Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth: 2

“All truth is God’s truth.”

John Calvin, ca 1560

(Photo credit – Quotefancy)

How does a society change?  How does a culture shift?  How does the basic belief system of a whole civilization turn in a new direction? 

The casual reader may not have great patience for this kind of discussion.  But in the West of the 21st Century, we signify the importance of such questions by referring to how things now are versus how they used to be, as recently as forty or fifty years ago.

Previously, we have noted that change is one of the very few certainties we can all count on.  Even if we sit still and do nothing, the Law of Entropy decrees that everything will decay and fall into ruin and corruption over time.  That is a law of physics, of inevitable change. 

For some things, this is a rapid process – like the cycle of life for many plants, insects, and micro-organisms.  Even stars, solar-systems, and galaxies manifest this Law.  It is universal.  At the personal level, our bodies remind us of it as we age and find ourselves gradually losing strength, agility, flexibility, hair, teeth, potency, visual and auditory acuity, and even height!  Looking at photos of our families and relatives – and ourselves – is a good reminder of all this and keeps/makes us suitably humbler than we might otherwise be.  “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”

As we see this inexorable process in nature, so too in societies, cultures, and civilizations.  Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History is still a great introduction to how we see entropy in action over centuries and millennia of human societies.  Like an individual’s life, it ebbs and flows – Conception of a society and culture, Birth of a Civilization, Decline, Partial Recovery, Final Decline as morbidity takes hold, Demise (Death), as the forces of decay set in beyond the ability to stave them off any longer.  Often, even usually in the case of civilizations, outside powers, waiting for the signs that the time is right, issue the coup de grace by mercifully (?) kicking in the door and knocking down the derelict structure so they can take what they want from the ruins and expand or start their own time in the sun.

We describe the pinnacle of a civilization/culture/society’s existence and achievements as its “Golden Age”, and the later “Recovery” phase after a period of initial decline as its “Silver Age”.  Humanity has also always yearned for an illusory “Utopian Age” – the time of the reign of the gods, of the heroes, of the legendary supremely virtuous founders who inspire us still with their example.

A civilization’s greatest flourishing happens its Golden Age, producing the greatest thought, the greatest art, the best and most beneficent rulers, the most equitable overall prosperity, an era of unparalleled peace and security, etc.   When this departs, as it inevitably must, following generations hark back to it and to its great people with deep longing, drawing inspiration from them. 

As in the film Gladiator when the old Emperor Marcus Aurelius says in his secret conversation with General Maximus, “There was once a dream that was Rome.  It was so fragile that you could only whisper it…” our Utopias stir us with some deeper spiritual vision, so fleeting but so real, moving like a chimera in and out of our awareness that, as unreal as it is, it is still more meaningful than the “real” .

We in the progressive West live double-mindedly, with divided souls.  We serve two masters trying desperately to please/serve both.  We have self-induced amnesia about how that works out in the end.  We have seen this saying before: “Nobody can serve two masters.  Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second.  You can’t serve both the Creator and wealth.”  (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, chapter 6, verse 24)  It is from Jesus of Nazareth, historically the West’s once most revered figure. 

We are riven between the lust for an ever greater degree of material comfort and pleasure built on a foundation of predatory capitalism, and, on the other track, dreaming of a Utopia of perfect harmony of rights and individual liberties coupled with responsible behaviour towards everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, etc., etc.  The list of special status keeps lengthening by the year as everyone with some claim to exclusion comes to the table for recognition.

Buried in our Jungian collective memory and our civilization’s foundations there is an old dream.  We now see and hear only its “whisper” as Marcus Aurelius put it.  Its ghost is fading in and out of our ability to perceive it.  It was the dream of a Christian world and a truly Christian society.  Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul), its earliest ideologue, described its inclusiveness in two ways, like the double-aged Roman sword of his time, a razor-sharp instrument that cut both ways equally.

“There is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no longer “male nor female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (New Testament, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28.)

And then, “For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory…” (Letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 22b-23)

For more than a thousand years, the divide in the West’s soul created the dream of “Christendom” on the one hand while still lured and divided by the old habits of heart and mind of power, greed, and lust.  The cynics, or perhaps realists, have always had plenty of ammunition to question the dream of the coming of the Kingdom of Christ in the warp and woof of human history – Christendom!

What brought that hard-fought battle for the soul of a civilization to a crescendo was the evidence of spreading rot at and in the heart of the official institution that stood as visible sign of the presence of Messiah on earth – the Church.  The “Body of Christ on earth” – the Church – seemed itself to have succumbed to the three great temptations – power, greed, and lust – at least in its upper hierarchy, and the calls for purging of the sickness seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Finally, the most desperate of those seeking for a return to “first love” decided to challenge the very order of the Christendom which had emerged in place of the “peaceable Kingdom of Messiah”.  That Kingdom facsimile was built as a hybrid of what Jesus and Paul exampled and taught.  The old ways of power and control inherited from the Roman era with Roman-styled concepts of how to create conformity through the use of “this age’s” methods had taken hold.  It had fallen far from “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”.

We will not retell the long and complex story of the West’s weaving, sometimes staggering dance from right to left, longing after a sort of purer, cleaner “Christendom” and veering towards the other ditch of “wipe the slate clean and find a new way forward towards the “whisper””.  Suffice it to say that after a very complicated “civil war of Christendom” that lasted about two hundred years (we will arbitrarily say from ca 1450-1650CE), the idea of Christendom itself was fading to chimera status.

In the 17th Century, thinking movers and shakers of a new sort emerged, proposing that the old Greco-Roman ideal of Reason, used now with the new methodology of Scientific method and logic, could show the way forward, could propel the West out of its delusion of “Christ-on-on-earth-in-his-people” being the way to create the longed for Utopia of harmony, unity, and liberty.  But “Christendom” did not “go gently into that good night” and kept reappearing at the meeker, national scale rather than as a remodeled Roman imperialism.  True disciples and believers sought to create smaller-scale models – a “City on a hill”, a “lamp on a lamp-stand” to give light to the whole house of fragmented Christendom. 

One line of this thinking was that it could be better done in “the New World” west across the Atlantic if you just started with the right set of dedicated, committed people.  Experiments of this sort were set up in New England, New France (Ville-Marie), and New Spain.  Some were even tried in the Old World in areas less under the sway of conformist Imperial or Royal tyrants – (the Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, etc.)  Idealist Roman Catholic attempts were made too, inspired by Jesuits to large degree.

The divergent Western path followed the new “Enlightened” philosophes, arguing and persuading that, however reformed, the old superstitions could not take us out of the darkness. These must be set aside all together.  God could be kept on as a sort of magnanimous cosmic clock-maker who set out the laws of existence, but left the outworking of our sojourn in the Cosmic drama to us, to be done within his discoverable parameters within His/Its universal benevolence, justice, and equity.  These Enlightenment “Deists” were the old Roman Stoics reprised.

The general target in all these notions, schemes, and attempts at implementation of the Great Dream was the “whisper”, the here-again-gone-again chimera of the ideal age and society of universal harmony and justice.  The ideal of “progress” was born to indicate moving towards the goal at long last.

The game was on.  Whose way would yield the most results – the team of Scientific Reason and Progress, or the teams of the model “City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem”?

Who would win the reins of influence and power to direct the future of the West?

TO BE CONTINUED

Myth, Conspiracies, Shame, and the Quest for Truth: 1

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” –

Frederick Douglass

“Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” – Jesus

“[To] conspire – combine privily for unlawful purpose, especially treason, murder, sedition…plot…” – The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

 “The garb of religion is the best cloak for power.” – William Hazlitt, English journalist, 1819.

(Photo credit: Quotefancy)

For years now, we have been witnessing the growing the gullible credulousness of many millions in believing and accepting as “cash” the most egregious falsehoods.  E-media and its social (anti-social?) counterpoint have greatly exacerbated and accelerated this unfortunate side of human nature.  It has manifested itself via the “grapevine” and “rumor-mill” since time immemorial. 

Even sadder is the tendency of professing and practicing religious people (no particular religion holds a monopoly on this) to engage in these tales and even commit themselves to propagating them and, to some degree, acting on them. 

No more blatant illustration of this can be found than the recent events in the USA surrounding the defeat of Mr. Trump and the election of Mr. Biden.  Substantial evidence has come to light that probably 50% of those engaged in the pre-inaugural assault on Capitol Hill were “good folks” of Evangelical persuasion and regular Sunday Church attendance.  On a personal note, I find this very sad and disturbing, but not too surprising.

Violent phenomena have recently occurred in a series of religiously motivated murders and attacks on strangers and tourists in India based on wild rumors.  Islamists have long used the same methods to generate ferment and outbreaks against “infidels” in areas of Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and African states.

As to “true believers of whatever persuasion convinced of the rightness of their extreme behaviour, I am certain that nothing I can say will change the minds of those deeply steeped in what has actually become (for Christians) a false gospel, so interwoven with the Bible and a certain strain of triumphalist theology that they cannot separate them.  For them, the religion of Christ has become (or maybe always was) the religion of a certain conception of national and political righteousness, committed to preserving, restoring, or (re)creating a lost dream of what the USA was founded for back in its early years when the Pilgrims and other idealist pioneers sought to create the “City on the Hill” in the “New World” because hope for its coming in the old (Europe) had faded.

As we are leaving Black History month, it is an appropriate moment to let a great Black and Civil Rights pioneer, speaking as a Christian, be heard on this subject.  These words were penned 160-170 years ago and are still frighteningly relevant:

“Between the Christianity of this land [the United States], and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.  Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.”  – Frederick Douglass – Autobiography…, quoted in Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Zondervan, 2010, p.153.

As a Canadian, I cannot be smug about my own country’s participation in deceiving itself about its Eurocentric concept of “civilizing the savages [the indigenous peoples]” – i.e. assimilating them to be “good Christians like the rest of us”.  And our history of welcoming and including Afro-Canadians and other minorities is not much more (it at all) distinguished.

Point of fact, there are no cultures or societies on the planet which have any reason to believe themselves more righteous in this sort of history than any other.  Indigenous enslaved and oppressed other indigenous –even before the coming of those devilish Europeans.  Ancients enslaved other ancients in the millions. Muslims perpetrated (and some still do) all the same sorts of evils on peoples they conquered and forced to assimilate or face all the usual sorts of consequences for not doing so.  Let us put aside the legends of Islamic toleration and magnanimity in comparison to the “Crusader States”.  The Jews and Christians they overran, raped, pillaged, and slaughtered to “serve as examples”, or the Parsees of Persia, or the idolatrous Hindus, etc., would beg to differ. 

No one anywhere has lived up to what most “progressive” people will at least publicly profess as the “proper, correct” way to respect differences and build a truly pluralistic, inclusive society.

What is most interesting about where such modern progressive ideas are most deeply implanted is that they are found in the self-same nations that were most guilty (at least as the “official” versions of history now dominant in Academia have it) of perpetrating the most horrible historical crimes, sins, wrongs (or whatever term you prefer).  It is a striking paradox. 

The “official” progressive version of this apparently amazing turn-around in a culture so steeped in subduing the rest of the world to exploit as its mass-market and resource-base is that the Enlightenment broke the millennial spell of religious quackery over the minds of the leading thinkers, who then gradually disseminated the new truth of “liberty, fraternity, equality” (the French Revolution’s toxin-cry) or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (the USA Declaration of Independence toxin-cry) among the populace.

Apparently, nobody before Rousseau, Jefferson, and Tom Paine ever thought or wrote about such things!  Apparently, their “new” wisdom was so electrifying that it galvanized all right-thinking people into action to overthrow the moribund Christ-religion’s hold and awaken the West to surge into a new age when, at last, Utopia was within reach!

The biggest problem with this version of history is its patent lack of support in how and why the “turnaround”, as imperfect as it was and still is, actually occurred.

Not that Rousseau, Jefferson, Paine and other salient thinkers like Voltaire did not play a role and say and write some stimulating stuff to get some people thinking and talking and even willing to act.  To attribute to the Enlightenment and the new “Religion of Progress” (!) – and yes, the French “progressives” even invented such a thing to replace the Roman Catholic Church in France as the (First among several) Revolution got into full swing – all that changed was and is simply a new mythology, a very selective and very truncated account of what actually transpired and who was responsible for most of it.

We hardly have time to do more than offer a snippet of that story today.  Let us take Mr. Hazlitt’s cogent aphorism (see above) as a starting point.  Mr. Hazlitt, as well as William Cobbet, another well-known journalist-pundit of that time in England, was criticizing William Wilberforce and “the Saints”, an Evangelical faction in Parliament, for justifying a series of repressive measures aimed at suppressing the early efforts to give labourers the right to organize.  On this occasion, the “Saints” did merit some hard criticism.  In fact, some of them also criticized Mr. Wilberforce, without the acid sarcasm.  (Now there’s mindless religion for you- disagreeing with your mentor and leader!)  Effectively, Hazlitt, Cobbet and others saw only hypocrisy in professing religious convictions while actively engaging in the dirty world of politics on the “wrong” side – the one you don’t like!

The exercise of power in the hurly-burly world of politics, business, and commerce is always messy.  Even within the confines of religious institutions, where one might expect (hope, anyway) them to be minimal, they can be vicious and devastating.  It is not unfair to be more acerbic and bitter against open professors of high moral principles who fail to measure up to their own expectations.  But to accuse them of being villains because they do not live up to their critics’ expectations is another thing.  (People who live in glass houses and all that…) The details of the affair in question in this instance are not important for our point.  The issue is whether it is always hypocritical and false to put on a “garb of religion [a]s the best cloak for power”.  Using religion as a “put-on”, as we ex-wanna-be hippies “put” it?  Definitely not cool!

But what if the “religion” in question is not a mere “garb”, not a “put-on”?  That is the falsehood on the other side.  So let’s ditch the pejorative term “religion” and say “conviction” or “worldview”.  You can fake “conviction” and even a “worldview” up to a point.  Today religion is seen as an outward performance more than anything else – a “mere garb”.  In the post-modern West it has virtually no status as a sincere set of life-principles. 

But no one who does not really and truly hold a conviction and worldview in their soul can fake it for a lifetime.  It is not a garb.  It is who they are. 

Wilberforce (the architect of the abolition of the slave-trade and ultimately of full emancipation in the British Empire), was no faker or fakir.  He was a Christian through and through, as were most of his closest collaborators (the “Saints”) both in Parliament and beyond. Like anyone else, he made mistakes of judgment and action. But his historical record large-writ speaks for itself.  

That is the precisely the kind of fallacy about what really happened in the attainment of our modern-post-modern progressive Western society we have to debunk.  Its roots were not miraculously planted by a gaggle of Enlightenment philosophes who suddenly discovered the truth about basic human rights and amazingly seeded and then brought them to fruition in the rocky soul of a religiously purblind society.  But that is the standard caricature that has bemused our intellectual and educational establishment for the last 160 years at the least.

We will suspend this tale here for this week and pick it up next time.

The Money-Game

“The love of money is the root of all evil.”  The New Testament, 1 Timothy 6:10

“If you make money your god, it will plague you like the devil.” – Old English proverb

“The price we pay for money is paid in liberty.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

(Photo credit – Pinterest)

(Note to the reader: The following is not meant as a put-down of honest business-people and entrepreneurs who act with integrity and fair-mindedness.  Rather, it is a sort of parable of how so many “regular folks”, even honest business-people, become trapped by and in the moils of the money-game which has produced so much misery and evil in human history over the six or so millennia in which the “game” has been on.)

In the 21st Century, it is pretty much impossible to live without money.  It’s nice to fantasize about retreating to the deep wilderness somewhere and “living off the land” as we conceive our remote ancestors once did.  Cro-Magnon humans or Neanderthals, and the earliest groups of homo sapiens sapiens, would have done so, according to Palaeontology and Anthropolgy.

The earliest myths and legends do not tell tales of money, although some speak of quests for gold and riches of some sort, usually coupled to a quest for power.

A moneyless society, we imagine, would be a sort of proto-paradise.  If only we could return to the barter system, the just and equitable quid-pro-quo method of doing business, cutting a deal to mutual advantage, fair trade between equals.  “You want/need this thing which I have, and I want/need that thing which you have.  Let’s cut a deal we can both live with.  Let’s give our solemn mutual pledge; let’s shake on it; let’s give each other our left shoes.” (This was an ancient custom between negotiators in Hebrew and Canaanite societies about 1200 years BCE).

The perpetual roadblock to realizing such fantasies is stubborn old human nature.  You and I may be happy to negotiate as equals, but there have always been shrewd aggrandizers and manipulators looking for the thrill, the pleasure, the “rush” of putting one over on the gullible dupe.  “Ah, Suckers!  There’s one born every minute!” famously said P.T. Barnum with great relish (or was it mustard he preferred on his circus hotdog?).  There have always been lazy, sleazy types ready to latch onto the unscrupulous manoeuvrers and ambitious people seeking advantage over regular folks.  The “shifty” types are happy to help the shrewd to “play” the dupes who only seek a quiet life among their neighbours.  Scammers call us up regularly offering impossible get-rich-quick schemes, or, in more recent schemes, telling us to pay up or face prison.

Flash back to 3000 or so BCE.  Here comes Mr. Shrewd looking ahead to what others are probably going to want and need next season, even if they haven’t realized it yet.  He plans how to have it ready or knows how to get it ahead of time so the seekers will come to him first and negotiate on terms to his advantage. 

This year, Mr. Shrewd has a bumper crop of emer or barley far in excess of his own needs.  He goes out and trades with Mssrs. Hunter and Herdman for their skins, offering them seed, pots, or perhaps tools in exchange.  Hunter and Herdman are happy to make the exchange to ensure they will be able to plant and harvest and store what they reap and hunt.  And everyone needs skins for clothes and leather.  Leather is universally useful.  Everyone also needs seed and tools and pots to plant and harvest crops. 

Mr. Shrewd has it worked out.  In time, everyone will come to him, once they find there’s not enough to go round (and all the moreso since he traded for much of the excess).  He has become the essential man.  He can even hire a few fellows to serve and “talk” to some of the locals who maybe promised things they haven’t come across with.

In time, and probably not that much of it, the Mr. Shrewds began to network and develop a system of exchange among themselves to make sure that, when the time came, they did not lack the things Mssrs. Local, Yokel, Hunter, and Herdman would inevitably require.  Flexibility and collegiality were necessary skills to stay in the game, and the Shrewds who didn’t learn this dropped or were forced out to join the “marks”.

But how to keep track of all this?  How to create a trust network where Mr. Babylon-Shrewd and Mr. Assyria-Shrewd would help each other out even if one or the other didn’t have a suitable direct exchange right at the moment when one or the other needed something for his Locals and Yokels?  Write it down!  Pay it forward!  Keep it on record to be redeemed/made good later.  Invent writing and create “hard-copy” records that could be carried over distances and stored in a safe place to be kept track of.  (Clay tablets were definitely “hard-copy”! Cuneiform was definitely a contract etched in quasi-stone!)

One more stroke of genius was required to perfect the Shrewd System.  They needed a substitute form of payment rather than the cumbersome barter system.  After all, Mr. Shrewd-Babylon might not have what Mr. Shrewd-Assyria needed, but he knew Mr. Shrewd-Elam did.  So if Mr. Shrewd Assyria would give him something to offer Mr. Shrewd-Elam, all three could be happy.  And he, Mr. Babylon the middleman, could make a little (or a lot) extra for doing the extra work at both ends.  The substitute payment medium would have to be accepted by everyone in the network, something everyone thought was special and valuable.  Gold!  Silver!  Some other special things too – precious stones, rare things of beauty or special status.  Everyone likes those glittery things.

Voilà money!  Naked Power is already on the ground.  The local King-Priest-Chief Strongman’s tough boys demonstrate that.  The powerful immediately see the usefulness of getting control of the trade routes that everyone needs and wants. The Mssrs. Shrewd quickly learn that their access to this rapidly growing network rooted in both the local and wider economies gives them a fast in with the powerful.  It also gives them a sort of power of their own which, used carefully, could even move the warlords to forward the interests of the Shrewd network.

The rest, as we say, is history.  Eventually, money needed to become even more readily portable than lugging around rings and bars and ingots of gold, silver, bronze, and even copper and iron.  In the early Sixth Century BCE, King Croesus of Lydia found the solution and minted the first honest to goodness coins.  Henceforth, currency minted by some bona fide person of power and authority vouching for its purity and consistency becomes the medium of exchange.  And, just as in the old barter and trade system, the more you have the more powerful and influential you become, or can become.

Croesus lost his kingdom to Cyrus of Persia (ca. 550 BCE), who was so impressed by Croesus’ invention (and legendary wealth) that he made coinage the universal means of trade and exchange in his vast empire.  From Persia, the money-dance-and-romance spread like a prairie-fire around Eurasia and into Africa.

Such is a very bare-bones story of the coming of money.  But what of its intimate relationship with the phenomenon of evil?  After all, how can something so indispensable be “the root of all evil”?

The old English Proverb of our second citation tells us, and Mr. Stevenson seals the deal about money in the third.  Money can and does very often climb, wheedle, and claw its way into the heart of the one needing and seeking it.  And it is not only the rich and ultra-rich who become bewitched by it, thinking that if only they had more of it, life would be all wonderful. 

The madness of gold, silver, precious stones, and even our (in reality almost worthless as real things) plastic and paper symbols of those ephemeral baubles has driven countless millions and probably billions away from what can make them really content into the arms of the beguiler who claims he can make us content as he dangles the golden carrot in front of our noses and keeps it just out of reach until we are so crazed that we can no longer see or even think about the road back to harmony of body, soul, spirit, and peace of mind. Now the insanity is at the point where most money is not even a real physical thing but a digital accounting engram which has no substance except in human minds, yet the lust for it has never been greater!

“Money is the root of all evil,” a saying of the Apostle Paul, must be understood as part of an even bigger picture: that humans have turned their faces away from the Creator towards the bewitching glitz of things that can never do more than give fleeting pleasure and simulated happiness (and yes, even fifty, sixty, or seventy years is fleeting beside eternity).  Beneath the hunger for the glamour and shine and sense of being in control that real or digital bullion promises, there is the age-old original lie.  “You will not die if you take it, but you will become as wise as God, knowing all about [and by implication controlling] good and evil.”

The old Liar of liars (who goes by many names, including Satan, Lucifer, Ba’al, etc.) has found the lure of lures to keep us swallowing the same old rotten fruit.  It’s on us that we keep on reaching for it to taking the fatal bite that, like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, makes us comatose to our real situation.

How many fruit-(f)lies (one of Old Nick’s Biblical names was “Ba’al-ze-bub” – Lord of the flies!) does it take to justify accumulating into billions the innumerable small holdings weaseled from billions of simple honest folk, or speculated out of driving up the cost of most everything they need to live on?

Yeshua of Natzeret put “paid” to this discussion when he said, “Nobody can serve two masters.  Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second.  You can’t serve both the Creator and wealth.” (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, chapter 6, verse 24).

Choose your god wisely.

Certainty, Doubt, and Faith

“Doubt is the vestibule of wisdom which all must pass before they can enter the temple of wisdom.”

– Charles Caleb Cotton

“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.” – Wilson Milner

“Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise.” – William Shakespeare

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Last time we mentioned the very short list of life’s certainties – birth, change, and death.  But I think we can legitimately add a fourth item to our list.  It is certain that we will believe something and, on the flip-side, come to doubt what we believe. 

Even people deprived of some of the most basic functions of the body and mind arrive at belief, or “faith”.  Even those who cannot vocalize their faith and belief still have it.  For example, I have a beautiful grandson with severe cerebral palsy, but he knows and believes he is loved and cherished by his family.  He knows by experience, by relationship, and has arrived at trust that it is so.  Although he cannot speak, he shows by his responses that he really knows and trusts that he is safe and loved.

It is helpful to use another word than “faith” with all its modern aerie connotations stemming from existentialist angst and post-modern sceptical deconstructionism.  A more specific, positive, and helpful word is “trust”.  In Hebrew the same word is used to say both, and ancient Greek does the same thing.

In other words, these two ancient foundational cultures whose genius gave birth to so much in the West, along with the later Roman and Germanic streams, saw clearly that faith is not a blind leap in the dark without good reasons to go that way.  Our super-sophisticated Western sceptics (although they have nothing on the ancient Roman cynics!) have so often and unhelpfully characterized “religious people” as merely weak-minded and credulous.  In truth faith is almost always a deliberate decision based on evidence and experience.  That’s what it is for my disabled grandson.  That’s what it is for any little child.  That’s what it is for almost all Theists and Atheists.

It’s always good to re-examine the evidence which has led us to “trust-faith”, but it has never been the “blind leap off the cliff” straw-man so much mocked by the likes of Richard Dawkins.  Perhaps some religious people have arrived at a real faith by such a route, but only after discovering that, after all, there really is someone to have faith in and be in relationship with.

The “jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-for-the-best” route so often attributed to Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard (often called the father of existentialism) is actually a caricature of what Kierkegaard was saying about belief in God.  His point was that faith is a choice that must be made on the best evidence available.  Ultimately, it is a choice to trust that “still, small (quiet) interior voice” telling them they will be “caught” by strong arms when they “take the plunge”.  The New Testament defines faith, or “trusting”, as “being confident  of what we hope for, convinced about things we do not see”, or, as another translation has it, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. (Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, Verse 1.

Atheists and sceptics love to pillory theists, and particularly Christian theists, as gullible and naive because they put their trust in a personal Deity whose existence can never be proven.  “Proven” is a narrowly circumscribed term as they use it.  What they mean is “scientific” or perhaps philosophical, and therefore “irrefutable”, proof. 

By their own criterion, neither is there ultimately any “proof” for even the most sacrosanct “truths” of science.  Science’s trust-faith is entirely founded on the long-term reliability of human reason and the scientific method to conclusively demonstrate the nature of reality.  This is dogma, not science, for there are as many formerly scientific “truths” and “facts” which have been debunked as there are apparently now disproven religious dogmas in the trash-heap of history. Theologians also rely on reason and logic. Like any tool, these can be used for many purposes.

The long-standing “war between science and religion” is not the real point of our reflection in this post.  The real point is that we humans cannot live without “faith”, without trust, at least not for long.  We are inevitably going to believe, to choose something to trust as the foundation on which we take a position from which we will “do life”.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’re gonna serve somebody.”

Much stems from what we experience and what we are shown by example and instruction in our early years.  “Nature or nurture?” is the old debate.  The answer is “both”, nuanced by the discoveries of later experience in relationship to the immensity of Cosmos, our world, and our fellow humans.  Somewhere in all of that arises the growing “substance” and “evidence” that we are not in fact alone, that behind and within and through it all there are huge questions all pointing at the same answer.

Those very basic questions come out something like (with many variations possible), “Who am I? What is all this?  How did I/it get here?  What does it mean?  Why do things die?  Why is life so wonderful and painful all at the same time?  Is there anything after death?” etc, etc.

Ultra scepticism (systematic doubt) takes two forms.  The first is the post-modern type that denies we can ever be certain of anything and so have to question everything all the time.  (As mentioned above, this “post-modern” practice is really a reprise of the Greco-Roman cynics.)

This position instantly disproves itself by refusing to be skeptical of skepticism.  The second type of ultra-skepticism is of the mystical variety that says “all that is here is maya” (illusion, not really here at all).  This denies even that the individual doing the questioning  is really here, for there is no such thing as an “I” with an identity. 

In our “veriest bowels”, as Shakespeare puts it, we all know, or can and should know, as Descartes famously said, that “Je pense, alors je suis!  (I think, therefore I am!)”  The cynical response is to say, “The thinker thinking they exist because they know they are thinking may only be a deception of some greater being forming a thought that thinks of itself as an individual able to think.” This is patently absurd, but we will not here take the rabbit-trail that reveals its complete absurdity except to say it is totally self-contradictory. 

Such intellectual gaming is really a ploy to avoid Descartes’ and Kierkegaard’s very (to them) unacceptable ultimately identical conclusion that, “God is real.”  Both great thinkers also conclude that  God is a personal Being who gives us our being and our ability to conceive Him in thought and discover Him by experience in and through His creation.  Therefore, with open eyes and clear minds, they (and we) take the plunge in trust-faith based on the substance and evidence we can now see and experience all around us.  We find it even within our own hearts and souls.

We all long for certainty.  We all naturally experience doubt.  Doubt is the questioning of what we have taken as true up to the time we begin to seriously question that “truth”.  If we are to be honest, we must not run from our doubts, but face them.  We must allow our questions to come into the light.

Most simply, faith is trust, but not blind trust.  It is evidence-based trust.  It is knowledge-based trust.  It is relationship-based trust.  Is has “substance” based in reality, not mere imagination and wishful thinking.  For example, I know I can completely trust my spouse after almost five decades of doing life together.

The scientist trusts, has faith in, science and reason because of the repeated evidence that it works.  By it we discover how things work.  We know how its methodology can help us solve problems, give answers in practical ways to real critical issues.  We know it can show us how to protect people from deadly infections like COVID-19, how to create usable energy by controlling the forces and elements of nature, etc.

The “War” between science and religion is a misconception.  Theists and atheists both believe we can discover much about reality by the scientific method.  Both believe that our innate creativity and remarkable intellect can use the creation to bring into being things that would not exist without human invention. 

A theist easily explains why that is possible: the Creator made it in such a way that we can use the abilities of reason and faith to discover how the creation was made to function and how we can direct it to produce previously non-existent things.  In the best scenario, we can learn to protect it and care for the creation the Creator has placed us in. 

The atheist believes it just somehow happens to work that way as an inexplicable result of blind “evolutionary processes” that defy all the “laws” of probability.  Beneath it all, there is no real, compelling reason for it to be that way.  Nor is there any ultimate purpose in what is.  We are just here, and while we are here the best we can do is to try to make our existence as pleasant as possible for both ourselves and our fellow humans.  Or perhaps we only need to concern ourselves with our own comfort.

Let us conclude this reflection with this thought and a couple short open letters:

Thought: “Let the believer not be afraid to doubt; to question opens the path to greater wisdom.”

Dear Theist,

Doubt is not the enemy of trust-faith, but the way to new trust and stronger evidence for your relationship with the One you have discovered is really there and has been all along, even when His voice was silent (or, rather, when your eyes and ears were blocked).

Dear Atheist,

Dare to doubt your total faith in reason and science as the sole path to truth and wisdom.  Dare to consider some great thinkers and scientists who moved beyond dogmatic skepticism.  Finding a Creator did not suddenly make them scientific and intellectual weaklings.  Newton was no weakling.  Descartes was no weakling.  Pascal was no weakling.  Bacon was no weakling.  Einstein was no weakling.  Francis Collins is no weakling.  Hawking notwithstanding, we do “have need of that [the God] hypothesis”, now more than ever.

Pax tibi, amice!  (Peace be with, my friend!)

Transitions

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves.  We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

Anatole France, French author and philosopher.

“There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.”

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindberg the aviation pioneer.

“Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.”

Alvin Toffler, American futurologist and author.

(Photo credit: emindful.com)

(Note: Biblical citations in this piece are taken from The Kingdom New Testament as translated by Anglican theologian and Bible scholar N.T. Wright.)

The list of certainties in life is very short: birth, death, and change.  Some people add taxes to that list.  However, it is theoretically possible to conceive a life without taxes, and we are told by anthropologists that in primitive societies they didn’t exist – although contributions to the common weal were expected.

I suppose birth is not even inevitable if we accept that a child in the womb is alive, but may not make it to birth.  Of course, this has become a very uncomfortable and largely ignored subject in polite progressive societies like Canada, but scientifically there is no denying that an unborn child is alive.  The US is not as “polite” as Canada, so this subject is still a hot public one there.  But we will not follow that trail today, as worthy a discussion as it is to have.

The US has just undergone a very important change, a transition from one President to another, with the legislative reins of power also significantly shifting from Republican to Democrat hands.  Some readers of this blog are doubtless also going through major life-changes, transitions from one chapter to another.  All of us, young or old, rich or poor, famous or ordinary folks, partnered or single, are going through change, experiencing transition.  As Henry Ford once said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”

Our three citations above all point to different facets of how everyone experiences transition.  I could have given many more.  I will simply add the gist of a few of them: “… [the] gate of change…can only be unlocked from the inside” (Marilyn Ferguson); “Most of us are about as eager to change as we were to be born…” (James Baldwin); and finally, a famous one, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” (Alphonse Karr)

Toffler speaks of change “invading” our lives.  This is because most of us, if we reach a place of comfort and ease, or just plain old being used to how things are even if they are pretty dismal, like “the devil we know rather than the devil we don’t know”.

Anne Lindbergh, who went through horrendous pain in her personal life, knew what she was talking about when she said that resisting the inevitability of change brings on “implacable punishment”.  In her case, she was speaking of deep grief never being able to bring back her once fairy-tale life after her dead child was kidnapped and killed and her family destroyed.  Anyone who has lost what is most loved and precious either learns this truth or ends up emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually destroyed.

It is easy to be philosophical about change as you observe it from afar.  It is a far different thing when I am the one in the midst of it.  When it involves great pain, loss, and prolonged suffering, whether physical, mental, or spiritual (and they are inextricably interwoven in the long run), philosophy becomes very thin.  At that point, survival becomes primary.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s paradigm of loss and grieving comes into play with all its messiness. 

There are many variables in how individuals, groups, and whole societies undergo transition and change.  There is no fixed template.  Kubler-Ross’s brilliant synopsis, nuanced since then by her and others, remains a tremendously helpful reference point, allowing that there is no clean order in which the phases occur, the length of time they may endure, or the intensity of the feeling.

“Navigating” change and transition is a helpful analogy.  Traveling the road of transition and change is much more like a voyage in an old sailing ship than in a vessel equipped with powerful engines to combat the forces of nature.  Even powerful modern ships are often blown off their planned course.  “Nature” and Life do not play by our rules.  Life is embedded in Nature and not governed by how humans hope, yearn, and strive to control its course and outcome.

With few exceptions, none of us knows ahead of time when “the end” will come.  Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra famously sang “I did it my way!” with more than a little autobiographical hubris.  I suspect that upon reaching the other side we find that what awaits us is not about “doing it my way” anymore, and in fact never was.  A very old aphorism says, “You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.”  If all you have is now and then you go into oblivion, perhaps the complete ego-centrism of “doing it my way” and telling everyone else that they can just go down “the highway [to Hell? – as per ACDC]” – has appeal.  But the deadness at the centre of such a life kills what is essentially human even for atheists.

“Doing it my way” is described by the Biblical author Kohelet (King Solomon’s pen-name) as “chasing after the wind.”  You can never catch up to it or cage it.  We like to think we are quite clever because we have found some technology to make the wind work for us when it is blowing the right way.  But we always rediscover that, as Jesus described the work of God’s Spirit, “The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.” (John’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 3, Verse 8.)

We can never really have it all our own way.  There is indeed a highway to Hell.  Jesus once described it like this.  “The gate that leads to destruction is nice and wide, and the road going there has plenty of room.  Lots of people go that way.  But the gate leading to life is narrow, and the road going there is a tight squeeze.  Not many people find their way through.”  (Matthew’s Gospel in the The Kingdom New Testament, Chapter 7, Verse 13.)

Born of the spirit.  That’s the difference between insisting I do it my way and everyone else can just take “go to Hell”, and discovering a life full of greater meaning and enduring fulfillment.  Humans are spiritual beings, but many of us spend our lives neglecting or even denying the inner source of our life.  When we do that, change become hell, because the darn old world and cosmos keep insisting that we’re not in charge, no matter how carefully we strive and contort ourselves to make the reality we want happen.

That is the deep truth that Anne Lindbergh was referring to when she said, “There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.” 

That is what Anatole France was driving at when he said, “We must die to one life before we can enter into another!”

The future will “invade our lives” as Toffler said.  And when it comes, if we have not prepared to meet it with openness and grace, it will “punish us” and perhaps even destroy the life we led up until that time.

We will conclude these reflections with another saying of Yeshua/Jesus that is really the last word about changing, for it speaks of the only way to really change permanently to open the road to birth into what the Creator made us to be.

“Let me tell you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus [to a Jewish leader named Nicodemus two thousand years ago].  “Unless someone has been born from above, they won’t be able to see God’s kingdom.”

“How can someone possibly be born,” asked Nicodemus, “when they’re old?  You’re telling me they can go back a second time into the mother’s womb and be born, are you?”

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” replied Jesus.  “Unless someone is born from water and spirit, they can’t enter God’s kingdom.  Flesh is born from flesh, but spirit is born from spirit.  Don’t be surprised that I said to you, You must be born from above.  The wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound it makes; but you don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to.  That’s what it’s like with someone who is born from the spirit.”

(Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verses 3-8)

Water

“… a mist went up from the earth which watered the entire surface of the ground.” – Genesis 2:6 – Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)

Fog. Vapour suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface, obscurity caused by this…

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964

Mist. Water vapour descending in fine drops smaller than raindrops and causing obscuration of the atmosphere. Ibid.

H₂O.  Water.  Water gives life.  Life needs water.  Science fiction and fantasy aside, everything we know about life requires water for it to exist, to come into being, to persist in being, to evolve, according to both the evolutionary and the creationist paradigms of life.

You may have seen episodes of science fiction series and films in which life somehow has come to be in crystalline or gaseous (not water-vapour) form.  There is no evidence for that anywhere, and no science that can even propose how it could ever happen.  Such episodes have crossed from science and even science-fiction into shear fantasy.

Even the standard evolutionary tale we have been given for the last 160 years since Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is not so much science or even science fiction as science fantasy.  Somehow all the gaps and “missing links” are filled in without much more to go on than some fragments and deposits often found in the wrong geologic sequence but pry-barred into appropriate position in the chronology to maintain the tale.  Meanwhile, the Flood Story is relegated to some sort of Jungian “collective, species memory” engraved in our genes by our remote ancestors fleeing in terror from a local cataclysm.  More pry-barring!

Micro-evolution is indisputable.  It is observable.  “Extinction events” are indisputable.  They too are observable and the geological evidence is everywhere.  But macro-evolution is highly disputable, as even honest evolutionist academics will admit.  They will justify it because “there is no other possibility” in a materialist, closed universe – as Stephen Hawking famously did in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.

Let us therefore admit that our a priori presuppositions create “obscuration of the atmosphere”.  Let us admit that every culture and people since time immemorial has operated with such presuppositions and that now, in this Age of Reason and Science, our presuppositions have obscured the perception of the fine, delicate mist which envelopes us and, in its quiet omnipresence, has become invisible to us.

Here we have an amazing fact – a blue and green water and oxygen clothed planet teeming with life, a water-based system which is so delicately balanced to renew and replenish itself that, allowed to function as it is designed to do, and as long as good ole Sol, our local star, keeps doing its regular thing, it closely approximates the mythical “perpetual motion machine” imagined by early modern physicists operating under a Newtonian paradigm.

However, “unNewtonianly”, it is not an inanimate “machine” but a pulsating, living, breathing oneness, a co-dependent, interdependent and incredibly wonderful, beautiful, miraculous contradiction of everything that mindless matter and chaotic energy should ever produce, regardless of however many eons of time may be allotted by those seeking to open the door to it without conceding that other option – a Creator-Designer-Executor.

We have made ourselves spiritually and intellectually blind to the “mist [going] up from the earth which water[s] the entire surface of the ground”.  The presence of water ensures life, and water vapour is physically present in every nook and cranny of planet earth –“the entire surface of the ground”—even in the hottest and coldest, remotest deserts. 

Two thousand years ago, a man named Yeshua said some outrageous things about water and himself.  He called himself “the water of life”.  He said that if we would drink of the water that he gives to drink, we would never thirst again.  He said that it—He!—would give us eternal life.

Once, to show his intimate connection to and command over water, the very essence of life, he wordlessly (as far as we know, although he may have prayed some silent words) changed about three hundred liters of water into the finest wine at a wedding feast.  Many would love to have a power like that at their command!

On another occasion, he commanded the wind and waves of a violent storm to be still, and they became so. There were twelve eye-witnesses to this event. Who can command both air and water?

As to the water-into-wine story, some have tried to understand why Yeshua, a much revered holy man, made it possible to keep a crowd of people happily tipsy at a days-long wedding celebration when the standard image of his followers is that they’re such party-poopers and sour-pusses when it comes to celebrating and cutting loose.  I certainly don’t subscribe to some of the more dour interpretations of this indubitably real event in Yeshua’s public life in ancient First-Century Israel.  Contrary to such sanctimonious interpolations, it was not non-alcoholic wine he made!  Sorry, but that is Queen Victoria era evangelical theology talking anachronistically.  In its details, with the singular exception of having a real-life prodigy-worker in its guest-list, it is entirely consistent with the Jewish culture and society of that time.  And Jesus was fully a First Century Palestinian Jew.

I have my own theory about the marriage at Cana episode where this transformation occurred.  Water means life and wine means enjoying it.  Yeshua wanted to gladden the hearts and lift the souls of the people there in a time when life was really pretty hard and often grim. 

Which raises many questions, such as, “Why did the Creator make a universe with life?  Why did the Creator make (material) life such that it cannot be without water?”  Here on Planet Earth, the only world of life we know, and the only one where life can in some respect know the Creator and be in personal relationship with Him, water is a physical testimony to the Creator’s omnipresence and our total dependence on Him.

The judgment on land life of Noah’s time and tale was by water, the very means and primary agent of life.  Life was given via water in the beginning –whether you believe in direct act of creation or a process of (Divinely-directed?) evolution.  Life was temporarily erased from the land (but not the water) by the Creator’s direct action, just as it was His direct word which made it in the first place by calling life out of the waters He had separated “in the beginning” (see Genesis Chapter 1). 

The cause of the cleansing of the Noahic Deluge was the depravity of humanity. Humans had betrayed their mission to cause earthly life to flourish and abound and to care for it.  They had so polluted and befouled the land that the Creator decided to purify the land.  Although He would leave a remnant to regenerate it, God knew that the root of corruption in human hearts was not really healed.

But the permanent healing and restoration of the earth and of humanity’s brokenness requires a new kind of water.  This water would fill the heart, renew the mind, and give eternal life to the spirit so that broken, polluted human nature would be healed and conformed to the image of Himself God had put there in the first place.  Mere physical water cannot do this.

To make it happen, the Creator came in person as Yeshua, Israel’s promised Mashiach (Messiah) who brought the water of life—Himself!  Coming into direct relationship with the Creator’s “Son” – an actual living, flesh-and-blood human being who would bridge the chasm between the Creator and His creation.  The spiritually renewing water heals the heart and fills the soul.

One of the most poignant water stories in the New Testament concerns a meeting between Yeshua and a woman of Samaria at a town well.  It is found in John’s Gospel, Chapter 4.  It was to this lost woman whose life was a mess and who was an outcast that Yeshua said that He could give water that would quench the inner thirst.  It was Himself, as healer and renewer and redeemer—Israel’s and the world’s Messiah!

That offer is still valid and open to anyone who wants such water, such life everlasting.  “Come to me all who are loaded down [burdened] and heavy-laden [with cares and troubles of whatever type] and I will give you rest for your souls…. I will give you water for your spirit such as will heal your heart for good and bring you into eternal life.” (That last bit is my interpolation.)

Thus, it is no accident that you absolutely must have water to live, both physically and spiritually.  You need it for cleansing, healing, comforting, soothing, warming, cooling, nurturing, and on and on. 

Let us open our eyes to see through the fog and see, and be enveloped in God’s omnipresent mist.  Open your ears to hear His waves splashing and crashing all around you.  Be reminded when you look at a river, sit by a shore, paddle on a lake, sail on the big waters, take a refreshing drink when you are parched, or when taking your shower or bath to cleanse your body.  Receive the water that washes you clean, inside and outside.

And thank God that He has put water everywhere to remind you constantly that He is very near, as the Muslims put it, “Closer than your jugular vein!”

Shalom!

Breath

“Yes, everyone, no matter how firmly he stands,

is merely a puff of wind.

Humans go about like shadows:

their turmoil is all for nothing.

They accumulate wealth, not knowing

who will enjoy its benefits.”

Psalm 39: 6b-7, The Complete Jewish Bible

Photo credit: ledgerinsights.com

It is rare for a child, a youth, or a young adult to think they are “merely a puff of wind” and they “go about like shadows”.  I doubt that the obscenely wealthy, (e.g. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos) give much consideration that “their turmoil is all for nothing” and that all their immense riches will one day pass beyond their control to someone(s) who may completely overturn whatever they had conceived should be done with it.

But really now, who can conceive of amassing a personal fortune of $200 Billion?  That’s greater than the GDP of a host of poor and small countries, or several of such countries combined, being in the bank and investment accounts of a single person!  Think of all the works of mercy and compassion it would be possible to do with such means available!  You could relieve much of the poverty on earth, finance hundreds and even thousands of worthy research and development projects to relieve suffering, etc…  But I guess you don’t create a personal fortune of such stupendous size based on a philanthropic disposition. 

People of mega-wealth should heed the story of King Solomon of ancient Israel.  He lived in the late 10th Century BCE and, building on the great success and empire that his warrior father King David had left him, accumulated an incalculable treasure, built immense works of prestige to show it and his power off, including a gold-plated Temple to Israel’s God (but only after he had built a shatteringly opulent palace complex), fathered dozens of sons and daughters through his hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of wives and concubines whom he kept in his vast palace complex, and no doubt expected that all this would endure long after he died because he believed he was in a virtually impregnable position based on a prophetic promise from God to his Dad.

Solomon is said to have written the fascinating Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes as he neared his end.  If so, he seems to have had a sort of late-great awakening to the total vanity of all his efforts to create more and more wealth and show off his power and riches and reputed wisdom to all far and wide. 

Ecclesiastes has some priceless passages worth reading whether you believe in God or not.  Its opening line is a real attention-getter: “Vanity!  Vanity!  Everything is vanity!”  or “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”  Look it up some time if you are ready to consider why you’re on planet Earth and what you want your life to have meant when you stop blowing your “puff of wind”.

In Hebrew, the word for wind also means breath.  Each time you exhale, you are emitting a tiny bit of wind to mark the passage of another few moments of your brief-candle-life.  (We won’t mention the other body part associated with “breaking wind”.)  When you can no longer give an “answer blowing in the wind” (Bob Dylan), time’s up!

You and I are not Musk, Bezos, or Solomon, but we have the same questions to ask and answers to seek.  What will be the meaning and legacy of our “three score and ten, or, if you are strong, four score” (70-80) years on our tiny glorious Gaia-ball in the Cosmos? 

Mssrs. Musk and Bezos, and a host of others I’m sure you could name, and some whom you probably know personally with much less but much more than enough for anyone, are zealously busy accumulating and amassing “stuff”, power, and prestige as their life’ passion.  They probably think they know and can control “who will enjoy its benefits” when their breath gives out.  No doubt clever lawyers and accountants are devising ways and means for their wills to reach out from the grave (or urn) to direct the disposition and use of their massive fortunes, perhaps even in some posthumous works of charity to allay some of what may be a glimmer of inconvenient conscience.  We can always hope.

But Solomon’s story and all of history’s tales of such intentions almost always belie such ideas and hopes.  In Solomon’s case, as in most similar cases since, it all came down to what his heir(s) would actually decide to do with the greatest fortune the world had yet seen to that time, despite what the Big Boss had willed.  The Bible says that Solomon was richer than anyone had ever been and could imagine.  Historically, we have no reason to think that wasn’t true.  People who don’t like the Bible may dismiss it just because it’s a Bible story, but that’s their problem and loss.  According to the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes, Solomon certainly acted like the richest man of all time.   

Presumably, Solomon’s principal heir was very carefully chosen after due process.  Or, perhaps not, given that so much else that ended up happening even while the Great King was alive seemed to have come from a sort of moral and intellectual deterioration and negligent arrogance that set in as he got richer and richer and more and more powerful. 

The young heir’s name was Rehoboam, one of his sons.  Other than that, we have no information as to his qualifications for the job of Israel, Inc.’s new CEO and major shareholder.  Upon assuming power, he needed to be acknowledged by the other major stakeholders – much like a new Corporate CEO or major owner needs to get a vote of confidence these days upon taking over the reins (in Reho’s case, the “reign”).  The “Board of Directors” of “Ancient Israel, Inc.” was the chief tribal elders.  They asked Reho what his policies would be – more of the same as dear old Dad, or was he prepared to give them a break from the escalating taxes and levies and compulsory labour that had been the cornerstone of Solomon’s super-wealth?  The heir asked for a few days to consult and think about it. 

He went to two sets of counselors – the Old Boys who had guided Dad, and whom Solomon had increasingly ignored as he aged, and his own crowd of young bucks chomping at the bit to get their teeth into the pie and enjoy all the perks and advantages of having climbed to the top of the heap on the coattails of the New Boss.  So much of this is so familiar today in both government and any significant business.  The Old Guard advised restraint, a time to ease up and give the ordinary people a break.  The Young Guard said, “No way!  Show them who’s boss now!  Be even tougher than Dad!”

Rehoboam wanted to make his mark and went along with his buddies.  The outcome was and is completely predictable – revolt!  The stakeholders /major shareholders told him, “Enough already!  From here on, you’re on your own.  We’re splitting the company and already have a new CEO ready to take charge up north.  We no longer recognize your authority and will not contribute a dime more to your lust for gold and power.”

As per real life today, it was not long before the main competition smelled blood.  The CEO of Egypt Inc. moved in and made a hostile takeover of Judah, Inc., the much reduced southern by-product of Israel, Inc.  North Israel, Inc. kept the name “Israel” and most of the shares and power.  Rumor had it that Egypt’s CEO had played more than a small role in the whole dirty business.  From then on, things were never good between the former partners.  (Sounds just like modern life with its political, business, and family squabbles.)

Pharaoh, Egypt’s CEO, simply stripped Judah Inc. of all its best stuff and then calculatingly dumped it back into the hands of the incompetent management of Judah, Inc., figuring he could walk back in for more whenever he found it convenient.

Did anyone learn anything in all this?  Debatable.  The same pattern repeated itself over and over for centuries in both Judah, Inc. and North Israel, Inc., until finally two super-powers simply took them over lock, stock, and barrel.  It’s no different now in business and commerce, politics and families.

Back to breath.  Ultimately, breath is the gift of the Creator to every living being.  We are told [in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 of the Bible] that as the crowning touch to His work, “God formed a person [adam] from the dust of the ground [adamah] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being” made “in the Creator’s own image”.  What sets the breath of humankind apart from that of other living creatures?  It is that the “living being” called human is made to be like, to reflect, to mirror God in the creation.

As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have the opportunity to aim at becoming what we were originally intended to be.  We can choose to use that breath, which in Hebrew also designates the living essence of who and what we are, to act like the Creator’s agents and image-bearers or to pursue what Solomon and every other great potentate and magnate has typically pursued in place of that.

One day, when the breath of life which is God’s greatest gift to us leaves these “puff of wind” bodies, we will face the Creator to give an answer for “the deeds done in the body” as the New Testament puts it.  One thing we know for sure is that heaps of wealth, satiation of pleasures, and lust for stuff and prestige and power manipulation will not impress the One who made us to reflect His intention for what He made.

For you and me, as long as we have breath there is still time to heed Solomon’s conclusion to a life very largely misspent (his own “famous last words”).  He had finally seen that he had messed it up terribly, despite having been handed all the means and opportunity to make it count for something immeasurably better.  At the last, he knew it and said:

“So remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. Here is the final conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God and keep his mitzvot [Hebrew word often translated as “commandments” but which means far more—good deeds, general principles for living a good life]; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or evil.”

Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 12:1,13,14

Scary!  Time to get ready!

Cat’s Eyes

© Vince Marquis

(Photo credit, Nature Canada)

How beautiful this day has been!  Quiet and peaceful down by the river, listening and being with the birds and small creatures, reading and dozing pleasantly in company with my Most Special.  The river moves around and through the rocks and boulders, eddying along the shore, cool and soothing to the spirit as it gurgles and splashes, ever constant and ever changing.

In mid-July the bugs have mostly gone, while our little gazebo on our tiny islet provides just enough shelter from any persisting little blood-suckers and biters still seeking our tasty flesh.  Since early afternoon we have enjoyed our haven, the sun shining off the moving, shimmering water, and dappling the shores and their slopes with an ever-changing artistry.

If we get too warm, our little bathing pool awaits along with at least a score of young fish who come curiously to see if we have anything for them.  If not, they will try a little nibble at a mole or spot that looks like a grub or little worm on our legs or torso.  Disturb a rock here and there, and the crayfish scamper away to seek shelter.  These little pinchers have a surprisingly hard nip if you tempt them with a finger.

There are frogs along the shallows – leopards mostly but a few bulls too.  The two do not mix, for the leopards know that their big dull-green cousins will happily make a meal of them.  The leopards are energetic in their hunting, while the bulls mostly sit stalk-still waiting for unwary prey.  Both species like damsel- and dragon-flies, or deer- and horse-flies, the staple of their diet at this time of year.  But they are opportunists and will snag anything they can swallow that comes within range of their lightning fast tongues or a powerful kick and thrust of their rear legs through the water.  How incredibly fast are their reflexes and precise their brains in computing those flies-in-flight trajectories! 

Every once in a while we may catch sight of one of the neighbourhood turtles, painted or snapping.  If the snapper is around, it is time to be cautious about venturing into the water, but she is very shy, while we are happy to observe her sly movements as she seeks a good hunting hide-away.  Froggies beware!  And perhaps a rat-snake will pass through, maybe even sunning itself on a flat rock.

The great blue heron may occasionally glide into the shore-weeds along the other bank and take post in its own frog-hunt or fishing sally.  Perhaps mother wood-duck will tootle along with her gaggle of fuzzy little cuties.  Or Mr. Ferret will nimbly hop and jog along the shore.  All in all, frogs have a lot to look out for – even raccoons! 

The pileated woodpeckers are never far off, frequently making the rounds of their best boring trees with the most grubs and wood-digging pest-nests.  Their patient, solid knocking is easy to recognize, while their smaller relatives, the downies, rat-a-tat like cartoon Woody.  And many other birds can be heard with their various chirpings, cooings, and buzz-songs.

The hawks have been nesting atop one of the big, tall trees and we can hear the parents calling the hawklets in their piercing cry, coaxing the young to practice flying.  Sometimes we get to see them.  Hawks always return to the same nests if they can, so they are regulars.

As wonderful as all this “regular” riot of nature’s life all around us is, it is not quite la pièce de résistance.  Every once in a blue moon, there are true rarities that only presence and patience can harvest by being there serendipitously at the right time.  Over the years, we have seen the sort of stuff which most people will never see in their whole lives, even if they are wilderness trekkers. 

Perhaps an indomitable nature photographer may catch something of the sort.  There was Mother Otter with three kits coming down the river to play around our special standing rock in our pool, delighting my spouse as she stands on the rock revelling in their game and very quietly “chatting” with the boldest of the three gambolling young-uns.  For an instant, their eyes lock, the playing baby wide-eyed and tremulously curious, unsure, just a meter from her fingertips, until Momma chatters to back off and the family jauntily turns about to head back upriver to their den.

Or the time when she heard a great splashing coming downriver from behind her and turned to see a yearling deer bounding in panic as a large coyote was in hot pursuit.  Her sudden “Hey!” to the coyote balked it while the deer caught a break and raced onto the opposite shore and up the wooded hill before the coyote could regain its stride.  She had given the losing dear a few precious seconds, maybe just enough.  The coyote returned to his hunt, but now with far less chance of catching his prey.  “Interfering in the natural order!” you might say.  Our natural sympathies favour the underdog, I guess.  Maybe it’s the old human fear of wolves who hunted our ancestors.

Unfortunately for me, I missed the otters and hunting coyote dramas.  These are my spouse’s special moments.

We have both had encounters with bear cubs down there, Momma Bear not in sight, I with two grand-daughters in tow.  For obvious reasons, these are not comfortable encounters.  In P’s case, the cub got so close that she took refuge with her cell-phone up a nearby tree and called me to come rescue her with something very noisy to scare the bruins away.  We keep boat-horns to blast if there is any real danger, but the horn hadn’t worked!  I resorted to the weed trimmer running at full-tilt, and it did the trick!  Lesson learned to check the horns regularly.  They are actually much better and safer than bear-spray – or a clumsy weed-trimmer.  We take these dandy super noise-makers with us when wilderness canoeing.

My personal summit of sightings was two summers  past with a creature so rare to encounter that I was at first quite incredulous that it had really happened.  It was at the end of the particularly idyllic day in question above.  It was the day before P’s birthday, and she and I had quite enjoyed our afternoon together.  She went back to the house ahead of me to put supper on the table.  I was savouring the last half hour or so before heading back. 

Finally, it was time to go.  I gathered my things and got off my chaise-longue, putting on my clogs.  I rose and picked up my day-pack, then exited the gazebo.  It was a lovely evening just before the sun really begins to retire.  I stood quietly, just listening to the river’s soothing patter and savouring the fresh evening air.  I took a few steps to the flat rock that is our step as you go down into the water.  There was some extra splashing coming from the right, and from the corner of my eye there was movement a good way off.

When I turned my head to see what it was, I perceived a large animal in mid-stream, about 75 meters away.  I could not quite fathom what it was – tawny beige colour, too short for a deer, too big for anything else in my categories of “the usual suspects” of river denizens and neighbours.  Right general size for a middling bear, but totally wrong colour.  A really big dog?  This animal was lunging about in the deeper pool down there.  It dawned on me; it was fishing!  Its movements were wonderfully graceful in a feline fashion.  What??? 

As it was turned away from me, I gazed intently, waiting for it to present itself in full profile as it continued to poise for successive plunges.  Certainly no deer, or dog, or wolf-kind!  Catlike in movement and grace and poise.  Then it turned full sideways and I clearly saw the curve of its back, the long, furry tail with the end-tuft rising in that very catlike manner, and, finally, the massive head.  Cougar!!  No possibility of mistaking this top-of-the-food-chain monarch!  Full-grown and quite large, archetypical specimen in size, colour, form, and grace.  Absolutely awesome!

He turned his head, sensing he was being watched.  He had not scented me, for the breeze was from him to me, and I had been stalk-still, entranced, transfixed!  He saw me and his yellow eyes locked onto mine.  Neither moved, but there was an electric moment of contact and acknowledgement. 

“I see you there,” was what I sensed from him.  I should perhaps have been afraid.  After all, if he had decided to change his menu to go for bigger game, he was far faster than I, and trees and logs are no obstacle to a creature who climbs trees like a baboon.  But I felt an uncanny calm.  My own sense was, “You are king of your domain, but I, the human, am your master in God’s order of things.” It was not a contest of wills or a challenge.  It was a moment of mutual recognition.  Satisfied that I was no threat to him, he turned once more to his graceful fishing venture.  I decided that it was a good time to make my way home.  No hurry, no running to convey fear, just keep a good pace and go quietly, leaving him to enjoy his mastery of the land that evening.  For my part, I felt like I had been hugged and kissed by the Creator.

What Trees Say

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—there are consequences.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, American Free Thinker

I love trees.  I have lived in and among them for well over thirty years.  I love the “official” discovery of forest therapy, that spending two hours in the woods has a positive impact on your psychological disposition for up to a month.  And yes, this is a real thing, now established by legitimate scientific research.  Perhaps I should credit the forest with keeping me reasonably sane for the last three decades of my life!  My spouse would attest to the woods’ overall good influence on me, I’m sure.

But the forest is not just a spiritual, psychological, and emotional tonic and booster.  It’s a parable, a symbol, a home, a macro- and microcosm all rolled into one. 

We all know the saying, “(S)he can’t see the forest for the trees,” and its converse, “(S)he can’t see the trees for the forest.”  It’s all a matter of perspective, a question of being where you are and seeing what is there right at that moment. “Mindfulness” is the new buzzword for a very old practice.

I’m not a certified forester or a trained arborist by any means, but over the years I have learned something about the trees I find in eastern Ontario, where I live, and am always interested in those I find on my travels, wherever these have taken me.

I suspect that for most Canadians and even most of the earth’s human inhabitants, trees are just a vegetative part of the natural landscape to be assumed—or perhaps noted by their absence, or lamented because of the human propensity for over-zealously cutting them down and (ab)using their abundance.  According to National Geographic and treefoundation.org, just about 50% of the earth’s land surface was once forest-covered and just under 50% of that 50% has now been cut down by human exploiters.

I’m not among those who decry all tree-cutting as evil.  I’m not a tree-hugger and I use a chain-saw when necessary. Trees are like every other living thing – they are “born” (“germinate”, as plants), they grow, they mature, they die over time.  Some have shorter and some have longer life cycles.  Some die early because of disease or injury, some are misshapen and deformed and therefore not strong enough to survive through a normal life cycle. Some are just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nature culls its own “problem children” and careful human herders cull the deformed, sick, and old of their flocks.  Natural events such as tornados, hurricanes, fires and floods wipe out vast expanses of forest without any human aid (although humans cause about half of all forest and bush fires now).  For humans to use trees to provide shelter and fuel is not an evil thing.  Animals of many kinds use the trees to live and we do not proclaim them evil exploiters. Some even cut or rip them down (e.g. beavers, elephants). But only humans can choose to wantonly destroy and use the gentle giants of the plant kingdom just for pleasure and luxurious overconsumption. 

If we take a walk in the woods or forest, or camp out in the wilderness surrounded by these majestic plants, most of us hardly give a thought to the idea that each of the trees we find around the lakes, rivers, streams, and mountains is an individual entity.  Of course, as far as we know, they are not a self-aware, conscious sort of being with a personality and with which we can form a mutual recognition, like we can with many animals, but they certainly have an individuality, an individual history, a species-character that differentiates them from other kinds of trees.  A spruce, pine, fir, poplar, birch, maple, apple, ash, oak, elm, or ironwood (all varieties I find readily close to home, plus many others) are not the same.  You tell them apart by what they look like, how they grow, what they produce, the character of their wood, etc. – very much like we do with animal species and, dare we say, human beings!

And there are multiple varieties (sub-species) within each of the sorts of trees mentioned above, just as people of one ethnicity can also widely vary, or dogs of one breed.

But we can only carry the analogy so far.  Aside from their majestic beauty, the quality of trees that most impresses me is their steadfastness, their dependability, their sturdy life-force, their continuing presence.  They won’t run away because storms come up and hard times set in.  They hang in there and stick with the role and the job they have been given by the Creator, or “Nature” if you prefer. 

If I can have a plant-friend, trees are it.  They have been with me and my family for decades.  I have learned to recognize them and value each species regardless of its being coniferous (evergreen, “softwood”) or deciduous (leaf-bearing in season, “hardwood”).  I have also learned something about how to cull.

When culling (cutting them down), they need to be treated with respect.  They are not tame.  They can hold secrets—even dangerous secrets—that can suddenly jump out and lash you, even imperil your very life.  There are lots of stories I could relate—mine and those of friends or relatives—on that score.

You may not live in the woods or forest, but I’m sure you can find many parallels in life and nature to this our human role on the amazing and miraculous planet we inhabit.  As well as to the forest of your relationships among the most amazing creatures of all—your fellow human beings.

On the one hand, we all just kind of happen—come into the world unbidden by the coming together of two cells in a reproductive act.  Even plants have to cross-pollinate (most of them, at least).  At that level, it all seems random, just “the luck of the draw”.  But on the other, each of these entities is so miraculous and special, it is a miracle just in its being alive at all.  And there is so much incredible variety and, still, each person is unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable.  That person is there instead of a virtually infinite number of possibilities of others that could have been instead.

Think about that the next time when you’re relegating someone to the dustbin of your life as “such a jerk, a bother, a nasty person”, etc, or, on the other hand, when you’re appreciating them as so wonderful and special.  You did nothing to deserve to exist, nor did they, but there you are.  Both of you and all of us are here by the pure and simple grace of the Creator.  Even if you believe we are all just random evolutionary outcomes, you have to be blown away by what you see and find, out of all the incalculable possibilities! 

To me, and most people, it takes a heap more faith to believe that you and I and the trees and all the rest were just spit out by the Big Bang in some sort of totally chance + time defiance of all probabilities than to see what seems so clearly the design and act of a Presence and Being wanting it all to be. My friends the trees constantly remind me of my proper place in the big-scale of things

2020-2021 and Hope

“Those who have never been ill are incapable of real sympathy for a great many misfortunes.”

André Gide (French novelist and playwright).

“It is easy for the one who stands outside the prison-wall of pain to exhort and teach the one who suffers.”

Aeschylus (ancient Greek playwright)

(Image credit – Dani Pettrey)

No one who has lived through and is old enough to remember it will forget 2020 – the “Plague Year” of a century.  We tend to forget that there have been many plague years in human history, and many far worse both in absolute numbers of victims and in proportion. 

But saying, “There have been many worse times,” is no comfort to the loved ones of those who have fallen victim to this latest iteration of the fourth (pale, pestilence) horse and horseman of the Apocalypse (see Chapter 6 of the Book of Revelation in the New Testament).  Neither can we say, entering 2021, that it is over yet.

M. Gide (see opening quote) had an earned right to talk about sever illness based on his own experience in a rather tragic life.  I would add that those close to someone who is passing through the “Valley of the Shadow” very often truly begin to suffer with the sufferer.  Not the physical pain, but, as we now realize, the psychological and emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain can be just as acute and devastating.  Otherwise, what Gide says is totally true.

Compassion is a word derived from Latin – cum passione  – meaning “with intense feeling, with passion”.  It is the act of “feeling with”, being alongside someone in the depths of their suffering.  If we are not the direct victim of a serious illness or great misfortune, we do not know its suffering in the same way as its primary target, but we can still know very much what it means through the pain of seeing what it has done and is doing to someone we care for.  Grieving for and with a suffering dear one is a true and real form of intense suffering, and it begins even in the middle of a great ordeal.  From our cum passione presence with those suffering, we learn to have “real sympathy for a great many misfortunes”, even of a sort we have not lived with or had to help someone else through.  We come into a place of wanting to do and doing whatever we can to alleviate their suffering.

It is only by suffering the pain, the sickness, and the calamity ourselves, or by choosing compassionately and with a real commitment to enter and walk through the Valley of the Shadow with another, that we cease offering the inane sort of comfort Aeschylus refers to.  It is only by giving up some sort of right to “exhort, advise, adjust, and correct” the people in the Valley from outside “the prison-wall of pain” that we actually begin to become compassionate people.  The best birthing coaches are women who have been there.  The best addiction counselors are former, “recovering” addicts.  The most merciful people are those who have received great mercy.

Generally, the deeply suffering don’t need more banal advice such as “keep up the good fight” and “don’t give up hope”.  Advice, encouragement, and exhortation best comes from people who have earned the right to give it.  In any specific life, they are actually few.  It becomes irksome and (maybe not just a little) irritating to have “wisdom and insight” offered by people who mean well but are not really part of the sufferer’s journey.  Assuredly “experts” with special knowledge have their place, but it’s relationship that opens the door for the needy person to “have ears to hear with”.

General assurances of “thoughts and prayers” are of little worth.  Many people utter these clichés who rarely if ever pray.  The idea of sending positive thought-vibes too often flees our conscious minds as soon as we move on to the next thing.  By all means express sympathy and concern if they are sincere, but refrain from empty assurances if you know you are unlikely to follow through.  You may feel more like a compassionate person in that moment, but the recipient will usually know what such declarations are actually worth by the sort of relationship you already have.  If, despite all that, you succeed in praying and sending “positive vibes” their way, great!  But don’t salve your bad conscience about your shallow relationship and spiritual life by declaring meaningless intentions.

Year-Ends and New-Year beginnings are full of banal good intentions.  For my part, I have given up making “resolutions” because I know that if I really mean to take care of myself and work on becoming a “better person”, I will put in the daily effort of deciding and doing what I need to one day at a time.  Overcoming temptation is always a one-at-a-time struggle to build up the spiritual and mental muscle I lack, just like building muscle mass to keep my body from deteriorating is a matter of doing the physical exercise involved every day. 

I am not without hope as we end 2020 and begin 2021.  But saying a bunch of nice-sounding but empty piety is not hopeful.  It is delusional.  “Saying so don’t make it so!”  As the Apostle James expressed it when talking about how compassion really works,

“Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm; be full!”—but doesn’t give them what their bodies need—what use it that?…. faith, all by itself and without works, is dead.”

James Chapter 2, verses 15-17, The Kingdom New Testament

Real hope is based on faith, and faith is not an empty leap in the dark – not even, in fact least of all – in Christianity.  Despite the caricature of Christian (and “religious”) faith so often used by sceptics and critics, some of them even within the Churches, the Bible never suggests “blind” faith.  The best definition of faith in the Bible, perhaps in all human expression in any language of any time, is this: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  In another translation, “It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.”  (Book of Hebrews 11:1 – New Testament.)

Scientists have just as much faith as any religious believer.  Everyone lives by faith in and about some things.  Otherwise, it is impossible to carry on.  For the scientist, reason and the scientific method give him/her faith about discovering “truth” and “reality” – facts that point to the big picture.  Contrary to the prevailing paradigm about science versus religion, they are not really so far apart.  At least not for Christianity and Judaism.

The source of hope in Christianity is available to all, regardless of “race”, class, gender, age, or any other human distinction one cares to suggest or invent.  It is also as factual as any fact of human experience can be.  The conflict is in that some (if not most) scientists of the modern and post-modern age classify it as a priori outside the realm of possible facts.

I speak of the “miraculous” as attested by history, and specifically as pertaining to the person of Yeshua ben-Yosef of Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth to the world at large.  Hope for Christians is not a vague wish for better things to come.  It is an assurance based on a promise sealed in blood, and verified by the resurrection of Yeshua as God’s guarantee that He keeps His word.  He had promised He would redeem broken humankind.  He sent His Son to do that and to show all how to return to Him and find their true worth and destiny.

Even in dark times like 2020, and there have been many much darker in many ways over  the centuries, the Creator has not departed.  He remains anchored among us through the presence of a living Redeemer, a presence shared far and wide wherever those who know Him bring His light.

May you know Him and His light more than ever as we leave 2020 behind and throughout 2021.