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Everyone has a voice, and a choice to use it well, use it poorly, or not to use it at all.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Defining ART

ART 200 (Art Appreciation) at Eastern Kentucky University has, to my surprise, got me thinking. I thought it was going to be be only a boring collage of someone else's idea of good art. However, the first class was all about defining art. Various answers were given to the question: what it art? Here is a sampling:

"Art is anything that is important to you."
"Art is anything that is intended to produce an emotional response."
"Art is anything you enjoy."

Each answer frustrates me, because I can think of things which fit each of those criteria, but which are not art. Food and warmth are important to me, but I don't consider them to be art. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan were intended to produce, among other things, an emotional response. However, they are not art. I enjoy sleeping, but it is not art.

I eagerly awaited the moment when the teacher would step up to the platform and pull the sheet off of the official definition of art. That moment never came. She only said "There is no agreed upon definition of art." That is immediately bothersome. We need standards to determine the quality of something - how are we to know what good or bad art is if there is no definition of art?

This ambiguity has some very troublesome consequences:

A work by Marcel Duchamp, titled "Fountain". He bought a urinal, painted a name and a date on it, and hung it on an art exhibit wall.

A work by Chris Ofili, titled "The Holy Virgin Mary" depicting the virgin Mary, set on two lumps of elephant dung, and surrounded by images of genitalia.










Since that first class, art has been on my mind. What is Art? I have a theory, one that satisfies me for the time being. Art is an echo of eternity - the eternity God has set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Any created thing which reminds us of eternity is art. All of us are different, so different things remind different people of eternity, which is why there are so many conflicting opinions of what good art is.

How does that work exactly? How would a work of art remind one of eternity?  God is the eternal One, and His themes of beauty, tragedy, romance, and heroism run through all of creation. When we see these themes in a painting, or hear them in a song, or experience them in a person, we are reminded (consciously or unconsciously) of those themes, of eternity.

So what is the deal with all the bad art? Why would an artist call a urinal made by someone else art? Because it evokes an emotional response, which is something associated with good art. When our senses are confronted with the divine, we usually respond with an emotion - this is most noticeable at conversion. Tears, joy, awe, ecstasy. It is easy to see the association of art and emotional response and incorrectly assume that the essence of art is in the emotional response. If that were the case, then anything which created an emotional response in the viewer would be art.

Chances are, looking at the two pieces above which masquerade as art produced some sort of response - in me it was surprise, disgust, skepticism. According to the men who created these pieces, this qualifies them as art. I disagree. The remind me of that which is base, vulgar, and fallen, not of eternity.

All that is a little depressing, so I'll bring us back up with a few examples of my favorite art:




Gulf Stream, by Winslow Homer













The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt












Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Nature of Faith

Life is an act of faith. Every belief you hold in your mind requires faith, whether you realize it or not.

"Well", you say, "some things are just true. Two plus two is always four." If you said this you would be in good (or at least plentiful) company. Many, many people trust mathematics, and to a lesser degree science, absolutely.

Consider an excerpt from James Burke's book, The Day the Universe Changed:

""[Science] is objective, making use of methods of investigation and proof that are impartial and exacting. Theories are constructed and then tested by experiment. If the results are repeatable and cannot be falsified in any way, they survive. If not, they are discarded. The rules are rigidly applied. The standards by which science judges its work are universal. There can be no special pleading in the search for the truth: the aim is simply to discover how nature works and to use that information to enhance our intellectual and physical lives. The logic that directs the search is rational and ineluctable at all times and in all circumstances. This quality of science transcends the differences which in other fields of endeavour make one period incommensurate with another, or one cultural expression untranslatable in another context. Science knows no contextual limitations. It merely seeks the truth."

In an online discussion on a philosophy forum, someone used this quote to summarize his view of science. His story was that he had rejected religion because he thought it required too much faith. He believed that the safest way is to live without faith, believing only what is proven scientifically.

I want to address three problems with this belief here, because I have met and spoke with a lot of people who hold it.  First, if you limit your beliefs to only that which requires no faith, you will not be able to believe in anything.  Second, I will address the very common and misplaced absolute faith in science.

FAITH.
I assert that every belief you hold requires faith. I first had this idea when I was about thirteen, and was questioning my belief in God for the first time. The idea had occurred to me that all of my perceptions and experiences - the whole of my mental, physical, and spiritual experience - could be nothing more than the results of the manipulation of my mind. It occurred to me that the agent of this manipulation could be a more powerful being, God himself, or almost anything else. I certainly didn't want to believe this, and so I began searching for proof that this was not the case, or that something else was true. However, I could not totally trust any of the facts and ideas and philosophies that I came across - the nagging thought kept recurring that perhaps this, too, was only some hallucination produced by the Manipulator of my mind.

Of course there is no proof that a manipulator exists. There is not even much support for it, and you may think it is silly that I had such an idea at one time. Chances are, you don't believe in a Manipulator. Here is the thing: you are taking that the Manipulator does not exist on faith. Because of that, you are choosing to trust your perceptions, trust in the ability of your senses to communicate reality to your mind. You have faith in your own mind, even though there is the possibility that it is doesn't tell the truth.  Your mind is inextricably involved in every belief you hold. Every belief you hold requires faith.

Of course, you've been having faith in your mind for so long that it no longer takes any effort, and no longer seems like faith. That doesn't change the fact that it is faith - belief in something which is not absolutely certain.

SCIENCE
 Re-read that quote from the book above. The author clearly has absolute faith in science (though he probably wouldn't call it faith).  Is that faith based on fact? Lets examine his claims:

"[Science] is objective, making use of methods of investigation and proof that are impartial."
His first mistake is to isolate "science" from scientists. Science is not a god, not a force apart from humanity, it is nothing more than humans attempting to discover the causes of the physical world in a specific way. These humans, while highly educated, are still 1) inevitably trapped in their own minds 2) fallible human beings, capable of believing that which is not actually true 3) sinful human beings, capable of willfully twisting the facts to suit their own agenda.

Belief in science is really faith in human beings. There is no guarantee that scientists will be impartial or objective.

"The logic that directs the search is rational and ineluctable at all times and in all circumstances."
 Again, the author removes the human element. Which logic is he referring to? From my experience, human logic is seldom totally rational or ineluctable (which means "not to be changed or avoided"), certainly not at all times and in all circumstances. I think we have all heard of  cases in which scientists violate these descriptions.

I want to address a related argument that I hear a lot. "I don't believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific proof that he exists."  First, again, proof does not exist in this world. Whether or not science supports the existence of God is a different matter. The real point however, is that not believing in God because science does not prove his existence is faulty logic. It would be like not believing a poem is a good poem because mathematics cannot prove it to be such, or disbelieving in pie because your ears cannot hear it. Ears are not equipped or designed to sense pie, mathematics is not equipped or designed to determine the quality of a poem, and science is not equipped or designed to determine the existence of God. Science is the search for physical causes. While God has physical consequences, He is not physical.

Of course scientists are not always wrong. Lots of times they are right. It is those who place absolute trust in them who are mistaken.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Boy, a Man, and Death

He sat in his car on the side of the road - "a crash sight", he had said - mourning for his sister, S.J.

"This is a crash sight, my sister died here." The inner tears shook his voice.

A man drove past, then turned around in concern. "Are you all right?" Maybe he needs a jump or a jack.
Music rattled the windows as he sat there - what was he listening to? What was the soundtrack of his grief?
"I'm fine, this is a crash sight, my sister, S.J., died here two years ago." The man doesn't know what to say to that, says something like "I'm sorry, that is rough." Stupid words.

The boy stepped out, said "You're the first one to stop." Must have sat there on the side of the road many times over the last two years. The world kills your sister, then doesn't stop to offer a hand up.

"I'm eighteen now, she was twenty two when she died." He was sixteen when his sister died. She had probably just graduated college, he had just gotten his license.

The man is helpless. What can one mortal offer another in the face of mortality? We are children floundering in the sea.
"Can I pray with you?"
"Yeah man, that'd be good."

Transcendence rises up on the side of Old Richmond road. The cold night air makes the man's voice shake as he prays, the words coming in constrictions and waves. The man puts a hand on the boy's shoulder. He who has been loved much, loves the boy on the side of the road. How many passed by over the last two years?

A few hours before, the man had looked at the crowd of almost 25,000 and said "Have you ever thought about their futures? She'll get a divorce. He'll die in two days, in two minutes. I guarantee you, within two weeks, at least one of these people will be dead." Maybe it'll be me, he had thought.

Death is here among us. Life has a 100% mortality rate. Don't flounder in the sea - find a rock. Stand on it.

The Hope of Glory!


Christmas is a celebration of Christ. Thought it is now known more for how it affects the economy than how it affects the soul, the foundation remains. Why was Jesus, the Christ, such a big deal?

Christ means "the anointed one". In the times leading up to Jesus' birth, kings were chosen and appointed by means of anointing them with oil - putting oil on their heads. It set them apart as royalty, and identified them as men with a purpose. Once they were anointed, they were set apart as having a job to do.

So what was Jesus' job? Matthew, a disciple of Jesus who later wrote an account of Jesus' life, recorded the words of the Angel who gave instructions to Jesus' adopted father, Joseph: "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Jesus means "God with us". God chose to be with us in order to save his people from their sins.

Why do we need saving from our sins? What is so bad about a little sin, after all - everyone has some, nobody is perfect, right? Exactly right- nobody is perfect, and our common recognition of the fact demonstrates that a standard of perfection exists. We cannot recognize "un-perfect" unless we have some idea of what perfect is. God, our creator, is that standard of perfection. It is only hard for us to understand how God can condemn sin when we use our human standard. If we look at it from God's standard it makes a lot more sense:

God made the world for one purpose: to glorify himself. Basically, everything is by God, for God, and to God - the Bible says that live and move and  have our being in Christ. Without God, we don't exist. From that perspective, it makes sense that my purpose is to live for God and do what He wants. It may not be easy, but it makes sense.

However, all of us have chosen to live for ourselves rather than for God. All of us have fallen short of God's standard, we have missed the mark. We have not done what God made us for. Rather than seeking out fellowship with God, we have turned from God. We are faulty creations, failing in our purpose. Because of that, God has every reason to punish us with hell.

That is the position all of us are in: faulty creations, deserving Hell. If we are left to ourselves, we will go to Hell. We can never get right with God on our own. It is only from this perspective, looking up from the pit of Hell, that Christ and Christmas can be properly seen.

Christ came to save us from our sins - and from the eternal damnation which is the consequence for failing to live up to God's standards. He did it to glorify God the Father.

 Jesus says "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to Father except through me." Jesus is, in one way, very exclusive - He is saying there is no other way to God except through faith in Himself. In another way, He is incredible inclusive. He says:
 "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."


This is what Christ and Christianity are about: grace. Grace is graphic, shocking, and unfair. Grace is forgiving someone who is guilty of a terrible crime. If you want to immerse yourself in a very readable and profound book on Grace, read "What's So Amazing about Grace" by Philip Yancey. That book has these words: we're all bastards but God loves us anyway. The Bible says similarly "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Salvation is for bastards: if you're one (like me), recognize it and accept the Grace that God extends you in Jesus. Forgiveness of sins, Christ in you, the hope of Glory. Many have died for that hope, for the sake of his name. Their blood tells the story more powerfully than I can: they have found something worth dying for.

Jesus had something he was willing to die for: the glory of God the Father. That is why He came, that is why Christmas happened. Christmas is for bastards.

This is no sensationalism, intended to make the gospel seem more radical than it is. We will never fully grasp just how phenomenal the gospel is - but we get closer and closer as we more fully realize just how bad we are.

Who is Christmas for?


Christmas is a celebration of Christ. Though it is now known more for how it affects the economy than how it affects the soul, the foundation remains. Why was Jesus, the Christ, such a big deal?

Christ means "the anointed one". In the times leading up to Jesus' birth, kings were chosen and appointed by means of anointing them with oil - putting oil on their heads. It set them apart as royalty, and identified them as men with a purpose. Once they were anointed, they were set apart as having a job to do.

So what was Jesus' job? Matthew, a disciple of Jesus who later wrote an account of Jesus' life, recorded the words of the Angel who gave instructions to Jesus' adopted father, Joseph: "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Jesus means "God with us". God chose to be with us in order to save his people from their sins.

Why do we need saving from our sins? What is so bad about a little sin, after all - everyone has some, nobody is perfect, right? Exactly right- nobody is perfect, and our common recognition of the fact demonstrates that a standard of perfection exists. We cannot recognize "un-perfect" unless we have some idea of what perfect is. God, our creator, is that standard of perfection. It is only hard for us to understand how God can condemn sin when we use our human standard. If we look at it from God's standard it makes a lot more sense:

God made the world for one purpose: to glorify himself. Basically, everything is by God, for God, and to God - the Bible says that live and move and  have our being in Christ. Without God, we don't exist. From that perspective, it makes sense that my purpose is to live for God and do what He wants. It may not be easy, but it makes sense.

However, all of us have chosen to live for ourselves rather than for God. All of us have fallen short of God's standard, we have missed the mark. We have not done what God made us for. Rather than seeking out fellowship with God, we have turned from God. We are faulty creations, failing in our purpose. Because of that, God has every reason to punish us with hell.

That is the position all of us are in: faulty creations, deserving Hell. If we are left to ourselves, we will go to Hell. We can never get right with God on our own. It is only from this perspective, looking up from the pit of Hell, that Christ and Christmas can be properly seen.

Christ came to save us from our sins - and from the eternal damnation which is the consequence for failing to live up to God's standards. He did it to glorify God the Father.

 Jesus says "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to Father except through me." Jesus is, in one way, very exclusive - He is saying there is no other way to God except through faith in Himself. In another way, He is incredible inclusive. He says:
 "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."


This is what Christ and Christianity are about: grace. Grace is graphic, shocking, and unfair. Grace is forgiving someone who is guilty of a terrible crime. If you want to immerse yourself in a very readable and profound book on Grace, read "What's So Amazing about Grace" by Philip Yancey. That book has these words: we're all bastards but God loves us anyway. The Bible says similarly "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Salvation is for bastards: if you're one (like me), recognize it and accept the Grace that God extends you in Jesus. Forgiveness of sins, Christ in you, the hope of Glory. Many have died for that hope, for the sake of his name. Their blood tells the story more powerfully than I can: they have found something worth dying for.

Jesus had something he was willing to die for: the glory of God the Father. That is why He came, that is why Christmas happened. Christmas is for bastards.

This is no sensationalism, intended to make the gospel seem more radical than it is. We will never fully grasp just how phenomenal the gospel is - but we get closer and closer as we more fully realize just how bad we are.

Spartan Jesus

I'll bet almost all of you have heard a sermon, or gone to Sunday school, at some point in your lives. If so, you probably heard a fair bit about Jesus. If you've never heard a sermon, gone to Sunday School, or even had someone tell you about Jesus, I guess now is a good time to find out what all the ruckus is about.

Lets start with that word: ruckus. If we had to describe Jesus in exactly eight words, most of us wouldn't pick : "the kind of guy that starts a ruckus". Exactly how most of us would describe him, I'm not sure, but I imagine the words teacher, loving, savior, Lord, maybe even God might be mentioned. Rightly so; He is presented as all of those things in the Bible. But that is not the end of the story. There is a lot more to Jesus than teaching, loving, and saving. I'll lay out just one Bible passage to illustrate the point. If you don't believe the Bible, just focus on Jesus for now. I believe the Bible is absolutely true, but just reading the Bible doesn't get you anywhere - I believe Jesus does. Words on a page have no power - in my experience, Jesus has a great deal of power.**
Revelation 19:11-21. Click on the passage, read it, it'll blow your mind. Fiery eyes, Jesus on a war horse, a sword coming out of His mouth...but my favorite detail is the title Jesus is tattooed with: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Doesn't leave much room for anyone else does it? I venture to say, you might not be able to pull off that tattoo. It is just too hard to live up to. Jesus, as we see, lives up to it: a few verses down He is putting all his enemies to death.

I think it is time for you, and me, and all those who mistakenly equate Jesus with religion, to take a fresh look at the Jesus of the Bible. Clearly, the "Jesus sitting on a hill, rocking little kids to sleep" version is incomplete, because it doesn't say anything about Jesus going all Spartan warrior on his enemies like we see in Revelation.



Maybe we won't like what our fresh look turns up. But oh, I hope we do not reject it only because we don't like it. The world is full of things that I don't like that are true. Denying them would only cause my life to become a shell of wishful thinking and destructive delusions. Accepting the living, active, warrior side of Jesus certainly disrupts my life (principally by causing me to accept the fact that my life is not mine). Jesus started a ruckus a long time ago, and He is still doing it in my life, and He will do it in yours. He is coming for you, demanding your life, your devotion, your worship. It won't always make sense, it will be painful and require sacrifice. When its done, we'll stand above it all and it'll seem like nothing because of the awesome reward.


**This is not to say the Bible is not important. The Bible is the inspired word of God - the Bible must be treated as the very words of God. However, you can read the Bible until you're blue in the face, but unless you have a relationship with Jesus, it won't do any lasting good. So, do read the Bible, with the intent of getting to know Jesus.

Cosmic Snail Trails


What is beauty? Take a moment to consider your own definition. What comes to mind when you hear the word? What about that person or place or idea separates it from a normal or ugly person, place, or thing? Merriam Webster defines beauty as: “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” I don’t think this is a perfect definition (grilled steak gives pleasure to the senses but is not beautiful) but it doesn’t really matter, because we are more concerned with WHY. Why do certain qualities “exalt the mind or spirit”?

     Perhaps your perception of something as beautiful is simply your subjective opinion. If so, there is nothing inherently or absolutely beautiful about it—it is beautiful only because you find it beautiful. Your experiences, genetic makeup, education, and senses combine to create a sense of pleasure, and you say “that is beautiful”.
     There is one problem with this possibility. While tastes in food and sports (almost exclusively products of experiences, education, etc.) vary greatly from person to person, perceptions of beauty are remarkably consistent across cultures and centuries. I don’t think statistics are needed to prove the point—every man with eyes, since the dawn of time, has looked up at the stars in awe. Nearly every man, since the dawn of time, has looked at a woman and admired her beauty. Of course there are variations opinions about which exact qualities of a woman (or a musical score, or a mountain range) are beautiful, but there is a definite pattern. All people seem to have similar opinions of what is beautiful. It seems unlikely that the perception of beauty is only subjective opinion. It seems there is some objective quality to beauty, something outside of individual opinion, some standard by which we judge something to be beautiful or ugly. Perhaps every beautiful thing in this world is a Cosmic Snail Trail.

     A snail trail is that shimmering residue left by a snail as it glides along. When you see the trail, you know there must have been a snail. Trails imply snails. A Cosmic Snail Trail is that beautiful quality that resides in a sunset, a moon reflected on a lake, or any other truly beautiful thing. Again, a Cosmic Snail Trail implies a Cosmic Snail – some higher standard or essence of beauty. If my CST theory is correct, then things in this world are only beautiful in so far as they are like the higher standard of beauty. If my CST theory is correct, there are plenty of other questions. Most pressing is “what is the Cosmic Snail?” I know very little of all there is to know about that, and most of what I know, I can’t teach in such a way that you would learn—half because I’m not much of a teacher, and half because some things can only be learned direct from the source.

The Manliest Man of All Manhood

It is easy to be a male - it is genetically inherited. Being male requires no special acts of strength, intelligence, or courage. However, when someone says "be a man" or "man up", they are referring to something above and far beyond genetically inherited male-ness. It is obvious why; we all know men who have that something, and men who don't. What is it? I think an easier question to answer is what does it look like? In order to answer that question, allow me to introduce you to some of the manliest men of all manhood!

Jonah Lomu
Rugby is undeniably one of the most manly of sports, and Jonah Lomu is one of the greatest legends of rugby. To see why, you need to watch him in action.
Here is a video of his scoring highlights.
And another of his defensive abilities.

Winston Churchill
He was a gentleman, a scholar, a leader, and a warrior.
"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight  on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and  growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the  cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the  landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we  shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..."

Reinhold Messner
Messner is arguably the most accomplished and skillful mountaineer of our times.
In an age when climbing mountains has become, for some, a tourist experience, Messner insists on a purist approach.
“The start of the climb is done from the bottom of the mountain and one carries all the gear on the way. Route preparation should not be done and supplemental oxygen is not to be used.” Many found this a crazy idea, but Reinhold believed that “Nothing should come between me and my mountain.” He became the first person to climb all the fourteen 8000-feet mountains in the world. In fact he has more “firsts.” He was the first to climb Mount Everest without Oxygen, a feat which doctors said would “be impossible,” and also the first to conquer the treacherous Nanga Parbat, alone. He was also, in 1990, the first to cross the icy Antarctic continent by foot. (From this site)

Jesus
He worked with his hands (Mark 6:3). He endured hunger (Luke 4:2).He knew how to take a hit (John 19:1). He was sometimes gentle (John 8:1-11), sometimes harsh (John 2:15). He was full of love (Luke 18:16) and anger (Mark 3:5). He had a purpose (John 17:4), and followed it to the end (John 19:30).
There are a few things you can do that cement your reputation as a manly man. Rising from the dead is one of them. (1 Corinthians 15:6)

There they are - in my opinion, some of the manliest men ever. What do they have that makes them so? Here is an informal breakdown:

  • Jonah Lomu: strength and unstoppability. It is clear in the videos: he can run over just about anybody.
  • Winston Churchill: vision, courage, and wisdom. He saw the truth when others were blind. He spoke out about the truth when others remained silent. He recognized the correct course of action to take.
  • Reinhold Messner: vision, strength, principle. He lives all out, pursuing adventure and extremes. He has incredible endurance.
  • Jesus: Heroism, humility, strength, passion, leadership. He stood out from the crowd. There is only one Jesus, no one else comes close.
All who aspire to be great men must learn lessons from these, and other great men. We must find the way out of the dust and filth and walk into the light. It is not easy - just ask Jonah, Winston, Reinhold, and Jesus. Greatness requires a great deal of sacrifice. That is why it is necessary to have your eyes fixed on a truly worthwhile goal. A purpose, greater than that which you have to leave behind. The higher the purpose, the greater the required sacrifice, and the more worthwhile. And so, in the end, the test of a great man is not what he has gained, but what he has willingly lost.

Brawlin'



This life is an all-out brawl, I say! Socially, economically, spiritually, mentally, politically - the good must be fought for, because the bad is seeking to claim it as its own.
If that is true, some questions present themselves:





What are you fighting for? On which battlefield have you planted a flag, drawn a line in the sand, and said "over my dead body"? Upon which hill have you set your sights and said "I will take it!"? How are you fighting? Guns are great against flesh and blood, but in many battles a gun is no good (hate vs. love, cowardice vs. courage, purity vs. debauchery). Have you sought out the finest and most powerful weapons available, and are you using them? Are you flailing at the air with eyes tightly shut, or are you dealing blow after devastating blow to your enemy's head? Who are you fighting with? Are you recruiting, training, leading others to line up beside you in the line of battle? I believe all of us have a battle to fight. The world is moving in many directions, many of them very evil. Unless you're on your toes, looking for the best way to land the next punch, you're going to be beaten (and your cause will be lost) before you know it.

This life is an all out brawl. Unless you're fighting, you're getting whupped. There are a lot of people out there getting whupped without even knowing it.

Like a Stone on the Water

I love analogies. They allow my mind to apply abstract ideas (which I don't fully comprehend) to real, live, breathing things (which I understand a little more fully). As I considered the way men and women of vision and purpose live, and searched for an apt analogy, the water examples immediately came to mind. You've heard them : "swim against the current, not with it", "go with/against the flow". But they are just so worn out and tired that I thought it would be a pity to put them to work yet again. Besides, they don't quite do justice to the idea I have in mind.
Consider the floating swimmer. Wherever the current goes, he will go. His job is easy, but he has no control over where he will end up. Next, imagine the woman swimming against the flow. Her job is very difficult, but she has more control over where she goes.
Lets add in a qualification . Lets say the flow is moving in a bad direction. A floating swimmer would not like where he ended up. If we imagine things this way, it is clear that both the "swimmer" and the "floater" will, in the end, arrive at an unpleasant end. Even the swimmer will eventually tire. I don't want to be either of them.
I want to be like a stone, skipped on the water. Unlike the "stone on the water" in the Killers song, the elements would not decide my fate. I would be thrown/sent/propelled by a force much greater than any found in my little rock body. My success, course, destination would not be determined by me, but by the thrower/sender/propeller. As a stone, my only job would be to allow myself to be thrown.
What would the life of that stone be like? It is constantly in close proximity to the deadly current, even in some way connected to it. It is not, however, immersed in it or subject to it as the swimmer and floater are. It sends many ripples across the water. These ripples speak a very different testimony than do the strokes of the swimmer, or the inert apathy of the floater.
The swimmers' strokes are, more than almost any other common human movement, a pure fight against death. No one dies once they stop running, or once they stop eating (at least not very soon after). But if the swimmer ceases his movements, he will be dead within a few minutes. And so the testimony of the swimmer is: my purpose is to not die.

The floater's apathy could arise from two different mindsets. Either he has given up trying to reach his desired destination, or the current itself is his destination. If he has given up, the testimony is: my original purpose is too hard to attain. If his destination is, ridiculously, the current (this describes many of us), his testimony is: I am content to "go with the flow". That doesn't seem so bad until we remember our qualification - the current leads to a bad place.

The ripples of the skipped stone say: I am on a mission, I am sent by a sender and guided by a guider. I am on the water, close to it, but not enveloped in or controlled by it. I have a destination.

If guided by a strong hand, the stone can travel upstream, downstream, or across to the other side. Consider the effects if the Hand was good, and wise, and strong, and purposeful. What an exciting and effective life the stone would have! There is literally no place it could not go, no thing it could not do. Of course it wouldn't, at the core of the matter, be the stone doing the "doing". Still, I imagine it would be much better to be the stone than the swimmer or the floater.

You have probably noticed a few cracks in my analogy - fissures where it doesn't apply accurately to real life. Humans are much more complex than stones, and life is much more complex than water and current. Life is more complicated than any analogy. Maybe my love for them comes from a desire to leave complications behind and enter a simpler sphere. I guess that is what we are all shooting for to some degree. So, pick up this analogy. Weigh it in your hand like a stone, feel its texture and nature. If you like it, keep it. If not, drop it on the shore.


Philosophizing

Philosophy is pretty sweet. As most of you know, philo+sophia= philosophy = love of wisdom. By that definition, I guess I am a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, in the same way that most men are lovers of gold: I don't have much of it, but I'm convinced it is beautiful and useful and I sure want more of it.

So, despite my general aversion to (sometimes ranging toward pure hatred of) school work, I am actually pretty happy to be taking PHI 130: Introductory Ethics. We're reading lots of writing by lots of smart dead guys who loved wisdom. I can't come close to rivaling them in many areas (principally devotion to thinking about stuff, and deadness). Still, I want to share some of their ideas, and some of my ideas about their ideas, with you. Then you can have more ideas, and that is the key to having  at least a few good ideas.

Epictetus says:

"Never say of anything 'I lost it', but say 'I gave it back'. Has your child died? It was given back...Has your estate been taken from you? Was not this also given back? But you say, ' He who took it from me is wicked.' What does it matter to you through whom the Giver asked it back? As long as He gives it, take care of it, but not as your own; treat it as passers-by treat an inn."

"Remember that you must behave in life as you would at a banquet. A dish is handed round and comes to you; put out your hand and take it politely. It passes you; do not stop it. It has not reached you; do not be impatient to get it, but wait till your turn comes...But if when (good things) are set before you, you do not take them but despise them, then you shall not only share the god's banquet, but shall share their rule."

"Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be  that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace."

A few ideas:
  • I agree with Epictetus that every good thing I have comes from God (that is grace), and that I cannot claim any of it as my own. E. points to this as the  reason not to condemn the wickedness of the thief. I think he must be reacting against the common habit we have of saying that something is bad because it violates our preferences (our own personal moral law). There is, however, another definition of badness, one which fits in with E's idea that nothing is really ours, and does not require us to ignore badness. The definition is "something is bad if it violates the moral law of God."

  • Epictetus instructs us to enjoy things at the proper time, without impatience or gluttony. Most of us would agree with him there. But he also says it is good to "despise" good things, to choose not to partake of them. Perhaps he has a distorted view of what "good" is, a view similar to the modern world. If that is the case, much of what he considers "good" will, in the end, keep us from coming to God.  I think he recognizes that, and consequently says that it is good to forgo the "good things". However, there is another kind of good, which does not reek of hell, but wafts the scent of heaven. This other kind of good, if it is enjoyed in the right way and at the right time, leads us closer to God, not farther away.

  • Epictetus thinks that the key to achieving personal happiness (which is his ultimate good) lies in changing your will to fit in with what already is. Lets imagine what would  happen if everyone were able to do this (we are not able, but bear with me). No boy would ever ask a girl to marry him. No man would defend the defenseless. No one would turn a lump of stone into a beautiful statue. The worst part is this: everyone would be content. That is a scary world. If we all lived out Epictetus' philosophy, we would all be content with a very low quality of life. Thankfully, you and I and the world are unable to live out his philosophy, because we all know and feel deeply that nothing is perfect. We have a concept of perfection, and never find full and lasting satisfaction in anything less. This disability actually helps us a great deal more than it hurts us.
Well, that is Epictetus (and my reaction to him) in a horse chestnut-shell.

The Masked

They are everywhere. Roaming college campuses, standing in line, attending churches and mosques and self help groups. They are the masked. You and I are them.

The masks take many forms. Actions, attitudes, things, and words, which are pulled out of the air and put on to hide reality. Sometimes the wearer is unaware of what he is wearing - a little like Mary Mallon.

I hear a voice pleading: "Take off the masks! Yes, some of what is underneath is ugly. Some of  what is underneath is tangled and evil and shameful. But hiding it in darkness will not make it go away!"

This hiding is a powerful urge, which we have all given in to more often then we would care to admit. It is fed by pride, shame, and the fear, and it breeds what it eats.

I know someone. He never puts on a mask. He speaks from his heart, acts according to his purpose, and never deviates from the path to his goal. He has many devoted friends, because he always tells the truth, and light brings freedom. He has many devoted enemies, because he always tells the truth, and darkness rebels against the light.

He shows us how its done, how the evil is eliminated. The process starts with taking off the mask and admitting the badness. . Let in the light and the darkness will run like a Chlamydosaurus kingii. The process continues with putting in the effort to kill the bad stuff - but that can't even begin to be successful unless the first step has taken place.

I want to be just like that man! To tear off the mask, speak the truth in love, walk the path every day. Living that way is beautiful, even amidst the failings.

The Un-known

Take a moment to ponder the profoundest experience of a little bunny: 2 years of intense simplicity, 30 seconds of hopping across a busy freeway, 2 more years of intense simplicity. Imagine the overload, amazement, fear, and awe he must have felt for those 30 seconds! And the relief and joy he must have felt at coming out the other side unscathed!

I am absurdly applying human attributes and feelings to a rodent, but only because I feel like that rabbit sometimes. It happens in the wilderness, at a wedding, or during a profession of faith. I call the  sensation "Cosmic Shivers". I feel as if I have briefly been admitted into another world, a world where the physical is more closely connected with the spiritual. My hair stands on end, a thrumming vibration fills my chest, and awe overwhelms my mind. Like the bunny, I feel joy and relief that I have been permitted to experience it.  However, I have another inclination which is perhaps foreign to the rabbit: I want to experience it again.

What is the cause of these feelings? Here are a few (there are certainly more).

1) Close contact with the uncontrollable.

Nearly everything we do every day is determined by our desires. If we want to do A, B, or C, we can do it, and even if we can't, we can choose D or E instead. In the uncontrollable, we are confronted with that which did not come about as a result of our choosing or wishing. Spectacular thunderstorms, shooting stars, and mountain ranges do not seek our permission or submit to our forbidding. They could kills us or move us to tears, and be unaware of us.

2) Experiencing something Bigger.

All of us suffer from IATCOTUD - the "I am the Center of the Universe Disease". This idea, besides being ridiculous (and an insult to the actual center of the universe), is very detrimental to us. It shrinks our minds to such an extent that we can only think about things in the context  of ourselves.  Seeing or experiencing something huge causes us to realize that there is much more than ourselves going on out there, that we are certainly not the center of the universe, are not even close. Standing beside a mountain, diving to the bottom of the ocean, or sailing on a spaceship to Mars will put things in a different perspective.

3)Perceiving  the Unknowable

The extravagant beauty of a sunset, the night sky, a woman, or any number of things impresses upon us that there is something "other". We know we could not have painted, designed, or made that. The solar system, plus a plethora of  galaxies and who knows what else, move and revolve in a kind of order. Yet we do not know how (seriously, we really don't). Other processes and intentions are going on, folks. There is no doubt that we are affected by them, but there is a great deal of doubt concerning what is causing the processes, and What or Who has the intentions.


Whatever the cause, I certainly enjoy these "Cosmic Shivers", and look to them as a reminder that something more, and above, and better, is going on all around us. To suppose that everything which is not controllable, predictable, and comfortable is not real, is to miss out on a huge part of reality.  The unknown is very real, and very involved with us.

The Challenge: Seek out The Un-Known! To do so is a very noble mission indeed. Without The Un-Known, the known cannot be fully or truly understood.

Two Years in Nepal, One Week in the U.S.A.

Two years ago I flew from America to Nepal (developing country, biggest  mountains in the world, Hindu worldview). One week ago I flew back to  experience America for the first time since leaving. You know the shock  of stepping out of a sauna, running over the slippery rocks, and jumping  into a freezing lake? Nepal was my sauna (a great experience, but  staying too long is bad for your health), and I expected America to be  my freezing lake (refreshing, but get too comfortable and you will  slowly die). More immediately, I predicted that my first few hours in  America would be shocking. The possible scenarios played through my mind  like a documentary:

  • A chubby teenager shoe-horns himself  out of a McDonald's booth and throws away a half eaten box of fries.  Willis dives into the trashcan after the fries and gobbles them up,  whispering crazily "the inhumanity, the inhumanity." (Alternate ending:  Willis stuffs the chubby teenager into the trashcan).

  • Willis  walks into a Wal-Mart. After 27 minutes of staring around him in a numb  stupor (mouth agape, pupils dilated, cold sweat on the brow), he goes  on a rampage. Sunscreen goes flying, frozen tater tots scatter across  the floor, little children cry for their mothers. Security personell  tazer Willis, who spends the next 50 years in a mental hospital.

In fact, I was surprised by my lack of surprise. Air Conditioning in a car only brought a smile. I ate a  ridiculously delicious burger at 5 Guy's and I laughed aloud. I slept on  a bed with a real mattress and giggled into the pillow for 30 seconds  straight. Hysteria? No, I was just enjoying the many comforts and  conveniences of America. (Side note: America is the most convenient  nation anywhere. Period.)

What did catch my attention were the similarities between Nepal and the US:

  • In Nepal they worship little stone idols, animals, even people.  In America we worship money, power, and people.

  • In  Nepal everyone is very relaxed and laid back while driving, so there  are many traffic jams. In America we are very uptight and stressed while  driving, so there are many traffic jams.

These and many  other similarities spoke a clearer message than any differences in  culture could: we, the human race, are a profoundly stupid group.  Collectively, we focus on the wrong things, do the wrong things because  they are easy, do the right things for the wrong reasons. Some say we  are on a downward trend as a race. Possibly. More certainly, each of us,  individually, is on a downward trend. Each of us has an inherent  inclination to do stupid stuff for stupid reasons. Yes, even Gandhi and  Mother Theresa. That inclination is leading us all to a very bad place.  We need a new Leader - a leader other than emotion and popular thought.

Evaluate yourself, as I am evaluating  myself: What do I devote myself to? What causes me to make the decisions  I make? What am I motivated by?