Belief, Communication, Cultural Traits, Deity, God, God(s), Ideas, Language, Mysticism, Quotes, Religion, Transformative Experience

Was the Concept of God an Error in Translation?

“The concept of ‘god’ was originally an error in translation committed when some ancient sage tried to reduce the mystical experience to words.”

Or, alternatively…

“The concept of ‘god’ was originally an error in translation committed when some ancient sage tried to reduce an experience of the weirdness to words.”

Paul Sunstone

Abrahamic Faiths, Allah, Belief, Business, Christ, Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Deity, Education, Fundamentalism, God(s), Humanities, Ideas, Islam, Judaism, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Language, Learning, Life, Management, Memes, Mysticism, Philosophy, Professionals, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Spirituality, Taoism, Work, Yahweh

About Your “God”, Jeff…

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul discusses how the concept of “god” varies from one religion to another with the focus on Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism.

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THE CRITICS EXCLAIM! “It is absolutely certain that Paul Sunstone will someday come to a rich and full understanding of God.  That is sure to be the day Our Altogether Righteous and Just Lord mercifully condemns Paul Sunstone to being eternally chained to Justin Bieber’s buttocks in the hottest regions of hell. Until that day, his opinions and views of deity cannot possibly rise above the ignorant, thoughtless slime that is his post, ‘About Your Gods’.”  —  Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.

Continue reading “About Your “God”, Jeff…”

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Buddhism, Christianity, Deity, Enlightenment, Free Spirit, God, God(s), Hinduism, Human Nature, Islam, Judaism, Life, Love, Mysticism, Religion, Satori, Science, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-determination, Self-Integration, Self-Knowledge, Spirituality, Taoism, Transformative Experience, Wisdom, Zen

If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman

(About a 3 minute read)

If I were a theist and believed in gods, I would be an insufferable theist.

Indeed, my opinions might be a tad insufferable already.  At least, I think that could be a reasonable conclusion based on the number of encouraging emails I get from my loyal readers that include a pic of someone’s buttocks, along with the usually brief message, “Thinking of you, Paul!”.

Continue reading “If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman”

Deity, Faith, God, God(s), Happiness, Human Nature, Infatuation, Life, Love, Passion, Poetry, Quality of Life, Religion, Self, Spirituality

A River Runs Beneath Us

(About a 2 minute read)

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ― Rumi

A river runs beneath us called “Life”
That we sip from but do not drink
That once flowed abundantly above ground
When our short legs ran fast
So fast we believed we could
(In just a week or so)
Chase bullets and jump high to catch
The winged wonders of the air.

Strange how it went
The other way.

Something changed.
We became adults long before
Our bodies did,
And the flow of life
Sank beneath our feet,
Feet that were growing and slowing.

Now we are devout

In mimicking thoughts of strangers,
Men and women we call sages,
For the protection their words give
Least we look for ourselves again.

Our gods protect us too
Now that we have buried them
Between us and the river.

We look away from life
With radiant upturned faces,
Though we say we look to find
Eternal love and bliss
In the forever-closer distance.

Our loves protect us now
That we have buried them too.

They lurk in the earth,
Indistinguishable
From co-dependencies.

We discover in both
Our pleasures and our pains
Useful entertainments
And distractions
From the sound of water.

The water we recoil from,
Preferring a few dry stones:
Remnants of the hours
We come close
To making love.

We hide our fears,
Wrapping them in anger,
In hatreds,
And in anxieties;
Watching screens,
So many screens these days,
While beneath us
The river still flows.

Some day we aim to touch the stars,
Become the cosmic heroes of our dreams
On the soaring mound of lies
We’ve heaped beneath us.

Only the fresh smell of water
Grows fainter by the hour.

Alienation, Alienation From Self, Allah, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Belief, Christ, Culture, Deity, Fundamentalism, God, God(s), Hinduism, Humanism, Nontheism, Self Identity, Self-determination, Society, Spirituality

You Have Days

(About a 2 minute read)

You get older, your voice rasps now
Your hair has whitened,
And your patience with people
Has grown thicker,
Much thicker bark.

They are so rarer now
But you still have days
You want to risk falling
Off your cottage roof
To climb up there,
Take your stand on the peak
And roar, just roar:

“By the gods of fools and of sages,
By the spirits of the living and the dead,
I’m an atheist, you people,
You citizens of the same earth,
An agnostic atheist and no,
I’m not about making you me,
And stealing you from you
So as to compound
The miseries and misdirections
Fated by God and Darwin
For our human lives.

“So let us agree,
Let us de-weaponize our words
To each other.

“Let us from this day to forever
Again speak in civil terms
As brothers do, for both of us
Are doomed to end in a day of tears,
The final gifts from our friends.

“Go your own way,
I’ll go mine.
Don’t meddle with my spirit,
I won’t meddle with yours.

“Let us be true to ourselves,
Brothers and sisters, let us be true.”

But you have journeyed
Long miles from your childhood,
And the road’s lessons have been hard,
So you’re leagues from a total fool.
You know how they would see it,
You’ve seen it before,
Too many times before.

“Look! Atheists are madmen.”
“More like demons, I think.”
“See how he shouts at god, the hypocrite.”
“You can’t trust him, he’s obsessed.”
“How insulting he roars at us!”
“Get the children inside. Umm…The ducks too.”
“His hair’s a mess.”
“When’s supper?”
“I think he’s nice.”

You’re a prophet
Who has seen
Our age is weak,
Most people not strong enough
To endure differences.
And anyway you’re worn
And you’re weary
And you just want to be alone.

So you quietly scratch yourself,
Yawn and shrug in your seat,
And you vow merely to keep
To your side of the road,
Hoping no oncoming driver
Plays chicken with you.
But if one dares test you,
You’ll give him hell.

Anxiety, Art, Boredom, Deity, Goals, God, God(s), Gratitude, Homeless, Human Nature, Late Night Thoughts, Life, Obsession, Poetry, Quality of Life, Television, Unconditional Love, Wisdom

Late Night Thoughts: Personalities and Ecosystems, First Dates, Thinking Gods, and More (July 21, 2018)

(About a nine minute read)

It’s becoming evident to me that our personalities are in some ways like ecosystems.  One thing affects another, and if we aren’t careful when we go about improving things,  we can run into unintended consequences.

Back when I was in business, I became obsessed –there’s no other word for it — obsessed with time management and achieving or exceeding my goals.  For some years, I worked hard to improve myself along those lines, and it paid off quite well at first.

Each day, I would, while eating a quick  breakfast, review all my goals, both business and personal, both short and long-term.  By the time I got to the office, I was so focused that very little could completely distract me from what I intended to accomplish for the remainder of the day.

But I took it too far.  One day, I was sitting at a stoplight when it turned green while a pedestrian — an woman perhaps seventy or even eighty years old — was still in the crosswalk.  She was using a walker, you see, and quite a bit slower than I wished.

I didn’t honk at her, creep my car forward — nothing like that.  I had plenty of time that morning.  Besides, it had of course happened many times before that I’d had to wait on a pedestrian.

But this time I became aware, as I never had before, just how harsh were my thoughts towards her.  I was basically treating her in my head like a treat a fierce business competitor.  She was between me and what I wanted to accomplish, and with a bit of genuine shock, I realized what it really meant that I was not seeing her as fully human.

Of course, after that, I began to see other unintended ways my assiduously cultivated ability to focus my efforts had altered me.

♦♦♦

Have you noticed how felt gratitude possesses in some much smaller measure the power of unconditional love to renew us, to make us born again?

♦♦♦

How to save money on a first date…

GLORIA (At Door):  Hello!  You must be Paul, yes?  Well, here I am, Gloria!

SUNSTONE: Welcome, Gloria!  I’m so pleased to meet you!  Did you have a hard time finding my place?

GLORIA:  Not at all, but I must admit, I was a bit taken back at first that you wanted to meet up at your cottage.  That’s quite unusual you know, for an online date.   But then you explained you don’t own a car.

SUNSTONE:  What convinced you to come anyway?

GLORIA:  I was reassured when you said you wouldn’t insist I came in.  Nothing personal, you know, but you can’t be too cautious on a first date.

SUNSTONE:  Thank you so much  for coming. I’ll be ready in just a moment, Gloria.  I have to make a quick phone call to animal control.  My cat has escaped and I’m sure she’s in the neighborhood somewhere.

GLORIA:  Of course please make your phone call.  I’ll wait here.   What does your cat look like, in case I spot one while I’m waiting.

SUNSTONE:  She’s got green eyes, short tawny fur, big paws, and weights about 300 lbs.  You might actually spot her:  She never goes much further when she gets loose than the first pedestrian she spots.

GLORIA:  Three..hundred…pounds?  I can see in your eyes, you’re not joking, or are you?

SUNSTONE:  Oh no, she’s quite the mountain lion.  I raised her from a kitten.

GLORIA:  Oh My God!

SUNSTONE:  You’re welcome to wait inside if you’d like.

GLORIA:  Yes, yes, I think that would be a good idea.

SUNSTONE: By the way, I have Netflix and, even though I’m not much of a cook, it won’t take long to make some of my deep-fried mac and cheese….

GLORIA: I cannot believe this is happening!

♦♦♦

A petite homeless woman knocked on my door one night last winter, the day of the first snow of the season.  She had about twenty reasonable requests of me, not more than one of them that I granted her.  Five dollars for cigarettes was all I gave.

“Uncharacteristic of me”, I thought after I’d sent her away.  But while she still was there, the thought had crossed my mind, “She might steal from me if I let her in, and turn my back”.

It wasn’t much more than a mild self-caution, but it had been enough.

♦♦♦

I have long been uncomfortable with the notion that a god — if one or more exist — thinks.  To be sure the notion is an anthropomorphism: That much is granted.  But it seems to me an especially preposterous anthropomorphism — much on the same level as believing a god had a beard.

For one thing, what we humans mean by “thought” is essentially symbolism.  That is, our thoughts bear much the same relationship to reality that a map does to its terrain.  When we think of a house, we’re not doing anything greatly different in principle from what a cartographer does when he or she places a small dot, a star, or a square on a map to represent that house.

But suppose that’s the same as what it means for a god to think.  Wouldn’t that place god at least partly outside nature — outside the natural universe — in much the same sense a map is separate from its terrain?  I think so, and that rather alarms me.  I’m not a theist, but if I were one, I would believe in a deity that was co-extensive with the natural universe, rather than in any way outside of it.

Yet my preference for a pantheistic deity is merely personal.  There’s no reason to hold that view other than for one’s own reasons.  To me, a more serious criticism of the notion that deity thinks begins with the recognition that thinking takes time.

The thought, “I’ll go to the store, buy some milk, lace it with Colorado weed, and sneak it back onto the shelf — fun, fun, fun!”, doesn’t normally present itself in our minds all at once unless we’ve previously come up with it.  Rather, it takes time for those thoughts to unfold.

But what would that mean to a deity?  Would it not mean the deity was subject to time?  Subject to past, present, and future thoughts?   Or if Einstein was correct in suggesting that time is an illusion, then for the deity to think like a human, it too much suffer from the same illusion.

Moreover, if it is the case that deity is subject to time, then doesn’t that imply the deity is at any given moment (except, perhaps during the very last moment of its existence) not omniscient, not all knowing?  For it would not know what it’s next thought would be.  And if is not all knowing, how can it completely know what it itself is?  As an example, if it was external, it would not know it — being subject to thinking within time.

There are many implications besides those, but I think you might see the point now:  To say deity thinks like we think is at least to say that deity is limited in knowledge and perhaps subject to at least one illusion.

Then beyond all that, you would have the problem that humans have cognitive biases, are notoriously imperfect at predicting the future,  entwine thought with emotion, and can’t keep their minds off the studly guy or beautiful gal next door, etc, etc, etc.

♦♦♦

Fragment of a poem in progress:

How many souls would we need
If we needed one for each soul
Stolen or lost by us
On the way?

And what sum of souls is tallied
By thirty years without loving —
Without loving freely?

♦♦♦

Tonight, it strikes me as curious morality and wisdom are not the same thing.  I often hear people defend the practices of distant ages by saying something along the lines of, “Well, given the morals of that time and place…”.   Perhaps.  But have some things always been wise?

 ♦♦♦

In a novel written in the 1920s,  a woman is planning a dinner party she’s giving for about a dozen guests.  Carefully, very carefully, she considers each of several seating arrangements,  imagining as best she can the conversations the different arrangements will prompt.  She pays little attention to who has the honor of sitting next to who: It’s the conversations she’s focused on.  And she goes further than that.

She plans how she will prompt each guest at key moments through-out the evening with questions she’s selecting just for them.

My father was born in 1900.  In the early 50s, he noticed the conversations among his circle of friends had begun to shift away from a wide range of (probably pre-selected) topics and towards talking about the high points of the past night’s or past week’s television shows.

“The art of conversation is dying”, he told my mother, “It will be buried soon.”

♦♦♦

“There are no boring speakers.  Only bored audiences.”  — Speaker forgotten, but an English lord, circa 1890s.

One day, an old couple in their 70s came into the restaurant where I had just begun waiting tables.  It was my first day, and I didn’t yet know who the regulars were, but it didn’t matter in their case, because they very quickly told me they’d been coming to that restaurant for lunch almost every weekday for the past forty-two years — ever since the day or so after they’d gotten back in town from their honeymoon.

Before I had time to fully digest that incredible news, the woman pleasantly instructed me, “Just tell Amie” — she was the cook —  “we’ll have our usual sunny-sides-ups today.  And, young man, I’ll need the jar of salsa you’ll find on a shelf in the mini-refrigerator at your waiter station, please.”

It wasn’t until after my shift, and I had time to reflect, that it fully sank in how odd  anyone would spend forty-two years going for lunch to the very same restaurant!

As the days turned into weeks and months, they certainly did come in nearly every weekday, excepting only the weekends.  I noticed they had almost no conversation between them.  They would more or less routinely invite others — usually semi-regulars — over to their table and then they might chat lively enough.  But on those occasions when they sat alone, they were almost totally silent.

Sometimes it seems quite curious to me we get bored with the people we love the most.  After all, isn’t boredom so often a form of turning away, of withdrawing from people in practice, if perhaps not actually in principle?

♦♦♦

Was it television that did in the art of conversation during the 1950s?  Or was it the decimation during the war of the upper classes — the people mostly responsible for sustaining the art?

Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Consciousness, Cultural Change, Culture, Deity, Enlightenment, Evolution, God, God(s), Human Nature, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Thinking

Rationalism and the Immanent Death of All Religions

(About an 11 minute read)

When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels.  Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre.  Hardcore science fiction.

No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods.  Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day.  Issac Asimov and Author C.  Clark.  In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.

I simply assumed Clarke had a point.  After all, he surely knew more about it than me.  A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.

I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion.  I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world.  Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt.  For instance,  a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”,  while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”.   And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.

Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons.  They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.

I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but  I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”

“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people.  I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.

Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things.  Don’t believe in god?  Fine, but do you consider yourself,  an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”,  or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.

But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens.  Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.

Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that.  Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings.  Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.

Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god.  Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death.  Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  And so on.

I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions.  For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start.  But I do think there are two more influential candidates.

There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain.  That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history.  Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.

For reasons of space,  I’ll stick to the one theory I favor.  According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection).  Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.

One way these modules might come together is this:  You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining.  You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine.  “Something is out there!”

That’s Agent Detection speaking.  The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal.  The growl might only be imagined.  But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.

A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your spears to investigate.  Can’t very well get to sleep with a possible lion that close in.  But you find nothing.

This is repeated a few times during the night.  Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on.  Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology)  in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”,  prowling around your camp,  perhaps waiting for the moment to strike.  But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there.  Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?

Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god.  Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities.  Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.

If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity.   A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based.  A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us.  Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.

But is there another root, as equally well grounded?  It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored.  Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions.  Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”,  so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word.  I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”,  for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.

The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the  content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.

Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”,  and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”,  but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them.  The problem is the nature of words themselves.  Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything.  If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it,  you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen.  “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”

However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one.  The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.

That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”.   That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness.  But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience.  The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.

In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.

Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.

As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god).  Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god.  So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.

Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences.  The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus.   There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine.  So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.

Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”.   But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.

Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.

Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”.  We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen.  So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.

I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.