God. Just three letters in this word. But they sure pack a punch.
Countless people have died in the name of "God." Countless good works have been performed. Countless arguments have ensued over what this word signifies.
Dahlia Lithwick dives into this fascinating linguistic tangle in a Newsweek article, "Jesus vs. Allah -- the fight over God's secular title."
Pop quiz: which of the following names represents a non-sectarian, universal deity? Allah, Dios, Gott, Dieu, Elohim, Gud, or Jesus?
If you answered "none of the above," you are right as a matter of fact but not law. If you answered "Allah," you are right as a matter of law but not fact. And if you answered "Jesus," you might have been trying to filibuster David Hamilton, Barack Obama's first judicial nominee.
Hamilton ruled that prayer in the Indiana House of Representatives shouldn't use Christ's name because it favored a particular religion instead of being nonsectarian.
(For those, like me, who get confused about the difference between secular and sectarian: "secular" means worldly rather spiritual, "sectarian" means relating to a sect. So nonsectarian refers to a generalized religiosity, while secular is non-religious.)
It's hard to see how anyone could disagree with Hamilton's point: that "Jesus" is less universal than "God" or "Allah."
But Hamilton's ruling got him into a lot of trouble with fundamentalist Christians, even though he pointed out that the Arabic word "Allah" is used for "God" in Arabic translations of Jewish and Christian scriptures.
I face sort of a similar problem frequently on this blog. How do I refer to whatever (if anything) lies at the heart of the mystery of existence? "God" often sounds just fine to me.
However, the meaning I have in mind when I use this word is fairly close to how Spinoza and Einstein saw "God" -- as the sum total of the laws of nature, not a personal being who intervenes in the world from time to time.
Given this confusion between the various ways "God" can be used, the "One" is a word that has pluses to it. My favorite Greek philosopher, Plotinus, favored it. Along with "the Good." In his Enneads, he wrote:
But if the One -- name and reality expressed -- was to be taken positively it would be less clear than if we did not give it a name at all... Therefore, when you have said "The Good" do not add anything to it in your mind, for if you add anything, you will make it deficient by whatever you have added.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic, had much the same attitude. He preferred "Godhead" to "God," being a word that points to universality rather particularity.
God has many names in Scripture. But I say that if someone perceives something in God and gives it a name, then that is not God. God is above names and nature. We read of a good man who turned to God in his prayer and wished to give him a name. Then a brother said to him, "Be silent! You are dishonoring God!" There is no name we can devise for God.
For sure, since It seems that nothing is a lot closer to "God" than something.
Existence...what is it? Can't be something that exists within existence. Can't be the creator of stuff that exists. Existence is the root, existent things the branches.
That's why I like "the One" as a description of ultimacy. "Emptiness" is a pretty good word also, notwithstanding its Buddhist connotations. Also, "Wu." These terms are not only nonsectarian, they're also arguably secular. So, about as universal as you can get.
What makes life meaningful? How is it that we can wake up in the morning and feel like jumping out of bed, rather than hiding beneath the covers?
A sense of purpose. Our life seems like it has a direction. We have a reason for being. Goals, intentions, to-do's.
In the "Faith" chapter of his book, On Being Certain, Robert Burton, M.D. (a neurologist) says:
By now it should be apparent that deeply felt purpose and meaning are exactly that -- profound mental sensations. Though the underlying brain mechanisms that create these sensations aren't known, the biggest clue comes from those who've undergone "mystical" moments.
A common thread of such descriptions is the sudden and unexpected appearance of a "flood of pure meaning" or an inexplicable feeling of knowing of what life is about without the awareness of any preceding or triggering thought.
Whether or not it is appropriate to use the word faith to describe a feeling of "now I know why I'm here," or "this must be what it's all about," it is impossible to overlook the shared qualities of the feeling of knowing, a sense of faith, and feelings of purpose and meaning.
All serve as both motivation and reward at the most basic level of thought. All correspond to [William] James's idea of felt knowledge -- mental sensations that feel like knowledge.
(This visceral sense of faith is not to be confused with the cognitive potpourri of conscious but unsubstantiated ideas that become articles of faith, such as beliefs in religion, alien abduction, blueberries as a prevention for Alzheimer's disease, and a six-thousand-year-old universe.)
I love Burton's way of looking at science and religion. And anything else that offers up a sense of meaning in someone's life. Like he said, that sense is like any other sense -- such as sight, hearing, touch.
It's just there. Or, not.
A second line of evidence comes from descriptions of when the feeling isn't present. Though not necessarily aware of when we feel purpose and meaning, we are nearly always aware of the sickening feeling when we don't possess them. This isn't an intellectual misapprehension; it is a gut sense of disorientation and a loss of personal direction.
Scientifically-minded people have a sense of purpose and meaning just as much as religiously-minded people do.
Burton talks about how Richard Dawkins, a noted atheist scientist, is ferociously dedicated to debunking mythologies and irrationality -- such as a denial of how evolution has guided the course of life on Earth.
Dawkins lives for this, just as the Pope lives to serve the cause of Catholicism, or a woman lives to raise her children, or a man lives to become the best at some sport.
So a felt sense of meaning and purpose is the root out of which grow stalks of action and commitment. Scientists do science because it is meaningful to them. Religious people do religion for the same reason.
Different strokes for different folks. Whatever turns you on.
We should force ourselves to distinguish between separate physiological categories of faith -- the basic visceral drive for meaning that has real purpose versus the unsubstantiated cognitive acceptance of an idea. Compassion, empathy, and humility can only arise out of recognizing that our common desires are differently expressed.
Nicely said, Dr. Burton. Both science and religion need to recognize that their common ground is a sense of meaning and purpose.
Fairly frequently a commenter on this blog will argue, "science is a form of religion." That's wrong. He or she says that because scientists are deeply devoted to the pursuit of truth about the physical universe.
But devotion grows from a sense of meaning. It doesn't need religion. People can be devoted to all sorts of non-religious things, such as improving one's golf game.
So religious believers should differentiate between the cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of their faith. Meaning, the feeling they have toward divinity, the meaning they derive from religiosity, is shared by scientists (and everyone else on Earth aside from the deeply clinically depressed).
However, the cognitive side of their faith is something different. These are the concepts that accompany the feelings. "Jesus is the Son of God." Well, you think so. But where is the proof?
I'm not justified in questioning the meaning someone gets from his or her religion. I am justified, though, in questioning their purported facts about the cosmos.
Burton ends his chapter with some good suggestions:
We can strive for objectivity; we cannot reach the shores of dispassionate observation. The problem is that to play according to the rules of scientific method, we must concede the possibility that we cannot know if one day contrary evidence might appear and overthrow a cherished theory.
Faith-based arguments, by invoking irrefutable divine authority that will always be right, do not have to make this concession. This uneven playing field isn't going to go away.
...If science is to carry on a meaningful dialogue with religion, it must work to establish a level playing field where both sides honestly address what we can and cannot know about ourselves and the world around us.
...If possible, both science and religion should try to adopt and stick with the idea of provisional facts. Once all facts become works-in-progress, absolutism would be dethroned. No matter how great the "evidence," the literal interpretation of the Bible or Koran would no longer be the only possibility.
It's Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. Almost everybody is into thankfulness, whether sincere or feigned.
Myself, I'm thankful that I was able to get a HP wireless printer working with my wife's new iMac this afternoon. It was touch and go for a while but I finally figured it out.
My philosophical problem, though, is who or what I should offer my thanks to.
This quandary is common to every exclamation of gratitude, including religious ones such as "Thank you, Jesus" or "Thank you, God." Where the heck do you stop?
I read some reviews of the Photosmart C4780 that pointed me toward the need to download Snow Leopard compatible software from the HP web site. I'm thankful to the people who took the time to share their experience with getting the printer to play nicely with a Mac.
They wouldn't have been able to do this if they hadn't been born.
So I also need to thank their parents. Along with every relative, human, animal, or whatever, along the several billion-year timeline of life's evolution on Earth.
Which wouldn't have been possible if the universe didn't exist, of course. Fourteen billion or so years ago the big bang started everything off. About ten billion years later the Earth formed.
And here we are.
Now, scientifically minded religious believers don't want to stop with thanking the big bang for making everything exist. They assume that God or some other supernatural entity was responsible for the big bang.
(Fundamentalists, of course, don't accept that the big bang and evolution even happened, but that's so crazy I'll ignore them in my thankfulness analysis.)
I get blog comments on this subject fairly frequently. Someone will say, "There had to be something before the big bang, because something can't come from nothing." Well, who says?
The human mind is doing that saying, using human cognition based on human perceptions. Why, though, should we believe that the cosmos operates in accord with the limitations of the human mind?
We're certain about all kinds of things that we shouldn't be. Including who to thank for existence. Such is the central message of Robert Burton's "On Being Certain," a book I like a lot (and blogged about here and here).
Burton is a neurologist. He points out that reason can't be separated from bodily sensations, since "any notion of space -- no matter how abstract -- must be filtered through our bodily perceptions of space. In our mind's eye, emptiness occupies space."
So our notions about the big bang get confused by our perceptual conditioning.
Close your eyes and try envisioning a face. You will see it against some kind of contrasting background, whether it is a neutral color or a vague grayness or blackness. Now try to visualize a perfect vacuum.
Even if I know that a vacuum contains nothing, there is still an "it," a nothingness that must exist within some type of space. My mind serves up a dim empty darkness as it simultaneously tells me that this can't be so. Empty space is a visual non sequitur; there is no visual counterpart of nothingness.
Let's move on to cosmology. Try to visualize the big bang -- a single infinitely dense point that suddenly explodes. To see this object in our mind's eye, we place this dot against some contrasting background.
Most people, when questioned, will offer that they see a dim darkness against which the initial singularity is framed. This problem of borders isn't confined to spatial considerations; time is equally impossible to visualize as either always existing or suddenly beginning.
We see a beginning in contrast to what was present just before the beginning. The cruel irony is that a mind's eye representation of no surrounding space or time occupies some space and suggests a prior time.
To relieve the resulting tensions, we feel compelled to ask a key question shared by science and religion -- what, if anything, was present before the beginning?
However, Burton says, we have no way of knowing whether this question is even meaningful. It could just be a product of our all-too-human way of perceiving things.
So in the end I'm thankful to...mystery.
Because nobody knows what, if anything, is at the end (or beginning) of existence. Our thanks directed toward ultimacy echo into the seeming infinity of time and space, landing nowhere.
Yet maybe also, everywhere.
Whichever or whatever, I'm thankful for being alive and able to ponder the wonder of being able to wonder.
Back in my true believing days, I used to enjoy feeling that what I was doing was an act of service to my guru.
This, of course, is a decidedly Eastern perspective. Western religions don't have living perfect masters, who often are considered to God in human form.
But Christians seem to feel much the same when they perform charitable acts in the name of Jesus. Just as I did, they get enjoyment from acting with the thought that someone they love is being pleased.
Now that I've entered my churchless phase, I don't believe in the value of seva (an Indian word meaning selfless service) as I did before. As noted in a "Morality has nothing to do with religion" post a few years ago, selfless service has many guises.
Speaking of painting posts in our carport, I said:
I knew that my wife was going to like the new look of the carport. So would anyone else who lived in our house (we're planning to live here for many more years, but, hey, you never know what the future will bring). I put more care into my painting than the job really required, because I had a feeling that the work I was doing could easily live on after me.
So I wasn't doing it just for myself and my wife. Back in my devotional days I would have dedicated this seva (service) to my guru, or to God. However, today I simply painted with the same quasi-selfless attitude of "not for me, but for thee." The only difference is that I didn't personalize or particularize "thee."
Today I had the same feeling as I took advantage of a sunny dry late November day (fairly rare here in western Oregon) to mow and edge the lawn.
Now that I'm sixty-one, I've come to realize that one day there won't be another day for me.
Or at least for the things I enjoy doing around our rural non-easy-care house. This sense of finitude makes simple chores a lot more meaningful, god or guru not being required to produce virtually the same seva sensation I enjoyed for decades.
As I guided the mower around our large yard, I thought, "Eventually there will be the last time I do this. I could die suddenly. Or get infirm slowly. Regardless, most likely I won't know which is the last time. So this could be it. Right here, right now. The last grass mowing time."
I visualized having a massive heart attack, collapsing by the mower just after I'd finished. When the ambulance (or hearse) arrives, the driver says, "Hey, that lawn looks pretty damn good."
Of course, the purest motivation for doing something is just to do it. Or even more, to do it without really doing it (wu-wei). I'm not there, for sure, because I still get enjoyment from knowing that what I'm doing will benefit others.
This is natural. People like to help other people. We're social animals, not lone wolves.
Religions, recognizing this, channel charitable impulses for theological purposes. Doing good works for goodness's sake gets redirected into "act in the name of Jesus" (or the guru).
Sounds nice. But what the heck does it mean?
I didn't ponder this much in my super-seva days. Now, I can't understand why someone -- which included me for many years -- would consider that a divine being needed or wanted something done for him/her/it.
My wife likes our house kept neat, clean, and tidy. When I painted the carport posts, I knew that she was going to enjoy their new look. However, I'd be hard pressed to explain why God in heaven or a guru in India cared what the posts looked like (assuming they knew the posts existed).
Religion makes people do strange things. Irrational things. Unnecessary things.
Watching sports on TV, I frequently see "sky pointing" after an athlete has scored a touchdown, hit a home run, or some other noteworthy accomplishment. It rubs me the wrong way.
So God supposedly is responsible for your athletic prowess? God acted through you, giving you some special dispensation that the guy defending you, or pitching to you, lacked?
Where's the humility in that attitude? Where's the sensation of service to your team, or the fans? It's all about you when you point that finger at the sky. It isn't enough to just toss the football to the referee or run around the bases. You've got to make something divinely special out of a simple natural act.
Which, I realize now, is what I did myself during many true believing years. My sky pointing was inside my head, so it wasn't blatantly visible to others -- as the gesture of a football or baseball player is.
But it was there.
And now it isn't. Thank goodness.
Religion isn't all bad.
That was the not-so-surprising consensus at the monthly meeting of the Salon discussion group that my wife and I helped start up here in Salem about seventeen years ago.
The members are almost all godless Prius-driving, expresso-sipping, organic food-eating progressives like us.
Religiosity comes in for regular bashing, but since we're into open-mindedness and diversity, believers are embraced so long as they don't try to press their faith onto others.
Last night a woman talked about how much she liked taking some Christian children out to lunch at a fast food restaurant. She'd just met them. When they all sat down at a table, she noticed that nobody was starting to eat.
"We always say grace first," the oldest child explained. "Fine," our friend said. "Let's do it." The children formed a circle of hand-holding. Then one of them said three simple sincere sentences, thanking God for the food and other stuff I've forgotten.
This story led into a fairly lengthy group discussion of how rituals can be comforting and create a sense of community. However, nobody wanted to join a church just for ritualizing.
So the question became, "What sorts of rituals suit people who don't believe in God?"
A man talked about he used to live in a small Colorado town where residents had a wide variety of belief systems: Zen Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Native American, Scientology, even SETI.
He and his wife would have dozens of diverse believers over for Thanksgiving dinner. Seated at a long homemade table, everyone would hold hands just as the children did.
But a period of silence would ensue, not words, so each person could do whatever inside their head. Including nothing, which is usually what I do during a moment of silence.
The discussion group members agreed that we humans need some rituals in our lives. Laurel, my wife, talked about how she's gotten into the habit of pausing before eating and taking several deep breaths with her eyes closed. This brings her into the culinary moment.
I said I'd just read in some book that a purpose of Zen'ish rituals, like the Japanese tea ceremony, is similar: to focus attention on the marvelous quality of what is present before us right now, right here.
It doesn't matter so much what that what is, I added, so long as the "ritual" (if that's even an appropriate word to use in this context) helps us appreciate the wonder of everyday existence.
At quality coffee houses they make my nonfat vanilla latte with this sort of flair. In a ceramic cup, a swirl of expresso on top of the foam, just so. I always look at it appreciatively before I take my first sip.
"This," I think, "is life as it's meant to be lived."
Which, I told the group, most likely is the only life we'll ever live, an afterlife being a decidedly chancy proposition. So each and every moment is almost (or precisely) infinitely precious.
Rituals that point us toward a transcendent imaginary divinity aren't as wonder-producing as godless rituals focused on the really real here-and-now, I said.
When attention is divided between this moment and a hypothesized heavenly better moment to come, which is the context of almost all religious rituals, we tend to lose sight of how marvelously special life is -- in all of its finitude.
If anyone wants to share their own favorite non-religious ritual, comment away. I'm always interested in hearing how the churchless worship without dogma, hierarchy, or blind belief.
You'd think that an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and/or omnibenevolent being would leave some evident trace, given all this omni'ness.
Yet God, whether considered from an impersonal Eastern perspective or a personal Western viewpoint, has left no demonstrable signs of his/her/it's existence.
A theologian would answer, "It isn't possible to know the mind of God, or comprehend the essence of divinity." Well, OK.
But if this is the case, let's do away with religions, mystic paths, spiritual philosophies, and the like, and simply admit that if God is real, this is a mysterious ultimate reality never to be known.
Since true believers won't go for this, I won't accept no answer to Why? Yet I haven't come across a convincing one in my sixty-one years.
The India-based meditation system I belonged to for a long time, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, taught that the ruler of the lower realms of creation, including the physical universe ("Kal") got his job by standing on one leg for countless eons, demonstrating to
God ("Akal") that he had the right stuff to be a ruler.
Part of the deal with God involved a promise from the Big Guy Upstairs that god-realized gurus couldn't perform miracles to attract disciples who, after being initiated, would be able to learn how to leave Kal's domain and return to God, thereby depleting Kal of some souls.
(Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. I never bought into this particular bit of theology, though. Plus, it really isn't any crazier than the notion that God sent his only Son to die on the cross and absolve the sins of humanity.)
Other religions come up with equally unbelievable explanations for why God hasn't left any supernatural traces in the natural world, don't even attempt an answer to the "Why no trace?" question, or consider that God did leave evidence of a divine presence in the past, as related in scripture.
Carl Sagan addresses this issue in his book, "The Varieties of Scientific Experience."
You have to ask, "What is the evidence?" And it's insufficient to say, "Well, there is this extremely charismatic person who said that he had a conversion experience." Not enough.
There are lots of charismatic people who have all sorts of mutually exclusive conversion experiences. They can't all be right. Some of them have to be wrong. Many of them have to be wrong. It's even possible that all of them are wrong. We cannot depend entirely on what people say. We have to look at what the evidence is.
And that's lacking. Sagan notes that people will say, "God is love, and I feel this love, so I know God exists."
Well, atheists feel love also. So do adherents of every religion, many of which have extremely different conceptions of God -- Hindus vs. Christians, for example.
Sagan wonders, as have I, why God hasn't left some indisputable sign of divinity lying around the creation for us to marvel at. Why no giant cross orbiting the Earth? Or an immense Islamic crescent on the moon if Allah is the real deal?
Then there's the puzzling reality that none of the supposed prophets of God or God-realized sages have told humanity any hitherto unknown fact about the physical universe.
If these people are in touch with a supernatural consciousness, why don't they know something no one else does? Carl Sagan says:
Imagine that there is a set of holy books in all cultures in which there are a few enigmatic phrases that God of the gods tell our ancestors are to be passed on to the future with no change.
Very important to get it exactly right. Now, so far that's not very different from the actual circumstances of alleged holy books. But suppose that the phrases in question were phrases that we would recognize today that could not have been recognized then.
The Sun is a star. Now, nobody knew that, let's say, in the sixth century B.C., when the Jews were in the Babylonian exile and picked up the Babylonian cosmology from the principal astronomers of the time. Ancient Babylonian science is the cosmology that is still enshrined in the book of Genesis.
Suppose instead the story was "Don't forget, the Sun is a star." Or "Don't forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. Mars, you know, that red star. That's a world. It has volcanoes, it's rusty, there are clouds, there used to be rivers. There aren't anymore. You'll understand this later. Trust me. Right now, don't forget."
This never happened, though. Sages, prophets, mystics, gurus -- all of them have known no more about the universe than the scientists of their time (and usually a lot less).
Thus God not only doesn't leave traces of divinity in the physical creation, God also doesn't leave any demonstrable evidence of divine knowledge in the minds of those who supposedly have come in contact with him/her/it.
Einstein showed that we live in spacetime, a continuum comprised of the familiar three dimensions of space and the much more mysterious dimension of time.
Nobody knows what time is really all about. Not scientists, not philosophers, not mystics. And certainly not theologians.
We have a sense of it passing. But the theory of relativity proves that this sense differs for people in different circumstances.
Two events, simultaneous for some observer, may not be simultaneous for another observer if the observers are in relative motion. Moving clocks are measured to tick more slowly than an observer's "stationary" clock.
Astronomers look up into the sky and observe stars in distant galaxies. Their vision is of a natural time machine, because the light from those stars can take from minutes (our Sun) to billions of years (the edge of the universe) to reach us.
So they are looking back in time. It takes about eight and a half minutes for light to reach Earth from the sun. Thus if the Sun disappeared, it would be take that long before we knew about it.
What has already happened at one place in space hasn't yet occurred at another place. Scientists say "a supernovae just took place in galaxy X." But that could have been billions of years ago.
Now is relative. The "power of now" is a popular notion (and a best-selling book). However, there's more to time -- and reality -- than our now.
All those galaxies millions and billions of light years away have their own nows, as do all of the inanimate and (likely) animate entities elsewhere in the universe. We can grasp this intellectually, with difficulty, but it's very difficult to actually experience time markedly differently than we do now.
Sure, time slows down and speeds up for us -- a subject that has been of more than a little interest for me as I grow older and a week rushes by in just a few days.
I've learned some tips to make life seem to last longer. However, seemingly the best thing would be to view time in a completely fresh fashion. After all, most -- if not all -- of our problems arise because of time.
No time (as we know it), no arising. Or setting.
I'm clueless about what would replace our normal sense of time. But I've been reading a book, "The Tao of Meditation," that has given me a new perspective on what enlightenment might be all about.
A different view of time, the fourth dimension.
Man is the ruler in three dimensions, but he is the pawn of time. He has no control over it and no ordinary means of comprehending it as a dimension. Man is born and dies in time, and in between he only perceives the now-present, now-present, now-present of it.
When he is twenty he can't see himself at sixty. When he is sixty, the young man of twenty is gone. He admonishes, "Know thyself," and forgets himself from minute to minute, unable to see the ends of his words or actions, or the beginning of the chain in which he is linked.
Appealingly, the book doesn't offer up much of an explanation of what a more enlightened perspective would be like.
What would be the fourth dimensional view of time? We can't talk about that because we have no way of knowing about it. It is beyond all three dimensional knowledge; it is a part of the Tao. Whatever we might say would be pure superstition or fiction.
The purpose of T'ai Chi Chuan is to seek stillness in motion. The aim of meditation is to seek action in inaction. This is experienced from the sense of their opposites within motion and within tranquility.
It is possible with patience and persistence to feel, as if intuitively, very subtly, very delicately, the nature of time. By following this feeling we may move close enough to the border of the fourth dimensional world to get a glimpse of that reality. This is the first stage of enlightenment.
Well, as I so often say: maybe.
What I like about this notion of enlightenment is that it doesn't involve any supernatural journeying -- no soul traveling, no grand mystic ascent, no exploring of any spatial realm other than where we are right now.
Perhaps it's time that is the dimension to be more fully understood, not so much space, whether physical or metaphysical.
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest ... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
His misunderstanding of Plotinus, a Neoplatonist Greek philosopher, is especially irritating to me. I wrote a book about Plotinus, "Return to the One." I spent several years reading just about every book in English that describes and analyzes Plotinus' teachings.
So when I saw how Ken Wilber mangled Plotinus in an attempt to demonstrate that Plotinus' outlook is on the same page as Wilber's nondual perspective, I was filled with righteous philosophical indignation.
Which made me eager to write an expose of "What Wilber Gets Wrong About Plotinus."
Frank Visser asked me if he could post this piece on his Integral World web site. Naturally I said sure. (It also is included in a recently published book of Wilberian essays, "Spheres of Awareness.")
I re-read my piece yesterday. It's pretty damn good, if I say so myself (and why shouldn't I?). I was impressed with how much I knew about Plotinus and Wilber when I wrote it, since my ponderings since have drifted in other directions.
Ken Wilber gets nailed to a non-scholarly wall by his failure to go beyond a superficial reading of Plotinus. This is typical Wilber behavior.
In an effort to cram all of human knowledge into his Integral framework, a lot of distortions have to be made so that everything fits together into, well, a Theory of Everything.
Wilber is notoriously touchy about criticism. This helps explain why his writings haven't gotten much attention in academia, where "just trust me" doesn't fly with skeptical scholars.
Instead, Ken Wilber mostly preaches to the choir of his faithful followers through the EnlightenNext magazine and countless seminars, workshops, and such. I've got no problem with this. Wilber has some interesting things to say.
But his sayings shouldn't distort facts. Plotinus is one of Wilber's key Western philosophical mainstays who offers some balance to the generally Eastern/Buddhist thrust of the Integral viewpoint.
If you read those Wikipedia articles, it's hard to tell the difference between monism and non-dualism. My essay, though, shows that Wilber's description of non-dualism is markedly different from Plotinus' One.
Download Wilber and Plotinus article2
As I say at the end of it, obviously I don't know what ultimate reality is like. Nobody does, Ken Wilber included. All we can do is look at evidence and come to the best conclusions we can.
I've got a strong scientific bent. It seems to me that understanding the observable universe is the best first step (and maybe the last step) toward grasping unseen mysteries.
In Carl Sagan's "The Varieties of Scientific Experience" he writes:
Contrast this [anthropomorphic view] with a quite different version of God, one proposed by Baruch Spinoza and by Albert Einstein. And this second kind of god they called God in a very straightforward way. Einstein was constantly interpreting the world in terms of what God would or wouldn't do.
But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God.
And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe.
Laws of nature, as I have said earlier, that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow, Peking, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quasars known.
That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. It need not have been. It could have been that every province of the cosmos had its own laws of nature.
So it's reasonable to look upon the laws of nature as "God." Many of these laws can be formulated in mathematical terms. And most mathematicians are Platonists of one variety or another -- as is Plotinus.
Here's how I put it in my essay:
Shimon Malin, a physicist, has written about the relationship between science and Plotinus's teachings in his book, "Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective." Malin says:
For Plotinus, the sensible world is a mere reflection of the noumenal; for science, the sensible is the real thing, the only reality there is. The world of science is the world as given by the senses. Oddly, however, the Nous [Intellect] is not entirely absent from it. The Nous did lose its life, but not its presence. The idea that the sensible world is sustained and directed by an invisible substratum is the fundamental premise of science. This invisible substratum is called “the laws of nature.”
...So if I had to place a bet on which conception is closer to the truth, Wilber's non-duality or Plotinus's hierarchy of being (soul, spirit, and source—the One), I'd put my philosophical money on Plotinus. For the existence of the well-structured and seemingly unchanging laws of nature argues against Wilber's holonic, shape-shifting belief that the One is the Many.
There seem to be levels of being in the cosmos, some more real, permanent, and substantial than others. At the least, there are (1) laws of nature and (2) what is governed by those laws. Plotinus goes further and says that those laws are transmitted by soul from a transcendental Intellect that gets its power and wisdom from a even higher reality—the One.
As Wilber says, Plotinus's vision is coherent and compelling. I only wish that Wilber had presented that vision more accurately in "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality." Plotinus deserves better.
When I ponder what line spoken by a character in a movie has inspired me the most, here's my answer (share yours in a comment, if you like).
Jodie Foster, playing Ellie Arroway, a scientist searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence, in Contact -- a movie based on Carl Sagan's novel.
Strapped into a machine whose construction was made possible by technical drawings contained in mysterious messages from the Vega star system, not knowing what the machine does or if she'll be killed when it is activated, enduring violent shaking as The Machine is first turned on, Ellie tells mission control...
I''m okay to go! I'm okay to go! I'm okay to go!
That's the courage of scientific inquiry. Also, of spiritual seeking, mystical meditating, and full-bodied living of every variety.
Being okay to go. To follow one's passion wherever it takes you.
Throwing caution to the winds when a stronger force -- truth, love, exploration, artistry, creativity, whatever -- courses through your consciousness and whispers "this way...this way."
Carl Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, wrote an introduction to "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," a book that describes Sagan's personal view of the search for God.
He believed that the little we do know about nature suggests that we know even less about God...he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe.
HIs argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Science's permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe that it revealed.
The methodology of science, with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.
I've just started to read this book. Today I couldn't resist jumping ahead to a final chapter which has some after-talk Q & A's between Sagan and members of the audience.
In these spontaneous interchanges, I got a feel for how strongly Sagan sought the truth in whatever form it might appear. He was eminently "okay to go."
But only if there was some chance of finding truth in a particular direction. He wasn't big on wild goose chases, forays into Beliefland that weren't based on some demonstrable evidence of a hitherto unknown reality.
One questioner tried to get Sagan to admit that the pursuit of psychic phenomena was worthwhile, even if someone hadn't experienced such, just as it is possible to know that it is possible to play the piano without currently knowing how.
I like Sagan's response.
But I can require, at least, before I start practicing the piano that I see that a piano exists, that I see someone sit down at the piano, move his or her fingers, and produce music.
That then convinces me that there is such a thing as a piano, there is such a thing as music, and it is not hopelessly beyond the ability of humans to produce music from a piano.
But when I ask for something comparable in the psychic world, I am never shown it. I never have someone come up and produce an -- I don't know -- a twenty foot-high psychic dragon. Or have someone come and write down on the blackboard the demonstration of Fermat's last theorem.
There simply is never anything that you can get your teeth into. You understand why I feel a little frustrated about this?
Oh, yes. I do.
I've been meditating every day for forty years. I've been okay to go wherever and whenever a metaphysical reality beckons.
So far I haven't come across any convincing evidence of it. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Just that, as Sagan said, those wanting to chomp on truth aren't able to find it at the table of psychic phenomena.
Ann Druyan said:
And in all things, even when it came to facing his own cruel fate -- he succumbed to pneumonia on December 20, 1996 after enduring three bone-marrow transplants -- Carl didn't want just to believe.
He wanted to know.
Don't like facts? Hate science? There's a handy four-step guide to generating your very own scientific controversy. I think some religiously-minded commenters on this blog already know #3.
When people point out that the facts don’t back up your claim, ignore them. As those people get angry and shouty at you, smugly say, “They’re persecuting me! They’re so closed-minded that they won’t let anyone ask questions!” Bonus points for saying that science is now a religion.
The natural world doesn't come with names attached.
Look up at the full moon. Do you see a label on it, "moon"? (Leaving aside the question of what language that word would be written in.)
Both religion and science make the mistake of confusing human thoughts about what is real with reality itself. Religions make the most egregious errors, of course, since they intellectualize about entities -- God, heaven, angels, and such -- that can't be shown to even exist.
Scientists, though, can also forget that nature is flowingly continuous, not discretely categorized.
This morning I read the "Missing Persons? Missing No Longer" chapter in Richard Dawkins' marvelous book about why evolution is true, The Greatest Show on Earth. It contains lessons for both the churchless and churched.
Namely, that when we divide things into categories (such as good/bad) we shouldn't forget that the divisions fade away the closer we look at details.
We humans are members of the species Homo sapiens. "Homo" is a genus; "sapiens" a species within the genus. Neanderthals, says Dawkins, sometimes are called Homo neanderthalsis (a different species within the genus "Homo") and sometimes Homo sapiens neanderthalsis (a subspecies of us).
Whatever, Neanderthals are what they are -- or were: part of a continuous process of evolution where small, barely noticeable changes accumulate over time. Dawkins says:
I wish we really did have a complete and unbroken trail of fossils, a cinematic record of all evolutionary change as it happened. I wish it, not least because I'd love to see the egg all over the faces of those zoologists and anthropologists who engage in lifelong feuds with each other over whether such and such a fossil belongs to this species or that, this genus or that. Gentlemen -- I wonder why it never seems to be ladies -- you are arguing about words, not reality.
The reason is that if we could see each of our ancestors, if I could follow my family tree far back into prehistory and beyond, there never would be a time when I could point to a particular animal (yes, we humans are animals) and confidently categorize it as the first member of a certain species.
As we trace the history of modern Homo sapiens backwards, there must come a time when the difference from living people is sufficiently great to deserve a specific name, say Homo ergaster. Yet, every step of the way, individuals were presumably sufficiently similar to their parents and their children to be placed in the same species.
Beautiful! A scientific koan: how can things that are always the same be so different?
Think about the first specimen of Homo habilis to be born. Her parents were Australopithecus. She belonged to a different genus from her parents? That's just dopey! Yes, it certainly is. But it is not reality that's at fault, it's our human insistence on shoving everything into a named category.
In reality, there was no first specimen of any species or any genus or any order of any class or any phylum. Every creature that has ever been born would have been classified -- had there been a zoologist around to do the classifying -- as belonging to exactly the same species as its parents and its children.
Yet, with the hindsight of modernity, and with the benefits -- yes, in this one paradoxical sense benefit -- of the fact that most of the links are missing, classifications into distinct species, genera, families, orders, classes and phyla becomes possible.
Interesting. Think about it.
Dawkins is reminding us that if we could see the entire course of evolution, every detail, it would be impossible to cleanly divide the history of life on Earth into familiar categories. Plants and animals. Reptiles and mammals. People and apes. Whatever.
Because we'd realize that there never were any clear distinctions between any entities lying next to each other on an evolutionary path.
Run the movie of evolution backward along any series of branches on the tree of life and you'd be watching slow, silky-smooth transitions, not rapid, jerky poppings into existence. No Hey, look! I just saw a giraffe!
I found this chapter of Dawkins' book inspiring. And moving. I love to ponder my connections with everything alive. He says:
Relatively recently, perhaps less than 100,000 years ago, roving bands of Homo sapiens looking pretty much like us left Africa and diversified into all the races that we see around the world today: Inuit, native Americans, native Australians, Chinese, and so on.
Yet we forget that we're related to every human on Earth, and indeed every creature -- bacteria included -- living today. There are no genuine divisions in nature, only in our categorizing minds.
In your posts, you often make mention of having felt special when you were in RS mode, and how you now feel relieved to have shed this sense of being special. It isn’t clear to me what was your basis for this feeling of being special.
The way I understand it, Sant Mat teachings and practice inculcate in the initiate an ever broadening and expanding perspective of all-that-there-is, while proportionately diminishing the relative significance of the self in this grand cosmos.
I do recall feeling special in the three months prior to initiation, but a few sessions in meditation after initiation quickly knocked any sense of special-ness out of me.
Maybe that has been my failing as a satsangi, that I was unable to sustain that attitude of being special. Or maybe the lack of special-ness is what keeps me in Sant Mat, because I can imagine that it would be an uncomfortable burden to carry year after year.
Perhaps you can remind me what there is to feel so special about as a satsangi? Sometimes it would be nice to feel a little bit special, just as a break from the sense of being nothing.
I was surprised that this person didn't understand why RSSB initiates are made to feel so special. The reasons are evident in the voluminous Radha Soami Satsang Beas literature, which I'm well acquainted with.
Here's some of the central specialness reasons that come to mind. I'm sure there are more.
(1) God's favored 1/10th. Supposedly God decided to populate his physical creation long ago, so souls had to leave the spiritual realm. Nine-tenths of them were eager to go -- yay! something new to do! -- while one-tenth were deeply reluctant to leave God. Those souls now get to go Home to heaven.
(2) RSSB initiates have been "marked" by God. The only way one of the lucky 10% can return to God is by being initiated by a perfect living guru, who is considered in Sant Mat to be God in human form.
The RSSB guru only initiates marked souls -- those who are destined to take the journey from materiality back to the highest spiritual region. How the guru recognizes his "sheep" is mysterious, but there are videos of him doing it. Nodding his head in one direction if an initiation applicant is marked, nodding in the other direction if the poor soul is unmarked and thus rejected.
(3) Sant Mat is the only way to know God. So if you're one of the unfortunate 90% of souls who aren't part of God's chosen people, what to do? Is there another way other than being initiated by a perfect living guru to return to God? Sorry, says Radha Soami Satsang Beas, there isn't. You're out of luck.
God has decreed that "no one comes to the Father but through me," and me means a guru who is God in human form. You can do all the meditation you want, and be a marvelously loving person, but unless you're initiated by a perfect guru, no god-realization for you.
So this is why RSSB books and speakers frequently emphasize how special members of the organization are. Numbering only a few million, at most, these are the only people on Earth who possess a ticket back to God. Everybody else is doomed to wander in delusion, apparently for eternity -- since the marking of souls only happened once.
Of course, I don't believe this any more. Which is refreshing.
As I've noted before, it's a burden to feel so special. For one thing, it divides you from other people, such as my wife -- who, because she wasn't a RSSB initiate, was looked upon with more than a little pity by many of the "chosen people."
(Other religions, such as Judaism, naturally would disagree with Sant Mat's conclusion about who is God's favorite, and who isn't.)
People are fond of saying to someone they disagree with, "get real!" It's a put down to be told that you're living an illusion.
So when Eastern religions tell us that this physical existence is maya, not really real reality, it's natural to feel concerned.
Even though life seems pleasant enough most of the time, what if I'm living a dream and a much better state -- nirvana, satori, enlightenment, god-realization, buddha nature -- awaits beyond my current consciousness horizon?
Not to worry, says Alan Watts in "Become What You Are," a book that belies its title because Watts tells us that it's impossible to be anything other that what we are. I quoted this passage in a previous blog post.
The idea of God is a finger pointing the way to Reality, but when people try to join God and Reality, to identify the one with the other, to find the former in the latter, they are trying to join together two things that were never in need of being joined. This is like trying to make the eyes see themselves.
I flipped through "Become What You Are" this morning and found some references to a subject that both interests and confuses me: nonduality.
Writings on nonduality seem to imply, or even flat out state, that our ordinary perceptions of reality are off-base -- that the cosmos actually is much more of a oneness than a manyness, so if we see duality we aren't seeing truly.
Watts has a refreshing perspective on nonduality which I sum up as maya is illusion. After all, what's more dualistic than dividing reality into what seems to be, and what really is?
But one of the principal mistakes of Western interpretations of Asian thought is to equate Brahman with the infinite and the realization of one's identity with Brahman as a change from finite to infinite consciousness.
...But Brahman or Reality is beyond opposites, being that what does not require distinction for its existence. For Brahman is all things, this world we see around us, together with our consciousness and the thoughts in our minds and the feelings in our hearts.
To see Brahman we have just to look with our eyes, for Brahman is nothing other than what we are beholding at the moment.
For a long time I've wondered what the difference is between a enlightened being and someone unenlightened, if our ordinary vision already is beholding reality in all its glory. Watts, as he so often does, anticipates my question and addresses it.
In view of this it will also be asked what is the difference between a sage and an ordinary ignorant man. We are accustomed to believe that a sage or mystic is one who beholds God or Brahman in all things; but if Brahman is all things, surely an ordinary man in seeing them is doing no less than the sage?
This is perfectly true, but the difference between the sage and the ordinary man is that the latter fails to realize it.
...But [for the sage] this certainly does not mean that in place of himself, other people, houses, stars, hills, and trees he sees a formless all-pervasive and infinite luminosity, which seems to be some people's idea of the Divine Reality.
If such a state of consciousness were possible, it would still be dualistic, involving an utter difference between Reality and the ordinary world. It should rather be said that he feels Brahman, the force of the universe, at work in everything he does, thinks, and feels, and this gives a powerful and liberating impulse to his spirit.
In other words, wisdom is realizing that spiritually there is nothing to seek; mystically, there is nothing hidden. What we see is what there is. Illusion is the belief that this world, this moment, this state of consciousness is illusory.
That's good news. Even more: great news!
To Christians, the good news of the Bible is that we're saved through Jesus. To Watts, the good news of a proper understanding of Eastern philosophy is that there's nothing to be saved from.
But you are free to abandon yourself to actual life and to know that living in God is another name for this abandonment, for watching the snow and walking down the street.
...You say you do not feel this abandonment right now. What do you expect to feel? It is not a feeling; it is feeling. It is not a thought; it is thinking. If it were a particular thought or feeling there could be coming into it and going out of it; but God is One and all-inclusive, and here there can be neither coming nor going, inside or outside.
...It is your real self, that has no hiding-place. Destroy the universe and it remains. No, you can't feel it -- but then how can you know anything about it at all. Because you can use it and feel its use, just as "the wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof but canst not tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth."
I started to practice yoga and meditation when I was 20 years old. Forty-one years later, I'm still at it: trying to find the real me and the truth at the heart of the cosmos.
Along the way, in 1990, I married a woman who has taught me as much, or more, about reality than meditation has.
Laurel is a psychotherapist (now retired). She helped me understand that attempting to transcend this world is crazy if you haven't first come to grips with yourself and how you relate to other people.
This is a central theme of John Welwood's essay, "Double Vision: Duality and Nonduality in Human Experience."
The tag line of Welwood's web site is Integrating Western Psychology & Eastern Spiritual Wisdom. A worthy goal.
During the decades I was an active member of a mystical/spiritual organization headquartered in India, I met many people who fell into a general diagnostic category of Seriously Screwed Up.
Like me, they'd spent countless hours on their meditation cushion. Yet all of this gazing inward hadn't made them either comfortable with themselves or capable of having warm, open, egalitarian relationships with other people.
Welwood does a good job of analyzing how a single-minded focus on transcending this world so Oneness can be revealed is more than a little contradictory.
On the human plane, our lives evolve and unfold through the relative play of duality — otherwise known as relationship. Indeed the central, defining feature of the human realm is relationship— the network of interactions with others that supports our life from the cradle to the grave. Relationship only happens when there are two— who engage in a dance that continually moves back and forth between twoness and oneness.
In this way, the human realm serves as a bridge linking samsara— the experience of separateness— and nirvana— nonseparateness. This is why being human is a living paradox, and also a field in which a vast range of feeling— from unbearable sorrow to unthinkable joy— is possible.
However, there is a one-sided perspective circulating in the contemporary spiritual scene that uses the absolute truth of nonduality to disparage or belittle the relative play of duality in human experience. This perspective casts nonduality in a primarily transcendental light, regarding only absolute truth— the nonexistence of separate entities— as real, while seeing phenomenal existence — the play of duality— as unreal, illusion, untruth.
...In the name of nonduality, it creates its own form of dualism by setting up a divide between absolute truth and relative human experience.
This pretty much sums up Welwood's message, but he's got a lot more to say in the essay's twenty-one pages.
I don't claim to understand what nonduality is all about, though I hear the word used a lot.
I'm baffled by what an experience of nonduality would be like. Duality I get: it's the world of separate stuff that I know now. Oneness I sort of get, though I don't see how it'd be possible to be conscious of One, because then there would be two: One and an awareness of it.
Welwood doesn't do much to help me grasp what nonduality is, but I liked his warning about over-emphasizing it.
Nondual teachings that mainly emphasize the illusory quality of human experience can, unfortunately, serve as just another dehumanizing force in a world where our basic humanity is already under siege at every turn.
What is needed in these difficult times instead is a liberation spirituality that helps people recognize nondual presence as a basis for fully inhabiting their humanity, rather than as a rationale for disengaging from it. We need a spiritual vision that values and includes the central playing-field where our humanity expresses itself— relationship.
"Oneness" or "nonduality" are concepts. The reality in which we live and breathe is dual. There's us, and there are others. Other things, other people, other living beings.
When we recognize and accept these differences, that's wisdom. And, truth. Whatever we're experiencing, that's what's true for us. Our notions about some transcendent ultimate reality -- God, nirvana, enlightenment, heaven -- are just that: notions.
This kind of perspective avoids two major pitfalls on the spiritual path — spiritual bypassing and the spiritual superego — which are ways of imposing on oneself a higher spiritual perspective that lies far beyond one's actual state, thus creating further inner division.
When people try to bypass, or prematurely transcend, their current psychological condition by trying to live up to some noble spiritual ideal, this does violence to where they are. And it strengthens the spiritual superego, the inner voice that tells them they should be something other than they are, thereby reinforcing their disconnection from themselves.
I've always felt that for a man, being married is the surest and fastest route to losing his ego, because once the honeymoon is over it doesn't take long for him to realize that from this point forward, he must submit to a higher power. (One example among many: I hadn't realized that I'd been hanging up towels the wrong way, but Laurel has enlightened me.)
So I enjoyed this section of Welwood's piece.
Swami Prajnanpad recognized the significance of this discrepancy between people's spiritual practice and their ability to embody it in their relationships, often telling students who wanted to study with him to "bring a certificate from your wife."
He saw marriage as a particularly powerful litmus test of one's development, because in it one is "fully exposed...All one's peculiarities, all of one's so-called weaknesses are there in their naked form. This is why it is the testing ground." In solitary spiritual practice, the spiritual aspirant "may accomplish perfection and feel: 'Oh! I am at ease, oh, I can feel oneness.' "
But in marriage, "everything gets confounded." Yogis discover that their so-called realization "was only on the superficial level. It had not percolated deep within. It simply appeared to have gone deep. Unless you are tested on the ground where you are fully exposed, all those outward achievements are false. This is the point, and you have to grasp this completely."
"This Is It." My wife and I saw the movie last night. Marvelous. Michael Jackson as never known before.
I mean, I knew he was a supremely talented dancer and singer.
But as a person... I threw him into my weird tortured artist category. Watching him in real life as he rehearsed his "This Is It" show reveals a Michael Jackson who comes off first and foremost as a supremely nice guy.
Courteous, soft-spoken, gentle, harmonious, humorous, balanced.
That's my take on the movie. Then there's This Is It, the philosophy. Which is reflected throughout the film. Jackson and the other people in the film obviously are into It full bore.
At the beginning of the movie, one of the male dancers chosen for the production talked about how Michael Jackson had been a lifelong role model, how he dreamed of meeting up with him one day. And now, he had.
"This is it," he said.
Religions would have us believe otherwise. This world, this moment, this here-and-now, supposedly is an illusion (Eastern view) or a way stop before the final destination of heaven/hell (Western view).
But if we're always looking to be some place other than where we are, how are we ever going to feel at home? If we're continually seeking different food from what is right in front of us, won't we always be hungry?
Before we left for the movie theater I went on an early November Oregon dog walk around a nearby lake.
I hadn't seen "This Is It" yet. But all the way around the lake I kept feeling, this is it. There's nothing more wonderful than this. I'm rooted in reality, right here, right now.
It's said a lot, wordlessly, even when no one was around to get the message.
Seeing it silhouetted against the darkening sky, I felt like I heard the tree.
"This is it" sounds the same, no matter who speaks it. Silently or in words.
There's the sun. And there is us.
Aren't we beautiful together? We obscure some of the sunset. The sunset illuminates us.
We're partners in reality. Background and foreground. Near and far. Energy and matter. Light and dark.
I guess you could say one was more real.
Sometimes our saying doesn't have much to do with reality, though sometimes it does.
But this fallen leaf seemed just fine with how things are.
It was just a speck in the big lake picture. Yet it had a great view of the water.
One day it's going to fade from me also.
At that moment, that seemed OK.
Fading, I mean.
There's a beauty to brightness. But sunsets are appealing as well.
Of course, I was already there.
It's a burden to believe that you're special.
Especially when it isn't true. Feeling special places you in a starring role. You're at the center of a script that has a marvelous ending -- with you at center stage taking bows.
Religions appeal to people because dogma leads them to feel special.
God has a plan, for you. Enlightenment is going to happen, for you. The heavens and earth were created, for you. A guru will appear, for you. Jesus died on the cross, for you.
Christianity likes to speak of the "good news."
The Christian message of good news is described in the Bible. It relates to the saving acts of God, centred upon the person of Jesus and his substitutionary death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Its context is the storyline of the Christian Bible as a whole, which tells of the creation of humanity, humanity's rebellion against God, and how people from all nations are restored to relationship with God through the person of Jesus. A key theme of the Christian good news is that God offers a new life and forgiveness through Jesus.
This reminds me of a sleazy con artist who preys on gullible homeowners by knocking on their door, telling them he can see their roof is in terrible shape, and if they don't hire him to do the repairs right away terrible things are going to happen the next time it rains hard.
Except, the roof is fine.
Similarly, religions tell people that their soul is endangered by sin, maya, karma, or whatever, and if they don't sign up for some salvation, they're heading for a lousy afterlife (and presentlife).
Except, where's the evidence that any salvation is needed? Yes, every human being has problems. Life isn't perfect.
But those imperfections are hugely magnified when we perceive them as unjust, unwarranted, or unnecessary because we are meant for much better: heaven, eternal life, satori, enlightenment, sitting at the right hand of God.
Those are nice stories that contain a lot of good news. However, stories aren't reality. Fiction isn't factual.
Here's the real overarching story. It doesn't put us human beings at the center of the tale. I much prefer it to the religious fables, though. Because it is true, to the best of science's current knowledge (which is pretty darn persuasive).
Looking at our place in the cosmos from this vast perspective, it's difficult for this human to feel special. And that makes me happy. I experienced enough sensations of specialness during my thirty-five years of religiosity.
Now, it's relaxing to simply be part of a universe that is vastly beyond my, or anybody else's, comprehension.
Earth orbits the Sun, which is one of 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. There are an estimated 100 billion to 200 billion galaxies in the universe, each with an average of hundreds of billions of stars.
If this isn't mind-blowing enough, the multiverse notion is gaining increasing credibility among scientists. It posits that our universe may be only one of countless universes in an essentially infinite physical reality.
Yet earthly religions tell us things like, "You're special. God created the cosmos for the benefit of people. The divine plan is for human souls to return to divinity." Yeah, right. All the evidence points to us being a infinitesimal speck of the cosmos, with no specialness attached to Homo sapiens.
I've become comfortable with this seeming fact. If we're so special, why did God take 14 billion years to get around to us? If we're so special, why did God create such an unimaginably vast universe, almost all of which has nothing to do with us?
Life is what it is. Why pretend that it is something else? We are born; we live; we die. Just like stars do. Just like galaxies do. Just like the entire universe may do. We aren't special.
Recognizing this, we can feel ourselves as part and parcel of the cosmos. And that sensation of non-specialness is pretty damn special.