potatoes IMG_5212

by Kevin L Miller

Dad died six weeks ago. I had been with him and Mom three days every week until his last, and then it was every day. Somehow I still managed to plant my garden in April and May, because I had already prepared the 16 big raised beds with amended soil last summer. But as the needs of my 88 and 91-year-old mother and father increased, there was no time for the garden. And when Dad died, it was time to plan and execute a huge memorial service over a period of a month. He was an ordained minister, educator, dean, vice president, and university and seminary president in our little subculture, The Church of the Brethren. He was well known and highly respected. More importantly, he was a saint – a deeply good, humble, generous man – and everyone loved him. Over many decades, thousands looked to him as their mentor, role model, and friend. So did I, especially during these final years, when he was so accessible and open. I am doing my best to help my poor mother cope with her bewilderment and grief. Three weeks from today would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. They knew each other for over 70 years and were devoted to one another. Dad utterly worshipped my mom, and she was born to be adored. It was and is my privilege and honor to serve them as they come to the end of their lives on earth.

Sadly, some things just aren’t getting done. The wild berries on our 12 acres in the woods were not picked this year — at least, not by us — and the weeds took over my garden. I ventured into that jungle just a week ago to see if anything could be salvaged. There may yet be hope of some yield of okra, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Maybe a turnip or two. And I still have lettuce. But so many other crops failed due to neglect, bugs and weeds, and the garden is generally in tatters.

I myself have been feeling at loose ends lately. Now that Dad is gone and the big memorial service and luncheon are over, what’s next? The answer is obvious: I promised Dad during the final moments of his life that I would take very good care of Mother, just before she arrived at his bedside to stroke his cheek and tell him how much she loved him, as he took his last two breaths and left us. He waited for her… and he is waiting now. Mother is relatively functional, but needs lots of help anyway, because her memory is disappearing quickly, and she has serious medical conditions, tons of medications, and weekly doctors’ appointments to be managed. We play Scrabble and Boggle when we can, and she almost always beats me resoundingly. She was a school teacher and an editor of children’s text books. The creeping dementia has not yet taken hold in her language centers, but she cannot remember her best friends’ names or her two stays in the hospital last summer, or who came to visit yesterday. I serve as her memory now.

But sometimes I wonder what comes after this intense period of getting to know both of my parents so much better than ever before. It continues to be a profoundly valuable education. I had already discovered that when one spends time with high souls who are approaching death, the veil between the two world becomes thinner and eventually almost transparent. Sometimes the curtain is drawn back and allowed to flutter in the cosmic breeze for just an instant. Then, occasionally, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Heaven. There were holy moments like that with my father, and I’m sure there will be with my mother as well. But I ask myself, after all of that is over, what will I do with the rest of my life? Then I’m embarrassed by the question, because all is well. I’ve had a productive career. I am happy and content. The world may be collapsing around us, but nothing is amiss for me. Surely, it’s not so much about WHAT one does with one’s life as HOW one does it. Still, there is a feeling of potential… some impending destiny or assignment or adventure just around the corner. I’m having visions of paintings again. Maybe that’s it.

The first time I visited my overgrown garden, I noticed that my once lush 4 x 10 ft potato bed was completely devoid of greens where there had been a thick cover of them just weeks before. I assumed insects or animals must have destroyed all the potatoes. Then it rained hard a few times, and I spied some round tops of potatoes sticking up through the bare soil. So this morning I went into the garden with my three potato spades and began excavating. Two and a half hours later I had a very respectable box of potatoes ranging from smaller than a penny to baking size. Whereas I had recently assumed the potato patch was a total loss, I was fascinated to discover that a lot of the potatoes were growing much deeper than I had thought. I settled into the dirt and really began enjoying my search for hidden treasure. I noticed that some of the best and biggest potatoes were pressed up against the walls of the raised bed, as if they wanted to challenge the boundaries of the potato universe to expand their own individual identities. I couldn’t help thinking what a fine metaphor this potato bed was for life and the development of consciousness in general. I had thought that nothing was happening in the potato patch while I attended to more pressing duties, privileges and honors — taking care of my beloved parents. But it turns out that potatoes of many different sizes and types were growing there secretly, unseen beneath the surface, all along.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about what comes next. I’m happy in the present moment, doing what I am doing now, and isn’t that what matters? While I was sitting in the dirt digging out those potatoes in the sun, I was convinced that no other activity could possibly be more satisfying or fulfilling than finding potatoes in the ground. I could have done that for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will. But maybe… just possibly… some of those more mysterious potatoes growing deep under the surface and pressed up against the walls of their world… some of those unruly potatoes might contain surprises. In fact, if the past is any kind of template, they almost certainly will. But if not, I’ll be happy just digging in the dirt. After all, I realized after two and a half hours of hard labor had yielded $15 worth of produce, that it was not the potatoes I needed… It was that invaluable time in the dirt.




By Paul

Last weekend, my partner and I went to see a production of Roger Crane’s “The Last Confession,” a play that recounts the events surrounding the death in 1978 of Pope Paul VI, the election of his successor, John Paul I, and then the subsequent death of the latter only 33 days after his election. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, or who is otherwise unfamiliar with the story, here is a quick summary.

Paul VI’s 15 year reign largely undid many of the liberal gains made by Vatican II, the General Council of the Catholic Church (1962-1965) that had been called by Pope John XXIII. The election of the liberal-minded John Paul I in 1978 to succeed Paul VI held out the promise that many of these liberal reforms, scuttled by his predecessor, might be reinstated. It also became clear at the same time that the new pope might deal with some of the many scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, which had been accused of money laundering and other financial dirty dealing, as well as possible Mafia connections. John Paul I had, in fact, intended to make a number of shocking changes in regard to the Curia, the archconservative administrative arm of the Vatican, including who headed the Vatican Bank. However, the night before he was to make these changes public, he suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He had never complained of prior heart problems, nor did he have any medical history of heart disease. In fact, it appeared that he had been in excellent health. Additionally, there were questions as to who found the dead pope, exactly when that was, and what he had been reading at the time of his death, that is, whether it was reports on these Church problems he had been wrestling with, as the moderates believed, or the Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional book, as the conservatives maintained. Some of the more moderate cardinals, headed by Giovanni Benelli, Cardinal Archbishop of Florence (portrayed in the play by David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame) called for an investigation. But powerful members of the Roman Curia put an early stop to this, and eventually Benelli himself, and his moderate supporters, agreed that it would be better “for the good of the Church” not to insist on an autopsy, in spite of persistent rumors of poisoning that circulated in the aftermath of John Paul ’s death. As a result, John Paul I was quickly buried and no investigation was ever undertaken. Many years later, just before Cardinal Benelli, himself, died of a heart attack, he destroyed all of his notes (his “Last Confession”) on the events leading up to John Paul I’s death.

These are the barebones of the story. Theatrically, there is a lot more to tell, including the complicated role played by Cardinal Benelli, who had in effect been king-maker (i.e., pope-maker) in both papal conclaves, the one leading up to the election of John Paul I, and later to that of his successor, John Paul II. In fact, Benelli came within just a few votes of becoming pope himself.   But what may be of greater interest here is to examine the general themes of the play, rather than delving into the convoluted political ins and outs of the Vatican, as played out between conservative and moderate cardinals. And what more obvious theme can we point to than that of a naked grab for power, on the one hand, and the difficulty in defining the intersection between power and religion – to say nothing of spirituality – that is perhaps the hallmark par excellence of politics in the Vatican?

The desire for power is hardly a new theme, either in the theater or in life, itself. And as one character says to Cardinal Benelli early on in the play, “Be careful of power. Your punishment may be finding it!” There is probably many a politician, looking back on a long career wielding power and being affected for good and for ill by it, who may understand this admonition only too well. Such a person would likely understand not just the admonition, but the limitations of power. No doubt, presidents often go into the White House at the beginning of their term, eager to make a difference and chafing at the bit to make use of the awesome power of the office, only to realize soon enough just how restricted that power ultimately is. Popes, too, find themselves faced with a similar conundrum. In this sense, the Holy Father is as strong, or as limited, as his Curia allows him to be. Even popes have to work with their collaborators, whether they be friendly or unfriendly, or whether he agrees with them or not, or they with him.

In his famous 1919 modernist poem, “The Second Coming,” the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats examines these notions of power. As he says: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The ceremony of innocence is drowned…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Is this not something we see over and over again related to the acquisition of power, that those least prepared for it, those most prone to its excesses, are the ones who often seek to achieve it?

Yeats was probably talking most directly about the horrors of the First World War, or perhaps even more directly still about recent unsuccessful attempts in Ireland to throw off the colonial grip that Great Britain had had on it for centuries. But, as with all great poems, his Second Coming also speaks to the millennium.

Which leads us back to the notion of the intersection between power and religion. It has always seemed to me that the two go together hand in glove. What, for example, was Jean Paul I trying to change, or to restore? For one thing, it’s clear that he was attempting to reinvigorate the debate within the Church on birth control within marriage, which many bishops and theologians attending Vatican II wished to discuss during the Council (remember that “the pill” had just come into popular use in the early 1960’s). As such, John XXIII had established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, which was to report to the Council. No one knows how John XXIII would have come down on this important issue, since he died before either the commission or the Vatican Council could complete its work. However, to be sure, Paul VI soon quashed all descent, and in 1968 issued one of the most famous and far-reaching of 20th century encyclicals, entitled “Humanae Vitae” (Latin for “Of Human Life”), which fully reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching related to sex in marriage, and roundly condemned all forms of artificial birth control. This remains orthodox Catholic teaching up to this very day, even though a recent Gallop poll affirms that some 78% of US Catholics (more in Europe) support the use of modern birth control.

Perhaps not much has changed between Jean Paul I’s uninvestigated and even questionable death and the present day when, in spite of the kinder and gentler exterior exhibited by Pope Francis, Church dogma and teaching remain the same. Which might make us question the reality of the new pope’s supposed liberal intentions. He has, after all, declared himself to be “a true son of the Church,” and who knows if he will ever address some of the sweeping changes that Jean Paul I spoke of before his untimely death?

Yeats says, “The darkness drops again,” and at the end of his poem he asks “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Bethlehem was the place of Christ’s birth, but the poet speaks here instead of some rough beast. Could this be a reference to the lower parts of ourselves, filled with desire and fear, eager to control others and the world around us? Is this, once again, the intersection of power and religion that has plagued us from the beginning?  Or, instead, might a visionary poet not equally be speaking of a rebirth, a Second Coming, admonishing each of us, churchmen and laity alike, to rise above our humble beginnings, our primitive urges, and to live a life beyond that all too human need for power, or even perhaps for religion itself?


By Paul

In case you haven’t seen the wonderful Judith Dench/Steven Coogan film entitled “Philomena,” let me start off with a brief summary (hopefully without giving too much away).  A young Irish woman conceives a child out-of-wedlock in 1960’s Ireland.  In those days, the sin and shame of such a birth were tremendous, and girls who did so (who “took their nickers down,” in the scolding and remonstrative words of one of the nuns) were outcasts of society.  The girl, Philomena, was packed off to a convent that specialized in these things, and there under the care of the nuns she had her baby.  Forced to sign an agreement to give the child up for adoption, she was not even afforded an opportunity to say goodbye to her baby, when a wealthy couple from America comes to adopt the boy.  The pain of the separation was almost unbearable for the young girl, but her troubles were not over. As were all of the girls, Philomena was forced to work afterwards for 4 more years, doing backbreaking menial labor in order to “pay the nuns back” for all they had supposedly done for her.  Fast-forward 50 years, and the now almost 70 old Philomena still longs to find her son.  The main events of the movie, in fact, revolve around that search, facilitated by a reporter, who eventually took Philomena to the United States to find him.  I hesitate to say much more, for those of you who have not seen the movie (and I hope you will), except to report that, in the end, there was skullduggery enough on the part of the “good nuns” at the abbey to make the reporter justifiably very angry.  Philomena herself, however, in this reenactment of a true story, is somehow able to reach within and find forgiveness for those who had hurt her, and her son, so profoundly.

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church – and to be fair, I suppose, most churches and much of organized religion – has a lot to answer for.  From the Church’s sometimes ambivalent historical stance on slavery (at one point, bishops preached that there were “just” and “unjust” forms of slavery), to the giving of “cover” for the conquest of the Americas by the European powers (the pagan “savage” Indians after all had to be taught the “true religion”), to the crimes supported and even committed by the Church against the Jews over the ages, to the terrible things the last pope said about gay people and the Church’s continuing disparaging of gay relationships, to its forbidding of all forms of birth control (in spite of run-away world overpopulation), to the subjugation of women and their exclusion from the priesthood, to the hiding of sexual predation by priests on the part of local bishops, and on and on.  It is not too strong a statement to say that some of these at least could be thought of as crimes against humanity.

Having spent a number of years in a Catholic monastery in my own early life (I went willingly, however), I saw some of this up close.  The scolding, reprimanding, and reproachful orientation to life we witness on the part of the nuns in “Philomena” did not come from nowhere.  With Vatican II and the papacy of the more human John XXIII, it looked at first as though the Church was finally making a shift and entering more fully into the modern era.  Much of this ascendant promise, however, was soon rescinded during the reigns of various popes that followed, from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

But what of the Church nowadays?  Is it still mired in the rhetoric and rigidity of post-reformation thinking?  It could be argued that most members of the hierarchy are indeed bogged down in such a doctrinal quagmire.  And whether the new pope, who at least has a more tolerant affect, will in the end bring about real change is yet to be seen.  To be sure, there seems to be something of a split between Catholics who live in the United States and Europe, and those living in Africa and Asia, with the faithful in South America falling somewhere in between, depending on the question.  Here is just a sampling of a recent poll taken among Catholics in these areas.  On the question, “Do you think women should be allowed to become priests?” 64% of Europeans and 59% of Catholics in the US agreed they should be given that opportunity.  However, the split was almost even in South America, 49% for and 47% against, while 76% in the Philippines and 80% of Africans said women should not have the right.  As far as the use of contraceptives is concerned, 86% of Europeans, 79% of US Catholics, and 91% of those in South America say it should be allowed, whereas only 44% of Africans and 31% of Philippinos agree.  Finally, in regard to gay marriage, 38% of Europeans and 37% of South American Catholics favor allowing it, while 54% of the US faithful are in favor; a mere 14% of those in the Philippines say they are for allowing gays to marry, and amazingly in Africa those in favor barely register at 1% of Catholics.

All this amounts to a church in transition, with many push-pull factors splitting congregations in various parts of the world.  Perhaps, who knows, at some point it might even lead to a new division in the Catholic Church, just as the Anglican community risks these days?  Interestingly, too, much of this mirrors the larger political rift we see in the United States now between progressive Democrats and ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans.  How many are there left anymore in the middle?

Toward the end of the movie, Philomena and the reporter, played by Steve Coogan, are back at the abbey in Ireland.  Some of the same sisters who were in charge when Philomena was a young, pregnant teenager there are still alive.  In a wrenching scene, the reporter reprimands and lambasts these nuns for what they had done.  But Philomena, who has remained a faithful Catholic all these years in spite of everything, stops him.  She feels as much compassion for him as she does for the nuns, it would seem, these same nuns who had traumatized her so, and says to the reporter, “it must be exhausting carrying around so much anger.”

In the end, I wondered, which one does any of us wish to be more like, Philomena or the reporter? Of course, to be sure who among us has not experienced denigration and disparagement aplenty in life?  But does it do any good to hold on to old wounds and deep grudges from the past? No doubt, it’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t, but it is a far more difficult thing to let go of pain, especially pain we feel has been unjustly inflicted.  We hold it like a wounded child, injured and trembling in our arms.  We hope that, by holding it so, we may somehow soothe its fears, its grief, its despair.  Then, feeling the injustice of the child’s undeserved pain, it is all too easy for heartbreak to turn to rage, and to lash out at a cold and unfeeling world for what it has done.

What makes Philomena able to forgive so profound an injury, but the reporter, who feels for Philomena, seemingly unable to do so?  This may be the key question the movie poses: how and whom to forgive, and under what circumstances.  The film does not answer this larger question, but it does give us examples of how two individuals react to injustice, one with justified anger, and the other with compassion and forgiveness.  That said, the film is also not suggesting that it is all right for people to inflict pain on others, or that there should be no consequences to such actions.  The one nun who had played such a pivotal and damaging role in Philomena’s early life, now 50 years later, comes across as a bitter, morose, dispirited, and deeply unhappy old woman.    In this sense, then, consequences may well have come of their own accord, without anyone else having to hasten or enhance them.

So, what lessons may we draw from all this?  Speaking for myself alone, I know I often vacillate between forbearance and wrath, between mercy and outrage, between compassion and blame.   In theoretical physics, or so I have learned from reading about the topic, mathematical calculations can sometimes be so enormously complicated and vexing that reasonable approximations may be the best we can ever expect.  As Brian Greene, author of “The Hidden Reality” puts it, “the art of physics lies in deciding what to ignore.”  Maybe the same could be said about life in general.  Sometimes we have to learn what to ignore, what not to concentrate on, and what ultimately to let go of.

As much as I may fail at it time and time again, I think my preference always would be to try to act more like Philomena than her angry companion.  To be sure, it’s nice to be right, to fell as though we are correct in our judgments, and even our condemnations, but in the end it may just be nicer to live a life of compassion and forgiveness.  After all, as Philomena says, why exhaust ourselves?  And who knows?  Maybe someday we’ll be the ones in need of reprieve, and it is we who will be glad for those who give us a pass and ignore our weaknesses, our imperfections, and what are surely our own unfortunate shortcomings.


By Paul

I try to go to my gym at least four or five times a week.  The idea is to keep the blood flowing through my 69 year old veins, so as to avoid another heart attack (I’ve had two).  So far, it seems to be working pretty well.

The particular gym I go to is part of a local Jewish Community Center.  I’ve heard that about half of the people who attend it are Jews, and the other half are not.  So, when I overhear things while working out, I’m not normally particularly aware of who is saying what.  However, not long ago, I did hear a conversation between two middle-aged women, both of whom, it soon became obvious, were Jewish.  One of the women was telling the other that she and her family did not attend temple anymore.  The other woman said she didn’t either, but both quickly assured each other that it was still important for them and their children to identify as Jewish, and in some sense to follow the traditions.

Now, I pretty much keep to myself while on the gym floor, and prefer not to stand around chatting.  After all, that’s not why I’m there.  So, even if I’d known these women, which I did not, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.  Besides, I’m not Jewish, so in that sense what they were saying was none of my business.

Or was it?  I began thinking later on what it meant to have a religious identity.  These women, and presumably their spouses and children, clearly identified as Jewish, but they went on to say that they didn’t particularly believe in God anymore.  That was interesting, I thought, because I think of myself as having no religion at all, and yet I do believe in God.

Once upon a time, in what now seems like the far distant past, I strongly identified as Roman Catholic.  Indeed, specifically Irish Catholic, if that makes sense.   For me at the time, what this meant was strict adherence to religious dogma, trust and reliance on the hierarchical model of the Church, and a strong belief in and reliance on some of the more devotional aspects of the Church, things like saying the rosary, prayer to the Blessed Mother and the saints, and attendance at such services as Benediction (the reverential viewing of the Eucharist, accompanied by set prayers and hymns, all in Latin at the time).  In fact, these devotional practices somehow took on for me an even greater importance than the Mass itself or the sacraments.  And I think that was not so unusual among old-fashioned Irish-Catholics.

What happened between then and now is a long story.  But it involves a lot of anger and disillusionment on my part, disenchantment at what I came to see as the profoundly uncharitable nature of the Church, and recognition of its doctrinaire rigidity that brings so much unnecessary pain and suffering on so many people.

In the course of throwing off religion, I became for a while what I thought of as an atheist, although it soon became clear to me that this did not suit me very well.  I still, by the way, admire atheists, inasmuch as for me at least they represent the utter no-nonsense view of life as it is lived in the here and now.  I came to see that many atheists appeared to be more moral than some religious people, certainly than many dogmatists and religious fanatics, and that they were willing to face the ultimate questions with admirable honesty, courage, and directness.  I don’t mean to say that I wish I were an atheist.  If I wanted to, I would simply be one.  Still, as I have said, I admired them, and still do.

Does it seem surprising that I – a professed “believer” – would admire someone who professes not to believe?  I hope not, because doubt, and wonder, and an awe that, as it were, strikes one dumb, are basic to what I see as a belief in a Divine Spirit.  And lots of atheist, I think, look at the world with awe and wonder, and yes, probably sometimes with doubt too.  After all – or am I imagining it? – doubt is not limited only to religious believers.  Absolute sureness, with never a moment’s hesitancy or uncertainty, is the property only of total blind faith.  But in this sense, atheists too “believe in” their atheism and perhaps – like many of us – occasionally have their own doubts about what they believe.  Faith does not eschew our need to question.

Still, it was interesting that the two middle-aged ladies in my gym continued to very much consider themselves Jewish, even though, as they averred, they had no faith in God.  Of course, much has to do with people thinking of being Jewish not merely, or solely, as a religion, but as an ethnicity, as being part of “a tribe,” as it were.  For me, too, I still think of myself as Irish-American, since believing or not believing should in principle have little to do with that identity. I still have an interest in Irish history, literature, mythology, and even, fleetingly, the Irish language.  And yet, I have to admit to myself that something has changed for me, that in some sense I no longer feel quite as Irish as I once did.  And I wonder if my gym partners, too, somehow were not protesting just a little too much about still feeling perfectly Jewish either.

I’ve come to my own conclusions about spirituality, and am convinced that it does not necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with religion.  Religion is about organization and laws and rules, things of the earth, human things.  Sometimes, too often in fact, it’s also about control of people, about power and authority.  And in emphasizing these things, religion all too often leaves out that awe and wonder, that inability to define what is ultimately indefinable and unutterable that to me identifies what I think of as true spirituality.

But the wonder about religion, and about identity, has not left me.  Nor the wonder about atheism either, because as I see it atheists are believers in the sanctity of the manifest world, while adherents of spirituality are believers in what is unmanifest.  However, I do not see the two as all that different, because at least for me the Unknowable Unmanifest permeates, pervades, and informs all the known manifestation of the natural world.

So, why talk about all this in the first place then?  Why wonder about religion, atheism, identity, or even spirituality?  There may be as many answers to that as there are people who think about such things.  My take on it is that there has to be some connection, some balance, between whatever your belief may be (and remember, I list atheism as a kind of belief) and how a person acts in the world.  It’s no more enough to only sit in the forest and meditate than it is to go to a church, or simply to deny the existence of a God.  In every case, we have bodies, we live in a physical world, and it is our duty to make the most of that.  Making the most of it, in fact, means fulfilling our own potential as much as possible, and treating others, indeed treating the whole world (I mean the physical planet) respectfully, even reverentially.  I hope no one misunderstands me:  nobody has to be – or should ever be – anyone’s doormat.  Neither should we go looking for trouble, and we ought instead to go about creating as little trouble in the world as possible.

I have the sense that behavior is more important than belief.  Life is not easy for anyone.  Who does not have trials and difficulties to face, everything from sickness and physical suffering to loss of those whom we love?  Who among us can say there are no personal battles to fight, no wars to engage in, many of which are waged right within our own psyches?  I often think of the Bhagavad-Gita in this regard, the great Hindu scripture, wherein at the beginning the blind king, Dhritarashtra, asks his seer to describe to him the scene on “the scared plain” before them.  On one level at least, the Bhagavad-Gita is the story of a battle between two warring royal families.  But metaphorically it describes the battles we all have before us on “the sacred plain” of our lives.  No one, however fortunate we may think that person, escapes these battles.   The Jewish ladies in the gym were talking about one tiny skirmish, but each of us has his own challenges, her own grief, great or small, at varying times in life.

So, belief may be a good thing, as long as we do not use it as a cudgel to beat other people up with.  And, as I said, who does not believe in something, even in his right and ability not to believe?

As I see it, whatever it is you may believe, in the end there are a few essentials that should always be kept in mind:  don’t behave badly, treat others with compassion and respect, and in whatever way possible do everything you can to leave this beautiful planet of ours a better place than you found it.  What more can be asked of us?  What more, in fact, can any of us do?



By Paul

I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people.  Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory?  And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own.  When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery.  That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things.  And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.

Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate.  Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths.  I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.

One further clarification first, however, if I may.  In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets.  This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not?  What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings.  For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.

So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence.  By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning.  Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do?  Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know?  After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty.  Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.

The second reason is, simply, fear.  Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life.  And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.

A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief.  This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own.  As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma.  Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.

But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory.   Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith.  This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith.  These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many.  Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.

Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory.  Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval.  There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world.  There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings.  But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.

So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion?  Not to worry.  Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can.  Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way!  Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma.  Go within and discover for yourself.  After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.


By Paul

If you have a way of accessing the Los Angeles Times, whether in paper format (who does that anymore?), or on line, you might want to take the time to read the series they are currently running on out-of-control population growth.  It started on Sunday, July 22, 2012, and runs in several installments until Sunday, July 29.  What you will find there is extremely interesting, enlightening, and very frightening.

Right up front, statistics tell much of the story.  Although demographic predictions are not an exact science, there are some things we know for sure.  It is, of course, a fact that the world now has more than 7 billion people in it.  We passed that dubious landmark in 2011.  But what is even more startling is that by the year 2050, only some 38 years from now, the global population will rise to a minimum of 9.3 billion.  It may rise even higher, to as many as 11 billion people, depending on whether the average birthrate declines to 2.2 children per woman, or if it remains at its current 2.5.  According to the nonprofit Population Council in New York City, we are adding over 70 million people to the planet every year, and have been doing so since the early 1970’s.  And even if we were somehow, miraculously, to lower the average birth rate to 2.1 children per woman, the population would still continue to grow (albeit at a slower rate), given the inexorable mathematics of the sheer numbers of people we are talking about. 

Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, and it is all too easy for us to dismiss them as abstractions that do not affect our lives.  But if we put it into some kind of context, these numbers come more to life.  Right now, for example, 1 person in 8 lives in a slum, in other words, some 12% of the population of the world, which is bad enough to be sure, but possibly not that shocking to many of us.  By the year 2050, though, given current levels of poverty and patterns of migration to cities, that number rises to closer to 33%.   Now there’s a number that ought to command our attention.  By 2050, a third of the people in the world, 1 person in 3, will dwell in squalor, living at best in substandard housing if not actually on the streets, without anything near what most people in the west would consider normal sanitation, let alone adequate nutrition.  And beyond that, we can pretty much altogether forget about education for any of them.  Even today, the U.N. lists some 1 billion people as being chronically hungry.  What will we do, then, when there are 2 – or as many as 4 – billion more mouths to feed?

And this does not even take into consideration the fact that some countries of the world, such as China, are becoming more affluent, and in the process people are expecting to eat better.  No longer are wealthier Chinese content to eat only grains and vegetables; they want more and more meat, and even dairy products, just as people in the west do.  However, the roundabout process we have of raising crops in order to feed animals in order to feed people demands much more of the land, a great deal more water, and a lot more energy than merely growing crops for human consumption.  According to William Lesher, former chief economist of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “we are going to have to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the last 10,000.”  And this at a time when the majority of our best farmland is already under cultivation.  In other words, we can’t just go out and find more land to farm.  Add to this the fact that climate change will also almost certainly begin to take away our ability to access some of the arable land we currently use, and we can see that the globe is headed for a train-wreck of a future, if we do not do something soon.  There are already too many people for the planet to support, and yet most of the world wants more and more children.  Again, let me remind you, these things will be taking place not at some time in “a far distant future,” when none of us will be around anyway, but within the next 30 to 40 years.  And if you are old enough now that you may not likely be alive to see it, remember at least that many of the people you love will be. 

So, the question suggests itself, is there anything we can do about it?  Well, of course, there is, but it won’t be easy.  The problem essentially boils down to this: fertility rates remain too high because of tradition and religion, lack of education, the inferior status of women, and of course either lack of access to, or taboos against, the use of contraception.  None of the items on this list is outside of humanity’s ability to fix it, but whether or not we have the will to do so is a very big question indeed.  

Another issue of serious concern is that fertility rates remain highest in some of the poorest parts of the world.  Take Nigeria, for example, where only 8% of reproductive-age women use contraceptives, compared to 72% in the United States. (And frankly, it amazes me that 28% of women in this country do NOT use contraceptives.)  But note this: the number of women who use contraceptives climbs rapidly when these women are afforded an opportunity to get an education.  What happens in the process of becoming educated is that women begin to take control over their lives, and specifically of their own reproductive lives.  In other words, to be perfectly frank about it, educated women are better able to resist the twin forces both of traditional societies, which demand large families (and especially large numbers of sons), and the dictates of religions, which it seems are so often are at odds with what is best for the world. 

Here is another related, and rather startling, statistic for your consideration:  of the (minimum) 2 billion people who will be added to the planet by the year 2050, 97% of them will be born in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  In other words, the vast majority of the growth in population in the world will be in those parts of the globe which can least sustain that growth.  This spells trouble for everyone, and if you think that it’s basically a problem only for the people who live on these continents, think again. 

As long ago as 1974, again according to the Los Angeles Times, even the likes of Henry Kissinger is reported to have said in a then-classified memo that “growing numbers of young people in the developing world (are) likely to be more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, alienation, and violence than older populations.”  He went on to add that “it is urgent that measures to reduce fertility be started.”  And the bi-partisan commission convened to study the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 concluded, speaking about extremism in the Islamic world, that “a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable employment (is) a sure prescription for social turbulence.”  Such turbulence, as we have seen, has a marked tendency not to remain only within the borders of one country.

Yet, in spite of evident and growing problems associated with run-away population growth, the topic remains an extremely sensitive one for many people, and the twin forces alluded to above of tradition and religion continue to exert enormous influence in many societies. This includes the United States, let it be noted.   It is no secret, for example, that the U.S. government has over the years drastically changed its own policies in regard to educating people in less developed countries about contraception due almost entirely to ever-increasing pressure from the religious right.  Among many evangelicals, and some Catholics as well (although not all, in spite of what the bishops continue to preach), not only is abortion considered to be a sin, but so is the use of contraception.   

 Finally, the explosion of the population bomb is tied inexorably to the topic of global warming, which my friend and co-blogger, Kevin, wrote powerfully about in a recent posting.  One does not have to be a trained demographer to see that with smaller populations come fewer demands of all kinds on the ecosystem, and by contrast, the more people there are, the greater the strain on the system.  In this case, the “system” turns out to be our home, Earth, the planet itself.   

My fear is that the population bomb, and what will happen as a result of it, is similar to global warming in yet another important way, namely, that most of us are quite happy to ignore it.  I wonder if people think that both will somehow magically disappear, if we pay them no heed.  Unfortunately, such thinking is not only counterproductive, it has become downright dangerous.  At very least, what we can do is vote to elect progressive thinkers who might actually pay attention to the bigger picture, representatives who will stand up to the dictates of unthinking tradition and moralizing religion.  We can talk to our friends and our relatives, and urge them to find out about what is happening to our planet, the planet their children will inherit.  Those who are in the child-bearing years can make active choices to have one child, or at most, two children.  Or better still, why not adopt a child, who has otherwise come into this world unwanted and unloved?

One way or another, we need to take whatever action we can devise in our own lives, however large or small, to protect the planet against the ravages of the exploding population bomb.


By Paul

It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now.  It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not. 

What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all?  Why and how did matter form in the first place?  This is what is being asked.  And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly.  We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space.  That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself.  So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing?  What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today? 

Physicists have long had their theories, of course.  That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded.  It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day.  He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field.  The particle itself was called the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love. 

The problem was that it remained only an untested theory.  And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical.  If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right?  Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure.  Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all?  This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.”  He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today. 

Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created.  Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!

But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results.  The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June.  Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number.  But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson!  And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come.  At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory.  They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature.  They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them.  The theory has been proven. 

So, what now?  Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it?  Hardly!  Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come.  It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe.  And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter.  Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter.  They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length.   Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time?  Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence. 

How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of?  Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place?   Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own?  Indeed, what was it that actually exploded?  And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe?  How could it be otherwise?  We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us. 

I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception.  I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable.  The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles.   The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this.  But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category.  Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding. 

So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.