The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two things about the New Atheism that annoy me

I've been trying to figure out I find so annoying about the New Atheism (a la Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, et al), and I think it boils down to two things. The first is the naive assumption promoted by New Atheism that reason is inherently superior to gnosis, that reason is inherently good and inherently improves the morality of its adherents, and that a profession of the supremacy of reason somehow trumps the irrational stirrings of the Unconscious and Subconscious minds. There is a certain assumption I'm going to label as the Psychoanalytic Assumption, not because it's only found in psychoanalysis, but because it's inherent in the psychoanalytical model of the psyche. The Psychoanalytic Assumption is that humans in their natural state are possessed with irrational neuroses, urges, presuppositions and prejudices, totally irrational and totally out of control of the individual. Consciousness, in this assumption, is a glimmer of sunlight on the surface of a very deep lake, most of which is too deep to receive much sunlight, and depths are stirred by consciousness roughly as much as the sunlight stirs the water.

The New Atheists propose that a profession of the supremacy of reason somehow obliterates the deep irrationality that drives each of us. In the past, there have been those who have made a similar profession who have devoted themselves to the study of logic and its fallacies, with a deep commitment to root out illogical presuppositions in their thoughts and behavior. The New Atheists promote no such study among themselves nor among those whom they would choose to persuade. While some of the authors I have noted above might have made such a study, their followers never claim to. Those in the past who have made such a study have never managed to persuade whole masses of people to initiate a similar study, and a bland profession of "I believe in science and the power of reason over the forces of superstition" does nothing to combat the inner irrationality at the core of each human being.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a model of the human psyche that contains a yetzer ha-ra or evil advisor, and a yetzer ha-tov or good advisor, who battle each other for your soul using your actions as their battlefield. When you compromise your ethical standards, the yetzer ha-ra scores a victory, and when you stick to your ethical standards in the face of temptation, the yetzer ha-tov scores a victory. Total victory for the yetzer ha-ra is a degenerate sinner totally lacking in self-control, dignity, or moral purpose. Total victory for the yetzer ha-tov is a saint, a tzaddik.

In the Christian tradition, one struggles with sin, and uses Christ as a lifeline to be delivered from sin. In Islam, the internal jihad is a lifelong struggle to do good and reject evil (as opposed to the blasphemous interpretation of the word jihad among militants). In Buddhism, one rejects maya and embraces dharma. It is an assumption of mine that this sort of selection process can be done without invoking deity, although in my own practice, I need to have my Deity in the model. In all such models, there is a methodology for coming to terms with the dangerous and irrational stirrings within the soul, and a method for choosing, of one's one free will (with or without Divine assistance) to embrace virtue and reject vice. There is nothing inherently theistic about this model, although those who choose a theistic version often find that adding Deity to their model assists them more than leaving Deity out.

But New Atheists, as far as I'm aware, don't even try to address the lifelong struggle to live a virtuous life. They just assume that evil comes from faith and superstition, and rejecting both, and professing the supremacy of reason is sufficient to lead a virtuous life.

The other thing about New Atheism that annoys me is the blanket assumption that ideology, and all of the toxic things that come with ideology, is only toxic if it comes with a religious core, and that, conversely, all professions of faith are among the most pernicious manifestations of ideology. It is the classic Straw Man argument, where they despise the harm that ideology can cause, but instead of combating ideology, they combat religion, and create a new ideology to do it. Their ideology is just as pernicious as the ideologies they reject. The irony is that by pushing their ideology, they increase the number and toxicity of ideologues in the world. They would do better to recognize that toxic ideology is their enemy, and attack bad ideologies rather than all professions of religion everywhere in the world. Should they insist on limiting themselves to anti-clerical activism, they would be considerably more effective if they were to attack the ideologies within religions, rather than the religions themselves and thereby tarring everyone with the same brush, regardless of how pernicious the ideology of the individual religious adherent.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Burning a Bible, a Koran, a Tanakh, or a Torah scroll.

I wrote this on September 10th, 2010, while Pastor Terry Jones was threatening to burn a Koran.

I'm fairly disgusted that some demogogue with 40 followers can hold hostage the attention, the passions, and the religious devotion of so many people all over the world. I also know that in my father's lifetime, the holy books of my religion were burned across Europe by hateful mobs who took it a step further and burned the corpses of the adherents of those holy books after snuffing out millions of their lives, and the latter activity is infinitely worse than the former.

I see four levels of atrocity here. In my religion, a single letter of scripture, written as such, is sacred. Orthodox Jews will bury a damaged holy book rather than see it suffer any further insult. Among many Jews, if we drop a prayer book, or book of scripture, we kiss it before we put it back. I find this very touching, but I understand the perspective that sees such behavior as overly sentimental. A mezuzah affixed to a door is a case, with a scroll inside, with a piece of the Torah inscribed on it. Many Jews will kiss the mezuzah on their way in or out of the door.

Among Jews and Muslims, a translation of our holy texts is not itself a holy text. To a Muslim, the Koran is written in Arabic, and in other languages, it is a translation of the Koran, and not the Koran itself. Similarly for Jews with our scriptures.  I have a friend who is a Lutheran minister, and we were comparing religious services. I told him that we sing psalms in our services, and he replied that he did the same. I didn't believe him at first, because I doubted that his parishioners spoke Hebrew. To a Jew, singing an English translation of a psalm is very different than singing a psalm.

So to inflict intentional damage on a word of scripture is bad, but I have to admit that I sometimes print out prayers I find online, and I don't have a problem recycling the paper after I'm done with it. This is a level of desecration that doesn't really bother me. In a sense, reading a holy book electronically, and then deleting the file is destroying the book, even if all you did was empty the cache on your browser.

The second level of desecration is intentionally damaging or destroying a printed holy book. This is much worse, but ultimately, the world will recover. Millions of bibles are printed (and probably thousands in Hebrew) every day, and however many printed Korans get burned by this Florida idiot, more will be printed, and the ones who are inspired by this act of desecration to commit acts of violence and desecration in return probably are less familiar with the contents of the holy book they mourn than they should. Burning a printed holy book is ugly and bad, but not irrevocable.

The third level of desecration is burining a Torah scroll, or something similar in other religions. Why is this worse? Because a Torah scroll is hand-written, on animal parchment, and the labor of months or years to produce. Every sofer (scribe) has their own artistic touches, and no two Torah scrolls are the same. I'm not familiar enough with Christianity nor Islam to know of what kinds of artifacts the adherents of those religions come into contact with that are similarly precious. It might take burning a small portion of a church or mosque to inflict similar atroctity. The third level, therefore, moves smoothly into burning or destroying a place of worship.

The fourth level of desecration is to murder a believer for being a believer. The gruesome videotaped murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl for being a Jew is more atrocious than burning a million Korans. The murder of the Sikh Balbir Singh Sodhi in Arizona four days after 9/11 because he "looked Muslim" is more atrocious than burning a million Bibles. Human beings are more precious to their Creator than copies of books, or places of worship. Jews and Muslims both say that one who saves an individual human life, it is if they have saved the whole world.

And even then, the spark of Divinity that burns in each human soul can never be extinguished, not by murder, not by hate, not by doubt, and not by despair. Two-thirds of all Jews on earth were murdered in my father's lifetime, and that flame could not be extinguished. Prayer books and Torah scrolls could be destroyed, synagogues razed, and whole towns of people murdered, but ultimately, the Nazis could not stop the existence of Jews. They couldn't even stop the existence of Jehovah's Witnesses. Centuries of crusades could not eliminate the Muslims nor the Christians. Oppression of Sikhs could not wipe them out.

The peoples of the Book need their book to be peoples of the book, but as long as one copy of their volume of Sacred Law remains, their faiths will continue. If even one person dies because of Terry Jones' desecration, the killer of that person will have committed a far worse desecration than Terry Jones will.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Goodness of the American People

I found myself in an airport a few months ago, waiting at the gate an hour before my plane started boarding. In front of me were a family: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, child and toddler. The mother, grandparents and child went to buy something at a store, leaving the father and his toddler daughter behind. After a few minutes, the toddler became agitated. She began to yell for her mother. Her father gently reminded her that her mother was coming back soon, but to no avail. The toddler worked herself into a state, shrieking and crying for her mother. She dominated the attention of everyone at the gate.

The woman sitting next to me reached over to the child, and placed her on her lap. She cradled the child's head against her breast and began to rock her back and forth. The child relaxed immediately, shut her eyes, and stopped crying. The woman continued to rock the toddler gently as her breathing slowed. In a few minutes, she was resting comfortably, when her mother returned. The toddler leaped out of the woman's lap and into her mother's arms with a triumphant "Mommy!" and all was well.

I travel all over the world, and meet people from many different places. There are very few places where someone would attempt to handle a stranger's child in front of a lot of people, and even fewer where this would be acceptable to everyone present. As much as we bicker, as factional as America seems, at the core is an essential goodness to our character that rarely makes itself as present as it did at that moment. It is that goodness that will get us through dark times, and not a withholding of that goodness.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Note About Masonic Ritual and Memory

From the Hyperlexicon:
A bunch of parrots in a jungle overhear an explorer telling a joke. The parrots pass the joke on to the next generation of parrots, who pass it on to the next... but of course, none of the parrots ever actually understand the joke. It keeps on getting passed along from parrot to parrot until another explorer comes through, hears a parrot tell it, and has a good laugh.
The original explorer would be delighted to learn that his joke had provided a laugh to a kindred spirit so many years later, but to the parrots, the laughter is just disruptive: We're trying to teach this creature the sacred sequence of sounds passed down to us by our foreparrots, and instead of repeating the sounds back to us properly, it's making strange hyena noises... perhaps it has a learning disability.
Even though we memorize ritual, it is crucial that we memorize it as explorers and not as parrots. The genius of the structure of Freemasonry is that, in a worst-case scenario, a lodge of parrots can preserve the mysteries of Freemasonry until an explorer knocks at the West Gate. Indeed, sadly, that is often how we have survived. A good parrot is considerably superior to a bad parrot in this regard. But the light of Freemasonry is for the explorers alone. Masonic transmission happens by a process that is a superset of parroting. The ritual must be memorized, and memorized accurately. But if it crackles and sparkles with Masonic light, because the ritualist understands the ritual as an explorer and not as a parrot, then true Initiation can take place. Even still, it is up to the candidate to choose to receive the light as an explorer and not as a parrot.

Before I found Freemasonry (or before it found me), I was an uchi deshi (live-in student) of an aikido master, and trained with him through black belt. My sensei was a good friend before I trained with him, and remains a good friend after I no longer train with him. He lives in Berkeley, California, and teaches at Aikido Shusekai in Berkeley. He is working on a Ph.D. in Transformative Studies at California Institute of Integral Studies.

When he was an undergraduate there, he wrote Hyperlexicon as an assignment. This is a hyperlinked essay written in HTML that covers many topics in Kabbalah (it has the best description of the concept of Qlippoth I have seen) and mysticism. It can be played as a game, or read for its intrinsic value.

A few months ago, he alerted me to a sequel he has written, called the Veiled Oasis. I have spent many hours today exploring it, and I've been very moved by what I have found there. It is advisable to explore "Hyperlexicon" thoroughly before exploring "The Veiled Oasis", but not required.

Neither of these are linear narratives, and it may take some time to find what you are looking for, but I feel they are both worth exploring.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Mature Concept of God

When we are children, we are given a description of God at about the same level of sophistication as the description given to us of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. As we get older, the contradictions in the Santa Claus story become too much for us to continue to believe in as a literal truth: no man could live at the North Pole, and in a single evening, enter through the chimney of every house of children that believed in him and deliver gifts while they sleep. We figure out that the Tooth Fairy gives our friends different sums of money that he gives us, and we notice that both the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus has our mother’s or father’s handwriting. Similarly, our childish version of God falls apart. Why did God allow our cat to run in the street and get killed? Why did our schoolmate die of leukemia? Why do bullies go unpunished? Why does my teacher take a sadistic pleasure in humiliating me in front of the whole class, and get away with it? Why do children who did nothing wrong get molested and abused, going to bed hungry night after night? Why doesn’t God protect me from these things? How can God be simultaneously omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnibenevolent in a world populated with humans who possess free will, and where evil exists?

When we lose our childish version of God, what happens? Some give up on God completely, and become atheists. If they really believed as children in the childish version of God, this loss can be very bitter. Some people never question their childish version of God, and become the crudest kind of fundamentalists. But most religious adults, just as they learn that their parents are only human, and make mistakes sometimes, learn that God is very different than our first naïve conception of God. If we are fortunate, we regain or never lose our intimacy with God, but we also realize that God can be very remote from the world of actions. God isn’t Superman; not weaker, just different. If we never evolve beyond the childish version of God, we remain stunted regardless of whether or not we remain religious.

The God of adults is incredibly difficult to describe, and the mature theology of a myriad of religions over the course of millennia struggles in this description. Too many descriptions either insult our intelligence, or are too ephemeral and abstract to hold in the mind. It is because of this that so many people left to decide on their own become either atheists or agnostics. I regard this skepticism as more healthy than an adult belief in a childish God that borders on idolatry.

I know God exists because I feel God’s unconditional love for me and I daily experience God actively sustaining my existence, showering me with providence. I know the limitations of human intelligence, consciousness, empathy and power. I experience fleeting glimpses of a higher intelligence that created the Universe and all things in existence; a higher consciousness that invites me to share in elevated peak experiences, epiphanies, insights, revelations and synchronicities; a higher empathy that feels all the sorrows and joys that humans feel and shares our emotions with us without being consumed by them, and loves us when we are deeply flawed and yearning for redemption; and a higher power that fuels quasars, and sustains a droplet dangling from a bent blade of grass and the microcosm of myriad living creatures swimming in the droplet.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, which became the State of Israel, wrote:

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.”

This is a fascinating idea. Atheism despises idolatry even more than any religion, and idolatry is absolutely unacceptable to any real monotheist. If you worship anything that isn't God, you are an idolater. Rabbi Kook would prefer an atheist to an idolater: even though he regarded atheism as a grave sin, he regarded idolatry as an even graver sin.

Two more quotes immediately spring to mind, one from a contemporary atheist, and one from a Hasidic rebbe.

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." — Stephen F. Roberts


“Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town apostate approaching. With a loving smile, he drew near him and embraced him: ‘Don’t worry,’ he told him. ‘The God whom you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.’” (From a Chabad website)

Stephen Roberts is performing the virtue of idol-smashing that the Prophet Elijah did before him. But he suffers from the arrogance particular to many contemporary intellectuals. He assumes that the believer does not understand his own process, and that Mr. Roberts understands the believer better than the believer understands himself. Talk to a college freshman who has had their first serious complicated idea penetrate their brain-pan, and they will project their previous ignorance onto everyone they meet, and assume that nobody understands their new idea (which usually isn't their creation) but themselves, and possibly their teachers and comrades who share their idea. If you happen to run into one of them in the fulmination of their fervor, it will not matter that you have read the same books that have inspired them as long as you do not entirely agree with their slant on this idea. You are ignorant and they alone have wisdom. People let down by the failure of their childhood conception of God, who reject that god as an adult, often suffer from such a close-minded zeal. People who cling to the failing childhood conception of God as it fails have a similar close-minded zeal.

Roberts assumes that we dismiss false gods because they are rivals to our false god. If all gods are imaginary, then there really is no difference between any two such imaginary gods. He foresees a day in which we contemplate why we don't worship any of the myriad of fetishes that people have bowed to before, and realize that our current worship is similar idolatry, that worship of any kind is idolatry. He believes that when we understand this, we will abandon our silly attachment to the concept of Deity and join him in enlightened atheism. He cannot conceive of a concept of Deity more mature than that of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, on the other hand, understands that we require a concept of God mature enough to withstand our intellect’s full range; a God worthy of worship and praise. Worshiping anything less than this is idolatry. Elsewhere, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak takes God to task for the suffering of the Jewish people, even putting God on trial during Yom Kippur and acting as the prosecutor. He has faith that God can withstand such a trial, and a god who cannot is not worth worshiping. A mature conception of Deity can withstand the question of theodicy (why does a loving God allow evil to exist?), the internal contradictions of Scripture, and one can find value and meaning in a faith built on such a conception. It strikes me that both the antitheist and the fundamentalist cannot imagine that such a mature conception is possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Masonic Pride Day: An Observation

I’m somewhat ambivalent about Masonic Pride Day—it smacks too much of the sort of pernicious identity politics so much in vogue these days, where every group that can muster an identity around it gets its own parade, school assembly presentation, and political lobby. But I strongly agree that we Masons in our current incarnation are letting the anti-Masons dictate the terms in which we are received by the world-at-large, and we must do something to define ourselves based on who we are, where we came from, what we have done, and what we continue to do for ourselves, for our communities, for our nations, and for human consciousness in general. This we must do, not in a political manner, not by engaging in a debate with our enemies, and certainly not with an arrogant tone of triumphalism.

I had a train journey to visit relatives this holiday season. To prepare for the train journey, I visited my Grand Lodge library (as every good Mason should do from time to time), and selected Masonry in Texas: Background, History, and Influence to 1846, by James David Carter (1955), as my reading material on the train.

This might seem like a strange choice, since I am not a Texas Mason. Someday, I would like to write a Masonic Western, and this seemed like good research material for a future book. I was expecting the book to be very narrow in its focus, and of limited interest except to someone well-versed in Texas history. I was wrong; the book was extremely entertaining, and well worth reading by any North American Mason.

Carter begins with a history of Freemasonry, and its early days in Britain, France and Spain. Then he gives the history of Freemasonry in Colonial America. What follows is a detailed examination of the role of Freemasonry in the American Revolution, showing the Masons on both sides of that struggle, and the role of Freemasonry in establishing the government of the United States. He then shows something similar taking place in Mexico, but different due to the undue influence of politics in the Mexican version of Freemasonry.

Two hundred pages into the book, he begins to write about Texas, showing the influence of Freemasonry on the original Anglo-Amerrican colonization of Texas, how the Anglo-American Texas Masons interacted with the Mexican Freemasons, and ultimately what led to Texas’ revolution against the newly-independent Mexican state. He finishes with an analysis of Masonry’s contribution to the Republic of Texas, and how Masons led the delicate process of annexation with the USA.

I am going to offer a long quote from the conclusion of the book, as evidence of an author who takes a deep pride in Freemasonry, and wants very much to give our Fraternity its due as a contributor to living history. As you read this quote, try to imagine any Masonic author of the present day using language like this:

The data accumulated in the foregoing chapters seem to justify the following statements:

Among other definitions, Freemasonry is a corporate school of liberal philosophy erected upon the ruins of craft guild masonry from which it drew its principal thesis that the individual was of supreme worth and capable of perfectibility.

As a broad philosophy, Freemasonry qualifies as a vital sociological force and its lodges provide the essential conditions for the formation of a type that can be relied upon to translate Masonic philosophy into conduct in society.

Freemasonry was the only organized philosophic institution common to all the British colonies in North America which became the United States.

The character of the people in the British North American colonies; the environment of the region; the lack of the ability of English authorities to control thought and action in the New World provided a fertile field for the development of liberal thought as taught by Masonic lodges.

Masonry drew the leading citizens of scores of colonial towns and villages into the bonds of unity and brotherhood thereby establishing the mutual trust and confidence that helped to make colonial cooperation possible in a common cause.

Masons provided the leadership for the events that brought about the conflict between England and America.

Masons led the propaganda campaign which nurtured widespread disorder into revolution.

Masons led in the overthrow of royal government in the colonies and erected revolutionary governments.

Masons led in the erection of a loose confederation of the states for united action in the war.

Masons led the army, navy, and marine corps in the battles of the American Revolution.

Foreign aid for the revolutionary efforts was secured partially through the efforts of Masons.

All of the chief leaders of the French forces and the more important foreign officers in the American Revolution were Masons.

Masonry provided a philosophic basis for the justification of the Revolution, not only in America and in France but also in Britain where Masons influenced the government to accept peace terms more favorable to the Americans than the events of the war would seem to justify.

Many of the most important leaders in the development of a federal union—the organization form of Freemasonry—were Masons.

Many of the men who influenced the writing and who wrote the Constitution of the United States were Masons well informed in Masonic philosophy, practice, and organization.

The fundamental principles laid down for the government of the Masonic fraternity in its oldest surviving documents are found to be present in the Constitution of the United States.

Many Masons fostered the formation of a public free school system supported by the state in the United States.

The policy of admitting new states to the union on a basis of complete equality with the old is a policy parallel to that practiced in the creation of new Masonic lodges.

Masons occupied many influential offices in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the United States government in the period of its greatest plasticity.

Freemasonry was one of the earliest institutions to find lodgement on the successive frontiers as the Anglo-Americans moved westward across North America.

Masons were frequently the first to establish churches, schools, newspapers, and other institutions of public service and convenience in the territories opened to settlement by soldier Masons.

No United States territorial or state government was established in the areas considered in this study without the support and participation of Masons and often they were the prime movers.

Masonry was a civilizing force in the raw, half-wild population that contributed a substantial proportion of the Anglo-American colonists of Texas before 1846, as well as a cultural force in the more highly developed areas of the United States that contributed the additional portion.

Though Masonry was introduced into Mexico and contributed to the revolution which established the liberal Constitution of 1824, it failed to secure enough support to insure the permanent overthrow of privileged oligarchy by 1835.

Anglo-American colonization of Texas was permitted and encouraged by a Mexican government in which Masons occupied influential positions.

The Anglo-American colonists of Texas were led by Masons and Texas became a liberal stronghold in the Mexican nation.

There is no credible evidence that Masons entered Texas for the purpose of dismembering Mexico.

Masons led the conservative forces in Texas that sought to maintain the Constitution of 1824 as the basis of the government of Mexico and were supported by a number of Mexican liberals whose most prominent leaders were Masons.

The reactionary Centralist Party in Mexico was led by men who had seized control of the Mexican government through the prostitution of Masonic lodges into nuclei of political parties and then destroyed the lodges to prevent a resurgence of liberalism through Masonry.

The Texas Revolution was an ideological war—a struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism—caused by the failure of the primary liberal revolution in Mexico.

There was little difference in the physical equipment of the peoples of Spanish and English descent for the development of Texas but they were dominated by diametrically opposing philosophies. Those of Spanish descent failed to make material progress in Texas in over one hundred years of possession while Anglo-Americans, with a strong Masonic heritage, made marked progress in the development of the province in fifteen years.

Of the twelve battles and skirmishes of the Texas Revolution treated in this study, ten were won by the Texans. The percentage of Masons in these winning forces ranged from 6.6 to 27.5 per cent. In the two battles lost, the Alamo and Coleto, the percentage of Masons was 3.1 and 2.5 per cent. In all of the battles, Masons constituted a higher percentage of the Texan force involved than their percentage in the population.

Masons constituted a stabilizing and directing force in the confused condition of Texas following the Revolution.

Masons consistently occupied the most important government offices under the Republic of Texas.

Masons were consistent in defending Texas from Mexican incursions and depredations by the Indians.

Masons were prominent leaders in efforts to establish a public free school system supported by the state in Texas.

Masons supported a complete separation of church and state in Texas.

Masonic lodges exercised a degree of social control which strengthened the rule of law and order in Texas.

These factors in the development of American life were not all exclusive to Masonry. Some existed in one institution and some in another. Many forces, economic, social, environmental, intellectual, hereditary, and others, have made their contribution to the sum total of American culture. It appears, however, that historians and political theorists have overlooked a major influence in American history and government. With due regard for the molding influences heretofore identified by scholars of American history, it is submitted that Freemasonry is one of the most powerful intellectual forces that contributed to the shaping of the history of the United States and Texas between 1750 and 1845.

This book is a great read, if you can get your hands on it. We should all give Freemasonry the credit it deserves in building the USA, Canada and Mexico, and elsewhere around the world where it continues to shine a light of freedom and equality, brotherhood and truth. It should be noted that by liberal, the author is using the word in its 18-19th century meaning, and not in its contemporary meaning.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Praise Versus Prayer

Originally posted October 30th, 2009. As of the date of this repost (March 2nd, 2011), I have been at my current job for a little over a year, which I started two and a half months after this originally posted.

My rabbi often points out that during the Sabbath, Jews are engaged in praise, not prayer. On the Sabbath, we are not allowed to petition or make a request for ourselves, the most common definition of prayer. Instead we praise the Deity. We sing psalms of praise, and then we have ancient passages we recite, which are commonly called prayers but are actually self-admonishments, affirmations, reminders of past events the Jewish people have endured, visualizations of future peace, and expressions of gratitude to our Creator.

When I first became religious, I really struggled with why we praise the Deity. At first glance, it appears silly to praise an all-powerful Being we can’t see, and it’s the first thing that atheists latch onto when they point out the absurdity of religious devotion. Monty Python has a scene in “The Meaning of Life” where an Anglican vicar looks up to the sky and rattles off about how meaningless and insignificant he and his congregation are, and how mighty God is:

Chaplain: Let us praise God. O Lord…

Congregation: O Lord…

Chaplain: …Ooh, You are so big…

Congregation: …ooh, You are so big…

Chaplain: …So absolutely huge.

Congregation: …So absolutely huge.

Chaplain: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

Chaplain: Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying, and…

Congregation: And barefaced flattery.

Chaplain: But You are so strong and, well, just so super.

Congregation: Fantastic.

Chaplain: Amen.

Congregation: Amen.

The idea that the Great Architect of the Universe is susceptible to flattery, and demands such flattery from us is really missing the point. Seriously. The Pythons understand that, and they are having a good laugh at this theological mistake.

We praise a person when they have done something that has pleased us. I tell my dog “Good boy! when he does a trick on command. I tell my girlfriend that she looks pretty. I tell my student that I’m proud of them when they solve a difficult math problem. In each case, I am reinforcing a behavior I like, or tending to another’s self-esteem, or doing something to bring a bit more perfection to an imperfect being.

Why, then do we praise a Perfect Being? What possible need does the Deity have of our praise? How can our praise have any benefit to the Great Architect of the Universe? For a long time, this really bugged me, and I asked a lot of different religious people about why they praise God.

I learned that many of us struggle with this, and many of us feel foolish doing this until we understand why we’re doing it. But singing “Hallelujah” (literally, “Praise God”) feels really good, deep in the body. I’m a baritone in the Consistory choir, and without revealing the music of the degrees, “Hallelujah” gets sung in some of what we sing. It feels good reverberating in the chest to sing it. There’s a reason that church choirs are ecstatic about praise. Your brain floods with endorphins, your posture improves, you enter an altered, higher state of consciousness when you sing “Hallelujah”.

There’s a section of the Jewish liturgy called Pesukei D’zimra, before the Bar’khu that starts the formal service. In it, we sing a lot of psalms, including a mash-up called Ashrei (literally, “happy”), and then Psalms 146 through 150. The 150th Psalm is a Hallelujah psalm. My rabbi introduces by saying “Psalms 1 through 149 are about trying to praise God, and they all fail to get all of it across. By 150, we use music and dance, beyond words, to do what words cannot.” In our congregation, we stand up in the middle, and really sing, and the whole room soars with song, and it’s very moving. It usually frightens visitors attending some kid’s Bar Mitzvah. But it’s very heart-felt and inspiring to me, especially when I’m feeling low. I understood why we sing this psalm well before I understood why we praise God.

The concept of God is impossible to wrap one’s mind around, and yet God is in our thoughts. We live in a world with a Creator, a Father, a Lord. None of these terms are quite right. Not all who believe in God believe in the Biblical Creation. Not all who believe in God believe that God is male. Not all who believe in God believe that God rules like a monarch over the earth. What is God? We do not all agree on every aspect we ascribe to Deity. Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence are all ascribed to Deity, and yet may be mutually contradictory. What is God? Who is listening when we pray? Whom do we address? What is the nature of that who made the oceans, the air, the sky, the planets and stars? What is God?

I don’t know. I don’t understand the nature of God perfectly. A lot of the realm of the Divine is a gray area for me, an unmapped territory about which I don’t always succeed in gaining knowledge, even when I strive for it. The higher rungs on the Tree of Life are pretty much blank to me. I don’t really get what Christians are talking about when they talk about the Holy Ghost as distinct from God the Father (please don’t be offended by this. I do not question the legitimacy of the theological construct, but I don’t really understand it, even though it is very meaningful for many Christian friends I love and respect). Much of the Bible does not make sense to me. A lot of the details are not filled in, let alone the explanations.

The final line of Psalm 150 is כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ. “Kol haNeshamah t’Hallel Yah”. I translate it as “Everything that breathes, by breathing praises God.” Those who study Jewish mysticism will notice that the phrase “Kol haNeshamah” has a deeper meaning. The neshamah is the portion of the soul imbued in us by God, that cannot be corrupted by sin. Because the neshamah is a Divine filament in the inner core of the soul, untainted by sin, the neshamah retains its Divinity. All neshamahs put together form the portion of humanity that retains its Divinity. This is the bridge from the human to the Divine. Because what remains of the human is elevating towards the Highest, it readies itself for that transition by acclimating itself to the region in which it will enter. “T’hallel Yah” is where we get “Hallelujah” from. Overwhelmed, it gushes in praise.

Praise is when the impossible attempt to describe, to understand, to fully know God is overwhelmed and sublimates into something ineffable. The last moment where there are still words are words of praise. We praise God to reach this state, and to rise above it. We praise God to give us the mindset to reunite with our Maker.

Even when we are in the dullest state of consciousness, we can take inventory of the gifts bestowed upon us by a loving God, and find gratitude within us for what we have. We can tap into that thankfulness, and allow a trickle to become a flood. Every breath is a celebration, a prayer. A heart pumps rich, nourishing blood through our veins and into our thirsty brain. We are sustained by food and drink, relieved by loving friends and family, sheltered by the ingenuity of architects and builders, clothed by dressmakers, all of whom are sustained by others, in a great web of generosity leading to the Prime Mover. We see rich colors with eyes we were born with, taste flavors with a tongue that has always been in each of our heads. We feel and smell and hear things with similar gifts. We are the recipients of gifts greater than we can comprehend, and we are given the further gift of mental exertion to gain small victories of comprehension to further appreciate these gifts. By praising God we can elevate ourselves to something higher.

Freemasonry requires belief in a Supreme Being. The immortality of the soul is one of the landmarks of Freemasonry. Masons believe that what happens in the lodge room is our crude attempt to mimic what is happening in the Celestial Lodge. Praise is the bridge between the two.

Today is my last day of work at my current contract job. At 5 PM today, I go back to being unemployed. My wine and oil are very rich, but I’m going to start worrying about corn soon. But my faith is very real, very present. I went to three masonic events this week, my last week of work. How good and pleasant it is for Brethren to dwell together in unity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Error of Antitheism

Originally posted on October 19th, 2009
September 30th was Blasphemy Day, a day chosen by a small subset of the atheist community to challenge the notion of sacredness. To quote one of the organizers, “There must be nothing sacred in a logical world, because for something to be sacred it would have to be left a mystery, and if you don’t want to know, you are not logical.”

The day was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Danish cartoons in 2005 that were seen by some as mocking the Islamic religion, and were received with rioting and great anger by many Muslims. People died in these riots. The level of anger astonished many here in the West. Since then, the UN has had discussions about making blasphemy an international crime. As an American, the idea that freedom of speech might be curtailed around the world is chilling. International blasphemy laws also infringe on religious liberties. After all, the Catholic Church regarded the King James Bible as blasphemous when it first came out, and the Church of England regarded the Douay Bible as blasphemous. And plenty of Christians today regard Today’s New International Version as blasphemous. Should these translations, used in religious services throughout the English-speaking world, be outlawed?

The organizers of Blasphemy Day do not merely want to preserve the right to form one’s own opinion on spiritual matters, however. They assert that blasphemy is a moral imperative: “Blaspheming the sacred is an obligation that every logical person must embrace.”

The author of the above quotes does not distinguish between critical analysis and blasphemy, and I find that really disturbing. There is a critical facility missing in the author’s argument that betrays the great error indicative of all hostile antitheism.

Underlying the assumptions of the vast majority of those who are hostile to spirituality is that no higher consciousness exists than everyday waking consciousness; the voice one hears in one’s head pretty much constantly when one is not asleep. In the Kabbalah, this notion is called Malkuth (מלכות), or the Kingdom, and forms the base of the Tree of Life. This is the ordinary state of consciousness we find ourselves in most of the time. The agnostic wonders if this is all there is. The atheist asserts that this is all there is, and the antitheist denies anyone else any other form of consciousness.

How do these three attitudes play out? The agnostic is open to higher forms of consciousness, but in not engaged in any practice to bring them about. The atheist is content never to elevate consciousness beyond the ordinary. The antitheist, however, wants to control the consciousnesses of others, preventing them from experiencing any consciousness other than the ordinary. That is why an enlightened society can leave atheists and agnostics in peace, but cannot allow antitheists to succeed in their objective of eliminating higher consciousness from human existence.

Freemasonry is founded on two principles that are important to this discussion: a belief in a Supreme Being, and tolerance for the religious beliefs of others. While neither are necessary prerequisites for enlightenment, both together ensure that one’s own consciousness can elevate to a higher level, and that other people can do the same in their own way, under their own free will, subject to their own consciences.

Not every mason will agree with me, but I believe that one can assume higher levels of consciousness without recognizing the existence of the Great Architect of the Universe. Not all Buddhists are theists, and yet achieve very high meditative states. There is nothing in meditation as a spiritual practice that demands belief in a Supreme Being. In mathematics, the concept of quantity begins with three numbers: 0, 1 and ∞. None, one, and all. Nothing coalesces into something, the void materializes and thus becomes distinct or material. The one creates, or replicates, and then there are two, three, four, many, uncountably many, all.

In the cosmology of the Kabbalah, there is Ain (אין), or Nothing, which becomes Ain Sof (אין סוף), or No End, No Limit, and then becomes Ain Sof Or (אין סוף אור), or the Limitless Light. The Limitless Light coalesces into Adam Kadmon, the Manifest Absolute, which forms the Tree of Life, enters the Universe in Kether, and cascades down that structure until eventually creating our everyday world in Malkuth. Nothing becomes the One, which becomes the Myriad, which becomes All. Thus one in meditation can devote one’s attention on Nothing, on the One, or on All.

One of my rabbis remarked that “God is the ultimate atheist.” What he meant is that at the level of God, there is nothing higher. On our side of consciousness, we need to merge All into One before finding Nothing, but at the level of the One, there is no other. God only has non-existence when nothing else exists either. How do we merge All into One? By elevating our consciousness one step at a time.

What elevates consciousness? Prayer, meditation, fasting, trauma, ritual, a high fever, hyperventilation, entheogenic drugs, and dancing can do this, but are not guaranteed to. One person in a higher state of consciousness can bring others with him. A ritual can provide a structure for elevation, and if the principals of the ritual elevate themselves, they can bring the others with them. That is why most religions have group prayer. In the Jewish religion, when a Minyan, or ten men pray together (for egalitarians, ten people), they can generate more spiritual energy than one man can. The liturgy has certain prayers that can only be said when a Minyan is present. Similarly, one man cannot open a masonic lodge.

In C. S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, Hell is described as a big city. A fairly bleary, dull place, everyone is unhappy, ranging from ennui to torment. None of them realize that they are in Hell. A bus route goes through the main street of the city, and buses regularly arrive and depart, taking passengers to Heaven. Anyone can get on the bus at any time, but most choose not to. Some wait for a bus, but at the last minute refuse to board, and others board very hesitantly.

Once on the bus, the passengers get more anxious and alarmed until the bus arrives at the outskirts of Heaven. Nearing Heaven, the passengers realize they are ghosts, and that Heaven is actually substantial. A single blade of grass can cause them great pain, and a single leaf is too heavy to lift. Blessed spirits from Heaven come forth to greet the ghosts, and encourage them to face the pain and ascend, but most of the ghosts refuse.

In the book, a blessed friend of the protagonist comes down to persuade him to remain. He explains that the period of time spent in the gray city was temporary, but only if he chooses to remain in Heaven. From the perspective of Heaven, Hell is miniscule and insignificant, insubstantial and irrelevant, but from the perspective of Hell, Heaven is awful and terrifying, far less comfortable than the soothing banality of Hell.

Using C. S. Lewis’ analogy, there is a bus that runs through Malkuth and takes us to higher realms, but we have to get on the bus. From the perspective of Malkuth, our earthly kingdom, other realms seem insane, irrelevant, irrational, dangerous, foolish, deluded, and wrong. But from a higher perspective, Malkuth itself fades in significance.

Using C. S. Lewis’ analogy, an agnostic either does not know about the bus, or knows about the bus and has formed no opinion about it. An atheist dismisses the bus as irrelevant to his life. An antitheist wants to destroy the bus, the road it drives on, and any traces of its existence.

As Fellows of the Craft, we are deeply devoted to science and reason. “Follow Reason” is the motto of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Reason and Doubt are allies, good allies, and we should approach the objects of our inquiry with healthy skepticism. But Denial is not Doubt, and Denial is the enemy of Reason. Those who assert that religious faith and scientific reason are mutually exclusive follow neither when they do so. We can find this assertion among the godly and the godless, but either way, the assertion is toxic.

Religion, Science and Philosophy are distinct mental disciplines, governed by faith, observation, and reason respectively, asking who, what, and why respectively. I pursue my religion by meditation and prayer, study of sacred texts, and communion with others in my faith. I pursue science by formulating hypotheses, conducting experiments, observing their outcomes, and refining my hypotheses in light of observed outcomes; conferring with others observing the same phenomena, amassing data until a cogent theory can be formulated that predicts the phenomena I observe. I pursue philosophy by asking really hard questions and using logic and reason to derive answers to these questions in a conscious manner. I need all three in my life. My mother is not a scientist. That doesn’t make her a bad person, but science has no appeal to her. My father is not religious. That doesn’t make him a bad person, but religion has no appeal to him. Not everyone is a philosopher, and that doesn’t make them bad people.

But denying another their religion, their science, or their philosophy is dangerous. If my religion demand that I murder children, as the ancient followers of Moloch did, we might have a problem. If my science involves performing vivisection on human beings, as Dr. Josef Mengele’s did, we might have a problem. If my philosophy tells me that other people are worthless animals, as the KKK does, we might have a problem. That is why Freemasonry demands tolerance and compassion of its brothers. We neither deny others their beliefs, nor allow others to deny others. Good religion abhors human sacrifice of its practitioners. Good science seeks to eliminate human suffering. Good philosophy advances the well-being of not only its adherents, but also those affected by the behavior of its adherents.

The Italian philosopher Noberto Bobbio warned us that politics obsesses about who when it should worry about how. Communists want to seize the means of production from the owning classes and deliver them to the working classes for their governance. Communists care about who is in power, but because they don’t worry about how they rule, they invite their adherents to commit atrocities. Nationalist movements are similar. What spared American Patriots from this kind of totalitarianism was a keen interest in how the British ruled America, and a firm resolution that how they would rule when they seized power would be just: under the rule of law, subject to the Bill of Rights.

Antitheists believe that faith is inherently evil, and must be eradicated from human consciousness. The only antitheists who were able to act upon this belief have been Communists, and they have an unbroken record of atrocity in pursuit of eliminating faith. The current crop of antitheists disavow Communism, but do not address how their eradication of faith will be any different from the Communist attempt. None that I have engaged with will address how they will achieve their goals.

Most religions have spread through mass violence. A nation invades another nation, and forces its faith on the conquered. In more enlightened times, religions have used reason and persuasion to spread their faith, some with substantial success. Similarly, the largest atheistic mass movements have been spread through mass violence. The People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have spread atheism more powerfully than Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and the like have done. That being said, the four authors I have mentioned have used reason and persuasion to spread their lack of faith, and have done so in an entirely peaceful way, and they are to be commended for not using violence to achieve their aims.

But the question remains: how will antitheists eliminate religion, faith, altered states of consciousness? How ethical will they be in the pursuit of their goal? Considering that reason is their rallying cry, it’s not unreasonable for us to ask. Contending that religious fanatics use violence to advance their ends does not absolve the antitheist. I oppose any, religious or atheist, who would seek to keep me from my own connection with the One. Where does Blasphemy Day lead? Are celebrants of Blasphemy Day going to mix pig’s milk into the creamers at Starbucks? Burn a Torah Scroll in my synagogue? Are they going to firebomb a church? Shave a Sikh’s head? What are the boundaries? If antitheists eliminate one tenet of human decency, how safe are the others?
Added on October 19, 2009
It has been pointed out to me that agnostics can be on a spiritual path. I agree.
Added on October 20, 2009
I think it’s crucially important to distinguish between the tolerant atheist and the intolerant antitheist. I can live peaceably with tolerant atheists.
Added on October 22, 2009
I think Fundamentalism or religious exclusivism in general contributes to this. Adherents of a particular sect are warned that if they reject even a single tenet of their sect’s practice that they are rejecting God by doing so. It’s no wonder that once a person questions some of the glaring flaws in such a sect’s theology, he is prone to reject religion in general as a result. It’s a naïve error, but no less naïve than the exclusivism that spawned it.

Agnostic literally means “without gnosis, or a direct experience of the Divine.” Positing my own dogma here, the only reason to believe in God, as far as I’m concerned, is either because of an experience of the Divine, or strong signs that such an experience is imminent. Every religion in its original inception guided the adherent, through prayer, ritual, meditation and other devotions, to such an experience. Only later did a hierarchy of rules and restrictions come up to interfere with such an experience. The atheist sees the interference but despairs of having a true religious experience, and ultimately regards religious experience as a hoax or delusion.

In my outreach to atheists, I really don’t care if they believe in God. I care that they are open to higher realms of consciousness, to a consciousness more encompassing than their ordinary waking state. If I can get a person to understand that the rambling interior monologue that is their constant companion is not the full extent of self, and if I can get them to seek what else other forms of consciousness have to offer, I have done enough. To most atheists, the obsequiousness of most religions is deeply repugnant and offensive to them. I prostrate myself before the One because while the One includes me, it is greater than me, beyond my tiny jurisdiction, encompassing all. To an atheist, that’s no different than groveling before an idol. We both despise idolatry, but to the atheist, there is nothing beyond idolatry. There is nothing beyond Malkuth.

If there are higher forms of consciousness, the logical question that follows is how high does consciousness go? What is the apex? But without an experience beyond ordinary consciousness, there’s no point in such a line of inquiry.