Archive for the ‘essays’ Category

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Think of your deathbed. Visualize your fading form surrounded by your friends and family (or, God forbid, alone). It’s all about to pass away. Everything you have ever thought, seen, smelled, touched, and heard is going to disappear as if none of it ever existed. What is the purpose of this decimation? Better yet, what was the purpose of the life that preceded it?

Perhaps there was no point at all—no meaning for anything. If everything eventually ceases to exist, then this certainly seems to be the case. From humans and ants to stars and pine trees, everything in the Universe, organic or otherwise, seems to die at some point. We, however, are the only tenets occupying this space called reality who contemplate this fact. This, I believe, is one thing Nietzsche may have meant when he called Man “the sick animal”. Save for instinctively avoiding it, other animals don’t seem to ponder on their termination or on what may happen afterward.

All things will face this inevitable door, whether beastly or rational, alive or inanimate, religious or secular. So, other than trying to enjoy the short time we have as much as we possibly can, the business of life seems to me to be about understanding this eventual end. There are many different beliefs about what the future holds when our hearts stop, but I would first like to discuss what is perhaps the most popular assumption in our modern climate of nihilism—that, after the neurons stop firing, there is nothing.

First of all, we should realize that no human being can effectually visualize the concept of “nothing”. If you try to think of “nothing”, you will end up thinking of at least a color (white or black, whatever people think of when they try to conjure up nothingness. This, to me, is why nihilism falls on its own head, though the attitudes and the actions resulting from the state of mind may certainly remain). True emptiness, if it is even possible, is neither colored nor tangible. One may say, “There was nothingness from our perspective before we were born.” But we didn’t even have a perspective before birth. I will come back to this in a moment.

Secondly, can you really imagine that every single one of your hopes, dreams, and experiences will vanish instantaneously as though it all never existed? Some say that they can imagine this; that the state of non-being after death correlates to our state before birth or during sleep.

But our “souls”, if you will, are actually most certainly present during our slumbering—not a simple “non-existence”. Our brains are working constantly throughout the sleep cycle, whether through dreams or other unknowable processes, and we simply have no memory or awareness of the unconscious.

As far as death’s nothingness being likened to the state before we were born, we didn’t even have any experiences at all during that time, for we did not exist yet. So, how can our “non-existence” after death be compared to our non-existence before conception? Things must develop, evolve, or be created before existing, before being “things” at all.

Incidentally, this is why I believe the Big Bang (or whatever the birth of the Universe truly was) was caused by something. How can something come from nothing? If nothing existed, then how could there even have been an explosion? Unless existence and the causal ground for existence has actually always existed in some form as an absolute, an ultimate force of action that we can never comprehend.

So, to say nothing of the massing reports of near death experiences evidencing the fact that there is something there, the past few paragraphs have explained why I truly do believe that death is not the end. What happens then? I don’t pretend to know the full answer, as no human does, but I do have an incomplete, vague idea of it. Regardless of whether that belief of mine is correct, it will still remain vague and only partial until the day when I die and actually experience it. For I am of this realm…no human mind can contain the complexities contained in the next plane of existence. But many minds have certainly tried, though.

Buddhists and Hindus believe in an almost endless cycle of reincarnation, coming back after each death as a new living being until they reach atonement (At-One-ment) with oneself and the universe (Nirvana, Moksha)

The ancient Jews believed in Sheol, a place where the dead are merely ghostly afterimages which take no account of Jehovah and of which Jehovah took no account (this belief is the closest one to believing in “nothingness” after death that I have found within religion, though I am not very knowledgeable about the subject).

Ancient Egyptians believed that the state of the corpse was integral to the quality of the afterlife, unlike many religions which profess the human body to simply be an empty shell after death. They also based their entire lives on their belief in the afterlife, coming up with countless rituals and mythologies to prepare people for the inevitable. I love Egyptian mythology, but my mind has a real problem with the fact that a lot of what they believed about a “good” afterlife only related to those who “deserved” it due to their political or social status (this, unfortunately, is the attitude of many religious systems to this day, whether about the afterlife or the quality of the current life in regards to respect and fair treatment).

A more humorous example (at least to me) is the ancient Iranian belief known as Zoroastrianism. This religion purports that the path to the Afterlife is a lengthy bridge known as the Chinvat Bridge. All must cross this overpass after death. If one has lived a moral life, then the bridge widens the further you go, making crossing into the House of Song simple and straightforward. If one has lived a bad life, however, the bridge will turn over on its side and the soul will have to walk along the narrow edge, all the while being relentlessly attacked by a witch.

Belief systems are obviously important in regards to our speculations on eternity, and they are also important for other reasons. There are a slew of different ways to look at mythology. Some of it is exaggerated history based on dynamic personas. Some of it is made up of colorful imagery to express metaphor, the writers of such stories knowing full well that the miraculous events did not in fact happen in reality but are simply expressions for true events or attitudes. A few mythologies, such as bedtime fables, were invented to teach children how to behave (all true mythology actually develops the human race into something better, brings order and structure to chaos through things such as chants and rituals). Some of the stories probably came directly from the teller’s dreams, and whether any given mythology was presented to its maker by dream or not, I still believe that mythology is basically a “group dream” and a dream is a “private mythology”. To me, mythology is basically metaphor, but metaphor of a most vital and even holy kind. The stories show different facets of the human psyche – darkness, light, evil, good, Kings (power), servants (powerlessness), Knights, princesses, quests, visions, magic, Angels, demons, dragons, and much, much more than could ever be written down by any one person. Not only are the tales essentially initiation rites for the human to pass from one experience to the other, but they also touch something deeper—something BEYOND human. All mythologies are mankind’s way of expressing the inexpressible in an artistic way. They are gateways into the numinous, portals into a deeper understanding. They are the masks of God. As Saint Thomas Aquinas once said, the only way to know God is to realize with total conviction that he is actually not knowable. The Absolute Being is further beyond the understanding of mortal men than our minds are beyond the understanding of invertebrates. And yet, despite being so far off, so unlike God (or “Ultimate Reality”, whatever one chooses to call the Self Sustainable), we are still somehow inexplicably linked to the Beyond. We create. We bring works of art into the world. We beget children. We love. In my opinion, there are many reasons for us to believe that there is in fact something beyond the reality we can see and touch. The rich mythologies and works of art produced by our species over the centuries are just a few examples of many. Reason, rationality, and inherent morality that may differ between different peoples on the surface but actually rings true for all of humanity about the important things (though some do kill, I believe every human being has at least at one point in their life known that murder was wrong. Whether the act is committed or not, we still know that it is contrary to the grammar of being). There is SOMETHING out there, copiously but incompletely referenced by our belief systems…and I believe it is INSIDE us as well.

But no matter what, myth is not accurate history. It may be garbled history, but it is imprecise. There are rarely dates for the supposed events, and there are never reliable witnesses. I’m talking, of course, about myths like the Greek and the Egyptian gods. Some mythological figures were at least inspired by true events. I believe there was a historical person who could be considered the first Buddha, and creatures like dragons, which are found in every belief system imaginable, are quite obviously inspired by dinosaurs (or at least crocodiles…but I don’t buy it). However, hardly any mythology purports to exhibit a complete or at least believable history of the events in question.

Then something interesting happened shortly after the….a man claimed to be God. Not simply divine like pantheistic “all is one” mystics, but GOD—the self sustained, self existent ground for being; the playwright behind the curtain. And he came from a group of people, the Jews, who were of all ancient civilizations the least pantheistic—they believed that God was separate from man. Near man maybe, by means of love and covenants, but certainly not the same as man. Yet here was a human being uttering words of downright blasphemy to the ears of most who followed his own cultural religion (Judaism). He even talked of forgiving sins, cancelling out corruption as if he were the chief party injured by every offense we commit, which would be impossible unless the man really was God. And the most curious thing is that, based on his teachings and his conversations, he didn’t seem at all insane or even mentally unbalanced. How could a sane person say that he was God in the flesh? He couldn’t…unless what he was saying was true.

You may reply that Christ is just another legend, that we have no reason to believe that he truly said these things or that he even existed. I don’t subscribe to the “legend” theory at all, and I will explain why in a bit as well as include some things I consider as evidence in his favor. But first, let’s think about what the whole story actually means, whether it is valid or not.

The Absolute, the Unbroken comes down (Immaculate Conception) into the presence of the derivative, the broken. The Absolute is itself broken by becoming organic (the God-Man). It is then further broken by means of violent action (torture, Crucifixion). But, by super-physical paradox, the broken Absolute still retains the power to put Himself back together.

And that is precisely what happened. The Broken Absolute became whole again, and the event itself was so powerful that it affected everything and everyone in existence, whether we can see it yet or not (time has no bearing against the Absolute). Even acknowledging this iconoclastic occurrence (still more, immersing one’s self within it—living by it) gives one a great power—a power that changes lives and makes the world a better place. Even if it hasn’t happened yet within our limited perception (we are slaves of time), all existence has been made whole.

Jesus Christ is the archetype for death, and conversely, the archetype for life. Nothing else answers the question of death so beautifully, so HISTORICALLY as the One who defeated the Reaper himself. I personally cannot accept his story as merely mythical. Historians who lived close to the time of Christ such as Tacitus and Josephus mention Him and His miracles, and these people weren’t Christians. The most compelling non-Christian account is that of the Talmud, an ancient collection of Jewish writings. The writers of this document didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they certainly believed that he was something supernatural. “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and deceived and led Israel astray.” These ancient Jews knew he existed and that he performed miracles. If what was written about him in the Bible were untrue, then there should be all kinds of documents from people in that time period refuting it, saying things like “no, he did not exist,” or “no, he did not heal people.” Even the resurrection was reported to have been witnessed by at least five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15). And yet, where are the documents denouncing this? With how often the story is attacked today, it surely would have been disproven very quickly by whatever means possible two thousand years ago.

Also, if you compare all the copies of the New Testament that have been made over last two millennia, you will find through the science of textual criticism that it has changed or been edited even less than works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. We have more evidence for Jesus existing and being the divine Son of God than we have for Alexander the Great and some other historical figures. There is much more evidence, (it even hints at this in the Bible—the last verse in the Gospel of John) and I encourage you to search out the evidence for yourselves.

If there was no validity to Christianity, then it would never have even gotten off the ground. What’s more, the early followers of Jesus persecuted for their beliefs would have been tortured and executed for nothing. Few would die for what they know to be a lie, and these were actual witnesses to his bodily presence on this planet. Also, some people seem to think that Christianity is all about power for the strong and subservience for the weak. While this may have been true in later years with evil events such as the Crusades, the very earliest Christians had horrible lives. Nakedness, famine, poverty, homelessness—usually only ending through death by torture. They don’t strike me as very powerful—and yet, in a different way, they were the most powerful people on the planet, though they didn’t use that power to keep other people down. Power over sin, power over death—and that power is offered to every one of us.

Think about your death again—the despair, the inevitability, the futility in escaping. It will come to you no matter what you do with your life. This fact has paralyzed me with fear on many occasions, especially when I try to sleep. I’m still scared. As I have said, no one has the complete picture, the total answer. No matter how firm my belief is, death is still frightening. But I do have hope—and that hope is found in Christ Jesus. Most mythologies seem obviously metaphorical—but not this. There are many stories of gods dying and rising again—but might those stories be prophecies of what was to come? The real, the solid resurrection story—the defeat of death. I don’t remember Odin “tasting death for all men”. As C.S. Lewis said in one of his essays, “Myth Became Fact”. True, historical—but still retaining all the metaphysical and psychical qualities of myth.

A lot of people have a problem with the concept of even needing salvation. We disbelieve in the inherent corruption of man. Aside from those who are obviously evil, are we normal citizens really corrupted by sin, regardless of how closely we adhere to morality?

For the moment, don’t think of Him as dying for your sins. Think of Him as dying for your death. Think of all death in the universe as a result of some corruption, some brokenness. Animals and even plants are as corrupted as humanity, evidenced by the fact that they die. This is probably not due to their moral failure, for they have no morals. They are corrupted in ways we can never know, for the beginning of time happened too long ago for us to remember it (for even Genesis, whether taken literally or figuratively, is only a fragment of God’s ways). And could collapsing stars, the Big Bang, and other cosmological happenings also have something to do with corruption? Corruption caused by spiritual beings far beyond our comprehension, beings that may themselves correspond to astronomic bodies such as planets? Or could they have been corrupted by us, corrupted long ago by creatures that didn’t even exist yet? For the universes and non-corporeal realms may not be governed by the laws of time as much as we presume.

Or maybe supernovas and the like have nothing to do with sin and brokenness, and they were simply made to be created and destroyed beautifully for the sake of splendor and for other reasons only the Lord knows about. We will never know—but it brings up an interesting point.

Could this sin, this corruption, these collapsing stars within us and without have been allowed to happen for the sole purpose of beauty—a beautiful disaster? For it can be argued that if something you cherish is beautiful before being broken, it may become even more pleasing in your sight after being put back together than it ever was before.

So it is with our Father.

imageConjecture. Speculation. Educated guesses. These words describe the plague (and also the fun) that befalls the science of vertebrate paleontology, the study of extinct life forms that possessed backbones. To me, and to many other children trapped inside the bodies of grown men and women, the most exciting and marvelous of these extinct groups is the Dinosauria. Watching films such as Jurassic world and documentaries such as Walking with dinosaurs, you would think that scientists knew a great deal about these giants that walked the earth(and still fly the earth in the form of birds) much longer than modern man has. But paleontologists have really only scratched the surface. The fact is, all we know about the extinct forms within the dinosaur class is what their bones tell us, and those bones can’t tell us what they sounded like, how they were colored(usually) or how intelligent they were as animals(the encephalation quotient – brain size to body size ratio – is a joke to me. Lots of animals show surprising intelligence with a low EQ, such as green anoles and monitor lizards). Furthermore, a lot of what scientists theorize about dinosaurs is in a state of constant change. Megalosaurus was once thought to walk on four legs. T. Rex was originally depicted with a dragging tail. Velociraptor wasn’t thought to have feathers. Oviraptor was thought to be an egg eater, when in fact the eggs discovered under it’s skeleton were proven to be it’s own offspring and not it’s meal. These are only a few theories and speculations that have changed over the years. And with new skeletons discovered practically weekly, the theories are sure to parallel evolution itself in terms of growth and change. One theory has pretty much stayed constant however: the idea of dinosaurs living and moving together in massive herds that outnumber the African buffalo and other animals. This theory in particular interests me, and it is the topic of this article. But which species were social and which were not? Just the herbivores like the sauropods? Or carnivores like the tyrannosaurs? Or could ALL dinosaurs have been social animals? Let’s review the evidence(admittedly mostly circumstantial and ambiguous, as usual with dinosaurs). When dinosaurs were first seriously studied in the 19th century, the original consensus put forth by Sir RichardOwen of fast moving, successful creatures was the common opinion regarding these majestic creatures. But, like the spikes on a business graph, this theory was dropped in the early 20th century in favor of the portrayal of dinosaurs as slow, dim witted, lethargic beasts that either sat all day under trees and in lakes like breathing carcasses, or nasty, putrid, vile monsters whose brains only permitted the function of instinct for killing prey. Of course, this spike on the graph dropped off too and was replaced by the original view when scientists like Bob Bakker and John Ostrom ushered in the Dinosaur Renaissance and proved that dinosaurs were not only warm blooded and quick, but were also attentive and possibly intelligent parents(John Horner’s Maiasaura discovery was a wonderful example of this). Dinosaurs like the sauropods and hadrosaurs were being discovered brooding their eggs like theirs modern day feathery descendants. Even some carnivores like Oviraptor and the troodonts were found nesting like attentive parents. For the herding animals, such as Maiasaura(name means “good mother lizard”), it seemed obvious that the babies were cared for by the mother and then remained in the herd as part of the family as they grew. Others, like the sauropods, were theorized to abandon their eggs like sea turtles. But that too is just a theory, unlike the obvious nesting and parenting behavior in Maiasaura. Dinosaurs were quickly catching the public’s eye as very complex animals akin to modern birds and mammals. One of the most important finds and also one of the earliest in the dinosaur renaissance was Deinonychus(the raptors of Jurassic World and Park are actually deinonychus. The name Velociraptor was based on a taxonomical error that placed deinonychus under the genus Velociraptor, which actually was much smaller and lived in Mongolia). This creature was a key factor to the dinosaur renaissance’s depiction of dinosaurs as active, endothermic creatures. Strong jaws with nasty teeth, meat hook claws on it’s hands and feet, long legs for sprinting, and a compact but powerfully built body made this dinosaur one of the most rapacious to ever live. Since it’s original discovery, other excavations have shown that they preyed upon tenontosaurus, a rather large ornithopod compared to the raptors themselves. The first, discovered in the Yale Quarry in the Cloverly of Montana, contained four adult raptors and one juvenile (which to me suggests family groups, but we will get to that later) clustered around one tenontosaurus, their apparent kill. The second discovery was in the Antlers Formation of Oklahoma, with six partial tenontosaurs and one partial raptor. These finds, coupled with the small size and build of deinonychus(reminiscent of wild wolves or hyenas), suggest pack hunting behavior, for one deinonychus certainly wasn’t strong enough to take down a multi ton herbivore on it’s own. For a long time, pack hunting among the raptors and even a social and predatory hierarchy(though if it existed, the structure cannot be known) was accepted as fact. Recently however, some scientists have suggested that deinonychus and other dromaeosaurs(all raptors) only gathered together around large dead animals to partake In a random, orderless feeding frenzy akin to Komodo dragons and crocodiles. Though the evidence for pack behavior is admittedly ambiguous, I disagree with the feeding frenzy theory. Dinosaurs are birds. They are the same thing. And raptors were among the closest in form and presumably behavior to the birds we have today. And what do birds do? Usually they travel in flocks(though I admit there are a few solitary species). Other dinosaurs, specifically herbivores like sauropods and hadrosaurine ornithopods, have pretty much been proven to live together and raise their young(perhaps so for sauropods, perhaps not, but the hadrosaurs were definitely present parents) in massive herds. Since all dinosaurs, including birds, evolved from a common ancestor, and since one of the earliest dinosaurs, coelophysis, have been found together in groups numbering well over a hundred, is it too bold to hazard a guess that ALL dinosaurs(or at least most) lived in herds/packs/families ALL of the time? Sure, scientists can say the coelophysis find was just like the raptor finds and that the animals were only together randomly searching for water or food before they died, but then why did the dinosaurs flourish after the Triassic period? During the Triassic, dinosaurs were the underdogs, just like our ancestors were the underdogs during the end of the Mesosoic Era. They were much smaller than all the animals around them, and they were far from the top of the food chain. But perhaps family hierarchy from coelophysis down millions of years to the Cretaceous raptors is the reason the Dinosauria flourished as the most successful animals to ever exist(face it:after insects and plants, no other form of life has been able to hold a candle to the success of the terrible lizards, not even man himself). Furthermore, if we use the efficiency required in evolution(survival of the fittest) as a frame of reference, raptors and other small meat eaters had bodies that would be most efficient for cooperative hunting(and even everyday living) behavior. In the words of world renown Dino-hunter Robert Bakker, “the life of dinosaurian hunters was hard. Most skeletons we excavate have clear marks of old wounds. To survive and raise their young, the predators needed more than sharp teeth and strong claws. They needed social bonds.” Further support for dinosaur social structure are footprints found in the Shandong province of China. The tracks are of another dromaeosaurid(raptor) dinosaur species, Dromaeopodus shandongensis, with six separate individuals walking together in the same direction at the same time. Pack hunters? Family groups? I believe so. What could be more terrifying than a troop of raptors poised to attack? Nothing, except a pack of perhaps even more efficient and much larger predators: the tyrant dinosaurs. With eyes facing forward for excellent binocular vision, long, powerful legs built for short sprints, a weight of seven tons, and the strongest jaws and teeth of any predator in earth’s history, Tyrannosaurs Rex and it’s relatives were the apex of dinosaur predators. One would be terrifying enough, but what about ten? It just might have been possible, as demonstrated by a recent find. Richard McCrea from the Peace Region Paleontology Research Center In British Columbia led a team that discovered a similar trackway to the Chinese dromaeosaurs, except that these were made by tyrannosaurs, three of them to be precise. Moving in the same direction, imprinted at the same time. Social, much? However, if all dinosaurs, including tyrannosaurids and raptors, lived together in groups, the predators were not above attacking and cannibalizing each other during “family squabbles” similar to modern day lions. There are many tyrannosaur skeletons with healed bite marks matching those of other tyrannosaurs. Velociraptor, the Mongolian cousin of Deinonychus(remember when you see Jurassic World that those raptors are actually Deinonychus, though the true velociraptors were probably just as fearsome, albeit smaller) also presumably attacked each other. One skeleton shows bite marks on the skull from another raptor, although I think that this unfortunate individual did not actually survive the fight. To quote Bakker again, “Top predators are the most quarrelsome, cannibalistic category in the ecosystem. It’s impossible that these tyrannosaurs would clump together in a common cause unless they were sharing genes.” So some wounds on these animals may have been from family squabbles, and more serious and even fatal ones may have been caused by members from another pack(this is perhaps too fantastic, but just imagine a bloody war between two groups of tyrannosaurs or two groups of raptors over territory or food. Part of me wants to be there, and part of me doesnt. The sane part.). In conclusion, I personally imagine that almost all of the dinosaur genera lived together in families and were never, if rarely, solitary. But of course, this is just a theory, held by many real paleontologists(and I hope they do not read this article, for this amateur Dino thinker would be laughed at), and theories will always be subject to change. Comments left for discussion will be greatly appreciated. Keep on thinking! -Shane