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The Center is Everywhere

The Center is Everywhere

Three Musicians, by Pablo Picasso. 1921

Having just finished another Bart Ehrman book, Jesus, Interrupted, I can’t help but ponder the human need to remain in the distant past. The human need to remake that past to fit the present. Square pegs and all of that. The round hole of now. The miserably archaic square peg of then. This need is both puzzling and understandable, given how difficult and complex life is in the present, in our modern world. Understandable, in that because of those difficulties and complexities, people want to hold on to (their perception of) simpler times, more basic constructions and instructions, a binary system or two or three. Puzzling because of the incommensurability of that simpler time and those binary systems with today’s multiplicities. Yes, ancient ways can bring us calm and a sense of foundational relief. But effectively and pragmatically speaking, they provide zero clues when it comes to making our way through this maze of the modern.

But the bigger surprise for me has always been this. Why choose a religion so steeped in narrow selectivity, obvious discrimination and exclusivity, tailored for a new elite? The Chosen. The Elect. Especially when this goes against so many of the actual words of its namesake. The world is so small today. Billions of people don’t hold to the beliefs we do. We know this now. We see this every day. There are no more excuses. No islands anymore. Why pick any religion (or interpretation of that religion) that is closed off to so much of the world? Why choose any belief system that relies so heavily on the chosen and the damned?

To me, religion is virtually worthless if it does not promote peace, harmony, love and better understanding across the globe. Now. Here. If it is centered on the single one, on the personal, on the individual’s personal salvation, it does the world no good. Here. Now. If it is centered on an after-life for that single individual, an after-life that non-believers can never share, it does less than no good. It does actual harm. It separates and segregates us and walls us off from one another, literally and metaphorically. As I mentioned briefly in my post, The Seeds of Labor, we haven’t yet created the political/economic system that reduces the vertical. We haven’t created a system yet that reduces hierarchies and promotes horizontal play and exchange. That is true when it comes to organized religion as well. Though some Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism come close. They come closer . . .

Erhman’s book is good, though too 101 for me. He does not go into enough details or depth, but does provoke thought. My thoughts keep coming back to this. What is the purpose of organized religion? Do Western, monotheistic religions promote greater horizontal exchange between human beings? Do they promote peace and harmony and love (thy neighbor)? What are the tenets within those organized religions that actually do the opposite and why?

I am fascinated by the idea of the holy. I have always been thus. Fascinated by the numinous, the mysterious, the surreal. That which glows without light and withholds meaning until. Temps us to keep searching for it. But the sacred and the holy involve critical thinking as well. To discover them involves concentration and the willingness to throw off ancient strictures, dogma, orthodoxies. We can not get there if we just receive hand-me-downs. We can not really see through the veil if we aren’t willing to go further than any book ever written. The paradox of belief is just that. There is no resting place on the way, on the road to find out.


No Time to Wait: The Secrets

No Time to Wait: The Secrets

Another aspect of The Secrets is generational conflict and resolution. This is most obvious in the battle between Naomi and her father, Rabbi Hess. Not only does her father see Naomi as rash in her desire to break with tradition and forgo the arranged marriage, he also feels she does not understand his role within the family, or the true role of his departed wife. Naomi says very little about her mother, but makes a powerful insinuation that Rabbi Hess treated her badly and caused her great pain. We don’t know how she died, but it’s clear from Naomi’s comment about her weeping in the kitchen that she was not happy. Rabbi Hess appeared not to know this. The extension of roles moves beyond family barriers and extends far into the ultra-orthodox world. Avi Nesher makes the rabbi more complex, and a bit more sympathetic, by portraying him as at least willing to teach his daughter and let her go to seminary. He is not completely opposed to his brilliant daughter’s dreams. But he has his limits. Perfectly reasonable from his point of view. Not so much from Naomi’s.

Another conflict flares briefly between Naomi and the headmistress of the seminary. While a feminist in her own right — she hopes to educate the first female orthodox rabbis — she fails to fight patriarchal pressures and defend Naomi and Michel. Naomi sees that as cowardice. The headmistress sees that as strategy. She has the long view, being older. Naomi wants progress now, everything depends upon it. She’s young. It’s understandable. In a sense, her future depends upon it, and there’s probably much more of it ahead of her than behind her. It’s doubtful the headmistress sees her own future in that light.

A third generational conflict has a twist. Naomi and Michel, the young students, teach Anouk, the much older woman, to cleanse her past, to find peace, to heal. Roles are reversed and reversed again, as Anouk sees the two young students as daughters, as teachers, as guides through the waters of self-forgiveness. Naomi no longer has a mother of her own, and Michel seems detached from her own family. Anouk is both daughter and mother, test case and wounded patient. Circling back . . .


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Time. The sense of time as we age. The sense of how important some things are for the present, now. Even if they can be postponed, or should be, or if they need careful attention instead and can’t be rushed. So often the young are in a hurry, and don’t understand the slowness of earlier generations. So often those earlier generations don’t understand why the young won’t slow down, smell the roses, dwell. Stay. Thinking about the generational conflicts in The Secrets made me think about a truly brilliant song by Cat Stevens, Father and Son. So basic, so simple on the surface, but evocative of an ancient dynamic outside of time . . .




Tony Jones: Pizza Space

Tony Jones: Pizza Space

[Guest blogger du jour Tony Jones]

Master Po and Kwai Chang Caine

What’s the mystique about mysticism? (Or is the question itself just a misleading fork in the road, excluded middle term, dun leaves dead on a worm-ridden tree, as in “not seeing the forest for the … ”, regarding spirituality).

When I watched Kung Fu as a young child, then as now I was entranced by the mixture of action and the ambiance of a kind of deep inner peace that drove it. I think I missed the master-pupil “grasshopper” dynamic, but I was only two or three years old. But then again, I have never really been content with the notion of master and pupil, either in being a student, or in being a teacher. Of course, then I had absolutely no idea what the show was about on an intellectual level and would not have begun to be able to articulate it until late in high school, possibly. There was a kind of scary and alluring negative space about it for me.

Bizarre side note on “Pizza Space.” One of the kid shows I watched had a recurring film segment about a man making pizza crust from scratch. As he tossed it into the air in slow motion, and the crust sort of percolated and flapped around in space, it seemed to me that it actually left the room and hung in the void for a while, and then returned. This was only an optical illusion created by the camera angle, and probably not one intended by the film-makers. But “Pizza Space” — which I did not name until a couple years ago — then existed for me as an archetype of the creative void, the emptiness in which artistic craft occurs, possibly ex nihilo. (In fact, I think now, never ex nihilo, because there is always some antecedent, but that has not always been my thinking on the subject…)

I find myself also thinking about religion in general in parallel to mysticism. They are not identical, but they always inform one another. Even those who pursue mystical experience from a secularist perspective — or materialistic, empiricist angle — are to some degree relying on the insights of those operating from within a religious tradition. (Even to use the term “mysticism” is to repeat a meme that originates within religions.)

Where does art fit in? For many of us, artistic experience is our primary engagement and appropriation of the numinous. And perhaps, in many instances, where the numinous grabs us. (To be “raptured” after all, does not always imply literal translation of the body into heaven … to be “caught up” is maybe not the province of just one spiritual tradition.)

Why did I in two instances above reach back into childhood to lay hold of some dimension of mystical experience? Is it because the impact of the numen in my life then was more intense because of my developmental stage, and because less crowded out by other concerns in life? Is this related to what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God”?

Just ramblings late at night as my stomach rumbles unquiet at the thought of a long work week, and my cat paws my leg for attention. Not unlike the numinous, either in the cat’s paw, or the work week, or the indigestion.

Practical Ecstasy

Practical Ecstasy

Whirling Dervishes, Istanbul. Photo by Lohen11

Recent events have me thinking yet again about ecstasy, mind, spirit and the power of suggestion and belief. The laying on of hands by Pentecostals. The ecstatic motions of Sufis. The chanting OMs of Hindus and Buddhists. The trance-states of shamans, west, east, south and north.

The universal appearance of X proves that X is not uniquely the province of any one region, culture, or religion. By definition. As in, if there are instances of peanut butter all over the world, then no one religion can claim ownership of peanut butter or its source. No one religion can logically claim they hold the only key to the peanut butter cabinet, when members of dozens of religions have access.

To take this sticky metaphor a bit further. Each case of peanut butter appearance has a story regarding the origin of that peanut butter. Many will pull resources and agree to the same origin, but across the world there will be hundreds of those origins. Same thing. Peanut butter. Hundreds of origins for that same thing.

The chances that they are all right about their interpretations of origins is minuscule. But the chance that only one interpretation out of hundreds is right is less than zero. The sheer multiplicity of origin stories all but negates the possibility of one being right and all of the rest being wrong. The sheer multiplicity of authentically striving adepts from dozens of religions, each looking for peanut butter, negates the extremely narrow view that only one holds the key to the origin of the cabinet.

The origin of the cabinet and the origin of the peanut butter. Organized religions want you to go through them to get to their particular cabinet. They don’t want you to go to the store and find the peanut butter for yourself. They also don’t want you to notice that people all around the world have their cabinets too, and their access to that peanut butter, and their own names for the cabinet, the peanut butter, and the source of both. That would, of course, confuse people and perhaps push them toward removing the middle men.

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A subject for a later day: What is happening when people feel the ecstasy, peace, serenity, or blast coming from a religious (or poetic, artistic, musical) experience? Is it the merger of the conscious and subconscious minds? Is it truly a meeting with a divine being or force? Is it the meeting of humans and just one divine source, with just one name and one story?

Is it all in our heads, or is there some outside force involved?

For me, the universality of the experience rules out the possibility that any one religion is right and all others are wrong. I see that as physically and logically impossible. My questions then are mostly reduced to two possibilities.

(Of course, my questions are virtually endless, but these two are essential)

1. Is this experience simply the result of the power of suggestion, belief, or faith in something beyond us that actually does not exist . . . which causes, in some cases, for some people, a powerful physiological alteration?

2. Is there a divine force that works on those willing to believe, practice, strive for at-one-ness, but that makes no distinction based upon region, culture, or religion? As in, a divine being or force that couldn’t possibly care less about what it is called or the stories humans have developed about it in pursuit of explanation and understanding?

Again, to be continued . . . .


The Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

The Expulsion From Eden, by Thomas Cole. 1828

Philip Pullman’s usage of the myth of Adam and Eve had me revisiting the metaphors, symbols, and scenarios in that ancient garden. While there are many different interpretations of the myth, and a wide range of disagreements between Jewish and Christian exegesis, I thought Pullman was really onto something fundamentally important.

Contrary to much of the received wisdom about that story, Adam and Eve did the right thing. They sought knowledge. In effect, consciousness. Had they stayed in the garden, they would have remained unfree, ignorant, and stunted. The god of the story wanted them that way, apparently. Much of Pullman’s trilogy builds from that metaphor — keeping humans in the dark about the world. The Magisterium is, in effect, the earthly representative of that view. Keep humans in the dark as much as possible. Keep them blissfully ignorant, and all will be well.

Keep them like sheep.

We humans may well be the only species capable of sensing our own mortality. In a sense, the Adam and Eve of myth are not fully human until they both eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They become human after the fog is lifted. They know death. They know they will die. In a way, the story is about human evolution itself, which is all the more ironic in light of current and past battles between creationists and those who believe in the science of evolution. I read the story as a metaphor for human evolution, for an awakening into the reality of the human condition with its complexity, struggle and pain. Implicit in the story of the fall is a critique of religious dogma, a warning against the blind acceptance of authority, the consequences of ignorance. Though it is not readily apparent . . .

The serpent was Socrates before Socrates existed. He was actually the far better choice for mentor for the first humans. Rather than tempting them into sin, he was tempting them into consciousness. An unexamined life is not worth living!

The severity of the punishment is also an indication of the rightness, even the righteousness of the decision to eat the apple, or the grape, or the pomegranate. Not only does the god of Genesis kick them out of the garden, he also makes claims after the fact that were facts to begin with: death and immense pain during childbirth. He also warned them that they would die immediately upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Luckily for Yahweh, there was no way for Adam and Eve to know that those claims were false, that Yahweh was bluffing. They had never experienced death, and Eve was not yet with child, and they knew of no one else in similar straits. In effect, the god of Genesis punished them with reality, and couldn’t follow through on his original threat.

Of course, some might argue that death and sin and evil and the like were brought into the world as a result of their disobedience. This has some similarities with the Greek Myth of Pandora. If Adam and Eve had not disobeyed their god, they never would have died. They would have lived forever. My answer to that is, of course, that such a thing is impossible. Before, during and after the events depicted in Genesis, it was always impossible to live forever. It was always impossible for a woman to give birth without pain. Which means, again, the god of Genesis merely threatened the first two human beings with reality. And, if eating from the Tree of Life granted them immortality, and they were banned from doing so by Yahweh, death was on the menu for them whether they stayed in the garden or escaped.

As I see it, the story can only be useful or instructive if it is seen as a story, not as literally true. If we try to see it as literally true, the events depicted are so obviously impossible, that they defeat the purpose or any chance at instruction. So, we’re left with interpretations of myth, allegory, metaphor and the like. In the simplest terms, is it a story warning us against disobedience, or against blind acceptance of authority? For this rebel without a cause, the latter is the way to go.


The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass

Reading three books at once right now. Multi-tasking in a sense. But concentrating mostly on just one: Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Still reading Doctor Zhivago, and Zamyatin’s We, but am having a great time with Pullman’s book. Enjoyed the movie as well.

Outside of the Potter books, I’ve read no other kids’ books since I was a kid. This current reading is a serious departure for me. But I think I’ve discovered something very interesting in the process. Something about the way books are written in general, and for their respective audiences in particular.

Books for kids are more visual, descriptive, and are driven more by the visual and the descriptive. As in, the plot is moved by those descriptions. There is also greater control over time and space. Meaning, they don’t waste much time trying to create gaps and irony and meta-commentary, nor do they circle back on themselves very often. They don’t talk about the act of writing. They don’t ponder the act itself. They stick with the plot and let the action and descriptions move the book forward, ever forward.

It’s not about vocabulary, either. That’s not really a dividing line. Philip Pullman employs a wide range of words to create his alternative world. Everybit as wide as Hemingway or Fitzgerald. If there is some sort of scoring for “grade level”, I doubt The Golden Compass would fall below A Farewell to Arms or Tender is the Night. At least when it comes to the difficulty of word choice.

I think the difference is in description and the lack of gaps. Clear, concise descriptions, with little wasted space, and very little irony. Meaning and symbolism and allegory tend not to fall between the cracks, lie underneath the sentences, or exist in the silence between them. Books for kids are more WYSIWYG. Wiziwigish. What you see is what you get. This is possibly why they are such naturals for conversion to movies. As I read The Golden Compass, I can see the movie. I want to read the next two books in the trilogy before the movies come out, and reverse the process . . . Pullman’s answer, perhaps, to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

Lewis died in 1963. The Golden Compass (AKA: Northern Lights) came out in 1995. Would have been a tremendous thing to see both writers face off.


Caveats East and West

Caveats East and West

Battle of Quatre Bras, by James B. Wollen

My musings on dualisms come with many qualifications and the usual hemming and hawing. But, I’m going to skip past most of that and push on, despite the obvious flaws in any kind of capsulism.

Was thinking about the difference between layers in society and culture. That there has been, over time, a difference between the top and the bottom–and later the middle–across time, across cultures is too obvious to require elaboration at the moment. But there are differences as well between East and West, when it comes to those differences, which is far less obvious.

Conflict and Harmony. Of course, you had plenty of conflict in the East through the centuries. You had kingdoms, wars, empires, invasions, occupations, forced expulsions and so on, just as in the West. To form a kingdom or an empire means you had massive bloodshed along the way. No way around that. They don’t just pop up out of nowhere with everyone singing songs of joy around the campfire. Tyrants, oppression, slavery, forced labor, exploitation–all of that happened and happens around the world. Man’s inhumanity to man knows no geographical boundaries. But I think where you get some salient divergences between geographies is in how the average Joe or Wei reacts to the powers that be and why.

To boil it all down, I think in the West, especially in the United States, there is a sense that the people can be every bit as contentious and bellicose as our supposed leaders. In fact, I think they sometimes take their que from them. In much of the East, there is much more of a sense that the average person must play his or her role in society, and that is governed by ancient stories, traditions, philosophies and religions that mostly tell a story of harmony as eventual goal. So the dualities of war and peace, harmony and conflict tend to be more stark when comparing average people, rather than leaders, kings, queens, warlords and emperors across geographical zones.

Why are there vast differences? What is it about the stories we tell within cultures that help us become more or less like those who supposedly lead us? What is it about the various religions that seem to steer people toward mimicing the rules of heaven on earth, or something quite different?

Some scholars believe that we (in the West) are the sons and daughters of two main cultural tributaries: Hebraism and Hellenism. If we consider biblical stories of the formation of the nation of Israel, along with Homer’s Iliad, we get a mix of simple people and prophets waging war at the bequest of Yahweh, and not so simple people waging war right along side gods and goddesses. Conflict and strife seem to be called for by the heavens. It’s hard to find peace and harmony as eventual goals in either tradition. Even the End Times in Christian theology call for Armageddon and massive slaughter on a surreal scale. Our traditions seem to tell us you can not hope to find peace without first going through enough bloody battles to get there.

That has always puzzled me. Find peace through war? Hmmm. Why not just skip the war and find peace anyway?

Have read some very interesting books in the past about commonalities across the globe. Rudolf Otto’s Mysticism east and west, for example, was especially fascinating. A comparison between the German theologian Meister Eckhart and the Indian philosopher Sankara. But have not bumped into anything that really deals with the above. With the roots of why we appear to go in different directions at some level regarding peace and war as goals. If anyone has any suggestions for further study, please leave a comment or two or three.


Dualisms East and West . . . .

Dualisms East and West . . . .

Taijitu. Sun and Moon. Yin and Yang.

My title is a teaser. I am for it and against it. Meaning, this post is too short to fully develop the differences between cultures, or to explore the fact that many of those differences that were are no longer. Sad to say.

That said, Tony Jones offers a very concise and thought-provoking essay on the subject of various dualismsbelow. He, too, slimmed it down for the purposes of opening up discussion, rather than trying to close something that can’t be closed. It’s advice grounded in careful thought, centuries of thought, and is worth considering on a personal as well as national level.

I can say, however, that in general the dualisms employed by East and West tend to mean vastly different things. In general. Eastern duality tends to be about balance between this and that, harmony between that and this, not conflict. The West tends to see those dualities as engaged in battle, conflict, war. Obviously, there were and are exceptions within each culture. There are subcultures and sub-sub cultures which do not share in general trends, ideologies or philosophies. There are countless individuals who seem to fall outside all of these groupings. But if we pull from disparate groups and group disparate groups, we can find tendencies, cultural mores, rules, even. We can guestimate and tabulate.

Personally, I much prefer the Eastern sense of duality, and I sometimes wonder why anyone would choose another Way. Balance, Harmony, riding the wave with your body, at one with the ocean’s rhythm, at one with the sun and the moon. Life truly is far too short to burn it up in a conflagration that just doesn’t have to be. And when we study history, we quickly find out just how many wars never had to be. We are in one right now. And isn’t it the height of insanity to start unnecessary wars? Isn’t that the most criminally demented of all ventures?

I recently talked about a book here, The Judgment of Paris. In that excellent study and in Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France, I was reminded about the insanity of the Franco-Prussian War. How it was started after little more than the perception of a slight between diplomats, escalated from that point into full-fledged catastrophe for France and for all of those who died on both sides. The invasion and occupation of France then led to a crackdown by the new government and the slaughter of thousands of fellow French citizens in Paris, the communards, soon after. Pure madness. Unadulterated madness.

Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

Ironically enough, the dualities discussed above form their own meta-duality. As in, to be most annoying, the duality of dualities between East and West. But, and here is where it gets really tricky: they don’t really mesh very well as dualities. In a sense, the Eastern Way is that opposites cancel each other out. That is the goal. An Eastern adept is actually striving for that. In fact, one way of gaining enlightenment is to contemplate a series of opposites to the exclusion of everything else until the light dawns, the ocean roars, the moon falls from the sky and the master hits you with a bamboo stick on the head.

All you have in your mind at that moment is the at-one-ment of all opposites. The No-Spot for everything, where everything and nothing meet. Where all dualism dies and everything is everything. One. Just one.

Now, when I think of the idea of Western dualism . . . that opposites must fight each other, must be in eternal conflict, I really can’t see that as being diametrically opposed to the idea that All is One. As in, I don’t see West and East having competing dualisms of an opposite nature. To stretch a movie metaphor to the point of breaking some strings, dueling dualisms . . .

I then have to ask myself: “Self, what is the opposite of All is One?”

And I’d have to answer: “That’s easy. One are Many.”

But the answer would not necessitate that the Many would be in conflict with one another. That shouldn’t be a given, if we just think in terms of opposites. Unless we abide by Hobbes and his war of All against All.

So where does that leave us?

Perhaps with Spinoza. He did much to fight dualisms, especially Cartesian dualisms. Which, in a sense, in yet another annoying way, gave some of them momentary life. But ultimately, he might have been a bridge between West and East. As was Meister Eckhardt. And much later, Hermann Hesse . . .

“God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists”


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