By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Ever since Jesus walked on water according to the gospel writers, people have been trying to imitate this feat with or without devices. Leonardo da Vinci designed pontoons for this purpose on paper, as he did for his flying machine, and Yoav Rosen holds U.S. Patent #3783532 for water shoes he’s proud to demonstrate on video. Water shoes are similar to ski shoes, which prevent sinking in soft snow. Some insects are able to sit or walk on water with the aid of surface tension, but the water strider has the advantage of a small body mass held up by tiny air bubbles trapped in its leg hairs.
We can only speculate on how Jesus walked on water. He’s mentioned hardly at all by historians of his period, unlike Caesar Augustus, Jesus being, you see, unimportant. Josephus, the Jewish historian Joseph who turned to a Roman coat to survive, refers to Jesus and his followers in two brief passages. The “historical Jesus” are those events in the gospels we find credible. Followers of the prophet memorized events and speeches, as did the followers of Socrates, Buddha, and Mohammed; later the gospel writers wrote these memories down, hardly following the example of Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War, whose language they used.
The accuracy of memories is doubtful, especially when collected under the influence. Some scholars argue that Jesus never existed, critics in the club who also say Homer and Shakespeare were conjured by other writers. The same will be said about me some day; but now I want to show you how to tread water on pontoons, to delve into intuition and mysticism to advantage, without soaking or drowning.
On religion I possess the faith of the water strider. In his essay Mysticism and Logic, Bertrand Russell paraded the evils of mysticism and the virtues of logic. Also in Why I am not a Christian, Russell selected instances of Christian defects, such as the cursing of the fig tree by Jesus, to castigate all of the Christian faith. More recently, in The God Delusion, a bestselling book, Richard Dawkins, a noted British biologist and atheist, argued against religion of any sort, condemning religion because of its evolutionary faux pas.
Only a fool in delusion denies evolution shaped our bodies; but a bigger fool denies the existence of our spirits, which evolved more recently since civilization began, ten thousand years or so ago. I published my impartial views on religion in my weighty volume The God Connection, ignored by the larger public, as the observations of Galileo, the paintings of van Gogh, and the poems of Shelley or Whitman languished in obscurity for a time. It follows, logically, that my writings, since they are not widely recognized for their eminence now, will be much admired posthumously–lucky me.
This essay is on a tangent with The God Connection, extending some of my ideas on the values in religion, with reservations. Religion is neither bad nor good; it’s practice is, as it is the practice of any art or science: painting, music, literature, medicine, law, engineering, or politics. My bend is scientific, rather than poetic. Formalized science is logical, organized, systematic, objective, and factual, as it should be. Science and technology in the making are none of these things. When we explore for new things in science and technology, we delve in mysticism: the unreal, the romantic, the realm of dreams.
Children are naturally good at exploring, becoming creative, playful, adventurous, and daring–children having recently arrived from another universe. As we grow in our abilities and learn facts and theories discovered by others, we are at risk of losing our creative impulse and becoming scholars–experts in canned knowledge. On a journey to discovery, throw away your clothes, shed your skin, even tread water, on pontoons. Oh yes, you also face the risk of drowning, most unpleasant.
With my views on religion, I would find myself in a most unpleasant situation in another time or place, burned at the stake or mercifully locked up in an asylum. Arguing about the existence of God is amusing. God exists if you or I declare so, and we project our image of God to the world. If we deny God, we do away with the ideals associated with Divinity. I have a God delusion, if I forget God springs from within me, and I confuse the outer universe with my inner one. Most insanities are caused by such a confusion of feelings and thoughts with the material world outside.
It’s insanity to argue about the substance of God, once we have accepted that He exists. Is God a Triad, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? I get belly laughs reading about wars waged in old Europe over this issue, and whether the whole of religious truth lies only in the Bible or also in the writings of the Holy Fathers, the early bishops of the Christian Church. Muslims in Asia these days wage battles, one sect of Islam against another, Sunni against Shia, Shia and Sunni against Sufi and Sikh, derivatives of Islam and Hinduism, like the derivatives in financial markets, created instruments of faith. I have faith in what I think, otherwise I might as well hang my head out to dry, but you will not find me amongst my enemies, those of different opinion, strapped with explosives other than my words.
I hold the opinion that God is good, that Allah is compassionate and merciful, that Zeus is powerful indeed, Athena wise, Aphrodite beautiful, Hepheastus industrious, Hermes fast, and Apollo gracious, such ideal beings possessing all the qualities I desire for myself and my fellow humans. What you believe is the Holy Truth; what I believe is a myth. Give me the power of the myth, anytime, but don’t expect me to submit myself for martyrdom to defend my myth.
Chester Carlson believed in the myth of success and money, that they would give him happiness and fulfillment. An admirer of Thomas Edison, he believed as a young man that a major invention, like xerography, would benefit himself and others. A child of poor and sickly parents, he worked his way through school and earned a California Institute of Technology BS degree in physics in 1930. At work in Bell Labs, he found his job dull and was laid off in one year, so he studied law and became a patent attorney.
On the side, Carlson labored for years to develop xerography in his apartment and for more years to have it accepted for further refinement and marketing by a small maker of camera film, Haloid Corporation (many major corporations turned him down). Haloid became Xerox, making billions for investors and a large fortune for Carlson and his wife Dorris. This inventor dealt with myths as much as with science. He would not have achieved what he did in spite of adversity, without the power of faith. Carlson, sickly with arthritis and overwork, died in a movie theater in 1968; he was 62.
Before his death Chester and Dorris waded deep into the occult, sinking under dark waters; they also embraced Eastern religions with the enticing lure of reincarnation. Carlson endowed a chair for Ian Stevenson, psychiatrist MD at the University of Virginia for research in reincarnation. Stevenson worked on past life memories (regression), not with adults in hypnosis, but with children between ages two and four in a normal state of consciousness. What is a better source of evidence for past lives, babbling babies or dopey adults? Another source of information about the survival of the human personality comes from the memories of people who were clinically death for a while and revived, memories reported as near-death experiences. That’s evidence we can rely on, right? Give me a break.
Chester and Dorris Carlson left their fortune to the Vedanta Center in Chicago, the Rochester Zen Center, and other charities.
I’m no Chester Carlson, endangering my health and longevity for money and success to leave my fortune to charity. I feel for the poor and unfortunate, but let them emulate Carlson a little and do for themselves what is necessary, for starters by limiting the size of their families. Those among us who have been unfortunate don’t need more money, but more training in the can-do attitudes of their fellow Americans, such as we have seen in some African-American and Hispanic communities: pride is the key. Those escaping poverty will then become less apt to meet with misfortune in future.
The poor would get less poor if they worked harder, spent less money, saved, and quit smoking, liquor, junk food, and other vices. They will not move to do these things as long as they have enough help given them by the rest of us. We need to leave the poor with a little less than enough help, as I do with my grown children.
As to Chester Carlson’s belief in reincarnation, that was a delusion, because he took the notion of a rebirth of the spirit too seriously. George Patton, the great American general of WWII fame, in his poem “Through a Glass, Darkly,” depicts himself as the reincarnation of soldiers from the past, dying in battle and becoming reborn to die again in the future. Yes, we have many indications of something like reincarnation going on in the world, but I don’t take the idea seriously, until we have sufficient proof of the matter. I try not to take anything too seriously.
As a teenager I became ambitious and serious, largely losing my childish playfulness. I was sober until late in life, when I decided that nothing in the universe is worthy of a totally serious look: neither taxes, nor death; neither illness, nor aging; neither poverty, nor riches; neither disasters, nor calm. The universe is indifferent to us, so I would be indifferent to it, no matter what it threw at me. Better still I would try to poke fun at the world, its chanciness, caprice, idiocy, nonsense, and inevitable doom.
Scientists and prophets agree on doom. Your body and mine, our families, nation, planet, sun, even the stars like diamonds in the sky are all destined for the cosmic garbage dump. Scientists say nothing is left after the destruction of our bodies except chemical elements, because scientists are well trained in materialism. Prophets (and I) say: some things of inestimable value are spirited away to an ideal world without time or end, because we’re well trained in optimism.
We can find more than doom, nonsense, and indifference in the world, if we imagine virtue, beauty, and goodness and project these ideals outward with words and actions. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. There is a God, because Divinity springs from our hearts out to the world and changes the world into becoming Heaven. I’m not an atheist or a theist in the sense of any particular religion. Jehovah rules. Krishna is the fountain of life. Allah is Great and Mohammed is His Prophet. Jesus is the Son of God. We are all of us children of God. All these beliefs are fine, but what we say and do next is the key to enlightenment.
Late in my life, I found enlightenment, illumination, epiphany–in my own way. Follow me. I have growing inside of me a bit of Heaven, the size of a mustard seed, barely sprouting, but keeping me in peace and joy nearly all the time, and nearly under all circumstances. I don’t attach myself to any dogma about the after life, because I have no fear of death or anything else. Fear does approach my house sometimes; but I don’t allow fear inside. If fear has sneaked in, I pick up such a big stick, fear is out in no time. I don’t, it follows, assume religion because of fear. I subscribe, however, to no particular religion; I pick and choose those moral teachings in the expressions of all major philosophies, arts, literature, and religions which make sense to me.
Islam (maligned these days because of al-Quaeda), Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, all have much in common, because the source is the same, tribalism perhaps, or a Supreme Being. Religions say their truths are revealed, not discovered. I accept revelation, wary of its limitations. The prophets were inspired, but there was much noise and interference in the transmission channel. Judging from what I read in the scriptures, ours and theirs, a message of a sort came to the prophets, but the static was bad. “Thou shalt not kill—whz, bzz, crck.” “Love thy neighbor as thyself—st, wt, rp.”
If you’re a prophet, it’s hard to make out the message, so you commit poetry. The Koran, great Arabic poetry, has no more offensive language and stories than the Bible I was taught. Offense lies in taking up arms against good people of a different religion and butchering them in the name of a compassionate and merciful God. Christians have shown no more mercy towards Muslims than Muslims toward Christians. Hindus (and Buddhists) are more to my liking, unless in India they attack mosques, burning and killing their Indian brothers who pray to Allah.
Goethe said Mozart proved the existence of God. Mendelssohn, Gauss, Beethoven, van Gogh, and every great genius we have produced as a species supports the same thesis. Some musical passages, certain paintings (like those of El Greco or van Gogh), or a few scenes in nature are like glimpses into Heaven.
Atheists say, these geniuses are simply the outcome of a rare and fortuitous combination of genes and influences. Think again, my friend, how rare genius would be that way—more rare than a dozen chimps pounding on keyboards and producing the works of Shakespeare—given sufficient time. Indications are that genius (a household deity to the Romans) enters some people when young and receptive to the source of it, whatever you want to call the source: God, Universal Intelligence, or Fountainhead, dear Ayn Rand.
Atheists argue against theists and the reverse, one side never persuading the other to change opinions. Theists were persuaded by parents, godparents, teachers, or members of the cloth that God exists and God is good; they stick to what they have been taught. Atheists, almost invariably, revolted against such persuasion when young and naturally rebellious, after seeing the mistakes of the doctrine being stuffed into them or the errors of their organized religion, such as priests sexually molesting children. Bertrand Russell, as a young orphan, writes in his Autobiography about being raised by his pious grandparents in so heavy a religious atmosphere, such that he could not endure it. I argue against atheists and against theists, but mostly against idiocy and cruelty, whatever the source.
I approach my terminal station hopeful but rational; I reach the other shore, treading water on pontoons.
I preach and practice benevolence towards all who would do no harm to me or mine. I even forgive those who have damaged me, but who cease and desist after I have forgiven them. If they don’t, I turn my other side to them. God help them save their souls; their asses belong to me (as Warden Norton said to his prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption). I believe in self defense, a universal right, under the self-evident truth of justice.
I believe that freedom of body, mind, and spirit is more precious than life itself for me and my innocent fellow humans, an ideal worth fighting for.
I believe, with Plato, that our worthy ideas, our ideals, are imperishable, remaining after us to guide others on the path of virtue.
I believe it’s possible everything in the universe is spiritual, nothing material. After all, matter is not that solid, particles are waves, and the opposite, as photons are electromagnetic waves, including light. The world we experience and know is Mind more than Matter; but as I’m not a Christian Scientist, put me down for a blood transfusion, if I need it.
I believe nothing is lost in the universe, only recycled; pollute not but recycle everything as God recycles our spirits, recycle everything we use on Earth, and Earth will be Paradise again.