The Flower of Truth

Photo Credit: blende74.de via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: blende74.de via Compfight cc

What is the value of truth? Of all the stories I have read, nothing matches this old folk tale that I have taken the liberty to retell in my own fashion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

In ancient times, a prince announced that he was going to choose a bride and called all interested maidens to present themselves to him at the palace.

Among the many noble ladies and princesses gathered in the hall that day, there stood the old palace gardener’s daughter who had held a secret love for the prince ever since they played together in the garden as children. Her white dress still had some dirt stains that she tried in vain to remove. Her bare feet stood in stark contrast with the glittering shoes of the other ladies. Murmurs, whispers and mocking eyes followed the girl wherever she walked.

But then the prince appeared in the doorway and all eyes turned towards him.

He gave the gathered crowd a brief smile, then said, “I am giving each maiden a single flower seed which you have to plant and nurture until it grows into full bloom. In six months time, I want to see you back here with your plants. The one I will choose for my bride will be the one with the most beautiful flower.”

And with that, he left the servants to give one seed each to the maidens.

The gardener’s daughter quickly went home and planted the seed in one of her father’s old pots. She mustered all she had learned about proper gardening and the bedridden old man even gave her a few tips and reminders on what to do.

She waited a few days for a sign that the plant was growing. How she longed for the first leaf to pop out of the soil prepared with care and love. But the days stretched into weeks and still nothing grew. Unwilling to accept defeat, she asked for other insights from the other palace gardeners. She thought of ways to make the plant grow until she got frequent headaches every day just from thinking.

The weeks stretched into a month, then two, then three, four, five, and six.

Nothing grew from the little pot.

The girl, now desolate and in despair, thought of just staying home, but finally resolved to go to the palace with her flowerless pot, if only to see her heart’s true love one more time.

In the palace, she sat in a corner with her head down. Tears trickled from her eyes as she saw all the other ladies in their fine-woven, colored silk dresses. They held ornate and intricate vases that spouted beautiful flowers. It was an astonishing sight to behold, flowers of all shapes, sizes, colors and scents were packed in that small room, all awaiting the prince’s judgement and decision as to which was the loveliest.

A servant entered the room and began moving among the ladies, who barely noticed him. He briefly took note of what each held in her hand until his eyes rested on the gardener’s daughter sitting in the corner with an empty pot beside her.

He quickly moved to her and tapped her shoulder. “Come with me,” he said.

The girl saw the servant’s serious mien and  thought that he was going to throw her out. How dare she come here with her empty pot, dirty clothes and tear-stricken face, without anything to show for her effort. How dare she mar the prince’s big day as she stood out like an ugly blot among all these fine women.

She wiped her tears with the back of her hand as she scrambled to her feet. The servant clutched her arm and led her towards the center of the room. Suddenly, another servant rushed in and announced the arrival of the prince.

The room fell into a hushed silence as he appeared. He glanced briefly around the room and his eyes met those of the servant holding the gardener’s daughter. He gave the prince a slight nod.

The prince smiled, then pointed towards the servant and the gardener’s daughter. “Behold my bride,” he announced to the stunned crowd.

There was a brief moment of silence, but it was quickly broken by the angry voices of the other ladies.

“But she has nothing in her pot,” they exclaimed.

The prince raised his hand to command silence and restore order. Then he explained.

“Six months ago, I gave each of you a seed and told you to come back with the best and most beautiful flower. I see today that you all have such wondrous, wild and exotic flowers perhaps never before seen in the kingdom. But this lady here has shown me a flower that none of you can match — the flower of truth. All the seeds I gave you before had been boiled and rendered sterile. Surely, nothing, not even a weed, could have grown from them.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Did you like the story? Send me a note at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Brick-Trinity

This article is for those who think that faith is a virtue. I would like to propose that it is not.

Over the centuries, the religious have extolled faith as a virtue, as a valid method of seeing reality, and that idea has taken such a deep root in our culture. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life declares that faith is “trusting God in spite of unanswered questions and unresolved doubts” and this sounds so deep and comforting but it’s really just a another way of saying, “I don’t understand anything that’s happening and I can’t do anything about it but I’m hoping for the best.” What does “trusting God” even mean when people can’t even agree what “God” means?

Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists, defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know” and that seems like a very flippant way to put it. But if you happen to be a person of faith and are offended by that, my request is that you forgive the offense for a couple of minutes (forgiveness is also a virtue) and think about it.

In all those instances that you claim faith, isn’t it true that those are instances that you don’t really know but instead simply choose to believe? Because if there were proof and evidence in the first place, then you wouldn’t need to invoke faith. You simply point to the evidence. Take gravity, for example. It would be absurd to talk about having faith in gravity because there is overwhelming evidence for it. In other words we know gravity.

However, when we talk about something like Noah’s Ark and the global flood story – even amidst all the evidence and experts’ opinions pointing out its improbability – a sizeable number of people still choose “by faith” to believe that it’s true, even if they don’t really know whether it happened or not. In fact, they refuse to know. They rarely have the drive to do research and read contrary opinions – perhaps they are afraid that their faith may be shaken and they will no longer be on the list of “good and faithful servants” who never gave up their beliefs, who were foolish enough to test their faith. After all, didn’t God say, “Do not put the Lord God to the test (Leviticus 6:16)?”

So think of all the things you accept “by faith” (like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity) and honestly see if it isn’t true that you are simply pretending to know things you don’t really know.

Faith is not a very good way to live. It kills wonder, inquiry and research. It is not a virtue. And nobody really lives by faith all the time in all aspects of life.

Think about this:

If faith is so commendable, why don’t you simply have faith and pray when you get sick? Why do you go to the doctor? Why do you take medicine?

Why do you work hard to earn money to survive and feed your family? Why not have faith that God will provide? Didn’t Jesus say that all you have to do is to “seek his kingdom” and he will provide food, drink and clothing just as he provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-33)?

For students, why do you study hard for exams? Why not have enough faith that God will provide the right answers at the right time?

Why do you wash your hands before you eat? Or brush your teeth before you sleep? Why not have faith that God will kill those pesky germs and protect you from disease?

Now, I’m sure you have rational and sensible answers for each of these questions and that’s just the point. If you apply reason and rationality to these aspects of your life, doesn’t it make sense to apply it to ALL aspects of your life?

Why do you use reason for practical living yet cling to faith for aspects of your life that are unsure and unknown? If faith were such a virtue, then you would apply it to every facet of your life, not just as a stopgap to fill in the holes in your knowledge and understanding, which is exactly what primitive people did. When they encountered something they did not understand, they would attribute it to either a god or goddess, spirits, angels or demons.

But it is now the 21st century. Reason, science, and logic have been proven to work time and again. When you build an airplane based on scientific principles, it flies. When you use mathematics to put a satellite in orbit, it stays there. When you put medicine through double-blind placebo-controlled tests, you have better assurance that it will cure what it needs to cure.

Now I will admit that there are still many things we do not understand and many things we do not know – but the proven and tested way to gain more knowledge and understanding is not faith, but by applying reason, science and logic.

That is my Holy Trinity.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

This article also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco is the Meetup Director of Filipino Freethinkers Davao Chapter and is inviting Davao residents to join their next meetup on January 25, 2014 (Saturday) at 7:30 PM Cafe Demitasse, F. Torres St., Davao City. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me.

The Beauty of Doubt

Photo by Michael Caven

I grew up in a Christian environment where doubt was hardly encouraged. Faith was a virtue. Doubt was not. The foremost illustration of this is the biblical story of Jesus’ disciple Thomas who claimed not to believe in his resurrection unless he saw his risen body and touched his wounds. When Jesus did appear to him and erase his doubts, Jesus said, “Blessed are you because you see and believe, but more blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.” And from those words sprung up an entire culture of faith, of not seeing yet fervently believing.

The first thirty something years of my life were spent aiming for this kind of faith. The urge to doubt would always be attributed to my human weakness or even to the wiles of the devil. But the deeper I went inside Christianity, the more discordant I would feel. Yes, there was always the heat of the moment in worship, and there were days when I felt that I was indeed in god’s loving arms. But these were also peppered by moments of doubt. I would always wonder if answered prayers weren’t just coincidences; if the faith I felt wasn’t just leveled up wishful thinking; or if the feelings I had for god’s presence weren’t just that — feelings.

Then a thought came to me: if I believe that god created me, then he must also be responsible for creating this machinery in me that makes me doubt and think and reason. And since this is so, why should I not then trust this thinking and reasoning of mine? What if all I ever believed in was just other people’s beliefs imposed upon society for generations? What if my doubts were the way to truth even if a lot of people (at least in my circles) didn’t seem to share them? Didn’t Jesus say that the gate was narrow and only a few people ever find it?

Ultimately, I was confronted with this question — would I be willing to let go of all I ever believed in my search for truth — yes, even Christianity, the bible and the concept of god that Christianity has imposed upon me? And for me, this was harder than it sounded. It was like being in the middle of the ocean hanging on to a piece of wood, without any land in sight, and deciding whether or not to let it go so I could swim faster to where I wanted to be. I also realized the irony of it — that it takes so much more faith to doubt than to believe. So I took a leap of faith and began my journey of doubt.

In that journey, I went to church less and less because church for me had just been a meaningless habit and the sermons were just rehashed ideas that I heard over and over throughout the years. Even the idea that “we go to church not to receive from god but to give him our worship” seemed stale because if god were everywhere, then I could most certainly worship him anywhere, even in the toilet. Conversely, I could be in church every Sunday with my mind wandering elsewhere and it wouldn’t amount to an iota of worship. So I decided to give up this false pretension and would not go to church unless I really wanted to, but not for reasons of appearances or habit or to “be a good influence” to my kids. (Yes, I got flak for this when my eldest daughter decided she didn’t want to go to sunday school also, but that’s another story).

I began to read books and listen to other teachings that were outside the norm of Christian propriety, and my horizons were widened and I realized that there were also a lot of people like me — much more than I thought there would be — and in the midst of my doubts, it was a reassuring thought.

Of course, I could not avoid the whispers going on behind me — Christian friends, relatives and acquaintances talking about me, reading my blogs and saying that I was going astray — but I got most of this information third-hand. These people I heard about never approached me and asked me head-on what was going on with me — except for a couple of them — and I appreciated their willingness to listen and their acceptance (of me, not my way of thinking). Although hearing the words, “I’ll just pray for you,” is grating to my ears. I know they mean well but it just sounds so condescending — like “I know something you don’t. I’m someplace better than you, so I’ll just pray for you until you realize that.” I know they don’t mean it that way, but still, it does sound that way.

In the tail end of this journey (which means just about over a year ago), I discovered freethinking and a group called Filipino Freethinkers through a close friend of mine. And when I read about it, realized that this was me (I just didn’t know what it was called). Though this group has been closely linked to atheism, it actually isn’t and its members are a mixed bag of different believers and unbelievers. The basic creed of a freethinker is that you may have your own set of personal beliefs but you don’t go around imposing them on others as if it were THE truth. “To a freethinker, no idea is sacred; all truth claims are subject to skepticism, rational inquiry, and empirical testing.”

A freethinker embraces doubt as a way of life, for it is through doubt that one gets to really dig in and think about what one believes in — not just to swallow everything the church, priest, imam or rabbi says. One of my favorite quotes comes from Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, who says “to doubt is infinitely more important than to adore. To question is infinitely more important than to believe.”

Some time ago I took a step of faith into doubt, and have never regretted it since. I feel more spiritually and holistically in tune with myself, my thoughts and my emotions than I have ever been before. There is less fear and guilt, and more love and compassion for me and for everyone around me.

Such is the beauty of doubt.

Edit 2012-04-12: Here’s my friend Matt’s take on doubt: http://ragingrev.com/2012/04/an-insurance-policy-against-doubt/

 

Truth is Seldom Safe

Photo by Jared Tarbell

I remember a few years ago when the Vatican abolished “limbo”. Limbo is supposedly a permanent state for the souls of infants who die without being baptized, but who haven’t been cleansed of original sin.

This was major news in the Philippines which is a predominantly Roman Catholic country.  Several people were interviewed by a TV station about what they thought about it and one of the responses amused me. The woman said “I’m so happy the church abolished limbo because now I know my baby is in heaven.”

We need to open their eyes and wake up. Our little beliefs and doctrines do nothing to reality. All these years, this woman has harbored despair in her heart over her dead baby because of a belief perpetuated by a religious authority. Now, when this authority relented on its decision, she suddenly feels relief. What will happen next time if some other doctrine is created? Is my peace of mind to be determined by a group of people who have absolutely no experience of the reality they are espousing?

We like to live in the comfort and stability of their beliefs. That is why when something comes along to shake that belief, the first instinct is to try to explain it away. Failing that, the next move is to look for a cleric (pastor, priest, imam, theologian) and pass the burden of explanation on them. When they explain, we are expected to nod our heads in assent. After all, aren’t these the specialists of the field? Haven’t they spent more years studying and reading books, studying the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the Vedas, the Sutras?

Sometimes, some of us still go further and question more. That is the time that others begin to look at us strangely — begin to whisper and say that we are asking strange questions, that we should just accept what is taught and not be such a bother, that we are sounding like heretics and unbelievers.

At this point, most people retreat back into the confines of their belief. After all, most people are not really after the truth. What they want is reassurance. What they want is safety.

But truth is seldom safe. And reality is hardly so reassuring.

Do we then live in fear? Of course not, because fear is an illusion as well — an expectation of things that may or may not happen.

We live with eyes open, in the moment, in the now — realizing the wondrous nature of ourselves and of reality. Life must be savored in all its sweetness and bitterness, in all its highs and lows, in all its tenacity and fragility. The search for truth is a climb up a never-ending staircase. Each step you leave behind falls away into deep nothingness.

Theology

A theologian came to see the master.

“Why is it that you are so against theology?” he asked.

“It is not really theology that I am against, but what it has become, and how it is now being used and understood,” said the master.

“What do you mean?” said the theologian.

photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr
photo courtesy of Susan WD, Flickr

“Well, theology first came into being because man was interested to explore and know more about the truth. But theology today is very different. It is no longer a search for truth,” said the master.

“What is it now then?” said the theologian.

“A maintenance of a belief system,” replied the master.

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