Blog Posts

#116: Religion is Trust in the Universe

The basis of religion is a deep sense of trust in the universe. It is not just hope, but a sense of confidence that things will eventually work out. Whatever bad things may happen, we are not alone, we are not merely random souls that do not matter in the larger scheme of things. If nobody else cares for us on Earth, there is a force out there that cares about us nevertheless. Call that force God, the Ancestors, or the Universe, or whatever you like. The core message – as for instance described in Luke 2:10 – remains: Μὴ φοβεῖσθε / Fear not.

I am talking here, of course, not about child-like caricatures of religion. The do-ut-des (I give so that you shall give) approach towards God reduces the idea of God to someone who will fulfill your wish, similar to Santa Claus, but for more serious matters. That kind of religion has its place, but it is not the core of the truly religious experience.

Trust in God, or trust in the universe, cannot come, however, at the price of a lack of trust in us as human beings. We may trust that everything will work out in the end, in our end, and that our ending, our telos, our destiny, and thus our life, is purposeful rather than meaningless. But we have a responsibility to contribute to that meaning, to contribute to it working out. We have to do the work ourselves. No magic being will save us – that would be a deus ex machina, not true divinity.

The assumption that we can know God’s will is preposterous, such is any attempt to try to define the divine. We are not supposed to make graven images because it is pointless: Our understanding of the universal order and of whatever we call the divine is more than limited. All we can know is that there is something that is bigger than us. Deus semper maior – God is always greater – Allahu Akbar. Whether that is the realization that we are – to quote Carl Sagan – “star stuff” or that we are children of God, does not specifically matter. We cannot prove the existence of divinity, and we can never truly see the entire universe. We can and must use science to discover our world, and we need to realize that we are just a tiny presence during a brief moment in eternity.

Such a realization can lead to a sense of meaninglessness, of insignificance, of existential angst. It can also lead to the insight that – in spite of all the obstacles that could have stood in our way – we came to be. Our individual being, our life, our existence, none of that is small. Against all odds, we are here. We can make our own meaning, and we can trust that we are unique. Our mere existence is a defeat over random chance, it is the result of a complex process of evolution that led to us. Our life can be meaningful if we recognize the impact of all our steps on our path towards our end, and if we can imbue them with meaning. For that, it needs trust – specifically, trust in ourselves. Understanding that we are unique beings, and that we are indeed all special, and that we will exist only once in all the universes that may be possible, understanding all that, may give us a sense of trust in our own ability to shape this life that has been given to us. The stronger this understanding becomes, the stronger our faith in the universe can become as well. We are here for a reason, and it is for us to discover it, and to make it meaningful. It will work out, because we have all the tools we need to make it work. Fear not.

You are wanted, you are needed, and you are loved, whether you know it or not. Trust that it is so, and nothing will seem impossible.

#115: Are We Anthropomorphizing Human Beings?

I know, this is probably a very strange question, but I have been pondering on this a while. Are we anthropomorphizing human beings?

Typically, those who really care about animals and claim that they are feeling, intelligent beings not so dissimilar from us, are being admonished not to anthropomorphize animals, not to treat them as similar to human beings.

Now, I have had the privilege of spending quite some time with different animals. Pets, of course, are easy – mine have been cats. Of course, you feel a special connection to your pet. Cats are magnificent in their elegance, somehow comical in their need to be taken care of by us – despite their grandiose and somewhat snobbish displays of their own superiority, and great teachers in patience and affection. If you haven’t seen a cat look at you with utter love and satisfaction, you haven’t lived. But I digress.

For quite some years now, I have been living in a neighborhood with white-tailed deer, grey squirrels, various birds (I have a list!), raccoons, etc. It’s a riot sometimes. This has taught me to see the world as a shared space, and my backyard is not really mine alone. After a while, you learn that deer are intelligent beings, that they quarrel with each other, that they can be affectionate, curious, skittish, etc. Once I noticed a baby deer crying for their mother, lost and afraid. It’s a heart-wrenching sound. The little one went away, and a few minutes another deer arrived that seemed like the mother. She looked at me, I gestured into the direction of the fawn, and she went there – following my gesture, it seemed. I could, of course be wrong. She could have picked up a trace, heard the call, whatever. But I cannot shake the feeling that she indeed understood. I have had several other similar encounters where I am sure that they understood me.

Is it too much to think that this could be possible?

Sometimes, a squirrel watches us eat through the window. They occasionally pick up scraps from the birdfeeder, and a baby squirrel has been raiding the feeder regularly. When they see us eat, they look at us, demandingly. They know what we are doing, and they want something too. The baby seemingly enjoys seeing us chase them off the feeder, coyly looking back at us, knowing full well that we cannot watch the feeder forever. Oh well.

The birds have a breakfast, lunch and dinner rush at the feeder. When it’s empty, they let me know, and when I have filled it, they announce it to the neighborhood. Nuthatches are fearless and curious, chickadees demanding, and Jays know they own the place.

Have I been at home too much during the pandemic? Maybe. But having spent more time with the animals out there, I cannot help but wonder why we should not recognize their faculties. We are all products of evolution, we all share vast amounts of DNA, we have all evolved to live in a much similar world (same planet, different but similar ecosystems). Why wouldn’t it be surprising to see similarities?

We assume all humans are somehow alike – but we don’t want to admit that we are animals, and that animals are somehow like us also. Many American Indian stories talk of animals as people. Indigenous peoples all over the world have been living in much closer community in nature for much longer than those of us who have been able to insulate ourselves more from nature. But we are missing out if we lose that connection.

If we are told not to anthropomorphize animals, this is probably done in order to allow us, mentally, to still be able to eat them. In understand. I am not a vegetarian. I would prefer not to eat my animal friends around me though. But even predator and prey can have a connection, and can develop an understanding of each other as equal when it comes to the dignity of life. You can still eat animals, but you should treat them with dignity and respect till the end – which is something human beings don’t seem to do any more. When a predator catches their prey, they typically kill it quickly, almost gently. No need to have someone suffer.

Now, I can go two different ways with this here. Either assume that we should not anthropomorphize humans, because they would not be able to live up to their own standards of deliberate and emotional intelligence. Or, I could assume that being human isn’t what it’s hyped up to be.

Who is massively contributing to a loss in biodiversity, and to climate change? It’s the human animal. Maybe here is a third alternative: Anthropomorphizing animals is an insult to them. They are so much smarter than us, it may seem after all…

#114: Be Quiet Sometimes

Our world has become increasingly noisy in too many ways. There appears to be the ever-present need to drown out the quiet, to avoid silence, to not ever sit still doing nothing. We are surrounded by music, traffic, conversation, and a constant flow of messages. No wonder we cannot concentrate on anything any longer.

Every animal is able to just sit or stand in nature and to take it all in. Surely, they also listen for predators or prey, and I do not want to romanticize nature unnecessarily. And yet, I have seen birds sitting on the birdfeeder, having eaten, just sitting there, looking at the world. I have been able to have quiet moments with deer, just standing there, seeing each other, sharing a moment. I have seen squirrels just resting in the trees. And certainly, cats are the masters of the moment. A cat knows how to maximize their serenity, where to sit to smell, hear, see, and feel all the things surrounding them in a specific space, quietly.

This ability to just be is what some people seek when meditating, exercising, or praying. But as a society, we seem to have been able to make even these activities increasingly noisy in order to overlay our inner sense of unrest, of unease, of war within ourselves. Whatever we see on so-called social media is just a reflection of our inability to just be at peace with ourselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to share our thoughts with others, but should we not do so after serious and – how dare I say this – loving reflection?

The ability – or inability – to just be quiet, to just take in, to listen, to just be present, to just be, may well have a connection to our ability to approach the world and others with a sense of love, of acceptance. We like to speak of tolerance, but tolerance just means to tolerate someone else, to acknowledge that we have to make peace with their presence in our world. Acceptance is something more. To truly accept somebody else means to approach them with a sense of love, of seeing them as a coequal and necessary partner in the world, to recognize the other as the same as yourself. We need to allow ourselves to be truly spiritually intimate with not just each other but the world as such, in order to truly be at peace.

Martin Buber (1923) speaks of the need to approach the world on the premise of the “I and Thou,” Erich Fromm (1956 ) speaks of the “Art of Loving,” and Theodor Adorno (1966) calls for a different style of “Education after Auschwitz.” All these texts were written under the impact of either World War I or II. Their idea are thus not trivial, and they all call out for a subject- rather than object-centered approach to our fellow (human) beings. Should we think that this message would be somehow less urgent and outdated right now, we would be very mistaken.

We are all together in this world, and even though we may disagree, even though we may have to fight over issues, we should always accept each other as fellow beings in the universe. In order to be able to feel this and truly not just to be at peace but to be able to create and maintain it, we may need to shut out all worldly noise once in a while and see – and feel – that we are all just living in the same world, in the same moment, and that we are, indeed, one.

#113: The Protagonist Trap: Why Bond Cannot be “Woke”

Now that Daniel Craig is nearing the end of his run as 007, discussions about the future of the role emerge. Director Cary Fukanaga has said that Connery’s Bond was “basically” a rapist, and he is not entirely wrong. But that exactly is the point, and it is not limited to Connery’s era. Bond sees women as entertainment, not as serious romantic interests – with the exception, of course, of Teresa Draco, his wife, whom he married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Teresa, or Tracy, poignantly has a serious name and standing of her own. All other women, from Vesper Lynd, Honey Rider, Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, even Domino Derval (who saved his life in Thunderball), are basically seen as playmates, and are named accordingly (it never needed Austin Powers to show how ridiculous these names are). And honestly, no scene is as “rapey” as when Craig’s Bond enters the Sévérine’s shower after having just freed her from being a sex slave. Compared to that cold-hearted scene, whatever happens in Goldfinger or Thunderball is almost playful – after all, many of his women feel about him just as he does about them.

This is the very point. Bond’s world is not the world of normal people. His behavior towards women is not gentle because he is not a gentle man. “The gentleman’s a killer,” as the lyrics of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – the second titlesong for Thunderball – explain so vividly. His behavior marks his character. It is a judgement upon him. Bond is always the mirror image of his antagonist – he happens to work for the British government, he happens to dress like a civilized man, but he is just playing a role. James Bond is, as Judy Dench’s M says about him in Goldeneye, a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” but he is the government’s dinosaur, a tool, a weapon, the bad guy to catch other bad guys.

If we take a figure like James Bond and try to see him as a role model, we are making a mistake. We are falling into the protagonist trap: The assumption that we should identify with the lead role, and somehow that that person should be a role model. But if you identify with Bond, if you see him as a role model, you are taking your cues from a sociopath.

This, of course, is a brilliant game in fiction: By somehow wanting to sympathize with the protagonist, we are made to enter the world of a killer, a madman, a person that is simply not moral. Whether it is James Bond, Daenerys Targaryen, Macbeth or Hannibal Lecter, we are supposed to walk into this trap of exploring the darker sides of human nature. We need that experience, we need to have this exposed to us. We are supposed to – briefly – look at the world through Bond’s eyes when he does what he does, and then look back at us ashamed when we recognize our own dark desires.

In that sense, each Bond movie is thus fantasy and an exploration of morality. Each different Bond in the various filmic versions has something else to tell us. Whether it be the cold-hearted killer (as portrayed by Sean Connery), the playboy who still has a heart to be broken (George Lazenby), the caricature of a gentleman with a sense of humor (Roger Moore), the awkward romantic (Timothy Dalton), the pretty boy soldier (Pierce Brosnan) or the broken lunatic with a Oedipus complex (Danial Craig): None of these are people who have defeated their demons, and the two who are most human (Lazenby’s and Dalton’s Bond) have been the least successful, probably for a good reason. This is the attraction of Bond: We know he is a bad guy. But in the live-and-let-die world of James Bond, it takes one sociopath working for the right side to bring down those on the wrong side of things. He is a monster, but he is our monster, and he looks good doing what he does.

#112: The Normality of Not Knowing

We are all seemingly stressed by a growing sense of uncertainty, it seems. When will the pandemic end? How will foreign policy shape up – will there be a new stable world order or utter chaos? What will climate change bring? Will we be able to keep our jobs? How can we navigate these increasingly troublesome times? Will we ever be able to retire? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Everything around us seems to be changing. We are caught in quicksand, and the future is less and less certain. We don’t seem to know anymore how this will all turn out in the end.

These fears and concerns may well ring true for many if not most of us, but they certainly are not the worst fears you could have. As I am writing, I am well aware that the likelihood that you – dear reader – just as myself may not necessarily have to worry about our next meal, or about our housing situation. Otherwise, both of us would have better things to do than to spend time on an internet blog.

It seems, in fact, that such fears as voiced earlier are indeed a sign that we have been privileged enough to ask these questions, and also, that we may have the wrong idea about reality.

If we believe that we can know the future, we are deluding ourselves. Life cannot be planned. You may get your family started, have employment, plan for retirement and for how your kids may be able to live, but then life gets in the way. This has always been true. Nobody plans on losing their jobs or changing employment. Nobody plans to get sick or chronically ill. Nobody assumes their children would get in trouble. Nobody plans to die early. Nobody plans on their houses burning down, their countries being invaded, air plane toilets falling from the sky, etc. We may be able to make plans, but their coming to pass is never guaranteed.

The true illusion within the affluent and free world since probably  around the 1970 has been that we can take charge of our lives. It has always been an illusion. We cannot know the future, we can only try to navigate through time as best we can.

There is peace in that. Not fatalism, but peace. Surely, the world can be a scary place; certainly right now. But we cannot lose hope, and we cannot lose perspective. Plan for the future, but live in the moment. Appreciate what you have. It will be over too soon.

#111: Faith, the Pandemic, and the Drowning Man

There seems to be a narrative going around in some churches and religious communities that says, directly or indirectly, that we would not need to protect ourselves with masks and vaccines because God would save us. Any measure to protect yourself from the pandemic is thus construed as a sign of a lack of faith.

This is a rather peculiar distortion of religious belief. God does not instruct us to follow a belief in magic, but to utilize our talents given to us at birth, to develop them, and to make them work for us and others. Amongst our talents are our ability to conduct science and develop technologies for protecting us against all the dangers surrounding us. We should have faith, surely, but it must not be blind to our own capacities. If we are made in our creator’s image, then we are made in the expectation that we have the tools available to help ourselves in critical situations. What parent would raise a child that would not be able to eventually survive without constant parental supervision?

Furthermore, it is not for us to assume the nature of God, to make a mental image of God, to know God, and to presume to know how divine help may look like. To believe that we could know the unknowable is faith without humility; it is hubris, not faith.

Humility teaches us that we need to respect the world we live in, and to be aware of both its dangers and promises. Faith teaches us that we are born with the tools to overcome such challenges, and not that we should be waiting for some sort of comic-book-style intervention by a deus ex machina. We have the tools to fight the pandemic, and we should use them.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, how about the joke about the drowning man:

A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.

Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”

The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”

So the rowboat went on.

Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”

To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the motorboat went on.

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”

To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”

So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.

Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”

To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”

#110: Poem: To Understand the World

TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD

Corvallis, August 20th, 2021 – P#754

how it would be
if finally we
could claim to comprehend
whatever it is
that daily surrounds us?

are choosing we
to blissfully ignore
all that life has to offer

in joy and in pain,
in bliss and damnation,
in promise and anguish,
in safety and danger,
both heaven and hell?

in this all-twisted world
you cannot have one
without the other
for too long a time

the path of life
if long enough
will lead us through all
in spite of our bestest intentions

now, seeing all this,
do we then choose
that knowledge is better
than ignorance?

once knowledge we choose,
how much of a Faustian bargain
should willing we be to sometimes embrace?

or should we yield to ignorance,
or blissful non-awareness,
how much are we willing to lose as well?

and once we are done,
how much of all that understanding
will stay with us in what may still come?

just like moments in time,
we are fragments of life
thrown in the maelstrom of strangest existence
thinking we need to make sense of it all

to understand the world
may lead us to knowledge
to highest achievement
and yet
we are mortal

and that which is eternal,
may care it or not,
might care just enough
to take note
of all our attempts
erratic they may well be:

so that something survives
at least as a memory

for the idea
that all this could have been in vain
is certainly not an understanding
we ever will be
prepared to accept

and yet
to truly understand the world
may ask us to do so
nevertheless

philjohn.com/poems

#109: We Cannot Lose Hope

How easy would it be to despair now! The world seems in shambles, whatever we have gained seems lost, and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban appears like a symbol for our times. Covid is resurgent, the world is burning, and what future will we ever be able to enjoy?

None, if we don’t believe in its possibility. We must be hopeful, and from hope will come action. If we want to survive and prosper as a planetary community, we can make it happen, but we need to defeat our despair first. It is possible, because it was possible in the past.

History – both natural and human – is full of the worst and most horrible tragedies imaginable. And yet, we are still here. Because of that, hope is the most logical position even now. Seriously.