Archive for the 'Religion' Category

19
Jan
09

My Auntie’s Dead

Not exactly how I wanted to kick off my return to the blogosphere, but so be it….


When I was a very little boy, my Aunt Patty, my mother’s older sister, used to take me with her everywhere.   I can still remember driving with her in the front seat of her blue 1959 Chevy Impala as she would run her various errands with me as her sidekick.  These excursions inevitably wound up with a treat for me, such as a candy bar, or, if I had been particularly well behaved, an ice cream.

One of these trips wound up at a local candy store.  The woman behind the counter took a shine to me, and asked me my name.  For reasons that, to this day, are really not clear to me, I replied, “Stephen Schwartz….and this is my Aunty Patty Schwartz”.

I have no idea where, at the age of three or four, I had even heard the name Schwarz, let alone why I decided at that point to adopt it as both my and my aunt’s nom de guerre.  But this story remained my aunt’s favorite over the years.  She told it at almost every family gathering, and seemed to especially relish the retelling whenever I introduced her to a new girlfriend.

She loved telling that story, but loved even more the memories of those days before she was married, before my sisters were born, when she could just pick me up at a moment’s notice and spend the day with me.

But I will never hear her tell that story again.  She died on December 30th, at the age of 73.

My Aunt Patty was living proof that life is not fair.  Over the course of her life she endured financial hardships brought about by circumstances beyond her control.  Her lifestyle was abstemious, and yet she suffered from a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and cancer.  Although she drank alcohol only occasionally, she suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, coming literally within hours of death before a new liver could be found.  And even though she never smoked a day in her life, she suffered from a lung disease which is what eventually killed her.

If anyone had a right to be angry and bitter at the hand life had dealt her, it was my Aunt Patty, and yet this was never the case.  The truth is that I never knew a more relentlessly cheerful woman.  While she came across as mild mannered, she was in truth one of the strongest and most resilient people I have ever known.  No matter what life threw at her, she handled it with unfailing grace and courage.

I remember how once, when I was visiting her during one of her  stays in the hospital when she was being treated for lymphoma, I remarked at how she always seemed to be in a good mood in spite of all the misfortune she had to endure.  She replied, “What’s the point in getting mad?  You take what life gives you and you do the best you can.  Every day that I‘m alive is a blessing.”  And I remember how amazed I was at how calm, even serene, she was in the face of everything she was going through.

And now she is gone.  I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that I will never see her again.  While I realize that death is part of life, it is still a very hard concept for me to get my mind around, that I could be close to someone for almost fifty years, that they could be a regular part of the landscape of my life, and then, suddenly, not be there.  Not now, not ever again.  There is now one less person in the world who loves me.

And there is, of course, the guilt.  As an adult, I became so preoccupied with my own life that I did not always have enough time for the Aunt Patty’s in my life.  I often wondered if her constant retelling of this story was her way of telling me, “We were close once.  Why aren’t we still that close?”

I have no excuses.  Laziness, apathy, and a tendency to put things off till tomorrow all lead to my denying this woman who loved me as a son something that would have made her happy: some time with me.  And no matter how guilty I now feel, I can’t give her that now.  It is too late.

I now wonder how much unhappiness I caused her.  She was on the phone every day with her sisters and friends.  Perhaps it is not as bad as I imagine.  Now I will never know.  Perhaps I don’t want to know.

At the wake, I marveled at the idea that this dead body I was praying over had, only a few days previously, been a living person, with thoughts, emotions and feelings.  And I am left to ponder: what becomes of these thoughts, emotions and feelings when the body that houses them dies?  Do these things that truly make us what we are die with us?  Do they, and we along with them, truly cease to exist, as the Existentialists would have us believe?

If this is the case, then the universe is simply a bad joke.  Why, in a universe that has been around for over 14 billion years, and shows every sign of going on for another 14 billion, are we only allowed 70 or 80 years, if we’re lucky?  Furthermore, we, alone of all the creatures on earth, actually have the capacity to contemplate this fact, which only leads to further unhappiness.  So we get to spend 80 year alive, and then several billions years dead.  And we get to spend our 80 or so years thinking about it.  What’s the point?  The Existentialists would answer that there is no point, and that, to me, is dismal beyond imagining.

So is there any chance that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions live on?  Is there, as some would call it, a soul?  I believe the answer is yes.  It is, perhaps, more of a hope than a belief, but to me it is the only way that any of this makes sense.

It is not that my continued consciousness is necessary for the universe to make sense.  I realize I’m not that important.  But I do believe, or at least want to believe, that the physical universe apparent to our five rather limited senses represents only a fraction of what we call “reality”.   The world’s religions, diverse as they are, all represent man’s desire–need, really–to come to terms with this nagging idea that we live in a reality we don’t understand, that the part of it that we do see is only the tip of the iceberg.  Otherwise, our ridiculously brief time on this planet seems to count for very little in the long run.

–Smith

23
Dec
08

Merry Christmas, or whatever

Yeah, I know, I said I wouldn’t post until after the first of the year, but this is important to me, so here you go…

Recently, a woman came into my store asking for some help picking out cigars for her husband, which she informed me would be part of his Christmas present.  She was a pleasant, educated woman in her thirties, with red hair and freckles.  When it came time to pay, I noticed the name on her credit card was “O’Brien”.  Feeling that I was on safe ground here, I wished the woman “Merry Christmas” as I handed her credit card back to her.

From the look she gave me, you would have thought I’d told her to go fuck herself.

What is wrong with people nowadays?  Yes, I’m all in favor of cultural sensitivity. There is a time and a place for “Happy Holidays”.   Had this woman not been so obviously Irish, (or had not informed me that the cigars were a CHRISTMAS present) I might have retreated to the safety of that vapid phrase.

But when did “Merry Christmas” become the semantic equivalent of an insult?

Sometimes I think it’s just laziness.  By saying “Happy Holidays”, people give themselves a cheap way out.  After all, taking the time to find out which holiday the person actually celebrates, and then wishing them the appropriate compliments of the season, only takes a modicum of time and effort, and yet even this seems to much trouble in our increasingly impersonal, desensitized world.

And by the same token, what is there to get so uptight about, anyway?  If a Jew wished me “Happy Hanukkah”, I know I’m not going to get all bent out of shape over it.  I would simply take it in the friendly spirit in which it was intended and wish him “Happy Hanukkah” in return.

I do not know if the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was divine. I do not know if he performed miracles. I do not know if he was resurrected from the dead.

And I’m not sure I even care.

What I do know is that he preached a message of love, tolerance, peace, and forgiveness at a time when his people were looking for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and return Israel to its former glory. I know he was spurned by the religious establishment of his day.  And I know that he really, really, pissed off the government. Like so many who came after him, he was murdered because he would not back down from saying things he felt needed to be said, even to the point of surrendering his own life in the process.

Imagine what the world would be like if people really did live their lives the way Jesus of Nazareth extolled us to: love your neighbor, forgive your enemies, judge not lest you be judged.

If one can grasp those ideas, then one has truly grasped the very real meaning of Christmas. And so, whatever your beliefs, please allow me to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

-Stephen P. Smith

21
Oct
08

always free cheddar in a mousetrap….

Just a little something I found amusing……..

I’d sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you’re looking for someone
To pull you out of that ditch
You’re out of luck, you’re out of luck

The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There’s leak, there’s leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.

Digging up the dead with
A shovel and a pick
It’s a job, it’s a job
Bloody moon rising with
A plague and a flood
Join the mob, join the mob
It’s all over, it’s all over, it’s all over
There’s a leak, there’s a leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
On Business. Business.

[Instrumental Break]

Goddamn there’s always such
A big temptation
To be good, To be good
There’s always free cheddar in
A mousetrap, baby
It’s a deal, it’s a deal
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
I narrow my eyes like a coin slot baby,
Let her ring, let her ring
God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business.
Business…

–Tom Waits
from the album “Blood Money” (2002)

22
Mar
08

Resurrexi

Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus
(Christ our Paschal lamb is sacrificed)
-Dominica Resurrectionis (Gregorian Mass for Easter)

These words, originally from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, form the entire Alleluja section of the Gregorian Mass for Easter, written some time in the 10th century. Or, should I say, written down some time in the 10th century, as the Mass itself is undoubtedly much older than that.

I love Gregorian chant. I love how this music floats down through the mists of time, envelopes me in its seductive, meter-less rhythms, and carries me away to a world of monasteries and mysteries. It is spiritual and mystic, and very, very, beautiful. The haunting melisma in the word “immolatus” (sacrificed) still sends a chill up and down my spine every time I hear it.

Easter is a very different holiday from Christmas. Christmas is a holiday that even an atheist can get into, if he so chooses. Uber-atheist Richard Dawkins admits that he “likes singing Christmas carols”, and describes himself as a “Cultural Christian”. Apart from the fact that Christmas has been secularized and commercialized almost beyond recognition, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Nothing especially remarkable about that, really; we celebrate the birthdays of lots of people: Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. It does not require a belief in divinity to celebrate anyone’s birth.

Easter is very different. Unlike Christmas, one cannot separate the the holiday from its religious underpinnings. What is being celebrated here is no less than the idea that someone was resurrected from the dead. While one can believe that Jesus lived without being divine, one cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead without believing in the divine. You either believe it, or you don’t. The only middle ground is agnosticism.

Personally, I guess I fall into the agnostic camp on this one. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve shed many, but not all, of my religious beliefs. Like many people nowadays, I find little that is appealing, and much to be deplored, in religious orthodoxy. But unlike the atheist, I am not prepared to state that something cannot exist beyond the capability of my five senses to understand it. There is much in the universe we will never understand. The unseen can still exist.

As far as Jesus goes, he lived during a time when eschatological “prophets” were a dime a dozen. Yet while the rest have all been forgotten, he somehow inspired a group of men to spread his teachings, even to the point of sacrificing their lives in the process. He quite literally changed the world forever. Divine? I don’t know, but he clearly had something going for him. The real sin is that Christianity has strayed so far, so often, from the teachings of Christ.

But I still love Gregorian chant.

Happy Easter, to all those who celebrate it.

-smith

14
Dec
07

I shall keep my good humour…

I am one of those old fashioned souls who still loves the Christmas season. I love the lights. I love the music (Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, mind you, not the rubbish that passes for Christmas music nowadays). I love the way my childhood memories come back to me every year, Christmas presents from the past.

I still love watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.

Now there are some people to whom Christmas is simply an annoyance, and I understand how they feel. Christmas has become cheapened and commercialized, to be sure, but I suppose that’s the price we pay for living in a capitalist society. It is hectic, it is frustrating, it is expensive. It is a pain in the ass at times, I agree.

To those who have difficulty finding joy in this season, I would offer these words:

In an early scene in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge’s nephew Fred Holywell chides his uncle for sneering at Christmas, saying, “I have always thought of Christmas…as a good time…when men open up their shuttered hearts to one another.”

Later, in a more dramatic scene, Marley’s ghost indignantly answers Scrooge’s comment that he was always a “good man of business”:  “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business! Mercy, charity, benevolence, forbearance, were all my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the vast, comprehensive ocean of my business!”

To me, the real “meaning of Christmas” is that we, as members of the same human race despite our differences, can all “make mankind our business“, in large ways and small. A friendly smile to that harried clerk at the cash register can brighten that person’s day. Perhaps, if you happen to be one the long suffering souls who works behind that cash register, a friendly word to a customer can make the difference between a good day and bad one, for you and for them. Or maybe it can take the form of an encouraging word to a co-worker who’s having a bad day. Or maybe holding back an angry word to a family member, even if you really want to strangle them. Perhaps it’s helping a senior citizen struggling with their holiday packages, or a lost child crying in the store looking for its mother

I am nominally a Catholic, but really just nominally. When it comes to contemplating the divine, one person’s religious belief is usually as valid as another’s. I do not know if Jesus of Nazareth was really the Son of God, as many believe. But I happen to know that at least some of what Jesus, divine or not, is reported to have said makes as much sense in our time as it did in his. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Forgive your enemies”, and (my personal favorite) “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, these are good words to live by, and it would be a much better world if everyone did live by them, regardless of their stated religion (or lack thereof). When you get right down to it, these aren‘t necessarily religious beliefs at all. They are simply a blueprint for living in harmony with the rest of the human race.

Those who have been reading this blog will know that I have engaged in some spritited debates with some who do not believe in any god at all.  I have enjoyed these debates, and by participating in them I have been given much to think about.  But one thing that has not changed is my very real belief that the real meaning of Christmas is that human beings can, when they put their minds to it, be genuinely decent to one another. And if we can remember to do that at this time of the year, perhaps we can even try to “make mankind our business” throughout the year.

And so, like the irrepressible Fred Holywell, “I shall keep my good humour, and wish you a Merry Christmas.”

–Smith

04
Sep
07

My answer to the atheists

As some of you know, I am engaged in a life or death struggle with the atheists over on Matt’s Notepad. 😉 What began as an offhand remark on my part has evolved (there’s that word again) into a rather interesting debate. I took a few days off to re-examine my own positions and beliefs, and posted a rather lengthy reply to their several points. I must admit that what started off as a simple comment turned into one of my better posts, so I decided to post it here on my own blog as well. I realize that theology isn’t for everybody, but it is a subject that is of interest to me, and I guess I just needed to get this out of my system. And yes, I am trying to be funny with the picture.  If you want to follow this debate go to the post below and click the link.

I’ve taken a few nights off to sort of step back and evaluate what it is I believe and don’t believe. That in itself has certainly been a benefit of having joined in this debate. Having done so, I would like to make a few points, as well as respond, directly or indirectly, to some of the comments made previously.

First, I think it would be helpful to review just what we agree on, before venturing into the turbulent waters of disagreement. I am a staunch evolutionist. I am a believer in the scientific method as a whole. I believe that science, not religion, has taught us most of what we really know about the universe we happen to be a very, very small part of.

I have little patience with religious fundamentalists of any denomination. I deplore the way they dismiss rationale argument with an unwavering faith in the correctness of their beliefs, irrespective of any facts to the contrary. In this I am in complete agreement with Dawkins.

As I’ve stated before, I am NOT trying to prove the existence of God here. I know I can’t. In fact the only reason I’m using the word God instead of a phrase like “higher power” is because it’s easier to type.

But here’s the crux of my argument: neither Dawkins nor anyone else can prove that he DOESN’T exist. Therefore in the absence of proof, the non-existence of God is not a fact, it is a belief, or, if you prefer, an opinion. Therefore atheism is merely a belief, albeit a belief in the non-existence of something. And as such, the proponents of this belief must accept the unpleasant truth that they MAY be wrong, just as adherents of traditional (and non-traditional) religious thought must also accept that their views on God and the universe may be wrong (although they rarely do, another point where I agree with Dawkins).

Please don’t hit me with the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” argument. The fact that I can’t disprove the existence of anything you happen to dream up on the spot (other than to make the fairly obvious point that it can’t exist because you just told me you made it up) in no way lets you off the hook here. Once you make the move from “I don’t believe there is a god” to “There is no god”, at that point you have ceased to state a negative . You have attempted to make an argument, and like all arguments, you have to have some proof, otherwise what you’re stating is not fact, it is opinion.

I asked you folks if you believed in any sort of higher power. You all replied in the negative. I asked if you believed in life on other planets. Your responses were:

“while intelligent life could exist on other planets, we honestly just don’t know enough about life or other planets to have any real clue.”

“Life? Life of some sort … good chance it exists somewhere in the universe. Probability tells us that. If it’s Intelligent … not enough data yet.”

And

“Intelligent life elsewhere in the universe – definitely more plausible.”

The reason I asked this was because I wanted to see to what extent you were willing to allow for the possibility of something existing, even if there were scant scientific evidence for it. And it seems that while there is little scientific evidence for the existence of intelligent life on other planets, you’re willing to at least consider it because, to you, it seems plausible, given the enormous number of planets in the universe. On this I happen to agree with you.

But once you’ve admitted the possibility of life elsewhere, then you must also allow for the possibility that this life is more advanced than us, not just in the technological sense, but also in the, yes, evolutionary sense. And once you’ve acknowledged that a higher form of life may exist in the universe, you have to ask, how much higher? Surely it is no great intellectual feat to imagine a form of life that exists on an infinitely higher plain than us. And if you allow for that, the notion of God is not really such a stretch, is it?

What I find truly fascinating about Dawkins is his willingness to accept the implausible when it’s convenient for his arguement. He writes: “The origin of life on this planet – which means the origin of the first self-replicating molecule – is hard to study, because it (probably) only happened once, 4 billion years ago and under very different conditions from those with which we are familiar. We may never know how it happened. Unlike the ordinary evolutionary events that followed, it must have been a genuinely very improbable – in the sense of unpredictable – event: too improbable, perhaps, for chemists to reproduce it in the laboratory or even devise a plausible theory for what happened.”

In other words, we don’t know. We may never know. So why is the notion of some sort of higher power so unthinkable, given the general lack of understanding that Dawkins admits is part and parcel of this issue?

Another quote: “It is as though there were, say, half a dozen dials representing the major constants of physics. Each of the dials could in principle be tuned to any of a wide range of values…. Almost all of these knob-twiddlings would yield a universe in which life would be impossible. You can estimate the very low odds against the six knobs all just happening to be correctly tuned, and conclude that a divine knob-twiddler must have been at work. But, as we have already seen, that explanation is vacuous because it begs the biggest question of all. The divine knob twiddler would himself have to have been at least as improbable as the settings of his knobs.”

This argument is self serving. Dawkins concludes that a “divine knob twiddler” is more improbable than the universe itself, merely because it doesn’t fit into his overall view of the universe. Dawkins and I agree: the universe is very, very, improbable. What Dawkins doesn’t seem (or want) to understand is that a reasonable, rational human being can look at this very improbability and come to a different conclusion about it than he has, one that includes the notion of a higher power.

And finally, there is this bit of musing: “Physicists already have reason to suspect that our universe – everything we can see – is only one universe among perhaps billions. Some theorists postulate a multiverse of foam, where the universe we know is just one bubble. Each bubble has its own laws and constants. Our familiar laws of physics are parochial bylaws. Of all the universes in the foam, only a minority has what it takes to generate life.”

Now let me see if I’ve got this straight: he says our universe is just a bubble amongst an infinite number of bubbles, and I’M living in fantasy land just because I happen to believe in a higher power of some kind?

The “multiple universe theory” is hardly new. But as things stand right now, while it is certainly fascinating, there is scant evidence for it, and more importantly, no way whatsoever of proving it by somehow discovering those other universes. As soon as Dawkins uses words like “suspect” and “postulate”, what he’s really saying is: “I don’t know. It just kind of makes sense to me”.

But as a means of factoring God out of the equation, the “anthropic principle” is a self-serving argument. It is a variation on the old idea that if you have an infinite number of monkeys pounding away on an infinite number of keyboards, eventually they will produce Shakespeare. This is patent nonsense. An infinite number of monkeys pounding away on an infinite number of keyboards will produce an infinite number of broken keyboards. But, say the adherents of the “anthropic principle”, what if we had an infinite number OF infinite numbers of monkeys…, etc.

Many scientists embrace this idea, but there also are many who don’t. Both groups seem to agree on one thing: it’s impossible to prove. But it may be impossible to disprove. Just like the existence or non-existence of God.

So Dawkin’s argument as to “why there is almost certainly no god” rests on the anthropic principal, which itself rests on an idea of multiple universes which even its proponents state is empirically unprovable. Apparently Richard Dawkins is free to make speculations about the universe that are unfounded by any scientific evidence, but no one else is. Surely my belief in some kind of a higher power, the nature of which I in no way claim to know, is no sillier than the notion that our universe is one of billions. Conversely, this speculation which he is ready to believe has no more evidence to support than my belief. So why are Dawkins’ beliefs more valid than mine? If it’s good enough for Dawkins, it’s good enough for me.

So that said, is it so unreasonable to look at the universe, with all it’s complexity AND its implausibility (as even Dawkins admits), to SPECULATE about the POSSIBILITY of the existence of some higher power?

I look at the universe, and I surmise the existence Something Intelligent. You look at the same universe, and you don’t. Who can really say, given how little we truly know about it, who is right?

That’s all I’m saying here. As I’ve stated before, it is not Dawkins’ atheism which bothers me. But like the religious fundamentalist, his unshakable belief in the correctness of HIS position is arrogant, disturbing even, and puts him squarely in the same category as a Jimmy Swaggart, even if he’s arguing the opposite point.

–smith

29
Aug
07

God, anyone?

For those of you who are interested in such things, I am currently debating the existence of God, as well at the merits of well known atheistic gasbag Richard Dawkins, in a series of comments on another blog. The gentleman I’m debating is intelligent and articulate, and this is getting rather interesting.

Yeah, I know, I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands. But if you’re interested in this topic, or you just want to see two reasonably intelligent people debate, click here.

-Smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
visitor stats
Click to see full version by whos.amung.us
Click here if you want to learn the truth about second hand smoke
A Boston University Physician exposes the fallacies of the anti-smoking movement.

My Guests

  • 220,515 visitors
Murder of Ravens' RSS feed
Everything you want to know about the movies of today and yesterday. One of my favorite websites. If you love classical music, you have to visit this site.
February 2017
S M T W T F S
« Jun    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728  

Thoughts from the Past

Creating Order from Chaos