Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Literal vs. Interpretation

Two separate conversations, one with an Atheist, one with a born-again Christian, led me back to an old place in my journey of understanding that I thought I had come to grips with.

When I was just a lad in Catholic school, I was shocked to find out from my teacher that Catholics were "interpretational" readers of the Bible. (Some are more shocked by the "reader" part of that statement.) I was taken aback by the fact that everything in the Bible wasn't viewed as historically accurate. You'll have to forgive my naivete, but I was in third grade. Being that I still believe in Santa Claus, you can understand my proclivity for buying into Genesis hook, line and sinker. Maybe this early revelation helped to weather later challenges to my belief where others, that spend as much time as I do thinking about this stuff, fell off. But my initial reaction was something akin to, "Whaaaaa?!! We don't believe in the Bible word for word? Isn't this stuff supposed to be written by God?" (I was obviously losing more sleep than your typical third grader.) As I got older, and delved more deeply into the Bible's actual contents, I realized that there were no dinosaurs in the creation story and that unicorns are only in the Noah story according to the Irish Rovers. In places, the Bible even contradicts itself! 

The conversations that keeps bringing me back to this are the Biblical proscriptions on homosexuality. I always like to challenge literalists with the ol' "so you don't eat animals with split hooves?" or "you've never worked on a Saturday?" I know it's not a fair way to argue, but there are few things that I derive as much pleasure from than getting someone fired up. I was having one such discussion a couple of weeks back and the answer to my question was that the Old Testament was based on the law. The law was God's covenant with the Jews and both parties followed the rules in order to fulfill the covenant, just like any other agreement back in the day. This is one of the reasons there is so much emphasis placed on the ritual of these agreements with God. These were how contractual agreements were entered into, i.e. cutting up livestock, blood oaths. When Jesus enters the picture, all the old covenants were null and void; because Jesus opened the gates of heaven with his sacrifice. He covered our debt to God, if I can use that base of an analogy. So, in essence, the law of Moses no longer applies, but the moral lessons still hold firm. I thought that's not a bad argument, and can demonstrate how one can still believe in the moral aspects of the OT without following the letter of the law in, say, the Book of Numbers. It also sets up Paul to be logically consistent in telling people they didn't have to be Jewish to follow Christ.

The other conversation was much less theological, as one would assume. I was challenged on how I can believe in a document written thousands of years ago that has obvious inconsistencies, if I believed in scientific truths. We parried back and forth about the validity of ontological arguments, etc. The important thing here is that I was left with a feeling of doubt that I hadn't felt in a while. I was hard pressed to find a reason to believe what I believe in the Bible versus what I don't believe.

This is what I arrived at. The Bible isn't a story about God, or about history, or even the people in it. It is a love story. It is a story about God's patience with the human race. In the old testament, things had to be explained to people in contexts that they knew. Think about how difficult it would be for you to explain space travel or even a 747 to a Medieval mind in a way that they would truly understand. The best you could hope for was to speak in analogies and hope they got the gist. This is my concept of how an infinite being has to reveal itself to a finite mind: in little pieces, and on their terms. This led me to look at our understanding in a way that actually mirrors a fact in biology. Ontogeny recapitulates philogeny. Simply put, the growth of a fetus in the womb, resembles the processes that animals went through in evolution. They start as a single-celled organism to a multi-celled organism with organelles, to something that resembles a fish, bird, mammal, etc. until in the later stages they finally look like a human baby. In this way, our own individual spiritual development mimics the development of our spirituality as a society. In the Old Testament, humanity is in its infancy. The New Testament are those magic years when children start discovering the world and everything is new and exciting and the parent has a real effect on the kind of person they are (enter God as Jesus). The medieval period is obviously our teenage years, full of rebellion and dark thoughts and self-abuse and self doubt. Everything from the enlightenment to the beginning of the industrial age I compare to college life. People are striving to find who they are and are questioning the world around them in a very deliberate way. We are currently in our mid-twenties by my count. The time where we feel a certain ennui towards life, where nothing is cool and it's all been done. We're waiting for our real life to start. My prediction is that we, as a society, are about to go through a drastic change. There is a collective consciousness that is growing and people are going to begin to see the world in a way that wasn't possible at our old level of understanding. We are finally coming into the maturity, or adulthood, of our society, and more importantly our understanding of our relationship to that which is greater than us. I don't know exactly what that will entail. Like I said, we can't know a thing at the next step until we get to that level, but I'm really excited to see what that will look like.

Friday, February 22, 2013

taking on Ann Coulter

Read this first.

OK. Here is my big problem with what has become of the modern "conservative". This probably goes for liberals too, but I'm responding to Ann Coulter's comments. You can't understand Libertarianism if you are working off the old paradigms of "left" and "right". It just doesn't work. It's like trying to explain quantum mechanics using Newton's Law of Gravity. The paradigm has shifted. You can't look left and right anymore, because we've added a new dimension. Libertarians don't care about conservatism vs. liberalism or left vs. right, they care about liberty vs. authoritarianism. Coulter criticized Libertarians for wanted to legalize marijuana as pandering to the left. She also adds that they should be more critical of the welfare state. First of all, every Libertarian I have ever read or heard is very vocal about the problems of the welfare state. Secondly, and most importantly, LIBERTARIANS ARE NOT REPUBLICAN LITE. Viewed through the new lens, it is nonsensical to frame your argument using "stop being like the Democrats and be more like the Republicans". The appeal that the Libertarian Party has is that it is logically consistent. Viewed from the litmus test of liberty, conservatism and liberalism fall short. You can't have your cake and eat it too. One party wants to control your money and free up your social liberties, the other wants free up the market and clamp down on deviance. And if we look at individual politicians, most just want to push through the things that will make the people who paid for their campaigns the happiest.

I could argue the definition of liberty all day, and I'm sure some of you are mentally rebutting me right now. This is not a persuasive argument. I am demonstrating that libertarians (I'm using the small "l" here, to represent those that think this way. I've been using the big "L" to denote political Libertarians. I'm doing that to show that people often confuse libertarian Republicans [which I think is an oxymoron] and Tea Partiers with actual Libertarians.) view the world differently than either party, just as much and possibly more so than the two major parties differ in world view. So to answer Ms. Coulter, Libertarians would just as soon drop 2nd amendment support as they would their campaign for the legalization of marijuana. All are issues of liberty and rights, despite whether it fits into the predetermined category of right or left. It's a simple concept. I understand that there are implications and consequences of these beliefs, and that many disagree with them or want to talk about "what works". I will appeal to people that are smarter than me like Karl Popper, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, and paraphrase them that the greatest chance for an individual's happiness and society's success is to ensure and open and free society.

She also used a very not-nice word.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Just had one of those moments. I realized that I've been going on and on about "authenticity" and the whole time I've been assuming that everyone reads Sartre and Kierkegaard in their free time. Anyway, here's what wikipedia has to say about it: authenticity. Not the greatest explanation I've ever seen, but it's a nice primer.

I prefer to take my lead from Jean Paul Sartre. In Being and Nothingness, and also more concisely in Existentialism is a Humanism, he essentially says that human beings are condemned to be free. We exist. And we exist in the world. Those are the only rules. Everything else is up to us. We have ultimate free will. Being authentic, in this sense and the sense that I am working with, means fully accepting one's own responsibility for their life. It means being a real person. This is where central point of what I've railing against for the past 3 months or so. We fill up our lives with so much other stuff. We constantly attempt to label ourselves or observe ourselves through the mirror that is the other person. This leaves us with the most liberating and the most terrifying conclusions possible. First, we are free to be whatever we want, and we are free to do whatever we went. That isn't to say there aren't consequences to our actions, but that we choose to avoid those consequences. I don't want to end up a pancake, but there is nothing keeping me from jumping off the building, except my will to continue existing. It actually takes life and turns it into an active, rather than a passive choice. Every moment, I am choosing to continue existing, than rather ending my existence. Now the terrifying part. The problem with free will is that we are responsible for everything we do. All of our actions, and essentially who we are, is because of us. Society didn't make me do it. My parents didn't make me do it. Obama didn't make me do it. Bush didn't make me do it. I did it. I'm the only one that could have done it, because I did it. It sounds redundant, but it is a significantly powerful statement. Sartre even goes on to say that when we seek advice, we seek from the person who we think will give us the answer we are already looking for. Choosing to not choose is also a choice. You can't win. You always have to make a decision and it is always up to you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

real education

I'm cheating today and not writing my own blog. I'm posting an article written by a high school student that attends a Catholic school. It's not the Catholic part that impressed me, but how she valued the part of her education that taught her to question and defend her beliefs. If only everything thought of education this way...

It is often assumed in today's largely secular society that attending a parochial school will lead to a parochial mind. I think I thought this too, when I entered a Catholic high school. Having only ever known the public school system, I knew only stereotypes and generalizations. There were the same harmless ones -- kids with guitars sitting in prayer circles singing Kumbayah -- and then there were harsher, more dangerous, characterizations of narrow-mindedness that fostered intolerance. I don't know what I believed by the time I started my freshman year. But what I experienced was far from any archetype I may have expected.
In public school, we were thrown in together with all of the same kids from kindergarten to eighth grade. We were all virtually indistinguishable: Irish, Italian, Catholic, upper middle class. Kids from other schools were foreign, rumors, not one of us.
In Catholic school, however, I was among the kids from other towns, which was unusual. Amid the odd first-time experience of having to introduce and teach everyone around me about myself like I was selling a presentation (in public school you had always been there, everyone had always known you, and there was no room for you to change), I was fascinated to see what it was like to live in a far away (45 minutes) town, to have grown up in a tiny parochial school, and even more interested to realize that beyond our different backgrounds, there were common threads and traits that bound us together. Seeing all of the new and different people around me caused me to incorporate them into my rapidly broadening schema of what a vast variety of people existed in the world.
During my public school years, I went to church every Sunday and my family said grace before dinner every night. This, which was more than most others in my school could say for themselves, seemed enough to me to say I was religious. I thought that not actually understanding what was said at Mass, hollowly reciting prayers, and having a sense of detachment and formal impersonalness toward God was what organized conviction was supposed to be like. I was worshiping a greater, distant and too-holy-to-reach power while living an entirely separate daily life. I had blindly accepted and foundationlessly defended my beliefs because I had no education. I knew no difference between "Catholic church" and "God" and if asked could not explain the basis for any of the practices I unquestioningly followed -- yet somehow found myself justifying any and every action of the church that was challenged.
There is a large difference between "theology class" and "CCD," which is what I expected it to be like the first time I walked into my period G course on "Who is Jesus?" But I did not find church mothers volunteering their Monday nights, which is what I had expected. Instead, educated theologians who took their subject very seriously. They offered us in-depth analyses of Scripture, Christ, traditions and what was more, encouraged us to challenge them. Debates were common place. In fact, in parochial school there were more vocal skeptics and cross-examiners than I had encountered in secular education. I never realized that one could not simply accept all or none of Catholicism, but handpick personal aspects with which to agree or deviate. Being taught through the lens of a Catholic education has actually caused me to disagree with many facets of the Church and disregard some of my former beliefs, but simultaneously strengthened that which I do attune with.
Challenging my beliefs is the only thing that taught me what I truly believe in. Being educated in the foundation for each doctrine I had previously accepted, I was able to affirm my true beliefs and disregard others. What I don't believe in, I can justify for, and what I do, I can defend. I have discovered what true open-mindedness is, and of the need to listen to and consider what others have to say, because there is always room to learn.
One of the early weeks of freshman year, we were allowed to abandon our uniforms and wear normal clothes to school. It was the first time we had seen what each other dressed like, and to our shallow minds it was a moment of truth revealing who we all really were. I remember walking toward our lockers, modeling my painstainkingly picked Hollister shirt and jeans, and seeing a friend of mine dressed in splatter painted skinny jeans, a neon jacket and Converse. As I approached her I thought, "Wow. If I had seen her on the first day of school wearing that I probably never would've introduced myself."
It was true. I would have assumed based on her appearance the type of person she was, though not necessarily a bad person, and decided that we wouldn't be compatible. I would never have become friends with her. I would've missed out on a new and broadening experience, and, just as if I hadn't been exposed to the new viewpoints I had learned, I would be a little less open-minded because of not attending Catholic school.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The inauthenticity of atheism

I will admit that this post is partly inspired by my atheist friends on Facebook. I hate to admit that I am affected by Facebook, but sometimes it just gets to you, ya know? Anyway, it's not so much the belief in Atheism, (I know belief is a weird choice of words, but technically you have to believe there is not a higher power. There's no factual evidence for God not existing either.) but the way that it's argued. Even if I didn't believe in God, I would not want to associate myself with the stereotypical atheist. I don't think this is an unfair judgment, as most of them seem to revel in the persona that is associated with this belief. Essentially, I'm referring to the stodgy, academic type, the oh so witty and droll cosmopolitan, who cannot believe that you can believe in some "flying spaghetti monster" based on some archaic mythos fed to you by your parents, or [insert whatever authority figure here]. Yes, I'm picturing Christopher Hitchens, too. So what?

Now that I've put my own personal bias out there, I'll show you why I think atheists are inauthentic. The first argument put forth by the atheist is usually that there is no factual evidence that God (or any supernatural being) exists. I have to assume that they mean "scientific" evidence. For me there is evidence of God in the world all around us. I guess it depends on whose frame of reference you want to go by. So, what do we mean by a fact? Obviously, an atheist can't believe in there being one Truth, so they must only believe in truth, with a lower case 't'. Truth that is not absolute, but can be changed. So, technically, all the facts in the world can never lead one to certainty on any particular topic. This is particularly true with theories based on observable phenomena, or a posteriori truths. So here is my big counterexample.

Most believers, theists if you will, relate to God primarily in an emotional and not analytic way. That isn't to say that logic and reasoning aren't commonly employed in the search to understand God's will, but it's usually secondary. The relationship to God is not one of sensing, but feeling. My central tenet here is that God is to be felt, not seen, or heard, or touched, at least not through our sensory organs. In order to explain this, I turn to Plato's Symposium. In it, Socrates speaks of love as something that can only be understood by the initiated. One can never explain what it means to be in love to someone who has never experienced it. Picture how one would have to explain it to a child, "One's heart rate quickens, he gets 'butterflies in his stomach', it makes him happy on a whole different level than regular happy..."  I used to use this in my intro to philosophy classes because it sets up all kinds of good discussion on the difference between knowledge and wisdom, but I digress. You can't describe the feeling of being in communion with God to someone who doesn't feel that way. If you think this is a cop out, let's look at the love example a little deeper. Science tells us that love is an electro-chemical reaction in the body which produces hormones and endorphins which make human beings feel good (uncannily similar to eating chocolate). It's there to make us procreate and pass on our genetic material. Despite knowing this, atheists and scientists (not those scientists who actually do science, but those who treat science like a religion) still pursue relationships, get married, make babies, love said babies... Obviously, this is a completely inauthentic state of being. Even though they are confronted with the truth that what they feel for the object of their affection is only a trick played on them to pass on their genes, they still choose to "love" their family members. How can one who demands sincerity from the spiritual believer, live a life in complete denial? My only explanation is that these demands are made with tongue planted firmly in cheek! Even if the atheist were to argue back that humans experience things on a higher level than animals and that there is a certain beauty in the affection we feel for other humans, they are still drifting perilously close to the "belief without substantial observable facts" that they so readily accuse the theist of holding.

So there's my small diatribe on the inauthentic atheist. I'll see you at mass on Sunday. I'll be reading at the 9:30 and 11:30, God willing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I ended the apocalypse countdown too early!

Holy Crap!

Meteor showers over Russia!

The fulfillment of the Malachy Prophecies!

Frank Lautenberg retires... again!

150 foot asteroid misses Earth by less than 20,000 miles!

The blind will see!

Seriously, this was all in my morning news feed, I didn't even have to look this stuff up!

To quote Pascal (ironically):

Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. Labour to convince yourself, not by accumulating proofs of God, but by weakening your passions. The people who know the road which you would follow and are healed of the ills of which you would be healed. They began by acting in every way as if they believed, by taking holy water, having masses said, and so on.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Don't call it a comeback

Hi readers. Still friends? I'm sorry I've been away for a while, particularly without any explanation. There are a myriad of reasons that I haven't been writing lately. One of them is that I really felt that I haven't had anything of importance to say. Without getting into too much detail, I had some pretty big things happen over the last month. Some of them were like gigantic-big and others were less significant at the time, but have weighed heavy on me nonetheless. Well, now we're into Lent, a time of preparation and renewal. I feel suddenly better now that I am concentrating on simplifying life and getting back to what's important. This blog, is one of those things. I didn't make it a Lenten resolution to post everyday during these 40 (much to all of your chagrin, I'm sure), but I have resolved to concentrate more on the things that I view as both important and nourishing to the soul.

Speaking of, a quick update: I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to attempt to say the Liturgy of the Hours. Let's just say that was a stretch goal. That is a promise much harder to keep than I had imagined, and I'm only one day into Lent. Here's what I am doing. I have decided to say a daily rosary (I'm considering saying all four sets of mysteries, which takes about an hour. Challenge!) and read the Lenten reflection book that my parish gave out last Sunday. I have also added fasting to help me remain mindful all day. For those that aren't in the "secret handshake club" (as my one fraternity brother ironically calls the Catholic Church), Catholic fasting isn't not eating anything for 40 days (yes, I am aware of that double negative). I do, though, enjoy watching the look on people's faces who think that is what I'm doing. The point of the fast is to maintain a feeling of hunger all day. This consists of two small snacks and one full meal. I'm also abstaining from meat and all forms of liquid other than water. I assume a lot of you are now concerned about me keeping my Lenten promise on St. Patrick's day. Lucky for you I'm going to lay down even more knowledge on you! Sundays aren't part of the 40 days of Lent! Neither are the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but since you have to fast and abstain on Good Friday anyway, many people just hold out with their Lenten promises until Easter Sunday. And St. Paddy's feast day falls on a Sunday this year! If you're still confused, yesterday I ate a cup of yogurt, a very small piece of leftover sticky bun (it was stale, if you think that it didn't sound Lenten enough) and had a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. I'm guessing that's around 800 calories or so. I'm also guessing that I normally eat around 2500 calories on an average day, so I think I've succeeded in feeling hungry all day. I am also attempting to increase my parentheses usage!

Finally, I was going to write an article today on an atheism and authenticity puzzle that I've been working on, but I'm going to put it on hold, since I read a really good article written by an atheist.