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  • Some Thoughts on Religious Universalism

    The living world seems so full of contradictions me. At times I perceive the totality of reality. My mind is lifted up as on a mountain top and I can see creation is a single body. All of a sudden, I feel myself a convinced pantheist. In this state I can detect in the butterfly wing to my own finger-tips a common over-arching oneness, imbued with some animating principle, which makes their existence possible. I detect one being within me and around me, imprinted in every stone, every patch of earth. This seems divine enough to me. But there are other times when I am near some thing of great beauty, the overarching branches of a tree is a summit of acute sacredness, to the point where I find myself acknowledging it in worship and thankfulness.

    In such moments I find myself an animist or polytheist, communing with the character of continent parts of the world as did the ancients. The manifold forces of the world become personalities. There a cacophony of divine voices, seemingly calling me from every quarter. I catch a glimpse of physical things alive with spirit.

    At other times still this sense is quite dulled, and the Oneness of the pantheist seems remote, and the gods of trees or streams are silent, and a new Oneness intrudes, transcendent, awe-inspiring, within, yet beyond the universe. When this sublime feeling breaks into my thoughts, I glimpse again the God of my childhood, the Creator who acts on and through the world. He is remote, yet somehow intimate. Temporally I am a theist, sensing something of the God of the Jewish Prophets, the One who breaks through ordinary life from above. He is the God of the gulf, so holy that man cannot see him directly, he must be shielded by cloud. In my intense joy or grief, he often returns to me.

    There are other moments differing to all others when I give no recourse to any vocabulary of the divine. I am content to the language of laws, constants ever interacting in the nexus of nature. That seems often all there is, requiring nothing more beautiful or intricate to explain it. It is a cosmic oneness, needing no reference to anthropomorphism, or theological musings. My conception of the cosmos stands alone, as cold, bare and enchanting facts. When I stand back and examine each mood in turn I am struck first at the hopeless contradiction with which my intellect is presented. How can something be One within and simultaneously beyond? How can the sacred appear to be over-arching and yet seemingly many? How can a thing seem alien to us, and yet be talked about at times as if it was merely mundane laws in motion?

    It is as if the divine, the ever-living essence of religious experience can be seen through various lenses, the awe of existence can be glanced from numerous vantage points, contradictory yet real and useful descriptions none-the-less. When we see the universe with the naked eye, with the macro lenses, we see Newton and Einstein’s laws in operation, the mundane rules of physics unfolding before our eyes. Yet, when we look under the surface of the world, we perceive the nexus of elementary particles, behaving in contravention of these rules of motion, yet wasn’t Newton and Einstein describing the same world?

    Yes, yet vocabulary and perspective can often divide us and seem contradictory, although, (as is the case with science), both frameworks seem to be true. So perhaps in the same way these differing expressions of religiosity are simply referring to the same phenomena, yet coming from different starting points. This could account for different philosophies and religions springing from the same human psyche.

    This is surely where universalism starts, in the affirmation that the sacred can be seen through more than one pair of eyes. Universalism in essence begins with the affirmation of a healthy revisionist project of ever searching for the divine anew. Religious universalism does not attempt to stifle revelation but give it freedom to move and enrich.

  • Why Heaven Makes Life Not Worth Living

    "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present". Ludwig Wittgenstein

    Perhaps one of the greatest problems we encounter with a negative position on the afterlife relates to a simple human longing, epitomised in the cry, "But if we cease to exist when we die, what is the point of life?" To me this statement could be interpreted as deeply disrespectful to itself life. Indeed I think it so. The person who utters this cry has subconsciously so much contempt for life, he wishes to escape it for a better one; with angels and cherubs in the clouds. For such a person life derives its meaning not from the joy of the here and now, but from an obscure metaphysical edifice of reward and punishment. Life is not be enjoyed for it's own sake, but only to be appreciated as a mundane if appetising prelude to "eternal life". Such is the contempt for living found among many of today's organized religions.

    What is more incredible is that this hatred of life is obscured from public view by the simultaneous claim of many faiths that the sanctity of life must be protected. But this isn't because they really care about life, it is because they want to remind us that we are, like a master to a slave God's property and that killing ourselves prematurely deprives our maker of a servant he could otherwise use. This is why the Neo-Cons in the United States are happy to protect a baby in the womb; (at least the child could grow up an Evangelical Christian/acknowledge their servile status to God), but are just as willing to invade Iraq and kill hundreds of civilians to fulfil their military objectives. This demonstrates the sheer superficiality of the sanctity of life rhetoric. It is employed to put us in our place, not to remind us of our responsibilities towards one another.

    While I am on this subject I willing to go further. I would argue that the idea of heaven especially, in the modern world, makes life not worth living and that is the problem. We saw this horrifically shown on 9\11 when plains were driven into the two towers killing thousands of innocent people. What kind people could do this. Richard Dawkins provides a straightforward if chilling reply,"Why would anyone want to destroy the World Trade centre and everybody in it? ... The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. ... Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so": They despise their life and value it so little that it easy for such people as these to throw themselves away and take others with them.

    The opposite affect of the afterlife hypothesis is perhaps not as violent but equally soul-destroying in it's scope. The poor man waiting for Heaven has little patience with improving his own lot. The priest can lull the fellow into a false sense of security by bellowing from the pulpit, "do not worry about amassing possessions, here on earth, wait till you get into heaven". Such a declaration said Marx has the power to dull the poverty stricken and the oppressed. They are told not rebel against the status quo or unjust social arrangements, rather to wait patiently for their death to arrive. The suicide-bomber and the poor man beaten down my priests are symbols of the danger that lies in a love affair with the afterlife. Heaven and the chorus of angels not only consoles, it paralyses, twisting our natural love of life into something protracted.

    It would be better to my mind to leave eternity to the gods and leave the here and now to humanity, lest we speculate to much on the beyond and forget the beauty of life under our feet. For it is likely that this life is all we have, so from me we must extract as much beauty, fulfilment and joy as possible. The person who appreciates life to the full is like an artist, he paints upon the canvas of existence new ideas, love and pleasure and therein perhaps lies the meaning of existence. We must make life our own, take experience with both hands and find meaning and purpose in the face of all our difficulties.

  • The Problem of Death

    Emptiness and Personal Disillusionment

    Over the past few months I have ceased to believe in an afterlife, leaving me with a profound sense of emptiness. I always believed from a child that the essence of all living things never really perished, just were removed from sight. Thus underneath the flux of our world, the relentless drive of change, was an unchanging realm of souls and untouchable ideas. Years later after reading Plato this belief was given voice and vocabulary in his realm of perfect Forms. Like C.S Lewis' spiritual Narnia, of beautiful trees and meadows, in his book The Last Battle, I was comforted by the promise of an eternal rest. Now I look back I see the sheer idiocy of such a belief, and that behind it there is a real hatred of life.

    The Folly of Eternity

    Now the idea of immortality has the duel power to inspire and revolt me. Surely if God intended us to live forever, then surely he also intended that we loose all our humanity and personhood? It seems to me that immorality is at once the most beautifully haunting of possibilities in the human imagination and yet the notion of life-perpetual seems to be an idea that, if true, would confer a definite curse as well as a blessing. If we imagine the best of all possible worlds, an eternity in a paradise where we live in continual joy, where all pain and suffering has been done away with, even in such a world one can see a looming blight to the hope of our happiness lasting forever.

    For humans joy is primarily appreciated through the relationship between it and its cardinal opposites, sorrow and melancholy. We know joy partly because we have avoided that which is injurious to our state of joy. We know bliss because it is the natural opposite of anxiety, without which such a state of mind as bliss can have no real meaning, because we have nothing to be delivered from. The possibility of an eternity filled with joy would soon, after many eons perhaps, grow tired, mundane and normative, far from the exhilaration of our first moment of everlasting delight. Would delight become the soul’s prison? Would an eternity of pleasure become torment? Just as eternity must surely affect the hope of joy, having infinite life-span would also surely affect what we commonly call “life”?

    Time Confers Meaning

    It appears that human societies of various kinds have understood life as thing to be marked, a map onto which human progress from one point to another can charted. Rites of passage provide a means for us to measure ourselves, articulating ourselves and ground ourselves. Life derives much its meaning from the irreversible nature of moments, of times and places. We know we are alive because of the passing of time, because circumstance and biological necessity locks us in to a state of motion; this fact builds us and defines us. We know who and what we are because of what we have become. The very continuity of our consciousness and self-identity depends upon the passing of time. In a state of eternity what would life become? Every moment would be the same as the next, as if one were restricted to a single moment. We would cease to aware of ourselves, of who we are. We would not be able to foster any kind of meaningful awareness.

    The eternal human may cease to be human in the strictest sense because without the necessity of change life is in stasis. We are not compelled, nor can we aspire in "the forever". If indeed the eternal human is confined to what appears to be one moment, stripped of any notion of time and change, the very pre-requisites of awareness and meaning, one wonders wonder why God would bother to preserve human life, if by situating it in eternity it would loose what defines it as life? Surely, it can be argued that striping a life of its essential characteristics, even in the best possible world imaginable would be cruel? Wouldn’t it better to cease to exist rather than to cease to live?

    The Great Cycle of Nature

    Of course such reasoning can leave you empty, yesterday I felt particularly so but I reminded myself that eternal living would not be life. I am not scared of death because death must logically be an escape from the fears of life including pain and sadness, but I am scared by the thought of ceasing to be consciousness, of leaving this life, never to return. It pains me that the essence of my loved one's will cease to be, that we are all just ashes and air, but this is the great tapestry of nature. its vital we realise that the continual joy of new life comes about because of the decomposition of other living things. A mother takes in nutrients for a growing featus inside her womb, from plants, animals, fungi and even bacteria (if you like your quorn) and their life-giving properties are transfered to the unborn child.

    All living things eventually merge into one another, to sustain the continuity of life itself. Death is an imaginary catagory in a sense because when we die we rejoin everything that is alive again. Our bodies become the earth and grass. As Walt Whitman wrote, "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death; And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it". One being dies so life might continue to grow and nurture itself.

    And behind us we always leave footprints, firstly atomic footprints. By our very existence the world has been changed through us, we have begun our own set of motions and reactions within the cosmos, which will continue long after we go. They are our impersonal mark. We also leave behind us other footprints, the traces of memory we leave behind in the hearts of those knew us. They will be affected by us, hopefully for good and carry something of us to others, a value, a hope, a story, an experience and in that way we live on.

  • The Nature of the Divine

    In many ways, I am not certain exactly how you would define my mode of theism. I suppose I would have to say my conception of deity lies in the contention that gods like butterflies, lemon-trees and humans are the product of natural forces. They are not “supernatural”, since I believe there is nothing outside nature, nor are they symbols, archetypes or indeed manifestation of some divine oneness. Rather they are beings in their own right with their own personalities and attributes. While the gods are more "powerful" than us by our standards, they are not infallible, nor have they always existed in some kind of celestial eternity. They have evolved and thus have sprung from nature and are limited by a definite regime of physical laws that govern other creatures also. For in Greek mythology, it is said that even King of the Gods must bow to the forces of fate. For example, while the gods can prolong life, they cannot abolish death. Even for the gods some things exist as priori that cannot be abrogated. While I am of the opinion that the gods, for the most part will continue to exist as long as the universe subsists, they may eventually die.

    I also believe that gods, while they probably operate according to a moral system of some kind, they work with a different moral ethical than we would like to imagine. They can be moved to help and enraged by injustice but like most people they are susceptible to rage and temper. Furthermore, while I believe that the gods can, like a moth around a flame, be drawn into the lives of humans through ritual, I think such interactions tend to come at a price. A god/goddess who attaches itself to a particular group of humans will enviably ask for favors and will grant favors in return. By saying this I am not denying or denigrating the possibility that the gods can love us, but I don't think they have any special concern for us beyond what we might call basic consideration that they have for other creatures also. Some deities may be more receptive to us than others but we must realize that any love which may develop between ourselves and deity might be quite fleeting, since deities have no obligation to love us, as of course we have no obligation to love them. In this sense, the gods are neither our natural friend nor our enemies; they are simply like any other creature, working according to particular instincts. I believe we can co-operate with deities but only with the acknowledgement that they are beings to be respected just, as any natural phenomena is to be respected, like the sea or fire. Gods can be beautiful and inspiring but we must be under no illusions that like the torrents of the sea or a ravaging blaze they can kill, thus we disrespect them at our peril.

  • Finding the Gods

    "There is one
    race of men, one race of gods; both have breath
    of life from a single mother. But sundered power
    holds us divided, so that the one is nothing, while for the other
    the brazen sky is established
    their sure citadel forever. Yet we have some likeness in great
    intelligence, or strength, to the immortals,
    though we know not what the day will bring, what course
    after nightfall
    destiny has written that we must run to the end".

    Pindar

    Over the past few weeks it has felt as though all the beliefs that I cherished, those "superstitions" I tended with such love and care, have crumpled away and not for one moment has there been a feeling of grief because of it. It is merely the ebb and flow of a tide that has carried me to a new intellectual island. I am free from the cage of doctrines and dogmas I unknowingly built for myself, the arbitrary dictat of an angry and judgmental God of so much "revelatory" religion. I have lifted myself from the hot coals of hell or the doldrums of a heavenly court. I have taken the words of the Apostle Paul to heart, but perhaps not in the way he would have hoped, , "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).

    For what could be more childish than to imagine a deity capable of the impossible. By definition such a being is a logical fallacy, since if it is possible for the divine to do the impossible then God can no-longer do the impossible. To speak of a mode of existence outside nature is also nonsense, since nature must encompass all that there is, even if it appears miraculous to us. One would think such thoughts have brought me to the hallowed isle of respectable, moderate atheism but oddly it has bolstered by sense of sanctity within the range of my experience. For if our scientific model of the world is essentially correct, than the credibility of the God hypothesis depends upon its ability to concur but also enrich our understanding of the available facts. It seems to be that if God exists, s/he resides, not outside the universe, but rather is that metaphysical principle that makes existence possible.

    Whatever this constant is, rightly or wrongly I call it deity and by deduction this divine constant must necessarily exist within the universe permeating there is and all there will be. I have no certain proof, but a belief in a universal soul of sorts is more palatable than the tinkering God of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Is this constant a being then? I am tempted towards the answer no. Evolutionary process, it appears needs no intelligence; it is itself the source of intelligence. Unless of course it is the case that the universe is a creature, that has evolved intelligence, a quality that we can recognize as order. As far as this question is concerned, I find that I cannot come down smoothly on either side of the fence. On the question of “gods” in a polytheistic sense, I am willing to believe in them.

    The Greek deities for instance do not exist outside nature; they are produced by natural forces, although they are eternal from the point of inception. They do not fall into the paradoxes of the God who disappears in a puff if logic because he creates a stone he can’t lift, (although they are far from powerless). Ultimately however, they are limited beings and must accept the way the universe is organized, for even the gods are tied by necessity (Fate) and the possible (the laws of nature). Equally, Traditional Greek religion, unlike monotheism doesn’t encounter the persistent problem of how to interpret a world of imperfection and disaster if there is indeed deity. This is because the Greek gods are not always good and moral beings. The gods are as unpredictable and capricious as the sea. They lie outside our moral frameworks and there help may be gained for a price. Even though they have the capacity to love, their care for humans is flippant and fleeting. They are gods we cannot expect certainties from, nor do they give favors lightly. Such religion to me seems infinitely more believable than the god of the Bible. It is infinitely more honest by not setting the gods above necessity and limitation.

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