Monday 27 February 2012

Kindness a U.S. retail calling card

Destin, on Florida's “Emerald Coast:

As a proud Canadian myself I am nevertheless compelled to admit that
when it comes to the U.S. and Americans in general I have, like many
of you, at times been guilty of a certain smug sense of superiority.
But, in total honesty we Canadians have a lot to learn from them.
Yes I know that watching the cable news or late night TV could lead
you to believe that in matters of religion or party politics during an
election year our closest neighbors can seem somewhat crazy. 

However, spending the past few weeks down on the Gulf Coast of  Florida,
 we've found that most of the ordinary Americans we've met from all
backgrounds and at every level of  society exhibit a friendliness, a
largeness and generosity of spirit that prevails in spite of  recent
hard times and negative headlines. Whether it's the check-out counter
at Walmart or Publix, the attendant at a car-wash, or the salesclerks
in clothing and other stores, no matter how late the hour or how small
the purchase, the projected mood is one of eager-to-please cheerfulness
 and a  constant warm readiness to engage in a personal encounter
 however necessarily brief.  Publix grocery store displays a sign and
the staff wear a badge which tells you, “Your satisfaction guaranteed,
 no matter what.  Please enjoy our free carry-out service with absolutely
 no tipping.”  I contrast that with the grocery store where we shop at home
 in Canada– the staff rarely make eye contact and many exhibit a silent
 indifference to the customer. When it comes to the policy of returning goods
 for any reason at home, the onus is often on the customer to convince
 the store that the product is defective. It's the opposite here.  Return policies
 are beyond easy with no questions asked.

On New Year's Eve and deep into Kentucky, we turned off  Interstate 75
for lunch. When we came out our left front snow tire was almost flat,
and the air was audibly escaping.  We drove slowly into the hinterland
and found a tire store nearby that was still open. Although  very
busy, they took us right in and examined our flat.  The puncture was
beyond repair,  and they didn't have a match for it. However, they
found a used tire to suit, then rotated the tires so that it was on
the back.  All in all they provided over a half an hour of service,
giving us an adequate spare tire, and making sure that we'd be back on
the road within the hour and still on schedule.  When it came to
paying, they said, “You don't owe us anything.....just remember
Kentucky.”  Surprised at this “Good Samaritan” experience, we gave the
lad who did the work a good tip and had a safe trip the rest of the

Among other experiences too numerous to mention, there was the waiter
who served a large group of us and, when learning Canadians like
vinegar on french fries, ran across to a grocery store and came back
with a bottle.  Somehow, I can't imagine that happening n Canada, but
it's this kind of attitude that makes customers loyal, retains their
business, and generally improves the mood of the day.

Nobody wants Canadians in any job doing it for nothing. But many of
our businesses need a big shift in proper staff training in how to keep
shoppers happy. Walmart does have a clue, and let's hope with the
 increase of competition by the opening of Target, Marshall's and other U.S. chain stores, our own stores will rise to the occasion allowing Canadian
employees in the service industry to shine, and the stores will
benefit from the challenge.

If  kindness to strangers lies near the soul of  true religion—and I
strongly believe it does – we have  experienced it here.

Monday 13 February 2012

When words fail us

Cratylus was a late 5th century BCE philosopher, a contemporary of Plato. In fact, one of Plato's famous dialogues bears his name. Cratylus was obsessed with the study of words and with proper, accurate communication. He eventually became convinced that genuine communication first of all requires careful definition of the words themselves. Despairing of ever being able to define every one of them all precisely, he then one day renounced speaking entirely. Instead, he communicated only by moving his index finger. We can all think of those we sometimes wish would do the same.

Seriously though, was he extreme? Yes, but at the same time instructive as we approach St. Valentine's Day once again. Words, as T.S. Eliot also reminds us, often strain and break under the burden we frequently impose upon them. We know how true this is at some hour of deepest personal grief or when we attempt to comfort others similarly afflicted. But, it is also true in the uniquely human state of being “in love.” Valentine's Day cards generally fall far short of adequate never mind being really close to fully saying what is genuinely hoped for and intended.

However, my deepest concern today is to sound a warning about the dangerous use of words and language when it comes to religion. Millions of believers of all faiths (including some readers of my columns) need to be reminded that God does not write books. Human beings do. Yes, they can be guided and inspired. So too can great poets, dramatists, novelists, musicians, architects and all kinds of other creative spirits down the ages. What makes holy books different in their inner nature from other artistic creations is their subject matter and the intention of their authors/editors.

But, whenever faith communities, be they Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Islamic, or other make the mistake of taking their sacred texts as the ipsissima verba – the very words – which fully express the mind of God, you have bibliolatry. By that I mean the worship of a book rather than worship of God alone.

The results can be deadly as history has proven over and over again and present tensions in many parts of the world underline once more. Words, especially sacred words can sooth and heal and bring new life. But they can also kill and thus bring death and destruction. Extreme fundamentalism, the giving of absolute and final value to specific, time-conditioned, verbal formulae, creeds, or beliefs defies love, reason, and finally humanity itself. That's why St. Paul so long ago famously said: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit gives life!”

In the end, when it comes to trying to speak about God the problem faced by Cratylus emerges powerfully once again. All words are inadequate for the task. Certainly one cannot give any precise, literal definitions of the Ultimate Reality we call God. The world's greatest thinkers have endeavored through the ages to remind us that the truest language of theology is always that of parable, story, myth, poetry, symbolism and allegory.

With that in mind, let me—speaking figuratively or in a parable—send each of you a valentine in advance. It's this: God so loved the world that (S)he created you!

Thursday 2 February 2012

Hitchens was wrong on this

Christopher Hitchens once wrote: “Everybody does have a book in them
but in most cases that's where it should stay!” Though he was a writer
and author with whom I most often than not profoundly disagreed, his
death at 62 just a few days before Christmas leaves a sadly vacant
spot at the table of public discourse in our time. He was forceful in
debate, witty in conversation, and eloquently contrary on a wide range
of conventional opinions. He will be missed.

However, while his atheist manifesto, the book God is Not
Great—presented with all the fervour of an ardent new
convert—succeeded in making many valid criticisms of religion in
general, his central thesis was greatly mistaken. God, the ultimate
source and ground of  not just this universe but of untold,  as-yet
unknown, universes beyond, is not only “great” but greater by a
zillion degrees than anything our limited minds  or technologies can
ever possibly conjure up.

My reason for believing that atheism is today a wholly untenable
position is not because of something I read in the Bible or in the
other religiously-inspired books I have read in my lifetime. It's
because of what modern scientists, the cosmologists, the
astrophysicists, the consciousness researchers, and the theoretical
physicists are saying. I would recommend, for example, The Conscious
Universe by Dean Radin of the Noetic Institute or Science and The
Akashic Field by the Nobel Prize nominee, Ervin Laszlo.
The most amazing thing about the universe as we now know it is the
fine tuning of the physical constants behind the structure and
coherence of  everything else. For example, if the expansion of the
early universe had been one-billionth less than it was, the universe
would have re-collapsed almost at once; and if it had been
one-billionth more, it would have flown apart so fast that it could
have produced only cold, dilute gases. Similarly, a small difference
in the strength of the electromagnetic field relative to the
gravitational field would have prevented the existence of hot and
stable stars like the Sun and hence the evolution of life on the
planets associated with such stars.

Laszlo points out that if the difference between the mass of the
neutron and the proton were not precisely twice the mass of the
electron,no substantial chemical reactions could take place at all. If
the electric charge of electrons and protons did not balance
precisely, all configurations of matter would be unstable and the
universe would consist of nothing more than radiation and a relatively
uniform mixture of gases.

Laszlo notes that the fine-tuning he describes (at much greater
length) involves upward of thirty key factors and a remarkable degree
of accuracy. He concludes, not from faith but from hard and astounding
facts that “a universe such as ours – with galaxies and stars, and
life on this and presumably other life-supporting planets  - is not
likely to have come about as a matter of serendipity, i.e. pure
chance.” In other words, “random fluctuations among individual atoms”
can never provide a scientifically plausible solution.

Frankly, when I consider the amount of  confidence in sheer
coincidence required by atheism in the face of  the latest scientific
findings about the origin and nature of the universe I realize I
simply don't have and never will the amount of faith such a leap
demands. Sorry about that, Hitch.