Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tolstoy's religious manifesto: The Kingdom of God is within you

Russian author Leo Tolstoy in traditional peasant clothing

Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is within you is both astonishing and enlightening in many ways. Few are the books that can move me to the degree that Tolstoy's book did. I mean it in both senses of the word, that it touched me by unearthing a number of feelings, desires, dreams and nightmares, but it also transported me, inspiring me to take initiatives and actions. One of those inspired actions would be my decision to write about this excellent book.

I first stumbled upon Tolstoy at the tender and tumultuous age of fifteen. An avid reader then, I took on the major project of reading his monumental War and Peace. At that time, questions on life and death were budding in my mind. In fact, I was hoping to live long enough to finish those 1500+ pages in front of me.

Although I fell in love with the characters (and I can still see them in my mind's eye and have an affinity with them even more than a quarter century later), I was often then - and most likely still - exasperated by the various elaborate digressions of its Russian author.

I remember one lengthy passage about bees that drove me mad, but I dared not skip a single line of this master storyteller. In a way, he is the Terrence Malick of literature, or rather, not to be anachronistic, it ought to be the other way around. Anyhow, I was given lectures on biology and history in the frames of a fictional narrative. 

A decade after reading War and Peace, I read - and was very impressed with - Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy controlled and restrained his tendency to be wordy and wrote a much better and more concise work, though it still spans hundreds of pages.

For years I had the intention of reading his nonfiction book The Kingdom of God is within you, but for one reason or another it remained on the back-burner for years to come. I had heard and read about Tolstoy becoming a type of prophet or mystical figure towards the later years of his life, and I had become aware that this particular piece of writing, especially the notions surrounding non-violent resistance towards violence, had influenced great thinkers, and shakers and movers of history, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Tolstoy has been described in many terms but few do him and his views full justice. His views are radical, yes, but this word has particular negative connotations regardless of its direction or political spectrum. He is also called an anarchist, a revolutionary, a liberal, a communist etc, but his actual views are much more complex. Most importantly, I think this work is timeless and can and should - for the most part at least - be applied to our modern times.

Let us start off with Tolstoy's religious views. Ironically, some intellectuals may be turned off by its title as it sounds as if it were a Christian propaganda piece. It is and it is not, but for the most part it attacks religions, in particular Christian institutions, with a venom that will make any traditional pastor's or priest's head spin. 

Religious people, or rather those who claim they embrace religion, will be bitterly disappointed, whereas those with a spiritual bone or two in them might find their calling here, that is if they get past the first barrier of actually picking up and reading this book despite its Christian title.

Finally, I found somebody who shares my view on religion and Christianity and explains it with much more skill than I ever could. The focus remains on Jesus Christ who was not only an exceptional being but who put the seeds of love and change in our hearts. Unfortunately, the authorities, i.e. the (not so holy) church took his teachings and turned them upside down and inside out to suit their own quest for power.

What the religious authorities wanted was to use the “convenient” parts of Christ's teachings. So far, Tolstoy may be even on par with Nietzsche's own view of Christianity. The church assumed control over the salvation of souls and became self-proclaimed ambassadors of God. They created a hierarchy and hence a gaping distance between themselves and the common people.

Historically, this could be done as only few in the elite were literate. So most people would get the watered down, revised, edited and censured version of Christianity. Various inconvenient or unconducive passages were conveniently glossed over or overlooked. Did not Christ say that the kingdom of god is within you? Does that not make the whole charade surrounding the church superfluous?

Tolstoy also remarks that if the church ought to play such a large role in Christianity, why did Jesus not give specific instructions regarding its set-up and functions. We mainly have a vague insinuation to his disciple about a rock. And did Jesus not attack those who claimed to know the truth, i.e. the very same priests and did he not say that those buildings shall be destroyed? It seems that Jesus was against not only empty rituals but the whole foundation of a church operating in the name of God, a church that, even in his own times, was more interested in money-lending and profiteering than spiritual growth and enlightenment.

And last, but most importantly, does Jesus not tell us to turn the other cheek? Does he not condemn any type of violence and replace it with love and forgiveness? Does he not forbid us to hurt others? Then how can the church defend its recorded history of bloody torture and slaughter of millions and millions under the banner of Crusades, religious wars, witch hunts and heresies?

In fact, killing a fellow being is as unchristian as can be. And yet, it is continuously done in the name of God, and many believers turn a blind eye towards it, or worse, defend it. Tolstoy claims that the church definitely turned away from the teachings of Jesus when it allied itself with the emperors to gain wealth and power.

Throughout history, the ruling men were seen as chosen by God. Evidently, the church played a major role in this perception by endorsing their chosen candidate. In return, the governing elite ensured the propagation of the religious views and protection of the religious institutions. This was hundreds of years of brainwashing in the making.

By not choosing to live like Christ, but merely by inventing stories and effectively lies on things hardly even mentioned in the Bible itself, such as Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, or the Holy Trinity, and by insisting on a number of carefully selected rituals, the church not only took over control over people's lives, but diminished their capabilities and powers.

In fact, the most important rituals of life were being ordained by the church: birth through baptism, marriage, the birth of one's own children, and death. There was – and is – no repose from the grasps of the church. Our life is controlled, managed and overseen by the religious authorities.

Indeed, they have found out our innermost secrets through confessions. This is where you share your intimate thoughts and desires with a complete stranger who with a few words of reassurance sends us back into the world again, a free but psychologically binding and limiting form of psychotherapy. Since the priest is the intermediary of Christ, we have done our duty by merely exposing ourselves, and now we are all forgiven through his magical incantations; he is putting in a good word with God on our behalf.

The protestants rebelled against the power of the priests, but they replaced it with an even more submissive and counterproductive ordeal. The issue of faith now made it easier for the individual to communicate with God, while the religious institutions were stripped of their pompousness and magnificence.

But it turned out that faith was something that you either possess or you do not, or you are given it by the Holy Ghost or not, and hence if He does not visit you, you might just not be chosen to enter this selective membership club. Also, your sins will all be forgiven, if only you believe. So you may serve in the army and kill others, but as long as you have faith, you will be cleansed of the blood staining your hands.

This lack of accountability has led people to ignore not only their own hideous actions, but also those of others. Official authorities simply must know better because they have strong faith, which we as commoners lack. But also, there is no particular need to improve the self or the world since faith, not love, is all you need.

But Christ – alongside Tolstoy - asks much more from his true believers. First of all, we must have only one master. You cannot swear allegiance both to God and the state, for example. Second, you shall not, under any circumstance resort to violence. That is, you shall refuse to serve in the military.

Tolstoy claims, and this is before two World Wars and atomic bombs, that the states are buffing up their army and weapons to gain control over others. They do so claiming that they want to protect us from other nations. But it is a vicious cycle. The more armies they build, the more other nations need to to keep up and be on par. This can only have dangerous consequences.

So, as a result, one should not add fuel to the fire and refrain from any type of service, military or otherwise, that supports this kind of harmful action. This is indeed what certain Christian groups have taken to heart, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Amish. They will not use weapons not even for protection or self-defense.

Tolstoy also stresses the fact that our taxes are going towards building weapons of destruction, and we ought to stop paying them. In fact, he goes even further and points out that the rich owe their wealth to the exploitation of the poor, and hence this money comes tainted with sweat, blood, and suffering, apart from reeking of injustice.

In the meantime, the rich are supported by the state and clergy, of course. So if the poor decide to go on a strike, they shall be first warned by the police and then beaten into submission, arrested or even killed by the military. Any person with good conscience should stay away from these official positions that use not only violence but do so to support the status quo of the already powerful and abusive rich.

In fact, people enlist in the army because they either think they have no other option, or they have been hypnotized by their surroundings, such as schools, institutions, and others, what Louis Althusser would later call the Ideological State Apparatus. One of the most prevalent lies, apart from religion of course, is that of patriotism. People are drilled to think that the random piece of land that they inhabit is worth killing and dying for. They are dressed like “clowns” in uniforms and believe that the stripes and medals they will be given for killing their fellow beings has intrinsic value and honor attached to them. Others are told that they could become martyrs in heaven because they are upholding true values of their motherland or religion.

We can see how Tolstoy is in fact against ideas like communism. He says that any type of revolution is not only violent and bloody but it replaces one tyrant with a worse one. The problem is that the state thinks it can enforce beliefs in its people without changing their lifestyle and way of thinking. As if there is a magic formula that can make people good, or worse, as if you can use force alongside its dark brothers, repression and oppression to change people for the better.

But the good news is that we are all moving forward. Tolstoy's view of the truth is that it cannot be achieved all at once, as it happened to the Buddha, for example; it is a long and continuous process in history. Our views have changed and we have come to accept human rights more and more. It was not without its struggles, but there have been major accomplishments in those regards.

Yet we need to continue to accept these values, which are reflected in a true understanding of Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. We need to follow in his steps and refuse violence in our daily lives. In fact, public opinion is changing around the world, and people have a stronger and more robust conscience regarding what is right and wrong.

We have the answers already planted deep within. Now we must act upon them, while this wave of public opinion has forced the governments to become more accountable or transparent in their dealings. In some cases, they had to become more secretive, namely to hide their atrocious behaviors from the public's eyes. It shows a certain fear of public regard so at the very least they have to constantly fear being exposed in their lies and violence.

The ideal would be to live without states and governments. Tolstoy says it is possible. However, most of us, may either disagree or be afraid of the consequences of such a lifestyle. How is it even possible? Who is going to protect us from the bad guys? Will it not turn to complete anarchy and destruction?

Not if we embrace Christianity in its truest sense and if we follow the path lightened by Jesus himself. As a good Christian, we need to share our wealth and must find peace both within and without, in our souls and our surroundings. We must look the truth squarely in the eye and accept our failings and our blessings in equal measure. But perhaps most of all, we should follow the divine voice within us since the kingdom of God is already - and has always been - within us!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Politics as usual: The Francis Underwood Syndrome

Kevin Spacey staring at you in House of Cards

What is politics like? I often wonder especially when watching news footage of politicians. There are many cases of corruption and scandals that make the headlines so one wonders can it be the cradle of the worst people? Is it because politics attracts those kinds of people or is it because politics simply corrupts? Is this how the game is played, the unspoken and unwritten rules of the game?

When we look at elections in North America, we notice that those who play the honest cards end up not winning. It seems that nice guys tend to finish last, that is, if they finish at all (I use the word “guys” since politics tends to be sexist, and women, if elected, need to be perceived as tougher than men, see “Iron Lady”).

A successful politician needs to not only get his hands dirty but also be ambitious and ruthless about getting there. No half measures are accepted, while honesty is a sign of weakness and will put the candidate at a serious disadvantage. (By the way, these observations can be basically applied to any higher or lucrative position of any company and is not just limited to politics.)

Why is it so? It seems that the game is simply designed or rigged this way. First of all, you need votes. In order to get votes, you need to be popular. Those who tell he truth are not. People usually vote for those who tell the most convincing lies.

In order to be perceived as popular, you need good press. That's where the media kicks in. The media can spin your image anyway it wishes. You can turn from a loser to a hero overnight, and vice versa. Such is their power. They are the ultimate spin doctors of today's world.

You can get good press by doing heroic deeds, but that would be too difficult for some of our politicians. So what do they do instead? They use big money from major corporations and companies, a process known as lobbying, to get the news they desire. It can be done in both directions. You can either increase your own positive notes and characteristics or blemish the reputation of your rival, or a combination of both.

To talk dirt about your opponent, you can dig up dirt from his past, quote him out of context, or simply fabricate lies about him. The information then may or may not be based on the truth, but once it is out in the media and inside the public's head, it is difficult to retrace steps and erase that impression come voting day.

Those are the self-help steps to get elected. Now to get to the top of the chain of command, we can ask our "frank" friend Francis Underwood for some guidance. The series House of Cards (both the British and the US version) is so popular because we feel we are dealing with an evil character straight out of a Shakespeare play. But at the same time, Francis Underwood is also a prototype of a politician: ambitious, ruthless, and thoroughly and relentlessly Machiavellian.

I was surprised and shocked actually to realize that Francis Underwood - or Urquhart for that matter - is not driven by ideology or convictions. In fact, it is a case of tabula rasa, pure blank sheets with him. It had been my impression that people enter politics because of a cause dear to their heart or because they want to change the world or alter how the system is running.

None of that applies to Francis Underwood. He simply wants to get to the top by any means necessary. He lies to people, including friends (in fact these people do not and cannot have any friends with their attitude and demeanor); he creates factions and conflicts between people to serve his own benefits, and he does not shy away from actually eliminating people from the surface of the earth (I hope the latter part is merely fictional, but I would not be surprised if it actually had kernels of truth in it).

Power for power's sake is what it's all about. It is not money that drives Underwood. I do not think politicians make that much money in comparison with private firms. But through lobbying and strategically redirecting funds, one can increase the bottoms of one's pockets too and can retire with the promise of a stable position in the eminently affluent private sector.

The series House of Cards is great in showing us the political process. Politics becomes a matter of negotiating votes. It is as if everyday you are experiencing life as a car salesman. You sell and exchange votes for other votes or for past and future favors and promises. I get you that bill, if you vote for mine later, quid pro quo.

Nothing seems sacred; there is no idealism here. What suits the politician best at the time is what needs to happen. And politicians line up to wash each other's backs or stab each other in the back. And the line between the two outcomes is so finely drawn.

One might say that the scenes and situations depicted in the popular series are grossly exaggerated and do not reflect the truth, that it is not unlike Homeland, which has gotten off the rails with some of its highly implausible scenarios. That may be true, but one must not forget that the writer of the series, Michael Dobbs, was a British conservative politician. He must have known the ropes, and perhaps he is communicating them to us in an entertaining albeit somewhat fictional manner. Or perhaps this is merely a case of politics as usual.

If it is so, then I am thoroughly disappointed. Not that I have any plans to go into politics. Even on good days I could not handle the stress and paranoia, the fact that the press and others are constantly watching you waiting for a faux pas or gaffe to report on or a cherished secret to expose. Not that I have that many cherished secrets to brag of either, but gaffes can happen when one accidentally says something one did not mean to say, especially in the mornings before one had had sufficient coffee in the system or when remarks are taken completely out of context.

It would become a life of constant rehearsal where one needs to weigh one's words very carefully before one utters them since in politics a bad day could mean the end of one's whole career. As an idealist, politics is simply not for me.

I would have perhaps accepted the honor and duty that comes as a Roman senator, where the affluent saw it as an obligation to put forward the principles of the state and not get paid for their work. Although even then, you could be stabbed by certain brute politicians or be forced to commit suicide for your mishaps. No, I would rather have something worth pursuing, more like the philosopher's stone in lieu of fleeting things like power and money.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why reason is undervalued and overrated

Tao sign on mosaic

It seems a strange paradox that reason is used constantly in our lives but at the same time it is not used enough. Many people pride themselves on their reasoning and analytical skills, but it takes a simple remark to throw them off kilter and make them burst into angry flames. Reason is put on a pedestal, be it the Age of Reason or scientific thinking, and yet people overlook what makes them fully human or spiritual beings.

To make things clear from the onset, I am a strong supporter of reason and think it is overall not practiced enough. In my daily life, I have to use analytical skills whether at work, for shopping or any other endeavor that entails decision-making or weighing the pros and cons of a situation. And so it should be.

Imagine if we did not control our behavior or temper it with the edge of reason. To begin with, we would blurt out what we think (honesty is a relatively good thing but purely impulsive behavior is not) to our colleagues, or mates or even people standing next to us on the bus. It is our reason showing us the possible consequences of our actions that makes us keep our corrosive emotions in check.

The fact is our emotions are based on a number of complex interactions and reactions, and we might accidentally say what we do not mean and spoil a relationship or opportunity because of it. Words then may become double-edged swords that cut both ways. In contrast, our reason is not as short-sighted, but sees things from a healthy distance and with composure.

If we were always led by emotions, we would go bankrupt since we would buy the first thing we see and would never be able to save up any money. It takes restraint and discipline fueled by the reach of reason not to fall into temptations (to which one could easily include those of sexual nature as well, which may exchange momentary pleasure for a life of regret).

Reason is also a useful tool in conflicts and communication. Generally, the person who has reason on their side is right and will prove the other person wrong. An argument or debate is won not by how loud you can shout or how much you can insult the other person but by the strength of the reasons presented. 

Nonetheless, it is frustrating when you are in the right, but the other person fails or refuses to see it that way and insists on their own perception or way of “thinking.” Those people seem blind and impervious to the words of reason.

Looking at modern society, we may notice a general lack of reason and even common sense. People believe in all sorts of wacky theories, (intelligent design being one of them), and such belief systems can eventually undermine progress for a society or country. Decisions will be made not on the basis of what is needed and best for the times, but rather on superstitions or erroneous beliefs. In this sense, reason is undervalued and underrepresented in current society.

But reason is also overrated. There are cases where people profess to reason and end up demonstrating worrisome behavior. It is interesting that apostles of reason can show you all the benefits and beauties of logical thinking and the next moment flare up in anger over insignificant issues. Even those who should know better will fall into the trap of irrational behavior.

If we look at scientists, they may be brilliant in their work, but there are many who also have irrational traits, such as vanity or even worse, narrow-minded views (sure nobody's perfect but they tend to believe their reasons and evidence make them superior). By not accepting flaws or (purposely?) overlooking crucial evidence to the contrary, even a scientist can become something of a bigot in certain circumstances.

For instance, I applaud that more and more renowned scientists have come out in support of alien existence, something that used to be a quack theory (though I am not so sure about alleged abductions). Scientists modest enough to accept that they are or may be in the wrong or that there is always room for doubt are true scientists in my books.

Indeed reason is not all there is. Even Descartes who was a strong proponent of reason did leave some gaps of reasonable doubt in his philosophy. In this way, I believe that reason is overrated because we expect reason with science as its outspoken collaborator to give us all the answers. In due time, this will happen, the reason supporters tell us. But it seems that reason in its narrow meaning is trying to forcefully edge out our emotions and spirituality, making us also bland and predictable. We then become indistinguishable from computing machines.

There are many decisions that should not rely on reason alone. Say, if you decide on a partner. You can weigh your pros and cons as much as you like, but if there is no chemistry, no emotional connection or attachment with the other person, this relationship, looking so good on paper, will fail in epic ways.

There are indeed moments and situations where analysis will stagnate us and where we simply need to listen to what is known as our intuition. Supporters of reason often mock or at least diminish the relevance of intuition. But my most successful decisions have come about because I followed wacky instincts of mine and made choices that would not cross the mind of a reasonable person. I have a number of “superstitious” beliefs that I have come to embrace despite and even against reason.

Perhaps reason is the grounding effect, the mooring of our thoughts and behaviors. But we also need to lift the anchor now and then if we want to move or find new shores. In other words, reason is undoubtedly beneficial but merely on its own it is rather limited. We need to balance things out and know when it is right to follow our analytical ways and when we ought to listen to those pesky feelings.