Archive for December 23rd, 2009

I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) this afternoon and was especially interested in an interview Terry Gross had with Greg Epstein, Humanist Rabbi, who has written the book Good Without God. In recent years, there has been a spate of such titles ( e.g., God is Not Great, Goodness Without God Is Good Enough) all capitalizing on the fashionable assault on all things religious. Well, I listened very carefully to the gentleman’s argument and one particularly large logical flaw emerged for me.

Throughout the interview, he talked positively about our secular christian nation, complained of the rote recitation of scriptures during temple services, and  celebrated the ethnic and cultural dimensions of judeo-christian heritage. His fundamental argument is a that we no longer believe in the many things of faith and it is, therefore, proper to strive for intellectual integrity and be good without need of a god. He claims, furthermore, that there is no overarching purpose to our lives “assigned” to us by a divinity. Instead, he places a premium on dignity as the highest good and “relationships with people in the here and now”.

While there is much that I find reasonable and, in fact, commendable, about his argument, he characterizes theism several times as magical thinking involving belief in a deity that orders the world. This struck me as simplistic at best. In a particularly disingenuous moment, he said to Terry Gross:” We are not talking about what we do not believe, but rather about what we do believe.” The rest of the interview is an homage to the supremacy of a humanistic, secular world-view.

Epstein’s clear implication is that religion is principally about cultural identity. He regards celebration in that spirit as meaningful and satisfying, but the beliefs themselves are, he reasons, lacking in  rationality and unneccessary baggage (my words). Just there, under the surface of his argument, is the old saw about the lack of any compelling rationale for the existence of  God. He also suggests that meditation stripped of belief is just as powerful.

In other words, this is it. This is as good as it’s going to get. It’s all up to us, and “we just get one shot.” His biggest objection is to the use of the word “God.” Suffering and misery is just awful, and only community support and love make it all bearable, he suggests. There is nothing one can say to make it better than it really is or explain why bad things happen. They just do.

I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what Epstein says. His argument is nuanced and generally well-reasoned. I certainly agree that belief itself is unnecessary, but I take issue with the wholesale rejection of religious experience. He closes the interview by saying that the Santa Claus myth is a good exercise for children because, over time, they must face the myth and ask better questions: Is it really true?

The overall flaw, both in this book and the interview, is the notion of Jewish & Christian religious myth as “childish” magical thinking, and built on irrational beliefs. Often, belief may be as he suggests, but he lumps all religious experience together as if uniform. What Epstein fails to do in making his case is to apply sound rules of empiricism to his analysis.

The null hypothesis in science is that there is no effect of our manipulation, or that there is no evidence in support of our experimental hypothesis. The null can only be supported or unsupported, but never proved or disproved. To imply that there is no need of God is clearly based on the core belief that there is no God no matter how he spins it. He cannot see any compelling reason to believe in God, so he argues that it is a hollow myth.  In effect, he is saying that the lack of evidence of divine action proves the null hypothesis that there is no divinity operating in the universe.

On the contrary, as Hans Kung and others have shown, the “evidence” of transcendent experiences are many. It takes more than ideas and strong-willed leaders making definitive choices to change the world. It takes resilient and purposed personalities fed by a deep spiritual reservoir. The transcendent function is visible in poetry, art, all forms of revelatory writing, the religious experiences of people around the world in many traditions, and the tendency of all the sciences, especially the physical sciences, to see a movement toward grand unifying theories of all matter and energy.

Yes, we can reject the magical god as “big man in the sky” on the grounds that it shapes the Beloved in our image. It is much more subtle than that.

As I listen to Epstein’s interview, I leave dissatisfied. I hear in it a reductionism whereby Humanism reflects Man cut off from everything else in the Cosmos. I hear a hubris revolving around Man’s need for self-centeredness and a radical realism. I hear that purpose is something we author alone.

Again, he is half right. We author our purpose and our sense of self, but that set of choices interacts with many other dimensions of existence that work on us, through us, within us. The interactions are complex.

Jung’s discovery of the archetypes as emerging from the “collective unconscious” is relevant here. The archetypes work independently of each mind. They emerge as foundational to consciousness itself. In fact, the existence of Man and Woman is itself archetypal and pre-exists humanity acting as catalysts for the evolution of the universe toward ever greater degrees of consciousness.

The whole thing smacked of post-modern scientism, the myth of total self-control, and the proposition that goodness is, pure and simple, a matter of choice. I suggest, in objecting, that goodness and love under those circumstances is a tactic, a self-serving, self-aggrandizing motive. Instead, authentic compassion and divine love are inspired naturally through spiritual nourishment and Communion with the Beloved.

Epstein misses the essential message of religion in his intellectual scholarship and facile rejection of the authentic experience that grounds mature belief.  Absent the true mystical experience (apart from belief), beliefs themselves are empty containers with two- dimensional content. He dwells too much on that two-dimensional state as if that was all there is to the religious sensibility. Given human doubt, agnosticism appears more logically and experientially defensible.  Atheism is too sweeping a generalization and deviates from the established empirical method that proponents would seem to value.

I am attaching the YouTube interview with Epstein for those interested. What are your thoughts?

Defending the Faith and Morality of Non-Believers

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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His name is Nicholas: a man who was known in his times for having given his own wealth to those in need, and to be a tenacious protector of children. Under Diocletian, Nicholas was imprisoned for his faith and then served as an attendee at the Council of Nicaea after his release. Legends swirl around Nicholas as a kindly and generous man with a fervent and unyielding faith. Many of these legends speak of miracles performed both before and after his death ( e.g., raising young murdered adolescents back to life, and restoring a kidnapped child to his parents).

In time, Nicholas would become almost synonymous with the mythic Santa Claus ( Father Christmas, the Nordic Tomte or Nisse, Pere Noel, Sinterklass, Pere Fouettard, and Kris Kringle). What is the basis for this enduring image that has been so emblematic of the Season? The good and kindly St.Nicholas represents the best of humanity. He had a large heart, placed others first, and sacrificed for the needs of a greater good based in faith and principles. Often rendered as corpulent, I am reminded of Budai, the laughing Buddha.

The Fat Buddha, as he is known in the West, or the Buddha Maitreya and Phra Sanghachai in Thailand, carries a cloth sack and, though poor, is totally content. He is revered as the enlightened embodiment of true contentment, wisdom, a generous and open heart, and the very meaning of Zen. In Zen Buddhism, Budai is himself a Koan: Asked, “what is the meaning of Zen?” Budai put down his bag. When then asked,”How does one realize it?” He picked it up again.

St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and Budai set the imagination ablaze with wonder at enduring simple truths that are, as always is the case, harder to reliably demonstrate than to extol, sing praises about, and capture in verse, story, and Seasonal trappings:

  1. All that we need to become we already are.
  2. The laughter of a kind heart heals deep wounds.
  3. One’s bag is full when it is empty.
  4. Openness to all means no stereotyping, no intolerance, all loving and spacious regard for all sentient beings.
  5. A smile is a salve for injury, pain, and disappointment.
  6. The child’s imagination is our first and truest state of being – the state of amazement.
  7. Heaven is now. If not now, most definitely not later. Make it so.
  8. Give of yourself. All else is a proxy for that.

It is said that if you rub the Budai’s belly, it brings good luck. His girth is large not from over-eating, but as a result of taking into himself the poison and darkness and evil all around, and he laughs them into oblivion. So, our greatest act of engaged spirituality is to be the inverse of the three monkeys – i.e., see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Instead, we are called to see it and dissolve it in compassion, hear it and make music where there is only rude, discordant noise, and speak of it so that the evil is named and can then be “called out.”

The Spirit of Nicholas/ Sinterklaas and Budai are celebrated with special vigor in these next 12 days. The archetype of the Healer will certainly be in my mind throughout the season.

May you and yours know deep and enduring peace, true contentment, laughter that ends suffering, and the full measure of being close to those who are richer for the fact that you have shared yourself with them.

Merry ( & Happy) Christmas!

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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As is the case with so many rituals and symbols, the Christmas tree has undergone significant evolution in its use throughout the centuries. The practice of decorating an evergreen goes back to pagan roots as a ritual in celebration of the Winter Solstice and in hopes of a good harvest in the season ahead among ancient druids, Egyptians, Hebrews, pagans and Chinese.

The choice of the evergreen revolves around the allusions to eternal life, so its later adoption by Christians was quite natural as the adornments took on the symbolism of the faith: an angel atop the tree and not the Norse practice of the spear signifying the God Odin. The German Lutherans decorated their trees with apples and wafers symbolizing the crucified God. Victorian ritual saw a shift from live fruit to the glass balls we are now accustomed to along with candles, allusions to the fire of life and Genesis, now more safely represented by the strings of multicolored lights.

It is among my favorite traditions of the season along with modest use of outdoor lighting. The colors red and green capture the mysteries of Divine love, the Presence of the Holy Spirit and the greenness of the biome. What we place on the tree matters a great deal. There are archetypal images along with those specific to our own sense of meaning and personal unconscious.

We always leave the decorating until the day before Christmas eve; today, as it turns out. With music playing and a wood fire in the fireplace, we each place decorations on the tree, and there are always more decorations than the tree can accomodate.

What images find their way there, first:

  • the ornaments with the name of our two children inscribed along with the year of their birth,
  • ornaments that are old, and go back to the earliest days of our marriage,
  • those hand-made by my wife’s late Aunt who made them each year as gifts for the family,
  • many delicately made images of angels,
  • ornaments of saints,
  • nativity scenes,
  • many beautifully crafted song birds and parrots,
  • small cottages dusted with snow,
  • and the untold number of glass baubles and balls, flutes, and stars, and a goodly number of ballerinas.

Throughout the central room where the tree resides, there are the many nutcrackers, larger angels, a separate smaller tree for special bird ornaments, and other seasonal objects far too many to list. What matters is what they all say and create. In this moment of family artistry and creative decorating, the point is to suspend time and allow the system unconscious its full expression.

We delight in the rainbow display of color, in the symbols of dance, movement that celebrates being alive and conscious, joyfully surrounded by imagery of nature, mystical union and spiritual vitality, the memory of loved ones and things past, and loved ones in the here and now engaged in the high play of celebrating the deep mystery of the Incarnate G-d.

For a few days, time has no meaning. The past is alive with us in the quickening of memory. The present bathes in the deep roots to which color reaches into our personal and collective unconscious, and the symbols dance like so many sugar-plums on the stage that we construct together.

We are artists in action. We awaken the creative muse that whispers in our ears of simpler times. We stimulate all the senses and prepare for the mystical rebirth that surely happens, beyond ritual and Liturgy, in the timeless realm of soul and spirit, in the Heart of the Cosmos that continually renews itself.

The Evergreen miracle, the moment of the Star of Bethlehem, the end of our waiting, and the spark of inner knowing are upon us.


© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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