Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Reformation: A Historical Review with Implications for Fantasy Storytelling

MARTINA lot of the posts I’ve been putting up here lately have been about the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith), and since I’m on that roll I’ll do at least one more. This time on one of the five seminal and creative events in the history of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation. I believe there are implications in this massive transformation, still unfinished, which apply to fantasy world-building on several levels. World-building needs to be done with a view to the way real-world processes work. Fantasy elements can change those, but need to do so in ways that make sense, not willy-nilly. I’ll go into this more in a bit, but first a look at the Reformation as it actually happened.

The Reformation is one of the better examples of social change flowing from technological progress. It’s also one of the better examples of a movement going far beyond what was initially intended.

The technological advance which sparked the Reformation was printing with movable type. This, and not the religious disputes that were the immediate reason for the collapse of Church unity, brought it on. Religious disputes have been a constant within Christianity at least since the mission of Paul of Tarsus, but from the time when the Imperial Church was formed as the official religion of the Roman Empire, monolithic religious authority was preserved until the 16th century. When heresies arose, and of course they did, they were swiftly crushed. The Imperial Church suffered schism after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, with the Roman Catholic Church hiving off of the original Imperial Church (which has today become the Orthodox Church), but both sides remained broad, monolithic authorities capable of enforcing their respective ecclesiastical law within their own territories. We may say, therefore, that religious dispute and a tendency for heresy to arise is a constant, and so the reason that the Reformation happened in the 16th century and not a long time before that is outside of those disputes. Something acted as a catalyst, and I believe it was the printing press.

Why? Because printing resulted in widespread literacy. European languages are written with an alphabet, which is easy to learn. There was no reason why European peasants couldn’t all learn to read during the Middle Ages, but also no reason why they should. With all reading material being produced by hand-copying, books were rare and expensive. The typical Medieval commoner couldn’t afford books, had nothing to read, and therefore had no incentive to learn how.

With printing, that changed. Books became relatively cheap to produce. Not only books but pamphlets, political tracts, and eventually newspapers became common. Suddenly there was plenty to read and it was affordable and so literacy became desirable, and since it had always been easy to acquire if there had been any reason to do so, people acquired it. Europe changed in a single generation from a mostly illiterate society to a mostly literate one.

And what did this newly literate, Christian society want to read more than anything else? The Scriptures, of course! And so the demand for translations of the Bible into common languages rose, and, despite attempts to ban such translations, the demand was met. Literacy encourages communication and communication encourages questioning, and questioning encourages rebellion, especially when the authorities are not prepared for the changed circumstances and don’t know how to deal with them. Access to Scripture enabled people to think for themselves, within the parameters of Christian belief, instead of being dependent on the clergy.

This was the cultural background of the Reformation, without which it couldn’t have happened. The immediate cause was, of course, Martin Luther’s protest against the sale of indulgences and associated corruption and worldliness in the Church. But Luther did not make his protest intending to split the Church into sects. He intended, rather, to provoke reforms within the Church itself, leaving it intact but purified. But the Church proved uncooperative, and, taking inspiration from Luther’s initiative, rebellious movements spiraled out and out from the center of Catholic doctrine to explore more and more heretical ideas. Even within the Protestant movement itself, moderate reformists contended with radicals. Things fell apart. The center could not hold. The rebellion spilled out of the arena of religion and affected politics as well, provoking peasant uprisings and independence movements, toppling dynasties, burning manors, and even for a time overthrowing the English monarchy (although it was restored barely a decade later).

In the past, before the development of printing, circumstances favored monolithic religious control. This was not for lack of disputes within the Church — far from it! But these disputes never broke the central authority and coherence of the Church, even when the papacy was divided in the 1300s, or when popular dissenting movements arose such as the Albigensians. From the fall of the Western Roman Empire on, Europe has been politically divided, yet in the West it remained religiously unified until the 16th century. Before the invention of printing, the domain of the Catholic Church was a solid unity that couldn’t be shattered even by the most bitter of internal disputes. After printing arrived, it disintegrated into a multiplying diversity of sects whose unity has never been restored and almost certainly never will.

A Thought-Experiment

Now, let’s move outside actual history and consider the implications of these matters for fantasy storytelling. As I’ve said before, fantasy world-building should begin with something plausible and historical and shift it through the introduction of fantasy elements and their logical consequences. Thus, the way I would like to approach this is through a thought-experiment in which two fantasy elements are inserted into the Reformation history.

First element: The miraculous powers described for the Apostles in the Book of Acts were real, and continued to occur from time to time in unpredictable individuals.

If we believe the Acts accounts (which I don’t, but never mind that), the Apostles inherited much of Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, or even a bit more. Let’s say they did. Further, since in Christian thinking this was not their power, but the power of the Holy Spirit (i.e., of God) operating through them, it would not necessarily disappear with the Apostles’ death. Every now and then, someone arises who channels the same kind of miraculous power. This is never a person of importance within the Church, although quite often it’s a minor and obscure member of a monastic order. (St. Francis showed it. When he was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake, the flames refused to harm his body. He similarly survived hanging, beheading, and being shot with crossbow bolts. Eventually the Pope commuted his sentence to beatification. If you can’t beat ’em . . .) Sometimes it’s someone outside holy orders altogether, always poor and of the lower orders in society.

After Luther nails his protest to the church door, Europe produces a bumper crop of miracle-working prophets. Luther himself is not one of them, and views the movements they generate with great suspicion.

Second element: Although they do not have the Apostles’ ability to work miracles, the highest ranks of the clergy do include many accomplished magicians.

The Church condemns magic as at best the usurpation of God’s will, and at worst channeling of the power of Satan. In secret, however, the Pope, the Cardinals, and many bishops and archbishops are practitioners of the Arts. Many of them are quite good at it, and this is part of the secret of the Church’s successful hold on power. They can influence people’s minds. They can curse their enemies with misfortune. (During the Papal Schism, curses flew between Rome and Avignon on a regular basis.) They can manipulate the weather to punish heretical regions or reward loyal ones. They do all this by summoning devils and binding them to service with the Names of God and secret rites. There are whispered tales, though, of dark sorceries worked by some high clergy involving selling their souls and sacrificing children, allowing greater use of diabolical power than can be compelled through white magic. Sometimes the Church will use these powers openly, pronouncing anathema on a person and then cursing him, or praying for a good harvest in time of drought and then ensuring it through magic. More often, the power is kept secret.

Some nobles outside the clergy are practitioners as well, but most of Europe’s magic is wielded by the Church.

Now, how do these two fantasy elements change the playing field and the story of how the Reformation played out? All the real historical elements are left in place. We have newly widespread literacy, spreading rebellious ideas, and the spark of Luther’s protest against corruption in the Church. But we also have magical powers on the part of the upper Church hierarchy (of which Luther, being a mere priest, knows nothing but rumors), and miraculous powers on the part of some of the Reformation rebels.

The general effect of these changes is that the Reformation would be even more tumultuous and violent than it actually was. The Church would react to the sudden eruption of heresy with terrible spells. Miracle-working prophets would become centers of religious movements, sometimes calling for a leveling of the social orders and the overthrowing of monarchies, or for seizing all property of the Church and distributing this wealth among the poor, or similar radical changes.

A lot of stories could be envisioned as arising from this stew, such as:

1) The story of Luther, caught between the Church and the radicals, proving resistant to the Church’s curses from sheer stubbornness, but fearing the whole business has gotten out of control. He’s faced with a movement arising in the countryside to topple all of the German princes and create a socialistic democratic utopia, at the same time as war brews between Protestant and Catholic princes and Church agents seek to assassinate him.

2) The story of Henry VIII, whose break with the Pope is answered by a terrible curse that afflicts him with a wasting disease and causes all of his new wife’s children to be stillborn. In desperation, the king turns to a prophet who has arisen in the English countryside. The prophet cures Henry and Queen Anne with his miraculous power, but extracts a price: the king’s commitment to expand the powers of Parliament, limit those of the nobility, and allow true religious freedom in England. Rebellion soon rises in the land as the nobles fight back against their loss of privilege, while the common people rally to the King’s banner.

3) The story of a gifted young man of Paris, the son of a prosperous merchant, whose life is disastrously impacted by all of the turmoil. His father is hauled before the Inquisition on suspicion of Protestant views. Books seized from the merchant’s hidden library prove the charges true, and he is burned at the stake. His son is doomed to poverty and forced to sell his family home, but in cleaning out the place he finds one book that the Inquisitors didn’t: a tome of secret magical art. He carries the book with him when he leaves and begins a quest for revenge.

And so it goes. Fantasy elements build on a base of the familiar and historical.

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The Concept of Heresy

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Writing my new novel, whose title has now been changed from Refuge to The Order Master (with Refuge becoming the title of the series it begins), gave me a chance to explore certain ideas in the context of a deadly religious dispute. Chief among those is the idea of heresy and accompanying it, the question of narrow versus broad scope, and the twisting of spirituality by an us versus them approach.

The Scourge of God, of which the main protagonist, Michael Cambridge, is the Order Master of the title, is a Christian religious order founded in the 14th century in England. It’s unusual (and fictional) in that it exists for the purpose of committing murder, but more typical of many Christian groups and denominations in its narrow conception of what constitutes acceptable belief, and in defining its spirituality in terms of belief to start with. At one point in the story, Mike is trying to persuade the Scourge of God to change its direction, ally with the Andol, and generally come out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century. His principle opponent in the debate, whose name is James Anderson, asks him whether, in his opinion, the Andol are Christian. Mike replies:

“Brother James, I think you might get a different answer to that question from me than you would from one of the Andol, say from Amanda Johnson. She would reply that she is not a Christian, I think. But I would say that she is one. . . .[A] Christian should be defined as a follower of Jesus’ teachings. . . . [T]he Andol are the most godly and Christian people I have ever known. They are full of charity and forgiveness and compassion. There is no malevolence in them at all. If they occasionally become angry at injustice and cruelty, well, so did our Lord. In that sense, I would say that the Andol are Christian.”

James responds to this at a later point in this way:

“He [Michael] says that the Andol should be considered Christian even though they themselves would deny it. If we agree with him on this, brothers, then Christianity becomes some nebulous, ill-defined faith with no principles except to behave well and kindly. A Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, or an atheist could be called a Christian so long as we judge them to be good people. Brothers, I don’t believe that is true doctrine. . . .For many centuries the basics of Christian doctrine have been stated in the Nicene Creed. I ask myself how many points of this doctrine would find agreement among the Andol. I can only think it would be very few of them. I suspect that Brother Michael agrees with me on that, and does not care.”

Indeed he does not. Michael says in response to James’ charge that he himself has become apostate from Christianity and unfit to serve as Order Master:

“I honestly don’t know whether to consider myself a Christian or not. If I am, it’s in the same sense as Amanda Johnson is a Christian. I have to confess I’m not so confident in my own goodness of heart as I am in hers, so maybe I am, and maybe I’m not. If I’m not, perhaps some day I will be, with God’s help. But when you define Christianity as narrowly as you have just done, by adherence to a creed centuries out of date and poorly understood even in its own time — no. I am not that sort of Christian, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to say it.”

Now let’s step outside the framework of The Order Master and consider these questions more generally. What is this concept of heresy, of which Michael Cambridge was accused by members of his own order? Heresy is defined as an opinion or belief which is at variance with orthodox or accepted doctrine. For example, if a person who calls himself a Muslim believes that there are multiple gods, he is a heretic, because it is central to Muslim doctrine that there is only one God.

Implied in the concept of heresy is that the orthodox belief is not just true, but not to be questioned or challenged. Further implied in this are several more ideas: that the religious tradition is to be defined in terms of stated belief, rather than some other criterion such as actions or attitude or mind-set; and that the orthodox belief has a source that is absolutely incontestable so that it cannot be wrong.

A further observation may be made here. All of these beliefs which are presented as incontestable and not to be challenged, were first presented (usually with meanings rather different from what the orthodox understand them to be today) by people who adopted a very different attitude towards the orthodoxies of their own day, and were accused of heresy for it. The concept of heresy, therefore, enjoins the believer not to try to imitate the prophet or messiah or enlightened teacher who founded the faith. “You are unworthy to do as he did,” is the implicit message. “He was great. You are small. He was divine. You are sinful and corrupt.” The believer is called upon to bow his head in humility — and to obey.

And there, I believe, is the key to the whole concept. It is intended to encourage obedience. A religious tradition becomes a mix of the spiritual and the political. Part of it attempts to explain and channel spiritual experience, but part of it seeks to control human behavior and to aggrandize the importance, power, and wealth of the religion’s leaders or of the religious organization itself. The idea of heresy flows entirely from the latter motivation. The former would encourage everyone to become a prophet or enlightened one, and so to become a heretic, because that is what all prophets are. The latter seeks to prevent this, because prophets and enlightened ones cannot easily be ruled.

 

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Preview: Stranger Skies by Katje Van Loon

StrangerSkiesebookcoverPressKatje Van Loon, author of the wonderful Bellica (which I reviewed here) has a new book coming out that sounds splendid. It’s called Stranger Skies and she describes it as a Pagan fantasy with a young adult focus. Here’s a brief description:

A  goddess’ fall from grace leaves her on an alien world, devoid of her  followers, trapped in a mortal body. Should she strive to regain her  godhood or accept her mortality and find love?

Silva, Queen of Wolves, Lady of the True  Woods, seeks her only friend Etan, who, along with other deities of the  Council of Divinity, has gone missing for reasons unknown. Her search  traps her on a world where the wolves have lost faith in her; she  becomes a mortal woman whose remaining powers could brand her as a  witch.

Through the chaos of war and the turmoil  in her own heart, Silva can’t escape a persistent feeling: that her fall was not an accident.

And an excerpt:

Heart’s Blood Tavern had indoor plumbing  which, according to Scoas, made it a rare building in the town. The  toilets were composting toilets, however, and so the scent of human  waste combined with peat overwhelmed Silva’s sensitive nose. She entered the stall and did her business quickly, trying to ignore the pong of  the room. There was one sink and a small mirror of that same polished  stone — while she washed her hands, she noticed she was more fleshed out than she had been the day before. Minae food worked quickly.

She turned to leave, and then stopped dead, horror making her veins  run ice cold. Above the door was another animal head as ‘decor’.

Its muzzle was posed open in a silent snarl, its ears were flat back on its head, and it was made to look vicious around the eye’s epicanthic folds  — but this was all a lie. She reached her hand up to touch the soft  fur, but it was too high up, and she couldn’t reach.

She’d found her first Minae wolf.

The scent of fear and  death hit her then; it had been masked before, but now that she gazed  upon the source it was so clear she reeled. She ran back into the stall  and vomited what was left of that morning’s breakfast.

This wolf had died in fear and pain, and she hadn’t been here to help.

She hadn’t been able to help so many of her children on Terra, too. The  mortal humans had shot them from planes, poisoned them, hunted them near to extinction. The only thing that had saved them from that fate had  been constant fighting — from Silva herself, and her one or two human  followers. Mortals who lived with wolf-hybrids and knew about her  existence, and who wanted to help save her children. Silva had  petitioned the Twins to save her cubs, and they had finally listened and moved all the wolves off-planet. She didn’t think they would have had  it not been for the strengthening arguments of a few other gods who had a soft spot for wolves — the Morrigan, Hecate, and Odin were the big  three who had argued on Silva’s side. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever  properly expressed her gratitude to those deities.

On Tau Ceti, the wolves had been placed far enough away from human  settlements so as to be relatively safe. But when humans expanded  outwards, as they invariably did?

If she never got home, the  Cetian wolves might meet the same fate. And this time she wouldn’t be  around to stop them from going extinct completely.

She shook with helplessness and fear. There was nothing she could  do. She was trapped here in mortal form, and her children might all die. The thought made her sick again.

When finally she exited the  bathroom, after having rinsed her mouth thoroughly, she felt scrubbed  out, hollowed, empty. A gourd left in the rain after All Hallows Eve;  burned on the inside, destined for the compost heap to rot away in  ignominy.

She tried to hide her distress when she got back to the table. Their food had arrived by that point, and a man she’d never seen before stood beside the table and chatted with Scoas and Natai, and occasionally  giving Brinna a predatory smile. Brinna seemed less than pleased with  the man’s attentions, but she was unfailingly polite.

Silva instantly disliked the man. He smelled wrong, and his bearing positively screamed his arrogance.

Scoas noticed Silva’s return, then, and made introductions before Silva could escape.

The man’s name was Kaz, and he gave Silva an exceptionally oily smile. He  was a hunter — the best in Heartpin, apparently. “You must have seen my  prize trophy,” he said to her, folding his arms over his chest. Silva  politely raised her eyebrows even as her stomach churned with dread.  “The wolf’s head hanging in the privy. Got that bastard over a year ago. Scoas bought the pelt.”

Silva felt like fainting. She barely heard what Scoas said: “It’s a very nice pelt, too; we simply love it.”

“There’s a secret to get the best pelts, Scoas my man,” Kaz said, winking at Scoas. “Would you like to know it?”

“Excuse me,” Silva said, brushing past Kaz and heading for the door. She knew the secret for the best pelts, and if she heard Kaz tell them  exactly how he’d tortured the young wolf whose head hung in the  bathroom, she might kill him right there in the tavern.

There’s a raffle on at Rafflecopter to get a free ebook copy of Stranger Skies. Here’s a link to that: Raffle.

I’ll be reading Stranger Skies once it’s published and will provide a review and links here.

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An Update on Refuge

13424453_sRefuge, my new work in progress, is almost done. It’s currently out to beta readers and I’ve gotten some feedback. You can read the first four chapters here. (This text may change somewhat, however, due to beta reader feedback.)

The pic at the beginning is the one I’m considering as the basis for the cover art. It’s part of a series of pictures with the Earth and various energetic effects, which might do for the series of which Refuge is to be the first volume.

I’m excited about Refuge for a couple of reasons that I want to share here. One is simply that, as I continue writing and publishing, I seem to be learning. Refuge is the beneficiary of a lot of that learning in regard to plot, pacing, and characterization. Which is a complicated way of saying that I believe it’s the best story I’ve ever written. In terms of writing style, it’s only slightly better than Goddess-Born, but in terms of story construction I would say that I may have finally come of age as a writer.

The other reason has to do with genre. Refuge represents something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, namely a fusion between science fiction and fantasy. Refuge involves alien species, advanced technology, nano-computing, particle beams, and ongoing research projects into human genetic engineering. That makes it science fiction, right? But it also involves magic and reincarnation, with the spirits of alien creatures now inhabiting human bodies, and being for most intents and purposes human. That makes it fantasy as well. The aliens themselves see no conflict between the two and move between using magical powers and using advanced technology with no sense of discontinuity.

All of this is of course part of world-building and creates the backdrop to the story itself, which involves a man’s quest for liberation from an imprisoning background. Mike Cambridge is the hereditary leader of the Scourge of God, a religious order founded in the 14th century. The Scourge of God is an order of assassins. It exists to bump off members of one of the two alien races, the Droon, whom the Scourge of God believes to be devils from Hell. The order was founded by one Osgood of Cambridge, and Mike is Osgood’s direct descendant and heir to authority over the Scourge of God.

Trouble is, he doesn’t want the job. He wants out. He is a child of modern times and can’t accept the philosophical and theological framework through which the Scourge looks at the world. He doesn’t believe in Hell and so he doesn’t believe that the Droon are really demons. (Although he has no doubt that they’re extremely nasty people, and they are.) Being a serial killer, even of the Droon, bothers him morally. He tried to escape from the Scourge of God when his father died, but they found him and forced him under a threat of death to assume his father’s position. If he tries to escape them again, they’ll kill him for certain.

The story opens with Mike and a member of his Scourge of God chapter breaking into the office of John Stevens, a Droon, and interrogating him under terms of the “Pact of War” between the Droon and the Scourge. That agreement requires a Droon to truthfully answer the questions of a Scourge of God Chapter Master who spares the Droon’s life. So Mike incapacitates Stevens and puts his questions. He finds out that the Droon are actually aliens, not demons, and that when they die they reincarnate in new human bodies with all their memories intact (rendering the Scourge attempt to kill them pointless). Most intriguing of all, he finds that the Droon are on Earth in human form because their home planet was wiped out by weapons of mass destruction used in an interstellar war — and that their enemies, the Andol, are here, too.

Mike then goes on a quest to find the Andol, as part of his personal efforts to free himself from the Scourge of God. The story winds its way through political intrigue, romance, gun battles, explosions, and philosophical twists and turns to a conclusion. I’m very happy with it overall. Anticipated publication date, in both e-book and print, is November 1, 2013.

One of the bigger questions I have on putting this out there is whether or not a science fiction/fantasy fusion can work. Of course, magical elements have appeared in SF before, but always with different terminology (psychic powers, etc.) and without recognition, most of the time, of the connection with magical traditions. SF has always been regarded as more part of the “real” world than fantasy, no matter how wildly speculative and “out there” the science fiction elements are. The Scourge of God, which makes use of magic, is a rather backwards, Medieval organization, but that can’t be said of the Andol and the Droon, who also use magic and call it that. So here’s what I’m wondering. Is such a fusion possible? Have I achieved it, or should Refuge simply be considered science fiction? Time will tell, hopefully.

Image credit: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo.

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Alpha and Omega

yinyangIn the Book of Revelations is a passage in which the author has Jesus refer to himself as “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Greek was the language of culture in the eastern Roman Empire at that time, and Revelations was itself written in Greek, so “Alpha and Omega” was a good way to say start and finish, rather as English speakers might say “A to Z,” but with a bit more class and a different emphasis. Whoever “John,” the author of Revelations, may have been (almost certainly not one of the Apostle Johns, as he was much too highly educated and mystical), symbolism of this kind is found throughout his little tract. Beginning and end here are not just a frame for everything in between. When John has Jesus/God say that he is the Alpha and Omega, he is not simply saying that he is everything. Beginning and end themselves have meaning, and are important emblems of the universe as a whole. Today, with the aid of scientific speculation, we can say a bit more about the beginning and the end of the universe, fleshing out the myth with more significant imagery.

More than just the beginning and end of things, the beginning and end of the cosmos are also the start and stop of time. There are no moments in time before the Big Bang. As such, there can be no cause of the Big Bang (since a cause must pre-exist the effect, and nothing pre-existed the Big Bang, not even empty space). After the Heat Death, no events can occur, and so time — which exists only in terms of the sequencing of events — ceases to be. No time before. No time after. Not even really an end, since the end of something implies everything else going on, by which we measure, observe, and give meaning to the termination of what has ended. The end of everything is not like that. It is not something to mourn, except from before it happens, for there will be no one to mourn. It is a book-end on existence, as is the Big Bang.

Another important thing to recognize about the Alpha and Omega is that each of them brings all of reality to a single point. Between the two, a multitude of processes occur and the cosmos wears many-faced diversity. At the beginning there is Nothing/Zero. Then, for a theoretical instant that cannot be measured, there is One, and immediately thereafter, One becomes Many, and it goes on being Many until, an incredibly long amount of time later, all energy potential is exhausted and the universe winds down once more to Zero. In all the ages between, mystics and sages observe the oneness underlying the diversity of the cosmos. Only at the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, is that unity manifest. Since “God” is one of the mythic concepts and metaphors by which we dimly attempt to comprehend the unity of the cosmos, Alpha and Omega is not bad as a title for God. (John, as noted above, incorporates a lot of this stuff into his writing.)

With that general framework in mind, let’s explore now in some more detail the Alpha and the Omega, insofar as science can reveal them to us. (We must understand that this knowledge is far from complete. It consists mostly of mathematical models rather than direct observation. I’m not going to try to be scientifically rigorous here in any case; that’s rather beside the point of what’s being done. This is mythos, informed by, but not following the rules of, logos.)

Alpha

The Beginning of all things is a burst of light.

(Before going on, I want to emphasize that what follows is a convergence of science and mystical imagery, not an identification of the two and certainly not implying the capacity of either to substitute for the other. The science of the Big Bang is derived, like all scientific theories, from observation. It accounts for such observed phenomena as the existence of cosmic background radiation, the red-shifting of galactic clusters indicating an expanding universe, and the widespread existence of light elements such as hydrogen. The convergence of science and mysticism, not just in cosmology but also in quantum physics, occurs because science is at last able to consider the type of deep phenomena that touch upon mystical experience. It should probably have been expected.)

According to current mathematical models, the Big Bang occurred approximately 14 billion years ago. In its initial stages the universe was too hot and dense to allow for the existence of matter in any form such as we know it; however, we know from the theory of relativity that energy and matter are interconvertible. As the new cosmos expanded and cooled, the processes within it gave birth to simple subatomic particles and eventually to the first atoms, which were almost certainly hydrogen atoms (consisting of a single proton and a single electron).

Among the first things that emerged from the Big Bang was natural law — the fundamental laws of physics. Like time itself, physical law could not have pre-existed energy potential (nor will it exist after energy potential has been exhausted). Physical law is a mathematical description of how energy is transferred in a set of circumstances. It has no meaning where there is no energy to transfer. One question is whether the laws of physics had to be exactly what they are observed to be (and will be so observed in the future; it is of course an error to suppose we understand all of them at present). Perhaps they could have emerged differently, with (say) a slightly different value to Planck’s Constant, to the gravitational constant, to the speed of light, or to any of the other constants observed. We have no way to observe the emergence of other universes to see this process in operation and verify it directly, but we also have no mathematical justification for saying that everything had to be the way it is.

If, as seems likely, the laws of nature could have emerged differently, the Alpha exerted what must be called free will in bringing the cosmos into being.

Although we have only recently been able to explore the Alpha by conventional, scientific means (through mathematical calculations based on observations), we have always been able to turn our minds there, because like the background radiation observed throughout the universe with no observable source, and like natural law itself, the Big Bang is encoded in the atoms of our bodies, the centers of our minds, and the point-core of the soul. We see it in vision as the Light from which all things come. It is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Hence the existence of the concept in religious imagery and myth long before it emerged in science. (This does not indicate, as some might suggest fatuously, that science took the concept itself from religion, myth, or mysticism. It was developed in science quite independently, by its own methods.)

This is, one might say, the positive pole of the divine magnet. It is the source of being, of creation, of life. It is natural for people to revere the source of their existence. But the cosmos has another pole at the opposite end of time, equally sacred, and equally inevitable.

Omega

The heat death of the universe waits an immensely long time in the future, estimated to be at least on the order of 10 to the 100th power years. That’s much longer from now than the time between the Big Bang and the present, so the Alpha, in addition to being a more natural summoner of human attention, is also temporally closer than the Omega.

The processes by which stars collapse and die, matter dives into black holes and disappears, and the black holes themselves decay and explode, are lead-ups to the Omega, but so is everything. This follows from the second law of thermodynamics, energy always moving from a state of higher to one of lower concentration; the differential between these states being referred to as “energy potential” and the reason why anything can happen at all. There are many examples of this in nature, but one of the better ones is temperature. Plop a red-hot bar of iron into a bucket of cold water. The difference in temperature between the iron and the water is the energy potential of this system. As heat moves from the iron (where it is highly concentrated) into the water (where it isn’t), many things happen. The temperature of the water rises, that of the iron falls. The water moves in currents induced by the temperature change. It may even boil, changing its physical state and releasing bubbles of gas. Eventually, however, the iron and all parts of the water reach the same temperature and all of these things cease to happen.

Energy potential emerging from the Alpha is remarkably high, but eventually it must all be exhausted. When that time comes, no light will shine (all will be dark), no breath can be drawn (all will be lifeless), no events can take place (time itself comes to an end). As it was in the beginning, so it is in the end: stillness and silence, no observer, no observed, no existence.

The Omega is not as commonly revered as the Alpha. It is in fact more commonly shunned. Some religious conceptions, notably Zoroastrianism, have recognized it but called it evil, seeing it as in conflict with the Alpha (which it is not), and predicting the Alpha’s ultimate victory (which is quite impossible). Entropy is inexorable and will, in the end, triumph. All will become dark and silent. All will end.

The Alphabet

Let’s take the concept of energy potential one step further. Reality as we know it is a product of the interaction of those two poles of existence, the Alpha and Omega. The important thing for us is the alphabet — everything lying between the first and the last. The road, not the destination; the dance, not its ending; neither birth nor death, but life, which includes both.

“I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.” And of course, all in between. There’s a lesson in that, for those who have an ear and can hear.

 

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