Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Aux Armes!

As I briefly alluded to in my previous post, for the past year or so I have been reading presidential biographies and American history. Over the past several years I have been feeling especially lacking in that knowledge, searching for the missing brain cells that have left me carrying all that I learned about in school on the subject away like so many dandelion spores. Currently I am reading Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis, which I picked up on a spur of the moment while waiting for a new biography of Andrew Jackson to be published. I heartily recommend to any and all looking for a solid and wonderfully written introduction to Early American History.

The last chapter in the book covers the strange relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, beginning with the intense friendship and the shared experience of revolution, continuing through the forming of the country, and ending calamitously with each on either side of the Federalist/Republican divide culminating in the election of 1800. Neither spoke to each other for the duration of Jefferson’s two terms, and for several years beyond, until 1812, when they were finally goaded to resuming a correspondence that lasted for 14 more years until their poetic deaths within 5 hours of each other, Fifty years to the hour after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Though both had radically different concepts of what the revolution meant, as Adam’s thought more with his brain and Jefferson with his heart, both were wonderfully talented writers, and their over 200 letters are an excellent dialogue of the times.

It was interesting to read about that on the way to work and then to read my Brother Mike’s response to my post of two days ago. Why, that sounds like a call to arms! Man the barricades and let the fun begin! I dare say that at the very least it might encourage him to post more frequently than four times a year.

Bertrand Russell, an accomplished mathematician, would have had a difficult time dealing with a concept of God in any other way than intellectually. Of course, coming on the heels of the horrors of World War I, one can easily see an emotional angle – the institutions of religion at the time were not equipped to handle the rapidly changing realities and frequent horrors of modernizing life. One has to remember the nature of the times when Russell is speaking.

Still, I have never had sympathy for atheists who rationalize a lack of existence for God, including Russell’s attempts however poetic, any more than those who are convinced of Her being. If I am going to listen to anyone it would be someone more like Kant, hypothesizing (and here I am speaking as if I know much more about Kant than I do) that he knows that there is more to the Universe than he can perceive, because all he has to do is to look at a tree, and realize that it could never have come from within him. Kind of a million monkeys at a million typewriters sort of thing. Kant can’t explain it, so to him it almost functions as a proof of God’s existence, though he would never define it that way. Literally more like proof of more in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. I, myself, would go further. I would argue that it is the height of arrogance to make any more assumptions about the nature of God than Kant did, considering how limited our perceptions of our senses our (just as it the height of arrogance to assume in Her non-existence). Our hearts may perceive more (and many are certain of it), but our minds can’t, not with our narrow senses and minds.

But a belief in God and faith in a religion are two very different animals. Bertrand Russell reads like he merges the two – but if one appropriates his arguments to focus instead on the institutions of religion, well, then one has a whole new ball game. But criticizing religious establishments is like shooting fish in a barrel – it’s too damn easy to be interesting. After all, Russell’s church bases it’s moral compass on the writings of the holy book of a Bronze Age nomadic tribe that’s been translated over and over again for the past several thousand years. The problem with any institution is its inherent reliance on rules to govern the chaotic conduct of its members. A thick holy book almost be definition needs to be dealt with completely, not cafeteria-style, or the whole damn thing falls apart. And then we get on with the bad craziness.

So what to do. Having a faith in something or someone greater than oneself is all well and good, but we live in the real world, and some guidance is in order. A thick and heavy (mis)translated tome telling me how I have to stone my brother Mike to death because he drives on a Sunday or doesn’t have two refrigerators in his kitchen just isn’t going to be much help to me (or my brother, for that matter). For me the solution is fairly simple, an ethic of reciprocity. In other words, the Golden Rule.

If you check out the link above, you’ll find that this concept, simple in execution, and a damn site easier to remember than a holy book, is engrained in just about every institution of faith on the planet, and not just in Matthew’s Gospel. Asian religions actually say it more poetically than has been attributed to Jesus, though to be fair, after making snarky comments about translation, and my pitiful knowledge of foreign languages (especially Aramaic) I should hold my tongue. Still:

From the Shinto religion: "The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form"

From the Taoist Religion: "The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful." Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 49

Buddhism: "...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" Samyutta NIkaya v. 353

Of course, nothing in what my brother wrote really contradicts any of this. Fair is fair, if he can agree with Russell on the basics, than I think I can agree with him:

“For me, Christianity is those things that Russell aspires for and is not those things of which he despairs. God created us for and calls us to a fearless outlook (aren't the angels and Jesus always saying "be not afraid!"?). God didn't make us the way we are to look back toward a dead past ... we must look for the living faith that still sings forward from the past and becoming with our voice the continuing song of a continuing creation that knows no bounds in beauty and joy.”

That's a Good World, indeed, Mike