In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.
This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.
If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.
If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.
Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.
To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.
Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.
The Promised Land, and its malcontents.
In the story of Moses, the aging Moses needs water for his people. Jehovah tells Moses to speak to a rock, but Moses strikes the rock twice. Jehovah lets the water flow, so the Jews can drink, but the cost is that Moses can’t enter the Promised Land.
This story is a cliché now, but I think we use it wrongly. It’s not about authority punishing misbehavior, but about the failure to change.
When the Jews are enslaved, anger and rebellion free them, at a horrible cost. One wonders if Jehovah, who created the Egyptians too, actually chose the angel of death. Maybe Jehovah just let Moses into the divine armory, to choose whatever weapon he thought best – and at the time, “by any means necessary” was enough justification for Jehovah to accept his choice.
Forty years later, not so much. For the independent Jewish people, forced by their years in the wilderness to survive on their own, now ready to build a new land, rebellion risks their new social order. Moses’s anger and rebellion have no place here. They are no longer liberating, only destructive, for there is no longer an other to escape, to destroy. This is not to say that the Jews will never need rebellion, but as the story of David later shows, it will never again be an unalloyed good.
I am an angry person. Continue reading →
Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.
Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.
It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.
Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education. Continue reading →
I have yet to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and honestly I will probably wait for it to come to my living room — not that I wouldn’t love to see it larger, but we parents only get so many nights out. But I have seen all Aronofsky’s other movies and enjoyed them, maddening though they sometimes are. I think he is a fine and adventurous filmmaker, and I am also glad to see a Biblical movie with drama, instead of the plodding pace and dull visuals of a dramatic re-enactment from a true-crime show. I’m looking forward to it.
Alas, Noah is clearly pundit-bait, a chance for people to flog their dead horses again. The simple fact of the source material made Bill Maher’s mind up for him — a close-mindedness that disappoints me, since I can’t see him complaining about a film of the Odyssey replete with similar creatures and witches. Meanwhile, right-wing commentators like Glenn Beck don’t much care for a vegetarian Noah in the mold of Abel – but those who say Aronofsky’s vision is less faithful than Cecil B. DeMille’s might reread their Bibles.
Since everyone has their own soapbox, let me spend a brief moment on mine: just to ask Aronofsky’s, or anyone’s, audience to engage works of art on their own terms, to seek not an exact retelling or to have a bias confirmed, but for the chance to be surprised.
Of course, one might be disappointed, even angry. But it’s easier not to be, if one goes in with an open mind, instead of a checklist.
So Jesus might have been married.
Whoop-de-do. Son of a God who never picked a female prophet; who never chose a female disciple; who didn’t seem to think it a big deal to have his feet anointed by a woman’s hair — would have made a difference if he were married?
Maybe it would have. Maybe it did. Jesus was already challenging local religious authority, and materialism too. Maybe he was an activist for gender equality; in a religious tradition where only two sacred texts were named after women (and shy retiring ones at that — assassin Judith only got brought in by early Christians), he wouldn’t have had to go very far to be one.
I am neither historian nor religious scholar, but the Abrahamic religious traditions are so monolithically patriarchal that it beggars belief, save as the result of millennia of censorship so active and complete it would even impress North Koreans. Apocryphal gospels — ones not included in the Bible — make Mary Magdalene much more of a player; there is even a Gospel of Mary. In the canonical Gospels, Mary Magdalene is less important than the love interest in most action movies — and even then, Pope Gregory still went out of his way to label her a whore, six centuries after the fact.
Either women are completely useless in the realm of the spiritual — and, really, how likely is that? — or they were made so by leaders threatened by their power. I don’t mean their feminine wiles either — I mean the inherent differences between the genders in matters of thought and spirit, which have their roots in biology but have their expression in life. These differences are still going on — as I wrote this I listened to yet another discussion on the “gender gap” in the Obama-Romney election. I’m not saying one is more right; I’m just saying, we need both.
The deep-seated patriarchy in modern Western spirituality needs serious attention. Even in these days of growing political and economic parity, women are still being shut out of the guidance of our minds and souls, to great and I believe disastrous effect. At the very least it leads to skewed priorities, as we see from Catholic authorities more concerned that nuns advocate against contraception instead of for the needy. The 9/11 hijackers were rigorously kept in a male-centered world; Mohammed Atta didn’t even want women at his funeral.
Maybe this curious piece of papyrus might light the way to a discussion of just what the women were doing in Jesus’s day, and what they might do for us now. Something needs to.
I have decided to come clean. I am not an atheist.
People who note the Abrahamic and Gothic mythologies behind my first novel, might be a little surprised to hear I ever thought I was an atheist. Thing is, they’re my mythologies too. I’m as entitled to use them to tell my difficult tales as the wonky Athenians were when they took up PTSD through the lens of oracles and furies.
But I thought I was an atheist. I evolved (I mean, a priori). I’m embarrassed by human religions, all illogically animist, perniciously tribal and desperately placatory. The bit in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, where the school choir sings “Oh Lord, please don’t burn us / Don’t grill or toast your flock”? Nutshell. I’ll give Christ points for trying but he got disillusioned hard — I suspect more by the carnival of Palm Sunday than the crucifixion that followed. Building your church on the guy who thrice denied you to the cops, and calling him your rock? That’s one bitter parable.
But I digress.
I just can’t in good conscience call myself an atheist anymore. It’s not even conscience. I recoil in my gut. It’s not merely how self-satisfied they are, from their eloquently brutal public advocates to the know-it-all kids in so many blog comments. It’s that they think they’re just as cosmically right as theists, and they’re not. There is more to heaven and earth, as Hamlet says. I know it in my bones, and to tell me I am wrong to trust this knowledge is as much a con as what the religious try to sell me.
I’ve been checking out agnosticism, which is slowly developing its muscles (and thanks to the wonderful Aldous, I’m open to any idea that comes from a Huxley). Again, the terms of debate all seem to rest on God’s presence or absence. Why must it be so reductive? Why begin with a God, a monolithic spiritual source — or its absence? Even matter changes rules from the very small to the very big, and “matter” itself seems to be a subset of things-that-are-not-energy. Such fecundity and contradiction in things we can see and touch, yet the immaterial is or isn’t in just one way?
I am declaring my own path, and maybe I’ll find fellow travelers. Here’s the map:
I know there is something beyond the physical. I don’t know if it moves mountains but I believe it moves crowds. I believe one day we will have words for it and a form of evidence-based science to explain it — at least as much as our little primate brains can hold. One day maybe our robots will intercede with it for us, as they do with planets now.
I suspect it is, or is found through, an emergent property of humanity or consciousness, just as consciousness is an emergent property of the systems that regulate the disparate organs of single living things. Or not, or also: maybe a kind of life encompasses our own, as we encompass E. coli; maybe it inspires us to write holy books and seek oracles so we treat each other nicely and don’t poison it.
And, sometimes, inevitably and probably usefully, it gets nasty and horrible in the worst ways, echoing and expanding the damage of our own puny venal selves. As all our burning hydrocarbons make tornadoes and hurricanes, as supernovas kill their own worlds and make new ones.
Something is there. What it is, I don’t know. I am OK with that; I even think it a strength. I can contemplate it without preconceptions. I can break bread with the religious, in its generous spirit, learning the peripheral truths of their myths, without being bound by miserly dogma — and without the burden of contempt.
Something is there. We have only known about dark matter for a couple of decades, and all we know for sure is that without it, the universe doesn’t hold together.
Call this, dark consciousness. I believe in it. I have faith.