Four Questions, Four Answers (No Jesus Necessary)

Some of my readers may not know Callan Bentley. This is a shame, because he’s a brilliant geologist, a fantastic teacher, and one of the two people who makes me seriously consider moving to Virginia in order to attend college. If you knew how I felt about passive margins, you’d know why this is a big deal.

While Callan tends to focus on geology, he occasionally takes off after politics, pseudoscience, and religion. He’s not afraid to be honest. And that honesty extends to people he respects. People like Bill Hooke, who is a scientist blogging about climate policy, a Christian man who has four questions he thinks only Jesus can answer.

Today, Bill wrote a post entitled “Environmental scientists as Christians.” In it, he describes his own Christianity and how there is only a little overlap between “Church Bill” and “Work Bill.” My long-time readers will know that I do not subscribe to any religious ideology. I find religion superfluous to the reality that I find around me on a daily basis: it’s what a philosopher would call “philosophical naturalism” (as opposed to science, which operates under “methodological naturalism,” which doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of supernatural beings; it just can’t detect them). So it really struck to me to read Bill’s ruminations on that topic. This is a gentleman and a scholar, and he apparently has given a lot of thought to these issues.

In the post, he “quotes” (paraphrasing from memory) the evangelical preacher Billy Graham, who says

There are four reasons we need Jesus… four questions we can’t answer without Him.

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

4. What happens to me after I die?

Callan answered them handily, no Jesus required. I shall do the same. And I don’t know if Bill will ever read either post. If he does, I don’t know if anything will go *click*. But I hope it does, because I find it tragic that a brilliant man can’t imagine answers without Jesus.

Here we go.

1. Does my life matter? Is it possible for my life to have meaning?


Suppose I should expand on that a bit. My life matters intensely. It matters to my family, more than I expect sometimes. I got reminded of that one memorable Christmas, just after I moved up here, when I’d forgotten about the time difference between Arizona and Washington and my stepmother called because I hadn’t yet called them and my dad was not only worrying, but missing me fiercely. He’s not a sentimental man, and he’s not prone to panic, but there we were: I was an hour late calling on Christmas day, and he was so torn between letting me live my life without him clinging to it and freaking out because it was his first Christmas without me and he was terrified something may be wrong that my stepmother had to step in and sort the situation out. My life matters to them, and to my mother, and to my friends, and my readers, and certainly to my cat.

My life has meaning. I used to think it didn’t. There was a long time, when I was losing my religion, that I couldn’t see the point of it, and that bothered me. I felt I had to justify my existence. And if I wasn’t justified by some god or other, then what? Meaningless. Waste of resources. Right?

Then I discovered that meaning isn’t something imposed from without. It comes from within. What meaning did I want my life to have? What was the point of me? That’s when I got serious about becoming a master wordsmith, because good writing has inspired and challenged me and carried me through some very dark times. Words matter. I’m good with words. And there’s no god or goddess who can give me the boon of immortal words. It’s just me, the excellent writers I’ve learned from, and devoting myself to telling the story.

I got involved with making this world a better place, because it’s all we’ve got, and we’ve got to take care of each other because there’s no one else.

I’ve not worried about meaning since. Meaning: I haz it. And it’s far more stable than it ever was when it was supposedly God who gave me meaning. The universe doesn’t give two shits whether I exist or not, and I don’t need it to. Got all the matter and meaning I need right here, thank you ever so much. Bonus, it means I actually do something with my life rather than rest on the laurels supposedly bestowed upon me by some god. Nice goad to ye old ambitions, that!

2. How can I handle my loneliness, the loneliness I feel even in a crowd, or even (or perhaps especially) when with people who are close to me?

I thrive on that loneliness, actually. I’m a writer. Writers work in solitude (well, most do). Writers work with solitude. It’s not often a problem, and the few times I’ve gotten all mopey about being lonely, I’ve quickly gotten distracted by lots of interesting things and forgotten all about it. Besides, a writer is never actually alone. There’s always a character around to pester. Although it’s usually them doing the pestering….

I’m afraid those looking for non-writer ways of dealing with that loneliness will have to turn to Callan and others.

3. How can I bear my crushing burden of guilt? And by that I don’t mean as measured by some external standard such as the Ten Commandments, but rather my own judgment of myself…that I have fallen short of my potential.

I can see the scars of Christianity in this. Always being told we’re not worthy, always being told we’re worthless sinners undeserving of love, always being told we’re never good enough. And it’s awful.

Here’s the thing: falling short of your potential isn’t the problem. Never striving is. Are you giving it the old college try? Yeah? Then you’re good. You’re a little bit of all right. You don’t have to be superhuman, just human, and being human means we don’t always reach our full potential. That’s okay. It happens.

This phrase is what gets me through those times when I’m beating myself up over my own (perceived) failures: quantum in me fuit. Loosely translates as “I did the best I could.” I hated myself for not being a child prodigy. Then I decided that self-loathing wasn’t going to rescue the situation and took a more realistic look at what I could accomplish with my life. Yes, I’m going to fall short of what I thought my potential should be. But I’ve got quite a lot I can be justifiably proud of, I’ve done the best I could and continue doing that, and even if I fail utterly, the journey’s been quite a reward.

The guilt’s been reduced to an impotent little squeak, just enough to be a useful goad, not enough to crush. And I’ve fulfilled much more of my potential since I quit beating myself to death with guilt.

All Jesus ever did was made me feel guilty. That question couldn’t even be answered when I believed in him. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

4. What happens to me after I die?

There will be no “me,” and no self there to realize that “me” is over.

“I” will cease to be. My atoms will get recycled. My consciousness will no longer exist.

That, I do have to say, used to terrify me. All of the things I wouldn’t have had a chance to do or know or see, all the people I’d never see again, if there was no heaven, no afterlife. And this life, what a joke! The afterlife had to be sooo much better. I needed it to be.

When I lost my religion, I spent a little bit of time horrified by death. Didn’t want to think about it. Awful. But I’m human, and I know that this life of mine is fragile and finite, and I can’t help but think about it.

And one day, as I was obsessing over the impending end of my life, and fearing that I wouldn’t get done the things I felt I needed to do before I died, and paralyzing myself with fear, something went *click*. Because I realized: death is the end. I’ll never know all the things I wanted to know, do all the things I wanted to do, see all the things I wanted to see, but I won’t know about it. Where’s the problem, then? What is there to fear, when there won’t be a mind left to regret?

This is probably the closest I’ve ever come to Zen. It’s allowed me to live more in the moment. Oh, I still have plans and ambitions and plenty of stuff to do before that end. I want to fill my days with awesome, as much as possible, because time is short and life is precious. I want to leave something behind when I go that people will enjoy. It would be nice to be remembered long after all those who knew me are dust. But immortality in any form isn’t necessary anymore. I haven’t felt any need for it in some time.

It’s hard to explain. When you believe in an afterlife, you’re desperate for that afterlife, and live in abject fear of getting it wrong. Strangely, many people who believe they will go to a place filled with rainbows and unicorns after they die are far more terrified of death than those of us who believe it’s just over. Maybe it’s because they suspect some god or other will tell them U DID IT RONG when they perish, and bung into the fires they’ll go.

I’m at peace with the end of me. It doesn’t make me maudlin or nihilistic to believe death is final, and that there is no eternity for my identity. It just makes me determined to enjoy this one spin on the wheel I’ve got.

See? Four answers, no Jesus necessary. I know it doesn’t seem that way for Christians. It didn’t seem that way to me, long ago, when I used to haul a Bible around. Indeed, I was taught that any answers that did not have Jesus in them were invalid. You’re not even allowed to imagine there could be answers that haven’t got Jesus in them.

But there are. And you can find them.

Wonderful Life

It’s been one of those perfect nights – good food, lying about under the stars watching a few desultory meteors flash across the skies, cuddles with kitteh.  I’ve spent the past hour writing up some of the trip pics from Rainier, and that should be ready for your viewing pleasure tomorrow.  It’s just one of those moments when life is truly beautiful.

So I thought I’d take a moment and invite you to envision your perfect moments.  Just drop whatever you’re doing and remember a time when life filled you to overflowing, until you felt you could burst from the beauty of it all.  Have you got it?  Good.  Indulge, revel, immerse yourself in that memory for a moment.

There.  Now you’ve got a proper start to your weekend.  Go forth and have the time of your lives.

Bugger This. I Want A Better World.

Just past the winter solstice, on the cusp of a New Year, my thoughts inevitably begin to play the retrospection game. I hate it. All of those end-of-year “Best of/Worst of” lists drive me crazy, my New Year’s resolutions are always the same, and it’s not like things magically change on January 1st. Every year I am firm in my determination not to indulge in the sillyness.

This year, the failure doesn’t sting. Gazing backward leaves my jaw agape. Just a few highlights: we found water ice on Mars. We learned that America’s government approved torture at the very highest levels. The world’s economy imploded with horrific speed. Barack Obama became America’s first African American president, and gave us all something to look forward to in 2009: a future.

And I became a blogger, joined forces with other brilliant bloggers, and started Carnival of the Elitist Bastards. This is of a piece with voting for Obama. I did all three things for one simple reason: I want a better world.

We can make that happen.

Several years ago, I read a graphic novel series called The Authority. You all know about Spiderman’s schtick – “with great power comes great responsibility.” Well, Jenny Sparks, leader of The Authority, takes that to its logical conclusion. If you have the power to change the world for the better, that’s what you do. No whining, no excuses. Do the job. Fix the world.

Together, we can do that.

We all have our special talents, areas of interest and expertise. We’ve put them to good use in these last many sailings, battling ignorance, expanding knowledge. We’re taking back the word “elitist” and making it respectable again. And it’s working. Have you seen the Elitist Bastards Obama’s stocked his Cabinet with? There’s a Nobel Laureate in there, for the first time ever.

Okay, so maybe we can’t quite claim responsibility for that. Not completely. But every one of us who voted for him has played a part in bringing wisdom back to Washington. I claim this year in the name of Elitist Bastard.

We have a chance now to make this a better world. Time we seize it with both hands.

This year, we shall make it our business to spread the love of learning. We shall ensure that the word “elitist” is once again a mark of distinction rather than a cry of derision. We will continue to beat down ignorance wherever it raises its dribbling head.

But we can go further.

Are you fed up with poverty? Act. Support the politicians who are working to eradicate it, volunteer, donate, train people for new and better jobs.

Fed up with ignorance? Act. Watch what your school board does. Push for better education standards in your country. Promote childhood literacy. Educate.

Fed up with war? Act. Push politicians to reach for diplomacy before they turn to armies. Get involved with programs that attempt to bring enemies together. Make people all too aware of the cost of war.

Fed up with global warming? Act. Get the facts out there. Support environmental groups. Plant a tree, green up your house, protest pollution. Roll up your sleeves and clean up a neighborhood.

We can do much more than we think, just by taking action. Signing a petition may not seem like much, but it adds one more voice, turning a murmur into a shout. Donating a few dollars may not seem like enough, but as we saw with Obama’s campaign, enough small donations add up to plenty of money for change. A few hours of your time may not seem like much, but a few hours may be all that’s needed to change someone’s life. Don’t hold back just because you can’t do much. Become a snowflake, as my character Ishaarda Telsuun recommends:

“The answer is leverage. Place a thousand snowflakes in precisely the right places, and you cause a thousand avalanches…. A thousand snowflakes can reach half the world.”

Ghandi said we must be the change we wish to see in the world. We don’t even have to become fabulously rich or powerful or prestigious to do it. All we have to do is add our snowflake’s worth of weight to the scales: enough of us together will make them tilt.

And then we change the world for the better.

Midnight Musings: The I of id

Author’s note: At the time of this writing it is past the Witching Hour, and thus I am completely within my legal bounds to disregard all responsibility for the content and, more specifically, the coherency of the following. I don’t make a hell of a lot of sense on a handful of hours of sleep.

Academia has been put on hiatus, if that hasn’t been apparent from the distinct lack of entries in the last several weeks. On the off chance that those articles were actually of interest to any readers, I apologize for their absence, and can claim only a lack of subject material and motivation for its cause.

Today, though, I want to take a more introspective look. It’s what I’m best at – I’m severely introverted myself, and I spend far too much time thinking and reflecting and generally disregarding the world around and outside of me. En Tequila is advertised as a blog about, among other things, truth and skepticism and such fun things. So let’s take a break from our usual curb-stomping of modern politics or attempts to overturn the constructs that have been responsible for our evolution since we grew our own branch on the proverbial genetic tree, and talk about something a bit more abstract.

Who are you?

Classic question, is it not? Specifically, though, I wanted to examine, how our knowledge of ourself, how our awareness, changes us. How we change ourself. How knowing that we can change ourselves, changes ourselves. See the spiral?

But let me back up. I was reading through those fun little astrology horoscope books, that is supposed to tell you all about yourself according to your sign, or sometimes specifically your day of birth, even the time. Now, do I necessarily buy the accuracy of astrology? No. Do I read horoscopes for anything but laughs? Absolutely not. Still, there are only so many times when I can read a description of a Virgo and find myself so meticulously defined. However, how does reading these change your perception of yourself? Whether you believe them or not, and whatever source they might be, does realizing you possess a certain trait, quirk, or character “flaw” change you due to your knowledge of it? Maybe it’s not the stars – perhaps its a break-up, and learning that they’re leaving you because you’re a psychotic control freak, or maybe its having someone tell you what a great listener you are; when we are confronted with ourselves, presented with a mirror and are allowed to glimpse our reflection, does that in itself change what we see? While there are so many mirrors we encounter in life, we’ll continue along this astrological vein.

For example. Let’s say that I read about how “typical” Virgo’s are very deep thinkers, how they tend to plan out everything. Their exacting nature can rob them of spontaneity, as they prefer to plan things out, analyze and criticize them. Now I examine myself, having read this, and recall times as a young child when I would stand in the store toy aisle for almost the entire time my mother was shopping, trying to decide what toy I want to ask for. Weighing the pros and cons of this or that action figure – this one has voice buttons, but that one has flexible joints. The simplest of decisions have always been made difficult due to analysis paralysis. So, having read this as a common trait of Virgos, and perhaps in some desperate attempt to “break the system”, to be undefined, I decide (after much consideration) to try to be more spontaneous. So, next time, I grab a toy at random, without even looking at it until I put it in the cart.

So, was it only my knowledge of how I think and make decisions, that changed me? Does that make me a “different” person for it? However, doesn’t the fact that I chose to be spontaneous kind of defeat the purpose? That I grabbed the toy at random, only after I considered it, and even though I knew that I would, indeed, be choosing a toy? It chases itself in circles, really.

Enough about me and astrology, though. The point I’m trying to get to, is what do we gain by examining ourselves? What is the cost? Does it really change us? In what ways? Is that change something good, something desirable?

Let’s take a different case. Frank here has a hard time letting things go – he always stands up for himself, even when he knows he’s wrong. He’ll shove if you push, and he won’t hold his tongue over etiquette. Perhaps, then, he realizes this, or is told this by a friend, a co-worker, maybe his brother. So, does he choose, then, to try to be more considerate? Or does he accept it as “who he is” and goes with it, perhaps even emphasizing those traits? If he goes with it, perhaps it makes matters worse; now Frank not only stands up for himself in a confrontation, but will actively seek conflict in which he can defend himself. Or, he goes the other direction, and decides to hold his tongue even when he knows that he is actually in the right, but is too afraid that he’ll return to “that part” of him again.

Practice makes perfect, but no one is perfect, so why practice? If no one is perfect, should we accept our “flaws”, as we perceive them? Our shortcomings, or perhaps just traits, neither good or bad in and of themselves, that we don’t like? We just accept them as part of us, and we are powerless to change it, and should not even if we could. Or do we try to change? Do we try to move ourselves towards our individual “ideal” self, even if it goes against your nature?

Know thyself? How does one know itself? Does knowing thyself, change thyself? What kind of self would thy be if you didn’t try to change or know it?

What is the definition of yourself? To what extent are your personality traits a decision you make, or a decision made for you? Can people ever really, truly change of their own accord? Or must they force change upon them?

I know several things about myself, both good and bad. I know that I can be generous, nice, and understanding – to a fault. I know that I am modest, that much of my humor is self-deprecating in an attempt to avoid egotism and arrogance, as well as having the experience that everyone likes laughing with someone who can laugh at themselves. What do I decide to try to change, if anything? At what point do we become unhappy with a part of ourselves – where do we make ourselves a “better” person? Why should we even think that can be achieved?

Just some brain food to munch on while you all enjoy the more productive and coherent entries in this blog.

edit: Thank you, blake, for pointing out my little astronomy/astrology mix-up. I’m incoherent enough as it is without using improper terminology. Fixed that particular transgression.

Always question.