Sunday, March 16, 2014

Something Against the Grey Death, a Poem and an Exegesis

Something Against the Grey Death

Sometimes I believe in Beauty when snow falls.
The city is white, clean, and pure.
Then soot falls, dirt falls, greyness returns.

* * *
It is bad form to comment on one's own work, poetry especially, but since it appears no one writes the way that I do, I feel it is necessary.

First "the Grey Death" is what I call my depression of the last 3 years. I don't think much of an explanation is necessary. This last episode was the worst that I've ever had both in terms of duraton and in terms of the deadness of my emotional and intellectual life. Looking back, my days weren't black and weren't white either. They were spent in a never never land of grey nothingness. I was more dead than alive.

I didn't become aware of a dual quality in this poem until sometime after I finished it. First there is the beauty of a snowfall. Freshly fallen snow is white, clean and pure. It is how fresh snow is. Snow starts out clean and white and then over time, soot, dirt causing the snow to turn grey. The beauty of snow is temporary. There is the physical process of decay.

Capitalizing "Beauty" makes the poem also about an abstraction, arguably a Platonic Form. There is more to the poem than just a physical process. The beauty of the snowfall itself is an instance of beauty. The worldly instances of Beauty are mortal. They will decay because that is what mortality and death do. Using the language of transcendence makes this a poem about immortality and the escape from the decay of this world. This instance of Beauty, in this case that of a snowfall, suggests that there is something more than decay and mortality, or in this case something more than the Grey Death: recovery is possible, even if hope is not. The Grey Death is part of the world's decay and of mortality. It is an illness, another infirmity of the body.

The phrase "Sometimes I believe in Beauty" makes this poem about the poet's state of mind. Sometimes the poet believes in Beauty because of (presumably) recurrent experiences of beauty. The poet does not always believe in the transcendence of Beauty.The phrase makes the poem psychological and not metaphysical. Suggesting that a metaphysical or religious interpretation is a red herring and that experiences of transcendence are to explained without recourse to extra-natural causes and sources. Metaphysics is ultimately a sociological and psychological phenomenon, even if "belief in" and its variants are most commonly associated with "belief in God" and in a world other than the natural one.

"Sometimes" implies that the poet has had this experience at other times and that the feeling of transcendence does not always occur when in the presence of an instance of Beauty. "Sometimes" then means that sometimes the poet does not notice instances of Beauty. When this is taken along with the title it suggests one of the effects of the Grey Death: an incapacity to appreciate Beauty in any form.

Using the language of transcendence to write about something experienced the poet is pointing to a moment of eternity. Using the language of subjectivity means this poem is ultimately not about a moment of transcendence or God disclosing Himself, or similar nonsense. God's self-disclosure would give the poet a taste of what lies beyond this world. Not eternity as infinite duration of time, but eternity as timelessness. Eternity as a perfect moment when the world is finished and perfect, even beautiful.

Finally, the title. "Against the Grey Death" means this poem and its recognition of an instance of Beauty suggest that this poem is not a resignation in the face of life's decay and mortality. Instances of Beauty mean that depression, decay, and mortality are not all that life has to offer. Although it is not explicit in the poem, it is implied, however, that part of Beauty is the decay of its instances. If one is desired then the other is too. The old cliche is apt: death is part of life and life is more than decay, eventual corruption, and ultimately mortality.

All this about 3 lines (4 if you count the title)? Part of my aesthetic is a maximum of meaning with a minimum of language. A poem for me is the record of an experience, an insight into my life, Life, or relationships. Compaction of meaning gives me pleasure, a feeling of accomplishment.


Sorry for slipping in publishing

I haven't published anything since March 1st. It's not that I'm not writing. It's that I haven't been able to finish anything. I'm hoping to have something about science and religion ready in a day or two.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Some Reflections on Impotence

Feelings of impotence do not always come as a quick knife stab to my stomach. Sometimes they are a slow cut that draws out the torture. I am able to function, if only just barely, on automatic. My emotive responses are dampened. If I cannot cut into my body, then I cut into myself. Not being able to do anything about the latest provocation makes for disgust. It is loathsome to find oneself unable. Weakness is contemptible. Anger, even helpless anger, wants a focus and object. What remains?Feelings, thoughts, whatever is held dear. What alone is forbidden? Torturing others. Whatever honesty I might possess comes from this. Power and superiority out of revenge on concepts.

The inner life of others may be a friendly dialogue, mine is a shooting war. I cannot even give myself credit for what others would regard as a virtue. I am too eager to believe bad things about myself. I am unable to say even if only to myself that I am good. This willingness to suspicion is not that I should be the worst sinner, but that I cannot rest in the conviction that I am the worst sinner ever or in any other conviction. I don’t deserve the benefits and comfort that certainty would bring. This is the punishment I visit upon myself.

With the loss of a higher world from which virtue and beauty came , virtue arises out of blood and filth. Virtue has a biography. The peculiarities of my upbringing and life make me at times painfully aware of the mundane origins of truthfulness. The knowledge of its origins makes for shame. The blood and gore of my inner life make it doubtful that any portrayal could ever be tolerable.

With the way that I go on and on about the brutality of my inner life, it is easy to overlook when I forget myself and feel myself divine. And that too is a denial of certainty. Abject humility coupled with raging egoism. Maybe I am still Christian and long to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Or, maybe irony and self-mockery are the path to divinity.

Returning to the theme of impotence, it is the incapacity to reply in kind that provokes painful sensations of powerlessness. The infliction of a hurt in the material world begets the desire to inflict a hurt also in the material world. Where there is an impotence in one sphere, compensation is sought in another. Does this mean revenge fantasies stem from a lack of imagination?

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Common Ground?

An accusation that Christians make against atheists is that the Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s destruction of European Jewry, Pol Pot, etc were caused by atheism. Atheists commonly retort by pointing to the Spanish Inquisition, the Reverend Jim Jones, the persecution of gays by Evangelicals, the protections afforded by Evangelicals to bullies in schools, and the like. Atheists may have the greater number of victims, but the religious have had to work harder, not having the advantages of modern technology for most of their history.

An examination of the examples given by both sides shows that human beings with or without religion give into systemic violence, scapegoating, conformity for the sake of conformity. Neither religion nor liberation from religion make a person good by whatever definitions of good, religion, or liberation. Christianity might have an edge over most forms of atheism with its Doctrine of the Fall and the consequent corruption moral and otherwise of human beings. Does recognition of humanity’s depravity justify belief in God and the angels?

A system of beliefs, Christian or otherwise, does not provide protection from iniquity and fanaticism. Intentions count for little or nothing. Each of us is responsible before God for his or her actions, as a Christian might say, even if many cede this responsibility at the first opportunity to beliefs, employers, governments, churches, and so on. Does truth make some choices inescapable? Is this another use of truth? Truth as a means to avoid responsibility and be a holy terror with a clear conscience?

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Self-Doubt

For me doubt takes the form of a fear of self-deception. I fear that I am only fooling myself to think well of myself or that my efforts for anything are of little value. I suspect that any striving for health or self-mastery is merely a half-hearted attempt to avoid unpleasant and painful feelings. I want to believe that I am using this blog to a good end and that my efforts will lead to a better and healthier emotional life. “Wanting” is almost proof in itself of deceit. Mistrust of my efforts dominates evaluations of thoughts and emotional life. Suspicion comes naturally to me.

Distrust presumes that there are “apparent” and “deceptive” motives as opposed to “real” and “true” motives. Such belief in deception almost implies faith in a conspiracy. I oppose my best efforts. I turn against them. Do I sabotage my best efforts? Are the recurring doubts of my best intentions a result of my Christian upbringing? A vestige of the sacrifice of all human goodness for the sake of a wise, all good God? Do I still harbor a belief in the fundamental sinfulness of myself and by extension in the sinfulness of other people? I alone am morally corrupt? Or is the self-doubt a symptom of a weak character? A defect of my background and upbringing? Can this lack of faith in myself be explained as manifestation of internalization of an abusive father and as such banal narcissism? Is biography destiny? Am I forgetting biology in order to indulge in introspection and avoid other people? Do I want more than I am capable of? Questions beget questions. Do I even want answers?
Doubt denies me any certainty whether of a corrupt nature or of a psychological explanation. I no longer know what to do with “absolute certainty” and “absolute truth.” Shades of uncertainty rule my life. Doubt is self-torture. Hence my other posts about the co-equality of unity and multiplicity of the self. My experience does not allow me unthinking faith in an essential oneness of soul. I am occasionally tempted to rest a little in Christianity.

Then there are the days when the doubt goes to sleep. It does not seem so hopeless that somehow I will be able to establish boundaries to the doubt. I would be able to get on with my life and start projects and undertakings. I would be able to love without tearing apart the object of my love. Then out of its slumber it wakes more ferocious and violent than before, as if it were a beast of prey lying in wait.

It is my belief that doubt will be overcome not by fighting it to the death as if to kill it once and for all, but by finding a purpose for it, by making use of it. Sometimes, though, the self-doubt appears to be an intellectual manifestation of more general self-destructive tendencies begotten by guilt. Could my salvation lie not in excision and sleep but in never ending opposition and conflict. Sometimes the doubt appears as a force of nature. My greatest danger is engaging in endless introspection and ratiocination in search of that useless combination of feelings that only would only make me feel better. The feeling of resolve is not resolve. Before the depression I used to say that I did not live my life with respect to pleasure and pain: I lived for my goals and desires. Now I find myself unable to set goals and I lack the vigor for desires (hopefully transient and from depression). Hence this blog as a project and diversion in my recuperation from depression.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Writing

I was surprised to find out that I like writing. I look forward to evenings because I have time to write. In the past writing was a transcription of thoughts and thinking. I did not like not knowing where I would end up. I was too timid to investigate. I knew what I was going to write before I sat down at the computer. Now, often I only know the start of a post or the topic. The writing and the thinking are simultaneous. Consequently, this blog is primarily a series of investigations. I do not know what route the investigation will take, nor where it will end up.

Writing is an antidote to a surfeit of self-consciousness, an important part of depression. A major symptom of depression is being paralyzingly self-critical. Nothing is ever good enough. Sometimes I am aware of every thought, emotion, and bodily sensation. Everything presents itself to consciousness as if I were totally transparent to myself. This overabundance of self-consciousness enables crippling self-criticism and creates endless opportunities to indulge raging self-doubt and self-disgust. Writing externalizes self-destructive thoughts and impulses. I am not overwhelmed. Strategizing and manipulation are possible. Writing is empowering: it creates agency.

In creating agency, writing creates an alter-ego. Writing generates an idealized self. This perfected self represents a direction and goal. It is tempting to deny reality to this ideal because it only exists introspectively. With the death of God, there is no longer an external principle arranging and prioritizing parts of the personality. One part is not any more or any less “real” than any other. Consequently, organization arises from the relative strengths and weaknesses of drives, emotions, and fears. There is often a lack awareness of the organizing part.

Writing also counters an excess of self-consciousness by directing attention away. Immersion in an activity creates a feeling of timelessness and even of eternity: the ego dissolves. Writing and thinking are no different. Attention to the details of writing leads to a sense of accomplishment. Focus on the mechanics of punctuation, word choice, sentence structure, etc. provides escape from the unrelenting immediacy of pain and anguish.

A question to ask: what’s wrong with excessive self-consciousness? There is nothing wrong per se with self-consciousness. The finds itself external to itself. The self contradicts itself. It is drawn apart and fragmented. Pain and anguish are not in themselves objections. Pain and anguish can be the cost of independence of mind, or of overcoming compulsive thoughts and feelings, or of some other freedom.

Self-consciousness is one manifestation of multiplicity of the self. In that respect self-consciousness is part of the economy of the soul. It is not always a symptom of mental disorder. Mental illness is incapacitation to some degree because of being stuck in a repetition of limited behaviors and thoughts. Mentally health means acting optimally in the present moment with respect to desires, drives, and interests. When compulsion is lacking, self-consciousness is not a symptom.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

What I Want From My Readers

What do I want from my readers? What kind of readership would I like? First of all, I am not looking to be proved “right.” What would that mean to me? My mind is too restless to settle on any opinion for very long. I don’t want to feel responsible for the confusion of would-be followers when I change my mind about something. I would rather be known for starting conversations and being an impetus to thoughts than for having a large number of followers.

With a blog there are really two things contained within the concept “reader.” The first is the classic understanding of reader. It does not need elaboration. Someone who simply reads something, in this case a blog. The second is something that the internet and technology make possible: to comment, post objections, and criticisms of postings for the author and other readers to read and respond to. There are then two separate audiences: readers and commenters.

The ideal reader I have already described. The ideal commenter would be someone who has gone to college. He (or she) would be a thoughtful Christian, meaning someone articulate and able to argue intelligently for her beliefs. The ideal commenter would not be working from a script providing standardized talking points. Someone with whom fruitful discussions would be possible.

The primary purpose is not to garner readers and commenters. That would be nice, but only to the extent that they would lead to more and better thinking. The primary purpose of this blog is self-therapeutic. It is about overcoming my depression and assorted mental illnesses. In some respects I will be exhibitionist and in others quite shy. Part of the shyness is certainly due to unexamined experiences and personality traits, but sometimes such things cannot be examined until they have found their way into words and externalized. I often don’t know what I am thinking until I find the words. When I do those words are hardly hard and fast opinions. They are tentative, first glimmerings of something to come later. Sometimes posts will seem like so much narcissistic rambling. Self-knowledge is another important purpose of this blog. It is not inconceivable that others might find my thoughts and reflections useful.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Format of This Blog

This blog takes the form of a mostly daily journal. It does not detail the usual biographical trivia of breakfast, life’s happenings, not even progress of my depression, and the like. It is a kind of log of thoughts that might be deemed “philosophical.” Investigations of Christianity take pride of place. Thoughts and observations of self and personality also form a significant portion of entries. There is a minority of entries about my depression and unhappiness with my ex-wife.

Other people typically resolve the paradox of personality by asserting that the unity element is “real” while the element of multiplicity is something that is only “apparent.” This, so the thinking goes, obscures the true nature of self and personality, even though there is no evidence for these assertions. Or rather, the evidence is startlingly weak: they have a feeling without thought or inquiry that their “self” is “real.” What does “real” mean? That the “self” continues to exist even when in a dreamless sleep and that it is beyond the vicissitudes of every day life. Even if this self grows and can be hurt, there is still faith in the self’s “reality” and unity. It must be something because it is there as if the self could be pointed to. The fact of the multitude of feelings, desires, and other mental objects may be safely ignored. For most people this “good enough.” In my case, however, this fact may not be so easily ignored. This blog is an occasionally spotty record of consciously incorporating this paradox into my sense of self.

The blog format of mostly daily entries lends itself to representing one part of my view of the self: that it is a paradox being in equal measure a unity and a multiplicity. The format of my blog itself is also a paradox. There are multiple entries on various topics that connect with one another by topic, frequency, and sequence. Some entries refer to other entries. Other entries build on the conclusions and substance of still other entries. And yet it is one document of a recognizable style and choice of topic throughout. This blog is a showing.

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Something Beyond the Ebb & Flow of Everyday Life?

I have never liked the phrases “the meaning of life” and “the purpose of existence.” They assume that meaning and purpose come from outside our lives and existence. In other words, they are synonyms for transcendence. At best these phrases can be used to indicate something about a person’s life. Are they satisfied with their life? Are they happy? Happy people do not speculate about the meaning and purpose of their lives.

Discussions of the “meaning of life” inevitably turn to transcendence. Is there an intrinsic need for transcendence? Does the desire for something more prove anything? In the pre-Christian Greek mythos the difference between gods and human beings was that the gods were immortal. In fact the humanity of the gods was one of the criticisms of the Greek gods by Platonism and other philosophical systems. The gods were too human. Humanity and everyday life were counterarguments by Christianity’s precursors in favor of something philosophically respectable, i.e., something beyond earthly life. Transcendence and the desire for transcendence are hardly universal.

Whence transcendence and the desire for it? It is clear from the historical evidence that the desire for and belief in transcendence exist in history. There was a time when they did not exist and played no part in religious life. Then they came into existence. There will come a time when transcendence will be nothing more than a difficult to understand historical curiosity. The history of transcendence is yet to be written. Considered in this way the desire for transcendence is a dim reminder of Christianity’s heyday.

Humanity put its best into God to wallow in sin before His glory. The greater God was made out to be, the more corrupt and sinful humanity became. All of humanity’s goodness was projected outward into God. The source of happiness, value, and meaning lay outside oneself in God. Then God died. Has humanity since reappropriated its goodness back into itself? The meaning and value of our lives are no longer given to us as a gift of Grace. We must learn to create meaning and value for ourselves, even if it means changing our lives about and living in an unorthodox fashion.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why Do Christian Doctrines Have to Be True?

Given Christianity’s valuation of truth as useful, what’s the big deal? Why insist on truth? Why have truth? What does possession of the truth make possible? What truth is is less interesting than the uses of truth.

The most obvious answer is that truth is a means to dominate and control people, especially people who consider something else to be true. For Christianity this would be the utility that truth of doctrine would have for preachers, bishops, and other administrators in Christ. For Christians this still leaves open the question of why allowing oneself to be administered and controlled is felt to be a good thing. The pleasant feelings of doing “good” by submitting to church authority figures can be explained in terms of internalized authority: one performs “praise-worthy” actions and it is as if the authority figures themselves praise one as a good Christian. For administrators in Christ it is a question of power and the submission of their flocks to God’s specially appointed authorities. One need only consider the sense of power that would enable any priest to feel entitled to abuse of trust and position that led to sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Neither truth as political expediency nor truth as principled swindle answers questions of the uses (and presumably abuses) of truth for Christians on the ground, as it were. Belief in the possession of truth by oneself and by one’s fellows creates a sense of group identity and cohesion. There is an “us” and there is a “them.” This happens regardless of the truth or falsity of a group’s beliefs. Belief in the truth of one’s doctrines contributes to a stronger sense of belonging to the Church. The greater the discipline in belief the greater the sense of belonging.

A group that defines itself in terms of beliefs requires the existence of nonbelieving outsiders. “We” are the ones who have the truth, “they” do not. The truth and substance of the beliefs is of no consequence. The in-group is created in reaction to and is dependent on nonbelievers : “we” are not “them.” This dependency on the existence of outsiders implies that if a group of believers is too successful in spreading their beliefs and exhaust their supply of potential new recruits then group cohesion suffers. There are no longer outsiders against which the group can define itself. A new outsider is necessary. Hence the creation of heresies and the hunt for heretics as well as the creation of scapegoats. It is the logic of the concepts enabled by an absence of critical reflection.

It is hardly surprising that in Christianity the concept of truth is absolute and binary: either one has the truth or one does not. Either truth or error. Either one is a Christian or one is not. Either one is a member of the Church or one is not. Doubt is sin or rather doubt is sin only if one takes it seriously and acts on it. Doubt means the danger of no longer being one with one’s fellow believers. Hence the hatred of apostates.

None of the above touches the substance of Christian Doctrine. It could all be true anyway. Nothing undermines veracity and honesty as much as the discovery of social motivations for adherence to one’s beliefs. There is every reason to lie when telling the truth could result in the loss of profession, friends, social status, and the like. Can a Christian ever be trusted to be honest about Christianity? That a Christian does not mean to lie does not make up for a lack of concern with truthfulness and honesty.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Conflicted Self

There are the emotions that pull in different directions. This conflict feels as if I were being torn pieces by wildly antagonistic drives. It hurts. It makes me feel helpless. I ought not feel the way that I do and yet I do, “ought’s” not withstanding. Or certain memories, desires, and emotions fill me with loathing. I don’t understand why or how. The loathing attacks me as an animal of prey: sudden, ferocious and relentless. It bullies and harasses me. It comes from outside. And yet it is me. At the same time as the attack of loathing, I also have a sense of the loathing as mine as something that I am and do even as I am also a victim.

It is easier to describe the emotional elements of my inner conflict as if it were a war between two factions of my personality but there are more than two. Some I recognize from previous episodes, others are new. My personality has been under the sway of different factions at different times. I am chaos and I have no soul. Which of me would stand judgment before God? In writing all the factions lay down their arms in an armistice. Attention is directed away from strife and seemingly endless introspection and to the mechanics of writing: finding words, proofreading, thinking, etc. Writing calms the contempt and doubt of myself.

I have written about the emotional aspects of a lack of unity elsewhere but I feel that I have not done the experience justice. The more certain I am of a thing the stronger the impulse the more likely that other feelings and thoughts will want their say. This mania for perspectives makes adherence to an idea impossible, except in a provisional and probationary way. Adherence to an idea only lasts until I find myself outside looking in, looking for weaknesses and alternatives and dependencies on other ideas and assumptions. This shift in perspective is not an act of conscious will, I do not desire this shift in allegiance but neither do I wish to stay put. It is an itch that does not allow me to rest in an idea. Even this clever formulation misses the mark. The desire for rest is absent. Nor is it painful or difficult. It used to be an embarrassment sometimes, but now? It just happens. Being of two minds is second nature. My life is an ongoing experiment as to whether it is possible to live with only shades and gradations. Am I a skeptic? It is such a clumsy word for what I take for granted.

This skepticism is probably at the root of my interest in Christianity (and in adherence to ideologies in general). How some people are able to unwaveringly adhere to an idea or a fixed set of doctrines fascinates me, when I was ultimately unable to settle down with Christian doctrines into a stable relationship. The flux of my mental life made that impossible. I cannot help but be curious about something so foreign.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dogmatism and Creationism

The Bible tells us that God created the heavens and earth and pronounced them Good. Then came the Fall and Creation became corrupted. It is certainly a temptation to pronounce all of creation hopelessly spoiled completely obscuring the Glory of God.. This would at least sanction the hatred of science that many evangelicals have. This same Bible that evangelicals love to quote for other purposes also has its verses about the heavens proclaiming the glory of God. Consider the following:

Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works. (I Chronicles 16:9)

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalms 8:3-5)

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. (Psalms 19:1)

And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself. (Psalms 50:6)

And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O LORD...(Psalms 89:5)

Evangelicals will contend that a sunset is proof of God’s existence, but will not investigate the natural world. They will argue the evidence with evolutionists (namely to assert that the overwhelming evidence is either worthless or deeply misunderstood but do not engage the evidence) but they do not partake of original work in any scientific field because of their faith. They do seek to worship and know God through His works. They are ignorant of scientific methods and how science actually works. This hatred of the natural world makes me think of certain varieties of gnosticism in which the material world is evil and an obstacle to authentic spirituality. Are creationists gnostics with only a thin veneer of Christianity? Their actions certainly suggest so.

Of course, partaking of the spirit of inquiry results in a crisis of faith. Choosing their God over truth means hatred of anything or anyone who would unsettle their faith which in turn means fear has a major role in their brand of Christianity. Christians assert their religion is one of love. They fear the new: popular culture, new trends, new technology, new ideas, and the list goes on and on. The Bible can be twisted to support or condemn anything and has at one time or another. Creationism belongs to modern culture as much as iPods or central air conditioning. It is not a throwback to an earlier time, no matter how much creationists might think that they are.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Why I call Christians Dogmatists

A dogmatist gives their unquestioning and unwavering assent to a set of propositions in spite of evidence and arguments to the contrary. There is always something that is not be investigated. In regards to the truth. Every dogmatist says, “I go no further. The investigation of truth has its boundaries.” Christians baptize this setting of boundaries as faith.

Because of familiarity evangelical Christianity is the type of Christianity that I most often investigate, although I believe that many, if not all, of my remarks apply to other types of Christianity. The imputation of dogmatism directs attention to one element of Christianity that is often overlooked: its willfulness in the manner of assent to various doctrines, beliefs and propositions. This willfulness is independent of the truth or falsity of doctrines to which assent is given. There are no doctrines which of themselves require, presuppose, or create dogmatic attitudes. Critiques of dogmatism are applicable to old school Marxists, Scientologists, fervent believers in scientism, and generally any group or individual who define themselves by the assertion of the validity and truth of a set of doctrines, ideas, or propositions and who dismiss those of differing opinion as misguided in the best case and as demonic in the worst. Faith is another word for conviction. Considered in this way Christianity is nothing special.

I can imagine a Christian saying that his experience of the reality of his relationship with Jesus is so immediate and present that questioning it is like questioning light, earth, and next of kin. It simply makes no sense to do so. My counter to this is that those things which are most immediate and taken for granted are those most in need of investigation. It is not far off realities of dry academic discussion that need examination but our everyday, banal thoughts and actions. Scrutiny of the shibboleths with which we live puts us in conflict with the present.

The great mass of people believe the only possible motive for being at odds with the present is a bad motive like mental illness or hatred of humanity or seeking to set oneself up as superior to the rest of humankind or some other human, all too human motive. A well-worn, familiar explanation of motives that is taken to be true because it is well-worn and familiar. Curiosity is the only unforgivable sin.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lamictal (Again)

Does responding positively to Lamictal take away from my suffering? Does it diminish the dignity of the suffering? Does this mean that my anguish is reducible to the interplay of chemicals in my brain?

This is one of those questions with an aura of profundity but is in fact not at all profound. Maybe not lacking in profundity but easy. The question as posed presumes a crass scientismic reductionism: large complex entities can be explained in terms of smaller, less complicated entities. Reductionism is one style of explanation amongst others. The reasons for preferring it are social and psychological. A reductionist account cannot explain why it is to be preferred to others without resorting to non-reductionist justifications. Second, God is presupposed by it. Or at least God is the only being that can know/see the whole chain of explanatory entities from the smallest to the largest. Third, there is the smell of self-denial about it. One denies oneself explanations that are meaningful to human beings. Fourth, the explanations offered by reductionism do not fulfill the promise of greater simplicity nor would a reductionist explanation in terms of quarks and gluons of the development of stone axes in hominins be very interesting.

But I digress.

I am ill. I have been diagnosed with Bipolar Type II. Bipolar Type II is often associated with difficult to treat depression. There is no question that I suffer from depression: feeling bad for days on end, low libido, lack of appetite, to name a few symptoms. Oddly enough irritability is not one of my symptoms, although it has been in past depressive episodes. To repeat, I am ill. And what do sick people do today? If they have any sense, they go see a doctor. They do not resign themselves to their illness. They struggle with it. Depression is particularly insidious in sapping one’s desire to be healthy and whole.

Does Lamictal diminish my dignity? No, depression diminishes my dignity. Isn’t it all just chemicals in the brain? Lamictal is for the brain, it does nothing for what I make of the depression. You might say that Lamictal does nothing for the social/individual meaning of my suffering.

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Eternal Present

We are enveloped in both our public and private lives by a pervasive time-ordering which has no place for the higher times of earlier ages. (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 714)

We must be wary of our metaphors. Talk of “higher” and “lower” belong to another time when hierarchies ruled everyday life. “Higher time” already unreflectively prejudices thought in favor of a whole host of value judgments. Is one alternative always “better” than any other? Is the higher better than the lower? Are there only two times? What else is higher? God is higher. Higher time is God’s time. Does eternity require “higher” and “lower” times? And the implications of one word go on and on. Does transcendence leave us with no recourse? Can this so-called “higher time” be described without recourse to outdated metaphors?

The modern world in its understanding of time finds nothing to distinguish one moment of time from any other. It is part of Christian orthodoxy that the Incarnation was (is?) a unique event in history and time. The Incarnation will not to be repeated. The modern view of time denies the uniqueness of the Incarnation. It also denies Christianity’s propensity to look to the future whether to heaven or the Millennial Age. More generally, any belief or ideology that looks forward to a better time is denied as well. As are dreams of a golden age in the past.

If moments are indistinguishable from one another, then it follows that the world is as perfect (or imperfect) as it will ever be. The present moment is the completion of life, the universe, and existence. The world is consummated and perfect as it is in each and every moment. Time as experienced allows for timelessness. If this is not eternity, then nothing is.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Another World?

Christianity preaches compassion for the unfortunate and the sick. And yet what has done more to alleviate suffering than any other creation of humankind? Modern science with its relentless questioning of established dogmas. The germ theory of disease for instance has done more to prevent and relieve suffering and death than the Doctrine of the Incarnation ever did.

Ah! But we provide spiritual comfort, cries the Christian, we are in the world, but not of the world. We see with eyes of the spirit. Our realm is not of this world, but of another to come. It is knowledge of this other world that comforts and is promised in the turn away from the old life. There lies our treasure. The world knows not of what has been promised to us. For we have Jesus. And yet when a Christian falls ill, he first goes to the doctor then to church. The few cases of looking to the church for diagnosis and cure uniformly end badly. Faith kills. Christianity has retreated into impotence before the advances of modern science.

Why do Christians love to spin tales of another world? Is it to entertain us who find fortune and happiness in this world? If I look to another lover, it speaks poorly of my feelings for my present lover. Is the wellspring of Christianity’s other worldliness dissatisfaction of Christians with their lot in life? Could unhappiness be the impetus to turn away to a new life? The doctrine of another life slanders this life, the only one that we have.

Is it any wonder that Christianity is regarded as superstitious lies? Does this also mean that atheism is born out of dissatisfaction with Christianity? Stories of coming out as an atheist bear a suspicious resemblance to stories of Christian repentance. Atheism as a species of repentance? More thorough and less thorough atheists? Atheists of the flesh versus atheists of the spirit? A formula for holy war as comedy.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Good is Self-Loathing?

However sweet and intriguing thoughts and feelings might have once been, they lack any power to hold spellbound any longer. The magical infatuation is gone. That which was near and dear to my heart is treated with suspicion and coldness. There are no innocents and none to protect them even if there were. It is enough that something is loved that it be distrusted. Antagonism toward old comforts and hackneyed pleasures rages on. The weak are tortured for their secrets. Civil war the new normal. Coalitions form and dissolve until internecine warfare itself seems petty with the contempt that begat it contemptible.

Following its own internal logic, self-contempt in its revulsion at its pettiness becomes haughtiness and power over weaknesses. The fragment of self that does the loathing comes to be godlike in its hard ruthlessness, like Yahweh when he was still capable of pitiless cruelty. Self-divinity is intoxicating and begets desire for even more and greater self-loathing. Contempt overcomes contempt. Self-mastery is inseparable from self-loathing.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing about Christianity

It is not given to human beings to choose the time and manner in which they live. Human beings come into this world without permission. Nor are their desires and psychic constitution chosen after consultation. As if being thrown into this world without one’s permission were not enough, we only live once. No other life has been demonstrated other than by wishful thinking.

Because of this, the conflicts that make a personality are arbitrary. The constituent drives, predispositions, and predilections of a personality find their expression and resolution (if any) in the social world into which they are born. It is from their social world that they draw the morals, symbols and ideas to express themselves both to themselves and to others. Nothing is left over; there is no supernatural residue. Faith is just another conviction. Any sense of being separated from the world as if outside looking in is just one way among others of getting on in the world. Each of us lives wholly within our social milieu.

That I am conflicted with parts of my upbringing at war with other parts I do not deny. Part of my upbringing is that of an atheist father warring with a faithful Christian mother. My parents did not live in marital bliss. They lived in hell. The war between my parents continues on by other means. Do I want or expect a resolution of this conflict between my atheism and my predisposition to Christianity? No, I do not. And not just because I love and hate my parents in equal measure. Atheism allows me to keep the conflict alive. It is a way of honoring both my parents. Besides playing both (or more) sides to a conflict is fun.

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To Creationists

We live in a world of experts. Get over it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Some Poetry

Untitled

And if it should come to pass
That beauty and love
Are begotten in disgust and filth
Upon a soul fenced in by its abysmal thought
That maybe, just maybe,
This is all that I am and no more,
Will I only sigh and turn away
To the minor charms and petty terrors
Of amusement parks and monster movies?

* * *

Prozac

Is a half-hearted happiness
Better than
A whole-hearted misery?

When those days come
With no end of clouds and pain
And the sun has forgotten to shine,
Will past days of half-hearted pleasures
Matter at all?

Will past days in the sun leave me
With courage to shine
When all hope has fled?
Will a pill from a bottle
Bring back the sun
To push all the shadows away
Once and for all?

* * *

Maya

The ebb and flow of my thoughts
Once gave me pleasure
In their comings and goings.
But now,
The sweet water of my soul
Has turned brackish,
And I am afraid of snakes.
They Say There is a Pill

They say there is a pill
That will leave me with a smile,
Then I can work 9 to 5
(To build a responsible career),
Then come home
To smoke an occasional cigarette
(A guilty pleasure, I confess).
It’s a pill, they say,
To take away humiliations from the past
And if proud memories from the past
Are bound up tight with past humiliations,
What then?

* * *

Just Once?

Just once, only once, dear Christ,
To hang from a tree and mock Death?

Just once, only once, dear Christ,
To suffer and suffer and find final relief?

Just once, only once, dear Christ,
To rise in joy, clothed in light?

Just once, only once, dear Christ,
And not over and over and over, and yet once more,

Until life herself shouts in ecstasy,
Oh, just once more, only once more, dear Christ?

* * *

I Was Unimagined Once

I was unimagined once:
Everything from the past is settled,
So unlike me: unimagined,
Unforeseen, a calamity
To how things wanted to be.
A child’s forbidden words,
Forgotten prayers, pets lost to cars or left behind.
The past created with a waive of a hand,
A careless word here, a thoughtless gesture there,
A trail some might call a life.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What do I want?

I said in “Woke Up Depressed” that I want joy. In my present dark mood, I’m inclined to think that joy is a code word for escape and relief from despair and self-loathing. The self-loathing makes the thought of any kind of happiness impossible. What do you know of happiness? Why should you be happy? You’re filth and corruption. You deserve all possible pain and anguish. Humiliation and thwarting of your desires is your lot in life. You are a waste of breath and space. It is difficult to put words to the self-hatred and disgust: I experience them as inarticulate feelings. I do not have a verbal inner dialogue, just oppressive, unrelenting feelings.

It would be easier to acquiesce and seek redemption through some sort of Christianity. I am like one of those old-time preachers who railed against sexuality and moral corruption. It was their way of expressing their sexual desire. I too rail against Christianity because I find its doctrines and certainty tempting. In my present state of mind I would say that I don’t deserve redemption. Denying myself the promises of redemption is a way of punishing myself. Of my present state of mind a Christian would speak of pride and my sinful nature; I say it’s the cost of my continued existence.

Why do I want to go on living? Isn’t the anguish objection enough? Curse God and die, said Job’s wife. There’s my daughters, but in my darker times I could probably convince myself that they’d get over it. Bearing the weight of the despair allows me the luxury of despising it. Writing about it all makes it possible to feel superior to the suffering and pain. And that is a pleasure subtle and satisfying. The pleasures of cruelty should not be underrated even if they are unpredictable in their comings and goings.

In the past owning up to my despair and self-loathing formed the basis of confidence and certainty. If I was unafraid of the worst in my psychic life, then people and situations were easy.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

My Religious Experience

There were two parts. The first I’ve already mentioned in “Woke Up Depressed.” The other is rather different. But both were experienced simultaneously.

I had a religious experience before my infatuation with Evangelicalism. I had been drinking a lot. After I did a lot of crazy and reckless things, I was taken back to my room. (It happened in college.) I started screaming that I didn't want to live. That I wanted to die for the sins of the human race. Then I realized that I was feeling guilty about some childhood traumas. I was blaming myself. I realized that I didn't have to die for anyone's sins. Jesus had already done that. I saw myself hanging on the cross with Jesus. I was feeling guilty. I was guilty and my sins were washed away. I had a moment of intense joy, then passed out.

This account omits the sense of being on the Cross with Jesus. I did not just see myself on the Cross, I was on the Cross. Time was different. I would not even use the word “time” to describe the experience. Eternity would do better. But not eternity as an infinite extension of time, but as God’s time in which all events occur “at the same time” from His perspective. In fact perspective is the wrong word. Perspective implies limitation and other, different perspectives of equal or greater scope. The moment of time in which I was, Thanksgiving 1978, was briefly co-temporal with Jesus hanging on the Cross. The Crucifixion was experienced as implicit in every moment of time, ready to burst through.

The second element of the experience was of unity. In a sense it was very egotistical. Everything that existed contributed to making me. All the world in its bits and parts found its culmination in me. The universe found its focus in me. The whole universe in all its particulars and in all its generalities was required to make me with nothing left over. There was no residue. All conflict was reconciled in the whole and simultaneously unreconciled. It takes at least two to make a conflict. They belong together. The parties to the conflict find their unity in their conflict even though unreconciled. I was a whole with and because of my conflicted personality.

Whatever else may be said about my experience, like most, if not all such accounts, it is marked by contradiction, irreality, and self-importance. In the throes of a religious experience one reaches for the words and symbols closest to hand to express thoughts and feelings. Later those same words and symbols are thought about and analyzed in their mundane meanings. The lyricism of the immediate experience is lost. “I was on the Cross with Jesus therefore Christianity because Christianity is about those things from my vision.” As it’s been said, “Hindus don’t have visions of Christ on the Cross.” Once tradition specific symbols and vocabulary are removed, what remains? Vagaries about a higher Reality with a different kind of time and a nebulous sense of importance. This too is culturally specific to Western religious studies departments. Religious experiences prove nothing, even if they are a lifelong source of comfort and inspiration.

Some would say that if it had been an authentic and genuine religious experience, then my life couldn’t but be overwhelmed and filled with its mystery and inspiration. Or, I am just that much of a skeptic.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Christianity as an Ethic

In another post I asserted that Christianity is fundamentally an ethic. This needs explaining and some argumentation. An ethical person lives in a certain way and not some other way. In the vernacular he has values and seeks to live according to those values.

If Christianity is an ethic, what of the truth claims that Christianity makes? Jesus was a man who lived in first century Palestine. God exists. Jesus died for our sins. And the list goes on and on even if specific beliefs vary from believer to believer. Belief in these “truths” is a condition of orthodoxy and even of salvation.

Another element of Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, is that it is not enough to merely give one’s assent to a collection of propositions, that is to have faith. The would-be Christian must also repent of his former life. Common speech refers to this as “finding Jesus.” When someone “finds Jesus” it means that this person no longer drinks, smokes (probably), does drugs, lies, cheats, steals, etc. Further faith in Jesus is often urged upon someone as means to a “better life.”

Then there is the curious case of the person who claims to have “found Jesus” but continues in his old way of life. In Evangelical jargon such a one is “of the flesh.” This is opposed to being “of the spirit.” The former apparently believes it is enough to be on Jesus’ team, so to speak. A fleshly Christian can be exceedingly clever, able to argue persuasively for various doctrines and “truths” of Christianity. However, a Christian of the flesh lacks a certain something: service, ministration, compassion, devotion, and the like. The Holy Spirit works through a Christian of the spirit to the greater glory of God in word and deed. In other words, commitment to particular ethical ideals.

Be that as it may, what of Christianity’s claims to special truths? My description of the fleshly Christian implies that doctrines and Christian “truths” all serve as a means of persuading, selling and explaining the Christian way of life.

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Was Nietzsche Right?

Was Nietzsche right that all the “meaning of life” amounts to is that “there is something at which it is absolutely forbidden henceforth to laugh”?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Laughing Buddha

Is despair the secret of life? Its meaning and kernel? Is the meaning of life a bad meaning? On despair.com there’s a demotivational poster of a sinking ship with the caption, “It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”

Why does the laughing Buddha laugh? In his moment of Enlightenment he sees that each of us are eternally reborn into our same lives so as to live this same life yet once again. We reincarnate as ourselves in eternal repetition. For some it is a reward to be so reborn. For others it is a punishment.
People to whom I’ve told my parable have often exclaimed, “That’s horrible!” I guess it’s analogous to how many Christians feel about the belief of many atheists that there is no afterlife. What’s comforting to one is an existential horror to another.

It is meaning and value in this life that is at stake. Not some other life past, present, future, or parallel. In the past I found the Laughing Buddha comforting in my darkest times. How so? If I could not merely tolerate but imagine myself desiring an eternal repetition of even the worst, I found not only the confidence to handle the problems insistently demanding of my time and attention, but the energy for future plans and projects.

Is the Laughing Buddha enough now?


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Christian "truths"

Christianity discounts all philosophy and human reasoning as incapable of reaching unaided the truths that a loving God has shared with humanity. Dogmatic truths are beyond the powers of human reason. Revealed religion is synonymous with dogmatic religion. Dispassionate analysis is foreclosed before discussion even begins. How does a Christian know the truths of his religion? By God’s Grace.

The dogmatist might walk and talk as if his truths were fit matter for the impartial study of knowledge and its acquisition. Belief in the dogmatist’s Truth is an ongoing commitment to his Truth as if in a wedding vow: in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer and to forsake all others. Commitment is not epistemic but ethical. And an ethic cannot be refuted, but neither is it true or false.

That Christianity understands itself otherwise is no objection. The questions Christianity poses reveal Christian truths to be a means to an end. Now that you have your truths, then what? What good is truth if not for the salvation of your soul? Truth in Christianity is a rhetorical device to persuade listeners to take up the Christian way of life. Truth is not the highest Good in Christianity, salvation is.

Christianity’s placement of an instrumental value on truth explains in large measure why Christians are especially gullible with respect to their faith: truth seeking means thinking. And there is no way to know beforehand what will come of thinking. Hence, the all too common discouragement of thinking and truth seeking in Christian circles unless the results are known beforehand.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Last Night’s Dream, A Poem

Last Night’s Dream

On the banks of a distant river.
We sat and talked,
Then you looked away
To another,
Then I wept.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Successfully moved back to bob-kowalski.blogspot.com

Well I did it. Bob Kowalski is now to be found once again at bob-kowalski.blogspot.com. It turned out to be remarkably easy once I found out.

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Christianity as an ethic

In another post I asserted that Christianity is fundamentally an ethic. This needs explaining and some argumentation. An ethical person lives in a certain way and not some other way. In the vernacular he has values and seeks to live according to those values.

If Christianity is an ethic, what of the truth claims that Christianity makes? Jesus was a man who lived in first century Palestine. God exists. Jesus died for our sins. And the list goes on and on even if specific beliefs vary from believer to believer. Belief in these “truths” is a condition of orthodoxy and even of salvation.

Another element of Christianity, especially Evangelical Christianity, is that it is not enough to merely give one’s assent to a collection of propositions, that is to have faith. The would-be Christian must also repent of his former life. Common speech refers to this as “finding Jesus.” When someone “finds Jesus” it means that this person no longer drinks, smokes (probably), does drugs, lies, cheats, steals, etc. Further faith in Jesus is often urged upon someone as means to a “better life.”

Then there is the curious case of the person who claims to have “found Jesus” but continues in his old way of life. In Evangelical jargon such a one is “of the flesh.” This is opposed to being “of the spirit.” The former apparently believes it is enough to be on Jesus’ team, so to speak. This fleshly Christian can be exceedingly clever, able to argue persuasively for various doctrines and “truths” of Christianity. However, a Christian of the flesh lacks a certain something: service, ministration, compassion, devotion, and the like. The Holy Spirit works through a Christian of the spirit to the greater glory of God in word and deed. In other words, commitment to particular ethical ideals.

Be that as it may, what of Christianity’s claims to special truths? My description of the fleshly Christian implies that doctrines and Christian “truths” all serve as a means of persuasion, of selling and explaining the Christian way of life.

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The Death of God?

One of the misconceptions to clear up right away is that the “Death of God” is not synonymous with “God does not exist.” While Nietzsche was certainly an atheist, the thrust of his phrase lies elsewhere. The next sentence in the aphorism: (#125, The Gay Science) “And we have killed him.”

Once upon a time it was possible to inquire with a good conscience into various and sundry matters for the greater glory of God. One inquired and knew that the answer would be God or maybe a doctrine of one’s church. One inquired and investigated as means of worshiping God. A little later, investigation of Nature and her laws was also to the greater glory of God. The essential point, as difficult as may be to imagine, is that it was possible to inquire into Scripture, for example, and without any defensiveness see God’s authorship. What happened?

It became less and less honest to accept God as the inevitable result of honest inquiry. God was banished from the natural realm as an unnecessary hypothesis. Then God was found to be an unnecessary hypothesis for philology, morality, and the other human sciences. Belief in God conflicted with honesty. If one sides with honesty then one becomes an agnostic or an atheist. Otherwise one retreats behind faith. God died when He lost the power to explain anything. God is dead and Christians still worship Him.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

woke up depressed

Some mornings I wake up angry with my ex-wife for taking the kids out of the area. I was a stay-at-home dad for 9 years. I took care of the kids, fixed their lunches, helped them with their homework, took them to play dates, dropped them off to school & picked them up every day, and all the things that a parent would do to take care of their children. Now I get to see them once a month for a few hours.

Short of winning the lottery and moving closer to them, I don't see what I can do. I can just barely take care of myself. Working? Being regular enough in my feelings so that I won't be overwhelmed by the pointlessness of my existence?

Is it any wonder that the feelings of loss overwhelm me at times? People have told me to stop feeling sorry for myself and get over it. I find myself with a curious sort of attachment to the grief and anger. At least if I hang on to them I maintain some kind of connection to when I was with my daughters. My beliefs about personality and suffering tell me to let it go and get on with my life. But my world for all that time was keeping house for my wife & kids. My therapist says that I haven't processed my grief and anger. She's right, but there are times when I think about suicide as self-euthanasia. Then I think about how it would affect my daughters and I'm just miserable until I find something to distract me and the mood passes.

This is why I think about suffering and religion. I'm too restless to settle for a final answer so I find myself with times when I acutely feel the worthlessness of myself and my life. Can the feelings of worthlessness be explained by an abusive father and a guilt-mongering mother?

The Christian answer to suffering finds its ultimate rationale in deferring a final resolution until after death. There are stop gap measures until then: helping marginal groups like the poor, drug users, alcoholics, proselytizing to the spiritually destitute, and the like. Evangelicals find the experience of finding Jesus in their life a down payment on the world to come. But what if this deferment is itself problematical? I don't believe in transcendence either of God or of the world to come. It's too fantastic and looks too much like escapism. And besides, I buy into arguments against transcendence. Religious experience is a psychological and social kind of problem. It's not that a person having a conversion experience is crazy or exaggerating or something else dismissive. The vast overwhelming majority of people claim to have had a religious experience never ever stop and ask themselves, "Wait. What just happened to me? Was it because of fasting not God? Maybe there's a mundane cause for what just happened." In other words, people who have had religious experiences don't think too much about them.

I had a religious experience before my infatuation with Evangelicalism. I had been drinking a lot. After I did a lot of crazy and reckless things, I was taken back to my room. (It happened in college.) I started screaming that I didn't to live. That I wanted to die for the sins of the human race. Then I realized that I was feeling guilty about some childhood traumas. I was blaming myself. I realized that I didn't have to die for anyone's sins. Jesus had already done that. I saw myself hanging on the cross with Jesus. I was feeling guilty. I was guilty and my sins were washed away. I had a moment of intense joy,then passed out. I read Mere Christianity the spring afterwards. I prayed and accepted Jesus into my life because Christianity dealt with those kinds of things. The following semester I became involved with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and stayed a member(?) for about 2 years.

It is easy to dismiss my experience as not genuinely a religious experience because of the alcohol. Other than that it fits the usual pattern of Evangelical conversion experiences. There is the overwhelming consciousness of guilt, the experience of release from that guilt, then making a commitment to follow Jesus. Many evangelicals would dismiss my infatuation with Christianity as not authentically Christian because if it had been, I would not have lost my faith. I must not have tried hard enough. I passionately investigated Evangelical Christianity and found it lacking. What more could I have done?

Rejecting Christianity means that one's suffering is mundane and nothing special like proof of hidden truths like the sinfulness of human nature, or that human beings hunger after Christ's love. I reject a transcendental answer to the meaning of life. My rationale? Life is everything that a person might experience. Meaning requires a context and source. But since meaning requires a context and source outside one's experience, if follows that the meaning of life must be found within that experience or not at all.

So what do I want from my suffering? I want it to be a source of joy, or at least a minimum I want joy inextricably intertwined with my suffering. I want to put my suffering into a context that allows me to say my life is good. Can a person be happy but still be abjectly miserable from time to time?

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Are Atheists Dogmatic on the Question of God’s Existence?

Are atheists dogmatic? What is dogmatism? A dogmatic person holds to his chosen articles of belief with a tenacious will summarily rejecting all objections. Metaphorically speaking, a dogmatist locks up his house, closes the blinds and curtains, and locks all the doors and windows lest a stray thought break in. A dogmatist stays home and does not go wandering aimlessly about the countryside. That is how a dogmatist understands leaving his house: aimless wandering. Better to stay home than run the risk of losing the way home.

Continuing the metaphor, the atheist has a home, but he is free to move to another house. He goes out and about the countryside enjoying the scenery, saying hello to friends, and generally stopping to smell the roses. The atheist knows a freedom of which the dogmatist is ignorant. When the atheist moves house, the dogmatist accuses him of dogmatism for having left his old abode for a new one: you are the same as I! You refuse to remain in or even return to your old house with the same steadfastness with which I stay at home. The dogmatist is confused by the atheist’s seemingly constant changes in abode. He can only understand such changes as the result of adherence to some other dogma.

I might not be willing to die for my beliefs, but I very well might for the right to change my mind. Could a Christian ever say such a thing and remain a Christian for very long?

There is another reason atheists are not dogmatic as are Christians. The Christian demands complete and utter certainty for his most important beliefs. The Platonist-Christian invention of absolute certainty is a historical phenomenon. There was a time when it was unknown and there will be a time (hopefully) when it will be unknown again. It is a perversity of the Christian mindset to impute properties of itself to others. Because the Christian does not understand shadings of certainty in holding (important) opinions, he is forced by the paucity of his imagination to assume everyone is as he is: dogmatic and unwavering in his opinions.



Monday, January 20, 2014

Faith and a Related Matter

Faith in Christianity is called a virtue. What does it mean for Faith to be a virtue worthy of praise? As a worldly matter, faith means closing one’s eyes to what one knows to be true. It is a kind of stubbornness. The faithful stick to their beliefs no matter how compelling the rest of the world might find a counterargument. Faith is obedience to an imperative to cling to certain formulas at all costs. No less than the Apostle Paul refers to himself and his followers as bondsmen in Christ, as slaves to Christ, and Christ himself as his Lord and Master. Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...(Romans 1:1) If I then, your Lord and Master … (John 13:14) And do not forget referring to God and Jesus as Lord to whom obedience is due.

What does this obedience mean for thoughts and feelings which do not comport with the imperative of obedience? Rebellious thoughts and feelings must be disowned. Unfortunately for Christians disowning is not enough to make thoughts and feelings disappear. Disowned thoughts and feelings manifest traditionally themselves as demons external to the believer. “This is not me” says the believer and lives in fear of the comings and goings of what we would call his. thoughts and feelings. Is it only rebellious thoughts and feelings that are disowned?

But first an objection must be dealt with. Our milder Christians will object that they do not believe in demons and that they recognize the progress made by psychology in understanding pathological states. Primitive Christianity finds it to be rebellious merely giving into disowned thoughts and feelings. Not so primitive Christians find the source of rebellion in the sinful nature of humankind. In more developed forms of Christianity rebellious thoughts and feelings are ours.

Is there anything left for not so primitive Christianity? I submit that there is. It is conscience, knowledge of good and evil, call it what you will. Disowning one’s conscience is the only way that I can explain to myself how anyone could find the argument that only God makes it possible to be good persuasive. If conscience is not disowned, it turns into a problem of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. The voice of conscience is the voice of man in man. I don’t remember who said it, Feuerbach, I think.

If conscience is the result of mundane causes, it is no longer something that commands obedience. One becomes responsible for one’s own Good and Evil. There is no longer a singular standard of Good and Evil. If there is no longer a single standard, then how can God reward and punish? How can one fail to obey the Law, if the Law varies according to individual believers’ consciences? What need then is there for Redemption? Is the difference between a believer and atheist is that one disowns his conscience and the other does not?

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Gullibility

Gullibility might very well be the distinguishing feature of the Christian mind. Christians all seem to share a willingness to believe anything that agrees with their beliefs. This would explain at least the seemingly unending parade of preachers caught in flagrante stealing from their congregations, the sex scandals, and the like. But most of all gullibility explains how someone could claim to be persuaded by weak and self-contradictory arguments for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus. They already know what the Truth is. The bad arguments and the silly stories only confirm what they already know to be the Truth.

If Christians tend to be gullible especially in regards to their faith, they typically hold themselves to a high standard of honesty and scrupulousness with regard to worldly affairs. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. This is not to say that every Christian is a paragon of secular virtue, only that the standard itself is particularly demanding in non-religious matters. At a minimum this is how the vast majority of Christians like to see themselves.

From time to time, someone, often a young person, comes along and innocently applies the honesty and scrupulousness which they had been taught to their faith. And what is the result? Atheism. Is atheism the logical consequence of Protestantism and perhaps Catholicism as well? Christian ethics overcoming Christian dogma? It is, after all, a common trope for atheists to read and question the Bible more closely than do Christians.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Lamictal

I’ve mentioned that my prescriber and I seem to have stumbled upon a drug that alleviates the deadness and perennial grayness of my moods. Lamotrigine (the generic form of Lamictal) has lightened my overall mood and has made me more productive. There is a low-level anxiety that it won’t last. There is no rational reason to think so, but the memory of the grayness is still fresh.
Although there has been a lightening of my mood, the change is not uniform. I feel better overall and am more productive. However, the improvement is punctuated by occasional and unpredictable moods of extreme blackness.

Throughout my most recent episode of depression overall it was a dragging oppressive sameness. It didn’t matter whether I got better or got worse. Everything was a boring gray. This has changed. The black moods are filled with an acute despair instead of with a chronic despair.

Ooops! The move didn't go as smooth as I had hoped

I wanted to move Bob Kowalski from my ***718 Google account to my ***508 account. And it appears that I have messed up. Now the address for Bob Kowalski is bob---kowalski.blogspot.com. I thought that if I exported the blog from my ***718 account and then deleted the blog at bob-kowalski.blogspot.com I would be able to use that URL with my ***508 account. And of course there's no way to see if you can except by trying. Now it's too late. But on the plus side, I had to reformat the blog. The attempt at moving the blog resulted in the deletion of my ancient section of Fun Stuff. I hadn't updated it in years, so it's just as well. I'll be fiddling with the bob---kowalski.blogspot.com over the next few days.

Michael Robbins, Richard Dawkins, and the Rationalist Critique of Religion

Michael Robbins’ comments about Richard Dawkins in his review of Mary Worthen’s The Apostles of Reason inspired me to go back and reread The God Delusion. While I would not go so far as to call Richard Dawkins a “clown” as does Michael Robbins, I would say that Dawkins misses a lot of opportunities to critique and criticize religion, Christianity in particular.

Dawkins begins The God Delusion with a 7 point scale of belief. At extremes are atheists and Christians who are absolutely certain that God exists or does not exist, as the case may be. Dawkins places himself at the almost but not quite point in his scale of being pretty sure that God does not exist. He phrases it as “God probably does not exist.” Basing one’s belief (or non-belief) on probabilities is offensive to the religious mind which craves absolute certainty and the absence of doubt. Religious belief typically treats doubt as sin, as rebellion against a good and loving deity. “Almost but not quite” in religious matters doesn’t cut it.

I appreciate Dawkins’ honesty in acknowledging shades of certainty and doubt, but I can’t but wish that he had gone further to argue that certainty as the religious mind understands it is a pathological condition and that life shows itself in a plethora of shades of gray. Absolute certainty is not only a pathological condition, it is an invention of religious-minded fanatics and is a historical phenomenon. Dawkins’ book would be more of a challenge to the religious mind if he had argued that certainty as the religious understand it bears only a passing similarity to certainty as scientists and most people have come to understand certainty: certainty comes in shades. This partiality of certainty is intrinsic to the concept.

As it stands The God Delusion firmly stands in the tradition of rationalist critiques of religion. The overall strategy is to force the reader to confront the absurdities religion begets. Absurd beliefs cause (unnecessary) pain and suffering. No one wants to suffer unnecessarily. Ergo religion is a bad thing and is (probably) false to boot. Obviously, this syllogism fails if it is shown that some people want to suffer, the guilt-ridden for example.

The religious, Christians especially, are obsessed with suffering, their own and that of others. Suffering is proof positive of obedience to God and His Will. It is intrinsic to religion to desire suffering, whether it is the emasculation of one’s reason through creationism, or the concern over fetal suffering, or the high rates of teen-age pregnancy that abstinence-only sex ed begets, or the persecution of homosexuals even if in one’s own family, or an extra mouth to feed in an already too large impoverished family. Religion claims pain and suffering as its private and exclusive domain. It promises to give meaning and purpose to suffering, even at the cost of absurdities. By the way, the question of the meaning of life is really the meaning of suffering: why do I suffer? and why am I unhappy? No one asks about the meaning of life when they are happy.

It is because of beliefs and practices about suffering that rationalist critiques of religion recur and never seem to gain a decisive victory over religion. The rationalist critique fails to win victory over religion because of religion’s attachment to suffering. The religious-minded accuse the rationalist critique of shallowness.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

A Word about Buddhism

My previous post concluded with a question: Are we left with Buddhism? This question suggests that it would be unfortunate if we were to be left with Buddhism as the only possible means of dealing with one’s own pain and suffering. I did not mean it as a slander, but my knowledge of Buddhism is limited leaving much to be desired. What little I know is that one of the sacred catechisms begins with “Existence is suffering.” This I agree with. The Eightfold Path provides the bare bones of Buddhist ethics. It presents the causes and remedy to suffering. As I understand it Buddhist teaching and ethics revolve around the analysis of the causes of suffering and minimizing suffering. The cause of suffering is attachment to feelings, things, thoughts, and other objects. Attachment is a willful blindness to the role one has in one’s own suffering.



I am unclear as to the role of compassion in all this. My best guess is that it is a means of overcoming one’s attachments. I really am unclear about this. It may be that concern and attention to the suffering and well-being of others allows one to detach oneself from one’s own attachments. I am uncomfortable with this formulation because it makes others into instrument of one’s own salvation instead of others being an end in themselves.



Even if my meager understanding of Buddhism is completely wrong in particulars and in general, the question from my last post remains: is the best we can hope for is to minimize suffering? To turn away and try to hide from despair? Is suicide the only answer to despair, great or otherwise? Does this explain materialism’s attractions: beautiful women, fast cars, the latest and best? Running from death, despair and the humiliation suffering begets?



Is despair the great secret of life?



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