Monday, August 20, 2007

A Dilemma of the War on Terrorism

As long as humankind is inspired by the notion that there is a Deity, that some form of metaphysical reality exists beyond our finite world; and this unearthly principle also has the ultimate power to penalize or reward our actions and can decide the kind of future we may have beyond our mortal days--then we can be sure we will also always have religion.

I suspect this same innate ambition which drives us to believe we are all immortal will also insure that we will always have wars which begin over religion. In fact, history is replete with examples of such conflicts—conflicts over one man's "vision" that his religion was right and all others were wrong. It’s the age-old fallacy of humankind—there’s always some guy or some group out there who believes he/they have dominion over the "truth" about Deity.

The reality is that errors will be built into ALL faith systems for no other reason than the interpretations of faith are always man-made. So what’s all the fuss about over who’s right anyway? If we can accept and understand that we have "errors" in our own faith (we just don't know where they are), and equally accept the same of other faiths, why would we want to "fight" over a mistake? If you're going to fight over something, fight over something that you can prove - something that has certainty. In the meantime, be satisfied that "you" have discovered what is "true" to you and don’t demand that others agree with you.

The Golden Rule is a common thread of most all religions and boils down to a really simple principle. We are to live our own lives without dictating our understanding of Deity to others. Live the example others will want to emulate; always taking concern for the one stone in the quarry that we actually control and shape--our own rough ashlar.

One would certainly think that hastily applying dynamite to all the rough ashlars at once is more counterproductive than allowing each to shape his own ashlar at his own pace. Yet, as simple as this may seem, there appear to be some fundamental problems with it as a solution in an era of religious terrorism.

First, I would suggest that, while we have heard the Golden Rule stated in every religion in the world; the rule is, in reality, an insipid truism that has no force of law and certainly no force of meaning to a terrorist. The terrorist always calls on the religious authority of his faith as his rule of law. God becomes his sanction to kill or maim. In fact, most terrorists would never kill except in the name of God.

Further, since most monotheistic religions of the world were born before the New Testament era (an era which at least suggested that God was a God of Love), the more prevalent historic ideal of sacred authority is based on the premise of God’s role as a warrior. As an example, the Thirty Years War (a war fueled by religious hatred between protestants and Catholics--1618-1648), left more killing and devastation behind it than any event since the Black Death. It created the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which was the first legal instrument calling for the separation of church and state. It didn’t matter that much that the wrecking of Germany, for instance, was brought on by cynical leaders. In their hearts, most of the combatants believed they were carrying out acts of piety. When the war ended, many cities had less than half the population they had before; many towns had only one-fifth.

The conflict left a mark on the West that cemented our attitude for church-state separation. In fact, the fundamental reason the West has worked so hard to keep religion out of dealings between states and nations is precisely to banish religion from the repertoire of acceptable reasons to wage war.

But as the world turns more religious, more adherents of the great faith systems, particularly the newer cults, seem to be placing violence back in at the heart of their beliefs. As the economic and political state of countries get poorer and more unstable, a platform exists to spread sectarianism. This is the kind of seed that often brings extremists to the forefront of those who will kill in the name of God. And it is important to understand that we are not dealing here with the traditional ethical rules of war. When a war is waged by a perceived sacred mandate, we can be sure there will be little compromise from the true believer about the sacred. There is one God; one Truth.

Tolerance is not an intrinsic part of any monotheistic religion because the outcome of a conflict cannot be ambiguous. When the issues are sacred demands, there can be no bargaining. The believer cannot compromise on the will of God. Killing becomes an end in itself. The extreme believer wants a lot of people dead and may not care whether a lot of people are watching, as long as God sees that what has been done is in His name.

The Bible’s division between those who belong and those who don’t belong makes it natural to see life as war. We all know the imagery of battle occurs throughout the Old Testament. This same violent imagery is also a part of the earliest Islamic writings. Raiding is common, people are killed, and blood feuds are pursued. God’s angels intervene on behalf of the Muslim combatants.

The point is that scriptural emphasis on warfare in the world’s great religious traditions has armed successive generations with powerful mental images of an embattled world. The community of the faithful is perpetually in crisis, or at least on the edge of one.

There is even a growing sect of American Christians who also embrace the notion of a cosmic war. More Christians are becoming fascinated with apocalyptic speculation and with signs that the events depicted in Revelation are at hand. Books based on prophecies in Revelation are being sold to millions upon millions of folk. A recent Time/CNN poll suggested that fifty-nine percent of Americans believe the future will unfold in accordance with Revelation. The fact is that whether we see it in our church pews or not, we are a more religious country today than we were when we were founded. The new approach to Christian fundamentalism is that the coming war is a war to create God’s government on earth.

We can be sure the attack against America on 9/11, 2001 was an act of consummate religious devotion. Those who committed it were deeply pious. They expressed their motives in indisputably religious terms. And they saw themselves as carrying out the will of God. To them, the hijackings were the performance of a sacrament, one intended to restore to the universe a moral order that had been corrupted by the enemies of Islam and their Muslim collaborators.

The reality of 9/11 was that the motivation for the attack was not political calculation, strategic advantage, nor wanton bloodlust. It was to humiliate and slaughter those who defied the leadership of God. It was to please Him by reasserting His primacy. It was an act of cosmic war. What appears to most of us to have been senseless violence which violated all our known treaties about war, actually made a great deal of sense to the terrorists and all those who sympathize with them. For them, the act of killing was an act of redemption. Our modern notion of separate realms of the religious and the secular is simply inconceivable to a religious zealot.

How then can a simple and dignified ideal that we follow the Golden Rule find application in an eastern religious system, or even a Western fundamentalist system that almost universally agrees to some form of struggle for the sake of God? Can any moral and ethical system of thought improve mankind if it cannot find a venue where the duality between Toleration and Liberality against Fanaticism and Persecution cannot be reconciled?

As challenging as it seems, it really does come down to the Golden Rule. No one knows with certainty what Deity has in mind and therefore can have no divine sanction to condemn the faith of others, marking them as heretical. Likewise, there is no moral or ethical basis to approve of any actions that endanger the peace and quiet of great nations, or their people, by indulging in a fancifully imaginary philanthropy, imagining one's self to be "different" enough to be separated and self-proclaiming in one's holiness.

Such activity can be more harmful than the ambition of kings. Such intolerance and bigotry have been more repeatedly harmful to mankind than ignorance and error. Surely it is better that we know that our "truths" are not perfect and accept these errors than to live under persecution. How absurd it is to think that when we cannot even understand our fellow man, we can begin to expect to understand Deity in any uniform manner. Torturing and killing other people simply because they do not think and believe the way we do is indeed an absurd thought~ and should be to all men.

The gist of all this is that it is perhaps a much better aim to simply offer moral progress rather than dogma to the world. Just as we each individually grow by unlearning what we learn before we "see the light," mankind is also growing. It, too, can outgrow its own childhood and never go back. It is, after all, only human laziness that gets in the way of such advancement.

The object is to be a good man. The good man does the good when he gets the chance, often because he has the chance. He does it because he wants to - he loves the duty- and not merely because some law (by God or by man) commands him to do it. He is true to his own mind, his conscience, heart, and soul, and feels very little temptation to do unto others in a way he would not like to be done unto. He really does keep coming back to the Golden Rule.

And such men are found in all religions over the world. This is how a society becomes free and does the work it is meant to do.

Old theologies and philosophies of religion of ancient times may no longer suffice. We must advance. The duties of life are to be done. There are errors that we must replace with new truths. There are great wrongs and evils that must be righted and outgrown.

Why is it that mankind can't seem to learn from history- from our past atrocities? Why do we continue to ignore these powerful warnings of the unspeakable evils which follow from these past mistakes and errors in the matters of religion? What religion can actually invest the God of Love with such cruel and vindictive passions, of such man-made ideas?

Man has never had, nor will he ever have, the right to usurp the unexercised prerogative of God and condemn and punish another for a different belief. No man is entitled to positively assert that he is right where other men who are equally well-informed hold a directly opposite opinion. Each thinks it impossible for the other to be sincere, and each, as to that, is equally in error.

"What is Truth?" was a profound question, the most suggestive one ever put to man. But never forget that what once was believed, we now find incomprehensible. These startling insights give us a fresh glimpse of the human soul. If we cannot understand our own soul, much less the souls of all mankind, how can we expect to be able to have a full and error free understanding of the even more complex Deity which encompasses all souls? How can any one man possess such knowledge? None do.

This is why Toleration is so important. It is our chief duty, without which we stand for little. We can be tolerant of each other's creed because each faith holds excellent moral precepts. One does not have to look far in any teaching to find "good" teachings. The common thread, again, seems to be the Golden Rule, and the goal is goodness and getting along with our fellow man.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that intolerance of religious beliefs has afflicted the world worse than any other evil. All the treasure and human labor we've lost throughout time in such silliness would be enough to have now made the earth and all its inhabitants a Garden of Eden.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Old Glory Flies For All Of Us

I remember how easy it was to grow up in America. My father's generation had already survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many from that same era then crossed the ocean their forefathers had once sailed, but the other way. They sailed to Europe to fight World War II and defeat a global challenge to America's idealism.

And when all the military strength and national rhetoric had run its course, the world was once again at peace. We had fought the great fight. We had rallied around "Old Glory." We had won the "Big One" once again.

I came along as a product of that celebration. There were more of us born in the 10 years following WWII than in any other decade in history. We were the "Baby Boomers," and over the past half-century, we have been the beneficiaries of sustained economic innovation.

We have moved to the suburbs and traded radios for televisions, typewriters for computers, telephones for digital message centers, letters for E-mails. Over the Internet, we transact important business deals with people we never meet. We own every device imaginable, from remote control camera blimps to digital TVs posing as framed pictures. We dance apart, endure music which cannot possibly be harmonic, and consume microwave meals with our diet pills. We drink flavored coffee and imported beer, and we can count on one hand the times each year our entire family sits down together for a real meal, served at the same table, at the same time.
Now, this may not be exactly the America our fathers envisioned when they came home from the Great War. And it most certainly is not the America our forefathers founded. But it is the way we define ourselves today—with things rather than ideals, with self-interest rather than national pride or social unity.

And, to make matters more complicated, we live in a multicultural world, with many different personal sentiments and ethnic interests. It is much harder to have a sense of national unity. It is not easy to know what being patriotic means. Our children have no understanding of military conquests. We no longer rally around the same icons, such as the flag. We no longer have a single public spirit in America. There is no one event which makes us feel a sense of togetherness. We have made being an American a very complicated thing. Indeed, it is alarming to ponder if we still have a national heart.

And yet, amid the rapid movement of technology, the burgeoning influx of people, and our materialistic path to self-reliance, our flag still waves above much of the public architecture across our great land. But, today, rather than being the symbol of national unity, "Old Glory" has increasingly become the icon of public diversity.

To those who are the veterans of long-forgotten military campaigns, it represents the principles we cherish as Americans. To Baby Boomers, it signifies unlimited opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. To many others, it represents freedom to be, to love, to believe. To still others, it symbolizes the right to live in this country and hold to cultural values of another homeland far from our shores.

The challenge today is how we make all this diversity work together in harmony for the good of the whole. To be free means that we are each free to express our cultural differences, attitudes, feelings, and opinions. And to be an American means that we all have the same duty to tolerate the differences in our fellow Americans, and to be careful not to impose, by regulation or any other means, our beliefs on others. The first act of tyranny is to legislate that everyone should feel and think the same way. Such actions of law hinder free will and violate our constitutional rights as citizens of a free country.

And yet, to remain free also requires some personal sacrifice. Every generation has an equal duty to understand that the collective intelligence and wisdom of its people determine the greatness of our nation. National unity is more important than individual, ethnic, religious, or any other pride.

A collective consciousness is the only thing that can hold us together as both a people and nation. Social responsibility is more essential than cultural isolation. Patriotism is the steady dedication of a lifetime of people who realize they are one nation together.

It is true that we cannot legislate or force patriotism any more than we can force another person to attend the same church. Matters of faith and public spirit are matters of individual choice in America. And it must stay that way, or it may no longer be the America we inherited.

The question is how we teach each new generation of Americans that our national consciousness must still be connected to our past. The past must be known to every generation of Americans. The past must meet the present through education and national understanding. The spirit of those who labored to establish the foundation for free government must be felt in the spirit of those who benefit from the opportunity it has given. Every generation is a vital link in keeping America strong and great.

Yes, we have made being an American a very complicated thing! But, above all the rhetoric and progress of our times—regardless of our faith, creed, color, lifestyle, or national origin—each of us still has that same timeless duty to first have a national heart.

When we do, then we can still rally around our national symbol, "Old Glory"—because it flies for the sake of our ancestors, our children, our institutions, our country—and it flies for each of us!

To Be The Heroes We Are Supposed To Be

Like the archetypal hero, we each can transcend to a new level of awareness and attain a veritable rebirth.

One of the powerful icons of antiquity is displayed in a section of a votive relief at the Louvre in Paris. From the Hellenistic period, 1st century, B.C., the sculpture is titled "Offering to the Dioscuri." It represents Castor and Pollux, the most famous twins, dioscuri, of Greek mythology, riding magnificent steeds across the heavens. According to the myth, one of the twins is mortal, the other immortal. One represents the divine principle within us; the other signifies the energy in life which we must eternally encounter and transform. As the story goes, the twins spend alternative nights in the heavens and in the netherworld seeking, through their experiences, the light of tomorrow.

We commonly think of them as the zodiac sign Gemini. In astronomy, they are the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini.

Contemplating the imagery of this myth, we can see the twins as heaven and earth, day and night, past and future. Also, they represent the tension of opposites within ourselves at the very point of our transition from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge. Thus, this relief carving offers a pictorial description of the classic journey of the hero—the journey each of us is to make in life. It is an uncertain, often dreadful, and always dangerous night journey into the deepest reaches of ourselves. But through this journey, this confrontation with ourselves and our experience, we each can transcend to a new level of awareness and attain a veritable rebirth.

Only a hero, which we all can be, can wage such a battle. For it is only when we have an unrelenting resolve to overcome our deepest fears that we are enabled to know ourselves and fulfill our true potential. We labor and strive and learn in this world so that we may hope to live perfect in the dawn of eternity. That is the quest of the hero.

Of course, the symbolic meaning of the "Offering to the Dioscuri" is the same as depicted in Masonic ritual by the young Fellowcraft as he passes between the pillars of the Middle Chamber. At that moment in his life, he begins his journey into the greater mysteries which will enable him to become transformed into his better, truer self.

In contemporary Masonic symbolism, the Fellowcraft is the exemplar of the Gemini twins. His spirit is integrated by the dual nature of the pillars. Everything which represents the opposites in his life—passion and reason, aggression and cooperation, weakness and strength, anger and compassion, selfishness and charity—he takes with him on his subsequent quest toward self-improvement. Every emotion, experience, and lesson he learns on his own life journey, represented by the winding stairs, he integrates into his being.

He has only to make this hero's journey—this path of initiation, separation, and return—to see the Light of Lights and understand why Masonry is itself a timeless Truth, like the myth frozen in a piece of stone from two millennia past.

In the Scottish Rite (the college course in Freemasonry), our hero's journey is reinforced time and again. In the 13°, the candidate makes the descent into the cavern of his own life to discover the Lost Word. In the 18°, he finds, from his own journey through darkness, the light of the world. And in the 30°, he becomes the Dioscuri yet again, this time in the symbol and form of the black and white double-headed eagle.

Thus, when he becomes a Master of the Royal Secret, if he has taken seriously the path of the Rite, he is enabled to look back to the pillars of symbolic Masonry with new eyes—the eyes of a hero—and marvel at what Joseph Campbell has called the "song of the soul's high adventure," the path of his own self-meaning.

Perhaps it is really not so hard to be a hero. Maybe we need only to dream of a magnificent steed that will carry us aloft to a castle that knows no East nor West, but reveals the treasure of our soul's deepest longing.

Or, as Scottish Rite men, maybe we need only to know in what we are engaged--to be the heroes we are all supposed to be.