Saturday, May 06, 2006

Visualizing Heaven

Dear Reader,

As a post-atheist, or whatever I am (I detect the need for some terminology), I am not inclined to trust to the afterlife to provide an experience of heaven for humanity; rather I feel we must work to create heaven on Earth. Or, as the camper's motto puts it, to leave the world better than we found it.

The problem is that the Modern world so relentlessly exterminates any conception of alternatives that we find our very imaginations invaded by the delusion of an endless present whose only positive development will be technology, e.g., the simplistic optimism of Star Trek or the noir optimism of Bladerunner. The more we take a hard look at the state of the world the more the relentless Modern myth is replaced by a relentlessly grim fear that our future will be dystopian--totalitarianism, corruption, plagues, ecological devastation, ignorance, religous wars, and technological incompetence--if not outright extinction. The unconscious sense that our future will be dystopian is part of why interest in reading science fiction is collapsing as readers turn to fantasy and other forms of escape.

Reading about the ancient Greeks, I notice one crucial ingredient in their success is a sense of what the future could be, based on generally agreed upon shared values and a shared ideal of what all people should strive to be, of arete. A central motivator for such a drive for excellence is contempt for the default human condition, a belief that we are obliged to strive to become better than we are if we are to be even crudely civilized. Without this vital ingredient the Greeks could never have advanced in so many different ways in such a short time.

Maybe we need to spend some time taking a long hard look at how things are and coming up with a clear idea of how we would prefer things to be. For example, maybe we want in a world in which there are some fisheries left. Maybe we want some forests so we don't have to live on a desert planet. Maybe we want people educated enough to tell when political candidates are lying about their positions. How about a world in which it's easier to find true friends? I would certainly prefer not to financially support torture. What if vote-tampering consistuted treason? How about making a world with so little pollution that mother's milk isn't laced with poisons?

Such an exercise could be fun or it could be daunting depending on how we approach it, but let's face it: each of us has to make this list. If we cannot even imagine what a good world would be like, then of course we will despair for our future. Give yourself a timeframe, say thirty days, to try to figure out what the most important issues are facing humanity, what things you most want to see improved. Do some research on the Internet and elsewhere to get your facts straight on each issue so you can propose something useful, if brief.

Let's put this another way. Aren't you sick of all those compromised political-party platforms drafted by committees, which you know the parties will never institute anyway even if they were good ideas? Wouldn't you like to see at least once in your life a platform that reflected your values and priorities? Well you can: write it yourself. That alone would take political discussion in this country a huge step forward by making possible concrete discussion of specific problems and possible solutions. Rather than political discussions consisting mainly of identifying sides and throwing stones, we could begin focusing on looking for ways to improve our personal political platforms. When we talk politics, we could be searching for who has come up with better ideas than we have on the things that matter to us, so afterward we can amend our lists with the improvements and note who we learned them from.

Imagine: productive political discussions, in which we compare our personal ideas about what a little bit of heaven on Earth would be like.

Yours truly,

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