Selling your Soul

A man in New Zealand named Walter Scott (seriously) has sold the deed to his soul for $3800 to Hell Pizza.  The company was willing to fork over the fee for the deed as part of their so-bad-it’s-good reputation.  And it is amusing.  You make a little splash of ridiculous publicity and get paid for it.  But still, there are tons of people upset by the purchase.  If you’re religious, it’s blasphemous.  Does that make it wrong?

A part of the issue depends on how you perceive religion.  Is it an oppressive force that has inhibited man throughout the ages?  Is it a moral compass?  Is it yet another code for simple human interaction?  Is it a barricade opposing lucrative moneymaking like soul-selling?  is it Is it an unbending set of rules not to be questioned?

Some people believe that the devil is out to win your soul from you – to corrupt you, to convert you for the final battle, to doom you to the end of all time.  If there is such thing as a devil, I would prefer to believe in a different sort.  I want the devil who thinks he’s the greatest thing since peanut butter cups yet continues to lose when matching wits against a canny, crusty old woman or a boy with a fiddle.  Like Walter Scott, I want to gain some profit of the things I’m not using.  Perhaps it’s pride or fear, but I’d like to bargain with the devil and come out ahead.

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How much freedom?

While I am a Christian, I am one of those who also believes in religious tolerance.  I believe in setting a good and faithful example, yes, but I am not a proselytizer.  If you are curious, I will share my faith with you.  If you have a faith of your own, I am eager to discuss where we might agree or have differences.  While I plan on raising my children in my own faith, I don’t expect that they will maintain that belief as adults.  Even my own children should eventually have the right to choose.  I am probably among the minority in this expectation, but I think it’s a good minority to belong to.

Elsewhere the same kind of tolerances have been coming under fire.  A book burning that may have happened accidentally highlights the tensions and restrictions on religious action in modern day Israel.  Though the original initiative was simply to collect Messianic and Christian literature distributed in the area, it ultimately included a large number of New Testaments that were burned.  But the question comes as to why these documents were collected in the first place.  Should Christianity have no place in a mostly Jewish community?  Were the local people simply trying to protect their own faith, with results that spiralled out of hand?

It is one thing to protect your children and your home from influences you don’t want.  It is another to bar these same influences from a community.  Raising a child means educating them to the extent that they can make wise decisions for themselves.  It does not mean sheltering them with the idea of protecting them their entire lives.  In some cases, the protection might be necessary for awhile, but should ultimately be eliminated.  Take China for example, and the government’s laws against proselytizing.  When I’m accosted on the train by someone handing out leaflets who sees my cross and wants to talks, I wish we had a similar law.  I wonder if that’s childish of me, and whether I by now should simply be able to deal with people on my own, or at what point my right to privacy and my right not to listen should outweigh another’s right to speak or advocate for what they believe.

Designer God

It’s been some time since I said anything on this blog about God, or religion, or any of the more spiritual things that interest me.  And then I read this post, and I was caught again in that whirlwind, at least for a moment.  I am steady in my own faith at the moment, and as a result, am consistently fascinated by the beliefs of others.  Shape + colour mentions the way the site design has attracted her despite her initial lack of interest in the subject matter.  And there’s something very interesting in that draw, as typical attempts by religion to ‘reach out’ to a certain demographic end up feeling slightly sleazy.  What makes this site different?  Is it only the design?  Is it the attempted broadness of appeal to all faiths and belief systems?  Is it the idea of a truly universal and sympathetic community?

But the story continues.  While the graphics and site design may be one thing, the prayer postings and comments themselves are another.  They driven things, forced out by our own worries, self-doubts, or frustrations.  They are full of questions as well as calls for aid and support, or affirmations of life and knowledge and faith.  And that’s a beautiful thing, no matter what you feel or believe personally.  It has a bit of the flavor of what I most like about the world: truth.  Truth expressed in a multiplicity of ways and embellished and shown more fully and completely by all kinds of art.  I want to write it all down and capture the truest moments of my life and the lives of others.  I want truth so powerful it slaps you around a little before sucking you in completely.  Maybe this website will promote a little of that.  Even though I was not able to find out much about who was responsible for backing it, I hope it does.

Owing the Taliban

In recent history, anger and revolution have destroyed a number of great monuments to the work and beliefs of mankind. The Cultural Revolution comes to mind, and its destruction and defacement of a variety of religious monuments, including some of the early Buddhist temples along the Silk Road. The book burning in Nazi Germany is another example. The symbolic burning of Old Glory to support a specific cause is an example of representative destruction, as was done during the Vietnam War. The Taliban and their destruction of various non-Muslim religious spaces is another example.

But all is not lost with these acts of violence. The monuments that were destroyed are often held in even more reverence at later times. The calls to destruction can attract new attention to significant historical locations and even sometimes lead to renewed study and preservation concerns for the past. Take the recent discovery that Buddhists near Bamiyan used oil-based paints in the 7th century for example. If the Taliban hadn’t attempted to destroy the caves and the two Buddha statues outside, conservationists would have been reluctant to study the composition of the painting materials. From restoration processes after the Taliban’s reign, we now know that people in the area were using oils centuries before the advent of oil painting in Europe.

What debt, then, do we have to those who attempt to destroy culture and end up preserving it even more firmly? Does it say something more about them, or about us, that we study only those things that are most endangered or at risk. What does it mean that a high percentage of the archaeological study taking place in North America only happens as a result of land development? What does it mean that we only have the resources to discover the past when the physical presence of that past is threatened?

The Faith of Tiny Sticks.

Today in church our ministers discussed their recent trip to Jerusalem.  As we are a fairly progressive church, they aimed to include all aspects of the city:  The muezzins with their early-morning cries, the segregated structure of the city itself, the way belief and power shaped and continues to shape its people.  All in all, it was an interesting sermon and discussion.  However the key image that stood out in my mind was that of the Western Wall, and the way many of different faiths treated it in such differing manners.  There were accounts of dancing, singing, crying, silent or loud praying, the outstretched hand gently and reflectively stuffing a prayer paper into a crevice.  It made be thing of faith generally and the way it impacts our daily lives.

Modern science might lead to you understand that faith is not a powerful force in the universe – instead, it is merely an imagining of our own minds.  Even if it does not truly reflect the existence of some higher power however, it remains powerful, at least in regards to each of us individually.  Faith can lift and exalt the highest wishes and best dreams we have, for both ourselves and our world.  In addition, a lack of it can lead us to the deepest despair, squashing what light we have in the time given to us.

In China, wherever there is a ledge or overhang, it is supported by hundreds or thousands of thin red sticks.  These are placed into the crack or cracks as small silent prayers, or tokens of faith, a kind of moral propping-up of the rock.  It is unclear as to whether or not those who place these sticks actually believe they preserve the structure of the ledge, but I have yet to see one that has fallen.  Perhaps they know something we don’t.

This same sort of perhaps fanciful occult knowledge is seen in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco canyon.  This particular ‘Great House’ was sited directly beneath an overhanging ledge that threatened the building.  Perhaps of reasons of the natural dominance of the overhang, or perhaps because the faith of the builders in their own engineering prowess, the site was still used, though the overhang was structurally reinforced at the time of the Pueblo’s building (and possibly subsequently).  Of course, when later stonemasons attempted to correct the weathering and erosion damage to the overhang in 1937, the work was fruitless – collapse ensued just a few years later due to heavy rains in the area.  Which leads me to wonder if earlier engineers knew something basic about the stone and perhaps natural area flooding that later generations had lost.  Perhaps they had a greater faith in the viability of their efforts.

The questions remains to me to what extent belief can impact the natural world.  We fight for it, we die and kill for it, and yet many say the beliefs we hold so dear to our hearts are not real in the truest sense of the word.  What then is its meaning, its existence, or its true worth?

Easter Sunday Blues

Easter Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays.  Not only does it bring people out of the woodwork (and I have no problem with C and E Christians), but it is almost always a valuable experience.  Maybe it’s the increased pageantry of the day, or the music which almost always includes the Hallelujah Chorus, or the visible throng of people in colorful and festive garb, but it’s always refreshing and good.  And this Easter, as usual, I enjoyed the service and felt renewed and refreshed in my faith.  Though I am continuing in a time of questioning in my daily life as well as in what I believe about the resurrection, I am confident that God accepts and anticipates my doubts, and forgives them.  I am confident that He remains a doting parent, watchful but willing to let me grow in my faith, in my own way.

Since this Sunday is obviously meant to be both a time for forgiveness and renewal of commitment, I took some time to focus personally on its most troubling aspects: the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection itself.  The first was highly contentious even in later churches, but the second was one that was picked up quite quickly by the early church.  Without it, what is Christianity, really?  What I have trouble with is the fantastical nature of resurrection, especially in its typical connotations with grisly reanimated bodies.  New life from something dead goes against the order of nature – and yet I believe in life after death.  Perhaps this is because of my own longing for continuity, my zest for life, or the observation in the world around me that beauty does not die, but rather changes from one form to another.  And how can I believe in some sort of continuation of existence after life if I question Christ’s resurrection?  On the first issue, am I confident that someone who was the Son of God, who knew he was God on earth, would have the ability to be killed?  And would God be so restricted by the rules of his own creation (i.e., death) that he had to live and die himself to change the rules of the game?  I’m not sure if I buy that.

Still, I think Jesus Christ served as an example of something new.  He was a voice of peace – highly resistant and vocal non-violence, mind you – at a time when the Hebrew people were looking for any excuse to react violently to their oppressors.   And He still serves as an example to me in that aspect of life, in the responsibility to affect change in the world peacefully.  He serves as a life model in many areas, and I am grateful to have that.  But I’m not convinced that he thought he as the Messiah.  I’m not convinced he was trying to start a new religion.  I think he was a very faithful and probably charismatic man himself.  The later church combined the historic view of Jesus as simply a man (albeit one with new ideas on life and teaching and resistance) with that of Jesus the Christ and Messiah.  As both a human man developing through childhood to adulthood and thus supremely involved in local circumstances, and also as a being enlightened in the supreme wisdom and world plan/view of God, he could both be a figure of local change and far-reaching religious significance.  Despite my respect for those attempting to understand the nature of God or Jesus in years past, I myself remain unconvinced.  But I am also not convinced that such beliefs are wrong.

At a certain point in history, as new scientific discoveries were made, science has been seen as at odds with religion.  Every day there are new proofs that some bit of dogma is wrong, or that our own evolutionary existence probably called for the development of religion, or that further space exploration has yet to reach a concrete Heaven.   And an atheistic comment that all I gain from religion could be gotten in other ways is no doubt true.  I could, in fact, get up early every Sunday morning to meet with my other fellow atheists, talk about the week, listen to some semi-professional classical music, and meditate or reflect on my week so that I have some time to process it.  I am sure that if I were to do such a thing, my life would be no less full.  But perhaps through my own insecurities, there comes a time at which explanations have little value in comparison with the security of knowing I am not talking to an empty, ultimately meaningless world.

Finally, I was really mad at the people shoved in close next to me in the pew on this most crowded of mornings.  Yes, they were dumb.  Comments like “Wow – they have, like, a whole symphony up there.” and “Look at that drummer.  He’s so into it – I bet in his free time, he just drums any old drum” for some reason deflated some of my experience.  What type of selfish, ornery person gets angry at others’ offhand remarks on Easter Sunday?

Rediscovering Amity.

Amity is defined as ‘friendship’ or ‘peaceful harmony’ or “mutual understanding and a peaceful relationship, esp. between nations; peace; accord.”  But what does this type of friendship mean?  Is peaceful harmony the simple respect of leaving one another alone, or is there something more to it?  Does amity require the type of friendship that implies helping out with the hard times, as well as celebrating the good?  Does it require a deeper kind of agreement, or at least understanding, on issues of faith, morals, politics, or education?

Amity is also the name of the foundation I worked with during my time as an English teacher in China (which I was surprised to discover blogging on WordPress, just like me).  The organization is Christian in a country that is largely not, a country that actively prosecutes outside proselytizing.  It is also one of the longer running voluntary nonprofits in the country, which is a part of what originally led me to join the organization for a time.  Ultimately though I would say my experiences there were more to my advantage than theirs.

China gave me many opportunities.  The free time to write.  The forced need to interact with a culture different than mine, in a different language setting.  The experience of teaching.   The time to reflect a little on what I wanted to do with my life.  The feel-good of doing good for others.  And for that, I am and will continue to be grateful.
It’s something I can always pull out and look at and say ‘hey, I was a part of something great,” no matter what the rest of my life may or may not amount to.

Tibet

It’s one of those countries that smacks of differentness. People think of Everest, of Shangri-La, of remote little villages and little wizened people climbing through the mountains. It is remote, and for that remoteness, pristine and beautiful. Even the real experience of being there heightens the idea of mystical experience – the air is thin enough to cause mountain sickness and hallucinations. Due to a renewal in the popularity of eastern religion, at times it is seen as a place more holy and special than others. It’s a land starkly contrasted between very arid scrubby lowlands and extreme elevations capped with unmelting snow.

My experience there was also one of extremes. I had both the best and worst bathroom experiences of my life there. I was constantly torn between admiration for the people and discomfort with what they believed. They are of stern convictions, but do not allow this to impede their happiness or friendliness. potala-palace-at-lhasa-2.jpgI saw little unrest, but I would assume such things would be hidden from foreigner eyes. But the excesses of Buddhist decoration, gifts, and ostentation are not things I admire of that religion, and I found many temples strangely disquieting. I had the most magical time at the Potala Palace, but that was from small things. I remember getting close enough to see that dyed sticks piercing the walls make up the dark red ribbons that top Potala’s buildings. I remember the songs of workers as they stamped and damped down the (mud?) roof of one building. I will try to find the video so I can put it up here.

With the 2008 Olympics and all the recent protesting that’s been going on, it’s not hard to see this extremism rising to the surface again. But its history is here more occluded. Though the protesters present themselves as simply wishing the return of their religious and spiritual head, they are not just advocates of freedom. Tibet was formerly theocratic, in particular at its heyday as a major stop on the Silk Road. But even in those days, power was torn between rival religious leaders, namely the Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Both leaders were extremely political, and the choice of new lamas was often contended. Fatalities were frequent, and intrigue, rife. The PRC changed all that through military force and the subsequent rules, proscriptions, abductions, and importation of Han Chinese people.

I don’t claim to know who is the rightful ruler of this land, or who would be the best one. I don’t know if claims of continued oppression and violence on the part of the Han Chinese are true. I don’t even know what the population statistics for each ethnic group now living there are. I do know that the situation is highly charged and highly political – implications are extensive, in particular for Taiwan. I know compromise between the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile is dying. I also know that, despite the history of extremism in the area, violence and suicide will not renew that compromise.

The tree of life

I was reading this blog post today about the rediscovery of an ancient Iranian goblet as one of the earliest (perhaps the earliest) cartoons, illustrating a goat in several different positions around the bowl. There’s a short video of the ‘animation’ on the post which shows the goat leaping twice and eventually reaching the leaves of a plant in front of him. There’s some early theory that the plant represents the Assyrian Tree of Life, despite the fact that the artifact itself predates Assyrian civilization.

As I was reading this, I was first drawn to the tree of life reference, perhaps because of my Christian background. My first assumption was that the Biblical tree of life (the one in Genesis that’s not the apple, aka not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) preceded the Assyrian one.  After all, the Assyrians are part of later books of the Bible and the history of the Jewish people.  Evidently, this is not necessarily true: 2/3 of Assyrian history preceded the supposed initial writing of the Genesis tales.  So, though oral history may have carried one or both at the same time, it’s difficult to say who borrowed from whom.

Perhaps a more accurate summary would simply state that the Tree of Life, or World Tree, could be peeking out from this goblet as it  peeks out in a wide variety of myths and stories around the globe.  Take the peach immortality tree of the Taoist, or early Chinese depictions of trees including both the dragon (immortality) and the phoenix (balance).  Take the pomegranate of the Greeks or Yggdrasil of the Norse, or the ceiba tree of the Maya.  Take any old tree you know personally – its power to lift the eyes;  its strong, deep roots and its dancing green lights.  What can such a tree tell you about age, death, and growth?

A story of our own.

I am currently reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer for dyslexics.  Meaning, the Watertown Free Library did not have a hard copy available, so I had to check out the book on tape.  Even though this means something like 14 hours of book on tape, I’ve gotten pretty far along.  Of course, most of my co workers have been mocking the giant noise cancellation headphones I’ve been sporting, but that’s ok.  The book’s the thing.

Interesting as I find parts of this  non-fiction book, one of the things that really caught my eye was the proposition of the Church of Latter-Day Saints as the most widespread religion originating in the United States.  While I am unsure how to categorize various other religions, the idea itself is interesting.  Mormonism as a very distinct, North American-centric religion.  Obviously there are certain faith traditions that LDS builds upon, but the same could be said of the relationship of other faiths – Christianity building on Judaism, Islam building on parts of both.

Another point that is mentioned and I find interesting is the idea of appeal in the Book of Mormon.  For those of you who are not familiar with this book (I wasn’t), it’s the story of a lost tribe of Israel and its travels and travails in North America.  While there is no evidence that the story is true, it remains a powerful story.  Despite my own Christian beliefs, I have a powerful sympathy for the stories of faith that fill out and shape our individual lives, and I mean no disrespect when I associate, in my mind, the stories of my own faith with that of the LDS or other stories, myths, legends, and fables.  I find most of them fascinating.

One of the reasons Tolkien wrote his fantastical stories was to give space to English myth and legend that could be understood within a Christian ethic.  He drew from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Finnish, and Classical sources to create something new, different, and wondrous that could be a myth for his own time.  Do we not, as Americans, also need our own myth?

Some would say that the wonder of past ages has been transmuted.  Instead of looking backward to times of legends, miracles, and magic, we are looking forward to new technologies and advances of the human spirit.  Some would say that science fiction fills the space once created by myth, or that comic book heroes and the graphic novel have rightfully supplanted older stories and forms, or that television and film have taken our old dramas to new levels.  But perhaps I want something more encompassing than that.  Perhaps I want something wider, something that everyone, more or less, can relate to.  Is that impossible, within the diversity of our current lives?  Are we so different, now, from who we used to be?  I think those who continue to search for meaning would say no.

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