Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Non-Alcoholic Beer

Just relaxing with a little TV and having a beer. It's kinda like having a beer while you have a butterscotch candy in your mouth. I found this at the Fizzy Water store on Canal Park. It's kinda cheating to find craft sodas there since that's all they have. Well, they have some candy too. It's a dentist's nightmare, or boat payment. Anyway, I found this one on the low sugar shelf. Plenty of butterscotch flavor but not too sweet. The "beer" part is more like root beer. It really doesn't qualify as a non-alcoholic drink. You could call anything non-alcoholic if this passes.

Not sure I'd have this one again.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

We are all related

Christmas is a time when generations come together. They get packed into one room and inevitably one of the older ones, perhaps the oldest one, has some story to tell or something they want to show one of the younger ones. This has all the potential for being a completely useless interaction, something that is suffered through, not just by the two who are actually participating in it but even those around them, those who have to hear it. There is a way to make this worthwhile, and, yes, I’m writing a story about how to save Christmas.

This year, my wife made ornaments. She learned how to do it with friends. It involved a Styrofoam ball and fabric and pins and it’s very intricate and she is very precise and she loves doing it and she loves doing it well. She sent them off to my aunts and uncles and to hers’ and more importantly to the children and grandchildren of some of those relations. Hopefully they see the significance of them, but odds are they won’t.  And hopefully we get that chance one day to visit them during the holidays and that ornament will be out and we’ll talk about it, rather than the weather or whatever horrible news is going on.

And somewhere in there, some tiny bit of wisdom will be shared. It will sound trite or canned at the time, but many Christmases later, that young person will be the old one, and they’ll be worried about that younger generation and how they don’t look things up on the internet anymore, or that they don’t know what it took to end poverty and how they don’t appreciate it and they’ll think “kids today…”, and they’ll try to figure out a story to tell and they won’t have one that is any better than the one about making Christmas ornaments.

It might be a different story about something else, about making soup and how all the ingredients mix to make it just right or something. It doesn’t matter because you can’t explain being old. You can’t explain what it means to earn your gray hair or your wrinkled skin. What matters is that those feelings, those intentions, were put into the project, the recipe or the story. You don’t need to know the whole story to see when that kind of care has gone into making something.

You’re going to get that gray hair and wrinkled skin either way, so you might as well earn it, but you’re not going to know what goes into getting them until you have them. Sorry, young people, your role in this is not that exciting. You get to do all those exciting things that young people do together, those things that would end up with a broken hip for us. Listening to grandma on Christmas is probably not on the top of your list. So, here’s the secret, that grandma had a whole bunch of Christmases before you were even born.

So, when she’s showing you something that doesn’t seem that interesting and telling that lame story, she’s looking at you and she doesn’t just see your nose and your hair. She sees your mother’s face and hears your uncle’s voice coming from you and she remembers a smell from some far off kitchen and hears an owl in the woods and she sees a long horizon across a windswept plain. It’s all related. We are all related. The only way to discover that is to live long enough and be conscious enough and to notice it while it’s happening. You can watch a movie, or sit there with your headphones on listening to music, but those are storytellers too and they are trying to get out the same kind of messages. For me, there is no better way to hear a story than from someone close to you.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Pluralism requires work

This is a short speech I gave to the Lake Superior Freethinkers this morning. It's something we do before the main presentation. We call it the reflection.

I'm sure you all have been watching the news lately. We have Syrian refugees and terrorist bombings around the world and our own wonderful political reactions to it here at home. In looking for to help sort this out, I've found some impressive voices from people who call themselves progressive Muslims. Progressive religious voices fascinate me because I don't understand how they remain true to their specific religion while speaking so well on universal human rights. One of them is Irshad Manji. I watched her in an interview and one minute she was speaking about her right to openly identify herself as a lesbian and in the next she was expressing her love for Allah and her voice was cracking and her hand went to her heart.

What does this devoutly religious person have, to tell us, the people in this room? I also saw her respond to a conservative Imam, who asked her if she thought the Muslim community should change it's stance on gays. Her answer was "no", but she would like it if they stopped saying gay people should be killed. And she has the knowledge of the Quran to back up her stance on that. To bridge these seemingly unbridgeable groups, she placed the value of coexistence, that is, not killing each other, over a requirement that all Muslims completely accept her.

This is her version of freedom of religion.  In this country, we have freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to express the idea that religion should be eliminated. Or, short of that, the tax advantages it enjoys should be eliminated or closer scrutiny should be given to how children are taught religion. It includes the freedom to make jokes about religion. But people still have the right to call themselves whatever they want and claim their holy book means whatever they want it to. We're all free to do that, as long as it doesn't come into conflict with any other laws and rights.

Keeping this in mind is to everyone’s advantage. If you live by this rule, it is reasonable to ask others to do the same. You can challenge those who say, they are doing their religion “correctly” but those terrorists or those skin-heads are doing it wrong. This usually leads down a path where you find their "correct" version also has something you consider a human rights violation. But, you can avoid all that religious justification and go straight to the values of not harming innocent people.

This approach also opens us up to partner with people who are using ways of thinking we would normally not consider valid or reasonable. The author I mentioned has the challenge of being a Muslim in a Western country and within that she has the challenge of being a gay person within that community. For her, it is a double oppression. It is her very unique seemingly incompatible circumstances that fostered her ability to identify an approach to bridging them.She looked to the underlying value, what makes us human, not simply what makes her a Muslim.

I call these underlying values "liberal", but I'm not talking about "liberal" as in "voting for Bernie Sanders", I'm talking about the idea of liberal that grew out of the Peace treaties after the wars between the Protestants and Catholics, when the power of the Pope over most of Europe was taken away and people were allowed to think for themselves about what was right and wrong without the threat of a torture chamber. One of those values is recognizing when people are marginalized, discriminated against and oppressed. If you are in a position to do something about that, it benefits you and everyone else to do something. When you look at issues from that perspective, I believe you will find that people who call themselves Muslims or Christians and even people who call themselves Conservative, see the world in much the same way.

Now, I'd like to end on that high note, but I want to be clear that my rose colored glasses are off. I realize there are very few religious people who are reaching out to the rest of the world in the way I just described. I'm not suggesting that people here simply need to turn around and recognize that the world is full of tolerant, pluralistic, LGBTQ organizing regular folks who just happen to also like football and using hunting rifles in a responsible manner. I'm aware of how the world works. I'm suggesting the promotion of tolerance and pluralism is our responsibility and that it is work, work that requires self-reflection as much as it requires speaking up about what others are doing.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Colonialism, new and old

Here’s a different way of looking at how the world has changed since 1950. It’s a bit circuitous, but I think it illuminates something. Malidoma Some experienced a very direct effect of the colonialism as an African in a country occupied by the French and their missionaries. The colonial period was ending and he ended up attending the University at Sorbonne. Western countries now frown upon such colonial practices.

Western countries still do enforce their power over less developed nations, but it’s much more subtle. How those less developed nations respond is also complex and varied. I’m not going to attempt to sort out all of those factors, but I will make a broader comparison from the old Western colonialists to the current super powers. They are acting differently and how they are opposed has evolved.

Malidoma talks about the value of indigenous culture and how it can be applied to the modern world. I’m taking that and applying it to the relationship to the Muslim world. Hopefully I explain enough of his story to make this blog coherent. This is the story I’m referring to:

This book describes a major shift in the relationship of the 1st and 3rd world that occurred in the middle of the last century. It does it by telling the story of one man, from his perspective, as he experienced that shift. He was a boy in an African village and was kidnapped by a French missionary and forced to go to their school. The French would train these boys to be priests who would then return to their native villages and attempt to convert more souls to Christ. First, imagine that happening today, and what the world’s reaction would be.

Compare this indoctrination to the indoctrination happening in the Madrasas today. Those African boys in Christian missionaries received a complete education, the actual history of France, all of the corruption and political problems. Young boys in Afghanistan get a very limited view of the world. When they graduated from the French missionaries, they were given the choice of becoming a priest or not, they were not given orders. The Syrian boys might graduate to suicide bomber. The indoctrination was effective enough for most of them. But Malidoma was smarter than average and saw that his teachers could not make good arguments for continuing the French occupation. He saw the changes coming. He escaped back to his village and asked them to teach him their traditional tribal ways.

The closest equivalents we have today to people who have escaped are moderate Muslims. People like Majid Nawaz who once recruited people to the cause of Islamist power but are now progressive and speak against “Islamism”. But people like that learned about Islamic history from “Westernized” “modern” means. There are no traditional villages of Muslims because that religion was born in an empire and it expanded that empire to one of the most successful in history. Islam is not some quaint indigenous culture with ideas about living in harmony with the land. It’s a defeated empire with memories of being defeated by empires that are currently expanding.

The recruiters of terrorism have learned from the history of the colonialists. They aren’t going to teach actual history. They aren’t going to encourage democracy or equal rights or tolerance. They have been training Imams and sending them into the modern world and slowly bringing their version of their religion to the forefront. But they would have lost the battle of ideas if they would have continued to only have a battle of ideas. After a few failed attempts, they have managed to build an army to be reckoned with.

Most of us are not soldiers. But all of us have ideas about what peace is, about what place religion should take in the modern world, about how women should be treated. We can fight those battles every day. We do that by acting peacefully and treating people with dignity. We do that by welcoming strangers and helping those in need. These world-wide struggles for power will continue, but we will always have each other. 

In case you aren't aware of how children are indoctrinated into terrorism:

Monday, November 16, 2015

Faith Without Fear

After my not so flattering posts about Irshad Manji, I thought I should take a closer look. I ordered her episode from PBS series “America at a Crossroads”, titled “Faith Without Fear”. It was a very personal documentary, featuring some intimate moments with her mother. Through that she helps you explore the ideas of faith and tribalism. I can't find it for free anywhere, but it was only $9 and had lots of extras.

Here are her closing thoughts. Although this was done in 2006, they are very timely.
I began my mission wanting to learn how we Muslims can change for the 21st century. Here's what I've discovered. We can no longer live by 7th century tribal culture. It distorts Islam today. I've also discovered that being offended is not the same as being oppressed. In a diverse world, offense is to be expected, so is debate. And we've got a tradition of debate, ijtihad. By honoring it, more Muslims could speak their minds and bust out of tribal conformity. My fellow Muslims, I have faith in our potential to change.

One of the extras is her doing a Q & A after a screening in a very Muslim neighborhood in Detroit. As I mentioned in the earlier blogs, she talks about something called ijtihad, a philosophy of exploration and learning and acceptance of the ideas of other cultures. Someone questions that if this becomes a new ideology of the Islamic world, couldn't it be misused in the same way Osama bin Laden has misused other teachings of Islam.

She completely agrees. But she says, let's do it anyway. Let's let those ideas flower and see what comes of it. I can't know what else she said since I wasn't there and it could be that she was very aware of the somewhat hostile environment she was in at the time. I hope she would have a more subtle or even more critical response to that question if she were in a different environment. 

A tribal and cultural ideology that is open to interpretation and can be used to manipulate is one thing. An idea that can be expressed in different cultures but carries with it universal values of love, peace, tolerance and the promotion of human flourishing and the understanding of the needs of all creatures and the whole planet is something else entirely. I think ijtihad is intended to promote the latter.

Ideas like this address not only religious fundamentalism, they address any oppressor or aggressor. They address the guy in Montana with guns in his basement waiting for the infrastructure to collapse. They address Pol Pot who answered to no god. They address any form of empiralism, no matter what ideological claims of righteous are behind it. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

That's what I'm saying

I went looking for more on Irshad Manji, the author of the book review that I responded to last week. That led me to the interview below. If you would, read what I have to say, then see what you think about her idea of “reclaiming God's good name.”

The more I listen to so-called moderate believers, the more I find that we are in almost total agreement. They are saying that their prophet, Jesus, Mohammad or Buddha or whomever challenged the earlier prophets. That the religion they created was a step forward for human progress, a movement of love and inclusion and forgiveness that did not exist before they came along. They then use that to justify continuing to study their prophet's words and actions thousands of years later.

I agree, almost. When the New Testament was written, Jews were enslaved, they had no homeland, no army. Rome was a brutally oppressive society with a pantheon of gods and emperors who were claiming to be born of a virgin and claiming they were gods. When the Koran was written, female babies were killed and tribes traded off enslaving each other as power shifted back and forth. Gautama Buddha was born into a wealthy family that kept him isolated from the horrors of the caste system. When his eyes were opened to it, he knew it had to change.

The story of Jesus challenged not only the Romans and their gods, but it directly spoke to the corruption within Judaism. This can be found in the early chapters of the book of Mark, as well in the character of Herod, a puppet Jewish King who cut deals with the Romans and of course Judas selling out to the High Priests. Even ignoring the scripture and just looking at how the early Christians acted shows a break from traditions. They held small meetings in homes where women studied alongside men and they took care of their neighbors, regardless of their backgrounds.

I hear words and passages thrown around when moderate Muslims talk about the Islamic golden age, between 800 and 1200. They may use ijtihad, which has to do with reasoning, or falsafa, meaning philosophy. I'm not sure where exactly these are in the scripture, and when I've seen them, they are mixed with praise for Allah. I don't really care. I note that they are explicitly honored in Islam as opposed to the way philosophy and thinking are denigrated in the Bible, but words from history only matter if they did indeed influence a culture. We know that Muslims built libraries, improved their infrastructure, their agriculture, wrote poetry and generally flourished while Europeans were 99% illiterate and worrying about the end of times.

But of course all this ended. We know more about the tribal aspects of Islam that are left over from before Mohammed than we do about the progressive movement that people would have actually embraced at the time. Conquering was the normal course of events at the time, so the fact that they swept across North African “converting” people was partially due to their military power, but just as important was that the conquered people accepted them as leaders because they did a better job than the idiots they overthrew. And they allowed people to practice the religion of their choice, with restrictions, but it was allowed.

When I say I “almost agree” with these moderates about how their religions are based on peaceful and progressive ideas, I'm not not sure where we actually disagree because they won't talk about why those progressive movements failed. Once you start talking about how the Catholics eventually partnered with the Romans and started burning pagan churches or how the Islamic golden age ended and Jews were expelled from the universities and the death penalty for apostasy was actually enforced, the discussion becomes irrational. You get accused of bringing up the worst aspects of religion or of cherry picking history. This is ridiculous of course because it is they who are refusing to discuss that history and only want to discuss the times and the players in history that promoted what we now think of as modern ethical behavior.

I don't bring up Augustine or Al-Kahzali as proof that religion will always fail, I bring them up to ask the question of why did the progressive movements fail? For that matter, why are they failing now? Right now, we are all hoping that the leaders of the Westboro United Baptist Church will just die and no one will replace them or continue on with that work. They don't allow anyone to have a reasonable conversation with them and I don't know of anyone interested in trying. Once someone has chosen the Bible as their only guide for how to act in the world, it is not possible to use that Bible to change their minds. But just because you aren't a Bible thumping fundamentalist, it doesn't automatically make you reasonable. What is the progressive movement doing to directly address the problems created by fundamentalism? 

The first century was a time when Jews changed how they looked at their own laws by bringing in a new way of relating to god. Slavery ended because the world grew to where more people could see that no single tribe had a special place in the hierarchy and that thinking that way was toxic to the world. Homosexuality is gaining more and more acceptance because we are gaining a better understanding of the mind and we know that just because we don't have certain impulses that doesn't mean other people don't. We have learned to examine right and wrong by examining the whole world, all living things, the entire eco-system and the future of the planet. Soon we will be considering the future of other planets.

Those religious movements failed because they couldn't incorporate new information fast enough. The Islamic movement is the last time in history that a new world view took hold and united enough people to become an empire and last for generations. Cultures were already mixing and oddly enough, Islam accelerated that by taking paper making from China and translating and copying knowledge from all over and spreading it further West. When they got to translating not only the words but the ideas of the ancient Greek texts they reawakened philosophies that had been lost due to the barbarism of the 4th and 5th centuries. After that, people had tools to question why they were being forced to worship a god. They began to expect a logical argument for it.

Where I agree with these moderates is on the amazing work some small groups of people in history have done to bring reason and progress into cultures that were literally killing babies and promoting horrendous acts we would never allow today. What they don't want to discuss is that those same small groups also had some backwards ideas about where the universe came from and how to deal with meat products or what clothes we should wear. We've dealt with many of those beliefs and they don't seem to mind that we all break most of the rules every day, but if you suggest something like their prophet does not deserve to be worshiped or that prayer doesn't work or the resurrection didn't happen, they lose the ability to form a coherent argument, sometimes to form a coherent sentence. If you suggest we shouldn't teach children these things until they are old enough to think critically, they bring up ethics and traditions and community and other issues that to me are completely unrelated.

My suggestion, and I have brought this up with pastors, friends and whomever cares to engage me, is that their prophet had something to say, and so did a bunch of other prophets and philosophers. Why not just include them all? Why fight over which character in a story is the coolest and instead really dig into which ideas can actually bring about progress right now? I have as yet not received an answer. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Regressive Liberalism

This blog won't make much sense if you don't read this article first. It's a review of book that is a discussion between an anti-religion atheist and a progressive Muslim. It just came out so I haven't read it yet, but I'm familiar with one of the authors. I’m not familiar with Irshad Manji, or her TED talk, but I don’t deny she’s accurately describing uncivil behavior. I’m sure her positive assessment of Harris’ new book, co-authored by Maajid Nawaz is also accurate.

The article begins where the book does and where the world is at, that is “interpretation is everything”, and there are a lot of people who believe their interpretation is the only correct one. They don’t even accept that their's is an interpretation, but simply a statement of truth that has been revealed and is beyond question. A world with enough weapons to destroy all living things can’t survive with that sort of thinking.

It falls on non-Muslims from secular nations to understand all the distinctions of political, revolutionary and militant Islam and how discrimination exists even in liberal Democratic states and how that affects Islam. I’m less qualified on Muslim culture, but don’t think it is beyond reason to expect Muslims to understand how their own culture is incubating the misinterpretations that lead to what Nawaz calls “Islamism”. Harris, a product of a secular liberal democracy, has no problem pointing out the influence of religious beliefs on a group like the Islamic State, and wonders why more liberals don’t join him.

At this point, Manji goes a bit off the rails of reality and says Harris and other atheists don’t make enough noise about hatred toward Muslims. From what I know of Harris, he has standards and values and he applies them evenly. When Manji says, “The caricature of faith to which some atheists resort is proof positive” (of the irrationality of humans), I think she is pulling the cover back over Islamist extremism. That cover has been used to gain sympathy for decades. It’s one thing to get sympathy for oppressed people, yet another to expect sympathy of cultural differences that break universal norms.

There are clear differences between a violent act that draws attention to the plight of the oppressed and the acts of an oppressor attempting to gain or maintain power. People use faith to justify violence, that’s not a caricature. Manji needs to clarify what she is talking about, because it doesn’t work as support for her argument here.

Manji really fails in her analysis of Nawaz’s solutions. She says “ideas are abstract, a feeble bulwark against the emotional comfort of belonging to tribes”. The “ideas” of human rights and democracy, are much less abstract than believing in a savor or worshiping a prophet. She admitted it’s all about interpretation earlier, but now seems willing to say that’s fine as long it’s comforting. Se commits the fallacy of caricature that she just put down when she says by “secular” Nawaz meant “American separation of church and state”. That is hardly unique to America and hardly the definition of secular. Again she needs to explain what the problem is here, beyond simply saying it can become dogma.

Manji attempts to explain herself using quotes from Jonathan Sacks, a poor choice in my opinion. The quote from him, “no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion,” ignores the historic context of what religion has been and why it has had such staying power. There are many people finding meaning and identity and participating in something larger than themselves without reciting a creed that they don’t fully believe every Sunday or Friday or whatever their holy day is. Society has not just survived, it has thrived because we stopped allowing Kings to tell us who to worship and who to kill because they worshiped differently.

She goes on to explain Sacks’ new rereading of Genesis. Something I have grown so tired of I can no longer find the energy to even address. A rereading of ancient scripture does not erase all the other readings. It doesn’t remove the more obvious meaning of the words. Whether or not the obvious meaning is the correct interpretation is not the point. If you continue to treat an ancient story of unknown origin, passed through multiple languages as if it contains a truth that overrides more contemporary philosophy, we’ll continue to have the same problems we’ve always had. We’ll continue to have these cryptic messages lying around waiting to be misinterpreted.

Somehow, Manji admits this while saying Harris is missing the point. She quotes Sacks, “fundamentalists and today’s atheists” both ignore “the single most important fact about a sacred text, namely that it’s meaning is not self-evident.” Trying to interpret the Bible better is not a solution, that’s the problem. The problem is a rabbi can obfuscate a discussion about being civil by saying we should read the Bible, but we should read it the way he says instead of the way a million other people say, and that should end the argument. I don't know why Manji doesn't see this is just starting a new argument.

And that is not the low point of the article. I hang my head when I read stuff like this. Manji continues to say Sacks has the solution, which is teaching more people about his interpretation of the Bible. Although she (Manji) admits, “But as he (Sacks) admits early on, ‘decades of anti-racist legislation, interfaith dialogue and Holocaust education’ have not prevented the mess we are in. Why would it be different now?” What messes are they talking about? The Berlin wall is down, more and more people can vote, I can travel to Iran, there are whole organizations where Jews and Palestinians work together, and fundamentalists are increasingly disparaged. Perhaps the problem is Manji is doesn’t know what success looks like.

If people are reading scripture and finding peace in it, great, but they should do it on their own time and make no demands of others to participate in their study beyond the normal marketplace of ideas. That is, their ideas should stand or fall on their merits. They don't get special considerations because of their age, their cultural acceptance, and certainly not for their claimed divine source.

She does end on a positive note and reminds me to be respectful of her ideas, so I’m open to feedback. I have seen other more supportive statements from her of Harris and Nawaz's work. She also reminds us of how Western Christianity went through brutal wars before it was reformed. That’s a lesson that I think we have forgotten and are learning it again alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters. We can sit idly by and hope they work it out or we can share our stories and work together toward a more peaceful world.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Deep Time

Oliver Sacks died recently. In memory of him, Neil DeGrasse Tyson replayed an episode of his show about him for Star Talk. You can look that up, I’m trying to cut back on linking things for people.

One of the stories that Sacks tells is about his mother when he was a kid. They were walking around in their yard and she told him about bees fertilizing flowers. A bit later,  they saw a Magnolia tree that was being fertilized by beetles. Why would one thing be fertilized by bees and another by beetles? Her answer was one that most mothers couldn’t provide, particularly at the time Oliver was a boy. She said it’s because that tree evolved 80,000 years ago when there were no bees, and it stuck with the beetles as its pollinator.

Upon hearing that, it gave him a rather profound experience of deep time. It’s difficult for human beings to comprehend the space of their own lifetime, let alone the lifetimes of ancestors they know about. Imagining beyond a few hundred years or into the thousands is almost impossible. We can demonstrate that things happened, show evidence for it, but keeping it straight in our heads, we just aren’t wired up for that.

The experience Sacks had is one that few people his age could have had, due simply to lack of knowledge. Most mothers didn’t know this. Fathers either. Even parents today would have trouble googling the answer, if they even noticed the beetles on the Magnolia tree. And if you go back just to your great grandparent’s time, no one knew this. No one was trying to comprehend a 13.7 billion year old universe, because we didn’t know it was that old. We didn’t even know where bees came from.

When I’m asked why I prefer science over religion, I’m sometimes asked why I prefer knowing all the answers over mystery. Well, I don’t have that preference. I don’t know all the answers so there is plenty of mystery. The question is then fine tuned to why I only accept things that are proven. Well, I don’t do that either.

I wake up in a universe full of unknowns every day. I navigate an uncertain future. I assume the sun won’t explode today, but I can’t prove it. I trust someone is keeping an eye on that and would let me know if they thought it would happen anytime soon. If we discover something today that no one expected, then I’ll work on including that in my point of view and deal with all the new questions I’ll have because of it.

More recently, a pastor from my last church put this quote on facebook:

Church never made me aware of evolution and the amazing series of unlikely events that led to a tamarack tree turning golden brown then dropping it’s needles in the Fall. At best, someone would occasionally remark on the beauty of a tree or something else amazing about “God’s creation”. I never saw how wonder is inspired by assigning nature a role of simply part of God. That puts an end to wonder. It only shifts wonder from the many discoverable details happening in front us to something that can’t be found. I’m using their definition here, gods are defined as something you seek, but you can never know or understand them completely.

Eventually it came to seem like a trick. Something to draw me in. Something I was supposed to get closer to if I read the next book or attended the next retreat, but like a radio play that always has a cliff hanger, it was more important to create a question than to seek an answer. Why do we need a god to cause us to wonder anyway? Aren’t we doing that already? We can see curiosity in other animals. We can see in artifacts when humans started to make idols and honor their dead. We went from primitive religions to the complex. We weren’t haplessly bumping around not wondering about anything until a shaman came up and told us to.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the man seeking enlightenment sits on a bridge and stares at the river flowing under it for days. He does this after living a long life with successes and failures. As a young man, Malidoma Some was told by his elders to stare at a tree for hours until it talked to him. Neil DeGrasse Tyson attended a planetarium when he was young and it inspired a life long love of understanding the cosmos. There’s nothing like that in the Bible. If anything, these fit Biblical descriptions of witchcraft or the dangers of philosophy. If learning by observing nature, by wondering what it can tell us, if that’s witchcraft, get my broom. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

8 points of Progressive Christianity

This one flew by my virtual desktop the other day. I don't remember whence it came. It sounds nice at first glance, and you know there is a “but” coming after that, don't you? By time you get to the bottom, it sounds like all the good peace and harmony things in one tidy list. They didn't even try to force it to 10 items. Kudos.

I'll start at the bottom, where all those nice things are.

Items 4 through 8 are just basic human dignities. No society can survive for long without them. Even a repressive regime tells people they have these rights. George W Bush said he only choose war because that's what he needed to do to achieve peace. The language may lean toward the “liberal” end of the spectrum, such as “restore the integrity of our Earth”, but even those who claim dominion over the earth will usually say they are stewards.

I'll give a few extra points for item 5, “search for understanding” and valuing questions. Not everybody gets the importance of that. Of course saying that is different than actually responding to a question that challenges your world view in a truly open minded and respectful manner. But I don't need to get into the problems of implementing the list.

Moving up to item 3, atheists are not included. Probably because it implies an end to all of that questioning. You could say that's true, but only for religious questions. Atheists of course continue to ask all the questions that everyone else does, like why are we here, what's right, what's good, and what's for breakfast. I have enjoyed spending time in awe and wonder with people who had no idea I didn't believe in their god. Atheism leaves wonder and openness intact while concluding that enough work has been done on all existing theories of Christianity.

I’m not interested in a church that accepts atheists anyway. I’m interested in a community that accepts everyone for who they are. This doesn’t mean anything goes. It means whatever the community is organizing to do, it’s rules about who can join in are related to reaching that goal. Churches have goals and committees and functions, but if you want in, you have to pledge allegiance to a character in a book. You have to say you believe that things in that story are true. Most people do it without their heart really being in it, but if someone comes along and questions what’s in their heart, the wagons begin circle very quickly.

At least that's how it is for me, maybe they had some other atheists in mind when they left them off, and the item does say “ALL”, so that's nice.

Now I need to jump up to Item #1 because #2 doesn't make sense without it. This list starts with the same old barrier that has been around since the beginning, “believeth in me”. I realize that without that, there's no point in having this be about Christianity, but with it, why call it “progressive”? If you want an open community like you say in #3 that accomplishes the things in 4 through 8, why not just say you are a progressive “org” and then say something about welcoming faith traditions if you want. It would really simplify things.

In Item #2, it's almost apologizing for #1. After saying Jesus is the path to the Sacred and Oneness and Unity, it says that there are other ways to get there too. This one also has implementation problems. Just where can you go for this other wisdom? I went to a church that had a Ojibwa pipe ceremony in the basement once, Sufi dancing now and then on a Saturday night, and read from the Tao Te Ching every Sunday. But that was about it. And that's the most progressive church I've ever heard of. Even Unitarians tend to stick to Western Christian ideas.

The general feel I get from this list is, you’re fine with me choosing any belief system, but heaven forbid I choose a system that isn’t based on beliefs at all. Back when I taught Sunday School, I put a poster up in my class that had 15 different versions of what Christians call “The Golden Rule” from a variety of faith traditions, and Confucius, who made no supernatural claim. I've never seen that poster in any other church. I've seen high ranking religious leaders who were unaware that there were other versions. And something like that is not really much of a stretch. I can't imagine an adult Sunday School bringing Hume to their discussion on ethics or Sam Harris to their discussion of free will.

The question not addressed in this list is, what are you trying to accomplish? Is it the stuff in the second half or is making a statement about being inclusive as in 2 and 3 important, or is it all about Jesus and the Sacred and Oneness? Just what those capitalized words mean is a problem for me. It seems when I ask that question, they lead to the other points, so why not just dump the first 3? It would be much easier to understand if you just said you were a group of people that wanted to save the world. That's enough to set you apart.

The only honest answer, the only reason I can see to why you would start off with a belief statement, is that you think that is of primary importance. Nothing else here explains why that is important, and no church I've ever been to or theology I've ever heard of does anything but make that as an assertion. It is simply stated that Jesus leads to these things and the only way to find out is to try it for yourself. If you don't get it, you're doing it wrong and you're not in the club. I don't see what is so progressive about that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Northwoods Naturals Red Spritz

This is a "non-alcoholic beverage". Water is a "non-alcoholic beverage", but they don't usually mention that. So what makes this one different from "red pop". I looked up the website, but they only talk about their alcoholic beverages there, so I don't have nutrition information on this one. My guess is though, that it's low in sugar. You might say it's a "dry" pop, or soda, depending on where you live. Or, as the label says, "not-too-sweet". Any of those descriptions work. It was close to a wine spritzer taste, but no alcohol bite of course. The red taste was more like red grapes, not that strawberry candy taste you get from most red pops. I found this The Duluth Grill, an excellent place to go anyway, and now, one more reason. Hopefully I can find it somewhere else too because I'd really like to enjoy one of these at home.

Secrets of Proenneke Cabin

"He gestured vaguely and mentioned a few landmarks along the way, being careful not to make it too easy."

I read a version of the legend of Parceval just before heading off to Alaska this summer. My trip was not legendary, except perhaps in my own mind. The words above however, taken from that story, were with me. The scene is a young Parceval, living in the woods, unaware of Camelot. Two Knights appear and see something in the boy, but only give him enough to awaken his sense adventure.

The attitude toward hiking in Alaska is different than most places I've been. Most parks and wilderness areas will have a variety of warnings and requirements. Where I went in Alaska, there were no permits required, I didn't need to check-in anywhere, if I hadn't initiated contact, they wouldn't have known I was there. There was no signage, no trailheads, no warnings posted.

Part of this is, I'm sure, due to the sheer enormity of the space and the barriers that have to be overcome to get there. Most of the filtering out of people is done by nature. If you manage to get by the mountains, the snow and the freezing water, there are the bears. Let's hope the Alaska Department of Natural Resources isn't thinking that they want to throw you the wolves, or bears, or whatever else might be out there, but they definitely expect you to figure out more for yourself than your average walk in a park.

In Minnesota, before entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you are required to get a permit and watch a video about hanging a bear pack and "leave no trace" camping. When I hiked the Grand Canyon, there were a lot of signs up about dehydration and how it is most common that fit young men are the ones who succumb to it, because they are most likely to think they won't. There was nothing like this for the Lake Clarke Wilderness. There also weren't trails.

There is a sketchy explanation of the a few hikes around the Proenneke cabin area on the NPS website. http://www.nps.gov/lacl/planyourvisit/low-pass-route.htm The hike I originally planned involved walking along the lake shore and, as their description says, "you should be able to discern which drainage will lead to Low Pass because it's the most significant one in the vicinity...". Now, without surveying the entire area, I don't know how you would determine "most significant", worse, as far as I can tell, the directions start off sending you east, when you should go west. After that, they say, "follow the tundra ridge to the pass."

I wanted to make this a loop route, and the Low Pass description says that at some point, that will lead you to the Hope Creek route. That description refers you to the Hope Creek route description, which says that at some point, it will lead to the Low Pass route. That's as good as it gets.

I have some experience with reading topographic maps, but if a pass has a name, I don't know how you find it without that name appearing on the map. I read a few other descriptions written on wilderness guide websites, but I would expect them to be vague, since they want you to pay them for what they know. I thought I had hit pay dirt when I found someone's homemade map, a satellite photo with a big arrow on it that said "Low Pass". I matched that up to my topos and found a wide area that was at 3,000 ft, surrounded by the 5,000 or more foot peaks. This seemed to be "significant".

In case I sound like someone who was proceeding foolishly, I was, but I wouldn't have tried this without someone who had some experience along with me. Luckily I have a brother who lives in Alaska and has worked in the brush. He reviewed my plan and said it was aggressive. Actually he said, "whoa, whoa, whoa". Anyway, we changed the plan to the Hope Creek route. This one proceeds due south from the cabin, following a creek. It even starts out with some trail, but that trail quickly starts to break up.

By the way, I looked for books on hiking in Alaska. I checked guide books, there was less in them than what I found on the NPS site. On the drive to Homer, we stopped at a map shop. Nothing. I found a copy of a National Geographic map of Lake Clarke park on sale on amazon. It was $350. Apparently paper maps are a collector's item. I was hoping maybe one of the float plane operators I talked to would give me a little free info, but most of them hadn't even been there.

Crossing the mountains on the way there gave me some appreciation of what I was getting into. It's a mere 20 miles or so on the map, but looking down on the cliffs and snow covered peaks, I knew I wouldn't be walking out of there if anything went wrong. It was a little bit of a relief when we were greeted on the radio as we flew up into the Twin Lakes valley. We landed right at the cabin, which is just a few feet from the water and were greeted by a rainbow that also came right down to the water. I realized that was something special when I saw how excited the park ranger and float plane pilot were. I would have thought that was something they see every week.

After spending some time in the historic cabin and getting the obligatory picture in the doorway, we tried again to get intel on the hike from our park ranger. We got a couple more details on the Hope Creek route, but it ended with the same "then you get up on the ridges and you can follow them over to Low Pass." She literally waved her hand over the map at this point. Once again, "whoa, whoa, whoa." But that was the best we were going to get.

The actual experience was, as my brother expected, much slower than I expected. If we had known better about where we were going, we might have made it over the ridge and back down the other way. After a day and a half of hiking, we made it to a ridge, and could see where it went over into the next valley. Ridge hiking is a much easier hiking experience than the side of mountain covered with low bush cranberries and blueberries and various lichens. But there were many unknowns beyond that and no reason to challenge them.

When we got back, we met one more park ranger, and that one finally pointed right to a spot on the map and said, "that's Low Pass". It was the next valley over, much more narrow than the one I had found and another 1,000 ft higher. I could also see by looking at where the streams started, that there had to be ridges between them, and by following those high spots, it would lead you right to the ridge we had stood on above Hope Creek.

I didn't actually go there, so don't take these directions as anything close to a suggestion that you go there and follow them. I can't know what was over the high point that I saw. Just before we got to the ridge, we had a choice between a 200 ft mound of boulders and a scree slope. I choose poorly and could have easily lost a lot of progress or been injured sliding down that. Some scree is listed on maps, but most of it isn't. If a description of an Alaskan hike says "This route crosses a couple steep scree slopes", as the Low Pass description does, you should take that very seriously.

There are many things to do around the Proenneke cabin. There is a small camp site right there with metal caches to keep the bears away from your food. You can hike the shore line. There is one rustic lodge on the opposite side of Upper Twin Lake. Port Alsworth is not far away on a large lake with many lodges. Many people fly from there and visit the area for a just a couple hours. I would recommend any or all of those. Whatever you do, don't miss enjoying the incredible scenery.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

In 1493, Columbus took everything he could see

It’s one of my favorite time’s of year again, when people talk about how Columbus ruined everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no big fan of the European take over of what is now called the Americas. I’m also not a fan of bad history. According to the memes that come out this time of year, Columbus invented slavery.

There is no question that the particular brand of slavery that existed from Africa to America and included the natives in the Americas was particularly horrible in human history. There is no question that Christianity supported slavery and it was in turn supported by the Old Testament. It is also unquestionable that slavery has been a part of every civilization. It’s elimination is very recent and very unique. The colonizers that began with Columbus are not unique at all.

Slavery in the Americas began thousands of years before Columbus ever got there. And I’m not talking about the Vikings. Native tribes conquered and enslaved each other. I’m not going to provide links, by the way, since this is too well known to bother. Also well known is the participation of Africans in the African slave trade. None of this makes any of it right. That something has been done throughout human history is not an argument for it being normal, ethical or intractable. People who took slaves were always wrong. They were also products of their environment.

One easily misused statistic is the number of people who died in the centuries following 1492. It was on the level of the Nazi holocaust. Pre-Columbian population figures are a little hard to come by, but deaths were in the millions. We know there were conquistadors sweeping across the southern continent and small colonies moving in along the east coast at this time. But millions of deaths spread across vast stretches of territory that were unmapped by Europeans have to be accounted for. The only sensible explanation is disease.

The Americas were first populated by people crossing the Bering Strait land bridge 10,000 years ago. Generations of living in extreme cold in Siberia and the tundra of the Americas killed off a lot of immunity that people in Europe maintained. Europe and Asia have cows, pigs and horses and constant contact with those animals weeded out anyone not immune to the diseases they carry. When they came back in contact with their cousins that they had parted with so long ago, they brought those diseases with them.

No, I’m not ignoring that this was later done deliberately, but that was much later. Missionaries that gave Indians infected blankets did not exist until colonies were well established. Missionaries can’t exist at all without a strong military presence protecting them. The history of that is also confused and sometimes exaggerated, but it certainly had nothing to do with Columbus.

Neither am I ignoring that by today’s standards, Columbus was a wack job. I recently read “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem”. The title alone grabbed my attention. He never went to Jerusalem, but according to his own diary, his intention for finding a route to India was to enrich Spain and the Catholic Church so they could re-conquer Jerusalem. If you remember, Jerusalem was under Muslim rule at the time. Columbus would out fundamental any fundamentalist of today. And why not? That’s all there was. There was no discussion about freedom of religion, you took the religion of your kingdom, or you got out of there, alive if you were lucky. If the Pope said slavery was okay, it was okay. Martin Luther was only 9 years old. It was a different time that we can barely understand. Having Christians in control of the birthplace of Jesus was vitally important to the survival and future of Columbus’ culture. The idea of Jews at the Wailing Wall, the sound of the Muslim call to prayer and tours of Jesus’ tomb all in one city would be unheard of to him.

Despite his confusion about the size of the earth, Columbus was a decent navigator, he did make contact with another culture, and he did find gold. If you think any of that was easy, read this story about how he was stranded on Jamaica for a year. A few of his men found their way back to Haiti(then called Hispaniola) in what was essentially a canoe. This was also the time he lied to the natives about controlling the sun when he knew of an eclipse that was coming. He did it to gain favors from them. Anyone who tells that story without also telling of how he did it when he was cut off from anything resembling his civilization, is essentially lying by omission.

The above link also mentions Bobadilla. This was another reason I picked up the book. I had heard of a letter that had recently been uncovered listing many crimes of Columbus. You may have heard of it. As I read the book, I kept expecting to hear about these crimes, but they weren’t listed, at least not coming from Columbus. Columbus writes about events going on across the island that were out of his control and that he did not condone. Maybe he could have done more to prevent them.

Instead of entries about thoughtless treatment, I read of how he had to leave some men behind on his first voyage and gave them strict instructions to stick to themselves and not bother the natives. Now, he also took natives with him against their will, so he was no saint. When he returned he found the men he had left behind had fought with the natives, and they (Columbus’ men) had been killed. Getting their killers to describe what had happened of course would have been a challenge.

The history of the rest of what happened during Columbus’ life is, shall we say, muddled. He was told by Spain not to take slaves, but he did anyway, even sending some of them back to Spain. There seemed to be no penalty for this. Even at the time, Ferdinand and Isabella couldn’t figure out what was going on and had to send investigators. The second voyage was definitely a military mission and included priests and farmers who established colonies. Those priests complained that in some of those colonies the slaves were mistreated. To me today, “mistreated slave” is kind of an oxymoron. You’ve already taken someone away from their culture and made them work for free. How is that okay, but there is still a further line that crosses into “cruelty”?

It is hard to tell from the few records we have, but the theme of the book I read was that many of the people who were brought to colonize this new world expected gold to be flowing out of the hills and slaves to bring it to them. When they found out they had to work, and that the “New World” had new diseases, they blamed Columbus for mismanagement. This is when Bobadilla enters the story and puts Columbus in chains.

When the story is told as if everything in Bobadilla’s letter is true, it sounds strange that Columbus was released and allowed to return, although he was stripped of his governorship. It makes more sense when you read accounts of the monarchs who found it strange that Columbus arrived at court in manacles. This was perhaps a shrewd political move by Columbus because the Captain of the ship that took him home offered to remove them. But Columbus wanted his patrons to see how Bobadilla had treated him. I lean more toward the theory that Bobadilla wanted to rule the territory without having had to do all the work of discovering it.

I can hardly summarize a book in six paragraphs and everything I’ve said comes with a disclaimer that the history is incomplete. My intention here is to supply a little more background than a painting from 500 years ago or a scrap of evidence with no context. How we treated the people we called “Indians” in later centuries; cutting their hair, making their language illegal, killing off the buffalo, all of that is inexcusable. It was also supported by our government after we had made a constitution that spoke of freedom and human rights. It was perpetrated by Presidents that we call heroic. Anyone living in the United States today benefits from those policies, excluding of the course many of the descendants of the people who were here first. We would be better off discussing how that affects people alive today than either celebrating or denigrating a man we know little about from 500 years ago.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Least of These

I occasionally review my posts to see if I said something I want to retract. I don't edit out what I said, but have commented on myself a few times. Recently, at the Lake Superior Free Thinkers regular meeting, we had a philosopher, Shane Coultron, speak who corrected me on something I've mentioned now and then. That is, I have said I can't find a similar statement about the Christian idea of "that which you do to me (Jesus), you do to the least of these (i.e. the poor or sick)."

Turns out that is addressed by modern philosophies, it's just not as easy to find in a short concise phrase like it is in the New Testament. Shane gave me several examples:

Utilitarianism - If you are simply adding up happiness and basing choices on increasing it, you would do well to focus on down trodden, poor, sick people. Their happiness rating is lower. This is born out with sociological data, although there are those communities of people with limited means that are quite happy. Utilitarianism does not make broad generalizations about what it takes to be happy. The important application of it here is that if you focus on those who have the most needs, you will make the most difference in increasing their happiness and likewise increase overall happiness for all. This includes the assumption that even if you are well off, it makes you sad that others aren't. Again, plenty of exceptions to that assumption, but they don't matter to the overall score.

But Utilitarianism has other problems, and I don't like defending it too strongly.

I prefer the more subtle assumptions and laws discussed in what is sometimes called Social Contract Theory. The idea that we came out of the jungle and made agreements to act in ways that are mutually beneficial. In this system, ignoring the needs of any group has a cost. If there is not good reason to restrict someone's rights or to not reward them for their contribution, they can reasonably consider the social contract to be broken. As society has advanced, we have created better peaceful means of addressing these grievances, but many remain.

History shows us how this plays out. Marx's analysis of the cycle of cultures working together to increase their wealth, then that wealth becoming concentrated, then revolution, has strong historical data to back it up. We see it happening again now, but we also see more negotiating under way. Hopefully this time around we will acknowledge "the least of these" and find a way to re-establish the contract.

I'll just mention that Shane said Kant's de-ontological ethics also addressed this issue, but I don't find Kant particularly interesting so I leave it up to you to look into that.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Not so alone

Another thing that kept me away from blogging last month was that I spent half of it in Alaska. I wrote a two page epic hiking adventure in the journal at a yurt one night, visited a couple Russian churches, and took a few notes on my visit to a cabin in the wilderness that is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The cabin was built by Richard Proenneke and has been made semi-famous by a half-hour documentary featuring him.

He is known for his longevity, he spent 30 years in that cabin. He was also known for his craftsmanship, the handle mechanism on the door is ingenious. He is a little lesser known for his environmentalism.

In 1967 he was retired from the Navy and decided that building a cabin in Alaska would be a challenge he’d like to try. Challenging himself was a way of life. He had a friend who had a cabin on Upper Twin Lake, just north of Port Alsworth, so he spent that summer walking the area, finally settling on a spot right next to his friend.

There were no hardware stores in the area so whatever he needed, he had to bring or build. Space was saved by bringing only the metal parts of drills or chisels and fashioning the handles once he was there. This also led to one of my favorite lines from the documentary, “today I needed a spoon, so I made a spoon.”

His skills were excellent, and his hiking pace was legendary, but many people have accomplished such things in Alaska and elsewhere. Mr. Proenneke felt the lifestyle of accomplishing things on your own, not wasting anything and spending time reflecting on the wilderness, was worth sharing, so he also filmed himself as he built and stocked the cabin. Originally, he probably had no more in mind that simply making some instructional manuals so others could share the experience.

As he returned to that isolated wilderness year after year, he noted changes in people who came to the area. He saw people no longer caring about the values he cherished. Something you’ll see in his film or if you visit his cabin is a lot of gas cans. He fashioned many useful storage and carrying items by recycling old gas cans. But where did they come from? He didn’t have a chainsaw or gas stove. They came from the hunters. They would come out, shoot their moose and sometimes leave everything behind except the antlers.

He wrote not only about how to live in the woods but of the experience. Others, Sam Keith in particular, put those journals and film into production and he gained a little fame. This was not his goal, since of the gifts he said, “My cabin and cache have been full to overflowing for quite some time and each new load makes me wonder where I will stow it all. ... I do appreciate everything but wish they would consider the poor miserable brush rat more fortunate than they and spend their money to beat death and taxes.”

When you see him talking about himself, it’s easy to assume a level of conceit, but if wasn’t for his friends, we probably would have never heard of him. One of the park rangers at the cabin said he corresponded with Aldo Leopold and Willard Munger, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. She said Dick did not save his letters, something that comes from living a sparse lifestyle. So whatever he did, that’s lost to history.

Summing up my feelings about this pilgrimage has been more of a challenge than I expected. The man remains a bit of a mystery, and as with any public figure, he’s what each of us want him to be. What struck me most on this trip was that he did not harbor much anger. In any of the short descriptions of him, no one ever called him “crusty” or a curmudgeon. Instead they went out of their way to note how friendly he was despite his isolation. Even his hunting was kept to a minimum, apparently out of a kinship with the animals who shared his valley.

This is not to say that he withheld his opinion. Throughout his discussions about carving handles or constructing a food cache he scatters tidbits of the value of making something useful, and being able to make something with quality and craftsmanship. He ends his first book with a longer discussion on those philosophies and on the positive affects it would have on all of us if more people adopted them.

To try to give some sense of the man, here’s part of a note that was left on his table,

“You didn’t find a padlock on my door (maybe I should put one on) for I feel that a cabin in the wilderness should be open to those who need shelter. My charge for the use of it is reasonable, I think, although some no doubt will be unable to afford what I ask, and that is – take care of it as if you had carved it out with hand tools as I did. If when you leave your conscience is clear, then you have paid the full amount.

This is beautiful country. It is even more beautiful when the animals are left alive.
Thank you for your cooperation.”
R.L Proenneke

Somehow he managed to be “alone” yet engaged. While alone he was listening to the world. He saw the rise of polluters from the hunters to corporations. He also saw that just as no single person can solve our environmental problems, no single person caused them. Instead of loudly broadcasting anger over the changes in the world he did not care for, he quietly showed us how to live not just in nature, but with each other.

Monday, September 14, 2015


Lots of good stuff going on this month, and signs of Fall are beginning, including an uptick in my blogging. My summer vacations included a lot of reflection and philosophical discussion with family and friends. One of those discussions was about something I did half a lifetime ago, the est training. If you don’t know what it was, you can look it up. I don’t really care which opinion you get. It’s an ontological discussion and experiential group experience designed to expand self-awareness. It’s now called Landmark, and that’s a story in itself.

What I want to relay today is a bit of wisdom from a friend of mine from college. All of my friends could see I got something out of this two weekend seminar thing I did, but due to its complexity and my own lack of eloquence at the time, they weren’t sure what it was. One friend in particular said something that I had no response to, and has held up as true. I don’t remember the exact words, basically it was; there are truths about life, about our human condition, truths that are discoverable. There are many paths to those truths, but when they are illuminated by a particular source, some people tend to attach those truths to that source as if that source is the exclusive source.

I’ve asked several psychologists if there is a name for this phenomenon but no one has given it an ID. A colloquial phrase for it might be “he drank the Kool-Aid”. If you don’t know that one, please, look it up. It implies a cult nature to the group, something I’ve argued strongly against, even after I quit endorsing the organization. You should be able to find many discussion on that too. I’ve never found anything but a basic accusation of their cult status, never any real evidence.

I was involved with est during the decade or so when they went through the name change and reorganization. Before that they relied exclusively on word of mouth advertising. That’s a nice way of saying they used the graduates of the programs to sell it to their friends and family. It was creepy. I’m not proud of it. In the 90’s and since, they started to appear more on talk shows and eventually they started releasing what was once secret to the internet. Look up “Werner Erhard” and you can see for yourself. There’s everything from 3 minute promo spots to 3 hour seminars.

Here’s a sample, titled the “best ever”, make of that whatyou will. He starts saying that you make your own purpose in life. Keep in mind this started in the 1970’s, so that was a fairly big deal back then. The 60’s were over and meaning was not being found at a Grateful Dead concert or in a Disco. Billy Graham had found his way into the White House and the word “fundamentalism” was just coming into popular use.

He then talks about how people will react when you declare your purpose and start acting like you think you might accomplish something with your life. He doesn’t need to be specific about what people will say, because we all know. We all know people who don’t have enough of a life of their own and feel the need to crush everyone else’s dreams to make themselves feel better. What we don’t talk about as much is how we suppress ourselves just to avoid those public conversations. So, he gets a good laugh and it seems like maybe he’s said something profound.

But, as we used to say in est, sometimes what shows up is what’s missing. What’s missing from this conversation about setting goals and finding meaning is how you build relationships that will support you in getting there. It’s funny that we listen to the negative people around us and let them affect our decisions. We shouldn’t listen to those voices. But ignoring others is not a recipe for success either. There were other seminars and other talks, but the creation of community was mostly mechanical, reciprocal exchanges of support, timed listening exercises, things like that.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I regret my experiences with this organization. I’m not going to try to sell it to you, but if it sounds interesting, I certainly wouldn’t talk you out of it. I would say that there is a limit to how much you can learn about community by paying to be part of one, but that’s actually one of the things that sets est apart from cults, they encourage building your own life, to get whatever you get form them and move on. They want you to apply what you learn there but come back with questions or additional “coaching”. It’s a fine line. 

Some get overly enamored with the programs and make it into something it’s not. Those are probably the ones you know about. Others see it for what it is and make good use of it. If you met one of those, you might not even know it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Orange Drink

I found this Clementine orange soda in a Fred Meyer store in Anchorage. Sorry for the fuzzy picture, I wasn't spending much time on quality on my vacation. Orange has always been my favorite thirst quencher for soda and hiking the mountains definitely had me thirsty. It was also low in sugar, something I've been concentrating more on lately. As you can see, this wasn't just orange flavored water, it was thick with juice. It was like a glass of orange juice without the citric acid or the pulp and fizz instead.

Possibly the best orange soda I've ever had. I didn't get where it came from though, and I doubt I'll find it again unless I go back to Alaska.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bart Campolo

My search for a preacher who offers real value continues, but I’m getting closer. This one calls himself a secular humanist, but isn’t even comfortable with that label. The label for what I’m looking for probably doesn’t exist yet. His current title is Humanist Chaplain. He talks about rejecting the term atheist in the interview, and I’m fine with that.

It’s also worth mentioning he is a former minister and the son of a famous minister, Tony Campolo who advised President Bill Clinton. All of this is in the interview. If you want to skip that and some other good stuff, fine, but at least go to minute 26. They are talking about the controversy of secular chaplains in the military and Bart slides into a long discussion about dealing with death.

The discussion is very life affirming. Death is one of those things that keeps people in religion. You can get away with all sorts of sin in life, but you better be concerned about your everlasting soul. He quotes Robert Ingersoll extensively and explains how our desire for eternal life arises naturally out of the experience of death. We want just one more conversation with the one we just lost, we hope to see them again.

He goes on to talk about how an eternal life in heaven is really not a very good solution to this problem. The inevitability of death shows us to the preciousness of life. Knowing our time here is short draws us through the weeds between us, seeking a connection. It drives us to share our joys now and to let go of our anger now because we don’t want to waste this time. As Ingersoll says, “Love is a flower that only grows on the edge of a grave.”

It keeps getting better from there. See for yourself. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I've been slipping on my craft sodas lately. I went to Michigan and bought a 12 pack of Vernor's, so that's been my primary soda drinking. Here's another one from Bruce Cost. Their plain ginger ale was very good so I thought I'd try their ginger ale with Jasmine tea. As expected it was just as good, with a taste of Jasmine Tea. Nothing much else to report. The unfiltered bits at the bottom looked a little weirder, and they clumped up, I couldn't get them mixed in, but it didn't matter. The taste was consistent throughout. I was expecting some bitter tea taste in that last swig, but it didn't happen.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Advice on Life

Just another one of those passing thoughts at the height of summer as I try to get the garage painted and the woods cleared. I recently found out about brainpickings.org from OnBeing.org. I recommend both. I found this bit from a young Hunter S. Thompson, who is asked for advice on life and starts out pointing out how impossible that is and how arrogant it would be to try, then he pulls it off.

He does it by not offering any advice, but talks to his friend about setting himself on a path of self discovery. He doesn't give any actual advice, like "be a fireman" or "do what you love" or "follow your bliss" or "plastics!". Instead he says the answer lies in the questioner. The questioner has already taken the first step by asking the question. The answer is to keep asking.

Self reflection is a daily task, although not one to get obsessed with. Re-examining the landscape of everything out there is equally important, especially in this rapidly changing world we now find ourselves in.

Well, time to let Maria Popova walk you through this essay. Enjoy.

But, before you go, let me tell you where this sent my thoughts. I argue about politics, against libertarians, about God, against fundamentalists, about science, against anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, anti-global warmingers. And where these arguments often lead is to a point where my opponent finds completely unacceptable of the entire scientific method, including the integrity of our universities, the validity of peer review, the trustworthiness of government reports, the ability of experts to interpret data and the ability of anyone to verify that the data is accurate. It leaves me with nothing to build on since the only thing left is each of our opinions.

This attitude toward the modern world of delegation of authority and knowledge begins early. At some point you begin listening to the people that say a college degree has no value and that high schools are designed by capitalists who want to create subservient workers. There is some truth in there, that is, there are some horrible teachers and there are corporations that don't value human life, but it is not a vast conspiracy led by a secret cabal. That you can discuss the idea that it might be is evidence that it isn't.

To figure out if all or any of these systems are working, one merely needs to attempt to work within them, to create some change. Short of that, looking into the history of where these system came from will tell you a lot. If you can't find that documentary on your list of 80 stations, just think about basic high school history. At one point there were kings who cut your head off, now we have nations. At one point owning another human being was commonplace, now it's not. The Pope once had power over all of Europe, now he doesn't. Even if you weren't paying attention to exactly how we got from there to here, you have to accept that here is better and there must be a reason for that.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Why I think this world should end

I don’t think that, but this rapper does. Here’s a few of the lyrics from his poem:

Isn’t that special? Whenever I hear something like this, my first question is, compared to what? By “world”, he means this particular version of civilization, and that’s happened a lot. That’s why we have Mayan RUINS and the Great Wall is now just a tourist attraction and why we marvel at buildings built thousands of years ago that are still standing, but the people are gone. Civilizations end.

The difference today is scale. If you compare us to a primitive village, they polluted their streams, then they just moved away from it, upstream. Why did you think they were nomadic? Did they just like to travel? My favorite though is “education is shot”. This from a guy who knew more than most people in history by the time he was 10 years old. This from a guy who has a command of the English language and has uploaded it onto a world wide communication system that I watched from little cabin in the woods in mid-Northern nowhere.

And if you can’t live with yourself, get help.

So everyone’s medicated
We pass each other on the streets
And if we do speak it's meaningless robotic communication
More people want 15 seconds of fame
Than a lifetime of meaning and purpose
Because what’s popular is more important than what’s right
Ratings are more important than the truth
Our government builds twice as many prisons than schools
It’s easier to find a Big Mac than an apple

And when you find the apple
It's been genetically processed and modified

Presidents lie, politicians trick us
Race is still an issue and so is religion
Your God doesn’t exist, my God does and he is All-Loving
If you disagree with me I'll kill you
Or even worse argue you to death
You think that’s new? There are 7 billion people on this planet, someone’s talking about sex somewhere. And games change. Go get a dreidel if it makes you happy.

The average person watches 5 hours of television a day
And it's more violence on the screen than ever before

Again, before what? I grew up seeing the violence in Vietnam on TV. It’s why we ended Vietnam, because we were aware of it. Or we could go back to seeing violence in the streets, I’m not just talking about Detroit, go for a walk in Paris in the year 1420, be sure to wear your knife. Or how about that great civilization of Rome? The Pax Romana was maintained by killing anyone who threatened it. Then they’d nail you to a cross in public as an example, you might have heard of this practice.

Technology has given us everything we could ever want
And at the same time stolen everything we really need
Pride is at an all time high, humility, an all time low
Everybody knows everything, everybody’s going somewhere
Ignoring someone, blaming somebody

I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say this is intentional irony.

Not many human beings left anymore, a lot of human doings
Plenty of human lingerings in the past, not many human beings

Money is still the root of all evil
Yet we tell our kids don’t get that degree
The jobs don’t pay enough

Good deeds are only done when there's a profit margin
Videos of the misfortunes of others go viral
We laugh and share them with our friends to laugh with us
Our role models today
60 years ago would have been examples of what not to be

There are states where people can legally be discriminated against Because they were born a certain way

It’s natural to fear the unknown, those who aren’t like us. It is a survival mechanism that goes back to our earliest ancestors. We are now aware of it and are learning to trust and live together. Look at your main street and count how many different churches there are. Now show me a town in history, more than 500 years ago, that can beat that number. For most of human history, your leader decided what your religion was and if you didn’t like it, you had to leave. If you were lucky you could leave with all your body parts intact. Go back far enough and it wasn’t even called religion, it was just the culture of your tribe, your way of life.

Prejudice is taught, no doubt. But it is also created by a few people who’s fear of change and feelings of being threatened get out of hand and the blame they place is believed by others. Everyone is “born a certain way”, with different advantages, physical and social. We created this “all men are created equal” thing a mere 250 years ago, and we didn’t have it right then, we left out women, obviously, and everyone at the time knew they meant “white” men. We have since improved on it, but there is still work to be done.

If you don’t know this, you weren’t paying attention in High School history. Read a book. If you are learning this from a rap song, you’re behind in your education. We need you to get caught up and join those of us who are working toward a more just and peaceful world.

Companies invest millions of dollars hiring specialists to make Little girls feel like they need “make up” to be beautiful Permanently lowering their self esteem
Because they will never be pretty enough
To meet those impossible standards

I kinda covered this in the sex part above. Really? You think treating girls like sex objects is new? Really? Ever hear of foot-binding? http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/why-footbinding-persisted-china-millennium-180953971/

Corporations tell us buy, buy, buy, get this, get that
You must keep up, you must fit in
This will make you happy, but it never does for long
So what can we do in the face of all of this madness and chaos?
What is the solution? We can love
Not the love you hear in your favorite song on the radio
I mean real love, true love, boundless love
You can love, love each other
From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed
Perform an act of kindness because that is contagious
We can be mindful during every interaction
Planting seeds of goodness
Showing a little more compassion than usual
We can forgive
Because 300 years from now will that grudge you hold against Your friend, your mother, your father have been worth 
Instead of trying to change others we can change ourselves
We can change our hearts

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. This is a song. It’s not action, but it is a call to action, and we need that. What we don’t need is more angry people shaking their fists at things they don’t understand. It doesn’t do much good to get angry at those you say are making you angry. If that’s what they want, and you say it’s not what you want, then why are you doing it? Be angry, it’s an indicator that you’re alive, but you don’t need to feed that anger. Of course life is hard and something’s wrong. We used to live in trees until someone decided that was stupid. The question is, what are you going to do?

We have been sold lies
Brainwashed by our leaders and those we trust
To not recognize our brothers and sisters
And to exhibit anger, hatred and cruelty
But once we truly love we will meet anger with sympathy
Hatred with compassion, cruelty with kindness
Love is the most powerful weapon on the face of the Earth
Robert Kennedy once said that
Few will have the greatness to bend history
But each of us can work to change a small portion of events
And in the total of all those act
Will be written in the history of a generation
So yes, the world is coming to an end
And the path towards a new beginning starts within you