The Sympathetic God

In many mythologies the idea of God and the reality of human suffering are wedded. Elohim commands Adam and Eve not to partake of the fruit of good and evil lest they enter a world of suffering; yet it is Elohim who forges the tree of this fruit and provides the impulse for its consumption. Generations later, Jehova trades a sacrificial ram for the sacrifice of Isaac as both a symbolic but more especially symbiotic gesture of God’s own sacrifice and suffering which is inherent in the affairs of humankind. The fruit and the ram belong together. Even so, Osiris participates in the cosmic suffering of man as he is slain and cut into pieces so that he may become Lord of the Underworld and King of deification. Attis and Dionysus suffer and are sacrificed and each in turn provide a path for the suffering wayfarer’s ascent into blessedness. Nanahuatzin, the disfigured one, immolates himself and through his sacrificial suffering transforms into the Aztec Fifth Sun and restores light and harmony to the mundane world. Jesus is nailed to a cross.

The realization that the divine is willfully sealed to the suffering being of humankind led Henry Corbin to characterize this aspect of deity as an innate σὺμπαθεîν:

In contrast to the deist God who had paled to an empty concept, or the ethical God, guardian of the moral law, it sets forth, with penetrating vigor, the notion of a pathetic God, that is, a suffering and passionate God, a notion which has at all times been a dreaded stumbling block to the rational theology and philosophy of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism alike. The notion of a God who is affected by human events and feelings and reacts to them in a very personal way, in short, the idea that there is a divine παθοϛ in every sense of the word (affection, emotion, passion) […]. (Corbin 108)

Not only does man seek conversion to his God (the traditional Christian, Islamic, and Judaic theology) but also and especially God seeks conversion to man. The affairs of God are the affairs of man and the affairs of man are the affairs of the divine, pathetic God.

This relationship between God and man bears direct correspondence to the state of affairs of the modern world. Man cannot escape his religiosity. Carl Jung notes that religion is “incontestably one of the earliest and most universal activities of the human mind” (Jung 1). Jung contends that the religious aspect of the human psyche cannot be a product of physical processes as they are not created by the individual, but happen to him (2). Modern man, however, has sought the death of God, interpreting the old religious dogmas and creeds as what religion is and as who God is. Severing the old creeds from human conscience and consciousness, modern man has also wholly replaced this crippled idea of God with scientific rationalism–which is to say that man and reason are the sympathetic nodes of creation. Jung insightfully observes:

To a certain intellectual mediocrity, characterized by enlightened rationalism, a scientific theory that simplifies matters is a very good means of defense [from direct psychic experience], because of the tremendous faith of modern man in anything which bears the label “scientific.” […] The [religious] dogma is like a dream, reflecting the spontaneous and autonomous activity of the objective psyche, the unconscious. Such an expression of the unconscious is a much more efficient means of defense against further immediate experiences than a scientific theory. The theory has to disregard the emotional values of the experience. The dogma, on the contrary, is most expressive in this respect. A scientific theory is soon superseded by another. The dogma lasts for untold centuries. The suffering God-Man may be at least five thousand years old and the Trinity is probably even older. (55-57)

Both Corbin and Jung understand that the homo sapien is not a Cartesian product of simplistic cause and effect processes. Much more is going on in this clockwork universe. The human psyche that wills towards reason is also a field of consciousness that penetrates an energetic substrata that permeates all of creation. For Corbin, this interaction links the human being to a sym-pathos of the highest order and gives rise to a deity who seeks to experience His own sub-quantum field of consciousness through suffering in the mundane world. For Jung, these relationships are categorized as consciousness, unconscious, and the collective unconscious, but the relationships remain nearly the same: God and man have need of each other. In fact, there is no other form of existence or experience.

Modernity has declared war on God. If God and man are sympathetic, than this state of affairs is nothing short of a catastrophe of consciousness. God’s suffering is man’s psychic katharsis. Remove this sympathetic relationship and man is left bare in a counterfeit Cartesian wilderness with only his bare wits to face the never ending and unyielding metaphysical cosmos. Meredith Sabini makes note of this in Jung’s writings:

According to Jung, [modern man] suffers from the disease of knowing everything; there is nothing he cannot pigeonhole. He is ‘extraverted as hell’ and shows a ‘remarkable lack of introspection.’ he thinks that the gods and demons have disappeared from Nature and does not notice that they keep him on the run; hence, his restlessness and need for alcohol or tranquilizers. Modern man believes that he can do as he pleases and is perturbed that inexplicable anxieties plague him. True to his rationalistic bias, he has tried all the usual remedies–diets, exercise programs, studying inspirational literature–and only reluctantly admits that he can’t seem to find a way to live a meaningful life. (16)

In other words, the death of God is the birth of meaninglessness. God has been replaced by Self, and God and man’s sympathetic suffering has transformed into Self and man’s sympathetic neurosis. Perhaps never before in the history of the species has man needed a divine sympathos as much. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous need, for history has shown that for the God-less any god will do.

Moses and Thebes

While Christians are celebrating Easter, traditional Jews are celebrating Passover. In the Jewish calendar, Passover begins on the 15th day of Nisan and lasts for seven days (or eight days in some traditions). The month of Nisan is said to be in the Spring, and thus corresponds to March or April in the Gregorian calendar. According to various Jewish customs, the world was created in this same month; Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all born in this month; Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in this month.

The story of Moses is of course foundational to the Jewish faith. The birth of Moses and the liberation of the Jews from Pharaoh is recounted in Exodus, chapters 1 through 14. In my most recent reading of this material I made several notes specifically on the birth narrative. Moses is placed in an ark of bulrushes (Ex. 2.3) and sent down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and is raised as her own son as an Egyptian prince (Ex. 2.5-10).

The motif of a hero of destiny being drawn from an ark out of the river is widespread. Sargon the Great is also placed in an ark and sent down the river where he was found, raised, and eventually made king. The Hindu hero Karna is likewise placed in an ark at birth, as is the Greek hero Perseus. This motif has ancient mythic roots related to kingship. The original context cannot be known.

Remarkably, Oedipus, the famous king of the Boeotian Thebes, is depicted sailing in a chest or an ark on a Boeotian cup of the first century BCE. This image represents a part of the Oedipus myth that is unknown to us. The founder of the mythic Thebes is Cadmus. In one variant of the myth Cadmus places his daughter and grandson, Semele and Dionysus respectively, in a chest and casts them out to sea. Semele perishes but Dionysus lives, and this most famous of mystery gods is thus also drawn from the waters. Finally, the mythical builder of Thebes is Amphion. Amphion is so talented with his musical lyre that as he plays stones move and form the seven gated walls of Thebes. Amphion, like Oedipus, is exposed as an infant and left for dead; he is found by a shepherd, and eventually becomes king.

The great city of Thebes is thus associated with several kings who share in the motif of the exposed infant and an ark which delivers the infant to his destiny. Of course, one cannot help but to notice that one etymology for the word “Thebes” is têboh or tâbût, referring to an ark. Is this coincidence? Perhaps, but it is also curious that the Greek writer Armenidas informs us that the acropolis or temple of the city was named Μακάρων νήσοι, “The Isles of the Blessed.”  These Fields or Isles were the Kingdom of Heaven. One entered these blessed lands on an ark. It only makes sense that the hero king is related with this cosmic imagery by being delivered from an ark.

The narrative motifs of Moses and the Exodus follow a pattern. Moses goes through a series of Labors (the ten plagues). The last task is to overcome the angel of death itself. Moses flees Egypt with the aid of his guide and god Jehova. He crosses a pillar of fire and a body of water and leads his people to the mountain of the Lord. Moses ascends the mountain and sees god face to face. Moses establishes order and incorporates the revelations on Mount Sinai by erecting a temple. Of these motifs Margaret Barker, in her book The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God, observes, “Scholars have also long suspected that the account of Moses receiving the Law on Sinai had been merged with memories of Solomon’s temple, and that a temple ritual had been the original framework of the story” (38). Barker poses a very interesting question, “Had there been a temple ritual, where the god and king [i.e. Moses] received revelation in heaven among the angels and brought it [back] to earth?” (38).

Our various motifs suggest that the original ark story belonged to a cosmic liturgy dealing with kingship. The narrative fragment that survives in the Moses story is part of a very old and lost oral tradition. Then again, the entire Passover narrative may belong to this same ancient and oral storehouse of thought which once regulated the hieratic city. The king ruled by celestial mandate. He obtained his authority by his ritual journey through the heavens. Part of this ritualized journey was the harrowing birth of the king himself.

Ring Out Easter Sunday

All the old French towns have a church, and all the churches have bells. In the old days, when worship and tradition were part of the pastoral culture, these bells would ring three times a day. At sunrise, for morning prayers. At high noon, for afternoon prayers. And at sunset, for evening prayers. The bells would also ring for special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, or holidays.

On the Thursday before Easter every bell in every Church rang throughout the French countryside. Then there was silence for three days. Not a sound, not a vibration, no matter the occasion. As the sun rose on Easter Sabbath the silent bells rang out once more, echoing throughout the land and announcing the miracle of the resurrection of the Christian Savior.

The liturgy of ringing bells may seem quaint by today’s standards. Scholars have long shown the similarities between Christ and the saviors of the pagan cults, including Attis and Mithras. Historical exegesis of the New Testament text has sought to strip the stories of their miracles, placing the drama of Christ and his resurrection squarely in the realm of folklore and tradition.

The miracle of Spring, however, is just outside the scholar’s grasp. Despite excellent explanations by modern definitions of process, the power of the Cosmos to reignite life on this speck of blue in a sea of billions is as astonishing as the very first breath taken on it. Like the church bells of France, the universe rings in a new season out of stillness and decay. It did not have to be so. But it is. And no one really knows why.

In a cosmic context, the ringing bells are a call from the darkness. It is not a repetition of the previous tolling, but something unexpected and new. In the words of Joseph Campbell, “Only birth can conquer death–the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new” (Hero 16). Central to the Christian tradition is the death and new birth of God. Resurrecting God is not a process of repackaging the old, stale forms of religious icons or ideology. God is not a doctrine, just as Spring is not a mathematical formula. The fact the new birth of Spring takes place in a regular cycle that can be measured, numbered, and predicted, does not in the least diminish its wonder. The annual celebration of the new birth of God is an attempt to rediscover this wonder.

Like Cosmos, a meaningful God comes only by way of genesis. If dead, only a new birth will do. All over the world Easter Mass is celebrated, in many forms, under different names, within varying ideas, but every where the celebration of the new from the old is the same. Whatever one’s religious affiliation, the time of Spring is the best time of all to consider the reverence and beauty of life; with its gains and losses; with its hopes and failures; with the birth of a new thing overcoming the old. Here is a mystery no science can ever really solve. The mystery of life, death, and rebirth. All the greatest truths are the ones we have to take for granted. The ones that ring out just beneath the soul.

April 2014 Lunar Eclipse and a Flat Earth

I sat on my back patio past midnight. It was a frigid twenty degrees, and I had my winter jacket zipped to my chin. Next to me was a small table holding a hot chocolate mug, a box of crackers, and a digital camera. My 70 mm binoculars were mounted on a tripod and positioned at eye-level in front of my cold but comfy chair. Bach and Vivaldi strummed beneath the starlight. I was ready for the five hour show.

Before me was the canvas of light that I have come to call my home. The full and glorious moon radiated her grandeur in Virgo, with the bright blue and sparkling Spica just to her west. Above her blazed the copper throne of Mars. Towards the western horizon glittered another white jewel, Jupiter, standing between the Twins. And to the the east, like a pearl balanced in the Scales, lay Saturn.

Not long after midnight the true spectacle began. The full and brilliant moon was touched by a shadow. Within minutes the touch had become an impression. Moments later a cosmic fingerprint had marked the Moon, as if some invisible daemon had reached across the expanse to pluck a pearl out of the waters and imbue it with a new order. Fiat Lux had become Sit Visum.

The dark curved shadow of the Earth slowly drifted from east to west across the Moon. As the dark shadow encompassed the celestial orb the color of the Moon transformed into a reddish-amber. They call it a Blood-Red Moon. In reality, the sunlight refracts through the Earth’s atmosphere spinning the celestial glass of a thousand sunsets onto the lunar sphere.

A total lunar eclipse is a marvel to behold. One needs to sit and watch through the several hours that the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow to see first hand what modern people take for granted. Light and shadow follow the rules of physics. As the Moon became completely enveloped in the Earth’s shadow I became aware of a light display on the surface of the moon that has, I believe, reaching implications.

If one draws or paints a three dimensional object such as a ball or sphere, placed on a table underneath a direct light source, the object displays the light across its surface in zones. Here is one example:

Light and Shadow on a Sphere.

Notice that on the back edge of the sphere there is a thin lighter area. Why isn’t this portion the darkest, as it is deepest into shadow? Because a small amount of light is actually reflected from the table surface onto the back edge; this is called reflected light. During the lunar eclipse I noticed for the first time that as the Moon passed through Earth’s shadow it displayed a very similar texture of light and shadow. The moon showed brighter on part of its surface, with its eastern end in shadow, but with a sliver of lighter area at its edge, as if there were reflected light.  Moreover, as the moon passed through the Earth’s shadow the highlighting and shadow on the moon changed over time, and it was visually clear that the Moon was a sphere:Lunar Eclipse

This may seem elementary. It begs the question however, in antiquity, how many people actually believed the Earth was flat? Clearly, ancient man understood the Moon was an orb. It moved in a circular orbit. The sun is also an orb moving in a circular orbit. Moreover, the shadow crossing the Moon during an eclipse is curved, and it is from the Earth. Oral peoples viewing the skies would have understood the pattern: the spherical nature of the celestial bodies, including the Earth.

Plutarch tells us that the Egyptians had a great celebration when the Sun and Moon were in a straight line (Isis and Osiris 52.1); that is on the day of an eclipse. They understood that the Earth was between the Sun and Moon and that the eclipse was caused by the Earth’s shadow.

As I sat watching the lunar eclipse these were some of the thoughts floating through my mind. How much of those ancient cosmologies do we really understand? I think very little. Like the splendor of the Moon, the greatest things in history are in shadow, and reveal themselves in little slivers of light.