Saturday, August 16, 2008

The "Ring of Truth?"

In the last few weeks I have been having a conversation with a number of Christian apologists about the basis of Christian belief in the Divine inspiration of the Bible. This conversation has mainly been about the way in which the Bible was put together and the influences on this process. When we look at the history of this process we find violence, bribery, torture, and political maneuvering. It is very difficult to find anything spiritual within this history.

When the evidence is finally sifted through the “faith” appeal usually is the final appeal for believers. Basically it means that we need to have “faith” in those things that can’t be defended through reason. An interesting application of this “faith” approach is by quoting J. B. Phillips. He used the term “ring of truth” to refer to the Divine nature of the Bible. He noted, as he was translating the Bible, he felt a general “ring of truth” unique to the Bible as compared to his work translating other ancient documents. To be fair to J. B. Phillips, he didn’t believe in verbal inspiration, that Satan was real, nor in many of the “miracles” of Jesus. He would relegate them to either parables, alternate explanations, or myths.

In his autobiography he stated, “...I felt bound to abandon the `God-dictated-every-word- from-cover-to-cover' attitude, and won an attitude which commends itself to my intelligence as well as my faith..." (The Price of Success, Wheaton: Harold Shaw Pub., 1984, p. 150).

I want to look at, more specifically, the gospels. I think if there is a "ring of truth" around the gospels, its because of the profound wisdom of some of the teachings of Jesus. This does not mean that Jesus is divine or is the only source of true wisdom. Much like J. B. Phillips, I don't find a "ring of truth" around the historical account because it appears that there are accommodations for later orthodox beliefs and for several doctrinal problems encountered in the first few centuries of Christianity.

There are some contributions that Jesus makes that, I believe, go unrecognized because of all the emphasis on his death as a sacrifice, the claim of his divine nature, and the need for salvation, which I have come to believe have their source in the strong Greek, Pagan, and Roman influences on the early Christian church.

I would also note that many of us, who grew up in Christian cultures, are working under a fair amount of conditioning in regards to Christianity. And that conditioning has a fair amount of fear involved. This "faith based" reasoning has its counter parts in other traditions that most Christians would find unbelievable. One simply has to note the strong hold the Qur'an has on most Muslims as the final revelation of God or the Book of Morman as a historical record of God's dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.

Christians dismiss the mythology of the Qur'an and the Book of Morman for reasons they are unwilling to apply to the Bible because they have "faith." When I look at what is typical of most religious beliefs systems I find the same types of myth building within Christianity. These are powerful cultural influences that are linked very deeply to a person's view of the world. They are not easy to change because they have such a strong momentum.

When I step back from my cultural momentum and view Christian history and belief from a rational perspective, I find the same problems as I find in other belief systems and if I am going to retain an intellectually honest perspective, I need to apply the same types of tests to all belief systems no matter how painful that process may be, because, ultimately, I have found that, as Jesus said, the truth does set one free.

And this brings me back to what may provide a “ring of truth” to the gospel account of Jesus and his teachings. There are a number of themes that Jesus addresses, but the one that is often the most recognizable is his statement that we love our neighbor as our self. This statement is not unique to Jesus since we find the same statement in the Torah. And this is not simply some wise saying, but it is one of the two statements that define the law of God in Jewish belief. The first one being the requirement to love God with all your heart.

In the Torah the statement reads like this

“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Leviticus 19:18 NKJ

In this context the idea of one’s neighbor is only within the children of one’s own people. What Jesus adds, through the story of the Good Samaritan, is the idea of one’s neighbor extends far beyond one’s own people. We empathize with the poor man beaten by robbers, abandoned by his countrymen and feel his relief at being taken care of by the Samaritan, who is considered an outcast. And when Jesus asks us who was this beaten man’s neighbor, we feel the injustice of excluding the kind Samaritan from our love simply because he is a Samaritan.

I think this is the key concept that Jesus brings to us. He takes an ethical principle (love your neighbor as yourself) that is based on empathy and uses that empathy to extend this principle to all people. He further links this idea to empathy when he states “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is quoted in both Luke 6:31 and in Matthew 7:12.

This idea of empathy, rather than authority, as the basis of ethical behavior puts a lot of confidence in the human heart. It puts confidence in the human capacity to imagine how it might feel to be in another’s place and experience. It also puts a lot of confidence in the ability of one to love one’s self. For me, love for one’s self is the ability to imagine how it might feel to see one’s self from another’s perspective of grace.

This idea, to be fully realized, requires elements of both eastern and western thought. Eastern religious practice has made an art form of the exploration of the inner self. Its practices have the ability to awaken the capabilities of the heart and the capabilities of awareness. Western religious practice has emphasized much of the practical application of belief. Empathy, to be fully developed needs a rich and full inner life and a clear awareness of the world around. Empathy, to be fully applied, needs to know how to turn the gifts of the inner life into connections with others.

Eastern practice tries to avoid dualistic types of thinking to find the middle path. In Western terms this would be a form of Grace, where one gives up the need to punish and refrains from judging. All of these were explored by Jesus within the context of Jewish law. Jesus stated that to judge others was to judge oneself and to be free from judgment one had to refrain from judging others. He was also very practical in his application of love. He references acts of kindness and love as the determining factor of one’s inner life. Acts of kindness done to others was doing them to God. This may have indicated how Jesus saw connections between all and the spirit of God within.

Paul, who claimed to be an apostle, said “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” 1st Corinthians 10:24 This is a major shift in ethical emphasis. I believe this created a competition for goodness within Christianity. If one takes away the love for one’s self, empathy is taken away as well. For I no longer have a self to reference other’s feelings. And if I don’t seek my own good at all, then my ability to sustain my own life will take my gifts away from others eventually and in the mean time reduce their effectiveness.

With the introduction of Jesus becoming a sacrifice for our sins, we no longer have a self sustaining philosophy of empathy, but a sacrificing god who we are now required to emulate. The focus is taken off our connection with others through empathy. It is now focused on how much we can sacrifice. The suffering of Jesus and its contemplation holds front and center rather than love for our fellow beings. Ultimately this becomes a practice of self contemplation. The contemplation of one’s worthiness or unworthiness as it may be.

If we can tease one more thing from Jesus, we might contemplate the possible intent of this statement.

'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink'...Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?...'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Matthew 25:35, 37, 40

If we see Jesus as human, then we could say that any kindness or harm we do is done to everyone. If we see Jesus as Divine, we could say that the Divine dwells in everyone. If we see him as both we could say that everyone is a member of the family and everyone is Divine. I’m sure there are infinite variations of how we might see the nature of humans and Jesus.

What I have observed within communities that I have participated in is that when a person is allowed to tell their story from their heart and is really heard within that community a bond develops and actions naturally come forth. It is clear that when these empathetic connections are established there is a natural desire and motivation to love one another. It comes from the stories of people’s lives told in honest and nonjudgmental ways. And it doesn’t matter what people believe or don’t believe in these moments. That empathetic connection communicates much more than ideals, doctrines, words, philosophies, theologies, or ethics could ever instruct.

So if there is a “ring of truth” in the gospels, for me, it is introduction of empathy as the basis for the expression of love toward each other. May we learn how to more fully feel and express our empathy. I think it would be a far better world if everyone knew how to do this well.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Shameless Promotion of Creativity...

This post is about my sons and their creative expressions. Part of the vision I had for my family was to have lots of opportunity for creativity. Creativity and the creation of new ideas, music, and objects of beauty is, to me, a very core part of spirituality. These activities provide me connections that exclusively rational processes don't seem to address. My wife Karey and I have placed a lot of tools in the hands of our boys to create what ever they were interested in at various times in their growth. They have produced some works that I am very proud of.

My oldest son Greg has written a number of songs and performs, when he has time between school and work, at various places around San Francisco. I particularly like his latest song called "Henry Poole is Here" and his cover of "Hallelujah." You can hear his music and see some of his photos at his myspace page. He has chosen to be a professional musician and composer as his life's profession.

My youngest son Keith has really spent time creating his own movies and is now actively creating flash games to earn money for college.

His public safety video on seatbelt safety came in the top 10 of over 700 entries. You can view his movie "Flames or Flowers" at the Safety Scholars website at this link. His is the third video called "Flames or Flowers" by Keith Harty.

If you are interested in playing his game Galactic Dodgeball you can find it here. If you want to see his whole collection of games to play you can go to his home game page at KeithKong Games.

One of the books that changed how I viewed what was important in my life was the book, "The Artist Way" by Susan Cameron. Her work on the creative process is profound. She has many methods to break the blocks one might have in finding the source of creative insight. Her work in exposing the myths surrounding what it means to be an artist opens up the artistic way to more than simply the act of painting, writing, sculpting, composing, and other forms of creation. It shows that being an artist is the very expression of one's soul and that vein of gold is profoundly open to each person that seeks it.

It makes me very happy to see my sons find this within themselves and watch as it matures. To me, this is what Life is about, the birthing of one's inner expressions of creativity.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The World according to Wayne Bent

According to Wayne Bent (Michael Travesser) on his most recent post on the Strong City web site he has stated...
"Today, I began a fast, as I did when I was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. I will now abstain from eating until the child Willow is returned with no strings attached, or until God brings the deliverance that I seek from the present evil, or the answer to my inquiry of justice is clearly manifested, or I am gone from this life altogether."

Hopefully there are enough loopholes in this for Wayne Bent to end his fast before he kills himself by refusing to eat. I find it doubtful that Willow will be returning any time soon. And this announcement is probably one of the most manipulative moves that Wayne Bent has made. Unfortunately there are a number of his followers who have committed to this path, including Gabriel who has been dialoging with me denying that they would ever commit suicide. It appears that they are at least willing to state that they will take their own lives through starvation if Willow does not return or if Wayne dies there appears to be a much more disturbing commitment as stated by Esther in which she posts...
"Here I stand with you, Michael, I can do no other. I will not eat until you do again and should you pass on, I will be with you there also. To do any other I would have to go against my heart and soul."

What I fear is that these people are unreachable. They seem to be able to hold a number of contradictory beliefs all at the same time. Here are a few examples of their doublethink.

Jeff Bent states that Michael did not have sex with his wife and yet Wayne Bent posts in his Testimonies...
"Some said that I would have intimate sexual relations with the seven messengers. Some thought the vision concerned others. But I say unto you, every person must have sexual intercourse with me, or they will have no life in them. My Seed is the only life, for my Seed is life indeed, and my flesh is meat. Anyone who does not receive of my Seed, will be left desolate."

Or they state that they are following the Bible and yet clearly participate in adultery.

Or they state they are telling the truth, while at the same time telling blatant lies that are so transparent because they tell on themselves.

The coming case against Wayne Bent for illegal sexual contact with minors is partially due to this "double think" stated in the following...
"Why did the Father arrange for two of the messengers to be under age? If all of the messengers had been over age, then I would only be accused of sexual perversion, but sexual perversion of itself is not illegal. The country is full of it. What was being proposed by God was something illegal, because the girls had not yet reached the age of 18, and that lent force to Satan's arguments against it."

This tendency to hold opposite beliefs to be true, both at the same time, is dangerous, particularly when they can hold the belief that they are not going to commit suicide and then set forth on a course to do that very thing.

Is there a way out of this for any of them or has their commitment to Michael and their statements to the world placed them beyond reach?

Former members of Strong City have stated that the reason they could leave was due to some traumatic event.
"As I consider what it was that helped many of us break free from Wayne’s mind control, it comes to mind that it was usually a traumatic event that woke us up to the fact that something was way out of line with God’s word. It was a crisis event that shocked us into the realization that we were off track."

We will see how this plays out. Hopefully the crisis of Michael's conviction will break the spell without anyone losing their life. If he is convicted he has basically stated that he will not live in jail. This sounds serious to me. While it is easy to see Wayne Bent as the bad guy, I think he really believes what he is saying and is probably just as vulnerable to harm as the others. The emotions and the fears are running so high among the group, I hope there are no drastic actions to follow. Its apparent that former member Prudence Welch is seen as playing the role of Judas Iscariot. But, hopefully the former members have been able to maintain their contacts in a positive way.

To me this graphically illustrates the extreme dangers of religious belief that has no accountability and uses shame as the motivational tool to find "spirituality."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Watch out for newspeak about doublethink...

In the novel 1984 George Orwell used the term "doublethink" to refer to a form of self hypnosis required to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time. In the novel he states...

"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth."

Wayne Bent or Michael Travessor, as he is know by his followers, has been skillfully using this technique to claim that he tells the truth, while lying. He claims to be moral while practicing immorality. The reason I am covering this topic again is that I have been reading some disturbing statements by Wayne Bent and his followers that show signs of the possibility of self destruction.

In my brief discussions with Wayne Bent's followers they have emphatically denied that they are currently considering the option of suicide. If this commitment extended into the future unconditionally then there wouldn't really be an issue. In my discussions with a TerryCzap who's homepage is the Strong City homepage there is one sticking point that involves doublethink.

When asked "If Wayne Bent or Michael as you call him asked you to commit suicide, would you? Yes or No," this is answered by the statement..
"To your second ridiculous question (suicide). I will not be committing suicide at any time, as you yourself are probably doing right now.

Notice how this is worded. TerryCzap can deny any current plans of committing suicide and yet not answer the question. When further pressed about whether or not he would commit suicide if asked by Michael or Wayne Bent TerryCzap replied...
Now your question that you have asked so many times has been answered. “Following the Bible” means to do everything God tells that person to do. Abraham obeyed God and proceeded to kill his own son (as the heathen were doing) until an angel stopped him."

Or in my discussion with Liberty I got the final statement...

"I will not be talking to the devil in a human body."

And Grace stated within the comment section of my earlier post..

"We are, of ourselves and without God. Every man is, and you included. We were born in sin, born evil. Our human nature, yours and mine, is only evil continually without God giving us His very own heart (a new heart, Ezekiel 36) that doesn't sin. The Bible says all have sinned, and that every imagination and thoughts of man's heart are evil continually, that all are under sin, and that there is no one that does good, not one."

This pretty much negates anything that anyone other than Wayne tells them, no matter how illogical or immoral and explains why I will never get a direct NO answer in regard to any command that Wayne gives them, hypothetical or not.

Wayne Bent or Michael explains the problem of adultery in this way in his blog post called "The Heart Of The Events in The Land"...
"The first great weight was when the Father separated two women from their husbands. They would later be known as my Two Witnesses. When they left their husbands it was not something I would have expected at the time. I had not even imagined it. Weeks later, when the Father drew them to me, I was thrust back and forth between a heavenly acknowledgment of how the Father was markedly directing His will, and the natural, human, earthly view of impending “adultery.” This was the hardest time of my life."

Note the switch. Adultery is no longer defined by God or the bible. It is a natural, human, earthly view as apposed to a "spiritual" one. More doublethink and newspeak. Brilliant in a sick way. It makes things very hard to keep track of.

If they consider Wayne Bent to be the messiah or God then, just as Abraham was asked to kill his own son, then they would be obligated to follow what ever Wayne Bent asked, even if that request appeared to be immoral, much like Abraham being asked to kill his own son. Wayne applies this explanation to his apparent adultery or a phrase that is used, "God's strange act." So in a hypothetical situation where Wayne asked his followers to commit suicide, they possibly would "voluntarily." The costs of not obeying Michael or Wayne Bent would be so high in their belief, any sense of voluntary is essentially lost. This request could also be worded in a spiritual way, rather than a literal request, much like pressure to have sexual contact was worded within texts from the Song of Solomon with the situation set up carefully so that a "spiritual" form of deniability could be maintained.

On a side note they refer to Wayne Bent as the Son of God and yet there are denials that he is Jesus, but he has the spirit of Jesus in the form of Michael. This is important to note because it allows them to deny things in a literal sense and yet claim them in a spiritual sense. And we have seen where spiritual nakedness has been transformed into literal nakedness and spiritual consummation has become literal sexual consummation.

In another example of doublethink they deny that adultery has been committed because the women were technically, according to them, divorced, while it clearly is adultery according to biblical statements about any man sleeping with another man's wife and God's hatred of divorce for any reason. In an odd twist they appeal to a secular definition of divorce in this case, not a biblical one. I am assuming this because I can't get anyone to answer my questions in regard to their beliefs on the biblical definition of divorce which is due to infidelity only.

Now, up to now, there haven't appeared to be any indications that there are suicidal tendencies other than refusals to eat by the two children who were taken in the documentary on Strong City by Ben Anthony and Wayne Bent himself, while in prison. The term they use for this hunger strike is fasting. As is typical, they redefine their actions using a form of what George Orwell refers to as Newspeak. Instead of refusing to eat they term it as fasting. This changes their actions into a religious practice, rather than a threat of self destruction or protest.

With all this switching back and forth between spiritual and literal applications of various ideas the following statements by Wayne Bent in his post called "Modern Day Witch's Brew are possible warning signs...

"I would rather die than live any longer in this wicked world of lying, prejudice, persecution, and dark vile sensuality."

What is troubling is that Wayne has been promising that they would not see death before they would be taken to heaven.

"I am ready to be offered, and ready to go. I am so homesick for the songs of the angels and the consciousness of only my Father and those who are in love with Him, and I want to take all of my children with me. We must leave this world behind, or we would spiritually die as the wicked are spiritually dead."

And this recent explanation is particularly telling...

"The Father opened to me that He was taking His betrothed bride to Himself, and that the earthly marriages of human bondage and tension, where one human is over the soul of another human, were to be no more. This change is necessary now because the natural marriage that God intended does not exist any longer. The beast (State) now effectively owns the family, and this is especially observable when the State can simply kidnap the children of a family at will. Everyone is under the domination of the State and this is especially marked in the forced public education system. The Father was making me into a parable to show to His children, if I would yield to His instructions. He was going to set the believing soul free forever from the beast and his hypnotic forcefulness. I was greatly resistant of this change, because of how this would make me look and of how it would make God look, but He told me to let Him worry about how He would look, and I had no recourse but to die the death as to how I would be made to look in the process of following my instructions."

This last statement states that the kidnapping of the children is the reason that marriage doesn't exist anymore and that's why he [Wayne Bent] was forced by God to consummate his relationship with 7 women/virgins and implies that because marriage doesn't exist anymore, no adultery could be possible. Fortunately, in this statement, he is defining his death [crucifiction] with public humiliation. As long as this is what it means to die to the world then I think actual suicide is on the back burner. Unfortunately the previous statements refer to a literal death or "I am ready to be offered, and ready to go."

Because I couldn't get a Yes or No answer in regard to whether or not they would commit actual suicide when and if Michael asked them, I believe that there is still a possibility, depending on the mental state of Wayne Bent. And if Wayne Bent literally dies, then his statements about wanting to take all of his children with him might have a more fatal application. It could just as easily be "spiritualized" to take away the suicidal reality and suicide could simply become another of "God's strange acts."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The evolution of religion and its assumptions...

In the following TED talk Daniel Dennett outlines his ideas on looking at religion as a natural phenomenon. He has said that he likes to look "under the hood" of religious technology. The reason I am putting this up is that this blog could be seen as something about the current evolution of religious thought in what is becoming what some call a post-christian world. Often images of beatniks and a society that embraces hedonism comes to mind when we are asked to contemplate a post-christian era. In the aftermath of the worship of self, I think we are seeing some shifts toward more positive alternatives. I believe we are seeing this evolve with somewhat obvious influences such as Oprah hosting Ekhart Tolle's 10 online classes on his new book A New Earth. This is not saying that Eckhart or Ophrah are starting a new religion, but I think we are seeing people blend many things from various traditions and asking new questions of their own that older religions haven't addressed. With more freedom of information I think we are seeing a transformation of what many of us have considered to be truth.

This process of evolution has not been without its fall out and the reactionary return to traditional religious practices from failed cults that are often amplifications of their guru's dysfunctions, which often move toward the very thing being avoided. This can be seen within cult like devotion in many parts of the spectrum of beliefs. Looking under the hood of religious belief is not for the feint of heart. This process can cause one to question parts of themselves that have no replacement. If one is unable to face such mysteries or doesn't have an alternative system of support, this awareness of uncertainty could be fatal. I think its important to have some type of stop gap or safety net psychologically. This may be the function of what is called denial, fanaticism, belief itself, certain types of fundamentalism, and even faith. For other people a guru or holy books can serve all or part of this function. I think that in the world today, the ability to live with uncertainty is very important.

When I have dialoged with people around their beliefs or their approach to life I have observed that all of us have a set of assumptions present within our world view that are unprovable or taken for granted and in some cases, so real to that person, that to question those assumptions would seem ridiculous or unthinkable. One particular striking example of this was when I was viewing a documentary on Japanese culture in the mid 80's I saw the American interviewer ask some Japanese businessmen, who were living out the expectations of their families, what they would do if they could do what ever they wanted. This question was so foreign to their world view that most of them had never even thought of the question, let alone understand what it meant to want something for your own life. For the most part they laughed at the question. And probably equally unbelievable, to most Americans, is the notion that satisfaction is found in giving oneself for the group so totally that one's individuality is almost lost. These two cultural assumptions are present, each in its own culture, almost unconsciously.

One of the strengths of story telling is that by changing the adversaries within the story to characters we can identify with and then placing them in situations where they have to make decisions that might require them to act out of the cultural norm, one can suspend prejudice. A classic example of this is the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story the social outcast performs acts of mercy and generosity toward social insiders in dire straights. This would be the modern equivalent of a gay man helping Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist church, after he suffered a severe accident, by paying off the mortgage so he wouldn't loose his home, paying for his hospital care to get him back on his feet, and making sure his family was provided for in his absence.

Certain episodes of Star Trek were very good at this process of suspended prejudice. From the old series, with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, there was an episode called "Let That be Your Last Battlefield" in which the last two survivors of a planet were in a fight to the death. They had pursued each other all across the galaxy with the intent of killing the last of the other side. In the end it was discovered that the only difference between them was that one was dark skinned on the left, with the other side white, and the other was dark skinned on the right, with his other side being white. This was clearly an illustration of the insanity of racial discord in this country. The story was able to suspend prejudice by allowing us to see an irrational battle going on between others which we might easily judge without realizing that we were judging ourselves. In the United States at various times there were assumptions that black people, women, and others were not as qualified to vote or to even be human. These were so deeply ingrained that to consider that any of these weren't true was seen as immoral by many people in this country.

This brings me to the point of this post. Because each side doesn't understand the assumptions of the other, there is often a process of having two different dialogs. Each appeals to their own assumptions, expecting the other side to simply "get it." When this doesn't happen, the other side often demonizes their opponent, because what other reason would someone want to continue to practice or believe in harmful things? At least harmful according to one side's assumptions.

In the past the solution has too often been "might makes right." One solution that Daniel Dennett suggests is that if one religion is taught, why don't we teach about all systems of belief or unbelief? Let's put everything into the arena of ideas and let each person choose for themselves in an informed way. In many ways the internet has begun to provide this place of interchange and there is no doubt in my mind that religion, as it has done in the past, will continue to evolve.

I plan to continue this dialog in another post. I want to explore how assumptions can give the illusion of valid conclusions and can work out as being rationally right, but in practice mysteriously fail...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cult Think: The abuse of spirituality?

This post is probably the most personal post that I have shared because it resonates with my own experience in many ways. It borders on many of the delusions that I grew up with in regards to sin, salvation, and punishment. These were not only delusions, for they created a state of being that few people understand, unless they have gone through religious indoctrination. When most people see cults they tend to write them off as a bunch of crazies or people who aren't too bright. In reality cultic teaching is a form of "meme" that does not respond either to reason or intelligence. When people break away from such groups it is very remarkable.

Most people see a very simplified exterior and are not aware of the extreme suffering that goes on inside the type of believer who takes their religion very seriously and engages the demands of that religion under the deception that not only is their present life at stake, but the quality of their life for all eternity. The stakes are high and the responsibilities are unachievable.

Until now, I hadn't come across anything that could capture the experience of this type of indoctrination. A world view that creates a constant fear of doing the wrong thing; a constant self monitoring of one's own thoughts and actions; a never ending vigilance to determine if one is worthy of God's love; a state of being where one is asked to think low of themselves and yet be good enough to be saved; a continual state of emergency because at any moment Jesus could come and through one mistake one might not be ready; an infection of ideas that creates a hell of obsessive painful introspection.

I came across this film because I was sent an email from a Timothy Benjamin, who is a member of The Lord Our Righteousness Church, a commune located near the Colorado border in New Mexico in a place they call Strong City. He sent me the link to this film and the Strong City web site. The following film is an inside look at an end of the world cult at Strong City, New Mexico, by Film-maker Ben Anthony of Firefly Film and Television Productions. He was allowed inside access to the cult for 7 months in early 2007. The film looks at the members and their leader Michael Travesser, a 66-year-old former Seventh Day Adventist pastor previously known as Wayne Bent, who separated from that church in 1987, who modestly calls himself the Son of God. He has been preparing his followers for doomsday for the last 20 years. The film starts in the months before Michael Travesser predicted the end of the world on Oct 31, 2007.

Because of my personal experience with years of painful introspection based on what I was taught, this film resonates with me in a very personal way. It may be hard to make the connections because of the sexual abuse issues within this cult and the extreme dysfunction of the people seen in the film. It should be noted that another major cult that we know of as the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh was also composed of former members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and involved a leader who practiced similar sexual abuses with his members.

I am not saying that Seventh Day Adventist teachings promote any of these clearly immoral practices, but I believe there are some common elements in how people are taught to believe. Seventh Day Adventism and Christianity in general are not alone in these types of instruction. I have observed these same types of cultural controls in other religious organizations. I think it is important that we look at these types of indoctrinational practices so that we can "inoculate" ourselves from coming under the spell of the "inside track" to God. I will comment more after the film.

What is most striking to me is the obvious grief that Jeff Bent (son of Wayne Bent) is going through as the interviewer is talking to his father about sleeping with his (Jeff's) wife. And yet Jeff continues to believe that he is in a privileged position as the right hand of God. The other moment is how a man who has given his wife to Wayne explains how Wayne helped him through that hard time. One has to ask the question, "What causes this type of complete disconnect with one's own internal moral compass?"

I think the key is how some religions tend to ask the believer to give up their own sense of what is the best path for them to either a leader or a book. I have come to believe that the best spiritual instruction is the instruction that helps people develop their own independent awareness based on reason and empathy.

Some key teachings of Adventism that, I believe, set up these people to fall under the spell of Wayne Bent and in many respects caused Wayne Bent to fall under his own spell, are teachings that have as their basis fear, shame, or both. When I grew up in the Adventist church there was a strong apocalyptic emphasis, with teachings based on the prophetess Ellen White, that saw the United States as eventually becoming an evil power used by Satan to kill and persecute "true" Seventh Day Adventists. In the film you will see a ceremony where the 7 virgins have these bowls and these bowls are poured out.

What is being ritualized and possibly seen as a reality is Wayne Bent as the incarnation of Christ pouring out God's wrath in the form of the Last Plagues on the earth. At the end of these plagues, at the darkest hour for the "true" church, Jesus will come and rescue his followers and take them to heaven while destroying the earth and leaving the wicked behind destroyed. This was seen as a soon coming reality when I grew up and the purpose of religious practice was to perfect one's character so that when probation closed, just before the 7 plagues were poured out, one would be protected from the plagues. The teaching was that if a person had one un-repented sin they would be lost and subject to God's wrath.

The original purpose of the break away group that eventually became The Lord Our Righteousness Church, was to go someplace where they could perfect their characters in preparation for the soon coming of Jesus. This is an extremely high pressure gig. You will notice that when the interviewer asks Jeff Bent if he is a good person, he replies that he is an evil person. This is all part of the trap of this type of teaching. The goal is to perfect your character and yet you can never know if you have because you are always evil or not good enough. This is an extremely painful place to be and unless one can let go of their beliefs, they will be stuck there. I would say that suicide risk would be very high.

It is possible that Wayne Bent found a possible solution to this by becoming God. And it would be in the interest of his followers to commit to this because they would have the inside track. And you would have a guarantee of salvation if you became one of the 7 virgins. This would remove the shame load and engage an ego high. This would manifest more like an addiction, which by its very nature, does not respond to reason. One of the girls threatened to commit suicide if she could not "consummate" her relationship with Wayne Bent. You will see this same shame cycle manifest in the video Strong City did to answer the Firefly documentary.

In one of the girl's stories she says that she was not aroused by Wayne and couldn't "consummate" the relationship. Using language from the book of the Bible called, "The Song of Solomon," a very erotic poem often connected with the relationship between God and the church, she describes how she took 11 months of intense training with Wayne Bent before she could "open her gates" to him. The reason Wayne Bent said that she couldn't be aroused was because she was chosen by God to live out the message of those who are not "aroused" by the truth.

The complete mystification of this group is evident by the complete openness in which they share what they believe to be true. There is a child like nature to their obliviousness of any accountability to common ethical considerations. There is even a childish cluelessness to Wayne Bent evident in the apologetic way in which he answers the questions of the interviewer during the film. I believe this is due to years of being taught that no good thing can come from any human person, even oneself, and tortured by perfectionistic belief systems.

They are so mystified that even when the end of the world does not come on Oct 31, 2007, they are ready to set another date for the end of the world and jump through the next set of hoops Wayne sets before them. This seems to further verify the addictive nature of this process. It also may indicate the extent in which their psychological commitment requires them to protect their egos and the danger of coming to a full realization of what is real, too fast.

If there is a way out of this, it will not be without a lot of pain. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. Hopefully this will be managed more skillfully than Waco and we can learn from these people, and their openness, how to prevent harmful belief systems from creating these types of tragedies. One hopeful note is that Prudence Welch is one cult member who has been able to break away and was responsible for reporting the abuses going on at Strong City.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The 4 Horsemen

"On the 30th of September 2007, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens sat down for a first-of-its-kind, unmoderated 2-hour discussion." I have included both hours of the discussion below and there are many interesting topics that they cover. The one topic that was of particular interest to me was a part of the discussion that Sam Harris brought up when he talked about the types of experiences, that any of us can have, that have typically only been discussed within the realm of religion. The transcendental experiences of dreams, feelings of connectedness, feelings of awe and wonder, and other possibly life changing encounters with the great mystery of being.

Often these are brought out by certain theologians as "proof" of a god, particularly the Christian god. And since this is often the case the experiences themselves tend to be minimized or explained away by rationalists as some type of illusion, brain malfunction, wishful thinking, or simply not substantial enough to be included in a reasonable conversation.

Now if we don't include these experiences as proof of any particular god or assign any specific conclusion about said god, or enforce and claim that only one experience is valid, maybe there is a context in which we can explore the spiritual side of the human being that could be seen as valuable.

In my experience with religion it was often the arts which connected me the most deeply to a sense of something greater than myself. For some this might seem the most unlikely place, but in my study of science, particularly human anatomy and astronomy, I have felt a deep awe of having the gift of being present to witness such beauty. And in other contexts the love of a community brought me a greater sense of well being. And in the most personal the love of a woman and more specifically the love of my wife has brought to me experiences that defy description.

And then there are the times of awakening that a person can feel as they learn to hear and see beyond what is simply a rational motivation, but a deeply felt motivation to create, love, serve others, and find clarity for their lives. These have traditionally only been domains of religious teachers.

While I deeply respect and support what these men are bringing to the table, I am concerned that when religions begin to collapse under their own exaggerated claims, what structures and teaching will we have to serve as guides for the best of what humanity manifests in its own ability to love, create, and care, that is understandable by even the most simple minded? Because these tools don't seem to exist within a scientific model. And when we do describe them in scientific terms they seem to become something much smaller.

And so I leave you with questions and something to watch and listen to.

Here is the first hour of the discussion...

And here is the second hour...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Wars & Rumors of Wars

My son has been creating flash based video games and has discovered a new way to create and share this creativity. One of his games is called Galactic Dodge Ball and involves moving the Earth out of the way of incoming asteroids. If you move the earth too quickly you see people falling off the planet. If you move correctly you not only can dodge the asteroids, but you can capture them in the Earth's gravity and a laser beam shoots out from the Earth's surface and destroys the asteroid. If the Earth gets hit three times it breaks into pieces and is destroyed. One gets to view the end of the world. In the game the difficulty gradually increases so that the destruction of world is inevitable. Some seem to think this is true of this world as well.

One of the classical signs of the end of the world has been the increase of violence. Today we hear reported many horrible incidents of violence including wars, domestic violence, crime related, and violence from mental/emotional problems. There are also claims that violence in the entertainment we engage in, including video games, movies, books, and television, increases violence. All these "signs" have been pointed out in various degrees as evidence that we are getting more evil and the world is less safe.

In the following video Steven Pinker shares with us how violence has changed through out various periods of time...

In the documentary Bowling for Columbine Michael Moore postulates that one reason violence is greater in the US than Canada is that through our reporting we are increasing the amount of fear within society. It is the fear of violence that contributes to the increase in violence.

There has been a very popular book and movie series called Left Behind by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. These books have fictionalized a battle between good and evil that will eventually lead to the destruction of the earth by fire. The implication is that evil has been steadily increasing on the planet to the point where God has to come down and destroy everything so that things can start over. One assumption in this story is that these events are inevitable and that there is nothing that can be done other than to make sure you are on the right side of the conflict. The cost of not being on the right side is being sent to an eternal hell.

One of the trends that I like to see is the trend toward seeking out and implementing solutions. This provides, at least for me, a sense of vibrant purpose and hope. I find this a much better place to be than fearfully waiting for the end of the world, resigning myself to an eventual decline into absolute evil.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The "New" Scientology?

L. Ron Hubbard created Scientology along with some interesting mythology and equipment. He created Scientology in 1952 as a successor of his earlier self-help system, Dianetics. His early influences included Freud, Aleister Crowley, Hinduism, Buddhism, Carl Jung, Tao Te Ching, the Dharma, and the Vedas. His writings also show Gnostic Christian influences as well. It has come out that Scientology has some rather interesting belief systems that for many years only the higher level followers knew about. This included some rather creative mythology.

This mythology includes some rather creative science fiction that is sometimes recreated in a pseudo "Christmas" pageant. There are bad guys, good guys, heroes, victims, and saviors. It has all the ingredients for a modern day myth. According to Hubbard, there are extraterrestrial dictatorships such as Helatrobus that used "implants" to brainwash and control the human population. L. Ron Hubbard's lectures and writings include accounts of complex extraterrestrial civilizations and alien interventions in human history. One finds it difficult to believe that anyone could actually believe this to be true. And yet we can observe a deep commitment of energy, money, and time to these beliefs by a reported 50 thousand or more people.

One of the "scientific" aspects to Scientology is its use of "scientific" instruments. This includes a device which is a skin galvanometer called an E-meter (electropsychometer). It is said to allow an auditor (therapist) to observe the creation or destruction of "mental mass'' by reading the needle movement. Supposedly this harmful mass is released through a particular therapeutic process unique to Scientology and this release can be measured by the electropsychometer.

One wonders what causes intelligent people to get caught up in ideologies so deeply that they can't see the contradictions that present themselves in any ideology. In the video below you will see how Tom Cruise is used to promote Scientology within the inner circle. This video was not meant to be seen outside the church. You can read in more detail about their beliefs here.

Beliefs of Scientology

It is obvious that Tom Cruise is passionate about living a life of meaning and sees Scientology as the answer for all the world's problems. If one believed that they had THE answer I could see how this would produce a particular high.

What is particularly disturbing about this video is Tom Cruise's treatment of the idea of the SP. When one begins to understand what is meant by the letters SP or Subversive Person, quite a different picture emerges. Here is what L. Ron Hubbard the creator of Scientology says about the SP

A truly Suppressive Person or group has no rights of any kind as Scientologists and actions taken against them are not punishable under Scientology Ethics Codes. — L. Ron Hubbard, HCOPL of 23 December 1965, "Ethics, Suppressive Acts, Suppression of Scientology and Scientologists"

SP Order. Fair game. May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed. — L. Ron Hubbard, HCOPL of 18 October 1967, "PENALTIES FOR LOWER CONDITIONS"

Suppressive acts are clearly those covert or overt acts knowingly calculated to reduce or destroy the influence or activities of Scientology or prevent case gains or continued Scientology success and activity on the part of a Scientologist. As persons or groups that would do such a thing act out of self-interest only to the detriment of others, they cannot be granted the rights ordinarily accorded rational beings." — L. Ron Hubbard, HCOPL of 5 April 1965, "HANDLING THE SUPPRESSIVE PERSON"

Looking at the development of Scientology one can get a window into how many religious organizations developed over time. Any group that develops a doctrine of outsiders eventually, when given enough power, takes the belief that the outsider is no longer subject to human rights and uses it to treat these outsiders in any manner they want. This result was seen in certain forms of Christianity and Islam, the Third Reich, Stalinists, and others throughout history.

This has got me to thinking about what types of things would we consider to be deal killers when looking at various belief systems available. What teachings would simply negate anything else the belief system or organization had to offer?

My list of deal killers are the following...

Any teaching system that uses fear or violence to justify its belief or to convince people of its being true.

Any teaching system that appeals to the ego to convince people of its being true.

Any teaching that abandons self examination and accountability.

Any teaching system that is unwilling to grow and change.

Any teaching that creates criteria for judging the relative worth of conscious beings.

I have one more video that I want to share. It made me laugh and I hope any of you reading don't take me or this video too seriously. It also won't be as funny unless you have seen the video above. This is actor Jerry O'Connell's interpretation of Tom Cruise's message...

Sunday, January 6, 2008

What is our True Nature?

When I was growing up I was taught that human nature was depraved and if left in its natural state would degenerate into total depravity. The only thing holding us from total chaos was the moral teachings of Christianity, going to church, accepting Jesus as my savior and the worship of the one true God in the form of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a child this created a fear in me of people who weren't Christians because supposedly they didn't have the restraints we Christians had and they could just degenerate into absolute evil at any moment. And even if they were Christians but didn't hold the specific beliefs of my particular denomination, they only had a tenuous hold on moral restraint at best.

This was explained in the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine solved the problem of why everyone on the planet needed salvation. Today some have even put a scientific spin on it and believe that original sin is within our DNA. Or you can take Eddie Izzard's approach when he talks about Original sin.

"Original sin! What a hellish idea that is. People have to go,

“Father, bless me for I have sinned, I – I did an original sin – I – I poked a badger with a spoon.”

“I’ve never heard of that one before! Five Hail Mary’s and two Hello, Dolly's.”

“Oh, all right…”

“Bless me, Father, for I have slept with my next door neighbor’s wife.”

“Heard it. I want an original sin.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.”

In my observations of humanity I have suspected that the opposite is true. I find most people really want to be thought of as good people. In this short presentation by Daniel Goleman the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, he presents evidence that we are hardwired to be helpful. We have this ability to empathize with other people through some type of common emotional connection. This is activated when we give our attention to the other person. Take a look at this presentation from him at TED.

There are a number of indications that we gain a lot of benefit from doing good deeds. This particular article called The Science of Good Deeds talks about 50 studies going on right now by The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, headed by Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

I think I prefer to see humanity as having great potential that is built in rather than see us set up to fail. There certainly is more and more evidence that we have some pretty wonderful things built in simply waiting to be awakened.

One example of this is the professional percussionist Evelyn Glennie. She is able to hear with her body. In fact she has to because she is deaf. I will close with this video of her presenting her motivational view of life to a very appreciative audience.