Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tree of Knowledge: God, Gnosticism and the Bible

Painting of God with long flowing beard and white hair

One of the main tenets of gnosticism is that the Bible is misleading. This does not necessarily mean that the Bible is wrong, but rather that it has been twisted and contorted over the centuries. It has become a document that is purported to be drowning instead of upholding the original truth; its truth may reveal itself in a close study, yet only in the form of flecks or sparks according to the gnostic tradition.

The main premise is that the God represented in the Western tradition is not the ultimate or “real” God. He is, in fact, not even the most powerful, yet the most ambitious and – yes, you guessed it – the most jealous. This might explain the horrible acts that this god, or demiurge, commits, especially in the Old Testament. In other words, this god is seen as the spoiled child of the mother of god, known as Sophia, meaning in this case "eternal wisdom."

Does any of this make sense or is it simply heresy? One thing that strikes me despite my dislike and hesitance towards this interpretation is that it could somehow shed light on problems I have with certain events in the Bible. It might give me an answer to the problem of evil, Adam and Eve, problems with gender – at times in form of blatant misogyny - and the general non-acceptance of other religions.

First, let us start with Adam. He was in paradise with not much to do. The jealous god, or again demiurge, could not prevent that some of the “higher echelon” or “executive” gods put a tree of knowledge in this supposed paradise. So this god of the Bible decides to entertain Adam with various delights, including a beautiful woman made in his image. This would help lull Adam and prevent him from seeing and understanding the truth.

Now here is when the interpretation becomes twisted and why gnosticism is branded as "devil worship," or inversely why some followers of gnosticism accuse Christians to be following -unwillingly - the “evil one.” According to gnostic tradition, a senior god appears for the first – but not the last – time in this Bible, as a snake! He wants Adam and Eve to understand the truth and to see and think for themselves. In other words, he wants them to realize that the paradise they are living in is fake and so is their god for that matter.

And the snake does not address Adam, but Eve. She as a female is blessed with intuition and quickly believes the messenger. What is often supposed to be a “weakness” is reverted into strength. Eve later persuades Adam, and they both partake of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. And suddenly truth dawns upon them. They are as enlightened as a Buddha.

The jealous god finds out. He is furious. He wants to kill and destroy them. He curses them. He gives Eve, the instigator, a curse to haunt all women: labor. And he ejects both of them from paradise with the “gift” of suffering and death.

At various times the demiurge gets angry at humans and attempts to annihilate everyone in the process. The higher gods manage to save Noah from this god's wrath and, as such, humanity continues its existence. Then the jealous god comes up with specific rules claiming that he is the only one to be worshiped and that grave punishment waits for all those who do not. He talks of eternal damnation and induces fear in all people. He says believe only in me and do not have any other gods or idols; he does so lest they find out the truth the same way Adam and Eve have.

After eons of looting and destruction on earth, the executive gods send their own messenger to pave a new path. It is Jesus. He is the truth embodied and comes as a healthy counterbalance to the vengeful and even bloodthirsty god. He proclaims peace. He preaches acceptance. And he transmits secret knowledge to his apostles.

The jealous god has him crucified. But the popularity of Jesus has grown rapidly so instead of dismissing him as a heretic, he actually embraces him and calls him his son. If you can't fight them, join them! All this happened out of necessity, and it might explain the subsequent split of the Bible as it is suspended between violence and peace, vengeance and love.

What to make out of all this? If you disagree with it, it makes at least good fiction and an interesting hypothesis. It is a novel and different interpretation and gives food for thought. It can, at best, put things into perspective.

To me the forbidden tree parable offered by traditional sources leaves me rather confused. Why would God tempt people for no particular reason and why would be it a bad thing to have knowledge? Why would God seem so insecure and try to shield us from that? What does he have to hide?

At the same time, the gnostic hypothesis would explain the problem of evil. Evil exists then because the higher powers are in conflict, something that happened often in Greek and Roman mythology. There would be no all-powerful god controlling everything but rather a constant struggle for power.

This would also shed light on some of the excruciating violence in the Bible. Why nearly destroy the whole of the human race? Why is there such a huge difference between the Old and the New Testament in its depiction of God. Could we – or rather should we – choose only the aspects of the Bible that we respect most? Is the Bible to be taken literally, figuratively, seen as analogy, philosophy, literature, as the Word of God?

Although the issues that gnosticism raises about the Bible and God may have some appeal in a sort of devil's advocate manner, it does not mean that gnosticism is necessarily true. However, there is no doubt that historically many people in power have altered or changed the Bible and/or its interpretation for political or social motives.

Women had to take the brunt in most of this and “original sin” has been the proposed reason and justification for various “witch hunts” on the female species. At the same time, various parts and even gospels of the Bible have been suppressed or discredited over the years perhaps because they did not fit or benefit the ideology of those in power. There are many issues in organized religion that one ought to reflect upon and be wary about, and one should not simply and blindly accept everything as given truth. Now where is that tree of knowledge when you need it most!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life: Christmas from a Father's Point of View

Toddler boy sitting on Santa Clause's lap

So it is that time of Father Christmas again. Surprisingly, I am not really in much of a Christmas mood (yet) but there are certain vibes in the air. Alas no snow here to bathe all in its traditional white glow but then again there are still a few more days left.

Anyhow, Christmas and with it Santa may have a new admirer this year: my two-year-old son. He had his first encounter with the big bearded ho-ho-ho fellow at the mall. And my son was more than thrilled. He is asking Santa to get him a garbage truck.

All this aside, I must say there is also a cynic in me. Call him Mr Humbug. Christmas sometimes seems like a bunch of baloney, a calculated, mean-spirited attempt to exploit and capitalize on people's sentiments in order to make money. Heck, it is generally believed or rather known that Christ wasn't even born around this time. I do not want my child to be spoon-fed blatant lies!

And yet, I cannot deny the fact that there is more to Christmas. My son's and along with it many a child's expression. The sense of wonder that will envelop my son like a warm blanket. His excitement. His joy of a world of magic, and peace and love and reindeer flying across the sky carrying a jolly fat man who traditionally despite his plump weight climbs through chimneys.

Sooner or later my son will discover and know the truth of the nonexistence of Father Christmas and another magical bubble will have burst. And reality will dawn upon him. This is some magic that I have never really been part of. Something that I have missed out in my past. Christmas has often missed its spark.

Something has been amiss despite or because of the frantic efforts of my family to create that kind of Christmas-like atmosphere. Yet its deeper noncommercial and joyous aspects have resonated within me on an intimate and personal level. I would listen to Bach's Weihnachtsoratorium or watch the monumental Jesus of Nazareth.

Most of those personal traditions or rituals have changed now. This year we are treeless, not because of any convictions, but perhaps mostly because of laziness (on my part). Or stinginess. Or busyness. Or again maybe because the Christmas mood is rather slow to set in.

Just recently I watched a renowned seasonal movie in an attempt to instill the Christmas spirit within, namely the good old-fashioned Capra's It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. And yes, all the hype around this little jewel is more than deserved. It moved and thrilled me and revealed perhaps what may be the true face of Christmas under all the commercial glitter and confetti.

A time for peace, a time for new beginnings, a time for re-evaluation of what one has taken granted the whole year. And to hug those close to you. And to believe in all that is in cosmic harmony, the unseen world behind the seemingly trivial and insignificant. Merry Christmas to you and remember no man is a failure when you have friends! Or rather, no man or woman is a failure period.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Putting your Best Face Forward in Everyday Life

Photo shop version of author of "Arash's World" as airplane pilot

I do not usually like to put a face to, or rather put my face on, my blog. It may be called “my” world, but I am an ideas person and prefer them anytime over looks, profiles and status updates. That said, here you have a photo of mine. Yet I am not perfectly honest in this picture. It represents a half-truth or a certain play on words / pictures.

The pilot here in cyberspace that has my face is at the same time both me and not-me. It has been attained through photo montage as I am not a pilot - and never have been - nor have I actually posed for this photo. It is a juxtaposition of two different situations, the picture was taken in another context and comes from another situation, yet with the help of technology I have created (or rather my wife has done it for me) a real-looking false image of my self.

The aim of this post, however, is not basking in my looks or technological prowess;it is more about a certain realization that came to me. It may be commonplace but it is nonetheless important to me and hopefully to my readers as well. As I was posing for photos that I was planning to put on a work-related site, my wife suggested I should change my attitude because apparently it showed negatively on the photos.

I was merely looking serious and was not thinking about anything in particular when the photos were taken. When I saw the resulting photos I was surprised about how serious I looked. In some of them I actually appeared scared while in others I even had the look of a serial killer! Needless to say those photos were not chosen for my work-site.

However, on the other photos where I looked as if I had just stumbled upon a brilliant insight or epiphany, where I was thinking happy and uplifting thoughts if you will, my face looked completely different. There was a certain glow, joy, relaxation, and even confidence seeping through. It was slight yet noticeable. So thinking you are confident actually makes you look confident indeed! A precious piece of advice for the job world out there.

And I kept pondering about it. If our face “shows,” as the song about being happy and clapping your hands incidentally states, then why not put our best face forward at any time of the day. It is only a slight adjustment. It is related to the idea of positive vibes or thinking. Why not look our best by thinking the best thoughts.

Others can really see it all reflected in your face. Of course, one should stay away from fake and superficial smiles and there is nothing wrong with feeling blue once in a blue moon. But as they say, smile and the world smiles back at you, why not try that approach once in a while. And suddenly, once you realize how your inner world connects with the outer physical appearance both you and the others will appreciate and benefit from that interaction.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Feeding your Feelings with Negative or Positive Thoughts and Thinking

Hieronymus Bosch painting with circular shapes of sins

We all experience, from time to time, strong negative emotions, such as anger, hatred, and envy. And we almost always feel bad about it, immediately reproach ourselves and feel guilty afterward. Rarely do we rejoice at such feelings, and if we do, we may be in danger of being put and locked away.

The problem is that when we feel negative about negative thoughts and emotions, it does not work out like mathematical equations where two negatives make a positive. It is rather like a fragmentation of the self that is at war with itself. It does not, as a result, help our cause. Feeling bad about a negative feeling perpetuates negativity. Instead of ridding yourself from the undesired feeling, you inadvertently make it worse.

So what should be done? Try this out as an experiment: Embrace your negative feelings. Appreciate them. After all, the fact that they are labeled and classified by us, society, and religion as “good” and “bad” does not preclude that they are still feelings after all. They may be opposites on the scale, but they still have the same origin.

Nevertheless, a strange thing happens inside when you stop fighting against your negative side: It slowly evaporates. Your negative side wants you to pour gasoline onto it, but when you deal with these feelings gently, they dissolve. 

Just like in a heated argument, the violence escalates because of continued use of insult and injury. Should one of the participants break the chain and suddenly show a sign of true gentleness or utter a harmless absurdity, the other would be confused. The other would probably claim that you are completely out of your mind, but the conflict would most likely not terminate in a brawl.

Also, next time around, your outburst of anger may be at a decreased level. Naturally, you will probably never really eliminate negative emotions, yet at least they will be easier to control. As a swami once said, you cannot stop your thoughts from coming, but you can learn how to surf.

One of the ingrained difficulties of our own Judeo-Christian society lies in our image of sin and our complex relationship with God. In the eyes of God, we are all purported to be sinners. What a negative perspective! By chastising yourself for your sins, you will continue the vicious cycle of negativity. 

Human beings are definitely no angels. Far from it. And yes, one should always strive for the good, whatever that may mean to the individual under the circumstances. Yet unfortunately, religion and religious authorities often emphasize the worst in human nature.

What about love and forgiveness? Does not God forgive our sins? Did Jesus himself not protect and give shelter to a “sinful” woman when he claimed that no one was exempt from sin?

In fact, we have a split image bequeathed by religion. God as a loving and forgiving authority and God as the punisher. I have elsewhere shown this discrepancy by comparing the ideology behind Moses and the Old Testament versus Jesus and the Gospels.

Along the same lines, I believe we would achieve much more control of our so-called sins if we actually forgave ourselves once in a while and gave us space and room to feel those negative emotions. In this case, positive thinking is a valuable tool, but it dodges the issue. If you just use positive thinking to combat negative ones, you are back to square one, meaning more thinking with more fragmentation.

Instead of feeding and fanning the flames of the beast within us or punishing ourselves for our misdeeds or supposed transgressions, we should embrace them and forgive ourselves. It does not mean nor justify that we acted in the right manner. It just means that everybody has to face the inevitable adage that nobody is perfect. But at least we continue trying.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Space-Continuum, Time Travel and the Illusion of Free Will

Glimpse of a revolving star in universe
Do we have free will? If we do, how much free will do we have? Obviously, we can never have absolute free will because of the limitations that genetics (nature), the environment (nurture), our personal experience, our past, and other conditions of our surrounding impose upon us. 

Hence, there may be only a limited array of choices that we have at a particular moment in time; in other words, we do not have an unlimited set of options. There are many things that will not even occur to us in any given situation due to those constraints mentioned earlier.

Let us look at the following mundane scenario. I wake up in the morning, get up and have eggs for breakfast. Now usually I do not choose when to wake up; it is often based either on external circumstances, such as noise or alarm clock, or internal conditions, such as my body, regular sleep cycles or nightmares. Put differently, I usually do not have control over when I wake up so I have no free will or say in this matter.

Furthermore, my breakfast is also limited in its choices. I can only have what is available in my fridge / kitchen at the moment. Technically, I could go to the store to buy more items, but then again knowing how lazy and often hungry I am in the morning I choose to have what is there already.

Based on my taste palate and my desire to have a hearty breakfast, scrambled eggs would be the only option and it would be accompanied by a cup of coffee with a spoonful of sugar and no cream. I refuse to have bacon because of my concern for high cholesterol. 

As can be seen, in this simple example, I may believe I have free will, but others with enough information about me and my routine could quite accurately predict my behavior.

Now let us look at free will in terms of time. The arrow of time points forward, and it is generally assumed to move along the line of the past-present-future continuum. Notwithstanding, we experience the world from the crucial crossroads of the present; the present turns immediately into the past, while we have a sense of an unknown constantly looming future ahead of us.

What about my breakfast options if there existed the possibility of time travel? If I could travel in the past, I would be able to change the present, to choose to do otherwise by actively selecting to have cereal in order to show that I could act differently from how I had acted in the first place.

This is rather different from the fact that I would consciously choose now in the present to have cereal instead of eggs to prove my free will. One could say in this case that being led to prove that I have free will I purposely acted against my inclinations. That would mean I was compelled to act against my inclinations, and it was not really my independent free will. Anybody could have predicted my act of defiance.

In the case of time travel where I could choose a different outcome from what had actually happened, I would have the option to either a) do as I did in the first place (have eggs) or b) to do things differently (have cereal instead). The fact that I am not compelled to do as I already did once opens up a certain freedom of choice. 

Put differently, I have the ability to do otherwise and hence change the future. This is known as the “alternative stories theory.” It was a premise that “Back to the Future” explored in a playful manner. It is also one that is fraught with difficulties, such as the riddle if you travel to the past and kill your grandfather, would you still exist?

But let us assume I go back to the prehistoric time of the dinosaurs, how could I possibly change the course of history? Whether I know that the meteorite will hit the earth and make them extinct makes no difference: it will happen anyway.

Reading the renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking I realized something crucial. If we can go in the past or future, we assume we would still be the same. But Hawking claims that one alternative theory proposed by physicists tells us that we cannot transfer information along the time continuum.

That would mean if I go in the past I will become my past self, therefore not have knowledge about future events. Simply going back in time I might be deleting all the future information and data and find myself in the exact position I was when I was in that past situation. Hence I would make exactly the same choices and not be able to exert my so-called free will.

Second option, what about future time travel? It would be similar. I would incorporate all the data, basically filling in all the gap by the time I arrive where I will be. In other words, my future will be my natural present. 

Although I have traveled forward, it is like forwarding a movie. All the events are going to happen the same way, and I will be in the same position, only that time has moved much faster.

And yet another point. The past is often seen as fixed or rather transfixed. So it becomes solidified, and we cannot change the facts. What I did in the past everyone knows, and yet, what I will do in the future remains still fluid and at best can only be a prediction with the current means and limits of science.

But if I move forward in the future, then my past will be my future from the current state. Yet according to the movie example I was giving, if my future is my past, then it means that it has been determined already. By this what will happen in the future has already passed, and I have no choice or say in the matter no matter what I do!

That would then mean there is no free will although I have the illusion there is. Another illustration would be the sum of all the physical forces that are exerted on objects and matter in the universe. I cannot defy gravity, for example. A planet cannot choose which way to turn. 

We are equally in a web of interconnected events that define us both from outside and within. If we have free will, it may be so limited that it may be insignificant; if we do not have free will, then we may be even nothing but actors with lines that may be written by a supernatural creator!

I am quite fascinated by the concept of karma, but what if karma is set not in this life, but is a consequence of another life. If in another realm, one of the spirit, we had free will and, as a result, we must live out a scripted life in order to be free again. 

These are just hypotheses and mind games, and I am just sharing them with the universe in a moment of euphoric philosophical thrill. You must believe me when I say I had no choice to do otherwise!