07 November 1994

The Curse of the Blind Chihuahua

The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua™ (VCBC), having no authority, power, or even existence beyond the virtual, reserves the right to curse those whom it deems necessary to punish for their bad behavior. Among these are abusers of religion, people, animals, and our environment, both real and virtual. As examples we curse terrorists, dictators, animal neglectors, litterbugs, malicious hackers, and spammers.

Our curse relies on the miracle of transubstantiation. As the Catholic Church asks God to change the spiritual "substance" of the Communion bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so do we beseech God to inflict a less palatable miracle of transubstantiation on those whom we curse. Let the last three drops of every swallow of liquid they drink be transubstantiated into the urine of the Blind Chihuahua for as long as they live, or until they repent.


Some examples of those accursed:
  • Usama Bin Laden - for killing thousands in the name of his bastardization of Islam, and for convincing others to do likewise
  • Kim Jong Il - for making nuclear weapons and missiles the only viable economic activities in North Korea
  • Robert Mugabe - for starving Zimbabwe in the name of his personal amalgamation of Communism and Racism
  • Clerics who teach that democracy and/or science is incompatible with their religion - for loving power and control more than truth
  • Clerics who abuse their laity, whether physically, sexually, emotionally, or intellectually - for trading their relation to the Divine to do the work of its opposite
  • Laity who abuse their clergy without just cause - for punishing a clerics who don't meet the demands of their dark side
  • Anyone who persecutes people because of their ethnicity or religion - for dumbing down the definition of a human person to mean someone like themselves
  • Faith-based organizations who lend aid and comfort to those attempting the destruction of other faith-based organizations, such as the World Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).

06 November 1994

A Farewell to Arms Research

The beginning of the end of the National Laboratories?

Revised 1995 
As of 2007 Bell Labs is really most sincerely dead, the remaining employees (of what was once more than 20,000) belonging to Alcatel/Lucent, a French company. The name Bell Laboratories is retained as a marketing fiction.

And now, the National Laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Argonne, Brookhaven, etc.), have been privatized by an act of Congress. "We will make sure that this will not hurt these Jewels in the Crown of American R&D," say members of Congress, the DOE, and their staffs. Well, been there, heard that. It's bullshit. It's what they used to say about Bell Labs when they broke up AT&T. Which was swallowed and used to re-brand SBC, formerly known as Southwestern Bell.
If the National Laboratories helped win the Cold War, then where's our parade? — David Dearborn, 1992

The Republic has no use for scientists. — slogan at Antoine Lavoisier's trial in revolutionary Paris, 1794


The Jewel in the Crown

Bell Telephone Laboratories is dead. The Phoenix risen from its ashes is called AT&T Bell Laboratories, a new name for a new corporate culture distinguished by the short leash that now holds research in check. You see, research costs money, which is scarce now that AT&T is no longer a regulated monopoly with a guaranteed income from the "rate base," a term that indirectly meant you and me. So the management works harder to pick possible winners early on -- which means that it is better to do nothing than to do something that might be useless, which in turn means that most Bell Labs people don't do research anymore.

Moreover, Bell Labs isn't even managed by Bell Labs managers. Just two levels up from the working troops, or "Members of Technical Staff," the managers are listed as AT&T Network Operations or as Lucent Technologies. The top echelon of the Labs are essentially like old switching equipment that is too expensive to move when new equipment is installed — they are RIP, or "retired in place." But whether retired or active, all AT&T-BL managers embrace the new commandment: "Thou shalt have no other goals before the bottom line."

It was inevitable once the company was divested of its local telephone business. The changes make good business sense, and almost everyone at the Labs will tell you that what is happening there now is better than the chaos of the years just after 1984, when the break-up took place.
The problem is that the new Bell Labs now rarely tries the long shots, the revolutionary ideas that sometimes create whole new industries, because they are too great a short-term business risk. What was once described as one of the Crown Jewels of American Research has become just another industrial R&D lab. Which means emphasis on D — Development, and a back seat for Research. It's fine, really. It's just that everyone involved, including the government and AT&T senior management, said it wouldn't happen.

They were wrong. And the government is about to be wrong again. The government thinks that defense conversion in the form of small, short term projects won't hurt research at the National Laboratories.


The Hand that Rocks the CRADA

The Bell Labs conversion is part of a wholesale flight of American Industry from long term research that has been brought to you by changed economic conditions interacting with securities regulations favoring short term business strategy. We live in the "do it now" culture of immediacy. This originally business culture has pervaded government as well. Congress will "do it now" provided it is politically popular, as is defense conversion.

Now defense conversion of the National Laboratories is currently more like defense destruction, because they are told to "do it now" in the form of relatively small budget, short term Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which paradoxically, the DOE seems to take forever to approve. A CRADA is a partnership between a private corporation and a National Laboratory in which the corporation and the DOE each put up half the money to pay for some quick D -- development, which results in a few months to a year or two, in some product or process for sale by the corporation.

The destruction comes about because the powers that be can delude themselves into thinking that CRADAs are a substitute for the long-term, stable, mission-oriented research that the National Labs do best. Each CRADA harvests the fruit of decades of research, without providing for planting and raising the next crop of ideas. In other words, if CRADAs become a major mission of the National Laboratories, they will be taken over by the culture of immediacy, of short term projects with a quick payoff, to the detriment of their present corporate culture that enables them to take on long-term, high-risk/high-reward, large-scale research on problems of national or global importance.
But then, there are no such problems, and big science is bad, right? Well, there's a lot of big science behind your telephone, behind the pharmaceuticals you take, behind attempts to cure AIDS and various genetic disorders. And behind all those CRADAs that will help our industry be a little more competitive, to the extent that competitiveness is a function of R&D rather than managerial competence.

To keep big science going at the National Laboratories, all it takes is a small set of clear missions, and some stable funding, which has to come, like it or not, from us taxpayers. What missions? I nominate human genome research, global change research, the old standby of defense research (including nuclear weapons research, unless you want America to get caught with its pants down some day), and real industrial research. Of course, that last one will require something our leadership fears to define — a national industrial research policy. Without such missions and such policy, the hand that rocks the CRADA may rule the laboratory. And that hand has no eye for the long term.


The Koehler Method of TQM

"Oooooof!" On wet grass at either end of a leash lay my wife and our Great Dane. You see, the Koehler Method1 of teaching your dog to pay attention to you is to put it on a long leash and just go. When the dog runs in a direction other than the one you're going, it gets yanked off its feet. Of course, if the grass is slippery, you take a fall, too. To a dog, this is leadership.
It's also the way our government sometimes leads the National Laboratories. Rather than engage in substantive discussion with the labs over missions and priorities, they just jerk the funding/regulatory leash. The current rules earmarking nuclear testing (if we ever test again at all) for only safety and security comprise one example. The endless inspections of minute details of lab procedures are another — as of this writing, inspectors are planning to check (among other things) that the word "SECRET" stamped on so many of our documents is exactly the correct size. And now we are being asked to re-invent ourselves.

Total Quality Management (TQM) is coming to the United States' last bastions of long-term, large-scale, mission-oriented research. It could be marvellous. But if it is abused, there will be performance measures for everything, each one giving ignorant bureaucrats the illusion that they can manage what they do not understand. As one wag remarked, "TQM is the revenge of the 'C' students."
The upshot of this is that employees who maximize the measures of their performance may often fare better than the ones who do good science. Those who comply with the leash may dominate those who try to figure out which way to go. That's fine for dogs, who know less than their masters, but sometimes scientists really do have something to say about how to do science. Though the TQM slogan, "the customer defines quality," is tautological in the short term, it could be disastrous in the long term if the customer (the DOE), through willful ignorance and blind distrust, gets out of touch with reality.


Favorite Sins

I heard an anecdote once about a Russian couple who, tired of city life, moved to a rural area just outside Moscow and bought a goat, which got poisoned soon afterward. Their neighbors had chickens, rabbits, and ducks, but no goats. Such an obvious sign of extraordinary wealth was not to be tolerated, because it made everyone else look bad. Besides, who did these transplanted city-dwellers think they were?

In the same vein, Russian entrepreneurs get their businesses raided and subjected to harrassment by the KGB. There was even a television news story recently about an independent farmer who, with twenty or so employees, out-produced a nearby collective farm with a staff of 2000. The collective farmers, who were on the town council, simply revoked his lease on the land and put him out of business.

The common theme in these examples is Russia's apparently favorite cultural sin -- envy. Rather than to create wealth, they just make sure that no one gets more than anybody else. It's no wonder that Communism took root so easily there. Now Russia is a poor country, and will remain so until its people pass beyond Envy — perhaps to our favorite cultural sin of greed.

On the other hand, we're more envious and less greedy than many of us would like to think. We have a business culture in which competetive strategy sometimes means screwing our opposition rather than doing a better job. Hence the occasional flurry of lawsuits, frivolous and otherwise, over restraint of trade. One can even imagine a company suing to prevent another from entering into a CRADA with a National Laboratory. The plaintiff isn't seeking to be included in the enterprise, just to keep the competition from participating.

As the saying goes, there ought to be a law against that sort of thing. You see, CRADAs are a poor way to sustain long term research, but they're a great way of capitalizing on it. As such, they should be protected.

And so should the scientists and engineers working on them. God help the National Laboratory scientist/engineer with enough entrepreneurial spirit to turn a CRADA or an invention into a business. Though we are trying to help our nation create jobs, we are not allowed to profit personally from our researches. This encourages the entrepreneurial researchers to take jobs elsewhere, which hampers the National Laboratories' efforts to help entrepreneurs.

So my current vision of a National Laboratory flanked by tens of small and large businesses founded by former Laboratory researchers, who still maintain close ties to the Laboratory, is currently illegal. As we re-invent our government, maybe we can fix that.


Paradigms Lost

Gathering the various threads at this point, we see that the National Laboratories are being jerked around by short-term thinking, without clear long-term national policy to guide them, or a even legal foundation encouraging them to respond well to the short-term pressures. Add to that declining budgets, which, in the absence of a clear mission, will incite turf-battles among the managers in which skill at self-promotion and compliance to the leash-holders will determine success, rather than the scientific merit. What we have here is a recipe for organizational decline.

Now the end of the Cold War was a very big thing, but by itself, not big enough to do all this. There's something else going on. It's all over the back pages of Physics Today , where the job listings are. Or rather were. Judging by the scarcity of "permanent" positions advertised, now is the worst time in this century to be a physicist.

It's not because our culture is obtuse, buying into the idea promulgated by otherwise well-educated people, such as Vaclav Havel, that science is immoral. It's not even because the public has replaced the undeserved faith it once had in science with an equally undeserved skepticism. It's because the paradigms that have sustained twentieth century physics may be, in a strictly technological sense, played out.

Take classical electromagnetism, for example. Radio, radar, telephony, satellite communications, fiber optics, etc., have already been invented and well studied. The consequences of classical electromagnetic theory are well explored. Further advances in the technology require engineering rather than physics.

The same can be said for classical mechanics, despite the recent breakthrough in our understanding of complex systems represented by chaos theory. Basically, we know how to build machines and fly rockets. Case closed.

Special relativity and quantum mechanics gave us nuclear weapons and some interesting accelerator-based cancer treatments, but again further technological advances in those areas no longer require theorists.

Areas do lie waiting to be explored in quantum field theory, such as superconductivity, but that is more a matter for the alchemist-like experimental approach of materials science. And the real frontiers, Grand Unified Theories (GUTs), superstrings, and the like, lie far beyond our present technology to explore.

So that's it. Twentieth century physics, for good and ill, has delivered on most of its promises. Physics as we know it probably has no more wonderful or terrible technological implications, beyond what it's already given us. The remaining triumphs will be small for the next decade or two, like scanning-tunnelling and surface-force microscopy -- applications of physics that make it possible for other sciences to advance. And though the big breakthrough into the next paradigm may be only a few well-thought ideas away (some of which I may have sketched elsewhere), none of us can quite imagine it now.

Is it unreasonable to expect, then, that our corporate and national investments would shift from the physical to the biological sciences, where the paradigms are fresh, the promises great, and the technology ripe to explore them? Is it such a bad thing that people just want to live better, longer, and more cheaply? The shift in investment is hard on physical scientists like me, but ultimately I have to applaud it. I want to live better, too. I just want people to remember that many of the tools used by the life scientists were invented by physical scientists, and that we need to maintian some level of investment in the physical sciences if we want better tools to keep coming.


Another Physicist on Madison Avenue

So the lab is on a short leash, defense budgets are declining, the general economy is in a rut, and the economy for physicists is unlikely to recover in my professional lifetime. Retirement is beyond my planning horizon, and my literary agent tells me to keep my day job. Well, it's no use waiting around to see if the axe will actually fall. It's time to consider how to sell my time again, to whom, and for what purpose.

I could use my work in fluid turbulence as a lever to pry my way into the global climate research group, and remain halfway in the weapons program -- global climate modeling is being partly funded as a way to diversify weapons research into more peaceful "dual-use" activities.2 But that bubble could burst if the improved simulations throw cold water on the global warming hypothesis, or if the movement to consolidate government-funded research gathers too much steam. I could try to work my way further into the Inertial Confinement Fusion program, but its future looks uncertain to me, too.3 I could continue studying nuclear explosives in hope of becoming tenured as a person vital to our national defense. But for my generation such tenure may be reserved only for those who have tested their own nuclear explosive designs — in a severe budget crunch the more theoretical nuclear weapons physicists like me would have to be considered expendable.4 Moreover, that tenure will exist only as long as the American people want it to. Even though there are good arguments for maintaining a state-of-the-art thermonuclear weapons design capability at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (some of which are presented elsewhere5), there are no guarantees.

So, maybe it's time to work the other side of the same street (or if the human propensity for war can be compared to a large carnivore, to switch teats of the tiger). Instead of contributing to nuclear deterrence, I think I'll try counter-proliferation. The Saddam Husseins of this world are doing their best to make it a growing business. Which for me means farewell again, theoretical physics. The weapons program still needs it, but it will be the first to go if funding gets much tighter. Hello again, systems engineering. I just hope the johns are as good to work for.6

Now my departure represents a small loss to the weapons program, because it has other physicists who could take up my work where I'm leaving it off. Unfortunately, that is less true for some others who have left the program ahead of me. While we work to make sure the former-Soviet nuclear weapons scientists have a future through such efforts as the International Science and Technology Center, we might think about making a future for our own. And for those of you who are unconcerned that the US nuclear weapons research program may be disintegrating, the words of Ghostbusters — if you wind up needing us after we've gone, "Who ya gonna call?"


  1. For more details on how to make a large organization comply to your commands, see William Koehler's, The Koehler Method of Dog Training, Macmillan, New York, 1962.
  2. The nuclear weapons design physics program is slowly diversifying into other fields in order to provide interesting and useful work for the people it needs to maintain sufficient competence in the various areas of nuclear design necessary to continue stewardship of the US nuclear weapons stockpile. As long as the US government considers that stewardship to be necessary, there will be no effort to "convert" the relatively small physics portions of the nuclear weapons program to civilian endeavors. The diversification of the physics parts of the program is proceeding slowly, because any new work must be synergistic with the program's core mission, and beause its management is as yet relatively inexperienced at the kind of business planning that such diversification requires. The much larger engineering portions of the program, which are not responsible for stockpile stewardship, are converting rapidly.
  3. For two reasons. (1) The ICF program is run on a short leash and is subject to cut-back or cancellation at any of several Key Decision Points as determined by a select panel of scientific rewiewers (the ICF Advisory Committee, or ICFAC), and/or by a budget-conscious government. I'm concerned that I could join the program only to end up like the scientists who worked until recently on the now-cancelled SSC. (2) I wonder if anyone has really worked through the engineering economics of ICF. Even if ICF can be made to work from a physics standpoint, ICF plants might have to be so big (and so costly) to be cost-effective that no electric power company could afford to build enough to take up the slack when any one plant is taken off line for maintenance. It may be more likely that ICF will be used to generate synthetic fuels rather than commercial electric power.
  4. I spent most of my "designer" days working on non-explosive parts of now-shelved concepts that were the opposite of the "neutron bomb" in that their use would have done much more harm to selected "assets" than to living things (an example of how a peaceful gesture — the current US "no new nuclear weapons" policy — might not necessarily make the world safer). Since then I have concentrated on theoretical work aimed at refining some aspects of our capability to predict thermonuclear explosive performance via computer modeling. And no, I can't build a bomb. If I could, I wouldn't be publishing this stuff.
  5. See "Obscenity and Peace" at this site.
  6. The title of this section refers to Tony Rothman's A Physicist on Madison Avenue, Princeton University Press, 1991.

Young Love

Love is the most fun you can have without laughing. - Anonymous
When I was in junior high I realized, after the initial rebuffs, that it was going to be years — an eternity to a thirteen year old — before I got laid. When I got old I would have a son, and I would tell him what I went through, so that it might go a little better for him. I even kept a diary. Now I'm not your father, and you're not my son. My diary I'll keep to myself. In its place I substitute my thirtysomething thoughts on my teenaged days.

As a teenager I was a human becoming more than a human being. This fact, this launching of myself toward adulthood, conditioned all my relationships, intense or casual. Falling in love under those conditions was like trying to move into an apartment in a skyscraper before the floors were poured — lots of pitfalls and construction noise. In choosing a girlfriend I was choosing a self to try to be — developing a sense of self that was genuine because it was mine, rather than my parents'. I was also measuring my self-worth — seeing what kind of girl I could trade myself for. With the young ladies' help I was doing the urgent and creative work that all teenagers must do — I was creating me. And I loved whom I wanted or needed my girlfriends to be more than who they were, or were becoming. Those who did not reject me reciprocated in kind.

Thus my first criticism of high-school romance: the emotions are intense because the hormone levels are high and the psychological needs are great, but real intimacy under such circumstances is nearly impossible. And my first praise of it: by finding out how difficult it is to achieve intimacy, I came to value it and to understand what I was willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice for it.

Besides love, intimacy, and a sense of self, high school romance is largely about sex, whether or not the desire is acted upon. In my experience of this phenomenon (through my own escapades or those of my friends and acquaintances) we used our sexuality to experiment with new behaviors (Did you get to first base?), to assert our emotional independence from our parents (What's the matter, are you afraid?), to gain social status (He can't be a fag — he's dating someone!), and self-confidence (Whatever she wants, I can handle it.).

All of this emotional loading may heighten the intensity of sexuality but tends to diminish its other qualities, an idea which may be lost on adolescents, who rarely appreciate that sexuality has dimensions other than intensity. The quest for intensity often leads teenagers into relationships that are emotionally — and occasionally physically — abusive. There is nothing quite like "first love," especially when one is in love with a beautiful or handsome emotional roller coaster jockey.

And what if despite all odds, the teenager makes some fleeting contact with the real person, the "inner child" of the other? Sometimes one finds the love of one's life. My relationships followed the far more usual course, ending because we were growing teenagers who grew apart. And then, because I had been changing so fast at that age, there was no normal state of being for me to return to. I couldn't go back to being the old me, because the old me was a kid. In that sense, I never "got over" my teenage romances. I just moved on after a couple of years, when I realized that the state I was in was as normal as I was going to get.

I don't know what of this you might say to your teenagers, in addition to the usual drug, pregnancy, and venereal disease information. Maybe that, despite the message of popular culture, they might look to God for the affirming love they often seek from each other. Maybe just that it might do them more good to look for a close friend rather than a lover. But teenagers tend to talk more than they listen, and to do risky things because they need to prove themselves and because they're too young to appreciate how risky they are. That's why they're used as soldiers.

Oh, well. As Jimmy Durante used to say, "God bless you, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." Or was it just "Good night?"

A Soldier's Story

I mean, you want to know if I'm moral enough to join your army, to burn women, kids, houses, and villages, after bein' a litterbug? — Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"
This is what happened to Russ in Vietnam. On R&R in Saigon, he and a beautiful Vietnamese woman fell desperately, and secretly, in love. After the madness was over, they would come to America and make a life for themselves. But for now, they would meet furtively, rarely, briefly. Nobody who knew either of them could know about both, because her brother was Vietcong. Technically, they were each sleeping with the enemy.

And then, at their meeting place, she didn't show.

"That one?" said one of his buddies casually, "They say she was killed by a mine two weeks ago."
The feeling of a kick in the stomach, the taste of acid on the tongue. And he had to hide it, to stay a soldier.

"Here today, gone tomorrow," he shrugged, feeling suddenly like a traitor -- not to his country, but to her memory and to himself. But if he shared his grief with his buddies, they would say it was to his country, and he would be dishonorably discharged, at best. So he fought on, silenced about what was becoming an incurable wound.

Funny. Here he was depending for his life at times on people he couldn't trust. And ready to give his all for those who would turn on him if they only knew.

When he got stateside, he didn't try to replace the love he'd lost. The singles bar scene was all he wanted, and he went for it with abandon. Alcohol and casual sex were his anesthetics for a while. Eventually he gave them up, left the service, and settled down to a wife and a tolerable job. And though he looked good on the outside, he had two constant companions that were slowly killing him. One was depression, and the other was the virus he'd picked up during one of those dates after the war.

The story of Russ (not his real name) is true, mostly. Except that his lover was not the enemy. His lover was an American pilot who got his name put on the big, black wall in Washington for giving "that last full measure of devotion" while flying a combat mission in Vietnam.

So, when I think of the people who oppose liberalizing the US military's position on gay and lesbian soldiers, I think of Russ and how he suffered under that policy. I think about the statistics on homosexuality, and how they imply that, along with that of Russ' lover, the names of as many as a thousand homosexuals may be written on the Vietnam War Memorial.

Those homosexual soldiers fought, slept, ate, showered, and died as heroes alongside heterosexual soldiers. They knew how to handle themselves in all those situations. Their heterosexual buddies did not, forcing them to keep their secret, most of them to the grave.

Now we Americans are concerned about the effect of gay and lesbian soldiers on military morale and discipline. But a thousand names carved in stone say that's not a gay soldier's problem. It's a straight soldier's problem. People are concerned because that is the nature of homophobia — homophobia occurs when straights who have problems with gays try to make gays solve those problems for them — even if it's just by keeping their homosexuality a secret. A thousand names say the concern is based on mythology believed by straights who don't think they know any gay people.

Except for the concern about how the straight soldiers will behave. On the other hand, gay bashing is another form of sexual harassment, an area that the military needs to deal with anyway, as shown by the Tailhook scandal.

So, I think we should move forward on the legalization of gay and lesbian soldiers. Doing so will take courage and self-discipline, and a sense of security in our own sexuality. It will take, as a soldier might put it, "balls."

03 November 1994

Church of the Self-Satisfied

I wrote this while attending a church that was ejecting its pastor. A case of the congregation abusing its clergy.

Greetings to you in the name of the Lord!
We Crucifiers meet each Sunday to lie about Jesus.
The sermon slides off our collective self-image into the cup
to be consumed with the body and blood of our Victim,
and so to pass through, changed by us, not us by them.
Greetings to you in the name of the Lord!

The Peace of the Lord to you!
A smile, a handshake, a Judas kiss.
Pieces of silver collected for service to our Values —
nothing special, just nothing different —
we come to be comfortable, above all.
The Peace of the Lord to you!

Visitors Welcome. Join us soon.

02 November 1994

Apocalypses Now

Nuclear war, overpopulation, global eco-catastrophe, asteroid impacts, exhaustion of the sun, the final crunch, rip, or heat-death of the universe. Science holds that ultimately, we are doomed. Christian Fundamentalists seem to gloat, judging from the apocalyptic "literature" in bookstores. But "eco-guilt" and religious end-game fantasists1 may be in for a disappointment. The end may be rather dull. Here are some possible scenarios.

See/hear also REM's TEOTWAWKI

Coyotes, Mosquitoes and Rats, Oh My!

Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud. — Boyle Roche: Speech in the Irish Parliament, c. 1790

Every now and then I read in some magazine (most recently Natural History at the optometrist's office) about a wonderfully adaptable species that has managed to thrive despite the onslaught of human numbers. This time it was about the coyote;, an adaptable predator that, it turns out, doesn't kill cattle, but takes smaller prey. It seems that coyotes have made a determined comeback in the west, and have now spread east into Vermont and New Hampshire, with the eastern coyotes being noticeably bigger than their western cousins.

Why go east, young dog? Lured by the call of the tamed? Nobody knows yet, but it is certain that the coyotes are not moving into the ecological niche left by wolves. The wolves disappeared from most of this country because their niche disappeared -- moose, deer, and other large game lost their habitat to farmland, and were hunted heavily besides. No forests, no game, no wolves.

No, the coyotes are moving into a new niche, one created by us. They eat the discarded carcasses of the 10% or so of calves that don't make it every spring at dairy farms and cattle ranches. (The ranchers take the dead meat out to the back forty and dump it. The coyotes just couldn't leave it to rot.) They also eat rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles, and the occasional domestic cat. In addition, coyotes have learned to use abandoned cars as dens, and to trot calmly along the sides of major highways.

Now human overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, and plain old inefficient land use are causing species to go extinct as fast as they did when the dinosaurs vanished. We are becoming a force of "natural selection" as powerful as an Ice Age. At this rate, only those species that adapt themselves to us, like coyotes, will survive. On the other hand, those that adapt themselves to us like pigeons, cockroaches, lice, and rats; will thrive. And in a world in which parasitism of human civilization is the only key to survival, God forbid that any of these parasites should become intelligent!

My fear is not that we may destroy all life on this planet. I'm afraid that we're turning the entire natural world into the equivalent of a giant smart rat, who can't wait to figure out new ways to get us. Imagine a picnic in a really hostile environment -- no big, dangerous things, just little annoying ones like clever mosquitoes who always bite in well-coordinated teams and who've learned to love insect repellent. Everywhere you go there will be a myriad creatures absolutely delighted to see you!

But so far it's still a wonderful world out there, with all sorts of intricate life and death struggles going on that we're not part of. Let's keep it that way. Let's leave more of it alone.

Birth of a Species

And they shall no more teach one another saying, know the Lord: for they shall all know me... —Jeremiah 31:34

Imagine the consternation of Oog and his fellow early modern humans at the strange new behavior of their teenagers. They no longer give a good old fashioned threat scream before a status or mating fight. They make little noises among themselves, and then act as a group, overcoming even the strongest Old Ones. The old ways are forgotten, the old order destroyed. It is the end of the world. Or at least it may have seemed to be the end of the world to the early humans, when some small group first started speaking true language;.

Much later, when the wasichus overran North America and displaced the original inhabitants, the world ended for many Native American tribes. They measured their humanity by adherence to their cultural values (some of which were nice, some of which were nasty -- they were neither more nor less saintly a people than anyone else). Thus when their cultures died, they believed there would be no more real people left on earth.

Now human culture seems pretty well entrenched. What could possibly make it die without tremendous upheaval? A change in perception, perhaps? Remember Oog?

Elsewhere I have conjectured that there may be more to the mind than the brain, and that some of our (un)consciousness may reside in patterns imposed directly on the quantum (gravitational and other) vacuum oscillations of the "empty" spacetime within and around us. If that were true it might be possible for some of us to learn to perceive or communicate via these oscillations -- which might amount to something like so-called telepathy. If such telepathy became the preferred mode of communication among a group of people, and if the talent for it were inherited, it could provide the basis for what would at first be a sub-culture of people for whom ordinary language might be lost. Eventually, since communication plays an important role in human relationships, and therefore in human reproduction, such an ability could provide the basis for the division of humanity into distinct subspecies -- the telepathers and the talkers. If the telepathers had enough other abilities going for them, or if telepathy enabled them to outwit us sufficiently, they might eventually supplant us talkers. But rather than build on our historical achievements, they would start over, because our history would be irrelevant and incomprehensible to them. The new Adams and Eves would begin as a tribal community, not knowing where they came from, and perhaps never discovering who we were. Rather than being a glorified version of ourselves, the Superior Race would be completely alien to us.

It wouldn't be the end of the world. Just the end of our world. Of course, once a new door of perception is opened, who knows what may enter -- a more direct awareness of God, perhaps? Don't panic, it's only a scenario and a ridiculously far-fetched one at that (I don't actually believe in telepathy -- but so many science-fiction writers speculate about it, that it's hard for me to resist). The point is that the extinction of our species, just like our own individual deaths, may come in a manner and at a time other than we expect.

But then, life is like marriage - you get into it for how it is, rather than how it ends.

That White-Hot Morning, Revisited

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. — Martin Luther, 1569

It looks like dawn, but the sun comes in the wrong direction, blinding bright, flashing the wallpaper opposite the window into flame. Your heart sinks, you grab your loved ones and dash for that protected closet. As you close the door the blast wave hits, a sound so loud it's more like silence. The building leans and shudders, the beams crack, and then tense stillness, waiting. Suddenly the walls reverse their lean, shaking under the impact of flying debris. Again stillness, except for beams groaning as the building settles. You open the door to thick dust clouds, which clear to reveal torn roof and walls, empty window frames, broken crockery, shredded books, smashed furniture. The power is out, the phone is dead. You find your portable radio, miraculously in working order, but no one is broadcasting. You search the rubble for some blankets, which you find smeared with blood -- yours. Just a cut on your hand from broken glass, but you know how you're going to die now. Weakened by hunger, thirst, and radiation sickness, and without antibiotics, you're going to die of infection.

Impossibly, the phone rings. You pick up the receiver, but your tongue is so thick you can't speak. The voice on the other end says, "This dream has been brought to you by Nuclear Nightmares, Incorporated. It's TIME to wake UP."

Fairly accurate effects, I thought. Just like they taught us in the Nuclear Weapons Orientation Advanced Course. The NWOA is a week long training session conducted by members of the Armed Forces for a number of organizations. At my National Laboratory, it is part of the orientation program for new employees. The lectures on Blast and Thermal Effects ("The Shake 'n' Bake Lecture") and Medical Effects were given to us by a Marine who seemed to evaluate his effectiveness by the dent he made in the cafeteria's business that day. So the concerned public needn't tell us about nuclear weapons effects. We know, even those of us who didn't write the book on them.2 Nuclear world war, if we have one, will make movies like "The Day After" and "Testament" look like a party. Even "Threads" will seem mild. Our species will probably survive, but our culture won't -- it's too complicated to be maintained by people with short lifespans.

As it says in the dream, it's time to wake up. Passivity just encourages bullies, while aggressiveness encourages us to become bullies ourselves. It's time to use our relationships to enfranchise and empower others, and to be assertive in deterring them from abusing us, should they try. It's time to include everyone in "us" rather than to pretend that some of us are "them." It's time to use our religions to open ourselves to God rather than to close ourselves to each other. It's time to engage in management as a human enterprise rather than a dominance/submission ritual. It's time to trust what little we know and yet to admit how little it is, and to open ourselves to the new. It's time to turn from making war on war to making peace. Or else time will run out for us sooner rather than later, whether or not I do research related to weapons which, thus far, are only a reflection of ourselves.


  1. I think the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible is provided for us to take comfort in tough times, rather than for us to treat as some sort of sorcery for making specific predictions of the future (an activity which Scripture condemns).
  2. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd edition, edited by Samuel P. Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, US DOE and DOD, Washington, DC, 1977.

Abducted in their Dreams

We are such stuff as dreams are made on. — William Shakespeare,The Tempest, 1611
In the middle of the night you find yourself paralyzed, lifted into a spaceship, and probed. You hear voices inside your head. The next thing you know, you are back in your car or bed, hours missing from your memory. Under hypnosis you recall fragmentary experiences, as if from a dream. You have had (if UFO abduction experiencers can be believed) a close encounter of the fourth kind.

Now I doubt such reports, because I doubt aliens could or would want to find a small needle like us in our enormous galactic haystack. But let's play Star Trek for a moment. Suppose aliens have found us, and have bridged the communication barrier natural to beings evolved on different worlds. Then we must ask why these encounters are the way they are — which is like our dreams.

Our dreaming consciousness has many of the attributes of a close encounter all by itself. Active brain mechanisms suppress movement and memory — otherwise we would all sleepwalk and recall dreaming ninety minutes each night. Though language occurs frequently in dreams, we rarely remember details of what is said or written. Our dreams shift from one paradox to another, as if we had no sustained attention span and little contact with reality. We enter a state of consciousness that Freud thought similar to a hypnotic trance (which may be why hypnosis can help us remember dreams), and which some modern researchers think similar to schizophrenia — that is, schizophrenia's characteristic hallucinations may be waking dreams.

Since dreams are so much like close encounters, perhaps the aliens deliberately induce a dreamlike state of consciousness in their abductees. That way they can interact meaningfully with semi-conscious individuals while using humans' natural dream mechanisms for suppressing movement and memory. This may allow them to cautiously study humans before "coming out" to us as a whole. But why so many encounters, and why don't they cover their tracks better?

Consider that UFO experiencers frequently report some kind of "telepathic" communication with their captors. Perhaps the mental state in which humans are most capable of telepathy happens to be the one in which we dream. Maybe the aliens induce this state in humans so as to facilitate communication, or maybe the dreamlike state is a simply a byproduct of their attempts at telepathy. If the aliens don't have dreams themselves, they may not realize that they are impairing humans' normal functioning. They may even think that humans reflexively become paralyzed, forgetful, and crazy whenever we experience anything new. Perhaps they repeat the same encounter many times with particular individuals hoping that some humans might get used it and react less strongly. Too bad their way of talking to us seems literally to put us to sleep.

Maybe the aliens try different experiments to find out what's going wrong. Though they keep trying to communicate we forget all about it, or act as if our encounters were unreal when we remember them, because dreamlike experiences don't connect with the world we know in our waking state. On their part, if the aliens are naturally telepathic, they may think all intelligent species are, and that contacting one human contacts us all. Perhaps they wonder why we don't get the message. So if you're a repeated UFO experiencer, try to remember to tell them (it's called lucid dreaming by sleep researchers) that if they're trying to communicate, they're blowing it. Tell them to write, instead.
Of course, the simplest and, to my mind, most likely explanation is that UFO abduction experiences aren't merely like dreams, they are dreams. Still, you never know.

Editor's Note:  See for example Passpost to the Cosmos - Human Transformation and Alien Encounters and/or Abduction, by the late John E. Mack, M. D.

30 October 1994

Reviving a Dead Language

The Human Condition

For two thousand years we have been talking our way past the event in which we and our Accompanist named ourselves, in which we self-identified, or "came out," so to speak. And in this latter day, the language no longer speaks to most of us. It is moribund, perhaps dead. To those who want to keep it that way, hey, pretend I'm from Mars. To those who are willing to risk a change, I say let the dead bury their dead. Let us attempt to revive the language. The pilgrimage is hard, our progress is doubtful, the end looks grim, and we need to talk.[1]

We need to talk about what grabs us. Each of us is grasped by some higher good, truth, cause, whatever. Something most important, some ultimate concern. Something he or she relies on, depends on, believes in, or trusts. Something which, if threatened, brings anxiety, if destroyed, despair, if affirmed, reassurance. This state of ultimate concern is Faith, a state of being which includes piety, doubt, and unbelief. It is as much a part of our being as Space and Time, which give us a place to be and a while to be there. For shorthand to name what we're ultimately concerned about, a short word, God.

We can have gods — gods like our employers who threaten or disappoint, gods like success who disappear, gods like our nations who may abuse or ignore, gods like truth who are limited by what we can conceive them to be. Or we can have God, the great undefined term, that fishes us out of our desperate situation by the hook of our Faith.

Our situation is the Human Condition of estrangement or alienation from ourselves, each other, nature, and God. Let me give some examples. We are estranged from nature: If I spit on your cheek, you will wipe it off - but you probably don't compulsively pick up other people's litter. If you were more acutely aware of your participation in (the opposite of estrangement from) nature, litter or any kind of pollution of the world would bother you as much as filth on your body. We are estranged from each other - do you know anyone's innermost thoughts and feelings, even those of someone you love? We are estranged from ourselves - do you always know why you do everything you do, and why you feel what you feel? We are estranged from God - what does your participation in God feel like?

You can name other estrangements than these four. Karl Marx noted that we are estranged (alienated) from the work of our hands and minds. How many of us can say after a year's work - look at what I made, isn't it great? Just be careful which estrangements you concentrate on, why, and what you do about them.

The condition of estrangement is necessary for what we call normal life, because without it, you would be dead or institutionalized. If you could not distinguish between your self and what is other than your self, you might mistake an oncoming car for a figment of your imagination, and forget to get out of the way. Better to put you in some safe place if you were in that condition.

This state of estrangement from ourselves, each other, nature, and God is what Judeo-Christians call Sin, and Buddhists call Delusion. It isn't something someone else did. It's who we are. It is ordinary Human Consciousness as we know it and share it. In the allegory of Genesis our Human Consciousness is called the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the apple we ate from the tree.

Ah, the Apple! In eating it, the first people symbolically chose Human Consciousness, a choice we all make after the fact. We act and feel as though we had chosen Human Consciousness. We embrace it, we die rather than give it up, and we teach it to our kids. We each eat the apple, given us by our first and most beloved tempters, Mom and Dad.

Of course, Mom and Dad have to work with difficult material. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, (Book 1, Chapter 7, Mentor Books, New York, 1963, translated by Rex Warner) describes at length how we are born into Sin. Every baby is an egotist, ready to sacrifice everyone else to its desires, like the retarded man who raped his neighbor and then stabbed her to death so that she wouldn't "tell on" him. That is to say, we are born into a condition of estrangement - some of which our parents heal, the rest of which they educate to resemble their own.

Our parents are aided in this project of education by our desire to be good, something planted in us by Providence (which you can attribute to either genetics or God). Because we desire at least to think of ourselves as good, many people think that we actually are good, and use humanism as a basis for moral philosophy. Since the example above or say, the existence of war, undermines their basic premise, I view their arguments with suspicion.

If all this sounds grim, remember that Sin, like Faith, is a state of being, a part of the Human Condition. And if we each learn our particular style of Sin from our parents, we also learn Faith by trusting in their unconditional love, for a while, if we're lucky. After that we discover, "Life's a bitch, and then you die."



Which brings up the Serpent. Believe it or not, there are people in the world who will do bad things to you for no particular reason. They are hooked on acting out of their own willfulness. They really get into this estrangement business. To them, making their estrangement worse feels good. Consider, for example, the employee who sabotages the careers of those with whom he or she doesn't get along, because the exercise of such power makes him or her feel more secure. (I could use criminals as examples, but criminals are not necessarily worse than non-criminals, they're just less socially acceptable.) Such people are going overboard with their attachment to Human Consciousness - they are getting into Human Evil. The tempting serpent is a fine symbol for this phenomenon.

I think that the serpent may also be a cover-opposite in the following sense. The customary interpretation of the serpent is that it represents the devil tempting the original couple to disobey God and obtain knowledge, to develop a consciousness independent of God. But Human Evil is characterized by a demonic will to selective unconsciousness. The story of the serpent in Genesis may thus be an expression of the writer's own Will to Unconsciousness, in which he or she condemns Humanity's receipt of consciousness.

I like to use racism, sexism, and homophobia to illustrate this concept of Human Evil as a Will to Unconsciousness.[2] One variety of white racist tries to assert his self-worth by lynching his victim, because he dis-identifies with him - the black man is "one of them, not one of us." Another type of white racist can campaign tirelessly against abortion, without even thinking of all the black inner city babies who die needlessly from lack of prenatal medical care. Not all white racists hate blacks, some just forget all about blacks as they get lost in their abstractions. And of course, black racists claim that only whites can be racist. In all cases, a will to selective unconsciousness closes the mind of the racist, sexist, or homophobic. They are like sleepwalkers who will do anything, sometimes even lie and kill, rather than risk waking up.

Now in Genesis, when Adam and Eve attain Human Consciousness, God kicks them out of Eden (I told you we'd need to be institutionalized) and into a world where it isn't safe, where things don't always work the way we want them to. This is presented as a punishment,[3] but think about it. For a child to become a fully independent, free, and functioning adult Human Being, he or she has to endure the pain of leaving home, and learning to make his or her way in the world. Only then, when he or she is independent of the parent, can he or she be free to know the parent as the parent is - rather than merely as a granter/witholder of the child's wishes.

The nice thing about the physical world is that we can make our way in it. It is a rational place - much of it can be understood by the methods of science. And when we understand the world, we gain power in it. We do not have to propitiate God to make our universe work. Because of this, we are free to know God as God, rather than merely as the granter/witholder of our wishes. This freedom comes at a terrible price - fire, flood, famine, disease, and other disasters - collectively called Natural Evil by theologians, and our doing nasty things - Human Evil. Our freedom is presented as punishment in Genesis, because it feels that way sometimes. It is called the Fall, and it was so serious that all Creation fell with us.



In short, the Human Condition of estrangement (Sin) and the possibility of Evil in its Human and Natural varieties establish our radical freedom in our relationship with God. That's the bad news. The good news is that our radical freedom is the freedom to know God through our Human Condition of ultimate concern (Faith).

Now to really know something, you must participate in it. Those who really know music are musicians, those who really know chess are chess players, those who really know science are scientists, etc. So when I say we are free to "know God," I mean that we are free to participate in our ultimate concern. And I mean participation as inter-being, as antidote to being estranged, apart from.
Participation in God! An outrageous concept, familiar to Buddhism in which everybody can become a Buddha, but foreign to Christianity! An uncomfortable concept, too, for when Jesus spoke of it ("I am in the Father and the Father in me...") people crucified him. After all, participating in God risks God's participating in us - we might be overwhelmed, annihilated, we might loose control of ourselves - it might feel like Hell! At least our estrangement is familiar, comfortable, protecting from that awful fear. And so we shield ourselves with a little willful misunderstanding, a little Will to Unconsciousness.

But is it too late? Maybe God participates in us already. I would find it hard to say anything good about a god who simply watched me suffer without feeling it with me and through me. Now Jesus called ordinary people his brothers and sisters, children of God, and himself the Son of Humanity. Perhaps he was a person who was conscious of his participation in God and God's participation in him, and who declared this state of consciousness to be possible for us - indeed promised it to us.
I call this participation Grace. When we are made aware of it, it may have the character of Unconditional Love, or of Judgment.


Judgment and Redemption

Grace, or participation in God (or God's participation in oneself — it cuts both ways), can feel bad. After all, participation implies knowing, and knowing God implies knowing something of what God knows about me. If I can't stand knowing certain things about me, if I spend a lot of energy denying those things, if I re-invent my entire perception of the world so I won't have to notice those things - Grace will come as a threat. In our cultures, so many of which are shame-driven, having one's pretenses exposed is the ultimate punishment - so much so, that some of us will face anything except that exposure even when it happens. America's fallen televangelists, all of whom are planning comebacks, are some of our more glamorous examples of how the power of denial can resist ridicule, financial loss, and even jail.

This knowing who you are implied by participation in God — if it is against your will, it feels like Judgment. Now if you experience God's Grace as Judgment, you will avoid awareness of that participation, so as to avoid the terrible feeling of it. This may leave you in a state called Despair, the "outer darkness," but you can probably paper over your awareness of that state, too. Then you can really be bad. To illuminate this point let me now praise a famous atheist.

Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus,[4] a brilliant description of the Human Condition of finitude in Time. In it, he determinedly pursues the question of Life's Meaning without any reference to God, and concludes that it has no meaning - that Life is Absurd. The Absurd Man (the person aware of this absurdity) devotes his life to a continual rebellion against this meaninglessness, and even comes to experience all of life more deeply because of it - to revel in it. Dare I say that experiencing all of life more deeply is indeed participating in it? Dare I say that the book's closing line, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy," signals a breakthrough in spite of Life's Absurdity, a leap of Faith, a glimmer of awareness of one's participation in one's ultimate concern?

On the other hand, many religious people use the three-letter word God to avoid just such awareness! They prefer to think of God as wholly somebody else, who makes decisions about reward and punishment according to predictable rules. This way they can determine who is "saved" by observing who is following the rules. They can allow themselves to feel confident of God's mercy without risk of participation in God. In particular, they can judge others without letting themselves know their own Judgment. Jesus made fun of them when he said, "First remove the log from your own eye, so that you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye!" It's this false rule-based (rather than God-centered) idea of Judgment that enabled the Inquisition to burn heretics, thinking it was in better taste than crucifying them.

This knowing who you are implied by being aware of your participation in God - if the knowing is voluntary, it feels like complete acceptance. After all, you know who you are, God knows who you are, and you are still kept in participation. Another name for this complete acceptance is the experience of Unconditional Love, or Redemption.

Unconditional Love sounds great, but the fear of Judgment is in us all. We all have our little secrets, even from ourselves. And so, we have to ease ourselves into the experience - to stimulate our eros to lubricate the interaction. This activity is called meditation by Buddhists. Christians, Jews, and Muslims call it Prayer.



Now the popular idea of prayer in Christianity is intoning a stream of words. Jesus criticized this practice and instituted what is now called The Lord's Prayer, which has brevity as its most obvious virtue. The idea is to get past the words to the business of prayer - of intentional awareness of our participation in God and God's participation in us. Because our own fear of Judgment (being made to know who we are) stands in the way of our awareness, voluntarily knowing who we are - Confession - is one of the tools we use to help us pray. This Confession goes beyond a mere recital of misdeeds, or of good deeds left undone, or even of a blanket statement covering things we have yet to acknowledge to ourselves. Confession is participation in ourselves - the antidote to self-estrangement.

If we voluntarily know who we are, who do we find ourselves to be? A partial answer is found in the African-American spiritual which asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

Let your imagination travel back in time and space to Jerusalem during the week of the Crucifixion. Where would you fit into the scene? What role would you play? Would you be Peter - ready to pick fights, only to chicken out when the going really gets tough? The soldiers who were just following orders when they drove the nails? Judas - wanting the security of conventional authority more than anything else? Pilate - who was trying to please his bosses by keeping law and order? Herod - earnestly seeking, but when the Truth comes in an unexpected form, throwing it away? The priests - who believed correct doctrine to be more important than compassion? One of the crowd, too self-effacing and too afraid to interfere? Maybe one of the two apostles who gave up on their man and sneaked out of town after the execution was over? You see, at the Crucifixion, we humans came out to Christ as crucifiers.

Of course, the other fear we can have is better called awe, as in awful, because God as the "Wholly Other," the Mysterium Tremendum,[5] is difficult to snuggle up to. Buddhists and Hindus are familiar with awe from the section of the Bhagavad Gita[6] in which Krishna appears to the warrior Arjuna in his pure or "unmanifested" form (rather than as Arjuna's friend and chariot driver) and scares Arjuna so that his hair stands on end. Adoration is a way of using our capacity for love to overcome awe, which for Christians means adoring God's participation in Jesus.

Now for Christians, God as Jesus during parts of his life is easy to love. The baby Jesus who knew our helplessness, who needed our love to survive. The crucified Jesus who experienced our own condition at its most painful by knowing defeat and death without God.[7] The resurrected Jesus who forgives us even though he knows us at our worst, who undoes our evil, and who invites us to participate in him. (Christians would do well to remember that Jesus during his ministry was often hard to tolerate, because he radically challenged our attachment to our estrangement, our Sin - he didn't get crucified because everyone thought he was a nice guy.)

God as Jesus is easy to thank for his forgiveness and his invitation to us to join with him in spite of our being crucifiers. Thanksgiving for God's Forgiveness (God's participation in us in spite of who we are) eases our Confession, and stimulates our Adoration. Lastly we have Supplication - asking God to look after our cares, giving our less than ultimate concerns to God. It is a way of unburdening ourselves of distractions to prayer.

And so we have ACTS, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication,[8] as devices of prayer, not for God, but for us. As techniques, we have speaking, singing, dancing, silence, sitting, and all of the Eastern forms of meditation,[9] and Western forms of contemplation. We also have everyday life.



When we use the language of faith to describe what we have experienced so far on our pilgrimage of life, we bear Witness to the truth as we see it. The activity of Witness has been cheapened by those who put dogmatics before truth, and who believe the truth is so limited that it can be expressed in only one set of words and in only one style. I would like to revive an idea from the Apologists, the earliest Christian theologians: God is one, and Truth is one; therefore, all truth is of God's Truth. This includes the truth of science, of history, of philosophy and logic, and of subjective personal experience (which includes art), as well as the truth of faith. In fact, the various styles of truth help us to correct our religious ideas when we stray from the truth.

Now the point of reviving the dead language of faith is to enable us to talk about our thoughts, emotions, and experiences regarding our ultimate concern. By doing so we can help keep our less than ultimate concerns - the ones we tend to fight over - in perspective. The dispassionate languages of philosophy and psychology can be of help, but we can use the language of faith, with its emotionally charged symbols to express what really gets us.

For example, we all know deep down that we live a heartbeat away from death and a thought away from madness. Since this is too terrible to think about, you probably shove this idea into some dark corner of your mind until accident, loss, or illness brings it roaring out. But hiding from it is the way of self-deception, which is ultimately the way of fear and despair. How to face it squarely, how to find the courage to have the in-spite-of-everything kind of joy that returns after any loss, whether of possessions, loved ones, health, or life?

You could propitiate some invented god, pretending he/she/it may protect you, at least for a while. That's what you get with the language of belief. On the other hand, religious philosophers as far back as Lao-Tzu fought against this idea with the saying, "Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat all creatures as straw dogs."[10] As I said above, the possibility of evil is the price of freedom, which is apparently necessary for soul-making.

You might do better just to ask for a little companionship - which we can help each other to seek with the language of faith. The faith expressed by St. Paul when he wrote, "I am certain of this: neither death nor life ... nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and God's love, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord." Or as Muhammad recited, "And certainly We created man, and ... We are nearer to him than his life-vein." In other words, we can derive strength and comfort from a sense of being constantly and lovingly accompanied. A childish delusion, perhaps, but one shared by such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, and many others as the source of their perseverance, courage, and happiness. It calls us to the radical courage and joy that we all need in order to really do anything - like treating ourselves and each other with the kind of kindness that makes peace.


Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

I hope that these few definitions may help people of faith to translate their particular idioms of faith to one another, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, or of whatever faith in which people hope to participate in ultimate Truth. I would now like to make a few remarks that may facilitate such dialogue between Christians and Buddhists.

I've heard Christians say that Buddhism has no God and no sense of Sin. I think that Buddhists insist so strongly on receiving awareness of their participation in God that they refuse to name God as separate from themselves and creation. I think they consider the naming of God to be a symptom and a cause of estrangement from God - in other words, they think naming God is itself Sinful (deluded or estranged). The Buddhist concept of Delusion is equivalent to the Judeo-Christian concept of Sin with the shame de-emphasized. The removal of shame from the center of attention makes it easier for the Buddhist to confront his or her Delusion, to Confess.

There are many other things Buddhists and Christians have in common, including a sense of social activism. In comparison to the Christian Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, beginning Zen students vow to liberate all beings. The Ten Oxherding Pictures[11] (which illustrate the process of coming to Enlightenment) show the sage returning to the market square to help the people - and who can forget the Buddhist monks who burned themselves to protest the Diem regime in Vietnam? The Buddhist emphasis on Enlightenment before social activism is similar to the idea that one should learn to swim before diving in to rescue someone else from drowning.

What the Christians uniquely have, that the Buddhists lack, is Scandal. The central scandal in Christianity is the ongoing reaction of humanity, especially religious humanity, to the scandal of the God Who Shows Up As A Human. Jesus Christ, the iconoclast, is made into an icon. His humanism is transformed into theism, and his anti-dogmatic, anti-legalistic, anti-institutionalist teachings are transformed into the dogma and legalisms that support one of the most enduring of all human institutions - the church. The contradiction between the need to institutionalize Christ's message in order to transmit it and the content of the message itself testifies to the power of our estrangement to distort any truth that can be spoken. That we can still hear the message testifies to God's participation in us breaking through our estrangement.

A pale version of this tension endures in Buddhism, which renounces dogma and legalism by incorporating "nots" in so many of its expressions. There are concepts of No-Mind and Non-Action, which any Zen devotee will tell you are not what you think they are. Or are not. Buddhist "nots" are their concession to the power of our estrangement to distort any truth that can be spoken. Therefore nothing is said, and the language of Buddhism becomes a code that takes more years to understand than the reality about which it does not speak. And yet Buddhists have communicated truth from teacher to student for millennia.

I think Christians and Buddhists can enrich each other's experiences of the truth, of our concerns both ultimate and mundane. We differ in details like Reincarnation,[12] which is an Eastern expression of the same anxiety that Westerners express with concepts like Heaven and Hell (which Jesus used to great effect). Nevertheless, we are grasped by the same Truth, in spite of ourselves.


Christians, Jews, and Muslims

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims is what we have in common. We think we know who God is, and that God is just like us, except smarter, more powerful, and sometimes more kind or just. The insistence that God be as wedded to a particular personality as we are is a kind of idolatry, a making of God in our own image. We even imbue our idol of God's personality with our own prejudices, like homophobia, sexism, and racism. It is also idolatrous in that we make our ideas of God's personality more important than God - so much so, that if given a choice between God and our conceptions, we choose our mental images over God. Finally, it is estranged in that by assigning God a specific personality (or personalities) we distance ourselves from awareness of our participation in God. To use Martin Buber's language, God becomes a He instead of a Thou - someone we talk about rather than to. Joseph Campbell summarizes all this in a footnote[13] which I quote here:
This recognition of the secondary nature of the personality of whatever deity is worshipped is characteristic of most of the traditions of the world. In Christianity, Mohammedanism, and Judaism, however, the personality of the divinity is taught to be final - which makes it comparatively difficult for members of these communities to go beyond the limitations of their own anthropomorphic divinity. The result has been, on the one hand, a general obfuscation of the symbols, and on the other, a god-ridden bigotry unmatched elsewhere in the history of religion. For a discussion of the possible origin of this aberration, see Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism.[14]
In other words, we find much to argue about with each other, because we make our concepts of God as small as we are. A more constructive approach might be to view our ideas of God's personality as symbolic devices, as ways we and God choose to interact, and as pointing beyond personality to God. Then we can begin to talk.

And yet it seems Islamic Fundamentalists would silence dialogue with violence. As long as they use the Qur'an to appoint themselves God's avengers rather than choose The Victory, they condemn themselves and their neighbors to war. The Qur'an proclaims as The Victory not a conquest, but a truce - which became a victory through the friendships it made possible. Rather than consider this, Islamic Fundamentalists have persecuted the Bahai since they began Muslim-interfaith dialogue more than one hundred fifty years ago.


The Language of War

Fundamentalism seems to be a religion in itself - the content may change from place to place, but the form is usually the same. The theme is that religion should be a set of opinions that one holds in order to be a member of the in-group, the "saved," as distinct from the out-group, the "lost." The strength with which one holds the prescribed opinions is taken to be a measure of the holder's virtue. In turn, the strength of opinion is measured by the degree to which the holder conforms to certain expectations of behavior (individual and communal), and especially by the extent to which the holder attempts to persuade others to join the in-group, or at least to coerce them into exhibiting desired behaviors. It is this last characteristic, the desire to coerce behavior, that leads Fundamentalists to reach for the blunt instrument of the law - that makes Fundamentalism a political force - in India, the Islamic nations, Israel, and America.

The absurdity of using the law to coerce righteousness is most patent in Hinduism and Christianity. Hindus produced the Bhagavad Gita with its doctrine of involvement in the world without attachment to the world, which stands in stark contrast to the sight of Hindu Fundamentalists attacking Muslims in an attempt to destroy a mosque which they believe stands over Ram's birthplace, or the demands of Hindu Fundamentalists seeking to establish their faith as India's state religion. Similarly, Christ's victory, achieved by allowing his opponents to overpower him, contrasts strikingly with the attempt of Christian Fundamentalists to seize political power in America in order to control sexuality, language, science, and education.

This power seeking is motivated by making the holding of opinions and the following of rules the ultimate concern of the believer. Now if our ultimate concern is God, making anything else our ultimate concern, including our beliefs or our ethical concerns, is idolatry - becoming ultimately concerned with less than ultimate things.[15] Such idolatry sets the believer up for experiencing anxiety when the idols are challenged, because the believer wants more than anything to avoid experiencing doubt, disappointment, and "loss of face" if the idols are exposed. Therefore the believer protects his or her idolatry by attacking those who appear to threaten it. In many countries such attacks take the form of individual and communal violence. In America and Israel they take the form of political power struggles.[16]

Therefore, when I look to the language of faith to speak peace, I mean faith as a state of being, rather than belief, which is an act of embracing opinions. The language of belief has been, to my knowledge, the language of war.


The Grammar of Peace

If I look to the language of faith for the vocabulary of peace, I look for its grammar to a man who, when he lets his hair grow, looks like the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. The Reverend John E. Tompkins is a licensed psychotherapist who teaches a course called, "Teamwork Communications Skills," at my laboratory. I have adapted the material below from his course notes, with his permission. He is also working on a book, currently entitled, The Emperor's New Words: Leadership, Communication, and Self-Propelled Personal Growth. See also greenlanguage.com!

First, consider the following example: You come home from work to hear your spouse complain, "Your mother thinks she's too good to eat my cooking!" This said in the presence of your mother creates instant conflict. How about an approach a'la Joe Friday - just the facts? Suppose your spouse had said, "I cooked up a nice pot roast for us, and your mother made rice and steamed vegetables for herself." Little invitation to conflict there. Let's look more closely.

In the first sentence, an inference about your mother's inner mental processes is stated as if it were a fact. The underlying external reality, the facts themselves - your mother may be hoping to lower her serum cholesterol by avoiding red meat - are suppressed in favor of the inference. Moreover, the underlying internal reality, your spouse's anger at an inferred insult to his or her culinary skill is also lost in the transmission. And that is serious because your spouse is losing a bit of self. It's easy to do such things in English. Our politicians and press do it all the time, and it's probably even easier in other languages which value indirect forms of expression. Fortunately, there is a way out.

Let us consider that people have observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. An observation is a statement of observable fact - a description of something that could in principle be photographed. "My computer is on the desktop," for example. "My computer is not on the desktop," describes a situation that cannot register on a photograph, because a photograph can only show a desktop with some books and papers on it - who would guess that I expected a computer to be there? Such a statement is a not-observation. I can use it to imply an accusation - that the person I'm addressing is somehow responsible for maintaining my computer on the desktop, and, in a failure of vigilance, has allowed it to vanish. Such a not-observation might evoke a reaction along the lines of, "Am I your computer's keeper?" and start an argument. So, I try to stay with observations, because we can more easily agree on what is than on what is not.

Thoughts are statements of mental processes, ideas or opinions which are presented as such. For example: "I think I benefit from helping others." The corresponding not-construction is the not-thought, as in, "I don't think she cares." The hearer can only guess what the speaker thinks she does feel.

Similarly, feelings are statements of emotion or sensation presented as such. For example, "I am very angry," or "I feel warm." Not-feelings are statements about what the speaker does not feel, which often contain an "implied should." For example: "I don't feel happy with her leadership." This leaves open what the speaker does feel - respect, awe, disappointment, terror, etc., and implies that the leader should somehow "make" the speaker feel happy. This "implied should" can be read as accusing the leader of failure. Moreover the idea that the leader can make the speaker feel a certain way is dishonest, because it attempts to displace responsibility for the speaker's choosing to feel an emotion onto the leader.

Finally, specific-action wants are statements in which I say what I desire in specific, do-able, observable terms. Such statements describe a feeling of desire concerning a possible reality that can be observed or measured. For example: "I want you to attend our meeting next Tuesday." The hearer can fulfill the want by performing a specific action, which the hearer and the speaker can both observe and acknowledge. Not-wants are statements like, "I don't want you running in the street," in which the speaker states what is not wanted. The implication is that the hearer should try doing random things until he or she meets the speaker's approval.

Now you may notice that we English-speakers make rather little use of these grammatical constructions. We tend to favor other constructions which allow us to "dis-own" our observations, thoughts, wants, and feelings - that is to dis-own (or discard) our true selves. The not-constructions above are part of the repertoire. The rest is supplied by substitution.

Substitution of a thought for an observation is called an inference. For example: "Your mind is obviously elsewhere." This statement contains the inference that the hearer is inattentive, without stating the factual basis for that inference. The hearer might think the previous statement more offensive than an observation like, "I notice that you look away from me when I talk to you." Of course, I can really get someone's dander up with the not-inference, the substitution of a not-thought for a fact, such as "I see that you don't care what I say."

I could also substitute an inference for a want, using an inference-want like, "I want you to listen more carefully." A specific-action want might be, "I want you to look at me when I talk to you." The latter construction is much more helpful to someone from a culture in which attentiveness is signaled by looking away from the speaker. Not-inference-wants are statements in which a not-inference is presented as a future observable, as in, "I don't want you acting bored when I'm talking."
Finally, we come to the ways in which we can evade expressing our emotions, feeling-thought mergers. Here a thought is substituted for a feeling, as in, "I feel taken advantage of." The speaker may feel any of a number of emotions, which are glossed over in favor of the inference "taken advantage of," which in turn glosses over any possible observations that the listener might judge independently. Of course, we can also have not-feeling-thought mergers, as in, "I don't feel appreciated in this group," which use a not-construction to add the accusation of an implied should - in this case that the group should somehow make the speaker feel something, and has failed to live up to its duty.

Mr. Tompkins defines owned messages as ones in which the speaker acknowledges responsibility for (or ownership of) his or her own observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants. Conversely, he defines dis-owned messages as ones in which the speaker evades such responsibility. This evasion is typically expressed in the form of the above not-constructions, inferences, feeling-thought mergers, and inference-wants. Given that Mr. Tompkins estimates that English-speakers typically use about 80% dis-owned constructions, you might imagine that we often misplace the truth itself, as well as our true selves.

I would now like to put all this in the theological context of the previous parts of this piece. I believe that if I acknowledge or "own up to" who I am, I feel God's Presence as accepting and loving - as Forgiveness. Conversely I believe that if I seek to deny or evade who I am, I will feel God's Presence as threatening and punishing - as Judgment - because in God's Presence I must ultimately fail in such evasion. A theologian might call "owning who I am" confession, and say that if I confess, God forgives, and if I deny, God judges. So I try to make owning my observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants part of my spiritual life, and encourage others to do the same. (Note that the statement, "There is no God," is a not-inference.)

Now when I'm in a conversation I forgo classifying statements according to the definitions above. I simply listen for the "nots", the "shoulds" (actual or implied), and the substitutions of thoughts for feelings, or thoughts for facts. I also note the substitution of "you", "we", or "somebody" when the speaker really means "I", and the "but" which implies a "not." The question is now, "How can I use my awareness of owned and disowned speech to help make peace?"
In negotiating situations, I can decode the parties' dis-owned speech for what I think they mean, translate my decoding into owned wording, and test my understanding by speaking my "owned" paraphrase to them. I find that this helps the parties to the negotiation (including myself, if I am one of them) to come to a greater understanding of themselves, as well as each other.

I note that the dis-owned style is deeply ingrained in our culture, including our religious institutions. This is useful when it helps us to communicate in a shorthand that everyone understands. It risks conflict when many of us are using the same shorthand to mean different things.
To illustrate this last idea, consider classifying the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) in terms of "not-want", "inference-want", etc. Then, consider paraphrasing them as owned specific-action wants. Would many of your friends agree as to the paraphrasing? When I tried this I found that my paraphrases were long, culturally and historically relative, individualistic, and difficult for me to remember. I suspect that the disowned style may be God's way of putting me on the spot - in order to understand and keep the commandments (which are memorable and timeless as stated) I must own them.



  1. For my thoughts in this section I owe much to Paul Tillich's Dynamics of Faith, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, and The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 1952, and Roshi Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, New York, 1980. This section is a condensation and amalgamation of their ideas, with a few of my own. Scott Peck has informed me that they are also similar to ideas he states in A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered, Bantam Books, 1993. One might suspect that our ideas have converged because they are expressions of what Harold Bloom calls The American Religion (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992). On the other hand, I suspect Dr. Bloom of some strong misreading of our cultures confrontation with the Gospel.
  2. On the other hand, when one encounters human evil in its collective form - a malevolent crowd of otherwise nice people - it is easy to form the impression of some transpersonal organizing demonic force or personality. Anthony Stevens, in The Roots of War: a Jungian Perspective (Paragon House, New York, 1989), presents an interesting account of the psycho-social mechanisms by which such crowds are gathered. I think each one of us must search his or her heart to find the cause, however.
  3. A perhaps deeper truth is that, considering how we act and think, and the ways in which we abuse the idea of God, viewing the Fall as punishment may be more reasonable than many of us would like to suppose. See "Killing Christ" at this web site.
  4. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage Books, New York, 1955.
  5. For more on these concepts see Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1975.
  6. There are many suitable translations. I use Eknath Easwaran's translation, Nilgiri Press, Petaluma, CA, 1985, as well as the commentary on the Gita by Mohandas K. Ghandi, Living from the Heart, Siftsoft, Pembroke Pines, Fl, 1985. The reference is to section 11, a misleading translation of which was remembered by Oppenheimer as he witnessed the worlds first human initiated nuclear explosion.
  7. Mark 15:34 quotes Jesus last words on the Cross as, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
  8. For this handy mnemonic I am indebted to Rev. Jack Schieman.
  9. See Anthony de Mello's Sadhana: A Way to God, Image Books, Garden City, NY, 1984, for examples of Christian meditation exercises.
  10. Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao Ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks, Ballantine Books, New York, 1989.
  11. See The Three Pillars of Zen, cited above.
  12. Reincarnation is accepted by Jewish Kabbalists, however. See Perle Epstein, Kabbalah, The Way of the Jewish Mystic, Shambalah Publications, Boston, 1978. I also note Jesus' odd pronouncement that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matthew 11:14).
  13. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1973, p258.
  14. Available from Vintage Books, New York, 1967.
  15. Ethical systems suffer from the same incompleteness as systems of axioms in mathematics (see the discussion of Goedel's Theorem in Science and Faith, at this web site). That is, whatever a person's ethics, it is always possible to put him or her in a situation in which his or her actions will be morally ambiguous, at best. (On the other hand, if life were simple enough to fit into a rule-book, it would have no purpose.) Thus, while living ethically is necessary to participate in human societies (we absorb the ethics of our societies to fit in), or to even begin living an authentic life, living ethically as an ultimate concern exposes the ethical person to anxiety and disappointment when he or she of necessity fails to live ethically. It is then that concepts like forgiveness, that transcend ethics, become important or even understandable. "I know that nothing good dwells within me," (Romans 7:18) is the ultimate conclusion of the ethical person. In other words, ethics are a necessary beginning rather than an end in themselves.
  16. Such idolatry is not exclusively the property of Fundamentalists, although they tend to be the most overtly violent. In America, some "politically correct" people are idolatrously concerned with rewriting our history in terms of a limited sense of justice based on race and class.

03 September 1994

Stephen Ministry as Evangelism

Listening for the Word

Years ago, I was an active Stephen Minister, and then a Stephen Leader. Since then, my ministerial urges have been responsible for this website. I recommend Stephen Ministry or any other kind of wholesome action or discipline as part of a balanced religious life. This is adapted from a talk I gave in my former congregation.

The typical Stephen Ministry recipient is a strong person who must bear a burden of pain, physical or emotional illness, or personal misfortune that no one should have to bear alone. He or she has been reminded suddenly that we are fragile: that we live a heartbeat away from death and a thought away from despair.

As a Stephen Minister, I try to remind the people I visit, or "helpees" as we call them, that we are also surrounded inside and outside of ourselves by Grace: that, if I may repeat words ascribed to Jesus in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, "The Kingdom of God is already spread upon the Earth, but people do not see it." To me the Kingdom of God is like the moment when Dorothy opens the door into the Land of Oz, and suddenly a world that was black-and-white and shades of gray is now in glorious color. It's available to you right now, perhaps when the doors open and you step out of this building.

It's not a change in the world so much as a change in seeing it.

But since no amount of preaching can make a person, especially a troubled person, realize that he or she has already been Graced — that he or she already walks in God's Kingdom, that every door opens into Oz — I don't preach to my helpees. In fact, what I have to say is unimportant. What my helpees have to say is what needs to be said. And what needs to be heard.

I don't tell my helpees, "God hears you." Instead, I hang in there with them, I listen, I ask questions, I try to understand. And the simple fact of my active, listening, caring presence sometimes seems to remind them that God is present — and that they already have spiritual resources that, like Dorothy's ruby slippers, can bring them home any time. And that they are never truly alone with their burden.

They and God do the rest. Sometimes my helpees witness to me of the ways God has worked in their lives, or the times they have been particularly aware of His presence. Such times are really special to me, because I need to hear that message. I need to be reminded that I walk in the Kingdom, too. And I am reminded — by my helpees, and by the wonderful fellowship of the other Stephen Ministers, our Stephen Leader, and our Pastor.

So I can't tell you who gets helped more by the Stephen Ministry relationship — my helpees, or myself. Certainly by doing something, by being there for someone else, I have experienced something about God's Grace and God's Kingdom that I have tried to share with you. My wife has even remarked that I seemed to become a nicer person after getting involved in Stephen Ministry.

I've also learned that I can't walk in the Kingdom just by being preached to, even by the most talented pastor. I have to get up and walk, figuratively speaking — to do something to have to get involved. Stephen Ministry is my way of getting involved. Perhaps it will be your way, too.

In closing, I would like to share with you a fragment I wrote after a session with a man who needed to hear a Truth that I could not speak to him.

And there it was, silence. Not the swift sweet silence of contemplation, but the tense slow silence of the NOW stopping our conversation. Speak to me, I thought, not to him, but to Him. And he spoke His Truth, which he could no longer ignore, because he himself had spoken it. Later He and I left, arm in arm, and He stayed with him, as well. It's amazing what happens when you take Him with you into Stephen Ministry.