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Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45

Last night at dinner our server, a delightful woman named Amy, and I got to talking about places to visit in order to take in the natural wonders of the Southwestern United States. I think the conversation began when Amy and my wife began comparing ski resorts but it quickly evolved to places we have been. We spoke of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Saguaro National Park when I mentioned that I had just checked off Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from my bucket list. Amy then commented, “It surely makes you feel small, almost insignificant, when you see the beauty of this world. The time it took to carve these magnificent landscapes and the short time we are here to enjoy them.” The only thing she left out of her comment, but it was clearly on the tip of her tongue, was the God which obviously created these landscapes. I don’t mean to put words in her mouth, for she didn’t actually add the bit about God, but I was certain that she didn’t want to offend by making God a central character in the drama of nature.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

To a large extent, her restraint was refreshing. I have been in similar situations where my interlocutor was not so thoughtful nor so humble. More often than not, the fundamentalist Christian response to such a conversation about natural wonders includes the notion that the creator God made this beauty in order to humble mankind, to make us feel insignificant in order to understand the power of the creator. To that I generally respond, “Poppycock!” There is no reason to believe that there is a creator God because of the natural forces that shaped the wonders of our planet. In fact, there are geological explanations that trump the mystic late Bronze and early Iron Age mythologies, no matter whose mythologies one chooses to adapt.

While natural wonders tend to humble the viewer, one does not require a creator God in order to be humbled by the grandeur of the natural world. To the contrary, humility comes from the eons required for a small, rather insignificant, river to carve through layers of stone to create a canyon which one can stand in awe of. The geological forces required to converge to create the canyons and mountains that make us breathe a bit quicker as we stand in their glory (religious terminology need not be exclusive to religious belief) explain a great deal without removing the humbling effect of these natural wonders. Standing on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, looking nearly straight down on to the Gunnison River some 2,000 feet below, hearing the rush of the water as it continues (albeit more slowly than ever because the dams upstream limit the flow of water through the canyon floor) to carve through layers of rock, is truly something to stand in awe of but not something to attribute to the whims of a creator God. Beauty need not be compromised by failing to understand the science contributing to the creation of these magnificent structures. Amen.

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

Understanding Mitzvot and Layered Responsibility: Thinking In Jewish 33

In the Torah portion for the first weekend in May are both blessings and curses, blessings for obeying the commandments of God and curses for failing to obey those same commandments. The blessings are rather benign, like causing the rain to fall (during the rainy season), while the curses are obscene ranging from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to mothers consuming their own children. Commentaries on Torah struggle to make sense of all of this and still maintain the fiction of a loving and benevolent God. On the one hand, the commentaries focus on the blessings and curses as community or societal in their implementation arguing that any individual judgement is reserved for the world to come when the soul returns to the realm of the Absolute Other, a world beyond all understanding in this world. Others argue that the blessings and curses are attached to individual actions and that one cannot judge for another whether one is being blessed or cursed. How, for example, can one call a wealthy man blessed if he lives his life in fear of the loss of his wealth or a poor man cursed if he lives a self-satisfied life of family and friends.

In either case, the argument suggests that there are three levels of obedience in this world. The first is naive obedience, obedience without understanding because it is what one is supposed to do. The second level is obedience because the very act of obedience is satisfying to one’s ego, a selfish act of obedience backed by long hours of study and understanding. Finally, there is the selfless act of obedience, an act that when undertaken, is less physical and more spiritual, almost like the very idea of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism. This phasing argument posits that one follows commandments not only because they are commanded by God, although that is a good enough reason, but, rather, because they are indeed carried out for the benefit of the actor outside of the realm of the Godly. In short, obeying the commandments of God are good for you rather than good for God.

The argument goes on to provide for the caveat for performing mitzvot (commandments) that if there were no God then performance would be a wasted effort, that only because there is a God, one who issues commandments in the first instance, that one is obligated to follow them. But wait…if this were true, if there truly was a creator God demanding that one follow this particular set of rules, then how does one account for the simple fact that many and varied faiths, both monotheistic, polytheistic and non-theistic (which is different than atheistic) religions and value systems have a large body of rules to follow, rules that, in the final analysis, separate believers from non-believers of a particular prescriptive faith? I would argue that the polyglot of religious beliefs that at some level or another require strict adherence to a set of rules are all constrained by the same problematic, that they and they alone possess the ultimate “Truth” which, in turn, eliminates all other competing faith based systems as either untrue, irrelevant or both. On its face, this is an argument from exclusivity, one that fails to consider competing alternatives as valid. It is also an argument that turns inward, using its own writings as proofs rather than analyzing writings from competing systems if only for the purpose of elimination.

The argument also presupposes the total exclusion of atheism, the rejection of a creator God based on extant evidence, suggesting that atheists have no moral compass upon which to base an ethical or moral life, that without the threat of punishment or the compensation of reward in some world or another to come there is no reason to behave toward one’s fellow-man (or animals for that matter) with compassion. Without the underlying threat of reward or punishment one would be free to pursue one’s basest nature without a second thought. Conscience would not exist and even if it did it would not have any impact on one’s behavior because the only life that matteres is the life we are living. This argument is, at best, a stretch. Some of the most ethical people I know are atheists as are some of the most vile while some of the most vile members of society are staunch members of one or another religious organization as are some of the most ethical. It seems to matter little whether one believes in a creator God or not as to how one chooses to live one’s life. Ethics are not a matter of fear of punishment or reward. To the contrary, living an ethical life is a conscious choice, one governed by the desire for social justice and fair play. Without that sense of compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves there is no ethic that reasonably can be called ethical.

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

Even of there Is No God, Act as if there Is: Thinking In Jewish XXXI

This past Saturday while sitting in my Rabbi’s Library after Shabbat morning services I listened to a most disturbing proposition, that God allows tragedy in the world in order to create a vital need for God. At the same time one of the congregants proposed the grand idea that even though God knows the results of all actions, God allows us to have free will which includes the ability to act with evil intentions. Let me tackle the free will issue first and then I’ll try to address the former idea that God allows evil in order to create a place for God.

The issue of free will is an easy one for me. Either there is a God who is omniscient, all knowing, in which case there can be no free will simply because God knows every action one takes and therefore one’s life is pre-determined. All that exists under this construction is the illusion of free will; the human being acting freely without external constraints or conditions controlling one’s choices is but an illusion if the outcome is predestined. Claiming an omniscient God who surrenders the ability to determine the will of any or all human beings affording humanity free will is like having one’s cake and eating it too. The very concept is a contradiction in terms. Omniscience and free will cancel one another out. Either one has free will in which case there is no room for an omniscient God or one’s life and actions are predetermined by an omniscient creator God and there is no way out of the destiny one is created to complete.

For my part, I reject the very notion of omniscience and therefore reject the very idea that a creator God controls anything in my universe. I have free will and yet I choose to act with ethical intentions. I am not, however, surprised when others act with evil intentions. Free will provides one with a choice and sometimes that choice is rather difficult to make. But because I am able to act freely I must also embrace the very idea that the universe in which I live, for a brief time, is quite random and without teleological purpose. I live in an absurd universe, a universe of chance, of probabilities, of good, of evil, of risk, of reward, a universe without meaning except for the meaning that each individual contributes to the fabric of our intertwined lived-experiences.

The very idea that a God allows evil in order to create a place of God is obscene. If this is the image of the creator God of monotheism then that God is a sadist and unworthy of worship. That God allows bombs to be placed behind children and adults to create a desire for God’s protection in survivors and witnesses to the tragic outcome of a bombing as took place at the Boston Marathon is without honor, ethics or morals. A God that is so insecure that God requires tragedy to induce desire (I think fear is a better word here) makes that God unworthy of worship. A God that allows women and children to be destroyed and maimed by the actions of one predestined to plant such a bomb fails to follow his own edict that one has the obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; to violate one’s own commandments is to make one unworthy of worship. The very idea that God allows violence, war, pestilence and famine raises some interesting questions. First, If God is God and can stop the violence and doesn’t, then God is a sadist. If, secondly, God is God and cannot stop the violence then God is not omnipotent and is, therefore, unworthy of fear and trembling. Finally, if God is God and is simply indifferent to the violence then God is nothing but a passive deity unworthy of worship for God will not interfere with the ways of mankind. Violent acts, wars, and other acts of evil do not turn me toward God rather they act to turn me away from a creator God.

So what am I doing in Synagogue on Saturday morning. Yes, I am still an atheist but I am also a Jew and I enjoy the company of the congregation. There is a great deal of joy in the congregation and if the price I have to pay for the congregation is to sit for an hour and a half in prayer (I actually use the time to meditate rather than to pray) that is a small price to pay. As Emmanuel Levinas argued, even if there is no God, one is obligated to act as if there is.

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

There is indeed a problem with the whole idea of believing in something because one wants to rather than because the evidence pushes one in that direction.
Alastair Hannay, Introductory Essay to Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Belief as Desire: Thinking In Jewish XXX

Believers often define faith as belief in something without evidence; a deeply felt attachment to an idea or principle that, when closely examined would simply fall apart. Some rely on a belief system to explain the unexplained (please note I did not use the term unexplainable simply because, given enough time, all things are explainable but some things today remain unexplained) often sticking to older, yet no longer credible, constructions (e.g., the creation of the universe in six days by a creator God no longer is credible in a universe now known to be billions of years old). Still others claim to have experienced personal miracles in their lives and can only attribute those miracles to the intervention of God or Jesus or some saint or another with no other empirical evidence other than personal experience to back up their claims. Many of these stem from arguments of incredulity which basically go like this: “I can’t think of any other reason for ‘this’ to be therefore it must be the hand of a creator God because nothing else explains whatever ‘this’ is.”

People of faith, especially those who conger a teleological purpose coupled with an eschatological end of times, seem to recognize that their core beliefs are mythological in nature but that all will be revealed when the messiah comes or returns depending on which eschatological story one takes as being the ‘truth.’ It seems that the messiah may appear in the very next moment of time or sometime in the distant future (while some believe in the imminent appearance of the messiah without the ability to attach to that appearance a definite time or place).

Here’s the rub; the very belief in a purpose to the universe, to the very earth we walk upon, to the core of existence is a belief system that may or may not be true. What if, for example, there were no purpose, that the universe, the earth, our very existence were merely the result of probabilities resulting from the physics of the big bang. If this is the case, claiming there must be a purpose to life, that life itself must be meaningful as conditioned by the imposition of meaning or purpose by a creator God, has no foundation. Claiming that there is a teleological purpose is nothing if not the incredulity of belief. It overlooks evidence.

If there is no intrinsic meaning for our very existence is it possible to create meaning or is all lost? If the very core of human life is meaningless, how does one not dispair? If one sees oneself bound to a chain of events stemming from the teleological, if one is, in this sense, bound to a core of sin and redemption where redemption is the reward for living itself, there is little available to the human being but a dispair arising from unfulfilled desire for redemption. If, on the other hand, one addresses life as being in the moment, that one is embedded in the flow of life itself, almost like standing in a river rushing downstream, then one is able to adjust to the vagaries that arise from the changing flow without teleological hope ruling the day. Sometimes the river runs slowly, sometimes rapidly, sometimes the water level is low and sometimes it is flooding, all events that are predictable yet randomly occurring. It is said that one can never stand in the same river twice. What one can do is experience the flow rather than focusing on how one may be redeemed from it.

To remove the teleological along with the idea of eschatological redemption conditioned on the appearance of the messiah does not, however remove response-ability from the equation of life. It does remove conditional response-ability bound up in sin and redemption freeing it from the dispair tied to desire. Once the burdens of fear based desire are removed one’s response-ability is simply an ethical response to the other [person], not one based in fear of punishment or desire for redemption but simply because it is the right thing to do. By acting for the welfare of the other one extends the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other while incorporating the uniqueness of the other into one’s on lived-experience. No need to condition the obligation to act as a response-able human being, to the contrary, one must act without reservation and without expectation for any reward or recognition or the act is not response-able, rather it is bound up in self interest and self preservation.


In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving a name that does not belong to it. That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could be at this very time, they do not look for , nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and binding’ binds and holds them together.
— Plato, Phaedo 99

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

In the Pursuit of an Ordered Universe; The Teleological Conundrum

Plato’s description of the teleological, the account holding that final causes exist in nature, providing an underlying systemic design to the very forces that mysteriously point to the divine, is a classical riddle leading human beings to project the eschatological end times; the design of a divine being whose enterprise of death, judgment, heaven and hell ends with apocalyptic transitions from one life to another. There is a teleological presumption that this design requires a creator, or at the very least a first cause creator, one with a thoughtful mind that plans and executes that plan over which human beings have little or no control. On this view, humans are prisoners of this design, powerless to affect the outcome of the planed end of times.

It seems that eschatological programs dominate major religions of the world. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, and Zoroastrian eschatology dominate their respective belief systems. Most of the modern eschatological thinking is dominated by a violent disruption, even the destruction, of the world. Jewish and Christian eschatological understanding sees the end times as the perfection of God’s creation of the world; God created the world for a purpose and is constantly moving toward the final goal of this creation. For Jews, the end times will be noted when the messiah presents himself to the world. For the Christians the end times come when the messiah returns to the world. In either case, the end times, the perfection of creation means the end of the world as we know it; even, perhaps the destruction of the world and the end of everything.

Teleological eschatology presents a mix of optimistic joy and pessimistic terror, with pessimism holding most of the good cards. Even true believers will suffer in the end of times; the inevitability of which is programmed into the plan of which only God is certain. So we constantly face predictions of the end of the world, the most recent of which was the Mayan Apocalypse but this prediction is not isolated in the minds of those who believe in the very idea of a linear path from creation to destruction, a plan conceived by some creator God (or gods) or another to explain that which is difficult to explain.

There is, however, a significant problem with the teleological insistence on God having a plan for everything. It simply doesn’t mesh with science. Let me explore some teleological arguments juxtaposed against a single scientific program, evolution. While I do not claim this analysis as a comprehensive one, I do claim it to be a good faith, albeit brief, summary of some key ideas. One claim of those who embrace religious eschatology is that their system explains reality. Evolution, on the other hand, only claims to be an explanation of the development of life on earth without looking at or making claims about origins. Evolution or natural selection is a random process over which no design appears to dominate. Natural selection eschews the very notion of supernatural intervention into the process of biological changes while their religious counterparts claim supernatural intervention through a creation ex nihilo that is static and unchanging. Teleological eschatology claims a purpose for creation where evolution understands the world in terms of its very randomness, a randomness that creates biological diversity in constant flux; changes that are not instantaneous, rather that occur over long periods of time, far longer than the span of a human lifetime. Finally, teleological eschatology claims that the only way to avoid the ultimate catastrophic end of times is to do God’s will as they describe the will of God. Natural selection makes no such claim; it claims that biological changes are responses to environmental conditions that, in turn, provide a context to insure survival. These conditions and contexts are not part of some grand scheme but, rather, are random natural events occurring over time.

While teleological eschatology appears rational to many, it has a distinct flaw that cannot be overcome. It is dependent on its own rationale, its tautological dependence on its own sacred texts that somehow, when taken together, make up (yes, the pun is intended) a belief system that cannot be questioned. The belief system feeds upon itself, taking ancient proof texts to prove that the hand of God permeates everything. When questioned, the system falls apart. Proving the existence of God, Thomas Aquinas tells us, is fully dependent on one’s prior belief in that God without which all proofs fail. If belief is required for proof then one has a system that, on its face, is tautological in the sense that it uses a set of self-reinforcing statements or claims that are not subject to refutation; in short, using different words to say the same thing.

In the end, teleological systems fail, not because they are not rational for their internal rationality is often quite exquisite, rather they fail because they feed only upon themselves without opening the door to distinctly rational, observable, and replicable understandings.

Drawing Conclusions: Thinking in Jewish VIII

What happens when one dies?
Rabbi Mendel, in conversation

Drawing Conclusions: Thinking in Jewish VIII

Drawing Conclusions: Thinking in Jewish VIII

After the Parsha class last evening, several of us were talking about some of the problematics raised during the discussion of mutton Torah (the gift of the Torah and not the revelation at Sinai because tradition holds that the Torah was already known to the Jewish people having been taught to Abraham and then passed down through all subsequent generations). One of those problematics was the notion that every Jewish soul was present at Sinai, even those unborn souls, at the exact point when God descended from his heavens and Moses ascended to God’s mountain. The very idea of a soul became the point of the after class discussion. Rabbi Mendel was making the point that a creator God created the soul in order for there to be a ‘spark’ of life infused into every living creature, great or small; that that ‘spark’ or soul ascends to a different level of existence when the body dies. He was questioned vigorously by a member of the group (not me) trying to come to grips with the very idea of the existence (even pre-existence if the idea that all souls living, dead and yet unborn were present at Sinai) of the soul. It was at that point the question quoted above was raised. I’m sorry in advance, but Rabbi Mendel’s argument is what is famously known as one of those false logical arguments that philosophers call the argument from incredulity; that argument goes basically like this: I cannot even imagine something different therefore what I believe must be true. Let me explore this for a few moments.

Let me first assume there is a creator God for the sake of argument. Let me also assume that this creator God is at once omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent (all powerful, all knowing and loving/merciful). If, and only if (iff) this is true does the very existence of a soul begin to make any sense at all but the jury remains out on the truth of this kind of a creator God. If God is all these things then how is it the God cannot build a mountain that God itself cannot move? The very idea that this is possible, even in the face of countless described miracles where God alters nature described in Scripture, then the creator God cannot be omnipotent. Strike one! If the creator God is all knowing how is it possible for man to have choices, to exercise free will? This questions both the omniscience and omnipotence of the creator God. If the creator God knows all possible outcomes then man can only have the illusion of free will, the simulacrum of moral and ethical choice because both the choice and the outcome are already known by the omniscient creator God. If, as theologians argue, the creator God gives mankind free will it surrenders some of its power rendering itself no longer omnipotent and some of its knowledge rendering itself no longer omniscient. Strike two! As to benevolence, the creator God is responsible for the commonplace as well as the extraordinary suffering of all life on earth. In the face of massive genocides of the 19th and 20th Centuries, where was this benevolent creator God. Either the creator God was unable to stop the genocides in which case the creator God was impotent not omnipotent or the creator God was unwilling to stop the genocides in which case the creator God is unmerciful at best and a sadist at the very worst. Strike Three.

Simply on the basis of the evidence briefly described above, the question of a creator God remains a moot point. Perhaps there is a force that is something akin to Aristotle’s Prime Mover, but even that is a circular argument that ends only because, incredulously, Aristotle himself, after circling back in time comes to a point where he cannot imagine that there was creation ex nihilo (creating something from nothing), hence he concludes that there must have been something that lit the flame of the universe and all creation, else why would anything at all exist. But just because one cannot imagine creato ex nihilo doesn’t mean that there aren’t alternative solutions to creation. Two come to mind. First there is the idea of creato ex materia or creation from some pre-existing, eternal material force that has not yet been identified. Then, of course, the theological favorite, creato ex deo or the creation out of the very voice of God. These are three competing voices to explain the creation of the universe, none of which are inevitable but perhaps only one of which is supported by cosmologists; the idea of the Big Bang is, in fact, an argument for creato ex nihilo. By isolating one of the other two possible explanations for the creation of the universe and all that is within it and suggesting that it is the only reasonable explanation is to argue from incredulity. The failure to address competing arguments is, at the very least, an argument that leaves reasonable doubt in my mind.

So if the question of the existence of a creator God can be called into doubt, which is not to say that there is no creator God, merely that there is not enough positive evidence extant to support such a God and more than enough evidence extant to deny such a God, then to base the existence of the divine soul on the idea of creato ex deo to the exclusion of all other possibilities is not persuasive. The internal argument for creato ex deo in Judaism is based exclusively in Scripture. It is a theological argument based in a mythological explanation for that which was thought to be completely outside the ken of human understanding. As an ethical story the whole idea of creation arising from the spoken word of the creator God may have ethical and moral lessons to be learned about the genesis of everything but given the state of scientific knowledge it is a story that can only be understood as metaphor and not as revealed truth. If that is the case, the argument for the existence of a soul, even a repository for all souls dead, living and yet unborn, makes little sense except teleologically. If there is, however, real evidence to show my analysis to be wrong, then I am obligated to explore that evidence for its credulity and either accept it or reject it as warranted or not warranted. I would reject as unwarranted any assertions that are only based on Scriptural writings or commentaries on Scriptural writing, not because it is incredulous, rather because it is steeped in that which it purports to prove leaving no room for alternatives.

As I told Rabbi Mendel last night, it would take an awful lot of persuasion to get me to accept the existence of an eternal soul leaving the door open to being persuaded.

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