Friday, January 30, 2009

iPod Game

I played this game with my iPod, where I put it on shuffle and look at the 25 song that come up randomly and use their names to answer these 25 questions. Sometimes you get interesting hits:

1. Put Your iTunes, Windows Media Player, MP3 Player, or whatever on Shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
3. You must write down the name of the song no matter how silly it sounds!
4. Put any comments in brackets after the song name.

Song you wake up to? "Bad Boy" The Beatles [Funny coincidence. One could be a "bad boy" when one wakes up because one is generally in a bad temper when having to get up early.]
If someone says, "Is this okay?" you say "Ave Verum Corpus,” Zephyr, A Choir of Angels [I like this one, as if we would respond to any question seeking approval with the response "Hail, True Body of Christ." There are interesting religious implications.]
How would you describe yourself? "I Menuetto, part 1 and 2 (Allegro Moderato)" Pablo Casals playing Bach Suites for Cello. [That particular piece of music does seem very close to my soul, and perhaps it would be useful to respond with music rather than words to such a question asking the impossible task of self-description.]
What do you like in a guy/girl? "Think for Yourself" The Beatles [Oh, this is so true. A real accurate random hit.]
How do you feel today? "Jebel" Gheorghe Zamfir, Panflute and Organ. [Again, music rather than words to describe an emotion. That makes sense to me. This piece is sort of sad and meditative. That's not actually how I feel today.]
What's your life's purpose? "East of Eden" Big Country
What is your motto? "Mysterious Whisper" They Might Be Giants [This is a funny juxtaposition]
What do your friends think of you? "She’s Like the Swallow" The Quink Vocal Ensemble - Folk Songs of the World. [This would have been funny if I were a woman.]
What do you think of your parents? "Pride (In the Name of Love)" U2 [Nice match]
What do you think of very often? "Four Scottish Dances by Sir Malcolm Arnold" Queensland Symphony.
What is 2 + 2? "Pity" The Tree People - Guilt Regret Embarrassment [The song title doesn't match the question, but the album title is a good association for how many people feel about mathematics.]
What do you think of your best friend? "Fairly Shot of Her" Enya - By Chance It Was
What do you think of the person you like? "The Red Fox" Big Country - The Seer
What is your life story? "Beethoven String Quartet Op. 132 No. 15, in A Minor, second movement (Allegro ma non tanto)" Alban Berg Quartet.
What do you want to be when you grow up? "Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, the first Aria, The Day that Gave Great Anna Birth" Stephen Cleobury - Coronation Anthems [So, does this imply I want to be some sort of monarch?]
What do you think of when you see the person you like? "Voice of Reason" The Hoagland Conspiracy [This is funny, because my wife, whom I like, is something like a voice of reason in our relationship.]
What will you dance to at your wedding? "Ragged Old Flag" Johnny Cash [You can't dance to this song, and we didn't have dancing out our wedding.]
What will they play at your funeral? "Suzanne" Leonard Cohen [This is a great song, and it would go well at a funeral.]
What is your hobby/interest? "All You Need Is Love" The Beatles [Oh, this was a good match.]
What is your biggest fear? "I’m A Little Dinosaur" Jonathan Richman [Funny]
What is your biggest secret? "Crazy Love" Paul Simon [Oh, this is really funny]
What is your best strength? "Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for 2 Trumpets and Strings RV 537 third part, Allegro" Wynton Marsalis [This is a strong musical piece, full of energy and vigor.]
What do you think of your friends? "Joy To The World" [What is this Christmas song still doing on my iPod in late January?]
What do you think of the world? "Every Time When I Fall Down and My Head Hits the Floor Hard" The Tree People. [An excellent match. This is a good hit.]
What do you think of the government? "One By One" Flipper [A very dark song about things coming to a bad end. It's an apocolyptic song. Suitable for our former governor, who was kicked out of office this week.]
What do you think of religion? "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. Prelude #12 in F Minor, BWV 857" Friedrich Gulda playing this piece by J. S. Bach. [Seems appropriate that a song by Bach would come up in answer to this question. Pity it was one of his secular songs.]
What do you think of school? "New Years Day" U2 [Nothing changes on New Year's Day.]
How was your year so far? "La Chanson de la Rose" Al Gromer Khan - Space Hotel
Perfect way of spending your weekend? "La Fontana di Valle Guilia all’alba" The Fontane di Roma, Sinopoli conducting the New York Philharmonic in this piece by Respighi. [Yeah, I would love to spend a weekend enjoying the fountains of Rome. This is a good match.]
What is the one thing you want to do once in your life? "Pigs On The Wing (Part Two)" Pink Floyd [It's a song about enduring love between friends, and I would like to be reunited with old friends at least once again.]
Most important thing you need to do before you die? "Train" Mission of Burma
What do you think of Myspace? "Shuffering and Shmiling" Fela Kuti [Ha ha, this is a funny match. It's a song about people being duped by false promises from corrupt religious leaders, but it could be taken more abstractly as a critique of the false promises of joy to be found through internet relationships. Although, come to think of it, I sustain many old friendships throught he internet and I've met all sorts of wonderful people by using the internet, so this doens't really work for me in my experience.]
What do you think of Facebook? "Puer Natus In Bethlehem" The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos - Chant [Another Christmas Song?!]
What would your road trip/travel song be? "And God Saw Everything..." The Creation (Haydn) The Academy of Ancient Music. [A perfect match between the song title and the question. God saw everything, and it was good. That's how I feel when I travel.]
How do you want to live your final years? "Deep Blue Dream" Eric Serra - The Big Blue. [This song makes one feel peaceful and meditative, which seems like a good way to spend one's final years I guess.]
What do you think of surveys like this? - "Cuentos de la juventud Recuerdos de la infancia" Alicia De Larrocha playing Granados - Scenes of Childhood. [I guess they are childish?]
What will you post this as? "As If We Never Said Goodbye" Barbara Streisand.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Prospect 1 in New Orleans

Although I spent most of my time in New Orleans at the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) meeting or hanging out with other social work researchers, I did have a couple hours on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday to check out some of the Prospect 1 art exhibits, including the ones at the New Orleans Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, and the old U.S. Mint.

I want to write about some of what I saw.

Skylar Fein's installation about an arson attack on a bar that killed 32 guys was especially disturbing, mainly because he included huge blown-up photographs of charred corpses from the scene. That was horrific. Another disturbing spectacle was the installation by Stephen G. Rhodes. I somewhat enjoyed certain aspects of the energy and anger and spookiness in his piece, but it was hard to take, and one doctoral student from USC who was with me had to get out of the room quickly; she could only take a few seconds of the experience.
Thought provoking? I think I was especially moved to contemplation and reflection by Yasumasa Morimura's photographic tableaus based on Goya works and his film of himself behaving and acting like Charlie Chaplin's immitation of Adolf Hitler from "The Great Dictator" along and making odd observations ("we are dictators to stones, to tiny animals," etc.). Kalup Linzy's surrealistic soap opera featuring himself as a female character was also hard to believe, but it seemed to cover the basic problems of jealousy, love, and lust with detachment and ridicule.
Inspiring or fun? I liked Candice Breitz's wall of video monitors (Legend) featuring people from Jamaica singing Bob Marley songs. Fred Tomeselli's paintings and Beatriz Milhazes' untitled installation (both at the Mint), Shawne Major's colorful abstract tapestries and Pedro Reyes' Leverage seesaw (both of these last two in the Contemporary Art Center) were among my favorites. I even got to participate in some playing on Leverage, as a bunch of adults balanced one tiny kid for a few minutes up going up and down.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leaving New Orleans

I left New Orleans today. I was there for the SSWR conference. I think this was the seventh one I've attended in the past eleven years. Anyway, I was staying on Magazine a few blocks off Canal, in the Country Inn. When it was time to head over to the airport I had considered taking the airport shuttle or a taxi, but it seemed I had time to take the bus, so I walked up to the Walgreens at the corner of Elk Place and Tulane to catch the Tulane bus out to Carrollton to catch the E-2 Airport bus (which doesn't come downtown on weekends). It's strange, but there is no direct bus between the New Orleans airport and the downtown area where the hotels are. Sure, on weekdays the E-2 runs from the airport to downtown, but it stops about six blocks away from where there is a high concentration of hotels, and like I said, it doesn't even run on weekends, so you have to take the Tulane Bus up there to connect with it. I had planned to take the 3:40 Tulane Bus, which would have given me about a thirty minute wait at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton. There wouldn't be anything wrong with that. There is a Nike shoes factory store and a bowling alley there, so I could have bought shoes for my son an perhaps bowled ten frames. But, I was going to catch the 4:10 Tulane bus, which would give me all of three minutes to make the conection to the 4:29 E-2. I overheard someone at the bus stop say that busses "run slow" on Sundays, and I wondered if I would miss the connection to the E-2 and need to wait an hour there.

Anyway, when I got to the Walgreens I started up a conversation with a guy standing there. First off, I just asked him if the Tulane bus, the route 39, would stop there, and he said the bus "would be coming just around the corner in a few minutes to take us all down Tulane," which was a relief to hear. He asked if I had any spare change, and I said, "yeah, I've got to keep some here for the bus fare, but I know I can spare at least a quarter," and rather than scoff at a mere quarter he took it with an expression of delight, smiled at me, nodded, and said, "it adds up, you know." Gee, I thought, giving someone a quarter is like nothing, like sharing a match with someone to help them light up a cigarette or something like that. But I was really glad that he was so happy, and the little symbolic gift seemed to set a happy mood as we were standing there. As I often do when I'm standing with someone, I was friendly and mentioned I was going back up to Springfield, Illinois. We talked together briefly about where we were from. I said my family was from California and I was born there, and my new friend said he'd been there, and he named some towns around Berkeley and Oakland and he knew the names of some streets there. His speech was very slightly disorganized. He spoke vaguely about falling off his bike (somewhere in California?) and said he was embarrassed to admit it (admit what? falling off his bike once?) Anyway, he obviously wanted to connect with me in a friendly way, as he told me, when he heard I was from the West Coast originally, that "yeah, I'm from there too" (although he didn't exactly say where.

Then, suddenly, our conversation took a profound and spiritual turn. All of a sudden he started singing a Sunday School song. He had a sweet African-American voice of a middle-aged man, and it just conveyed joy and devotion and enthusiasm. I was stunned and transported. He sang a Stuart Hamblen medley, starting with the cute little children's song "I love to go to Sunday School" and then moving on to the more inspiring "It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)." There was another song I didn't recognize about loving Jesus, and my new comrad at the bus stop sang it with sincerity and conviction. He was totally into it, and so was I, standing there beaming at him. When I hear songs about The Friend of God I know that the same Spirit was inspiring all the Manifestations, but I don't usually feel any need to discuss theology or my religion with a person so obviously moved by love for God. I just soaked up the devotion to God's Messenger and the feeling of love. Well, about that time the bus arrived to pick us up, just as my new friend had predicted. I guess this guy might have been slightly teched in the head, but I would have liked to get to know him better.

I mean, it's a little beyond normal convention to start singing like that while waiting at the bus stop, but feelings of devotion can come down on a person almost any time. It's hard to stop those feelings, and why should you, anyway? Who cares if you're a little crazy? What's that in comparison of the delight of contemplating God? I know I can feel a sudden rush of trembling awe and joy each afternoon when I say the short obligatory prayer (but heck, I wouldn't sing it out on the street). But still, that sudden quantum leap from the mundane act of standing around waiting for a bus to thinking about God was brilliant. After singing his song he told me he would have a CD out soon. I hope he does.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Governor has just been impeached.

They've just voted, and 114 to 1 the Illinois House has just voted to impeach Governor Blagojevich.  That's it.  He's impeached.  It's the first time an Illinois governor has ever been impeached.  In a few weeks the Illinois Senate will have a trial (unless Blagojevich resigns).

Most of the lawmakers who spoke this morning before the vote blathered on and on.  A few had some reasonable and good comments, but it took them almost 90 minutes to accomplish what should have taken 30 minutes.  It's clear that some of these legislators love to hear the sound of their own voices. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Two week Midwest camping trip

I like to plan vacations and trips. Here is a two-week trip from central Illinois or eastern Missouri to various state parks and historic sites in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio. If you start on a Friday driving to Giant City State Park you would get home on a Sunday. I think a family of four could easily do this vacation for under $1,000. It's inexpensive because the plan calls for 12 nights of camping and only 4 nights spent in motels.

Day 1: Drive down to Giant City.

Nights 1 and 2 at: Giant City State Park [CAMPING]

Day 2 at: Giant City State Park

Day 3 at: Ferne Clyffe State Park

Night 3 at: Garden of the Gods Recreation Area [CAMPING]

Day 4 at: Henderson Kentucky John James Audubon State Park

Nights 4 & 5 at: Abraham Lincoln State Park [CAMPING]

Day 5 at: Holiday World at Santa Claus, Indiana

Day 6 at: Abraham Lincoln Boyhood Home

Day 6 at: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace

Day 6 at: Knob Creek, Kentucky (Abraham Lincoln Boyhood)

Night 6 at: Louisville, Kentucky [MOTEL]

Day 7 at: Louisville, Kentucky

Night 7 at: Clifty Falls State Park, Indiana [CAMPING]

Day 8 at: Madison, Indiana (Lanier Mansion)

Day 8 at: Vevay, Indiana

Day 8 at: Cincinnati, Ohio

Night 8 at: Cincinnati, Ohio [MOTEL]

Day 9 at: Serpent Mound State Memorial near Locust Grove, Ohio

Day 9 at: Fort Hill State Memorial near Sinking Spring, Ohio

Day 9 at: Cave Canyon Nature Preserve near Bainbridge, Ohio

Day 9 at: Adena State Memorial in Chillicothe, Ohio

Night 9 at: Chillicothe, Ohio [MOTEL]

Day 10 at: Hopewell Culture National Historic Park in Chillicothe, Ohio

Day 10 at: Rock House near Gibisonville, Ohio

Day 10 at: Cantwell Cliffs near Gibisonville, Ohio

Night 10 & 11 at: Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio [CAMPING]

Day 11 at: Hocking Hills area parks.

Day 12 at: Columbus, Ohio

Night 12 at: John Bryan State Park, Ohio [CAMPING]

Day 13 at: Xenia, Ohio

Day 13 at: Dayton, Ohio

Night 13 at: Toledo, Ohio [MOTEL]

Day 14 at: Toledo, Ohio

Night 14 at: Chain o’Lakes State Park, Indiana [CAMPING]

Day 15 at: South Bend, Indiana

Night 15 at: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore [CAMPING]

Day 16 at: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Night 16 at: Starved Rock State Park, Illinois [CAMPING]

Day 17: Return home.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Family holiday photographs

Just like last year, I'm posting some holiday photographs to share what I've been doing with my family. We spent over a week at my parent's home in the St. Louis area (from just before Christmas to just after New Year's Day). My sister Jennell and her family were there during the same time, so the house was lively with six adults and four children. The second photographs shows just the Hadley-Ives family.
The third photograph shows a view of East St. Louis from the Gateway Arch. I've visited East St. Louis pretty regularly over the years, and not much has changed.
The fourth photograph shows my Thanksgiving dinner. I did have a little turkey.
The fifth photograph shows our new little niece, Angie. Jennell and Jason adopted her in 2008. She is a lot of fun.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Religious Law and Literalist Legalism

What does it mean to have a religion or follow a religion? Part of the answer would be that one’s behavior would conform to the teachings and proscriptions of that religion. One’s beliefs would generally match the teachings of a religion as well. Religions give guidance and laws, and followers of a particular religion partly base their religious identification on the degree to which they conform to the teachings and laws of their religion.

Yet, religions have many teachings, and many laws. Do followers of a particular religion obey all the laws and follow all the teachings? Should they be expected to? What if they fall short, or ignore some laws and teachings? Does that make them hypocrites? Also, the laws seem to have varying importance. Laws forbidding murder, incest, theft, and dishonesty seem extremely important. We don’t admire religions that allow adherents to ignore rules against murder and robbery. But what about rules about washing feet, cutting one’s fingernails, the sort of coffin one should use at burial, and so forth? What about teachings that seem to contradict one another? Most religions teach the values of kindness, tact, wisdom, and benevolence. Yet, most religions warn believers to beware of certain types of people (e.g., false prophets, non-believers, apostates, evil-doers, atheists, “enemies of the religion,” and so forth). What about dietary restrictions? What about exhortations to “take care of the poor” and “look after orphans and widows,” and so forth? Many religious rules are like this, general directives to do particular types of acts, like serving humanity. When has one done enough to address one’s obligations to others? When can one in good conscience turn from serving humanity or serving one’s faith and give attention to one’s own family or interests quite apart from altruistic or religious work?

Some religious people, including myself, have concluded that as a practical matter, people must pick and choose among the various teachings and laws their religions offer them. Some teachings and laws must be obeyed. Some should be obeyed, but in certain circumstances or situations it might be permissible or even advisable to overlook or ignore those laws. Some laws and teachings seem somewhat trivial or unimportant, and we may practically ignore the literal meaning of such teachings and instead try to find the figurative meaning or spirit of such teachings and follow that. That is, the in some cases “following” a teaching or rule might mean that we should ponder the teaching or rule and try to find some symbolic value in it. As a practical matter, it seems to me that even fundamentalists do this, and ideally wouldn’t let their commitment to being obedient believers drive them to obey the letter of the law in the trivial matters if this caused them to violate the bigger teachings of their religion.

For example, my religion teaches that we ought to bury our dead, not cremate them. If one of my co-religionists has died and his family wants to cremate him, how firm should I be in opposing the cremation? Should I take the issue to court, and fight against the family, thus alienating them and showing my inflexible obedience to the law, or should I allow the family to cremate my friend’s body? Allowing the cremation would show that I valued the preservation of good-will and kindness in a situation of grief. Religions (including mine) teach that we ought to be kind, and help people when they are grieving, so maybe those teachings should be considered as more important over obedience to the letter of the law in burial matters.

Long ago, when philosophers first started asking questions about moral and ethical matters, some concluded that ethics involve a class of rules where there are few natural laws that must always be followed. With other classes of phenomena, such as physics with its potentially precise measures of weights and forces, or mathematics with its rules and numbers, we can often say with great confidence that something is certainly true or not-true. With ethics we don’t usually have the same degree of certainty. Aristotle observed, this, and so have many other philosophers. And yet there is a certain mindset that says, “such-and-such is absolutely clear” and “the inescapable conclusion is that thus-and-thus must be done.” Yes, a certain personality-type may prefer black-and-white thinking and clear and direct rules that remove the need for reasoned thought and careful decision-making, but I don’t think religions are only meant to be spiritual homes for people with those kinds of psychological preferences.

In order for religions to work in human societies they may need to give literal teachings that are quite strict and absolute, but allow some discretion for believers to deal with the letter of the law in a flexible way. Religions that take away all flexibility and become rigid in most matters of religious law and belief will fail to provide workable or satisfactory solutions to new social problems. Religions that remain extremely vague and flexible in the literal presentation of rules and belief systems will be unsatisfactory for the many people who need such clear directions, and such vague and ambiguous teachings may also not impose a strong check on certain tendencies in human nature that get people into trouble.

Secular legal codes are lengthy and detailed, and people still argue about their application or contradictions. Laws given to us by our secular authorities often have exceptions, exemptions, and loopholes, and these are sometimes thoughtfully written into the laws to make them workable. In contrast, with religions we have the potential for more absolute rules and laws. Religions give more general directives, and it usually ruins the effect of a general directive to add in a list of exceptions, exemptions, or situations where the directive must be applied with more delicacy and less rigor. Even if there are exceptions where a law should be ignored, it seems hardly feasible to address all the various contingencies where this might be so. If laws are good in 98% of all situations, but in 1.9% of situations the law may safely ignored, and in 0.1% of situations it would be better to break the law, then do we really expect holy scripture to go through all possible situations and specifically address the few cases where a law should be ignored or violated?

Most laws, such as “do not murder” are easy to follow. We hardly ever really want to murder anyone. Other laws, such as “only express your sexual nature within a married relationship” are harder to follow. Most humans have opportunities and temptations to violate such a law, and many would gladly do so if there were no law forbidding sexual behaviors outside of marriage. If religions gave us laws that stated, “it’s generally a bad idea to murder, so refrain from it as much as possible” this would hardly increase the rate of murdering going on in our societies. The simple commands “no not murder” or “punish murderers severely” gives us nearly the same result as the milder exhortation to avoid murder as best as we can. Yet, with laws concerning sexual behavior, we would get a different result. If religion taught us that in general we should try to confine sexual behavior to marriage, or we should strive toward heterosexual sexual behaviors as much as possible, this would allow people to engage in homosexual behaviors or sexual behaviors outside of marriage with little caution and little guilt. Simple rules such as “heterosexuality is approved, and homosexuality isn’t,” or “sexual acts within marriage are acceptable, but sexual acts outside of marriage aren’t” give us clear direction, and will aid us in conforming to those standards, even if there are exceptional cases where those standards shouldn’t be used.

Let’s examine homosexuality as an example. I personally assume that homosexuality is “right” and the correct, moral, and ethically responsible way for some small percentage of the population, say about 1% of any human population, to feel and behave. I am convinced of the evidence that in about this percentage of cases the homosexuality is rooted in the configuration of the body rather than learned behavior (that could be unlearned). There is certainly evidence that some persons with homosexual identities and behaviors live satisfying and spiritually rich lives, are good people, and suffer no obvious harm from their homosexuality (beyond the harm inflicted upon them by the prejudices of their societies). This percentage might also include some of us who are born with an indeterminate gender, or those of us born with unusual physical conditions (e.g., women with XY chromosomes and no sensitivity to testosterone, persons with mosaic conditions involving the fusing of male and female twin zygotes, etc.) There is more diversity in human sexuality and sex determination than most people realize, and it seems reasonable to me that homosexuality is the “right” situation for a large number, but small percentage, of the total human population.

Homosexuality isn’t a dichotomous thing where one is either straight or gay. This sort of thing exists along a continuum, where some people are only attracted to same-gender partners, while others are mainly attracted to same-gender partners, and so forth, down the continuum to the many of us who are only attracted to other-gender partners. Still, it seems reasonable, given what we know from research into human sexuality and sexual behavior, that another 4-6% of any population tends toward homosexuality, but could, with some effort, become completely fulfilled in heterosexual relationships. Does it matter if we have values and expectations that allow these 4-6% of potentially homosexual or bisexual persons to do whatever they like, and live with homosexual relationships or heterosexual relationships merely depending on circumstances of their lives? Perhaps it’s better if more of these potentially homosexual persons are urged to actually live as homosexuals, especially if this lowers the birthrate, given the world’s current problem of human numbers and available crop-producing land. Or, perhaps it’s better if society encourages more heterosexuality among those who are potentially homosexual. Or, perhaps it’s better if society and religion make no preference or expectation, and allow people to explore and find what’s right for them without social and institutional pressures.

This is the sort of question where we might turn to religion for an answer, and religions seem to generally discourage homosexuality. I therefore assume it’s better for almost all of these potentially homosexual people to go about the task of pushing themselves toward heterosexual relationships in traditional marriages. But note that I don’t think everyone should be heterosexual. I still think some people are purely homosexual, and I see no reason why they should be pushed toward heterosexuality. There will also be “potentially homosexual” persons who have already formed life-long partnerships or marriages with someone of the same gender, and it would be a violation of the religious teachings about divorce and family to encourage such persons to try to transform into heterosexual persons. To me, the values of loyalty and life-long love in marriage or partnerships seems far more important than the rules about homosexuality.

I assume over half of any population could be socialized toward homosexuality, but that in almost any situation, societies and civilizations are more sustainable and peaceful if in fact this half of the population is generally socialized toward heterosexuality. It seems to me that if religions say nothing about homosexuality or heterosexuality, then perhaps 5% to 10% of a population might engage mainly in homosexual relations, and the potential exists for a society to evolve toward a situation where over half of the population engages sometimes in homosexual acts. Such a society, I suppose, would be overly homosexual. It wouldn’t be healthy, and many people would be living false lives. On the other hand, a society with zero tolerance for homosexuality, in which all homosexuality was severely punished, might force 1% or 2% of the population into false lives and bad moral situations. I don’t want to go into detail about what it means for homosexuality to be “bad” or “good” in various circumstances, or the idea that there may be an optimal range for the incidence of homosexuality in a civilization. Suffice it to say that my reading of the literature on why people become homosexual, how people explore sexuality in heterosexual and homosexual ways, and so forth convinces me that homosexuality can be good and can be bad, and that it seems to be “good” for a small percentage minority of general populations. [Actually, evolution probably gave us homosexuality as a case where there is too much of a good thing. Guys who are almost-but-not-quiet homosexual tend to have more sexual partners than men who are not-at-all-even-close to being homosexual. The advantages to our male ancestors who carried the potential for homosexuality without actually becoming exclusively homosexual outweighed the costs to their male descendants who inherited "too much" of the homosexual predisposition and ended up never reproducing. Even those non-reproducing homosexual relatives could have been helpful uncles and brothers to their more sexually successful siblings and nephews.]

So, if reality works the way I am supposing it works with homosexuality, what are religions to do? If they allow or encourage something that is good for only a small minority, they risk allowing many people to follow a path that isn’t spiritually healthy for them. If they totally forbid something, they risk forcing many people (even a small minority may be millions of people) into a path that isn’t spiritually healthy for them. Given realities like this (if I’m even right that there are such ethical realities), how could religions encourage societies to reach the optimal mix?

It seems almost like a math problem to me. If the religion offers no prohibitions, perhaps 10% to 15% will experiment with this behavior, and 5% to 10% will end up with a life-long pattern of doing this behavior, but only 1% of the population will be having a spiritually good result in the behavior, and the other 4% to 9% will have a spiritually damaging experience. If the religion does prohibit, perhaps only 4% to 8% will experiment with the behavior, and only about 1% of the population will end up with a life-long pattern, and of that 1% about half will be doing what is spiritually correct for their needs, while another half will be have spiritually damaging experiences with the behavior, but also now another 0.5% of the population will be refraining from the behavior when in fact this behavior would be beneficial for them. With no prohibitions, all the 1% of the population that “should” have done the behavior are living as they should, but an additional 4% to 9% is living as they shouldn’t. With prohibitions only half of all the population who “should” have done the behavior are living a life without the benefit of living as they should have, but that’s only half of 1% of the "right" population, and now with the prohibition only about half-of-a-percent of the population that should have refrained from the behavior is actually doing this behavior that is wrong for them. So, without the prohibition perhaps 4% to 9% of a population is living the “wrong” way, while with the prohibition only about 1% is living the “wrong” way.

There might be many experiences in life that work this way. Divorce, homosexual marriage, killing, theft, war, and many other things might generally be bad, but in some rare cases these could be good. Religions may be more helpful to us if they generally prohibit these things, but allow for them through some flexibility and some allowances for discretionary application of religious law in unusual circumstances. Liberally allowing these things in all cases without any cautionary language or discouragement might allow civilizations to do too much of these things. Imposing strict legalistic and literal rules that forbade all killing, theft, divorce, or homosexuality could lead to societies that were also flawed. Sometimes divorce is a good solution to a horrible problem. There are conditions in which a war could be the best solution to an evil situation. I think there are people for whom homosexuality is the best sexual orientation. It seems to me that religions can try to achieve the optimal situation by forbidding certain behaviors softly, and encouraging other behaviors that will help the right people find the right behavior, even if that behavior is softly forbidden.

I really don’t know if sexual behavior and homosexual behavior in particular has any spiritual value or harm attached to it. Promiscuous sexuality seems harmful to most individuals and most societies. But is it evil and sinful? I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe homosexuality is bad. Or maybe homosexuality is spiritually neutral, with no good or bad implications. Possibly homosexuality is, as I’ve suggested, a “good thing” for some people, and a “bad thing” for others.

The point is, in many behaviors it’s difficult to know whether an act is always bad or good. Honesty is usually good, but sometimes it’s cruel and tactless, and then it can be bad. Chastity is usually good, but it can be taken to excess where a person hates their sexuality or sexual desire in general, and becomes frigid or prudish or so sexually repressed that after marriage they still cannot enjoy the sexual aspects of love in a marriage. Kindness is certainly a virtue, but it is possible to show too much kindness to a child or a criminal who has behaved in a destructive way, and then too much kindness can lead to a child learning a bad lesson (that they can get away with a bad behavior) or a criminal being let loose to harm another victim. It is praiseworthy to work for social justice and help the poor or disabled, yet a person can devote so much of their life and mental activity to good and selfless deeds that they fail to adequately care for their own needs or fail to develop their spirit in other areas beyond service. For example, a humanitarian could become so dedicated to doing good works for others that they never had time to learn about economics and politics, and then never got involved in changing laws or policies that would raise many people out of poverty or prevent many people from becoming disabled Or, a person could spend so much time doing good works that they lost time for cultivating their own intellect or social networks, and thus missed out on opportunities to innovate or collaborate to have greater efficiency in their good deeds.

So, while religions may say, “such-and-such is bad” or “people must do such-and-such” you will also find that religions make allowances for the fact that sometimes people will do “such-and-such” and in extreme circumstances it may not even be very bad for people to do this. And, likewise, religions tend to teach moderation and wisdom, and ask people to balance various claims on their time and attention. Maybe we all should do “such-and-such” but we can’t do it every waking hour, and we’re not expected to do so.

I don’t expect perfection in complex systems. The universe has some serious flaws in it. For example, with life as common as I assume it is, there must be many planets in every galaxy on which complex multi-cellular life forms evolve into intelligent social animals with emotions and behaviors analogous to what we know as love, loyalty, honesty, and nurturing kindness. Some of these beings probably experience awe, religious ecstasy, and spiritual insight. No doubt that among the several planets with such beings, there must be some that have had life wiped out by supernovae or asteroid collisions. That looks like an imperfection to me. The way that the Black Plague spread over Europe in the 14th century looks like a flaw. But, given the laws of physics and evolution that even make physical existence and life as we know it possible, it’s also a given that you’ll have some of these unimaginably tragic catastrophes. Miscarriages are another example. Some estimates based on studies of women’s hormones suggest that as many as 30% of fertilized eggs (pregnancies) end without a live birth. That’s a terrible cost in dead embryos, fetuses, and babies, but with evolution and sexual reproduction you pay a price like this. That’s the way life works, and it looks like an imperfection and flaw, but it’s no more of a flaw than any other fact of the universe or law of physics or principle of mathematics. It’s just the way the universe works.

Likewise in human systems I expect a certain amount of flaws. In any religion, corporation, government, or family there will be problems rooted in laziness, incompetence, selfishness, and lack of vision. You can expect petty feuds, unimaginative stupidity, a bit of gossip and back-stabbing, some freeloading, and plenty of failure. That’s just the human way, and in any large group of people working together, some of these unimpressive aspects of the human way are going to manifest. Given a human nature that allows us to be noble, creative, ethical, skilled, talented, and altruistic, you’re pretty much stuck with some of the other traits as well.

Religion is a way to give us a push towards what is best in us, and a way to help us recognize and struggle against our worst. I don’t think, however, that religion is a way to force people to become perfect and leave all their flaws behind. Yes, it would be nice to make that quantum leap from our limited humanity and become instant saints. Certainly religion gives us high ideals and goals, and I appreciate that higher expectations lead to better results. Yet, as a practical matter, we’re not all going to become saints, and patience with ourselves and others will help us keep on striving toward the impossibly high goals we have set for ourselves, and never give up.

Some people believe strongly that we must not pick and choose the laws and teachings a religion provides us. We must accept it all or else not accept it. I have known former Baha’is who left the religion because they believed it was intellectually irresponsible to claim identity as a Baha'i while holding beliefs or practicing behaviors that contradicted the mainstream Baha'i beliefs or teachings. I remember one Baha'i girl who had been brought up in a very literalist and fundamentalist family, who seemed to believe that one had to choose between the style of religion she had grown up experiencing or atheism, and she chose atheism.

People who want to judge religions and hold them accountable for their teachings and laws prefer religions in which the laws and teachings are clearly spelled out and all held with equal seriousness and literalism. If the religion says on page X of book Y that action Z is forbidden, then action Z is clearly forbidden, and there is no getting around it. So, in evaluating your religion and its merits or logical consistency, we have established that action Z is clearly forbidden. That is the way they would have it. But do believers really always refrain from action Z? If sometimes believers do action Z, what does that mean?

This is an old question. In the early Christian church there was some controversy over whether Christians should obey the laws of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 7, verses 21-23 and much of chapter 13) seems to encourage people to obey the laws and expect that righteous obedient actions are required for salvation. The Epistle of James (e.g., chapter 2, verses 10-14) takes the position that if you break any laws you become a law-breaker, which is bad. But on the other hand, whoever wrote Paul’s letter to the Hebrews stressed that the old Jewish laws were no longer so important (Hebrews 7:11-28; 8:12). See also chapter 7 in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Ephesians 2:15. You may remember the famous account of Jesus and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath (see Mark 2:27), and the saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Such a phrase may remind some Baha’is of the fifth paragraph in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power…”

Here are some of the quotations from Baha’i scriptures related to laws and rules.

My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures.

Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments…

From My laws the sweet-smelling savour of My garment can be smelled, and by their aid the standards of Victory will be planted upon the highest peaks. The Tongue of My power hath, from the heaven of My omnipotent glory, addressed to My creation these words: “Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty.

They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples. He that turns away from them is accounted among the abject and foolish.

What does it mean to “turn away from them” and what does it mean to “observe My commandments” as described in the above texts? For some people, if we find particular laws or teachings in the Baha'i Faith that we dismiss or ignore, then we are “turning away from” the commandments, and we are not observing them. For others, the Baha'i Faith and its laws, including the Kitab-i-Aqdas must be understood in a broad context of religion, human nature, and the covenants between God and man. For some with this sort of understanding, a careful study of the commandments and ordinances reveals that the various laws and ordinances should not be read as a simple list of what we must do and what we must not do, and therefore if we ignore the literal meaning of some laws and teachings we're not really "turning away from God."

The Kitab-i-Aqdas tells us, “To none is it permitted to seek absolution from another soul; let repentance be between yourselves and God.” Does this mean that we can’t ask others to forgive us when we apologize to them? No, it’s a rule prohibiting something like the relationship between a priest who is acting as a confessor and a layperson seeking absolution for their sins. The same paragraph in the Kitab-i-Aqdas prohibits the kissing of hands. Is this a law about a form of sexual expression? No, it’s a rule about egalitarianism and avoiding certain forms of ceremony that would abase one individual in relation to another. The literal meaning of the laws would be misleading. One must understand the context (that some people seek forgiveness through ritual confessions or show respect for authorities by kissing their hands) to see that the laws have a meaning in a context that isn't exactly the literal meaning.

The Kitab-i-Aqdas also tells us to pare our nails. In the same paragraph we are warned to avoid the stinking pools in Persian courtyards. So, how long may we allow our nails to grow? And, does it make sense to give us a book of laws for the whole planet that will be in force for centuries and make a condemnation of a specific sort of cultural phenomena (many different people washing over and over again in a single water source that wasn’t refreshed)? Perhaps it does, if you take everything literally. But there are probably deeper meanings here. For example, the passage about how horrible the Persian pools are illustrates that we should be hygienic. The rule that we should cut our nails comes after a paragraph that forbids any of us from taking authoritative positions where we claim authority for our interpretations. Clearly there is some deeper meaning here, we should protect ourselves, and avoid harming ourselves (the juxtaposition of giving wrong-headed authoritative interpretations to scriptures with the laws about grooming helps make this apparent, as I think Terry Culhane once pointed out).

Imagine a teacher encourages you to use your intellect, look for the deeper meanings, and obey their teachings because you’re motivated by love for the teacher. And then that same teacher says that they value independent and critical thought, that they dislike people being picky, and using religion to play status games about superiority and putting others down. Further, the same teacher sometimes suspends some of their own rules and laws in certain circumstances. The teacher gives you letter after letter telling you how to organize your life and how to organize society so that life will be best for you and for your society, but these letters are mostly exhortations to be devout, virtuous, loving, pure, honest, etc. Then, someone in your class asks for a book of laws, and the teacher gives you a book of laws that is largely concerned with how inheritance rules should work when a person doesn’t leave a will (but the rules say that someone should leave a will). The law book tells readers how people ought to recognize the teacher’s status, but also tells people to pare their nails, bathe regularly, and not commit murder or marry their widowed step-mothers. Now, when you say you are a student who follows such a teacher, will you mean that you follow every letter of the rules in the book of rules, or will you mean that you aspire to follow those rules in the multiple letters that urge people to be decent, devout, loving, honest, etc.? When you do an assignment to demonstrate to your teacher that you have learned your lessons well, will you memorize all the details of the laws in the law book and show that you follow them all to the letter, or will you show that you have passionately been trying to follow all the advice in those letters about being a good person, and also trying to live by the laws in the law book as much as possible? Would such a teacher really expect you to consider all these things equally important? I'm an educator, and I know some of the things I try to help my students learn are vital to their success in life or in their careers, while other things are more like interesting details that might help increase their understanding or appreciation, but aren't really so significant. Isn't that how most things are? Is religion an exception to this?

The Baha’i book of laws has some guidance like this:
Adorn your heads with the garlands of trustworthiness and fidelity, your hearts with the attire of the fear of God, your tongues with absolute truthfulness, your bodies with the vesture of courtesy. These are in truth seemly adornings unto the temple of man, if ye be of them that reflect. Cling, O ye people of Bahá, to the cord of servitude unto God, the True One, for thereby your stations shall be made manifest, your names written and preserved, your ranks raised and your memory exalted in the Preserved Tablet.
The book of laws also has some guidance like this:
The Lord hath decreed that the dead should be interred in coffins made of crystal, of hard, resistant stone, or of wood that is both fine and durable, and that graven rings should be placed upon their fingers…. …The Lord hath decreed, moreover, that the deceased should be enfolded in five sheets of silk or cotton. For those whose means are limited a single sheet of either fabric will suffice…. It is forbidden you to transport the body of the deceased a greater distance than one hour’s journey from the city; rather should it be interred, with radiance and serenity, in a nearby place….
I’m suggesting that some of this guidance is subordinate to other forms. It matters a great deal that we are trustworthy and truthful. It matters also that we are interred in coffins made of durable wood or stone in a cemetery near the place where we died, but this is certainly less important. Sometimes we won’t be truthful and trustworthy. We’ll fail to follow though on things we said we would do. We will exaggerate. And likewise, some Baha’is will ask to be cremated after death, or they will donate their bodies to medical schools for students to study, or they’ll die without leaving a will.

Yet, these people are all Baha’is. It makes no sense to me to encourage people to leave a religion simply because they don’t live up to all the laws and believe all the teachings.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Can Baha'is be free thinking?

Last year Mavaddat Javid posted a couple responses to some ideas I shared on this blog, and he had some of his readers leave interesting comments related to his posts. I posted a response to his idea that it’s intellectually dishonest to believe that the Baha’i Faith asks believers to exercise their judgement and pick and choose on how they apply the Baha’i teachings in their lives. I think it’s okay. It was clear (to Mavaddat) that the Baha’i Faith demands that believers not pick and choose among the laws and teachings. I agree that Baha’u’llah dismissed the idea that some people are above the laws, or beyond the laws of God. I agree that He did emphasize that religious laws are important, and should be obeyed. (I don’t see how a religion or a religious teacher could say anything other than this.) But, I think that when Baha’u’llah stressed the idea that Baha’is should follow all the teachings and laws, He was including in “all,” those particular teachings emphasizing that many religious sources are figurative and metaphorical. He was also including (I suppose) the principles of independent pursuit of truth, respect for our rational faculties, and so forth. I think you also need to consider Baha’u’llah in the context of His time and the ideas that were popular among the people who received His message while He lived. Baha’u’llah was clearly fond of people with liberal or progressive theologies, such as Jala-u-din Rumi and Shaykh Ahmad (1753-1826), whose teachings were the source of the Shaikhi School. I think Baha’u’llah wanted to avoid a descent into antinomianism or some extreme dervish dismissal of all religious law and authority, but he was in the tradition of Maimonides, who wanted to correct ridiculous literalism both among the faithful and those who used literalistic interpretations to attack a religion. Baha’u’llah was not a literalist reactionary like Muhammad ibn ‘Abdu’l-Wahhab, Ibn Taymiyyah, Moses Schreiber, or Norman Geisler.

One problem I have with the way Mavaddat described religion is that he supposes that calling yourself a believer in a particular religion implies that you will follow all the laws and hold all the beliefs of that religion. I think that religions instead ask us to strive toward perfection, and attempt to instill in us a desire to aspire toward perfection without much hope that we will ever reach perfection. This means, in a practical sense, that you might not always obey the letter of the law in every situation. You would try to, strive to, and hope to obey the law, but sometimes you wouldn’t obey. This might be because you conceive of laws as existing in a hierarchy, and some laws are more important than others, and you might perceive that obeying a lesser law might make it difficult to obey a more significant law. You might also simply not be able to follow a particular law, and although you wouldn’t resign yourself to a life where you never obeyed that particular law, you might have various priorities about which laws you followed, and leave some laws for later in your life while other laws would immediately get your attention as targets for achievement. Or, you might understand some laws as general principles rather than literal laws.

You might also violate Baha’i laws because you understood some laws as existing in a figurative sense where the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law. For example, some people think laws about personal appearance and hygiene seem more sensible if they are not always taken literally. If we instead take them as general rules about how to remain clean, they make more sense. So, for example, the quotation from Baha'u'llah that urges Baha’is to not even wear an item of clothing that has a stain on it may simply mean to generally clean one’s clothing, and not literally mean that we must stop wearing anything with any sort of stain on it. (...Cleave ye unto the cord of refinement with such tenacity as to allow no trace of dirt to be seen upon your garments. Such is the injunction of One Who is sanctified above all refinement. Whoso falleth short of this standard with good reason shall incur no blame....) Rules about not plunging our hands into common food dishes may mean that in general we should avoid having potentially germ-contaminated surfaces such as our skin come into contact with foods we are sharing with others, at least as far as reasonably possible. Rules about avoiding pools of water in Persian courtyards may mean that we should generally try to secure clean water for our washing and drinking, and not allow situations in which people must use contaminated water. Baha’is who serve in government or public utilities might be the intended audience for such laws, rather than those of us who visit unhygienic Iranian homes with courtyard pools. Given that approach, I might share a platter of finger food with some friends while wearing a shirt with a small stain on it, and also go wading in a public fountain where others have also been wading, and still think I was obeying Baha’i laws about hygiene, because I was striving to obey the spirit of the laws rather than the letter of the laws. It’s not a case that such laws may be ignored, but rather, that we should realize there are different ways to approach those laws and try to obey them.

Religions have many laws and rules and suggestions for how people ought to live. A person who takes their religion seriously might aspire to follow all the laws, and believe all the teachings, but accommodate themselves to a situation where they have not yet reached a point where they can follow all the laws and believe all the teachings. Or, a person might understand a particular point of belief or law differently than you do, so while it appears to you that the person is violating a law, to that person’s point-of-view they are obeying it. Saying that people are “giving lip service” to their religion is a claim that people say they believe in a religion while they in fact do not believe it, and so they are being dishonest. The accusation is that they make a claim about their state-of-mind (saying “I am a Baha’i”) while in fact their state of mind is different than described (they don’t believe all the Baha’i teachings).

This is a viewpoint that a religious identity or belief system is a dichotomous thing, a black-and-white thing, where either one accepts and lives according to 100% of the religion’s content in belief and practice or else one isn’t really a member of that religion. This is not a way of conceiving of religion that we use when we look at religions with a social science perspective, because belief and practice are really things that exist along a continuum. There is an idealistic sense in which only a person who really believes and practices everything taught by a religion can legitimately claim to be a member of that religion, and this is the sort of aspirational definition. We aspire to be true Baha’is, but perhaps only one human ever was such a thing (The Master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha).

You can claim that it would be more intellectually honest to stop claiming to be a member of a particular religion if you didn’t accept every teaching and law within that religion. Leave the religion, and make up your own religion that only includes beliefs and practices with which you agree. That would be good advice if the purpose of religion is to provide a set of beliefs and practices with which one entirely agrees so one can have intellectual honesty. But, I don’t think this is the purpose of religion. I think one purpose of religion is to provide human societies with standards and codes that anchor morality and ethics outside the opinions of any individual. In essence I’m suggesting that religion plays a role something like the Leviathan, which Hobbes described as a thing having a monopoly on legitimate violence and coercion in order to give people security so they could devote their talents to improving themselves and their community rather than devoting their time to defending themselves from anarchy (the war of all against all). Religion provides society with a thing that has a monopoly on final ethical authority so that people can be protected from trends in human nature that would allow societies to surrender ethical decision-making to a powerful leader or king, or to a powerful ideology. Without religion, if everyone has their own personal religion, there are weak community codes of ethics. With religion, there are shared codes of ethics, and everyone must deal with those codes, accepting them or challenging them, but sharing a sense that those religion-provided codes are worth consideration.

I wouldn’t want to live in a society where everyone was “making up and inventing their own religion to which they could be true, because their own religion would be free from the objectionable or difficult bits they ignore in the existing religions.” This is because I think many humans would make up and invent their own religions that would endorse selfishness and deceit. Many people would create religions that had exaggerated us-versus-them moral codes where outsiders could be treated as sub-human and only insiders would get decent treatment. Religion (good religion) is a check against some defects in human nature that give us (when unchecked) such abuses as genocidal ideologies, super-violent warrior cultures, and predatory gangsterism.

It is also possible to believe that “true religion” has a pure source that gets obscured in the process of Revelation, so that not 100% of a religion's content is really Divine Truth. A person might believe that as some Truth comes from the Divine Source in a pure form it is converted into human thought in the brain of a human who serves as a Manifestation of God, and then the Truth is converted from human thought to human language, and then it is converted to the speech or writing of the Manifestation, or it may be written by a secretary or note-taker, and then it may be converted through language translations. Nuances that existed in the languages that existed when the Revelation came may change, and the original subtleties of meaning may be lost (the meanings of words are always changing, and the meanings of words can often be debatable). With this perspective I'm describing, it’s possible to “believe in a religion” and suppose that some teachings or laws are closer to the Truth than others. A religion must claim that all its teachings and laws are true and that believers must follow all of its teachings and laws. If it doesn’t, the religion will allow people to settle into comfort in their decisions about what aspects of a religion are true and important, and which are misunderstandings or unimportant. Also, foolish and ignorant people would be given freedom to propagate all sorts of stupidity if a religion said, “sure, some of this religion is false and unimportant, so you are free to ignore portions of it.” So, religion gives believers a vast amount of material, and those who think carefully about their religion must make reasonable and cautious decisions about what they believe and how they should behave.

I disagree with anyone who tells me that to be a true Baha’i I must be dogmatic and literalist. Yes, I suppose a Baha’i may be dogmatic and literalist, but a Baha’i may also have a quest-orientation to religion and take a liberal theological approach to textual analysis and religious law. That’s something I like about the Baha’i Faith, it seems to me that Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha intended to have this religion be broad and accepting of a wide variety of thought and belief and practice.

Religions set high standards, but people fall short. For example, religions generally teach chastity and purity, but most human beings have strong sexual drives that are somewhat unfocused, and thus impure and unchaste thoughts plague humanity, and many people act on these thoughts rather than finding the discipline to dismiss them or sublimate them. For example, lust is a basic element of human nature, while self-sacrificing love may be a higher, and more complicated and socially-embedded aspect of our emotional and behavioral repertoire; so while lust is the basis for huge and profitable industries (pornography, many forms of popular music, some forms of advertising, etc.), you see much less commercialization around higher levels of love and commitment. It’s difficult to quickly evoke the self-actualization and personal improvement through long-term loving relationships that demand self-sacrifice and dedication and faith, but it’s very easy to evoke desire for sensual delight. Anyway, religions have a task of helping people find the long-lasting love and relationships that will help people grow and develop, and also create stable families where children will be reared well. If religions allow lust to be the main form of love in a society, the society is going to be doomed to significant trouble (violence rooted in jealousy and poorly-reared children). A religion needs to demand high standards of purity and chastity in order to help people control their lust or express it in limited ways so that other higher forms of love can be fostered and society can get along with the business of helping people live good lives.

Yet, given human biochemistry, people won’t perfectly embody the highest expressions of purity and chastity. So, religion has to also give people a break, and allow them to turn back to religion when they fail or fall short. Just as a relapsing former addict needs to be able to return to whatever treatment techniques have generally helped prevent a full-blown return of an addiction, so religious people need to be able to return to their religion after they have strayed. So, strong religions that last will have both the high standards and a sort of recognition that people will fail to live up to them. That failure must be presented as based on the difficulty of the task or the weakness of human nature, not not presented as a thing that is okay, so that people can just give up on trying to reach their spiritual goals and settle for a life of debauchery or whatever.

The human intellect must be used when considering religious laws and teachings, and in deciding how to behave one must consider not only a specific written law, but also the entire body of scripture, authoritative interpretations, traditions established by Manifestations of God, and opinions that were praised or endorsed by the religion’s legitimate authorities. As with other forms of human law (religious law is a form of human law, it is the root of secular law), an unwritten and invisible system of assumptions and social constructions lie outside the written text, and a person will approach the literal written word of a law with influences from these sources that lie outside the literal written word of the law. In the Baha’i Faith, when we consider the entire body of scripture, authoritative interpretations, traditions established by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and opinions that were endorsed by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, we find that there is considerable emphasis on people using their intellects and their own understanding, and there is considerable material to discourage blind imitation, literalistic and static interpretations, and collective consensus on the meaning or application of religious laws and teachings. Instead, we're supposed to have some degree of diversity, because people have varying capacities.

Can Baha’is “cherry pick” their beliefs and the laws they will follow? Maybe they can. I don’t mean they can select things in the Baha’i scriptures that support what they want to believe and ignore things in authoritative Baha’i sources that contradict what they want to believe (that would be one literal understanding of what “cherry picking means”). Rather, I mean that in religious law, ethics, and spiritual teachings there are various rules and laws that help humans find good ways to live, and such laws discourage extremes, and therefore sometimes laws and teachings seem to contradict one another. Thus, Baha’is must think about what they should do, and choose from among the various teachings and laws, sometimes recognizing that there are seeming contradictions. The choices must be motivated by a honest desire for truth, self-improvement, and righteousness, rather than a desire to prove a pre-existing and unexamined bias. In choosing among the various teachings and laws to find the right way to behave, Baha’is may make better or worse decisions, as some ways of applying Baha’i teachings are close to ideal, while other methods of application would be disastrous. In other words, Baha’is must pick from a range of possible ways to apply Baha’i teachings, and they must choose which laws and teachings to follow, and how to follow those laws and teachings.

There are many examples to illustrate. I’ll first use the issue of speech. It is possible to speak too much. Some speech harms others, and is tactless or rude. Sometimes people use speech to inflict harm, share anger or hurt, or mislead. It is also possible to use too much discretion, and fail to use speech when we ought to. People often remain silent when they should speak up. It is possible to use too much wisdom and withdrawal, and fail to add one’s voice to a discussion. Religious teachings have to advocate tact and wisdom, and discourage angry and hurtful speech or backbiting. That’s religion’s way to address the first problem (of too much speech). Religious teachings also must ask for boldness and audacity in speech (to address the second problem of people not speaking up when they ought to). In any given situation, when one is thinking about whether to speak, or how to speak, one must pick and choose among the various teachings and laws about speech. I suppose one must cherry-pick to find the best teaching for whatever situation one finds oneself in.

Here’s another example. A religion needs to encourage believers to show obedience to authority; it needs to encourage collective identity and social cohesion among believers, which pretty much means in practical application that a religion must encourage believers to think of themselves with some degree of pride or satisfaction in the fact of their belief and religious identity. The obedience and hierarchy of authority is a necessity if the religion is going to remain coherent and unified. Without some framework of authority and obedience the natural divisions of understanding will make the religion very broad, and some people will create their own authority or divisions within the religion, or split off from it. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and of course in Christianity religious authorities and teachers organize and lead their religions, and others follow those leaders and teachers.

On the other hand, if you want to have a good religion that can deal with some flaws in human nature, you need to help people avoid religious bigotry, spiritual pride, cross-religious conflict, and blind imitation. You also want to have elements of your religion that will prevent religious persecution or religious war. And so, a religion (if it’s any good) will have some teachings and rules that help people be critical of their religious leaders. There will be teachings that encourage people to retain some ethical decision-making instead of surrendering their critical faculties to blind obedience to authority, but at the same time, there will be teachings about the importance of obedience to authority (to preserve the unity and continuity of the religion). There will be elements of a religion that encourage believers to feel good about their religious identity, and other elements that warn believers that even though they are members of the “true” religion, they still must be humble and recognize that they may be imperfect or weak or wrong. You will have teachings asking people to respect the learned, the leaders, the teachers, and the administrators, but you will also have teachings lamenting the defects in the learned, the leaders, the teachers, and the administrators. Religions need authoritative teachings that guard against the extremes.

Religions must work against the cognitive distortions and biases that make some people feel too bad about themselves. Thus, a religion must have much that is affirming. Religions will describe people as being glorious and great and wonderful. We’re made in God’s image, and God is in us, and God made us because God loves us, and so forth. But religions must also work against the human tendency to have blindness to one’s own faults and failures, or the human tendency to overvalue the individual and ignore one’s own insignificance or mortality. Thus, a religion will have teachings that help people find self-effacing thoughts and beliefs. There should be ego-destroying stuff about how we are just dust and worthless, but also life-affirming stuff about how we are made in God’s image and have God’s attributes manifested through us.
And so, a healthy religion will have diverse teachings and passages. These teachings and passages must be considered in their entirety, and this will help people find the balance they need. In any situation, a believer may draw from various prayers and teachings. A person who is depressed may not benefit from those prayers that emphasize our powerlessness and helplessness, and might instead find solace in those prayers and teachings about the nobility of the human spirit. Or, perhaps the content of the religion that emphasizes the destruction of the self and the worthlessness of human life would be helpful to some depressed or grieving people, and they could find religious wisdom and insight out of their dark night of the soul, and those people wouldn’t easily relate to the content about how marvelous humans are. At any rate, one must choose from among the wide and diverse content of a religion to find what one needs in any given situation.

I had earlier written that...
You must also accept the idea that we should use science and our rational thinking to enhance our understanding of our religion. You can’t reject that, because if you take the Baha’i Faith in its entirety, you can’t get away from such fundamental teachings.
Mavaddat responded by citing Baha’u’llah’s statement to clerical leaders:
Say: O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men.
This was of course a letter to clergy, and the term that is translated as “standards and sciences” had at the time a connotation of the best academic practices used in religious study to verify religious truth. We’re not talking about laboratory-based natural sciences, or even empirical social sciences here, are we? It seems to me that Baha’u’llah is saying that in a religious investigation of religious truth the standard of truth is found in revealed writings from Manifestations of God rather than in other forms of human learning and argument. For example, this blog and what I write in it is not a standard by which anyone should judge the Baha’i Revelation. If one takes as an axiom that the Baha’i Revelation is the Truth from God, this makes sense. I agree it’s not a convincing argument to win over non-believers, but clergy of other religions are already supposed to be believers, so I suppose this line of argument was appropriate for the context.

Mavaddat also offered a quotation he (imprecisely) attributed to Shoghi Effendi (in fact it was a letter written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary on the Guardian's behalf to someone in New Zealand back in June of 1946). You can find an extract from the letter in Arohanui. Such letters written by Shoghi Effendi's secretaries to individuals are not legitimate or authoritative sources of Baha’i doctrine or law, so I won’t even bother responding to it. Nor will I bother to respond to the quotation Mavaddat offered from a letter from the Universal House of Justice, as that body is a source of legislation, but not doctrine, and the letter he cited only made a (correct) distinction between “eternal principles proclaimed by God’s Messenger” and “scientific statements and theories.” Baha’is make a distinction between eternal spiritual principles and the social teachings of religions. Religions will always teach people to refrain from murdering others or stealing (with some exceptions in unusual situations), but we always expect that science will have new and better theories about why matter has mass, or what dark matter is, or how galaxies form, and so forth.

Mavaddat offered the quotations from Baha’u’llah, Shoghi Effendi’s secretary’s letter to an individual in New Zealand, and a passage from a letter from the Universal House of Justice to establish that “The Bahá’í Faith is dogmatic through and through.” I don’t think his quotations do establish that. He also offers the blessing from Baha’u’llah that: “Blessed is the learned who doth not allow science to intervene as a veil between him and the Known....” as evidence that the Baha’i religion expects believers such as me to be dogmatic. I don’t see how this blessing establishes that. I am a scientist, and I do scientific research and publish in scientific journals and teach scientific research methods to my students at the university where I am employed. It does seem to me that science can be a veil that makes faith difficult. Surveys of scientists seem to confirm that religious faith is less common among those of us with doctorate degrees than among the general public. Saying that those of us who have faith in the scientific method without losing our religious faith are blessed doesn’t seem to me to be a call to dogmatism or literalist mentalities.

Thao Nguyen

I was listening to an end-of-year favorite songs program on KDHX this past week and heard something by Thao Nguyen (and the Get Down Stay Down Band). Wow! I immediately bought her 2008 album on iTunes ("We Brave Bee Stings..."). This is great stuff. Here are some videos I thought clever and cute.