“You will know them by their fruits.”

It has been a sad few days since the Orlando shooting at the Pulse gay bar. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to address the intersecting issues that arose in the aftermath of the shooting. The issues around gun control, rising Islamophobia, the apparent self-hatred of the shooter, and the ways in which people are talking about (or not talking about) the issues at hand.

As I’ve been thinking about this, a set of verses from Matthew come to mind:

Matthew 7:15-20 says:

15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Now of course, these verses are often used by conservative Christians to beat people over the head with, and tell people they are going to hell. But when you really read the gospels, and listen to what Jesus said, you can’t mistake what these fruits really are. The fruits are acts of kindness and compassion to people no matter who they are, nonviolence, welcoming the stranger, and taking care of the poor, hungry, sick and imprisoned.

And I keep thinking about our politicians and public figures whose only fruits are fear, hatred and delusion, even as they speak platitudes, and send their “thoughts and prayers” while sowing more fear and hatred. How do we hold them accountable for these fruits? How do we make it clear that we will accept nothing but words and actions that decrease violence and increase compassion for everyone in our country, no matter who they are, or where they are from? I don’t have any answers immediately, but maybe, sort of like the far from perfect “Politifact” we need something that can measure and publicize the fruits of those who wield political, economic and social power in this country.




A Wisdom School, Overview

This post starts out talking about a character in my writing, but it’s not about my writing, or writing, or even science fiction. Bear with me.

In my Casitian Universe Series, I have a character named Jal’end’a. She’s Casitian (from another planet, for those of you who aren’t familiar,) and before she arrived on Earth, she started out as a physicist, then moved to more spiritual pursuits (not so unusual on the planet of her birth.) She became a contemplative.

Here’s an excerpt of the novel about that chapter in her life:

Jal’end’a hadn’t started out studying religions. Ever since she was a teenager, Jal’end’a had been on a search to understand the universe’s origins. She had originally decided to study physics, and had been trained by some of the best teachers on Casiti. She had remained unsatisfied by the process of translation of texts written by the ancients, and the theoretical and experimental approaches to understanding what many thought of as the earliest moments of the universe.

The deeper Casitian physicists delved into the origins of the universe, the more they found the face of the divine. Some physicists were working to use their methodologies to understand the divine, as Jal’end’a’s major teacher did. She had even begun to work with a number of other teachers in crafting theories that unified various fields of knowledge: from origins of the universe, lyre’es’gkin, theories of the mind and brain, and other phenomena.

In the end, Jal’end’a felt the call to go within herself, to sit, to contemplate, to connect deeply with the divine wisdom inside of her in order to understand the divine wisdom of creation. So she withdrew from science, requested permission to be supported by the community, and lived alone, in a small dwelling far from the city.

In the first novel, she was recruited to embark on a path of talking with mystics of many Earth traditions. She helps the Casitians understand how the mystical underpinnings of every religion on Earth basically share very common wisdom, even though it was obvious to her that the way that most of the religions operated didn’t seem to reflect that wisdom.

Of course, for many of you, the second paragraph in the excerpt might bring you up short, especially if you are an atheist, or if you agree with Stephen J. Gould’s premise of “Non Overlapping Magisteria” that is, science and religion function in non-overlapping spaces, and one can’t use one set of tools and ideas to delve into the realm of the other.  I’m going to go into much, much more detail on that in my next post in this series.

In between the first series of Casitian novels and the second (what I’m writing now) she founds a “school” (which on Casiti is like a religious sect, educational institution, research institution, and monastery all melded together) which brings together what she learned about Earth’s religions, with what Casitians had done for thousands of years, into a coherent set of ideas and principles. And in writing the second series, and delving deeply into the school she founds (the main character of the second series is a member, and later leader of this “school”,) I’ve come to realize that the school that she founds in my imagination is a school I’d want to belong to, here, now, on Earth, at this time. I guess that’s not so surprising.

Wisdom schools (although different, here) have existed in the past. I’ve been reading a great book by Cynthia Bourgeault, called “The Wisdom Way of Knowing.” I’d highly recommend it. Here’s a salient quote:

You will find the “practice” part of the Wisdom tradition still at the base of all the great world religions. It’s remarkable how, no matter which spiritual path you pursue, the nuts and bolts of transformation wind up looking pretty much the same: surrender, detachment, compassion, forgiveness. Whether you’re a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Sufi, or a sannyasin, you will still go through the same eye of the needle to get to where your true heart lies.

So here are the outlines of those principles, and these are the topics of each of the next seven posts in this series:

  • The magisteria (realms of knowledge) of science and spirituality (including religions, the organized variety of spirituality) do in fact, overlap. Hugely, they must. And in order for us to broaden our horizons, we must embrace wholeheartedly the principles of science (Occam’s razor, etc.), understand the scientific basis (that is, observation and trial and error, not science in the modern sense) of most traditional practices, both spiritual and medical, as well as expand and shift science in very particular ways (one example is fully and completely understanding and detailing observer/researcher bias, another is studying the placebo affect, which is a woefully ignored subject.)
  • Dive down deep into just about any religion or spiritual tradition that’s been around for more than 1,000 years, and you find some very common practices and ideas for how to live a happy, fulfilled life, without violence or strife. Bring those to the fore, study them deeply.
  • Back to science – new brain science suggests that these practices actually work in specific ways on the brain, and have the intended consequences. (Who knew?) I wrote a little about this earlier, but I’ll dive in more.
  • The primacy of experience, and the value of tradition and historical wisdom
  • Pluralism is key, for two reasons, one, more than one thing can be true at the same time.  Two, it is likely human beings actually can’t understand the universe, so multiple ways of understanding it (including metaphor) is the only way to be able to embrace it.
  • Our bodies, the bodies of all beings are sacred, and have wisdom, in and of themselves. How do we learn that wisdom?
  • Like all bodies, the planet is sacred, and as the beings capable of the most damage, we are the most responsible for its stewardship, not only for ourselves and future generations, but for other beings that we co-exist with.

Anyway, I’ll be diving into each of those topics in depth. I’d love feedback and conversation as I embark on this series.





Why Do We Still Have Zoos?

The uproar around what happened in Cincinnati reminded me of my extremely ambivalent relationship to zoos. When I was a kid, I loved going to the zoo. I really enjoyed watching the animals, and learning about animals I’d probably never see elsewhere. As I got older, I got more and more uncomfortable about zoos, and about the lives most animals lead in zoos.

Zoos have a history not unlike many other parts of our society – a history based on both privilege and colonialism. Zoos started their history as “Royal Menageries” showing off the exotic animals of far-away lands – lands often colonialized. Zoos in general weren’t open to the public until the 18th century. Human beings, usually Africans or Native Americans,  were often in zoos even into the early 20th century. In the modern era, we think of zoos primarily as institutions dedicated to preserving endangered animals, and studying wildlife, but of course zoos make most of their revenue from visits from the public.

Of course, human beings have extremely complicated relationships to animals. Some animals we keep for food, others we keep as pets. Some are hunted, some are not. Some we think are really cute, others we kill when we see them. Our decisions about which animals are expendable and which aren’t is based on a very convoluted rubric of dangerousnes (or whether they are considered pests,) use to humans, and history. And, of course, between and within cultures, there is a wide range of attitudes about animals, sometimes consistent, and largely not.

Of course, there is the completely arbitrary separation of “humans” and “animals.” We are animals, and share 99% of our DNA with our closest relatives. Many animals and birds have intellects that are on par with human children. Some animals (such as cetaceans and elephants) might have intelligences that rival ours. And of course the whole notion of “intelligence” is completely constructed by us, and our own ways of being and doing and thinking are privileged when assessing intelligence.

But on the whole, with some rare exceptions (such as the Jains,) humans have been putting our needs before the needs of non-human animals for a very long time, perhaps forever.  Now truthfully, that’s not so surprising, given our evolutionary history as omnivores, nor is it necessarily problematic in a general sense. I think when it gets problematic are two things, one, when we forget that animals feel pain and emotions. And we forget how to compassionately and sustainably use the planet’s resources, including non-human animals. When we don’t take these into consideration, we create monstrosities, and in my opinion, zoos are one.

Of course, some zoos are better than others, but the things they all have in common is that the animals are 1) Generally in climates and ecosystems different than the one they are evolved to live in 2) Not free to wander very far, or free to choose their mates, develop their family groups or choose companions and 3) exposed to a human gaze most of the time. And I know that every single person would not find that kind of life a happy one (cue reference to “Planet of the Apes.”)

One thing I’ve heard a lot in this brou-ha-ha is that the zoos are one of the only places we can try to save some endangered species. And why is that? Why can’t we really address the loss of habitat, the effect of colonialization, and the environmental disaster we’ve created.

I feel for the mother, and I feel for the gorilla, it’s sad all around, and it’s also true that sometimes shit happens. But from my perspective, we’re not asking the right questions.