Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Freedom Vs. Truth

I believe I have mentioned before that what got me hooked into UU was the first sermon I heard by Reverend Bruce Clear- I know I have recommended his sermons here before . I am about to do so again- and amusingly, this sermon opens with a description of the sermon that hooked him into UU. And why does he tell that story? A teaser: “I tell this story to prepare you for what might sound a bit shocking to some ears, whether newcomers or long-timers. I am going to speak out this morning against truth. I declare that I don't believe in truth.” The full text is here .

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Important announcement

I had hoped it would not be necessary to say the words- especially as for five crucial days I have been too sick to coherently blog. But catching up on the news, it seems that these days nothing can be taken for granted, and things that go without saying now need to be said. Therefore, I state this formally for the record: I am not the father of Anna Nicole's baby.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

For UUs living outside New Orleans,

This is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. I said it that way because while most Protestant denominations pay scant attention to Lent and Mardi Gras, it seems that many UUs have taken a step beyond inattention to cultural illiteracy on the subject- which I think is a shame.

I’ve been thinking about this since doing coffee hour Sunday, with our service group, The Channing Club. When we do coffee hour, we like to decorate the table holding the cream, sugar, and snacks. This time we did a Mardi Gras theme, and I wore the green, purple, and yellow jester’s hat I picked up in New Orleans. A number of people asked why the hat, and I usually smiled and answered “Just confirming what everyone always suspected about me.” But there were a surprising number who actually hadn’t a clue about Mardi Gras. “Oh, what, is that this weekend?” “Well, Tuesday is technically Mardi Gras, but it’s actually the end of the whole Carnival season.” “Really!”

It surprised me how many knew how little about Mardi Gras, even to the point about not knowing about its connection to Lent. Of course, there wasn’t time while serving coffee for lectures on the subject, nor is it my place to do so. But a lot of Protestant denominations are rethinking their position on Lent, thinking they may have been hasty ditching it along with other Catholic practices in the schism, that it may have been one of the babies in the bathwater- and I think they may be right, and that it wouldn’t hurt we UUs to take another look at it.

Those who know Lent only from childhood Catholic friends who had to give up chocolate or gum or comic books for a month are unaware of the valuable symbolism involved. Lent commemorates Jesus' first step into his ministry- he spent forty days in the wilderness praying, fasting, learning to handle doubts and temptations. Those who practice Lent do so because they are aware that whether they like it or not, their lives too are a ministry; that the world will judge Christianity by the actions of Christians. The idea is to spend forty days out of the year in spiritual contemplation, practicing and testing your discipline and devotion.

This seems to me to be an excellent practice for UUs to adopt. It’s non-denominational; Jesus didn’t invent the practice- the forty day trial is a recurring theme in the Bible. For example, Moses stayed on the Mountain of God forty days (Exodus 24:18 and 34:28), Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his vision (1 Kings 19:8), Nineveh was given forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4). Thus, a UU Lent would include a tradition that Jews and Muslims could share as well, and excludes no one- though a Pagan, the Divine knows I could certainly use periods of discipline and contemplation. Even some atheists may benefit from a little introspection. I think if carefully thought out, a UU Lent could be a useful and unifying practice for us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

What do I believe about God?

Ms. Kitty has a truly marvelous entry in the latest UU Carnival, Ms. Kitty's Saloon and Road Show: Prophetic Atheism . At the end, she asks a question one almost never hears asked by a UU Minister: What do you believe about God?
Like Ms. Kitty, I cannot believe in the “old man on the throne” God. The ancient concepts of God, from Zeus to Jehovah, is not really a God, but a man writ large; a being who thinks as men think, who sees as men see (just better), who feels the same emotions men do, and acts upon them just as savagely as men do. This is the God that inspired Mark Twain to say, “God created man in his own image; man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” For this reason I no longer even use the word “God” to refer to that which I worship, nor use the masculine pronoun; they have too much baggage- I say “the Divine”, and “She”.

I am a Panentheist: the Divine is part of the fabric of space-time itself, (I speculate on how it could have happened here ), and so is in everything. The Divine is not the creator, but the substance of creation- but She is also a living sentience. As She is in everything, I am also an animist.

The Divine does not manipulate the physical world; she does not cause natural disasters to punish, nor saves from disaster to reward.

The Divine operates through living agencies, by speaking directly to our souls. She does not compel, she only persuades; we are free to ignore her if we wish.

The Divine does not damn us for disbelief, nor punish us for disobedience; She dispenses her gifts unconditionally. Any price we pay for these “sins” we impose on ourselves, by denying ourselves her abundant joys and wisdom.

The Divine is not fed by our praise, nor diminished by the unbelievers’ ridicule. If you deny her, She will love you still; if you praise her, she cannot love you more. Just accept her, and be enriched.

What do you believe about God?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Do we choose to believe?

What is belief? There are many definitions, but the one that covers more uses of the word than any other I am aware of is the mental acceptance of the truth or factuality of a claim. The “claim” can be of any nature- a statement, an assumption, even the evidence of your senses- “I can’t believe my eyes.” Many attempt to make a distinction between what we know and what we believe, but this is a false distinction; as individuals, we have no source of information that can be trusted as absolute objective fact, not even our senses. As individuals, we live in a subjective world, a mental model that we hope is a close match to the objective world.

Belief is how we construct that mental model, and it is arrived at in many ways. We can largely trust our senses, but not completely; as Scrooge said to Marley, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats.” Even when operating in perfect order, our sense are still not adequate to determine fact, as they are subject to our perception- was that two faces, or a vase? Was that a bird or a bat- or a meaningless ink blot? Authority is another way we construct the model- but of course we must realize that those authorities are also fallible. Logic is another method, but logic has its limitations as well, and we cannot predict when a new discovery will upset the old rules. Belief is the weighing of all these factors- largely unconsciously- and assigning a level of trust to each claim.

What sorts of proofs and evidence we trust most is a function of our personality types. Some trust authority to a much higher degree than others- when faced with that old question, “Who you gonna believe- me, or your lying eyes?”, the answer would be, “You.” Some trust past experiences highly- how highly can be demonstrated by an anecdote I heard at a seminar. The speaker was an author, a blond Caucasian woman, who had been partly raised in China and so spoke several dialects like a native. She said that quite often she would ask a local something, and be told “I don’t speak English”- the local having been so accustomed to the “fact” that Westerners don’t/can’t learn Chinese that it didn’t sink in that she had addressed them in Chinese!
Some trust logic so highly that they feel no need to test a conclusion logically arrived at. This is why for centuries tomatoes were believed poisonous in Western Europe; the plant is a close relative of the Deadly Nightshade, and tasting your fingertips after handling the leaves and stems will tell you they contain some of the same toxins. Q.E.D.! When two or mores types of evidence agree, belief in the conclusion is strong indeed. It only makes sense that heavy objects fall faster than light objects; look, a rock falls faster than a feather! This was so convincing that it was believed for thousands of years.

What controls how our minds balance the different types of evidence? What makes a person prize logic so highly that he writes off his own powerful emotional experiences, as Scrooge did, as, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” What makes another trust authority so highly that if his reading of the Bible led him to believe there was an invisible bridge across the Grand Canyon, he would take the leap of faith and step out upon that bridge? What part does education play in assigning values to evidence, what part experience- and what part genetics?
I look at my own experience. Though raised in a devout atmosphere, at no time did the Bible stories seem any more real to me than Greek myths. I remember quite clearly, my age in single digits, lying awake at night wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t believe. Surely, at that age, that came from within- believe me when I say that fifty years ago in Indiana grade school children were NOT taught to question God or Christianity! On the other hand, despite years of trying on atheism- back when I bought into the false choice of either Jehovah or nothing- I could never accept that, either. Even though I share with Richard Dawkins a high I.Q., a technical education, and a tendency toward linear thinking, I cannot deny the Divinity my heart knows exists.

Is it possible that we can no more choose how we believe than we choose our sexuality?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Warning: low humor part 2

Taking a break from my work to pass along a very bad joke:

I understand that Fox has just bought a new sitcom based on the Space Shuttle on the strength of its first episode. "The plot was strange," said a Fox spokesman, "But the pilot was irresistible."

Monday, February 05, 2007

I'm still alive

It's been a while since I've posted, but it wasn't for lack of opinions. (strangely enough, I seem very well equiped with those) No, there have been a number of "real life intruding" incidents in a row, such as losing the furnace with real temperature 5 below, windchill 25 below; Imbolc, Superbowl preparations, coffeehour duty at church, game and victory celebrations (you do know I write from Indianapolis), meeting with book dealers, etc. I expect to resume my normal blogging pace shortly.