Four Gods


I once read about a survey that polled Americans about their beliefs in God, including God’s characteristics and behavior. The idea was to analyze the results and determine how engaged in the world Americans believed God to be and whether or not they thought God was angry at humanity’s sins. Their conclusions were that Americans tended to believe in one of four types of God.

The word “God” was used but they allowed that participants might personally use another name, such as Great Spirit, Universe, Allah, Father, deity, the Almighty, the Creator et al. The variety of names shows that there are certainly more than four types.

One is the Authoritarian God who is very involved in people’s daily lives and world affairs. They believe that God will punish those who are unfaithful. This God would be responsible for economic downturns and natural disasters. Is that your God?

Maybe you believe in the Benevolent God who is involved in our daily lives, but is not angry or wrathful and is mostly a positive force. Sounds very nice.

Some people believe in a Critical God. This God observes the world and is unhappy with it, but does not get involved in our daily affairs. Maybe divine justice doesn’t happen in this world.

The fourth view of God is a Distant God who is not involved in the world and is not angry. This God is a cosmic force that sets the law of nature in motion.

Of course, you might not believe in any God or hang out with all the college kids in the agnostics lounge.

I have identified for quite a long time as a Deist. I don’t know which of the four Gods is most Deist. Distant in that he (she? they?) chooses not to interact with our lives, but could? Crtitical for his detachment? If you want to give any God credit for good things and miracles, then you also have to attach blame for all the bad things that happen. Very few Benevolent club members do that.

I think that any of the four Gods would be pleased that we are thinking about them.

Unprogrammed Worship

Years ago, I took an evening “adult school” class that met at a local Friends Meeting House, though it wasn’t a course on anything that had to do with Quakers. It just met there. One night a member of the Friends came to talk briefly about their beliefs and practice.

In my journal, I wrote about it more than a decade ago and came across the entry this week. The part that caught my attention was their idea of “unprogrammed worship.” That seems to be the more typical style of worship among Friends in English-speaking countries. During unprogrammed worship, Friends meet for “expectant waiting”  and “divine leadings.”

I found it fascinating that sometimes a meeting, which lasts about an hour,  is entirely silent. Sometimes quite a few people speak.  If someone is led by the spirit, they rise and share a message. These are not prepared (programmed) “speeches” and the speaker might be expected to say the source of their inspiration. It might be divine. It might be from within.

After someone speaks, some time will pass in silence before anyone else speaks.  It is not expected that anything like a response or debate on what was said.

All of it was so unlike my own Catholic upbringing. How refreshing to think about what we say and say something only when we really have something to say, rather than mouth programmed words that meant less and less year after year.

Meeting House

The meeting house is in Montclair, New Jersey and I assume it is not very different from other ones, but I have very little experience with Quaker meetings. I did go back there once after the course ended to attend an actual meeting.

People entered in silence. The unprogrammed portion proceeded as I described above. The Meeting ended when one person (it was predetermined who that would be) shook the hand of her neighbor and then everyone shook hands with their neighbors. After that, one member (who I assumed had some official role in the group) usually stands to extend greetings and make announcements.

I haven’t been back to the meeting house despite how appealing it seemed. The pandemic made an easy excuse for the past few years. I did see that they went virtual for a time. I did do some reading about Quakers over the years starting the easy way with their Wikipedia entry. I didn’t have to go very deep into the entry to see that my experience may have been a bit different from other meetings.

The entry says that “Some 89% of Quakers worldwide belong to “evangelical” and “programmed” branches, that hold services with singing and a prepared Bible message coordinated by a pastor.” I guess I attended a meeting house from that 11% who practice “waiting worship, or unprogrammed worship (commonly Meeting for Worship), where the unplanned order of service is mainly silent and may include unprepared vocal ministry from those present.

Quakers who practice programmed worship (which resembles a typical American Protestant worship service) have scripture readings, hymns, a sermon from the pastor and a much shorter period of silence.

I haven’t given up on returning to the Friends at the apparently more liberal Montclair house, but I do feel a) uncomfortable walking in uninvited and b) uncomfortable with organized religion.

George Fox, the principal early leader of the Religious Society of Friends, dismissed theologians as “notionists.” Modern Quakers are generally little concerned with theology, and are more concerned with “acting in accord with the leading of the Spirit.” I don’t know what that means. I do like that they have no “creed,” eschew “authoritative” doctrines and diverse statements of “Faith and Practice.” That kind of language alone would turn me off to a group.

Here’s a plus/minus aspect. They don’t really observe religious festivals such as Christmas, Lent or Easter at particular times of the year. Plus. They believe that Christ’s birth, crucifixion and resurrection should be commemorated every day of the year. I’m not sure how they do that. Minus. That means that if something should (or should not) be done on certain days, then it should be done all year round. For example, rather than observing a time of Lent, live a simple lifestyle year-round. Another plus.

Many Friends have Meetings on the “First Day” (Sunday) though supposedly because it is convenient and not because it is the Sabbath.

Montclair is a liberal town and Quaker egalitarianism makes sense there. They believe in the spiritual equality of the sexes. Early Quakers refused to practice “hat honor” and refused to take their hats off or bow to anyone regardless of title or rank and also to address anyone with honorific titles such as “Sir,” “Madam,” “Your Honour,” because in the eyes of God, there was no hierarchy based on birth, wealth, or political power. The practice was not considered to be anti-authoritarian but instead is a rebuke against human pretense and ego.

It’s all very confusing. I think for now I will remain unprogrammed in my practices alone.


A Weekend of Holy Days

Last weekend was Palm Sunday, the first day of the Christian Holy Week, a seven-day span that culminates today.

This weekend is Easter and Passover which have a number of similarities but are very different holidays. This year the two holidays overlap but that only happens in some years and they can occur a month apart.

da Vinci
  The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci   Link

I remember as a young boy learning via The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci depicted Jesus having a Seder dinner. I think I asked a teacher why we Christians didn’t have a seder too and was told it was because it was associated with Judaism.

I was older when I learned that in early Church history (the first two centuries) the followers of Jesus commemorated the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the same day as Passover. In fact, Easter was known then as Pascha – the Greek for Passover.

Last night was  “Good Friday” when the Last Supper occurred. The term “Good Friday” also confused me as a kid. What was so good about Jesus being betrayed and arrested? The “good” part comes from the obsolete sense of “pious or holy.” Since we already had a whole week of holy days, why didn’t we just call it Holy Friday?

The term “Last Supper” does not even appear in the New Testament. It is traditionally how most Christians refer to the day while  Protestants usually use the term “Lord’s Supper.” The Eastern Orthodox use the term “Mystical Supper” and the Russian Orthodox use the term “Secret Supper.”

The Jewish feast of Passover was instituted 3,400 years ago and Easter and Christianity and its holidays emerged in the centuries after Jesus’ death. Easter as a holiday commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival in the city of Jerusalem for Passover, where he was greeted by a crowd of people laying palm branches at his feet as a sign of respect.

The Passover meal, according to biblical law, had to be eaten in a state of purity. The pilgrims, including Jesus, entered the city to undergo a week-long ritual of purification.

At that meal, Jesus established the sacrament of Communion using elements of the Passover seder. In the New Testament, Jesus is called the Passover lamb.

Passover was a time to remember the exodus of the ancient Hebrew people from Egypt. It is still celebrated by having a meal where families and friends of the family read scripture while drinking four glasses of wine and eating foods that represent the exodus from slavery.

Much of Easter has been commercialized and has little to do with the religious meaning of the day. Even non-Christians are aware of Easter eggs, baskets of candy, and a silly Easter Bunny.  Still, both holidays use eggs as symbols of rebirth and resurrection. Both celebrations include sweet foods.

Differences? Jewish people gather to remember hard times and celebrate freedom while Christians gather to celebrate a miracle.

Both are moveable feasts of spring (in the Northern Hemisphere). Passover takes place during the Hebrew calendar month of Nissan, as prescribed in Exodus 12:18 which commands that Passover be celebrated, “from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.”

Easter is traditionally celebrated on the first Sunday following the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) that lands on or just after the spring equinox and it changes on the solar calendar.

Moses is the primary person remembered on Passover while Easter celebrates Jesus.

The word “holiday” comes from the Old English word hāligdæg (hālig “holy” + dæg “day”) and originally it only referred to special religious days. In modern usage, it has been used broadly to mean any dedicated day or period of celebration in North America) and in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, “holiday” is often used instead of the word vacation.

Passover is 7 – 8 nights. Though Easter is one holy day, it has 7 holy days preceding it. (Unfortunately, the commercial holiday part of it starts at least a month before.)

More about Easter and Passover including Eostre, rabbits, and why we color eggs.

Parenting As a Spiritual Practice

buddha child

Most parents sense that there is a spiritual aspect to parenting.  You sense your children’s sense of wonder and it takes you back to your own childhood sense of wonder about the world. But I keep reading that people are more disconnected from religious institutions. I don’t see spiritual and religious are interchangeable, but I do see them as connected.

The spiritual life begins not in abstractions, but in concrete everyday experiences.  I have a granddaughter who will be two this spring and being with her reminds me of how I loved watching my sons grow up. I loved watching them learn to crawl, cruise, walk and run. I really loved hearing them acquire language.

In the next year, my granddaughter will start to become a little scientist, theologian, and philosopher as she begins to ask the big questions about life and the universe. You know all those “why” questions that we probably haven’t even answered for ourselves.

Some questions are overtly religious (Where does God live? Why can’t I see God?) and some are more spiritual (Why do people die? Why are people mean? Why are you sad?).

My own religious upbringing never answered the big questions for me. It did create more questions. There is a “quest” in questions and most quests are a lifelong pursuit.

I did try to include the spiritual in some everyday practices. Teaching my sons to read, settling them into sleep, walking in the woods, looking at stars, cooking and eating, working in the garden, and doing art are a few of the opportunities you have to help them formulate their own ethics and philosophy.

My parents seemed to pass on what they had been taught, even though I never sensed that they found comfort in the answers or guidance they had received.

I was a teacher for more than forty years, but all it takes is to be a parent to realize that children may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. You will never learn something more deeply than if you have taught it to others.

I’m not sure that I was entirely successful in giving my sons a spiritual life, but I think that observing my son with his little daughter I can see the quest beginning.

Science and Buddhism

Buddhist monks of Tibet10
I was able to get away with my family last week despite the madness of COVID and Omicron. I tried to stay off my phone other than to take photos of my little granddaughter.

Back home this week, I was cleaning out some files and came across an article I had clipped out of an issue of Wired magazine years ago about a study that showed that some Tibetan Buddhist practices have been “proven valid” now that the world of science finally had some technology that could “test” them. I’m sure Tibetans were thrilled.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch a video of two teams passing a ball. One team wore white shirts, the other team wore black, and the subjects were asked simply to focus on how many times players in white shirts passed the ball to each other. The little trick of the experiment was that there was also a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, waved at the audience, and walked off again. The subjects didn’t notice him.

I remember seeing a video of this at an education conference in 2000 (see video below). Buddhism was never mentioned. What’s the connection? The point of the experiment was to show that humans see what they are looking for, not what’s there. That is selective attention. It is also a very old Buddhist teaching.

In the article, they talk with some participants at a Science and the Mind conference in Australia where participants explored areas of connected interest between Tibetan Buddhism and modern science.

For example, a scientist using magnetic pulses tried to access the creativity of the non-conscious mind and altered states of consciousness. Tibetan meditation seems to do the same thing.

I love science but this is something scientists have been trying to do for a long time – prove, disprove or replicate ancient practices.

I wrote earlier about a technique for pain control called Thong Len that scientists can’t prove but that they admit seems to work. What science is unable to prove gets little attention.

Drug-based treatments for depression have not developed as far as we might hope and some scientists think Tibetans may provide a path to the solution.

“If you go to Dharamsala (in India, home of the Tibetan government in exile), you go up through the fog in midwinter and you come out in the bright sunshine, it’s like going to heaven. What strikes you immediately is the happy, smiling faces of the Tibetans, who don’t have much, have been terribly deprived, and yet they are happy. Well, why are they happy? “They work at it! They don’t take their Prozac in the left hand and pop the pill. Monks have been studied by Richard Davidson, they are very positive, they’ve got no material possessions, it’s a grind, it’s cold, they don’t have much food. But they are happy. They work at it.”

The Dalai Lama embraces science and has said that Buddhists can abandon scripture that has been reliably disproved by science. The Dalai Lama has even opened a school of science at his monastery in India saying that “…the Buddhist tradition [is] to try to see reality. Science has a different method of investigation. One relies on mathematics; Buddhists work mainly through meditation. So different approaches and different methods, but both science and Buddhism are trying to see reality.”


Cat’s Cradle, Ice Nine and Bokononism

cover of book
Cover of the first edition of the novel in 1963

Cat’s Cradle is a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that I read in my high school years (though not as part of the school curriculum!) and I had the opportunity to teach it to high school students.

It is Vonnegut’s fourth novel and was published in 1963. It is a satire of science, technology, religion, and the nuclear arms race, often through the use of black humor. Not surprisingly for a Vonnegut book, it is funny and it is serious.

The narrator of the novel is an author writing a book about the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Day the World Ended. He begins the book by stating “Call me Jonah” – alluding to the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) and to the Biblical Jonah and the whale. But the writer’s name is actually John. In a way, this narrator and Moby-Dick‘s narrator Ishmael share some traits. They are simultaneously a narrator and a protagonist within their own stories. Though the book is more than 60 years old, no spoilers, but maybe their ultimate fates are also similar.

Researching the book, the narrator travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker. He was a co-creator of the atomic bomb and a Nobel laureate physicist. He becomes involved with the Hoenikker children when he interviews them along with Felix’s coworkers, and acquaintances.

He learns of a substance called ice-nine, created for military use by Hoenikker and now likely shared by his three adult children. Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature. It also acts as a seed crystal and upon contact with any liquid water it causes that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

Dropping ice-nine into a pond would freeze the pond and any surrounding wet land. If a human was in the pond, the liquid water in them would also instantly change into ice-nine. It would be a more destructive weapon than any nuclear bomb as it would eventually freeze the entire planet and everything living on it.

“Cradle”, the opening position of Cat’s cradle

The novel’s title comes from a story that Hoenniker’s younger son, a dwarf named Newt, tells the narrator. When asked what Felix was doing when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, Newt says that he was just idly playing the string game “cat’s cradle.” Cat’s cradle is played by two or more people playing cooperatively.  John notes that there is no cat and there is no cradle.

The novel takes the threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War as one of its main themes. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of mutual assured destruction in 1962 and was certainly part of Vonnegut’s motivation. In the move, possessing some Ice Nine becomes it own arms race and a person or small country can have great power by having it.

I taught Vonnegut’s novel along with another nuclear satire, The Mouse That Roared, which was a 1955 satire about an imaginary country in Europe called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. Grand Fenwick is known for its wine, but a California winery creates a cheap version of it. Economically threatened, Grand Fenwick decides to declare war on the United States. Obviously, if they attack the U.S. with their tiny and ill-equipped (with bows and arrows) army they will be quickly defeated. They invade New York City.

It seems like a stupid plan but what they expect is that after being quickly defeated they can rebuild their economy since the United States always pumps millions or billions of dollars into its vanquished enemies. Think of what the U.S. did for Germany through the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II.

Through a series of accidents and coincidences during the invasion of New York City, the Grand Fenwick army comes into possession of a “quantum bomb” being developed in a secret lab there. The Q-Bomb is a prototype doomsday device created by Dr. Kokintz, a rather absent-minded professor. This bomb has a theoretical explosive potential greater than all the nuclear weapons of the United States and the Soviet Union combined. Though no one knows if it would actually work because, obviously, it can’t be tested. Having the bomb makes Grand Fenwick a major world power overnight.

The book is funny and was made into a comedy film starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles. But the novel is also a commentary on the politics of the time, the nuclear arms race, and the politics of the United States.

Nuclear war doesn’t get the attention today that it had in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s not that the world powers have disarmed or that there is no threat, but somehow it has moved back in world issues.

Vonnegut in 1972

Another big theme in the novel is Vonnegut’s take on religion. He describes a religion secretly practiced by the people of the island nation of San Lorenzo. There are many San Lorenzo places in the world – none of them is Vonnegut’s fictional Caribbean island nation. Officially, San Lorenzo is a Christian nation but it also has its own native religion, Bokononism.

Bokonism is based on enjoying life through believing “foma” which are harmless lies, and by taking encouragement where you can. Bokononism was founded by Boyd Johnson (whose name is pronounced “Bokonon” in San Lorenzan dialect). The religion is outlawed. Bokonon himself conceived this outlawing because he knew that forbidding the religion would only make it spread quicker.

Bokononism secretly is the dominant religion of nearly everyone on the island, including the leaders who outlawed it. Many of its sacred texts, collectively called The Books of Bokonon, are written in the form of calypso songs. Bokononist rituals are often absurd. Their supreme religious act is for two worshippers to rub the bare soles of their feet together. This merging of soles (souls) is meant to inspire spiritual connection.

Here are some Bokononist terms:

karass – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.

duprass – a karass of only two people, who almost always die within a week of each other. A common example is a loving couple who work together for a great purpose.

granfalloon – a false karass, such as a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example given is is “Hoosiers” – people from Indiana, who have no true spiritual destiny in common and share little more than a name. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you want to know about a granfalloon, just look inside a balloon, sings the Bokonists.

I like their term sinookas which are the intertwining “tendrils” of peoples’ lives. I believe in that part of their religion.

Maybe you know the string game. Maybe you’ve heard the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” (in which I see no connection with the novel). The book has more directly influenced others in many creative works. I wrote elsewhere about a band called Ice Nine Kills.

But the allusion to Vonnegut’s Ice Nine that I discovered that was most interesting – and most frightening – is “Ice IX.”

Ice IX is an actual form of solid water that has been created.  I learned that there is also ice II, ice III, and all the way to ice XVIII. The “ordinary” water you freeze for drinks is known as ice Ih. All the forms of water have been created in the laboratory at different temperatures and pressures. And you thought you learned in school that water could be a liquid, solid, or gas and that was all of it.

I hope none of them work like Vonnegut’s imagined weapon and no one ever develops his Ice Nine.