The Third Way, 16: True Truth

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“You have given me a mere handful of days, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight; truly, even those who stand erect are but a puff of wind.We walk about like a shadow, and in vain we are in turmoil: we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.”

Psalm 39: 6,7

Many Jewish and Christian scholars agree that parts of the Tanakh, which Christians call the Old Testament or Old Covenant, are probably the oldest written records of God’s relationship with humanity.  Advocates of other faiths would naturally dispute the honour.  Hindus say that the Rig Veda predates anything other religious written record.  Secularists disagree with all of them and point to Sumer and Egypt as the original cradles of “institutional” religion, while Muslims declare that all records prior to the Quran are distortions of the true message once revealed to the prophets Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad finally clarified and set down in its final, perfect form.

The truth behind the rival views is that the Creator is seeking restoration and healing of the brokenness in us and the creation we have been entrusted to guard, heal, cherish and tend into full flourishing.  Scholarship may help us assess which sources are most ‘original,’ but if there is truth to be found it must penetrate the heart and soul and resonate there in our innermost being, bearing fruit in keeping with its nature.

For the seeds we plant in our hearts and minds always bear fruit in keeping with their nature.  If we sow bitterness and anger, fear and rejection, competition and aggression, we reap their fruits and our actions become wounding, destructive, coercive, and even violent.  Jesus once said, “By their fruit you will know them,” and “If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

The old Western imperialism was straightforward—the superiority of the European, “Christian” civilization was clear and it was the “white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling put it, to enlighten the rest of humanity and teach them their place in the “natural order.”  The most horrendous example of this was, of course, Nazism’s attempt to assert the primacy of the “Master Race.”

Many would call Jesus the best and wisest human ever to have lived.  His method of assessing things and behaviours by their fruit is probably the surest way to move into the “spirit of truth,” upon which the Third Way depends.  Jesus also said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Finding “truth” in the 21st Century is perhaps the greatest conundrum we face.  It has been relativized into absurdity.  Two thousand years ago, a Roman judge facing Jesus asked him, “What is truth?”  We do not know enough about Pilate to say for certain if this was a cynical quip seeking no real answer, or a genuinely puzzled wish to explore the issue, but knowing there was no hope of pursuing it under the circumstances.

In our age we face a growing sense of cultural, social, environmental, and spiritual crisis. It overshadows human consciousness everywhere; there is no more critical question.  We seem far from any consensus regarding truth, and the fundamental divisions seem to be growing wider.  The ‘old truths’ are under siege, and, if there is any new truth, it shifts and reforms so quickly that it is like trying to catch your shadow.  The West is trapped in its Enlightenment paradigm of truth: reason-logic-science will lead us to it.  The West’s technological and economic ascendancy (now under threat from the rising stars of the Orient in particular) have engendered enormous backlash, even while those reacting to it adopt its main characteristics.

Has truth disappeared?  Is the search for it really a cynic’s game, as Pilate’s question implied?  Or is it that we have lost sight of it while it has been “hiding in plain sight?”  Is truth a mere convention arrived at by general consensus, and mutable as the consensus changes?

Evolution over billions of years is now the ‘accepted truth’ which represents the ‘consensus’.  Thus, humans and all the other living (and non-living) things are outcomes, end-products of the self-organizing and self-formulating properties of the essential energy that underlies everything.  The trend in evolutionary theory is to attribute some sort of proto-consciousness and will to matter.

It is a strange metamorphosis.  As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”  A useful philosophical principle called “Ockham’s Razor” suggests that the most obvious and simple solution to a logical, philosophical conundrum is usually the right one.  In this case, because the bankruptcy of a purely mechanistic and materialist explanation for the Cosmos and ourselves has become rather obvious, we now find even the most ardent believers in the Scientific Model of existence returning to attributing rather esoteric and mystical properties to matter and its sub-tending most fundamental energies—including quasi-consciousness and quasi-personal characteristics.  The Medieval Academic Ockham would forthrightly say, “Oh!  You mean God!”  But Stephen Hawking replies, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.” Instead, because the whole notion of God has become anathema a priori, we are left with sheer fanciful speculation about matter somehow being predisposed to organize itself to present the appearance of meaning and purpose.  Ergo, the Cosmos created itself ex nihilo.

As I stare into the newest contortions of circumlocution aiming to block the hoary old notion of a personal Deity reasserting itself after all the tremendous efforts of the last two centuries to erase even a trace of His/Her presence, I find myself ironically amused.  I also find myself weary, wishing the Creator would just appear and, as C.S. Lewis once put it in the metaphorical terms of a poker game, “OK boys, the game has gone far enough.  The Dealer is calling in the cards and reclaiming your chips before you are so far gone you totally wreck the place and are really convinced you are god.”  (Apologies to Lewis buffs: I have grossly misparaphrased the metaphor.)

 While the ‘Dealer’ will someday say, “Time’s up!” and call in the chips, He/She is far more patient than any of us, far more forbearing, and, as one New Testament version puts it, “Not willing that any should perish, but desires that all should be saved.”  The creation is on a clock, whether a short- or long-wound one.  Evolution says it has perhaps another fifty billion years to tick.  But humanity’s clock is unlikely to be so generous, and certainly our personal clocks are “but a brief candle,” with some of us much nearer burning out than others.

Why are we so averse to turning our faces to look the Creator in the face?  Why are we so wilfully unwilling to look at all that He/She has made and displayed in all its awful and awesome glory and splendor and see His/Her handiwork and signature?  Every day is a gift; every being a masterpiece. Yet we see mere forms and outer shells to be used and exploited for “personal peace and affluence,” as Francis A. Schaeffer puts it.  Or we attribute semi-magical properties to the components rather acknowledge the incredible worth of the Maker who allows us to gaze into His/Her very heart, soul, mind and strength, longing for us to come to Him/Her with our own hearts, souls, minds, and strength so we may know and be known and become the children the Creator made us to be.

Instead we engage in absurd and futile avoidance strategies, because we are addicted to our own petty ‘godhood’ which absolves us of real accountability.  It will not do to say we are a strange, temporary, personalized, and self-aware extrusion of the mysterious Cosmos.  Personhood is not a strange and inexplicable phenomenon allowing the essence of the Cosmos to futilely and dimly observe itself before it reabsorbs these ‘bubbles’ into the anonymous and amorphous ‘Om’ where there is only blissful impersonality which somehow knows all and nothing at the same time.  Personhood is a gift from the Creator which reflects His/Her own essence, and extends itself to love and be loved in return.  It is married to individuality—and we see both at work indivisibly everywhere we look.  It will not do to say that it is all mere maya, illusion masking ‘the Real.’

The meaning of things is not to become nothing.  It is to be born again in spirit and in truth, and for the body and soul to be truly one and healed in the embrace of our Maker.

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors

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The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors“God writes a lot of comedy, it’s just that he has so many bad actors.”  Garrison Keillor, American comedian quoted in Common Prayer, (Zondervan, 2010), p. 222

            By all appearances, we have painted ourselves into a corner.  There have been many bad actors involved in this self-inflicted crisis.  Perhaps the Divine perspective on this ‘comedy’ is a sort of irony that the Creator can see but seems lost on us poor wayward mortals.  We typically blame Him/Her for the tragedy of what we mostly do to ourselves and one another.  But, comedy, irony, or whatever we want to call it aside, I doubt that the Creator is laughing.

I suspect that we will only be able to see the ‘joke’ quite a bit farther down the road.  I am reminded of the catastrophic predictions of the famous “Club of Rome” in the early 1970s.  Mass famines and plagues as per Malthus anyone?  Then there was the Far-Right panic about a global Masonic takeover and One-World Government in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  And then there was the worldwide Y2K apocalypse panic which made billions for techies but was no more than a hyper-inflated burp.  And let us not forget the various 9/11 conspiracies (it wasn’t really Al-Qaeda, eh).  Finally, for Bible-thumpers, there is the perennial “Jesus is returning on Day X at 12 noon” and for Koran thumpers, the Mahdi is about to emerge any day. 

There are quite a few of us who would like to blame the Supreme Tragic-comedy Writer for the whole mess.  But then we would have to accept there is a Creator to blame.  Instead, it is more expedient (and atheistically consistent) to blame, at least in part, the poor, ignorant and benighted souls who still believe there is a Creator.  On the other side of that coin, believers in that mythical being can blame the fools who don’t believe there is a Creator, or the ones who do but believe in Him/Her the wrong way.  Whoever there is to blame, it is their fault because they have stubbornly opposed and resisted, and continue to oppose and resist (circle the correct answer, as per your chosen villain): (a) the kind of progressive measures that would save Planet Earth from the immediately looming climate change apocalypse, (b) acknowledging and submitting their lives to the Creator, or (c) getting themselves lined up with the real truth about the Creator and abandoning their errors.

Admittedly and regrettably, more than a few very conservative religious types, Christian and other, can be identified among the groups that latch most fervently onto the kinds of scenarios mentioned above (Y2K, etc.).  Too often and sadly, those boldly wearing the label “Christian” seem to be over-represented, but they are not the only ones to shouting, “The Barbarians are at the gates!”

Our latest doomsday prophecy is the Climate Apocalypse, impressively supported by the now official ideology of “climate change science”.  We have just been told that the world has twelve to fifteen years at most to turn things around and that in many respects we have already passed “the point of no return.”  We can all plead guilty to pillaging the planet’s hydrocarbon and forestry resources at a rate that cannot be sustained.  We are told that it is indubitably human action that is irreversibly desertizing enormous swaths of once-fertile land as we burn up the stored energy of the sun and emit enormous clouds of Green-House Gases which the earth’s forests, atmosphere, and oceans cannot cleanse fast enough.  We have been doing this recklessly and without forethought for the last 200 years, at least in that ‘land of the usual suspects,’ the West.

The ultra-alarmists on this one are not, this time, the neo-Fascist Neanderthals on the Far Right.  (Incidentally, we should stop slandering the poor Neanderthals, who, anthropologists now tell us, had larger brains than we do and were just as intelligent, did not drag their knuckles, and did not talk in inarticulate grunts, having fully evolved vocal capacity.)    To undo our Neanderthal slander, we should have our Parliaments and Congresses, and perhaps the UN, move official apologies to them and all their descendants, along with legislation for appropriate compensation.

The UN’s science directorate and various other official and semi-official organisms (a long list that continues to proliferate and clamor for funding) have reached the conclusion that whole small nations, and coastal regions of larger ones, are about to be flooded by torrents of glacier-melt-water causing rising sea-levels, while in the interior of the continents, heat-waves will wither and kill the vegetation, or burn it all because of uncontrollable wildfires.  Lakes and rivers will dry up by the thousands as ground water sinks in depth and quality.  Meanwhile, buried nuclear waste is a ticking time-bomb poisoning the substrata so that monstrous mutations will someday emerge and destroy whatever remains of ‘normal’ life.

Is there any way to gain a bit more objective perspective in the midst of this near-hysteria?  Between 1934 and ‘61, the brilliant British meta-historian Arnold Toynbee wrote A Study of History,an immense analysis of the patterns of history.  As a minor historian of sorts, I found and still find Toynbee’s attempt to synthesize and make sense of the whole human saga fascinating.  Toynbee exhaustively recounts the rise and fall of all the major civilizations throughout recorded history, beginning with the first empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, down to the modern day.  As he was completing his massive survey and synthesis, he was witnessing firsthand the final collapse of the European colonial empires, uncannily conforming to his observed pattern.

Toynbee proposes that one can only really get a grip on what is occurring in one’s own time, society, and culture by having a deep understanding of the repeated cycles of the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and civilizations through centuries and millennia.  Unfortunately in the 21st Century West, we have become blind and deaf to, and abysmally ignorant of, who and what we are and where we have come from.  Long-sighted historians have often said that the key to understanding the present is knowing the past.  Likewise, the key to forecasting the future is in knowing what people have typically done in response to similar circumstances in the past.  This procedure works pretty well overall because the constants in all such studies are human nature and human behaviour, neither of which have changed in any essential throughout recorded history.

But the West as a society and civilization no longer knows or values its past, let alone appreciates the values and beliefs that used to underpin its life.  Socrates once said that the key to living a good life was to “Know thyself.”  We no longer do and are close to reaching another “point of no return” from the one that our climatic eschatologists tell us we are swiftly approaching. 

This other point of no return is that of the wayward child who has repeatedly refused to come home, choosing to spend all his/her capital on false promises and hopes proffered by countercultural snake-oil salesmen and ideological Newthink, Newspeak, Soma.  It is a familiar story whose archetype can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 15 of the New Testament.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so, as it has been called the most effective short story every composed.  It is also a story offering hope when all seems lost.

Meanwhile, at this juncture of human history, we are on the cusp of a true, classic paradox.  The West’s leading ideological elite blame all the old ways and ideals and declare ‘all of THAT’ false and, worse still, the root cause of our ruthless pillaging of the planet.  But the irony is that, in more and more pockets coalescing below the materialist veneer of the dying civilization of the West, spiritual hunger and awareness is bubbling up and resurfacing.  There is a gut-hunger for reconnection with reality beyond the mere “quantum, random order-out-of-chaos somehow but for no reason we can discern” worldview that leaves us desperate to try anything.  A huge irony in it all which borders on comedy is that the West has lost control of reason, its most sacred, valued, and vaunted tool and bequest to the human tribe.

Arnold Toynbee diagnosed precisely where we were going sixty  and even seventy years ago.  There were others too, if any had really been listening—C.S. Lewis and even Winston Churchill among them.  For his part, Toynbee was clearly and accurately defining the stage our civilization and culture had reached—the evening shadows of a lingering empire that still had outward form and clung to the shadow of what it had once been.  But it was tottering on the brink, even then.

Toynbee says that civilizations finally collapse in one of two ways, both involving “barbarians”, “barbarians” being a term he deliberately chose to typify what happens at the end, and the ‘end’ is always humanly enacted.  The ‘end’ may appear to be sudden and swift, but it has almost always been slowly and gradually coming on, with a final kick administered by violent agents.  The barbarians may come from the outside or the inside, but they are barbarians nonetheless even if they are internally generated.  (Think French and Russian Revolutions for internal, and Goths and Huns for external.)

As a final thought today, it has become completely silly to blame God for our sorry pickle.  We virtually booted God out of the house after World War 2, yet we have the nerve to continue to revile Him/Her for what has happened.  Of course, God’s detractors had been reviling the Creator long before that horrific bloodletting.

It really is high time that those who decry where we are and what we have become stop blaming the non-existent and therefore, to their mind, impotent Deity, and also stop blaming those who still insist on remaining attached to the Creator, but who have been relegated to irrelevancy in their economy.  The anti-Creator faction has been in control now for long enough for Truman’s ‘buck’ to sit firmly on their desk.  In reality, no one wins the blame game.  As a Bible passage puts it in old language: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Sin”, in New Testament Greek, is a word which means “missing the mark or target; falling short”.

It matters not whether you are a Theist, Desist, Agnostic, Polytheist, Pantheist, or Atheist.  All of us are guilty of “missing it, falling short”.  If we listen to our consciences, they condemn us, every one of us, regardless of our starting presuppositions about the nature of reality.

The complete picture of our apocalypse is not merely about climate change’s “point of no return,” as dire as that may be.  Regardless, Planet Earth will survive humanity’s rape of its hydrocarbon resources.  Over time, it will regenerate if we eliminate ourselves in the ultimate tragicomic dénouement, or if we succeed in stopping our environmental barbarism.  But we need to read the real road-signs as we approach an even more critical junction.  To rightly read our trajectory into the future, we have to go much deeper into the heart and soul of the matter.  Which is where old-style sages like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, C.S. Lewis, and Arnold Toynbee can still help us.