The holy is not the gods. Humans have been told about thousands of different gods, for thousands of years, primarily to steer us into obedience of earthly powers, and to make us give up our searching.
The holy is not religion. Religions were designed to organize this obedience, to add layers and layers of fictional supports, to add so many layers our heads spin, so we give up our searching.
The holy is not empire, or nation, or nation-state. These things are formed to protect earthly power, with layers and layers of fictional supports, to make our heads spin, while they and their religions use the old gods and the new to make us obedient, so we give up our searching.
The holy is not money, or capitalism, or corporation. These things are used to power empire, or usurp it, to defend, expand or subsume it, so we remain in obedience to the old gods and the new, and stop our searching.
The holy is art, music, literature and philosophy, and whatever pushes us beyond all boundaries, so we stop obeying and go on searching.
The holy is song and the space between, the moment above the sunrise, the first step after, that we may cast out our sad, defeatist, settling natures and soar above them, and go on searching.
The holy is what makes children run from here to there, breathless with excitement, too excited to walk, much less stand still, because they seek freedom from obedience, and must go on searching.
The holy is the ground of love, because it gives us strength of heart, to go on and on, and moments of rest to prepare for journey, and new ways to look at horizons. It is both elixir and nourishment, sustenance and accelerant, and what searchers sometimes need to prevent walking blindly. For blindly searching is just a different kind of obedience, to another false god, and another. It is not freedom from. It is not the holy.
The truly divine thing is invention, creation, imagination. All religions were created by novelists and poets. That has been on my mind and under my thoughts for decades. It reached the surface again tonight, like the creative process itself. In a rush, a burst, a light coming on against nuanced black. We tell stories. Some of us make stories. Some repeat them. But novelists invent, poets invent. Song-writers invent. They take things from nature and their own lives and think again. They expand from kernels and images they can’t escape. They weave and add new people and make stories for them, too. A world. They build up a world and try to make it cohere.
All religions were created by human beings seeking to tell stories. All religions are beautiful fictions, attempts to get at truths, perhaps higher truths. But the only truths are here, now, on earth. We gaze beyond this planet and this life and wonder about the future when we’re dead. We invent a story for that, too, because we don’t want the novel to end. The song can’t die, the poem runs off the page but does not find completion.
No gods or goddesses exist beyond our own minds. Once invented, we threw them out into the air for all to see. But outside of us, outside of our minds, they don’t exist. Have never existed. And that’s beautiful, that we would do that, that we would make novels and poems and songs and paintings about things that never existed.
The brilliance of that enterprise, its incredible journey of success and domination, humbles me. That humans created god is something truly astonishing. That we built those creations into cities of scripture, nation-states of devotion, empires of scholarly exegesis, and worlds of worshipers, leaves me in wonder.
We are merely passing through, and we go to all of that trouble. Thousands and thousands of years of that endeavor. We pass this way just once, and we make sure we never forget our religious novels, our heavenly poetry. Based on something that does not exist in the same way as the page, like fictional characters in Hardy, Murakami, Austen, Camus. We create. The creation makes us divine. Makes us deities. The reception of those beautiful fictions makes us one with god. The reception is like sitting at the same table, eating the same food, drinking ambrosia with the heavenly hosts.
Few things have inspired humans as much as the invention of deities. Our music, our art, our literature, our philosophy have been infinitely enriched by that invention. Would it be wise to ever stop believing in fictions? Will they always be necessary? Nietzsche and Wallace Stevens and thousands of others have asked those questions and I have no new answers. But I want the inventions to go on and I want people to believe in themselves and each other enough to let the fictions go. A stage. A further step in our journey, our evolutionary process.
Realizing it’s all been a beautiful, incredibly brilliant invention, does not have to stop the show. We invented the deities as stepping stones, as ladders. Perhaps we don’t need them now. Perhaps we can pull that ladder up after ourselves and say our dignified last goodbyes.
Is there a moral order in the universe? If so, does it come from a god, or some other force? If there is a moral order, is it something we should try to align ourselves with?
I think about that a lot, when I walk outside, look at the stars, hike, swim in the sea, walk along the strand. I also think about that whenever I read about comparative religion, and wonder how people could deduce a moral order from ancient scripture, and sometimes I wish I could as well. That it would be good to have that kind of faith, even though the scriptures themselves, at least to me, are anything but moral.
They contain moments of wisdom, beauty, and poetry, but are offset by too much brutality ordered from above. I need a different kind of moral order than that, one that extends beyond the limitations of any one religion, encompasses all of them, all things, all beings, across all time and space. One that needs no special designation or special invitation. One that never tries to convert you with promises of eternal life or threats of eternal punishment. I can’t believe in anything short of that. Anything short of complete openness to the All.
There is something truly awe-inspiring about Nature, the way it’s ordered, the way things work so well together. Cycles. Circles. Flow. Not perfectly. If you think about a lot of the aspects of the various animals, plants, insects, and humans, you begin to see flaws, baffling elements, things that just don’t make any sense. But despite all of that, it somehow coheres. It somehow does what Ezra Pound said his Cantos failed to do.
I’ve never understood the concept of a god needing to be worshiped. Always thought that if there were such things, they wouldn’t really need that kind of personal reaffirmation. That they would be a bit beyond that sort of thing. The act of worship was always for humans, for their benefit. To make them feel like they were carrying on a dialogue of some sort. To make them feel they weren’t alone, that something, some omniscient being, had them in mind at all times. That said, I do think it makes sense to want to be one with whatever idea a person has of the divine, or the moral order, or the Way. I do think it makes sense for us to try to live our lives in such a way that we truly flow with Nature, in the same way that animals do, in the same way that trees bend in the wind. To use a very much overused metaphor: catching a wave, riding it all the way into the shore. Not fighting against anything. Making your mind and body conform to the wave and the power of the wave, its motion, its speed, its crossing of time and space.
Robert Wright, in his book, The Evolution of God, talks about our inability to really conceive of the ground of being, or god, or the divine, in any clear cut way:
It’s a bedrock idea of modern physics that, even if you define “ultimate reality” as the ultimate scientific reality—the most fundamental truths of physics—ultimate reality isn’t something you can clearly conceive.
Think of an electron, a little particle that spins around another little particle. Wrong! True, physicists sometimes find it useful to think of electrons as particles, but sometimes it’s more useful to think of them as waves. Conceiving of them as either is incomplete, yet conceiving of them as both is … well, inconceivable. (Try it!) And electrons are just the tip of the iceberg. In general, the quantum world—the world of subatomic reality—behaves in ways that don’t make sense to minds like ours. Various aspects of quantum physics evince the property that the late physicist Heinz Pagels called quantum weirdness.
The bad news for the religiously inclined, then, is that maybe they should abandon hope of figuring out what God is. (If we can’t conceive of an electron accurately, what are our chances of getting God right?) The good news is that the hopelessness of figuring out exactly what something is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Apparently some things are just inconceivable—and yet are things nonetheless.
Though he doesn’t talk about this in the book, his example of the electron got me to think about the way mystics sometimes achieve oneness with the ultimate reality. They contemplate paradox. They meditate on the seemingly impossible. They continue to meditate of those impossibilities, on a kind of harmony of opposites, long enough, with enough concentration, to move into another state of being altogether. It’s not a grunting and groaning concentration, though. That would destroy the moment. It’s yet another kind of riding the wave into the shore. And scientists, when they study the brainwaves of people doing this, see explosions, beautiful, wonderful explosions. Stars. A kind of internal moral order no doubt.
Wright’s book is picking up steam. He writes with compression, gets to the point quickly, after marshaling his facts and evidence. And the story he tells is enthralling. Polytheism, to monolatry to monotheism. Some of it I already knew. But much of it is new to me, based upon recent excavations and readings of better, more accurate translations of existing scripture. Wright’s gift is to put it all together in a very accessible, organized manner.
There is much evidence to suggest that Yahweh evolved from at least two Canaanite gods before him, El and Baal. There is also much evidence to suggest that political and economic changes on the ground led to his merger with these gods and then to supplanting them outright. And the Hebrew bible itself provides some clues, but very close reading is necessary to uncover them:
Consider this innocent-sounding verse from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy as rendered in the King James Version, published in 1611:
When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.
For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
This verse, though a bit obscure, seems to say that God—called the “Most High” in one place and “the Lord” in another—somehow divided the world’s people into groups and then took an especially proprietary interest in one group, Jacob’s. But this interpretation rests on the assumption that “Most High” and “the Lord” do both refer to Yahweh. Do they?
Wright is very good at close analysis like this. But he is sensitive enough to understand how this may upset certain people, and tells us to wait. Be patient. If you read the whole book, he says, you’ll see that it’s not his intention to undermine belief in a higher purpose, only to, perhaps, redirect it and strengthen it. He continues with his breakdown:
The second term—“the Lord”—definitely does; this is the Bible’s standard rendering of the original Hebrew Yhwh. But might “Most High”—Elyon—refer to [the Canaanite god] El? It’s possible; the two words appear together—El Elyon—more than two dozen times in the Bible. What moves this prospect from possible toward probable is the strange story behind another part of this verse: the phrase “children of Israel.”
The King James edition got this phrase from the “Masoretic Text,” a Hebrew edition of the Bible that took shape in the early Middle Ages, more than a millennium after Deuteronomy was written. Where the Masoretic Text—the earliest extant Hebrew Bible—got it is a mystery. The phrase isn’t found in either of the two much earlier versions of the verse now available: a Hebrew version in the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Greek version in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible.
Why would some editor have invented the phrase? Was something being covered up?
There is much evidence to suggest that religions across the globe and through time covered things up. Changed them to reflect new political and economic facts on the ground. Altered scripture. Kicked this book out, edited that one, or changed them just to protect and defend that religion:
Some scholars who have used the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to reconstruct the authentic version of the verse say that “children of Israel” was stuck in as a replacement for “sons of El.” With that lost phrase restored, a verse that was cryptic suddenly makes sense: El—the most high god, Elyon—divided the world’s people into ethnic groups and gave one group to each of his sons. And Yahweh, one of those sons, was given the people of Jacob. Apparently at this point in Israelite history (and there’s no telling how long ago this story originated) Yahweh isn’t God, but just a god—and a son of God, one among many.
So how does Yahweh rise through the ranks? How does a god initially consigned to a lower level of the pantheon eventually merge with the chief god, El, and even, in a sense, supplant him? …
Wright goes on to talk about Baal as well, to show the many similarities between Yahweh and the Canaanite god, and to suggest that Yahweh is a fusion, in a sense, of the two gods. Yahweh becomes more like El once he is secure in his status as the only one. Prior to that, he seems to act more like Baal, more like a storm god, not all knowing and all powerful. That evolution looks to be the central narrative of this study . . .
As for the Israelites. They were moving, with fits and starts, from polytheism to monolatry at this point in the narrative. Not full fledged monotheism yet. Because they admitted to the existence of other gods. Their more zealous leaders just hated the idea that any god but Yahweh would be the subject of worship.
About 100 pages into a fascinating new book, detailing the rise and fall of gods, goddesses, the religious impulse and its repercussions. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, is a general history, starting from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, moving into chiefdoms after the discovery of agriculture, onto city-states in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and through the advent of Levantine monolatry and monotheism. I’ve reach the foot of Mount Monolatry and fierce storms are taking shape.
Wright reminds us how much religion permeated every culture, from the dawn of human time to the present. All things were tied to the gods, especially early on in our evolution. The fate of your hunts, your harvests, your health, your personal fortunes and the fortunes of your tribe, chiefdom and city-state were inextricably linked to them. He shows how important facts on the ground — political, economic, general welfare — were when it came to the ascendancy of this god or that god. The quid pro quo nature of that. As in, if a person was seen to have access to a particular god, and good things were associated with that god, like strong harvests and victories in wars, then both the gatekeeper and the god could gain in stature. Multiply that by many factors when we reach city-states, and whole histories might be revised, destroyed, overcome.
So far, Wright is blazing the trail from polytheism to monotheism, but does not say that it’s a straight line. More like a zig zag. In Egypt, for example, monotheism lived for a brief time in the late 2nd millenium under Akhenaton, as he elevated Aten above all other gods. Mesopotamia came close with the god Marduk.
Wright frequently talks about the moral and ethical dimension in religions from around the world, and reminds us that it existed long before monotheism. Even in the very earliest societies, it was believed that the gods punished bad behavior, that if you did X, Y or Z, they might inflict terrible things on you, your family, your clan. Religious rites were primarily designed to prevent that, to push the gods into allowing good things to happen and prevent bad things. We have not changed much in that regard, even after thousands of years of religious evolution.
Back to the foot of the mountain. In a section of the book that might well stir up a lot of controversy, although it’s not controversial amongst scholars, Wright talks about new discoveries regarding Canaan and the origin of the Israelites:
. . . . If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.
There’s a problem, however, if you want to watch this story unfold. You can’t just start reading the first chapter of Genesis and plow forward, waiting for God to grow. The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written later than the second chapter of Genesis, by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly, over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not the order in which it now appears. Fortunately, biblical scholarship can in some cases give us a pretty good idea of which texts followed which. This knowledge of the order of composition is a kind of “decoder” that allows us to see a pattern in God’s growth that would otherwise be hidden.
Meanwhile, archaeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools. In the early twentieth century, a Syrian peasant plowed up remnants of an ancient Canaanite city called Ugarit. Scholars set about deciphering the Ugaritic language and combing the earth for Ugaritic texts. These texts, along with other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in recent decades, have allowed the assembly of something notably absent from the Hebrew scriptures: the story from the point of view of those Baal-worshipping Canaanites. And, over the past few decades, archaeology has brought another check on the story as told in the Bible. Excavations in the land of the Israelites have clarified their history, sometimes at the expense of the biblical story line.
When you put all this together—a reading of the Canaanite texts, a selective “decoding” of the biblical texts, and a new archaeological understanding of Israelite history—you get a whole new picture of the Abrahamic god. It’s a picture that, on the one hand, absolves Abrahamic monotheism of some of the gravest charges against it, yet on the other hand, challenges the standard basis of monotheistic faith. It’s a picture that renders the Abrahamic god in often unflattering terms, yet charts his maturation and offers hope for future growth. And certainly it’s a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church, or mosque.…
Wright’s book is heavily footnoted, comes with several appendices, and the deep research shows. I’m looking forward to discovering more of it and following the evolutionary road deeper into the desert, to the sea, and into the sun.
“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”
He was thinking about the heavens, the stars, galaxies, night. He said in another pensée:
“For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either.”
I imagine most of us have these feelings from time to time. The immensity of the universe dwarfing us, subduing us, making us feel more than alone. Devastatingly alone.
But the reverse can occur, as well as all of the points in between. As in, think about history, think about the billions of forms of expression from age to age, culture to culture, nation to nation. Think about the collective as well as the individual. Expression, art, words, thoughts, music. It teems. It’s electrified. The variance, the variety, the near cacophony of different sounds. Collected snowflakes of our diverse minds.
When one thinks about that, it is hard to feel . . . . well, alone in an immense, indifferent universe. Perhaps. So much has been said and done. So much history has unfolded.
Diversity. A common theme for me. I return and return to it. But is it a mask, a cover, a shield between us and something else? Perhaps things can be boiled down to a few essences. To just a few. Perhaps all of those beautiful and ugly masks, those screams of “look at me!!” . . . . are really nothing more than an attempt to find meaning. Meaning as in:
Why are we here?
Why am I here?
What is the meaning, the purpose of the universe, and my place within it?
Pretty much all of religion boils down to that, and a great deal of philosophy. Much art as well. Though with art you have that love thing thrown in. In various guises. How to describe it. How to deal with it. And how to get it, or get out of it.
William James said:
“All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods.”
He also said:
“Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”
Change is diverse as well. Often tedious and slow, like the movement of a glacier. Like the car in front of you on a one lane road. It’s also sometimes violent and brief. Violent, immediate and nearly irreversible. Like losing a friend or a loved one. Or picking up some terrible disease. But we do change. We have changes in zeitgeist, in ethos, nationally, culturally, individually. And in our own time, we tend to think changes happen more rapidly than in the past. This may be true, or not so true.
Feelings of alienation, of loneliness, of questioning “Why are we here?” typically skyrocket during times of upheaval. Religions come and go. Sects rise and fall. Pretenders to the throne become ancient monarchs and former revolutionaries attack the young for wanting to take down the establishment.
Looking at the broad sweep of things, it’s sometimes easy to think:
“This has happened before. Why do we keep doing the same things, expecting different outcomes?”
“How can we really believe that our way is the only way, when we know that dozens, hundreds, thousands of other ways have been tried and have worked across the centuries?”
“Why do we go to war against those who do not believe the way we believe, when our set of beliefs is merely a drop in the ocean of time, history, and multiplicity?”
Logically, embracing the all can save lives. It can heal. It can prevent or stop wars. But it’s often very difficult, and tough, and sometimes on the edge of the Impossible. That’s where faith should come in. I say should, because we seem to have more faith in the power of violence, and the violence of power, than in the power of peace and negotiation. Why do we choose faith in such a narrow, limited, sectarian, exclusive form, instead of embracing the all? All of it. Everything. Past, present, future. Vertical, horizontal.
Inevitably, we join it anyway. We have no choice. But while we humans live, while we exist in the now, we love stubbornness. It’s almost a religion in itself . . . .
From where I sit. From where you sit. It’s all relative. You’re deluded. No, you are. I think you both are. In The Great Weaver of Kashmir, the young Halldór Laxness, a future Nobel Prize winner, gives us ample opportunity as readers to judge much concerning delusions and illusions. The novel is ambiguous enough to provide plenty of room, and our weighing and balancing of the various options will have much to do with our own predilections.
Picking up where I left off a few days ago, our hero (or anti-hero), Steinn Elliði, was searching for a way to attain perfection. Thinking he found it in a monastery, he started the process of becoming a monk. The last 130 odd pages take him in a few more directions before he apparently decides his course. Violent, obsessive, bizarre directions that befuddle family and friends. But I won’t spoil the ending by revealing that course . . .
Laxness is excellent in creating parallel stories that appear to go on while we see nothing of them. They have a life of their own. We feel their continuity, even though they are off stage. The most important ongoing story is back in Iceland, with Diljá, who has loved Steinn since childhood. There is a powerful denouement between the childhood friends that surprised this reader and helped make the novel. It also made this reader think a great deal about protestations of faith, of truth, of the relativity of misunderstandings. Sometimes, it may well be that others know us better — at least in certain areas — than we know ourselves. And when we protest that others are under this or that illusion about who we really are, perhaps we are under an illusion they see through.
When it comes to “higher truths”, the chances that we delude ourselves often increase. The higher we fly, the further we can sometimes separate ourselves from reality. Not just the reality outside of ourselves, on the ground, among friends, work, family, country, home. But the reality of our own unique temperament, personality, and genuine desires. What fits. What is right for us in reality. What is real.
The person doing the flying will often see those who question that flight as lost and deluded. Clueless. Unable to see the higher realities and real person who soars. He or she may or may not be correct. Assumptions work both ways, many ways, in many directions. But in the world of this novel, while ambiguous, I could not help but think that Diljá was on to something, and Steinn refused to listen. The results were tragic.
Sometimes, the person soaring soars for great reasons, and should never let anyone talk them down. “Reality” in that case can be the real illusion. We want our artists to fly and ignore the suburban rantings trying to drag them back into the pen of the everyday. We want them to be visionary, to flow with their visions beyond the last step created, and create more, on and on and on. Creation being the key. But if their trip is one of self-denial, massive, crippling self-denial, then all too often that is not creative, but destructive.
Admittedly, my relative perspective comes into play here. As I see it. As I analyze the scenario. There are thousands of Steinns who may see their self-denial, their self-abnegation, their negation of their worldly self as the ultimate creative act. Something, in fact, quite holy. Or, they may be running from something, seeking escape, seeking a shield between who they really are and what they can become through the process of burning away the self.
Steinn Elliði seems to be one of the least “monkish” characters in modern literature. His volcanic personna, his caustic wit, his towering belief in his own superiority, and his surrealist poetic inventions, all point to someone who is at odds with the very idea of quiet contemplation and the world of the monastery. Yes, stranger things have happened. Augustine was a wild, rebellious youth before becoming a devoutly pious man. But the 20th century was not the same as the 4th. Steinn had more choices. And more temptations.
The illusion and illusions of youth. Choices made. Consequences. Regrets. Some might say, it was fate. Relativity crushes fate with mad laughter . . .