Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bearing false witness.

Alan Moore wrote in V For Vendetta, "artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up."  And I think that's true.  I think that is part of what is so important about film, and art in general:  it shows us something untrue to teach us something true.

Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola tell us a lie about criminals and violence, in order to show us truths about loyalty and corruption.  J. K. Rowling tells us a lie about wizards and witches, in order to show us truths about bravery and friendship.  George Lucas tells us a lie about space farmers and an army of Teddy Bears, in order to show us truths about the battle between good and evil.

Perhaps one of the best ways to tell truth is by lying:  fiction, storytelling, mythmaking.  In this context, we really don't call it "lying" in the ethically wrong sense.  But you're saying something untrue, aren't you, so what's the difference?

The difference is, you're not trying to deceive anyone about the nature of the world (though, to be fair, some films do lie even in this sense - and I don't excuse them for it.  More on that in a second).  Deceit is the real sin.  "Bearing false witness," in the scriptural sense, is about more than just "telling untruths."  Think of the word witness.  It seems to have legal connotations.  Think of the imagery of a witness standing before a jury in a trial.  "I testify that I saw this man murder," says the witness.  If it's untrue, he's being a false witness.  When we talk about bearing false witness, we're talking about misleading fabrication.  We're talking about covering up, omitting, or even changing your portrayal of the truth so that your audience believes something false and acts accordingly.

I believe people do this every day.  We live in a world of false witnesses, and it is inexcusable.  Let me offer a few examples.

Pretending to be romantically interested in someone when you're not is bearing false witness.  Often this is done on accident, but typically the intent is "I want to be nice."

It's nicer to be honest.

You may wonder what is so bad after all about this.  "Playing interested when you're not, it's just flirting," you say.  "Not lying."  Well, according to the Dictionary, flirting is lying:
1.  to court triflingly or act amorously without serious intentions; play at love.
2.  to trifle or toy, as with an idea: She flirted with the notion of buying a sports car.
3.  to move with a jerk or jerks; dart about: butterflies flirting from flower to flower.
Is this how we ought to treat other human beings?  Consider some of those words above.  Play.  Trifle.  Dart about.

If you're religious, I'd like you to consider God's example.  How does he deal with us?  In the King Follett Discourse of April 1844, Joseph Smith proclaimed:  "God is not trifling with you or me."  I believe that.  Why then, should we trifle with each other?

I want to make a side note here that I don't consider myself innocent of the condemnations I'm throwing on the rest of the human race:  I flirt, too.  I bear false witness.  I'm just as guilty of all this as the next guy, but you know what?  It is not a good thing to do and we should all just stop lying to each other.

On the opposite end of the spectrum:  it is also bearing false witness when you pretend to be uninterested and you really are interested.  We call this "playing hard to get," and it's bullcrap.  It you want to date someone, be forward.  Make it visible.  If they don't respond positively, they're not for you anyway.  Do you really want to be with someone who is turned off by how much you like them?  That sounds like a terrible relationship.

"But playing hard to get," you say, "is just part of the game.  They know I'm interested; I'm just making them work for it.  Aren't I worth the effort?"  Well, how do I put this delicately... no.  You're not.

Despite what the romantic comedies are teaching you (ah, there's an example of deceitful films as mentioned above), no relationship ought to be built on a foundation of lies.  When old people tell their dating stories and everyone laughs at the little lies and games and manipulations, I always feel all sorts of uncomfortable.  We're reacting as if it's cute.  Your husband was so persistent even in the face of all your rejections, how adorable!

No.  It's not adorable.

Bearing false witness isn't cute.  It isn't funny.  And it isn't okay.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The holiday spirit.

I have two blog post topics on my computer's little to-do list:  the "Holiday Spirit," and the beautiful Beatles song "All You Need Is Love."  I am actually just going to write about both of them at the same time, because the more I think of it, I realize that love IS the holiday spirit.

Thanksgiving is approaching, and that is the time of year when we turn to those who have blessed our lives and say, "hey, thanks, Guy Who Invented Egg Nog!  I bought some Pumpkin Egg Nog at the store yesterday and IT IS REALLY REALLY GOOD" (as a side note, no one knows who invented Egg Nog?  Wikipedia, you have failed me!).

Anyway, Thanksgiving is a time where we express love for those who have helped us.  We enjoy the reminder to thank our parents for raising us, thank our God for forgiving us, and thank our veterans for protecting us, etc.

At least, that's what Thanksgiving ought to be.  Maybe it isn't enough of the time.  Maybe too much of the time it is just a chance to get off work, eat gluttonously, and start shopping in anticipation of an overly-materialistic Christmas just around the corner.

Speaking of Christmas, let's talk about what that's all about.  We can all agree that Christmas is really special, regardless of whether we believe in Christ, right?  I've already written a pretty detailed article about Christmas on this blog in the past (you can click here to read that post if you want).  That was three years ago, but my thoughts are pretty much the same:  I believe that the Christmas holiday, and even the Christmas story itself, has a universal power that can transcend our personal religious beliefs if we let it.  But of course, it's easy to get lost in the chaos, the inane Tim Allen comedies, and the media's insistence that Christmas is really about BUYING ALL THE THINGS, you know what I mean?

You know what I mean.

So how can we make Thanksgiving and Christmas more meaningful this year?  How can we use this holiday season to avoid the trivialities of the world instead of to embrace them?

Maybe we just need to listen to John Lennon's lyrics a little more.

"All you need is love," sang the Beatles to the world in the June of 1967.  Literally, they sang this to the whole world, in a big international TV broadcast called "Our World," which an estimated 400 to 700 million people watched.  The Beatles specifically chose to play this song for the broadcast, as a message to the world:  a purposeful piece of propagandic art, with an unambiguous message:  love is everything.

This is the same message Jesus tried to share two thousand years ago.

Maybe if we remember that love is everything, that love is the center of all we ought to celebrate and emulate and be grateful for, then we can truly have a meaningful holiday season this year.  And that is all I have to say about that.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Merry Christmas, to all of you.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A case against football.

Okay, so I don't get sports.  Especially watching sports.  Especially watching football.

If you know me, you know this already.  And you probably also know that my roommates joke that I call it "foot-game."  I'll often walk into the living room to a crowd watching football on my TV, and I'll joke about how "oh, this is that one show you guys always watch.  The one with the multicultural people running into each other.  I think it's a re-run.  We've seen this episode, right?"

And the joke doesn't get old; everyone always seems to be amused that I am the only one who doesn't know or care what's going on.  But I wonder, why is that funny?  Why is football such a staple of our American society that it is weird and hilarious to not be obsessed with it?

I'm sure you can say all sorts of things about football being a metaphor for violently cathartic struggle, healthy competition, and the triumph of the human spirit, all that super-American stuff.  But is it really?  I don't buy it:  to me, I think football symbolizes something a little more brutish within us.

Football is modern-day gladiatorism.

Let's rewind the clock a little.  Between 300 BC and 500 AD (though it was most popular between 100 BC and 200 AD), Romans would watch "gladiators" do deadly battle with each other, with wild animals, and with condemned prisoners.  This was a widespread form of entertainment.  Gladiators were celebrated in Roman art, and pretty much universally recognized throughout the Empire.  Until, that is, people started getting all pious, and Christian writers like Tertullian wrote that "the combats were murder, their witnessing spiritually and morally harmful and the gladiator an instrument of pagan human sacrifice."  In other words, moral revelation spoiled the party.

Perhaps we need another Tertullian.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I recognize that there are huge differences between Roman gladiatorism and the NFL.  People don't typically die from playing professional football.  People aren't forced to play professional football.  And yes, those are huge differences.  But perhaps the biggest moral problem with gladiatorism is also the biggest problem with football:  it celebrates warlike and brutish traits and abilities that an advanced civilization (like, the Romans, or, the United States) really ought to have evolved past by now, doesn't it?

Maybe this sort of thing goes back to caveman times.  We are biologically trained to celebrate and glorify the men who can go kill the mammoth, because if you don't kill the mammoth, then your wife and kids starve, right?  So, obviously those who are physically able to kill mammoths deserve society's praise.  It is good to be big and strong and fast because if you're not, the mammoth will kill you and your family will be left without any mammothburgers?  I don't know.  I'm not a caveman expert.

At any rate, we don't live in that kind of society anymore.  We don't need to kill mammoths.  We don't need to glorify men whose greatest accomplishment in life is to be able to run really fast into other men and make the other men fall down.

At least, maybe we don't need to glorify them to the extent that we do.  Think about this:  the average annual salary for a football player in the NFL is $1.4 million.  To contrast, consider that the average High School teacher in America makes $53,988 every year.  That's roughly 1/26ths as much.  Every time a High School teacher earns enough to buy one value-sized Frosty at Wendy's, an NFL football player earns enough to buy a lunch for two at Outback Steakhouse.  With drinks.

Now, I'm not an economist, and I don't really know how money works.  I'll be the first to admit that.  But I feel like there's something wrong with this picture.  Why is football such an American tradition?  Why is it so important to our country that we spend money on football, on advertising for football, on fields for football, on uniforms and sponsors and equipment and paying the players and the coaches and the referees and the announcers and etc, etc, etc... it just seems excessive. Admittedly, maybe that's another American tradition:  excess.

I apologize that this post is turning into more of a rant than what I usually write.  Time to wrap it up:  I don't like football.  It's not just because it bores me (it does); it's not just because it turns people into over-competitive and prideful animals (it does, and Deiter F. Uchtdorf agrees with me).  It's because it reflects a societal craving for something we don't need to glorify anymore.  It reflects a widespread misplaced priority, an obsession with barbarians and bodily spectacles when what this world really needs is more teachers, writers, therapists, and artists.

I understand the value in appreciating dedication and teamwork.  But maybe we can take those principles away from the mammoth hunting lands, the battlegrounds, the Roman gladiatorial arenas, or the football fields.  Maybe we can learn and honor those principles in more civilized contexts where they will actually make a positive and lasting difference in society?

Maybe?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Existential isolation.

The following blog post is intensely personal.  I did not realize how personal it would be until I wrote it all out.  But perhaps I will post it anyway.  At any rate, you have been warned.

Let me tell you a little bit about what psychologists call the existential fear of isolation.

You are fundamentally alone. There is an unbridgeable gap between you and the rest of the world.

In other words, the space between you and other human beings - you and everything else, in fact - is this weird undefined medium about which you know very little.  All you really know, as the metaphysical solipsist is quick to point out, is your own thoughts.  Remember Descartes?  "Je pense; donc, je suis."  I think; therefore, I am.  In a sense, that is the only certainty.  All else is secondary, and somehow distant.  When you speak to a friend, that friend cannot share your mind or your feelings.  Your existence and your experience is yours only.  And therefore, in a very real sense, you are alone.

The isolation I have described above is something existential psychologists claim we are all afraid of.  It's one of the four things we all must come to grips with (the others are death, meaninglessness, and freedom; however, we don't have the time to fully address them here).  And it makes sense, right?  Isn't isolation sort of terrifying, when you think about it?

Well, I think so.  Because I think about it often.  In fact, I sort of have an existential crisis about once or twice a year (though I didn't really know what to call it until I came to college).

But I did not write this post to depress you.  I wrote it in hopes that anyone else with similarly recurring crises can learn from how I got out of my most recent one.

See, my past week and a half have been pretty rough.  I faced two or three of my existential fears, most of all isolation.  I had a lot of stress.  I did a lot of thinking.  I felt pretty lonely.  I got in a huge argument with a good friend, and shouted at him - for the first time in literally years I actually shouted at another human being in genuine anger.  Those of you who know me well know how rare that has become since I was a teenager.  I am a pretty mellow person.

But you know what?  In the midst of this existential crisis, I got a phone call from my mother, an email from my sister, and an apology (via text message) from someone who has hurt me.  All three of these communications were unsolicited, completely out of the blue.  People just wanted to say hi.  People just wanted to reach out to me.

God wanted to reach out to me.

And I suppose that is the testimony I would like to share with you.  I know that none of us are truly alone in the world.  According to the theorists, part of overcoming existentialist isolation is coming to grips with the fact that "the universe is indifferent to you."  But you know what?  It isn't.  The universe is not indifferent to you.

The universe depends on you.  You are a part of it.  A fundamental part, in fact:  if it were not for you, the universe would not be as it is.

I've previously mentioned the implications of a theology that defines God as passible, affected by our actions, and cooperative with us in the betterment of the world.  To repeat myself a little:  "the God I worship is not the 'Unmoved Mover' as described by Aristotle; instead, He is more like the 'Most Moved Mover' as described by Clark Pinnock.  He is a Father, as described in the scriptures.  He is co-operating with mankind in the universe, getting His hands dirty and striving, with us, to make the universe a better place.  I believe it is more accurate to describe God as a cooperator rather than a controller.  God is legitimately invested in relationships with His creations, and He is profoundly affected and moved by us.  In short, God sacrifices omnipotence (as traditionally defined) in order to grant us genuine free will."

That is why God reached out to me this week.  I am not unimportant to Him.  He shares this universe with me, and He wants to work together with me to make it a great place for the both of us.

And you know what?  That is why I am not alone or insignificant in the universe.  Furthermore, neither are you.

Our seeming metaphysical isolation is but an illusion.  While it is true that no other human being can share your mind or your soul, we are still all connected to each other, as brothers and sisters under God.  When we reconnect with Him, then we can reconnect with one another.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The myth of self-sufficiency.

I think in American culture we spend a lot of time talking about being self-sufficient, self-reliant, independent.

After all, this is the "home of the free," is it not?  What's more free than absolute self-sufficiency?

Since childhood, we are taught that the emphasis is on learning to "grow up," but what does it mean to be a grown-up?  I think often being a grown-up is defined as being able to do things on your own.  Maybe that definition is flawed.

I'm not saying we should stop encouraging kids to do things on their own.  It's good to be able to tie your own shoes, brush your own teeth, pick your own outfits, or earn your own paychecks.

But maybe being "on your own" shouldn't be our emphasis.  We hurry up to grow up, and when we finally get there, we expect to be able to do everything ourselves.  And in my experience, that's simply not the case.  I think self-sufficiency, not in any specific sense, but as a general philosophy, is a heck of a myth.

Who am I?  I am a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a student, and an enthusiastic audience for good film and good music.  I suppose I am a lot of things.  Most importantly, I am a disciple of Christ.  None of these things I use to describe myself are possible independently.  I cannot fill any of these roles self-sufficiently.

I cannot be a son, brother, or uncle, unless I have parents, siblings, and nephews or nieces.  I cannot be a friend without friends or a student without teachers.  I cannot be an audience without artists.  And of course, I cannot be a disciple without a Master.  It seems that, in a way, I cannot be anything without my relationships with others.  They define me; they create me.

There is something to be said for financial self-reliance.  It is honorable to try to stay out of debt, to try to provide for yourself.  I try to do that.  I hate to borrow.  But when we take this idea of self-reliance too far, I think it can be psychologically damaging.

Emotional self-reliance?  What is that?  When a romantic relationship ends, for example, it's easy to say, "I need to work on my emotional self-reliance and learn to be happy on my own."  But what do we really mean when we say that?  Surely we don't want to be alone.  Is there such a thing as full, complete happiness in isolation?  Maybe we are supposed to be lonely when we're alone, so that we can better appreciate the sublime happiness that comes from being with another human being.  We are surrounded by people in this world; we were made to build connections with each other.  When we don't, we're not being bravely independent - we're being stubbornly self-limiting.  In a way, there is no such thing as emotional independence, for there are some emotions that literally cannot exist until you force yourself to connect with someone else.

Next, let me address what I think is an obvious lie:  "spiritual self-reliance."  I do not believe it exists.

Now, don't get me wrong - I do believe in what the scriptures call "works."  I do believe there are things we ought to do and there is effort we ought to spend if we want to achieve happiness and eventual salvation.  But that does not mean we are spiritually self-reliant.  It just means we are working.

Spiritually speaking, I am wholly dependent on my Savior for all things.  All strength and power, all light and truth, comes from Him.  When the scriptures speak of "grace," they are talking about an empowering gift from the Heavens, a gift that turns sinners into saints.  Certainly it requires spiritual effort to show God we are willing to accept His grace, and it requires spiritual perseverance to keep that grace working in our lives, but in the end, it is still grace - it is still a gift that no measure of supposed self-reliance could achieve without Divine help.

I realize many of my readers are not Christian, not religious, or not even spiritually-minded.  I hope my thoughts provide something useful anyhow.  Regardless of whether we believe in a Supreme Being, I think it's important to remember that we are not alone in the world.  If our only companions in this Universe are flawed mortals, they are companions nonetheless - and we are defined by them.

Indeed, as the English poet once wrote:  "no man is an island."  And for that, I am glad.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Muggles, magic, and movies.

So I just went to the midnight showing of the last Harry Potter film that will ever be made. It's the end of an era, for sure. And yes, let's get this out of the way: I basically enjoyed it. But I have to admit, I didn't feel the magic as much as I expected to.

Art, in my opinion, is best when it says something about the human experience. And when a film reflects real life (either directly or abstractly) in a poignant, powerful way, you can tell the difference. You can feel the magic in it.

The film we saw eight months ago, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," had genuine magic in it. The scene where Hermione dances with Harry in a tent in the wilderness is my absolute favorite scene in the entire film series. It's emotionally engaging. It develops the characters. I got a real sense of sadness, hope, friendship, and fear from that moment. All of that was achieved without any flashing lights or magic words - even without any dialogue or camera tricks. Now that is good cinema.

Witchcraft and wands are great fun and all, but there's something to be said about how the most emotionally powerful moment in over nineteen hours of footage is a scene in which two magical folks do something that any Muggle could do:  dance.

At any rate, this new film, "Part 2," finishes off the Deathly Hallows story and the entire Harry Potter saga with essentially two hours of climax.  So perhaps there's no more time for character development because they already did that eight months ago when they filmed the first half of the book.  But that's a poor excuse.  I really should have felt something more.  I really wanted to feel something more.  As much as I liked the movie, I wanted to love it, and I felt like I couldn't.

People died left and right in this film.  There are a lot of casualties in the final battle.  But I felt nothing, even when looking death straight in the face.  What's worse, it seemed like many of the characters felt nothing as well.  There were brief periods of mourning, and then the film moved on eagerly, trying as hard as it could to be an action movie.

The only death in the movie that really got an emphatic reaction out of the audience was the death of a villain.  I saw no tears in the theater when heroes laid down their lives, but I heard plenty of jeers, cheers, and laughter when a certain villain was defeated.  Is that something to be proud of?  That the strongest feeling we got out of this experience (or at least, the feeling we most strongly expressed) was a celebration of killing?

That sort of thing is excusable, if you're a mindless action movie.  But isn't Harry Potter supposed to be more than mindless action and explosions?  Isn't it supposed to be an epic drama about love, friendship, sacrifice, and courage?

I offer a disclaimer:  I haven't read all of the books yet.  Therefore I have had to look at these films with a sort of unique perspective.  My concern is that most of them refuse to stand on their own two feet.  Instead of developing their characters and asking us to care about life and death, they would rather assume their audience is already in love with the characters.  If they assume that work has already been done, it gives them more time to focus on pretty effects and things blowing up.

I'm not entirely disappointed, but I'm certainly underwhelmed.  Believe me, there are plenty of pretty effects and things blowing up.  Plenty of "magic," in one sense of the word.  But to this Muggle, it all just didn't feel magical enough.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pain, faith, and a bird.

So, I saw something sort of extraordinary a few days ago.

I work two jobs at the moment. One of them is at a place called "Provo Beach Resort." It's a family fun place, with arcade games and bowling and a carousel and indoor surfing and all sorts of stuff like that. Anyway, it's a very big facility. And somehow, birds have recently found a way to get into the building. I'd say two or three birds find their way inside every week. And then they get stuck, and frantically look for a way out.

A few days ago, we had a bird in the kitchen. It was trying to get away, and in the process it flew violently into a few windows and got pretty hurt.

Eventually, it must have hit its head pretty hard against a clear glass door, because it stopped trying to escape. It just stood on the floor, beak gaping open, breathing heavily and occasionally twitching around and staring at us. It was traumatized.

"That bird is going to die," my boss said, matter-of-factly. Probably true, I thought. It can't handle the shock. You can tell by looking at it.

My boss put on some gloves and carefully picked the bird up. The bird didn't fight or flee, didn't react at all. Then my boss took it outside and set it down on some nearby mulch. I watched out the window as the confused bird stood there, beak still gaping open.

The bird stood in the exact same spot, only twitching its head occasionally, for eleven minutes straight. I couldn't take my eyes off it. It was terrified, confused, and hurt.

I knew it was going to die.

Then, suddenly, the bird seemed to spring to life. With new strength, it immediately flew away, and never looked back. I breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow, that bird had overcome its shock - had overcome the surprise and hurt of its traumatizing experience. The bird had found within itself the faith to fly again.

Often we get hurt, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. Life hurts. Love hurts. And sometimes we get really surprised at how painfully we can fail at our endeavors. We get traumatized. We get paralyzed. We look around in confusion, wondering how things went wrong, wondering how the apparent path to beautiful freedom turned out to be a glass window all along. Wondering how we got so hurt.

And when the nightmare ends, and we are left outside by ourselves, we might act just like that bird did for eleven minutes: unable or unwilling to do anything but breathe. Afraid to go anywhere or do anything, unwilling to trust that the rest of the world isn't out to get us.

But in the end, there is still strength in us. We just have to remember it. Once we do, we can rediscover our faith. We can go forward with a knowledge that the world has so much more to offer than pain.

We can fly again.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Healthy habits.

I've read articles that say emotional health, physical health, mental health, and spiritual health are all linked. Theoretically, it makes sense, but I never really took it seriously until about two weeks ago.

Often when I feel spiritually stagnant, I re-dedicate myself to daily scripture study and more earnest prayer. I make goals, I keep track of them, and I feel a lot better about myself for a little while until eventually I slip back into stagnancy again, and subsequently wonder what has happened to me.

But maybe I was approaching it the wrong way. A couple weeks ago, I decided to use a more well-rounded approach. Every day I want to read and study the scriptures, offer sincere prayer, eat two or three [healthy] meals, get at least six hours of sleep, drink eight glasses of water, write (or draw, or compose) something creatively expressive, meditate for a few minutes, clean/tidy my room, and exercise. That's nine daily goals. It gives me a lot more to pay attention to and to be accountable for. I find I feel a lot better about life when I do all nine of them.

Anyway, I just thought I'd share this new method of mine. Everyone gets depressed. Everyone gets lazy. Everyone feels unhealthy once in a while. Maybe one of you readers could benefit from doing something like this. I think it's helping me, at least.

Like I said, it's only been a couple of weeks. And I've missed a day here, a day there. So my results are far from conclusive. But once I get these things to be regular, consistent habits, I expect to be a lot healthier in every way.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why pray?

As you probably know, there was a huge tsunami in Japan a couple months ago, and almost 25,000 people are dead or missing because of it.

For most religious persons, disasters like this are an obvious time for prayer.  As a first reaction to this sort of catastrophe, we will get on our knees and plead with our Maker.  "Please bless and watch over the Japanese during this difficult time," we say.  And there are probably many of us who have literally done nothing else concerning the disaster, besides pray.

A good friend of mine (whom I'd call a "devout" atheist) posted the following status as his reaction on Facebook:  "Everyone that's praying to their god(s) for Japan... You do realize they're Shintoists, right?"  According to the dozens of comments, it seemed the rhetorical questions being asked were twofold:  "first, if those who believe differently than you do are going to Hell anyway, why would you think your God cares about them; and second, if God had the power to stop that tsunami, but didn't, what makes you think His intentions are benevolent as opposed to arbitrary or even vicious?"

(The first question is called "the soteriological problem of evil," and I discussed it briefly in the beginning of an older post (which you can read here, if you'd like).  So, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to sort of skip over it.)

I have to admit, I never fully noticed how truly baffling prayer must look to an outside observer.  One commenter on the aforementioned Facebook post described prayer derogatorily as "clenching your hands together and talking to yourself," while another asked, "[has] praying ever actually helped anyone out?  [Or is it merely] a way for people to feel good about themselves, without actually having to do anything to help."

My purpose in this post is to explore some of the reasons why people pray (though, admittedly, I can only speak for myself; my descriptions of other people's intentions will be little more than speculation).  I feel like my atheist friends have raised some questions that are worth asking, and that deserve at least an attempt at some answers.

So, why do we pray?  Sometimes we pray for guidance.  Sometimes we pray for comfort.  Sometimes we pray for forgiveness.  Sometimes we pray asking for a favorable event to occur, or for an unfavorable event to be prevented by divine intervention.

These reasons are not necessarily "bad," but maybe they're sort of self-centered, in a way.  If they are our only reasons for prayer, then our God becomes little more than a Santa Claus, from whom we want to demand our preferred gifts.  Maybe this is why my atheist friends are confused.  Let's face it:  if there is a God, He is not Santa Claus.  He doesn't give you anything you ask for (even if you've been a "good" boy or girl).  If that were the case, bad things wouldn't happen to good people, or at least, bad things wouldn't happen to good people who pray.  I think it's obvious that God's intended relationship with us is not centered on providing for all our desires.  He wants to help us, yes; He loves us.  But as any parent knows, sometimes love is more about teaching us to fish than it is about giving us fish.  If all we do is ask for fish when we pray, we might not be getting everything out of the relationship that He intends us to.

So perhaps if we want to interact with God more maturely, we ought to know what He wants with us.  What are His intentions?  Everyone has different answers to that question, and maybe that's why everyone prays in a different way, and everyone prays for different reasons.  Maybe that's why some people pray for hours during their free time, while others pray only when participating in religious ceremony.  Maybe that's why some people will only acknowledge God and pray to Him when life is easy, while others only remember Him when life is hard.

I think the main reasons I pray are to either express gratitude or to discuss personal spiritual goals.  I want to "go on record," so to speak, with the parts of my personality I'd like to improve.  I feel like when I talk things over with my Heavenly Father, it adds a sense of accountability.  "I promised God I'd do _____, so I'm going to do it," I'll tell myself.  In my experience, that has a much stronger effect than mere meditation.  And talking to fellow human beings is great too, of course - but I feel like there are some things only God can understand.

And there's the kicker.  God can understand.  To my atheist readers:  please try to imagine the idea of a Being who literally understands everything.  It's a powerful idea.  Many of your friends, myself included, honestly believe such a Being exists.  I think this is one of the biggest reasons why we talk to Him.  It's not like we all hear a voice replying to us (though some do), but think about it.  If you want to talk about cars, sports, or music, wouldn't you prefer to talk to someone who understands cars, sports, or music?  Even if they don't talk back, it's more fulfilling to pour your thoughts into someone if you know that your words won't go in one ear and out the other.  That's why people with similar interests flock together.  If I want to discuss the philosophical implications of a film I've just watched, there are certain people I'll bring it up to, and certain people I won't.  And with God, you can bring up anything.

Let's see if we can take a step back now and try to address the original controversy.  "Why pray for the Japanese," my friends wonder, "if your God obviously let the tsunami happen?"  And here's where we get to a question of what kind of God we worship.

Let's stay with the tsunami example:  why did that happen?  Did God directly make it happen?  If you believe so, then you must believe that either 1) nature is not a mostly-autonomous force but is only the manifestation of divine whim, or 2) Japan just plain deserved it.  Either way, you're stuck with the implications that God can be blamed for literally everything that happens in this world.

I think that sort of idea paints a false image of who God really is.  I don't think God is into micromanaging, being in control of every little thing and every big thing and invisibly holding us all by strings, like a puppeteer holding his puppets.  If He were, then whether we pray or not would really be up to Him anyway - but if we were to pray, perhaps we would only ask Him for things we want, and then we would stop trying to achieve that thing ourselves.  After all, if God's completely in charge, then He's the one to ask.  This sort of theology is dangerous because it has the potential to make us lazy.  "I have a smoking addiction," we say, "but my life is in God's hands.  If it's His will that I get the strength to quit, then I'll be able to quit."  This kind of thinking is why people pray for tsunami victims to get help without actually doing anything themselves to help the tsunami victims.  Even if God didn't "make" the mess, it's His mess, we say.  And the spiritually lazy part of us wants to just let Him clean it up.  We then dismiss all urges to take action, and instead we just pray, really hard, that God will sort it all out.  Let's not pretend like this kind of thinking doesn't happen.  Many of us are guilty of it now and then.  We want to worship a God who's micromanaging everything in the world, so we can have an easier time blaming Him for our problems and relying solely on Him for our solutions.

Is it any wonder why atheists wonder why such a God would be worth worshiping?

I suggest that God didn't make the tsunami happen. "Well, sure," you say, "but He let it happen, at least.  Why didn't He prevent it?"  And again, we're back to the selfishness.  What is it that we really want from God?  Do we really want Him to prevent anything that's bad?  Or maybe we recognize that the universe needs to have opposition, some good and some bad, some yin and some yang - and we want God to only prevent the things that are really, really bad.  Are we saying we're qualified to draw that line, the line that defines which things are permissible, versus the things that are so bad they absolutely cannot be allowed in the universe?

When we're confused about unfortunate or evil things in the world, it's easy to be mad at God, to make a villain out of Him.  But just because God allowed a tsunami doesn't mean He hates us, or doesn't care about us.  Perhaps God is pained by seeing it happen, too.  I think it's safe to say He never wanted it to happen.  Then why didn't He stop it, you ask?  Because He's chosen to put limits on how He uses His power.  If God were without any limits whatsoever, if He were infinitely transcendent, beyond space and time, etc, then He'd be awfully detached from mankind, in the same way you feel detached from ants or amoebas.

The God I worship is not detached from mankind by the infinity and timelessness that early Christians borrowed from the prevalent Greek philosophies of what perfection means.  In other words, my God is not responsible for everything that happens in the universe.  He's certainly not responsible for my actions, for example:  I am.

Put another way:  the God I worship is not the "Unmoved Mover" as described by Aristotle; instead, He is more like the "Most Moved Mover" as described by Clark Pinnock.  He is a Father, as described in the scriptures.  He is co-operating with mankind in the universe, getting His hands dirty and striving, with us, to make the universe a better place.  I believe it is more accurate to describe God as a cooperator rather than a controller.  God is legitimately invested in relationships with His creations, and He is profoundly affected and moved by us.  In short, God sacrifices omnipotence (as traditionally defined) in order to grant us genuine free will.

And that is why I pray to Him.  I want to build and develop my relationship with Him.  I believe we're on the same team.  If I really thought He was in absolute control of every little thing, I wouldn't bother to talk to Him or ask Him for inspiration:  I'd just lazily trust that whatever ends up happening is going to be His will, anyway.  And if that were the case, why would I try to help Him, cooperate with Him, or communicate with Him?  Puppets do not need to talk to puppet-masters.  But students do need to talk to professors; children do need to talk to parents.  And I do need to talk to my God.

I would like to point out one more reason why I find prayer so helpful in my life:  it reminds me to acknowledge that I am not alone in the universe.  Therefore I prevent being excessively prideful, or excessively lonely.  I can always stay humbled, reminding myself through habitual prayer that I ought to acknowledge the Divine; meanwhile I can also stay comforted, reminding myself that I needn't face my challenges entirely alone.

To sum up my reasons for prayer:  I pray because I believe that God wants to have a personal relationship with me, and my interaction with Him makes me feel like that relationship is strengthening.  When I don't pray, I feel the difference.  I feel further away from Him, in the same way that I feel further away from friends or family members when I don't speak to them often enough.

And when I pray on behalf of others, I legitimately believe that God has the power to offer them comfort or help, but I also acknowledge that God doesn't work alone, and that He will often need me to do my part to act, to comfort, and to be the answer to my (or others') prayers.

I know this post is a little disorganized and probably long-winded.  It has been sitting here for two months in "draft" mode, and I thought tonight would be a good opportunity to sit down and write all the thoughts that have been stewing in my mind.  I don't know if these ideas have come out as articulately as I would have liked them to.  So, maybe it's more of a rushed treatment than the subject matter deserves.  For that, I apologize.

If anyone has any additional insights or questions, please leave me a note in the comments, and I'll be happy to discuss more!

Monday, March 7, 2011

A belated resolution.

It's been a little while since I've updated this blog.  I apologize.  It's been sort of an eventful few weeks, and I've been distracted by trying to psychologically deal with some changes in my life.

Speaking of changes, did anyone make New Years resolutions for 2011?  I know I did.  But now that March has arrived, I feel like it's that special time of year when we realize how many of our goals we've failed at.  Maybe that's just me.  But if you have also fallen short on some resolutions, believe me, you are not alone.  I'd like to share with you one of my New Years resolutions.  I added this one last month, very belatedly but I thought it was sort of important so it did not matter if I hadn't thought of it by January 1st.

It is as follows:  for every ONE negative, judgmental, or cynical thing I think (or write, or say), I will think (or write, or say) TWO positive, congratulatory, or optimistic things.

I'm sort of an overly sarcastic and critical person sometimes, so perhaps this goal will help.  If you think you will be similarly helped by it, I invite you to join me.  Maybe our experience of 2011's remaining ten months will be benefited thereby!



P.S. as you may have heard, I have very recently started a new blog in addition to this one.  The new one is a webcomic of sorts, and so far the plan is that I'll be drawing and posting a new comic three times a week (every M/W/F).  Check it out at drawingsandjokes.blogspot.com if you'd like!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On "faith."

I had an interesting discussion with a coworker the other day. He claimed his main reason for being non-religious was that he had no sense of "faith." he didn't trust anything that he couldn't see, touch, smell, taste, or hear. In other words, he was a pure empiricist: the whole of reality, he claimed, can be tested and experienced and proven. None else can be rightly called "truth."

Furthermore, he seemed to hold a thinly veiled disdain for anyone whose epistemological tendencies differed from his. It seemed he thought that whoever believed in something they couldn't prove was full of it.

"And don't get started on that wind bulls--t," he warned. "Everyone always brings up the wind. 'How do you prove the wind exists? You can't see it.' But that's stupid. I can feel the wind." And he's right, of course. I told him I agreed: the wind is probably a bad example to illustrate the meaning of faith. The wind can be experienced in a very real and tangible and measurable way. It's empirical.

But what about tomorrow? I asked him. Can you prove that tomorrow will happen?

"No, you can't," he admitted.

Well, then, do you believe that tomorrow will happen?

This is where he hesitated. Of course he believes tomorrow will happen. To say "no" (as he eventually--stubbornly--did) would be a lie: why come to work, if you felt no expectation to receive the paycheck? Why purchase anything with that paycheck, if you don't expect it to benefit your future? In short, why sow without expecting to reap? All of life's activity indicates a sort of faith that there will indeed be a thing called "tomorrow," even though we cannot prove it will happen.

Now of course you can counterargue with something like this: "mathematically, given there is a 1, there must be a 2; and given there is a 2, there must be a 3; and so on. Therefore, given that there was a yesterday and a today, the existence of tomorrow is a mathematical necessity."

But that doesn't really solve the practical problem of all. Even if tomorrow's nonexistence is a mathematical impossibility, you still have no reason to believe you will be around to see it. And yet you live as if you certainly will be. You make investments, you make friends, you make promises - all based on faith that if/when tomorrow comes, you will be there.

"Well," you can argue even more, "that's not blind faith. That is faith based on solid empirical evidence - namely, the decades I've been alive. I am not assuming I'll live tomorrow based on nothing; I'm assuming it based on the fact that, countless of other times, that's how it's happened in the past."

Ah yes, but who told you the future will resemble the past? We all make this assumption, but as philosopher Bertrand Russell pointed out, we have no way of knowing it to be true. It is based on circular logic: we assume the future will resemble the past, because it always has in the past. Is that really sufficient reason?

How do you know the sun will rise tomorrow morning? "It always has," you could say, but then you run into the problem just described. Alternately, you could appeal to the laws of spatial motion, but then I'd have to ask you: "how do you know those laws will still hold true tomorrow?" You would have to shrug and say, "they always have." And, we've run into the same problem as before, only in a more roundabout way.

Now, I certainly don't want to say that belief in such unprovable things is a bad thing. Quite the contrary: it's important that we believe the sun will rise, that tomorrow will happen. Those beliefs are extremely helpful. But let's always remember that they're based on an unfounded philosophical assumption ("the future will resemble the past"), just like religion is based on an unfounded philosophical assumption ("there is a God"). So if one wishes to attack religious behavior by claiming it isn't based on valid assumptions, they would have to attack most of human behavior by the same principle.

In short, we all act on faith. All 6.8 billion of us on this little planet. It is how we live. The only difference between us is what we choose to place our faith in.

A footnote: I am tempted to bring up the plethora of persons whose cases were studied by William James in his legendary book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience." James calls their supernatural encounters "quasi-sensible," but still very real. Some day, we'll discuss the exact nature of such experiences in more depth. But that is a topic for another day.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

With 24 hours to live.

I just figured out why I'm still awake at 4 AM tonight. Sure, I've got that adrenaline rush that naturally comes when I stay up too late and my body forgets that I'm tired... but in the back of my mind, the real reason is that I'm sort of nervous about dreaming.

See, I had one of the most terrifying dreams of my life last night. And I'm about to tell you all about it, because I think it taught me some important things.

The dream didn't specify how I knew this, but in my dream, I somehow knew that I was going to die in exactly 24 hours. The entire dream took place during that one last day, the day of dreaded certain finality: the day that I knew would be my last in mortality.

Sometimes dreams have very vivid kinetic images, very memorable stories and events and information. This one didn't. My memory of this dream is certainly vivid, but only in an emotional way. The specifics of this dream's story did not matter; all that stuck with me is how it felt.

I remember that I spent most of my dream-time sitting down at tables and speaking with people, like family members or friends. These conversations were long, expressive, significant, and heartfelt. I don't remember what was said, or to whom I spoke, but I remember spending my time sharing feelings of appreciation, affection, and apology. I remember feeling a burden lift from my shoulders as I told loved ones how much gratitude I felt for the things they had done for me, and how much I wish I had helped them or listened to them more often - and more earnestly.

Two strong opposing emotions kept battling within me for dominance:

On one hand, I felt a pressing sense of urgency, like there were more things I needed to get done before my time was spent. More people to see, things to say, experiences to have, projects to wrap up, assignments to finish - and even dishes to clean.

On the other hand, I felt a strong sense of calm, a feeling that insisted I enjoy the here and now, that I let the current moment envelop my entire consciousness. This feeling pushed all the worry out of my head, adamantly refusing to let me fret about other tasks that needed to be fulfilled. I had too little time to worry about to-do lists, and the little time I had deserved to be relished and fully experienced.

No matter which of the two emotions listed above was "winning," at any given time I felt a third emotion, constantly and powerfully: regret.

I felt regretful that I had been so easily distracted, so easily manipulated, and so easily frightened in life. I felt regretful for the harsh words or overly critical judgments that I'd tossed casually at other human beings. I felt regretful that I had spent so much of my precious time focusing on materialistic or trivial pursuits. In short, I felt like I had not given enough.

At the same time, there was a hint of anger. I felt angry that it was my time so soon, and that I had not yet received the opportunity to marry and start a family. I felt angry that I did not have control over when I left this life. In short, I felt like the universe had not given me enough.

However, despite the regret and anger, not all of my emotions were negative. I did feel a strange sense of serenity throughout the whole experience, a feeling that seemed to say, "it is all right. You cannot change the past and you cannot control the future, but you can live right now, so you had better focus on that."

And I think that was the message. I am not usually one to interpret my dreams as messages, but perhaps I was supposed to learn from this one. Life isn't about checklists, and we shouldn't spend our time worrying about money, or things, or tasks. And life isn't about the universe "owing" you anything, either: the anger I felt in my dream was unjustified, and I knew it.

Life is about the relationships we build with other human beings, the relationship we build with God, and the experience of, well, of experience. If we don't stop to recognize that once in a while, we might let weeks or months or decades go by without feeling genuinely happy, genuinely home, or even genuinely human. Maybe that is what terrifies me most about this dream: the end of my life was approaching, and I didn't even feel like I had given my allotted time the attention it deserved. I felt like a child getting his toy taken away and thinking, "I wanted to play with that! But I forgot I had it."

After all, haven't you ever looked up while driving and thought: "Oh! I forgot those mountains were there. They are beautiful. Why do I not notice them every day?" I know I have done that. Hopefully from now on we can try to notice the mountains more often.