Archive for the ‘Faith and practice’ Category
The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.
Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.
- Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
- Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greeter than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
- Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by being keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
- Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.
As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?
Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.
In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.
When I was a girl growing up in Syria and Saudi Arabia, I used to dream of someday living in the West, so I could experience all the freedoms that exist in Western societies, especially for women. When I finally got the opportunity to study in the West, my biggest disappointment was seeing how people squander their freedom of speech. There are so many things that one could talk about, but 95% of the conversations I heard among my fellow students were about food and sex and buying things. (Afra, a former student at McGill University, reflecting on her four years as an undergraduate)
Some of the most meaningless words are also the most emotionally charged. One of the most vacuous words commonly used in American society is also one of the most explosively emotional: “Freedom.” Anyone who has seen an automobile from the state of New Hampshire has witnessed the enigmatic slogan stamped on the license plates, “Live Free or Die.” The form of the phrase is that of an imperative sentence, a command that one must either live free or die. But if the only alternative to living free is death, then it is reasonable to ask whether while alive one has the freedom to choose not to live free. Apparently not, at least in New Hampshire. The command seems to be firmly rooted in self-contradiction and therefore meaningless, but that makes it no less capable of stirring emotions into a pointless frenzy of enthusiasm for an abstract idea that few people bother to think about beyond registering some sort of positive response. “Hooray for Freedom! Whatever it is, I’m all for it!”
Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between two kinds of freedom, often informally called freedom to and freedom from. In an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ian Carter writes this about positive and negative liberty:
Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.
It seems fairly clear that when the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America wrote of freedom, it was positive liberty that they had in mind. They were preoccupied with having the capacity to make decisions collectively that reflected the realities of life on the North American continent, and they hoped to make those decisions independently of the will of the King of England and the British Parliament.
Those early Americans who opposed the new constitution, on the other hand, were preoccupied with individual liberties, the negative liberties such as the absence of constraints on individual behavior. Those who opposed the ratification of the newly written constitution were called anti-federalists, and they had their greatest strength in New York, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas, but they were also well represented in New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts (which in early days included the present state of Maine). The anti-federalists were vehemently opposed to the idea of a President of the United States, which they feared would evolve into a position hardly distinguishable from that of a monarch. They opposed a centralized federal government, favoring instead strong state governments, which were perceived as less likely to abridge the freedom of individuals to do what they wanted to do without governmental restraints. The anti-federalists tended also to oppose taxation, which they viewed as an instrument of tyranny, and therefore a threat to individual liberties. Many of the concerns of the anti-federalists found their way into the first amendments to the Constitution, called collectively the Bill of Rights. While initially skeptical of the prospects of successfully writing provisions that would limit the degree to which a government, whether at the federal or the state level, could interfere in the private life of a citizen, even such strong federalists as James Madison eventually came to see that without this concession to anti-federalists there was no hope of the new constitution being ratified. And so the Constitution originally written in 1787 came to have a Bill of Rights in 1789. (People who call themselves Constitutional originalists should probably take care to specify whether they favor the original constitution of 1787 or the amended Constitution of 1789. And when they heap praise on the so-called Founding Fathers, they should probably specify whether they mean strong-central-government federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton or the states-rights anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Robert Yates, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee and James Monroe.)
Most of the religious systems that have evolved in India—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—are also preoccupied with freedom, but their focus is not so much on freedom from constraints imposed by governments as on limitations imposed by one’s own damaged psyche. The human mentality, they say, is damaged by vicious tendencies such as greed, hatred and delusion. These vicious tendencies imprison the person who has the them. One who is in the throes of attachment to acquiring and holding onto possessions, power, recognition and approval is no more free than an addict to walk away from the pursuit of these ultimately unsatisfactory commodities. One bound in the chains of hatred is not free to interact productively with other sentient beings (or with a God whose nature is supposed to be unconditional love. One wearing the fetters of unwarranted assumptions and prejudices is not free to explore avenues that lead to truth. As pitiful as the condition of one encumbered with greed, hatred and delusion may be, it is, say most Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, precisely the condition almost all human beings are in. As individuals, they say, most of us are in those conditions because we live in societies that are based on the cultivation of collective greed, hatred and delusion.
The kinds of social and political freedom that many modern Americans seek are diametrically opposed to the kind of psychological freedom that Indian religio-philosophical practices are designed to cultivate. For many modern Americans who are obsessed with freedom, what they seek is summed up in the words of a character played by Peter Fonda in a forgettable 1966 motion picture called The Wild Angels:
We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man. We want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.
Freedom, in this view, means not freedom from greed, hatred and delusion but exactly the opposite. It means freedom to act without constraints—even the constraints of self-discipline—on one’s greed, hatred and delusion. That this is so becomes clearer if one looks at the kinds of freedom from government interference that many people are calling for these days:
- Deregulation. The self-proclaimed freedom-lovers say they oppose governmental regulations that were designed to protect the environment from degradation wrought by the extractive and manufacturing sectors of the economy, regulations that were designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices, and regulations that were put in place to protect the health and safety and economic viability of workers. Ridding the nation of environmental regulations, safety regulations and minimum wage and worker safety regulations would, so the argument goes, allow the economy to grow and provide jobs. In short, people who advocate for less governmental regulation are seeking to guarantee the right to be greedy, the right to acquire wealth without any regard whatsoever to the consequences that acquisition may have on others.
- Right to bear arms. It may have made sense in a time when people shot squirrels for their dinner to make sure that governments did not limit access to efficient methods of killing game, but it is dangerous and ridiculous to extend the right to bear arms to include assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill human beings rather than squirrels. Some argue that the right to bear arms is meant to give people a method of overthrowing tyrannical governments. The assassins of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy no doubt thought in those terms. In her recently published autobiography, Condoleeza Rice staunchly supports the right of all citizens to bear arms with her claim that if the state of Alabama had required the registration of firearms, Bull Connor would have confiscated all the weapons of African Americans, thus making it much more difficult for them to achieve freedom from the limitations of racial segregation. Given that it is impossible either to shoot someone or to threaten to shoot them without wanting to eliminate them from one’s life, and given that the definition of hatred is the desire to eliminate what one finds unpleasant or obnoxious, those who cling to their second amendment rights are in effect seeking to guarantee the right to be hateful.
- Right to do what one wants to do. Not everyone wants to do stupid and dangerous things, but many do. While it may be quixotic to try to protect people from their own folly, many laws are designed to promote public safety. Laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles are examples of such laws, as are speed limits, laws against driving while using cellphones, laws requiring pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, laws requiring vehicles to signal before making turns and so forth. Laws requiring people to carry various kinds of insurance (including health insurance) and to pay into the Social Security system are other examples. People who find such laws offensive are seeking to guarantee the right to be foolish. It may seem harmless enough to allow people to be foolish, but rarely is it the case that the fool is the only one who suffers the consequences of his own folly. Causality does not honor the fictitious boundaries of personal identity; the consequences of actions leak out into the world at large. While it is undeniably true that many governmental regulations seem stupid, it should be borne in mind that most of them came into being because there are so many dangerously stupid people to govern.
While I am sympathetic to those who would prefer not to live in tyrannies and totalitarian states, or even in small towns in Nebraska where one’s every move is monitored by well-meaning busybodies, I have not yet managed to be sympathetic to the American craving for undisciplined and excessive lifestyles. If demanding pointless forms of personal freedom to be greedy, hateful and deluded is un-American, then I am not at all unwilling to be considered un-American. My preference is the kind of freedom that the Buddhists (and sober-sided Quakers) have taught me to seek.
What are we doing to ensure adequate water, food, shelter, education and respect for those who do not have ready access to these blessings? Are we informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment? (Faith and Practice. Intermountain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 2009, p. 139.)
For the vast majority of Americans—I cannot speak for the people of other countries—the answer to the second question in this Quaker query is No. No, we are not informed about the effects of our lifestyle on the global economy and the environment. I would like to think that if we were informed, we would choose to live different lifestyles.
I have a hunch there are a lot of people who know that people would choose to live differently if they were better informed. How else can we account for the millions, even billions, of dollars that are spent every year to make sure that most people are misinformed? Just to tie one example, it is impossible to know for sure how many people are lured into believing that America’s economic future depends on finding and extracting petroleum, coal and natural gas in the United States and Canada, and that these extracting industries will create millions of jobs for Americans right here at home, and that the principal obstacles to America’s energy security and independence are regulations aimed at protecting the environment. Given, however, that Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain has said that one of his first acts as president would be to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency so that Americans could get back to work and become energy-self-sufficient, and given that Herman Cain according to USA Today is today the leading Republican candidate in Iowa polls, there seem to be people (at least in Iowa) who buy into the persistent efforts of such organizations as America’s Power to persuade Internet users and television viewers that deregulation and increased energy production is the only sure path to America’s economic recovery and future prosperity.
There are some questions that Herman Cain and his supporters are not asking but should be asking.
- What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue to burn coal to generate electricity?
- What impact will it have on the health and wellbeing of Americans if we continue burning oil to propel automobiles, airplanes, trucks, trains and ships over great distances?
- What impact will it have on the health of wellbeing of America’s closest neighbors and America’s more distant neighbors if we continue to consume energy at current levels?
- What impact is the way human beings are now living having on animals and plants?
- What will the planet be like twenty-five years from now, when today’s toddlers are young adults? What will it be like in fifty years, when today’s toddlers are middle-aged? How many of today’s toddlers will live to be seventy-five? What kind of future will there be for those who must live in the world to which the current generations are laying waste through our collective reliance on energy produced by something other than our own muscles?
America’s economy is fueled entirely by dissatisfaction. To some extent, dissatisfaction is natural for human beings; philosophers have been pointing out for millennia that being dissatisfied is one of the things we do best. But much of today’s dissatisfaction is carefully cultivated and manufactured. Every time, for example, that Apple produces a new operating system for its computers and mobile devices, the Apple Corporation extends an invitation to all users of Apple products to be dissatisfied with the toys and tools they already have. This year’s line of apparel is an invitation to be dissatisfied with what is already in our clothes closets. If people were to become satisfied with what they already have, quite a lot of the economy would collapse. Civilization as we know it would come to an end.
There are few things that I am more eager to see in my lifetime than the end of civilization as we know it, and the collapse of an economy based not on the provision of the necessities of life but on the creation of desires for goods and services we could all very easily live without, and without most of which we would in fact be much more content.
It is long past time for a revolution that brings capitalism to its knees and that utterly destroys the monstrous American culture of selfishness and greed that has grown like a cancer on this once-beautiful continent. The beginning of that revolution is not going to be the firing of shots or the planting of bombs, nor is it going to be the gathering of crowds shouting slogans and carrying banners. The next American revolution can begin only with a blossoming of individual personal contentment. Contentment with plain, nutritious, locally grown food. Contentment with plain clothing, sufficient to offer protection from the elements. Contentment with conversation and with singing with our own voices and dancing on our own legs. Contentment with watching birds and insects and plants being born and living and dying. Contentment with using our own bodies as our only vehicles. Contentment with talking to friends in the house next door. Contentment with our own breathing and the beat of our own hearts. Contentment with the laughter of children. Contentment with dogs and cats.
If a radical contentment with what is within our own bodies and right under own very noses would seize us all, we could give up our craving for laptops and mobile devices with their highly toxic lithium batteries. A joy with encountering reality would quickly replace our craving for virtual reality. If a content with moving at the speed of living organisms are to overtake us, we would quickly lose our craving for automobiles and airplane flight.
America has been conquered by barbarians driven by greed, who have enslaved us with their unnecessary toxic environment-destroying energy-consuming products. We are the barbarians who have conquered us. There is a way to get the country back. Stop buying their products. Start resisting their lies. Begin by taking a deep breath and looking around and noticing how much of what you have you could easily do without. Be free.
Ask: why did the author of this blog posting use a poisoned Apple MacBook laptop computer to send a message on the energy-wasting Internet to encourage people to consider simplifying their lives?
As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one—God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not give false testimony,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:17–25)
One of the many enigmas that we face as we enter into the year 2011 is the political alliance that has formed in recent decades between some evangelical Christians and the plutocrats who have seized control of much of the world and have waged—and for the most part won—a war on the poor. So successful has the campaign of the wealthy classes against the middle-class and the poor been that the political forces who promote the interests of the wealthy have even managed to stigmatize the expression “class warfare” by suggesting that anyone who thinks in terms of class warfare is anti-American and opposed to the ideals expressed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, it has become almost impossible to have an honest and accurate discussion of the dynamics of American politics without immediately being dismissed as an extreme-left ideologue. Fortunately, an increasing number of Christians, and followers of other religions, are speaking out and pointing out that the amassing of wealth—especially when this is done to the detriment of the general well-being of the rest of the human race—is contrary to the core values of nearly every religion and philosophical system in the history of the human race. (Just to give two examples, there is a website called Faithful America and another called Sojourners, on both of which one finds thoughtful and spirited critiques of mainstream American politics by mainstream American religious leaders.)
In his essay Creative Unity Rabindranath Tagore quotes the opening lines of William Wordsworth’s sonnet, The World is Too Much With Us:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Tagore comments on these lines,
But it is not because the world has grown too familiar to us; on the contrary, it is because we do not see it in its aspect of unity, because we are driven to distraction by our pursuit of the fragmentary.
Tagore’s conviction is that the world is a whole, a unity, an integer. To be driven to distraction by pursuing only a part of the whole is to miss the integer; in other words, it is to lack integrity. Lacking integrity by pursuing a part in forgetfulness of the whole is described in other terminology in the Abrahamic religions; in Judaism, Christianity and Islam such amnesia is usually called idolatry, the worship of some part of creation while neglecting the Creator. However one chooses to refer to it, the effects of being driven to distraction range from the merely wasteful to the disastrous.
Among the ways of being distracted from unity that engaged the attention of Rabindranath was nationalism, the favoring of one nation above all others. Who can help cringing every time a politician describes his or her country as the greatest nation in the world—or, worse, that some nation or other is the greatest that has existed in all of history? Those who believe (or at least say) that their own nation is the best (or most free, or most prosperous, or happiest, or has the best health-care system) in the world usually go on to show their ignorance in other ways, such as by suggesting that some peoples living and working within the best of all countries are doing less than others to promote the greatness of that blessed country than others, or are even diminishing the greatness of the country in some way. In India, which became an independent country a little less than a decade after Rabindranath’s death, one finds the disturbing Hindutva movement, which denigrates the contributions of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs to the greatness of India and challenges the painstaking research of all historians whose publications offer a nuanced picture of the cultural diversity and complexity of India.
In much of Europe one finds political movements dedicated to the proposition that Muslims have a substandard grasp of the theories and practices of the European enlightenment and thus pose a serious threat to modernity. In the United States one witnesses a persistent xenophobic current in which Muslims leaking into the country via Canada and migrants storming the borders from points south are targeted as alarming threats to the American way of life. (Muslims and Mexicans seem to have replaced Catholics, Italians and voting women as the greatest internal threats to the indivisible one nation under God that promises liberty and justice to all. No sooner is one threat domesticated, it seems, than another rises to take its place.) None of these social and political phenomena would have pleased Rabindranath Tagore, but probably none of them would have taken him by surprise either.
Probably the greatest single rupture of integrity in the current American way of life is the willful blindness to the damage the pursuit of comfort and convenience has done to the earth’s environment. As if to exemplify the words of Paul the apostle (in II Thessalonians 2.11) that “God sends them a working of error, that they should believe a lie,” coal and oil and gas providers have convinced a substantial number of Americans that there is truth in the lie that human behavior is not a factor in global warming. The commercial sources of opinion (often misleadingly called news) have been complicit in spreading the lie that experts are divided on the question of whether the burning of fossil fuels for energy has been a factor in the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans and the resultant extreme weather conditions that are being seen all over the planet.
Environmental devastation is the inevitable result of a way of seeing the world through the eye of a needle that allows people to focus only on what is of immediate utility to the comfort and convenience and maintenance of power of the most affluent human beings who happen to be alive right now, while ignoring the well-being of the majority of human beings who are not affluent, and while ignoring generations to come after we have all died, and while ignoring the welfare of non-human species of life. When one thinks about it for a moment, it is clear that the American political forces that are most loudly claiming to be aligned with God are doing the most to rupture the integrity of what they call the kingdom of God.
Hypocrisy, savagery and delusion are, of course, nothing new. Our generation has no monopoly on them. Ever since human beings have been recording their thoughts in writing, people of insight and integrity have been decrying the ways of the powerful who have lost sight of the Dao, the principles of Tian, the will of God, the unity of Brahman or the Buddha nature innate in all beings throughout the universe. That there is nothing new in the brutal assault on the fabric of being by those who lose sight of the whole makes that assault no less outrageous and heartbreaking.
There is an alternative to the blindness of power and partiality. It is often called love. Poets, philosophers, visionaries and psychologists have written about love in countless ways. Many call it atonement—at-one-ment, being at one with all there is. Rabindranath speaks of love as an essential feature of the harmony that characterizes the life lived well. He writes in Creative Unity:
The quality of the infinite is not the magnitude of extension, it is the Advaitam, the mystery of Unity. Facts occupy endless time and space; but the truth comprehending them all has no dimension; it is One. Wherever our heart touches the One, in the small or the big, it finds the touch of the infinite.
Being in touch with this infinite, Rabindranath goes on to say, is true joy, a happiness that can be neither compromised nor diminished. It is that joy alone that makes life worth living. It is the absence of that joy that makes living life worthless. It is a wish for just exactly that sort of integrated and harmonious happiness in 2011, and in all years follow, that goes to everyone out of the living silence.
The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need. (Acts 4:32–35)
This description of the early Christian community makes it pretty clear that that community was committed to redistributing wealth. Those who had property divested themselves of it and gave to those who were in need. Ownership of property was communal, not individual. “Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” This model of the early Christian community has been emulated repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. Most monastic orders within Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism have required a vow of poverty of those who are called to that life and have urged the laity to give ten percent of their income to charitable institutions that provide for those in various kinds of need. A number of Protestant communities over the years have favored communal to individual ownership. Those that have not insisted on communal ownership have emphasized the importance of living a life of material simplicity so that one does not waste resources on providing luxury to oneself while others are lacking the requisites of life. The system of social welfare in the United States and European countries was founded largely on Christian principles. The institution of the hospital, a place where the sick and injured could go to be healed, regardless of their ability to pay, has Christian origins. The notion that no one in need of healing should go unhealed lies at the heart of Christian culture.
Somehow, Christian values in the United States have taken a turn from a culture of providing for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the injured and the needy to a culture of supporting plutocracy—a system of being governed by the wealthy. This change has been relatively recent. One of my grandfathers was a Congregationalist minister voted for Norman Thomas, who ran for president six times as the candidate of The Socialist Party. Norman Thomas, a pacifist as well as a socialist, was the son of a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, and he followed in his father’s footsteps by going to seminary and being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. As a Christian, Thomas felt called to advocate for workers whose lives were often miserable because of the policies of the companies they worked for. Like Norman Thomas, my grandfather espoused socialist ideals as long as he lived. He was not, however, a registered member of the Socialist Party. Rather, he was a registered Republican, for the Republican Party was for a hundred years or so the home of political and economic progressives, idealists and visionaries. It was also the party of theologically liberal Christians—those who welcomed the methods and discoveries of science and critical thinking and reading the Bible historically and critically and mythologically rather than literally.
As the Republican Party has drifted from its historical roots of compassion for the poor and the weak to an increasingly mean-spirited culture, so has much of American Protestantism.There are, fortunately, exceptions. Among Evangelical Christians, one finds such ministers as Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement, which is in many ways a continuation of the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Sojourners movement is in many ways the antithesis of a kind of Christianity that has evolved in the United States after the Second World War and which has come to be called the prosperity gospel, a theological view based on the conviction that God rewards the faithful with wealth and prosperity.
No doubt the conviction of Oral Roberts and other Protestant ministers of the 1950s that America’s post-war prosperity was a sign of God’s favor became combined with the conviction that socialism is just a step away from Communism and that Communism is anti-religious and ungodly. If Communism is ungodly, the logic went, then Christians, being godly, must be aligned with those who oppose Communism—and socialism. This has led to the paradox that American Christians following this doctrine must feel uneasy with the early Christian community, and with a great deal of traditional Christianity. It is not only the early Christian community that must bring discomfort; even Jesus Christ himself must be regarded with suspicion. Passages such as the following must be very worrying to many an American Christian:
18 A certain ruler asked him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ ‘Don’t murder,’ ‘Don’t steal,’ ‘Don’t give false testimony,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” 21 He said, “I have observed all these things from my youth up.” 22 When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Gospel according to Luke)
If one were in a mood to pray, the contents of a prayer in these times might be that Americans would find their way back to the essentially socialist values of Christianity and of much of early America. And, not forgetting to pray for those most in need of redemption, one might pray also for the repentance of billionaires who have taken control of what used to be a democratic republic. For, as Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24–25)
manaḥ śamaṃ na gṛhṇāti na prītisukham aśnute
na nidrāṃ na dhṛtiṃ yāti dveṣaśalye hṛdi sthite
The mind does not attain peace, nor does it experience the pleasure of joy,
nor does it find rest or stability, so long as the arrow of hatred is stuck in the heart.
Those words from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra 6.3 are part of a chapter dedicated to the necessity of cultivating forgiveness and patience. Being the victim of someone else’s harmful behavior, whether the harm was deliberately engineered or the by-product of carelessness and negligence, is pain enough to deal with. Nothing good comes of magnifying the pain by harboring ill will or desires of revenge. When people are harmful to others, says Śāntideva, is precisely when they most need our compassion, our active attempts to alleviate their suffering. Given that contented people do not try to bring misery to others and indeed usually try to establish harmony with others, the best strategy for finding relief from those who are making others miserable is to help them find relief from what is making them miserable.
In the past few days statements have been made by well-known people that show very little understanding of the importance of forgiveness as part of establishing peace and well-being for everyone. One statement was Sarah Palin’s plea to Muslims to drop their plans to establish a mosque near the site of where the World Trade Center used to be in New York. The other was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s strongly expressed disagreement with the decision of the Scottish Parliament last year to allow Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to return to Libya rather than die of a terminal illness in a Scottish prison. Mass murderers like al-Megrahi, said PM Cameron, do not deserve compassion.
Both Mrs. Palin and PM Cameron seemed to be voicing the views of those who say forgiveness of wrong-doing would add to the burden of pain borne by those whose loved ones died in the airplane bombed over Lockerbie or in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. What they apparently believe is that people are more likely to be pained and vexed by compassion than by their own inability to cultivate compassion. But that is surely not universally true. Without a doubt there are those who have found transformative comfort as a result of finding a way to love those who have harmed their loved ones, just as there are those who will carry their bitterly vindictive feelings with them to the grave. The range of response to deep misfortune is as varied as any other aspect of being human. There is a saying in Sanskrit that hardship is like a rapidly spinning grindstone; when clay is touched to it, it crumbles, but when gold is touched to it, it gets polished. When it was announced that al-Megrahi was being allowed to return to Libya on compassionate grounds, some Scots who had lost loved ones rejoiced at the nobility of the decision, while others ground their teeth and spoke venomous words. It is disappointing to see public figures who have attracted the attention of wide audiences siding only with those who are unable to find forgiveness in their hearts.
The displeasure that has been voiced by those who would like to prevent a mosque from being built in the neighborhood of what has come to be called Ground Zero is psychologically understandable, but it is such a raw emotion that it is difficult to know what kind of decision would not be offensive to those who harbor their unwillingness to forgive. The issue seems to be that placing a mosque near Ground Zero would be a desecration of the memories of those who died. But what distance would be far enough away for these people? Should the nearest mosque be at least a mile away? Or should it be off the island of Manhattan? Outside greater New York City area? One hundred miles away? There are probably some individuals so overcome with bitterness that they would like to see an America entirely free of any publicly visible signs of Muslim worship. Should they be the ones whose feelings determine public policy? If so, one can hardly imagine a deeper tragedy for American culture, since it would be a sure sign of the death of the values that lay at the heart of the formation of the American republic.
There is no calculus for compassion. No one is any more or less deserving of compassion than anyone else. Everyone who is in pain needs relief. Those who cannot forgive need the help of those who can. Those who blame others and attack those whom they blame need the help of those who have no need to find scapegoats. Those who suffer from the arrow of hatred stuck in their hearts need the help of those who have learned to love. Contrary to what some theology says, love is not a grace. It is not a gift that God gives to some and withholds from others. It is a skill. It is something one can learn to do. Like all skills, it is one that improves with practice. The more one loves, the more one can love. The less one forgives, the less one can forgive. The less one can forgive, the more unbearable becomes the burden of life.
There is a widely told, entirely apocryphal, story that at one time George Fox and William Penn met. At this meeting William Penn expressed concern over wearing a sword (a standard part of dress for people of Penn’s station), and how this was not in keeping with Quaker beliefs. George Fox responded, “Wear it as long as thou canst.” Later, according to the story, Penn again met Fox, but this time without the sword. Penn then said, “I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.” Though this story is entirely unfounded, it serves as an instructive parable about Penn’s Quaker beliefs. (From Brief History of William Penn)
Myth is usually more suitable than history at conveying ideals and values. The often-repeated story of George Fox’s advice to William Penn illustrates well the Quaker approach to the Quaker testimonies, for it shows that the testimonies to strive for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship are not approached as absolute commandments but as ideals toward which each individual Friend moves as she is led by her reflections on her own experiences. If one’s experiences have been of the unhappy consequences of violence, and if one reflects on the nature of violence, then one is likely to seek alternatives to the violent solutions to problems that present themselves. At one point in one’s life, one may seek to protect oneself by having a sword (or a pistol or an assault rifle or a strong army or a nuclear arsenal), but if one comes to see the very stockpiling of weapons as a threat to peace, one may follow the example of William Penn in the mythical story and leave one’s sword at home. One may seek to protect oneself by being the kind of person others are unlikely to attack.
Contrary to popular perceptions, Quakers are not invariably pacifists who refuse military service. The peace testimony, like all of the Quaker testimonies, has been formulated in different ways in different times and is always evolving as different communities of Friends discover what the demands of their particular circumstances are. (There is a nice blog posting about the testimonies on The Quaker Ranter). Typically, the testimony is worded in a way that draws upon the words of George Fox, who wrote in his journal that he testified to the Commonwealth Commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars…”
The occasion, or as we might now say, the causality of all wars is complex. Among the causes are such external factors as social injustices and maldistribution of the world’s resources. More fundamental causes are the internal psychological factors that give rise to social and economic injustices. Xenophobia and other fears of those who act and believe differently give rise to such behaviors are invading the homelands of others, colonizing others, converting others to one’s own religion and marginalizing those who don’t comply. The ancient Hebrews justified their genocidal campaigns in the land of Canaan by portraying the inhabitants of those lands, the Philistines and so on, as godless barbarians and uncultured savages. To this very day, the word “Philistine” is used to describe an uncouth person who has no higher interests; stereotypes die hard if they ever die at all. The reputation of the Philistines has been permanently smeared by the negative stereotyping enshrined in self-congratulatory Hebrew propaganda.
Unfortunately, there is no need to go back to the time of Joshua to find examples of brutality justified. The United States of America has become the land it currently is through several centuries of genocide, enslavement and colonization, most of it justified on the grounds that the victims of European territorial expansion were either benefiting from the largesse and advanced culture of the Europeans or so backwards that they deserved to be killed or banished to nearly uninhabitable lands. The behaviors of the Americans of European descent were rooted primarily in greed, fear of the other and ignorance.
Buddhists would use the terms greed, hatred and delusion to identify the occasion of war. These psychological traits—not other people—are the occasion of war. Since all human beings have to some extent inherited the characteristics that enabled their ancestors to survive long enough to procreate, and since those survival mechanisms of earlier generations were usually manifestations of greed and fear and benighted thinking, most human beings are genetically predisposed to those traits. The fact that those traits worked in the past, when the human population was very small, is no indication that they will continue to work in the present and the future. We may have come to the point where the very traits that promoted the survival of our ancerstors will promote out own demise, perhaps even the guaranteed extitnction of our descendants.
During the past year I have been reading the Bible every day. I have been following a lectionary that assigns passages to read every day. There are many kinds of lectionary, but the one I am following now is one that begins with the book of genesis and reads straight through to the book of revelations; by following it one can read the entire Bible in 365 days. I have to say that most of the reading has been unpleasant and disturbing. There is so much warfare, so much rationalized cruelty, so many prayers for the destruction of one’s enemies. Who can read a passage such as “Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, he will be happy who rewards you, as you have served us. Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock” without wincing at the cry for bloody revenge against those who have treated the Hebrews in Jerusalem as the Hebrews under Joshua treated the inhabitants of Jericho? So much of the sacred writings of the Hebrews—then the Christians who had inherited much of the mentality and many of the enemies of the Hebrews, and then the Muslims whose sacred revelations continue in the same general spirit—focuses on external enemies. The message repeated constantly is that the world would be peaceful if only other people were not evildoers bent on tormenting the lovers of God.
There are alternatives to the war whoops found in so much of the sacred literature of the world. There have always been people who have realized that our greatest enemies are not the evildoers from other lands but rather our own minds and the habits we have acquired through the indoctrination of mainstream society provided by war-mongering governments. Most of the Stoic philosophers of the Hellenistic world realized that. With only a few scattered exceptions, almost all the literature of Buddhism and Vedānta and Daoism is an invitation to find the true enemies that disturb the peace, namely, the acquisitiveness, the fear and suspicion of others, the anger that arises when things don’t go as one had hoped, and the hasty conclusions that are formed through lazy and self-centered thinking.
Although Quakerism was originally a form of Christianity based on a deep familiarity with the sacred texts of the Jews and the Christians, many modern Quakers find more inspiration in the inner-enemy theme of Asian religious literature than in the outer-enemy preoccupations of so much of the literature of the Abrahamic religions. The writings and sayings of Hindus, Buddhist and Daoists often require less hermeneutical manipulation to bring them in line with the inward leadings to peace and simplicity of life and thought that seems obviously called for as we emerge from one of the most destructive and soul-destroying centuries in human history.
Is the story of William Penn and George Fox historically accurate? Probably not, but that is not the best question to ask anyway. The better question might be “Is that the right story to tell in our times?” By my lights, it is.