Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Atheist for Christ

I experienced a large surge of page views on my blog yesterday, again a majority from Norway.  No particular post was accessed, just a disparate group of topics.


Previously, I had indicated that I was hoping to use my time off from work to finish a project I had begun quite a while ago.  Happily, I did so.

As a result, I have published a group of essays, available for use on Kindle and its various permutations.

If interested, here is a link for you to cut and paste in your browser.   The collection is priced
at $1.99.

To give you an idea as to the topic of this work, I have included the forward below.

An Atheist for Christ

When I told a friend of mine that the title of this group of essays was to be An Atheist for Christ, she said that it didn’t make sense.  She assumed, like many people, that belief in the teachings of Christ presupposed belief in God.  I joked with her that she was right, I really should have called the essays An Agnostic for Christ, but that just didn’t have the same ring to it, the same pizzazz. 

What I hope to demonstrate to her in this brief collection of thoughts is that in fact one can believe in the teachings of Christ and in the beauty of his message without glorifying it with the connection to God.  In other words, if we don’t shoot the messenger who delivers bad news, conversely, perhaps we shouldn’t deify those who have brought us good news.


Monday, February 16, 2015


I believe I mentioned a few posts ago that I was spending more time reading and getting caught up on my favorite magazines.  Towards that end, I started the Winter Lapham's Quarterly called Foreigners.  Interestingly, I thought of this edition while I was watching the movie Good Will Hunting a few days ago.  The movie, if you are not familiar with it, involves a young man named Will Hunting who has an amazing gift for mathematics despite being an orphan, being exposed to a number of abusive foster situations, and having received no formal education in math.  He is "discovered" as a result of his working as an overnight custodian at Harvard where he has been solving advanced mathematical theorems placed on chalkboards in the hallways of the math department as a challenge to the students of the school. 

The scene which reminded me of Foreigners occurs between Will and his psychologist, a wonderful part played by the recently departed Robin Williams.  This is the second meeting between the two, the first having resulted in Will using his ability to hurt (before being hurt) Robin's character (Sean)by analyzing his painting.  Sean, having stayed up half the night thinking about Will's hatchet job, especially as it related to Sean's marriage, takes Will to a local park.  As they are sitting there, Sean admits to Will that he got to him, but then tells Will that eventually a realization hit him, and he immediately forgot Will and fell asleep.

Sean uses his vulnerability to Will's attack to begin Will's therapy.  He tells Will that just as it is impossible for Sean to even glimpse the pain and suffering that Will endured as a child merely by watching Oliver Twist, so it is impossible for Will to really know Sean just by looking at a picture he painted.  He tells Will that only through getting to know him, listening to Will, and by Will being willing to tell his story, can Sean truly understand him.

So, returning to Lapham's Quarterly, Foreigners, there are essays and stories, one after another, which describe how we, individually and communally, circle the wagons, so to speak, to create "we" and "they".   We prefer to read about "they", or even worse, take the word of our institutions who belittle they as barbarians, or worshipers of the wrong god, or cloaked in the wrong color skin. We prefer to act as Will, who uses his skills to reduce everyone he encounters to one dimensional caricatures, as opposed to our own complicated versions of "we". 

Among a number of interesting quotes, there is one by Confucius that particularly struck me.
"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice they get to be wide apart".  I interpret that as the understanding that at birth we are very similar.  But, as our lives progress, we are taught how to identify "they", how to hate those that are different.  If, on the other hand, we were to seek to understand each other rather than accepting a stereotypical version of who "they" are as presented by our governments, our religions, our race, we might be able to remember how we are all the same as opposed as to how we might be different. 

Another interesting section of this Lapham's edition, displayed some maps of the world and how various treaties, laws, pacts either included or excluded other people.  One interesting note was that before the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act which increased barriers and patrols along the border between the US and Mexico, before that Act, upwards of 85% of illegal entrants were offset by returning immigrants; after the law, the number dropped to 10%.  Now, I respect the editors of Lapham's as any reader of my blog knows, and would like to find some corroborating evidence of this fact, but even if it is only mostly accurate, imagine the ramifications of that information being widely discussed and disseminated.  Kind of changes one's perspective of the recent immigration talk that emanates from Washington, and all the talk about increasing patrols and barriers between the two countries.     

Xenophobia is defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners in some dictionaries, the unreasonable fear of strangers or foreigners in others.  I find it interesting that some add unreasonable, as I accept that it is reasonable to be wary of what is different, but attribute so much of the violence in the world to that wariness when it blossoms into fear, then hatred.  As a child begins to understand the world, his mind begins to incorporate all the new sensations, groups them, connects them to known sensations, resulting in less fear and a larger store of experiences through which even more encounters can be less feared, more easily absorbed into that ever growing set of things not strange, things not to be feared.  However, somewhere along the line, our cup of experiences fills, or we decide to shut out anything new that doesn't already live in our set of sensations.  We stop expanding our "we", but even worse, we focus too much on increasing our definition of "they". 

Here is a hint.  When he hear someone in a public forum, TV, radio, etc.  Listen for how many times they use we and they.  Whether it is to unite or to isolate.  Try to calculate how wide a tent their "we" truly is and how often "they" are blamed for the troubles of the day.  Then ask yourself if you prefer leaders who incorporate a disparate citizenry or only a special subset.  And, finally, if it is the latter you prefer, pray that someday you are not labeled among the "they" when a new group is needed to blame or excoriate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Keystone Pipeline

As I have mentioned before, I receive a weekly summary of all the high profile votes cast in the United States Congress.  The last few weeks have featured a number of votes related to the Keystone Pipeline, a topic upon which I recently commented.

To begin, the Senate passed a bill by a 62-36 vote (there were a few abstainers) that would immediately allow TransCanada to construct, connect, operate and maintain the pipeline, including any revision to the route within Nebraska.  It also would consider the January 2014 environmental impact statement issued by the State Department sufficient to satisfy all requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.  

At this point a number of amendments to the bill were put to vote, amendments generally sponsored by Democrats.  One such amendment expressed the sense of the Senate that climate change is real.  This amendment was voted in favor of, overwhelmingly.  What's that you say, the Senate, a GOP majority body voted almost unanimously that climate change is real?  Finally, sanity has prevailed.  But alas, a different amendment that added the phrase "and that human activity significantly contributes to it" was also brought to the floor.  It also passed, 50-49 with 1 not voting, but by unanimous consent the Senate agreed to raise the requirement for adoption of this amendment to 60 votes.  Ah, so close to the promised land.

Two quick questions here.  One, why is the State Department issuing an environmental impact statement as opposed to the federal agencies empowered to protect our environment?  Could it be because the state department might look favorably on a project that continues to benefit the fossil fuel industry while the EPA might consider potential risk to our water supply?  Hmm.

Also, what happened to the 49 Senators who voted that human activity is contributing to climate change, but then voted to require 60 votes to pass a bill recognizing our complicity?  I guess they figure then can say they voted for it without mentioning the second part.  Can you say spineless?

Then there is the amendment that also expresses the sense that climate change is real, that human activity is partly to blame, and that we should promote an overhaul to our energy system away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy.  This amendment, sponsored by Senator Sanders from Vermont was defeated 56-42, 2 not voting. 

Two more quick questions.  Isn't is obvious that we need to continue to experiment with, invest in and encourage the development of cleaner energy sources?  That doesn't mean we have to stop all the government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.  Or stop all the drilling in the earth and offshore.  Or even stop poking little holes in the ground and injecting chemicals.  In just means that we recognize the need to think towards the future, think about harnessing that bright ball in the sky that will be shining there for quite some time.  But, I guess if a Senator votes in such a way, even if it is to make the point that we will need to someday get away from fossil fuels, said Senator risks the ire of the Koch brothers, et all, and the chance that a different fossil fuel industry shill will have a Senate seat purchased for them at the next election.

Second, who is not voting?  If my Senator was abstaining from any of these votes, they better be mostly dead.  I would be curious as to what their notes from mommy said as to why they were absent.

Two other amendments were offered that would have addressed the current law that exempts tar sands companies from paying a per-barrel tax that goes into a government fund for oil spill cleanup. This loophole is especially relevant because tar sands oil is harder to clean up than conventional oil when it spills.  TransCanada of course, currently benefits from that loophole.  But, sadly, both were defeated.

All the benefits, none of the responsibility.  Socialism for business is certainly alive and well.

Strangely, a generally favorite tea party issue, eminent domain, was addressed.  But, as usual, the politics of "I voted to protect rights even though my vote was meaningless" raised its ugly head. 
A GOP sponsored amendment which claimed to protect property owners from having their land seized (right now, landowners in Nebraska are being served with eminent domain papers from
TransCanada) was passed, but it appears that the amendment likely won’t do much to protect those property owners from getting their land taken. The language of the amendment states that the U.S. must “ensure private property is protected as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” But,  eminent domain can be used for economic development, and the U.S. Constitution says land can be taken if the company provides “just compensation.”  I would bet dollars to donuts that the company will meet the requirements of just compensation; they will probably even use it as a PR spin and claim they overpaid.  Strangely, the Senate rejected an amendment that actually would have prevented TransCanada from seizing property owners’ land in Nebraska by making it law that private property could not be seized under eminent domain for the financial gain of a foreign-owned company.  Remember, TransCanada is the name.  I imagine that vote won't be part of any GOP campaign anytime soon.

So, what do we learn from this?  The GOP loves to talk citizen rights except when a large company is looking to trample them.  And the DEMS love the environment until it gets in the way of business.
The good news, of course, is that some temp jobs will be created.  Unless someone deep in the heart of Arabia leeks information that a terrorist strike against the pipeline is in the works.  Then, we will have to guard every inch of that pipeline.  Do you think TransCanada will pay for the guards?  Or will that be just another "expense" that the fossil fuel industry passes along to the American taxpayer?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Winning, God and Avatar

Happy Super Bowl Sunday!!

For those readers overseas, and according to my recent stats, there are more of you than from America, I imagine that our celebration of the Super Bowl seems odd.  If so, take solace in the thought that we look askance at your obsession with the World Cup Soccer finals.

One thing we do have in common however, is the desire to win, and/or be a fan of a winning team.  Which brings us to the controversy surrounding the footballs allegedly used by the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game.  In essence, the league has a rule governing the PSI of the footballs and it appears that the Patriots broke that rule by using under inflated balls.  Of course, the Super Bowl is big money, so, while an investigation may have begun, no one expects any answers until after the big game.  And, if it is determined that the Patriots did cheat, I don't expect the punishment to include the forfeiture of the AFC victory, nor a super bowl victory should the Patriots win today.  It will be another lesson in the classroom of life which regards winning the most important achievement, regardless of the methods employed.  (I predict a Patriots victory, 27-24)   

I do expect however, someone on the winning team to thank god for the victory.  Why the supreme being, creator of everything that has ever existed, and is to exist, the force that was there for the Big Band and will be there for the final whimper, the being older that time itself actually cares about a game of sport being played today is not the point.  Perhaps, if just once, someone on the losing team might blame the devil for the loss at the post game interviews we could at least have some balance. 

But back to winning for a second.  If someone cheats to win, is it still OK to thank god for the victory.  Doesn't that somehow make god a cheater too?  After all, if the winner cheated, and god had a hand in the victory, then clearly god either participated in the deceit, or at the least, condoned it by not taking steps to keep the cheating side from winning.

Of course, man's history is replete with the winners thanking their deities for success, whether personal or national.  There are many Americans that take for granted that their god created the land we currently call the United States just for us.  The fact that there were already people living here is besides the point, especially when we assume that their pagan beliefs did not recognize the Judeo-Christian God that we accept as the best version of god.  Consequently, our slaughter of the Native Americans becomes glossed over in phrases such as Manifest Destiny, progress, modernization.  After all, our one God was more powerful than their multiple gods, hence our success in forcing the remaining American Indian we didn't kill to move to the least hospitable parts of the country, for little or no compensation despite the various treaties that we signed. 

Similarly, the enslavement of the black man from that dark, barbaric continent of Africa must have been blessed by our god.  Why else would western man have been so successful in tearing apart families and using the backs of men whose only crime was to be born in a sunny land, so they could create farms and plantations to feed the country, and their bank accounts as well?

Seems kind of ironic that we look back on the civilizations that appeased their gods through sacrifices, animal and human, as if their beliefs were inhumane, simplistic, while believing that our supplications to God are so much more advanced.  We pray to win, to win at sports, to win money, to win a war not realizing that so many of our prayers, should they be answered, may mean, for another, the loss of a game, the loss of one's possessions, the loss of life.  Is it more inhumane to kill someone, straight out by cutting their throat, or to kill them slowly by denying their heritage, or by poisoning their air and water for profit, or by destroying their homes from above via bombs and drones?

I watched Avatar again last night with my wife.  There was a scene that reminded me of how far we still have to go in our belief in and the purpose of God.  If you remember the movie, you will remember the scene when Jake goes to the Tree of Souls to pray for Eywa's help in the war to save the homeland of the Na'vi people.  At this point his native girl friend, Neytiri, tells him that Eywa does not choose sides, but only acts to maintain balance.  Her people have a strong connection to the land, a strong belief in their god, but not so strong, not so arrogant, that they believe that by asking for help they will automatically receive it, in the way that will benefit them.  As if the victor in every human encounter wins through the grace of god, the loser because god does not favor them.

Unfortunately, Jake's prayers are answered, the animals of the land and air come to the aid of the Na'vi and the humans are defeated.  I say unfortunately, not because I was rooting against the Na'vi, but because their god is portrayed as choosing a side.  And, while we applaud the victory of the Na'vi, we aren't necessarily reminded by the movie that the Na'vi won, not because they were the more spiritual, not even because the humans were portrayed as greedy and violent, but because Eywa maintains balance and it is best maintained via the Na'vi culture.  God does not choose sides, certainly not in sports, and most definitely not in wars where destruction and death are the means to winning.  Perhaps, once we realize this, we might be less celebratory when we cross an imaginary line on the ground with a elliptically shaped pigskin, and less eager to glorify the killing of those with whom we share our planet just because their culture, religion, or skin color may be different.  

Or, to be more blunt, those misguided Islamic radicals who have perpetrated some horrific acts of violence are not tools of a lesser god, the god of Islam, any more than those misguided Christians who slaughtered the Native Indians were tools of a lesser god, the god of Christianity.  The victor in our current global war against terrorism, will not be the side which God favors.  It may be the side with the biggest guns, but that won't make it the side of god, as Avatar teaches us.  Hopefully, It will be the side which harnesses the power that is the root of all religions, the power of love.  And then, perhaps, God can be thanked for a victory that resulted, not because we asked God for help, not because our God was better than theirs, but because we acted as God's messengers have taught us to act and behave.