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What Would Peace Look Like?

In PeaceAble on August 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I have on occasion heard people singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” and wondered if they had actually ever listened to the lyrics.  Lennon imagines a peace that requires the end of individual possessions, the end of religion, a singular universal belief that excludes heaven and hell, and nothing at all that is important enough for people to consider killing or dying for it.  This is not the way I would imagine peace, nor would I particularly wish for it.  For me, peace is not about the elimination of all those things which might disturb the peace, but about finding peaceable ways to deal with those things.

Conflict is not only inevitable for humans, it is also necessary.  Conflict exists whenever there is more than one possibility and a choice needs to be made.  Interpersonal conflict exists whenever two or more persons share the possibilities and the choices.  Choosing between alternatives is a fundamental human activity.  Without it we are not fully human.

All conflicts exist in the context of our attempts to get our needs met.  All choices are attempts to find the best possible solutions to the conflicts created by our needs.  All relationships are attempts at engaging each other in the meeting of our individual and shared needs.  All human activity involves conflict and the making of choices that attempt to resolve conflict.  Without conflict and the choices we make about it, there is no art, no science, no literature, no altruism, no basis for morality or ethics.  When we confront conflict and make a choice, we give expression to our knowledge and our beliefs; we tell ourselves and others who we are.  It is within this context that we need to begin to imagine what peace would look like.

To begin with, any realistic look at the possibility of peace also needs to recognize that, because our own needs will always be different from the needs of others and our shared needs will be perceived differently, peace will look different to each of us.  So what we need to craft is a way of being PeaceAble that allows us be assertive of our needs for peace while being sensitive to others’ very different needs.  For this we need a language of peace that we can use collectively.  Notice that this is what keeps our “war-ability” in place.  So much of our language is the language of war.  And even those who claim to oppose war regularly use that language to describe what they want.  “Wage Peace” proclaims a bumper sticker.

One part of the problem is that we conflate war and competition.  They are not necessarily the same.  Wars are always about control of or access to resources (physical, intellectual, ideological); they are based on a sense of “scarcity consciousness” (resources are limited and anything the other has reduces how much is available to me); the language of war is violent, self-centered, dehumanizing, divisive, and rigidly categorical; the goal of war is to win, and to cause the other to lose.  The winners in war are granted broad physical and moral superiority.  Competition, on the other hand can be (and occasionally is) peaceable.  Competition can be about personal and collective improvement (again physical, intellectual and ideological); the language of competition can be non-violent, supportive, humanizing, inclusive rather than divisive, and open and flexible; the goal of competition can be to advance the common interest of everyone involved and to celebrate achievement over victory.  In competition there is the possibility of seeing equal value in the contributions of all the competitors and to assign superiority  more narrowly: one may have been stronger, but another had greater determination, another a unique strategy, and still another an especially clear focus, for instance.

Another part of the problem is that we have enormous amounts of cultural language – in our official doctrines and practices, in our media, in our rituals and celebrations – that reinforce the value of war and the meme of the warrior; but very little to reinforce the value of peace or the cultural place of the peacemaker. The term “peacemaker” has even been applied to weapons large and small, and we regularly refer to armed troops as peacekeepers.  When we send men and women to war, when we train them to kill, and then ask them to be ready to die for us, we rightly recognize the enormity of that sacrifice.  As soon as they put on the uniform of military service, we call them heroes.  We regularly celebrate their service with holidays, parades, glowing testimonials, educational and medical benefits, special recognition at public events and in public forums. Because service requires membership in specific organizations, we have easy access to names that identify the warriors and make them visible to us.  We have no such things for peacemakers. Which of our holidays celebrate our peacemakers?  Martin Luther King’s birthday is, even now, a controversial commemoration, and he is recognized primarily for his work on civil rights for African Americans, while his broader advocacy for peace is often criticized, rather than celebrated.  And the message of peace that is so often expressed around the Christian holiday of Christmas is undermined by the crass commercialism of the season and the many ways in which our religions have been used to foster hatred and division.  There are hundreds of medals for warriors, few for peacemakers.  In thousands of ways, both small and large, our culture reminds us daily that the central metaphor of our lives is war, and that peace is at best a very minor part of who we are or how we should behave.

So as I consider what a PeaceAble society would look like, and as I develop these ideas further in these essays, I ask you to first take an honest look at what a “war-able” society looks like – what we look like now.

Knowing and Believing

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Knowledge suggests the existence of fact.  If we can know something, then it must be true or factual.  Let’s assume, for the moment, that we actually inhabit a third dimensional reality that would be here even if we weren’t.  If that’s the case, then one way we can define a fact is “anything that exists independent of our knowledge of it.”  Some things simply are.  We discover them occasionally, but we don’t create them.  The tree-falling-in-the-forest riddle is a question about the relationship between human experience and objective reality; and if we agree that objective reality exists independently of our experience of it, then the riddle must be answered “yes.”

In an objective reality, there is the potential for 100% knowledge about the observable part of that reality.  The universe is a very big place, and we clearly do not know all of it yet.  We don’t even have complete knowledge of the observable reality on this planet.  New discoveries are made every day: new species, new substances, new information.  Although it  is possible to imagine a time when science might have discovered all there is to be discovered, and to have the power to be instantaneously aware whenever some new thing is created or evolves; it is not likely to happen any time soon.  The best we can say for the time being is that there is a body of knowledge, a collection of facts, that we do know, and a sense that there is more that is yet to be discovered.

Within the limits of our knowledge, these kinds of facts have power because they can be readily demonstrated.  If someone tells you that I am wearing red pants today, and there is the possibility of getting a look at me yourself, then as long as I have not had time to change my clothes, you can check the fact.  Either I am wearing red pants or I am not; and you can potentially get a demonstration of that fact.  Of course, even if you can’t get a look at my outfit, it may still be a fact that I am wearing red pants; you just don’t have objective knowledge of it.

What we live in is not, however, only an observable, independent reality.  It is also an experiential, human reality, because humans do not experience the objective reality in an objective way.  All human experience is filtered through layers of meaning and perception that may be both highly individual and broadly cultural.  Two persons who may appear to be having a common experience are actually having two individual experiences with some common objective elements to them.  As a result, it is useful to expand our meaning of “fact” to include knowledge that is derived from observable reality in reasonable ways.  These would be the “scientific” facts developed inductively from what is observable.

Such facts require demonstration of the observable reality, but also require demonstration of the reasoning process being applied to the observations.  The objective reality on which the theory of evolution is based – the fossil record, the genetic comparisons, for example – can all be observed and demonstrated.  But the fact of evolution as the fundamental explanation depends on an application of reason to the observations.  Reason is always at least partly subjective, of course, and is limited by the number of observations, so these kinds of facts can change as we collect new observations or have new people apply reason to them.  The power and importance of this kind of fact is, first, that it makes knowledge more broadly available (none of us can individually make all the observations necessary to develop all of these facts for ourselves); so we don’t have to constantly “reinvent the wheel.”  Secondly, this kind of fact makes it possible for us to condense large amounts of objective knowledge into one or two reasoned facts which we can then apply to our daily experiences.  I don’t need to do all the research myself, I don’t need to understand how it all works, in order to know that if I take 400 milligrams of something called ibuprofen it will reduce the pain I am feeling from my headache, but that overdoing it could lead to other medical problems associated with ibuprofen use.

But what about those things which may exist independent of us, but aren’t subject to either direct observation or reasonable inference?  Some knowledge is the product of experience that is so personal that there is simply no way to demonstrate it to others.  And in such cases, our conclusions about the experience may be based on reason that is also limited to our own internal processes, without being subject to any sort of scientific process.  Suppose you are walking in a field one day when you are surprised to observe an object, some kind of vehicle, perhaps, hovering above you.  It lands near you in the field, a door opens, and something that appears to be some kind of being emerges.  This creature observes you for a moment as you observe it, makes a gesture of greeting or acknowledgement, or perhaps of farewell, and reenters the vehicle, which then rises into the sky and disappears from sight.

What’s just happened?  What was the vehicle, what or who was the creature?  Did it actually exist, or did you experience some sort of hallucination?  What do you know?  Some kind of event has occurred and you have had, as a result, an experience of that event.  But what is that event?  In order to answer these questions you have to apply your own perceptions and your own reasoning to your experience.  You have to apply your beliefs to the experience; and the experience to your beliefs.  In the end, what you might say you know is a product of that process.  Did you see some sort of extra-terrestrial vehicle and alien being?  Did you have some sort of psychotic episode?  Perhaps you simply misinterpreted the sensory clues and there is some earthly explanation.

Now try to share your knowledge with others.  You know what you have experienced; which is to say that you have decided for yourself what that experience was, named it, formed a relationship with it; but what you know cannot be proven.  The event left no artifacts, no evidence; only your memory of it; and your memory reconstructs it with every recollection.  What do you tell people?  How do you explain your experience?  What facts do you relate?  Perhaps you even tailor the facts according to your perceptions of the others you are relating them to.  There are clearly some facts here, but the important facts are the ones you have created through your use of reason and selection.

Many of the things we routinely accept as factual are just as much constructs as our memories of the experience in the field.  They are facts because our reason tells us that they are the best explanation of our common experiences.  But our shared knowledge depends on the limitations of our shared language and this presents certain problems.  Language is both personal and metaphoric.  Language is personal because each of us creates meaning out of the interaction of language, experience, and perception.  Language is metaphoric because words have meaning for us according to the images they call to mind.  “Do not think of a white horse” is an impossible command as long as the listener understands the denotative meanings of the words.  But some language presents facts as deliberate metaphor.  When, for example, we say that the sun rises in the east, we are describing our metaphoric experience of the event, not the objective reality.  The sun doesn’t actually rise at all; the Earth turns so that we move with it until it becomes possible for us to see the sun at the horizon.  It is simpler and more pleasing, however, to comment on a beautiful sunrise than a beautiful rotating of the Earth eastward until we are able to see enough of the sun’s radiant energy to bring color to the particles of moisture in the atmosphere.  So the sun rises in the east and that’s a fact.

But some of our experiences, our observations, aren’t subject to objective observation.  Our “knowledge” of these things is subjective and personal.  We treat these things as factual in our lives, but they do not exist as fact apart from our own knowledge of them.  This is belief, or faith.  Belief is necessary to fill in the gaps in what we know.  Belief exists entirely in the realm of the experiential, subjective and personal.  If something is directly observable, then it does not require belief.  If there is an objective reality that exists separate from our experience of it, then the observable aspects of that reality do not require my belief.  If I step outside and it is raining, I don’t need to “believe” it is raining in order to experience it objectively; I will get wet no matter what I believe.  On the other hand, if my belief is strong enough, I may not “know” that I’m getting wet.  This sort of belief might, of course, be considered delusional at best.

But what if there are things that exist independent of our experience of them, but they are not subject to direct observation?  And what if some of our experiences are independent of objective reality?  This is the nature of our beliefs about God.  Whoever or whatever God might be; whether any specific God we humans have experienced, perceived, and defined actually exists independent of our experience; none of it is subject to rational proof.  It is possible to argue that God doesn’t exist only if we have defined God in a way that precludes that existence.  It is possible to argue God does exist only within the boundaries of our particular beliefs.  It’s possible that God exists but we have not yet evolved to a level of knowing that would allow us to observe and prove God.  It is possible that God exists in a way that doesn’t allow for direct observation, no matter how intellectually or scientifically advanced we become.  It is also possible that we might someday prove or disprove God in all possible manifestations and definitions.  And it is likely that even if that were to happen, some of us would continue to believe.

Regardless of whether the fellow standing in the rain is delusional, it seems probable that a very strong belief will almost always overrule an objective proof.  Facts are usually not persuasive unless they are coupled with a belief that gives them personal meaning for us; whereas beliefs can be powerfully persuasive in the complete absence of facts.

Choosing and Creating Our Reality

In No Particular Path on August 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I believe in the existence of free will.  For me, nothing about life makes any sense without it.  But belief in free will isn’t necessary in order to understand about human choices.  Whether we are free to choose or not; whether there is some biological or spiritual imperative that compels us to choose a particular way, or whether each new choice is a surprise to both human and God; we nonetheless experience our actions as choices.  When I order my cup of coffee in the morning, and I decide whether to get a medium or a large; whether to get a decaf, a regular, or a blend; whether to add a pastry to the order; I am not able to feel the distinction between a free choice and a predetermined outcome.  I am only conscious of the choice I make as a choice.

More importantly, I am conscious that my choices have consequences.  If I get some caffeine in my coffee, I am aware that I may feel somewhat enervated afterwards; if I go with the pastry, I know that my blood sugar level may be affected, and in a family with a history of diabetes, it’s not a good idea to overdo that.  I take these risks because I choose to.  If I don’t feel as well as I would like later on, I can look back at my choices and understand something about why that is, and how I might want to choose in the future.

I am also conscious of possible meanings, evaluations, and judgments that I and others might make about my choices.  Do I feel good about my choices, or bad?  Perhaps I have a quick inner dialogue with myself in which I might tell me I am drinking too much coffee, that I need to eat fewer pastries and lose some weight; that I shouldn’t spend my money on such frivolities.  Perhaps I defend myself: I’m pretty healthy for a man my age; I have to die of something, after all; all things in moderation, you know.  Am I weak, courageous, foolish, wise, healthy or unhealthy?  Even these possibilities require choices.
There are, of course, some things that we do not choose.  Although there is evidence that I might learn how to become self-aware enough to consciously affect my breathing, my heartbeat, my brain waves; there is no evidence to suggest that each pulse is a deliberate choice, each firing of a synapse something I decide about, each breath preceded by a choice to breath or not.  It is also true that some things outside of ourselves have an impact on us.  If it rains, it is not because I have chosen the rain.  At the very least, I cannot experience these things as choices.

On the other hand, the things I do not choose create the necessity for choice.  Have I dressed for the weather?  Do I pay attention to my heart so that I can avoid problems or know when to seek medical treatment?  Where do I place the blame or credit for the things that happen to me?  Suppose, for instance, a tree limb falls on me and I’m injured.  I could take the blame or credit myself: I shouldn’t have walked this way; I should have heard the sound and ducked out of the way; or if I hadn’t reacted as quickly as I did, it could have been much worse.  I could blame or credit God or fate:  God must be trying to tell me something; God is punishing me for some sin, known or unknown; I’m just unlucky; or I’m fortunate it didn’t land on my head and kill me; God must have been watching out for me.  I could find others to blame or credit: I need to find out who owns this tree and sue them for negligence; this place ought to have signs warning people that there might be falling tree limbs; I will have to thank the instructor of that course I took on emergency preparation and first aid, because she taught me how to respond appropriately in this situation.

My response to the situation, moreover, is not just a choice about how to respond, it is also a choice about the meaning I create from what has happened; and a choice about the language I use to express that meaning.  And these choices build on one another, overlap, fold back into layers of choice and meaning and more choice and more meaning.  And the process continues long after the event itself has passed.  Every time I remember what happened, every time I tell the story, I will recreate the event and the meaning of it.  Memory is creative, not static.  Meaning is fluid, not fixed.  Underlying it all is choice, both conscious and unconscious.

In his 1968 book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Harry Browne describes freedom not in absolute terms, nor in terms of forces acting upon the individual, but in terms of the choices the  individual makes regardless of the forces acting upon him.  Paraphrasing Browne, we can define freedom as action based on our understanding of three aspects of our choices.  First there is the understanding that we can choose, that choices are always available to us.  Some of those choices may be undesirable or dangerous or ineffective.  Some may seem reasonable or desirable or better in some way than other choices.  We may be able, in any situation, to see a great many possible choices, or only a few, but there will always be the possibility – and the necessity — of choice.  After the recognition that choices exist, there is the understanding of possible consequences.  We can look at each choice (or as many as we choose to look at) and make guesses about possible outcomes for each choice.  What is the worst that I can imagine happening if I choose this way; what is the best?  The third step is to accept responsibility for my choices and the reasonable consequences of those choices.  If I can effectively negotiate these stages of choosing, then I can choose in ways that will more often lead me to the things I need and desire.  But these stages are neither simple nor obvious.

The fact that choices are always possible is not an indication that all choices are always possible.  Actually the opposite is true.  Each of us is always limited to the available choices at any moment, and those choices may be limited by our own prior choices, the actions (and choices) of others, and the circumstances of the present situation.  If I am a prisoner, I cannot simply choose to open the cell door and walk out of prison.  If I am poor, I cannot choose to buy a million-dollar mansion to live in.  If I am physically unable to walk, I cannot choose to run in a marathon.  But a prisoner can choose to act in ways that might eventually lead to his release (unless his sentence disallows that), or in ways that make his imprisonment more bearable; someone living in poverty can choose to act in ways that might lead her out of poverty; and someone who can’t walk might have the choice to enter a marathon as a wheelchair participant.  If I am a prisoner, then I have made choices that have led me here.  There is no need to judge these decisions at this point, however.  I may be a political prisoner, incarcerated for acts of conscience; or I may, in fact, be guilty of some act of criminal violence; the point is still the same:  I am a prisoner because I have made choices which led me here.  And my choices have interacted with the choices of others – the dictator who has chosen to oppress his people and outlaw dissent, the legislators who have passed the laws that I have violated.  And all these things are subject to perception, interpretation and judgment.  The dictator and the rebel may each feel that his actions are necessary for the good of the country.

My choices may be limited, also, by my knowledge or understanding, by my perceptions and judgments.  I cannot consider choices I cannot know or imagine.  Ignorance and naiveté interfere with choice.  I cannot apply for a job I don’t know exists, for example.  I may believe some choices are unavailable to me because I have learned that they are unavailable.  If I am continually told, as a child, that I am not smart enough or not attractive enough, or not strong enough, then it will take a great deal of risk on my part to choose things that would require intelligence, or attractiveness, or strength.

This combination of choosing, experiencing the consequences of our choices, creating meaning from those consequences, and choosing again is the way in which we create our reality, our personal truth about who we are, about what the world is like, and about how we should act in that world.  It is the way in which we create, define, and manage our relationships with others.  And in any moment it is everything we bring to that moment.

Peace Able

In PeaceAble on August 17, 2012 at 7:50 pm

I suppose that a blog about peace ought to be written from the position of an enlightened or peaceful life.  It ought to be approached with optimism and hope.  It ought to speak of the author’s own experiences of unconditional love and a life lived according to certain rules of activist pacifism, with credentials from at least one or two of the great peace movements of the author’s lifetime.  If you also suppose these things then this blog may disappoint you, because this is a blog written by an author who claims no special enlightenment or peaceful past; it is written from a place of fear and anger; and it makes no hopeful or optimistic predictions of some great dawning of Aquarian peace on earth.  The author has been moderately active over the years in local movements, studied draft law in a non-credit class in the 70’s, gave a few speeches in town meetings during the nuclear freeze movement, and has always voted for the mainstream candidate who seemed least likely to lead us into Armageddon; but beyond that I can claim no special background or credentials except more than 30 years as a professor of human communication.

This is a journey.  As I write it I am trying to find my way out of anger and fear toward hope.  It is a fundamental premise of this blog that the one great hope for lasting, creative, and universal peace lies in that journey, a journey that each and every person on the planet must make individually, so that we can all make it collectively.  My impression of most of the literature on peace, or perhaps I should say the literature that claims to show how to achieve peace, is that it is primarily about either how the individual can find personal peace in spite of the craziness of the world, or about one prescription or another for the political agenda for peace.  Alongside these we have enormous amounts of ink being expended about a wide range of issues, each proclaiming the absolute necessity of some resolution to the particular conflict if the world is ever to be at peace.  It is also my perception that every one of these books tells the truth, and that the path to peace is paved with all of them, but that ordinary people will read very few of them, and be discouraged or confused or turned away by most of the rest.

The practical questions that I have not seen asked, or answered in any detail, are: “What would a truly peaceful world be like?” and “What would such a world require of me?”  The answers to these questions and some observations about the relationship between peace and our individual and collective choices will be the subject of this blog.

I choose to use the term “peace-able” rather than “peace-full” because I believe that the second cannot be achieved (if it can be achieved at all) until we have achieved the first.  To be peace-able is to be prepared to live one’s life in ways that open the door to peace, rather than create barriers.  To be peace-able is to think about all our choices as leading toward peace or away.  To be peace-able is to understand that there will always be conflict between humans, because there will always be differences in need, in belief, in knowledge, experience, understanding and perspective.  To be peace-able is to understand that we are not perfect.  To be peace-able is to want to make choices in our relationships with others that seek to nurture and support those relationships rather than simply protect ourselves.

To be peace-able requires that we develop some new habits, perhaps some new consciousness, in our daily lives.  We have to develop the habit of asking ourselves each day, “Who do I want to be today?  What do I want my life and my choices to mean to me and to others?”  We have to ask ourselves about our choices. “How does this choice affect the peace-ability of my life and the lives of those around me?  Does it make me feel more or less peaceful, more or less able to engage others in peaceful ways?  Does it seem to generate in myself and others feelings of peacefulness, of acceptance, understanding, gratitude, love, respect?”

To be peace-able means developing what I call “Pre-Forgiveness.”  This is an attitude toward our own and others’ hurtful, unkind, negative behaviors that allows us to more quickly put down the burden of hurt, fear, anger, and judgment; so that we can get on  with the business of living our lives in peace-able ways.

To be peace-able means to think about what we truly do believe about life, about God, about what it means to be human.  And then we must measure our choices against those beliefs as honestly and clearly as we can.

If genuine peace were to suddenly arrive tomorrow, would we be ready for it?  Would we know how to act, how to think?  Would we be able to live our lives in ways that could sustain that peace?  What would it require of us?  What would it look like; feel, taste, smell, and sound like?  These are the questions that I will explore as best I can in these pages.

What Do I Believe?

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 17, 2012 at 7:04 pm

A Deist’s Creed

                                I believe that everything that is, is of God and is God.

                I believe in a God of infinite possibility and endless variety; who cannot be defined or contained by all the thoughts and words and deeds of humankind; who speaks to us in every tongue and many voices; who has created, of God, a living, evolving, rational universe.

                I believe in the gift of free will, the power of unconditional love and the grace of forgiveness.


A deist believes in God.  Or god.  Or gods.

That’s it.  That’s what defines a deist.  There is a belief in something that the believer defines in god-terms.

Those who identify themselves as deists (or unaffiliated believers, or non-denominational, or whatever other terms they might choose) also tend to believe that organized religions are human institutions in which it might be possible to find positive aspects of community and common practice, but which are flawed institutions that are as likely to limit and distort the individual’s relationship with God as they are to enhance it.  These feelings may range from simple disagreement to outright hostility.

That’s why I call my creed “A Deist’s Creed,” not “The Deists’ Creed.”  I describe myself as a deist.  Not that long ago, I would have called myself an agnostic.  I have never been an atheist.  But these are all ways of explaining the development of my own beliefs about these matters.  I was raised in a rural Episcopal church in southern Massachusetts, attended church only spottily as an adult, and as of this writing, go regularly to a United Church of Christ Congregational parish.  This creed is an expression of the process of my faith, rather than a statement about its final resting place.  As long as I can continue to think about what I believe, examine my relationship with both spirit and other human beings, and observe my own experiences, then my creed may change from time to time.

For me, the most important aspect of being a deist is to know what it is I believe.

What is not important to me is to spend much time going on about what I don’t believe.  I am not interested in trashing other people’s beliefs, arguing about whether God “in fact” exists, or picking apart religious texts to find the “flaws” in them.  I was raised with the King James Bible, have also read the New International Version and parts of several other versions, and have studied some non-Christian texts and scholarly works of religion and philosophy.  I have also read texts of literature, art and science.  I consider all of these texts to be of human origin and therefore flawed – though the specific nature of their flaws is open to disagreement.  I also believe that all of these texts, precisely because they are the work of human beings, contain truths that come from the connection between us and our beliefs.

If you ask me, “Do you believe in God?”  And I answer, “Yes I do.”  What do you know about me or my beliefs?  Unless you know what I mean when I say “God,” then you cannot know anything more than that I profess to believe in something and I call that something “God.”  And unless you know what I mean by “believe,” then you cannot know how I experience that God.  Moreover, unless I know what you mean by those same words, I cannot answer your question with any sure sense that I know what you are really asking.

Now you may be thinking that I am making too much of these differences, that there is a general agreement about what these words mean in this context, that if we come from a common culture which generally speaks about God and belief in certain ways, then surely we can understand each other well enough.  But experience tells us that isn’t so.  Our individual definitions can create enormous gaps in understanding that we will be insensitive to because we think that they do not exist.  Consider the phrase “In God We Trust,” which appears on U.S. currency.  Why is this not a violation of the first amendment to the Constitution?  When the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1953, why was it not also denounced as unconstitutional?  Can you use the name of God – and when it is capitalized it is a name, not just a noun – without invoking a religious belief?  And if you answer that it doesn’t matter because everyone can imagine his own God, then what about the atheist, who clearly does not trust in God and does not wish to swear allegiance to a nation under that in which he does not believe?  What about the devout Christian who believes that using God’s name in that way is blasphemous?  Words do not exist without definition and definitions do not exist without consequences.

All faiths and all religions define God in some way.  When we choose to believe, it is a good idea for us to choose what we believe very carefully.

Now I have just used two more words that need careful definition: faith and religion.  And to these I would add two more: philosophy and science.  I will take each of these terms separately and tell you how I define them, so that you will know better what I mean and be able to say whether my definitions are at all close to your own.

                GOD – In my deist’s creed, I say that I believe that everything that is, is God.  If I believe that God is infinite and that nothing existed before the creation of the universe, except God, then it follows for me that there was nothing for God to create the universe out of, except God.  Does that sound like a non-definition?  It may be.  Perhaps the best definition for the God I believe in would be, “God is that which cannot be defined.”  To define something is to limit it.  That’s what it means to define.  To make finite.  To say what something is, and simultaneously to say what it is not. To draw the edges of it so we can know what is included in it and what is outside of it.  If we say, for example, that God is masculine, then we simultaneously say that the feminine is not God.

The definitions of God in the major religions are, of course, not so simple or concrete as that.  They have lots of layers and nuances and complexities, which the many volumes of theological writings attempt to explain and refine.  Even my own non-definition definition requires further explanation and allows for interpretation and argument and refinement.  But this is my starting point, the gross outline of my definition of God: “Everything that is, is God.”

FAITH – A way of knowing that which we cannot prove, so that we can act on that knowledge.  Faith allows us to treat our beliefs as fact.  We usually associate faith with a belief in God or adherence to a specific religious practice – we even use the terms “faith” and “religion’ interchangeably much of the time – but one can have faith in things that are unrelated to the divine.  We can talk about faith in our system of government, faith in the essential goodness of human beings, or faith in the ability of reason to find solutions to our problems.

RELIGION – A system of belief, dogma and practice used by humans to experience and express their understanding of and relationship with the divine.  Just as our culture helps us to organize the world through shared perceptions and definitions of the world and society in which we live, religions help people to organize their ideas about the divine through shared perceptions and definitions of God or the gods.

The first requirement of a religion is a belief in some kind of divinity.  If God does not exist, then religion is an exercise in delusion.  But there is very little in the human experience (some would say nothing) that does not contain at least some illusionary elements.  But so what?  Religion is not about proving God, but believing in God.  That belief can be formulated in as many different ways as there are individual believers.  God can be masculine, feminine, neuter or transcendent of gender entirely.  God can be singular or multiple; human in form, animal, a combination of human and animal, or exist in as many forms as there are elements, compounds and complex organisms; omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; or malleable, sometimes ignorant and confused, and distant.  God can be a being of some kind or something more like a primal force or consciousness.  There is no limit to the variations in beliefs about God.  But without a belief, religion is not possible.

The second requirement of religion is dogma.  Fundamental to the shared experience of its adherents, every religion has a body of literature that attempts to make the beliefs accessible to human beings and to say how the beliefs are to be applied to life.  Dogma usually include a history of the faith and the religion, a set of rules and moral codes for living, and an explanation of the consequences of adhering or not adhering to those rules and codes.

Finally, religion requires a specific set of standard practices, usually associated with worship of the divine.  These practices are designed to create closeness to God, to create a religious community, and to give humans a way of seeking help from God, through supplication or outright manipulation.  Practices such as communion, baptism (or other rites of membership), marriage, and prayer give religions their outward form and manifestation.

There are a great many diverse beliefs in the world and vast bodies of literature to expound on those beliefs.  There are also a great many human practices – in fields from science to politics to art to the simple requirements of daily life.  But unless there is a clear and deliberate, purposeful organization of all these elements into the creation of a distinct community of adherents, focused on our relationship to the divine, then there is no religion.

PHILOSOPHY – A set of perceptions and beliefs that create a framework for an individual’s experience.  A philosophy may seem at times to be very close to a religion — I have heard Buddhism called both, for example – but it doesn’t have the same structure.  One may share one’s philosophy with a great many others, for instance, but it is rare that a group of people with a similar philosophy will meet regularly and frequently in a sense of worship or to engage in specific practices required by that philosophy.  One can argue, therefore, about whether a theosophical society is a religious gathering or a philosophical one, but a convention of existentialists meeting once a year to discuss a variety of philosophical questions is clearly not a religious event.

Philosophy, like religion, is a guiding force in a person’s life, but generally a less public or even conscious one.  There is no hierarchy of priests to tell us how to interpret what we believe or how to apply it to our lives; there is no clear community of like-minded believers with whom we regularly gather for formal instruction or common practice.  And the larger society doesn’t provide support for the practice of philosophy.  There are no philosophical “holidays” or “seasons.”  The stores don’t offer special sales on Descartes’ birthday or give workers a paid day off to celebrate their belief in Keynesian economics.  Generally, we discover our philosophies through examination of our lives, rather than through specific adherence to a particular set of prescribed texts or correct behaviors.

Every human being has a philosophy, and every human being has the necessary language to express that philosophy, but not every human being can articulate that philosophy clearly for others.  A great many people never even clearly articulate their individual philosophies to themselves.

SCIENCE – A way of observing the universe and drawing reasonable conclusions about its nature.  There are two key ideas here: observation and reason.  Observation is used broadly here to include all kinds of direct experience and some indirect.  Direct observation often leads to the kinds of widely accepted conclusions that make further direct observation less necessary (although the assumption is that such direct observations could always be made).  It is no longer necessary to observe the coming and going of ships over the horizon in order to determine that the Earth is a sphere, but standing on the beach watching the ocean-going traffic can still be a rewarding experience.  Indirect observation is sometimes required because of the limitations of human ability or technology, but usually requires some sort of direct observation to support it.  Some of the smallest particles in nature have been identified not by direct observation of the particles, but by observation of energy “trails” that show where the particles have been; astronomers are discovering planets around distant stars by observing changes in the stars’ behavior.  We can perhaps argue about whether some things can actually be observed, or whether there are things that exist which cannot be observed directly; but some sort of observation is required for science.

It is more difficult, however to clearly define what constitutes a “reasonable” conclusion.  Generally, a conclusion is reasonable if it can be shown to arise as directly as possible from the observations.  Conclusions which require the application of separate, unobserved assumptions reduce the reasonableness of the conclusions.  Also, science usually requires a sufficiently large and sufficiently objective number of observations and the ability to replicate those observations in order to make the conclusions reasonable.

These are my own definitions.  If you find that you tend to agree with them, I am glad of it.  If you disagree with them in part or in whole, please don’t let that discourage you from reading further.  I don’t offer them as absolutes, but as perspective.  Understanding my definitions might help you better understand my perspective – regardless of whether you agree.  Also, we might define these things differently, yet still arrive at similar understandings of the larger ideas; just as we might agree on the definitions and be miles apart when we try to apply them to our experiences.

No Particular Path

In No Particular Path on August 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm

No Particular Path

There is no particular path to any particular end. There is no particular end to any particular path. Rather, we create the path with every step we take, and each new step is both ending and beginning.

Perhaps the most fundamentally human activity is choosing. In every human endeavor — as distinguished from our instinctual, biological, reactive, genetically programmed behaviors — there is an element of choice. It is that element of choice that allows us to be creative and adaptive. It is the consciousness with which we choose that allows us to see meaning in our experiences, to make judgments about our lives, to develop morality and ethics, to be individually unique, and to respond to stimuli in ever changing, ever evolving ways.

Each new choice generates consequences that require another choice that generates new consequences that requires another new choice and so on ad infinitum. It is this endless series of choices and more choices that, step by step, builds the path of our lives and, moment to moment, makes and remakes us and the individual perceptual universe in which we live. Each new choice is predicated on the past and carried into the future; and both past and future are changed in the process. Each present moment exists only in the reality of our choices as they rush along, both carrying us and carried by us.

Perhaps the second most fundamentally human activity is the creation of meaning. We are rhetorical beings. Everything we are, everything we do and everything we experience has meaning for us and others. We create and express this meaning through language, both verbal and nonverbal. We choose words and actions that both create and express the meanings we have for our experiences. Thus, meaning is the first consequence of choosing, and the basis for subsequent choices. In addition, it is our awareness of choice that helps create meaning. Since I know, at some level, that you choose the messages you are sending me, then I can interpret those messages and create meaning for them that is accurate to the extent that I can understand the choices you have made. I will misunderstand you to the extent that I cannot accurately assess those choices.

Consider the present moment. Where are you? What are you doing? Whom are you with? What is happening about you? And how are all these things affecting you? Whatever answers you come up with to these questions, they will be incomplete. You may be able to recognize that you are physically in a specific place at a specific time, but where is that place? What is its relationship to other spaces? What is its latitude and longitude? What is the time of year and so where is the Earth relative to the sun, and where is this spot on the Earth relative to the sun? Or the moon? Or the whole solar system? The galaxy? Keep extending the space, and location and time become less and less clear. And in any case, these things are all arbitrarily determined by language. “The United States of America” is simply a name we have given to a location, “the western hemisphere” names a relationship to other places on the planet, but what does “western” really mean on a sphere? Similarly, you may be able to name the person you are with, but how much of who that person is do you really know, understand, even have language for? You may be able to say that certain events are occurring, even say something about your relevant feelings and responses to those events, but this will be selective, because all you observations and experiences are being filtered through the perceptions you have already formed over the entire course of your life.

Now try to consider how it is that you have arrived in this place, at this time, under these specific conditions. Can you walk yourself backwards through your life, reconstruct your choices and say how or why they have brought you here? Can you even identify just one or two choices which, if you had made them differently, would have changed your life so that you would now be somewhere else, under different circumstances? Can you say whether things would, as a result, be better or worse? It’s a hopeless, impossible task. There have been too many choices, too many changes, too many consequences on consequences. And even trying to remember the past requires us to reconstruct it anew each time; and the reconstruction changes the memory, is selective about the details, and is filtered through our perceptions as they are now, not as they were in the past we are trying to recall.

And yet, that is the process by which we construct our lives. It is not simply a process of accumulation, however. We are more than simply the sum of our experiences. Because we are constantly creating meaning, we are also constantly reconstructing our lives. We are creatures of perception; No two people are ever having precisely the same experience. The events swirling around them may be objectively the same, but each is having his or her unique experience of them, and each will leave the experience changed in unique ways.

Life is a continuous process. There are no end results, only the process itself. All consequences are consequences of the moment, followed immediately by new consequences. Suppose that you are walking along a fence rail and you fall off and break your arm. Was breaking your arm the consequence of choosing to walk the rail? What was that choice a consequence of? Perhaps you took a dare. What led you to take the dare? Perhaps you felt you had to prove something to someone else. What led you to think that way? And is the broken arm the final consequence of that chain of causality? What if you then become fearful of taking risks? What if the cast becomes a sign of pride, a symbol of your courage? What if the bone never really heals properly and the arm remains forever weak? What if surgery is required and you are left with a visible scar? Whether you look to the past or the future, there is an unending and ever changing sequence and pattern of events. At every moment we carry with us the totality of who we are at that moment, all of our experiences and perceptions — physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. At every moment we carry with us the infinite potential for whatever future we might create out of choices not yet made. At every moment we have only that present moment in which to choose.

Of course, this is not a simple process. These are no simple choices or simple consequences. We are physical creatures, emotional and psychological beings, and (most of us would agree) spiritual entities. As we live the process of our lives, we are choosing at all these levels, experiencing consequences in all these ways, creating meanings that are formed by all these influences, and all of this is happening simultaneously, continuously, and mostly unconsciously. I recently saw a magazine cover with the teaser headline “Happiness is a Choice.” I want to be clear that this is not what I mean when I talk about choosing one’s path. We cannot simply choose happiness, or choose wealth or power and have it magically appear for us. Happiness is one possible outcome of many paths. We can, however become conscious enough of our own choices so that we can more often make choices which help us meet our needs, and thereby make us happy in the present.

This is what I mean by the “no particular path” statement.  Life is a process of making choices in an attempt to meet our needs (which may, of course involve helping others meet their needs).  How consciously make those choices, how much awareness and presence we bring to them, the better able we will be to choose well, and the more satisfied we will be with the path we are creating.

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