Saturday, September 24, 2011

God as a Piece of Heavenly Cake

A largely eaten birthday cake with cutting knife in view

Religious debates will go on for all eternity and it is as rare as a blue moon that religious authorities come to a consensus or see eye to eye. In fact, more commonly there will be splits and rifts within a religious body. Whether it is Buddhism with its small and large spinning wheels and vehicles or the debate over the legitimacy and authority of the Pope and the use of confessional booths or even delicate and controversial questions concerning the Holy Book, disagreements abound and little consensus is reached. Religion seen globally and historically is filled with instances of conflicts and quarrels.

But why? If we look at the main world religions, they have actually more in common than they would dare to admit. Indeed Christianity, Islam, Judaism believe in a God that has very similar characteristics, while in Hinduism there may be many gods but they are, when all is said and done, manifestations of a unifying divine spirit. As to Buddhism, they may have a slightly different depiction of what constitutes divinity, a more introspective universal embodiment but essentially there is not much of a serious clash either to the aforementioned representations of God.

So here is my proposal. Let us all agree and live in peace. Let us all partake of the divinely delicious (or deliciously divine) heavenly cake. Think big. A cake that supersedes the Tower of Babel, but unlike the tower, one that unites instead of alienating people. Now this cake that is enough to fill the stomach and mind of every being on this planet can easily be divided into pieces. So for all those religions who want to be in the right or who prefer to think they are the only true religion, you can have your own slice and eat it too.

The amazing thing about this cake is that every slice contains the divine essence and is, ipso facto, infinite. In fact, as a mathematical expression if you divide infinity by five you will still be in the infinite range. Such would be the case of God. Whether you divide Him (or Her or It or Them) you will still end up with more than you can chew and handle. There is no need to want the whole cake; no need for excessive greed or pride or arrogance for that matter. To each their own piece of cake.

This leads us to the following question: Whose slice of cake is actually better? Would that make a difference though? They are all from the same cake and just for argument's sake, they have been divided in equal parts (in reality it is a difficult task when you are dealing with infinity). Can you claim that your piece tastes better than the other person's?

And then we are caught up again in a world not made of facts but opinions. The fact is I am eating a cake, which can be defined with certain properties and characteristics. This one has frosting but of different flavors and colors, just to add a bit of variety because I highly doubt God to be monotonous and I believe Him to be the best chef or pastry-maker there is in this or any other universe.

Suddenly we are not dealing with facts anymore. What we are considering is not a fact, but an opinion. And opinions are exactly that; they are what and how people think and feel about certain issues. When it comes to taste you cannot claim that this food tastes better than the other based on reason or empirical facts. It seems ridiculous to claim that one's cake tastes better simply because you prefer lemon over chocolate! Lemon is great, but so is chocolate. Yet some people do not like either. They should not burn in hell for their taste buds and culinary preferences, don't you think?

Opinions then cannot be judged on a scale of right or wrong. They are reflections of personality, genetics, culture, upbringing and personal taste. So let's all have cake and let us share and break dessert together. And if you do not like my slice of cake, I will have to live with it and so do you, but at least neither one of us will hunger in mind or spirit because there is more than enough cake going around for everyone.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What it might feel like when Epiphany kicks in

A falling tree in Stanley Park Vancouver

Insight, epiphany, understanding, sudden realization – it comes under a variety of names, shades and classifications. In short, they are moments when something (or everything) suddenly comes into focus and you grasp it better. It is the camera lens that zooms in and gives us a crystal-clear image of what is really going on within and without us. But once you are lucky enough for this realization to kick in -- and in my opinion it is a matter of time and effort -- what will be your reaction?

There are two possible types of reactions I can think of when the moment of realization takes place. The first one would be that reality was all a sham. It is suddenly realizing or perhaps being told that life has been not only an illusion, but actually a kind of cosmic joke. It's like an episode of “Punk'd” or “Candid Camera,” where the host (God? An angel? The devil?) points towards the secret hidden camera.

When that moment arrives, there are two kinds of reactions. You may feel frustrated and angry. You may want to sue the host for wasting your time and making you suffer all for nothing. You may be angry to have been taken for a fool.

Or you may be relieved and happy. “I knew it all along,” you may shout out to regain a few shreds of dignity. Or you may smirk about it and be pleasantly surprised. You may even be amazed at the ingenuity of the “host” or “creator.” Or if there be no host, the atheist will give you a sermon on how they were right all this time.

In its Judeo-Christian version, you will be a game-show candidate. You will be told that all your life was just a test, a kind of reality show contest. You will then hear if you have made it or not. Did you win the grand prize? Will you get to enter heaven or did you not play according the rules, did you get disqualified, would you end up in hell for being such a lousy contestant after all? Or will it be a matter of random luck: Choose one among three doors and find out what lies behind it!

Another way we may realize the truth would be what Zen calls satori, generally known as enlightenment. It also contains the element of sudden insight or surprise; you may see it all as a sham, but you would only have yourself to blame. You will be like the dog chasing its tail and suddenly you stop and realize what it was all about. Yes, happiness and salvation were always there in front of your very own eyes. The devil (!) was in the details, and we have spent so many years just running around like a headless chicken, following the unnerving and incessant chatter in our heads. Everything is and has always been beautiful but we just failed to look at it properly.

Either way, I do believe one day there will be insight and everything will make sense. Perhaps not in human terms and perhaps not even very logical, but one moment will come in this (or the other) life where everything proverbially speaking falls into place. And yes, if the atheist is right, we would just fall into eternal sleep. Life may have been nonsense, but at that point, who cares, there is nobody to feel or regret anything and one would dissolve with all the natural elements and become enmeshed with loose particles whirling in the empty air. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chris Hedges and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Christian

Writer and intellectual Chris Hedges facing the camera with blurry background

There is often a strong imbalance when it comes to the media and its coverage of religion. The media mostly focuses on the more sensational and often downright outrageous events and claims and is not so much interested in showing a balanced perspective. This is not necessarily out of vicious or deliberate intentions but rather because news must sell and the best kind of news is of the sensational type.

As a result, religion, a highly personal and controversial topic, is given ample treatment but predominantly of its most extreme aspects. In such cases, Islam becomes willy-nilly intimately tied with Islamicism and Christianity with the fundamental Christian right movement hence ignoring a large part of both Christian and Muslim communities that are more liberal and tolerant in their views and attitude and that continuously promote peace and understanding. Just to give one example on the Christian side, based on the media coverage one can get the bloated or distorted impression that all Christians believe in the pseudo-scientific claims of creationism and that hardly any Christian accepts the theory of evolution.

In reality, there are various theists who advocate evolution theory and have done so in the past. Not every Christian denomination claims that the Bible never errs, especially when it clashes with generally held and understood scientific claims. There are other instances such as the belief in slavery which every true Christian would -- or rather must -- object to on moral grounds but which seems rather commonplace and accepted in the Holy Book. That being said, I am certain that most Christians are opposed to the idea of slavery.

My intention here is not to discredit or bash certain rather irrational aspects of Christianity. I strongly embrace the healthy view of equilibrium. My focus here is mainly a defense for “god-fearing” intellectuals like Chris Hedges who share an uneasy fate and find themselves in no man's land because they are in the crossfire from both sides: a) The liberals who often deny the existence of God, b) Those who consider themselves devout believers and who think that being liberal betrays the foundation of their religion.

Many liberals nowadays opt to turn their back on religion, which they may regard as a limiting ideology. The fact that there are even people who believe that Creationism should be even taken seriously, let alone taught in schools, is demonstrated as evidence for a narrow-minded and misguided perception of the world. In addition, many intellectuals are wary of religious dogma, which has unfortunately been used to control and manipulate people and which is, has been and will be the cause of many wars because of its tendency, intentionally or not, to support bigotry, prejudice and hatred.

Furthermore, most scientists who embrace the scientific method find no reason for an existence of God since the mechanical view of the world does not need to make room for a creator. Science may have created some certitude and bragging rights regarding predictions on nature, yet at the same time, it has made us humble showing us that we are not at the center of the universe and that physical laws can explain various processes without having to resort to an omnipotent creator and controller of the world. As such, intellectuals like Chris Hedges who mainly subscribe to the liberal ideas but continue to believe in God by finding a compromise between the realms of science and religion are sadly in the minority.

Yet such a Christian liberal faces opposition at his own camp, so-to-speak. Many religious groups are wary of putting any sort of limits on the Bible and the powers of the Almighty. These people subscribe fanatically and unconditionally to the will of God and eye advances in science with suspicion.

They believe that technological and medical advances would infringe on the powers of God. If stem cell research continues and cloning is practiced at a fuller scale, it is considered interference and tampering not only with nature but with God's (often inscrutable and mysterious) plans. In other words, the scientist and the liberal are regarded with great suspicion for they seem to be playing God; they are the ones who are constantly eating from and digesting the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, an act curiously enough considered a grave sin.

So the liberal Christian becomes isolated and has no friends on either side of the spectrum. He finds himself in a comprising situation, but it makes him so much more courageous because he is defying the general stream. He is swimming against the current by holding onto his own truly felt and experienced beliefs. And at the same time, he is free and tied to no specific side or dogma.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Religion, Law and the Need and Desire for Justice

Woman with sword in one hand and scale in the other brings about order and justice
Triumph of Justice by Hans von Aachen
Throughout history, people have been drawn to religion for a variety of reasons. Religious belief and practice often fulfill social, psychological and philosophical needs. Therein included are also the big existential questions like the purpose and meaning of life, the question of the afterlife, and a strong need, desire and longing for justice in a seemingly ambivalent world.

The meaning of life is ultimately a highly subjective question and in this case I subscribe to the existential and multifarious trend of choosing the best path for the given individual or, to dress it in colloquial jargon, the unobtrusive and egalitarian “whatever floats your boat” philosophy. When it comes to existence after existence, I have blogged about the mystery of the hereafter to a limited extent in my questions about the afterlife post. Here I would like to focus mainly on the need and desire for justice.

As a child, we rely on our parents as the ever-present enforcers of justice. In our eyes, they punish the wicked and reward the good. We hold onto the “childlike” belief that there is a justified and just moral order in the universe. At this point our morality is still in its budding infancy but when it comes to ethical questions we sense -- or may even deeply believe -- that good actions, such as being honest and telling the truth, not intentionally causing harm or suffering onto others will bring us benefits, candy, higher allowance, sometimes even abstract and intangible benefits to our psychology and well-being in forms of praise and respect.

On the other side of the spectrum, being “bad” is tied to negative consequences, such as (God forbid) corporal punishment, a decrease in allowance, and a denial of our wishes and desires, especially on the items petitioned for in a Christmas letter to Dear Santa. The latter by the way can be a useful tool for disciplining children in terms of negative reinforcement since evidently Santa asks parents if their children are well-behaved and his opinion and judgment carry weight and matter indeed.

However, soon enough we make some of our first and initially painful realizations about life. Our parents, after all, are human beings, and they are limited in their powers. They have to obey the law (not only of gravity but also the rules of society) and have to accept its representatives; the priest can order them about; they have bosses at work who are superior to them while our dear parents must swallow their pride if they do not want to lose their position (= income and livelihood) and so on and so forth. Moreover, they have their own share of flaws and weaknesses. In other words, they lose some of the power we had inferred upon them in our childish naivete as glorious bringers of justice.

As a result, they need to be replaced. The common phrase of retributive justice I will tell my Mommy / Daddy tinged with a fair amount of threat translates into its abstract equivalent I will call the authorities. The police then becomes the principal and most visible enforcer and embodiment of the law in addition to a host of government organizations.

Yet soon enough, we recognize the flaws of such fallible systems, we realize that even the sanctified law has its pitfalls and biases, not to mention its own price. You can literally get away with murder if you play your cards right or if you are rich and / or famous. This often profoundly affects, even shakes our belief in the justice system that is run, after all, by humans and humans tend to err being far from perfect; at the same time, everyone has to deal with their own demons and temptations.

So who can ensure that justice is served on our little planet? That is when some may desperately and pleadingly turn to God to fill the void. He is the Heavenly Father and hence very different and much more potent than the puny earthly one we are given down here. He ensures that Justice is served and whenever it seems that the opposite is the case we hold onto the belief that the wicked will be punished in the other life to come and will burn in eternal flames, while the good (like us) will have goods aplenty in the next life.

I am aware that my phrasing may make me sound like a cynic but far from it. I do believe in the ubiquitous balancing act of unseen karma. Eventually everything will be sorted out. The universe is operating on a rational and moral order; it is too structured to revert to chaos and randomness. It is the Logos or that divine and eternally vibrating and echoing Word that fills hearts and souls with the promise of Justice, served and redeemed for all.