Tag Archives: love

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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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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Good Versus Evil

unfoldI am not really a believer in simplistic moral categories, and yet for some reason in my fiction I always (or nearly always) seem to draw things down to a binary choice. At the same time, the choice itself isn’t simple and the possibility of moral confusion is always there.

It’s happening again in Refuge, my current work in progress. Another take is shaping up on the conflict between love and power, and between two alternate futures for the world. In one of those futures, genetic engineering is a right for all people, and everyone is (by today’s standards) superior in intelligence, free of preventable disease, happly, curious, and excited about life’s adventure. In the other, everything is done for the benefit of a privileged elite, and all non-members of this elite are so reduced in status that they can be chosen at will by the elite and subjected to torture just for the fun of it. It’s the ultimate expression (or anyway, an ultimate expression) of the dichotomy between democracy and aristocracy, between socialism and capitalism, and (at most basic) between society as community and society as a relation between predators and prey.

All sorts of other things get tied into the story, which is not immediately about that struggle, but that is the backdrop, the setting. The series of which this book is to be the first is all about that conflict, with a more immediate and personal conflict defining each book within it. For example, Refuge has a central story line that’s about the main character’s struggle to be free of his hereditary position as leader of an order of fanatical assassins. But the order was founded originally to fight against the Droon, the human-incarnate aliens who are the ultimate antagonists in the series and the ones trying to bring about the torture-slave society, one similar to the world they knew in their original forms.

One of the main characters is Emily, a young girl with a hard past (her father’s been raping her for several years, and she’s only thirteen), whose internal conflicts allow the Droon to manipulate her into betraying the Andol (the other side of the game, with whom she’s connected). As part of that manipulation, the girl is led to explore the internet looking for activity by the Droon, and she comes across a blog where they have expressed themselves in writing and pictures. The main point here is that the site has an email link and Emily is led to contact them, setting things up for the big climax. But in the course of browsing the blog, Emily finds the following post (or perhaps part of a post) which expresses the Droon philosophy:

We think that we fear death. As human beings, perhaps we do, but if so it’s a learned fear, not an instinctive one. Nor am I fully convinced of it. Guide someone gently and painlessly into death and it often happens that no fear response is ever awakened. We go to sleep without a qualm, after all. What is death but a permanent sleep? What is there in that to fear?

Non-human animals don’t even have a concept of death. Their own extinction is too great a leap of philosophy for their simple minds (in truth, there are many human beings about whom I would be inclined to say the same). How, then, can they fear it, if they have no concept of it nor any recognition of its possibility?

Humans may of course fear death due to the idea of some ongoing experience lurking beyond its threshold, but in that case what they fear is not death but Hell (or some equivalent). And needless to say, animals have no concept of Hell, either, and so cannot fear that.

Yet it is undeniable that a prey animal flees the predator in terror. If that is not fear of death, what is it? But there is a simple answer, and one that seems to this writer to be obviously correct. The prey fears pain. It dreads the agony that the claws and fangs of the predator will inflict upon its poor vulnerable consciousness before the merciful fall of night. As far as the prey is aware, night will not fall, and that is more reason to fear, not less.

It is equally fallacious to suppose that the predator seeks to kill the prey. Why should it? What benefit does the predator gain from the prey’s death? No. The predator seeks to eat the prey, not to kill it. So long as the prey is unable to escape or to fight back, there is no point in killing it, and few predators do in that situation. They simply eat. Indeed, some predators especially in the insect world deliberately leave the prey alive during consumption, in that way making certain that decomposition does not even begin before the prey’s tissues are transferred into the flesh of the predator. The same is true, if with less elegance, among many vertebrates. If the prey suffers more, if it must endure the shock, dismay, pain, and horror of having its flesh torn away by a monster while it is still alive and conscious, what is that to the predator except a source of additional delight, feeding a more refined appetite at the same time as the flesh feeds its physical hunger?

The more intelligent predators seek actively to enjoy the suffering of the prey. One sees this in cats of all sizes, in certain birds, in predatory marine mammals, and above all in the most intelligent of predators, man.

This motivation — the desire for the suffering of others, for the self-aggrandizement that comes from knowing oneself so wholly in control, so completely superior to another that one can inflict pain at will — is not often articulated. Yet I am convinced that it exists, and is the core of evil. It is a deeper, more primal expression of other forms of selfishness, callousness, and cruelty: greed, sexual exploitation, violence. It all comes down to the desire of one person to assert power over another. It is opposed by another motivation, the desire for connection, for the well-being of others: love, in short.

And so perhaps I am, after all, a believer in simple moral categories, or at least in two of them.

Love is good.

Power is evil.

Maybe it really is that simple.

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Love And Power

The dichotomy between love and power is a central theme of my Star Mages trilogy. It’s also an important matter in spiritual thought and the pivot of most internal conflict.

We are torn between these two needs in our life.  Power lets us survive. Love lets us be happy. Without power, we cannot protect those we love. Without love, power self-destructs. So the two sides of ourselves need each other, and yet they are also in fundamental conflict. Ultimately, the conflict can only be resolved by an agreement defining one of the two as in service to the other.

Power

Power is the ability to manifest changes in reality in accordance with the will. (Some readers may recognize that as Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic, or “magick” as he preferred to call it. I have never liked that definition, believing it too broad and too sly to serve any honest purpose. It includes many things that are not, in any usual understanding of the word’s meaning, magic; at the same time, it excludes some magic done for spiritual or selfless purposes. As a definition of power rather than magic, however, it’s excellent.)

We begin learning power in infancy, as we master control of our own bodies and learn to eat, move on purpose, dress ourselves, speak, etc. Each new skill we learn adds to our power.

Power serves the self. Power is survival, and survival is always achieved at the expense of others — not always other human beings, but always other forms of life. To eat is to kill. To take up space and consume the resources of the biosphere is to deny those resources to competing organisms. Because you are alive, a number of other organisms are not. Because you have the job you do, someone else who competed with you for it and would have gained it if you had not applied does not. Because your parents raised you, they did not raise another child that might have been born in your place.

Everyone has a need and desire for power up to a point. The scope of power expands from the center in concentric rings: survival, comfort, creative expression, accumulation of wealth, exertion of influence, dominance over others, tyranny. At some point, for most people, the scope of power becomes sufficient and we say, “Enough. I have what I need.” For a few people, there is no such limit except what is imposed on them by practical necessity and conflict with others. The arenas of commerce at its most rarefied and of politics, whether within a nation or within an organization, are where those dedicated to the pursuit of power without limit contend with one another.

Love

Love emerges as a motivation at about the same time as power. We learn early the pleasure that comes from making another person happy, from social engagement for mutual joy, from play with someone else not as a struggle or competition but simply for enjoyment of another’s company.

The internal conflict between love and power also emerges early. A child pursues power by taking a toy or a treat that another child wanted, makes the other child sad and becomes sad himself — power has been served at the cost of love.

As we grow older, the capacity for love grows in tandem with the capacity for power and the choice between the two is ever-present. Complex layering happens as we achieve power for the protection of those we love, particularly our children: the need to maintain levels of power (a well-paying job, a secure home) in order to serve the needs of children becomes paramount. Here is the drive for power in service to love.

On the other hand, we may find ourselves in a situation of cultivating friendships for political gain or advancement in the business world or in other ways for what we can “get out of” the situation. Here is love bent to the service of power. We’re complex creatures. It’s all quite tangled.

Sex

All of life’s activities blend these two impulses, but surely none more so than sex. In making love, we give pleasure to another and take pleasure ourselves; we serve another and we are served; we may bend another to our will, or bend to the will of another, and do either by mutual agreement; in some cases we bring a new person into existence. Sex mingles power and love like nothing else.

At its simplest, sex is all about power. It’s all an attempt to get one’s rocks off and achieve pleasure and physical satisfaction, pure selfishness on the part of two people whose goals happen to be harmonious in one way or another. For a prostitute and her customer this is blatantly obvious, but even without an overt and crude commercial transaction sex can be entirely without love on the part of either participant.

But sex can also rise above that level, incorporating love into the mix of motives as we seek the pleasure of another and to form a bond with another person. Sex is sanctified and vilified in religious teaching more than any other human activity. It can be divine or diabolical or a combination of the two.

Resolution

It’s impossible not to follow both power and love. We require both. As Falcon said to his divided self, “I can see the necessity of power. Love without power might as well not exist. I need to be able to protect those I love, to give good things to them, and on a larger scale to do my part in bringing about a better world. I can’t do any of those things without power.” And as his dark side said in response, “I can also see the necessity of love. That is, it’s a part of me, and I cannot help loving others and caring about their well-being.” Without power, we cannot survive. Without love, life loses all meaning and we commit suicide, or in other ways arrange to die.

The real question before us and the conundrum of morality and enlightenment is what happens when a conflict between the two arises. Do we go with power, drawing lines between self and other, making the world a smaller place? Or do we go with love, embracing the unity between I and Thou, but losing an opportunity to make a change? It’s not a simple question to be answered simplistically. Ultimately, love is closer to the truth: the universe is One, and conflict among its parts is an illusion. And yet in our evolutionary past, conflict, struggle, and the concentration of power have increased our own capacity to know and understand and hence to love.

Remember the serpent in the Garden of Eden myth. Would we really have been better off as innocent, ignorant animals, without the knowledge of good and evil? The Fall of Man was as much rise as fall.

Image credit: argus456 / 123RF Stock Photo

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