Reproductive Rights (Again)

In response to this post at The Federalist.

The commentator writes as though no other jurisprudence exists on this matter. If you want to sway the debate, you need to admit and address the arguments made by those that have sought to preserve reproductive rights for women. Many of them are not spiritually unsophisticated: their desire is to create lives that embody love.

And the details of the partial birth abortion are a canard. This is not typical of abortions, which are now most often chemical procedures (the “morning after” pill). Partial birth abortions are incredibly tragic, and politicizing a situation in which either the mother and/or child will die is immoral. A choice has to be made, and it should be made by the parents and their medical practitioners without bringing the police into the situation.

And I would be cautious about the “life at conception” position. Most conceptions end in natural abortions. If there have been 10 billion people alive on earth, God is responsible for aborting at least 10 billion babies. Obviously there is something more subtle going on in the process, some purpose that God has in filtering those that arrive alive in the world.

My perspective is that, being on the path of the knowledge of good and evil, part of our challenge is learning to not be animals in the way that we create progeny. We need to apply reasoned judgment to the problem. That is the gift that God gave humanity above all other creatures, and decrying the use of judgment by others is not morally tenable.

Let’s Talk Science and Theology

My friend Jamie Wozny told me, during a career coaching session, that I should “try to keep it simple.” As I drove down Wilshire away from LACMA considering the forty years spent studying physics and religion, I whined to myself, “But it all seems simple to me.”

To bridge that gap is why I dance. At the last nightclub that I frequented, the manager came up to me one night and said “You know, I’m noticing that wherever you are, that’s where the people tend to gather.” A Persian woman came up to me one night to say “You don’t know how good you make us all feel.” Just this weekend my friend Mary Margaret, as we lay all akimbo after rolling around on the floor together for ten minutes, admonished me about viewing myself as an old man, “You really should love yourself more. Others would benefit from the experience of your joy.”

The problem is that most people take the energy that comes out of the heart and direct it downwards to the sacral chakra, the focus of passion and pleasure. I try my best to be disciplined, because otherwise I would just be a slut, but the people that come to LA Ecstatic Dance and the Full-Contact Improv Jam do love to touch and be touched. For many, it’s an opportunity to mix masculine and feminine energy without the complications of a relationship. I’ve benefited from that willingness as I try to figure out how to unlock the feminine graces, but I still find it difficult to withstand the impulse to rest my hand over a woman’s womb as she arches backwards with her hips resting on my thigh. Nobody has slapped me yet, so I surmise that I’m giving in to what they want.

I attempt to patch things up afterwards, just consistently raising energy from the fourth chakra – the heart – up to the sixth chakra. While the latter is associated with the pineal gland and known as the “seat of intuition,” physically it rests right over our cerebral cortex which is the part of the brain devoted to higher reasoning.

Realizing that somebody was peeking into my childhood, I woke up at 3 A.M. with a sinus headache. It’s drying out here in Southern California, and the grass is disintegrating. I eventually dragged myself out of bed to rinse my sinuses with Alkylol.

After crawling back under the covers, it occurred to me that the sinuses sit between the sixth and fifth chakras, the latter being the throat chakra that focuses communication and creativity. I always struggle to engage others in conversation regarding the matters that demand so much of my attention – sometimes to the degree of a painful burning in my throat as emotion wells up from my chest.

In considering Dante, Santayana elaborates Dante’s metaphor of theology as his lost love Beatrice, their happiness frustrated in part by his flirtation with philosophy. This matches my own experience: theology does seem to rise from the heart, while science – the most mature expression of philosophy – rests in the mind.  In the modern era the two camps of heart and mind have chosen to dispute with each other.

Between them we have the voice that wisdom teaches us to reserve for the truth. I have spent my life on this problem – the reconciliation of those two warring camps, each holding half of the truth. If anybody knows of an opportunity to engage with others in dialog on those problems, let me know. I’m willing to travel.

Welcoming the Light of Love

Stephen Harrod Buhner closes The Lost Language of Plants just as I would have hoped. After recounting a healing session with a young lady, the book closes with four autobiographic sketches, each by a herbologist recounting immersion in biophilia. Left behind are the recriminations and the tone of moral superiority that marred the preceding chapters. Each of the writers focuses on the opportunity before us now – an opportunity to call into being relationships built around affirmations of love shared with the world around us.

As the book progressed, lunging between the yin and yang of natural and industrial chemistry, I found myself remembering my experiences of being stalked by predators. One was at a Webelos overnighter, of all things, at Camp Whitsett in the Southern Sierras. A Native American elder inducted a number of the senior scouts in a fire ceremony. As the ceremony progressed, I had a strong sense of the bear in the man, and felt the fire of predation building in the camp as the boys settled in to sleep. Rather than hiding from it, I let it enter into my heart, sent my will into the forest to demonstrate that no bears were present, and then breathed peace into the space I had cleared. The fear resided, and the camp settled into slumber. Several years later, I was driving home from work on Friday night, knowing that my youngest son had been sent to the Sierras on a camping trip, and felt the bear again in his presence. I sent the warning “Wake up, Gregory! Get Mr. Povah!” When he returned that Sunday, I learned that on Saturday morning, he had woken early, and heard a noise as Mr. Povah’s son Braden was dragged away from the camp by a black bear. The onrush of shouting campers scared the bear off, and Braden survived with only a bruised ankle.

Given his immersion in the natural world, I doubt that Buhner has not had similar experiences. But perhaps not – he has been chosen by the world of chlorophyll, the deep, patient source of renewal. That touches the animal realm through the herbivores, an intimate co-creative process that Buhner documents in loving detail. But the animal kingdom has another dimension as well: in Love Works, I enumerate the rites of blood – sex, maternity, the hunt and sacrifice. Each of these has its unique pathologies, and the fragility of animal existence means that those pressures are often driven into fear and rage.

In Dune, the great science-fiction author Frank Herbert advances the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

It was this discipline that I exercised in Camp Whitsett. It is the discipline of the rational mind, a discipline that safeguards our ability to perceive clearly and so to exercise our intelligence when facing circumstances that our natural talents could never hope to overcome. It is to perceive the forces in play with the aim of negotiating a win-win outcome when the predator’s zero-sum mentality holds sway.

As I finished the life sketches that close The Lost Language of Plants, I was filled with the desire to find these people and join forces with them. A great barrier arose, followed by a vision and memory. Buhner shares the plant kingdom’s experience of light, that great source of love that originates from the sun and desires to merge with us through them. But when discussing with my sister the ecological disasters that will confront our children, I told her,

This is how we heal the world: by teaching the plants not simply to receive passively the light, but to reach up to the sun and guide its power to rebuild the devastated forests and savannahs.

This may seem like a little thing, but to accomplish it we have to convince them to surrender the conventions of the chemistry that Buhner celebrates so tenderly. It is to recognize that it is not the plant that is important, but the spiritual transformation that gives courage to the fearful through its physical manifestations.

Buhner touches on this metaphorically in describing his healing work. He testifies that he meets people that are missing parts, and is guided by visions of plants that can fill those voids. It is in establishing those relationships that healing arrives, through an expansion of spirit that occurs when our hollowness is filled.

I spent the rest of the day struggling with the grief that filled me then.

It has two parts. The first is that the plant is only an intermediary – it is a reservoir in which love gathers, but it is not the source itself. It was the source that disciplined me, forcing me stand apart until people realize that all intermediaries are imperfect. Secondly: in that place apart we are beset by those that would ravage the gardens that Buhner and his peers create. We plant the seeds of knowledge, and watch as they are corrupted by the predators. We heal the wounded, and set them again into the world, hoping that each time the light of love reaches more deeply into them.

It is hard to be told that our path has led us into evil. I wish that Buhner could see that scientific reductionism is a means of removing the primitive triggers of predation from the world. Yes, it has gone too far, but it has also created the field in which he and his friends plant their garden.

Lest we wish to repeat the experience of Eden, we must leave recrimination behind. I take solace that in his closing Buhner celebrates the light of love that will ultimately unite us all.

Dying in the Face of Reason

The latest assault on public safety: On the Chris Hayes show last night, an opponent of gun control stated that “nothing that proponents have suggested will work.”

Simple fact: America’s death rate by gun violence is three times the rate in any other advanced democracy. Our rate is forty times the rate in the United Kingdom.

So if you won’t do what we say, do what they do.

Freedom from Government through the Governance of Love

In explaining the necessity of God in Tragic Sense of Life, the Jesuit philosopher Miguel de Unamuno asserts that it arises when every man, naturally desiring to control the world, confronts the inevitability of death. As the latter treads on our heels, even the most powerful are pressed to the conclusion that the only way to live forever is to embrace a God that loves us enough to grant us life.

Atheists are inclined by this logic to conclude that faith is a delusion. Marx certainly saw it that way, declaring that “religion is the opium of the masses.” But the underlying pressure is evidenced in the pronouncements of some technologists, among them the man I described yesterday who saw our digital sensors, networks and software as empowering us to build God. Others are more humble. At the ACM fiftieth anniversary symposium in 1997, Nathan Myhrvold, then chief architect at Microsoft, envisioned (somewhat playfully) a future in which we could escape death by creating digital simulations of our brains. The video skit included Bill Gates rubbing his chin as he thoughtfully considered the reduction in Microsoft’s benefits budget.

But if delusion is pathetic, oftentimes in the powerful avoidance is grotesque. We have Vladimir Putin, assassin of Russian patriots, proclaiming that Jesus will find no fault with him on Judgment Day. Or the effrontery of Donald Trump who, protected by his army of lawyers, knows that so long as he asserts righteousness, no one has the means to contradict his claims of competency and benevolence. Thus he continues to assert – in contradiction of the actual birth certificate – that his lawyers have compelling evidence to reveal regarding President Obama’s citizenship. Both of these men suffer from the same affliction, the tendency of our bodies to respond to successful acts of aggression by manufacturing more and more testosterone, the chemical driver for aggression. This is a positive feedback loop that was broken only by death in the cases of Hitler, Franco, Mao, Stalin, Kim Yung Un and so many other tyrants. In the prelude, millions of people were sacrificed on the altars of their psychological invincibility.

This dynamic is writ small in the lives of many businesses, congregations and families. People addicted to the rush of adrenaline and the power of testosterone manufacture experiences that stimulate their production. This is why it is said “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The desire for power arises from the biological thrill of success, and to continue to receive that thrill, the addict must continue to risk his power in ever greater contests. In the heat of passion, the suffering visited upon others is ignored.

There are three antidotes to this dynamic. The first is popular rebellion. Paradoxically, this is the very force that pushed Putin and Trump to prominence. At a stump speech yesterday, Trump opened the floor to questions, and the first person to the microphone began to rant hatefully about President Obama and an imagined domestic Muslim threat. Trump did not defuse the situation, instead responding “We need to hear this question!” But often rebellion is merely another manifestation of the drive to power. Unless tempered, it rages out of control, as happened in the Jacobian tyranny following the French Revolution.

The second antidote is reason. Reason builds discipline that forces us to reconcile our actions with their consequences, thereby disciplining our aggression with objective evidence of failure. The tension between reason and will is not just moral, however: heightened levels of adrenaline actually degrade the higher thinking centers of the brain. This creates a terribly contradictory dynamic, perhaps manifesting itself in the fact that most academics do their greatest work in their youth. While testosterone serves the reasoning mind in creating the thirst to conquer and claim ideas, as the successful mind expands, so do levels of testosterone and adrenaline, which destroys the power of reason. In that context, the methods used to sustain power are not as brutal as those used by the social tyrant, but have their own unique form of cruelty, and leave lasting scars on the psyche. Isaac Newton, cheated of credit for a scientific insight by his predecessor as head of the Royal Academy of Sciences, had the satisfaction of burning the man’s portrait. Most victims of intellectual tyranny are consigned to obscurity.

It is natural for supporters to gather around the social or intellectual tyrant during his rise to power. Claiming benevolent intention is a great way of rallying support from the oppressed. Unfortunately, this dictum holds: A man will change his beliefs before he will change his behavior. When that behavior is organized around aggression, enemies must be created when there are none left at hand. All tyrants eventually turn on their lieutenants, often using hallucinatory rhetoric to justify their actions.

A peer once offered to me that all the greatest scientists were lovers of humanity. This brings us to the third antidote: love. This arrives upon us through many pathways. It can be through sex and maternity. It can be when an infant first grasps our forefinger. It can be through service to those in want. In those moments a bond is established, a linkage that makes palpable the suffering we visit upon others. That can be rationalized in material terms: tears on a beloved face or cries of shame are evidence of our failure. That breaks the vicious cycle of success and aggression.

But there is another aspect that goes beyond negative feedback. Aggression stimulates the loins and the mind, but barely touches the heart. Exchanging love with someone just feels good. It opens us up to a world of experience that can be touched in no other way. Ultimately, its rewards are far greater because no one that loves themselves objects to being loved. They do not turn on their friends for satisfaction, because their friends offer them satisfaction every day.

Democracy attempts to combat the urge to power by institutionalizing rebellion. In America, the two Presidents that were awarded most authority were George Washington, who gracefully surrendered power after two terms of service following universal acclamation by the Electoral College, and FDR, who literally worked himself to death through four terms in office. Both those men were governed by a sense of duty and love for their country, a commitment affirmed by the popular voice that is expressed in elections. At the end of the 20th century, those that seek the freedom to act always as they please (the ultimate manifestation of power) responded to electoral constraint by attacking our faith in government. Driven by testosterone and thus unable to govern themselves, they have invested huge amounts of money creating personalities such as Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. As visible in the Oklahoma City bombing and the events surrounding the Republican nominating process, the end result has been to stimulate the resort to violence by others.

Thus we have the wisdom of Jesus: “Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s.” We have the promise of Jeremiah: “For I will write my law on their hearts, and no man will be told ‘Come learn about my God’, because all will know me.” And we have Christ’s summation of the Jewish experience with law (the rule of reason) and governmental control: Love God and your neighbor.

It is through self-regulation that we discover truth and peace[NIV Matt. 7:13-14]:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

But what other government would we choose, except the governance of our hearts? And to what other authority would be choose to submit, other than the authority of compassion in another? Why do we delude ourselves that there is any other way?