Monday, October 8, 2007

God is a stupid place to start! (warning totally unfinished thoughts here but i needed a place to post them)

open letter to the rabbi's

God is a stupid place to start.

I recently went to Shabat services and partook in the usual chanting away of ancient prayers about god. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that most of the people chanting with me find this as puzzling as i do. I think God is a stupid place to start in such an endevour.

tell me, do you know what's going on inside a place as mundane as your thumb? pick up a rock, do you know its history? Do you meditate daily on what this intense journey is that your band of apes has been going on? And i don't mean some fantasy out of ancient egypt.

wake up in the morning and you may feel in awe at being alive so you want to sing a praise or give thanks; and to what is your first thought? the billions of cells that are gyrating away with whorlwinds of complexity that ARE your life? take your first conscious breath and is your first awareness the immense river of breath planet that you are, swirling over the surface of the Earth? folding in and out of it? that you are a dance of breath molecules, a dance? not a THING at all?

[Bar, it's like saying the life of an amazing computer program is the millions of transisters clicking away... no, not really, it's the subroutines all interacting.. the transisters... that's the protons and electrons! yeah, that's the better analogy! besides, the transistors did not partake in the evolution of the programs. life however... Bar, our human experience is so many levels removed from the molecular biology, no? except that our ability to experience, the styles of our thought, the basic tool box of our behavior, some of it was already invented by that molecular biology. the distributed processing, the feedback loops, the trial and error, the ability to pick up random flux from the abyss, the way that neurons interact to build a brain is based on how cells in general interact in their communities... in some sense, the molecular biology took part interactively in creating our software in a way that transisters did NOT take any part in creating software.

so what WAS the design process? well, that's the point that's what our story of 3.8 BILLION years of evolution of interacting critters is all a about, it's NOT like the story of humans designing transisters and software to meet THEIR needs. it's a story of hardware bits and software bits interacting in a long creative history. and THAT'S what we should be giving thanks to. 3.8 BILLION years of history of a creative community, not 6 days of magic, not 2 piddling couple dozen generations of yhvh meddling with some human history.]

pick up a rock, do you ask it its story? its 4.5billion year journey gyrating through this Earth's cycles? and the journey before that in the belly of a life giving suicidal sun?

sit down to breakfast and you say b'rokh ata...ata, HELLO to a LIVING BEING! The bread before you? sensuous texture and taste? B'rokh ata... a living being, the baker who wrought the right alchemy that brought it to rise before hot ovens at 6am in the morning before you even woke up? B'rokh ata... a living being, the wheat plants that grew and sacrificed a whole season of their life to bring breath and minerals out of the Earth to consent to be eaten by you?

does the slaughterer even, say thank you to the cow or a chicken he holds in his hands before he quietly slits its throat for us? We who are too cowardly to face a real living being and do it ourselves? or does he make a blessing to his narcissistic dream lord (pimp?) for sending, owning that living being and handing him over to him, like a slave?

B'rokh ata...a living being, this whole4.5 billion year old swirling breathing Earth dance of molecules that you ARE? NO! you thank a lifeless abstraction of a LORD! what lord did you have in mind? Darth Vader? George W. Bush? King Arthur? who are you imagining conqured? rules? manages? sculpted? designed? this Earth? We are talking IMAGINATION here, when actual LIVING BEINGS right BEFORE you are maintaining your planet for you and desiring your attention.

Instead of face to face awareness, thanksgiving with the obvious source of life in front of you, you jump to an abstraction! While calvin benson cycles by the trillions are slaving away in plants to bring the breath you exhale back to your body, while trillions of local chemical interactions are coordinating to make us who we are, you are ignoring them chasing after a dream father...

oh, i know you say that WE WERE at sinai... bullshit. Oh, i know, you say that you FEEL God's presence when you pray... That is a dangerous route to take to trust in a drug induced fantasy before you trust in the living presences right before you. I'm sure the kids tripping on LSD are saying the same thing!

Oh, i know, you say that God is not a lifeless abstraction but is the totality, the largest most inclusive totality of all that i've described... What gives you the gall to think that you are ready for that most inclusive totality if you aren't even ready to confront the miracle that is a fruit fly buzzing softly around your kitchen? you study argument after argument of talmud, yet won't even learn that your body is a dance of arguments that makes the talmud look like a comic book in comparison!

what I'm saying is that God is a stupid place to start! practice being present to the obvious presences before you, and THEN slowly go in deeper, wider, more abstract even, if that's your trip. Though to tell you the truth, it's not all that clear that this life we amazingly are is a result of abstraction at all. It may be the result of a confluence of very PARTICULAR coincidences. Life might NOT have happened at all! Does that SCARE THE SHIT out of you? so you'd rather put your trust in a fantasy because reality scares you, 'eh? Rather desire, DEMAND even, like an infant throwing a temper tantrum, that we humans, that you and your loved ones were an INEVITABLE outcome of existence? That doesn't sound like a very mature religion to me.

but you say you KNOW in your HEART that God is real. how can you claim to know such a mysterious thing when you won't even make the effort to learn the craft of knowing simpler things like springs, levers, pulleys.. animals, cells, molecules. You say you know in your HEART. What is this heart you speak of? Surely not the beating muscle in your chest? But even here, have you looked inside, closely? do you even know how a congealed bag of the food you ate can go on beating for your life every second every minute every day for decades of your life without quitting? No, the knowing you speak of is not a property of the beating heart. Then what can KNOW? A rock? a bug? a muscle? a brain? You haven't even taken the effort to know how connections come together to make a heart beat steadily, flexibly, responsively for your life. But a KNOWING organ? have you taken the time to attempt to craft the number of interacting switching gates required for a being to KNOW something?

Oh no, you tell me this is COLD, MECHANISTIC thinking, not the knowlege of the HEART, of the SPIRIT. yet when it comes to life and death you take your loved one who is sick to the cold and mechanistic hospital... When you want to get to work on time you trust to the craftsmanship of the mechanic to construct your automobile for! you don't just pray your way flying through the sky to get to work as a spirit! Come on now, you know deep down you trust the years of labor that craftsmen take to perfect their craft. That is what i'm talking about. Before you can say you know God, you must work away the years in the craft of knowing. beginning with the concrete, the simple, the obvious, and work your way up to the subtle... to this God you imagine you know.

and then, ONLY then after we've learned to master knowing these concrete mechanical things, then we can ask about what it means to be human. surely it's the paradox of our humanity, seemingly-infinitely-able-to-seek beings trapped in finite bodies prone to horrific decay to death that impells us to create the abstraction of God. Instead of starting off with the answer, why not start off with the question? the quest? And what is the question?

What IS this life i find myself experiencing? Usually it is asked when we find ourselves in an intense moment of experience, a death, a broken relationship, a birth, a great joy... This is actually another dangerous place to start. In moments like these, our experience of our experiencing is overpowering, back to the LSD trip again. In fact it is the accumulated history of humaity's tripping on its own experiencing that has produced the abstraction that spirit is more basic, surely more powerful than mere flesh and mud. but any sensible person would realize they must doubt a drug trip. yes, i know, that under the influence of communal ecstacy hoards of humans have been capable of immense undertakings. and so we've come to think of human spirit as the ultimate power, or at least the model for the even more ultimate power we abstracted from it: God. And we know that life can act as a powerful catalyst to the immense flow of energy from the sun out past this Earth.

And so in a mere 10,000 years, 40,000 years Homo sapiens has swept accross the face of Earth and is in the process of stripping her of her forests, in the process of draining the oceans of life, in the process of pouring trillions of tons of chemicals into the waters, in the process of transforming the concentration of elements in her atmosphere. a powerful catalyst indeed is the human spirit.

But is it wise? do we even know where creativity comes from? we made the assumption a long time ago that ours comes from that fuzzy good POWERFUL feeling of a drug trip rather than the iterated processes of interconnected parts. and we abstracted that into our idea of god, even that that same brand of creativity created the multitude of animals and plants we didn't even have the respect to count...

it's that creativity that gets us into trouble that labyrinth of thought passages and the ecstacy that can keep us going back into it, make it feel more real than reality. The labyrinth is so intricate that we think it is complex enough to hold the cosmos itself (and indeed the human mind is capable of knowing the cosmos in intricate detail, some of us can catalogue 10,000 diferent living creatures, some of us can create the plays of shakespeare creating worlds, some of us can learn the craft to know the rockbottom of this universe down to 10 decimal places of accuracy...) So with a cosmos in the mind, it seems a cosmic catastrophe that human life is so cheap, dying in battle over trivial state boundaries, dying in famine of chaotic ecosystem, dying as 50% of all conceptions die because... they are the mistakes that evolutionary creativity thrives on.

we are horrified because creativity is NOTHING like we imagine it to be. we rebell against the fact that creativity on this earth works by trial and error. that we are the trials and errors of a questing creativity of evolving life, that life so intricate in detail is also food, is also throwaway trials of creativity. The maple tree sends 10s of thousands of infant tree beings fluttering down to the ground higgledy piggledy. each infant a different random combination, trial, of genes... each possibly containing a random mutation from cosmic rays, molecular accidents... 99.9% of them won't even come to birth. all but a few will grow to maturity... we back off in horror from this way of life! the exhuberant cheapness of it growing itself in such subtle complex craftsmanship and at the same time THROWING itself AWAY in the trial and error of its craft! and we are doomed to be bound to this seeming madness by our flesh.

so in our horror over the seemingly wasteful cosmic sinfulness of the wastefulness of flesh we dream of leaving it behind and flying off to a more serene spiritland...

Yes, this life is an amazing drama way bigger than any of us or any of us can imagine, so lets wake up to it, be thankful for it, not some narcissistic abstraction a puny band of apes thought up before they even begun to comprehend what life was.

so lets add in here: do we want to make a whole ritual and story some goddam fairy tale of a shizophrenic mountain god who likes guys, coming down and doing a bunch of pyrotechnics and pulling a slithering mass of breeding slaves out of bondage and handing them a ready made way of freedom? Or do we want to HONOR the reality? The reality of a bunch of grassroots efforts of towns of canaanites living in the crossroads of centralized empires and creatively between each other coming to the realization of a way of freedom? Creating it themselves! Not being a sleeping mass of slithering crawling slaves, but being a people waking up and seeing for themselves the reality of the evils of centralized hierarchies, worshiping objects as opposed to experiences, calls, working out amongst themselves the HARD WAY, the way, the tora of jewish community?

If we honor this community effort, we then know that we ourselves in each generation in each new milleu is capable of this effort again and again. We don't have to wait for god to solve things for us, our community is capable of this task.

so Bar, where does the miraculous fit in? M., speaking like a stoned man speaks of his experience that there is something COHESIVE out there, it's all so cohesive. Not just my fractal dust of miraculous random fluctuations. that all of physics is cohesive. yeah? the gravitational force and the strong force are carefully crafted with each other? well, Davies thinks so: that the ratios are all just right for galaxies to form communities of suns, that suns CAN form, to cook elements, that the resonances are JUST RIGHT to cook carbon, that the ratios are just right so that supernovas happen and spew the elements back out for other suns to use, that planets form...

It's all just right to form US. but you know, we don't know diddly squat! if the ratios were slightly different, they certainly wont make THIS universe, but we don't know diddly about the art of universe making in GENERAL, so how do we know they cant make ANOTHER totally different but equally interesting universe? look at all the different kinds of cellular automata that can basically simulate each other. INNEFFICIENTLY, but that's NOT an issue! because what's the difference if human experience is software played on the level of the equivelent of protons, or the equivelent of molecules, or cells or neuron nets or stars or galaxies? what's the diff if human lives take nanoseconds or millenia?

Fine, not cohesive, but still what good do these miracles do us? it aint subject object, right? i've meant two different things by miracles.

A) presence/miracles when i'm just HERE experienceing it WHAM like concrete.

B) fractal dust of random input that physical systems get. The counterpart to the laws of physics, to the stability of dissapative systems.

i guess those are two different things, eh? are they at all related?


Reb Deb said...

Barry -- I couldn't read the whole thing at one go, so I started at the beginning and finished at the end and missed a lot of the middle. But there's more than enough to think about just that way. Lots of wonderful things!

I'll begin by quoting Rabbi Marcia Prager, who was at dinner one night with some other people, at least one of whom had been raised Jewish and was a practicing Buddhist:

"I looked around, absorbing the goodness of the people gathered at the table. With a deep breath I reached toward the basket of warm dinner rolls and lifted it up, closing my eyes to be alone with the sensations. Steamy-hot, just-baked bread. I inhaled its warm sweetness. For just a moment it seemed that I held the fertile earth sprouting ripening wheat and saw the dough rising in an extravagant explosion of yeast. My fingertips touched the hot loaves. I sang: 'Baruch Ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh Ha'Olam, ha'motzi lechem min ha'aretz. A Fountain of Blessings are You, Source of Life of all the Worlds, Source of the nourishment that is this bread, which You bring forth from the earth.' We shared the bread around the table..." (From The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine, by Marcia Prager, pp. 2-3)

Miracles. Miracles -- that amazing awareness of being in the NOW; sometimes, an awareness of powerful forces, from gravitational to sub-atomic, which coalesce to create both NOW and our perception of NOW; sometimes, as you point out, an amazing awareness of how unlikely this NOW really is/could be (were things just minutely different) ... Miracles call forth awe, and often gratitude. Does it really matter if anybody is anywhere listening to my expression of gratitude? I need to express it! Not just because I want to: because it's good for me, softens and opens me, makes me more human in the best senses.

You asked the relevant question: What do you mean by God? I ask it all the time, of myself and others, though often not in so many words; that's exactly one of the reasons I ended up a rabbi.

But let me tell you, not everyone wants or needs or is suited to spend a lot of time with that question. Or with the awe. Or with investigating the forces that have created our universe. And from where I sit, that's ok. It's one of the reasons we have traditions, norms, culture (one aspect of which is religion). So that people can pay attention to what's most important to them and rely on shared assumptions to keep the rest of it together -- because what's not important to them IS important to some other people, who are in turn relying on shared assumptions about, oh, say, the reliability of driving on the right side of the road. Or of parents taking care of children. (I'm not saying these are foolproof, only generally reliable.)

I happen to love the kind of thinking that you're doing. But it's not where everybody lives. And I guess I would add, not everybody uses language as precisely as you're trying to do. You may quibble with all the words that you like, when others try to define/describe what they mean when they say "God" -- but you're quibbling with their vehicle of expression, not with their experience. A lot of people can't put experience into precise language, so it's very easy to pick apart the words that they do use as cliched or empty. But that's just the words. Just like the word "God." Both reality and experience are still present, even if they're not getting expressed in language you understand or approve of.

Remember that any time anyone says "God," it's a metaphor. A pointer. Not everybody agrees with that, of course; many think that what they mean by God is an exact description of reality. Gotta watch out for those people, often; if they think they have the whole truth, there's often no place for me in their world.

But anyone who's got a bit of humility in them about what they mean by "God" is just that much closer to reality. Which is basically what you're talking about: Start with REALITY and see what's there.

Which, by the way, is a large part of how I do both God and religion. Which is probably why we're even having this conversation, I imagine.

But for sure, not everybody is going to do this starting with reality thing. Which is generally OK with me -- I'm old enough that I don't want to spend my time being frustrated that other people aren't all like me.

But there is a problem with not starting with reality, as much as we do. The problem is, we've created a society in which being estranged from reality (whether it's the source of our food, the reality of weather, the amount of energy we consume in our daily rounds that's not provided by our own bodies, or the sound of another person's voice emanating from a body that's in the same room with us) is threatening to derail or destroy much and many of the beings of this reality -- ourselves included.

So I imagine that's part of why you feel such urgency about interrupting the stories people tell ourselves: Because if there's a crisis looming, then all our resources -- including our stories -- need to be devoted to dealing with it in a way that might yield a positive outcome (however that might be measured). And religion is for sure about storytelling. Plus it often claims infallibility or completeness. Which makes it an easy target. And perhaps an appropriate one.

But as I've said to you already, clearly you also get it that there's potentially something here (Judaism) worth arguing with. Loyal opposition is only worthwhile to something that's worth being loyal to.

Reb Deb said...

PS. For most Jews, God is not the place they started this endeavor anyway. They started it at the family dinner table, eating and talking. Or possibly reading a book and getting intrigued by ideas. Or joining others to do some tikkun olam.

fullofstrangeideas said...

oh my goodness, barry, i cried all the way through this. i cant believe the way your mind works. if you never believe one single other thing i tell you, know this ... god is really, really glad you wrote this essay and is very proud of you each day. thanks for all that you do and say and are and stand for and stand up for and get through every day. aint it hard to be in this world?

barry goldman said...

thanks guys.

i'll be working on this. also i'll take some moments to respond to your comments.

keep in mind that at some point in my ranting i really tear into a "you". i don't mean anyone in particular or actually there probably ARE specific people i mean, but that doesn't belong in this if it turns into some actual WRITING. I'll work on it.

barry goldman said...

absolutely for careful people the meme 'God' is merely a pointer. this is fine. but then "adonoi", "melekh ha'olam" are pointers too. metaphors.. but how do i use the metaphor king, lord? ruler of the world? what are my referents? king arthur? G.W. Bush? Bill Gates?

if there is one thing i HATE above all else, is BAD POETRY.

so lets get cracking! if tora, tefilim are anything they are POETRY!

barry goldman said...

ok, i'm working on this, and more comments, but it keeps turning into more and more strands of spaghetti spilling over the table and meatballs rolling everywhere.

i'll try to get it together.