Monday, April 21, 2008

To Press or Not to Press, Is This the Question?

Do you have free will? Now before you answer, think about this:

If you don’t have free will and you answer, “Yes, I do have free will,” why are you programmed to lie to yourself regarding free will?

On the other hand if you do have free will and you answer, “No, I don’t have free will,” why are you so mistaken about something that is so essential to your every action?

A new study on the brain has proven (yet again) that a person’s decision whether or not to press a button can be detected up to seven seconds before the person herself realizes she has made a decision. Get that? By the time you say to yourself, “OK, I am going to press that button” your brain has already decided the matter. Your self-talk about decision making is a delusion. You, and by “you” I mean the “you” that says, “OK, I am going to press that button” is simply a puppet responding to a decision made without you in your brain!

When I first read this I was troubled. I want to believe I have free will, but I am a science oriented person so if a scientist tells me otherwise who am I to disagree? Then I looked into this experiment a bit more deeply and realized that the only thing this test proves is that I have no free will when it comes to pressing buttons.

I spent the next day at home counting how many buttons I press (as opposed to switches I flip, levers I pull, dials I turn, etc.). Not counting the keys on my Powerbook G4 the number came to two: the button that starts my blender that makes my fruit drink in the morning, and the button that starts my toothbrush that cleans my teeth after I have had my fruit drink in the morning. I press the toothbrush button twice a day, the blender button once. Had I not spent the whole day indoors counting buttons, I might have taken my car somewhere and then I would have pressed a lot more buttons on my radio, cd player and air-conditioner, but I decided not to go out and to stay in counting buttons.

Or did I?

Maybe the test has implications beyond buttons. Maybe I decided to type that last sentence seven seconds before I actually typed it. Maybe I, the “I” that takes credit for whatever the brain has decided seven seconds before the “I” that takes credit for it even knows a decision has been made, is just commenting on decisions made by someone else, the real me, the real me that I have never met or known, because the only me I know is the seven-second-delay me who is really nothing much at all. I am simply an afterthought.

This idea is somewhat exciting. As an afterthought I am always surprised: What will that crazy ol’ brain of mine decide to do next? It could be anything. I have no idea. How about this: Let’s wait seven seconds to see what

Friday, April 18, 2008

New Questions for Passover

USA TODAY ran a lengthy front page article on the ways different people touched by the horror of 9/11 are dealing with their faith (April 18-20, 2008). Some found God through the attack, others lost God because of it. At the heart of the article is the question, “Where was God on 9/11?”

There were the expected answers: God was with the victims; He was with the mourners; He was with the rescuers. But the one answer that I wanted to hear, the one that we must hear, and the one that was missing was this, “God was flying those planes into the Towers, the Pentagon, and the ground.”

The terrorists were people of faith. They were prayerful men of God carrying out His Will. True, I think they were evil and their god a projection of that evil, but I do not question the authenticity of their faith. According to them, it was God who told them to kill thousands of Americans, and I have no way of proving them wrong.

I mentioned this to a rabbi friend the other day and he said, “God protects the innocent. The way you know God is God is that He protects the powerless.”

I wish it were so, but here we are on the eve of Passover when millions of Jews around the world are going to celebrate God’s torment and murder of thousands of innocents! The Torah is filled with God sanctioned violence and acts of genocide. If that was God’s Will then, how can I be certain that it isn’t God’s Will now? Is the best I can say is that the true God wouldn't target me and mine? That too is disproved by the Torah where God is more than happy to wipe tens of thousands of Israelites whenever they displease Him.

Believing in God is dangerous business.

I am not demeaning the faith or lack of faith of the people mentioned in the article. I am only suggesting that a deeper discussion is necessary. For me, no religion whose god sanctions violence is true. Judaism included.

The terrorists worshipped their own projections, feeding their own egos, excusing and sanctioning their own madness and murderous rage. There are passages of Torah that do the same. The only difference is who is doing the killing. Can it be that the Israelites who heard God command them to exterminate Amalek or the inhabitants of Jericho were right, while the Moslems who hear God command them to exterminate their enemies are wrong? Or is right and wrong simply the byproduct of who is claiming to hear what from Whom? This is a crucial question on the eve of Passover.

Tomorrow night we Jews are going to celebrate a destruction no less horrifying to the ancient Egyptians than the Twin Towers attack is horrifying to modern Americans. I can't do this any more. I know we want to say it isn't the same; I know we want to say our God is good and true, and their god is evil and false, but our story does not bear this out.

So this Passover I will ask four new questions and invite you to do the same:

1. Why on this night do we celebrate the slaughter of innocents when on all other nights we decry it?

2. Why on this night do we link ourselves to a murderous god, when on all other nights we are horrified by others who do the same?

3. Why on this night do we read this nightmare of liberation and pretend that doing so doesn’t continue the jihadist mentality that plagues all three Abrahamic faiths?

4. Why on this night do we spill a little wine from our cups so as not to rejoice at the suffering of others when we should refuse to drink at all, saying to God and to ourselves, “Enough! You stamp out the righteous along with the wicked! It is a sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (from Genesis 18:23-25).

Chag Sameach Pesach!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Going to the Dogs

Do pets go to heaven? According to Gary Kurtz in Cold Noses at the Pearly-Gates the answer is yes. I’m not so sure, and would like to pose three questions of Gary:

1. Do animals have souls?
2. Does my pet have to believe in Jesus as Christ to enter heaven?
3. If so, how can my pet achieve this faith; or if not, how is it that God is more generous to an unbelieving beagle than He is to an unbelieving human?

Let’s take up each question in turn.

Do animals have souls? The Buddhist variant of this question, Does a dog have Buddhanature, is the first koan given to most students of Rinzai Zen. The answer is Mu! which means No! or Nothing, but which is better translated as Stop asking stupid questions and wake up from the delusion that plagues your life right now!

I tend to side with the Buddhists. I don’t believe in souls. To me souls are just projections of the ego refusing to admit to its own annihilation at death. Souls perpetuate the delusion that you are separate from the One Who is all.

Do animals have to believe in Jesus to get to heaven? No, there is no heaven. Heaven is not a place you go to; heaven is the place you are right now if you would wake up to the true nature of reality and act accordingly. When you know all beings are God you engage all life with godliness. That is heaven. Hell is everything else.

Is God more generous to animals than humans? No, God manifests as both. True, I’d rather be a human than a dog, and a dog than a cat (I’ll get hate mail for that revelation), but each of these is fully God just as every wave is fully the ocean in which it arises.

Of course by denying souls and heaven I’m really avoiding the questions rather than answering them. So it seems to me that if there were souls and animals had them they would have to be held to the same entry standard as humans: Jewish dogs are out, Baptists dogs are in. My neighbor has a great dog and they are Jehovah’s Witness. Will Rusty make it to heaven or not? Is it his fault that his doghouse gets a subscription to Watchtower magazine?

Chuck Colson in the April 08 issue of Christianity Today says Kurtz is wrong and animals do not have souls or an afterlife. While Pastor Colson acknowledges that this may be harsh news to the followers of the Good News, he is adamant that we realize that only humans have souls, for to do otherwise would require us to grant the same rights to animals that we grant to people.

By arguing that only humans have souls, Christians “can make a logical defense of the uniqueness of human life. But if out of sentimentality we treat our pets as if they have souls, we give away the argument. What a tragic irony if the church finds it has been conquered on behalf of our beloved pets.”

I am not sure what the irony is, but I would agree that if we aren't vigilant all religion, and not just Christianity, is going to the dogs.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Body as Billboard

If I ever called my father and told him I was going to get a tattoo he would have a fit. And if I defended myself by saying that he had already tattooed me himself when I was eight days old, he would think me insane. But it is true—I wear God’s brand on my penis.

This is on my mind because of a conversation I just had with an eighteen-year-old guy with a tattoo of the Nike swoosh on his calve. I asked him if Nike paid to have him advertise for them, and he said “no,” he just liked the image and the idea of “Just do it!” that the swoosh implied.

I told him that some companies buy body space on which to ink their message. He said he has lots of skin available for billboards, and the friend he was with began a very raunchy riff on products that might be associated with various body parts. That’s when I thought about circumcision.

God is advertising on the head of my penis. As a theologian I find this insight intriguing. What does it tell me about God? Actually not much. After hours of contemplation all I could come up with is this: God needs to hire a new advertising firm.

What is the point of placing an ad where no one will see it? Maybe the original command was to place God’s sign on your forehead rather than foreskin, but that amidst all the thunder and lightening people misheard what Moses was saying. This would make much more sense. First, it would be open to both men and women. Second, lots of people would see it. Third, it would explain why yarmulkes (skullcaps) don’t have brims (they would hide the sign). And fourth, it would make it much more difficult for Jews to pass as Gentiles. And it might be true: foreskin from forehead is not such a huge jump (at least in English which as every believer in the King James Bible knows was God’s original language of choice).

My point is this: mistakes happen. For example, according to one rabbi (that would be me) when Moses told the people not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk they had such trouble hearing him that they thought he said, “Thou shalt not mix dairy with meat and must have separate dishes for meat and dairy and separate sets of dishes, one for meat and one for dairy, for everyday use and for when guests drop by, and separate sets of dishes for Passover one each for meat and dairy, one set for guests and another for everyday.” That is eight sets of dishes. Add that to the decorative plates the Israelites undoubtedly bought as they sojourned from place to place in the desert and during their various exiles, and we are talking about a lot of china. How practical is this? If God thought about dinnerware at all, He probably imagined that each person would have one bowl for dairy and one for meat. But mistakes happen. Maybe circumcision is just one of those mistakes.

So if you are planning a bris, think about using a different body part. A crisply printed “Ask me about Yaweh” on the forehead might be nice.