Friday, December 21, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Secret


I found an interesting piece of sarcasm recently.  I am trying to cut back on sarcasm, too often it is only funny to myself, so I will let you find it yourself.  Consider it a quest.  When I found it, it was the top customer review for the book “The Secret” in hardcover on amazon.com.  Over 6,000 people found it useful, so I assume it will stay on top for a while.  I wasn’t planning on buying the book myself, but I was looking for some insight into what it was about.  I have been on my own quest for the secret most of my life and I am always fascinated by the latest popular claim to know it. 

I’ll save you the $17.49 and tell you that there is no secret, and the paradox is, that is the secret.  The book frames it along the lines of attracting good things by having thoughts, but that’s just another way of saying that you get out of life what you put into it.  You might also want to look at the companion DVD about Abraham, some kind of channelled spirit that helped write the book.  That is the point I knew I was not going to put anything in my cart.

I don’t expect that your life will change, or that you will experience enlightment from what I just said, but I have read the so-called secrets of many cultures and philosophers throughout history, and that’s pretty much it.  I have never personally created that experience for someone else, but I would suggest some much better sources than this one if it’s what you are looking for.  In the end it is a personal experience.  You may be wondering why I’m bothering to write this.  The reason is, I find books like “The Secret” not just a waste of $17.49, but harmful.  They go from something that can be dismissed to soemthing dangerous when they explain how the secret works, then go on to point out what is wrong with you that keeps the secret from working. 

I have had my own ah-ha experiences.  Those moments when everything came together, made sense, and I knew what was next for me.  Usually any attempt to write it down or explain it was futile.  Sometimes, I realized after a while that I wasn’t so sure.  When I was nearing the end of my college years, I went for an early morning walk in a park near my home.  I was in a hollow and I stopped and looked up and saw the most beautiful cascade of water coming down one side of the hollow, it dripped off the moss and skimmed around the rocks. It was caught by the filtered sunlight giving it the look of gold and copper and diamonds.  I was mesmerized.  I saw my whole life before me, I knew my future mission and felt the confidence of having done everything I needed to in the past.  I knew everything and at the same time knew that I knew nothing.  It felt as if the water in my body emptied out of me and this water was filling me again.  My life was over, and it was just starting.

I would like to take you there and give you that experience, but I’m afraid it wouldn’t do much good.  I have been back myself and it has never looked like that or felt like that again.  It’s really more of a drainage ditch coming off of a golf course than it is a hollow.  If I could simply tell you the location, and have it work for you, I would gladly do it.  To discover your own mission, you need to go on your own quest. 

What is unfortunate about books like “The Secret” is that they actually do work for some.  If you are unfamiliar with the concepts in the book, they seem very logical, and they are.  If you apply them, you might be successful, and the author deserves some credit for that.  If you have some success, then some failure, you might come back to that author looking for the DVD version, or the new workbook to refresh you, and that’s when it gets dangerous.  From the reviews, it appears this author is aware of that phenomenon, and plays on it very well. 

I don’t know if there is a name for this phenomenon, but I suspect there is, possibly in psychology.  When someone has an experience like the one I described, one that is difficult to explain, it is natural to associate it with a place, or perhaps a book.  For me, that little crack in the limestone with the cascading water is sacred, for others that place is just a parking spot, or a place where they lost their golf ball.  There was something there that tipped me into that sacred space, but I would have never got there without a lot of friends, a lot of effort, and many failures.  

Before you go off on a quest of your own, I hope I haven’t made it sound like it has to be a big struggle.  My college years were actually pretty easy.  There is no one way to go about it, and it doesn’t even require leaving home, although living in your parent’s basement until your 30 may not be the best place to start.  Important factors to include are a desire to learn, considering all viewpoints, pushing your limits, nothing shocking here I hope.  Some reading may be involved, but please skip books like “The Secret”.  I highly recommend “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse.  For younger readers “The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream” by Paulo Coelho is quite good.

I hope no one is getting from this that I am recommending that each one of you needs to pull yourself by your own bootstraps and get out and figure this out for yourself.  We need groups of people watching out for each other and helping us to go beyond what we think our limitations are, and sometimes telling us to pull back.  If you have a group like that organized just because you live near each other, then you are lucky.  If you are doing well maybe it’s you who should start the organizing and find someone who needs a little help.  If you want to get together with people who have interest in the same book you do, that’s great. 

Some of you may be seeing some similarities with something else and I want to address that.  Some of you may want to quit reading at this point, I understand.  I recently came across another piece on the Internet, actually it was on You-Tube.  It started very slow, with classical music, using typed words, no voice.  It said that it was about to tell me something that would change my life.  It said I might experience feelings of great peace as I read the words that were coming.  Many of you would have moved on to the American Idol or UFO video, but this is my hobby.  It took a few more minutes, but eventually it told the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.  My only experience was disappointment.

The parallels here are that many people have had positive experiences with the New Testament.  Many of them organize groups based on those books, or join existing groups.  Some of them turn to that book whenever something goes wrong, looking for an answer.  Some of them want to convince everybody that this book is the only one with the right answer.  Some of them figure out that they can make a lot of money off the previous two groups just mentioned.  Some people think going to see the places referenced in the Bible is what they need.  Some claim to have seen visions of people from the Bible. 

The person who made the You-Tube felt that I only needed to hear the story and I would get the same experience they had.  I have never known that to work.  Any conversion story I have heard always began with a story of falling deep into a hole of degradation or egocentrism, or addiction to money.  Only then do they see the statue of the Virgin Mary crying or something else to shake them out of it.  There are of course many other paths to the same conclusion that are less dramatic.

Despite all that, I recommend leaving the Bible on your reading list.  I have heard a lot of bad things said about religion, but I have never heard someone complain about a criminal who found Jesus while in prison and now has a steady job and healthy children.  Unless of course his job involved coming to your house and trying to get you saved.  The difference between “The Secret” and the Bible is that it is only the interpreters that want to frighten you into putting their book above others.

A lot of people believe that the Bible tells them that they must get other people to believe.  I haven’t found that part.  I found something that says it’s a good idea to share the source of that which has helped you.  So, my work is done.  A lot of people believe that the Bible tells them if they don’t believe it, bad things will happen to them.  I found some things about seeking good things and good things will come to you, but also some stories about how that doesn’t always work out, and what’s really important is that you keep seeking the truth and living that truth. A lot of people believe that you have to believe all the miracles in the Bible or you don’t really have faith.  I can’t find that anywhere, in fact it seems like you need the faith first for the miracles to happen, or if you are lucky enough to witness a miracle that will help you get some faith.

A lot of people believe that God has a certain name and a definite schedule and you had better get on that schedule.

There is a preacher on TV who reads from the Bible and interprets as he reads.  He talks about the Hebrew translations and the meaning words had in the context of thousands of years ago.  Every now and then he stops and tilts the Bible up to the camera and says, “the answer is in here, if you just read it, have you read it?”  I have read it, and I have come up with much different answers from him, and I have read works by Bishops, priests and scholars that agree with me.  The TV preacher talks as if he wants me to study for myself and form my own conclusions but if I told him about those answers, I’m sure he would say, “well, you need to read it again”.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Common Era - Modern Science

Click here to go the previous one

Although I prefer to focus on the cultural matters, sometimes the things that history books spend most of their time on, Kings, Queens and military conquests, really do matter. One of those items that I have omitted so far in this story is the Mongol invasion. It is peripheral to my discussion, but played a central role in shaping the 13th century.

Covering more territory than either Islam or Western Europe, the Mongols were conquering the Far East with rapid precision. Their military tactics were far in advance of anyone in the rest of the world at that time. Genghis Kahn had little interest in nation building or new technology, only conquering.

By 1240, his armies had reached Europe. He had come near Islam, but went over it to the north instead of through it. Whether or not he could have taken all of Europe remains one of those interesting questions for historians to ponder. Polish armies were on the run after the Battle of Leignitz, but then the Mongol invaders suddenly packed up and returned home, a 6,000 mile journey. This was not from fear, but from a decree by the Kahn himself. Upon his death, a new leader must be chosen, and that must be done back in Mongolia.

After that process, battles continued, but infighting weakened their armies. They began to integrate with the countries they had come to rather than dominate. Unfortunately for Islam, one of their last advances was into Baghdad. In 1263, the city was sacked and rivers ran black with the ink of the books that were thrown into it. Both of these empires had spread themselves too thin and both were now in decline. Unfortunately they were able to inflict a lot of damage on the good that had come out of their rising.

Western Europe was just getting its act together and now it had a lot less to worry about. The problems on the western edge of the Islamic empire, in Al-Andalus would get no help from Baghdad. As Christians conquered Spain and Jerusalem they claimed that they were taking back what was rightfully theirs. But they did more than take back land that was once Roman territory, they found riches of knowledge. It was based on Greek texts, so they claimed that as theirs also, ignoring what had been done with them over the last 1,500 years.

I began this search with the question of why did science thrive in Western Europe and nowhere else. The Chinese have many inventions, Baghdad was a center of learning for centuries, but Europe gave us telescopes, the printing press, the crossbow and eyeglasses.

The answer is, it didn’t. The roots of science are nowhere near Western Europe. It was NOT the sense of a universe with a creator and immutable laws, or the concept of free will, or a tightly administered university system that gave rise to science. It was a spirit of openness and willingness to doubt. It required a tolerance of other cultures and a recognition that intelligence is widespread and not related to a particular worldview. It required contributions from entire known world brought together under one roof. And it required a financial commitment from the highest levels.

The reason we believe science came from Europe is that’s what the history books say. In this case, the adage is true, history is written by the victors. Europeans copied from Middle Easterners and Northern Africans who had gathered knowledge from the Far East. They stole their homework and called it theirs. Then they beat them up and took their lunch money. When their money ran out, they found some new kids and took theirs too. There is no one person to blame for this, but speaking metaphorically, Western Europe was the bully of the world.

They had successfully created a system that had all of the appearances of a system of checks and balances. The military needed the authority of the nobility and nobility was crowned by those who knew the word of God. God had come down to earth, humbled himself and declared himself one with all of us. According to this myth, the meek had inherited the earth. Dominion over all the earth would soon be achieved and 1,000 years of peace were at hand. Right after a few more savages were killed off.

Even learning had become an expression of the Almighty. Making sacrifices was primitive, but God was all knowing. Learning about nature was a path to understanding the glory of creation. God still had a plan, now it could be discerned not just by prayer, but by reading signs in nature. If nature seemed to be contradicting something in the Bible, it was best to consult the theologians. Once they had spoken, you could get back to your test tubes and telescopes.

It doesn’t help that science at the time was primitive. Some of what Galileo did during his lifetime has been labeled alchemy. The ideas of peer review and repeating experiments were not established. Early science was performed by people who had the time, money and resources, often funded by the Church or for the purposes of military expansion. You got published if you could afford to fund the publishing, not based on the merits of your discovery. Accusations of this continue to the present, and too often they are true.

The authority of science is often questioned and compared to the authority of the Bible as if they are equal. Ironically, questioning authority is a value of science. Scientific teaching, when done correctly, tells you what is unknown and tells you the weak points of its arguments. Scientists, if they are doing it right, acknowledge the discovery of new information and welcome changes to their understanding. That some scientists and some teachers get it wrong, does not make the scientific method wrong.

Like the Buddha said, “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings - that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

I know of no other religious leader who says this and truly means it and means it to apply even to their self. It can’t be called a belief system because it is telling you not to believe, but to question. Only after examination do you take what you have found as a guide. Even then, if new information is discovered, examine again. That’s the modern world view that will solve the problems that the old world view got us into to.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Commone Era - Tusi's Couple

This is the 4th in the series. Return to #3


Tracing philosophy, like I did last week, is fairly easy. Commentators build on each other and reference each other. Tracing how science moved around the world in the Middle Ages is not so easy. The idea of a copyright did not exist yet. There were no international scientific publications.

Recent historical research into this has been much like detective work. If you look at De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (go ahead, grab your copy, I’ll wait) written in 1543 by Nicholas Copernicus and compare it to Al-Tusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti (Amazon.com might carry it), you will see diagrams of Tusi’s couple that are almost identical. Maybe Copernicus arrived at this independently, but it seems unlikely to me. And even though the work and data from the 9th century Muslim, Al-Battani, is mentioned by Copernicus in that same work, that fact is rarely mentioned in history or science classes.

In case you have forgotten, Copernicus came before Galileo. He published his ideas about the earth rotating around the sun late in his life because he knew it could cause trouble for him with the Pope. He is often credited with beginning the scientific revolution. More often, I am seeing this credit come with the qualification “in the West”, but this is a recent phenomena and even when used, no mention of where else in the world scientific ideas came from. Sometimes there will be a vague reference made to translations of Greek works by Arabic scholars. The growth of the university system is also credited without mentioning where they got their books.

Why have we lost this connection? There is at least one technical reason. The Arabic language is very ornate. When written, a slightly more or less pronounced curl of a symbol can carry meaning. This does not lend itself well to being reproduced with movable type. Invented around 1439, Queen Isabella funded the increased use of the printing press. It could also have something to do with the over 1 million Arabic books that were burned after Spain was “reconquered” in 1492.

Even before gaining back the territory of Granada, the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, rules were in place to enforce the conversion of everyone to Catholicism. The most famously brutal leader of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor in 1483. It was common for Jews and Muslims to fake their conversions to Catholicism. It was the job of the inquisition to insure they were authentic and expel, torture or kill them if they did not comply.

1492 is famous of course in the Americas because that is when Columbus arrived. Whether he was the first European there or just the last one to make a big deal out of it is not my concern here. More important is that he claimed a land that was already inhabited by the Lucayans, Tainos and Arawaks for his God and his country, thinking nothing of taking seven of them back to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and having them baptized. Immediately the Spanish and Portuguese began to draw lines on the map, with their authority secured by the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, laying claim to these new worlds that they barely understood.

On his second voyage, Columbus was escorted by an Apostolic Delegate and missionaries with clear orders to evangelize. In 1494, Columbus sent 500 slaves to the Queen but she refused them and continued to advocate for good treatment of the natives. This did not slow the pace of conquest and did not stop Columbus from enslaving the natives to work in mines and plantations on Hispaniola. By 1496, Columbus’ brother Diego had secured the port of Santo Domingo. In 1510, Balboa founded Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien on continental America. By 1515, the conquest of Cuba was complete and other Caribbean islands were under Spanish control. The wealth that came from these adventures shifted the focus of Europe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

Throughout, it was important that these conquerors had official authority behind them. It seems unlikely that those authorities were not aware of the mistreatment of people in the New World. They were most likely more concerned about the gold, timber and cotton flowing to them. Ferdinand and Isabella were always careful to receive a Papal Bull that authorized their claims. This idea of the rulers of the people having the blessing of the religious leaders had been fermenting for centuries. Two centuries earlier, Thomas Aquinas had revisited the work of Augustine of Hippo to create justifications for war.

Augustine had said, "The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power"

So, if it was criminal to be anything but a Christian, then killing people who refused to convert was not a problem. It is doubtful that this was Augustine’s intention, but over the centuries the Church had increased in power and figured out what they could say to their followers and what they could get away with. 900 years later, Aquinas clarified and added criteria for when killing was justified:
  • First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, "in the nation's interest" is not just) or as an exercise of power.
  • Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
  • Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Again, leaving much open to interpretation. If the Pope says it is good and just to bring Christ to the New World, nearly anything is acceptable. The motive of peace can be claimed when any kind of conflict arises. Simply claim that you are the one who is going to bring peace, as soon as you kill off a few of the non-peaceful ones, and your actions are just in the eyes of the Lord. Go wherever you want, as long as you carry the right flag with you, you are justified.
With these rules in place, the acquisition of knowledge from one declining empire and the acquisition of resources from a much weaker tribal culture, the pattern for the development of the Americas was set in motion.

Regardless of what was officially stated, it seems clear that all were aware of what was happening in these far off conquests. Even after Columbus was arrested by Francisco De Bobadilla and sent back to Spain in chains for his mistreatment of the Arawaks, his punishment only lasted a couple months and he was returned. Conquest and mistreatment of natives was not limited to Columbus or the rulers of Spain. The patterns that began here would last for centuries.



Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Common Era - Toward Western Europe

A little timeline just to get things in perspective. I know I have been covering the Islamic empire quite a bit, so a little review of the Christians is in order. The Roman Empire did not begin as a Christian one, so it has a different flavor than the Islamic empire. Both had considerable fighting within their boundaries, but the Christians had more trouble over who was actually the King and what brand of Christianity they were worshipping.

475 – Rome falls. Or at least that is the most common date used. At the time, it was just one more piece of bad news. The Western Emperor had been deposed by the Barbarians. Many Romans still felt that there was an Empire and that it would return to its former glory.

Dec 25, 800 Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This was the beginning of a somewhat reunited Europe, although fighting continued. The tradition of the Pope crowning the King would last for 1,000 years.

Nov 27, 1095 – The First Crusade. Pope Urban combines the ideas of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with that of waging war. He says, “The West must march to the defense of the East.” By 1099 they had captured Jerusalem, killing many Jews along the way and brutally murdering Muslims in the battle.

1088 – Establishment of the University of Bologna, Italy. This and other universities grew out of the Christian cathedral and monastic schools. With the wars of conquest going on both in the East as well as in Spain, Western Europe was increasingly exposed to the ancient writings of Plato and Aristotle and the advances in math and science coming out of Baghdad.

1210 – Teachings of Aristotle were condemned. This was only effective in the University of Paris.

1277 – Broader condemnations were made. Some specific works of Thomas Aquinas were included; particularly those that were attempting to reconcile the pantheistic ideas of the Islamic philosopher Averroes with the dogmas of Christianity.


1323 – Pope John XXII pronounces Thomas Aquinas a saint. The Church continues to claim the final word on God’s powers and the truth of miracles, but methods of analyzing cause and effect in nature are taking hold throughout Christendom. Depending on whom you read, this was an era of oppression of knowledge by the church, or the inspiration for the beginnings of science in the West.


The Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were gaining power and consolidating in Spain at this time, but I’m going to skip those details for now and catch up with Ferdinand and Isabella later. The histories of the crusades and inquisitions that were prevalent at this time are well documented elsewhere, so I don’t think it is necessary to rehash those.

Two major figures that were instrumental in transferring the knowledge that had accumulated across the Islamic empire were Maimonides and Averroes. Maimonides is a well known Jewish scholar throughout the west and east today. Averroes was a Muslim scholar and is not so well known. But he was acknowledged by Thomas Aquinas who is famous for attempting to reconcile Christianity with rationalism.

Maimonides

Maimonides, was a Jewish philosopher, born in Cordoba in 1135. He died in Egypt 12/12/1204. He is one of the foremost rabbinical philosophers in Jewish history. He wrote the14 volume Mishneh Torah, still an authority as a codification of Talmudic law. He was well read in the Greek philosophies (in the Arabic language) and in Islamic science.

In 1148, the Almohads abolished the dhimma status that protected the life and wealth of Jews within Islamic rule. Under the new laws Jews now had to wear identifying clothing. Given the choices of conversion, death or exile, he chose exile. He moved around southern Spain for ten years then settled in Fes, Morocco. He studied in University of Al-Karaouine then went to Fostat, Egypt in 1168. Although exiled from Muslim Al-Andalus, staying within the Islamic empire was still preferable to Christianized Europe.

In fact Maimonides was working against the forces of European expansion. Christians were taking Jews captive and Maimonides took part in rescuing them from King Amalric’s siege of the Egyptian town of Bilbays. After the unfortunate loss of his brother, along with the family fortune, he became court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, and later to Sultan Saladin.

One of his better known works is The Guide to the Perplexed; supposedly a long answer to a young man who was having difficulty holding on to his faith in the miracles of the Bible while also learning about the laws of nature and how unlikely it was that those miracles could have actually happened. I began reading it when I was myself perplexed and did not find it to be much of a guide at all.

In the guide, Maimonides grants that parts of the Bible are allegorical. He does not allow for God being anything but real and presents arguments for its existence. These are somewhat complex arguments, similar to the cosmological argument or teleological argument, both can be easily googled, and both can be shown to be logically unsound. He goes on to analyze some Biblical stories, leaving much open to interpretation. In fact philosophers, Jews and even Kabballists have claimed he supports them.

Of course at the time his arguments were new and the Internet was quite a ways off, so it is easy for me to sit here and be critical of his work. I include him here to acknowledge his contribution to furthering the conversation of modernization and note that we have progressed quite a bit since then.

Averroes

It was not just Judaism that was under attack by the Moors, philosophy itself, even from a Muslim perspective was ridiculed. The Ash’ari theology had spread rapidly. It looked only to Allah as the source of wisdom. To look to knowledge for the sake of knowledge was considered arrogant and counter to Islamic teaching. Al-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers and in response, Averroes wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, excelled in medicine and law and one day, his mentor handed him many of the works of Aristotle, telling him that the Commander of the Faithful (as the ruler was called at the time) was complaining about the disjointedness of Aristotle’s expressions, or perhaps the trouble was with the translations that they had. He felt that if anyone could summarize and clarify those works, Averroes could. He devoted 30 years of his life to doing just that.

His rationalist line of thinking did not always play well with the increasingly fundamentalist rulers. Although the reasons are unclear, we know his political career ended abruptly with criticisms from Islamic jurists. After his death, a contemporary, Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi wrote that the secret reason for his ordeal was that he wrote, “And I saw the Giraffe at the garden of the king of the Berbers.”

Seemingly innocent, and possibly not intentional, this reference was to a king and it was not done with proper protocols. Jealous, competing enemies took it out of context and brought it to the attention of the Caliph Yaqub al-Manur. Averroes was exiled and many of his books were burned. We know of him mostly today through the translations that survived in Europe. He was allowed to return shortly before his death in 1198.

His philosophy ranged from Plato’s paternalistic and authoritarian ideas of absolute monarchy supported by coercion and indoctrination of the young, to the acceptance of women’s equality. He defended philosophy and said it could exist alongside religion.

Conclusions

If you were to read their actual philosophies, you might not find them impressive. Their arguments would probably seem elementary. They wouldn’t seem like anything new. That could be because they are almost 1,000 years old. At the time however, people were still struggling with the earth being round. They might not have thought that the sun was carried across the sky in a golden chariot, but they still didn’t have any idea what it actually was. They were being told by a powerful tradition that God was responsible for everything, but they could see people taking command of how crops grew and where water went and the health and well being of their loved ones. These things needed to be reconciled.

I highlight these two men, but there were many who had their same ideas. We know of these two because they were literate and eloquent. Also, they worked well within the confines of their traditions, enough to gain respect, but challenged that tradition just enough to be considered great thinkers of the ages. I’m sure there were many others that challenged tradition considerably more but we don’t know of them because they were marginalized, not given an education, or their writings were destroyed, or perhaps their heads removed.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Common Era - Iberia

This is the 2nd of a series. Return to #1.

I covered some of the early milestones in the discovery ofthe modern scientific method in my earlier timeline and blogs, so I’m going to skip over to the Iberian Peninsula for the next chapter. History and science are not everybody’s favorite subjects but I blame text books for that, as well as limitations put on teachers to keep them from being too controversial. For school boards and principles, it is easier to deal with, and by that I mean suppress, a few wild card teachers than it is to deal with the variety of parental concerns that arise when you stray from a narrow, boring, middle of the road, watered down version of history.

That’s unfortunate, because there are some juicy stories out there. The one I’ll relate here looks at just why we call Spain, Spain. The “Iberian Peninsula” is more generic, although even that name has Greek roots.

The Iberian Peninsula was inhabited before Rome or Greece but was eventually part of that empire. It was influenced by the Celts, the Phoenicains and the Tartessians. It also came under Germanic control for a while, which included Christians. In 711 CE, some Muslims started moving in. 781 years later it would be “re-conquered”. This has come to be known as The Reconquista, mainly because they were the last ones to win and the culture that won has more or less survived.

One area that held off the influence of the Muslims for a long time was Murcia. The region had been built in the early part of the 9th century. At that time, it was inhabited by two rival tribes at the time, the Yemenies and the Midaries. One day, a Yemeni decided to help himself to the some grapes growing along the water’s edge. The grapes were owned by a Midare who saw him and was insulted by his transgression. They fought and the Yemeni was killed and a war followed.

War is bad for commerce, so troops were sent from Cordoba to keep the peace. While the rest of the continent wallowed in tribal wars between feudal kingdoms, Cordoba was a clean city with beautiful mosques and a well fed populous, surrounded by well managed agriculture. One of its strengths was tolerance of religious practices. While the crusades were creating rivers of blood in Jerusalem, Jews, Christians and Muslims worked together in Spain.

But Spain was not yet “Spain”. Under Islamic rule it was called Al-Andalus and it continued to be a collection of kingdoms. Under the rule of Islam, these were called Taifa Kingdoms. Muhammad Ibn Mardaniƛ rose to be its King in 1147. He came from a Hispanic family but converted to Islam. His troops were also of mixed heritage and with them he expanded his Kingdom into Valencia. He successfully defended Murcia from the advances of the new family of Muslim conquerors, the Almoravids, until his death in 1172. His was the last Kingdom to hold off their advances. His sons gave in and became a vassal kingdom of these Moorish conquerors.

The Almoravids did not care for the lack of piety shown by these multi-cultural kingdoms and attempted to regulate art and architecture. However looking at mosques in Algiers and Fez today, it seems that some of that art did eventually influence them. When the Almohads took over, mosques, mansions and palaces were built throughout the empire. The 100 meter minaret in Giralda still stands in Seville. The Alhambra in Cordoba also survived the destructive forces of the Reconquista. It remains as an iconic image of Moorish influence on the area.


But their rule became unpopular. Perhaps it was their intolerance for the Jewish and Christian communities that weakened them. Either way, they never could expand into the Christian nations to the North. The Kingdoms of Aragon, Castile, Leon and Portugal expanded and became Christian Kingdoms. To understand the battle to come, I’ll take a look at those kingdoms in more detail next week. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Common Era - The Fundamentals

 This is the beginning of a series, click here to move on the next one.

You can continue to follow my commentary on Tony Jones’ series on “Questions that Haunt Christians” if you’d like, although I understand if you don’t want to continue to torture yourself with that. I’m finally getting back to my historical research on the beginnings of science. I’m finding more and more interesting tails from the 13th century and surrounding eras about how knowledge moved around the Medieval world and was claimed by various political and religious forces. Each one wants to take credit for the work of a few courageous individuals who crossed political and religious barriers to discover what we all needed to advance ourselves as a species.

Today, the major force against science is fundamentalism. The word is often associated with Muslims but also has Christian roots. It was a Christian document from the turn of that last century that was titled “The Fundamentals”. It was, as the word implies, an examination of what essential beliefs were required to define an individual as a Christian. It has since come to be associated with more than defining that for yourself, but forcing it on others, or at least claiming that those who don’t believe like you will suffer punishment. The most problematic version of fundamentalism is when people who are alive now believe it is their duty to enforce those beliefs and do the punishing.

For Christianity, although it was not called “fundamentalism”, this began a long time ago.

We can see by writings in the Bible that Christianity had very humble roots. It was denigrated by the government and the religious establishment of the day. That is the basis of the crucifixion story. You don’t need to accept any of the Bible as historically accurate to verify this. There are just a few references to the Christian movement outside of the Bible. Documents of the early church are scant. The actual authorship of the gospels and the dates of their writing are in dispute. Discussions of this by Christians can be found easily, even in the footnotes of some study Bibles.

Christianity was practiced by a variety of sects for 300 years after the historical time of Christ. This was a problem for an emperor. Emperors don’t like fighting among groups in their kingdoms. Especially when they decide that they want to be a member of one of those groups. This is the reason Emperor Constantine called a council of those sects to work it out. It was called the First Council of Nicea. Christians don’t talk about it much. New Age writers like to make up all sorts of things about it. Its direct impact can be argued, but it can’t be argued that the Catholic Church fared much better from then on.

When a group goes from being illegal to an official group of a powerful government, that’s gotta be a good thing for them. This was not just some symbolic statement either. Constantine was declared the enforcer of the doctrine. He continued to support traditional Roman temples for a while, but eventually he pillaged them and tore them down. He used public money to copy Bibles. He rebuilt Jerusalem with a focus on the Christian aspects.

But it was more than just support of a religion that he loved. The word “catholic” means “universal” and that is the faith Constantine wanted, one church, with him at the top. Constantine mastered the concept of combining Church and State. Ceremony and costume surrounded him. He was “God’s agent on Earth” and an audience with him was the next best thing to talking to God. As he fomented civil wars and conquered kingdoms he set military and religious leaders in charge with the lines of authority between the two blurred.

Such a power hungry system does not end with the death of its leader. Constantine’s sons continued to battle, including with each other. Both died in their fight. Constantine’s nephew Julian assumed the throne and was assassinated by the Persians. This only deepened the resolve to fight. At the end of the 4th century, laws prohibiting non-Christian beliefs were enacted. Heresy was equal to treason, a capital offense. Temples were destroyed, libraries were burned, and philosophers were murdered.


Many people fled. Many to the East, to kingdoms of Persia and Arabia.Tribal warfare existed there too, but religious persecution on the order of Constantinople did not. According to legend, Muhammad was born in 570 CE. He initially gained fame as a diplomat between the warring tribes. He eventually became a leader of an army, and leaders that followed continued to conquer and expand the Islamic nation.

What they didn’t do was to expel people from their nation based on religion. That would come much later. They integrated with those cultures. In Northern Africa, people weren’t too happy with the leaders they had, so being conquered by someone who let you practice your traditions was not so bad.

They did tax people they conquered. They did give Muslims advantages in politics. Caliphs had to be Muslims. However merchants, teachers, philosophers, researchers of all kinds could draw from any culture or tradition they cared to. In fact it was encouraged. This allowed them to build much cleaner cities and better feed their citizens than the kingdoms in Europe. They brought paper making from the Far East and disseminated their knowledge quickly across a vast empire.

In Europe, we call this time the Dark Ages while the Islamic world was experiencing a Golden Age.

Empires don’t last forever. In the east, a new form of the Muslim religion began to take hold in the universities and the power structures were weakened. Eventually in 1263, Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols. In the west, African tribes, who had converted to Islam, were trying to consolidate the smaller kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula. As they did, they instituted laws that required Jews and Christians to convert to Islam. This was the beginning of fundamentalism in the Muslim world, and where our story will begin, next week.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Haunting Questions

Well, now Tony Jones is really opening a can of worms. He has asked for questions about Christianity that keep people from being faithful. He got some of the classic questions and some with a more modern twist. I wonder if he expected the scope of the response. It appears that there were many people reading his blog but not commenting. I see lots of new names and lots of atheists responding.

He will be posting the questions on Tuesdays, sometimes discussing them on a radio/podcast on Wednesdays and giving his answer on Friday. Someone asked if there will be follow ups or will he just give the same old apologetics then move on, self-righteously satisfied. I hope he answers that one first.

I will list them here, along with Tony's answer, and a rating. A simple 5 start rating system won't do it, so I have created a zero to sixty system where zero is awesome and 60 getting so bad I can't believe it (70 was added later, see Q#2). It leaves room for adding explanations to the scale. Lower is better, but my guess is, he will never score below 30.

10 This is a universal truth or a premise that we can all agree on and work with to create a better world. I have no idea why that would haunt anyone.

20 This is a good rule or guideline for living. It could be accepted even without belief in a deity. If you can’t accept that, you’re definitely not a Christian and maybe not a very good person.

30 If you read the entire Bible, using the same translation and all the same theological books that I agree with, then you would understand this problem with Christianity.

40 I just love Jesus. That’s my answer.

50 I don’t agree with that part of the Bible, but I like some other parts, so the basic idea of Jesus is true, believable and worth giving my life to.

60 We don’t know the mind of God, just accept it.

70 What? Christians don't do that. There is no problem here. This is not haunting at all.

Q #1. 9/11/12 If you come from a family of skeptics, how could you enjoy eternity if your family’s not there? Or, if they are there, why should you become a Christian?

Tony's response. Part 1 gets a definite 40. Part 2 a 55.
My comments to Tony.

Q #2 9/18/12 Why ignore the Gnostic Gospels?
If you want a history and theology lesson on what these are, read the comments. If you want hard analysis about how the Bible was canonized, good luck.

Tony's response. I had to add a score of 70 for this one. I don't know if I can keep this up.

Q#3 9/24/12 Why don't I experience God? Less technical, should be interesting, or not.
Tony's response.  Very honest, kudos to Tony. One guy said Tony just admitted that he doesn't know who God is and said he was going to stop reading the blog. Good riddance, says me. Another did a follow up, saying he copped again, and didn't say why some experience God and some don't. Tony says he'll think about it. I remain skeptical.

The score is tough on this one, part of me wants to give it a 15, because he says everyone has these experiences and that's just the way it is. But the other part says 60, because he decides to take everyone else's personal experience and use it as proof for God.

 Q #4 10/2/12 Don't modern definitions of God sort of define him out of existence?
The comments start out horrid, but this one contains history of how people have viewed God, starting with Anslem in 1078.. Then the question asker, Hugh, follows that post with a deeper explanation of his question. The question is intended to be one that makes an atheistic point since it has no good theological answer. I jump in on the follow up to that.
Tony's answer gets a solid 50. He is talking more generally about God and theology, not just Jesus and the Bible, but he is saying certain theologians do it wrong, you just need to do it right, but he doesn't get too specific about what is right.

Q #5 10/9/12 Why do Christians believe in demons?
Oh Lord, I can't look.
I'm going to give this one a 15. It doesn't quite rate as a "universal truth", but he says that people believe in demons because they need to blame something. I encourage Tony to continue to exorcise these ridiculous beliefs out of Christianity. I hope he isn't left with a watered down spirituality, but with a dynamic organization that works to bring peace and justice into the world. 

Q #6 10/16/12 What if We're Wrong?
Well, I was wrong about the answer I expected from Tony on the last one. I don't expect much from the comments this time around though.
Most of the comments are truly atrocious, except this one.  He says if Christians are wrong, they have to stop judging, be accepting, listen to others. These are all things they say they are doing or should be doing in the name of Christ. This is exactly what is meant when people say that we can be good without the need of gods.



Since he almost says exactly how I define the score of 70, I’m giving this a 68. Tony rides a very fine line here between completely dismissing Christianity as no big deal but maintains the Christ event isinfinitely important. This is the trick of emergent Christianity. Allow for any and all questions, remove any barrier that a potential convert might have, but never let go of the mystery. It is easily done if you simply ignore history. If you ignore how the story developed, how the idea of a Messiah began in the Old Testament and became mixed with dying and rising god stories around the Levant then was used to make a political statement about the most oppressive state/church organization in history (up to that point in history). Not tomention how it was sold by Paul then Constantine, two people that have more to do with why we know about the resurrection than anyone else.

Tony puts this in bold, “seems unlikely that the non-exclusivity of Christianity would be a very big deal”, and a little further on, “Nor does it seem likely that, standing in the presence of the Creator, we would experience embarrassment or shame that we’d committed our lives to following a peasant-rabbi who preached peace and love and who sacrificed himself.”

I would take this a step further. If I am wrong, and I face a god after I am dead, it seems unlikely that it would be bothered by my attempts to lead a good life, even though I did not spend much of that life worshipping it or attempting to convince others to worship it. I do however, in this life, experience some embarrassment for having attempted to follow some 2,000 year old writings of dubious authorship and authenticity. Those stories have since been improved upon and their ideas have been well integrated into social movements. I realized it was time to move on.

Tony believes that the Christ event, “is a concept so profound that it demands everlasting unpacking and interpretation.” I think he is confusing the issues that are raised by the event with the event itself. Certainly we continue to uncover what love is, how to live peacefully, and to ask, “what is just”. The story of Roman history and how the Jews and Christianity influenced its fall contain valuable lessons. Obscuring those lessons and the facts of that history with myth and magic doesn’t help at all. Tony would have to tell me more about what he means by “unpacking and interpretation” for me to see it as worthwhile.

This strategy might allow Christianity to survive a few centuries more, but it will prevent it from evolving. Christianity needs to do what Muhammad did, acknowledge the great prophets of the ages. But it needs to not make the same mistake of claiming one new prophet that supersedes them. For a few hundred years, Muslims discussed those other prophets, sought the wisdom of the ages from other cultures, then it became just as exclusive as Christianity and we have been fighting over which one of the two is right for 1,000 years.

Discussing a different prophet or philosopher every Sunday is a lot harder than coming up with a new interpretation of the same old story. Reading a new poem or a singing a new song takes a lot more effort than picking from the same hymnal week after week. Simply entertaining the possibility that one might be mistaken is not enough. There are many ways to figure out what is true and what is right. Do that Tony and I might consider stopping by Solomon’s Porch.

 
Q #7 10/23/12 Is God's goodness arbitrary?
I hope this series ends with Halloween.
Yeah it sure is. Score: 60. I can't even comment on this. I'm so depressed.

Q #8 10/20/12 Why did God create sin?
The questioner later qualifies that she meant this to be more about suffering, not "sin" as a theological concept. It turns into mainly a question about the problem of evil.
I tried to stay out of it, but somebody said something about atheists murdering everyone and I had to jump in. I thought it ended up somewhat interesting. Search for "murder everyone" to follow that, if you have time to kill.
Tony's answer was not worth the wait. It was original though, I'll give him that.
The score is off the scale. He anthropomorphizes God and says he feels pain, so that's just life. Apparently pain and suffering existed before God, or came into existence with God, or just always have existed, although he seems to reject these ideas earlier in the answer, so I don't know what he is trying say and no longer care.

Q #9 11/13/12 Is it a God of peace or war?
Shira asks the question, and responds to just about every comment. She has studied religion extensively and experience Christianity fully. A great discussion.
Tony just avoids the issue. I wish he would just stop. I'm getting to be like the guy with the sore tooth who can't stop touching it.

Q #10 11/20/12 If God is perfect, why create an imperfect universe?
This was my question, so of course it is awesome. Actually, it is a question about the reasoning used by only some Christians. I explain that in the comments. R. Jay makes some good points, as do others. A little bit of sarcasm thrown in for good measure.Near the end, it seems like a truce could be made by the theists and the atheists.
Tony acknowledges that I have been disappointed in the series so far, but with his answer, I move to disturbed. I really don't understand how anyone who spends so much time with the Bible can claim that there is no indication that perfection is a term that Christians or Jews would attribute to God. Although Tony gives a helluva try and almost starts a brawl. I have heard this story about the influence of Plato before, and while true to a degree, Plato did not corrupt Christianity. The idea of perfection is integrated into Christian theology, it did not suddenly appear when Romans embraced The Church.

Q #11 was about baptism, I skipped it.

Q #12 12/4/12 Define 'Christian'. A great question, with Rob the blogger chiming in frequently.
Tony's answer was impressive too. It doesn't really fit my scoring system since I assumed questions would be things that bothered people about Christianity, not this fundamental question of what is a Christian. So, let's call it an A+.

If you don't want to dig for it, here's my comment:
This is the best answer so far, it is internally consistent and externally verifiable. I am uncomfortable with proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”, but if I could be convinced that he is truly a master who acts as a servant, that he holds promises for me but allows me to make my own mistakes and learn from them, that evil can be explained as some sort of constraint that is required for creation to “work”, and that the majority of people who claim to have followed or to be following Christ are just plain wrong, if you could convince me of all that, I might sign on.

Your historical summary as well as your present application explained the definition of “Christianity” as well as could be done, IMHO. It leaves open the idea that we puny humans must continue to discuss the meaning of “Jesus is Lord”. This precludes the possibility of shaming someone for not doing it and, thank God, the right to kill anyone, just war or otherwise, based on it. That alone could save Christianity from the dust bin of history.

02/05/13 Why Didn't Jesus miraculously rescue himself from the cross?
I haven't been keeping up with this, but Tony somehow manages, even with his busy schedule of world travel. This one sparked some good discussion, so I thought I'd link it.
Apparently Tony is not quite so impressed with the discussion. He seems to be getting a little annoyed.

03/08/13 To Love God is to Love Flesh and Blood
This is an answer from a guest blogger. I didn't expect much from it given the topic, but it is pretty darn good. In it, he admits that there isn't that much difference between a progressive Christian and a liberal humanist. He takes Pascal's wager and gives it a progressive Christian answer. Instead of saying he will risk not believing in God for whatever consequence that may bring, he says he will risk "respecting and protecting the dignity of every human soul" even if that means he won't get to heaven.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Who Is God?


Intro
I blogged sometime ago on the emergent church and Solomon’sPorch. More recently I discovered a blog by one of the leaders of that movement and that specific church, Tony Jones. I really like the guy. He is pro-LGBT, pro-love, pro-thinking, not afraid to ask questions. Lately he has been talking about liberal Christians. I’m not sure what he is trying to say, but it is something about how they don’t say enough about who God is.

He gave an example of some wild youth pastors who on their recent podcast, he says, “repeatedly and forcefully said things about who God is and how God acts.” I listened to that whole podcast, then repeated parts of it and heard the two hosts, Tripp and Bo (yes, really, Tripp and Bo) skirt issues, talk about what God is not, and a few times say something right out of standard texts about letting Jesus in and how it will change your outlook on life.

Tony challenged progressive theological bloggers to writesomething substantive about God. I’m not one of those, but I used to think I was, so, here goes.

The podcast that I will be referring to is here. The audio is linked in the small print between the two graphics after the blurb and before the comments. The first few minutes is announcements. I provide a couple spots to skip to if you can’t handle the whole thing.

Who is God?

If someone were to ask me what I believe about who God is, the first thing I would do is correct the question. The question is, what is God? God is not a “who”. God is neither male or female, old or young, you can find that in the Bible. God is a term that is used as a placeholder for things we do not yet understand. God has always been everything, the original cause. We don’t understand either of those. When we didn’t understand lightning or rainbows, God did it. When we made our way around the world, learned to feed billions and travel toward the stars, we had less need for God, but we still don’t understand how to live with each other and not kill each other, so we keep the old books around. We keep hoping for an answer.

Some say we have lost our ability to talk about God. Pastors and theologians who are labeled progressive, liberal or even just mainline, talk about social issues but not about how Christ moves in the world. This is somehow considered a problem when compared to those who are usually labeled conservative. They are often very specific about God acting in response to a flood or in the heart of a child or helping us win a battle overseas or perhaps even cure someone of a disease. I can understand why someone who wants to have a serious political discussion would not use those terms.

But let’s examine someone who uses contemporary language, someone who reaches the youth of today and gets them to go fix up houses for elderly people on their summer vacation.

In the above linked podcast, about a half hour in, a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount begins. Good, basic advice on leading a decent life until you get near the end then it talks about not getting into heaven if you mess up. Tripp and Bo address this around the 38 minute mark. Tripp talks about wrath using the specific example of the consequences of lying.

That is, he says a common way to express the consequences that lying inevitably leads to is to say the wrath of God has been delivered upon you. But then he says that we don’t need to call that "wrath", rather “that’s what happens when you think that the broad way that leads to destruction is how you’re supposed to live” as opposed to the narrow way that leads to the good life and eventually heaven.

What he is saying is actions have consequences. He is simply tacking on God language and praising Jesus for providing the narrow path. The only thing that is a little unusual is that he lets God off the hook for whatever consequences one might discover on the broad path. This really doesn’t matter and changes almost nothing theologically.

The conclusion, that it is better to just not lie, as well as others that they discuss, can be arrived at independently of Bible study, independently of accepting Jesus into your heart. They almost say that, but then tack on that the “narrow way leads to life”. They provide no explanation of how that works. They don’t explain how prayer offers any type of nourishment. They suggest that making wise choices will most likely lead to happiness, but a lot of non-Christians know that. They discuss some of the actual ways lies lead to trouble, but just assert that not praying is bad.

Another example. A little after the 52 minute point, Bo comes in with an impromptu play with Tripp playing the role of a Christian who wants to justify violence. Tripp’s character confronts Bo with the classic questions of what would you do if someone is raping your wife and 'what about Hitler'. He does not supply any details, but he says that there are alternatives to violence and that the few passages about Jesus flipping over tables or telling the disciples to go get swords are far outnumbered by the peaceful passages, so Jesus is peaceful, end of discussion. All those years I spent in Bible study and all I had to do was count up passages for and against. Yay, peace wins, spread the word.

Tripp comes back with an impassioned story of a time when he was fretting over understanding Jesus and how he fit into the grand story, theologically speaking. One of his mentors got him to read the gospels and “tell me about the beautiful parts”. This got him to stop trying to figure out philosophical arguments for the existence of God or explanations of the Trinity and just love the Bible and look into the world and think about how he could bring that love to the world.

Well, that’s awesome. Unfortunately a lot of people read the Bible and enjoy the parts where Jesus says he’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff and throw the chaff in the fire. They are inspired by that and think it is their duty to find some of that chaff and burn it for Jesus now, save him the trouble. A quick look at who is running major corporations and getting into congress lately and you’ll know this is not just some fringe problem.

Liberal/progressive/mainline theologians understand this. That’s why they don’t use emotionally charged language about blindly following invisible voices, they know what it leads to. They tell a story about a man who told others to put away their swords and stuck to his principle of non-violence even in the face of death. Then they talk about how to work for peace with justice without laying down your life. I don’t have a problem with that and can’t figure why Tony does.

When Tony says, “progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues,… but we don’t write that much about God.” What I hear is, these so-called progressives are taking the next step. Instead of looking to the Bible, finding “the beautiful parts”, i.e. the ones you agree with, then trying to bring those into the world, they are simply finding beauty in the world and acting accordingly.

The Bible contains luminous stories that can help us start discussions about healing and caring. A lot of books do. We should be reading all of them, discussing all of them. We should be moving forward and writing our own stories. Instead Tony is asking us to figure out this one character that has been used and exploited by hundreds of generations and changed so many times that no one could possibly make something coherent out of it. Sorry Tony, but that’s who God is. If the old books tell us anything, especially the later ones like Romans (see 13:8), it’s time we started figuring things out for ourselves.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Dream Interpretations

My wife likes to tell me about her dreams. She often ends with, “What does that mean?” Being a believer in reference material, I bought her a book that lists things and tells you what they mean if they appear in a dream. They are pretty silly, and not too long after that, she told me someone had said that getting those books is the last thing you should do for dream interpretation. It is better to think about what is going on in your life and try to come up with allegorical explanations of the dream that help you tell your own story. That’s how I felt all along, so that has worked out well.

In the Koran, there is a nice little piece of poetry about a dream Muhammad had. He flies far away and meets spiritual leaders of the past and then meets God. This is sometimes referred to as “The Night Journey” and is the basis of the legend of the “Al-Aqsa” (farthest) mosque. The Al-Aqsa mosque that was later constructed is also called “The Dome of the Rock”. You’ve probably heard of it.

But first the dream. Muhammad studied religion and was writing spiritual material. Clearly, in this dream he is seeing himself as worthy of the company of the great prophets in history. His writings draw for Judaism and Christianity and some case could be made that they offer some improvements.

The details of that don’t really matter to me. In the end, they are the writings of a man (or possibly men). They prove nothing. We all have had dreams where we are flying, so discussions of whether or not he actually flew that night are just silly. Discussions of where he went are equally silly, but Islamic scholars did just that, at length, before actually building the mosque. Fighting over it, well, do I have to say it?

What would be less silly is if we all had this dream. Or we could just close our eyes and visualize it. We are all just as good at thinking about what is right and how we should lead a just and noble life as anyone who wrote about it 1,500 years ago. Most of us could spend 10 minutes with the 10commandments and improve upon them. Anyone could take a red pen to Shari’a lawand clean it up. Go ahead, take your place with the great prophets of history, you have my permission.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spinoza, gimme a break


I had set aside this summer to read Spinoza’s Ethics. I have seen it referred to in many places. It is usually held up in high esteem. Will Durant, a historian, recommends reading it through once, studying it with a study guide, then reading it again slowly. It is no easy summer read. In mid-summer it gets so buggy, I usually spend a week or two sitting by the air conditioner, reading, so it seemed like a good fit.

Spinoza dared to say some things that no one else would at the time. He did it with precision, using a system of reference in his work so he could make a statement and say it was supported by Chapter X para 4. It made it difficult to argue with his conclusions. Somewhat difficult to read also, but anyway. For his effort, he was ostracized. He was Jewish, and I don’t remember what they call it, but he was “kicked out”.

He is often referred to as an early atheist. He was accused of it by Christians and officially of writing things about God that didn’t fit the official doctrine by Jews. I expected to start reading it and find some primitive psychology, a little existentialism and maybe he would skirt the god issue, saying just enough in the hopes he could later argue that he was still a believer and avoid the ostracism.

Nope.

He spends the first three chapters basically doing classic arguments FOR God. Everything must have a cause. Our sense of morality must have a basis. Our ability to reflect on the universe must have been instilled into us from some cosmic source. He considers some arguments to those but frequently dismisses them as “absurd”.

Spinoza is pre-Darwin, pre-Faraday, pre-Big Bang Theory, but he was a contemporary of Galileo. He was post-Protestantism. He offers little to today’s discussion of what ethics are and what god is. But I can forgive him for not adding to the 21st century conversation. I can’t be so light on his modern day evangelists.

Most of his admirers will call him a pantheist; a believer in “god is everything”. I think you can glean that from Spinoza, but he doesn’t come out and say it. He doesn’t even disguise it in a way to attempt to avoid excommunication. He says God exists and speaks of knowing God by observing the laws of nature. He defended himself to the Jews, saying he did believe in God. Many writers ignore these facts. This kind of selective exposition is no better than cherry picking the Bible and claiming God is always merciful.

Why Jews and Christians had a problem with him, I can’t tell. I’m sure I could look into it, find the specific things that Spinoza said that went against doctrine. There are probably things about how miracles happen, or something that indirectly diminishes God’s all knowing and all powerful nature. Should I care? No more than I should care if someone who broke a traffic law in Virginia in 1776 was dealt with justly and morally. There were dirt roads and horses back then. I would have to do an awful lot of research to understand the situation.

There is something to be learned from Spinoza. At the moment, my free time is extremely limited so I probably won’t be discovering that. Primarily, we can learn that as recently as the 17th century, if you even hinted that God might not be what the Bible says, you could forget about marriage, a job, or any kind of community support. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Dutch. About that same time, some other Dutch folks were setting up shop in little town that we now call New York. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Philosophy of Atheism

Kinda busy for anything this week, but I stumbled upon this essay from 1916. (They didn't have blogs back then, so that's what they had to call them).

Emma Goldman 1916

Yep, I got nothing new. Emma was doing this when my Grandmother was a child. Prometheus, epistemology, she's got it all. And she writes better than me too. Well worth your time.

A few bites:
God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same Iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimalus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weak- ness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself.
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Thus the God idea, revived, readjusted, and enlarged or narrowed, according to the necessity of the time, has domi- nated humanity and will continue to do so until man will raise his head to the sunlit day, unafraid and with an awakened will to himself. In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God.
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Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness? Yet after thousands of years of such preach- ments the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race. Confucius cares not for the poverty, squalor and misery of people of China. Buddha remains undisturbed in his philosophical indifference to the famine and starvation of outraged Hindoos; Jahve continues deaf to the bitter cry of Israel; while Jesus refuses to rise from the dead against his Christians who are butchering each other
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 The philosophy of Atheism expresses the expansion and growth of the human mind. The philosophy of theism, if we can call it philosophy, is static and fixed. Even the mere attempt to pierce these mysteries represents, from the the- istic point of view, non-belief in the all-embracing omnipo- tence, and even a denial of the wisdom of the divine powers outside of man. Fortunately, however, the human mind never was, and never can be, bound by fixities. Hence it is forging ahead in its restless march towards knowledge and life.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Truth is that which is true


Truth is that which can be objectively verified. It can be objectively verified that the previous statement is true. Nothing can be said to be true with 100% certainty, so the circular nature of that argument is true for any other system of finding truth. The questions are, which system is better and how do you determine which is better.

To determine that objective verification is valid, you use it and have others check how you used it and compare your results. For example, people have recorded the Sun coming up in the morning for thousands of years. Many reasons for it have been proposed. Currently the best explanation involves the motion of our planet. Even without the explanation, the odds that the Sun will not rise tomorrow where it is expected to rise are so low that there is no reason to doubt it as fact. Although I can’t be absolutely certain, I consider that “truth”.

Many other experiments have been done and much data has been collected for similar phenomena throughout the universe. That these experiments have proved to be consistent in their results proves that we can rely on the premise that physical laws are consistent throughout the universe. Many questions remain. Every day earlier experiments are corrected and new results are obtained. That shows that we are learning, not that the system of learning is wrong.

Perhaps, tomorrow, the Sun will not rise. If that happens, we will need to use our system of reasoning and objective verification to determine where we went wrong. Most likely, something in our local solar system will have changed. Maybe a giant asteroid flew so close that it halted the rotation of the Earth for a few hours. But, if we abandon that system, submit to wild speculation, and jump to a conclusion that demons are taking over or God is bringing on an apocalypse, only harm will come of it.

I hope I made it clear that this system does not lead to 100% certainty. It does not lead to a fountain of knowledge. It only gives us a way to obtain knowledge, one little bit at a time. I have avoided any religious language so far, but here is why I bring this up:
 
On YouTube and maybe in your local area, there are people going around claiming to be able to prove the existence of God with 3 or 5 or 6 questions. The first one will be something like, “Is it possible that you are wrong about some things?” or “Do you know everything?” The next couple ones vary, then they get to how God is the source of all knowledge and if you accept his love, you will know it and be able to verify it through his word. Basically they are taking my two opening statements and changing it to “Truth is God. Truth is verified by God.”

As I said in the beginning, nothing can be known with 100% certainty. People who follow the above line of reasoning are taking that fact and misconstruing it to mean God exists. It is something along lines of the ancient idea that we don’t know everything, but somewhere, somebody must know everything, therefore there is an entity somewhere that does know everything, therefore God. This was seriously discussed by intellectuals in the 15th century, but should be dismissed as backward thinking today.
 
So the answer to that first question is, “No I don’t know everything, no one can know everything, everyone is wrong about something some of the time. Your question is mal-formed. The question is, how do we learn? How do we best discover truth?”
 
Those who propose these arguments can’t explain the mechanism for how God’s knowledge gets to you. It is not in scripture, although they might say it is or read something cryptic and explain to you that it does. There are claims and assertions, but no instructions. It will come down to, “you just have to read the Bible and pray”. If that doesn’t work, you are reading and praying wrong. They can’t demonstrate anything about how this works, although they might tell you about miracles they have witnessed. Just google them, if you have that kind of time to waste.
 
If you want to spend your time more productively, google the scientific method. The history of it is quite fascinating. High School did not teach it very well, if you went to the average American High School. Terms like “hypothesis”, “theory”, “empirical evidence” and others are not well known to the average American. They should be. As E.O. Wilson recently said, “We live in a Star Wars world where people think like the Middle Ages. That’s dangerous.”
 
Thanks to Aron Ra and JT Eberhard for help with this one.