Nothing is Unforgivable

Marital infidelity is not an unforgivable sin. The reason is that there is no such thing as a sin that cannot be forgiven. At least within Catholicism, as I understand it, any act whatsoever can be forgiven if one confesses that act with appropriate contrition, and receives the sacrament of absolution. Far worse acts, such as human murders, can be forgiven, again assuming the appropriate confession and contrition. Within a broader religious context, such as religions where a man is allowed to have multiple wives, it is less clear exactly of what marital infidelity consists. If such a married man keeps a mistress and then takes her as a second wife, has he committed an infidelity? In the west where some marriages embrace polyandry, it is not even clear that extra marital sexual activity constitutes infidelity. In such cases it is clearly not considered a “sin” by the people involved.



Contemporary Prophets

The term, prophet, has some ambiguity. In one sense, a prophet is anyone who believes he can predict the future. In another religious sense, a prophet is someone who has contributed to the creation of a religion. In the latter sense Jesus, Mohammed, Joseph Smith and Bab are all considered religious prophets in Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and Bahai respectively. Such individuals are rare. In a broader sense, a ‘prophet’, might be someone who believes that he can foretell the future. There have always been people who believe they have psychic powers. They believe they can foretell the future. I know one such. He says that he is able to predict to a pregnant woman the sex of her child, and that he has never been mistaken. Most of my academic colleagues believe that psychic powers are balderdash, but I suspect none has ever talked to someone who claims such ability.

 



Enhance Social Involvement

Religions can evolve within a context of rapid societal change by expanding social involvement. In a period of vast income inequality, various religions have indeed increased their extra-religious social involvement. In inner cities, many churches have associated “food pantries”, providing food to those who would otherwise go without. Some denominations sponsor homeless shelters, while others sponsor addiction services. None of this is particularly new in that many religions have always had a social service mission. Religions generally are highly diverse and as such serve a wide variety of non-religious needs. In my past life I served as a scoutmaster for a newly formed group of youth. We regularly met in the basement of a local church. The troop was not a religious organization, but nevertheless the church made its facilities available to us.   None of this is a particularly new social phenomenon, yet not all religions provide such social services.



Learn From It!

It is part of the human condition that things simply “don’t always go as we would wish them to”. My personal strategy for dealing with such situations is contained on a small disk that I carry around. It contains the motto: “Time to be a TADPOLE”, with a picture of a large eyed tiny swimming creature. The word is an acronym, an abbreviation for my self-direction. It stands for:   “Be thoughtful, aware, disciplined, patient, observant, lucky, & an excellent survivor!” It is inevitable that if one lives long enough, periodically life serves up setbacks. In such situations my goal is to remember my acronym, analyze the situation and learn from what has occurred. How did the “screw up” arise? Was it a matter of being insufficiently thoughtful, unaware, not disciplined, unobservant, simply unlucky, or what? Rarely is there an unhappy situation that does not serve up a useful life lesson.

 

 



A Truly Nasty Person

The worst trait to have as a human being is not a simple one, but complex. Begin with a person being in a state of anomie. Sociologists say that a person is in state of anomie when he is in a condition of normlessness, i.e. lacking any moral norms. A person who has grown to maturity without acquiring any moral code whatsoever is considered to be in a state of anomie. But that is not the worst imaginable condition. Two further traits would complete the picture. Imagine an individual who is totally vicious, i.e. one who willing to inflict harm on others at whim and without any qualms. Next add to that mix the trait of being highly intelligent, like Holmes’ Moriarty. Thus we arrive at what seems to be the worst trait imaginable, namely the trait of being a highly intelligent, utterly vicious person in a state of anomie.

 

 



A Bird in the Hand …

Which is more valuable: the hundred dollar bill I have in my wallet right now or a thousand dollars I might receive at some point in the future? That future sum is only a possibility, but not necessarily an actuality. In any assessment of relative values, I believe the actual must always be considered more valuable than the merely possible. Many religious people believe in God and in the promise of life after death. It is not my purpose to question either beliefs, but merely to express doubt that anyone actually knows the truth of either. On the issue of the value of an afterlife, according to John 3:16, simply believing in Christ guarantees eternal life. The problem here is that no one can believe something simply because they want to. Meanwhile, traditions that believe in reincarnation look forward to samsara, i.e. the liberation from that cycle of eternal return.



A Dark Vision

My darkest fear is of mankind’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Consider the current situation of India and Pakistan. Recently The New York Times reported that India, in its enduring conflict with Pakistan, is considering a policy of “first use”, meaning the next border incursion, say in Kashmir, would trigger an Indian “first use” of a tactical nuclear weapon. This, would put Pakistan in the position of having to “use it or lose ” their nuclear arsenal. The Times article said the inevitable consequence of such an exchange would be a discharge into the atmosphere of sufficient matter to cause a decade long “nuclear winter” producing worldwide famines and a billion deaths. Likewise North Korea will soon be able to deploy their nukes so as to threaten Japan or even the United States. How long before a terrorist organization gets possession of one of these devices and uses it?



Life’s Intrinsic Values

There is no single item that makes life worth living. There are a multitude of things that enhance the value of life, and others that detract from it. The famous English philosopher G.E. Moore wrote a respected book entitled Principia Ethica, in which he distinguishes between items of intrinsic value and others of instrumental value. The former are items of value by their very nature, whereas the latter are merely of value for what they can be used to bring about. Beauty has intrinsic value for Moore, whereas a piece of currency is only valuable for what it can be used to purchase. Good health greatly enhances the worth of one’s life, whereas its lack severely diminishes life’s value. Similarly, loving relationships, productive work, comfortable circumstances and enjoyable activities are all intrinsically valuable things that contribute greatly to making life worth living, whereas their lack diminishes the quality of life.



Imminent Death

A variety of circumstances might produce awareness of imminent death. What one does with the remainder of life will depend upon circumstances. A convicted murderer, scheduled for execution in the morning, has few options, consisting primarily of a final meal and consultation with a cleric. But the question posed is about me, not some hypothetical felon. I would first want to say my goodbyes and reaffirm my love for those closest to me. Secondly, I would want to confirm that appropriate arrangements have been made, regarding my estate, cremation plans, memorial service, etc. Since most people don’t have this sort of precise advanced warning of their demise, prudent people make these arrangements well in advance. Finally, like Socrates in The Phaedo, I would enjoy an extended final discussion of the arguments and evidence for whether death is our final act, or simply the beginning of a new period of existence.



The Argument From Design

The single most powerful argument attempting to prove God’s existence is a version of the “argument from design”, based on what is called the anthropic cosmological principle, proposed by John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler. The basic idea is that the fundamental physical constants governing all physical reality have a huge range of possible values. Yet, it is further claimed that there is just a tiny set of values that allow for the evolution of stars which can support the possibility of life. So, the claim is that it cannot be just an accident that these fundamental physical constants are precisely what they are, and that had they been ever so slightly different, human life would not exist. But this fine tuning of the fundamental physical constants allowing for the possibility of life requires a designer, and that in the words of Thomas Aquinas, is what all men call God.



The Young Jesus

An interesting story about Jesus of Nazareth is from the Apocrypha “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas the Israelite”. It is a short work which was very popular, that survives in versions in thirteen different languages. It concerns the boy, Jesus when he was five years old. He is depicted as a child of power, who lacks the mature judgment to make proper use of that power. In one story he is playing by a stream, shaping sparrows out of mud. When he is chastised by Joseph for doing something not allowed on a Sabbath, he claps his hand and the clay birds come alive and fly away. The dark side of this story is that he also uses his powers to kill children, blind their parents, and generally frighten the residents of his village , including Joseph. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version ed. Robert J. Miller (1994) Polebridge Press.



Self-Knowledge

Over the entrance to the Temple at Delphi in Greece was inscribed the injunction: Gnothe se auton. This translates as: Know thyself. So, since antiquity, religious authorities have commanded humanity to seek self-knowledge. Socrates, in turn, is famous for his claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. This has led other philosophers to reply that the unlived life is not worth examining. Descartes in turn founded his reconstruction of all human knowledge on the dictum cogito, ergo sum [I think, therefore I am.] All of the above lends support to the notion that knowing oneself, or self-knowledge is vitally important, and perhaps the most important activity that one can engage in. On the other hand concentrating on self-examination to the neglect of leading a full and active life has struck others as a neglectful sort of ego-centrism, which is the point of the aphorism about the unlived life.



No More War

In the unlikely event that God agrees to reward me with one favor, I request that He enhance human wisdom to the point where war is no longer considered an appropriate solution to human conflict. This is theologically possible in that the God that originally created human and angels, created the latter with sufficient wisdom never to sin. (That is the understanding of theologians such as Aquinas, although it is less clear how the fall of Lucifer fits into that scheme.) Standard Christian theology traces human sin to the notion that God created humanity with free will, although the existence of such was vigorously denied by John Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition. (A conceptual distinction between freedom of action versus freedom of the will is philosophically useful here.) So, for believers in free will, presumably humanity with enhanced wisdom could eschew war while still keeping their freedom.



No Single Role

There is no single role of religion in society. There are a multitude of aspects of religion, with different roles applying in different circumstances. One such role is that of the religious practitioner, whose career and livelihood intimately connect with religion. For example, within Hinduism one role is that of the priest, another is that of the guru, and yet a third is that of person who simply practices that religion while living an ordinary life. The religion itself is simply a set of beliefs, practices, rites and rituals, which includes a worldview and often an associated morality. So different people can have quite distinct roles within the very same religion, and these may vary distinctly within different societies. Islam, for example, has very different roles in Iran than it does in Great Britain. Within Iran Islam with its Sharia Law has a governmental role that it lacks elsewhere.



God’s Pick

The God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a supreme being. Theologians understand such as all-powerful, all knowing and all good. Consider the notion of a being that is all knowing. He could never be surprised by anything that occurs, because He has always known that it was going to occur. Unlike most Americans, God presumably always knew Super Bowl LI would go into overtime. Aquinas saw God as simultaneously existing in time and outside of time, looking down upon the flow of human events. But the traditional view is also that God is active in human history, such as in parting the Red Sea for the Jews. As the creator of everything, presumably God had to select which possible world to create, and selected the one in which the Patriots defeated the Falcons. In that sense God, if He exists as traditionally conceived, did determine the Super Bowl winner.