Monday, January 25, 2010

Do-Gooders Diss Display in Deutschland


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

Humor and Partisanship


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

The Myth I Heard at the Fire


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

A Few Thoughts on Teaching


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

Maverick Philosopher on Freud and Illusion


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

Deism and Some Alternatives



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

Murtis and Anthropomorphism



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.