Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Simplicity Followed By Awe

"Things used to be simple. There was one universe, and our galaxy was one among billions within it."

This is the first sentence from Marcelo Gleiser's column on NPR entitled "Multiverse Metaphysics".

If only things were simple! To understand that our planet lies in a solar system situated in a galaxy with more solar systems alone than we can imagine, and then - that there are billions of galaxies in our this so simple after all? I think about the controversies surrounding Galileo and Kepler in their day, wondering what scientific discoveries will ascend from heresy to simplicity in the next 500 years?

I think about Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series. I think about his wonder and fascination toward the magnificent intricacies of nature. A realization strikes me - awe is far more important than simplicity. I must resist simplicity.

A few days ago, I posted a column by Adam Frank of NPR on Facebook explaining how poetry can reconcile science and the sacred. Frank's column argues powerfully that science is a direct route to experiencing the sacred. This sacred awe is vitally important for the vitality of human life.

Because of its essential role in creating meaning for our lives, awe is fundamental to our shared humanity. To feel awe can be more important than understanding. Further, awe undermines understanding - to engage in awe is to admit a lack of understanding and to admit new possibilities amidst a mysterious unknown. One of my friends on Facebook, after I posted Frank's article on science and the sacred, complimented me for recognizing - as a non-religious person - that science and the sacred are compatible.

I have struggled to respond to that compliment, because I cannot accept it wholeheartedly. While I agree with my friend that science and the sacred are compatible, I do not agree that science and religion are necessarily compatible. There is a stark difference between the religion of awe and mystery, and the religion of simplicity and understanding. I believe that the first kind of religion is entirely compatible with science, but that the second kind of religion hopelessly distorts and undermines science.

To be fair, I also believe that the nonreligious can abuse excessive certainty - that a fundamentalist confidence in one's own understanding is just as dangerous to science as religious dogma. Any kind of strict adherence to simplicity annihilates both true science and true spirituality.

All too often, organized religion asserts a monopoly on fact and truth - while it asserts that there is only one way to live - and asserts that the course of existence is pre-determined and set by divine law. Science asserts, by searching for answers, that the world is unknown to it - while evolutionary theory demonstrates compellingly that life is a flowing and diverse tide, responding in different ways to a diversity of pressures and dangers - and asserts that existence can change rapidly and has done so constantly throughout its history.

There is no ducking the differences between science and organized religion, which have developed as organized religion has denounced and opposed science. I believe that it is far better to confront those differences than it is to leave them unaddressed in silence. However, confrontation does not have to become arrogance - the best confrontation occurs in humility, when people confront what they do not or perhaps cannot know, and a find a way to live within that mystery. Both true science and true spirituality actively confront that void and derive meaning from that mystery.

Where organized religion and dogmatic rationalism insist on muting mystery, disparaging differences, and attacking ambiguity, I must walk another path. I must seek other answers. I leave the road of simplicity to travel the road of awe.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum - Out of many, one. The first national motto of the United States.

I am currently reading Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States", as well as James W. Loewen's book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". Reading these two books has reinforced my understanding that every person, without regard for tradition, ethnicity, or class, wants opportunity: an opportunity to thrive as an individual, an opportunity to serve as a member of a welcoming community, and an opportunity to fulfill his or her potential as a human being.

These two books have also showed me once again that American history is a tale of how some people were able to seize opportunities for themselves, how some were denied opportunities, and how some people resisted oppression and prejudice to create new opportunities which had never been imagined before. American history is the legacy of overlapping identities - a process called syncretism, described in Loewen's book as "blending elements of two different cultures to create something new" (Lies, 102).

Syncretism, in its power to combine different cultures and traditions into a greater and more vibrant whole, represents the finest qualities of America. Autonomy. Individualism. The power to decide for yourself. Democracy is the same process of deciding among new choices and options which syncretism uses to create new cultures -- so is capitalism. American encounters with new ideas, and our resulting new creations, give birth to ever sharper and more inclusive societies and economies. Pluralism is the lifeblood of America.

America's mass society is controversial, and there are many public voices who wish to soften or silence it. Traditionalists, the precursor to today's social conservatives, argued that people in a more diverse and less tightly rooted society are more isolated and alienated. These arguments are the start of the movement which complains that traditional values are declining, and unfairly labels those Americans - perceived as foreign and unpatriotic - as lesser citizens, and less worthy of participating equally in America's democratic and economic life.

The ever changing values of America are a strength of our society, and this change is not only compatible with America's political and economic values - this change is essential to preserving those values. A pluralistic and diverse society provides choices for individuals to accept or embrace, and this act of choice is a radical offering. It is a vast departure from previous political and economic arrangements of human history. In nations without these new encounters, confrontations, and choices - without syncretism and pluralism - capitalism becomes feudalism, and democracy becomes dictatorship. Every element of civic life becomes stagnant, and the rule of the public transforms into the rule of the elites. The ancient hierarchy which our Founding Fathers despised and risked their lives to oppose will be viciously restored once syncretism and pluralism are attacked and diminished.

The fight for democracy is the fight of the individual and the community against the hierarchy of the elites and those who would replace the rule of the many with the rule of the few. The greatest danger to a democracy is not that elites will directly deny the rights of the public - the greatest danger is that elites will indirectly deny the rights of the public in such a gradual fashion that no one will notice what has happened until it is too late to reverse the trend.

Elites indirectly rob the public of their ability to participate in democracy when corporations and the highest members of government erode the rule of law by ignoring what the laws say and acting outside the bounds of the law.

Elites rob the public of their rights when individuals cannot choose new alternatives. When there is inadequate funding for education at all levels, when there is rampant unemployment, when people are afraid to start their own businesses because they can't get health insurance, the energy and vitality of our country atrophies. When people have no other options, they will accept their position in society without question. This passive acceptance is poisonous to American greatness.

The consistent rule of law, the ability for all individuals to have equal opportunity to participate in the economy and in their government, and an acceptance of pluralism are all necessary to sustain a thriving democracy. When these three principles are no longer defended, and become degraded, democracy begins to decay.

However, there is nothing else that I can say which will show you what these principles look like in action, other than to give you the best example I have:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Me Lover's Pizza With Crazy Broad
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

A man of Lithuanian and Latvian descent loves Italian pizza from New York City! What could be a better example of syncretism and pluralism leading to American greatness? What could be more authentically American than this?!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fighting Authority In the Name of Spirituality

Recently, I attended a talk by author Brian McLaren, a figure in the emergent Christianity movement. He was wondering why religion and spirituality can seem so distant from one another. Frankly, I am beginning to expect that religion and spirituality are destined to remain in conflict, when I think about the nature of the relationship between religion and authority.

I can't help but consider another recent religious encounter of mine. After I befriended an evangelical Christian classmate last semester in a political theory course through some friendly bickering about politics and religion, he insisted that I join him in a discussion group with his pastor. I may have to write a separate blog post or two about that evening later, but for now, what strikes me from the conversation is the pastor's declaration that "Christianity cannot be about morality". The pastor reasoned that since multiple religions not only allow, but encourage, their followers to lead what most people agree to be a moral life, that Christianity cannot primarily be meant to enforce morality.

Finally, I have been reading "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong, and as I told my girlfriend, the major lesson I have learned from Armstrong's book is that I must never again generalize about any religion. With that lesson in mind, I will say that Christianity is a diverse vehicle for many interests and ideas, not only about God, but about humanity. Because Christianity comes in so many forms, perhaps that alone makes it unlikely that spirituality could coexist peacefully with other values.

It is evident that religious teachings contain moral content - even if that content is difficult for its followers to decipher, or if it is difficult for people in the 21st century to decide how to apply the advice of prophets and poets from thousands of years ago. Yet, I tend to agree with my evangelical friend's pastor that in many ways, religion is not just about morality. Another important part of religion I wish to explore is religion's justifications and support for authority.

I do not have a hard time envisioning religion as a set of community standards and practices which can define the values and the identity of a community. Perhaps the process of trying to reach a better understanding of God/gods mirrors the process of individuals trying to reconcile their own interests with the interests of their communities.

When the religion of a community echoes the identity and the values of a culture, it is not surprising that the existence of people who do not embrace the dominant religion would feel threatening, and frighten a society. Perhaps, to those members of the dominant religion, the people rejecting the local religion are also rejecting the local culture, tradition, and identity. Perhaps, from their perspective, those unbelievers are literally destroying the social fabric itself, which provides their lives with meaning and purpose.

If you believe the Gospels, you will witness how the Jewish authorities of Jesus's day mistrusted Jesus and deeply felt that his actions were undermining and eroding the local culture. When Jesus overturned the tables at the synagogue, when Jesus spent time with tax collectors and women of unfavorable reputations, when Jesus associated himself with the despised officials of imperial Rome...when Jesus did all those things, he was acting against his culture and tradition, undermining not only the power of his culture, but the stability of its authorities.

If you believe the Qu'ran, you will witness how Muhammad (pbuh) was chased from Mecca to Medina. His insistence that there is only one God, instead of a multitude of gods, must have absolutely driven people mad with anger and resentment. Why would someone interfere so radically and wildly against society's most dear and sacred practices? Why would someone callously seek to destroy the elaborately devised system of religious tribute and tradition which had been so carefully maintained?

How can spirituality coexist peacefully with authority? Authority thrives when individuals do not question their relationships. Spirituality thrives when individuals question everything, in the name of greater awareness, understanding, and closeness to God or other forces. It is impossible to practice religious mysticism in a condition of blind and passive acceptance. Where is the mystery in the faith then? Where does the mystery go, when the Emperors and the kings and the Presidents tell you exactly what to believe?

No thanks. Because I refuse to accept the religious answers of a majority of my society, I will probably never win a political office, and many members of my culture will despise me and wonder how I could be a moral and loving person - but I will remain free to help create a new social fabric. I will remain free to help expand human cooperation, respect, and brotherhood, in any way that I choose - just as Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh) chose to do, at the risk of their possessions, their families, and their lives, so many years ago. As those prophets chose before me, I choose to exercise the authority of freedom and true spirituality.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Is Evolution Consistent with God's Love? (Part Two)

In my first post, I stated that I do not see a contradiction between the stories of creation in Genesis and evolution. However, I also said that the question of whether Christianity and evolution are compatible hinges on the question of love: if it is the Christian god which made the world through evolution, is that a loving god? Is a belief that the Christian god created the world through evolution compatible with the idea of God's love?

The world is fallen. I have been informed of this state of affairs often, especially while attending church the first 18 years of my life, and I have heard this claim repeated many times in the sermons I have read and heard since that time. It's perhaps one of the three central claims of Christianity, besides God's creation and the resurrection of Jesus - one of a holy trinity of selling points for the faith.

It's also true. Earth is a mess. People are selfish, and take little care of anyone other than themselves. In fact, people are even catastrophically bad at protecting their own interests, over the long-term. Humans beings are usually short-sighted and indifferent to others at best, and cruel and vindictive to others at worst.

I do believe that Earth is fallen, that there is rampant evil in the world, and that the Genesis narratives are fully compatible with God creating us through evolution. So why am I not a Christian?

The biggest reason I can't accept both Christianity and evolution is that I don't agree that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in a world created through evolution. In a world of chaos and evil, the idea of a loving God as a redeeming and uplifting force in human life has great appeal. However, I find that this message of redemption in Christianity is often undercut by other parts of Christian belief. By itself, it is hard to resist the allure of redemption - but paradoxically, what seems to be an excessive focus on human brokenness ruins the message of redemption for me.

I can't believe that a loving god created people broken, and then would blame people for their own brokenness, when their mistakes are many times the result of an evolutionary process which people claim God started. A God who created humanity through evolution created broken people. Perhaps the Garden of Eden story is an allegory, even more so than most orthodox Christians are willing to admit. Perhaps all the story is saying is that when humans rely on their own knowledge, they are broken, and need another force - like God - to redeem them. I find it hard to disagree with this message. It's simple, and true, and profound.

On the other hand, a lot of Christians go a long way to tell me that every "sinful" act of humanity is a choice, a direct choice to rebel against God. It's not just that humans cannot rely on themselves and need another force for redemption, but that humans have actively chosen to betray God, who created them perfectly, and is perfect himself. This, I cannot believe. I believe that humanity is broken at some fundamental level, and that there is a need for redemption. I cannot go the extra step and believe that human brokenness is directly the fault of humanity - if there is also a God which created people through evolution, a process which in its indifference leads to errors and a steep learning curve.

If the Christian god created humanity through evolution, then humans have been created in a way that would make "mistakes" - how could our brokenness be a choice? If evolution and Christianity are both true, then it feels like God chose for us to be broken, and then judges us for our brokenness. What kind of redemption is that?

Evolution is generally an indifferent process, with no goal of design. People forget the brutality of natural selection, and the seemingly arbitrary ways the human body (as well as all other living things) have been arranged. Evolution is not a perfect process, so how could I expect humans to be perfect? Could a god who created humans through an imperfect process expect humans to be perfect?

Do people choose to be selfish, and choose to do evil? Yes, and it is hard for me to disagree that people could be judged for those choices. But a loving god should redeem humanity because we are lost - and god helped us lose our way. If there is a God, this God must have a higher purpose for creating humans through evolution. Perhaps this process of errors and mistakes serves a divine purpose. Perhaps God wants us to experience what it's like to be wrong, what it's like to learn and grow. Learning requires mistakes. Maybe God didn't want us to be perfect. Of course, that explanation also rejects most of orthodox Christianity, but I'm not sure how else to reconcile a god who judges human for their actions - actions which happened to be set in motion by evolution, a process people claim was authored by God.

I cannot settle for the standard Christian explanation of God's judgment, God's love, and accept evolution, too. Although I am not a Christian for other additional reasons, if I am going to accept Christianity and evolution as compatible, I must accept a different view of God's intentions. If God intentionally used a process to create humanity that would leave people vulnerable to their worst impulses, then the traditional idea of a perfect God creating perfect humans who actively rebel against God to create sin makes no sense.

If God used evolution, as imperfect as it is, and the Christian god exists, then God must have a higher purpose for our mistakes, rather than simply judging us as if we were supposed to have the right answers all along. Since I am not a Christian, I may not be the best person to discern what that higher purpose may be. However, I have a guess. Perhaps there is a God, who wants us to learn from our mistakes and develop a morality which comes from an awareness of our dependence on others. If humanity had to learn about morality through a broken process, perhaps God is letting us experience this brokenness for a reason. I'm still not convinced that both evolution and Christianity are true, but it's far more plausible to me than the explanations I'm used to hearing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Not About You, Until It Is

Once again, David Brooks has written a column which has provoked me. In a way, David Brooks is an ideal antagonist for me, because he is the prophet of the conventional wisdom: he sums up popular opinion so well that I cannot resist challenging him, even though I disagree, and I give him credit for writing about topics that are challenging and difficult issues.

This week, Brooks writes about the troubles of recent college graduates. Since I am currently in college, this is a subject that, if it is not near and dear to me, is still at least terrifyingly relevant.

Examining the poor employment prospects for recent college graduates, Brooks laments that today's graduates have been "ill served by their elders". He also notes that the lives of these graduates have until now been "perversely structured", because these young people are part of "the most supervised generation" in history, yet they "will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured".

I find it handy to understand that Brooks is writing about two major problems in this column. The first problem is that college graduates have been sent into a more open and less structured world with little preparation to handle such an environment.

Brooks's second major complaint is that college graduates are terribly mislead by the claims of "baby-boomer theology", which encourage graduates to "chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself". There is too much focus on the individual, Brooks declares: being an adult means making commitments and tying yourself down, not focusing on limitless possibilities.

Brooks states that while society "preaches the self as the center of a life", it is instead true that tasks are at the center of life, and that people are fulfilled by engaging tasks. He finally asserts that the purpose of life is not to find yourself, but to lose yourself.

I disagree with David Brooks not because I think he's necessarily wrong, but because I think his view is short-sighted and limited. I have two major objections.

First, I noted earlier that Brooks raises two major points in his column. Are they contradictory? Brooks said that the world is more open and unstructured than ever before. Does he support this trend? He doesn't say in this essay, but I have read enough David Brooks columns to assume that he does. Brooks is one of those conservatives who loves to talk about how innovation and free trade work together to create a better world. Somehow, Brooks scorns the idea of individuals focusing on new possibilities - when these individual choices are the engines which drive innovation in a free society.

In a world which depends on new ideas, in a world which depends on competition, isn't it a good idea to focus on limitless possibilities created through individual potential? When people pursue their own aims, isn't that what leads to discovery and growth? You can't have effective capitalism without people who follow their own course, at times. When everyone in a society accepts their role without question, that's a feudal hierarchy or an oligarchy or a dictatorship. That's not democracy, and it isn't a free market. A strong economy and a strong democracy both require some degree of individualism.

Second, does Brooks understand why baby boomers might spend so much time talking about individuality instead of just the passive acceptance of authority? Does he remember the struggles for civil rights? It is not a coincidence that the baby boomers who grew up during the 1960's and 1970's would promote greater individualism, after experiencing a period where society has suppressed the rights of minorities. How can a generation learn to blindly accept authority when that authority is oppressive? How can you teach a generation to simply lose your self when an overly restrictive society has already too often disregarded the selves of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the poor?

There is a balance in life between the order of authority and the freedom of the people, and there is a balance between what is good for an individual and what is good for a community. The "baby boomer theology" may be a reaction to a distortion of that balance. Now, perhaps, the balance is distorted again - but let's understand why it is that way before we judge too harshly. Living in a society where everyone is told to "lose yourself" is just as bad as living in a society where everyone is told to "find yourself". If everyone surrenders to authority, there will be tyranny. If no one surrenders to authority, there will be anarchy. The most effective and enduring society will choose a middle ground.