Teensy Brain

Most of the time, the world feels small. It’s the room you’re in. Familiar streets. Your neighborhood.

That’s the illusion though, right? Because we all know the world is … well, it’s really, really big.

crab nebula

You telescope out and it’s fucking big beyond all belief.

It’s a planet, a galaxy, a cosmos. You can’t even get it. Not really. The immensity of it is mostly abstract. Like when you look at a Hubble Space Telescope image that is mesmerizingly beautiful, but you don’t have any real understanding of what it is, not even after you read the description of it, which goes like this:

“The Crab Nebula, the result of a bright supernova explosion … is 6,500 light-years from Earth. At its center is a super-dense neutron star, rotating once every 33 milliseconds, shooting out rotating lighthouse-like beams of radio waves and light — a pulsar (the bright dot at image center). The nebula’s intricate shape is caused by a complex interplay of the pulsar, a fast-moving wind of particles coming from the pulsar, and material originally ejected by the supernova explosion and by the star itself before the explosion.” (https://hubblesite.org/image/4027/gallery/35-supernova-remnants)

I mean, if there’s a quiz you’re fucked. I am, anyway.

I’m a teensy-weensy living being with my teensy brain gazing at the indefinable, the unimaginable, the incomprehensible. Still, I reduce it all down to the Google pin I’ve plotted on the map where I am.

pin

This is the truth to me. My spot on Earth. My field of vision.

I am one conscious being of nearly eight billion on the planet. One of 107 billion who have ever lived. (https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/)

Yet, I am the center of my world, as you are yours.

My life is a momentary flicker that will wink out and be utterly forgotten in a generation or two. I am destined to be a worn, faded photo in a dusty box someone will look at one day and say to themselves, “I don’t know who this is.” The photo, then, is a thing to be thrown away because it no longer fits a narrative anyone is living.

I am nothing. I am everything. This is the irony, the paradox of being mortal.

Seize it. Love it, every little bit of it, while you can.

Love yourself, your body and soul. Love your family, friends, and tribe. Love strangers if you can. They’re amazing, all of them. Just like you. A flicker in time, occupying a pinpoint in space.

Part of the whole.

Dropped onto the playground of life from the hands of God.

(The “God part” is something I believe, but I don’t mind if you believe that you and I are merely astonishing biological accidents and the universe is simply “one of those things that happens from time to time.” I respect that conclusion and raise a beer to the audacity of my belief and your non-belief.)

Your life. The best gift ever. Can we agree on that?

Play on, brothers and sisters.

Prayer is a Weird Thing

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I grew up in a Christian church where there was a pretty significant emphasis on prayer. We prayed over everything: family meals, sick relatives, algebra tests, moral dilemmas … misplaced shoes. Seeking God’s blessing and help was an automatic response to the fraught drama of being human.

What did we think was going on in heaven? God was just lounging around, not sure what he ought to be paying attention to … then he heard us pray for Aunt Dorothy’s open-heart surgery to go well, so he sprang into action because we were so sincere? I mean, he was going to let her die, but since we prayed and all, God changed his mind and Dorothy came through with flying colors, going on to live another decade.

It would be pretty weird if God operated like that, arbitrarily intervening in human affairs: holding up airplanes through turbulence, guiding people home in blinding snowstorms, seeing to it that little Timmy survived brain cancer. Because the other side of that idea is that God is also allowing some planes to crash, letting some people freeze to death, and standing by while some children die of cancer.

Maybe I once believed something like that. I don’t anymore.

Yet I still pray. All the time, about all kinds of things.

My theology isn’t what it used to be. If you tried to pin me down about what I believe God is like, I’d struggle to sound coherent. Yet, I am a theist. And I don’t view God as an impersonal blob of energy.

I acknowledge that everything I believe may be wrong. It might just be the bullshit I tell myself so I can face life: this life that is full of wonder and terror, good and bad fortune, pleasure and pain, love and hate, joy and desperation and death. Maybe I’m not brave enough to handle all that without my “invisible friend.” I accept that possibility.

But my faith matters to me. God matters to me. Prayer matters to me.

So, when I pray for strength, for wisdom, for an extra dose of love and courage and faith to get me through something, or even for the welfare of others … what do I think God is doing in response?

I don’t know. It’s not my problem.

Everything is energy, right? We’re made of invisible spinning particles. We’re made of what the cosmos is made of. The universe made us. Our thoughts and emotions are energy. You can feel them move through you. When your heart breaks with love for someone who is suffering or in danger, that energy burns in you like an all-consuming fire. When you hope desperately on behalf of someone you love, that hope has weight and substance, it exists in the world as a measurable phenomenon.

My dear atheist friends, when you tell your loved one that you’ll be thinking of them while they’re having an operation … that’s your version of a prayer! When you wish someone “good luck” on their job interview or entrance exam … that’s you praying for them in your way. You are saying, “This is the intention of my heart for you. That you are well. That you are happy. That your life is good. That you find love and peace and purpose.” As an atheist, you see no divine agency moving in the background, still you are lobbing the energy of your positive intention into the universe, even if you believe at the end of the day that the universe is ultimately absolutely cold and indifferent to the desires of your heart.

Prayer is the energy of hope, lobbed into the universe.

Does prayer change how things turn out?

I don’t know. Maybe.

Prayer changes me. It alters my disposition. It softens me toward those I might perceive as enemies. Prayer reminds me that the sun is giving off light and warmth even when it is hidden behind clouds. It reminds me that I still feel the energy of love left behind by people who no longer walk among us. Prayer is the voice of human consciousness speaking to itself, connecting to a conscious universe that gave birth to mind and matter and love. Prayer (like faith) is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Prayer is a weird thing. But, it’s a weird thing in a pretty damn weird and mysterious universe. Life, it seems to me, frequently calls for silly things like faith, hope, and love, to get us through the challenges of the human drama. That’s my story. And I’m sticking with it.

Why I’m a Believer

cosmos1

This is not an argument for the existence of God.

This is not me trying to convince you of anything. I, of course, understand that for any point I might make supporting my view there is a counterpoint tearing it apart. I’m not really interested in debates.

This is simply me telling you what I believe and why. Nothing more.

When I watch a show about animals or space, about life’s origins or the origins of the universe, I can get downright tingly. I can’t help being moved when I see the majesty of the heavens and the astonishing variety and complexity of life on planet Earth. Nebulae, the Aurora Borealis, spiraling galaxies, transparent fish, flying lizards, bugs that walk on water … these are awe-inspiring sights to be sure.

But, while watching these shows, I have never once thought, “Gosh, isn’t it neat what random forces can produce given enough time?”

I’ve heard the story where Matter is King. It starts like this: “Once upon a time, all matter was infinitely dense.”

That’s right, kids. Every bit of matter and space in this universe—you know, the universe that contains TWO TRILLION GALAXIES (this is 10 times more than the previously believed 200 billion galaxies)—was once so very teeny tiny that it couldn’t be seen. It had NO SIZE. Let’s not forget that each of those 2 trillion galaxies contains 100 billion stars, more or less.

So, there it was: all the matter in the universe just hiding out in nothingness, smaller than a single atom.

How’d it get there? Where’d it come from? Why was it so itsy bitsy?

No one can tell you with any certainty.

“It popped into existence from nothing, out of nowhere,” is one answer science gives. It seems to be the most plausible one out there.

Okay. So, this is different than Genesis 1 how? Oh yeah, no Creator. Now it makes SO much more sense.

The fact is, both of these ideas, the idea of God and the idea that everything came from nothing, require us to believe fairly nutty things that absolutely CANNOT be proven.

My God-view requires faith. Just as the everything-from-nothing-view requires faith.

Here’s where I admit that the idea of God is sort of whacky. I mean, if we’re going to approach it rationally, we have to ask where God came from, right?

Well, no. No, we don’t. If you’re going to propose that everything came from nothing (without any proof), then I think I get to go ahead and assume the existence of God without having to come up with an origin story.

For me, God is the one utterly inexplicable thing that makes everything else possible.

The First Cause of life must be living. The First Cause of consciousness must be conscious. The First Cause of intellect must be intelligent.

Look at the observable universe. It’s so bloody amazing.

Everything is made of invisible particles in constant motion. THAT is amazing. Your smartphone looks like it’s stationary, a solid object, but it’s composed of madly spinning particles, as are you, as am I.

That’s insane! Yet I believe it.

Interesting fact—I believe in atoms. And so, probably, do you.

But why do we believe in atoms?

Can you prove they exist? Not without an electron microscope, my friend.

Unless you’re a renowned scientist working at a super high-tech lab, you’ve never looked into an electron microscope. They cost nearly one million dollars, so I guarantee neither PoDunk High nor Big Town University have one in their science wing for you to play with on your lunch hour.

You and I believe in atoms because we read about them in a book, or maybe we saw some blurry image of one in a YouTube video. The truth is, we believe in atoms, even though they are entirely outside of our sphere of experience; atoms are an article of faith—a thing we believe in even though we can’t prove it. I understand that we’re confident that someone can prove it, but we can’t and that’s my point. We’re relying on the testimony of others, which requires faith.

Modern science, with all its impressive gadgetry and seemingly limitless cosmic imagination, still can’t give a satisfactory explanation of what human consciousness is.

When it comes to the question, “What is gravity?” our friends at NASA are forced to answer, we don’t know!

So, the most fundamental things we should understand about ourselves and the world we inhabit are fucking mysteries. Surprise!

Another thing, dear reader. I believe in God because of you. Yes, you. You are a freaking stunning, mind-blowing miracle.

Here’s something about you that maybe you haven’t thought of. You were inevitable. Just as you are. Your eye color, your height, your personality. Why do I say this?

Because YOU ARE. When the universe unfolded you were already an inevitability: all the conditions being what they were, this moment in time with you in it reading this absurd essay right where you are … it all HAD TO HAPPEN. Because it did.

I take it further and say, you are an INTENTION of the universe, of the God that forged your consciousness in the infinite past.

In summation…

I believe in God because:

  1. The “purely material” answers are unsatisfactory on every level.
  2. Faith in God is no less crazy than the faith it takes to believe everything came from nothing.
  3. The marvel and awe of the cosmic universe and this living planet make no sense without an intelligent being to observe them.
  4. Everything about the observable universe is infused with intelligence, from humankind to trees to ticks, it is all bound together in an unfathomable symbiosis.
  5. If this is the one and only universe, the odds that it would come up with you and me and all this life are as good as zero. And the fact that one of science’s answer to that dilemma is to suggest an infinite number of universes (so that, of course, one of them would have to result in us, right?), smells of desperation (and not a single one of those “other” universes can be demonstrated to exist).

But, most importantly, I believe in God because:

  1. I need to.
  2. I choose to.

And that’s it, people. For what it’s worth.

I also totally respect your non-belief, or your belief in fairies, or your it’s turtles all the way down theory.

So it goes.

And amen.

Peace, my brothers and sisters.

Dear Angry Atheist

theist atheist

A Christian, a Buddhist, and an atheist walk into a church.

That may sound like the opening line to a joke, but it actually reflects the reality of what’s going on in my church on any given Sunday.

My church has no religious creed or doctrine, it holds up no deity or faith as “the one and only truth for all humanity.” Those who attend are welcome to bring along the deity of their choice, just as they are welcome to bring their atheism, agnosticism, etcetera.

My atheist friends and acquaintances are very sure about what they don’t believe. They absolutely do not believe in any kind of god or goddess or spirit creating things or watching over the affairs of humanity. They do not believe in an afterlife. None of that should be surprising, as that would be the very definition of an atheist, yes?

What may be surprising to some, though, is that these non-believing folks are not in the least bothered by the fact that many of their fellow congregants do believe in God, or a goddess, or any of a variety of spiritual notions. For these atheists, it doesn’t inspire scorn, anger, or mockery. They’re not just okay with the faith of their peers, they respect, appreciate, and celebrate it.

Weird, huh? But should it be?

Is there really any good reason that modern believers and non-believers should be adversaries? I would propose that what they have in common matters so much more than what they don’t.

Our desire to love and be loved, our mutual searches for survival, connection, purpose, well-being, happiness, security, and pleasure—put simply, our shared humanity—ought to unify us to an infinitely greater degree than our various philosophies, religious and non-religious, divide us.

First, let’s tell the truth.

We all know that a lot of horrifying shit has been done in the name of some God or other. Witch hunts, crusades, wars, jihad … lots of bloodshed in the name of someone’s God. So, let’s not deny that truth.

Let’s also acknowledge that horrifying shit has been done by folks who wanted to outlaw religion: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Now, it’s a stretch to say these men were seeking to “spread atheism,” but it is certain their intent was not forcing people to believe in any religion’s God.

When we boil it down, deep evil is usually done in the name of power and greed—religion or non-religion are simply window dressing. That’s the truth about that.

Here’s another truth: people can arrive at either benevolence or savagery through both religious thinking and atheistic thinking.

Here, for example, is a theology that leads to evil:

  1. My God is the only truth and all other ways of seeing the world are not just wrong but an offense to my angry, jealous God.
  2. Therefore, if you do not follow my God I will have to kill you to make the world a better place. It’s my sacred duty. If I can’t convert you, you must die.

And here is an atheistic philosophy leading to evil:

  1. Humans are nothing more than smart apes. Love is an illusion brought on by chemical reactions. Morality is nothing more than a social construct. The survival of the most fit (or simply my personal gratification, regardless of the harm it may cause to others) should be the only appropriate guiding principle.
  2. Therefore, if misusing or even exterminating a person or an entire group of people (Jews, Tutsis, the infirm, the mentally inferior), helps to ensure the survival (or gratification) of the superior person or group, it is not only permissible, but wise. Any other way is self-annihilating sentimentality.

Here is a theology that leads to love:

  1. Life is from God, God is love, and all people are children of God.
  2. Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.

And an atheism that leads to love:

  1. We get just this one shot at life, which makes it a precious gift of immeasurable value.
  2. Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.

I have to admit, when I read social media “pile ons” where atheists are bashing Christians for being ignorant, backward, hateful hypocrites … it makes me very sad. Not because there aren’t Christians who fit this description (there certainly are), but because it is such a narrow-minded, thoughtless approach that discounts the millions and millions of magnificent, loving, compassionate, intelligent, luminous beings that would call themselves Christians (or Catholics, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Whatever Religious Persuasion).

It’s not religious people that suck. It’s people that suck, some religious and some not.

In the same way, there are people you’re very glad to have as friends, neighbors, and co-workers because they’re kind, thoughtful, smart, funny … some of them are religious, some are not.

Being a human being on planet Earth is hard. Even under the best of circumstances, this life is going to beat the shit out of you many times, make you physically ill, disappoint you, and break your heart. Inevitably, it will kill everyone you love and, unsurprisingly, it will kill you as well. If a large number of people need belief in God to get them through this life, are we really going to fault them for it? And what about the many millions on the planet who will only know poverty and suffering until the day the die. How inspiring do you imagine they find atheism?

When can we start being grown-ups? When will we learn to live and let live, to find respect for one another—regardless of philosophy—to be a core value?

It shouldn’t really be so hard, should it?

If you’re angered by intolerant religious people, are you helping your cause by being an intolerant atheist … or have you become the enemy through emulation?

Look, I have a kind of faith but I have no problem with those who don’t. In fact, I think they’re quite courageous. Because they are facing life and heartbreak and illness and death simply on their own inner strength! No “teddy bear” of faith to curl up with at night. I don’t envy them. I couldn’t do it. I have no wish to try. But I do admire them for living their convictions, truly. Not just saying that.

I would just like to see them not act like assholes. Of course, I’d also like to see religious people not act like assholes.

Can we just do that, people? Would that be so hard?

RESPECT

Peace and love to all (flavor to taste with the philosophy of your choice, brothers and sisters).

Walking the Labyrinth

labrynth1

I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.

A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):

  • It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
  • It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
  • It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
  • It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.

What did I learn on my walk today?

  1. That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
  2. The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
  3. Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
  4. As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
  5. I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my). lab-2
  6. It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.

What a cool way to start the new year!

I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?

 

Why I’m Struggling with Wearing “The Safety Pin”

My church is full of loving, liberal-minded, enlightened people whose ideals match mine to a large extent.

I’m looking at the safety pin my church gave me on Sunday … it is still attached to a card made of thick paper.

pin

The Safety Pin Movement is a response to the perception (which appears to have some merit in light of current events) that Donald Trump’s election may embolden certain people, i.e. people who have negative, even hostile, views toward “minority” populations, to act out that hostility.

The card basically says that if I wear it I’m pledging to take action if I witness verbal or physical attacks on others. It says I should be prepared to intervene “with my physical body” if necessary. The card lists these potential victims: “women, LGBTQA, transfolks, people of color, those wearing religious garb, people speaking languages other than English, those who are visibly different—anyone.”

My first response is to think, “What a wonderful, simple thing to do to show solidarity with, and a willingness to come to the aid of, others who may be thought to be disenfranchised or under threat by certain segments of society.” I think, “I can do that.”

Wear a pin? Yes. I can do that, obviously. Place myself (potentially) in harm’s way to protect others? Well…

That’s a far harder question, isn’t it?

I mean, I totally want to wear the pin. The principle behind it is a good one, the intention is awesome and laudable.

I ask myself: Would I, in fact, risk harm to myself to stand up for this principle of unity?

The answer: I don’t know.

I ask myself: Have I ever stood up for someone before?

I can say, yes to that.

A time or two. In very small ways. In grade school and in high school I can think of two times I stood up for kids who were being picked on at school for being “different.” The kids doing the picking on were just being mocking, they weren’t trying to beat up anyone. Nor were the perpetrators particularly “dangerous” fellows. And in both cases, we were on school grounds—so there was pretty much zero real physical threat to me.

What if it had been at night in an alleyway, far from the safety of adults in authority? What if there had been pushing, or worse? Would I have acted?

Doubtful. Maybe run for help. But intervened? Sadly, probably not. I wasn’t at all a tough kid. I’d never been in a serious scrap. Wasn’t athletic. Wasn’t particularly courageous.

I’m 56 and none of that, regrettably, is any different.

So, would I stand up, today, for someone if I thought there was pretty much no possibility of violence? Yeah, I would. Would I be happy to be a friend and support to someone in one of these categories who came to me distraught? Yep, I would. Would I call 911 from across the street? You bet.

But am I going to risk real physical harm to myself? Probably not. That’s just the unfortunate truth of that.

Does that make me a coward? Maybe.

But wearing it without feeling certain I could follow through with the pledge that the pin represents? Well, that presents its own moral dilemma, doesn’t it?

I feel like I just got jabbed with a pin that I haven’t even put on.

Maybe that jab wants to teach me something. (Like, now is the time to take that self-defense class you’ve always wanted to take?)

Am I doing the right thing by not wearing the pin?

 

 

Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)