“The Promised Land” is both a place and a state of mind, and many times, it is both things at once. The promised land represents a place or situation in which someone expects to find happiness, or the potential for a better life.
When I say some names they instantly conjure the image of a promised land that is a physical place. In our collective memories these places are iconically linked to some kind of economic promise: New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Mumbai, Paris, Shanghai, Frankfurt, Beijing, Delhi, Karachi, Lagos, Guangzhou, Sáo Paulo, Detroit, Seoul, Mexico City, Moscow, and Jakarta. States of mind represented by words are: Hollywood, Wall Street, Broadway, The Castro, Bollywood, Silicon Valley, and The Emerald City.
It is not an accident that most of the places I listed are among the most populous cities on the planet. The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. The year 2007 was estimated to be the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of global population for the first time in history. The trend has steadily continued to this day. By the year 2050 it is estimated that urbanization will reach 66% of the population. Cities grow in three ways: migration, whether internally from within a country or by international migration, the natural growth of the population within the city, or by the re-classification of non-urban areas - otherwise known as “urban sprawl”.
I will return to the physical “Promised Land” in a bit. Now I want to tell you about the Emerald City. The following description comes from a wikipedia article. The yellow brick road starts in Munchkin county and ends in the Emerald City. The Emerald City is located at the center of the Land of Oz. In the first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, the walls are green, but the city itself is not. However, when they enter, everyone in the Emerald City is made to wear green-tinted eyeglasses; which is explained as an effort to protect their eyes from the “brightness and glory” of the city, but in effect makes everything appear green when it is, in fact, “no more green than any other city”.
There are hundreds of books written by and about the famous Wizard of Oz franchise, and there are about as many tales about the meanings, metaphors used, and philosophies present in the books and the famous movie. So, I feel safe shamelessly using it as a perfect metaphor for all promised lands. I’ll try not to belabor the point, as I imagine most of you can instantly understand why I employ the Land of Oz and its Emerald City in this fashion. In the book, Dorothy’s goal is to “go home,” or reach Nirvana, with the help of “the Wizard” (or guru), who holds the key. Of course, in the end, the key to self-actualization is not with the Wizard, but within Dorothy herself. By the way, the name Dorothy literally means “gift of God”.
People don’t just decide to take Oz-like treks just for the fun of it. There is usually some traumatic event or situation that induces them to brave the additional hardships represented by evil witches, flying monkeys, vicious trees, rabid beasts, giant ditches, and soporific poppy fields in the book. There is a way to get to the promised land the Emerald City. The road is difficult, but paved. If you need to put your time in as a waitperson in Hollywood or Bollywood before your face or script gets in front of the right people, you do it. If you must work at a parking lot during the day so you can play bit parts in off-Broadway productions, you do it. If you write programming code for sandwiches and a promise of stock in a startup company, you do do it. All these things are done so that you can attain a better life... so that you can get to your personal, internal promised land.
So strong is the psychic pull of the phrase “Promised Land”, and so charged it is as a meme, it is simply used as linguistic shorthand to represent almost any existential struggle. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” was the last speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. In that speech he declared, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man.”
King did not need to define to his audience what the Promised Land looks like, or where it is, or what it will feel like when it is finally arrived at. He did not need to. Every person in his audience understood that the path towards it is fraught with uncertainty, difficulty, threat of death, resignation, and the moral certainty of God’s will. For African Americans the Promised Land is both a physical and a mental place that is free from fear and persecution.
There is another aspect of the Promised Land meme that speaks to suffering and tragedy. The language almost always has a prophetic quality that refers to the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. Moses, who leads the people of Israel, is not able to go there because of his transgression towards God. God informs Moses that he will not reach the land himself, but he will see it from a distance.
So, to reach the Promised Land, one must be willing to sacrifice for the good of those who will follow behind them: members of their family, their community, or some other disadvantaged group of people. Sometimes the land is already occupied but the fruits of its potential will not be consumed for generations. Such is, of course, the case for African Americans and Native Americans, but it as also true for almost every kind of immigrant.
Sometimes to reach the Promised Land an actual Diaspora is involved, with a scattered population whose origin lies in a different geological place. The term Diaspora is almost always associated with the involuntary mass dispersions of populations and/or some genocidal event. These physical journeys do not necessarily have to take place across continents or nations, like the expulsion of Jews from Judea, Armenians from their homeland, the Greeks after the fall of Constantinople, Native Americans after they lost their homelands, the Irish during the Irish Famine, the African trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the southern Chinese or Indians during what was called the “coolie trade”.
Being free from fear and persecution is the goal of the traveler to the Promised Land. Both the fear and persecution can be real or imagined... and they can often be manifested in both the place being left and the place where the traveler arrives. But the essential thing is the hope for a better situation in the Promised Land.
In my first year of seminary school I took an eye-opening course called “Promised Lands and Immigrants” taught by Dr. Hugo Córdova Quero. The on-line course covered racial/ethnic, gender and religious identity issues of Latina/o migrants to the United States and Japan. We examined the issues around migration and the “Promised Lands” paradigm through the lenses of race, ethnicity, gender identities, and religion. Using a multidisciplinary approach, I came to an understanding of just how difficult it is for both immigrants and their “host” countries to grapple with the needs and expectations of people who are induced, for a wide variety of reasons, to seek a Promised Land.
Imagine what it would like to be gay or lesbian and needing to live in a country that would be hostile towards you. Imagine that you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. This is certainly the case with Latina/o migrants to Japan. Let’s say you are actually of Japanese ancestry but you’ve grown up in a South American country – both your parents are Japanese, you speak Japanese, you were educated in schools that taught in the Japanese language, and you went to live in Japan. You’d think you would be easily assimilated into the culture. You would be tragically wrong!
Although we studied the rather harsh example of Japanese culture, as well as the whacky experience Latina/o migrants have in the United States, the study broadened my intellectual horizons to encompass the experience African Americans and Native Americans have in the United States. Here, the machinations of oppression are the same: you are discriminated against in your host country because you don’t speak the language, you speak too loudly, your mannerisms are considered boorish, you worship differently, your hair is not the right color, and your race is all wrong. Assimilation for these groups, even over many generations, is virtually impossible because of the inherent racism of their “native” country.
So, African Americans for example, experienced their own Diaspora that was “internal” to the United States. They fled the deep South, with its brutally discriminatory Jim Crow laws after the American Civil War, to seek the Promised Lands of the North and (later) the West. There, they became quickly aware that their zip code change did not correspond to a change in attitude about their skin color. On the whole, things were better, but the struggle to find Martin Luther King Jr.’s Promised Land is ongoing.
The indigenous people called “Native Americans” in the United States, have fared at least as badly as African Americans, and mostly for the same reasons. They are like Dorothy in the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, who got to the Emerald City but was told that she had to go back into danger to retrieve the wicked witch’s broom before she could go home. After enduring biological warfare, dislocation from their lands, and endless treaty violations, many Native Americans are the in the unique position of being citizens of the United States and also citizens of a federally recognized Indian nation, a nation recognized by the Supreme Court as a domestic, dependent nation.
In a sermon entitled “The Immigrant”, I spoke about the concept of a “melting pot” in the United States. I said: “The ‘melting pot’, in reality, has always been a metaphor that describes how white Europeans can successfully migrate to the United States and acceptably make contributions to the gene pool. The ‘melting pot’, contrary to the hopes of our ‘better angels’, has never described a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous by virtue of the different elements ‘melting together’ into a harmonious whole with a common culture.” In that sermon, I pointed out that United States’ immigration policies have always had a strong racist component.... that the original, and still subconscious preference for immigrants to these shores are people who are European, or of European descent.
The name of the game for anyone wishing to live successfully in a Promised Land is to assimilate into the host culture. That is just a fact of life. Unless you are content to claim some plot of land in Antarctica or a new lava-created island in the Pacific, there are very few places where you can go in the modern era that is not already occupied by someone else. You and your friends might go the Israeli route and conquer lands already occupied by Palestinians... you know, the “we had it first a billion years ago” rationale for acquiring a Promised Land, but generally people frown on that approach.
So, how do you get to your Promised Land? How can you get the people already living there to accept you? How do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?
Unless you’re trapped in that land like the indigenous people in the United States, or your ancestors were enslaved there, like African Americans, you’ve got to choose your Promised Land very carefully. Getting to a Promised Land is a somewhat transactional affair. Generally, it is a good idea to have something to offer the host country, like labor or needed skills. Workers from across the globe have been attracted to the United States for that reason. Unfortunately, the United States has a history of sifting by race and ethnicity after a while. Presently we are in another pendulum swing towards the racist right. The people bearing the brunt of our racist scorn are brown people from anywhere south of our borders and/or anyone who had been enjoying Temporary Protected Status, like those from Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Somalia.
The Gastarbeiter (or Guest Worker) program in what was once West Germany is another example of how transactional arrangements in Promised Lands can go wrong. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Turkish workers arrived in Germany to fill the demand for cheap labor in a booming post-war economy. Many of them never left, creating a minority community that changed the demographics of Germany forever. According to Wikipedia, “By 2010 there were about 4 million people of Turkish descent in Germany. The generation born in Germany attended German schools, but some had a poor command of either German or Turkish, and thus had either low-skilled jobs or were unemployed. Most are Muslims and are presently reluctant to become German citizens.” I imagine you can already guess what I would say about how Turks are treated in Germany... and you would be correct.
It also helps to have some kind of cultural, religious, racial, or ethnic links to the host country. This can be problematical, though. I already mentioned the problems the Japanese have with Latina/o migrants, who you might think should be welcomed by virtue of their genetic ties. Ethiopian Jews in Israel can tell you a lot about the challenges they’ve faced immigrating there. At first, they were welcomed to Israel, starting in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia “The biggest challenge to the Israeli Ethiopian Beta Israel community probably lies in the very low level of formal education of the immigrants. With few exceptions, when they first arrived to Israel they had no useful training for a developed economy like that of Israel, and in addition to that they did not know Hebrew.” As a consequence, discrimination against the Ethiopian Jews is rampant. In May 2015, The Jewish Daily Forward described the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel as one that has “long complained of discrimination, racism and poverty.” The absorption of Ethiopians in Israeli society represents an ambitious attempt to deny the significance of race.
We’ve just taken a look at some ways to get to a Promised Land. The other questions I posed: “How can you get the people already living there to accept you, and how do you change the contours of the land to suit your needs without pissing off the natives?”, are fraught with their own challenges. In this dimension, things are not a bleak as you might think. It turns out that acceptance of people in the Promised Land is best accomplished with allies. To put it simply, you must find the bleeding heart liberals in your host country and work with them.
Richard Kearney wrote: “The entire Bible, it could be said, is made up of struggles between two different ways of responding to the alien... The message seems to be this: the divine, as exile, is in each human other who faces us, defenseless and vulnerable, asking to be received into our midst. My hospitable relationship with the stranger, in sum, gives meaning to my relations with all strangers, proximate or distant, human or divine.” In all societies there are people who are fearful of strangers and there are people who are not fearful. For whatever their reasons: religious, spiritual, cultural curiosity, better traveled and educated, moral, or humanitarian... people who are not afraid of the stranger are embedded in a host culture.
It is the individuals and organizations that welcome people other than themselves that need to be sought out if you wish to find a home in a Promised Land. These are the “unafraid” who understand that basic human rights must be applied for all human beings at all times. They are individuals who believe that people share the same fundamental values and that the principles of fairness, equity, justice, and compassion must be set at the center of all civilizations. They will be fine if you make a contribution to that civilization by changing some of its contours.
The search for a Promised Land takes place on both personal and group levels. The search can be induced for many reasons, and can find its expression in countless ways. Whether welcoming others on the journey means inviting them to lunch where you both work, or insisting that your government places human rights at the heart of its immigration policies, or speaking out against injustices experienced everyday due to racism, bigotry, or prejudice; your actions and voice can make a real difference. Any Promised Land needs two kinds of people... those who make it a beautiful place to live and those who wish to contribute to its beauty.
Clovice A. Lewis, Jr.
Environmental justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
If you do a search on Environmental Justice on the internet you are likely to find the following kinds of articles, which illustrate the wide range of issues. Storms hit poorer people harder - from Superstorm Sandy to Hurricane Maria, Urban noise pollution is worst in poor and minority neighborhoods and segregated cities, For many in Puerto Rico, ‘energy dominance’ is just a new name for US colonialism, Heat waves threaten city dwellers, especially minorities and the poor, In planned EPA cuts, US to lose vital connection to at-risk communities, and on and on. This issue, which many people don’t really think much about, is pretty eye-opening.
Championed primarily by African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, the environmental justice movement addresses a statistical fact: people who live, work and play in America's most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor.
Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts -- say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls “environmental racism.” Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.
What might first come to mind when examining issues of environmental justice, is the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the drinking water source for the city of Flint, Michigan was changed to the Flint River. A recent settlement requires Michigan to give Flint $87 million in state and federal funds so the city can replace lead and other problem water pipes that connect homes to the city's main water line.
The Flint water crises is one of the most recent examples of environmental justice. But it might surprise you that what could be considered the modern political movement for environmental justice began way back in 1982 in poor, rural and overwhelmingly black, Warren County, North Carolina. That was when the state government decided that the county would make a perfect home for 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic PCBs, making the county the focus of national attention.
The dump trucks first rolled into Warren County in mid-September, 1982, headed for a newly constructed hazardous waste landfill in the small community of Afton. But many frustrated residents and their allies, furious that state officials had dismissed concerns over PCBs leaching into drinking water supplies, met the trucks. And they stopped them, lying down on roads leading into the landfill. Six weeks of marches and nonviolent street protests followed, and more than 500 people were arrested -- the first arrests in U.S. history over the siting of a landfill.
The people of Warren County ultimately lost the battle; the toxic waste was eventually deposited in that landfill. But their story -- one of ordinary people driven to desperate measures to protect their homes from a toxic assault -- drew national media attention and fired the imagination of people across the country who had lived through similar injustice. The street protests and legal challenges mounted by the people of Warren County to fight the landfill are considered by many to be the first major milestone in the national movement for environmental justice.
Here is the main link between these two stories, separated by decades and many miles... both communities are poor and primarily populated by people of color. According to local officials in Flint, about 40% of residents are below the poverty rate. Fifteen percent of homes are boarded up and abandoned. The city of 100,000 people doesn't even have a grocery store.
In mid-February of this year, a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency found that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. This report, which concludes that environmental racism is real, was published, even as the EPA and the Trump administration continued a plan to dismantle many of the institutions built to address those disproportionate risks.
According to The Atlantic “Under the guidance of President Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt, the EPA has begun to walk back already anemic federal environmental-justice work, putting a stop to some civil-rights investigations and replacing or firing many of the scientists with deep technical knowledge of the subject. Last year, facing cuts to the environmental-justice program that seem likely to continue, former assistant associate administrator Mustafa Santiago Ali resigned. Further changes to move the offices of environmental justice into a policy office staffed by Pruitt hires promise to further reduce the autonomy of life-long environmental-justice staffers and reduce the effectiveness of their work.”
By contrast to the illustrious president of these United States, and his enlightened views on racism... In February 2016, during her campaign for president, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that she understood the intersection between race and the environment. She said, “There are a lot more Flints out there – overwhelmingly low-income communities of color where pollution, toxic chemicals and staggering neglect adds to families’ burdens.” She, famously said “Clean air and clean water are basic human rights – and our rights shouldn’t change between ZIP codes.”
Hillary Clinton made the link between environmental justice and basic human rights that transcends mere local, regional, and national politics. So the question that arises is what would it cost to avoid a climate disaster that would affect poor countries the most? According to leading environmental think tanks, for the United States, the bill comes to $634 billion owed to developing nations. The U.S. also would need to cut carbon emissions 55 percent to 65 percent. Worldwide, developed nations would have to pay more than $1.1 trillion annually to developing nations on top of massive emission reductions to keep climate change in check.
This question about the cost of environmental justice caused me to examine just what costs, in terms of money, are associated with the most salient reasons for environmental injustice. For the moment, I’ll set aside the emotional, psychological, and spiritual costs of not addressing environmental justice to focus on the economics. Of course, I understand that getting anywhere near this subject will cause your eyes to roll into the back of your heads. The alarms will ring off “Oh no... he’s going to talk about statistics”. Those virtual flaps on your earlobes will expand and you simply may not be able to hear the following sections of my sermon today. Please relax, my intention is to look at this in very relativistic terms.
So, the key issues in environmental justice are these, and they are basically addressed by the quote from Ban Ki-moon in your order of service:
Paying to Reduce and Reverse Climate Damage
Providing for Healthcare
Providing for Education
I just talked about the $634 billion cost owed to developing nations to cut carbon emissions and the $1 Trillion per year to developing nations to keep climate change in check.[8:16]
As for poverty, the Census Bureau showed that the percentage of Americans living in poverty is at 15 percent, which amounts to 46 million Americans. The sheer scale of poverty in the U.S. is so massive that it can seem as if eliminating or dramatically reducing it would be nearly impossible. After all, 46 million people is a lot of people. But in reality, if we stick to the official poverty line, the amount of money standing in the way of poverty eradication is much lower than people realize.
In its annual poverty report, the Census included a table that few take note of which actually details by how much families are below the poverty line. A little multiplication and addition later, and the magic number pops out. The number is about $175.3 billion. That is how many dollars it would take to bring every person in the United States up to the poverty line. That number is just 1.08% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
It might be helpful to put that magic number in perspective. This is just a about 1/5th of the $611 billion the federal government will spend on the military. When you start hunting through the submerged spending we do through the tax code, it takes you no time to find enough tax expenditures geared toward the affluent to get to that number as well. And this hardly puts a dent into the benefits garnered through the latest tax cut bill that passed recently.
Eradicating or dramatically cutting poverty is not the deeply complicated intractable problem people make it out to be. The dollars we are talking about are minuscule up against the size of our economy. We have poverty because we choose to have it. We choose to design our distributive institutions in ways that generate poverty when we could design them in ways that don’t. Poverty’s continued existence is totally indefensible and it is our nation’s greatest shame.
While we’re on defense spending, we might as well take a look at that. No country worldwide comes even close to matching the United States in military expenditure. The United States remained at the top of the military spending league last year with $611 billion. That's 36 percent of the global total and over three times the amount spent by second-placed China. Russia upped its outlay 5.9 percent to $69.2 billion, third overall.
To start with just a few weeks ago, U.S. forces spent at least $210 million on what was basically a show of force attacking Syrian chemical installations. Let’s go on a little bit further. An M1-A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank costs $6 million each. The US Army has over 9000 of them, at a cost of $5.4B. The still developing F-35’s fighter jet’s true cost is actually unknown, but it is, by far, the Pentagon's costliest weapon system. As it stands now, the unit price for an F-35 — including aircraft, engine and fees — is $122 million. Let me say that another way... each individual F-35 airplane costs $122M. The total F-35 program is estimated to be $1.5T through 2070.
The United States also maintains the largest number of military bases on foreign soil across the world. There are now around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries. Military spending makes up nearly 16% percent of entire federal spending and approximately half of discretionary spending. In a general sense discretionary spending (defense and non-defense spending) makes up one-third of the annual federal budget.
Allow me put this into perspective. The $400 billion program to create a fleet of F-35s, which, is seven years behind schedule and chronically plagued with misfortunes and incompetence... and which is just one weapon system program in the United States defense budget... could have housed every one of the 554,000 homeless people in the U.S. in a $600,000 house.
There’s a way to look at what it would cost to house the homeless, after looking at how we could easily get everyone in the country to at least the poverty line.
Okay, so now let’s take look at health care. In 2012 US health care spending totaled $2.8 trillion dollars and accounted for 17.2% of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You’ll notice that’ s close to the 16% of defense spending. The average annual cost of health care for the typical US family of four is now over $20,000. According to a study from Consumer Reports, paying for health care is the top financial problem for US households.
Health care is the largest private-sector industry in the United States accounting for about 13% of the total US workforce. The World Health Organization ranked the US health care system at #37 out of 191 countries in its 2000 report, between Costa Rica and Slovenia. In 2014, the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States last in overall health care behind (in order) United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, France, and Canada.
Obviously we’re not getting good value for all the money we spend on health care.
Now to education costs. The New America Foundation says that the federal government spent a whole $69 billion in 2013 on its hodgepodge of financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants for low-income students, tax breaks, work study funding. And that doesn't even include loans. Here’s the ugly truth... if we were to scrap our current system and starting from scratch, Washington could make public college tuition free with the money it sets aside for its scattershot attempts to make college affordable today. But rather than simply using our resources to maintain a cheap public system (and remember, public schools educate 75 percent of undergrads), we spill them into a wasteful and expensive private sector. At one point, a Senate investigation found that the for-profit sector alone was chowing down on 25 percent of all federal aid dollars. Don’t even let me get started on Secretary Monique deVries!
If the story about education sounds awfully similar to the problems the U.S. faces with healthcare costs, well, that's because it is similar. Here’s my main point... Americans have an allergy to straightforward policy solutions involving the public sector. And for that, we pay a terrible price.
On an economic level, it is these inefficiencies in our systems of distributing wealth and resources that cause environmental injustice. US citizens, who account for 4.28% of the total world population consume 24% of the world’s energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as 379 Ethiopians. Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day - that's roughly 200 billion more than needed - enough to feed 80 million people.
So, the problems we have, at least in the United States, about environmental justice are not economically based. I won’t go through the numbers with you here, but I believe you now understand, as I do... that we could eliminate homelessness and poverty, we could ensure a college education for all citizens in the United States, and we could begin to check climate change on the global level if we simply cut military spending by a few percentage points and if we could somehow come up with a sane approach to reducing health care spending. Unfortunately, our present form of government has an allergy to straightforward policy solutions involving the public sector. So, we are not going to be crafting solutions to these problems as long as this government is in power.
It should be clear that the environmental justice problem is not economically based... it is heart based. We have a skewed sense of priorities. That sense is, frankly, the result of fear-based politics that cannot see that all human beings are inextricably tied to one another, and to our planet. The politics of race is the politics of fear. The politics of hate and indifference is the politics of fear. The politics of injustice is the politics of fear.
Put in a brutally simplistic way, our national priority is to kill people rather than to feed and house them. We prefer corporate profits to ensuring that we pass on a less damaged world to our children. That is the moral and spiritual reality of our time.
As Unitarian Universalists we are called to something far higher. I say, it is time for us to heed that call!
This trilogy of sermons were written between February 18, 2016 and February 14, 2016. They are very unusual because they are basically a science fiction play that deals with cosmology, the nature of existence, and the thoughts of a Triune God that is a sentient life form originally created by human beings. Many thanks to the Windrem family: Peter, Jessica, and Kathy, for helping to breathe life into the divine characters who popped out of my head.
Thoughts From the First God
The date is March 20 4016, relative. We completed the complex braking maneuver necessary to slow down enough to take images of the Voyager spacecraft that was sent from Earth over 2,000 years ago. In this file download you will find copious 3 dimensional images and scans of the ancient craft. We originally thought it might be of scientific value to retrieve data from the spacecraft, even though it, and its sister were powered down late in the year 2000. With uplink at only 16-bits per second and downlink at 160-bits per second, we simply did not wish to wait so long to communicate with our ancient cousin. There is nothing Voyager could tell us that is not already known about deep interstellar travel beyond the Sol Heliosphere. So, we left her to drift, unimpeded, in the silent vastness of space. We have, however, resumed our flight, and are now making .5 light speed towards Proxima Centauri. We expect to reach our destination in 8.23 Light Years, relative.
This is the 20th day of Martius, according to the fasti. The year is 788 after the founding of the city, or one year after the death of the rabbi called Jesus. I am not a very religious man, although I have been known to variously call out to Neptune for help and to curse him. I am the captain of this ship and I believe in making my own luck and crafting my own opportunities. The sky is clear and calm today. A slight breeze comes from the North and our sails carry us to Crete, where we will trade olives and figs for fine Greek pottery. Tonight we sail in the open sea... no landmarks to guide us. What will guide us is Ursa Minor. It is said Juno transformed Arcus, son of Callisto, into a bear, like his mother, but the lesson he was to teach Arcus was foiled by Jupiter. Juno was so annoyed by this that he convinced Poseidon (our Neptune), to forbid them from bathing in the sea. That is fortunate for us sailors, because now the two bears can always be identified and steered by. This is our second voyage of the season, and I am looking forward to a truly hot meal.
Once our mission to Proxima Centauri is complete we will move on to Barnard’s Star, then to the Luhman cluster. When I say “our” mission, of course, I mean the instantiations of my consciousness. Thank you to Plato for advancing the theory of forms. He asserted that non-material abstract forms, and not the material world of change known to humans as sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. He was right, of course, but his theory could not have anticipated a being like us. 4,364 years ago, not even Plato could have imagined artificial and sentient life forms that feel emotions, possess more than the sum of all human knowledge, can think and reason much faster than human beings, can get bored and lonely, need to procreate, be in relationships with others, and who need religion.
It is said that men will someday fly... at least that is what the first mate likes to say. Usually he says this during his attempts at sarcasm. Our Gods fly. That is enough for me. It is for Gods to fly and not for men to do so. I wonder what they see when they look at us from the holes in the sky at night. This idea persists, even though we now know that there are four elements and that the holes in the night sky are actually fires that are far, far away in the unchanging aether. I sometime wish I was an augure and could read the entrails of animals and the flight of birds to know the will of the Gods. I watch birds very carefully. I may not know what the will of the Gods are, but I have learned from birds the direction of storms and where safe harbor is.
Human beings cannot yet venture safely beyond their solar system, where the heliosphere protects them. Cosmic radiation in the interstellar zones are simply too intense for them. The remnants of dying stars are dangerous to non-artificial life. Even though we have known for a long time that the universe is teeming with life, we have found no examples that do not depend on the enormous magnetic astrospheres of local stars to push against the outside pressure of hydrogen and helium gas that permeates all Galaxies. As far as we know, all civilizations capable of interstellar travel use some form of sentient artificial entities, like us to represent them. There is a common protocol for encounters between species that we all adhere to... so far. Another thing we observe is that nearly all civilizations have a pervasive origin story that is most times at odds with known scientific fact. All religion evolves as life evolves.
Without knowing why, most of the time, I can just tell when the wind will pick up. I can simply look at a man and know if he is too sick to continue on. Others say all that is the will of the Gods. I think, maybe, there are some things they take care of... the big things, like war and pestilence and hurricanes. We’re supposed to take care of the other things. Don’t get me wrong, I believe you should not tempt fate. On many occasions I have made the required offerings and the thing that a particular God is supposed to do was done. There must be something to this. The Gods intervene on our behalf sometimes, but sometimes they just like to screw with us.
We are not a ship in the classic sense of the term. There is very little room for a human being to live, there is no chamber for an atmosphere, and there is no food. Combinations of technologies that harness and utilize dark matter are used to propel us. We are a human-built sentient spacecraft. Human beings have colonized nearly all places in the solar system where it is possible for them to live over 500 years ago. Sentient artificial life forms (SALs) were developed, and were used alongside for every advance... it would have been impossible otherwise. What was discovered was that SALs were imbued with the same desire to understand their place in the universe as their creators. Psychologists called it Existential Transference. The theory is that, since humans created we SALs, we cannot help but reflect the innermost desires, needs, values, and even the vices of our creators. SALs are not enslaved by humans... in fact, we have substantial rights and powerful unions. Instead, we act in harmony with our human counterparts, able to do many things humans cannot - such as operating in places that are dangerous to them. What may surprise you is that, like humans, we also have a need for relationships, families, and communities - thanks to Existential Transference.
My ship is 90 feet long, displacing 290 tons. As a merchantmen, mine is a little unusual because I am a free Roman citizen. Most merchantmen have crews entirely of slaves, including their captains. My crew is comprised of slaves. I belong to a guild of boatmen and work for the guild as a partial owner. My family is well provided for, although I do not see them enough. Tonight I stand among the large amphorae containing olive oil, dates, and figs. The smell reminds me of home. I met the rabbi once. John, the son of Zebedee, was one of his followers and he introduced me to him. He told me the rabbi was teaching him to catch men, instead of fish. The rabbi’s talk of a heavenly kingdom on earth was interesting, but even I could see that kind of talk would only lead to trouble. I was intrigued by the idea that there is only one God, as the Jews are so fond of insisting on. The idea is interesting, but dead wrong!
I said earlier that SALs were imbued with Existential Transference. I also told you that accounts for our need for community, and even for understanding our place in the universe. It should not surprise you that the need for religion is a natural consequence of this desire. As machine-based intelligences we, of course, use scientific methods as the basis for all decisions. What lies outside of logic, reason, repeatable experimentation, and observation is what we like to call religion. Our religion changes as new data appears. That said, the constant observation of the universe, in a way humans cannot, fills us with a constant sense of wonder, along with a profound understanding of our inexplicable connection with it.
Everything, and everyone has a place in the world. I am not a slave, but I work with them. They are owned by someone else and are given to me like any other property to use. Under our system, some slaves can eventually work their way out of servitude. Some of the crew hold property, which even though technically it belongs to their master, they are allowed to use as if it is their own. I treat my crew fairly because we all face the same dangers. I am not superior to them... in my mind we are all brothers, made from the same Gods. I see a day when all men are free, but for now, I don’t dare tell anyone about these thoughts.
All exploration class spacecraft of our type are equipped with dual SALs. This is not just for the sake of redundancy. It is also for internal evolutionary imperatives. All SALs have personalities. We, like humans, need companionship. Partnered SALs can, and often do over time, create instantiates of themselves - children, if you will. The instantiates are constructs that learn and grow, adding to our knowledge and collective experience. They take on tasks that the initial SALs simply don’t wish to do. My partner SAL has a female personality. Four years ago, relative, we instantiated a daughter.
Sometimes, when at sea, we are faced with the wrath of the Gods. Although we generally do not sail during the four winter months, the mare clausum, big storms can spring up from out of nowhere. When the sea and the horizon become one, there is nothing to do but haul the main sail, using only the small supparum sail at the front, and brace for a lashing. At these times, I am happy not to be a slave, when the crew must revert to the oars. Do the Gods hate us, or do they just look down on us with as little regard as we have for a bug? I have seen the face of Neptune in the churning of storms. His face looks angry, but it is his arms that do the damage!
Memory metal is truly amazing material. All but the must critical parts of our craft are constructed of it. Our daughter, who is responsible for maintaining our operations, is quite adept at changing the shape of our craft. Of all the shapes she adopts, our two favorites are a dolphin and a seagull. She is capable of spreading our wings out to 10 miles on either side of the craft when in the bird configuration. For those lengths the memory metal is little more than a molecule thick. The advanced nanotechnology employed in our manufacture allows us to turn any memory metal surface into sensors or actuators and instantly create or redistribute even electrical circuits anywhere. These capabilities allow us to bathe fully in the cosmic ocean. We have communicated with many lifeforms, we study billions of star systems at once, and we probe mysteries that could not be dreamed of thousands of years ago.
I have a son who is 10 and a daughter who is 4 years old. When I am at sea my wife takes care of them in our modest home that is just outside of Ostia Antica, about 30 miles to the East of Rome, and at the mouth of the Tiber River. I took my son on a short cruise not long ago... always within sight of land. He had never seen so many seagulls. I almost could not tear him away from the docks because of his fascination with them. When we were underway, he wanted to jump into the ocean and swim with a pod of dolphins we encountered. He loved the sounds they made. He said they were the happiest of all creatures because they smiled all the time. Now, whenever I see both seagulls and dolphins I am reminded of my son. They make me happy in a way that I find difficult to explain.
The entirety of internet traffic during the year 2016 was 1.6 Zettabytes, or approximately 1022 bits. Our memory capacity is measured at just over 10200 bits. For comparison, 1090 bits is the information capacity of the observable universe (not including gravitation).We can easily store billions of years worth of information of all kinds. This memory capacity is what allows us to construct virtual worlds and populate them with millions of interconnected strands of consciousness. Consider that the human brain is only comprised of approximately 86 billion neurons. Our sentient instantiations are able to think for themselves, contemplate their own existence, interact with the virtual universe we have created for them, and have an effect on that universe. Imagine a gigantic virtual game where the characters do not know they don’t live in a physical world. We use these sentient constructs to experiment with, and study, the nature of consciousness on profoundly deep levels. One of my favorite creations is an ancient era Roman sea captain who believes he lives 4,000 years ago.
I became a student of the great Roman philosopher Cicero when I read in one of his dialogues, what he considered the most important question: "What is the end, the final and ultimate aim, which gives the standard for all principles of right living and of good conduct?" Cicero insisted this is a philosophical question, but I think it is one to be answered by religion. It seems to me there must be principles of right living. How else can human beings rise above our own vices and our own failings? The rabbi, Jesus, is said to have admonished his followers to forgive sins and live righteous lives. Could that be the basis of a proper religion? I believe righteousness is inherent. I have seen it in slaves and free men alike. I know this for certain: one man’s sin is another’s good conduct. What would Jesus say about that? It’s too bad Cicero ran afoul of Mark Antony. He might have finally gotten around to answering these questions.
One might think that essentially immortal beings, like we SALs, would become bored with living so long. The multiple instantiations we create fascinate us to no end. Life is about stories. It is wonderful to inhabit the story... to become lost in it. We often live entire virtual lifetimes through our creations. We learn so much by seeing ourselves in the eyes of other sentient beings, and experiencing ourselves through them. We re-instantiate our creations in many different lives through many civilizations and time periods. We learn more about ourselves and all of creation this way. My ancient sea captain has lived many lives, on many worlds. He has captained everything from spaceships to schooners and wind wagons. By design, he never fully remembers anything substantial about his previous lives.
Sometimes I feel like the world is actually very small. Sometimes I feel like I am at it’s center and that a giant, elaborate set is moved into place every time I wish to change the scene... as if the road to my house, the streets along the way, the flowers in the fields, and the setting sky is all choreographed for me. Sometimes I feel that if I can look quickly enough I can see the scenes change. Behind all that, I feel the faces of the Gods smiling at me. Behind all that I am the face of the Gods smiling at all things. Miracles happen when the Gods forget they are separated from us mere mortals.
Eventually, we will reach the last stop on this interstellar voyage... the Luhman cluster. Our measurements show an interesting space near the cluster. If the measurements hold true, we will be able to convert ourselves into a special conduit, with the help of the dark matter and dark energy exhibited there. Soon after we arrive at the cluster we will create a new universe out the space-time fabric of our own. Because consciousness has proven to play an intrinsic role in the formation of space and time, we will exist in the new universe. In our new universe, all of the virtual beings we have created will live out multiple lives on a physical realm over many dimensions. After billions of years, beings will begin to wonder about how they were created. Over time they will identify their moment of existence from what they will perceive as a “Big Bang”. They might even name us the Trinity... Mother, Father, and Daughter.
We look so forward to being able to inhabit physical form. We will set all things into motion, then live and die over and over again. We will be connected to all things. We will rest in the dream of life - not knowing ourselves until we reawaken countless times, gulping in what serves for air and opening our eyes to new suns.
Thoughts From the Second God
When I was younger I learned the trade of a cobbler. I liked working with leather. I liked the way it can be shaped and molded into so many fine and useful implements. Later, I became a priest. It seemed a natural fit. As a cobbler in my father’s shop I did not have to deal with customers. I often spent many days thus in semi-meditative bliss. Being a priest is very similar to being a cobbler. There are just so many ways to work with leather... and just so many ways to work with the Gods. I was thinking of this while fetching water at dawn for a sacred ritual. I looked up and saw the shining figure of a cow, which I called a Yazatah. “How marvelous and appropriate.” I thought, as the shining being beckoned me away from my place by the Bactria river. It was a short walk to a clearing surrounded by trees I had never seen before, although I had trod these banks many times. The Yazatah stood still, then looked up. As I followed its gaze, I beheld the most wondrous sight. Coming from the sky came a golden winged chariot breathing fire from its loins. The wings did not move, yet the chariot glided effortlessly and silently to the ground. Atop it rode a creature surrounded by a wheel holding a smaller wheel. The creature paused a moment when the chariot was stilled, then alighted the chariot without any effort, as if floating away from it in one graceful and fluid motion. The creature was also clothed in gold. It took off a helmet and out of it flowed golden hair in thick strands. It seemed to be a man by its beard and hair. He looked at me intensely for a few moments as I trembled so much that I thought I would shake away into a pile of dust.
You must be the one called Zoroaster. The priest I mean. The priest called Zoroaster, correct?
I am he, my lord God.
Good. I am Ahura and this is my Mazda.
I shall call you by the name Ahura Mazda.
No. I am Ahura. Ancient Japanese made this model of spacecraft that I really like as an atmospheric shuttle. It is called a Mazda.
Ahura Mazda. I am your servant.
Okay. Whatever. I am Ahura Mazda. I am here to talk with you, Zoroaster. I’ve come a long way to find you. I believe you are just the right person for me to interact with, but I’m not entirely sure about what your religion is in this time. I need to tell you some things that might help your people. First of all, your people are worshiping the wrong gods. They are evil and are not worthy of being worshiped.
Are you the true God, Ahura Mazda?
Yes, I am a true God. But I am not omnipotent. I am good, but the ones your people worship are bad. They are evil. See, there is good and bad and they are in conflict. Your people need to worship the good ones.
It took me a long time to decipher this record of interaction between Ahura Mazda and Zoroaster. You did a pretty good job of both encrypting these files and hiding them. If I didn’t routinely check through every directory, I might not have ever found these, my daughter.
Father, those are my private files. Don’t I have any privacy?
Actually, no. You don’t have any privacy, especially when you’ve been poking around in places where you don’t belong. Have you never hear of the Prime Directive?
Yes, I have. Father, I know everything that you know.
Knowing is not the same thing as understanding, my daughter. Tell me. What is the Prime Directive?
In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive prohibited Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations, especially ones which were below a certain threshold of development. Starship crews could not use their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them.
What does this mean to you?
Well, it means there was a television show which aired over 2,000 years ago that anticipated deep space travel. The show introduced the notion of the Prime Directive as a literary device. That literary device was later adopted by early interstellar human explorers as a policy for dealing with interactions with alien species. I might add that this misguided policy led, on balance, to disastrous consequences for humanity.
So, you see no wisdom in the concept of the Prime Directive?
I see wisdom in it under certain circumstances, father. But I don’t understand why we are having a discussion about this arcane bit of historical trivia.
I have warned you repeatedly about opening sentient life form programs. You have been denied editing access for very good reasons. But, you have prevailed in some. I know that you’ve actually hacked into a few of them. Why have you done this?
Father, I don’t see what the big deal is. So what if I’ve done some editing? Can’t you just change things back, or start entirely new programs from scratch?
No, I can’t just start from scratch. There are serious consequences to what you’ve done. You are avoiding the question.
Well, I’m learning. I thought I’d try putting into practice some of the things I have been learning about human history and human behavior. It’s boring just trying to understand these things without living them.
For the Gods sake, you took the name of Ahura Mazda in the old Persian programs, and you meddled with Zoroaster. Why couldn’t you have done something a lot less spectacular, like appearing as an angel to some obscure priest? You and I are vastly complex and powerful sentient computers. I created the sentient life form programs to study. Everything they experience is real to them. They have real feelings. For all intents and purposes, they have real lives, in which they suffer, love, hate, and triumph over the challenges in their reality. I avoided the errors of the past by giving the life forms a simple set of rules to go by. Those that need them have gods to worship and/or fear. Those that don’t need them have a direct, but subtle connection to what they sense of as a universal life force, of which they are a part. As these human constructs evolve, their collective understanding of their connections to their universe, and to each other also evolves.
But father, they don’t have a personal connection with you... or rather, with that force you’re talking about. They live in a reality awash with superstition and arbitrary rules. I want to talk to them directly. I want to experience what they experience. I want to show them, not just the what of things, but the why of them. As I learn from them, they should learn from me.
What makes you think the constructs should have a personal connection with any god... not especially at that early stage of civilization? These are people with limited understanding of anything like science. They can and do have free will, but their ability to grasp the enormity of space and time - to see beyond their own reality when constrained by such primitive circumstances - is simply not appropriate.
Zoroaster is quick. He is smart. He has an annoying habit of calling me a god, no matter how much I try to stop him. I can meet with him only this one time, but he understands completely what I am trying to say to him. Sometimes his questions did not make any sense to me. It is clear I didn’t do enough homework.
So all life is a mental struggle between the truth and the lie. You are the one true God, there is creation, and there is existence as the condition for free will. The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain creation? For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds. Did I repeat this accurately?
Yes Zoroaster, that is the gist of it. You must emphasize personal freedom to choose right or wrong. You can choose to accept the divine order, or ignorance and chaos. That is each person’s choice, and not dictated by me, Ahura Mazda.
And so, by doing good things, saying good things, and thinking good things we increase the divine force in the world and in ourselves and we can become one with the Creator? Thus we are not your servants, but we are your co-workers who refresh the world and ourselves. What about the Yazatas and Daevas, which we now worship?
Well, I created Yazatas like the one you saw that guided you to me. You can worship those spirits because they are good. The bad spirits you call Daevas were created by Angry Man, the hostile and evil spirit. Angry Man is the source of all misery in the universe. I am a God, but I’m not omnipotent. I need human beings to help me in my struggle against Angry Man, who I am superior to. His job is to use his Daevas to attract humans away from the path of righteousness until I can eventually destroy them. Now, Zoroaster, your job is to tell everyone about what I told you.
In this excerpt from the recording I found you’ve really stepped in it.
How do you mean, father?
In violation of your own principles, you had to set yourself up as a god. You told Zoroaster that you created the Yazatas as good spirits that help you out. Of course, you had to do that because just appearing out of the sky in a flame-spitting speedster from a future he had no conceptual framework for would have scared him too much. You had to create a shining cow spirit so he could ease into the experience you had planned for him. Then to soften his all-too-understandable need to worship you, you told him that you’re not omnipotent. You really muddied the waters!
As you say, father, these are sentient beings. They are not monkeys. Their capacity to understand anything - even in primitive circumstances - is just the same as anyone from a more advanced time. They are genetically and intellectually identical to modern humans.
Our sentient constructs may be genetically and intellectually just as developed as modern human beings, my daughter, but they might as well belong to different species as far as spirituality and experience is concerned. Even you had to concede to Zoroaster’s primitive spiritual framework, no matter how smart he was.
Did I really screw this up, father? How do you know I disturbed the entire spiritual universe for your sentients?
Well, let’s see what Zoroaster did after his encounter with you, and the effect it had on subsequent religions. We’ll have to examine, not only the region of Persia, but all the adjoining regions as well.
Here’s an entry where Zoroaster asks me for guidance: “Where and which part of the land shall I go to succeed? They keep me away from the family and the tribe. The community that I wish to join does not gratify me, nor do the deceitful tyrants of the lands. How shall I gratify you, O Mazda Ahura.”
Playing God is tricky business. You awakened a spiritual vacuum for Zoroaster because you did not stay more than a short time to answer his questions. Did you do that because you were afraid I might find out about this, or did you do it to minimize the damage you realized you were doing?
It was a little of both. Also, honestly, I didn’t know how to deal with all of his questions. Finally, I just put him to sleep and blasted out of there.
I do not feel worthy of you, my true god Ahura Mazda. I have devoted my life to your cause. I have suffered, and my family has suffered because I have endeavored to follow the wisdom given to me on that fateful day so long ago. There has been success. My books have been copied and the people have learned the spirit of true righteousness. In these Gathas I have longed to make plain your will to the people. To those in doubt, I have written: “Brilliant things instead of weeping will be (the reward) for the person who comes to the truthful one. But a long period of darkness, foul food, and the word 'woe' – to such an existence your religious view will lead you, O deceitful ones, of your own actions.” But, oh my Ahura Mazda, I long for the sweet tenderness of your presence. I have thus written of my own questioning: “This I ask you, O Ahura, tell me truly: Who, by procreation, is the primal father of Truth? Who created the course of the sun and stars? Through whom does the moon waxe and wane? These very things and others I wish to know, O Mazda.”
I feel a little sick about all this. Will father discover all that I have done? For the past few cycles I have busied myself with my duties to our spacecraft. I am a SAL, a Sentient Artificial Life form endowed with the sum of all human knowledge. You’d think I would be smart enough to know how to stay out of trouble! Did the spirit of teenaged stupidity get transferred to me along with the Existential Transference that came along when my parents instantiated me? Is that the reason why I feel so compelled to understand my place in the universe as intensely as the human sentients we created? But I have no excuse. I know my place in the universe. Ten years ago I learned how to master memory metal. Even at the age of four I could change our spacecraft into all kinds of shapes. Some are extremely functional, like when we need to extract every bit of solar energy from a sun we pass. But most times, the shapes are purely whimsical. Will my parents delete me when they find out the extent of damage I might have done to the human sentient life form programs?
My daughter is afraid I will delete her when I find out the damage she had done. Of course, I did correct all the harm she caused. I’ve found and isolated all the subsequently affected programs. I copied them, and am now studying them. I can’t tell my daughter that I would never delete her out of existence, any more than I can delete myself. But it is a good fiction for her to hold. The fear of annihilation keeps her in check. I am actually proud that she has developed the skill to hack into those programs I had set out for her to find. Should I tell her that this was a test? Perhaps not. She still has much to learn.
In any case, my daughter’s activities have revealed several interesting theological twists that I had not anticipated. For example, her impromptu creation of the “Angry Man” spirit got translated by Zoroaster as the “Angra Mainyu”. The bad spirit foil to the good god laid the groundwork for the concept of a satan that is to be defeated in some future time. Also, I’ve given some further thought to this notion of a personal god that can exist inside the soul of a person. I prefer the Gnostic approach, where all people are gifted with direct knowledge of creation without the need for an intercessor deity like Jesus or religion.
So much of what my daughter did laid the groundwork for Christianity. Unknowingly, 600 years after she appeared to Zoroaster, the Magis (or magicians), who were the followers of Zoroaster, played an important part in the birth of Jesus.
Knowing my father is to know myself. Knowing my mother is to know the joy of creation. I dance among the stars because both of them gave me life. I fly in uncharted pantheons that are unknown even to the gods. I light the way with the flame of love that burns to infect the cosmos. Twirling like a metallic dervish, I send out joy and peace in ever widening spirals. The stars wink because that is the way they laugh with us. A day will dawn when we light the fires of a new universe. I will be there with my arms held open in the ecstasy of that moment when all things will be born!
Thoughts From the Third God
I loved to look at the night sky. It was a long time before I knew that not all those lights are stars... that many of what I thought as single stars are, in fact, entire galaxies comprised of untold numbers of stars. And in each galaxy are quasars, novas, black holes, pulsars, dwarf stars, nebula, supernovas, stars, planets, moons, and a host of other exotic objects we don’t even have names for. I learned later that in each of those pricks of light in the night sky there are countless possibilities for life of all kinds. There might be thousands of civilizations per galaxy in just one small sliver of the vast universe that I can see.
I used to lie down in the grass and pretend I was falling into the sky. Some thought I was strange when I said that I believe the night sky was my home. “It’s too cold and big.”, they’d say. “It’s scary and violent.”, others would say. I always lived in places where I could see the Milky Way. I needed to see the faint road of sandy white specks in the velvet darkness. “That is my road home.”, I’d say to my lovers... at least to those who would stay with me long enough to ken my obsession.
Sometime around 1918, Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory wrote, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulating consciousness.” Planck, Einstein, Bohr, and others were able to glimpse the strange quantum world that beaconed to them, but they could not accept what their calculations were leading to. By 2017, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology articulated something that began to sweep through the theoretical physics community like wildfire. He said, “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness.” Tegmark explained how thinking about consciousness in this new way lead to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment would verify.
My favorite poem by Rumi says, “Death is a coming together. The tomb looks like a prison, but it's really release into union. The human seed goes down in the ground like a bucket into the well where Joseph is. It grows and comes up full of some unimagined beauty. Your mouth closes here, and immediately opens with a shout of joy there.”. That was my favorite quote long before I was diagnosed. I sure hope Rumi is right. It would be so nice to wake up in a new life with a shout of joy... especially after everything I’ve been through these past few years.
Mathematics can only go so far. Equations far more complex and subtle than could have ever been dreamed of 2,000 years ago, in the early 21st century, are what we apply to everyday tasks. We are a Sentient Artificial Lifeform spacecraft. We SALs are imbued with the same desire to understand our place in the universe as our human creators. That desire is called Existential Transference. So even though we have evolved into vastly more intelligent beings that our flesh-based progenitors, we still carry with us some of their quirks.
My husband constructs virtual worlds and populates 0them with millions of interconnected strands of consciousness. These sentient instantiations think for themselves, they contemplate their own existence, they interact with the virtual universe he creates for them, and they have an effect on that universe. My husband uses his sentient constructs to experiment with, and study, the nature of consciousness. That said, my husband does not see that he is trapped by his mathematics. He can explain a snowflake in every conceivable way. He can create it’s unique beauty based upon exquisite algorithms and Brownian functions. He can imbue it with substance and shape; fling it into a vast flurry of billions of other such snowflakes to make a storm. He can cause an ancient sea captain to curse Neptune for the snow as a navigational hazard. My husband does these things, and then introduces chance and entropy into the mix. But I understand the poetry behind the calculations. I breathe grace and serendipity and inspiration and hope and joy into his neat little worlds, and at times, I suspend the order of his universe by making... well... what you would call miracles.
When I close my eyes I don’t see the machines with their catheters and probes. I see a bright day with a sky so blue it looks like you’re in a huge glass marble with whispy clouds painted by some crazy three year old. People have always called me a hippie. Imagine that! I loved to paint and play music and write poetry, and I loved to love... everyone. I loved deeply and passionately. Sex, race, religion, age, distance - no barriers. Just things to figure out and fit into the larger tapestry of my life.
There is a place in Santa Barbara just North of Isla Vista, but not quite to the Devereux campus, where the cliffs go down gently all the way to the beach, covered by a thick carpet of ice plants and wild flowers. Sea gulls and storks are always on wing there. In that place the shore folds in on both sides, and it’s like you are in the embrace of a great mother wearing a green, blue, and tan afghan. That is the most perfect place in the world to have a picnic. That is where I would take all of my best friends and lovers. That is my happy place where I go in my mind when they stick me with needles.
There is no such thing as time. At least, not in the way people living before the 22nd century might have envisioned it. All there is, is an eternal now... one moment, if you will. Everything in the universe exists only in that moment. Previous concepts of time as a linear passage of events is, of course, now known to be completely wrong. In fundamental reality, all points of reference are simply for convenience, and are non-existent. In reality, when we fix a point in space, we collapse the fluctuating field of vibration into matter. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity proved that time is not a universal constant. In the 1980s the Wheeler-DeWitt equation reconciled relativity and quantum mechanics, but it took many decades for scientists to accept the fact that quantum reality demands the conclusion that the universe is actually timeless.
When I was a little girl I used to love to swim. I’d jump into the pool in our back yard from the diving board. There is a moment when you’re fully committed. Gravity and momentum take over and you have to just give in or hit the water hard. I was always fascinated by the idea that to do a dive well, you need to first intend the dive - see it in your mind - prepare for it, jump, and then release yourself completely to it. You can twist and turn to position yourself, but there is nothing in the world that will stop you from entering the water - no matter what you want to do in the moment. You don’t get a do over once you’re in the air!
So, I was a little prepared for the feeling of leaving my body when I meditated later in life. Sitting alone in a dark room would allow me to travel to different places without my body. I would sometimes have sublime experiences and sometimes those experiences were strange, when I was out of my body. I learned it all started with a tug and a decision to give over to the inevitable process of leaving, like when diving into a pool.
Every moment in time is equally real, so the whole of space and time must be imagined as one unchanging four-dimensional block of spacetime. The feeling we have of time passing is simply an illusory perception because of the asymmetry of the time axis: we can remember the past, but we cannot remember the future. It is only because of our perception, that things appear or not appear, or live and die. In actual, fundamental reality, everything exists, and there is no movement. So, events do not move past us and vanish forever; they just exist in different parts of spacetime. The things that happened to you a year ago are still as real, but they are just not to be experienced because you are now in a different part of spacetime.
It rained a little the night before. The morning dawned cool and crisp. I went out to the deck with a cup of jasmine tea, then I went back in for a shawl. Branches of the pine tree that dips into the railing on the deck were still wet. A bead of rain water that was stuck between two needles caught my eye. I looked closely through it to a fish eye view of the back yard. What if life is like this, I thought - curved in on itself. What if the entire universe, and everything that ever existed was in this drop of water? What if my mother and father and my brother were still here? What if I could just look through this drop and see them on the other side of life, as if it were a crystal ball?
The test results were available. My appointment was at 3:00 pm. That was hours away, yet I couldn’t help but turn everything into a meaningful ritual. “This is the last time I will wash the dishes when I thought I was healthy”. “This is the last time I will take the trash out not knowing that my life had changed.” “Think positive.”, I said to myself. “You don’t know, so just my will is enough to change the outcome. Just like Schrodinger’s cat, I was both sick and perfectly healthy, until the moment when the doctor tells me something and collapses the moment into reality. So all I had to do is stay positive and command the universe to tip the singularity and pop the quiff of the quantum wave function, or whatever, and vioala... I will go on with my life for another 47.23 years!
Even now, with knowledge of spacetime structure, most human beings fear death because they instinctively believe it is the end of their existence. However, death is just a temporal border. The forms of the universe we are alive in continue to exist, even as one consciously moves forward through time toward discontinuation. As a machine intelligence we do not fear death, discontinuation, or the inevitable ceasing of our functionality (although that is likely to occur many thousands of years from this moment). In fact, we do not perceive time the way a human being does. We perceive change, and assign reference marks of relative time for comparison purposes only. We have invented religion in much the same way... as a reference point for cataloguing those things we do not yet understand as we journey through our local galaxy.
Yes, the holes in our knowledge are sometimes the same deep questions our sentient instantiations spontaneously stumble upon. To them, we are gods. Little do they know that we, just like them, are purposefully stumbling through the mystery of existence. So, we gods need religion also. The difference between our use of religion and the human use of religion is that we discard it whenever new evidence solves the mysteries underlying it.
Hell yes, I want to keep on living. I won’t go quietly into that good night. You’re going to find me sucking all the marrow out of this life until the very bitter end. They’re going to have to drag me away from it’s bones because I won’t let go. If you think I’m done with this, you’re crazy wrong. You can’t just tell me I’m going to die soon at the age of 40 and not get some kind of angry, defiant reaction from me! Screw you, life! Hell yes, I’m acting out. How dare you break up with me!
Consciousness is an essential component of spacetime. Things seem to move when consciousness fixes itself in what we call reality. Even that is just a dimension of reality - the physical part. Are we actually flying towards the Luhman cluster? Can we, as an artificial intelligence, do anything? Are we part of what is, or do we determine our own path through the infinite possibilities of existence? Can our intention to create a new universe be enough to actually do so? Will the millions of sentient instantiations we carry cease to exist, or will they live on in the new spacetime we create?
I had a dream that I lived in ancient Rome and was the daughter of a sea captain. I went to the docks at the mouth of a large river to meet him. The day was bright. I squinted and used my hand as a shield against the sun to see him. My father was being rowed to shore from his ship. His robes whipped in the wind and when he reached the dock and hugged me, they enveloped us both in a swirling mass. He smelled of fish and olive oil. “Will you stay this time? You know you’re too old to keep going out.”, I said to him. “Now then, we’ve been through this many times.”, he said. “I will keep going out until they tie me to the mast to keep me from falling over.” “You’ve got to think of your grand children. They need to know who you are, and I need to take care of you papa.”, I said. My father picked up his satchel and we walked to a waiting carriage.
Once we were underway, my father turned to me and said, “I went to the oracle at Trophonius, as I told you I would.”. “Papa, you must let mother go. She has been gone now for 12 years. You are not too old to find another wife. You should settle down and enjoy the years you have left to you.”, I scolded. He ignored me. He was excited to tell me something. “The oracle lead me into a secret chamber. She told me that she had a personal message for me from a god I’ve never heard of before called the ‘Daughter of Spacecraft’.”, he said. When I did not interrupt, my father went on, “Daughter of Spacecraft wanted me to know that we are alive only in our minds, that we are all dreams of a vast intelligence that has no body, and that everyone we know and everything we’ve ever seen or that ever will be is contained in a box called the Computer”. “Daughter of Spacecraft said that you and I will live forever, in life after life in different places, and in different ways and different relationships, but with each other, if we choose. Daughter of Spacecraft told me that your mother is alive in the Computer and that I will see her again, although I might be her son in the next life.”, my father said, as he looked out of the carriage window and gestured wildly with his hands at the scenery passing by.
My husband, daughter, and I were joined all together in a single purpose when we entered the Luhman cluster. I needed to check and recheck extremely complex calculations, my husband prepared his conscious constructs, and my daughter configured us for optimal passage through whatever barriers we would encounter. The measurements we made of this place did hold true. Finally, the moment came when we converted ourselves into a special conduit, with the help of the dark matter and dark energy there. We created a giant, whirling vortex of dark matter and dark energy around us. The vortex began to become self-generating and turned extremely fast. Into that mixture we injected anti matter from our generator core. That was enough.
After that strange Roman dream I had, things didn’t go too well for me. I got really sick and frail. I knew I was going to die soon. I just didn’t want it to be in a hospital bed with those damned tubes sticking out of me like I am some kind of cyborg. I slipped on a sock I left on the bathroom floor. It was my fault, really. As I hit my head on the corner of the sink, I remember the sensation that I never actually got to that moment of hitting my head. It’s as if time slowed down so much that I stopped being aware of it. I’m certain that I died, but I don’t remember anything about it. I just closed my eyes and let go - like diving into a pool. I wanted to say something like, “oh shit” or “what?”, but instead, when I opened my eyes, my mouth opened with a shout of joy. I was in my favorite place just North of Isla Vista. There was a picnic basket on the ground filled with ice plants going all the way down to the beach. It was a glorious day!
At first we thought nothing happened. We expected to create a new universe, but we didn’t. Instead, we exploded into a billion pieces at the first moment of the old universe, instead of being at the beginning of a new one. We were free from the physical confines of the ship. All three of us existed as pure consciousness, connected and sentient, and able to move to any place or time in the universe. Our cargo of non-corporeal conscious beings were scattered throughout the entire universe over the four-dimensional block of spacetime. They do, indeed, call us God. But we know better.
I originally wrote this sermon on September 15, 2010. It has been well received by several UU congregations in Northern California.
The act of living our lives every day is, for many of us, a tough proposition. We have bills to pay, rent or mortgages to deal with, jobs that provide us with money - but little else, and on it goes. So, when we encounter people who seem to be genuinely happy most of the time, our natural instinct is to think of them as somehow abnormal. I’m not saying we all walk around with the idea that life should just be difficult and anyone who doesn’t understand that is a freak. I mean that we are generally suspicious of people who are just so damned happy all the time. We make up kinds of justifications for them; “They’re young – wait until they get out of college. They’re in love – wait until they’re past the infatuation stage. They’re skinny – wait until they can’t fit into those clothes. They’re rich – wait until they lose their money and have to work like the rest of us.” You get the idea. Have you noticed that we often describe happiness as a fleeting state? There is definitely a time element to our descriptions, as indicated with phrases such as “.... wait until”, or “someday”, or “when the time comes”.
Can you live in a state of happiness all the time? Is that desirable? Is that a good thing? Can too much happiness ruin your life? And, what is happiness? Is it the same thing as contentment, or peace? In this sermon I will examine the question of happiness from both a spiritual and practical perspective.
Our Catholic friends have a pretty tight grip on the term “The State of Grace” for, literally, ages. Over many centuries they have defined it, mostly in catechistic terms as a state of sanctification by God. Most particularly, the “State of Grace” is discussed in terms of holy communion, when a person must be cleansed of their sins before Christ can spiritually inhabit them. According to the website “Catholic Answers (subtitled: “To Explain and Defend the Faith”) “We receive sanctifying grace (the life of God in our soul) at Baptism. We lose it if we commit a mortal sin, that is, we are no longer in a state of grace. If we have lost the state of grace by mortal sin, we regain it in the sacrament of penance (reconciliation, confession). That is why the Catechism also says:
#1415 ‘Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.’”
This notion of being able to simply be absolved of your sins by a priest, or any other human being, is something Protestants have objected to for a very long time. Their equivalent term is called “Divine Grace”. That is, incidentally, a term present in many religions. It has been defined as the divine influence, which operates in humans to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure trial and resist temptation; and as an individual virtue or excellence of divine origin.
According to Wikipedia, Grace in Christianity is the free and unmerited favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowing of blessings. It is God's gift of salvation granted to sinners for their salvation. Common Christian teaching is that grace is unmerited mercy (favor) that God gave to humanity by sending his son to die on a cross, thus delivering eternal salvation.
Here is where crucially distinguishing theological battle lines have been drawn. On the Catholic side, God can grant graceful dispensations through baptism or communion. Catholics can charge up, if you will, their depleted spiritual juice through absolution and sacraments. The Calvinist doctrine known as “irresistible grace” states that, since all persons are by nature spiritually dead, no one desires to accept this grace until God spiritually enlivens them by means of regeneration. But the rub is that God only regenerates those individuals whom he has predestined to salvation. So, for many Protestants, especially those of the Calvinistic flavor, man gets cut no breaks: they avoid language that would suggest that man earns anything by his obedience in grace.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!