Once upon a time there was a writer who had an idea for a story, but it was too similar to other stories he had already written, and he tied to avoid repeating himself. Anyway, the germ of the idea was this: imagine a religion where the high priests randomly change the beliefs and rituals and don’t bother telling anyone. People come in to church and, for example, line up for wafers, and the priests look a them, astonished, and ask, “why aren’t you kickboxing? That’s what the Lord requires!” The former queuers now spread out and make feeble attempts at the exercise until the priest finally instructs his minions to show them all the proper form of worship. But don’t get too comfortable, people! This is the Church of Permanent Revolution. You’ll never know when or how it will all go changing again. This Lord not only works in mysterious ways, he’s one random crazy-ass mother.
I’ve harped on these themes before, but what the heck. It’s only opinionating but I like it.
Two items intertwined in my mind to form the double helix of this thread. One is time travel, the other is an atheist’s conversion to Catholicism. What they both have in common are the twin titles of this post: Complexity, and the Limits of Imagination.
I’ve been guilty many times of indulging in the fantasy of time travel, and have written some stories in the genre, knowing full well how absurd an idea it is, but unable to resist and usually unwilling to look too closely into it. I came across the notion recently (I wish I could remember where, and link to it) about how “time” not only does not exist, but cannot possibly exist. What we have is not “time” as we know it, but an infinity of seemingly concurrent changes taking place around us constantly. All you really need to do is look outside. Let’s assume you can see a tree, and on that tree there are leaves (jjust budding out now, as it’s the beginning of springtime in your clime, let us say). Those leaves are each in their own state – at the moment – and are changing their state, growing, living, fading, dying as they do through the seasons. Now to “go back in time”, each of those leaves would have to revert to the state they were in at that supposed “time”. That’s just one tree. Seriously, that tree not only houses leaves, but bark and trunk and branches, and all of those are made up of atoms, molecules, protons, neutrons, all the way down the line. Each of the subatomic particles forming each of those atoms would need to revert the QUANTUM state they were in at that so-called “time”. Quantum being the operative word, because by definition that state CANNOT BE KNOWN at that level. Add the other trees, the weeds, plants and flowers in your neighborhood, and build up from there the entire world, solar system, galaxy, universe and so on. Of course we can’t even begin to do that. We can’t even begin to imagine the basic elements of that one tree! We might think we can imagine, but even the hardiest imaginer would have to confess, sooner or later, that infinity is hard to count up to. So, while the idea of time travel is fun, it’s also ridiculous. Every “moment” is already Humpty Dumpty, and can already not be put back together again, because it never is together in the first place.
Just because our imaginations are limited does not mean that the thing(s) we’re trying to imagine do not exist. This is perhaps the best argument in favor of the potential existence of God. “It could happen!” (shrug). Who knows? Who can say? A science fiction writer had a near-death experience followed by a conversion experience which led him to find God and start a heated debate on his blog wherein he and atheists engage in dispute. Now, lots of people have conversion experiences, sometimes accompanying crises and sometimes not, and there’s really no reason by one person’s experience should be taken as any sort of proof of anything by anybody else. One of his main arguments reminds me of Niezsche’s warning that “life is no argument, for the conditions of life could include error.” This man says: “You are also implying that the human race, all of whom believe in gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another, except for that exquisitely tiny minority of persons who are consistent atheists, just so happened to have all made the same lapse of judgment in the matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so”. I wonder if he really wants to include ghosts and magic in the same category as God, but doesn’t a lot of it come down to the limits and restrictions of the human imagination? Base any argument on “what most people believe” and you’ll come perilously close to awarding the definition of “greatness” as being “Justin Bieber”. It’s not a “lapse of judgment” to believe in something. It may just be the way the human mind works. It’s useful. As far as I know, there has never been any independent evidence presented – that is, by a species other than humans. Does any other species of creature in the universe believe in God or is it a human invention? I would be very interested to know what parrots believe in – if faith is of any use to them – or any other creature of this planet, for that matter. I cling to the quaint notion that humans are animals of Earth, sharing most of the same DNA as many other animals, as well as the same habits (eating, sleeping, waking, breathing, dreaming, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, reproducing and raising our young … stuff like that). It could be that failing to believe in God is a limit of imagination on my part. Or, on the contrary, taking everything you cannot conceive of or understand and assigning it to some one big bucket called God could also be a fail. I’m just going to say, along with Dirty Harry, that “a man’s got to know his limitations”, and leave it at that.
As a sort of fan fiction I thought about writing an alternate version of the Christmas story. In this version, the Word becomes flesh in the twentieth century, as a black man in apartheid South Africa. He becomes a great leader of men, is arrested and imprisoned for years but finally released, where he becomes the first black president, dismantling the racist state and showing compassion and forgiveness on his former oppressors. He becomes a beloved figure worldwide.
What sort of church would be built on this legacy? A religion of redemption in this world rather than the one to come? A religion of man overcoming, of growing and changing, rather than one of stain and guilt? A vision of a world where God allows completion and fulfillment in this life itself, not requiring another one to come? A cycle, a closure, a life entire. A religion with a happier ending. It would sell, I think. That religion would be popular with the people of the world today.
If you believe in this, I have one question. How many lifetimes will be enough for you? Twelve? A hundred? A thousand?
Searches for the ‘God gene’ or the ‘evolutionary basis of religion’ are futile pursuits. Religion is nothing more nor less than a projection of the story of human life. What are the main themes? An initial state of innocence or grace, followed by the loss of that condition, which leads to sin and struggle and an eventual permanent condition (eternity) of an unknown quality.
Do we not all experience childhood, adolescence, maturity and death? Innocence and grace are childhood conditions and what spoils them? Adolescence, which is the onset of sexuality, which is tied in so strongly with ‘sin’ it could almost be a synonym, were it not for other aspects of sin which are related to the problems of maturity, which is the struggle to survive. Children are taken care of (generally) by adults – but adults must do anything and everything for food and shelter for themselves and for their children. There is no end to adulthood but death – the permanent unknowable condition that all of us face and go on to.
Heaven is a place of purity – which is to say innocence and grace – our childhood state, a state of pre-sexuality, or non-sexuality. To get to heaven our “souls” must be “purified” – it’s no accident that sexual denial and repression are at the heart of the major religions. For men (for most men) sexuality is also strongly related to women, and the denial and repression of sexuality are very closely connected to the repression, opression and suppression of women. None of this ever works – your celibate priests, your hajibs, your abstinence-only all fail to control sexuality and restore purity. You can’t get to heaven this way but so often it is the only way sought. Even the person known as The Way is depicted as an asexual, pure-as-childhood figure. Uh-uh. It doesn’t work like that.
I often wondered how we go from being so beautiful (as little kids) to beings so ugly (war, crime, rape etc …) and the answer is right in front of us all the time. “We go” through adolescence into adulthood and that is all it is. The journey from purity to maturity is nothing but the story of human development. That ‘original sin’ is merely the animal sexuality which is our birthright and destiny, which nothing can stop and nothing can conquer since, despite all wishes to the contrary, we are animals of this planet, and like all other animals of this planet, we exist to procreate and pass on. The idea that “there must be something more” is the ultimate denial of what we all see and experience quite plainly.
We would often prefer that the childhood state be everlasting – carefree, irresponsible, cared for, loved, nothing to do but play and eat and sleep, asexual, non-working, purity and innocence and grace … sounds like descriptions of heaven pretty much (except for those “high-breasted maidens” promised by the Qu’ran, where heaven is a tad earthier than the Bible’s version). It’s something to look forward to, at least, something to wish for and to dream about.
Stevie Wonder sang that “those who don’t believe will never see the light”.I guess it depends on which light you’re talking about. It was in thinking about that song (Heaven is 10 zillion light years away) and watching my son and his friends approaching the brink of adolescence that helped me to see this particular light. There is no going back to childhood. The road from purity to maturity is a one-way street and religions with their heaven and hell would like so much for this to not be true.
my friend’s idea for a bumper sticker, which she was too cowardly to actually do:
“organized religion = organized idiots”
okay, a bit harsh, perhaps
this week’s examples, one sad, one tragic:
some right wingers praying for Senator Byrd’s death worried that their prayers had bounced off Byrd and hit Senator Inhofe instead. If only …
Young boy passed away from some disease. His parents decided one of them should commit suicide to join him in the afterlife so he wouldn’t be lonely. The other one remained to raise their other child.
religion is essentially a form of social organization, so it should be no surprise that the social aspects of the brain get involved! the whole ‘spiritual’ side of the question is kind of a sleight-of-mind magic trick (look over there while we’re controlling you here) (imho)