Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Predictably, I worked a lot this weekend, and I have reached the point where the accumulation of work makes me want to do little more than vegetate in my off hours. I should be spending at least some of that time working on the house, but most of what I want to do needs to be done in a relatively dust-free environment, and the current bathroom construction creates a lot of dust. It's meant to be completed by Wednesday, but we'll see. I stopped by last night to check on the progress, and the shower enclosure looked like it was about halfway tiled.

I think it was Sunday evening when I was driving home from the office (by way of the new house) when I flipped on the local NPR affiliate and heard the last half or so of a fascinating Radio Lab program about parasites. It reinforced the complex nature of, well, nature: the same parasites (hookworms) that were responsible for anemia and laziness in the early twentieth century rural South can also be useful in preventing allergies, and perhaps treating certain auto-immune diseases. I was most impressed -- and disgusted -- by the story of a young (American) man who was so desperate to rid himself of respiratory problems that he was willing to travel to Cameroon and walk barefoot through the latrines of its indigenous peoples so that he might contract hookworm. He did, and his allergies and asthma vanished almost immediately. He now markets -- with unsurprisingly limited success -- hookworms harvested from his own excrement.

I can't even be bothered to go and see an allergist, so I reckon my allergies aren't nearly as bad as I occasionally think they are.

I'm not sure about the exact sequence of events, but perhaps a week ago, I was reminding myself that no situation or concept is so complicated that it can't be boiled down to a single saying, and, most frequently, to a line from a popular song. I maintain that, in fact, any situation or concept can be reduced to a line from a song, and my occasional inability to do so is evidence only of my limited musical knowledge, not of the inadequacy of my theory. In any case, I wasn't quite able to find the song for the mental cacophony I was dealing with at that moment, but I realized that it could be reduced to "life is suffering," which (quite aside from the fact that there is surely a song to that effect) is, at least, the fundamental, and very widely known, teaching of the Buddha.

Except, of course, that I don't agree with the Buddha. Suffering is really the flip side of joy, so it's more accurate to say that life is suffering and joy. I think the Buddha was onto something when he said that the source of suffering is attachment, but what he left unsaid (I'm guessing to some extent: I have no idea what all the Buddha said, and I'm not interested in reading his teachings: every time I've tried, I've found the translations dense and uninteresting) is that attachment is also the source of joy. You can (and I have, to a large extent) avoid suffering by avoiding unwise attachment, but you run the risk of losing out on joy: it's not necessarily a good bargain. If I were to stop and consider it, I feel confident that I'd say that the attachments I've chosen have largely been those that have generated joy, but that it might be worth risking a bit of affliction for a larger joy payoff.

Irrelevantly, I work with someone named Joy. She is a big pain in the ass.

The problem with seeing the cosmos as a series of opposing forces (semi-relevantly, I have never been able to remember which is yin and which is yang, even though I have absolutely no trouble remembering the difference or distinguishing between joy and suffering) is that when you're always saying, "Well, this is true, but that is true also," it's sometimes difficult to make a decision. Or to care very much. But the lack of caring is also an error of balance. This is true: in the context of the universe, the actions, joys, and sufferings of an individual are insignificant, and in a hundred years, who will remember or care? But that true also: each of us is the center of his own universe and nothing matters more to us than ourselves. You can choose either of those statements for any given moment, and I reckon the only trick is to pick the right one for the situation at hand.

I was in church Sunday morning. Despite having been asked to show up at 9 for a 10 am service and despite a lengthy pre-service rehearsal, there were many false entrances in our first piece. False entrances are rare in our choir, and I attribute them to a) frequent changes in time signature within the piece and b) the rehearsal of the piece in fragments rather than as a whole. Once again, failing to see the entirety leads inevitably to error.

We sang just before the sermon. Normally, I view the sermon as a chance to catch up with my inner monologue and/or to ponder the relative virtues of various floor and wall finishes. But I was listening for perhaps as much as half of the sermon on Sunday. Not because of the topic (it was about faith, which is not nearly as fascinating as the notion of staining the hardwood floors Brazilian Cherry so as to obscure the stains which likely come from the pets of the previous owner), but because the minister was having an off day. I wondered whether she was rattled by the interpolation of "Greet Your Neighbor" by the member of the Board of Trustees who had opened the service that morning. I had noticed that the order of service didn't have the usual line item for greeting, and after I had finished turning and smiling and shaking hands with those around me, the alto who was sitting next to me whispered that the minister had, on the previous Sunday, announced that "Greet Your Neighbor" would be suspended for a few weeks due to concerns over the spread of swine flu. I suspect that some eyebrows were raised.

In any event, the minister seemed to be fumbling with her notes a bit, so I was paying attention when she started to talk about Simone Weil's four evidences for the existence of God. And I thought, "Oy. If you're not safe from a discussion about the existence of God in a Unitarian Universalist church, then what refuge is left to me? Should I stay home and watch football?" I didn't actually think that last sentence, but I couldn't think of an easier way to mention that I won the football pool at work this week. Forty bucks! That will buy me a tile splitter, with enough left over for grout.

Anyway, I've already forgotten two of Mlle. Weil's evidences, but I do remember that she believed that the existence of God was demonstrated by a) the beauty of nature and b) the utter lack of mercy in much of the world. I did about thirty seconds worth of research later in the day, and apparently Simone believed that our afflictions are something that God gives us so that we can grow through overcoming them. Or something like that: I suspect, though I don't know, that she said it in a less New Agey manner.

But I'm not going to bother to go and read Simone Weil. I suspect that translations of her works are as dense and uninteresting as those of the Buddha. Besides, while I might begrudgingly admire the ballsiness necessary to take what (i.e., the crappy state of the world) is typically seen as evidence against the existence of God and say that it is, instead, evidence of the exact opposite, I find the point itself ridiculous. Or at least I find it akin to saying that we're not meant to understand the ways of the almighty. Anyway, if you say that the awfulness of the world shows God's hand, you can't, or at least shouldn't, turn around and say that the awesomeness of nature shows the same thing. The utter lack of logic made me a little angry.

Actually, the notion of trying to prove (or disprove) the existence of God makes me a little bit angry. Philosophers have been scamming grant money wrestling with the question forever, and if they haven't solved it yet, it's a good bet that it can't be solved. Let me bottom line it for you: you can't prove that God exists, and you can't prove that he doesn't. Furthermore, the fact that you can't prove that God exists doesn't mean that he doesn't, and the fact that you can't prove that he doesn't exist doesn't mean that he does. Give it up.

There's only one potentially compelling argument in favor of the existence of God, and that's the personal experience of the divine. If you want to tell me that you have felt the presence of God, then I respect that absolutely. But if you want to try to translate that experience into logic or, much worse, into a prescribed code of behavior, then you've lost my respect. And if you try to tell me that the method you used to experience the divine is the only method, or even the best method for anyone other than yourself, then you've similarly lost my respect. If you try to tell me that the only way you can feel the presence of God is through a very specific religious practice, then you won't necessarily have lost my respect, but you will have gained my pity. My personal experiences of the divine have come mostly through hiking in especially beautiful settings, through singing well, and through particularly amazing sex, but if you find yours through meditation, chanting, or 80% dark chocolate, then more power to you.

Less power to you, though, if you want to yammer about it. If the experience of the divine is such a wonderful thing (and if it's not, WTF?), then shouldn't you be spending more time in the presence of God and less time trying to find and explain the nonexistent logical underpinnings of your experience?

The power (we're back to more power to you) of the experience of the divine is in its ability to transcend both logic and the everyday experience. Logic is a wonderful thing, but that which cannot be named is valuable because it lets you take a walk on the wild side, beyond the limitations of logic. Logic is what people need to use to make laws and set public policy. Religion and spirituality are meant to be pathways to transcendence. People who can't embrace walking on the wild side and who attempt to explain the divine in terms of logic simply don't deserve enlightenment.


  1. You one forty buck's in the office poole? Weigh two go.

  2. Consider this "logic" my respectful TED:
    If one exists, then one will certainly cease to exist.
    So if God would exist, then God would also certainly cease to exist.
    A god that would cease to exist, is not the Common God, or the being that one shall believe to be God.
    God therefore cannot be said to exist.

  3. I am of course, just pleading for logic.

  4. Next time, consider pleading without scare quotes. Is that the sort of proof people actually use? It's amazing what you can prove with a flawed initial premise. If, for example, you begin with the premise that pi is equal to 4, you can prove that Jimmy Hoffa is buried in the Meadowlands. Try it!

  5. You've exaggerated the flawed initial premise, TED. But it seems like you were still amused, so there you have it.

  6. Is it just me, or is anyone else reminded of a really scary penis by that first photo?

  7. Actually, my first thought was foreskin. Interesting post, as usual.

  8. And I thought it was a lamprey, perhaps because the Lamprey River flows near here and I know how they attach themselves to their prey.