flat tire, the problem with religion, changing our minds

At the Cellar now, probably the last chance I'll get to see Eric play with the Tardy Boys. Good fun bar music.

Rode my bike down. Got a flat. Hell. Walking my bike, looked for a gas station with an air pump, found a closed station, no air though. Stopped down here, Edwin suggested to try the koban at Triangle Park, since the local cops do bike patrol a bit. Went down, pointed at the flat, got a pump. Trying to get some air into the tire (the valves are different and I haven't fully figured them out), I smelled smoke. A few minutes later, there were many fire engines on the scene right across the street, quite a bit of smoke pouring out. Some people seemed to be trapped on the fifth floor, I was a little worried, until a cherry-picker truck showed up (most of the fire engines are about the size of minivans). So that was a thing to see.

So I've been thinking a bit the past few days about just what exactly is the problem I'm trying to solve with this whole "Zen Pagan" thing? What is the requirements spec?

The problem:

Religion has always been a mess.

There are a couple of things that get mixed up. There's the desire for a certain experience, that experience of connection, of the Godhead. There's ethical teachings - both in the 'Thou shall not' and in the 'For your contentment, we suggest' variations. There's the myths and legends that give us role models. There's the superstitions born of fear, and the supernaturalism born out of ignorance. There's the preservation of the knowledge needed for the community to thrive. There's the deliberate hiding of knowledge that would threaten the priesthood's power.

So, about 200 years ago, the "Enlightenment". Supposed to be the triumph of reason over superstition, maybe leaving behind some sort of benign Deism, but ushering in a new age of rational behavior. But what we get is war, the American revolution, Napoleonic era, the War of 1812, eventually the American Civil War. And the the Industrial Revolution, supposed to bring freedom, brings the sweatshop, the dehumanization of labor, the "smoke" of the industrialization.

The problem, is that Man is not a rational animal. For all the wonderful uses of reason, in the end the frontal lobes that allow it are a recent additional, a clever evolutionary hack, to the nervous system. And it's therefore irrational to think that reason alone can thus bring satisfaction to human lives. Logic's use is limited, not just by Godel's theorem, but by Darwin's; we are too much the inheritors of a long heritage of a more primal interpretation of the world. (Many of those who actually work with logic know this well; it's no coincidence that "crazy philosophies" - Zen, Taoism, Paganism, Discordianism - have had such resonance with scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.)

Thus, in reaction, the Romantics in Germany and then a little later in Britain. Turning to the old gods, and to Nature.

In the U.S, the "Enlightenment" that had birthed the nation also gave the continuation of slavery, and the restriction of suffrage to rich white men. With the Industrial Revolution, came also the quest by some for cultural freedom from the European tradition. The Old Gods were associated with the tradition from which they were trying to free themselves; but Nature being more present in the New World than in deforested Europe, they focused on that, and also looked to the traditions of the East. This was the origin of the Transcendentalists.

The other approach, the revival movement - irrational Christianity, the total rejection of the Enlightenment. The influence of this movement persists, comes perilously close to dominating American thought, today.

What is the problem with this strain of Christian vision? Its ethics rest on its metaphysics, and its metaphysics are nonsensical. Besides the whole lack of evidence regarding the existence of some creator deity, indeed the strong arguments against such an assumption, the idea of god proposed is ludicrous.

You must do right because otherwise you'll go to hell, condemned to eternal torment by a just and all-loving God. Huh? There's simply no way to justly earn eternal torment in a finite lifetime.

And this all-loving God couldn't let anyone into heaven, because the first people he made - in his omnipotence and omniscience - surprised him by disobeying him and eating an apple, so to somehow balance the books he had to assume human form and be murdered, and then that opened that way.

Poor Jeshua ben Joseph! To get saddled with this! The retconn is clear; the Jewish people looking for a leader, a Messiah, to come and throw off the Roman oppression. Along comes this Jeshua fellow, of the line of David, royal blood, getting attention with his great wisdom teachings, making trouble for the powers-that-be. Hey, he must be the Messiah!

Then he gets killed. So what do his followers do, accept that he wasn't the Messiah they sought? Of course not. He was never there to save them from the Romans, no, he was there to save them from...sin, yeah, that's it. And his murder was all part of the plan, a necessary human sacrifice.

That might not have been so bad. Except then Saul of Tarsus, St. Paul, comes into the picture. Never trust a converted fanatic. He probably would have done much less damage to Christianity had he kept on with persecuting and killing Christians, instead of converting and proselytizing his version of Jeshua's teaching.

Of course the message of the great teacher Jeshua couldn't be complete suppressed, and from time to time it's popped back up. This criticism of Christianity must be understood to apply just to the twisted practice that sadly forms the mainstream; not to groups like the Quakers (maybe the closest thing to a Zen Christianity) who seek to understand the Christ within all of us.

But we end up with two main alternatives in our culture. We have the mainstream religions movements, rejecting reason in favor or faith, putting forth metaphysical propositions that don't stand the test of logic; and what we might call the profanely materialist, the idea that we're just lumps of meat in an uncaring Universe, and the best we can hope for is to tickle our brain's pleasure centers as much as we can. This later might include understanding that there are deeper pleasures than just drinking and fucking, looking to the social sphere; but still look to dull the pain of existence by overwhelming it with pleasures.

But is there a better option, a way to remove the pain entirely? Not hiding it behind placebo illusions of gods, not with trying to anethesize with pleasures, but to take out the thorn?

This would require changing our minds. We use the phrase "change my mind" so casually and inaccurately that we must take care here.

To change our mind means not merely to change a decision based on new information, or even just of a whim; it means to change our way of thinking about and responding to the world. It is a long training taking much effort. It may use such tools as myth and ritual and meditation and the cultivation of mindfulness; maybe even music and sex and drugs and extreme physical experiences. Anything that might bring about what Crowley called "the art and science of changing consciousness at will", what Wilson called "self-induced brain change"; the understanding of what the Buddha meant when he said "all things are made by mind".

But in all this, it is critical to remain grounded, not become so absorbed on one's own mind that you lose the rest of the world. It is said that one of the greatest dangers pilots face is to lose sight of the ground, and thus not know if they are flying up or down. When the Buddha had doubts before his enlightenment, he reached down and touched the earth; in some versions of the story, the earth backed him up, said "I bear you witness", when Mara, the lord of illusion, challenged Siddhartha. (Eric points out that this might have been him reeling, falling over, catching himself on the ground - what an interesting interpretation!)


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