Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mano-a-Manotheism: Spiritual Warfare, Part 1.5

I had intended to get straight into some of the practical differences between ancient and modern Christianity. However, we had so many outstanding comments yesterday that I would first like to address them before formally declaring war on satan and discussing the ins and outs of spiritual warfare. Plus, I will have more time tomorrow than I do today for what is a rather large topic, that is, the practice of "unseen combat" that is is so central to Orthodox Christianity.

One of the things I find so intriguing about these practices is that they bear so much similarity to certain Vedantic practices that I have long embraced. I may have time to start the discussion today. We'll see how it goes. I've noticed that a post can only be so long before readers get a little intimidated and either skim it or read just the first and last paragraph. How do I know this? I don't. But Petey knows all. Don't try to fool him.

New contributor Will made a number of incisive points yesterday, some of which I already addressed in the comments. He also made a subtle point that is at the heart of my own overall cosmic ontology. With regard to the early church suppressing gnosticism and emphasizing dogma, reason and the intellect, he properly notes that this has hardly been a bad thing, especially when placed in its psychohistorical context. For surely, if you were alive at most any time prior to the
Enlightenment, you would not say that the world was primarily lacking in spiritual gnosis, but that what it most ached for was reason.

We, of course, take reason for granted, but it was a very long and painful time coming. And you may have noticed that it has still not arrived for large swaths of humanity. Ask yourself: what does the Islamic world most need in order to evolve? More people with their butts in the air, trying to hear the voice of God? Or might they benefit more from having a few people who have actually stably evolved into Piaget's stage of Formal Operations thinking? In other words, more people capable of abstract logic?

This same problem plagued India until quite recently. India is perhaps the most religious place on the planet, but its psychological and material progress were stymied for hundreds of years due to the absence of a rational theology that dealt equally with interior and exterior reality. Ever since the pivotal figure of Shankara in the early ninth century, India held to the idea that only interior reality was ultimately real, and that external reality represented maya, or illusion. They continued to be a dysfunctional country even after independence because of their immediate adoption of socialism, which is just a debased form of gnosis, as discussed by the philosopher Voegelin. But just look at the incredible power they have unleashed in the last decade or two by finally coming around to a philosophy of rational market principles. We are now seeing perhaps the most rapid and unprecedented transformation of a people in history, as they move from a subsistence economy to a wealth-creating machine.

Of course, now they may soon face the spiritual danger that the United States has been dealing with, especially over the past 50 years, that is, not poverty but abundance. The few pockets of true poverty that remain are mostly self-inflicted, and in any event, pose no existential threat to the United States. Abundance, however, is a different matter. It is very easy to dismiss the world as maya and spend your days meditating when life veritably sucks anyway. Much more difficult when faced with the infinite temptations of our horizontal pleasure dome.

The U.S. and India actually have much in common, as we are the most religious developed country, while India has always been the most religious country, period. (We're talking real religion here, not pseudo-religions such as Islam; as Will properly notes, Islam "is NOT part of the Judaic/Christian historical continuum" and does not in its present form fit in with the general progression of mankind; like Will, I believe that, at best, it embodies a psychohistorically earlier form of religiosity, like paganism--a necessary evil on the way to deeper understanding.)

It is easy for gnosis to exclude reason and for reason to eclipse gnosis. The trick is to balance them. This, of course, is exactly what Sri Aurobindo attempted to do. Having obtained a thoroughly modern education at Cambridge, he specifically tried to update Shankara and make Hindu metaphysics compatible with modernity. My own book is a humble (or grandiose... one of those two... I forget which) attempt to bring together reason and gnosis--not reduce one to the other, but to synthesize them at a higher level.

Will goes on to observe that "the world as a whole needs more reason. Reason and the intellect, after all, do hone individuality, which is a necessary step in the spiritual progression. We have to be separated from nature before we can return to it. Once our individuality is sharpened, once we are separated from the herd, then we can begin to explore the meaning of the One-ness, not as unconscious units of the herd, but as true, creative individuals--which is what, I believe, the Creator wants of us."

Here again, this is exactly my philosophy. As I have mentioned before, reality is One, but it is not a homogeneous one but a complex and hierarchical One. You cannot realize or recapture this One by devolving backwards, merging, and being swallowed up by the collective. This is the project of the Islamists. For them, life is too complex. Let's eliminate the complexity and recapture the oneness by traveling back, oh, say a millennium or so. That is the low way to unity. My way is the High Way. It means realizing unity at a higher level--not destroying complexity but embracing it and synthesizing it. Not ridding the world of science and reason, as the Islamists want to do, nor waging war on the spirit, as secular leftists are doing.

This is why the war on terror is fundamentally a two-front war: it is simultaneously a war on the vertical barbarians of islam and of the international left. This is why we see what might as well be a formal alliance between the left and the Islamists. The Islamists certainly recognize it and play that card for all it's worth.

Will also observed that "the wonderful thing is that the Christian scriptures contain both the exoteric and the esoteric--the gold of the esoteric is just under the surface, once one is ready for it. Hmm, almost as if it had been planned that way, you think?"

Indeed. This is one of the things that haunts my understanding of Christianity. Most people who come to Christianity presumably do so based upon hearing the story of the gospels and having a sort of spiritual "a ha" experience that more or less falls under the heading of being "born again." But for me it has been the opposite path. That is, I was not initially attracted to the literal component at all, but was increasingly astonished by the sophisticated intellectual and metaphysical teaching.

But this raises an interesting issue that I continue to grapple with. That is, to my everlasting surprise, I have discovered in Christianity this incredible penumbra of Truth. You know what a penumbra is, right? When you look at an eclipse, it's the area of illumination around the circle of darkness, as the moon covers the sun. In other words, I am discovering this profound penumbra of Truth, but where is it coming from? What is that Light behind the dark circle in the middle? Now that is a mystery, because it is obviously the risen Jesus. How can the penumbra be true but its source be false? The lower intellect cannot resolve this problem. It can only make one side or the other go away.

With regard to dogma, Brother Bartleby notes that "the early Church had to face what every organization has to face, becoming organized. You read it in Paul's letters: how do you gather a group of folks and maintain some sort of cohesion? The Church took the easy out--dogma. It was their only way to get all the scattered bishops onto the same page, for without oversight, they were all teaching their own brand of Christianity."

True, the early fathers may have been scrambling for some sense of unity to which all Christians could assent. But still, their efforts were pretty impressive. This is one of the key beliefs of Orthodoxy--that the early fathers and councils were divinely inspired in what they accepted and rejected, and how they worked out the theological problems implicit in the diversity of scripture. Remember, one cannot in reality just look to the New Testament, as Protestants do, and say that everything else, such as belief in the trinity, is "extra-biblical." For in reality, the Bible is extra-Biblical! Even by the time it was written, many theological decisions had already been made by the church, and certainly its canonization was purely the church's doing. What is so remarkable is not what they got wrong, but how much they got right.

It reminds me of the many reissued CDs such as The Beatles Anthology that contain all of the alternate takes and remixes that are clearly inferior to what was released at the time. Almost never does an alternate version equal the official release, even though the artists and producers were pressed for time and simply making decisions "on the fly" in order to get the product to market. Even there, it is as if such aesthetic decisions are "guided" by unseen hands.

Brother Bartleby makes a valid point that "today we all have access to more of the early writings than even the early bishops had. And we can read. And we can think. And I think we can come to Jesus in a way that organizations cannot duplicate, we can come to Him in ways that the apostles came to Him... I think the days of the church as enforcer of dogma have passed, it is just that the word hasn't got out yet."

While I strongly agree with the spirit of what Brother Bartleby is saying, I have also gradually come to a much greater respect for our spiritual forebears, and would now be very cautious about simply assuming that I know better. I don't think it's a matter of either/or, but balance. I liken it to jazz, where the "dogma" of intense discipline and fidelity to tradition leads to a higher level of "spontaneous composition" in the form of improvisation. Improvisation does not occur as a result of eliminating form, but internalizing it and creatively "playing" with it.

Finally, Nick observes that "one of the main distinctions between orthodox and esoteric Christianity has always been the existence or otherwise of the historical Jesus. Some esotericists and historians... felt that the life of Christ is predominantly allegorical and therefore we need not insist on the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. This is my position also, and one that has prevented me having any active involvement in the Anglican church in which I grew up. There is not one single wing of the church of any denomination that allows for strict allegorical interpretation of scripture, and hence this excludes a significant number of seekers from any participation in the church."

I'm running short on time here. I would simply reemphasize the existence of that darn penumbra--pentecostalumbra?--alluded to above. I might add that I now regard literalism in a rather different light which I have touched on in recent weeks. That is, I believe the literal component of Christianity is vital, not just for reasons of dogma and continuity, but because it engages a very different part of our mind that transcends ordinary reason. This actually encompasses the larger portion of our mind, which does not obey the dictates of Aristotelian logic, but instead operates along the lines of what is called symmetrical logic. Assent to literalism can actually be a wonderful liberation into the domain of symmetrical logic. In short, these literal beliefs may not be so much informational as transformational. So I don't have a big problem with literalism. Just don't take me literally when I say that.

Well, I've run out of time. More on spiritual warfare tomorrow.


Will said...

Good day to you, Bob -

Re the topic of literalism: I'm a child of the modern age just like everybody else and I seem to have some Zeitgeist-driven need to comprehend things meta and spiritual in some kind of literal fashion. That is, the concept of "faith" as being a teeth-gritting, sweating-bullets, effort to believe in something that all of my rational being tells me is not, cannot be true, is not for me. There's this passage in St Paul/Hebrews whereby Paul states that "By faith we perceive that the universe was fashioned by the word of God", etc. The operative word here is "perceive", which to my mind, casts a new light on what spiritual faith actually is. As Paul says, faith "makes us certain of realities we do not see" - as I see it, this translates as "we have an organ(s) of perception that allows us, in fact, to perceive what the physical perceptions cannot." This is a form of literalism, I think, but a transcendent one.

The concept of miracles, for example: Many would see the idea of a miracle as being a contravening of physical and natural law, thus miracles cannot happen. Now, I seem to "perceive" in some way that I can't really articulate, that a genuine miracle is not so much a contraveing of natural law as it is the workings of a higher, and yes, "scientific" law, one that obviously modern science has yet to discover and codify. I seem to sense that this higher law is "literal", it really exists.

The concept of heaven and of disembodied spirits: To many this is an exercise in fantasy because such concepts lack "literalness". Still, I seem to perceive (through whatever higher sense-organs I possess)that heaven and disembodied spirits do, in fact, exist. They exist literally because they are substantial, that is, they are composed of a substance. It is not material substance but it is substance nonetheless. Impossible? Well, obviously "dark matter" is composed of a substance that is not materially substantial, so yes, non-material substance exists. And if non-material substance exists,we must have sense-organs, however partially developed, to perceive it.

I'd generally define myself as an esoteric Christian and I'm not entirely opposed to the notion of proselytizing (though I only proselytize to those already in the choir or who are auditioning for such). Anyway, I don't try to sell the idea of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Instead I just try to let people know that, yes, they do have latent organs of perception that transcend the physical senses - the latter of which includes the intellect, which, though subtle with its tiny synapses and neuron-firing, is still a physical attribute. It is, I think, through these higher sense-organs that one can perceive the literalness of spirituality and its workings in the all the dimensions of the universe.


Will said...

Bob, re the desire to return to the One via the avenue of unconsciousness and non-individuality: Recently I saw a documentary on cable TV, the topic of which was Tim Treadwell.("Grizzly Man") He's that surfer dude guy who spent most of his time in Alaska communing with grizzly bears and who, regretfully, was ultimately killed and devoured by one of 'em. The documentary was composed mostly of Treadwell's own video footage of himself as he waxed elegiac about the grizzlies as they lumbered about within yards of him. Now, I am given to think that Treadwell had a genuine spiritual impulse - his self-imposed isolation and his love of nature were close to being monastic. However, as I continued to watch the documentary, I began to notice several disturbing things. For one, Treadwell's manner was frantically high-pitched; his enthusiasm was oddly childlike. Also, he was in the habit of anthropomorphically giving these ferocious beasts cute little nicknames like "Mr Chocolate". And his address to the camera reminded me of a children's tv show - not a wise Mr Rogers, more like PeeWee Herman's old show in which PeeWee played the role of a child himself.

In short, I think Treadwell did desire to return to the Oneness but he chose to do so through the regressive retro-path of returning to childhood. Indeed, the day before he was killed, Treadwell staged a genuine tantrum about the unfairness of the park service, which nonetheless had indulged him greatly. Treadwell's is a microcosmic case of what ails, say, Islam in its childish desire to turn back the clock. In fact, a lot of people who do have genuine spiritual impulses - artists, writers, etc. - often opt for the Oneness of unconsciousness by way of drugs, sex, and so forth. Of course, as in Treadwell's case, failure to recognize and deal with one's Shadow - absolutely imperative in the spiritual quest - results in self-destruction. In Treadwell's case, the Shadow came in the form of half-ton grizzly.

By the way, as I watched Treadwell's descent into self-inflicted destruction I was reminded of somebody else but I couldn'd think of who. Finally it came to me. Michael Jackson! There's another one who wants to return to an arboreal innocence, a tranquilizing Oneness, and he does so by trying to become a child himself. Well, Jackson's Shadow is in the process of devouring him as well. Maybe not so coincidentally, Jackson, I heard, is contemplating becoming a Muslim.


Kahntheroad said...


Excellent post.


"failure to recognize and deal with one's Shadow - absolutely imperative in the spiritual quest - results in self-destruction."

As someone who has come to an artistic 'calling' later in life (songwriting) I can relate to this, and one of the issues I struggled with in the beginning was an attempt to figure out what went wrong with so many creative people. I was a devout atheist at the start, and now have come to believe that the big problem was a lack of spiritual grounding to balanced out the raw power of the artistic impulse (the blues mythology of deals with the devil, hell hounds on the trail, etc. make perfect sense in this respect).

Music and art tap into the powerful and divine , and if one is not aware of this and not in control of these impulses the consequences can be, quite literally, deadly. Some 20 year old kid tapping into this realm and finding a receptive outlet in the newly open society of the 60s was literally playing with fire - especially with the ego-exploding hero worship that went along with success. In hindsight, we can see the artists who thrived from this period, and beyond, were the ones who, at some point, achieved some spiritual grounding (The Beatles, as Bob mentioned yesterday, and a perfect example is Dylan, who was speeding down the standard Hendrix/Morrison/Joplin destructive path until a near fatal motorcycle accident forced him to step back, slowdown and adopt a more spiritual outlook).

Where am I going with this...oh, yeah, I wanted to observe that the children of the 60s stumbled across a lot of genuine ideas, but were not prepared for them, and approached these gifts with a childlike impatience - excessive drugs to force 'spiritual' experience, the naive tantrums of the peace movement. Even communism, world peace, etc are not irrational ideas per say- in fact, such utopia may well result, in consensual fashion, from many (hundreds? thousands?) years of the evolution of consciousness. But the flower children thought about it, and, gosh-darn it! wanted it right then and there!

I think for many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s, listening to classic rock and being taught in school of the heroism of hippies, we have to struggle to overcome this glorification of victim hood, impulsive expression and impatience.

As for dealing with the shadow... I've wandered way off topic, but I suspect that fighting the shadow will play a part in Bob's upcoming cautionary wisdom.

Will said...

Kahntheroad - thanks.

I'm a songwriter myself and a huge Dylan fan. That guy seemed to carry the Zeitgeist around on his back for a time and he's still very relevant, if not on the fashion scale, then certainly on the timeless artistry one.

Yes, the hippies had their own "return to arboreal innocence" fling, ie., their attempt at bypassing the Shadow and achieving the bliss of Oneness, with the predictable results.

I agree that music does have -far beyond what most people would think - an astounding power. The ancient Chinese, before the dynasties became corrupted and certainly before that vampire Mao seized power, believed that music didn't so much reflect the age as much as it actually shaped it. Considering the 20th century and the Western world's slide into chaos, they may have had a point. And music does demand balance. I have noted, for what it's worth, that blues singers tend to die young, from Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin. On the other hand, compositional attempts to defang music of its yang side can result in cloying sentimentality, which might not render you dead, just make you wish you were. In any event, sentimentality as a way of life is life-denying. As composer Harold Budd once observed, "New Age music needs testosterone", though I don't think he actually used the word "testosterone".

I should add that I don't think we should be "fighting with the Shadow", so much as transcending it, sublimating its energies for divine, creative purposes. Resist not evil, you know. At least in one sense.


John Hinds said...

Hi Bob,

Clarification on penumbra.

Speaking of lunar eclipse: "Between the umbra and the region of full light lies a space of partial illumination, within which the illumination ranges from complete darkness at the boundary of the umbra to full illumination at the outer boundary of the entire shadow. This transition region of the region of the shadow is called the penumbra. From any point within it a part, but not all, of the light source is visible....

"Everybody on the night side of the earth is within the umbra, or shadow cone, of the earth....

"The penumbra, on the other hand, is that region from any point within which only part of the sun is covered by the eclipsing body.....(and) "has the shape of a truncated cone pointed toward the sun, and...includes the umbra, as a reversed cone symmetrical about the same axis....."

Now contrast with the corona of the sun in an eclipse. "As....the bright disk of the sun becomes entirely hidden behind the moon, the corona flashes into view. The corona is the sun's outer tenuous atmosphere consisting of sparse gases that extend for millions of miles....from the surface....(and) is ordinarily not visible...."

From "Exploration of the Universe" George Abell, University of California, 1964

John Hinds

Mike Andreyakovich said...

Re: Will's take on miracles. It sounds like a more spiritual version of:

"Are you saying I can dodge bullets?"

"No. I'm saying that you won't have to."

It seems to me that the height of spirituality, at least as far as one can get without Going Vertical, is to be COMPLETELY in touch with the physical reality of the world around you, while still realizing that there's more to the world than what you can see or feel or experience. This idea has been cheapened by a lot of noodle-brained environmentalists over the years, in my opinion, but it is still relevant.