Saturday, December 11, 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Tonight on Wednesday, November 17, 2010, from 7:00-8:30 p.m., I attended the "Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?" debate at Grand Canyon University at 33rd Avenue and Camelback in Phoenix, Arizona. Grand Canyon University is a Christian institution. The debaters where Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian and influential political conservative who grew up in India, and Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.
In this essay, I will summarize what I found to be the most significant points made by both presenters; afterwards, I will present a few personal reactions.
D'Souza presented first. Although he intended to defend religion generally, he intentionally focused primarily on Christianity. He stated that the secular values that we take for granted in the modern world actually have their foundation in Christianity; in particular, the notion that compassion should be central to our dealings in the world is deeply connected to Christianity. He noted that Aristotle does not emphasize compassion in his list of virtues, and even treats pity with some ambivalence. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most secular of our founders, still appealed to "our Creator" as the source and foundation of our rights. The anti-slavery movement was critically linked to Christianity. He also emphasized the countless millions of people killed by explicitly atheist regimes in the twentieth century as evidence for the idea that, without some kind of religious check, atheism itself can be a dangerous thing if it becomes too widespread and influential.
For D'Souza, atheists tend to argue from the dysfunctions within Islam to the dysfunctions of religion in general, which D'Souza does not think is helpful or fair.
He wrapped up his case by pointing to the general benefits to humans of being religious. He spells out these benefits in more detail in his closing statement, which I will summarize below.
Shermer made his presentation next. He pointed out that he was once an evangelical Christian who became an evangelical atheist who then generally mellowed out. He argued that the Bible endorses slavery, and emphasized verses in Leviticus that we would find repugnant in today's world, including death for adultery and for being a disobedient child. He stated that he can't understand why God would be concerned about our private sex acts. He stated that Islam will need an Enlightenment of its own, without which Enlightenment both Judaism and Christianity would be in much worse shape, and which Enlightenment was the product of secular influences rather than religious ones.
He emphasized the progress on slavery, among other moral issues, was a function of oppressed people being fed up with their conditions rather than with any religious motivations on anyone's part.
He wrapped up by advising the audience members to wear an "atheist cap" for just one full day and to notice how nothing bad will happen and how their moral behavior will not deteriorate.
D'Souza responded by arguing that progress on slavery and other moral issues always required more than merely that the oppressed people stood up against their oppressors--the progress required the assistance of religiously motivated people to assist the oppressed. Christianity, in particular, played a decisive role in many of these cases.
He claimed that Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, which makes sense of why Christians are under no obligation to follow the literal words of the Old Testament verses that Shermer highlighted.
D'Souza argued that the way we judge religions and the documents they use is, only in part but in fact in part, a function of what the followers of those religions and texts actually do.
He further claimed that the atheist cap, if worn long enough that it "soaks through" will be very destructive to societies in general.
Shermer responded by asking whether people in the audience would begin behaving differently if they found out that there is no God. If the answer is yes, then their character would be shallow. Religions fail to stop war, and Shermer pointed out many examples to illustrate this including Ireland, Israel, Iran, and Iraq. He also pointed out that studies show that non-religious doctors help disadvantaged people more than religious doctors do.
Questions from the audience followed, which lasted for about a half hour. A few highlights:
Shermer believes that ethics are founded in evolutionary history, and defends "evolutionary ethics." Personal note: Shermer's use of words like "freeloaders" is evidence to me that the theory of ethics he prefers is probably Social Contract Theory, which uses such words as technical terms.
D'Souza said that the Ten Commandments is a codification of the knowledge we glean from the "impartial spectator" who operates within us as a kind of conscience. For him, ethics is all about preventing much behavior that evolutionary competition influences us to perform and, as a result, ethics cannot be explained solely in terms of evolution insofar as it often serves to work against Darwinian purposes. Conscience does not compel our behavior--it is, in fact, the voice of God within us and its purpose is to influence rather than to compel.
D'Souza said in this period that the hypothesis of theism is the best explanation for there being a universe at all and for there being a universe with the characteristics that it has. He conceded to Shermer that there is no full-on proof for God's existence, but that their are serious considerations in theism's favor.
Later D'Souza and Shermer argued about Marxism, with D'Souza maintaining that it is not, in fact, a religion and with Shermer claiming that it is. Shermer claimed this to make the case the mass murder of communist regimes was actually religiously motivated and not the result of atheism itself.
Shermer gave a final statement and emphasized that religion is not necessary for a moral life, nor is it necessary for moral progress. He concluded by saying that we should treat each other as we would wish to be treated.
D'Souza summarized four benefits of religion generally. They were: First, religion gives us a sense of meaning and purpose to life, and atheism leaves us in despair in a cold and uncaring universe. Second, religion serves the invaluable function of transmitting morality to future generations, which is something that no other institution can do nearly so well. Third, religion helps us to experience a sense of the sublime in daily life. Although such experiences can be had in other ways, religion gives us the ability to experience the sublime regularly and systematically. Fourth, religion gives us consolation and peace in the face of our inevitable death.
Generally, I have a profound and deep respect for both of these speakers, and I believe that both of them made a number of great points, and that both of them made some errors here and there.
I now briefly lay out what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of each speaker.
First comes D'Souza. For me, D'Souza's historical case is speculative and contentious. I tend to have a higher opinion of pre-Christian pagan and heathen ethics than D'Souza does, and I think that those ethical systems have the tools to justify an anti-slavery movement, even if the people were not fully aware of the application of those principles to that purpose at that time. In the same way that Christians took time to apply Christian principles to fight slavery, so the case may have been similar in the case of pagan ethics. In other words, had the heathen faith of Europeans survived the encounter with Christianity in any way similar to the way in which Hinduism survived its encounter with Islam, heathen Europeans may well have developed an anti-slavery movement from their own resources. So was Christianity essential to such developments? I would say that the answer is at least not an obvious "yes."
D'Souza's strength, for me, was definitely his closing statement in which he laid out the benefits of religion in general. I would have to say that I fully agree with every one of the benefits he stated. When I was a hardcore atheist, I would not have agreed, but I have reacted to these considerations over the years and they have had a major effect on me and have essentially changed my thinking about religion.
Shermer's major weakness for me was that he was not able to show how objective moral codes can find a basis in mere evolution. Pointing out that non-religious people are more moral, even if true, is irrelevant to the question of the basis of ethical obligations. He mentioned evolutionary ethics, but he didn't have time to develop it very much, in all fairness to him. Just mark me down as someone who cannot, for the life of him, understand how absolute moral obligations can be grounded in matter and energy.
Shermer's strength was to point out that, yes, in fact, even the Bible has some nasty stuff in it. I'm very happy that Christians and Jews no longer take much of Leviticus seriously, but if God really revealed some of those laws to us, then we've got a problem. I don't want to be mean to anybody, but there is some messed up stuff in parts of the Bible and we just have to make our peace with the fact.
I hope you enjoyed my summary of the debate. I tried to be as fair as possible. Maybe I'll see you at the next one!
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Over the years I have seen trends come and go in higher education. I was inspired to muse on this after reading this.
As an undergraduate in the early nineties, "feminism" was all the rage. Playboy came onto campus at the U of MN and the University Young Women (UYW) went nuts. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin had just left our campus after having taught their students to be feminist activists, protesting outside of pornography shops in Minneapolis.
Now, feminism has little influence (except for the Larry Summers debacle.)
Feminism lost its credibility because it became bitter, humorless, dogmatic, intolerant, and boring. Female students nowadays are far more likely to distance themselves from what feminism has become than to identify with it. Based on what I saw twenty years ago, I can only see this as a positive development.
While in graduate school in the mid-nineties at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I noticed the currency of the idea that minorities could not be racist, since they are not in control of the mechanisms of power. This idiosyncratic understanding of racism didn't impress me whatsoever, however, because I had seen vicious racism by blacks against Asians when I was a bus driver in the Twin Cities some years before. If that didn't qualify as racism, then we should strike the word from the dictionary.
This idea had a lot of currency on campuses for a while, but it lacks credibility even among most academics these days--and that's saying a lot.
The early 2000's brought us an obsession with "diversity", by which is meant diversity of skin colors, religions, and sexual orientations, but by no means is meant diversity of political views. Hostility toward conservative and libertarian ideas in colleges and universities is often palpable in spite of any commitment to "diversity". I'm not saying that there is always such hostility, but I noticed it even when I was solidly on the left.
Diversity is losing its influence these days, I think primarily because of the above reason, but also because it is becoming boring. So many college courses--especially in the liberal arts, of course--are often little more than predictable variations on a theme.
The new kid on the block is "sustainability", which currently has tremendous momentum. "Sustainability" sounds awesome, of course, but I can't help but wonder what is really going on here. I like sustaining all kinds of things, but I can sense strong political agendas lurking below the surface. I predict with confidence that sustainability will be replaced by something else in a few years after it becomes predictable and boring, as most politically motivated innovations on campus eventually do.
And so it goes. Academics love to think that they will save the world through their intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom. They love to train their students out of the views that they received from their reactionary parents.
Personally, I have no faith in academics to save the world (what would such a thing mean?). They are hopelessly human, yet loathe to admit it. Everyday working people quite often show greater wisdom than the greatest professors. Sometimes I hear things that are so patently insane that I think that only someone who has gone to graduate school could ever believe them.
And so I say something here that a professor should never, ever say: I don't want to save the world! I wish only to strive to maintain the semblance of order that the world constantly threatens. What we have is fragile. Attempts to erect Utopia are doomed to fail. The world mocks every attempt at Utopia and punishes us severely for our naiveté.
The world is singularly unimpressed by our intentions. Results are what matter, and the world is stingy.
After sustainability, what will be the next trend among academics? I don't know, but I do know that it will carry the hallmarks of those that came before-- it will become predictable, dogmatic, quixotic, intolerant, humorless, and boring.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
I went to Las Vegas this week and was amazed and dazzled by the incredible creativity and talent that has gone into creating it. It is a brilliant and fascinating place.
I'm sure that many people get a deep sense of the vanity of things while they are there. Ubiquitous offers for lifeless female affection litter the sidewalks. The promise of easy money leads to empty wallets and empty souls.
I spent time in the Titanic exhibit in the Luxor and marinated in the finality of it all. Every survivor of that disaster has now met his inevitable death.
I love Las Vegas for its genius. There is nothing uniquely vain about it. It is simply a window into the hollowness of things in general. The world has its beauty, but it cannot satisfy our needs. We need something further.
Las Vegas was wonderfully apolitical in the sense that people are there to get away from political issues. I saw no politically-charged "cause" shirts while there. Thank goodness. I weary of it.
Coming home after avoiding the news quickly brought all of the negativity of our ephemeral and hostile world back into my consciousness. Politics in our country and in the world is becoming increasingly unpleasant. But politics has always been unpleasant. Indeed, I am an unexceptional part of this process. Am I all those evil things that conservatives are constantly accused of being? I used to get angry about these accusations. I have heard them so often that now I grow bored of them. Am I racist? Anti-science? Bigoted? I need a vacation. Oh, crap. I just finished it.
Would that we could know what all of this is supposed to mean. So many think they are so sure. I totally understand the motivation for that.
Those without this certainty say that it's the journey, not the destination. That's adorable. But what does one do when he despairs of finding the destination? I suppose one ought to gather his reserves and continue to plow on in the hope that even the mere outlines of a destination will feed his soul, if he can just glimpse them.
And so I look forward to returning to Las Vegas and spending time in the Titanic once again. Perhaps God can be found in there, suffering with us, calling to us in the empty hollow with the hope of a beautiful unknown something toward which we constantly strive.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
"Can water quaff itself?
Can trees taste of the fruit they bear?
He who worships God must stand distinct from Him,
So only shall he know the joyful love of God;
For if he say that God and he are one,
That joy, that love, shall vanish instantly away.
Pray no more for utter oneness with God:
Where were the beauty if jewel and setting were one?
The heat and the shade are two,
If not, where were the comfort of shade?
Mother and child are two,
If not, where were the love?
When after being sundered, they meet,
What joy do they feel, the mother and child!
Where were joy, if the two were one?
Pray, then, no more for utter oneness with God." —Tukaram
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Last week I spent a week in the jungles of Puna, Hawaii, with my friends Steve and Jahnava Bohlert. Puna is on the southeast corner of the Big Island, and is subject to almost daily rainfall.
What made the trip notable for me was that I was separated from most of the modern technology that unceasingly buzzes in our brains. My cell phone worked only in town. I didn’t bring a computer. My hosts had a television, but used it only to watch movies.
This gave me the rare and treasured opportunity to permit my mind to return to a more natural state and rhythm. I went to bed when the sun went down and I woke up when the sun came up. I paid no attention whatever to the news of the day. I discovered to my delight that the world continues perfectly well without my being plugged into it at all times.
The island feels like a living beast, and it is no wonder that worship of the Goddess Pele continues to this day. The island breathes and grumbles. The Mother’s lava creates while it catastrophically destroys. The island is a Goddess.
The stars in Hawaii are brighter even than in Phoenix. The mind returns to its origins and celebrates the raw product of an inscrutable, dangerous, beautiful, awe-inspiring Creator.
In Hawaii I imagined the Divine in a feminine guise, much as the beautiful Pele emerges from the mouth of a volcano. Creation reminds me of the womb, and Hawaii brings us to the womb of creation itself.
But this Mother of Hawaii can be cruel, too. The creation is slow and runs on its own time, but its destruction is as complete as anything I have ever seen.
The world is complex and confusing. In Hawaii, with my good friends Steve and Jahnava, I got to experience the divine complexity at a deep and enriching level. The Divine Play is like a love affair in a paradisiacal jungle. Danger lurks around every corner, and fantastic risks are taken for the sake of the embrace of the Lover. The risk results in the greatest of rewards--the union of active and passive that creates universes.
I humble myself before the generative force of the volcano, of She Who Captures God‘s Heart. May You fill the emptiness with Life.
Islam is emerging as perhaps the most important social and intellectual (certainly religious) issue for the world. Many people find discussion of this topic frustrating. This frustration is a significant, modern-day phenomenon that I believe deserves a name. I will here call it "Islam Fatigue" (IF).
In my treatment of IF I do not, by any means, necessarily endorse all of its sentiments, but I believe that I have identified something which, if properly understood, is an important factor in countless discussions about Islam for a great many people.
IF is a complex, ever-growing phenomenon that seems to encompass a number of sentiments. Included in IF are the following factors that I perceive to be operating in the minds of those who suffer from IF:
(a) "The Surfeit": The sense that Islam and related subjects are demanding too much of our attention right now and are dominating too much discourse, and that this state of affairs promises only to become much worse before it gets better. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be indifferent to and to ignore Islam in an ever increasing number of areas including physical space, intellectual space, moral space, political space, and religious space. Many people are simply becoming "tired of" Islam and wish to focus on other things.
(b) "Death by a Thousand Qualifications": The sense that any discussion about Islam and related subjects demands an endless series of tedious, mandatory qualifiers every time they are discussed and that if the qualifiers are not used, one will generally not be given the benefit of the doubt in their absence. Additionally, there is the sense that in the presence of all of the necessary qualifiers, Islam becomes impossible to define and therefore impossible to discuss.
(c) "The Bigot": The sense that, by criticizing Islam, the Quran, Muhammad, or Islamic behavior through history, one will be seen by a significant amount of people thereby as a religious bigot.
(d) "The Transformation": The sense that Islam, on the basis of its growth and increasing influence, will cause a fundamental change in the way the world works in the future. There is some unease among non-Muslims about this possibility; indeed, there is unease among some Muslims, as well.
(e) "Jurisprudence": The worry that Shariah may be essential, or at least extremely important, to Islam in general, with the corresponding worry that a widespread separation of mosque and state may be awesomely difficult or even impossible to achieve in Islam.
(f) "The Double Standard": The sense that, especially in contrast with Christianity, Islam benefits from a large number of double standards that make reasoned and profitable discussion frustratingly difficult.
(g) "Knowledge is Acceptance": The sense that there is a ubiquitous, unquestioned assumption that learning more about Islam is a guarantee that one will cease finding it problematic. This assumption leads to the reflexive response to criticism of Islam that the critic, by virtue of his critical attitude, is deficient in knowledge; however, the general principle that negative attitudes toward religions and ideologies is necessarily the product of ignorance is a principle that is false since counterexamples are readily available.
I think that some combination of these factors goes some way to explaining the frustration that many people often express when discussing Islam and related subjects. They are so powerful, in fact, that they lead people to make the conscious decision not to discuss these topics at all for fear of some kind of negative repercussions.
I hope that the twenty-first century will turn out to be a great century for the development of Islam into new and modern forms. Energetic and vibrant discussion and debate should contribute to meaningful and beneficial developments in the religion.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
In this essay, I will briefly summarize the general contents of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2007 book Infidel and then offer some of my reactions to the book.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part, “My Childhood”, describes Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life in a variety of countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia. She talks about her frequently absent yet loving father, her embittered but protective mother, her often annoying brother, and her free-spirited yet troubled sister. She describes the clan system of Somalia in great detail, and the cultural mores and expectations of Muslims generally and Somalians particularly.
She goes on to describe her life of constant moving and varied cultural environments. Through these many moves she picked up a variety of languages. She describes the horrifying details of the circumcision of all of the children at a very young age. A man cut off her and her sister’s clitori with a scissors when they were five and four years old. Ayaan’s recovery was agonizing, and her sister’s recovery was unspeakably painful. Ayaan believes that the experience did permanent damage to her sister’s view of the world. Her sister, Haweya, will die after a miscarriage many years later after having gone insane.
The second part is called “My Freedom.” Ayaan escaped an arranged marriage by going to Holland and applying for refugee status. As she studied Enlightenment and Western philosophy and political thought, her mind moved ever further away from Islamic teachings about God, our relationship to God, and the relationship between mosque and state. She eventually became an atheist. She later became a prominent politician in Holland after having earned a degree in political science.
In 2004, she wrote the script for a controversial short movie called “Submission.” The famous Dutch provocateur Theo van Gogh directed the film. Ayaan warned him that such a critical statement of Islam would lead to murder attempts. Van Gogh refused any protection and was murdered in broad daylight by Mohammed Bouyeri in November of 2004. Ayaan went into deep hiding and eventually moved to the United States, where she works for the American Enterprise Institute. She still lives under armed protection to this day.
This book was very long and incredibly deep, so I will here mention just a few of my reactions to this book.
The book gives the reader a deep sense of Somalian culture and its clan-based social system. Ali contrasts the Islam of Somalia with the Islam of Saudi Arabia in helpful and informative ways. She gives the reader an amazing insight into the categories through which these cultures perceive the world. With half her life firmly rooted in Islamic Africa, and the other half firmly rooted in the post-Enlightenment West, Ali is in a unique and powerful position to offer this information in a way that the Westerner can understand.
I was moved to tears by the story of Ali’s sister, Haweya. The account of her circumcision and the tension she felt between her obligations as a Muslim woman and her all-too-human failings cannot fail to cripple any reader. Look into her eyes in the photo insert after you have read the book. You will be standing on the edge of eternity.
I see in this book the work of someone who may be remembered in history as the most influential and important feminist of the twenty-first century. Although some in the feminist movement have recognized Ali’s revolutionary power, too many Western feminists either ignore her or even cast aspersions upon her. Ali exposes the weaknesses of Western feminism, which has long ignored the plight and suffering of women in much of the Islamic world. If women in the Christian world—especially in the United States—had to endure what the women Ali describes have to endure, the feminist establishment would be filled with the kind of righteous energy that once drew enlightened souls to its causes. Western feminism lost that energy long ago. Ali now carries that energy into the new century.
Even those who may disagree with some of her views can never question her integrity, sincerity, and importance. She is a woman who rose from the most modest of upbringings to become a woman who is willing to risk her life (she will never be able to live without protection) for the sake of the emancipation of women and men from dangerous and outdated ideas about sex, about women, about homosexuals, and about unbelievers. I believe that there is a real possibility that she may help to start a kind of Reformation in the Islamic world, which would ultimately benefit all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
The book is rather long and took me a while to finish. Perhaps there were too many details in there for many; I, however, was so invested in every detail that the length wasn’t a problem. I advise you to spend some time with this woman. Her knowledge is broad and her wisdom is deep. She is a jewel from Somalia for all of us.
And I pray that Haweya has found her peace. The world failed this precious woman.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
I remember being in college when Andres Serrano, with partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, created "Piss Christ", which was a picture of Jesus soaking in Serrano's own urine. I remember so many people defending Serrano against the uptight Christians. I even remember them defending the NEA for the partial funding.
More recently, Marilyn Manson burns Bibles on stage during live performances. Oh, that brave Mr. Manson. Burning a Bible. How edgy. How boring.
There was some controversy when Alexis Marquette posed as a gay Krishna on the cover of Genre Magazine back in 2000. I doubt, however, that Arquette concerns himself very frequently with the possibility of being killed by a Hindu.
The television comedy South Park has, as is well known, ridicules a wide variety of religions, including Scientology and Mormonism. They have shown Jesus defecating on an American flag, and have also shown Buddha sniffing a line of cocaine.
I support the absolute right of all of these people to ridicule religion all that they want. I don't think the government should fund any of it, but I do believe in this fundamental principle: The right to ridicule religious beliefs absolutely trumps the so-called "right" not to have one's religious beliefs ridiculed.
"But it's wrong to mock deeply held religious beliefs!"
First, even if one assumed it were wrong, that would not be a sufficient reason for not having a right to do it.
Second, sometimes certain points can only be made through ridicule. Ridicule serves an important function in the free marketplace of ideas. This makes it not only not wrong to mock religious beliefs--it suggests that mocking religious beliefs plays an important role in the human quest for knowledge and may therefore be seen even as morally obligatory in many cases.
Third, that a belief is "deeply held" has no bearing on its worth. I have many deeply held beliefs. Many of them are stupid. Welcome to my world. Welcome to the world of liberty and freedom.
And so now we have the vision of a hunted man who drew an offensive picture of Muhammad.
What he drew is offensive to many. Ok. I am offended every day by something or other. I am infuriated by disrespect of the American flag, for instance. I do not kill those who do it. I do not threaten those who do it. I do not attack those who do it. I criticize them. I dispute with them. I tell them that what they do is wrong. I believe they have a right to do it.
Back to blasphemy:
Someone tried to kill a fellow cartoonist of Lars Vilks, Kurt Westergaard, with an axe.
A cell containing the American Jihad Jane plotted to assassinate Westergaard.
And now Vilks himself has just been physically attacked at a speech he was giving for freedom of speech.
The year is 2010. The place is the West. You may be offended by the delicious liberty that we all enjoy here together, yet the right to ridicule religious beliefs absolutely trumps the so-called "right" not to have one's religious beliefs ridiculed.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Earth, your indifference is staggering, and also humbling. Were we to live in outside in the desert just to be nearer to you, you would send a swarm of pests to consume us. Indeed, our bodies fight off your attacks at every moment and one day must finally succumb. Were we to recycle every item we ever used, you would neither notice nor care. Yet we love to think you care, and that you approve of us.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
Today, Thursday, April 15, 2010, I attended the Tea Party Rally at Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The event started at 6 p.m., but I left early to beat the crowds. I saw enough there to get some impressions.
There were, of course, a number of speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds, including a talk-show host, politicians, and local organizers. Here is the list of speakers.
I will organize this brief essay by first referencing those things about which I felt positive, and then those things about which I felt negative.
First I would like to point out those things that I liked. First, I noticed a number of bikers, which I always enjoy. Second, there was a strong emphasis on low taxation and limited government, which is always a winner. Third, the emcee, an "African-American" or, as he put it, an "American with African heritage", James T. Harris, was funny, clever, entertaining, and inspiring. Fourth, I got to meet a couple of politicians, including J. D. Hayworth himself, whose physically monstrous size surprised me. Fifth, and finally, I enjoyed the amazing and fascinating diversity (age and race) of people, which is something I have consistently seen at similar rallies in spite of so many reports to the contrary. Permit me to be a little salty and say that, based on my not insignificant experience, the claim that the Tea Party phenomenon is driven by racism is, at best, a clearly ideologically-driven exaggeration based on the most fringe elements. It is simply not true. I offer myself to the universe for judgment.
I was disappointed in a number of things, however. First, I was approached by a patriotic riders group, which is good as far as it goes, and bikers have a strong tendency to be conservative in any case; however, this group was too far right for me. Specifically, they expressed great disappointment in Sarah Palin for endorsing John McCain instead of J. D. Hayworth. They said that she had abandoned her principles. I, in contrast with that, think highly of Palin for her endorsement of McCain, because I think it shows character and loyalty on her part. Although I disagree with McCain on some things, I think that a great variety of things matter in politics. This gave me the sense that they were too ideologically driven for me. Frankly, I'm glad that Palin pissed them off. Good for you, Sarah! Fists in the Wind, Sister! One of their members even suggested to me that she liked McCain only a little better than Jane Fonda! "Good Lord", I thought. It was time to move on.
The second thing that disappointed me was that the speakers, including the excellent Mr. Harris, emphasized religion--specifically Christianity--far too much. I am fond of Christianity, and I respect its contribution to the United States, but I am not a Christian. At least four of the speakers I saw referenced Christianity in a way that struck me as too exclusive. Additionally, many people associated with the Tea Party movement are totally secular, such as the libertarians and objectivists. Tonight's speakers emphasized Christianity to such an extent that it came off borderline aggressive to me. This is unacceptable. This movement should be inclusive enough to make clear that anyone from any religious background is welcome.
Third, the John Birch Society had a table set up. I never saw anyone milling around it, but they were there. Enough said.
Fourth, one of the speakers, who represented KFYI radio, made a joke about Obama's birth certificate. I have no patience for this stuff. It is poison. I think the audience reaction was mixed about this. Ideological purity is leading some people to get carried away.
I have been to a number of similar rallies, and this one had more of an edge than the others. Since it was out of the norm, I will keep an eye on how things develop.
So yes, I am conservative and feel generally comfortable at such rallies, but yes, I am angry about edged humor, ideological purity, and lack of focus.
I have many friends who are liberal and progressive politically, and I love them with all of my heart. I never forget that even at a rally. The other people there shouldn't forget that, either! That, of course, goes for progressive rallies, as well. Hopelessly human, we are all.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Sages have said that the world in which we now live cannot fully satisfy the longing of the human heart. If there is a God (or at least a beneficent Supreme), then perhaps we are supposed to learn this over time in order that we seek the Source of our Being. If there is no beneficent Supreme, then it is a distressing thing to learn. Yet the world is under no obligation to satisfy our desires, and so we wonder.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Today, March 27, 2010, I attended the McCain for Senate Rally at Dobson High School in Mesa. What follows is a brief description of the event followed by my own impressions.
The event was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. I arrived at about 8 a.m. and discovered that I was much too late to get a seat. It was standing room only, but so it goes.
Starting at about 8:20 a.m., a variety of local politicians spoke to the crowd. These included the Mayor of Mesa Scott Smith, Congressmen John Shadegg and Jeff Flake, and the Principal of Dobson Senior High Matthew Gehrman, himself a graduate of the school.
Their talk ended at 8:55, and then Cindy McCain spoke to a very enthusiastic crowd. She introduced Sarah Palin, who spoke to an electrified crowd for about twenty minutes. Two men in the crowd interrupted her, and she dealt with them ably, giving the distinct impression that she is accustomed to and prepared for such interruptions. Then John McCain spoke for about twenty minutes, with the event ending at about 10:10 a.m.
Palin' and McCain's themes centered primarily on the importance of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with an alternative plan that would emphasize tort reform. They also emphasized McCain's opposition to earmarks and pork barrel spending.
I could tell that there were a few conservatives there who were still undecided between McCain and J. D. Hayworth, but McCain's military service carried tremendous weight with conservatives generally. I would estimate that a full third (or even more) of the men present were current or former military. There was a huge contingent of men displaying all of their military badges and honors.
The other factor that carried much weight with conservatives was Sarah Palin's endorsement.
Now some impressions. First, I was struck by the racial diversity. I keep hearing about all of these racists that are supposed to be gravitating to Palin and the Obama opposition, and while I am sure there are racists around, I must stress that this "vibe" was not at all present. There were many Hispanics, some African-Americans, and some American Indians there. I was standing next to a man of Japanese descent. Having been to the tax protest on April 15th, 2009, and having been at the Palin rally today, I must conclude that the meme about racism contains some amount of exaggeration and spin.
Second, I was struck by the age of the people. While there were many young and middle-aged people, there was a very large contingent of older people. I enjoyed this. It had the feel of one generation offering something to the next. The proud patriotism of the older generation filled me with great joy and a sense of nostalgia. John McCain is flesh-and-blood patriotism, and the sacrifices he made for us move me to the core.
Third, I must emphasize the power of Sarah Palin's presence. This woman has the X factor and she has it in the marrow of her bones. She comes to the podium with an electricity and magnetism that cannot fail to move her audience. When I consider the obvious fact that most everyone there was already an admirer of her, I believe that an honest observer cannot deny that her appeal is like a force of nature. She is an amazing public speaker. She dealt with the disruptions professionally and deftly. Sarah Palin has earned and deserves her place in conservatism. I am sorry if that offends anybody, but it is an objective fact. I have seen it with my eyes. John McCain benefits tremendously from her endorsement.
In conclusion, I am delighted to have attended McCain's rally. I have never been involved in politics in an active way in the past, and it is really fun to be a part of the process. It is fun to meet new and interesting people who want to be involved in the future of the country. There is an energy there that infuses one's spirit with new enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. This general principle applies regardless of one's political orientation, so I encourage you to get out there and meet new people and explore the political space of this, the great United States of America.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
I believe that there are noble and critically important ideas within the Tea Party Movement (TPM), but that they are mixed in with a lot of dangerous and destructive ideas. This is not unique to the TPM, since this phenomenon always occurs with populist movements.
What I take to be the essential and important ideas are as follows:
First: The Big Picture--The State, in general, should be minimal in size and serve a minimum of functions, the most important of which are law enforcement, national defense, and enforcement of contracts. There should be a strong sense of independence and diversity within the confines of the larger government in the form of the independence of individual states within the State.
Second: Specific Critique--The U.S. government is already far too large and needs to be reduced in size. It is already taxing us far too much and is spending obscene amounts of money. The federal government has too much authority over the operation of the states.
Third: Attitudinal Orientation--There is a deep mistrust of the State in general. There is a strong preference for local solutions insofar as corruption becomes ever more likely the higher one climbs the governmental ladder. More trust is placed in the results of the decisions of millions of everyday people than in the results of the decisions of a few elite experts.
What I take to be cluttering the message and potentially destructive are as follows:
First: Anti-Immigration Tendencies--Too many TPM activists want to close off immigration too severely. Although illegal immigration can be socially chaotic and costly, legal immigration is vital to any healthy society. I emphasize the importance of orderly and rational legal immigration. Although many TPM activists would agree with me, their voices need thoroughly to defeat general anti-immigration sentiments.
Second: Conspiracy Mongering--Although not, in the least, unique to the TPM, vulnerability to conspiracy theories hurts the credibility of the movement and its message. In particular, I am seeing far, far too much emphasis in the TPM about Obama's birth certificate. Additionally, the exaggerations surrounding the global warming panic of recent decades are not the result of conspiracies, as many TPM activists would argue, but rather of a whole host of reasons that need not have anything to do with conscious, deceptive motives.
Third: Hyper-Partisanship--We are experiencing an especially polarizing time in American politics. I understand that--I feel it, too. It is nevertheless critical to play fair, and to avoid language and actions that will be regretted by all thoughtful people in the future.
Then again, there is little here happening that is unique to us, now and in this place. Every generation in the past and in the future will go through these things, and countless insignificant turds will be writing similar blog posts about similar issues until the last red dwarf turns black.
Monday, January 25, 2010
The Harley Days events for 2010 and 2011 have been canceled by the Hamburg Senate in Germany. From the original article: "Ein Grund dafür soll sein, das Hamburg zur Umwelthauptstadt 2011 ernannt wurde, dann würde eine Veranstaltung wie die HH-Days nicht in das Gesamtbild passen."
Roughly translated, this says that a reason for this is that Hamburg was named a key environmentally-friendly city for 2011, so an event like Harley Days doesn't fit into that picture.
This event had been planned long in advance and countless hotel rooms were already booked.
This stuff is starting to leave the realm of annoying and into that of scary.
First and less important, this actually demonizes something (motorcycles) that we have been encouraged to see as environmentally friendly. Does Mother Earth cry if I go on a ride on my motorcycle solely for the sake of basking in Her beauty? If the ride has no other purpose than my personal pleasure? Am I making Her too warm?
My primary worry about this kind of event is that I see it as a trend, rather than as an isolated incident. Environmentalism long ago left the realm of commonsense measures to conserve and protect our natural surroundings and became an ersatz-religion. That's fine as far as it goes. There are all kinds of religious beliefs out there.
The problem here is that, like so many ideologies that we have seen, it presumes to be deny its religious origins and to base itself entirely on science. Then it was embraced by politicos as a vehicle to enact change on an immense scale using the power of the State in the form of governments and the United Nations.
Now environmentalism has become corrupted by political interests. Statists use it constantly as a pretext for controlling the behavior of normal citizens, who are forced to act in accordance with the corrupted idealism of the politicos.
So now we see this absolutely offensive and ridiculous ban on a Harley-Davidson rally in Hamburg under these green pretexts.
I love nature and I see God when I look into beautiful natural scenes, but this movement is running off of the rails. The global warming movement is nurturing the totalitarian temptation.
I recommend reading Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom to see clearly how well-meaning idealism can lead us to dark places.
I’m not saying that we are there, but I see this powerful urge to compel people to live in certain ways by fiat. It disturbs me profoundly, and I wish I didn’t see it. It would be easier. I love both nature and the environment, but I am tired of do-gooders who have taken it upon themselves to play Jesus in all his glory.
Thank God I live in Arizona, where I will always ride free with my fists in the wind. Liberty lives in the desert! Ride!
Saturday, January 23, 2010
I believe that the following is true in many contexts, but especially in the religious and the political: If you lose your sense of humor, you better get it back.
Consider religion. If you cannot withstand jokes and humor about your religious beliefs, then you are permitting religion's dark side to control you. If you respond to such humor in a violent way, then you are positively dangerous.
Jews have an amazing sense of humor about their religion. Not only do they tolerate jokes about it, but they make fun of it themselves all the time. In my experience, Mormons tend to do fairly well with humor directed at them, although this may be a function of the fact that they simply must do this, considering what a common target they tend to be. In this spirit, I can appreciate a good joke about my own spiritual meanderings in good humor. Once I can't, I'll know that I'm doing something very wrong.
Consider politics. I like to watch a variety of political shows. I was thinking about the best known of them. On the right, they are Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. On the left, they are Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olbermann.
Of these six, the one who always looks like he's smelling a fart is Keith Olbermann. This is why I cannot stand to watch him. He has no genuine sense of humor. What humor he has is bitter and angry.
Lest you suspect me of partisanship, let me point out how much I enjoy watching Rachel Maddow. Although I disagree with her about 96% of the time, I enjoy her immensely. She is funny, snarky, aware, alert, and thought provoking. Bravo to her.
Chris Matthews is not much for humor, but he does not come off as bitter and angry. I also enjoy watching him.
Of the conservatives, I enjoy O'Reilly the most. He has a genuine sense of humor and is not (in spite of what his critics say) overly partisan. Those who don't watch him regularly would be amazed about how often he breaks with the right-wing line. He tends to talk too much when he has guests, which can drive me nuts sometimes.
Then there is the infamous Glenn Beck. I apologize to his haters, but I often find the guy hilarious. His brain fires in such random ways that the spectacle can bust a gut. Everyone, even his supporters, knows that he can be a bit odd in the head, so I take him with a grain of salt.
Sean Hannity is my least favorite of these, and that's because I think that he doesn't have enough of a sense of humor. He smiles a lot and whatnot, but he is so unrelentingly partisan that he never surprises me. I like to be surprised every once in a while. His jokes almost always have a partisan edge--way too much "I told you so" kind of stuff. The strongest part of his show is the Great American Panel, which frequently contains interesting people from a variety of perspectives.
So laugh a little bit! Be willing to put up with a little ridicule of your beliefs every once in a while! It really is possible for people of radically different perspectives actually to like one another and to be good friends, but only if they both have a good sense of humor!
Friday, January 22, 2010
It had grown late around the fire and under the piercing stars. Then the Elder said, "We must ask the philosopher to leave us now, for I must now speak words that he would not allow." The philosopher understood and left without protest. He knew he would be asked to return soon enough, but he knew well what we had to do.
We were excited to hear what he intended to tell us, and what he told us electrified every part of our bodies.
"What I am to tell you is a myth--just a myth . . ." he said.
"Before everything came to be, there was the Absolute, and It reflected on Itself. 'I will to know. I will to love. I will to BE. I AM. I cannot fail to BE.'
"Then the Absolute did something that amazes the scholars even to this day. It became a pair--Man and Woman. When their eyes locked, they knew why they were and who they were. They were inconceivably and simultaneously one and different.
"Her gaze captured his transcendental form. He had strong arms, a broad chest, and ferocious eyes. He returned her gaze. Her eyes were flame. Her raiment gleamed of a thousand suns. She was smeared with fragrant oils.
"He said, 'I am He Who Attracts All. I am strong. I will protect you with these arms. I will never leave your side.'
"She said, 'I am She Who Capture's God's Heart. I am sweet. I will comfort you with these arms. My head will never leave your chest. Together we will shatter the nothingness with the fruit of our love.'
"He said, 'My arms are strong, but your sidelong glance is stronger.'
"And the nothingness trembled in fear and anticipation of the universes that they would create.
"They said, 'We will expand ourselves into Time and Place, in order that we may always love each other. We will be both that and this in inconceivable and simultaneous oneness and difference. We will experience endless pastimes. But our love cannot be contained! Others must join us. Let it be.'
"He Who Attracts All and She Who Captures God's Heart knew love, yet they also knew lust. They had lust for love, for life, for knowledge. The ecstasy of their union ripped through the nothing and penetrated the void with everything that we know, and much that we do not know.
"And now, to this day, the Divine Couple call to us.
"When we struggle to survive, we feel the exhilaration of the Will to Be.
"When we learn something new, we feel the exhilaration of the Will to Know.
"And, best of all, when we look into our lover's eyes, we feel the exhilaration of the Will to Love that created the entire universe, and which never ceases to call us Home."
I left that night in a state of euphoria; yet surely, the Elder must be mad. The philosopher will be returning soon. Tonight I will look into the stars, and into the eyes of Woman. I will wonder about what lies behind all of the veils that confound us. The Elder never told us why we must be cursed by these veils, or by all of this suffering. Perhaps we are in no position to know. But his myth gives me a certain lightness. Perhaps there is some kind of truth in the tale of this madman . . .
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
If you are a teacher, you have an obligation to conduct yourself professionally in the classroom. For me, the following are crucial to teaching well and being respected by students.
First, I go through the trouble to memorize the first and last names of every student by matching their names to their faces. This can mean memorizing the names of up to 150 students per semester. As much trouble as it is, it produces great benefits. Students respect you for knowing their names, they don't mess around with you as much, and it earns you credibility.
Second, I tell the students explicitly of how aware I am of the diversity of their views, and that I will be presenting a variety of views in as competent a manner as possible. I always tell them that I am well aware that there are very religious and anti-religious people in the room, and that there are very liberal and very conservative people in the room. I then tell them that I will teach them from a perspective that is informed by that knowledge. This approach stands in contrast with pushing a hard ideological line with students, which will often frustrate even those students who share the teacher's ideological leanings. Teaching ethics or religion courses offers many opportunities for fairness. Any time that I offer a view that I, as an ethical professional, know to be more a function of my opinion than of any objective consensus in the field, I alert my students of that fact and tell them what an opponent would say in response to me.
Third, I permit highly controversial discussions about politically incorrect issues in my class as long as nobody resorts to personal attacks. It is perfectly possible to keep the peace in such situations, as long as one has a little practice and experience. The first few times can easily get out of a teacher's control, but we owe it to the students to permit them to discuss emotionally-charged issues freely and openly.
Fourth, I teach so that the students are not entirely sure of my views on any of the controversial subjects of the class. If they have any suspicions, it is my goal that those students would say that this teacher taught in a way that was never disrespectful or marginalizing.
Fifth, if I want the students to write an argument or defend a position, I permit them to defend any side of any position they please, even those that I find abhorrent, such as that 9/11 was an inside job. We must never permit ourselves to grade on the basis of the student's opinion, but rather on how well the student goes about defending that position.
None of this is incompatible with having passionate opinions about issues outside of the classroom. Teachers have every right to blog, to organize, and to act in behalf of any cause they like. It is important that they can switch gears and enter the sacred space of the classroom with the appropriate reverence. Students will never hold your views against you, even if they disagree with you outside of the classroom, if you have made clear to them your respect for the space that you share with them.
In light of all of this, I would like to recommend to you that you support the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is a group that keeps an eye on us professors in order to make sure that we don't force our baggage onto our students.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
My friend, Bill Vallicella, has just posted this about Freud, in which he skillfully draws distinctions between error, illusion, and delusion.
The question is, if we assume, for the sake of argument, that humans believe in God on the basis of wish fulfillment, would that serve as evidence against God's existence?
Monday, January 11, 2010
The Conservative Deist has become confused. What is deism exactly? How does it relate to the other isms? Should he continue to call himself a deist, a panentheist, a theist, or should he just give up on the project altogether? Now the Conservative Deist will stop referring to himself in the third person and start thinking about this.
Let’s begin with the all-time cheesy beginning--consult the dictionary!
The online Oxford Dictionary defines deism as “belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.”
Theism is “belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.”
Pantheism is “the belief that God can be identified with the universe, or that the universe is a manifestation of God.”
Panentheism is (according to fact-archive.com) "the view that God is immanent within all Creation and that the universe is part of God or that God is the animating force behind the universe. Unlike pantheism, panentheism does not mean that the universe is synonymous with God. Instead, it maintains that there is more to God than the material universe. In panentheism, God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as both the creator and the original source of universal morality."
All of this gets confusing, but perhaps we can untangle this just a bit. The definition of “theism” is here pretty broad, but I tend to accept the implication from the Oxford definition that theists tend almost always to affirm the existence of God’s intervention into the universe in the form of miracles. This is exactly what deism denies. Pantheism doesn’t have any miracles in it, in the sense that God’s manifestation as the universe itself suggests that the universal law-like regularities that we observe can be counted on to remain constant, being as they are a kind of expression of God himself. Panentheism is compatible with either view, since God is something over and above the universe.
I bring all of this up because I have run into some cognitive dissonance with two of my most cherished interlocutors. My favorite spiritual thinker, Steve Bohlert, prefers to use the term “panentheism” in his work, and especially in the book that I recently reviewed. My philosopher friend, Bill Vallicella, explores deism in his article “Concurrentism or Occasionalism?” with results that have also caused me pause. I consider thus the following:
Steve Bohlert emphasizes the bhakti tradition that develops through Chaitanya, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, and Lalita Prasad Thakur. The strength of panentheism here is that God becomes accessible in everything that surrounds us and yet, because God is more than merely the universe itself, worlds of experience and reality are potentially available as possibilities for the upward surge of the soul. We can have personal relationships with God both in this world and in another world entirely.
Bill Vallicella, in his trenchant article, contrasts deism with other views (conservationism, concurrentism, and occasionalism) for the sake of exploring different theories about how God and causation relate to each other. In the article, he writes that deism affirms that “God is an initiating but not a sustaining cause: he created the universe or the initial segment thereof in principio but ever thereafter it has managed to exist on its own. On this minimalist view, God is (I) one cause among many, and (ii) a cause not involved either directly or indirectly in the causality of other causes.” Since I tend to view God as being constantly related to causality and the existence of things and their interactions, the deistic view here seems to thin for me.
I find myself tending toward the panentheist understanding. So now I consider the motivations that have led me to use “deism.”
I have isolated two motivations--one philosophical, one cultural. The philosophical motivation is that I don’t believe in the existence of literal miracles in the physical, space-time world in which we reside. Deism is the only position that makes that position clear and unambiguous. The cultural motivation is that deism is associated with the great American patriots like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison who were able to fashion our great system at least partially under the influence of deism.
Panentheism is perfectly compatible with the view that God does not perform miracles; I, however, wish to make it clear that whereas I am willing and able to believe in God, I am not particularly interested in miraculous accounts or in New Age phenomena. This is best expressed by “deism.“ Yet I am willing to believe that there is another level of reality in which the most astounding and amazing things are possible, including knowledge of God made accessible to our souls, which is otherwise unthinkable. This is better expressed by “panentheism”, especially since deists usually deny, or are generally dismissive of, the idea of life after death in another sphere of reality.
Yet I am willing to think that God “tugs” our imaginations in some way. Perhaps religious experiences and visions have something to do with this. Perhaps some of the best religious books are also influenced by the Divine. It is in this sense that I am happy to entertain the possibility of miracles, if “miracles” is here the correct word.
At the end of this essay I feel that I feel happiest with a panentheism that has a deistic cast. I now think that I may, at least for a while, alter the name of my blog . . .
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Lately I have been thinking about the issue of anthropomorphizing God. To anthropomorphize something is to ascribe a human form or attributes to something. I have also been thinking about murtis and their use. In many religious traditions--most notable Hinduism--murtis are used to focus the devotee on God. A murti is a physical embodiment of a divinity that one may use on an altar or in a temple. “Murti” means “embodiment”, and whereas the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) frown on this practice, Hindus (and many Buddhists, particularly among the Mahayana) consider it essential. “Murti” is usually translated into English as “idol”, but Hindus often reject that translation as having too many negative connotations and being too embedded in the Abrahamic context to do justice to the concept. They therefore prefer to use “murti” even in English.
I have been influenced by so many traditions and thoughts, and I strive to be systematic in my theology in spite of the wild diversity of my influences. The God of the philosophers is the God that, in my opinion, has the most intellectually respectable description. He (male pronoun for convention’s sake here) is all powerful, all knowing, supremely good, supremely free, and does not possess a physical body. This kind of understanding of God is perfectly compatible with my deism. For most theists (those who believe in the existence of this God), God performs great miracles. The details of these miracles depend on one’s religious tradition. As a deist, I do not have any positive belief in any miracle stories, not because I believe that God could not or would not perform them, but only because I cannot commit to their empirical reality, for reasons having primarily to do with Hume.
The God of the philosophers is, in a very real sense, unknowable. When we say, for instance, that God creates, we don’t necessarily mean exactly what we would mean were we to say that a man creates. God is on a different plane from ours, and talk of God often cannot translate perfectly.
Yet a concept of a God that is too unknowable lacks much ability to encourage devotional sentiments. The God of the deist, in particular, strikes many as being too abstract and too “distant” to encourage profound emotion. Many people do not need emotion in their spiritual/religious practice, yet it would seem that many do.
Judaism and Islam maintain that God never takes human form. This is why they both flatly reject the Christian notion of the Incarnation, which is the idea that God took human form in Jesus. Many people, obviously, feel deeply connected to this God (YHWH or Allah). YHWH and Allah strike me as too abstract for a close connection, not to mention that they often do things in their respective texts that leave me reeling from confusion and fear.
Christianity and Hinduism both have the following strength for people in my position: They both affirm that God takes human form and that we can therefore relate to God in this form. For Christians, God did this in only one instance. For Hindus, God does this all the time. Buddhists do not have a God in their theological system, and this is the reason that I will pass over Buddhism in my ruminations.
I do not personally believe that God has ever taken any physical form among us; however, my devotional sentiments evaporate without some degree of anthropomorphism of God. Humans have anthropomorphized God in countless ways throughout history, and many of these efforts speak to deep-seated human needs. For example, Jesus speaks to our feeling of sinfulness and our need for God to see us righteous. Radha and Krishna illuminate the universe as an expression of the ecstatic play (the lila) of two beautiful lovers. Thor was the hammer of righteousness, always willing to do battle for good over evil. Frigga was the All-Mother, in knowledge of her husband Odin’s secrets and governing like a wise and restrained matron. Man is so multifaceted and complex that it is no wonder that he personified so many of these aspects of his reality.
Hindu theologians often discuss the five moods in which a devotee can approach God. These are the rasa of a sublime peace in the face of God’s greatness (shanta rasa), serving God in a subordinate position (dasya rasa), being God’s personal friend (sakhya rasa), being God’s parent (vatsalya rasa), and being God’s lover (madhurya rasa). The great theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakur argued that each of these moods is served, in some way, by some religious tradition or another. For example, the Vedas of Hinduism serve shanta, the Ramayana, Muhammad, and Moses serve dasya. The warrior Arjuna, from the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, serves sakhya. Jesus serves vatsalya (presumably through emphasis on Mary). The Indian saint Chaitanya, along with the Purana texts known as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, serve madhurya, which is considered the sweetest by Bhaktivinoda.
When philosophers and theologians talk about God, they often use what is called the “method of analogy.” This means that they use words in relation to God in ways analogous to, but not exactly the same as, they way we use such words when talking about humans. This method, as one can imagine, is often criticized, but it is not my intention to defend this method right now so much as to use it as a possible foundation for the use of murtis in devotion. Bhaktivinoda himself discusses three kinds of ways that language can be related to the divine lila: It can serve as a facsimile of spiritual reality (praticchaya). It can serve as an indicator that points to something indescribable (nidarshana). Finally, it can serve as an example of something (udaharana). In spite of all this, however, language can never illuminate the ultimate nature of God’s being.
One might see a murti as an analogy of some kind. Consider the form of Jesus in modest clothing, or that of Mary holding the infant. Consider Krishna in his yellow silk holding his flute, and Radha embracing him in her full regalia. The Hindu makes eye contact (darshan) with the murti, and sees into the eyes of God. Every element of clothing and every physical detail on the murti contains significance. Seeing God in a murti is a kind of anthropomorphism (one which is, by the way, considered an unpardonable sin in some other traditions). Hindus believe that God literally takes and has taken these forms on earth.
I propose a middle position. I knowingly anthropomorphize God in the murti as a form of physical method of analogy in order to develop, maintain, and strengthen devotion to the Divine. I do not believe that God has ever taken such a form on earth, but I believe that meditation on a suitable murti can not only serve devotion, but also serve to keep the Divine always on one’s mind with a concomitant improvement in one’s daily moral behavior and in one‘s attitude toward life and the world. The details of the murti can serve as praticchaya, nidarshana, and udaharana. This emphasis on intimate devotion (which Hindus call “bhakti”) is the reason why I call my approach “deistic intimism.”
So is it a sin to meditate on the Divine in the form of a murti? Are murtis at all necessary? Are they necessary only to a few? Can a deist do it in good conscience? Is it disrespectful for a deist to appropriate powerful symbols from other religions into his practice? Does murti worship encourage superstition? So many questions. I would love your ideas.