Tag Archives: religion

Keeping the faith

jamaicasky

There is a melancholy to the world right now.  I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on.  BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours.  The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters.  I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family.  It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.”  He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass.  When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week.  The downpour outside would not dampen those moods.   I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.

Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot.  Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out.  Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic.  What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?

Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity.  But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.

A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used:  remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service.  (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.)  I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities.  I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore.  But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart.  At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me.  Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.

To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization.  I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you.  I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap.  It’s an answer, but not THE answer.  It never adds up to 42.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to).  My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging.  FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on?  Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups?  Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe?  Um…

Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you.  One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is.  Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you.  Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard.  Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you.  More doesn’t mean better.  Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said.  What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?

The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have.  And we are all doing it to ourselves.  Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds.  Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview.  You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place.  Consequentially, your personality starts to change.  Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still.  Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good.  Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them.  You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive.  You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch.  You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.

Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you.  Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers.  You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this.  So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity.  We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours.  And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are.  And learn to smile about it.

Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted.  For the moment, it answers enough.  When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded.  I knew that he’d have a good time.  Beneath his nerves, so did he.  The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through.  We will go on.

Have faith.

With a Song in My Heart: I is for…

“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.

I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising.  You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice.  Lennon again.  A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already.  I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice.  I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting.  Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so.  President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed.  (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.)  So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction.  We’ll go another way.

Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”?  The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions.  The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps.  Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions.  I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.”  No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children.  When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.”  Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal.  And I wasn’t in the mood to buy.  With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise.  I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit.  It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven.  I didn’t even have to try.  Lennon got it, though.  He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.

When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side.  Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.”  There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all.  That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements.  They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here.  We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next.  Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead.  The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.

John Lennon says no, this is all there is.  While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful.  Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need.  Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be.  The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old.  Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state.  People die and are transformed.  Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history.  The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed.  Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.

So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person?  Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be.  There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me.  Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical.  My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty.  Living for today, and in peace.

I hope someday you’ll join me.

Bursting the bubble

Bubble Rain.  Source:  Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.
Bubble Rain. Source: Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.

Reza Aslan has had an interesting week in the limelight.  A few days following an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, he became the newest viral video sensation when an “interview” he did/was subjected to on Fox News garnered an impressive level of coverage, for both the stupidity of the questions he was being asked and his unflappable calm in responding to them; akin, as some have observed, to a teacher instructing a babbling child.  As he mentions in the clip, Aslan is an impeccably credentialed academic who has made a career of studying and writing about religion, and so, to be interrogated repeatedly by a person whose education beyond fourth grade is dubious (at least based on this clip), “why does a Muslim want to write a book about Christ?” is probably the intellectual equivalent of being asked who he’s wearing on the red carpet tonight.  The embarrassing affair veers further of the rails when she begins badgering him about why he hasn’t revealed that he’s a Muslim before (he has, on multiple occasions), as she panders to that sizable portion of the Fox demographic that presumes Muslim = al-Qaeda.  The blatant anti-intellectualism would be galling if it weren’t so unsurprising, if one did not have to assume that the interviewer’s questions were prepared and approved enthusiastically (with frat boy giggles, in all odds) by a cynical producer seeking to perpetuate an insular, terribly biased view of the world for the benefit of Fox’s ratings.

Bill Maher is fond of pointing out that conservatives live in a bubble where they cannot accept anything that challenges how they choose to view the world.  It is quite possible the person conducting the interview with Aslan was so committed to this mindset that why a Muslim would write a book on Christ simply would not compute.  When you sacrifice the scary world of the unknown for the comforting confines of dogma, of course the curiosity of others becomes impossible to understand.  That’s why you get members of Congress (on science and technology committees, of all things) claiming defiantly that we don’t need to worry about global warming because God promised Noah he would never flood the world again.  But this notion that one should stay inside the lines, refrain from asking questions about things we don’t understand and (horrors!) actively explore topics that interest us despite their seeming to have no relation to our own lives, goes against the very notion of human progress.  If we don’t venture out of the cave we don’t discover fire.  If we presume that the earth is flat and there is nothing beyond the ocean sea, I’m writing this post in England right now (actually, I’m probably scrawling it in ink on parchment).  If we accept that the moon is made of green cheese we don’t have Apollo 11.  We have to ask questions about things that are foreign to us.  We have to examine viewpoints that contradict ours.  In the case of persons of faith, it’s what strengthens that faith – for unchallenged it is not faith at all.  For those of us who choose not to walk the religious path, it’s gathering those elusive nuggets of truth that help us sort out our own thoughts on What It’s All About.  And that sometimes means examining religion too, even if Fox News can’t understand why we would do it.  Curiosity is a trait borne of hunger, from a dissatisfaction with the distasteful notion of accepting things as they are.  Being unwilling to accept limits.  Curiosity is what makes us smash through those limits with an iron fist and reach for what’s hidden on the other side.  You never know, it might be something good.

We are fortunate to be living in this time, when the world has geared itself like a finely-tuned clock toward the indulgence of curiosity, when information is readily available to those who seek it out.  The human thirst for progress has led us here, centuries from the era when the Fox News illiterati whom we now laugh at with millions of snarky voices were once those who would have had us burned at the stake in a heartbeat for uttering a single syllable against their ridiculously narrow view of the cosmos.  Millions of opinions on just as many issues are published every single day and we are free to sort through the noise to find the songs we want to add to our ever-expanding repertoire.  Why would a Muslim want to write a book on Christ?  Because he can.  And we should want to read it for the same reason (in a happy ending for him, Aslan’s book Zealot has hit #1 on Amazon’s rankings this week).  That’s how we learn.  Which, one supposes, is the real danger to the folks like the purveyors of Fox News who rely on closed minds to replenish their bank accounts – fill a bubble with too much knowledge and it bursts.

Of faith and learning

A friend directed me to a recent piece in The Toronto Star about how Ontario schools have seen a surge in parents requesting that their children be excused from classrooms when the subject being taught conflicts with their religious beliefs (eg. evolution).  This follows the incident several months ago involving a Catholic school board leader who was pilloried in the press for breaking Godwin’s law while trying to explain why her board refused to permit gay-straight alliance clubs on campus (she infamously and quite stupidly said “We don’t allow Nazi groups either”).  This is one of those areas where there seems to be no middle ground; you either believe these parents are standing up for their faith and their most cherished values against offensive secular indoctrination, or you think they’re utter ignoramuses trying to shield their poor kids from truth and consequently crippling their ability to function in the real world.

If you have to pin my belief system down to a single philosophy for the sake of reference, I’m probably closest to what’s called a secular humanist.  I like to know how things work and I’m unsatisfied with the explanation that life functions as it does because of the will of an insubstantial being who decided my fate long before I was born.  Yet I acknowledge that there are numerous things I don’t understand and never will – and I’m okay with that.  Rather like how not knowing the ending encourages you to keep reading the book, I’m happy for the continuing mysteries of the universe, because they keep me asking questions, keep me exercising my intellect in pursuit of truth.  I recognize that I will never know everything, but I can always learn more.  A man does endless reps on the rowing machine not because there is an acme of idealized muscular strength he needs to reach, but because he wants to make himself ever stronger.  That’s the most wonderful thing about learning; there will always be something new to learn, and, if one is to extend the metaphor of the gym, simply working your chest and avoiding the leg press will only make you look like Donkey Kong.  Shutting out the acquisition of knowledge because said knowledge fails to dovetail with ideology results in a state of imbalance – an inability to complete the equation or to advance the cause of truth.

Faith is not an easy journey.  Whether it is faith in God, faith in one’s fellows or faith in oneself, it requires strength.  Where extreme believers such as those who demand little Johnny not hear a peep about Charles Darwin fail their children in teaching them that lesson is in sending them the message that their faith is so brittle it cannot stand challenge.  Unchallenged faith is no faith at all – it’s blind obedience, and I also suspect that the vast majority who consider themselves spiritual do not like to think of themselves as mindless followers.  I have also never understood why some can’t accept the precepts of science while continuing to keep faith, that every word of the Bible has to be literally true for any part of it to have any weight.  After all, scientific thought built the iPad on which you’re tweeting your screed against the evil atheist school system.  It would seem to me that anything as universal as “God” cannot and should not be codified in human language, that the very concept defies the limits imposed upon it by the twenty-six letters of our alphabet.  It remains an unanswerable question, but one that demands pursuit.  Faith, then, is the sense that there is an answer worth going after – and if one is to approach understanding, then you can’t arbitrarily discount the information that might help you get that infinitesimal step closer.  Deciding that my mind’s made up and I’m going to stick my fingers in my ears when someone says something that contradicts it, is sacrificing that most precious gift of free will, the most important quality that guides our brief journey across life.

I’m not saying that what I believe is what you should believe.  Everyone deserves the chance to figure it out for themselves, because that’s the only way it’s going to work.  It’s our mandate as human beings to not abdicate our responsibility to learn all we can while we’re here, otherwise life is truly Shakespeare’s poor player strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, the tale told by the idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.  Let the kids learn about science in school.  Let them learn about God in church.  And most importantly, let them learn enough to be able to make up their own minds.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.

The wisdom of Isaac Asimov

Something different this morning.  Offered without comment for your appreciation and reflection, the ageless wisdom of Isaac Asimov.  Hat tip to my friend Tadd.

“When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

“To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.”

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

And he was a Star Trek fan too.