Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Practical religion

People use the word "zen" a lot, usually to refer to someone being zoned out or disconnected from reality. The popular idea about zen or meditation is that it makes you passive or remote. My experience after a dozen years sitting and following my breath a little each day is that I feel more active and more connected to day-to-day life--not less. -Algernon D'Ammassa

I saw this quote recently, and it got me to thinking about an important religious issue. It's not really an issue just for Zen Buddhism or Christianity, but an issue for all religions, maybe even atheism as well. The issue is, whatever sort of spiritual/moral belief system you live under, can you say honestly that it's serving a purpose here on earth?

I remember in college taking a philosophy class on eastern religions & philosophies. At the beginning of the class, both the instructor and the textbook emphasized that eastern religions were unlike the western ones in that there was always an aspect of them that implied practical application to make life better in some way. The unsaid implication? That in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, religion is something you do one day a week and then go back to business the rest of the week as though you were no different from an atheist. In fact, you're probably worse than an atheist, because at least the atheist isn't a hypocrite for living out their beliefs at selective times.

It's that secondary implication of hypocrisy that makes me question the premise, though. If there is a chance for hypocrisy in merely living a plain day-to-day life (which seems to be widely accepted by many theists and atheists alike) then that means that those who live that way are living their religion wrong. Therefore, there is a way to live it right.

It's often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi as saying, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." In the Epistle of James (v. 2:18), the early church leader says, "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." A true Christian faith should show results in a life well-lived, and I suspect it should be the same for any faith.

And what is a life well-lived? Is it just a faith that serves itself? As the quote above seems to imply, even Zen, with its reputation for turning inward and shutting out the distractions of the world is a practice that in the end should make you more connected with the world. Christianity and so many other religions have a disappointingly spotty history of so-called believers that felt the best way to live out their faith was to coerce others by force to adhere to it. Why? So those people can in turn force others? Shouldn't there be an end goal in mind? Sure, Christianity is supposed to bring salvation, but do people really think a forced confession of faith is genuinely going to bring about a changed heart?

The short of it is, while there are those who believe that being a Christian (or other religious person) is a waste of time, I truly believe that is only the case if that person's religion is empty or misled. Christians of true faith will be found working incessantly to make the world a better place for the glory of God. Would that we all were doing the same.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"...actual proof of God..."

From the comments section of my latest post in the ASAB:

Also, wouldn't you think that if God REALLY wanted everyone to believe in him the proof would be undeniable instead of nonexistant? Afterall, if there really was actual proof of God all of these "debates" would vanish.
The poster may have thought s/he was being original, or not. It doesn't matter. I've heard this many times before. It puzzles me to no end.

I ask you all here, and the poster as well: What exactly would be "undeniable" proof? I'm strongly preferring answers from atheists and other skeptics here.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

The Da Vinci Code: a royal pain

Okay, this excellent comic has reminded me that once again this may be a time for me to make a topical post.

I know what thousands of people have been thinking in the midst of all the controversy. Yep. "What does Brucker think about this whole 'Da Vinci Code' thing?" Well, wonder no more, my fellow netizens! I am about to expound far beyond the limit of any reasonableness, that limit actually having passed probably two sentences ago. So long as I'm being pretty stupid already, let's have some fun and let me mock-interview myself as the leading authority on complete crap.

Running from Elevators: Well, let's get down to business. What did you think of the movie?

Brucker: I haven't seen it. I might eventually, but I'll probably wait for it to come out on video.

RfE: Well did you read the book, then?

B: Oh, I considered it, but I haven't had time for much reading lately. I've been spending what little time I have for reading books that freak out conservative Christians, like the Harry Potter books. Man, those are good. I've got some interesting thoughts on the ending of "[Harry Potter and the] Half-Blood Prince" that I'd love to share.

RFE: I don't think that's necessary. Surely, though, you have formed some sort of opinion on the book and movie just from hearsay, right?

B: Oh, yeah. Like probably 60% of the target audience, I know what the book is about; I even know the twist ending that probably not nearly so many people are aware of.

RFE: Yes, let's not spoil that, but let's talk about the main theme of the book. Do you think it's a dangerous one?

B: Well, yes and no. First of all, whatever danger there may be to Christianity, um, well, some of it may be overplayed. Like the joke in yesterday's PvP comic that you linked to above, there are some people in Christianity who don't want to believe Jesus was really much like a human at all. The concept that He definitely went to the bathroom, probably cried as an infant, may have had acne as a teenager, and so forth, is oddly offensive to some people.

RFE: Despite the fact that the Bible emphasizes His humanity.

B: Right. I mean, most people probably don't like to think of Jesus ever looking other than a tall, light-skinned, shiny-clean man in bright-white robes. But of course, He wasn't tall, probably had much darker skin than people of European ancestry, and the Bible even says that He took baths, so He must have gotten dirty. Probably, he got very dirty, seeing as He spent so much of His time wandering around from place to place on foot in an age where they didn't have concrete and asphalt pavement.

I would like to note as an aside that I've heard people complain about Jesus being portrayed by tall actors in films, and I don't think that's something that should be an issue. While Jesus almost certainly wasn't tall by modern standards, He may well have been tall for His own time and culture. If you're going to insist Jesus be played by someone short, you'd have to have a whole cast full of short people to match him.

RFE: So is the important issue of the "Code" the fact of Jesus' humanity?

B: Yes, but not entirely in the way one might think. I have heard that the premise is that Jesus was human, and the Church has been trying to cover up that fact by suppressing "Gnostic Gospels". The fact is, as far as I know, the Gnostics were far more inclined to deny the human aspect of Jesus' person than the mainstream church. Gnostics believed in mysticism and spirituality on a level where they didn't like the idea of Jesus being a flesh-and-blood individual. The Gnostics were also rather anti-feminist, which is also the reverse of how I understand they are portrayed in the story.

RFE: Which leads to the big point.

B: Yes, not the twist at the end, but the big secret that just about everyone knows--

RFE: Spoiler alert!

B: Right, heh. The big secret is that rather than the Apostle John being the most important figure in the early church movement, it was actually Mary Magdalene, who was Jesus' wife. Supposedly, while the Bible never says that Jesus married, the reason is not that He actually wasn't but rather that those details have been edited out and repeatedly suppressed by the Catholic Church, natch.

RFE: So the real meat of the story is there. What do you think about this idea?

B: Well, I have mixed feelings. As a "Bible-believing Christian" I would support the official stance of the mainstream churches that Jesus did not marry. On the other hand, as [PvP creator] Scott Kurtz says in his blog, "Good fiction makes you think. And thinking is never bad. There's nothing to be afraid of, even if you're a religious person. And what good is your faith if it can't stand up to being challenged from time to time? It's safe for Christians to read the book. It's just a story."

"The Da Vinci Code" is hardly the first or the only entity to speculate on the subject of Jesus being married. Some have pointed out that even in the Bible as we know it, edited or not, Jesus spends an awful lot of time with Mary for the both of them being single. It's something that's not really even socially acceptable in many modern societies. Also, the fact that they were both single at such an age in a culture where singleness was uncommon suggests to some that married or not, Mary was probably intended to be married to Jesus via an arranged marriage.

RFE: Is there any positive evidence in the Canonical Scriptures for such a marriage?

B: Eh, slight. Some have suggested the wedding feast at Cana was actually Jesus' wedding feast. Why was Jesus, as a mere guest, put in charge of the refreshments? Why do we never find out whose wedding it was? Why are Jesus' disciples there? If indeed this is Jesus' wedding, then the answer to all of these is fairly obvious.

RFE: But you still think Jesus was unmarried?

B: Yeah. And for a reason that may bother some conservative Christians almost as much as suggesting the possibility in the first place. Well, except Catholics. Church tradition. We sometimes tend to treat the idea of "tradition" as a bad word among evangelicals, as it conjures up images of men in robes and funny pointed hats chanting in Latin before a crowd of people genuflecting in unison. I don't think we really appreciate how much of our faith is built on tradition, though. Sure, the Bible is our foundation, but tradition is the framework of the house that was built on it.

RFE: But as an evangelical, you do reject much of that sort of tradition that you talk of amongst Catholics, right?

B: "Reject" is a strong word. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but some people can get distracted by all the liturgy and miss the faith that should fill the inside of all that ritual. I reject it for myself, but wouldn't question the faith of someone who was in a more liturgical church just because they're that way. Most of those things come down to personal preference of worship style rather than a deep doctrinal issue.

RFE: So is Jesus' marital status a doctrinal issue?

B: Whew, that's a tough question. In some sense, everything about Jesus as a person is a doctrinal issue. When you deal with other people in the Bible, and their own personal lives, it's different. For instance, was Peter married? The Bible mentions him having a mother-in-law, but never talks about his wife. If Peter was the first Pope, and Popes are not to be married, this may be important on some level, but the marital status of the Pope is more like Church "policy" than doctrine. It may surprise some people to know that there are Catholic priests that are married. It has something to do with certain sub-sects of the Catholic Church which I don't fully understand.

But getting back to Jesus, the fine details of His life are far more prone to scrutiny. As I was essentially saying before, some people would hang precariously on the issue of whether Jesus ever picked His nose, but getting married is certainly something a bit more vital. I just don't know. It's potentially important, yes, but I don't personally see any reason it would bother me to suggest that Jesus was married, other than the fact that it's just not mentioned.

RFE: But what about the issue of children, and a royal bloodline?

B: See now, there is that, and one might wonder about the implications of a flesh and blood descendant of Jesus. The fact is, descendants of a person may not have much in common with that ancestor. If Jesus hypothetically did have a child or two, I don't see any reason they would be particularly special. In fact, if "The Da Vinci Code" is trying to simultaneously argue that Jesus was nobody special and yet that His descendant(s) are very special, well, I don't get it. Maybe I'll get it when I eventually get around to reading the book or watching the movie. There is no monarchy in Israel today, nor do I expect there ever will be one again, short of divine intervention, so being of the royal bloodline is, well, nothing. England is a country that still has a monarchy and they seem to just barely matter.

RFE: So you just don't see why we should care?

B: Exactly. The fact that there might be a living descendent of Jesus is about as interesting as knowing there might be a living descendant of George Washington. A bit of a curiosity, celebrity by association, but that's about all. My grandfather was very much into genealogy later in his life, and he discovered on tracing back his family tree that our family comes from French and English Royalty back in the 13th century. Interesting, but essentially meaningless in respects to who I am as a person.

RFE: So would you recommend going to see the movie?

B: I'd wait to hear what the reviews say and act accordingly. So far, I've heard a lot of bad press, and not much good. The general consensus on so far is that it's pretty mediocre, and sometimes I go by that rather than reviews, but either way, it's not looking too promising.

Of course, there's the fact that somebody came up with a drive to have every Christian go and see "Over the Hedge" as a protest against "Da Vinci", which is an interesting idea. I'm wondering if it might work, especially with the movie being panned by critics. Oh, and it looks better-reviewed on imdb.

See whatever movie you want to see, I don't really care too much. Let me know what you think if you see either of those movies, I'm giving them both consideration.

RFE: We'll be sure to do that.

B: "We"? Can "we" stop typing yet?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's up with the youth in Asia?

So, I got official word yesterday. Turns out it wasn't a bruise after all. The lump on my cat's shoulder, which grew rather than shrinking away, is in fact a serious tumor.

It's serious enough that I very likely am going to have to consider having her put down. She's already clearly in some discomfort, no longer walking on that leg, but you never know... If our cat could talk and understand the situation, would she rather be dead than struggle through pain that is probably slowly increasing day after day? Or is that even a question that should be asked?

One of the hard things for some people to understand is that morality isn't often about what someone wants so much as what is right, independent of desires. I hear it come up in various discussions of numerous moral issues that it would be unloving to not let a person do {fill in the blank} if they really wanted to do it. If my cat really wants to die, does that mean it's right to have her put down?

Of course, for most people, this issue is easier with animals than fellow humans, where the issue nonetheless comes up. What I end up deciding about my cat and her treatment is likely to be largely based on affordability. The vet has suggested that the oncological surgeon would most likely charge over $1,000 for the removal of the tumor, and it's unlikely that I could justify that expense. On the other hand, if it were my wife or one of my kids with the tumor, I wouldn't be deterred by a price tag of $1 million. But what if it was my wife, and she just wanted me to let her go?

This sort of thing enters not just muddied waters morally, but legally. I don't know what the legal status of human euthanasia is here, but there is probably a difference between choosing to not treat a deadly tumor because the patient doesn't want treatment, and giving a cancer patient a lethal dose of pain medication. Generally, the former is not considered murder, while it's much more likely the latter is. But then, whatever individuals think of it, most likely the real issue is that morality trumps legality anyway, even though morality is less often as clear-cut.

Oh it is clear-cut, people will assure you. The value of human life is without measure. You don't have the right to choose who will live and who will die. Maybe, but then, by that standard, perhaps choosing no treatment at all is the only moral choice, since you leave the fate of the person with the tumor entirely in the hands of God, rather than anything else, right? Some people probably actually have this view, but I'd suspect it's a rare one. More likely, people claim that anything that one can do to preserve human life simply must be done, and no price tag is too high. Fight that tumor with everything you can throw at it, and extend the life of the patient in any way possible. Furthermore, of course one should never assume people in comas or folks like Terri Schiavo are actually dead unless their bodies finally refuse to function. And on top of that, of course, no abortions.

But do we really believe that as a society? Do we really think human life has value without limit? Would you do anything you could within your power to avoid letting people die? You know, lots of people die in car crashes every year. Lots and lots of them. Souldn't you stop driving a car? That would also cut down on pollution, which would reduce cancer rates, and now to think of it, utilizing fossil fuels in any way increases pollution as well, so you probably should not do anything that directly or indirectly uses them. After all, you could save a life! No, we as a society place a finite value on human life, and really, we should, because if we're making mental calculations as to the value of our actions, you know that throwing in a value like "infinity" makes things difficult to factor out. What if you have to choose between one life or another? How do you choose that?

Getting back to what started this, there is still a question that I think can be asked. If life (and human life in particular) has such a high value, isn't it possible that we can be dishonoring that value by letting it exist at times? In the case of my cat, her value to herself is the value to run and play and eat and climb into people's laps. To us, her value is our enjoyment of seeing her happy, and letting her be an active part of our lives. If the time comes that she can no longer enjoy these things, and we can no longer bear to see her suffering bringing no joy to anyone, doesn't it cheapen the value of her life as it existed before to let it continue as it is now? I don't know, but it's something that shakes me at times.

Personally, I find euthanasia distasteful, but I wonder if it's what we sometimes conveniently call a "necessary evil". I don't want my cat to die. But I wonder if not only the humane thing to do is to have her put down, but maybe even to do it myself rather than a stranger in a lab coat in a scary place far from home. Does a loved one wasting away on her death bed in pain and suffering have value? Her life essentially over with no hope of recovery, and nothing but pain and loneliness, what value is that? Yes, we as Christians believe there is value in a human soul, but what good does it do the soul to keep it trapped in a decaying body?

Years after my grandmother died after a painful bout with cancer, I heard a rumor that some of my relatives brought it upon themselves to inject her with morphine in her sleep, ensuring she wouldn't wake up to another day of suffering. It shocked me. While I don't know if it's true, I do wonder if it may have been morally right. It's too big of a question for me.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Ah, the post I wasn't really looking forward to, but here it is...

I recall a little over a year ago, I got involved in an online discussion group with a "pro-choice" focus. In particular, I had followed a link claiming that it would take me to a sound argument that "the Bible is pro-choice." I didn't doubt that picking and choosing the right texts could probably be used to show such an argument, and so out of curiosity, I went and read the argument.

Well, I ended up being disappointed with the argument as it was presented, but I thought there was some good material there, so I gave some constructive criticism. It's an odd quirk of mine that I'm dedicated to the concept of free speech in such a way as to want to help everyone do their best in making their point, even if it's one I don't really agree with. So I pointed out which parts of the argument seemed very strong to me, which parts might sound nice but would likely not convince a Bible-believer due to the context and/or the way they were worded, and even suggested a few verses that they might wish to cite to further bolster their case.

Now, surely nobody likes to be told some personal project of theirs is less than the perfection they had hoped for, but I had assumed that in offering advice and a fresh perspective--while at the same time not daring to forward my own perspective on the subject--I would be perceived as at least trying to be helpful. After all, I was trying to be helpful.

Well, I was blasted as a "fundie" and a misogynist. At first, it didn't surprise me, as I assumed that the person blasting me had read my personal profile, which no doubt evinced my Christianity if not outright stated it. These days it's a pretty fair bet that someone professing to be a "born-again" Christian is against abortion. Okay, so I clarified that my aim in giving input to the discussion was not to attack their position, but to help them better clarify it, and also not to push my own position, which they had no way of knowing concretely from anything I had said yet in the discussion anyway. (In fact, I am not a hard-line "pro-lifer", as I may get to in this post, but positions are irrelevant to the point of all of this.)

I was responded to with yet still more personal assaults. Furthermore, any attempts to reason around any secondary points being made (such as the idea that the only possible reason one could have for being against abortion is hatred of women) were also met with stonewalled denials. Around that point it occurred to me, the link I had followed into that particular discussion seemed to me to be an invitation towards those who claimed to follow the Bible--and/or those who knew one of the same--to see a new perspective. Rather than responding to myself as a Bible believer by opening further discussion, they blasted me before even ascertaining if I might be the sort of target they were looking to aim their argument towards. Any chance of converting me to their viewpoint was lost under a tidal wave of hatred.

And for the only time I can recall, I completely lost my temper in the midst of an online discussion.

See, the thing is, while the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" movements have very little in common, there is one thing they share at the core of their being. Extreme disgust and hatred for the vile beings that are not on their side. The discussion I came into was on a "pro-choice" discussion board, but the exact same thing could have happened if I'd wandered into a discussion on a "pro-life" board and someone had noticed that I was a registered Democrat. Some recent stats I read in Newsweek were very interesting, and I wish I had them in front of me. Apparently, more people are against legal abortion than for it. At the same time, there are more people strongly for abortion than strongly against it. Overall, there are more people who don't feel strongly about abortion than people who feel very strongly about it, regardless of how they lean. But those who do feel strongly, whichever side they happen to be on, are quite vehement about the issue, and can't stand people who less than 100% agree with them.

Many had been the time that I, as a Christian, had tried to reason with my fellow Christians (that felt strongly about the matter) that perhaps people who support legal abortions aren't ruthless, bloodthirsty baby killers. The sort of response I get from closer friends is a bit of shock and statements doubting the veracity of my Christianity; if someone doesn't know me well, they're likely to dismiss me outright as a heretic. Once again, that's just for questioning, not even for making a claim about abortion rights directly.

The real problem with the abortion issue, in my opinion, is not even that one side is right or the other is wrong, but that there are four positions on the issue--strongly pro-choice, moderately pro-choice, moderately pro-life, and strongly pro-life--and the only people who ever seem to have anything to say about the issue seem to assume that there are only two positions: their position, and the wrong position.

I remember a pile of frustration stored up somewhere in my mind suddenly letting loose and being unleashed on the denizens of that pro-choice discussion group. I don't remember the exact words, but I probably called them idiots, and told them that they and their extremist counterparts on the other side of the issue were both so blessedly self-assured that they occupied the high ground that they were missing the reality that abortion even is an issue. There's no issue, says one side, those people are just baby killers. There's no issue, says the other, those people just want to take away every right a woman has one by one until they're back to property like they were in medieval times. Meanwhile, while those in the two other moderate camps waver, they see no sign of sanity from either camp, and are given no sound reason to make a specified decision on matters, only reasons to hate their fellow human beings. No dialogue, no discussion, only self-righteousness, hate, and a complete lack of understanding of the true motives of those on the other side of the fence. And thus the abortion debate remains a vicious battle that never settles, with both sides blindly pushing their agenda and promoting fear of opposition.

Let me tell you something. Very few (if any) "pro-life" advocates hate women; they are only concerned with preserving life as they see it, and that's not wrong. Very few (if any) "pro-choice" advocates have absolute zero disregard for the life of the pre-born; they only value the life of the mother above it, and that's not wrong either.

I used to know a woman who had had an abortion. She had been about five months pregnant, and her health began to seriously deteriorate to the point where she was admitted to the ICU. Her doctor told her that she had a rare condition in which the baby she was carrying was threatening her life. Chances were very slim that the baby would survive, but just about zero that the mother would survive if the baby were not removed. She and her husband decided, wisely I think, to have the baby/fetus/whatever you want to call it removed. I'm sure some people would think she was wrong for undergoing the procedure. I'm sure there are some people who also would think she was wrong for feeling bad about it afterwards. In the end, it's between her, her husband, and God. And so it is with all abortions, which makes them neither right nor wrong.

Shutting the door on legal abortion isn't going to make the issue simply go away. Neither is throwing the door wide open. Maybe we could find a real answer if only people on all sides of the debate could just sit down and talk about it. Is it ever going to happen?