Tag Archives: heresy

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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Christianity Versus Jesus

24252623_sEvery religion emerges from two distinct and conflicting motivations: love and power. Love (and enlightenment, from which spiritual love arises) is, in my view, the legitimate element in religion. It’s the genuinely spiritual element. In service to it, a person approaches union and communion with God/the Cosmos, and through Its influence and the revelations that this union and communion bring, love grows ever stronger and spreads to embrace ever more of creation.

But because people understand these things only dimly at best — because people want guidance from a parent figure in these matters that are so inherently confusing — because that powerful motivation combined with that poor understanding creates an opportunity for those who wish to rule — religion is also about power, and has been since the first organized religion arose at the dawn of civilization. And so the two exist side by side, intertwined like corrupted lovers, in every body of religious doctrine and teaching. In no other religion is this more dramatically displayed than it is in Christianity.

Sometimes the two motivations are commingled in the religion’s founder, as is the case in Islam for example. Muhammad began as the Prophet of God and his message was all about love. But as events unfolded, he also became a political leader, a general, a diplomat, and in effect a king, and so out of necessity had to pay attention to power as well. But that isn’t the case in Christianity, whose ostensible founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was a homeless preacher until he was condemned to death and executed. Jesus’ teachings, or at least the presentation of them in the Gospels (which are not reliable historically but at this point that matters only to historians), were all about love, and in fact highly impractical. Sell all you own and give the money to the poor? Take no thought for the future, trusting God to provide the necessities of life? Yeah, right.

Despite this, the element of power in Christian doctrine is very strong. The claim that Christianity alone possesses the truth, and that Christians will be rewarded with eternal bliss while followers of other religions or of none will spend eternity in torment, is a claim of power, not of love. It offers a reward for obedience and threatens a punishment for disobedience, and that is the essence of power. (That neither the reward nor the punishment is real matters no more than the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Rewards and punishments are effective to the extent that they are believed to be real, not to the extent they actually are.)

In fact, the essential structure of Christian doctrine and the Christian model of salvation have no support in the teachings of Jesus at all, and in some particulars are directly contradicted by those teachings. We may, therefore, speak of a conflict between Jesus and Christianity.

Let’s take a look at that structure of Christian doctrine.

The Narrative of Christian Doctrine

The essential points of Christian doctrine, greatly simplified, are as follows.

1. All human beings are condemned by God to Hell, either for Adam’s original sin, or for sins inevitably committed by the individual in life (the standard being set so high that no one can possibly meet it), or both.

2. God became human in the person of Jesus, who was God in a human body.

3. By allowing himself to be tortured and put to death, Jesus/God took the punishment on himself that he had decreed for mankind. By rising again from the grave, he proclaimed that God would no longer condemn mankind to death and Hell, but would forgive sins.

4. Each person may avail himself or herself of this benefit, this stay of execution, by devotion to the religion founded in Jesus’ name, and by sincere repentance of any sins that (inevitably) still are committed. Those who do not do this, however, are still condemned to Hell.

Other interpretations of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection may be found (mostly presented by Christians who are understandably appalled by the cruelty and crudity of the traditional model of salvation), but this is the standard version, accepted as revealed truth by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and most Protestant denominations. Nuances and minor additions may be found in various churches (for example, the Roman Catholic Church insists on the importance of performing the sacraments, while Protestants usually deny the necessity of intercession by human agents and see the whole process as between the believer and god), but these four points are common to almost all versions of Christian doctrine.

The first thing to observe is that all of this flows from the motivation of power, not of love. Defenders of Christian orthodoxy say it’s about love, and to do this focus on the third point, quoting the author of the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.” (John 3:16.) But this ostensible great act of divine love and sacrifice was necessary or even possible only because of the first point: that the same God condemned everyone to perish and suffer forever in the first place. Simply put, the sacrifice of Jesus for mankind would be an act of love, if and only if the condemnation of man to death and Hell had been decreed by someone other than God. But that, according to Christian doctrine, is not so. For that reason, the entire business becomes an assertion of power: “I condemn you to suffer forever, but I’ll make you a deal. Worship me, do what I say, and I’ll let you off the hook and throw in an eternity in paradise. What do you say?” A plea-bargaining deal offered by a prosecutor to an accused criminal is not an act of love, and neither is this.

Now let’s take a look at the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and their relation to these four points of doctrine.

Jesus’ Teachings and Christian Doctrine

On the first point, the condemnation of man to Hell for sin, we find no support or even mention in any word of Jesus quoted in the Gospels. He does mention Hell a few times, or at least that’s a possible interpretation of several parable elements, and it comes out in “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” (Mark 9:47.) But this translated term can be misleading. Jesus was Jewish, and was dealing with Jewish conceptions of Hell or Gehenna, not Christian ones. Certainly there is nothing in any of the Gospels that suggests Hell as a universal fate for all mankind. It isn’t even clear that Jesus was referring to either Hell or the Kingdom of Heaven as post-mortem states; in many cases what he said about the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God implied that one entered this place or state while still alive, and so the same must be true of Hell, in the context of this quote anyway.

On the second point, the divinity of Christ, the Gospels are even more clearly in the negative. Jesus is described in several passages as being neither omniscient nor omnipotent. A good example is the time he took two tries to heal a blind man, as described in Mark  8:22-26. Another example is presented by the woman with vaginal bleeding, who healed herself by touching Jesus’ robe as he walked in a crowded street, without Jesus’ knowing who had touched him (Mark 5:24-34). What’s more, Jesus implicitly denied being God in Mark 16:18 and in Luke 18:19, when he answered the person who called him “good master” with, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good, save God alone.” Clearly, the authors of the Gospels did not believe that Jesus was God incarnate and so did not try to present him as such, however great a prophet and holy man they did present in their narratives. The Gospels were probably written some time in the late first or early second century, and so obviously the doctrine of the Incarnation arose later than that. God’s son, yes — they called him that, but that was common currency for great men in the Roman world of the time (Augustus Caesar also claimed to be the son of a god), and God’s son is not necessarily or intuitively the same as God himself.

On the third point, the Gospels contain many passages in which Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, but none in which he gave them the significance that they hold in Christian doctrine. Not once is he presented as claiming that his death was a sacrifice appeasing God’s condemnation of man to Hell. In fact, he never clearly stated why he was condemned to die, and regarding the Resurrection presented it only as proof of the impermanence of death and the power of God to triumph over death. He called for repentance repeatedly and often, but in a decidedly different context than is implied in Christian doctrine.

And as the fourth point rests logically on the first three, there is no support for that in Jesus’ teachings, either. (Also, there is no indication that he ever intended his teachings to be the basis for a new religion. He was a Jew, and however unorthodox and unconventional his teachings were in the view of the defenders of Jewish orthodoxy of the time, he presented them in a Jewish context as what he considered a true interpretation of Judaism.)

In short, there is no support for, and on some key points clear denial of, Christian doctrine in the teachings of Jesus. The two are in clear conflict.

Where Did Christian Doctrine Come From?

If Christian doctrine regarding sin, Hell, and redemption didn’t come from Jesus’ teachings, where did they come from?

Christian doctrine emerged over the centuries between the time of Jesus and that of Constantine, so that by the early fourth century the essential points were in place, and the Council of Nicaea in 325 had only to iron out a few disagreements and issue official proclamations regarding them. During the same period, a structure of Church authority also emerged in the form of “bishops” who exerted theoretical authority over Christians in particular cities, with the bishops of the really important cities of the Empire (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, and later Constantinople) eventually being proclaimed patriarchs or archbishops. However, not all Christians recognized the bishops’ authority, and they had no way to enforce that authority as long as Christianity remained an illegal religion.

The doctrine of the Trinity, of which the concept of the divinity of Christ is a part, emerged in the second century, but was quite controversial. One may find the arguments in the writings of many of the Church fathers before 325, such as Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origen. All of these men, however, were of the orthodox and authoritarian division within the church, and their positions reflected this; in fact, Irenaeus is most famous for his polemic against what he regarded as heretical views, especially those of the Gnostics. Thus, they represent only one view of Christianity among the many that contended during the post-Apostolic period.

Although they held no real temporal power and were particularly endangered whenever an Emperor or a local official decided to institute an anti-Christian persecution (this happened a lot less often in the pagan Roman Empire than many Christians believe, but it did happen), the “bishops” were, naturally enough, those men who were particularly motivated by power within the Christian community. Those who were not, did not seek to become bishops. The scholars whose writings they supported were, therefore, those whose views supported them and their desire for power, which rested on an authoritarian version of Christian doctrine. This version is the one that scholars today call “proto-orthodox,” and with a few tweaks is essentially the same as the “orthodox” version which emerged from the Council of Nicaea, and which I have outlined above.

During the period when Christianity was illegal, the only way the bishops had to enforce their rule was through words and influence over people’s beliefs. They could (and sometimes did) “excommunicate” heretics from the church, but this held no more temporal significance than it does today, in contrast to the dire consequences that prevailed under the Christian Roman Empire or during the Middle Ages. Once it became allied with the state, the church could impose temporal penalties for disobedience, up to and including the torture and slaughter of “heretics” in the thousands, but in the post-Apostolic period that was impossible, and so a structure of belief that imposed non-falsifiable penalties for disobedience developed. The most important elements of Christian doctrine, from the perspective of power, are the promise of Heaven for orthodoxy and obedience, and the threat of Hell for the contrary. It is from this source — the power structure of “bishops” within the church, and their desire to rule — that Christian doctrine comes — not from the teachings of Christ.

Christian doctrine is in service to power.

The teachings of Jesus are in service to love.

The two are in sharp disagreement and conflict.

Anyone who wishes to follow the latter must, therefore, reject the former.

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The Concept of Heresy


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

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

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

The imagination is a dangerous thing to tyrants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prophecy, Blasphemy and Heresy

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading the Quran of late, and that plus the recent furor over the film Innocence of Muslims has me thinking about the subjects of prophecy, blasphemy and heresy.

I still haven’t found anything in the Quran to convince me that Muhammad was a genuine prophet, but let’s enter for a moment the mindset that says he was, and consider the Muslim tradition in regard to prophets, or messengers of God. According to the Quran there have been many such people who were sent by God to bring a message of hope or correction to humanity. Of these, six are recognized as being particularly important: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and of course Muhammad himself.

Of these, only the last is certainly historical and only the last two are even probably historical, but never mind; that’s not the point here. Let’s take the story of each prophet at face value and discuss it briefly.

Adam was the first man, a metaphor for the emergence of our species on the physical plane and the emergence of human consciousness from the depths. Before Adam, there was no such thing as religion. Adam invented the paradoxical relationship between ourselves and God.

Noah brought an unwelcome message to humanity that God was wrathful and intended their destruction if they would not turn from their wicked ways. His message was scorned and disregarded by the religious authorities of the time (and everyone else) and humanity was destroyed except for Noah and his family.

Abraham brought a message similar to Noah’s to Sodom, and he, his family, and his few followers departed from civilization to live in a wilderness and found a new people after Sodom was destroyed.

Moses summoned the descendants of Abraham, enslaved in Egypt, to turn against Egyptian ways, forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, and found his message met great resistance from the Israelites in the wilderness.

Jesus brought a new interpretation of the Law of Moses to Israel, based on love of God and of one another, and the spirit given precedence over the letter. He was condemned as a blasphemer and executed.

Mohammed brought a message of monotheistic worship and a simple morality to the Arab polytheists and ultimately to the rest of the world, and his message was rejected by many as blasphemous and heretical.

The common thread here is a message that is rejected by those who consider themselves religious authorities — and always on good, solid doctrinal grounds. Each of these prophets (setting aside Adam as a special case) indeed did violate the teachings of the past. That’s what happens when a new message is brought: it conflicts in some way with what is currently believed, or else there would be no need for it.

Every prophet is a heretic. Every prophet is a blasphemer. What’s more, the word of every prophet, if it is accepted by the people, eventually becomes a rigid orthodoxy against which future prophets must struggle and on the basis of which the next prophet is declared heretical and blasphemous. The nineteenth century saw this played out in Iran, as a man appeared whose followers claimed he was a new messenger of God, with a word to fulfill, augment, and replace that of Muhammad. This was Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, which is now the fourth religion in the Abrahamic lineage (along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

In many respects the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh do seem like an updated, new and improved version of Muhammad’s. He expanded his spiritual vision beyond the Abrahamic traditions to embrace and designate as prophets great teachers from other religious families, such as the Buddha; he explicitly declared equality between the sexes which Muhammad, although his teachings improved the lot of women from what went before him, did not; and he called for world peace and the unification of all mankind, a teaching that seems prophetic in another sense of that word, given the ongoing cultural globalization and the need for world peace and unity that faces us.

But in doing this, Bahá’u’lláh preached heresy, because in Muslim belief Muhammad was not only a prophet but the seal of the prophets — the last prophet, whose word is the final dispensation of God before the Day of Judgment. His message was widely rejected and condemned, and he was imprisoned for years and died in prison.

The word of Muhammad in its day was a liberation from rigid, intolerant, doctrinaire beliefs, and Muslim society in the Middle Ages was more advanced and more humane and tolerant than Christian society by far. But by the nineteenth century, Islam, far from liberation, became a prison. It held people back both as individuals and as societies. Compared to the secular societies of the modern West, Islamic society had become a backwards, intolerant, ultra-conservative shackle on the collective brain, and when a new visionary came along it persecuted him and his followers and imprisoned him for life. This is the pattern. All prophets are condemned as heretics and blasphemers

Ultimately, I believe there is only one solution: the idea of orthodoxy must be abandoned, and along with it the idea of condemning anyone as a heretic. There is no reason why spirituality should not be like art or science in perpetually seeking new ideas and new metaphors for the divine. In the end, the visions of the prophets cannot be fulfilled unless everyone becomes a prophet, and that will never happen as long as we imprison our minds with rigid conceptions of the truth.

We will never have an entirely irreligious society, because, contrary to the hopes of atheists, the spiritual dimension of life and the fruits of spiritual experience are too real and compelling to permit that. But we can, I believe, have a society that is free of religious rigidity, intolerance, and the prison of dogma. We can have a society that no longer condemns its prophets as blasphemers and heretics, because it no longer recognizes the existence of heresy.

Image credit: vadmary / 123RF Stock Photo

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Crafting Religion: The Need

Before going into the second post in the Crafting Religion series, I’m going to briefly invite my readers who enjoy fantasy fiction to take a look at the pages on this blog which explore and contain links to my fantasy novels, if you haven’t already done so: The Green Stone Tower and The Star Mages.

Why do we need to craft religion? Why won’t the existing faiths suffice? Or, on the other hand, why can’t we do without religion altogether?

The answer to that second question is that the god sense isn’t going to disappear, and also that human beings are not exclusively rational beings, but have a need for ritual connection to the world as well as for cognitive understanding of it. I think we can certainly do without doctrinaire religious beliefs, and I also think that’s where we’re going. But there is a difference between doing without dogma and doing without myth, ritual, and the connection of the human spirit to the greater universe.

Regarding the first question (why the existing faiths won’t suffice), there is a general answer to that question and also specific answers as to why the need has become acute in recent centuries – and why new religions and new approaches to spirituality are springing up like mushrooms.

The general answer to why there is a need to craft religion is that we are living creatures moving through time. Although the truth revealed by the god sense is timeless and eternal, spirituality isn’t just about that truth. It’s about building a bridge between the eternal and the temporal, between the One and the Many, between All-That-Is and our own daily lives and ordinary consciousness. Because one end of that bridge is situated in a changing world, failure to craft religion leaves us, after a certain amount of time has passed and brought changes with it, encumbered by a bridge that can’t be used. In fact, it leaves us with a prison that only pretends to be a bridge.

Religions become stale. Their myths and metaphors cease to communicate the message they originally did. Worse, they become corrupted by the impulse of some human beings to assume the roles of deities (in effect) and exert power over others. This was an especially serious problem during the thousands of years when an alliance between religion and government was the norm. The state religion, whatever it might be, was charged with the purpose of upholding the authority of the state, which is a goal having little or nothing to do with the god sense and in fact one that profits from suppression of the god sense.

There are so many repetitions in history of this corruption of religions by secular power that it would be tedious to list all of them, from the adoption of Buddhism by the Indian Emperor Asoka to the formation of the Imperial Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine I and beyond. Modern history under regimes of religious freedom and separation of church and state, however, demonstrate that the corruption of initially sound and healthy religious practice – by this I mean mainly the degeneration from something that attempts to awaken the god sense to something that endeavors to suppress it – can happen without any involvement of the state, however much it’s accelerated and made more severe by that involvement. The symptoms of this corruption include hostility to other faiths and (usually even more so) to “heretical” versions of its own, doctrinal rigidity, and the use of coercive methods both physical (excommunication and banishment, or other penalties up to and including death) and myth-based (threats of hell or the equivalent for dissidents and unbelievers) to lock belief and behavior into controllable patterns.

It certainly has helped this problem to separate religion from government and thus deny to religious authorities any secular enforcement powers, but the only real cure for the problem is to periodically (or, better, constantly) renew and restore the input from the god sense. Flush out the pipes. Clear away the deadwood. Promote a turbulent storm of heresy. Let a hundred flowers bloom, however much the priests, bishops, popes, mullahs, imams, Brahmins, and assorted poo-bahs may loathe the scent of them. In fact, the main benefit of separating church and state, aside from reducing the occurrence of religious war, has been denying to any religious authority the power to prevent people from crafting religion as the god sense (however well or poorly perceived and understood) prompts.

Aside from this general desideratum that religion and spirituality should be constantly shifting, evolving, and changing, we are in a particular situation in the modern world (which in this context I would date from about the 15th century) that calls for a radical shift in mythic consciousness. The old myths have not just become stale, but one of the central ideas of man’s place in the world shared by all religions that emerged during the age of agrarian civilization has become obsolete. That idea was of man as the ruler or exploiter of nature, entitled to make use of anything in the natural world as he wished. A concurrent and related idea was the subordination of women to men. Neither of these ideas is any longer viable. Advancing technology gives us so much power over nature that we have become a serious threat to the health of the planetary ecosystem and hence to our own survival. One result of that expanded power has been the proliferation of human numbers to the point where the only practical benefit of subjugating women to male rule, increased birth rates, has become a liability instead of an asset.

But moving away from these ideas on a one-time basis will not suffice; we cannot achieve a healthy spirituality by, for example, replacing existing religions with some New Age or Neopagan eco-savvy and feminist faith. The pace of change in our material circumstances – in a sense, the speed of time itself as it impacts the validity of myth – has increased. The only way to have a body of myth and ritual that serves to connect our lives as they are currently lived with the eternal unity is to have one that is constantly evolving. Input from the god sense needs to be a river, not a trickle.

This of course raises the question of how to accomplish that, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.




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