Posts Tagged ‘Heaven’

SERMON: “The Source of Morality” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

I think it’s safe to say that most people — when they ponder the issue of right and wrong — think of morality as having a basis in revealed knowledge.  (Think of the “Ten Commandments” and the way that conservatives repeatedly point to them as the “Judeo-Christian foundation” of all that is good and lawful about the United States of America).

But there are a few of us (in addition to the scientists and evolutionary psychologists who study such things) that hold the view that human morality and ethics are not rooted in revelations divine, but are naturally-evolved expressions of the never-ending search for a balance between our deeply social — and incurably selfish — natures.  The rules we live by are basically the socially-active tools we employ to get as much as we can for ourselves (and our clan) without arousing countering forces from other individuals and groups.  In short, this is what cooperation is all about.  And from cooperation flows the altruism that marks the “above and beyond” behaviors that qualify as “generous” on the scorecards of human behavior.

Those who see morality as “revealed” strongly believe that anything short of a heavenly, eternal, and immutable source for right and wrong would simply prove unequal to the task of maintaining social order.  And so they believe that were the external, revealed (read: Heavenly) authority for our social rules to prove non-existent, morality would instantly lose all meaning (and, therefore, all of it’s power to regulate human behavior).  Little wonder, then, that they hold so fast to the belief that God is behind everything.

But instead of  being the actual state of morality’s affairs, this is much more a case where the belief in a divine moral source itself can, in some ways, create the reality it claims already exists.  In short, the belief precedes the reality that is held up as proof for the belief itself.  For, according to many writers, the codes of religion developed as a way to (among other aims) make people behave better when no-one was physically watching them (as populations grew, and spread beyond direct supervisory control).  I think this makes sense: the invisible, distant God is the perfect spy (the “inescapable tyrant” as Christopher Hitchens called it) that we can never really be sure is not watching our every move (and, even better, hearing our every secret thought).

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

Everything evolves, even ideas of right and wrong.

So it could well be that, upon a sudden mass realization that God does not exist (and, therefore, that morality is not sacralized by his imprint) a good many people might decide to run amok.  I think that this would be a short-lived phenomena, as those who behaved in a lawless manner would shortly run into serious legal and interpersonal issues of a very present, human kind (unless, of course, it became a society-wide collapse, which would be a much more serious issue, albeit one that occurs — one should note — with regularity in human societies, and that with God still firmly in his Heaven).

But on the other side of the fence (from the religiously inclined) are those who believe that we can use our reason to create a better system of ethics without God as the source.  I think this is correct, up to a point.  But sometimes those who eschew God as a source can go wrong if what they are really proposing is a belief that there exists in nature a perfect law that we can discover and align ourselves with.  As philosophers have noted, this is not much different from the religious seeking a revealed source to bulk up an authoritative claim for a particular brand of morality, only in this case the revelation is sought in nature.  Both are locked into a quest for an ultimate, unquestionable moral authority.

The fundamental problem we must contend with is that ethics and morality, which are really an evolved (and evolving) social tool for (evolved and evolving) social animals, exist in a natural world that is ever only “balanced” in an ever-shifting-mid-point-between-competing-forces sort of way.  Nothing is fixed in this world.  And that, I’m afraid, applies to morality as well.

If we are honest with ourselves, the truth of the relativity of morality is evident all around (and within) us.  Almost every sin we can conceive of exists on a sliding moral scale, even the most heinous ones (such as murder which can, in certain circumstances, be “justified”).  We cry for justice and plead for mercy with equal vigor.  (This is why we have juries to decide issues that, were they truly black and white, would require no deliberation at all).

The upshot of this reality is that with morality — as with our interactions with our natural environment — the best that we can do is to limit the inputs into the system that are pushing things out of “balance”, and hope that the adjustments we make are wise ones so that the ever-swinging pendulum swings in a more constrained, sustainable arc.

With humans this means combating the obvious abuses that increase human misery, and attempting to encourage the positive actions that provide opportunity for more and more humans to have meaningful lives.  (Now just exactly what makes a human life meaningful is going to have many different definitions to different people.  But this is part of the complexity of life that makes the idea of a sort of revealed universal morality so suspect: it won’t work equally well for all peoples everywhere).

So it seems that the best we can do is, well, the best that we can do.  Abandoning the idea of perfect law (whether given by God or revealed by nature) is a good start.  At least then we are starting off from a semi-solid common-grounding in reality.

So I don’t think humankind needs any new “holy books” or revelations.  And our future does not lie in our past.  Human morality and beliefs have been evolving for fifty-thousand years, and even the great religious world views that have imprinted themselves on our moral minds (and seem to be permanent cultural fixtures) had a beginning, a middle, and may one day have an “end”.  If they do end, they will not leave a world without ethics and morality (just as they did not come to a world without ethics and morality).  They will, like the systems of belief that preceded them, simply be replaced by the next and (one assumes) somewhat superior system.

People get pretty damn spun-up around morality.  We become indignant, outraged, ready to bring down the hammer of heaven upon those who flout our laws.  We could stand to calm down a bit.  Not so that we can coast off into lawlessness, but so that we can be more humane and effective in our legislation and enforcement of law.  And also that we may begin to appreciate just how much we humans have accomplished in creating the complex, cooperative societies that we have.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and when we accept a touch of humility in this area, we are rewarded with an earned sense of pride.  Even if it’s not God given.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

There are ideas to which we offer safe harbor that we never really think about.  One of the most persistent, to my mind, is the craving for ease.  Specifically I’m thinking about our passed-down notions of what Heaven would be like: there will be no more death, no more sadness, no more hunger, and we will all (well, the pre-qualified all, that is) have everything that we could ever need without having to work, trade or ask for it.

Taking, for a moment, a step back from this cherished chestnut, what are the most obvious implications of this idea?  The first that comes to mind is that anything less than Heaven is somehow iniquitous.  That change (particularly actual physical change) is bad.  It seems to be a common thread in religious belief that there is — underlying all physical reality — a certain unchanging (in fact unchangeable) forged-in-iron, carved-in-stone TRUTH, and that Heaven is the certain logical perfection of a deeply-flawed temporal existence.

Once again I run into something I’ve come to understand about certain religious beliefs: the major problem with the concept of Heaven is not the obvious one (that it is not true), but that is in, in a very fundamental way, a profoundly pernicious denial of reality.  The very idea that the teeming, complex, frenetic activity of life is a condition that Heaven will put right by bringing everything to an eternal stasis is — as has been pointed out by minds greater than my own — not a description of Heaven, but rather of Hell.

One of those truths of life that I resist acknowledging is that the only things that have stopped moving, growing or changing are those that are inert or dead.  (But even then, it’s hard to think of a rock that isn’t undergoing some sort of alteration, be it ever so slowly deep in the earth’s crust or more rapidly, exposed to the erosive effects of wind and weather.  And no life form dies that is not immediately given over to a process of “natural” recycling).

The reality is that our living bodies are a walking, talking, never-ending process of death and renewal as we slough off old skin cells to make way for the new, for example.  Our teeth may be wearing away faster than they can renew, true, and our brains may not be producing loads of new cells but they are, nonetheless, ever creating new pathways and connections that make the mind itself an evolving phenomenon.  Our bodies are constantly repairing damage to our DNA caused by the cosmic rays that pass through us every day, and despite our thoughts to the contrary, we continue to evolve on a species level, as does every other living thing around (and within) us.

We are physical animals in a physical world.  Despite the scorn we heap upon physical exercise, there is absolutely no denying that we require a certain amount of activity to remain mentally and physically fit.  (It could be argued that there is much about our current levels of obesity, depression and anxiety that could be dramatically reduced if we human animals would just use our bodies as more than passive receptacles for technology and industrialized foods).

(As I’ve said before, we are not so different from the bears and tigers in the local zoo pacing off their boredom: we evolved in a physically-challenging environment.  Life in the wild may not be safe or secure, but it certainly is stimulating and tends to keep any and all animals in top form).

We humans are remarkable if for no other reason than we have developed the mental power — and through it the technological skill — to bring about the kind of reality the cold, frightened, hungry animal that we were for millennia could only dream of.

But somewhere in the Middle East, some thousands of years ago, one poor, hungry and tired soul penned an idea of Heaven as having “streets paved with gold” and rivers flowing with “milk and honey”.  We parrot these ideas in countless sermons in countless churches and Bible studies, but how many of us would actually choose gold streets and sweetened milk as our idea of an ultimate reward of comfort and ease?  But this is how we are with ideas of Heaven (be they religious or otherwise): we use them as tools to endure present distress more than as actual templates of a world we might want to inhabit, and, therefore, they need not be, well, practical nor even desirable.

And yet we have created a world with incredible ease for ourselves.  Hell, we weren’t happy with just creating an electronic device that brought the world’s best entertainers into our living room, someone designed a small plastic device that meant we didn’t even have to cross the room to turn the damn thing on.  And now we have our favorite shows on DVD, which allows us to exercise mastery over time and space as we watch them until we’re sated, skip ahead, or repeat a favorite scene.  (I don’t know about you, but too much of that, and I find myself with sudden urges to replay reality when I miss a moment in time!).

And though I am low-income by American standards, I am so loaded with goods and technology compared to the rest of the globe’s population (not to mention the mass of humanity that lived and died owning practically nothing we would consider valuable) that I have little choice but to see myself as “rich” by human standards.

But all wealth and ease is relative, isn’t it?  I heard a joke on the radio today about what is the perfect income for a trader on Wall Street.  The answer?  “A dollar more than anybody else is getting!”.

We know now from studies that we humans are so adaptive that any increase in income or the acquisition of new goods and comforts will only elevate our happiness for a very short time (hours, perhaps days), and we’ll then go on pretty much as we did before.  Some of us answer this challenge with non-stop acquisition (a trait we seem to grudgingly admire in those who can pull it off)!

But leaving aside the vapid morality of such an approach, that behavior is not simply an expression of being “spoiled” or “out of touch”, but actually returns us to our inner animal that evolved, frankly, in a challenging natural environment that required our rapidly evolving large brains to survive: having evolved with the stimulating challenge of survival, we still crave the stimulation that our natural environment no longer supplies in its most raw form.  What has happened to our species over a very few hundreds of years is that our technology has jumped us forward much faster than our Ice Age bodies and minds can handle.  In a very real sense, we have lost our way by following the technology we have been able to create, and find ourselves using our technology more and more to tickle our bored brains.

Now I’m no Luddite: I think the only way forward for us is, well, forward.  Even were we able to convince ourselves of the attainability of some mythical past “Golden Age”, we couldn’t get there.  (But neither am I fooled by the new technological utopians who have become their own priestly class, accumulating vast wealth from their impoverished parishioners).

Like it or not, history is something that is always happening to us right now, and we have only the option of facing it with the knowledge and tools that we have as it happens.  There is no template, no plan, no ideal other than the ones we ourselves conceive of.  And, that being said, there is also no Heaven in our future.  There is only the Heaven (or the Hell) that we are all part of creating in the (very real) here and now.

All that we humans can do is do our best to negotiate the present in ways that make us feel good about the way we’re going about it.  In general, that means living lives that create a bit more good than bad in the world (not always an easy result to quantify) while acknowledging the actual physical, temporal animals that we are.  We all understand this.  And we all know that there are times when life’s challenges swamp our capacity to face them with good cheer or even hope.  These are the moments we pray for a Heaven of ease (or a Hell to punish those that do bad things to us and to others).

But these are wishes to get us through the rough spots, not realities we should ever really want to see come to pass.  Besides, we are such adaptive animals that a few days of Heaven would soon have us wondering if they weren’t having a bit more fun down in the more challenging Hell.

In reality, every moment spent on “Heaven” is a moment wasted here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “I’ve Got a Mansion: The Short Search for the Meaning of Life” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

“I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold”

(“I’ve Got a Mansion” Words and music by Ira Stamphill)

“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”
— Steven Weinberg, physicist

Imagine for a moment that heaven (as generally described) exists, and after you die (having made yourself worthy of such with the deity-of-your-choice) you are reunited not only with the handful of friends and relations you knew in life (and the few you worked hard to avoid while alive), but also the millions of ancestors you never knew, all living together FOREVER in Heaven.  I don’ t know how much room Heaven has, but there could be billions of people there, all of whom (one would assume) you’d have to be nice to.  No ignoring them like you do on Facebook.  That may be an apt metaphor: a giant celestial Facebook account with no privacy settings and a gazillion status updates to check every day:  “Oh, look, Jeremiah told that old joke about the Baptist Minister, Catholic Priest and Jewish Rabbi that walked in the bar AGAIN.  LOL,LOL,LOL,ROFL.”

That simplistic imagining of Heaven (as a sort of Hell for the introverted individual but a endless buffet for the extrovert) is my own silly concoction made up to suit the moment (which, in this case, involves writing a “sermon”).  But is this any different, really — either in its source or its reliability — from the handful of notions about Heaven that we all carry around in our heads?

It’s interesting that we haven’t updated our inherited ideas of what Heaven might be like.  I still hear radio preachers ginning up enthusiasm for streets of gold, heavenly mansions or for all the milk and honey you can eat.  If you think about the lives the originators of these ideas were living, a river of milk and honey really would have been Heaven.  (We still get the gold part, but we probably wonder if God would get mad if we tore up a few feet of it and sold it off for cash).  In short — is this really anyone’s idea of what Heaven would be — to them?

I once had the opportunity to stay at a luxury resort in Kauai on a beautiful beach.  The staff were all native Hawaiian (and the guests were almost universally pasty-white upper-middle-class folk from the mainland).  The food was good and plentiful, so there was no limit to the excess to be had in that department.  I walked so much in my barefoot on the sand that I wore my soles raw.  I overheard a woman exclaim to her husband “Oh, I could just live here!”.  But to me it all felt a bit forced, like a sort of theme park representing what we had all agreed we were supposed to think of as “luxury”.  The truth was I was a bit uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s partly because I’m a small-town kid, son of a school teacher.  Don’t get me wrong: it was a lovely place, and I did all I could to explore the “real” Hawaii that surrounded us, but I certainly would not want to live in a luxury hotel with the local indigenous population filling the role of every waiter, housekeeper and concierge with me as the bloated guest.

When I’m honest with myself, the things that feel “luxurious” to me are more modest by resort standards.  Give me a good barbecue joint to stuff my face, and I’m in heaven.  A decent bed, an apartment that doesn’t leak.  A place to paint, to do my work.  A good cup of coffee.

It was only a few months ago that I realized that I had all of those things.  Not waiting for me in heaven, but right here, right now.  I’d been in a rut of considering myself “poor” because that’s what my tax return told me, because that’s what my little studio apartment (in this case truly a studio and apartment in one) with the leaky roof told me.  But in November I insulated the ceiling of my little hovel, and patched the last of the leaks, and now had to adjust to a feeling of luxury in my newly snug domicile.  And it was while driving in my little truck that I realized that by any standard of human history other than my own money and fame obsessed culture, I was, indeed, rich.  I own a car, I own a bed, I have a place to live.  And beyond that, I have work that is deeply satisfying to me, and a community that embraces me as I embrace it.  I am a rich man.

Then just last week, as I lay in my comfortable bed in my snug apartment, the realization rose up in me that I was truly happy, and had been for some time.  Whatever I had imagined success or fame or fortune would look like, those ideas had not turned out to be the essential and necessary ingredients for happiness.  I had “made it” without ever having “made it” in the standard sense (in the national t.v./magazine/big award sense).  I felt an excitement rise in me that kept me awake for hours.

So what happens when your idea of what will make you happy turns out not to be the thing (or things) you thought?  Or, in my case, what happens if you find happiness before you reach the destination where you thought your happiness awaited you?  Well, if the point was to be happy, the old ideas can go in order to make room for some new and better ones.

The point of luxury or success or heaven isn’t the place itself, but what we believe being in those places will give us: happiness, contentment, satisfaction.  I believe they exist for no other reason: it’s why we thought them up in the first place, and why we think of them as much as we do.  The thought of Heaven is hope for a better day when the day we are having is not so good.  It is a projection, a flight from the moment before us.  So some hungry and thirsty desert dweller in the iron age sat in the searing sun and imagined a stream that flowed with cool milk sweetened with honey, and he committed it to song or poetry, and here we are thousands of years later wondering if our lactose-intolerance will be an issue in heaven.

I once tried out this phrase: “Each moment spent on Heaven is a moment wasted on Earth”.  By which I meant that all the energy we divert to imagined futures in imaginary places is energy that is taken away from living the reality of our existence right here.  Religion tends to be big on putting down “earthly” life — as if it is something we should be anxious to be done with.  Well of course they would, because they’re the salespeople for the condos in the clouds that religion offers the faithful.

But I resist the diminishment of the value of human consciousness.  That is why I oppose religion: it attempts to supply meaning that it has no capacity to offer.

For the plain fact is that there is only one thing in the world that gives our lives meaning, and it’s not god*:  it is only and exclusively our own experience of living and our valuation of that experience.  The meaning of life is the meaning that life has to us, as individual consciousnesses (and as shared with others around us).  There is no other standard: no other arbiter.  Meaning — in whatever sense we can possibly define that word — begins and ends with us.  (As the more we understand about the vastness of the universe the less we are able to hold any idea of specialness that might be granted by such a void).

Other species may follow us that will evolve into a level of consciousness that enables them to evaluate their own lives, and experience a similar (perhaps) sense of “meaning”.  But with them as with us, the real meaning of their lives will live and die with them.

Why resist this most fundamental fact of life?  Why waste precious moments of our own finite lifetimes dodging both the responsibility and reward of our own complete involvement in living?

And, most importantly of all, why diminish (with wishful thinking)  that which is the best thing we humans have got going: our capacity to enjoy our lives as we’re living them.

“Though aware that there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity, one way that we can find a purpose is to study the universe by the methods of science, without consoling ourselves with fairy tales about its future, or about our own.”  — Steven Weinberg, Physicist.

Contrary to what the preachers say, there is much good in this earthly life.  The truth be told, all of the good that there is to be had is to found only in the here and now.  Heaven can wait.  Life won’t.

t.n.s.r. bob

* Though to be precise, as “god” is a product of consciousness, it could be said to be an actual product of our experience of living and, therefore, worthy of inclusion in our creation of meaning.