Why Gods?

I am sitting at Black Mother Gully (BMG). It’s very quiet, but I hear magpies – and more as I listen more intently. Voices of children in the distance. Another overcast morning. 

Why gods? They are universal in the consciousness of humanity – under many names. The term itself is a problem for a Western European because we think it has a meaning that is useful. In fact, it’s a vague gesture in a complex direction – and no more. 

Hence whether one “believes in” God – or not – is just as meaningless. In this case belief inis vague but disbelief is specific. It is, after all, hard to disbelieve in a vague way. This is, of course, unless one is a materialist who utterly denies the metaphysical. But again, no materialist really does that. They just say they do. 

Imagine

So, what are the gods of our ancestors? Imagine all the forces of nature described by science in terms of them being mechanical forces – and now imagine them as forces of consciousness. That’s pretty much it. 

That wasn’t a matter of belief in – only a matter of not conceiving of nature as an objective reality.  Imagine a parent or a child. You know that, on some level, their presence is ultimately an assemblage of atoms, but to be conscious of that you’d have to put your head into a peculiar space. Ordinarily you imagine an entity with presence and behaviours, and with whom you have a relationship. Scale that imagination to embrace all that you know. The modern mechanist vision was neither available to, nor useful to, our ancestors.  

If we want to understand gods we must, therefore, be aware of how we constrain the concept and make it dance to our tune. 

Changing How We Think and Believe

The widespread materialism and loss of belief is a cultural phenomenon that is part of our evolution in how we comprehend our reality. That loss of faith is down to two important developments. The first is the evolution of Christianity into a multifaceted discourse about the divine and human relations with it. The second is the development of the lens. 

In certain respects, all human culture is a discourse between the human and the other-than-human. In terms of our culture, Christianity marked a transition between what we call paganism and what became known as The Enlightenment – and what happened afterwards. 

The lens made available to us the very small and the very large. Both were previously realms available only to imagination and speculation. There was a naive expectation that the lens would reveal the handiwork of God. When such evidence was not forthcoming, the impatient lost faith and decided no such agency existed. We live, in a sense, in the Glass Age – or the Silicon Age.

There’s a popular misconception that science has grown because of freedom from religion. But a review of the history of science will confirm that this is no more than a ploy by materialists to mislead. The great Newton was no atheist or materialist, and the developers of quantum science were likewise not members of the cliche that now claims sole rights over the shared history of scientific advance. Indeed, it is fair to argue that the religious and the metaphysically inclined have contributed the lion’s share to scientific inquiry. Galileo, the materialists’ poster boy was still a believer. He merely ran afoul of Church dogma and his own intemperate mouth. 

We must distinguish between belief as it once was, and as it has now become. Attitudes toward religion have shifted markedly in the past century. Active participation in religious activity has been declining since the end of World War 1, and in recent years a new category has arisen – Spiritual but not Religious (SBNR). Atheism is growing as well, but this is less about a positive move in that direction than a lack of exposure to religious ideas. No point in believing in something you know nothing about – though, to be fair, that’s hardly an impediment in the current climate. 

The Pew Research Centre’s surveys demonstrate that in the USA, at least, non-materialistic belief is alive and well. In the USA, 72% of ‘Nones’ (no religion) believe in god or a higher power. According to Pew:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

In Western Europe, the majority of people identify as Christian. In the general population 74% believe in God as described in the Bible (27%) or in another higher power (38%). Belief in no God or higher power is significantly higher than in the USA, at 24%.

It is interesting to note that belief in a ‘higher power’ is significantly higher than belief in a Biblical God, or nothing – which are almost on a par.

Nietzsche’s observation that the old conception of God is dead (not that God per se is) sums up the situation. Even the relatively high numbers who assert an affiliation with a faith belie the level of disengagement from the dogmas, rituals and events that once made up an active community of faith. There’s a lot of reserve now. It’s as if there’s a waiting for something to change.

Our conception of God has simply transformed into many things – and no one conception holds sway – despite efforts to say otherwise by a tenacious few. Here it is worthwhile noting that it is ever an extreme minority who assert exclusive claims to knowledge about what is true and right – theistic or atheistic. The rest of us dwell somewhere on a spectrum of engagement with belief – from the scarcely motivated to the highly motivated – without bothering to contest differing views – beyond being sensitive to their ability to ruin social occasions. 

If the trend in quantum physics persists… (I suddenly stop writing and leave. As I do 3 vehicles arrive. The peace is gone. BMG fades away and Maple Grove Park is open for business)

As I was saying… we will be discussing exactly what the underpinning constituent consciousness of knowable reality is – and how it is organized. What will be different is that we will bring vastly different tools and ways of knowing. One hurdle will be the habit of distinguishing between objective and subjective knowledge – a holdover from The Enlightenment. We have invested a lot in this distrust of self in the process of perception. In the past it has helped distinguish between superstition and the new knowledge of science. But as we explore the nature of perception and experience that distinction no longer appears valid. In terms of knowledge, we are moving from a sense of the absolute to contingency being the norm. In terms of values, the reverse seems as if it may be true.

The Value of the Past

We see persistent memories of the ancient way of engaging with profound ideas as if they are expressions of a deep consciousness, rather than abstract ideas. The image of justice being a blindfolded woman holding scales and carrying a sword speaks more coherently as a symbolic image than a rational definition of the idea of justice. 

The Oxford dictionary struggles to offer a definition of justice as “just behaviour or treatment” and “the quality of being fair and reasonable”. Justice can’t be usefully reduced to a rational description of an abstract idea. But it can be conveyed as a ‘spirit’ and encapsulated in an image.

This idea goes back to Ancient Egypt and the Goddess Maat. This is from Britannica.com:

Maat, also spelled Mayet, in ancient Egyptian religion, the personification of truth, justice, and the cosmic order. The daughter of the sun god Re, she was associated with Thoth, god of wisdom.

The ceremony of judgment of the dead (called the “Judgment of Osiris,” named for Osiris, the god of the dead) was believed to focus upon the weighing of the heart of the deceased in a scale balanced by Maat (or her hieroglyph, the ostrich feather), as a test of conformity to proper values.

In its abstract sense, maat was the divine order established at creation and reaffirmed at the accession of each new king of Egypt. In setting maat ‘order’ in place of isfet ‘disorder,’ the king played the role of the sun god, the god with the closest links to Maat. Maat stood at the head of the sun god’s bark as it traveled through the sky and the underworld. Although aspects of kingship and of maat were at times subjected to criticism and reformulation, the principles underlying these two institutions were fundamental to ancient Egyptian life and thought and endured to the end of ancient Egyptian history.

What we see here in this brief example is an instance of a sophisticated moral theory being woven into a foundational narrative context. Humans have used stories as the primary means of conveying crucial values for the most part of our history. So, we can see the fusion of two essential truths – the sense of reality being ‘spirit’ and not dead mechanism, and the use of story as the primary means of conveying critical moral precepts.

In terms of our cultural history, we go back to Sumer for the origins of writing and mathematics as cities evolved as the major form of human community and the heavens a primary consideration for disciplined inquiry. Here we start to see the emergence of ‘rational’ intelligence as a powerful instrument. But still, the gods remained as a critical part of the cultural narrative for millennia. That narrative gave humans access to an integrated and holistic discourse that we began to lose as ‘Reason’ sought to dominate from The Enlightenment to now.

Our story-telling has a limited number of themes. There are claims and arguments about how many movie plots there are. These themes are moral or archetypal and play out no matter what the setting is. It does not matter whether a story is set 5,000 years in the past or the future. These fundamental themes are perennial and endure. The stories change in specifics, not in character, to keep the ‘spirit’ of the tale alive and relatable. Here stories of gods and spirits and heroes do some rational discourse alone cannot achieve.

Conclusion

The past offers us guidance to understand what is missing from our now. In the sense of L. P. Hartley’s immortal words “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Our ancestors did things differently, not worse, not more primitively. Modern efforts to recover the past through occult organisaitons are useful to help us understand what of value in that different way of doing things can be discovered. But they are not practices that herald the future.

Our cultural discourse is so thoroughly a mush of materialism, residues of faith, superstitions, and hubris that it is a form of confusion, if not a madness of some sort. It is not fit for purpose – between the old ways and what is emerging in the sharp end of scientific inquiry – as an articulation of our shared sense of relationship with reality.

There’s plenty of inquiry and reflection we can do.

BMG 27.1.22

I am parked at Black Mother Gully around 7.30am. A wash of cloud softens the sky, leaving colours muted. Bird call is dominated by magpies. 

I am still thinking gods and how our ancestors sensed great Thous in which they were able to discriminate distinct characters. Maybe story-telling made this necessary as the morality of conduct essential to survival made discerning and talking/singing about distinct characters necessary. 

But equally, a landscape is full of character. Full of lives. We stop at assigning livingness to rocks and wind and water. Our ancestors did not. We discern some movement because of life and other because of mechanism. Our ancestors did not. 

Such a distinction is important to us. But, if we pause with sufficiently open minds, it is hard to understand why. 

Iain McGilchrist, in his The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, thinks in terms of right and left brain. He sees our culture as addicted to abstract categories – left brain dominant. McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, not a new ager. If you are unfamiliar with sensible left/right brain ideas, here’s a quick update.

Our ancestors created categories too – sacred, good to eat, useful – a different consciousness of utility and care. They did not need to think living or not. They had no need of that category. 

I am not sure why we have that need. However, our moral make up is relational and categories of being or thing define relationships for us. We create a subject/object duality and thereby define how we may act.  Being and thing have distinct moral codes assigned to them. 

We needed to be less moral toward things, and we are thus relieved of a burden of relational interaction. 

As usual, we assume this duality is true and good, and an absolute reflection of how things are. But, this is a dogma that we believe serves us well, rather than a truth discerned. It is a dogma that is self-creating. We believe that concrete knowledge is a good of itself – and the fact that this is potentially never-ending is a marvel to be explored. 

Awareness of the nature of things, in a way that is not constrained by any relational or moral sense, yields knowing that is not associated with any value beyond the knowing itself. 

It does not serve our needs, as we define them, to speak of gods, because to do so casts a far greater relational net over what we can see and know. Or so we think. 

The values of utility are defined by our moral or relational sense. These define our needs. At core, survival has a particular set of values – the existential necessities of being in the world.  But the sacred and the moral have always constrained and shaped the boundaries of utility. They have been part of the necessities of being in the world for our ancestors – and now we imagine them as less and less essential.

The American anthropologist, Robert Redfield, writing in 1953, observed what he called the moral order and the technical order, noting that “The coming of civilizations disturbed, probably forever, the primordial relation between the tendencies.”(the moral and technical). Anthropology of the 1950s is unfashionable these days because of the language used – also because it was more sympathetic to the spiritual than later the theistic and materialistic interpretation of the field. Redfield’s book, The Primitive World and its Transformations, can be found online as a PDF. I prefer a lot of pre-1960s works. I am content to trade off language for insight and sensitivity to spirit.

The one God of our culture’s dominant religion emerged from the ecology of tribal spirits – inflated into being a cosmic progenitor. This was a harmless conceit at first. We like to think ours is the best. And in times of adversity that conceit can be a vital energiser and focus of will. To be chosen of the greatest is a comfort. It is a form of collective self-justification. 

We know in ourselves when egocentric self-justification becomes a toxic conceit – because we see it in others. Australians have had a tradition of celebrating mateship as if it were a unique trait not found in the males of other nations. It’s a conceit that seems harmless enough. But we look like fools if we broadcast it to others as if it were objectively unique and true.

As a culture we are still reacting to this conception of the divine. There is an absurdity to it that we seem to sense intuitively, and cling to – if we lack the confidence and imagination to move on. But in moving on we are now in a wilderness with no tracks and few reliable guides.

Later – back home

I have been listening to Don Watson’s remarkable book The Bush. Watson is a wonderful writer, and an historian. This book should be read/listened to by anyone who considers themselves an Australian. It tells the catastrophic tale of the white man coming to Australia with his European sentiments, beliefs, and ignorance. What we gently call ‘settlement’ was more an assault fueled by arrogance, ignorance and brutal desire. This not an account of evil, but of evil consequences wrought by innocent brutality.

The sobering truth of the European mentality is that it was awful in the consequences of its adventures beyond its domain – in Africa, in the Americas, as well as Australia.

Watson is on no moral rampage. He documents the history of what we call ‘the bush’ from settlement to now. He passes no judgements. The people he describes are ‘good people’ – but they handle their new home roughly.  What he has written is perhaps the most concise examination of the impact of the European Christian/Materialist mentality upon a landscape and the lives that dwell therein. 

I can think of no more telling account of the perils of that mindset – the left brain dominance that McGilchrist writes so compellingly about. 

Why Religion?

Introduction

I recently had a strangely disjointed experience of listening to Elaine Pagels Why Religion?I had expected a scholarly discussion interlaced with elements of a personal story. I didn’t get that. 

Instead, I got a raw account of a life of peaks and achingly deep valleys interlaced with almost incidental accounts of presence of spirit. 

Pagels’ day job is as an academic whose field is religion. I love her work. As I listened to the book, I came to understand more of why she wrote the way she did. 

The book was accessible to me in ways I did not expect. In part this was a function of generational proximity. She grew up in a time I understood. And even though our lives are utterly different, hers was familiar to me in so many ways. 

The title question, Why Religion?, wasn’t answered as I expected. That brought a sense of relief I didn’t know I would experience. I am so used to grappling with that idea at a head level, I was relieved that Pagels dragged it down to a gut level for me – and let me put my own inadequate words to an answer. 

In effect, she magnified the question mark of the title by forming, but not asking, the question: “If you had been through these kinds of experiences, how would you feel about religion?”

In her day job she is a leading scholar of religion. In her private life is a cauldron of existential extremes. The 2 must intersect. But how she experienced that intersection isn’t how I experienced her story – and that would be true for every reader and listener. We would all have our individual reactions to her story. We tell stories for a reason – to share some essential truth we think is of value. Now and then, after a particularly memorable performance, there is a long pause before the applause. I feel almost trapped in that pause, captured by it – with only these thoughts.

On an intellectual level the Why Religion? question has filled volumes beyond any count I can imagine. On the personal level the count may be larger. Quite by accident I had purchased an audiobook by Mark Smeby called Losing Control Finding Freedom By Letting Go. I can’t recall exactly why I bought the audiobook. I did go through a period of looking for sources of inspiration to disrupt habituated thought to help a work project. 

This was before I got careful about checking out the authors of audiobooks on Google after getting burned a few times. For instance, I bought an audiobook that looked like it was a learned discussion of one of the gnostic gospels and it turned out to be a not at all interesting theological interpretation. The title was misleading, but I should have been more careful. 

So, it turned out that Smeby was a Christian. My first thought was “Burned again!” These days I wouldn’t have progressed the purchase. But, on an inner prompting, I listened. I squirmed at times, but Smeby actually had a rock solid message about being genuinely ‘Christian’. Even though he used the Bible often (mostly in ways that had me gritting my teeth), his theme came down to saying- just be a decent loving human being and relax – okay so a bit more sophisticated than that, but that was the underpinning message. I listened to Smeby straight after Pagels

Just before Pagels, I had listened to Mastering Your Hidden Self: A Guide to the Huna Way by Serge Kahili King. It was another audiobook bought on a whim, and a good hint of curiosity. I didn’t know anything about this Hawaiian system, and this was the first time I had come across a book on it. 

The 3 experiences interwove. They were all about individual responses to life experiences – about choices and interpretations – and understanding of how the world works. King spoke of an intentional and rational methodology based on an ancient tradition. Smeby’s approach was a hope-based rendition of the Christian tradition. Pagels was in the middle as the intellectual getting a powerful experiential lesson that head-based inquiry is not enough.

I had long been in Pagels’ position, which is probably why the book resonated so strongly with me. It was only this morning, as I listened to the last half hour of Smeby, that I realised that ‘Love’ was a common theme is all 3 books. King observed that the Huna Way was grounded in love – as an attitude through which the world is engaged. For Smeby it was the central theme – moving from the transactional and conditional ‘love’ of much common Christianity to the unconditional love that is a contested core of original Christianity. 

For Pagels, the drama of personal love wrenched asunder by deaths of intimate companions (child and husband) was contrasted with the enduring love of friends and the subtle presence of spirit. This was no simple experience of being an admired academic. A churning mill of emotional chaos was in the background. Pagels privileged the reader/listener by letting us be aware of this fundamental formative and transformative energy. I had always liked Pagels’ style, and now I understood why. It had heart – one that owned the extremes of personal struggle for understanding.

My Own Question Reframed

Back on the 10th of June this year (2021) I quit my job after 19.5 years. I am precise about that because it was a Thursday, and a payday, and exactly 6 months before my 20thanniversary with this employer. As you will see below, dates matter.

I had had an extraordinary run in the last 4 years of doing what I was passionate about and being afforded an unprecedented level of liberty and support to do it. As 2020 ended and 2021 got under way, my enthusiasm evaporated suddenly. There were still things to be done with my cherished projects, but something had changed. 

For the past few years, I had been getting annual year ahead astrology readings from Kelly Surtees, an Australian astrology now in Canada. Her sessions were astonishingly insightful. In December 2020, the day I had scheduled annual leave was the end of a distinct 4-year period. Kelly asked me if I had planned to start my leave on that day. I misunderstood her. I had, but not for the reason she meant. It was just the earliest I could take it.

She talked about there being a huge change potential in the offing. I said my division was going through a major restructure and I had indicated an interest in looking at a voluntary redundancy offer. Kelly asked if I might accept it, if offered, and I said I didn’t know. She asked when I thought I would like to leave – if I did. I said at the end of the financial year – 30 June. She said early June seemed better indicated. As it was, the 10 June date was offered, and was not negotiable. 

The change Kelly spoke of was a greater sense of freedom and creativity. Virtually the day I left I felt as weight lifted from my shoulders. I mean this literally. The burden of having to respond to a bureaucratic culture was gone. My extraordinary run began in November 2016, when I became Chair of my Department’s Disability Employee Network – a role I held until March 2020. I won’t detail things here, suffice to say that this was a period of unprecedented influence and creative freedom. In late 2019 and over 2020 I had been given lead responsibility to design and initiate my department’s Disability Inclusion Action Plan. By early December 2020 the main work had been done. I felt exhausted, but I was unprepared for the sudden feeling of being completely disconnected. I began 2021 struggling to recover my passion; and could not. I went into mop up mode. I knew from past experiences that a change was coming for certain – a new job or redundancy. It was redundancy. It was an offer I could not refuse.

My astrology aligned with my mood and intuition, and with circumstance and opportunity. As an aside of note – my sessions with Kelly were during this period, and my efforts to book her for a 2022 preview, despite assurances, have turned to nothing. The lesson of matching life experiences and the ‘stars’ is apparently over.

I write this on 5 December just 5 days shy of a full 6 months since my departure. Oddly a significant personal event will take place on 10 December. That date was determined by no evident influence from me, though it came about because I delayed a series of critical actions until performing them seemed to be ‘at the right time’. This delay seemed overtly against my interests and seemed idiotic to others. It cost me quite a bit of money. 

This will be the true end of a stage in my life that began on 10 December 2001, when my employment with my now former department started. 

It may seem preposterous to assert that spirit would induce me to delay a critical course of action until a defining event could occur on a specific date. If that was just a one-off, I could be persuaded that was the case. But interventions have been a persistent feature of my life. That is to say that some compelling influence to act, or not, has been exerted in ways that have been radical and dramatic, or more subtle. And the 10th of December has featured before as a radical event – in 1977. I remember that date not just for the event, but because it was also a federal election day. This was the first time I became powerfully conscious of tying a transformative event to a date. 

Over the past near 6 months I have shed bureaucratically influenced writing style. Today (6 December) a friend remarked that my writing had developed a new character, which he much preferred. I had idly thought I would take a least 6 months to slough off the bureaucratic imprint on my psyche.

A new project I am developing with an associate can’t take is first steps until after 10 February 2022. That’s the date she will be returning from overseas. This could be a defining moment of what happens next. The date is significant in that it’s a limiter – nothing can happen before it.

I am constantly exposed to the elegance of numbers in dates and times. There are times when I am haunted by 11:11 on clocks. This will go on every day for up to 2 weeks at times. As I write this, I glance at the clock on my screen. Its 11:09. That look was intentional. Usually, it’s a sudden urge to look at the time, despite it being unnecessary. Its 11:11 now. 

I am not into numerology, just patterns. Adding the numbers of my birthdate yields 22. A cycle started on 10.12.2001 and will end on 10.12.2021. Another may start on 10.02.2022 – but probably not, to be honest. Still, it’s fun this is the date my associate gave me (and she’s leaving to go OS on 10.01.2022).   My next birthday will be 22.01.2022. Oh! I wish I was born in February – 22.02.2022 would be so neat! I wonder what will happen that day. I have made a diary note as a reminder.

I don’t take these numbers seriously. They are like a constant playful reminder that spirit is always present. I have just paused, during an edit at this point, and picked up my phone. Its 22:11. I had no reason to pick my phone up on a rational level. Just spirit messing with me. Being delayed in action so that a critical event can happen on 10.12.2021 isn’t remarkable anymore. 

The past 20 years has been a time of intriguing synchronicities, intuitions, and interventions – from how I got my job in the first place – and my last two roles, where I began working, where I live – so many things in between – including contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which put me in hospital for 10 months. I was off work 18 months all up and returned to work with a disability that changed my life. 

But that was only a chapter in a spirit drenched life. I will write on this one day. I have tried, but it’s not yet time. I have the stories in scraps and fragments in files on my computer. One day it will become a project driven by a passion to complete. That’s just not now (or soon, I feel compelled to add).

Why religion? has been a question I have been asking since I was around 14. I have progressively, to my satisfaction, decided what it is not. Developing an understanding what it is has been a long hard journey. Around that age I was adamantly not Christian. I had been having paranormal experiences most of my life, and they were intensifying (and soon to go nuts). One place I could not go was to the religion my family was raised in, even though it claimed to be the authority on things of this nature. Science was no help either. What was the point of a religion that couldn’t help? Why bother with it? Where else was there to turn?

When I was 16, I discovered yogic metaphysics and I fell in love with the idea that there was another way of knowing. I had no interest in yoga itself. I quit the academic grooming I was being given because studying metaphysics was not an option open to my limited Tasmanian vision.

My grandmother was some help. She told me of experiences in Northern Ireland, where I was born. Our family, while religiously Christian, had many stories of the paranormal. They just weren’t spoken of any where near the Church. There was no open antithesis – each knew the other existed. At least I wasn’t crazy – influenced by the Devil, maybe, but not nuts.

The Pervasiveness of the Subtle

Pagels’ subtle references to manifestations of spirit, serendipity, quiet manifestations of ‘magic’ and religious acts, and synchronicities do not play a loud role in her book. I am not sure why. Does she recognise their significance, beyond acknowledging them? She has the sophistication of mind to be intentionally subtle. I chose to believe she was, but its not with full confidence.

King and Smeby take different approaches. King describes how to create effects intentionally, the way some of the people in Pagels’ story do. They use different methods. Smeby writes of ‘supernatural’ experiences generated by hope or faith. But they are not commonplace – more alluringly infrequent – a sign of what might be possible with hope and faith better expressed.

My life has been (and remains) full of subtle expressions of power and intelligence – and now and then not so subtle. None of it has been within a religious context – in the sense that nothing has happened that was directly associated with any formal religion. Some of it expressed during my time of involvement with Western Magic and Wicca. Mostly, it has just been between me and whatever is generating the expressions. 

Religion, as we understand it, clearly does not contain or control spirit. At its best, it may be a system for understanding and engaging with it – but no more than that. In this way, it is layered – providing what is needed according to need – and nothing else. Status based on position alone is meaningless. In Christianity, ordaining a priest can be mostly an administrative procedure. No actual initiatory and transformative event happens because of the act itself. Some individual priests/ministers may experience otherwise; because they are ripe for the experience. 

In some cultures, shamans are ‘chosen by spirit’ – whether they want the role or not. Individuals have no say in what spirit does through them. It can express through a formal religious organization; or ignore it entirely. 

Pagels’ best-known work is The Gnostic Gospels (1979). I haven’t read it because I have been focusing on audiobooks. The kindle version is ready to go, and now I feel an urge to get into it (maybe good holiday reading for me?). I have done a lot of peripheral reading on the Gnostics, and I am feeling as though I am ready. That may seem like an odd thing to say. It is said that ‘gnosis’ means ‘knowledge’, but Pagels said (in Why Religion?) that ‘insight’ is a closer translation. That makes a huge difference – between an intellectual and a personal encounter. Miss it, and you can waste time and miss the point. Maybe I needed to know that before embarking on reading the book.

Why has it taken me until now to encounter that distinction? Why is now the right time?

Gnosticism is seen as a kind of parallel interpretation of Christian source material. It was rejected and suppressed by the form of Christianity that prevailed to dominate our culture. That would be expected if it contained that which only those ‘who have eyes to see, and ears to hear’ might value. Insight is not common sense, and has to be won, not conveyed.

Gnosticism has become a contemporary hero of suppressed knowledge. It isn’t that at all. Insight can’t be suppressed. Christianity has become a villain in a pointless drama. Yes, the Gnostic Gospels were hidden to preserve them from certain destruction. Non-conformist thought is always suppressed in a culture bent on conformity. Disruptive insight is rarely welcome. Whether you think church, bureaucracy, company, or university there will always be an instance of insight being unwelcome. But maybe it was unwisely offered, or just futilely so – the timing was poor, or the minds too rigid.

Spirit is not about to be dictated to, or controlled by, any organization. In fact, the champions of Gnostics as heroes run a good chance of being what they profess to despise. By creating a story of suppressed knowledge, they create an illusion of certainty in what is claimed to be suppressed knowledge.

The ancients signified Wisdom as a female aspect of the divine; and called her Sophia. This is perpetuated in the Wisdom Tradition; and has been debased through philosophy. A philosopher was once a lover of wisdom. Now it seems that philosophy has become a form of intellectual neurosis.

The link between insight and wisdom is important. One might say they are the yin and yang of the same thing. I like that saying: Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Once we understand that spirit is not contained or framed by religions, and cannot be suppressed by them we can more usefully ask – Why Religion?

So, Why?

First, what do we mean by the term? The dictionary definition is useless; but knowing this is so can be useful. My Oxford Dictionary says religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Dictionaries put a lot of hard work into arriving at a definition. It is a professional definition arrived at by experts at giving words meanings. The fact that it is such an awful definition is telling.

The words are coherent, and you will assume you know what the statement means. And you do, to the superficial degree that the definition permits. But the authors of the definition don’t actually know what religion is, and they are safely betting you don’t either. Many years ago, a product called Claytons was advertised as “The drink you are having when you are not having a drink.” It was a non-alcoholic beverage promoted as a replacement for the ‘real thing.’

This is a ‘Claytons” definition. It is responsible and sober; and will not inflame anything disruptive – like insight.

Unlike Pagels, I am going to attempt answer the question. I should say this is my answer, which serves my purposes. It may not serve your needs. We all need answers that work for us.

My definition: Religion is a shared or individual response to awareness that we dwell in something we call ‘Reality’ or ‘Nature’ and in relation to which we must conduct ourselves in a manner conducive to our best interests. 

The root of the word, religion is believed (according to the Oxford Dictionary) to derive from “obligation, bond, reverence” and “perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’.”

We are bound to our conduct, and to a relationship with whatever we see to be the agents or agencies that make stuff happen – be that God, gods, chance, fate, Nature, or the mechanical forces of physics. Regardless of the cause we define, our responses follow a limited pattern.

Our ancestors, absent the option of materialism, saw reality in terms of spirit. This probably because acute awareness of one’s surroundings includes the subtle, the less obvious. This is something I learned from my youthful bushwalking days in Tasmania. Atmospheres and presences are pervasive.  We can argue about what that means from a distance, because we cannot know for certain what our ancestors thought. But there are huge hints in anthropology – in the lifeworlds of humans living traditional premodern lives. Humanity has been, for most of its history, more sympathetic to animism than materialism. The notion of the ancient Greek philosopher, Thales, that ‘everything is full of gods’ would be unremarkable to most humans for most of the time we have been around.

The most unhelpful aspect of the dictionary definition is the use of the word “worship”. The dictionary says it is: “the feeling or expression of reverence or adoration for a deity”.  That definition presumes to definitively describe a sense of relationship in a narrow way – with no allowance for fear or frustration, bribery or beseeching. 

The root of the word is more helpful – “Old English weorthscipe ‘worthiness, acknowledgement of worth’ (see worth-ship).” I don’t think it is possible to see this as other than seeking an assurance of personal worth in the face of an utterly overwhelming sense of the reality in which the human being is conscious of its presence. Seeking affirmation of self-worth in relation others is fundamental to human wellbeing. Others includes humans and other than humans – physical and metaphysical.

That ‘in which we live and move and have our being’ is something with whom we must have a relationship. We are bound to it. Religion is, in essence, an existential awareness of the necessity of a relationship with our reality at an individual and a shared level. Our ancestors did not have our sense of individuated being – so it was at a family, tribal or larger community level.

In our culture, the degradation of institutional religions, combined with materialism and atheism, and environments that favour less and less intimate awareness of what is around us has led to predictable outcomes. Our understanding of spirit is distorted by dogmas and errors. Our model of the real has become a wilderness rendered sterile by the intellectual napalm of ‘reason’. Our senses have been numbed – as if we are suffering from industrial deafness and blindness as a cultural norm. Of course, our definition of religion will be unsympathetic. Of course, we will have become deaf and blind to spirit in our reality.

Conclusion

The title of Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, sums up what I think religion is. Until recently it hasn’t been an individual matter, so much as an imperative for whole communities – tribes to civilizations. 

But that meaning is not the intellectual quest. Rather, it is relational and personal. What relationship can we have with the ever-present spirit that peers at us from everything? How do we behave toward it? Unless we acknowledge its presence, and allow a relationship is possible, we can’t answer those questions. The moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, describes humans as the rational rider on the great elephant of instinctual and unconscious impulses. He sees that reason is often the ‘PR’ agent of the elephant – it makes rational and conscious what we have formulated at a less conscious level. I think there’s more to this than Haidt asserts. He is an atheist, but his science is sound and instructive.

Our science is only an expression of the same questions asked by priests and popes, albeit in a mode that repudiates their theological presumptions (and many other things besides – too many). We are seeing now, as science grapples with quantum physics, a vindication of that old saying attributed to Lao Tzu “Going on means going far, going far means returning.” We are coming back to an old perspective – albeit with a different way of knowing.

The cultural anthropologist, Mircea Eliade, is credited with calling humanity “homo religiosus” – saying we are innately religious. In a reality which is spirit infused (and everything is full of gods), the need to discover meaning, and to learn how to behave is always with us. Our cultures, our civilizations, set the larger lens and filters – and we define our ‘religions’ accordingly.

Our culture has profited from de-spiriting and dissecting what is around us; and focussing on utility for transient personal benefit. Organized and institutional religion has become debased as a litany of theological conceits and moral hypocrisies. It is little wonder we have been steadily losing our religion.

The word is in dire need of a makeover, and to be restored to its dignity as an essential attribute of humanity. We need, perhaps, to imagine that calling ourselves Homo Sapiens (Latin: “wise man”) is not a gross conceit, but a vision of what is possible. The term itself is credited to Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. It was an Enlightenment conceit that confused knowledge for wisdom. It had recast soul as mind.

We could rescue the term from its arrogant and immature mud; and convert it back into a humble goal – a radient prize in Sophia’s hands.

Why religion? It is what makes us who we are.

Gott, das ist Unsinn – Gotthard Opening Ceremony Craziness

Originally posted on Jan 3, 2018 

Introduction – Missing the Point

The Gotthard Base Tunnel was opened on 1 June 2016. The Swiss tunnel is celebrated as the longest rail tunnel built at 57 kilometers under the Alps.

The Australian ABC (abc.net.au) reported that “The world’s longest tunnel has officially been opened in Switzerland with an elaborate ceremony featuring an eclectic range of performance art.”, observing that “Trapeze artists dressed as construction workers, a horse and carriage and other theatrics traced the history of the 57-kilometre tunnel’s construction as part of the opening ceremony.”

In contrast the newspaper the Daily Mail (dailymail.co.uk) described the opening ceremony as the “most bizarre opening ceremonies in history”.

The huffingtonpost.com was a little more measured, reporting that “the ceremony featuring alphorn players, topless “angels” and goats, could not have been more bizarre. Masked acrobats and interpretive dancers dressed like miners ushered in the Gotthard Base Tunnel’s opening near the town of Erstfeld Wednesday.”

Then things got very silly on Google – very very silly.

The vigilantcitizen.com insisted that: “the opening ceremony of the Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland was a dark, disturbing, weirdly satanic ritual.”

A YouTube video posted by Jeremy Hetrick carried the mouthful title: “Full Bizarre, Demonic Gotthard Tunnel Opening Ceremony, Satanic, New World Order, Illuminati Ritual.”

I have seen the video posted by Hetrick 4 times in full. There were bits I loved and other bits that left me kinda cold, but that’s not an unusual with contemporary theatre or dance. I understood that for some what they witnessed would have seemed bizarre, if they had no familiarity with indigenous European culture and folk traditions. But there is a gulf of difference between what is bizarre of itself and what is bizarre to a person who has no familiarity with, or understanding of, another culture’s culture. To be fair, misunderstanding can even be domestic.

The Swiss Cabinet was obliged to assert that “The artistic production, with its concept ‘Gotthard myths’, used figures and legends exclusively from Alpine culture” (swissinfo.ch) This clarification arose when a member of the Swiss government misinterpreted part of the ceremony to be depicting “whirling dervishes”. The Cabinet was obliged to clarify, saying “ The aforementioned figures are not dervishes but dancing haystacks.” I suppose that in the hands of a contemporary director that mistake might be made even if one was familiar with the culture and its traditions.

The Ceremony was directed by Volker Hesse. He is a well-established and respected German director, who has been living and working in Switzerland for the better part of this century. The official Gotthard handout on Hesse observes that he “has for many years regularly dramatised in Switzerland and is already connected with the Gotthard region.”

The same handout notes that: “In view of the context of an international event with several sites in the open air as well as indoors, Volker Hesse does not use spoken language but powerful images, bodily processes, music and dance theatre, and generally physical forms of expression.”

The Swiss, apparently, didn’t share the ignorant Anglo culture’s absurd take on their festival. The ceremony won a gold Xaver award (Swiss award for excellence in live communication). I have a variety of information I sourced from direct communication with the Gotthard Tunnel administration I am happy to send to anybody who asks for via the feedback email address.

Why does any of this matter?

Down the Wrong Rabbit Hole

My interest in the Gotthard Ceremony arose long after the fact. It was because of an interview (1 November 2017) on the Skeptiko podcast (skeptiko.com) with blogger Chris Knowles (secretsun.blogspot.com). Knowles made a few comments about the opening ceremony that got me curious. He said the ceremony was a ritual, and that got me interested. I had spent over a decade performing in, writing, and directing magical rituals, so I was very keen to see a claimed public ritual conceived by a dark elite. I was skeptical, but curious.

Knowles made a number confident claims I found hard to believe at first blush, so I wanted to check and be sure. I listened to the podcast several times to be absolutely sure I head what he was saying, and I watched the Hetrick video over and over. I emailed Knowles with questions and a few comments about what he had claimed on Skeptiko. He replied quickly, dismissing my issues and added a few more confident claims. I replied with some rebuttals and assertions and questions.

On his Secret Sun blog Knowles reported on his Skeptiko interview in the following manner:

Most importantly, I spell out my philosophy on understanding the Never-Ending Ritualism and its historical context. It’s important to have a grasp on the historical context of these symbols and these messages because I believe we are on the cusp of the next phase of the program- in which these increasingly audacious presentations will become more explicit and self-explanatory. 

 I believe there will be a very seductive and appealing pitch on the backend of this, something that a great many people will find very hard to resist, especially this historically-illiterate new class of witches and magicians.

 In order to offer a counterargument you need to understand the messages being conveyed, their historical contexts and the implications for the future that history teaches us. If you throw words like “Lucifer” or “Illuminati” around, the game will be lost before you even take the field. 

I have to confess to having never heard of Never-Ending Ritualism, so while I was skeptical about such a thing, I was also curious to understand what Knowles meant by it. It was certainly not an idea discussed in any of the many books on magical traditions I had read over the years. I had heard nothing of the idea in any contemporary commentary on magic and ritual. So, was it a new idea based upon a novel insight? Was it worth paying attention to? My first impression was that it was not. In essence, I found nothing Knowles said to be compelling or well-founded.

Normally I would not go any further, but Knowles has a reputation as an expert on occult symbolism in popular culture and appears with apparent regularity on podcasts, so he is credited as somebody who has an opinion worth listening to and reading. Also, he claims to be a deep researcher who goes to source material, and I have to say this got me in when I first heard it. I like listening to people who are deep inquirers. At first, I had no issues with what he was saying. But then I developed the opinion that he was talking complete bollocks. Was I being unkind?

I was puzzled by why nobody hosting any of the podcasts was challenging what he was saying. In fact, he and other guests on a couple of shows seemed to be getting free passes by hosts who were giving the impression that they agreed with Knowles in all that he said. That meant that the listeners to these shows, with less knowledge, might be induced to take Knowles’ notions to be as well-researched and well-informed as he claimed they were. If the hosts of the podcasts were not challenging him, he had to be okay – right?

In fairness I allowed myself to be wrong and went hunting to see whether I could confirm the merit of his sources and the quality of his ideas. The Gotthard Tunnel was a good place to start because I could see the same thing as he did, and I felt I could evaluate his claims about the event.

To him the Gotthard Opening Ceremony was a “state ritual” linked to an “internationalizing Mystery cult tradition.” To me it was just an opening ceremony like any Olympic Games – full of references and symbols that were incomprehensible to outsiders; yet filled with significance to the indigenous population. How do you turn that into a sinister ritual by dark controlling forces?

There’s a technical thing about rituals. They need structure and form. They need coherence and a purpose and a method. Without them you have no ritual, just a performance. For me all these essential elements were missing. It was just a performance devoid of any occult ritual element. Of course, ceremonies are intended to evoke responses to symbols and performances. But here’s the difference in simple terms– ceremonies evoke, and rituals invoke. I agree that the convergence between evocation and invocation can be blurred, or at least not sufficiently evident to people who do not know the difference. A good ritual should invoke and evoke, but even a great ceremony can only evoke. If the elements of ritual were present in this ceremony, they should be discernible to people familiar with ritual.

A ritual must have a purpose beyond celebrating something. A ceremony celebrates and in so doing it may use elements of performance that are common to both ceremony and ritual – including symbols and signs as well as music, dance, and atmospheric effects (lighting and scents for example). For instance, the Christian cross can be used in ceremonial and ritual contexts. The familiar sign of the five pointed star, the pentagram, is an essential symbol in some magical rituals. But it is also something that can be rendered in jewelery, printed on t-shirts, and generally displayed to signify belonging to a group or as a display that celebrates a belief.

Symbols are used widely in ceremonies because they are meaningful to participants and observers – and hence they evoke thoughts and emotions. But not all symbols are occult, or esoteric. Nevertheless, the very nature of a symbol is that it conveys meaning only to those who know what it means. A brand logo, such as the Nike tick, is meaningful to those who know what it means, and is just a check mark to those who do not.

These days a ceremony could be a product promotion event full of symbols that are meaningful to brand devotees, but nonsense to others. Countries hosting events like the Olympics will use an opening ceremony to ‘brand’ their national culture using motifs and symbols that are deeply evocative to citizen, but which might seem bizarre or absurd to those not in the know – and maybe even embarrassing to those who do know.

Symbolism is a legitimate and fascinating area of inquiry, and there is a genuine continuity between secular and ‘occult’ symbols. These days many of what used to be ‘secret’ or ‘occult’ symbols are known at a secular level as signifiers of secret things, and there is a popular belief that the secret significance is known – and that may be the case in many instances.

Signifiers that were once confined to sacred ceremonies are now exhibited in acts of secular homage to a cultural tradition. This is especially true of ‘folk traditions’ that echo pagan ceremonies. Even if the folk tradition retains a seasonal connection with the original ceremony the deep spiritual connection is long severed in the minds of the observers. So, the Gotthard ceremony can pay homage to what is a pagan ritual tradition by using symbols and signifiers without constituting a ritual.

The Devil is in the Detail

Knowles appears to me to not know the difference, and was not, apparently, interested in becoming aware of it. Knowles also seemed to me to be factually wrong on a number of matters. I will list several here that can be checked by viewing the ceremony video. You may or may not agree with either of us.

  • He said the winged figure with the large head is Cupid. I say it is not. Rather it is a character related to the death of workers on the tunnel. Nine workers died during the construction of the tunnel. What was being performed seemed to me to be a death theme, not an erotic one. True, we are both interpreting a performance that has no word or signs to confirm what is going on.
  • He said I shouldn’t be concerned that the figure is female as these days it is okay for Cupid to be female. I disagree. Cupid is male in the Greek tradition for a reason. Despite our affection for gender fluidity these days, traditional ritualists take gender very seriously. In this case the fact that the figure is female probably means that the character was intended to be female – we have no evidence either way, so I am inclined to guess in favour of the norm being applied.
  • He said the ‘Cupid’ enters the performance on a train wagon on which an orgy is taking place, confirming the erotic association. I say the performance is a bit stiff and grim to be an orgy, even in Switzerland (sorry Swiss people – it’s stereotype humour to make a point – nothing personal – you are just not known for your orgies).
  • He inferred the antler/horned characters are representation of the Devil, whom Knowles described as “Lord of the World”. Knowles seeks to associate these with Jupiter Amun – a fusion of the Roman Jupiter and the Egyptian Amun. I think that both are sky gods and have no direct connection with Pagan deities connected with fertility. This matters because you can’t get your gods confused in a ritual.
  • He said the 3 beetles on the open stage performance are Scarab Beetles. I say they are the wrong shape for scarabs. They are beetles. They may signify something but that is not evident from the performance. Maybe they are intended to signify scarabs, but the fact is they are the wrong shape, so we cannot infer this from observation.
  • He said the 3 women in the outdoor stage segment are the Morai (Greek). I say there is no evidence that they are anything, and they could be closer Celtic or even Norse references – like the Norns. We don’t actually know who they are without being told.
  • He said the context is Greco-Roman. I say why? Why interpret traditions that are closer to the ancient pagan/Celtic roots as being other than what they are? Throughout Europe and the UK there are festivals and traditions that are rooted in the older Celtic and Norse traditions, and which owe nothing to the Greco-Roman – or indeed the Christian.

On every single count that Knowles raised with me in support of his assertion that the ceremony was a state ritual I found to be presumption without compelling evidence. Why insist that the bare breasted winged woman with the large head is Cupid? Knowles asserted that “there’s no similar figure in any indigenous tradition that I’m aware of.” I agree. I don’t know of any specific figure that could assigned to this performance. But that does not make the figure Cupid. We must allow the designers of the performance their own knowledge, inspiration, and interpretation in pursuit of their art. Besides why have Cupid at a death performance? Even Paul Seaburn’s lightweight piece posted on mysteriousuniverse.org on 7 June 2016 observed that “The flying baby with the giant head was played by a topless woman and was said to honour workers who died during the construction.”

While Seaburn’s article had some merit, it left a lot without substance. He noted that “While each of the individual performances had a real-world connection to the building of the tunnel, it would have taken a program the thickness of a phone book to explain them.” But was this based on knowledge or just a guess? The hyperbole suggests a lazy guess. His final paragraph tells me that maybe it’s just a lazy compliance with a contract obligation. Nevertheless, his humour makes it clear he has little sympathy for Knowles’ position.

What were Volker Hesse and the organizers of the tunnel opening thinking? Perhaps they were trying to preemptively top the opening ceremony for the Summer Olympics to be held in Rio. Perhaps this is the future of entertainment and we’ll all be wearing bird nest hats next year. Perhaps rumours of a New World Order run by Satanists are true. Perhaps the tunnel is the opening to hell.

What do you think the Gotthard Base Tunnel opening ceremony actually meant?

I confess I get pretty cranky when lazy writers ask readers what they think. Who is getting paid to do some research? Why give the reader next to nothing to go on and then invite them to come to a conclusion as to the meaning of the tunnel opening ceremony? It meant the tunnel was open for business. To suggest anything else is irresponsible.

In any case, to be frank, who cares what a random reader of the MU site thinks. I wanted to know the Swiss thought, and so I asked. Below is an extract of an email from the Gotthard Tunnel authority. My correspondent kindly translated the German into English for me. The full text of the email is available on request.

The most renowned Swiss Newspaper. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, described the show as follows: “The show was perfect, multimedial and a phenomenon. It reflected on a symbolic and allegorical way the raw mountain world, the mythology around the Gotthard mountain massive, the idealism and the courage of the tunnel builders, the dangers for the miners – and the colorful Swiss Zeitgeist (spirit of the age). Speaking of colorful: The show had two or more senses. It should bring the public to reflect the role of Switzerland in the current European context.

Knowles has told me not to trust bureaucrats, unaware that I am in fact a bureaucrat of substantial standing. My bureaudar tells me this guy is not a stooge or a dupe.

Knowles is not lazy and mischievous. I think he’s just plain wrong. While I have no doubt he is sincere in his beliefs I equally have no doubt he does not actually know what he is talking about. He exhibits no evidence he knows anything about ritual. His claimed understanding of occult symbolism seems to be based on him making claims and nobody challenging them.

From what I can make of Knowles he is a modern Gnostic with a model not openly articulated, yet hinted at in his email to me when he raised “the Christian Devil, ie., the lord of this world.” Knowles clearly has a theory born of his interest in Gnosticism. That theory includes what he sees to be an “internationalizing Mystery cult tradition”.

Aside from my direct personal experience in ritual I have been reading widely in esoterica and the occult for decades. I see no evidence for this tradition, at least in the way Knowles interprets it.

Of course, it comes down to whether one prefers to believe Knowles or me on this matter. I am not going to say it is up to you as a reader to decide. Have either of us have given you sufficient information to make a decision? You have to dig deeper if you think we have not. Check out Knowles’ blog too. Don’t just take my word. You may even like the material better than my argument.

To be fair to those who are concerned about the Christian Devil, he does appear in the opening ceremony. I wasn’t entirely sure at first, from watching the video, so I relied on my Gotthard correspondent to inform me. He said:

The most discussed element of the show is probably the dance of the Devil. It goes back to an old legend about the first bridge leading to the Gotthard pass (and) According to the legend the local people recruited the Devil for the difficult task of building the bridge. The Devil requested to receive the first thing to pass the bridge in exchange for his help. To trick the Devil, who expected to receive the soul of the first man to pass the bridge, the people of Uri sent across a dog by throwing a piece of bread, and the dog was promptly torn to pieces by the Devil. Enraged at having been tricked the Devil went to fetch a large rock to smash the bridge, but, carrying the rock back to the bridge, he came across a holy man who “scolded him” and forced him to drop the rock, which could still be seen on the path below the village of Göschenen.

You can’t enact the defeat of an agency in a ritual and insist that this wasn’t an evocative act. I suppose it is possible to imagine that the director, the performers, and some dark and powerful people could contrive to conceal within a public ceremony a secret performance of a ritual. But what would be the point? I can see none. What would be the benefit? I can see none. Other ritualists may disagree with me, and I would be interested in an informed contrary opinion. Even if I thought a conspiracy was plausible, I simply cannot imagine why anybody would bother.

Conclusion – Why do this?

And why bother imaging the enactment of an implausible conspiracy as a real act? I get that Knowles seriously believes this is what happened, but the evidence is not there in my book. There are enough real conspiracies that should engage our attention and concern. 

Distracting people with dramatic confections – an occult conspiracy of the elite – serves no good purpose in my mind. If the conspiracy is not real, then the response pointless and impotent. The witness, the knower, becomes even more powerless. Misinformation, like disinformation, weakens. Though I dislike the term, the ‘Elite’ is doing enough real harm by hording wealth way beyond their needs (and other things besides). Why make up mad conspiracy theories about them?

Books That Have Transformed My Thinking

Introduction

I read a lot. Since 2009 my acquired disability has obliged me to rely more on Kindle and audiobooks. At the time of writing, my list of audiobooks, kept from early December 2020, stands at 219 (the latest being Tom Fort’s wonderful The Book of Eels). That’s better than 5 a month. I am not boasting, just providing evidence to back up my claim. Academics will wonder what I am talking about – but I had a fulltime job until June last year. As a hobby reader, its okay. Add Kindle books and podcasts to the list, and I have to confess I am a bit of an ideas junkie.

So, I thought it might be fun to share my top books that blew my mind. There aren’t a lot. In fact, at the time of drafting this essay I could think on only 6. In the end I got to 11 – and decided to quit there.

That does not mean there are only 11 books I would recommend. No, these are books that flipped my thinking on its head and obliged me to reimagine what was possible to think.

Back, around 1990, my life was in a period of crisis on many levels. I was talking to a colleague who had decided she had a need to explore the spiritual dimension. She was aware of my interest. I was dismayed to discover that nothing I said made any sense to her. I had spent the past 12 years immersed in esoterica; and had developed no capacity to communicate anything of meaning to anybody outside the jargon bubble.

Worse, I had been concerned for a few years that even among my fellow devotees of the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca, few had any ideas that went beyond devotion and into speculation and inquiry. We recited jargon and dogma to each other. But we could not move into critical inquiry. 

What alarmed me most was the realisation that I was in a community which had no incisive critique of the contemporary world. I loved Wicca. I retain a deep affection for it. But if it talked twaddle about contemporary reality, it wasn’t useful to me. As a personal practice it is fine, but as a mode of interpreting contemporary human reality it lacked what I needed.

It is quite clear that the Western Mystery Tradition and Wicca satisfy the needs of adherents. I offer no criticism of either. I am explaining why they didn’t meet my needs. This may help others.

I was attracted to both, because I needed an explanatory model that helped me make sense of my experiences in the contemporary world. I wasn’t looking for absolute answers, just a tool to help me make sense. I suspect this motive drives others to ‘belief systems’. What I needed was an ‘inquiry system’.

This became clear when I had the opportunity to engage with discarnate teacher. Now before I go on, I want to make it clear that I am aware of all the objections to such an idea. It was a subject I researched intensely. I am satisfied that what I am about to say is grounded in reality.

After being ejected from 2 esoteric groups for asking too many questions and not consenting to agree to believe what was demanded, I was concerned that I was the one with ‘the problem’. 

The advice I received was that I was on a different path, more like doing a PhD as opposed to coursework. Back then, I had no idea what that meant, but at the time I was happy for the affirmation of apparent intellectual superiority. What an idiot I was. Just over 2 decades later I was to discover my own weaknesses in performing a formal research project. I started my research degree in 2002; and finished it in 2009. That was a very difficult and painful time. I nearly quit several times.

Now that advice makes perfect sense. That guidance also was very clear about something else. He was not there to tell us stuff, but to teach us how to learn. Around 40 years on, that’s starting to make sense.

At the time there was a growing passion for people having contact with their own guides. That led to a bunch of sentimental claptrap being passed off as messages from Pleiadians, and archangels. Most of it was delusional nonsense perpetrated by gentle souls who did not understand their limits of their ability to transmit messages – nearly all of which germinated in their innocent conceits and gentle follies.

I am not dismissing the idea of contact from the metaphysical dimensions, just asserting a need for a strong critical assessment of claimed contact. Most of it is BS.

There’s a reason there are no ‘new age’ texts on my list. But works by discarnate teachers are. They are challenging and demanding – confronting my conceits. Whether they really are from discarnate teachers isn’t the point. Being challenged by coherent, surprising and disturbingly plausible ideas is.

My Top 11 Books

1. Hidden Teachings Beyond Yoga, Paul Brunton, published in 1900

I started to read this book when I was 16. It took me nearly 18 months to finish it. I’d read a paragraph or 2 and fall asleep. It wasn’t that I was tired, or bored – just overwhelmed by the ideas. This book changed my life. Because of it, I quit school and gave up plans to go to university and study geology. Depending on your perspective it either ruined or made my lifepath.

I bought a copy a few years ago with the intent to revisit it, but I haven’t opened it. Not sure I will.

2. The Betty Book, Stewart Edward White, published 1937

I can’t recall how I came across this book – probably found it in a bookshop. Because of my direct experience with ‘channelling’ in the late 1970s I needed to do some research – to get my head around the phenomenon.

This was a foundational read for me. White’s The Unobstructed Universe is a companion piece. Both opened me up to a new source of ideas. The Betty of the title dies and speaks through Joan. The ideas are challenging, sophisticated, and coherent. This is what ‘channelled’ material should be. Otherwise, it’s of no use.

3. Journeys Out of the Body, Robert Monroe, published in 1971

I read this in the late 70s. My girlfriend had bought it after she had a series of spontaneous out of body experiences. I had one several months after. Monroe has unwelcome spontaneous out of body experiences, fears he is ill or going mad, and then discovers he is neither. Being consciously one of one’s body is quite something. It suddenly hammers home the proposition that we are more than our bodies in a veery empirical way.

4. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Persig, published in 1974

I read this in the early 80s and bought the audiobook in 2019. I had a memory of being deeply moved by the book, but when I listened to the audiobook it was as if I had never read it. 

The book triggered strong self-reflection, both times. Even now I struggle to recall details. I have no doubt it would seem unfamiliar again; when I choose to listen to it again (it’s on my modest bucket list). It remains one of the most extraordinary books I have encountered.

5. Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick, published in 1987

I read this in the mid 1990s. Chaos theory just blew my mind. I saw the world differently thereafter.

6. Out of Control, Kevin Kelly, published in 1994

The mid 90s was a great time for ideas, for me. Kelly’s book added a dimension of complexity and subtlety to thinking about Chaos. It was a heady and wild ride into a blizzard of ideas.

7. Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, published in 1995

Another mid to late 90s read. The title drew me in. This was when I began to properly appreciate the value of emotions. I had been head focused until then, and this corrective was essential.

8. The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of UniversalsWilliam D. Gairdner, published in 2009.

I read this in 2010. It’s a book I must revisit. The idea of universal values is powerful, and Gairdner’s arguments were compelling. He wrote it as an antidote to relativism.

9. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop, published in 2014

This is the most extraordinary book. Siedentop explores the evolution of the idea of the individual in European culture – arguing that it arises out of Christianity – perhaps in an unintended way. It is a masterpiece of scholarship and critical thought.

10. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan, published in 2015

History, as we see it, it centred on Europe. Frankopan moves that ‘centre’ to the ‘Middle East’ and obliges us to rethink what we thought we understood. It’s a powerful transformation, and I loved every minute of it. He has a follow up as well.

11. Rita’s World, Frank DeMarco, published 2017

DeMarco is, in a way, a new version of White. The Rita of the title and DeMarco are both associated with the Monroe Institute. Rita dies and she and DeMarco talk, and that becomes a book (well, one of several). I have read 6 of DeMarco’s books. As with White, the ideas are coherent, sophisticated and challenging.

While all 11 books profoundly impacted my thinking, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceInventing the Individual and The Silk Roads also stand out as masterpieces as reading experiences. Engaging with them was an intellectually and spiritually sensuous experience. I can’t ask for more than that from any book.

Conclusion

I love books. I have had to give up the 3D versions for ebooks and audiobooks because my manual disabilities have turned the pleasure turning pages from a loving caress into a chore. I still have books on the shelves in front of me. But they are more fond reminders and silent companions than sources. To be honest, ebooks and audiobooks are way cheaper by a huge margin.

It took me 18 months to get through Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga when I was 16-17. My second reading of Inventing the Individual took me just under 12 months. Brunton taxed my 16 year old consciousness. A paragraph could knock me out. Siedentop was such sheer pleasure I sipped him slowly, like a 20-year old single malt.

Reading is transformative in ways other forms of engaging with ideas cannot be. This is because each paragraph is an intimate encounter an idea that can challenge and transform in a way the reader can manage.

For me the best books are about challenging what I think. They confront me and oblige me to wrestle with ideas, which may be difficult, novel, or ideas that make me uncomfortable. In the privacy of my mind and imagination I can have that struggle on my own terms – fast or slow – so long as I honour the challenge.

Birthday Reflections

22 January is my birthday – one of the ones ending in a zero that signify a temporal milestone. This morning I headed off to Mountain High Pies for an indulgent breakfast of a Big Breakfast Pie and coffee, which I brought to the Black Mother Gully. As I arrived, a red Subaru, which is often here, pulled out in perfect time for me to drive right to my (and their) favourite spot. Perfect timing. 

There were 2 men standing not too far away talking, unmoving, backs to car. This was the first time that loose humans had lingered. They depart as I eat. I am left with magpies and frogs in the background. 

The grass is dressed in the residue of overnight rain and fog embraces the gully. It is a cool 12 degrees C.  All is peaceful. 

I have been listening to The Righteous Mind by the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He has been talking the biological and evolutionary foundations to our sense of right and wrong – and why we embrace some as ‘like us’ and others not so much. 

In the background there is the soft sound of chooks – as if offering sad condolences and farewells to their eggs. It’s always such a warm sound.

Haidt is focusing on human morality, and he sends a clear message – who we care for depends on who we embrace as ‘one of us’. The root of our instincts is tribal – in human terms. But it is also apparent that our ancestors shared fellow feeling with other lives – kinship beyond the physical with the many lives of the world they lived with in. 

Haidt’s insights are of immense value, but they are not absolute. He relies of science to make the very good case that there are instinctual behaviours that form part of our moral intelligence – it’s just not all there is. 

Who we choose to believe we are adds a dimension to our moral values, and our conduct. If we see ourselves as special creations of God, given dominion over the creatures of the Earth, we will frame a morality to interpret that. If we see ourselves as part of a community of lives united in the spirit of ‘we are all in this together’ we will frame a different ethos.

How we define who we are will determine how we define our relations with, and conduct towards, others.  Haidt observes that, in biological terms, we cannot progress beyond tribalistic senses of identity and care. We are group based, not species based in our care and concern. 

So, to be humanitarian is to access a sense of identity beyond the biological – to connect with our deep nature that transcends our biological being – a spiritual dimension perhaps. Haidt cannot go there. 

For me, it is the fusion of these two natures – the biological and the spiritual that generates a challenge of conduct and communication – bringing both together. There is a tension between them, when the aspirations of one push against the limits of the other. 

Toward the end of the book Haidt discusses the errors of reasoning in the New Atheist position. The presumption that religion is an irrational thing because it has been used badly is sloppy. It is not a primitive state of pre-rational error. 

Haidt, an atheist himself, raises the human capacity to see faces in clouds – pareidolia. This popularly asserted to be a kind of survival instinct – better overreacting to a mistaken perception that something is a bear than failing to react to an actual bear. This has been crafted into an argument that belief in gods is a mistaken interpretation of that reflex. 

This is so monstrously silly I can hardly take it seriously. There is a lot of sense talked about pareidolia. Awareness of agents in the world is fundamental to all creatures to the best of their ability, and false positives are common – either as initial reflexes or as actual errors. Cats will chase a light from a laser pointer as if it is a living thing.

But assuming that humans who, at one stage, had to be hyperalert to things to eat, and things that may eat them, will parlay the false positives into an enduring delusion is offensive nonsense. Nevertheless, there is a book called Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion by Stewart Guthrie, 1995, which seems to have gained and retained a wholly unmerited fame.

As a child I was terrified by a face in the clouds. I thought it was God. I was 4 at the time, and my father had been drilling into me the assertion that God was watching me. I was playing in outside, chanced to look at the sky, saw the awful face, and fled in doors to find my mother. I love watching clouds. These days I take photos of cloud formations in the Blue Mountains. Faces are rare, and not enough to build an erroneous beliefs system on. The idea that our ancestors saw a face in a cloud and mistook it for an actual being is idiotic. Even the best faces don’t look literally convincing – though I must allow the odd one might.

I saw a photo of a potato crisp that was supposed to look like Jesus. It didn’t of course. It just looked vaguely human shaped. You need to indulgently apply your imagination to agree it looked like Jesus, or Elvis.

Seeing lifeforms in nature is what you’d expect from people with acutely developed capacities to scan their environment. You look for almost, because not every form will be clearly defined. So false positives are always going to be high – at least on first encounter. For example, when looking for edible shellfish on a beach, you mostly see just hints – a mere suggestive line from a small section of the shell that is exposed – and more things look like that suggestive line that are not shells because lots of things look like lines. The ability to see that even vaguely looks like something you are looking for is critical if you want to get a feed. 

It is not rational to turn a schooled reflex that generates a high volume of false positives into a theory of religion – unless you need to explain away something you don’t want to have to validate.

Perception of spirit presence rarely involves seeing an organic representation. But when one seeks to represent it, the organic is the go-to metaphor. In fact, spirit often expresses through animal form, using actual animals – birds are common. So, awareness of the environment includes awareness of spirit as well as of organic beings – and anything else that might be useful.

I get it – if you don’t believe spirit is real, as Guthrie does not, then you will try to explain human behaviour in terms that exclude spirit. But that’s a conceit, and little more. It is a thinking error – form a conclusion and then develop a theory based on the conclusion. If a lot of people share that conclusion, few people will argue the point – and those who do can be discarded as ‘not like us’.

This is where we have problems with developing a moral philosophy – basing it on a conclusion that suits our conceits, rather than critical thought and evidence. Haidt relies on scientific evidence, which is perfectly fine. There isn’t ‘scientific evidence’ for spirit at this stage. This leads to clunky interpretations of data, reliant upon a belief set – the atheistic materialist model which assumes spirit is not real – as opposed to not proven. That’s a bad habit.

The so-called New Atheists, who condemn religion because it is perceived to be the cause of much ill, are in line for the same criticism. None are students of religion, and neither are they students of psychology. The most famous New Atheist, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist. They have, in my view, misused science in service of a dogmatic goal. In fact, science has been harnessed in the performance of awful things, harming humans and other lives of the planet. Yet nobody, so far as I know, has set up a movement to argue that science is the fruit of a delusion – a thinking error.

Science is, in essence, a methodology. So is religion. Both can be employed to injure, or aid, according to the lights of the practitioners. Haidt demonstrates that positive moral conduct is mostly directed only toward our group – we look after our own – and we may persecute others. Instinctual behavior can carry an overlay of a cultural narrative, including religion. Blaming religion for instinctual behavior is sloppy, self-indulgent, and unscientific.

Haidt, true to his scientific grounding, asserts, in relation to pareidolia, that “People perceive agency where there is none.” Because ‘science’ has not detected agency, the presumption is that it does not exist. The evidence of people asserting the presence of agency is discounted, because such evidence is not considered ‘scientific’. In an atheistic materialistic culture this makes perfect sense. In an animistic culture this is just a fusion of bias, conceit, and intellectual carelessness.

Conclusion

Good science is good science regardless of whether it is dressed in the pomp of conceit and dogma. The materialistic presumption is no different to the theological presumptions that impeded intellectual progress in earlier centuries. No age is free of conceits and bias in the formulations of theories about how reality works.

The fusion of good science and awareness of spirit is essential work. Reliance upon old discourses such as paganism without blending the old insights with new knowledge seems no more than a form of self-indulgence – a sentimental approach to spirit.

There’s a movement called New Animism. I have no affection for it because it seemed to me to be sentimental – animism was useful for what it conveyed about sensitivity, but essence of spirit seemed to be side-stepped – in an effort to make it intellectually respectable. We can get the desired sentiment better from insights into biology – ideas like forests being organisms – a community such as the wood wide web.

Flagrant exposure to spirit is not common for Europeans living in a predominantly urban setting. That’s how it is. The failure of Christianity to develop into an acceptable vehicle for discourse on spirit is a failing of Christianity, not of spirit. Rejection of the Christian God makes sense on rational grounds; but progressing to deny spirit does not follow. The absence a strong motive to ‘discover’ spirit will likely lead to not discovering anything.

The view of the New Atheists seems to be that ‘I am an important and intelligent person, so if the Christian God was real, he’d make himself known to me. I think this conceit overlays the more sensible – ‘As an intelligent person I don’t find anything persuasive about claims this God exists.’ That’s agreeable to me. It’s a position I can share. It’s what happens next that sets me at odds with atheists who claim their position is the universal and only valid one – all else are in error. Where have we heard that before? 

Religion and science are both fingers pointing to the moon. And despite Gould’s assertion, they are the yin and yang of our consciousness and not a mutually exclusive polarity.

Early religion was empirical – a struggle to make sense of an overwhelming sense of dynamic being; and to find a place for the human in it all. Science continues that task as a partner, not a competitor – or it would, absent the scientific and the religious fools. Religion has lost its way, because it has become tangled in the mess of instincts, culture, scientific (and other) ignorance, dogma, and conceits.

The ‘spiritual’ must see beyond the dogmatic follies of sound science and work with it to develop a new discourse. This must be an intentional commitment – to reshape how we understand and talk about spirit.

Reality Busted?

Introduction

The Case Against Reality removes the last bricks from the edifice of materialism. The 2019 book is by Donald Hoffman, a Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California Irvine.

What has been missing to date has been a cogent and sophisticated argument free from dogma, and based on sound science. This is what Hoffman delivers. The book is good read for those who wish to imbibe the scientific thinking, but if you find detailed scientific explanations daunting, the book and the author can be readily searched on YouTube to deliver shorter idea-rich summations. I listened to the audiobook. 

We can take The Case Against Reality and use it to end the pointless squabbling – or pretend it does not exist. 

I don’t want to regurgitate the scientific arguments. I could only do a disservice to the YouTube summations. Rather I want to reflect on the consequence of attempting to incorporate the central message – that everything we encounter is but a representation, a signifier, an icon. 

Can We Have a Shared Story?

Reality, in its essence, is unapproachable because our means of apprehending it can generate no more than signifiers of it. The best we can surmise is that this reality is consciousness. Even so, that is hopelessly inadequate as a description.

We are left, thus, with our best efforts to say what is – guided by mystical, metaphysical, and philosophical thought in an alliance with contemporary science. The addition of vicarious empiricism in the book is a nice touch – science does have something important to say. It was refreshing to encounter a serious scientist acknowledging our tradition of deep inquiry through religious and philosophical practice.

I had a bit of a quibble about Hoffman’s allusion to the ‘mystical’ traditions of the Abrahamic faiths – because, apart from Kabbalah, they are tied to the precepts their parent faiths. In effect, they remain in a prison of signifiers, even if the sentiment expressed is transcendental.

From the moment Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics was published in 1975 materialists have been complaining that any analogy between what is and what is imagined by mystics is romantic folly.  Science, they fancied, would take us to a different destination. The idea that we would end up in the same place as a skinny bearded guy in a loin cloth got to three or more thousand years ago was intolerable. Wither the marvels of our intelligence and craft? Surely the destination cannot be the same?

But any survey of history will show that human life is a drama with limited themes. The climax is always one of a very small array of options. The telling of the story, is, however, infinitely varied. The story of contemporary science, informed by a materialistic passion or not, cannot end differently to other ways of knowing – yoga or shamanism. 

Signs of Consciousness?

Hoffman observes that, from an animistic perspective, saying that consciousness resides in a rock is not right, because the thing we call a rock is more like an app icon on our computer desktop. The icon for email is not the email app, not the program. 

It is more accurate to say “that which this rock signifies is consciousness”. But even so we are imprecise because the word ‘consciousness’ has so many layers of meaning. Even if we arrive at the idea that that which the rock signifies is grounded in consciousness as the primary nature of the real, we are little advanced. 

We struggle with the idea of consciousness. Like so many grand ideas, it is maddeningly imprecise – and yet we have no substitute. We have the same difficulty with Love and Space. Such imprecision reflects thinking at the boundary of present utility, and what beckons as future understanding.

But at least we have cast off from the shore of material certainty. The voyage has begun. It is necessary, from here, to distinguish between perception and relating. Once we are unmoored from the assumption that what we perceive is reality we need to frame a different sense of relating. That is the challenge that is yet to be cogently articulated.

At present we relate to signifiers as if they have inherent value. They have the value of their utility, which is no mean thing, but no more. After all, our primary apprehension of our existence is predicated upon the critical fact that we experience being in the context of life in an organic form – for whom the complex nuances of utility determine how our lives play out – for good or ill. 

Is it a Game?

In Far Journeys Robert Monroe describes a fascinating scene in which he and a guide watch beings in spirit form clamour to enter human physical bodies for a life experience in the material world. The intensity of experience generated by the critical utility of sensory experience is something we might usefully describe as analogous to playing an immersive game. The concentration of sensation caused by the constraints of the game is powerful. It is also to be craved, apparently. This is precisely what Buddhism counsels against. What Munroe witnessed as intentional desire for sensation becomes the ground of identity once the state is attained.  One in the body, we imagine we are the body.

The useful analogy can work for us again if we imagine becoming addicted to the immersive game to such a degree that identity outside it is forgotten. The game becomes our signifier of our reality – and hence the foundation of identity. What is beyond is forgotten, or, in the case of materialism, denied.

White, in The Unobstructed Universe, describes how time, space and motion are the obstructed (physical) analogues of more fundamental attributes in the unobstructed aspect of being. The unobstructed attributes are receptivity (time), conductivity (space) and frequency (motion). Thinking in unobstructed terms is immensely difficult – if only because the habit of the obstructed experience is overwhelming – if our only point of reference is physical existence.

But we need to remember that we can employ VR to create experiences of space and motion from a hard drive no bigger than a mobile phone – thus indicating that there must be a ‘code’ or signifier for both. Time is more problematic in that experience of it can be ‘condensed’ or manipulated in a different way – but not as comprehensively substituted. 

The hard drive still exists in the obstructed realm, of course, but it shares attributes of the unobstructed – allowing an experience we can take to be ‘real’ to be crafted from code – from signifiers.

As Hoffman observes, how do we know we are not in a ‘game’ inside a highly sophisticated hard drive developed by an alien? On one level the idea is absurd. On another, maybe not so much. The point is, however, that our sense of what is ‘real’ beyond our sense of utility is wonderfully uncertain.

A Question of Gods

According to Aristotle, Thales of Miletus (c. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC) declared that “All things are full of gods.” Even allowing for problems of translation (an ever-present risk when encountering the thought of our more ancient forefathers), there is a tempting idea that could be retranslated as ‘Behind the appearances of all things there are expressions of conscious being.’

Hoffman quotes the Italian physicist Federico Faggin in saying “A central goal of conscious agents is mutual comprehension.” It is interesting that a cognitive scientist quotes a physicist re the goal of conscious agents. Things are changing!

Mutual comprehension may not extend beyond pure organic utility – Can I eat it? How do I catch it? Will it eat me? How do I avoid it? Can I mate with it? How do I do that? But we can imagine a deeper level of utility – between gods and humans – and a need for mutual comprehension as well.

The principle of free will confers upon us an essential uncertainty. In the muddled thought of Christianity that uncertainty is everywhere. The will of God can be defeated by human intransigence. Ignore the problems with that idea literally; and attend to the code. Things are way more uncertain and complex than theologians can imagine – so they create a signifying fiction that magnifies human choice as always a morally loaded act.

DeMarco (I have forgotten which book) provokes us with the idea that no matter what happens, it is always good. This can seem callous and cruel. The alternative is to see events upon a cosmic sliding scale of absolute good or evil. But events must surely be only signifiers. How we respond is more important than what we respond to.

The act of seeking mutual comprehension between human and god must be more complex, and uncertain, than can be imagined. For me, the word ‘god’ can only denote a discrete organised pattern of consciousness that can act on its own accord. And that can be on any scale, though mostly beyond the human.

Gods have always been a part of the human experience. The word ‘god’ has been applied through our cultural bias, and with wild abandon, to all cultures. This has led us to imagine we know what is signified when we employ the word. We don’t. When we speak of the ‘gods’ of the Egyptians, the Greeks, or anyone else, we need to remember we are interpreting their ideas on our terms. We may not presume we understand what they meant. For this reason, polytheism may be no more than a fiction of our invention. 

By that I do not mean that these traditions do not have multiple agents, just that we cannot assume there is an equivalence between the ‘God’ of the Abrahamic tradition and the ‘gods’ of the ‘pagan’ traditions. The word ‘god’, applied to both, does not mean there is actual shared meaning – or equivalence. This is a common feature of English. We do not confuse Scone, the place, with scone, the baked good – because we have no motive to do so. But when it comes to ‘God’ and ‘god’ some have a motive to mine confusion and conflict.

Materialism has attempted to confine our real inquiry about the nature of reality to a narrow peninsula upon which humans are the only intelligent agents of note. It has succeeded to an alarming measure. However, that extraordinary hubris is now melting under the glare of evidence presented by careful and modest thinkers.

The past has been a protective beacon of what is possible once hubris is persuaded to surrender to real reason; and give up dogma-infected intellectualism.

Hoffman reminds us all that “science is not a theory of reality, but a method of inquiry”, and argues for the testing of religious and philosophical ideas using the rigor of science.

Let us be frank and admit this is not likely to happen with any haste, absent any profit to be made. But it is refreshing that the conversation can be had among thinkers of goodwill once the death grip of materialism is replaced by the firm hand of intellectual honesty and discipline.

Proponents of religious and philosophical ideas are not innocents here. The opiate of belief is as much a tyrant as the dogmatic denial of the metaphysical. Honesty, modesty, and the eschewing of dogma on both sides is essential for mutual progress.

It could be that Faggins is onto something. Our passion to understand our reality beyond the scope of mere pragmatic utility may be because of a deep sense that what we encounter, and signify as ‘reality’, is a conscious agent.

A common attribute of human cultures is the establishment of a ‘higher utility’ of moral relationship with that ‘embracing other’ in which right action leads to reciprocal response. Whereas the Greeks thought their gods capricious, Christianity has sought to inject a sense of lovingness into its conception of the divine. Perhaps ‘lovingly capricious’ might be closer to ‘reality’?

Conclusion

For me Hoffman has taken a certain pressure off the tension between contemporary science, as conceived by materialists, and those of us who insist on the validity of human experience over the span of our conscious inquiring being. It has always been objective of humanity to make sense of the ‘reality’ it functions in. 

Inquiry mediated by machines is heading in the same direction as inquiry mediated by meditation, psychotropics, engagement with spirits, experimentation on states of consciousness, unbidden encounters with the strange, and everything else in religion, magic, mysticism and philosophy.

We must open up the conversation to participants of goodwill, intellectual modesty, and shared curiosity. Maybe we can make some serious progress on shared understanding.

Black Mother Gully

At 07:07 I am here on an overcast morning. The ducks are on their breakfast patrol. The birdsong is delicate and multilayered with a close raucous call I cannot identify. A Crow is crying tenderly. 

I feel a sense of inquiry “What do you want?” and I say I want a message. The 7 duck patrol walks by. The mother duck eyes me, just because I am here. 

I am listening to Robert McFarlane’s Underland at the moment. He writes, in part, of the Wood Wide Web – of how a forest is a single organism united by a web of roots and fungi. The park and the gully are knitted together in a yin/yang dynamic. It’s a left brain shearing and framing of what was once a vibrant and complex unity. A family of galahs has arrived. 

Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is a deep look at how we humans have fenced off our own mental turf and then tried to stuff the world into it. 

We are ineluctably woven into a binary engine of reality. The one is two, and this is true of each of the two, ad infinitum.  When we inhabit one, we must allow that it is always two – and always the greater leaks through and beyond our mental fences. Two crows arrive nearby, on my right. A solitary butcher bird comes to a tree on my left. 

The Black Mother gully is abutted by the left brain mowed park. Simplicity v complexity. Managed v natural. Peopled v untrodden (I have never seen a human in the gully). European v indigenous. 

Crows and magpies are debating. All black v black and white. Crows sharp caw v magpies’ warm mellifluous song. 

And yet it is all bound together, united beyond our careless binary and divided gaze. 

Then a thought “Is this the message you are seeking?” And I say, “Thank you.”

Maple Grove Dreaming

There are beak down ducks in a pack patrolling the mowed lawn, picking out breakfast. I can hear magpies, kookaburras, and the gentle warm call of distant chooks. As I listen, other birds are calling further up the gully. Near me, the mowed grass is fringed by ferns, maybe a half a metre high. I hear crows. Now there are black cockatoos, out of sight. 

The park is a fusion of European passions for lawn and maples – hence the name Maple Grove – and an untamed, but profoundly gentle, bushland. It is a place of utter peace and inspiration for me. Silent magpies have taken over the breakfast patrol. 

It’s just gone 0700 and the sun is high enough set a soft light into the gully, caressing the treetops. It’s quiet enough that I can hear the magpies fly off. Breakfast patrol is over. The buffet closed. 

The bird song has composed itself into a symphony of peace, with a gentle beat that has so eased my spirit that writing is a struggle. I stop struggling for awhile, and just bask. Even though the city sounds are in the background they do not intrude. But then the performance is over. A plane drones overhead. The first human in near 40  minutes passes with an ancient brown dog. A car has arrived. Doors slam shut. My audience with the spirit of this wonderful place is over – for today. 

Brain kicks in. To the hard eyed this is a nice place. On weekends and holidays, it is packed with folk from Sydney. For a time, it is the host of a compact cosmopolitan al fresco community. 

Just for a moment, large drops fall, but not from rain. I surmise that maybe dew on the leaves of the nearby trees has been loosened by the sun. The mowed grass glistens as the sun rays get closer to me. The black cockatoos depart noisily, but I cannot see them. 

This is not just any gully. It has a mother’s peace to it. I do not know if it was special to indigenous people. I won’t ask. If it was, it is none of my business. It would have been a women’s place, I imagine. 

It is feminine and ancient and peaceful and patient. 

One evening in early 1997, I sat on a pile of stones beside Tullyganardy Road as it snaked out of Newtownards, and let my spirit flow into the earth beneath me. I had gone to Northern Ireland as the last act of my stay in the UK because having travelled that far from Australian and not going to my birthplace didn’t seem right. 

As my spirit sought into my birth land it encountered a cavern with three sleeping dragons. One stirred and said “What are you doing here? Go home. There is nothing here for you.” Then in respond to a half-formed thought from me said “Our time will come again.” I went home to Australia. There, beside the road, on a pile of stones I knew this was no longer my home. It took going back to stop saying I was Irish. I was born there, but nothing else about me remained Irish.

This gully seems home to an ancient spirit. It doesn’t have a form like the dragons. When I try to imagine what it is I am warned off in a gentle but firm manner. I sense a mature very black woman. By black I do not mean Aboriginal – just black. She says I should not want to know more. I am instantly reminded of Emma Restall Orr’s remarkable book Kissing the Hag: The Dark Goddess and the Unacceptable Nature of Women. I learned enough to know that I didn’t understand. Now I must be content with the outer mystery. Going beyond is not my business, and not my need. 

It’s gone quiet again. Just for a moment there is only the sound of bird song. I am still, entranced by colour, shape, light. 

When we moved to Casterton in western Victoria, just outside the town in Noss Retreat Road, I remember the mowed lawn out the back. It was a kind of moat around the house. My parents brought from Northern Ireland an innocence of snakes which was magnified into a terror by the locals. These were days of laborious mechanical push mowers. The moat, diligently maintained, provided protected access to the dunny and the washing line. Beyond the mowed area was long grass that led to a neglected orchard where apricots grew, and there was a creek. That was my playground when I was 5. It was safe from my parents. They would not enter the long grass. It was where I could dream. 

The gully reminds me of this time. The mowed lawn creates a safe place for leisure. What lies beyond is wild and sacred; and is protected by the ring-pass-not made by the mower. 

Is the charm of the place the lawn and maple trees with the 8 picnic tables and BBQ area? Or is it the radiance of a gentle sacred place – the nourisher of spirit?

03.01.22

In Praise of Emma Restall Orr – first posted 30.12.17

In 2016 I went hunting for a decent book on Animism, and I turned up 3 on my search of Amazon’s Kindle selection. These days, because my acquired disability means my grip is poor and holding hardcopy books has turned a joy into a chore, I rely on the Kindle app on my iPad now.

I bought 2. One remains partially read. The other was Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World. I was unprepared for the journey that book would take me on. I was expecting the standard stuff, based on her background. Emma was famously a Druid. Instead, what I got was a beautifully written exploration of the Western Philosophical tradition.

My exposure to Western philosophy is fragmented. I read Russell, Kant and Kierkegaard when I was 17 as well as a potted history, then some Plato and that was it for ages. I was too busy with Buddhism and a mess of other sources of inspiration. In more recent times (the past 20 years) I have listened to philosophy programs (ABC radio) and podcasts. I am up to episode 291 of Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy podcast. Not a disciplined approach by any measure, but it gave me the confidence to tackle Emma’s book.

It was not intimidating at all. In fact, far from it. It turned out that Emma had a natural feel for Western philosophy and wrote on it with a free and fluid style. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a book that demands of the reader a certain level of work.

What do you get as a reward for the effort? You get a sound sense as to how the essential ideas of animism are alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of the celebrated thinkers of our culture. You can be an animist and a philosopher, and not be out of place in our intellectual tradition.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you have any desire to engage in thinking about animism from a position of intellectual discipline then The Wakeful World is something you must pass through. You cannot go around it.

I moved on to another of Emma’s books, Living with Honour. Okay, so you have your chosen philosophy, how does that play out in the world? We all know that living in our culture generates a constant stream of moral problems for us. Our values are violated on our behalf in so many ways. Some many ‘goods’ come to us with dirty strings attached, and very little gets to us without causing harm on the way. Even when we lay out our values and declare them, they are ignored for the superior benefits of lower cost or greater convenience, and we crumble. We live in a muddled and messed up ecosystem of aspirations and determinations, dominated by the crassest of them.

But we must go on. We must endure and we must hold fast to what values we can. Living with Honour does not preach. It challenges and confronts – and if you care, you will subject yourself to that.

I was ready for Kissing the Hag. I should declare that my present conception of deity is Goddess – something I see as a fundamental challenge to a male raised in a culture dominated by masculinity. You can’t ‘get’ Goddess from a male perspective without altering so much of your thought and existential reflexes. Emma is not a ‘Goddess’ person in the same way. Her conception of deity is different.

From a male perspective I found Kissing the Hag a riveting read. It took me into depths of feminine consciousness that had been previously impenetrable to me. Maybe afterwards I had a more appreciate understanding of the feminine, but maybe more important to me was that I came to better understand why I did not/could not understand women. That insight was immensely liberating.

I have had an email interchange with Emma over almost a year now. She is not a professional author whose job it is to produce books. What she writes are acts of service. This is perhaps no more evident in her writing style, which is lyrical and beautiful. It is writing from the heart. Even so, it does not diminish the high intellectual standard she also brings.

It is an exceptional thing these days to find writing that has both heart and head potency of this calibre. There are, for me, very few writers of this standard who dare permit their personal authenticity come through their writing. This is maybe because not too many such writers are around – combining personal authenticity with what is a prodigious capacity for insight and understanding.

No writer is all things to all readers. The best we can hope for, as readers seeking knowledge and insight, is to come across a writer who deeply nourishes us by their writing, who asks not that their thought be believed, but considered. Authors of that calibre are always going to demand a lot of the reader.

I am forever amused that authors of tremendous potency pass me by. It is as if the time for reading them has not yet come to me. Then one day that time comes, and I am excited and grateful. I am sure this happens to everyone; it is just that I sometimes feel I am responsible for not being aware of them. Irrational really.

What Emma writes is nourishment to head and heart. It adds an essential missing dimension to how we understand animism – as something implicit in the canon of Western philosophy. We would then understand that such a something would be ignored or diminished by the religious and the atheistic thinkers. Who wants to upset the dogmatic applecart trundling toward an anticipated destiny that fulfills the expectations of its narrow devotees? Even at the highest levels of apparent cultural appreciation there is repression and misdirection.

Animism has been asserted to be the mentality of the primitive. It is, in fact, the mentality of a human whose consciousness is not clouded by the fog of culture and its norms and dogmas. Philosophy is the love of wisdom – the desire for a mentality not fogged by norms and dogmas. Let us translate our culturally aggressive notion of the ‘primitive’ into ‘pristine’ (as yet free of foggery).

Emma demonstrates that (some) philosophers of our tradition applied deep reason to confirm the essential beliefs of our ancestors were genuine insights and not naïve thinking. Animism is a rightful heritage for us. It does not have to be rethought, but reclaimed and rearticulated.

You can do this with an eager desire for sentiment that drives a shallow, but essential, shift in cultural values. Or you can be part of the deep change that embeds reclaimed and rearticulated thought in our intellectual culture.

Start off with The Wakeful World. Take your time and do the work it demands of you. But let me be clear here. It is not a dauntingly difficult book. I am simply aware that there are so many undemanding books that make reading ‘fun’ it can be challenging to encounter a book that expects you to think, rather than be impressed and agree. Learning and thinking well take effort. Please don’t imagine they does not.