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Posts Tagged ‘me of little faith’

Me Of Little Faith: Cthulhu Fhtagn!

August 19th, 2010 No comments

My friend Mark responded to my recent “Me of Little Faith” post with the following:

Dave! While you were “Facebooking,” you wrote:

“Alternately, we’re all just tiny, briefly-existing specks in an incomprehensible vast and uncaring universe who have created gods in our own image to keep the nightmares away.”

But, you forgot to write the most important part of your comment! Namely:

” . . . and soon, Cthulhu will awake, the seas will boil off, the continents will shake like gelatin, the electrons in the carbon atoms that comprise our bodies will be forcibly torn from their orbits, and our souls will be used as the clay for his obscene and inscrutable purposes.  Have a nice day everyone.”

I’m reposting this not only because I think it’s funny, but because Mark correctly identified the intersect between my personal beliefs and the writings of author H.P. Lovecraft.

I’ve long been fascinated by Lovecraft. At first it was mostly due to the absurd names he gave to his indescribably horrible horrors. (Oh yes, I’m so very terrified of Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.) Later, I came to recognize the massive influence he’s had on horror and fantasy literature, comics and movies.

The central themes of Lovecraft’s body of work describe a universe which is incomprehensible and, at best, uncaring. Mankind is neither the first intelligent life to walk on the Earth, nor will it be the last. Cosmic forces lurk in the gulfs of space and in the most inhospitable parts of our globe, biding their time until “the stars are right” and they reemerge to smite victims and followers alike.

Now, I don’t believe that extradimensional nightmares with far too many consonants in their names are anticipating the day when they can squoosh humanity between their rugose and squamous toes. But the notion of a universe that defies understanding has stuck with me.

When I think of our relationship with the seemingly infinite voids that surround us, I cannot help but be reminded of ants. Ants do some of the things that humans do: form castes, build structures, farm and fight. And their senses allow them to perceive much of the larger world around them.

But does that ant crawling up your pant leg comprehend the surface upon which it treads? Does it recognize you as another living creature? Can it have even the tiniest inkling about how denim is made, or about the Chinese sweatshop in which your garment was assembled?

I think that humans are perhaps a bit better off than ants in our understanding of the universe. We have complex equipment that has allowed us to look deeply in the darkness, and a scientific method that analyzes data and tests hypotheses.

But I believe that the universe is simply too large and too weird for us to ever truly figure it all out. And it strikes me as supreme arrogance for any of us to declare that they understand the nature and purpose (if any exists) of our shared reality.

If someone today arose from the rabble and claimed to be the living embodiment of God, we would (rightly) laugh them out of town. Well, most of us would, anyway. But a great many are all too willing to accept hearsay testimony on behalf of people who once claimed to have first-hand knowledge of God…or even to be God. And these people conveniently lived thousands of years ago, before mass communications or sensitive scientific instruments were invented, in a part of the world that, to be blunt, most modern-day Americans don’t exactly trust.

I hope you’ll pardon me if I say that I don’t believe that any of us understands it all.

Me Of Little Faith: What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Trite

August 16th, 2010 No comments

One downside of reconnecting with old friends on Facebook is finding out just how little in common you currently have with them. Another is that they bring their new friends with them.

Recently, a high school classmate of mine pondered why life had to be so complicated, then declared:

“It’s a test to see if we can handle all of our problems!…before we go to Heaven!!!”

Shortly thereafter, his friend commented:

“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger…You know what they say, God doesn’t give you anything that you can’t handle.”

A half hour later, another one redundantly followed up:

“Just remember God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle and what won’t kill us will make us stronger……”

Ah yes, just as Jesus said.

I don’t know if it was the repetitive platitudes or the abuse of Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche, but I was compelled to jump in.

“Alternately, we’re all just tiny, briefly-existing specks in an incomprehensible vast and uncaring universe who have created gods in our own image to keep the nightmares away. There’s nothing about this world that makes me think there’s any higher power taking a personal interest in the day-to-day struggles of its inhabitants.”

“Once you take eternal punishment and eternal reward off the table, what’s left? Do the best you can with what you’ve got, and try to leave the world a slightly better place than when you entered it.”

Of course, I knew perfectly well that wouldn’t be the last word:

“David, Do you think the universe and world, just popped up, one day?… I know in my heart there is a God! and everything happens for a reason!..I guess we’ll all find out one day!”

Okay, sure. Or we won’t. Whatever.

I really wanted to say, “No, you think the world just popped up one day. Specifically, Day Three. I think it took about thirteen billion years.”

And “Everything happens for a reason?” I dearly wish that I could figure out who first came up with that spurious bit of received wisdom and pimp-slap them. “Everything happens for a reason” is the empty philosophy that brought us M. Night Shayamalan’s Signs, in which Mel Gibson’s wife was cut in half by a car just so she could tell him that it was okay to hit an alien with a baseball bat. Because God had no other way to impart that admittedly helpful advice.

It’s our way of reconciling our belief of a kindly old man in the sky with the reality that a whole lot of awful shit happens in the world. No all-powerful, infinitely benevolent überbeing is setting things right in Darfur, North Korea or any of a hundred similar hellholes that dot his favored planet. That bothers us, so we chalk it all up to a divine plan that we simple people cannot possibly comprehend. We needn’t do anything because all the bad folks will be sorted out when the final trumpet blows.

Sure, many things happen for a reason. That Afghan girl with no nose or ears* who was on the cover of Time a few weeks back? The reason that happened was that her fuckhead family and some religious fanatics wanted to set an example for any other uppity women who might complain about the cruelty and virtual slavery under which they live.

Oh sure, if you want to feel better in the middle of the night, you can imagine that the bearded sky-man allowed that atrocity to happen as part of his grand scheme. And hey, losing her facial features didn’t kill that girl, so she must be stronger. If they’d cut off her feet as well, she’d be nigh unstoppable.

It’s all a test. I hope she passes. It’d suck if she couldn’t handle what God gave her.

*Remember when Disney got all those complaints about their animated film Aladdin? Specifically, the lyric “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face?” Just sayin’.

Categories: Rant Tags: ,

Me Of Little Faith: The Not-So-Great Escape

April 11th, 2009 No comments

On a recent trip to Borders, I was surprised to find Escape from Hell, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s newly published sequel to their 1976 novel Inferno. I had greatly enjoyed the original when I read it back in ’86 during my tumultuous year in Hollywood. I was taken with the tale of a science-fiction writer who found himself in a Hell patterned after the one described in Dante’s Divine Comedy

The notion of Hell has always fascinated me. At first it was something I feared, due in no small part to watching too many Twilight Zone episodes. Later I was obsessed with the dissonance of a loving, fatherly God meting out eternal punishment. I came to believe that no earthly sin, no matter how heinous, justified torture for all time. Yes, that includes Hitler.

Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno came to a similar conclusion, as its narrator encountered souls suffering horrible and cruelly ironic fates for what, in some cases, were relatively minor “sins”: for example, an FDA attorney doomed to an eternity of immobile obesity because she banned a sugar substitute. It was she who spoke the line echoed in Escape from Hell, “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism.” Ultimately, Inferno suggested that Hell must be only temporary, and that even the worst of humanity could be redeemed. Indeed, at the conclusion of that novel, the protagonist watched a reformed Benito Mussolini climb his way out of the pit.

Escape from Hell seemed to promise that it might address some of the remaining questions from Inferno regarding the purpose and nature of Hell*, but opts instead for posing those questions a second time. In fact, it struck me as less sequel and more remake, with its hero being blown all the way back to the beginning and having to make the perilous journey a second time. In a recent interview Pournelle says that the reason he and Niven revisited the setting after so many years was that they “had a story.” I’m not entirely convinced of that. While there are hints of changes in Hell wrought not only by Mussolini’s escape but by real-world events such as the Vatican II council, these never quite boil into a full-fledged expansion of the plot.

What it does allow is for Niven and Pournelle to toss a whole new batch of sinners into the pitch, including Ken Lay, the Virginia Tech shooter, and Carl Sagan. I was disappointed by the book’s handling of Sagan. In the above-linked interview, Pournelle claims a relationship with the astronomer, so I won’t dispute the authors’ reasons for consigning him to the Inferno. I just felt that, pragmatist or not, Sagan came off as too quickly accepting of a Biblical Hell, and too willing to cooperate with its masters.

It also gets a bit talky at times, with the characters frequently digressing into philosophical discussions. Natural enough, I suppose, but I didn’t feel like they were saying much that hadn’t been covered in the first book. Plus, the authors presume that I have as much interest as they do in the life and work of Sylvia Plath. (The poet is a major character in the sequel.) I can assure them that I don’t.

That said, there were some clever bits in Escape from Hell. One of the most striking images is of a post-9/11 Ground Zero in which an endless series of proposed replacements for the Twin Towers rise, each in turn proving insubstantial and collapsing due to a lack of commitment. In moments such as those, Escape from Hell demonstrates that while it’s far from a necessary sequel, it at least has something new to say.

*In our own world, Hell appears to serve several purposes. The threat of eternal damnation is an inducement for “good” behavior. It’s one method by which religious leaders exert control over their flocks and influence over the rest of us. But I suspect that its most important purpose is to allow us some measure of satisfaction over the rampant injustice we see. We know damned well that–despite aphorisms such as “crime never pays”–horrible people do prosper, and all too often they are never held accountable. Hell allows us to believe that even those who go to their death on a pile of money and whores will meet their just punishment in the afterlife.

Me Of Little Faith: Expert Witness

March 20th, 2009 No comments

Back in 2007, I made an abortive attempt at a mini-series of navel-gazing blog posts regarding religion. I managed to log only one entry before becoming terminally distracted by a Metroid invasion. It’s something I’d long intended to revisit, but I’d been looking for something to spark my interest in the topic.

This past week, I’ve been reading I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams. Yes, I’m as amazed as you are; I’m reading a real book, not a TV tie-in or collection of ’60s comics. It may be far from my usual bathroom fare, but I was intrigued by the cover featuring a happy, little girl standing beneath an umbrella in an idyllic circle while the rest of civilization around her perishes in a rain of hellfire.

What’s it like to grow up knowing that the world will end within your lifetime, and that everyone who fails to share your one true faith is doomed, doomed, doomed? It turns out that you wind up boggled by normal social interactions and completely incurious about the world, because what’s the point of getting an education and making something of yourself if an earthly paradise is right around the corner? Granted that Kyria’s problems seem to spring as much from a panoply of mental disorders and a stunning self-centeredness as they do from her sheltered, cultish upbringing.

The book starts out hilarious, dealing with such earthly perils as Smurfs and demon-infested yard sale items, but becomes rather sad as Kyria grows up and flails about in a series of bad choices and loveless relationships. Judging by her blog, she seems to have turned herself around in the end, and I’m glad to know that. 

My interest in the Jehovah’s Witnesses goes back to my own childhood. My Great Aunt Vera was one, and while I don’t recall her attempting to send me home with a stack of Watchtower magazines, I do remember that even back then I could tell that something about her world view didn’t quite add up. Great Aunt Vera gave me my first exposure to apocalyptic end-time prophecy over a casual dinner at a local eatery on the west side of Hobart. It didn’t make much sense to me: something about having sixes tattooed on my head and the evils of a one-world government. I’m not sure quite when this conversation occurred, but as someone who grew up under the shadow of the Vietnam War, having a single government sounded like a pretty good idea at the time.

What really got me about the Jehovah’s Witness faith, as explained by Great Aunt Vera, was that it only allowed for 144,000 of its own followers to ascend to Heaven. Okay, sure, the rest got to live in an earthly paradise. Still, it seemed like a bum deal. According to my own vague, generic notions of Christianity, Heaven was for everyone, including pets. But here was an orthodoxy that preached that even if you did everything right there was still a much-better-than-even chance you wouldn’t get to hobnob with the Big G. (Er…Big J.) I mean, even then I realized that 144,000 was a pretty small number, especially if it was drawn not only from current-as-of-Armageddon Witnesses, but those who’d died prior to The End. What, was Heaven running out of room? Couldn’t an omnipotent God whip up a few more clouds for his chosen people to sit upon?

Right then, I thought, “Wow, that religion blows.” And that was before I found out about the not-celebrating-birthdays thing.

MeTube

January 23rd, 2008 No comments

One side benefit of Vicky’s current obsession with the Australian Open tournament is that we needed to buy a DVD recorder to dub off some of the non-tennis stuff taking up valuable space on our TiVo-Like Device. While it’s certainly useful in that regard, the bonus for me is that I can finally tackle the problem of my deteriorating VHS tapes. While I’ve substituted many of my old off-air recordings with shiny, store-bought DVDs, there’s still a lot of stuff that would be otherwise impossible to replace.

So, while the tennis balls ping back and forth in the living room, I’ve set up a DVD duplication facility in the basement, attempting to digitally preserve this old video before the tapes (some more than twenty years older) become unplayable.

Another benefit is that I get to share the “wealth.” Here then are a couple of clips that I dubbed to DVD, ripped to AVI and uploaded to YouTube PDQ. Both are from a mid-’80s TV show called Stingray, starring Nick Mancuso as a mysterious hero who helps the helpless in exchange for favors, which he then uses to help other helpless people. It was kinda clever, in that a guest star victim could reappear in a future episode as a favor-provider.

However, it also bore the sign of its times: an unbearably cheesy Miami Vice vibe. Here’s the opening sequence.

The reason I bring it up is that during the year I spent in Los Angeles fresh out of college, I was an intern at Stephen J. Cannell Productions at the time they were simultaneously producing The A-Team, Riptide, Hunter, Hardcastle & McCormick and, yes, Stingray. And while my duties as intern consisted almost entirely of standing around the set attempting to bond with the crew, I got to be an extra in a couple of shows.

That’s quite a long introduction to this brief clip, in which I can be seen in quite possibly the last place on Earth you’d likely find me: a revivalist tent meeting. The video’s a bit dark, but that’s me in the front row, pimped out in a ten-dollar thrift store suit and passing the collection plate with elan.

It wasn’t my last appearance on national TV, but it was the only one involving a 12-foot, illuminated cross.

Me Of Little Faith: On A Clear Day, I Could See Forever

September 2nd, 2007 No comments

While my family didn’t attend church, that’s not to say that Dad wasn’t interested in the Bible. He’d had an epiphany of sorts when, as an employee of the power company, he’d been caught in a natural gas explosion. He was on a service call when a gas leak ignited and blew up a house. Dad saw its owner consumed by a fireball, and he himself barely escaped. That close call left him looking for God.

He sampled a variety of churches and talked to their elders, but was always dissatisfied by the disconnect between their practices and his own interpretation of the Bible. Because of this, I had little formal religious experience in my childhood, outside of one summer at vacation Bible school.

Instead, Dad took it upon himself to teach me about God, and in later years even cajoled me into reading portions of the Bible. I didn’t get much out of its arcane prose and archaic grammar, so what I did learn about Christianity came mostly out of our long car trips together.

One topic that both fascinated and disturbed me when I was fairly young was that of eternity. Dad said that when people died, they went to Heaven where they lived forever in the presence of God. Superficially, I could see the appeal, but it wasn’t long before I began to think about the ramifications of life eternal.

“How long is forever?” I would repeatedly ask him. The question haunted me. How could anything just go on and on and on without end? Even at that young age, it occurred to me that doing anything, however pleasant, for all time was a scary prospect.

A classic Twilight Zone* episode summed up those fears. In the first season show “A Nice Place to Visit,” a small-time hood is shot dead and finds himself in a heavenly realm in which kindly Sebastian Cabot grants his every wish. For a time it’s all wonderful, but he begins to get bored. He can’t lose at gambling, women never turn him down, and the banks are too easy to rob. There’s no challenge, no chance of failure. At wit’s end, he begs Sebastian Cabot to be sent to “the other place.” Cabot replies with a gleeful cackle, “This is the other place!”

* There are going to be a lot of Twilight Zone references in this series. Rod Serling had a big impact on me.

Even if the afterlife wasn’t likely to be lorded over by a cheerfully sinister Mr. French, it seemed to me that forever was simply too long. I could see myself saying, “Well, this is nice and all, but what else have you got?” Granted, the alternative was equally unpleasant to consider, but we’ll come to that in a later post.

Infinity is something I just don’t deal with very well. Whether it’s eternal time or endless space, the concept just gives me the wiggins.

In my freshman year of college I took a nighttime astronomy class. For most of the semester we learned about the immediate vicinity of our solar system, but on the final night the professor lectured about what lay beyond: millions of stars in our galaxy, thousands of galaxies and unimaginable spaces between them. It might not go on forever, but it was close enough.

When I walked back to the dorm that evening, it was a starry night. And as I looked up, for the first time I felt aware of how absurdly tiny I was, and how little separated me from darkness without end. The sky was too open; it offered too little protection. There was far, far more nothing than there was anything.

There are many who look at the seemingly infinite majesty of the universe and see the face of God, but instead I am reminded that I that I exist as a tiny, brief-lived blob of matter clinging to a slightly larger (on the cosmological scale) blob, with vast chasms of time and space surrounding me in all directions. It’s not a comforting thought.

Next: You Wouldn’t Like Him When He’s Angry

Me Of Little Faith: Introduction

August 30th, 2007 No comments

Last week I bought Skeptic magazine for the first time. The issue was dedicated to the subject of evolution and its ideological opponent, so-called “intelligent design.” The topic interests me for reasons both professional and personal. My job requires me to occasionally field calls from pissed-off creationists objecting to Nova or other science documentaries. And my dad refuses to believe in evolution because he sees no point in existence if God isn’t involved.

As for myself, I’m both repelled and fascinated by such pseudoscience. On one hand, I feel that it has caused great damage to our culture. Used by cynical manipulators for political ends, it has sown confusion about the nature and process of science, leading to irrational, foolish actions. And yet, I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that yearns for the supernatural and the paranormal. I don’t truly believe in the Loch Ness Monster, but wouldn’t it be cool?

Reading the articles in Skeptic got me thinking a lot about my own beliefs about the origins and purpose of life, and most of all, my lack of faith in a traditional God.

Yes, this is going to be one of those long, navel-gazing blog essays. Bear with me. Or don’t: come back in a week or so and I’ll be writing about kittens or comic books instead.

Next: How Long Is Forever?