Posts Tagged ‘reality’

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.

Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

SERMON: “Wonder Beyond the Veil” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

If you stop to think about it, the fact that I am writing my thoughts into a sentence that you can read and understand is nothing short of amazing.  As far as we can tell, such acts of communication are not occurring anywhere else in our solar system.  And even on our small planet, teeming with life, you and I are members of the only species that reads and writes (though whales and dolphins may very well have their own book-of-the-month club that they are very adept at concealing from us).

We naturally take for granted the things that seem to come naturally to us.  We don’t have the time, frankly, to sit in wonder at every little thing that — were we to see it in its true historical or biological context — would blow our ever-lovin’ mind.  So we spend the time we must learning how to walk and talk and drive and sculpt and dance and compute and then just get on with living our life.

But one of these times while you’re walking from your car into your house, thinking about the next thing on your to-do list, consider what underlies these regular acts that seem so effortless to us.

Walking upright is a good start.  That is quite an evolutionary change for a body of muscle and bone that began as a bacteria that managed to clump together enough to become, eventually, an actual body of a lobe-finned fish that adapted to walking on land, then developed into a small mammal, then a primate and then the upright hominid that was our great great great great grandmother.

And what about the air that flows so easily into your lungs?  It’s easy to think of that air as having no mass at all, but of course it does.  The one-ton weight of the atmosphere over our heads weighs down upon us every moment, but we don’t even notice it.  Our bones and muscles have evolved under that weight (not all of which is, exactly, pressing “down” on us) so that our density and shape and mechanical arrangements are so well suited to air’s “mass” that we only sense when the breeze blows it across our face, or when we stick our hand out the window of our fast-moving car and play our hand against the force of the air compressing in front of it .

This is where creationists stop one step short of a true sense of wonder, and invert reality when they decide to praise God for making the world so perfect for us to live in.  It’s quite the other way around, I’m afraid.  The world was not made for us.  The reality of evolution is that we were “made” for the world that we evolved in, or — more precisely — that we were “made” (evolved) in the world as it already existed.  That is the power of evolution as the result of natural selection: the things that work well in a given environment have a better chance of being preserved in reproducing life forms than those that don’t.

One could argue that the original conditions that were made possible by earth’s particular composition and location in relation to the sun were “made” just for us, but that would be pushing things more than just a bit.  For there is no evidence of intention in anything that exists — other than the animals, like ourselves, that possess consciousness.  What we can say with absolute confidence is that the conditions that came to be on Earth were hospitable to the beginning — and continuation — of biological life.  And knowing — as we now do — just how rare of an occurrence such a state of affairs is in the known universe, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer luck of it all.

But the idea of such cosmic, existential “luck” really bothers a lot of people.  And so there arises in humans a deep cry for intention, and a purpose for our existence that must be rooted in some larger intelligent force.  I hear this from Christian friends who are sincerely baffled by the notion that existence can, well, exist without an intelligent, interested source.  (What they are really concerned about is how one could deal with this reality in an emotional and intellectual sense).   But this impulse toward religious belief is, I believe, an artifact of the way we have mentally and emotionally processed our physical reality over the generations, and has everything to do with our brain-based consciousness and absolutely nothing to do with the physical world.  It is a “software” issue.

Be that as it may, human belief systems are a definite social and cultural reality that is deeply embedded in our intellectual life.  And old ideas die hard.

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a "voice in the wilderness".

Speaking up for science in a culture of religious belief, once can feel like a “voice in the wilderness”.

I have often wondered at how religious belief survived the arrival of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But others have pointed out that the end of the earth-centric view of the universe should have been enough to knock the pins out from under the truth claims of the church.  Right they are.  And I’ve just been reading about the intellectual and spiritual crisis that the discovery of the Americas caused for the Europeans (in “The Great Divide”, reviewed here this week).  For here was an entirely new world (filled with people) that — because the discovery of its existence came with no hint or mention in ancient literature or biblical texts — was completely unexpected and shocking.  It took Europe and the church a few hundred years to really get used to the idea.  And so it goes.

Every new scientific discovery erodes ancient religious claims about our physical reality.  I think that is indisputable (at least in a general sense).  But, seen anthropologically, this is not surprising: almost all of our early philosophy and religious ideology was developed in a context of deep ignorance of the inner workings of biology, cosmology and geology.  Fortunately for us “westerners”, the evolution of Christianity took a course that embraced Greek thought, and led us to the idea that the “one God” was a god who had created a nature that could be understood (as He could be understood) through continuing study (Islam — and the shamanistic religions of other cultures — held that all that could be known had already been revealed in holy books, and to seek additional knowledge was to blaspheme).

In this way, the evolution of thought in the “Old World” of Europe and Asia was open to the discoveries of science, at least until those discoveries began to bring the revealed wisdom of scripture into question.  But by then the cat was out of the bag, as it were, and, despite the excommunications and heresy trials, scientific discovery has became our primary source for reliable knowledge about reality.

Be that as it may, actual non-believers (in God or in “divine purpose” generally) remain the minority, even in America.  Most people believe in God.  And most of those believers, whether they realize it or not, tacitly accept as true scientific descriptions of the world they inhabit, without realizing the profound implications of those scientific truths.  The result being that the majority of humans, to my mind, take for granted the true miracle of their existence as a thinking, feeling, personality in a discreet physical body living on a planet hospitable to such an existence.  No, to them a wonder of this magnitude (if they give it a thought) is not nearly enough.  They require (for their sense of well-being) that there be a single great god of the universe who is just like them, and who, despite all of his necessarily awesome responsibilities and powers, must reliably bend an ear to any individual’s urgent prayer request for a good parking spot at the mall.

But the rather amazing (and counter-intuitive) point of all of this should be plain by now: the believer in God, by holding fast to a religious view of existence, actually limits their capacity to experience the true awe of seeing creation for what it really is: an expanding universe of a scale we cannot truly comprehend; a tiny, blue planet of water and air and elements born in exploding stars; the continuous, persistent non-random selection from random genetic changes that, over time (and under changing environmental pressures), transforms a bacteria into a fish, a fish into a mammal, and mammals into elephants and whales and humans that, after millions of years develop language and then an alphabet and then the technology that allows this one human to write his thoughts for other humans to read and understand.

In the larger scheme of things, one has to ask, what does it matter if people believe in God or angels (or fairies in the garden, for that matter)?  It’s not like adults playing pretend or believing in magic is going to slow or speed the final, fatal blossoming of our sun, or the eventual contraction of our universe.  No — we are blessedly powerless on those scales.  But where we are powerful is in our effect on the quality of our own lives, and, potentially, the lives of others.

And so it’s none of my business if one of my fellow humans is comfortable in a world governed by a god of their choosing.  But when so many live in that kind of world, one has to speak up for that which is obscured by the veils of religious belief.  There was a time in the evolution of religion that called for a “voice in the wilderness”, a “John the Baptist”.  What’s needed now is more “John the Scientists” to stand by the doorway that science has opened for us in the wall of human ignorance, pointing the way to the unseen wonders that await beyond.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Get Wisdom” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

“Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  (Proverbs 4:7, New International Version ©1984)

It occurs to me that if all that mattered was truth (that could be verified by reliable experiment) then religious belief would have died out a long time ago.

Saying something like that reveals several assumptions, however.

The first assumption would be, naturally, that we humans were purely rational creatures.  And despite how often we try appeal to our fellow humans’ rational minds, it seems like even the most hopeful rationalists would have to recognize that this marvelously analytical part of our brain is not the major force of our evolved consciousness.  (For more on this, read “The Righteous Mind”, reviewed this blog).  Any psychologist will tell you that once the fight or flight (fearful) parts of our consciousness are triggered, calm, rational behavior is nowhere to be seen (though it could be argued that fleeing on adrenaline soaked legs is a highly rational act when the danger is life-threatening — but that’s the thing — we generally experience more fear than a given situation truly warrants).

The second assumption would be that the results of scientific experiment (duly tested and confirmed) could be quickly and evenly distributed to every human on the planet.  (Another underlying assumption would be that every human would already have in place a cultural/mental construct that was receptive to scientific evidence — meaning the evidence would be accepted as credible.  But we don’t have to look far in our own circle of friends to see that even in our individual communities there is not a truly homogenous landscape of equally educated and acculturated minds).

Yes, I love science.

Yes, I love science.

One of the realities of the society I see around me is that there exists only a percentage of people who are sufficiently curious about reality to happily “change” their mind when a new scientific experiment proves that an idea they held was now known to be incorrect.

I often get comments along the lines of “people’s minds are made up”, or “you’re preaching to the choir”, which are all ways of recognizing that the part of our minds where beliefs are formed is understandably conservative.  After all, the things we believe most deeply are also most likely to have a direct bearing on our survival in a seemingly capricious natural world.  (This is likely the basis for our sliding scale of trust — where we are most likely to believe someone who is our closest kin, and least likely to believe something a stranger tells us).

And being the profoundly social animals that we are, we are also natural believers.  As we learn more about how our brains operate, it has become clear that we believe first, then analyze and question after.  Meaning that once we take in a statement as “true” (from someone high up on our “trust hierarchy”) the odds of us taking the difficult extra steps that would lead to deleting that item from our “truth” list are pretty low.  (For more on this, see “Blink”, reviewed this blog).

And so we have millions of humans walking around with a mix of internalized beliefs, most of which have been acquired from friends and family, but some of which have come from other sources.  And sometimes that other source is science.

I consider us fortunate that newspapers, magazines and television programs regularly feature interesting science stories.  Every other week there is featured a tale of some new dinosaur discovery, or the latest theory on Neanderthal behavior, or the analysis of new images from a space probe.  This information — even if not taken in directly by the less-curious — can enter the consciousness of individuals by a process of “cultural percolation”.  (When I listen to Christian preachers on the radio, it is revealing just how many times they quote science when it appears to support whatever spiritual point they are making).

The upshot of this is that there are very few living humans who still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, or that diseases are caused by evil spirits.  However…I have to be cautious here.  Because even among those that have some passing acceptance (if not understanding) of gravity, or evolution, or genetic inheritance there often live, side by side with scientific truth, a whole raft of beliefs that are incompatible with physical reality.  Most often these are quasi- and outright religious beliefs that can range from adherence to great grand-mother’s home remedy for this or that ailment, or a mild superstition that makes them not walk under a ladder, to full-blown beliefs in alien (or angelic) visitation and, of course, the grandaddy of all human beliefs: God.

It seems to me that if we were to take on — as our solemn task — the eradication of irrational belief from the human population, it would immediately take on the shape of brutal human oppression (think of the re-education camps of Communist governments, or the Spanish Inquisition).  And this is where the difference between a humanist and a fundamentalist religious believer becomes most apparent: even though, as a humanist, I believe that most people would be better off with more truth to counter our natural (and abundant) fear, I shrink from risking real violence to a human psyche to accomplish such an aim by force.  The deeply religious (even if their religion is a particular political ideology) seem to have far fewer qualms in this area.

Though — it should be noted — that American evangelicals (as well as other conservative religionists) do feel as if they are under attack and experiencing oppression from a secular humanist army of atheistic scientists.  I think they are more than mildly overstating their case.

All of this brings me to the realization that I will not live to see irrational religious belief swept by reason into the dustbin of history.  For even though it is abundantly clear that religion is an evolved human activity (that we humans have always been the active agent in creating), and that it is, therefore, not “true” in any evidential sense, religion remains a sort of cognitive and cultural reality and, as such, must be accepted and understood for the phenomenon (and fixture) that it is.  And understanding this shifts my stance a bit from armored crusader to curious fellow human.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t hold my ground to resist aggressive, religiously-motivated cultural foolishness.  Neither does it meant that I’ll stop writing these sermons for those who are like I once was (questioning, or in transition out of, their religion).  Because each of us is part of the quiet “commission” to spread the best truth we can get our hands on, and point out ignorance when it becomes dangerous.

(After all, those who think God is on their side do not think it unseemly to label unbelievers “fools” condemned to Hell, so I hardly think it abusive for me to call them — when appropriate — “incorrect”).

My natural curiosity (an example of the type of brain I possess), combined with life events and circumstance, have conspired to bring me to a place where I am not simply interested in reality, but crave the truth of it.  And science is the single best tool we humans have come up with for determining what is “true” and what is “false”.  Science does not have all of the answers (though it does have the most reliable ones available), and some of the answers we now have will be modified (or discarded) by future discoveries (and I realize that I will die carrying bits of old or incorrect information in my head).  But what matters to me is that I care enough about reality to discard the old when the new arrives.  And for having that kind of brain, I consider myself deeply fortunate.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Limits of Prayer” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

There have been attempts at studying the efficacy of prayer.  The most famous one seemed to indicate that prayer actually made sick people feel worse.  (This seemed to be a case, though, of a sick person knowing that someone was praying for them, and — social animal that they were — feeling bad that they weren’t feeling better for the effort!  So we can’t say that it was actually the fault of the prayer itself.  The point here is that we have no evidence that prayer “works”, despite the volumes of anecdotal “proofs”).

In my Christian years I often heard the who-knows-how-far-from-first-hand reports of the dead being raised back to life, or the death sentence of a dread disease being reversed by prayer.  But despite centuries of such reports, there is still no scientific evidence to back up any of these claims.

But we still believe.  Why?  Well, we want to, we need to, and we are hard-wired to believe.

What is prayer?  To me (and for the purposes of this discussion) it is intentionally talking out loud to an external, invisible entity, generally thought of as God (though this applies equally to saints or spirit guides or what-have-you).  Prayer can take several forms: the intentional “thought” that one articulates only inside of one’s mind (hoping that the Holy Spirit will hear and pass the request up the celestial management chain); the “speaking in tongues” of the Pentacostal and Charismatic Christians; or the good-old-fashioned spoken-out-loud prayer.

Of all of these, the one form that actually “works” is the spoken-out-loud kind.

But this “prayer” works for the reasons I’ve written about before: it externalizes our intentions in such a way that they can be heard through the ears and thereby be processed by a different region of the brain.  This often produces a result: either an actual “answer” from that “part” of our consciousness, or; an idea or moment of inspiration that suggests a “solution” to whatever problem or question our prayer sought to address.

There is nothing mystical about this (though it can certainly feel magical!)  But the fact that this is a universal human phenomenon means that it has provided, I think, the basis for a raft of differing religious and spiritual beliefs about how the unseen world works.  Pretty much all of these are, I think, wrong on the facts.  (The only “unseen” world that does, in fact, appear to exist is a continuation of the physical world into a microscopic scale that we cannot observe unaided).  And yet there remains the reality of each of us humans possessing a multilayered brain that contains within it something we often experience as a second self resident within us.

This explains a lot about religious belief, and why it remains so universal among humans.  It also explains why those beliefs almost always fail to produce the results that they often promise.

If it were true that God answered even a fraction of the prayers offered to Him (to take the most prevalent idea of God) on a daily basis, then it stands to reason that we would see a lot more result in that arena.  We would actually see the occasional mountain moved, or the dead raised to life, or the cancer cured, or the best parking spaces at the mall totally taken up by cars with fish symbols glued on the bumper (I mean the Christian fish symbol, not the walking Darwin version I have on my truck).

This illustration of the “Miracle on the Hudson” circulated after this remarkable event. But where was the illustration of God’s hands letting the next airliner fall to its deadly end a week later?

The plain, cold, ugly fact is that we don’t see prayers answered in this clear, unequivocal way.  Leaving aside the dramatic,  miracle-requesting prayers (and the ever-present notable exceptions that prove the rule), even our “every day” supplications are only ever “answered” in that diffuse, heavily–interpreted manner that the equally oversold predictions of psychics or palm readers are: we look at our life through our own confirmation bias, and find a way to convince ourselves that a divine result has been made manifest.  In short, we are ever willing to cloak our disappointment in revised belief in order to sustain the most primary belief in the rightness of belief itself.

But what about the times that prayer does actually work?  By this I mean the times we ask of our mid-brain the kinds of things that it can actually do.

Well, therein lies the key: there are things that this “second self” can do that we can’t do on our own (“we” here meaning that front-line rational part of our brain).  One of these things is giving us “insight” into problems, almost as if we were bringing a second computer online to assist in processing (more accurately, we are bringing a “second mind” to work on the problem that not only has its own computing power, but a different processor, if you like).  And on this score, it is extremely helpful that this second mind is capable of communication in words and sentences (just like the other part of our brain that has the power to activate the voice box).

When I was still working within the worldview of my psychic, I tested out the power of my “higher self”, and found that it was, in fact, really good at helping me find my misplaced keys (for example).  But I also found that it could not help me find anything that someone else had moved from the place I last left it (interesting).  I also realized that it’s “power” was limited to my immediate surroundings (though I had a couple of experiences where it seemed to “draw in” the person I was thinking about — an experience that, it turns out, is not nearly so remarkable as one might think.  For it turns out that we actually live our lives in a rather narrow band of paths, places and people, to the extent that someone we might think of is actually highly likely to appear at any time!  For more on this sort of perceptual bias, see “Quirk”, “Kluge” or several of the other books on the brain reviewed on this blog).

As I think about it now, this all makes perfect sense — if the “person” I’m praying (or talking out loud) to is really another aspect of me living inside my brain.  The limitations of the phenomenon do not make sense, however, if we believe that we are really capable of communicating with spirits or a deity that is not limited to the short-range effectiveness of the supplicant’s physical senses!

The Bible has Jesus telling his disciples that they can wither a fruit tree if it pisses them off by not having any fruit (the tease!), or toss a mountain into the sea (Matthew 21:18-22).  The modern sects of Christianity that take these words at face value have built entire evangelism empires out of teaching believers how to produce such miracles in their own lives.  I’ve been to huge gatherings where just this kind of teaching took place.  Looking back on my experience, it is remarkably analogous to my later experiences of walking through casinos in Las Vegas and Reno — the “testimonies” of those for whom the technique of prayer has worked ring out like the sound of winning slot machines in a vast room.  In short (and by design) one only hears from the  winners!  (What a difference it would make if every losing machine let out a shriek of disappointment each time the little symbols did not line up!  This would give us a much more accurate picture of the reality of the casino — or the revival tent for that matter).

We humans are loaded with biases that are so persistent that they require the active involvement of the frontal lobes to see beyond them.  We will take the sight of two crossed sticks on the ground to be a message from Jesus, or an oil stain on a storage tank to be a vision of the Virgin Mary.  We naturally seek patterns in nature, a skill that has obviously served the physical survival of our primitive ancestors quite well, even though it produces a side-effect of this tendency toward irrational belief.

Natural selection doesn’t care what an organism believes about it’s own existence.  Though, in our case, it could be argued that our tendency toward belief must have given us some sort of advantage in the genetic arms race of evolution.  Still, the presence of a believing brain does not naturally imply the existence of something to believe in.  We act as if it does, and many believers are able to find confirmation of their beliefs in the natural world and, of course, in answered prayer.

But we humans are very selective in our memory, and we naturally remember the few times that prayer “worked” while failing to recall the much more numerous times when it did not.  In the same way we are always reading stories in the news (or seeing people interviewed on television) about those who survived some horror and credit their survival to their urgent prayers.  What we don’t see (and never will) are those that prayed and died anyway.  We only hear from the ones who made it through alive.

So we can go on about the airliner that made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River, say, depicting in an illustration the hands of God gently setting it down after a catastrophic loss of engine power, and yet remain silent about the commuter jet that crashed and burned with all hands only a few weeks and a few hundred miles away.  Do we really think that there was more (or better) prayer for God’s intercession on one plane than another?  (Clearly we do — it is one of the ways we rationalize to maintain our belief in prayer).

So, to sum it all up: prayer works.  But it works just the way one would expect to see a purely physical process within the multilayered human brain work.  With all of the wonder — and limitations — that such a reality would suggest.

Try it out with that knowledge in mind, and you will find out the true power of prayer.

That’s why I won’t be offended if you don’t waste any of your cognitive time praying for me.  Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved my keys from the place I left them!

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “We Ancient, Modern Humans” by the not-so-revered bob

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

I’ve been reading a rather dense treatise on the views on sex and sexuality in the “ancient” world.  I’m getting a nice introduction to Greek philosophy (a subject I’ve never studied on it’s own).  But as I read the ideas of Socrates and the like, I am reminded of the book I read on the history of the Royal Academy in England (“The Fellowship and the Story of a Scientific Revolution: The Royal Society of London” by John Gribbin” — reviewed this blog), where the likes of Sir Isaac Newton ushered in the age of science in earnest.  What I’m thinking of specifically is that before experimental science arrived on the scene, nearly every idea and philosophy about human life, love, religion and nature was rooted in a rather deep (by modern standards — cavernous) ignorance of the physical and chemical reality of life on earth.  In other words, we didn’t know crap about our biological and chemical selves.

This is not something to criticize our predecessors about.  For the same existential rule applies to us as to them: we can only know what we know when we know it.  (Future generations will likely marvel in a similar manner at the decisions we made in our time regarding medicine or climate or genetics based in our own mix of knowledge and ignorance).

But then I see our own time as being still very much rooted in the worldview and philosophy of the ancient world (which continues to provide the fuel, I think, for the continuing opposition to the encroachment of scientific knowledge into our daily lives).  As “modern” as we humans are, we are still very much our ancient selves.

To put it more simply — we are still (in part) primitive people fearful of change.

One psychologist described us humans as having made our “last great evolutionary leap” during the last ice age.  In terms of our emotions, intellect and physical attributes, we are the exact same animals that re-occupied Europe after those ice sheets retreated some 10,000 years ago (with the notable exception that our brains appear to be shrinking).  But look at what has happened in our material lives since then: cities, states, nations, vehicles, electricity and medicine, all of which have played a huge part in the explosion of our population from maybe five million souls ten thousand years ago to over six billion today.

The Greeks were as smart as any of us. But before science, we were all just sort of making things up.

We’ve only recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”.  (To give you a little time perspective, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln shared both a birth date and birth year).  So, although Darwin was not the first to come to the idea that life evolved from earlier life forms, the publication of is book is widely held to be a watershed moment in our intellectual break from the “natural philosophy” of the ancient world to the “natural sciences” of the modern world.

Looked at from that perspective, it is hardly surprising that the revolutionary ideas that science has shown to be our biological and cosmic “reality” are still working their way into the self-concept of we humans.  I have to tell you that from my perspective that I often feel that the question of religion should have been settled by the publication — and subsequent validation of — Darwin’s theory.  But then (as others have pointed out to me) the ancient religions should just as easily have been put to bed by the discovery that the earth was round or that the it orbited the sun (since both ideas flew in the face of what the received religions told us about the universe).

I heard a commentator on Christian radio today talking about the threat to God’s order that is coming from the fields of scientific research having to do with devices (now in use) that can “read” brain waves (still a far cry from reading actual “thoughts”, but useful in biometric medicine and, potentially, in other areas as well). Listening to this person, I wondered a bit at how easily even the most fundamentalist modern religious believer will accept the scientific discovery that our brains actually operate by use of electrical signals (and will use that as proof of God’s miraculous design) without ever asking the most obvious question: why do we of God’s creation function in a electrochemical way at all?

If there is a divine creator — and if we could possibly step back far enough to look at our situation with an analytical eye — we would (it seems to me) have to ask the question of why the world is ordered in such an elaborately disordered manner?  Life could be fairly described as a highly functional mess that works only because of the way life reproduces, allowing enough lifeforms to adapt to changing conditions to keep life going.  Entire species and ecosystems are dying out all the time, but because there are other life forms that are geographically near enough (and functional enough) to move into the smallest opening created by the extinction of another species, life itself continues.  Even should the most severe climate change (of the kind that floods our coastal cities) descend upon us, or the next (certain-to-appear) ice age appear (that will drive most animal populations — that’s you and me too — into an ever-narrowing band of habitable landscapes), there will be species of animals and insects and plants and microbes that will flourish in the spaces left empty by all of the those same that will inevitably die out.

This is the kind of world we live in.  This is the kind of world that has only, frankly, been able to make any sense of itself with the advent of science and the scientific method.  All of the stories that came before were simply “made up”.  Even the Greek philosophers could only sit around and guess at what made the body work.  Which makes it even more of a wonder to me that there are so many people looking to books written thousands of years ago for their answers to how the earth came to be and how humans were “formed”.

Literature from the ancient world is one thing: for, as I said, we humans are not substantially changed from the ones that wrote our first stories down in written form.  In poetry and story, we can still receive knowledge and fulfillment from ancient writers.  We just can’t learn much in the way of science from them.  And though the holy books are, in their way, incredibly useful human historical documents, they are not good natural history.

Life on earth makes sense because of scientists like Darwin and Newton and a host of others (many of whom suffered persecution from religious authorities).  The fact that we humans resist releasing our death-grip on ancient mystical memories (and creation mythologies) makes sense because we are evolved animals with brains that have spent most of their history in a magical world we had no other way of comprehending (other than through personification, anthropomorphization, and make-believe stories).   When it comes to living in a age of science, we are happy to incorporate the products of that science into our daily lives, but we resist seeing ourselves for the complex, natural organisms that we are.  Give me a pill to kill the bug that’s making me sick, just don’t remind me that most of my DNA and half of my body weight is bacteria of the very close to the kind I’m trying to kill.

I don’t consider this view of ourselves (and my own self) as an insult to humans.  I do not see how it truly erodes the dignity of the individual.  Rather, I think it ennobles us in the proper way by giving us the true credit we deserve for having accomplished as much as we have with the equipment evolution “gave” us to work with.

I can live with that.

t.n.s.r. bob

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

SERMON: “More Confidence than Sense” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

I was much more anxious than I would have liked to have been as I drove to El Paso.  I did my best to enjoy the drive, listening to the final chapter of a book on tape.  There are days like that, where my ability to remain calm in the moment is over-challenged and succumbs to the tendency of my dog brain to project and fret.  Still, I felt better by the time I checked into my motel room with enough time to sit for a bit before I checked in at the Arts Festival Plaza to start my street painting for the 2011 “Chalk the Block” festival downtown.

Those of us chosen as Arts Festival Plaza artists were to begin our paintings at 6pm on Friday night and work until 10pm (we were to pick up again on Saturday at 7am, and complete our paintings for judging by 2pm).  I was excited and confident as I checked in, got my materials and refused the offer of a spray bottle full of water (I was too much of a street-painting purist for to employ that device that I’d recently seen in use).  I set to work, and had my 5 x 10 foot design sketched out in white chalk in a few minutes.  I began to paint in the colors with my pastels and immediately noticed something was wrong: the surface was not taking the color well at all.

I had assumed that years of painting with pastels and chalk on asphalt and cement had prepared me for anything, and had been excused from the “mandatory” festival training session the Saturday before (my excusal based largely on that experience).  But it now dawned on me that painting on brick was another animal.  That made sense: bricks are fired masonry.  In essence I was trying to make pastel stick to chunky glass.  I had a sinking feeling as I calculated that the detailed, rich painting (of a T-Rex fossil come to life) I had envisioned was instead going to be anemic and sad.  I felt a rueful sense of the excess of my confidence: I had been cocky to think I didn’t need the training session; to think that I was better than the kids around me who were now slopping thick, soupy tempera paint all over their spaces with buckets and brushes.

Damn.  They knew something I didn’t.

Well, my feelings of self-correction aside, I needed to change my plans.  I got a spray bottle and started in to teach myself a new way of painting with the stakes as high as they could be (I had come to win this competitive event, after all: the prize money was good).  It took a while, but by the time the sun was setting, I had figured out the right combination of water and pastel rubbed onto the brick that would take on the feel of a sort of slurry, which seemed to have at least some capacity to stick to the masonry.  Good.  But now I knew I would have to obliterate my drawing to cover the space with the right colored slurry for each portion of my painting.  Not so good.  I calculated that I could recover from that.  I wasn’t out of the woods yet, but I was moving that way.  I would, however, still have to wait and see how the dried slurry surface itself would take pastel, and if I would ever get back to the quality of the painting I had planned.

By the time I had coated all of my surface, and got back to the first dry parts to see how I’d actually have to adapt my painting style to them, it was dark, and the work lights were turned on.  Much to my relief, the prepared surface took pastel well: I was back in business.  But then the glaring work lights started popping breakers, and the next two hours were spent working in various combinations of semi-darkness, and finally an odd sort of slow-motion strobe effect as watchers walked in front of the few remaining people-height lamps that shot a low-angled light across my painting-in-progress.

I kept working until 10pm in awful light, all the while wondering what terrible things I could be doing to my painting that I might not be able to correct in the daylight.  I returned to my motel room and a night of fitful sleep.

Back to the plaza at 7am, things looked okay.  All of my work from the night before held up, and I could now, truly, get to work.  After a couple of hours of painting a feeling of pleasure bubbled up through the layers of my mind.  I suddenly felt happy.  I was going to be okay.  All of the detail and depth I had wanted to include in this work were mine to create, no longer restricted by those damn red bricks underneath.  I was back in the running, back in familiar territory.  I was working in confidence again.

I remembered a line I wrote for my play about the American painter John Singer Sargent: “I’ve always had more confidence than sense.  But in the end, it’s made sense to be confident”.  Was that me, today?

I finished my painting an hour ahead of the 2pm deadline.  I had indeed had time to include all of the detail that I had planned, and was pleased with how well the final painting matched my original “vision”.  I looked at the work of the other artists that surrounded me, and those in other parts of downtown that were all competing for the Best of Show award.  I knew I had the best painting, but then I didn’t.  I began to look for the reasons why it would not be the obvious choice of the judges, and my confidence was diminished (a process, perhaps, aided by my challenged “cockiness” of the night before).

Friends from my home town showed up to be there for the judging and the award, and my social sense was kicked up a notch, navigating the complex preparations for an unpredictable outcome (which in this case, now meant bracing for a public loss witnessed by friends).

The announcement of the awards was late.  We had plenty of time to sit around and wait and chat, as I laid the mental and verbal groundwork for being okay with whatever came (read: not winning).  I had enough experience to understand the Biblical warning that “…the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  (Ecclesiastes 9:11 KJV).  I knew that I was subject to “chance” as much as anyone else.

I didn't anticipate the problems of painting on brick.

So when the announcement finally came (in the teasing form of a description of the winning painting), all we had to hear was “T-Rex”.   In the nanosecond of space between those words and the sound of my friends erupting in screaming, I experienced the exhilaration of being chosen.  It rang like a crystal bell inside me: brief but pure.  That moment only had the time it took for my anxious friends to take in enough breath to start shouting.  After that my attention was diverted to them, even as I struggled to listen above the happy din for the sound of my name (to be sure I had actually won).  In the moments that followed, I wondered whether my cognitive and emotional experience was qualitatively any different than that of a nominee awaiting the opening of the envelope on Oscar night.

The rest was twenty minutes of congratulations, hugs, handshakes, a newspaper interview and then home to rest my sore muscles and raw fingertips.

Why tell this long story here?  What does it have to do with the church of bob?  The answer lies in the thing that was absent.

What I’ve described is just the kind of experience into which we humans almost always insert the idea of God or cosmic purpose.  It’s the sort of thing we pray about: asking for God (or spirit or whatever) to guide us or to grant favor.  It’s the kind of situation where ritualistic behavior is natural — a lucky charm or a certain kind of behavior that seemed to make something good happen in the past.

Upon reflection what was noticeable to me was the complete absence of any of that in the events I described above.  Apparently we can, in fact, move beyond belief.

I set out to win this competition, but not through prayer.  I was juried in based on both my past work and my submitted design for the festival.  I was confident, but was immediately challenged by an unforeseen difficulty that my experience and determination helped me overcome (though the event supplied the materials, I had brought along some of my own favored chalks that saved my butt that first night — a “lucky” choice my experience taught me to make).  I knew that I had the capacity to create a painting people would enjoy, and that I would likely enjoy doing it (a good indicator of final quality).  I knew from experience that my social skills were up to the interactions with staff and audience.  I had won a street painting festival in the past.  None of those factors made my winning inevitable.  But, in reality, it made my winning a distinct possibility.  To then add prayer to the reasons for my success would have shifted the 99% of my career-artist reality onto the 1% of the supposed external force I might have prayed to (or, conversely shifted all of the blame back to me had I lost, leaving none of it with the God that let me down).   Seen in that light, prayer would have been, well, silly.

The outcome of this street painting festival was never inevitable.  Though my skill and (thirty years of) experience did give me a certain objective advantage over a number of my competitors, it could not immunize me against another more talented competitor, or a system of judging that was hidden from my knowledge.

I may never know who the judge (or judges) were that made the final decision on the “Best of Show” award, much less what factors they took into consideration.  It may be that I won by a wide margin.  Or it could have been very, very close.  So it is in the complexity of life: we desire to know the hidden factors in order to calibrate our sense of reality, to draw conclusions about cause and effect.  But most of the time, we just don’t know everything that went on.  No wonder we seek a spiritual “edge” to push things our way, or to comfort us when they don’t, switching our biases on or off depending on the situation and whether our not they confirm or confront our beliefs.

I came, I saw, I worked and I won.  This time.  That’s all I know.

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

SERMON: “Three Threads” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

(NOTE: Las week I promised “The Burden of Narrative” for this week’s Sermon.  With apologies, I’m delaying that one a week to bring you this one.  Thanks!)

It’s been a week of near religious enlightenment (fear not — I am speaking metaphorically), where — to multiply metaphors — the furnace of reality has burned away a bit more dross, and I find myself in a place of new-found clarity.

Of the several threads that have woven themselves together of late (boy, I’m pushing the whole metaphor thing here), the first has been this:  I have wondered for some time what the possible impacts on the quality of my life would be from the release of the last vestiges of my “spiritual” thinking.  (Though no actual intervening presence was being banished from my life, I had considered that there may nevertheless be practical, material effects of “belief” that I would no longer benefit from).  To frame the question in another way: “Would prayers to a non-existent god continue to be “answered” if one stopped believing in that God?” (since clearly, in such a case, whatever was “working” was working independent of any actual “god”).  Or to put a finer point on it, would the positive phenomenon associated with belief continue unaltered by a change in belief?

Confusing?  Yeah.  It kind of twists the brain.

In my case I was long past belief in god (so I already knew that the sun would still rise and food would still taste good, etc.), but I was still sorting through the concepts and notions (or “truths about myself”)  that I had picked up over the years since my primary declension from faith (including a few ideas from a post-Christianity psychic).

After all, it did seem as if my own intentions would sometimes create events and opportunities in my life (I think of Joe, Joe shows up at the coffee shop that afternoon, for example).  So as I began an actual list (I called it my “purge” list) of the various ideas I had carried around about who I was and what made my life “work” (with the intention of making each of them re-apply for their jobs, as it were), I wondered if I would see a decrease of happenstance, serendipity and “luck” in my day-to-day life.

Of course the obvious thing to say is that there is no empirical way to tell if any of the things that seemed to “work” in my life were truly effective in the first place (my own confirmation bias remained ever willing to do the heavy lifting for any belief that seemed to work enough of the time — see last weeks Sermon for more on that notion).  So perhaps what I was facing more a loss of a perception that has, it would appear, added to my general level of happiness.  Though unwilling to continue irrational beliefs just to pump up my mood, I nevertheless didn’t want to weaken my happiness if I could help it!  But I wondered if that was going to be the decision I’d have to face.

So it was nice to run across an article on a study on “luck” done by a British psychologist.  The gist of the study was that people who considered themselves “lucky” did, indeed, have better “luck”.  But the finding is not what it at first blush seems to be.  It is more a case of how a different way of perceiving the world enables self-described “lucky” individuals to notice details and opportunities that those that consider themselves “unlucky” will miss.  The “lucky” also tend to re-frame setbacks into positives (in the sense of “it could have been worse!”).  Of course, “unlucky” people take things in the darkest possible way.  Far from a call to irrational belief in a magic called “luck” (or some version of positive thinking) for its positive impact on our life, the article on the study seemed to me much more a testimony to the actual material, potentially beneficial effect from our own subjective perception of things as we encounter an un-caring, non-responsive reality called “life”.  In short, this reminded me that there is only reality and our interaction with it.  There is no third party.  But it did answer a bit of my nagging question about the actual “power” of positive beliefs.

I immediately thought about research a psychologist I know was conducting on infants that showed three basic types of responses to novel situations, which shook out to: 1) un-exited = un-interested; 2) excited = highly engaged and; 3) over-excited = too frightened to engage.  (Personally I’ve worked a lot over the years to view what used to be sheer anxiety as excitement, and found that I actually enjoy challenge and surprise to an extent I would not have imagined true when I was younger).

In essence, I had found the last piece of the puzzle on this issue I’ve been prattling on about:  there is an effect that flows from perception, but it is not a magical, mysterious power.  It is about being engaged and attentive, as free as possible from bias.  A realistic perception of reality is not going to be pessimistic, nor, frankly, optimistic.  In my case, I’ve exercised into health my own impulse toward making the best out of what I have, and cultivated a respect for my own valuation of my experience of life.  It looked like I’d be okay, belief or no.

Another thread was my continued engagement with TEA Party types.  On Facebook, for example, I would jump in on wildly-fringe-conspiratorial-anti-government posts with evidence and argument (which was pretty much like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest).  Along with these “debates” (much too high a term for the quality of discussion happening here), I had written a series of op/eds for the local paper where I took my basic stance in support of rational thinking and reliance on evidence and applied it to the TEA Party movement specifically and politics and culture in general.  And although I’d received a great deal of supportive comments from friends and strangers, it was an adjustment seeing my name being dragged through the mud in print and on-line by the intellectually aggrieved.  At the time, I absorbed the shock of it, and kept right at it, believing that the least (and best) I could do for my country and species was to stand up for reason and evidence against this tide of ferocious ignorance.  I was not completely comfortable with it, however.

But then — a couple days ago — a man I know asked me a serious question regarding this effort of mine on the local opinion page (which included attending the big Tax Day TEA Party Rally): “Was it worth it?”, he asked.

It was a thoughtful question, and I answered it in that spirit: “In the aggregate, yes”.  I had found a certain satisfaction in standing my ground while remaining reasonable, humane, and open to genuine dialogue.

But over the next days the impact of his question spread, and I told a friend (who’s running for political office) that I was re-considering the value of engaging in “debate” with people who don’t accept even the concept of evidence (as we would understand it); of minds that are so fearfully reactionary that I was spending all of my time swatting away wild untruths (that swarmed like flies over a trash can).  In short, I was swinging at things so far removed from an actual issue or thoughtful question that it was putting me in the precarious position of batting fastballs while trying to perch on a high, thin branch.  Sure, it was satisfying to make contact with one, but there were always five more coming.  My politician friend remarked, simply: “What’s the point?”

What’s the point, indeed.

Then, finally, this morning, as I was creating a painting in pastels on the street at the Farmer’s Market, a man I recognized (but didn’t really know) came up to me and spouted out some semi-profound quote about “Truth is the bully that everyone claims to be friends with!” and then promptly walked away.  What the hell?  I figured he’d read my op/eds.

And that’s when the threads came together for me:  I’m an evangelist, yes, but I’m not a missionary.  I have neither the time nor the energy to try to educate (against his or her will) a nativist, xenophobic, young-earth creationist evangelical (for example) on, well, the vast reality that surrounds him or her and which he or she dogmatically resists.  That is the work of a missionary.  A long-suffering, martyrdom-prone missionary.

And then I thought of “the church of bob”.

My job is not to convert the willfully ignorant masses (though they may yet overthrow every advance reasonable men and women have made):  My job is here, with all of you and anyone who is thoughtful, open and reasonable.  And though it was good to find I could play the role of a small-town Christopher Hitchens or political writer, I think my more effective strengths lie elsewhere.

So even as I work to re-focus public attention on the visual art I produce that actually (most of the time) pays my bills (and recognizing the risk of taking on another “truth about myself” that may come up for review in the future) I feel as if my “calling” to this “church” has been re-affirmed and refined.  It’s almost Biblical.  Or — dare I say it — “Boblical”?

It’s so nice to talk to you.  Thank you all.

t.n.s.r. bob