Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alan Watts and late night theology.

(after the blindingly boring indulgence in self-pity that was my previous post, we now return you to to your regularly scheduled program).

Listening to Alan Watts is often a humbling experience. On the one hand, he is a consummate raconteur, a "spiritual entertainer" as he often styled himself, with big ideas and a compelling delivery. He is one of the people I'd like to emulate in my life, and, aside from the bit about being an alcoholic (which I'd also say I understand in some ways), I'd say he's one of my heroes.

Now the other way that listening to Alan Watts is humbling is what happens when I try to explain what I heard to my wife.

"So he says that since you can't really love God, because you're only doing it because you want something or because you're afraid, you have to eventually get to the point where you realize that you CAN'T love God, and only the part of you that is from God can love God, the part of you that *is* God." I'm sitting on the edge of the tub while she brushes her teeth after a long days work.

"Wait," she say, after spitting. "I don't agree with that at all."

I'm taken aback. Disagree? With my beloved Alan Watts? What could she mean? And so I ask.

"I love God," she says. "I remember people telling me how great He was and how much He loved us and all the great things He did for us, and even though I didn't really know what God was, I knew I loved him. Her. It. Whatever."

That made me stop. Now, of course Alan was going on his Zen/Gurdjieff/Rascally Guru trip, which is totally his thing. He loves the idea of "the fool that persists in his folly becomes wise" and going so far into the idea of separation that you realize that your separation is unworkable and that you are one with all things, etc. And it's a good path. It works very well for the skeptical, the cynical, the intellectual. But Love is a mystic's path too, and while the intellectual may scorn it, there is a case to be made that it is the real path of Christianity, tempered as it is with a certain rigor that the sarcastic, aphorism spouting Jesus brings to the process that keeps it from descending into maudlin sentimentality.

And I think that's the thing that Watts misses. He brings a nice balance to the know-nothing sentiment that unfortunately passes for devotion these days, but he misses something crucial. Yes, for a certain type, it may be impossible to believe outright. But there are many, many others, who actually *do* love God, and through their love and trust in His forgiveness, find their way to a union with Him. Now, as with all paths there are pitfalls, and the love and trust can often devolve into love and trust in a God we created, that reaffirms our prejudices and desires, and there to complacency and forgetfulness. We create God in our image, and then worship it.

The pitfalls of Watts' path seem to me to be: despair, madness, an insufficiently marked out path, a sense that "whatever I do is fine, because it's all God's play." I'm sure there are others. Either way, there is no "foolproof" path, but it was nice to see that there are other ways. The sufis often present more than one path to God, suitable for different personality types. Good to see that Christianity has something going on in that department, too.

Monday, February 14, 2011


I've made a lot of bad decisions in my day. A list might take too long, and yet I'm freakishly good at running them through my head at any given point: missed opportunities, enterprises abandoned before they bear fruit, friends lost, decisions made from a place of fear instead of love. I know every one, every decision, intimately, deeply. I know why I did it, why I *said* I did it, what I could have done differently.

And here I am. 39 years old and with nothing to show in my life that resembles success. Talent I have, but I have no belief. Those guys that say you have to visualize your actions, see yourself succeeding, and then do it? Yeah, I don't know what to tell those guys. I just can't see myself succeeding. I can't believe it's possible for me. I've thought I was a failure since I was a little kid.

I'm tired of feeling this way.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

2/10/11 pros & cons

So, my meeting with my friend Paul last night didn't really give me the boost I'd hoped for. Far from having useful advice or a veteran's perspective, he basically is in a similar situation, except that he has yet to complete his degree from Union. This is pretty much totally unhelpful, and we ended up emoting at each other all night about our various plans. I sound a little cranky about it, mostly because I'm in a state about money, worried about my future, and trying to figure out what the hell I'm doing.

I have an idea, but I'm not sure it's a good one. The issue I'm looking at is that I don't have a clue about how to be happy. I don't know what will make me happy in the future. Will I be happy doing theology? Would I be happy getting a degree? Will it matter, or will it be like Stephanie's useless degree, which cost a shit ton and got her nothing but debt?

A thought I had was to get a Masters of Arts in Theology at General Theological Seminary, which is the Episcopal seminary, but I'm worried that it a) won't be rigorous enough, b) won't be prestigious enough, c) won't be applicable. The Episcopal seminary has a degree in Ascetic Theology, and, like most things in my beloved church, is well outside the mainstream of Systematic Theology. However, in reading about Ascetic Theology, it seems to be very close to what I'm interested in.

If I had to put it into words, I'd say that what I really want to talk about is the overlap between theology and meditation, in other words, I don't want to just *think* about God, I want to find a way to encounter him directly. Eastern Religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) have proven and studied techniques for the access of other states of consciousness, and even Islam has techniques for approaching God (zikr, salat). Christianity, while it has these techniques, de-emphasized them through the years.

Obviously, we're not talking (at least not exactly talking) about gnosticism, though there is a connection. God is not "knowable" the way we know about dogs, or roses, or stars, but a direct connection is what I'm interested in, and what I want to talk about. A connection to this world, to the people around me, and to the God of creation. I'm looking for a cure for the alienation that I see around me and that I feel in myself. Not only that, but I want that connection, that discussion about that connection, to help me make my way in this world. I realize on the face of it that that is kind of a mess. In Islam, the saints have a trade. I will, most likely, never be a saint. I have difficulty even being sort of a nice guy, let alone a saint.

So, here's the possibilities as I see them:

Apply to General Theological Seminary for an M.A. in Ascetical Theology
- pros: Type of theology I'm interested in (at least on first glance), probably easier to get into, cheaper, part-time program, might be good prep for later degrees
- cons: less prestigious, (possibly) less rigorous, might be a waste of time, non-mainstream theology limits future options

Apply to Union Theological Seminary for M.A. is Systematic Theology
- pros: (relatively more) prestigious, rigorous, excellent prep for future degrees, Ivy League (parental/spousal/societal approval), excellent contacts for future work
- cons: more expensive, full-time, WAY more work, language requirements
- possible concerns: might not be a good fit

There are other issues, but I just wanted to get this out of my head, and onto the interwebs.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2/9/11 Straw Gods

I had an argument with a TV character. An ANIMATED TV character, no less. Also, the argument was in my head, so there's that. All told, not one of my finer moments, but one I feel a need to share.

Brian from Family Guy is an atheist. Yes, Brian is also an animated, fictional, talking dog, but he represents a point of view I hear a lot on the internet. The usual arguments for atheism tend to revolve around the same few tropes, and Brian often comes back to them (to be fair to Seth MacFarlane, I sometimes have difficulty telling if Brian is meant to be a parody of a self-righteous atheist, or an actual representative of atheism's chief arguments).

The one that particularly got under my skin is the one that goes something like, "Well when we looked into space with the Hubble Telescope, nobody saw a giant old man with a white beard." The idea that believers in God, whatever flavor they may choose, believe literally in their particular anthropomorphic version of Divinity as represented in art is a little disingenuous.

Let's be clear. Most people I know who believe in God don't believe in that version of God either. God is not a white, bearded, old (sometimes more-or-less virile) old man sitting on a cloud somewhere in space. Almost nobody for a moment takes that seriously. There are versions of faith out there that believe all the Sunday School versions of the bible: the six days of creation, the rivers turning to blood, the walking on water, etc. etc. etc. But that's not stuff I believe, nor does anyone I know who has given it more than a few minutes thought.

When the bible says "Man was made in God's image," that phrase has a very specific meaning. We are in the image of God, insofar as we are participants in creation. The creative principle by which the world came into being is the same creative urge that infuses our highest aspirations. When we speak (cf. Emil Brunner) we engage in the same process that spoke the world into existence. There are indications that the words we use to describe our world to ourselves literally help to create that world, and insofar as we change our ways of thinking about the world, we change our experience of the world. We are not fleshy, poorly made copies of a more perfect body, but embodiments of the creative principle that made the universe.

So if God is not the "old man on a cloud" what is He? The atheist sets up the clearly poetical and metaphorical representation of Michelangelo's God, and then proceeds to tear it down. But that God is not my God, not the God I know (though he is useful as a metaphor - more on that in a later post).

One of the things I love about religion, in spite of its many shortcomings, is the language it uses, and one of the most beautiful phrases I've heard to describe God is as that in which we "live, move, and have our being." On my Facebook page, I describe my beliefs as "Panentheist." This is in contrast to "Pantheist" which, when I was a kid, I thought made a lot of sense. Pantheism is the idea that God IS the universe, that they are equivalent: everything we encounter is God, as are we, and the entire universe is God revealing Himself to Himself. Lots of very smart people whom I respect a great deal (Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary) believe that, or some variation thereof, and as a model, it's pretty good. Pretty good, but it doesn't go far enough. When I finally figured out that it, to a degree, depersonalized God, it lost some of its shine. My experience of God as loving Father and friend wasn’t supported by this rather more impersonal version of Him.

Panentheism is the idea that God both pervades the universe, and that the universe is within God. God is in us, and we are in Him. This pervasiveness is what causes the universe to continue to be. The universe in no way "contains" God, in the sense of a pitcher containing water, or even "is" God, in the way that a series of systems (engine, drive train, tires, electrical system, etc.) "is" a car. It reverses the emphasis in a crucial way. God creates us, sustains us, is (as the Quran says) closer to us than our jugular vein, even, in a way, IS each of us and everything we see, and yet is not exclusively and only us.

So to get back to the original point, how does this version of God reconcile with the one the atheists tend to argue against? God as a doddering old man (I’m looking at you Philip Pullman) is a perfect “straw man” argument:science has not yet found, and will not ever (as far as I can tell) find the Old Man Sitting on a Cloud(tm). That’s not God, and if it makes any atheists feel better, I don’t believe in that version either. The vision of God (and again, we can only speak metaphorically when we speak of the Ground of Being) painted by Panentheism has the benefit of being less ridiculous, at the very least, and also doesn’t contradict science. Fundamentalists and children believe in Old Man God, and atheism, while a valid choice in the face of evidence, should do better than disprove a conception of God that most thinking people don’t believe in anyway.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

2/3/11 update.

Right now the goal is trying to get back to yoga, trying to keep my wife from exploding from stress, trying to keep my band working, trying trying trying. Who really keeps track?

I'm not really working at work these days (the newest time suck: "Infinity Blade" keeps me nice and occupied when I should, perhaps, be polishing my resume and thinking about what jobs I really want to do).

Oh, and I'm really working to try to get on Jeopardy. I haven't told anyone, because I'm kind of afraid I'm not as smart as I think I am, and if I tell people, they'll find out I suck when it turns out that I didn't know which president Chester A. Arthur was. (21st, I just looked it up - he was also part of the Stalwart branch of the Republican Party, and a defender of political patronage and machine politics. After Garfield was assassinated by Guiteau, Arthur actually moderated his position, became known as the "Father of Civil Service" and put in reforms to make civil servants more accountable. He was actually pretty cool! Even Mark Twain liked him!) So I've been DVRing jeopardy and keeping score. I've been doing pretty well, with the occasional terrible game. I know a lot about what I know, but the narrow gaps in my knowledge are abysmal.