STORYTELLING

Storytelling describes the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values.

and the words flow from here

A few stories that haven't found a place yet.

                                 Thoughts on succeeding in a white-collar working career


Work hard at your studies, get good results, and learn how to study effectively.

If possible, specialize in a new thing that's about to take off.  Stay at the cutting edge of your specialty until you advance into management, then become a generalist.

When applying for work, learn all you can about the organization and figure out how you could contribute to its success.  Understand what you're good at and apply only for jobs that seem exciting to you.  Make your job application a sales pitch to show why you're the best candidate for the job.  Deliver your application in person if it's physically possible; show yourself at your very best; and ask for another meeting, preferably with the person you'd be working for, to learn more about the position advertised.  Remember that competence is the most important quality a prospective employer looks for.

Be thorough and results-oriented, courageous and audacious.  Be respectful and polite to everyone.  Never make jokes at anybody's expense.  Never discuss politics or religion at work.  Listen, don't talk.  Learn to remember names and faces.  Show an interest in your colleagues, superiors, and business contacts as human beings, and remember what you learn about them, so you can follow up on things later.

Be clean and presentable.  To be taken seriously by your elders, dress, groom, and behave like they do without trying to go beyond your station.  Unkempt persons never make it above the grunt level.  Don't smoke: smokers put in 10 per cent fewer hours than non-smokers during the same working day, and employers know this.  Smokers also fall ill during middle age and become a liability to their employers.

Cultivate kindness to animals: a lack of it generates an unpleasant attitude that will do you harm at work.

Both when applying for work and while working for an employer, make it evident, without saying so, that your highest priority is the success of your boss.  His/her interests are your primary motivator and you have no designs on his/her job.  Once your boss realizes this and begins to trust you completely, nothing can stop you.

Write clearly and concisely.  Use short words, sentences, and paragraphs.  Study creative writing as if you were planning to write novels.  Popularize difficult matters.  Date and keep a copy of everything you write.  Double-check your facts and document them.  Learn to design and use relational databases to make fast and accurate use of large amounts of data.  Speak loudly and clearly when addressing an audience.  Use the best available audiovisuals.  Be entertaining so nobody goes to sleep.

If you become a manager and get staff, remember that to your staff, you represent the company or organization, but to your boss, you represent your staff.  Nothing motivates those working for you like the knowledge that you care about them and their interests when dealing with the employer.  Don't be preoccupied with rising in the organization: if you follow the advice offered here, you'll be given all the responsibility you can handle.

Keep promises.  Make only realistic plans and budgets.  Warn of delays as soon as you know for certain.  Never speculate: if you don't know, find out and get back to the person who made an inquiry.  Learn to deal with short attention spans: bosses will stand over you and demand quick wins.  Give them milestones and interim results as needed, and use the resultant goodwill to get necessary resources.  Never fear telling your boss unpleasant truths in private: a good boss will respect you for it.

Keep the time spent on maintaining your work computer to a minimum.  Refuse to get addicted to social media.  Make use of calendaring and scheduling applications.  Learn to use project management systems: they actually work.  Keep a business diary so you know what you've done when and what you've promised to whom.  Learn from Dale Carnegie: the best thing he said was that to get someone to do what you want them to do, show them that it's in their own best interest to do it.  If reminders are needed, give them politely and in private.

Never stop learning.  Question existing practices and find out about the future of the business your employer is in.  Trust only good futurologists and use many different sources.  If change is needed, make a convincing case to your superiors.  If you see the ship sinking, do as the rats do and get off in time.

                             (Robie's attempt to teach millennials the old ways to success)

HELSINKI CATHEDRAL

Faith vs. religion as discussed in Walkabout

Walkabout: The Story of a Brief Century is an action novel set in a near future. It deals with the period of three and a half years prior to the return of Christ as described in the Book of Revelation. Gregory, the narrator, starts off on a trip around the world and gets in the way of the introduction of the Mark of the Beast, Beast worship, and persecution of dissidents. He learns how to avoid the worst of these problems and, with his beloved, Laura, he finds a better life than what the Beast's fans have.

Walkabout places all the Bible's prophesies about the End Times in our own time and in modern language, while staying clear of sectarian interpretations. Every prophesy is shown just as it is written, not as some theologian thinks it ought to be understood. Walkabout also presents the rest of the Christian faith as the Bible teaches it, exposing the many money-spinning schemes the churches have introduced over the centuries--eventually, in our days, alienating most of their members who see nothing of value remaining among conformism, bigotry, empty ritual, right-wing politics, and moralistic-therapeutic deism.

Below are the passages from Walkabout that deal with the contrast between faith, as Jesus taught it, and religion, its many-faceted replacement. The first instalment is from Chapter 17, where Gregory is having dinner with a Parisian minister and his family.

"It's scary to think of persecutions, though," I ventured. Oliver agreed. "Yes, it's a frightening prospect. However, it could also be a blessing of sorts. The Christian church retains its original form and purpose only for as long as it's being persecuted. "Look at the early church: for three centuries, it remained undivided and true to the apostles' teachings, and it became the majority religion in the pagan Roman empire because the heathens could see that Christians, living their faith, had something infinitely more valuable and emboldening than what they themselves had. The persecutions targeted church leaders more than other Christians, and only the brave, compassionate, and selfless became leaders and teachers. "We still have this situation in parts of Africa and Asia, and Christians from there put all of us who live securely and comfortably to shame.

"As soon as it's safe to belong to some religion or denomination, its ranks of leaders fill up with politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen, just like those of any other organization. The death-defying evangelists are beatified, sidelined, forgotten, or declared heretics and killed, and the original gospel is relegated to pre-sales work and to draw crowds on big holidays, where it's always proved its worth. "From that point onward, most clergy simply become peddlers of guilt." "That's a rather sweeping statement," I observed. "How about a bit of commentary?" "A code of behavior--even an onerous one--and the supervision needed to maintain it can be sold for money, as long as the promised reward is attractive enough. Just look at the martial arts, as an example. On the other hand, who's going to pay you for advertising a free gift? Well, that's evident from any marketing campaign: only the giver of the gift. So preaching salvation as a free gift by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus requires living on faith, something professional church leaders and clergy aren't very good at.

"This way of thinking is so pervasive in the churches that their clergy have started to believe that Christianity is only about ethical behavior. So their leaders, who barely believe in God anymore, have nothing to put against the Humanist argument that ethics are better taught without the supernatural mumbo-jumbo of religion. Without a personal devotion to the risen Christ, all that remains for the churches is tradition, getting together in Sunday finery, moral coercion, ritual, and entertainment." "Oliver," I said, "please explain this thing about a free gift!" "OK. Let's think of it this way. Let's say that humanity lives on a malfunctioning space ship, headed right into the sun. The captain, at his own expense, has prepared an escape pod. Everyone is invited to board it when the time comes to leave, but only a few turn up to get the free ticket." "Why?"

"The ship's trajectory isn't straight but elliptical, so it takes discernment to understand where it's going. The on-board entertainment insists on the approach of 'eat, drink, and be merry.' And it's evident that those who have been to get the ticket are so grateful that they have become unselfish. That's too high a price to pay: one doesn't just quit looking after one's personal interests while the going is good." "I'm following," I confirmed. "But there's bound to be some nagging doubts among those who have heard about the problem but can't be bothered to take a stand. Maybe they're still waiting to be persuaded?" "There's a whole industry out there catering to any such uncertainty. 'Join our group, follow our fashions, obey our rules, and pay us money, and we'll numb all your fears and, yes, if it comes to that, we'll get you on board that pod in the end.'"

"That would be the peace-of mind industry, or what?" "Precisely", Oliver confirmed. "And, sad to say, most religions and most Christian churches are willing members of that industry." "But that isn't the way it works, right?" "No. You have to go to the captain yourself and make a commitment in order to pick up your ticket. Nobody can get it for you. This is the best kept secret in all Christianity. Letting it out would mean the end of living comfortably for the clergy. Only a few denominations make it known, but they often put on a big charismatic show instead, to ensure that they're still seen as indispensable by their members." "So when do we impact?"

"For each one of us," Oliver said, "that's when we die. If the world comes to an end as the Book of Revelation says, a lot of us will die at the same time. But it's the very nature of the thing that we don't know when our time is up. That's how it's meant to be, because hedging your bets and waiting until the odds are right doesn't work. We only get the ticket if we commit ourselves completely and never look back." I wanted to get back to the parallel with the martial arts industry. "Some would take offense at such a direct comparison between religion and business," I noted.

"Hypocrisy, by its nature, is defensive," Oliver confirmed. "But the analogy is accurate. Clergy are in the business of evaluating people's actions and outward appearances, and selling a treatment, much like the weight loss industry. "In an officially accepted church, the objective of a preacher is no longer to share a message at any cost to himself, but to make a living, preferably in a comfortable manner. Although such a priest or pastor liberally claims the same authority Jesus gave his apostles when he first sent them out to preach, he normally isn't prepared to live on faith as the apostles had to do. "So if you're a people person in need of a job, and you chance upon a belief system, led by amateurs, emerging from struggles and persecutions, this is what you do. You take its original message of faith--ancient mythology, the Gospel of Jesus, the revelations of Mohammed, the writings of Marx and Engels, whatever--and transform it into something entirely different: a code of conduct, against which you can gauge people's performance. Since you can't supervise every person yourself, the code has to be uncompromising and emotional enough to lend itself to both rueful self-criticism by the individual and callous monitoring by others. In effect, you take a message of joy, victory, and triumph, and turn it into one of obligation, guilt, and condemnation by the holier-than-thou crowd.

"To make the scheme fly, you have to come up with just the right mix of euphoria over belonging to the in-group and remorse over one's inevitable failings. When you've got this straight, you also have to cater to births, marriages, deaths, and other rites of passage, plus provide a regular supply of holidays and celebrations according to the seasons. It's always a good idea to take over the feasts of the old order and rename them after your own saints and potentates; this tends to keep the people happy through the transition. The result is a lucrative profession that provides peace of mind for everyone involved. This is the way the early church met its end in the fourth century." "Very complex, compared with the original idea of a free ticket," I observed.

"Like a different story altogether," Oliver replied. "The reason is that there are three parties involved, not two. "If only you and God were concerned, it would be a no-brainer. God wants you in his kingdom; you don't want to go to hell. You accept his offer--case closed. But then there's the church with entirely different interests. The church wants maximum mileage out of you in terms of your tithes to help it prosper and your participation to help make it appear relevant. "God's message to you, as recorded in the Bible, is clear and simple: 'You have come to me sincerely and in the name of my son Jesus who already bore the punishment for your sins on the cross. Those sins are now forgotten and you have eternal life. Here's how you can help me spread the Gospel, try to make life on Earth a little nicer for those around you, and preserve your integrity and a healthy amount of self-respect for when you come to my kingdom. And, by the way, you don't owe me anything other than gratitude.' This message exists in the church but it's well hidden. What you're taught instead is this: 'Here are all the moral rules we've been able to establish from Scripture and tradition. Follow them, pay us well, and we'll get you to Heaven. You're too small to understand God: leave that to us. Our holy, magic rituals will keep you on his good side. Amen.'" "Somehow it seems to me that you're talking about the Catholic Church now," I said. "Didn't the Reformation change all this?"

"Every revolution only ends up with more of the same. After the Reformation wars, it became safe and respectable to belong to the Protestant clergy, and the old business model was put right back to work. In Luther's Catechism, the exhortations to the hearers of the Word have nothing to do with faith, only with their obligation to support the clergy and obey their rulers. Over the millennia, clergy and theologians have fought each other--sometimes to the death--over the slightest nuances of doctrine, but concerning the primary function of religion as a holy cash cow, most of them have always been in perfect agreement.

"The Catholic Church says nothing about personal salvation but encourages its members to push the envelope of morality to see what they can get away with. If you go too far, you get a penance to do, and on you go until next Saturday. Evangelical denominations--the kind that produces Bible-thumping, Creationist, 'born again' Christians--foster bigotry and Old-Testament style legalism to make their members feel superior and keep the checks coming. A number of Protestant and Orthodox state churches offer respectability and patriotic traditions combined with the feel-good awareness that members are helping finance charity and social work. But the true message of salvation is as scarce as hens' teeth in nearly all churches.

"The common thread between most denominations is moral coercion: follow Biblical rules to gain social acceptance among church members. Yet, according to the Bible, the job of a preacher is not to stop sinners from sinning: on its own, that doesn't do them any good, and the effect never lasts. His task is to convict sinners of their sins and challenge them to repent. Then he needs to help them accept salvation through Christ's sacrifice for all mankind. After this, the saved Christian will voluntarily try to avoid further sinning and can benefit from the guidance in the Epistles of the New Testament."

"Yet all denominations say that they follow the Bible," I commented. "The Bible," Oliver answered, "is written somewhat like a medical text on some fatal disease--in this case, sin. A typical medical treatise will describe the progress of an illness from infection to the grisly end. It'll tell how the disease is spread and how it can be prevented. If there's a cure, the text will explain it and how it should be applied. Convalescence and therapy will be discussed. Some parts of the text are gloomy, some hopeful, some tedious. Yet every chapter forms a part of the whole.

"Different doctors can take the same treatise and use it for their own professional purposes. One may specialize in prevention, another in the cure, and yet another in palliative care where treatment has failed. In the same manner, church leaders pick aspects of the Bible that suit their business agendas. The guilt peddlers focus entirely on prevention and claim a monopoly on survival strategies while suppressing the fact that a cure--salvation by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus--is available to all who sincerely want it. Charismatics may talk only about the cure and forget to mention that we're expected to lead a holy life as well. The preacher that presents a balanced rendition of the Gospel is a rare bird indeed, and is normally at odds with his denomination.

"An established religion is more concerned with a solid social position than with changing lives. It makes both membership and salvation contingent on partaking in rituals and paying tithes, while the early church had no such conditions. It persecutes those who leave it and murders its competitors, whether heathens or heretics. It transfers holiness from the object of worship to the organization and its leaders. It dilutes faith in God with faith in the church, and strives to convince you that this faith is all you need. Although St. Paul says clearly that love is greater than faith, such a church will teach you little about love, least of all by example. "St. Paul, in I Cor. 1:10-15, wrote a strongly worded condemnation of divisions among the faithful, based on following different authorities. Nevertheless, this kind of church invariably throws up barricades between 'us' and 'them,' so dissent can be demonized as treason. Belonging to the church, joining its interest groups, taking part in its activities, and paying your dues become the focal points of a religion that's concerned more with fundraising than with saving souls. No wonder so many find it impossible to accept such churches and their authority over people's lives. "Organized religion doesn't have what it takes to bring salvation to anyone. Only individuals can do that--including, of course, individual pastors.

"Those who teach or practice this kind of religion fall under Christ's denunciation in Mt. 6:1-17: they have had their reward. If persecutions come, they won't be affected. But the rest of us may again get an opportunity to show what it means to live one's faith. And face it: the true Christian church has been persecuted for a long time already. In countries like Britain, Sweden, and America that have submitted to minority rule by alarmists and proponents of political correctness, it's already illegal to teach the basic Christian message of Christ crucified, because the Bible's account of the crucifixion is so graphic and violent that it could distress unsuspecting, sensitive hearers and leave them with post-traumatic stress disorder."

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In Chapter 24, Gregory, traveling with Laura's friend Emy, has come to a small village in Sicily, where Emy's distant relatives have learned about Emy's and Gregory's encounters with the Beast and his enforcers. They need instruction on Christian life during the End Times, and their pastor, Father Giuseppe, is drafted to provide it.

Father Giuseppe had been quiet until then, but with all eyes on him, he now rose and cleared his throat. "As Catholics, we've been taught that the Church is here to stay. The whole idea of an end to time is uncomfortable for the Church, because it would imply the completion of her task on Earth. Although we pray every Sunday for Christ's return and the coming of his kingdom, the Church has never wanted us to think of this as imminent. The Church's official view of the Apocalypse and other Biblical descriptions of great catastrophes to come has always been that they're difficult to understand, but likely to be connected with Israel's and the early Christians' struggle against their Roman oppressors. So we were never encouraged to read the Apocalypse; in fact, most Catholics have no idea of what it's all about."

Father Giuseppe was a Jesuit, which made him uniquely fit to deal with sensitive matters, where the official line of the Church was difficult to reconcile with Scripture. "However, now it seems that we've come to the time the Apocalypse talks about. We have the two beasts deceiving all mankind, one of them looking like a lamb--pretending to be Christ's representative, the pope--but speaking like a dragon, that is, like the devil himself. "And the sad fact is that if the devil were to come among humanity, looking for a religious community to take over for his own purposes, the Roman Catholic Church would be his ideal victim. This is precisely because we Catholics have been so carefully taught both blindly to trust the hierarchy of our church and not to worry about the end of the world.

"Now it has happened: what our friend Gregorio has just said confirms all the disquieting things that have begun coming down to us from the Vatican. With our lack of understanding of the Apocalypse, we've been at a total loss as to what has been going on." "So what are we to do, Father?" Ruggero asked. "We aren't used to finding things out from Scripture. We've always come to you to be taught. You'll have to guide us. If we can't trust the Church anymore, it falls to you, our own shepherd here in our own town, to tell us what's right and what's wrong." "I was afraid of that," sighed the priest. "Well, first of all, everything Emilia and Gregorio have told you is true. We mustn't allow the government to mark us with that tattoo. We'll have to live off the land and use our family ties, like we've always done here in the mountains. We'll come to no harm--we've lived without money for many months already while waiting to have these questions sorted out.

"Second, each one of us should search his or her conscience and make sure we live a life worthy of the bride of Christ. We, together with everyone else in our position in the whole world, still constitute the true church, even though the official church has become a front for the enemy. "You ask me to teach you what's right and what's wrong. Well, you know the Ten Commandments. They still apply. Follow them, and you'll be doing what's right. But our Lord also taught us many other things, and I'll repeat some of them to you. Don't worry--I'll give you just seven brief passages that will tell you the most important things about living during these last times." The room had filled up with silent, listening women and children. More people were there to hear Father Giuseppe than had attended Mass that morning. It was so quiet that I could hear a mouse or an insect gnawing away at the doorpost behind me.

"Jesus said, 'None of those who cry out, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.' You're not going to get away with being pious and calling yourselves religious. Piousness, in fact, is one of the most hazardous attitudes mankind is heir to--it's just one little step removed from pride and hypocrisy. No, you have to do God's will. "What, then, is God's will for us? Very simple: to follow the Greatest Commandment. 'You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love is the most important thing for us, and not just some distant kind of sympathy in the mind, but a love that we express by caring for each other. That's how we become willing channels of God's love for all his children. "Many are worried about the idea of loving their neighbors as themselves. If we're to put ourselves last; will we be left with nothing in the end? One can easily show that in an economy where everyone only caters to other people's needs, everybody would be well off. But such an economy isn't realistic, and it isn't necessarily what the commandment means.

"Think about what the Greatest Commandment would imply if the idea were that you're supposed to neglect yourself completely. The less you'd care for yourself, the less you'd need to care for others while still keeping the commandment. If self-denial were the objective, those in need among us would have nowhere to turn, while the rest of us could pat ourselves on the back for keeping our commandment. Such a concept makes no sense: it would lead to economic collapse and mass starvation. "We need to turn that thinking around. To be able to look after others, we must look after ourselves first. If our circumstances allow, we need to be strong, healthy, and capable of caring for our families and our neighbors. That done, we'll have the resources to make good on the Greatest Commandment and act virtuously in our lives. "The business community wants you to think of yourself first and only: this tends to maximize their profits. As a Christian, your concern is for 'us,' not 'me.' You care equally about all those you can provide for, including yourself. "An example: many of you wear glasses. In some families, several people wear glasses. Glasses get dirty. Say you're off to clean your glasses and you find that you can clean somebody else's glasses too, while you're at it. Whose glasses do you clean first? The answer depends on your motives. If you're acting the normal way--out of guilt--you'll clean the other person's glasses first and be content that, once again, you've covered your spiritual behind. But if you're acting out of concern for the other person, you'll clean your own glasses first, so you can see to do a better job on the other person's glasses. That isn't being selfish, it's being thoughtful, and it's precisely what the Greatest Commandment intends for you to do.

"I'm here to serve you, but I don't work 24/7--I'd end up dead or burned out, and I'd have deprived you of a pastor. I need to look after myself so I can look after you. "If there's a famine, you don't starve yourself so you can feed your children a little more. When you're dead, who's going to feed them? Even if one of your children dies, you still need to be able to feed the others. "Now for the next verse I wanted to quote to you. "'He who tries to save his life will lose it; it is the man who loses his life for my sake, that will save it.' Trying to preserve your lifestyle as consumers will deprive you of eternal life. Giving up your seemingly secure life will be both an adventure and a good shot at ending up on the right side when all this is over.

"'Whoever acknowledges me before men I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. Whoever disowns me before men I will disown before my Father in heaven.' We're dealing with a dictatorship. You can't hope to evade the system and go unnoticed. Prepare yourselves mentally to let people know what you're doing and why. "'Because of the increase of evil, the love of most will grow cold. The man who holds out to the end, however, is the one who will see salvation.' There's corruption and violence all around us, and many people are arming themselves and isolating themselves from others for fear of being attacked or defrauded. The command to love your neighbor still stands, however. In fact, even more is expected of us:

"'My command to you is: Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.' Whatever they may be doing to you, they're hurting their own prospects more, and they're the ones in need of prayers. "'And there's no need to fear those who kill the body, but have no means of killing the soul; fear him more, who has the power to ruin body and soul in hell.' There'll be persecutions; they've already started. Some of us may be killed. But that isn't the worst fate that could befall us: losing our eternal life would be much more terrible."

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By the middle of Chapter 26, Emy and Gregory have made it out of Italy, where unmarked foreigners have been threatened with instant execution; through a terrorist kidnapping in Algeria; and onto an Iranian freighter bound for Britain. Over dinner at the Captain's table, the discussion again strays to the subject of faith.

Interestingly, Oyoba's father was a Christian and his mother a Muslim, so Oyoba knew both faiths equally well. I made a rather insensitive comment to the effect that the two religions really weren't in the same league, and how could he prefer to call himself a Muslim if he had the choice. One tends to do that kind of thing when one's faith is new and shallow. Oyoba looked at me with deep sympathy, and corrected me in a most tactful manner that left me quite ashamed.

"Gregory, it's natural for you to feel that your own faith is all you need, and that everyone who believes differently must be mistaken. You may have been influenced by teachers who had a vested interest in encouraging you to reject every other way of looking at the world. But there's a fact that you should be aware of: Islam is God's word for two billion people, and no matter how enamored you are with your own version, there's positively nothing you or your Christian ministers can do to change that fact. So if you're the least bit interested in God's perspective on communicating with all those people, you'd be well advised to keep an open mind regarding their faith and their traditions."

Emy had made no attempt at hiding her dismay at my thoughtlessness. "It's easy to accept popular prejudice against people you don't know. One tends to forget that unfamiliar habits don't make others any less human or deserving of respect. In many Western countries Muslim women have been forbidden to wear headscarves, as if a scarf were somehow a protest against the secularity of their adopted country. But we forget that, until quite recently, our own ancestors observed the same custom. My great-great-grandmother, born in the 1890s, wouldn't have dreamt of leaving her home without a hat or a scarf. Catholic women were required to cover their heads in church until 1983. Look up images of the Virgin Mary on the Web: among hundreds of results, you may be lucky to find one where she's not wearing a headscarf.

"Muslim women are still living under the same Middle-Eastern misogyny that the Church brought with it from there and inflicted on Europe during the Dark Ages as it introduced the Christian faith. It took us a thousand years to shake it off and return to the respect for women that our Celtic and Germanic forebears had. How can we expect Muslim migrants to leave it behind the moment they step on Western soil?"

Emy and I were soon telling Oyoba about our Algerian adventure. When we came to the preoccupation of the terrorists with smoking and drinking, Oyoba offered us an insight I hadn't thought of before. "The Holy Quran, of course, forbids the use of alcohol and other addictive stuff. But thinking of your interest in breaking free from the official payment system, there's another reason not to use such substances. Nobody's easier to blackmail than an addict. If you haven't kicked your habit by the time you want to give up the use of money, the system has you just where it wants you. Either you'll end up taking the mark so you can go on feeding your habit, or you'll be dependent on criminals to keep supplying you with your fix. You don't want your hands tied when you should have the freedom to choose."

"That's true," I commented. "I like a beer now and then, and some of your Sicilian relatives, Emy, couldn't get up in the morning without a double-strength espresso in bed. I think there was more to the emperor's legalization of recreational drugs than meets the eye! He wasn't content with having most people hooked on prescription medicines. He wanted a population of addicts, and he wanted the supply of formerly illegal drugs, too, inside the official economy, to make sure that the sick, the hypochondriacs, and the addicts would be dependent on his payment system."

"Giving up a dependence like a drug is doubly difficult," Emy added. "In the case of each substance, there's a chemical dependence, but the worse bond is your psychological addiction. "Every day, we reward ourselves by doing little things out of habit. We prefer certain foods, we use more or less addictive drugs, we think familiar thoughts, and we reexperience our old attitudes and prejudices. There's nothing in human life that's dearer to us than these regular mental rewards. That's why we're all conservatives at heart. That's why, to others, we're predictable and known by our habits. The strength of this dependence is such that we automatically consider anyone crazy whose habits we can't identify. No one unsettles us more than an unpredictable person whom we can't categorize. "TV commercials can be very enlightening. Advertising agencies employ the best practical psychologists, and know just how to push the right buttons. Many commercials for addictive beverages such as coffee, caffeine-laced soft drinks, and alcohol, tell us to drink the product in question as a reward to ourselves. It's very persuasive, this idea that when you deserve a break and a drink, it has to be an addictive drink. Maybe our receptiveness stems from being denied such drinks in childhood.

"The difficulty we're trying to come to grips with here isn't habits as such. Many habits are desirable and good: human society and every religion are based on fostering good habits, among other things. The problem is being told to give up a bad habit by someone who has no idea of your subconscious need to reward yourself. What we have to understand is this: to successfully rid yourself of an addiction, you have to identify your own self-rewarding scheme and decide that you can live without that particular reward." "This is very much in line with what I've concluded, myself," Oyoba said. "Our need for the familiar is such that only the very few can successfully adapt to change without intolerable stress. And it seems that the most important thing for us is to be among people of our own kind.

"I think we have three basic, biological needs: Survival, procreation, and belonging to the in-group. Survival covers food and shelter, fight or flight, and all that. Procreation includes sex and nurturing. But stronger than both of those is our need to conform and belong to a group that we perceive to be in the right." "I agree," I broke in. "People will gladly go to their deaths, abstain from sex, and sacrifice their children, if that's what the group requires of them. This is instinctive behavior based on neurobiology and has been identified with a neuropeptide called oxytocin."

"All of us," Oyoba continued, "except the very rare individualist, belong to this kind of group or groups, and the group tells us what to think. We begin our relationship with the in-group by deciding--not discovering--that it is in the right. Consequently, we can't be shaken in this belief: whatever the group tells us to think, we think. "The world is full of do-gooders who try to persuade us as individuals to consider this or that matter, to be tolerant and generous, to resist war and work for peace. People who think we're in the wrong will argue with us or will patiently try to point out our error, and expect us, on our own, to draw conclusions from their insights. This is unbelievably commonplace and incredibly nave: we're not going to change the way we think unless our in-group does it for us.

"Media and politicians seem to put on a front of pretense to the effect that if they have called for, say, tolerance and moderation in this fashion, they've done their job--such a shame that it didn't work. Yet, everybody whose job involves influencing the public knows that there are no groups without leaders, no belief systems without teachers and preachers. If you want to influence the thinking of the public, you have to change the thinking of the leaders, and that can only be done either through coercion or by showing that it's in the interest--in terms of power and money--of the leaders to comply.

"A powerful and charismatic leader aiming for autocracy, like the emperor is doing just now, knows how to grab the role of de-facto leader of important in-groups, while making doubly sure by intimidating existing leaders into toeing the line. Leading the public toward new and controversial goals has to be done like that: you can't take away anybody's in-groups; you have to take them over. "It's this need to be approved and belong that the powerful will always use to manipulate and blackmail people. Naturally, humans, being such woefully inadequate animals, wouldn't have survived the hunter-gatherer stage without such a herd instinct. But in the current situation, like under so many previous despots, this basic drive for self-preservation by the human species has, once more, been put to use for the forces of evil."

I wanted to take the matter of evil a little further. "There's this general idea that our animal nature with its instincts and imperatives is evil as such. People have spent lifetimes in monasteries and deserts trying to flagellate it to death, only to have it play more dirty tricks on them as soon as they turned around." "How can it be evil if God made it?" Emy asked. "It isn't the animal nature that's bad," Oyoba retorted. "There's no way God would have bothered to put us here on Earth to grow in animal bodies if there weren't some divine purpose to them. I think the key challenge is placing the animal nature, along with all your talent, in the service of unconditional love."

"What's unconditional love?" I asked. "It sounds simple enough, but what does it mean in everyday life? "Have you ever had a dog?" Oyoba asked. "Sure," I replied. "When I lived at home, our dog was very much my dog. She made every visit to my parents something to look forward to later, as well." "Then you know what unconditional love is," Oyoba concluded. "It's loving the way dogs love their folks. No ifs or buts involved. Like the dog that saved his master's life after the man had taken the dog out in a boat to drown him, and fell into the water himself. I'm sure God gave us dogs so we'd all know first-hand what he expects of us by way of loving each other."

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In Chapter 27, Gregory arrives at a community farm in Dorset, England, where he is to spend a week waiting for Laura to come and take him for a tour of the country. His first evening with his hosts turns into a discussion about the Christian faith as opposed to religion.

John asked if I was a Christian, and I answered yes, a new one. I had to admit that I still had little to go on, but I told them about the book, Basic Christianity, that had opened my eyes. They knew it well: they had it in their library, too. To help me along, Adrian volunteered to explain his faith to me in practical terms. "Life is like a two-story building with a basement," Adrian said. I was rather taken aback and didn't know what to make of his statement. I grew up in a house like that, so maybe I should already know all about life, then? But clearly, there was some further reasoning to come, so I answered with a noncommittal "Really?"

"Yes, that's right!" Adrian affirmed. "You and I and everybody else live on ground floor. The landlord and his household live upstairs, but we don't get to meet them, because the stairway is concealed. When we're born, we're brought down from upstairs; then we live our lives, as it seems, very much on our own terms, and when we die, they bury us in the garden and say that's the end of it. The lease, which is posted all over the place for all to see, says differently, but we don't want to believe it."

"What does the lease say, then?" I asked, beginning to get interested. "The lease says that we're only temporary tenants downstairs. It tells who owns the place, what we're doing there, and where we're going when it's all over. It gives the terms of tenancy and some sensible advice to make our stay as pleasant as possible. It also says that in the end, the entire ground floor will be remodeled, and everybody will have to be relocated. In fact, that'll be a time of rather thorough rearrangement, which will include sorting out even those who were dug down in the garden, as well as the then current downstairs occupants." "Where does the basement come in?" I asked, hoping to get a picture of the overall situation before going into detail. I could perceive that Adrian had worked out his model of our earthly existence with care; he seemed like someone who thought a lot and liked to put an argument in precise terms.

"The basement is reserved for those who don't get to move into the remodeled house, where the connection between upstairs and downstairs will have been restored. Although it's pretty well known that the basement is no pleasant place, the caretaker, who knows he'll end up there himself, does some very efficient recruiting. He secures his own by encouraging our natural tendency to pride, greed, and selfishness, and leads us to believe that it's our inborn right to ignore the terms of tenancy we've been given." We enjoyed more tea in silence for a while, as I tried to piece together what Adrian had just said. It sounded like the old concepts of heaven and hell alright, assuming that God is the landlord and the devil is the caretaker. But there were interesting parallels with renting a home here, and I wanted to know more. "What are the terms of tenancy?" I asked, accepting that by referring to a lease Adrian meant the Bible. "Surely we have to pay the rent, at least, but what else?"

"Well, that's the crux," Adrian answered. "We don't have access to upstairs and we don't have a currency to pay with. Nothing of what we have downstairs is of any value upstairs, and, anyway, we literally can?t take it with us. Instead, the landlord offers us a new kind of status that absolves us of all obligations to him for debts we may have incurred in the past, and which also constitutes our permanent membership in the community that is to occupy the future remodeled premises. All we need to do is accept that new status. But this is where the power of the caretaker comes in. Through disinformation and ridicule he has managed to distort our understanding of this simple option. He has turned the tide of fashion against it and set up all manner of alternative ways to exploit our natural need for spiritual security.

"Then there's the matter of convenience: even if we can see for ourselves that the house must have been built by someone, we prefer to think that it came about by itself or that it's always been there, and that we can squat in it without any obligations to the owner. We ignore the central message of our lease, the fact that our life on ground floor serves to sort out those who will move upstairs from those who will go down to the basement." I found it necessary to keep drawing parallels with what I knew from before. "The new status is that of being saved, of accepting Jesus, I assume?"

"Yes, of course," Adrian said. "But why couldn't the landlord approve rent payments made to other tenants?" I asked. "Evidently, some of us are in need, and he should be happy if we used our nonconvertible currency to look after those he'd otherwise have to support!" "The lease clearly states that we have no way at all to pay our debt," Adrian replied. "The privilege of being here is too great and our means are too crude. In fact, the idea you just put forward is part of the disinformation spread by the caretaker since man first set foot on this planet. You've just defined the concept of religion."

"Wait a minute!" I exclaimed. "I thought you were talking to me about religion just now. What do you mean?" I've been talking to you about faith," Adrian corrected me. "Religion is something entirely different. Religion is a human invention. Take any primitive society: it's obvious to everyone that there are forces around that people can do nothing about. Rivers and mountains, sun and moon, rain and drought, fertility and famine: they're all greater than man. But man, by his nature, is a problem-solver, and if he can't get his way using his own strength and shrewdness, he'll try bargaining and persuasion. His obstacle, however, is getting through to those higher powers in order to present his case. In this he's assisted by his fellow man, the priest, who knows there's power and wealth in acting as a broker between the people and the gods. The pagan priest is a swindler, selling something that can't be bought, and keeping the proceeds for himself.

"So a religion is born: man brings a sacrifice or does a good deed--pays a price--in order to receive a reward or escape a cruel fate. The priest takes the money and the glory and uses his influence to shape society to his liking, forming alliances with political leaders as opportunities arise. The cult leader--a bolder person than the priest--goes a step further by promising you power and luring you with elitism in return for your money.

"The key concept of religion is 'my will be done--here's the payment,' while faith allows us to say, 'Thy will be done.' God invites us to have faith in him and advises us on how to show our love for him by loving his children, our fellow human beings. Faith is something you live and share, while religion is a product you can make a living on." "I don't quite understand the bit about paying the price," I objected. "The Old Testament calls for all kinds of sacrifices, and those commandments came from God, didn't they?"

"Yes, they did," Adrian confirmed. "The true faith was revealed in stages. The Mosaic Law was given to the Israelites at a time when they knew of no other belief systems than paganism and its rites. God gave them similar rites, but for the purpose of seeking forgiveness for their sins rather than selfish favors. The sacrifices he demanded served the dual purposes of testing their sincerity--only the best was good enough--and pointing forward to the sacrifice Jesus later made of himself to atone for the sins of all of us who believe in him. Without contrition and sacrifice--either sacrifice according to Mosaic law or Jesus' sacrifice of himself--there's no forgiving of sins in the Bible.

"The perversion of Judaism set in when empty observance of the law became the measure of piousness in those who professed to believe in Yahweh, while others reverted to fashionable, local pagan gods." "How does this relate to Christianity?" I asked. "Don't Christians try to be good, like both the Bible and all the churches teach?"

"Christianity consists of two opposing forces that coexist but can never be reconciled: faith and religion. The Christian faith has to do with accepting the new status we talked about: acknowledging that we have no means of bridging the gulf between God and ourselves on our own. As a result of accepting salvation through Jesus, Christians can expect both the desire and the ability to live lives of compassion toward each other, doing the best they can to be channels of God's love for all people.

"Perfection is something we can never achieve through our own efforts, and God knows that. Yet, to be able to face him when our physical life is over, we have to be perfect. This is where faith comes in: Christ already attained perfection in his human life, and went through death in our stead. When we accept his salvation, he perfects us with his own perfection, and keeps us out of the clutches of spiritual death, which is separation from God forever." "Fair enough," I noted.

"Religion is a business. It turns the basic concept of salvation by grace alone on its head and says that we can become acceptable to God by doing good works, following the rules, and paying our tithes. Religious persons strive to please men, not God; like Jesus used to say, they've had their reward. Often they are quick to condemn those who are less pious than they.

"Religion serves the needs of the proud and the cautious, of conservatives who want to show that they respect the values of the dominant, local, and current culture. As Christians, we follow a revolutionary leader; we have no right to be conservative. Jesus asked only for faith--be it no greater than a mustard seed--but, in his lifetime, all he got was religion. For the religious he reserved some selected sayings, many of which begin with the words 'Woe unto you, Pharisees, hypocrites!'

"The typical church teaches a blend of these two opposites: religion with a little faith mixed in for show. Some, especially the cults, leave out the message of faith entirely. This is what makes churches so incomprehensible to many of us: their central message is supposed to be based on the New Testament, which is all about faith, but their rites and sacraments reflect religion, whose objectives are political cohesion and fundraising.

"The political function of myth and religion is to maintain the economic status quo, to perpetuate the fleecing of the sheep in human society. For this, any strongly emotional belief system will do; it doesn't have to include divine elements. Thus, in addition to despotic religious institutions, both Communism and blind faith in the virtues of private enterprise have been used to cement the position and prosperity of ruling elites." "Religion, then, leads to the basement?" I inquired. I still wanted to explore how Adrian's two-story building applied to our discussion.

"That's not for me to say," Adrian replied. "Pride and selfishness lead there, that much I know. But I'm not one of those who maintain that everybody else's version of religion sends its followers to hell. I'm more inclined to think that God can use every belief system and its spiritual teachers to reach out to someone who can be saved. He's omnipotent, isn't he? Somewhere among the sectarian dogma there's bound to be a ray of divine truth that'll catch the attention of those who have it in them to receive it. I believe there are good shepherds among the clergy of every denomination and every religion that isn't just a cult or plain idolatry for the sake of fundraising."

"My skipper Oyoba," I commented, "pointed out that Islam is God's word for two billion people, and that there's nothing we Christians can do about that." Adrian agreed. "He's right. Belief systems have a clear role set out for them. God could easily speak directly to the mind of every human. But then we'd be no different from the angels, who have an undeniable knowledge of God and no doubts to overcome. God limited our means of perception so we'd have to work on our understanding of him and help each other find the way. We value our communion with God more when we have had to beat our own path to his door.

"Being herd animals, we depend on our groups to provide us with our beliefs. Most people can only be reached in matters of faith through their established belief system. So God has chosen to communicate with us through those belief systems, no matter how imperfect they are and disregarding their bickering over who's right. No matter how much someone like me gripes about organized religion, God still uses it to reach out to humanity because there's nothing better available. "Another thing to remember is that we have no business condemning followers for being misled by leaders they trust, nor misguided teachers for teaching what they think is right. People in general will sincerely believe they're doing the right thing if told to do so by a revered and established institution like the religion they were born into. God won't blame them for accepting religious beliefs if they know of nothing else.

"But those who have a choice, those who have received the message of faith and have rejected it, are no more helped by religion than by atheism. If we knowingly turn down the free ticket upstairs, we deny ourselves the chance to move there. No matter how high we build our ladders of conformity and respectability, they can't go through the ceiling." "Why is the opposite view so popular?" I asked. "In my experience, just about everyone with an interest in church is the kind of religious person you described. They can be ever so nice and helpful, but the moment they find fault with you, their judgment can be severe."

"You'll find that there's another kind of believer around, too," Adrian told me. "But, indeed, they are few and far between. The others, the religious people you mentioned, may follow every commandment that involves outward appearances, but they never follow the Greatest Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. "Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that people shouldn't go to church. People's understanding of faith is held and formed in community. I'm saying that conformity and ritual are no tickets to Heaven. St. Paul, in Romans 12:2, tells us in so many words not to conform to the ways of the world. Yet, church normally is all about either conformity to Conservative politics, prejudice, and social mores or, when a church sees itself merely as an entertainment enterprise, conformity to those very ways of the world.

"It would be impossible to fulfill Christ's command to reach out to all people on Earth without a church, but, alas, a church is an organization. The problems we've been talking about arise when being part of that organization becomes too comfortable, and the clergy forget their commitment to humility and self-denial, along with ceaseless penance and renewal." "I'm still confused," I complained. "Is it or is it not right to do good to your fellow man?"

"The question," Adrian countered, "concerns something else: whether a good deed was done out of love for the other person, and thereby for God, or for your own purposes. This simple test determines whether you're righteous or self-righteous. The unselfish Christian charity work quietly going on all over the world isn't an attempt at earning points with God. It's done out of love for the suffering and a burning desire to right what's wrong. It is what the Bible calls 'the fruits of the Spirit.' You can be an atheist and still act out of love. Evil acts tell of mental health problems, desperation, or an evil heart; good acts may be the fruits of love springing out of a savable soul, but they don't buy you anything with God.

"You can't change what you've done, but you can clean up your attitudes. God always gives us the benefit of the doubt, so if we repent our sins, he doesn't grade us on our deeds. He may choose us on our attitudes. The seven traditional mortal sins--pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth--are attitudes, not acts. In like manner, the Koran, in Sura 33, verse 35, lists a number of selfless habits and attitudes characterizing men and women for whom Allah has prepared forgiveness and great reward.

"This simple idea about attitude is too hard for the churches, and you won't hear it from them. The Catholic Church, the custodian of the ancient wisdom of the seven mortal sins, lists them as evil inclinations to be resisted, but leaves it at that. Her priests keep assigning penance for all our offenses and omissions, deed by miserable deed, and the faithful always come back for more. Protestants are no better: a prominent evangelist of the twentieth century wrote a book on the seven mortal sins, but he used them merely as headings under which he grouped all the sinful acts he wanted his readers to give up. It's like treating symptoms without doing anything about the underlying disease: all that's certain is that the patient will keep returning, and that a lot of money will change hands. Or, from the individual?s point of view, it's like trying to stop smoking without really wanting to.

"Every religion offers its followers rules for their behavior. People are desperate for clear-cut guidance, and they'll pay anything for rules that they find acceptable and that make them feel they belong to the group that's in the right. This is part of our genetic, animal nature, and just about instinctive. Watch children at play: before they do anything at all, they settle the rules. Not democratically--the older children dictate them. But everybody agrees that there has to be rules. For children, this is right and necessary: that's how they learn the values of their social group and become well-adjusted adults.

"But afterwards, most adults, too, settle for or seek out a belief system that continues the rule-based focus on behavior when it's no longer necessary. The idea with following rules is that you can blame the one who gave them for the consequences of your conduct. This isn't adult behavior, but it guarantees the purveyors of belief systems a living. Imposing rules on others, on pains of being sent to hell, is an effective means of keeping underprivileged members of society in their place. Yet, acting morally out of fear, or, for that matter, under surveillance and computer control, doesn't make anybody a better person. What God is looking for are people who treat others with compassion, even in hard times, and who can take the responsibility for their own actions.

"If you mean to work out your salvation by following rules you'll have to follow them all. At that point, you'll begin condemning others for being less perfect than you. That's why God doesn't recommend that approach: it doesn't work. In fact, he made the rules conflicting, so it's impossible to follow them all. There's a shortcut: accept that you need help, refrain from judging, and in all your actions, try to resolve conflicts and seek what's best for the most people. Love God above everything, and your neighbor as yourself."

"Now, somewhere in the Bible it says, 'Faith without works is dead,'" I protested. "So good works are necessary, or what?" "Do you know what you just did?" Adrian asked. "No?!" "You just rewrote the Bible. You put words in St. James's mouth that he never uttered. The way you rephrased his statement, it would say that you have to do good works to be saved. But that isn't what he wrote. "Can you hear the difference between these two statements: 'A body without breath is dead' and 'if you breathe, you'll stay alive?'" "Yes," I replied. "The first is a diagnosis; the second is a conditional statement. The first statement is pretty accurate; the second isn't even close. You could be breathing poison gas!"

Adrian lit up. "Now you're talking! 'Faith without works is dead' is a diagnosis. The reason you so readily changed its meaning is that you're stuck in wishful thinking about being able to bargain with God. You can't. "To approach God, you need to get rid of the attitudes you can't bring into his presence: selfishness, hate, anger, greed, pride, and so on. But it's he who picks you, not you presenting an admission ticket in the form of your good works. "St. James doesn't say that your good works are going to save you. He says that a faith so shallow that it produces no good works isn't the kind of faith that's going to save anybody. "Gregory, what we're trying to do here is to sort out cause and consequence. Since about 1,700 years, the church has been telling us that its magical sacraments and moral living are going to get us to Heaven.

"Yet the New Testament consistently states that salvation comes first and holiness is its result. When it deals with Christian conduct, its message is 'you have been saved; now you have the opportunity to live the way you'll be leading your lives in the Kingdom of God--unless, of course, you blow it first and revert to selfishness, materialism, and superstition.' "Those Bible passages don't say, 'act thus and thus, and you'll go to Heaven.' They say things like, 'you belong to God: here's how you can show that you're worthy of him.' Or, 'you are God's people: set yourselves apart from the heathens.' It took centuries of effort by the best brains of the church to explain how these clear statements can come to mean their exact opposite. The resulting brainwash is so powerful that we automatically read such Bible passages backward like you just did.

"Look at Jesus' last talk with his disciples before he was crucified. You'd think that the instructions he gave then would be the most important advice he could muster. Yet he didn't give them a list of moral rules to observe after his death. The central thing he said and repeated was, 'My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.' Unconditionally, that is. He loved them with no strings attached, even the one who betrayed him. Even the Roman soldier whose ear St. Peter cut off: Jesus put it back." Barbara had found the passage Adrian was talking about in John 15. "At the time, Jesus also said, 'If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love.'"

"Don't read just John 15," Adrian replied. "In John 14 Jesus says, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.' The two statements taken together express the idea that loving Jesus and keeping his commands are two sides of the same coin. Remaining in his love doesn't mean doing things so he won't reject you. I already told you that you can't bargain with God. It means choosing to remain in his love and choosing to live your life as he taught you. It's a matter of taking sides. Are you on the side of the guy who bought your life with his own and tells you to love without conditions? Or are you still with the other guy who lost you your eternal life to begin with, and who even now whispers in your ear that you can have your cake and eat it too, remain a bigot at heart while showing off hypocritical acts of charity?

"The commandments Jesus gave his followers don't aim at maintaining moralistic perfection like the Law does. They express aspects of holiness. Holiness doesn't just happen; you have to work at it. Jesus' commandments include things like 'don't judge,' 'love your enemy,' 'love God above everything and your neighbor as yourself,' 'do to others what you would have them do to you,' 'turn the other cheek,' 'go the extra mile,' 'don't worry,' and 'be merciful.' There are around 40 of these commandments; they're easy to find on the Web." "But wait a little!" I interjected. "What's all the talk about books being opened on Judgment Day? Eventually, we'll all be judged on our deeds, won't we?" John took over the thread. "That depends on your own choice. If you've accepted the offer of salvation we've been talking about, remained faithful to God, and lived your faith, your past deeds and your remaining human frailty won't matter. It's those who elect to be graded on their actions that will be so judged. For them, not a jot or a tittle has changed in the Law. And no one comes even close to perfection that way." "How do you choose the second alternative?" "By trusting your own moralistic perfection over your need for God's mercy and forgiveness," John answered. "And by judging others by some set of rules: this ensures that you'll be judged by the same rules yourself."

"Earlier, you seemed to be talking about some kind of self-help that doesn't involve the church," I observed. "But the churches quote Jesus as saying that no one comes to the Father except by him, so we need them and their formulas for salvation." Adrian continued the tutoring. "He also said, 'I am the way.' Not a church, not a ritual, but he himself. He delegated a lot to the church, but not the selection of who comes to the Father. This decision he sovereignly reserved for himself, and, contrary to what the clergy would have you believe, they can't stop him from picking whomever he wants, even someone who's never heard of him.

"Jesus instituted a church to help him with outreach and administration. Power-hungry men, corrupting the teachings of both apostles and reformers, split it up into denominations. Many of these, each in its particular, fanciful doctrine, claim to have the monopoly on the keys to Heaven. Be wary of those with such claims." "Why?" I interjected. "Try a simple logical exercise," Adrian suggested. "If even one of them were right, then--since they all base their identical claims on the same Bible--they must all be right, and every person on Earth is going to hell. Conversely, if even one of them is wrong, we still have a chance, and whether the others are right or wrong is no longer relevant. The whole idea is just another part of the clergy's struggle for turf and revenue.

"Each denomination has its own formula, and each formula has only symbolic value. They amount to so much magic, nothing else. Why settle for myth and magic when we have a record of the actual way Jesus chose some of his apostles? One he found collecting taxes, four he told to stop fishing, two he just picked up, one he nearly blinded. But he called each of them personally. He didn't say, 'Go to church and complete a formula!' It was always, 'Follow me!'" "You're talking about some central things in the churches, like the sacraments," I interjected. "Time was when you'd have been burned at the stake as a heretic already..."

"Yes, this line of thought is heretical alright," Adrian confirmed. "So why don't we look at the Eucharist itself, or Holy Communion, as applicable, since I have nothing to lose? Jesus held up the bread and the wine in turn and said, 'this is my body and blood, respectively. Do this in remembrance of me.' According to some denominations, bread and wine magically, but invisibly, become Jesus' body and blood during the ceremony. This implies that each Eucharist held in thousands of churches the world over is a holier occasion than the original Last Supper: there at the table, Jesus' body and blood were still on his person, and it would have been entirely irrational to interpret his words in the literal sense like we're supposed to understand them today." Adrian took the sugar bowl and the creamer and placed them in front of me. "Let's say that the sugar bowl is me and the creamer is you. I'll move them around a little"--he shuffled the two back and forth until their placement was opposite to where they started--"now tell me: where am I?"

"Here," I replied, pointing at the sugar bowl. "Well, no, I'm right here, as a matter of fact! That's the sugar bowl. We used the two dishes as representations of us, but that didn't turn them into us. I used a common figure of speech when I said that the sugar bowl was me. So did Jesus when he said that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood. The early Christians did meet and eat together, and they did break bread and share a cup of wine, remembering the sacrifice Jesus had made for them. St. Paul points out that sharing in one loaf of bread signifies the oneness of the congregation in Christ. In the Bible, Communion isn't a means to secure or maintain salvation as the Church would have it. It's useful to ask, 'who benefits from this?' The answer is that the churches and their clergy benefit from having turned the symbolic memorial meal into a mandatory sacrament that only they can administer.

"No doubt some symbolic acts, like an adult baptism, can help in defining a turning point. Since Jesus is no longer physically present and here for us to follow, we're more comfortable if we can connect our new direction to something tangible such as an awe-inspiring event. John Wesley pointed out that this is much like choosing a destination at a crossroads: you know where you're headed because you've made a conscious choice, and the crossing is the point in space and time you relate your decision to. Churches try to provide such experiences through their rituals and sacraments. But no amount of ritual can add up to a ticket to heaven." "Isn't it all pretty hopeless, then?" I wondered. "I could want to be saved ever so sincerely, but if he doesn't pick me, I'm still lost."

"There's an ironclad guarantee involved," Adrian retorted. "If you come to Christ in humility and offer your life to him with no strings attached, he *will* choose you. He's said that in so many words. You can gain a place with God, but you can't earn it." "Very well," I said, "but how do I know that I'll be good enough for him in the future? I'm no saint." "You're almost there, Gregory. Here's the cinch. If you have given your life to Jesus, he has already reserved you for himself. He'll send experiences your way that will help you mature. Your greater or lesser goodness is merely your thanks to him for what he did for you on the cross." John continued the discussion.

"This knowledge about God's plan for mankind seems to have been there all the time, in most of the main religions of the world, as a vestige behind the elaborate systems of worship the priests established in order to secure their own power and wealth. If you dig deep and allow for some distortion over the centuries and the millennia, you often find the basic message about returning to God by repenting your sins, accepting God's mercy, and voluntarily living his principles of truthfulness, obedience, and unconditional love." "So this isn't something unique to Christianity, then?" I asked. "Not at all," John answered. "The Jewish Scriptures, by which I mean the Old Testament, emphasize this idea from cover to cover. Jesus was a Jew and taught from the Old Testament, remember? He didn't have a problem with Jews or Judaism; he had a problem with organized religion. If he came back today to teach what he taught then, most leaders of organized religion would want him crucified all over again."

"Hey, hold it!" I exclaimed. "Surely you're not including Christian leaders in that statement, are you?" "Yes, I am," John asserted. "Organized religion is still the same as it was then; it hasn't changed. Conservative religious leaders have been living comfortably on moral coercion for thousands of years. Why change something that works? You try to advocate love and tolerance, and those who make their living from moral coercion will clamor to have you silenced.

"Jesus did away with moral coercion and replaced it with unconditional love and voluntary compliance with conscience and good advice. This was a concept his contemporaries could not understand, and, to most of them, his teachings and parables remained mysteries. The apostles did their best to clarify the matter, but by the time the persecution of the early church ended, moral coercion was firmly back in its place as the only workable basis for a revenue-generating ecclesiastical organization. The occasional enlightened evangelist can talk about salvation as a free gift until he's blue in the face: people will just turn around and ask for the rules they're supposed to obey and impose on others.

"But back to the basic message we just discussed. Islam teaches the same thing: repent your sins and return to God. Take Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, whatever: scratch the surface and you always find the same idea. It was very prominent in the old beliefs of American Indians and Australian Aborigines. Christian mission to these nations thus was rather redundant, which may help explain the enthusiastic way the clergy supported the genocides of the aboriginal populations of Australia and North America. Conversion by the sword in partnership with political expansion became the preferred strategy when the religious message had little novelty to offer, just like with Muslim mission in Europe during the Ottoman Empire.

"The Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you--is the same in Baha'i, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least. "If you want to know what's divine in the different Christian denominations, look at what they have in common. The differences between them are mostly human invention for human purposes, and have been put there with the specific objective of dividing and conquering, to provide leaders with loyal and committed followers." "As in throwing in your lot with somebody," Barbara interjected. "Once you've accepted, or been born into, somebody's belief system, you have a vested interest in thinking they're right, or you'll make a fool of yourself if you have to concede that they were wrong. So you shut out all other points of view in order to protect your conviction and your traditions. Plus, you get a lot of help from social pressure: in many places, there are still harsh punishments for leaving the local religion."

"I've heard another comparison between religion and faith," Sarah said. "Would you like to hear it?" "Of course," I answered. "Fire away, like my friend Emy would say!" "The difference between religion and the Christian faith," Sarah began, "is demonstrated every year by that jolly old elf, Santa Claus. Santa makes a list and checks it twice: he sets out to reward those who have been good. Santa Claus institutes a religion, in this case temporary parent-worship, which, mercifully, ends the minute the presents have been secured. In his book, there's no pardon and no way out of a bad record even if the guilty understand their failure. "This is a modern perversion of the original story about Santa. The historical model for Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was a fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor, the Asian part of today's Turkey. He didn't invent Christmas gifts--they had been given at that time of the year since centuries--but he gave them to orphaned street children, unloved urchins who didn't deserve them and knew it. He did so not just out of his good nature but also to illustrate the unearned gift of salvation available to all of us who are willing to admit our sins and call on Jesus for help." What an interesting thought. "So the commercial Santa Claus is a heathen," I mused. "That's what keeps alive this idea that you have to buy your salvation by being good! Santa is the only exponent of Christianity most people ever encounter, and, knowing no better, they let the cartoonists tell them that God--or St. Peter--will decide their eternal fate based on a list of their doings just like Santa!" "You said it," Sarah replied. "The true message about salvation through God's grace and the blood of Christ just doesn't make it into the headlines. It's too undramatic, and it threatens the cash flows of all those who are out there selling their services as intermediaries. Cutting out the glitzy ritual and the complicated dogma takes away the entertainment value, and most people lose interest.

"Salvation through grace alone, as a free gift, is the central message of Christianity. But the churches don't want to tell this to anybody on a personal level. So they hide the salvation concept in plain view in hymns and by making it a mechanical piece of boilerplate that's rattled off as a routine chant in their liturgy. No churchgoer experiences that chant as a personal message. "Salvation isn't explained in Catechism. It's blocked out in all church teaching by talk about sin and suffering, legalism and behavior. This leaves the average Christian with the impression that salvation is an automatic by-product of going to church; that regularly partaking of some interactive entertainment, maintaining a pious mien for an hour, and doing the required calisthenics is going to accomplish what, in truth, only a personal commitment to Jesus can do." "Also, not that many people are willing to proclaim such a message," Adrian added. "Messing with established cash flows is the most dangerous thing you can do in any walk of life. Every prophet in the Old Testament did just that, as they preached repentance and turning away from idols. They took away business from well-established pagan priests, and, normally, they paid for that with their lives. So did Jesus Christ, throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple and telling people that they needed just one rule, the Greatest Commandment. He was ruining the business of both merchants and experts on Mosaic Law. Every reformer of the faith after him did the same thing to some established and corrupt branch of the Church, and most were killed for it. Even the prophet Mohammed made powerful enemies, teaching that Muslims were to face Allah directly."

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The next chapter, 28, focuses on the Creation story and the conflict between Creationists and Evolutionists. Here's the whole chapter; Walkabout aims at showing that both of these extremes are wrong and the Bible is right.

It was a grand feeling to be back on the land and help out with the early spring work at the farm. Before I knew it, the week was almost over, and I realized that Laura was going to arrive the next day. I was reliving my Christmas expectations, undisturbed by thoughts about who was the real Santa. That evening, John and Sarah were going to attend a lecture at the church hall in the nearby town. John had asked me if I'd like to join them, and I had gladly accepted the invitation. John's old car agreed to start, and we were on our way. The evening was overcast and very dark. Ours seemed to be the only vehicle on the road, and the distant lights of occasional farmhouses did nothing to dispel the feeling of utter loneliness. John said nothing during the drive--he seemed lost in thought. Sarah must have felt a need to lighten our spirits and started a conversation about the man we were going to hear that night. She had met him before and was impressed with his insights. It seemed that he specialized in new perspectives on things, and he usually managed to keep his listeners attentive, although it was sometimes hard to know if you had fully understood him. After the isolation on the road it was a complete contrast to find the hall nearly filled. We got good seats, nevertheless--somebody had been holding them for us--and everyone around seemed to know Sarah and John. I was introduced to people left and right, and heard more names in five minutes than I could have memorized in a week. Then the speaker arrived and the lecture began. The lecturer, whose first name was Cliff, started by stating his purpose, which is always nice to know. He said he deplored the fact that we were being taught one thing by science, and another by the Church, and that it was seen as practically an obligation for Christians to disbelieve the scientific point of view. Not surprisingly, then, nearly everyone, including a lot of clergy, chose to consider the Church's official standpoint untenable. And, since that standpoint was supposed to be based on the Bible, it would seem that the latter was just a collection of ancient legends without any meaning to modern man. Cliff's objective, then, was to reconcile the two opposing views and to show that the Bible was in full agreement with the scientific version of the origins of the world and of man as a species. But he warned his hearers that he'd be rocking the boat of the Church quite heavily, and that it would be hard to find a churchman who would endorse what he had to say.

The central part of the lecture went something like this. "The material world, as Shakespeare pointed out, is a stage set apart out of reality. On the stage, certain limitations apply. Only three dimensions are available. Time seems to progress evenly and endlessly in one direction: we're too close to it to be able to perceive its beginning and its end. Gravity holds everything in its place. Certain physical laws are in force, as long as you don't look too deep into either the atoms or outer space. "The set on the stage is a planet absolutely stunning in its beauty and in the creative genius it bears witness to. Every living organism--except hairless man, his domestic animals, and his cultivated plants--is perfect in a perfect environment. At long intervals, a phase in the preparation of the set and its resources was completed and some of the organisms that took part in that phase were removed and others put in their place.

"The designer had lots of time to make working prototypes of the actors. He preferred to let the prototypes prove themselves in the actual environment over designing the end product from scratch without any feedback. Thus he laid the foundations for the practical science of industrial design. Just as with other forms of life, he used minerals from the earth's crust--literally the dust of the earth--to form a succession of hominins, culminating in a creature in his own likeness, Homo sapiens. "Then, some time between twelve and six thousand years ago, in his infinite love, he took one of the latest prototypes and gave it an immortal soul. He put it, too, in a perfect environment, but since the new man was rather fragile, his environment had to be confined to a garden at Eden. Seeing that the man was lonely, his maker cloned him and made a woman with the same kind of immortal soul. He walked with them daily in the garden and taught them to care for it and use it for their own needs. "Why did God go to all this trouble? Making billions of years of time must be quite a job. Figuring out how things might be made to work in just three dimensions, on the other hand, could pass for a hobby. Creating living organisms certainly is occupational therapy of the highest kind, but millions of different species?

"We have a clue in the Bible. Satan rebelled against God and convinced a third of the angels to take his side. God confined them to Earth to await destruction. Meanwhile, God was left with two thirds of the angels--a lot less than what he expected to have. "We don?t know what he had planned to accomplish with his heavenly host, but clearly, after this loss he was understaffed. Was it, perhaps, at this juncture he said to his remaining archangels, 'Let us make mankind in our image?' We know that we're different from angels, so we represent a new approach, hopefully more resistant to being misled. Our loyalty to God comes about not by hard-wired design but through our own choice and often in spite of adversity. Maybe that makes it more lasting. However, this method could be difficult to combine with a free will. "But what did the new couple do? They went and ate that infamous apple. Nothing wrong with apples, but they had been given a restriction in their paradise so they could show obedience to their maker. Not too much to ask under the circumstances, really. But now they had changed the rules: they, too, had rebelled. Their maker is perfect: nothing imperfect can endure his presence. Unless...

"With their souls, men also received ambitions. For millions of years, hominins and prehistoric humans had existed as Stone-Age nomads capable of little organization and leaving few traces of themselves. Then, after Adam, over a space of just a few millennia, the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age dawned, kingdoms and empires arose, writing and science were introduced. All this is the mark of the independent will God gave Adam and Eve and their descendants, to use for good or for evil as they would choose. "The rest is history. Mankind sank to the most miserable depths of wickedness. Having drowned all of Adam's descendants save one family in the Flood, God gave humanity a fresh start, but within a few generations, their ways were as evil as before. Then God set one nation aside for himself and gave it a law, and some went on breaking it while others made it their selfish pride to try to fulfill every letter of the law while despising those who couldn't or wouldn't. "These living souls made complete fools of themselves and became totally unfit to be allowed back into the regular regions of reality, once their stint on the physical stage was over. But their maker still loved them. He loved every one of them as a parent loves his or her child. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

"The Lord Jesus, Son of God, became a human being and lived a short physical life of thirty-three years. Then he, who had never done anything wrong, laid down his life as a voluntary sacrifice for all humans. He rose from the dead, demonstrating that physical death is temporary. The eternal life in the company of God that every one of us has forfeited now became ours for the asking. Perfection before God that we could never attain through our own efforts, because we?re sinners by nature, is now available to us as a free gift, through the blood of Jesus and by the grace of God. But true to his initial design of man as an intelligent being with a free will, God forces no one to return to him. "This is why becoming and being a Christian is an independent act of your own will. Whether you?ve been brought up in a Christian environment or not, only you can decide if you're going to be a Christian. Being born again, or born from above, is a very accurate description of what takes place when you accept the Lord Jesus and the supreme sacrifice he made for your sake. At physical birth, you receive physical life. When you accept Jesus you receive the kind of life that applies in the larger reality, the eternal life you and I and everyone since Adam have forfeited through our rebellion against our maker."

Slightly dazed from trying to grasp all that, I registered little of the discussion during the compulsory cup of tea following the lecture. On the way back in the car, I tried to sort out my thoughts by asking questions of John, who was now chattering away and full of enthusiasm over Cliff's speech. What I wanted to know was whether Cliff had meant that God made the world and the first humans, or if he had been talking about evolution like everybody else. John's answer was a simple "Yes." "Yes to which question?" I insisted. "Both," John answered. "He refuted two opposite views that turn out to have very similar purposes. View number one goes like this: 'Since I'm a traditionalist and I want to think that my understanding of the Bible's creation account is the only correct one and must be taken literally, I'll refuse to believe any so called scientific proof that things happened differently.' View number two, on the other hand, starts from the opposite extreme: 'Since I want to think that God doesn't exist, or if he does, that he is irrelevant, I'll pretend that this subjective premise is, in fact, a valid conclusion drawn from scientific findings.'

"The first view denies God's sovereign right to use any methods he wants, and to choose the way in which he preferred to communicate the account of his creation work to us. It tries to squeeze God into the limitations of fourteenth-century human understanding. The second view starts out from the preconception that there must be no God, and replaces him with mere chance. But both the creationist who fails to see that the fossil record is a revelation from God just like the Bible, and the evolutionist who thinks he has proven that there is no God, make the same mistake: they put human pride and narrow-mindedness above God." "So what was Cliff saying then? I thought he was talking about the evolution of modern man, beginning with early hominins millions of years ago. Those hominins were quite ape-like, weren't they?" "Cliff was talking about a design process, not about spontaneous evolution," John replied. "But to answer your second question first, the early hominins were much more human than ape-like. You see sketches and animations of them all hairy and with faces like apes, but that's pure guesswork. Although we have only pieces of their skeletons, it's evident that they were human and walked on two legs. Apes and hominins, although apparently descended from common ancestors, split up maybe 4 to 7 million years ago, depending on whom you ask.

"What's significant is that there was a distinct number of different types of hominins, not a continuous chain of slowly changing specimens, as you'd expect to find if we were looking at just the effects of random mutations caused by cosmic radiation. The different species of hominins appeared and disappeared rather abruptly, with some rare cases of intermediate types in between. Some of the species coexisted at the same time, but they didn't change much over the span of their existence. If we compare the brain volumes of the succession of hominins, it's evident that God chose to develop our capabilities in stages: first basic survival skills, then the ability to make and use tools, then communications, competitiveness, teamwork, and so on. We know, as an example, that Homo erectus knew how to make stone tools, but never invented anything new and couldn't even be bothered to climb a small hill for better quality stone if enough bits were available at its foot. In contrast, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would scale mountains to quarry the best stone and carry it long distances to their homes."

I was more confused, not less. "Let's get back to basics. As I remember the creation story, God made Adam from clay or something, and then took one of his ribs and made Eve out of that. Why bother if there were people around already? Or rather, wasn't Adam the first human being, and if so, was he a hominin or something else?" John had the patience of an angel, and just then he needed every bit of it. "Adam was a Homo sapiens like you and I alright. What Cliff tried to say is that the Bible's account of Creation pretty much agrees with the knowledge we have from fossils and the like. First of all, Adam, like every living thing including you and me, was made of the dust of the earth. That means stuff like carbon, minerals, water, and so on. The point in mentioning this in the Bible is that it's no mean feat to make a living being in the image of the eternal God from the same materials the dead, mineral environment of the earth is composed of.

"Adam was the first man with an immortal spirit. He became a living soul, the Bible says; from that you can deduce that, first, he was something else. Our friend Cliff wants us to combine trust in the validity of the Bible's claim that God made the world with acceptance of legitimate scientific observations, such as the fact that Homo sapiens has been around for 300,000 years. Adam, on the other hand, was made a living soul perhaps ten thousand years ago. The radical changes in Stone Age living Cliff mentioned, such as cities, trade, construction projects, government, and slavery, happened at about that time, and they began in the Middle East, where Genesis places Adam and Eve. So evidently, God took his time and allowed Homo sapiens to be perfected until he had one individual that was just right for his purposes. Then he took this individual, Adam, and breathed his Spirit into him. God also chose to make Eve by cloning her from Adam's rib, which was a straightforward way of ensuring that she was just as perfect as Adam." "But that last thing about Eve just doesn't make sense. How can you make a whole adult human from a rib?"

"Well, you or I can't, but God can. He performs miracles all the time. Don't you think yo'?re a miracle? If you want to know what a miracle is, take empty space and see what you can do with it. Everything else in the universe is a miracle. We just take too many things for granted because we're used to them. Still, even if we use the regular definition of a miracle, the suspension of natural laws by God, miracles do happen every now and then. Some are well documented, like the healings at Lourdes; dozens of them have passed years of scrutiny by doctors and bishops and have been officially declared miracles by the Catholic Church." "Can I just back up a little again?" I asked. "The Bible says that the world, including Adam and Eve, was made in a week, doesn't it? Well, then the planet didn't exist for all those billions of years, but God made it! And if God made Adam and Eve, and they were the first humans, then there weren't any before them, or what?" "You realize that Genesis, as a story, is pretty old, don't you?" John asked. As I nodded consent, he continued.

"Its creation myth is compiled from several different sources, dated between the ninth and fourth centuries BC. There are inconsistencies between the parts, but they're less important than the central message, namely, that the One God of Israel is credited with the whole of Creation, all the way from the beginning, when there was nothing. This principle is quite different from most other ancient mythologies. "Moreover, as Bronze Age creation stories go, Genesis is pretty accurate. Science shows that everything happened much like Genesis 1 tells. (Genesis 2 comes from a different source and contains many inconsistencies.) First the earth cooled off and all manner of mist and vapor cleared, revealing sun and moon. Then life appeared in the seas, then on land, and finally humans came on the scene. According to our dating methods, all this took about fifteen billion years. But St. Peter, quoting Psalm 90, wrote that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day." "Well, that would allow for six or seven thousand years," I calculated, "but not for fifteen billion!"

"You weren't listening," John corrected me. "That wasn't an arithmetic statement, it was an allegory. St. Peter didn't mean to hand us another crutch in place of the old one of a calendar week. A thousand years is a long time: what St. Peter meant is that God is outside of time and can fit any long period of time into a working day, or conversely, cut short what to us appears like an eternity and just skip past it. "The dating of Genesis 1 is very similar to that used by geologists. They look at sediments in the earth and say that a certain era produced this layer, and another left the layer on top of it. The visible results define the different eras, not the exact number of years each era lasted. God happens to call his periods of creation 'Days,' a word that sometimes has the meaning of 'Era' in the Bible. So let him do so and don't try to force him into a calendar week or a few thousand years, when he's given us the scientific insights to understand something of how he did his work!

"Take the first day of Creation in Genesis 1:3 to 1:5. God said, 'let there be light,' and made day and night. We know that the Big Bang happened about 14 billion years ago. Visible light appeared some 400 million years later. Sun, earth and moon were completed about 4.5 billion years ago. So we can say with some certainty that the first day of Creation, during which light, day, and night were created, lasted about 9.5 billion years." Sarah broke in with more of the creation story. "Yet sun, moon, and stars didn't come about until the fourth day, after dry land and vegetation." "Taken literally, that can't be brought to agreement with science. But there could be something to it anyway. We know that the sun was there when the earth was made, because, according to Genesis 1:5, by the end of the first day of Creation, there was night and day. The moon must also have been there creating tides: without tides, life could not have moved onto dry land. So maybe, for a beginning, it was always overcast? Had there been an observer there to wonder about night and day, without clear skies that observer couldn't have known about sun, moon and stars. In the same way, the creation of fish and birds before land animals and humans also makes sense. Life began in the seas, and birds are a late form of dinosaurs, so they predate modern land animals.

"Astronomy, geology, and archaeology are part of God's revelation to us of how he went about creating us and our world. The ancient Israelites had no idea of these sciences, but, still, Genesis had to be understandable to them. What you have in Genesis 1 is a reasonably accurate abstract of the true story. If you still insist on reading it literally, then you've absorbed none of the progress humanity has made during the past three thousand years. "What Cliff was telling us is that no one has the right to let past or present human understanding of singular Bible passages dictate limitations on God's actions. If God has chosen to leave us evidence of the way he works, like when he showed Galileo that Earth is a planet, then it's time to use our God-given intellects rather than our fear of having our horizons widened." "So then you're saying that evolutionists are more right than creationists, aren't you?" I asked.

"I'm saying that the observations evolutionists draw on are accurate, as far as they are valid research results, accepted by the scientific community. It's their conclusions that are totally and tragically wrong. They pretend to be intellectuals; nevertheless, they fail the most basic test of objectivity by disguising a subjective premise, that of the nonexistence of God, as a conclusion, and they perform the ultimate act of mental acrobatics by simply ignoring the laws of probability." By now we had arrived at the farm, and Sarah set about preparing a real cup of tea--with no tea bags in it--while John started building a fire in the fireplace. My head was spinning with all these thoughts, and my hosts knew that there were a couple of hours still to go of that evening.

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The discussion continues in Chapter 29. Gregory learns more about belief systems and gets a glimpse of the fourth dimension. At the end of the chapter, he sees his first UFO.

When we were comfortably seated in front of the fire, I began scratching my head, trying to draw some conclusion that would have brought the discussion a step forward. But Sarah was quicker. "I can see what Cliff meant when he said he'd be rocking the boat," she said. "It's been rather simple so far: either you believed in God or you believed in evolution. Cliff says we can safely accept both. Now what?" "Good question," John said. "It hits the nail on the head. Hardly anyone realizes that evolutionists haven't at all proved that God doesn't exist. That concept is simply scientific fraud, a parasite on legitimate research. Not even Charles Darwin made such a claim, but rather saw God creating life through the laws of nature. But just as with political propaganda, it's been repeated so often that, to most people, it has become a fact. And the faith of many Christians is so fragile that they panic at the thought of accepting the scientific findings evolutionists have used to fabricate their so called proof.

"This crisis of confidence among Christians is the result of naively swallowing the opposition's argument to the effect that if something evolved slowly, then God can't have made it. However, some of our greatest scientists, including some Nobel Prize winners, have pointed out that there's no other valid explanation for the world than that it was created by God. And that should be plenty of reassurance for those in doubt: there's nothing out there that isn't God's work. Even if something took ten billion years to complete, it still didn't come about by itself; it just happened to please God to make it that way. A definite, creative act of God doesn't have to produce an instant result like a magician's trick. That perception is just something we've blindly taken over from our superstitious ancestors. Who are we to dictate how God is allowed to work?

"When evolutionists run up against the problem that spontaneous formation of ever higher forms of life goes against the laws of probability and thermodynamics, they habitually resort to conjuring up a benevolent tendency in the background that compensates for their trouble with such laws. They can't say that it's a Creator they're missing, so they capitalize Evolution or Nature to give an impression of divinity. It would seem that the faith of the typical Christian is so feeble that we think giving up the traditional calendar week of creation means admitting that Nature and Evolution are stronger than God. Well, the comforting fact is that God made everything in this world. Without God, there would be no universe, no evolution, and no evolutionists. Nature is a creative and controlling force in the universe only because God made her that way; she didn't invent herself." "Can we talk about the laws you just mentioned?" I asked. "How does probability come into this?"

"If you want to believe that there's no Creator," John replied, "you'll have to assume that the universe has always been here, which goes against scientific findings. Without a Creator, the probability for it coming about is zero. Science tells us that the sum of matter and energy is constant, so neither can just pop up out of nothing. If you want to make new energy--as opposed to using solar energy either directly or stored in fuels, wind, waterfalls, and so on--you have to use up matter by way of a nuclear reaction. Adding new matter to the universe is possible only by consuming existing energy. Therefore, the Big Bang--the sudden appearance, out of nothing, of all the energy needed to make the entire universe--can't have been anything other than a creative act of God. Evolutionists simply choose to ignore or brush off this basic scientific truth."

"Stephen Hawking said that stars and galaxies can't come out of nothing, but the whole universe, according to his physics, can," I noted. "And so no God was needed, he thought. Yet what he didn't say was why we and the universe should be here. Why should Evolution have made a race of sentient, moral beings as the end product of 14 billion years of chance happenings--assuming it were possible? Without a reason it's no more probable to occur than without a Creator. "The second law of thermodynamics tells us that energy always seeks to return to its least useful form, and, as a corollary, that everything, if left alone, tends to return to a state of the least possible organization. The heat from the fireplace dissipates and becomes part of the local microclimate. The steam from the kettle condenses on the windows and wafts out the door. Your car will rust and fall apart if you don't maintain it. So when we observe life defying death and decay, and evolving toward greater perfection, we know there's a higher force at work than mere physics.

"When any life form dies, the same chemistry that kept it alive and sprouting or bouncing about, sets to work to return it to the earth. Nothing needs to be added or removed: all that happens is that life departs. We can explain all the actions of DNA and hormones and enzymes and electrochemical nerve impulses and their roles in supporting living organisms, but our sciences can't explain life." "I hear there's a school of scientists that has created nucleic acid precursors starting with just hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulphide, and ultraviolet light," I said. "Someone else found four small peptides that could form spontaneously, from which all existing proteins could be built. That would suggest that the origin of life on Earth could have been the result of the right chemicals forming sometime during the comet impacts of hundreds of millions of years. There's some significant probability for that to happen, isn't there?" "That's precisely what I've been talking about," John said. "We can make guesses at the processes God used. But when you choose to look at just those processes and quietly assume that the universe and the right atmospheric chemistry just happened to be there, needing no explanation, you"re insulting the intelligence of your audience. It's just as silly to say that life came to earth on board comets. Then where was it made? The probability for anything at all existing without a Creator remains zero.

"The interesting thing here is that evolutionism fulfills all the criteria of a religion. It has its own prophet, Charles Darwin; its own holy book, The Origin of Species; its own creed--there must be no God, so we'll conveniently forget that Darwin called the sum of the animal and vegetable kingdoms 'Creation'--and its own man-made creative deity, Evolution (capitalized). Evolutionism even has its own scientist-priests whose more or less lucrative task it is to assure believers that nothing more than blind chance is needed to explain the universe and everything in it." "The creationists, now," I said. "They'll have all this popping into existence as we see it today, within six revolutions of the earth." "And they hire all these quacks to refute every scientific finding that shows how it was actually done," John added. "Their big thing, explaining everything from dinosaur bones to ancient geological formations, is the Flood, covering the whole earth. The poor dinosaurs all missed the boat when Noah closed the gates. They cater to people who can't handle any challenges to their traditional view of the world."

"They haven't taken the plane from Sydney to Melbourne," I mused. "It took more than forty days of rain to carve that landscape out of the bedrock..." John continued. "You may wonder why this is so important to them. It's all to do with identity. Our sense of identity depends, among other things, on protecting our convictions, and in a changing world, we'll pay good money to those who have the ability to reassure us emotionally and shield us from what others consider facts. The ignorant, the quacks, and the purveyors of fundamentalist nonsense form a thriving economy of their own, and everybody's vested interest in its product--protection from the need to think--and in the revenue it generates, gives it some status and makes it self-perpetuating." "Explain that reference you made to identity, John," Sarah said. John obliged. "Our identity is the central and most important part of our psyche: we can handle most other losses and privations and retain or regain some measure of composure, but not the loss of our identity. Amnesia causes such trauma in part because the sufferer doesn't know who he or she is. Old people suffering from dementia go through a distressing process of losing the sense of identity they've built up during their lives, and often become very depressed.

"There are ways we can lose our identity while having all our mental faculties intact. Take the people in the witness protection program: you can't just erase their old identities; you have to give them new ones. Migrants stay together in ghettos, neighborhoods, or professions where they can safeguard their traditions, language, and other facets of their common identity. Only their children eventually make the transition to the culture and language of the host country. This brings us to the importance of the in-group for our sense of identity. "Humans are herd animals. Most of us can conceive of and define our identity only in terms of the groups we belong to: gender, nationality, language, profession, religion, race, rank, title, service club, football team allegiance, and so on. Exclude us from the community--point the bone at us--and we tend to lie down and die. Preserving our sense of identity as members of our in-group can therefore be a matter of life and death. This is why our leaders have such power over us, and why peer pressure is the most compelling way of influencing our decision-making."

"Emy, my friend that I mentioned earlier," I interjected, "once said that any religion that has the power, by excommunicating you, to cut you off from your friends and family--your in-group, that is--or to put you to death, is not of God. Such organizations twist their ever so holy scriptures to suit their politics, and they use people's natural need for spiritual security to keep their members captive and to enrich their leaders." "She may well be right," John answered. "But the power of the in-group is an inescapable fact. It follows that our world is neatly and permanently divided into 'us' and 'them.' More specifically, 'we,' the members of the in-group, are always right and 'they,' the others, are always wrong.

"An in-group is defined first by common rules, values, and behavioral patterns; only secondarily by skin color, language, creed, nationality, age, and so on. An outsider who acts differently and has other values will be rejected by the members of the group. This is part of human nature, and the logic behind it is the following: as long as you share my values and play by the same rules as I do, you'll make the same deductions as the members of my group from the cues available, and recognize my place in the group's pecking order. You'll perceive my social position, however modest, and respect me for it the same way I value my place in the scheme of things. On the other hand, if your background and your values are different, you may not appreciate my worth, my rank, my identity--and so I fear you and distrust you, and my children aren't allowed to play with your children. "Now, suppose that 'we,' the members of the local in-group, happen to hold some really tenuous beliefs, maintained since generations by conservative leaders who see their market segment as consisting of people who reject all change and progress. We are the laughing stock of the world. Some of us may be wondering what's going on and looking into alternatives. We are threatened as a functioning in-group.

"Is this a tolerable situation? No. We will look to our leaders for reassurance that we're still in the right. The leaders will gladly provide that service, because their livelihoods depend on the viability of our group and its idiosyncrasies. The methods invariably employed for this are disparaging and attacking reason as something godless and dangerous, substituting it with blind faith in the hypocritical and conniving (or inept) leadership, and labeling all questioning as treason and all doubt as mortal sin. Man's capacity for self-deception is practically infinite, and its foremost driving force, apart from wishful thinking, is the desire to conform.

"Now, we don't want to oversimplify an important concept like identity. You must understand that what people do is just as crucial to their identity as what they are and what they think. That's why we won't change our habits even if our very lives depend on it. Most people who learn that their diet is unhealthy aren't prepared to change the way they eat. Informed only by custom or its modern substitute, advertising, they think they have no choice, and unwittingly elect illness and untimely death over breaking with the culinary pattern of their ethnic group or social class. Only by offering them membership in an alternative group, such as an imaginary club of clients of the weight loss industry, can you persuade a small proportion of those who really need it to improve their lifestyles. This has nothing to do with fat addiction or unwillingness to cut down on the salt: most of us simply can't bring ourselves to let go of even the slightest facet of the rituals and behaviors that help define our identity as members of our in-group." "Expecting people to change their habits is like pulling teeth," I concurred. "You're saying that our established habits and beliefs are part of our identities. That would be the reason why becoming a Christian is so traumatic that we have to be promised a supernatural regeneration to find the courage to take that step."

"That's true," John confirmed. "It's a step into the unknown. We have to be trusting like children--born again--and break with our old in-group, which, in Jesus' days, simply was our extended family or clan. The relatives of someone who may have considered following Jesus when he first taught the new faith, by definition, weren't Christians. "Everybody's in-group was his or her clan. There were no other in-groups available then, as everyone worked at home and was held in a viselike grip by the clan allegiance required of them, and as no groups could form over large distances for want of communications. The only exception would have been the Roman army: its soldiers had already changed their allegiance away from their civilian roots. In the same way, the new Christians had to disavow the authority of their clans and form a new in-group of their own." "Is this the meaning of 'hating your father and mother' and all that?" Sarah inquired.

"Yes," John replied. "That's a Bible passage that has been misunderstood and abused more than most. Every cult that needs young converts to solicit money for its leaders draws on that passage. It should be understood in its linguistic and cultural context: you change your in-group and get a new identity; that is, you become a new person. You don't get a license to break the fourth commandment or start beating your wife and children." The warmth of the fire really made itself felt by now, and we sipped our tea in silence for a moment. The clock on the mantelpiece showed that it was past ten, but I still wanted to know more. "John," I said, "I bet you can explain something that's always puzzled me. Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, was banished, and went off and married. Only afterwards did Eve bear Seth and an unspecified number of sons and daughters. So where did Mrs. Cain come from?"

"We're beginning to split hairs now," John said, "because that account in Genesis doesn't spell out in which order all this happened. Either you'll have to assume that Cain didn?t marry until one of his sisters was old enough, or else you can draw on Cliff's theory that Adam was taken from an existing tribe of prehistoric humans, as a perfect example of the species, fit to be given an immortal soul. Eve wasn't conceived the regular way--this we know for sure. Genesis tells us that God cloned her from Adam's rib. She might still have had a surrogate mother--if we can clone embryos and implant them, we can be sure God can, too. Adam had the time to wait: he lived for 930 years, and was 130 by the time Seth was born. "But after they were barred from Eden, they would have returned to Adam's tribe, where their children would have had no trouble finding mates. Remember that God marked Cain so *people* wouldn't kill him on sight as a murderer. This shows that there were others around, and that Cain knew their law. Also, Cain went to a country that had a name, Nod, where he built a city: you need people for that.

"Adam and Eve had nearly been made immortal, and the first few generations of patriarchs, and, I assume, their sisters, as well, had life spans of around nine hundred years. They had the time to produce many times more children than the old kind of people who had a life expectancy of twenty-five to forty years, at the most--the men, most likely, with several wives at a time. We can safely assume that the descendants of Adam, with their free will, also had a superior ability of organization, as well as any amount of ambition. In view of all this, they would soon have dominated the region where they lived." "Could there still be untouched pockets of the original humans somewhere in the world?" I asked, thinking of the small bands of Stone Age people that were still found in the Amazon jungle as late as early this century.

"Why not," John answered. "Australian Aborigines have been in that country for 65,000 years, which is more than the most generous estimate of the time since Adam. They have their own legends about surviving a great flood by going up into the mountains. Creationists say the Biblical Flood killed all humans, but the Genesis story of the Flood deals only with the nations of the Middle East. It?s rather silly to think that a stone-age chronicler living perhaps 7,000 years ago could have known that the world extended beyond the area he knew about and whose tribes he could list, and that people lived on other continents, untouched by the disasters of his own. Think about it: as recently as 600 years ago, the expression 'the whole world' included neither America nor Australia.? I took out my smartphone, checked a few figures on the Internet, and made some calculations. "The amount of water we have on Earth now is about 302 million cubic miles, 98 per cent of it in the oceans. Raising the sea level by 13,000 feet--the typical elevation where Noah's Ark tends to be found on Mt. Ararat--would require an additional 490 million cubic miles, or 1.6 times the current amount of water. To raise the sea from its current level to the top of Mt. Everest and covering all dry land, the amount of additional water needed would be 1,083 million cubic miles, or 3.6 times the current amount of water.

"The extra water could have been delivered from outer space by comets, although they would have obliterated all life on Earth in the process. However, the only way to send it back would have been by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis or catalysis. Then, over a long period of time--millions of years, not 150 days--the hydrogen could have gone back to space, while the heavier oxygen would have stayed and raised the proportion of that gas in the atmosphere to a point where all organic matter would have self-combusted." John was pleased with this reasoning. "Myself, I prefer to limit Noah's flood to the Neolithic settlements on the Black Sea shore that were inundated around 5,600 BC when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus Strait and suddenly raised the surface of that former lake by about 500 feet. Like Cliff said, God at the time was disgusted with the wickedness of Adam's and Eve's descendants. The people on the south shore of the Black Sea at the time were early farmers and may well have been identical with that progeny. Anyway, if the Flood was world-wide, how did the armadillo and the kangaroo get to the Ark and back?"

"That makes sense," I concluded. "It seems like a bit of a let-down, though." "Not as far as Noah is concerned," John countered. "He performed a monumental work of faith, building a seagoing ship with a displacement of at least 20,000 tons using stone-age tools. He spent decades of his life doing this while others scoffed at him. Not only did he save himself and his family when the flood came, he also did a splendid conservation job. No wonder he's counted among the patriarchs. "Anyway, we aren't here to disparage Noah or his ark. We're poking holes in one of the deceptions used by Creationist leaders to keep their followers in medieval ignorance and safeguard their cash flows." "Those leaders say that you can't be saved unless you believe that all 66 books of the Bible are literally true and contain God's entire revelation to mankind," I added.

John knew what I was talking about. "The Law was God's full and sufficient revelation for Bronze Age people: it contains all they could understand and relate to. The same applies to the Prophets and Iron Age people, and to Writings and the New Testament and the nations of antiquity, respectively. But that doesn?t mean that we with our enormously increased insights shouldn't be prepared and allowed to place the stories in their context and focus on God's intent and message rather than feign a blind faith in the superiority of Bronze Age understanding over modern science."

"Now, if God is so good and perfect," I inquired, "why does he allow such bad things to happen to people?" "Well, which do we want," Sarah retorted, "God or a babysitter? Most of the things you're talking about are caused by people, the rest by our natural environment or our own poor judgment. No matter how advanced our technology, we're here on Nature's terms. As to the rest, why do we blame God for what people do? He gave us a free will, and we're quite happy to have it and use it. Is God then supposed to tamper with everybody else's free will in order to protect us? Tyrants do that, not God. Humanity's relationship with God is like a marriage where one spouse makes all the decisions and the other gets all the blame. And yet he continues to love us and giving us second chances. It really isn't too much to ask that we should give God a bit of praise and thanks now and then. "God didn't design this world in such a way that he'd have to run it himself. He doesn't. He turned that job over to us: humans run the world. That's why it's being done in such an awful manner. But the bright side of it is that we're also masters of our own destinies. When God does interfere in our lives, it's in response to prayer, usually lots of it. You need to be very specific as to what it is you want, and you need to have an unshakable faith in God's ability to do what you need done. He often works through apparent coincidences and fortuitous meetings between people: always leave the timing to him. And when it turns out that you aren't getting what you want, realize that God knows the future, and is the better judge of what's good for you in the long run.

"Everyone doesn't necessarily have an idyllic life on Earth, and it isn't necessarily such a good thing when it does happen. God permits hardship in order to enable us to mature: we're born with personality traits, but character comes about only as a result of living through adversity. He's great enough to be able to use both chance happenings and willful human acts to further his purposes concerning us. Your task is to match some of that greatness by profiting from your experiences without building up cynicism and resentment that would ruin both your disposition and your prospects for an eternal life. "Some lives are short, some are longer. Each has the potential to shape a character. What would be the purpose of a coddled life without adversity? A life without risks and wants is for neutered house cats, not for people being prepared for God's kingdom.

"Think of the myriad bugs and micro-organisms for which we, as newcomers to the biosphere, are potential food and habitat. Think of the radiation and the toxins that constantly damage our DNA. It's incredible that, living in an environment that's so bent on our destruction, we have the health and lifespan that, on average, we do have. As products of evolution, our defenses can only be as good as required to maintain our species. In this world, our immune systems will never be perfect. Yet we rail at God for every genetic mishap and for every misfortune poverty generates through lack of knowledge and medical care. Alleviating poverty is our responsibility, not God's. If nature has her way with some of us and it could have been prevented, we need to improve the way we look after those in need, not blame God for permitting survival of the fittest as a principle of nature. "We mourn our deceased friends and relatives and complain about the unfairness of our loss because we can only think of ourselves, our grief, and the here and now. But the loved ones we have lost are normally safe with God and on their way to much greater things than we have here. If not, they weren't very lovable to begin with.

"Don't forget what the Bible says: God can use everything for the good of those who love him. "Never ever think of yourself as a victim, Gregory! It's a debilitating attitude that clouds your judgment and could, in the extreme, get you killed. You have no right to self-pity. If you ever feel that you do, think of the movie The Passion of the Christ." "Thanks, Sarah," I said sincerely. "I'll remember that. But if I may continue for a while, what did Cliff mean with his first statements about the world being a stage and having only three dimensions? I got the feeling that he put the entire known universe in a rather insignificant light. How many dimensions are there in all?" "Sarah just told you that we're here to mature," John explained. "We come from somewhere, 'upstairs,' as Adrian said, when we're born, and we go somewhere when we die. So there must be other realms than this three-dimensional world we can perceive. St. Paul, in Ephesians 3:18, talks about his prayer that we'll all come to 'comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth,' so it seems that we should count on four dimensions, at least. But if there are more than four, we really don't have to worry about them: the difficult thing is to imagine anything at all beyond the three dimensions we know." I pulled out my New Testament from Henry Allen, and found a slightly different version of what John had cited. It talked about all those concepts as dimensions of Christ's love.

"What I just quoted is the English rendition of the original text," John said. "Its obvious, literal meaning was too far-fetched for most Bible translators. They needed an object for the dimensions, so, as a rule, they opted out and applied them to the next verse. If you want to study the Bible, always use several different translations, including at least one literal translation. Many translators have recorded not only the limitations of their imagination and understanding, but also their political and sectarian agendas. "The idea Cliff expressed so briefly, is that we've been given physical requirements, along with many limitations that don't exist in the spiritual world, so we'll be forced to make difficult decisions and get a chance to test our love for each other by caring for those in need. "In that sense, this world is a stage: most of what we do here wouldn't be necessary in the larger realm. The environment, its physical laws, and the existence of time provide a script for our lives, steering us in certain mandatory directions. However, the important difference between our lives and a play as we know it is that we can exercise our free will and make choices." "Mathematically, I know how to deal with any number of dimensions," I told John. "But it seems really hard to try to visualize what it means that there could be more than three in real life." John had been through this before.

"We live in three dimensions, right? That's one more than two dimensions. Use analogy, my friend. If you lived in a two-dimensional plane, you could go in all directions in the plane, but you wouldn't be able to go outside it. You wouldn't be able to see or imagine three-dimensional space or any other planes than your own, because you'd be built flat, with no eyes on the sides facing away from your own plane. The third dimension, now, is at right angles with the two you can grasp, but you can't point that way, because no matter how you turn, your arms move only in your own plane. "If you could move in the third dimension, you'd find that it's much like the first two: you could measure the distance you had gone, you might encounter other two-dimensional planes with interesting new worlds in them, inhabited by other kinds of two-dimensional beings, and you could return and find your way back to where you had come from. Perhaps it would be a little too much to handle, but for the adventurous, quite exciting. "We who live in three dimensions--in a space rather than a plane--have exactly the same limitations when it comes to the fourth dimension. It's got to be perpendicular to the space we live in, with other spaces and, perhaps, other worlds in it. We can't point in the direction of that fourth dimension, because no matter how we turn, our arms move only in the three dimensions we know. But seen from that elusive perspective, we'd be open to inspection right into the marrow of our bones, just as you, from outside a plane, could see the innards of the two-dimensional beings that populated it."

It was a good analogy. Still, I was missing a real gut feeling of what it would be like. Somehow or other, leaving this space would have to be similar to the idea of rising above a familiar plane, staying in the same spot, in a manner of speaking, but still being removed from it. You?d be so much removed, in fact, that there?d be no communication with those left behind, even though the distance, measured in the new direction, wouldn?t need to be very great. So questioned, John came up with yet another analogy. ?Imagine you?re five years old. You?re about three foot four, still a bit timid but ready to explore the world as far as you?re allowed to go. So one evening, when your mom turns her back, you come upon this roll of corrugated cardboard standing on its end. The roll is four feet wide, or, rather, high: well above your head. What do you do? Of course, you find the end of the cardboard and look between the layers. ?Then you start walking into the roll. Never mind that it was neat and tightly rolled when you found it, and that you?ll leave it unraveled and wobbly. You don?t know that, and so you walk on. And on and on and on. Within a few minutes, you may have walked five yards, then ten, then fifteen. Eventually, you have to stop, when the stuff won?t give any longer. Now where are you??

"In the same spot, but 15 yards removed from the rest of the world!" I exclaimed, realizing what John was after. "I've walked a certain distance, I can't be seen, and I have to walk all the way back to get out again. So I'm really not in this space anymore, except that Mom can see me, if she looks down the top of the roll." "God couldn't be everywhere, so he made mothers," John remarked. "I'm told that's an old Arab saying. The same way, I imagine, God looks on us, seeing every cell in our bodies, from the fourth dimension that we can't perceive. Now, I like this analogy: I used to walk into rolls of corrugated cardboard as a child, and, I'll tell you, it was quite scary. The further you go, the dimmer the light gets; sounds from outside become muffled, and you know perfectly well that there's no panicking in there, because you have to get out the way you went in, and in an orderly manner. If you knock the roll over and crawl out the top, you're bound to flatten and break the material, and then Mom will get you alright." "Great," I said. "Now for the last of these mysteries: time. How can time be an option? It seems like the most inflexible limitation we have." As I had expected, John had an answer ready for this question, too.

"All this reasoning about physical space and dimensions agrees well with simple mathematics. Time, however, is different. It takes Einstein's general theory of relativity to describe spacetime mathematically. If we didn't have time, it wouldn't be easy to think it up theoretically. To me, it's counterintuitive that time must go in just one direction. It leads me to think that time is a tailor-made property of this three-dimensional space where we live. "Time is a necessary convenience for life in three dimensions. Without it, you could never walk through a door--it's possible only because the door can be open at certain times. God has made time to enable us to mature; it is, hence, the most precious resource he has given us. Those who have had near-death experiences tell us that the first question we're asked after we die is how we've used our time here. God remains outside of time and sees everything that goes on like you see traffic on a one-way street from a helicopter: you can pretty well predict what lies ahead for somebody who won't know until they get there. So if God wants to use an evolutionary process that takes a billion years, he just sets it going and comes back later to use the results--he doesn't have to sit around and wait."

Soon I thanked my hosts and said good night. John wouldn't have me walk the quarter mile to my shack, but came along and started up his car. Halfway to the shack the road turned to the right, and just as we approached the bend, the car's engine suddenly died, while ahead, beyond a shrub-clad ridge, I saw a bluish light approaching. There were no roads or buildings there, and I gasped, "What's that?" "A UFO," John said. "They come here sometimes." "Do you mean you've seen them before? What are they?" I was petrified, but John's calmness gave me a lot of comfort. So far, nothing worse had befallen us than the fact that the car had no life whatsoever. "I reckon their crews are custodians of the earth," John said. "Time travelers, who stop here in our age now and then, perhaps for a breath of fresh air. They're the ones who watch the long, slow processes of development and regeneration here on Earth, by zipping from one eon to another. I got taken along once by accident." I thought I had heard a lot about John, but this sounded just incredible. "You must be joking! Taken along where?"

"To another era on Earth. It could have been right here, but it was a different time alright. I came driving one night along this same road, with the dog in the car, a little earlier in the evening. The UFO appeared in just the same spot as now: they have their regular places they come back to. I went out to investigate why the car had stopped, and the dog came with me. He was so scared he stayed by the car, while I went ahead to the bend in the road. I felt dizzy, and as the UFO came closer and landed next to me, I found I was in a different place altogether. It was a wasteland with no life anywhere. There was a little light, but the sky was practically black. A couple of men came out of the UFO and looked very mystified and concerned to see me. 'You don't belong here,' one of them said. 'How did you manage to tag on?' "I didn't know, and I didn't seem to have the power to answer, either. They returned to their craft and a little later I found myself back by the car, with no more signs of the UFO. The dog was lying where I'd left him, so weak that I had to lift him into the car. He recovered alright by morning, however. The car lights, which had gone out when the car had died on me, were on again, and when I tried to start the car, it worked just as before. I haven't noticed any side effects from that adventure, but I decided then not to leave the car if ever I saw one of them again."

The light in front of us now became brighter, and for a moment I saw a round object with openings along the edge and underneath, from which the light emanated. Then the UFO took off, abruptly, to the left, and disappeared behind the trees. The car lights came on again and, like John had said, the car started up without trouble. "Are you too scared now to sleep alone out there?" John asked me. "Just let me know how you feel, and we'll put you up in Bruce's room." Strange enough, I wasn't. "Please drive on," I said. "Tell me, how do you know you weren't taken to the moon or some other part of space?" John laughed. "I can tell you it wasn't the moon, because I was able to breathe, and I felt just as heavy as usual. If they managed, unwittingly, to carry me through space, in no time, outside the craft, without me exploding on the way, to another planet where I was able to breathe the air, well, then they're to be congratulated. I've just guessed at the simplest explanation: that I didn't go anywhere geographically speaking, but was ported through time to some era, perhaps in the future, during which the earth is being regenerated following a major catastrophe. With no human life around, these people look after it and regulate whatever processes are at work, so that millions or billions of years later, as we reckon, another world, full of life, is again at God's disposal for whatever purposes he has."

"Were those men small and green with those beady eyes, then?" I asked, thinking of all the science fiction stuff I had absorbed during my teens. "No," John answered, "they looked like regular people, with tight-fitting clothes and some form of helmets on their heads. Working gear for a tough environment, I'd say. Don't believe any of that occult stuff you read about UFOs. Somebody is out to make money, that's all. As I see it, there's nothing mystical at work here. God has said he'll finish off this present world with fire, and then he'll make everything new. I believe I visited that time of regeneration. It could be a very long time, counted in years, while new life is created. But God's people will be taken past that time, via Heaven, and put back into the new world, without experiencing any more delay than what it takes to exchange formalities up there." "What if they hadn't noticed you and had gone off to some other eon?" I asked, aware that John had been through something quite out of the ordinary. "Well, I had no way of calling for help, so in that case, I suppose I'd soon have perished. Fortunately for me, they had some reason to leave their vehicle. I'd have had to blame my own rashness, of course, going toward the thing, knowing full well that I had no business around it. But I don't regret having gained the understanding I now have concerning UFOs."

By the time I got back to my quarters, it was midnight, and I should have been scared to death. But I felt outright elated and assured John that I'd be OK. If I needed any support, there was always the smartphone. I had little trouble going to sleep and dreamed about weird and wonderful things.

---------------

Having crossed the Atlantic and witnessed the destruction of Washington by a nuclear bomb, Gregory goes to Minnesota where he has a talk with a minister called Reverend Cooper. Gregory draws on experiences from previous visits to the States, and gets some aspects of American religious life explained to him.

"What is it with America," I continued, "this thing that even churches have to be so commercial? I just sat through a service at the Consumer Church of Instant Gratification, which was a farce, of course, but even serious churches here use marketing methods that are identical to those of business." The minister, who had introduced himself as Reverend Cooper, had a very friendly and understanding attitude. "You've noticed that when the church stoops down to compete with popular entertainment on entertainment's terms, the message of faith goes out the window, right? Not many do. A lot of churches here think of themselves primarily as entertainers, and spend their time planning the music and the sing-alongs when they should be thinking of their sermons. Then there are churches that have become nothing more than reliquaries of empty ritual and institutionalized intolerance. Sometimes I wonder if the clergy of such churches even remember what brought them there in the first place: the Gospel.

"I think the root of the matter you're talking about can be traced back to the very beginnings of this country. The pioneers that founded America, just like those who came after them, left their old countries behind because they wanted freedom and opportunities. After the Revolution, they outlawed all the things that had denied them those precious things in Europe: royalty, nobility, and the liaison between church and state that had allowed European churches to grow rich and despotic. They created a power vacuum, which was filled by the smart and the ambitious, taking the place of those with inherited wealth and authority in the old countries. This is why business became so powerful here: it was handed a position of strength that its counterpart in most of the rest of the world never had. It's also the reason America became so efficient: her upstart ruling class made its living from the dynamism of business, not from the ownership of tenant land, which makes you resist all change.

"After the early Catholic Church managed to destroy the theaters of antiquity, the churches had been Western society's only channels for mass propaganda, and, as such, they habitually allied themselves with those in power. Heralds and town criers could distribute announcements, but only the churches had the means to influence the value system of the public. These means they would put at the disposal of a patron, but only at a price. The Catholic Church had worldwide power of her own and could negotiate with rulers as an equal, while Protestant and Orthodox churches normally became state churches. Most other important world faiths are state religions, as well. In America, the only available ally with comparable strength and a similar need to influence people?s value systems was the business community. The state was separated from the churches by law. It's because of this orientation toward business among their churches that many Americans don't know that there's a difference between evangelization and marketing or entertainment.

"This is why you find that most churches in America are clients of the business community, take an active part in pro-big business politics as the so called 'Christian' Right, and spend a good part of their time promising the faithful material wealth and nurturing the American Dream. Denominations that reject such a client relationship are seen as weird: you have your Quakers, your Amish, and other quiet churches that never are in the headlines, and exist mainly outside middle-class suburbia." Ah, yes, the American Dream: the notion that anybody, given luck and perseverance, can become rich, famous and powerful--or at least have a home and a mortgage--and therefore legislation and taxation have to be favorable to big business. After all, it could be me... In reality, maybe one in a million ever strikes it rich, but to keep the door open, the public puts itself at the disposal of business on business's terms. I moved over to Rev. Cooper's table. "Now, many Americans are churchgoers, and yet they're marked, and they're shopping like there's no tomorrow. I can see why few Europeans worry about being marked: they don't go to church. But here a lot of people still do. How come they haven't been warned?"

"First of all, Catholics have never heard about such a mark, and aren't told that the end times may be near. Less so now than earlier, since the Vatican became part of the European Commission. Greek Orthodox Christians don't even have the Book of Revelation in their Bibles. And among Jews, the only authorities paying any attention to these things are the Messianic ones, and other Jews consider them Christians and don't listen to them. Only Muslims here are, for the most part, aware of what's going on. "The Messianic Jews have mounted an admirable effort lately: like the Mormons, they have started sending out their young men as missionaries to other countries, including Israel. Last I checked they had some 144,000 of them. With the payment system reform, life has become very hard for them: they refuse to be marked and their folks have problems sending them money to live on. Yet they aren't giving up. "To understand the ignorance of Protestants, we should remember that some two centuries ago, Miller and Darby invented the idea of a pretribulation rapture. Once launched, the concept turned out to have a special attraction for many Americans who have come to think that they ought to be exempt from all hardship. ('You can't do this to me: I'm an American!') Tribulation is for all those other people overseas, who live among war and poverty.

"A pretribulation rapture is a best-case scenario built on very shaky ground. 'Beware of best-case scenarios!' I tell my congregatio--like, no doubt, you advise your contingency planning constituents." "Amen!" I chimed in. This was a man of my mettle. "Protestant fundamentalism in this country has degenerated into little more than legalism, bigotry, and right-wing political extremism. Fundamentalist leaders and media permit no deviation from their central doctrine of a pretribulation Rapture. So since fundamentalists haven't been raptured yet, the emperor, who builds his political support on everybody's fear of and hatred against everybody else, can't be the Beast, and his payment identifier can't be the Mark of the Beast. The world view of fundamentalists is dominated by prejudice, and the emperor's computers are having a field day with them. So fundamentalists are marked and support the emperor, and their leaders are making more money than ever by parroting him. There'll be some very surprised people here a couple of years from now. "A central issue in the right-wing brainwash distributed by the corporate sponsors of fundamentalism is climate change denial. No laws or regulations may stand in the way of profit-making, and no concerns for the planet are allowed to interfere with the enrichment of the rich. Conservative Christians swallow these principles hook, line, and sinker: any alternative, they're told, amounts to Communism.

"Those who read their Bibles, however, have reason to be wary of this propaganda. Micah 7:13 predicts man-made environmental degradation: 'The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants, as the result of their deeds.' And Revelation 11:18 tells what will happen to those who cause and facilitate this degradation: 'The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small--and for destroying those who destroy the earth.' The earth really matters to God: it's mentioned 575 times in the Bible." "I had a colleague where I worked," I said, "who must have been a fundamentalist. He sometimes got all worked up about how America was never going to be bombed because it was in the Bible. Wonder how he explains the bomb in DC now..." "That's fundamentalist thinking alright. That belief is based on a version of the Bible called the Living Bible. This is a paraphrase, not a translation, and it takes liberties with the text where it suited the author. Ronald Reagan used it when campaigning for funding for his Star Wars program. The passage he quoted is the same one your colleague thought so much of, Ezekiel 39:6. In the doctored version, it says: And I will rain down fire on Magog (Russia) and on all your allies who live safely on the coasts, and they shall know that I am the Lord. "According to this view, during the catastrophes at the end of the age, America will be miraculously saved from destruction while Russia will get it with a vengeance. But what does the Bible actually say? The most accurate translation goes very much like this: I will send fire on Magog and on those who dwell securely in the coastlands; and they shall know that I am the Lord.

"Dwelling securely means confidently, without care. That's the attitude of many Americans to world conflict: it goes on somewhere else, it doesn't come to our part of the world. The word 'coastlands' is also translated as 'the isles', meaning generally overseas territories. The shore of Israel, as we know, faces the west. So the very prophesy that spells out the fate of America along with that of Russia was, at the time of the big debate on the cost of the Star Wars program, used to convince Americans that with enough defense spending they'll be protected against this fearful day. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, there's still no proof that the system will ever work, while the Warsaw Pact countries that were allies of Russia in the '80s are now NATO members and allies of America. So much for the accuracy of the Living Bible's politically paraphrased prophesies." "My friend Mikio in Tokyo said that great powers always have to have enemies," I reminisced.

"Our understanding of evil is incredibly subjective: we automatically assume that it's always done by others, that it's something unfair or immoral that offends, injures, or threatens us, and that we're always the good guys in the story. This conception of evil is political, not based on Christianity. It's a paramount tool of Conservative leaders looking to unite followers and politicize their faith into right-wing monomania. There's a universal rule: if you want a population to do your bidding and pay you money, you'll have to show them an enemy, and that enemy is the external evil we're talking about. The only difference between a political leader and a charismatic religious leader going for your pocketbook is that where the politician tries to turn you against minorities, foreigners, and terrorists, the preacher adds witches, demons, and homosexuals to the list. But objectively speaking, any outside evil is irrelevant to you and me, because the only evil that matters is our own pride, greed, and selfishness. They are the main things standing between us and God. "Time was when everybody knew that selfishness is bad for you. But we're no longer raised that way: now our greed and covetousness are the very motors of the economy, and they are energetically nurtured by all the advertisement and entertainment that shape our culture and our outlook on life. Our preachers should be screaming bloody murder about this, but instead, they worry about their budgets and meddle in politics.

"Also, you should realize that here in the States, so many people attend church because most of our churches are actually a form of social clubs. Their religious teaching often has deteriorated into something rather bland that has been called Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism." "Deism," I mused, "I can't think of what that really means just now." "One definition," Rev. Cooper replied, "is 'a belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.' This takes care of the impossibility of a universe existing without being created while giving you carte blanche to live your life as you see fit. "To attract members when the evangelistic fervor is gone, churches have to have all these lavish buildings and sports facilities, and all that, normally, has been financed by issuing bonds. Five or ten years later, the bonds begin falling due, and suddenly the fundraising of the church has to become truly effective. That's why you find them making members pledge themselves to firmly planned giving with computerized invoicing. If church members couldn't use the payment system, the churches would go bankrupt and the preachers would be out of a job. And remember, he that serves God for money, will serve the devil for better wages."

"Those churches that are serious about it pull out the Old Testament and say they're due a tenth of your earnings," I continued his train of thought. "That's a great example of how you can prove just about anything by taking singular passages of Scripture out of their context. Tithing came about because one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levites, was set aside to serve as priests. They had to be supported by the other eleven tribes. A twelfth part of their income would have made for equal distribution of wealth, but seeing that the Levites had to use very expensive garments for their work, a tenth was fairer. "Now, since when do preachers and their families make up a tenth or even a twelfth of our current population? A quarter of a percent of the working population are clergy. Church buildings have to be paid for, of course, but when religious communities, some of which don't even have salaried priests, still demand a tenth, and often a tenth of your earnings before tax, you know it's business. It would be just as right if Israel went out and killed every inhabitant of Palestine. That's in the Bible, as well, but it, too, was a specific instruction for a once-off situation.

"I could go on. St. Paul wrote that women weren't to teach or be heard in the congregation. That was correct in the culture of the times, where the only women who ever spoke in public were pagan priestesses and prostitutes. Christian women were not to behave like prostitutes or pagan priestesses. Christians had to be model citizens if they wanted their churches to grow. Moreover, a woman in those days couldn't obtain an education, no matter how smart she was. A good woman had her prescribed place: by filling that role, she made her best contribution. She let her father, brother, husband, or son do the teaching and make the decisions, because hers wouldn't have been respected anyway. In return, she and the whole household, submitting in everything to its head, were saved with him. In our society, every adult is qualified to make their own decisions, and also answers for his or her own deeds. Women are free, educated, and capable of teaching. What we're dealing with is just a bunch of feeble old men trying to preserve their privileges by quoting out of context." "And wives were to submit to their husbands," I recalled. "That seems pretty out of date, too." "It was correct in the cultural context of the time," Rev. Cooper answered. "The responsibility for the whole household lay squarely on the husband's shoulders, and assuming he did his best, he deserved support. But this command is another one of those that have been taken out of context. In Colossians 3, St. Paul gives four strongly interdependent commands concerning families: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

"The first pair of commands is meant to be inseparable, likewise the second pair. Expecting women and children to obey and submit to a man that doesn't love them is an illusion: it'll only happen through terror. Yet, for 2,000 years men have chosen to notice and enforce only the first and the third of these commands, while ignoring the second and the fourth. Encouraged by their like-minded preachers, they have thought themselves Christians, while, in fact, they've simply been tyrants." "So, for the average churchgoer, what's the alternative? What can you do if your preacher is more concerned with money and morality than with love and salvation?" "There's a simple way to set things right," Rev. Cooper replied. "Get together and pray for him. Within six months, he'll either change or move. It works: I've seen it happen."