Posts Tagged ‘answered prayer’

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The God Next Thor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists.  (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).

I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists.  Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.

(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).

Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have.   Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all.  By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.

But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?

Most people would laugh at the question.  But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”.  Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”.  Why?  Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”.  In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.

And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God.  They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.

But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt?  Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?

But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker.  We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years.  In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.

That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.

It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA.  And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.

This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur.  We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space).  By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.

If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.

Have you blessed Thor today?

But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape.  God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today.  We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.

And that is the other rub:  Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?

The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt.  On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth.  Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).

For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist.  It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”).  In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article).  And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk.   I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily).  And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true.  Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.

But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate.  It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.

In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?”  I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it.  What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety).  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?”  Or “What if Athena is real?”.  You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved.  Why is that?  We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity.  Why not?  Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today.  That should tell us something about belief in God.

The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism.  I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.

As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists.  It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well.  But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “May the Road Rise to Meet You” by the not so revered bob

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

I’ve figured out a bit that’s been nagging at me: the memories of the times when I’ve felt a certain quality of sureness about a specific intention.  I’ve called this feeling “desire” (to distinguish between it and “hope” or “wish” or “thought”).  So I’ve defined “desire” as an authentic expression of intention and willingness that is accompanied by a certain clarity of purpose.  It does not happen all the time.  And I came to believe that — as this “desire” was an authentic expression of my true self — it was not something that I could fabricate.  Experience showed me that the universe (or cosmos, or whatever sort of semi-magical attentive field surrounded us) could not be fooled by my dressing up an idea (of something I thought I wanted, or thought I should want) as something I really did want.  My shorthand for this was “You can’t manufacture desire”.

I’d learned over time that there were a lot of things I thought I wanted (or needed), and for all sorts of reasons: maybe people I admired wanted these things, or I thought that they were necessary to my happiness, or (very often) I was afraid to admit that I didn’t really want something for fear the great cosmic spigot of material reward would be turned off for me (or turned down a notch).

But then there were those things that I really did desire — that resonated with me and would — I could honestly say — actually be enjoyable or pleasurable to have in my life.  To know the difference (between my authentic and manufactured desires) required that I explore my true feelings with a degree of honesty that was, frankly, frightening to employ: for what had remained semi-hidden would now irrevocably be known: ignorance would no longer provide a buffer between my mind and my authentic self: I would search to know what it was I really wanted.

There’s the background.  So what had been bugging me of late (as I’ve entered more fully into a materialistic understanding of life) was the memory of the times when I had this clarity of desire, and had spoken that desire out loud and seen it fulfilled within hours, minutes or days.  At the time, this served as a validation of my belief in (first) God and then (in my “psychic” years) my “Higher Self”.  But now that I’ve come to realize that there is nothing outside of myself (only my own multileveled physical/biochemical consciousness), what could explain these events of (to use the most familiar characterization) “answered prayer”?

Of course, the first thing to realize is that for each confirmatory event, there are always an untold (and — for obvious reasons — uncounted) number of times when my clear (and strongly felt) desires were met with…nothing.  (As an example: for each time I had a quick-footed dancer at-hand when my favorite two-stepping tune played at the local honky-tonk, there were a half-dozen times when I stood idly by in frustration and watched the “perfect” moment pass).

Something I wrote in a Sermon over the last weeks echoes to me now: “I have no magical powers; I cannot alter reality.  And accepting the influence of my own confirmation bias (which tallies up the wins, and mostly ignores the losses), what do I say about the time when “prayers” were answered?”

Reality is the only answer…with qualifications.

Reality is a description of that which is, and that which transpires.  It is not a force, or an energy (just as Evolution is not a force or an energy, but a description of phenomena).

The “qualification” is this: when overcome by a strong, clear desire, my attention is thus focused on it’s fulfillment (I hate to let any energy go to waste).  I begin looking for opportunities.  If I feel like kissing somebody (for example), I look for somebody to kiss.  Obviously, were I looking for something else (say advice on buying a new refrigerator), the likelihood of getting kissed on any particular day would therefore be decreased (or I’d end up kissing a refrigerator salesperson).  But if I’m looking, well, it’s a different story.

But here’s where reality comes crashing back in (as well as few other phenomenon): my “desire” does not alter reality — it does not (in the words of my psychic) “draw in the people and situations I require” — but it does alter my own consciousness (and chemistry — though that is a bit of a “chicken and the egg” equation) so that I will expend effort to steer a potentially promising situation toward my desired ends.

This is where our social natures and (recently-discovered) “mirror neurons” come in:  I’m going to gravitate toward situations with potential, which means I already have a sense of possible openings.  And whatever other party I run across might mirror that desire — picking up on my focused energy.  Now, if that other person is sympathetic to my actions, voila — I get kissed.  My prayer was answered!  If not (or if — as often happens — my range of options is limited or peopled with un-interested, non-mirroring types) nada happens and I watch the moment pass (like when I stand and watch that favorite country song pass my willing feet by).

This may not sound like much, but it helps explain a great deal to me about the uncounted moments of hope and anguish, when I had overflows of energy to share and nowhere to channel it; the thousand small heartbreaks that are a part of real life (along with those other moments when we beheld someone standing before us, full of energy and excitement for an action we had absolutely no interest in, and watched them deflate into the sadness of their own missed opportunity).

The peak moments in life are, I think, often those when our desire is clear, our energy is high, and reality is such that it seems to be cooperating with us.  These are moments of sheer transcendence.  A musician might call it “finding the groove”, the athlete “the pocket”, an artist “the flow”.  These are the numinous moments, the sublime passages of our lives.  We all know them, we all recognize them.  None of us can manufacture nor control them (though we endlessly seek them out).

Little wonder, then, that we have often associated such intrusions of overwhelming brilliance into our lives as expressions of the divine.  (I’m convinced that such moments of exhaltation are a primary source of the very idea of “god”).

But then, it is the rarity of these moments that distills their aching brilliance.  We will work for days, weeks, months, years to create opportunities for these moments.  They are the reason humans practice endless dull hours to master skills that will place them in a position to excel.

Yet they are not divine in origin, even though they are divine in feeling.  The universe does not rise to meet us.  The master does not appear when the student is ready: a person decides they are willing to become a student, and they then often find the mirroring person to teach them.  (As an example: how many times have you known someone who is simply ready to couple.  If you are not the one to mirror them that day, in a short time they will find someone, and stories of how they were destined to meet will ensue).

This is the real sense in which we “create” our own reality: We get a clear idea, and seek out the people and situations that will mirror that idea.  The degree to which we are successful is (what we might call) “luck”.  Sometimes we have to push, cajole or overcome repeated discouragement.  Other times we breeze through seemingly open doors.  (Assisted by the fact that humans tend to respond positively to confidence…while the “universe” could care less).

I’m not criticizing any of this.  This is how we are.  This is how life is.  Understanding it only makes me feel that much more tender toward my fellow humans (and my younger self who was often seized by bursts of energy and no-where to channel it).

(But then, perhaps that is what drove me to put in the years of work to develop my talents so that I could have as many of those transcendent moments “in the flow” as humanly possible.  Like in the tale of The Fisher King, one youthful taste of the divine will drive a man — or woman — his or her entire life to re-enter the Grail Castle.).

Once again, understanding the true nature of our physical reality does not — as the religious would insist — diminish us as human beings.  The opposite is true: it enables us to even more deeply appreciate the times when things “click”, and more gently endure the many times when things don’t.

May all of your desires occur in places and times where and when they can be met by those who share them and will play along as loving human beings.  Because buddy, that’s the best.

t.n.s.r. bob