Debbie

I had a sister. She was there when I was born. That means she was older than me. But I didn’t know that yet. I figured that out later.

She was just there. We were together a lot, she and I. We were both scared shitless. She must have been a bit more prepared than I was, given that she was about 2 years older than me. But when it came, I am sure it hit her too.

For me, I was seven. I remember it all perfectly, but filtered through the lenses of a seven year old’s eyes. So my memory may be imperfect. Whatever. What I have is the emotional impact.

My mother was everything to me. She took care of us. Most importantly, she protected us from the Bad Man, my father. When he was around, it was like being in the presence of a Saturnine god. You simply tried to get out of the way. He was a force of nature, and the brunt was mostly born by Mommy.

Neither Debbie nor I knew that though. We were small, so we had yet to figure out that Daddy was hurting Mommy. All we knew was that Daddy was hurting us. And Mommy was there to protect us.

Then, one day, she wasn’t.

Later, I figured out that she tried to kill herself. She took an overdose of Miltown and put herself into a coma. For a while, they weren’t sure she was going to make it. But she did. After that, they put her into an insane asylum for a while, and while she was there, they shocked her brain so much that when she came home, she did not know our names.

The “our” is important. The “our”, that was Debbie and me.

We clung to each other. I suspect she thought that she was my mother at times. Certainly, she tried very hard to fill that role for me, which was so empty due to my absent mother. But she must have needed her mother too. I did not know that at the time, though. All I could think about was me, and how much I was a scared, hurting, lonely little boy. We were as close during that time as it is possible for two people to be in that situation, I suspect. We became a tiny little village of two. I am sure I am alive today because of her love and support of me during this time.

Later, we became rivals. I was her annoying little brother, who was always trying to tag along with her. (It’s true, actually.) She did take me on many, many adventures in the wondrous lands we found ourselves in. We explored Europe together when we were small. Later, during the 60s, when we were in high school, we were in Taiwan. A paradise for an American teenager to grow up in.

When I was officially pronounced to be a genius at the age of 12 (parents: please spare your children this little maneuver; trust me, even if they are smart don’t ever do this to them), the rivalry really began. I was always the pet after that, and Debbie hated it. I was my parents favorite, the boy genius who would do amazing things one day.

I got into Duke. She didn’t. That was it. She went off to USC Columbia and I went to Duke. For two years, we barely spoke. After that, I had caught up with her gradewise. She and I both graduated from undergraduate school in the same year, and we both went to law school together.

The years passed. She got a job. I got a job. We saw each other. Most of the time, we lived in the same city. I accused her of following me around, and she did the same to me. But we still weren’t really close.

Then one day, I got the call. I knew that Debbie was now employed as an assistant DA in Dallas. She was also married to a guy I considered to be an asshole. I was also married at that time (to my second wife) and living in Longview, Texas. That marriage was not going well. Neither was my job actually. And, randomly, Debbie calls me to talk about stuff.

I did not have time for her. I was rude to her, actually. The next phone call I received was from my Mom telling me that Debbie had committed suicide the night before. I may have been the last person she spoke to on this earth.

Can you imagine how that feels? Unfortunately, I don’t need to. I feel that feeling every single day.

My son told me yesterday that Debbie’s death was not my fault. Intellectually, I know that. But it doesn’t feel that way. I still feel the wrenching, gut busting pain of hearing that the person I had been closest to, for the longest period of my life, up to that point at least, was gone. Simply gone. And I never knew that it was even coming. It hit me like a strategic nuclear bomb. Especially the fact that she turned to me, relied on me as probably the person in whom she placed her greatest trust. And I failed her in that moment.

More later.

Demented

My Christian friend Ray and I have been having an interesting debate on the nature of early Christian attitudes on sexuality and women. I maintain, based upon my reading of Karen Armstrong, largely, that in the area of sexuality the early Christians, especially of the Latin persuasion, were, well, deranged is the word I think I used. I also might have said contemptible. Stuff like that.

Ray bristled a bit, so I thought I would see if I could justify my proposition in this blog post. So here goes.

My first contention would be that early Christians did not need to display a consistently contemptible attitude concerning sexuality and women in order to be considered deranged. It is sufficient if they display misogynistic, bigoted and  unbalanced attitudes a sufficiently large percentage of the time. Consider the example of Hitler. No one would seriously maintain that Hitler was not deranged. However, I have read many accounts of folks who interacted with Hitler and found him utterly charming. This included folks who had every reason to hate Hitler, but when they were in his presence, they frequently found him agreeable to be with. Odd, but true.

The fact is: Most of the time Hitler was fine. But not always. A sufficiently large percentage of the time he was a monster.

So it goes with things like sexuality. It is a private matter after all. Much of the time, attitudes which are expressed may be very appropriate. But once in a while, truer colors will emerge. Let’s look at a few of the quotes from the early Christians concerning sexuality.

In fact, let’s start with the New Testament. Here are a few of my favorite verses concerning sexuality:

  • Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 1 Corinthians 7:1
  • I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 1 Corinthians 7:8
  • …and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake … Matthew 19:12

That last one is really sweet. Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian father, famously castrated himself because he believed that he was guaranteed entrance into the kingdom of heaven if he denied himself sexual temptation. (Apparently, this was a fairly common practice among the early Christians, so much so that the Council of Nicea in 325 declared that a man who had castrated himself was barred from the priesthood.) Later, Origen was a huge influence on Augustine, who was the most important person in Christian theology (especially in the Latin side) concerning sin, sexuality, and women.

OK, then let’s look at Augustine. He actually maintained that one should keep what he called “sexual continence” in marriage. In other words, the marital partners are not supposed to have sex at all, but should deny themselves sex for spiritual purposes. This one I find actually dangerous. I have encountered many relationships in which one or the other of the partners did not wish to have sex with their partner any longer, but still wished to stay married and receive financial support, and such. This sort of theology provides ample religious “cover” for that partner to weasel out of sleeping with their wife or husband. (I have actually been in this position myself, and surprisingly, I was the one denying sex to my partner, not vice versa. More on this later.) For Augustine, though, sexuality was sin, pure and simple. He became celibate the moment he became a Christian.

Tertullian, a bit later than Augustine, said the following concerning sexuality and women:

Do you not realise that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child’s play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die.

That last one is rather depressingly typical, so I will not include too many more. Here is one from St. John Chrystostom:

What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature painted with fair colours!

And then we get to Jerome, whose attitudes on women were so over the top, it is not even necessary to quote him. (Although that can be fun as well.) Some of his attitudes are enough:

  • Jerome regarded women who wore cosmetics as “poultices of lust”.
  • Women were gateways to the devil, the sting of the scorpion, and the way of evil.

I am not sure if it is necessary to continue, but I will throw in one more from Pope Gregory I:

Sexual pleasure can never be without sin.

And there it is. The identification of sexuality and sexual pleasure, and most especially in early Christianity heterosexual sexuality, as sin. And this is very relevant for me, as I am aggressively and stubbornly heterosexual. (Technically, I believe that I have a new sexual orientation I call a “one woman man”. More on this later.)

I will simply not survive or thrive in a movement which regards heterosexual activity, even in marriage, as sinful. Sorry, guys, not going for that.

More later.

The Village State

I have previously mentioned my idea of the Village State. In this post, I will flesh out this concept.

In 2011, I became aware of the area of anthropology and it’s exploration of the impact of agriculture on human culture. This occurred in a rather interesting way. I have always been looking for a nutritional lifestyle (I hate the term diet) which would be optimal for my health. My doctor recommended a book called The Paleo Diet by Dr. Loren Cordain. The basic idea is that the illnesses of mankind are the result of the agricultural experiment, which occurred in approximately 15,000 BC. This is when man discovered agriculture. The development of agriculture led to the abandonment of traditional hunter / gatherer lifestyles, and instead folks settled down and tilled the land. Eventually, this led to urban development, high technology, and the culture we know today.

Pre-agricultural humans are referred to by anthropologists as paleolithic (which means “old man”). Post-agricultural humans (like us) are referred to as neolithic (which means “new man”). Interestingly, the fossil record is very clear: Paleolithic humans were very healthy. Typically, paleolithic humans had the musculature and skeleton structure of an olympic athlete. Also, if paleolithic individuals did not die of some unnatural cause (a relatively common occurrence in paleolithic society), they lived to be quite old, often into the low 100s. Once the agricultural revolution took hold, though, things went south quickly: The leading cause of death rapidly became dental cavities, as a result of the high carbohydrate diet neolithic humans ate. Lifespans plummeted into the 30s. Early neolithic humans literally lay down and slept in their animals’ manure. This caused all of the devastating human diseases we know of to jump from livestock animals into humans.

Cordain’s plan is quite simple: Emulate the dietary lifestyle of a paleolithic human and you will be healthy. This involves eating lots of animal protein (the hunter part of the equation, after all), but this must be of very high quality. Then in addition to that, you eat lots and lots of green leafy vegetables and fresh fruit.

I am not sure if this diet is for everyone, but it is definitely for me. Since I have been following this diet, my weight has declined steadily. As of this writing, I have lost 68 pounds. In addition, all of my health problems have steadily declined at the same time. Right now, I feel like I did when I was in my early 30s, and I am 58.

This result got my attention so I started to look at the impact of the agricultural experiment in other areas of human life and culture. One thing I looked at is religion.

Interestingly, almost all anthropologists agree: Paleolithic humans do not practice religion in the manner we do at all. They are simply not religious. That is not to say that they are not spiritual. An aboriginal Australian for example lives in a vivid and rich spiritual world which is even more real to him / her than the physical world we live in and relate to. However, one of the essential elements in religion is the concept of sin or brokenness, basically a loss of contact with the divine. A longing if you will to reconnect with something mystical which has been profoundly lost. Christians refer to this as the fall. The Buddha refers to this as suffering. Hindus call it the vail of tears. Other religions call it other things, but the experience is universal.

Why do the paleolithic humans not experience this feeling of loss and longing for the divine? Simple: They have not lost it in the first place. I call this the Village State.

Imagine living in a place where everyone you know is a member of your family. You are born. There are some folks who are there then. They are older than you. Once in a while, one of them dies and they are not there anymore. But new babies are born after you. They are younger than you. Thus, there are only two kinds of people: Family members who are your elders, and other family members who are younger than you. But either way, you have been in the presence of these people every single day of your entire life.

In this situation, there is no property. Everything is held in common and used by all, especially the Earth itself. Also, there is no loneliness. There is no search for significance or meaning in life, because life has meaning and significance: The meaning is the village itself.

A good example of this is the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. This movie is about a paleolithic tribe called the Sho that lives in Southern Africa. They live in the Village State. They are completely devoid of violence, property, technology, and such things. The hardest thing in their environment is wood. One day, a pilot passing over throws a Coke bottle out of the plane. Suddenly, a miraculous object is thrust into their midst! It is so hard! It is so shiny! They have never seen anything like it. But there is only one of them, which means that for the first time there is contention for a material possession. This leads to jealousy, and eventually to violence, also unknown to them. They decide that this object is evil. The Gods must be crazy to send it to them. They must send someone to get rid of it.

They send out one of their own named Xi to take this evil thing and cast it over the end of the world, where it will not trouble anyone else. And so the adventure begins.

In the movie, one of the interesting things is that everyone who meets Xi loves him immediately. It is his innocence and gentleness that wins them over. He simply loves everyone, and is constantly trying to do the most helpful thing possible. And he is completely selfless. He does not know how to be any other way.

Now imagine a world populated by paleolithic humans, and the Roman Empire happens. Entire villages are ripped out of their ancestral lands and sold into slavery. They are thrust into Roman cities which were certainly among the most horrific conditions faced by humans in our species’ sordid history. Imagine the loss of meaning and significance and the profound loneliness of being surrounded by strangers (and strangers who obviously mean you no good) for the first time in your life.

In my view (and this is my opinion, nothing more), this is the source for the concept of sin. Effectively, the human perception of sin is the due to the isolation, loneliness, and suffering that is occasioned by the loss of the Village State. This incredibly powerful event led to so much longing, sadness, alienation and suffering that it infected our entire race. The impact has been different on different parts of the world, but one thing has been common: The transition from paleolithic to neolithic lifestyles is deeply traumatic, and certainly resulted in the profound feelings of despair, isolation and loss that are associated with the concept of sin.

These are precisely the conditions described by Rodney Stark in Cities of God that the early Christians faced. Christianity prevailed, and prevailed mightily, in the first 3 centuries AD because it recreated the Village State for many, many folks. Again, folks in early Roman cities would have been very receptive to anyone who would show them love. In fact, they would have been desperate for it. Stark describes how early Christians would go into the homes of their pagan neighbors who were dying of the plague, and bring them a warm blanket and a hot bowl of soup. Imagine that as a gospel message!

I have experienced this as well, as I have written previously in this blog. It is entirely possible that Christianity saved my life in exactly the manner I describe above. I was certainly a shattered and broken young man when the Church came into my life. I will readily admit that I am grateful for that, and perhaps what I am doing now seems like a betrayal to that great good which I received at that point in my life.

But, alas, things are simply either true or they are not. My research has led me to conclude that the fundamental underpinnings of Western European Modern Evangelical Protestant Christianity are simply false, or at best unprovable propositions which are spectacularly unlikely. I will be exploring these as we go through the survey of scripture as I discussed in my previous post.

More later.

The Plan

OK, I’m back. I had a little meltdown after that last post, but I’m OK, now.

I have been cogitating on a plan to discover the Non-Cultural Truth (in this post I shall refer to this as the NCT). For a definition of what I mean by the NCT, you should read my previous post entitled Clouds. The gist is that collections like the Bible, the Koran, and so forth have some essence of truth in them, but this is colored and distorted by the culture of religion. What I seek, what I so desperately want to find, vain though my effort might be, is that divine essence, the essential truth, stripped of all of the religious garb.

I am trying to find a way to explore this quest. One idea I have is to examine all of the various works of religion and philosophy which one would imagine might contain some of this stuff. Candidates for inclusion would include:

  • The Hebrew bible, which is the scripture for Judaism, as well as being the Christian Old Testament
  • The New Testament
  • The Koran

That’s about it for the major monotheistic religions. I suppose we would have to include the Eastern religions as well:

And perhaps we should include philosophy. I find the modern philosophers profoundly depressing, but I would certainly include a couple of the ancient ones:

I would propose to peruse these works, pull out the gems and discuss them on this blog. Let me know your thoughts on this idea, please.

Forgiveness

I forgave my father today. I had compassion for him and understood him for the first time. This is an amazing event given that my father cheated on my mother almost my entire childhood, and continued to do so (with some of the nastiest women I ever saw) until his deathbed. Also, my father was proximately responsible for my sister’s death. (Although she shot herself in the head with a 38 caliber pistol at the age of 28, he gave her the gum and ammunition and instructed her to do it. And she did.)

I think you will agree: That’s a lot to forgive. And that does not even include his physical abuse of me (for which I have broken bones), which I do not even place upon the enormous mound of my father’s sins. I do place the sexual abuse of my sister on that mound, though.

And there it is: I apparently believe in sin. At least for my father. Not so much for myself, as I, of course, am a good guy. Or at least I like to think so.

I hope you understand: I am going to keep this real. If you are up for it, please keep reading. I am going to keep writing, that’s for sure. I need this now. I need to get this out. This helps me. I hope it helps you too.

Anyway, back to forgiving my father. I have a family member with whom I am not on good terms at the moment. She and I have not talked in a while. I have connected with all of my other family members, but not with her.

I found myself literally convulsed today with grief and pain over the situation with my family member. I am rejecting her. I felt terrible. I have behaved badly. Yet she has also rejected me. I am angry. She is angry. You get the idea.

And in that moment, I finally understood my Dad. He faced a terrible situation as well: My mother was insane much of the time. He was living with her and taking care of her (other than sexually, at least). And in turn, she took care of him. It was a sick twisted little world, but somehow they managed to get through it, day to day.

Into that world walked my sister. She was married to a man who infected her with genital herpes. He was bisexual and extremely promiscuous. He wanted her to participate in his lifestyle, which she found disgusting. She was at the point where she was wanting to move back in with Mom and Dad.

My father reacted badly: I do not deny that. I would undo his actions in that conversation if I could. But there are actions I have taken in his life, and in the life of my sister that I would take back too, if I could. (more on that later.)

He told her he already had one insane, dysfunctional woman on his hands and he could not tolerate a second. He said that if she could not handle her problems, then she should step up, and go ahead and end her life. And he then gave her the gun and the ammunition and escorted her out of the house.

She called me that night. I also reacted badly. She sounded strange. I was living in Longview at the time. Now I wish with every fibre of my being that I could simply go back to that young man and scream: Go to her!!!! Go now!!!! She needs you!!!!

But, instead, I had no time for her either.

The next day I got the call from my Mom: Debbie had committed suicide. (I weep as I write this.)

I suppose the person I need to forgive next is myself.

More later.

Naughty God

I have continued to devour Karen Armstrong’s stuff. On my iPad I am reading “A History of God“, and on my phone I am reading “The Great Transformation“. I actually can’t put either one down. The thing that went off today (very powerfully, actually; I had goosebumps when this one hit) is that the Christianity that I know is not necessarily the real Christianity (if that even exists).

Armstrong is discussing the division between Eastern Christianity (out of which comes Greek Orthodox, for example) vs. Western or “Latin” Christianity (initially Roman Catholicism, but all forms of Protestantism also fall into this category).

The issue of Sin is critical to this division. In the case of the Western tradition, the idea that physical matter is evil and corrupt crept in (borrowed from various forms of Greek philosophy). As Armstrong discusses in detail, during the early years of Roman Christianity, the leaders were so obsessed with sin (especially sex), that they seemed positively deranged. This slight dysfunction affected the theology profoundly. God became what I call a “Naughty God”, very demanding, cruel, judgmental, and so forth.

Eastern Christianity was not like this. First of all, the Father was regarded as so elevated as to be similar to Aristotle’s unmoved mover: Utterly unchanging and remote. Certainly completely incapable of relating to mere creatures like us. The idea of praying to the Father was anathema to these Christians. In this respect, Eastern Christianity actually resembles Buddhism more closely than Roman Christianity.

Since Eastern Christians never absorbed the idea that the physical universe is evil and fallen, the concept of sin was much less central to them. I find this intriguing because I have been steeped in Western Christianity for so long. It is simply amazing to me that other people who claim to be Christians believe so profoundly differently from what I was taught.

According to Armstrong, these Christians would have regarded many of the practices of modern Protestantism as idolatry. Like the idea that the Father is involved in human affairs, speaks to people, causes miracles and so forth. Although they had very spiritual lives, with many amazing experiences, that would simply not sit with the basic idea of the Father for them

More later.

Compassionate or Vicious

I had an interesting lunch today with my Christian friend, Ray. One of the things we discussed was the idea expressed by Karen Armstrong that there is not one form of religion in human history. Instead, there are two. She refers to one of them as “compassionate” religion. For want of a better term, I will call the other form as “vicious” religion.

For compassionate religion, the example she uses is the Second Isaiah (most Christians do not realize that Isaiah was actually written by two different authors, and their works were later combined). Second Isaiah was relatively annoyed with the Jewish authorities (particularly the King of Israel) because they were “oppressing the fatherless and the widow”. In other words, Second Isaiah was opposed to powerful, rich people and supportive of the weak and poor. In a Christian context, I suppose St. Francis of Assisi would come to mind. Certainly, Francis’s life was a blessing to everyone who knew him, from what we can tell given the records we have of his life. He fed and bathed lepers, for example. Francis of Assisi uniformly and tenaciously represented the interests of folks like lepers, widows and orphans, consistent with Second Isaiah. The film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” is a great recounting of the life of Francis of Assisi, if you are interested.

For the vicious form of religion, Karen Armstrong chooses the OT King Josiah. I found this choice interesting, because in evangelical circles (where I have hung out a lot), King Josiah is typically a pretty popular guy. (I have met Christians who name their children after King Josiah, for example.) For Karen Armstrong, not so much. King Josiah was a murderous despot along the same lines as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot. Certainly, King Josiah was a strong proponent of the worship of Yahweh, and promoted this form of religion over all others, including killing the adherents of other religions. Particularly the folks who liked to worship Ba’al, according to Karen Armstrong. (Apparently, she feels that Ba’al was not such a bad guy, for a pagan god, anyway. And was certainly not deserving of all of the bad press he received in the OT, and most definitely not so bad that it would justify the massacre of his followers.) Josiah exemplifies vicious religion because it combined the exercise of state power, tremendous wealth, pomp and circumstance, and the use of violence and intimidation. In Christian terms, I suppose Pope Urban II would come to mind: He was responsible for the address that launched the Crusades. Another excellent choice would be Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

What distinguishes compassionate religion are the following characteristics:

  • Loosely organized, no official leaders and all leadership is through earning respect of followers.
  • Completely selfless, self-sacrificing attitude of both leaders and followers.
  • Opposed to the rich and powerful.
  • Supportive of the sick, imprisoned, poor, and needy

And, of course, vicious religion is the exact opposite:

  • Rigid, military style organizational structure.
  • Primarily oriented around the production of wealth and power.
  • Embracing and embraced by the rich and powerful.
  • Lip service to taking care of the needy, but little actual action or results.

Of course, this is a range, and each form of religion falls on a point on that range. I have been a member of Christian churches that meet both descriptions, to a greater or lesser degree. Certainly, I am looking for a group that is like the first list.

The interesting thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong is that compassionate religion (in all its forms, at least according to her) has been one of the most positive, if not the single most positive, forces in the history of mankind. At the same time, vicious religion (again, in all its forms) has been undoubtedly the single most destructive force in history.

More later.