Thackeray. Specifically, one William Makepeace Thackeray, had this to say:
"Mother is the word for God on the hearts and lips of all little children"You may also recognize the quote from "The Crow" during a particularly interesting scene with the drugged out mother. As you can imagine, then, this particularly heavy blog is about religion, and to me this quote sums up perfectly the core of what I believe in... but I wouldn't wave the victory Jesus flags just yet.
Historically, I was raised Roman Catholic. I attended a Catholic elementary school for the entirety of my pre-pubescent youth. I was baptized, participated in Communion, Confession and,. eventually, even completed Confirmation as a young teen. Yep, I made it through all the sacraments you can achieve just short of getting married, becoming gravely ill, or becoming a priest.
As a youth, religion was totalus in that I never really asked about any of the "others" because there was simply so much to learn about this one that it consumed all questions I had, like - Will I see my dog in heaven, or whether or not I will be stuck there as a little kid if I went early. I can, in all honesty, say that my teachers never specifically spoke badly about any other religion, or hatefully called out others as being evil. No, religion was instead presented more like the difference between the good student who has all the right answers, vs. the other not so good students who had the wrong answers.
It was not fear as much as pity - that those "other" people are in for a rude awakening when they pass on thinking they had everything figured out, only to find out that St. Peter responds with a blank stare and a "Who?" when they ask for Vishnu or Buddha at the pearly white gates. Psychologically, I of course felt that I was being indoctrinated into the winning side - which of course anyone would feel going from no side to some side.
My parents of course reinforced everything I was learning, being Catholics themselves and their parents before them - which made it easy to take what these other adults were telling us as fair facts, and as such, I continued learning. It wasn't until 4th or 5th grade that I encountered the first crack in the foundation:
Noon lunch. Our Cafeteria was a large, open room that the church, attached directly to the school, could open up into and use as an overflow section. During the week, long fold-able bench style tables served as our Facebooks and Twitters. These were the social aggregations of age & popularity - of best friends - of post-recess sports discussions and cartoon reviews.
Above us hovered the nuns, the teachers, and the lunch staff, all there to ensure benign talks, a swift culling of horseplay, and the assurance that our parents' dollars weren't going to waste on uneaten, paid for lunches. (I spent many an afternoon after lunch sitting in-front of a cold disgusting hot dog I did not wish to consume, told that I could not leave because it would be a waste of my parents hard earned money.)
On this particular day, they were not serving hot lunches, and as such every student was required to bring their own from home. I much preferred these days, taking extreme pride in my Voltron lunch box and thermos. On this particular day, my good friend forgot to bring his lunch, and sat across from me sulking (although I think it was about 70% embarrassment and only 30% actual hunger binding him up)
So I did what every kid would do for their best bud, I flipped my Voltron lunch box fully open, and put my bag of chips on his new side of the box. He seemed pretty happy, and I know I was happy, I mean I still had the tuna-fish sandwich so it wasn't TOO much to give up.
Well, a passing
police officernun, noticing two kids eating out of the same lunch box, felt differently. Maybe she thought that he was bullying me out of my chips at first, I don't know, but I remember her angrily asking him what was going on. He barely got "I forgot-" out before I jumped in to smooth it all over- "No no, it's ok, I gave him my chips, it's ok, I've got enough to eat".
To my surprise, this was apparently worse than if he WAS stealing my chips, because she proceeded to explain (read: publicly lecture) both of us by explaining how, again, MY parents work hard to provide that food for ME, not "everyone else", and that HE should be more mindful about remembering his lunch if he wants to not go hungry sitting in time-out. And then I said it:
"But... but wouldn't Jesus have shared his chips?!?!".
Now, while you envision the raw...nasal, wide-eyed.... seethingly facial reaction from the Nun - understand that I was genuinely asking this woman for validation - I mean I was like 9, and woefully incapable of such snap, witty rhetoric at the drop of a hat. She - was not convinced of this. An ear twist followed, as I was, ahem, "asked" to pack up my lunch for my new destination: The principal's office.
The principal, oddly enough, was not a priest, but a doctor - child psychologist I think, and the man to which I owe a great deal of credit for early exercises in critical thinking that had a profound affect on me. Upon hearing the story of what happened, he of course had to placate the embarrassed and heated nun, but after she left he spoke quite candidly with me. I could tell, even then, that he was being mitigative about explaining school policy, but he also commended me for behaving as Jesus would have. Interesting, I thought, that school policy was in some cases more powerful than Jesus policy?
Then came the obligatory call to my mother to let her know what happened, and that I was suspended for the rest of day as "punishment", but reinforced that this was only to appease school policy for back-talking. When my mother showed up she - actually looked like she had a good laugh about the situation. She again reaffirmed that even though I was being sent home, that I was right to share.
Now you have to understand, at an early age this showed me something profoundly powerful and subtle about the world I was living in. Until then I believed that all adults were on the same page in their convictions. But this showed me something different - that not all adults, and certainly not even those of the cloth, were infallible... that religion was much more subjective than I originally believed, and that adults sometimes disagreed with the institutions they were bound to.
Understand too, as an aside, that this one moment is profoundly powerful in that all it took was a glimpse to realize there was more to the story than what I was being taught. In this realization I have come to understand why most dogmas or political platforms have to be completely rigid and unwaivering - to prevent these situations of undermining challenge.
During my teenage years, "God" took on a persona for me that was rather unlike the powerful, gruff, aged man sitting atop the clouds. As early as 13-14 I distinctly remember chatting with him... as a peer. We used to go to the drive-in movies a lot when I was young, and I remember getting to lay up on the minivan roof from time to time - I would stare up into space, engage in prayer with a traditional sign of the cross, and literally start with "Hey man..". It seemed fitting to me that if God had to respond to all people - young and old, Chinese or Swedish, that it would be silly to think of him demanding that I address him in Latin or barely tolerating me speaking in thee's and thou's and other such formalities. So, I spoke to him in as plain and unmitigated as I could, and imagined he was fine with that.
The language thing then turned into a mental image as well - if God responds to whatever language and literacy you can muster, then why wouldn't he simply appear similarly? From then on God, was a teenage boy - not a mirror image of me, mind you, but just always a similarly built, similarly height-ed compliment to my current age. We spoke frankly, but entirely through rhetoric. I can't propose that he ever even actually spoke back to me directly, just mostly that I would ask a question.. wait a short while, and His "answer" would sort of present itself as an optimistic realization. It's important to note that I still believed that "He" was definitely someone else, so it wasn't like I was being clever ahead of my time - I just happened to give him a bit more credit that you can get more people to relate to you by relating to them, rather than being this stone-cold judge of the clouds that strikes fear into the hearts of men.
It was simultaneously natural in that it quite literally just came to me to view Him in this way without outside influence, and equally scary because I was surrounded by adults and other kids who clearly would not have agreed. It wasn't until much later (17/18) that I felt comfortable enough to share my relative view of God to my family (my mother in particular) who actually thought it was kind of neat rather than scolding me. I guess I felt by then I could no longer "get in trouble" if such blaspheme was ill-received.
And this, admittedly pleasant relationship was the mostly-catholic view I carried with me until well into my late 20s. I wasn't much of a church-goer. When I would go I prefered the open masses, like the beautiful Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver - a church that allowed anyone, even the homeless, a free walk in to service - which was much different than the tightly-knit parish styles of obligation and popularity and the "oh we noticed you weren't at last Sunday's service..." attendance-taking that I had seen elsewhere...
From there it became a topic that I focused less and less on as time went on and became more preoccupied with my career, my new life down in Texas, etc. Then, at about age 29, something happened. I became voraciously obsessed with history, having before studied only enough to get me to pass tests. My disdain for this old knowledge was not, at least in my 20s, for a lack of care. My apathy was fueled by the knowledge that history was often falsified - a lesson I learned when I was 19 in a progressive Sociology course I was taking at C.U. Boulder that introduced me to the first piece of counter-propaganda I had ever encountered- Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.
It probably began just like anything else - a passing revisit on the internet which uncovered a mountain of new information to read about - and more importantly - enough of the right kinds of information sources that made me interested enough to dive in. And somewhere along the way, I introduced and reintroduced myself to people who I had never heard of, and some that I had heard of (Freud, Jung) in College, but lacked the heart-felt spark to really attach to what they were saying and really think and reflect on them.
It.. didn't take but about a year total in research to come to some of the very most sobering and oddly empowering conclusions of my conscious life - that everything that I had been told - indoctrinated to believe about Catholicism and Christianity as a whole - was (bear with me) a complete fairy tale. I say bear with me because it's important to note that at the time I was quite upset, as you could imagine, because it undermined all the time I had spent/wasted learning all that "nonsense" in church about the one Almighty God, his Son our Savior, the Holy Trinity, and all that other crap that was about as wholly-unique onto itself as a quilt is to any one piece of fabric.
I felt.. stupid, honestly, for a time because once the realization hit home, I began to see all of the obvious signs and clues that existed around me during my time that I never paid attention to or even entertained until that moment. It was like I spent the first 28 years walking around with all this "green stuff" in my pocket and then realizing that it was money, and that I didn't even knew I had it or that I could spend it much earlier in the game.
After a while, and as you may be able to now surmise from the theme of this blog - I eventually came to terms with this revelation. Where I once felt more rebellious, wanting to "fight the power" and join the cause of exposing this farce to the poor duped masses who were being controlled and used - I instead gained perspective offered by people like Joseph Campbell and Father Thomas Keating which led me to realize the importance of the metaphor of Religion - and how at their core, they represent a belief system that people can get behind, guiding them to a better life wherein they may not have the same will or circumstances to do so themselves.
I realized why it has such a profoundly positive effect especially in areas of substance abuse recovery, crime rehabilitation, etc - sometimes people need something external to themselves that they can believe in - something they an focus on and feel accountable for because, when left to their own devices, they cannot must the same fortitude alone.
What angers me is that the spiritual journey, near as I can tell, is supposed to lead a person out of that external dependence and into a realization, eventually, that everything they needed was within themselves and that there really was no "Other". This is immensely empowering! It's like working with a person who is learning how to walk again, telling them that you will help them and be their crutch, and getting to that final, beautiful revelation that they thought you were still helping them, but in fact they were able to walk on their own! How much more joyous and wonderful could that be?
It was like the famous Footsteps poem could suddenly become 10x cooler, ending with a single set of footsteps and the final insecure inquiry as to why God had abandoned the man, only to gain the knowledge that he only thought God was walking with him the whole time, when really he was able to do so on his own.
Instead... many organized religions stop at needing the crutch part, focus on externalizing this entity and even going so far as to cripple man by claiming that he was carried during parts of his life. That it is only under the constant struggle, under the constant fear of external consequence and disappointment that we can be "accepted" into this special place. That all the good things that we accomplish weren't really us, but oddly accredited to God as one of "his graces", stripping us of any kind of accomplishment other than the lonely guilt that we are capable of evil that should be atoned for. And then we wonder why people pray for ridiculously materialistic things like money & cars. Or why we would praise Jesus instead of brilliant medical staff when they help our loved ones. It's no wonder his "mysterious plan" had to be invented to fill all the gaps.
The answer, unfortunately, is retention - which is a form of control - You see, empowering people to realize that they are their own wonderful beings capable of great marvels doesn't exactly keep them coming back - much in the same way that actually helping people lose weight is terrible for the pill or shake selling business.
I'll stop here on the rant - I imagine what I've said already might be enough to force some to stop reading, and I understand and apologize if it caused offense.
So what am I, another cold Atheist? Or did I flip over to something a little less control-oriented like Buddhism? The answer is neither, and all of them. I decided, based on everything I've learned, the best I can do is describe myself as Agnostic.
Now, as with any label, this word carries with it a definition and connotation. Some feel that being agnostic is pandering to ALL possibilities for the sake of salvation - sort of like betting on Black AND White at the casino for the assurance that ONE of them must be right. Others think that a gnostic is a scared atheist - unwilling to go as far as to claim there is nothing simply because the notion is to terrifying to accept.
I will say that I am agnostic for neither of these reasons. I have come to complete terms with the fact that I could be absolutely wrong on all counts. I have come to terms with the idea that by not picking a particular team to play for, that I may implicitly be excluded by all of them should a particularly exclusive version turn out to be true. I have come to terms with the idea that I have completely broken my confirmation to catholicism - and if I find myself before a very somber St Peter, wagging his finger and telling me that I chose poorly, that I fully understand the rules of that religious universe to believe that I must suffer eternal damnation or a very very long stay in purgatory.
I will also say that if the Atheists turn out to be right, I won't feel bitter hollowness that my life was ultimately meaningless. I will simply be thankful for the unique opportunity to have live manifested as a human being capable of loving and laughing - and not just as a rock or a piece of glass.
I believe, based on what limited information and compelling data we currently have, that we seem to be the only uniquely existential beings in our observable universe, and that this was no accident. Not to say that we are somehow uniquely immune to Darwinian science, but just that we appear to have a little something extra in us that is more than simply being at the top of the food chain which appears to be from some advanced prototype or being or God-plan, who knows, but again it wouldn't surprise me.
I would not be shocked in the least at several potential outcomes. I wouldn't be surprised that God DID made man. I wouldn't be surprised if Xenu ordered airplane space ships to to be flown into volcanoes and exploded ( just find it laughably unlikely). I wouldn't be surprised if we are the miraculous living will of stardust that created this planet and everything on it millions of years ago.
I just believe that no particular version of these myths that we have seen throughout time, including (but to a lesser concern) science got it 100% correct. I believe we cannot even presume to know what did or did not happen at the beginning, especially since all of those stories were first passed down orally, then latter hand scribed, then later reviewed, changed, etc by countless hands and for countless (not all of them innocent) reasons.
Simply put, if we did at one point have ONE known and recorded creation, be it apes or the rib of a man, that it was subject to thousands and thousands of years of the most lengthy game of Telephone ever witnessed - and furthermore, that at certain places along the way - certain groups of people came to like certain stops of the telephone game along the way so much, that they simply broke away from the core and began to elaborate and re-interpret the story in even more distorted ways because it fit with their views of how the world ought to be governed.
To say that the real, true, word of some omniscient 3rd party deity was magically preserved across all of those hands, kingdoms, ages and people is absurd to me - unless again you take the metaphorical view of "The word of God" to mean the words of honest to goodness men who lived in a time where these moral codes were a much-needed handbook to help the population live.
Which leads me finally to the paradox of my writing this evening regarding the idea that any one religion is "correct".
Paradox 1: Who?
Say for arguments sake that the Christian "God" is the one-true God. Rules there say that playing for another team is expressly prohibited, as called out the core rulebook, aka the Commandments.
Now, say, you are a child born on a farm in China, where your family doesn't really have money and you essentially survive on running the farm. Say the only deity you ever even HEAR of is Buddha. There you are, living your entire modest but devout life without even so much as hearing the word God spoken to you.
Now think about this - are people like this unwillingly damned? I mean that's not JUST breaking the 1st commandment - that's an entire lifetime of not being baptized, participating in the Eucharist, observing the Sabbath, observing Easer, Good Fridays, or even so much as hearing one Gospel of the Lord.
Now really imagine God sitting in a room with one of these people after expiring, rather than imagining this magically dehumanizing BS that gets sold to you that their souls just don't pass go and get rerouted somewhere else. Imagine God himself having to make this call for the first few times before it got automated. I mean the guy did nothing wrong, he loved his family, and simply because no human missionary happened to knock on the poor guys door and asked "Have you found Jesus?" - the guy is just SOL?
Sorry, but I can't buy it. I don't think God would be so callous. I have read articles regarding this very subject - the optimistic ones try to dance around the topic by saying that IF you've heard the gospel, and reject it, then you are condemned (sounds fair), and that if you never heard it, then you will instead by judged by "Natural Law" or "They Royal Law" (aka the golden rule). Hey, that doesn't sound so bad, right?
But here's the real kicker, if God turned out to be compassionate to this man's plight, because he otherwise lived a fruitful and loving life, then doesn't this then undermine the entire doctrine of NEEDING to know the gospel? Heck, it might be a greater service to someone like this to NOT tell them about the gospel, and simply teach them the golden rule for fear that in a predominantly Buddhist family, that it may not pan out to conversion - at which point the very act of trying to evangelize to the poor guy unknowingly printed his ticket to hell?
Either way, I believe these are things where focus is highly discouraged, because it undermines their power in the same way that translating the Bible out of Latin was such a big deal. Decentralization of power and control is a big no-no in more circles than just politics and money.
Paradox 2: What are the odds?
Again, assuming that if one particular religion is correct, and that people who believe in not-this are wrong and cast out of whatever awesome place comes in the afterlife, it pays to look at the scoreboard in a broader sense than you might be used to. Let's look at the top religions by followers:
- Christianity (2.2 billion)
- Islam (1.9 billion)
- Buddhism (1.5 billion)
- Hinduism (1 billion)
Fairly healthy spread. World population clock shows 6.8 billion people in the world. Let's do some salvation math. If you're Hindu, a whopping 75% of the world disagrees with you - on up to Christianity, where %68 of the world population is on on their way to hell - that is unless they have not heard the gospel, in which case it's the Golden Rule test to see if they pass into the same pearly white gates as everyone else who had to really learn.
Now really, doesn't this seem sightly unrealistic? I wager it's safe to say that the world is at least small enough these days that all 4 of the top religions have heard of each other, and that there is little reason for these numbers to sway wildly from where they are now unless people start getting eradicated. Doesn't it seem highly illogical that a supreme being has a hard time winning out in a majority vote vs. the overall population?
This division alone tells me two things: 1) They each have a core set of values that are perfectly fine to live by (ignoring the fanatical extremes for a moment) and 2) We can't agree because they each "feel" like a rightish answer but we can't commit to proving or knowing that only one is the "real deal".
Back at the beginning of this, I spoke about how Thackeray's quote was the embodiment of what I believe in. No, it may not have been the version of God you were looking for, but it personifies the version of God that everyone can stand to learn from. The metaphor of the divine is all around us, every day, but it's not the possession of some third-party deity - it is quite simply, and always has been, just us. A baby, who has yet to even comprehend God knows only her mother's face. That face is the center of her universe, her God. And when she grows up to have children of her own, that legacy is passed downward to her child.
I have one final story to tell - not a paradox, but really a theory that summarize the open-mindedness that I carry within me that there may very well have been something advanced before us that made us.
Consider the problem we have now with space travel. We have an extremely hard time shipping a fully grown person light-years and light-years away to a distant, inhospitable planet - so what do we do instead? We send machines that act as our eyes, hands and ears. What are we looking for? Various things, amongst them signs of life, but more importantly, signs of life-supporting planets that we could one day expand to.
Now let's say that we found such a planet, but it was very far away. Even if we tried to send babies a-la Superman, this planet is so far away that it would still be too far out to make it in a lifetime.
Suppose, for a moment, that someone comes up with a brilliant plan - if we can pack up a bunch of seeds - sperms, eggs, etc... and send those towards the planet in deep space, why we could keep those seeds dormant until arrival, and kick the planet off with a little spark of life! Do you think we would try such a plan? I do - and I think you're probably feeling me on where this is going....
Say we only had enough genetic material to get things started - but we can't even really grow a *normal* human because the planet isn't *exactly* like earth - we might have to try a few generations and revisions before we get it right. Or hey, maybe the planet we find already has some basic life on it, so we decide to toss our secret sauce into an existing animal archetype and see if we can't create a hybrid long term?
So we make it happen, but maybe we're scared for them psychologically - I mean if we hang around with a couple of robots and tell them "Yeah we grew you on this distant planet so uh... get to breeding please" - it may not leave the best of intentions - sort of like the perils of telling a genetic clone that he's a clone, you know?
So maybe we decide to pull out once it seems like things are set up to run automatically - maybe we observe from afar without too much interference so that they don't realize what we've done. Maybe we show up every so often to "help" ensure that they stay on the right track - maybe give them a little literature or a whisper here and there about some of the stuff we learned on behaving back on our planet...
You think we'd do it? What if that is our history? Just one of the other possibilities that would not surprise me in the least. I believe that genetics carry in us a very positive bond to what we are and what we've been before, and I believe it would be just a matter of time that those people we created would start looking up at the stars and wonder - where'd I come from.... really?