12 February 2018

Rational Being, or Why I am not a Christian in the Very Specific Sense in which You Might Imagine

The assumption that any faith commitment requires the belief in an anthropomorphic god, a creator in the simplest sense, or an afterlife which includes the continuity of personal consciousness is naive at best, and more likely simply in bad faith.

This is one of the fundamental flaws of Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” and other polemic works on religion. However, these polemicists can be forgiven this far; not only do the overwhelming majority of people of faith think of their own divinity in this way, even those who do not may often act as if they held these beliefs. This does not acquit Lord Russell and others of the error, but it may be a starting point for conversation.

God is a necessary being in any possible universe that contains rational beings. (I won’t argue the point here; the arguments for, and good arguments against, this position are well known.) God is as much a feature of the universe as the Pythagorean Theorem or the gravitational constant. He is the origin of the universe as the logically necessary precondition of universal being. I state these claims not because I am expecting anyone to agree, but merely to make my own position clear.

Though I hold these positions, I still pray and celebrate the Eucharist. I pray for the souls of the dead and for the well being for the living. I believe in the real presence and the efficacy of the sacraments. These are not, I think, contradictory positions. To think they are is to engage in yet another form of literalism and to misunderstand the role of myth and liturgy. These prayers and rituals are causal agents of change in the universe but not in a simplistic or straightforward way. They change me, and I change the world. To suggest that this is impossible is blasphemy against the Human Spirit.

So do not presume to know the inner by the outer. Do not judge without inquiring. And pray, not because you are weak and cannot change the world without the aid of some external god, but because you are the mighty presence of God in a universe of wonders.

02 August 2015

The Church Sign, or Four little words

Today I happened to drive past a sign in front of a Methodist church in rural Wisconsin.  This isn’t, in and of itself, unusual, nor is the fact that I took notice of it.  I often look at these signs.  Sometimes they are amusing, or witty.  Sometimes they reflect the particular character of the church or its community.  Often they advertise some particular Bible verse or upcoming events at the church.  They encourage and chide and even criticise. This one did none of those things, but it really struck me.  So much so that I felt overwhelmed as I drove, tears nearly welling up in my eyes, thinking about the simple message in front of a small rural church.  It wasn’t funny or clever or rooted in any sophisticated theology, nor did it make a point that was unique to this particular church.  It said something so much more than that.  What it said was

You are welcome here.

That’s all.  Four words.

You are welcome here.

What filled me with such emotion was this simple four word message in front of a church.  Let’s face it, Christianity in its modern form doesn’t have the most welcoming reputation.  There are too many churches based on exclusion and hatred.  Many people’s sense of Christianity, rightly or wrongly, is shaped by churches that preach messages steeped in homophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of hatred.  But this church decided that the message that it wanted to share with the community was one of openness and love.  It decided that the message it wanted to share was one of welcoming:

You are welcome here.

This message doesn’t judge who is or is not worthy to come in the door.  It doesn’t impose any conditions. It doesn’t say that you have to be sinless or that you have to confess.  It doesn’t say you have to be rich, or white.  It doesn’t say you have to be straight or even that you have to be a Christian. It doesn’t say you have to be admitted to their church or accept their ideas or be a regular contributor.  It opens the doors wide and allows everyone who wishes to come in and spend time with them.  It tells everyone

You are welcome here.

This is a statement of pure ethicality, without preconception.  It doesn’t rely on any theoretical apprehension of universal categorical necessity.  It doesn’t speak out of specific conceptions of justice.  It doesn’t prescribe particular behaviours or virtues.  It just speaks from a position of moral openness to all.  In these four words, it expresses the kind of ethical comportment that Derrida holds up in the term “hospitality.”  To be hospitable is to welcome the Other in without first interrogating her or holding her up at the threshold.  It is to look him in the face and welcome him in.  It is to say, without reservation or evasion, without worry or concern,

You are welcome here.

In the AJC, we are dedicated, in our most basic statement of principles. to the truth that the Sacred Flame resides in each and every person regardless of gender, orientation, race, ethnicity, class, or creed.  We reach out to “those who walk alone because they are different.”  To all of them, we must be welcoming.  Every AJC parish and every Johannite ought to take time to hear the simple message that our Methodist sisters and brothers cherished enough to put it in front of their church building as an expression of their faith and their commitment.  We are called to be welcoming to everyone, to experience the presence of the divine in each and every person.  Not just the people who agree with us, not just the people we like, not just the people who look like us, or speak the same language.  We are called upon to look upon every person and say

You are welcome here.

I was struck by this, and I took it as a reminder to myself.  It was a challenge.  Have I been unwelcoming?  Have I shut the door of my heart against people that I dislike or who anger or upset me?  Have I considered others to be unworthy of my concern or my compassion?  Unfortunately the answer is yes, too often, I have done all these things.  So to me this was a reminder of my own calling.  I must welcome the other not just to my church or my home or my classroom, but to my heart; I have an obligation, a sacred duty to these four words, a duty to make of my own being a sanctuary, to say

You are welcome here.

24 July 2014

oh, the thinks you can think; or why we shouldn't disengage they grey matter

I'm afraid this might be something of a companion piece my earlier rant about infographics.  If you think I've got a bug up my arse about this, you're right.

As most of you, I imagine, already know, I am a Gnostic priest.  As most you, I imagine, also already know, the word "gnosis" means "knowledge".  I take knowledge very seriously.  I am a Gnostic in part because I don't believe that knowledge is reducible to facts or data; I maintain that there are many kinds of knowledge, not all of which are reducible to what we might ordinarily call "reason".  When I say that I know my friend John, or that I know Beethoven's Für Elise, or that I know what it's like to struggle financially, or that I know the presence of the divine, I'm saying very different things in each case.  All that said, I still take reason seriously as well.  One of the things that drew me to Gnosticism, and away from mainstream faiths, is that it doesn't demand that I take my brain off the hook in order to participate in the work of the divine.  Gnosticism doesn't demand that blind, uncritical faith which is the enemy of reason. As a philosopher as well as a priest, I was able to be true to my own most treasured value, summed up in a quote that long hung over my desk, from Liber XXX (The Book of the Balance): "The sin which is unpardonable is to knowingly and willfully reject the truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices."

It distresses me therefore to see anyone, let alone a self-described Gnostic, and even worse someone who casts him or herself as a spiritual leader, fall prey to the temptation to say, as it were, even in jest, "Don't think about it. You should believe me, simply because I said it." Whenever someone tells me that I shouldn't ask questions or shouldn't demand reasons, my red flags go up all over the place.  Weighing evidence, demanding reasons, evaluating claims -- these are the things that we should be doing continuously.

Social media in particular doesn't really lend itself to critical thinking.  It encourages us by its very structure to accept platitudes, to think in bite sized chunks, and to buy into a pretty picture and a convincing snippet of text.  I consider it my responsibility to resist this tendency, and to discourage it in others. At the end of the day, I'm not unsusceptible to these kinds of persuasion. I know that when I see an image with a quote or a claim that panders to my prejudices, I'm liable to buy it hook line and sinker. This is a problem. We should constantly be on the watch against this temptation; it's more dangerous than we imagine.

If someone asks you for sources, or wants you to back up a claim, they're not attacking you. They're not questioning your integrity, they're not calling you a liar.  They're doing what we should all be doing.  Thinking.

So, even when you're limited to 140 characters or you're sending off that neat statistic you just read on buzzfeed, don't turn your brain off.  Thinking is your friend. You've relied on it your whole life, and by God, you're good at it. "Oh, the thinks you can think, if only you try."

07 February 2014

Not a blog post, or why the world deserves to burn

This isn't a blog post.  This is a written sob, an exasperated cry out at the state of the world.  There won't be any pithy comments, or even any valid reasoning.  There won't be any useful information, or inspiring words.

There is the myth of the "world hating Gnostic", the idea that Gnosticism as such entails despite of the material cosmos.  There's something to it.  I am a Gnostic. I believe that the world is a prison of the soul, under the sway of Archonic forces that wish to weigh us down, and prevent us from seeing the vision of our spiritual homeland.  I believe the world is filled with people so asleep to their own souls that they sink below the state of mere beasts, who have the excuse of innocence for their barbarism.

What has lead me to say this, now, of all times?  Is it the political corruption at home and abroad?  The ongoing civil wars in Syria and elsewhere?  The anti-gay legislation in Russia and misogyny just about everywhere?  The ongoing slaughter in central Africa?  No.

It's this.

This is the picture of an eleven year old boy, a beautiful child, who was so bullied because he liked My Little Pony that he hanged himself.  His name is Michael Morones, and he's lying in fucking hospital bed because someone decided to make his world a living hell because he likes Pinkie Pie.  You can read about it here.

And I've lost it.  Again.  I can't look at this picture and not find that the world dissolves behind a veil of tears.  This is our world. This is what we have made. A world where a sensitive, sweet eleven year old kid sees no recourse but to make his exit.  A world in which a child can be driven to try to take his own life by the hatred and anger of other children.  The world is broken.

I'm not entirely without hope.  We do what we can do.  We hug our children and we tell them that we love them no matter who they are.  That our love is unconditional.  We support our friends and we reach out to our families.  We rage, we pray, we cry.  I cry a lot.  I cry more than I pray because it feels like the prayers fall on the deaf ears of gods who long ago abandoned us to our own hell.  Pictures like this don't help.

I'm trying to find a way to end on something like an upbeat note.  But when I look at Michael, lying in his hospital bed, surrounded by some of the few things that offered him comfort in this world, I find myself at a loss.  So I guess I'll just cry again.  

30 March 2013

Why naps are better than infographics, or why the PM is not a shape-shifting reptilian

So, when I first started this blog, I did promise (threaten?) the occasional rant.  I suppose it's time.  This has nothing to do with religion, or magic, or the esoteric tradition.  Sometimes I just get irked.  Sue me. (actually, don't sue me, that's a hassle.  On the other hand, I don't have any money, so it isn't really worth your while.)

Infographics, at least as I understand them, were originally used by news outlets to provide information in a quickly digestible form so that people would have access to important data without having to do extensive and difficult research themselves.

In the age of the Internet, Facebook infographics have become a common way to make an argument quickly and reach a wide audience. I don't think that I've ever reposted an infographic.  I might have done.  There are a few issues I feel sufficiently passionately about that I might have sent some clever picture on its merry way through the internets.  I know that I've reposted articles that I've later found to be false, and I've made a point of at the very least taking them down or in some cases actively promoting a correction.  It does happen.

I don't pretend to be an expert on infographics or a student of their history. My information here is drawn purely from my own experience. Old news infographics always or at least generally included a source for the data. Facebook infographics very rarely do. This isn't a terrible problem in itself. The sources are much more readily findable using search engines than they may have been in the past. So while providing a source might be a good idea it isn't absolutely necessary.

If I had my way, infographics would simply vanish because the number of deceptive, ill-researched, ill-supported, or just plain false infographics vastly outnumbers the useful ones, but since that is highly unlikely I would like to provide a set of guidelines that I hope will become best practises. If you feel you must post an infographic to your Facebook page or other social media outlet consider the following:

Lie down and take a nap, or have a cup of coffee. See if the feeling passes. Seriously. Do you NEED to disseminate this information? Are you preaching to the choir or are you actually informing anyone? Sometimes if we let our passions cool, posting that witty picture of the Pope throwing a hand grenade at a kitten while carrying a sign promoting GMOs and singing the praises of Hugo Chavez seems like less of a good idea. If you still think it's worthwhile, continue.

Before posting, make sure that if your infographic includes statistical data, factual claims, or scientific conclusions, (as most do) that these are borne out by actual facts. Is what the infographic claims correct? If not, STOP NOW. The majority of infographics I've seen on my own Facebook page are nonsense. Just for the record, the Vatican is not a major shareholder in arms manufacturer Baretta; Fluoride in drinking water does not cause brain cancer; Barack Obama is not a secret Muslim; homeopathic "remedies" are in fact sugar water; and Stephen Harper is not a shape-shifting reptilian alien. (I admit, I'm not 100% on the last one.)  Remember:  you are responsible for what you post.  If you post something that is misleading or false, it may well be the case that you did so inadvertently or unintentionally.  In fact, I assume that you earnestly believed what you were sticking your name on for everyone to see.  But if you repost, you become a party to the lie, and it's an easy trap to fall into.

If there is research available, ask yourself, "how would I respond if I were asked to back up these claims?" If you have a solid reputable source for the data, consider presenting that as backup for your infographic. It can only make it more convincing. There are still people out there who would rather read an article than an infographic.  Not many, maybe, but some.

If you are convinced, based on research, and not merely your passionate belief, that the information is in fact correct, ask yourself, "is the research supporting the claims made in the infographic readily findable by a slightly more intelligent than average Facebook user?" If so, go ahead and post as is. People who have doubts will be able to corroborate the infographic easily. Otherwise, it is best to at least have your backup ready to hand. On the other hand, if the research is available, why not just point people to it? Does the clever picture really add anything?

Consider whether the information presented is done so fairly. Does it present a controversy as settled when in fact there is significant debate among reputable experts? Does it misuse or cherry pick data to paint an overly rosy or overly dismal picture? Does the creator (assuming it isn't you) have an agenda or an axe to grind? These are all things that you might want to consider before posting. If the answer is "yes" to any of these, you should consider just saying "no."

Excursus:  If your infographic contains a typographical error, as an unusually high number seem to do, understand that for those of us who are members of the International League of Pedants, this is sufficient to dismiss the idea presented out of hand without further comment.  Typographical errors, while understandable, still make you look like a half-wit, especially when you can't go back and correct them.  I could keep going into a tangent on advertising with typos in it, but this is sufficiently ranty as it is.

Lastly, do you fully endorse the claims of the infographic? If you don't, consider finding another or just speaking your own mind. At the very least, include a caveat, because otherwise readers will take you at face value; they will assume that the position represented is yours. If you put yourself out this way, don't complain when your friends attribute the opinions to you.

I'm not opposed to infographics as such. I think they can be useful. But like any other means of disseminating information, they have to be handled carefully, because they run the risk of doing real damage to a public space that we all share.

15 March 2013

Bad Thinking For Sale, or Why Shape-shifting Jesus is my Pal

It's been a while, I know, but when something piques my interest, I have the really bad habit of finding out what other people think of it.  In the case of the internet, more often than not this means reading comments that random folks have left on a news story or blog entry.  Frankly, it's a bad idea, because I generally just manage to make myself infuriated and as irrational as the comments I'm reading.  Sometimes, however, I manage to keep my cool, and take a more dispassionate approach to what I see as bad thinking.  Today I am a cucumber.

This morning, I was pointed by a friend to a wonderful article on a recently translated text fragment.  You can find out all about it here.  Briefly, the text recounts the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion but paints a remarkably different picture than the canonical accounts.  This is something, of course, in which I am always interested, so I took my time with the article.  One of the most interesting elements, to me, is the explanation of why Judas marks Jesus with a kiss at the moment when he delivers his erstwhile Messiah to the authorities.  To be honest, I'd never given it much thought, despite the fact that the "Judas Kiss" has become deeply ingrained in our ideas of loyalty and betrayal.  The more than a millennium-old text gives a fascinating answer:  Jesus was a shape-shifter, and could appear in many guises.  The kiss was needed to point the authorities to someone whom they wouldn't necessarily recognise.  Makes sense to me.

Wait, what?  That's right…Jesus was a shape-shifter.  In my ongoing quest to make room for more awesome in my life, I had to move a few things over to give pride of place to that.  Shape-shifting Jesus is right up my alley.  After all, this blog takes its name from the phrase "miracle of the one thing," but I haven't yet talked about miracles.  I should.  Miracles are, well, miraculous.  I believe in a world in which the miraculous is possible.  I recommend the article to everyone.  It's a neat read about an extraordinary text that enriches the literary, historical, and textual tradition of Christianity.  I really liked to write-up, too.

Then, I started reading the comments.  Now, one of the things pointed out in the article is a quote from the translator of the fragment, Roelof van den Broek from Utrecht.  Van den Broek says, "The discovery of the text doesn't mean these events happened, but rather that some people living at the time appear to have believed in them."  That seems eminently reasonable to me.  As a scholar, he doesn't want to be mistaken for someone who is claiming that this is somehow an unimpeachable account of factual history.  It's a mistake that I think few would actually make, but best to defend oneself against those sorts of accusation.  Van den Broek is a translator, not an apologist.

I read a comment on the article from a random netizen.  It read, "The writer is correct 'it doesn't mean any of these events actually happened'.  Which really seems more likely, everything you know about reality was suspended or somebody lied? A question that should be asked of every faith." (I've presented the comment intact, including its misquotation) As I said, sometimes I'm able to just comment on bad thinking as such, and I want to take an opportunity to do so here.

This comment is a classic example of what we refer to as a "false dichotomy".  I do a whole section in my Introduction to Ethics classes on false dichotomies. I tell my students, whenever someone presents you with two options and says that you have to pick one, you can be sure of one thing:  you're being sold something.  Dichotomies rarely reflect the realities of our lives, which tend to be vastly more multifarious than simple either/or distinctions seem to suggest. When someone presents you with a false dichotomy, he or she is hoping desperately that you'll take your brain off the hook long enough to buy what he or she is selling.  I wasn't buying in this case.  Let's look at the options we've been presented:

  1. Miracles are the result of the laws of the natural world being suspended.
  2. Miracles are lies.

Actually, even if you believe that the first is impossible, isn't it just as likely that someone is reporting something that he or she earnestly believes, despite being mistaken? Assuming malice seems to be getting ahead of ourselves.  But let's go further.  Is our understanding of the universe sufficiently complete that we can claim that if we can't explain something, the laws of nature must be suspended?  The fact of the matter is that our knowledge is, in the scope of the whole of what can be known, infinitesimal. It seems to me more likely that there are lots of things that look like the suspension of natural laws to us that are simply obeying laws we don't yet understand.  I'm not looking for some scientific explanation for every miracle, but I think as we come to understand more and more about our universe from a scientific standpoint, these astounding events will become comprehensible.

The desire to dismiss the miraculous with a single sweep of the hand is a misbegotten one. It is an attempt to make the universe smaller and less interesting. I don't trust people who can chalk every miracle up to "somebody lied". They want to cram the universe into a little box rather than experience it in all of its wonder and complexity. And that makes me sad.  On the other hand, I don't believe that scientific inquiry robs the miraculous of its power.  Thinking isn't the enemy of faith. Thinking is a gift. Anyone who tells you that to be right or to be good or to be a member of their club you have to not think is by definition your enemy and an enemy of everyone. There will always be things that call on us to think, to understand more, and experience what we do understand more profoundly. Miracles are just a reminder that the world is bigger and more beautiful than we understand.

So, I like my shape-shifting Jesus.  I don't have to believe that the universe's laws were suspended, but neither do I have to believe that people are lying to me from 1200 years ago.  I just have to believe that the universe is really amazing, and that it is worth witnessing and understanding, and that it's never a good idea to slam my mind closed.

07 November 2010

Why Ogres are Like Onions, or Gnosis and Swimming.

Alright, I'm not actually going to talk about Ogres and Onions.  But I do want to draw a parallel between Gnosis and learning to swim.

I think that there is a tendency to think of Gnosis as something that is acheieved, and once you've "gotten it," you "keep it."  I also think that this is totally wrong.  I do hold that Gnosis positively transforms the one who seeks after it insofar as she reaches that kind of knowledge, but the process is ongoing.  Gnosis is a faculty of human (though perhaps not only human) consciousness that allows us insight into the most fundamental being of a phenomenon. To attain Gnosis in this regard is to behold the being of the thing, and to understand it, as it were, from the inside out.  But this process is always ongoing, just as learning to swim is always a process.  When I learn to do the crawl, or not drown when thrown into a pool, one can say that I have "learned to swim."  But I don't stop there.  I continue to learn more and more, and to perfect that which I've already learned.  To have attained Gnosis is to have learned to swim.  It is the beginning of Initiation, not the end of it.

We often imagine that the attainment, or fuller attainment, or a certain degree of attainment, of Gnosis guarantees certain effects.  Perhaps I will become more compassionate toward my fellow beings.  Perhaps I will survive death.  Perhaps my head will glow with the uncreated light.  Rather, I would suggest that the attainment of Gnosis opens possibilities.  It is, for this reason, and this reason alone, desirable and salutory.
Take for example the idea of persistence after death.  The idea of conditional immortality as put forward by many traditional forms of initiatic practise and by contemporary authors like Julius Evola, suggests that the default state of human beings after death is simply dissolution.  To die is, for the profane, to simply end.  The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out...  On the other hand, the initiate attains immortality and survives death. Evola in particular characterises this as a simple cause-effect reaction.  I would submit that the process is more sophisticated.

It is true that if I don't learn to swim, if you throw me in the middle of the ocean, I will drown.  Perhaps I will survive by chance, or luck, but odds are I'm going down into the deep.  On the other hand, if I learn to swim, that's no guarantee that I'll survive.  This is true especially if I've only learned the American Crawl.  However, even that basic knowledge of swimming technique opens up possibilities for my survival that simply wouldn't be present without that knowledge.  The more I strive after Gnosis, the more I attain, the more possibilities open up.  As a swimmer, when I'm thrown into the drink, I've got more possibilities. Maybe I'll swim to safety.  Maybe I'll tread water until a boat passes by.  Maybe I'll just be able to keep my wits about me long enough to figure out that the water's only six feet deep.  Or maybe I'll decide to drown, and let myself sink into the embrace of the Nereids.

Perhaps initiation and Gnosis offer me the possibility of survival post-mortem.  Perhaps I will stand before God and sing his praises unceasingly.  Perhaps I will be dissolved into divinity.  Perhaps I will reincarnate on this planet, in this reality, or some other.  Perhaps I'll just sleep.

The point is, when I learn to swim, I open up possibilities that I wouldn't have otherwise. When I attain to Gnosis, the universe opens up for me in little and big ways.  It's all about possibilities.

Oh, and Onions have layers, and Ogres have layers.

In case you were wondering.