Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”

 

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Happy Hitler Puppy Song

I’ve recently been reading Sri Aurobindo.  He teaches that in the supracosmic state there are no binary oppositions, no contradictions.  Right and wrong, love and hate, truth and falsehood no longer stand in contrast to each other, no longer mutually define their qualities in antithetical tandems.  I decided to experiment with that thought, given that we are being told that we live in a “post fact” world, and combined images of innocence and evil into a charcoal drawing entitled, “Happy Hitler Puppy Song”.

happy-hitler-puppy-song

The song below accompanies the picture.  Its tune is bright and bouncy like a kid’s toy ad  from the mid 60s.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing it when all things go wrong. 

Your dreams are dead, your future’s gone. 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

It started up in Queens in a small genetics lab.

They sang it to a beagle, a Schnauzer and a Lab.

It really started growing in a Dachshund culture tube.

Now he’s got a will of iron and he’ll wag his tail for you, wag his tail for you.

 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing loud, sing it strong.

We’re so far right we can’t be wrong.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

You’ve got to have this puppy, no matter what your views (Arftung!).

Your life is really crappy, and you’ve nothing left to lose.

He sometimes snarls and lunges, and barks and bites and chews,

but he’s always sweet and cheerful when Brite Bark’s yipping news, Brite Bark’s yipping news.

 

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, sing it when all things go wrong.

Your dreams are dead, your future’s gone.

Happy Hitler Puppy Song, Happy Hitler Puppy Song.

 

Have a supracosmic day (if you can).

The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.

 

The Crowd at Golgotha

The responses of the Jews and Romans to Jesus’ suffering have always fascinated me.  Pilate found a mob’s blood lust distasteful, but wasn’t moved enough by Jesus’ innocence and acceptance of His fate to give Him a reprieve.  Another man’s life wasn’t all that important to Pontius.  The Roman soldiers delighted in Jesus’ fall from power and mocked Him as they crowned Him with thorns.  His pain was their sport.  Veronica saw His suffering and tried to ease it, and His mother bore witness to her son’s death without turning away.  Others ran away and hid.

I could have been any one in the crowd of onlookers at Golgotha.  I have a similar range of responses to weakness, suffering and tragedy.  When I see someone in distress I sometimes feel an urge to rush in and fix things.  At other times I’m repelled by the ugliness of the moment, or am afraid that a particular form of human frailty might be catching.  At certain unfortunate moments I take delight that someone else is suffering too, or what’s worse, I feel glad that it’s them and not me.

I became more aware of my wavering response to misfortune when my sister was diagnosed with ALS.  She saw my hesitancy to enter her new existence and share in her suffering, and she eased me through the transition.  She wanted me to know that she was all right, that she hadn’t really changed inside.  (She was blessed with strength and grace and did her best to help others even as she was losing her life in slow increments.)

I also watched how strangers reacted to her as she went about her business in public in a motorized wheel chair.  Some became anxious, some pretended she wasn’t there, and others smiled too broadly and made a big fuss when they approached her.  They  patronized her by talking too loudly and in simple sentences.  It appeared that they thought that her impairment was mental as well as physical.  My sister ignored the awkwardness and just went about getting what she wanted.  If onlookers had a problem with her condition it had nothing to do with her.

I’ve become more aware of the cruelty that sometimes seems to surround us.  I’ve recently heard children mocking an elderly couple for their frailty, and saw adults smiling contemptuously at a person in a wheelchair struggling to thread his way through a crowd on a sidewalk.  Their lack of empathy astounded me, and I wondered how they managed to avoid realizing that they too could end up in a similar state one day.  But weakness provides a tempting target, and some can’t resist taking advantage of another person’s misfortune.  I believe that the perpetrators feel empowered when they add to the suffering.  I despise this behavior, but am not immune from this form of malevolence.  Some of my worst moments of self loathing follow such lapses.

My wife has helped me leave some of this darkness behind.  My upbringing wasn’t always sweet and kind, and I learned to defend myself with harsh words and anger when challenged.  A few months after I got married I noticed something unexpected:  when my wife and I argued I always seemed to lose.  When I vented my frustrations and hurt her feelings I had the sensation that I was hurt too.  Even when I defeated her in an argument there was no real satisfaction.  There was no such thing as winning if it came at her expense–it was like trying to arm wrestle with my right arm pitted against my left.

I’m beginning to understand that I have similar interconnections with those outside my family circle. I occasionally get a glimpse that all my actions and decisions have a ripple effect on the people around me.  The ties extend everywhere and all through time.

The witnesses and participants in Jesus’ trial and execution were in different states of awareness.  Some saw a man’s suffering as something separate from themselves, while others were aware that Jesus’ agony was theirs too.  My intention is to have more moments of wakefulness, more glimpses of the reality that we are all one human mass of suffering, joy, fear, hope, love, hate and desire.  Humanity is a continuum and none are above, below or separate.  We all hurt or help our brothers and sisters by everything we do say.

Peace.

 

We Are Immortal (whether we want to be or not)

My basic and surely flawed understanding of Buddhism is the following:  all of existence has its source in emptiness.  Emptiness is a field of potential energy and form, and the universe and everything in it (throughout time) is an interaction between being and nonbeing.  Things show up out of nothingness and then they disappear into nothingness as other things show up.

We humans are an energy signal that takes on the form of a body on this earthly plane from time to time.  Coming here involves suffering because of ego attachment to our bodies, our possessions, to our desires.  Once we truly see that we are just a flux in a field of energy and that there is no “Me” in any special sense, we are freed.  Our energy signal changes, or ceases to exist, and we are no longer required to return to this planet in the form of men and women.  Our individual pulse of being is subsumed into the great field of emptiness.

I have never found this comforting.  I am still attached to Me.  I’m not sure I’m ready to let my identity go, erase my existence, and return to nothingness.  I can’t get to the point where I tell the kids as we sit before a cozy fire on a wintry evening with cups of hot chocolate in hand that my sincere desire is to find a way to permanently annihilate Me, and that I fondly wish that my wife, son and daughter, their future spouses and my grandchildren will escape the wheel of karma once and for all and just let bygones be good and gone.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and have trouble accepting Christianity’s story of faith, that if I believe in the right things and follow the right rules my eternal life has already been set up for me.  The priests sometimes seemed like insurance agents advising that I had nothing to worry about as long as I stuck closely to the terms of my heaven sent policy…So where do I go if I’ve evolved into a reluctant agnostic who finds Buddhism a little too chilly?

I just came across a few thoughts from Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor (161-180 AD), that I  found helpful:

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them.  For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.  —The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first part reminds me of Buddhism, but the last line gives me a different perspective.  In a sense we are nothing but the extensions of everything that has come before, and our presence, influence and actions will collectively lead to everything that will be in the future.  I, as an individual, am the product of an act of procreation that occurred in May,  1958.  I’m also the result of tectonic plate movements, volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, the evolutionary whims of primates, and the specific teaching of the Catholic Church that prevented my father from using a condom on a romantic evening in spring.  I’m not a special case, obviously, but I wouldn’t exist in my current form if the Big Bang hadn’t banged, the stars hadn’t formed when and where they formed, and if the gravitational constant of the universe was another number.

Our influence on the future, on the other hand, while not immediately significant in any measurable way, will still continue after our deaths.  We will collectively make the years that follow us better or worse whether we like it or not.  We are immortal in that whatever comes next will spring forth from the spent husks of our lives.

My kindness will lead to other kindnesses, and my short temper will lead to new offenses and hurt feelings.  My faults, virtues, weaknesses and strengths will continue to echo forward after I cease to exist whether I like it or not.  We are all connected in a web of influence and consequence that extends in all directions for all time.

This immortality business can seem like a burden, a huge responsibility.  I’m human and highly fallible.  I’m not always going to play nice.  My best hope for a decent legacy, for the future of my immortality in this realm, is to bat for a fairly high average.  The goal is to be decent, helpful and loving more often than I am selfish, vindictive and cold-hearted.

And the stakes are high even if there isn’t a Big Man In The Sky hiding behind the Crab Nebulae (or the outer rim of the multi-universe) busy keeping track of my sins and thinking up punishments with which to torture me for eternity. Even if there is no God out there to look after me and to care about my existence, I will still matter.  I, you and we will all matter now and forever in that we are the source “of that which will be.”

I have no idea what will happen to me after I die.  My sister and grandfather appeared to me in dreams shortly after their deaths and gave me messages of reassurance.  They told me that they are all right, much better than all right.  But they didn’t order me to follow one creed or explain what it’s like on the other side. (I doubt if that’s communicable.)  So I’m left to stumble along as best I can without really knowing if there is a point to being an honorable human being.  Kindness and decency may have nothing to do with my eventual destination, if there is one.  But I do hope that my legacy in this world is mostly positive as it’s going to last for a long, long time.

 

 

 

Angst Vobiscum: Watching Cartoons and Thinking About Hell

When I was a boy I attended a Catholic parochial school from second to eighth grade and was given a  heavy dose of religious indoctrination.  It was unfortunate that I didn’t learn to ignore what we were being taught about heaven and hell, sin and salvation.  Most of my classmates just nodded along and waited for the lessons to end, but I sat and thought about them for a long time after.

My sister Carla suffered from a similar inability to tune out the nuns and priests.  In second grade she received a scapular, a brown patch of cloth with a holy image on it.  It had ties and was meant to be worn around the neck.  She and her classmates were told that they couldn’t die in mortal sin as long as they wore their scapulars.  It was a stay-out-of hell lucky charm.  They were given an instructive little story to go with their magic present: “Suzy got a scapular and thought that she could do anything she wanted to do and still avoid eternal damnation.  So Suzy got mean and rude and did increasingly horrible things:  she kicked old ladies; she shoved her sister down a flight of  stairs; and she stole a cupcake from a bakery.  As she ran out of the shop, laughing merrily as she licked the icing off the top, she didn’t notice the bus rounding the corner.  Suzy ran out into the street right in front of it.  The bus crushed her and as she lay dying on the hard cement she thought, ‘It’s okay.  I’m going to die, but I’m not going to hell.’  And then the ties loosened and her scapular slipped slowly off her neck.  She saw it lying beside her as she drew her last, horrified breath.  The end.”

Carla couldn’t fall asleep that night, but sat up in bed terrified that she might end up in Hell if her scapular fell from her neck while she slept.

When I was in fourth grade we were told in religion class that if we damned someone, even if we just thought “God damn you” without saying the words out loud, we had committed a mortal sin.  One moment of mental frustration and spite could earn the offender the penalty of eternal flames (unless he confessed to the nearest available priest before a marauding bus ran over him).  I took this piece of information home and brooded over it with a growing sense of foreboding.  I had a quick temper and a little brother who annoyed me.  We shared a tiny bedroom.  The odds didn’t look good.

I had never considered the possibility of damning anyone before the lesson, and even though the thought of committing that sin had been implanted by my teacher, I knew that I would be held accountable in the end.  Incitement couldn’t be used as a defense. And sure enough, late the next day, my brother did something sneaky and mean to Carla when the three of us were out playing in the front yard.  Maybe he hit her with a downed tree branch and hurt her.  Maybe he said something nasty.  I don’t remember.  I got angry at him for his behavior, thought the dread words and attached his name to the end of the phrase, and sentenced myself to be cast into the Pit.

I looked around me after thinking my bad, bad thought and wondered why nothing seemed different.  No one noticed any change in me, and I was treated just the same as before.  Why wasn’t I shunned?  I had committed a sin that was in the same category as murder, rape and desecrating a church, and there I went about my business for the rest of the day unmarked and unscathed.  I ate a cheeseburger for supper, listened to my parents talk as we watched Lawrence Welk, did the dishes and got ready for bed. I was a tiny bit relieved that there were no immediate consequences, but was also aware that God knew what I had done.  And though I might fool everyone else, HE knew just what kind of little boy I was. I didn’t bother to go looking for my scapular in the cluttered dresser drawer where I had carelessly tossed it a few months after getting it.  I knew that it wasn’t worth the effort to dig it out.  I could tie it with triple triple knots and it would still fall off my neck at my moment of reckoning.

The next day I woke up early on a sunny Sunday morning.  I fixed myself a breakfast of chocolate milk and a pop tart.  I sat down on the carpet in front of our television set with my brother and sister and we tuned in “The Tom and Jerry Show”.  This was my favorite cartoon.  I loved all the violence and vengeance.  And as I sat there laughing when Tom chased Jerry up a drain spout and got stretched out to ridiculous proportions, I had the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong.  Then I remembered that I was going to Hell.  Jerry whacked Tom with a pool cue.  I grinned at my brother even as I realized that I was eternally estranged from my Lord and Savior.  I nearly snorted chocolate milk out of my nose when Jerry stuck Tom’s tail into a light socket and burned it to cinders.  But when I stopped laughing and choking the crappy feeling of dread returned.

I managed to resolve my spiritual dilemma during the car ride to church.  I knew that I could never go to confession and admit what I had done.  The parish priest was a grim giant of an old man who intimidated the adults as well as the children in the congregation.  I couldn’t face him in the darkness of the confessional booth even if it meant that my cowardice sent me to Hell.  I told myself to forget about the whole thing, that I couldn’t possibly be held accountable in such a terrible way for thinking a couple of words, and that I must have misunderstood what the teacher said during our lesson.

And I remembered a precedent:  when I was five I heard that an actor on a TV show got fired, and I thought that his termination meant that his boss tossed him into a bonfire and killed him.  I was very relieved when my mother cleared up my confusion and told me that the actor was alive and well.  I convinced myself that this damnation business was a similar case.

So I sat in our pew with a fairly clear conscience, sang the songs, rose, sat and genuflected at the right times, and went up for communion.  The sun still shone through the church windows and no angels descended from heaven with flaming swords to smite me when the priest placed the host on my tongue.  The last traces of guilt, fear and dread began to dissipate, and by the end of the day I felt just fine. The Scapular Slipped