Friday, August 29, 2014

RELIGION WITHOUT SUPERNATURALISM

Can there be religion without supernaturalism and superstition? Of course. Surely you’ve heard of religious naturalism? Now, naturalism takes various forms including but not limited to cosmological naturalism, methodological naturalism, ethical naturalism, scientistic naturalism, social naturalism, and religious naturalism. I am only concerned with the latter here.

The American philosopher and theologian Jerome A Stone [pictured left] offers the following definition of religious naturalism:

Religious naturalism may be defined as the affirmation that there are one or more aspects of the world to which religious responses are appropriate.

Religious naturalism exists in its own right as a religious movement, and it also subsists in a number of the world’s religions including (most especially) Buddhism but even Judaism and Christianity. However, even in the case of those religions that are supernaturalistic in their orientation and thought forms, the natural world is by no means unimportant, and most religions in their earliest forms were naturalistic in orientation and thought form. Indeed, as David Suzuki has pointed out:

All religions explore the place of people in the natural and social worlds around them.  They provide explanations for mysteries such as death and disorder, and use myths and moral teachings to relate human and nonhuman spheres. The earliest forms of contemporary world religions, such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, presented an animated, integrated world similar to that of traditional worldviews.  As Lao Tzu puts it in the Tao Te Ching:
    
The virtue of the universe is wholeness,
It regards all things as equal.

But some of those world religions have shifted ground over the past centuries, supporting the development of a very different picture of reality and our place in it.

The prominent theologian James Luther Adams [pictured right] saw Jesus as a leading exponent of naturalistic religion, at least as regards his teachings and his methods of teaching. Despite the assertions of many in the mainstream churches, Jesus for the most part used a rational method of analogy---he always taught in parables, and taught nothing but parables---appealing to empirical experience self-evident to any Jew, gentile, or Samaritan. You may also recall that when the Scribes and Pharisees went to Jesus, asking that he show them a ‘sign’---that is, some miracle (whatever that word means)---so that they might be convinced he was a true prophet, Jesus said to them, ‘Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign’ (Mt 16:4). 

Jesus left them and went away, but he made it clear that the only ‘miracle’ that can attest a prophet’s teachings to be true is the change---a change for good, that is---that the prophet makes in the hearts of his hearers. I could give you many other examples in the scriptures of where Jesus repudiated the proposition that a belief in the supernatural is necessary in order to attest to spiritual truth. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold wrote,’ Suppose I could change the pen with which I write this into a pen-wiper, I should not make what I wrote any the truer or more convincing.’

Insofar as the Jewish scriptures are concerned, a Baptist minister, the Rev Geoffrey Thomas, has rightly noted:
                                                                                                
There were just three periods of miraculous activity during the Old Testament dispensation. There were virtually no wonders wrought by Abraham and the patriarchs, or the judges, nothing during the reign of David, in the period of Isaiah and Jeremiah, or at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The first period of miracles was during the exodus from Egypt, and the second was under the prophesyings of Elijah and Elisha, and finally in the Old Testament during the time of Daniel in Babylon there were some extraordinary signs.

Even the prophecies contained in the Hebrew Bible were not really about fore-telling but about forth-telling, that is, speaking out on issues immediately at hand. Enough said.

For religious naturalists such as the cell biologist Ursula Goodenough [pictured left] and the philosopher Donald Crosby nature is both ultimate reality and a religiously ultimate object in and of itself.  In the words of Professor Crosby:

I regard nature as both ultimate reality and as religiously ultimate.  There is nothing beyond it, outside of it, or over against it that is needed to explain its origin, continuing existence, or irrepressible creativity. Nature itself, without a God, Goddess, gods, or animating personal spirits of any kind, is for me an appropriate and, indeed, the most appropriate focus of religious commitment and concern especially for our ecologically conscious times. Thus, I am neither a monotheist, a polytheist, a pantheist, a panentheist, nor an animist, and yet I claim profound religious value and meaning for the immanent, self-contained powers of nature admittedly impersonal though they be that produce, suffuse, and sustain us and all other forms of being.

Religious naturalists are not all a bunch of godless pagans or earth worshippers.  They may be ‘God people’ or ‘non-God people.’ As to the former, Professor Goodenough, who incidentally belongs to the latter, has written:

There are two flavors of God people: those whose God is natural and those whose God is supernatural. Certainly there are a lot of people within religious naturalism who have no problem with God language - God as love, God as evolution, God as process. People see God as part of nature and give God-attributes to the part of nature that they find most sacred. I encounter people like that all the time.

However, few modern religious naturalists would view nature itself as ‘God.’  Most religious naturalists don’t deify the universe. In his book The Humanist Way Edward L Ericson writes:

The philosophical and religious naturalist refuses to divert human idealism and effort to the vain and untestable attempt to account for the existence of reality as a whole by postulating some external ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’ power that, as popular religious supernaturalism contends, must be propitiated and worshipped. The naturalist sees no ground for supposing such a being to exist, or for investing human resources in pursuit of a will-of-the-wisp so footless in logic or meaning.

Religious conservatives, even a few religious liberals, and many militant atheists object to claims by religious naturalists from time to time that the latter are ‘religious’ and have ‘religious faith,’ but the phenomenon of religious naturalism is nothing new. With its historical roots going as far back as Baruch Spinoza in the second half of the 17th century---not to mention its long association with and embodiment in various eastern religions---the phenomenon now known as religious naturalism has a long, well-established and, for the most part, distinguished history, particularly in the United States of America. Its ‘spokespersons’ include such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mordecai Kaplan, George Santayana, John Dewey, and Henry Nelson Wieman (who called his belief-system ‘naturalistic theism’). William James [pictured below], although not a religious naturalist in the strict sense, nevertheless favoured empirically-based naturalistic reinterpretations of supposedly supernaturalistic phenomena.

Naturalistic religious faith----faith being understood as living with courage, confidence, and hope---involves all of the key elements of a supernaturalistic religious faith, such as piety, awe, reverence, devotion, mystery and surrender, contains elements of both immanence and transcendence, and satisfies the tests of both ultimacy and intimacy.  Further, religious naturalism is and can genuinely claim to be concerned about what is truly sacred---life itself. Show me anything more wonderful than that!

Any attempt to define or otherwise understand religion that does not take into account the phenomenon of religious naturalism is bound to be inadequate not to mention downright misleading.

I mentioned the words ‘immanence’ and ‘transcendence’ above. Can those terms really apply to religious naturalism? I think they can. Donald Crosby sees immanence and transcendence as being the two things that permit appreciation or recognition of a thing being a religion, and he has demonstrated that religious naturalism satisfies both of those things. Its immanence can be found in its rejection of all notions of supernaturalism and its repudiation of all theories of intelligent design or underlying purpose, while its transcendence is three-fold: first, we human beings, as ‘creatures of nature,’ have the capacity for self-transcendence; secondly, there occur transformative events that transcendent our expectations and lie outside or beyond our conscious will or control; and, thirdly, there is the transcendence, both in time and space, of nature itself over human beings, together with our utter dependence upon nature for the continuance of our lives both physically and otherwise. 

I have often written that supernaturalism is the enemy of all true religion and all that is good and meaningful in it. There, I’ve just said it again.



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Friday, August 22, 2014

DEPRESSION, THE WANDERING MIND AND MINDFULNESS

 


This much is true: you can get the monkey off your back. Please read on.


The most satisfying work I’ve done in my long career as a lawyer, educator, therapist, and minister of religion is my ongoing lectureship at the NSW Institute of Psychiatry. It’s like this. Whenever I go there to lecture---and I've been doing that for some 12 years now---I hear real-life stories from mental health workers of various kinds about the stark reality of mental illness (or mental illnesses and mental disorders, I should say). Besides that, I have my own very real and at times very ugly story of mental illness---years of clinical depression and active alcoholism

Yes, I'm lucky to be here today to write this post. I kid you not. Only my wife and a few others know just how close I was to throwing in the towel. I even tried to do that on one occasion. As I say, it was an ugly story---and I've only told you a small part of it.

Auditorium/lecture room at the NSW Institute of Psychiaty
North Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia

Fortunately, those things are for me now well in the past, but many people still suffer from those and other mental illnesses---not only the actual sufferers themselves but also those with whom they’re closely associated. The untimely death of the actor and comedian Robin Williams reminds us all, if we needed any further reminder, that mental illness of all kinds is no respecter of persons. The main reason I write this blog is the hope that something I say may from time to time be of some help to someone else. That may sound a bit patronizing but it’s the goddamn truth.

Now, there have been many studies, and now even some meta-analytic reviews of studies, on the efficacy of mindfulness in treating depression. For example, one  such meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in April 2010, which was based on 39 studies totaling 1,140 participants receiving mindfulness-based therapy for a range of conditions including cancer, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and other psychiatric or medical conditions, concluded that mindfulness-based therapy was a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems (including depression) in clinical populations.

I will in this post discuss yet another study---and, I think, a most interesting one---but first let me tell you about the phenomenon known as the wandering mind’ (also known as the ‘monkey mind’). You will know that of which I speak, irrespective of whether or not you suffer from depression or certain other mental illnesses. Please note that we all have within us the wandering or monkey mind. In and of itself it is not a sign of mental illness or mental disorder. Got that? Our task is to quieten down the machinations and noise generated by this 'monkey' inside of our minds. MIndfulness is particularly useful for calming and slowing down the monkey mind. Of that there is no doubt.

Now, one of the very real problems associated with depression---and not just depression---is that the wandering mind chatters and chatters and wanders off and ruminates, often obsessively, on thoughts and situations that are ‘sad’ or ‘depressing' resulting in a plethora of related health problems both in the mind and in the body. 

Albert Einstein once said, 'I accept that thoughts influence the body.' That's so true. A depressed and ruminating wandering mind results in the immune system being lowered, which makes us more susceptible to illnesses of various kinds. Also, a depressed state of mind tends to breed further depression as well as stress resulting in a decrease in neurotransmitter levels. (Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and the body. Adverse symptoms appear throughout the body when these levels are 'out-of-balance.') 

The effect of depression on neurotransmitters also impacts on our mental health. This is because a state of depression in the mind tends to result in the depletion of feel-good chemicals such as serontonin and endorphins---a state of affairs which results in a further lowering of one's neurotransmitter levels. This only adds more fuel to the already smouldering fires of depression. (Note. When we are 'happy,' the brain releases other chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oyytocin.)

In short, when the wandering mind ruminates on negative thoughts and situations anxiety and stress levels are heightened. Further biochemical changes occur in the mind and the body through the release of certain chemicals including cortisol, which results in a lowering of the immune system. This predisposes us to illnesses of various kinds including heart disease, stroke, and possibly also certain cancers. Worse still, a cycle of negativity tends to set in, leading to a further lowering of neurotransmitter levels, and on it goes. The good news is that the vicious cycle can be broken.

As I've said, even if we aren’t suffering from major depression we all know the presence and effects of the wandering mind. At times this ‘monkey’ can be almost a cute little thing but for some people this ‘monkey’ is nothing short of a ferocious King Kong. Its presence and effects destroy their peace of mind and have even been known to drive some to the brink of despair and even suicide

But what can be done about this state of affairs? Well, I am not one who believes that there is ever one single ‘magic bullet’ cure for any mental illness or mental disorder, and certainly not major depression. A combination of therapies, including drug therapy, is usually required. I got a lot of help for my depression from insight-oriented psychotheraypy and antidepressants. As regards alcoholism the only thing that saved me was AA---and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who has a problem with drinking and has a desire to stop drinking. (Note. A desire to stop drinking, which is essential to giving up alcholol, is the only requirement for AA membership. Belief in a traditional God is not required. You simply need to be willing to accept the fact that alcoholism is an illness where 'self' is powerless to change 'self.')

More than one study has examined the relationship between wandering mind, depression and mindfulness. Here's one that I found especially interesting. The researchers used the Sustained Attention to Response Task to assess the wandering mind, while the online thought probes were employed as the subjective marker for mind-wandering. The Beck Depression Inventory and Mindfulness Attention and Awareness Scale were used to assess depression and dispositional mindfulness respectively. The results revealed that the wandering mind, even without awareness, was not only positively associated with depression, but also negatively related to dispositional mindfulness. Depression was negatively related to dispositional mindfulness.

In other words, depression and the wandering mind tend to cohabit, and it would seem the greater the activity and intensity of the wandering mind, the worse is the depression. (Note: The researchers are not actually saying that wandering mind is the cause, or even one of the possible causes, of a person’s depression.) So-called dispositional mindfulness---that is, a mindset, regularly held, practised and sustained, of mindful awareness of what is, including an awareness of awareness itself---reduces the activity and intensity of the wandering mind. Finally, depression and dispositional mindfulness do not ordinarily cohabit.


The researchers conclude that the results of the study might provide evidence that a wandering mind is positively associated with depression and mindfulness.

Now, although I am ‘sold’ on the efficacy of mindfulness I never advise anyone to give up their present treatment(s), and rely entirely upon mindfulness, for the treatment of mental illness until after discussing the matter with their health care professionals. There is also an important notice at the foot of this post.


Study: Deng Y, Li S, and Yang Y. ‘The Relationship Between Wandering Mind, Depression and Mindfulness,’ Mindfulness, April 2014Vol 5Issue 2pp 124-128. Date: 13 Oct 2012.



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THE NSW INSTITUTE OF PSYCHIATRY





IMPORTANT NOTICE: See the Terms of Use and Disclaimer. The information provided on this blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your medical practitioner or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on this blog.
For immediate advice or support call Lifeline on 13 1 1 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. For information, advice and referral on mental illness contact the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE (7263) go online via
 sane.org




Friday, August 15, 2014

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GROUCHO


Dedicated to my friend,
the incredibly talented Frank Ferrante,
who brings Groucho back to life in his performances


For as long as I can remember I have loved the comedian, humorist and writer Groucho Marx [pictured] and his movies, TV shows, and writings.

Groucho, who was Jewish, was not into formal, institutional religion---'organized religion is hogwash,' he was heard to say more than once---but he did start attending services at a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in the final years of his life. It seems, however, that his attendances at the temple were largely to please his then secretary and companion, the controversial Erin Fleming, who had converted to Judaism. None of Groucho's three wives were Jewish, nor was he ever married by a rabbi. And he sent none of his three children to schul or, to my knowledge, Jewish schools. But he was certainly not anti-Semitic or a self-loathing Jew of whom there are more than a few these days.

Groucho would occasionally attend or even hold a Pesach [Passover] Seder but his attitude toward the matter was largely indifferent. For example, when asked to attend one such Seder he said, 'I went to a Seder last year, and it's the same material.' That was Groucho. As Groucho saw it, being an observant Jew meant being a conformist, and that was something Groucho simply couldn't, or rather wouldn't, be.

The truth is Groucho hated institutions of all kinds. For example, the thrice married Groucho, forever the satirist, had this to say about marriage: ‘Marriage is a fine, upstanding institution, but who wants to live in an institution?’ That is what he thought of institutions. As for his three marriages and three divorces, he quipped, 'Take the wives out of marriage and there wouldn't be any divorces ... In union there is alimony.'

Groucho was a realist and cynic---the 'high priest of rationalism' in the words of famed humorist, academic and writer Leo Rosten. ‘I’m the brash, realistic type,’ he once said. 'Whatever it is, I'm against it.' Of that there was no doubt.

A number of persons, including his son Arthur and the actor Stanley Holloway (with whom Groucho starred in a 1960 Bell Telephone Hour television production of The Mikado), have written that Groucho was an agnostic. On one occasion, when speaking about his father Sam, Groucho said, ‘Sam was a great cook. He could convert leftovers into something fit for the gods, assuming there are any left.’ And he had this to say about the last film in which he appeared [see image below]: ‘In my last film [Skidoo] I played God. Jesus, I hope God doesn’t look like that.’ (By the way, lest there be any confusion on the matter, the character 'God' that Groucho played in that 1968 film---a film which at the time it was released was a bomb but which has since acquired quite a cult following---was a top mobster who lives on a yacht in international waters and gives orders to have people liquidated.)


If there's any doubt about what Groucho thought of organized religion, there's this priceless gem:

I was in Montreal and a priest came up to me, put out his hand, and said, 'I want to thank you for all the joy you've put into this world.' And I shook his hand, and said, 'And I want to thank you for all the joy you've taken out of this world.' He said, 'Could I use that next Sunday in my sermon?' I said, 'Yes you can, but you'll have to pay the William Morris office ten per cent.'

Although not formally religious Groucho did identify very closely with the Jewish people and during his long lifetime he donated generously to a number of Jewish charities and causes. He was also the victim of anti-Semitism. He would often recall the time when a country club manager told him he couldn't use the swimming pool. His reply has made it into countless books of quotations. ‘Since my daughter is only half-Jewish, could she go in up to her knees?’ He would also tell this one:

Two Jewish men in Israel are in adjoining urinals. One says to the other, ‘Are you Jewish?’ He says, ‘Yes.’ So the first man says, ‘How is it you’re not circumcised?’ ‘Well,’ says the other guy, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to stay.’

Groucho would tell a lot of jokes about being Jewish. Here's another one:

Two men--one a hunchback--were passing a synagogue. One of them turns to the other and says, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ And the other says, ‘Really? I used to be a hunchback.’

Groucho certainly did not believe in an afterlife. ‘You only live once, despite what Jesus or somebody said … Go out to the garden and tear a flower in four. It won’t be a flower again.’ He said that in a 1969 New York Times interview. A few years later he was asked by Bill Cosby whether he believed in life after death---this was in 1973 when Groucho appeared on Bill’s TV show---and this was Groucho’s reply: ‘I’m beginning to have serious doubts about life before death.’ Love it. Then there’s this whimsical quip: ‘Someday we’ll meet in Heaven. New York. Or Philadelphia.’ 

Occasionally Groucho would undisparagingly use religious language, more so in his later years. For example, in his book The GrouchoPhile, published in 1976, Groucho had this to say about his brother Chico:

Chico was a rogue and a scamp. Had the Lord spared him and allowed him a few more years, he wouldn’t have changed. I can imagine that after being rescued from death’s door, he would look God straight in the eye and ask, ‘What odds will You give me on another ten years?’

I’m sure Groucho did not pray in any traditional way, despite once having asked, somewhat facetiously it seems, his eldest daughter Miriam to pray for the success of a certain Broadway show written by some friends of his. However, he did write this in his 1976 book The Secret Word is Groucho:

There’s a prayer of sorts I recite to myself every night. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s me: ‘Unborn tomorrow, and dead yesterday, why fret about them if today be sweet?’

Well, I do know where that ‘prayer of sorts’ comes from. It’s from the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. (I've written a post on that one.)

On another occasion Groucho expressed it this way. ‘Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, and I’m going to be happy in it.’ On yet another occasion he expanded on the same theme:

Each morning, when I open my eyes, I say to myself I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead. Tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.

As for the past, it was a case of letting the past stay in the past, which is very wise. So many people can't do that. Anyway, Groucho expressed it this way in a letter that he wrote to his daughter Miriam in 1954:

There’s an old saying, ‘Let the dead past bury its dead,’ and I am a firm believer in never looking backward. There are too many horrifying things lurking there.

But here's a paradox. Groucho once penned a magazine article---one of many---entitled 'Bad Days are Good Memories,' in which he wrote that the memory of a dreadful, miserable experience can be a happy one. Yes, a happy one. The memory in question---his 'happiest memory,' he said---was when he was a boy actor, stranded in Colorado, hungry and broke. Not only that, but ...

For me, a happy experience does not necessarily mean a happy memory. On the contrary, I am sometimes jealous of my past.

If you think about that for a while it kinda makes sense. 

The 'secret' of life, said Groucho elsewhere, is to stay happy ... and have fun. As Groucho put it, ‘If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.’ So, if you are not having fun, look within to find out what needs changing ... in you. Ditto me. (It was only during Groucho's last hospitalization in mid-1977, having already endured several strokes, a major heart attack, a broken hip, respiratory problems, and various other maladies, that he was heard to say plaintively to his literary collaborator and biographer Hector Arce, 'This is no way to live.')

Groucho once told the veteran showbiz writer and celebrity interviewer Pete Martin that he got the advice about choosing to be happy one day at a time from a 100-year old man who appeared on Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life. It’s damn good advice. No matter what happens to us in life, we all have choices. We can always choose how to respond to what happens. As Groucho expressed it:

When we get up in the morning we have two choices. We can either be happy or unhappy. We make our own choice. The more times we choose happiness the longer we’ll live.


But is that easy to sustain? No, it's not, said Groucho:

It’s hard to choose happiness when you get up in the morning with a hangover or the market has dropped down a hole and taken your lifetime savings with it.

The latter actually happened to Groucho in the stockmarket crash of 1929, so he was talking from personal experience.

You know, each of us is in the manufacturing business. We manufacture our own happiness or unhappiness every moment of every day. You determine whether you're happy, and I determine whether I'm happy. It's as simple as that. Not easy, but simple.

Groucho may not have believed in religion or the hereafter but he did believe in life---and in living fully and deeply. ‘I intend to live forever, or die trying,’ he once quipped.

He died trying. But his legacy will live on forever.



Material owned and controlled by the Estate of Groucho Marx
or other rightsholders is copyright. Fair use permitted. All rights reserved.



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NOTHING’S REAL--EXCEPT REALITY ITSELF

Life, as Allen Ginsberg so powerfully put it, is ‘a question/ of realizing how real/ the world is already.' 

No matter what you believe, or don’t believe, it’s how well you live your life, and how well you cope ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ that determines the true measure of your success in life and the quality of your life experience. You may pride yourself on having what you think is a logical, rational philosophy of life but if it doesn’t help you deal with the problems of everyday life, it’s next to useless. If a religious or philosophical life stance is to be of any use, it must help to explain, and help you and others cope with, the ‘broken shoelaces’ as well as the bigger tragedies of everyday life. 

There’s a Zen kōan entitled ‘Nothing exists.’ I think it powerfully illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

A young student of Zen visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku, a famous Rinzai rōshi who became abbot of Shōkoku-ji. Desiring to show his attainment, the student said: ‘The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.’

Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked the student with his bamboo pipe. This made the student quite angry. ‘If nothing exists,’ inquired Dokuon, ‘where did this anger come from?’

A Christian may affirm, ‘God is light and love, and in Him there is no darkness at all’ (cf 1 Jn 1:5), and exclaim, ‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me’ (cf Mt 19:14; Lk 18:16), but try saying that to parents who have just lost their son or daughter to some childhood cancer after many years of pain and suffering. Now how helpful is that? Does it relieve their suffering? Does it have explanatory power? 

And the militant atheist who believes in no-god, and who has no time for those who pray to an 'imaginary friend,' may pride themself on the fact that they have, as they see it, repudiated all superstition and supernaturalism, having adopted a rational life stance, but unless they have real insight into their own behaviour and mind they know very little indeed.

Listen to these insightful words from the American spiritual leader and author Vernon Howard whose books and talks have helped me greatly over the years:

To be right, just be real. Reality is everything. Now you think about that. What is actual, what is true, what is real is right. Trueness is always right.

In nature, you can see rightness, because nature is what it is. A rose is real, a rose is right. No question about that. No rose ever goes to a psychiatrist.

In short, there is no substitute for what is. Life, reality, actuality, rightness, truth---those words refer to the same thing. If we align ourselves with what is, and don't resist or fight against it, and always speak the truth to others as well as to ourselves, we will know peace ... but not otherwise.

The truly spiritual (and I don't mean religious) person has no creed or article of faith at all, and their only liturgy is a day-to-day, moment-to-moment reverence for and acceptance of the beauty and the ugliness of life as it unfolds unceasingly yet wondrously. Their only ‘god’---if they choose to use that word---is a sincere desire to learn, know and understand as opposed to simply believe or not believe. The just-believer---as well as the mere non-believer---never knows or understands. Seek to learn. Seek to know. Seek to understand.

In the words of another master, ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32).



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Friday, August 8, 2014

GOD IS THE PLACE---THE SPACE OF THE WORLD

There are many names for God in Judaism. The Midrash, an early Jewish interpretation of or commentary on a Biblical text, teaches:

Why is God called by the name Makom meaning ‘place’ or ‘space’? Because he is the space of the world, but the world is not his place.

Perhaps you don’t believe in God. That’s OK insofar as I’m concerned. My concept of God is far from traditional. J B Phillips, the English Bible scholar, translator, author and minister, wrote a little book entitled Your God is Too Small. The book contains some good ideas but the God that Phillips says is the 'real,' 'big,' and 'true' one is, in my view, still far too small. My concept of God is essentially nontheistic, at least when viewed in traditional terms. It's outside the square. It's big ... as big as the universe and even bigger than that. My concept of God, now shared by many others (including a number of influential theologians), is still a biblical one, that is, it is supportable by reference to sacred scripture. What's more, it makes sense in the light of what we now know about life and the universe. Traditional concepts of God don't.

Now, having said all that, I think we can safely say this much is true---there was something uncaused and self-existent at the very beginning ... before there was even space and time. We can call it self-existent being, and it is still 'here.' It is still a case of---it is. It exists, not from itself, but of itself. And this pure actuality of existence or being-ness, having within it the plenitude of all being as well as all activity, is the undivided and indivisible wholeness of all existence. The what is is forever becoming the what will be, forever releasing and so realizing its innate creativeness. This being-ness---as well as becoming-ness---fills all time and space with its presence, hence the Biblical concept of omnipresence

Omnipresence. What a wonderful word! We are talking about an ‘all-encompassing’ uncreated reality ('Presence')---reality in self-expression, if you like---that, although unmanifest, forever takes shape and form as manifest existence and being-ness. Omnipresence means ... there is. That's it! There is. That's all of reality. That's all of life. The past? Well, the past is 'there is ... no more.' And the future? The future is 'there is ... not yet.' We are talking about a reality that is truly limitless, encompassing all things including all of space---and yet beyond all space as well. This Presence is not ‘transcendent’ in the sense of some supposed anthropomorphic deity in the ‘upper regions,’ nor can it be said to be immanent for the Presence is not actually contained ‘in’ or ‘within’ anything, nor can this Presence be said to be in any way ‘separate’ from the universe (that is, the sum total of all that is) for the notion of separateness denotes divisibility whereas this Presence is essentially indivisible. It is not only present everywhere, it is Presence itself … everywhere! You can call it the ‘spirit of life’ if you wish. It is to be found everywhere, but especially at the very centre of your being.

As mentioned, makom is the Hebrew word for place. The word comes from a verb (קוּם) meaning ‘to arise,’ suggesting the idea of resurrection, metaphorically at least. I prefer to see it as an unfolding or a manifestation. Be that as it may, the word makom appears in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) over 300 times and in the Torah (the first 5 books of the 24 books of the Tanakh) over 100 times. Its first mention is in the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis where God is said to have created the world and collected the water to one ‘place’ (see Gen 1:9). 

Now, all talk of God as a ‘person,’ in the sense that you and I are persons, is problematic, indeed wrong. Whenever God is referred to in sacred scripture in physical terms it is meant as a metaphor. Got that? A metaphor. Indeed, all theology is metaphor. It is more akin to poetry. It is axiomatic that the Divine---that which is sacred, holy, and of ultimate importance---is not physical and has no physical properties as such. No one should be expected to believe in a God that was so limited, finite, and contingent. We, however, are physical---at least in substantial part---and by reason of our finiteness (in particular, the limitations of time and space) we can only understand things from a physical frame of reference. Hence the need for metaphoric language.

So, what is the metaphor of HaMakom (‘The Place’)? Well, we all know that a ‘place,’ any place, is much more than a geographical location. It’s a space which is capable of containing something else---for example, people, plants, animals, and rocks and minerals. When used in reference to the Divine it means a sacred place, a place where everything is contained, that is, has its being-ness, within the Divine, at least conceptually, but the divine is not contained in anything as such. The Hebrew sages would say, ‘He [God] doesn't have a place, rather He is The Place of the Universe.’ Got the idea?

The New Testament puts it this way, ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring”’ (Acts 17:28). Now, that’s not pantheism. It’s panentheism, that is, God is the ground of all being, God is in all things, all things are in God, but all things do not exhaust the actuality of God. Similarly, Jesus (pictured) is reported to have said, ‘I am in my Father: and you in me, and I in you’ (Jn 14:20). 

The God of which I am speaking is the one form-less, essence-less, self-existent, self-knowing, self-giving, self-becoming, self-actualizing, absolute, indestructible, and abundant existence that forever takes form, that is, incarnates, as you, me, and everything else, but which is never even for a moment absorbed by the innumerable objects of its Self-expression. Indeed, this Be-ing---or Being-ness itself---transcends the limits of matter … and even time and space which are really one, and no more than mediums in which all things exist. Life is flux and movement---ceaseless movement---and life itself is timeless and spaceless. That much is clear. Another thing is clear---everything is contained within ‘the now.’ All duration (time) is total and complete in the now, and there is an ‘eternal’ quality about the now. It is forever new. The present moment has its unfolding in the Now.

You may not like the word ‘God’. The word may conjure up unpleasant memories, or otherwise have unpleasant connotations, for you. If so, don’t use the word. ‘The word is not the thing,’ as the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti so often said.  The true nature of the Divine, as pure and ever-perfect Be-ing, is revealed in these Bible verses from the third chapter of the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible:

13 Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’

14 And God said to Moses, ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’


The words 'I AM' refer to the subject---note that word, 'subject,' not object---of all existence. The Bible says that I AM is God. So, God, that is, the very essence and being-ness of life itself, becomes what God has said that which God is---'I AM THAT I AM.' We are talking about the very presence and power of life itself---there is only one such presence and power---which forever gives of itself to itself in order to perpetuate itself ... and to become. In a deeper sense, we are talking about the Self-knowingness of God, for we too can be conscious (or rather self-conscious) of that very same I AM presence and power that is the ground of our being, indeed, the ground of all Be-ing. It is the All-in-all. 

So, HaMakom is the life that is the subject of true existence, the very life that lies within, and otherwise manifests itself through and as objects, being all persons and things---the very livingness, or rather Self-livingness, of life itself. Put simply, perhaps even too simply, each of us is I AM in expression---as you and me. Yes, each of us is an 'eachness' within the ALL-ness of the Divine.

God is the place, and God in you, as you, is you. Yes, as you live out your daily existence, know this---you are I AM in expression.

I AM has spoken. And so it is.