I was listening to Public Radio's University of Arizona station on my way to church last Sunday in Tucson, and the TED Talk came on. In it, they spoke of "the true nature of reality." That kicked off a meditation in which I considered reality. It seems to me that as human beings with limitations that we already know about, it is impossible for us to speak of the true nature of reality except as something that we will never know.
Animals are superior to human beings in all the five senses. I see my dog when I take her out for a walk: she plasters her nose down on the ground and tracks along like a vacuum cleaner. I can't imagine what could interest her, especially since she encounters largely the same odors every day, but it never fails to fascinate her. Actually, I smell the same things every day as well: fresh air and perhaps a barbecue on the other side of a neighbor's wall. It doesn't sound impressive even to me. But the superiority of animals' senses ought to humble us as we consider reality.
We also know that there are colors that we cannot see with human eyes, sounds our human ears cannot hear, and so forth. So as we learn more about reality, we learn how little we know as well. It ill behooves the human race to become confident that we know everything, or at least everything important. Many, many people confine their interests to what they perceive with their senses. Show it to me, they say, and I will consider it. The literalness of that statement boggles my mind.
But in another sense, we know everything that is important for us if you look at the world through a moral lens. We know right from wrong; we know what is the right thing to do in any situation. That brings us to this past Sunday's Scripture readings, which I will write about all this week, but I will start with the Acts of the Apostles. It is believed that it was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, who wrote like a physician and also like a man who was not Jewish. What he wrote for last Sunday's reading was this:
"Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
"Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." [Acts 2:42-47]
These few lines contain a great deal of information; I suppose the first thing that jumps out of them is the description of people living communally, sharing money and divesting themselves of their possessions so that they could support the community as a whole. It would pretty much be called socialism today, and that's food for thought right there. Undoubtedly they did this in the belief that the return of Jesus was imminent, and their wealth and possessions would avail them nothing in the Kingdom. What really happened was that time went on and the non-appearance of the Kingdom became rather an embarrassment. The whole idea died down and the Church began to become an institution, until the faith that was born in Jerusalem was swallowed up in the Platonic philosophical environment of the Roman Empire.
The passage also points out that the early Christians were daily in the temple, still part of Judaism until they were expelled in later years. The fact that they had the goodwill of the people of Jerusalem jars us when we see the conduct of the contemporary Church: do we see an institution that has the goodwill of the community today? And what about the mob that shouted, "Crucify him!" just weeks before?
The early Church was characterized by all sorts of charity: the sharing of goods, the provision of money for those in need, a lack of materialism and most importantly, the Book of Acts mentioned signs and wonders that seemed to be everywhere.
I couldn't help thinking of pseudo-Christian cults and comparing them to that description. We see men who gather a group of admirers and immediately begin to exploit them sexually. We see the abuse of followers and the deprivation of comforts to subservient women and children. Such is the story, it seems, of the man whose "reality" show depicts him and his five wives. It goes to show you that if you are taught strongly enough, you can accept the idea that you don't deserve the undivided attention of another person.
I know that women have been one huge support group for each other since there was human civilization: every day they gather to do laundry, cook or have coffee and they tell the stories of their husbands' latest peccadilloes. Auntie Julie will tell Cousin Sarah that her husband slaps her face once in awhile, too, and give Sarah some coping mechanisms. But as long as a woman's self-esteem is damaged enough, she will accept a man who has other wives or a man who abuses her. Perhaps she thinks that she is a "lesser vessel" who simply doesn't measure up to a man. Perhaps she thinks that a man's daily wants should not be frustrated in any way, and that it takes a team of women to tend to his every desire. But for whatever reason I have noticed that it seldom goes the other way: women just don't collect men in that style. Such is the price of "civilizing" men so that they don't collect into predatory gangs and simply prey on the community of women and children.
We learn that early humans were so divided: men into hunting groups and women into child-rearing communities. The men would hunt and then come to supply the community with food, give their favorite women conjugal visits and take off again. Only the most determined efforts of the women, plus their food and bodies, could induce the men to drop by once in awhile. And we think that we have progressed beyond this today--until we become aware of an epidemic of sexual predation in the military and on college campuses.
I noticed some months ago that Breaking the Faith, which began as a reality show following the new lives of escapees from the Fundamentalist Mormons, seemed to fall apart as the female escapees began to pursue their new lives in Salt Lake City. The men became increasingly foul-mouthed and abusive towards them as they became more mainstream, and the depiction of the social lives of twenty-somethings in Salt Lake was pretty unsavory. Eventually the programs stopped in midstream, as though there were no way to keep the story going.
I thought about Tony Alamo and his jail sentence. He exploited his female followers to the hilt until he was stopped. Glenn Summerfield is still in prison, I believe, for the attempted murder of his wife by exposing her to a rattlesnake that he used in his church services as a Snake Handler--so that he could get another woman.
And I notice that the Amish group is making a reappearance, which will be starting up soon although I don't plan to watch it. If I ever saw emotional pornography, the first series was a textbook example. Amish youngsters don't have much self-discipline, going from their abstemious ways in the Amish community to almost complete abandon, whether it was the cast of the show or those who go on trial expeditions into sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll periodically; the former Mennonite girl is expecting a baby out of wedlock. With all the rigid discipline and the threat of their cruel shunning, still if you take the young Amish and Mennonites out of their communities they can't seem to cope with typical life. Just so, the Fundamentalist Mormon escapees went to the night clubs and a number of stores who seem to stock nothing but clothing for streetwalkers--where they could choose apparel that matched them up with other "modest" LDS girls their age.
What do these people think they are doing--returning to the ways of the Christian followers of the Rabbi from Nazareth? I hope not, because they are not coming anywhere near it. In fact, they seem to want to do the opposite, although I don't really fault them for it because they know virtually nothing about Christianity. And what about the wonders and signs? I don't think any were recorded in these programs, and if that isn't the message, don't ask me what it is.
But this is a clear warning to us: using the Church as an excuse to become a wild and crazy guy (or girl) is not taking you closer to Jesus. Joining a cult does not separate you from the sins of the world--in fact, it is likely to resemble something more like throwing yourself to the lions.
The sad spectacle of these young adults careening between extremes shows us that we, as a species, really don't figure out "the true nature of reality" very well, or at least not in a way that you could point to.