Monday, 29 October 2007

Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil

The other night, I fell asleep watching The Antichrist on the History Channel.

I caught only a few minutes of it but I may tape it tonight at 1am. If only because it seems everywhere we turn, we are being subtly and not so subtly reminded of the events and mediums of the day which suggest the end is near. Al Gore et al have been awarded a Nobel Prize for bringing his Inconvenient Truth to the forefront of the world's consciousness. CNN is featuring a Planet in Peril series. Fundamentalist churches seem to be conveying more urgent signage.What's a gal to do except to camp out in the last minute indulgences line-up now and show them my Get Out of Hell Free card and hope for the best?

I'm not one for biblical prophecy although I did have a mini-flashlight moment/paradigm shift last night when I heard the narrator define biblical prophecy not in terms of foreseeing the future so much as explaining and reconciling the present. In the case of the apocalyptic visions we read of in the Book of Daniel, this context makes huge sense, given that these writings were inspired during a very tumultuous time in history circa the reign and ruin of Antiochus and the final decades preceding the Maccabee Revolt.

I do believe in the duality of good and evil ~ although I would prequalify that good is entirely a priori and evil is an a posteriori construct ~ but I don't believe it is as black and white as End Time apocalyptists would have it seem. I see the big picture in Hegelian dialectic fashion: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. None of us knows how this synthesis plays out but I'm not inclined to believe that the penultimate moments to salvation entail a Holy Land battlefield complete with horses and beasts and the like. My theodicy is more subjective and introspective. I think we need look no further than our own interior castle to find the mythos or should I say pathos of a lurking antichrist who blocks the doorway to the throneroom of one's God. This fearsome archetype is alive in every evil thought and deed we create, undertake and/or passively permit. He/she/it is personified is every fear and every doubt that clouds divine Love, subjective Truth and real Beauty.

That is not to say I have not known evil. My deck was stacked in advance with as many bad cards as good. I have experienced tremendous pain, loss, abandonment, hurt and betrayal, just as I have been blessed with love and goodness from many great teachers who have come to me in the form of friends, family and foe. And I know without doubt that I would not have the same outlook towards evil had I survived the Holocaust, or were I to be living in modern day Darfur, or any other godforesaken place on this planet - pick one, there are many.

Evil can also be expressed in terms of the absence of God. The most haunting and arguably, exegetically challenging words in the entire Bible are those uttered in the last cry of Jesus: "My God, My God, Why have Your Foresaken Me?" Psalm 22

Christian apologists make a compelling case for God's absence in this penultimate moment of Jesus' humanity, although arguably, this very so-called absence might call into question some Christological debate concerning His fully man, fully divine status (hypostatic union). And so we return to this notion of evil expressed as the absence of God. Does the absence of God in such moments preserve God's omni-goodness or alternatively, is God actually hanging from the gallows along with the suffering, as Eli Wiesel so infamously stated in his Holocaust memoir, Night?

Jürgen Moltmann, a German Protestant theologian, thinks so. Now granted, his theology is greatly informed by his personal experiences as a German POW during WWII. Yet he articulates a creative theodicy such that God and suffering cannot work in contradiction, but rather in concert. Because God is love, "God's being is in suffering and suffering in God's being itself" (Crucified God, p. 72).

If you have read Life of Pi, have studied Jewish Kabbalism or perchance read my March blog post about Tsimtsum, you may have some understanding of this fascinating little theological motif. Whether I read the scripture literally or metaphorically, I see a fit here between Tsimtsum and Jesus' godforesaken moment on the cross. Farfetched I know, but we are talking about a supposedly metaphysical phenomena, if the resurrection of Christ is to be believed, and we are talking about theology - which is home to some of the most creative thought ever.

God, in that moment, withdraws into Self, creating a vacuum or void such that the Rabbi from Nazareth, is left bereft and alone. This act of creation makes room for Christ. Make of that what you will according to whatever trinitiarian, unitarian or arian faith you ascribe to.

I mentioned Moltmann and funny enough, Moltmann boldly commits to paper what I only dared think audaciously. I'm reading a book called The Doctrine of God by a systematic theologian from Helsinki whose name is utterly unpronounceable, and what do ya know, Moltmann stole my very thought 22 years ago. Talk about a timeslip moment: Emerson was right. "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Here's what Moltmann has to say about tsimtusm relative to his cosmology and perhaps more importantly, his Christological vision: "the infinte God must have made room for this finitude beforehand 'in himself.'" As the author puts it, "God withdraws into himself in order to go out of himself. In order to indwell in us all. Luke 17: 20-21... - hence the "kingdom of God is within you."

Not surprisingly, Moltmann has been labelled a trinitarian panentheist which is as much of a mouthful as all this good, bad, ugly God-talk. Understanding the crucifixion of Christ then as an act of panentheistic theocide (God and mankind, conjoined on the cross in suffering) is not too many theological steps removed from this tsimtsum process of contraction/expansion/re-creation. Moltmann, in essence, suggests God has metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bathwater (think Abraham and Isaac big-picture ethics for a moment here) in salvific sacrifice for the sins of humankind, in co-dependent suffering and as a "praxis of hope." Once and for all time. Amen.

But, it's not quite so amen, because even still, evil triumphs, forcing us to reconcile God's omniscience, goodness and greatness in the heart of it all in this eschatological age.

There's simply no avoiding it. Everywhere we turn, someone new is prophecized to be the Antichrist. Napoleon, Hitler, Hussein, Bin Laden, and even Al Gore have been named as such in the eyes of some staunch fundamentalists. In fact, google "Barack Obama antichrist or "Al Gore antichrist" and you'll see numerous sites dedicated to warning us of their starring role in the upcoming Apocalypse. To be fair, GWB is in the running, too.

Evil is the energy that binds, knots and fashions our collective fears into a noose. And as long as there is evil and/or religions that juxtapose the dychotomies of good and evil (all bow to Zarathustra), Antichrist types will abound. Those loose threads called fears will always be with us, as well. 'Til kingdom come, they will prevail, methinks. We're hardwired for fight, flight and that spine-tingling and tremendum (terrifying) feeling called fear. But with every fear, comes choice. As Dorothy Thompson quipped, "Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light."

And that's my lightbulb moment on this dimly lit day.


Thursday, 11 October 2007

Brain Food for Thought

Oftentimes, when borrowing popular demand books from the library, I feel a kind of misguided loyalty to read each and every word. Such is the case with The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. Sometimes common sense prevails, however, such that abandonment remains the only avenue. If something bugs you, set it free. Or something like that.

There I was, about two dozen pages away from the finish line but I couldn't hang on any longer. There remained no hope that this book might offer any kind of chemical marriage between the outer limits of science and the inner limits of religion. And post humus to my reading, I still don't get his so-called case, except to intuit that his apologetics, in defense of of a more holistic study of religious experience and against what he calls "dogmatic materialist scientism," are extremely weak. His religious studies scholarship? Weaker still. But shucks, if you don't believe me, ask the science blogger types. Dogmatic materialist scientismy types, the whole lot of them, it's true ~but they're also a heck of a lot more rational than Beauregard's argument in this book.
Or if you'd rather read a more favorable book review for good measure, then you'd be heeding Sir Francis Bacon's advice: "Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

To be fair, two things stand out within the 3oo pages. Firstly, he insists there is no centralized 'God Spot,' as previously hypothesized by Newberg and D'Aquili (authors of Why God Won't Go Away). On the contrary, God on the brain is, instead a "complex and multidimensional" phenomena.

Upon studying the mystical experiences of Carmelite nuns, Beauregard insists that religious experience (he calls them RSMEs) is "neurally instatiated by different brain regions involved in a variety of fucntion, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body represetation, visual and motor imagery, and spiritual perception." So there's a bit of a laser, light show going on in the brain. Well, quelle suprise, Monsieur scienteeste.

The second notable standout occurs on the penultimate pages of the book, where Beauregard finally gets to his real point epiphany by confessing to having had a "cosmic consciousness" type of religious experience twenty years ago. It was his awe-ha moment. Materialists will have a heyday picking apart the biological roots of his illness narrative, as this experience purportedly happened while he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Cynicism aside, he still does little to further this all-important field of study, owing in large part to his shoddy scholarship.

To be honest, the last time I saw such piecemealed scholarship was on a draft version of one of my first year religion courses as an undergraduate, in which I was attempting to imbed five million expert quotations into my research paper as a way to give makeshift props to my non-existent thesis. Beauregard and O'Leary have apparently lifted a page from this freshman approach in hopes that neophyte readers will be summarily dazzled by strings of four or five quotes from the likes of long dead mysticism heavyweights like William James, Evelyn Underhill and W.T. Stace, and thus, might forget Beauregard had yet to make his point. Although he insists to the dismal finish that he has one.

As summation for his case, Beauregard calls for a more integrated framework of study between science and religion in order to apprehend an "intuitive, unitive, and experiential form of knowing." I sympathize with his viewpoint and had high hopes his book might be a more comprehensive study as such, which is why I have been eagerly awaiting this reading.

But in the spirit of true religious confessions, I have to admit that I have been highly disappointed with arguments on both sides of the table as of late. I started to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins last year but finally gave up, not because our views were diabolically opposed (they were and are) and not for lack of highly amusing discourse (Dawkins dolls this out in droves) but because once again, lax scholarship (shame on Oxford for permitting this) and prooftexting leaves much to be desired.

So then I thought I would jump sides to see what Francis Collins had to say with The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. This one I managed to finish but again, I admit to a vague feeling of disappointment. Then, as now, I cannot help but feel as though all these scientists hold the veritable key to the universe, and yet they are too busy jossling each other at the gate about whose key is a brighter shade of gold to bother unlocking the dang thing.

I'm just not seeing compelling scientific evidence either for or against God from either camp. I firmly believe in intelligent design, just as I strongly believe in evolution, albeit from a teleological perspective; affording me, I suppose, a rather tenuous foothold upon process theology ground.

I have a sneaky suspicion that the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind from Santa Barbara, and I don't mean from Oprah. Consciousness studies, that last horizon, that final frontier in this race for god, guts and glory, is likely where it's at.

Beauregard and his co-author, Denyse O'Leary say as much, of course. Too bad they preface it with 295 painful pages before doing so. If you must read his book, do yourself a favour and begin at the end and work back. It's not exactly an evolutionary approach, but I suspect Beauregard himself might commend you for this.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~