Monday, June 4, 2007

God Works in Mysterious Ways

The idea of an unknowable God is terribly convenient, diabolically clever, and handy in a clinch. Having an unknowable God means that powerful, greedy, and ambitious men can make fast and loose with doctrine as it suits their purposes. An unknowable God is the power broker's best friend. If God is unknown, and his methods unknowable, interpretation is up for grabs.
Most people hardly realize that the entire Christian doctrine was invented over almost 1500 years by various groups of men representing the heirarchy of the Catholic Church. The truth of this is easily demonstrated by the fact that Popes and priests could once marry and celebacy was decided upon for the clergy rather long after the fact. The holy trinity didn't even exist until a thousand years after the death of Christ, and it took rather a long time and bloody fighting between opposing sides before it was decided whether Christ was mortal or the son of God. Christianity was hardly a fully evolved belief structure that sprang full grown from the head of Christ. When people didn't buy into the doctrine they were either burned at the stake (like the Cathars) or broke off from the Church and started an entirely new interpretation (like Martin Luther). Of course, if one chose to follow Martin Luther one was expected to buy wholeheartedly into his doctrine, which, of course, was the only correct one because he had God on his side that week.
Judaism (same God, different episode) describes a God who is a little more knowable. When the Hebrews messed with God, they heard about it later. God would send plagues or locusts or floods when he was pissed-off. He destroyed cities, turned people into pillars of salt, killed innocent Egyptian children, spoke from burning bushes, caused people to wander hopelessly in the wilderness, and tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son just to see if he'd do it. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. God didn't hesitate to make himself clear when necessary.
From Judaism sprung Christianity, and a God given even less to social interaction. We could debate endlessly why this happened, but I tend to believe that its roots are firmly planted in practical matters inherent in the era in which Christianity began and flourished. Thanks to the Roman Empire, there were wonderful roads, established trading routes, and pretty reliable means of communication and transportation. People were coming and going all the time and information was able to be disseminated with relative timeliness and ease. Christianity spread because the Roman Empire was huge, diverse, and wonderfully efficient. Otherwise, it may never have gone any further than the arrid deserts where it was born. Peter would have never made it to Rome or even out of Judea if the Romans hadn't been marvelous engineers.
Henceforth, wherever there were Romans (and they were pretty much everywhere) there were disciples of Christ spreading the word. In historical terms, it didn't take long before the Roman power structure began to see that Christianity could be rather useful to them and figure out how to pervert the entire business to suit their purposes. They threw some Christians to the lions for awhile, but that was before they took the time to examine it closely enough to recognize its potential as the friend of the rich and powerful. Christians, after all, were all about martyrdom and the meek inheriting the earth and whatnot. The weak and powerless believed that they would have a place in heaven just as surely as the rich and powerful where they would be freed from all their earthly torment and spend the rest of eternity getting to know someone they spent a great deal of time worshipping from afar. This was an open invitation to assure that they stayed weak and powerless.
So, down the road, the Emperor Constantine figured out a way to make the whole thing work by claiming to have seen a flaming cross in the sky at a pivitol moment during an important battle, and presto, Rome is Christian. I imagine that if he had lost the battle he would have claimed that the flaming cross was a message telling him to go Christian or get his ass kicked; either way, it worked. The power structure became Christian and the real fun began. Since they didn't have much to go on and God was, after all, unknowable, it was perfectly reasonable that the powers that were (who were best suited to the business given their superior status and education) should dream up some doctrine that fortified their positions and kept anyone who might oppose them in a happy state of poverty, ignorance, and most important, meekness. It worked beautifully because they could tell people that they would inherit the earth while simultaneously taxing them into even more grueling poverty and increasing their revenues by letting the rich buy their way into forgiveness and heaven with large gifts to the church. The Egyptians and Greeks believed that the deeds of one's entire life were weighed out upon one's death and if the bad outweighed the good, the afterlife was not destined to be a walk on the beach. In Christianity, one's lifetime of evils could be washed away with a heartfelt confession and a few Hail Marys, and Bob's your are sitting on the right hand of God. This made it terribly convenient for ambitious and greedy men who wanted to engage in avarice, suck the life out of the faithful peasants, knock a piece off of their neighbors' wives, and still hedge their bets.
The ability to create new doctrine and interpret the desires of an unknowable God came in handy when the riffraff became testy. If they got a little out of hand, it was a simple business to claim to understand what the unknowable God wanted, call up some fanatics, burn a few heretics and witches, and scare the rowdys back into line.
The West, being all about expansion and increasing the power base, went here and there and to the New World, converting all the natives wherever they went. Having the Roman legacy of better weapons and technology, it was a simple enough business to perpetrate geonicide wherever necessary until everyone was either saved or dead. Either way, hapless aboriginals were thoroughly subjugated.
The unknowable God is still solidly in the firmament because we are still the children of the Roman Empire. Its laws, language, political structure, (borrowed with some changes from the Greeks), and empirical vision still dominate the world. If anything, the Roman Empire is bigger than it ever was and as long as there are men who can recognize that the religions of the unknowable God are a useful tool for the purpose of domination, and as long as there are frightened and weak people who will allow themselves to be dominated by them, they will endure.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

1984.................Are we there yet?

Last night I watched a movie about a future in which a state had become a bureaucratic tyranny. I was struck by the realization of how the world must see the U.S.
There has always been a vast gap between how Americans see themselves and the truth, any trip through a text book from any but a few top schools, and some of them too, will quickly show a biased, to the point of useless view of American history. I am not an America basher by any means but I am not a fool. It doesn't take a lot of studying to get a more realistic view of the past. Children of my generation were not taught that Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder or that the Spanish American war was not about freedom of Cubans but involved the annexation of the Philippines for coal bunkers to support a much larger policy of expansionism. I would hope that we at least tell the truth about Jefferson in this day and age but I would doubt that we are ready to get into dirty details of the American expansionism period as we are not out of it yet.
It is often said that history repeats it's self and if one starts with the War of 1812 you will see that there were other reasons for the conflict than just British navel hi jinx. Were you taught that we invaded Canada twice and failed? If you follow the time line forward, through the Seminole war, (Gen. Jackson) the annexation of Indian territories east of the Mississippi, you see the seeds of manifest destiny come to flower in the Mexican American war, a not so nice interlude in American history, with a brief break for the Civil War, in which some saw as an excuse to invade Canada yet again, because of England's wait and see neutrality,we come to the Spanish American War. Now you have to slow down and look a little closer. I don't want to give a history lesson but if you take the time to look you will find not just similarity's to what is happening now but the start of modern American expansionism. Manifest destiny has evolved into the white mans burden, partly because of the rise to power of the media one now has to be more careful of terminology, but the same phrases, freedom of the oppressed, liberty from Spanish tyranny for the Cubans and Filipinos. There is no mention of the need for coal bunkers for the great navy we are developing, control of the Caribbean and the eventual mouth of the Panama canal. The reasons things happen are never so simple as liberty, democracy, justice and any other phrase you get pummeled with. If there is one thing that is constant is that there is always ambitious men. History is highlighted by the adventures of ambitious men.
It is hard for most of us to imagine actually attempting to sit down and formulate a world plan either for a nation or everyone, but people do. You have to stop and think about this. It is one thing to be patriotic and believe in your form of government and your social system it is a rather large step to then project that out into the world and see it as the system for every one else. We have all sat and wondered what we would do if we were in charge, but to actually formulate a plan or to even to lash out blindly to change the worlds present order is ambitious indeed. The depth of knowledge and the insight into the social dynamic to make any plan actually work is mind boggling,just the real time intelligence required if you could gather it would require time enough to analyze before the dynamic changed. I am not saying that great things can't be done, under the right circumstance, with enough audacity and a willingness to roll the dice anything is possible, but the real question is not what should be done but what can be done? and that is the essence of politics. The ability to master that question is what separates talented politicians from the rest. It does require more than just ambition.
If you look at U.S. leaders who are considered great ,Lincoln and F.D.R. ( I leave out Washington only because his greatness is for what he did not do), these men were faced with problems that far out weighed there personal ambitions. The problems they faced large as they were did not change the question of what should and what could be done it just made the choices more evident.
If we look at the problems the U.S. faces today and the reaction to them it does give one pause for thought. Some put terrorism at top the list. I see it as a problem but much larger for the Islamic nations then for the U.S. You have to stretch some, but the excursion into Iraq as apart of the solution to terrorism raises some fundamental questions about the present leadership in the U.S. No matter what view one has on the intent of the action, you have to wonder at the logic. If the logic was that to establish a democratic state in the Mid East, and by so doing create a revers domino effect then a basic principle of democracy has been violated. Democracy exists by the will of the governed and so can not be directly exported, if you try than you are the governor and so are imposing your will. If the logic is that it's better to fight them there than here, you have to base that on some fairly large assumptions and also be willing to fight a war of annihilation, dare I say it extermination. If not you are never going to be successful in making that logic work. If the logic is that by securing Iraq and Afghanistan as a stable base for military forces and by so doing controlling the flow of oil to the east and hemming in the threat of Iran than the logic is if nothing else more clear. It does however call into question the intent. This is the point at witch one has to speculate and that is an open ended game, but one can imagine what U.S. policy must look like if you are on the outside looking in. If you think about it, it looks like a policy of domination,"We are on top since the end of the cold war and intend to stay there." I have to admit that being on top is better than most alternatives, and it may be that it is better to have the U.S. on top than anyone else, that is a value judgment and so is made by each individual and not my intent here. No matter the intent, whether you hold to the corporate view of utopia in which all the worlds nations are good free market consumers or that through communication and negotiation a higher world governing body can establish international law, as an American you are required to see the U.S. as the leading or dominant force behind it to feel any other way would be .....well down right un-American! I can't imagine any American taking an idea from some other nation and having it forced upon them. I can imagine that that is precisely how other nations feel about the U.S. now.
The present leadership in the U.S. may be short on ability but they do not lack vision. They have a clear picture of how they wish the future to be and they are ambitious. I am reminded of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Cassius' "lean and hungry look". Those in power now are oil men and see the world in those terms and if all you have is a hammer all problems become nails. But oil is not the only problem facing the U.S. or the fact that some one else has it. One of our greatest problems at the moment is that the threat of terrorism is not larger than the ambition of these lean and hungry men. My only hope is that even if we lack the ability, we are able to see the difference between leadership and domination and not trade the constitution for continuity or else the vision of Orwell's "1984" may not become reality for us but for many.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Holy Moly!

Gore Vidal once said that " The great failure of western man was the adoption of the belief in the sky god." I have often wondered if we would not be better served had we continued to worship earth as mother,trees,water and stone? These are tangible things directly related to our success as a species in their ecological contribution as well as our exploitation of them and certainly worthy of our deepest attention if not worship. When these elements are translated into a more modern understanding of them they are of no less significance. They are the very things that we have built our civilization on and with. They are the essentials for the existence of life as we know it. So why did western man adopt the eastern mystic religions? Why did we adopt a religion that said god was unknowable? I must admit that having no eastern blood, so to speak, I am some what prejudice, but for a culture that with some pride claims the ancient Greeks as our heritage, why were we so ready to adopt a cultural belief not our own. I know some much more studied than I can sight social,economic and political reasons, the influence of a Roman army integrated with soldiers from the provinces, enough to fill volumes, some will say that it is because it is the true religion, you can take you're choice of the three that survived, Christianity,Judaism and Mohamedism, but I will dare to tread on the subjective and sight human nature. To me the mystic religions tenant of an unknowable god is much like the political philosophy of "no government is good government." It is not without appeal. But what it says is that "we can't govern so we won't govern." If one were to look back across the history of the mystic religions one will find a consistent failure in their assumptions about the world and the universe in which it resides. I will make an assumption of my own and say the failure rate is near 100%. Now it may be that religion is like a brokerage firm in that past performance does not predict future results, and in the end they are right, but the odds are not in its favor at least not favorable enough for me to stake my life on it, nor any one else's.
I know that I will tread on sacred ground and will be labeled,but I am not debating the existence of god that would be a personal matter. What I am commenting on is the organized systems of belief. As these are in the public domain they are subject to the same scrutiny as this essay. We seem to dance around peoples beliefs even when they are forced down our throat. I try to respect peoples personal beliefs as much as anyone, but the price of denial of can have consequence. We tolerate the far fetched ideas of many as long as it does no one harm, and there in lies the catch. At this moment the world has been effected by a single man who acting upon the strength of his conviction, his belief that he has been chosen by god and by gods grace must wage war and sacrifice human life innocent as well as guilty in what he feels is gods will. I will let the reader chose which man he wants to fit into that description. It fits several candidates I can think of off hand, it only depends on which side of the fence you happen to be standing on. Only time will tell which is more a man of conviction and so the more righteous. I am reminded of Curtis Lemay's comments on the air campaign against Japan. He said that if you look at the fire bombing of Tokyo and the subsequent strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if we had lost the war we would be the ones being tried as war criminals. It would seem that not only do the spoils go to the victor but righteousness to.
Religion on any but the most personal level is just vague enough to cover any situation not unlike astrology, the I Ching, or any other antiquated attempt to get a leg up on things out of our control. It looks a lot like situational ethics wrapped in ceremonial robes, despite the claims of a higher aspirations.
What is it then? What is the appeal of the unknowable god? Is it just the easy way out when trying to answer the unknown? Is it a form of self justification? I will assume that it has as many meanings as there are individuals and that is a large part of its success.
For me the mystic religions unknowable god is a self defeating philosophy. If I can not know god then I can not know what is god, what is gods handy work or if god has anything to do with me or not, and so if I can not know than it has no use because if it did have an affect I would not be aware of it anyway. Ah yes faith my brother it's all about faith. Well faith may move mountains, but I can't seem to remember the last time I saw that happen, however explosives do it every day and boy you know it when it happens, and airplanes fly into buildings, men feel the touch of god and send other people off to die, and soldiers kill for control of the holy land. I just wish some would worry less about who died for our sins and more about who dies because of them. Thats a bit high and mighty of me! I guess we all have some of the "god head" about us.