Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

Puzzling over Genesis and the Fall

Every discipline has it’s puzzles.  As an analyzer of theoretical texts, I consider the story of the Fall of Man from the Bible to be one of the big puzzles.  I started playing around with it (again) yesterday, and after failing (again), am going to give it another shot today.

The key positions I want to stake out are as follows:

  1. God is not well understood by Adam or Eve, Cain or Abel, or just about any human being.  Noah is better than most, but still, there’s a lot that seems to be missing.
  2. The tree of knowledge of good and evil does not provide fruit that is very informative.  After eating it, Adam and Eve merely become aware of their nakedness.
  3. The serpent is more concerned with getting Adam and Eve in trouble than with challenging God by itself.  Rather than eat the forbidden fruit itself, it baits Eve into doing it.  Either it knows the fruit isn’t that informative, or it lacks the ambition to become like God.  Also, it seems to be aware of Eve’s ignorance, otherwise it wouldn’t have tried to manipulate her.

So, I think these are some safe positions.  Now, what to do with them?

Eve’s mistake is brought about because she is ignorant of God’s power and is desirous of being like God herself.  She doesn’t expect to be caught, evidently, or doesn’t expect much bad to happen even if she is caught.  She also finds being like God appealing.  She doesn’t understand God very well, yet she still wants to be like him.  This suggests something about Eve not wanting to be ruled over.  The serpent, likewise, seems to not want to be ruled over, because it is conspiring against the humans, which are appointed over it.  The serpent isn’t very smart either, though, in that its manipulation quickly backfires and results in its being placed even lower than it was before.

After Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, we get the story of Cain slaying Abel out of jealousy for God’s favor.  God had preferred Abel’s sacrifice of an animal to Cain’s sacrifice of his garden produce.  Rather than trying to be like God, the sin here is getting too jealous over gaining God’s favor.  God no longer has a rising rebellion on his hands, but his subjects are now fighting amongst themselves over his approval.  Adam and Eve are still around, but play no part in bringing peace between Cain and Abel.  God confronts Cain directly, tells him to do what is right, and Cain turns around and slays Abel.  Again, God is misunderstood.  Cain should not expect to get away with slaying his brother.  His parents had done a much less violent act, and had been discovered and punished.

God also seems to be a bad teacher.  He commands, but his commands to his new and apparently highly ignorant creation are ineffectual.  Still, God seems to care quite a bit.  He wants his creation to be righteous and obedient — obedient for their own good.  He warns Eve that she shouldn’t eat the fruit because she will die if she does.  He marks Cain for his crime, but protects him from being murdered himself.  All the way down to Noah, God is dismayed at the sinfulness of his creation.  Man is generally not obedient to commands.  He has been placed above all other living creatures, has been allowed to name them, but still lacks gratitude for or understanding of his creator.

Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Romans provides another position to work off of to go further with this.  He states that: “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and though the commandment put me to death” (Rom. 7:9-11).  A little further down, he states that: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their mind set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Rom. 8:5).  And still further, he states that: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him [Jesus] we cry, ‘Abba, Father.'” (Rom. 8:15).

Paul suggests that the transition from a ruler-subject relationship with God to a father-son relationship is the way sin can be conquered.  Why wasn’t it like this from the beginning?  Well, if Jesus is co-eternal with God the Father, then God the Father did have a father-son experience to learn from and apply to his new creation.  Jesus of course, would be the perfect son, though.  The opposite of ignorant man, Jesus is said to be “the Word”, or knowledge itself.  God would not have had experience with ignorant man.  So why didn’t God send Jesus right away from the beginning?  It seems to have been impossible.  Jesus needs to be educated and received by faithful human beings.  Why doesn’t God the Father teach human beings himself?  Apparently sin doesn’t become recognized as sin until it produces sufficient death in the world, so he can only command at first in order to spring sin to life.  (This may be why the tree of knowledge of good and evil produces fruit that teaches so little in the garden of Eden story.)

Paul defends the manner in which God the Father proceeds.  He states earlier in the same letter to the Romans that: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26).

With this view, it seems that God knew from the beginning that man was going to fall, and that he was going to have to send Jesus to save man.  As a sacrifice to man, to atone for God’s allowing man to live, sin, and die unjustified, he accepted that Jesus, whose blood God the Father had faith in, would have to suffer and die at the appropriate time.  Jesus established the father-son linkage between God and man, a linkage that previously had been too challenging for most.  Man’s eyes (generally now) were opened to his status as son of God only by witnessing the fate of the ideal Son.  If such is the fate of the ideal Son, and this fate leads to glory and everlasting life, then man generally, who sees his own fate also culminating in death, can also now believe for the first time that he too is loved by God rather than merely ruled over by him.  Man can also see God’s purpose in allowing him to struggle with sin, namely that the struggle makes the glory of an ideal Son possible, the glory of overcoming evil, the glory that is expected of a holy God and that characterizes him, the glory that since Adam and Eve has evaded man’s understanding.  To have faith in Jesus is to have faith in the value of this glory, and to value this glory is to be like God and positioned for a loving relationship with God.  It is to be able to acquire what was sought in the garden of Eden, what God allowed the serpent to help entice, knowledge of good and evil, now with the capacity to learn that knowledge, and with the newly attractive but always necessary desire to act on that knowledge, to do good and not evil.

When God puts Adam into the garden of Eden, it is for him “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15).  The only plants in the garden that we hear of have impressive names:  the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” and the “tree of life.”  It is likely that in this garden all of the plants would potentially have impressive names, and represent things that man desires.  It is apparently up to man to develop the garden, to try to perfect it and preserve it.  It would appear that the story of man from the Bible is a story of discovering what was originally missing from the garden of Eden, and God sending him out into a world where he could find out for himself in order to recreate it in a manner more fitting to his needs.  Eventually, when enough people were looking and interested, the missing plant, tree, or vine was found in the character of Jesus, in all he taught, did, and represented.

 

The Kingdom of Heaven

A man and woman were talking to each other while strolling down a peaceful road.  The man asked the woman, “What must heaven must be like?”  The woman answered:

“Well the idea of the kingdom of heaven is that of an ideal kingdom.  The laws flow from the will of the King, who is good.  The angels who reside in heaven are all pious and well-practiced in repentance and forgiveness.  The physical and biological laws there are almost exactly as they are on earth, and indeed the expectation there is that the heavenly kingdom will one day be welcomed on earth.

The ruler of the kingdom of heaven does use fear to maintain order, though many do fear him out of humility and reverence.  Order obtains naturally from the loving interactions the angels engage in with each other.  The more the angels love, the more orderly and harmonious heaven becomes.  All of the angels are aware of this, and live lives full of purpose, hope, and happiness.

The longer any angel resides in heaven, the stronger and more sophisticated that angel gets at loving.  The result is that heavenly society has been growing stronger and more sophisticated since the beginning of the world’s creation.  The angels that love the most are nearest to the King, and angels that love the least are furthest away.  The King enjoys the most intense love from his nearest angels, and in return loves them more than any others.  Heaven is consequently strongest in the areas nearest the King, weakest in the areas furthest away.

Admission into heaven is selective.  Only those that the King chooses are welcomed through the gates, and his choices are perfectly impartial, right, and just.  New arrivals, just as older residents, come to reside with those most like themselves, those that love in the most compatible style and manner.  Some make their way to the King’s throne very quickly, others become very loyal and attached to particular angels and proceed more slowly, not wanting to leave their loved ones behind.  Nevertheless, all angels in the kingdom of heaven are united in and through their love of the King, by whose will and by whose laws this society, so completely saturated with love, has been made possible.

Outside of the kingdom of heaven, proud spirits are largely paralyzed by their own self-love.  Repentance serves no benefit to them, and only promises to harm their pride and to forfeit a fragile and jealously guarded self-image of superiority.  Forgiveness is consistently withheld to justify their strategic contempt for others and to gratify themselves.

These proud spirits form kingdoms of their own making outside the gates of heaven.  Rulers and ruled are dependent on the flattery of each other, which is unstable since it can readily be traded for contempt.  The fluctuations between this thin admiration at one time and coercive contempt at another ultimately sows resentment across all of these dark kingdoms of the proud.  The resentment divides and destroys all such existing kingdoms, as new rulers rise and others fall.  The proud spirits in this state restlessly scrape after the image of greatness, which constantly escapes them.”

 

Religion: What’s to Like?

I missed out doing much for Palm Sunday this week.  I miss out on a lot of observances that in principle I consider myself obligated to tend to.  I was not raised in the rituals of any church, nor was I raised with a coherent orientation toward religion.  My dad wavered, and continues to waver, between atheism and agnosticism.  My mom was more faithful, but not by much.  Still, it was enough to get me baptized eventually, which occasioned my receiving of my first Bible.  And, I was invited by the baptizing priest to read some of the Gospel of Mark.  I can still remember the smell of the pages, which isn’t all that impressive given that most Bibles have a similar smell.  Anyway, the cover was red and shiny.

I believed in God right away.  I was always told by my mom about God and Heaven, and saw no reason to argue, but that isn’t the same as reading the Bible and feeling a strong sense that it is real.

As an adult, I realize that I was dyed in the wool as a Christian.  A Catholic, actually.  And I recognize that I was dyed in the wool as a Catholic because my mother’s mother is Irish Catholic (hi Nana!).  And the Irish that are Catholic are so because of St. Patrick, or something to that effect.  Anyway, it’s a faith I inherited.

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So why stay religious now?  Well, I still believe.  Faith is gift, and I have it, for better or for worse.  I don’t believe every second of every day, but I don’t ever not believe for very long. I actually feel terrified during my moments of doubt — and again, to emphasize, this is a near daily occurrence.

What am I terrified about?  Actually the main root of this emotion is a completely self-absorbed concern with my own existence.  I can’t stand the thought of oblivion.  I think about it the way one touches a bruise to still see if it hurts.  And it always does.

This hasn’t made me overly dogmatic in the sense of believing in an old man that lives in the sky or something like that.  No fan of George Carlin is capable of that.  The truth is that I can’t fathom the essence or nature of God.  I can address this spirit in prayer, and I do feel connected to it when I experience remarkable coincidences and deja vu.  I feel connected when I take communion at church, when I hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer.  When I live my life according to good principles I learned from the Bible, and see myself rewarded by the world over the long haul for living that way, I feel connected to it.

And this is why I like religion — the sense of connection with this spirit that I don’t understand, a spirit that somehow alleviates my terror over the prospect of death.  And this is why when I miss Palm Sunday I find a way to observe my faith, and do something like I’ve done here in writing this post and sharing it with you.  And it makes me feel good having done so, even if it isn’t quite what my faith expects of me.

3 End of Year Observations

  1.  There is tremendous confusion over the authority of religion.  Gay marriage is now legal in the United States after a long and bitter culture battle.  ISIS is a serious threat, making religion seem uniquely accommodating to extremism and hence an unfortunate institution altogether.  Scripture is constantly under scrutiny by those looking to either smear it or use it to smear others as hypocrites.  Religion finds itself on the run, except mainly for a Pope that resonates with many for championing the causes of the poor and disadvantaged.  Religion did also put some points on the board this year in the aftermath of the South Carolina church massacre.  Religious faith seems to have overcome hatred there through the saving power of forgiveness.  But the broader takeaway seems to be that the way forward is to recognize that everything we find good in religion is already present in one political ideology or another.  All of this widespread irreverence toward our civilization’s great seers and truth-tellers is remarkable.  Who among us is prepared to replicate their achievements, and usher in the next great epoch?  Who among us even tries to understand their messages?
  2. This lifetime is not going to be enough to learn everything I want to learn, no matter how many years I get.  Nor, for that matter, will it be long enough for me to grow in spirit and character as far as I would like.  But my dissatisfaction with the amount of time I have in this world is offset by my growing conviction that this world is in many ways perfect for me.  If there is another life, I hope that at least another segment or two of it can be spent back here.
  3. I think I’ve learned more staring at my first-born child these last two weeks than I ever would have imagined.  I can’t say what exactly I’ve learned, but looking at her has been the most illuminating experience I think I have ever had without the aid of words.

Truth, Freedom, and Salvation

In modern liberal democracies we are free to worship as we choose.  A big reason for this freedom is that the right way to worship cannot be scientifically proven.  The one, true religion, the one, true path to salvation, is unknowable to the human mind.  Since there is no outer-objective knowledge for science to extract from nature, we are free to follow the light of our inner conscience.  If our inner conscience is wrong, at least we are making the mistake for ourselves, rather than being forced to live the mistaken judgment of some external authority figure.

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We have freedom of though and conscience beyond religious ideas. There are very wide boundaries in which we can think and believe whatever we want about anything. Again we can justify this with skepticism toward what the authorities claim to be truth or knowledge. How do they know? Haven’t the authorities been wrong in the past? Hasn’t persecution for holding minority views been something shameful when we look back at history or when we look around the world today?

Another justification for freedom of thought, speech, and conscience compares the costs and benefits. What harm does it do if I disagree with what most people think? James Madison argued that the harm was much greater in removing the liberty that allowed disagreement to exist:

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

Faction here, as it relates to subject at hand, is understood as a minority view perceived as being harmful to the rights or interests of the community. So, liberty breeds faction, but liberty is so important we must not abandon it.

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Jefferson put it this way: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

In short, freedom of thought and belief makes sense because of the difficulty of being 100% certain about the truth, because it is crucial for “political life” and self-governance, and because in many cases disagreement does not cause harm.

This freedom leaves us to follow our individual inner conscience to find our way through life and make peace with the world. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Our conscience is not a scientific compass, but is at least partly the product of our experiences, our opinions, and what kind of people we are in the first place. So although we are legally free to resist many of the intellectual and moral authorities of our world, we also depend on them to help us learn and consider the possibilities of what might be true and what might not be. The world is too complicated, information is too hidden, our minds too limited, and our curiosity too lacking, to figure it all out on our own.

On the bright side, it isn’t hard to figure out if you’re satisfied with your life or not. If you’re satisfied, then the complexity of the world isn’t such a big deal. Perfecting our conscience need not be such a high priority or source of anxiety. Exercising freedom of thought and belief itself, really exercising it, like physical exercise, is something you can get around to later. Sure you want to have right opinions just like you want to have a great body, but your opinions as they are, and your body as it is, is getting the job done for the time being.

Is this all there is to it? Does the prospect for more people getting fired up about discovering and sharing the truth about things, and loving their freedom to do so, have as much hope as the prospect for more people getting to the gym?

The only concerns that I think inspire a great deal of motivation to get more serious about discovering the truth are our existential concerns. The problem with modern liberal society, however, as I mentioned at the beginning, is that existential concerns are thought to be beyond the limits of human knowledge. Imagine trying to get a guy to the gym with the guarantee that all of his gains will be confined to his own imagination, while his body will remain in its same flabby state. That’s what we tell people about their search for salvation and finding a religion that works for them.

Of course, we can also focus on existential concerns of this world, and the ability of our family, our country, our civilization to endure and to prosper. Freedom of thought raises some problems here too, however, as we are free to have so many different ideas about how to achieve worldly salvation that we cannot decide on a single direction to march in, which is what such a collective project would require — unity.

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The only conclusion I will leave in this post is that modern liberal democracy has problems that emerge directly out of its own principles. Freedom and truth have a complicated relationship, as does the underlying motivation to exercise freedom to pursue truth and the desire for salvation or immortality.