Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 6

(This series begins here, or go to part 2, part 3, part 4, or part 5.)

One Final Abstraction

We’ve discussed in what ways God is love and in what ways we can say God is intelligence, but God is also beauty.  There is something magnificent about His creation.  Nature is God’s canvas, and we would be smart to notice and appreciate it, not take it for granted or destroy it.  But nature is not the only place where God shares this aspect of Himself with us.  

Since we are created in God’s image, He has given us – human beings – the capability of creating our own beauty as well.  Marvelous works of art and music exist that raise people’s consciousness such that they are taken out of themselves, out of the limits and confines of their day-to-day existence, and towards a more eternal existence.  Beautiful music can move people to tears, and it can force people to get up and dance with the rhythm they hear.  It can help us forget our troubles or gain better perspective by temporarily removing us from them.  It can also simply be joyful and bring a smile to our face.

Art likewise can make us pause in wonder.  Paintings, drawings, and sculptures of what can be seen in nature are my personal favorite, as they capture what the artist has observed and wants to help us focus on.  Often it can be scenes from daily life that we take for granted and don’t consider beautiful – until they are framed in the context of an art piece.  

Architecture has the ability to help us sigh in amazement at the sheer genius of humanity, the intricate designs, the curiously creative functional aspects, and the esthetic appearance of a building has the potential of warranting the title “art”.

I won’t discuss abstract art simply because personally, well, I just don’t get it.  That’s not to say it can’t be said to be beautiful.  After all, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  That’s why I think God is not just beautiful, but beauty.  The various ways to be beautiful – both for individuals and our surroundings – all fit inside the underlying concept that is “beauty”.  

We seek to be surrounded by beautiful things.  For this reason, I believe that in heaven – however one might want to define it – we will be surrounded by beauty, because God is beauty itself.

And so, there are many layers of truth to be found in Christianity, and I hardly think that the metaphorical aspect of the various beliefs is any less useful or any farther away from the essence of God than are literal and personified understandings.  God is love; God is intellect; God is beauty.  What more do we need?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 5

(This series starts here, or go to part 2, part 3, or part 4.)

Why it matters if we understand Jesus

None of this may sound warm and fuzzy.  But Jesus alluded to the fact that heaven is not the way earth is.  When the Sadducees questioned Jesus about seven brothers who each married the same woman after the previous brother had died, Jesus accused them of not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.  He continued in Matthew 22:30-32: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Not only does Jesus state plainly that our understanding of the world (in this case, marriage) does not apply in heaven (“the resurrection”), but He also reassures us that there is life after death by stating that God is a God “of the living”. 

Therefore, when He says elsewhere that we are to put our trust in Him and follow Him, I think He means for us to quit trying to figure out things that can only be understood by God, or in the life to come.  I think Christians grossly misunderstand John 14:6, where Jesus says that no one “comes to the Father but through” Him.  So many Christians, perhaps even well-meaning and sincere, have reduced Jesus’s life of teaching, example, and sacrifice to a mere declaration of a few select words as a sure-fire ticket into heaven.  We are told by evangelizing Christians that we must simply repent of our sins and state that we are claiming Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and that declaration, with no further action on our part, will guarantee us salvation (or what I think means a return to the Garden of Eden; ie. life with God).  How woefully incomplete, simplistic in the worst possible sense, and with tragic consequences! 

As soon as we are relieved of responsibility for our own actions, our own sins, we cannot be expected to be motivated to do right.  Those Christians who have a better understanding – if only intrinsically – of Christ’s true message do indeed try to live out their lives modeled on the actions of Jesus.  But sadly, many do not.  Yet I am not here to critique the (mis)interpretations of Christian symbolism, but merely to outline them in ways that make sense to me.

* How to follow Jesus

In the end, if I am to follow Jesus, I must live the way He lived.  And if I’m going to do that, I need a very strong motivator to do so, because His life was not easy!  For some, like myself, this means establishing a theology that is sufficiently acceptable to warrant the truth of what Jesus taught about Himself, God, and us.  Scare tactics will not make me lead a more righteous life.  And I do believe, without a doubt, that the kind of life we lead is precisely what God is interested in.  Living a life of kindness, compassion, and generosity is God’s will for our lives.  The way we live is the way we worship and glorify God, the way we imitate Him, and the way we draw closer to Him.  In day-to-day prayer, it may be easier for many to address God as a fellow individual, a person just like us.  Jesus provides a very easy way to personify God by having been a historical person, indeed just like us.  If His identity helps me fulfill God’s will, so be it.  But if His identity only seeks to confuse me and distract me from His message, then I think I better focus on Jesus the Man and address God the way Jesus did, rather than trying to merge the two.

Some will call this blasphemy.  But no matter what we believe, there is someone out there who will call our belief system blasphemous.  No one is more privy to God, to God’s heart and mind, than anyone else.  If we truly do try to be like God – to experience our own existence – then we will worry less about the experiences and explanations of others.  I think experiencing God – love and intellect – may be the only way to rid ourselves of the need for religion.  Though that’s not to say we can’t likewise use religion as a tool to help direct us to God – to love and intelligence

(go to part 6)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 4

(This series starts here, or go to part 2, or part 3)
* “I think, therefore I am” or “am I” regardless?

Have you ever wondered why plants and animals aren’t religious?  It sounds silly.  If God created everything, including plants and animals, and religion is simply a socio-cultural way for us humans to get to know God, then why isn’t there a system in place for other creatures to worship God?  How do they know if they’re pleasing God if they don’t have religion to explain it to them?  See, this is where I think it becomes evident that we humans, in an attempt to answer a question that is natural to us, have done more harm than good.  Instead of clarifying life, we’ve sectioned it off artificially, introducing fear and anger and guilt into what was meant to be a simple existence of mere peaceful experience.  Remember the Garden of Eden?

But how can we, once aware of our future death, go on living peacefully, happy to experience the here and now without worrying about the future, the afterlife?  Worry is a cognitive phenomenon.  If we look closely at the etymology of the term “decease”, we see the word “cease” or “stop”.  The definition of the verb is the “cessation” of all biological functions.  No one argues that our bodies begin to decompose once we are no longer circulating oxygen in it via our blood.  Yet does this mean that our entire existence is merely played out in our heads?  Rene Descartes philosophized, “I think, therefore I am.”  But does that mean that once I stop thinking, I no longer am?  What is thinking, really?  And is it necessarily tied to our being alive?  Do we think when we are asleep?  And if thinking = living, why do so many followers of Eastern Religions meditate precisely in order to stop thinking?!  And what about those of God’s creations that don’t have a brain per se?  Does a flower not exist because it doesn’t think?  Of course not!  It lives whether it thinks or not!

* If God is love (an abstraction), can’t He also be intelligence itself?

However, I do think there is something to this idea that our lives are intricately tied with the intellect... I just don’t think that it’s our own intellect.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Matrix”, you might understand what I’m alluding to here.  While the premise of the movie is such that machines control human beings, the part that I am thinking of has to do with the virtual reality in which they live.  They are unaware of their true existence as bodies hooked up to machines, living virtual lives.  They are only aware of the virtual lives.  Similarly, I think we humans are only aware of our Earthly existence, unaware of being “plugged into” a spiritual dimension that not everyone readily accepts.  The difference, of course, is that in the movie, the Matrix is evil, whereas in our lives, the Spiritual Dimension (“God”) is good. 

I utilize this example merely to suggest that I believe there is a cosmic, universal intelligence – God – that we are all a part of.  Just like we previously stated that God is love, I now suggest that God is likewise intellect.  (Hence, intelligent design, which by the way, I do not see how it contradicts evolution in the least.)

Since it is difficult to distinguish between the abstract “love” and the one being loved, we have opted to simplify our understanding of God by personifying Him.  So, too, since it is difficult to relate to the abstraction of “intelligence”, we have again personified God to posses the quality of intellect, rather than to actually “be” that quality. But if we were to accept God as greater than what our human brains can currently comprehend, and allow for the statement, “God is intelligence”, we could then make a case for eternal life on the premise of our thinking.

We think about life after death because there must be truth to it, truth that comes to us subconsciously from a cosmic intelligence into which we are merely plugged in.  And while physical death ends our bodily function, it does not separate us from the Great Intellect.  As purely spiritual beings, we no longer require our own physical brains, since we can tap into the brain of God, if you will.  In this way, I believe that not only do we continue to live after death, but I also believe that we continue to be aware of our existence.

(go to part 5)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 3

(Start with part one, or go to part two)
God’s will and the meaning of life

I’ve mentioned humans wanting to please God several times now.  Is this an assumption or a fact? Well, if we believe to have been made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), then our desire to please God is a mere reflection of God’s desire to please Himself.

Why did God put us there?  Or better yet, why did God create us?  If we read Genesis, we learn that God created us simply to please Himself (Genesis 1:31).  He didn’t need us; He wanted to share Himself (love).  He created us in His image, and He delegated to us the stewardship of the Earth. In other words, He wanted us to exist the way He exists, experience being the way He experiences being.  And in the beginning, we did just that.  This is why we call the Garden of Eden “paradise”, and why we all long to return there.

* Eternal life

Speaking of returning to paradise, this brings up a concern many philosophers and theologians have pondered.  In addition to determining the meaning of our lives, we also want to be reassured that our lives will continue... indefinitely.  Isaac Newton’s first law of motions states that “an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”  Now, if we allow the substitution of “person” instead of “object”, and give an existential meaning to motion, we can rephrase part of the above as follows:  “A person who is alive [wants to] stay alive”. 

This may seem quite elementary, but it’s fundamental.  Once we are aware of the fact that we are alive, and we come to enjoy said life (or at worst, fear the alternative), we begin to grasp for reassurances that we will always .... be. 

No amount of life experience seems to teach us that “the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself”.  Every school year ends with a bittersweet sentiment – on one hand, we were so looking forward to summer; on the other hand, the next year is full of the unknown.  A child’s wedding likewise can be a bittersweet moment – on one hand, we are pleased that our daughter or son has found someone to share their life with; on the other hand, we become aware of the drastic reduction in their need for us and thus may worry what their joy means to our own joy.  Even religious people often fear death, if for no other reason than because it constitutes a major change and leads to a great unknown!

But for many people, myself included, even if the details cannot be known, the underlying assumption of eternal life is necessary in order to live a life without despair.  In the end, does it really matter to us if, after we die, we simply cease to be aware of our existence, or cease to exist?  When we’re sleeping, do we ever worry about not waking up?  If you’re anything like me, as much fun as life is, sleep is always most welcome in the morning!  Therefore, I imagine that whatever being dead is like, I’m sure we won’t miss being alive!

Of course, that’s a strange thing to say.  Death implies the lack of “being”, so to say that we will “be” dead seems quite inaccurate.  And yet, we use the same existential term that God Himself uses to describe what we fear is the opposite of living.  To me, that just goes to show that death is nothing more than a transition into a continuation of life beyond what we are able to experience in the here and now.  I am satisfied with the conviction that eternal life is a reality, even if the details of what that practically means cannot be known to me until I cross over to the other side.

If we all must die and that means we cease to exist, or if we all must die and we have no way of knowing what it’s like to be deceased, then that really begs the question: what is the meaning of life?  Or put another way, why are we here?  No other creature – to our  knowledge – wrecks their brain (those that have brains) or wastes time in contemplating their purpose.  They simply exist, and without a sense of right and wrong, good and bad, we can say they exist in contentment.  Animals, and much less plants, don’t worry about the future or regret or reminisce about the past.  They spend their lives experiencing their existence. They simply “are”.  Yet we humans are not satisfied with being like every other creature.  We want to be better, more special.  There must be a meaning to our existence.  

(go to part 4)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 2

(Start with part one here)

* The great “I Am” wants us to experience being

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked around enjoying each others’ and God’s company without giving it a second thought.  They didn’t think in terms of “us versus God”.  They didn’t wonder about life “outside the garden”.  They simply “were”... much the same way as God Himself declares His identity: “I am” (Exodus 3:14).  Experience of existence seems to be the essence of God’s desire for our lives.  We see remnants of this in psychological studies of newborn babies, and we find a symbolic explanation of this phenomenon in our creation myth.

Whether or not there was a literal, historical human couple named Adam and Eve, as many conservative Christians believe, is really beside the point.  Does this belief help me live a life in accordance with God’s will?  If not, then who cares?  If so, then by all means, yell at me for using the term “myth” to refer to the story of our creation, just please do so out of my earshot.

Let’s review.  God said “I am” when asked to identify Himself in the Old Testament.  He is also described as “being love” by the writer of the Gospel of John.  Therefore, not veering outside the confines of the Christian Scriptures, we arrive at the following conclusion: God. Is. Love.

* The paradox of Jesus

Now, let’s see how Jesus fits into the picture.  It should start with the fact that when we look at Jesus’s life as a whole, the way it has been recorded in the Gospels, we see that his entire being was geared towards the doing of God’s will.  His every action was directed at others, in the service of others, saturated with love – love of God and love of His fellow human beings.  If Jesus truly lived out so perfectly God’s original intention for our lives by living a life full of love and nothing less, then it is easy to see why Jesus would declare that He and the Father are “one”.  Jesus lived out love.  Jesus acted in love.  Jesus was motivated by love.  Jesus expressed love.  Jesus shared love with everyone.  Jesus was synonymous with love.  Jesus essentially was what a human being experiencing the existence of God in every moment, through love, was meant to be.  Jesus was love.  As long as His life is held up as an example for others, Jesus continues to be love.  Therefore, Jesus is love.  Jesus. Is. Love. God. Is. Love.  One can see where the clear overlap is; God and Jesus both exist (“is”) and both are synonymous with love. 

* The example of marriage as paradox

There are a lot of different takes on what it means to say that Jesus and God are one.  Are they two separate individuals, or are they one and the same?  While it may at first seem that the two concepts are incompatible with each other, we do have a human example we can draw from: marriage.

A marriage is made up of two individuals.  Neither of them is the marriage, and yet without either of them, there would be no marriage.  In legal and financial terms, each individual is as much “the marriage” as the two of them together.  If one spouse goes into debt, the other one is held responsible.  Spousal intimacy is held to such high esteem, that a secret confided by one spouse to the other cannot be forced out by an outside source; it’s as if the secret-telling spouse simply held the secret in his or her own mind.  Two become one.  Yet clearly, we understand that a marriage is made up of a husband and a wife, two distinct entities (if you will), each having their own responsibilities within the marriage, but both united in that mysterious area where they are not just two individuals, but that together they are a third entity all together – the marriage.

Some non-Christians who may actually have a pretty good grasp of this understanding of the Trinity take issue with the idea that God can be something other than a single individual.  They accuse trinitarian Christians of worshipping “a family of gods” instead of a single deity.  Yet this sort of dislike for an understanding of God as anything other than a human “just like us” goes back to the fact that we humans are very self-centered.  We believe that we are the greatest thing there is, and as such, God cannot be what we deem as “less than” the best (us!).

I won’t go into splitting hairs as to a one-to-one comparison between the Holy Trinity and the example of a human marriage.  If God is like marriage, what of the Holy Spirit?  Some say the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, but this interferes with the understanding that God – all of God – is love.  If only the Holy Spirit is love, then Jesus and the Father aren’t love, but if God is love, no part of God can be “not love”. 

What’s more, some Christians, especially Catholics, have indeed taken this metaphor so far as to add the Church into the mix, calling it the spouse of Christ.  In my opinion, this does more to muddle the waters for those who simply want to believe in and follow God’s will for their lives.  The various details of what it’s really like beyond this dimension are mere speculation, and completely irrelevant to accomplishing God’s will.

* Pregnant woman as a paradox

An even clearer human example of what it might mean for Jesus and God-the-Father to be "one" can be found in the pregnant woman.  When we look at her from the outside, she is an individual, a single entity much the same as she was prior to her pregnancy.  She counts as only one person in an HOV lane, she is considered only one member of a household on a census form.

Yet thanks to the marvel of modern technology in the ultrasound, we can clearly see that her one body actually contains two hearts, two brains, two sets of limbs.... literally a whole second little body inside the one "main" body they both share (since the baby is attached to and dependent on the mother's body for survival).  And so, expectant fathers may take turns talking to their wives and their babies via the baby bump.  We say the mother is "eating for two".  Many people are tempted to reach out and touch the baby bump as if somehow this would connect them closer to the mystery that they know is taking place - two are simultaneously one!

Where the mother goes, so goes the baby.  Where the Father goes, so goes the Son. In John 5:19, Jesus says: "the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner."  In other words, the two are one.  Jesus is not the Father; the unborn baby is not the mother.  Yet the two are interdependent on each other.  Without a child, a woman is not a mother.  Perhaps then, without Jesus, the Father wouldn't be God?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Christian Metaphor, part 1

My religious upbringing cautions me to not even venture into the realm of suggesting that certain of our religious teachings, held up by years of theological discussion, and seen as divine truths, ought to be considered in any light other than that of literal understanding.  Yet I shall dare to do so anyway, because I believe that the value of our religious truths may actually be found in their symbolic meaning, rather than in their literal interpretation. (Or at the very least, it’s found equally in both, regardless if the truth is seen as metaphor or literal fact.)

I do want to provide the caveat that I am merely trying to think outside the box, and this series is not a statement of my faith (or lack thereof), but rather a train-of-thought deliberation, the likes of which I've often had in the past but failed to capture in words.  Since such philosophical wonderment occurs to me periodically and never fails to somehow deepen my conviction and clarify God's will for me, I am confident that by being open to the moving of the Holy Spirit, anything contrary to righteousness will be made evident to me in the course of this exercise.

The Personification of God

Let us start with the most difficult concept for many non-Christians to wrap their minds around – the personification of God in the person of Jesus, especially as part of a divine trinity of persons.  If God is One, how can there be three persons of God?  I think the problem begins already with the personification of God as a “being” rather than as an abstract concept. 

* God is Love

We often hear it said, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, et al).  Yet love is an abstraction.  Love is not a person, like Cupid or Aphrodite.  Love is an experience of affinity towards another being, a sense of drawing near and desiring the company and welfare of a given individual.  Love is that which keeps us together and links us into units of couples, families, groups of friends.  What do we all have in common?  Love! 

Yet for some reason, it seems terribly inadequate to the modern ear (perhaps more accurately: to the modern, western, Christian ear) to define God as “just” an abstraction.  Already, we are faced with an undeniable truth of human nature: we are self-centered.  Original sin, after all, is nothing more than the putting of our own interests first!  (More on that later.)  Therefore, if we are to believe in a God, that God must be bigger and better and more impressive than we are – somehow “more than” human, but certainly not “less than” human, and we see abstractions as lesser than persons. 

And so we personify God as a “He”, likening Him to a Father.  There is definitely value in so doing.  Because we share love with other people, we want to feel closeness to God in the same way we experience closeness to family and friends.  What we fail to remember is that God isn’t at the other end of that which connects us to each other; rather, God is actually the “thing” that connects us.  Connections can be severed; individuals can be separated.  But nothing from the outside can interfere with a person’s experience of love.  Once felt, a person will forever reminisce over specific instances when it was most obvious, and long to experience it again and again.  So we personify God because we cannot think of Him in terms that are not familiar to us, and abstractions are not very familiar to us. 

* What we knew as babies

But if we allow for the lines to get blurry between what constitutes a person and what constitutes an experience (this may take a lot of effort and imagination), we begin to catch glimpses of what Jesus must have meant when He said “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30).  We don’t remember this, but we actually do have human experiences that mimic what Jesus is talking about.

When a baby is newly born, she does not yet have a concept of self.  She doesn’t understand that there’s such a thing as “not-I” versus “I”.  She doesn’t have object permanence, so what she is currently experiencing is the only thing that exists for her.  There is no hoping for the future, no regretting the past, no comparing self to others. Where is the baby before birth?  Is she not literally one body with the mother?  Doesn't the mother experience the baby's presence and isn't the baby directly affected by what the mother does?  Everywhere the mother goes, so goes the baby.  There is no separating them.  And yet, we know that they are two persons in one body.  After birth, the baby initially maintains this understanding of reality as evidenced by the breastfeeding relationship God instituted as a transition for both into separate people. 

Therefore, from the baby's point of view, "baby and momma are one".  I think this is parallel to the way Jesus saw Himself and God-the-Father as one.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Homeschooling Myself

A faith/philosophy post is a bit overdue.  I was taking a walk outside today.  There is an artificially made lake on my campus.  As I paced back and forth, peering into the water, looking up at the sky, allowing the various sights and sounds to attract my attention, I made a few observations. 

As I stopped to turn around at the edge of the lake, where the water mingles with the sand that yields to a wooded area, I thought about how nature is made up of transitions.  After all, where exactly does the lake end and the land begin?  If I say that the lake starts at the first sign of water, even if that water doesn’t so much as come up to my ankles, then how is this different from a puddle elsewhere on otherwise dry land?  But if I say that the same spot is strictly dry land, then how do I account for the tiny fish swimming around to the very edge and back?  Puddles don’t host fish.  

I’ve had a similar thought process lately when it comes to the beginning of human life debate that is ongoing in our society.  Some people say we become a human person at the moment of conception, yet how is this possible if we know that a human embryo can split into two identical twins?  Likewise, two separately fertilized eggs can merge into a single embryo around the time of implantation, resulting in a chimera – one person with two sets of DNA.  

Others say that birth is the magic moment when we begin to be alive.  But how do we account for premature babies?  And what about the fact that a fetus has been shown to experience pain and react to sensory stimulation?  Furthermore, epigenetics tells us that we are affected by what we experience while in the womb.  If we didn’t have our life “turn on” until the moment of birth, there would be no evidence of living in utero.  

Perhaps when it comes to deciding where the actual boundaries of a lake are, it matters little.  But when it comes to deciding when life – especially human life – begins and ends, it matters a lot.  However, I don’t think we need to know the answer to this question to proceed ethically and morally.  When in doubt, erring on the side of caution seems to be the most reasonable way to go.

But returning to my observations from this afternoon…

I was entertained by observing creatures in their natural (or somewhat natural) environment.  I watched a school of fish stop when I stopped, and face me as if expecting me to drop some crumbs for them to feed on.  I noticed a dragonfly hovering in one spot, and was reminded of how our human invention of a helicopter is simply a man-made reproduction of something already existent in nature.  I saw a spider walking on water, and recalled how amazed people were to see Jesus do likewise, yet here we have a different creature made by God to imitate Christ in this one physical way.  

I thought of how our modern society robs us of such natural entertainment and education.  How much can we learn by merely observing nature!  So much more than a mere textbook can teach us.  Yet we deprive ourselves of access to God’s natural school and play ground, and then try to compensate with virtual renditions of the real thing.

Honestly, this post is really about homeschooling.  Homeschooling myself.  Twenty years of formal education (right up until all doctoral requirements were met minus the dissertation) has done little in the way of better preparing me for life.  And if education doesn’t prepare a student for life, then what’s the point?  

Expecting a baby is giving me a renewed hope of learning about God’s beautiful world by parenting and educating my child.  I am so blessed to have this opportunity!