Worship

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  I had an excellent one, filled with family, friends, and of course, gifts.  One gift I received got me pondering a bit- my brother gave me a book entitled “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Mythology”.  It’s a very interesting book at first glance, and I am sure to enjoy it further as I continue reading, but my point in all of this is to introduce some thoughts that the book brings to mind.

In studying ancient cultures and civilizations, one of the things I find most baffling upon a cursory glance is man’s penchant for constructing idols and worshiping them.  The ancient Semitic peoples had their Baals and their Asherah poles and their statues of Dagon and Moloch.  The Egyptians, of course, had their Ra and their Isis and their Horus.  We are perhaps more familiar with the Greek pantheon and the Roman adaptations with their Zeus and their Venus and Ares and Hermes and on and on and on.  It is a practice that strikes us- the modern man, as quite absurd.  To build oneself a statue that he knows he has built with his own hands and then to ascribe some sort of value to it, bowing down and worshiping it, is bizarre behavior.

The practice was not unique to the peoples I mentioned, as you are well aware, I’m sure.  The Celts and the Persians and the Mayans and the tribes of Africa (with which I am less familiar) and many others (probably all of the others) built idols for themselves to worship.  We scoff at this- as we rightly should, in a sense.  Statues are not worthy of our worship, certainly.  We have been taught that we are men enlightened.  We are men of science and men of wisdom, unswayed by the cold winds of superstition that blew about our ancestors.  We would never descend to a place where we were willing to do as these ancient (and the unspoken word here is: foolish) peoples have done for so many countless spans of time before we lived.  We are a different and a higher breed.

Or are we?

The trend of academics and some social elites seems to be accepting the idea that we are a people totally free in the metaphysical sense.  We are beholden to none, the helmsmen of our own voyage.  Yet when we consider more deeply the practices of ancient man, the lines between “us” and “them” begin to blur.

Man is a creature of metaphors.  When we raise a flag of particular colors high and proud, we know that we are venerating the country it represents and not the cloth that we have stitched together with our own hands.  The cloth is nothing but a symbol, and when we place our hands over our hearts and speak words of allegiance to the flag, we speak not to the flag but to something greater, behind it all.  Ancient man was no different.  He also was a creature of metaphors, and he had his blazons and tribal banners as well, but he also had idols.  The difference between an emblem and an idol is clear- an emblem is respected while an idol is worshiped   The idols may have been made of stone and clay and precious metals, but the men who made them thought of them as more than that.

Ancient man worshiped idols they called Demeter, Ceres, Sif, and others who were to be the gods and goddesses of grain and plentiful harvest.  This seems rather barbaric and foolish, and frankly it is- but are we so different today?  We are told that we are, yet let us examine further.  The pagan gods I mentioned and countless others are the gods of agriculture, plentiful crops, and livestock.  This seems silly to many of us- we are so far removed from that world!  Yet permit me to put things in other terms: agriculture and grain and livestock were equivalent to wealth.  In an agrarian society, wishing for a bountiful crop was wishing for wealth and business success.  The idols of stone and metal that ancient man bowed down before and prayed to were personifications of material wealth, comfort, success and money, and there were even idols that represented money more directly: Ploutus, Njörðr, and others.

How does modern man look in comparison now?

The ancients worshiped Venus and Cupid, and other cultures worshiped adaptations of the same idols: the gods and goddesses of sex, beauty, and of romantic love.  Are we any different?  What does our popular culture promote if not sex, standards of beauty, and the hope of a prince charming or a princess seduction coming to our rescue?

Modern man has its idols today as well, and we build them with our own hands and then ascribe meaning to them, worshipping them as the ancients did before us.  We are supposed to be above this sort of thing in a post-modern, enlightened society, and yet the gods of atheism receive such adoration.  Man builds an empire in business and he worships it, man acquires an education in medicine and he worships it, man sees a woman and he worships her, man sees the “upper crust” of society and he worships it.  There are many other things that men- even men who do not want anything to do with religion- worship.  And what is it to worship?  Is it not but an extravagant dedication and reverence for any given thing?  Is it not what one chooses to dedicate their life to- even if that dedication is a refusal to dedicate their life to anything of importance and to only seek pleasure and parties? (see: Dionysius) Even if a man chooses to worship himself (as many do, and perhaps all, in some sense) is he not bowing to an idol?

Our criticisms of ancient man, while founded, now seem to carry with them a weight of hypocrisy.  We remember stories of the middle aged businessman, who has chosen his career to the exclusion of all else, working nights and weekends and skipping social events with family and friends just so he can make some standard of success he holds in his mind.  We think of the homeless man who has dedicated his life to liquor, searching for and revering the oblivion that it brings.  We think of the teenage girl obsessed with romance novels and whose every waking thought is of the hope of finding a partner who will carry her on to happiness and fulfillment.  What are these things except worshiping the statues that we have built with our own hands?  How is what we do any different from praying to the idols of old?  Modern man is different than the ancients only in his conceitedness, although I suspect that ancient man may have mistakenly thought they were better than their ancestors as well.  We have believed the doctrines of inevitable progress.  Perhaps the doctrines are true, but I have reasons for doubting them.

My point in all of this is the unoriginal, yet extremely important realization that everyone worships something.  The question is: is what you worship worthy of your devotion?

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Violence

It’s a sad irony that I was beginning to write a post about violence and shootings the other week, before I had heard about the tragedies in Connecticut and in China as well.  Clearly this issue is a real one and in such a time as this it is near to all of our hearts, though most especially to those involved in the sad and evil day that claimed the lives of so many.  I wish to discuss it not out of any sort of political agenda, but simply because occasions of this nature leave us asking the inevitable “why?”  We have seen senseless and evil things, and we want to know why.  From the outset let me say that we all need to pray for the families and faculty and friends involved in the recent violence, and for those close to them, they need support and shoulders to cry on.

There was a shooting near my home about a month ago.  Four people were shot, one badly.  I think the badly injured person lived, but I’m not certain.  I live in Los Angeles where this sort of thing is sadly not that uncommon.  I can tell you plenty of similar stories and I’ve only lived here just over three years.  This concerns me.  I love my community and I don’t want it to be unsafe.  I don’t want people to live in fear, and I certainly don’t want people getting mixed up in this tragic business.  Where I live it is almost always gang-related.  It’s a terrible shame and a tragedy that this nonsense goes on so frequently.

There are many people who say that guns are the problem.  That if a gun is available then crime is sure to be committed and violence is just around the corner.  I never really sympathized with this viewpoint.  If you were to place a gun in my hand I wouldn’t shoot anybody.  In fact, I’ve handled guns on many occasions and fired them in appropriate contexts (the shooting range) and I’ve never shot anyone.  Clearly the problem is not so simple.

I want to see my community change, as do many who maintain that guns are to blame for violence, yet as we always seem to do, we forget history.  Violence has existed before guns.  Violence exists today without guns.  I want to see the at-risk members of my community break the cycle and lead healthy, happy, fulfilled lives, but I think that to blame the instrument that they use is simplistic- after all, even if we go around banning guns and every other sort of weapon we can think of, will we not still have knives for cooking?  Those are weapons: people have been killing each other with them for years.  Will we not still have heavy objects?  Those are weapons.  Will we not still have hands?  For those are most certainly weapons as well.

My intention in this post is not to become overly political; my intention is to explore how often we as humans blame the instrument and not what is more fundamentally problematic.  I want to look at how we might bring about lasting change here, for the status quo is not acceptable.

I could go into a lot of different areas at this point in my musings.  I could talk about American Prohibition or existing gun laws or the laws we have that already ban the horrible acts that weigh heavily on our minds today.  I’m not going to.  They are important areas of discussion, but there is something greater to be discussed, for as I said earlier: man has a penchant for blaming the instrument of his actions instead of himself.

People who are loved, who are well-adjusted, who have a sense of purpose and are working towards good goals do not do things like the mad man in Connecticut.  Surely ensuring that everyone is loved and on a good path would be much more effective than gun control in ridding our society of these unspeakable acts of violence.  But there is a problem.  Gun control is easy.  Loving your neighbor is hard.

It is a very simple thing to put the blame on guns and to ban them, because we know that something must be done and we would like to believe that we are responsible, good people.  Banning guns isn’t too much of an inconvenience for most of us and in doing so we would lazily be able to believe that we did something to make the world a better place.

What if we made an effort to love difficult people instead?

What if kids in high school took the loners under their wing?  What if the juvenile delinquents were visited in prison?  What if we each took the time to actually learn about our neighbors and make them feel welcome and valued?  In my neighborhood, as I mentioned, most violent crimes seem to be gang-related.  So why do we not learn to play basketball and spend time on the public courts and try to influence the atmosphere for the better?  I think it would help.

There’s an old Dane cook bit where the comedian talks about office shootings and how whenever he (Dane Cook) starts at a new job he finds the loner and gives him a snickers bar every day and compliments him so that the day he snaps the guy spares him and says “thanks for the candy”.  This joke seems somewhat crass in light of recent events, but there is some, perhaps unintended, grain of truth in it.  What if we paid attention to the weird people?  What if we complimented the insecure?  What if we invited the socially awkward to our parties?

I don’t intend to say that what that violent man in Connecticut did was not his fault.  On the contrary- it was definitely his fault and he is to blame for his horrific actions.  All I intend to say is that I think there would be less of this sort of thing happening if we took a few extra steps to love people who we don’t particularly want to love.  There will always be tragedies in a fallen world such as ours, but there would be less of them if we took the desperate under our wings before they reached the point where they’re willing to kill.

High school kids, I’m looking at you especially and all of you in college as well.  This applies to all of us, however.  If you’ve been devastated by these recent tragedies, as we all have, and you find yourself wanting to change things, start with your community.  Start with your office, with your neighborhood, with your school.  Find the losers.  Love on them and don’t be condescending about it.  I don’t write from any position of superiority- this is something that I need to do as well.  It will be hard and it will be uncomfortable, but if we seek a solution this is it.  Let’s do it together.  Maybe we’ll save some lives.

Continue to pray for those poor people in Connecticut.  I cannot imagine what they must be going through.

Inequality

Inequality

How can it be you love one such as me?

Me, whose sullied footprints show where I’ve been,

Betray my many regretted stories

Of courage that’s lacking, and giving in.

While you of surpassing beauty and grace,

Such brilliant light dances within your eyes,

With your gaze hold the very stars in place

With foolish things you can confound the wise.

I have no such halo above my head

But the one you hold there, you’re perfection.

My eyes do not shine, rather there’s instead

No light at all, but for your reflection.

In such an inequality I’ve learned

That love is only love when undeserved.

Boxes of Truth

I once saw a very unique film by the name of Koyaanisqatsi.  This film had no actors, no dialogue, no narration, no plot, and really only a few sparse themes.  The music was minimalist and the entire 87 minute feature ran as a series of montages relating to life on planet earth- mostly by showing rivers and landscapes and occasionally cities.  It was very odd.

The point of the whole thing, however, was to demonstrate in a very unconventional way that life is out of balance on the planet earth.  (The word “Koyaanisqatsi” itself is a Hopi word that means “life out of balance”).  I’m not here to do a film review or to tell you to run out and watch something- frankly I didn’t enjoy very much of the experience- but I find the theme of the film to be an interesting one.  Is life out of balance?

I think we all know that it is.

Life is out of balance in many ways, but what I wish to discuss for now is one of the main depictions in the strange film I’ve mentioned.  Koyaanisqatsi spends a good portion of its allotted time showing cities and escalators and streets where people bustle like insects- all to the tune of very repetitive, manic music that does a good job of reinforcing the theme, but is very unpleasant to endure.   I find these depictions of man always in a hurry, always rushing about in their cars and on their phones and whatnot, very telling about where we are today and how we are out of balance in at least one sense.

Bear with me.  I mean not to say that people are too busy, or that they never rest (though perhaps in some cases that may be the truth) I see rather that people are very focused on the material.  People hurry by one another in order to get to their jobs to accomplish their work to bring home their money to purchase their technology- none of which is bad in itself.  However, is it possible that we spend all of our attention and time on that which is measurable and immediately accessible?

We live in an age where we consider ourselves “enlightened”.  And what has enlightened us?  Science, of course.  The scientific revolution changed how we live in many ways, good ways, even, but it also bled into other things, changing how we look at the world.  The scientific method is brilliant and it has helped us achieve numerous advances in medicine, technology, agriculture, and in other areas as well.  We have been presented with a wonderful gift box that reads “scientific truth” on the outside and we as a wide-eyed, eager child have opened it, spilling the golden contents out of the top of the box.  We have been blinded in this display of light and color.  “Scientific truth” is a large box and deep, but there are other, older boxes that now lie mostly neglected in the corner.  We search the depths of the “scientific truth” box, as well we should, but deeper boxes remain unprobed by modern man.

The other boxes can be called by many different names, but for now let us simply refer to them as “philosophy” and “poetry”.

You may dispute my little parable.  “Do we not have philosophy?” You may cry.  I agree that it exists in some small sense, but not much in so far as daily life is concerned, and further more it is entirely dependent upon scientific truth, making it derivative, rather than a distinct entity.  What is our culture’s philosophy?  We do not often talk about it.  We have some vague notions of happiness and decency, but really only because these things make us feel good and science tells us that they may increase our lifespans.  It is difficult for me to nail anything down as our philosophy because it is an area that is simply not discussed.  We believe man to be progressing, though he be an accident, according to our science.  We believe that people should be treated fairly, but we never really bother to explain why, which is, of course, the central question of philosophy.

You see- science asks “how?”, which is good.  Yet knowing how I built a machine does not tell you why I built it.  Science aims at truth- at least at its best it does.  We as a culture seem to believe that scientists are somehow more than common men and are therefore above bias, error, and superstition.  I wish it were so.  Science aims at truth, but it cannot possibly reveal the whole of truth- for science by definition is concerned with that which is observable, quantifiable, and repeatable.  Not everything falls into these categories.  So what do we do?  One of two things, according to the trends of this day and age: we either overextend science into areas where it cannot possibly tell us anything useful, or we deny that anything exists outside of its realm at all, devolving into a materialist perspective that is at least as old as the ancient Greeks (so much for a new enlightenment).

There are things that exist that are not observable or not measurable or not repeatable.  Philosophy and poetry are even deeper boxes than “scientific truth” I believe, but we look into them not often.  Science aims at the body of truth, philosophy at the soul of truth, and poetry at the spirit of truth.  If one desires to have a better picture of the whole, it behooves him to seek truth in more than just one of these boxes.  A mistake that is often made by those who realize their worldviews lack something is that they simply pick a convenient perspective from philosophy that lines up with what they are already doing.  This is as fallacious as the Nazi scientists (Godwin’s law, I know) who had already decided that certain races of people were inferior to their own and they then performed experiments to “prove” this.  Starting with what you want to see is no way to search for the truth.

Science asks “how?”, philosophy asks “why?”, and poetry just listens- or perhaps if we must give its questions a form it would be “what?”.  Philosophy is rare in our society- our culture doesn’t even really believe in love any more, simply because we cannot measure it or put it in a lab.  Some will claim to believe in it, but when the butterflies in their stomach go away they claim that it has died and they get a divorce because it’s convenient.  That’s not believing in love- that’s believing that anything outside of the realm of scientific truth doesn’t exist.  If the brain stops producing chemicals that make me feel in love, it must not be real anymore.  Couples who have endured together for a lifetime in love will tell you differently.

My aim in all of this is to simply say that we limit ourselves, claiming to have it all.  Philosophy is rare in our culture and poetry is almost dead.  Let us remember the slower things and think critically about what is all around us.  There is more to life than “how?”