Are you my mother? A true story

are-you-my-mother.jpgHave you ever read the P.D. Eastman story, Are You My Mother? It’s the classic tale of a baby bird that falls out of its nest, and wanders off in search of its mother.

Every time it encounters an animal, it thinks, “Maybe this is my mother!” Might be a dog, might be a cow, might even be a Snort:  the baby bird isn’t choosy, it just wants a Mama.

Here’s the true story of a baby hippo that did something similar. (The story has been verified by Snopes.com.)

The story concerns a baby hippo. It was washed into the Indian Ocean in 2004, when the tsunami hit the coast of Kenya. Although the hippo survived the ordeal, it became separated from its mother.

Like the baby bird in the P.D. Eastman tale, the hippo went off in search of a surrogate mother. And it was lucky enough to find a willing (if unlikely) candidate:

hippo-and-turtle.jpg

That’s one big tortoise! More photos and a fuller account of the story can be found at AmbivaBlog.

The one thing it is impossible for God to do, part 2

While we’re on the subject of theological paradoxes, I want to share an excerpt from a book with you.

The book is a biography of Erasmus, the famous sixteenth century humanist. We touched on the issue humorously in a previous post, the one thing it is impossible for God to do. But Erasmus addressed the issue quite seriously, as a significant philosophical problem.

(In case you don’t already know: Erasmus was a sixteenth century scholar, priest, and humanist. He prepared the edition of the Greek New Testament which was used by the King James Version translators. He criticized Roman Catholic clergy for the abuses they perpetrated, and was dismayed by the ignorance of the lay people. Thus Erasmus prepared the way for the Protestant Reformers, notably Martin Luther. Unlike Luther, however, Erasmus never left the Roman Catholic Church.)

This excerpt is from Erasmus of Christendom by Roland Bainton.

The doctrine of God’s omnipotence asserts that God can do whatever He will. In that case can He contradict Himself? Can He make black white? Can He make the past not to have been the past so that a harlot might be a virgin? Can God set aside all the canons of Christian morality? Can He make right wrong? Can He cause a man to hate God?

ErasmusErasmus perceived that absolute power corrupts even God. There must be some limitation, otherwise all the standards of Christian morality lose their religious undergirding.Once more, can God do something preposterous as that He should become incarnate not in the man Christ Jesus but in an ass, a cucumber, or a stone? This final question might have prompted serious inquiry in more than one direction. Comparative religion is involved because only Christianity makes the claim that God became incarnate in the form of a man. Other religions do assert that God inhabits animals and objects. Why should not God become incarnate … in an ass since in the Old Testament God caused Balaam’s ass to speak? …

The Christian answer to these queries points to the theme dear to the Renaissance of the dignity of man. Erasmus did proclaim the dignity of man but he was not interested in relating this to the incarnation. Sufficient to believe that God did become incarnate in Christ, to believe, to adore, and to imitate.

A couple of weeks ago, Jamie posed a very difficult theological question: is God above the rules of right and wrong, or is God accountable to those rules? Both possibilities seem to be unacceptable.

I note that Erasmus wrestled with the same riddle: Can God set aside all the canons of Christian morality? Can He make right wrong?

I also note that Erasmus gave the wrong answer to the question. (At least, I think it’s the wrong answer, though some less enlightened souls agree with Erasmus: see the dialogue in the comment section of Jamie’s post.) Erasmus perceived that absolute power corrupts even God. There must be some limitation, otherwise all the standards of Christian morality lose their religious undergirding.

If you find the discussion interesting, please note that Jamie also published a follow-up post. In the follow-up, we did our best to find middle ground where none appears to exist.

The one thing it is impossible for God to do, part 1

I have three riddles for you:

1. What is the one thing it is impossible for God to do?
2. What is the one thing God forgets?
3. What is the one man-made thing in heaven?

riddler 
I kid you not, all three riddles have a biblical answer. (#1 and #3 are found in the New Testament; #2, in the Old Testament.) I’ll share the answers with you sometime soon — or perhaps my clever readers will provide them first in the comment section.

Cure of the soul, part 2

Part 1 was posted long ago! — I’m definitely tardy in following up.

A recap is certainly in order. I introduced the topic, the cure of the soul, by quoting an Orthodox priest:

According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam’s fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person’s being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems.

Orthodox tradition claims that humanity suffers greatly from a sickness of the soul. If so, we need to obtain a healing for that malaise:  i.e., a cure of the soul.

I posed three questions for your consideration:

  1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
  2. If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
  3. How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)

In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is Yes, human beings suffer from a spiritual malaise. I provided evidence to support my position in the original post. Here I want to press on to answer questions 2 and 3.

Diagnosis

It may seem simplistic to reduce “what ails all human beings everywhere” to a single problem, and yet I believe it can be done. In fact, I believe it can be reduced to a single word:  what ails us is that we are self-centered.

“Self-centered” does not necessarily imply “conceited”. People can have a very low opinion of themselves but, if they are constantly thinking about what worms they are, they are still pathologically self-centered.

I believe our self-centeredness is responsible for many of the problems mentioned in my earlier post:  an inequitable distribution of wealth (selfish acquisitiveness); racism, hate speech, and attempted genocide (failure to understand and accept others not like ourselves); environmental degradation (failure to live in a way that is sustainable for the sake of succeeding generations).

Moreover, to be self-centered is to be estranged from God and from fellow human beings. This estrangement or isolation is the source of much of our chronic discontent. As I pointed out in the previous post, depression is widespread in modern, Western societies. It persists even in the midst of material affluence and good health relative to previous generations.

At this point I want to discuss a mythological account of human origins. The account is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 3, where the serpent tempts Eve. The author of that text offers his or her account of the sickness of the human soul.

Until the first sin, Adam and Eve led an other-centered life:  God was the focal point of their existence. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent says to Eve, “when you eat of [the fruit] … you will be like God”. Thus the first sin may be described as Eve’s attempt to exalt self in the place of God.

At that point, human beings ceased to be other-centered:  self became the focal point of human existence.

It doesn’t matter to me how you regard the text. You may believe that Genesis is the word of God and records historical events. Or you may believe that Genesis came from a human author, who used myth to communicate his or her opinion. Either way, the text lays out a theory about the human condition:  an account of the sickness of the soul (self elevated to the place of God) that afflicts all human beings everywhere.

Treatment

Now we move to question #3:  How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)

Regular readers are aware that I am a Christian, but I don’t want to get evangelistic on you. Instead of presenting Christian doctrine in isolation, I want to compare it to two other worldviews.

a) Buddhist worldview

First, a Buddhist worldview. Over the years I have engaged in a little study of Buddhism. By no means am I an expert on it, but I find Buddhism particularly instructive because it differs so profoundly from the Judeo-Christian worldview.

The diagnosis outlined above offers a point of contact between Buddhism and Christianity. Consider this statement by Dr. Walpola Rahula:

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of “me” and “mine”, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.1

Dr. Rahula here echoes the argument I made above. He claims that self-centeredness is the root cause of “all the evil in the world”.

But the sharp-eyed reader will notice there is also a conflict between Buddhism and Christianity on this topic. Christians believe that the self is real, but the Buddha denied it. Our subjective experience is that we have a self; but Buddhists claim this is “an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality.”2

Treatment, from the Buddhist perspective, is a matter of enlightenment. We must arrive at a deep realization that our subjective experience of self is merely a false consciousness. Again, I want to stress that I am no expert on Buddhism. But my understanding is that enlightenment is achieved partly through education (taking hold of the Buddha’s teaching) and partly through meditation (breaking through to a different sort of consciousness).

For the Christian, treatment is necessarily different, because Christians accept that the self is real. Again, I want to avoid preaching an evangelistic message here. But I will observe that Christianity tells us we need to be resurrected or reborn or regenerated. These are different metaphors for a single idea:  that the individual needs God to intervene to effect a fundamental change inside of him or her.

(I believe this perspective is shared, at least to some extent, by Judaism. Certainly the perspective is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures:  e.g. Ezekiel 36:26. Admittedly, however, Judaism places more emphasis on human obedience to God’s law.)

Here, too, Buddhism stakes out a starkly different position. The Buddha taught that each person must

develop himself and work out his own emancipation, for man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. … If the Buddha is to be called “a savior” at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.

Perhaps I may be permitted to register an objection to this Buddhist teaching. Dr. Rahula tells us that the self is illusory; but then he tells us that “we must tread the Path ourselves”. Thus the individual is thrown back on self as the vehicle of liberation. If the objective is to escape self, it is paradoxical to rely on self as the means of escape.3

b) Secular worldview

Finally, I must briefly address the secular worldview. I assume that secular readers will be drawn to the Christian assertion that the self is real. On the other hand, they will be drawn to the Buddhist doctrine that “man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence.”

Thus a secular worldview cannot adopt the Christian way of escape (regeneration via God’s intervention), nor can it adopt the Buddhist way of escape (a shift of consciousness which recognizes that self is an illusion).

More than this:  it seems to me that the secular worldview is inescapably self-centered. Modern Westerners deny God’s existence, so God cannot serve as the focal point for an other-centered orientation. Moreover, there is no such thing as objective, absolute truth, which might provide common ground to lift us beyond our narrow individualism.

Arguably the noblest achievement of modern Westerners is our human rights codes. But note that such codes enshrine individual rights and freedoms. There is no corresponding legal doctrine of social responsibilities or obligations. Again, I am led to suspect that a secular worldview offers no way to cure the sickness of the human soul, the root of all our problems:  our intractable self-centeredness.

Of course, I am biased because I am deeply committed to a Christian worldview. I invite my readers to set the record straight if I have misrepresented the secular position.

What are your answers to questions 2 and 3?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed., 1974.

2I am aware that this is a somewhat simplistic account of what Buddhists actually teach. In a sense, there is such a thing as “self”. But it does not correspond to what Christians mean by the term, since self is neither the pure essence of the individual, nor constant. Instead, the self is understood as an aggregate which changes from one moment to the next:

According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion “I have no self” as to hold the opinion “I have self”, because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea, “I AM”. … What we call “I”, or “being”, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect. … There is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.

3It may appear that Buddhist thought is hopelessly contradictory at this point, but the fault perhaps lies with my simplistic presentation of the subject. I will clarify the Buddhist teaching by again quoting Dr. Rahula:

There are two kinds of truths:  conventional truth and ultimate truth. When we use such expressions in our daily life as “I”, “you”, “being”, “individual”, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But the ultimate truth is that there is no “I” or “being” in reality.

Paul Martin’s greatest achievementas Canada’s Prime Minister

For those of you who are interested in Canadian politics — Hello, is anybody still reading? — I should note that we had a federal election here two days ago. Canadians voted to replace the Liberal minority government with a Conservative minority government.

(Minority governments happen in Canada because we have more than two political parties. If you have only two parties, one or the other is bound to have the upper hand when the ballots are counted. In Canada, where we have more than two parties, a party can win the most “seats” in Parliament but still have fewer seats than the combined strength of all the opposition parties.

Actual results in this election:  Conservatives, 124 seats; all other parties combined, 184 seats. The Conservatives got more seats than any other party (the Liberals were second with 103 seats), so they get to form a Government. But, if the opposition Members vote in concert, they can vote down the Government’s initiatives.)

Over on Bill’s blog, Art of the Rant, I have published my post-election analysis. One or two of you may be interested — who knows?

God’s existence, and ours

From time to time, I am drawn into a discussion on whether God exists. Most recently, Snaars commented:

Q, you say that you believe God to be eternal and you do not believe that God caused himself. Most theistic philosophers would agree with you. They do not believe that God “caused” himself – rather, they believe that God possesses certain qualities that necessitate his existence in every possible universe. In other words, they believe that God exists because he can’t not exist.

I should point out that this is a very generous comment on Snaars’ part, since he himself is an atheist.

I responded:

I like that way of putting it. I suppose I would add that, if God ceased to exist (were such a thing possible) everything else would likewise cease to exist. Because God is the “ground of our being”, whatever precisely that phrase means.

Coincidentally, I came across a discussion of the same topic in an essay by Thomas Merton. We’re in rather philosophical territory here, but you may find it instructive.

Merton begins with self as the first thing known to us. This is how our minds work:  we begin from our own existence and work outwards from there. But Merton insists that is the wrong starting point. God’s existence, not ours, is primary:

In our evaluation of the modern consciousness, we have to take into account the still overwhelming importance of the Cartesian cogito. (Cogito means “I think”; Merton is referring to Descarte’s famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am.”)

Modern man is a subject for whom his own self-awareness as a thinking, observing, measuring and estimating “self” is absolutely primary. It is for him the one indubitable “reality,” and all truth starts here. …

It is this kind of consciousness, exacerbated to an extreme, which has made inevitable the so called “death of God.” Cartesian thought began with an attempt to reach God as object by starting from the thinking self. But when God becomes object, he sooner or later “dies,” because God as object is ultimately unthinkable. …

The mystical consciousness of St. Theresa implies [an alternative] attitude toward the self. The thinking and feeling and willing self is not the starting point of all verifiable reality and of all experience. The primal truth, the ground of all being and truth, is in God the Creator of all that is. …

The “existence of God” is not something seen as deducible from our conscious awareness of our own existence. On the contrary, the experience of the classic Christian mystics is rooted in a metaphysic of being, in which God is intuited as “He Who Is,” as the supreme reality, pure Being. …

Once there has been an inner illumination of pure reality, as awareness of the Divine, the empirical self is seen by comparison to be “nothing,” that is to say contingent, evanescent, relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.1

Merton’s way of approaching the issue may be unpalatable to all of my readers, Christians and atheists alike. (Though I have one Buddhist reader who may find it amenable.)

I’d make a poor mystic, myself. But I completely agree with Merton’s description of God as the supreme reality, pure Being; and of our existence as contingent on God’s existence and therefore relatively unreal, real only in relation to its source and end in God.

That is precisely my conviction. Indeed, I suspect this is the first characteristic we should identify in defining what we mean by the word “God”.

Anything else we might say about God — that God is a personal being, that God is love, that God is omnipotent — anything else we might affirm about God is secondary to this one fact, that God exists.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1Thomas Merton, “The New Consciousness” in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.

The great Canadian preoccupation

The great Canadian preoccupation is, of course, the weather. Overnight Friday / Saturday, we got dumped on: about seven inches of snow, by the looks of it. This is the third or fourth major storm here so far this winter.

snowscape 1

Photos can’t really capture the effect of a landscape, of course. But if you click on this one twice, to blow it up to its full size, you can get just an inkling of the scene’s visual impact.

snowscape 2
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snowscape 3
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snowscape 4

I know there’s a lot to be said for year-round sun and warmth. But you have to admit, snow-laden trees make for gorgeous landscapes.

snowscape 5

This isn’t a good photo, but it shows something interesting. The snow was wet and “packy”. As a result, this tree is supporting a startling amount of snow — the snow is much wider than the branches.

snowscape 6

This last one’s for Jack. Jack, I challenge you to a one-on-one game of basketball — under Canadian conditions.

snow basketball

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copyright © 2006, Stephen

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