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Posts Tagged ‘Paradox’

As I indicated in a post last week, I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now, and the second item on the list says SATISFACTION/SPIRITUALITY. I don’t know if I have as much to say about this one as I do about the last, even though in many ways it is bigger. And again, it’s more of a cluster of interrelated issues (that are themselves related to other things on the list) than one discrete one. And it’s a hard one to talk about because it’s vague, abstract, and super personal.

One of the facets of this problem is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that I hunger for God. I desperately want to know God and be known by God, to experience God’s presence and have that hunger somehow be satisfied in God.

The problem is that God never satisfies, and I don’t know what to do about that.

I can sometimes get little tastes of God’s presence and momentary mild satisfaction in God, but never in the deep, complete sense that I desperately long for. And I only get any of that when I engage in some kind of dedicated spiritual practice. God never calls me; I always have to call God. And even when I call God, never fully satisfies.

Really, it would be easy to just not care about God. That’s what a lot of people do. They’re not worried about it, it doesn’t interest them, so God presence or distance is just irrelevant. God is not a thing they have in their life and they don’t miss God or sense a lack. That would work great for me, except I sense the lack. I have this hunger, and it wants to be satisfied. I want God. I can’t just, not. So here I am.

I have yet to find an approach to spirituality, prayer, spiritual practice, rule of life, or “relationship with Jesus Christ” that leads reliably to any kind of satisfaction in God. Granted, I have never been able to do any of that stuff very reliably or consistently, but that’s one of the relevant variables, isn’t it? A pathway that leads to God that I am unable to walk may as well be a pathway that doesn’t lead to God at all.

This drifts into a second facet, which is that I consistently find that, the darker things are for me (whether it’s a matter of depression, anxiety, or just terrible shit happening), the less I am able to pursue God through spiritual practice. Really, it’s more extreme than that: I am only able to bring myself to pursue God through sustained spiritual practice, but I am only able to engage in sustained spiritual practice when I am in a good place, things are going well, and I am generally emotionally and spiritually healthy. When things are dark, I can’t. And that means that when I need God the most, God is the least there for me.

I mean, on the one hand, I could just totally blame myself. I’m not doing a good enough job of connecting with God, so how should I expect God to be there for me? But I need God to have enough grace for me to be there when I’m unable to reach out for him. I need God to call me when I’m unable to call him. If my relationship with God is solely dependent on my ability to consistently maintain it, then I’m basically screwed. Also, if that’s the case, then God is an asshole, because that’s not how healthy relationships work.

Many very lovely people have recommended all kinds of approaches and spiritual practices to me as ways to connect to God, but most of them are non-starters. I have had some success (during good times) praying the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer, but, like I said, that only holds for as long as things are going well. When I really need God, God is never there. But the hunger stays.

Someone smart told me that the hunger itself is actually a connection to God. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t solve the problem of never feeling satisfied.

Finally, I wonder if I am onto something with last week’s revelation about Mormonism, i.e., that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply (and experiencing God’s presence) is knowing God with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. Even–especially–the Mormon ones. But I don’t know what that looks like. My gut says that the way to connect to God is through depth–engaging deeply in a set of spiritual practices over time, but that also involves choosing a framework to engage with, to the exclusion of others, and I don’t know if that works. So it’s a frustrating paradox. Setting aside the fact that God pretty much utterly abandons me every time I even have a dim twilight of the soul, my intuition says that I could theoretically commune with God in, for example, an Anglican way (the daily office, like I’ve been trying to do), but it turns out that doesn’t work because I’m not an Anglican person. Or at least not just an Anglican person. I’m also, deep in my heart center, a Mormon person. So, somehow I need to figure out how to reach out to God in a way that honors all of my messy pieces, I guess. But I don’t have any idea what that even looks like in practice.

And I know there are some of you out there reading this and thinking “oh man, you’re seriously over-complicating this; it’s really so easy to just (fill in the blank with something trite or vague.” Well, fuck you, you smug asshole. I’m doing the best that I can with the tools I have. I’ve already tried simple and it doesn’t work.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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In the past I have almost been panicked about religion, but I think that has changed. While I’m no more committed to any one religious direction than I was, say, a year ago—and I am likewise not committed to “no direction” or any given assortment of directions—I am no longer stressed out about the idea of picking a religion. Instead, I am simply more aware of the factors that influence my decision, and I am better situated to pull apart religion and my brain to see what the real issues are and to better evaluate my choices.

My beautiful and sexy wife commented to me in the car the other day that it seemed to her that I used to be trying to figure out what religion is true, but now I am trying to figure out which religion I can believe in, and that the difference is subtle but powerful. I would add a paradoxical qualification to her assessment: I used to be trying to figure out which religion was true in a completely subjective sense, and now I am trying to figure out which religion I can believe in objectively.

Whether that actually is a paradox or whether it even makes sense is not really all that important. What is important is that given the recent upset in my commitment to Christianity, I am once again evaluating my options, spiritually speaking. This may be a genuine crossroads in my spiritual development, and it may just be a lull in my development as a Christian, i.e., a phase that I will pass through. I don’t know which one it is. In any event, I am aware that my thinking over he past year has changed dramatically, and so my rubric for evaluating religion is now considerably different, although I am basically considering the same set of religious options that I have been for some time.

In the next set of posts, I want to pull together all of the strands of my current spot in the quest for truth, and express my evaluation of my various religious options with respect to my evolving way of thinking about faith, truth, and religion. As I add those posts, I will also index them here. My intention is also to hopefully articulate more clearly some of the things I have been trying to say in the past several posts. In any case, stay tuned.

Part I: C. S. Lewis’s Model Of Moral Reasoning

Part II: The Problem With Pluralism

Unfinished Notes on Part III: Religious Choices And Their Values

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1. I think religious institutions, especially centralized, hierarchical ones, are either inherently oppressive and abusive or else so open and prone to abuse that human nature nevertheless makes abuse and oppression inevitable.

2. I have a hard time feeling like religious belief is valid without the stamp of approval from an authoritative religious hierarchy.

Thank you, Mormonism.

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I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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Still thinking of reasons to believe…

Something hit me about a week ago, when watching the Passion of the Christ: people do really, really horrible things to each other.  The sick twisted stuff that people do to each other, the brutality, the dehumanization, the sadism, the torture, it blows the mind.  Why do people do such horrific things?

At the same time, I wonder if that isn’t a kind of evidence for God for me.  This isn’t a logical argument with premises and conclusions- I don’t even really want to go there right now.  It’s an intuitive thing.  Here goes-

Human beings are capable of unique evil.  We do so much that is purely motivated by malice, and we are capable of an kind of evil that you don’t see elsewhere in the natural world.  Some of the nasty crap we do can be explained as evolutionarily functional: war overresources, for example, or male promiscuity.  I’m not talking about that stuff.  I’m talking about genocide and systematic horror that we inflict on each other, the kind of stuff that isn’t really functional, so it doesn’t make sense, or rather, it doesn’t seem to have a natural explanation.

Nature isn’t malicious; it’s indifferent.  It’s not evil; it’s amoral.  But we can do things that are horrible to each other that go far beyond the harsh indifferent cruelty of nature.

And it’s not limited to the Hitlers and Pol Pots of the world, either.  Just think for a second; I’ll bet you can imagine some pretty horrible things that you could do to another person, if you put your mind to it.  Even if we’d never consider doing it, why can we even think of those things?

By contrast, almost all the good we seem to be able to do is either  1) evolutionarily functional (like parents sacrificing for their children, or pretty much anything good you do that has an element of self-interest or group-interest) or 2) only a matter of correcting bad stuff.  If I feed millions of starving people, for example, I’m not creating a positive good so much as I am merely correcting an evil.

It’s easy to think of horrible and nasty things you could to to hurt other people for no reason and no real benefit to you (and therefore not easy to explain by evolution or nature), but it’s hard to even think of positive good (something above and beyond just correcting something bad) that you can do that isn’t naturally explicable and evolutionarily functional.

To me, this makes me think a couple of things.  One, maybe there’s something to the idea that we’re fallen, broken people in a fallen, broken world that needs fixing.  And maybe unnatural evil means that there might be unnatural good.  It’s hard to even imagine what that kind of unnatural, positive good would look like (because of the T in the Tulip, maybe?), but if there can be malicious non-functional evil, why can’t there be pure good, righteousness, sanctification, holiness.  And if it’s not here in our world, then where is it?

Where did evil come from?  It’s not easily explainable from a naturalistic point of view.  Does that mean it comes from outside the naturalist model somewhere?  And if there is evil from outside, why not good?

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I wonder if God may exist after all, despite our best efforts to logically prove he doesn’t.

I’ve been tossing around this idea. Science can’t really prove or disprove God, right? Science rests on certain assumptions, and at the very least in order to come within the realm of science, something has to be falsifiable. An omnipotent God isn’t falsifiable, so science is simply ill-equipped to deal with the question of God. That’s not to say that science should therefore asssume God’s existence. Actually, it means that science should continue on, assuming God’s non-existence, because science competely breaks down if you start throwing in ascientific variables like “God.”

But who’s to say that you can prove or disprove God with logic, either? I mean, logic seems to be a great thing, but there’s no way to logically prove the rules of logic themselves- they are assumptions. Sure they seem to work on just about everything we have encountered, but if God is transcendent then could he not also transcend things like logic? Even science tells us that there can be places (even theoretical ones) where rules like cause and effect can totally break down (singularities, etc.). Perhaps God simply is not subject to logic. God may very well be a kind of divine paradox. In fact, theological precedent already supports that idea what with mystery (the trinity for example) and all.

Setting aside the ramifications of such a God, I can at least accept the possibility that such a God may exist. This also squares with what little I know about Kierkegaard and his view of religion as inherently absurd, but not in a perjorative way.

I’ve thought about the possibility of a paradoxical God before, but the thoguht sort of coalesced better after I read a very good article about why religion is valuable even if you are an atheist.

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