Friday, July 18, 2008

THE CHALLENGE OF SPIRIT

It would seem that it is a bit early in the process to stray from the format of this forum, but it's my damn blog so I am going to do it anyway. The following post is not a response to a letter I received so much as a response to the chapter of a book I am currently reading. The book in question is entitled "Non Coloring Book." It was written by one of my oldest and dearest friends, Mr. George Hrab.

George and I discovered each other in high school and quickly forged a relationship based mainly on our ability to draw each other into a frenzy of chuckles, giggles, snickers and general joviality. In the last ten years, I have spoken to George rarely and seen him even less. Yet, we have always seemed to be able to pick up as if not a moment had passed and we both appear to have a mutual sense that our friendship remains intact regardless of our lack of contact.

The book I speak of is George's debut as an author. Up until now, my main experience of his artistic merits have been limited to his skills as a musician (and he is remarkable!) Interestingly, one component of George's makeup that I have only become aware of reading the extensive liner notes of his various albums is his staunch atheism. Whether this part of George had not yet developed in our earlier lives or whether it simply never came up at that time is a question to which I have no answer; nor does it seem very important. What IS important is how curious I am about this fact of his life. I have always been interested in atheism; mainly due to the commitment it takes to pull it off. It is far different than being an agnostic, which is usually a product of nothing more than apathy. I find it amazing that someone can believe in the absence of spirit with the same vigor through which I am sure of its existence. My stance, mind you, is not one of judgment, but of fascination and curiosity. Further, I have often found atheists I have come in contact with to be driven mainly by their own misery. This, though, is in no way an accurate description of George. I have always experienced him as a rather centered and joyful human being.

Consequently, I have long had an interest in discussing the topic with George. As I have read his book, this feeling has intensified. The book itself is essentially a series of rants, opinions and observations on everything from the meaning of life to the overwhelming nature of Robin Williams. It is a wry and engaging effort which I recommend highly. My desire to engage George in a dialogue came to bear as I reached page 107 with the beginning of a chapter entitled "Tyler's Letter." This particular chapter offers a letter written to George by a young man named Tyler questioning the atheism he became aware of in an interview George had participated in. The letter is printed in its entirety, and is followed by a point by point retort by George. All of a sudden, I found myself inspired to retort to George's retort. And so, I shall. I feel like addressing some of George's views in a public forum (which I will alert him to) might be a really cool way to kick off a compelling discourse with my buddy George (although I should mention that, as I am reprinting a small portion of his book without his permission and I am unsure if I am inappropriately crossing a boundary, if he asks me to take the post down, I will).

Finally, the book (Non Coloring Book) can be purchased on www.Lulu.com (you can download it for $4- major bargain). Also, the five albums that George (last name Hrab) has recorded can be found on Amazon.com or CDBaby.com (if you are a fan of the music of Frank Zappa or any other groundbreaking artist , I promise you that you won't be sorry).


Okay, here we go:

Early in his letter, Tyler makes the assertion:

...none of our modern day miracles and inventions are possible without some influence of God.

George answered:

I think that to say that NONE of our modern day miracles are possible without God takes away a huge amount of the credit from the incredibly hard work put in by inventors, scientists, authors, designers, architects, etc. WHY does an unseen hand need to be the driving influence? I see this as akin to the myth of GENIUS. One of the most insulting things someone can say to me is, "Oh, you have a gift" or "O, you're just a genius, you're so good at this." I work INCREDIBLY hard at what I do- it's often like pulling teeth. I struggle and work diligently to write material, and the only time that things come easily to me, is when all of the hard work that I've put in the past allows some pool of "talent credit" from which to draw. Let's put it this way- when The Beatles were "discovered" by the man who would become their manager (Brian Epstein) they had already played over 1200 gigs in Germany and at shitty little clubs all over England. They weren't geniuses, they
WORKED REALLY HARD, and absorbed all of the influences around them better than anyone else at the time. Charlie Parker use to practice OVER 13 HOURS A DAY when he was your age. Imagine that! It wasn't God that was giving him his tone and ability to master the sax, it was his diligence.

George,

I find it curious (even a little sad) that you receive a statement like, "you have a gift" as a slap in the face. It seems like a dangerous bit of projection to assume that an individuals acknowledgment of your talent is somehow an indictment of the level of effort you place into your craft. It seems that in your vigor to dismiss the idea of God given talent, you are creating natural talent and hard work as mutually exclusive.

What seems to be thrust forth here is the idea that if I learned to play the guitar, recruited three other guys, and played twelve hundred gigs throughout Europe, the result would surely set the world of music afire. There is no question in my mind that vigilance and tenacity were major factors in the success of The Beatles, though I would add that no number of gigs were complicit in John Lennon's ability to take the longings of his heart and pontifications of his mind and emit them into musical and lyrical poetry. Is it your contention that Michael Bolton is simply not as committed to his craft as Paul McCartney; or is it possible that he simply does not possess the same level of God given talent?

In the same vein, especially considering that you are a golf enthusiast, do you sense that any amount of driving and putting could possibly put you on the level of a Tiger Woods? From what I've read, Woods commitment to practice borders on maniacal, though there are surely many others on the PGA tour who could practice from morning to night and never achieve the same results. There must be something innate and specific which sets Tiger apart.

As to where this "something" originated from, it's a different (and longer) debate altogether. My sense of spirit has always been something closer to a creative energy in the universe (a universal subconscious mind, if you will) than some dude in a cascading robe with a ZZ Top beard. Regardless, if people enter the human world with certain elements which create them as different from any soul who has ever (or will ever) walk the earth, it speaks to something beyond their bones and blood and skin. This, I believe, is the spirit. Like it or not Mr. Hrab, I have always found your unique spirit remarkable, and your God given talent undeniable.

Tyler went on to mention:

I am familiar with the basics of many philosophers from Aristotle to Hobbes and also read my fair share from Christian theologists like C.S. Lewis, my personal favorite.

To which George responded:


I like C.S. Lewis a lot as well, and enjoyed "On Christianity," and his argument of "The Ultimate Good" is a convincing one. The thing about C.S. Lewis that bugged me, is that while he was going through his own trying times with his sick wife, he had a hard time buying his OWN sermons. I was reminded of that at a funeral of a good friend of mine, where the priest giving the final rites got choked up and couldn't talk. This priest was a friend of the deceased as well. Here he had spent the entire service talking about how our friend Lenny was now happy in heavan, and how all would be right and he'd be a peace, but when it got time to say a final goodbye, the guy couldn't do it. I was touched by his sadness, but ultimately pissed of that it seemed EVEN THE PRIEST wasn't buying his own bullshit. Argh.

George,

Once again, it appear that you have made an assumption about mutual exclusivity that I'm not sure holds water. Why can't this priest GENUINELY believe that his friend Lenny is going to a better place AND have feelings of sadness about never seeing him again? Why does one beget the other? Does C.S. Lewis having trouble holding strong to his faith during a time of great crisis imply an insincerity? Faith implies believing that there are often reasons for life's challenges that are not immediately apparent. The fact that our faith gets tested; the fact that faith is often challenging to maintain; the fact that faith (by it's very nature) waxes and wanes; is why we call it FAITH. If faith was easy, more people would have it. Faith does not mean an absence of doubt. It means continuing to seek acceptance of "what is" rather than constantly assuming things ought to be other than they are.

Tyler explains:

…as I’m driving to work and marveling at how amazing our world is that all this works, plain and simply, it works; somehow everything down to the atoms and molecules that have organized themselves into systems and ways to create organisms like humans and trees to simple physics of gravity all work so perfectly.

George retorts:

Well- yes it works. It works amazingly well- but PERFECTLY? Tell that to someone with cancer. Tell that to a parent of a child with Down Syndrome. Heck- tell that to the last woolly mammoth. Do you realize that 90% of EVERY SPECIES THAT EVER EXISTED has gone extinct? There are SO MANY FLAWS in the “design” (and</span> I really hesitate to use that word) of the universe (hell- just humans) that any “ultimate designer” should be embarrassed. Let alone an OMNIPOTENT designer. What’s the point of my appendix? What’s the point of my tonsils? Why do people get diabetes? WHY DID I LOSE MY HAIR? Have you seen March of the Penguins? It’s a really amazing film. These Emperor Penguins have to go through INCREDIBLE struggles of walking 70 miles in sub-zero temperatures to procreate. Is this really the most efficient way for penguins to boink? Really? To me- it makes MUCH more sense that all of these anomalies have developed over time through incredibly long processes of trial and error, and that the most efficient (if not necessarily the “best”) paths of functionality have developed ON THEIR OWN. There is also the hazard of looking at a functioning system from the outside, rather than from the inside. The universe works so well because the universe works so well. This is a circular argument that makes sense to us because we live in a universe that WORKS SO WELL. Any surviving Neanderthals would argue that the universe DIDN’T work so well for them. It’s the same as the gambler’s fallacy of seeing patterns that aren’t really there. Look, humans have survived as long as we have because we’re pattern-seeking animals. We got really good at recognizing the patterns of the seasons, the patterns of which foods are good to eat, the patterns of what will kill us, and what will help us survive. Unfortunately, that great ability to see real patterns, also sometimes manifests itself by making us see patterns that AREN’T REALLY THERE. To ME, ultimately the concept of God is a presupposed pattern recognition that isn’t really there. (Check out
Skinner’s experiments with his skinner box.)

George-
It is curious that your assertion of a "lack of perfection" is based on the idea that you believe that you know what "perfect" would look like. You have invented a narrative that proclaims that a "perfectly designed universe" would not include cancer, down syndrome or the extinction of animals. How do you know? Who's to say that these elements are not an intrinsic part of a universe that is functioning exactly as it's supposed to be?

I have met people who proclaim that cancer turned out to be the greatest gift they have ever received; that their perspective on the world and gratitude for their blessings was informed mightily by their health challenge. I have met parents of down syndrome children who would tell you that they wouldn't have it any other way; believing that their child has provided them blessings that a "normal" child never could have. Further, without extinction (and death for that matter) this world would quickly become crowded to the point of being uninhabitable. How do you know that this is not a brilliant piece of a grand design?

By the way, I am not proclaiming to be privy to some secret knowledge of the design of the universe. My quest for humility demands that I be willing to admit that there is really no way to know for sure. And yet, it seems feeble evidence to suggest that your inability to see rhyme or reason in all things is evidence that there is no God. It is clear that you have many questions that perplex you; as do I. I often recall a wise man once telling me that if you could take all the knowledge available in the world and apply it to a pie graph, it would set up in the following fashion: one small sliver of the pie would be "what you know;" another small sliver of the pie would be "what you know you don't know;" and the remainder of the pie would be "what you don't know you don't know." There is a lot that I don't know I don't know. I believe spirituality is, to some extent, waking up every morning and reveling in how much I don't know. The ability to not have to know (which I was plagued by for many years) is a wonderful liberation. This is why I put much less stock in intellectualism that I once did... I'll take wisdom over smarts any day.

Lastly, while the work of B.F. Skinner's is certainly interesting, I don't see how a rodent's propensity to hoard pellets tell us there is no design to the universe. The reality of Operant Conditioning or the idea that we, in some ways, respond to reinforcing stimulus, in no way suggests that there is not a higher order beyond our scope. Considering that there is more than 90% of our brains that we do not know how to use, how can we possibly believe that there is not much beyond our grasp?

Tyler asks:

One thing that I’m hoping you might enlighten me on that I have yet to get an answer from any of my agnostic or atheist friends is how anyone can logically think about our universe and our world and not come to the conclusion that there is without a doubt a higher being that has set this all into motion and created a design that works so perfectly for everything.

George offers:

Well, I can’t really say ANYTHING “without a doubt.” I love my
doubt, I embrace my doubt the way most people embrace their faith.
To me, EVERY ADVANCE in the history of humanity is based on
doubt. “Ubi dubium, ibi libertas.” With doubt, come FREEDOM.

George-
A person believing that there is, without a doubt, a higher being is not the same thing as saying that this person lives a life devoid of doubt. Once again, not mutually exclusive. I have no doubt in my mind and heart in the existence of a higher power; but that does not mean that my ability to transcend the innate imperfections of my humanity and plug into spirit is something I successfully pull of in any and all situations. I believe that a part of the "perfect design of the universe" IS that we are imperfect. Through our imperfections, we experience doubt, fear, envy, selfishness, etc.- and this is how we learn... this is how our journey of consciousness expands. I fully agree that critical thinking and our ability to question the world around us is a big part of our freedom. Let's be cautious of throwing all those with faith in the bin with extremists and fundamentalists (as I am as put off by them as I assume you are).

Tyler proclaims:

…you still need an existence of an originator to start off the whole process…

George argues:

WHY? Who started the originator? Why does the “originator” get a free pass when it comes to needing someone to start the process. Who was God’s dad? I have NEVER heard a good answer concerning this Aquinas argument; it seems that you could keep reducing the question eternally. I like the answer of: NO ONE STARTED THIS.

George-
Again, never having cottoned to the idea that God is a person of some sort, I would agree wholeheartedly with the idea of circular thinking. My sense of God is an eternal energy in the universe from which we draw power. As energy can neither be created or destroyed, perhaps that informs your quandry regarding a starting point.

Finally, Tyler shares:

…it seems to me that one of the only main differences between you and I is that when you trace it all back, the last step before the final answer as to our origins is a leap of faith…

...and George answers:

Well, yeah. I can honestly say that I have NO faith. In ANYTHING. Really! I have TRUST in many, many things, but faith based on NO evidence I have no time for. I have TRUST that my friends will help in times of need because they have in the past and I’ve observed it and remembered. I have TRUST in the Constitution because I’ve read it and understand and have seen its strength and power. I have TRUST in the process of science and the self-correcting nature of biology and astronomy and all of the disciplines. I have TRUST in the existence of atoms and molecules, and even though I haven’t SEEN them, I still can learn about how they DIRECTLY influence the observable world around me, and if someone were to discover that atoms and molecules were in fact something else, I would have TRUST that the process of determining whether he or she was right would be done in the same manor of ALL scientific discoveries. I have TRUST in my family because they have proven themselves time and again to me. This may seem harsh, but I truly believe that FAITH leads to people IGNORING what’s ACTUALLY happening, and relying on what they HOPE should be happening. Thomas Paine said it best: “One way to guarantee failure and unhappiness is to believe that one’s feelings can abrogate the function of reason.” I have TRUST in the function of reason.

George-
First, I do not just have faith in God, I TRUST God. My faith has served me far more consistently than electricity, my car, my family of origin and many other things that we rely on based on past history. It is interesting to me that people of no faith often seem to feel the need to prove that there is no God, while most people of faith (in my experience) do not feel the need to PROVE anything: they just know (and the people of faith who are constantly trying to prove something are the ones I stay away from).

To your statement, "I truly believe that FAITH leads to people IGNORING what’s ACTUALLY happening," I would respond that, "People of faith tend to accept the world for what it is, while those of no faith consistently crave that things be different than they are." Let's face it: this is pretty much the basis of your book. While I enjoy your insights immensely, the thrust of the majority of chapters in your publication is the idea that the people and things around you ought to be different than they are. Don't get me wrong, snarky superiority continues to be a pool in which I often choose to wade; but I have come to understand that my frustration and annoyance at the world around me is not a function of people being moronic or things being ridiculous; it is the presence of my own impatience and lack of gratitude. As my consciousness has expanded, my capacity to spot and rectify these character defects has vastly improved.

Finally, I hope and pray that nothing I have proffered offends you. My sense is that, like myself, you are open to outside opinions and find yourself better for having kept an open mind. I would love to hear your retorts to my retorts... and if you have an interest, it would be a great pleasure to print your responses in their entirety. I hope these words find you well and that your journey is bringing you an abundance of joy and blessings.

God bless you,
Michael



1 comment:

Mike A said...

Oh, to have this be a conversation instead of a blog post. I too am an atheist, however, I may not be the kind of atheist you are accustomed to hearing. I take the title quite literally, I do not believe there is a god. That is not the same as not having faith.

I wear the brand "secular humanist" quite proudly...I have faith that the human race (generally), and most people (specifically) are good, and, when treated fairly and properly, are likely to treat others fairly and properly. Most come to this behavior through a religion, though there are many bad things that people get from religion too (just like anything, religion can be turned to ill purpose).

I have faith that when I am at peace with myself, I will be at peace with others around me. And my peace comes not from the comfort that, though things may be outside my ken, there is a omni-present force or face there that understands. I can hold in my head the idea that infinity is outside my grasp without fear. The resolve to be ME, understanding who I am and how I became this way, is the path I walk. For me, the faith that I can achieve this needs no support from a building, an idol, a community, or a god (it does need some help from the therapist, lol).

I guess my other title that is relevant to the discussion is "scientist". To me that title means that I am fascinated to understand how things work. It also means that, when confronted with something I don't understand, I know that there is a process by which I could come to understand it. For me, the scientific method, when appropriately applied (given sufficient time and effort), can explain any piece of our infinite universe. There is no reason to have faith that someone or something somewhere understands (created, planned, etc.) the things I don't.

Michael, have you encountered the Gnostic Gospels? The book by Elaine Pagels was fascinating to me because it displays "the road not taken" in early Christianity. The path so described seems much closer to how I approach the world. As I recall it (which likely means "as I came to understand it"), the idea that God is the part of us that is not flesh, and that we together collectively are God, was most interesting to me. It was a push to find an interpersonal spiritual connection. I see that what instead evolved (through the ill-deeds of power-seeking men) was a system by which interpersonal spiritual connections required an intermediary. All Christian systems, no matter their evolution, still hold that God, or a bishop, or the pope, or a minister, is the apex of the triangle. Marriages are assembled this way, for instance.

The idea that the "self", the part that leaves when the heart stops beating, and the part that appears somewhere in the second trimester, is drawn from a universal pool of unique souls, well, it sounds way too literal a myth to have power. If instead you hold infinity out as the benchmark...then all things that can happen have a chance to happen. There is nothing odd about "self", because in an infinite universe there is no reason I could not happen.

(I know this same argument can turn back around at me, so I use it with the caveat: I'm not done framing it.)

I would never claim a religious perspective, for in our modern world to disbelieve in God means you disbelieve in Religion.

I wish that we had connected sooner, and that we were not now 3000 miles apart, because I would sorely love to get a pint and talk this out.

I guess to sum: I challenge that atheist equals faithlessness. I challenge that faith equals God.