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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Praying with the Gospels: The Penitent Thief

Lord, please help me by your grace to be like the penitent thief;
I ask that I might be able to recognize the depth of my sins and,
turning to You in the humble repentance of the broken-hearted,
be granted by Your great mercy entry into the Gate of Paradise.

Titian - Christ and the Good Thief - WGA22832

Note:  The penitent thief from the Gospel is traditionally known in both Eastern Orthodox and Catholic circles as St. Dismas (and other variants on that name).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Love it to Death: The Rock of Love

In Christian circles, God is sometimes referred to as not only our salvation, but also our Rock.  The image of the rock invokes stability, firmness, and strength.  It suggests that we can trust God to stand with us forever, that we can build our lives on Him because He is a sure foundation.  This image is often used to explain to us that we should feel perpetually secure in God's hands as we journey through life.  And so, we think, we should.

But we often don't.  This feeling of perpetual security is not something we generally have.  We often feel insecure, especially when our survival is threatened, when our loved ones are suffering, when our sense of our own talent and power is laid to waste by failure to reach a goal, and sometimes even when we face minor inconveniences.

If our feeling of security is only fleeting, then is God really the Rock?  Does God really love us if he allows us to experience all these things which prompt feelings of insecurity, of instability, of uncertainty?  Don't we know from our feelings that we are not secure, that we are unstable, that our future is uncertain?

I would suggest that we do in fact know that we are insecure, but that this doesn't tell us what we usually intuitively believe that it tells us.  Our feelings only tell us accurate information about ourselves, about whether we are secure or insecure in a particular set of circumstances, about whether we are fearful or confident in the face of a distinct challenge.  Our feelings don't tell us unerringly about the intentions of other people, or about their feelings toward us and others, or truths about how the world really is.

That said, what little information is does provide to us is very important information.  It tells us whether or not we are secure enough to trust God when our survival is threatened, when our loved ones are suffering, when our sense of our own talent and power is laid to waste by failure to reach a goal, and sometimes even when we face minor inconveniences.  This is information we need in order to grow and change so that we can trust God as our Rock, so that we can learn to let our fears go and cling to Him.

It is so often our fears, our insecurities about who we are and those we love, that we truly cling to in many moments throughout our daily lives.  And while we cling to our insecurities, we often don't want to let them go because we believe that those insecurities are part of who we are.  We often believe that acting in accord with our feelings, be they feelings of insecurity or security, is the way to be authentic, that living in line with our feelings is the only way to be genuine.

We have two ways to be authentic in this sense: we can change our behavior to match our existing insecurities and securities, or we can change our insecurities and securities to match some standard external to ourselves, following a moral compass which points unerringly in a certain direction, unlike our feelings which point in many directions and are hardly unerring.  For the Christian, this moral compass is the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is Love; by the power of Love we can gradually be transformed and order our behaviors to God's will.

This process of theosis is a gift of the Rock, the God who saves.  And it is He who is Love and Rock who can be both the rock which is a sure foundation for our lives and also the rock against which we shatter our insecurities.  In embracing Christ, we embrace a love which spells death to the ego, the ego which is the seat of our insecurities, ever protecting us from growing in love by building walls of addiction to small pleasures.

These walls allow us to feel secure, but these walls of addiction are also shattered by the Rock of Love when we turn to Him in repentance and return the love He has shown us.  Love will not let any wall stand between Him and the beloved who seeks His love.  And we who love will happily shatter our insecurities on the Rock for the sake of our love.

So many of us gladly gradually give up our insecurities for the sake of our children, our spouses, or our parents because the relationship is more valuable to us that our insecurity, because our love is far stronger than our attachments to the transient pleasures of the ego.  And in the same way, we who love God gradually give up our insecurities because His love is so precious to us that the world is not enough, so beloved that we gladly give up the cares of this world for an eternity with Him.

When our love grows stronger than our insecurity, we begin to step closer to the Rock, placing our feet ever nearer the firm foundation and walking away from the weak and unstable ground upon which we make our journey to the Father's embrace.  When we reach out in love and because of our love to others rather than lashing out from our insecurities to protect ourselves, we are gradually transformed, loving to death our insecurities one act of love at a time.

When our love participates in the divine love of the One who loved us unto death, uniting our sufferings to His for the sake of Love, then just as we broke down the walls between us and those we love by the strength of our love, so too Christ will break down the walls between us and the divine family, welcoming us into the the heavenly home which stands firm on the Rock of Love.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Benefit of Arbitrary Spirituality

Tonight I was running around the park at sunset and moonrise, both the sun's light and the moon's reflection of it through the atmosphere creating a sensation of daytime or nighttime depending on which direction I happened to look.  I greatly enjoy running along the river, across the bridge, and around the back side of the park under the trees which line the street.

I run there for several reasons.  The first is that it is very close to where I live.  The second is that it is quite beautiful at sunset.  And the third reason is that I have no idea how far I've run when I run around the park, and I can just set an arbitrary goal of 3 laps or 5 laps.  That may seem odd to many people, because in many cases serious runners want to track their progress closely.  I too want to track my progress closely sometimes.

When I run on a treadmill, I like to run at specific speeds for specific distances and track my performance very closely.  I know that it helps to have specific goals and to measure my steady progress toward those goals as I grow closer to reaching them.  And I could easily afford to buy a device to track my mileage and carry over my habit of measurement and specific goals to my sunset runs.  So why would I choose to run significant distances without knowing how far or how fast I've run?

The primary reason I don't track my progress is that I want to push myself to go as far as I can go safely.  I don't want to stop for a moment, admire the sunset, and check my FitBit or a mobile phone app to find that I have run enough for the day and head home.  I want to run until I can no longer do so without injury, finding my limits and pushing past them a little bit each time I find them.  I want my limits to be a little further out each time I find them.

And so it is with my spiritual life.  I have specific and measurable goals for my spiritual life, like praying at a certain time and in a certain way or generous giving at a certain time and in a certain way.  I commit to reading spiritual texts for Lent each week and writing spiritual reflections.  I can measure my progress toward these goals and track my time spent on those activities.  This is all very good, and I will continue to do it.

Nonetheless, there will always be a place for arbitrary goals in my spiritual life, goals that push me to my limits without me knowing exactly how far those limits are so that my limits never become set in my mind.  I have no desire for my limits to ever be set; I want the limits of my love expanded through spiritual practice to be ever-changing and ever-growing, not limits set in my heart of stone which can always be marked and at which I can always safely stop, knowing that I can go thus far and that it will not cost me more than I can bear.

I want to venture beyond what I can bear, to reach for that goal so far outside my limits that I can surpass those limits without ever congratulating myself on passing a milestone, without ever letting the prideful voice of the ego laud me for my persistence.  For the sake of love, I want to run the race against my own frailty, to learn to hit the mark precisely by way of learning to do so through the process of missing it many times in practice, to burn so hot with the desire to love fully that I can live through the dark, cold night of the soul.

This is why I now delight in the arbitrary penances and prayers proscribed by the ancient Church; I have come to realize that it is arbitrary goals which draw me out of my comfort zone and into the wilderness where I must grow in order to survive and thrive, where I must be transformed in order to remain with Love.  And oh, how She helps me cut the cords that bind me to the ego and draws me ever closer to being fully transformed in the light of the Son!

The Church proclaims the Gospel by drawing us to Christ who is Love, He who asked us to follow Him in going far beyond the safe milestones of the Law, to fulfill the Law by going not only the mile required but also going the extra arbitrary mile for the sake of Love.  Though we may go that extra mile alongside our enemy, may we learn to go the extra mile for Love.

This is the benefit of arbitrary spirituality.

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Unfair Questions: Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of war?

This question is the question posed for a debate, one that sharply divided Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz, though they later reconnected and became friends and allies.  There is an excellent podcast introducing their collaboratively-written book on Sam Harris' website.  When they discuss their first meeting, they reference the debate that began their dialogue.

The question posed for debate at that event was: Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of war?  Maajid Nawaz rightly thought this was not a very fair question, that it proposed a false dilemma between two poles while ignoring the immense space available to stand in between them.

It's not a simple thing to assess a religion (as distinct from the cultures in which it functions and the political and economic structures in those cultures) in such a way as to accurately answer the question of whether it is inherently a religion of war or a religion of peace in most cases.  Unless the religion in question is the cult of Ares the God of War or an explicitly pacifistic religion like Jainism, the answer to the question won't be completely obvious and easy to sort out.

And given the normal human capacity for acting in a way that ignores their explicit beliefs, it's entirely possible that even an explicitly pacifistic religion or a religion which worships a deity of war might have members which are extremely violent and extremely peaceful, respectively.  The line from belief to lifestyle is far from straight and smooth in many cases.  In light of these difficulties, how can we even begin to answer such a question?

Many Westerners who were shaped by some form of Protestant Christianity in their upbringing (of which I am one) and therefore shaped by the doctrine of sola scriptura, tend to want to look at the texts of a religious tradition first as a way of understanding it.  That's not a bad place to start: it tells us something important about the explicit beliefs of the religion, at least in cases in which the sacred text is meant to establish the explicit beliefs of the religion, which is sometimes the case and sometimes not the case.

I agree with Sam Harris that we can't ignore the role that specific religious beliefs play in shaping the behavior of religious adherents.  His opponents on what he and Nawaz call the "regressive left" cannot seem to believe that not at religious people are rank hypocrites, that there are many who sincerely try to live by the teachings of their religion as they understand them.  His fairly uncontroversial claim (uncontroversial to ISIS at least) that the violence of ISIS flows directly from the teachings of Islam is responded to by many of his fellow secularist liberals with charges that he is an anti-Muslim bigot.

Sam Harris just has a perfectly normal post-Christian Westerner's tendency to actually read the texts of a religion (in the case of Islam, the Quran and hadith) and enough respect for devoutly religious people to assume that they take them seriously.  And what happens when we use text analytics software to look at the primary texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that we find out that the Tanakh has far more violence in it than the Quran, and that the violence levels in the New Testament and the Quran are very close.

But this doesn't get us very far toward answering even the only somewhat useful question of which religion is a religion of war, because the literary forms just aren't comparable.  The Tanakh has a history of the building of the Israelite kingdom, and the Quran does not contain a set of books of comparable length about the building of the Islamic caliphate by Muhammed and his companions.  If it did, the references to violence in the Quran would be far higher, and I'm not sure which way it would come out.

So if we can't answer the question based on religious texts, can we look at the history of violence performed by the members of those religions?  Well, even if we suppose that we could agree upon a fair metric that took into account the age of those religions so that we could control for the length of time their adherents had to rack up a body count, how could we gather enough evidence to demonstrate that one religion was a religion of war and the other a religion of peace?  Do we really want to convict a religion of being more warlike on the basis of it having preserved more written records of its violent adherents?

Or do we want to assume that a lack of written records means that religion's adherents have been so successful in their violent acts that no records survived the unspeakable events?  Or in the other direction, that a lack of records of violent acts means that religion's adherents have been consistently peaceful?  Or do we stop looking at history and just look at what a religion's adherents are doing now as if that were necessarily a good indication of what the religion as a whole is about?

It is a far more difficult thing to answer the question of whether a religion is one of peace or one of war than either its friends or enemies would like to admit.  Its friends are inclined to say that it is peaceful regardless of the evidence, and its enemies are inclined to say that it is violent regardless of the evidence.  As someone who was glad to pray with my Muslim brothers, I count myself as a friend to Muslims.

Nonetheless, I don't think it is easy to claim that Islam is straightforwardly a religion of peace any more than I think it is easy to claim that my own religion is straightforwardly a religion of peace.  It is certainly the case that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are not interested in going to war and want to just live their lives without conquering their neighbors, though some of the ones who are so inclined seem to very serious about Islamic theology and practice.  That is also generally the case with members of my religion.

And unlike members of my religion, Muslims have a duty to support the formation of a global religious government.  In the letter from many Sunni scholars across the Muslim world condemning the actions of ISIS, it becomes clear that there is widespread agreement that all Muslims should help form the caliphate and establish it everywhere.  There are certainly differences of opinion about whether violence is the best way to establish the global caliphate, and thankfully the current consensus among Muslims seems to be that violence is not the best way to do so.

While there are certainly liberal Muslims who want to reform Islam and live in secular societies not dominated by Islamic sharia, it's fairly clear that mainstream Islam is, like most religions of the ancient world, not a religion that can be easily separated from political structures.  Many ancient religions, including Judaism which influenced Islam, were inextricably linked to a tribal or nationalistic political ideology, and Islam is no exception to this.

There is probably no good way to determine whether or not any particular religion is a religion of peace or a religion of war, but it's obviously the case that when religions become closely entangled with the state, it then becomes difficult to avoid the perception that it is the religion as much as the state which goes to war.  This has been true of all religions which become entangled with governments, not just Islam.

In the end, I have to agree with Maajid Nawaz that Islam is neither a religion of peace nor a religion of war; it's simply a religion, and it is the adherents of that religion who decide how their behavior is shaped by the doctrines of the religion.  Thankfully, the majority of Muslims have decided that it is not a religion of war and have acted accordingly, following their conscience and the teachings of Muhammed to a more peaceful destination.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Ancient Atheism: The Saṃsāra of Cārvāka

The origins of Cārvāka are not particularly clear, as many of the primary sources are lost to us and much of what we can learn about it comes by way of those who criticized while it was yet a live option.  But at least one thing seems fairly clear based on the evidence: the philosophical movement known as Cārvāka has been accused of many things over the centuries, including atheism, materialism, and hedonism.

I went searching for a more sympathetic take on the philosophical movement, because most of the sources of good provenance come as quotes in texts seeking to refute their views, and the texts of the movement itself are no longer available to be examined directly and in their entirety.  I found a scholarly work on it by an Indian doctoral student in philosophy who set out to treat the topic more sympathetically (and I think he succeeded), which is listed in the Sources on this site.

The author, Bhupender Heera, claims that, "We can have a complete systematic work of the materialists of India if we gather them together in a sympathetic manner."  His goal is to show the powerful influence of materialist philosophy on Indian traditional thought throughout Indian history.

As he traces the development of Cārvāka, we find that it has gone through what are described as "steps of evolution" and "logical stages of development" as a movement.  The first stage in this evolution was an increasingly radical skepticism.

"In its first stage it was merely a tendency of opposition.  It called in question all kinds of knowledge, immediate as well as inference.  It denies the authority of even the Vedas.  At that period, its name was Bārhaspatya."
The reactionary nature of this radical skepticism tells us something important about its place in the chronology of Indian philosophy, according to Heera.

"While tracing the origin and development of Indian materialism Dakshina Ranjan Shastri observes that materialism is preached nowhere as a doctrine of philosophy, except as a reaction against some perverted ideas or practices.  The materialists of India namely, Brhaspati and his followers, do not pretend to lay down a constructive  system of philosophy of their own.  They try to refute the foolish orthodoxy of other schools.  Thus, in their opinion, it proves that the system of Brhaspati cannot be the first system.  It is rather the last.
It raises objections against all the other schools and presupposes the existence of all other schools thereby."

Quite understandably for skeptics, the ancient Indian skeptics were not convinced of the divine origin of the Vedas just as atheists in Europe and the United States today are not convinced of the divine inspiration of the Quran, the New Testament canon, or the Tanakh.  But like contemporary skeptics, they went much farther than merely doubting that the traditional religious texts of their culture were authoritative.

"H.T. Colebrook thought that four characteristic doctrines of the Indian materialism were (1) restriction of the means , proof, and sources of knowledge to perception; (2) ultimate existence of the four elements -- earth, water, fire, and air only; (3) denial of the soul to be other than the body; and (4) consciousness as a product of combination.  E.B. Cowell, claiming to base his view on Mādhavācārya's account of Indian materialism, calls it Hindu skepticism at its best and compares it with the Greek school of Pyrho and Sextus Empiricus."

The ancient Indian skeptics doubted even the ability of human beings to ascertain the truth by rational inference.  Today's skeptics are not nearly so bold; they are generally quite certain that where the scientific community employs rational inference to determine things like the age of the earth or the distance to unimaginably distant galaxies, it is correct.

While they may not explicitly argue that human reason is coextensive with reality or that the Problem of Induction is not a problem at all, most contemporary skeptics intuitively arrive at the conclusion that the patterns discovered by our minds would apply throughout the history of the universe.  The skeptics of ancient India had the good sense to find this a questionable assumption, even though it might be an eminently useful one, as David Hume observed much later.

"The Cārvākas are champions of rational empiricism because for them pratyakṣa is the only pramāna and God is non-existent for them.  It is the only system in traditional Indian philosophy which does not believe in anything which is beyond the catchment area of perception.  Thus he reduces metaphysical world to physical world.  For him there is no knowledge which does not subscribe to our five sense organs.  So, consistent with the rational empiricism, the Cārvāka denied all that was super-sensible, and supernatural, i.e. of God, soul (apart from body) and the outer world etc. as it could neither be perceived nor proved on ordinary inference and testimony based on the perceptible (acceptable to the Cārvākas)."

Like Hume, the ancient Indian materialists were skeptical of any source of knowledge but their own experience via the perceptual mechanisms of the senses, and even seemed to be inclined to doubt perceptions to some extent.  After all, they believed that those who perceived God with the senses were incorrect in their perceptions based on their a priori assumptions about what is perceptible.

This skepticism is of course not a whole philosophy; though it rests on a competing epistemology, and epistemology alone wouldn't suffice for a person trying to get through life.  The epistemology it rests upon is made explicit in the second stage.

"In its second stage...recognition of of perception as a source of knowledge and the theory of the identification of the body with the self, was incorporated into it.  In that stage, it took the form of a system of philosophy.  However, low its position may be, in the rank of philosophical systems, it can by no means be denied that, at that remote period of Indian history, it was the only system of philosophy, worthy of its name.  In that period flourished famous materialists like Ajita Ksakambalin, Kambalasvatara and Purana Kasyapa.  In that stage it came to be known as hedonism, which was due, perhaps to the corruption of freedom--social, religious and political--which formed the most important features of this school.  Gross sensual pleasure superseded bliss or contemplative joy, and licentiousness replaced liberty.  Devils occupied the seats of angels."

Here the author suggests that the seats of the materialist philosophers were the seats of angels, taken by the devils.  The philosophical purity which came to be formed after the ideas of other schools were purged in the fire of skepticism is quite admirable.  What follows their philosophical purity and simplicity is not so admirable, as Heera admits.

"As a consequence of this impact of corruption and misunderstanding Cārvākism originated.  In that stage this school preached 'Eat, drink, and be merry' for tomorrow we may die.  The reaction to this extreme form of licentiousness was destructive to the very vitality of this school.  From that time this extreme form of materialistic school leaned towards spiritualism.  So long it had maintained that the body was the self.  In that period, being severely attacked by the spiritualists, it gave up the theory that there was no self apart from the body and tried, gradually, to identify the sense organs and the organ of thought with the self.  Before that the materialists had affirmed that inference was not a means of knowledge.  But in this stage they accepted at first probability and then even inference, though in a restricted form, as a source of true knowledge.  Philosophers like Purandara were the advocates of this form of Indian materialism."

Unlike Buddhism, which had a tradition of asceticism to prevent its rejection of the usual ways of knowing promoted by those who followed the Vedas from resulting in licentiousness, the Cārvāka school had nothing to prevent the perfectly normal human tendency toward selfishness from destroying an altruistic project of seeking truth and sharing it with others.  Nor, as we see, did it have the collective discipline to resist the attacks of the spiritualists.

We see here the inevitability of hedonism arising from a radical skepticism which denies any transcendent  meaning for the material world.  Which is not to say that it is necessarily correct to infer from materialism that our moral obligation is to seek short-term pleasure, but that it is a conclusion we human beings will always try to reach because we are so often addicted to our pleasures and we want to rationalize our addictions rather than abandoning them.  And with materialism, there is nothing to provide a brake on our tendency to perform that rationalization.

Unsurprisingly, because we humans very much want such a rationalization, those philosophies which provide an easy one become quite popular.  Heera does not hesitate to show us that there were also other contributing factors to why it became popular.

"Garbe says:

several vestiges show that even in the pre-Buddhistic India proclaimers of purely materialistic doctrines appeared.  It must have arisen as a protest against the excessive monkdom of the brāhmana priests.  The externals of ritualism which ignored the substance and emphasized the shadow, the idealism is the Upaniṣads unsuited to the commoners, the political and social crises rampant in that age, the exploitation of the masses by the petty rulers, monks and the wealthy class, and the lust and greed and petty dissensions in an unstable society paved the way for the rise of materialism in India on the post Upaniṣadic and pre-Buddhistic age.  But materialism in Indian philosophy has never been a force.  Born in discontent, it soon died in serious thought.  Though the materialistic way of life, the way of enjoying the pleasures of the senses and the flesh is as old as humanity itself and will surely lat as long as humanity lasts, yet materialism as metaphysics has never found favour with the Indian philosopher.  Jainism and Buddhism arose immediately and supplied the ethical and spiritual background which ejected materialism."

Understandably, people often begin to question the veracity of traditional truth claims when the institutions and social structures which are currently in place seem to be failing to provide for their good, when the hypocrisy of their religious leaders looks larger than their fidelity to the truth, and when their political leaders pay lip service to religious rituals while exploiting their people for their own selfish gain.  Thus the religion which is successful in permeating a society, but no longer is lived out as if it were both true and transformative, creates its own enemies.

Like Buddhism, the Cārvāka school was a reaction against the excesses and corruption and clericalism, a noble effort to struggle against the wrongs of the powerful, and a striving for a simpler philosophy which did not rely on ancient texts of dubious authenticity.  And like Buddhism, the Cārvāka school became what is so often the beginning of the end for protest movements: popular.

"In our opinion the Cārvāka system appears to be a very dominant and thought-provoking system which paved the way for correction of many ideological wrongs because it always talked about those things which appealed to the common masses.  And this might have been the reason that they were called Lokāyata.  Since the views of Cārvākas (Lokāyata) were so practical and convincing, they became popular among the masses.  Here it would be worthwhile to quote the observations of Rajakrishna Mukhopadhyaya.  He writes that the Lokāyata was a very influential system of ancient India.  The fact that the sacrificial rites of the Vedas are held in contempt in the Upaniṣads and in the philosophical works, the disappearance of the supremacy of the Vedic gods, and the atheistic opinion of Kapila, Buddha, and Jaimini, all these are the results of the influence of the Lokāyata.  Ajatia, a follower of Lokāyata, contradicts the dualism and pluralism of Kacchayana.  He does not make any distinction between the soul and the body. ... Buddha's views against the Vedic sacrifices, the memorizing of the Vedic mantras and fruitless repetition to retain them in memory, the caste system, the authority of the Vedas and the worship of the deities, the magical practices and views against the mortification and ascetic practices have their counterpart in the views of the Lokāyata."

The Cārvāka school which began by attacking its predecessors for their unnecessary beliefs, their reliance on unreliable means of knowing, and their ossified orthodox beliefs, ends by taking up unnecessary beliefs, relying on unreliable means of knowing, and becoming ossified into a school of thought which is accepted as part of the landscape of the Indian philosophy it was revolting against.

"In its fourth stage it came to be at one with the Buddhists and the Jainas in opposing the Vedantists and got the common designation nāstika.  A nāstika is one who condemns the Vedas -- nastiko vedanindakah."

At this point, the Cārvāka are a fully recognized part of Indian philosophy, albeit a heterodox part.  They are placed within the framework of Indian philosophical traditions rather than being an oppositional force outside of it.  This stage is of course the cementing of Cārvāka as a popular movement rather than a protest movement animated by its opposition to the status quo.  It is also the end of their school of thought, which Heera dates to 1400 CE.

Heera recognizes that getting to this point was a developmental process rather than an event which exploded atheism and materialism into the world like the birth of a great light, which is how post-Enlightenment rationalists and proponents of Western scientific materialism sometimes present it.

"But all systems of philosophy are the growth of years, may be of centuries.  The systems which we possess of the different schools of philosophy, each distinct from the other, are rather the last summing up of what had been growing up among many generations of isolated thinkers and cannot claim to represent the very first attempts at a systematic treatment.  A large mass of philosophical thought must have existed in India long before there were any attempts at dividing it into well-defined departments of systematic philosophy or reducing it to writing.  But such a growth must have required a great length of time.  So it is probable that during that long period the views of one system were discussed in another.  During that long period anything could be added and anything left out.  Subsequently each system reached the form in which we possess it."

I am less sure than Heera is that absolutely anything could have been added or removed, because my experience has been that philosophical schools are very good at excluding that which conflicts with their axiomatic beliefs.  That said, I think viewing the philosophical schools as the result of a lengthy developmental process is the most correct way to view them.

"It is not improbable that the Lokāyata school of philosophy, being developed as the first system of philosophy, raised objections against the views of other schools which were even then mere tendencies and which took shape as systems later on.  Thus, although,  as mere tendencies almost all philosophical  thoughts are contemporaneous, as systems they belong to different ages.  The school of Brhaspati is regarded as the weakest school of philosophy in comparison with other schools.  The law of evolution or gradual development proves that the earliest school is the weakest and the latest is the strongest.  If the materialistic school be the weakest, it is probable that it is the earliest also."

Though I think it's useful to examine philosophical developments from an evolutionary perspective, Heera seems to deeply misunderstand the theory of evolution here.  Evolution is not a linear process in which things become gradually stronger and stronger, but rather a recursive process in which things continually re-adapt to their environments as their environments change.  And that which cannot adapt dies out, though something very similar will likely arise when the environment has changed in such a way that its features are adaptive once again.

Nonetheless, the distinction he makes between the existence of philosophical thoughts and philosophical schools is I think an important one.  It's true, for example, that while there are probably always atheistic materialists somewhere at any given time, the existence and strength of philosophical schools which are promoting atheistic materialism waxes and wanes.

"The Cārvākas have sometimes been compared with the Greek philosophers.  The heterodox beliefs attributed to Cārvākas immediately call up similarities between them and the Greek philosophers, Democritus and Epicurus.  They also show an affinity to the Roman philosopher-poet, Lucretius. ...there can be little question as to Plato's hostile attitude toward naturalism or his later-day fanaticism with regard to proper ideas.  The calumny heaped on Epicurus, successor to Democritus, was scarcely less than that enjoyed by Petronius Arbiter. .. Lucretius received better treatment than his naturalistic predecessors, the worst things said about him being that he may have died of a love potion or committed suicide, having realized, perhaps too late, the hollowness of his philosophy.  That he was generally ignored for some five hundred years by "Christian and other barbarian philosophers" indicates the extent of his depravity."

The strength of atheistic views which accept only nature in opposition to and exclusion of the supernatural order has been born, lived, and died in ancient Greece as well.  And later, inspired to some degree by the classical Greek philosophers and their commitment to reason taught in medieval Catholic schools, those views were reborn in the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, lived on in Germany in the form of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, and thrived for a time in the Communist-ruled countries who did their level best to implement Marxism, many of which are now abandoning Communism.  Now it seems to be picking up steam in the United States under the influence of the so-called New Atheists.

In all of these cases, atheism and materialism (or naturalism, whether scientific or otherwise) have been minority positions in the world which have not generally been very strong and not for very long. In the end, the fate of materialism and atheism in India is much the same as the fate of any person in the cosmology of its fellow heretics, the Buddhists.  It will be born, live, age, and die, only to be reborn again in another form elsewhere amidst the harrowing pains of radical skepticism rediscovered.

This is the Saṃsāra of Cārvāka, the cycle of death and rebirth of a philosophical school which has arisen many times in many places and eventually fallen in those places.  Perhaps there is a way for atheism and materialism to become truly enlightened and subsequently escape the cycle of death and rebirth known as Saṃsāra, but I don't know of it.  Perhaps the Buddha does.

By Stephen Shephard - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The River of Love

The beginning of what is hopefully a poetic Lenten journey.

The River of Love

The river begins with the bubbling of the spring,
a slow trickle turns to gurgling on the mountain,
and the water falls into the clear brook babbling;
the rushing waters roar and splash like a fountain.

The brook flows with the curving of the ground,
a swift stream of fuel for the lighting of life's fire,
and the flora are growing from the water's round,
the fauna drinking clean water until they retire.

The creek dives off the mountain's shining face,
a waterfall of life forming from the tears of love,
and the mist is showing us the rainbow's trace,
the sign of love's promise ever-glowing above.

The valley cradles the pool of churning teardrops,
a whirlpool of love spinning beneath the deluge,
and the plants are budding under rocky outcrops,
the wave-filled pool a luscious greening refuge.

The garden thrives around the old winding river,
a monument to the nourishing stream's power
and the flourishing of all good things forever,
the river of love sustains the blooming flower.

Note:  Photo credit goes to me.  In this poem I'm using typical devices like a four-line stanza, end rhyme, start rhyme, internal rhyme, and natural imagery.  I tried to stick to a 12-syllable count for each line.  The poem is about God's love for us which starts small and grows into a powerful river which brings an abundance of life through the power of love.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Christocentric Rosary

I once thought of the Rosary as a Marian devotion, but as with many things I once thought, I have since discovered that I was wrong.  I was convinced that the fact that the Hail Mary is used so many times and the Hail Holy Queen is often prayed after the Rosary meant that the exercise was all about Mary.  And though I'm perfectly content at this moment to petition Mary to pray for us (Ora pro nobis is the Latin phrase), I wasn't always so content.

Coming as I do from a Protestant background, for many years I simply wasn't particularly interested in any Marian prayers.  I didn't have any experience that would draw me into it; unlike for many cradle Catholics who were exposed to traditional Roman Catholic devotions fairly early, the Rosary was outside my frame of reference and just seemed altogether foreign to me.  And the same was true for the Catholic Church's teachings on Mary, Queen of Heaven in general; I just found it strange.

And then I made the fateful mistake of trying it for myself in order to understand it, as I do with so many religious practices.  On top of which I made the other mistake that I make all too often: I researched it and learned more about its development.  The results were not what I expected at all, either with regard to the experience of praying the Rosary or performing the research.  I was shocked to find that the tangible beads helped me to focus on the prayer rather than distracting me from it, and I was surprised to learn how old it is.

One thing I did expect is that the Rosary would be long and complicated to learn, particularly in the popular contemporary form.  That is probably why I prefer the Dominican approach to the Rosary which is somewhat simpler without losing any of the power of the prayer.  One thing I didn't expect is how wonderfully meditative the complexity of the prayer could be.  My experience with Buddhist meditative practice was that of utter simplicity, of letting go of even the ego so that a suffering-free emptiness occurred in which the "I" disappeared and the mind was integrated.

My experience with the Rosary is that the ego is left behind as we fill our minds and hearts with the story of Love, the Mysteries (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious) which unfold the history of  our salvation before us and help us to learn to cooperate with the grace we received through Christ.  The Mysteries upon which we meditate as we recite the prayers from the heart of the Church lead us always to Christ, beginning to draw us into His story with the Incarnation, reminding us of His Baptism, giving us something to hold on to as we weep at His Crucifixion, and showing us that the Resurrection is the beginning of the never-ending story into which Christ invites us.

The Rosary is kerygmatic; it proclaims to us each time we pray it the irreducible Gospel of Jesus Christ, taking us as it does through the whole of Christ's life on earth and leading us to life with Him in Heaven.  The Hail Mary also takes us through the life of Christ, from the time it was proclaimed to her, "The Lord is with thee." to the reminder of Him who was borne by her in the womb, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." and to the end of the story for us, which is our death, the moment we can join Him in the never-ending story in the Divine Household.

"Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." reminds us of our need for a Savior who can cleanse us of us sin when we turn to Him in repentance and hopes for the grace of final perseverance in uniting our sufferings to Christ.  As always, Mary points the way to Christ and shows us how we ought to love Him who loved us unto death.

In the end, the Rosary is Christocentric, a compass with the shape of a cross which ever-reliably points in the direction of the Gospel, the good news who is first revealed to us as Man, then revealed to us as Christ, and finally revealed to us as God.

The Christocentric Rosary - The Apocalyptic Rosary - The Eucharistic Rosary

Note:  The above is an image of my rosary which has the Sacred Heart of Jesus depicted in the medal which joins the decades to the crucifix.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Fair Questions: How can we dialogue with other religions respectfully?

Today I read the most excellent interview between a Muslim and a Christian that I have ever read.  It exemplified the genuinely respectful engagement with other religions and our friends who adhere to those religions which I aspire to in my own research of other religions and irreligious philosophies.

I have sought to engage with many other religious traditions respectfully, particularly Buddhism.  I am also currently researching Hinduism and Islam more deeply than simply reading their texts, and I have written a great deal about atheism, both contemporary and otherwise.  I have even written about Satanism in a way that is respectful and uses their own sources to defend Satanists from an accusation made by their detractors.

From my own successes and failures in the area of inter-religious dialogue, I have learned a great deal about what it is to respect another religion as one learns about it.  I have also learned a great deal about what it is to disrespect another religion.  There are obvious and subtle ways to disrespect another religion; one of the most common is to spread misinformation about it, and this could be either obvious or subtle, but it is usually not so obviously disrespectful as insulting a religion.

The spreading of misinformation about a religion is generally not malicious.  I would go so far as to say that it's more likely that the people who spread misinformation about religions are acting in good faith.  I've accidentally done it myself, and when I learn that my previous understanding of a religion is incorrect, overly simplistic, or not quite as evidence-based as it ought to be, I renew my commitment to being more respectful of that religion in the future by sharing more accurate information about it when the opportunity arises.

The antidote to this disrespectful spreading of misinformation is research.  Don't take your smart-ass friend's word for it that the Buddha was an atheist or that Catholics worship Mary or that the Quran is more full of violence than the Bible.  About two minutes of research on Wikipedia can clear that sort of misinformation right up.  But if you want to be even more respectful than just not spreading misinformation, then more than just fact-checking yourself with readily available general sources will be necessary.

If the founding texts of a religious tradition were not written in English originally (and the vast majority were not), then find a scholarly translation of the texts into English by someone who is committed to preserving the values of that religious tradition.  Or if you happen to read Sanskrit or Greek, then just read the originals if we still have them.  And beyond that, read commentaries on the texts by practitioners of the religion who have been practicing their religion for most of their lives.

But wait, there's more!  In order to more fully understand a religion, it's important to experience it.  My visit to a Vajrayana Buddhist monastery, my praying with Muslim friends in their traditional form of prayer, and my monthly attendance at an Antiochian Orthodox Divine Liturgy was educational in a way that simply reading the texts and great scholars of those religious traditions could not effect.  It is necessary to consider the question of whether certain religious practices might harm you, of course.

I don't recommend engaging in religious practices which you have good reason to think might be harmful.  I also strongly recommend that you do not try to engage in religious practices which longtime practitioners of the religion do not think you are ready for.  Such a thing ventures too far in the other direction and also becomes disrespectful.  And speaking of becoming disrespectful by trying too hard...

One of the most common ways to disrespect another religion these days is by trying to compliment it.  Calling Islam "a religion of peace" may seem like a great way to counter anti-Muslim sentiment, but it is inevitably reductive; it puts Islam in a box and bids it stay there for its own good.  Islam has a rich tradition with many branches and elements, and there are many ways of understanding sharia with regard to what sorts of violence are halal and how Muslims ought to achieve peace.  It is unfair to the Prophet and those who heed the message of the Quran to lessen Islam in order to present it as something palatable to everyone.

But sometimes other religions don't even get a compliment.  Recently, I was presented with the claim that Jesus, Muhammed, and the Buddha all taught the same message of love, with the implication that these religions are all the same thing and that we need to look past the divisiveness of sectarians who believe that these religions are actually different.  The people who advance this claim are generally sincerely trying to be respectful to these religions.  They fall into the trap of spreading misinformation about a religion in order to promote unity.

It's disrespectful to any religion to reduce it (as many in the West do) to a slightly different version of the same religion you grew up in and later abandoned.  Islam has its own set of truth claims, some of which (in the Quran, specifically the Sura on Mary) directly contradict Christian teachings, and textual analysis shows that it spends a lot less time talking about love than Christian writings.  Also, the Buddha taught an incredibly robust path to the liberation of mind from the cycle of death and rebirth that ought not to be waved away as just another message of love.

It is far more respectful to politely state your disagreement, to take the risks associated with speaking the truth with love, to regard a religion as worthy of the time and trouble it takes to make a reasoned argument for not following it.  Do the religions you don't follow the kindness of treating them as what William James called a "live option" which you at least consider carefully before rejecting and which you are willing to re-examine when new evidence comes to light.  It is far more respectful to other religions to treat them as you would want your own religion or philosophy to be treated: with honesty and with an effort to understand your views fully.

My advice is to respect other religions enough to research them, to take their truth claims seriously and examine the evidence for them, and to disagree with them honestly where you cannot agree with their truth claims.  The greatest respect we can pay to another religion is not remaking it in the image of our own religion and not reducing it to merely a lesser version of our religion or philosophy, but rather to take as it is, accepting it in the fullness of the unique beauty of its practices and claims to truth before evaluating it.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fair Questions: Does the Bible or the Quran have more violence in it?

Recently, a friend of mine posted a link to an article about using text analytics software to examine and compare the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The article was pretty hilariously quick to draw conclusions from the results that were favorable to the author's views without any discussion of the limitations of the analysis which were explained by the person actually running the analysis.  It was a delightful parade of confirmation bias.

The article that was cited as the source for it wasn't trying to put on a parade of the worst sort of confirmation bias (which I always appreciate), and actually linked to the original source, which is always a wonderful thing to do when it comes to data analysis.  The gentleman conducting the analysis seems to be aware of the difficulties in choosing the text to be analyzed.  He asked questions like, "What language should it be in?" and "Which translation is better to use?" and "Should the Tanakh and New Testament be analyzed together or separately?"

He even issued a strong warning before he got into the analysis to try to keep people from over-stating the conclusions we can draw from the data.

"Due to the sensitive nature of this subject, I must emphasize that this analysis is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to advance any agenda or to conclusively prove anyone’s point.
The topic and data sources selected for this project constitute a significant departure from the consumer intelligence use cases for which clients typically turn to text analytics, so we thought this would be an interesting opportunity to demonstrate how this tool can be much more broadly applied to address questions and issues outside the realm of market research and business intelligence.
Again, this is only a cursory analysis. I believe there is more than one Ph.D. thesis awaiting students of theology, literature or political science who want to take a much deeper dive into this data."

The second part of the analysis had other interesting assumptions, including that the books of these texts were in chronological order and that emotions could be straightforwardly determined from the text.  That was a problem for the results that relied on chronology, I think.  Though the broader implications were that it is not easy to assign all the positive emotions to one religion and all the negative emotions to another.  The textual analysis leaves that situation complicated.

And the data analyst warns us again of the complicated nature of the analysis as he begins the third part of the analysis.

"First, I want to make very clear that we have not set out to prove or disprove that Islam is more violent than other religions.
Moreover, we realize that the Old and New Testaments and the Quran are neither the only literature in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, nor do they constitute the sum of these religions’ teachings and protocols.
I must also reemphasize that this analysis is superficial and the findings are by no means intended to be conclusive. Ours is a 30,000-ft, cursory view of three texts: the Quran and the Old and New Testaments, respectively.
Lastly, we recognize that this is a deeply sensitive topic and hope that no one is offended by this exercise."

The data analyst's warnings were of course ignored by many people who wanted to put forward evidence that could confirm their existing beliefs, and the article I was linked to originally at the top of this post is certainly a good example of that.  Strangely, the author of the piece on ReverbPress never mentioned these points:

"The concept of ‘Love’ is more often mentioned in the New Testament (3.0%) than either the Old Testament (1.9%) or the Quran (1.26%).
But the concept of ‘Forgiveness/Grace’ actually occurs more often in the Quran (6.3%) than the New Testament (2.9%) or the Old Testament (0.7%). This is partly because references to “Allah” in the Quran are frequently accompanied by “The Merciful.” Some might dismiss this as a tag or title, but we believe it’s meaningful because mercy was chosen above other attributes like “Almighty” that are arguably more closely associated with deities."

The fact that there were more than twice the amount of references to love in the New Testament than in the Quran wouldn't have fit his anti-Christian narrative, and so it was conveniently excluded.  And you might think that citing the prevalence of "Allah the All-Merciful" in the Quran would bolster the argument that Islam is not a violent religion, but that isn't the argument the author cares about.  He just wants to poke a thumb in the eye of conservative Christians in the U.S.  Which, though admittedly in much milder form, I don't mind doing occasionally myself as a matter of fraternal dialogue.

As someone who has written much more positively about Islam than many Christians in the United States, I think it's good to counter the simplistic narrative that equates every bad behavior with Muslims and every good behavior with Christians. I just don't think this project accomplishes that task at all. The OdinText data analysis project is very cool, but it has a lot of limitations and drawing conclusions from it is tricky.

"A look into the verbatim text suggests that the content in the Quran is not more violent than its Judeo-Christian counterparts. In fact, of the three texts, the content in the Old Testament appears to be the most violent.
Killing and destruction are referenced slightly more often in the New Testament than in the Quran (2.8% vs. 2.1%), but the Old Testament clearly leads—more than twice that of the Quran—in mentions of destruction and killing (5.3%)."

At best, it shows that Islamic revolutionaries and terrorists are not violent because there are lots of violent passages in the Quran, and it does this by showing that there really aren't very many violent passages in the Quran.  Which is a good point to remember, but doesn't get us very far.  And it doesn't get us very far because of another stark limitation of the data analysis.

As someone who has read all three texts analyzed by the OdinText software (as well as many other religious texts), it was my impression before ever looking at any data analysis that the Tanakh had far more references to violence in it than the Quran, and that the Christian New Testament is a tougher call to compare to the Quran by that metric.

But a huge difficulty with having software do a textual analysis (even very good software) is that it misses literary context. Much of the violence in the Tanakh (the Old Testament to Christians) is there because it is in part a history of the Jewish people as a tribe and nation at war with other tribes and nations in that part of the world. The Quran isn't written that way at all; it's not a parallel nation-building narrative of the same type. If it had been written as a history of, say, Muhammed's Quraysh tribe and the building of the Islamic Caliphate, then the references to violence would go up dramatically and we would be having a different discussion that could actually compare literary apples to literary apples.

And with the New Testament, we have the same problem. Much of the violence in Revelation, for example, is an allegorical record of Roman persecution of the early Christian community and others. Once again, there is no parallel narrative of this type in the Quran, and so the comparison isn't a very good one. It would be like trying to compare the Tao Te Ching and the Pali canon in Buddhism to see which is more tranquil; the literary differences make the comparison impossible to do validly with a textual analysis alone.

In the end, there is significantly less violence in the Quran than there is in the Tanakh, but this doesn't tell us as much as we might like to think because the texts are not easily comparable forms of literature.  As usual, I have the same problem with how anti-religious fundamentalists interpret these texts as I do with how religious fundamentalists interpret these texts: they both often ignore really important things like literary form, the limitations of language, and the relationship between the religion and the text when evaluating the text.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Fair Questions: What did I learn from praying with Muslims?

Some time ago, I was invited to a mosque by a friend.  He and I have known each other for a number of years, and we have had the occasional fruitful dialogue on matters of religion.  While in a dining/recreational area adjacent to the mosque, he showed me the miniature library with copies of the Quran, the Sunnah, and various Islamic commentaries on the message delivered by he whom Muslims call The Prophet.

I had read an English translation of the Quran when I was getting my first degree, prompted by the various claims circulating about Islam after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  I had wanted to read for myself the authoritative text for Muslims rather than relying on anyone else, whether on the political left or the political right of the American political spectrum, to give me an accurate assessment of Islam.

This was something we discussed as I enjoyed the traditional tea he shared with me and tried small pieces of the desserts called by names unfamiliar to me.  I noticed that children roamed freely around the area as we sat and talked, both girls and boys.  The adult women were conspicuously absent, however, which was not surprising to me given how common it is to separate men and women outside the home in Islamic cultures.  Despite that, the social interaction felt very natural and healthy, the men not needing the women around to keep them well-behaved.

I'm sure the reverse was true as well; no doubt the women were able to have a delightful time without the men being by their side.  As the time came for the evening prayer, there was a call for the men to come to pray.  I can fairly safely assume that the women were praying as well, albeit in a different area.  The prayer times are fairly set throughout the day regardless of gender.  Men and women might be separated by space, but they are united in the submission to God to be found in sincere prayer.

At the call to prayer, I asked if I could join the men in prayer.  I hadn't planned to join them in prayer, but for some reason felt moved to do so.  My friend and the other men kindly welcomed me to pray with them.  I followed them in and took a place in the middle of the line they formed, a line facing Mecca.  As a Catholic, I appreciated the unity of praying in the same direction; it reminded me of traditional Catholic and Orthodox liturgies in which we all face east or face the altar.  I understand the rightness of praying with both bodies and hearts oriented in the same direction: toward holiness and He who grants it.

My Catholic religious practice also prepared me for the rhythms of the prayers.  There was standing, kneeling, full prostration, kneeling again, and so on.  Having spent plenty of time at Catholic and Orthodox services, both the kneeling and the standing were very familiar to me.  The prostration, however, is not something I have done very often.  It's normal for priests to prostrate themselves fully before the altar during the Mass for their ordination, but not a normal part of the Mass otherwise.

Having followed my Muslim friends in their prostrations, I found that it had an important psychological effect; the lowering of my body to the floor for the sake of honoring God's greatness lowering my ego from the heights of pride along with my body as I prostrated myself fully.  I suspect that there is a perfectly cogent explanation for this in grounded in evolutionary psychology, but it doesn't detract from the spiritual benefit.  And for the first time, I understood why my father chose to be prostrate during his personal prayer.

The prostration was not only humbling, but also strangely peaceful.  During the prayers, there was a brief sign of peace exchanged between the men with the man on their left and the man on their right, which didn't interrupt the flow of the prayers at all, but still served the purpose of reminding us that God invites us to treat our neighbors with love.  The sign of peace was just a brief turning to the other man and wishing the peace of God upon him, which is fortunately one of the few phrases I know in Arabic.

The other phrase used through the prayers is: "God is great".  This too happened to be a phrase I knew in Arabic, which turned out to be extremely helpful to know that evening.  All in all, the time of prayer was mostly silent, broken only occasionally by the men's voices.  There was no music, no series of images, no flickering of candles, no grand gestures, and no choreographed procession.  The beauty of the prayer was in its simplicity and purity.

This is of course one of the benefits Muslims will often mention to potential converts, that Islam is simple and pure, a restoration of the true monotheism which reaches back to Adam and Abraham.  And there certainly is appeal in the simplicity; there is minimal theology to learn to become a Muslim (though you can certainly read Islamic mystics and philosophers if you are so inclined), no formal religious hierarchy to submit to, no initiation into the mysteries, and no lengthy creed.

To become a Muslim requires only the brief profession of faith in the presence of witnesses known as the shahada with a sincere intention to live out the five pillars of Islam as defined by the Prophet Muhammed.  This reminds me of my Protestant roots; I was raised in a church that was part of the restorationist movement in Christianity, a church which favored simple worship as opposed to the grand Roman Catholic liturgy.  Simplicity in a religion does have real value, as any Catholic monk or Franciscan friar can happily explain.

But the beauty of Islamic prayer's simplicity is that it is even more starkly simple than even the most simple Protestant worship service and takes far less time.  It is certainly no 2-hour worship service, and there are definitely no praise and worship bands.  But the shorter time period is offset by the fact that the prayer is done five times daily, that throughout the day the Muslim is called out of daily life and into sacred time with God.

This is a wonderful and very healthy spiritual practice which can suffuse our day with an experience of the divine and reorder our priorities toward loving service to God and to our neighbors.  It reminds me of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions in which the Liturgy of the Hours serves the same purpose.  I'm not sure how much the prayer traditions of Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews influenced Islamic prayer, but some of the parallels are fascinating, and Islam did arise in reaction to Judaism and Christianity, so there are definitely some influences from Christianity and Judaism.

Along with the practices of almsgiving, fasting, the shahada, and the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islamic prayer is part of what makes Islam distinct as a religion with its own character and its own way of shaping the human heart.