Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Religion and Worldviews

Jack Frost came through last night. He just swung through, but it was enough to necessitate the frantic end-of-season rush to bring all the plants in. Our ‘official’ first frost date is October 31, so we didn’t miss the mark by too much this year. Some of my tomato vines are blackened but most of them seem to have come through just fine. Of course, I picked all the tomatoes that were ripe or had any chance to ripen on a windowsill and brought them inside yesterday. Many of the trees had not turned as of yesterday and this morning there was an entirely new riot of color to greet my eyes when the sun came up.

Friday is Halloween, also known as Hallowmas or Samhain to pagans. Traditionally it is the New Year in most pagan religions. As a child I always thought the year should begin either in fall or spring –starting it in the dead of winter just seemed, well, stupid. I guess it should be obvious that I have always had earth-centered leanings. This is the time of the year when many pagans avoid the news and most of us cringe at the sensationalist news stories cooked up by the media about the ‘evil witches’ and our ‘Satanic rites’. For the record, we are hardly evil and we are not Satanists, nor are Satanists Pagan in any sense of the word. One of the core values of all forms of paganism is reverence for life, whereas Satanism is just the opposite, and is also pretty much a deliberate bastardization of Christianity.
Okay, rant over. ;-)

I mention this because I have been thinking about religion a lot lately. Specifically, about how it influences our worldview and our outlook on life. Sunday my adopted grandmother dragged me out to see Religulous, Bill Maher’s new flick about religion. It was a decent movie and I will give him credit for that, though I must admit I disliked his harsh style many times. But I also must find fault with it for several reasons. First, he views religion as a neurological disorder and I can not agree with him on that point, but I will discuss that more in a moment. Secondly, he falls into the trap he (rightly) accuses many of the religious of falling into: that of thinking there is only one right way, and it is his way. His call for an end to religion at the end of the movie could be seen as the secular analog of inciting a holy war. Not that he meant for that to happen of course, but neither did many of the people who have done such things in the past. Third, he focuses only on the Abrahamic traditions and there are many other religions in the world that do not share the attributes common to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Finally, he doesn’t seem to realize that people can be just as bad in a world without religion as in a world with it. Secular, intelligent people can and have committed atrocities against their fellow humans. Many of them had very rational-sounding reasons for doing so. Eugenics, anyone? People have tried to base racism, sexism, and every other ism you can name in science. Taking God out of the equation would not change that. Especially as we would immediately create new gods.

But I would like to get back to the first point. Calling religion a neurological disorder is just prejudice, pure and simple. I have heard pious people claim the same about atheists. Let’s get down to the basics for a moment. What is religion? Religion is metaphor, religion is a set of stories that form our view of the world. As human beings, we think in stories. It is impossible for them to escape them. We are constantly writing our own stories –our life stories, the stories of the people around us, and all of these are shaped by our view of the world, which is in turn shaped by the stories we believe about the big things: life and death. This is what religion is, when you boil down to it. As Reverend Forrest Church has often wrote, “religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”. We use these stories to explain the big mysteries of life, why we are here, why we must die, and what happens to us after we die.

What then, is atheism or agnosticism? Well, it is just another kind of story. Humans can not live, can not function without some sort of story. Nonbelievers do not believe in nothing, after all. Everyone believes in something. What most of them believe in, or so I have observed, is the Myth of Progress –that all of history is a straight line shooting from the beginning of evolution up to the fish that crawled out of the water, to the monkey that climbed down out of the trees, to western civilization and from us out to the stars. They may not be conscious of this myth, but most believe in it. (By the way, I agree with John Michael Greer that progress is the dominant religion of America today.) All believe in the theory of evolution.

Let’s stop for a moment so I can make one thing clear: I am not claiming that evolution is or is not real, or that God/dess/Spirit is or is not real. I could be up all night (probably several nights) listing the arguments for and against each position and it still wouldn’t make any difference. For now I am just concentrating on their role as a story that shapes our minds and worldviews. I will, however, state that I have a pet theory as to why many people can not accept atheism and the theory of evolution: this may sound crazy to the nonbelievers who read my blog, but that theory is well…rather cold and heartless. Most people just can not accept the idea that we come from muck and return to muck and that is all there is to it. Most people need to think that there is something more, that there is a reason to all of this. As humans we like to think on big, grand scales, especially about the things we can not begin to comprehend.

Moving on, if we look at the world today we can see that there are a number of problems, all caused by various forces. I will not deny that religion is a cause of many of them, but religion has also done great good. Let us take it as a given for a moment that religion shapes our worldview and that this latter motivates many of our actions. It is therefore easy to lay many of the world’s problems at the feet of religion, but is it all religion, or merely certain types? I am going to introduce two theological concepts now. The first is the idea of immanence versus transcendence. Each phrase is a different way of looking at God and the divine. The first is the concept that divinity is inherent in everything, that God is all around us and even in each one of us. This is a minority position among the world’s religions. The second, and more common stance, is the belief that God/divinity is a distant, inscrutable force, the old man sitting far away in heaven. Under the first system of belief, God is present in every leaf of every tree while in the second he is somewhere far, far away. This is a very old theological divide but one that I think is crucial to understanding how we got where we are today: It is a whole lot harder to trash your world and destroy your fellows when you see all of them as divine.

The second concept is that of monotheism versus polytheism. I am not just speaking of belief in the number of deities here. I am speaking of entire worldviews, as Margot Adler pointed out in her seminal work, Drawing Down the Moon. Monotheism does not just mean a belief in one god; monotheism also encompasses a belief in one right way of doing things, one right way of being in the world, one right way, period. Polytheism, on the other hand, is a worldview that allows for many different paths and ways of being, for many different beliefs in the divine. Polytheism, it should be noted, encompasses monotheism but not the other way around. Because monotheism is insistent that there is One Right Way it is easy for it to fall into the path of “I’m right and you’re not, therefore I’m better than you” and to “convert or die” and on to holy wars. It is hard for polytheists to wage holy wars because they see many possible paths as right.

I believe these two concepts are the root causes of our problems today. The belief that God is entirely transcendent has led many of us to devalue nature and the world we live in today, and the firm belief that we are right has led us to reject all other paths and come into constant conflict with those on other paths. I am not calling for a return to a belief in an entirely immanent God or suggesting we should all return to believing in the Roman pantheon. Rather, I think things would get much better in this world if we could see the Divine in the trees we clear cut and realize that maybe our neighbors aren’t going to roast in hell for eternity for believing differently than we do.

My own faith has only two fundamental laws, two main tenets that I try to cleave to at all cost. The first is simply: Do not harm. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. The second, and more important, is There is no one right way. These are the words I try to live by.

My fevered imagination

So, I've been accused of having an overactive imagination. It's true and I freely admit that. The night before last I had the most incredibly weird, kick-ass dream I've had in quite some time. It was in full color and seemed just like real life.

I was me, but not-me, as often happens in dreams. Well, not-me was riding a motorcycle (btw, I have never been on a bike) and gets hit by a bus or a train or something. Long story short, I die and wind up in "Heaven". Only I don't quite go in. I'm sitting there, outside the pearly gates on a cloud, and who should walk up? God. Only God is Coyote. So, not being the type to accept death lying down, so to speak, I start arguing with him. There I am, sitting on a cloud, arguing with a talking dog about how I should not be dead yet, damnit. Finally I succeed in convincing him to send me back. He does warn me, saying 'I won't like it' and that I'll have to 'take what's available'. I'm a little suspicious, because this is Coyote were talking about, but I tell him where to put his warning. Besides, presumably my body is available, right?

Next thing I know, I wake up. I'm laying on my back in the middle of the woods next to a large rock outcropping. As I pick myself up, I realize that I must have fallen off of it. But I am completely unhurt. When I'm standing up I notice that the world is a lot farther away than usual. Then I look at my arms and they are much larger than usual. A quick inspection reveals that holy crap, batman! I'm a man. I yell 'Coyote!' as loud as I can and hear an evil chuckle far away.

The next thing I notice is that I'm in the middle of a jungle, not a forest. Soon enough, some friends come looking for me. They were worried about me, but I'm okay. I have a different name of course. I go back with them to the village, where apparently I am a blacksmith. A bit of time passes and I have a lot of trouble adjusting to being a man, living on what is obviously a different planet and mideval to boot, and a blacksmith.

Then things really get bad. Green lizards show up and try to take over everything and enslave everyone. Guess what? In my new body I'm the great-great-great grandson of some great hero or other, so guess who gets picked to save the day? I then spent the rest of the dream running around with a glowing sword, a thief, and a talking dolphin (hey it was a dream) fighting evil green lizards. I woke up when I damn near fell off the bed while swinging the sword.

What does this have to do with anything? Nothing, of course, but it was one of those things I felt the need to share. Btw, I'm copyrighting this. There has to be a story in there somewhere. ;-)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Too Much Stuff

Last week I worked a temp job as a nanny for a really lovely couple here in town. I really like these two; they are some of the nicest people I have ever known. They are upper-upper middle class; I mention that because it is relevant to the post. Not rich by the standards of hedge fund managers, but truly wealthy by my standards.

I think I have too much stuff. I’m working on paring it down now. I also think most Americans have far too much stuff. But while working for them, I got an inkling of just how overloaded some people are. If I have too much stuff, they really do. They have at least seven full sets of china. Nice china. Not everyday kind of china, the kind even they use for company and holidays. They also have at least four sets of everyday dishes. And that’s just for starters. What is this obsessive need to accumulate stuff that most Americans seem to have? Where does it come from? I would say it comes from two sources. The first is the never-ending advertising that says we have to have more things. The second, I believe, is a deep-seated, unconscious insecurity that many of us feel. I think this is do to the lack of community, of true friends and family, that so many of us share. I think we try to fill this void with things as a way to substitute for them. And therein lies the rub: there are some things you simple can not make substitutions for. We try at our peril.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Here Comes Jack Frost!

Well, not quite, though it did get down into the upper 40s here last night. All the trees are turning and there is a riot of color on ‘my’ mountain. The leaves aren’t quite as good as the past couple of years, and I’ve been told that is because the drought has broken this year. Apparently, leaves are brighter in drought years. But they are still gorgeous.

When it first gets cold, I react the same way most native Southerners do: with complete and utter horror. What is this strange temperature? What happened to my heat? But then I adjust and I find that I like it when the mornings are a bit nippy and that I sleep better when the nights are cool. I started the process of unpacking my winter wardrobe and packing up my summer clothes this morning. My bed is covered in sweaters, each one of them adored. The question is, which shall I wear first? Yes, I am a clothes horse. Last night I made chicken and dumplings to celebrate the turning of the seasons. I made them the old-fashioned way: slow-simmering from scratch.

One of the other good things about the fall is that when the temperatures cool down, the cold-weather vegetables really begin to shine. I had my first really good fall salad with the dumplings last night. Red leaf lettuce, swiss chard, nuts, dried cranberries and ranch dressing. It was incredible.

This is the time of the year between the frantic bustle of the harvest and the slow pace of winter. Things are busy, but less so than in August and September. I have more time to write but am not overwhelmed with free time. Samhain is on the horizon and with it the new year. We are beginning to deepen into the dark half of the wheel. The mess in our world is also deepening but I am unafraid; the dark must always precede the dawn, and winter the spring.

Peace, and blessed be!

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Preparing for winter

This has been a busy week around here. Winter is coming and fast. Right now it is hard to tell autumn is even here –the nights have a crisp feeling but the days are still climbing into the 80s. Yes, this is the South after all. It wasn’t this bad, once upon a time. I’m in northern Alabama, not down by the coast. But things have changed over the past years as the climate has began warming up. The trees are turning and they are a glorious sight. Reds and gold everywhere this year! Even my 12-inch high crabapple, still in a pot, has beautiful leaves.

I have been busy tucking my garden in for the winter. This primarily means mulching. I’ve got a lot of pruning to do as well but I can’t seem to find my pruning shears. The fall garden is doing well –lettuce, mustard, collards and cabbage. This year I am growing the prettiest lettuce I have ever seen. It is called firecracker and it is the deepest, most intense red I have ever seen on a plant. Just looking at it is a joy.

Pretty soon it will be time to give up the ghost, pack away my summer clothes and bring out my winter ones. No more short-shorts and tank tops until mid-April. But that is perfectly okay; winter is just another part of the cycle. I actually like winter because it gives me a chance to slow down and catch up on my reading. I do wish it would get a mite bit colder here than it does –I would love to see snow! I mean a real good snowfall, not the dusting we get once every couple of years. I’ve never seen more than an inch of snow and that just the once. I have this recurring dream in the winter where I wake up and there is snow up to the windowsills. Ah well, you can’t have everything and I wouldn’t know what to do with that much snow!

I hope everyone’s preparations for winter are going well.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Watching the world tank

I know that is wrong of me to watch the 700 point drop in the Dow today with glee, but I am human after all and just can’t help it. After being forced to watch the looting of the lower classes and the pillaging of the earth for so long, it feels good to view what may finally be the unraveling of it all. Yes, I am well aware of the pain and hardship that will result from this and feel guilty over my feelings, but as I said, I am merely human. My dog may think differently, but I know better. ;-)

Autumn is here in the southeast. We had our first ‘cold’ spell last week. It got down into the 40s at night –and yes, here that is considered cold. Then it rocketed back up into the 90s a day or two later. I harvested my last watermelons just before the snap hit. One was slightly overripe and one slightly underripe, but the latter was edible. There is a secret to harvesting watermelons at just the right time and I still haven’t gotten it quite down. As I sat there eating that watermelon (these are small watermelons, I should point out) it occurred to me that it doesn’t much matter what happens on Wall Street as long as I have a roof over my head and food on the table.

For those who are reading this and are thinking of last minute just-in-case preparations to make, here are some things to consider getting:
-Vitamins. These are invaluable in a crisis situation.
-Toothbrushes and toothpaste. Huh? Yes, I wrote that correctly. Dental hygiene is important, especially when you can’t get to a dentist. A minor annoyance right now (like an abscessed tooth) can quickly become fatal without treatment. The best thing to do is not to let it happen to begin with.
-Baking supplies. Never underestimate the value of a chocolate chip cookie when the world has gone to pot.
-Alcohol (the drinkable kind). Even if you don’t drink, alcohol = money in most crises.
-More rice and beans. You can donate them to the food pantry later if you don’t use them.

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