What Used to Be

Budapest Opera HouseI used to be a woman of faith. After a spiritual experience in 1983, I began going to church and the rest  I’ve written about extensively on this blog. Since then I’ve given up my religiosity and my beliefs in certain dogma.  I no longer go to church per se, although I’ve been going to the Quaker meeting house with my husband for a few years now.

I still cling to some notions about Christianity, but the one thing I don’t believe in any longer is prayer.  By prayer I mean an action the believer takes to attempt to move the Maker into changing the Laws of Nature or the minds of other people to affect an outcome.  Now, I believe in meditation and silence and prayer in the sense that it helps the person praying, but I don’t believe that some Divine Being is listening to our prayers and deciding to rearrange the universe to answer them.

What made me realize this is that in times past, my first inclination when faced with bad news is to pray for the a positive outcome that happened to suit me at all times. Now, faced with my husband’s cancer diagnosis, I realize that no amount of praying will change the news of how large or small this tumor is. It just is. It’s been there unknowingly and will continue to be there no matter what I believe in my mind about it. No amount of prayer will affect that. No one will hear this prayer but me.  I don’t mean to say that prayer is not good, but I believe it’s only good for the one doing the praying. It acts as a meditative tool to calm one’s nerve, bolster one’s resolve, and to give someone the much-needed cool-down time before doing or saying something rash.

The reasons I came to this conclusion is by observing the world around me.  Despite a prayer force of billions of people in the world, we still have death, famine, abuse, rape, murder, cancer, wars, and all the evils that man can devise. Despite faith in a Divine Being we still have those idiots who believe that God wants the deaths of everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do. Despite billions of the faithful praying daily we see no discernible difference in the outcomes of cancer deaths or salvation from it by miraculous means. No, I have faith in medicine and science to find the cures for most ills before I have faith in prayer.

Now I know all the arguments for and against such things, but this has come from years of experience and it hasn’t come lightly. I’ve struggled mightily to keep an innocent faith in God, Jesus, and prayer, but at some point I had to face the cruel facts of reality. So, as I face the cruel facts of an uncertain future with a cancer diagnosis, I will face it with prayer like I always do, but I have no expectation that the cancer will disappear. I don’t believe it’s some kind of test or sent by God to make me more faithful. How awful to believe such things! I am of the idea that we will do everything available to us to stop it or at least slow it down. I have every expectation that prayer will make me calmer and able to face it. I suppose that makes me the double-minded man in the book of James, doesn’t it? Ah well, better that than be in denial about the cruelties of nature.

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Giving In or Accepting Things I Cannot Change?

erudite0I have used many philosophical and religious systems in my life, for personal improvement mainly. I’ve been a devout and now a nominal (if that) Christian. I’ve read numerous philosophers.  At university, as a literature major, I was obliged to read widely and often. This I gladly did. I could never quite come to know a system that worked for me, that reflected life as it is lived and not as some dogma pronounced.

My favorite bible book is Ecclesiastes. It has more sound wisdom in it than the entire collection of epistles, stories, and myths in the Jewish and Greek Testaments.  It’s curious that no one preaches from this book, probably because it goes against all the tenets of Paul’s version of Christianity. I have to say that my favorite philosophers have been the more practical ones. I’m all about practicality until I get some damn fool notion of romance into my head. One of the most practical is Aristotle.  The Transcendentalists are sublime. The Stoics are admirable AND practical.

My morning read always includes a portion from The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. In today’s portion, a quote from Seneca, Moral Letter, 83.2

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day.[2] For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past.

Good words to heed and keeping a journal has been a daily habit with me for over 40 years. I do look back over my life and realize all of the mistakes in thinking that I keep making and all of the actual mistakes. It’s a very self-reflective journal, sometimes nauseatingly so.  Daily examination is a good thing, although as a Christian this would always turn into some kind of scrupulosity fest which never made me feel any better.  But one thing the Stoics believed was that we have control over one thing; our own minds. All else stems from that, including our will.

I’ve also learned a great deal from my husband who follows every whim, denies himself nothing, and seemingly has no control over his own ideas, actions, or choices. He also never reflects on what’s past because he just forgets everything. He’s like a blank slate every day. I ask him about previous marriages and he doesn’t remember anything, or chooses not to. He keeps no diaries or journals or blogs. This complete lack of concern over one’s actions has taught me a great deal about how we see the world and our reactions to it. It’s also taught me that we CANNOT change other people. We can only change our MINDS and therefore, our actions (will).  Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations 7.2:

How can our principles become dead, unless the impressions (thoughts) which correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in thy power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame. I can have that opinion about anything, which I ought to have. If I can, why am I disturbed? The things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind.- Let this be the state of thy affects, and thou standest erect. To recover thy life is in thy power. Look at things again as thou didst use to look at them; for in this consists the recovery of thy life.

I need to go back to first principles every single day and reflect on those things that worked for me and those things that didn’t. When was I most happy? When was I most content? What made me feel in control and purposeful in my life? What makes me feel crazy and out of control? It is to these which I must reflect on every morning. As Aurelius said, ‘to recover thy life is in thy power’.

No, I cannot change anyone else, but I can change how I see it and how I react. Now this is easier said than done, but if we keep falling into that hole in the sidewalk instead of choosing to walk around it the next time, we have only ourselves to blame.

Dexter Morgan, Absorber of Sins if Not a Sin-Eater?

Dexter Morgan

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“A sin eater is a person who has the capacity to sense, draw out, and consume the suffering of others.” Isaac DeLuca Sin Eater.

I watch the Showtime series Dexter whenever I can. Some of my family members have wondered how in the world I can watch this stuff or find in Dexter a sympathetic character. I can because I think that there is a dark place in each and every one of us, as Dexter calls it his “Dark Passenger.” Some of us can squelch this. Some cannot. To me, it’s the epitome of sin and a lack of impulse control that I believe some are born with. Or, as in Dexter Morgan‘s case, was born when we experience a horrifyingly traumatic event. There was a free preview of the channel on all this past week and I spent every night getting through the latest season. What occurred to me as I watched the season finale was that perhaps Dexter serves as his community’s sin-eater, perhaps not in the literally sense as in eating in the presence of a corpse, but in the Scapegoat or Sin-Absorber sense.

In Season 5 Dexter meets Lumen (notice the light reference) who has been tortured and raped by a group of childhood friends, now grown men, who get their kicks by murdering women after such unspeakable acts. Lumen escapes this with Dexter’s help, but spends the season trying to track down and kill the perpetrators. After initially backing away from involvement, Dexter tries to help her eliminate her torturers and together they see what each of them has the capacity to do. Dexter is amazed that he is finally fully seen by another human being and she is not disturbed. Perhaps because, momentarily, she is broken herself. But in almost the last scene of the season finale Dexter does something that struck me as a completely selfless and redemptive act. He grasps Lumen’s head between his hands and kisses her squarely in her third eye chakra between her brows. It’s not a quick peck, but a long drawing out sort of kiss. It is only after this kiss that Lumen feels completely healed from her trauma, and after, I might add, they have indeed tracked down and killed the last perpetrator.  Lumen is freed, but Dexter is not. He has not got rid of his Dark Passenger. It is his lot to kill those who harm society, or so he believes.

Despite the ethics surrounding the acts of such a person, it brings up all sorts of religious connotations for me. Are some people destined/doomed to play the bad role? In the Hebrew bible, God is seen as choosing some for evil purposes and some for good.  Paul clearly thought that God did this very thing by hardening Pharoah’s heart to accomplish the freedom of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. (Romans 9:17-18) One can also say that Judas Iscariot was destined to betray Jesus, whom the writers of the Gospels thought was known from the beginning as the betrayer (John 6:60-71).  However one interprets it, clearly in a foreknown world, some are doomed to be the evil that people hate. Jesus, himself, and his disciples can be seen as “sin-eaters” in the sense that at the last supper, the disciples would be considered eating with “the dead;” Jesus himself. In the Church, priests can perhaps be considered sin-eaters in the sense that, during the Eucharist, we eat Jesus’ body in order to confer grace or absolve us from sins.

Dexter could also be an example of a case of natural selection. There are those who prey on the innocent and those who prey on the prey-ers upon the innocent. It’s natural law or a hierarchical food chain, however one chooses to see it. It could carry religious connotations or it could be simply evolution with human beings as just another animal acting out animalistic ways. It just struck me that Dexter manages to heal all those who come into contact with him, yet he is never healed in the sense that he is always broken, always has a Dark Passenger, and yet we sympathize with him, or some of us do anyway. He didn’t choose to be this way, larger forces did. Some of us can’t choose to absorb the sins and sufferings of others.

“By Their Fruits” and the Public Political Debate

A female Quaker preaches at a meeting...

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Hereby begins a long rambling post by someone with too much time on her hands. Having no standing in the political or religious arena, I feel free to think aloud about what’s running through my head lately.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve settled down to married life without a spouse in the household, which makes it more difficult than I anticipated. My husband of two weeks had to return to the UK and get to work and before we could spend Christmas together. But the future bodes well with my moving there early next spring and transporting most of my worldly goods as well. In the meantime, I need to keep busy at work and keep my mind off missing him.

As I said before, the wedding ceremony was beautiful. We chose a scripture text because a) we were married in a church and b) it seemed a very practical passage. We used Matthew’s passage about salt and light. Salt should keep its flavor and light should not be hid. It probably seems a strange pick for a wedding scripture but it fit with both of our convictions that actions speak louder than words. For both of us, action is more important than all the talk in the world. Action proves one’s intent more than a thousand declarations. My husband is a newly minted Quaker and The Religious Society of Friends values action more than speech. Even the quiet waiting of the Lord in meeting is an action of surrender, far more powerful than a liturgy or mumbling of words in a ritual. Willingness, reception, humility… far more important than stubbornly proclaiming and correcting. I, on the other hand, take the bible with a huge grain of salt (pun intended). 😀

I was reading many blog posts on the internet this morning. It’s Christmas after all and I was looking for inspiration of some kind. Any kind really. I always tell myself I will go to church or do this or that. And I never do it. I think my IDEA of Christianity is a fond nostalgic moment in my mind, but one which never lives up to that nostalgia in practice. My idea of Christianity is just that; ideal. From my readings I sensed a theme though. Some Christians like to use particular passages to prove  what they consider to be wrong in God’s eyes. This provides the basis for most evangelical sermons heard round the world on most Sundays.  I kept coming to articles quoting another section from Matthew; one that some use as a moral compass:

15″Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. (Mt. 7:15-20)

It’s a great passage because it describes the predicament of men very well.  It’s a wonderful metaphor for a principle that probably precedes any biblical inclusion. Let’s assume for a moment that the bible contains an absolute set of ethics which is prescriptive of our behavior.  How is this passage prescriptive? Well in the churches in which I was a member, I heard from the pulpit that you could pretty easily recognize the wrongness of a thing by what it produced. Romans 1:24-32 was often used as a companion text to illustrate this point. Never mind the fact that sometimes “fruit” is not instant. Sometimes we cannot see the good or evil of an action until many years down the road.

But some Christians would like us to believe that this can be a test of some kind, right now.  They tell us that certain acts will automatically produce a certain consequence.  It is true that one can generally tell the worth of a thing by the fruits produced. The problem comes when Christians use this passage as a prescription to tell others what is “good” or “bad” in particular, according to their interpretation of the scriptures. They also get to decide which consequences are good or evil.  For them sexuality is the chief illustration of a tree and its fruits. AIDS is a consequence of homosexuality therefore it is bad. Abortion is a consequence of  preventable choices therefore it is bad. Depression is a consequence of abortions therefore it is preventable and bad. Failed third marriages are the consequence of divorce therefore divorce is bad. Laziness and freeloading is a consequence of welfare therefore welfare is bad.  Communism is a consequence of basic health care for all therefore not only is communism bad, basic health care for free is bad. For these kinds of folk, B is always a result of A, no matter what.

But, let’s continue the metaphor and take it further. But what if a tree produces good fruit one year and bad fruit the next? What if part of it’s fruit is bad but the rest is good? What happens if the fruit looks really good and healthy but tastes bitter? What if the fruit that ripens and “rots” the most is the juiciest and the best? Isn’t this parable more a generalization rather than a sure fire way of telling what’s good and bad? You’ll know an action is generally unworthy if it generally and consistently produces bad things. Conversely, and more importantly, you’ll know an action is generally worthy if it generally and consistently produces good things.  Generally then, we can look at the bible as another set of ethics that needs to be scrutinized alongside all systems of ethics, using the same criteria: Does it work? Unfortunately some Christians do not ask that question often enough mainly because they don’t care if it works. God said it, that settles it.

This brings me to philosophy as it relates to the public debate about politics and whose politics are “better,” (as most of what I read always does). Setting aside biblical philosophy, I am always interested in John Stuart Mill and his theory of utilitarianism, which seems important right now in the public debate over whose politics are true, especially in this country. Utilitarianism posits that the “moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.”  This seems to be exactly what Matthew is saying.  You cannot really judge anything as an idea. Ideas have no worth in and of themselves. An idea of a perfect society has no worth if its not enacted in the culture and proven in the public arena. Politics is merely one group arguing for their idea of a society over another group’s idea. Each tries to prevent the other from enacting the principles behind their idea.

Political utilitarianism in general terms is the idea that the most good to the most number of people is helpful to society as a whole. To work for the good of society is a morally worthy goal. The problem is when groups of individuals disagree about what’s good for society.  But that jumps the gun. Mill wrote that

To do the right thing…we do not need to be constantly motivated by concern for the general happiness. The large majority of actions intend the good of individuals (including ourselves) rather than the good of the world. Yet the world’s good is made up of the good of the individuals that constitute it and unless we are in the position of, say, a legislator, we act properly by looking to private rather than to public good. Our attention to the public well-being usually needs to extend only so far as is required to know that we aren’t violating the rights of others.

How this dovetails with scripture depends on how one views scripture. For me, having once taken it so literally, I can say that the bible exists for me now only as a record of other peoples’ experiences of their ideas about God. There is nothing systematic about it. There is no consistent ethic. It provides no absolute foundation for anything. It is literature of the past that contains myth. Like most myth, it it meant to explain after the fact rather than be a presentation of fact. Myth is written by men for other men to try and explain how the world works for them (see my Master’s thesis introduction). The fact that no woman wrote scripture, or if she did, no woman was allowed a presence in its collection, convinces me that the bible is not meant for a woman’s consumption and indeed probably has nothing of any value to say to modern women. There are some worthy statements in the bible, just as there are in another philosphers’ writings, but to stand the test of time a philosophy has to be workable and representative of most people; women included! If it does not stand that test, then it can be discarded as an idea; a pretty idea perhaps, but not workable in any real sense.

All this is a long treatise on the simple idea of mine that we will never get anywhere in political debate until we are allowed to test the theories posited. This is what makes the United States unique in that there are individual states making legislation amid the larger idea of a cohesive Federal government. The states are little microcosms whereby the people can enact what they believe are good ideas and see if they work. If they do work then legislators and the public should try to convince other states and eventually the Federal government to enact them. But progress is extremely slow and we have to realize that. We cannot assume that something doesn’t work even after many years. But we can assume that something works if it’s proven to have worked. Who will say that Brown vs. the Board of Education didn’t accomplish much? Yet it was vociferously protested at the time. We’ve already seen how theocracy works in part by looking at history (the Crusades, Salem Witch trials, etc.) and by looking at how individual churches run themselves. We know that we trample on individual rights when we keep out all the undesirable people these churches cannot stand. No one wants a government that exhibits such exclusivity and punishment espoused by such doctrines. A society based on such exclusivity does not work. We have seen that slavery doesn’t work by watching our Southern states and realizing the devastating path that racism takes. Our western states have shown us in the past that women’s rights were successful long before the Eastern part of the country got wind of it or realized that women were intelligent beings.

I guess all of this is my way of realizing that action and the consequences of it is the only proof of a good idea. People and mere existence comes first, not institutions or foundations. We aren’t born into rules. Rules are born from us and the good of society as a whole is a direct result of the happiness and freedom of individuals IN COOPERATION with the happiness and freedom of our neighbor. There are some “trees” that deserve to be cut down. Al Qaida is a bad tree. Theocracy is a bad tree. Slavery is a bad tree. The subjugation of women is a bad tree. Unregulated capitalism is a bad tree. War that is not just is a bad tree. People dying because they cannot afford health care is a bad tree. Sexual stereotyping is a bad tree. What else is a bad tree? You get the picture.

“Homosexuality and The Church”

Hackman’s Musings: Homosexuality and The Church.

Quote of Note:

I have heard many times in the past week (this is a big issue here in Utah at the moment) that those opposing homosexuality are just adhering to their morals. I would like to make a distinction here. Objecting to homosexuality, I believe, cannot be a universal moral. It is a religious conviction. I think for something to be considered a universal moral, and not merely a religious position, it has to be amenable to all faiths… and those without a faith. The bible says murder is wrong (although it acts it out more as a guideline than a rule) but I could also make a non-religious arguement as to why it is good for humanity to follow that position. On the contrary, I have yet to hear a valid argument against homosexuality that did not come back to a religious point and/or that individual’s personal “ick” factor with homosexuality.

Feminist Gatekeepers

 

Writing in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecra...

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Rebecca Traister, Hanna Rosin, and others on why you can’t own feminism. (1) – By DoubleX Staff – Slate Magazine.

Now I understand. After reading these feminists (and I’m surprised that they “allowed” Christina Hoff Summers to comment) I understand better about the feminist gatekeepers. They are elite women-firsters. They are academic women lording sover the lives of any other creatures; fetuses, men, animals, etc. They have earned this right because they believe others have ruled them long enough. Fair enough. I’m on board with that. Men have always taken what they wanted without weighing consequences. It’s their right. However, feminist gatekeepers look askance at anyone who would claim the right to be first themselves, such as Sarah Palin, who they label “unserious.” Why? Because she’s not educated like you or believe in the same policies as you do? As I recall, men in their patriarchal heyday often called Victoria Woodhull and suffragettes “unserious.” Gatekeepers label Palin and other women who disagree with them as dabblers at politics who do not understand what they are talking about.  Why? Because they don’t understand it the way you do? Which education is enough to make them “serious” about their political beliefs. Ivy league colleges? I smell elitism in the air.

Again, ladies, we UNDERSTAND what you are saying. You are saying women have rights no matter who’s involved. You are saying that your body is yours no matter what. Abortion is your banner no matter who you’ve allowed inside your body first. We get it. Fathers have no rights. Grandparents have no rights. The fetus has the least rights of all. The only right that matters is the female because she carries the baby. No parthenogenesis is involved yet somehow this “tissue” is strictly hers to dispose of at will as if no one was involved in its creation but her. We understand that no one has the right to an opinion about the government, about welfare, about employment, but you. Early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, ladies who were never governors of their states, are considered “minor” feminists, probably because Stanton opposed abortion as another means of enslaving women by getting rid of men’s mistakes for them. Stanton wrote:

“When we consider that woman are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should Treat our  children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.”  Letter to Julia Ward Howe, October 16, 1873, recorded in Howe’s diary at Harvard University Library

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote:

“Women becoming, consequently, weaker…than they ought to be…have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection…either destroy the embryo in the  womb, or cast if off when born. Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.” A Vindication of the Rights of Women,”

In other words, there is a price to be paid for such cavalier trashing of nature’s effects isn’t there? I think so. Yet, I am pro-choice myself and think the laws should stay as they are to protect a woman’s health and against crimes committed against her. However, there should be caveats as with any act that has responsibilities attached to it; the rights of fathers who care, and other family members who have a vested interest. No decision should be responsibility free. I don’t believe the religionists that say your body is God’s, but I also don’t go to the other extreme that say your body is yours no matter what.

There was a division in Stanton’s day and it appears there will be in our day. Ideology always creates division. Perhaps it should but people who don’t agree with you have a right to express their beliefs just as much as you do. Agreeing to further the causes of women should not however lie on the stance of a single issue.  Life is never about single issues. Again, modern feminists are making themselves the gatekeepers of an ideology that only a few women will ascribe to and declaring it true and right. They are “mortified” that other women claim their accomplishments as feminist; women who are married, mothers, or in any other category not fitting for complete and total freedom as they see it, a right they only accord to themselves. Is abortion really going to be the test for all political ideologies, left, right, and middle? Really? Feminism will never go anywhere with this mentality.

As for who gets to be feminist? I’ll tell you; only those who agree with the gatekeepers of their generation, that’s who.

Better to Judge Than Examine Yourself

Anne Rice

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I am amazed, yet not really surprised, at some “true” Christians’ cavalier attitude about judging another person’s faith. We who no longer walk these well trodden and judgmentally offensive paths can’t help but wonder how deluded one must be to think no one else’s path is genuine but their own. How easy it is to know what another person thinks about or what one’s motivation is.  Miguel Guanipa claims to know that Anne Rice’s religion was “fashioned from ignorance,” and has a ““what’s in it for me” mentality.” Sounds like so much sour grapes to me. I can’t help but think that such people are envious of those with the proverbial “balls” to leave behind what these judgmental people are scared to. Fear is a great motivator, especially in religion.