Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Notes from the Cave

"Well, here we are in the Fabulous Forties, and life couldn't be better.  Sports!!"

Sorry, that's an inside joke that only my sister and parents are going to get.  Just seemed like a good way to start off this latest edition of Notes from the Cave.

Someone asked me today for my thoughts on the classic Thomas Paine treatise "The Age of Reason," which is one of the most widely-read pieces of literature from 18th century America.  Paine was an Enlightenment thinker and philosopher, and one of the most influential figures of the American Revolution, and this work is a well-known pamphlet discussing Paine's views on religion and the role of the Church.  I haven't actually read the entire thing, but in perusing it a bit this evening, I was struck right off by what he says in the opening section.
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy...I do not believe in the creed professed [by any church]...My own mind is my own church.
This passage resonates strongly with me, to say the least.  In short, it sums up my own feelings perfectly.  My perception of God is probably different than Paine's was, and my reaction to "the Church" (as an institution) is probably somewhat different than Paine's, because "the Church" has a different role in society today than it did then, but the overall theme and feeling is definitely identical.  His description of "religious duties" could be my own spiritual mantra.  Later in the opening section, he says that all religious institutions, whether "Jewish, Christian, or Turkish" ("Turkish" referring to Islam), are "human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."  If you think this sounds inflammatory today, imagine how it sounded in 1794 Puritan America!!

Unlike Paine, who was a deist, I have come to realize in recent months that I can best be described as a panentheist.  I realize that most of my readers will not be familiar with this word or what it means.  It is a bit difficult to describe, and I have no doubts that some people will think it's just some fancy philosophical idea that would only appeal to someone who thinks way too much about things.  Well, that's me.

You may notice right off that the word is similar to "pantheist."  A pantheist, of course, is someone who views the universe - the cosmos - as one and the same with God.  To the pantheist, nature itself is sacred.  Pantheism can be characterized by the fact that it does not hold to beliefs in any personal god, supernatural creator, or divine being.  Pantheism, then, differs from atheism only in that it affirms the sacredness of the cosmos itself.

Panentheism is similar in many ways, but vitally different in one way in particular.  Like pantheism, panentheism affirms the sacredness of the world and the cosmos.  However, where the pantheist says that God and the universe are identical, and one does not exist without the other, and one completely encompasses the other, the panentheist says that the observable universe is only a part of what God is.  In other words, God encompasses the universe, but the universe does not encompass all that God is.

Because of this vital difference, panentheism is not a form of atheism.  In fact, it specifically affirms that God exists, encompassing and embodying the universe, but also separate from and greater than the universe.

A good analogy to better understand the difference here is one that I like to call the "severed arm" analogy.  The pantheist looks at a severed arm and calls it complete.  The panentheist, on the other hand, looks at a severed arm and says it is incomplete.  It is only part of a much larger system, namely the human body.

In the same way, the pantheist views the universe as the sum total of what God is.  The panentheist, however, says the universe is only part of the reality of God.

As a panentheist, I believe God exists, and I believe the universe, and everything in it, is suffused by God and encompassed by God.  But I don't believe the universe is God.  It is only part of God's reality.  I do not believe God is a personal deity or a supernatural being.  I don't view God in anthropomorphic terms - that is, I don't believe God has a gender, or a body, or eyes to see with, or a voice to speak with, or kidneys or skin.  God can be seen by humans, but only in the sense that we have eyes to observe the world and the cosmos around us.  When you look at a flower, you are looking at a part of what God is.  When you look in the mirror, for that matter, you are looking at a part of what God is.         
What's funny about all this is that I was first introduced to the concept of panentheism almost seven years ago now, when I first began delving into religious philosophy and scholarship.  It resonated with me at the time, but it's almost like I sort of tucked it in the back of my mind and have only recently begun pulling it back out again and really thinking it through.  It's almost like I wasn't quite ready for it before, but now I am.

I still have all the same feelings and beliefs that I have always had in regards to the life and teachings of Jesus.  In that sense, I don't have a problem being called "Christian."  If a Christian is someone who tries to emulate the ethical message of Jesus, then I'm a Christian.  But I have started using that term less and less to describe myself simply because I have begun to realize that it is simply inadequate, and way too top heavy with theological and institutional religious baggage of which I want absolutely no part.

Well.  I didn't exactly mean for this to become a serious theological post.  So on now to some more mundane bullshit.

I have been doing a lot of shifts in the OR at work lately, and it's starting to piss me off.  I don't mind OR work, but when I have to be up there three or four days a week, every week, I start to get irritated.  Today I was expecting, based on my shift, not to be up there at all, and instead I came in and had to work there all day because of a call-in.  Tomorrow I am working a swing shift - 11-7:30 - and so I shouldn't have to do anything in the OR (fingers crossed).

I think I've mentioned before how I have started working this year with an old friend from high school who has started an online business giving English speaking and writing lessons to Japanese people.  Last week, I did my first "solo" lesson over Skype, and then did another the following day.  Both went reasonably well, and now I feel much more confident going ahead with this in the future.  I am also going to begin keeping a company blog to talk about writing, and I've already recorded a podcast on writing tips, which is part of the free content on the website.  I don't know yet what this work is going to promise me from a financial standpoint, but it's fun doing it for what it's worth.  If I can make a few extra dollars on the side, all the better.

I tried to watch the GOP debate the other night on CNN.  I really did give it a good faith effort.  But I only lasted about 10 minutes.  They weren't even done with the first question when I decided it was better to turn it off than sit there and get pissed.

I finally finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which took me about three or four weeks to get through.  I've heard other people say that it starts slow and gets better later, and that is definitely how I felt about it.  It's a 600 page novel, and I didn't really feel like the plot started moving in any significant way until about 300 pages in.  Despite this, I would still recommend it, because it was entertaining, and the last half of the book is a definite page-turner.  The writer simply takes too long to get to the good stuff.  Since he died shortly after sending the manuscript to his publisher, I can't help but wonder if they wouldn't have done some more work on it had he lived.  In any case, I intend to read the remaining two books in the series.

For now, however, I am reading Gideon's Sword, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.  These two people coauthor intelligent thrillers together, and they are among my dwindling list of authors whose books I always buy in hardback.  I used to have four or five of these "hardback" authors, but nowadays I'm down to just them and maybe one other person.    

On the non-fiction front, I am reading scholar James Tabor's book "The Jesus Dynasty."  I've been slowly moving through this book since early in the summer, but I don't think I've touched it since before our vacation in July.  It's not that it isn't any good, I just haven't been all that interested.

OK, I guess that's it.



Elissa Michelle said...

How come you always get about 3/4 through a post and then say, "Well, I didn't mean to go on about such-and-such when I started this post...." Not complaining. Just an observation. :)

Your comments on God and the belief in such have me thinking. I am agnostic, but my first reaction to the idea of panentheism is, "What's the point of that sort of God?" As I think about it more, I guess I just can't overcome the God of my childhood--the Judeo/Christian construct of a God who is actively involved in human life. I mean, if God can't protect you or offer you salvation through an afterlife, then what's the point of God? Obviously that thought in itself is the whole reason people have constructed this character to begin with--a need to explain the inexplicable and an even more desperate need to stave off feelings of fear and insecurity. So in light of those innate human feelings, I'm struggling to see the point of another kind of God, while recognizing that it's my own cultural bias that is blinding me to the idea.

Scott said...

Those are good questions and definitely relevant. In the case of panentheism, there is no reason why one couldn't be a panentheist, and still believe in an afterlife. Again, it's that cultural bias you talked about that leads one to believe that God has to be a supernatural being in order for there to be an afterlife. There could be no god at all, and an afterlife could still exist. It only *seems* that the two have to be connected.

Furthermore, one could be a panentheist and still maintain active beliefs in things like prayer. Sending prayers or "positive vibes" out into the universe could result in "good" being returned to you. God doesn't have to be a supernatural being in order for that to be true.

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