Angels in Our Midst

I just finished listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Bruno Walter conducting.  I have two different recordings of the 9th by Bruno Walter, and two other versions–one by Dohnanyi and the other by Nagano.  They each bring out a different aspect of the world masterpiece.

While I was listening, I thought back on my journey with classical music.  I was introduced to classical music through my sister, Sherry.  For her graduation gift, Sherry asked for the Time-Life history of classical music series.  She would play symphonies on my dad’s stereo in the living room, and I listened.  At first it all sounded the same to me.  But as we talked, and I listened more, the subtleties became manifest, indeed, the vast differences in style and content.  Then there was my friend Paul.  He was avidly learning cello, and ended up playing first chair at the famed Tanglewood Orchestra.  He was the son of a conductor.  Paul and I listened to countless recordings of classical music, Paul commenting on the different conductors and what they were doing and which ones he liked best (Fritz Reiner).  Then there was Virgil Fox.  Virgil Fox went all around the country playing Bach on his touring organ with a light show.  He drew in us hippies.  Finally there was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Kieth Emerson played actual symphonies with his rock group, and interspersed his “classical rock” with passages from Bach and other classical composers.  All these friends and performers introduced me to classical music when I was a teen.  Without these angels, I wonder if I would have taken to classical music.  I can’t imagine my life without Bach and Beethoven, and the other classical greats.

These people who came into my life added to my life.  They gave me the gift of Beethoven and Bach, the gift of the classics.  Then there are the actual composers who give us the very music I’m talking about.  How much of the good things in our lives are gifts from friends, from angels in our lives!

And I’m only talking about classical music.  There is also poetry, religions, visual arts, teachers and schools.  There is so much in my life–so much that is my life–that came to me through other people.

All this comes from God, but not directly.  God speaks through humans, acts through humans.  The good and happy things that God wants for us are given to us through our fellow humans.  And the capacity to bring good gifts to others, is also a gift from God.  That we can participate in the happiness God wants for us all, makes us happy, and we are gifted with the ability to participate in God’s will for universal happiness for the whole human race.


A Crisis of Truth

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  Then later in the narrative, Pilate says to Jesus, “What is truth?!”  Modern philosophy, Rorty, for instance, says that there is no truth, only persuasion and opinion.  He is not saying that truth is relative to the individual, he is saying that there is no such thing as truth.  In fact, he doesn’t even say that.  He says, rather, that he will not argue a point [read truth], but instead persuade you to talk like him.  It would seem that contemporary journalism takes to heart the words of Pilate and Rorty, if I may paraphrase, “Who cares about the truth.”

Some of the most outlandish persuasion is broadcast on stations like Fox and Brietbart.  Persuasion that isn’t supported with facts–and facts do exist.  My favorite station is MSNBC.  They present facts, disturbing facts.  But what bothers me about this network is their rhetoric.  There is a crisis every day.  Every distasteful fact becomes a constitutional crisis.  And believe me, there are plenty of distasteful facts with Trump.  But that doesn’t justify a whole day of the same distasteful fact from 5 or so newscasters in succession, hour after hour.  There are other important facts to report, Chicago streets, employment stats, economic indicators, world events, how many and which regulations Trump repealed.

What I would like to see more of is balance in news.  Balance, and facts.  When I want a good laugh and fantasy fiction, I watch FOX.  When I have an unholy hatred for Trump, I watch MSNBC.  Neither are healthy diversions.  I’m old enough to remember Walter Cronkite.  He could say, “That’s the way it is,” and I could believe him.  Now, we are bombarded with messages that all say, “Nobody really knows the way it is, or cares.”

Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]

When Politics Used to Bore Me

Politics used to bore me.  In the past, I would rather watch old, mediocre movies like, “I Killed Rasputin” than listen to presidents or congresspersons hold forth on public policy.  Now, however, I find politics more entertaining even than good movies.  I have MSNBC on all the time, and am thoroughly entertained.  Politics in the Trump era is a real reality show that is more riveting than those reality shows drummed up by Hollywood.

Trouble is, I watch with a kind of unholy glee.  I like MSNBC because of their relentless Trump bashing.  Deserved.  All that MSNBC televises are facts that Trump himself utters, his tweets, his spoken word, his policies.  Trump calls this “fake news,” but his own tweets and speech are there to read or hear.  But it is not my best trait to loiter amid disgust and revulsion over Trump.

I long for those days when politics bored me.  I look forward to a new congress and a new president who will occupy their time and energy with the public good.  I want a president I won’t have to listen to because I trust his or her integrity, applaud their vision, and have confidence that they are serving the public good according to their own vision.

Mediocrity or Noble Life

I have mulled over a passage of Aristotle’s for a long time:

[The philosopher] would prefer a short period of intense pleasure to a long one of mild enjoyment, a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great noble action to many trivial ones (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX. 8)

In general, this strikes me as a striving for excellence.  So the philosopher seeks intense pleasure, he seeks 12 months of a noble life verses many years of an ordinary life, and one great deed of nobility than average acts.

To some degree, I have lived along these lines.  In my 20’s I sat in my room reading the texts assigned to me by my professors while my peers were out partying.  During my commitment to my Ph.D program, I endured 8 years of poverty in the noble pursuit (as I saw it) of higher education.  After graduation, I spent much of my free time from my job, over a two-year period, writing a substantial book about love and spirituality, which, to my great delight, was published.  Why I think this relates to Aristotle, is that I forewent ordinary life pleasures, such as munching on popcorn in front of the tube in my efforts to pursue a more noble calling.  While my peers were partying, I was sacrificing good times for what I fancied to be a more noble life.

But Aristotle’s quote is especially relevant to a bus ride I recently underwent.  My bus ride home from a work trip took 4 hours.  To pass the time, I listened to my iPod.  At first, I was content to listen to pop music, then some jazz.  But I felt an ache in my soul for greater depth.  This ache took the form of a longing to listen to Beethoven.  I decided on his Mass in C, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, who also conducted my recording of Handel’s Messiah.  I had listened to the Mass in C several times in the past, but my mind usually wandered.  This time I really wanted to discover what Beethoven was doing.  Now that I am writing horn arrangements for my original compositions, I was particularly interested in Beethoven’s orchestrations.  This interest in orchestration gave me a new handle on how to listen to Beethoven.  And this time I followed the first two movements assiduously.  And my efforts were rewarded.  I was uplifted, moved, and also entertained.  I was brought into a better place through intense listening to Beethoven.  Beethoven did much more for my soul than did the pop music I had just passed time listening to.  That was the difference, I passed time with the pop music.  I listened to Beethoven.

Listening to classical music is a commitment.  It requires setting aside about a 40-minute time block to allow the composer to lead you through the whole piece.  You can’t just turn off the radio after a few minutes, or change stations.  The composer has worked out a 40-minute “argument”–if you will.  And to understand what the composer is doing requires commitment to that 40 minutes.

What I am writing about can sound like snobbery.  This is an age in which elitism in all forms are out of favor.  An age in which one can study “pop culture” in university graduate programs.  The attempt is to democratize knowledge and art.  But I think that it does make sense to speak of great art.  And the word “great” does not mean “snob.”  A person is a snob when he or she looks down on people who don’t share high-minded ideals.  I believe in the commonality of all souls, as I also believe that noble works are worth dedicating my life to.  I don’t think less of people who listen to pop music.  But I find Beethoven more rewarding and worth the time he requires.

Finally, it is not possible to spend an entire life with only Beethoven, Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle, researching and writing, and in romantic ecstasy.  That would be like eating only chocolate all the time.  Chocolate is good, but no one wants a steady diet of it.  I watch TV, munch on popcorn, listen to Drake, and surf the net.  But I also put aside 40 minutes, sometimes, to dedicate special time to a Bach cantata or fugue, or a Beethoven symphony, or to labor through a Shakespeare play.  There is a place for noble works; time devoted to great art is rewarding; there are higher forms of delight than partying.

Craving Transcendence

I believe that humanity needs transcendence.  We need moments that take us out, above, the tensions, pressures, stresses, and hum-drum complacencies of daily life.  There is a scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations that illustrates this.  A certain clerk at the office of an unscrupulous, callous lawyer is described as appearing like a mailbox.  His mouth is set so stiffly, it appears like the steel slot that you slide letters into.  But as he walks out of the office, and heads to his domestic life, his innocent home life, his face relaxes, takes on lively expressions, and his innocence emerges.  At home, the clerk finds a kind of transcendence.  His humanity retreats in the hostile environment of the law office, and re-emerges in the safe home in which he lives.  In Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne meets Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover, in the woods, far, far from the pressures of the intense Puritan village in which they live.  And perhaps the most clear literary example of transcendence is in the medieval romance Tristan.  In this work, the lovers Tristan and Isolde meet in the forest in a special “Love Grotto” which is a kind of cave that resembles a medieval cathedral.  Their bower of love, away from the life of the castle court, is a protected, transcendental place in which their love can be freely—carefreely–expressed.

We all need a place like the safe domesticity of the clerk at the law office, the woodland refuge of Hester and Dimmesdale, or the Love Grotto of Tristan and Isolde.  A place or an environment in which we feel safe, and more than safe, uplifted spiritually.  For ages, humanity has found transcendence in relationship with God.  A connection with God was found to be ecstatic, uplifting, calming, peaceful, enlightening.  The roots of many religions teach that God is somehow above the created world, and that connection with God would lift a person out of the pressures of worldly life, transform one’s emotions and thoughts, elevate one’s soul.  “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” Jesus said (John 16:33).  Religious transcendence is found in prayer, worship, meditation, devotional reading, and charitable works.

I have seen efforts to find transcendence without God.  This is because many today are renouncing belief.  Without God, and with a craving for transcendence, where can people find that place apart from the world, above the world, better than complacency?  I see in TV and cinema episodes that look like transcendental places.  One common transcendental space is in the experience of love.  Lovers create a kind of bubble which is known only to the couple.  Finding someone who treasures you above others, as lovers find, makes a person feel special.  At least to the beloved, you are more important than other people.  In strong love relationships, the beloved is treasured above anything else, everything else.  That feeling of being special to one other human, lends the feeling of transcendence, creates a space that we don’t find in the world.  Often the world can feel harsh and unloving.  In the movie The Big Chill, the friends lament their eventual return to the tough world they view from the treasured solace of their friendship.    These reflections suggest two other options for semi-transcendence: family and friendship.  Friendship is like love, but not as intense.  Indeed, lovers often are best friends, but best friends are most often not called lovers.  And families seem to hold the widest array of love relationships.  Parents love their children sometimes even more than their partner, and they also have that mutual love that couples know with their partner.  So family life is another powerful place of transcendence.  It is a place where the stresses of the world can be let go, and where each family member is special just for who they are.  Robert Frost calls family, “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve” (The Death of the Hired Man).  Other means of semi-transcendence can be art (the rapture of music), nature, sports (especially the communal experience of a live game), or, unfortunately, drugs.

My feeling is that these attempts to satisfy the universal craving for transcendence are not sufficient.  I think that they will lead to frustration.  Seeking something that lifts one out of the human situation can’t be found by other human creations.  I have felt the kinds of semi-transcendences that I listed briefly above.  And in my better moments, I have felt religious transcendence.  I have experienced the semi-transcendental episodes in cinema, for instance, and for me, they don’t fulfill my own craving.  It feels really good, indeed.  It does create a space outside the pressures of the world.  But it doesn’t uplift.  It doesn’t bring peace.  And so with other efforts to get away from it all, but not all the way to heaven.  Granted, as a believer, I have expectations grounded in religious experiences.  But as a human, I do feel love, friendship, family, art’s rapture, the enjoyment of sports, the quiet of nature (which, arguably, is God’s creation, and at least, not a human creation), and have experienced drugged relief.  My experience of spirituality feels higher than the other forms of transcendence.  In fact, my experience of love, friendship, family, art, and nature is enhanced by my spirituality.  I think the craving for transcendence can be relieved only by a transcendental Reality.  I don’t think that the craving for transcendence will ever be forgotten or sloughed off.  Humans will always want a place apart.  But I don’t think that humanity will find that place apart without God.  I see endless frustration, maybe unconscious frustration even, when finite forms are used to fulfill what is essentially an infinite urge.


Outrage is not the same as hate

And friendship is not the same as loving.

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