Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chocolate sex.

I want to write. Oh boy do I want to write.

I am full of thoughts about the idea of a small god (whose power is not assured) and the connection between such worship and non-violence.

I am also partly through a piece about my purpose in doing philosophy. It's also going to explain why I do theology or as I think of it the philosophy of how we reconcile what should be (which you can call God) with what we've got.

The frustrating thing is that I'm not ready.  I'm not just saying I have to learn before I can speak. That process is endless and if I wait to learn 'enough' before I blog again... It aint gonna happen. 

 Probably a "serious" philospher would learn the common language around what they're blogging about. Maybe my blog on a weak God should be a discussion of Jack Caputo's work. Where I'm going with the purpose of philosophy re-reading Satre is probably worthwhile. However if I need to research it then it's not that common a language anyway. Really I'm just not that kind of writer. Name dropping does not make a case. Or maybe I just can't stand postmodern writing conventions while liking postmodern ideas.

But I do need to show some respect for the people who have put what will be early thoughts for me into actual practice. I have to listen to their stories, their frustrations, their motivations to keep trying or their dissatisfaction with those thoughts. I might be happy to ignore the thinkers/talkers/bloggers who precede me, but the activists are a different kettle. Like listening to mothers before I blog on motherhood, it's essential.

I also think I ought to put some of these thoughts into practice myself or atleast consider how it all might be applied by me in my situation. I mashed out the last two blogs in a frenzy after a decent break. I could do with balancing the do with the talk. Nothing like wearing a philosophy for a while before you claim its wonderful.

Aaagh. Writing is like chocolate sex to me though. I don't want to hold off on it. That's why you've got this. Soft warm chocolate sex. There's nothing else I want to do today. Reading, cooking, walking, gardening, bah. I want to write.

I hope you don't mind. You probably wanted to read words but an open acknowledgement of an author with a hunger and a lust to write for you could seem a little pervy. We could pretend the words just landed here from space. That's how we read many newspaper articles -as if there weren't an author at all. Someones first ever byline and someones last go unnoticed.

Mind you, this is a blog. Blogs put the author on show a lot. So it's expected I'll include my desire to write. And the approapriate way to do that is to be altruistic. That's not untrue. I do want you to be happy. I want you to be alive, in this world, awake and wonderful. I want you to stop (right now) hurting yourself and others. I put that want into my writing. It's why I write what I write.

It's just not why I write at all. It's not why I write instead of cooking. I'm just not being honest if I don't admit to the pleasure of writing philosphy and theology, the sheer ecstacy of ideas, and the particular delights of phrases and words. Its not making love, it's making sense and sometimes feels even better. It's chocolate sex. Soft, warm, over roasted nuts and vanilla icecream, with a chilli afterburn, chocolate sex. Thought porn?

But I'll have to wait.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chapter 13. The Point of Fiction - In which our character blogs again.

Recently I read “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. Writing about it is a thousand times harder for me than responding to an argumentative text like The Prodigal God, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea or The End of Faith (all featured in previous blog posts). In this post I want to unpack why. It turns out to be harder than I imagined.
Firstly fiction has had a profound impact on my opinions and ideas. Brave New World by Aldoux Huxley pretty much turned my intellectual life around. Prior to that text I was reasonably confident that problems (social and personal) had neat solutions just waiting to be found. I figured I’d contribute to that search. Brave New World turned me on to existentialism. Brave New World made me realise that people couldn’t be squeezed into my solutions but deserved the means to find their own.
Despite this today, my partner not I is the household reader of fiction. I borrow from a different section of the library. In fact I have acclaimed fiction books on my shelf waiting my attention, The Slap by Christos Tsolkias for one. It feels as if my reading purpose is to proceed with certainty of each step beneath me, up the ladder of wisdom. If one of those rungs is fiction then my ladder collapses. Or perhaps collapses is too harsh. I will have to repeat that step though in some more systematic way (by reading it again in a non-fiction book). It hasn’t truly been climbed if it’s only been climbed in fiction.
Bizarrely my bias against fiction overflows to affect anything that reads like fiction. What is the What by Dave Eggers has been neglected for years although I know the author is great and the subject matter is the biography of a refugee who effectively co-wrote the book. There seems to be no sense to my attitude. Surely this true tale is a reliable enough rung? Yet somehow I doubt that it is and subsequently leave it alone.
Proving that I am completely being a wanker about all this I am prepared to read biographies and histories which don’t “look like” fiction. How do I distinguish between these and “What is the What” by Dave Eggers? Partly it is the authors’ history (Dave Eggers is a fiction writer) and partly it is the subject matter and introduction where the book is placed inside a body of work about a famous person. It doesn’t feel right to say that what I’m looking for is a sort of peer reviewed credibility though. Instead I think I’m actually looking for something that doesn’t emphasise telling a great story.
One reason for this is that after finishing a great story I have a mess of sensation and emotion (joy particularly after Huckleberry Finn). I have none of the clarity of thought reading a nice analytic argument gives me (especially if I disagree with the author). If I try and explain to you what I got out of Huckleberry Finn I can almost only really say “Read Huckleberry Finn”. I can’t easily extract what I want to tell you.
This is because whatever wisdom is in great stories is experiential. The simplest stories won’t do that very well. They may just have characters that argue their points or their worlds are purely set up to present their moral. That kind of fiction I can easily disagree with and respond to. The best novels however don’t even seem to set out to inspire and challenge the reader. They merely tell a story that the reader inspires and challenges themselves with. They are like environments in which we live for a while potentially building (or degrading) our character. Mark Twain reminds us of this in a notice before chapter one of Huck Finn;
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
By order of the the Author.
Per G.G., Chief of Ordinance.
Given that Huckleberry Finn has been considered North Americas’ finest novel in regards to its characters, moral and plot it’s easy to conclude that Mark Twain, the consummate humourist, is having fun with us. However he is making an excellent point. It is not fair to the story of Huckleberry Finn to take an element of it out of its story and turn that into some kind of proposition that can be argued against or for. It’s also not fair to turn the events of Huckleberry Finn into arguments for or against any point of our own. There is something chaotic and purposeless to Huckleberry Finn. Essentially Huckleberry Finn the character doesn’t make choices for the writers’ purpose but for his own. That’s what makes it real.
What I don’t get is why this means I don’t read fiction. Take a look at my post on Gay Marriage and you’ll see that this kind of non-clarity is exactly where I think we should philosophically live.  I’m sceptical of this world of abstract arguments that are distinct from stories. I certainly don’t hold them to be realer than real (in that Platonic sense of the true forms).  Consider an argument such as “God can’t exist because of the problem of suffering” as one example. Although it can be false (by God existing) how can that argument ever really be true? If God doesn’t exist any becauseness of that non-existence is just an invention of our own. It’s not even a story we have told about it. It’s not like God was existing and then because of suffering She vanished. This thing we call an argument is fairly nebulously clinging to meaning let alone reality. You could even call it nonsense.
In fact if we look for “truth”- verifiable, definitive accurate statements – we are most able to see it in descriptions of event, people and surrounds. Basically empirical statements have at least “truthiness” to them. They can be more or less verified, defined and contradicted. And it’s these empirical statements that ultimately compose a story. Analytical and argumentative texts are far more likely to be removed from direct observation. In fact observation and storytelling are so neatly connected as to be almost the same thing. We tell stories automatically whenever we observe. Exposure to stories is closer to reality than any alternative.
Hmmm... Closer; perhaps this is precisely it. Perhaps this is the source of my distrust of fiction. Fiction is so like observation that the best fiction can convince us that we have in fact experienced something. The better the storyteller the more pronounced the effect. I am a little haunted by the memory that I once knew all about the justice system from television. The reality, in particular the deceit and deal making and the collusion between defence council and prosecutors shocked me when I faced it myself. There are people who I’ve encountered who learnt their streets are not safe and cops need to be more brutal, from fiction. And because they learnt it from fiction if you call them on it they can only say “You don’t get it.” What they mean is “You have to absorb the whole story as I did.”
I should add by the way, I watch a lot of fiction – movies particularly. I think that seeing actors performing their roles and also the relative brevity of a movie compared to the time it takes me to complete a book radically diminishes the effect. The exception to this are those movies which I’ve watched numerous times. The hours I’ve spent watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” probably add up to finishing a book. I’d say that particular film has had a correspondingly pronounced teaching effect on me. My favourite film from my teenage years “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the favourite from my twenties “Some Kind of Wonderful” are also in this elite category. It’s possible I’m being wilfully naive here - I might be exempting my movies from my bias against fiction to protect my enjoyment of them – but honestly I don’t think my screen time is generally anywhere near as influential as my reading.
I began this blog intending to praise fiction and damn my prejudice. As I write I can see my prejudice has a point. As a source of learning fiction overshadows non-fiction in my life. Maybe that’s not such a good thing though. Below is a list of ten things I believe, in no particular order that I learnt from my time in fictional worlds. Do you think they are sound? Is it not a little concerning that they come from “experiences” simulated by great story telling rather than my own life?
·         Religions are ways of shaping society that get out of control. (Dune Trilogy)
·         Heroes are found in unlikely guises. (Master of the Grove)
·         Adults are people too. (Mom the Wolfman and Me[i])
·         The Meaning Of Life is up to you. (The Plague)
·         Don’t be a dick – especially to the elderly. (The Pigman)
·         Utilitarianism misses a lot. (Brave New World)
·         We can all be blind to our blessings. (It’s a Wonderful Life)
·         The stuff we make up matters. (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)
·         Everything is transformed by a show tune ending. (Rocky Horror Picture Show)
·         You gotta be willing to be wicked to do right. (Huckleberry Finn)
Looking at these “teachings” I realise that these are opinions that have been reinforced by real life experiences either before or after the fictional source. Maybe that reinforcement is the real basis for my belief. Maybe I’m overstating the importance of fiction because anything it teaches that doesn’t bear fruit in the real world withers and dies anyway. On the other hand I don’t think I can deny that fictional experiences act as reinforcement themselves. Even if one fictional experience is worth a tenth of a real world experience it still contributes to my conclusions. And I’d say it feels more like 50%.
Furthermore it’s also necessary to remember that these are only the lessons I can identify. As I stated above the very best stories leave you with the least easily identifiable wisdom. I wonder what I’ve learned from some stories that I can’t even tell you. It may well be that Pride and Prejudice has been my biggest fiction influence for its subtle, deeply lived morality springing from an intelligent humanistic Christianity. The fact I can’t give a lesson it taught me in a sentence is part of its brilliance and perhaps the problem. All I can say is read Jane Austen.
Oh, and read Huckleberry Finn. It’s hilarious.

[i] I read this obscure book an insane number of times when an adolescent. Please, please comment if you know it.

A Stumbling Response to Stumbling Towards Enlightenment by Geri Larkin

I read about a third of the way through John Piper’s God is the Gospel recently. My best defence of his work is that it’s kinda like Zen Buddhism. So why am I not reading some Zen Buddhism then I asked myself?
I was once very into Zen. By which I mean I read a couple of Zen books and told people at parties that I was into Zen. I grew disillusioned by the mostly male aloofness of its ideal practioner and the smarminess of all them koans. Strangely for what is a supposedly minimalist anti-superstitious anti-authoritarian tradition I found it needlessly obscure and drifted off. Also way too much sitting.
Zen Buddhism is (according to a book I read!) a hybrid of Buddhism and Chan – the Chinese religion that is born of Taoism. Aha I thought. Taoism is the part of Zen I want, I’ll go reading there. Oh you poor Western boy. The book of Chung Txu still taunts me. The Tao Te Ching on my phone teases me. I have periodically visited these texts over the last two years. They are brilliant but I have only dew on my hands to show for it. And I’m thirsty.
Although I have my reservations about its trappings the most thirst quenching spiritual stuff I’ve ever read has been Buddhist. As a father, Buddhism for Mothers is awesome. So now I’m back to Zen reading Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Geri Larkin. She’s a once uber-powered executive who started meditating to get rid of an eye twitch. Over twenty years later she’s founded a Zen Buddhist temple, been their guiding teacher and written eleven books on the subject. And she’s not an aloof male. Should be good.
The first three chapters are like water to a parched throat. It’s not that I think Buddhism is so much better than other philosophies/religions. The real difference is that I can use it. Buddhism teaches that the right ideas about the world are realised by spiritual practice so its first emphasis is on the things you need to do. Basically to translate Buddhism for Christians it is heavier on the “forgive those who trespass against you” rather than “Jesus is God”.  Most (though not all) Christianities I bump up against say “Grapple with this metaphysical question first.” or “Pray and wait for an answer.” Buddhism says “Do.” (or Don’t Do, there is no Try – no wait that’s Yoda). I can do things, sure.
And so I read and I do a little more Buddhism. I pay a little more attention, try and stay open to wonder, cling less tightly to my expectations. The effect on my life is truly instantaneous. I notice ways I behave that actually contradict what makes me happy but that I keep insisting on doing (holding back on giving for one thing). I work on these things without an all or nothing attitude. I’m like an old guitar. There’s no point smashing me up in a big drama because I’m out of tune. There’s no point despairing over my love of distraction or my addiction to fear either. Just tune me up.
Interestingly I find the more Buddhist I get in my attitude the more keen I am to hang out with some very cool local Christians. I think my teensy bit more Buddhism is enough to help me see what’s coming from myself and my history with Christianity and distinguish that from what these people are actually doing in the community. I actually listen to what these folk say and do rather than expecting and thus hearing the typical atonement based Christianity I’m used to. Their theology is radically different and inspires great compassion. I’m a student so I head to where the teaching is good.   
I also got hit by a pretty hard wake-up call. A mother I know from playgroup was visiting a community centre where I was using the internet. I was actually working on this blog – looking for a pic for the post on How we create. She was there to obtain some material aid. Things were tough for her obviously and I’m pretty sure she had tears in her eyes. We chatted briefly. I could have offered to buy her a coffee or seen if she needed a lift. Instead I tried to finish what I was doing on my blog. When I next looked up she was gone. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I needed to confess this before I posted anything else up here. It feels more than a little hypocritical to post away about spiritual growth without showing how much I fall short of the most basic attentiveness and compassion. It’s worth noting that here was a situation where the blog actually competed with actually doing the right thing. It shouldn’t win.
But this is really what I find so quenching about Buddhism. Its feels crap actually to notice other peoples suffering. It certainly sucks to consider it your concern. But there is guidance regarding what to do about it. Best of all, this practical stuff comes first. Through interacting compassionately with other people around you is how you realise the metaphysical stuff after all.  
Then I hit Chapter four of Mind Games in Geri Larkins’ book. Ugh. It reads like management psycho-babble bullshit. The Buddhist notion of “All is Mind” is a great challenge to understand and an even greater challenge to communicate. When people fall short of that challenge they often produce something like this chapter. Basically it’s that old chestnut, “Johnny thought the world was against him and so he picked fights with other people and then in the end lo’ the world was against him.”
Sure we can all accept that this has some truth to it but once you universalise it so that “All is Mind” it starts to smell a little. For example one of those people Johnny picked a fight with might have been an optimistic Buddhist who looked innocently at Johnny for a moment too long. Furthermore when Johnny is facing court he might want to know what “mind” will get him off. I doubt Geri Larkin could tell him. If “All is Mind” means you alter reality to match your perceptions then it should really be “Some is Mind”.
I’ll have a crack at explaining it differently (really briefly as it’s probably a post in itself). When I misplace my keys- which happens regularly- it may well be an act of mind in that I fail to consider it important where I put them, but thats not what is meant by “All is Mind”. That’s just the karma of thoughtlessness. Instead when Buddhists say “All is Mind” they mean that no event such as the loss of keys occurs independently of our mind. Basically we interpret the event- we choose to let it ruin our day and inspire an argument with our partner. Alternatively we can use the event to remind us of all the times we didn’t misplace our keys. We can use all the anxiety and trouble of losing our keys to reflect on how rocking it was when we didn’t misplace them yesterday. And we took that for granted until now. Wow. It’s almost a good thing we lost our keys so that we stop missing all that joy right under our noses, eh. See, all is Mind.[1]
Anyway chapter four is only one bad chapter and it’s not all bad. There are self-fulfilling mantras in my head that warrant a look at anyway. Those teachings are useful too. I’m more than willing to get back into “Stumbling Toward Enlightenment”. Chapters five to ten are sweet. I read and I apply and things feel good. Some of the magic is gone though. I’m suspicious of Geri Larkin now. When will she next piss me off? See those self-fulfilling mantras.
Chapter Eleven; Preparing for Death. Yep, that’s the one. Once again not all bad but I’ve got to swallow reincarnation to get through it. And I can’t. Reincarnation is deeply counter intuitive to me.
A central tenet of reincarnation says that your next life is somehow influenced by this life which was influenced by your previous one etc. Now it might be incorrect to say “your” next life or it might not be depending on how you understand the way the “I” and “you” can be understood across lives. There are different opinions on the matter within Buddhism. But the gist remains that how many congenitally blind street kids there are compared to how many Buddhist monks there are is supposed to reflect cosmic demand for those lives. That just doesn’t seem to be how the world works to me. How do you explain the doubling of the human population? Are there alien souls wanting to be here or new souls being made. Doesn’t there seem to be a supply-side causality  rather than a demand side one to population growth or decline? Doesn’t it feel like we can mostly control if we have kids rather than taking metaphysical orders? Screw reincarnation.[2]
So that’s where I’m at. I’ve snuck a peak at Chapter 12 and it seems good but I’m losing my enthusiasm. I’m sure I could finish something I found useless easier but because I want to rely on this Buddhist stuff those two chapters I’ve choked on have stopped me in my tracks. At this point I’m looking at other Buddhist books more fondly than Larkin’s. I have “Invoking Reality – the Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen” by John Loori tempting me. I might even go back to John Piper though I doubt it. Or what do you reckon?  Should I keep reading Larkin? Is it just my Mind stopping me?

[1] This is what I understand. Buddhists feel free to please correct any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
[2] Okay, I’m seriously open to correction from anyone on this, particularly Buddhists.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do we create?

In a recent conversation about God’s creation of the universe the statement “We (meaning us humans) don’t create” was made. It surprised me and didn’t feel right but I felt that to argue against it I had very little solid statements. After all "create" is a woolly term.
You click on “Create” to start a new Word document but is creating a file really creation? If so is it the Microsoft program doing the actual creating?  I would consider that the most mundane definition. Yet is that all there is to human creation as well – a programmed response? Or is there something else – the capacity to bring forth genuinely new possibilities?
What about when sand in a dust storm creates a swirling pattern? Is that the height of creation? The more I learn about uncertainty in physics the more I realise this is a different sort of creation to that of a classic linear program but it’s still not intelligent. What does intelligent mean though? Is there such a thing as creativity that is guided by intelligence? Or is intelligence itself guided (even chaotically determined) by a dumb creativity? Is intelligence just the swirl in the sand storm?
Originally this essay was a polemic against a certain understanding of humans as non-creative or as “bad” creators. In this understanding the only good creative acts of humanity occur when we become animated by a divine other. The classic story is that of the Muses. In other versions it is the Christian Holy Spirit. In yet other versions it is a life force that runs through us and the planet.
My greatest concern with this way of thinking is all the horrible burden of divinely inspired dross that we have to deal with because of it. If I write a self-help book that is considered God-inspired (or Angel channelled etc) how much harder is it for people to challenge my advice. If the only way for my advice to be worthwhile enough to publish is to attribute it to a divine other, then I am always bound to create (or rather not create!) this kind of unstoppable force.  It seems more honest and more accountable to acknowledge the author in the room; myself.
Still without a Muse or God (or for that matter a Devil) separate from myself how do I create? Where do the new things that seem to issue from me (or through me) come from? If creation is the province of the divine, then is it perhaps necessary to consider the “divine-within” to explain it?
There is a vein of Christian theology which can be tapped to describe this human divinity. Much has been made of the idea that we are “created in the image of God” particularly in terms of our creative capacity. Alfred Whitehead (Process Theology) and Paul Tillich are two very prominent theologians who might be worth reading in this regard. Alas I gave away my Paul Tillich text recently - only now seeing his relevance. That’s often the way with the books that sit on my shelf for years. 
There are also a range of theologies outside of Christianity which present the divine realm as essentially incomplete without humanity to shake it up. That afternoon television classic “Monkey Magic” illustrates how in Perfect Land Buddhism a stagnant celestial bureaucracy exists under the perfect Buddha spirit. It is as important that Monkeys irrepressible manner kicks over the norms of heaven as it is that their attitudes are reformed by Buddha spirit. Personally I always identified with Monkey in this fashion. In atleast some forms of Buddhism and Hindusim I would be free to, as there is no separation between ourself and demigods and Gods. The divine is not other at all.
The Khabbalah, a Jewish mysticism that has paralleled both temple and rabbinical Judaism, contains a theology built around the incompleteness of God. This is an incompleteness that is resolved in Christianity by the relational Trinity. In the Kaballah however it is humanity’s relationship with God that completes us both. (Sort of. I’m no expert on this and would appreciate correction.) In Khabbalism for God’s creative work to be enacted there is an absolute need for us to embrace our creative role. In this schema we are purpose built to create and God relies on us completing this purpose.
“New Age” philosophies tend to be deeply concerned with enabling human creativity. This is possibly because of their suitedness to the post-industrial economies that sponsor them and the importance of creativity in those economies. It is also possibly because the New Age is defined by a demand for utility by the individual “seeker”. To the extent that New Age philosophies borrow Hindu and Khabbalistic ideas they tend to emphasise a human divinity. To the extent that they borrow from Gnosticism instead they tend to accentuate the divine-other as a source for human creativity. Certainly this question is huge in the New Age literature but it is hardly answered consistently.
My own formulation of how I create is complicated. I do believe that original “stuff” can emerge from me. I don’t think I am ever a doorway to a divine force though. I guess I never think of my creations as being divine. Somehow I consider them both ordinary and yet new and spontaneous. In fact it seems to me to be the ordinary way of things to be creative. That's life.
I don’t know how I can evaluate whether what I create is dross or gold however. I think that’s impossible in an abstract fashion. Living is the real on-going test of my ideas. I guess that means my creations are never really “good” or “bad” merely useful or not. This further reduces any expectation of a divine source.
I also think that the classic image of the creative human is a very atypical one. They are idealised as alone on a mountain receiving that flash of inspiration or conjuring truth ex nihilo. I think it’s more ordinary to create with ones’ peers and from ones’ culture. Further I celebrate such a process. I have always preferred rhetoric over other art forms precisely because its quality is produced through its audience and never without them. There is something therefore about the usual image of individual creativity whether by God through us or by us, which excludes me.
When I consider the greatest creations of humanity such as writing itself these obviously don’t belong to any one individual. In an on-going fashion we continue to create writing and what it means. That’s what blogs are. When this sort of creation is the subject in question it again reduces the expectation of a divine source. There is something of the swirling sand in the dust storm about it after all.
In the same way I also don’t understand the opposite image of God the sole creator. As with any rhetorician, the quality of creation is produced through its audience and never without them. Actually if your medium is Life then audience participation goes off the chart.  If you’re creating life of course you’re co-creating with life because of just what life means. It’s more than a little like roleplaying dungeons and dragons. Sure,the dungeon master has all the maps and has devised a series of events but its the decisions of the characters which makes the story. So if you ask the question from the other side – If God creates how do we join in? – I come closer to a Khabbalistic answer to the question.
My kid just asked me “What are you writing, Dad?”
I replied “A difficult question. How do we create things?”
She thought about it and then stated as if obvious, “With our hands.”
“Yes”, I continued, “But where do our ideas come from before our hands?”
“Our heads,” said my daughter.
“Yes, but where do our ideas come from before our heads?”
My daughter was momentarily stumped. She actually said “A challenge,” before adding “Our eyes.”
She wasn’t entirely sure though. What would you have told her?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I Trust in God.

Just a minute...

I have a persistent fantasy in which I lay dying and an appeal is made for me to accept Christ as my saviour in order to save myself from damnation. Like many of my fantasies it’s basically a set up so that I can say something I think is profound. (Is that a writer’s thing?) In this fantasy I reply “I trust in God and I shall not fear the Devil.”
As I have a colonoscopy planned today and my higher than average risk of bowel cancer is on my mind I’d like to take the opportunity to explain myself. This will spare me the bother on my actual death bed. Hopefully this will clear up any confusion over what a non-theist is saying “I trust in God” for.
Firstly any celestial being I could consider God is not going to make both unreasonable and unnecessary demands on my integrity. The mark of a true God would be to encourage those intellectual attitudes which would help people, especially those vulnerable at point of death, to distinguish them from a non-entity or random djinn.  Such attitudes would include caution in offering allegiance to just any deity. So long as a God’s existence is dubious to me I think if they are actually God they would want me to be shy of proclaiming them. Anything less is consistent with a false God, not one with truth on their side.
This argument is strengthened by the realisation that boldly proclaiming God to exist while being doubtful is not just unreasonable but unnecessary. The twin ideas that your life continues after death and that God needs you to form a relationship with him before death are incongruent. If God’s existence or not is due to become obvious in minutes the simplest response is to wait and see. After all, the afterlife is eternal so the five minutes of obviousness I would need to happily recant my atheism shouldn’t be any bother. No? I have to worship an invisible God now because as soon as I die the super-efficient afterlife will have me whisked off to hell before I can yell out “I was wrong.” That’s ludicrous and completely unnecessary. I trust God to be better than that. I trust I can go to my death as an atheist and still work it out with God if I’m wrong. I even trust that a true God would want me to do just that if it was where integrity led me.
As for not fearing the devil, if there is any supernatural being who would accept my worship (let alone desire it) when that worship is due to the threat of eternal suffering then that supernatural being is the devil. Plain and simple, that’s exactly how the devil would operate. If the devil whispers in the ears of earthly kings they are going to be perfectly encouraging of scaring ones subjects with the rack and the stake. Even if that whisperer is in the driving seat of the whole cosmos and who gets into heaven or hell, then they’re the devil by character. I do my best not to pay them any heed as inspiration in life and I will try not to fear them on my deathbed either.
One of my favourite imaginings of the afterlife is that once you die you are greeted by a towering God King who perfectly corresponds to all those images of the angry patriarchal God we know so well. They carry a sceptre and sit on a throne and their face is stern. They command you to kneel and most people throw themself prostate. With no aching knees in the afterlife people can stay like that for eternity. Those who don’t get down and stay down are hit by laser beams from the great God Kings eyes and are destroyed. In my imagining the only way into heaven is to stand. It’s the ultimate act of trust in God and refusal to fear the Devil.
Now I don’t know that when the morphine runs through me and my death rattle fills my belly and a bikini-clad Christian orang-utan (the morphine remember) starts up converting me I won’t break like a baby. Maybe I’ll swear allegiance to the angry God King of my dreams in order to be spared those laser eyes. Maybe I’ll throw a bet their way or at least both ways. What I hope I say, what I believe I should say, is “I trust in God and I shall not fear the Devil.”
Does it matter? Paradoxically if I am right and there is no afterlife it matters less. If I am wrong then it becomes all the more important I stick to my non-theist guns. If life genuinely continues then I’d better not convert “for the hell of it.” That path leads away from any heaven I can think of.
Halleluiah and Amen.
P.S. Bum check was all clear. No cancer or even polyps.