"May Adonai bless you and protect you! May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you! May Adonai lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace!" (Torah, Numbers 6:24-26) And Jesus said, "Allow the little children to come unto me. Forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say unto you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God as a little child does, you shall not enter therein." (New Testament, Mark 10:14-16)

Sojourning at an Oasis Paradise

My purpose for living this life, and for writing this blog, is to understand the faith that links us to God. I wish to explore and discuss the reality at the heart of all of the world's religions. This is an immense task, but I know that God also has faith in us, trusting that we do desire the truth, as well as freedom, love and wisdom. Thus, as always, He meets us halfway. Even as God has given us individual souls, so we must each of us trace out an individual pathway to God. Whether we reside in the cities of orthodox religion, or wend our solitary ways through the barren wastelands, God watches over us and offers us guidance and sustenance for the journey.

Most of what you will see here is the result of extensive personal study, combined with some careful speculation. Occasionally, I may simply offer some Scripture or an inspirational text. I am a wide reader, and the connection of some topics and ideas to matters of faith and religion may not seem immediately obvious, but perhaps I may spell it out in the end... or maybe, you will decide that it was just a tangent. Anyway, I hope that you will find my meanderings to be spiritually enlightening, intellectually stimulating, or at least somewhat entertaining.

In the coming weeks and months, I intend to transcribe a series of essays that I wrote about 20 years ago in the hope that I might get them published. They represent the nucleus of my spiritual life and the focal point around which my wanderings revolve like an electron in an atom. I hope that they might eventually serve as a springboard for discussions about the common spiritual heritage of humanity. May we come together and embrace each other in peace.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

On the Human Condition (Wellspring, Ch. 1) pts. 3 & 4

C. The first step on the road to utopia

       One may think it strange to be talking about social change and utopia in a book about spiritual traditions, but a universal and primary aim in religion has been to reorder society for the benefit of a  people, by refining its culture and bringing them into harmony and balance with the natural order of creation.  From the very beginning of recorded story and literature - whether mythological or ethical - this has been the aim of religion.  We can find this theme in every tradition in existence in one form or another.  The more emphasis a particular tradition puts on life in this world, one finds a clearer expression of utopianism in its precepts, prescriptions for behavior and ultimate goals.  Even if there is a hope for an afterlife, the desire for social community united in worship gives rise to a form of utopianism to be found in the next world, i.e., the heavenly city.  The fewest utopian refrains are to be found in those traditions which despair of this world, and whose people desire only to be dissolved into the incomprehensible mystery of Being-and-Non-being. But these too often have an ethical tone in their asceticism, as they try to lessen the suffering experienced here.  So utopianism is an integral part of any discussion of the unity of religious faiths.
       As I may have mentioned before, society is an instance of a cybernetic system.  It is a whole only by the union of its many parts interacting together.  It is self-regulating, self-fixing and spontaneously brings forth order.  Like any other cybernetic system, it needs an energy source.  It includes multiple levels of order.  And pressure on its parts disturbs their functioning, while non-interference brings them together.  What is unique about this system is that its parts are people.  Any cybernetic system can be described by listing its eight relationships:
  1. Society is a collection of people who live together as an extended community in order to pursue shared goals and ideals.
  2. Its people interact with each other and conduct business on the basis of individual differences, and their treatment of each other shapes their regard for society.
  3. Society depends on the availability of material resources and sources of energy for the sustaining of its people and its commerce, and creates waste products which must be recycled or disposed.
  4. Society interacts mutually with both its urban conditions and its ecological environment, and must maintain harmony and order in both spheres of influence, and a balance between the two.
  5. Each new generation takes its culture, lifestyle, expectations and ideals from its parents, through socialization and education, and breathes new meaning and life into them.
  6. People develop functional institutions and organize neighborhood communities to meet social needs and for recreational purposes.
  7. Excessive demands for conformity and/or economic hardship create social unrest and crime.
  8. Society is governed, through various forms and methods, by the intentional design and, ultimately, by the consent of its people.
       By viewing the organization of society in this fashion, perhaps we can gain a perspective which will allow us to understand the way it works.  A proper understanding of society can give us the freedom to attempt to change its institutions, or forms of government, in a realistic way in order to incorporate our ideals into an ever-improving, and eventually utopian community.  However, as in any cybernetic system, random tampering is more likely to create instability and chaos than to reconstitute its order.  We must identify its essential key components if we are to know where to make our adjustments.  From the foregoing description, we can readily see what the key components of society are: Faith, Property, Energy, Ecology, Education, Urbanization, Criminology, and Government.  In a later chapter, I shall offer my suggestions as to how each of these elements of society may be changed in order to create a better society and, by doing so, to create a better world in which it would be much more desirable to live.

d. Our attitude toward change

       For various reasons, no utopian dream has ever been fully realised on a wide scale in human history.  This failure has not been due to any inherent unrealism in the dream of an improved society.  The utopian visionary necessarily builds upon the ideas and possibilities which are available in his or her time, and there have been real and significant improvements in society.  Nor has it been for any lack of supporters, for there have been many attempts to bring such ideas into fulfillment, on small scales as well as large.  Though it is true that small scale efforts are occasionally more apparently successful than those that take on the task of transforming society as a whole.  Still, it is a common response to think that any serious utopian proposals are inevitably unfeasible.  This is not necessarily so.  Utopian ideals have created the world in which we live today, despite the unforeseen problems and complications that plague us.  And they have shaped much of our current political thought, as well as our various ideologies. What we have lacked is sufficient foresight, and the desire to forge a workable consensus.
       Yet there are important reasons for why we have always failed to create a utopian society.  First, although the idealist creates the vision with the contemporary society and its capabilities in mind, many of the changes suggested would require the better part of a century to accomplish.  During all this time, society is constantly changing, thus the conditions which originated the ideas and made them possible have passed away.  So, whatever modifications have been made find themselves side-tracked from their intended goal.  Moreover, when the vision was conceived, the society likely had no means of putting it into practice as a whole, nor would most people have understood and agreed if it had been possible.  Ordinary people do not have the degree of foresight, altruism or faith in human nature that is characteristic of the utopians.  Few idealists can even approximately guess the difficulty that will face the full realization of their dream.
       Another reason that utopian visions are often disregarded is that the initial product of genius is frequently rough-hewn, and thus at first sight appears unworkable.  It will require time and the sustained efforts of others to complete its creation, and this will come forth only if the aim of the proposal seems to be necessary to the health of society.  No one person is capable of such thorough imagination as it would require to completely envision, step by step, the wholesale transformation of society.  Therefore, it is usually only the philosophical ideals and ultimate aims of the dream which are ever taken to heart.  But these do continue to surface in the thoughts of other writers and innovators.
       Also, even if there is a significant possibility for transformation to take place, the society's leaders, politicians and vested interests may feel that their authority and positions are threatened, and for reasons of self-interest make every effort to maintain the status quo.  The general public, also, comfortable in their daily routines, may feel uneasy about trying alternative lifestyles, especially if it will cost them money or effort to make the changes involved.  Unless a subtle sense of unease or dissatisfaction is widespread, the normal inertia of society will subdue any revolutionary impulses and postpone the development of utopia.
      The last and perhaps most important reason is the general habit of despair that denies any chance of such visions taking root.  The mere historical fact that none have so far succeeded is regarded as proof of the inevitability of failure, as if it is the divine will to forego the efforts of earthly human beings.  This is obviously absurd, but nonetheless accepted.  This observation was shared by the scientist and philosopher, Francis Bacon, who wrote in his book "Novum Organum" that "by far the greatest obstacle to the progress of science and the undertaking of new tasks ... is found in this, that men despair and think things impossible. ... If therefore anyone believes or promises more, they think this comes of an ungoverned mind."  In any age, the necessary prerequisite for any kind of progress is initiative and the determination to get things done.  If anything is definitely and forever impossible, it is because no one will try.
       It is for the first and second of these reasons that , when I give my suggestions on how I would modify the eight key components of society, I will try to be brief and concentrate on the purposes and aims of each suggestion, rather than on their concrete development.  I feel that if the reasons for each suggestion are clear and worthy of implementation it will be much more likely that some effort will be made than if I were to describe a fully developed system.  As for the last two reasons for difficulty restraining the development of utopia, perhaps only persistent efforts of persuasion and a creative approach to education offer any hope of overcoming such attitudes.  Unfortunately, such self-centered manipulation and popular apathy and ignorance are in perennial evidence.

(Sources and influences will be acknowledged in a later blog entry. Your patience is appreciated.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

On the Human Condition (Wellspring, Ch.1) pt.2

b. tragedy and transformation

       It is no secret that life is full of tragedy.  The Buddha's assertion that life is suffering has become one of the primary tenets of oriental philosophy.  And yet, so much of the suffering we experience is caused by human behavior and misconceptions.  If we meet life with a set of expectations, we tend to fulfill our expectations - by not only precipitating the responses and circumstances we expect, but also by selective awareness and seeing what we want to see.  Yes, I said "want."  No one truly desires to be proven wrong until one is ready to modify one's viewpoint and behavior.  But it is true that if we treat someone with mistrust and disrespect, quite often that person will behave in a fashion which will merit it, or at the very least return those attitudes to us.  It takes a very strong personality to avoid responding to another with a reciprocal attitude, or with anger if we feel denigrated.  Of course, if we are treated with respect and compassion, we tend to automatically respond with the same in return.  This is not a secret.  We learn our behavior patterns from our interactions with each other, and we carry those patterns with us through life, even when we ascend to positions of social authority.  However, it is possible to consciously change our behavior, and no longer cling to outmoded and unwanted patterns.  It is difficult to do individually, but we can set up more favorable conditions in a community by agreement to facilitate the change.

       The ability of human beings to transform our behavior and modes of social interaction is basic to our nature.  It happens quite predictably, though without our awareness, as time passes and the customs of generational peer groups and the policies of various institutions change.  We do not live in the same world as our great-grandparents.  We can also take this process into our own hands and make the changes consciously, and not only for ourselves but for society as well.  There have been social revolutions which have succeeded, when the ideas behind them spread fast enough, even against resistance.  But this takes place much easier among friends and in small groups of people.  The reason for this is that individuals feel more concerned when the ideas seem to affect them directly, and not in some vague and nebulous way applying only to society in general.  It is easier to perceive the necessity for change in ourselves than in society at large, due to our limited capacity for comprehension, and it is easier to see our friends problems than our own, as distance lends us a measure of objectivity.  But before we begin to criticize, we must be willing to listen and learn from others.  Thus we need an agreement to help each other if we wish to make changes, especially in social behavior.

       As human beings, we have a reflexive consciousness and the capacity to be self-aware and self-examining, and thereby have an ability to create a consistent pattern of mental and behavioral organization.  That is how we inculcate habits, good or bad, by repeating behaviors that we find valuable. By the same effect, we also have an equal ability to resist change in our behavioral patterns, so we need to intentionally utilize our capacity to be molded by society and experience, especially as children.  As we grow, we develop an ability to make value judgements about the things that affect our lives, and this helps to understand our social responsibility.  It is this understanding, and our self-awareness, which gives us the capacity for conscious transformation of our mental and behavioral patterns, and an increasing capacity for spiritual growth and to transcend our limitations.  This is a corollary to our ability to anticipate the future, and to create a meaning and purpose for interacting with that expectation to change or preserve it.  At any age, we function best in an atmosphere of love and acceptance from our peers, and require freedom as a prerequisite for consensual change.  Pressure or coercion implies a lack of good-will, and an expectation of rebellion, and thus thwarts the adjustment it attempts to create.

       It is tragic that most of our social problems stem from a simple misunderstanding of the human capacity to resist change and the propensity to resent any pressure that comes without our own agreement.  If we wish to change society, we must learn to create those agreements, so that we do not meet an unwarranted intensity of resistance and conflict.  However, we must always remember that the inherent resistance to change takes considerable time to overcome, and even though a individual may consciously agree with the necessity, the behavior may occasionally slip into its previous pattern.  This is not the time for harsh criticism, but for a simple reminder and support.  Otherwise, one runs the risk of strengthening the resistance to any change.  The hope of preventing suffering and tragedy rests on an understanding of the human capacity for transformation and transcendance of one's narrow point of view.  We need an agreement to create and live in a society founded on our highest ideals, not on pandering to our base desires and selfish interests.  Those ideals should lead us to build harmonious and happy communities in balance with the natural order of the world.