Saturday, April 16, 2005

Choosing My Religion

With the death of the Pope so much on the minds of people these days, I have been recently been reviewing my own opinion of religion. Specifically organised religion and systems of faith and belief. Not so much for myself, mind you. I am pretty much a lost cause in that respect. I am concerned more about my daughter and her exposure to the church.
Now, my daughter is only a year old. Her only faith at present involves her belief that crying in the night makes a bottle appear. A faith that is often tested and normally fulfilled. I know that when she is of a certain age (as yet undetermined) she will attend Sunday school. That Sunday school instruction will most likely be provided by the Salvation Army, as that is the church to which my wife's family belongs. Why would an atheist have his child instructed in the ways of the Christian church? Well, my friend, the answer is a very difficult one and one that can only be explained in a rather long and boring weblog entry.
And here it is.
For a start, Pope John Paul II was a great man. Truly a man who rose to a powerful position of privileged influence that might tempt the morality of any man, yet he dispatched his duties with a grace and dignity that serve as an example for all humanity. Those who would belittle him for failing to concede to the pressures of Catholic reformists on issues such as the ordaining of women or on birth control do not really understand the man. The Pope is not a politician. He is not a religious fanatic. He is the head of the largest formally organised religious institution in the world. An organisation that is by its very nature immune to the whims of public opinion. Faith can not be swayed by logic, friend. If you don't like it, take it down the street to Martin Luther's place. I think Henry VIII can give you a ride. So endeth the eulogy.
On to my personal beliefs, then.
I can't say that I received much in the way of formal religious training as a boy. I went to Sunday school with my friends, but my parents just dropped me off and picked me up when it was over. We never attended church as a family except to see someone married. I stopped attending Sunday school because my brother was traumatised by an Anglican minister that had him thinking that the Devil would reach up through the ground to claim him if he was bad. The notion of sin is not an easy one to communicate to a child. My parents probably thought that in the interest of forestalling future psychiatric expense, our religious instruction should end there. Can't argue with the reasoning, but that decision meant I had to do a lot of catching up later on in life.
When a person is left to explore religion on their own and absent of any formal instruction or direction, there is a vast and difficult terrain that must be negotiated in order to form any kind of conclusion. Free from the limitations of faith, a searcher will give the Baghavaghita equal shelf space with Zen koans, Buddhist meditations, The Book of Mormon or Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet'. There are certainly many adherents to each faith represented. How is it possible to choose a single religion when so many obviously intelligent people can and do make a case for their own? Well, except for the Scientologists. Those guys ... well ...
Kidding. Sort of.
My point is simply that all of these people have a firm belief in any number of faith systems. Some have inherited these beliefs and trust and believe their church leaders through tradition and ignorance. Others have made a careful study of their faith and have been inspired to apply themselves to a particular school of spiritual instruction. If any one of them is right, does it necessarily make the rest wrong? I don't believe so. Wars have been fought over such distinctions, but I think that no matter what the approach, the destination is essentially the same. Humanity has forever been a searcher after Truth.
Truth capitalised. To veer off on another tangent for a moment, I would like to look at the quality of truth (not capitialised, you see). Truth, justice, morality and judgment are always part of religious doctrine. The degrees of severity are variable; Krishna and Hinduism permit the notion of Karmic destiny to serve the role of Roman Catholicism's fiery furnace, for example. I think most people would agree that modern human civic law has been built on a foundation of religious teaching. There may be some cases cited where a judge's decision smacked of existential liberalism, but essentially the courts are concerned with the truth. A truth that is divulged through the presentation and interpretation of evidence. Unfortunately, case law - devised to protect the interests of society generally - sometimes gives the appearance of the courts being bound too closely to The Law and somewhat disengaged from the pursuit of truth, but in general the law exists to determine the truth of a case.
My defense of the vagaries of criminal and civil laws aside, what does this have to do with faith? Well aside from the miraculous conversion of many of those facing sentences or parole, it does interest me in one respect. When a jury hears a case, they are reminded (at least on television - my only other legal training comes from reading Twelve Angry Men) to convict only if convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt. No one faith has been able to do that for me yet.
Now I don't need a sea parted, or wine from water or a stone to reveal golden hieroglyphs. I just want someone to convince me that by following a certain doctrine I might be better able to protect my spiritual best interests. Hmm. That sounds kind of like a, "What's in it for me?" attitude. I don't really intend it that way, but on reflection, it strikes me that a good proportion of the really evangelical proselytising types had that kind of an approach when trying to sway me to their carefully partitioned branch of the belief tree. What really matters is the fundamental Truth (ah, the capital again) of it All (also capitalised).
It seems to me that I live by a simple rule that is the basis of so many faiths. That rule is expressed quite succinctly in Luke 6:31, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." See? Religious writings are an endless source of wisdom. I just think the worship aspect is a little bit overstated. I imagine that many Christians would place Witchcraft, or, more properly, the Wiccan faith at the far end of the religious spectrum from their own observances, and yet their beliefs have a similar sentiment in, "Do what thou wilt, but harm no one." This is generally accepted to include one's self, therefore precluding suicide and self mutilation, presumably.
This notion is often incorrectly confused with the Selemic statement, "Do what thou wilt shall be the extent of the law," as popularised by professional bogeyman Alistair Crowley. In these terms, it has no purpose but to satisfy those who would live to be vulgar, self-serving social parasites. Welcome to the MTV Generation.
An exaggeration, naturally.
So, back to the Truth. Having grown up in an ostensibly Christian culture, I have been surrounded by the mythology and practises of the faith throughout my life. I exchange gifts at Christmas and I attend church at Easter. I had a Noah's Ark colouring book as a kid and I still bow my head when someone else offers a prayer. Just the most superficial observances, really. The problem I have is that shadow of doubt. I have to consider the Gnostic gospels as unearthed at Qumran. And it seems that the Council at Nicaea made some rather arbitrary and self-serving decisions regarding the contents of the Bible, as did the editors who worked at the behest of King James (I or VI depending on your national outlook). Then, there are the scriptural literalists who look at even those portions of the Bible that seem to be obvious allegory as literal, historic fact. On the other hand, those who seek endlessly to determine the obscure esoteric message that Has Been Written between the lines. The Living Word proponents kind of freak me out a little too. Was Jesus divine, or just an important teacher? Certainly, He was baptised by John. I presume he was also taught by John. Did Jesus brother James really found the ministry on which all Christianity is based and did Saul, later Paul lift that faith and twist it to his own ends? The Jewish notion of the Pesher allowed the Gospels to record current events in a Biblical context, thereby ascribing allegorical narrative to emphasise important aspects of the teachings of the Christ (another peculiar misnomer courtesy of the Greeks). What of Martin Luther? A substantial body of religious doctrine hinges on the protest of a single man (to over-simplify the matter). Yet another branch of teaching springs from the roots of an English king's desire to divorce (yet another historical over-simplification). So many questions, so many conflicting answers. I am left to my own spiritual solutions (too often in solutions of spirits...) without subscribing to any existing dogma.
And that is me. Well, part of me. Part of the reasons for my own peculiar system of beliefs, but this entry wasn't about me specifically. It was about my daughter and her religious instruction. And it still is.
My daughter has an entire lifetime ahead of her. In my role as parent, I have a responsibility to provide her with as much ammunition as I am able to allow her to overcome life's obstacles to the best of her ability. If I have one article of faith is that one must understand one's opponents in order to best them. Without a solid foundation in Christian teaching, my daughter will be at a loss to comprehend many of the great works of Western literature. The symbolism of painters from the Renaissance through to the Pre-Raphaelites will remain impenetrable. The lyrics of hundreds - thousands of songs will be naught but words. In short, religious education allows you to better understand your community, your culture, your history and your future. A foundation in faith teachings makes better, more introspective and therefore altruistic citizens. Whether or not a person believes, that understanding is essential.
And that, friend, is the thought process that allows an Atheist to send his daughter to Sunday school.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

I am a Passenger

In the spirit of keeping these things short, I offer a couple of transit-related observations...

The Dictionary Guy
I rode in to work the other day and sat next to a guy who was reading the dictionary (should that be capitalised?). Now, that in and of itself is not terribly strange - Toronto is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city that draws immigrants from all corners of the globe for many of whom, the English language is a challenging obstacle. What made it strange was the fluorescent green 'Hi-Liter' pen he used to mark the book.
Picture, if you will, a twenty-something guy with blonde hair cut in a page-boy style sporting a short, neatly-trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Dressed in loose, casual clothes, he looks like he could be a university student on his way to class. Nothing out of the ordinary.
In his hands, he holds a small, pocket dictionary. It is open to a spread that begins with "Tam-O-Shanter" and he begins to slowly scan the page using his highlighter. After reading each definition, he carefully draws a single fluorescent green stroke through the lead word.
Word by word, entry by entry he works his way through the book. At his stop, he packs up and leaves and I am left to wonder why. What purpose does it serve? Does he memorise each entry as he reads it? Is it a kind of bookmark?
I will never know.

Culture Shock
I am forever convinced that there is no merit in stereotyping. It is easy for a great many - too many - people to form their perception of an entire nation based upon a foundation of popular stereotypes. My experience today is proof that this practice is fundamentally flawed. My example from today's experience is China. How can one form a preconceived notion about a country that on the one hand has produced some of the world's most graceful acrobats and on the other hand, was the birthplace of the man who sat across from me on the subway today?
Allow to paint another mental picture: Pudgy, puffy and slack-jawed, he wore sneakers, tight white pants, a grey golf shirt and a nylon windbreaker. To cap off this stunning ensemble, the forty-ish gentleman sported gold-framed aviator sunglasses (on the subway, remember) beneath his bowl-cut mop of hair.
For several stops he sat with his feet up on the seat in front of him - not just up with knees bent, but with legs splayed open. Not an attractive look for a man in tight white pants. When the train got a little more full, he was forced to put his feet on the floor (thankfully) and began a diligent excavation of first one nostril and then the next for about four stops. When his efforts yielded something of interest, he would examine it briefly before placing it in his mouth for further analysis.
This, I submit, might constitute the polar opposite of grace and dignity.
When a country, a race a culture can produce such divergent personalities, I think it follows that any kind of stereotype is impossible.
Until next time...

Back in the Saddle

In an effort to ease myself back into the creation of these entries, I thought I should address some of my outstanding (in the sense that they are incomplete as opposed to exceptional) Blog® ideas. In the back of my sketchbook I keep a collection of little notes scribbled in the book, on scraps of notepaper, on receipts, news clippings and so on. I keep telling myself that I will use all of this material one day to write something. Weblogs for now, but perhaps if I find the right thread I will one day be able to stich these loose patches together into one cohesive quilt of insight that will comfort generations to come.
Or maybe just the weblogs.
Either way, what (I promise) will follow are several short (again, I promise) entries gleaned from my notes, starting with this one.
Starting now.
I am much bothered of late by a television commercial that has been running for the electronics & entertainment chain, 'Best Buy'. If you have seen it, the premise is that Best Buy has so enormous a selection that a person could be lost in the aisles for what seems to be an interminable amount of time. In this commercial, a man is wandering among racks of DVDs when he encounters a teenaged boy.
"Dad?" inquires the incredulous lad.
Seems the father has been gone so long that his boy has aged appreciably, almost to the point of unfamiliarity, but not quite. Any problems so far? Nope. Good ad. Strong premise. Fine performances all around. So where's the beef?
The boy continues, "You told Mom and I you were just going to get some movies."
And there you have it.
Have what?
My problem. It grates at my psyche. I wake up in a cold sweat over it. It has all but extinguished my appetite and diminished my will to live.
Well, I exaggerate, but my problem is this: "...Mom and I..."
It should be "...Mom and me..." In this instance, because the father is the subject and the actor in the sentence (You were going...) the personal pronoun should be me. Not a big problem, right? In addition, spoken language is far more forgiving than written, particularly where familiar conversation is concerned, so it can be overlooked. In fact, if it were dialogue taken from a fictional work and lent sincerity to a character's 'voice' I would think nothing of it.
But it's not. It is a commercial. A short message crafted by an ad agency for the sole purpose of communicating a client's message to potential customers. A very special kind of writing. Because I work in advertising, I know that almost nothing happens by accident in commercials. There are so many fingers in the pie and everybody wants to contribute just so they can say they had a part so that no decisions are made easily. This script went through several stages and passed through many hands before it ever made it to TV and at every step, this little error got the green light.
Just to bug me.
I think it goes back to aggressive over-correction back in the early years. Kids are constantly told: "You mean Jimmy and I went to the mall..." and so on without a proper explanation. In this case it is easy because if you take out the mom, the sentence makes no sense. You would never say, "You told I you were just going to get some movies." I think people are scared to use the personal pronoun 'me' simply because of this well-intentioned childhood trauma.
So now that I got that off my chest, it's time to move on to the next entry. For those of you who haven't already done so, you may go back to sleep.