Tag Archives: reality

Dreaming Reality

It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.

Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.

Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

Illusions Incorporated

illusionsFiction and fact aren’t so different. Long before the Wachowski Brothers came up with The Matrix, Richard Bach wrote Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I was in seminary when I read it and it seemed, at that time, to change my life. Fiction, or fact, has a nasty habit of getting into the way of things and over the course of decades I forgot. The Matrix reminded me—reminded me multiple times—but Illusions sat on the shelf, gathering dust. I was reminded of this book that refuses to be categorized when playing a family game. Like many games these days it’s a set of pre-printed cards and what makes the fun is the context in which you put the words. In this particular game you have to find the suggested idea in the book you have at hand.

I have to confess that this is just a touch artificial at our house. We don’t have much in the way of things, but we have books. Lots and lots of books. When we play this game, we think ahead of time what books we might bring to the table. You never know what the cards will ask, so books with diverse ideas are a good choice. I saw Illusions on the shelf. As I thumbed through, it was as if the decades were wearing thin. I knew I had to read it again.

Stubbornly refusing to classify itself as fact or fiction, the narrative of what it’s like to meet a messiah is inspirational. I can’t claim to have come to the conclusion on my own—I’ve read Illusions before, and I have seen The Matrix many times—but I recollect the realization coming to me on the streets of Manhattan. This is not real. Standing in the shadow of the tallest buildings in this country, that’s not a comfortable realization. Nobody said reality was comfortable. We easily let ourselves accept what we can’t do and what’s impossible. It’s far more rare to consider what is truly possible. What we can do. These ideas will be a hopeful ebenezer over the coming months. We choose to elect reality. Despite what the loud and angry say, the mind is the arbiter of truth. I read the book before I knew much about the world. If I’d had the good sense to believe it, it might not have taken me decades before pulling it off the shelf to remind myself of what I already knew.

Religion Fiction

Children brought up in a religious environment, according to a recent BBC story, are more prone to believe in fictional characters. The story, based on research from my alma mater, Boston University, suggests that if children are taught to believe miraculous stories at a young age, they will more likely believe that fictional figures are based in reality too. Undoubtedly this will be seen as yet another brick in Montresor’s wall by those who can find no good in religion. The reasoning will go something like this: believing in no religion is the “neutral” position. If we raise children in a religious context, we are inclining them toward a fictional belief system and making them less likely to reason their way out of it. Therefore, we should raise children secular.

Even in the BBC story there are dissenting voices. Perhaps children who learn about Jesus find Thor a more compelling character. Perhaps they are open to possibilities that logic shuts out. Our brains have two hemispheres for a reason. I often wonder whether it is possible to be fully human while ignoring about half of what evolution gave us to work with. Logic tells me that religious belief serves a survival function. And my creative side still appreciates the possibilities that my Manhattan brain is forced to shut down every day when I punch the clock. If there’s nothing more than work, perhaps believing in fiction serves a valuable function after all. But I suspect this is playing right into the rationalists’ hand. Pass me another brick, will you, Fortunato?

The jury, however, is still out on the nature of reality. Even for materialists. Gods of the gaps tend not to survive very well. The question is actually much larger than that. We don’t know the nature of ultimate reality. We’re not even sure what reality is yet. Can a parent who believes in God, after the experience of growing to maturity in a heartless universe, be blamed for teaching their children the same? No humane parent raises their child purposefully teaching them falsehoods. Yes, some children are damaged by religious upbringings. Some are damaged by materialist upbringings as well. What seems to have shifted, in my humble opinion, is the popular perceptions of religion. What used to be understood as the foundation of a civil society is now challenged as a harmful fantasy that encourages children to grow up into terrorists or non-functioning adults. The belief that we can raise children with no biases, however, is clearly fiction. Until we have the full truth, there should be room for both Gilligan and the Professor on this island. But then again, I was raised to believe in the divine world, so what do I know?

Fact or fiction?

Fact or fiction?

Nothing Unusual

WhyDoestheWorldExist“Is this a world?” Ranger Tom asks seriously, “And if it is, am I in it?” On the lips—or fingertips—of some, this set of questions appears profound. Although I’m not technically a philosopher, I find it impossible to walk by a book with the title Why Does the World Exist? and not pick it up. I am not familiar with Jim Holt’s other work—I engage a little too heavily with books to spend much time with magazines—but the question of the title is one I’ve often pondered. It is right up there with “Why can some people get published and others can’t?” Holt is, however, on a serious quest. Not surprisingly, religion features prominently in the discussion. For the usual existential reasons, including a couple of significant deaths in the family, Holt asks perhaps the most basic of all questions and engages a number of prominent philosophers on the issue. Why is there something rather than nothing? For some in the western world such a question appears a non-starter, because our culture is biblically suffused. Whether we want to admit it or not, our social ocean veritably bobs with the basic belief that God created the world, end of story. We don’t need to ponder it, we just have to accept it. For those who look deeper, however, the answers aren’t that easy.

Holt goes through some serious computation in various forms of logic to try to arrive at a schematic demonstrating that the world is a surprising place. Not trained in such rigorous logic, I was interested to notice how the language occasionally slipped from “world” or “universe” to “reality.” Reality is perhaps the slipperiest concept of them all. Many simply accept their own experience as real, a position known as “naive realism.” Others probe somewhat deeper, seeking to verify reality. How do we know what is really real? It is, however, a different question than the existence of the world. Reality has the distinct ability to haunt with its half-answered questions and surfeit of ambiguity. Every time I wake from a dream I ask myself what is really real.

Once the divine is removed from the equation, why the world is here becomes a much more complex issue. Holt engages the new atheists as well as the neo-orthodox. It turns out that God may not help as much as we generally assume: whence God? Or, in its more childlike version, where did God come from? Once brute fact is ruled out, this becomes a tangled problem indeed. Faced with an endless regression, logic quails. Perhaps, however, we have reached the limits of rationality—even Einsteinian physics breaks down at the Big Bang. No matter what scientists or philosophers may tell us, we will always wonder, “and before that, what?” I put Holt’s book down with a sense that I’d spent a few pleasant hours considering the possibilities, but I still wonder, with Ranger Tom, if this is a world. And if it is, am I in it?

Meating God

A very interesting story ran in Tuesday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. A Hindu family that was unintentionally served a dish with meat, hidden in samosas, has won a suit requiring the restaurant to pay for a trip to India in order to seek purification in the Ganges. As a vegetarian my sympathies are with the family, but as a student of religion I frequently wonder at the fragility implied by rigid religious demands. When your religious leaders declare a mundane act either sacred or profane, investing it with supernatural significance, what recourse is left to the believer? A religion that cannot adapt to everyday realities will necessarily become watered down to the point of a social club.

On the other hand, a society so focused on food as ours—particularly red meat products—can become overbearing. Over the past decade many restaurant visits have left me with ethical conundrums as all menu items include some species of meat. Not wanting to offend, I am willing to pick around the offensive bits to get to the non-sentient foodstuffs, but when food becomes equated with meat both sacred and secular vegetarians must lean to cope. Even in the monotheistic camp, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make demands on the diet—sometimes overt, sometimes subtle. Deities, it seems, are as concerned about what goes in the mouth as with what comes out.

In the modern understanding of religions, they are means of diverting attention from the physical present to a spiritual “reality” behind reality. Along the way even the most faithful frequently find themselves in compromising positions. The gods, having never been human, don’t understand. Even those incarnate deities had the ability to work miracles—a feature the majority of us lack—and so cannot truly participate in the angst of attempting to lead a perfect life in their footsteps. As one who has had his religion forcefully compromised repeatedly in a jagged career in religious studies, I wonder if any dip in any river will really do the trick in purifying a faith that makes superhuman demands on herbivores for conscience’s sake.

Immorality on a plate? Only time will tell.

The Reality of Movies

Inception was released on DVD this week, and having a weakness for struggling with reality, I knew I had to see it again. Now, people with a far sturdier grip on life than myself have been blogging about the movie since the summer, writing posts both profound and critical. I wrote an earlier post on the movie, toying with its retelling of the Theseus myth. This time, I am wrestling with the wonderful burden of having a subconscious mind. The crux of the movie is when Cobb has to decide which world is real: Mal’s or his own. The movie, of course, refuses to divulge the answer.

With a finesse that I had previously experienced with the original Matrix movie, Inception ups the ante on what we consider reality. “Reality” is a problematic concept, a bi-product, we are told, of consciousness itself. Reality is generally viewed in exclusive terms, and most of us spend our days in what I learned to denominate “naïve realism,” the concept that what we perceive is pure, unadulterated reality. Perhaps not as Inception or The Matrix, or even eXistenZ would have us believe, scientists today tend to agree that the world is not as it seems. The quantum world has opened up levels of reality undreamt of even by Einstein whose God did not play dice. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to traditional religions.

Although many religions gladly point out that there is a mythical reality behind what we experience every day, there is no hard evidence to back up these assertions. This is not the same as declaring they don’t tap into that reality, it is just that we have no final arbiter as to what that reality is. Having been in the business of religion all my life, I am absolutely certain that it isn’t what any fundamentalist group declares it is. They make claims about reality that would leave Jesus scratching his halo-encircled head. Is it Cobb’s, Neo’s, or Allegra’s reality or is it Hawking’s, Witten’s, or Greene’s? I simply don’t know. I just put the disc in an press the play button.