What is Truth?

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The endless arguments between people who believe ABC and those who believe XYZ  can get a bit confusing.  To be helpful I decided to list some of the most common foundations for these arguments.  The first part of this post is unprofessional and occasionally snarky, my take on the types of people who might rely on that particular foundation. It’s just to provide a few chuckles about a situation we’ve all been in–trapped by someone who is RIGHT, by-god, and don’t you forget it!

I heard it on the news, so it must be true!  These are the folks you see buying the Enquirer at the local grocery store.  Sometimes they don’t actually buy it, but you can be sure they are memorizing the headlines after they have unloaded their groceries on the conveyor belt.  Those of us who consider ourselves above such written garbage are confidently sneering internally and thanking god (the REAL one) that we know better than to believe such nonsense.  (But, seriously, wouldn’t it be a hoot if aliens had really taken over the US Government?)

Everybody knows that.  Some people know “Everybody,” who is a close relative of “Somebody,” only with multiple personality disorder. They are tuned into some vague matrix of information that provides them with infallible truth about “Everything,” which is a close cousin of “Nothing.”  When relying on this argument, they indicate that you are either pretty stupid, way out of the loop, not too popular, or a combination of all three.  None of us want to be unpopular, so the temptation to buy into those things that “everybody knows” is hard to resist.

My best friend told me.  She wouldn’t lie to me. This is a variant of “everybody knows that,” except it has much more clout, because this is first-hand information provided by someone who places truth at the top of the list.  Certainly that was also true of the friend’s best friend, who learned it from her aunt, who heard it from her best friend, who read it in the Enquirer.  Unfortunately by the time it filters down to you, it’s gone through the modern version of “Telephone,” which is called “Twitter.”  (Wouldn’t it be a hoot if the US Government used Twitter to keep us all updated on “Alternative Facts,” which is closely related to “Alternative Truth?”)

I know nothing about this subject, but can spit out insults that will curl your hair.  This person could rightfully be called a gladiator for the truth.  He lives in a very comfortable echo chamber and is not at all interested in moving.  Besides U-Haul doesn’t rent a moving van big enough to haul the mountains of theories (mostly listed under “conspiracy”) that this person holds dear, and will fight to the death to defend.  The Roman Emperors may have been extremely proud of the Colosseum, but they would die of envy over Facebook and Twitter.  The gladiator for the truth believes that any polite and rational discussion on any subject is a death ray pointed directly at him and everything he holds dear.  When facing a death ray, it is really hard to think clearly because the adrenaline is taking over your brain, so resorting to playground insults–upgraded to “X”–is the only option.  (Wouldn’t it be a hoot if there really was a death ray that the US Government could use to protect us from all our enemies?  A special type of death ray that would only obliterate our enemies, but not leave a scratch on us?) elegant-1769669_640God said…..  Now, I am going to rein in my snarky attitude and irreverence.  I try very hard not to be disrespectful of religious beliefs, unless they are clearly harmful.  The human tendency to be especially passionate about religion is not restricted to any one culture, and there are fanatics and rigid thinkers in all of them.  The most common argument seems to be between those who “believe” in science, and those who “believe” in literal interpretations of whatever scripture they think contains the truth.  Because this is an area that many of us struggle with, I want to share something I once read in a novel that made a lot of sense to me.

I do not remember the name of the book or the author, so I cannot give credit where it is due.  But this is the back story:  A young man is studying to be a rabbi, but he is experiencing a great deal of uncertainty and doubt.  He is particularly confused by the story of Creation, which he cannot reconcile with modern scientific “theory.”  He seeks the counsel of a learned Rabbi and this is (as best I remember it) what the Rabbi said:  “Torah is not meant to teach us what we can learn through our own God-given intelligence.  It is meant to teach us what our spiritual responsibilities are to that which is sacred–ourselves, each other, our world and God.”

I do not think there is ultimately any conflict between science and religion.  They are simply different languages by which we understand and communicate our experience of this world.

 

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 12/12/17
Inspired by daily prompt:  theory

How Are the Children?

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This sermon was given by Rev. Patrick O’Neil, at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, New York, on January 21, 2015.  Sadly it is even more relevant today than ever.  I share it in honor and memory of all those lost lives in Newtown, in Las Vegas, in Orlando, in Texas and so many other places.  Whatever the actual age of the victims, they were somebody’s children.

Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai.  It is perhaps surprising then to learn that the traditional greeting between the Masai Warriors – Kasserian Ingera – means “And how are the Children?”

It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children’s well being.  Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional response – “All the Children are well.” Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that priorities of protecting the young and powerless are in place, that Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper function and responsibilities.  “All the Children are well” means that life is good.  It means that the daily struggles of existence, even among a poor people, do not preclude proper caring for its young people.

I wonder how it might affect our consciousness of our own children’s welfare if in our culture we took to greeting each other with this same daily question:  “And how are the Children?” I wonder if we heard that question and passed it along to each other a dozen times a day, if it would begin to make a difference in the reality of how children are thought of or cared for in this country.

I wonder if every adult among us, parent and non-parent alike, felt an equal weight for the daily care and protection of all the children in our town, in our state, in our country, could we truly say without any hesitation, “The children are well, yes, all the children are well.”  

What would it be like if the President began every press conference or every public appearance by answering the question:  “And how are the children, Mr. President?”  If every Governor of every state had to answer the same question at every press conference:  “And how are the children, Governor?  “Are they well?”  Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their answers? What would it be like? I wonder…

What would be your answer?

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 11/6/17
Inspired by Daily Prompt: panacea

Is There a Limit to Compassion?

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A recent post by Rabbi John Rosove encourages compassion as a response to the heartless statements and decisions being made by President Trump. I ache to agree completely and without hesitation.  Instead I find myself struggling with the very question that the Rabbi answered by recommending compassion–a struggle that has consumed me since last November.

One of the first public conversations I had following the election of Donald Trump was in a setting where I expected compassion.  If not compassion, at least a verbal exchange that did not mimic the vicious campaign that had just ended. Instead, I heard this:

“He’s a piece of s***!”

In no way am I advising or trying to influence anyone who has been or may be directly hurt or abused by the blatantly racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic negative rhetoric or actions that have occurred and are occurring still.  I am not completely immune or safe from some of the rhetoric and actions.  But I am lucky enough to benefit from insulating factors that at least to date have kept me an arms length from harm.  I do not assume that I have any moral high ground.

Abuse can occur through public actions, statements and decisions, or privately at the hands of someone who is supposed to love you.  People who are forced to struggle through the after-effects of abuse, whether it was public or private, must have to wrestle with the question of compassion; struggle with what their emotional response is going to be. Compassion is not a concept limited to a small group of people.

Christians speak of turning the other cheek.

The Dalai Lama said:  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The Prophet Micah told the Jewish people they must do justice and be merciful.

I recall a Torah study session in which I participated some years ago, when the portion of the week contained the story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34).  A woman who was a therapist working with sex offenders made this statement:  “I doubt that anyone wakes up one morning when he is 5 years old and says, ‘I think I’d like to be a sex offender when I grow up.'”  I doubt Donald Trump woke up one morning when he was 5 years old and decided he wanted to be what he has become, either.

Still …..  What does it mean to be compassionate–in general and in this specific instance? Why should I struggle to be compassionate toward someone who demonstrates so little compassion for anyone else?

A common argument is that compassion, like forgiveness, may be less for the benefit of the offender than the one who was offended. Perhaps, to paraphrase A.J. Muste,

“There is no way to compassion, compassion is the way.”

Perhaps …  But I’m still struggling.

 

 

©Martha Hurwitz, 9/7/17

Inspired by Daily Word Prompt: finite

 

My Rant Has Detonated!

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For many of us, the past six months have been agonizing.  On a daily basis it is necessary to re-group, re-think, and defend (whether in public or internally) our political and religious beliefs.  It’s tiring and demoralizing, and such a waste of human talent.   We sense that we should plan for disaster.  But which disaster will strike first, and what will that disaster look like? Planning seems impossible, or useless, or basically, “I’m just too exhausted to figure it out.”

That’s my negative side, which usually takes a back seat. But my positive outlook, compassion for others, belief that we can do better, treat others (even those we don’t agree with) with humanity and humility, is sorely tested and weakened these days.   I cling to it stubbornly, but wonder whether the fabric will hold when almost daily it needs to be mended and patched and reinforced.

A few days ago, Irene wrote in her blog about A Perfect World, and asked: Why are my children having to worry about which cabinet to hide in at school? When back in my day, our biggest fear at school was not having anyone to play with at recess! 

atomic-bomb-398277_640When I was in high school we had “Air Raid Drills.”  We learned to proceed in an orderly fashion down the hallways of the school and into the cold, windowless basement where we stood silently against the cinder block walls.  This was to prepare for a nuclear attack.

REALLY????  We were going to survive a bomb that had reduced two Japanese cities to rubble, had burned the skin off people from miles away, and had poisoned the “lucky” survivors with deadly radiation?

One time, I just went up to the principal, who was directing traffic at the top of the stairs, and told him it was against my religion to participate in the drill.  In a way this was the truth, but I’m pretty sure my motivation was more that if I was going to die, I’d just as soon die in a room with windows than in a cement coffin with hundreds of other terrified kids. He told me to go into his office and wait there.  I think it was about this time in my life that I finally accepted that grownups don’t have a clue either.

One of the good results of getting older should be a sense of perspective and some satisfaction that things are getting better.   So I could say to Irene that lying awake worrying about when the Russians were going to drop a bomb on my school, and marching into the basement in a futile attempt to be convinced that I would survive the attack didn’t ultimately scar me too much.  That would pretty much be true.

Yet, I would also have to acknowledge that the world is far more complicated today, that while the internet and social media have enabled us to be more connected and more informed about other cultures, it has also helped make us more divided, angry and antagonistic.  Somehow, we have settled at the lowest common denominator, rather than risen to greater heights. Our public discourse has become crude, vicious, and hateful and our national image has become a laughingstock around the world.

My children are adults now, and I know they do not blame me for this. I also know that there are still many good and committed people working in their neighborhoods and on the national and international stage to create better lives for themselves, their neighbors and the world. There are rational and measured voices speaking truth to power.  But I am very afraid that power no longer recognizes or even cares about truth.

I feel a deep sense of shame and sorrow. This isn’t the world I wanted to leave as a legacy for future generations.elegant-1769669_640It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

Anne Frank wrote this in her diary on July 15, 1944, while she and her family were hiding from the Nazis in a small attic in Amsterdam.  If she could believe this under those circumstances, then who am I to doubt that it’s true?

My rant is over!

 

Daily Prompt: detonate

 

If I am Right, Do You Have to Be Wrong?

A recent post by Dwight Welch on religious pluralism, in which he described his experience at a symposium on that subject, initiated a period of intense thinking for me. Initially I planned to “like” the post and make a comment on the site, but I am someone who likes to cogitate, ruminate, and argue with herself for days on end before writing about anything important.  When his post and the comments he received combined with the spiritual intensity of Passover, my thinking on this subject grew into its own post!

The defense of religious truth has certainly caused immense human suffering.  With perhaps a few exceptions, most religious groups have been both the victims and the perpetrators of spiritual and physical violence and destruction during different periods of human history.  It has always been unfathomable to me how inflicting suffering and death on “others” can be justified in the name of providing them with the benefits of the truth as perceived by the perpetrators, especially when that “truth” is expressed in concepts of justice, compassion and righteousness.

Perhaps at least one of the core issues here is that we humans tend to see the world as having only two possibilities:  right or wrong, day or night, light or dark, you or me. Whether this is an innate tendency or not isn’t something that I am qualified to determine.  But operating under this world view requires that in order for me to be right, you must be wrong.  This viewpoint invariably creates problems, whether at the level of individual interactions within our families and neighborhoods or on national and international levels.

The question of what is ethical or moral behavior and whether the existence of divine power is necessary to enforce that behavior is a complicated one.  Those who favor traditional forms of religious and spiritual belief and ritual argue that these forms are necessary in order to define and enforce morality.  Otherwise, what would make my definition of ethical behavior any more compelling than yours?  It’s an appealing argument.  But there are many people who do not buy into traditional forms of religious belief, yet are still kind and ethical people in their outlook and behavior in the world. That is a compelling argument for the opposite position.

Recently there has been discussion among physicists about the possibility of parallel universes–that there may actually be universes other than our own and to which we have no direct access.  If so, “reality” and “truth” in those universes could be entirely different.  Could there potentially be truths in those universes that are opposite of what we see?  It’s mind boggling and somewhat scary to think so, but even if it isn’t true or possible, it exercises our limited outlooks by thinking about it.

Not too long ago a pair of friendly and polite young men knocked on my door.  While this does not happen frequently, it isn’t the first time that people who are easily identifiable as missionaries have appeared at my home.  I used to feel annoyed and struggled to be polite to them, or on occasion reverted to the ploy of pretending no one was at home. But as I have become more secure and confident in my own particular spiritual outlook toward the world, I have realized that they are living out what they perceive as their religious duty, just as I strive to live out what I see as my religious duty–though it certainly differs from theirs.  As long as they are not going to engage in harmful acts or spiritual bullying, I now smile and thank them politely and then say “no thank you.” The fact that they feel it is their spiritual duty to promote their view of salvation, and may indeed think they are saving me from eternal damnation, does not in any way diminish the validity of my spiritual construct or deny the reality of what I believe to be true.

I do not think it is a question of deciding whose truth is right, and therefore makes all other religious formulations false.  The divine presence is ultimately vast enough to encompass all of the various ways that human beings struggle to answer the questions that come with being human and mortal. What is the meaning of life? Why do good people suffer? How do we respond to violence and hatred? Why is the distribution of wealth, health and opportunity so unequal?  And perhaps the most difficult question: How do we face the loss of loved ones and our own physical aging and death? elegant-1769669_640

In the end, this is what I believe.  If there really exists a divine entity that we call God, who created an infinite, complex universe(s?), populated by thinking, creating, complex humans (made in God’s image), who see the world in so many different ways, is it in any way reasonable to think that there is only one true way to picture that entity, and only one pathway to bring that divine presence into the world?

What Marks Your Doorposts?

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Traditional preparations for Passover are detailed, complex and arduous. “Spring cleaning” doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and seriousness with which an observant Jewish homemaker would ensure that the house contains not even a crumb of leavened bread, crackers or even pet food that is not “kosher for Passover.”

I have to admit that I am not one of those dedicated and observant women. While I have sometimes performed a thorough house cleaning more or less because Passover is coming, my usual fall-back position is that I’ll just not eat anything leavened for the duration, and I’ll attend at least one Seder to mark this important holiday. I can come up with numerous reasons (excuses is probably more honest). Didn’t grow up Jewish; other members of my family are not so committed to observing; personality-wise I am very uncomfortable with what appears to me to be an obsessive position on any subject, but particularly in ritual matters.  I do feel conflicted about all this, because from my spiritual perspective Passover is a seminal and profound event. Perhaps the day will come when I can match my outward observance with the spiritual impact I feel, but I’m not there yet.

This particular narrative belongs to the Jewish people, and whether it literally happened the way it is told, or whether it is an apocryphal story is of no consequence to me.  But we are not unique in longing for freedom and redemption.  It is probably fruitless to rank suffering. Many people suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of others, while some “only” struggle to free themselves from bad habits, difficult relationships, health or financial problems.  But we all struggle. The appeal of the Exodus narrative is universal because it is a story of deliverance from oppression, whatever form that may take.

Anyone who has attended a Seder will know that we don’t just tell the story. We discuss and debate, think and contemplate, teach our children, ask questions, wrestle with meaning or new interpretations.  We were commanded to tell the story as if we had actually been there and this is the heart of observing Passover.  To think deeply and spiritually about what we need to do in order to create and preserve freedom, to ask ourselves what we would risk to free our families, our neighbors, ourselves.  Who would we follow?  What would we choose to take with us on such a journey? Would we rejoice at the destruction of our enemies, gloating over their misery?  Or would we acknowledge the tragedy of human suffering in any form, and long for the time when it will no longer occur? Would we have the courage to step into the sea even if we were not sure we would survive?

And why do we need to mark the doorposts of our homes and gates?  The simple answer has always been so the Angel of Death would know where we lived and the final, most horrible plague – Death of the Firstborn – would not descend upon us.  But surely God knows where we live and could easily direct the Angel of Death where to strike and where not to.  A deeper layer of meaning may be this:   In order to journey to freedom, we first need to know who we are, in what spiritual home we live, what emotional gates we have built and what purpose they serve.  We need to know what we stand for, who we are willing to follow, and who will be our companions on the journey. We must not live in denial, but courageously mark the doorposts with our individual truth.