Sunday, December 29, 2013 – Editor: Dustin LindenSmith
On a 2009 episode of the acclaimed BBC series Horizon, Professor Marcus de Sautoy investigated the question, “How do we know who we are? ” From the episode’s description:
He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait. Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self. Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.
The entire episode is available on YouTube here:
However, I’d like to draw your attention to the following short segment in which de Sautoy is induced into an out-of-body experience that changes his very perception of his own physical reality:
By placing video projection helmets on his subjects and then putting them through a carefully-conceived series of movements and interactions, Professor Henrik Ehrsson can temporarily unmoor his subjects’ sense of self. De Sautoy explains:
According to Henrik, my sense of “I” is an illusion, created by my brain that is processing data from my senses. At the flick of a switch, by changing the data my brain receives, Henrik can manipulate the illusion to give me an impossible out-of-body experience.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has had numerous out-of-this-world experiences: his longest mission was 146 days in space. During that time, he orbited the Earth 2,336 times and traveled 62 million miles. He was interviewed by Terry Gross in October, 2013, in one of my favourite podcasts – NPR’s Fresh Air:
During this interview, Hadfield provides rich descriptions of the transcendental experiences that each astronaut is exposed to over the course of a regular day’s work. These range from watching the sun rise every 92 minutes, to witnessing the Southern Lights erupt under his feet during a spacewalk. He describes the mind-bending paradox of what your vision takes in while on a spacewalk:
The contrast of your body and your mind inside [what is] essentially a one-person spaceship (which is your spacesuit), where you’re holding on for dear life to the shuttle or the station with one hand, and you are inexplicably in between what is just a pouring glory of the world roaring by silently next to you — just the kaleidoscope of it, it takes up your whole mind — it’s like the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen just screaming at you on the right side, and when you look left, it’s the whole bottomless black of the universe, and it goes in all directions. It’s like a huge yawning endlessness on your left side, and you’re in between those two things and trying to rationalize it to yourself and trying to get some work done.
Later in the interview, Terry Gross asked Hadfield if the experience of being in space had any effect on his religious faith or his understanding of his place in the world:
It’s an amazing place to think about that topic. Picture yourself separated from the other six-and-a-half or seven billion people, where you can see them all from a distance, every 90 minutes, where the world turns beneath you like a big jewel, and you have left all of them. It’s almost like a God-like view of the world, right? At least, a human understanding of what that God-like view might be, looking down almost paternally on everybody. And so it really makes you think.
And the world… it just can’t be random, looking at it. It’s so different than the vast emptiness that is everything else. Even from all the other planets we’ve seen (at least in our solar system), none of them even remotely resemble the precious, life-giving nature of our own planet.
The big pervasive feeling onboard looking at the Earth [from space] is one of tremendous exquisite privilege that it exists. … But I think what everyone would find if they could be in that position — if they could see the whole world every 90 minutes and look down on the places where we do things right, and look down where we’re doing stupid, brutal things to each other and the inevitable patience of the world that houses us — I think everybody would be reinforced in their faith, and maybe readdress the real true tenets of what’s good and what gives them strength.
Those who were not previously NASA geeks are likely to have first heard of Chris Hadfield last spring, after seeing his YouTube video singing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Hadfield recorded and edited the video on his iPad from the International Space Station, then downloaded it to Mission Control in Houston. A NASA staffer uploaded it to YouTube shortly thereafter, at which point it quickly went viral:
Commander Hadfield was reticent to discuss his own personal spiritual beliefs on air, but noted religious scholar Dr. Reza Aslan, Ph.D., was quite open about his own background on this podcast with the superlative thinker and interviewer Mark Miller called This… Is Interesting on KCRW:
Aslan took care to point out that his primary focus in writing this book was in researching the hard facts that are verifiable about the individual known as Jesus. In that quest, he places the stories from the Bible about Jesus in their proper context:
We have to remember that the gospels — our best source for Jesus — are not documents of history. These are testimonies of faith written by communities of faith many years after the events that they describe. The gospel writers already believed that Jesus was The Messiah, or The Son of God, or indeed, God Incarnate, and then they wrote their gospels in order to prove that belief.
The gospels are not a sort of eyewitness testimony about things that Jesus said or did; the gospels are an argument that is being made by these gospel writers — not about what Jesus said or did, but about who Jesus was.
And so, while they are enormously helpful in helping us understand about who the early Christian community thought Jesus was, they don’t really actually help that much in getting us to the historical Jesus.
He goes on to provide a synopsis of the facts that we do know about the historical Jesus:
“He was a Jew — a very, very important fact to keep in mind, because it changes EVERYTHING you know about Jesus (that he was a Jew); second, that he started a Jewish movement for Jews in this first-century milieu of Galilee and Judea; and that third, as a result of that movement, the Romans executed him as a state criminal.”
My argument is, if that’s ALL you know about Jesus, it’s enough, because we know so much about the world in which he lived, that if you stopped thinking of Jesus as some utterly unique individual and instead placed him in his place in time, making him one of many people who were saying the exact same things that he was saying (I mean, we know their names, we know their biographies), then a different vision, a different image of Jesus arises. One that bears very little resemblance to the kind of pacifistic preacher of good works with no interest in the cares of this world that a lot of Christians believe Jesus to have been.
I do enjoy thinking about how Jesus might have fared in the modern world if he had come onto the scene today. I wonder if anyone is running a modern Twitter feed for Jesus that would be equivalent to @SeinfeldToday, which develops new premises for the 90s TV show Seinfeld that are more culturally relevant to current times:
Here’s a simple example of that premise:
Jerry’s gf (Kristen Wiig) dumps him for not wishing her a happy birthday on Facebook. “Who reads them? I don’t read them. NO ONE READS THEM!”
Submissions for suitable tweets for the @JesusToday Twitter feed will be warmly received by myself and the other editors.
1.) Terry Gross is an interesting persona herself. Since starting as host of Fresh Air in 1975, she has honed a unique and probing interview style I’ve always found engaging to listen to. Interested readers can learn more about her personal background here, although prepare yourself for a surprise if you’ve never seen a photo of her before. I didn’t think her voice matched her appearance at all:
2.) I couldn’t recommend more highly the podcast for Mark Miller’s KCRW program This… Is Interesting. Past episodes that have stood out for me include his interviews with the truly insightful conservative political philosopher Yuval Levin; with The New Yorker writer George Packer on how and why the middle class is falling apart; and a ripping debate with Tea Party Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa. A list of recent episodes is available here:
3.) Reza Aslan rocketed to fame earlier this year when an obtuse Fox News anchor conducted an atrocious interview with him on the topic of this book. The video of that interview went viral, and parts of it are fairly entertaining to watch:
4.) On an unrelated note, anyone who hasn’t heard Jerry Katz‘s recent interview with Gurudatta should try to make an effort to hear it, if possible. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard Jerry conduct. He uses a mixture of humour, deep insight, probing psychotherapeutic questions, and raw truth to get deeply at the heart of an individual practicing this whole guru game. Fascinating stuff.