The Wisdom in the Pages

Although I have a read a good portion of the Bible, I have spent little time reading the holy books of other religions.  I have read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita as for some reason it was sitting around in my doctor’s office waiting room for awhile.  It’s actually kind of an interesting book.  I science fiction book I had recently read made several references to the Upanisads and the Dhammapada and so I’ve been perusing those books.  It has been interesting reading how other ancient cultures viewed the world.  When you read things from the point of view of somebody from those times, when so very little was known about the world, you can appreciate the contents even though from the perspective of today much of it is nonsense.  There is wisdom to be found there as well, and I found many similarities between the Bible and the Upanisads in terms of the moral lessons it was trying to teach.  There are many possible stories that can teach the same lesson, and it seems pretty clear that even when you suspect they are trying to be literally true, it still represents a best guess, and that what they were really trying to do is find a way of communicating impressions and feelings about the universe even if their literal attempt of an explanation was incomplete.

Recently I was in my local coffee shop working and a group of women sat at the table next to me and they were having a Bible study together.  Although I’d say more than half of the time they were just giggling and talking about things unrelated to the Bible, they did focus on their planned lesson.  Of course this is typical of many Christians in which they have some guide that hand selects of few important verses to focus on so that the entirety of the narrative is not read by the follower.  Like the Upanisads, I expect many church leaders recognize the irrelevance of much of the Bible and would rather not have discussions about many of the passages in the Old testament especially.  Anyway, what was interesting is that when they contemplated the words of a specific verse they would often relate it to experiences in their own life.  As I could not help but overhear, it was fascinating to me how the verses containing some wisdom seemed to be already known by the women, because life lessons had already taught them it was true.  Nevertheless they didn’t seem cognitively aware and put the cart before the horse.  “Look at the wisdom of this book, it is telling me something I already know…genius!”  I think if you are led to believe in the inspiration and greatness of the word of God, it’s hard to think of it as anything but that.  If the wisdom in the pages matches your own experience then this will only give you more respect for the book.

Now it’s not to say that people don’t discover wisdom from holy books.  I am listening to a podcast right now where they are discussing some of the main problems in the field of social psychology in terms of how the work is performed.  One of the main critiques of social psychology is that a field it has actually become too obsessed with the creation of little experiments for the purpose of following the scientific method and almost forcefully trying to demonstrate it’s scientific rigor.  Social psychology is the study of the individual in a societal context and so they ask, why all these experiments, when none of these controlled situations are actually found in a social context?  It’s a valid point.  The hosts of the podcasts were arguing that what is missing from social psychology as compared to other scientific disciplines is scores of observations.  They use the example of Tycho Brahe the famous Dutch astronomer, who really didn’t come up with anything novel on his own, but what he did have was mounds and mounds of careful observations of the stars and planets.  Johannes Kepler was his student and came along and came up with his 3 laws of planetary motion.  It is Kepler’s genius that is recognized today, but he certainly could not have come up his laws without all those observations.  Just as Darwin could not have come up with the theory of evolution without all his observations on the Galapagos.

Astronomy is one of the oldest disciplines because there is little to do at night but look at the stars.  It occurred to me that once you had civilizations and had a certain portion of the population doing the farming, a few who could afford to live a life of leisure had little to do during the day but observe humans.  It seems no surprise to me that wisdom would be found in ancient texts based on many years of observations of people.  Many of us figure things out on our own simply by paying attention to life and taking time to reflect and introspect.  There was no formal scientific method back then, and we certainly aren’t using it in our everyday lives when we come to a conclusion like “Hey, maybe I’m spending too much time worrying about things that are out of my control.  I would be happier if I focused on the moment.”  This is the kind of good stuff we come up with through our experiences, and it seems to me that many of the scholars who wrote religious books were simply story tellers, weaving important moral and ethical lessons into the stories based on their observations of how people behaved and what consequences or rewards befell them.  Whether they were joyful, fulfilled, empty, or anxious.  Most of them I think were simply people who were observing constantly and coming to some conclusions about how to live a better life.

Pay attention, look inward, and talk to others for their stories.  There is wisdom to be found in holy books, but the good news is that you also have a decent chance of figuring it out on your own.

Returning Your ticket

Let’s say you are on a big cruise ship. Over 6,000 men, women, and children are on board.  This cruise ship promises to take you to paradise and it’s not a lie either. A place where everybody is happy, nothing bad ever happens, and everybody gets along in love and friendship.  Children are laughing and smiling and running around.  Nobody

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is hungry or hurting.  Everybody lives in harmony.  There was no charge to even be one of the passengers.  You’re on for free and who wouldn’t pass up such an opportunity.

As you are making your way to paradise, the captain announces that due to some unknown structural defects that they need to get rid of about 100 passengers or the boat will sink.  Fortunately there are an equal amount of bad criminals who have done some bad things and don’t really deserve paradise on board and the captain knows who they are and asks everybody else to throw those people overboard.  Would you still want to be on that boat?  Keep in mind that by even looking the other way, you are an accessory.  But many people, I think, given the promise of such a wonderful destination they could make it work for their conscience.

Now rewind the scenario and the same announcement comes on and says we need to unload 100 passengers or we all sink, and paradise will never be reached.  It’s only 100 people and still some 6,000 people will get to go to paradise.  But everybody wants to go so nobody volunteers.  People get tense and some people start deciding for themselves who might be bad or good, who might be too old to survive the journey and thus can justify getting rid of them.   Would you still want to be on the boat?  Again doing nothing to help still makes you an accessory.  In this scenario, not that the group who stays must develop some sort of justification for why those people will have to die.  Judging them without evidence, making assumptions, perhaps developing a philosophy that gets people to volunteer, convincing the more gullible of passengers that they will get to paradise anyway by making the sacrifice (even though they don’t know that to be the case, no matter how strongly they believe it to be so).

Let’s rewind again except this time the captain announces that his good friend the Grim Reaper will be coming around and taking the lives of 100 people at random.  It

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could be your child, your friend, your wife.  Slowly everybody watches 100 people keel over without knowing why they had to die.  Would you still want to be on that boat?  If you stayed, what justification would you come up with to be okay with those deaths?

Let’s rewind one more time.  Instead of the Grim Reaper, the captain announces that everybody will be restrained while a psychopathic killer, wrought by the same person who made the paradise, will be coming around to kill 100 random people.  Having little control over his actions and lack of moral center, he will beat, rape, and torture these people before he kills them.  Many or all of these people are innocent.  Most importantly some are children. Young children, perhaps even babies.  Children in their innocence and purity must be physically and sexually abused in order to reach this paradise.  Would you still want to be on the boat?  What justification would you invent to be okay with this if you stayed?

In one the most influential books to me was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  In that book one of the Brothers Ivan is having a conversation with his younger brother Alyosha in a chapter I believe called “Revolution”.  Ivan is an atheist and a collector of news stories around Russia of atrocities committed against children.  He questions the religious harmony that Christianity offers (I do not single out Christianity here, only relaying the religion that was used in the book).  We are all supposed to follow The Bible and follow its moral teachings.  The goal being that we will all come to know God on Earth and secure our place in Heaven afterwards.  But we are also supposedly given free will and thus some do not follow.  This allows for the possibility of great harm to innocent children: abuse, rape, torture, death (not even counting all the natural/accidental causes that take the lives of children).  Ivan claims that if this is the price of harmony then he would like to “respectfully return his ticket” to the Creator.

In reading that passage, I could not help but agree with Ivan.  Being a father now only reinforces that idea more.    If there is a Creator who is omnipotent and decides what happens to all His creation and that there is a reward of Heaven for those who are good, then I submit that this existence is simply not worth the price given all the suffering that does and has taken place already to get there.   There are of course many other atrocities that happen to adults, that make it not worth the price either, but it is especially hard when I think of the harm that comes to children.  The logic of a Creator who commands us to act according to His moral guidelines in order to achieve some post material existence paradise at the expense of harm to innocent people, simply does not add up.  It’s not enough for me to say that “God works in mysterious ways” or that “no one can know the mind of God”.  It’s not enough for me to know that God has taken the innocent up to Heaven either.  Because what is the point of this existence if they had to suffer here?  And for the life of me I really don’t understand why that can be enough of an explanation for anyone else.  I’m open to any and all explanations as to why the tears of a suffering child are worth this paradise?