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Archive for February, 2016

Kali the Destroyer

“Beware of sadness
It can hit you
It can hurt you
Make you sore and what is more
That is not what you are here for

Watch out now, take care
Beware of soft shoe shufflers
Dancing down the sidewalks
As each unconscious sufferer
Wanders aimlessly
Beware of Maya”
– George Harrison

Little if anything in the annals of world religion can compare to the visceral intensity of images found in Hindu iconography. And among the populated pantheon of Indian deities, none strikes terror like gruesome goddess Kali. Wielding in her many hands a noose, a sword and a severed head, festooned with skulls and dismembered limbs, Kali is the stark raving face of death. But to what can we explain her popularity? What role does this morbid mother goddess serve in the great arena of mythic symbols and transcendental touchstones?

Most casual devotees will identify Kali as the destroyer, who in the eastern tradition of paradoxically embracing opposites, also represents creation. Like the fire that consumes the forest but also promotes the germination of the next generation of saplings, Kali is the wicked mother who never stops giving birth from her own lifeblood, while sustaining an insatiable appetite for the flesh and blood of the dead and dying. She is the frightful hub in the great wheel of birth and death, to which we mortals are condemned to participate in such short—but often agonizing—intervals.

In Buddhist and Hindu mythology, this wheel is called Samsara, the repeating cycle of reincarnation through which beings experience birth and death. The cycle continues almost interminably, save for those fortunate and diligent enough to improve their karma, escape the cycle and retreat to Nirvana. For the rest of us, the clumsy unenlightened masses, we must face the grim reality of suffering, aging and withering away. At the most basic level, Kali embodies this universal aspect of the human condition, Mother Nature’s most fundamental and least forgiving process.

Hand in hand with Samsara, the Indians warn of the dangerous veil of Maya, the wall of illusion which imprisons us in the world of gross matter, separating mere mortals from the subtle, spiritual truths. Like Ganesh with his mighty ax, Kali wields the supernatural power to break through the Maya and expose the deeper, metaphysical reality. As our attachment to the material world tends to remain fixed and unwavering, it requires nothing less than an act of god to break that bond and release us from the labyrinth of false impressions.

And what a harsh reality it is. Though we make great efforts to escape it, we are in fact condemned to live a short life, one invariably filled with sickness and sorrow, and which will certainly end in death. Mystics of eastern and western traditions all have practices like meditation and yoga, which aim to relieve the inherent suffering, but only Kali takes it straight on. She makes no excuses nor apologies, never tempts us to deny death, but instead harnesses the puissant energy of that inborn fear, our most natural instinct.

Life is short, and though riddled with discomfort, we are obliged to live it to the fullest. Rather than cower in fear, Kali invites us to be driven by dread. There’s something very Freudian about this entanglement of sex and death, and the way Kali uses these two opposing forces to shake us out of our misery and spur us to take life by the balls. The creative mother swings her hips with sexual allure, while opening her mouth wide open to stick out her tongue and expose her terrifying fangs. Is it life or is it death, and which is worse? Either way, Kali bids us to participate in all its gruesome glory, rather than seek refuge in some tranquil fantasy.

Ultimately, life is little more than a short respite between dark eternities, hanging like a tenuous thread between two vast mysteries. By invoking Kali, we accept these dark eternities, and accept her as our redeemer. She is the suffering of the world, and she is the vehicle of release, all in one. Kali issues the the dread of the Old Testament Jahweh, with wrath and punishment for not only the deserving sinners of Sodom, but also the righteous and undeserving like Job. And like Christ, Kali promises a form of salvation in death. Terrifying though she may be to the unschooled initiate, the Christian image of redemption—a man nailed alive to two pieces of wood—hardly evokes a more soothing sense of solace.

With proper guidance from these mighty icons, both angelic and demonic, we fragile mortals may learn to accept the worst that life has to offer, to transcend death and suffering rather than escape them. Freud and the psychoanalytic schools have demonstrated the dangers of denial, often citing religion as one of its most ruthless agents, but Kali leads us out of denial and through the gates of hell, so that we may live more richly, and if not free from pain, at least free from delusion.

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Council of Nicaea

Jesus has a great deal to teach us about kindness, tolerance and mysticism, but there are certain factions out there which have rendered the story of Christ unpalatable to the ordinary, thinking individual. These extreme factions have driven many to run for cover, from the ivory tower of the church to the iron fortress of atheism.

Atheist isn’t a term I like to throw around lightly. The label suggests a degree of certainty and intolerance matched only by strict fundamentalists. They have seen the data, they have made the only possible interpretation, and their minds are made up. But what I see, from both camps, is an utter lack of imagination. Fundamentalists, of whatever creed, read their holy books as the incontrovertible word of God, to be taken literally, word for word. Atheists also seem determined to read the scriptures literally, and see no reasonable option but to reject them all out of hand.

I maintain, however, in all my secular wisdom, that there is a third way, a Middle Path, infinitely broader in scope than either of these narrow-minded, literal readings. And in order to get the greatest possible rise out of both the Christians and the atheists, I’d like to demonstrate the Middle Path with a brief examination of the legend of Jesus Christ.

Devout Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the son of God, 100 percent human and 100 divine, flesh and blood but also consubstantial with—comprised of the same substance as—the Holy Father. These Christians, who attest to the word of God, may or may not realize that this definition of Christ is nowhere to be found in the holy scripture. Instead it was issued three centuries after Christ’s death, at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 C.E.

Now, the unimaginative reader might find two glaring problems with this whole concept. First off, the idea that Jesus is 100 percent human and 100 percent divine sort of suggests that he is more like two people, not just one. (Where the star athlete manages to give 110 percent, Lord Jesus is able to give a whopping 200 percent.) But that’s just a matter of discerning between theological propositions and concrete scientific reality. In the story of Jesus, we are obviously dealing with the former rather than the latter.

Secondly, that the creed’s basis comes from a manmade, imperial decree, rather than a blessed and holy book, might seem to remove the sacred underpinnings from the whole business. Again, any stickler would have to admit that’s true and problematic, but in the 21st century we have to accept that the Christian creed, regardless of its origins, is now quite ancient, the product of another time, a holier epoch, as it were. And furthermore, though the paradoxical claims of divinity may be rationally untenable, the fact is that they have become a psychological reality, simply by virtue of having been believed‚ and deeply, generation after generation, for nearly 2000 years.

These concessions, to accept a theological proposition and admit to a psychological reality, may be too much for the firm non-believer, but let’s agree to set that aside and look simply at the mythic content here. My personal inclination, which occupies a narrow band of the immensely broad Middle Path mentioned above, and espoused regularly here in the Tao of Fred, regards the various gods and heroes of mythic lore as symbols for the inner actors that populate our psyches.

One of the greatest psychological and philosophical issues I wrestle with is what’s called the mind-body problem. As humans, we are made up of flesh and blood. We can look in the mirror and recognize our selves, but when we identity who we are, it’s our personality and unique body of memories that we identify with. Imagine a mad science experiment in which you and another subject are strapped down and anesthetized, while a crazed brain surgeon goes about swapping your brains. When you awaken, your mind is in your friend’s body, and your body is occupied by his brain. Now, which one is “you”? In all likelihood, you will agree that “you” are now in the other person’s body. In other words, the physical and visible you pales in comparison to the ethereal, intangible you.

The story of Jesus Christ (similar to the twin motif prevalent in so many mythologies from around the globe) is a fantastic metaphor for this strange paradox inherent to the human condition. The perfect man, also called the Son of Man and the Son of God, is entirely human, of flesh and blood, but entirely divine, of intangible spirit. Only Jesus Christ is able to reconcile these two aspects, these polar opposites that somehow comprise our identity. Not only that, but he attains a state of spiritual perfection, being one with the Father, and in doing so He gains eternal life.

But it gets better, because prior to 325 C.E. (remember the Council of Nicaea?), there was actually quite a colorful variety of Christologies in circulation. The Creed of Nicaea won the day, but a couple of Gnostic Christian groups, namely the Ebionites and the Marcionites, held competing ideologies well worth our consideration. Marcionites, the more popular of these two sects, saw Christ as completely divine and not human at all. Incidentally, they also believed in two gods, an original deity of absolute goodness and perfection, and the Old Testament demiurge who created the material world with all its flaws and imperfections.

The Ebionites, on the other hand, held what is now the standard monotheistic position, but believed that Jesus was not actually divine, but strictly human, adopted as it were, to become the Son of God. It may seem surprising, even shocking, today that such diverse beliefs could have at one time been considered Christian, but alas, times change, beliefs shift, and even histories get rewritten.

But what do these Gnostic belief systems say about the human condition, or the people’s perceptions of the human condition, back in the days of antiquity? According to the Marcionites, flesh and blood and the material world with all its suffering was the product of a lesser creator, and not the original god of perfection. Moreover, according to their docetic Christology, our Savior was purely divine, while his physical body was merely an illusion. As a spiritual being, He existed well before his conception by Mary, hence the virgin birth. Clearly, the Marcionites put a much higher value on the intangible, ethereal aspects of our selves, seeing the material body, with all its appetites and aversions, as little more than dead weight, dragging us down and holding us back from attaining our highest spiritual potential.

The Ebionites, by contrast, considered Jesus as mere flesh and blood, produced through sexual union between Mary and Joseph, little different from you and me. But he was indeed a very righteous man, and so God chose him for the very special assignment, to accept the punishment for all mankind. To indicate His acceptance of this monumental sacrifice, God raised Jesus from the grave following his crucifixion, adopting him in a sense, and sat him at His side on a throne in heaven. Here we have a clear distinction between man and God, rejecting a good deal of the supernatural embellishment surrounding Jesus. In this theology, we find a greater respect for the ordinary flesh and blood individual, with the suggestion that if we too lead a most righteous life, then we too can elevate our spirits and grow closer to God, therefore closer to one another, because God embodies the one singular universal spirit.

Perhaps it was a matter of sectarian politics, or simply a chance event, but maybe, just maybe, the Nicene Creed that we know today prevailed precisely because it resonated so well with human psychology at that time. It provided just the message, regarding the perfection of man, entirely human and entirely divine, that man, increasingly literate and self aware, needed to hear. It certainly was not the most logical explanation. Wouldn’t it make more sense, after all, to say that Christ was half man and half God, rather than 100 percent man and 100 percent God?

But then, we must remember, this is not a myth to be understood rationally. Religion is meant to satisfy man’s irrational side. It’s not about what’s logical, reasonable, or materially verifiable. It never is. It’s about stepping out of that whole paradigm and embracing the intuitive, the imaginative and the magical. Only this way can man fulfill his highest spiritual potential, without having to abandon his physical body, and thereby gain a glimpse of eternity.

To learn more about the archetypal dimensions of the the Holy Father and Son, check out Edward Edinger. To learn more about early Christianity and the Gnostics, check out the works of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman.

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Fred Steps

“Questions make people heretics.” ~Tertullian (160-225 C.E.)

Why are we born, why do we yearn, why do we suffer, why do we die? As a species we are obsessed with meaning, and that means we can never stop asking why. We are eternally fascinated by symbols, patterns, and narratives. Through the Tao of Fred, I spend entirely too much time trying to answer these questions of why. So why, why do I it?

Every so often it’s useful—to remind myself and to inform the reader— to step back from big Why and ask the small why. Not Why am I here, but why am I blogging interminably about the unanswerable questions of life? Why is a secular humanist like Fred writing weekly commentaries on the value of religion and the meaning of mythology? Why can’t I simply join my educated colleagues, the rational intelligentsia, and step boldly into the scientific, post-religious world of modernity, and leave those superstitious fantasies to the backwards looking zealots of little intellect?

Frankly, as a humanist and a student of history and anthropology, I find it impossible not to recognize religion as one of humankind’s most significant and profound inventions. As old or older than any other aspect of human culture, religious notions and ideas certainly predate farming, husbandry and commerce, and are probably coeval with the advent of language, art and music. Of course, just because something has been around for longer than we can remember, that does not make it right, but in this case, it does appear to be a crucial part of what makes us human.

Conventional wisdom today, like that being spewed by the smart-sounding New Atheists, which is only slightly more sophisticated than what most high school freshmen could figure out on their own, makes the simple observation that scientific progress has successfully answered nearly every mystery that religion once claimed to explain, and that belief in the supernatural has no foundation in fact-based science. That’s all perfectly true, and to the extent that they can only see religion in the most naive and literal manner, they are right that it has no factual basis. And the same could be said of Hamlet, for there is absolutely no historical record of any Danish prince by that name.

The last 200 years of scientific discovery have catapulted mankind into a new era, making the previous 60,000 years of homo sapiens’s long history virtually unrecognizable. Our mastery of reason has raised our standard of living to previously unimaginable heights. And through the exaltation of rational thinking, an enormous portion of what defines us as human has been neglected and rejected.

The idea that science can replace or act as a substitute for religion is rooted in a pitiful misunderstanding of both science and religion. Science may be unsurpassed in its potential to improve our quality of life, but it leaves huge swaths of the human condition shrouded in darkness. So I ponder the forgotten legends and ancient ways, seeking to extract some meaning we can use in our modern day, scientifically grounded, quick-fix lives. And I chiefly do so in the three following ways.

1) First, and most frequently, I dig up old texts, sometimes obscure legends of lost religions, but also some our most familiar tales from the Judeo-Christian tradition. With these ancient stories, I take a critical, non-theistic approach, stripping them of their supernatural ornamentation, to distill the cryptic message and make the intuitive, irrational knowledge available to skeptics who have no time of place for a supernatural personage.

I derive my interpretations as an informed Jungian raised in a Christian society, but highly interested and sympathetic to Eastern modes of thinking. I also take a look at more recent examples of film and literature, mining them for ethical dilemmas and metaphysical conjectures.  The astute reader will quickly notice my interest in Star Wars and Dostoyevsky, for example.

2) In other other posts, I simply wander off on my own metaphysical and moral musings and explorations. These are generally inspired by specific readings or other detours into religious history, particularly as I seek out parallels with psychological development, what Ken Wilber might call the “homologous structures” between social development and the human individual.

3) Finally, though rarely, I occasionally delve into current events and contemporary society with a mythically informed perspective. This is an area I tend to avoid, which is why I maintain a blog about mythology rather than American politics, even though I have a degree in Political Science from UCLA. But sometimes it’s difficult to resist lambasting the Christian Right and hard not to lament the tragic events continually plaguing the middle eastern Holy Land.

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