It was in the minds of forgotten, long-ago thinkers that the notion of divinity was coded into a language of symbols and rituals to bring about the obedience of humanity to the will of lustrous gods in their cosmic heaven through the agency of priests in their Earthly temples.

I don’t know who developed the ideas that bound the Sumerians to the orderly pageant of heaven as a kind of living mythology, but that idea was a potent one that caught priestly attention because none other than the local priest himself would play the mediating role between the so-called prime mover of the stars and those who read the radiant, angelic signs from below.

Earth and its cosmos would share in the same divine (shining, godly) order if the two could somehow be linked at the nexus between them, so unifying state, church, and people under the figure of a prime mover (creator and supreme being) in his heaven.

Sumerians set up the linkage, and have left shards of the cuneiform star chart or plan of heaven they worked out based on three celestial regions watched over by three separate gods. Anu as the highest god resided in the central, circumpolar region; Enlil, king of gods, resided in the zodiac made up of houses of twelve lesser gods marking out the paths of sun, moon and planets; and Enki, father of divine wisdom, resided in the fringe area closest to the pillars that held the heavens above the Earth.

A trinity of gods was in the heavens from humans’ formative conception. When that idea resurfaced during Rome’s transition from pagan empire to a Christian presence in the following millennium, it demonstrated the persistence of cultural ideas (memes) that survive via the medium of human memory and belief.

In the interim, the Greeks in the person of Plato and other thinkers subsequently supplied the philosophical rationale of the world soul, which spread through the colossus of religious belief via Aristotle, Abraham, Paul of Tarsus, the Neoplatonists, unto Constantine, the Prophet Mohammad and, in the thirteenth-century, Thomas Aquinas, among many others, thus staunchly assuring the personification of a prime mover and ruler of the one-turning universe.

Now in the Space Age, with photographs of stellar and planetary creation from the ashes of supernovas being readily available, that earlier meme has now outrun its currency. The idea of binding-back to the harmony of the formerly convenient fiction of cosmic unity is now over-stretched as a footnote to the meandering history of situated intelligence at the core of the human mind.

This long-standing abuse of the stars was upheld by all monotheistic religions, even after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) made it clear that our planet is not now and never has been the center of the solar system. This revelation (long known by some) scuttled the idea of the universe and world soul as conceived up until then. As a truth claim, that former vision was proved to be false.

Long before then the meme of a divine prime mover at the center of the cosmos had become a cultural fixture. And that fixture was deeply embedded in the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions. Not only that, but in the institution of religion itself.

The tenacity of that meme in surviving against all odds hardened it from an ideal belief into a rigid universal constant unscathed by the mass of undeniable evidence that it was untrue. It was a truth of faith, not fact.

That faith had expanded from a regional Sumerian revelation in the Land between the Rivers, to a prescriptive belief that built monuments in other lands, to a global faith destined to implode from the weight of its inconsistencies as yet one more chapter in the history of intelligent minds in black boxes attempting to solve the world puzzle.

I take this chain of events as demonstrating the persistence of ideas that, once entertained in a given mind, become generally accepted by expanding numbers of people to, like a ripple made by a pebble thrown into the ocean, eventually engulfing the Earth.

Never underestimate the power of an idea in a single mind to which subsequent generations are born, all doubt having evaporated in the meantime, so the new generation takes guidance from the ritualized wisdom of the ancients. Think of spacetime as subject to gravitational influence. Turning trees into toilet paper. Eating with chopsticks. Eating with silver. The World Wide Web. Driverless cars. The birth of Venus. Pinocchio. The Tooth Fairy. Evil. The infallibility of the Pope. Justice. Truth. Peace. Freedom. Eternal love.

Cultures are built from two-way engagements between human minds. Individuals get what they want; groups of people get what they need to sustain their belief in the mystery, majesty, and convenience of an idea that floated to the surface of a mind and spread far and wide in general practice as if by law.

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(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Given that I ended my last post on the note we may not wake up tomorrow, I will continue in that vein to see if I can’t discover some more satisfactory resolution.

 

Speaking of mortality, the day I wrote this post, I read the scariest article I have ever read, Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet addresses a different kind of integrity than I have presented in my last two reflections, a single-minded adherence to dogma derived from self-serving interpretation of religious scripture among members of the military.

 

Even as the U.S. conducts its so-called war on terror, many of its fighters and their leaders are finding strength in deviant religious doctrine by which Christian warriors will triumph against not only Islamic infidels but non-extremist Americans as well. We are breeding the very enemy within our ranks while doing battle in the arid lands of the Middle East. First we armed the mujahideen as our proxy warriors against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan; now we are training an army of religious extremists within our own forces. At present, their guns are aimed at Islamic fundamentalists, but their ideology is aimed straight at the heart of America’s Christian fundamentalists and a mythic government worthy of their ideals. I see a civil war brewing in our midst, pitting armed extremists—largely whites from the South serving as an army of God—against their more liberal brethren in the North and Far West.

 

Sharlet backs up his thesis by giving name and rank of many of his informants. One, “who asked that he not be named so as not to compromise his close connection to today’s top officers,” provided this view:

 

Although the military was integrated before much of the United States, he points out, it almost split along racial lines, particularly in the last days of Vietnam. If the military was to rebuild itself, the Southern white men at the heart of its warrior culture had to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color. Many, says the senator, turned toward religion, particularly fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. . . . “They replaced race with religion,” says the senator. “The principle remains the same—an identity built on being separate from a society viewed as weak and corrupt.”

 

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Young speaks for many in the military. Sharlet quotes him as saying “Really, arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” Christian, that is, with savage twists of hatred, superiority, and self-righteousness mixed in. This new military is more interested in defending its ideological interpretations of scripture than in defending the American people, many of whom it covertly despises.

 

Here is the heart of the problem humanity faces in trying to come to grips with its errant ways. Our left-brain interpreters are so good at synthesizing the many messages they receive from all quarters of the brain, it’s hard not to be swayed by them. But when interpreters are employed defensively in the interest of received dogma, relying largely on ideology approved by external agencies and institutions more than firsthand conscious experience, then the interpreter’s first duty is to cast a critical eye on the beliefs it is passing off as its own.

 

Anything written must be regarded with particular scrutiny because words can lie so convincingly. Scripture in particular—whether written 2,710, 1,955, or 1,377 years ago by Jewish, Christian, or Islamic hands in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic—must be regarded as suspect because of the gulf between what was understood then to be true in the idiom of that time and what we understand in the light of today. It is particularly dangerous to apply ancient words to modern situations as if ancient and modern people were the same. We take Plato and Aristotle with a grain of salt; we must treat religious accounts the same way. Even if we enjoy reading them, we must keep in mind that was then, this is now. The situations in which those words arose no longer exist. When translated into modern languages, even though we want to believe them, our judgment must point out that ancient truths have a shelf life of a single generation, and that even 100 years after they were written, the context that provided their meaning had been largely forgotten.

 

For example, in winter 1986-1987, I sat down and read through the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible (Oxford University Press, 1976). I read it as literature—the word of lower-case men—not the word of upper-case God. In 1 Corinthians, I marked these passages as being of interest:

 

If the dead are never raised to life, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (15.32).

 

But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? How foolish! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a naked grain, perhaps of wheat, or of some other kind; and God clothes it with the body of his choice, each seed with its own particular body (15.35-38). . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body (15.42-44). . . . What I mean, my brothers, is this: flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality. Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise immortal, and we shall be changed. This perishable being must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal must be clothed with immortality. And when our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of Scripture will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ (15.50-55).

 

Very powerful writing, as much of Paul is. He presents his argument in orderly fashion, develops it by analogy, then draws his conclusion. He is a practiced rhetorician. That is, he skillfully uses words to make his points. But this is ancient persuasion, not truth. 

 

His topic is resurrection as a solution to the problem of death. He reasons by analogy from the plant world to the human, but within the understanding of his time (Corinthians is dated to the mid-50s BCE) which understood little about genetics or the germination of seeds. Paul presents planting seeds in the ground as analogous to burying the dead, or to death itself. Since the resulting sprout seemed to bear no resemblance to the seed, some agency must have been responsible for giving the seed a new garment or new body. By leap of faith, the only agent capable of making such a switch would be God, the ultimate agency for making good things happen beyond the limits of human understanding. (It would have been Satan, the anti-God concept, that made bad things happen.)

 

Getting to his point—the resurrection of the dead—Paul leaps from seeds to animal bodies, which can only achieve a spiritual existence after death through intervention by the same agency. In his day when distinctions were less closely drawn, that might have followed as a logical conclusion, but it now comes across very much like hand-waving by his left-brain interpreter. It is God’s will; Satan made me do it. Which are not explanations at all but fabulous accounts of everyday wonders.

 

Then Paul hits his emotional stride and is on-message with his interpreter. We are not going to die after all. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call”—this is the language of fairy-tale, not truth. No matter how much we want to believe, we must look around for the man at the levers behind the curtain. If judgment does not serve us now, we are lost. “‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” On whose authority might that be? Paul’s very own. That is, the authority of his left-brain interpreter. This is the man who took a hand in the stoning of St. Stephen, who had an episode on the road to Damascus, who converted from Judaism to become a follower of Christ. When traditional Jewish law failed him, he turned to love. There was incredible stress in his life during a time of great upheaval at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a case for Paul being gay long before it would have been acceptable: “It was, I believe, a repressed gay man named Paul of Tarsus who had been taught by his religion and his society to hate what he knew he was, who ultimately gave to the Christian faith its concept of grace, as the undeserved, unmerited love of God found in Christ Jesus” (Preface, The Letters of Paul, page xxxix).

 

And almost two thousand years later, we are to accept the word of this man so desperate for acceptance on the sensitive subject of life after death? I say we take it at face value, warts and all, and let it go at that. We are fortunate to have dictation from this able man’s left-brain interpreter extant for our examination. It is now up to us to conduct a suitably rigorous examination. If our left-brain interpreters leap to the conclusion that Paul was right because the book his words are written in would not lie to us, so grant them safe conduct across the intervening span of years to this very day, well, I say we are not only extremely needy but gullible to boot.

 

To put massive firepower in the hands of men who take the Bible as literal truth is the height of foolishness and misplaced trust. Men who kill for a living harden their interpreters against any and all criticism. They do it to protect themselves, but in the process may well be putting the rest of us at risk. This is exactly the kind of movement we must guard against. On the lookout for swarthy terrorists, who among us would suspect our own troops, the guys we support with all those yellow ribbons and bumper stickers?

 

I have a whole page of jottings about what I intended to cover in this post, and haven’t gotten to any of them. For today, I will leave it at that.

 

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