Category Archives: Spirituality

Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.

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Virtual God

7524765_sAn idea came up in the course of writing Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering that I want to explore here in a non-fictional manner. The idea involves God as a virtual reality.

The idea of God, a cosmic entity with  mind who created everything and loves and guides us, is on one level a metaphor. It’s a crude model describing religious experience. The explanation is that there’s this being, God, who created you, and you contacted him with your mind. Other non-dismissive explanations for religious experience are possible. For example, if one arrives at panpsychism as the solution to the hard problem of consciousness, as I argue makes the best sense (here), spiritual experience involves becoming aware of the cosmos as a living consciousness, and of one’s own identity as one with it. This bears some resemblance to non-theistic ideas such as those of Hinayana Buddhism or Taoism. “God” is then a metaphor for the cosmos itself. As usually conceived, God does not exist.

But there’s another possibility — a purely speculative possibility.

What if God doesn’t exist yet?

Deities in Magical Practice

In real-world magic, a lot of practitioners deal with deities in the plural. The magic user “invokes” (calls in, literally) the deity, experiencing heightened levels of a type of magical power associated with it, and employs the power either to alter his own consciousness or to achieve some practical end achievable through the alteration of probability. Among the monotheistic, the tendency is to refer to these beings as angels (or sometimes as demons, compelled to service through God’s name and sigils of power) rather than as deities, but it amounts to the same thing in practice. Pagan magicians call on the deities of various pantheons openly, of course.

Various ideas circulate in magical circles regarding what deities are. Not all magic users believe that the deities they invoke are literal beings separate from themselves. Perhaps a more common belief is that the magic user creates the deity via empowered imagination. The deity is closely associated with some natural source of magical power (the sun, the Earth, nature, the sea, lightning, love, war, intelligence and knowledge, whatever) and by personifying that force, the magician is able to talk to it and ask its assistance. The deity emerges from the mind of the magician, draws power from the natural world through its association with some significant aspect of it, and gains a measure of independent existence as a result of that power-up.

What’s more, one magician doing this is less powerful than many. This is why it’s useful to invoke a deity that has actually been worshiped in the past: the imaginary form is empowered by others who have already created it, and that makes it potentially stronger than a deity created by the magician anew. (Which doesn’t mean there might not be other reasons to do that. But that’s outside the scope of this post.)

The idea of the Virtual God is extrapolated from this.

The Birth Of God

God, in the monotheistic sense, would be a deity created by magic — that is, by the empowered imagination of magic users — associated with the cosmos in its entirety, and on a vast scale. Multiple magicians, as noted above, create a more powerful deity than one working alone.

If we extrapolate that idea to whole planets full of magicians, all of them pouring their mana into the manifestation of God, we might at some point reach a critical threshold where God becomes so powerful that he transcends the normal limitations of magic. All magic operates by altering the probabilities of indeterminate events. Normally, this applies only to events that are indeterminate to the naked eye, so to speak, but in theory all macroscopic events are the products of subatomic events that are themselves indeterminate. The ability to alter the probabilities associated with quantum events is outside normal magical competence, but if it could be done, the result would deserve the title of miracle. Parting the Red Sea. Raising the dead. Walking on water.

Anything. Anything at all.

God As Virtual Reality

Now, let’s suppose that what I described above is possible. It clearly hasn’t happened yet. But let’s say that someday it might, if enough intelligent beings throughout the universe emerge into benign consciousness and will it to be.

That possibility means that at some possible future date, God may exist, even though It does not exist at present. And in that possible future, God is endowed with awesome magical power.

Now, one thing about magical power is that it time-travels. That’s how it’s possible to use magic to predict future events. There have also been experiments showing a PK effect (which is a misnomer, by the way; no actual kinesis takes place, only alteration of probability) occurring before the person causing it makes the effort.

Magical power moves and operates in its own frame of reference, which I call association space. It’s not bound and limited by space-time the way energy is. The arrow of time, therefore, isn’t absolute for it. And that means that, while God doesn’t exist at this time, Its existence in a possible future — so long as that future remains possible — means that Its magical power can, to an extent, influence events in the here and now. One thing It would certainly do is to make Its own birth more likely by influencing the indeterminate events in Its past. That would include the mental processes of those who might bring It into being, or whose thoughts and behavior might lead to conditions where that becomes possible.

And so the Virtual God becomes another model explaining certain kinds of religious experience. It’s certainly an experience of cosmic consciousness, an awareness of one’s own true identity.

But maybe — just maybe — it’s also tuning in to the mind of a real God, who doesn’t exist yet, but someday may.

Do I believe this? Not necessarily. But it’s a fun idea to play with. And I’m certainly willing to include it in my stories.

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Writing Deeply (Part IV)

A Sip of FearThis is the fourth and last installment in which I engage in navel-gazing. (Ahem.) In which I explore the fact that I can’t write fiction that’s just escape.

In this case, I actually tried to. I made a conscious decision to write something with more of the standard urban fantasy tropes. It’s written in first person (and not even alternating first-person like The Star Mages). It’s got werewolves. It’s got a vampire (sort of). It’s got secret magicians. It’s got a ticking doomsday clock and imminent death.

I discussed the world-building of The Illuminated in an earlier post here, so I won’t go into a lot of detail about that again. What I will say is that, despite my best efforts, spiritual themes and philosophical depth crept in, and now A Sip of Fear, volume one of the series, is looking a lot like my earlier efforts except in superficial detail.

The Illuminated

Gordon, the main character, is a bio-mage. He’s bonded to the Luminous spirit Ela-Tu, whose domain is Life. Shadow, the adept of Death, is in town and intends to kill Gordon. Bad news. It prompts some philosophical outpouring on the part of Gordon’s sister Clara:

“I imagine what I would feel like if I was in your position. And the thing is, I am in your position. Shadow won’t kill me because I’m not an Illuminated, but death comes for every person sooner or later. Sometimes we see it coming. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere. It could happen any time, any place, to anybody. You face a chance of death every time you open your eyes. Shadow just adds one more possible cause to a long list.”

“Pretty philosophical. I’m not sure —”

“But that’s just it, Gordon. You’re not sure. You never can be. Except about one thing. Sooner or later, by one cause or another, you are going to die, and so is everyone you care about. You talk about Shadow as if he was some evil person, but death isn’t evil. It’s part of life, part of nature. It’s the dark side of your own Luminous. Shadow is doing you a favor.”

I frowned. “I can’t see it that way.”

“No. But you need to. I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight him. Of course you should try not to die, until there’s no way to do that. But death should find you ready. You’ve been warned. Shadow is telling you something that was always true, long before you heard about him. He’s telling you that you’re going to die. Take that knowledge and own it.”

But this isn’t just bad-guy-comes-stalking. It turns out that Shadow has a benign Purpose and things are much more complicated than Gordon thought:

“Do you know what an akusala is?”

“Never heard of it.”

“Not surprising. The word is Sanskrit for ‘evil’ or ‘lacking virtue.’ An akusala is an Illuminated who turns evil. When one of us goes bad, he goes really bad. Not just greedy or selfish or cruel like an ordinary bad human being. An akusala ties into something on the spirit plane, a kind of twisted version of his Luminous. If you were an akusala, you’d be walking corruption, bending all life to its undoing. You’d unleash plagues, turn fertile lands into desert. I’m not just guessing here, Gordon. There have been akusala bio-mages and they’re nightmares.”

“Sounds bad. Why haven’t I heard of these things?”

“Well, that’s what’s interesting. A thousand years ago, akusala were all over the place. In fact, there might have been more akusala than kusala — that’s an Illuminated who does good. But today they’re almost gone. They still pop up every now and then, but kusala have become the norm for Illuminated. What do you suppose happened?”

“I have no idea. Are you saying Shadow is an akusala?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not? He’s a serial killer.”

“Yes, but he’s too controlled to be akusala. He doesn’t do rampaging massacres. He goes to a place, kills one Illuminated, and then leaves.” She took a sip of wine and paused a moment. “What I think is that Shadow kills akusala. I think he’s the reason why there are so few of them around now.”

I shook my head. “Why is he coming after me, then?”

That’s the question, all right. Gordon gets an answer from Shadow in person:

“It’s — an arrangement between your Luminous and mine. When Ela-Tu feels one of her adepts may be ready to face a test — me — she informs Apep and he informs me. I was in Paris when I received the call, ending an akusala mind-mage buried deep in the French fascist party, the Front National.” He spoke the name with a perfect Parisian accent. “So I came to America to seek you.”

“You took your time getting here.”

“There was no hurry. The American Illuminated needed some weeding, so I weeded them on the way. I do not enjoy this duty, Gordon. I would prefer not to kill bio-mages, except those that are akusala of course. I don’t wish to kill you, but I must, unless you can pass the test.”

“Test? What test?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery of Life. You may unravel it. I never will. You must unravel it. Or you will die.”

“How many bio-mages have passed this test of yours?”

“It’s Ela-Tu’s test, not mine. I’m only her instrument in this.”

“How fucking many, Shadow?”

A pause. Then: “None.”

And so Gordon must find a way to transform himself in order to survive. Life and death. Good and evil. Personal transformation. Can things get any more cosmic than that? Probably. I’m just getting started here.

No books of The Illuminated have been published yet. A Sip of Fear should be ready by the end of this summer, hopefully.

And since that’s the whole list, it’s enough about me. Next week — well, I’m not sure. Something else, though.

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Writing Deeply (Part III)

the-order-masterThis is the third post in the series in which I explore the philosophical side of my fiction. This post concentrates on the third series I’ve begun, Refuge.

The framework of Refuge came to me out of the blue one day when I wrote a mini-story set on the Andol home world. It was doomsday. The Droon had launched their annihilation attack and the Andol had retaliated. The character who would become Amanda Johnson was shown talking to her rather frivolous and irresponsible younger brother, who became Lionel Horne, about the Refuge program that would let a few of them reincarnate in the bodies of an alien species after they all died. The scene shifted to medieval England, where Amanda-to-be had been reborn in human form, met a man her father was considering for her husband, and discovered to her shock and consternation that he was a Droon (who would become John Stevens). The final scene of the mini-story was proto-Amanda’s discovery of her erstwhile fiance’s corpse, revealing the presence of the Scourge of God.

This mini-story hasn’t been published and I have no plans to publish it, but that’s how I first outlined the idea of the two alien races reincarnated as humans, and of the Scourge of God, a religious organization dedicated to murdering one of them (believing them to be demons, which was wrong but not that far off). I decided instead to start the story in modern times, and to make the hereditary Order Master of the Scourge of God the main character of the series’ first volume, called The Order Master.

Refuge

Two volumes of the Refuge series, The Order Master and The Ingathering, are complete and published. A third volume, The Rapier,  is roughly half-finished in its first draft. The books include lots of combat, some romance, a bit of not-too-explicit sex, magical visions, sneaky plots, torture, and a smuggled nuclear explosive, but as with the other posts in this group that’s not the part I want to talk about.

The contrast and conflict between the Droon and the Andol involves the idea that a species with advanced technology may “mature” — achieve a sustainable society — in a couple of different way. As the Andol artist William Dillinger explains to Claire in The Ingathering:

“A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green.”

“So they’re the way they are because they had to be to survive?”

“Could be. We matured differently, though, so that’s certainly not a universal rule.”

“How did you get there?”

“We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed. And then if our rich elite had seen the need for peace and environmentalism instead of just pushing everything over the cliff. That’s what happens with a lot of species, actually. They die.”

As a result of this different history, the two species are radically different in character, and present the two poles of our possible future as a species: light and dark, good and evil, free and egalitarian or hideously enslaved. This theme runs through all three books and should continue through the last two of the projected five (with tentative titles of The Hive Mother and The Andol Queen.

The Order Master also deals with questions of religious orthodoxy, religious freedom, and the danger of fanaticism, because of the central position of the Scourge of God in the story. Michael Cambridge’s flashbacks to his father and his forced assumption of the leadership of the Scourge show this in a chilling way.

“Michael Cambridge,” said Jeffrey Tanner, a solidly-built man of forty-five, and no friend to Mike or his father. “Michael Cambridge, you have been brought here to face judgment. The Council of Chapter Masters met shortly after your flight to America. You were charged then with heresy, apostasy, and attempting to leave the order.”

“I was never in the order, damn you!”

“Unlike the rest of us, Mike, you were born in the order,” said Reggie Dougherty, a man Mike thought more sympathetic. “And besides, if you aren’t in the Scourge, we cannot let you live, knowing what you know.”

“Judgment was passed in Council,” Tanner said. “The charges of heresy and apostasy were dropped for lack of evidence. Your behavior was examined, and the Council convicted you of attempting to leave the order, an action carrying a penalty of death.”

“Why am I still alive, then?”

“Because the Council couldn’t bring itself to order the death of Osgood’s heir without giving him a chance at redemption,” said Leslie Grumble, an old man and normally a level-headed one. “Your death sentence was suspended until you turned thirty years old and became eligible to assume your place as Order Master. The Council also ruled that at that time, you be given a choice.”

“You may take your inheritance, Michael Cambridge, only son of James Cambridge, heir in right lineage to Osgood of Cambridge who founded the Scourge of God,” said Steve Marshall, another friendly face, or so Mike would have thought. He did not look particularly friendly at the moment. “You may become the Order Master of the Scourge of God and lead us in our struggle to preserve Christendom against the assaults of Hell. If you do so, all the charges will be dismissed and it will be as if they were never leveled.”

“And if I say no?”

Steve sighed and nodded to the fifth man, who had a hood pulled down over his face. He threw it back now and Mike saw the grim face of John Carpenter, the order’s Chief Justicar. John pulled a bottle from his robe and set it down on a table.

“Poison,” Mike said.

“Yes,” said Reggie. “A painless, lethal dose of barbiturates and narcotics. We have no wish to see you suffer, Mike. But you must make a choice. Either the Scourge of God is your destiny, or that is.” He nodded at the bottle on the table.

The Ingathering goes more deeply into the contrast between Droon and Andol and the significance of that conflict for our future as a species. It also includes some thoughts about the quest for enlightenment and whether it’s compatible with the use of magical power (or indeed, any power) for practical purpose. Finally, The Ingathering introduces the character of Inez Marcos, the Lady of the Droon (or the Hive Mother, as the Andol call her), whose philosophy comes out when Stevens approaches her for permission to attack the Birds’ Nest:

“Above all else, we strive to prevent the birth of God.”

“The what?”

“God is not yet real, Stevens. Not in the present moment, but It exists in potential. Every planet, every species that matures in the form that the Andol did, brings God a little closer to manifesting in the here and now, and as long as that remains possible, God will be a virtual presence, Its power reaching back in time from that possible future to midwife Its own birth. If that critical mass of mature minds is ever reached, if God becomes real in the present moment and not just in potential, then the return of Sacred Night will never happen, and the mistake of existence will never be rectified. Endless ages of splintered reality, unending eons of suffering, imperfection, unwholeness. That is what we seek to prevent. That is what service to Sacred Night means. That’s why the Droon matured in the form we did. Do you think this is a viable way of life? Nonsense. We stifled the potential of almost all of our people, and that was the point. The exaltation of what we arrogantly call the ‘True Droon’ was an unavoidable side-effect. The real point of it was to shove almost all Droon into the muck of despair, while poisoning the fortunate few with malice and cruelty and their own lust for power. In that way none of the Droon can reach their real potential, and we are on a collision course with our own doom.” She smiled again. “In this way we serve Sacred Night. We sacrifice ourselves, and you fools don’t even see that you are spread out on the altar and under the knife every bit as much as the hapless humans you torment for your twisted pleasure.” She laughed. “All to prevent the birth of God.”

Stevens swallowed, tight-lipped. Inez Marcos was right about one thing. He felt certain she was crazy as a bedbug.

The work in progress, The Rapier, further develops that last theme.

“You Andol believe in an intelligent, conscious universe, and that’s the focus of the Andol religion. Am I right?”

“To the extent we have a religion.”

Inez waved this away. “You do, it’s just more sophisticated than the crude human beliefs that go by that name. But here’s how I see things. The universe encompasses all of time as well as space, and it is one only at the beginning and the end. Between those two, it’s many. You see the unity of the cosmos as a creative force, and that means, in my understanding, that you are tuning in to the beginning of the universe, what the human scientists quaintly call the ‘big bang.’ But the universe is one at the other pole, too, the end of time, the final silence, stillness, and dark. And that other end of things is not a creative force at all.”

Amanda frowned. “Obviously what you’re saying is true, and it’s not a new idea for me. But it makes better sense as I see it to tune in to that creative side. The other end of things may be just as sacred, but it’s best respected from a distance.”

“And therein lies all the misery we endure. Clinging to life, we suffer unending pain. That was the Buddha’s insight, his First Noble Truth, but I saw it a long time before he did.”

Amanda smiled. “I suspect he achieved his illumination independently.”

Inez laughed. “Since he lived and died long before we alien creatures arrived on this planet, that’s fairly safe to say. Still, I believe he was right. Life is suffering, and desire for life binds us to it and perpetuates suffering. The end of all things, which I call Sacred Night, brings peace and a return to the unity from which we came, ending the great mistake that is this divided and fractious world we inhabit.”

These themes wind their way through the stories. As with the other series, there’s no shortage of action in Refuge, but there are also many passages like these. If you encountered something like this in a work of fiction, would you be intrigued, or would you want to skip it to get to the “good parts”? Answer that question, and you’ll know whether these stories would interest you.

Next week: The Illuminated.

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Writing Deeply (Part II)

Green Stone TowerContinuing with last week’s post, this one explores the fact that I can’t write purely escapist fiction a bit further, this time in the context of the second series I began (and unlike The Star Mages, haven’t finished yet), A Tale of Two Worlds.

In original planning, which will hopefully happen one of these days, Tale will have four volumes: The Green Stone TowerGoddess-BornThe People of the Sea, and Light and Shadow. Only the first two of these are written and published, so I can really only talk about them here.

As I noted last week, these stories aren’t for everyone — but then, no story is. If you like fiction that explores deep philosophical, spiritual, and political themes, then you may like mine. If not, you almost certainly won’t. Not that I don’t have (I hope) engaging characters and lots of action, but if you find you want to skip over the passages where people are talking about complicated subjects in order to get to that other stuff, maybe it’s not for you.

A Tale of Two Worlds

Here’s a run-down on the world and plot of The Green Stone Tower and Goddess-Born before going into the heady stuff.

These books are other-world fantasy rather than contemporary fantasy. They’re set, as the series title suggests, in two worlds, which are unimaginatively called the Old World and the New World by the denizens of the latter, and just “the world” and Faerie by those of the former. Humanity evolved on the Old World. During the long ages of prehistory, a few human beings (seven men and three women) had such powerful magic running through them that, in a death-rebirth apotheosis, they became deities. These Old Gods were worshiped in prehistoric times, but their worship and also the practice of magic are forbidden by law in the Old World societies where the story takes place, as The Green Stone Tower begins.

The youngest of the Old Gods is Malatant of Shadow, God of Evil. He achieved his divinity at the time when humanity was poised to discover agriculture and begin settling in cities. He’s a very important character in the series, and it was his plan that led to the separation of the two worlds. The gods wanted to help other human beings, and ultimately all of humanity, achieve divine status, but it was slow going. They spread their own genes among humans, but even when two deities mated the result was never a god or goddess (although usually a powerful sorcerer). Malatant came up with the idea of separating the mages from the rest of humanity so they could evolve more quickly, concentrated in their own society. To achieve this, he cunningly led the unmagical to hate, fear, and condemn the magical, and the latter were forced to flee for their lives. The gods led them away from the Old World to the New by means of the Green Stone Towers, which provided a link between the two and remained after the mages were gone. In the New World, the mages built a highly magical society, became immortal, and their descendants are today called the Faerie Folk by the humans of the Old World.

There are still mages in the Old World practicing in secret, and one of the main characters, Johnny Silverbell, is one of them. The story in the first book involves his transformation into a deity, along with that of Illowan, his Faerie lover. Along the way, there’s Johnny’s encounter with street thugs who try to castrate him, a trial for the crime of magic, seduction of Illowan by Malatant, some ambiguous prophecy, a bit of combat, some flashy sorcery, and a lot of mind-warping looks under the hood of reality.

Here’s a scene from Johnny’s preparation by Illowara of the Mysteries (one of the Old Gods) to make his transition to divinity:

Johnny sat on a chair like a throne in the middle of a big, dimly-lit room. Around him revolved spheres that provided the room’s only illumination. They spun slowly about with him at the center, as if he was the sun and they were planets. As he watched one of them, he saw that it contained an image of himself and Illowan making love in the clearing by the Green Stone Tower near Watercourse. He turned his attention to another sphere and watched himself studying magic with Master Seedcorn. Another showed Johnny playing Richard Silverbell’s ambertone and singing. Each of the spheres, of which there were an enormous number, displayed a scene from Johnny’s memory.

Illowara appeared at a great distance, perhaps the far end of the room, lit by the moonlight she always carried with her, and approached slowly. “These are more than your memories, Johnny. They are you – they are who you are, for your sense of self is all a thing of memory. It is an illusion. What you think you are is not what you really are. That is the Mystery that will be revealed to you now.”

The goddess approached one of the spheres closest to her and furthest from Johnny. It showed his sister Karen, age eight, popping a pillowcase over the head of Johnny, age six, and laughing as he stumbled about and began to cry. “You won’t miss this one much, I think,” Illowara said. She touched the sphere and its light went out. As it disappeared, Johnny frowned, thinking back on all the times Karen had picked on him when they were children, or rather trying to think back on them, for the memories had disappeared, all of them. He knew that Karen had been a monstrous tease when they were children, intellectually as if he had read of this fact and memorized it, but he could call no image to mind of any such event.

Johnny could not help it: he cried out in dismay. Illowara smiled, and if Johnny could still have remembered such things he might have noted the similarity to his big sister’s smile when she had pulled some especially clever and evil trick on him. She advanced to another distant sphere, this one showing Richard Silverbell frowning and expressing disapproval of everything in the house – its cleanliness, the behavior of the children, his wife’s choice of wine, everything. Illowara touched the sphere, it, too, went dark, and Johnny found that he could not remember the man who provided for his childhood and whom he had thought of as his father until recently. One sphere after another the Goddess touched.

One sphere after another ceased to be and took

Johnny’s memories with them. He lost all memory of his sisters, his mother, the life he had lived in Watercourse, his studies in school and of magic. His loves, Shavana and Annie and even Illowan, disappeared. His trial for witchcraft was forgotten. His passage of the Green Stone Tower lived no more in memory. His captivity by the Darklings and his rescue by the Rangers, and all his time in the world of Faerie and the Bright Place ceased to be. He no longer knew the name of the woman who moved among the spheres and worked such ruin on his mind. He had forgotten how to work magic, how to play the ambertone, how to ride a horse, how to read and write and do calculations, every skill he had ever acquired.

Finally she stood quite close to him and only three spheres remained. The one on the left showed Johnny engaged in conversation. The one on the right showed his face, up close, passing through one vivid emotion after another – love, fear, anger, puzzlement, joy, sadness, and so on. The one in the middle showed Johnny’s body, naked and apparently sleeping. “As they are for everyone, these three things are at the core of your self-perception,” the woman said. She indicated the sphere on Johnny’s left without touching it. “This is your ability to speak, your knowledge of language.” Her hand hovered over the sphere on Johnny’s right. “This is your emotional core, your feelings and the way you react to various situations.” Finally she nodded at the sphere in the center. “And this is your body itself, composed of your senses. If these last three memories are stripped away, what will be left? Whatever remains, that is the true self.”

Goddess-Born continues with the story of Johnny’s son Malcolm and Illowan’s daughter Sonia, and of the democratic revolution that sweeps over the Kingdom of Grandlock where Johnny was born and where both Malcolm and Sonia reside. A major part is played in that story by Lasatha, the Goddess of Wisdom, whose Book of Wisdom informs the nobly-born democracy advocate Anne Fircone as she attempts to overthrow the monarchy through her witty writing. The story in Goddess-Born includes a nefarious renegade priestess of Malatant, a love story between the two main characters, a last-minute rescue from the gallows, a battle against wolves, a war, a revolution, magical assassinations, and the banishing of a greater demon, but woven through all of that action are ideas like this:

A leader is chosen by the people who follow him, whether they know it or not. The leader must meet the approval of those who follow, or they will follow another instead.

For the leader to be among the wise, therefore, it is first necessary that a measure of wisdom be found in the people. The leader is elevated by the people’s choice, or upon elevation by another factor is at least maintained in power by the people’s tolerance. The people’s tolerance varies according to their wisdom, and their wisdom varies with the times.

At their most foolish, which is to say at their most frightened, the people follow a tyrant. In this, they surrender the power that should be theirs into the hands of another. If they are lucky, he proves to be a visionary who does great good. If they are unlucky (and this is much more common and likely), their lives become a nightmare for a time.

In their normal state, neither very foolish nor very wise, the people follow a venal leader, but keep him tightly bound with the restraints of law and of their own suspicion. Such a leader can do little good, but dares do little harm, and if he should dare, the law and the people restrain him.

If the people should become wise, they would follow a wise leader. But no generation has ever been wise.

And this:

“You are not going about this the right way, Madame Foresight,” she said. “Wisdom is not something that can be conveyed by words alone. Words can only be understood by those who are already wise, as you are, and a person may gain the wisdom to understand them only through painful experience.”

Anne sighed. “Painful experience is coming, I can see it. But I hoped to find another way, an easier way – or at least a way less costly in blood.”

“I know. Unfortunately, the price of wisdom is what it is. It cannot be negotiated, because the price and the learning are one. To lower the cost is to weaken the lesson.”

One of these days I’ll get around to writing the other two books of this series, which deal with the deceptive nature of good and evil, among other things. Along with lots of sea creatures, impossible odds of combat, and venomous jungle monsters. Should be fun — and as always, thoughtful.

Next week: Refuge.

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Writing Deeply (Part I)

The Star MagesThis post and the next three are about how I write fiction.

Nobody who writes fiction writes it for everyone. That’s a fact. If you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no one, or at least not for anyone who will particularly care. It’s better to be yourself. It’s better to drive away people who can’t get into what you’re saying, because that’s the only way you’ll say something strong enough to pull in those who can. I firmly believe that.

In some ways, I write stories the way I write this blog. I’m not saying that they’re philosophical essays, because I try to present realistic, engaging characters and strong plot lines, and hope I succeed in doing that. But there’s always the deeper message wound into the narrative and dialogue. That’s just how I roll. I write stories that (I hope) make people think. Whether you would like them depends on whether you like that kind of thing. Not everyone does, and there’s a place for stories that are just escape, especially in the fantasy genre. But I don’t write them. If that’s what you’re looking for, you should probably not waste your time on my fiction. (I suppose it’s possible that could be the case even if you read this blog. Reading fiction and reading nonfiction aren’t the same experience.)

If you do like stories that make you think, that’s different. In that case, I would encourage you to check out my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Smashwords. Links to some of them are on the sidebar.

For the rest of this post, I’m going to describe what I’m talking about in the context of the first of my three-going-on-four fantasy series (only one of which is actually finished). (The series, that is. Individual novels are finished.) Over the next three weeks I’ll do the same for the other three series.

The Star Mages

This represents my first foray into publishing. The Stairway to Nowhere, volume one of the series, was published in 2010. As far as voice and style, I think I’ve gotten better, so these are somewhat rawer and cruder than my later efforts.

The Star Mages is contemporary to near-future fantasy, built around three sentient talismans, the Star, the Crystal, and the Sword. Each of these gives its adepts awesome magical powers and makes them immortal. Each has its own agenda.

The series involves a number of plot lines, including star-crossed lovers in Stairway, rebellion and magico-political plots in volume two, The Child of Paradox, and an all-out no-holds-barred wizard war in volume three, The Golden Game. Through all of this, themes reflecting on human motivation (power versus love), trust and deceit, and the nature of reality through multiple layers of illusion, all play out.

The Star itself is a case in point. At the beginning of the series, there seems to be an irreducible conflict between the Star and the Crystal. The Star (called that because its physical form is a meteorite with gold and precious-stone embellishments) is noble, altruistic, and idealistic. It (or “she” as the Star Mages all call the Star in the end) wants to create a utopia and the Star Mages are bending fate to make that happen, under the Star’s guidance. The Crystal is amoral, vicious, and ruthless, and its adepts are only interested in self-aggrandizement and power. But it turns out that the Star was responsible for the Crystal’s creation, and the Crystal’s inner spirit is actually the dark side of the Star itself. The Star is using the Crystal to push the world in a direction it might not be willing to go otherwise. There’s a layer of reality under the apparent conflict between the Star and the Crystal, and another layer under that layer, and so on. Where is the real truth? It’s not easy for the Star Mages to find. Perhaps they never do find it.

A lot of the story, especially in volume two, involves the question of whether the Star can be trusted. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of play on the power-versus-love theme. The conflict between the Star and Crystal, and between the Star and Sword later on, also occurs within each individual.

“What did I just see?”

“One side of yourself,” the Librarian said. “It is currently obscured and suppressed, but is pushing its way into the light. At this juncture, you have the option of bringing it into dominance, if you choose to do so.”

I grimaced. “I don’t,” I said.

“Excuse me,” said the Librarian, “I don’t believe I was clear. You have the option, but the decision cannot be made at this moment. You cannot bring that side fully into play without the aid of the Sword, which you cannot gain until you have cleared the Stairway to Nowhere. Your final decision will be made shortly before you undertake that task. Between now and then, you will explore the darker side of yourself.”

I shook my head. “I don’t need to do that. I know it’s not something I want to let out without a keeper.”

He smiled sadly. “You have already begun. That’s why you left the Star. It’s why you left Dolphin. The reason you thought you left them was only a mask. The real reason is so that you can know yourself fully. Only then will you be in a position to choose: the Star or the Sword. Love or Power.”

“I know which one I’d choose.”

“You have already turned your back on love, Falcon.”

I frowned. He had a point.

“It is Power, not Love that insists on respect and trust. You left Dolphin because she denied you power. She did not deny you love. But that was not a final decision, either. There is a sharp division between the sides of you. The Sword has won a round, but only a round. Its victory means that you will explore your inner shadow and it will have a chance to make its case. It does not mean the Sword’s victory is assured. It may be that in the end you will return to the Star.”

“I don’t want to return to the Star. I don’t want to join the Sword, either. I am sick of the whole game.”

He shook his head. “The option of rejecting both is not before you, Falcon. Sick of the game? There is only one game, the Golden Game, and you are a crucial player. You cannot leave the Game, because you are always in it no matter what you do, and in the end you will choose. The Star or the Sword, Love or Power. It is not possible to reject both.”

There’s plenty of action in The Star Mages, but it also includes many passages like this one where the themes are explored deeply. Its how I write, and the only way I know how. Whether that’s any given person’s cup of tea is, of course, up to them.

Next week: A Tale of Two Worlds

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Maturation (Part II)

unfoldIn the last post, I discussed our move from the paradigm of agrarian civilization to something else that I call the advanced paradigm or mature paradigm. It’s a transition that’s not finished yet. It began in Europe in the 15th century or thereabouts, and over the centuries since then we have seen monarchies replaced with democratic republics, feudal economies replaced with capitalist economies that evolved into capitalist-socialist blends, patriarchy morphing into gender egalitarianism, and established, state-supported religion dropping out of the picture, replaced by a spiritual marketplace of ideas.

As with the change that occurred thousands of years ago when our ancestors settled into farming communities that grew into cities and the first civilizations, this one is driven by technology. All of our social institutions, political and economic arrangements, religious beliefs, and collective mores adapt to our material circumstances, and as technology progresses, those circumstances change. All of our ways of doing things change to accommodate them.

I could write huge amounts (and have before) on the political, cultural, economic, and global relations aspects of this transition, but in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m going to talk here about the spiritual and religious aspects. I’ll note in passing only that science fiction writers who depict a future society with advanced technology like faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, and human genetic engineering, but one substantially the same as our own in terms of politics, economics, and other social institutions, are confused. Star Trek got it right. Firefly got it wrong.

That said, on to the changes that have occurred and are occurring in religion.

The first change to manifest was the breaking up of monolithic religious authority. This change began in western Europe, so the authority involved was the Roman Catholic Church, which had become an effective religious monarchy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The lack of an Emperor is the reason why the western half of the old Imperial Church has a Pope, while the eastern half, called the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not. The Imperial Church featured the Roman Emperor as titular head of the religion. In the West, the Emperor was gone, so the Pope replaced him. In the East, he remained in power until the 15th century, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, hence, there is no Eastern Orthodox Pope. Once again, institutions follow material circumstances.)

The invention responsible for the splintering of the Catholic Church was the printing press. (That same invention would later drive democratic movements that overthrew kings or reduced them to figureheads.) Printing with movable type was introduced in Europe in the 1450s. Over the following century, printing reduced the cost of books, which made learning to read worth doing for the non-wealthy, and this led to widespread literacy on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a very long time.

Reading leads to thinking and questioning, and ordinary Christians in Europe wanted to read the scriptures for themselves and began to question the claims of the Church authorities. Against this background of growing religious dissent and dissatisfaction, Martin Luther’s famous protest against Church corruption sparked a conflagration. At the end of the firestorm, Europe was no longer a religious monolith, but had become a more diverse community spiritually (although still almost entirely Christian).

This led to other changes, particularly when a community had contending versions of Christianity, so that no one version was clearly dominant. This occurred increasingly in England, Germany, France, and other areas of Europe, and their colonies in the New World as well. At the same time, movements for increased popular representation and democracy in politics took shape, and this also influenced religious discourse. So did horror at the religious wars and persecutions that swept Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In consequence, the ideas of religious toleration and pluralism emerged, leading by way of the Enlightenment to the separation of church and state and religious freedom.

This takes us to about the beginning of the 19th century, so the transition to that point took roughly 350 years. With the separation of church and state, the political changes impacting religion were essentially complete, but changes to religion itself have continued past that point.

The technological changes that continue to impact religious thought include further improvements in communication technology (telegraph, radio, television, communications satellites, the Internet), and technologies with economic impacts (the steam engine, railroads, factory production methods, the airplane, modern agricultural methods and machinery, medicine, computers). The first has rendered the isolation that formerly allowed doctrinal purity impossible. The second has led to the obsolescence of many traditional moral concepts, particularly those that accommodated and regulated slavery and other forms of servitude, as well as sexual mores and gender roles that served the purpose of maximizing birthrates (a purpose that has now become self-destructive). In addition, the increasing dominance of science and the scientific method over the way that we establish facts about observable phenomena has rendered literal interpretations of scriptural stories such as the creation myth highly dubious. (It’s fair to note here that theologians did not, in pre-scientific days, generally advocate a literal interpretation of these myths. That’s a modern phenomenon and part of the reaction against these changes in religion.)

Today, all of the so-called “great” religions are under siege. Spirituality itself is universal and constant, but the religious doctrines and practices that clothe it are not. With the power of government removed (in the advanced world anyway), or guaranteeing peaceful discourse, the challenges to religious orthodoxy are ideas rather than guns. (Unfortunately, the religiously orthodox have been known to resort to guns as a defense against ideas.)

The challenging ideas come from three sources primarily:

The challenge from science goes beyond knowledge that calls literal interpretations of myth into question. A bigger and more fundamental challenge is posed by scientific method, and by what might be called meta-elements of scientific method. Scientific method per se isn’t applicable to spirituality, as science deals strictly with propositional knowledge and spirituality is non-propositional, but there are some accompanying attitudes and approaches that are transferrable. The most important of these meta-elements is the idea that all knowledge is tentative and gained through experience (or, in science itself, observation). Transferring this to religion means that no religious idea is permanent, but merely the best we can do at any point in time, and that the ultimate authority is our own spiritual experience, not revelation. It means the end of God’s law inscribed on stone tablets. It means that there can never be a Seal of the Prophets. It means the loss of authority for scripture.

Other religions also present a challenge to orthodoxy. That’s nothing new in itself, but the scale on which this is occurring is unprecedented and results from improved communication technology. It’s no longer the case that religious believers live in isolated communities and rarely, if ever, communicate with someone who believes differently than they do. In Christian communities in the West, ideas from Islam, from Buddhism and Hinduism, and from Neopaganism and New Age philosophy are influencing the evolution of Christian thinking. From the perspective of a Medieval Christian authority, all Christians today are heterodox and becoming more so all the time. The same thing is happening in other religions, too.

Finally, modernity itself challenges religious teachings that were established in the agrarian age. Traditional sexual morality doesn’t work well in a world that needs to reduce fertility rates rather than maximizing them, and in which declining violence and reduced need for hard manual labor make traditional gender roles increasingly absurd. The universe as we increasingly see it, vast almost beyond comprehension and with our little planet making up a tiny and insignificant part of it, carries its own weight of sublime and divine mystery and wonder, but is not really compatible with agrarian age concepts of man’s role in God’s world.

All of these pressures are causing religion to morph and change. It’s questionable whether any of the old great religions still exists in its original form, especially in the advanced nations. None shall endure. We will always have religion, but it will not — it cannot — remain unchanged.

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