He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, March 21, 2014

Dark Night of the Soul: Death to the Ego

The portion of my early childhood that was spent in front of the television was filled with messages about how convenient things are supposed to be for me, by suggestions that all these products were made just for me.  My teenage years were chock full of those same messages, and as my family moved into a middle class financial status, it became easier to fulfill those messages.  While I and my siblings consistently had more modest and inexpensive clothes, toys, and games than our peers due to the wise frugality of our parents, we nonetheless did have plenty of them.  I stayed away from various illegal drugs, but I was heavily dependent on temporal pleasures.  I would escape into fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary fiction with disturbing regularity.  I was reading a 300 page book almost every night as one point.  Video games were similar, but they were the same pleasure fix to keep my smoldering rage at the world at bay, a rage that grew because popular culture kept feeding me the lie that I deserved every good thing and that everything should be convenient for me.  That rage grew because my life experience completely contradicted the presumption that such a life of ease was even possible.

"With respect also to spiritual sloth, beginners are apt to be irked by the things that are most spiritual, from which they flee because these things are incompatible with sensual pleasure.  For, as they are so much accustomed to sweetness in spiritual things, they are wearied by things in which they find no sweetness.  If once they failed to find in prayer the satisfaction which their taste required (and after all it is well that God should take it from them to prove them), they would prefer not to return to it; sometimes they leave it; at other times they continue it unwillingly.  And thus because of this sloth they abandon the way of perfection (which is the way of the negation of their will and pleasure for God's sake) for the pleasure and sweetness of their own will, which they aim in satisfying in this way rather than the will of God."

This expectation of pleasure and a habit of indulging in pleasurable pursuits meant that I was a beginner as described by St. John of the Cross for many years.  I was a functional atheist for much of my teenage years, relying on the pleasures modern comforts afforded me, stagnating in that deadly miasma of convenience grown out of the brilliance and hard work of others.  I prayed very little and could often not bring myself to pray for very long when I did so.  I lived for the most part as if there was no God; my devotion was to escaping the reality which I found so harsh.  Little did I know then how incredibly good my circumstances were and how little reason I had to want to escape it.  But at the time, my only concern was that my will be done.

"These persons likewise find it irksome when they are commanded to do that wherein they take no pleasure. Because they aim at spiritual sweetness and consolation, they are too weak to have the fortitude and bear the trials of perfection. They resemble those who are softly nurtured and who run fretfully away from everything that is hard, and take offence at the Cross, wherein consists the delights of the spirit. The more spiritual a thing is, the more irksome they find it, for, as they seek to go about spiritual matters with complete freedom and according to the inclination of their will, it causes them great sorrow and repugnance to enter upon the narrow way, which, says Christ, is the way of life."

I am currently known among my friends for being a workaholic; they are concerned that I try to do much and stretch myself too thin.  Fifteen years ago, I barely did anything of any note.  I was not a poet.  I was not a philosopher.  I was not a skilled writer.  I was a mediocre martial artist then, whereas now I have designed my own training program.  I avoided hard manual labor rather than enjoying it.  I did as little of anything that resembled work as possible during that time.  I did not have the drive and discipline to embrace life's challenges; I just wanted my escapes and it never crossed my mind to ask what He wanted.  I not only did not take up my cross and follow Him, I did not even consider picking it up much of the time.

"And many of these would have God will that which they themselves will, and are fretful at having to will that which He wills, and find it repugnant to accommodate their will to that of God. Hence it happens to them that oftentimes they think that that wherein they find not their own will and pleasure is not the will of God; and that, on the other hand, when they themselves find satisfaction, God is satisfied. Thus they measure God by themselves and not themselves by God..."

My ego had me wrapped up in the warm blanket of pleasant lies for so long that when I finally did start growing in my relationship with God, that growth was stunted by my inability to recognize that what God wanted for me was far from what I wanted for myself.  I genuinely thought that God would want what I wanted because I was clearly so smart and so right.  I could not imagine that we might disagree as to what is best for me.  I was indeed measuring God by my self rather than measuring my self by God, which is probably how I managed to frequently measure up in my own estimation.

This did not change very often until many years later when I learned enough about human cognition that I recognized that virtue was only possible after a commitment to the death of the ego, a lived pledge to attain freedom from all the little addictions that keep us from true freedom.

The Fall of Pride - Death to the Ego - Bread from Heaven

Note:  The above is a picture of part of the cover of the translation of St. John of the Cross's work I'm using.  For more information about it, you can see my Sources page.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fair Questions: Will Reading the Bible Make People Atheists?

I found this video very interesting, mostly because I enjoy hearing people explain how they arrived at their beliefs.  There is something very valuable in understanding the journey people take to their conclusions.  And I have long enjoyed Penn Jillette as a speaker and an entertainer and a thinker despite having quite significant disagreements with him in many areas.

The Bible can't get you to atheism by itself; other factors must play a role. That much is very clear from the empirical evidence. I've read all those religious texts mentioned in the video and a long list of others. I've read them as an adult with the critical eye of someone with an English degree and an absurd amount of philosophy courses who also has a good background in science and technology. I'm still not an atheist, so I guess I'm missing something needed to get to atheism from reading the Bible. At this point we need to ask the question: what assumptions or intuitions would I need to carry into the reading with me to become an atheist based on reading religious texts?

Reading the Bible and reaching atheism concurrently seems to commonly happen when folks already have a moral framework which predisposes them to reject the sort of morality which is common to Abrahamic religions and other religions with a strong ascetical component.  In addition, it tends to commonly happen when they have little to no grasp of the varying literary styles, cultural context, and oral traditions upon which much of the Bible is based; they subsequently apply a plain reading which would not be suitable for any ancient text of any kind.  They frequently have no concept of morality as a developmental process, taking for granted the altruistic assumptions ironically inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition of moral philosophy.

So if a person carries in the sorts of assumptions common to those who find religious texts to be a compelling reason to abandon or reject that religion, what might they be able to conclude?

If we take the Bible as authoritative, it doesn't lead to atheism because it simply assumes that God exists. This is why the Bible can't prove that God exists; any argument for God's existence based on the Bible as an authoritative religious text is just a circular argument.  For the same reason, it provides no compelling evidence that God does not exist.

If on the other hand we treat the Bible simply as another old collection of various types of literature, it doesn't lead to atheism because we don't assume that it has any weight or bearing on the issue of whether God exists or not any more than any other old collection of books has any bearing on the answer to that question.  The Bible does not constitute either a rational or empirical proof or disproof of the existence of God.

We would only find the Bible to be a disproof of the existence of God if we assumed that the Christian or Jewish understanding of God are the only plausible understandings of God. That would be an extremely odd assumption to make if one is already an atheist, but a completely understandable assumption if one was a teenager who was really only familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition (which it seems Penn Jillette was). Without that assumption, finding content in the Tanakh which conflicts with a typical contemporary moral sense simply leads to a rejection of Judaism (and possibly certain kinds of Christianity that favor Biblical literalism as the only possible mode of interpreting the text).

At most, even accepting a set of problematic assumptions, the Bible might be good evidence to support a person coming to the conclusion that they disagree morally with parts of the moral prescriptions and proscriptions in the Old Testament.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Humble Roots

As I've mentioned before, I was born in the mountains into a working-class family.  We were quite destitute, a fact that I am only able to understand in hindsight.  As a child, I had no idea that we were so incredibly impoverished.  I had no idea at the time that my mother could only survive while working and taking classes at the community college with the help of government assistance and the help of my grandparents in caring for me after school.  I had no idea that she had to ration our food so carefully; I thought that fried cheap bologna meat and pickles were the best foods ever.  Poverty and simplicity were my normal lifestyle at the time.

Unfortunately, I did not stay as rooted in that poverty and simplicity as the rest of my family who remained in the mountains.  As I moved into my teenage years, I grew arrogant and prideful, whiny and self-centered.  While I was chopping away at my humble roots and pulling them up with the same ferocity I used in digging for a buried pipeline one summer when I was 19, my grandfather remained as rooted and humble as ever.  Despite his successes as a farmer, hunter, driver, miner, and country preacher, he somehow grew ever more humble.  He understood himself as a simple man just trying to do the right thing day by day.

He also understood his poverty, not because he did not have enough money at that point in his life, but because he had worked incredibly hard to get it and had left a gigantic pile of things sacrificed behind him in his quest to provide a good life for his family.  My grandfather did not have much left of his old self; he had given up his smoking, drinking, and gambling in favor of a cleaner and simpler life without frills or much in the way of leisure.  He was impoverished in the eyes of the world, profoundly lacking in the worldly virtues of self-indulgence and ego-worship.  He did not have what was prized so highly by his fellow citizens: an expensive and flashy car, fancy clothes, hired help, or surplus cash.  What surplus wealth he had, he gave away to those who needed it in the form of food or clothing for the most part.

He shed all the things that kept him from being the godly man he wanted to be.  He gave himself away freely, leaving only a core of love for all people and every virtue flowing from it.  He was unfailingly patient, kind, merciful, and generous with everyone he met.  Every moment was an opportunity for love, and he took full advantage of those opportunities.  He was able to do this because of a permanent disposition of humility; he was grounded in a realization of his own stark limitations through facing the brutal difficulties of his daily struggle to thrive in a place where most folks barely survive.

Battling the mountains day in and day out left him humble and willing to learn the many valuable lessons they had to teach him.  May we all be so willing to learn from battling the mountains in our own lives, hopefully to conquer them as he did through the never-ending pursuit of self-perfection.  May we all be so rooted in humility that we can consistently grow toward the light of love as he did.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dark Night of the Soul: The Fall of Pride

For my Lenten journey, I have begun reading Dark Night of the Soul, a practical exposition of a mystical poem by St. John of the Cross.  After a beautiful and moving description of the goals and ends of the spiritual life of a person undertaking the journey toward union with the divine, he goes on to describe some of the pitfalls into which beginners tend to fall (and hopefully climb out).  He uses the seven capital sins as a structure for these descriptions of common errors of spiritual aspirants, and he begins with the sin from which all other sins flow: the deadliest sin of pride.

In my experience, pride is a huge impediment to growing in any kind of virtue.  I spent most of my early twenties with my ego wrapped in a blanket of the worst sort of pride.  I had everything figured out; I had the right intellectual views, the right view of moral behavior, and the right motivations.  Pride was the comfortable blindfold keeping me from seeing the evidence that I was significantly in error in all of those areas of my life.  It kept me from seeing how little I knew of myself.  It kept me from seeing how much more depth I should have in my relationships with my family and friends.  It kept me from seeing how much more I needed to be grateful for my parents.  It kept me from seeing how hurtful I was to other people.  It kept me from seeing how much more I needed to give.  It kept me from seeing my numerous mistakes.  It kept me from seeing how vain I was.  It kept me from seeing how distant I had become from love.

Pride was the sibilant voice whispering in my ear that I was awesome, that I was wonderful, and that I did not need to change my ways; pride gently advised me that it was other people whose mistakes were notable and that mine were negligible. Pride was a great deal of me believing convenient lies about myself because it satisfied my ego.  I have since learned that the self-serving siren song of pride is out of tune with the kind of person I wish to become. I have fallen many times, and pride was indeed often there before each fall, pushing me gleefully into bad decisions because it kept my ego temporarily safe from the nefarious clutches of genuine self-improvement.

But pride ended up felling itself; I made too many bad decisions and reached a point of realization that my life could not go on in stagnation.  I realized that I had a lot of room to grow, and the more I grew, the more I was able to see just how much room to grow I had available to me.  I took all the stubbornness and persistence with which I had been holding on to my pride and began pushing away from my pride instead.  Now that I no longer cling to my pride, I am free to become the best person I can be.  I have a lot of stumbling around in the dark to do yet, but the journey has begun and I will see it through to the end.  I am free to venture more deeply into the dark night of the soul to find the light of love and make my home there.

The Fall of Pride - Death to the Ego - Bread from Heaven

Note:  The above is a picture of part of the cover of the translation of St. John of the Cross's work I'm using.  For more information about it, you can see my Sources page.