Archive for January, 2016

divine command

In the beginning, man became conscious of the need for meaning. So man created meaning, and he named it God. In this beginning, the gods were numerous and multifaceted. The gods served as the sources of all the habits, tendencies and ideas that filled the hearts and minds of men. Consumed by thoughts and emotions beyond his ken or control, early man could point to the gods to explain such inner mysteries as love and hate, hope and fear, as well as the external affairs of order and chaos, floods and droughts, and even the omnipresent cycles of birth, death and fertility that seemed to mirror one another above and below, on earth as in heaven.

Under this polytheistic paradigm, the pantheon of the gods took center stage, while men and women performed rituals in imitation of their gods. Through their religious ceremonies, our ancestors celebrated the blessed goodness of their deities and warned against their fearsome wickedness, while seeking to guarantee a continuation of the natural cycles of the stars, the seasons and their life-giving mothers. So went the practices of mankind for many millennia.

Gradually, however, and only very recently in the scheme of human history, our Levantine forefathers undertook a seminal shift away from polytheism towards the idea of a single, all-powerful god. Unlike His predecessors, the monotheistic God, whom we attribute to Abraham, has a very special and unique relationship with our species, providing us with a new and greater sense of meaning than ever before.

Whereas the pagan religions, which reigned since time immemorial, all had stories of creation that spanned across many generations of gods, heroes, giants, demons and eventually humans, the Creation described by Abraham’s followers places God squarely at the beginning, but offstage in the unique position of Creator and director. This God acts outside of our metaphysical realm, omnipotent and unconstrained by our natural laws. And perhaps most importantly, it appears that this God performed the divine act of creation for the primary purpose of creating man in His image.

The ramifications of anthropocentric creation, still a relatively young idea, reverberate deep into the core of our psyche. Whether the religious shift resulted from an evolutionary leap in human consciousness, or, less likely, the the other way around, monotheism’s rapid spread should offer some profound insights about our human nature.

For starters, Abrahamic monotheism distinguishes itself from pagan polytheism by providing an absolute and definitive code of morality. While the earlier gods generally had their positive and negative aspects and often left questions of right and wrong unanswered or ambiguous at best, Yahweh makes it absolutely clear when He sends the Flood or destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, that He is doing so as punishment for humanity’s transgressions and wrong doings. The Old Testament eventually goes on to issue the quintessential and unforgettable directive on morality when Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus.

A crucial event in man’s psychological development occurs in the Genesis story of Creation, when Adam disobeys and eats from the Tree of Knowledge, and the Lord announces, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:22) Clearly the authors of Genesis, with their uncommon insights into human psychology, recognized not only man’s need for a religion that confirms the absolute nature of right and wrong, but also the vast personal responsibility that comes along with that moral knowledge. This understanding of good and evil is unique among our species, and while its origins and purpose remain clouded in mystery, it plainly serves as the focus of attention throughout the Bible.

On the reason for the Flood, scripture makes it clear that God is punishing man for his lawless depravity. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually… And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:5, 13)

And so God issues his wrath, and in an act wholly of God—not simply of nature—mankind is wiped from the face of the earth, with the sole exception of Noah. “And the Lord said unto Noah, ‘Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.’” (Gen. 7:1) Again, this is no random stroke of nature, but an intentional act of punishment for violating God’s moral standards, with specific salvation for Noah, the righteous one. In this very early stage of monotheism, God’s law is absolute, strict and unforgiving, allowing not even an opportunity for personal repentance which will come later in the Torah and in the New Testament.

Probably the most perplexing pronouncement on moral principles occurs later on, in Genesis 22, with the legendary binding of Isaac. Though open to wide interpretation, I believe the story of Abraham and Isaac strongly confirms the stern code of morality that distinguishes monotheism from its pagan predecessors. When the Lord God commands father Abraham to take his son up to a mountain and slay him like a sacrificial lamb, Abraham obeys him without question. The nature of this divine command shocks the reader as downright wicked and repugnant, yet Abraham seems to go willingly. The psychological drama here is certainly worthy of close and laborious examination (on another occasion), but ultimately God spares young Isaac and goodness prevails. The moral imperative, it would seem, is to obey God no matter what, for his ways are far beyond our mortal comprehension. When we demonstrate our willingness to submit to divine authority, we don’t necessarily need to understand the reasoning behind it.

Difficult questions may remain, but in the final analysis, the voice of God, which may be read metaphorically as the inner voice of conscience, speaks from a place of universal certainty. Somewhere between right and wrong, good and evil, there lies a definitive line, and if we look to God, or listen closely enough to the little voice within ourselves, we can find that line. And even when we cannot fully understand the moral standard, we know that there is one. Among the polytheists, the moral questions remain far more subjective and indefinite.

This is not to say that polytheists are inherently immoral, but that they must find morality—in all its gradations— elsewhere, not by simply modeling the behavior of the gods, but perhaps through reasoning or by attempting to please their departed ancestors. And each god has his or her own standards of morality, applied differently in different situations. Appealing to the god of war will produce different answers than from invoking the goddess of love. Furthermore, one god may demand loyalty to the family, while another insists on allegiance to the state. And the variety goes on and on.

Monotheism offers an entirely new take on the question of morality and gives an irrefutable answer pronounced by divine mandate. Polytheism on the other hand requires a deeper investigation to sort out the universals from the particulars. Early pagans emphasized the need for social order, making right and wrong more of a political issue, exemplified earliest by the Code of Hammurabi in second millennium BCE. The thoughtful Greeks rendered questions of virtue and morality to the discursive realm of philosophy, best illustrated in the Platonic dialogs and Aristotle’s lengthy musings on virtue.

Monotheism arrived late on the landscape of world religions, but it quickly captured the imagination, and its swift rise in popularity tells us something. Civilized people wanted definite answers. They had their stories of good versus evil among their polytheistic mythos, but they wanted hard and fast rules, written in stone, as it were. They had political documents spelling out right and wrong in temporal, legal terms, and they had Socratic methods of intellectually doubting every firmly held believe, but what they needed was an unshakable basis of good and evil, ordained from a higher plane to satisfy a more subtle awareness.

With the god of the Hebrews, religion, metaphysics and morality are bundled like nowhere else and never before. But what likely began as a way to quench man’s thirst for moral certitude has had other far-reaching consequences. With the clear distinction between right and wrong comes a clear division of us and them. Those who behaved incorrectly and worshiped impiously were vilified and ostracized. Not that hostility toward outsiders was previously unheard of, but pagan conquerors exhibited far greater tolerance towards foreign cults and local deities.

Under Yahweh, tolerance of diversity wanes; monotheism and its concomitant moralism bring about a strong tendency toward ethnocentrism. Not only the notion of a race of God’s chosen people, but the Biblical idea that our species represents the highest goal and the endpoint of Creation appears to endow man with absolute dominion over the natural world and the lesser species. From this edict, mankind has wrought has wrath upon the planet, somehow rationalizing his blithe neglect with an air of existential superiority, ignoring the fact that this natural world which he denudes is nothing less than a glorious manifestation of Divinity itself.

As conscious, thoughtful humans, we inherently need the security of knowing what is good and what is true. As our race progresses, those standards will continue to evolve, and hopefully we will never stop holding ourselves to a higher standard. Perhaps it’s time to conceive the next stage of religious development, with a universal theism that imbues all living things and every product of the earth with spirit.

Our science has demonstrated that we all stem from one cosmic singularity, that everything we know of, under the heavens and above, has come into existence through supernovae, the death of stars. We are essentially of a single substance, and that itself demands a morality of mutual respect, not so different from that exhorted by Christ, yet so rare among His followers. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because you and they are only as different as two hairs on the same head.



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Ups and Downs

Another philosophical Limerick, in which I consider the highs and lows of life and decide to embrace them all for the most complete and fulfilling human experience.

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Meaningful Living

In former times, wise men would go searching for the meaning of life. Today, however, we live at the epicenter of the information age, with a superabundance of explanations to illuminate every aspect of our mental, physical and cosmological realities. And yet the existential crises that weigh us down seem more insurmountable than ever. Every unit of human experience has some pool of data associated with it, and yet our lives, in many cases, suffer from a dearth of meaning.

We sit in tedious traffic to get to our repetitious jobs to make the tainted money to pay our mandatory bills, then come home and inhale a quick meal with a soporific beverage or two, and finally unwind with the evening news, a comedy show, or an action movie, scarcely able to tell one from the other.

The next day we get up and do it all over again, and still we wonder why most of the country is addicted drugs, obsessed with firearms, or mesmerized by some cult fiction. How did we become so frightened and lonely, so passionately apathetic, so decidedly confused? Amidst the surfeit of data and the volumes of peer-reviewed studies, what is it that’s gone missing?

For every earthly question, we need only ask our clever little phones—always within thumb’s reach—and the Google will spit out an answer or direct us to some thousands of articles addressing the topic of concern. We are bombarded by facts, but where lies the pleasure, the satisfaction, the quality of life? It looks to me like a case of too many definitions, not enough meaning.

Assuming the basic needs for food and shelter have been met, there are just three of four more things we need to make ourselves complete. First and foremost, we need meaningful human connections. Some of us need a lot, and others only need one or two, but everyone needs a true friend or companion they can speak honestly with. We need to know that somebody thinks about us and cares about our well-being, and we need someone other than ourselves to whom we can open our hearts and broaden our feelings.

The instinct for self-preservation has evolved with us since our earliest ancestors first festered from the bacterial pond. It is absolutely essential to our being, but that ancient drive in itself is no longer sufficient to make living worthwhile. Thinking man, i.e. homo sapiens, is far better equipped, mentally and emotionally; he can and must extend the scope of his concern and compassion to include a circle larger than himself. Without meaningful personal connections, he’s little more than an amoeba drifting through the dross.

By cherishing that connection and recognizing the importance of the other, the individual learns to extend his compassion beyond the smallest circle, to encompass his family, then his tribe, then his nation, and eventually the human race and the entire web of life. The sense of belonging is vital to the healthy human spirit, and the broader the belonging the healthier the individual and the species as a whole. But it all begins with the forging of intimate, personal relationships, meaningful connections.

With hearts expanded and connections enlarged, our feelings grow more meaningful, and now we consider how we will spend our days. We need meaningful activity, and for most us we spend most of our time engaged in activity that will pay the bills, so it’s meaningful work that we need. Meaningful hobbies can go a long way to enhance one’s quality of life, but if 50-60% of your waking hours are spent on the job, then it’s imperative for your mental health that your job involve more than simply an exchange of limited hours for coveted currency.

By performing work that means something to you, providing your community with a good or service that you sincerely value, you find yourself with a meaningful place in the world. If the only incentive to get up and go to work each day is the monetary compensation, then we are living a hollow existence built on the illusion of money. Pursuing money for the sake of money sometimes makes sense in the short term, to satisfy other immediate ends, but in the long term  it will only produce a house of cards.

Above and beyond the pursuit of material gain, every individual has the ability and desire to create or provide something meaningful in his or her community. From working to help the sick and needy, to creating an original work of art, to restoring our ailing environment, the world has no shortage of work to be done. With passion, dedication and perseverance, each of us can and must find a purpose we believe in that we can work for. Sometimes the path is clear and the door is open, but more often there will be hurdles and stepping stones that lead to an uncharted territory waiting to be discovered by the devoted initiate. And once you’ve acknowledge your passion(s), and learn to trust yourself and follow your instincts, you will recognize every step before you as a step bringing you closer to that fantastic territory.

With meaningful work and meaningful connections, our lives are enriched with purpose and direction; we have reason and motivation to continue onward through a life that may be otherwise and all too often absurd. Finally, we need a meaningful explanation for the world around us. We need not only a rational and reasonable way of understanding the world, as amply provided for us by the remarkably successful achievements of science and industry, but also some way of understanding the irrational human experience, or a perhaps an irrational and unreasonable way of understanding this experience.

The scientific explanations of our planet, our cosmos, and the inner workings of our physical bodies, as handed down to us through the legacy of the Enlightenment, are all essential in keeping us grounded to a stable and concrete set of beliefs. But Reason is no substitute for the irrational belief systems that guided our species for so many millions of years, since we first looked up to the starts or down at a newborn child.

Admittedly, many aspects of religion and mythology have been rendered obsolete by the discoveries of science, and there remain many unanswered questions which still belong under the purview of scientific study. But there are and always will be aspects of the human experience that Reason and science cannot address. Even those who shun the use of the word “soul” cannot deny that they are “questions of the heart” that no cardiologist will ever answer.

Irrational behavior is part and parcel of our life on this unusual planet. For whatever reason, it has been encoded into our DNA and it would be futile to ignore or suppress it. Arguably, so much pain and misery of the 20th century could be attributed to just that, our misguided efforts to sublimate the irrational. Science has transformed the planet and improved our standards of living in ways previously unimaginable, but the exaltation of Reason at the expense of our passions, dreams and intuition is a fool’s folly.

This rejection of the irrational remains controversial and warrants a full-length discussion, which we’ll pursue another time. For the time being, suffice to say that some kind of meaningful and irrational foundation, in addition to meaningful human connections, meaningful activity and a meaningful rational foundation, is one more requirement for a whole and satisfactory life. When we try to explain away the mysteries of life, we deprive ourselves of so much depth, beauty and meaning. This does not necessarily demand a comprehensive metaphysical system or a dogmatic religious doctrine, but at least an open heart and an open mind, a willingness to ride the curious currents of love and despair and to plummet the depths of our own subconscious, that and a little patience and tolerance for those who have been swept away by some irrational but all too real wave of their own.

Only by living meaningfully can we cook up an antidote to the chronic hopelessness and existential ennui that plague our generation of navel gazing nihilists. With a modicum of mindfulness we can overcome the barriers that keep us separated in competition and learn instead to cooperative for the good of others as much as ourselves. Whether we praise and submit to a higher divinity or merely obey the better judgment of our conscience, we move toward a healthier state of mind and a healthier society. And with a little more attention to what’s meaningful, we can usher in a new age of cosmic enlightenment.

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Divisible Souls

From one of my metaphysical Limericks, in which I contemplate the possibility of a soul made up of divisible units, rather than the traditional notion of an eternal and indivisible soul. I call these soulful units Seldons, and have elaborated on this concept in a previous blog post.

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Wookiee and Whale

Mythic motifs in the Star Wars saga are deep and abundant, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog articles. Allusions to the Bible, both explicit and implicit, can be found throughout the films, first and foremost in the main characters’ names, which draw upon both the Old (Leia) and New (Luke) Testaments. The opening setting too, a barren desert planet, evokes the arid Hebrew stomping grounds of the Holy Land. As the camera pans across the desolate landscape of Uncle Owen’s moisture farm, it’s tempting to ask, “Could anything good ever come out of Tatooine?” (Cf. John 1:46)

A close, scene-by-scene review of the Star Wars story would uncover countless parallels to familiar plot devices and Biblical themes. Many of these themes, after all, are virtually universal, which explains the widespread appeal and staying power of both these literary documents.

Early on in “A New Hope” comes one of the film’s more unlikely scenes, and for me one of the most strangely memorable, when Han, Luke and Chewbacca, shortly after breaking the Princess out her holding cell, wind up in the Death Star’s trash compactor. This whole episode strikes me as highly reminiscent of the well-known incident in the belly of the whale. Inside the acrid, cavernous bowels of their nemesis, the victims are forced to plunge the depths of their own deepest hopes and fears.

In the Book of Jonah, the heroic prophet disobeys and attempts to flee from the Lord Father, who subsequently catches up with Jonah and sees that he is swallowed by a giant fish. “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: depth closed round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.” (Jonah 2:5) After three long and unpleasant days and nights, Jonah has what we might today call a come-to-Jesus moment, pledging absolute loyalty to and begging forgiveness from God.

On the Death Star, our intergalactic heroes are similarly trying to outrun the forces of Lord Vader, the Dark Father, and end up trapped in a pit of watery detritus. Garbage and excrement surround them, the walls close in on them, and some kind of sea snake pulls Luke underwater wrapping itself around his head. The correlations to the verse cited above are almost uncanny, but the differences too are significant.

Whereas Jonah attempts to evade the Lord in an act of sinful disobedience, the rebel crew acts out of civil righteousness, rescuing Leia from the hands of evil. Immediately after her jailbreak, the four end up together in the trash compactor, a pivotal moment for a collective crisis of faith. In the filthy darkness they must, like Jonah, face themselves and question their loyalties. It is time to pause and ask what they’ve gotten themselves into, and if it’s really worth it. Ultimately, of course, they make the right choice and commit to the cause of Good in this epic struggle against the Dark Side.

The significance of place is of utmost importance here. In the rubbish bin of the monstrous battle station, among the waste and sewage, Han and especially Luke experience an epiphany, the Kierkegaardian moment when one is able to sublimate his own personal interests—stepping into the dung heap, as it were—to acknowledge a connection and allegiance to some higher, transpersonal purpose. Sometimes, one must go through the deepest darkness to discover the light, and stew in the foulest earthly matter in order to grasp the value of the purely spiritual.

In terms of metaphors to illustrate the baseness and depravity of the physical realm, you can’t get much more visceral than this voyage into the toilet bowl of the Death Star. It brings to mind the pithy wisdom of Master Yoda, from a later episode at his swampy home, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

The garbage disposal also contains some strong symbolism about transformation, the crucial component of this scene. Like the compost pile, the garbage can be a source of renewal and regeneration. Products and ideas get used and then discarded, dumped into the scrap heap and mashed together with the other remnants, and some day become part of something new. From the compost comes the richest new soil, out of which grow the most vigorous new sprouts. When an individual outgrows a certain worldview, he sheds his old self the way a snake sheds its skin, and the more fully aware self emerges.

Note also what our heroes are wearing in the trash compactor scene. Luke and Han are disguised as imperial stormtroopers, and the Wookiee their captive prisoner, this being the key to their cunning but shortsighted rescue plot, a plan which might itself be called the oldest trick in the book. In any case, we are dealing with some pretty conspicuous symbolism here, as the heroes assume these false identities and then undergo a vital personal transformation. Star Wars, the Book of Jonah and every other great story revolve around this kind of transformation, or sea change. We follow the heroes and watch as they learn to let go of their physical attachments, or worldly garbage, and begin to develop their own sense of highest good in accordance with the subtle and the spiritual.

This type of change frequently takes place at sea or otherwise underwater, but the circumstances of the story also bring to mind a related motif that we’ve seen elsewhere in the Bible and also in Grimm’s fairy tales. In the Book of Daniel, three heroes, Shadrach, Meshach and Abendego, are thrown into a fiery furnace for disobeying the nefarious King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. They miraculously survive the oven, and a fourth figure, the Lord God, appears alongside them in the flames. The famous legend demonstrates how those who remain steadfast and righteous will find strength and protection, much like our heroes in the trash compactor, whose lives are all spared at the last minute. In the story from Daniel, Chapter 3, it is the adversary, the king, who undergoes a sea change after witnessing the miracle and decides to embrace the Almighty.

While watery traumas typically usher in some transformation deep within the hero, the flames of a furnace or oven have the affect of confirming and completing a hero’s personality, like firing a piece of pottery in the kiln. The same symbolic device appears in “Hansel and Gretel” when the wicked witch tries to lure the children into her oven, intending to make of them a sweet afternoon snack. Instead Gretel proves herself by outwitting the witch, and the two are able to escape at the last possible moment.

Though the trash compactor scene may appear odd and out of place at first, it turns out to echo a number of ancient and familiar motifs, while depicting a critical stage of personal development for Luke, a point of no return. Once they’ve helped the captive princess bust loose, there is no turning back, no chance to stop and change their minds. Here among the fetid waste, Luke casts off his earlier self and undertakes to start his life anew. He has committed to become a hero of the Rebel Alliance, or what Kierkegaard would call a knight of faith. “When the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself. Then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.” (Either/Or)

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