Children’s Literature and Moral Lessons

I don’t know how often or even whether people consider the metaphorical worlds created in comic books and fantasy games as being a parallel to religion or religious parables. Comics are a sub-category of art and they often carry a message about life. If a kid, a young girl lets say, accepts the myth that Peter Parker became a ‘spider-man,’ then she might subscribe to his doctrine: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Maybe she doesn’t live all parts of her life through that philosophy, but it will have an influence on her. Say she gets a job babysitting; that is great power. The Spider-man ideal will come in handy. Actually, it is the very basis for successfully doing her job. Her story illustrates how a moral instinct took root in her conscience through art: the comic book. This simple act of incorporating a moral behavior based upon an artist’s influence is ever-present in our high-tech culture. A god-based moral code is no longer necessary. In fact, it is antiquated in the eyes of the Harry Potter generation.

Harry Potter novels are a recent manifestation of the trend for moral growth through art on a global scale. Many people give credit to the moral behaviors exemplified by the main character, Harry, as being responsible for the younger generation’s easy acceptance of gay marriage. The central themes in the novels are about the importance of love. The love of friends who become an orphan’s family is the essential ingredient of the hero’s success. Magic in these books is merely an attractive device to relay the story of love. And: “Love is Love.” This is not new to popular stories: Dorothy succeeds in surpassing the two greatest powers in Oz: the wizard and the witch because of the love of her new family in Oz.

Religion diminishes its own influence over the minds of young people by equating itself with art. When Christianists first took aim at the Harry Potter novels they called the books evil, thereby making them equal to, and the opposite of, religion. Kids who read the books think the accusation is silly. By making this equivalency, though, the novel’s stature becomes enhanced and comparable to the church. Kids organically respect the themes found in Harry Potter; they want to read the books so they seek them out. Conversely, young folks are usually indoctrinated into the faith of their parents as a matter of tradition, not desire. So, when asked to compare the two (now equal) entities — church vs. Harry Potter stories – Harry wins.  Harry Potter speaks to them with a moral voice of empathy and compassion; all moral authority comes from love in his world. Harry Potter has no doctrine or creed, so in comparison, a theology based upon the threat of punishment in Hell seems far less desirable. Harry Potter captures imaginations with an emotional zeal that surpasses any religious ritual.

By drawing an equivalency between the religion and the art, Christianists magnify the significance of art and diminished the value of the religion. Historically, this controversy came right on the heels of major revelations about child rape coverups in the Catholic Church. While young folks were learning (from the church itself) about Harry Potter having equal status with religion, they also learned the church is really a bureaucracy! The real church is as evil as the fictional bureaucracies described in the book. This lesson is much more damaging.

The second theme in the novels involves distrust of bureaucracy. No authoritarian hierarchy within the novels is competent at fulfilling its duties. Progress is made in spite of the bureaucracy not because of the bureaucracy. The Ministry of Magic is the constantly inept metaphor for the real-life government and is usually associated with being wrong; even Hogwarts the (good) school is flawed with bureaucratic issues. The Ministry of Magic is eventually overtaken by the evil Lord Voldemort.

Then, in a confluence of coincidence, real life suddenly provides a real world example of the same thing: the child rape cover-up scandal of the church is all about the systemic evils of a religious bureaucracy. Young readers observe the corrupt behaviors of both the real and fictional entities and reach the same conclusions: Don’t trust them, they are evil, they are anti-love (the most redeeming feature of the world) and they must be ignored. The novels amplify the vile behavior of the church bureaucracy and place it squarely on the bad side of the equation. So, when the church says gays are bad, kids dismiss it out of hand; they instinctually say love is love. The church looks evil once again in spite of the music and grand architecture. The kids say: “ I don’t need a bureaucracy to tell me any of this, I can, and must, do it myself.” Just like Harry did.

So, how does this self-shamanism work?

  • People ignore the parts of religion they don’t like.
  • They reject the structural conspiracy to hide pedophile priests.
  • They ignore the church’s forays into political issues such as gay marriage, and a stamp of approval for presidential candidates, etc.
  • They behave according to their own conscience, (like Harry does) not according to a mandate from a time-frozen, less-relevant, Ministry-of-Magic-like religion.
  • They equate God with spectacle, not substance and a boring one at that.
  • They search for moral understanding outside the realm of immoral “religious” hierarchies; often they find it in art; like Harry Potter stories.
  • They do not believe in witchcraft. Duh! It’s just a story like virgin births and rising from death.
  • But, some still ‘go to church,’ the ritual is all that remains relevant.

Walt Whitman, a gay artist wrote in his preface to the original first edition of Leaves of Grass about his expectations for the future. He says, in summary, that there will soon be no more priests because their work is done. Eventually there will be a new theology where every person will be his or her own priest. They will create the church of men and women which does not rely upon faith in immortality or God. This new religion will celebrate the divinity of the individual. Whitman made this comment in 1855 and its prescience is only just becoming clear. No one expected the church to do the footwork necessary to make his prediction a reality, but they did.

It does make sense that a gay man would have this idea. The process of coming out is the process of learning to accept one’s own divinity. Once you understand your own divinity you have the ability, if you choose, to instruct others in the ways of the divine.

Comparing Art, Service, Church

A comparison of voluntary agencies:

The Theatre , An Association for the Intellectually Disabled, The Church

This is a list of a variety of topics showing how three formative places at which I volunteered as a teenager helped influence my personal development: 1. theatre, 2. a group of volunteers assisting the intellectually disabled, and 3. the church.

Family:

High school/Community Theatre is a temporary family of strangers who become friends united in telling a story full of emotions and moral lessons.

Within the intellectually disabled group, one becomes a parental figure to help guide ‘clients’ as they were called in my youth, participate in activities, a formal but rewarding relationship and experience.

The church is an extension of the family except that one has to apply the ‘Sunday Best’ outfit to go there.

Fantasy:

The world of theatre is a place where fantasies are magically brought to life through illusion.

Working with so called ‘retarded children’ in the early 1970s meant relating to innocent and naive people who often exist within their own fantasies.

The Presbyterian Church requires members to believe in an abstract non-sequitur: a monotheistic trinity.

Requirements:

Theatre insists on collaboration.

Children require love.

Church demands faith and money.

Facade:

Theatre makes artificial facades that are built as needed with theatrical makeup, lumber, canvas, acting, gingham and tweed. All of that: acting, scenery, lighting and costuming is applied to tell a unified story. Facade has a purpose here that is independent of the individual ego, it is a device used in storytelling.

The intellectually disabled have no facade, no mask to confront the world through artifice, so a volunteer’s task is to guide the clients toward behaviors that protect them in the world.

Maintaining one’s own facade is something to do at the church. Facade has an ego based foundation here: the presentation of self in conformation with the Presbyterian breed.

Humanity

Theatre is about sharing excellence. There are conventional means of telling stories in theatre, but those conventions are meant to be stretched and reformed as needed.

Unconditional love is what the intellectually disabled are all about. Each person you encounter provides a window into unsullied humanity.

Church is about a person’s relationship with a triune deity: a man, a ghost and a god (in math that would be expressed as 3 = 1). Their relationship is narrowly defined by doctrine and spelled out in rules. Your ‘personal’ relationship with the trinity has already been codified.

Vulnerability

An artist’s job is to bare their soul. Each production and performance is a new opportunity to fail as well as succeed. Theatre people are always vulnerable to published critics or anyone who buys a ticket.

We observe almost pure vulnerability with the mentally challenged, therefore, we can allow ourselves to become vulnerable too. The level of intellectual discourse is low but the level of emotional discourse can be profound. A volunteer’s  defenses can be comfortably lowered to connect at that primal level.

A teenage Presbyterian was once asked to read a passage from the Bible during a regular Sunday service.  He looked at the congregation, began to read, then he instantly froze solid, his rigid body tipped over the railing of the lectern with a thud, like a statue knocked from its plinth, then his body relaxed and he rolled down the steps to the altar. He had found himself, at that initial moment, face to face with a congregation of well managed facades. “I can’t bare to be judged by that!” he thought, so he left the room and his body for a few minutes. He was fine, physically, but he never should have been put in that emotional position; his young father had died of a heart attack in that very church several months before.

This guy was completely guileless; he had no clue about facade management. He was willing to speak (be vulnerable) in memory of his father, but he wasn’t interested in artifice at all. He simply couldn’t manage his own protective shield, so, when faced with the wall of judgement inherent in public speaking he collapsed. The meek may inherit the earth, but perhaps, the meek shouldn’t present their vulnerable, honest selves to the Presbyterians.

Inclusion:

Theatre is always broke, couldn’t care less about what you do and who you screw as long as you make the opening curtain. Don’t mess up their story-telling and you are just fine by them.

The agency for the intellectually disabled has basic legal strictures. Nothing beyond human kindness is necessary and it does not cost you anything. A scandal or misbehavior would be the only reasons to exclude someone.

Of the three, church is the most divisive. You either accept the dogma or you don’t. Promises and money are required. You will be excluded if you do not comply. If you are gay you are not welcome. If you are gay you are hated.

Love:

The Theatre is accepting of all permutations of love. Love is Love

The intellectually disabled offer their love unconditionally. Love is Love

Religion places conditions and restrictions on love and the expression of love, this is called:“Christian Love.” The hymn: ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love’ sounds altruistic but it refers to the exclusive version of love, not the normal connotations of Love. Christian love is the exclusive restricted Country Club version.

Trumpification

Religions have become Trumpified. Actually, Trumpification has been happening throughout society for my whole life. I first noticed it in Red Cross Lifesaving classes at the Boy’s Club in the late 1960s. A large part of the class was spent learning about the legal repercussions from any attempt to save a life. Along with actually learning the techniques for saving a life we were learning how to make deep philosophical choices about whether to bother trying at all given the legal consequences! Through this, the moral choice that had always seemed blatantly obvious – wasn’t.

Knowing how to save a drowning person does not obligate you to attempt the rescue. Morality obligates you and common decency obligates you, training guides you, but if the person you save breaks a rib as you salvage their ability to breath air again, you can be sued. (Good Samaritan laws since that time have made it better, but not removed the threat.) The most basic moral choice – to save a life – is so full of legal ramifications that morality is squeezed out of the choice. This very same thing is happening in religion.

I’ve written in the past about the inverted pyramid of structure that ignores the wholesome reasons for its genesis. The church begins with good intention, but as it decides new moral concerns, its laws expand. The more rigid the rules, the more a specialist is needed to manage it. Theologians have to become lawyers just to do their job. The structure is so vast and complicated that the specialists transform themselves from deep thinking scholars contemplating lofty thoughts, into code translators – lawyers of the codified dogma. A massive set of rules with subsections and related scholarship, clauses, codicils and analysis must fit into cells in the spread sheet to be managed. Or, at least computerized data starts out as the tool that is used by the manager of the vast religion’s leadership. Eventually, the computerized data-set earns enough trust to proclaim the “truth” of the organization on its own, not the humans. The humanity of compassion and morality and intuition can’t be factored into the equation as before, so even religion, a supposedly human-based entity, becomes machine-like. I have used the Pope’s recent Exhortation on Love as a prime example of heartless databased legality dressed up in pretty words; the rules for ‘exclusion,’ if you will.

Success in this world comes to those most willing to pay the lawyers to fight and prolong the battles. Trump does what he wants then says: “see you in court.” The church says: “see you in court, meanwhile, we’ll pray for your child’s torn rectum and mental well-being.” The drowning girl’s father sues you for cracking her rib after you risk your own life to save her’s. The precision of definition that either allows or prevents human variance is immensely detailed.

The lawyer’s job is to clarify the rules by removing emotion and precisely defining the edges of the rules. This makes sense when creating a will, but lawyering emotion out of religion is contraindicated. Religions rely on emotion for rituals and hymns, its architecture and art. Ceremonies, holidays, societal events all use the emotional appeals to deities. Rationality is not the prayer’s function.

This universal reliance on codes, not humanity is altering the nature of morality itself. The interface between humans is lined with implied contracts and legal obligations, with varieties of social, racial and religious rules. Back in the days of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin (old TV shows from the 50s) even the dogs could tell right from wrong. Now, some rich guy with enough lawyers and no moral conscience can run the world. There’s no legal way to stop him except for the slow laborious process of bureaucracy. One of the wealthiest religions in the world, the Catholic Church, hides behind a wall of lawyers. Just like Trump, their “monied morality” – the judgment of the secular database, will be decided in court; one long-delayed case after another. The trained lifesaver who takes no action as the little girl drowns faces no legal challenge, but the pain of moral responsibility should be unbearable.

Or should it? Our churches hide behind lawyers because of their own behaviors and in spite of their own rhetoric. They know their sin. They did it again and again. Yet they slowly clutter up the courts with legal gamesmanship. The president doesn’t represent moral standards of any sort, yet he is not punished. Why shouldn’t the trained saver-of-lives believe it’s morally correct simply to walk away? His moral choice has become: whether he can afford enough lawyers to face the legal ramifications of saving her. The sanctity of her life has little bearing. The moral question of saving the little girl, is no different from the church’s choice to hide abusive pedophiles rather than turning them in to the police, or deceitful business practices protected by a wall of lawyers.

My Humanism expects that the honorable trained life-saver will do his human duty in spite of the consequence of our Trumpified lives.  Let’s follow that example not Trump or the Church.

Bigotry will be their salvation

One of the best experiences of living on the Island of St. Croix is the Writer’s Circle I belong to. It is made up of a variety of people from all walks of life. The other day I showed them my most recent blog, the one about Harry Potter. HO HOs Role in Polytheistic Monotheism We always critique one another’s work with an eye toward positive reinforcement. One person pointed out that much of what I said would be offensive to the religious community. I agreed with that assessment. She wondered why I would do that since she liked the beginning and the ending bits a lot. I explained the nature of Freethoughtblogs.com and said the comments would fit in with the tenor of the other bloggers and readers. I suspect she really wanted to know why I was being intentionally offensive because I don’t come across as being an offensive person and would be likely to point out a similar offense in others. She has a valid point.

I often wonder why those of us who have been stung by organized religion have the emotional reactions we do. Conversely, why does our secular society cow-tow to these harmful, secretive, exclusive, tax-exempt clubs? There is sense of privilege religions take. Religious privilege is a demand of the pious. They demand special treatment because, well, not for any contemporary reason, they have always had it. Many do good and charitable works alongside their political actions and deceptive sales pitch. It’s honored because its always been that way. I would love to know why we continue to do so? They are tax-exempt, exclusionary, bigoted, private clubs. They have the least-rational premise of any organizations, for example: heaven, hell, angels, getting your own personal planet when you die. Then there is praying dead people from some other religion into their version of heaven and having the relatives get really mad about it. The covered heads and gender specific clothing, food, saying prayers instead of taking action, and a whole slew of myths about birth, rebirth, and death. Folks, these are the ancient equivalents of wands and quidditch matches (it’s a Harry Potter thing), robes and flying brooms – the exemplars of an attempt to commune with the Dreamworld. The difference being that art knows it’s an artifice, religion pretends it isn’t. J.K. Rowling intends to entertain, edify and exalt humanity with her novels; take them or leave them, just don’t demand that government codify the rules of quidditch.

Now, I remember the friends of my grandparents being quite upset at the possibility of Jews being allowed to join their Country Club back in the 1960s. I remember the efficient, immaculate, and at times invisible all-black serving staff at the Club with their white gloves, and polite subservience. And I remember feeling so unwelcome by the other kids at the swimming pool when my Grandmother would take us there. She thought she was honoring us with this privilege, when all we were, was embarrassed. The elitism of that Club carried throughout the community – the most privileged of the white upper class.The way it had been for a very long time. Society and that Club have changed along with the times. Anyone willing to pay can join today and a person of any skin-color or religion may serve or be served dinner.

Religions enjoy privilege in this culture, however, they are more resistant than the Country Club to the progress of time. We see it most blatantly in the “religious liberty” legislation they are attempting to pass. They want to make secular laws allowing for the religious version of an all black wait staff. They wish to keep today’s version of “Jews” (or the Irish, or the Catholics, etc.) – the LGBTQ community, from being in their club. They feel put-upon and abused because their own antiquated bias humiliates them. Toto has pulled back the curtain on their fraudulent misbehavior a long time ago – cover-ups and perpetuation of child rape for example, but they have hired lawyers; so, in the style of Donald Trump, their deceit is obvious and met with a “so what” attitude. Regardless of whether their behaviors are right or wrong the holy wizards want to win, morality be damned. When lawyers take church doctrine and transform it into legalese, then the jump across the wall separating church from state is easier to make. The most effective organization opposing LGBTQ rights in this country is the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom, a collection of faith-based lawyers sponsored by the most militant evangelicals. They are legally sophisticated and determined to win in the courts and work at it with little public scrutiny.

The privilege of religion is sinking toward a negative number, just like Trump. The shear inertia of that ancient privilege has kept them going this far. Irrelevance, scandal and other atrocities provide the friction that slows the momentum. They are grasping at roots from long dead trees as they fall over the cliff attempting, in desperation, to invent legal codes that merge their falling religions with the secular laws of the land. They must legalize their “ability to exclude” to survive. Bigotry will be their salvation.

So, getting back to the original question, why offend the religious? Quite frankly, I felt deceived and betrayed when they did not live up to their promises in my youth. I have outgrown the hatred and vitriol that I carried for the church for so many years. The absurdity of organized religion and its misbehavior is now a recognized matter of fact. Using humor to point out the oddities of an absurdity seems nicer than forcing it into an academic debate. I mean, Jesus, HO HOs are funny! The first third of my last post mostly pokes fun at myself. The middle third shows how absurdly out-of-date Christianity is. The last third finds moral value in an easily accessible format, suitable for the age in which we live – the morality parables of the Harry Potter Series. ART!

Illud Tempus Dreamworld

 

This post is going to be a little happier than the last few have been. We’re going to find the Dreamworld. This portly dazed and red-nosed game character from Operation will assist us in this endeavor. Let’s call him ‘Duh’ it seems appropriate, I haven’t played the game since childhood and don’t know his name. The parts of the body have changed a little too, we can ignore the arrows and whatever beer mugs and stuff cause we’re looking for something more esoteric.

I’ve used this other image in the past to illustrate the Dreamworld. It, is my own composition which  has no inherent meaning other than my attempt to express my impression of the Dreamworld. It is a rectangle simply because that happens to be a default size I use on Photoshop. It could be any size or shape as far as that is concerned.It has some recognizable elements such as the blue grid and the interior frame within the un-framed illustration. Shapes may not make sense or seem to have a real purpose. When I made it I may have used 18 layers or so. I would rather discuss the qualities of the elements within the illustration rather than creative technique. By ‘qualities’ I don’t mean anyone’s opinion about whether things are good or bad, more the component’s reason for being a part of the composition, their position within the border, color, texture, relationship, balance, etc. This wasn’t just random stuff thrown together, it has purpose and intent and a reason to be what and where it is. Sometimes, the explanation may be simply that it looked good. At other times there is a real important purpose. Did you notice every shape has a texture? Some shapes are used only once while others are repeated often. Colors are bizarre but fit together comfortably. The grid fills up a third of the page but is also barely noticeable. Does the interior frame actually ‘frame’ anything in particular? Why so? Why is it there, instead of the edge where a frame could, as usual, contain the total illustration? Could the frame have been a little bit smaller than it is? What is its message? A philosopher could spend a whole day finding meanings for just the frame alone if he had nothing else to do. And was really bored.

I would call it a better piece of art than Duh, but the purpose is different, and I made it;) Duh is meant to be whimsical and funny, but not very serious piece of graphic illustration; it is well crafted for that purpose. Dreamworld has richness and depth and sophistication. It has humor and sadness and seriousness and plenty of wry whimsy. Duh makes the viewer ask: “Why is there a hammer in his leg?” and other obvious game-like stuff while Dreamworld poses more esoteric questions. The meaning/purpose of Duh is readily obvious. The Dreamworld illustration is never clear, nor are the questions it brings up answered. You, as the observer of each piece, gets to choose what kind of time and thought you give to each observation. I’m going to ask you to give some thought to Dreamworld because I have the expectation that it will illustrate its name. At the same time we will look at our ‘everyman’–  Duh, to discover where inside each person the Dreamworld exists.

In the process of creating Dreamworld I had the goal: “to express my impression of the Dreamworld.” I made thousands of choices and used hours of intense concentration to make the picture. I also drove to work, taught classes, advised students, designed, rehearsed, and opened plays, shoveled alpaca poo, put feed out for the chickens, fish and hay for the alpacas, mowed the grass, read books and watched TV. All of those things contributed to the end result. See the correlation?

“to express my impression of the Dreamworld” means I had an idea of the Dreamworld which came originally from an article I read in the early 1980s, Illud Tempus, a latin phrase meaning roughly ‘now and always.’ It suggests an atemporal dream or dreamlike state where past, present, and future coincide. In this Illud Tempus, boundaries, time, and consciousness are freed from normal constraints and possibilities abound. It is a place, of sorts, where god lives. It is also where our fears, worries, and concerns live too. It frequently reveals itself to those who have made the effort to understand it. All people experience the dream world in their own personal way, and find it with their own solitary journey. It plays a part in every person’s daily choices and it is influenced by the experiences of life: a book, a movie, a religious experience, tripping on the sidewalk, or any other life experience.

So, a person who spends time attempting to understand the Dreamworld has many paths open to them. Some are well-worn highways where perceptions of its many ephemeral components are codified and taught to others of a particular group or religion. There are often shaman, learned individuals of a particular religion, who teach and guide folks through its labyrinth path to the dreamworld.

But what about Duh? The dreamworld exists for him and is part of him. If we wanted to give Duh another hidy-hole like the beer mug and the hammer where would we place it on Duh’s body? Without a shape or depth or time or particular sound it will be hard to figure out the appropriate placement. Is there any form of logic that could answer this question? I mean the heart seems logical, but the brain does too. The stomach and other organs that produce chemicals and proteans necessary for life are needed as are the sensory parts of your feet and legs to keep you standing upright. The whole body is where the dreamworld lives.

It  would be wonderful if we could understand the dreamworld the way we understand our feet and legs and can control them with precision. Our dreamworlds are all of Duh – his whole body and beyond. It includes the smell of the bakery, the view of the lake, the feel of the PJ’s and the emotional states of those nearby. It is the sum and total of each moment of your life. Yet, we can’t grasp any more than a tiny part of it. Most of us don’t conceive of it at all; we call it God and rely on the shaman and the secrets, revelations, scriptures paths of those who have sought to understand it before. As humans we give it familiar trappings to pretend we understand but they are only metaphor. Their influence and continuity give them a sense of false credibility.

All Duh has to do is look inside himself and make an effort to understand by asking a question. When you ask the Illud Tempus for answers you communicate with the divine within. Keep asking questions and have a conversation. You will have done all that is necessary; no cathedrals, symbols, statues, rituals or prayers are required. No holy book can contain it. The dreamworld is the experience of being you.

You don’t need an inverted pyramid to give credence to the experience of being you. If you like and wish to use a pyramid’s features it will also become the experience of being you. It may take you on a long journey back to where you started. If that has value to you or not it is now the experience of being you. Many people are drawn to the inverted pyramid, they find the prepared, organized, well-trod path comforting. I don’t, I left my inverted pyramid for being gay and I am a better person for the experience of being me.

You will see many versions and variations of the pyramid and they all are designed to include some and exclude others on the journey to find themselves – the experience of being you. Passions will be raised and lowered by these attempts. The end result is the experience of being you. The search for god leads right back to the experience of being you. Do you prefer the long arduous journey of organized religion or simply looking  inside yourself? Either choice ends up at the same place: your Dreamworld.

Religion, Art, Morality Part 2

Note: this was the second in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.

There is a loss of genuine emotion in society; people have been made numb. It is a culture-wide phenomena where institutions of many stripes whittle down emotions and instinct altogether. Human characteristics are replaced with rulebooks and programable codes — tangible items that are quantifiable. If it fits in the accountant’s book it is real; if it can’t be measured it is ignored. With unmeasurable abstractions such as love, compassion and honesty out of the way the door is open to protect child abusers who are measurably expensive to defend in court.

Think of the Catholic rule regarding condoms and HIV. I am sure lots of study has been done on the theology of pregnancy and I do not care to address it. Whether you argue for contraception or against it you still fall into the trap that most of us fall into. We start playing the game by institutional rules.  Ancient institutions have set the stage for all discussion by establishing ownership of the issue through the body of scholarship they have generated. The tone and quality of debate always reverts to the institutional model because it is the familiar, go-to resource for discussion. Most of us are novices in this environment despite the familiar seeming context and are easily dismissed by the professional scholars of the church.

God Jesus Ghost

They have created a structure of theological scholarship that is based upon a central assumption: God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost actually exist. And, that the Jesus third of the triumvirate once existed in human form from a virgin’s unwitting supernatural pregnancy, died, was reborn in mystical form, and sits on God’s right hand (cue the eyebrows). The central mystery of the church is its foundation which guides all discussion.

I respect the right of anyone to have whatever belief they choose. I am not qualified to judge the validity of one mystery over any other. The appeal of mystery is that it is mysterious. It’s the bureaucracy that flows from the belief in a mystery, that is the problem.

The Christian religion is an inverted pyramid resting on this central point of belief: Jesus exists. Early practitioners of what became Christianity took all the best elements of all the popular religions of the time and re-packaged them under this marketing tool: Jesus really existed, he is not just a myth like the other gods. The metaphorical conception of “god” became actual. The fledgling church merged all the various start-up versions of an “actual” deity into one by codifying the basic myth and dogma. Paul managed to get them all on the same page through his letter-writing campaign that has become the bulk of the New Testament. Over time, layer upon layer of argument, justifications, rules and edicts were built up on top of the point of belief guided by the ‘revealed’ word of a deity. For example, the concept of a ‘Trinity,’ was added to the pyramid in the fourth century, it is not mentioned in the scriptures. The rational for each theological question requires academic answers that reach deeply into the bureaucratic structure for justification, latching onto preceding ‘revelations’ and arguments based upon the central assumption at the inverted pyramid’s point. Each answered question and its associated scholarship solidifies into a new layer of the structure extending slightly beyond the previous layer making an up-side-down pyramid shape. The inverted pyramid manifests as a striking facade, even though it is constructed solely from rhetoric based upon belief in a mystery. Followers refer to the prior massive volumes of rhetoric as if the bulk of the rhetoric itself verifies the belief. The rhetorical weight is so precarious that even a mere bird landing on the top could throw it out of equilibrium; all that weight pressing upon a point of mystery makes it unstable. External supports are necessary to keep the facade from collapsing under its own weight. The inverted pyramid now rests on those supports; it no longer needs the foundational structure to balance all of its proclamations. The new foundation provides a solid, material, footing so a single point of balance isn’t required. The Church has become fully supported by buttresses. The tiny point of belief in a mystery has done its job, it is now a point of reference, not of structure.

[For those who don’t know, a buttress is the structure on the outside of the cathedral that counters the weight of the arches in the roof. Stone cathedrals require a big interior space, but a roof covering that much empty space is too heavy for walls alone to support, so architects created the buttress which holds the weight. One type of buttress acquired the name “flying buttress” because they look like wings attached to the exterior wall of the cathedral. The Presbyterian church of my youth had small buttresses that didn’t really fly and were purely ornamental; the building had a steel superstructure that did not require a buttress. These superficial flourishes of the architect were a facade applied to the structure to make it seem more grand than it really was. As an architectural design feature, it enhanced the feeling of awe as one approaches the building. Even the facade of the church wore a facade.]

Now that the inverted pyramid of Christian religion is a structure resting on buttressing supports independent of its foundation point, all sorts of irrelevant arguments can be made that are totally reliant upon buttresses alone. The inverted pyramid continues to grow but each argument based upon a buttress diminishes the significance of the main point.

Magritte

As I write this description I can’t help but envision what a picture of it would look like. First, we take a photograph of one of the great pyramids of Egypt, cut it out of its background, flip it over and have it rest on a new surface. As we try to do this we realize that the point is missing, it has been worn away over time so you have to position the pointless image so that it appears to rest upon the empty space where the point would have been if it still existed.  At this moment the image looks rather surreal — like a rock or bowler hat in a Magritte painting — just floating above the ground. Then, we find pictures of cathedrals and copy just the buttresses (flying or otherwise) and paste them into our image so that it looks like the buttress holds the up-side-down pyramid off the ground.

Okay, so, now we have a Magritte-like pointless pyramid inverted over the ground, being supported by an odd combination of whatever buttresses we could find. As we look at our collage we realize that the missing point metaphorically describes the theology of the church accurately, but alas, not so historically.  So, we need to go back and examine what the point actually is.

I became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church for a few years. I like their philosophy to an extent because it encourages its members to find their own spiritual path and it avoids dogma. There was a major controversy in our small rural congregation about a sign one of its members had donated. The sign said, “God Is Love.” U.U.s don’t deny the existence of God but they don’t require belief in it either. The Humanists in the congregation objected to the sign and the believers defended it. I was on the Humanist’s side saying that the sign should read: “Love is god.” My version supported the possibility that a god did exist but didn’t state it directly. Our version converted their declaration that: “God is …” to the suggestion of a metaphorical god which includes the possibility of an actual God. Maybe this conflict provides a solution to our pointless problem.

If we are going to finish our collage-style illustration we will need to fill in the missing point. We will need to illustrate “God, Jesus & The Holy Ghost.” That is, after all, the point of this hodgepodge of supports and structure. How are we going to do that? We could photoshop some more rocks into the shape of a point and paste it into the picture but that would be like saying that the point is the same thing as the structure: argument, dogma, justification. Is God & Co. the same as the church? Is God & Co. an unwieldy compilation of arguments built upon itself then supported by supplemental constructions?

I am going to ask you to imagine as John Lennon did in his song “Imagine.” Imagine “Love” as the new point of the pyramid. Love is god. Is that too radical an idea? What happens if we just go with the possibility that love is love? Would the church structure change? Take for example the condom situation, if love is love then there is no longer justification to deny life-saving condoms to lovers. That would take a big unnecessary chip out of the pyramid. All the other arguments built upon those justifications would become invalid too, causing a large destabilizing gap.

The thing is though, buttresses have staying power. The buttresses in this metaphor are the assets of the church: its buildings, its gold, its art, its power, and the appeal of its ritual and its bureaucracy. These tangible assets support the inverted facade of an ancient religion.  Only surface appearance seems to matter because that is what is celebrated in the mass. The substance behind the facade is hidden and it is used to protect child rapists; it is corrupt. Its own “Theo”-logic has whittled away its point. Faith clouds more than academic judgment here because it ignores genuine love of fellow mankind: our children. Wouldn’t Love provide a more substantial point to start from?

Imagine if we get rid of the old structures altogether and change the shape of our new construction from a pyramid into a ball of light like the sun and make the center “love” then place this ball of love in the middle of a radiant matrix so that every idea, justification and person could have direct access to the center instead of some intercessional bureaucracy. What would that be like? Could you then wear a condom if it kept you from dying? Could Love be God?

Godbox

Is the TV on?

There is a new study being reported in the Huffington Post : “New Study Suggests U.S. Has A Lot Of ‘Closet’ Atheists” “Atheists may have been drastically undercounted because of reluctance to honestly answer poll questions.” I lived through the closeted years of the early gay rights movement so I have some thoughts on the matter.

This study uses an oddly cumbersome series of unrelated questions to derive a conclusion because they don’t trust people to directly acknowledge atheism with a yes or a no. For example, “I’ve been to the South Pole” is one such statement that requires respondents to answer true or false. By asking a series of these types of questions they attempt to deduce whether the person is an atheist.

“I prefer wieners to tacos” T or F would have done little to reveal my closeted gay status back in the sixties. Visiting a frozen pole apparently indicates more about a relationship with god than long hot tubes of steaming meat relate to sex! Cold poles and hot dogs, science can be such a mystery! All joking aside the study sounds intriguing and viable to me, but then again I’m an artist.

The problem with so many of these ‘do you believe in god’ studies is that they are merely asking which channel you like best on the Godbox. They begin with the assumption that there is a THEO-TV. The assumptions continue: THEO-TV is turned on, has electricity, can provide viable theological programing, has multiple options, each option makes enough quasi-reasonable or fantastical statements to develop a following of viewers. The Catholic channel doesn’t like being next to the Voodoo channel; the Hindus want a separate channel for all 330 million of their deities although negotiations are trying to keep the number down to 33.

Some of these studies provide a questionnaire asking you to check the box next to your religion. If they include a listing for atheist it is offensive to some on both sides because atheism is not a religion per se. The computer won’t let you go on to the next question until you check a box so freethinkers are stuck choosing either ‘Atheist’ or ‘Other’; both choices force you to choose a channel/religion on the Godbox. You’re going to be pigeon-holed into some mystery/faith system one way or another.

We all know individuals who really want a god-based flow of information/mystery/comfort to sooth their sin-sick souls: The Balm of Gilead only $25.95+S&H. Oddly enough, to those folks anyway, many people survive perfectly well without Godbox thank you very much. We exist in a world where the common assumption is: everyone has a Godbox, and everyone will select one or more of the channels on it. The assumption is so strong that even our computers are programed to accept no variation from this premise.

The basic flaw here is, however, that the question of god’s existence or nonexistence has nothing to do with the programing or channels on the Godbox. Non-theists don’t even consider it an option. As furniture, a Godbox serves no purpose. There is no reason to buy one, plug it in, or turn it on, much less choose one channel over any other channel. Answers aren’t found in a box.

For atheists and non-theists there is a great deal of pressure to conform to the Godbox lifestyle. It is an omnipresent element of culture. Our money declares it, and public gatherings begin and end with ceremonial homage to it. No wonder people lie on questionnaires, the contexts of our culture forces them to! Just look at the change in our pockets.

Scientists trying to calculate the number of atheists who exist must also dispense with the word “atheist.” It has a built in prejudice. In the early gay rights movement the hot research topic was, “What makes someone gay?” Progress wasn’t made until the question got turned around to ask, “What makes someone straight?” That leads to, “What factors influence sexual expression?” We still don’t have a count on the number of gays, but we do have new understandings hundreds of variations of sexual expression and a vast body of knowledge.

Any questions about how many atheists there are must be based upon this contextual frame:

1. The first premise should be that humans are born non-theists; religion is not genetic but it is often geographic.

2. People separate themselves from the natural non-theist state by becoming theists – supernaturalist believers of the many subsets of religions. (this group owns a Godbox)

3. Some of the set of religionists may eventually choose to rebel against or reject religion and so become atheists. (They still have Godboxes tuned to the atheist channel.)

 

So, basically, you can’t be an atheist until you have a supernatural/mystery belief to react against. When researchers go looking for the number of atheists who exist in a place they often ignore the original set of humans for whom the construct of god has no relevance. There is no word to describe those who have never fallen sway to a mystery-based fantasy. “A” means “against or without,” “theist” means “god or the concept of a god,” atheist means ‘against god’. How would that original group of humans respond to a statement so far removed from the context of their lives? They can’t be atheist because “theist” means nothing to them: “against nothing” is a non-sequitur.

I like to use the word ‘non-theist’ to describe my position. It exists in common usage for the same purpose as atheist – to show an opposing perspective of a god (and pretentious followers). “Non-”  means ‘not’ in Latin. A nonbeliever does not maintain a particular belief but a non-theist does not even address belief by simply stating that: the phenomenon called “god” does not exist.

Non-theists declare there is not a god.

Atheists declare themselves to be against something that exists or has the potential to exist. If god did not exist opposing it would be senseless. So, logically, the word would be pointless.

[ Note: this was the first in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.]

Dueling Dual-Fact Nation 

Get used to a dual-fact society. It’s not going away anytime soon. The election of Trump legitimized alt-fact/alt-reality folks as coequal players in the world of political leadership. It all started back in the seventies with the Christian Evangelicals, the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Those who undermine ‘reason’ have been stocking up an army of strength ever since. The Evangelicals have raised a generation through home schooling, Bible memorizing madrasas, religious Colleges and Creation Museums. They feel entitled to dominate because their triune god says so in the first chapter of its holy book.

With a full string of radical fanatics competing in the last Republican Primary it took the perfect storm of anti-science Christians, and alt-right bigots to put Trump over the top and into the Oval Office. The New American Order has removed civility and replaced it with what Hillary called deplorable, an adjective the right wore with pride.  On the left are the well educated, civil, open-minded, fair, but apparently arrogant and condescending, multi-racial, multi-gendered varieties of humanity. On the right are some stranger bedfellows: Christian Evangelical, alt-thinking, frightened, poor, uninsured whites, oddly coexisting subserviently with the wealthy 1% overlords. The right is a coalition of polar opposites.

We’ve created a new kind of class warfare: the reasoning class vs. the alt-thinking class. Most free thinkers understand a reasoning mind-set, while the Alt-Thinking crowd takes some exploration to suss out. We really need to understand them better. We should be the adults in this situation and make the effort to find a resolution. We can’t just say, ‘we’re here to help you poor deluded people’ because, you see, they tend to stick up for their version of the facts. They would say the same thing right back to us, so it’s a pointless approach.

We must find a way to accept the adherence to irrationality, and prejudice, then give it the respect it deserves. This shouldn’t be too hard since we do it every day: the Mormons get a planet when they die, Muslims get a slew of virgin wives when martyred, and Christians, well, they’re monotheists with three gods in one, somehow unlike Hindus with multiple gods. There’s Rastafari with their un-cut hair and use of ganja whom I enjoy. I mean the Rasta not the ganja of course, although once in a while… but you get the point. If we can muster the fortitude to deal with this sometimes fanatic array of ‘mystery’ then we should be able to cope with the alt-right’s alt-reality.

Perhaps a ‘bubble’ metaphor is needed: if we think of followers of these mystery-based belief systems and bigoted entities as living in a bubble we can visualize the situation better. In a group, say at church, they are encompassed by a big bubble. When apart from the group they wear a smaller version of the bubble around their head. The bubbles of each group are decorated with the appropriate imagery; for example Christians use the symbol of an ancient torture device that one-third of their god(s) didn’t really die on – the cross. Bigots use a differently shaped cross – the swastika. Now, there are some people who don’t wear bubbles at all – those without mystery-based ideologies or prejudice.

Non-Theists and rational free thinkers breath the air without the filter of a bubble. They are free from the distortions of the interfacing film of a bubble. Their air is fresh and every scent and sound and sight is clear and direct. Nothing intercedes with their perception. That individual is not bound to a dogma nor restricted to another’s code.

So, a typical gathering of people includes a variety of bubble-wearing people and a variety of non-bubbled folks too. We all seem to get along fairly well in the collaborative environment. Work situations like corporations or the service industry have the bubble people suppress enough of the distinctive elements of the bubble to prevent it from interfering with the task at hand. It needn’t be removed completely to work together. This is where the problem occurs in our current political crisis.

With Trump in charge the more marginal of the bubble people feel emboldened. They wear their distinctive elements with pride, and no longer feel the need to take the societal steps necessary to coexist collaboratively. One journalist observed a proliferation of anti-gay language and hateful attitudes in the smallish crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Hate crimes against Jews and others are on the rise nationwide.

I personally believe that truth is not an absolute thing.  There is, however, a zeitgeist of shared understanding amongst the collaborative members of society. It is the closest thing we have to comprehend “truth,” the working principles and facts of life and knowledge, if you will. This “truth” is a living abstraction that changes as life and knowledge expand and grow. Free Thinkers are comfortable in this abstraction as are those bubble-wearing people who work collaboratively.

The alt-right/alt-fact/alt-reality crowd has been actively working in opposition to this zeitgeist. They don’t intend to collaborate or even tolerate. They are Dominionist entitled to dominate because it says so in the first chapter of Genesis. Trump has been merely a convenient stooge who could gather a sudsy collection of off-beat bubble groups large enough to win power. Christians sold their soul to this devil in a faustian bargain, because they wanted power obsessively.

Evangelicals have had a long row to hoe to get here. I remember in the early eighties when they were giving their pious spokesmen elementary advice such as, ‘don’t wear white socks with black or brown dress shoes, it makes you look like a hick.’ They are still hicks in dress socks now, but their persistence paid off. Once that buffoon devil, Trump, is gone, Pence, who wears the bubble of Dominion Theology, will ascend and he will act accordingly.

Is there a way for truth and alt-truth to coexist? Dominion doesn’t mean collaborate, it means dominate. It is the ultimate example of the description: authoritarian. If they succeed we will see a restructuring of society in accordance with their interpretation of Biblical law, Christian sharia. They are as serious as a jihadist suicide bomber while we are still blinking our eyes, astonished, and going – WTF?

So, since we are trying to be the adult in the room while the opposition is fanatic about winning isn’t it our obligation to match or exceed their fanaticism? The other choice seems to be submit, since compromise and collaboration are not part of their vocabulary. It’s time for aggressive action from our offense. Do we have one?

Ceremonial Deism and Alternate Facts

God, so prominently mentioned on our currency and in the Pledge of Allegiance, is an ambiguous term. It is so devoid of spiritual significance in either context as to be absolutely meaningless. But that doesn’t stop the atheist community from being upset by its omnipresence in society, nor does it keep the evangelical community from going ballistic when people try to take it away. Maybe we should relax about this. Maybe the degradation of this particular word is a good thing – let them make God bland.

A word looses its original meaning when it becomes overly commonplace, mundane and familiar; in this case the god we purport to trust on our pennies and quarters is just a slogan – “God” becomes routine, not special, just a word. It looses significance because of rote repetition. Ceremonial Deism is the legal word-of-art that excuses this phenomenon. The legal system invokes this theory to justify the use of a generic god in secular public life, thereby, bypassing the constitutional establishment of government religion. The courts created what Trump’s folks call an alternate fact version of God. When god is mentioned in public it doesn’t mean the God of any particular religion. It is ceremonial. It refers to whatever supernatural entity an individual subscribes to, and that is up to the individual, no one else. The alternate god no longer means anything specific so why ban it?

‘In God We Trust’ is a powerful sentiment for those who already have a clear idea of a god, but those with a secular perspective find it pointless. That’s the beauty and the intent of this shared delusion – everyone takes from it what he or she already believes. Franklin Graham believes the government publicly supports his version of a god, so he defiantly mentioned Jesus in the closing of his prayer at Trump’s inauguration. This had the effect of making Jesus generic!! Jesus was formally neutered of Christian significance by Graham’s act and made ‘ceremonial’ if the logic of the courts holds true. I am sure Franklin had the opposite intention, but that is the trap of alternate facts, if we put it on our money and in our pledge and justify its use through the removal of its meaning, then we are left with a shell. Christians can believe in this alternate shell of their faith and the followers of Zeus (if any exist) can believe the same thing. Everybody comes away happy. Well, maybe not the Hindus who might prefer the plural: In Gods We Trust.

Still the shared delusion is maintained. Humanity’s natural tendency to seek comfort in groups of like-minded people while avoiding the use of reason, is the order of the day. Nobody’s gonna look foolish due to a supernatural “belief” if everybody else is affirming their own irrational belief. The only people who don’t fit into this scheme are the people who don’t have an irrational belief, those who prefer rational exploration. But, their numbers are small and they think too much, so don’t worry about that complaint. At least, that is what the courts, the legislature and our president want. So lets give it to them!

generic

Let them create their semantic utopia. Let posters adorn each classroom with the milk-toast pabulum of trust in god. Let them force this word into the daily life of all of us so that we give it no more notice than a crack in the sidewalk. The more commonplace the aphorism the less significant is its message. Bumper sticker moralizing turns God into a greeting card message – all sentiment, no substance, and totally impersonal.

Look how willingly evangelicals abandoned their principals to get Trump elected. He hooked them into believing he shared the minimum, a ceremonial deist’s faith. “See, he’s just like a penny: in God he trusts.” (Although, he may not even capitalize the ‘g’in god, we don’t really know.) “He’s one of us. Let’s place our faith in him.”

Perhaps we could surreptitiously sponsor a new ‘religious’ cover for secular humanism – Ceremonial Deism. Its sole purpose would be to homogenize theology into a pasty-sweet, mind-numbing form of the narcotic: soma as Aldous Huxley presents in Brave New World. Appease the masses with the comfort of a shared illusion. Alternate facts taken to a theo- logical conclusion. ‘God’ officially becomes significance-neutral when anyone can interpret it as they see fit.

Trump v. Serendipity

Let’s remove the crudeness of reality by taking the topic of: art as a spark plug for finding moral solutions, and give it some application in the real world, Trump’s world. I have been preaching the benefits of art as a catalyst toward finding solutions to moral dilemmas. The actual process may seem a little non-specific (or downright goofy) since we are relying upon serendipity to send us in the right direction.

Trump’s behaviors and policies are immoral. People are being harmed. The language is being abused with alternate facts, of all things. Trust is a fading concept. Trump’s malevolence is, obviously, much more serious than what an individual painting or song might teach us. Art itself doesn’t solve anything; its success rate on that score is about the same as prayer. Communing with thought-provoking ideas is what directs you to a solution. Engaging with art is a conversation with universal ideas. Art is not limited to your own experiences as prayer is, it encompasses the whole world of ideas.

You could seek out specific artworks to solve a specific problem I suppose. Go see Death of A Salesman if you are having troubles relating to your father’s bad choices. Read From The Mississippi Delta if you are a smart young black woman struggling to become educated in an environment of prejudice and poverty. Go see Angels in America to reflect upon your own behaviors back in the late 1980’s.  Go see the new King Kong movie if you are in the mood. It does not matter much whether the story shares an identical problem with yours or not. Although, look at all the people flocking to re-read George Orwell’s 1984 because of Donald Trump.1984

Re-reading 1984 or Animal Farm could be a wise thing to do for any number of reasons. It is part of our shared history. It provides parallels to the current situation. It is fiction, yet speaks of real-world truths. It helps us remember the emotions of people in our circumstance which provides tremendous value. One of the edifying benefits of art is emotional intelligence. If all we needed was information – Wikipedia would provide that with more efficiency. True facts require interpretation; alternate facts already are propaganda. Orwell’s novels provide an interpretation we seek to understand.

Another profitable choice is going to an art museum or gallery (or skim through an art history book). Walk around, view the pictures on walls and sculptures on plinths. Allow the environment to provide a space of inspirational possibilities. Creativity is contagious, it makes the thoughts in our minds race to a solution. The ‘use’ of another artist’s visual products to design scenery for theatre is similar to a sound designer’s use of music. The creative products of others are re-purposed to assist in storytelling. A certain era can be quickly re-established with music and amplified with fashion and architecture. The evocation of emotions can be accomplished in the same way. So can a solution to a moral dilemma.

st matthewArt is a path to the Dreamworld. The Dreamworld is a resident of our hearts and minds. A glance at Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Mathew” is like a mirror reflecting our own conscience. We don’t even need to be Christian to gain the benefit. Inside that glance may be the solution we have been searching for. Art reveals clarity. Why that painting? Why that moment in time? Why that song in our earbuds? Does the subject of this painting, a deity picking an apostle, have any bearing on our personal revelation? Possibly not, the subject of the painting is not necessarily relevant to the creative spark – the atmosphere of proximity to art. Art is, once again, the catalyst to inspiration. Solutions are revealed to your mind when opportunity is ripe. Art makes opportunity ripe.

So, our moral dilemma involves discovering a way to deal with the moral disaster that is Trump and his republican cohorts. Normally, this would be just a political issue but he is damaging the lives of too many people in our country and elsewhere to pretend there is no moral problem. His unstable behavior along side the nuclear buttons makes this a moral problem. Do we, as regular citizens, have an obligation to do something? Of course we do – the obligation of citizenship.

So, how will serendipity best Trump? Well, it’s not like we are going to sit around waiting for chance to throw a better fate at us. Nor are we all going to march out to the local Museum of Art with a mass expectation of grand revelationsdreamworld. Art doesn’t work like a church where the sanctuary fills with people seeking comfort from life’s hard knocks. Church is a place to commune with the Dreamworld filtered through an intercessional deity. The Dreamworld exists inside you so art helps you see yourself directly. It is the catalyst, the prime mover of change, but not change itself. You change because art, the path to yourself, reveals your Dreamworld. Religion gives you a super-natural artifice, a fantasy of gods and angels, a detour along the path to your internal Dreamworld that steals focus and delays finding the solution within. It strains your integrity through a sieve of dogma. It takes credit for what is already yours.

Through art, our mind is amassing a series of value decisions. Most are insubstantial on their own, but the cumulative results of all of them within the context of the main question are gradually putting pieces of the puzzle together. One choice becomes associated with another in a thoughtful order. Connections are being made. The part of our brain that is organizing all this is a different operating system than the conscious brain. We don’t realize this process is going on until we choose to revisit the question. Our conscious brain sees all those new connections made while it was busy cooking dinner or what ever, resulting in a “realization” or “idea” or “solution”.

If you are hoping for a solution to the Trump problem you are going to have to wrestle with art for yourself. I don’t know the answer. For now, my solution is writing this blog. A blog that is being read by perhaps 150 people. I don’t seem to be a mass market type of blogger. My blog is a broom; one person with a broom might inspire other people with rakes or vacuum cleaners, shovels or backhoes to start cleaning too.