Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Something to consider for 2019

3 words, we were wrong

I usually do a New Year’s post, and here it is the 2nd already, so, here’s an article that fits in with my current series.

I’ve been thinking about “intellectually honest” ways to approach religion. This is something my fellow atheists balk at, sometimes vehemently. It shuts down any possibility of discussion when you simply call someone’s point of view stupid. It also gives the theist the opportunity to call them stupid, or maybe stupider, because they can’t see that maybe something that has been part of humanity for a few thousand years has some sort of basis and maybe even some value.

The question to engage then is, how do you determine what is intellectually honest? In this article, he recounts a conversation where he wants someone to reconsider a dogmatic position and they answer with how they “can’t do that”. This is definitely intellectually dishonest. Further, their reasoning is, if they reconsider that Biblically based position, and find their grandparents were wrong, they will have to reconsider every other position.

Sadly, their grandparents probably did reconsider some position, so applying new perspectives to traditions is actually traditional. For example, most people in the United States who have slave owning ancestors now hold a different position on that. We all are free to choose whose ancestors we want to agree with. Biblical non-literalists can be found throughout Christian history, even in the Bible.

Atheist or theist, admitting you were wrong is a great way to open a conversation.

The series

Jesus tells us he teaches in allegory, Book of Mark
Allegory of burning cities
"For the kingdom is like..."

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 5

The reason for the season

Previous                 First

I don’t have a link to this one unfortunately. I heard this story while driving years ago. It’s one of those stories from listeners on NPR. They set up some theme and people call in and tell a personal vignette. The theme for this one was something about introducing kids to religion when you are not a regular church-goer.

This particular dad picks out some mainstream Protestant churches and takes his daughter to a couple of them. They go to a Christmas service, which is about a baby arriving, so the kid relates to that. If I remember right, it was questions about the meaning of Christmas that got her started. That is a message of hope and the coming of something that will bring peace and joy, so everything was going pretty well.

After Christmas, we get Martin Luther King day. While all this learning about Jesus is going on she’s learning about that in school. They didn’t choose a home church so she was getting accustomed to noticing churches while they were driving around and considering if it looked like one they might like it. Dad doesn’t really have a curriculum in mind and has not thought about any potential pitfalls of this whole endeavor until one day they drive by a Catholic church. There’s Jesus on a cross. Suddenly all the questions and the innocence of discovery take a deeper and darker turn. He hadn’t covered the bloodiness of the crucifixion yet.

He has to quickly update her on the story of how that message of love and hope was not received so well by everyone. Some people don’t want everyone to love everyone else. Some people don’t think everyone is equal and don’t want to afford them equal respect and equal opportunity. When Jesus showed up and started suggesting they all should do that, they wanted him to be quiet, so they killed him. Oh, the little girl said, you mean like Martin Luther King Jr.? He ended his story there. There was really nothing left to add.

Sam Harris has a thought experiment that actually plays out every time a new person is born and goes through the experience of something like this. The experiment is to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and you and everyone else can remember how to do your jobs and the basics of survival, but you’ve lost all cultural memory. There are books on your shelf, but you don’t understand their significance or how one relates to the others. You know you live in a country, but you don’t know why there are boundaries or why we need police. At what point in our attempts to rediscover our own past would we prioritize a story about people in a desert and voices they heard and their choice of clothing or food? How would we choose from all the other stories about beings that we can’t see and can’t find anywhere except in these books? Would we believe in their promises and expect results from the actions they tell us to take?

My answer to those questions is probably obvious, so I don’t need to explain myself further. I wonder how someone who feels compelled to bring the message of Jesus to every remote culture would answer that. An Inuit Eskimo was once given an introduction to Christianity and afterwards he clarified that now that he knew of Jesus, he had to either choose to believe in him, or suffer an eternity in hell. He was also told that if he had never heard of Jesus, he wouldn’t have this problem. So he rather angrily asked why then did they tell him about Jesus at all.

Most of us don’t live at these extremes, but most of the people reading this probably grew up in a culture that had some version of Santa. Even those who didn’t include that story in their traditions saw Santa at every store and at some corner ringing a bell and suffered the music along with the rest of us. I’m noticing this year more than ever, people talking about a meaning of Christmas that transcends the trappings. The “war on Christmas” has become cliché and it seems most agree about over commercialization. The problems of the crazy uncle in the family are juxtaposed with the happiness of being with family.

I even read an article where old Scrooge was defended. Poor guy, everybody keeps using his name as if it means being cranky and unloving, even though, in the end, he becomes “better than his word” and helps the little boy heal and keeps Christmas in his heart throughout the year.

Christmas Lectionary, Year C
Christmas Lectionary, Year A
Christmas Lectionary, Year B

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 4

It might seem like this would be a good time to summarize the previous entries and start to converge toward a philosophy that I believe in or that is expressed in some sort of non-believer terms. That’s not where I’m headed. Atheism is not a philosophy. There is no atheist creed. At its simplest, it means a lack of belief. People love to complicate it and add qualifiers like “strong” or “hard”*. Some like to say that agnosticism is the only correct choice. Those are all points worth considering, but also not where I’m headed.

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Where I’m headed is better expressed by someone like Karl Popper. If you don’t know who that it is, you will be surprised to find out how much of how you see the world today was shaped by him or at least expressed by him. He wrote “The Open Society and Its Enemies” as the world was embroiled in its Second World War, a time when it was uncertain if decent democratic societies would survive. He wanted to preserve as much of the accumulated wisdom of our cultures as he could. He got it so right that his ideas are pretty much taken for granted so it just doesn’t seem necessary to quote him.

One thing you might hear Popper’s named attached to is the scientific concept of “falsifiability”. For something to be considered scientifically true, you must be able to state it in a way that you could create an experiment and prove it false. If repeated experiments provide data demonstrating evidence in support of the facts, then it’s a pretty good chance it is true. There are plenty of philosophical discussions about this, and it is being questioned more and more lately, but it has been a guiding principle of science since 1963.

Popper also wrote on government, ethics, and much more, including this statement about the Golden Rule,

“The emancipation of the individual was indeed the great spiritual revolution which had led to the breakdown of tribalism and to the rise of democracy.” 

He says this in a discussion about Plato and how he attacked individualism. Plato was an advocate for a caste system. But I don’t think we need a complete history of Western thought to get the point about loving our neighbors. As Popper says,

“This individualism, united with the altruism, has become the basis of our western civilization. It is the central doctrine of Christianity (‘love your neighbor’, say the Scriptures, not ‘love your tribe’); and it is the core of all ethical doctrines which have grown from our civilization and stimulated it.”

He goes on to say how even Kant, who believed morality is derived from reason, not the divine, said, ‘always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as mere means to your ends’.  Nor is this limited to Western culture. I would go so far as to say there are no cultures that survived or have left behind any kind of legacy that did not have some version of this idea in their core guiding principles.

I have found endless versions of this rule, sometimes referred to as the Platinum rule or Universal Rule. You can find slightly grainy pictures like this one (because they want you to actually buy the nice clear one) depicting some of those guiding principles of other cultures.

Image result for golden rule poster

You could spend hours discussing which one is better or which fits you better. Whatever you do don’t start fighting about it or you have completely missed the point.

To avoid that kind of fight about Popper’s quote, I need to go back to it because it contains a few key words that were adequate to what he was saying at the time, but now that we have rebuilt Europe, taken down the Berlin Wall, found our way to a world beyond two super powers bent on destroying each other and entered a world where empires can fall without the inevitable grab for power involving death and destruction on a massive scale, we need to develop a new language that acknowledges how all of our cultures share common bonds.

One of those words is “spiritual”. This word gets bandied about quite often in phrases like “spiritual but not religious”. I let people use whatever terms they want to define themselves, then, if I’m interested, I ask them to describe what they mean. So I don’t need to come to a consensus on what this word means. For my purposes here, and I think adequately for Karl Popper, spiritual things are not material things. They are the hard to measure things like feelings, the value of health over wealth, and knowledge as an end itself instead of a means to something else.

In the quote, Popper is putting the “tribe”, the ones who defend a bordered territory, a set of traditions and ties of birth and history up against an idea of listening to as many voices as possible and synthesizing and harmonizing them for the good of all. Democracy in this quote is not just majority rule or an ideology tied to an economic policy and a particular constitution, it is the ideal of maximum inclusivity and plurality. At least that’s how I see it. That he says “rise of democracy” indicates to me that he still saw much work to be done.

I’ve already addressed that the idea of individual over tribe is not solely a Western idea, but Popper also makes the claim that it is the central doctrine of Christianity. This is a Western-centric statement. It even ignores the very Eastern roots of Christianity. It’s something we have to deal with when evaluating any wisdom coming out of thinkers in the mid 20th century and even more so from those before that. Popper knew his ancient philosophers. I don’t know how well he knew religions. Regardless, I’m not going to devalue him or his sentiment because he choose this particular symbol of neighborly love to express it.

The Old Testament and the New as well as commentaries surrounding them have versions of their greatest prophets being asked how to summarize their teachings. They all say something like loving God and loving your neighbor. Trouble is we also have a wide variety of scholars who spend their days trying to understand words that have been translated through a few languages and through many cultures. Even today, the word neighbor can mean the person next door, or an adjoining country. In Biblical times, it may have meant only Jews or only certain Jews. By the time the gospel of Luke was written, it appears it was starting to mean more than just that. Later letters though, like 1 John, appear to be returning to more tribal thoughts.

The rise of democracy and broadening sense of morality include the idea that we care about a wider and wider circle of people and places. If we agree on that, then it doesn’t matter so much that Christianity has it as a core tenant. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, it means they are on board with the arc of human history, but it doesn’t say anything special about that particular part of history. I suspect if I was alive in Popper’s time, I could have easily been happy knowing I was a Christian and that my traditions included loving those around me in the way I would hope to be loved. I’m glad I’m alive now in a time when I know that sentiment has a much wider reach and is derived from a wider base. I know it’s something even my enemies have some sense of.

Mark on the Golden Rule and its link to Old Testament
Luke and the Golden Rule and it’s alternatives
Leviticus early version of the Golden Rule, Matthew too, what is a neighbor
1 John

* Strong atheism involves the denial of all, or at least one god in particular. Usually it’s saying they know gods do not or cannot exist. “Hard” or “Explicit” atheism also state gods don’t exist with some degree of certainty.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 3

To understand this search for who we are and how what we think of ethics and morals has evolved, it helps to look back to the time when religion still dominated. If you go back too far it gets impossible to know just what people were thinking, not that it’s possible to know what anyone is thinking at any given moment even in the present, but at least we start to find more articulate writing sometime around the 12th century. To get to those early Humanists, I’ll first tell what I think is the fascinating story of how Western ideas traveled east then returned over the course of a millennium.

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The 4th to the 14th centuries

As Rome fell, Plato and Aristotle fell out of favor. And when you fall out of favor in a warring ancient empire, it’s a lot worse than having your facebook account revoked. Anything written that contradicted an emperor could be burned, sometimes along with its author. Much of their works were taken east to Istanbul, which became Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire. This was a Christian empire so they weren’t too interested in what the writings said, but they kept them. Language was also changing so even if someone wanted to read them they would need special training.

When the walls of Constantinople were finally breached by the Muslims, the writings were passed on to that Empire. They didn’t do much with them either, other than create copies and translate them into Arabic. Four hundred years later Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), schooled in law, theology, medicine, physics and more was commissioned to figure out just what those men were trying to say. He had to do this while maintaining his position in a theocracy. That is, he tried to balance the godless world of reason with his employers who were working to spread the word of Allah throughout that same world.

By this time, the Muslim Empire had reached its peak and was beginning to fall apart because it’s just plain difficult to maintain an empire that size and they continued to choose emperors based on the inheritance of kings instead of any merits of those kings. Also, the theologian Al-Ghazali had become popular with his Revival of the Religious Sciences, saying they needed to get back to their spiritual roots. He sparred with Averroes, writing Incoherence of the Philosophers and Averroes responding with Incoherence of the Incoherence. Averroes spent much of his last years in prison, so you can see how that went. In the next century, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and the Muslim Empire has never recovered. Fortunately, they survived long enough to ally with European Christian armies and prevent the spread of the Mongols further west. Not only did we never send them a thank you note, we took the works of Averroes and other translations and philosophy and made it our own.

With the works of the Greeks now reunited, it fell on the likes of the Christian Thomas Aquinas and the Jewish scholar Maimonides to take another stab at unifying the ancient with the modern. The 13th century version of "modern" anyway. Teaching of Aristotle’s works was already under the watchful eye of the religious leaders. They were fine with logic and biology but wary of the metaphysics, psychology and anything touching on values. Professors had to stop teaching these subjects at the University of Paris or move to Oxford or Toulouse. These debates continued on to 1277 when a somewhat hastily thrown together list of Condemnations was published.

The idea of churches controlling what universities teach seems ridiculous today, so this is often seen as a horrible period of suppression of knowledge. It is also seen as the beginning of science since the result of the Condemnations was to divide the areas of the study of religious matters, like who or what ultimately controls the universe or what is or isn’t a miracle from areas allowed to be studied methodically like the motion of objects in space or the workings of living creatures. There was also dogmatic adherence to Aristotle and these bans forced the professors to develop proofs of his ideas. There is no one point of the beginning of science. Applications of scientific principles can be found in pre-Christian Rome and throughout the Muslim Empire as well as India, China and the Americas; however 1277 was a turning point in human history. At least Aquinas got sainthood not long after he died, which meant the Condemnations pertaining to him had to be adjusted. The world was changing quickly from then on.

Early Humanism

Not much was going on in the development of philosophy for that thousand years, but then voices like Erasmus began to emerge. His training was in the priesthood because that’s pretty much what you did if you wanted an education, you studied the Bible, in Latin. Hardly anyone spoke it, but it was the language of the Vulgate Bible, the one that was assembled in 382.  It remained The Bible until scholars tried to reconcile it to the original Greek and began to question the meaning of words, verses and whole books. This scholarly work grew out of the Renaissance and it has direct parallels to the work being done today to rescue Christianity from the hands of the Fundamentalists. With his reinterpreted version of the New Testament, Desiderius Erasmus hoped to restore and rebuild the Christian religion. He did not care for the 4th century theology of St. Augustine preferring that of the earlier Origen of Alexandria who only garnered the title of Church Father, not sainthood.

Augustine wrote extensively on what horrible creatures we are and how we can be nothing but sinners due to our fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Wikipedia summarizes his text titled On the wretchedness of the human condition thus; The text is divided into three parts; in the first part the wretchedness of the human body and the various hardships one has to bear throughout life are described; the second lists man's futile ambitions, i.e. affluence, pleasure and esteem, and the third deals with the decay of the human corpse, the anguish of the damned in hell and the Day of Judgment. Origen and then Erasmus did not see it that way. Reading critiques of Christianity today, you would never know this debate ever occurred. You would most likely be familiar with Pope Innocent III who launched one of the crusades. Innocent was a fan of Augustine. But most likely you have not heard of the response to it On the Dignity and Excellence of Man by the early humanist and Christian writer Giannozzo Manetti.

Manetti and others developed the principles of Christian humanism; every person is sacred and autonomous, we are participants in our salvation, not passive actors waiting for the end times, and religious pluralism. Pluralism was also being expressed by Sufi writers at the time like Ibn al-Arabi who said god is not limited by any one creed. With all of these men, a connection to their traditions was still maintained. Al-Arabi famously said, “So for wherever you turn, there is Allah.” He may have seen the divine in every face, but the divine was the god he grew up with. He did not relinquish his faith. Since their ability to get published was highly dependent on maintaining a faith statement, they may have hid their private thoughts.

An art historian who believes he has uncovered some evidence of this dynamic between artist and patron is Antonio Forcellino. While cleaning a sculpture made by Michelangelo he found a flaw and theorized that in the middle of making the piece, it had been changed. His theories about Michelangelo might be wrong, but they are interesting to consider. In 1505 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel. In 1513 Julius dies. Michelangelo has been paid to sculpt statues for his tomb but this is a time of contention among Catholic leaders and they pull him into other work. His work continues to be pulled in two directions by Popes and Cardinals.

They are also vying with each other to either split off the newly forming Protestants or work on reform within. Some of them, including Cardinal Reginald Pole, start a society called the Spirituali. Michelangelo is known to have attended some of their meetings. They eventually had to start meeting in secret when Pope John Paul III established an official Congregation of the Inquisition. When Michelangelo finally completes the tomb of Julius II it appears he may have included symbolism indicating his leanings toward that group, rather than the Church that was actually paying him. He included a torch, which could be a symbol of the power to enlighten and the Protestant belief that works alone can’t bring you to Christ, and Moses is looking to the left, not at the altar where the church leader is but instead searching for the light and contact with God. When Michelangelo died, his body was whisked away by his Spirituali friends and many of his papers went with it, so we may never really know

I used the book God’s Philosophers as a source. This link is to a negative review, but it links to rebuttals right at the top. I wanted to provide more than one perspective on this book. 
Randall Poole Alsworth lecture on humanism 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual 2

If this [the Mysterium cosmographicum] is published, others will perhaps make discoveries I might have reserved for myself. But we are all ephemeral creatures (and none more so than I). I have, therefore, for the Glory of God, who wants to be recognized from the book of Nature, that these things may be published as quickly as possible. The more others build on my work the happier I shall be.
— Johannes Kepler (1595)

Beginning of this series                                                                               Next

I am going to get into the problems of 4th century Christianity and other dark periods, but first I want to talk about the problems of the Enlightenment. These are less often discussed. I don’t mean that the Enlightenment was a problem or that it is at the root of “our” problems today, but there were aspects of it left incomplete and some of its reasoning was misused. We have not corrected for these errors and we can’t if we remain unaware of them.

To be clear, I think this was one of the most significant phases of human development. From the time of the Buddha and Socrates until into the 15th century if a person who had absorbed all the knowledge of their day could time travel throughout those centuries and sit down for a discussion about the universe and how it works, they would be able to understand each other. Barriers of language aside. By the end of the 16th century so much had changed that parents would have trouble conversing with their children. Anyone who didn’t have a cell phone when they were a child knows this feeling.

Douglas Adams calls these the first two ages of sand. We took sand and molded it into lenses and looked out at the stars and realized they weren’t what we thought they were. We looked closer at everything with microscopes and began to deconstruct how things were made. We applied first principles and built on what we could demonstrate to be true. These concepts had been incubating since the dawn of human tribes but now they were seen not just as tools but as a philosophy. This new philosophy said we could experiment with everything around us and learn from it. We could read the book of nature. The concepts and discoveries from people like Newton led to the third age of sand, the silicon chip. Formulas developed at that time were used to put us on the moon and theorize how the universe began.

But I’m getting lost in the arc of progress and wonders of science and that is perhaps one of the mistakes I said I was going to talk about. There was an overwhelming faith in the ideas coming out of the Enlightenment. I’ll leave the philosophical discussions of what is good or bad about scientific progress for now and look at the problems created by this shift to rational thinking.

Rationality was not invented 500 years ago. Even if you are trying to figure out if your neighbor is a witch, you will use a certain degree of investigative thinking. Once you accept that there are witches, and come up with some basic ideas about what they are, the process of working out the logic is very much like that used in a laboratory. If the experiment you devise involves dunking in water, because witches float, this could work out bad for the person being tested, so when we talk about rationality today, we mean a much larger context, one that involves not just a single test, but proven techniques, repeated trials, and the ethics of the test as well. But still, the idea of performing an experiment was always there.

This era that led us away from burning witches and produced so much of what we now considered the modern world, also has an end. The effect of it never ended, but the movements and the people who can be said to be part of it, ended. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of history bends toward justice”, but it is an arc, not a straight line. What began as a reaction to a bloody 30 years of war (1618 to 1648) ended with more war and more conquering by people like Napoleon. One of the last, perhaps the last, philosopher of this age was MarieJean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet.

Condorcet was a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His philosophies, like the “general will” were the inspiration for revolutions against despotic rulers with slogans like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. A century before the abolition of slavery in the United States, Condorcet founded the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. But these ideas, no matter how noble, still had detractors and they required enforcement. Other men, like Robespierre did not have the patience for them to permeate into the world peacefully. The king was replaced by the assembly and anyone who deviated from what the assembly determined was the general will would be subject to its force.

This new idea of laws coming from nature was an early Enlightenment idea put forth by the likes of Francis Bacon. He felt that our destiny was in our hands and if we deny that dream we will return to barbarism. But perhaps we didn’t spend enough time understanding our nature before some decided to start enforcing its laws. In his final work Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet applied to ethics and morality the idea that there are laws of physics that are consistent throughout time and space and that principle can extend to how we operate in the world. But even as he wrote this, the dream seemed to be dying.

Robspierre and the Jacobins were in the process of arresting some 300,000 and killing nearly 17,000, eventually this included Condorcet. These numbers sound terrible and they are in fact called The Reign of Terror, but as with all such state sponsored terrorism, they were justified by the political climate. France was surrounded by monarchies and they were prepared to join forces and restore Louis XVI. To preserve the newly formed country, they needed to ensure the loyalty of all of its citizens. A prime focus of this was religious authority and its ties to the aristocracy. While America was forming around states founded by religious groups seeking a place to practice their faith freely, France was stripping power from the Church and killing priests. Religious ideas that many Americans say their country was founded upon were considered barriers to the new government of France.

People who have faith in gods or spirits or anything non-material will criticize proponents of scientific methods by saying they put their faith in reason. The above brief look at the history of the movement toward science and reason demonstrates there is some validity to that sentiment. Much more could be said about the advancements in our ability to feed and heal the ills of human race, and that again could be countered by the ills that have been wrought by our own hands. This is the conversation in which we are currently stuck. The work of science is not likely to stop any time soon. The answers it provides lead to more questions and they provide the impetus to keep looking for answers. Faith is not likely to disappear any time soon. The answers it provides often resonate with us in a way we can’t necessarily articulate and scientific explanations for those feelings are not coming quickly.

Religion spends a lot of time addressing the big questions of meaning. Books like The Purpose Driven Life have been wildly successful while books by 17th century philosophers continue to collect dust. This could be more a matter of public relations rather than actual content. People say they get something from going to church, people who read philosophy might also say so but not in a way that is terribly inspirational. Philosophers of course have something to offer in that market, but they also have detractors and they argue amongst themselves. Comparing and contrasting philosophers is part of how you do philosophy. Some people shop for a church, but most go on the advice of someone close to them, and once they find one they are comfortable with, they don’t keep comparing.

Enlightenment philosophy and the movements that came with it took power away from the church. This had the appearance of taking away a moral anchor for society. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “God is dead”. He on went to say that it was we who killed him and to note that there was a great danger to this. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he portrays a man who seeks only his own comfort, unaware of what he has been given by previous generations. Men like that are subject to those who understand and use their will-to-power. Interpretations of these characters are endless, but there is definitely a shift to seeking human will rather than the will of any gods. Eventually, these philosophies came to be blamed for everything from slavery to Nazis.

Without going off into a long history lesson, slavery was not invented by Columbus or plantation owners in the Southern United States. It may have been one of the longest running and most brutal forms of institutionalized human trafficking, but the idea of people owning people was around before written language. The oldest decipherable writing of significant length is the Hammurabi code, a code of laws that includes slavery. Empires conquered smaller tribes and brutal dictators reigned back in Biblical Times. Separating this warring nature of ours from our higher aspirations is one of the promises of the Enlightenment that has been left unfulfilled.

The modern world can be blamed in part for these ills. Certainly it has provided new and improved tools for warfare. Strong militaries have always included protecting trade as part of their mission. The Golden Triangle of tobacco and sugar to Europe, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves to America is no exception. But there are no simpler idyllic times to return to. The Romans had the Pax Romana. Pax means peace, but what it meant was criminals who interfered with trade along their roads were strung up to set an example for others who might consider anything similar. Many examples can be found in between. Any culture carries with it the baggage of our baser instincts, making it difficult to sell its ideology as more progressive than any other.

This list of problems with the Enlightenment is not exhaustive, but I’ll end with the bogeyman; postmodernism. Whatever you think about religion and its ability to deliver on a meaning for life, it’s hard to argue its ability to claim that it is doing just that. The early Enlightenment thinkers made similar claims, but then didn’t deliver. Philosophers today might be coming together around something called Moral Realism but of course it has its detractors and it mostly suffers from a century of more esoteric moral arguments that led to ideas about nothing having any meaning. And morality isn’t necessarily a reason for being anyway. As the world has shrunk, cultures have come into constant contact and although you could say it is progress that we are living next to each other without killing each other, we are also having trouble figuring what strange behaviors we should accept in our neighbors and what we should consider just plain wrong.

It didn’t help that around this time Einstein came up with his theory of the physical world and the phrase, “it’s all relative” became popular. His theory involves travel at very high speeds and calculations that only come into play if you are trying to land a probe on Mars, but no matter. In the past, the realization that Muslims were enslaving Christians was used as an argument for why Christians should not be enslaving Africans. Either owning another person is wrong or it is not. Now, a justification based on a tradition can be dismissed because it is a tradition in a certain part of the world. It might be wrong to discriminate against women and not educate them according to people who live in the Midwestern United States but it is okay in Afghanistan because it has always been that way. This is not a way of determining what is ethical that can be traced to any particular Enlightenment thinker or writing, but many consider it an effect of that movement.

I can’t summarize the centuries that it took to develop this strange way of thinking, but it probably has something to do with the sudden unmooring of that anchor of morality, the Catholic Church. Once that curtain was pulled back, and the arbiter of all that is good in the world was accused of perpetrating evil, it could not be covered up again. Once the constant fighting stopped, when we realized one religion was not going to win out over the others without killing us all in the process, we had to figure out how we could live together. We’re still working on that.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Atheism for the Religious and/or Spiritual

I have been working through the 3 year Lectionary cycle of the Christian Bible. People ask me why, given that I don’t believe in the Christian God. It’s not a simple answer. It lies somewhere in the people and ideas I discovered along the way. They don’t fit neatly in a box.

"Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine,..."
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 

The God Box

In William R. Herzog II’s book Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God, he summarizes Robert Funk’s and Robert Miller’s work, Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence, saying, “The Gospel writers ‘invent narrative context’, provide interpretive overlays, soften hard sayings, ‘attribute their own sayings to Jesus’ and translate Jesus’ words into ‘Christian’ language.” This was acceptable and expected of writers at the time. Anything you wrote was expected to be your perspective on it, not unbiased reporting of what someone else said.  This is especially true in the genre of storytelling. The teller adds their unique voice.

For Herzog, this doesn’t diminish what the Gospel writers were doing. He wants to understand what they were thinking by understanding how they developed their narratives. He isn’t attempting to make a case for or against the existence of a man named Jesus, although occasionally in his books he will make a comment about words having come from such a man. His main goal though is to determine what the words were attempting to teach.

Thomas Sheehan, in his lectures on the Historical Jesus (available on iTunes University), puts this search in a slightly differently light. He says the Old Testament legends are “read into” Paul. Paul’s writings came before the writing of the gospels, despite their order as they appear in the Bible. Paul's words are then “read into” the gospels. Looked at this way, you see their influence and how the story of a man became the story of a god. How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

He begins his lecture series by saying you might be challenged to rethink Jesus. It’s not his intention, but it is a possible consequence of the study. He uses the name Yeshua ben Josef, because he is starting the history at a different point than the New Testament. He, as well Herzog and most scholars agree that the Gospels alone do not provide a consistent picture of a historical figure. Yeshua, or whomever it was that inspired the Gospels, cannot be accessed through the lens of the Jesus that has been handed down through the centuries.

Much of the effort to reconstruct how this was handed down to us was conducted by well meaning and devout Christians and Jews. This deconstruction and reconstruction has not thwarted the efforts to maintain the relationship between the God of the Bible and humankind. Some young people, called to ministry, don’t survive the education they receive at seminary. Once they learn how the Bible was assembled and the church came to be, the magic is gone. This could explain why those details are not heard from the pulpit. Religious education for the congregations might be offered on a Wednesday evening, but those are not well attended. Perhaps people just aren’t interested and would rather keep the mystery just as it is.

Some can bridge the gap between the literary and the historical. Eugene Peterson, who created The Message Bible, offers us a way to approach this academic exercise of attempting to understand what these ancient authors were trying to tell us. In his interview with Krista Tippet on NPR’s On Being, he talks of metaphor. “A metaphor is really a remarkable kind of formation because it both means what it says and what it doesn’t say. Those two things come together, and it creates an imagination which is active. You’re not trying to figure things out; you’re trying to enter into what’s there.” As a metaphor for metaphor, he refers to the hoop one uses for embroidery. The fabric is us, loose and unfinished, so it is stretched by the hoop then you can work with it, create the needlepoint art. He offers people poetry like the Psalms or sometimes Dickens and says, “just let your mind stretch around it, and see what happens.”

It’s important to note that you don’t leave the fabric in the hoop. At some point you move to a different part of the piece and hopefully you actually finish it and put it to good use. Peterson also said “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And he responds that you should eliminate the word “spiritual.” “It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.” The idea is not to get lost in these words, but to move with them and bring them into your life.

For others, the investigation into what’s factually true as opposed to what’s factually false but holds some metaphorical meaning that can be understood leads to a path that can no longer be called religious. Ryan Bell, a pastor who became increasingly liberal in his teaching until he was told he could no longer keep his position as a pastor, took this investigation about as far as it can go. As he put it, he kept learning new ideas, like the forgeries and mistranslations in the Bible or the science and psychology of LGBTQIA+ people and the limitations of inclusiveness that he found in his traditions, even in the words of Jesus. He applied the gospels to teachings of peace and justice and found he sometimes had to skip parts when preaching about them. He kept trying to fit all of this into his “God box”. He knew the ideas were right and he felt Christian teachings should include them, but what he had been taught did not always comport to what he was learning. The God box had to expand with each new thing. One day he realized the box was as big as all of his understanding of the world, and he no longer needed the box.

You might land anywhere along this spectrum. I make no claims here. The overwhelming number of people throughout history who say they have found inspiration in the Bible is not an argument I care to take on publicly. I can only report what I found and hope to engage a few people and listen to their perspectives. My own investigations have taken me through many books on philosophy and history and how they fit in with The Enlightenment and The Dark Ages and that elusive first century. I have almost as many questions as I did when I started. I don’t need to repeat that history, but I’ll connect a few dots, hopefully correctly.

More importantly, I hope to expand your definition of “atheist”, just as pastors and lay people I have met over the last few decades have expanded my definition of “theist”. I’m not sure if this quote is attributed to anyone in particular, but I think it came from Buddhism, “There are as many religions as there are people.” You don’t need to join the church to enjoy a hymn and you don’t need to leave it to be inspired by the exploration of the stars.

So with no particular goal in mind, I’ll start the conversation with a Psalm. You may find “stretching” yourself around a Psalm is perfectly comfortable and is a place you want to return to again and again. If you’re like me, you may it find it hard to see what all the fuss is about. Psalms are frequently drenched in allegory. With “saving horns” and “Cherubs” and “bulls of Bashan” and words that defy translation I wonder what they are talking about. Are they just pleas for mercy and justice, or something more? But sometimes, as in Psalm 40, I can feel the poetic tension pulling toward something we aspire to while knowing we will inevitably fall back. Year A, Week 2

Next in the series

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Superior Hiking Trail Southern Terminus

This isn’t exactly about religion, but I’ll include some Ursula Goodenough quotes to add that flavor to it. Mostly, I’ll be talking about the first 14 miles on the southern end of the Superior Hiking Trail. The first 5 are new within the last few years and then they connect in Jay Cooke State Park where existing trails are now designated as SHT. Much reconstruction has been done since the 2012 flooding. Old guide books will need to be rewritten, but the signage is up and the parking well marked now, so get out there. We live near this park, so we used two cars to make our hikes one way. We split it into two days, but kept a pace of 2 miles per hour, so it could be done in one.

We started at the northeast corner of Jay Cooke State Park and worked back to the Wisconsin border, so I’ll be taking it in that order. The Grand Portage Trail can be done as a loop in this section. It’s part of a much larger historic route used by Natives, then by Voyageurs to get between Lake Superior waters and the Mississippi. Stop at the Visitor Center for your parking sticker or whatever else you’ll need, then head east. On 210 on the park maps, it’s trail point 25. Look for the well marked big lot, skip the little pull offs. From there, walk back to the road, across the embankment and look for the signs. We wanted to take the actual SHT, but you could take the other part of this loop and end up in the same place. Apparently that is also a more challenging hike.

It gets beautiful right away, and you see the river along this section. It’s down river from all the rapids, just calm and peaceful. Cross the highway and start heading up hill. It gets a bit more challenging but it is well maintained. You get the sense of being well out into the wilderness even though you are not far from Duluth. There is a parking lot to the north that locals use to access this and the other loops in this area, so you might see a trail runner and possibly horses, but you won’t likely find the family campers from the State Park. You will hook in to Oak Trail, probably without noticing, but watch for Gill Creek Trail, it is a connector between loops.

"And so I once again revert to my covenant with Mystery, and respond to the emergence of Life not with a search for its Design or Purpose but instead with outrageous celebration that it occurred at all. I take the concept of miracle and use it not as a manifestation of divine intervention but as the astonishing property of emergence. Life does generate something-more-from-nothing-but, over and over again, and each emergence, even though fully explainable by chemistry, is nonetheless miraculous."

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature 

Remnants flooding in Gill Creek
You’ll get to give back some the elevation you gained as you get through the creek valley and then you get to gain it again. The creek is a raging river in spring time so watch the weather reports, even into June. We went in late August and I would say it was dicey for pumping drinking water. There is a small bridge, but I doubt it is much use in the spring. When you come up from there, you’ll meet up with the Triangle Trail and start to feel like you are in a State Park. From there, you connect for a short time to the paved Willard Munger Trail, then Greely Creek Trail which will take you by the power station dam and finally White Pine Trail. White Pine is nothing spectacular, but it takes you right to the campground. According to my GPS tracker, everything up to here was 6.2 miles.

Yep, we could text from the Park.
The camp sites at Jay Cooke are excellent. Sometimes you have quite a bit of trees between you and your neighbors. It’s all pit toilets, but when the buildings are open in the daytime, they are flush. There is a fire handle type water spigot always available near the Visitor Center. They are working on a shower building, which will probably make the place more popular for campers. It’s already one of the most visited parks in the state.

"Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine,..."
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature. 

Heading out from the park’s main attraction, cross the swinging bridge headed south and take your first left. The official trail for the SHT is the River Trail where you get eye to eye with some of the big rocks that form the rapids. This is a rocky trail, so it’s not groomed in winter and it’s underwater in spring. You’ll get back up on the Silver Creek Trail pretty quick and get the views from higher up. It’s wide and smooth, made for skiing in both directions. It connects to the Lost Lake Trail and the Bear Chase Trails, where the difficulty factor slowly increases. Park maps show where Lost Lake Trail crosses a stream coming off the St Louis River. It’s the best water source besides the river itself and, well, the plumbing, and has this awesome bridge.

There is a park map at intersection 40, but it’s for winter and the trail you want is not a winter trail so it is in gray. It might not be mowed as well and you’ll feel like you are leaving the park, but that’s the one you want. You’ll come to a sharp corner on the southern end of it and there will be a SHT arrow pointing up a hill back into the narrow single path trail like most of the SHT. This is an excellent section of the trail, with great vistas across a wide valley, great for fall colors. If you do this hike coming from Highway 23, it is about 3 and a half miles to this point. There is a scenic overlook about 3 miles from the highway. You’ll gain over 400 feet of elevation over those miles (going south) and have to pay for them with some trips down to creek beds. 

When you’re through all that, you’ll pop out onto Highway 23. Look to the south for Wild Valley Rd. When you are driving to this trail head you probably won’t see the tiny SHT signs, but the road has a sign for it. It turns into a minimum maintenance road, again, no SHT signs, at least not when I was there. The parking however does have the familiar trail head. As you can see, it’s a half mile from the highway and 5.9 miles to the park visitor center. The road continues on to hunting land, so wear your orange in season if you're going that direction. The 1.9 miles to Wisconsin is a nice rolling hike, with more creek bed valleys (usually dry). It’s a young forest with a few old trees, which is something you don’t see much of on the SHT.

The campsite is great. There is one tent site that is as nice as a State park and a few others if more people join you. There is a nice view down a steep drop off of a stream and no way to get down to it. Get back on the trail and hike a short hike towards Wisconsin to get to it. It’s big enough to deserve a bridge and was a couple feet deep in August, so pretty reliable. It’s a perfect place to begin your exploration of the entire Superior Hiking Trail.

Life, we can now say, is getting something to happen against the odds and remembering how to do it. The something that happens is biochemistry and biophysics, the odds are beat by intricate concatenations of shape fits and shape changes, and the memory is encoded in genes and their promoters. We read the notes, we hear the emergent chords and harmonies, and we marvel at the emergent musical experience.
Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature.

 Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, conveyed this concept to an assembly at the United Nations:

I do not see a delegation for the four-footed. I see no seat for the eagles. We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation. And we must continue to understand where we are. And we stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation. It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things.

Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred Depths of Nature