Moby Dick and the Navel of the Milky Ocean

Gazing ever up into heaven’s majestic dome one cannot help but to feel a penetrating awe. For some, the Great Deep that is heaven produces reverence, reflection, and humility. One could say that the “[starry sky] and meditation are wedded forever” (MD 13). For others, an infinite curiosity arouses–a wanting to know–about self, other, and cosmos. Such a moment is like a baptism in water where one is initiated into a new life. For what is the sparkling night sky if not a reflection of the glittering ocean deeps? Both are filled with mystery, life, and inexhaustible possibility. One is a reflection of the other, and just so, is not the ocean—heaven brought down to earth?

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

We live between two eternal deeps: Heaven and Ocean.

Certainly in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, the imagery of sea is pronouncedly everywhere. But curiously, so likewise is the imagery of stars; in so many places the two images blend together as a co-mingling of waters: “the firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all pervading azure…” (MD 442). We are also told that Queequeg’s people believed “that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way…” (MD 396). Likewise and repeatedly, Melville gives the image of oceans cosmic themes, calling them “wide-rolling prairies… [where] millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming…” (MD 399).

No less, the water’s chief inhabitant, the great white whale, is also a cosmic image wedded to celestial powers. Thus, we are told that most mortals believed Moby Dick to be “ubiquitous” and “immortal” and that his whiteness could be seen “gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings” (MD 158-9). Moby Dick was a creature that had “moved amid this world’s foundations… O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham” (MD 264). Furthermore, the whole worldview of whaling was intimately bound with heavenly (deified) associations. Thus, when the cook preaches a sermon to the gorging sharks he explains: “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned” (MD 251). And when Ishmael processes the spermaceti of the whale he reflects: “In visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti” (MD 349).

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

The White Whale is a symbol of the above and the below; of the without and the within.

Behind Melville’s epic sea-tale is an underlying (and overarching) cosmogony. The tale is as much about the creation of cosmos and the soul that can abide in the starry depths as it is anything else. The soul’s place is heaven, thus Ishmael not only seeks, but is drawn to the ocean, heaven’s counterpart (MD 12). Ishmael’s most trusted companion is the dark skinned Queequeg, who is his protector and friend (literally his bed mate), and therefore is an image of his own soul. It is no coincidence then that Queequeg’s skin is covered, head to toe, with tattoos, imprinted upon him by one of his people’s seers and prophets; those tattoos were “hieroglyphic marks… a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (MD 399). In Queequeg, Ishmael carries the heavens with him.

Queequeg's skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael's soul.

Queequeg’s skin is covered with the cosmic glyphs of eternal truth. He remains a reflection of Ishmael’s soul.

This is markedly different than the rest of the souls upon the Pequod. The Pequod itself is an image of earthly exile, lives adrift in the midst of starry cosmos. And nailed to the Pequod’s center mast is its soul, its hieroglyphic mark and treatise of truth, a gold doubloon! This is no idle comparison, for this doubloon is covered with ancient symbols of the “partitioned zodiac” whose “keystone sun” rose in the “equinoctial point at Libra” (MD 359). The doubloon was the ship’s “navel”, or axis-mundi (MD 363). Thus a chief juxtaposition is made between the zodiac and heavenly marks tattooed upon Queequeg and the zodiac and ancient glyphs of the doubloon for which everyone else sought the white whale.

For all souls who seek the  gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

For all souls who seek the gold doubloon, the white whale is certain terror. The Pequod remains the materialistic soul of the world.

If this analysis is correct, then Moby Dick becomes a tale about the creation and tending of the human soul in a cosmic context. For Ishmael, the soul is ennobled and given new life through an infinite bond of love, friendship, work, and duty (as reflected in his relationship with Queequeg). Ishmael is not concerned about killing the white whale (itself an image of the cosmic soul), nor is he interested in the tender and soul of the world–the gold doubloon. Ishmael goes to sea “as a simple sailor”, to be paid an honest wage, and for “exercise and pure air” (MD 14-5). As a result of this simple and honest worldview and living, everywhere Ishmael turns he sees balance and harmony in the cosmos. Even when the Pequod is destroyed by the white whale, it is the tattooed ark of the starry firmament that becomes his own life preserver against the infinite deep. Ishmael again, carries the heavens with him.

Whereas, for all others who made the golden zodiac their sun, moon and stars, their ship failed them. It was broken apart from the energy and laws of the cosmic navel who abhors the self-centered brute. So it is that the white whale cannot harm the person acclimated to the whale’s environment, but for all others, their meeting is certain death.
Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967.

Easter and the Feminine Divine

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood  culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

This week comes the celebration of Easter. This Christian holy day is the archetypal summit of the year, where rebirth and resurrection are venerated in the mystery of Jesus Christ’s awakening from the tomb. In Christian orthodoxy, Easter is known as pascha, the Greek and Latin term referring to the Jewish Passover. The Apostle Paul uses this word as a title for Christ, “For Christ our Passover lamb [pascha], has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5.7). By the end of the first century CE early Christians had reinterpreted the Exodus story and the Passover ritual as a prototype for the sacrifice of Christ.

The word “Easter” itself, however, is Old English, from Ēastre or Ēostre, a title derived from an old English month now known as April. Christian Easter is celebrated on the first Sabbath after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This holy-specific day most often occurs in April and is representative of the most fertile time of the year, when Sun, Moon, and Earth are all in their phases of rebirth and awakening.

Easter is therefore the day of resurrection, in heaven and on earth. And this heaven-earth relationship is only an archetypal symbol for the heaven-earth awakening that occurs in the soul of God, or in the spirit and breath of each mortal man and woman. In Christian rite and belief, every soul will arise like the Sun, Moon, and Earth, to a new immortal dwelling.

Despite this traditional context, historically, Easter had feminine roots. Significantly, the old English month of Ēostre was itself named after a goddess whose rites of rebirth were celebrated at the same time among the early inhabitants of Britain and Northern Europe. Ēostre was a Germanic goddess whose name is cognate with the Proto-Germanic austrōn, meaning dawn or to shine. This deity belongs to a long line of female divinities who are goddesses of the dawn, and are found in various forms throughout Indo-European cultures as beings who bring light and life to the world.

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word "Easter."

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word “Easter.”

For thousands of years before Christianity the divine being who brought forth resurrection was represented as a goddess. Inanna, Isis, Cybele, and Demeter are beings with the divine stewardship over rebirth. The Japanese Amaterasu is a goddess of the dawn who also brings light and life to the world. While these deities were seen as the powers behind the fertility of all things on earth, they also held stewardship over the mysterious cosmic principle of heavenly life. In the Greco-Roman mystery religions, the resurrection of the initiate was promised via the gifts and boons of the goddess.

This should make sense as in fact it is only woman who can bring forth life from her womb. In many respects, the rites of rebirth analogized the tomb with the womb, so that those going into the beyond could be reborn by a Heavenly Mother whose womb was the cosmic precinct of immortality.

Egyptian Mysteries

This was certainly the case in ancient Egypt. It is often assumed that the process of resurrection in the Egyptian scheme was overseen by Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. The mysteries of Osiris place this god center stage, for his death and rebirth are the main theme of the mystery play. The truth is, however, the entire drama of rebirth is not overseen by the god but by the goddess, whose womb is the deus ex machina which saves the climactic action from complete oblivion. Repeatedly in the funerary texts and vignettes the major characters of the liturgical pageant show up performing all their prescribed duties: Osiris is killed and rises, Anubis guides, Thoth records, Horus aids and fights, Atum, Re, or some other version of the solar god breathes new life into the dead, etc. Never far away from all these scenes, however, is a representation of the Mother Goddess who oversees the entire operation from beginning to end and is the key to cosmic rebirth.

It is actually Isis and Nephthys who always appear by the lion couch where Osiris lies, and it is their power which helps raise him from the state of death. In Egyptian myth, Isis and Nephthys are really dual personifications of the Mother Goddess, one representing the heavenly mother and the other the earthly one (Nibley, Message 163). Meanwhile, in the twelve divisions contained in the book That Which is in the Underworld the solar god is always accompanied by a figure called “lady of the boat” who is the true guide through the darkness leading the envoy past each obstacle and gate which inhibits progress (Budge, The Gods 207). Each boat in the underworld is adorned with symbols of the various manifestations of the Mother Goddess, including symbols representing Hathor, Maat, and Isis, all who are absolutely essential for the journey’s success.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis remains central to the resurrection drama. When the Egyptian boat is at its darkest, deepest, and most treacherous juncture in the netherworld only Isis can tow it across the dry sand and to safety (Nibley, Message 416). It is Isis “whose mouth is the breath of life, whose sentence drives out evil, and whose very word revives him who no longer breathes” (de Lubicz, Temples 39). A papyrus dating from the time of Khufu speaks of Isis as the true ruler of the Pyramids (Adams 30). She is the “Mother of God” who raises the dead to the celestial heights: “The Divine Sothis, the Star, the Queen of Heaven” (Adams 30).

“To be reborn in resurrection, the king must enter again into his mother’s womb,” writes Hugh Nibley. “The sarcophagus in which he lay was called mw.t, which also means ‘mother,’ and was designed to represent the embracing arms and wings of the starry sky-mother [Nut]” (Message 119). As the deceased lies in his coffin he is swallowed by the mouth of Nut in the west and reborn from the womb of Nut in the East; the entire gestation cycle is celestial.

The essential role of the Mother Goddess in the process of Egyptian rebirth explains the essential difference between her imagery as Nut, the Sky Mother, and the imagery found in other mythologies where the mother goddess is terrestrial, such as Gaia, the Earth Mother. In the latter example the mother goddess is analogized with the fertile ground which receives the solar semen and whose womb swells with the pregnant produce of nature. As all material forms, however, are only reflections of celestial archetypes, the true womb of the universe must remain heavenward.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

 Greco-Roman Mysteries

What is true of Egyptian myth and rite in this regard is also true for the later Greco-Roman mystery cults, as Jane Ellen Harrison makes clear: “The mysteries of Greece never center round Zeus the Father, but rather round the Mother and the subordinate son” (Mythology 49). While Olympian gods are approached with prayer, praise, and presents, the Mother Goddess “is approached by means that are magical and mysterious” because she possesses the mysteries (Mythology 49).

Further, Hera, Demeter, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis represent different aspects of the one Mother Goddess (Mythology 49). In the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, the Mother Goddess is identified by many names, including: Mother of the Gods, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, Hecate, and others (Vermaseren 10). Whatever her title, name, or station, she is always understood to be both queen of heaven and the underworld, of life and death and of the mystery of rebirth (Vermaseren 10). In Roman times “the performance of her rites remained in the charge of orientals, not Romans, a dispensation carefully maintained by the Roman Senate throughout the Republic; under the direct control of the State the cult of the Goddess was to be kept in the proper channels” (Vermaseren 11).

The oracle at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo only in later times; the oracle center first belonged to the goddess Themis (Vermaseren 14) who was the steward of the gate of heaven. At Delphi there was a sacred rock known as the omphalos, or navel of the world, as well as a mysterious cleft descending into the earth which represented the nexus between worlds. Here the seekers of knowledge from the other world descended into the cave of the Goddess, for she kept the ultimate secrets and possessed the navel and nexus of creation.

The Oracle at Delphi has an interesting parallel to the school of Parmenides. Parmenides is the father of Greek philosophy. He declared his authority to teach via a vision he had in which he ascended to heaven and was met by aids and stewards of the heavenly word, all of who were  female. At the apex of the world, Parmenides himself is taught by the Goddess (Kingsley 49).

Meanwhile, all the mystery cults held the divine Mother as central to the mystery of rebirth. Cybele was the Heavenly Mother of the Attis cult. She was not only the Queen of Heaven but also the Queen of the Underworld and the wife of Hades (Vermaseren 129). Demeter and Persephone fulfill the same role at Eleusis, while Harmonia fills in at Samothrace. Mother-Goddess imagery is absent in Mithraism, an all-boys club, but the Attis Mysteries were utilized by priests of Mithraism for the initiation of women so they too might receive their afterlife rewards (Weston 159). Demonstrably, in the Greco-Roman mysteries, female priestesses were stewards of the matriarchal rites and always attended the mystai performing various roles as they aided the initiate on his quest.  This fact also parallels the sister/daughters of Osiris who lift him out of the clutches of death and the sister/daughters of Oedipus who guide him to the mystery grove at Colonus.

Virgin Mary_005

Demeter and Persephone were the central deities in the Elysian Mysteries. They provided the path and the power for rebirth in the next world.

Christian Mysteries

Rebirth was also symbolized by the male principle. Human life requires both semen and an egg. Osiris, Dumuzi, Attis, Dionysus, and Orpheus are all male deities of rebirth. In the Christian mythos, the male principle dominated to the exclusion of the goddess who had filled the role of salvation and rebirth for centuries.

But this exclusion of the female presence for salvation took many centuries to fulfill. From the earliest days of Catholicism the form of the Mother Goddess was kept alive within the cult of the Virgin Mary. Jesus was God and was to be worshiped. But Mary was the Mother of God and was to be venerated. As Joseph Campbell makes clear: “The Virgin Mary has been called a co-savior in her anguish and suffering, which was as great as the suffering of her son. She also brought him into the world, and her submission to the Annunciation amounts to an act of salvation, because she acquiesced to this saviorhood” (Campbell, Goddesses 187).

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The centrality of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity was not a Catholic invention. This was a hold over from many centuries of worshiping a goddess who was key to the cycle of rebirth. Speaking of the role of the ancient goddess, Joseph Campbell writes:

She gives birth to us physically, but She is the mother too of our second birth—our birth as spiritual entities. This is the basic meaning of the motif of the virgin birth, that our bodies are born naturally, but at a certain time there awakens in us our spiritual nature, which is the higher human nature, not that which simply duplicates the world of the animal urges, of erotic and power drives and sleep. Instead there awakens in us the notion of a spiritual aim, a spiritual life: an essentially human, mystical life to be lived above the level of food, of sex, of economics, politics, and sociology. In this sphere of the mystery dimension the woman represents the awakener, the giver of birth in that sense. (Goddesses 6)

It is easy to see how the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a natural byproduct of the religiosity from the public at large. For numerous generations, oral peoples recognized the essential presence of the feminine divine in the birth of both deity and dignity. Christians often forget the close affinity the early Church had with the feminine principle. There is a reason for this lack of memory, as again Joseph Campbell hints, “Orphic imagery is the foreground to Christian imagery, and the mythology of Christianity is far more firmly rooted in this classical [Greco-Roman] mystery religion that it is in the Old Testament” (Campbell, Goddesses 185).

If Christianity were solely a product of Judaism, than the veneration of Mary must be seen as idolatrous; as indeed it is by Protestants. Yet, while the earliest Christians were all Jews, the expansion of Christianity was due to the converts from the Greco-Roman world at large. In the Greco-Roman mysteries the initiate was given a ritual endowment learning the secrets for the next world. He was often accompanied by female priestesses who would guide him to a garden reprieve after his terrible initiatory ordeal. The whole process was indicative of death and rebirth as overseen by the goddess.

We do not find any of this imagery in the Old Testament. Indeed, while uncomfortable for many Christians to hear, the Old Testament is empty of any reference to resurrection or rebirth until perhaps the very late book of Daniel, where the dead turn into stars: “Those who are wise [the knowledgeable ones] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, [will be] like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12.3). Hardly orthodox Judaism. However, this is the exact teaching of the Greco-Roman mysteries.

Problematically, such a vision may have also come from Judaism. If there was a doctrine of rebirth in early Israelite religion, then perhaps the closest one may come to such a teaching would be within the cult precinct of the goddess or the grove. There is strong evidence that in first temple Judaism fertility was venerated, not under the auspices of Yahweh, but with his consort Asherah, the goddess of rebirth. By the time of the Babylonian exile she had been exiled from the religion and dropped from all the texts. Egyptian Jews, however, maintained a temple to the Queen of Heaven, and early Christian Jews, according to Margaret Barker, may have imported this tradition into the new faith, flowering in the cult of the Virgin Mary.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Whatever the complexities of the divine feminine among the Old Testament Jews, the imagery does show up among the New Testament Christians. Remarkably, at the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus is only attended by females. It is only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (Matthew 27.56) who, after his crucifixion, anoint him on the day of his resurrection (Mark 16.1) and are thus the first to see him rise from the sepulcher, which also happens to be in a garden (John 19.41).

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, moreover, there is a peculiar band of women who always stand witness of the crucifixion, while in the Gospel of John this band of female attendants is replaced by three Marys: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and her sister, also named Mary (John 19.25); a unique picture as the Mother Goddess is not only represented by two sisters but also by three women who represent youth, motherhood, and old age. At Eleusis, the Mother Goddess was represented by Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate (Freke and Gandy 58). Dionysus was also represented by three female attendants; when a new sanctuary of Dionysus was founded “three priestesses called maenads would go there to establish the cult. Each one of them would assemble one of the three women choirs that helped celebrate the Mysteries” (Freke and Gandy 58).

It is a supreme curiosity that at the crucifixion of the Savior none of the twelve apostles are present, and the whole affair is overseen by a retinue of female attendants. There is one obscure reference in John 19.26 where the mother of Jesus is at the cross, attended by a “disciple, standing by, whom [Jesus] loved.” Christian tradition believes this “beloved disciple” to be John the apostle, but this conclusion is circumstantial. This unidentified disciple remains unspecified, and belongs in the background with the soldiers and priests. It is only Mary and the women who attend to the crucified Jesus. Even so, at the resurrection none of the apostles are present, and the first to witness the true day of Easter was a woman or group of women to whom the knowledge of life after death was first given.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who are in the foreground and who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

The Gospels are a far cry away from modern Protestantism, who would crowd these scenes with popes, priests, apostles, and kings. Protestantism lost something essential when it exiled Mary from all of its iconography and symbolism. This male dominated ethos was never part of the original revelation that is Christ, and in the Gospels we are poignantly reminded that it is the Mother who stands as the central image around the dying and resurrecting Jesus.

However these roles, images, and models have changed over the centuries, the essential principle of rebirth lies within the womb. The closest thing to deity on earth is motherhood. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the God that Christians worship. Perhaps on this day Christians should also remember the divine hand of womanhood, for in this mortal realm, this is the closest thing we have to the celebration of life.

 

 

 

 

Earth, Sun, and Soul: The Hidden Cosmology that Underwrote the Scientific Revolution

In almost all textbooks we are told that Nicolas Copernicus introduced to the world the idea of a heliocentric or sun-centered universe. We are also told in these texts that Copernicus arrived at his thesis through careful observations of the sky, and was one of the great thinkers who introduced to the world the scientific method of deriving theory from observation. Copernicus was an intellectual giant in his time, but many of our modern assumptions about him are projections from modern narrative.

Nicolas Copernicus (1473 - 1543 CE) theorized a heliocentric or sun-centered universe.

Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543 CE) theorized a heliocentric or sun-centered universe.

Copernicus loved cosmology and astronomy, and had mastered basic cosmological theory early in life at the University of Krakow. He had learned all about the geocentric cosmos of Aristotle and Ptolemy. He also learned that there were problems with it. There were many slight errors throughout Ptolemy’s tables when compared to actual observations. In Krakow Copernicus met Albert Brudzewski, a professor of astronomy who was deeply skeptical of the geocentric system. Copernicus followed the teachings of Brudzewski and started a life long pursuit of astronomical studies.

Despite his passion, Copernicus graduated in law and medicine, and lived a professional life of administrator and physician for his uncle at the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia’s castle at Heilsberg. During his career, he always kept up his cosmological studies. He met the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara who was also testing Ptolemies theories. Copernicus became the assistant to Novara de Ferrara, and together they performed what may have been Copnericus’s first actual astronomical observation to test certain aspects of the Ptolmeic model. In March of 1497, at the age of 24, Copernicus observed the occultation of the star Aldebaran by the Moon, and helped show that the distance of the Moon from the Earth is the same whether the Moon was full or in phase. According to the Ptolemaic model, the epicycles of the Moon would have produced variations in distance.

In 1500 Copernicus also observed a lunar eclipse caused by the shadow of the Earth over the Moon when the Earth lay between the Sun and Moon. The occultation of Aldebaran and the lunar eclipse are the two observations we know he made before he started posing his heliocentric theory. It is clear that these observations in and of themselves were insufficient to prove such a system, or even hypothesize such a system. It should also be clear that there was a community of astronomers who were pushing the Ptolemaic model from every direction, and the work of Brudzewski and Novara de Ferrara must have been highly influential for Copernicus himself.

What is less known is the fact that during his education, Copernicus was calculating his hypothesis of the sun-centered sky primarily from texts and not scientific observations—these would come later. Copernicus collected manuscripts containing the works of Pythagoras, Aristarchos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, Plato, Philolaus, and Heraclides. He scoured libraries and book collections as he traveled throughout Europe performing his clerical and administrative duties as canon.

Sometime in the first decade of the 1500’s he had a good grasp of his heliocentric theory, but as yet no real idea how to prove it. He published his masterwork, De Revolutionibus in 1543, the year of his death.  Why did it take him so long to publish his work? Copernicus spent over 30 years trying to pin down the mathematical and geometric proofs for his heliocentric model, but never succeeded. In fact, despite brilliant research and thinking, the heliocentric model of Copernicus was a rewritten form of Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, with cycles and epicycles of all the planets. Copernicus even added to the number of epicycles in his model, making his new system a little more cumbersome than the old. Copernicus was a perfectionist, and he spent many years working on his tables and observations to make sure what he observed fit his theory. In the end, he could not get the math to fit the model, and he knew it.

The Heliocentric Model put the Sun in the center of the Universe. This novel cosmology would change how everyone thought of God, Self, and the Universe.

The Heliocentric Model put the Sun in the center of the Universe. This novel cosmology would change how everyone thought of God, Self, and the Universe.

This is not a criticism. The genius of Copernicus was tenacity and will. When scientific cosmology is heavily influenced by an empowered religious culture, to change a scientific hypothesis may require more than scientific acumen, but also a great deal of moral courage. He broke out from standard convention and dared to think differently than the accepted norm. This alone should have put him in the history books. But it is clear that his primer for his heliocentric theory was not his astronomical observations, but his preformulated theory. Where did he get that? As already noted, he got it from the influence of his contemporaries, but especially from the writings of ancient texts. In fact, Copernicus admits as much in his own words:

I therefore went to the trouble of reading anew the books of all philosophers on which I could lay hands to find out whether someone did not hold the opinion that there existed other motions of the heavenly bodies than assumed by those who taught the mathematical sciences in the schools. And thus I found first in Cicero that  Hiketas had held the belief that the earth moves. Afterwards I found Plutarch [it is actually psuedo-Plutarch] that others have also held this opinion. But others hold that the earth moves; thus Philolaus the Pythagoriean held that it revolves round the Fire in an oblique circle like the sun and moon. Herakleides of Pontus and Ekphantus the Pythagorean also suppose the earth to move, though not in a progressive motion, but after the manner of a wheel, turning upon an axle about its own center from west to east. (Koestler 207)

Copernicus was convinced that the ancients had known secrets that had not been passed down. This was actually common belief throughout Europe from the days of the Renaissance. One of the ancient thinkers he cites is Heraclides of Pontus, who was a student of Plato. What is known for certain is that Heraclides asserted that the earth rotates on its own axis, just as Copernicus had read. Heraclides also believed that the planets of Mercury and Venus rotated around the sun on epicycles, anticipating the system of Tycho Brahe some two thousand years later (Gottschalk 81-2). Furthermore, several late writers attribute a heliocentric theory of the heavens to Heraclides, but no known fragment or early source explicitly states the case; we must assume that either later theories and ideas were placed upon Heraclides’ science or that there was another tradition that has been lost from our sources.

More compellingly, the Pythagorean Philolaus is cited by Copernicus as one of the early Greek philosophers who believed in a heliocentric system; in fact, the Copernican system was originally called Philolaica after this Greek philosopher (Kahn 26). The problem with the cosmological system of Philolaus is that he makes the Earth orbit not the sun, but a central Fire; all the planets including the sun revolve around this central Fire. In other words, there is a second sun around which the heavenly spheres rotate and from which our own sun receives its light. Aristotle in his On the Heavens articulates this strange cosmology:

As to [the earth’s] position there is some difference of opinion. Most people—all, in fact, who regard the whole heaven as finite—says it lies at the center. But the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans take the contrary view. At the center, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the center. [. . .] The Pythagoreans [. . .] hold that the most important part of the world, which is the center, should be most strictly guarded, and name it, or rather the fire which occupies that place, the “Guard-house of Zeus” (qtd. in Temple, Crystal 271)

The System of Philolaus has all the planets AND the Sun moving around a Central Fire; the true source of light for the cosmos.

The System of Philolaus has all the planets AND the Sun moving around a Central Fire; the true source of light for the cosmos.

Many scholars have wrestled over this idea attributed to Philolaus. It is clear that these early Greek thinkers were using mathematics and understood the Earth to be moving in a circular orbit (unlike Aristotle and Ptolemy). Yet disappointingly, the system described by Philolaus does not seem to correspond to any kind of real scientific observation, leaving most commentators on this teaching to acquiesce, “despite the presence of some genuine technical knowledge [. . .] the system of Philolaus taken as a whole seems less like scientific astronomy than like symbolical speculation” (Kahn 26).

This disappointment derives from strictly modern cosmological thinking. This central fire of Philolaus belonged to a very old cosmovision that predated the Greeks. This Central Fire or second sun is the heaven above the heavens and the source of all material manifestation. It is the apeiron; the realm above the fixed stars, the heavenly abode beyond Plato’s cave, the super celestial region of Orphic cosmology. It is called the Guardhouse of Zeus, and this designation was also known by other names: “the Hearth of the Universe, [. . .] the Tower or Watch-tower of Zeus, the Throne of Zeus, the House of Zeus, the Mother of the Gods, the Altar, Bond and Measure of Nature” (Heath 164). And further, “In this central fire is located the governing principle, the force which directs the movement and activity of the universe” (Heath 164). Pindar assigns to this archetypal region of the cosmos the home of immortals and the blessed dead: “But, whosoever, while dwelling in either world, have thrice been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong, pass by the highway of Zeus unto the tower of Cronos, where the ocean-breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest” (Sandys 25).

Ancient funerary stele showing the deceased holding a drinking cup. Two doves with laurels are overhead. The doves symbolized the soul, and with the sprigs were an image of rebirth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries those who had been initiated ascended to the Islands of the Blessed.

Ancient funerary stele showing the deceased holding a drinking cup. Two doves with laurels are overhead. The doves symbolized the soul, and with the sprigs were an image of rebirth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries those who had been initiated ascended to the Islands of the Blessed.

We are breaching into yet another religious vision of eternity. The Central Fire was the home of the gods and the Blessed Isles where all the good souls dwelt. It empowered the universe. Its light gave the power to the Sun in the sky, for according to the Pythagoreans, the Sun’s light was only reflected light, receiving its luminescence from the true hearth of the universe. This was neither a geocentric nor heliocentric system, at least in purely spacial terms. It was a mythogenic system with one foot planted in celestial mechanics and the other foot pitched deep into the ontology of the soul. This was the cosmology of the mystery endowments of Greece and Rome, as the Roman Emperor Julian hints:

Some say then, even though all men are not ready to believe it, that the sun travels in the starless heavens far above the region of the fixed stars. And on this theory he will not be stationed midmost among the planets but midway between the three worlds: that is, according to the hypothesis of the mysteries. [. . .] For the priests of the mysteries tell us what they have been taught by the gods or might daemons, whereas the astronomers make plausible hypotheses from the harmony that they observe in the visible spheres. It is proper, no doubt, to approve the astronomers as well, but where any man thinks it better to believe the priests of the mysteries, him I admire and revere, both in jest and earnest. And so much for that, as the saying is. (qtd. In Leisegant 202)

This Sun in the heavens was not midmost the planets (interestingly, even in the geocentric system of Aristotle and Ptolemy the Sun was at the center of all the planets); the Sun of this system was at the center of the three tiered cosmos. It was the true center of life, the source of life, the cause and being of life.

Such grand metaphysics was a result of an ontological cosmos that sought to explain more than spacial logistics, but the essence and origin of all things. This was the cosmology that the geocentrists rejected, describing the universe in purely physical terms. Ironically, this spatial, clockwork universe was adopted by the Christians to underwrite their theological cosmovision. And even more ironically, it was the cosmology that Copernicus would use to counter the geocentric universe. It was a metaphysics that conceived the microcosm every bit as important as the macrocosm, and perhaps could be described as the “Hubble Deep Field of the Soul.”

Behind a pinprick of dark space the Hubble Telescope captured an image of countless galaxies extending to the bounds of known space. The image is called The Hubble Deep Field, and suggests that behind every point in the sky lies an infinite cosmos.

Behind a pinprick of dark space the Hubble Telescope captured an image of countless galaxies extending to the bounds of known space. The image is called The Hubble Deep Field, and suggests that behind every point in the sky lies an infinite cosmos.

All cosmologies are philosophies. Even in our hyper-materialist era of positivists and cosmological nihilism, the Big Bang remains a religious cosmovision because it is a metaphysics predicated on social values of its own. The center of the universe has shifted yet again within its confines; specifically there is no center, for it is a relativistic universe through and through. But perhaps the cosmology of Philolaus is not done yet. For the cosmology of Philolaus is first and foremost archetypal, and it speaks to Man’s central role in the transcendent function of creation. As such, the Central Fire has a correspondence in the spark of life in the soul of all living things. Perhaps science will come around again to this cosmology, in a different dress and with different rhetoric, but with the same ideological perspective?

Copernicus published his magnum opus in 1543, the year of his death. His courageous vision opened the doors to further speculation and experimentation. Men like Kepler and Galileo would pick up this torch and further explore the universe with a new vision of the mind. Significantly, both Kepler and Galileo would err in their speculations as well. Kepler believed that the distance of the planets could be described within the geometric relationships of the platonic solids. Curiously, he placed the entire solar system within the figure of the cube representing the planetary sphere of Saturn. Pythagoras, by the way, identified the Central Fire as a cube.

Kepler also figured the mathematical formulas for the planetary movements, and rewrote centuries of cosmological perspective by showing that the planets did not move in circles but in ellipses. Galileo attempted to prove the heliocentric theory using sea tides. Unlike Kepler, who rightly theorized that the tides were caused by the Moon, Galileo believed they were caused by the Earth’s motion as it orbited the Sun. Another failed attempt. But he also used a telescope, pointing at Jupiter, and discovered that it had several moons of its own. Then he discovered that the Earth’s moon was roughly textured, the planets looked different than stars, and that the Sun had spots. All of these anomalies served to weaken the geocentric cosmos, with its perfects spheres, circles, and cycles.

I write more of this cosmology in my forthcoming book, Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age, due to be published in the summer of 2015. 

 

Cindertree: The Yin and Yang of Cosmic Creation

The Cinderella tale common in most households is one of the most pervasive narratives in human culture and across global geography. Types of this story exist as far back as 2000 BCE in the Sumerian Inanna texts (Anderson 39-41). Classic Greek historians, such as Sappho (600 BCE) and Herodotus (fifth century BCE), recount historical legends with all the elements of the Cinderella tale (Anderson 27-29). In 1893, Marian Roalfe Cox published a 600 page volume recounting 345 different variants of the Cinderella narration across the globe and throughout history. This work provides the foundation for Cinderella categorization and research.

Cinderella by Edward Burne-Jones, 1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cinderella by Edward Burne-Jones, 1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The common rendering of the Cinderella tale in popular culture descends from a 1697 French version written by Charles Perrault (Dundes, ed. 14-21). Perrault wrote an anthology of vernacular folktales, and in many instances, as in his version of Cinderella, modernized them by adding elements (the glass slipper is a Perrault invention) and moral themes (his tale makes Cinderella the pinnacle of grace–Cinderella forgives her cruel sisters and marries them off to lords of the court). This version of Cinderella has become mainstream in modern times, and subsequent versions (such as the films Slipper and the Rose, Ever After, Disney’s Cinderella, Maid in Manhattan, and so forth) are based on Perrault’s own adaptations.

Perrault’s version of Cinderella, however, omits a host of images, symbols, and themes found in earlier variants. While the scope of this paper cannot address most of these omissions, it will focus on one central image common in worldwide renditions of the story: the tree. Different versions of the story are here examined, but for the purposes of space the Cinderella-like events which occur in these stories are often left out. Nevertheless, each of these tales share the essential Cinderella elements: a poor yet beautiful girl is inflicted with trials, oft times by a stepmother and cruel sisters, and/or sometimes with a descent into the underworld, and through a divine boon, usually given by a tree or representative of the tree (such as a bird), the girl is transformed into a princess, is given a new identity, and marries a royal figure. This marriage takes place oft times after a further trial, such as the fitting of a garment or shoe. As stated, the fulcrum of these versions spins around the image of a tree.

Image from the film, Into the Woods, 2014

Cinerella by the Tree. Image from the film, Into the Woods, 2014

As far back as the Inanna texts, it is the image of the tree (in this case the huluppu tree or date palm) which takes the place of the fairy queen or godmother, dispensing gifts and jewels to the distraught princess-to-be. Through the help of this tree, Inanna is able to ascend into the world of light and marry Dumuzi, the prince, but only after a series of Cinderella-like trials. Another and later version by Sappho recounts the tale of Doricha, which is a near copy to Herodotus’ Rhodopis, whose essential elements are summarized in Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World as follows:

A girl called Rhodopis was a slave in the household of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis (‘Firegodville’) in Samos. She was taken to Egypt by Xantheus (‘Goldman’) where she was given her freedom by Charaxus (‘Seabream’/’Vinepole’) of Mytilene. There she worked as a courtesan and while she was bathing in Nacratis an eagle carried her shoe to the Pharaoh; after finding it was hers by testing it on all the women in the country, he married her. As a thank-offering she gifted a collection of iron ox-roasting spits to Delphi. (28)

In this ancient version, it is a Vinepole which gives gifts and boons to Rhodopis, just as the huluppu tree did for Inanna. Also an eagle delivers the identifying item to Pharaoh. Curiously, the Vinepole is also associated with the sea. This account is similar to the version given by the first Greek prose writer, Pherecydes of Syrus (sixth century BCE) who writes of a wedding between Zas (Zeus) and Chthonie (underground-girl). Zas gives Chthonie a robe associated with a winged-oak tree, and beautifully embroidered with images of earth and ocean, which the dirty and ragged Chthonie puts on, and after her marriage, transforms into Ge or Mother Earth (Anderson 38).

Moreover, in the earliest known European variant of the Cinderella tale, written down by Giambattista Basile and entitled Cat Cinderella, the protagonist is given a magic date from a date tree which miraculously grows delivering to her gifts, including new and beautiful robes glittering like the sea. Furthermore, the tree gives her a new name: she is no longer known as Cat Cinderella, but as Zezola. With this new identity and her heavenly robes, she enamors the king, who seeks to marry her, but must first match her with her lost slipper (Dundes, ed. 3-13).

Still further, the earliest known Western European tale (twelfth/thirteenth century CE) is titled Le Fresne (Ash-tree girl). In this version an infant girl is left with a ring and brocade (as tokens) near an ash tree (her protector). She is raised in a nunnery and becomes a beautiful young girl. A traveling prince meets and falls in love with her, but he must marry a royal. On his marriage night (to another woman) Fresne enters his room as a chambermaid and leaves her brocade on the bed. The mother of the Prince recognizes the brocade as belonging to royalty, and Fresne’s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince.

One interesting connection with this variant of the story is the name of the girl as ash-tree. Cinderella’s name comes from the root cinder, meaning ash, and has most often been associated with the ash of the hearth. However, as Anderson notes of Fresne, “… this is not the ash of the fireplace, but the ash tree; the two are, however, liable to confusion throughout Germanically-related languages and in that context a confusion may have arisen” (Anderson 42). Thus, the “cinder” in Cinderella is not only linked to the hearth, but may be principally lined to a particular tree.

Finally, in Harold Bayley’s Lost Language of Symbolism, Vol. I, Bayley recounts variants of the Cinderella story where Cinderella herself is a tree. In some of the these stories she is named “Maria Wood,” “Maria Wainscot,” and “Princess Woodencloak.” Bayley writes “According to these variants, a wooden sheath is fitted around Cinderella’s body, or an oak-tree log is hollowed out so as to form a petticoat, and Cinderella gets in and out of her wooden sheathing at will” (229).

In all of these versions, from the Sumerian, to the Greek, to the earliest European episodes, the girl who plays Cinderella is directly related to a tree. As stated, Anderson even suggests that the name Cinderella derives from the ash tree itself. In any case, this tree acts either as her protector, her fairy godmother, and/or her boon and giver of gifts, and in every case is associated with giving the Cinderella character a new identity. This new identity comes via a new glittering wardrobe associated with oceans, heavens, and even the tree itself. In many of these stories glorious, bejeweled shoes, or slippers are also given, and provide the key for the marrying king or prince. Furthermore, as part of her new identity, sometimes the tree literally gives the Cinderella character a new name (as in the case of Zezola).

There are as many interpretations of the Cinderella tale as there are versions of it. These interpretations tend to congregate around psychological analysis. Thus, Bruno Bettelheim, in his Uses of Enchantment, gives a Freudian interpretation of the story, naming Cinderella and her two step-sisters a type of competition for the parents’ attention and the conflict arising between them as the conflict between child and parent (238). The hearth (from which he derives Cinderella’s name) is associated with the mother, and to live in it is to hold onto and return to the mother persona (248). Further, Bettelheim interprets the shoe or slipper as the vagina, and that Cinderella’s proper footing into it at the king’s request an act of growing into puberty (265).

In another psychological attempt at interpretation, Marie von Franz uses a Jungian approach, suggesting that the death of Cinderella’s mother and the re-emergence of a helping animal or figure (such as the tree) is the loss of the mother archetype re-emerging in a different form. “Therefore the mother’s death is the beginning of the process of individuation,” von Franz writes, “…the daughter feels that she wants to be a positive feminine being, but in her own form, which entails going through all the difficulties of finding that” (Dundes, ed. 207). With this understanding the tree becomes the emerging archetype which leads to individuation.

Yet these specific interpretations miss the very long and ancient traditions of the tree, which have always been used as an emblem of the cosmos itself. In ancient mythology the tree was in fact called the “Cosmic Tree,” “World Tree,” or the “Tree of Life.” Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the globe. He writes:

The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44)

According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. Thus, as von Franz cites, trees are planted at the center of all old German, Austrian, and Swiss villages (von Franz 13). The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).

Norse World Tree surrounded by waters.

Norse World Tree surrounded by waters.

The tree in all the variants of the Cinderella tale listed is the cosmos, whose gifts of jewels and other boons (such as the jeweled slipper) is akin to clothing the fairytale princess with the robust grandeur, fertility, and majesty of a paradisaical Eden. And Cinderella is in fact an image of the renewed earth arising from the underworld of winter, of an ice age, of desolation. Her shoes are a clear key to this understanding, for the Earth has always been the footstool of the gods: “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool…” (Isaiah 66:1). No clearer connections could be made than that of the Greek version where Zas (Zeus) clothes Chthonie with the new robes of a glittering sea and a winged tree and gives her a new name, Ge, or Mother Earth.

These are no idle comparisons. In Bayley’s analysis he gathers numerous descriptions of the new garments given to the Cinderella character in a wide variety of tales. These new robes are described as “sea-coloured”, “dark blue covered with golden embroidery,” “like the waves of the sea,” “like the sea with fishes swimming in it,” and the “colour of sea covered with golden fishes” (212). Furthermore, her shoes are also often described as “blue glass” like the sea, or as brilliant as the “Sun,” or sometimes pearl-embroidered (226).

In all these descriptions the image of the cosmic waters is apparent, and as already stated the cosmos was represented by the tree. But in ancient mythology the Cosmic Tree never stood alone, but was always associated with deep waters. The World Tree of the Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, Cuna Indians, and numerous Native American and African tribes was always surrounded or planted near a river, spring, or ocean whose waters were linked to the tree. In fact, this mythological cosmology was built into ancient temple structures all over the world. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles and that the standing stones of circles are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).

Wherever we look in myth the Cosmic Tree and the waters are wedded. Thus, when the Cinderella figure is made to put on robes like the sea, or slippers bejeweled with pearls, immediately a cosmic connection between heaven and earth is made. Indeed, numerous cosmogonies of the ancient world cite that whenever a new earth is created it rises from the waters. This is the imagery in Genesis, not only at the creation, but after the deluge, where the waters above and below co-mingle and Noah must build an ark from trees to survive the deep. Curiously, Noah sends forth a bird who discovers the first dry land to appear and brings back, clutched in its beak, a twig from an olive tree. Here too, the tree gives the gift of life, and here too the tree is connected with the cosmogonic waters.

Furthermore, in ancient cosmologies, the earth was a place of polarities and oppositions. Every seed must grow from decay and darkness just as every fish, in some manner, must swim upstream. Likewise, the earth itself repeatedly descends into the underworld of winter and rises again, re-robed and re-named, in spring. These cycles in nature are not just dependent upon each other, rather, they are wholly interdependent with each other. In ancient Hindu, the word for this relationship is yajma, which denotes the cosmic sacrifice which creates a new cosmos: even the sun, which brings all life and light to the world, does so only by burning off its corona, or shedding forth its rays in the act of yajma. For the Chinese, this understanding is revealed in the yin and yang symbol: life and death and light and darkness are apart of one great whole.

This is important to note because the life cycle of all living things on earth is itself revealed in the name “Cinderella.” As previously noted, cinder means ash, and seems to provide a double-entendre of both the ash tree and the ash produced by the burning of a tree. The “ella” of this name, according to Bayley, comes from the Greek Ele, which means “shiner or giver of light” (192). Bayley continues, “Ele is the root of Eleleus, one of the surnames of Apollo and Dionysus. It is also found in Eleuther the son of Apollo, in Helios the Sun, and in Selene the Moon” (192). The Finnish Cinderella is named Clara, meaning “to shine” or “brilliant to the sight.” The Jewish name is Cabha, meaning “aurora” (192). And ancient Hellespont takes its name from Helle, “to shine forth.” In Greek myth Helle was a maiden who fled her cruel mother-in-law and fell into the sea and drowned (192).

The name “Cinderella” conveys the double meaning of ash and tree, but also a further double meaning of the light that is produced by the ash and the tree. The light produced by the tree is seen in her glorious robes of the sea. The light produced by the ash is another matter, and provides a subtle complexity to this character. One cannot escape the double wardrobe of Cinderella. Before she is given her new glittering robes she is usually found in dirt and rags. Bayley again cites numerous instances where her clothing as a lowly housemaid reflects the “cinder” of her name. She is often robed in mouse skins, ass skins, or cat skins (225).

It is curious indeed that the mice in numerous Cinderella tales appear repeatedly. Sometimes the mouse provides Cinderella’s clothing; oft times the mouse is an animal helper, or transforms to pull a golden coach. Strangely, the mouse is associated with ancient gods of light. For example, the mouse was sacred to the sun god Apollo: white mice were usually kept in his temples and Smintheus, the Mouse, was one of Apollo’s appellations (Bayley 224). Furthermore, the mouse was sacred to Horus, the Egyptian god of light, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, is often seen with his foot upon a mouse (Bayley 225). Just so, Christ’s triumphal ride into Jerusalem is upon an ass, mindful of another form of Cinderella garment, just as her cat skins hale back to ancient Egypt where the lowly hearth cat was always associated with light (Bayley 225).

These relationships have never been fully explained. Why are the lowliest creatures often associated with the greatest beings of light? Perhaps a bridge fording this dichotomy is provided in the Cinderella tale by the image of the bird. In Inanna, Rhodopis, Cat Cinderella, and a host of other versions, it is the bird which brings gifts from the tree to the Cinderella character. In The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, birds are explained as the symbols of the soul and are most often found perching in the branches of the World Tree (87-90). Additionally, they are the prime connectors between Heaven and Earth, causing the transformation and creation of cosmos by brooding upon the waters (such as in the Genesis accounts of the Creation and Flood). In each of the Cinderella tales listed, a bird comes to Cinderella’s aid only when she is in the pit of the underworld, or in the form of the housemaid, wearing the mouse skins of the pauper girl. Hence, the birds which bring Cinderella her boons, and sometimes her glittering sea robes, are the universal messengers of cosmos who are the transforming agents of the ash: transmuting hearth to tree, dark depths to gleaming sea. Yet what activates the birds communication between heaven and earth is the lowly state: the mouse skins, ass skins, and cat skins are the footings of the noble robes and the new name. In cosmogonic myth, they are the “foundation stone” upon which creation is hung. Seen in this sense the birds are the universal energy, the world soul, which engender growth from decay.

Aschenputtel, a Germanic Cinderella, whose fairy godmother is a tree, and birds are her messengers.

Aschenputtel, a Germanic Cinderella, whose fairy godmother is a tree, and birds are her messengers.

Of course, one cannot ignore the obvious fact that the great beings of light in ancient mythology are also great beings of virtue (Apollo, Horus, Ganesha, and Yahweh being prime examples). Their associations with lowly animals–mouse and ass skins–provide evidence for the source of their virtue. They are the humble, gracious, lords of light, shining forth because they have themselves descended into the depths. Light cannot shine without darkness, and gods of light shine because they comprehend the lowest states of being. Cinderella is just such a character, and in this role as neophyte, she transforms from lowly yet humble soul into the royal bride of Heaven by which she shines forth in gleaming robes. In fact, these robes can be worn by none else: truly it is only the meek which shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

Cinderella is an ancient and ubiquitous tale. It’s associations in classical myth are overabundant with cosmological motifs. The primal image suggesting a cosmological interpretation is the Cosmic Tree which in numerous versions provides the boons to the Cinderella character. Associated with this tree are deep waters, birds, and lowly animals, all part of the cosmogonic process for both the Earth and for the individual soul; Cinderella is a representation of both. As Chthonie she is literally Earth, and in so many variations the image of Earth reborn and enfolded in gleaming sea robes under the branches of the World Tree. As individual soul, she is the being of light who descends below all things so she can ascend above all things. She is the caretaker of the ash, which is another way of saying she is the tender of the flame. Ultimately, it is the flame of cosmos, above and below, which accounts for her destiny as courtesan of the Sun and bride of the Bridegroom. Truly she is both ash and tree.

Works Cited

Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.

Bayley, Harold. Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairytales, Folklore, and Mythologies, Vols. 1 and 2. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1912.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. By John Buchanan-Brown. London: Penguin Group, 1996.

Cook, Roger. The Tree of Life: Images for the Cosmos. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 1979.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Casebook. Madison, Wisconsin: UP Wisconsin, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991.

–. The Sacred and the Profane, the Nature of Religion: the Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1957.

Parry, Donald, ed. Temples of the Ancient World. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994.

Varner, Gary R. Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2002.

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996.

Science and Religion: What is Religion?

From my last post one can see how difficult it can be to tightly define a concept. Lot’s of people like to live in a sort of blurry framework where words they use are made to apply to whatever situation they want. This allows people to relabel what they are actually doing, saying, or believing into a viewpoint they can control (or not have to think about). In the modern world, “science” has been adapted for all kinds of social and political programs that have little to do with actual science. Whenever called out on this methodology, they and their supporters often retaliate with the explanation of “nuance.” But this is an illusion; this kind of “nuance” has become a sort of intellectual nihilism and is actually the counterfeit of critical thinking.

Of course, this is a blog. And anyone can disagree with my definitions. I am simply trying to hone in on the essence of two ideas which dominate modern culture: science and religion. And if my definition of science is to narrowing for some, my definition of religion will be equally uncomfortable, but in almost the opposite way.

Daniel Dubuisson writes an excellent work entitled The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. In this work Dubuisson notes nearly two centuries of eminent scholars and thinkers who define religion in many different ways, and explains that the common denominator between all these definitions is “a lack of criteria.” Religion has been equally used to describe groups, beliefs, superstitions, dreams, visions, rituals, customs, traditions, behaviors, and personal or collective psychologies. In the ancient world, there was no word for “religion.” The first use of the word as a reference to a belief system of a church came by way of Christian thinkers writing in Latin and demarcating their beliefs from all others.

I am going to offer here a strictly functional definition of religion: what religion does and how it does it. In order to do this, I am going to present what all religions have in common. I will take these commonalities and propose a broader conceptual framework for “religion.” I understand that if my definition of science was too narrow for some, my definition of religion will be too broad. That’s okay. These ideas will at least challenge people to reconsider their own views and definitions, and perhaps help some think of these things critically.

There are two kinds of religion: Public Religion and Private Religion. A public religion I call a Church. Private religion is something else altogether, and it must be understood that public and private religion are of a completely different order and are not synonymous. This is important, simply because for many decades now the demarcations between public religion (church) and private religion (one’s own belief system) have been so thoroughly blurred in our culture that they are no longer differentiated. Why is this important? Because in our secular society there is (and should be) a division between Church and State. But this division was never meant to be a separation of private religion and State, despite the fact that this is how the concept is currently being used. Now, all religious rhetoric, however that is being defined, is being banned from any public campus or discourse. This was never the intention of the division of Church and State, and this calamity of culture and intelligence comes to us because we have changed the meaning of words.

Public Religion. A Public Religion is a social institution. We call it a Church.

1. A Belief in a Supreme Good. All social institutions have a supreme ideal for which they are built. One enters the social institution in order to aspire or in some way reflect to that ideal. This ideal I will call the Supreme Good, and for most religions, this supreme good is God(s). The central deity of a system is the ideological, moral, intellectual, ethical, and social perfection of that system. This god(s) is what one seeks to attain within the system. However, the supreme good of a public religion need not be a personified deity. Modern versions of Buddhism have no central deity, and the supreme good within the system is Awakening or Enlightenment. One becomes a Buddha, one does not worship a Buddha. On the other hand, in Christianity, the supreme good is God, known as Jesus Christ. One attains eminence in the Christian faith by “taking up the cross” and keeping his commandments. This is an important distinction to make: a supreme good need not be a personified being.

2. Moral Directives. These are the commandments of the religion; the “Thou shalt not’s” and the “Thou shall do’s.” These commandments or moral directives are always associated with the Supreme Good of the religion. Thus, in Buddhism, the moral directives become the Noble Eight-fold path to Enlightenment. In Christianity, the moral directives are the Ten Commandments, but especially “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” These moral directives often are associated with punishments if the moral directives are not kept. Karma is the universal return of rewards and punishments within the religion of Awakening. Christianity has the Law of the Harvest; that which you plant is what you will eventually reap.Christianity also has a Hell where people will spend eternity if they have lived sinful lives. Traditionally, Buddhism also had a kind of hell in that material existence was dreaded. In early Buddhism, the end of Enlightenment was to escape the wheel of rebirth in the material world. Some modern forms of Buddhism have altered or eliminated this idea.

These moral directives are attached to the Supreme Good and offer a form of “salvation. ” If one lives worthily, one will attain to the Supreme Good of the religion. For Buddhism, living mindfully at every moment and becoming awakened as a Buddha is the salvation of the system. For Christianity, entering into the Kingdom of Heaven is the salvation of the system.

3. Social Directives. These are the rituals and customs of the religion. These customs are instituted as a social reinforcement to the Moral Directives. One cannot simply just think or believe in something, one must do something about the belief. In organized religions, all sorts of social practices are set up to help people live the religion and keep the moral directives. Keeping with our examples, in some Buddhist traditions, monasteries are set up where participants come to together in social unity to meditate and teach. There are often communal meals. Within this monastery the new neophytes are instructed on the moral directives, how one really is to journey on the path of right thinking and doing. The new participants also often do the mundane chores of the group as a way of service and refinement. In Christianity, weekly meetings or worship services are attended where a priest or priestess reads from the scriptural cannon and instructs everyone on the Christian way of moral right and wrong. All kinds of other social activities are also planned,including food and clothes drives, service projects, and Bingo night. 

Further, there are many rituals which reinforce the moral directives and attaining to the supreme good. In Buddhism, meditation takes on ritual significance, as it is done repeatedly, and in the same context. In Christianity, there are all kinds of rituals, including the Eucharist and baptism, which are ritual events reenacting cosmogonic relationships. One eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ as a witness that one will be worthy of Christ; one is baptized forming a covenant of discipleship as well as enacting a ritual recitation of rebirth.

4. Hierarchy.  Every Church has a political structure with an authoritative hierarchy. These people pronounce the moral directives, oversee the social directives, and sometimes define and redefine the Supreme Good. The Pope is the leader, his Cardinal’s are his Council, and the various priests oversee the various flocks. There are Buddhist masters that acolytes seek out to learn the right path, and some Buddhist groups have a strong master-student relationship. But unlike Catholicism, which has a strong centralized political structure, some sects of Buddhism are localized around a small group, some of which have no centralized leadership. I would not call these groups, therefore, a Church. For me, a Church must have a clear authoritative hierarchy who manage the three points above.

Private Religion.

In order to define private religion I will refer to a great insight given by Carl Jung in his essay Psychology and Religion. Jung demarcates “religion” from creeds (i.e. the Church from the private religious experience.) Jung writes “Creeds are codified and dogmatized forms of original religious experience” (6). For Jung, real religion is private, internalized experience, “‘Religion,’ it might be said, is the term that designates the attitude peculiar to a consciousness which has been altered by the experience of the numinosum” (6). Again, for Jung the numinous is an involuntary condition, an external power, that causes “a peculiar alteration of consciousness” (4). Of greater importance in Jung’s thought, is the fact that this kind of religion is part of human consciousness, and that the psyche and the numinous are intimately connected. Man is more than a homo sapien, but is especially homo religiosus; the psyche has an existential drive towards meaning and some form of transcendence.

I agree with this thinking. All human beings have a belief system linked to a set of metaphysics that adumbrate a transcendent ideal. This inner world constructs, all by itself, its own forms of behaviors which reinforce this ideal. In short, every human being is a religious being, and has an interior adherence to the exterior principles of religion stated above. That is to say, every individual has a belief in a Supreme Good, and a personal belief system of the right moral actions and behaviors which support and cause to manifest that Supreme Good. Further, every human being has an idea, even if it be a vague one, of an authoritative source from which one can learn about that Supreme Good.

For me, the inner life comes down to this: a person’s  private religion is his or her habits. But not just habits of action, what people habitually do, but also and especially habits of mind and desire, what people habitually think about and want. If you study a person’s habits you will eventually see what a person worships. And in seeing that, you will also comprehend that the individual has constructed a life around that “god.”

For me there are absolutely no atheists. There are people who do not prescribe to a Church, but everyone has a belief in a god (the supreme good), even if that god is nothing but themselves. There are all kinds of gods in private religion: success, money, power, truth, goodness, reason, beauty, etc. The greatest god in this world, however, appears to be the endless worship of the self. This is an irony to be sure, for as Jung expertly explains, many people have created a system of habits (neurosis) which hide the authentic self from consciousness. In fact, many people use public religion as the exact tool to hide true enlightenment within private religion.

Religion and its Consequences.

Now, here is the thing, if you look at my definitions of religion you will see that they can be broadly applied. And this will make many people cry “foul.”

First off, I believe everyone has a religion and everyone believes in a god (their supreme good, however that is defined). Further, everyone constructs a religious program of moral beliefs, actions, and wants within their habits. What a person habitually does, thinks, and wants is their religion.

All social institutions are constructed from private religious concerns. All of them. However, often the social institutions codify those private religious concerns into public and corporate wants. In many cases, the social institutions begin inflicting the private religions of their leaders upon the consciousness and conscience of their followers.

What my definition is doing is repealing the distinction secularism made when it was birthed during the collapse of public Church control. Secular beliefs insist that “religion” is associated with a belief in a supernatural god extolled by priests and priestesses. This is a narrative that is simply looking at the dress without seeing the body it is covering. In my definition, secularism is a religion, and many secular institutions are in fact Churches. The University is a Church. The Corporate Board is a Church. Political parties and government agencies are Churches, controlled and regulated by popes, priests, and kings who are simply wearing a different dress.

Take the university system as an example. At a secular university the supreme good is “Reason”. But what is Reason? This too is vaguely defined, and is often said to be consistent, critical, and scientific thinking. But is Reason practiced on the university campus in a consistent, critical, and scientific way? Sometimes. But more often then not the answer is No. The Reason of the University is quickly swept into a culture that has moral directives that might not be consistent, critical, and scientific. There is an “enlightened” way to “think” on campus, and which reinforces the Supreme good, which is labeled Reason but in fact is nothing more than conformity to a specific ideology. This campus quickly develops social directives to reinforce the only good way to think, and soon students are protesting this or that cause or experimenting with this or that social tradition, all under the guidance of a strict authoritative academic and socio-political hierarchy.

I am not saying any of this is bad. What I am saying is it is religious. There is no educational venture that is not religious.

Many will say that education is the opposite of religion. But they have not thought things through. It is interesting to me that for countless thousands of years human beings lived within religious institutions. The whole world was nothing but various forms of theocracies throughout history, and the demarcation of the secular world is when the Church was removed from government and education.

The Church was removed, but religion was not. Why were human beings living within religious theocracies throughout all of history? Is it because they could not think of getting rid of God? If human consciousness and culture has been evolving for hundreds of thousands of years, why is it modern people think they can negate such extraordinary evolutionary processes the moment they dispatch of their idea of God? The argument is we no longer need theocracies because in fact we have evolved. But this sudden reorientation to secularism as an idea that religion is no longer necessary makes biological evolution nothing but a colossal trifle, a simple and stupid thing that can be picked up and put down whenever one needs.

Biological evolution, on the other hand, has encoded into the physiology and consciousness of the human being a religious pattern. Again, we are homo religiosus. We are finite beings in an infinite universe and are always speculating and creating metaphysics about our place in the universe. These speculations will always align themselves  to an array of moral and social directives focused around the ultimate meta-physic, whatever that might be. Human beings are always constructing religion.

 

 

Science and Religion: What is Science?

Both Science and Religion are words and concepts that are widely used but rarely defined. This is purposeful; the more amorphous a concept is the wider its application can be. This is also accidental; after a while the amorphous use of words become the blurry definitions people employ when they use them. If you go to any college campus and ask only the professors of the Science Department to define “science,” and the professors of the Religion Department to define “religion,” you will get a wide array of ideas, few of which will completely agree with the other in total. This is very problematic, as the drifting meaning of words can have huge consequences in how they are used in politics, law, and culture.

Let’s begin with science. It is always nice, when assessing the meaning of a word, to look it up in a dictionary, or these days, on Wikipedia. The dictionary gives several definitions linked to a branch or system of knowledge. This, however, is a dated and colloquial definition and is not how modern scientists use the word to describe what they are doing. Wikipedia’s entry is more exact: “Science […] is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe.” This definition is good, but requires some unpacking. Below I list several aspects of what modern science is and is not.

Proposition 1: Science is not just a body of knowledge, but specifically knowledge gained by reliable, predictive rules gained by repeatable and controlled experimentation. 

This definition is a modern construction, and it should be noted that the idea of science has evolved over time. Aristotle is often called the Father of Science, simply because he is the first human being who records in writing (that we know of) a systematic approach to the gathering of knowledge and the formulation of theory. But for Aristotle, the gathering of knowledge was always a subset of philosophy. Aristotle defined science as “knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.” Aristotle’s science was highly speculative and was rooted in philosophical principles for which the gathering of knowledge was employed. Instead of performing repeated and controlled experiments testing a theory in hopes of disproving it or improving it, Aristotle would start with a philosophical first cause and then collect data that showed his philosophy to be correct. In other words, this approach is almost the exact opposite of modern science.

Aristotelian science reigned for centuries, but today Aristotle’s approach is no longer considered science. This is an important point to make, because today many people, even educated people, still employ the Aristotelian method and call it science. We shall have more to say of this below in Proposition 4.

So, according to this definition, science is the act of obtaining predictive rules, or highly informative statements which can be proved and repeated. Science does not seek generalities, but particulars. Anybody can say that it will rain next month, but this is not of interest to science. Science seeks to show that it will rain in Chicago tomorrow afternoon by 1 pm. This is a high information statement that can be proven false or true. The method by which we come to this statement must be repeatable and continue to predict high information statements.

Proposition 2: Science is NOT truth.

Science does not concern itself with truth, because truth is connected with ultimate causes and eternal principles. Truth also concerns itself with generalities. Vague statements that are true are not useful to science. False statements that are precise are useful. Science does not establish the permanency or the universality that truth seeks to establish. It is an established fact that all past scientific theory and propositions have eventually been replaced with different and very often better scientific propositions. What was thought to be true in one decade is disproved in another. Science therefore does not concern itself with truth, but with testing propositions in an attempt to disprove or improve them.

Furthermore, it should be noted that many false statements have truth content. Many false scientific theories have led to the discovery of many true scientific facts. One can disprove a person’s premises, but still have not disproved his conclusions, for in fact, the premises might be wrong but the conclusions right. In fact, most of science progresses in this way: from flawed ideas and premises to more precise conclusions as the experimentation seeks to test the premises.

Proposition 3: Science is NOT induction.

It has been taught for a very long time that the scientific method consists of gathering data, and after collecting the data, summarizing a theory from it. This is called induction, and it is complete fiction. People first put forth a theory, and then seek to prove or disprove it using the data and experimentation. Science is at all times hinged to current pre-established theories, and this is why it cannot be called truth and why it can (and does) change and improve upon itself. The invention of a new theory reorients the collection of data and the way that data is interpreted.

 Proposition 4: Science concerns itself with falsifiability. That which is falsifiable is science, that which is not, is not science.

A collection of highly informative statements that cannot be tested or experimented upon is not science. A theory which explains everything is not science. Science must be able to falsify, through experimentation, a set of statements or theories. Mind you, the statements or theories may turn out to be correct, but they must be falsifiable nevertheless. All scientific progress is rooted in falsifiability.

This is a hard parameter for people to understand, for as it turns out, this parameter disqualifies most things modern people think of as science as actually being real science. There are many large scale systems (often irreducibly complex) for which there are universal theories that are used to explain them. These universal theories are thought to be scientific, but many are not falsifiable, and therefore cannot be science.

Statistics, Economics, and Psychology are three fields which are imbued with the veneer of science, but often are couched in paradigms that cannot be experimented upon or falsified. Any current statement that says, for example, that by the year 2030 the GDP will have increased by 10% due to this or that economic policy or this or that statistical analysis cannot be falsified because the year 2030 cannot be experimented upon. These are socio-political statements and not scientific ones. When Freud introduced the concept of sexual repression as the basis of all neurosis, or when Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious and psychological archetypes, they proposed universal theories that cannot be falsified. They in fact can explain any data that comes into them. Therefore, their paradigms cannot be called science.

Cosmologies are enormously difficult to falsify because they are generally couched in truth statements that seek to explain everything. Geocentrism was eventually falsified, but this took centuries because of the cosmological truth statements that everyone believed in. The idea that the circle is the most perfect geometric form and therefore all things in heaven must move in circles is falsifiable, though everyone for centuries was proving that everything in heaven moved in circles (all those epicycles of Ptolemy for example). Yet the idea that the Earth is God’s grand creation and therefore exists in the center of the universe is non-falsifiable because it deals with truth statements that cannot be experimented upon (God’s grand creation).

As it turns out, we cannot experiment on or falsify the original particle from which the universe is said to have expanded in the Big Bang, and this is why the Big Bang must always be called a Theory. We can only infer the origins of the universe. Is the Big Bang Theory science? Well I think everyone at NASA would say yes, but the question is posed is it falsifiable? Actually, it is not, at least as framed, and therefore cannot be science.

The difference is this. What can be called science in BBT cosmology is all the principles and mathematical equations that can be tested. The Cosmic Microwave Radiation Background is something that can be tested and something that can help explain the BBT. However, a flawed premises can still have correct conclusions. What cannot be tested is the conceptual framework of the origin of the universe itself. A single particle that contains all the matter in the universe is not falsifiable, and therefore must remain philosophy.

What about Climate Change?  As science it must be experimented on, debated, refuted, proved, etc. Many mathematical models are being employed to do just that. However, any contrary models are being expunged. As an environmentalist, I support smart environmental policy. As an academic, I cringe when good scientific method is shortchanged by cultural and political expediency. History has shown that, even if the science is right, shortcuts in science lead to terrible suffering. Many academic papers trend to incorporate all data within their own frameworks, and as a result all weather events are made to explain climate change. This is dangerous, for it makes the theory unfalsifiable, and according to Science 101, this turns the theory into philosophy. Wed to political expediency, such a philosophy can take wide and destructive turns.

By now you can see that I am getting into real trouble. And yes, there are scores of educated academics that would disagree. But science doesn’t care. Science does not concern itself with truth. Science does not concern itself with values. Science does not concern itself with policy. Human being do, and they should. But science is simply a method of investigation which requires strict adherence to data collection and experimentation  which is always trying to disprove itself. We human beings almost always do the exact opposite, we are always trying to prove our views. There are no sacred cows in science, despite the fact that so many scientists have sacred cows and call them science.

I am not saying that science should not be used to examine our truth claims, or our values, or to inform our social policies. Of course it should. What I am saying is that science is a methodology to gain knowledge; it is not a worldview, nor is it a system for its social application. This is where philosophy, ethics, and religion comes in. Science can help build the worldview, but the worldview itself is something different than science, because worldviews have mixed within them all sorts of value statements that ultimately cannot be tested, proved, or remain un-examined.

Why is any of this important? Because, in our post-modern age, people in every sector of society are claiming that their worldviews are the ultimate truth and are doing so in the name of science. It is a good thing to know, right up front, that science has no claim on the ultimate truth.

 

Science and Religion, A Brief Historical Tour

Science has become a buzz word. It is now used as a sort of universal adhesive to glue “validity” to almost any opinion, as long as it sounds or looks “scientific.”  That is to say, we can look educated; we can sound educated; we can hold certificates of education; we can obtain rank of office requiring education—and none of it means we are truly educated. In modern secular society, what passes for education is not the grit and hard labor of critical thinking, but the veneer of science. Like “religion,” the word “science” has been co-opted by fundamentalists to coerce opinion. This dynamic has been going on for a long time, and is at the root of the narrative to the secular age.

The irony in the debate between science and religion lies in the total misapprehension of means and ends as applied to both. Science and religion are means to an end. Science is an empirical methodology that seeks to answer “How do we do what we want to do?” Religion is a metaphysical methodology that seeks to answer “Why or Should we do what we want to do?” And the corollary: “Is what we want good, beautiful, and true?” Both address the human condition in substantively different ways, but never have they been natural opposites of each other. On the contrary, the technical How and the moral Why are complements of each other, and science and religion are two complimentary methodologies to address human capacity and potential.

So how did they get to be traditional opposites in our cultural understanding? Well it’s simple: Politics. Politics is the methodology of ends, and in the history of the world, it is Politics that has been the natural enemy to Science and Religion.

The overused and highly imaginative narrative that the Catholic Church and its religious sensibilities were the things that sought to destroy Galileo and his scientific sensibilities has been long discredited. Of course, you wouldn’t know it by listening to pop culture, or even the “educated” pop culture. How  quickly we forget that in the days of Galileo the Church was the State and the University was the Church. This fact has huge consequences which the secular world no longer bothers with. In an era where theocracies reign it is easy to show just how blind religion can be. But mixing religion with politics has always been disastrous. Read Jeremiah in the Bible. His whole argument was that the politics of the State was destroying the faith of Israelite religion. His solution was to give up political gamesmanship and desires for world power and live the authentically religious life. And the King and the Priests killed him for it. It’s pretty much the same story with Jesus. And Ghandi. While the story of Galileo is different, the events exist within the same dynamic.

There were many people in the Catholic Church who supported Galileo’s ideas than just opposed them; who worked to rally his insights into the wider cultural arena than suppress them. Galileo’s most strident opponents were the one’s who stood to lose the most if the old cosmology were diminished. They were the professional cosmologists, and in our textbooks they are called “Priests.” No one seems to bother calling them academics, which is exactly what they were, or the arbiters of science, which is exactly what they were defending. It is true, the Pope and several Church committees eventually came down hard on Galileo, accusing him of heresy. It is also true that the Pope in many ways had more political and economic power than the King, and much to lose politically if Galileo’s abrasive charges were left unchallenged. Meanwhile, the various Church committees were zealously defending religious doctrines while secretly dreading the end of tenure.

When there is no separation between Church and State the Church gets all the blame for what the State is doing. Fair enough, but when the State seeks final resolve over the Church, it must have an authoritative basis to gain control, and in the secular world we have been indoctrinated to think that religion is a crutch and science is the cure. In this indoctrination there is never a demarcation between church and religion, which is very telling. In the story of Galileo, the church was a political structure which used religion as its reason for using its power. The downfall of the church was the politicization of its religion. Just as in the days of Jeremiah, it turns out that church and religion were opposites.

The secular world has not overcome this paradox. Indeed, when Science and State are in bed together, the end result is often disastrous.  The Nazi final solution was rooted in scientific argument: intelligence was a biological function rooted in evolutionary processes. If society eliminated the biologically weak, then the new generation would become the ubermensch. Millions would go to the slaughterhouse in the name of scientific progressiveness. The most talented cadre of intellectuals in the world, the German academics, joyfully marched to the tune of the Nazi ideal while donning the accouterments of the new age—lab coats. Droves of American academics fawned over the rise of the National Socialists, declaring that they were the opening act to the new Age of Reason. Only slowly, and with begrudging despair, did they admit they were mistaken, and this not because of the arguments of science, which they had been using the whole time, but because of the ash falling out of the sky.

Of course, there were a great many German and American academics who were opposed to the whole charade, but the entire episode interrupts the meta-narrative of modernism that science and religion are opposed. On the contrary, when a political system seeks ultimate power at any cost, it will use whatever means it can to achieve its ends. In a theocracy, the State uses religion for the sake of its power. In a secular age, the State uses science for the same ends.

The complimentary proposition holds true. Authentic science concerns itself with authentic religion, because how we do a thing is fundamentally linked to why it must be done. Religion is more than ethics, however, but a philosophy of relationships rooted in the “divine self” or human-being as it ought to be. It is not enough to ask, “Should we do this?” We must also ask, “If we do this, how ought it be done?” In a world of dynamic relationships the cold efficiency of science is often insufficient for its own application. Religious morality is a necessary partner to scientific truth. It is one thing to know how to split an atom. It is another thing entirely to split an atom on another’s head.

The modern tensions between science and religion turn out not to be new. This is a critical point that is also skipped in our history books. The meta-narrative of modernity not only pits science and religion against each other, but also places true science as a completely modern and novel idea breaking forth out of countless millennium of religious superstition. It is a self congratulating point of view that simply does not hold.

In the West, according to our histories, true reason begins around 600 BCE when a man named Pythagoras founded a school in Greece. Pythagoras worked out the mathematical relationships in musical tones, and began describing the world not as the forces of arbitrary gods, but by number. It is a marvelous narrative that entirely skips the fact that the school of Pythagoras was closer to a temple cult than a Western academy. Oh, and that the world had been described by number far before Pythagoras, but such descriptions were veiled behind the mythological tropes of the gods. Irony to be sure.

Still, Pythagoras was an intellectual giant. And so were Heraclides, Plato, Erastosthenes, Aristotle, and scores of other Greek intellectuals, all of which would never consider a natural division between science and religion. For them science and religion were synonymous. Like Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest minds in human history, and who wrote more on religious subjects than on all of his works on calculus, physics, and optics combined, all were as interested in religion as science. Modern notions sidestep this reality by asserting that while all these men were great intellectuals and laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution and the modern age of reason, they were also steeped in a religious world that would take centuries to rise out of. If they had been born today, so the thinking goes, they would have sided with the pro-science and anti-religion crowd. This viewpoint is untenable.

A few generations after Pythagoras and Parmenides the Sophists had taken over education. These were the high intellectuals who traveled around Greece teaching the secrets of the universe to anyone who could pay their high fee. The late Sophists were the “Renaissance Men” of Greece: sophisticated, knowledgeable, critical, elitist, and highly condescending to religion. They were the self-anointed culture-bringers who accused all those who disagreed with them as “flat-earthers,” despite the fact that most of them believed in a flat earth. Indeed, their science looks so childish and pithy to us today, with all their talk of hot and dry, breath and winds, earth, fire, air, and atoms. But this was the high science of the times, and creation could be explained by such things without talking about the gods. Our modern science has changed a great deal, but the dynamic between the materialists and the non-materialists has not changed at all.

Men like Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, and Protagoras, were insistent that there was no such thing as the supernatural, and that religion was a crutch and science was the cure. They were not alone in making these arguments; in fact, they were in the majority. Socrates sums up the spirit of the times when he says, “When I was a young man I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science, for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes and why it exists” (Phaedo 96a-b). Socrates hoped that the sciences could explain everything. Yet, after Socrates scoured through all the scientific literature he realized that it was all a front, and that the scientists knew about as much of the real nature of things as the country peasant who still believed in satyrs and cyclopes.

Socrates, however, was one of only a few who were holding the line between religion and science. Plato writes that the common opinion among educated academics was that nature produces creation spontaneously without any intervention of the gods, and that all things could be explained by the natural sciences (Sophist 265c, for example). Classical Greece was filled with atheism, and both Socrates and Plato will have none of it. At the very end of Socrates’ life, he scolds the wisest and most knowledgeable scholars of the day, and declares that when it is all said and done, a life lived as promoted by these scholars, a life without authentic religion, is worthless (Gorgias 527b-e). This was not a reflection, but an accusation against the spirit of his times. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, Socrates was sent to his death by the fundamentalists of his age, accused of impiety. Our modern history books labels these authoritative crowds as religious mobs, but in each case the people sending the high thinkers of the age to their deaths are the academically trained intellectuals promoting not only the best politics of the day, but also the best science.

I have spent some time deconstructing the secular side of this argument because it is the argument that is made in secular culture. It is easy to point out religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, but few people seem to understand that such things are not a product of religion, but of human nature, and the secular crowd does not get a pass. It could be said that fundamentalism is the art of obtaining moral authority in conformity. The fundamentalist wants people to think and act as he does, and often puts up strict punishments for any departure from the official path. One must tow the party line or else.

And this is the point. There is a party line, and it need not be religious. Clearly the church committees railing against Galileo were fundamentalists, but so were the Sophists in the days of Socrates. There are two things one CANNOT do on an American university campus: argue with an evangelical that the Bible contains myth and the earth is not seven thousand years old; or question a secular progressive on the hypothesis and methodology of Climate Change. The irony here is, the first will accuse you of impiety and may suggest that your soul is not saved, but the second will actively seek to silence and banish you from campus. While the first reaction is intolerant, the second is far more similar to the methodology of the late church committees censuring Galileo. And no one seems to get the joke.

The tension then, was never between authentic science and authentic religion. The tension has always been between a socio-cultural point of view embedded in human nature: the material versus the spiritual, the profane versus the sacred. This tension is exasperated by the fundamentalism adopted by both sides of this argument as they try to control the other side. Suffering has always been the result. Meanwhile, a true scientists does not disparage religion lest he turns himself into a theologian who despises only his own caricature of religion . Even as a true disciple of faith seeks out scientific progress at every turn of the scriptural page. Culture and politics are the only things that corrode this relationship.

 

Science and Religion, Bibliography

In the past week I have had two associates of mine ask me about my own take on the tensions between science and religion. I know this subject has been discussed thoroughly from multiple points of view, but these intelligent and highly educated associates still grapple with the tensions between these fields of knowledge. And rightfully so.

I thought I would simply add a reflection on the subject I have had over the past few years as I listen to people discuss the interrelation between these two fields of study. I will do this in a couple of posts. This one presents a bibliography of good books to read. And the next post will discuss the nature of science and religion. The last post will discuss cosmology, which has always been a mixture of both.

First off, I have my own bibliography I have studied in this field. There are many other books and essays one can read, but I suggest the following:

1. Science and Religion, by Ferngren (Editor).  This is a recent compilation of essays by leading scholars and historians of science and religion. It is well written and shows the complexity of historical interpretation between science and religion. Highly Recommended.

2. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Popper. This is a dense tome but well worth the read. Popper is one of my favorite historians of science, though often he writes to an audience who is already deeply immersed in scientific language and tradition (and, admittedly, is sometimes over my head). Popper shows what science is, its limitations, methodologies, and products. His argument that a thing that cannot be falsified cannot be called science, and his insights on the highly metaphysical nature of cosmology, is worth the price of the book and the labor of the read.

3. Philosophy and the Real World, by Magee. This is an introduction to the ideas of Karl Popper (above) and is a much easier read. So, if you are new to the subject, read this one first.

4. The Measure of God, by Witham. This is a great overview of the different fields of science and how they interact with religion as revealed in the Gifford Lectures, or series of lectures given by leading scholars. It is more of a history of ideas set within the science and religion debate context.

5.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Kuhn. A classic. Kuhn shows that science often evolves very unscientifically, and that the road to scientific consensus is “extraordinarily arduous.” Social, cultural, and philosophical influences walk side by side in the quest for scientific discovery.

6. Darwin, Norton Critical Edition, by Appleman (Editor). So very often the conflict of science and religion falls into the arguments of human identity, and thus biological evolution. This books presents the writings of Charles Darwin, with an absolutely fantastic section of essays from different perspectives about the writings of Charles Darwin. I know this is revealing, but as it turns out, I could not put this book down.

7. The Origins of Scientific Thought, by de Santillana. I read this book twenty years ago and it had a profound influence on me and my view of history. His introductory chapter on the science before the Greeks was the first bit of history writing that challenged everything I had learned about history before the Greeks. I cite him often in my upcoming book Mythos and Cosmos.

If you only have time to read one book, read the first one on the list. If you are interested in the history of science, read the last one on the list. If you are interested in the philosophy of science (which is necessary to understand if one is going to assess it with religion) read any in the middle.

 

What’s Down with Jonah? A Fishy Tale

If you have ever attended a Sunday School class delving into the cryptic pages of the Old Testament, then you have certainly heard of the story about Jonah. Primary teachers love this story, and schools of protestant children, darting to and fro in uniform waves of faithful learning, can tell you all about the prophet who was swallowed by a fish.

Jonah and Fish

Noah and the “Great Fish”

If you have never heard the story, it goes like this:

God tells a man named Jonah to call the city of Nineveh to repentance. They are sinning in Ninevah, you see, and if they do not change their ways the entire city will be destroyed. Jonah, a Hebrew, has no desire to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and sworn enemy to Israel. Such a mission seems like suicide. So Jonah says “no way dude.” Knowing Yahweh is not to be taken lightly, Jonah perceives that his refusal will not get him off the hook. So what does he do? He does the only thing a pragmatic Hebrew without a death-wish would do, he flees from God. Jonah travels to the city of Joppa and books passage on a ship heading for Tarshish. Tarshish is probably somewhere in present day Spain, and so quite literally Jonah books a trip to the other side of the world (in his day the East end of the Mediterranean Sea was the end of the world.)

Well, things do not go well for Jonah. A great storm comes up and nearly sinks the ship. The crew wants to know who it is that is cursed on board, for surely some sin has brought such a fierce and unexpected storm. Jonah admits he is running away from the Hebrew God, and after much deliberation Jonah is thrown overboard. At that moment two things happen: the storm dissipates, and a great fish swallows Jonah.

In the belly of the fish, Jonah descends to the bottom of the world where he repents (by singing a hymn) and is reborn as a prophet. Jonah is spit out near Nineveh and he calls the city to repentance. To his surprise, the city repents! This actually makes Jonah angry, for now he does not look like a true prophet who foretold the destruction of the city. This is the whole point of the story. God can transcend any “word” or “prophecy” by his divine will. God also seeks true and repentant followers, whether gentile or Jew.

Theological points aside, what are we to do with Jonah and the Great Fish? Generations of believers have believed this episode as literal history, forgetting that Jonah probably descends from an oral tradition. Oral minds fashion a different kind of history by creating narrative templates that are easily remembered; then historical data is poured into those templates. Oral history is therefore not like literate history, with the latter’s preoccupation with details and footnotes and facts (no matter how gerrymandered they are). Oral history places historical events within universal themes and memorable motifs usually associated with the cosmology or cult of the society.

So, was Jonah really swallowed by a fish? Of course the literal interpretation is obscene, and it is quite amusing to see how early Christian Bishops sought to explain this story. One suggested that the Great Fish was already dead when Jonah fell into it, and therefore he could not be dissolved in the stomach acids of the fish. Another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of a boat that God had sent to pick Jonah up. While another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of an inn where Jonah snoozed after his passage across the sea. Meanwhile, the Hebrew text specifies “Great Fish” and not “whale.” Whales actually cannot swallow a thing the size of a human being as their gullet is too small. And so it is that many writers have spent gallons of ink trying to identify a species of fish that could actually swallow a man and keep him alive in its belly for three days.

One of the great things about being a comparative mythologist is one can see the forest from the trees. (The downside of course, is you can also miss some of the trees whilst looking at the forest, but I’ll save that topic for another post.) As such, a comparative mythologist can see patterns in the landscape where others have focused on a particular lichen on one trunk.

The first true curiosity in this story is the city of Joppa where our fleeing prophet departs. Jonah, who is commanded to help save a foreign city, takes sail from Joppa and is swallowed by a sea monster. Joppa is the exact place where Perseus slays a great sea monster whilst saving a princess and her city. Perhaps this is just tangential, but it also turns out that Heracles also departs from Joppa during his Labors and is then swallowed by a great fish, wherein he stays for three days! Too coincidental?

The city of Joppa aside, the “Great Fish” is another curiosity. In an enigmatic scene found on an ancient Greek vase, we see Jason of Argonaut fame being disgorged by a “Great Fish” upon the shores of the underworld garden.

Jason and Dragon

Jason and the “Great Fish”

This scene depicts an episode in the Jason myth that has not survived in the written record. Jason is being disgorged by a “dragon,” but the fact that he is released in the underworld known to be at the “end of the sea,” suggests the creature is a “sea serpent.” Here, at the edge of the world, resides the Golden Fleece. Standing next to Jason is Athena, who holds in her hand a dove. Athena is often associated with her owl, but in this scene she holds a different bird. It is an interesting contrast, as the dove in Greek art is most often associated with Aphrodite. For the Greeks, the dove was a symbol of both physical and spiritual love.

Because pure love was thought to be eternal, the dove also symbolized the eternal part of one’s being, i.e. the soul. In some Greek funerary urns the dove appears in the underworld where the deceased is drinking from the Fount of Memory. In other cultures the dove represented resurrection as it carried fresh sprigs for its nest at Springtime. This is certainly how the symbol is employed in the Noah story. The dove becomes a symbol of rebirth; its depiction with Athena, who is aiding Jason in the underworld, is well deserved. The final analysis appears to be that Jason is being reborn, and of course the underworld is the only place where that could happen. The Heracles myth follows suit, for his journey in the fish leads him also to the underworld where he seeks the secrets of rebirth.

This excursion into the symbol of the dove is of interest to our Old Testament tale simply because the name of Jonah means dove. Literally, Jonah is the dove that descends and is reborn from the underworld. The motifs are intact and consistent, and whether the Old Testament author borrowed from a pre-existing cultic milieu of imagery and theme, or whether this mise-en-scene already belonged to Hebrew culture, is irrelevant. The images of fish, dove, and underworld remain coherently attached to the oral cosmology of the age.

 All of this is made clear in Jonah chapter 2. Jonah is in the fish and descends to the bottom of the sea.

And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. […] I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me forever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. (2.2-4,6-7)

The highlighted phrases are worth noting. In Hebrew, the word for belly can also signify “womb.” The word translated as “hell” is actually Sheol, or the Hebrew underworld. The phrase could thus be translated “from the womb of the underworld.” The belly of the fish is just such a place. Noah is cast into the deep and at the bottoms of the mountains. This is imagery of the underworld. In ancient cosmology the universe was three tiered: heaven, earth, and underworld. The underworld was not just the realm of darkness and death (it was that), but really it was the generative matrix from which living things came. It was the dark soil that sprouted the seed. So, when you died, you did descend into horrifying darkness, but in many traditions the underworld was the source of all life and therefore the realm where one could learn the secrets of eternal life.

It turns out the Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife until very late (post Exile period). At least, that is what the scholars tell us; this because there are no surviving sources that would inform us otherwise. It does not matter. Jonah is an 8th century BCE prophet, though the book of Jonah probably was not written until the 6th or 5th century BCE. In either time frame the cosmology of the story of Jonah, i.e. descending to the underworld to be reborn, is intact. The only question becomes, does the story implicate any belief in an afterlife? Technically speaking, the answer is “no.” Jonah’s rebirth is one of office and purpose. He goes into the underworld a fleeing man and reemerges from the underworld a powerful prophet who speaks directly in the name of God. His rebirth, therefore, is an initiation into the office of a seer.

But the cosmology is central to the ordination of this prophet. It is truly fascinating to find that both the Talmud and Midrash reveal that when Jonah is in the belly of the whale he is actually said to be underneath the altar of the temple. In the above cited hymn, Jonah prays for deliverance by orienting himself towards the temple. Indeed, two images remain prominent in Jonah’s ordination song: the underworld and the temple. This is appropriate as in fact there was thought to be a chamber or chasm underneath the altar in the Hebrew Holy of Holies where the abyss of the underworld resided. This cavern or abyss was called the “Well of Souls.” The Talmud’s depiction is to the point, for only under the temple altar was there a passage to the secrets an ordinations of life and death.

Well of Souls 3

The “Well of Souls” underneath the Temple altar.

The other bookend to this tale is the city of Nineveh. By tradition, Joppa appears to be the home of a sea creature who consumes men (the myths of Perseus and Heracles as examples).  Meanwhile, the name Nineveh translates as “The House of the Fish.” The city is sometimes signified by a glyph of a fish in a basin. The tutelar goddess of Nineveh was Nînâ, a fish goddess, and a leading god of Nineveh, Ea (Enki) was often depicted with a fish robe. Of even greater import is the fact that priests in Nineveh (and throughout Assyria) often donned fish robes in imitation to the deity who had power over the deep. On one cuneiform tablet we are also told that individuals being initiated into the priesthood of these deities would “ritually” descend into the underworld where they would behold the “altars amid the waters” belonging to Anu, Bel, and Ea (the gods of heaven, earth, and underworld).

Jonah and Fish_002

Assyrian priests in their fish garment.

Fish imagery associated with a priestly order is widespread. Vishnu appears as a fish when he saves Manu from the Great Flood. In fish form, Vishnu also reveals to Manu all of the Vedas and sacred knowledge of the gods; thus Manu is initiated into the priesthood of Vishnu. Priests of Osiris were forbidden to eat fish, for it was believed that the gods could turn into fish, and some goddesses held the title “Chief of the Fishes.” Jesus Christ is also represented by a fish. He is the “fisher” of men and serves loaves and fishes to the masses. It seems all pastoral imagery, but in Christian iconography the fish is often associated with the Eucharist, and at least one Church Father, Tertullian, describes new Christian initiates as “little fishes.”

The entire story of Jonah takes on a sympathetic theme with priestly initiation. It is a story written in irony, as so many Old Testament tales are. It was common knowledge that Assyrian priests and priestesses were associated with the fish, and that they also analogically descended into the underworld as part of their priestly rites. Jonah is called to be a prophet and refuses. He flees, but is in turn swallowed by a fish, descends to the underworld, and is initiated as a prophet. Jonah has just been endowed with a priestly ordination in imitation of the priests and peoples he was to preach. Yahweh has taken the place of Ea and has trumped Nînâ, and sends to Nineveh his own priest initiated on their  own terms.

Christians use the Jonah story as a type of Christ. Then again, Christians use everything in the Old Testament as a type of Christ. I suppose the Jews cannot complain too much, as all the early Christians were Jews; of course Jewish scripture would be co-opted into the new religious order. What seems to be forgotten by both Jews and Christians alike, however, is the close affinity much of the imagery in the Old Testament has to the old cosmology and cult of the Temple order. In the latter case, Christ was a fish, because he was a High Priest. His name means “Anointed,” and this because he was ordained to tread through the spheres of cosmos to bring about resurrection. Much like Ea and Osiris, Jesus is the god of the underworld waters who promises rebirth and immortality to his initiates. Embedded in the Jonah tale are many of these associations, even if they had already been obscured by the time the tale had been written.

Distopian Trends in Culture

SLC Comi-Con Panel: Distopian Futures

One of the great panels at this year’s Comi-Con in Salt Lake City (rumored to have rivaled San Diego’s event in ticket sales!) was on the distopian trend in movies (aka Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver). The panel moderator was David J. Butler, an author, attorney, and quite possibly a Renaissance Man. Butler began with certain basics, such as defining a distopia from its Greek roots: dis-topos or “bad place,” as opposed to a utopia ou-topos meaning “no place.” A distopia is a place, generally set in the future, where there is little freedom of choice and government powers seek to control not only the actions of its citizenry, but also its thoughts as well. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are some of the best examples of distopias in literature. A utopia is “no place” because it is a depiction of a perfect world, which really exists nowhere on earth. A utopia is simply the social ideal. Plato’s Republic is perhaps the first literate attempt to describe a utopia, though the word itself was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his essay of the same name.

Thereafter Butler referenced two articles published recently.  One article asserted that modern distopian literature and film is really nothing more than right-wing clap-trap. The second article lamented distopian literature and cinema because it made people afraid of technology. The moderator then opened up the panel to discussion, including audience participation, on each article and subject.

For all the nerdy geekdom that Comi-Con is known for, and rightfully so, this panel was surprisingly philosophical and well thought out. While panels down the hall were talking about the latest zombie apocalypse, or the newest in video games, this room was home to some heavy deliberating by both panelists and audience members alike.  Social, economic, and governmental issues were in play. It became clear that the room had both “right wing” and “left wing” adherents, but what surprised and even satisfied me the most was that both sides of the political spectrum came to the conclusion that both right and left wing policies and philosophies can lead to distopian realities. As a silent observer I breathed a sigh of relief as the room cogitated this conclusion. In our modern era, where every idea is suppressed and repackaged underneath political fundamentalism, people seem to forget than any ideology, left or right, can and usually does end in various forms of tyranny. History does not prove this point; history is this point.

As the discussion developed Butler would occasionally ask probing questions or make interesting comments, that neither countered nor applauded where the discussion was going; rather, he simply presented ideas as intellectual turning points in the discussion. From quoting Rousseau’s ideas of the Social Contract to interjecting paradoxical ideas of logic and morality leading to distopian constructs, Butler kept everyone on their toes.

Even as the first article was debated with some fervor, the second article seemed to elevate the intellectual and emotional playing field. In this article’s point of view, distopian themes make people afraid of the “all seeing eye” of big brother, or the possibility of artificial intelligence taking over the world. The author disparages such thinking, even as the NSA has been caught “wiretapping” pretty much the entire planet, and as Facebook has been caught doing their own creepy social experiments. Again, everybody in the room, left and right, seemed more than concerned about these trends, and both admitted that technology is not the thing to be afraid of, but the use to which it is put. This of course is the NRA’s argument with guns. An argument that satisfies many on the right and drives many on the left nuts. Yet, replace the gun with technocratic monopolies and both the right and the left go nuts. And rightfully (or leftfully) so.

I found this discussion even more interesting as I had just finished a book by Neil Postman entitled Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. I do not think the author of the debated article would approve of Postman’s work, though it is expertly argued and has frightening consequences of thought. Postman deliberates that cultures go through various technological stages, identified as “tool-making” cultures, where technology is directly employed to the problems at hand, to technocracies, where the tools suddenly become essential components in the thought world of the participants. In the words of Postman, “New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop” (20).

Of deep interest to this discussion is Postman’s third stage of techno-cultural development–the technopoly. A technopoly is where technology becomes the culture: “Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology” (71). Of prime concern of a technopoly is information processes. A school in such an environment is not a place to explore radically different ideas in a widening arena of information; rather, it is simply a tool for information control. The highest product of a technopoly is the meta-bureaucracy, bureaucracies are needed to manage bureaucracies, in which they not only solve problems, but create problems to be solved. More dangerously, meta-bureaucracies seek to control not just technical problems, for which they were created, but also all moral, social, and political problems as well. A meta-bureaucracy has no moral underpinnings and seeks only processing information which perpetuates the bureaucracy, and where individual participants “have no responsibility for the human consequences” of their decisions, as such responsibility is swallowed up by the bureaucratic machinery (86-7).

While perhaps further afield than the panel discussion at Comi-Con, the danger of technology to culture has always been real, and this is one of the essential themes in distopian literature. And this is why it is liked by all peoples across the social and political spectrum, for everybody outside of the meta-bureaucracy, right or left, inherently knows, senses, and sees its amoral structure and product.

Such was the discussion in this panel at Comi-Con. Quite frankly, it was more interesting than many of the graduate school lectures I attended, many of the religious services I have witnessed, and almost all of the entertainment programs offered within the technological buffet of TV land. The fact that it was attended by people dressed up as Thor, the Cheshire Cat, or the Brown Coats, only made the discussion all the more interesting.