Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Somewhat on topic, but a slight departure from the series to do a book review.

One of the survivors of the 60’s counter cultural movement is a place near Big Sur called The Esalen Institute. From their own website, here is why people go there:
“They come for the intellectual freedom to consider systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia. They come to discover ancient wisdom in the motion of the body, poetry in the pulsing of the blood. They come to rediscover the miracle of self-aware consciousness.”
Esalen currently charges thousands of dollars for you to stay there and hundreds of dollars to take their courses. A few of them, such as yoga have continuing education credits, but most don’t. You might learn to paint from your soul though.

I heard of Esalen back in the 70’s but had forgotten about it. I’ve talked a lot about ancient wisdom and I’m going to just pass on the “miracle”. It’s the “lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia” that I want to address. What constraints? The constraint that if you are going to learn where stars come from you should know some Calculus? If you want to write some poetry, maybe you should read some classics?

I was reminded of Esalen while reading “Surely you are Joking Mr. Feynman.” This a collection of stories by Richard Feynman, the youngest physicist at Los Alamos when they were developing the atom bomb. He was a scientist and a bongo player and the book is divided equally between his cultural exploits and his scientific ones. I think there are better books on Feynman, but here is the speech I’m referring to.

He starts out talking about investigating some of these new ideas that Esalen was supposedly exploring and ends up talking about where our education system has gone wrong. He was born at the end of the time when science was respected, when it helped to unite a country, feed the world and defeat evil enemies. In doing that, it unleashed its own evil in the form of a mushroom cloud and there was a shift towards matters of the heart. The idea that science and capitalism could save us seemed like a lie.

The examination of the nature of that big lie is still going on. There is no simple way to account for all the harm and all the good that has occurred in the last century. Although I don’t come down on the side of war mongering and infinite expansion I also don’t come down on the side of the “miracle of self-aware consciousness.” It only took a few decades to examine astrology, out of body experiences, ESP, bending spoons, homeopathy and prayer to find that they are little lies. Claims of equal magnitude about these being our saviors have been made about these phenomenon. A few very serious people, like Richard Feynman, have looked into them and found them wanting.

Unfortunately, what Feynman suggested in 1974 has been ignored. What should be science’s greatest strength, that it admits what it can’t do, that it points to where it could be wrong, is seen as a weakness. Feynman exemplifies a man with intellectual freedom who considered systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond current constraints. Because he looked at the world that way and questioned other’s assumptions as well as his own assumptions, he won a Nobel prize for contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. People consider things beyond the current constraints all the time, some of them get Nobel prizes for it. They don’t need to go to Esalen and learn reflexology to do it.

Feynman questioned people that he had a great deal of respect for, Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr. He didn’t reject their work because he thought it was limiting his space or cramping his style or killing his buzz, he acknowledged their contributions and used them to further our understanding of the universe. He wasn’t constrained by academia, he used it to explore the mysteries of the world he found himself in. He didn’t look at musicians and painters as weird people who didn’t get it, he hung out with them and tried to learn from them to be a better drummer and a better sketcher. It seems to me the people at Esalen are the ones creating boundaries.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

To Pagans and Heretics III

All of this defining I have been doing has been necessary to discuss the marketing of those ideas. I’m not talking about some conspiratorial campaign to market a new world over. Marketing includes the word of mouth exchanges that we all use. I will discuss the marketing of liberal Christianity, but I believe you will find parallels to the other groups I have discussed. I will also draw a connection to the fundamentalist beliefs.
More important than getting to know the ins and outs of this market is understanding who the market is for. Polls often cite the fact that 80 to 90% of Americans believe in God. However, time/use studies by the government show that only 25% of Americans are attending church on Sunday. So there is a majority in the middle that have a wide range of spiritual beliefs, but they are only expressed in polls as belief in God or not. When defending their Biblically based arguments, religious leaders will site that 90% figure, claiming that they are all in complete agreement.
There is one thing that the 90% do generally agree on, and that is a distrust of atheists. This was discovered in a poll somewhat by accident. They were attempting to measure feelings towards Muslims and included the Atheist label to increase the accuracy of the poll. They expected atheists to be statistically insignificant. Although that 75% that did not go to church this Sunday may not be comfortable with their clergy, or may feel that their church has become less Christ centered, or they like some of the ideas but not the rules, or just can’t give to an organization that covers up for child molesters, they still are less comfortable proclaiming that they don’t believe in God or even thinking about their sister marrying an atheist.
Churches have been aware of this for a long time. It is not stated in these terms and may not even be conscious for most. It is stated in terms of the latest idea to increase the membership. When working on increasing members, they look at what people are thinking. If people think Christ was all about doing good things then their church should be out there cleaning up parks. If people think church should be a celebration, get some new musicians. If people want to know about recent historical discoveries about the first century, offer a class.
In the mid 20th century, more and more seminaries began to teach textual criticism, the idea that by reading the Bible, you could determine that it was not written by Moses, the prophets and the apostles. This led to heretical ideas like maybe the miracles in the Bible might not have happened. This was not immediately passed onto the people in the congregations. Some young people who thought they were very dedicated to the church found they could not be once they went through seminary school. Some of this started to leak into the mainstream. In the mid 1980’s a group of scholars and laymen founded The Jesus Seminar. They wrote books, toured and gave a new interpretations of the gospel stories.
About that time I was getting more involved in my community and found that churches were an important part of that. When you needed volunteers to help with your neighborhood cleanup, they seemed to have a group just ready to go. I eventually stumbled on a church that was involved in doing good works, had some good music and a pastor that hadn’t done anything I would have a problem with. And he was just starting a class using a book by Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar. It was not until years later that I was shown a book that exposed some of the not so scholarly methods used by the Jesus Seminar.
Later, also somewhat by accident, I picked up a book by John Shelby Spong. He was one of the first of the older generation of church leaders to really look into the psychology of homosexuality. He found out that he had been wrong to preach that it was a sin. It was apparently quite natural. He is now retired and writes extensively about how the Bible is not the word of God. Somehow he has maintained his love for Christ, although he has never explained why in a way that satisfies me.
It is rare that anything will be explicitly stated that these tools are used to keep people interested. But sometimes it is. There was an organization named Campus Crusade for Christ that works specifically to attract those young people who weren’t indoctrinated into Christianity by their family. The group eventually figured out that the word “Crusade” has some negative connotations. Now they just call themselves “Cru”. This was specifically because, “some people may be initially turned off at the mention of Christ.”
To hear more of this type of talk, you really don’t need to dig too far. You only need to get past the nice brochures that are left out for that 50-75% of people who don’t come in every Sunday. Once you are past the Sunday Service, on just about any committee or in a meeting at any level above the most local, you will hear talk about membership. There may be some language about doing the work of the Lord, but there won’t be much detail. Once you are at this level you are supposed to know what that work is and make the connections yourself.
For me, I eventually could not look at anything we did that I felt had actual value and not find a completely logical reason for doing it that did not require a supernatural explanation. The only thing the church offered was an infrastructure of buildings, regional leaders and a communication system. There may not seem to be anything wrong with that. And if my church, the United Methodist Church, was an organization that built clinics in third world countries and fed the homeless in American cities and did little else, then I would agree. But that is not all that they do.
First there are just the buildings themselves. Look around at all of them in your area. Each one must be heated, kept cleaned, and have the lawn mowed. They are rarely full except for a few hours a week. The reason for so many of them is that each disagrees on the tiniest bits of theology, things that have little impact on the world but took years to parse out and tons of paperwork as each new difference split off to form another denomination. Imagine the community center that could be built with the combined effort of those organizations. A center that would be for everybody.
A good deal of effort of the particular church I attended was put into working to change the organizations official policy on homosexuality. One of the things that made the church vibrant was a very creative staff of people in the Sunday School which taught that there was a guiding consciousness that created all things and watches over us. The questions that began to arise for me were why am I part of an organization that needs to have its policy on homosexuality changed? And, do I want children to be taught to believe someone is watching out for them, or do I want them to learn to think for themselves?
Not too far away, in other churches in the same organization, children were being taught that their prayers could cure diseases. Most of the other churches were either oblivious to the issues of homosexuality or actively working to keep the current rules in place. Again, more time spent arguing over something that the rest of the world has already dealt with. Of course, I am just one person and there is the question of creating change from within an organization or from without. It is up to you to decide where you stand.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pagans and Heretics II

Part I of this series

So, what do I mean by Pagan? Most people who join groups, whether pagan or orthodox, don’t go on research projects about those groups. Most people make choices based on personal experience and the experiences of people close to them. There is nothing wrong with this and I will discuss it more in a moment. But this is a blog about examining those things, so here goes.

When I say “pagan”, I am talking about the shamanistic, polytheistic, and animist ways of looking at the world. The word has had many other uses throughout history, some of them not so nice. It was sometimes used to mean “NOT Christian”, usually for whatever indigenous culture the Christians were conquering at the time. To the ancient Romans it was used more like it’s earliest definition, someone outside the culture. The word predates the Roman Empire, from the Stone Age, and Rome fought hard to destroy that earlier culture of nature centered religion. Later when Rome became Roman Catholic, the stories of Dionysus or what are now Christmas traditions such as the yule log, were called pagan rituals.

Religious is an excellent source for information that tries to stay neutral on just about any tradition, including Wicca and Pagans.

Heretic has less of a history, but its connotation is negative. I don’t see it as positive. Martin Luther was a heretic, and he helped to reform Catholicism. The important part of the definition of heretic for my purposes is that they come from within the tradition. Heretics study the classical forms, then see something new, something requiring change. If they are accepted, they are leaders, if not, they are heretics. Brian McClaren, the author of Everything Must Change has said that today’s heresies are tomorrow’s orthodoxy.

There may be other categories you see as a better fit for yourself. But I think what I have to say will map onto them. If I may make a few suggestions:
For Buddhists, you may want to read Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor.
For Scientologists, how much have you been told? Do you know what happens when you reach Thetan level III?
I am not familiar with women’s groups, but if you are involved in anything associated with the Men’s Movement, there should be no dogma. The movement is an inquiry. No one should be demanding your belief or allegiance. Recommend reading would be Robert Bly or Robert Moore. There are many others.
If your interest in spiritual, psychic or paranormal activity is casual, you might be interested the story of Susan Blackmore.

Finally, I will also discuss science. But no need to get too scientific about it. As I stated before, for the most part, our beliefs are formed from personal experience. So your belief system is as strong, accurate and useful as your experiences. Of course we can’t be everywhere or do anything, so we also rely on those we trust, the people close to us. On the more complex issues, we have to trust others. We do this more than we realize. For example, I have never seen my own brain, but I trust brain scientists that it is where my thoughts come from. If I had lived in Aristotle’s time, I probably would have trusted him that the brain is there to provide a cooling mechanism for my blood.

I said I don’t want to get scientific, but there are some basics that educational systems don’t cover very well. One is the idea of proof. Science does not really prove anything. In math, there are proofs, but they are confined to the definitions of math. So you can prove that 2 + 2 = 4, but only as those characters are defined. There are many things that science can’t say much about. Even the things that it can say a lot about, it can’t say it knows for certain. This is starting to move into philosophy so I’ll stop.

The important thing that gets missed in discussing science and religion is that science begins with wonder. The mysteries of the universe inspired people to look for answers. There was no distinction between astrology and astronomy when people first sat up all night and watched the stars move. We continue to look for answers, but if the answers had all been found, there would no longer be a need for science. Somehow religion has managed to claim its place as keeper of the great mysteries, when it is religion that claims to have the answers. Science does not claim to have the answers. It just has a certain method for asking the questions.

Inquiry begins with some sort of anecdote. Something happens that inspires questions. There may also be a premise. Like I presume that I exist and that the laws of physics that can be demonstrated locally apply to the entire known universe. Experiments are done to ask those questions, data is gathered. The experiments are repeated and checked and confirmed. It is usually best to have several people involved. Inductive or deductive reasoning is used to further the study and hypotheses are proposed. Ideas are published, the work is checked again and a consensus starts to develop. When enough testing is done, a hypothesis becomes a theory, and it can be used as a new starting point for further investigation. So, to say that a theory is just a guess is not at all accurate.

This section has been rather dry. I hope some of the links were interesting. Next I will get into why this examination matters.