Dogma Bites Man: the Role of Reason in Religion

The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon. — Buddhist saying

“In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” — John 1:1-5

And in Greek

The language of the Bible is remarkably direct and accessible. John is talking about great ineffable mysteries — things perhaps beyond the comprehension of the human mind — and yet he speaks simply, plainly, as one might to a child. Actually, even more plainly than that: the language of the Bible, even in the New Testament’s original Greek, is extraordinarily simple and unadorned, compared to the standards of the language as a whole.

To take one very evident example: the Bible uses “and” a lot. English (and Greek) have any number of conjunctions that might serve: “because”, “since”, “while”, “however”, etc. In general usage, writers and speakers tend to vary the conjunctions they use, thus avoiding heavy-handed repetition and a simplistic style — but also to link their ideas and lead the reader from thought to thought, showing how things fit together. The Bible doesn’t generally do this.

The effect of this is that most Biblical passages present a series of assertions without saying how they fit together. They don’t make an argument; they don’t build up a complex idea; they simply list facts. This makes things easy, in a sense, because the reader doesn’t have to follow an argument, or compare statements, or hold multiple ideas in their head at once. Furthermore, if the reader wants to build an argument, or construct a complex idea, the text allows them to do so; it permits, in fact, many possible interpretations. It may be, for example, that in the beginning was the Word because the Word was with God, since the Word was God; or perhaps in the beginning was the Word for the Word was with God, but the Word was God; or in the beginning was the Word despite the Word being with God, yet the Word was God; etc.

And in Hebrew, And in English

Did the Biblical authors intend their text to be so simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous? Probably not. This odd use of ‘and’ actually appears in the Old Testament as well, but there, it’s a lot less out of place: as it happens, ancient Hebrew had very few conjunctions in the language. A writer of Hebrew didn’t have much choice other than to use waw, which may be translated as “because”, “since”, “while”, “for”, “yet”, etc. …but is usually simply given as “and”.

And when Jesus spoke (in Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew), he faced the same situation. Thus when the Greek New Testament was produced, the authors were (a) working with Jesus’s words, (b) trying to join their work to the established Hebraic Old Testament, (c) may have been translating into Greek from Aramaic original texts, and (d) were probably Aramaic speakers themselves — and all these sources included lots of waw’s; meaning that they frequently used the Greek word for “and” (kai) instead of availing themselves of Greek’s full set of conjunctions.

And since the Greek New Testament was interpreted as God’s word, God’s word was kai — strictly translated as et in the Latin Vulgate, und in Luther’s German translation, and and in the King James.

The upshot of Hebrew’s conjunctive paucity and its literal translations was that the holy canon of Christianity was simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous. The New Testament was a single (relatively) short text, but it still admitted of many possible interpretations. For a while the churches tightly controlled those interpretations, partly by forbidding the Bible to be translated out of Latin and Greek; but once translations became available, and people began to see many possible ways of reading the text, sects multiplied endlessly.

Interestingly, the Christian Bible also admits of no interpretation. That is to say, if someone wants to simply read the list of conjoined assertions without trying to see how they fit together, and just take them as they are, on faith, they can. For many, in fact, reasoned argument is seen as antithetical to religion; rational argumentation is a slippery thing that can easily lead one astray from the unadorned Word of God, or from the immediacy and certainty of direct experience with the divine.

And in Reason, And in Religion

The role of reason in religion is one of those ambiguities that Christians have been arguing and thinking about since the beginning. Augustine believed that reason was fine, as long as it didn’t contradict things known through revelation. Aquinas, on the other hand, believed that if one could simply reason long and hard enough, one would find no contradiction between revelation and reason; and he is famous for his attempts to rationally prove the existence of God.

Meanwhile, other Christians argued that reason was, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a temptation to evil. Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd”; Luther distrusted reason to do anything more than shed light on our own ignorance; Locke believed that faith was “above reason” and it ruled matters where reason could not go; and Kierkegaard felt that faith required a submission of the intellect, hostile to it and forever beyond it.

These attitudes contrast starkly with the intensely rational stances held by the Stoic pagans of Greece and Rome, as well as (for example) the Buddhists. The Stoics believed strongly in natural law and reason, and its sway over the world and humanity. And Buddhism’s core tenets read like a logical argument: There is suffering in the world; suffering arises from attachment; therefore, to remove suffering, remove attachment.

Today the situation is no closer to resolution: the war between faith and reason is recast as religion versus science, and the battles are fought in the churchyards and schoolrooms. Some people see reason and science as the amoral midwives of the modern world, with its inhuman technology and unspeakable horrors of war, and reject them unconditionally; while others point to all the wars caused by conflicts over faith and religion, and see reason and science as our only hope for species survival.

And in Druidism

Pagans in general hold a diversity of views about reason and science. Most of them hold the Earth to be tremendously holy, and it is hard to see technology’s rape of the planet without holding a grudge toward the science and reasoning driving it. Nevertheless, most pagans I know are comfortable with science and its tenets and are happy to believe in evolution, Odin, general relativity, and the Horned God, all at once.

The ancient druids were the lorekeepers of Celtic society, praised by the Greeks for their knowledge of history, culture, astronomy, and the like; and the druids of the revival period (the 17-1800s) carried on this tradition — most were experts in language, anthropology, religious studies, and history, as well as more esoteric arts.

Different modern druids will give you different perspectives on rationality, though I think most would agree that it is essential to the balanced spirit. After all, reason is as much a part of being human as sleeping, breathing, and eating; it is a unique gift not lightly to be cast aside. But I think most of them would also agree that reason alone will not get you all the way to the top of the mountain.

For myself, I am heavily influenced by Zen philosophy, which makes use of reason, but not in the usual way.

And in Zen

Zen teaches that the highest levels of enlightenment cannot be apprehended by reason; it is beyond the capacity for rational thought. But that doesn’t mean rational thought should be abandoned. On the contrary, the logical mind is an essential tool in the search for ultimate meaning.

The Zen Master presents the pupil with a koan: a logical puzzle. Among the most famous are “What is the sound of one hand, clapping?”, or “What was your face before you were born?”, but I prefer the simpler and less-known “Who are you?” If the student answers a name, like “John Smith”, the Master then asks, “Who is John Smith?” If the student says something like, “It’s me, this person standing before you,” the Master asks, “But who is it standing before me?” The student is tasked to sit in meditation and ponder the question — who am I, when all attributes and predicates are stripped away? The logical mind loops and jumps, twists and tangles…

But koans do not have answers. Their purpose is to puzzle, to force the student to exercise the mind, to reach new insights about identity and reality. Eventually the logic, relentlessly applied, begins to break the false attachments and illusions of the world, and the student starts to ascend to the higher levels of enlightenment. And at last, logic will fail, and enlightenment will be attained.

But let me be clear: koans are not the only tools available; this can be done with any ambiguous or unclear proposition — a Tarot card, a song lyric, a chance word heard on the subway. A verse from the Bible.

Dogma and Lemma

The irony, then, is that the road to enlightenment can indeed be, and has been, walked by people contemplating the Bible’s oddly phrased, simplistic, and disjointed attestations, precisely because they are odd, simplistic, and disjointed. The less sense a Bible verse makes, the more like a koan it is, and the more wisdom can be wrung from it by the dedicated student. The most profound mystic truths have been inferred from seeming-nonsense such as “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Even the maddest Zen Masters never exhorted their followers to eat them (to my knowledge — I wouldn’t put it past them). But this is the foundation of some of the deepest Christian mysteries — and its meaning is a source of ferocious contention between various Christian sects.

This, then, is the last piece of advice Zen offers regarding reason: don’t elevate lemma to dogma. Feel free to use whatever koans or Bible verses you like, and reason about them freely, but the final truth is beyond reason. Reason is a boat that can take you to the shore of enlightenment, but you have to step onto the shore yourself. Do not mistake your reasoned conclusions for eternal truths. To do so would be to mistake the finger for the moon.

The Face of Justice

The twitch of the tips of the lips at rest
The hooded eyes that are just awakening, or just sleeping –
Not wide with surprise, or closed in sleep —
Open to let just enough light in, each photon carrying the universe within it —
The rest of the face utterly relaxed, at rest.
The mouth is closed, giving nothing but its tiny smile, accepting nothing.
The nose admits the breath without fuss.
The ears are open, but do not hear everything.
The skin is smooth and untroubled, like the surface of clear still water.
Justice reflected in the face as the images of birds flying over a lake.
Justice does not fall like a hammer
Or rush down from the mountains in a flood.
Justice is silent, quiet, still, almost
Utterly without motion, almost at rest
Except for the eyes that see just enough
And the lips, whose tiny smile
Bends the arc of history just so.

 

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Many thanks to Alison and Kate for hosting the Soul Writing workshop which gave rise to this poem last night. 

Things Fall Apart: Why We Think Everything’s Getting Worse

Most Americans, year after year, continue to think that the country is on the wrong track. The older you are (i.e, the more experienced you are, and the more of history you’ve seen), the more likely you are to think everything is falling apart. And it’s not just in America: worldwide, people tend to think things are getting worse. And it’s undeniable that the world is facing horrible problems: climate change, pollution, terrorism, income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., etc., etc.

Maybe you’ve noticed the same thing in your own life. I don’t mean to be depressing here… but how many times have you failed to change a habit, or break an addiction? How many of your jobs have fallen through? How many times have you had to move away from your home? How many pets have you lost? How many of your friendships and relationships have failed, or faded away in distance or time? How many people you’ve loved are gone forever?

Almost all of us have tragic answers to those questions. The things we love in our lives always end; the patterns we love endlessly unravel.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.
Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

In nature, things unravel, too. But there, something else is always raveling up to take its place. Trees die, but their tall standing snags — monuments to themselves — are colonized by armies of insects, fungi, and other critters, which in turn become feasts for woodpeckers and other animals. And when the snags finally fall, they become nurse logs for the next generation of trees, nourishing a richer, more diverse forest.

A tree’s death is a catastrophe, but it’s also what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe: a sort of deus ex machina, except that instead of a god swooping in from on high at the last minute to save everything, it’s a sudden unexpected change in fortune that’s consistent with the established framework of the milieu. It’s a miraculous redemption that arises inevitably from the world itself.

Oftentimes, a eucatastrophe is the result of the efforts of many, many individuals (humans, bugs, plants… doesn’t matter), each working for their own benefit or the benefit of their local community. Individually, each effort is barely noticeable, but when they’re added up, profound changes take place. Since these small efforts are self-directed, it can be extremely difficult to see what the final aggregate result will be, and whether it will, in the end, be good or bad.

Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. – Elrond, in the Fellowship of the Ring

So perhaps things look like they’re unraveling simply because we don’t have the complete picture. We as a species are young, and our vision is limited. We sometimes glimpse things that might happen, but for the most part, we only see the present and the past. It’s no wonder that most of what we see seems to be dying or dead.

The core of the problem, really, is that we can so rarely see patterns before they emerge. And so the world seems to be falling into disorder, and our lives seem to be full of endings, with precious few new beginnings.

It is an illusion, though. A new order is rising up, but we can’t see it. This is why eucatastrophes are surprising.

Detail from "Consternation", by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.
Detail from “Consternation”, by Scott Grady, 1977. Thanks to Ali for this image.

Oftentimes we can see the re-raveling only in hindsight. Human history is littered with dire disasters and intractable problems: the ‘population bomb’, the end of oil, war, the nuclear holocaust, monarchy, illiteracy, slavery… But it’s an undeniable fact that most of these problems have gotten better over the last few hundred years. Not solved — not by a long shot; even one person enslaved is a terrible tragedy. But better. Most problems, like human rights violations and non-renewable energy, have been improved through long years of thankless toil. Many others, like slavery in the US, cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Some, like the falling rates of crime and warfare worldwide, have just been slowly eroding away, though no one really knows why. And a few, like the hegemonic Soviet Union, have ended in a completely unexpected eucatastrophe.

This happens in one’s own life as well. I’ve left behind friends in six different cities, lost three jobs, lost a marriage… Many of these changes left me wondering whether everything I’d worked and struggled for was gone forever. But of course, I made friends in the seventh city, scored that fourth job, and found a true soul partner. After 40+ years of life I’m finally starting to glimpse the larger tapestry sometimes. There are still problems and tragedies I struggle with, but someday — sooner, perhaps, than I can see — they will pass, too.

Seeing the Raveling

How can we get better at seeing patterns before they’re fully formed?

First, practice. Look for the raveling. Too often we focus only on what is going wrong, or what we fear will go wrong. This is instinctive. As embodied beings, it’s natural to be wary, to watch for danger. But take time to look for what is going right, or what might go right, and focus on that as well. The old saying is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst; and both parts of that are important.

Also, study history. Look at how eucatastrophes happened. Most people were surprised when the Soviet Union collapsed, when monarchies ended, and so on — but the writing was on the wall for decades. What writing is on the wall now?

Trust your gut. Your conscious mind has access to only a small part of your complete consciousness. Your subconscious is always looking for patterns, and usually sees the big changes coming. Meditation, and talking to guides, can help.

And finally, have some faith. One of the things I struggle with personally, as a Druid, is what Alison calls the ‘Problem of Justice’. Just as Christians wonder why God permits evil in the world, we who follow a nature-based spirituality wonder what is natural and what is unnatural, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good. When you see an oil spill or a huge parking lot and you feel a visceral revulsion or sorrow, your body is telling you that it is unnatural, wrong, evil — especially when compared with a forest or pristine river. But obviously humans are part of the natural world, and what we do is natural; so in a sense, an oil spill or parking lot is natural too. So why are we always tearing things down, causing mass extinctions, and fouling the waters? How can these things be “natural”, how can they be “good”?

And it’s not just humanity. When beavers flood a forest, felling and drowning dozens of trees, or when wolves disembowel an encroaching coyote and defecate around its body as a warning to the others, we have the same problem:

Many earth-centered spiritualities look to the relationships, patterns and laws of nature for insight into the ways we might live a just and ethical life — yet, within nature are myriad examples of suffering, destruction, violence, injustice, even cruelty and maliciousness… How should we respond to them? — Alison Leigh Lilly

The resolution of these paradoxes (both the Druid paradox and the Christian one) may, in part, lie in our limited human understanding. Maybe we just can’t yet see how the evils of the world will be woven into the larger pattern of beauty. In nature, always, there is a subtle, organic order at work. Problems turn out to be blessings; tragedies plant the seeds of triumphs. Even in truly awful situations — such as a forest fire — there is a hidden raveling. Underbrush is cleared out, soil is renewed, seeds are germinated, diversity is increased, and diseases are cleared away. Forests periodically burn as naturally as the cycle of the seasons. Maybe what we see today as injustice is part of a great invisible cycle.

It can be hard to have faith, to believe in rebirth, when all you can see is death. But something wonderful is being born, right now. Study, sit in silence, and wait, and you will see it.

Hummingbird on a snowy branch

Meditation: Animist Consecration

Last night my awesome wife Ali and I joined in a set of consecration ceremonies at our Unitarian Universalist church. Along with the Reverend’s UU blessing and our friend Chris’s Wiccan consecration, we demonstrated a Druid / Animist method of connecting with an object.

I say “connecting with” an object instead of “consecrating” because in our tradition, all things are sacred. We cannot imbue an object with holiness. It is already holy. What we can do is recognize the sacredness of the object, and enter into relationship with it (or deepen our existing relationship). We do this by sitting with the object, touching it, and listening for its voice in the Song of the World.

I wrote a meditation to guide this process, and it seemed to go well, so here it is in full:

Animist Consecration Meditation

Sit and relax. Take a deep breath… and release. As you breathe out, let all your tension melt away. Relax your shoulders, relax your neck, relax your eyes. Take another deep breath… and release. Imagine that a wave of warm golden light is slowly rising in your body, starting in your feet, rising up through your legs, up into your torso. The warm golden light fills your body, down your arms and into your fingers, up to the top of your head… Let your body sink, growing heavier. Your arms and legs have become heavy and settle comfortably.

Now turn your attention gently to the object in your hands. Feel its weight there. Imagine that, like your body, it is becoming heavier. Feeling its weight and heft pressing in your hands helps you relax further. … Feel its texture. Is it hard? Soft? Smooth? How does it respond when you apply gentle pressure? … Feel the temperature of the object in your hands. Perhaps it has responded to the warmth of your body, becoming warmer as you’ve been holding it.

Think about history of the object. Where did it come from? How did it come into this room? How did it come into your possession? Do you know who else has held this object, if anyone else ever has? Was it crafted by a person, or by a machine, or is it completely natural? How long ago was it made? Where did the materials of the object come from? From an animal? A plant? If so, what do you know about those living beings, and the lives they led? Did they live nearby, experiencing the same summers and winters and rains as ourselves? Or did they live far away, in a distant land, under different stars? Has it been under the sea? Did it come from the earth, crafted from stone or crystal, formed millions of years ago?

Imagine what it must have been like to experience the history of this object — from the time of its making down to the present day. Think about what it must be like to be the object, now, today, surrounded by us in this warm and sacred space, being held and warmed by your hands.

Feel the warmth of the object again. The object has responded to the heat in your hands. The heat in the object is nothing more nor less than vibration; its atoms and molecules have begun to vibrate along with the atoms and molecules of your hand. If your ears were sensitive enough, you would be able to hear the vibration of the object in the air. Hold it tightly and feel the warmth. If it were making an audible sound, what would it be? Would it be high-pitched, or low? Would it be a single constant tone, or a chord of notes? A monotone, or a tune? …

Hear that sound in your mind. Focus on it.

Now, in a moment, when you are ready and comfortable, respond to the song of the object, in whatever way feels right. Maybe you want to hum along with it, or provide a bass or counterpoint. Maybe what is called from you is a chant, or a whisper. Sit with your object, listen to it, and respond. Sing the song of the world with your object.

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Powers of Darkness

In 1997 there were about two thousand children living in the homeless shelters of Miami, FL. (There are more than twice as many now at the time of this writing, 2014.) Lynda Edwards, a reporter for the Miami New Times, submitted an article in June of that year documenting the folk tales and beliefs of these children. The article has become something of a quiet sensation on the Internet; it’s long, but it’s powerful and extremely disturbing. I first read about it in 2006, from my friend Kate Gladstone, who guaranteed that I would never forget it.

fluteofdawn

She was right. I have to say it is still one of the most harrowing and hair-raising things I’ve ever read. It’s a strange combination of the creepiest sort of fantastic horror — the kind you love to hear around a campfire — alongside the reality of homelessness and abject poverty — more mundane maybe, but no less horrible.

It’s a long article, so don’t feel compelled to jump right over and read it immediately, but it is amazing, poignant, and harrowing, and should be read.  The children have collectively created a mythology that is rich, colorful, and choked with fear and desperation.  For someone such as myself, who believes in various overlapping mythological systems, it raises all sorts of difficult and vital issues.  Are the children really tapping into spiritual truths?  Are they actually being contacted by spirits, as they claim?  If so, why is their vision so full of fear and doom, when the visions of so many other spiritual people have so much light and joy?

Continue reading “Powers of Darkness”

Big Data Will Blind You

Not all of us are scientists, but all of us today are consumers of science. And I mean science, not technology. When we want to lose weight, or make more money, or find that perfect someone, we don’t go to gurus, and we don’t go with our guts. We look at the latest studies.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been said that Generation X has a deep need for data. Certainly a lot of people my age long ago lost our last vestiges of idealism, and are most interested in knowing, as pragmatically as possible, exactly what works and what doesn’t. We no longer believe in Dr. Spock’s intuitions or Oprah’s platitudes. We want to see what science says. We’re only interested in practical, proven methods. We haven’t given up trying to explain the world, but we’ve stopped trying to make beautiful, abstract theories workable. In the same vein, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are proud to call themselves ‘data-driven’: they make no claim to being led by ‘visionaries’, but act based on rigorous analysis of consumer activity. (Of course, there are a minority of companies, such as Apple, which do claim to be led by visionaries, but these are the exception, and their stock prices are more volatile.)

Part of this zeitgeist is the modern tech industry excitement about the possibilities of ‘Big Data’, a rapidly-emerging state in which we’ll have so much data on so many people and so many financial transactions that we’ll cross some kind of singularity into perfect knowledge, a threshold beyond which we’ll find new markets, new products, and vast new vistas of profit.

Maybe so. But there’s a big pitfall that comes with Big Data. If you’re given a big pile of facts, you start to imagine that you know more than you did before; that you can just crunch some equations and run some statistics, and the numbers will tell you what to do. You’re tempted to believe that you don’t need to get the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of things, as long as you have enough ‘what’.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But knowledge without understanding is even more dangerous. Here’s some examples of why. Continue reading “Big Data Will Blind You”

In Which Links are Forged and Pods are Cast

My attention has been away from this blog for a while, so I thought it might be interesting to collect some links to what I’ve been working on. Over at Faith, Fern, and Compass, for example, I’ve contributed a couple of articles that might be of interest to you:

The Sea in the Skull

Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive. But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. This is about how I create a sacred space without ritual.

The Land’s Religion: Hold Her In Your Heart

Those of us of European descent who don’t live in Europe — who live, in fact, in landscapes conquered or annexed by our ancestors — do not have a simple relationship with the earth we live on… We are like a branch grafted onto the wrong tree, an organ transplanted into another body. We’re aliens in our own homes. But we cannot go back where we came from; we’d be aliens there, too. There is nowhere in the world that we really belong. So what should our relationship be?

Continue reading “In Which Links are Forged and Pods are Cast”

The Toxic Society

I stumbled on an old, ignored piece of news the other day, which struck me powerfully. Apparently crime rates in the United States continue to plummet, despite the ongoing recession. While I had assumed that the drop in crime rate was related to our insanely high rate of incarceration, apparently that doesn’t really explain it. First off, most of the rise in prison population comes from non-violent offenders, and violent crime has dropped even faster than non-violent crime. Second, there are lots of other places around the world where crime has been dropping, and the incarceration rates there haven’t changed. Sociologists are either at a loss, or they have conflicting ideas, or they say it’s a combination of factors.

But a little-known economist, Rick Nevin, has a theory: a drop in lead poisoning. He applied a statistical model which tracked violent crime rates and lead poisoning in nine different countries over the course of the 20th century. Lead is a neurotoxin that reduces the ability of people to control their impulses.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor…

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”…

Nevin’s work has been published mainly in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research. Within the field of neurotoxicology, Nevin’s findings are unsurprising, said Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University and the editor of Environmental Research.

“There is a strong literature on lead and sociopathic behavior among adolescents and young adults with a previous history of lead exposure,” she said.

If this is true, it raises a lot of questions. Most obviously: what’s the best way to lower the crime rate? Maybe we should reduce funding for police forces, incarceration, etc., and concentrate everything we have on anti-lead environmental legislation. After all, it was just a few years ago that lead was found in toys imported from China; and lead has leeched into the earth and groundwater from underground gas canisters all over the country. And not just lead — it is an especially widespread neurotoxin, but it’s not the only one. What other poisons are we eating, drinking, and breathing?

Another question is: should we, as a society, regulate lead? The obvious answer is yes, but how, exactly? Should it be regulated on a state-by-state basis, or by the EPA? Or should there be international standards set by the UN? Or should there be a set of class-action lawsuits brought by states and individuals against lead-producing industries? Remember, the issue here is not so much whether such laws would be moral or just, but what would be the quickest, most effective way to eliminate lead poisoning. Outright bans are simple in theory, but they quickly get complex in practice, and they don’t always work.

But for me the most interesting question is: what does this say about the philosophical foundations of a free society? Because, since the time of Locke, it’s been assumed that individuals are independent agents with free will. Tyrants, dictators, and even philosopher-kings are morally wrong, because every human has the inalienable right to liberty. While we may be persuaded or dissuaded or coerced, ultimately all our decisions are our own responsibility; and thus we can vote as we wish, establish laws as we wish, speak as we wish, and so on. And if we break the laws of our society, whether because we feel they are wrong (civil disobedience) or for any other reason, we alone hold the responsibility for that decision and we alone must pay the consequences.

But all of this is clearly false. A child born into a lead-infused home, exposed to neurotoxins from birth, has been poisoned, and cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. In effect, their crimes are the result not of poor character, but of environmentally-induced mild insanity; and the solution is not incarceration, deterrence, or punishment, but treatment (if possible). Left untreated, should such a person be allowed to own or operate a gun? Should they be in any position of responsibility such as military or political service? Should they be allowed to vote? In other words, if they are not fully sane, can they really fulfill the social contract that a free society requires?

It would seem not. But here’s a sobering thought: how many of us are, in fact, suffering from environmentally-induced mild insanity? I myself grew up in the late 70’s, before most of the laws against lead in gasoline and paint went into effect. I have never committed a crime, but nor have I ever wanted to — I have different issues with impulse control. Of course, most people do. But maybe most people have been poisioned, to various degrees. Do we even know what a normal person would be like, anymore?

Maybe we really have all gone slightly crazy. How would we know?…

Genesis: the Story of Why We’re Different

In the summer of 2011 I was fortunate enough to go to the Wild Goose Festival, a gathering of speakers and artists active in the “emergent Christianity” movement, and there Alison and I met up with Carl McColman, who introduced us to Mike Morell. Like most of the awesome people at the Wild Goose, Mike is a Christian who takes a dim view of dogmatic pronouncements and brimstony evangelism, and he grapples vigorously with the tensions between Biblical teachings and 21st-century reality.

For example, in his post “Evolution and the Two Trees in the Garden” he gives his personal interpretation of Genesis’s story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple. Mike suggests that the story isn’t really about two actual people, a talking snake, and a magic apple. Instead it’s a metaphor for humanity’s transition from pre-history to history:

But then… something happened. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but “suddenly” in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers.

This isn’t the only way of interpreting Genesis, of course. Micah Redding, a commenter on Mike’s post, suggests instead that it reflects our knowledge of our own mortality. Others have suggested that it represents the consciousness of ourselves-as-individuals, or dualistic thinking, or moral consciousness, etc., etc.

To me it seems very unlikely that humans actually underwent a physiological or neurological (as opposed to cultural) change as recently as a few thousand years ago. 6000 years ago, humans were already spread all over the world, effectively divided into separate gene pools. Any genetic change that started in 4000 BC would not have reached, say, the Aboriginals of Australia or the indigenous peoples of the Americas until a couple of hundred years ago. Did the Aztecs never (metaphorically) eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? No matter what you think the fruit of the tree represents, it would be hard to argue that.

My own take, of course, is that the Genesis story doesn’t have a “meaning” — outside of the meaning we assign it. And it’s interesting to look at the meanings we give it, because that tells us something about ourselves. In the 19th century, lots of people used the Genesis story to explain why women were second-class citizens; and some people still do that today, though thankfully that’s falling from favor. They also used to tell the stories of the exploits and treacheries of Adam’s sons and Noah’s sons to explain why there were different races of people, and why some races were better than others. You almost never hear those parts of Genesis brought up anymore. Instead, people today talk about what exactly God meant by giving us “dominion” over the world, and whether the story is applicable in some way to evolution, and what it says about the differences between people and animals, and so on.

But when you get down to it, the Genesis story is a tale about why we’re exceptional. There’s all sorts of things in there about humanity being made in God’s image, and being given special instructions, and being uniquely disobedient, and eating magical fruit, and so on; and all of these have been used to argue for humanity’s special place in the world — as well as for the male’s special place in the family, and the white man’s special place in society. Is this healthy?

It’s all too easy, all too tempting, to fall into the trap of thinking that humanity (or males, or the white race, or modern civilization, or the Western tradition) is qualitatively exceptional. All of these categories are certainly unique in some ways, but that’s true of all animals, peoples, cultures and subcultures. People (and animals) have always been sometimes brilliant and sometimes stupid, sometimes wise stewards of the earth and sometimes appallingly thoughtless, sometimes dualistic and sometimes mystic, sometimes moral and sometimes wicked, and so on. Even our technological advancement might not be unique: if we all disappeared tomorrow, almost all evidence of us would be gone in a few thousand years. What sets us apart, if anything, is scale. There are a whole hell of a lot of us being brilliant, stupid, wise, wicked, etc., all at once. But that’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

Now, I’m all for sacred texts, and for studying them carefully, and trying to draw meaning from them, no matter how crazy they are. But Genesis should be handled carefully. History shows that it’s all too easily read as a grab-bag of excuses for powerful people to believe they’re exceptional, to believe they have a sacred mission, to believe that they can do whatever they want. So meditate on it, contemplate it, even believe it if you want; but do so with care and awareness. If I were going to recommend a creation story to believe, I’d pick one with less violence and misogyny. Personally I’m partial to the Taoist:

Something mysteriously formed,
Born before heaven and Earth.
In the silence and the void,
Standing alone and unchanging,
Ever present and in motion.
Perhaps it is the mother of ten
thousand things.
I do not know its name
Call it Tao.
For lack of a better word, I call it great.

The Tao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand
things.

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

(Trans. Jane English)

Gaus: Freedom, Morality, and the State

Ok, here’s another book I desperately want to have (and while I’m wishing, it sure would be great to have the time to read it as well): The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World by Gerald Gaus. It’s about large-scale human societies — how they arose, how they work (to the extent that they do), and how they ought to work.

Now, everybody and her brother has their own ideas about what’s wrong with the government, and what should be done to fix it. For a while, it was thought that that emperors and kings were either gods, or representatives of God on Earth. This idea became less popular as it became more and more clear that emperors and kings were, by and large, greedy psychopathic killers. Then it was thought that government was a sort of “social contract” that existed because, in the deeps of time, Man was in a State of Nature and everyone was a greedy psychopathic killer, and eventually it was decided that someone should be made a policeman and thereby keep the peace. This idea fell out of favor as anthropologists discovered that non-state societies (such as indigenous tribes) were, by and large, peaceful, content, and sane; and as archaeologists found that the first city-states actually arose because some minority group (such as a priesthood) gained monopolistic control of some essential resource (such as an irrigation system) and starting lording it over everyone else. And once you have a state in one place, then the neighboring villages and tribes start gathering into states of their own, if only for mutual defense. So it would seem that a government is an evil that’s only necessary if there are other governments around.

Photo © Alison Lilly 2012

And yet the modern large-scale state has some definite advantages. Of course, it defends its citizens against other states. But beyond that, it provides a free-trade zone, and an area of consistent laws about education, taxation, health care, and so on, which serves to both enrich its citizens and provide for jurisprudence and the rule of law. So how did the (relatively) moral, just modern nation-state arise out of the barbarity of its ancestry? And is it possible to make it even better?

This is what Gaus’s book is about. He has apparently drawn together many of the most recent strands of philosophy, game theory, and social science into a coherent whole — a theory of how a society can be free, moral, and just — and he’s gotten some rave reviews. I’m an optimistic fellow (or at least, I’d like to be) and it would be great to think that something that started out as common banditry and blackmail would inexorably develop, over time, organically, into something wonderful, even beautiful. We don’t often think of human nature working like that, but human nature is just nature. And changing excrement into flowers is the way nature works, isn’t it?