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.





Signet of a Suzerain

10 07 2010

[fiction]

In the drawing-room stood two men, both bald with the same effect of a fully receded hairline.  One was relatively tall, and the other was more than just relatively short.  The tall man was moustached, with spots of aging on his bare head.  The short man was clean-shaven, with a scalp as fresh as a baby’s buttocks, as though he had spent his entire life out of the damaging rays of the sun.  The tall man seemed fairly bored, and the younger man was obviously excited, not to mention guileless, rubbing his hands together and speaking enthusiastically with a mildly piercing tenor voice.

The taller man was a philatelist, a collector of stamps, who had the fate of ending up in possession of a rare gold coin for which he had no interest.  The shorter man was the numismatist, a collector of coins, who had a personal cache of coins worth about a hundred dollars by their face value, which were, due to their antiquity, worth about a thousand times as much by modern reckoning.  There, before them in a lighted glass case stood a mysterious gold coin, by modern standards roughly made, delicately displayed on a clear acrylic stand.

The numismatist clapped his hands together, said, “I….” and followed his pause with the clicking of heels, as though the thought had passed all the way through his body from hands to feet, merely stopping by the mouth for a brief visit.

“You don’t know what to think of it, do you?” said the philatelist, knowing full well that the coin collector was too proud to admit that he had no idea what he was looking at.  If he had been presented with a stamp that he didn’t recognize, he probably would have retrieved a picture book and attempted to solve the mystery on the spot, but the coin collector was out of his element and could not have found a book on coins at that moment, even if there had existed any book in the world describing this coin, which there hadn’t.

The numismatist paused with a frozen mask of excitement, which broke after a second, when he turned to his friend and asked, “What is it?”

“The coin is one of a kind,” said the philatelist, “No writing exists for it, because there is only one of it, and the only people privileged enough to study it have not been coin collectors.  Novices don’t tend to get their findings published, especially when they aren’t at least hobbyists.”  He pointed to the coin and explained, “This coin has been imprisoned within the private estate of one rich fellow or another for several centuries.  The story of the thing is as much a commodity as the coin, itself.  You must understand that a coin is usually a symbol of wealth.  Real wealth is an abstract thing.  The coin, itself, is nothing.”

“Oh, but I beg to differ!” the other protested.

“And I knew you would,” the philatelist cut him off, “Which is why I thought you would appreciate this thing more than I.  Real property is useful for practical purposes.  The coin is just a liaison between what I give you and what you give me in return.  We might think of it as a potential possession, a temporary substitute for what we really want.”

“But….”

“Yes, I know you beg to differ.  However, before it became a priceless historical treasure, it once was just a smashed lump of metal that symbolized wealth.  This coin, however, was the currency of a special commodity.  It was a symbol of power.  You might call it a diadem, of sorts, or perhaps a signet.  When the Roman Caesars paraded about with fasces held aloft, those bundled axes were the public symbols of power and authority, but in private, this coin was the definitive symbol.  Only the people highest in rank even knew about it, and the thing took an almost mythical significance.  Had the Caesar merely dropped it on the ground and a senator retrieved it immediately, it’s not clear but the senator might have become the new Caesar immediately.  Granted, the right of ownership of the coin was no different from the right of succession, so there’s some dispute as to whether the coin followed the power or the power followed the coin.  In the beginning, there were three of them, one for each member of the Triumvirate.  After the death of Crassus, Julius Caesar had his coin fused with the other.  As you can see, this coin has a double edge, being really two coins joined.  The one belonging to Pompey was lost in battle, we believe, though there are some in the family who have suggested rumor that it eventually ended up in the possession of the tsars of Russia.  As far as I know, this is the only one, or two, depending on how you look at it, left.”

The little man clapped his hands together and mumbled, “Amazing.”  The taller man waited for the chain reaction to pass to the little man’s feet, but when nothing was forthcoming, he nearly resumed his story before being interrupted by a click of the heels.

“Well, I don’t know the full details of this coin’s history, but I understand that it eventually ended up in the hands of one named Frederick Barbarossa, who thought that it lent him the authority to retake the full territory of the old Roman Empire.  His attempted crusade to Jerusalem was merely the excuse for his eastward push.  Naturally, he sacked Constantinople as a matter of due course, because he deemed it a natural part of his domain.  He figured that because he owned the coin, he therefore had a right to the land.  After the old fool managed to drown himself in a lake, an insightful general took from his person this coin, before they threw the corpse in a barrel and pickled it.  I suppose some would consider it a shame to have buried this in a barrel under the Dome Of The Rock, where the king’s body was placed.

“Some time after that, it found its way into a Prussian nobleman’s hands, and from there it ended up in the possession of Kaiser Wilhelm.  Naturally, wherever the coin went, the story followed.  Otherwise, I would not be able to tell you this story, and we’d be dealing with a mysterious coin of unknown origin.  Likely, I would have traded it in for something I could actually spend at the store.”

“You wouldn’t!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“Of course I would,” rebutted the philatelist, “How many perfectly good stamps go to waste for the practical purpose of postage every year?  For the same reason, I’d rather use a coin for its intended purpose than have it lying around collecting dust.”

“It’s a precious relic!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“It’s money!” replied the philatelist with matched enthusiasm.  “What good is it if I can’t spend it?”

“But this isn’t money,” objected the little man, “It’s the mark of a king.  It marks the seal of a royal decree.  This is a piece of history.”

“Even so, it is useless to me,” said the taller man.

“Then sell it to me!” said the coin collector.

“It will cost you several thousand dollars,” warned the stamp collector.

“I have stamps!” offered the little man, pulling out a wad of mishandled used stamps.  “To me, they are just pictures printed on stickers, but I’m sure they must be worth a trade.”

“Unfortunately,” said the philatelist with a touch of contempt, “those particular stamps are just a bunch of pictures on stickers to me, too.  I don’t have much use for recent printings of generic postage.  I would much rather sell it to someone willing to pay with modern cash.”

Eventually, the terms for the transfer of ownership were made between the two, amounting to the cost of a new car.  During that time, outside by the numismatist’s car, his chauffeur and the other man’s butler were having a discussion on the matter.  Naturally, the question came up as to the matter being discussed in the drawing-room.  The chauffeur asked the butler what he knew of the matter, to which the butler replied that the little man was being sold a story.

The driver’s face registered a certain shock, and he pushed his hat back on his head.  “Surely you don’t mean the poor little chap is getting taken, do you?”

“Well,” said the butler “My employer tells me that the coin is nothing but the object of a story, and that it is really the story that is being sold, in this case.  He tells me that it is nothing but a flat piece of metal with a vague design.  If it weren’t for the tale that went with it, your master would not have thought it worth anything.”

“But, he’s an expert on coins!” remarked the chauffeur.

“Hence the need for the tale,” replied the butler.

“This is wretched!” exclaimed the chauffeur.

At this, the butler began to feel that he had possibly jeopardized his own employment.  “Listen, please don’t let on.  If word gets out that I spilled the beans, I’ll lose my job.”

“But this is unjust!” exclaimed the chauffeur.  “My boss is getting ripped off by yours, and you expect me to do nothing about it?”

The butler was beginning to sweat profusely, and he raced through his options, scrambling in his mind for a way to save his career.

Just then, the two wealthy hobbyists left the building, talking about this prize.  The philatelist was just then making a final statement.  “Now, I’m not superstitious, but the legend with this coin is that it tends to pass through the hands of great people, anointing them to positions of power whither it goes.  Though it never made me a king, I might ask that if you should find yourself the head of Europe some day that you would kindly remember the one who helped you get there.”  He paused for effect, and then grinned at his own dry humor.

The numismatist burst into giggles and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for the sale, the noise of which just managed to cover a muttered string of obscenities from the chauffeur.  The butler took note of the chauffeur’s response, though, and he turned as white as a sheet.  The little man hopped into the car with his prized possession and admired it for the first few miles of his return home.  It was then that the chauffer broke the news to him.  He told his employer that the butler had warned him that the story surrounding the coin was just a fabrication concocted to sell this worthless mintage.  In a matter of a few minutes, the poor man went from pure joy to a fit of depression.

“It’s not even real?” the numismatist whined.  “I should have known.  Here, I call myself an expert on coins, and I let myself be taken by a fancy tale!”  He knew that he would not have the assertiveness to cancel the check or fight for his money and his dignity back.  Instead, he chalked it up as a learning experience and rudely tossed the coin upon a bible that lay flat on his dresser at home.  There, it rested untouched for many years, until the man eventually passed away at a ripe old age.

The estate sale was a fancy one, garnering quite a load of money for its furniture and valuable coins.  In that sale the aforementioned coin, the signet of a suzerain, was sold for almost nothing.  No one knew what it was, so no one could possibly know what it was worth.  They might have guessed that it was real gold, but one might have difficulty assaying the gold content of a coin while at an estate sale.  They could have guessed it was valuable by who owned it, but the story would still have been lost.  Indeed, it was the story that sold the coin, but the butler had misread his employer’s disdain for the thing as meaning that it wasn’t really worth anything.  The story had been quite true, and it had miraculously survived for nearly two thousand years, only to die at the hands of a disillusioned numismatist.  He had found his treasure, only to discard it as a trinket.  Consequently, the story behind the coin was lost forever.

[/fiction]


It is the burning desire of the modern human to pursue poetry, but it is the staunch habit of such people to accept only prose.  We all yearn for magic and intrigue, yet we only trust the dullest, most ordinary explanation of things.  We think we are more rational for rejecting the miraculous and accepting readily the common.  However, true rationality is a firmly supported line of reasoning leading to a conclusion.  Yet, we jump to accept the prosaic understanding without sufficient evidence, and we so quickly dismiss a history when it offers us too much charm or mystery.  This is the sickness of modernism.  It is pessimism that parades itself as Reason.

But, for practical purposes, we could say that apart from the story the thing really was just a coin.  In fact it was just a lump of metal, which just happened to be gold, an ore more abundant than tin and far more valuable just because people believed that it was valuable.  Take away the subjective belief, and all we’re left with is a dead thing that isn’t really useful for much.  Its practical value is not much.  Everything lies in what people believe about it.  A human can be reduced to a sack of chemicals.  A home is just a pile of bricks.  A planet is just a lump of dirt, and we’re all just a bunch of lucky monsters that chanced to form, that we might crawl over this clod and devour what we could.  This is the most prosaic way of looking at things, and our culture readily accepts it as the most logical truth, even if it is a baseless lie.  This is modernism: if something sounds magical, then it must not be true.

Therefore any history, no matter how true it may be, is threatened with certain death if it offers even a glimmer of something truly wonderful.





Assimilation and Regurgitation

16 05 2009

While it is true that you are what you eat, it is not true that a person who eats strictly beef will become a bull.  Every ounce of muscle on your body existed at one time as the flesh of some other animal, mostly, and to a lesser extent the flesh of a plant.  Vegetarians can claim exception to this.  This meat that we eat does not retain its original form when we incorporate it into ourselves.  People are well aware of this on the macroscopic level, that one does not simply take a side of beef and slap it onto one’s shoulder to increase the volume of that muscle.  People seem less aware of this principle on the biochemical level.  Every now and then I hear about how some food or supplement is supposed to be good for me because it contains some necessary enzyme.  It plays heavily on ignorance.  Enzymes (not to be confused with coenzymes) are molecular machines, working to perform precise functions, and they are tightly controlled by hormones and other enzymes to keep them from performing those functions too well, too weakly, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and so on.  Survival depends on these things doing exactly what they were intended to do.  They exist in abundance within and without the cell.  Everything that a living thing does happens as the result of one or more enzymes.  All actions, even life itself, are the work of enzymes. 

 A slab of steak is loaded with enzymes, but these were made by the beef, for the beef.  If our bodies were to simply accept them in their native form, attempting to use them as the animal did, we would, most likely, die.  If you cut your shoulder open and inserted a steak, you’d be left with a festering, rotting wound.  It doesn’t belong there.  If you break it down into its constituent enzymes and insert it into your body, it would also not belong there.  The material must be broken down into its most basic form before it can be used to construct a proper human body.  It must be chewed and fully digested, assimilated and then reconstructed to fit seamlessly into the human form.  Anything that doesn’t get fully digested ends up in the toilet.  Without full processing, it does not get absorbed.

 My organic chemistry professor, years ago, stressed repeatedly the importance of understanding over knowledge.  He gave one example of a chemical reaction in class, but he used a different example in the test.  Without understanding, a person could not make the mental jump from one example to another.  I remember my classmates using flashcards to memorize all of the different chemical reactions.  Everyone who studied this way did very badly on the test.  I heard someone complaining that the reaction mentioned in the test was not mentioned in class or in any of the texts.  The reaction wasn’t mentioned, but the underlying principle was addressed extensively.  It was explained in terms of other molecules and other reactions.  In a sense, logic trumped memorization.  Flash cards did not yield problem solving skills.  If anything, they interfered.  Understanding came from breaking down the examples to their constituent principles, and using those principles to reconstruct an understanding of different reactions in different situations.  If I learned a concept using acetate as an example, then I had better be prepared for similar reactions where acetate is not even involved.  The test question might make no mention of acetate, but it might require the use of the same principle reaction.

 Digestion is key.  Everything must be broken down into fundamental principles and then reconstructed to fit our own situation.

 Similarly, many Christians rely heavily upon memorization of scripture.  Those who do are still faring better than most “Bible-believing” Christians, who never read the Bible.  However, walking around with memorized verses is one step up from walking around with a Bible under one arm.  We treat scripture like a talisman.  If ever we meet a demon or some monster in the dark, we’ll be ready to show him our Bible and quote our verses.  Yet, anyone can quote verses but have a godless heart.  My aunt was taken in by a scripture-quoting gigolo.  My wife received a sales-pitch from a scripture-quoting scam artist.  I see people online trying to impress other Christians with their ever-ready employment of relevant Bible verses, as though a person couldn’t simply copy and paste verses at will from an online concordance.  It’s very easy, really.  One hardly needs to have a biblical view of their own on a subject these days.  If someone gives you a question, then you give them a Bible verse.  If they question it, then you shrug your shoulders and say, “It’s in the Bible.”  Do you hide behind a mask of papier-mâché,  made from pages of the Bible?

 I’ve seen bloggers fill an entire post with a quote from an online news source.  At the end of this, they post one or two sentences of their own opinion.  Wholesale quotes of any source at all amount to nothing but a regurgitation of information.  It comes out in smaller pieces, but it remains distinctly identifiable for what it was.  I am not impressed with academic vomit.  I only care about the condition of a person’s mind that leads to the construction of his own original thoughts.  The essential ideas can be borrowed,  but they should be digested, assimilated and then synthesized to fit the exact situation at hand.  Anything less is not real understanding.

 The Bible says nothing on abortion.  The word does not exist anywhere in there.  No quote will suffice.  However, the concepts necessary to make a judgment in the matter are spoken plainly in the Bible.  I know the biblical stance on the matter, because I understand the underlying principles.

 The Bible makes a huge list of sexual sins.  At first glance, the list appears to be exhaustive.  However, I’m sure that there are highly creative people in the world who can invent myriad ways to gratify themselves without ever once violating a stated restriction in the Bible.  Does that make it acceptable to God?  Probably not.  If we rely strictly on quotes, then we leave room for loopholes.  If we give no care to the underlying spirit of the scripture, then it is only because we do not love it enough to swallow it, digest it and incorporate it into everything that we are.

 This is not to say that we should not quote scripture.  This is to say that the commentary that we place before and after the scripture should be just as laden with the very same principles that gave rise to the scripture, itself.  In truth, our words hold the potential to be even more relevant than the scripture, itself.  Before you stone me, hear me out.  Paul wrote his epistles to other people in another place at another time.  He wasn’t writing to us, but everything he said is useful for learning and developing a sound theology.  It is this theology that must be used to make assessments of our current situation.  We must use this theology to make statements regarding the world around us.  Scripture is a toolbox for building who we are and designing what we do.  Don’t hand me a pile of tools and expect me to be impressed with your handiwork.

 Let your theology be made manifest in all that you say.  Take ownership of your own words, instead of hiding behind someone else’s.  If you really believe the scriptures, then they will naturally slip into the words you use, without really trying.  They may not look like the original text, but the intent of the verses should be there all the same.

 Walking around with chapter and verse dangling from my phrases is like leaving the price tag attached to my clothes, like I haven’t broken them in, and I’m thinking of returning them for a refund.

peacocksig