Meanings of Life:
Philosophy from the Resplendent Tree


The Resplendent Tree

Neither Theist Nor Atheist
Respect Others
The Meaning of Suffering
Love Your Planet
Everyone is Multicultural
We Can Choose to be Gay

Neither Theist Nor Atheist

Blaise Pascal saw the question of God's existence as a kind of wager on which one's eternal life was staked. Pascal found it answerable by a cost-benefit analysis. It should be obvious, however, that to accept the terms of the wager (which includes heaven and hell) is to presume the existence of the very God whose existence is in question. It was premature for Pascal to analyze the costs and benefits of afterlife residential options when we do not even know what the real options are. Furthermore, no one can sincerely and fairly wager his eternal soul if he doubts the terms of the wager or perhaps doubts that he has a soul to wager at all. Alan Dershowitz said of Pascal's wager, that "any God worth believing in would prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite." This is Tucker's wager: Follow your bliss. The stake is the present moment. Unlike Pascal's wager, we don't have to wait until we die to find out who is living more fully.

One valiant attempt to prove the existence of God used 46 premises, most of which were assumptions about God's characteristics. The argument and conclusion looked like this: We were created for a purpose by an intelligent, powerful being that owns us, governs us, punishes us, is displeased if we deny his existence, and should be worshipped. This anthropomorphized God looks something like a slavemaster and makes use of the worst of human nature.

Whether God exists is not the ultimate question. It masks other questions. James Still said the question of God's existence arises from uncertainty about the meaning of life. Brother Christopher of the Monks of New Skete said, "Do we ever ask ourselves who is this 'I' who says he or she believes in God?" Philosopher Richard Rorty said, "The difference between these two sorts of people [religious and non-religious] is that between unjustifiable gratitude and unjustifiable hope. This is not a matter of conflicting beliefs about what exists and what does not exist." The Wiccan writer Starhawk says she connects with the Goddess the same as with any tangible object. To ask if she "believes in" the Goddess implies that she doesn't know the Goddess. Connection, not belief, may be said to be the cornerstone of spiritual life; Fritjof Capra said that spiritual and ecological awareness are deeply related because both involve the individual's sense of connection to the cosmos. In the same way, we don't "believe in" ourselves--we know ourselves. Mind and body are not objects of cognition to each other because they are so interconnected that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

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Respect Others

Why should we respect other people? Do they have a right to be respected? Do they have intrinsic value? The best explanation is that we are all part of one great being and that we discover our wholeness when we respect each other.

"Nobody really knows where your natural rights are like they know, for instance, where your pancreas is," said James J. Martin. L. A. Rollins wrote in The Myth of Natural Rights, "A bullet-proof vest may protect a person from being shot, but a natural right has never stopped a single slug." In other words, the concept of having a "right" to be respected is unscientific (it cannot be tested) and useless (even if the mythical right exists, it will not save us). Furthermore, if people ask to be respected in contradictory ways, how are we to make sense of their claim that they have such rights? If they ask to be respected in ways that are impossible to comply with, how are we to make sense of their claim that we have a duty to comply?

The idea that people are intrinsically valuable or sacred appeals more to lovers than to philosophers. But nothing can be valuable in a vacuum; things can only be valuable to someone who values them. You cannot have a beloved without a lover. The idea of "intrinsic value," then, makes no sense. If we are told we should respect people because they are valuable, we should ask, to whom are the people valuable?

The idea that we are all part of one great being is as unscientific as the idea of natural rights or intrinsic value. Nevertheless, when we think and act as if our oneness were a fact, this belief can improve the sincerity of our service to others. When we ask "Who am I really?" and the answer is "I am you," we see new possibilities for selfless action. We define ourselves and others in sympathy and solidarity. In any situation where we are unsure what course of action to take, we can ask ourselves: "What would be the highest expression of my character, given that I'm bound with all these other people and places?"

We need not provide a reason up front for respecting others. It is more important that we first show this respect based on love and trust. Wen we learn its effects, we may then develop justifications of it.

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The Meaning of Suffering

The illusion of our separation causes us to perceive conflicts of interest between individuals. Left unresolved, these conflicts cause suffering. A conflict with something else in nature (say, with a hurricane or a cancerous growth) causes us to perceive pain; a conflict with another person's intentions causes us to perceive cruelty. Both are matters of people not wanting to be where they are, maybe not even who they are, thinking they are not safe, that somewhere else would be better.

Suffering is unfulfilled desire. We are obsessed with objects, relationships, social status, and states of mind. We think we deserve what we want. When we get something else, we feel stricken. Moral outrage is a common kind of suffering, caused by the unfulfilled desire for justice.

There is a way to free ourselves from moral outrage. It involves understanding what outrage is. Our parents rewarded us for being convenient to them by telling us that we were "good." We came to believe that "good" meant something more than good in the eyes of the authorities. We developed a sense of justice by mixing our territorial, hierarchical, and aggressive instincts with our sense of the good. We were taught to believe in justice, to become warriors for "the good," because by doing so we became autonomous defenders of the interests of our parents; in other words, inconvenient children can be taught to referee themselves if they are taught the concept of justice. Realizing how we were conditioned gives us the opportunity to move beyond our conditioned depression and outrage when we feel the world has treated us unfairly.

Alan Watts wrote that life is "convulsive and catastrophic, maintaining itself by slaying and eating itself. The problem of suffering will therefore continue to have a kind of awesome holiness so long as life depends in any way upon the pain of even a single creature." When you understand that everyone suffers, you can begin to forgive life. When you cease to be angry at the world, you can begin to change yourself. The things that hurt you the most can be signals for what you need to change in the world. The dignity in suffering is the recognition of our opportunity to develop a response.

Aristotle thought God was beyond justice, as do the Sikhs. We are only tormented by the idea that our suffering is deserved when we think that life is fair. When we accept that the cosmos is not ruled by justice, we can cope with our suffering for what it is, not for what we think it should be. Our concept of justice reduces to our vision of personal entitlement. The universe is not just, nor does it obey any other desire or law, because it makes all desires and laws possible.

We communicate only nominally and peripherally with the vast majority of other beings. As a result, we're far from achieving a synthesis of knowledge that would explain all our interests and supply a definition of the good. We're like a brain that has been quartered and scattered across the ground, thinking with a minute fraction of our original capacity, as our neurons flicker in confusion.

Increased knowledge of, and control over, our interactions with other beings may relieve some suffering. But we can never control the whole world because we are only a piece of its intelligence. There will always be inevitable conflicts of interest and thus suffering. We may find some comfort in the partial release from responsibility for the ills that befall us. We need not be outraged, at ourselves or others, for our pain. We may rebuild the world with humility and dignity.

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Love Your Planet

Our environment is made of relationships: every living and nonliving being in relationship with everything else. We might say that everything we contact is part of our extended self, for we are forever changed by these interactions, and in fact would not survive for one second without them. (If we didn't have air pressure around us, we would explode.)

Americans rarely discuss ecological issues because we know we are complicit in the destruction of our global body. We associate environmental knowledge with fear, pessimism, and dread. We choose to remain ignorant of how life works in the natural environment. In America, this ignorance is not only a part of our culture, but is valued as a mark of sophistication.

The Seventh Principle Project of the UUA says that we must "live in covenant with the web of life." This unusual metaphor offers a radically new definition of responsibility. We do not have obligations, we live in obligations. We are not bound principally to a king, but equally to all that lives.

Part of the human psyche wants to be lord and master, commander of the lightning bolts. This comes at the expense of others. It is not possible to own the world and we should be grateful for that. This is even true for those of us who would control the world for the benign goal of healing it. We do not have that ability, because the environment is made of relationships and one person alone cannot heal a relationship, but we should celebrate our ability to choose and control our own course of action. We are behind-the-scenes workers. Sometimes we get frustrated with our failures, forgetting that we are process, not result.

Morality is not always about achieving a goal. It can be a focus, a discipline, an attitude that changes the world in unexpected ways. By connecting you to your environment, it can revolutionize what you think you are, and land you in a paradise on earth.

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Everyone is Multicultural

Some have argued that nations form initially because of a response to an outside threat, after which they absorb their culture in bits and pieces from the cultures that surround them. This view is sometimes called "diffusionism" and was promoted by the 20th century historian William H. McNeill, among others. The first part of that formula is rather pessimistic; as William Ralph Inge put it, "A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by a common hatred of its neighbours." But the idea that nations form in response to a threat is demonstrated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of whose central texts were written during times of persecution.

All living beings have an instinctual desire to engage in activity whose outcome is speculated at but ultimately uncertain. Geoff Hamilton calls it the "game gene" on his website of the same name (accessed 2004) and uses our fascination with puzzles or challenges to explain our behavior patterns in everything from music to video games to relationships. Boredom is always an evolutionary dead-end. This is another way of supporting the idea that cultures are in motion. There is no "pure culture," because if a culture were not constantly challenged and mutated, its own members would be bored by it.

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We Can Choose to Be Gay

I did not arbitrarily decide to be a gay transsexual. I never would have chosen this particular journey; it would have appeared, from the outside, all pain and no light. Only in the midst of my journey am I finally able to say that the view from here is great. Of course it's been rocky, but if I were to claim I have no choice to be here, that would only increase my feelings of victimization. To eliminate conscious decisions from one's sexuality is to shrink one's humanity.

Under a fatalistic cosmos, everyone's a victim. I do not want a hollow debate over the manner in which fate has victimized me. Neither nature nor nurture alone explains by behavior and choices. Oversimplified, the nature/nurture paradigm is oppressive. What of our rich, erotic, vital energies? What of honoring and celebrating the dignity of our promises, desires, and chosen tribes?

Do not ask after the etiology of my romantic relationships or my community. Love is not the illness, it is the cure. I have put effort and intention into building these relationships and I will not have them dismissed as an anomalous biological bleep. I choose to be around people who love me because of, not despite, my gayness and transsexuality.

When I was five, I knew I wanted a husband and simultaneously was convinced I'd never wear a wedding dress, but I could not yet verbalize these feelings and develop the identity of a gay, transsexual man. My self-understanding has taken quantum leaps since then. Our awareness of our uniqueness matures into our identities, directed by our choices: what we read, who we love, what thoughts we allow ourselves to have and how we process them.

I never chose to be mired in body dysphoria, to spend vast amounts of time and money healing my pain, to get the short end of the stick, to have a distinct political orientation, or to have difficulty finding lovers; but in another sense, being gay and transsexual is a choice I make every day. I choose to listen to the compassionate, erotic energy that heals the world and enriches my life with something deeply human and uniquely me. I choose to be proud, confident, and open. Being gay and transsexual is the most beautiful way I know how to live. I haven't always been able to say it, but finally I've arrived: I love being a gay transsexual. It's a great choice.

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