Saturday, May 01, 2004
Utopian Longings

 

Charley's Brief Autobiography

For some reason, I always go back to the year of my birth, as if that explains something about my adult self. Nineteen sixty-three was the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. Although just an infant, I imbibed something of that utopian spirit that has shaped so many of my adult choices. I didn't actually hear that sermon until I was around twelve, but it was one more confirmation of my utopian mindset.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"

This paragraph is based on a Biblical passage, which is one of the most utopian in the whole canon. I have never failed to be inspired by passages like this one. However, I have found that this message is not the dominant theme in the Bible. There is plenty of pessimism and. what seem to me, to be backward ideas in it as well.

It seems my life has been about journeying from pessimism towards utopianism. My father, also a preacher, was a classic hell-fire and brimstone Pentecostal. No utopian heaven on earth for him. He preached against liberals, feminists, and peaceniks. In short, he preached against everything I have become. And that, as they say, is a story in itself.

Breaking with Pessimism

After graduating from high school in 1981, I attended a Pentecostal college, and it was there I first began to think outside the pessimistic viewpoint I had inherited. The first break came over a matter of doctrine that might seem minor to folks outside the Pentecostal ghetto, but it made a world of difference to me in that context. The standard doctrine said that Jesus was going to "rapture" all real Christians from earth, leaving most humans behind to face the "Great Tribulation." The horrors of Armageddon, massive earthquakes, plagues, and fiery comets would be rained down on sinners for seven years.

I came to believe that God wouldn't deprive the earth of his best servants during earth's darkest hours. I believed that Christians would face the Antichrist and be used by God to resist evil's power. This made me a heretic and a radical. After all, being a Christian was about saving souls, not helping people. I had begun a long journey of rejecting a deeply ingrained world-hatred. I didn't return to college for another seven years.

Reaching for Love and Community

Before I left college, I did manage to meet and fall in love with my wife, Teresa. She seemed intrigued by "radicalism" in contrast to most of the other students and teachers. One of my few campus radical buddies was her good friend and that made it easier for her to accept me. We became good friends while touring with the college choir, and eventually a romance blossomed.

We married in November of 1982, and began a search for whatever utopia we could find together. I was still finding inspiration in the Bible and this time it was found in Acts 4:32:

"Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common."

Four years later, we moved to Evanston, IL to become part of a Christian community, Reba Place Fellowship, which utilized a common treasury.

However, just before that move, love came into my life in its purest form. My daughter Melissa was born on October 10, 1985. My father once said to me that he never felt truly adored until my little sister was born. I now know what that means. Even though I have always felt like fathering was challenging, I still see in my children -- my son was born three years later -- the truest legacy I will ever create. No job or masterpiece I could craft will have the same impact or meaning as my children.

Fatherhood

Let me digress about fatherhood a bit. My own father, as may be obvious by now, was an angry and unhappy person and abusive towards his wife and children. We led a double life, with Dad preaching Jesus and salvation in church, but giving us pain and unhappiness in the home.

Although I had an instant bond with my daughter, when my son, Christopher, was born, it was harder to feel that same affection. I can't recall my father ever expressing genuine love for me. I have worked through that resistance, but my father's patterns of short-tempered lashing out still lurk in my subconscious.

Returning to Reba Place, it was there that I was first challenged to look at the pain and suffering of my childhood. After one of my angry explosions was aimed directly at my lovely little girl, I had no choice but to get into therapy. I was diagnosed with depression and began an eight-year pursuit of emotional healing.

There were two breakthroughs in therapy. First of all, I reconnected with my "inner child" in a very intense therapy session. I know that this idea is much scoffed at, and the session did not start out with that goal. We were revisiting a pivotal childhood experience of abuse. As we worked through memories, it became clear that a part of myself had been deeply damaged and unable to cope with that experience. It was only as I embraced that abused child part of myself that I began to heal from all that pain.

The second breakthrough was more mundane. I had been placed on anti- depressants as far back as 1987, but they all had fairly limited effects. Not long afterwards, Prozac was released, but I didn't take it until much later. When I finally did so, it worked its famous magic on me. Within a few months all my depressive thoughts subsided and I knew that I was fully cured. This is not the typical case, of course, but I have been symptom-free for over seven years. I do not know how much a factor the "inner child" breakthrough was in the success of the medication. My guess is that they reinforced each other.

Embracing Quakerism

My life at Reba Place came to an end a couple of years later. My new emotional health gave me a new freedom in religious matters, and for all its good things, Reba Place was still holding on to traditions and ideas that began to feel constrictive. My journey towards utopia was about to take its latest turn.

Reba Place was part of the Mennonite Church, a biblically based peace church. I was drawn there as much by pacifism as by the communal lifestyle. I began to go through serious questioning of the Bible and Christian doctrines, including doubts about Jesus' divinity and resurrection, the nature of God, and the authority of the Bible. I was still a pacifist and religious, but I needed to find a new community that could accommodate someone given to heretical ideas about religion.

I found that community in another utopian sect, the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called "Quakers." While they started out with a biblicism similar to the Mennonites, modernism and unorthodox ideas became much more accepted among Quakers about a hundred years ago. Many Quakers had been involved in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, but this experience undermined the traditional culture of Quakerism as world-shunning sect. They shifted from a vision of communal perfection to one of social service and activism. This new focus brought Quakers into contact with unorthodox ideas about the Bible and Christianity. Quakers had already undergone some splits over doctrine, but the faction that embraced modern activism and theology has become today one of the most theologically diverse religious bodies in the USA.

I located the closest Quaker meeting to my home and began attending just over four and a half years ago. Among Quakers I have found a community that I believe will be my spiritual home for the rest of my life. They are far from perfect, but part of my healing has been accepting imperfection both in myself and in others.

Still Longing for Utopia

A. J. Muste, the pacifist founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, once remarked that his demonstrations against war were not only about changing the world, they were also intended to keep the world from changing him. That resonates with how I regard my utopian spirit. While I have been changed many times in many ways, those changes have been aimed at purifying the utopian impulse. The 1960s still stand out for me as a period of history when lots of people discovered a vision of a better world. They failed to realize it completely, but I believe the world is better for that vision having dawned in the lives it did.

As for where my utopian impulse will take me next, that's something of a mystery to me, as it has been all along. I know that one of my real gifts is writing and there is so much to be written about the details of utopian visions. I have had a couple of articles published and really hope one day to write a longer book on my experience and philosophy.


Posted at 09:10 pm by charley63
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Towards a Holistic Radicalism

The world is suffering and oppressed. This suffering and oppression seems so huge, so unmanageable, so saddening. Many people in our society turn away from the suffering and oppression of the world and put all their thought and effort into private security and comfort. For those who suffer, this is not an option. They resist where they can. It is their resistance that forms the hope for a better world. A better world does not come from governments, religions, or violence. It comes from the united efforts of the suffering and oppressed, and their partners, to change the world.

Based on the book, Liberating Theory (LT) by South End Press, I see four broad kinds of oppression and resistance: economic, political, relational (kinship in LT), and community. Economic suffering is poverty and economic exploitation. Political suffering is tyranny and authoritarianism. Relational suffering is sexual and gender repression. Communal suffering is racial and religious. I am open to arguments that there are more general kinds of oppression, but for now, I will concentrate on these four.

The suffering and oppression in our world is systemic. There are structures, institutions, and ideologies that perpetuate suffering and frustrate liberation. For convenience, we can name the four main systems of oppression; Authoritarianism, Capitalism, Sexism, and Xenophobia. Each term is generally usable, though often the systems of oppression are more complex than these classic titles indicate.

A unified vision of resistance and liberation will address all of these areas. As I have reflected on these four systems of oppression, I believe that each one can be sub-categorized into two or more sub-systems. For simplicity, I will limit myself to main sub-systems. I choose these specific sub-systems as they correspond to leading modern social movements.

Beginning in reverse order from that used above, I will start with communal sub-systems. Probably one of the most pivotal social movements of the 20th century was the Civil Rights movement. This uprising of resistance altered forever the landscape of race relations in USA society. It won significant gains, but the battle to end racial oppression is far from over. Racism is one of the main sub-systems of xenophobia.

Another of the prime sub-systems of xenophobia is sectarianism. This can be religious, in the sense of Christian or Muslim fundamentalism or secular as in the case of Communist State Atheism. Since the middle of the 19th century movements have emerged which aim at worldwide community that transcend religious and ideological prejudices. These movements are based on the vision of a common humanity and active cooperation in social progress. These movements both work within existing sects and in dialogue across sectarian boundaries.

Moving on to sexism, I referred to this category as relational or "kinship" as LT does. I see two movements here, one about gender and one about sexuality. Gender is the condition of being male or female and gender repression is the denial of basic human equality to any person because they are one gender. The brunt of this repression has fallen on women, though men are often repressed emotionally and in other ways in the socialization process that reproduces sexism.

Sexual repression takes two forms, heterosexism and erotophobia. The former denies basic human dignity to persons who have a sexual attraction to their own gender. Erotophobia affects both same-sex attractions and heterosexuals. The movements for sexual liberation in society have done a lot of good, but there is still much more work to do in the name of sexual equality.

As I consider economic repression, I find that there are two sub-systems that have provoked resistance. The first sub-system centers on the exploitation of labor, and the second sub-system centers on exploiting the natural environment. A holistic economic vision will address both the right use of nature and labor.

Finally, the two sub-systems I would highlight in the political area are governance and security. Governance in most of the world today is dominated by Authoritarianism, the repression of democratic participation. Although tyranny is officially not practiced in the USA, in fact, most people have almost no real power to influence political decisions. Security structures in our society are centered on the imposition of force. Both police and the military enforce political repression with violence. Non-violent alternatives to warfare and policing have made great strides in the past century, but a non-violent world is a far off possibility.

A holistic radicalism seeks to embrace all the best of social liberation movements. A holistic radical sees that the sub-systems of suffering and oppression are intertwined. Xenophobia, authoritarianism, sexism, and capitalism all reinforce each other. If we eliminate capitalism, but not authoritarianism, capitalism will rebuild itself. If we eliminate authoritarianism, but not xenophobia, authoritarianism will rebuild itself. In order to make a genuinely radical new world, we need to support multiple struggles of resistance.

Posted at 10:38 pm by charley63
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Tuesday, May 31, 2005
A Bit About My Convictions

<The following was written a few years ago, don't have an exact date.>

My current spiritual home is the Religious Society of Friends, the liberal/progressive branch. My politics are broadly libertarian-socialist. My initial interest in politics grew from a religious commitment to non-violence. At this point, that commitment is more philosophical, as I have become more secularized in my beliefs.

Moving from simple religious pacifism to my current position was a sort of journey of exploration. One of the first issues to challenge me after militarism was poverty. The Biblical Jesus, in particular, had very strong things to say about the evils of wealth and the duty to serve the poor. My first "grand theory" of combating poverty could be called "communalism," advocating that all religious communities form communes devoted to serving the poor and sharing wealth.

In some ways, this was the most ambitious vision I ever had. Millions of communes dotting the globe! The nearest real-world parallel at this point would be the Catholic Worker communities, although they don't necessarily advocate entire parishes creating communes.

At this point, I am following various theoretical and visionary attempts at economic activism, though most keenly interested in the ideas of participatory workplaces.

A further evolution occurred around gender/kinship ideas. My relationship with my wife and the patterns of leadership in a former church-community all became challenges to espouse equality and liberation. A spiritual outcome is that I now view the sacred presence as more female than male.

Racial harmony was always a serious conviction, as my non-violence stemmed from some of the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. I got to know some African-American leftists and they reinforced my views that oppressed people very naturally incline to an enthusiastic spirituality.

Being raised Pentecostal, this was also my preferred style. Being among the very sedate Quakers is a challenge to this thirst I have for the ecstatic moments of spiritual experience, but I may be learning a needed balance.

One of the most recent developments for me has been the embracing of an ecological framework for both politics and spirituality. I no longer find any invoking of the spirit-matter dualism helpful. I am more inclined to see the divine presence as dwelling in the soil and the flesh, than as floating in the sky. This sacredness is vital in my continuing evolution.


Posted at 06:00 pm by charley63
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Getting Back to Business

I am going to restart this blog, at first by posting older things I've written.

Posted at 06:01 pm by charley63
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Why I Cannot Support This War



< I wrote this a month or so after 9/11/01 >

My initial gut reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center was complete disorientation. Like many in the USA, I, too, had become complacent
about the prospects of mass violence. This state of confusion persisted for weeks it seemed. Although I soaked in the calming presence of the divine in worship, I still felt turmoil in my thoughts.

I knew that I was supposed to reject war and vengence, but my mind and to some degree, my emotions, were deeply unsettled.

It was easy to oppose the Gulf War. Kuwait was a dictatorship funneling cheap oil to the USA which was being taken over by another dictatorship
which would likely be more profiteering. No great political or moral issues hung on that conflict. It was naked self-interest.

However, the destruction of 7,000 lives in New York struck me deeply in a personal way. I didn't know anyone in that disaster, but I live in a major
city that could very well have been another target of terrorism.

I craved a simple and direct idea to center my thinking. One of the first was given in one of the many religious statements against war - justice, not war. This gave me an accessible "mantra" with which to confront but not totally quell the disquiet I felt within.

I have been a pacifist since I was nine years old. I then believed the sermon on the mount absolutely, despite my own father's attempts to change my mind. He was a Pentecostal preacher, but could not seem to take Jesus' teachings on retaliation as literally as he did most of the rest of the Bible.

At that age, my main security problem was facing school bullies in my new neighborhood in Chicago. Coming from a small town to the big city forced me to reckon with a level of conflict I had never known. Knowing that I could never fight with enough force to win, non-resistance seemed the most dignified reaction. For the most part, I think it worked. After a few months, the bullying died down as the kids got used to me being around.

However, deciding not to fight school bullies is a far cry from opposing a war that seems to have such a justifiable cause. At least one Quaker of
national prominence has come out publicly in favor of the war against terrorism. His arguments echoed some of the inner doubts that were troubling my own conscience.

However, these doubts began to fall away as the reality of the situation in Afghanistan became clearer. The apparent goal of the USA's violence there is to destroy the political strength of the Taliban and to install a USA-friendly government in their place.

The last time we succesfully did such a thing in a muslim country - Iran in the 1970's - the result was the provocation of a Shi'ite revolution in that
country. Why do we have any hope that similar policies in Afghanistan will have any more success than Iran?

I have no such confidence, in fact, quite the opposite. Current USA policy will most likely lead to further destabilization of Islamic governments
around the world and I would not be surprised to see the "Iran Syndrome" replayed in at least a half dozen countries.

Even if the USA is successful in the short-term in Afghanistan, the long-term might very well be a global disaster.

Pacifists of all stripes need to unite in calling for an end to such a destructive path. Pacifists of relgious faith need more than ever to call
the world and this nation to a spiritual path that is higher than the brute logic of human vengence.




Posted at 06:03 pm by charley63
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Inward Tranquility Confronts Social Angst

< This was probably written just before 9/11/01

I have never read much of Jean-Paul Sartre, though I know some folks who read him passionately. I have some sense that he coined the term "angst." Angst is a feeling of dread, an aching sense that life is ultimately meaningless.

Just this evening, I had one deep pang of this dread. In an online discussion, I was asked "what is the most difficult question facing you?" I thought hard about it, but it came up with blinding force: "How can humankind reverse its thoughtless lurch towards self-destruction?"

I'm not usually given to pessimism. A few years ago, I was cured of years of depression with that notorious drug, Prozac. The way that pill rewrote my negativity was spectacular. I have traveled these past years in an almost zen-like state of inward tranquility. The stress of life might make me angry, but any outbursts were quickly retracted by an almost inexplicable "zone of bliss" radiating from a deep part of my consciousness.

Before this transformation, I was an anguished prophet, denouncing the corruption that surrounded me. I believed that in some measure my depression was a realistic response to the oppressive society in which I lived. After my healing, I still held on to a sharply critical viewpoint on social issues, but my emotional relation to these was attenuated. I simply couldn't sustain my former intensity around these issues.

And yet, the surfacing of this question of humankind's direction has stopped me short. I do believe that we are thoughtlessly exploiting our planet, its resources, and ourselves. The probability that we will face an ecological crisis within a few decades seems undeniable to me. I know that such prediction were made in the 1970's and many believe they have proven false. It seems to me that those predictions were unduly short-sighted, but nevertheless they also did prompt some attempts at restraint. The intensity of those warnings may have had the effect of delaying the inevitable.

Leaving aside the ecological crisis, at the simple level of human interaction, I still find cause for anxiety. I see a daily parade of human callousness and unfeeling behavior. My son comes home in tears from his classmates' teasing. A supervisor mistreats some of her co-workers. The news media report violence, both criminal and civil, around the world.

After years of seeking for a spiritual identity, I have chosen liberal Quakerism as the community where I belong. In Quakerism, I find a concern for ecology, a commitment to equality, and manner of life that speaks to that tranquil centeredness I find within.

But, liberal Quakers are a miniscule, though significant, tribe. So many people live without such inward tranquility and often they do not even seem to seek it. I know that inward tranquility is not sufficient for social tranquility, but it seems that such a spiritual condition would be widely present in a world at peace.

So, I come to the possibility that my inward tranquility is a gift which has a dark side, a sort of numbing effect on my social concerns. I need this tranquility and its wonderful healing power, but I also cannot let it disconnect me from the very real suffering and violence in our world.



Posted at 06:05 pm by charley63
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Theism Deconstructed

< This was probably written some time in 2000 >

I am a religious naturalist who holds that classical theism cannot be proven rationally. At most, we can claim that the universe has some sort of causal origin.

We cannot know whether there was a unified originator. In fact, much of modern cosmology is heading to the conclusion that just as we now know there are many galaxies, there may also be many universes, perhaps an infinite number of them. If so, were all of them caused by the same unified cause? I think we can admit agnosticism regarding that question.

I would further argue that there is no reason to hold that the unified cause of this universe is a person or even a unified impersonal cause. Rather, I think science has identified a complex structure of causative forces that work together to produce everything in the universe. This causative structure could be called "god" but it is unlikely that it is conscious.

However, throughout human history, people have claimed to discover "spirits" or "gods" that speak to them and which guide them in their lives. Some of these claims are clearly self-serving, but others, such as Moses delivering Israel or Buddha teaching compassion, seem to possess a nobility deserving of careful attention from even skeptical persons.

Cutting to the chase more directly, I perceive two kinds of religious claims that are independent of each other. One is that there is cause of the universe that is divine and worthy of worship. The second claim is that a divine being or beings have guided human beings throughout history.

Can these two claims be joined into a single theological claim? The evolution of the universe prior to human existence seems to have only the barest hint of the potential of humankind. We don't know whether there are other planets with life on them, but the course of evolution on this planet has a character that is at the very least crucial to our own existence. This evolution from non-life to life to consciousness does form a remarkable trajectory if not outright purposefulness or design.

This implies that even among the non-living forces and components of the universe, there must have been some potential for life and humankind even from the earliest conceivable moments of this universe's evolution.

It is this potential and trajectory that I call sacred and divine. It is neither magic nor miracle, but it is still spectacular and extraordinary.

peace - Charley


Posted at 06:08 pm by charley63
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Divinity Evolving

< This was probably written sometime in 2000 >



Astronomy is now coming to the conclusion that our universe is part of a larger evolving cosmos, where universes explode into being within a potentially infinite expanse. This infinite expanse may be the physical reality that religion has called "god". Speculations about quantum physics lead to the possibility that these other universes and the infinite expanse are governed by a complex process of event concretion that is capable of creating universes that are radically unlike our own. The infinite expanse may be a dynamic field of exotic events, possibly even resembling the energy of consciousness. In a sense the infinite multiverse resembles an incredibly complex living being.

We are centers of physical consciousness who have evolved out of the quantum flux with the capacity to examine, remember, and analyze our significant experiences. As we share our experiences, form values, and develop compassion, the universal being's own consciousness is enlarged, drop by experiential drop. We emerge from the infinite being, commune with this being and have the potential to choose a future that realizes compassion.

There is a shadow side to evolving divinity. The universe is seemingly random in its evolutionary path. The infinite being does not seem to pre-determine the outcome of the process of evolution. This means that many of these events manifest a malignant character. In human life, this leads to disease, mental illness, violence, and various "evils."

Humans are capable of evolving either the compassionate or malignant side of reality. At every moment, we are presented with possibilities and decisions that lead us down one pathway or another. The fate of humankind depends on the total synergy of our choices with natural evolution. I do not have an ultimate ground for choosing compassion over malignancy, only the repeated experience that compassion feels better than malice. From this perspective, my spiritual practice is aimed at the enlargement of compassion and the decrease of malice.


Posted at 06:09 pm by charley63
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Something Extraordinary: Healing and Spirituality

< This was probably written in 2000 >


Although I am not a conventional Christian, I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition and my experiences there were life-changing. Even with decades between me and some of these events. they still hold important indications of the nature of divinity.

The most incredible of these experiences occurred when I was 9. I was born with a double cleft lip and palate. I had a slit on each side of the center of my lip, and a long slit down the roof of my mouth. Plastic surgery in the 1960's could close the lip and the soft palate, but not the hard palate. A narrow slit remained. When I ate, food would pass through it and enter my nasal passages and sometime the eustachion tubes to the ears. I had several deafening earaches and a couple of eardrum ruptures.

When I was nine, my father learned about a faith-healer visiting a nearby town. We attended and this preacher was there calling out illnesses he said God revealed to him. He called out epilepsy and a few other details of the person he was to pray for, and my dad believed it was him. He went down and after the prayer, he never took his medication again. Never had another seizure.

Needless to say, my Dad became a true believer in this man. We went all over western Illinois and my Dad even began to help manage some aspects of the meetings.

One night, near the end of one of these healing "crusades" I went forward and asked the minister to pray for my palate. I went home that night full of faith that I would be healed. I told my parents that the roof of my mouth was tingling.

The next morning, my parents say they saw skin growing across the cleft. In about 2 months, the cleft was reduced to a fraction of its original size. Then, it unexplainedly stopped closing. I remember some kind of impression in my mind that the healing was over.

On the basis of this experience, I believe in a healing power that is accessible to humans, though it is not under human control. Faith seems to be part of how it works, but I know enough true believers who have never found their healing to know that it is an inscrutable agency.

I am not making any kind of truth claim for Pentecostalism or Christianity. I am reporting this experience as best I recall it. I know that "prayer" does seem to release something inside our bodies and I still participate in meetings where needs for healing are held in the Light of divinity.


Posted at 06:10 pm by charley63
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Re-Examining "Something Extraordinary"

I wrote the previous entry about my "faith healing" when I was somewhat less convinced than I am now about the naturalist worldview. My miracle was a sort of "holy of holies" in my life-story. It was here that I committed all my being to following Jesus and it was only when some doubts about that experience begin to emerge that I also began to doubt Christianity.

I don't question the faith lightly. I was a passionate believer for most of my life and those who knew me then still find my present agnostic state hard to believe. My family especially takes this hard. They tend to view me as a lost soul, needing to be saved.

Recently, I spent about 36 hours in Texas for an aunt's funeral. My aunt had been diagnosed with terminal stage 3 ovarian cancer less than a year ago. As a basically fundamentalist Christian, she planned her own funeral to include a strong emphasis on the belief that she was now with Jesus and that all of her Christian family and friends would see her in heaven themselves one day. My reaction to this heavy dose of religious zeal was less than enthusiastic. I know that many of them really believe in this notion, but I feel that I was being told not to really miss my aunt, which I really do. Doesn't the Bible call death an "enemy"? Why isn't it all right to feel anger at the disease that killed her?

To return to my miracle, I have since realized that I never could actually see what was going on in my mouth during this healing. To this day, I have a small opening in my hard palate. My admittedly uncertain memory recalls that it does feel smaller now than it did before the miracle, but I can't be certain how much of that recall arose from suggestibility. After all, we wanted a miracle very badly.

My hard-core naturalist and nontheist friends may feel betrayed by this statement, but what if my miracle were real? What if in the few weeks between the healing prayer and the day the healing "stopped" my cleft hard palate closed from about an inch to it's present quarter inch? It certainly isn't proof of an omnipotent creator. At most it might push the notion of psycho-somatic healing a little farther than science currently allows.

peace - Charley

Posted at 06:37 pm by charley63
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