Monthly Archives: March 2014

False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Let’s start with a deceptively complex question that looks simple. What exactly is monotheism? It lies at the core of all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith). All four of these insist that God is One, although with slightly different emphasis. No religion outside that lineage holds this belief, although one finds a unity underlying the surface diversity in many approaches to spirituality that are otherwise polytheistic, from the Greek philosophers to Hinduism to some versions of Neopaganism.

To complicate matters more, many people who are theoretical monotheists are polytheists in practice. This includes Christians who pray to Mary or to the Saints, Muslims who also sometimes pray to Mary, and those who invoke different aspects or Names of God for different purposes. Monotheism, therefore, isn’t the worship of only one deity. That generally doesn’t happen; our minds are too limited to do that, and can’t wrap themselves around something as cosmic as Everything. Instead, monotheism is the theoretical belief that there is only one God, and this is made compatible with polytheistic practice by demoting deities in the plural to saints, angels, prophets, or a prophet’s mother.

Monotheism has one advantage over polytheism, and that is its inherent recognition of the unity of the cosmos. Monotheists avoid the fragmentation that can afflict polytheists (as discussed last week), but conflict arises of a different kind, and it emerges precisely from that limitation of the human mind that cannot grasp the All either by reason or by imagining. When one recognizes the unity of All, and at the same time can only imagine or grasp mentally a fragment or aspect of the All, it is easy to make the mistake of supposing that fragment or aspect to be the whole. The reality of God is too vast to be apprehended or conceived, and so something that the mind can apprehend and conceive is promoted to the role of Sole God.

Just as the mind cannot grasp the ultimate Reality, so (and perhaps even more so) human language cannot describe it or present rules or rituals or doctrines appropriate to it. This is a limitation that applies to scripture of any kind for that reason. And yet, because of the confusion that arises between what the mind can grasp and what is ultimately Real, it is very easy and common for monotheists to imbue their imaginings and limited visions and limited scriptures with an authority far beyond what they could ever merit. This gives rise to the biggest downside of monotheism: false certainty and dogma. It afflicts at least some of the believers in all four monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic lineage.

The ultimate expression of this false certainty is condemnation of those who believe differently, at times (especially when religion has been allied with the state) going so far as criminal persecution for heresy or religious war. Unlike the conflicts between polytheists discussed last week, this is not conflict caused by different Gods, but rather about different conceptions of what is supposed to be only one and the same God.

Historically, Christians have condemned Jews and Muslims for not recognizing the divinity of Christ, while Muslims have condemned Christians for seeing Christ as more than a prophet, and Jews for failing to see either Christ or Muhammad as even that much. Christians have condemned one another over points of doctrine that could matter only to those who take such things literally (which is a mistake in itself), and Muslims have condemned one another over who was the true successor of the Prophet and over teachings that went along with that. That’s all in addition to the ferocious conflict between monotheisms and polytheistic religion, from the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah described in the Bible, to the banning and condemnation of pagan religion by the Christian Roman Empire, to the bloody struggles between Islam and Hinduism in India.

The problem here is not so much disagreement (to disagree and argue is human, after all), but rather the idea that God supports one and only one doctrine, and that those who believe differently are not merely disagreeing with one another but each sees the other as going against the divine will. This is possible to believe only if one takes a limited idea — which is the only kind that the human mind can hold — and inflates that idea into identity with the All. That is the root of dogma and the origin of false certainty.

Is there anything monotheists can do to avoid this trap? Certainly, and many of them do. One can remind oneself often that God is beyond human knowledge and that we must all be humble before the Mystery. If you can wrap your mind around it and understand it, then it is not God. At best, it’s a particular viewpoint or perspective on God, the best that you can do with a finite brain. Someone else may come up with a different vision that is equally valid, even where it appears to disagree with yours.

Some monotheists have shown themselves capable of that degree of enlightenment and humility. Alas, many have shown to the contrary as well, and that is why separation of church and state is so important to the maintenance of peace and liberty. The error of false certainty and dogma is potentially deadly, and the only way to prevent that potential from becoming actual is to deny it any temporal power.

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God Forms and Conflict: The Downside of Polytheism

25400853_sPertaining to the question of One or Many, I’m going to write a pair of posts, this week and next, on the downsides of both, this week on polytheism.

Inevitably and by its nature, polytheism involves splitting the Cosmos into multiple fractal images, each with its own special character. A monotheistic God is a metaphor for the cosmos as a whole, but a deity in a pantheon, while reflecting the All as every deity must, emphasizes a portion or aspect of the All more than the rest of it. As a result, the potential for conflict arises (or increases) between worshipers of different deities.

This conflict, which is evident in the Neopagan community today and would be more so if Pagans didn’t see themselves as a potentially persecuted minority and so have an instinct to circle the wagons, is different from the types of conflict that can arise where monotheists are involved. Monotheists are more likely to fall into the “one way” mental trap and to condemn those of divergent views; polytheists seldom do this, or not as often as monotheists, anyway. But polytheists open themselves to conflict of another type, not about their gods, but because of their gods.

Worshipers take on the attributes of their deities. This process is partly magical and partly mental, but over time a devotee of a particular deity amplifies those aspects of his personality which resemble the god and becomes, to the extent he is able, the god’s avatar or channel. To some extent those attributes are almost always present beforehand, as otherwise the devotee would not be attracted to worship of that deity, but over time and repeated invocation they become amplified. When those aspects make for conflict between devotees of different deities, conflict is likely to arise.

Is a Wiccan devotee of a peaceful Mother Goddess a natural ally of a worshiper of Odin who sees himself as a warrior, merely because both can be lumped under the “Pagan” label and both are polytheists? Only if they see themselves as struggling against the monotheistic Christian majority, in which case it’s an alliance of convenience against a common enemy. Absent that external stimulus to cooperation, the fissure between them would be wide, even if both recognized the unity underlying the diversity of the gods (and of course, not all Pagans do).

The myths and legends of deities arising from polytheistic religions always present them as conflicting with each other and for good reason. That’s within single pantheons; when we mix pantheons from different cultures in a single society, which is what we are doing (as well as inventing new designer deities), we compound the problem.

A follower of Apollo is sure to have very clear delineations of right and wrong in his moral viewpoint and likely to be somewhat ascetic. A worshiper of Loki will be allergic to clear moral distinctions and regard everything as morally gray. A devotee of Dionysus becomes hedonistic and prone to excess in pursuit of spiritual ecstasy. These are not easily reconcilable qualities. The follower of Apollo won’t usually contend that the Loki or Dionysus worshiper is following a “false god” or condemn these individuals for their religious behavior as such, but he will inevitably condemn the Loki worshiper’s willingness to engage in morally questionable acts and the Dionysian’s hedonism, without reference necessarily to the gods they worship. Even when there is no religious dispute as such (and sometimes there is, even with all the emphasis in the Pagan community on tolerance and diversity), the fragmenting of the divine image exacerbates and focuses personality and lifestyle conflicts.

And that, in my opinion, is why the Pagan community features so much in the way of squabbling, back-biting, bickering, and personal vituperation, far out of proportion to its numbers.

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps, but it requires a degree of enlightenment that is beyond the scope of most people, particularly those new to the spiritual path. It requires recognition that the cosmos is One, even if its aspects are Many, and an ability to transcend the limits of a particular deity. It may require that a polytheist avoid being the particular devotee of any one god or goddess, but give his heart and reverence instead to all of them, recognizing each as a pathway to the All. Not all Pagans even believe in the unity underlying the diversity of the gods, let alone incorporate it into their personality, so if that’s a solution it’s one that can’t be implemented at this time.

It may well be that there is no solution, except on an individual level, allowing a person to avoid the traps.

Next week: False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Image credit: outsiderzone / 123RF Stock Photo

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An Interview With the Order Master

The Order MasterThis interview of Michael Cambridge, Order Master of the Scourge of God, was conducted a couple of years ago, during the events described in Refuge Volume One: The Order Master. Mike was living in the Napa house after meeting Amanda Johnson, the leader of the Andol, and I interviewed him during a relatively peaceful lull in that stormy period.

BR: Mr. Cambridge, you were born in the United Kingdom, am I right?

MC: No, actually I was born in New York City. I spent my childhood in Cambridge, England, though. My family was named for the city.

BR: If you were born in the United States, then —

MC: I have dual citizenship, USA and UK. Yes.

BR: Is that how you came to be living in California?

MC: Partly. Partly I returned to the land of my birth because I was fleeing the Scourge of God.

BR: You were fleeing the Scourge.

MC: Yes.

BR: But you’re the leader of the Scourge, the Order Master. Why would you flee from your own followers?

MC: I was never given a choice about whether to become the Order Master. It’s a hereditary position, you see, handed down from father to son since Osgood of Cambridge founded the order in the fourteenth century. Honestly, I didn’t want the job, but they don’t just let you leave. If you try, they’ll hunt you down and kill you.

BR: That sounds pretty nasty.

MC: I agree.

BR: Maybe you should tell us something about the Scourge of God.

MC: Well, they’d kill me for that, too, but I’ve already crossed the line by mentioning that the order exists, so what the hell. They can only kill me once. The Scourge was founded by my ancestor to fight the Droon.

BR: And the Droon are the aliens you mentioned earlier.

MC: Yes, I know that about them now. Osgood saw them as devils in human form, though, and that’s what the Scourge believed for centuries. There’s good reason to see them that way. They’re thoroughly nasty, evil folk. Their auras look decidedly unnatural. They have magical powers.

BR: Yes, you mentioned the Droon and Andol auras earlier. I’m a little confused about that.

MC: Human beings who develop their spiritual talents often are able to see auras. One can tell things about a person’s health, whether they have spiritual talents and how strong they are, the state of mind, and so on by looking at the aura. Well, the Droon aura is completely different from a human being’s, and so is the Andol aura. That’s how Osgood knew that the Droon were something unnatural and not just really nasty human beings.

BR: What does the Droon aura look like?

MC: It’s hideous. It’s black as ink, to start, and full of little rapidly-swirling points of light that look like sunlight reflecting off shattered glass. You get the sense that if you approach a Droon too closely, you’ll be shredded by these swirling bits of broken glass. That’s not really so, of course, but what could happen to you is even worse. The Droon like to shackle people in their home torture chambers and subject them to agonies that they can prolong for years before the person dies. To be taken as a toy by a Droon is to enter Hell. You can also feel this evil about them. The aura isn’t just ugly to look at; even worse is the sense of pure, concentrated malice and wickedness that pours off it like sludge. Putting all of this together and bearing in mind that Osgood was a devout Christian living in the Middle Ages, it’s not difficult to see why he thought the Droon were devils.

BR: He was wrong, though.

MC: Yes. The Droon are the survivors, in a spiritual sense although not physically, of a world destroyed in war. So are the Andol. The two species exterminated one another, and then some of them used magical arts to reincarnate on what they call a “refuge” world, and as it happened both of them came here. They’ve become human beings, but one can still see their alien origins in their auras and in their behavior. But you asked about the Scourge of God. Osgood of Cambridge was a mystic who had visions of the future. He foresaw the decline of Christianity and the loss of faith in modern times and the vision disturbed him, naturally enough considering how devout he was. When he discovered the Droon, he saw them — the devils in human form that he thought they were — as responsible for what was coming. In a way, he was right about that, but for a different reason. Anyway, what he decided to do was to find the Droon and kill them, and he founded the Scourge for that purpose. It was and remains a very secretive Christian society, a society of assassins with very specific targets. The Scourge sees its victims as devils, not people, but of course the law doesn’t make that distinction, so the Scourge operates in strict secrecy according to binding rules.

BR: It’s a society established to commit murder, then.

MC: They would disagree that it’s murder, but yes, that’s how the law sees it. I’m a murderer myself. I’ve killed five Droon over the years.

BR: That’s a heavy burden to bear, I imagine.

MC: It would be worse if the Droon weren’t so thoroughly vile, but yes. It’s the main reason I want out, along with the adherence to a religion I don’t believe in, and the medieval world-view. When my father died, I fled to California, making use of my U.S. citizenship. My father died when I was twenty-seven and by the rules of the order I couldn’t become Order Master until I turned thirty. I hoped I could escape, but they found me and forced me to become Order Master. They would have killed me if I had refused. At any rate, when I discovered the true nature of the Droon, I also learned that when one of them dies, he reincarnates as a newborn human being with all his prior memories intact. So in a way, I haven’t killed anyone, at least not permanently.

BR: How did you encounter the Andol? I gather that Osgood didn’t know about them.

MC: No. There aren’t nearly as many Andol here as there are Droon, and the Andol are better at concealing themselves. They can disguise their auras to look human, which apparently the Droon can’t. I found out about the Andol by interrogating a Droon at knife point. There’s an old agreement between the Scourge of God and the Droon called the Pact of War. When we spare the life of a Droon, he must answer questions truthfully that are put to him — or her; I should say the Droon are of both sexes — by a Chapter Master or by the Order Master. It’s very dangerous, using the Pact, but sometimes necessary.

BR: Dangerous?

MC: Oh, yes! When we kill the Droon, normally we do it from a distance, using high-powered rifles and the like. Back in the Middle Ages they used to use crossbows. Confronting the Droon in person is difficult because of their magical powers. Steven Cambridge, Osgood’s grandson, was killed attempting to use the Pact. At any rate, I managed it and that’s how I learned that the Droon were aliens rather than devils, and how I learned of the existence of the Andol. I found one of the Andol after a long search, and that’s why I’m here now.

BR: The Andol you found was Amanda Johnson, correct?

MC: Yes.

BR: What can you tell me about her, and about the Andol in general?

MC: Well, like the Droon, the Andol have an unnatural aura. It looks like a sky-blue solar corona and crackles with energy. It’s quite pleasant to be near, very unlike what a Droon puts off. The Andol are generally much nicer people. Their home world had an egalitarian society and they would like to recreate that here on Earth, while the Droon want a society in which they are the masters and true humans serve them as slaves and torture-toys. Obviously, I like the Andol approach a good deal better.

BR: What are your feelings towards Amanda Johnson at this point?

MC: I wish I could answer that, Brian. I like her, I’m frankly attracted to her, and I may be falling in love. I rather hope not, though. She is — well, she’s quite manipulative and very powerful magically, and I’m not altogether sure I trust myself around her. I’m not sure where my natural feelings stop and her influence begins. I sought the Andol out because I need allies both against the Droon and against the Scourge of God. I still hope that I can find those allies here, but —

BR: So you still want to be free of your position as Order Master?

MC: More than ever. More than ever.

BR: Perhaps the Andol will help you to achieve that goal.

MC: I do hope so.

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