Monthly Archives: April 2013

Fantasy, Spirituality, and the Power of the Imagination (Part 2)

English: A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Sec...

“For I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” A Portrait of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The imagination is a dangerous thing to tyrants.

If you look at systems of control, ways to bind and shackle human will so that people will be cowed into serving the selfish interests of others, all of them involve suppressing and controlling the imagination. Two methods are used for this purpose, one affirmative, the other negative.

The affirmative method is to present powerful (but vetted and safe) images for the imagination to fix upon. “If you must imagine, imagine this,” the powers say, pointing to:

  • Religious symbols
  • Myths (with chosen interpretations)
  • Flags and banners
  • Patriotic stories
  • Enemies of the faith or of the state

The negative method is to set boundaries on the imagination and threaten punishment for going across those boundaries. Sometimes the punishments are real and physical (jail time, concentration camps, execution, torture). Sometimes the punishments are themselves imaginary (hell). In a testament to the power of the imagination, the imaginary punishments can often be more effective than the real ones in shaping behavior, which is of course the whole point of punishment.

I had a recent experience that illustrated this process. A friend of mine who had expressed interest in this blog found it by doing a Google search, but was reluctant to read any of the posts. He spoke of how many hits the search found (I’ve verified that most of the hits are posts or pages from this blog), and how it was spread all over the place and I might find more readers if I paid attention to this and focused and consolidated. I had a hard time understanding what he was talking about at first.

“What do you mean, all over the place?” I said. “All of the posts on my blog are about just two subjects: spirituality and fantasy storytelling.”

Finally he expressed what he really meant: the fantasy part bothered him. Conjoining that with spirituality suggested sorcery to him, which scared him. In his case, the controls were applied well: he had become afraid of his own imagination, and dared not let it roam freely.

Imagination leads to questioning, to disobedience, to heresy, to defiance of authority. That’s why the powers that be, both secular and religious, hate and fear it and wish to keep it under strict control. If they fail to control your imagination, they will also fail to control your beliefs and your behavior — and that can lead to consequences which are terrifying to tyrants.

In fact, one could make the case that freedom in the physical world flows from freedom of the imagination, just as inventions and works of art are also always preceded by their imaginary counterparts. If you are free to imagine, then you will also be free to act. If you are not free to imagine, then you cannot be free to act, because you cannot imagine action, and if you cannot imagine it you cannot do it, either.

Spirituality, if it is genuine, is also free. It does not follow a formula. It does not conform to the dictates of any religion. It is not orthodox. True spirituality is prophecy, and all genuinely spiritual people are prophets of God (or of the gods, for One and Many are only metaphors and this envisioning is itself an act of free imagination). Prophets are those who have a powerful connection with the holy — whose god sense is wide awake — and whose imagination is free. A prophet is always a heretic; if orthodoxy were sufficient, there would be no need of a prophet, after all.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in a letter to a collateral ancestor of mine that “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He was referring specifically to the clergy and their opposition to his run for the presidency, and his phrasing was apt, especially if we also recognize that the human imagination is a key feature of “the mind of man.”

And this, I believe, is a great gift that fantasy fiction can provide to us. It encourages us to think and imagine about spiritual matters outside the shackles of orthodoxy. It encourages us to play with the magical and the religious and the divine, without fear, without bonds, without limits. Tyrants fear this. For that reason alone, we should love it.

The same is true of crafted and invented new religion, although this, unlike fantasy, presents a danger of generating a new imprisoning orthodoxy, as I have seen happening within the Pagan community in recent years (which is the main reason I no longer call myself a Pagan). There are always those within a spiritual community who want power, and who justify their desire for power in terms of imposing order, or even of imposing peace (though such imposition always leads to conflict and frequently to violence, historically).

Perhaps the best solution is to join the two. When engaging in spiritual practice, always remember that what you are doing is creating or enacting myth, and that is an activity of fantasy storytelling. Always let your creativity run free. Let there be no such thing as orthodoxy. Let a hundred heretical flowers bloom. Let eternal hostility be sworn against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

And let no one place shackles on the imagination, ever again.

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Fantasy, Spirituality, and the Power of the Imagination (Part 1)

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I had an epiphany today when reading a short, silly post on Google+ by an atheist that addressed Jesus-worshipers (Christians mostly, I’d imagine) and referred to the ostensible founder of their religion as “your imaginary friend who was never there for you.” After reading that and undergoing my epiphany, I decided to write this blog post on the power of the imagination.

The imagination is very powerful indeed, and because of this many people fear it and want to keep it contained and restrained. Because of that fear, and really for no other reason (as the idea is utterly preposterous on any logical level), many people mistakenly believe that the categories “imaginary” and “real” are mutually exclusive. They are not; in fact, everything in the “imaginary” category is also in the “real” category, although the reverse is not true. (That is to say, there are real things that are not imaginary, but there are no imaginary things that are not real.)

When we say that something is “real,” what do we mean?

There is more than one possible meaning to the word, actually. We may say that something is “real” to indicate that it is genuine: precisely what it pretends to be, not a counterfeit or a fake. We may also say that something is “real” to indicate that it is substantial, consequential, in existence. These two meanings are completely distinct; something can be “real” in the second sense but not in the first. For example, a painter might create a fake copy of the Mona Lisa. If he did, his copy would be “real” in the second sense; it would be a material object, take up space, be composed of substances, have consequence. But it would not be “real” in the first sense: it would not be the real Mona Lisa.

It’s the second sense of “real” that I’m concerned with here, not the first.  By calling Jesus an “imaginary friend,” the fellow whose post provoked my epiphany clearly intended to imply that Jesus was not real, and just as clearly he did not mean the “genuine” sense of real. (Actually that would be a sounder criticism; I doubt very much whether the Jesus imagined and invoked by most Christians bears a lot of resemblance to the prophetic fellow who wore that name a couple of thousand years ago in Judea. But never mind.) He meant that Jesus does not exist. (At least not in the present day.)

Now this isn’t an uncommon assertion as far as it goes; atheists define themselves in terms of the nonexistence of other people’s gods. What provoked my epiphany was not the idea conveyed  but rather the turn of phrase used to convey it: he called Jesus an imaginary friend.

And he meant to imply by this that Jesus is not real.

And that means that his thinking hinged on claiming that the imagination itself is not real!

And that, dear readers, is the very blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgiveable sin, the abyss of unknowing and blindness, the emasculation of the soul, the evisceration of art, and attempted genocide against all that defines us as human beings, nay, as animals and not plants!

Am I being too harsh? I don’t believe so, no. Look around you. Unless you happen to be camped out in the wilderness, all or most of what you see is made, directly or indirectly, by human beings. That means that every bit of it existed first in the imagination, before it was made manifest on the physical plane.

Who excels at any creative endeavor, be it artistic, commercial, or scientific? Those plentifully endowed with imagination or those who harshly suppress it as not real?

Look at the greatest scientists of history. I don’t mean your average scientist. The typical scientist is a plodder, a mere number-cruncher engaged in cautious, unimaginative research on behalf of a corporation or a university. Such people are never in the news, never associated with any great discoveries (because they make none), and when they die, are remembered only by their friends and family. What distinguishes a great scientist from the common pedestrian sort is nothing else but imagination — and the courage to follow the imagination into unlikely territory, again and again, until they find they have imagined something true.

The same goes for artists, rather more obviously. Now, granted a scientist must also exercise methodical rigor and mathematical precision, while an artist must exercise craft with the medium of his art and a willingness to revise and correct. But these latter qualities define a mediocre artist or scientist; they set all scientists or artists, good or poor, off from non-scientists and non-artists. What distinguishes the great from the mediocre in either pursuit is imagination.

What, in the end, does “real” even imply? Does it not imply that the thing in question can be experienced (at least potentially)? It may be seen, heard, felt, smelled, tasted. Well, the imaginary can be experienced as well. In fact, imaginary entities are not uncommonly more compelling in their immediate reality than anything in the non-imaginary world competing for attention.

Which brings us back to Jesus, the imaginary friend. Does that phrase describe Jesus as he is worshiped by those who worship him? Indeed it does. Whether the historical human Jesus actually rose from the dead and continues to be alive (or even whether he existed in the first place) is irrelevant to that question; even if there was a Jesus and he is still alive, the fact remains that the only experience the believer has of him is imaginary in nature. There is no way to verify that the imaginary experience of Jesus encountered in prayer is of Jesus as he is today in his risen form.

But just the same, it does not follow that this imaginary friend was “never there” for the worshiper. Of course he was there! An imaginary friend is always there — unless one becomes afraid of one’s imagination and suppresses it, condemning oneself to a life of mediocrity.

The imagination, particularly when one is imagining something cosmic like a deity (or a man who was a deity, or even a man who became a deity), has power to move mountains — at least inward ones. The imagination comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It inspires, awakens, and teaches. In the case of the believer, the imaginary Jesus has a powerful impact on his or her peace of mind and behavior. And that means that, although imaginary, he is very real indeed.

I shall have more to say on this subject next week.

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choice is our birthright. It’s one we fear to claim.

Exactly where this fear comes from is a bit of a riddle. Perhaps it’s a fruit of childhood dependence, on the habit of deferring to parents to make decisions. As we mature, we take on the task of choosing in more and more things, but by the time that happens we have become so accustomed to letting others make our choices that we still look for reassurance from parents or parent-substitutes, someone or something to tell us that we have made the right decision. Maybe that’s it or maybe it’s something more cosmic for which the process of biological and cultural maturation is a microcosmic metaphor.

Regardless of where it comes from, though, it certainly happens. We believe things not because the evidence tells us they are so, but because some authority — a doctor, a professor of science, the president, a minister, a movement leader — says they are so.

This is more true in the area of religion and spirituality than any other area of life. (It’s equally a mistake, equally a sad abandonment of our birthright, in any area.) Spiritual experience is murky, difficult to understand, and impossible to put into words in any straightforward fashion. It’s also possibly the most compelling experience possible to a human mind. That combination makes it a great opportunity for the power-hungry to deceive the innocent.

Every body of religious doctrine consists of two parts. One part is an affirmation of spiritual experience and an attempt to put it into an intellectual framework that can be accepted and believed. A religious says to a person who has stood before the face of the cosmos, “No, you aren’t crazy. It really happened. And it means this.” The ability to provide this service is the reason why religions have believers. It’s the reason why the remainder of the body of religious doctrine is able to deceive and enslave.

The other part is an assertion of power. It’s an attempt to make the religious believer surrender his birthright and accept the religious organization, its teachings, and its scripture as the decision-maker. To do this, the religious organization uses doctrinal tricks such as a claim that its sacred writings are divinely inspired and infallible, that its own organization and hierarchy are sacred and established by divine authority, and that unbelievers will be punished by God or the Gods or the cosmic principles in some way, while believers in good standing will be rewarded. These being imaginary punishments and rewards, they can be made extravagant far beyond the materially possible: cruel torment going on forever and ever, or unending perfect bliss. At the same time, though, when given the power to do so religious organizations have not proven shy about using the resources of the state to dispense temporal punishments and rewards which, while lesser in scope, are more immediately effective.

Religion, like government, always attracts those who are interested in exerting power over others. In the past, and in some places to this day, religion and government have been partners. At other times they have been rivals. But the secular authority and the high priesthood have always recognized one another as kin, whether they strove together or against one another, and rightly so.

On a collective level the only way to reduce the danger posed by religion is to separate it from the state, so that no religion can be favored by the state and no religion can make use of the state’s authority. That goes a long way towards de-fanging the serpent. It leaves religion in possession of its more fundamental power, though, which is at root a power to persuade and deceive. If there’s a collective solution to that, it lies in making sure the playing field is crowded: that each religion must seek adherents in competition with many others, so that no one is isolated with only one doctrinal message available.

On an individual level, the answer lies in remembering who has the real final authority: we do. Each of us does. And remember as well, that we contend not with the sacred ones, but with ordinary human beings who want to convince us that they have the answers, and that we should follow them.

Remember that in questioning a scripture, we are not asserting our own judgment over that of God, but asserting it over the claims of mere mortals about what they say is God’s word. (Or, as I put it more sarcastically once in a discussion with a Bible absolutist, “No, I don’t think I’m smarter than God. I just think I’m smarter than you.”) It is in the end our own judgment, and that is our duty as well as our right.

Do I trust a council of bishops called by an emperor for political purposes to be able to tell divine inspiration when they see it? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion to accept their claim that certain early Christian writings out of all the hundreds that were generated between the crucifixion and the Council of Nicaea are divinely inspired.

Do I believe that a prophet who was also a political leader, motivated to unite a collection of fractious, backward tribes and bring them into civilization, always exercised pure judgment in what he presented to them as the word of God? No, I don’t. And therefore I feel no compulsion in regard to the Quran any more than the Bible.

But those are only two instances of a general rule. In the end, the deferral of judgment to outside authority is a cop-out and the claim of it is a lie. In the end, each of us has the right to make that judgment for ourselves. In the end, the good that is found in each body of doctrine must be separated from the bad; the valid metaphors and models for religious experience and the profound expressions of myth must be separated from the assertions of power and authority.

In the end, the only true religion is the one you craft for yourself, helped by many, but dictated by none.

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