Myth Makers’ Challenge

24 09 2010

I took nearly two decades to get the joke.  When I finally did, I had to laugh at the sky, for all it was worth.  The man who pulled the prank was memorable enough, with his large light beard that couldn’t make up its mind whether to be blond or gray.  Add to that the stark contrast of his leather pants and his blouse with little flowers printed on it.  He was man enough to make a floral print blouse look masculine.  He was a big hefty man with a twinkle in his eye like merry old Santa Clause, which I later realized was the mirth from beguiling a group of children.

On the ground a circle had been drawn with a stick around a group of objects.  The man told us he had placed them there, and he offered us a prize, a token that was part of a larger game, if we could look at the clues within the circle and tell the story behind what had happened.  Everything we needed to know was within the circle, and we were not to enter that circle, lest we disturb the evidence.  One of these pieces was a tomahawk, firmly stuck in the ground.  Near it was a bear trap with a scrap of an animal’s fur trapped tightly within its jaws.  There may have been other clues, but these were the ones I remember best, because they were most central to the story which I had developed about the scene.

My idea was that a man had set a trap, which then trapped an animal.  When the trapper returned to his trap, he found the animal struggling for freedom, so he took his tomahawk and was about to kill the beast, when it made a valiant effort to tear itself free, leaving a chunk of its flesh behind.  In his haste, the man dropped his weapon and set off after the animal, to catch it with his bare hands, if possible.  Otherwise, he would have taken it with him.

I remember another boy’s story, that a trapper was visiting one of his traps when he was attacked by a bear, causing him to drop his weapon and flee the scene.  Everyone had a different story to tell.  Each looked at the evidence contained within the circle and conjured an explanation for it.  Then, we all waited patiently for the man with the beard to tell us which one was closest to the true story.

His shoulders bounced with his silent laugh, as he gave a sideways glance at a friend.  “What do you think the true story is?  Do you really think that’s it?” he coached us.  Then he asked us, “Do you think there really is a true story?”  I didn’t get it.  He seemed to be suggesting that all of the ideas were equally true.  Choosing his words carefully, he asked us, “Do you remember what I said in the beginning?  I said I put a few items into a circle on the ground, and I wanted you to look at the evidence and tell me the story of what you think happened.  So far, none of you has even come close to the truth of it.  Look again and see if you can tell me what happened.”

In response, I believe he got a lot of blank stares from some vexed children.  I looked at the items within the circle yet again, wracking my mind to figure out what story they were supposed to be telling, but the one I had was already the one my mind had settled upon.  We begged him for the “true” story, and he eventually relented, giving none of us the desired prize.

“You want to know the true story?  I already told you the true story!  Do you want me to show it to you?”  he exclaimed.  “First, I came over here and stuck the tomahawk in the ground like this, ” he said, pantomiming the act of slamming the small axe into the ground.  “Then, I came over here and opened the bear trap just enough to put a piece of fur in it, which I laid down, here.  Then I drew a circle around it like this,” he said, retracing his movements every step of the way.

Of course, we all felt cheated.  We thought that we were supposed to find the story behind the evidence, which we had taken to mean the intended fictional story, otherwise known as the “true” story.  We didn’t realize that the true story was exactly what he had told us at the beginning: the objects got into the circle because he put them there.  If we had taken him at his word and simply told him what he had told us, then we would have guessed it correctly.  Had he merely invented a story to suit his fancy, he would have judged our fictional tales against his own fictional tale, which would have been just as valid as comparing ours against each other.  Evidence never really points to anything but the truth, though we might try to make it look otherwise.  Therefore, he would have been wrong in suggesting that his own tale was the truth behind the evidence.  The only truth that the evidence pointed to was that someone had put a few items on the ground and drawn a circle around it.  The answer was so obvious that we missed it completely.

In the beginning, God drew a circle, called Earth, or the Universe, and he placed several items into it.  He told us outright that he had simply put these things there, and then we proceeded to invent stories as to how these things really got there.  We overlooked the simple explanation, the one that was told to us originally, and we tricked ourselves with our own fancy tales.  When told that we were wrong, that all of these things were simply put there, we took the truth to be a cop-out explanation of the evidence.  The fact is, a simple creation story is just too plain to capture the imagination.  It’s not the sort of conclusion that the imaginative and inquisitive mind looks for.  Yet, it is the truth.  A “true” story of any other kind is not really true.  One version is as good as another, and possibly better than the official version, so long as none of them is the truth.

Science is really good at studying things that generally happen, but it makes a foolish effort to play at writing history.  I can say that dogs tend to bite invaders who climb over the back fence.  If I see a man climb a fence, then I might say that he got bit because he was an invader.  However, if the man was entering his own yard after accidentally locking himself out at the front door, whereupon he discovered that his neighbor’s dangerous animal had dug under the fence into his own yard, then what we have is a story that is entirely possible, but not a matter of common occurrence.  The evidence still points to the truth, but it does not cause us to find the truth, because it points to something less likely.  In fact, the less common the event, the more likely it is that the evidence points us to the truth while directing us toward a falsehood.  In the case of the origin of life or the origin of existence, itself, the event is so unlikely that it happened only once, and we have not observed it to happen again.  In this case, neither the dog, nor any other animal, has ever bitten anyone, and no one has ever been locked out of his own home, or, for that matter, even owned a home, so we might never conclude the truth when the unique situation actually occurs.

The fact is simply that every single one of us is a natural-born myth maker.  Every civilization has looked at the world around them and invented a story about how it came into existence.  The nature of that story depends entirely upon the nature of the one making that myth.  Whether a giant god died and became the Earth, or some team played with a fiery football and got it stuck on the sky, or whether a giraffe’s neck got long from struggling ever to reach the highest leaves of a tree, these are all fables, as is the fable that some rudimentary ape climbed down from a tree and started a fire with two sticks.  We think that other cultures have silly stories, but we take ours to be the truth.  In the end, Darwinism is no better than Aesop’s fables, or else it is worse, because we are dumb enough to actually believe it.

It’s the myth makers’ challenge.  God filled the Earth with a bunch of stuff and had us set about making history.  In the end, we wrote many stories that all sounded better than the truth, and the truth was what he told us in the very beginning, that he simply put it there.  It was too simple to be understood.  It felt like a cheap story from a bad storyteller, and we felt cheated.  It wasn’t supposed to be that obvious.


A Dangerously Weak god

16 09 2010

A coworker named Albert  attempted to explain to me that another coworker named Tuan thought he was far better than anyone else at the lab.  When confronted with what were perceived to be his shortcomings, Tuan reacted by insisting that he was the very best among us.  In fact, he might have had us believe that he was near perfect.

“He doesn’t really think that,” I told my other coworker, “He’s just insecure.”

“No, he’s not insecure,” replied Albert, “He thinks we’re all down here.” He indicated an arbitrary position with his hand, palm-downward, “And he thinks he’s way up here,” he said, raising his hand above his head.  “When I tried to correct him, he got defensive and argued with me.”

“Secure people don’t get defensive,” I replied.

It’s true, though.  Confident people can take harsh criticism in stride.  It may bother them, but they don’t lose confidence in who they are and where they stand.  It is with this in mind that I note how, with a Koran in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other, I can make the entire Muslim world jump with every flick of my thumb.  With a pencil and a wild imagination I can draw a face and call it “Mohamed,” earning myself a death sentence.  But all of this zealotry runs amok when we put it to the magnifying glass.

I understand that offenses against Muslim icons are an offense against Muslims.  Insults to my mother are offensive to me, and insults against my God are all the more so.  In a sense, everything that I hold dear and close is part of what I call home.  In a beehive, the queen bee is home.  To the mockingbird, the nest is home.  We naturally fight to protect our home.  However, against these physical things, there lies a real threat of harm.  The bees fight for the queen, because she could really be killed.  The bird fights for the nest, because the young might really be devoured.

On the other hand, fighting to protect one’s god is like fighting to rescue a wooden idol from a burning building.  When a person finds himself filling the role of a self-appointed guardian of his own god, then he ought to reconsider what this thing really is.  I might ask, exactly how fragile is this Allah, that he cannot defend his own honor?  Why does any supreme being need mere mortals to run to his rescue?  It’s like the idol-makers at Ephesus fighting to protect their trade from the teachings of Paul and Barnabas.  That Muslims feel any need to fight for their god is all we need to see their insecurity.  No one dies in defense of the invincible.

They have every reason to feel insecure, though.  The whole Muslim world is economically, militarily, socially and technologically weaker than the industrialized Western nations.  If Allah were strong, then he would have lifted them above the infidels in all respects, for this god is not known for its modesty.  All the worse, though, that Allah is immodest, for weakness is never an act of voluntary meekness, as it is with Jesus.

Our God humbled himself and became a human so that he might be mocked, torn apart and murdered.  In light of this, one might threaten the burning of thousands of Bibles and never come close to the desecration that Christianity suffered.  Yet, this desecration was part of our theology.  Humiliation is central to our faith.  No derision proves our God too weak to respond, and no lack of faith or weakness of character would keep us from defending him.  We don’t need to defend him, and he is not weak.  It is through our persecution that we are proven strong.

Allah takes nothing in stride, and neither do his followers.  He proves his might through violence, which, ironically, is all the proof of his weakness.  Those who look to him for deliverance have become his protectors.  It’s the grandest of all role-reversals.  The loyal adherents have become the gods and made their god as weak as a newborn babe.

You can burn my Bible.  It’s just a stack of papers with ink scribbles on them.  Only the ideas contained within are holy.  The book is just a book.  Even the ideas don’t exist within the pages of a book.  Ideas can only exist within a mind.  A book never read is a book without meaning.  In this case, the book was read, and the meaning, which is the only thing holy about it, was stored within the soul of the one who read it.  The only thing holy about the Christian holy book lies hidden within the hearts of the Christians who believe in it.  There, no match can burn, nor any heretic desecrate it.  We have nothing to fear.  The real Bible cannot be burned.  That which can be burned is not the Word of God.

It is the weakness of Allah that causes the infidels to die.  A polytheistic god that was hardly more than a myth was built up to parade in the place of God, himself.  Such a vainglory was but a house of cards, and the effort to protect that house is more than the world can bear.  If Allah were stronger, then his followers would not have to fight so hard to protect him.  So far, though, he has managed to make a solitary prophet snort and gag while uttering proverbs.  His people have done the rest.  We are the victims of a dangerously weak god.

Carte Blanche Philosophy

5 09 2010

Bed and breakfast inns are a hobby of mine.  With most things in life, I think like a middle class citizen: I look to buy things that give me the most for what I pay.  Lower class mentality looks for the cheapest options.  Middle class seeks value, and upper class simply seeks out the best things.  When it comes to lodging, I tend to break out of my middle class mentality and splurge a little.  We all have something like that.  For my grandmother, it was perfume.   For some people it’s a nice car.  For me its a nice inn.

In a lovely coastal town there sat a lovely little inn, famous for having been there almost as long as the town.  The inn, over-all, was first-rate, with heated towel racks, an oak-paneled lobby with a small library of books, complete with armchairs that squeaked like some ancient thing from a bygone era.  In the morning, we found our way to the parlor, where we were to be served the second B of our B & B.  Usually, the host might ask us for the specific way in which we preferred to have a meal prepared, or else we might be served whatever the host had already prepared.  Usually, that’s what happens in these places.  Surprisingly, this host entered the parlor, clasped her hands together and asked us, without preface, what we would like for breakfast.  My first thought was how amazing it was that we might be served whatever we asked for.  My next thought was that, despite my experience with a variety of delicious offerings at other places, I could not, for the life of me, recall the names of those exotic dishes.  The following thought was that, even if I could remember what they were called, it was highly unlikely that the man in the kitchen could possibly serve up a single plate of any of them at a moment’s notice, even if he were the world’s most renown chef.  Therefore, I must assume that while the menu was theoretically limitless, there still had to be some practical limits to what could actually be prepared.  When I asked what could be made, the answer revealed to me that very little was really on the menu at all.  I ended up eating french toast for breakfast each day.  The paucity of options was disguised by the open-ended question.

In a typical restaurant, we might have the luxury of choosing from a list of repasts.  In a very small establishment, like a B & B, the customers are so few that the proprietor cannot afford to avail an entire list of options.  Instead, we typically get the single option handed to us on a menu the size of a business card, which is often mounted in a special holder near the middle of the table.  Now, the first menu appears, at the outset, to be the better of the two.  We are offered, first and foremost, the luxury of choice.  Unfortunately, what this means is that the odds are not so good that we might happen to choose the best item on the list.  We must resign ourselves to an inferior dish, perhaps.  When the menu consists of a single option, the onus is on the host to choose the best meal possible, and the necessary ingredients, however exotic, may be supplied in advance, with no fear of them going to waste.  The single-item menu is like the best item on the multi-item menu, with the added benefit that it can consist of expensive perishables, being that they don’t have to sit around and wait for someone to ask for them.

Now, the blank menu, at first, seems to be the biggest menu of all.  One would think it was limitless.  That’s the art of its disguise.  In truth, though, while it sets no limits on what can be ordered, it still doesn’t really offer anything.  If a larger menu almost guarantees that we won’t order the best thing, then a limitless menu makes one wonder if we might order anything good.  This is the paradox of a boundary.  Sometimes, a fare without limit is a fare with no offering.

In the most liberal of worldviews, we find philosophies with no moral restrictions.  We might marry anyone, or anything.  We might keep a vow or break it.  We might lie, cheat or steal, or we might abstain from such things.  We might eat, drink and be merry, or we might inject, snort, smoke and blow our minds.  We could vandalize a wall, a website or our own bodies.  We could talk like the devil, live like Hell and still expect a Heaven on Earth.  The complete rejection of religion is the rejection of boundaries.  It is a man who knocks down the walls of his house, because he finds the space too confining, only to discover that he is now homeless.

A world without God and a world without religion is a world at your feet.  You can do anything that your heart desires, and then you can die.  You can populate the Earth, build empires, amass wealth, attain celebrity and struggle to carve out your little Avalon.  You can have anything and everything, except for the only thing that you really need.  The blank menu offers everything and nothing at the same time.  It has no limits, which is easy, because it has nothing to offer.

For, without God, there can be no purpose.  Without him, there can be no meaning at all in life.  In fact, there can’t even be meaning to the idea of meaning.

When the house is on fire, you can run any way you like, but the only way that matters is the way out.  You can have it all, because it all has your destiny, which is the destiny of death.

When the atheist says that your purpose is whatever you make it, what he really says is that there is no purpose.  When the postmodernist says that all ideologies are equally good, what he’s really saying is that they’re all equally worthless.  When the host says you can have whatever you want to eat, what she really means is that she has nothing much to offer.  The best menu is the one that has only one option on it.  We give you the best thing we know, and we stake everything, our reputation, our lives, upon it.  You can take it, or you can refuse it, but there’s only one best way.

That way is Jesus, the Christ, who paid for our sins that we might be saved.  You can take it or leave it, but I’ll not offer a list of choices, nor will I lie and tell you that you can have whatever you want.