Foolish Citizens of the Universe, Children of God and Mud

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Why can’t a man call himself a citizen of the universe? … Why not, if he understands the administration of the universe? He has learned that the principal and greatest and most comprehensive of all things is this vast system, extending from humanity to God. He knows that from God the seeds of being are descended not only to one’s father or grandfather, but to all things that are produced an born on earth, and especially to rational natures, since they are alone are qualified to partake in communication with the Deity, being connected with God by reason. Why may not such a one call herself a citizen of the universe? Why not a child of God? And why shall one fear any thing that happens among men?

Epictetus Volume 2, Chapter 9 (slightly paraphrased)

We should be called children of God. Because we are!”

1 John 3:2 (my translation)

Do you ever get the sense of having so much extraordinary potential? Like your body is just throbbing with life? Creativity? All the power of existence just being held back by a thin line of skin?

How much potential do we have? Just enough to change the lives of others irrevocably! Just enough to crash into existence and leave ripples that never stop expanding! That, you foolish human!Haven’t you had someone cry with how love and blessed they feel by being with you? Surely you’ve held someone while they cried? Haven’t you seen their eyes shining at you with pure love and joy?

That’s because we literally carry the most precious seeds of the known universe inside of us! The nuclei that compose our bodies were literally forged in a giant heat more blistering than a sun, blasted with reality-warping forges of the concussive Bang which made our visible natural world. Our atoms were pounded together inside the womb of a star. Our life-tree rose literally out of the dust and mud– our ancestors fought and gave birth and split and survived for billions of years, making a giant family of distance cousins … how great the beauty and diversity of our great inter-related tree of life!And what of us?

How many other forms of life would yearn to be us, if they were conscious enough to have such a yearning… What other thing is given the privilege to comprehend itself? To create meaning, and language, and direct the form of our existence? To even put together a conception of the universe, of God, of the Most High?We fools! Billions of year old glory is sitting at the feet of our every thought. And yet how often we crawl on the ground in shame, overwhelmed at our weakness! How easily we forget. Yes, a few hard days and our glory evaporates.

I know that it does for me. How can I believe we are children of the universe when I cannot even mow the freaking lawn on a regular basis! Where is all that divine tree of life heritage when we spit obscenities at the traffic, or look at our frail bodies in the mirror, or flip through news programs showing more black kids getting shot on the street, or see, once again, the images of tiny bodies sacrificed to the gods of war?We can’t even get the jobs we want, or clean the house, or stop spilling our human cousins’ blood over money and land and dogma. “We should be called children of God?” Ha! It looks like our ancestry is more mud than marvel. “Why can’t a man call himself a citizen of the universe?” Because, Epictetus and John, you two-thousand-year-old dead white men, we can’t even be decent sons and citizens of our own country! What right do we have to be citizens in a country composed of every thing? Of every galaxy and quantum fluctuation we have very observed? Of the One Most High behind all that existence and everything we can conceive?

And yet, still, here I sit in the middle of a desperately worn carpet, and there you sit, in all your sorrow and worries and dirtiness staring into a glowing screen, and we have every reason to believe that it is true.

You see, billions of data point to a common source for all observable phenomenon. Even if they didn’t, that would likely create the possibility of an even more mind-blowing citizenship– that of a broader universe or multi-verse outside of our known physical laws. At the least, we are all members of a single universe, and at best, of countless iterations of a broader Universe, breaking down the limits we experience in our lives.

How can we argue with the fact that we are children of the entire universe? And perhaps beyond? And from when came all beyond that? Until we are children of the Most High– by which I mean literally the most comprehensive idea or being that we can conceive of and connect with at the source of it all.

There is much more to that argument, but for the moment I am not creating a comprehensive systematic philosophy or theology. I am just basking in the wonder of the immensity of belonging to a family of billions of stars in galaxies of inexplicable glory. Of feeling of that surging of potential like a golden energy in my veins. All tinged with the tragedy of not being able to express it in all perfect clarity!

Do you feel it too, sometimes? Does the wonder of being a seed of wonder fill you with joy? Does it give you capacity to love fearlessly? To see the galaxies in our eyes when faced with the threats of mere human beings? To live and die in the light of the Most High, filled with the best of our nature? To not let despair rob our citizenship in the stars? I really, truly, with tears, hope that it does!

Listen, fellow fools, fellow children of Most High… let’s keep our head up in the midst of our stresses and mistakes. Why not love each other with more wonder now? Is anybody else yearning with me? Do you feel like children of the universe trying to struggle out of our birth in mud? Does anybody else have light trying to struggle out of their skin and mind, to merge back into the universe, into God– into the Most High?

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Fifty Year Old Words– Longing For Fulfillment

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Nine people were killed this week in Charleston, South Carolina by a man who sat for an hour listening to words of love preached by the people he killed. The words of Martin Luther King Jr. are still relevant (shockingly relevant) to express the sense of this tragedy, and our response.

Audience response and some context-specific information edited out for ease of reading and modern relevance. The full speech is available here: http://www.drmartinlutherkingjr.com/birminghamchurchbombingeulogy.htm 

MLK

Eulogy For The Young Victims
Of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
September 18, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

[Delivered at funeral service for three of the children –
Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley – killed in the bombing. A separate service was held for the fourth victim, Carole Robertson.] 

“This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came. […]

“And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.

“And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. […] They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

“And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. […] These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. […] Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. […]

“And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers.  Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.

“May I now say a word to you, the members of the bereaved families? It is almost impossible to say anything that can console you at this difficult hour and remove the deep clouds of disappointment which are floating in your mental skies. But I hope you can find a little consolation from the universality of this experience. Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.

“I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.

“Now I say to you in conclusion, life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and difficult moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him,  and that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace. … ”

A Mind on God

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[Note: Now I normally am wary about writing intimately personal things online. The internet is forever, frozen, and searchable, and people are not. But I don’t believe in sharing anonymously online. So, any future employers or paparazzi who find this twenty years from now (when I am rich and famous)– a warm welcome to you! I hope you like it.]

A Mind on God

That vast expanse was always there in my mind. Like a giant mist-filled lake, surrounded by slippery slopes leading down to its shores. A quiet, ominous presence. It was not possible to stand in stillness to observe it. Standing still meant that the dark form of this misty expanse grew progressively larger and larger in my sight. It meant slipping, sliding, falling– being pulled into its depths.

Then the still waters would close over anything of with any life and light. Thoughts, passions, desires, joy, friendship, laughing at jokes, smiling at the feel of a sunny spring day– all these were drawn into the depths. And then they would become vapor. All those beautiful things that gave me joy – just gone, without even a feeling of sorrow at their lost. They simply disintegrated in that vast drifting expanse.

As more and more of my mind, my self, disappeared in the downward pull, what was left was increasingly numb, empty, uncaring, and actually quite comfortable.

                    A crude picture I drew in my journal some years ago. Vast Expanse

But eventually I would see something that I wanted to care about. People, friends, causes, passions. I would see them off at the distance, and I would shake myself awake, trying to move up the slopes away from that numbing emptiness.

As soon as I would try to move away, though, there was no longer numbness. There was discomfort. Then a sense of awareness. Then suffering. As the mind shook of its numbness, it took stock at all the joys and values that had been disintegrated. Like a patient who wakes up in the middle of a surgery, the mind recognized all the parts of it that had been lost. Hopes, desire, imaginations, goals– gone, gone, gone!

Trying to move out of that empty vastness, and crawl up out of its slippery slopes was suffering. It is difficult to describe. I don’t think I can do it calmy. It is agony, Agony, AGONY, AGONY! AGONY!!! AGONY!!!!! I cry just to think about it. I really pray you have never had to feel anything like it! A mental suffering so intense it felt like moving forward, naked, through a forest filled with barbed wire instead of brambles. Catching blades onto hands, cheeks, groin, chest—sinking deep into flesh. Every push forward—out they would rip! Tearing shocking wounds into the most tender, intimate parts of my mental being.

Every attempt to strive for love, mission, and life met with this unbearable pain. But I a could be relentlessly stubborn. Mustering up a warrior spirit, ready to do battle against this vile enemy, I would push onward, fighting with teeth clenched, marching far past what I thought I could endure, until I collapsed with the effort, exhausted. But there was no chance to rest. As soon as I hit the ground, down I would be pulled. Down back into that hateful calm expanse, that painlessly corrosive black destroyer.

That is a glimpse of years of living with depression.

To me, it felt like a spiritual battle. Depression destroys your very sense of self, including your religious sense of self. Thoughts and joys would vaporize in that lake of depression, but so would prayers, theology, mission, joy in worship.  It was so painful, dark, and dangerous that “demonic” did not seem like a wrong word to attach to it.

So I would pray to God to save me. Long, long nights and days of praying to God to save me. Hours-long stretches of prayer, wrestling with my failings, and raging at God, and crying hot tears of sorrow and pain. But also sincere, quiet moments of open heart, desiring the highest Good, wanting to serve others in love. (There is such need in this world.)

Sometimes, when great forces of encouragement aligned, like on mission trips, or at conferences, or simply through those unexpected wonders of everyday experience, something beyond myself would reach down, and I would be pulled dramatically out of the pit. In those mountaintop moments, I would look down at the world and be filled with ecstatic joy, as euphoric as a drug. “Here are the glories of God!” and “Oh, how sweet it is to drink from the sweet nectar of the divine!” Freed from the grips of sorrow, I would revel in power and miracle and redemption, and have vivid visions of the possibility for radical change in the lives of people, society, myself, and the world.

So I would start planning and doing great things—reaching out to people in poverty, organizing for justice, spreading the good news of the love of God to everyone I met. And there was joy in that for a time.

But also fear. There in the background was that dark lake. Silently waiting for me to come down off the mountaintop and rejoin the old fight. Soon, down I would be dragged, and there I would be, striving to crawl up through the mud away from my indifferent disintegrator, crying daily for God to save me. Back into the barbed wire. Back into the suffering. Back into the daily struggle for sanity.

It is really no surprise to me that people with severe depression kill themselves. Frankly, I am more surprised that so many people survive. It was always a specter looming in my mind—sometimes off in a distance, sometimes screaming at me thousands of times of day. Suicide seems like the only way out when you live with daily pain. I suppose the fact that more people don’t end their lives is just a testament to the tough kind of stuff we humans are made of.  Or, at least, to how difficult it is to overcome our ancient and deep-rooted survival instincts.

At some point I had to realize that I had earnestly cried out to my God, and my God had not saved me from depression. That is not to saw that there were not times in which I prayed, and then, without explanation, depression would disappear for a time. Those were amazing moments for which I was very grateful. But I could always feel it coming back over time. I did not have God reach down and permanently remove the long term patterns of depression.

After years of asking and praying and seeing, I realized that, statistically and personally, my most significant risk of death (besides a random car accident) still came not from others, but from depression. All it would take was one moment without vigilance against the voices of despair. And, most horrifying to me, depression could use my own hands to kill me.

So I decided that I did not need to wait on my God for a miracle anymore. I had to come to grips with the fact that this did not mean I was a failure. I also had to come to grips with whether this made God a failure. In the sense that fervent prayer will definitely get results I asked for– well, that kind of God is most likely a failure. It may be possible to make heartfelt prayers to God for years and never be magically free from depression.

That is a tough lesson that is easy to accept intellectually, but is surprisingly difficult to pull out from the deep roots of our minds. Our mind feels so spiritual. Sorrow and guilt and dark images feel so supernatural. Depression can become internalized into religious images, like demons or spirits, or the hand of God extended in punishment. So many faith traditions claim that God is able to free you from sorrow, and that there is happiness in the presence of God for those that earnestly seek him. Maybe that is just me, but is difficult letting go of the idea that God will take away extreme suffering if you ask earnestly and often.

When, after encouragement from dear and treasured friends, I went in to get counseling, and to get medication to treat depression, I came out crying. Not because I felt like a failure, but the exact opposite. What a fool I had been trying to fight this myself for so many years!

It turns out that all those powerful images, that dark and sucking lake, could disappear with shocking rapidity with only a few months of actively treating a mental health condition. What seemed like a spiritual attack and battle could disappear with medicine, getting good sleep, going to counseling, talking with friends, and creating a regular prayer and meditation habit. Really? That’s all it takes? All those years of unbearable agony, and I just needed to help re-balance my brain with medication, and re-balance my life through healthy living? What a fool! I should have done this years ago, and saved myself and those around me years of pain!

I am glad to say that old vast expanse is gone. It is like the glowing little meteorites of medication plunged down into its core, and opened up holes somewhere far inside its depths. Slowly, imperceptibly, it started to drain away. And with the direction of a counselor and friends, I worked hard to build healthy ways of thinking, ways of dealing with cycles of thought, taking care of physical health. These were the tools I used to create landfills that filled in the marshy muck that remained.

Eternal vigilance, of course, is my motto, and I am not naive enough to think that a relapse is impossible. But it is entirely possible to move from severe depression to no more depression that a normal (not super bubbly happy) person experiences day to day.

I was afraid that I would lose God in the process. In a sense, I did. I lost an old view of God. But since that old God was a pretty simple God, I had to let him go. I had to have faith that a deeper and more complex connection with God was going to be better that what I left behind. That is always frightening, like leaving a familiar home port to sail off for a new land. Perhaps God works more through synergism with and through people, perhaps God has a galactic perspective of which human suffering is only a tiny piece, perhaps God is progressively working through our imperfection to some redemptive good that is made perfect through suffering.

My guess is that all these all my attempts at explanations are imperfect (and my views are still developing). At some point the progressive search for understanding the purposes of the Eternal will have to admit that progression from finite to infinite is likely not possible with only finite resources. At some point the images of God break down further and further, even as they become clearer, bigger, and more intimate, until the mind is overwhelmed. Then there is mystery, the nameless, the “I Am What I Am” beyond description.

Ironically, that kind of state is surprisingly like the vast expanse that sucked away at my mind for so many years. Endless, without image, without comprehension, touching every part of the self. Yet when stepping outside of the expanse of God, there is restoration, not suffering, clarity, not insanity, and peace instead of sorrow. And instead of fighting to get away, there are friends to help, counselors to point the way, and joy in healthy ways of thinking. A much better place, thankfully, to keep the mind, before turning and diving back into that vast expanse of the presence of God.

Very Small and Very Big Unity

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Very Small and Very Big Unity

Once upon a time, the world was collapsed into a point somewhat smaller than the smallest thing we know to exist today. You can call it a Plank length (1.6 x 10^-35 meters) or some other extraordinarily and unimaginably small distance. Or you could try to picture it as the smallest point of light you can imagine, twinkling beyond what your eye can perceive, held in the palm of your hand.

I am having more and more certainty at how fundamental this fact is to modern physics. There is not a lot of uncertainty about it anymore. All the observable celestial bodies are moving away from each other– extrapolate backwards and we get to this tiny  point. Many of the models of particle physics rely on the fundamental reality of this incomprehensibly small unity.

I don’t think we understand the significance of this, though; not on a gut level. When we say that everything was in this point, it means that, at its most essential and fundamental level, everything observable is the same thing.

Let me say that again– every single thing we have ever seen, felt, touched, or tasted, and everything we have indirectly perceived through instruments, calculations, and technology is, at a fundamental level, the same basis thing. Because at one point, it was all the same thing. An incomprehensibly dense, unified, combined, and indistinguishably identical thing.

When I see a battered screw on a post on the subway, that screw is, at the most fundamental level, the same substance as the crumpled surface of an asteroid. The advertising sign with smiling images of people on them are of the same fundamental substance as the heat radiating from the sun. And every single molecule of very single human heart, ribcage, lung, and brain was at one point united together with every drop of blood in every other living thing.

Screw on SubwayAsteroidWhether there is some kind of difference between mind or body is an interesting question, but I am not getting into that here. That is a metaphysical question. But at a purely physical level, I have to concede to a massive amount of information pointing to universal physical monism. That is to say, every physical thing can have some kind of connection and correspondence with every other physical thing.

It is possible that new kinds of physical things could spring into existence from some post Big Bang extra-physical source. That is entirely possible. There is no reason that the physical world needs to be a closed system. But I haven’t really seen any good evidence of that. Even the most dramatic stories of miraculous healing or statues drinking milk do not claim that new kinds of physical substances are created in the process, but rather that the current physical substances are moved around in a powerful and meaningful way by something super-physical. There seems very little evidence, even at the far end of credibility, for creating new physical substances that did not exist at the time of the Big Bang.

In a similar way, my limited understanding of quantum fluctuations indicates that the amount of energy in the physical universe is conserved, but that the measurable energy of any particular place can vary for very small units and for very short times, or, at least, the probability of variation becomes extremely small at macroscopic sizes. So the vacuum (which of course is still physical) can have fluctuations in energy, but there is no claim that new quantities of physical things are created that did not exist at the time of the Big Bang.

So everything physical at one point fit into something perhaps a Plank length. Why that size? Well, that is the size at which, to my limited understanding, measurement becomes practically impossible, since the indeterminacy and probabilistic nature of quantum physics starts to take over. If I could describe in create mathematical detail how that works, I would be able to solve quantum gravity and win the Nobel prize. But to my layman’s eyes, this means that past some size around a Plank length, the Big Bang passes beyond our ability to observe. Everything we can observe was in that Plank length, and beyond that we are not able to observe with any certainty.

So all the physical world is one substance, and all that substance came from one place. What was beyond what we can observe? Unless science changes its understanding of quantum physics, we cannot know scientifically. Because we cannot observe that small. So we pass from the realm of physics to metaphysics.

Some scientists like Stephen Hawking have made metaphysical claims. For example, in order to explain the extreme unlikeliness of our physical universe having such finely tuned physics to allow for life, they postulate that there are an extraordinarily large number of physical universes. Perhaps 10^500 universes. In other words, an incomprehensibly large number. With that big of a set, it is possible through random chance to create our finely-tuned universe.

Of course, there is no evidence that these universes exist. We can’t see past the Big Bang. It’s purely a metaphysical claim. And if there are that many universes, where did they come from? If they came from nothing, then that is really no more explanation than to say that our universe came from nothing. Sometimes a really big number like 10^500 can dazzle us. But it is not really any different than saying 10^50 universes came from nothing, or that 10^0 universes came from nothing.

Sometimes big numbers can dazzle. But I learned a good trick about numbers from doing document review for large defendants when I was between jobs. The basic financial principals for a 100,000 mortgage are really not that different than those used for a 4,000,000,000 loan. If you can look past the emotional impact of the large number, you can make powerful decisions. But I digress.

Metaphysically speaking, it is even more difficult (or equally difficult) to say that 10^500 universes came out of nothing. If one came from nothing, for no reason, isn’t it tiresome to have to repeat that same answer 10^500 times? Where did this universe come from? From nothing. And for what reason? No reason. How about this one? Also from nothing. And this one? And so on.

MultiverseIf the universes stretch back into infinite amounts of time, we run into another problem. That is the problem of an actually infinite regress of discrete events. Most people think it is not possible to count to infinity. You can always add another number. The same is true for counting an infinite number of seconds. You can always add another second.

This is pretty intuitive counting into the future, since the seconds have not occurred yet. You will never reach a number, and then suddenly the next number will get you to eternity. But counting backwards into time is more difficult. There is no probability anymore– the time has already happened. Is it possible to count backwards forever, and have infinite chains of discrete time events?

My sense is the math behind this is very complicated. The only articles I have read that looked at infinite regress of events from both a mathematical and metaphysical perspective imply that this is not possible. Intuitively, this makes sense, and I will keep researching to see if there are other mathematic metaphysicians who disagree. (I don’t have time to learn that much complex math to do it myself!)

Again, there is no scientific solution to this problem at present. We cannot see small enough to see past the Big Bang. Before that point, all is metaphysics. To me, it makes most sense to see an eternal, timeless, and encompassing end to all finite events. Perhaps that comes directly behind the Big Bang. Perhaps there are 10^500 universes chained together into a timeline stretching 10^1000 years. But at some point, there is a terminus.

Which comes to a final sense of unity. That all physical things came from the Big Bang. We are all one physical substance. And all non-physical things came from the ultimate source. So we are all of one non-physical source. And I hope one day, when we get tired of counting forward towards infinity, we can all come back into that unity, and find the incomprehensible goodness of all things being one with the One who created it all.

 

How Trees Talk

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How Trees Talk

The works of God’s hands; preached by forged form.
Day to day, pouring forth speech;
    night to night, revealing knowledge.
No speech. No words.
    No sound of theirs is heard.
For all the earth, sending out their straight line;
    and to the ends of the world, their expression.

– Psalm 19 (my translation from Masoretic text)

Recently I went out to pray. I was unsettled; tense and not thinking straight– just feeling off. Too much was going through my mind. I starting running. I kept going until I was deep in the woods. The trees were burnt from a recent fire. I kept stopping, praying, moving on. No place felt right.

I leapt down a steep slope, sliding down and down. I fell on my back on the soft loam. A giant fir tree, bark flaky with black soot, was at my feet. I looked up and saw the dark outlines of the trees above my head:

Tree Silent Sky-1The air was almost completely still. Not a leaf moved for several moments. Then a barest perception of trembling at the tips of the leaves. Then stillness … stillness … stillness …

Evening fell. The sky so very slowly changed from pale blue to dark gray.  That’s when I realized what the trees were trying to say to me.

That is, they were not saying anything at all.

The trees were alive, as much as I was. But they were unconscious life. They did not say anything to me, but it wasn’t personal. They didn’t say anything to anyone else, either! They do not even speak inside their own mind. Not even a single word of thought.

They were there, not saying or thinking anything when I was born, and–unless an ever greater fire burns through to their core– they will still be there, not saying or thinking anything, when I die.

Strangely, that finally brought my soul towards peace. It was not all about me. The world was billions of years old– so much of its meaning does not involve anything me in any major way. All my worries and questions– in the end they were words in my mind that came and went. The trees didn’t need them, and, in the end, neither did I.

No speech. No words. No sounds. Preaching God like a lay preacher– without any theological vocabulary. Preaching with the straight lines of their forms, day by day, night by night, for all the earth to not hear. Revealing knowledge of creation, purely through being pounded into shape like a hard sheet of metal under the hands of their creator.

That takes so little striving, so little understanding, so little need for words. It gave some peace, I think, because it was right there for the taking. Even a tree can do this.

Lying almost completely still. Not a finger moving for several moments. Then a barest perception of trembling of the breath. Then stillness … stillness … stillness …

Tree Silent Sky-1

 

The End of Human Supremacy: A Christmas Story

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I woke up very early in the morning this Christmas day. I could not go back to sleep with all that was going through my mind. I got up and wrote this post. This story may be brilliant. It may be insane. It is a little longer than normal, but if you read it, read it all, and if you have time, leave a note, so I can know how to better sort out the deranged from the divine.

The End of Human Supremacy: A Christmas Story

“Do not have your mind on the old way of things;

Do not keep your thoughts on things of the past.

Look! I am going to do something new;

It is going to burst out suddenly!

Are you going to be aware of it?

– Isaiah 43:19-20 (my translation)

Three or four thousand generations ago, our little branch of the broader human family was just starting to make itself distinct from a whole pot full of human diversity. Exotic sounding relatives with names like Homo rhodesiensis were walking about close to our homelands, along with various descendants of various kinds of Homo erectus. There were probably hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of these Homo erectus relatives around, stretching across Asia and perhaps still into Africa.

By about two thousand generations ago, our sapiens ancestors exploded onto the scene. We were a major force to be reckoned with, stretching perhaps all the way from Africa to Australia. By then it was pretty clear that our erectus cousins, while holding their own in Asia for thousands of years, just didn’t have the intelligence, creativity, and skill to compete over the long haul. But for tens of thousands of years, the at least occasionally brutal competition must have put doubts in the minds of some of our ancestors. They were not ogres or trolls, but I bet they felt a lot like it when we were under threat. Were we really going to be able to survive in these lands? Would we learn how to live, to thrive, and to not constantly have to fear the dangers of a bunch of erectus tribes attacking us when the food runs low?

But then there were Homo neanderthalensis. Bigger brains, although not compared to body size. Stronger, if stockier. And able to hold their own in their own homelands. They were so close to us; so very close. Perhaps, for some of us, we may have ancestors from this lost branch of humanity.Given a few thousand more generations and they may have crossed that thin line in the prefrontal cortex and gained cognition as great or greater than ours.

They were real contenders for Human Supremacy. In spite of living on the borders of neanderthalensis territory for tens of thousands of years, our sapiens ancestors might have made it to Australia before they successfully encroached all the way into the heart of neanderthalensis territory. Regardless, it might have taken hundreds of generations before our sapien branch of humanity decisively achieved supremacy over neanderthalensis.

I can only imagine how this direct competition with other species, that looked so much like us, must have affected our view of the world. Did we always believe, with great certainty, that the gods, or spirits, or a greater Divinity, had guaranteed our victory? Did we pray for the extermination of our competitors, and run wild in blood rage to wipe out the strange, ogre-like demons? What did they pray for? Or did they pray at all? Was there ever a time when both sides prayed for peace, asking for unity, life, and sharing?

If we had such prayers, they failed in the end. By five hundred generations ago, not only was our species without direct competition, we even had either incorporated or extinguished (intentionally or otherwise) any last remains of neanderthalensis, denisovans, florensis, and other flickering wisps of cousin species in our genus. For the first time, humanity stretched from the tip of South America to the Arctic circle. And for the first time in our history, we were alone. It was only us. As the generations rolled on, the idea of another kind of humanity, striving for supremacy, became only an idea rooted in mythology. We were human, and we were Supreme.

We might still fear the lion at night, and the snake during the day. But we knew we could hunt down and kill the lions, and crush the head of the snake. They might kill some of us, but they would never kill all of us. The spirit of the Tiger or the Leopard was revered and feared– but in the end we would wear their skins on our backs and their teeth around our necks.

Microorganisms, however, could rightly have given us pause. A plague of some type of bacteria or virus could wipe out entire people groups. Well after the advent of agriculture, entire nations and dynasties could crumble under these invisible threats. The fear of these unknown tiny living things, who, in their own, way, were struggling to survive and thrive, deeply embedded itself into our theology. The judgment of God was never more feared by many people than when terrible, boil-infested death raged through every home and family.

We are still wiping out the remains of some of the most terrible diseases. Yet there is only a  miniscule threat of existential crisis caused by natural infection. The Ebola and HIV and malaria and tuberculosis epidemics are terrible, and take away children from parents. Yet from a broader point of view, they do not even reverse population growth in their hardest-hit areas. They are more like the tigers in the dark– feared and respected, but in the end we know that we will survive and many of them will not.

Our ancestors deserve our admiration. They drove back the shadows of fear, gave life to their children, and made a way for us and our families to live and flourish. They gave us the security of being free from oppression by any other species. Billions have lived and died for this goal that is now within our reach.

Yet in the last three generations we have begun to approach another inflection point of supremacy– the ability to entirely sterilize biological life from our planet. We already, at the height of the Cold War, (arguably) had the ability to use atomic weapons to vaporize a large quantity of life, and create atmospheric effects that could lead to the extinction of large portions of medium-sized vertebrate life. Our family of life, like no other group of living things, has had the ability to intentionally create a mass extinction event not seen for hundreds of millions of years.

What was once a yearning for survival and success thousands of generations ago has become an increasingly inescapable empirical reality. In the Hebrew account of creation, God speaks, to “make humanity in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the big mammals on the ground and over everything that crawls over the surface of the earth.” If ability to control and destroy are equal to rule, then we are very close to making this scripture come true. Humanity has overwhelming supremacy over other life on this planet, and that influence is only growing.

I could stop there, and that would be interesting enough. But if we can learn something from trying to glimpse five thousand generations in the past, we can also learn something from trying to peer five thousand generations in the future.

In one sense human supremacy has been our ancestors’ greatest success. We have little outside fears now from other life on this planet. Yes, we can fear asteroids and cosmic rays, and I can talk about that some other time. But our existential fear is not of other life. We do not have to greatly fear tooth and claw. Instead, our only existential fear of life comes from our own species. From within ourselves.

It is far too easy already to build up nuclear arsenals and point them at each other. As the generations roll on, we may have world-destructive nanotechnology, or biotechnology, or radiation manipulation, or sun-core disruption, or a hundred different types of extinction-threatening ideas that I cannot even imagine. The point is that our idea of supremacy is reaching its tipping point.

Supremacy. Dominion. Many of our old ways of thinking based rule upon capacity for destruction. We destroyed all of our competitors in our broader genetic family. Now we want to destroy our enemies within our genetic family. But there is no “them” left anymore. There is only “us.” Supremacy as destruction within humanity can only mean self-destruction.

We keep trying to make a “them.” Racism splits down the species into sub-categories, some more worthy than other, some given supremacy over others. Taken far enough, and race supremacy leads to genocide– the ultimate of race supremacy as destruction. But the harsh reality is that it looks like human genetic lines are just about as smart, strong, creative, and loving as the other. Race lines are artificial lines for competition. Racism is a tragedy because when we carry out its logic to its end, we create ever smaller units of competition, until we end up pressing down or murdering some category that we have to identify with ourselves. So in the end, racism or other irrational discrimination causes us to oppress and destroy ourself.

In reality, supremacy as oppression or destruction was never a good paradigm, and we knew it. We knew that other species of life wanted to live and thrive. That we were meant to cherish and care for those living things. So many value systems and religions and teachings recognize that life has a sacred nature, something that should not be sliced down into its constituent parts without reason, and that death should not be dealt out without necessity and humility. We knew we did not have to destroy a whole branch of life entirely just because they threaten us. We were supposed to be Supreme in tending to life, not Supreme in our destructive power over it.

But now it is reaching a tipping point. It is not just about humanity throwing other species into the engine of its power. It is whether we are going to start throwing ourselves in with them. That is the irony of our great success. Because that is the ultimate end of supremacy as destruction– when all your enemies are gone, the only thing left to achieve supremacy over is yourself. Unless we change our view of supremacy, we will totally destroy ourselves.

And if we survive … I shake to think about that. That future is even darker. Technology, through many ways which are already being actively pursued by technology companies, may allow us to indefinitely prolong collective human consciousness as long as we have sufficient resources. With indefinite life, and without change in our way of thinking, the cycle of destructive consumption will continue with greater and greater intensity. If it is not stopped, we could become a deathless collective Ouroboros, a snake eternally consuming its own tail, incessantly gnawing at our own flesh and wondering why we have such suffering in our soul.

We have to turn the whole God damned paradigm around. And I mean those words as literally as possible. That self-consuming violence is a reflection of hell in the short term, and if carried out without ceasing would in fact be Hell in the long term– a self-created and infinitely progressively more dark, painful, and lonely cycle of destruction. I can’t imagine that an eternal and depthless God of love would want that for us or for any other living thing.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to turn away from such a damnable view of dominion. We can get back to another model for supremacy. One in which we are supreme in our capacity for service and love. Supreme in our ability to bring healing and restoration to all living things. Supreme in our humble recognition of our mortality, finitude, and dependence on the eternal and loving grace of God.

And here my Christmas story comes full circle, with a little baby king supreme in a manger. It is, in fact, a Christmas story, if a rather strange one! Not many Christmas stories involve Homo rhodesiensis and a technologically created Ouroboros! But the Christmas story is a story of God giving a ruler with the purpose of healing life and serving it. It is a story about a divine little homo sapiens who would grow up to claim supremacy over all live, not by destruction, but by giving up his own life for the redemption of others. So Christmas is the first chapter in a story about loving our enemies as ourselves.

It is a story we need now, more than ever. Like no other time for life on this planet, our other competitors are gone or disabled. So the only way to have an existential enemy is to make enemies out of ourselves. But this is also where redemption is possible! Since our only enemies remaining are of ourselves, by loving our enemies we love ourselves. In doing so we remove that ancient fear of destruction by others, and the more modern fear of destruction by ourselves. So, by the grace of God, we can be free from that existential fear! Without that fear, we are free to enjoy all the beauty and intricacy of life in its many forms, including our own, until our life is over, and we gratefully return to the eternal arms of the God that gave rise to us, and to all other living things.

It is a good dream, I think, even if we have an incredibly long way to go. Then again, who knows? We’ve already come a long way over these thousands of years. Maybe we’ll get there, too, some day.

Merry Christmas to you all, with love, and may there be peace on earth for all living things.

The Joy of Prayer

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The Joy of Prayer 

Prayer can actually be one of the greatest joys we ever experience in life.

Prayer is a touch of a stream that has endless depth

            Prayer is a cleansing of the sharpest pains

            Prayer is the explosion of ecstatic pleasure

            Prayer is the sharing of the most intimate tenderness 

I have gone to amusement parks, and I have gone to prayer. The prayer creates more contentment

I have had some great sex, and I have had some great prayer. The pleasure of the most amazing prayer far exceeds that of the best love-making.

I have relaxed with movies and beer, and by moving through a familiar series of prayers. … I think you get the picture.

Prayer, nonetheless, can be one of the most difficult and boring experiences of life. Often we go into it rolling our eyes or squirming about having to sit quietly, feeling pious. I am sure I do, and I have heard enough from other people to know that millions of others feel the same.

It can cause extraordinary suffering, like walking through a forest of jungle of barbed wire. It can drudge of levels of hatred and ugliness that are sometimes shocking in their intensity.

And yet

    Prayer is the water that quenches a thirsty soul

            Prayer is the a dance with a loving partner

            Prayer is a smile for everyone to see it

            Prayer is a struggle that is worth the victory

On Seeking God

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 On Seeking God

Sometimes the whole searching for God thing seems like a stupid idea. Is this just a hobby that I like to do, just like some people like to golf, or reading romance novels, or building a greenhouse in the back yard? Is seeking for the sake of seeking my perverse pleasure in life?

If so, it seems a pretty lousy hobby. Constantly struggling with tough questions. Reading and praying and striving. Isn’t it just better to just sit back and relax? So what if the connection with God starts to slip away. Maybe it is just best to let it slide and focus on the more important things—like catching up on that novel, or having some hot sex, or finishing that project that will advance my career.

It does not have to be ignoble, either. Instead of whining about God, I could just as well start volunteering to serve people through a nonprofit organization, or spend more time with family, call up a friend, have a pleasant conversation with a stranger on the street. If I do all those things, won’t all the God stuff follow?

The problem is that I have tried the alternatives. The first is giving up on God. Just do your daily life, enjoy it as best you can—do the dishes, watch some TV, keep up at work—then escape into a good book or a fun summer outing. Forget God—what we really need is a peaceful weekend morning, don’t we?

I can’t speak for other people, but for me, though, God keeps creeping up like a skilled burglar. Whether it is for my own good or not, there is no questioning God’s invasive nature. Those questions that come up after a series of frustrations interrupt my quiet escapism—why am I here? What is my purpose? What is that amazing experience? And when life gets tough, I need inspiration. If life is going to fall into a black nihilism, what is the point of doing the dishes? If I hate life, why keep on living when I am feeling depressed? And then I need some answers. It may be that there are secular answers—without seeking it is impossible to know—but the metaphysical questions cannot be ignored.

Doubling down on escapism is the worst option. The pressure just keeps on building. We need harsher and harsher medicine to numb the wounds. That is when we wipe out our pain with addictive eating. Or fill our brains with temporary highs. Or binge-watch television, or work 12 hour days, or cram un-fulfilling sex and relationships down our throats. It’s like eating ashes—not filling the hunger, but at least easing the empty feeling. Eventually we have to vomit up the crap and the poison and start from scratch.

After detoxing from the escapism, a life of service can be a better way to replace seeking for God. Create a community group dedicated to ending world poverty. Protest against unfair wages or government encroachment on liberty. Write articles about the public education and get them published in the local paper. Give money to causes and volunteer your time serving recent immigrants. Stop mentally ill friends from throwing themselves off a building. I’ve done all those things, and more.

The point is that service can make us feel good, absolutely, and it also has the enormous benefit of making others feel better, too, and giving them bright flash of light in a dark situation. Compared to binge-watching TV series or aimlessly surfing the Web, a life of dedicated service is hands down a more fulfilling way to avoid seeking God.

But ultimately, and trust me on this, it is even harder to avoid God when doing service. When faced with raw human suffering, on the one hand, and the tremendous joy of human redemption, on the other, deeper questions quickly rise to the surface. People in long term service positions have a choice—either become extremely cynical and angry (many do), stop caring (many do), engage in even more committed escapism (many do), or progressively seek to make peace with the most important questions.

So seeking God, in the broadest sense of the phrase, turns out to be less of a hobby and more of a necessity– at least for those of us who are hardwired the way I am. And the point of seeking, hopefully, is finding, and learning to be content with whatever I find, practicing it, and making it a daily reality. Until a fresh round of seeking begins…

 

 

 

 

 

The Creation of People

From the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet 12 (c. 1300 – 900 B.C.) (Akkadian)

In the first days, in the very first days,
In the first nights, in the very first nights,
In the first years, in the very first years,

In the first days … everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days … everything needed was properly nourished,  …

When bread was baked in the shrines of the land,
And bread was tasted in the homes of the land
[H]eaven had moved away from the earth,
And earth had separated from heaven,
And the name of man was fixed

Babylonian Creation, Tablet 6: (c. 700 – 600 B.C.)

… the heart of Marduk moved him to carry out the works of a craftsman. He opened his mouth, he spake to Ea that which he had planned in his heart, he gave counsel:

“I will solidify blood, I will form bone. “I will set up man, ‘Man’ — his name. I will create the man ‘Man.'”The service of the gods shall be established, and I will set them free…

Ea answered and spake a word unto him… “Let one brother be given, let him suffer destruction that men may be fashioned. “Let the great gods be assembled, let this one be given in order that they may be established.”

Marduk assembled the great gods … graciously, he issued a decree … “Let him who created the strife be given… “I will cause the axe in the act of sinking to do away his sin.” The great gods, the Igigi, answered him … “[It was] Kingu who created the strife, “Who made Tiâmat to revolt, to join battle….”

They bound him in fetters … before Ea, they inflicted punishment on him, they let his blood. From his blood he fashioned mankind for the service of the gods, and he set the gods free. After Ea had fashioned man he … laid service upon him. [For] that work, which pleased him not, man was chosen.

Hebrew Scriptures, In the Beginning, Chapter 1: (c. 1350 – 550 B.C.)

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

*             *             *

The beginning of something has something to say about its purpose. The story about how people are made says something about our meaning in life.

Several other creation stories were made in the greater cultural area of the Hebrew people. How one influenced another is almost impossible to piece together. But it is pretty clear there was a general background of stories, with many different variants, before the creation of the biblical account, and many variants continuing to be created thereafter.

One of the oldest, from the Gilgamesh Epic, barely touches on the creation of humanity. The creation of the world is mentioned in passing as an introduction to the main story about the God Enlil and the exploits of Gilgamesh, the god-man hero. Heaven is separated from earth, as in the biblical account. In the same breath, it mentions people baking bread—some for worship, some for themselves. In short, the creation of people is not much explored—we eat, we pray, we exist, we are what we are, so lets get on with the real story of politics and drama and life and death and money.

But there is something very poetic about one line: the name of man was fixed. We are something—someone called us something. I wish the Sumerians had explored this more— or perhaps not. I think I like the mystery of not knowing who created the name of man. It leaves it up to us to explore it, rather than making up the name of some god to fill in the gap.

The Assyrians and Babylonians, writing many hundreds of years later, and benefiting from a more enriched literary, political, and temple culture tradition, filled in more gaps. Again, though, this story of creation is really a side-bar to the main account of the legends of Marduk and company. War, sex, power, and death are the still center-stage in the Assyrian – Babylonian saga. But three-quarters through the account of Marduk beating up the other gods comes an account of the creation of humanity.

I have to laugh at the dismal view of humanity in this Babylonian story. Being created from the blood of a vanquished villain has some romance too it, in a blood-thirsty, vindictive kind of way. But the climax of the creation of humanity turns out to be a let-down—apparently we were made to a kind of unpaid summer intern, the one who cleans out the coffee filter and does all the boring paperwork that all the full-time staff don’t like to do. We are there to do the gods’ dirty work and feed them with sacrifices so they can be free to go about their business. Pretty depressing way to make it through the day!

The Hebrew version of creation is much more uplifting—we were made to rule over the natural world—all the lions and snakes and plants and worms. People, both men and women, are the pinnacle of creation, made on the same day as livestock and other land creatures, but endowed with a royal task granted to no other living thing. We are to make lots of babies, fill the earth with little royal people, and to wrestle down the rest of creation, set our kingdom over it, and eat from the fruits of our labor.

That in itself would make us just the top of the food chain. But the text goes one further, and endows us with the image of God, the Creator himself. We are not drivel to carry out menial god-tasks. We are little queens and kings, shining with an increasingly visible representation of an eternal God that can speak a world into existence.

The Hebrew version gives much more dignity to humanity—more than almost any other creation story I have seen, really. Maybe thousands of years ago it was harder to imagine women and men as the rulers of all the earth—the wilderness and the unknown made it hard to imagine. Now that we have satellites flying outside the solar system it is not so hard to imagine that not only are we the undisputed rulers of this planet, the problem is that we have too much power, not too little. The problem is that we are a despot over the animals, plants, rocks and trees, not that we are a slave to nature, gods, or fate. It turns out that the true danger really is not death and disease, but rather our pride and lack of compassion.

Which turns us back to the image of God. I could write a book on the topic (many people have!). Clearly being in the image of god is not being God. We have had enough wars and stupidity and stubbing our toes to realize we are not God. But not a menial servant, either. Not just dirt thrown together by winds and waves, although our bodies are indeed composed of water and the same stuff that makes up dirt. Not just another animal tasked with killing or be killed, although we are still their cousins and caregivers and friends.

We have something eternal that is branded into us. Something that makes us realize that we really are little kings and queens—bigger than we could ever imagine. Something that made the Sumerians realize that “the name of man was fixed”—our identity burned into us. Something that reflects the Babylonian story of the blood of a divine being poured into our own—but not for slavery and vengeance. No, nothing as low as that, and even more noble than the Hebrew story of wrestling the earth to the ground like a champion. Something so amazing that we cannot even comprehend it, but so good that we are glad it is beyond our comprehension. Something we can spend our whole lives striving to realize, embedding it into our being like a fine carving, crafted over billions of years, and progressively pressing itself into the rough surface of our still savage clay, creating an indescribably beautiful work of art that reflects the image of the divine. I hope that is the kind of Creation Story we write every day with our lives.