"He is free who knows how to keep in his own hands the power to decide at each step, the course of his life, and who lives in a society which does not block the exercise of that power." ~ Salvador De Madariaga
Exclusive to STR
February 25, 2008
There are only a few universal core values required for a healthy life and a healthy society, yet there are hundreds of religious sects and political movements and parties.
The blizzard of rules, beliefs, supernatural storylines, government-as-parent schemes, god-as-parent fantasies, and all the rest of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes odd, sometimes horrifying cultural add-ons that grow up around political and religious groups of every stripe are for the most part not fundamental and are too-often at odds with healthy values.
Love and freedom -- including love and freedom for children specifically -- form the core of every healthy social structure and religion. But even if the core values are healthy, those values may become diluted, hidden, and corrupted by an overgrowth of other material. Sometimes this material is added to hijack the religion or the social/political structure for personal or political gain; sometimes the material is added by people wanting formal procedures or other ways to celebrate the core values. Even when not in conflict with healthy core values, the sheer volume of this added material can obscure the whole point of the exercise: to foster love and freedom, especially for the young. Everything worthwhile in life flows from and requires those two connected qualities -- and as even the ancients knew, early life shapes adult character, behavior, and experience.(1)
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Christianity -- by far the largest religion in the West, and among the largest religions worldwide -- is typical of systems built around a core of healthy values but drowning in other material, not all of it positive. The actual teachings of the founder are only a small fraction of the text in the Christian Bible, for instance, and this is one reason that people calling themselves "Christian" can mean almost anything by that word. There is a long history of Christian sects fighting each other (the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Ireland, for instance) and even literally going to war with other religions (most famously in the Crusades), something Jesus neither did nor told his followers to do. Such violence directly contradicts Jesus' teachings on love, yet people find (or distort) other material in the Bible to support religious violence. The admonition to love one another is often described as Jesus' central teaching, and with good reason.(2) Because one cannot love another by enslaving them -- because tyranny and love are always at odds -- Jesus' teachings in favor of love must also be seen as in favor of freedom, something his actions support as well.
Another example: Jesus was clear and actually quite forceful about the need to treat children well and to not offend children; indeed, Jesus saw children as examples for adults, not the other way around.(3) You would expect that Christians would be famous for treating children warmly and lovingly, and for striving to learn from children. You would expect Christians to not coerce children but rather to protect children from coercion. Some Christians do fit that description, but many are at odds with Jesus' teachings on this important issue. Other elements in the Bible are often used (in many cases, inaccurately) as justification for mistreatment of children.
A third teaching by Jesus strongly supports the previous two. The teaching is that this world is important, to such an extent that "the kingdom of God is within you."(4) If the kingdom of God is within each person, then not loving others (especially children) is the ultimate crime.
These three teachings are incredibly positive and healthy, and (with minor re-wording) can be accepted and followed regardless of whether one believes in the supernatural elements of this or any religion. Love for others, compassionate treatment and respect for children, and the understanding that this world (including the experience within each one of us) is important regardless of any world beyond -- these things would seem undeniably healthy and positive.
Imagine a short, simple list of real-world, non-supernatural core values and beliefs that any healthy, non-aggressive group could acknowledge and agree to live by, no matter what else they might also believe or practice.
Love for others, including respecting others instead of coercing them, is the absolute minimum for such a list. Loving, compassionate treatment of children is required for them to grow into emotionally healthy adults capable of love; hence, a group must treat children well if it expects positive long-term results. Finally, even if one believes in an afterlife, this life and this world must not be slighted or denied. [Notes follow below]
The Paradise Perspective will return on March 10.
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(1) Modern science uses fancier language: humans (and other complex systems) are sensitively dependent upon early conditions.
This is usually phrased as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" but in many cases "initial" is impossible to know in any practical sense. Example: what is the initial condition for a human being? Conception? How about previous conditions and events for the parents, which created the biochemical environment in which the egg and the sperm were created and which determine much about the environment in the mother's womb during her pregnancy? Even events that happened to the grandparents of the new child can affect that new life --childhood trauma can make an adult neurotic in various ways, which then impacts that person's offspring, and so on for generations -- so what is the initial condition here? In any case, early events -- not merely at the initial instant, assuming there is one -- typically have far more powerful effects than do events that occur later in the evolution of a complex system.
13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
13:35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
18:1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
18:2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
18:3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
18:4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
18:5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
18:6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
-- also --
10:13 : And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
10:14 : But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God .
17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
It is remarkable how little weight Jesus' own words on this subject seem to have in the Christian community; neither the New Advent Online Catholic Encyclopedia nor the Wikipedia article on heaven, for instance, reference Luke 17:21 when specifically discussing the location of heaven (which the Bible generally treats as being the kingdom of God; the terms are often described by scholars as interchangeable). Nor did searches for 'where is the kingdom of God' at several 'Christian questions' websites bring up any mention of Luke 17:21. (These queries and searches were performed in the fall of 2006, while researching Three Teachings on Compassion; the results might be different today).