Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Last evening, Carol and I were watching the latest episodes of the Hulu TV series The Path. It is an excellent show illustrating, among other things, the dangers of transformative piety, what I like to call the Shazam Model of Sanctification. It is the belief that an individual may transcend his or her natural self with all its flaws by means of this or that “spiritual” mind game. It is, I think, a case of attempted suppression of forces, urges, and quirks that cannot be eradicated. They will only seek expression in other, more devious ways, often clothed in the language and pose of moral and spiritual superiority. This is how religious leaders eventually crash and burn, subverting themselves by means of what they think are virtues but are actually vices wearing aluminum foil haloes.

I said to Carol that I was particularly impressed by the way the Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) character is both written and acted. He is the product of an abusive upbringing which eventuated in alcoholism and other back-riding monkeys. Pretending (to himself) to have overcome these problems by the techniques of Meyerism, a liberal New Age therapeutic and apocalyptic sect, abetted by the use of Ayahuasca, Cal has risen to prominence, the apparent heir to founder Steve Meyers, recently deceased. His position is challenged by Eddie Lane, a convert who had begun to lose faith in Meyerism until a visionary experience convinced him of its truth. In addition, founder Steve appeared to him, designating him, not Cal, as the true “Guardian of the Light,” the Meyerist Messiah. Cal is affronted and promptly starts scheming to take back the leadership.

Cal Roberts on Hulu's The PathCal is too easily tempted by sex and booze and is not even above a strategic murder on occasion. Yet the man exhibits real therapeutic insight and ministry skills. It would be quite easy to write him as a caricature, or even to depict him as a real-life self-drawn caricature like the unfortunate Jim Bakker. But Cal’s character works. He comes across as a complex man whose inner demons somehow energize and make possible his great gifts. I contrast him with another fictional character, Sarr Poroth, one of the main characters in T.E.D. Klein’s great 1984 novel The Ceremonies. We are told that Sarr, a rustic farmer belonging to an Amish-like community in remote Gilead, New Jersey, had a few years previously sojourned in New York City, studying anthropology. This (conveniently for the plot) equips Sarr with the knowledge he will need to understand the growing, ancient evil impinging on his rural paradise. Though I love the book, I must admit that I just couldn’t swallow this arbitrary juxtaposition of rustic sectarian and learned grad student. I thought the author should have contrived to split the character in two. Sarr combines oil and water, a forced fusion of two very different actants, or narrative functions: the hero/protagonist and the “donor,” who supplies needed knowledge, power, etc. (like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, or Merlin).

At this point, some reader might be thinking, “Not so fast! As odd as it sounds, I once knew a guy like that!” Maybe you did, but that doesn’t make any difference. Even if it happened, it was an oddity, as your very response implies. It is a question of verisimilitude, plausibility based on readers’ expectations about life and the world, expectations based on most people’s experience of the world. It is akin to the historian’s principle of analogy, which stipulates that no claimed event can be judged as probable (the best verdict any historian can render) if it is without analogy in present-day experience.

Artist Leon De Leeuw c.1964I first learned this lesson from my painting professor at Montclair State College, the great Leon de Leeuw. He told us something to this effect: “I don’t care if you did see a weird cloud that looked like that! It’s going to distract the viewer from your overall scene. If your goal is to highlight the strange cloud, take a photo of it!” Exactly, it spoils the verisimilitude by defying the viewer’s expectations for clouds.

This discussion of characters and clouds opens up a wider subject. Verisimilitude is perhaps the key to all artistic creation. I’m thinking of a wonderful scene near the end of Bergman’s classic Fanny and Alexander (hmmm… is that my favorite Bergman film, or is it The Seventh Seal? I can never decide!). Celebrating the birth of two baby girls to the Ekdahl clan, Gustav Adolf, proprietor of a restaurant adjacent to the theatre owned and run by his family, is blustering away. He reflects on how, in the face of the terrors ever threatening us out in the big world beyond the well-ordered sanctuary of elegant culture and family sentiment, the theatre provides a “little world” which re-presents for us selected elements of the outside world to help us understand it. (In this very film, we have seen that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have provided the key to understanding recent tragic family events if only anyone had noticed at the time!) Art selects certain elements of the observed world in order to construct a mental model, a map of meaning, our meaning, not necessarily the meaning, especially since there is no “the” meaning.

Think of another great movie, Man of Steel, in which young Clark Kent, suddenly under siege by his awakening super-senses, panics from sensory overload. The poor kid can’t control his X-ray vision and super-hearing. But his mom guides him to focus his attention, to weed out what he doesn’t want to hear or see at the moment. Just like the Buddha, who was selectively omniscient: he wasn’t aware of everything happening in the universe unless he directed a sensor ray to see whatever he needed to know.

What Clark was seeing and hearing during his original sensory bombardment was Kant’s Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, the Ding an sich (the “Thing in itself”). We, unlike Clark, never see this because we are born with the mental filtering apparatus Kant called the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment. These tools shape perception so that it makes sense to us. For instance, is there really a succession of moments out there? Does cause actually lead to effect? Are objects really distinct from one another? Do they truly have weight, volume, and form? We don’t know. But we cannot help perceiving reality as if this is the way things are. Kant spoke of certain Transcendentals, overarching perspectives, not directly perceived but necessary for perceptions to make sense. One of these was “World,” the very notion of a vast “container” of all the “things” we perceive, a horizon by which they appear to cohere into a united whole. (I think of what Lovecraft says in “The Call of Cthulhu” about “correlating the contents” of the mind.)

Paul Deussen (The Philosophy of the Upanishads) long ago understood Hindu Nondualism as being perfectly analogous to Kant’s epistemology: Kant’s Categories of Perception were the same as Shankara’s upadhis, the “limiting conditions” of finitude, a feature of illusory maya, the Samsaric existence we inhabit before Enlightenment. These upadhis refract our perception of the ultimate Nirguna Brahman (“Brahman without qualities”), pure Being. Think of them like water droplets in the air that refract sunlight into the spectrum of colors. This, too, is art and verisimilitude: the product is beautiful to us but as a derivative, selective distortion.

Perhaps the final paradox is that, even if the mystic manages to leap beyond the Samsaric maya, past the Categories of Perception, unto the Suchness of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, to “rise above the noise and confusion / to get a glimpse beyond this illusion,” the resultant Satori will still be a creation of the mind because what will have happened is that happy disabling of the Temporal Parietal Lobe of the brain, that gizmo which makes it possible for the infant eventually to distinguish self from world, returning us to what Freud called “the oceanic feeling of the womb.” In other words, it’s still all in your head.

Or would Kant perhaps have understood the meditative introspection of the mystics, which switches off the Temporal Parietal Lobe, as analogous to his own exploration of the workings of the mind but carried a big step further? Had the mystics, with their intra-mental flashlight, discovered a way of bypassing the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment, yielding a genuine beholding of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception? If so, they managed to behold that Truth that is far stranger than the fictions we construct to make a familiar, sensible world for ourselves. If so, the “big world” Gustav Adolf Ekdahl envisioned is a lot bigger than he thought!

So says Zarathustra.

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Spinning the Theology Wheel

Spinning the Theology Wheel

Last Friday evening, Cecilia, my mother-in-law and pal, and my wonderful wife Carol, and I were sitting around shooting the breeze after watching John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the season finale of The Exorcist TV series. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned in the direction of theology. It often does, not so much because of my own interest in all things religious, but because Carol and Cecilia have a long-running (and friendly) dispute. Cecilia is a very conservative Roman Catholic, while Carol is an enthusiastic proponent of New Thought. Cecilia is quite sure there is one true faith and that she is in it. Carol regards that as way too restrictive. Why limit your options? Why not pick and choose? The discussion raised two issues in my mind. I want to ruminate on them a bit if you’ll indulge me.

            First comes the issue of Syncretism or eclecticism: choosing elements from this religion and that, combining them into a creed of your own. Are the preferred tenets logically or practically compatible? Once at Gordon Conwell Seminary I wrote a skit pretending to be a theological game show called Twist That Text! (Gotta admit I swiped the title and the idea from my mentor Michael S. Kogan at Montclair State College.) One segment of the show featured “the Systematic Theology Wheel.” Each spoke of the wheel had a doctrine inscribed on it: “Predestination,” “Universal Election,” “Annihilation of the Wicked,” etc. You’d give it a spin, inevitably winding up with a raft of grossly incompatible doctrines which you’d then have fifteen seconds to harmonize into a coherent theological system. Our contestant won the big prize with this reasoning: “Let’s see… everyone is elected, but since there have to be some wicked to be annihilated… everyone is predestined to go to Hell!” Bingo!

Is that the way theology really works? A jury-rigged mess of disparate beliefs? For my money, that’s what the Trinity is, for example. “Now we want to be monotheists, but we also want to worship Jesus alongside God, so I guess Jesus must be God, too, but not the same one. But not really a different one, or we’d have to admit we’re polytheists. So how about this? Jesus and his Father are two persons sharing the one divine nature… or something.”

If it’s nothing but a mind game, the incompatible ideas don’t really matter. You never have to put them to practical use, so they’re untestable. But if your doctrines are applicable to your life, the contradictions will result in contradictory behavior and cognitive dissonance. The greatest example would have to be your belief that “God is love” on the one hand and that God is planning on subjecting some people to eternal torment on the other. You can always just ignore one or the other, but that’s cheating. If you try to reconcile hell belief with God’s love you must end up considering love as somehow compatible with torture. That’s screwed up, and you will be screwed up.

But I don’t think that kind of theological schizophrenia is entailed in the syncretism many people espouse. Instead, they are discovering that certain elements have appeared in different religions independently. There are spontaneous parallels that are not copyrighted by any one of the faiths in which they appear. Salvation by grace through faith has been derived by the same basic logical process in both Protestant Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism. Jesus is the savior in the one case, Amitabha Buddha in the other. Neither appears to have influenced the other.

meditating om jesusSimilarly, mystical non-dualism appears in Taoism, early Sufism, Mahayana Buddhism, and in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

            How do we account for this? Actually, it is quite simple. All religions contain a wide variety of beliefs and approaches. Activist versus passivist, salvation by faith or by works. The founder as a vicarious savior versus a way-shower. Allegorical versus literalist reading of scriptures. Ancient scripture versus ongoing revelation. And so on. The fact is that humans have the same mental machinery which they bring to bear on certain perennial questions, resulting in the same range of resultant positions. And, for example, non-dualists belonging to Hinduism recognize non-dualists in Buddhism, etc., once they come to learn about them. They find kindred spirits, merely employing different but equivalent idioms. Their links to the like-minded in other faiths are stronger than their links to the people sitting next to them in the same pew. So they belong to two different religions but in different senses. Why not? You could call such people syncretists, but this is misleading because it is in fact the same doctrine that they are holding in common with the like-minded individuals wearing different religious labels. What I’m getting at is that a “syncretist” of this kind is not creating some Mulligan stew of disparate ideas. Not spinning the Theology Wheel. No, they are happily recognizing that other faiths share some particular belief they themselves already embraced. Why not learn from what these “foreign” cousins have to say about it?

            The second question is one long ago discussed by the father of Liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a thinker very important to me personally. Is “Natural Religion” adequate? Or isn’t “Positive Religion” necessary if religion is to become more than a set of abstract, idiosyncratic opinions? “Natural” religion, popular among intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was primarily ethical and philosophical in character, overlapping with Deism. It was religiosity in general. Schleiermacher denied that this was an authentic form of religion. It was more opinion than communion, more properly to be categorized as philosophy of religion rather than religion itself. Schleiermacher stressed the need for participation in some one of the historic religious communities, and not necessarily the Christian one. It is revealing that Schleiermacher spoke of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the Christian Community.”

            Traditionally, religious communities were united by corporate worship and ritual. The strength of this approach is evident from the fact that some groups are almost indifferent to whatever beliefs their individual members may privately hold. Judaism and Episcopalianism have grown to accommodate a broad spectrum of belief in this way. But can such a common life be sustained among freethinkers? Can such a gathering transcend the character of a polite debating society?

Are these two options really alternatives, or would it be more illuminating to view them as markers along a continuous spectrum? The latter way of looking at it might make more sense of the actual social phenomena. I will say, however, that in my experience the closest thing to a Natural Religion community, namely the Unitarian Universalist Association, though it may duplicate the social patterns of traditional churches, seems to me to be more of a political group, much more ethical than religious in any traditional sense. A kindred group was until quite recently called the Ethical Culture Society, which seems to me more accurately descriptive for Unitarianism as well.

            I understand this distance between Unitarian “fellowships” and “associations” on the one hand and traditional churches, synagogues, and mosques on the other in terms of another important aspect of Schleiermacher’s thought: the indispensable character of religious piety as the conscious awareness of “absolute dependence” upon the infinite Totality of Being that is God. The ethical dimension is non-negotiable, but it is not the essence of religion as Kant thought. Scripture and myth are not merely Sunday School lessons inculcating ethical growth. Rather, for Schleiermacher, they are catalytic for “God-consciousness.” I think Unitarianism attests the truth of Schleiermacher’s opinion. Unitarianism strikes me as essentially secular and pragmatic, non-religious and sterile. In many places it gives the impression of being a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party. This is, in effect, just what Schleiermacher expected and predicted would happen once religion defines itself as ethics. Noble but arid.

            Above, I described some who feel a deeper, more significant connection to members of other traditional religions with whom, however, they share some doctrinal belief (e.g., non-dualism) even though they continue attending church alongside those without that deeper understanding. They are like the ancient Valentinian Gnostics who regularly attended Catholic congregations but also attended Gnostic study groups on the side. The church authorities thought these Gnostics should just scram and stick to their “heresy.” But the Gnostics apparently felt the need for both. I think that’s probably a pretty good model for those “syncretists” with a foot in both camps today.

So says Zarathustra,


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Where Understanding Ends

Has it ever struck you as pathetically absurd when you hear a defense attorney for a convicted fiend seek mitigation for him, arguing that he was made the man-monster he is by terrible childhood abuse? It seems a last-ditch tactic. But it may just work because Americans are sometimes too full of the milk of human kindness. And within such kindness lurks a hidden and most convenient assumption: that individuals are the product, not as the Buddha says, of their decisions, but of their influences, purely passive, receiving an imprint like a seal on malleable wax. Here we have yet another example of the Slave Morality despised and bemoaned by Nietzsche. Cowards love to avoid responsibility, culpability, by attacking the very notion of responsibility and therefore of culpability. If no one is really culpable, then I am not culpable. If everyone is a passive recipient of conditioning, and of nothing else, then so am I. I might feel indignant at leniency shown murderers and child molesters, but I, too, am willing to give the monster a pass if that’s the price of my being able to shirk any responsibility for my own inadequacies. We moral cowards need to stick together!

Is it really impossible to imagine that an individual has the ability to defy conditioning and environment? If it is impossible, then there is no such thing as an individual. We are then no more than instantiations of sociological factors and trends, patterns of dysfunction. The individual as such, in that case, does not “exist,” because, as Paul Tillich liked to point out, to ex-ist means to “stand out” from the field of Being. But if we are merely one more stitch in a socio-economic and psychological tapestry, we are not individuals because there is no individuality.

I think also of Martin Heidegger, who prophetically urged his readers to awaken from their collective slumber, their passive acquiescence to Das Mann, the faceless mass of humanity governed by whatever currents cause the river of humanity to drift this way or that. He had in mind the habitual laziness that tempts us to let peer pressure supply our values and beliefs. Peter Berger discussed it in terms of the Sociology of Knowledge: we will blithely share the assumptions and values of our “plausibility structure” until we come to realize that’s what we’ve been doing and snap out of it, questioning everything in order to make our own “cognitive universe” for ourselves. That, Berger called “the Heretical Imperative.” Harvey Cox posited that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve in the Eden myth was accidie, letting the serpent tell them what to do. Dostoyevsky imagined Jesus getting crucified because the religious authorities of his day wanted to protect their troubled flock from having to face the challenge of Jesus to take up the heavy cross of freedom. If we do, to return to Heidegger, we will have at last attained authentic existence, heeding the call of our long-stifled authentic self.

So what is it that determines whether we are authentic individuals or passive marionettes? Simply, it is the decision that one is going to be an individual. To decide to take and to accept responsibility. It might be that, even if we deny it, we are nonetheless merely products of greater forces which combine to create us. Considering ourselves to be individuals may be kidding ourselves. Even this may be a role assigned us without our knowing. Theoretically, we might be able to posit threads of influence that inclined us toward rebelliousness. Would that vitiate our self-confidence as “rugged individualists”? I guess it would. But that’s where understanding ends.

Kant figured that, logically, all things must transpire according to an iron chain of cause and effect, including our decisions, choices, and actions. But what does it mean that we can come to know this? Does it not imply a superiority to that chain-link determinism? Does the fictional character know that he is a fictional character? Would that not tear asunder the fictive narrative of which he forms a part? Kant inferred that our sense of autonomous freedom is a “Transcendental,” a condition, a perspective, which is not derived from the data of sense perception but which is nonetheless necessary for us to make sense of the world of perceived data. Otherwise we could not even recognize the process of cause and effect that we are in that moment transcending! Freedom is a necessary hypothesis—even if we don’t understand how it could be. We find ourselves at the top of Mount Everest without knowing how we got there.

Perhaps this sense of autonomy is an illusion. If so, consider it a legal fiction. The defense attorney can play the air violin of excuse-making as sweetly as he wants, but we shall have to stop up our ears and proceed on the assumption that his client did not have to commit the atrocity he did. We must take for granted that he could have resisted the temptation; he could have controlled his compulsion. We will consider him an autonomous individual responsible for his actions even if he does not think so, even if his lawyer begs us not to. If we don’t, if we never do, you can see what must happen to our justice system. The Slave Morality will mean that nothing is anyone’s fault, and then there is no punishment for anything. We will consider rapes, murders, etc., to be blows of fate, like hurricanes, earthquakes, disease plagues. No one’s fault, just rotten luck. This, too, is where understanding ends. Where it must end. Oh, it may be that we would have erred in our chain of reasoning if it led us to mitigate responsibility to this extent. But even if psycho-social determinists are right, “that way lies madness.” We will have become too smart for our own good, even for our own survival.

Some atheists, like E.O. Wilson, reluctantly agree that people seem to need to believe in God, and that without belief in God (whatever you want to call him, her, or it) there can be no morality. What they mean is that, sociologically, traditional societies operated under what Peter Berger called a “Sacred Canopy” of shared rules, values, beliefs, and mores, all of which were sanctioned and buttressed by the belief that God/gods had ordained these things for their pet humans, and that sooner or later there would be divine reprisals for anyone who stepped out of line. It would undermine morality if everyone came to realize that these codes were originally the pragmatic inventions of mere humans like themselves. The result would be a state of anomie, confused normlessness in the society at large, from which we suffer right now.

Okay, sociologists and philosophers who understand how the system works don’t need it; like Nietzsche’s Superman, they can create their own values (even as the original framers did!). But, like the Gnostic Illuminati, some of them, e.g., Wilson, realize this is strong medicine, too strong for the “weaker brethren.” Perhaps it would be the wiser course not to rock their boat. The truth, I think, does not always “work.” And that is where understanding ends.

So says Zarathustra.

The devil made me do it!

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Validation Post: HOLY FABLE VOL. 2

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Dec 19 (2 days ago)

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An Aversion to Averroes

Imaginary debate between Ibn Rushd and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.
Imaginary debate between Ibn Rushd and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century. [Public Domain]

The medieval Arab philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) is known for propounding the Double Truth theory, though he probably didn’t. That was most likely a polemical distortion by his opponents. But the theory is interesting in any case. The idea is that a thing may be true in the sense that philosophy, unaided reason, would logically lead to it, but false in that it runs afoul of official religious dogma. This is not quite the same thing as Aquinas saying that, for instance, though there is no intrinsic reason the universe could not be thought to have existed eternally, we can dismiss the possibility because Scripture reveals that it was created by God at a particular moment of time. In that case, it is just that, in the absence of definitive proof, we are left to speculation—until an answer comes from a different quarter. As I understand the Double Truth theory, it envisions a contradiction between reason and revelation, not just revelation picking up where reason leaves off. Double Truthism seems to intend that, even though revelation (i.e., dogma) disallows or condemns an idea, there’s still an alternative zone of some sort in which it can be considered true. It’s a clever dodge, and opponents of the idea were not slow to realize this. Nice try, but no cigar.

Stephen Jay Gould meets Pope John Paul II
Stephen Jay Gould meets Pope John Paul II

In case this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the recent contention of evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria.” Gould was trying to stultify the old “religion versus science” debate by saying it had all been a big misunderstanding. Like that episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which Sheriff Taylor settles a generational feud between two backwoods families by demonstrating that the old offense had never actually happened in the first place. Emily Litella News commentary SNLAs Weekend Update commentator Emily Litella used to say, “Oh! That’s quite different! Never mind.” Gould made the big announcement that religion and science are talking about totally different things. Religion is not concerned to make factual assertions. Science is. They’re not working the same side of the street. Nothing to fight about, see? Let’s shake hands and go our separate ways.

But there was nothing new here. Paul Tillich, who actually knew what he was talking about, had explained it all decades before in books like his Dynamics of Faith, where he described the “intellectualistic distortion of faith,” the definition of faith as assent to certain fact-claims. Faith that Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea or that Max von Sydow rose from the dead is not proper faith. Believing that so-and-so happened when it cannot be proven from definitive evidence ultimately produces fanaticism and intellectual dishonesty, pretending you are certain of something when you have no right to be. If you admit it is impossible to be sure that certain ostensible events ever occurred, but you believe faith requires such certitude, you are in for endless torment. Forget about peace. You will forever fear that some discovery or argument will undermine your faith. “So far, so good! Nothing too threatening in the Dead Sea Scrolls thus far! I’m safe for the moment…” What kind of faith is that? Something is wrong here. What is wrong is that faith is rightly understood as ultimate concern, the never-ending struggle of Jacob with the angel. Genuine faith, Tillich explains, is compatible with doubt and even presupposes doubt—because faith is existential commitment, not affirming a set of historical assertions. Faith should have no vested interest in any particular scientific theory or historical reconstruction.

What’s the difference between Tillich’s view and Gould’s? Simply that Tillich admitted he was trying to correct most believers’ conception of faith, while Gould pretends (or thinks) he is just describing people’s faith as it is. Gould is employing an old rhetorical trick: seeming to describe when he is actually prescribing. It is to short circuit the argument, to beg the question. Pretty sneaky. People do not understand their faith as indifferent to questions of fact (science and history). Gould, like Tillich, wishes people did understand faith as these sophisticates do, but Gould is in effect trying to persuade them that they already do.  He is trying to win the war by subterfuge, by seeming to surrender. Again, he is trying to describe faith as a different language game, which believers do not think it is. John Warwick Montgomery wouldn’t let people like Gould get away with this stratagem. You may think religionists should view faith this way, but that’s not how they do view it. It’s the same strategy it was in Averroes’s day: “We’ve got the real truth, but feel free to call your nonsense ‘truth’ if you want. Just stop bothering us, okay?”

“He understood he was drawing upon two entirely different epistemologies, each appropriate to one of the hats he wore. “

I see yet another version of the Double Truth gimmick in the field of New Testament studies. The late, great Raymond E. Brown was above board about this. He admitted that there was inadequate basis for certainty on matters such as the virginal conception of Jesus. Purely as a historian, he had to admit that the story was improbable, a toss-up. But as a Roman Catholic priest, obedient to the doctrinal authority of the Church, he professed his faith that Jesus was indeed miraculously conceived without a human father. He understood he was drawing upon two entirely different epistemologies, each appropriate to one of the hats he wore. He did not try to pass off a leap of faith as a historical judgment.

Evangelical Protestants do not believe themselves duty-bound to any ecclesiastical party platform, but they do have their own version of the Double Truth model. Their a priori, controlling axiom is the authority of Scripture. This article of faith controls and dictates what they pretend are simple, honest historical judgments. As Tillich already had plenty of occasions to see, they could not admit, even to themselves, what they were really doing: apologetics on behalf of a stacked deck of theo-historical assertions. Van A. Harvey distinguishes the two hats between which the scholar must choose to don: the historian or the believer. Apologist William Lane Craig argues for the historical resurrection of Jesus based on a (contrived) presentation of the evidence as if a Buddhist, an atheist, and a Rastafarian should equally find it objectively compelling. Yet he admits that it will take the subjectively seductive influence of the Holy Ghost to bring one around to Craig’s “truth.” He’s just damn lucky that the gentle whisperings of the Paraclete just happen to come to the same conclusion as his so-impartial scholarly judgment.

It is a voluntaristic commitment to biblical inerrantism that controls the apologists’ “historical” judgments, what amounts to a second and superior source of historical information. I can only compare this Double Truth epistemology to that of Rudolph Steiner and Edgar Cayce, whose clairvoyant visions supplied them with “information” about Atlantis, Lemuria, and (of course!) the ministry of Jesus Christ “missing” from all historical records.

Perhaps the Double Truth duplicity is most sharply drawn from this angle. Are you open-endedly seeking the truth with no particular hoped-for outcome? Or are you pushing for a favored result? Are you prepared for ever-revisable, always tentative, only-provisional results, never reaching definitive certainty? Or will nothing less than a once-and-for-all verdict satisfy you? Your answers to these questions will reveal whether you are really a researcher or rather a mere apologist, a spin doctor with a conflict of interests.

            A double truth is no more the Truth than is a half-truth.

            So says Zarathustra.

The end is near cartoon.



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Super-Powered Squirts

Ever noticed how today’s cartoons and movies offer their viewers the spectacle of young kids as epic heroes? Personally, I find this trend highly annoying. I simply cannot take seriously the notion of a child or adolescent possessing the moxie and the skills or judgment to deal with and defeat veteran criminals and supernatural entities. I do realize these entertainments cater to the natural childhood fantasies of reenacting the exploits of superheroes, war heroes, cowboys, etc. That makes sense, or almost. I remember when we starry-eyed kids pretended to be the Lone Ranger or wore a bath towel as a cape (as even young Clark Kent does in a flashback scene in Man of Steel, a great moment!). But we were trying to emulate adult heroes from TV and comic books. We wanted to be Batman, not Robin. Even Robin wanted to be Batman, and in some stories he does grow up to replace his mentor.

As the great folklorist Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale) and mythographer Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) explained, hero myths seem to function as life maps for maturation, i.e., achieving maturation. The hero becomes a hero by virtue of overcoming challenges and, perhaps more importantly, setbacks in the course of his chosen mission. That mission may be to obtain the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the sword Excalibur, or the hand of the kidnapped princess. Taking it down a notch to something less overtly mythic, the quest may be to discover something, like the great Cassini photographs telling us more about the glorious planet Saturn, or finding the cure for some disease, or the recent decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript (which, darn it, did not turn out to be the Necronomicon!). Or inventing something to better the lot of mankind (like Clap-on lights or light-up sneakers).

Propp thought heroic quest myths had a more restricted scope, being all about the challenge facing a young suitor (the hero) overcoming the resistance of his beloved’s disapproving father (the villain) in order to “rescue” his bride from her dad’s household! Campbell would consider that simply one version of the Hero Myth, one of its many applications. Another would be the development of one’s talents and the public’s recognition and acclaim. Still another would be someone’s Buddha-like quest for spiritual enlightenment.

It is this archetypal dimension that gets lost in, for instance, The Never-Ending Story and the Harry Potter movies. (Life is too short for me ever to read the Harry Potter mega-novels, so I restrict my comments to the movies.) The moment Harry enters the picture, the first day of school, he is acclaimed by everyone to be a virtual Messiah of Magic, the Avatar of Sorcery. He doesn’t earn it. Why is he even wasting his time in school? (Besides, what happens with all these “wizards” when they graduate? Are they using their powers to change the TV channel without a remote? They sure aren’t magically stopping disease and war, that’s for sure. I guess their big benefit is making the big bucks for J.K. Rowling.) Take a look at Dr. Strange if you want to see a guy earn his cloak as the Sorcerer Supreme. He’s an adult, by the way.

And bespectacled Harry turns out to be pretty much nothing. Hermione and that frog-faced kid save his butt and do the fast thinking. The Disney Hercules cartoon, despite its awful trivializations, at least had the “from zero to hero” element, but Harry Potter remains an over-rated zero. And this is no accident. He reflects the “slave/herd morality” of our pathetic age. He is the epitome of all those kids who receive awards for just showing up. Excellence is downplayed, even discouraged, because it would make the many also-rans feel (justifiably!) bad. May I recommend the movie Harrison Bergeron (the one with Sean Aston and Christopher Plummer) for the perfect satire of this glorification of mediocrity.

These kid hero cartoons and movies short-circuit the process and the lesson of maturation. They would instill the false notion that any snot-nosed kid can already do the impossible. But they can do that only in the realm of childish daydreaming. And the result is that real achievement is removed from real life and restricted to the fantasy world of daydreaming. Why bother trying to translate the quest myth into real life by, say, becoming an Eagle Scout or joining the Marines? Or struggling to start your own business? Maybe it all boils down to economics and stultifying government policies.

Basic to the demands to raise the minimum wage even for burger-flipping fast food jobs is the assumption that working at Burper King or Roy Regurg or Substandardway will be a career. That is a pessimism born of a resignation to a stagnant economy, where real career jobs will never become available. Better look forward to getting that gold Hello Kitty watch when you retire from Walmart (wasn’t he the bad guy in the Harry Potter flicks?). And why should we resign ourselves to such a gloomy prospect? Because Socialist-leaning politicians expect and even seemingly desire a stagnant, shrinking economy because they figure an equality of penury is more to be desired than a system where it is possible to achieve wealth by merit, effort, and talent. It is the slave morality again. If you succeed because of superior drive and ability, that makes me feel inferior—because I am! And we can’t have that!

Similarly, these politicians and activists make it a goal to dial back American prosperity so we can stop feeling guilty for our affluence in a world of poverty. I believe that the chief motive force of Liberalism/Socialism is survivor guilt. Against this I will quote George Harrison: “I’m sorry that you’re underfed, but like you heard [I] said, ‘I’m not guilty.’”

So kid hero entertainments inculcate the lesson that dreams of glory must remain in dreamland.

But Capitalism has its share of the blame, too, for I am convinced that the glorification of super-powered squirts is one facet of the cynical scheme to redefine “youth” as an end in itself instead of a stage of growth toward the fruition of adulthood. Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom. But nowadays, advertisers and manufacturers have changed that. One reaches the prime of life as a young person, and after that it is all downhill. Don’t you see how awfully pathetic it is to look back on your high school years as the high point of your life?

“Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom.”

Treasure your memories, sure, but surely you must see the right thing to do is to get out there and make some new ones! Achieve! Dream and do! The flashy youth culture is the result of marketing. Advertising, as Alan Watts (in a rare moment of sobriety) said, is the Western version of maya, the pumped-out fog of illusory assumptions and transitory values. And nothing fades as fast as youth. “Grow [up] along with me. The best is yet to be.” It is if you make it so.

Heroes are made, not born.

So says Zarathustra.

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On Not Putting Away Childish Things

antique toy collection shadow boxI want to share some thoughts about the real importance of childhood as an ongoing source of integration and inspiration.

My title means to contradict the advice offered by 1 Corinthians 13:11 to let the past fall away like an obsolete cocoon. It’s as if your past is something you have to repent of. The closest I can get to that is what Jung says about the need to consolidate one’s Ego, then to move on to transcend it, as a kind of launch pad, to embark on the development into the Self. But what is it to “put away childish things”?

C.S. Lewis took it pretty literally. At a certain point, having graduated from school and getting ready for employment, “Jack” and his brother decided to gather up their once-prized childhood toys, stuff them into a metal box and bury them on the hillside in the countryside. Well, you will never catch me committing such a crime against myself. My childhood Teddy Bear sits atop the bedpost. My action figure collection has, over the years, expanded like the Blob. In fact everything I have ever loved has remained a part of me. Comic books, monster movies: it’s all there, like a sequence of tree rings. Put them away? Why? Why would I do that? They’ve made me what I am.

Okay, I’d have no reason to worry if I had never acquired wider interests, but I did. Early on, I developed a great interest in history, ancient and modern. I had always been fascinated with Greek and Norse mythology, and when I embraced fundamentalist Christianity at age 10, it was a natural progression along the same trajectory. It did not take long for me to realize this, when one afternoon, while taking a walk in the neighborhood, it occurred to me to ask how I knew that the biblical Jehovah was any more real than Zeus. It took me many years before I could accept that he wasn’t.

And after that, after I exited fundamentalism, I eventually figured I needed to reconcile myself to my rejected religious past. I couldn’t just cut off that part of myself. I needed to find a way to reincorporate it. I reached the point where I could recall with fondness the friendships and the good clean fun of those years. And of course I never dropped the Bible. Its fascination continued, more fervently than ever. My curiosity to understand the text had eventually led to my loss of religious faith. Only now I stopped calling my questions “doubts” and set about finding answers. I found them in biblical criticism.

And the more thoroughly I understood the Bible and Christianity as monuments of ancient mythology and religion, the more I found myself appreciating religious symbolism and rituals. I found that I loved these things all the more for not having to “believe” in them. Seems like a paradox, but it really isn’t.

Rene Guenon once said that “I” includes all my world of experience. Sounds right. I think of a scene in Star Trek IV when the touchy-feely Vulcan guru Sybok (Spock’s half-brother) offered to leech Kirk’s emotional pain from him. Kirk refused: “Dammit! I need my pain!”Your experiences are component parts of you, and it is dangerous to suppress or to amputate them.

What does “integrity” mean? In Seventies-speak, it’s “having it all together.” Like a Rubik’s Cube with all the pieces in correct alignment. If you want to have integrity, it’s not going to work if you pry out some of the pieces and toss them away.

heart vs. brain cartoonWhat particular function do your “childish things” have in the bigger picture? I recall quite clearly how, in my Junior High years, as I was reading the flood of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks featuring Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter, Bilbo, etc., I was keenly aware as it was happening that this reading was stretching and expanding my imagination. I could almost feel it! And in the decades that followed, I found that all this “sense of wonder” (an old and apt SF slogan) served me well. It installed a horizon of transcendence in my head that, I believe, forever prevented my ossifying into a mundane adult zombie, the danger Wordsworth described so well:

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.


Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. 

In a much-interpreted gospel passage we read that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child shall not enter it.” Who knows what the author meant? But what I see in it is that it takes the open eye of the child who is ready to see anything and who hopes reality is wider than what tired adults tell him it is. We need a more expansive world than the daily grind offers us, even if it is “only” the expanding cosmos inside our heads. This is a childish thing we need to retain. This is a childish thing that will keep us young in heart and mind and spirit. That way, the calendar notwithstanding, the real glory of youth will never expire.

So says Zarathustra.bob's childish things

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Planet Houston

seeking rescueHurricane Harvey has dominated news coverage the last few days (as I write), subsuming and flooding it just as it did Houston, reminding me of the scene in the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Kryptonian villain General Zod escapes the Phantom Zone and finds himself standing upon the surface of a lake. For a moment he seems to think he has emerged onto a planet covered entirely by water. He thinks it is “Planet Houston” (he says it “Who-stun”) because of a radio transmission he has overheard (or something). Now “Planet Houston” is indeed submerged beneath a watery surface, tragically, and its citizens are fleeing the flood like Kal-el from Krypton’s destruction. The amazing spectacle of volunteer rescue efforts lends the heavy doom cloud something of a silver lining: we needed a reminder that there is great good in the American people because the news is filled with the self-hatred of many whose patriotism has drowned in a deluge of survivor guilt.

General Zod walking on water

The other day I saw a Facebook post by an atheist pal of mine, observing that God appeared to be conspicuously absent from the rescue efforts. Can Christians possibly maintain their pretense that a loving God is in control of events? The Houston survivors owed their deliverance to their own and others’ heroic efforts, not to divine intervention. Of course, you can always say that God did intervene—through the actions of human beings. But that is weaseling. It is to demote God to a superfluous and redundant fifth-wheel pseudo-cause.

My friend concluded his comment with something like, “Does God care?” I could not resist adding my own quip: “God does care. It’s just that the results are the same as if he didn’t.” I hope readers caught on. My point is by no means a new one. Are you familiar with Antony Flew’s Parable of the Gardener? Here’s how it goes.

Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol it with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last, the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” (“Theology and Falsification,” 1950)

In the same way, how does a God whose “caring,” whose compassionate supervision of his creatures, is compatible with letting them drown like rats, differ from a God who is utterly indifferent to their plight? The point is not so much that the assertion of God’s caring is false. No, it’s worse than that: it’s meaningless. You’re not even making an assertion anymore.

Look at it this way: suppose you and a friend are in Houston and Harvey is wreaking havoc outside. You’re both looking out the front window. You say, “Wow! Look at that storm!”

hurricane harvey

Your friend replies, “Storm? What storm? I don’t see any storm out there!”

You stare at your friend in stunned disbelief. “Of course there’s a storm out there! What the hell is the matter with you? The rain! The wind! The uprooted trees flying through the air! The mobile homes ricocheting like ping pong balls!”

“Oh sure, I see all that stuff. But that doesn’t mean there’s a storm going on.”

“Please tell me, my friend, how is that not a storm?”

“It just isn’t, that’s all. Just because there are high winds, flooding, property damage, and people floating face down, that doesn’t mean it’s a storm.”

“Look pal, I don’t think you even know what the word ‘storm’ means!”

It occurs to you to open your dictionary to prove your point, but you notice that it’s floating away.

Or put the shoe on the other foot. The sky is clear, the sun shining. Children are romping outside without a care in the world. Neighbors are barbecuing. Your pal says, “Wow! That’s some damn storm out there, huh?”

You do a double take. “Huh? What storm? What are you talking about?”

Back and forth it goes, until your friend says, “I guess it’s just one of those storms that doesn’t get anybody wet and doesn’t damage any property! You know the kind I mean.”

Uh, no, I don’t. If you can’t specify something, anything, that would show your claim to be false, you’re saying your assertion is compatible with any and every state of affairs. And if it means everything, then it means nothing!

And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you say Hurricane Harvey doesn’t debunk the existence of Divine Providence. You’re not making any sense. You’re not even wrong! You’re just speaking in tongues. It might make you feel better, but that’s only because you don’t know what you’re saying!

If you did, you’d wake up and realize there’s no one to blame, that no one caused this, and that the only assistance you can hope for is that of your fellow human beings. If there’s any compassion in this world, on Planet Houston, that’s where you’ll find it.

So says Zarathustra.


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Hallucinating the Archetypes

Carol and I have frequently discussed the experiences of people (including one old friend) who have experimented with DMT and Ayahuasca. We also watch the Hulu series “The Path,” which depicts the vicissitudes of a sect whose founder received his revelations from “Mother Ayahuasca.” The central question, as I see it, is whether, as advocates maintain, the substance induces visions of an otherwise invisible realm that far transcends our mundane waking world. Or are they simply Technicolor fever dreams? I have long been inclined to think these visions are purely subjective.

But suppose they are not. Suppose they are veridical? This raises the same question familiar from the belief in divine prophecy: even if there are genuine prophecies from God, does that mean all claimed prophecies are the real thing? Of course not. The Bible tells us more than once to scrutinize prophecies, to see whether God sent them, or maybe evil spirits are responsible—or maybe just somebody’s overactive imagination. Scripture offers two basic criteria, neither of them very helpful.

First, if some ostensible revelation goes beyond, or against, established doctrine, then to hell with it (or, I guess, from hell with it). You see the problem with this: if a revelation must check out with what we already believe, it ain’t much of a revelation, is it? “If it’s new, it’s not true. If it’s true, it’s not new.” So it isn’t revelation, only reiteration. If a would-be prophet’s offered revelation is rebuffed, he will likely storm out and start a rival sect. It’s happened many, many times.

Second, if Carnak the Great ventures a prediction of future events, but nothing happens, then in retrospect we can dismiss the false prophet. In other words, too late for the prediction, even if true, to be taken seriously. I can just see Noah’s neighbors nervously looking at the massing storm clouds above, saying, “Gee, I guess maybe we shoulda listened to that guy!” Obviously, no one ever actually used this criterion. It is a fictitious device long after the fact in order to discredit the figureheads of rival factions.

Amanita muscaria painting from Scott Scheidly:So we must ask: how do you distinguish between a true glimpse of an alternative dimension from a mere drug hallucination? If there is a difference, that is. I think there is a way to reframe the dilemma. It arises from the claim/observation that these DMT trips are journeys of self-revelation, of deepening self-understanding. I have never used drugs and do not intend to, thank you, so I cannot attest to that. But I can’t help thinking of two old friends who claimed that taking LSD greatly improved their personalities. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t known these jerks before LSD. So I have to admit I’m skeptical and that, having no personal experience, I am approaching the question as an outsider trying to make sense of the phenomenon as positively as I can. Here goes.

Suppose that the DMT/Ayahuasca visions are subjective with no reference outside your head. Are they merely cheap thrills? No, there seems to be more to them than that. I repair, as I often do, to Carl Jung and his theory of the Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. (Not only does it appeal to me intellectually, but I have experienced dreams that make sense on Jungian terms and were both meaningful to me, interpreting what was happening to me at the time, and also apparently precognitive.)

Jung asked why certain basic images, mythemes, and symbols appear, independently, again and again the world over in myths, fairy tales, dreams, art, etc.  I mean, where there is no possible connection, no reasonable chance of borrowing or influence. For instance, there are pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic. Do we have to posit a lost continent of Atlantis, escapees from which carried blueprints for pyramids to Egypt and Mexico? Probably not. Surely the idea occurred to people in both hemispheres independently. The Archetype was latent in the Collective Unconscious, available to all. Nothing spooky, mind you: just the hardwiring of the human brain, analogous, say, to the language function.

Well, if Archetypes can manifest themselves in dreams and in math and in myths, they can obviously pop up in hallucinations, whether those hallucinations are the result of DMT, Schizophrenia, or the Muse. Why not? Let’s not commit the dreaded Genetic Fallacy! The medium is not the message. If the Archetypes are disclosed to you, it wouldn’t seem to matter much what you baited the hook with.

Why does it matter whether the Archetypes are unveiled from the intra-psychic depths? Jung posited that the Archetypes are the keys to activating the necessary process of Individuation.

It is the process of maturation whereby one first consolidates the Ego, full of self-will and self-confidence. At this point a person is rightly self-centered. Once it is formed, it can serve as the launching pad for the next stage of growth, to become the Self. Then the individual comes to transcend the Ego. One’s interests and sympathies broaden. The Ego was a central point; the Self is an ever-expanding circumference. In the end there comes to be no difference between one’s own concerns and those of humanity. Some people never manage to attain to an Ego, but most seem to. Far fewer ever climb the heights to Selfhood. Albert Schweitzer did. Some others. Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothea Dix. I guess the important thing is getting as far as you can. But how?

To use an analogy unavailable to Jung, I would compare the Archetypes to the icons on your computer screen. Each is anchored to a program. You want to open and use those programs, and to do that you have to click on the icon, right?  And to do that, you have to see the darn icon, right? Well, the Archetypes are the icons you need in order to access the “programs” hardwired into you, the stages of maturity you have the potential to achieve. Hence the important function of Archetypal symbols in art, myth, literature, etc. Deep calleth unto deep, for the artists dredged these symbols up from the gold mine of the Unconscious (the pre-imprinted brain structure) and scattered them along your path like breadcrumbs, or like Ariadne’s Thread. They are clues (a “GPS”) to your destination of Individuation.

But how do we click on those icons? One way is to cultivate consciousness of the Archetypes in religio-mythic symbols, in scripture, ecclesial architecture, and liturgy. But great art and music can have the same effect. Ritual participation and artistic creation are ways of “stepping into” the symbols.

I’m thinking that this is what is happening to those who cultivate “altered states” through the use of hallucinogens. And this way of looking at it makes our original question moot. In my opinion, DMT is not like the Zeta Beam transporting Adam Strange to the planet Rann. But you are going someplace. Remember the 60s song, “Journey to the Center of the Mind”? That was a drug song. “Come along if you dare!” I don’t dare. I don’t want to tinker with my brain. It seems to be working well enough as is. But I’m willing to grant that DMT psychonauts are penetrating the depths of their minds, encountering the Archetypes, rather as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I compare it to what Jung said about God, that he didn’t need to believe in God. As a modern Gnostic, Jung said he knew God existed. But where? Inside. In the Collective Unconscious, flanked by the Archangels, er, Archetypes. That’s the only relevant place God could be. Where else would you like “him” to be? Orbiting the earth like a satellite, causing rain storms and orchestrating plane crashes? That’s superstition.

One more comparison: I think that hallucinogenic revelations are kind of like Pentecostal speaking in tongues. Traditionally, Pentecostals have believed that the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to speak God’s praises in foreign languages they had never learned (whatever the point of that might be). But linguistic studies have made it plain that they are simply spouting gibberish (see William Samarin, They Speak with other Tongues). Pentecostals are threatened by such results (like Mormons disturbed at the DNA tests proving that American Indians have no Semitic genes and thus do not qualify as expatriate Israelites).

But they needn’t worry, because shortcuts to foreign language proficiency are hardly the point. Speaking in tongues is and always has been ecstatic speech and has been practiced throughout the centuries by various cultures. It is “speaking with the tongues of angels.” When glossolalic utterances are “interpreted,” it denotes not translation of foreign speech but rather divining the significance of an oracle or a dream.

It’s not an objective miracle, and it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it is an intra-psychic spiritual experience. Would the spontaneous ability to speak in an unfamiliar language even be a spiritual experience? Not just a weird parapsychological anomaly? The same applies, I think, to meaningful hallucinations. They’re “just” in your head. Which is the only relevant place for them to be.

So says Zarathustra.



RMP on Patreon

As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.

It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I  hope you will consider it! Many Thanks!  https://www.patreon.com/robertmprice

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More Than a Man

Source: http://newbuddhist.com/discussion/24778/bodhi-of-christIt must have been nearly two decades ago. I was a featured guest at a Horror/Fantasy conference in Georgia. It was barely organized, any scheduling left to spontaneous generation. Largely a waste of time. So I spent much of the weekend in my motel room reading Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And as I read, a peculiar realization dawned on me. I suddenly realized that it had fallen to me to be this generation’s Zarathustra (hence, of course, the title of this column). It would be my task to carry forward the work of Nietzsche and his fictional alter ego, bringing their insights to bear on today’s world, today’s issues. To proclaim the Death of God and what it means to us. To lay bare the nonsense that chokes our discourse, the stupidity and fustian that render futile contemporary discussion. To expose the chicanery of religion—and of atheism.

Megalomania? I’m not ashamed of it.

Batman BuddhaBut I do want to reflect on it. When discussing the coming of the Superman it is not surprising that one’s mind turns to superheroes, and to their movies. In Batman Begins we see Ras al Ghul training Bruce Wayne high in the Himalayas. He explains to his apprentice that, in order to accomplish his mission as a superhero he must “become more than a man,” hence the costumed persona with cape and cowl. The bat-suit is no mere exotic set of clothes. It is a kind of second skin denoting Bruce Wayne’s transformation, his transcendence of mere humanity, “more than a man.”

We see the same metamorphosis in another movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, in the scene when Steve Rogers has rescued hundreds of American POWs from the dungeons of the Red Skull. As he leads them, limping but victorious, into the American camp, his friend Bucky Barnes raises a cheer for the new hero: “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” Before this, the man had been Steve Rogers. But in this moment he has taken upon his broad shoulders the mantle of the mythic hero archetype. His costume and title denote he is henceforth something more than a man: a living incarnation of collective America.

It’s nothing new. Is Queen Elizabeth entitled to live in such opulence? As an individual, not necessarily. But she’s a living symbol of the majesty of the United Kingdom. The opulence, the majesty is not hers; it’s that of Great Britain. Maybe you don’t buy that. Maybe you’d prefer they did away with all that pomp(osity).  Make it like East Germany. I guess things just can’t be mundane enough for you. The People’s Republic of the Rainy Day. Well, as Bluto Blutarsky once said, “You can kiss my ass.” Or, I guess, the Queen’s ass. I don’t know which would be worse, actually.

To go from one great thinker to another, Carl Jung has helpful stuff to say on our subject. What I am talking about is what he calls “inflation of the archetype.” Our Unconscious is hardwired with a galaxy of images: numbers, geometric figures, mythic types, etc. These last include the Crone, the Axis Mundi, the Hero, the Wise Man, etc. Sometimes an individual comes to identify with one of these archetypes to the point where it defines him. The danger is that such an individual may become completely consumed, or subsumed, in the archetype, and then you have a nut who thinks he’s Napoleon.

Stephan A. Hoeller puts it well: “The worship of the archetypes implies their overevaluation, which frequently leads to the personality being possessed by an archetype. The ghastly apparition of spiritual pride soon rears its swollen head, and, instead of utilizing the power of the archetypes, individuals come to imagine that they have become a divine archetype themselves. [This] reduces the power of the gods to the level of the psychic caperings of fools and madmen.”  (The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, pp. 126-127).

C.G. Jung by Jerry Bacikiz

But you don’t have to go off the deep end. Jung once found himself assuming the persona of the second-century Gnostic teacher Basilides. In this exalted state he penned his Seven Sermons to the Dead. (I wonder if any students of Gnosticism actually count this writing among the works of Basilides? If so, it would be the only one extant, since all the others were destroyed by the Catholic Church’s Bomb Squad!)

Paul Tillich’s Christology would seem to fit Jung’s understanding. Tillich considered that Jesus “proves and confirms his character as the Christ in the sacrifice of himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ.” Jesus yielded himself up to the “Christ” archetype which already existed. (This, by the way, is the element of truth in C.S. Lewis’s essay, “Myth Became Fact,” where he admits there were pre-Christian myths of dying and rising savior gods but tries to co-opt them as hopeful yearnings of the human race for the Savior, Jesus, who should one day arrive to fulfill those “coming attractions.”

Jesus comes down from cross in a dreamWhat would it mean for Jesus to sacrifice that in him which was Jesus to that in him which was the Christ? Think of the sequence in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (or the Paul Schraeder/Martin Scorsese film version) in which Jesus (dreams that he) is taken down alive from the cross and lives out a full life as a conventional family man—until he snaps out of it and finds himself back on the cross. He has realized that opting for the life of an ordinary man would be to betray his unique destiny. So he traded his prerogative for his dharma. He traded his Jesus identity for his Christ identity. Thus did he become more than a man.

And, if I may pursue this one step more, allow me to suggest that Tillich is here presupposing his crucial distinction between a symbol and that to which it points (symbolizes). The symbol participates in what it points to, or it could not really symbolize it. It could only refer to it, like a crummy footnote. But if we equate the symbol with that which it points to, as Christians do with the Bible when they deem it the infallible Word of God, we thereby commit idolatry. Jesus could have made himself an idol in his own mind. He would have become like the self-deified Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim who executed all who refused to worship him. Or he’d have been like one of the poor souls in insane asylums who think they’re Jesus, like the guys in Milton Rokeach’s study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Theologically, this would have been Monophysitism, the heresy that the divine nature had completely swallowed up the human nature of Christ.

In his essay “The Writer on Holiday” Semiologist Roland Barthes discusses a magazine story about a famous author taking a vacation and points out the implicit significance of the magazine doting on the fact that this famous person does many of the same mundane things the rest of us poor mortals do. Why make a big deal if these things are mundane? Because the one doing them in this case is a celebrity, i.e., divine. It’s like Jesus being born in a manger. Wow! We marvel at the divine condescension to share the humble lot of mortals! You see, the mundane details only serve to magnify the greatness of the divine!

“Far from the details of his daily life bringing nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is the whole mythical singularity of his condition which the writer emphasizes by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pajamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience.” (Barthes, Mythologies, p. 31)

X-Men bathroom signBut it should work the other way, too. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is growing exasperated with his ditzy date’s gushing over the guru she has dragged him to see: “He’s God! I mean, this man is God!” To this Alvy replies, “There’s God coming outta the men’s room.” Well, stuff like that should constantly remind the one who feels himself bearing the mantle of the archetype that he is still a man, even if more, after all.

Stuttering John, one of Howard Stern’s flunkies, managed to get into a press conference given by the Dalai Lama. His shouted question: “How does it feel to be God?” You see, the Buddhist doctrine holds that he who occupies the position of the Dalai Lama is the earthly manifestation of the great Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who contains all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in himself. I’d say that’s pretty much God all right. So Stuttering John’s question was not an idle one. But His Holiness was ready for him: “I’m just a Buddhist monk.”  Huh? Was he rejecting the very doctrine of the religion for which he serves as a figurehead? No, you just have to remember what someone in the crowd in Monty Pythons Life of Brian (of Nazareth) yells out: “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!” Exactly.

Are you tempted to imagine you have a destiny, a mission or responsibility to do something which the run of mankind are not expected or expecting to do? I suggest you remember that destiny is not delusion. To keep straight the difference, you might try to keep in mind that you have this treasure in an earthen vessel. But you can become “more than a man,” whether it is a cape or a cross you are to bear.

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