Tuesday, 29 August 2017

How to Believe (but not What to Believe)

Perfect love exists. Perfect, without blemish or flaw.
On the existence of God, it's likely I use the word God in a different way to how you understand it to mean. If you don't believe in God then I don't believe in the same God that you don't believe in. But I believe a conception of God is useful for describing an aspect of the human psyche, particularly an aspect of our common experience and shared reality.

I think it can be demonstrated that an idealised conception of universal life can be as real as it's possible for us to experience anything as being real. And I think it can be demonstrated that this is functionally utterly identical to it being completely true. We can't know ultimate truth, but the reality of universal goodness can be as real and true as it's possible for a thing to be. And if shared experience is possible then the shared experience of universal love can be real.

Furthermore, I understand how I believe and I believe I can explain it and I promise that it's safe. I don't care that you believe the same thing as me, so long as at the core you believe in life and believe life is good. That's the heart of the matter.

You just dream. That's all we can do anyway. Let's dream something beautiful into existence together. And let's fight for it. Dream life into your friends and family, dream life into the universe. Let all of reality live within you, because all that you can experience is "within" anyway. Your whole experience of life is through the psyche. It's literally all in your mind and you are imagining the whole thing. Because in making sense of your memory, your senses and your understanding you are using your imagination. Your sense and perception of the outside world is the product of your mind.

Alphonse Constant: magic is the product of imagination and will.

If love is the most important thing for you, then caring for those you love will be your highest priority. Which tethers you to reality, the here and now, what's right in front of you. So you can't get lost. But you can live as if the dream were real, but keeping your eyes wide open trying to make sense of it all whilst letting it rage.

And how do we fight? Well, any way we can. We gotta work it out.

So I look not to religious fact, but to a living experience of the sacred.The way not the destination. And my way is the way of the Risen Lord.

It's the name of a path, a way. It's just a name. The way is valid and sound. Not dogma. But it's not just any name, it's a name of hope. In my way I understand that incontrovertible truth is not a thing you can have, and that dogma is therefore always wrong. Resurrection life can only be a beautiful living metaphor, but you can know the life of it. So I don't claim or propagate it as truth, merely as a path - and a path that can lead closer to the truth precisely because it understands that it is not itself a truth merely a way. An approach to life if you like or a way of life.

I'm not asking you to believe, I'm telling you it seems to work. But name aside, if you read what I actually suggest as the path it has not nothing to do with any particular belief at all. Well, maybe I am a little suggesting what to believe but I'm not providing a map, merely perhaps suggesting a destination.

Look to whatever mythos and legends have found you and feel for the life in them. Let them have life in you, but don't be taken in by it - feel free to not believe in any of it at all as you can't know for sure anyway.  If at your core is the hope that love wins then you can sift through the life you find accepting and rejoicing in the good and reaching further into it.

But if we can have belief and faith that leads us into a closer approximation of whatever truth is then surely there are bad beliefs? Well, there are certainly bad ways of thinking. Ways that can only keep us away from truth and not lead us closer to it.
Astrology is a false god. Homeopathy is a false god. New Atheism is a false god. Evangelicism is a false god.
An explanation of what I mean follows, but first I will note that despite seeing astrology as a false god (although I will admit the fundamental interconnectedness of all things and that we are not disconnected from the heavens out of which we are made, we are all stardust) it amuses me no end that I am a Leo born in the year of the tiger.

A false god is an idol of the mind. A set of assumptions you look to instead of looking into reality.
New Atheism is the aggressive modern rational atheism of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens et al. A highly evangelistic and self assured cult. Scepticism is a good approach, but that cuts both ways and it needn't lead to this kind of atheism.

I admire the fierce rationalism of New Atheism, but on the topic of spirituality they have decided they are right and refuse to understand. The language of spirituality is used in meaningless ways by many people. Nonetheless there is rich and deep meaning and beauty in spirituality. To decide and proclaim it is all nonsense and has no meaning is a proud blindness that shows no respect to those who think differently.

Modern atheism is an effective psychological wall against irrationality. But it's a wall that keeps you inside. There are ways of letting mythology having life within your psyche whilst retaining intellectual and psychological integrity.

Mythology is part of the psychological reality and makeup of humanity. To deny it any truth is to deny part of who you are, but to allow it truth without losing yourself, and genuine understanding, requires understanding the type of truth it contains.

Holiness and sacredness have profound and extraordinary meanings, transformative meanings, that can only be understood through experience. So if you're not willing to permit them any meaning you prevent yourself from understanding.

For those committed to atheism, as many of my friends describe themselves, this discussion can either be an argument - or you can be willing to understand how someone else sees the world and admit it might have value. You don't have to believe to understand, but you can't receive the life of it into your understanding if you deny it any life at all.

To understand something new is to be changed, and many people just really do not want to change. I want to change all the time because that is really the only constant in life anyway. I want to actually understand how other people see the world (a skill I'm trying to improve) and that means being willing to drop my own assumptions and accept that they have different experiences to me and have seen different parts of life to me. I can see more of the world through their eyes so long as I'm not determined that I'm right and they're wrong. I know I'm wrong, probably about everything, but then so is everyone else. Between us all we're closer to the truth than any of us alone.

It is an unfortunate truth that what you're able to think is, in large measure, determined by the conclusions you're willing to reach. An entirely natural, but utterly pernicious, human tendency is to reason in ways that come to the conclusions you have already come to.

It's pernicious because in this, totally normal, way of thinking you're not really looking for truth but looking to confirm what you already think. This is an example of a well studied aspect of human behaviour, a cognitive bias, called confirmation bias. You will tend to notice and seek out things that confirm what you already believe.

A genuine search for truth requires overcoming yourself and these subconscious biases. It's genuinely hard.

What you're not willing to question you can't know the truth about because you're not really willing to look. You'll see your assumptions instead of being able to encounter reality, and whatever reality actually is it tends to be far stranger than we're capable of imagining. If you doubt what I say try a search for quantum tunnelling as a lovely example of just how odd reality really is.

"The best possible compliment for a philosopher is to tell her that her ideas are obvious. It means she explained them so clearly you couldn't possibly disagree."

Knowledge, Suffering and an Ancient Apple

Do you think you can fight darkness without understanding the ways of darkness?
One of the strangest myths of the bible, which also contains one of the most important secrets, is right at the start in the story of Adam and Eve. By the way, using words like myth and legend is not to make any commentary on their literal truth - it is to categorise the sort of story they are and therefore understand the sort of truth they can contain.

The interesting thing about the old testament is that it's presented as history, whilst also being a metaphor intended or understood to point to spiritual truths. We come as readers approximately three thousand years or so distant from the writing down of these stories, which themselves are much older living as an oral tradition before being codified in the Torah. The Torah was probably compiled by Ezra around the time of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Hebrew exile in Babylon and kick-starting the "second temple era" of Judaism into which Jesus was born. The books of the law would have been a collection of the teachings of prominent Jewish clerics in the preceding centuries, going back from the time the Jews were a nomadic race through their settlement in Israel and Palestine. This explains why the laws seem quite so odd to us. As an aside, the legend is that only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah returned from exile, so when I say that my grandfather is from the tribe of Benjamin, after whom we named my son, it isn't quite as impressive as it might sound.

As modern readers, long removed from the depicted events and culture, the only possible relevance the collection of books contained in the Old Testament can have to us is spiritual truth. What can these stories tell us about humanity and are they actually, as is claimed, able to teach us anything about the deeper mysteries of human existence?  Archaeological, anthropological, cosmological and geological evidence make a literal reading of swathes of the Old Testament a large and ridiculous pill to swallow. But that's irrelevant as the only possible meaning for us is the spiritual truth, not the literal truth. Who cares whether or not there was a literal Adam and Eve, what possible difference can that make to my life? The important question is what can we learn from the story. So arguing about the literal truth of the older portions of the bible is an utterly pointless exercise.

The central part of the legend of Adam and Eve is a fruit tree, never specified as an apple by the way. In fact two fruit trees, the tree of life (the central part of Jewish mysticism the Qaballah and also the central part of most occultism) and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Humanity is warned that eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil leads to death, but humanity does it anyway and evil is unleashed upon the universe in an unfolding saga still playing out today. This, according to Judaism and Christianity, is the root of all suffering. That humanity has eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In a later myth, one of my favourites, the tower of Babel it is humanity's unfettered lust for knowledge that brings the curse of confusion of communication and with it an inability to really know each other. The power of legend is that they echo through time and therefore have a timeless relevance.

If there is no knowledge of evil then evil is not possible. It is only in the understanding that evil is possible that evil has come. This is what the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents. Instead of a thirst for life we acquired a thirst for knowledge and we reap the reward of that.

Interestingly though in the legend of the fall it is the snake, evil personified, who tempts and tricks the naive humanity into disobedience. So evil, not even nascent evil, was already present in the universe. Creation had already fallen.Perhaps the most vivid rendition of this is right at the end of the bible, in the book of Revelation (chapter 12 verses 7-9):
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Although strictly it's not clear whether that refers to the original fall of Satan or his final defeat. Another, more poetic, depiction of the defeat of Satan is found in Isaiah 14:4-17
How you have fallen from heaven,    morning star, son of the dawn!  
You have been cast down to the earth,    you who once laid low the nations! 
You said in your heart,    “I will ascend to the heavens; 
I will raise my throne    above the stars of God; 
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. 
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;    I will make myself like the Most High.” 
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,    to the depths of the pit.
Many people comment, fairly it would seem, that if God really didn't want humanity to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil then why put it in the damn garden in the first place. To which the Christian will typically murmur something about free will. The senior pastor of my church once commented, in what must be true within the terms of faith but nonetheless is no answer really nor comfort, that sin and suffering must be within the sovereign plans of God. In my theodicy I explore the idea that if evil and suffering is even a possible idea in the realm of all possible ideas then it has to happen sometime. If we live in a universe where anything is possible then evil is possible, and the only way for us to live free of evil is either to never know about it or to know about it and defeat it.

And well. Now we know. Humanity has eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and we can't unknow, we have to deal with it. We can still eat of the fruit of the tree of life but we know about good and evil. The right response individually is to cast evil from us. As far as the East is from the West.

Revalation 20:7-10
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
So even if the odds seem overwhelming, we have eternal fire on our side.

"The antidote to existential dread is to make existence dread you. Be a thing that happens to life rather than letting life happen to you."

Righteousness

To discern, to understand by perceiving. A lovely word.
Righteousness does not come from following the law, because you can't. Instead love has fulfilled and perfected the law, and love is the law. And by grace, we can love. When we love we fulfil the law, and righteousness is made complete in us for love is perfect and without blemish.

For the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Against such, there is no law.

The spirit is the spirit of love, both the essence and the substance of love.
Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. 
Genesis 15:6 Abraham had faith and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Grace is not given that we might follow the law, for we are no longer slaves to the law. Grace is given that we might love for when we love we fulfil the law. Righteousness, being made right, comes through grace as we are perfected by love.

What then is sin? Sin is the opposite of righteousness and since righteousness comes through love, sin is the failure to love. And that's it, that's the full list. If we fulfil the law we do not sin.

Where we do not love we dwell in darkness, for love is the light. Love is both the path and the means to find the path, both the freedom and the being made free.

Jesus speaking in Matthew 7:12 "In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

There is of course a difference between what is sin and what is sensible; "all things are permitted, not all things are helpful". (1 Corinthians 10:23)

"Mysticism is an experiential alternative to the academic and intellectual pursuit of theology."

Descartes, Imagination and the Death of the Ego

Existence blossoms out of non-existence, and no-one knows why.
The essence of Descartes' second meditation and his famous conclusion Cogito Ergo Sum "I think therefore I am" is that you cannot prove to yourself that you are not actually insane in an asylum and hallucinating your whole life experience. The modern equivalent would be that you cannot prove you're not in fact a computer simulation switched on just a second ago, with all your memories pre-programmed.

You cannot conclusively prove that your memories, experiences and senses do not deceive you (and in fact your experience will be that they do at times deceive you). Therefore the only thing you can be truly certain of, to your core, is that something that you experience as self exists. Sometimes expressed as "there is thought, therefore there is a thinker". The only certainty is I Am.

Therefore, certainty cannot be the basis of our knowledge of other, and the ways of other. We just can't have it. If you think you are certain, then you are provably wrong. Thinking you are right is not a way of thinking that can lead you closer to truth. We must accept and embrace uncertainty.

This brings fear, for if anything might be, and anything could be true then the worst might happen and we know the worst is so very bad because we can imagine it.

But if the worst might happen, then the best might happen too. And the best is so very, very good. So uncertainty is something to love, for it makes the best possible. The future is, in large measure, what we collectively make it.

Let's expend our imagination on the best, and deal with the worst as much as we are required and no more.

To carry on from Descartes, and which is the assertion of Buddhism, what if when I was utterly still the experience of self disappeared completely. And then I could know nothing at all. If my experience of self is only found in motion and activity or thought. What then?

I have absolutely no idea.

The response of Christianity is that beyond ego death is resurrection life. Utterly pure life. The way to attain it is the path of laying aside self, a way of life of putting others first. The laying down of one's life. This is the way of love, the way of the Risen Lord. A beautiful metaphor. It also happens to be undefeatable.

We can participate in the mind of Christ. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives within me. And I am made completely myself.

In this living metaphor, the Christ is the personhood of perfection itself.

To live in the perfection of it would be motion and activity and thought, but without self.
In the infinite thought-space of every possible idea, there is one that I fear above all. For in it is annihilation, the little death.
It's a tiny thought, perhaps the smallest possible, and only one in the swirling void without end of infinite mind. But it's special.
Alas and alack for me this alluring gem of the mind has a special beauty, an ineluctable draw.
This thought is the one truly infinite thought the human mind can contain. The thought of this thought has me captured.
This idea is nothing. Not even emptiness, the lack of a void. Nothing at all.
Such a simple thought, a tiny idea. But who can bear it?
Alone without even yourself.
Understanding that uncertainty is the basis of our knowledge provides an intellectually and psychologically safe way to believe. Our conception of spirituality, or any other topic, is free to have life and breath within our imagination and psyche because we are willing to let go of them if they become no longer useful or to evolve them as our understanding grows.

Spirituality in particular can be to us a rich and broad set of metaphors, a higher abstraction for thinking about, discussing and participating in the flow and patterns of life. An abstraction we find in the mythos of cultures and fiction and woven into reality around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity past and present.

Knowing our way back to ground we are safe to fly. Our conceptions need not be "ultimate truth" to us, but useful abstractions and ways of thinking that we can put weight on but we understand that they are only ideas and ways of thinking that inform and shape our experience. What is truly important is what is here and now right in front of us and the duty and responsibility of caring for those we love -- and that is what we hold to be most real. We are always willing to be wrong and to reevaluate our ideas in the light of new experience.

One precious thing my psychosis taught me is that the way I see the world is fallible, that my memory is fallible and my understanding is fallible. No matter how heartfelt and genuine my belief is, no matter how strong my faith, I can be wrong.

This incidentally also gives us a safe way to trust people. "Trust but verify". We can trust by default, accept by default and love by default. But we keep our eyes open, it isn't a blind faith.


"If you're afraid to hope, then dream. But keep an eye out for your dreams when you're awake. But please dream of beautiful things. Dream that we loved each other."

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Faith, Science and the Authority of Scripture

Dogma is always wrong. I'm dogmatic about that.

We had a dear Christian friend for dinner on Monday and we got to talking about the role and authority of scripture.

His reasoning was (at least in part) that he trusts scripture because of who wrote it. He can look at all that Paul achieved and conclude that his words can be trusted for example. Now certainly we now think that Paul wrote less of the New Testament than previously thought. The two letters to Timothy for example, although attributed to Paul, are known to have been written by an "unknown" disciple of Paul's.

Paul was responsible, in large part, for the explosion of the early church and the spread of Christianity across much of the world. This is remarkable not least because he never met Christ, and as a Jewish teacher of the day he would have known the stories and known that Jesus died, but was still convinced enough to  dedicate his life to him. He was also an extremely authoritarian man and espoused views that even the most hardline of modern Charismatic churches won't follow. Twice in the letters we have he says that women should be silent in Church, should wear head coverings, and on slavery one of the things he taught was for slaves to obey  their masters. In his manner and approach to faith, fiery and not to be trifled with, he reminds me of the founder of my own church. A man called Noel Stanton.

So appealing to the reputation (shrouded in history) of those who wrote the scripture (the New Testament at least, much of the Old Testament we can only hypothesise about who actually transcribed the oral history it probably came from) is one form of the argument from authority.

My current thinking around authority is that the worship of authority, rather than the worship of love, is the religion that Jesus hated. The fruit of it is authoritarianism (and all sorts of other horrors). The only true authority is love. Jesus had a special, vehement and burning, anger for the religious leaders of his day. And well, I'm not so convinced that all that much has changed in this regard.

However, an appeal to authority based on action and character is slightly different to an appeal to mere delegated authority (this is right because I say so and I'm allowed to be one of the ones who says so because someone else said so).

The motivation for this kind of thinking, as foreign as it may seem to those who aren't Christian is actually fairly normal. For those with a scientific, rationalist, background or faith your thinking is probably similar. You probably don't fully or even substantially understand the science and reasoning behind evolutionary biology, but understanding and trusting the scientific method you are likely prepared to grant authority in this matter to Richard Dawkins (although less likely to grant the same authority in his gender politics) and his ilk. It's the same thinking, faith (trust) based on reasoning.

Many good and genuine people, with faith of whatever kind, don't wish to hold themselves up as the ultimate authority on anything. So they look to their experience and tribe to find those they can choose to trust.

My personal attitude is based on the understanding that metaphysics (the question of what is) must always give way to  epistomology (how can we know anyway). To hark back to Descartes second meditation and his conclusion, "Cogito ergo sum", the only possible certainty is "I Am". Beyond that the foundation for knowledge cannot be (provably so) certainty but must be uncertainty. We can build models (ideas and world views) and test them out against reality, knowing that we can never be completely right but maybe we can be less wrong. This way of thinking has a name and it is often called "the scientific method".

This means that the question of "ultimate authority" can never be answered. You can't really know, but you can hope and think and search. And that search extends into everything and everywhere, and even if you can't answer the ultimate questions definitively you can hopefully do some good and have some fun. The measure of your faith, the degree of confidence you have in your ideas, is your capacity to trust those ideas based on your experience of putting them into practise.

Understanding that uncertainty is the basis of our knowledge provides an intellectually and psychologically safe way to believe. Our conceptions of spirituality, or any other topic, are free to have life and breath within our imagination and psyche because we are willing to let go of them if they become no longer useful or to evolve them as our understanding grows.

Spirituality in particular can be to us a rich and broad set of metaphors, a higher abstraction for thinking about, discussing, and participating in,the flow and patterns of life. An abstraction we find in the mythos of culture and fiction and woven into reality around us. The collective dreamings and imaginings of all of humanity past and present.

Knowing our way back to ground we are safe to fly. Our conceptions need not be "ultimate truth" to us, but useful abstractions and ways of thinking that we can put weight on but we understand that they are only ideas and ways of thinking that inform and shape our experience. What is truly important is what is here and now right in front of us and the duty and responsibility of caring for those we love -- and that is what we hold to be most real. We are always willing to be wrong and to reevaluate our ideas in the light of new experience.

One precious thing my psychosis taught me is that the way I see the world is fallible, that my memory is fallible and my understanding is fallible. No matter how heartfelt and genuine my belief is, no matter how strong my faith, I can be wrong.

This incidentally also gives us a safe way to trust people. "Trust but verify". We can trust by default, accept by default and love by default. But we keep our eyes open, it isn't a blind faith.

"Beauty can be found in a naked paradox, for it is, in itself, and of itself, a thing which cannot be. And yet is."