Archive for January, 2012

SERMON: “The God Who is Always There” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

On one level it is impossible to say that God does not exist, even if He exists only as an idea.  For ideas have a certain presence in our world, and when ideas are shared by so many, their presence is multiplied.  But can such an idea be multiplied to the point that it becomes a self-standing reality, independent of its cognitive creators?  No.  I don’t think so.  No more than our personalities — no matter how large — can survive our own physical death.  That is the realm of metaphysics, not measurable reality.

So what are we to say, then, to the innumerable people who have had deep “personal experiences” of God and spirit: who have felt that sense of another presence at a time of crisis, or that familiar voice in our head (that is not often a voice so much as an impression, word or idea)?  And what artist or creator has not known “inspiration”, where an idea seems to arrive fully formed from out of nowhere?

Of course none of these nearly-universal experiences comes from “out of nowhere”.  So far all of the evidence of science tells us that they come from our physical brain.  And our physical brain is certainly a “somewhere”.

Because we have a multilayered brain, it can do more than one thing at a time.  And that is precisely, in fact, what it’s doing all of the time.  We don’t have to think about making our heart beat or telling our muscles to walk or grasp any more than we have to consciously manage our breathing or digestion.  It seems to “just happen”.  But we know these automatic impulses are not “just happening” at all, but are being “directed” (or ordered) by processes in our brain.  And yet that part of our brain that performs the 24/7 management of our body is hardly what we would call “conscious”.  It is the primitive “lizard” brain responding to the input of the senses and the nerves and the chemical signals that are the literal lifeblood of our self-contained organism.  Is this, then, God?

We could call it that.  But we have yet a higher level of consciousness that operates just below the conscious brain.  This is the source of our emotions and desires and the generator of our “fight or flight” response.  This is the part that hears something, or sees something, and sets off the chain reactions of adrenaline and awareness that gets us ready to run or do battle before our conscious mind even knows what’s going on.  Is this, then, our Guardian Angel?

Given the chance, we almost always go for the God in the sky.

I keep making these comparisons between the natural processes of our brains and our conceptions of spirit and the divine for a reason: because of our long history with religion, our mental/emotional default setting is to maximize any and all possibility of God working in the world, and minimize the possibility that everything that we experience of existence has a physical, earthly and/or biochemical basis.  In short, we have a natural confirmation bias toward spiritual causality.

But here’s the deal: we have so much going on within our brain that it is incredibly easy for us to project a part of ourselves outside of ourselves.  We do it all the time, and we do it quite naturally: we externalize an internal reality.

How can we do this?  Think about it: we are capable of not just our own conscious behavior, but of observing our own behavior, and commenting on it.  We can notice our selves, almost as if we were outside of ourselves watching the things we do.  That’s how we can say “I can’t believe I just said that!”, or some such.  But beyond that, we have several layers of mind always at work below the level of consciousness.  These are also parts of our “self”.  So is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes confuse an aspect of our self for someone (or something) else?  No.  Especially if you add in the mind’s ability to identify with one part of our personality over another (meaning we will often try to make a distinction between our “true” self and an aspect of our personality or behavior that is causing us social harm).  This, I submit, is a very likely source for our ideas of the minor demons and troubling spirits that populate our religious literature and folklore.  (The major ones perhaps inspired by the more extreme manifestations of severe mental illness).

(You’ll notice, I hope, an important thing here: I am not discounting the reality of our experiences of these phenomenon.  I am only quibbling about our attribution of their actual source.)

So why is it that our first impulse is to identify any and all of these phenomenon as God?  Habit and hope.  For whatever reason, it remains much more appealing to most of us to find in everyday phenomenon evidence of an external spiritual presence.  Makes sense, actually, for animals as social as we are to not want to be alone, ever.

(There have always been those few for whom the idea of an outside presence reading their every thought is oppressive.  These are only too willing to dispense with the God idea.  But for the rest of us it’s usually problematic in some way, and it often requires some terrible experience of tragedy or disappointment to trigger a declension from faith.)

The greatest problem for the religious is not that the God that their religion is based upon doesn’t exist, but that the “God” that does exist (as a shared idea) is not the one that they suppose is actually there.  As long as the idea of God exists, however, then God, too, will exist.  But as an idea: a receptacle for our anomalous experiences of consciousness.  And those experiences will continue as long as we do.  And as far as it concerns us humans, that’s as good as eternity.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, January 1st, 2012

New Year's "Bobosaurus". Combustible sculpture by Bob Diven

SERMON: “Reflections of a Fake Minister” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

The n.s.r. bob ponders his ministerial status...

As I look back on two years of perpetuating the benign fraud of my ministerial credentials, I’ve been struck by two things: How close “fake” is to “real” in certain domains, and; how writing about reality can alter reality.

When I call myself “a fake minister of a pretend church” (as I often do) I’m being irreverently playful with language.  But I’m also issuing a sort of disclaimer that I shouldn’t be taken TOO seriously (should you be the kind of person for whom the word “minister” is a sort of linguistic talisman: don’t assume I have any magical powers of a divine origin).  But I wasn’t too far into my work of creating these weekly “sermons” before I saw the lines between “real” ministers and my “fake” pretensions blurring.

Think about it from the larger perspective: if all religion is man-made, and there is, in reality, no divine being or intelligence behind any of our human endeavors, then even a “real” church is “fake” when it comes to any adherence to verifiable reality.  Taken from this view, my “church” is actually more real than a real one.

On the other hand, a gathering of humans under the umbrella of a church is a very real thing whether or not the things they believe are true (individuals exist in space, sit in real chairs in a real building and live real lives, etc.).  So perhaps in that way, the fiction of my “pretend” church remains safely on the “unreal” side of the line.

But this “pretend” church of ours actually exists as well.  We don’t meet in a physical building at a specific time in a specific city, but I am sitting at a real computer as I’m writing these words, and you’re sitting at yours as you read them.  In that sense we’re as real as any on-line newspaper or magazine or shared-interest organization (and we’re certainly not the first — nor only — exclusively on-line church).  So, it turns out, only if we define church as a physical building where people gather to hear a spoken (or read) sermon on a certain day can we speak of the church of bob as only “pretend”.

But then we began this thing in a real building (The Black Box Theater), sitting in real (theater) seats, on two real nights at a certain time, with me speaking (and a choir singing!), so…

The other aspect of this (now) weakening fiction is how much it feels like I am acting very much in the traditional role of a minister (minus the pretense of revealed heavenly knowledge, of course).  As an example, shortly after I began writing the weekly sermons, I had this pang of anxiety as I wondered if there was some specific thing I had said in the original “Happy Birthday Charles Darwin at the Church of Evolution with the not-so-reverend bob” show that I would fail to say in future sermons, or if my own path of learning and exploration would take me in a direction that none would care to follow.  In short, I was like any other church minister wondering if he was going to charge off in pursuit of “truth” and find himself suddenly alone, abandoned by a head-shaking, “tutt-tutt-ing” crowd (and thereby out of a paying job!).

Which brings me to the second observation about how writing about reality can alter it.

The original church of bob idea grew out of “things I was doing anyway”: reading a lot of non-fiction; a deep interest in science and its transformative effect in correcting distortions created by years of religious belief (in my case, Christian and New Age), and a natural instinct as a performer and entertainer.  The blog seemed the perfect solution to what to do with the enthusiasm and response to the original live production (I considered arranging actual monthly local meetings, but the logistical needs seemed to outpace any projected interest).  Fine and dandy.  But that decision has had an effect on the trajectory of my own personal and intellectual growth.

For the first year of the blog I was “religious” about posting a cartoon, sermon and review every week (in the second year I began to allow some Sundays to pass without a review when time constraints or an unusually challenging book made a weekly review impractical).  Still, that’s a lot of reading in a year (or two).  Looking back on it it’s as if I had enrolled in a Masters program in science and faith, writing a review and a paper every week for two years.  Naturally, my perspective was sure to evolve with all of that new input.

But on a personal level, the discipline of gathering thoughts and observations every week leads, I think, to an accelerated distillation of ideas that has made me feel both a sense of pleasure in possessing the understanding of the world that I do as well as a keen awareness of just how different that awareness is from the great mass of believing humans out there.

However, the closer I get to reality, the more I see that objective reality is not the most important thing to many of us humans.

But this has led to a greater sense of empathy than judgement.  For if I am learning about the limitations of the human brain (that make it easy for humans to believe incredible things without evidence, for example), I am also learning about my own believing brain.  As crazy as I think humans are, I am one of that tribe, and a knowledge of science and biology and evolution just serves to bring me back, again and again, to this overriding sense of us all being in this mortal boat together.

So despite the proclamations of the fundamentalist preachers, understanding reality through science has made me more, not less, compassionate.  More compassionate toward others and toward myself.  Understanding that I have a mammalian brain, built of evolved components that were formed in ancient lives as a bacteria, a fish, a quadruped and a primate, actually deepens my appreciation for what the damn thing does every moment of my short life, even as my discernment of its peculiarities becomes ever more precise.

And suddenly — as you may have noticed — I’ve slipped into the language of church: Understanding; Compassion; Discernment (and, if I could add to that list: Love).

So though I continue to consciously leave both my name and the church’s uncapitalized (as part of the aforementioned implicit disclaimer), when it comes down to it, it could be argued that this is as much a real church — and I’m as much a real minister — as any other (a statement that does as much lowering of “real” ministers as elevating my own status).

For I hold that our naturally-evolved humanism is the basis of human decency.  This “church” simply works at stripping away the brand-name labels that religion has attached to that basic humanism, using the findings of science to bolster the intellectual and moral defenses of those who (like me) are moving away from irrational belief.

I have found great comfort in the view that science offers me of my place in this vast universe (very, very small), and my place in the vast parade of biological life on Earth (I share equal right to be here for my “moment in the sun”).  And, like every other preacher, I want to share the “good news” that I’ve been given.

That I do it without God (with a capital “G”), and under the irreligious name of bob (with a lower-case “b”) is about the only difference between me and my ordained colleagues (well, that and that I haven’t been asked to do a funeral yet — though I expect that day will come).

That, then (when it comes down to it) is the only difference between the “real” and my “pretend” church: God (I leave it up to you do decide the magnitude of that particular difference).

I write every week for my own pleasure and betterment, to be sure, but like any other church, I wouldn’t keep the “church” going as the predictable weekly “service” that it is if you weren’t out there to read it.

Thank you for being there, and “bob bless” you all as we enter into the new year.

And if you would, share your own reflections about this “church” with me.

t.n.s.r. bob