and Freud’s id, that self-seeking pleasure principle which Freud believed is the core of our energy.  Behaviorism’s insistence that what we do is determined by punishment and reward is, paradoxically, another version of the same thing.

It is in this context that I found myself objecting to Dawkins’ reference to our genes as “selfish.”  In his comments on my earlier post, Chris Lawrence equates Dawkins’ use of “selfish” to describe genes with the poetic description of the sea as “cruel” or the wind as “angry.”  This impresses me as quite reasonable, and I am willing to accept that Dawkins was speaking metaphorically.

But we still have the deeper question:  are human beings essentially selfish?  Until very recently, I have always assumed we are.

But I’m not so sure any more.  Darwin’s theory of evolution initially had difficulty in explaining altruistic behavior, especially altruistic behavior exhibited toward other species when their preservation was – genetically speaking – quite distant from the preservation of our own genes.

Initially, this altruism was often used as an attack on the adequacy of evolutionary theory, as evidence that human beings are far superior to other organisms who blindly sought their own advancement.  I was never convinced by this idea and still see it as fairly pathetic.

But I am looking now at the scientific evidence and wonder if the drive to survive is as intrinsically selfish as we have assumed.

I say I’m looking at the evidence but it is inconclusive.  We can’t possibly add up all the instances of behavior and compare the two columns of “selfish” and “unselfish” behavior – even assuming we could agree about which behavior goes in which column which we can’t.  From some points of view, even Hitler’s grizzly policy of genocide can be interpreted as a desire to create utopia that went horribly array.

Similarly, is it selfish that we pass on to the next generation only our own genes?  We have absolutely no choice.  I can’t pass on your genes or the genes of my dog or even of my own mother.  So ethically, the mechanics of genetic transmission can’t be called selfish.

The conscious human decision to have children might come from essentially self-serving motives  such as “someone will be there to care for me when I am old,”   “it’s too expensive to have children” or “I will receive a benefit payment from the state if I have children and won’t have to work” .  But there are also apparently unselfish reasons, sometimes extending to selflessly caring for children who aren’t even ones own.

I’m beginning to think that the genetics of survival has generated organisms which are intrinsically unselfish.  That goodness is not simply wrung out of us by fear or need or power or self-serving greed.  It’s in our very genes.  We like sharing, we like being part of a functioning community.  There are scientific studies showing that people find being kind, or helping someone, solving a problem, or delighting in the good fortune of others are highly pleasurable acts in themselves.  I don’t think we have to learn them.

Okay, perhaps there is a streak of unselfishness in the very striving to survive.  What about the cruelty, the blind indifference, the impulse that seems to be present in every living organism on the planet that seems to say: “If it’s a choice between you or me, I’m fighting for me”?

Yes, it’s there.  But is that what we really are, as opposed to being unselfish?  Are we not perhaps both?  Or was Buddha right when he argued that what we call evil or selfish is our incompleteness?

Are we actually evolving toward greater goodness?

I don’t know.  I know my contrarian self well enough to know that on this question I would find myself arguing which ever side is being attacked.  The evidence for either side of the case impresses me both as very strong and as unconvincing.

But that in itself represents quite a big change in my fundamental view.   As I said, I’ve always taken it as pretty much of a given that living organisms, and humans especially, are basically selfish.

Now I’m not so sure.

November 23, 2010

Religion and ritual: The advanced version

Several months ago, Pope Benedict invited disaffected Anglicans – bishops, priests, their families and their parishes – to move en toto to a special conclave in Roman Catholicism where the vicars would be permitted to continue to practice their ministry even though they were married, and parishioners would be assured that they would never be ministered to by a woman priest.

Nobody really knows for sure how many Anglicans are contemplating a transfer to Roman authority, but one parish in a village in Kent – or rather about one-half a parish – that wants to convert  is negotiating with the other half.  The departing half wants to share the use of the parish church with the non-transferring Anglicans.  They would like to use the facilities for Sunday Mass and other Roman Catholic services with their departing vicar-become-Catholic-priest either before the Anglicans hold their services with their remaining still-Anglican vicar.

The resident Anglicans are making accommodating sounds, but I wonder how an arrangement like this will evolve.  Here in the little village outside Cambridge where we live, the imposing Anglican Church as stood for almost a millennium.  Roman Catholics attend Mass said by a Catholic priest every month.  It has not, to my knowledge, been a source of friction.

But the Catholics using the church were not part of the original Anglican community with whom they disagreed so fundamentally that they could no longer attend the same services together.

In the case of the Kent and similar parishes, I foresee one of  two scenarios.  The first possibility is that the split will ultimately be divisive and long-term.  The alternative is that with time, and as the older generation dies, the problems the new Catholics have with Anglicanism will diminish and problems with Rome will increase.  Most especially, the English, in my opinion, are not temperamentally suited to accepting the infallibility of the pope.  It’s just that they happen to agree with him on the issue of women priests right now.

But whether it’s homosexuality or abortion, women priests or papal infallibility, I find myself wondering what has happened to the Christian command to love ones fellow-man?  Should a stray Anglican stray into their communion service, will the Catholics refuse to break bread with them?

How can these matters of doctrine be so important that these neighbours cannot even pray together anymore?

November 22, 2010

An unselfish gene?

Have you ever wondered why Darwin assumed that genes are selfish?  that is, that the pursuit for survival is based on a notion of survival based entirely on the individual involved?

Darwin himself wrestled with the problem created for this position by inter-species altruism.  The classic, but by no means singular example, are worker bees who are sterile but seem to work all their lives solely for the survival of the larger bee community.  Modern evolutionary theorists reason that altruism is a means of ensuring the survival of ones own genes carried by ones closest relatives.  A second-best choice, no doubt, to passing on ones own genes, but it does leave the basic mechanism of evolution in tact.

But I’ve begun to wonder if Darwin was influenced by his Christian beliefs.  Darwin himself took a lot of schtick, not least from his deeply religious wife, when he finally published his work.  But I know from personal experience that one can hold on to ideas that arise out of one’s earliest socialization even when I have thought I’ve abandoned the entire system.

This phenomenon, of course, if not unique to me.  Science itself is shaped by its determination to replace supernatural explanations of natural events with empirical, observable, and testable causes.  But the influence of that rejection of the supernatural has not altogether disappeared.  Many of the mistakes we scientists have made reflect a fear of letting the supernatural in by the back door.

Psychologists, for instance, in order to make eliminate concept of the “soul” tried to develop theories of human behavior in which the mind was completely absent.  Feelings and thoughts were at best epi-phenomenon, shadows of the real reality that could be seen and measured and subject to the laws of physics.  Not all of psychology is completely free of this assumption even today.

What has got me thinking in particular about this selfish gene is the concept of sin.  At the core of Christianity is the belief that mankind is basically sinful, that we need to be redeemed, and that was why Jesus died on the cross.  But it is possible to give up any belief in God at all and still cling to this assumption that we are basically sinful?

Are we hiding from ourselves that we still cling to this belief by using the world “selfish” instead of “sinful”?  Do we think selfish is somehow more secular, less spiritually contaminated, less influenced by this idea which is as old as far back as we can see into our own history?  Even before Christianity, we tried to placate the gods, sacrificed our virgins, danced our rain dances, apparently reasoning that we had done something terribly wrong and that we were the reason things were so badly askew.

In the light of this radical idea, I’m wondering whether the survival instinct is primarily creative rather than primarily selfish.

The problem with answering this question, it seems to me, is that there is so much evidence to support either perspective.  The media, of course, are hardly an unbiased source of data.  Stories that make news are inevitably the ones about disasters and crime, about impending doom, greed and ignorance.  Feel-good stories are add-ons.

How much unselfishness, how much creative impulse, how much caring and concern actually exist in our world?  It may be overwhelming.  Even the awful apparent evilness of a Hitler or Stalin might be interpreted as failed attempts to create a utopia rather than totally self-absorbed obsession with preserving their personal genetic legacy.

This idea is not entirely original to me.  I got the kernel of the thought from Tony Equale’s book The Mystery of Matter, soon to be available on Amazon.  Tony suggests that there is more reason to think genes are unselfish than selfish.  I take responsibility, however, for the elaboration of this idea here.   Equale may totally disagree.

I’m not initially inclined to trust ideas that are too optimistic.  But the more I think about it, the less outlandish the possibility that genes are more creative than selfish seems it might be.

November 20, 2010

Ritual and the stories we tell

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:00 pm

This is a response to Existentialist Ubuntu on Chris Lawrence’ blog Thinking Makes It So, which is itself a response to my post two days ago on Religion and Ritual.

My original post was about my personal difficulty with the traditional Catholic rituals with which I grew up.  I have experienced ritual as a way of humans standing together as we face events in our lives, many of which are inexplicable, but as my belief system diverged from Catholicism, I have found it increasingly difficult to participate in Catholic rituals without feeling a certain sense of hypocrisy in myself.

But we have often been able in my family to take these rituals and adapt them to express our common sense of loss and pain and also joy and celebration based not on our Catholicism but on those deeper values that we continue to share.

But Chris is right.  There are narratives, beliefs underlying rituals.  As I said in my earlier post, we were able to “hijack” the ritual for my sister Mary’s funeral and managed to include the entire – very large – family.  That is the last time we have been able to do it.  Since then, one wing or the other has either been absent or has cringed silently during parts of the ceremony.

The saddest example of the divisive potential of ritual occurred between one of my brothers, D, and sister, B.  D  is a uniquely committed but unyielding Catholic and he and his wife have raised their six children in Mexico following a fundamentalist interpretation of Roman Catholicism.  While not accepting his beliefs, B has been a particular friend and benefactor to his children, remembering their birthdays,  helping pay for their university educations, providing summer jobs, and attending many of the significant events in their lives.

Some years ago she was invited by the family to attend the college graduation of one of the children.  But when she took Communion at the Mass of celebration, she started a rupture that now includes most of us.  She is no longer a believing Catholic, and it was made clear that she was most emphatically not welcome to participate in the common breaking of the bread.  After all, she was not “one of them.”

Almost none of us are “one of them” by his definition, and the split between him and us feels simply irreconcilable.  He believes that without repentance, we are each on the road to hell.  The rest of us, for our part, don’t even believe in hell let alone in his version of our need for repentance.

What is so particularly painful about this rupture is that it is taking place over the very thing which we all share – our common humanity.  Communion, the breaking of the bread, is meant to be a symbol of that.  And yet Rome forbids Catholics to welcome non-Catholics to this table.  Even Tony Blair was explicitly forbidden by the present pope from sharing communion with his Catholic wife and children before he converted to Catholicism.  This restriction is not a narrow fetish of my brother; it is officially mandated by the Vatican.

And so although all of us everywhere do share our humanity, its mysteries, its pains, its joys, and our needs for each other, ritual is not necessarily a reflection of this.  The rituals I have described in my earlier post arose out of beliefs I no longer hold.  I am able to participate in them to the extent that whole group – most of my family – has often been able to embrace the sincerity of varying beliefs and disbeliefs and so subtly change the underlying meaning of the various rituals while retaining many of their outward forms.

But rituals are based on an underlying narrative.  And that narrative might be destructive.  I have often listened to the songs of the IRA calling for Irish independence.  The music is so rousing that I think sometimes I could be mesmerized into doing almost anything with a sense of heroic virtue.  And some people do.

The stories underlying rituals are held by the group as a whole.   I can’t, all by myself, transform any ritual into an expression that suits me personally.  To be a transformative ritual, it must reflect the larger values of the group.  And when it doesn’t, I cannot participate.

Rituals are very powerful, but they are like fire.  They can be healing, creative forces.  Or they can destroy our very selves and what we love.

November 17, 2010

Religion and ritual

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

When my mother died, I was 19, and I, along with my four sisters and five brothers, were all believing and pretty much practicing Catholics.  My mother’s funeral was a traditional Requiem Mass which we all understood and from which I suspect we all took some sustaining strength.

By the time my father died almost 15 years later, many of us were no longer practicing Catholics, and some like me no longer could be considered believers.  But we were bi-lingual, as it were, and Dad’s funeral was a Catholic funeral with all the trimmings.  We knew how to participate in it, and at the end of the Mass as we marched out of the church burst into a robust and spontaneous rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

When my younger sister Mary died of breast cancer in 1994, the Catholic allegiance of her brothers and sisters was in tatters.  Mary herself had at first not wanted a Catholic funeral at all, having given up on Catholicism many years before.  But as we talked about it with her, we gradually agreed that the Catholic ritual was the one we all knew.  The poetry, the song, the lights, the processions were all expressions of sadness and loss and joy and celebration that we all knew.

Fortunately we were able to hijack the ritual this time.  There was no coffin at Mary’s memorial mass, we chose the readings which came from ancient as well as modern sources and none of which were Biblical.  We sang songs from our childhood, and offered prayers that were uniquely composed for this occasion.  Afterwards we returned to the family farm and ate and drank and told stories about Mary.

For most of my adult life, I have felt almost schizophrenic in participating in rituals like these.  The sense of hypocrisy on the one hand and yet participation on the other has created a sense of unease not only at funerals but at weddings, or even when a prayer is said at the dinner table.

But I’ve come to understand something that makes it all right even for someone who has rejected Christian doctrine as completely as I have.  It is this:  whatever our beliefs, whether we are religious or firm non-believers, we are surrounded by mystery.  We don’t know what happens when we die, we recoil at cruelty and injustice in the world, we don’t know whether Homo sapiens will survive until the next millennium, we mourn the loss of loved ones when they die.

And our friends and loved ones are often our strength when these events come crashing into our own living rooms.  They are often the reason why we can go on living in the face of loss sometimes that can seem far worse than death itself.

Ritual is one of those ways in which we support each other.  Bursting into The Battle Hymn of the Republic gave me great consolation when Dad died, not because mine eyes had seen any great glory.  But because it was an expression by all of us who knew and loved my Dad.

So I’m not going to feel like a hypocrite anymore when I participate in the rituals I know.  Whatever the pope might say, the essence of religious belief is the human community.  It is not belief in God or Jesus or in the resurrection or in heaven and hell or the Trinity or any other theological dogma.

It is in standing together with my fellow human beings and saying “we’re all in this together.  We can’t – none of us – can do it alone.  We are here for each other.”

October 26, 2010

But it’s not sexist

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

It impresses me as naive enough that many of the Roman Catholic hierarchy seem to equate paedophilia with homosexuality.

But naive is too kind a word to describe the Vatican attitude that has led it to pronounce that women priests are committing a grave crime equal to that of of the sexual abuse of children.

All 100-plus Roman Catholic women priests in America have been excommunicated.  But it might trouble the authorities that many of their ordinations are valid, having been performed by dissenting bishops who have the irrevocable power to ordain priests.

September 22, 2010

Finding the idiots

I am happy to report that even those English who are atheists, are beginning to object to the nature of Richard Dawkins’ bombastic attacks on believers.

There is a way in which his lack of respect for those who disagree with him make Dawkins even worse than the religious fundamentalists who believe they, too, have the right to impose their beliefs on everybody else.  But unlike many fundamentalists, Dawkins is extremely well-educated and as a professor at Oxford, recognized as an authority in his field.

Being convinced that one is right does not give one the right to treat everyone who disagrees with you like retrograde idiots and fools.

September 19, 2010

The English Way

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

The pope left Britain today after an enthusiastic visit in which hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets to greet him.  Many of them participated in an all-night vigil in Hyde Park last night, Susan Boyle sang at the outdoor Mass in Scotland and yesterday the Anglicans put on a service in Westminister Cathedral with enough pomp and ceremony to rival any display in Rome.  There was even an Anglican woman priest who offered a key prayer and whose hand the pope later shook.

The consensus is that it was a “successful visit.”

But those who didn’t like the pope coming over here on the first state visit made by a Roman Catholic pope since the Reformation objected in the typical robust English way.  I personally think Richard Dawkins often does his position harm by his unbridled, unrestrained cleverness.  But I must admit several things:  it’s very English;  this kind of thing is by no means limited to attacks on Catholics;  and part of me can’t help but laugh when I read his latest diatribe:

The pope, he says, is a “leering old villain in a frock”,  but whose conservativism nonetheless is  perfectly suited to destroying his “evil” church from within.   He “should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.”

Sounds rather like a Republican rant against the Democrats in America these days to me.

September 18, 2010

Coming home again

As I have said several times before in this blog, it was my husband who first suggested to me more than 35 years ago that “not being a Catholic anymore” involved a lot more than just not believing in the various doctrines of Catholicism or not going to Mass on Sundays.

My insights into just how broadly and deeply and profoundly my early religious upbringing shaped the whole structure of my world and the depths of my personality have never stopped.  I reached what I thought was a culmination several months ago with the huge liberation I felt when I realized I’d rejected absolutely the existence of another world of spirits, of heaven or hell, that somehow is supposed to transcend this universe.  I belong here, not somewhere else, I evolved within this universe, when I die all what is me will remain a part of this universe.  I’m not going anywhere else.  I’m already home.

I’ve just come to understand, though, in another way just how alienating the metaphysics underlying Catholic teaching has been for me.  To some extent this is probably true for all Catholics, but it has been especially so for me, I think, because I was quicker than most to grasp the theological and philosophical issues to which I was exposed even as a child listening to the erudite discussions that took place around our dinner table.

What Catholic doctrine did for me was far more than teach me some critical  dogmas like the teaching that Jesus was both God and man, that he physically rose from the dead after his crucifixion, and that his disciples watched him ascend to heaven some time after that.  Those beliefs I gave up long ago.

The much longer struggle has been for me first to recognize and then to change my tendency to ignore my personal experiences as inferior to reasoning.  Far too often, I have looked first for the “right” answer.  If my own intuitions or experiences don’t match that right answer, then it was my feelings that were wrong.  In fact, my feelings were completely unimportant, were irrelevant to assessing the situation.

Now there is nothing wrong with not trusting one’s intuitions without reservation.  In fact, it is an extremely important thing to do.  But there is something terribly askew if one never questions the “right” answers either, if one never really says to oneself “what do I think?  what do I want?  how do I feel about this?”  And that is what I have done far more often than I would had I not been such an accomplished Catholic thinker.

For example, when I decided to enter the convent, I never asked myself if I wanted to be a nun.  I asked myself if God had called me to be a nun.  The decision, in other words, was not mine but God’s.  Once I decided God had called me, I had to answer it whether or not I wanted to.  I do not remember ever once asking myself what I wanted to do with my life.  The “right” answer to that question lay somewhere else:  what did God want me to do with the life he’d given me?

In the same way, after I entered the convent, we were each asked by our superiors when they were considering whether we should be accepted to take our vows, if we’d been happy since we had come there.  A good friend of mine answered “no.”  I was appalled.  “No” was absolutely the wrong answer!  If you said no, you wouldn’t be accepted.  And she wasn’t.

But my own error was even greater.  I said yes, I had been happy.  But I said it because I knew it was the right answer.  I wasn’t aware of this.  But I did not even ask myself if I’d been happy.  Referring to my own feelings was irrelevant.  If I was going to stay in the convent, I was supposed to be happy, and so the right answer was that I was.

Yesterday I was reading Tony Equale’s newest book The Mystery of Matter in which he discusses the difference in Greek philosophy of existence and essence.  Essence, he points out, is what really matters;  existence is somehow secondary.  And I suddenly realized how profoundly this apparently esoteric distinction going back 4,000 years has influenced my own thinking processes all my life.

And in a matter of minutes, I understood something about myself I have been puzzling about for decades.  Why do I like modern art and feel so constricted by renaissance artists?  Why do I find such delight in discovering that even the strongest scientific theories have cracks in them?  Why do I feel so constrained by rigidly laid out gardens and so liberated by naturalistic plantings?  Or why do I remember so vividly the student who did not have the capacity to analyze the problem but who looked at me and said stubbornly “The data is wrong:  blacks aren’t less smart than white people.  It’s just wrong.  I can’t explain it.  But it’s wrong.”  And why did I know she was right, and why did I spend the next decade of my career analyzing that data which looked so convincing but which somehow I too knew was wrong?

It’s as if something in me has always been saying “smash the damn right answers;  right answers are never absolute;  right answers aren’t everything.”  But I never knew before what it was that I wanted to put in the place of those right answers.

And I realized as I was reading a the recent post on Equale’s blogthat what I want to put in place of those right answers is myself, is the validity of my own experience.  I feel as if until now part of me hasn’t ever let the other part of me actually live.

I’m an old woman now.  But I’m dancing.

I’ve come home again.

September 15, 2010

Pregnant moment

The pope is due to begin a three-day visit to Britain tomorrow.

Feelings are running deep.  A German cardinal who was supposed to accompany the pope announced tonight that he wasn’t coming because England is “a third-world country” which is prejudiced against Christians and where the Anglican church is “a waste of time.”  Thousands of tickets for the outdoor masses being said by the pope are left unsold and 80% of the population seem to resent the fact that the pope is coming officially as a Head of  State rather than as a religious leader and they resent the 20 million dollar cost to the taxpayer that it is costing to provide the pope with security.

Meanwhile Britain’s Advertising Authority has told an ice cream company they must remove their advertisement showing a pregnant nun eating ice cream with a banner saying “immaculate conception.”

I appreciate that part of the problem is cultural.  English humour is unique and offense is not taken at many kinds of jokes that would not be acceptable in any other place I know.  Actually, I often hugely appreciate it.  But I also appreciate this is now a global world with mass communications and people’s sensitivities beyond this island must be considered.

But part of the problem also seems to me that Christianity has forgotten that it presents itself as a religion of love and forgiveness.  Britain is not prejudiced against Christians.  Though one must admit there is some historical feelings about Roman Catholics, what with Henry VIII being excommunicated and the Queen today being the official Head of the Anglican Church and all.

But despite the hosts of both Anglican and Catholic martyrs mutually created during the alternating reigns of Anglican and Catholic monarchs some four centuries ago, the real anger at Roman Catholicism today in Britain is related to the revelations of the repeated cover-ups of paedophile priests not in the distant past but in the  present.  Protesters are planning to greet the pope over these priests who are still being protected by the church.  Since 2001, 22 priests have been convicted and sent to prison for at least a year for child abuse in Britain.   Yet today more than half of them remain in the priesthood.  They are not practising as priests but they have not been defrocked and are living in church houses under church protection and care.

Adults who were abused as children are telling their stories – one American woman said that at the age of eight she was repeatedly held down by a nun while a priest raped her.  Many of these adults want to meet with the pope.  He is willing to do so but only on the grounds that the meeting is private and that nothing that is said during the meeting is ever made public.

Most of the victims are refusing to meet this last condition.

Their view is that it is this kind of secrecy which has been the problem with the church’s attitude toward pedophilia for centuries.

As I have said before, I know first hand that sexual and child abuse is endemic among the Catholic clergy.  But with great sadness and reluctance, I am reaching the conclusion that this abuse is far deeper and broader throughout the church than I suspected even in my worst moments.

September 9, 2010

The Truth?

I don’t always know what I’m talking about but I know I’m right.

Muhammad Ali

And so a church in Florida with a mere 50 members, only 30 of whom attend services regularly, is still planning to burn the Koran on Saturday, the anniversary of 9/11.

Proclaiming the Truth, says the pastor, is more important than not insulting the millions of Muslims who will be offended, more important than religious tolerance or avoiding the deaths of U.S. military in Afghanistan or Americans anywhere.  “Don’t blame us,” he said.  “We belong to a religion of love;  Islam is a religion of hate.”

The local fire department says he does not have permission to have a bon fire, and may be on hand to stop it.  The news here reports that the pastor says he might consider not going ahead with the burnings if he gets a personal call from President Obama.

Oh my, we do think we are important now, don’t we?  They say another pastor in Tennessee is lining up to pull the same publicity stunt.

Seeing this virulent intolerance rearing its head once again in the name of freedom in my country is much worse than watching the disaster of the World Trade Towers.

September 7, 2010

The fine line between brilliant and kooky

When it’s not in my field of psychology, I often find it difficult to know whether a scientist sounds off the wall because his/her thinking is so far brilliant, so far ahead of mine that I can barely grasp it or because s/he is simply kooky.

Which is why I’ve been wondering lately about the concept of emergence.  I’d begun to get a little suspicious about it, and I wanted to know if it belonged in the same category as Intelligent Design or if it was a legitimate concept within the mainstream.  Kauffman in his book Reinventing the Sacred argues that emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted using the scientific method and equates emergence with creativity.

Data supporting the failure of science to predict emergent phenomena is quite solid and broadly accepted.  I first began to wonder, though, when Kauffman’s suggested that we might equate this emergence or intrinsic creativity with the Sacred.  Even with God.    I knew that was a step too far for me, but scientists are always going beyond the limits of the proven.  If they didn’t, we’d never have any hypotheses, no break through theories.  So that is fine.

I really started to question, though, when  I discovered that many writers are using the concept of emergence as that elusive question which so many believers are looking for, that question to which the only possible answer is God.

So although I know it’s hardly a return to the original sources, I asked Wikipedia about emergence.

Art by Holly Werner

It is, indeed, a highly respectable idea that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and does indeed describe phenomena from physics to psychology that are greater or different than the simply sum of its parts.   At the moment it seems to be an aspect of mystery in the universe which is attracting particular attention.

Some people want to find God in the universe.  Some people don’t.  I’m in the Don’t group.   For me adding God doesn’t elevate the universe but downgrades it.  I remember as a young teenager saying that I didn’t want someone to love me because I was made “in the image and likeness of God.”  I wanted them to love me because they loved me.

And now I sort of feel that way about the universe too.  It’s fantastic.  It’s incredible.  It constantly brings me to a state of stunned awe.

I’m sure it isn’t true for everybody, but for me, adding God flattens everything, it reduces it.  Almost as if there nothing particularly impressive to notice about the universe in its own right.

I can see where Plato was coming from with his world of perfect forms and I understand how the Church transformed that to a supernatural world presiding over this one.  But I can see why Buddha never added God to his world view.

I’m opting for belonging 100% in this universe.

That’s awesome enough.

September 4, 2010

“We don’t know” vs “It’s nothing but”

It would be interesting to know if Stephen Hawking’s new book, Grand Design but not Grand Designer, has caused as big a stir on the American media as it has here.  It isn’t quite another Galileo moment, but it has the same ring.

What Hawking is saying is that we do not need to posit a Creator for the universe, that we know the laws of physics now well enough to understand how the universe may have spontaneously emerged out of nothing.  I don’t claim to understand this, but I am sure that Hawking, one of the pre-eminent physicists in the world today, knows that he is talking about.   In other words, he is talking physics, not theology.

But Hawking is knocking down one of the great “We don’t knows” used to buttress the existence of God for almost half a millennium.  If we don’t need a Creator to understand how we got here, what rationale do we have left for believing there is a God?

Personally, I have long felt that substituting “God” instead of “I don’t know” for any question to which we don’t have the answers was always going to be faith on very shaky grounds.  Scientists have been answering our “I don’t knows” for centuries — how the stars stay in the heavens, how the eye works, how the great diversity of life occurred, why volcanoes erupt and earthquakes crack open the face of the earth.  And now this blow:  how the universe started.

The stubborn, unyielding, rejection of science on the grounds that it can’t be so because the Bible says so is not terribly new, but it does seem to be activated by fresh virulence and irrationality.  Yet, it seems to me, the direction is irrevocable:  believing in God because we have no explanation for an event convinces fewer and fewer people.

Though you might not think so listening to many of the theologians being interviewed over here.  Few seem to have a concept of God that can withstand the possibility that the universe is the result of the application of natural laws rather than of supernatural intent.

But if I have no patience with the backward kind of thinking that says “this can’t be true because there is a God,” I equally have little patience for the “It’s nothing but” proclamations of absolute reductionism.

The great majority of people in the world today have neither the opportunity nor ability to analyze the scientific or philosophical issue related to these questions.  But I do think people often reject science because they think the scientific attitude requires  a “It’s nothing but”  conclusion.

And so when someone of Hawking’s stature says that we have no need for a Divine Creator to explain the existence of the universe, what they hear is that life has no meaning, that love and generosity have no value, that their lives, their families, theirwork, have no purpose.  It is a message of despair that many people think must follow from a universe without a Divine Creator.

I disagree.  I trust my own sense that my life, that all of life, has intrinsic value.  I happen to think that it is we who must create meaning, rather than a God presiding above from a supernatural throne.

But I do think I have some appreciation of the whiff of despair that science like that of Hawking can create in those who have been taught that it is only God who gives us meaning.

But I don’t think it is Hawking that is the problem.  Or science.

September 3, 2010

Never say never

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

Shortly after I met the man who is now my husband, he made some reference to my being a Catholic.  “Oh, I’m not a Catholic anymore,” I assured him.  I don’t even believe in God.”

At that time my husband was a Protestant sociologist at Edinburgh University in the then seminal field of the sociology of religion.  “Ah,” he said, “it takes a lot more than no longer believing in God not to be Catholic through and through.”  He meant, of course, that one does not change the encompassing cultural assumptions of Catholicism simply by abandoning the doctrine.  I didn’t understand it then, but I understand a lot more now.

He was talking about things like the role of women, the understanding of marriage, the raising of children, attitudes toward achievement and ambition, one’s relationship to the community, the source of one’s sense of purpose and self-worth, the particular dimensions of guilt.

Not all of these things are necessarily negative.  I have been grateful for many of them.  But it is only with time that I have realized how many I never questioned.  They were just the way things were, and the way everyone with a sense of moral decency lived.

Being married to an English Protestant and living and working outside the country in which I was born have made me realize just how profound the alternatives are.  Not only experience but psychology, sociology, philosophy, history, religious studies, and anthropology, all of which I studied on a graduate level, were enlightening.

Nonetheless, being raised as a Catholic, just as being raised in any other strong cultural tradition, is a profound and pervasive influence.  Changing attitudes and values rarely happens quickly.

This view, however, is quite different from the Roman Catholic value that basically says that one can never stop really being a Catholic.  Catholics might become “fallen Catholics,” or “apostate Catholics.”  But they can’t ever become non-Catholics.  This is the view that is reflected in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when the dying father, who has rejected the Church for years, calls for the priest on his deathbed.

I find this attitude immensely irritating.  Yes, it takes time and thought and experience.  It probably takes a certain level of ability and a predisposition to think about these things.

But the view that one can’t ever really stop being a Catholic, or can’t ever really stop believing in God or in heaven and hell is brain washing with no substantial evidence to back it up.

If you are wondering what started all this, it was a discussionon somebody else’s blog.  Nobody actually accused me of still being a Catholic, but I was reminded of it.   And it was made worse by a relative who assured me that it was true.

“Just wait,” he said “until you are dying.”

As Lucy would say:  Grrr.

August 27, 2010

Why do people lose their faith?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:57 pm

Since they were discovered alive, television here has been carrying the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine on a daily basis.  Today they interviewed a psychologist who has studied the psychic characteristics of those who survive experiences like this and asked him if people’s faith helped get them through.

“Sometimes,” he said.  What he found to be the critical characteristic, though, was not faith but a coherent and strong sense of the structure of reality.  It did not need to be faith-based.

The psychologist was then asked what percentage of people lose their faith following a near-death experience or long-term trauma like being trapped underground for months.  He said about a third.

Apparently, those who lose their faith in circumstances like this feel that God has betrayed his half of the bargain.  God is indeed anthropomorphized into The Lord who asks for loyalty and faithfulness in exchange for his protection.  Faith is lost when God fails to provide that protection.

The discussion led me to wonder about the different reasons people abandon the faith in which they have believed.  In addition to feeling that God has failed, I think there are two other significant causes.

The first is that the doctrine no longer makes sense.  It seems childish or superstitious or simply out of tune with the view of the world revealed by modern science.

The second loss of faith is a result of the actions of those people, especially those who are religious leaders, who make moral demands which they themselves do not honour.   The Roman Catholic today is losing millions of members in the developed world as scandals are uncovered.  Particularly damaging are the cases of pedophilia which the Church has consistently tried to cover up.

Personally, I was never taught to believe in a God who would take care of me if I would follow him.  On the contrary, my up-bringing taught me to expect suffering for following Jesus who was crucified before he rose from the dead.  My mother’s death at the age of 48 when she left behind ten children, the youngest of whom was six years old did not present even a glimmer of a crisis to my faith.

Similarly, I have always found it strangely egocentric for people to thank God for saving them from some disaster.  There is a church in the village where we lived in Spain built by sailors who promised that if God saved them from a storm that was threatening their boat they would build this monument in thanksgiving.  There are those in Haiti today who thank God for saving them.  But what kind of sadistic God would it be anyway who tortures many of his creatures but arbitrarily will save some who nonetheless are tortured and threatened first?  I was never tempted to give up belief in that God because that is not a God I ever believed in.

Interestingly, I was never tempted to give up belief in God because of the sinfulness of members of the Church either..  I saw a lot of it up close in religious  men and women.  And though it made me angry and I recognized it as hypocritical, I rather thought the Church was meant to be a place for sinners and getting to be a nun or priest, even a bishop or cardinal, didn’t provide automatic sanctity.

I take this limitation of the Church much more seriously now than I did, and it is one reason why I could never be tempted to return.  “By their fruits you will know them” is advice given by Christ to his followers.   For myself, I have seen great goodness and mind-boggling self-serving immorality among believers in about the same proportion as I see it among non-believers.  It often takes on a different form, but my own experience doesn’t lead me to believe that being a believer actually elevates a person’s moral calibre.

Being what Jung called a thinker rather than a feeler, I suppose it’s not a surprise that for me it was the dogma of Christianity which ultimately I could not accept.  I know an amazing number of people who still consider themselves Christians, who are even overtly practicing Catholics, who are unphased by the fact that they simply don’t accept what seem to me to be essential dogmas.  Not just rather silly things like the virgin birth but the divinity of Christ, the real Eucharistic presence, or the resurrection.  I mean, I don’t believe them either, but I don’t consider myself a believer.

August 24, 2010

Some things never change

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 7:59 pm

A report today in Britain revealed that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, police in Northern Ireland, and the British government all participated in a cover up of the evidence that a Catholic priest had engineered an IRA bombing 40 years ago that killed 8 people, including both Catholics and Protestants, adults and children.  The priest was transferred to a parish in Donegal, and died 30 years ago.

The reason for the cover up was that the “Troubles” were at their height, and both the government and the church were concerned that an already highly volatile situation would explode into full-fledged civil war if a Roman Catholic priest were arrested as a terrorist.

The families of those who died were told today why no one was ever charged.  The priest wasn’t even interviewed by the police despite highly suggestive evidence.

What do you think the government,  the church and the police should have done?  My own feeling is that too often the RC church tries to solve its problems by covering them up.  And I dare say governments are not far off doing the same when they can get away with it.

I think the priest should have been arrested and charged if the evidence suggested his guilt.  (Instead, some of the records have disappeared.)

Also dealing with what appear to be unbridgeable and deadly religious divides, a friend just sent me a questionnaire about building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center:

How far from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is far enough away to build a mosque?

  • Allow space in the World Trade Center itself or within several blocks of the site:  Islam is basically a peaceful religion and the right to freedom of religion is a constitutional right.  Yes, it was a horrible mass murder by terrorists but terrorists come in many different religious guises (eg: the IRA) and we should not all be punished for the horrible murder committed by terrorists.
  • 10 blocks
  • 1 mile
  • 10 miles
  • not in NY City
  • not in NY State

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if New Yorkers could say “Islam has a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center and we will not betray our ideals by trying to stop it”?

And at the same time, if those wanting to build the mosque would say “yes, we know we have a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center, but it will cause a great deal of pain and offence if we did.  So we aren’t going to” ?

But I fear that if the mosque got built in proximity to the World Trade Center, it would be bombed.

August 23, 2010

Another comeuppance for us

The Kepler space telescope is out there looking for intelligent life on another planet.  I’m not sure we want to find it.  If it has evolved with a drive for survival anything like ours, both we and they will shoot first and ask questions later.  In which case, the meeting may be as deadly as the meetings have been that have occurred between humans reintroducing themselves to each other in the last 500 years.  And these meetings were simply between various groups of human beings separated for as little as ten thousands years.

Religious groups won’t like it either.  Dealing with the discovery that we humans are not at the centre of all things  was hard enough when Galileo convinced the world that the earth revolves around the sun.  Darwin’s theory of evolution dealt another blow to our uniqueness, and continues apace with our recent creation of new life forms in a laboratory.   Many people already dislike the idea that plants and animals are intelligent in a way akin to human intelligence, and discovering that there are whole groups of intelligent beings out there seems intolerable to some who believe that their god could only love us Homo sapiens if we are not at the top of the tree.

Some people look forward to discovering that we are not alone.  But what exactly “not alone” means is unclear.  Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Seti Institute, suggests we need to think about the possibility that what we might find in outer space is not an intelligent biological organism, but intelligent machines.

Well, if we did, it would certainly shed light on the mind-body problem.

August 3, 2010

The finest thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It frees the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead.  A snuffed-out candle.  It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, the emotional manifestations at the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude.  In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

Albert Einstein –

Address at the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion, New York, 1941

Okay, if this is what some people mean by “sacred,” I can buy it.

(But I still don’t like the word.)

August 2, 2010

“Sacred” as an alternative to “god”

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last three days I have been engaged in no fewer than four discussions about the alternative to God.

If, as we all agreed, the traditional concept of god is anthropomorphic and coercive, and if, as we all agreed, this concept of god appears to be incompatible with science, what is the alternative?

It was apparent during these various conversations how central the question of reductionism is to this question.

Traditional reductionism says that everything that has ever happened or will happen in the entire universe is ultimately completely explicable in terms of the interactions of fundamental particles.  In terms of God, the most this position can say is that there might be a Creator God who set the universe in motion and then dissociated himself from any further interactions with it.  It is a machine which now runs on its own and will inevitably go forward according to the mechanical laws which govern it.

The alternative within science to traditional reductionism is not as fully defined as this.  There is agreement that the traditional approach has been breathtakingly successful in explaining some phenomena.  There is also agreement that at this point traditional reductionism is incapable of predicting the course of developments once we enter the realm of living things.  It cannot predict with any precision the course of evolution, of the development of the economy, of technological advances, or even the direction of the stock market within the next week.  It doesn’t even have any suggestions about how to go about making these predictions in a more scientifically precise way.

The alternative or additions required to reductionism are far from agreed, however.  Not everyone agrees whether all the laws governing the universe can be called “natural.”  Or whether a creative impetus is intrinsic to the universe.  Or whether we need a new concept of an immanent, even emerging “god,” or whether the word “sacred” describes the mystery in which we find ourselves immersed.

I have already said that I do not believe in the traditional concept of god.  Even the word “sacred” makes me very jittery.  I have heard people describe what they mean by “sacred.”  They use words like  overwhelming reality, stunning, awesome, astonishing, mysterious, amazing, all of which I can use without a qualm.  But “sacred” carries too much baggage for me.

No matter how much people argue that they don’t mean “god,” when they say “sacred,” I cannot banish the image of votive candles and priests in vestments lifting their hand in blessing.  “Sacred” for many is liberating with a suggestion of infinity.  For me it is coercive and suffocating.

I suppose my hang-up with the word sacred stems from my childhood when I was taught that “sex is sacred.”  This piety didn’t succeed in permanently ruining the possibility of sexual pleasure, but for some time it was pretty effective.

And it does seem to have permanently influenced my reaction to the term “sacred”.

July 13, 2010

Forgiveness Day

I was gritting my teeth recently as I remembered the time I supervised the men packing up all our belongings in our move from New York to Europe.  When they had finished, I thanked them all graciously.  But I didn’t know it was the expected custom to give them each a tip.  So I didn’t.

These examples of insensitivity, selfishness, or simply misunderstanding come back to me occasionally in excruciating moments of what feels like regret.  I would like to say that the intensity of regret is a measure of the harm done, but I fear it too often may be more a measure of egocentrism.  My trespasses are so often so insignificant that only my inflated view of myself can possibly consider them important.  Others might not even remember them at all.

They are not typically things one would mention in confession – if indeed I should ever be tempted to return to that dark secretive cubicle to whisper my sins to the anonymous priest behind the curtain.  A psychiatrist would no doubt conclude that I was dealing with a pathological guilt complex.

So along with Thanksgiving in November, I am proposing Forgiveness Day for myself.

It’s a day when I can forgive myself  for all the things I’ve done, big or small, that I wish I hadn’t.   Whether I did them on purpose or not.  Whether I was culpable or not.  Whether somebody else was hurt or not.  It’s a day when we recognize we don’t have to be perfect – or even very good – to be loved.

I know that in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask to be forgiven our own sins “as we forgive others sins against us.”

But if you are as egocentric as I am, it’s sometimes easier to forgive others than to forgive oneself.  At least when I forgive others I feel gracious and generous and virtuous.

But to forgive myself, I sometimes have to admit that I’m not nearly as important as I would like to think.

July 4, 2010

Reasons to believe in god

Ernst Tugendhat, a German philosopher, says he thinks that, although we need to believe in God, we can no longer do so in the light of modern science without fooling ourselves.  (

I’m extremely uncomfortable with this view.   I think Tugendhat is asking the question the wrong way around.

Instead of suggesting that we are in a cleft stick because we need to believe in a god that does not exist, I think we should ask what needs our various constructions of god are being used to meet.  I think we will  discover that our concepts of god change quite radically, depending on the purposes we are using god for.  Sometimes these purposes are generous and noble, sometimes they are ignoble and self-serving, sometimes they are intellectual, sometimes cultural, sometimes terrifyingly pathological.

Some people use god as the answer to the question of how the universe came into being and is the kind of mystery that it is.  This god might be highly impersonal, a force that initially created the universe which is now left to its own devices.  It might still be a god that inspires awe, but not a god who intervenes with our lives, who answers our prayers, or who is comprehensible in human terms.

Sometimes god is the answer to our desire to know what happens after we die.  Do we simply return to the handful of star dust from which we were originally formed?  or does something of ourselves continue beyond death?  and if it does, what is it?  The god who answers these questions is often more personal, rewarding those who have lived good lives, punishing those who don’t.  Heaven and hell are the usual Christian version of this reward or punishment.  Reincarnation for those not yet ready for nirvana is another alternative.

Then there is the more immediate question of whether life has a purpose, has any meaning beyond our sheer existence.  Am I supposed to accomplish something during my time on earth, or am I simply part of an inexorable mill through which I am processed for some short time?  Sometimes the god who is constructed to give us purpose is a loving god, sometimes a vindictive, angry, punishing god.  This god may be singular or plural, beyond human understanding or embarrassingly human, belong to all people or the sole possession of only a single peoples.

These punishing and rewarding god are the ones most often used to increase group cohesiveness and exercise power and control.  They are the gods often called upon during social and political conflicts, and are used as justifications for trying to control, punish and even kill those who do not submit to the god associated with the most powerful group.  This is the concept of god, I think, which history shows has been used for the most self-serving and abusive purposes.  For the leaders within these groups, aligning oneself with an all-powerful god and even claiming to be a god’s representative adds an invincible authority to their commands.  For every follower, this god is a great escape from insignificance or failure.

I am a psychologist who believes that self-knowledge is by far the hardest knowledge to acquire.  We will go to the most extraordinary lengths to protect ourselves from seeing our own self-serving motives, however glaringly obvious these motives may sometimes be to others.  And so I think insights into the real needs that may be met by our concepts of god are hard-earned.

And indeed, our “god” may change quite dramatically during our lives.  In my youth, I believed in a god that was going to give my life a great purpose and importance.  Now I find the attempt to control the behavior – of myself or of others, but especially of children – with threats of heaven or hell highly unacceptable.  Fundamentalist religions in clear contradiction of modern science are equally unbelievable for me.  Preaching that God causes earthquakes and tsunamis as punishment for our sins simply seems ridiculous whatever concomitant good its followers may achieve.

This is why I would not ask if we need to believe in god.  “God” is too amorphous a concept in this context.  I would ask instead what needs we have that we use our concepts of “god” to meet.

June 16, 2010

The problem of evil doesn’t go away

I was quite young – well, young by my standards now – when I realized I had a problem with God because of the problem of evil.  It seemed to me that suffering and injustice suggested either that God was not as powerful as he was supposed to be, that he didn’t care, or that there wasn’t a God at all.

My problem now is that eliminating God from the equation doesn’t solve the problem of evil.  I still don’t know what to make of what looks like so much meaningless, unjustified destructive suffering.

Buddha said what looks like evil to us is really incompleteness – it is the manifestation of which is unfinished.

Another alternative is that suffering and injustice do not pose a problem because the universe simply follows the immutable laws of physics.  “Evil” is no more a problem than why ice melts or why apples fall off the tree.  The laws of nature are impersonal and inexorable and suffering results the way soft things are crushed beneath the weight of a heavy stone rolling down the mountain.

I do not know if I cannot accept this bleak alternative because I lack courage.  Or is it because my sense is based on some authentic insight that a place as incredible as the universe is not meaningless.

I am inclined to think, though, that it is we who must give it meaning.  It’s not just already out there ready made for us to somehow find.

April 29, 2010

Coming home

I have been reflecting in recent weeks on the path I have taken from my childhood belief in heaven and hell to where I am now.

By the time I was a teenager, I had outgrown the holy card version of heaven in which I knelt on a lower cloud surrounded by angels and saints in adoration of the King of kings.  I understood by then that heaven had to be a more sophisticated place than the one I was capable of understanding at the age of five.

By the time I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I’d given up most of the dogmas intrinsic to Roman Catholic doctrine.   I had consigned anthropomorphic concepts of god to the same category of childhood as my first heaven.  God, it seemed to me, was immanent in this world, and we were in part responsible for what the world became.  Our destiny, and the destiny of everything we touched was not inviolable, controlled exclusively by some divine plan that we were charged with somehow discovering and executing on pain of eternal damnation.  We were more responsible for what happened than that.

During those years, my view of life after death rested on the hope, which I sometimes thought of as an intuition, that in some way life did not end with death.   My reasons for taking this position, vague and undefined as it necessarily was, depended on two things.  One was the sheer flatness of accepting that there is nothing more than a recycling of molecules in a random process of birth, life and death and round again.

I rejected – and still reject – this expectation.  My sense – increased rather than decreased by my studies of science – is that there is a directed dynamic in the universe.  It is, at this point in time, beyond our complete understanding, and perhaps the process is and will be forever.  It seems to me to be a profound mystery, but not one which is therefore “above nature.”

But where do we fit into this process?  Are we no more than a packet of passive molecules put together for a short while to operate as humans and then return to dust?

I think not.  I have somehow never been able to accept the dust-to-dust hypothesis in its dreary completeness.   The reason I have long reasoned that life simply does not completely evaporate with death into molecular inertness is what in philosophy and psychology is often called “the mind-body problem.”

Put simply, the unanswered question posed by the mind-body problem is how something material – like the apparently electro-mechanical processes of the chemistry that control the brain – give rise to a completely immaterial experience like consciousness.  In recent times, neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying relationships between various psychological states and processes and corresponding brain activity.

While on the one hand this increasingly convinces me that the nature of our intelligence and our consciousness cannot be separated from the physical selves we and all living things are, on the other, we still haven’t the faintest scientific idea how the brain produces something as ephemeral, as non-physical, as thought.  Neuroscientific research simply ignores the existence of this question.

So for many years I have simply lived with the view that since consciousness does exist, there seemed to me two possibilities.  One is that consciousness – or mind – is a separate entity from body.  This possibility is vaguely related for me to believing in a soul or a spiritual world.  I have long suspected that it is a semi-secularized version of the Christian supernatural world elaborated from Plato’s world of perfect forms.  That does not necessarily make it invalid.  It is possible that these ideas which at such a young age influenced the very structures, the foundations of my world, were not wrong.  But I have not been convinced.

Increasingly I have favoured a second alternative.  That is that both mind and body are natural realities but that we do not yet understand how they are aspects of the same thing.  We did not understand until Einstein how matter and energy are aspects of the same thing, and simply lived with an unresolved dualism and the scientific and philosophical questions that dualism generated.  It seemed to me that someday scientists and philosophers would also come to understand how mind and body were two aspects of the same thing.  Not by reducing mind to a mere excitation of molecules, but by somehow preserving the nature of mind as I actually experienced it.  Not as something blindly mechanical over which my sense of control was an illusion, but as the dynamic drive which it seemed to me to be.

How this might possibly be conceived I had no idea, and thought it unlikely that I would have even a glimmer in my lifetime of how this might be possible.

But I have increasingly over the years begun to feel that this natural world is the only world.  I have increasingly edged toward making it my home.  This is not only where I am, but where I am always going to be.  When I die, I am not going to be – I do not want to be –  swept into a supernatural world where somehow I’m supposed to really belong.

No, I belong here.  In some form or other, my being will be here for eternity.

This universe no longer seems to me to be the flat reductionist place I used to think.  The mysteries suggested by science are more jaw-dropping, more incredible, more exhilarating, more challenging, than any religious vision I have ever imagined.  Whether it is imbued with a sense of what some call “the sacred,” I don’t know.  Any word that reminds me of the world “God” and its anthropomorphic distortions makes me very nervous.  But I do not see why, even as a hard-headed scientists, words describing the universe as potentially infinite, as eternal, as dynamic, even as profound, are not appropriate.

And now I even have a glimmer of idea of how the mind-problem might be resolved.  Not by positing a supernatural world, but with a different understanding about the nature of the very energy/matter out of which the universe is made.

But more on that in another post.  Even these thoughts, such as they are,  probably need further clarification and I will review and quite possibly re-write this post tomorrow.

For now, it’s not sufficient that I’ve come home.  I need more mundanely to go to bed.

April 23, 2010

What in heavens name I’m talking about

As I’ve been trying to identify the fundamental assumptions differentiating science and religion, it has become obvious that, although science represents a more or less a coherent acceptance of the nature of the universe and the methodologies by which we explore it, religion is almost limitlessly diverse.

Some religions teach that there is one god, some believe in many, Buddhism has no god at all.  For some, god is immanent, for others transcendent, some gods are scandalously like us.  Some religions assume there is a supernatural world and an after life, others don’t.  Some religious views are diametrically opposed to science, others argue that science is a telescope that gives us a vision of a deeper reality.  For some, salvation lies in acceptance of specific doctrines of faith, for others it lies not in what we think but in what we do.

So I guess the moral of this story is that if I’m going to keep talking about religion, I’d better be clear about just what religion I’m talking about.

April 22, 2010

Does science do poetry?

I find the world as it is revealed by science one of the incredible, awe-inspiring, gob-smacking visions I have ever experienced.  I’m not special in this regard:  millions of others, scientists and non-scientists alike, do too.

I love science, I think like a scientist, and I find the scientific endeavour exciting and challenging without limits.  I get a lot of inspiration from it, and it has been a major influence in my understanding of reality and what I’m doing here on planet Earth.

But the methodology of science, by and large, the nitty-gritty of every day research, is pretty down to earth.  Although scientists may be poets, science isn’t poetry.  The methods of science do not use symbols and myth, allegories and parables.  In fact, science involves specifying in precise, clear, one-dimensional terms the variables it is using and the results it finds.

And so I wonder if this characteristic of the scientific method is one of the contributing factors in the spread of fundamentalist religious thinking.  Until the last five hundred years, the Judeo-Christian religions recognized the value of mythos, of fables, and symbols.  The scriptures were understood by saints and scholars alike to be filled with truth communicated through them.

Today, however, fundamentalist religions insist that the scriptures can only be interpreted literally, that God does not speak in symbols, has no poetic intent.

My question is the extent to which this might be the result of religious thinkers attempting to emulate science.

Scientists, of course, would be appalled at being so misunderstood.  And it was never their intent to eliminate symbolic thought from its role in human understanding.  Religious fundamentalists no doubt would be equally appalled by this blasphemous suggestion.

But I wonder.

April 19, 2010

A testable possibility

In my post yesterday I suggested one of the issues frequently – though not always necessarily – dividing science and religion was the disagreement over the existence of a supernatural world whose inhabitants may intervene directly in the operations of the natural world.*

But there is a second assumption dividing scientific thought and religious belief which seems to me to be even more fundamental.  Not only does science accept only explanations which reflect natural processes and events, those explanations – that is theories – must be testable.

We’ve already seen that scientific proof is not absolute.  There is always the possibility that even the strongest, most broadly accepted theory, will be overthrown by new observations and new theories that explain what we observe more simply or with fewer contradictions.

Nonetheless, to be a workable scientific theory taken seriously by the scientific community, it must be testable.  That is, it must make predictions which scientists can then test.  The more predictions are validated, the stronger a theory becomes.  They are, essentially, the “proof” of the theory.

If a theory cannot be tested or if its predictions fail, it is not accepted as scientifically valid.

Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are based on faith, which by its very definition, cannot be tested the way a scientific theory must be.  Religious doctrine may make a lot of sense, may explain much of what we experience about the world and what we hope for the future.  But it is accepted for reasons that are beyond proof.

To many people, this sounds like an open and shut case demonstrating the superiority of science.

But I’m not so sure.

I personally cannot argue for the infallibility of any particular religious belief.  But I have difficulty accepting the scientific method and reason as the only valid roads to understanding.  Why?

First of all, because there seem to be so many important things about which we must decide in life which are either in theory or in practice not subject to scientific or even full-scale rational scrutiny.  And some of these decisions are terribly important.  Like:  “will we be happy if I marry this person?”,  “what career path will I find fulfilling?”,  “will this investment make a profit?”  Admittedly, science can sometimes shed light on these questions, but it cannot answer them if only because in practice I cannot set up the required scientific observations.

And there are other questions which are simply beyond scientific testability.  Like “does my life have a purpose?” or “why does a child or a flower or even a frog deserve respect?”

Are the answers we give to questions sheer guess work?  or can we intuit some things, can we at least orient ourselves in the right direction?  Has, perhaps, evolution given us some wisdom to which we have access but which we do not fully understand about ourselves?  are even our scientific hypotheses based initially on intuitions which have a better chance of being validated than would mere guesswork?

And if we do possess some capacity for intuition, how do we use it? through poetry?  through music or literature?  from others? in our scientific endeavours?

If yes, how do we recognize it? can we validate these intuitions outside science in any way?  How do we distinguish between superstition and valid intuition? between wishful thinking and insight?  between fear-laden bigotry and a sixth sense that we might trust?

Given my background, I tend to approach these questions as a psychologist first, rather than in terms of theology or philosophy where I am a neophyte.

From that perspective, at this point, I don’t fully trust the announced intuitions of any one who seems to have a need for absolute certainty, who cannot consider the possibility that they might be wrong.  This is as true of scientific as religious thought.  I think it is an inescapable condition of being human that we must live with some level of uncertainty.  The decisions we make will always entail some risk that we are wrong.  That’s life.

But I also look for some coherence.  I can’t adopt a philosophy of life that broadly contradicts the assumptions and observations of modern science.  So I do not believe that the world was created in seven days some four thousand years ago, I don’t think homosexuality is intrinsically wrong or even immature, I’m open to the possibility that polygamy is a viable structure for some cultures, I don’t think any of us have a mission from God to either convert all non-believers or eliminate them from the face of the earth.

I do, on the other hand, have a sense of responsibility for earth and every one and everything in it, mainly because I can’t see any other alternative.

* There is a fuller and possibly more accurate exploration of the relationship between philosophy and religion by the author of the comment made in relation to my post yesterday.

April 18, 2010

A perfect world

I said in my last post that the idea there is another “super natural” world more perfect than the one we live in is one that often divides the scientific and religious world.  But the idea of a super-natural world is not necessarily religious wishful thinking.  And it did not begin that way.

We can trace the idea of a super-natural world to Plato and the Greeks to the fourth century BC.  The question Plato was trying to answer was how we know what know.  How, for instance, he asked, do we have an idea of perfection – perfect circles, perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect apples – when in our world none of these things are ever absolutely perfect?

Because we can think about these perfect things, Plato reasoned, they must exist.  Since they don’t exist in this world, they must exist in some “super” world, some place where perfect forms are real.  Plato’s supernatural world had nothing to do with God or religion.  In fact, Greek gods were far from perfect.  They lied, stole, and engaged in bullying just like ordinary people only better and bigger.

Moreover, this idea that because we can think of something it must therefore exist is a belief that some great thinkers still hold.  Some of today’s greatest mathematical thinkers, for instance, believe that the world of numbers is real, that they exist in a perfectly logical universe of their own, and that if we can think of these numbers, then they must exist.

So how did the idea of a super-natural world become so unacceptable to science?

The idea of a supernatural world which the Greek science of the day believed explained human understanding was not a world that early Christians necessarily believed in.  For many, the natural world was the only world and their God was immanent in this world.

But by the fourth or fifth centuries, Christian theology had adopted Plato’s supernatural world and populated it not with perfect numbers and shapes and objects but with God and the angels and saints.  And then a parallel Hell was populated with Satan and everyone who was not perfect enough for the perfect world generally thought of as Heaven.

When modern science emerged some 600 years ago, scientists did not reject the idea of heaven and hell, just as many scientists today do not.  But what scientists did say and say universally to this day is that science looks for explanations that reflect natural processes.  As scientists, they reject explanations in which natural events are seen as the result of the intervention of supernatural powers, whether those powers are seen as benevolent or as meant to punish humanity for its sinfulness.

So for the scientists, it was not a miracle that saved my life, nor are earthquakes and plagues and volcanic eruptions turned on by supernatural powers because we humans have sinned.

Millions of people today believe in this spiritual supernatural world.  I am not among them.  I think we must take responsibility for the world as best we can as we understand it.  It would be nice to think that however uncaring or self-absorbed we may be, that ultimately there is a Great Plan which will make it all come out right and we will live happily ever after.

But I can’t see any evidence that this is so.  Although that is hardly conclusive.  All sorts of things exist of which I don’t have the slightest intimation, and or evidence.

And so although I don’t believe myself that there is another super-natural world, I don’t think the idea is always as Luddite or stubbornly ignorant as some have suggested.

April 16, 2010

Different starting gates

All of us make assumptions in our thinking that often seem so obvious and reasonable that we are not even aware that they are completely beyond proof.

In the Western world, we assume, for instance, that the world of objects we experience when we are awake exists independently of our experience of them.  And we assume that other people who are not blind or deaf or in some other way suffering from sensory incapacity can experience them too.  So I believe the desk at which I am sitting is a real desk and if you were here, you would see it too.

But how do I know that for sure?  how do I know that this desk is not simply a figment of my imagination?  how do I know that what I think of my memory of my entire day isn’t a dream?  Occasionally, what I have thought was real has turned out to be a dream, and when I wake up I sometimes as not sure whether I dreamed something or actually experienced it when I was awake.

Actually, there is no way I can prove beyond doubt that the world outside my mind is objectively real.  But since most of the time, everybody else seems to behave as if they are experiencing the same world I am, and since everybody else seems to believe without question that that world is objectively real, so do I.  As does almost everybody else everywhere in the world most of the time.

But most of the time isn’t all the time, and occasionally there are personal disagreements.  Sometimes these disagreements are even between entire cultures.

When our consciousness is altered through illness, drugs, lack of sleep, stress, or because of the very nature of our brains, or because the society within which we live interprets experiences in a particular way, we sometimes do not agree about what is real.

For instance, hallucinations are terrifyingly real for someone seeing it.  Voices have directed people to comment acts as irrational as murder, suicide, and impossible feats like floating or flying unaided.  Similarly, peoples from some cultures today believe that their dreams reflect visits from real people.  I remember one of my foreign students who could not get his mind around a Freudian interpretation of dreams because he did not believe, as we do in the west, that dreams are sole creations  of the dreamer.  For him, the people in his dreams really were talking to him.  They were real, even those who had died.

If we start out with different basic assumptions about what is objectively real and what is not, we are going to have a great deal of trouble understanding each other until we recognize that we are each starting from a different place.

As I said, most of us most of the time accept the objective existence of the world.

But there are other, equally important assumptions, about which we are not so generally agreed.  And some of the most divisive, if often unrecognized, differences in our starting assumptions are between science and various religious views.

Is there, for instance, a supernatural world which has both the power and the desire to directly influence what happens in this natural world?

Before you start spluttering that the answer is obvious, pause a moment.  Neither position might be quite as ridiculous as you might first think.

Or perhaps more accurately I should say that although I have made up my own mind about the question, people who disagree with me no longer seem to me to be quite so obviously wrong-headed as I once thought.

Why this is so will be the subject of my next post.  Unless the volcanic ash currently emanating from for the volcanic eruption in Iceland does more than simply ground every single commercial flight in Britain and halt flights throughout all of Europe.  All of which is happening now.

Unless, of course, all this is a figment of my imagination.

April 4, 2010

Easter follow-up

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 2:38 pm
During the Vietnam war, many of us who were protesting it felt a certain moral superiority in relation to the generations preceeding us.  We were, we thought, creating a new world, a new utopia.  We weren’t just against the Vietnam war.  We were against all war.  We were against racial and sexual discrimination.  We were against bigotry and hypocrisy.  We were the flower children.

But even then I was disturbed by some things I saw happening.  I remember a fellow worker who was taking welfare checks along with his pay check.  Several others routinely “liberated” food from the local grocery store.  “Liberated” food, presumably was not actually stolen.  And the sexual liberation masquerading under the guise of free love was more often abusive, disregarding, and uncaring.

It is with this in mind that I am not happy to see the authority of the Roman Catholic Church totally derided and undermined by the scandal in relation to sexually abusive priests.  I am concerned that there are too many people who have no other moral compass than the RC Church who may become rudderless if they no longer respect the moral principles they were taught.

But I cannot hope that the Church can continue to deny its culpability in order to maintain a moral authority which it preaches but does not itself practice in an area as significant as the issue currently confronting it.  If people are leaving the Church en masse, it is because the hypocrisy is untenable.   Although I might be concerned about an over-reaction, I am grateful for their refusal to sanction the cover-up.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his sorrow for any difficulties his comments caused in Ireland and  several Irish Anglican prelates have expressed their support for the RC church.  Additional comments by Rowan Williams this morning, however, make it clear that he was apologizing if he made things more difficult for those in the RC Church who are sincerely trying to deal with this situation with integrity.  But he says in words of one syllable that he believes a Church that preaches repentance must itself be seen to practice it.  He seems to agree that the Pope’s recent letter seems to express greater concern for the reputation of the Church than for the suffering of the abused.

It may also be noteworthy that none of either the Anglican or Roman Catholic prelates in England have thus far distanced themselves from the archbishop’s initial remarks.  The RC bishops in England in the last ten years have taken a far more robust and effective stand against abusing priests than they have in Ireland.

Whether Rowan Williams lacks some diplomatic skills (I think he does), or not, I find it difficult to understand the statements coming out of the Vatican this morning equating the attacks on the Church with “petty gossip.”  One cardinal is also saying that the cover-ups were really the decisions of Pope John Paul II, not of the present pope.

I know from personal experience that the cover-ups have been going on since I was a child when our pastor was spirited away to another parish.  At the age of eleven, I thought he had a drinking problem, but learned later that it was far more serious.  I personally know of scores of incidents of sexual abuse by priests, either because I myself have been propositioned, or from students and friends who have come to me for advice.

The problems are deep, endemic, and have been going on for a very long time.  How many priests are abusive is impossible to know.  I suspect it is a minority (although possibly quite a large minority).  But a minority can create immense damage, especially when the problem is covered up instead of dealt with openly.

Although it is clear from comments coming from the Vatican this morning that there is still a strong impulse to avoid facing this issue head on, a veteran Vatican reporter says that it has, to his amazement, opened up the discussion of a married clergy in a way that it has never been discussed in in recent times.

A married clergy would not be the total solution.  Marriage does not miraculously cure paedophiles or turn abuse into respect.  But it might help.  For all their philandering, some of the most sexually ignorant people I have ever met are Catholic priests.

April 3, 2010

Religious politics strain brotherly love

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 4:45 pm

I’m sure it’s in the news that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church throughout the world, has said that the Catholic Church in Ireland has lost all credibility and that it is difficult for some priests even to walk in public wearing a Roman collar throughout the country.  It’s front page news here.  The Archbishop also suggested that the Pope would be greeted as a colleague in his visit to Britain in September but suggested a distinct lack of enthusiasm about seeing him.

Apparently the Pope’s visit was planned initially to welcome in hoards of Anglican priests and their parishioners who were fleeing to Rome in protest over the ordination of women priests and bishops in the Anglican Church.  It was a rather under-handed manoeuvre by the Pope to offer them asylum making a tricky situation for the Anglican Church even trickier.

The Irish paedophile scandal, however, has given dissenting Anglicans pause lest they find themselves in the fire instead of the more comfortable frying pan.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who constantly reminds the voting public that he is the son of a Church of Scotland minister, has declared that the Labour Party is the Good Samaritan.  He’s behind in the polls for an election that will probably take place on May 6, and by law cannot be delayed beyond June 6.

Also of critical interest, today Cambridge beat Oxford in the annual boat race that’s been taking place on the Thames for 180 years.  Thousands of people lined the Thames to watch it, and tens of thousands more watched it on television.  The race lasts for 18 minutes.

It’s important to keep things in perspective.

April 2, 2010

The science of Good Friday

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:08 pm

I’m just finishing another Question Beyond Science for the next edition of The Big Bang to Now in which I try to explain why and how “facts” which have been proven by science can then be disproven.  Facts in science aren’t absolutely certain and as a matter of fact (sic) frequently change.

This morning I was reading a review of a BBC documentary on the theological changes over the millennium given to the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross.

As a child I was taught that Christ died for our sins, giving me a share of responsibility for the execution.

Early Christians saw it as a sacrificial offering par excellance, one that was so great, so satisfactory to God that no other sacrifices were needed.  Societies could therefore stop sacrificing their virgins or their leaders or their most treasured assets because Christ had died for all of us.  I think this view undoubtedly contributed to the conversion of pagan leaders whose own lives were often seen as the most precious offering a people could offer to appease their gods..  Since in dire straits, the life of the leader was often given in sacrificial worship, Christianity was literally a life-saving device.

After Constantine had converted making Christianity the state religion, the emphasis began to change, and Christ’s death was presented principally as the conquest of the devil.  In medieval times, the emphasis reverted somewhat to the theology of the early Christians, emphasizing that the death of Christ was in payment for an obligation mankind owed God in recompense for our sinfulness.  Abelard emphasized that it was an act of love on Christ’s part, whose death, appeasing God the Father, redeemed us.

Today theologians most often emphasize Christ’s death as a symbol of suffering.  In the convent, I was encouraged, for instance, when I was disappointed or in pain to look at the crucifix and realize how small my own suffering was compared to the horror of being crucified.

One of the things I find interesting about the changing development of theology is that it is, quite unexpectedly, like science in that it moves from certainty to certainty while mostly nobody notices.

Of course, the justifications and methods used for changing perspectives are not the same using the scientific method as in the development of theological reasoning.

But one way or other, it doesn’t seem to be just the individual who changes his/her mind with time.  We all seem to do it.

Splutter of the Day:  The Vatican today suggested that criticism of the Pope and the Church’s handling of child abuse cases is akin to anti-Semitism.

March 30, 2010

A preconceived notion upended

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:14 pm

Before reading any further, I have a question:  if you were given an unearned $100 and asked to share whatever part of it you chose with an unknown person, how much would you give away?  Would that percentage change if you were given $100,000 instead?  Would the percentage change if the money you received were an inheritance from your parents which left nothing to their other children who were also your genetic siblings?  Would it be different if they were not blood relatives?

I’ve just read an article in The Economist reporting on a research study to find out if our sense of fairness was inherited or more influenced by economic integration such as trade and/or by our religious beliefs.

The study included more than two thousand volunteers from 15 different contemporary small societies around the world.  Some of them were highly isolated with little interaction with individuals outside their small group.  Others experienced fairly high levels of trade, exchanging market commodities with people outside their own group.  At the same time, they also varied in terms of their religious affiliations, some participating in their tribal religions, others in world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

The findings surprised me:

  • Voluntary fairness toward strangers was significantly greater in communities with higher levels of trade and economic integration.
  • It was also greater among individuals who participated in a world religion than among individuals who participated in their tribal religions.

There are more questions to be asked and additional research to follow up on these findings.  But as they stand, these findings suggest that

  • buying and selling things helps us learn to be fairer to more people, including strangers
  • And so does participating in one of the great world religions.
  • And that in turn helps create societies in which cooperative ventures such as systems of education, transportation, sanitation and energy can develop.  As The Economist suggests, maybe that is why they have become world religions.

Not, actually, the answer I’d been expecting.

March 24, 2010

What’s in a name?

Some time ago I decided that I simply had to stop using the word “god” to describe whatever it was that I experience in the universe that is beyond anything which I can describe ( March 30, 2009 post: My problem with the g-word).  Whatever it is that I “believe in” is not the super-father figure that most people think of when they use the world “God.”  It is something totally rooted in the natural universe, something which I feel I glimpse more through science and music than in any other experience I can think of.

Having  pretty much taken myself out of the category of “believers,”  however,  I have always resisted calling myself an “atheist” because that sounded too much to me like proclaiming with the same certainty as believers about something I do not think we can ever fully comprehend on a rational level.

Now I am thinking that in many cases terms like atheist or agnostic are just as misleading and meaningless.  What atheists typically don’t believe in or that agnostics are unsure about is usually the same “god” that I too have rejected.

Some of the discussions on this very blog, along with posts and discussions on three of my other favourite blogs* on the surface look as if we fit into quite different categories in terms of belief.

But I don’t think any more that is really a fundamental distinction among us.  We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, but we are all trying to make sense of how we make sense of what we all doing on this planet.

*Thinking Makes It So, The World According to Graham, and Tony Eguale’s blog.

March 23, 2010

Whose life is it?

I have just finished reading a large excerpt from The Last Goodnights, the story of a man running his own legal practice in Seattle, Washington eleven years ago when his father, and a year later his mother, asked his help to commit suicide.  His father was a psychiatrist suffering from terminal cancer, his mother an independent, intelligent lively woman who knew she was suffering from dementia.

This is a true story told about something that happened in California, but assisted suicide is discussed in the press and taken to the courts far more publicly and probably far more often here in Britain than in the States.  The issue has been high-lighted by a number of high-profile cases:

  • Terry Pratchett, the author, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  He wants to be able to choose when and how to end his life and has been campaigning for a clarification of the law.
  • Another woman suffering from MS wants her husband to accompany her without fear of prosecution to the Dignitas Clinic in Sweden where she can be helped legally to end her life peacefully when the time comes.
  • Police have decided not to prosecute the parents who acquiesced to their son’s request to accompany him to Dignitas after he was totally paralyzed from the neck down in a football accident.
  • A mother was recently found not guilty of murder by a jury after she admitted helping her daughter, irreversibly and permanently bedridden and severely disabled, to take enough pills to end her life.

The argument against assisted suicide here is generally not that an individual does not have a right to end their own lives.  It is not against British law to commit suicide.  But it is against the law to help someone else commit suicide.  The argument against changing the law is the fear that people – especially the old and infirm – will be talked into committing suicide by those who find caring for them a burden and/or who would benefit financially from their death.

Personally, I believe that a person should be permitted to help someone else commit suicide if one is convinced they are of sane mind, have a realistic assessment of what they are facing, and are clear that they wish help to end their lives because they cannot end their own lives without help.  I am quite clear that there are circumstances under which I would end my life without guilt.

I also have very little respect for religious arguments that a life should be solely in the hands of God.  I might respect – if not agree – with this position a little more if these same people argued against capital punishment with the same energy that they wish to impose their values regarding abortion and assisted suicide on believers and non-believers alike.

But I also think any law on assisted suicide must be crafted very carefully.  Not only is there the temptation to hurry up the death of someone whose demise will benefit us personally.  There is also often the pain of watching a loved one suffer and the temptation to end ones own agonizing by ending the suffering of someone else by killing them, whether or not they wish it.  Euthanasia or mercy killing is not the same as assisted suicide.

I think it’s my life.  But it’s also my suffering.  And if I am able, I prefer to make my own decisions about when and how I might wish to end either.

March 15, 2010

Odds of 3 to 1

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 8:53 pm

Several weeks ago, the papers carried an admission by Pope Benedict’s older brother that he hit the boys in his choir in Regensburg when he was director there.

A report is now being published that Pope Benedict himself as a bishop deliberately covered up incidents of pedophilia by priests in his diocese.  Reports are also pointing out that the defense of the two Irish bishops accused of covering up incidents of priestly pedophilia there is that they were “only following directions,” and that their actions merely reflected policy directed from Rome.

The bookies over here are now taking bets on whether Pope Benedict will step down.  They are giving odds of 3 to 1.

I would have thought they were closer to 1000 to 1.

March 10, 2010

Self-flagellation and sanctity

I’ve just read a short excerpt from a new book about Pope John Paul II who Rome put onto the first rung of the ladder to sainthood last December.

Apparently he flagellated himself with a belt to emulate Christ’s suffering.

I fear I am more repulsed than edified.

Somehow most of this kind of thing strikes me as too egocentric and  self-absorbed.  Personally, I think it’s usually more important to forget about ones own limitations and purported “sinfulness” and worry more about loving and helping others.

February 24, 2010

Was Plato left-handed?

I know:  along with deciding what to put on the table for this evening’s meal, whether Plato was left-handed is the most urgent question facing most of us as we press forward with our daily lives.  

So how did I think up this vital question?  The reason I’ve been wondering is that there is a pattern among a small group of people – mostly men.  They are often brilliant mathematicians, are left-handed, and think that the world of absolute numbers actually exists in a separate universe from the imperfect world we inhabit.

Today, the majority of people who believe in another universe besides ours do so for religious reasons – it is where God and the angels and the departed who have achieved sainthood live.  But it didn’t start as a religious idea.  Plato lived four centuries before Christ, and his “perfect world” was not one inhabited by God but by perfect forms.  Today, people in the modern world who believe in other universes for reasons that are not religious tend to be mathematical geniuses.  There are also cultures where people believe that the world into which they move in their dreams also has an objective existence.

They think they have direct experience of this other universe in the same way most of us feel we have direct experience of the ordinary world around us.  We “ordinary people,” occasionally might get a glimpse of why this alternative world feels so real when we ourselves can’t remember if we dreamed something or if it really happened.  Our memory of the experience is the same, and sometimes we even have to ask someone else if it happened or not.

So I’ve begun to wonder just when, and how far, and under what conditions we can trust the validity of our own experiences.

Anyway, that’s why I began to wonder if Plato was left-handed.  I’m pretty sure he was brilliant.  And I’d guess he was mathematically gifted.  And I’m pretty sure he experienced that world he described where perfect forms exist.

For myself, I don’t think so.   Even though that leads to a lot of philosophical problems that I’m not even going to begin to get into tonight.

Besides I’m still fighting the tail-end of the flu.  Can you tell?

February 21, 2010

Why can’t science answer our God question?

People who believe in God and those who don’t often find each other incomprehensible.  Even worse, they often think the worst of each other.  At best, believers fear for the salvation of the unbelievers, while non-believers often suspect believers of superstition and fear.

Why can’t science answer this question for us?  Why can’t science answer our questions about God?

How Science Works

Science works fundamentally by setting up a hypothesis and asking if there is observable, verifiable, repeatable evidence that the hypothesis must be wrong.  It’s the principle of falsifiability based on what is called “the rejection of the null hypothesis.”

For instance, a drug company wants to know if a particular medicine it wants to market will have undesirable side effects.  To test whether headache might be a side effect, the null hypothesis is “this medicine will not cause headaches.”  It gives the medicine to a selection of volunteers, and if it is followed by headaches, the company rejects the null hypothesis, and agrees to publish a warning that a side effect of the medicine may be headache.  If nobody gets headaches, the company can only say “we have found no evidence that it causes headaches.”  It is still possible that, once a medicine is on the market, some people might get a headache after taking it.  If this is reliably confirmed, it is evidence that does indeed result in the rejection of the null hypothesis which was that the drug has no known side effects

What Proof Could Science Look For?

In relation to God, then, the scientist would ask “is there anything we might observe which would enable us to reject the null hypothesis – that is to say “we have proof that the conclusion that there isn’t a God cannot possibly be right”?

The problem is that there isn’t.  All scientists agree, there is nothing that any of us could observe that would prove that there can’t possibly be a God.  The second problem, though, is that this doesn’t prove that there must be a God either.  What some see as proof of God’s existence, others see as natural occurrences which science can or will some day be able to explain as a natural phenomenon.  For instance:

  • – When the Russians first put an astronaut into space, they announced that they had not found God and that this was proof that God did not exist.
  • – But of course, it wasn’t proof.  Not finding God might be because one hadn’t looked in the right places.  Or perhaps because we do not have the ability to “see” God even when God is there.
  • Some people reason that the universe exists at all is evidence that there must be a First Cause, which could be called God.
  • But other people reason that perhaps the universe has always existed and there is no proof that there is a First Cause at all.
  • Some people say that evil and suffering in the world is why they don’t believe in God.
  • But other people look at the same evil and suffering and say it is God’s punishment for our sinfulness, or that a greater good will come from the suffering, even if we don’t understand how.
  • Some people believe in God because of some good fortune like being rescued in an earthquake or hurricane or some other disaster.  Some people have been converted after being cured of a grave illness or observing something that seems to be miraculous.
  • But other people look at these as natural phenomenon rather than acts of God.

Science and the God Question

That is why the question of God is not a question that can be ever be answered by applying the scientific method.  The problem with testing the hypothesis “There is no God” is that there are no conditions we might observe which would prove that there must be a God, or that there cannot be.

There are many scientists who believe in God and who are committed believers.  But there are no scientists who can say that they believe in God because they have proved this  through an application of the scientific method.  Ultimately belief in God is a decision to go beyond what can be proved scientifically, to go beyond the evidence.

Whatever word one may use, the question of God is not a question science can answer for us.

Belief, however is not necessarily a question of ignoring what we experience.  Many scientists and non-scientists alike intuit a wonder in the world, a mystery, something many experience as transcendent, that some call God, others call Sacred, others simply That-Which-Cannot-Be-Named, or the Unknown.

Some people experience it through poetry or music, in mathematics, in quantum mechanics, in the apparent infinity of space.  Others experience it in a relationship, in the look on a child’s face, in an act of kindness or undeserved loyalty.  Some people have sensed it on the peak of a mountain or an ocean shore, some after a great gift, others after a great loss.

What do you think?

Is there any experience that has or would convince you  that there must be a being you might call God?  or are there experiences that might intimate the presence of something transcendent or beyond our total human grasp?

Alternatively is there anything that would convince you that God could not possibly exist?

Would that evidence convince everyone that no other scientifically viable conclusion is possible?

Are there experiences which are beyond science which answer these questions for you?

Copyright © T. Herman Sissons, Ph.D.

This is the second in my Questions Beyond Science series.  (I’m planning on doing 12 questions – one for each chapter of my book, for those who may be wondering if this is going to go on forever.)  As usual, I would read any comments with great interest.

February 12, 2010

Infinity might be hell

The concept of infinity – either the theological version used to describe God as basically indescribable, or the scientific version applied to time and space – has never overwhelmed me.

But I watched a BBC programme last night featuring some of today’s mathematical geniuses and I suddenly understood why science is so terrifying to so many people who believe in God.

These particular mathematicians see the entire universe in terms of mechanical probabilities.  That is in terms of random chance.  And they are brilliant.  They can think about numbers – huge vast numbers that lose all their intuitive meaning as they add on billions and billions of zeroes.  And they explain everything that has ever happened in the universe and everything that may evolve in this or other universes in terms of this stark probability.

It was the most ghastly view of the world that I have ever contemplated.   I guess contemplated is the operational word.  I am quite comfortable with the universe without any concept of God to which I have ever been introduced.  But I have always felt that there is some intrinsic meaning to existence.  It is certainly beyond my capacity to fully grasp, but I have always believed that life has meaning.

This view that all the universe is and will always be the result of random chance is utterly barren.  No wonder people who believe that the only other alternative to this bleak view is an autocratic God  choose to reject science.  It’s exactly why I think abused children so often become abusive parents – the alternative interpretation that they are not loved is even more terrifying than to accept that they deserved the punishments they received from a loving but stern father.

But I reject this view.

I don’t reject it because I believe in a supernatural force that is controlling what is happening in this natural world.

And I don’t – I think – reject it out of fear.

I don’t reject it because I have scientific proof to the contrary.  Although I do think there is a vector in the evolution of the universe that belies the view that everything happens randomly.

Ultimately I reject it because that isn’t what my experience seems to indicate.  Can I be wrong?  Of course.  But each of us looks at our lives and we must decide without conclusive evidence either way whether we think our lives in particular and all being in general has some meaning.

I know: maybe I think that because I have a goodly supply of those feel-good endorphins.  Or because I was loved as a child.  Or because I am loved as a woman.

But anyway, it’s my view.  And besides, not all mathematical geniuses take this bleak view.  So it’s not written in the numbers.

January 19, 2010


Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:07 pm
Tags: ,

Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve never really taken to the idea of Faith.  Hope and Love have been ideals  I could follow with an open heart.  But Faith always seemed to demand a fighting stance.  In relation to Faith, I would rev up my debating skills and theological analysis.  What exactly was one required to believe, to accept as the infallible word of God without, by definition, any evidence?

Increasingly, this view of faith as dogma has impressed me as preposterous.   For thousands of years, societies have disenfranchised, discriminated against, tortured, burned alive or otherwise executed “the infidel” not because they were unloving, unproductive, destructive, or dangerous to society.  But because they would not espouse the politically correct dogma of the side with the most power.

In the recent history of Christianity, look at the Crusades, at the Inquisition, at the centuries of religious wars in Europe.  Neither, since Mohammed first set down the words of the Koran, have Muslims been any more tolerant.

That is one reason religious leaders so often find themselves attacking science and theories like the Big Bang and evolution.  If science suggests something that seems to threaten religious dogma, belief is threatened.  Faith itself is threatened.

But what if the essence of Faith is not dogma?  What if the essence of faith is taking the first step on a journey, the end of which we cannot know?  what if faith is a commitment to a relationship of respect and honour to everyone and everything in the universe of which we are a part?  What if dogma is merely a symbol of this commitment to the universe as it is?

Then I don’t have to be threatened because someone prefers  different symbols than mine.  In fact, I can even learn something.  The way I can learn something from someone else’s favourite poem or music.

Today scientists live with the apparent contradictions between the Quantum theories explaining the universe on the particle level, and the Standard theory explaining the universe on the macro level.  The hope – even the expectation – is that one day some genius will explain how apparently opposite  realities can both be right.  In the meantime, they are not dividing themselves into camps hurling accusations of damnation at each other.  (Well, at least in the best of times:  scientists do not always live up to the demanding ideals of science itself.)

If the essence of Faith is not dogma, but a commitment to a relationship, then we can leave the search for understanding the universe to science.  And followers of different faiths are not enemies, not sinners and infidels, but brothers and sisters.

Hmmm.  Maybe in my old age I can learn to appreciate the merits of Faith after all.

January 6, 2010


Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

Today is the feast of the Three Kings, the day on which Christmas is really celebrated throughout most of the Spanish and Hispanic Christian world.  So this seems a good day to respond to popular demand – well, the quiet suggestion of one – to elaborate on the Christ-figure.

These are my thoughts, by the way.  Not a diatribe or an effort to convince anyone to agree with me.  I’ve changed my own mind too often to insist that my present point view is somehow superior to anybody else’s.

I think the great value of the Christ figure is symbolic.  Whether Christ was born in Bethlehem some 2010 years ago, whether he fled into Egypt to escape King Harrod, whether shepherds came to worship, or whether angels sang and stars danced, is unimportant.

Some historians think there is a possibility that Jesus never actually existed at all.  I tend to think the weight of evidence is that he did, but again, I can’t see that this question is nearly as significant as the principles for which Christ came to stand for.  Shiva didn’t actually walk this land, Buddha did, the gods on Mount Olympus didn’t literally live among us, Confucius did.  The power of all of them, for better and worse, is not in their historical authenticity but in their legacy, the principles for which they stand.

I don’t think Jesus ever claimed in the scriptures to be “the son of God” in a way that is different from the way he believed we are all “sons of God.”   The distinction between the way Christ is the son of God and the way we are was not necessarily made by early Christians.   In fact, a great deal of what is today considered infallible doctrine was not accepted by the early church for centuries, or even for more than a millenium.  Today, Christian Churches are not all in doctrinal agreement.  Although since the 19th century the Roman Catholic Church has claimed the Pope is infallible, Orthodox and Protestant Christians emphatically do not agree.

But for centuries we have had religious wars in which we have killed each other for beliefs that one side or the other have claimed are heretical.  In theory, a heretic was so evil that he forfeited the very right to life, and Christians have slaughtered each other in the millions.  I am appalled by the number of saints exalted for literally slaying “the enemy.”

But a saint with his foot on the neck of a man prostate below his boot and a sword aimed at his heart does not represent what I think the Christ-figure stands for.  What is worthy of honour in the Christ-figure is not dogma, not victory, not power, not self-righteousness or imposing my beliefs on others.

What is worth preserving is love.  What is worth drawing strength from is a message of  hope in the face of hopeless despair.  What is worth keeping is the message of forgiveness and sharing and respect.

If that’s what the Christ figure stands for, it’s worth drawing strength from it.  But a Christ used to subdue others, to punish them for not agreeing with us, is a cursed figure.

January 5, 2010

Why I eat animals

I just figured out why I’m not a vegetarian.  Or rather, why I don’t feel guilty about not being a vegetarian.

I was tempted to give up eating meat when I realized animals are not machines.  They have a life force, intelligence, fears, strategies, affection, social hierarchies, feelings, even – if our Kuvasz were anything to go by – a sense of humour.

I’ve continued to eat not only milk and cheese and eggs, but steaks, chops and roasts because beef is the principal source of vitamin B complex which is essential to our smooth mental operations, among other things.  Somehow I haven’t been able to be convinced that the world order requires us to consume a diet that needs to be supplemented with vitamin pills.

Yet, I have shared this niggling discomfort with killing sentient life for my own survival.  I’ve discovered now that this discomfort also bothered St. Augustine of Hippo in the third century AD.  It bothered him so profoundly that he decided that something somewhere had gone terribly wrong – that God could not have created a world in which all living things so relentlessly pursue, kill, and consume other living beings in order to stay alive themselves.

Augustine, therefore, thought up the doctrine of original sin.  There is something seriously wrong, he reasoned, and it couldn’t be God’s fault.  It must be ours.

Today, though, we have a view of the universe and its development that Augustine didn’t have.  And I don’t think God made a perfect world which we humans have subsequently messed up.

What we know now is that the universe began with a burst of infinitely small particles.  They combined to make atoms, then molecules, then stars and entire systems of galaxies.  And it doesn’t stop there.  Somehow this impetus to combine in more complex organizations – a communitarian impulse, if you will – led to simple life.  Single cells then combined with each other, creating plants and then animals, and even us.

What I see in the universe, then, is not the bigger bullying, killing, and eliminating the smaller and weaker.  The smallest continues to exist – from the quarks and leptons in the atom, to the bacteria in our own intestines. Death is not necessarily the annihilation my ego thinks it is.  It is a step into – what word can I use – greater unity perhaps.

I might not understand it.  I might be tempted to look at the universe and from my limited point of view judge it as seriously screwed up.  Even evil in some respects.  Certainly not the way it’s “supposed” to be.

But I think I’m wrong.  I think the universe is the way it is supposed to be.   There are all sorts of things I don’t understand, but I am not all-wise.  And I really have to admit that I’m not in a position to set the entire universe on an improved course.

I’ll accept it the way it is on faith.  And accept that wherever it’s going, I feel grateful beyond words to be included in it all.

December 28, 2009

Yet another Platonic world

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 4:40 pm

I was amazed to read the other day that there are a significant number of highly accomplished mathematicians (you know, those kind who compare different levels of infinity, or work out proofs for a problem that’s centuries old) who believe there is a real world of perfect numbers.

I mean, they believe that there really exists, independently of our human thought, an objective, permanent, immutable world of mathematical reality.

It was Plato, several centuries BC, who first conceived the existence of a perfect world of forms where the imperfections and incompleteness of this natural world do not exist.  Many Christian theologians then adopted this idea of another perfect world and populated it with God and other spiritual beings, and it survives today as “the supernatural world” in the theologies of many world religions.

So the idea that there is another world that is an improvement on our universe has been with us for more than two millenia at least.

I think the idea of another world is a product of the human mind – albeit extraordinarily gifted human minds – stretching toward some ineffable, unfathomably beautiful reality, an intuition of something beyond what seems the dull humdrum of daily existence.

Perhaps I am merely a child of my time – and certainly not among the extraordinarily gifted ones who can imagine such things – but I don’t buy into this “other world” theory, whether it is made up of perform forms, perfect numbers, or perfect spirits.

For me, this universe is enough.  It is mysterious and terrifying and fantastic and spectacular and awful and challenging enough.

It is enough.  I don’t need another world besides this one.

December 24, 2009

Winter Solstice

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 5:24 pm

It finally occurred to me why most of my life I have felt so ambivalent about Christmas.  Everybody does.  Entire societies for millenia have expended huge energies to cheer themselves up at this time of year.  The sun seems to be disappearing, the days are cold, the nights are long, the crops aren’t growing.

So the winter solstice is a call to hope in the face of the bleakest evidence.  No wonder the Christians adopted the solstice to celebrate the birth of the redeemer.

I’ve thought for some time that although love may be, as St. Paul said, “the greatest of these, ”  hope is the most courageous.

Especially on the longest night of the year.

December 21, 2009

Who started Christmas singing?

blg-carolers_01.gif image by curiozities

I don’t think I ever wondered who was responsible for starting the tradition of Christmas carols.  I suppose if someone had asked, I would have hazarded a guess that it was the mother of Jesus trying to get him off to sleep.

Yesterday I learned it was St. Francis of Assisi.  Christians didn’t really celebrate Christmas until the 4th century when the Roman emperor Constantine converted.  The Romans then sort of adjusted their celebrations of the solstice and it became Christmas.  The Church, though, was always suspicious of the pagan origins of singing at Christmas celebrations, and for centuries forbid the singing of anything but plain chant to celebrate.

If you are familiar with it, you may agree that plain chant might be beautiful in a haunting kind of way, but it can hardly be called rousing. Which I suppose was the Church’s point.

But in the 12th century, St. Francis of Assisi came along and argued that too much emphasis was put on the crucifixion and not enough on celebrating the birth of Jesus which signalled such life-saving redemption for mankind.  So he introduced the Christmas carol.

The Church found it difficult to fight this innovation on theological grounds, and Christmas carols became hugely popular throughout the middle ages.

December 17, 2009

Newton’s apple might have been a fig leaf

In the Cambridge Botanical Gardens, we often walk past the apple tree which is purportedly an offspring of the very apple tree that dropped an apple onto Newton’s head, from which then sprang his theory of gravity.

Charles Turnor drawing of the apple tree showing its position with respect to the manor house

In 1020, Newton’s brother,  the Rev. Charles Turnor, drew the famous apple tree next to the house where Isaac Newton was living.

Ah, but nothing is sacred.  Apparently it wasn’t actually an apple after all, but merely a leaf.  Newton modified the story somewhat with the full knowledge that, for many, his theory was going to challenge the ordered Biblical world.  He was well aware that his theory of falling apples created an essentially mechanical world that did not need God’s angels and other minions to constantly keep the stars in the sky and the sun in tow.

Well, I’ve thought for a long time that there was something missing from the original story.  I’m sure Newton’s isn’t the only head upon which an apple has fallen.  But his is the only head that worked out the theory of gravity.

November 25, 2009

The limitations of perfection

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:51 pm

If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.                                                                                                                  Albert Einstein

I’ve never actually worked the numbers, but I think most of my family have above average IQs.  Most of us are also well-organized, hard-working, industrious, and reliable.  On occasions even heroically so.

But by and large, I don’t think we’re very creative.  Take me, for example.  I am good at explaining difficult concepts.  Even on occasion something as difficult as relativity – once I got my own head around it.  I’m good enough at criticizing theories, comparing them, rejecting or provisionally accepting them.  But I could probably count the number of original thoughts I’ve had with the fingers of one hand and still have several fingers to spare.

Yesterday the reason for this suddenly seemed blindingly obvious.  We were raised as Roman Catholics.  Not only as Catholics, but as thinking Catholics.  Which means that we were immersed in the Platonic world view in which perfection exists in a supernatural world and toward which we should strive.

The problem with perfection, though, is that there isn’t any room for mistakes.  Getting the right answers, doing the right thing is perfect.  Saying something foolish or outlandish is to fall short.  So if one doesn’t know the right answer, it is better to be quiet rather than blurt out something stupid.

Or unexpected. Or creative.

For example, my little sister Mary once put forth the idea that we think with our stomachs.  Oh how we laughed.  I remembered that last month when I read that researchers have found clear changes that take place in the stomach when we concentrate.  But Mary, at the age of probably about five, was humiliated.

And that’s the problem.  Aiming to be perfect sets one on a very narrow path of established right answers.  If you are smart enough, you trip less often than most.  But you won’t risk being creative.  Not unless you are very courageous, willing to be laughed at, or simply have such a kooky brain that these outrageous ideas just keep coming whatever the social cost.

Brainstorming is often the first step toward coming up with a creative idea.  Saying anything that comes to mind, not criticizing it but seeing where else it can take you.  We didn’t brainstorm in my family.  We worked at getting the right answer.

As  I move toward completing my 7th decade, I am reaching the conclusion that right answers have a lot to answer for.

November 24, 2009

The Chosen

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 11:18 pm

I have just watched a documentary on 17th century Scotland during which the Presbyterians decided that they were God’s Chosen People and everyone was equal in the sight of God.  Unfortunately, if you were not a Scottish Presbyterian, you were not among God’s Chosen People, and therefore were not equal.

This seems to happen so often in history.  Countries again and again believe they are special, and then hijack God to be exclusively on their side, which gives them the right to bully everybody else.

Though to be fair, peoples are known to do the same thing without purported authorization from God as well.

November 19, 2009

Partly sorry

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 5:12 pm

I wrote a post on the same subject some time ago, and  have been watching with interest a dialogue taking place on another blog about “avoiding the g-word.”

The discussion involves several issues, but one is whether communication is best served by not using the word “God” when one is not talking about anything resembling the traditional concept of god as a higher spiritual being who created the universe and continues to hover above it with various prescriptions about how we should behave.

I don’t see this as a black-and-white one-answer-fits-all question.  It depends on who you are talking to, what you are talking about, and why.  Not only are individuals different but the same individuals are different at different times.

I have reached the point where using the word God produces an almost schizophrenic experience.  The concept has meant for so long for so many something so different from what I now mean that the term is confusing, if not actually wrong.  But this has not always been so, and for many years I was “bi-lingual” when talking to someone whose concept of God was different from mine.

In remembering how differently we think, I remembered today some of the various modes of thought we engaged in as children in our family.  When my mother said that my Dad was late coming home because he was “tied up on the road,” I thought that he regularly endured the ordeal of being tied up with rope by bad people.

One of my sisters adjusted the Hail Mary to read not “Hail Mary full of grace,” but “Hail Mary full of grapes.”

But my favourite was produced by one of my brothers who improved immeasurably on the Act of Contrition.  The authentic version begins “Oh my God I am heartily sorry…”   My brother proclaimed with intense sincerity and no doubt greater accuracy “Oh my God I am partly sorry.”



November 9, 2009

Halloween update

It seems that the mythology surrounding Halloween with which I was indoctrinated as a child is historically untrustworthy.  We were not, in fact, joining the souls in purgatory asking for prayers in time to be released into heaven to celebrate All Saints Day on November lst.

The Vatican says Halloween is a pagan festival that is anti-Christian, a celebration of terror and death dancing hand-in-hand with the devil.  Besides that, trick-or-treating is not safe, puts children in danger and frightens the elderly, and should be stopped.

The original offending pagans apparently were the Celts who wore costumes with animal heads to celebrate their new year which fell on November 1st.  Crops and animals were burned as offerings to the gods,  and people  sat around the fire telling fortunes.

The Romans adapted the festival to honour Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees.  It’s probably where bobbing for apples started.

Today, Americans of almost any religious persuasion and none at all spend almost 7 billion dollars on Halloween each year.

No wonder the bishops think it’s the devil’s work.

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