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Archive for November, 2016

new-dogma-tof

Exalt the New Dogma

For the last few hundred years, advances in hard science have slowly but surely rendered faith and religion more and more obsolete, at least in the minds of many casual onlookers. Recent breakthroughs in genetics, cosmology and elsewhere, have made the belief in a supernatural divinity untenable for almost any rational thinking person. Reason and research have opened our eyes to vast new vistas, and closed the doors on those myths and ideologies that had served mankind for millennia.

The Age of Enlightenment taught us to trust in material facts and to look for explanations that stand up to robust analysis, but in the process we’ve extinguished the flame of a different kind of thinking, no less valuable for being irrational. Carl Jung famously said that anyone who thinks that religion and science are incompatible must not have a proper understanding of either. Sometimes you need one, sometimes you rely on their other, but they both have their utility. Science works great for curing diseases and putting rockets in the air, but another way of thinking is needed to cure the sense of meaninglessness which has become the plague of modernity.

You might say that the dark wine of religion and mysticism has been turned into the transparent H2O of scientific certainty. Or, if you’re not so keen on the New Testament imagery, consider instead an analogy from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). He compared the myth and lore of religion to a vase full of water. The decorative vase serves like the “lies” that we see on the surface. But on the inside, it actually carries something precious, an ineffable truth, which, like water, cannot otherwise be grasped.

As the metaphysical truths are too abstract to be spoken in common language, we must resort to a vocabulary of images and allegories to convey the esoteric wisdom. The point is to be discerning. When we are thirsty for the truth, we cannot derive genuine nourishment from the man-made vessel, the way fundamentalists mistake illustrative myth for actual history. Equally important, we must not cast out the holy water with the vase, just because the ceramic pitcher doesn’t match the Pyrex beakers of the laboratory.  Every narrative has its explanatory powers, but the strictly objective makes a poor and costly substitute for the intuitive.

I leave you with the words of Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse.”

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milton-satan

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the value of resistance and the importance of breaking with tradition. In the process of maturation, every individual must go through a phase of rebellion in order to define his or her own personality. It can be a turbulent business, as dramatized by a thousand coming-of-age stories, dating back as far as the oldest fairy tales right up to latest holiday blockbusters. The chivalrous knight slays the mean old dragon who stands in his way, as in the legend of St. George. Luke and Leia take up arms against the evil empire, in the science-fiction movie that delivered the defining mythology of my generation. Even Oedipus struck down his own father to defy prophecy and flout authority.

Some rebellions prove more successful than others. Some uprisings result in growth, progress and maturation. While other cases of subversion—driven by pride, arrogance and self-interest—serve only to inflate the ego. With no capacity for self-reflection, the ruthless and unscrupulous iconoclast tears down the old hierarchy and with it every standard of moral decency, without regard for truth or integrity. Such is the tragic fate of the indecorous anti-hero, unable to discern between the subtle gradations of good and evil, unable to embrace real human values.

I have dredged the annals of world mythology to find the quintessential super villain, to serve as a model of our new President, who has promised to shake things up, bring down the old establishment, and sell the earth and the sky up the river without a second’s hesitation. I considered the Joker, terrorizing Gotham with his brightly colored hair, and the Pharaoh, who stood proud before Moses and unmoved in the face of frogs, locusts and a river of blood. Finally I found him, staring back at me from the profound depths of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the archetype of reckless defiance, the unmistakable face of Satan.

In the first two books of this epic 17th century poem, Milton has Satan seduce the reader with his confident oratory. He takes a bold stance against God, the status quo, and the old world order. He goes so far as accuse God of ruling the earth only according to might makes right, in what he calls “the tyranny of heaven” (Book 1, line 124).

Satan, in all his smooth and silver-tongued rhetoric, would have the reader believe that God rules by virtue of his omnipotent strength, rather than admit that God’s omnipotence goes hand-in-hand with his unbounded virtue. “Who overcomes by force,” says Satan, “hath overcome but half his foe.” (Book 1, line 648-9). The powers that be, he suggests, have no right to rule, when they rule only by force. Assuming authority by means of enterprise and zeal is a far more respectable endeavor, chasing the American dream by hook or by crook, in other words.

A widely held opinion in America says that the government has fooled the people into believing that it is here to help us, when in fact its laws and regulations are really little more than an abuse of power. It is high time, in their minds, to dismantle this sprawling and bloated behemoth, and to restore order to those who have demonstrated their own superior merit. The demonstration of merit however, is all too often nothing more than a little flash of wealth and avarice, and a lot of rhetorical obfuscation.

Bold gestures of anti-establishmentarianism, however well intended, do not a comprehensive, normative and forward looking body of value-based public policy make. And it’s overblown sentences like that that can easily lead an all-too-easily-led faction of dissidents into a state of whipped-up anti-social fanaticism. Which is where our country seemingly stands today.

Like a smooth-talking defense attorney, the blindingly successful Trump campaign wielded a lot of cross-eyed double talk and half-baked obscurantism, with the cheap aim of simply causing confusion and raising a shadow of doubt, as his social media presence did with mind-numbing results. Satan himself couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. What sounds good in a six-word headline finally carries more weight than what is factually true.

“Our cure, to be no more; sad cure!” So goes Satan’s lamentation in Book 2 of “Paradise Lost”, when God has banished the devil and his cohorts to the fiery lake of Hell. Ignoring the darker instincts, suppressing the shadow element—to put in Jungian terms—is no solution, only the postponement of inevitable disruption. But this interjection could just as easily refer to Satan’s strategy to topple God from heaven’s throne, or the Republican remedy to drain the swamp, and then the lake, and the ocean, and the ice caps. The cure might very well prove worse than the disease.

With the valuable aid of Mammon, his most loyal accomplice, the billionaire narcissist persuaded the curious American electorate to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, turning their backs on more than 200 years of law and order. And now the country savors the sweet taste of knowledge, knowing that it has defied everything righteous and reasonable, in favor of unruly dissent and glorious freewill.

It won’t be long before the new administration moves in to the White House, and if they keep their promises, they’ll ransack the place like a gang of reckless, self-centered teenagers who have been waiting months for their parents to leave town for a weekend. Everyone and his kid brother will be invited to the party, so long as they can be trusted not to speak a word of it to mom and dad. There’ll be kegs in the back yard, coke on the coffee tables, and barf in the bathroom sink. It’s the highest form of disobedience and self-expression they can think of at this adolescent stage of development, and don’t expect them to clean up after themselves.

Who will prevail in this cosmic struggle, between order and chaos? In “Paradise Lost”, even a pyrrhic victory was enough of a victory for Satan. “Better to reign in Hell,” he says, “than to serve in Heaven” (Book 1, Line 263). For the Donald, too, the campaign was a costly one. He allowed himself to be blasted and lambasted, made to look like a fool and an ogre. But no price was too high for the title of ‘most powerful man in the world’.

Yet the struggle has only just begun. Even if you skipped Milton, you probably recall the events of Genesis. Satan pulled off his dirty trick by seducing and deceiving Eve, and God levied His cruel punishment against the human race. It is we who had to pay the price. Men were made to labor in the fields and women were made to suffer the pains of childbirth. (Gen. 3:16-18)

And this is how Paradise was lost for humankind. But will the new President relieve the suffering of the women who feared him and ease the burden of the working class that supported him? Or will we undergo another spate of divine retribution for opting to sympathize with the devil? I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

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dung-heap

In times of grief and anguish, many of us turn for solace to the pages of holy texts and sacred teachings. Every tradition abounds with tales of sorrow and suffering in which the great reward is recovered from deep down in the darkest recesses of the soul. The hero may fall to the bottom of a well, or wander into a dark and terrifying cave, or be swallowed and carried deep into the sea by a giant fish. But in the end, the hero learns to face the shadow and uncover the treasure that’s been hidden in the depths.

Looking around at the faces and facebook posts of my fellow Americans, now seems to be one of those times when we need to revisit some of those myths and legends and reconsider their valuable meanings. These stories remind us that the line that separates good from evil does not divide one group of people from another. Rather, this line runs down the center of every human heart.

Consider a lesson from the ancient Greeks. To face the wickedness and defeat it, we must look into our selves, in the same way that Perseus is able to slay the gorgon Medusa only by holding up a mirror and espying her reflection. When we point fingers and try always to project and externalize every form of evil, we overlook our own shadow, and end up spending too much time distracted by the defects of others. And so long as we maintain that perspective, we become paralyzed, just like Medusa’s direct gaze turns her enemies into stone.

Some blame the Mexicans, and others blame the racists. Some blame the ignorant, while others blame the elite. Some blame the dark-skinned terrorists, others blame the economic policies that have left massive segments of the global population without hope or opportunity. Still others blame bi-partisanship, and a small handful of us point to the fallacy of confirmation bias. People find relief when they are able to shift the blame onto someone or something else, but this solution is not only futile, but perilous.

To conquer the forces of darkness, we must look into our own hearts, and as a nation, we must take a good long look at the monster in the mirror. The country is not under siege from outside forces, but it is crumbling from within. It has become the victim of its own rampant corruption and endemic vice. And now we must brace ourselves for a very long night’s journey of the soul.

America, like a person lost and depressed, is treading a path of self-destruction. These self-destructive tendencies are visible everywhere: among individuals, throughout society, and in the Democratic Party which worked against Bernie Sanders, the only candidate this year with any shred of integrity.

So now we are left in the place we never wanted to be, trapped in the dungeon with nothing to look at but our shadows. We have entered the heart of darkness, the belly of the beast, and our only hope is to face the lies, the false pride and the self-delusion that have inflated our national ego into the monstrous absurdity it is today.

It’s time, at last, we owned up to our flaws and foibles, our prejudices, and our sense of self-righteousness. Time to cut the monsters down to size and start afresh. It’s time to come to terms with our past mistakes, time to turn to someone we love and admit that we need their help. There’s no more sense in pretending that we can still stay up late every night and swing like we used to and fit into those skinny jeans we were wearing back in the 50s when we were all young and high on the fumes of cheap labor and post-war consumerism.

But now that the nation is mired in excrement, it’s worthwhile to recall old Sterquilinus, the Roman god of feces and manure. All joking aside, there a reason agrarian societies honored their turds. Through a seemingly magical process of transformation, the steaming heaps of solid waste produced by cattle and horses is turned into essential nutrients for the life-giving crops. From out of the filth, a delicious bounty of fruits, grains and vegetables will emerge.

This retrieval of vital energy from out of the dungheap illustrates a crucial step—both literally and figuratively—in the great cycle of life, death and rebirth. It should not be ignored. I am reminded, finally, of a line from James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which Leopold Bloom is dwelling on the subject of curatives and medicines: “Remedy where you least expect it,” he says.

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Drop in on Hades

hades-tof

An eerie feeling has swept across the globe this week. A kind of darkness.

In the Greek underworld, the ferryman Charon carries departed souls over a river of dread and into that immeasurably long night, where they will wander the fields indefinitely.

But for those whose souls consist of something richer, something divine, escape is possible. The darkness is digested and the soul is nourished. Out of the grief, the misery, the loss, the anguish, comes a sparkling treasure, a shining jewel.

Some will journey into rehab, some will journey into divorce court, and some will journey into a state of profound confusion. Sometimes we must make that journey together. And when we return to the light of day, we will reap the most incredible bounty and share our rewards like brethren and sisters.

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being-time-tof

Here’s another morsel from the Tao of Fred collection of theologically and metaphysically inspired Limericks. For those without so much philosophy under their belts, I’m now including a brief explanation and commentary on the often esoteric themes.

In the first half of the twentieth century, continental philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre took some of the existentialist ideas of Soren Kierkegaard and ran with them. Where Kierkegaard looked to a Christian conception of God to resolve the tension between existence in time and transcendence of the eternal, the later existentialists removed God from the equation,  focusing instead on each man’s freedom and the need to choose a mode of existence that was true and authentic for that individual.

Martin Heidegger, featured here, was particularly obsessed with the idea of Being, and like Bill Clinton, he was profoundly concerned with what the definition of is is. According to Heidegger, people had lost a sense of what Being really meant, and in his works he elevated—nay, exalted—Being to a nearly numinous status.

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